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In Memoriam

We mourn the loss of Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and frequent contributor to World Affairs.

Failed Democracy Promotion in Cambodia

I’ve spent a great deal of time in Cambodia over the last 35 years, most recently in January. And to this day, I remain astounded by American and other Western aid agencies that fund and treat the place as if it were a democracy.

American democracy-promotion offices, government-funded and otherwise, continue providing money to prop up opposition candidates—even though none of them stand even the smallest chance of winning an election, so crooked is the government and its slavish National Election Commission.

Just look at the money spent over many years to prop up Sam Rainsey, the state’s most prominent opposition leader who, along with other aspiring opposition leaders, is still protesting last summer’s latest fixed election—to no avail.

But Prime Minister Hun Sen is a clever man. He allows a few human-rights groups to put out critical reports, in English, and an English-language press to publish an occasional critical article.

The Hypocrisy of the UN's Human Rights Council

It’s time to disband the United Nation Human Rights Council.

Just look at the latest appointees to the council, whose job is to promote universal respect and protection for human rights around the world. This month, Russia, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia were elected to three-year terms. On the council, they join more than 40 other states, including Pakistan, Congo, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, and Venezuela—some of the world’s worst human-rights malefactors.

Think about it: China right now is helping Russia prop up Bashar al-Assad, the murderous Syrian dictator. Russia has held members of the Pussy Riot punk band in prison for almost two years because of a protest performance in which they dared to criticize Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Not long ago, a teenage Saudi girl was gang raped by seven men—and then sentenced to 90 lashes and six months in prison for being alone with a man. The international outrage was so great that Saudi King Abdullah had little choice but to pardon her.

Cuba, of course, is a longtime unremitting dictatorship that does not allow freedom of speech, movement—even professional occupation.

A Devastated Economy Threatens Venezuela's Ruling Socialists

As Venezuela prepares to hold local elections in early December, and as the socialist-populist policies of the Hugo Chávez era continue to ravage the country’s economy, the current president, Nicolás Maduro, has gone into fast-forward to prevent his party from losing control of the country. And no wonder.

Venezuela’s economy is collapsing, and even Maduro’s desperate, last-minute strategies, intended to offer short-term but artificial relief to his party’s peasant-based constituency—like ordering some stores to cut prices by half and printing more and more money—don’t seem to be working.

Look at just one of the country’s economic indicators, the inflation rate, and you’ll understand. In an era of low inflation over most of the world, Venezuela’s rate has more than doubled since Maduro took office last spring. It now stands at 54 percent, meaning once Venezuelans are paid, the buying power of their wages shrinks by more than half through the course of the year. (Next door in Colombia, inflation stands at just 2 percent.)

Whither Afghanistan?

What’s going to happen to Afghanistan after the United States and its allies largely leave the country next year? And how about the more than $100 billion the United States has spent on new infrastructure and other building projects nationwide? Who’s going to care for and protect these buildings and other infrastructure—knowing that the Taliban would love nothing more than to blow them up?

That’s one significant quandary the federal government is facing right now as it contemplates possible imposition of the so-called “zero option.”

Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul in early October and spent more than 24 hours with President Hamid Karzai, trying to work out an agreement that would allow a contingent of as many as 10,000 US troops to remain in the country after 2014, to continue training Afghan soldiers while also protecting Afghans and the infrastructure.

The two men said they came to agreement on several important issues. But the pact still remains hung up on one key point: Karzai’s insistence that American servicemen accused of a crime be tried in Afghan courts. Kerry rightly made it clear the United States will not accept that.

In Myanmar, Violence Is Obstacle to Investment

Myanmar is pleading with American businesses to open shop there, now that the military dictatorship is long gone. “The door for business opportunity has been closed for four decades,” Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin told an Asia Society conference in New York late last month. “That door is now wide open. It’s a gold rush!”

At the same conference, Rajiv Shah, the US Agency for International Development administrator, said dozens of American companies had asked to join him in a recent trip to Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma. But Shah also offered a note of caution, suggesting that Myanmar is not entirely ready for a sudden rush of new, Western business enterprises. He cited corruption and a largely inscrutable bureaucracy.

The UN’s Important Work

The Middle East certainly is keeping the United Nations busy these days. Of course, the world body’s human rights offices have been working hard to sustain more than two million refugees of the Syrian war. All these people are “housed” in hodgepodge camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Hunger and disease are rampant.

So, early this month the United Nations refugee agency managed to convince at least 15 other countries to begin taking in Syrian refugees.

“A high-level” meeting “in Geneva on the Syrian humanitarian crisis wrapped up today with agreement on urgent international action to mitigate the immense economic and social impact on host countries neighboring Syrian refugees,” the United Nations said in a statement.

Overall, the UN notes, more than one-third of Syria’s 23 million people are displaced from their homes.

Another Stolen Election in Cambodia

Almost two months after Cambodia’s national elections, the nation is still roiling with unrest because the reigning regime quite obviously stole the elections once again.

After weeks of violence, including one death at the hands of the police this month, in mid-September 200 monks marched toward the figurehead-king’s palace—until police stopped them at a roadblock. Unlike angry civilian protesters who have paraded through the streets in recent weeks, the monks chanted and threw lotus petals in the air. This accomplished little, and upcoming protests are unlikely to be so peaceful.

Hun Sen has been prime minister for 28 years, since the Vietnamese government appointed him to the post while it occupied the state in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Cambodia became a United Nations protectorate, and UN peacekeepers staged the nation’s first national elections. Almost 90 percent of the people voted. Hun Sen came in second.

War Rape: Rwanda, Bosnia, and Now Syria

The United Nations Security Council took an unprecedented step this summer. Pushed principally by the United Kingdom, the council passed its first resolution addressing what it calls “sexual violence in conflict.”

That’s a euphemism for an all-too-common problem in many parts of the world: Using rape as a weapon of wartime intimidation. In the human-rights world, it’s called war rape.

The Security Council resolution was a milestone because every other treaty and agreement under international human rights law refers to the rape problem only obliquely, if at all. And as a result, “despite the endemic use of rape as a weapon, no state has ever been held accountable for the use of rape as a prohibited weapon of war,” the Global Justice Center, an American human rights group, reported. The center added that global indexes of wartime injuries and deaths never mention rapes, even though military gang rapes often end up injuring or killing the victims.

Revitalizing Taiwan's Economy

TAIPEI, Taiwan — This country’s economy is in deep trouble. It’s stagnant; GDP growth has been in the low single digits or worse for more than a year, and average wages for Taiwanese workers have been frozen for a decade or longer.

So I asked President Ma Ying-jeou what he was going to do about it. He cited several problems but then concluded: “We need to revitalize our economy by moving from manufacturing efficiency to innovation and added value.”

Innovation. That may prove to be the greatest challenge in Taiwan’s six-decade history.

“There has been no new industry here in Taiwan, not really, in 30 years,” C. Y. Cyrus Chu, minister of the National Science Council told me. “We just follow and pick up what the Japanese don’t want to do.”

Since the industrial revolution, Asia has not shown itself to be a font of innovation. Even when Japan was at its manufacturing zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, it generally took other people’s inventions and turned them into more marketable products. Perhaps the best example is the Sony Walkman.

China’s Fuzzy Math

China just released a host of encouraging new financial data, leading some analysts to conclude that the nation’s economic problems are “bottoming out.”

Don’t take that for granted. China is famous for making up important economic numbers to mask serious problems—or to present a “harmonious” picture for its society and the world.

The latest figures, made public last week, showed sudden and surprising growth in industrial output, retail sales, and investments in fixed assets like new business facilities or machinery, among other encouraging numbers.

It was Li Keqiang, an economist and now China’s new premier, who originally admitted several years ago that China’s GDP numbers “are ‘man-made’ and therefore unreliable,” according to an American diplomatic cable that WikiLeaks made public in 2007.

The Syria Quagmire

Members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, continue urging President Obama to take a more aggressive role in the Syria war.

This month, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who’s chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called for “limited targeted” airstrikes and other actions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Several other senators endorsed his remarks, and the debate continues almost every day.

But the most realistic view came from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a letter to Congress this month, he warned that after taking any military action, “we must be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions.” And what might those consequences be? A nasty fight to determine who will take Assad’s place.

“Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” Dempsey added.

China's Bid for Smithfield

Congress is debating a Chinese business tycoon’s proposed purchase of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer—and with good reason.

Why allow a Chinese businessman to take over a venerable American food company, when for as long as anyone can remember China has been plagued by food scandals—from toxic baby formula to fake or tainted meat. Just this spring, Xinhua, the Chinese-government news service, quoted an unnamed government food safety official who was calling for still another crackdown on “deep-seated food safety problems.”

What prompted this, the latest scandal, was the discovery that suppliers had used hydrogen peroxide to process chicken parts and pumped the chickens full of water to increase their weight for sale.

Millions More Squandered by USAID in Afghanistan

Won’t US aid agencies ever learn?

A new government auditor’s report (pdf) shows that the United States Agency for International Development allowed a contractor to distribute 300 solar panels to scores of shopkeepers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan—even though almost none of the shops were wired for electricity.

Few if any of the panels were ever put to use. Some shopkeepers took them home, or sold them. At $2,300 each, that’s $600,000 in taxpayer money wasted. But there’s more, so much more.

USAID spent about $70 million overall on an agricultural-development program for southern Afghanistan over the last two years. To carry out the work, it contracted with International Relief and Development, Inc., a Washington-area NGO known as IRD.

US Double Standards on Human Trafficking

This week, the State Department issued its annual report on human trafficking around the world and listed 19 countries as bastions for slave traffickers. Governments in these countries typically make little or no effort to stop such crimes.

As is the case every year, this set off several months of deliberation that will end one day this fall when President Obama decides which of the 19 countries will lose foreign aid because of State’s negative determination.

On that day, the White House press office ought to put up a movie screen in the briefing room and play the movie clip of Casablanca in which Claude Rains famously declares: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Last year’s report listed 15 countries as the worst malefactors, among them Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria—US allies all. But in September the president’s final “determination” listed only Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Madagascar, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

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