Friday, April 26, 2013

On The Unusual Historical Significance of a Certain Vice President

Still giving the orders
Vice Presidents don't matter much.  In terms of policy, they tend to have less influence than the First Lady, and while some have had more importance than others, overall they don't tend to leave their mark on history.  But it may well be that there was one whose influence, choices, ideology and policy agenda will echo through American and global history for the next hundred years, if not more.  That VP is none other than Dick Cheney.

With the opening of the George W Bush library this week, there has been some re-examination of the Bush Presidency, which feels weird because there's been a pretty robust consensus that nobody would ever talk about him again,  and he would be allowed to slink off into history the way the horror of a bad dream fades as the morning progresses.  Even the odious former President has limited his public appearances, preferring instead to publish a book and learn to paint.

But in the course of revisiting the Bush White House, it becomes apparent that, in spite of the ultimate unmitigated disaster that was the Bush Presidency, there were a surprising number of issues, from AIDS to education to homelessness, even to health care where the Bush policies were well-meaning, compassionate and, most remarkably, effective.  Now make no mistake - at the end of the day, GW Bush was an incurious, bumbling nitwit, utterly unqualified to be President of the United States,  completely controlled and manipulated by government and party staff.  And much of his National Security, Intelligence and Foreign policy was dictated by the Vice President's office, Cheney and his band of bloodthirsty armchair warriors.

Which leads me to wonder: Just how much of the horrors, madness and monumental failures of courage and vision of those years would have been avoided merely by the selection of a different running mate in 2000?  How different might those years have been, and how many debacles - from torture to warrantless surveillance to indefinite detention to the invasion of Iraq - would never have happened at all, and what events and accomplishments might have stood in their place?

So often in the Bush era the actions of his Administration would engender the question "stupid or evil?"  And sure enough, in the case of a presidency that resulted in such widespread disaster, there's room for both.  But I can't help but believe that Bush mostly supplied the stupid, while the evil was largely contributed by Dick Cheney.  It's hard to even fathom the depths of anger and inhumanity that the originally bookish politician Cheney turned to after 9/11.  His lust for murder, torture and an odd, uncaring deployment of massive military force without any serious consideration of strategy, without any interest in post-combat planning, political or diplomatic management or any real advancement of American goals and interests is even more chilling in retrospect than it was at the time.  He seemed only interested in inflicting maximum pain and suffering, destroying and killing without any thought to what would be accomplished.  The most favorable interpretation of his random bloody-mindedness-as-policy is that he hoped to intimidate the world into kowtowing to some kind of Pax Americana.  The less charitable, but more realistic assumption is that, at some point, he became a rapacious homicidal maniac in control of the most powerful military on the planet.

The costs were immense, and are still being counted.  And not just the costs in blood and treasure.  America used to hold a kind of moral high-ground, a place from which we could at least challenge those who would use undemocratic and extra-constitutional practices like torture, detention without due process and unlimited government surveillance in the court of world opinion.  Now, of course, any brutal dictator, from Putin to Assad can invoke the generalized concept of "terrorism" to justify any act, no matter how horrific, and, if challenged, can point to that icon of human rights, the United States, as the model for their behavior.

So as we watch the attempt to rehabilitate the legacy of President GW Bush, two things should be uppermost in our minds.  First, he was a disaster of the first order as President, an incurious and bull-headed ideologue uninterested in any knowledge beyond his own preconceptions, but he was ultimately probably not as bad as the actual legacy he leaves behind.  A great deal of the real horror of the Bush years stains the hands of his Vice President.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The World We Built - In One Picture


For centuries, people have been dominated by the same power structures.  Iron - fisted rulers, wealthy owners of capital and the shamans of superstition.  And they have maintained their grip on power using any amount of violent coercion necessary.  Untold millions have died hard at the hands of a powerful elite that saw them as potential challengers.

There is a concept in political philosophy called democracy, predicated on a rather self-evident concept that people should be free to live their lives in the manner of their choosing, that the political leadership serves at the pleasure of the people in order to serve the community, and everyone is subject to the same laws, rules and protections.

One requirement for the perpetuation of these kinds of power structures is that a large segment of the population must support them.  Anytime a sufficient portion of the population determines that those in power are no longer legitimate nor acceptable there is a popular rebellion, and a new leadership is empowered, starting the whole cycle over again.  Standing against such a revolution, those in power have a variety of reactionary forces at their disposal, but none more willing to engage in the violent suppression of those who would challenge the status quo than those who have been convinced that it is an invariable good to defend that status quo, and anyone who seeks fundamental change is an "enemy of the state" and not only must be resisted with all necessary violence, but such violence in the name of the preservation of the power structure is an unqualified good - and can even be a necessary prerequisite to the afterlife.

Today, with instant global communications and growing educational opportunities, more and more people are standing up to question the political, nationalist and religious authorities that demand their subservience or even enslavement.  And at the nexus of these challenges to traditional powers is the question of women's rights.  Women have been dominated and oppressed for centuries by powerful men in the guise of religious and cultural taboos and edicts.  And in light of global economic and political changes, women are beginning to question why their options and opportunities are constantly limited by...well, by men.  And so it is sadly predictable that many men would react to these challenges to their traditional dominance with violence and intimidation.

Which brings us to Paris, and Femen's day of protest in support of Amina Tyler they dubbed "Topless Jihad".  And if you thought a woman without a shirt doesn't constitute much of an immediate threat, it is clarifying to realize that it is enough to bring some men to unreasoning violent anger.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Stuff & Nonsense

I have a job now.  And predictably enough, I have been recruited to write the company blog.  All this leaving much less time for pleasant distractions and acts of personal aggrandizement such as maintaining this weblog in an appropriate fashion.  Maybe I'll figure out an approach that balances all these opposing impulses and demands - shorter posts?  More fooling around, less thinking about stuff? I sure don't know.  I'm just along for the ride.  That said, let's catch up with stuff, shall we?

It appears that Kim Jong Un has decided that the occasional "Predictable Unpredictability" of his late, lamented father was insufficiently annoying to western powers, and has adopted a kind of a John McCain screaming-at-clouds approach to international relations.  This has resulted in this odd escalation in the rhetoric, to the point where he has all but declared war on South Korea, Japan and the US, all without any significant military mobilization, movement or operations.

The previous dear leader's actions could be understood as a negotiation for various accommodations, including aid and respect, where he would ratchet up tensions only to back down in exchange for whatever he could squeeze out of the rest of the world.  But the actions of the current incarnation, on the other hand, are hard to understand in this light as they appear to be calculated to 1.) increase sanctions against and isolation of his country, 2.) infuriate and frighten his only ally on this planet, China, who would find themselves with a gigantic refugee crises and an implacable enemy on their border if the hermit kingdom were to collapse, and 3.) increase the risk of an accident or miscalculation resulting in an exchange of fire that might force Kim the younger to either escalate or back down, neither being acceptable options to him.

Make no mistake - Kim wants war even less that we do, but he's not particularly safe domestically.  On one side he has the Generals, and on the other he has a starving population slowly discovering the things of which they are deprived.  It will be interesting to see how he plays the hand he has dealt.

One and a half billion people are Muslims, and they have a problem.  A problem that is in the process of coming to a head, bringing immediate risks and costs to huge swaths of humanity.  There are basic, fundamental incompatibilities within the Islamic world, and no real institutions to deal with them in a reasonable fashion.  The problem can be seen as two sides of the same coin.  On the one hand, they have sects with a long history of hate, warfare, oppression and even genocide.  These sects, primarily seen as Sunni vs. Shi'a, view each other as apostates and worse, and for many, murder is a perfectly acceptable manner of expressing one's dissatisfaction.  But the same problem can been seen alternatively as a more modern, secular Islam vs. an ancient, hard line Islam.  The modern secularists want democratic governance, modern education and entertainment, equal rights for men and women and a chance to participate in the global economy.  The fundamentalists, like all religious fundamentalists, want a dictatorial theocracy and a brutally enforced canon law that, coincidentally, would result in imprisonment or death for the secularists.

All this is nothing new, you'd say - and you'd be right.  Sort of.  The pressure has been building for a century, but a long history of brutal dictators and vicious secret police operations has kept the lid on and prevented any kind of reckoning between these completely incompatible populations.  Then the US invaded Iraq in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein and setting in motion the events that eventually lead to the Arab Spring uprisings starting in 2011.  The Arab Spring movements were originally about democracy, freedom and economic opportunity, but no religious fundamentalist worth his holy book can pass up an opportunity to co-opt a revolution and turn it into some kind of holy war.

So we have Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, Mali and even the nascent Palestine fighting over the heart and soul of their respective nations.  Smart, educated, hopeful people trying to find a way to create an inclusive nation with legitimate governing institutions, against an ancient mythology that has been co-opted by people who hate women, diversity and modern culture.  These battles will be fought in the next decade, they will be bloody, and the outcome will determine much about the future of one third of the world's populations.  A global, connected economy based on trade and diplomacy cannot co-exist with blasphemy laws, ad hoc capital punishment and murder in the name of mythology.

Cyber Warfare:
I am now working in the cyber-security field, and it's caused me to focus on the current state of play in information security.  In the macro view, it breaks down like this: attacks from Russia and Eastern Europe are mostly criminal, using cyber exploits to profit from fraud and extortion.  Attacks from Asia, particularly China, are most likely state-sponsored cyber-espionage, using the most advanced malware and social engineering tools and tactics to steal intellectual property and trade secrets.

In the meantime, in a perhaps misguided and regrettable decision, the US and Israel put offensive cyber-war in play with their Stuxnet and related attacks on Iran.  You have to understand, these are not typical network penetrations focused on digital theft or fraud, these are attacks that use Internet and software vulnerabilities to actually break things and hurt people.  This is a game changer, and though we will try to take the position that we can do it but anyone else who does is a terrorist, no one will even hesitate to compete in this realm, one that requires no great investment or access to large-scale universities or laboratories.  The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and so far the team that's winning is the Chinese People's Liberation Army.