Monday, April 30, 2007

Propaganda Blowback

The Washington Post has an interesting piece at the moment on the odd bind Republicans are in just now. Seems that part of the reason Republicans have remained largely loyal to failed policies in Iraq is that their constituents demand it.

The problem works like this. Elected Republicans, beholden to the voters who put them in office, have been forced to do what the conservative part of the electorate demands. Seems that Republican voters persist in believing either that the war was necessary or that it has been in some way successful. In any event, they remain convinced that any talk of withdrawal, disengagement, etc, is entirely out of the question. So their elected representatives, even if they're clever enough to disagree, are unable to publicly descent.

Call the phenomenon 'propaganda blowback'. Years after the Bush administration largely finished with lying to the American population about Iraq--at least about WMD, about the necessity for war., and so on--the Republican base acts as if it still believes things most of us now understand to be demonstrably false, if we ever believed them: that there was good reason to go to war, that a stable postwar situation was possible, that the current situation can be salvaged. Four years after Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz style propaganda ceased to serve a political purpose, it has become a genuine barrier to progress.

Core Republican voters seem to be as deluded on this as Bush himself.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

NY Times on Somalia

The New York Times, in its coverage of Somalia today, has an interesting example of a very good newspaper getting things slightly but importantly wrong. The story concerns an underclass of thugs, mercenaries, and other predatory sorts who have a common interest in seeing the country go ungoverned. The Times holds them responsible for undermining the transitional national government, implying that an endemic underground economy is one of the main barriers to peace in the country.

There’s probably some truth to this, but the story fatally lacks context. The internationally sponsored transitional government has largely become a front for an exceptionally violent occupation of the city by Ethiopian troops. Further, the rise of the government in the area came at the expense of a very real source of home-grown stability. A coalition of Islamic militias and judicial bodies had, at the time Ethiopian troops entered the country, largely stabilised the centre of the country around Mogadishu. Thus, the role of the transitional government is ambiguous, if not down right destructive.

The Times piece mentions all this in passing, but seems to miss the point—absent foreign intervention, there might well be a stable polity in Somalia today. In so doing, the Times is implicitly toeing the line set out by the Bush administration on the subject. It's a bit depressing to see this occurring in American print journalism, just as it's recovering from the fog of WMD stories and embedded reporting.

The lowlifes the story covers probably really are a barrier to stability in the country, but they’re hardly the biggest problem. The real problem is that the international community, chiefly the US, was unable to accept Islamic governance in the Horn of Africa region, even in an almost entirely Muslim country. After a decade and a half of chaos, one would have thought than any government would have been good enough.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007

About a decade and a half ago, as the Cold War appeared to be winding down, a group of communist hardliners in Moscow attempted to to overthrow their reformist government. The following morning Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, stood on top of a tank in central Moscow and, shouting through a megaphone, pounded nails into the coffin of Soviet Communism. The beast died obediently enough shortly thereafter, and by the time Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as head of the USSR a few months later it no longer existed.

As word of Yeltsin's death flooded out yesterday, it was interesting to see what he was first remembered for--certainly that speech, but just as much the very public alcoholism of his political dotage, the economic failure that followed disastrously mismanaged market liberalisation, and the horrors of the war he oversaw in Chechnya.

Despite all this, I for one hope that history will recall him first as someone who, on the occasion of the most important event of his political life, chose to push things as hard as he could in the right direction. Boris Yeltsin was a drunk, an erratic and often irresponsible leader, and an architect of economic disaster. He was also, when history most needed it, exactly the right man in the right place at the right time. Things might have been much worse without him.
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Monday, April 23, 2007

Election Day

Three elections of note this weekend: one unfolding disaster, one ominous sign of ‘rupture’ to come, and one odd but fascinating educational exercise.

It’s impossible to calculate, of course, just how bad the unfolding electoral disaster in Nigeria will get, but things pretty clearly aren’t going well. The event seems to have been troubled from the beginning, with the ruling party almost openly rigging regional elections in some part of the country, and the presidential election being weighted with such suspicion that it’s hard to imagine any result being viewed as legitimate.

It’s beginning to look decidedly worse than the relatively successful elections a little while back in DR Congo, where post-conflict elections occurred under massive international supervision. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, is a major oil exporter, is already fractiously divided along ethnic and religious lines, and is already subject to regional insurgencies. This is not a situation than anyone can afford to see go badly.

And then there’s France. This was a three way race going in, now reduced by electoral procedure to two candidates. The forthcoming runoff election will cast a socialist against a conservative, and the latter looks set to win. An centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, has been eliminated (along with a field of extremists and also-rans), and the remaining contest looks simple enough—conservative Nicolas Sarkozy will handily defeat socialist Segolene Royal.

This is something Bayrou might have prevented had he made it to the next round, but then it’s not at all clear that Royal or Bayrou had any clear idea of how they would have led the country. The choice seems to have been between Sarkozy’s fairly radical reform programme, complete with ominous ethnic-cultural overtones surrounding immigration policy, or the other two, with few specific ideas at all. All agree that France needs some significant changes. It is not at all clear that Sarkozy’s vision is required.

The third election, about which much less has been reported, is occurring in the tiny Himalayan monarchy of Bhutan. This isn’t really an election at all—it’s a dry run. A year ahead of the first elections in the country’s history, mock elections are being held, complete with high school students standing in as candidates, and election monitors from neighbouring India. That democracy is on offer here at all is remarkable in itself (if only Nepal were lucky enough to have a monarch so enlightened). That it’s being tested so judiciously is impressive indeed.

The results may not matter, and the population will only learn so much, insofar as they won’t have to live with the consequences of their votes. Still, it’s significantly more heartening to watch than the failure of a much larger new democracy, or the ominous stagnation of one of the world’s oldest. Bhutan’s voters and administrators may not be the only ones in need of a little education.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Lights Are Going Out All Over the Middle East…

…And, as the old saying goes, we may well not see them again in our lifetimes. The region is in what might politely be called an interesting situation just now, for at least four reasons above and beyond the war in Iraq. They'll likely determine the history of the region for decades to come.

First, Israel is clouded (very nearly seized) by political scandal, and they have the most unpopular Prime Minister in their history. The effective passing of Ariel Sharon has left the state largely rudderless. In the absence of the state’s traditional strong man, the extant leadership is increasingly desperate. Prime Minister Olmert has proposed negotiations in places and with people Sharon never would have. That he isn’t likely sincere is rather beside the point: he’s talking like a desperate man.

Line this up with the death of Yassir Arafat a few years ago--when deaths at the top are the best news out of a region, things aren’t good. This is the second thing—a power vacuum in the Occupied Territories. A government of national unity involving both Fattah and Hamas is all well and good, but it still does not fill the rather cavernous shoes left by Arafat. He may have been ineffectual, corrupt, obstinate and politically obtuse—he was all of these and more—but no one else can hold sway over the Palestinian people as he did. Never in their post-1948 history (at least to my knowledge) has there been a lack of legitimate political authority in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps.

Meantime, to the east, the major Arab states are beginning, slowly to line up behind a crisis. True, Syria is formally allied with Iran, and true the region is still shot through with any number of divisions, but something looks to be emerging: The Arab states (most Arabs are Sunni, and most but not all Arab states have a Sunni majority) are beginning to fear a common perceived enemy: Iran.

And this is the fourth thing—the rise of Iran. Iran is already the region’s most populous country except for Turkey, and looks well positioned to become the most powerful. There’s also an important cultural distinction at work here. Iranians speak a different language than Arabs and, and most have a different religion. A long history of mistrust , and an increasingly bellicose government in Tehran, may serve to do what nothing since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has—unite the Arab people, at least in large part, behind a common cause. Iranians on the street probably don't think of their country as having ambitions for regional power, and increasingly they don’t support their government, but that may prove cold comfort to the powerful in Riyadh and Amman.

Some of these things might turn out OK. The instability in Israel-Palestine may well leave an opening for peace in the Occupied Territories, especially if the Palestinians’ Arab patrons are too busy with other things to object. Loose Arab unity, or at least amity, hardly sounds like a bad thing either. But throw in trouble with Iran and you’ve got a real problem.

None of this would have a place to happen had one of the larger Arab states, with a mixed Sunni-Shiah population, not recently dissolved into civil war. This leaves Iraq in the unenviable position of hosting a wider regional war, rather as the Democratic Republic of Congo recently did in the Great Lakes region of Africa. As Sunni Arab governments line up behind Iraqi Sunnis, and Iran supports Iraq’s Shiah population, it’s hard to imagine how things could improve from here. Things only get worse if the Shiite minorities (and the occasional majority) in other Arab countries are inflamed in the process.

It all looks worryingly like Europe did a century ago, when an old, complicated network of allegiances finally hit a snag and drove the continent into the First World War. The irony is that the current geopolitical arrangement in the Middle East was largely created by European statesmen at the end of WWI. The result may be that the Sykes-Picot borders that currently carve up the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding area may finally break down over the coming years or decades. If it happens, it won’t be a pretty sight.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

US Primaries

The new conventional wisdom on the American presidential election, which still a little over a year and a half away (only 500-odd polling days til Election Day, kids), is that the nominations will be neatly locked up early, owing to a clot of early primaries next year. I’d like to take a moment to debunk thisI just don’t buy it. My reasoning isn’t that the early primaries are themselves inclined to shake things up—indeed, they’ll have the effect they always have, to some degree. The problem is that neither party has anything remotely like a front runner.

On the Democratic side, the more disorderly of the two parties will do what it does best—it’ll divide internally while it’s ahead. Both Obama and Clinton are quite competent candidates, and will probably keep each other in check for some time. Edwards, while a little behind, will logjam the other two, and tie up potential supporters. None of them appear, to me at least, equipped to do anything to put them ahead.

The Republicans, usually a vision of good order, will be divided by a pair of deficiencies. First, they have to deal with the existing mess left by President Bush. Second, none of them has been, or likely will be, embraced by the religious right. They suffer from a problem of self definitiona move to either the left or the right would do them significant harm with a large part of the electorate: either their conservative base or the increasingly anti-war mainstream.

The two situations have different causes, and could be changed in different ways. A new Republican candidate might slide easily ahead of the field. No new Democrat is likely to effectively enter the race (barring Al Gore declaring), but fewer candidates would do the job. If Edwards (or either of the others) quit and endorsed another, that would easily seal the race.

The problem is that none of these is likely to happen. The religious right has, on most accounts, searched extensively for ‘their’ candidate, and found no one. The three Democratic frontrunners are all at least conceivably winners, so none will drop out any time soon. Further, all three can fairly legitimately expect to win the general election, making the stakes all that much higher.

There's a counter argument, to be sure. The first couple of primaries will set out a frontrunner in each party, as they always do, and that will seal the issue. The problem with this is that the rapid fire primaries may well not produce a clear winner. If the winner of one doesn't have time to lock up the othersI'd bet this is likely—then the race will be left open after far more ballots than usual have been cast.

All of which means that the most unpredictable US Presidential election in recent memory remains just that, and might well still be a year from now. If I had to guess (who doesn't want to?), I’d bet on Obama to beat McCain by a comfortable margin. But anyone would be a fool to put money on it.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Getting Away with Genocide

The New York Times has a slightly alarming piece today about the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) February verdict in Bosnia's genocide suit again Serbia. The suit had claimed that Serbia (then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) committed genocide in Bosnia through the Bosnian Serb army during the war there (1992-95). The court found in Serbia's favour. I was not alone in being unimpressed by this.

Apparently, a large volume of Serbian military records were excluded from the trial, despite already being in the Hague. The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) had them in their possession, but the version passed on to the ICJ had large portions blacked out, in the 'security' interests of Serbia. Apparently they would have made a pretty clear case for Bosnia. The ICJ made little or no attempt to procure them.

This is worrying not only because it prevents the historical exposure of one of the worst crimes of the post-Cold War era, but because of what it says about the dispensation of justice in the Hague. The Dutch seat of government is now by a wide margin the global centre for the practice of international law. Not only were the the documents themselves kept sealed, the discussion surrounding them has come to light only through a patchwork of leaked facts and anonymous sources.

The process of justice, in this instance, is a murky as the submerged facts of the case. This does not bode well for those of us who would like international criminal law taken a bit more seriously, no for the prospect of justice itself.
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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fukuyama right?

A decade an a half late, after years of controversy, and a disastrous stint as a neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama seems to be coming round to an interesting view: if the the end of history looks like anything, it's probably not like the US. It's probably more like the EU.

This is a dicey position, to be sure: even the EU isn't sure it'll be the EU forever. Even if it is, it's an organisation in flux. Shouldn't the end of history be some sort of fixed state?

Still, he makes a pretty good point. A world composed of nation states is a messy thing, and semi-flexible networks of states probably have better odds of survival in the long run. The EU still has it's much vaunted record of preventing war in Europe for half a century, which would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago. One can only wish that the Arab League or African Union had this sort of record.

It's also interesting to see Fukuyama, while still a rather bellicose theorist, leaning back toward both liberalism and pragmatism. He's hardly a good liberal democrat just yet, but a step back from purist faith in sovereignty and market economics represents a rather positive step. If only some of the other (probably very bright) neocon intellectuals saw things in the same light.
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