Saturday, February 21, 2015

Making Stuff Up - The Toxicity of Spin

Why is Obama's interpretation superior to hers?
President Obama held a summit on violent extremism (seriously - since we're going to be talking about words here, think about those. And think about who didn't go to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.) over the weekend, and in it he went through some pretty amazing verbal gymnastics to try to take the position that the actions of the 'Islamic State' actually had nothing to do with Islam. Stop laughing. I'm not making this up. "We are not at war with Islam" the President said. "We are at war with the people who have perverted Islam". This, coupled with his somewhat infamous recalling of Christian atrocities in the Crusades and the Inquisition seem to be his primary message. And yeah, you can see why he's doing it.

He wants to isolate the killers from their natural constituency, and he wants to try to push back against the rising tide of ethnic and sectarian hatred, particularly against Muslims and Jews. So he attempts to separate the criminals from their proximate motivations. Even as the right wing purveyors of tribal and sectarian hate attempt to coerce the President to use particular words in order to better inflame a sense of otherness, a time honored way to define and even dehumanize 'the enemy' so as to better facilitate industrial scale killing. A refusal to pander to their base desires is probably an honorable thing, even if it is not particularly pragmatic.

But one has to ask oneself: in major conflicts from Kashmir to Quetta, from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, from Syria to Mali, from Iraq to Nigeria, what is the overarching commonality? Why it is clearly the invocation of Islam as the reason, the justification, the agenda and the goal. People both within the Muslim faith and from outside can insist as stridently as they wish that this is not Islam, that it is, in the President's words, a 'perversion' of those scriptures, but this is meaningless, a distinction without a difference. There is no methodology for defining the validity of a set of religious beliefs. What the worshipers believe is THEIR true faith, and to attempt to insist that these Jihadis do not represent a true and pure expression of their faith would be as if to refuse to accept that abortion clinic bombers were motivated by their Christian dogma as interpreted from their holy scriptures.

The Muslim world is in upheaval, and we can learn from the events of the now defunct "Arab Spring". The people had genuine grievances, from poverty to a lack of opportunity to dysfunctional kleptolcratic authoritarian governance, but it turned out that those seeking a modern democratic political solution were both outnumbered and outgunned by those who had been indoctrinated to seek a medieval theocratic government structure with all its taboos, fears and hatreds in full deployment. Poverty and lack of opportunity are problems, but if you want people to go to war for you you need to give them more. Religious indoctrination has been known to be a powerful tool when raising an army for millennia, and it's especially helpful if it makes your young cannon fodder fear death just that much less.

Of course, in the end, knowing that the primary problem is Islam does not bring us closer to a solution. But there is no 'solution' that can be provided or imposed on the Muslim world by the more prosperous west. They will have to decide what's important, and build their communities based on those priorities. The first step is to recognize that, to a very large degree, these are not American problems. Using American military power against them just reinforces the sense that they are at war with the US, while it solves no real problem. America has been bombing and invading the middle east for a quarter century - can anyone point to a single positive outcome of all that bloodletting? There is none. As long as external forces keep coming into the fight on one side or another the fight cannot end - it can only continue or escalate. There are natural tensions - Sunni/Shiite, Arab/Persian, Modernist/Fundamentalist, Secular/Theocratic and Authoritarian/Socialist/Democratic that will have to work themselves out - there is nothing an external party can do to drive that process.

So the words we use are important - but only to a certain point. You can no more control the human being's impulse to hate by not using certain words than you can understand a conflict by pretending that one of the key drivers of conflict does not exist. The 'Islamic State' is Islamic - one might even say VERY Islamic. Publicly acknowledging that basic and undeniable fact should not be a point of debate - better we should think very much harder about the blind assumption that we have no alternative but to go there and fight them.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ukraine Think About It, But Don't Do It

War always ends up looking the same
A few thoughts about Ukraine. The status quo is not stable, and it is clearly not sustainable. Therefore, the Minsk II ceasefire agreement is almost certain to collapse. The largest question is if it will hold at all, and if so, for how long. The rebels don't have what they want, the Ukrainians don't have what they want, and while the Russians most likely wouldn't mind seeing things settle down, they also know they have very little else to lose if things stay hot.

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The immediate source of extreme tension in the runup to the ceasefire - scheduled for midnight Sunday Local - about a half an hour from now as I write this - is a couple of good-sized Ukrainian towns. The first major issue is the primary rail hub of Debaltseve, northeast of Donetsk proper. In what has come to be known as the Debaltseve pocket, 8000 Ukrainian soldiers are trapped, entirely encircled by separatist rebels supported by Russian armor and artillery, and covered by Russian air defense batteries. The rebel leaders have been defiant - the ceasefire agreement, they say, does not include Debaltseve, and the Ukrainian soldiers trapped there must either surrender or die. The fighting is fierce, with small unit action on the perimeter and ferocious artillery duels vying for control of the roads in and out.  It's hard to imagine the general ceasefire holding while the Debaltseve pocket is locked in a battle for its very life.

The second is the seaport city of Mariupol, a city of half a million on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. The ethnic Russian separatists trying to carve the Donetsk People's Republic out of Eastern Ukraine desperately need access to a blue water port, and Mariupol would give them that. At this point, the Ukrainian military, fighting alongside a number of different militias of various ideologies have been able to hold a perimeter north of the city, but the fighting and shelling has been occasionally intense, and it is very hard to believe that the rebels would accept a long-term agreement that did not include Mariupol as part of their territory.

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No, it's not the Soviet Union Redux. It's a regional issue and the border is the problem. Americans like to believe that the fighting in Ukraine is evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild something on the order of the Soviet Union, expanding back into Eastern Europe. The reality is more prosaic, if no less troubling. Russia is merely doing what all powerful nations do. The same thing the US has done for centuries, the UK before that - exercising their regional dominance. Powerful nations insist on controlling their 'near abroad', and most of all those nations with whom they share a border. So while Russian aggression is just as bad as any other aggression, the fact that they share a border with Ukraine makes it far easier to understand, and to know what it is is to see what it is not. The interesting thing is the lack of any military pushback from the US or the EU, or even NATO, has made Putin aware of a critical dynamic that we can expect to see exploited in the future. The Russians are willing to use military force, albeit of a transparently dishonest 'deniable' sort, and the Europeans are not willing to risk escalation to a major war over those small eastern nations.

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Which brings us to what the West might do as the conflict drags on, and the Ukrainians find it harder to stand against an internal enemy supported by a much larger, more powerful nation. There's more sanctions, but with the European nations struggling with a stagnant, crippled, deflationary economy and facing a series of political crises centered on the Euro and the role of the EU in member states' economies, Brussels is likely to be extremely reticent to pile on more sanctions. In addition, sanctions bite until they don't - the only reason the current sanctions on Russia had any bite at all is the unexpected collapse of crude oil prices. It's hard to see what effect further sanctions might have, and if Europe pushes hard enough Russia can turn off their natural gas supply - an extreme response with huge consequences, but if you push hard enough you can get there.

There is talk of arming the Ukrainians, but I don't see how a lack of armaments is the reason Ukraine is losing this fight. This is not a modern war, this is a war being fought on the ground with infantry, tanks and artillery. It's World War II without airplanes. And no matter what kind of gear NATO might ship into Ukraine from depots all over the world, it's a simple matter for Russia to push more and better gear a few kilometers across the border. It's a logistics battle the west is guaranteed to lose. And, of course, there is no real military option. Putin has made it clear he has a greater stomach for a new European war than any EU leader. Meanwhile, the west has indicated that he has a free hand to operate militarily in his 'near abroad'. There will be no escalation, and no risk of a nuclear exchange, over the likes of Ukraine. Estonia, Latvia, even Poland are taking note.

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The next few days are going to be critical. If the cease fire doesn't hold, Poroshenko will declare Martial Law and things could get much more violent. And if there's a massacre in Debaltseve then all bets are off. If the ceasefire holds, even for a brief time, expect to see the rebel's demands grow more and more audacious and arbitrary, almost to the point where the Kiev government will be forced to reject them. Either way, this thing is far from over, and there's a lot of blood still to be spilled on Ukraine's ancient soil.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Boehner's Boner and Bibi's Moment of Stark Clarity

Not a bit of daylight between them
It was supposed to be a triumph. Boehner, working directly with Israeli Ambassador Dermer, bypassed both the White House and the State Department to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of congress. The topic? Finding ways that the American legislators can scuttle any negotiated agreement with the Iranians regarding their nuclear program. It's important to understand that the Israeli Ambassador, Ron Dermer, was an American citizen until 2005, when he took the role of Israeli Economic Envoy to the US, which required he give up his US citizenship and become an Israeli citizen. And before 2005, what was Ron Dermer's job? Why, he worked as an adviser to the RNC, working with Frank Luntz (yep - THAT Frank Luntz) to develop Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America". For the last five years he has been Netanyahu's closest and most trusted adviser.

Why does it matter? Consider the violations of basic political, international and diplomatic norms:

First, there is the upcoming Israeli election. Using a speech before a joint session of the US Congress as part of political campaign is not considered particularly democratic - he is essentially taking advantage of his power of office, an option not available to his political opposition.

Second, he will be the head of state of a friendly foreign power coming to speak to congress specifically to criticize the President's foreign policy. That is simply utterly unheard of.

Third, Boehner worked through Dermer to make the invitation directly to the Prime Minister's office, bypassing normal political and diplomatic protocols. This was so shocking and so outside the realm of basic democratic order that even Fox news called foul.

Fourth, here is a friendly foreign power explicitly making relations with America a partisan issue. America's relationship with Israel has long been a relationship with no wiggle room. From left to right, there it was never permitted to allow any political consideration to come between the US and Israel. Indeed, before Boehner's speech gambit, it was very likely that there were enough Democratic votes to override Obama's veto of another Iran sanctions bill. That is certainly not the case now. Nice move, Bibi.

Netanyahu's loathing for Obama has impeded progress on many issues. But when he openly supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 election cycle, he changed the very nature of the relations between the two countries. The alignment is shifting from a more normal state to state relationship between Tel Aviv and Washington to a much more political relationship between Likud and the Republican Party. That's bad for Israel, and it calls into question how America will deal with its international partners and adversaries in the future.

At first, Democrats were unsure how to respond. They felt the sting of the slap to Obama's face, sure, but all's fair in love, war and Israel, right? Not so fast. As the magnitude of the insult began to sink in, and the Republican gloating over the poke in the President's eye became public, the reaction came. Democratic legislators began talking openly about boycotting the speech. Netanyahu and Dermer scrambled to try to bring them into the fold. Then the White House announced that Joe Biden would not be able to attend the speech. So Netanyahu did what any craven politician would do - he threw Boehner under the bus.

"It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one sided move and not a move by both sides," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio on Friday.
 The interviewer asked if that meant Netanyahu had been "misled" into believing Boehner's invitation was bipartisan, a characterization Hanegbi did not contest.

In the end, they're all getting what they deserve. With a month to go before the speech, Boehner is going to have to wear this entire debacle like a bad suit. Netanyahu has already cost himself the one thing he wanted to accomplish - derailing the negotiations with Iran. There will be no sanctions bill, and even if there is, there will be no veto override. Republican political operative turned diplomat Dermer will find most doors closed to him in Washington - oh, the Republicans in Congress will continue to lavish him with love and money for his extreme far-right, racist views - but with two more years with the American executive branch under the Obama administration, he and his boss can expect very little in the way of maneuvering room - assuming they can even survive and win re-election.

Some of the worse losses in history have been self-inflicted wounds, and this one is epic.