Russia The Media The Opinionsphere

The Goal of the Commentariat

Ellen Barry of the New York Times quotes Russian “television commentator Mikhail V. Leontyev, who has built a career on his relentless hectoring of the West” on what he does

My task on television is to verbalize, in a certain formula, the real public consciousness that exists. So people will hear what they want to hear. So they can say, ‘Yes, that is what I thought!’

My impression is that Barry was trying to convey the idea that Leontyev was a propagandist for the Russian state – but his explanation of his job struck me as a pretty honest description of what most talking heads and columnists aim for – and what Glenn Greenwald so derides – as they claim to and aspire to explain what the American people think about a matter.

It’s always a bit fuzzy though – in either state-controlled media or our more free press at home – whether these thoughts are what people thought before, or if these ideas have been planted by the commentator – or if there instead exists some delicate balance between the two.

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A Counterbalancing Bloc

David Rothkopf makes a good point, reflecting on BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China):

I don’t think we should see the rise of a counterbalancing bloc  as a terrible thing either for the world or even for America. While having enemies is to be avoided wherever possible, having rivals is essential. It promotes reevaluation and growth. Imagine what computing would be like if we lived in an all Microsoft, Apple-less world. They make each other better. (Which in that case means Microsoft forces the smaller Apple to be innovative and Apple forces the Microsoft behemoth to be less awful.)

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An Age of Upheaval? – Instability, Legitimacy, and the Economic Crisis


[Source, page 19 of the “Global Employment Trends 2009” [pdf report by the United Nations International Labor Organization.]

Niall Ferguson, writing for Foreign Policy with foreboding sees the current economic crisis as the final element needed for “an age of upheaval”:

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.

Certainly, around the world, the economic crisis is causing instability – as the legitimacy of many governments around the world is called into question. The constitutional legitimacy of most governments, the bargain they have made with their people, is based on a growing economy that provides for the people’s needs, and increasingly, also provides individual economic opportunity. While this “deal” was often discussed with regards to authoritarian capitalist systems such as China’s, it is also true of governments in democratic capitalist systems. Thus it makes sense that this economic crisis is a serious threat to the stability of nations throughout the world.

If, as the chart above suggests, the worst is yet to come, the current unrest is but a preview. Already though, this crisis has provoked significant concerns and serious riots. Nelson D. Schwartz described the worldwide destabilizing effects of this crisis in his New York Times piece entitled “Job Losses Pose a Threat to Stability Worldwide.” Schwartz saw the crisis as potentially more destabilizing for countries in the former Soviet bloc:

Many newer workers, especially those in countries that moved from communism to capitalism in the 1990s, have known only boom times since then. For them, the shift is especially jarring, a main reason for the violence that exploded recently in countries like Latvia, a former Soviet republic.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson described how the crisis is undermining one of the key stabilizing elements in Pakistan, it’s middle class:

Pakistan’s small but politically powerful middle class has been slammed by the collapse of the country’s stock market. Meanwhile, a rising proportion of the country’s huge population of young men are staring unemployment in the face. It is not a recipe for political stability.

Patrick Hosking in The Times of London predicts that Great Britain will be hit by social unrest as well, though it certainly is not as vulnerable to collapse as Pakistan which is simultaneously fighting a civil war:

[I]t may already be too late to prevent social unrest, especially in Britain, which is tipped to be one of the worst-hit countries economically.

The spectacle of bankers continuing to award themselves bonuses while taking taxpayer support is feeding an extraordinary public rage and a fierce sense of injustice. With 40,000 people losing their jobs each month, it is a recipe for trouble, come the traditional rioting months of the summer.

Despite the fact that we have yet to come to the “traditional rioting months of the summer,” there have been large riots in Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Greece, ((Greece’s riots were of course triggered by a police shooting, but it is hard to imagine they would be as intense without the instability caused by the financial crisis.)) and Russia. Russia has proven to be especially vulnerable – and as Arkady Ostrovsky of Foreign Policy explained, “The Kremlin is acutely aware that civil unrest in Russia could trigger the country’s disintegration.” He describes Putin, however, as the best of bad options:

Putin’s social contract has been based on co-opting Russia’s elites, bribing the population, and repressing the disobedient. A mixture of nationalistic rhetoric, rising incomes, and pride in Russia’s resurgence won public support. Until now, money has been Putin’s most powerful weapon. Rising incomes and a strong ruble (due to high commodity prices) have enabled Russians to enjoy imported food, holidays abroad, and foreign cars and technology. But even if the lives of ordinary people have not improved dramatically (49 percent say they have enough money for basic needs but struggle to buy much else), Russians at least felt that they had stopped sliding backward. Now things are looking bleak again…

But the chances of a liberal renaissance as a result of Putin’s social contract unraveling are highly unlikely. There is nothing more misleading than to portray Russia as a liberal-minded society suppressed by a nasty bunch of former KGB agents. The uncomfortable truth is, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed boss of the Yukos oil company destroyed by the Kremlin, put it: Putin “is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population.” And unlike late Soviet leaders who inspired the contempt of the population, Putin even now remains authentically popular. ((A side note: Ostrovsky also describes “Putin’s most damaging and possibly longest-lasting legacy…that he has played to Russia’s worst instincts. Rather than develop a sense of pride in Russia’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has fostered feelings of past humiliation and defeat, and subsequently a longing for retribution.”))

What this seems to add up to – short of some economic miracle – is an increasingly unstable world – as long as this economic crisis lasts. At the same time, the trend towards the decentralization of power from the United States to corporations, individuals, non-governmental organizations, and other nations – the trend from unipolarity to nonpolarity, as Richard Haas describes it – could potentially make this problem harder to solve. Regardless, it seems certain that this crisis will reshape international politics – and that America’s power to effect the shape of what is to come is significant though limited.

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Hypocrisy or Unknown Principles

[digg-reddit-me]Hostilities between a small government on the border of a regional power turn into full-fledged war after the smaller power lobs a few military weapons endangering civilians and escalating the conflict into open warfare and violations of territorial sovereignty by the regional power. Both sides are generally considered responsible for increasing tensions with proactive actions in the extensive lead-up to the war. Both sides are accused of committing atrocities and killing or harming civilians during the war.

This description in broad strokes describes both the most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and August war between Russia and Georgia.

Yet those on the left have tended to favor the regional power in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict and to oppose the regional power in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. My impression is that while a majority of those on the left have no strong opinion on these issues, seeing each as complicated and unfortunate, a very prominent minority on the left have strongly favored Russia and opposed Israel. Looking at the conflicts and the issues themselves, it’s hard for me to find a single convincing reason that is not America-centric.

The American political establishment has tended to favor Georgia – as it is a liberal democracy on the border of a major competing power. Similarly, the American political establishment has tended to favor Israel as it is a liberal democracy in the midst of a region full of autocracies (as well as for domestic political reasons.) Both countries have been considered strong allies of America and have strong military support from America.

Yet aside from these facts, the circumstances surrounding their most recent wars and their history with their neighbors are very different:

Few would dispute that Hamas is a terrorist organization with a political branch that was elected in a relatively free election. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of it’s neighboring state to exist, accusing the Israel of driving it’s people from their homes over fifty years ago in the mass migration that resulted from the 1948 war for Palestine in which nearly 950 thousand Jews were expelled from or fled neighboring Arab countries and in which 750 thousand Palestinians were pushed out of areas controlled by Israel.

The United National Movement Party is a somewhat nationalist political party elected in a free election which refused to recognize the right of nearby disputed territories to be independent or to join neighboring Russia.  Many ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes in Abhkazia and South Ossetia nearly twenty years ago in ethnic hostilities. For example less than twenty years ago, nearly half of the residents of Abhkazia were ethnic Georgians. Over 80% of that population was driven out of Abhkazia or killed in ethnic hostilities in the early 1990s. After this ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and ethnic Georgians were not blameless in this – a majority of the remaining inhabitants of these two traditional parts of Georgia sought protection from an international peacekeeping force and eventually, to ally themselves with and perhaps join the Russian Federation.

Israel is the strongest single power in the region but has been attacked by many of it’s neighbors since it’s existence. It is a democracy in an autocratic region. The descendants of  the former occupants of Israel’s land demand the right to return to the homeland of their parents or grandparents, and the official government of the Palestinians has often embraced suicide terrorism and attacks on civilians in order to achieve it’s goals. Israel has been granting the Palestinians some measures of autonomy but is still very wary of the security threat that exists.

Russia is a regional power with great power aspirations that has turned away from an open democracy in recent years in favor of some form of either tyranny or oligopoly. It has long supported the separatists in the disputed regions of Georgia in their bid to win independence. There has been growing concern in Russia that America’s support for Georgia was an attempt to check Russia’s regional influence. Georgia’s push to join NATO only deepened their concern – especially as Abhkazia has strategic importance to Russia due to an oil pipeline being constructed there.

So what am I missing here? Both Russia’s and Israel’s offenses hurt civilians as well as more legitimate targets. Both over-matched their opponents significantly. Both were in measure provoked (although both Georgians and Hamas believe they were the ones provoked.)

If anything, Hamas’ explicit embrace of terrorism should count against it. The fact that Israel is a democracy that faces an imminent security threat from the Palestinians – and especially Hamas, which is officially dedicated to Israel’s destruction – and has been attacked by Hamas and other Palestinian forces in the recent past would seem to partially explicate Israel’s actions, even if one considers them overreactions.

At the same time, Russia violated an international boundary when it was not facing an imminent threat. It has not been attacked by Georgia in the recent past if ever.

I think it’s probably true that most political convictions are based more on intuition than reason – but can anyone enlighten me as to a good reason to oppose Israel’s attacks on Hamas and to support Russia’s attacks on Georgia?

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Neoconservatives, gleeful, see Palin as “a blank page”

[Photo by amypalko licensed under Creative Commons.]

Tim Shipman, writing in the London Telegraph, reports on the intense foreign policy briefings being given to Sarah Palin. The crowd assigned to brief her consists exclusively of neoconservatives – as was evident in the answers she gave in the Charlie Gibson interview on Russia, Israel, and national security. Most especially was her thrice-repeated formulation about Israel’s defense: “We cannot second guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself.”

She is being groomed to be a female George W. Bush – but even Bush has realist foreign policy voices around him – from Condoleeza Rice to Colin Powell.

As one former White House official working at the American Enterprise Institute put it: “She’s a blank page.”

Think of that – “A blank page.”

They see her as the vessel which will give them influence and will keep them in power. They see her as the best agent to sell their ideas, to accomplish their goals.

“She’s a blank page.”

Lest it be called sexism, let’s remember that George W. Bush was a blank page as well – one that neoconservatives filled with their ideas as well.

And let’s remember that even the Bush administration has turned away from the neoconservative project in the past few years, embracing a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. And understanding that Sarah Palin has become a political figure in her own right, in many ways, more influential than John McCain, and certainly someone who is seen as the Future of the Republican party. This is an individual who, when asked about the surge explained that she wasn’t really paying attention to such things. She was thrust into the spotlight having formed few opinions of the world, having thought about foreign policy very little, and being ill-informed. Those who directed our disasterous foreign policy see her as a fresh face who can sell their ideas – and as someone who has not studied the matters herself needs a tutor: “She’s a blank page.”

For a writer, there is great possibility in a blank page. As we all look to Sarah Palin – with her combative but warm personality; her shameless ability to sell her lines, to make them her own (like an actress or a car salesman); her unique cultural blend of femininity and feminism – we project onto her our dreams and fears, and it takes quite a lot to dislodge these dreams or fears once they have settled in. This is the essence of politics. It is the core of McCain strength. It is the core of the sense of possibility around Palin. It was what led voters to choose Clinton over Dole, Bush over Gore, and Bush over Kerry. Each side sought to shape the projection of the other, but the essential decision as to who would win was made in a blink. Stubborn facts only gradually affect our projections – as we can see in Bush’s gradual decline in popularity.

But William Kristol, Randy Scheunemann, and other neoconservatives have the opportunity to fill in this blank page with their own dreams and fears – to make their projections reality. “She’s a blank page,” they say, which must terrify the rest of us.

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“We are all Georgians!”: Fantasy as Foreign Policy

[Photo by World Economic Forum licensed under Creative Commons.]

[digg-reddit-me]Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times reported yesterday on Cheney’s visits to former Soviet states:

Mr. Cheney, who visited Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine this week to express American support, offered no new proposals either, but he described the conflict as a new test for NATO that required a unified response.

This has been the baffling and fundamental flaw of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy. How America responded to 9/11, how America endured the occupation of Iraq, how America responded to the Iranian’s development of nuclear weapons, how America responded to Russian aggression in Georgia – each of these represented – in the words of Bush, Cheney, McCain, and other neoconservatives – a “test” of America’s and our allies’ resolve.

Yet – the neoconservatives only offer a single way for America to pass each of these tests: Escalate matters until America can plausibly threaten to use military force.

That was America’s justifiable response to 9/11. It was the Bush administration’s strategy with Saddam Hussein. It has been Cheney’s strategy for containing Iran. It is McCain’s strategy for confronting Russia. The reason neoconservatives are so eager to use military force – instead of diplomacy, containment, alliances, creating and living by systems of rules for international affairs, or economic pressure – is that they believe America’s military might can solve any problem. They are correct that our military superiority ensures that we can defeat any other military on the planet. But what they do not acknowledge is that the military is a blunt weapon and that without a draft, it can only be deployed under limited circumstances and for limited periods. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate these lessons – yet McCain, Bush, Cheney, and company do not seem to have noticed.

Thus, McCain invoked Kennedy’s defense of Berlin when Russia invaded Georgia – saying, “We are all Georgians!” Kennedy had proclaimed, “Eich bin ein Berlinier” to demonstrate our resolve to the Soviet Union – that if they tried to take Berlin, we would protect it as if it were our own home. McCain, by saying that we are all Georgians, was committing the United States to take military action against Russia. Yet, if that is his plan, he has not admitted it. If it is not his plan, then he has not been following the advice given by his hero, Teddy Roosevelt:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

McCain talks a good game – but if he means half of what he says, we’ll have more than one new war on our hands by the time he’s through. Either way, he’s not the president I’m hoping for.

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11 Reasons to Donate to Barack Obama Tonight

[digg-reddit-me]Sarah Palin’s speech last night galvanized Obama’s supporters and created a surge in fundraising for him. Tonight, it’s John McCain’s turn to speak. Though it seems unlikely he will inspire feelings as strong as Palin either for or against him, he is the candidate we are running against. And now that McCain is the official nominee and is accepting federal financing, he will be forced to curtail his spending. ((To $84.1 million dollars – so it’s no chump change.))

We all know this is an important election. This is the time to donate for the maximum effect – to allow Obama to out-manuever McCain over the coming months.

Here are some reasons to donate right now, while McCain is giving his speech, and in the immediate aftermath:

  1. To throw the bums (aka Republicans) out. Enough is enough. We need change before it’s too late.
  2. To prevent (another) unnecessary war. A new cold war with Russia? Killing the United Nations? Sabre-rattling with Iran – which would be further destabilized if the situation with Russia deteriorates. John McCain thinks that Iraq and Pakistan border one another and can’t tell the major Muslim factions apart. All he knows is that there are enemies, and we must defeat them. Sun Tzu said that you must know your enemy to defeat him. John McCain prefers to wing it, and he has quite a temper.
  3. To save the internet as we know it. Barack Obama supports net neutrality. John McCain opposes it.
  4. To get out of Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister said he likes Obama’s plan. The Iraqi people prefer Obama’s plan. George W. Bush is moving towards Obama’s timeline. The only person still too stubborn to acknowledge the facts on the ground is John McCain.
  5. To reinvest in America – with tax cuts to the middle class, with investments in infrastructure, with incentives to develop green energy alternatives, with health care reforms.
  6. To stop Palin from burning our books, teaching creationism, and opening up our local parks to hunters in helicopters.
  7. To restore the Constitution. To restore the balance of power in Washington, to stop the cruel and inhuman torture of our prisoners, to acknowledge the vice presidency is part of the executive branch, to have a president who does not consider himself above the law, and to punish those who have committed crimes against the Constitution in the Bush administration. ((For those whose thoughts immediately went to FISA when seeing this, I gave my opinion already.  And regardless – you have to admit Obama would be better on these issues than McCain.))
  8. To get my tax cut.
  9. To finally have a president who will be serious about national security.
  10. To demonstrate against the crass politics of celebrity and the crowds chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!” so that we can take on the serious and complex challenges facing America – including terrorism, global warming, the destabilizing effects of globalization, the massive shifts in power in the world, and the economic stratification of America.
  11. Because after over 25 years of Republican dominance in Washington, four more years is not an option.

Bonus:Because John McCain’s campaign will be under spending restrictions from here-on out. And Obama can pursue a 50-state strategy.

Aside from all this, here’s my one sentence explaining why I support Obama.

If you think this election will be important, now is the time. Our moment is now. Donate tonight.

Believe that there is a better place around the bend, as yet unseen. And help make that a reality.

Thank you.

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Quote of the Day

Outrage is not a policy. Worry is not a policy. Indignation is not a policy. Even though outrage, worry and indignation are all appropriate in this situation, they shouldn’t be mistaken for policy and they shouldn’t be mistaken for strategy.

Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under President Clinton, Russia specialist, and president of the Brookings Institution, commenting on the McCain campaign’s and the Bush administration’s response to the Georgia crisis.