August 11, 2008

Russia & Georgia

I just got back from a weekend trip, so I have neither the energy nor inclination to write a really long post on this (minor miracle; would be a major miracle if I wrote a truly short post). But, since I've been doing my best to follow the conflict closely even while away and should be able to do an even better job from my home HQ, I'll post a quick list of links now and share a few thoughts.

First, most important thought: Don't just accept the simple storyline of a quick story in a U.S. news outlet. Actually, just don't accept a simple storyline, period. That includes my simple storyline attempts to sum it up for people over the weekend, actually. Just a taste of the moral ambiguity:
  • South Ossetia (disputed region) is ethnically separate [clarification: from the rest of Georgia] and wants to be part of Russia;
  • We recognized the independence of a similar disputed region (Kosovo) when the new territory was pro-American*;
  • South Ossetia fought a war with Georgia to become an unrecognized semi-autonomous territory patrolled by peacekeepers, which most of their population honors;
  • Georgia appears to have planned this attack in an attempt to blitz Ossetia and claim it quickly, before Russia could react;
  • Georgia was shelling the capital of Ossetia - Tskhinvali - with heavy artillery, causing by lowest estimates several hundred civilian casualties (up to 2000+) in an area with a population of something like 75k;
  • Both Georgia and Russia have strong nationalist, irridentist feelings: Georgia wants to keep/retake Ossetia while Russia wants to retake/re-puppetize/regain controlling influence in Georgia;
  • Russia has spent years fomenting tensions in Georgia and doing their best to strong-arm it into becoming dependent on Russia again;
  • The Caucasus mountains form a nearly impassible barrier between North Ossetia (Russian province) and South Ossetia (the breakaway Georgian province) making economic integration difficult. South Ossetia would likely be economically better off with Georgia;
  • There are oil interests for everyone in Georgia, because it is a crucial site for a trans-Caucasus pipeline to bring oil from central Asia into Europe while bypassing Russia. Russia wants to keep exclusive control of distributing this oil to Europe, which they use as a foreign policy bludgeon;
  • Despite Georgia's call for help based on "defense of freedom", Georgian president Saakashvili has increasingly cracked down on opposition;
  • On the other hand, his opponent - Putin - has engaged in more crackdowns, likely been responsible for the 'mysterious deaths' of opposition journalists and dissidents, and ruthless destruction of any potential rival political power base inside Russia;
  • The United States has trained Georgia's army in return for Georgian support for the war in Iraq (Georgia has the 3rd largest military contingent there, after the US and the UK, or did up until this war);
  • Georgia wanted to join NATO, but Germany and France resisted and defeated initial American desires to add them to the club (which would have mandated NATO to defend Georgia in the event of war). The US ceded that Georgia would first have to resolve its internal territorial disputes, as we wanted to focus on pushing through continued development of a 'missile shield';
  • Did I say internal territorial disputes? Oh yeah! Haha, whoops, there's another unrecognized separatist region in Georgia, called Abkhazia.

And... yeah, there's even more where that came from. The arguments against the Russians escalate steeply as they move further into Georgia or pursue more ambitious aims.

* = Yes, I realize there are differences. But they're debatable differences, and Russia has a pretty good case for claiming it as precedent. Plus, while I can draw distinctions, I always have the nagging feeling I'm just reaching for justifications. Also, I'd offer a mea culpa for not paying enough attention to warnings about this effect of Kosovo's independence, except that what I say doesn't matter to any actual decisions. So instead, I'll just say "I was wrong. Shock."

Other thing I wanted to comment on: one of the foreign policy blogs I was reading described this as a new, minor 'proxy war' demonstration, pitting Western arms/doctrine (since the U.S. has trained Georgia's military over the past few years) against Russian arms/doctrine. And while Russia vastly outnumbered Georgia, NATO likely would have faced superior numbers in the first stages of a "Cold War gone hot" in Europe as well. Thus, the conclusion is, Western doctrine has not held up well.

I disagree. Obviously I'm neither in the military nor a professional expert in military affairs, but then I'm neither a diplomat nor a professional foreign policy analyst either. For one thing, while the Georgians were using Western light infantry equipment (ie more M16 rifles than AK74s, the more modern version of the famous AK47 Kalashnikov) the vast majority of their heavy equipment was old Soviet issue. Second, this might signal something about the superiority of Russian doctrine vs. '80s Western doctrine, but more modern American military doctrine revolves more around "network-centric warfare" (which, while not entirely technological, is strongly intertwined with it) and the integration of our superiority in military satellites and high technology. Presumably this wasn't transferred to the Georgian army, and Russia would likely consider us granting Georgia access to all our technological resources, satellites, and communications during this conflict an act of war on our part.

There's also an important point I'll try to remember to convey another time about how the increased importance of Russia in foreign policy makes McCain a completely disastrous choice for the next presidency due to his irrational hatred of the Russians and aggressive, provocative policies and statements that serve little use other than precisely that - provoking the Russians. This at a time when, unlike during the Cold War, there are still plenty of opportunities to move into more productive cooperation with Russia and contain our conflicts to specific spheres. A lot of people in the foreign policy community (even generally right-wing realists) are recognizing this - follow the links below and you'll see it - but it remains to be seen if the American public will agree or adore McCain for being 'tough'.

Good sources:

Fistful of Euros

American Footprints (also contains links to many, many other sources)
Duck of Minerva (yes, it doesn't *sound* like serious foreign policy commentary. It is.)
Lawyers, Guns, & Money (look specifically for the Russia-Georgia stuff)
Daniel Larison's Eunomia at The American Conservative

If you're interested you'll get tons, tons more links as you continue to branch out from there, including lots of articles in newspapers. I intentionally linked to the good foreign policy blogs as opposed to newspaper articles, because the blogs link to the paper analysis but not vice-versa, and even the few good paper analysis stories (the ones solicited from experts, not written to provide a marketable storyline) are less complete.

Okay, that *was* long. But something this serious deserves long and longer.

Speaking of serious, my hopes & wishes go out to all the soldiers and particularly all the families and children caught up in this maelstrom. While I find the situation fascinating and disturbing in a geopolitical sense, it's always worth remembering that behind those headlines and all the moves in the diplomatic game are the bullet-ridden bodies of young men caught up in nationalist fervor, old women too sickly to evacuate buried when their houses are hit by artillery fire, and even the bloodied bodies of children caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

July 24, 2008

The Brutal Irony of American Media Standards

Through one of those long link chains the internet specialized in, I ended up at a British newspaper article about The Wire airing in Britain, and the 'new wave' of American morally ambiguous cop shows (the article is here for those who are interested). The article acknowledged that The Wire was the best - a statement that, even without watching the other shows, I can state with near certainty is true - but it does praise two other shows, "The Shield" and "Dexter".

So I looked those two up on Wikipedia since, being entirely 'out of the loop' vis-a-vis television, I'd heard nothing of them. This led to one of those beautiful, ironic discoveries that highlights a (maybe the) major element of what's wrong with our cultural standards. Dexter, apparently, is about a forensic analyst who is also, in his spare time, a serial killer. Except he kills criminals who he believes the police won't catch or amass enough evidence to convict. In any case, the morality of this sounds... ambiguous, and for once I share the concerns of those complaining about a show on TV: it does worry me to have a TV show in which the unambiguous protagonist (even if you're supposed to feel somewhat ambivalent about him) is a serial killing vigilante. There is, after all, a reason our justice system exists.

But I digress. Here's what I found so appalling. The Parents Television Council protested the airing of Dexter on public airwaves, as opposed to a pay-for-subscription channel. In response, CBS rated the program TV-14. And also... well, wikipedia contains this gem:

"he show premiered on February 17, 2008 with minor edits, primarily for language, and with scenes involving dismemberment of live victims cut away. Scenes involving sex were also taken out of the broadcasts."

That's right. Sex is on the same level as the dismemberment of live victims.

Do I really need to say more here?

July 4, 2008

This is your semi-weekly reminder that Corn Ethanol sucks

The Guardian finds a World Bank report which finds that global food prices have been driven up 75% by corn/wheat biofuels. Might be high, but it's probably much closer to the truth than the US government's 3% estimate.

July 3, 2008

Weekly Reminder: Corn Ethanol Sucks

This is your weekly reminder that corn ethanol is horrible, that the least we can do is lower the tariff on Brazil's much more efficient sugarcane ethanol, and that huge ethanol subsidies + tariffs and quotas are worthless pork of the highest order.

Sadly, this is something Sen. Obama is on the wrong side of. Rather entrenched on the wrong side, actually. Not only does he support ethanol subsidies and oppose lowering barriers to Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, but his campaign is pretty much in bed with the US Ethanol industry.

July 2, 2008

Al Qaeda opens 'franchise' in Algeria

A Threat Renewed - Ragtag Insurgency Gains a Lifeline From Al Qaeda (NYT)

Through contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq*, Algerian resistance movements have now joined Al Qaeda and turned to AQ style terrorist attacks. I'm sure everyone will spin their own narrative of these facts to fit their own POV.

My view:

I think the explanation that makes the most sense is that this is just another fluctuation in a regional conflict, and practical thinking/exploitation of opportunities by a specific insurgency group. It gets a major story because they used the Al Qaeda brand name; without it, we'd be unlikely to even notice the change in Algeria.

That said, that doesn't mean we shouldn't notice changes among Algerian rebels. And it doesn't mean that there aren't lessons in why the incentives for the resistance/terrorist nationalist movement were stacked that way, and what the consequences will be.

First, Al Qaeda has become a franchise operation. Rather than creating new organizations from scratch, it is much more efficient to incorporate or merge with preexisting terrorists. This is also what Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is. This has a lot of advantages: it creates a natural cell structure, brings in preexisting organizations without the need for start-up costs, and immediately gives more local contacts. It seems to me to be both a sign of strength and weakness: a certain amount of material weakness, as we haven't seen the original Al Qaeda physically spread (though clearly part of the reason groups want to affiliate with them is that they still have substantial assets); and ideological/image strength, as other forces want to use the Al Qaeda name and associate themselves with it.

Second, this is Bad News. It's not as bad as the fanciful, monolithic enemy that populates certain politicians and talk radio hosts' imaginations, or a similarly sized organization dedicated primarily to attacks like Sept. 11th. But the former just doesn't exist while the latter is a stretch to imagine - the history of truly transnational terrorism, aiming toward unitary goals without local concerns, is minimal** - and can be kept suppressed by general counter-terrorism operations.

But franchise operations are still problematic. Most of their efforts will probably be directed at local targets and aims, but some will be diverted on the side toward attacking Western or American targets that are local, nearby, or historically affiliated (the latter is why France is worried about AQA, as Algeria was their colony). And the groups also presumably move toward Al Qaeda in tactics: there's evidence for this in the article on AGA (although the tactics certainly aren't purely AQ or an AQ invention), and also in AQI's attacks. That means more explicitly terroristic & dramatic acts and more civilian deaths, although by all accounts the Algerian nationalists were Not a Nice Bunch previously either.

Third, there are complications in dealing with franchise operations, even of Al Qaeda. Because they're heavily involved with local issues, causes, and opponents, an aggressive strategy to fight them means being heavily involved in local issues. That's, shall we say, not always ideal. One set of problems is exemplified by AQI, where we have an army in the country and thus are deeply involved and have a great deal of control, as well as vulnerability.

The other, more common, problem is in dealing with groups like AQA (or Al Qaeda's new bases in Pakistan's tribal areas) in places we don't control. Here we either have to operate through the central government, which has its own agenda that does not always mesh with ours, or violate their sovereignty and alienate the country. This is particularly problematic in a country like Algeria (and most other Middle Eastern nations) with a dictatorial government. They're secretive and tend to stonewall, mix in suppression of internal dissent and oppression along with anti-terrorist activities, and create image problems for nations working with them.

Fourth, this shows we're losing the broader image war. If groups want to be associated with Al Qaeda, we've failed. It makes it even worse that part of the incentive is to associate with "fighting the Americans". The most effective way to cripple Al Qaeda is to improve our image in the Middle East and reduce theirs. Obviously, we don't want to compromise our values by doing this. It's a straw man to rant that this means adopting Islamic dress codes or abandoning support for Israel. The point is not to make Al Qaeda happy. The point is that no one and no organization should want to be like or associated with Al Qaeda. That makes the organization isolated and far easier to destroy or suppress.

In addition, the fact that anyone would want to change into "Al Qaeda in X" means our deterrent is pretty weak.

I'd say those are the most important points, but I'll add a Fifth: be careful of incentives! Incentive structures apply to terrorist groups and nationalist resistance movements. The Algerian rebels attacked civilian targets in the early '90s, overwhelmingly shifting any popular sympathy to the government (or at least away from them). They reformed their organization, gave it a new name, and adopted different tactics, targeting civilians only rarely.

This changed back again more recently. Why? It's possible bloodlust fluctuates, or evil goes up and down like the stock market. And actually, particular leaders with varying levels of bloodthirstiness can be part of the reason. But the NYT's sources - which, obviously, should be taken with substantial caution, since they come from a terrorist group and/or the Algerian government - indicate that a key moment was Bush designating the group as a 'terrorist' organization and putting it on a US government list of terrorists.

Why would this matter? Because once you've been labeled firmly as a terrorist group, there's much less incentive toward restraint. Especially if the perspective was that the United States was now very hard-line about this, and unlikely to see shades of gray, and you expected the world to go along in the aftermath of 9/11, there's no practical point in restraint. I expect some people think that sounds cold, or somehow improper to analyze, but fighting terrorism as a force of nature won't get you very far. People - even destructive terrorists - respond to incentives, act for a reason, and usually try to achieve their goals, twisted as those goals may be.

*= I'm using Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Algeria, as these are easier to understand & remember for both me and other Americans. Their true names, however, translate more closely to "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" and "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb", referring to more general geographic regions and not the nation-states. This may (or may not) be instructive in itself.

**= All I can think of off the top of my head is the primary Al Qaeda branch and certain, limited segments of the international Communist movement in the 20th century. There are also transnational trends, where there are unrelated local phenomenon following a single theme, like anarchists in the late 19th century to early 20th.

April 15, 2008

Citizen Journalists

Swirling behind the debate over Obama's "bitter" comments is an interesting story about the person who publicized the comments. Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter, attended the fundraiser where Obama made the contested comments. The event was a "no press" affair but many attendees recorded his remarks on cell phones and other devices. In our high-tech age, that's easy to do--and the event organizers made no attempt to stop the recordings.

Fowler then publicized the remarks through her page on "Off the Bus," a segment of the Huffington Post that combines the work of amateur journalists with those of pros. From that portal, the story leaped into both the blogosphere and the mainstream press.

The Obama campaign has not attacked Fowler or questioned her right to publicize the remarks she recorded. Obama and his staff surely didn't intend for the remarks to become so public, but they're savvy enough to know that there's no privacy when handheld devices are whirring. And they're honorable enough to refrain from cheap attacks on Fowler.

But Jay Rosen, cofounder of Off the Bus, recently discussed the ethics of Fowler's report. It's an interesting analysis, touching on differences between "citizen journalists" like Fowler and more traditional journalists. Fowler, for example, contributes financially to Obama's campaign--a no-no among regular journalists. The relationship between Fowler and the Obama campaign, Rosen suggests, falls in "uncharted" territory.

But Fowler's reporting disturbs me, not because of the differences between her and professional journalists, but because of the similarities between her and the mainstream press. Like so much of what we read these days, Fowler's report was "gotcha" journalism.

Other discusisons of the now infamous fundraiser show that Obama said a number of interesting and complex things. Another attendee, for example, published this report in the wake of Fowler's story:

Fowler's story didn't attempt to discuss these nuances; she went for the sensationalism. And that's the way the story has played. Clinton and McCain, of course, greatly amplified the effect; gotcha journalism became gotcha stump speeches.

What troubles me is this: If we want to overcome the silliness of current media political coverage, how do we do it? Voters say they're tired of the stuff that the media are handing us. And in a world of gotcha politics and journalism, it's hard for a candidate to offer any serious discusison of issues; there's too much chance of creating a bad sound bite. If we want to change the politics, we have to change the reporting.

One possible answer is citizen journalism. But how do we avoid the citizen journalists falling into the same traps as the professional ones? Can we create a code of ethics, or at least an ethic of reflection, for citizen journalists? All of us who send our thoughts out into the world should realize that the things we say help shape the climate of discussion. On that note, I start my own adventure blogging....

Deborah Debuts

I am honored to join the discussion at Merrittocracy, a blog by the chatty Merritt family. I have been a law professor for almost 25 years, so I have lots of experience talking. And for the last two decades, I have been trying to keep up with the questions, comments, and ideas of my son Daniel--originator of this blog.

I hope to blog about lots of things, but my current obsession is the Democratic primary race. We live on the edge of The Ohio State University campus, where I teach, so I spend my days surrounded by students. I'm intrigued by the shifting face of politics, the attitudes of student voters, and the prospects of this new millenium. Now off to blogging!