FiveThirtyEight: Clinton and the Asia Pivot

This week FiveThrityEight published an article Shannon and I have been hard at work on for some time. I’ve been fangirling (fairly secretly) for months about the piece. I’m a huge fan of FiveThrityEight and getting the email in December (December!) asking if I’d be interested in writing for them caused me to break out into giddy giggles on the Metro.


Much of what I write about daily is a touch obscure for most of my family and friends–far off places they don’t know much about and which don’t impact their lives in a noticeably measurable way. While I love that I get to write every day about Central Asia, I was very excited to get a chance to branch out (or really, reach back) into American foreign policy more broadly.

A year ago, when Clinton was launching (officially) her campaign, I spent a Sunday afternoon writing an article about what a Clinton presidency might mean for Asia for The Diplomat. I pinged the other editors for memorable Asia-Clinton moments–I’d only just started writing full-time for the site–and wrote the article up while sitting on my porch soaking up the spring sunshine. I suppose this is what led FiveThirtyEight to me.

I hope you take the time to read the article. Our aim was to explain Clinton’s record as secretary of state because it is a fundamental part of her pitch to the American people as to why she’d make a good president–and Asia, though a low-level issue in domestic American politics often simplified to CHINACHINACHINA, will nonetheless be something the next president will have to deal with.

Those with greater knowledge about Asian politics may be a little disappointed as we wrote the piece for a general audience. This meant leaving a great deal out. We don’t dive into the political nuances of Myanmar’s democratic improvements  or Thailand’s regression, for example. We explain the South China Sea conflict but don’t dip into FONOPs, nine-dashed-lines, or the Philippine arbitration case. We don’t make a judgement on the TPP’s domestic implications because it was an article, first and foremost, about foreign policy. I hope we made good decisions on what to include and what to drop, because it’s impossible to include everything.

I think the final product turned out wonderfully, in no small part because of incredible guidance and editing from the FiveThirtyEight staff. I swam through many a spreadsheet of trade data, Shannon waded through speeches on speeches, and our editors poked us with questions. They challenged our assumptions and pushed us to explain more clearly things the audience we normally write for takes as a given. This is the first article of significant size I’ve ever co-written, the first time a “quantitative editor” has reviewed my econ-logic, and it was all a great experience.

Fun closing fact: One of my favorite sentences made it through, virtually unchanged, from the first draft to the final run: “The TPP is one area where the policymaking record of Secretary Clinton diverges from the politicking rhetoric of Candidate Clinton.”




Bloggingheads: A Crash Course in Central Asia

Made my Bloggingheads debut this week, sitting down to talk to Natalie Sambhi about Central Asia. Natalie is a co-host, along with my old professor Rob Farley and Matt Duss, of the Foreign Entanglements Bloggingheads program. They essentially video chat with interesting people around the world about foreign policy issues. I’ve been watching these since grad school so it was super cool to get to do it myself!

Natalie asked me for a “crash course” on Central Asia and I did my best to provide that…


99 Problems and Extremism in Tajikistan

Another great week at The Diplomat. The best part was meeting my colleagues, and an honored alum, for drinks at the end of the week. We don’t have an office so actually meeting my co-workers is a rare pleasure.

About to get in deep on Magazine Issue 8 next week. I’m very excited about this one–the cover is going to be by August Cole & Peter Singer, it’s going to be fantastic.

Without further chatter, last week’s Central Asia news today:

And I wrote a little in other sections this week as well!

  • Russia is in on the disputed island game in Asia too. Defense minister announced plans to accelerate development on the Kurils, which are disputed by Japan. Japan’s PM was in Ukraine last week and then in Germany for the G7, getting chummy with Europe & the US.
  • Will Almaty be “Keeping it Real” for the 2022 Winter Olympics or will Beijing prove to be a “Joyful Rendezvous upon Pure Ice and Snow”?

99probsI also wrote an opinion piece picking apart Ahmed Rashid’s recent NYT op-ed about jihad’s next frontier, which is apparently Tajikistan. Rashid’s alarmism is astounding and his factual errors embarrassing.

I wasn’t alone in saying that Tajikistan has 99 problems but extremism isn’t anywhere near the worst. Edward Lemon, who specifically researches Tajik foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, is as skeptical as I am. Reid Standish pointed out in Foreign Policy that Russia hypes the threat too.

Rule of Law? Rule by Law.

Had a busy weekend so a little short, check out what I wrote this week:

  • A pair of articles on (lack of) justice in Uzbekistan: first Azam Farmonov, who served 9 years on extortion charges (which Amnesty International & others say were bogus to begin with), was given 5 more years just when he was to be released. Then news emerged that Elena Urlaeva, one of the few human rights activists still in Uzbekistan trying to make a positive change, had been detained over the weekend–she was beaten, sedated, and violated. Urlaeva was taking pictures of people forced to labor in the Uzbek cotton fields.
  • What does rule of law in Central Asia look like? More like rule by law–heavy on the law and order and light on the freedoms.
  • A State department official speaking at the Washington International Business Council didn’t mention the EEU at all, noted how Russia’s economic downturn negatively affects the stans, and complimented China for its regional engagement.
  • The Baikonur Cosmodrome turned 60–the site of the Sputnik launch is presently responsible for sending up all manned missions to the ISS.
  • Kazakhstan could begin accumulating low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a recently approved International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) bank as early as 2017.
  • Tajik and Chinese special operations forces are drilling in the mountains outside Dushanbe this weekend.
  • The Kyrgyz foreign agents bill passed its first reading, two more and a presidential signature to go–NGOs & civil society is getting nervous.
  • Russian press is notorious for a reason: headlines sometimes say things that are so far from reality–like this week’s “Egypt to Join Russia-Led Eurasian Economic Union in 2016.” (hint: they aren’t)
  • And my recommended reads, plus quote of the week:

“You have to look at the glass half full rather than half empty,” I’ve been hearing in conference after conference for a decade and a half now. But if you need a water-level-based analogy for the state of human rights in the region, the dried-up Aral Sea is a more fitting one.



Issue 6!

IMG_0196Issue 6 of the Magazine is out. The cover story is on Vietnam 40 years after the war ended, and other lead pieces look at how to assess the North Korean nuclear threat, saving Indonesia’s forests, and Thailand’s self-absorbed dictatorship. We’ve also added a photo essay on the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal.

I’ve got a piece in the Central Asia section on the events that led up to the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, the anniversary of which is May 13.

On Thursday, May 12, 2005 the BBC ran a story titled “Uzbekistan’s most orderly protest” in which Jenny Norton, a reporter who was on the ground in Andijan, praised the thousands gathered there as being “well-spoken, dignified, and orderly.” She recounted how every day for the previous four months protesters had gathered in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, outside the court where 23 local businessmen were on trial, accused of being extremists.

The hearings had ended Wednesday and the crowd outside was, to Norton’s eyes, waiting patiently for a verdict. Thursday evening, however, everything changed.

I’ll have something on the site closer to the anniversary on where Uzbekistan is now with regard to human rights, but you can probably guess what I’ll be saying.

For the site this week, I started off by recapping the Kazakhstan election–which the incumbent Nazarbayev won 97.7 percent of the vote, and the government says 95 percent of eligible voters voted. Personally, I do not think an election in which no policy alternatives are considered, to be much of an election.

Monday evening, Turkmenistan’s first communications satellite blasted into orbit on the back of a SpaceX Falcon 9. Last week I covered how the country has declared war on satellite dishes. Oh, the irony.

Freedom House released its Press Freedom 2015 report, the news isn’t good in Central Asia. And I wrote another story on Tajik beard shaving. My colleagues have cautioned me to not become known for stories about beards. Russia and Kazakhstan are having a don’t-call-it-a-trade-war trade war, victims so far: Russian milk, chocolate, and meat; Kazakh cheese. Doesn’t bode well for the Eurasian Economic Union, a trade-bloc that Kyrgyzstan has delayed joining (again).

And speaking of freedom, a US commission that advises the State Department on which countries to designate as of “particular concern” regarding religious freedom released its report and recommendations. Again, Central Asia gets plenty of red cards. State doesn’t have to listen to the commission–and while it designates Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as concerning, it has also waived any punitive actions for both.

For me, this illustrates something I’ve noticed those abroad misunderstand about the American system (and which Americans equally misunderstand about other governments)–not every arm, leg, and tentacle of the US government is on-board and happy with the policies pursued by the government as a whole. The difference between the US and other places, however, is this internal dissent is by and large welcomed or at the very least, not persecuted.

On Afghanistan I discussed Ghani leaving late for India, because of violence in Kunduz, and yet another damning SIGAR report.

Finished the week with a roundup of links to other developments in the region, as well as a number of differing perspectives on what the Kazakhstan election means.