Another Katrina anniversary, Isaac and Kenya

Sometime tomorrow I will bring in the bottles off the bottle tree.  Not sure yet what else will be involved in final preparations for Hurricane Isaac here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The kids have school tomorrow and we have evacuation plans just in case.

It is worth noting that the name Isaac in Hebrew refers to the laughter of Abraham and Sarah at having their first son together in old age.  In this case, we are in the most fertile part of the hurricane season–and it has been unusually quiet since we were decimated by Katrina seven years ago–so no surprises.

This might be the appropriate time to note briefly that it is unlikely that I would have taken a year’s leave to go work “democracy assistance” in East Africa without the Katrina experience.  Going through Katrina here was something of gateway for me in the sense of taking stock of my own reactions and a dissatisfaction with my own limited contributions to the immediate recovery.  There were people I admired that did so much to help others, and we got so much sorely needed help from all over the country, that the seed was planted to more substantially engage in some “service” activity.  Working in democracy support instead of agriculture or some other area was a function of having experience and credentials in practical politics (in the Republican Party)–and in particular I had had a great experience as an election observer in the Ferghana Valley area of Kyrgyzstan the month before Katrina.

The Kenya/Somaliland geography was a coincidence of IRI having a need come up when I was looking at a position in Moldova.

So that’s a little background on how I ended up going from one disaster to another.  Isaac seems pretty manageable in context at this point.  The situation in Kenya now, however, has an uncomfortable sense of familiarity.

Kyrgyzstan–lessons for the U.S. in East Africa?

Certainly the stature and image–and influence–of the United States in Kyrgyzstan seems to be badly damaged by the degree to which the U.S. got itself intertwined with the corrupt Bakiev regime. Bakiev played his leverage from granting the U.S. continued use of the Manas airbase at the Bishkek airport–increasingly important to the U.S. as the war on Afghanistan ramped up.

The needs of warfighting trump support for democracy, anti-corruption efforts and such. That’s reality. Thus, the question: in a war of choice for nation building in one country, what is the collateral damage to good governance and democracy elsewhere?

How far are we willing to go to support the TFG in Somalia? What compromises will we face in dealing with the leaders of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Burundi?

One immediate issue is whether and how the U.S. will use its influence with the Kenyan military in regard to cooperation with the International Criminal Court in its current investigations.

I was an IRI election observer in Kyrgyzstan when Bakiev was elected to a full term in July 2005 following the March 2005 Tulip Revolution. I observed voting in small cities and towns in the Ferghana Valley region in the southwest. This was near the site of the Andijan massacre across the border in Uzbekistan and the region was tense–nonetheless, the atmosphere was hopeful with the new government. Voting was anti-climactic in that Bakiev cut a deal with his most prominent opponent shortly before the election, so the outcome was not really in doubt.

In that heavily Islamic part of the country the economy had been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. No one had taken down the statues of Lenin, or even a large portrait of Marx in the auditorium of one of the schools where we observed voting. The Soviet Union, I was told locally, had simply ended without much warning. Since then the roads were gradually crumbling, the machinery was wearing out, the stores had closed–and locals with a profession had gone to Russia for work. The country was much in need of the rent the U.S. was paying for use of Manas, but a main reason for getting rid of Akiev was the perception that he was running the government to the benefit of his family rather than the people as a whole. Apparently Bakiev was not the change in the this respect.

“Fuel Sales to US at Issue in Kyrgyzstan” NY Times

“How Not to Run an Empire” FP

“Blood in the Streets of Bishkek” FP

“When Patience Runs Out”–IHT, Paul Quinn-Judge of International Crisis Group