Friday, August 17, 2007

A Threat in Central Asia

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When foreigners come to this country and comment on American news coverage, it is usually to opine that our reporting is, frankly, self-interested. The talking heads tell their audiences about American politics, American tragedies, American foreign policy, American military activity, and American human-interest stories. If something happens in which U.S. interests are not involved, well, it gets a momentary mention or none at all. The American public, it seems, only needs to know about events that hit close to home.

This is probably why only a handful of Americans—and most of them are foreign policy watchers and news junkies—have any idea what the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is or that it even exists. To enlighten the rest of us, the SCO was organized in June 2001 as an intergovernmental security group composed of six nations: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Before that, since 1996, the first five of these six nations had been similarly organized as the Shanghai Five under the "Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions," which was signed in Shanghai, thus the memorable name.

Since 2001, four additional countries—Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, and India—have all been officially accepted as observer nations in the group, and all of these desire to become full members. Significantly, the United States applied for observer status in 2005 and was summarily rejected as not having a stake in the region. Several other Central Asian nations, such as Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, have shown interest in joining the group.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the SCO is security in the Central Asian region, with the focus on separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Although SCO officials have said that it is not the Organization's purpose to form a military bloc, they have held several joint military exercises—in fact, they met in summit and held joint exercises just this week in the southern Ural Mountains. Member nations' foreign affairs and defense ministers hold regular meetings, and they encourage contact and cooperation among their various law enforcement agencies. Its interests have also expanded into economics, trade, investments, energy, transportation, legal cooperation, illegal drug interdiction, humanitarian assistance, and environmental concerns.

In an August 17, 2007, release, the Associated Press reports:

The summit concluded with a communiqué that sounded like a thinly veiled warning to the United States to stay away from the strategically placed, resource-rich region.

"Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations," the statement said.

India-born Dilip Hiro, writing in The Guardian on June 16, 2006, comments: "The rising importance and coherence of the SCO worries Washington—as well as its closest Asian ally, Japan. 'The SCO is becoming a rival block to the U.S. alliance,' said a senior Japanese official recently. 'It does not share our values. We are watching it very closely.'" The concern is that the SCO is becoming a challenger to NATO.

The nation that has the most to gain by using the SCO for its purposes abroad is Russia. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian bear is reviving internationally, once again making "great power" statements on foreign affairs and flexing military muscles that were even recently thought to be atrophied (for instance, Russian TU-95 bombers buzzed U.S. Navy assets near Guam on August 9). Due to its huge energy resources, particularly oil and natural gas, the Russian economy is stable, and the fossil fuel demands of nearby nations, specifically European nations, give Moscow a stout cudgel to use to persuade them to see things its way. Thus, it is thought that Russia, as well as the other oil-rich Central Asian nations, may try to use the SCO as a club to expand its energy dominance. In this guise, the SCO would be a new OPEC with teeth.

From a biblical point of view, the formation of this relatively new group may have interesting ramifications. Ezekiel 38 contains the famous and somewhat controversial "Gog and Magog" prophecy. The controversy revolves primarily around the prophecy's timing. Some—and a majority of Protestant prophecy watchers would fit in this camp—believe that this great army will come out of the East to destroy the State of Israel during the lead-up to the return of Christ. The other side figures that the placement of Ezekiel 38 and many of its internal details argue for it being a parallel prophecy to the attack of Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:7-9, that is, late in the Millennial period.

However, the intriguing aspect of the SCO concerns the peoples, the nations, that are involved. To a great extent, they line up well with those mentioned in Ezekiel 38:2-6. Gog, Magog, Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal all have links with Russia. Persia is modern Iran. Ethiopia and Libya are "Cush" and "Put" in the Hebrew, both of which had Eastern branches that settled in the areas of the "Stans" (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, etc.) and India. Gomer probably refers to the Chinese, and Togarmah most likely indicates Mongolia and some of the Siberian tribes. These identifications are admittedly speculative, though they are based on sound biblical, historical, and linguistic evidence.

Nevertheless, an Eastern bloc led by a resurgent Russia, comprised of nations that contain half the world's population in aggregate, having four nuclear club members and huge, modern, well-equipped armies, and with black gold to back it, is a force to be reckoned with. We would be wise to keep an eye on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization over the next few years.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The 'Exceptional' 2007 Drought

The American Southeast should not look as it does. Rows of cypress trees lining the streets are dead and brown. Lawns, which should be a brilliant green, are dry and withered. Streams, ponds, and lakes are all down several feet from their normal water levels. The clear, blue sky, once so beautiful in forecasting a bright, sunny day, has become unwelcome all across the parched South, from Alabama and Tennessee, through Georgia, to North and South Carolina. Parts of all five of these states are experiencing what the U.S. Drought Monitor calls a D4 or "exceptional" drought.

The Drought Monitor's producers—a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, the National Climatic Data Center, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln—describe D4 drought conditions as "exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies." It is the most intense category of drought—expected only once every one hundred years—and obviously the most difficult from which to recover. A "normal" amount of rainfall in subsequent years will not refill reservoirs and water tables to pre-drought levels.

Northern Georgia lies in the center of the exceptional drought area. In late August, 70 of the state's 159 counties were under the exceptional condition, and with continued hot and dry weather, additional counties are expected to be added to the list. According to the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences:

Soil moisture is near the 1st percentile across most of west and north Georgia. At this level, we would expect the soil to be moister in 99 of 100 years. Most streams across west and north Georgia are at or near record low flows for late August. The Chattooga River in the northeast mountains is approaching an all-time record low flow. The stream gage data for the Chattooga goes back 67 years.

In the next few months, "the best hope"—the University's term—for relief from the dire drought is from tropical weather systems, that is, tropical storms or hurricanes. Absent such an event or two, the outlook for the fall and winter is grim. In addition, long-range forecasts predict a drier, warmer winter for the U.S. Southeast.

Lake Lanier, the main reservoir for the city of Atlanta and its five million area residents, has received national media attention, both for its record low levels and the fact that it also supplies water to northern Florida, where certain endangered mussel species and sturgeon face a heightened threat due to the water scarcity. By law, Georgia must release 3.2 billion gallons of water per day downstream to fill Florida's hydroelectric needs as well as to preserve its wildlife.

Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue argues that, since water supplies have slipped under the three-month threshold, water outflows from Georgia need to be reduced, and Florida counties should place businesses and residents under water restrictions. The well-being of people, he declares, should take precedence over endangered fish. His point becomes even weightier, if, as it is expected, the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Carol Couch, recommends tightened water restrictions for the Atlanta area, which may include mandatory cutbacks on commercial and industrial users. If they are implemented, these water restrictions would be the most severe in the history of U.S. metropolitan areas.

Biblically, drought has long been seen as a sign of God's displeasure with His people. Both of the "blessing and cursing" chapters (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) include drought among the curses for disobedience. For example, God says in Leviticus 26:18-20:

And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. . . . I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (See Deuteronomy 28:23-24.)

Amos 4:6-8 illustrates God's use of drought—and the resulting famine—as a prod to induce repentance, a method of persuasion that Israel rarely heeded:

"Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places; yet you have not returned to Me," says the Lord. "I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. I made it rain on one city, I withheld rain from another city. One part was rained upon, and where it did not rain the part withered . . . yet you have not returned to Me," says the Lord.

In this modern, scientific age, we tend to consider droughts like the current one to be merely extremes of the meteorological cycle. Yet, God is sovereign over His creation, and He is still at work among the descendants of His people Israel. With its extensive exposure to Christian principles, the modern nations of Israel should know what God expects of them in their conduct, but America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the other Israelite countries have increasingly ignored God and His way. As a result, their cultures have become secular, greedy, and self-indulgent.

It should be no wonder, then, that such a broad swath of the United States is experiencing this exceptional drought. Will the citizens of America's Bible Belt return to God? If not, what worse disasters can be expected in the future?

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Bridge Too Frail

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In the murky waters of the Mississippi River, as it flows through Minneapolis, Minnesota, divers are still searching through the rubble for the bodies of the missing and presumed dead as a result of the I-35W bridge collapse on Wednesday evening. The forty-year-old bridge, part of an eight-lane interstate freeway running through the heart of the city, carried 141,000 vehicles a day. When the central section collapsed during rush hour, the whole concrete and steel structure—plus dozens of idling vehicles—plunged about sixty feet into the river. Adjacent bridge sections immediately crumpled onto both riverbanks.

(c)Associated PressAs might be expected, early reports cast far afield to ascertain the cause of the collapse. The federal Homeland Security Department ruled out terrorism almost immediately, focusing attention on the bridge itself, which had been under repair for resurfacing when disaster struck. Soon, it was reported that the bridge was unusual for one of its length in that it had no supports under its central span, it having been determined by early planners that piers would obstruct river traffic. While the design worked successfully for four decades, it was ultimately flawed.

In the nearly two days since, heavy attention has been given to the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that the bridge, Minnesota's busiest, had been given the "structurally deficient" rating in 1990. While this does not suggest that it was on the verge of immediate collapse, it does mean that serious, potential safety issues needed to be analyzed and addressed. When cracks and corrosion in the steel understructure were found in the years following, inspections were moved up in 1993 to be done on a yearly basis rather than every two years, and since that time, inspectors have suggested various repairs and reinforcement strategies. Yet, rather than add steel plates to buttress the cracked areas, the state chose only to make a thorough inspection. The bridge was not a candidate for replacement until 2020.

In a Friday, August 3, 2007, article, "First Alarm About Bridge Raised in 1990," the Associated Press reports, "More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the I-35W bridge, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion." As in the case of the I-35W bridge, the deteriorating condition of the nation's bridges has been an open secret for a few decades, but few states are eager to tackle the problem because of the huge cost of rebuilding. While most of these bridges still have some life expectancy, how many of them are just a major vibration or a slightly increased traffic load away from collapse? Such a thing is impossible to know. State inspectors all across this country are scrambling to inspect every "structurally deficient" bridge in their jurisdictions—just in case.

(c)Star Tribune

This tragedy—which, by all accounts, could have been far more deadly—points out just how important the underlying structure is to an edifice. We usually see only the façade of a building, an arena, a tunnel, or a bridge, and rarely do we even think about things like footings, pilings, rebar, beams, girders, ties, welds, bolts, rivets, and such. Yet, a crack or two, corrosion, inferior materials, shoddy construction, slippage, settling, or erosion, and despite how massive a thing might seem, it can all fall down in the blink of an eye.

God, through the apostle Paul, calls on Christians, not only to inspect their spiritual condition on a regular basis, but also to run tests on how well they are performing: "Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves" (II Corinthians 13:5). Among other things, his point is that we should go farther in our self-inspection than merely looking at ourselves. We can, and should, do this frequently, of course, but we can do it in a slapdash or self-justifying way—and we come out of it smelling like the proverbial rose every time! Paul wants us to go deeper than examining the façade; he commands us to determine if we actually function according to what we profess to believe.

In a practical sense, this means that our self-evaluation is not a snapshot of our spirituality at a given moment, but to continue the metaphor, a reel or two of our activity over a given period. It is as if we were watching a movie, "This Is Your Life!" and it is our job to rate how well we applied the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles and prophets as our daily walk was documented on film. Alternatively, think of it as a spiritual reality show. Would the Judge boot us from "Who Is a Real Christian?" or would we survive to the next episode? Do we have what it takes to win the fabulous prize in the finale?

Obviously, if we fail the self-evaluation, God gives us time to make repairs and return to service. But it is certain that no true Christian ever wants to be found "structurally deficient." The apostle Peter gives us a formula to avoid such an evaluation:

But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (II Peter 1:5-11)

A regular schedule of inspection, maintenance, testing, and repair is just what we need to avoid spiritual collapse.