Category Archives: global politics

Who Killed Nemstov?

It is the question of the hour. Initially, it was presumed that Mr. Putin had a hand in it. But Mark Almond thinks that perhaps it was the radical nationalist crowd

Whoever murdered Boris Nemtsov wanted to kill hopes for a cosier future between East and West.

There is a point here — Nemstov’s murder will harden attitudes in the west against Putin (whether there is evidence of his complicity in the crime or not). It will make it harder — not easier — to undo sanctions.

But consider — during the Ukrainian fiasco, Putin showed no serious interest in getting rid of sanctions quickly. He could have by doing a deal in Ukraine, but he did not. So is he really so worried about sanctions now? Perhaps not. On the other hand, a public murder of Nemstov demonstrates to the Russian elite that they cross him at their peril.

We might also recall that murder in Moscow has not been all that uncommon over the last period of years.  Anyone remember Paul Klebnikov?  Anna Politkovskaya? These are just two. Who killed them? Was it the shadowy nationalist right, trying to discredit Putin? If so, what did Putin do to demonstrate that he is a more moderate figure? As far as I can recall, he did nothing.

In other words, my own guess is that Almond is full of it.



A History Lesson: Russia/Ukraine

Professor William Polk offers a potted history of the Russian people in order to show the origins of the Russian fear of being encircled by perceived enemies. This is an interesting story, and we are indebted to Professor Polk for sharing it.

The professor, however, wishes to teach us as lesson about current policy thinking as well. He argues that one of the major themes of the modern era is how short sighted and ignorant policy making led to escalations of conflict, for example, in the cold war

At base was the conviction of each side that the aim of the other was its destruction. Each side furnished the other with ample reasons for this assessment, and neither made serious and sustained efforts to delve into the “mindset,” deep fears or legitimate concerns of the other.

Prof. Polk suggests that we not follow a similar path now

As we poise now on what appears to be the danger of a return to the dark days of the Cold War, the judgments of that time are being revived. In this paper, I have assumed that we well understand our own and have aimed to show those of the “other side.” I argue that we would be foolish simply to repeat to one another the clichés of the media. Perhaps the most urgent question before us both — the Western world and the Russian leaders — is whether or not we have matured and can bring intelligence, understanding and goodwill to guide our actions.

I do not take issue with Professor Polk’s historical account — though it does tend to gloss over the fact that Russia remains the last land based empire in Europe (and as such is an anachronism). But difficult questions do arise about the relevance of that historical account to current policy making with respect to Ukraine.

On the one hand, if current Russian policy makers are following historical precedent to resist encirclement, they pursue the agenda of an old fashioned expansionist power — a type of power that is inherently destabilizing in modern Europe. Understanding Russian expansionist urges does not make them disappear. Nor does it reduce their negative effects on European security.  The simple fact is that times have changed and Russia must change as well, whether the Kremlin likes it or not.

On the other hand, the good professor appears to assume that the policy decisions that have been made in the Kremlin are based on the above historical concerns. It is at least as likely that they were made for other reasons altogether. For example, the desire to prevent populist democracy from evolving in Ukraine. Why? Because it could easily spread to Russia and overthrow the powers that be in Moscow. In other words, the Kremlin may care nothing about history and everything about staying in power. If this is true, once again, understanding Russian history is not particularly helpful in coping with the rash decision making that led  to a violation of a basic principle of security in Europe. One, by the way, that Russia had agreed to.

My point — we do not and cannot know precisely what drives current thinking in the Kremlin. We do know what minimal standards are required for stability to be maintained in Europe. And if we value that stability, we must be prepared to stand up for our values.  Russian history, as interesting as it may be, does not help us maintain our resolve.

One last point. Much of the professor’s story is based on ancient thinking about who is the “enemy”.  After the cold war, considerable efforts were made by the west to change this rhetoric and befriend Russia. It was Mr. Putin who revived the rhetoric of enemies. And it is  Mr. Putin who has made it a central theme of his domestic political messaging. He opted out of friendship for whatever it is that we have now. Ignoring this very recent change for the purpose of maintaining “friendship” is an invitation for further abuse of friendship.

We might take this a step further. Mr. Putin is betting that his rhetoric about historical enemies will sell with the Russian people. So far, it has. But that rhetoric is messaging from the top down.  It  seeks to stoke nationalist feeling, rather than respond to a genuine swell of patriotic fervor over Ukraine. Consider, for example, that Russian military dead are brought home secretly. If Russian passions were so favorable to this military intervention, you would expect the dead to be brought home with full honors. Whether the Russian in the street will maintain his and her loyalty to Mr. Putin’s messaging as events unfold is far from clear. And it is as likely as not that the Russian in the street cares less for Mr. Putin’s version of history than a chance to live a decent life.

Why do I think so? Living near Russia, I meet Russians who come out of the country to vacation. These are not oligarchs, but middle class folks with family. When these people come, they are not full of rage or anger or fear. To the contrary, they have other things on their minds — like pursuing a good time. Admittedly, this is a very small sampling. But it is a real one. Perhaps the average Russian is less trapped by history than one imagines.

Summing up, there is quite a lot that we do not know at this point in time. But we do know one thing. There is no option but to face down the Kremlin’s expansionist gambit that we are witnessing in Ukraine.

Can Russia adapt to this? Well, consider that there was a time when US policy makers thought it reasonable and even necessary to invade and absorb Canada into the United States. Attempts were made more than once. The US failed each time and eventually it moved on. The US is no longer likely to pursue that idea anymore and it has not lost any national pride as a result of the change in policy.  These things do happen.

Dealing with a Bombshell on Torture

Well, the so called “Torture Report” from the US Congress has finally come out, right? Wrong. What has come out is just an executive summary of the report. That executive summary is 600 pages long. So it looks like a report. In fact, this thing goes a lot deeper than folks realize.

Why do I say that? The report is not about a few instances of waterboarding. it is about a system of “enhanced interrogation” that was authorized, developed and implemented under the auspices of the US government.

This raises the question about the legality and effectiveness of the system. Defenders of the CIA have argued that it was both legal and effective. But what we are finding out now seems to blow both arguments out of the water. Not just that the arguments are debatable — but that they are fraudulent. That is important for drawing conclusions about the system and about its defenders. and about how the matter is handled now that the executive summary is public information.

For example, consider the “Pancetta Review”.   The current CIA Director, Mr. Brennan and others defend the CIA on the grounds that “enhanced interrogation” methods were needed and worked. Senator Udall, however, said this on the Senate floor

The Panetta Review found that the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Congress, the president, and the public on the efficacy of its coercive techniques. The Brennan Response, in contrast, continues to insist that the CIA’s interrogations produced unique intelligence that saved lives. Yet the Panetta Review identifies dozens of documents that include inaccurate information used to justify the use of torture – and indicates that the inaccuracies it identifies do not represent an exhaustive list.

See what I mean? It is one thing to argue about facts that are genuinely in dispute. it is quite another thing to allege that there is a cover up via knowing, and public distortion of facts  And the executive summary that we have now argues that some folks are in full cover up mode.

I can appreciate why the president does not want to discuss this. He is engaged in a war in Syria and Iraq and winding down a war in Afghanistan. He also has to deal with a hot crisis in Ukraine. Dealing with these requires intelligence that the CIA and others provide. Moreover, Obama has a political agenda. Getting into a fight with republicans over the CIA may seem like an unwelcome distraction. And if this report was about a factual dispute, his caution might be appropriate. But to stay on the sidelines in the face of a purported fraud on this scale is another thing.

So what will happen? I hate to say it, but there is a good chance that nothing will happen. Let’s see.

Is Religion to Blame for Terrorism?

It is indeed the conventional wisdom these days. That wisdom says that overly fervent believers resort to violence in order to impose their beliefs on non-believers. The solution, therefore, is to stop the silly believing! Let’s all become atheists!

Is this right? One cannot deny that religious disputes have led to incredible violence in our history. That includes stuff like burning heretics at the stake — a particularly gruesome way to die … and it has included terrible wars.

But was it religion alone? Karen Armstrong argues that the answer is “no”. The real burr in the saddle has not been religion itself, but religion linked to power. When power uses religion to legitimize its use of force, we see religion as the oppressor.

So what is it about power relationships that leads to such terrible violence? I would argue that it is incompetent use of power. And that is what conflict management seeks to address.

Dragging Ukraine Down

One of the effects of the ongoing Russian “incursion” into Ukraine is to rob this land of its future. Consider the immediate physical devastation. Then think about the resources wasted in violence. Then think about the time spent pondering ridiculous tactical and strategic questions. Then think about the human cost in lost opportunities and further isolation from wealth generating flows of ideas and resources.

This is the sad reality of Mr. Putin’s grand strategy. The Economist tells the story.

To anyone who thinks that violence is a solution to political problems, consider what is happening here. Think again. Violence is not a solution. It is a tactic. And as with any tactic, its value depends totally on the wisdom of the goal.

My recommendation here — the wets should now invest in western Urkaine. Bring it back to life. Don’t let it slide into a long term disaster. That will end the crisis in Ukraine more quickly than any other tactic.

Beheading as a Calling Card

Over the last several weeks, the media has been filled with stories of the murder/execution of two US journalists in Syria by ISIS. BTW, if you follow the news, you find that journalists are getting killed around the world in alarming numbers. But usually they are not beheaded. Though Gongadze was in Ukraine some years ago.

It is this method of execution that has got everyone’s attention. The point of it all is that ISIS is not just going to kill people, preferably Americans, they are going out of their way to demonstrate that they do this for fun. That killing is nothing for them. Normal people beware!

As BI points out, this may be empowering for folks who are deeply angry and desperately want empowering of any sort. But will it lead ISIS to anything more than just establishing its reputation as a nasty group of thugs?

We already know the answer. Just look at al qaeda. It’s capacity to organize may be diminished, but its brand remains a calling card for lunatics bent on violence around the world. Sadly, ISIS is headed in the same direction. We are likely to hear about ISIS the brand for some time now.

So what do we do?  We might keep in mind one thing — the more that the US tries to take the lead in fighting ISIS, the more publicity ISIS will get. And that is exactly what they want. The way to root out ISIS is for Sunni Muslims to disown them and eradicate them. Americans and the west in general can and should help. But the more we lead the way, the longer the ISIS brand will thrive.

Which brings me to the Iraqi messtoid. Thank the Lord that Maliki is out. Now there is an opportunity to re-think how Shiia, Sunni and kurds might get along somehow. And if this can be worked out, the Sunni will have at least some incentive to get rid of thugs like ISIS and re-build their shattered regions.

Stories of Conspicuous Bravery from Iraq

When things get tough, some people step up to meet the challenge. And when they do, it helps rally everyone around them. This just happened in the small town of Amerli, whose citizens were surrounded by ISIS soldiers and who had to fight for their lives.  The ending of the story is poignent

As they surveyed the area afterward, Mr. Barash (from Amerli) encountered several bodies of ISIS fighters that the militants had not claimed. Standing over one, Mr. Barash heard a phone ring from inside the insurgent’s pocket. He grabbed the phone and spoke: “Come and take your body.”

But an old man answered, weeping. He told Mr. Barash that ISIS had taken his son from him when they swept through his village. The militants had given him a choice: He could give them his daughter or one of his sons.

Crying on the phone, the old man said his son was a teenager, not even old enough for facial hair, and never learned how to fight.

“I told him I was sorry,” Mr. Barash said.