The Great “Unraveling”?

Sep 17 2014 @ 3:12pm

I’m a huge admirer of Roger Cohen’s writing – and can appreciate many of the thoughts percolating in his latest column on what he sees as a disintegration of the world order. He manages to cite Scottish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the devolved powers to Eastern Ukraine – and even Ebola! – as part of a trend toward dissolution and anarchy.

But when I look at all the developments he is citing, I don’t really see anything that new. Take Iraq – please. What we are witnessing is the second major Sunni revolt since they were summarily deposed from power by the United States in 2003. How is this new? The Sunnis have long since believed in their bones that Iraq is theirs by right to govern. They despise the Shiites now running the show. The entire construct Syria_and_Iraq_2014-onward_War_mapof Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority. That rule necessarily had to be despotic – as all attempts to permanently deny rights to a majority in the country must be.

So we removed the despot – as we did in Libya – and we have an ongoing power-struggle that is a continuation of the same power struggle Iraq has been hosting since time immemorial. I mean look at that map on the right, from Wiki on the current division of power and land in Iraq. Does it look familiar? It looks like every map of Iraq’s sectarian divide since time immemorial. And we think we will change that by air-strikes?

My fear is that the catastrophic error of 2003 will never lead to a stable state, because the Sunnis will never tolerate or trust majority Shiite rule. Yes, we bribed them enough to switch sides temporarily in the “surge”. But they knew we’d leave; and they knew what they had to do when we did. The only conceivable way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in Iraq indefinitely – but that too is untenable, for both the Iraqis and for us.

The Beltway nonetheless decided – against all the evidence – that the surge had worked, that sectarian passions had subsided, and that a multi-sectarian government would be able to overcome the profound rifts in Iraqi society that have always been embedded in its DNA. We were sold a bill of goods – by Petraeus and McCain and the other benign imperialists. They have spun a narrative that Iraq was “solved” in 2009 – and that the absence of US troops led to subsequent failure. But they flatter themselves. We never had any real reason to believe these sectarian divides had been overcome – and after a decade of brutal and traumatizing mutual slaughter, why on earth would they be?

Iraq was unraveled in 2003; in my view, it has thereby become the battle-ground for the simmering, wider Sunni-Shiite civil conflict that has also been a long-running strain in the region. Our own solipsistic focus on ISIS as another al Qaeda against us – again the narrative of the utterly unreconstructed neocon right and the pious interventionist left – misses this simple fact. We cannot see the forest for our own narcissistic tree.

When you look at Russia and Ukraine from the same historical perspective, the unraveling meme also seems unpersuasive. Russia is a proud and ornery and mysterious country. It has gone from global super-power to regional neo-fascist state in a matter of decades. Its sphere of influence has retreated from the edge of Berlin to the boundaries of Ukraine, which it simply controlled for an extremely long time.

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The View From Your Window

Sep 17 2014 @ 3:00pm


Quebec, Canada, 10.46 am. Another reader writes:

I covered the referendum in Quebec in 1995 for Harper’s (pdf), and particularly the aftermath. It’s difficult to convey the intensity of the passions that were stirred up in the final days before the vote – and the deflated and bewildered sense of disappointment separatists felt in the days after their narrow loss (50,000 votes out of 5 million cast). The slogan for the Oui/Yes side was AND IT ALL BECOMES POSSIBLE – which described both the promise and the menace that was lurking just beneath the surface. The ugly slurs about the the No side winning because of “money and the ethnic vote” that the Oui leader made on the night of the loss perfectly match the ugliness that is emerging in Scotland.

There is no easy way to break up a country, even one as civilized and seemingly docile as Canada. Quebec dodged a bullet in 1995. I hope Scotland is as lucky.

Quote For The Day II

Sep 17 2014 @ 2:38pm

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue—and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.

With all the nonsense put out by Communist propaganda about “Yankee imperialism,” “exploitive capitalism,” “war-mongering,” “monopolists,” in their name-calling assault on the West, the last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people… I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and that whatever else it can properly perform in that special field—and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere,” – Harry Truman, December 22, 1963.

My take on the CIA as an increasing malignant cancer on our democracy is here.

War Will Keep Them Together

Sep 17 2014 @ 2:20pm

Remember that schism between al Qaeda and ISIS? Well, there’s nothing like a new war with the Great Satan to help patch that up. Adam Taylor passes along some salient news and poses a troubling question:

In a two-page message posted to Twitter accounts that represent both groups, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) asked their “brothers” in Iraq and Syria to “stop killing each other and unite against the American campaign and its evil coalition that threatens us all.” It’s an unusual move. The two groups are perhaps the most notorious of the al-Qaeda-linked groups: AQAP operates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and it has been described as the “most lethal Qaeda franchise” by the Council on Foreign Relations, while AQIM operates in Northern Africa, in particular Algeria, Mali and Libya. Analysts say a joint statement from the two is unprecedented. …

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Elaine Teng takes the question seriously:

Strictly speaking, the Scottish referendum should not affect Britain’s Security Council seat, but reform of the U.N. is increasingly in the air. Currently, there are five permanent Security Council members who hold veto power (the U.S., France, the U.K., Russia, and China), and ten rotating members elected by the General Assembly to serve two-year terms. There’s a general consensus that the Council should be expanded to 20-25 permanent members, but that’s when things start to get tricky. Which countries should join? India, a nuclear power home to a fifth of the world’s population? Germany and Japan, two of the world’s largest economic powers who contribute more to the U.N. budget than any country other than the U.S.? Nigeria, to give Africa a seat and correct the skew of power towards Western countries? Should France and Britain’s seats be combined into a single European seat to better accommodate the changing political realities?

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Scotland Is Not So Easily Broken

Sep 17 2014 @ 1:39pm

The Final Day Of Campaigning For The Scottish Referendum Ahead Of Tomorrow's Historic Vote

Whatever tomorrow’s result, Alex Massie anticipates that Scots will make peace with the result:

There will be a deep sadness in many places if Scotland votes Yes and, in other parts, some raging disbelief if she votes No. How could it be otherwise? This may be a wee country but the matter of Scotland is nothing small. Some folk will leave if we vote Yes and that, I think, will be a great pity. Others will react poorly to a No vote but at least cling to the consolation that losing a battle is not the same as losing a war. The nationalists have known defeat before and coped; they can do so again. Their faith will remain. It will be harder, I think, for Unionists to accept the song is over.

But hatred? Real hatred? How can we really hate our opponents? We may think them sorely mistaken but we can also agree – if we try to remember to do so – that they are not motivated by baser motives than we are ourselves. They are our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. Our neighbours too. To hate them is in some sense to deny a part of ourselves.

In that respect we really are all in it together. Today, tomorrow and Friday too. Come what may. Be not afraid. It is, probably, going to be fine. The little white rose of Scotland, so small and sharp and sweet, will still bloom.

Peyton Craighill interprets the polls:

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Juan Cole argues that containment is the superior strategy for answering the challenge posed by ISIS, noting that “the most effective campaigns in which the US air force has been involved have been more or less defensive”:

A minimalist, defensible position for the US could have been to say that the US will intervene aerially to ensure that Erbil and Baghdad don’t fall, but that recovering the Sunni Arab areas that Nouri al-Maliki had alienated was up to Iraqi politicans and forces. And a minimalist strategy could have simply ignored the Syrian side of the border. It is true that ISIL has a big base in Raqqah and uses its Syrian assets to support its operations in Iraq. But ISIL successes in Iraq were in any case not mainly military but rather political. Since this is so, the military position of ISIL in Syria isn’t really so central to its taking of Mosul, Tikrit, etc. Nor would holding Raqqah help it to hold Mosul if Mosul turned against it.

The US was very good in the Cold War at containing Stalinism but very bad at defeating a guerrilla group like the Vietcong. It was the former that mattered in the end.

He’s right. And I say that not from any ideological position, but simply by observing US policy failure this past decade. To try and do the same thing again when it didn’t work before is the mark of insanity.

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Last Thursday, a brutal gay bashing took place in the City of Brotherly Love:

Sources tell NBC10 the 27-year-old and 28-year-old victims were walking from a restaurant in the area of 16th and Chancellor around 10:45 p.m. Thursday. Suddenly they were approached by a visibly intoxicated group of two men and six women. Witnesses say someone in the group asked, “Is this your fucking boyfriend?” When one of the victims told them yes, the group allegedly attacked them, punching and kicking them in the face, head and chest.

Both men suffered shattered cheekbones and one had to have his jaw wired shut. But a combination of CCTV and social media – especially by a lone and heroic tweeter – caught the fuckers who did it:

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They keep coming up with ways to camouflage the out-sourcing of journalism to advertising, don’t they? Check out this screen shot of the NRO home-page this morning:

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 9.51.26 AM

The reader has to glean what is an ad and what is an article by those two tiny little icons at the top right. Buried in a Washington Post story on DC’s ABC affiliate, WJLA, is this little nugget:

Newsroom employees say they were alarmed last month by comments made by David Smith in an introductory staff meeting. According to several employees, Smith repeatedly said the station’s newsroom would “work for” its advertising-sales department … The apparent blending of news and advertising has been evident in some parts of the station’s newscasts. WJLA’s morning news has aired footage from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and its anchors have mentioned a tourism promotion in conjunction with the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The tourism organization has been running a similar promotion with other Sinclair-owned stations.

Then a new Sunday magazine in California is experimenting with this:

For Nest, the maker of connected home devices that was acquired by Google, California Sunday enlisted artists and illustrators to come up with artwork centered on the idea of home, according to Edwards. Nest picked the ones they liked, which will run in the magazine labeled “Commissioned by Nest,” followed by a page with standard Nest creative on the same theme.

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Yes They Can?

Sep 17 2014 @ 12:22pm

Scotland Ballot

Dave Brockington suspects “the current polling is overstating the estimate of the yes support.” Tomorrow he expects “at least a four point (i.e. 52% No, 48% Yes) victory for the unionists”:

We do have empirical evidence to make some reasoned, if imprecise, estimates regarding the don’t knows. As the ICM poll released yesterday still reports 14% Don’t Knows, this remains a significant chunk of the potential electorate. The literature on direct democracy, specifically referenda and initiatives in the United States (the literature about which I’m most familiar), suggests that in a yes / no dichotomous decision, the No option has some of the advantages of incumbency. I strongly suspect that of the DKs that do turn out to vote, they will break significantly to No. This makes sense. Given this is the most important and far reaching election in Scotland in a lifetime, if a voter has yet to make up their mind 48 to 96 hours before the election, the odds of them sticking with the safety of the status quo rather than the riskier unknown of independence is compelling.

But, if tweets are any indication of votes, Yes still has momentum. Mark Gilbert explains:

Karo Moilanen, a visiting academic at the university, has dissected more than 1 million tweets in the past month. The “yes” campaign has generated more than 782,000 missives, compared with 341,000 for those backing the “no” movement. Both camps saw a dive in activity yesterday, though those backing the Scottish nationalists were still twice as active as the unionists

Dan Hodges thinks the referendum has already exposed the fact that the union is essentially a mirage:

In Scotland we see that just under half the people are toying with turning their back on the United Kingdom for good, and the other half are demanding almost total autonomy as the price for remaining within it. In England there are growing calls for similar autonomy via an English parliament, regional parliaments or even individual city parliaments. In Wales support for independence is now nudging twenty per cent, and there are similar calls for the devolution of more powers and a reassessment of the funding settlement. In Northern Ireland people are currently refraining from murdering each other, which apparently represents a great success. If this is union, what exactly would fragmentation look like?

Jack Shenker frames the independence campaign as part of a tectonic shift in British politics:

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