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Pondering My Passport Stamps
As much as things change in the world, they stay the same
First, here’s your reminder that my book is available for preorder. If you visit my new and still evolving author website, you have your choice of buying directly from the publisher, or through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org.
In addition to buying many copies, you can also help by telling friends and family on social media to grab a copy!
OK, now that the sales pitch is out of the way, here’s this week’s meditation on what’s going on in the world.
Last Friday, writer Elisabeth Rose interviewed me for a podcast that my publisher is launching—I really enjoyed the conversation and look forward to its release.
During the conversation about the writing process and what went into the book—literally and figuratively—I noted that even though my book focuses on my reporting trips and time overseas between 2007 and the end of 2014, pretty much every place I traveled and wrote about is in the news today, and often not for good reasons.
In fact, several of the problem stories I covered are almost no different today than 10 to 15 years ago. Some places have deteriorated, and some have evolved into different problems. Regardless, much of what I discuss in my book about the political, social, and security conditions in the countries I visited is relevant background for what’s going on today.
So, I thought I’d do a report card of sorts and take a look at countries I visited then and now.
Serbia/Kosovo/Russia, October 2007:
My first international reporting trip was to explore the growing tensions between Russia and the United States. At the time, Kosovo was preparing to declare independence. The United States supported Kosovo, and Russia was backing Serbia. Here’s an excerpt from my book about my meeting with Russia’s top diplomat in Pristina, Kosovo:
The next morning, I visited the Russian chancery to interview Russia’s top diplomat in Kosovo, Andrei Dronov. The middle-aged Russian was quite personable, well spoken, and candid about Russia’s interests. We chatted for about 30 minutes, and by the end of the conversation it was clear to me that Russia saw itself as a player again and that it would use all international norms and bodies to assert itself on the world stage. For example, if Kosovo declared independence without agreement from Belgrade, Russia would view that as a violation of Serbian sovereignty and international law that could serve as a demonstration effect for pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet states to declare independence and align with Russia. And guess what, that’s exactly what played out in the 15 years since that conversation.
So, here we are today where Serbia and Kosovo continue to “struggle” over territory. That’s because significant segments of northern Kosovo were majority Serb at the time Kosovo became independent. Thus, those Serbs no longer lived in an autonomous region of Serbia, but rather in Kosovo.
And how are things today? Well, here’s the lead paragraph of an Associated Press story from a couple of days ago:
Serbia on Friday reiterated a threat to intervene militarily in its former province of Kosovo if NATO-led peacekeepers there fail to protect minority Serbs from what Belgrade called the terrorist threat of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities.
So, not so great. There have been recent clashes as the AP noted:
Tensions flared anew last month after Kosovo police seized local municipality buildings in northern Kosovo, where Serbs represent a majority, to install ethnic Albanian mayors who were elected in a local election that Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted.
After I visited Serbia and Kosovo, I spent a few days in Moscow, and the takeaway was that Putin was trying to restore Russia to its former “glory” and even teenage Russians were all for it. They wanted Russia to be great again.
And with the precedent of Kosovo declaring independence without agreement from Serbia, Putin began his adventurism in Georgia in August 2008. I was in Baghdad when that went down and watched as Georgian troops scurried to helicopters to fly home to defend their territory.
Then of course there was Ukraine in 2014 and then again in 2022. Putin followed through with every threat he made in 2007 about how he would respond to Kosovo’s independence.
Thus, my October 2007 reporting trip is highly relevant today.
Sudan, November 2007:
I spent most of the time in Khartoum trying to get permission to travel to Darfur to report on the new UN peacekeeping mission that was standing up at the end of 2007.
Khartoum in 2007 was oppressive, hostile to foreign—especially American—media, and solidly under the iron grip of war criminal Omar al-Bashir. But the city was peaceful. The violence in the country was mostly in the Darfur region.
Since then, there have been several coups and attempted coups that led to an uneasy coalition government between the army and a militia that evolved out of the Janjaweed that perpetrated the genocide in Darfur.
And as I wrote in April, those armed groups turned on each other. Fighting resumed last week after a ceasefire expired. More than a million people have fled the capital. The UN Security Council called for both sides to stand down, but clashes escalated over the weekend.
So, Sudan is in worse shape today than when I visited, and civilians continue to suffer amid ongoing power struggles.
Egypt, December 2007:
I spent a week or so in Egypt reporting on U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Hosni Mubarak was still in power and kept a tight grip on the country. He used all the typical dictatorial tricks to undermine political opposition and stay in power.
I traveled to Egypt again in June 2010, and little had changed. Mubarak was still in power, although economic conditions were getting worse, and people were not happy.
Then, in early 2011, it all came crashing down. I got to Cairo a few weeks after Mubarak stepped down and the military, which was well regarded by the public, was in control. However, there was growing uneasiness about the road ahead. The decision to rush elections was only going to benefit the only organized political movement in the country: the Muslim Brotherhood.
No surprise that the Brotherhood swept the elections in late 2011 and came to power. That was of course until the coup in 2013 overthrew the democratically elected government and brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. That was an awkward moment for the west because the overthrow of an elected government is generally frowned upon, except when the government is Islamist, and the Egyptian military is an ally.
Unfortunately, al-Sisi has become more of a hardline authoritarian than Mubarak was, and he’s cracked down on the media and reduced political freedoms.
So, I would say that for the people of Egypt, things are worse today than when I first visited.
Taiwan, February 2008:
While Taiwan itself has remained a stable democracy and strong partner of the United States, China has escalated its threatening rhetoric and military activity. China has grown more powerful and assertive since I visited, and the possibility of some form of military invasion or blockade is the highest it has been.
Thus, while Taiwan is doing well domestically, it is in more danger than it was in 2008, and hence worse off in general.
Colombia, April 2008:
I spent time in Bogota—where you had to use “secure” taxis and give codes to the drivers—and the Choco region in the west, one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the country. Colombia was trending better at the time, but was still a violent narco state.
Since then, the country has made tremendous strides and is now a destination wedding favorite. The country came to terms with the FARC in 2016 and reduced drug and militia violence. The government is in peace talks with another group, the National Liberation Army, and has implemented a ceasefire with a FARC splinter group.
Still, there is a lot of narco-activity and armed actors in the country, but it’s one of the few places I visited that is dramatically better today.
Lebanon/Syria, July 2008:
Well, not much needs to be said here. Both countries are in far worse shape than July 2008 when I first visited. Lebanon is chronically fragile and seems to go from one crisis to the next. The economy is in shambles, and politically the country is nearing another breaking point as it has been unable—as is often the case—to agree on a new president.
Syria… yeah, I’ve written a lot about Syria in the last couple of years. It is one of the thorniest foreign policy dilemmas in the world, and nowhere near a resolution.
Iraq, August 2008:
Then, Iraq was turning a corner—perhaps the one Tom Freidman had been predicting for about four years. Hey, even Punxsutawney Phil gets it right once in a while.
Violence was declining and there seemed to be hope that the worst was over. I visited again in spring 2009 and 2010, and each trip the violence had decreased from the previous—although car bombs were still a regular thing in Baghdad. In fall 2011, Iraq was mostly in a better place than the year before, but that would all go sideways at the end of the year when U.S. forces withdrew. I was in Baghdad covering President Nouri al-Maliki’s political crackdown. The last troops were barely into Kuwait when he went after his rivals, triggering years of instability that led to the rise of ISIS.
Hard to say if Iraq is better off today than when I first visited. It’s kind of a push.
OK, this article seemed like a good idea when I started, but it’s getting long. Let me speed things up.
Morocco, October 2008:
Morocco hasn’t changed much politically or economically since I first traveled there. That country generally stays out of the news.
Afghanistan, January 2009:
Safe to say things are worse today.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, February 2009:
Guess what, same problems today as then. Violence continues in the eastern provinces of the country as multiple political, religious, and criminal militias roam the jungle regions. Such a beautiful country and sadly still a “playground” for Congolese militias as well as some from Rwanda and more recently ISIS-affiliated groups.
So, no better, and arguably worse than when I was there.
Northern Ireland, May 2009:
It was doing pretty well and then Brexit confused things a bit. It’s a good sign today that googling news stories on Northern Ireland today returns headlines about the weather and a model/yoga instructordeclaring bankruptcy.
Pakistan, August 2009:
Still in the news. Generally, not for good reasons.
Peru, November 2009:
Better today, but same problems persist—tons of illegal resource extraction, deforestation, and Keiko Fujimori.
Yemen, February 2010:
Sadly, that year might have been the country’s apex this century. Since then, Arab-spring induced civil war, crushing poverty and food insecurity, and ISIS and al-Qaeda roaming around. Country is far worse than when I was there.
Jordan, June 2010:
Major U.S. client state in the region and typically stays out of the news. Came through the Arab Spring largely unscathed.
South Sudan, November 2010:
It was preparing for its independence vote. People were optimistic, but it was clear to the casual observer that once it became independent the leading political/tribal groups would turn on each other to control power in the fragile state. Still one of the poorest and most fragile nations in the world.
Spring 2011: Libya and Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Bahrain weathered that storm and has kept a lid on dissent, in no small part because it is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet.
Libya—well, another complicated one. I spent a lot of time there in 2011 and it was clear that like South Sudan, once Gaddafi was gone a violent power struggle would ensue. And it did. The country still has two rival governments fighting over political control and oil resources.
I dipped into a few other countries for reporting trips along the way: South Korea, Qatar, Romania, Ghana, and Turkey. Of those, Turkey is regularly in the news and Qatar often.
Point is, it is striking to think about the fact that so many places I visited and reported on a decade ago are still struggling and in a number of cases are worse off today.
Turning the tables, is the United States doing better today than during the 2007 through 2014 period when I was reporting on other countries?
I’m leaning toward no.