Friday, August 30, 2013

Morning Reading -- August 30

This morning's best discovery is Greg Djerejian has a Twitter account. I missed the first five hundred or so messages but I'm following him now. He will RT what he reads (I always like to know what smart people are reading) but he has a gift for trenchant prose like this...

...and a memory like this... 

His blog, Belgravia Dispatch was part of the intellectual bedrock of the web, but a blog takes too much time and energy, so it went fallow for a few years -- except when something happened that really pushed his button. 

This morning's commentary on the Syrian Non-intervention Technicolor Dreamcoat sez in part...
This past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.
Go read the rest. 
And welcome back to the fight, Mr. Djerejian.


The decision by parliament did not spring from nowhere. A good deal of public and elite opinion in Britain remains badly bruised by former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s rampant enthusiasm for the US neocons’ drive to invade Iraq ten years ago. In a series of enquiries, Blair was badly tarnished — enquires that were not even contemplated in the United States for members of the administration of
President George W. Bush who got so much so wrong. In one of the most telling phrases, the Blair government was accused (with reason) of having concocted a “dodgy dossier” to support claims that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. While there was nothing quite as telling as US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council, which was, in the old British phrase, “economical with the truth,” there were the revelations that intelligence was to be “fixed” around conclusions that the Iraqi WMD did exist. “Fixed,” in this context, meant that the US was determined to go to war, come what may, and the British would go along or, more correctly, would be in the van.

Thus it should not have been that surprising that the lack of clarity in the intelligence picture about the source of the August 21st chemical weapons attacks in Syria led a lot of people in Britain, including in all three major political parties, to express doubts, so much so that the British now have to be ruled out of any military action that the US government might choose to initiate.

Here is the sixty-four dollar question.
Will Congress Block an Attack on Syria?
Congress members are clamoring to be consulted, but few publicly oppose intervention.

BY Cole Stangler
As the Obama administration mulls its course of action, opposition is slowly emerging in Congress, which is scheduled to be on summer recess until September 9. So far, nearly all of that opposition has focused not on the intervention itself, but on the executive branch’s lack of consultation with Congress.
Two main letters—one signed mostly by Republicans and the other signed by all Democrats—make essentially the same demand: that Congress be able to fulfill its constitutional obligation of approving any declaration of war. But Obama might argue that an attack on Syria would not amount to war. The president did not obtain congressional approval prior to the U.S. intervention in Libya in March 2011. 
On Wednesday, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) sent a letter to the White House demanding that the President consult Congress before taking any action. The letter has 140 signatories as of Thursday afternoon, including a handful of Democrats. The letter also calls for Congress to reconvene at the President’s request. 
Meanwhile, on Thursday afternoon, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sent another letter to the White House with the signatures of 54 Democratic members of Congress. The letter asks for “an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.” 
But while a growing number of legislators have raised objections on constitutional or procedural grounds, far fewer members of Congress have actually offered critiques of an eventual intervention itself. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans, 60 percent of respondents, were against intervening in Syria. Only 9 percent said they were in favor.
Bitching about leadership and responsibility seems to be part of the Congressional job description. They do it so awfully well -- and often. But when it comes time for individual members to go on the record the amount of equivocation, denial and dodging makes the administration's response to l'affaire Benghazi look like a model of transparency.  The US Congress, like the British parliament, now has a splendid opportunity to take a clear stand for or against a specific proposed military action.
No 'slam dunk' is the new Sixteen Words.  
Compared with parliament, Congress looks pusillanimous. 
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the most extensive US global surveillance operations, was today awarded this year’s German “Whistleblower Prize” worth $3,900 in absentia.

“Mr Snowden has done a great public service by exposing the massive and unsuspecting monitoring and storage of communication data by US and other western intelligence agencies, which cannot be accepted in democratic societies,” Berlin-based whistleblower prize jury said in a statement.

Top secret National Security Agency documents leaked by Snowden since the beginning of June “made it possible and unavoidable” intensive investigations to establish whether the operations of domestic and foreign intelligence services have violated the existing rules applicable to them, the jury said.

Snowden took great personal risks in leaking the documents on the operations of the US and other western intelligence agencies, aware of the current criminal prosecution of whistleblowers in security areas, the jury said in its citation.

The whistleblower prize is awarded once in two years to honour persons, who “expose in public interest grave social injustices and dangerous developments for individuals and the society, democracy, peace and environment“.

As an insider, Snowden “exposed the massive and unsuspecting surveillance and storage of e-mails, IP addresses as well as telephone and other communication data by US and western intelligence agencies. He fulfilled the criteria to receive the whistleblower prize,” the jury said.

Even when it is proved that the espionage operations partly or to a large extent were protected by the law, “Mr Snowden’s whistleblowing certainly helped to expose such a dangerous situation, which cannot be accepted in democratic societies,” they said.

The whistleblower prize was instituted in 1999 by the German section of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and the Association of German Scientists.

German chapter of the global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International joined the prize for the first time this year.

We have gone from "Loose lips sink ships" to announcing times and targets well in advance, while discussing strategy options in national newspapers.  
Am I hallucinating? 
What am I missing? 
Final word goes to Misha Glenny.

I became aware of Misha Glenny during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Of all the commentary about what is now unfolding, this man speaks with the clearest language.  Before I get to his current analysis of the Syrian conflict, here is a link to a convoluted story I came across in 2008 which brought Glenny to mind.
He is a guest of BBC in the video linked here.
One reason this item jumped out at me was that I followed closely the collapse of Yougoslavia at the time it was happening. Targets on the backs of people in Sarajevo, complicated maps of the ethnic and religious mixture of the region, history and all that... I also discovered Misha Glenny, a BBC journalist who seemed to be the best informed source of information and author of the most current book available at the time.
This BBC report  puts yesterday's arrest into perspective.
Regarding Syria, Glenny makes clear that this conflict is not about Syria. This is a proxy war, an extension of conflicts between what can be called contemporary super-powers -- US, Russia, Iran and a very fragmented Arab world.

On Syria, History Teaches Profound Skepticism
AUGUST 30, 2013
Even the most serious situations have aspects that verge on the absurd. 
This week, as the United States was considering military strikes against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, it was the know-all attitude of pundits across the world that provided this element. 
They expressed three basic positions, each with various justifications: 
  • a) Get in there and pummel Assad; 
  • b) Limited, clearly-defined strikes but please DO be careful; 
  • c) Any intervention is sheer madness.
Option B includes endless caveats and hand-wringing, but Options A and C are usually articulated with adamant resolve. That, of course, is the nature of the beast. In these situations, pundits and commentators are under enormous pressure to have a clear commitment.

Which is why I enjoyed one of Professor Dan Drezner’s tweets so much this week. The Fletcher School’s prolific blogger confessed he “does not have a firm opinion on what to do in Syria.” He also added the slightly self-deprecatory hashtag #badpundit. 
Perhaps it is advancing years that lead one to become indecisive and a #badpundit. But it could also be that in the golden post-Cold War age, we have witnessed so many interventions that we can now say with some confidence that their outcome does not often bear any relation to their intended aims. 
Take, for example, the intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which was mainly launched in response to 9/11. Tony Blair, British prime minister at the time, also argued forcefully for sending in troops to rid the world of the scourge of heroin. 
What happened was the opposite. In effect, overproduction became such a problem for the major producers and traffickers of heroin in Afghanistan that they periodically held back distribution of the drug in order to prop up the global market. 
Idealism, as the Afghanistan war shows in many other ways, too, is not a very useful attitude to have when contemplating a military intervention. Looking at the Arab Spring and its historical antecedents, it may not serve the immediate participants all that well, either. 
It was Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent Marxist historian who died in 2012, who first compared the Arab Spring to Europe’s own Spring of Nations in1848, which ended very unhappily for the idealistic revolutionaries a year later. Over the following half century, European liberals went a long way to dismantling the anciens regimes, although they often needed an intolerant nationalism to do it, culminating in the First World War. 
More recently, pundits have been comparing the Arab Spring to the Thirty Years War, the horrific series of religious and great power conflicts which killed an estimated one third of the population of the territories which now make up Germany. 
Despite my earlier mockery of pundits, I find it useful to ponder such analogies. Of course, a European precedent like the Thirty Years War can only act as a rough guide to what could be about to happen in the Middle East. Aside from the specific cultural and geopolitical differences between the two territories, there are numerous variables from demography to communications and, indeed, the nature of weaponry that have changed over the past 300 years. 
But there are two elements of the war in Syria that may be comparable to this earlier conflict: they concern the scale of the conflict and the key to a final resolution. 
The Syrian situation is not only about the use of chemical weapons (momentous though that may be). It threatens the stability of the entire region, beginning with Lebanon, because it is making the political dynamics in all neighboring countries even more volatile. 
In the years after 1618, the attempts by tiny principalities in central Europe to challenge the status quo acted as a vortex, sucking in almost every major power. The now fragmented territories of Syria can exert a similar force on the neighborhood and beyond. 
The second similarity lies in the question of how you solve this. At the start of the First World War, the Balkans were referred to as a powder keg. One could have imagined the same being said about the myriad territories of the Holy Roman Empire in 1618. 
In fact, the Balkans of the early twentieth century weren’t powder kegs; the various principalities, Palatinates, free cities, and Imperial concessions of the seventeenth century weren’t, either. They were merely detonators laid by the great powers. 
Today’s Syrian detonator can only be disarmed if the outside parties who are indirectly engaged in the conflict are prepared to find a compromise agreement. This means the United States hammering out a deal with Russia. This agreement would then need to include the three major regional powers, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia would have to lean on their proxies to accept any deal, and Israel would have to take the peace negotiations with the Palestinians seriously. 
What are the chances of that? The square root of very little. So with no viable political or diplomatic talks on track, I think we can be confident that regardless of whether the West intervenes or not, things are about to get very nasty. 
Maybe Professor Drezner isn’t such a #badpundit after all.
If this description were not so obvious it would be called brilliant. But unfortunately it's another illustration of someone pointing to an emperor standing naked when everyone else pretends he is fully clothed.  Sharmine Narwani's article linked at the end of Yesterday's list makes essentially the same point. 
From one perspective, the common thread is the crisis in Syria, where a 29-month conflict has cemented divisions in the rest of the region and set the stage for an existential fight on multiple battlefields between two highly competitive Mideast blocs.
From another perspective, the common thread drawing these disparate crimes scenes together is the “culprit” – one who has strong political interest, material capabilities and the sense of urgency to commit rash and violent actions on many different fronts. 
In isolation, none of these acts are capable of producing a “result.” But combined, they are able to instill fear in populations, stir governments into action, and in the short term, to create the perception of a shift in regional “balances.” 
And no parties in the Mideast are more vested right now in urgently “correcting” the regional balance of power than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Israel – both nations increasingly frustrated by the inaction of their western allies and the incremental gains of their regional rivals Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and now Iraq.
For different reasons Israel and KSA share a common enemy -- Iran. She puts a different spin on possible outcomes, but the dynamic of the conflict is clear. 

To put it into WWII terms Iran, Russia and Syria are the Axis and KSA, Israel and US (Nato, UK, et al) are the Allies. (Would it push the analogy too far to say China = Japan?)  Overly simplistic, of course. But no more crazy than most of what is being discussed in public -- with no hint of irony -- by leaders and opinion makes way above my pay grade

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