A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

horne_savage.jpgThe Algerian War of Independence must surely be the most fascinating war that I knew nothing about. Certainly, I knew that Algeria used to be a part of France. I've read Albert Camus' The Plague and The Stranger, after all. But I had no idea that the separation of Algeria from France was so bloody, so destructive, and so riveting. Fortunately, this remarkable episode in history has been captured by one of our best historians, Alistair Horne.

Written in 1977, fifteen years after the end of the war, A Savage War of Peace tells the story of the birth of one nation, the near-collapse of another, and a combustible mix of colonialism, nationalism, Cold War politics and civil-military relations. Many of the characters are simply larger than life, from the Algerian guerrilla leaders to the French paratrooper colonels to France's own indispensable man: Charles de Gaulle. In the original preface to the book, Horne explained the importance of the conflict:

To Algeria it brought birth. But, during that war, more was involved than simply the issue of whether nine million Muslims should gain their independence or not. Not merely one but several "revolutions" were taking place on a variety of distinct levels; there was, inter alia, a profound social revolution going on within the framework of Algerian Muslim society; and, on the French side, "revolutions" first by the army and later by the OAS against the political authority of France. Finally, there was the tug-of-war for the soul of Algeria as fought externally on the rostrum of the United Nations and the platforms of the Third World, and in the councils of both Western and Eastern blocs.

One of the most surprising aspects of the war was how threatening it was to France itself. One might reasonably think that the greatest danger posed to a colonial power by a war of independence is the loss of the colony. But the Algerian war presented almost surreal potential for destruction to the mother country:

I also happened to be in France on two other occasions when events in Algeria threatened the very existence of the Republic--in May 1958 and again in April 1961, the latter the most dangerous of all when ancient Sherman tanks were rolled out on to the Concorde to guard against a possible airborne coup mounted from Algiers...The war in Algeria (which lasted nearly eight years--almost twice as long as the "Great War' of 1914-18) toppled six French prime ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

How could this be? The mighty nation of France, survivor of two world wars, laid low by a rebellion in North Africa? To gain some sense of how this came to pass, Horne takes us through a whirlwind tour of French Algeria, from the landing of an expeditionary force in 1830, to the 1848 French constitution which converted Algeria from colony to part of France proper, to the 1865 decree which guaranteed full nationality for European colonists (the so-called Pieds-Noirs), but made citizenship for Muslims based on the intolerable condition that they renounce the authority of their religious courts. The entire Algerian relationship was anomalous, even amongst French colonial possessions:

At the top, Algeria - since it had been annexed as an integral part of France - was governed through the French Ministry of the Interior. This was in sharp contrast to its closely related Maghreb neighbours, over whom France established only "protectorates" during the nineteenth century and which were consequently dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This policy made sense only insofar as Algeria was to be considered as much a part of France as Normandy or Provence, and it is worth comparing what relatively peaceful transitions both Morocco and Tunisia made from French colonies to independent nations. But how seriously could anyone take this idea, when 90% of the population were non-citizen Algerian Muslims? Quite a few people, as it turned out. The two communities, pied-noir and Muslim, tenuously co-existed, with the Europeans enjoying absurdly unfair privileges in governance and commerce. This system was clearly unfair, never more so than when Algerian Muslims who fought for France in World War II returned to their homeland to find they were still to be treated as second-class citizens:

[W]hen, early in 1943, a Muslim delegation approached the Free French leader, General Giraud, with a petition of reforms, they were headed off with "I don't care about reforms, I want soldiers first." And indeed, Algeria did provide France with soldiers - as in the First World War: magnificent Tirailleurs and Spahis, to whom General Juin was heavily indebted for his victorious progress through the grinding Italian campaign. These Algerian soldiers at the front were either largely unaware of, or had their backs turned upon, the turmoil brewing at home - until Sétif. But the camaraderie of the battle-front, their contact with the more privileged British and American troops, as well as the training they received, were things not to be lightly forgotten.

The 1945 Sétif_massacre, an account of which opens Horne's book, resulted in more than 6,000 Algerian deaths and marked the birth of the nationalist movements which would break into open rebellion in 1954. There was not one unified movement, and the story of the internal politics and violence within the revolutionary movement receives due attention throughout the book. Of particular note for comparison to other recent revolutionary movements was the tension between the FLN leaders in exile and those who were doing the actual fighting, the "exterior" and "interior":

In the first instance the row was over the continued failure of the external delegation to provide the arms demanded by the "interior". An angry exchange of correspondence in April 1956 culminated with this insulting ultimatum to Ben Bella: "If you cannot do anything for us outside, come back and die with us. Come and fight. Otherwise consider yourselves as traitors!"

An array of military and economic measures were deployed by the French in the early years of the war, alternately trying to use the carrot to ease Muslim complaints while deploying the stick to destroy or deter insurgent violence. The leaders of the FLN recognized the principle of guerrilla warfare that "a resort to blind terrorism provoke the forces of law and order into an equally blind repression, which in turn would lead to a backlash by the hitherto uncommitted, polarise the situation into two extreme camps and make impossible any dialogue of compromise by eradicating the "soft centre". The FLN took this step on the outskirts of the city of Philippeville, where the violence deployed was almost unspeakable:

It was not until two o'clock that a forest guard managed by a miracle to dodge ambushes and bring the news to Philippeville on foot; and still another hour and a half elapsed before a para detachment could reach the village. An appalling sight greeted them. In houses literally awash with blood, European mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies slashed open by bill-hooks. Children had suffered the same fate, and infants in arms had had their brains dashed out against the wall. Four families had been wiped down to the last member; only six who had barricaded themselves in a house in the centre of the village and had held out with sporting rifles and revolvers had escaped unscathed. Men returning from the mine had been ambushed in their cars and hacked to pieces. Altogether thirty-seven Europeans had died, including ten children under fifteen, and another thirteen had been left for dead.

This horrendous violence would recur again and again, driving both sides to unthinkable acts of brutality. The French military and police would stoop to the types of torture from which their society had so recently suffered under German occupation, and in the waning days of the war the pieds-noirs would form their own bands of vigilantes to rain terror upon Muslim civilians. All of which worked to the FLN's ends, to eliminate the so-called "Third Force," the interlocuteurs valables with which the French government would seek to compromise, rather than concede to the unbending demands for independence levied by the militants.

The situation was complicated immensely by the pied-noir problem. Not only could the French not simply abandon the million-plus citizens residing in Algeria, but those citizens had voting rights and thus representatives in the French government. And in the pathetically fragmented post-war Fourth Republic, the pied-noir caucus could swing a vote of confidence and bring down a government. This instability was intolerable to the military, which saw it is an impediment to victory, thus leading to the May 1958 in which the Algerian-based paratroopers effectively threatened to invade Paris and overthrow the government if Charles de Gaulle were not brought back to power:

On the morning of the 27th the crisis reached its peak. Parisians looked up nervously at every plane overhead; Simone de Beauvoir had Freudian nightmares about a python dropping on her form the sky; and in the Ministry of the Interior Jules Moch received an intelligence report that "Resurrection" was now scheduled to take place on the following night. He ordered his C.R.S. force to prepare to defend government buildings. Meanwhile, young para officers were arriving in the capital in civilian clothes, carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases. Among their targets was the kidnapping of Jules Moch himself, and with them - on his own mission - came Lagaillarde. Then, early in the afternoon, de Gaulle - apparently as a result of the mounting pressures upon him - issued a communique announcing that he had begun the "regular process" of forming a legitimate republican government, and condemning any threat to public order.

This would not be the last, nor the most dangerous of the attempted military coups. It was amazing to me to read how close the government of France, which today we celebrate as a stable member of the sisterhood of democracies, came so close on several occasions to being overthrown by its own military. But Horne, while not defending this treason, does attempt to provide some perspective:

To understand what to other Western minds may seem incomprehensible and shocking, the disaffection within the French army which was to culminate in full-scale revolt in less than eighteen months' time, one needs to consider the stresses imposed by French history beyond merely the unbroken chain of humiliation that stretched from 1940 up to the Algerian war. Since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the First Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis-Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh division within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due - a compound of experience shared by no other army in the world (outside, perhaps, Latin America).

Indeed, the only even remotely comparable analogy I could muster in modern American civil-military relations was the open disregard shown for President Truman by General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, resulting in MacArthur's prompt dismissal from command and (eventual) widespread consensus that the general had gone too far. As far as I can remember, there were no colonels in the airborne divisions plotting to jump into D.C. to force a regime change.

Ultimately, this was a war the French could probably never win. The era of colonialism was coming to an end, and whatever distinctions the French saw between Algeria and their other former colonies, the rest of the world was unsympathetic. The Algerian rebels played a stellar game of shuttle diplomacy, eventually getting support or at least neutrality out of the Americans, the Chinese, and the Soviets (no mean feat in the early 1960s!). They had the numbers, they had the willingness to resort to terrible acts of violence, and they were not playing for the short-term. The FLN knew that they could simply outlast the French, and in the end they were right.

Horne's book has gained a new following since the start of the Iraqi insurgency, coming back into print in 2006. The new cover advertises that it is "on the reading list of President Bush and the US military," and it was apparently recommended to the then-President by no less than Henry Kissinger (whose authorized biographer is, wait for it, Alistair Horne). Now certainly it is on the reading list of some in the US military, yours truly for starters, but I'm not entirely sure the book holds anything but bad news for America.

In the first place, I'm not entirely sure how apt the analogy is. Yes, the Algerian war for independence can be described as an insurgency. But this is a land that had been considered part of France proper, at least by the French, for well over a century. By the time of Algeria's independence in 1962, there were a million pieds-noirs, with full French citizenship and voting rights, born and raised in Algeria. Yet even overlooking the vast differences between the situations, what about the Algerian experience is instructive for America? The war took down the very structure of French government, inspired two military coup attempts, resulted in almost total political defeat for France (despite tremendous military success once the resources were finally committed), the mass migration of the pieds-noirs, the slaughter of France's erstwhile Algerian allies, and the eventual disintegration in Algerian civil society leading to a full-blown civil war beginning in 1991. Not a lot there to be happy about, though it does make for a great read.

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk

fisk_great.jpgAs tragically widespread as violence was in the 20th-century, surely no geographic region saw a greater share of warfare and dislocation than the Middle East. From the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, through the turmoil of the dying days of colonial occupation, to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflagration, the three Iraqi wars of the past three decades, and so on, not a year has gone by without some form of revolutionary, civil, or interstate armed conflict in the region. The very fact that I, an American soldier, am writing this book review from a U.S. military base in the country of Kuwait, is a further testament to the continuing volatility of the Birthplace of Three Religions.

No journalist, and probably no person of any occupation, has experienced more of these conflicts in the last thirty years than Robert Fisk. A Beirut-based British reporter employed by The Times as Middle East correspondent from 1976, in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days, and by The Independent since 1989, Fisk has covered nearly every episode of regional strife since the start of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2006, Fisk collects his three decades of reporting into an expansive thousand-page survey of modern conflicts in the Middle East, titled The Great War of Civilisation. Largely a narrative compilation of Fisk's years of reporting, the book also provides some historical background to each of the violent episodes he recounts, tying the chaos in the Middle East to the disastrous post-World War I peace settlement in Paris, which carved up the region into European colonial mandates and set the stage for a century of clashes:

My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he'd never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died thirteen years ago at the age of ninety-three, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicted a winged victory and on the observe side are engraved the words: "The Great War for Civilisation."

After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career--in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad--watching the people within those borders burn.

In his lengthy career in the Middle East, Fisk was on-hand for the aforementioned, long-running Lebanese Civil War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, the Algerian Civil War, the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent failed Shia uprising, the aftermath of 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these conflicts, and more, fill one or more chapters in The Great War of Civilisation. Early in the book, Fisk lays out his journalistic philosophy, which frankly it would be nice to see adopted by a few more of the obsequious hacks currently posing as reporters:

I suppose, in the end, we journalists try--or should try--to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: "We didn't know--no one told us." Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist on Ha'aretz newspaper whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters, discussed this with me more than two years ago. I was insisting that we had a vocation to write the first pages of history but she interrupted me. "No, Robert, you're wrong," she said. "Our job is to monitor the centres of power." And I think, in the end, that is the best definition of journalism I have heard: to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.

The beauty of Fisk's book rests in both the depth and breadth of his personal experience in that territory. Thus the chapters of this book offer a new perspective for most readers on two fronts: first, he goes places most reporters don't, and thus tells stories they can't tell. The easiest, and most famous, examples are his three interviews with Osama Bin Laden from 1993 to 1997. But the pages of The Great War of Civilisation also find him sneaking back into Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, confronting Boeing executives with the fragment of a Hellfire missile the Israelis shot into a Lebanese ambulance, and a particularly harrowing experience riding a Russian Army column making its way toward Jalalabad:

There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again--if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys--they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers.

I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not--as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars--"embedded." I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle--even though I never used it--would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it.

The second front on which Fisk offers most readers, at least most American readers, a different perspective is his critical take on Israel's behavior vis-a-vis Palestine and Lebanon. In Europe, there is tolerance for a broad diversity of public opinion on the Israel/Palestine situation. In the United States, not so much. It is getting better, but it is still difficult to express much public opposition to actions by the Israeli state without incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby. Whatever the right answer, if there is one, I think there is at least a need for a wider range of discussion on the topic than is currently prevalent in America's public dialogue about Israel. Though there are those out there who would tar Fisk as an anti-Semite because of his views, I think he fits solidly within the range of reasonable opinion. I do not agree with all of it, but that's not the point. He made me think hard about Israel and Palestine in a way that few authors have:

When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, America and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings, or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians--in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word--are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. Thus, over the years, a strange confusion has emerged in the Western response to Israeli misdeeds, a reaction that is ultimately as damaging to Israel as it is to the West itself. When Israeli soldiers or settlers murder Palestinians, they are semantically distanced from their country.

Fisk has been a popular target of conservative journalists and bloggers, particularly after his vocal opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even being the namesake of the dubious verb "fisking," or critiquing a written work one line at a time. If there is one substantive criticism I have of Fisk's book, it is the frequent negative references to the Bush administration and the Iraq War he sprinkles throughout the book. Though I certainly share much of his anger and frustration at the unnecessary bloodshed, some of the attacks seem gratuitously out of place with the surrounding narrative. That said, the book was probably mostly written in 2005, when the U.S. effort in Iraq was at its nadir, and Fisk does have exactly the pedigree to provide the sort of historical perspective that was so disastrously lacking in the White House and Pentagon under Bush and Rumsfeld:

Bush spoke of the tens of thousands of opponents of Saddam Hussein who had been arrested and imprisoned and summarily executed and tortured--"all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state--but there was no mention that these same beatings and burnings and electric shocks and mutilations and rapes were being readily perpetrated when America was on very good terms with Iraq before 1990, when the Pentagon was sending intelligence information to Saddam to help him kill more Iranians. Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of the Bush speech was that all the sins of which he specifically accused the Iraqis--a good many undoubtedly true--began in the crucial year of 1991. There was no reference to Saddam's flouting of UN resolutions when the Americans were helping him. There were a few reminders by Bush of the gas attacks against Iran--without mentioning that this very same Iran was no supposed to be part of the "axis of evil."

The only other aspect of the book that might frustrate those who read it with an open mind is that it feels, at times, episodic. In three consecutive chapters, Fisk moves from the Iran-Iraq War, to his father's participation in World War I, to the Armenian holocaust. There's a natural reason for this: Fisk is a journalist, and each chapter essentially covers the period of time in which Fisk was reporting from that country. And certainly by the end of the 1000+ pages of text, any reader will be tremendously better informed on the modern Middle East than before. But this tome is not intended to be a comprehensive contemporary history of the region, so there are a number of loose ends, which Fisk, probably called away to cover yet another outbreak of violence in the region, was unable to tie up. Nevertheless, an incredible book from a man who has put his body and soul into telling the stories of a land where the reign of violence and suffering has been undeterred by the tolling of a new century.

Khrushchev by William Taubman

taubman_khrushchev.jpgIt is often difficult for the successors of powerful leaders to escape the shadows of those they follow. In the American experience, think of John Adams, Andrew Johnson, or Harry Truman. Outside of America, look at John Major or Thabo Mbeki. There are any number of reasons for this: perhaps the predecessor was governing on the basis of a personal popularity unavailable to the next guy, or his power enabled him to ignore a pending crises that erupted after he left office, or perhaps he himself was the source of the trouble.

And of course the more powerful the leader, the more popular and dominant his reign, the greater the struggle for the next in line. It is hard to think of an example, in the 20th-century at least, of a man who had more governmental authority vested in his person and personality than Joseph Stalin. Of course not only did the Soviet Union not have a constitutional line of succession in place upon his unexpected death, Stalin had spent the past several decades periodically purging anyone who gained enough power to be viewed as an heir apparent. Thus the emergence of the man who eventually surfaced as Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was not grounded in precedent or consensus.

As historian William Taubman notes in the opening lines of his 2004 biography, Khrushchev, what "many Westerners, and not a few Russians" recall about the former Soviet leader is that he was a "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations." Those with a bit more memory of the Cold War might also remember that it was Khrushchev who went eyeball-to-eyeball with JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, as Dean Rusk put it, "the other guy blinked." Taubman argues that the truth about Stalin's successor was a bit more abstruse:

[T]he short, thick-set man with small, piercing eyes, protruding ears, and apparently unquenchable energy wasn't a Soviet joke even though he figures in so many of them. Rather, he was a complex man whose story combines triumph and tragedy for his country as well as himself.

Complicit in Stalinist crimes, Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union. His daring but bumbling attempt to reform communism began the long, erratic process of putting a human face (initially his own) on an inhumane system. Not only did he help prepare the way for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin a quarter of a century later, but Khrushchev's failure to set a stable and prosperous new course for his country anticipated the setbacks that would thwart their attempts at reform.

Born in a small Russian village in 1894, there was little about Khrushchev's youth to lead one to believe he would rise to rule one of the world's two superpowers:

Beginning at age six or seven, village boys fetched water and wood and tagged along with their fathers to work in fields. At eight or nine they tended cattle or sheep, and by thirteen they worked alongside their fathers from dawn to dusk... We have no photograph of Nikita as a boy, but it is not hard to imagine an energetic towhead, wearing only a long peasant shirt until age six or seven, then rough, crude trousers home-sewn out of flax or wool. He recalled going barefoot as a boy from spring until late fall.

Moved to the Ukraine during his childhood, Khrushchev became political during the Revolution, and he served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. He then began his march up the ranks of the Communist Party, serving as director of a mine he had previously worked at and then a series of progressively greater party positions. Khrushchev came under the tutelage of Lazar Kaganovich, then head of the party in Ukraine, further enhancing his rise. But it was to be in the 1930s that Khrushchev's career would take its greatest strides, a decade otherwise marked primarily by massive suffering amongst the Russian people and vicious party purges by Stalin:

Between 1939 and 1938 Khrushchev's career rocketed upward: May 1930, head of the Industrial Academy's party cell; January 1931, party boss of the Bauman District, in which the academy was located; followed six months later by the same job in Krasnopresnensky, the capital's largest and most important borough; January 1932, number two man in the Moscow party organization itself; January 1934, Moscow city party boss and member of the party Central Committee; early 1935, party chief of Moscow province too, a region about the size of England and Wales with a population of eleven million people. Even in an era of extraordinary upward mobility, Khrushchev's was stunning. Yet during the same decade in which he reached the heights, his country experienced nothing short of a holocaust.

The details of Stalin's purges, and the disastrous consequences of his policies for the rural masses, are well-covered by Taubman, largely tracking the story of paranoiac bloodletting described in Simon Sebag Montefiore's recent biography of the dictator, Stalin (reviewed here). Khrushchev was able to ride out some of the bloodiest episodes from his safe perch in Ukraine, where he was made party head in early 1938. He was to stay in the West into World War II, accompanying the invasion forces into Poland in 1939 and was later present in Stalingrad during the infamous siege:

Khrushchev served as chief political commissar (although that term itself was no longer used after 1941) on a series of crucial fronts. Military councils of which he was a member consisted of the front commander, the chief of staff for the area, and the top political officer. The latter's responsibility was equal to the commander's; no order could be issued without his signature. Actually, many commanders wanted only formal equality, preferring that their commissars concentrate on keeping up morale and lobbying with the Kremlin for supplies and reinforcements. However, Khrushchev wanted a voice in operational matters, and as a member of the ruling Politburo he got it.

Khrushchev emerged from the war as a member of the Soviet elite, but was still not viewed as a likely successor to the top spot. And in fact, after Stalin's sudden death in 1953 power was quickly seized by the butcher Beria, whose sadistic reign as security chief had involved numerous personal acts of rape, torture, and murder. Whether out of personal ambition or self-preservation, the other aspirants to the throne briefly united to oust Beria, at which point Malenkov was seen as the leading figure, only to be outmaneuvered by Khrushchev in late 1953 and early 1954. Khrushchev solidified his power over the next several years, culminating in his decision to make the famous "Secret Speech" in which he sought to justify his rise and his proposals by denouncing Stalin's cult of personality and those who had enabled it (naturally ignoring or minimizing his own part):

Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin was the bravest and most reckless thing he ever did. The Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he. Before he spoke, Malenkov and Molotov seemed defeated politically. Just to make sure, he had stacked the congress with his supporters and strengthened his position in the Central Committee. He was now first among supposed equals, perfectly positioned eventually to expel his rivals from the party.

The remainder of Khrushchev's decade or so of power is punctuated by a series of high-risk, high-reward endeavors. His triumphs included the success of the Soviet space program, the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, and his visit to the United States. Notably less triumphant were the violent crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the disintegration of relations between the Soviet Union and China, the support for building the Berlin Wall, the repeated failure to meet his lofty economic goals, and the near-catastrophic decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba:

Khrushchev had not thought things through or prepared backup plans for various contingencies. He badly misjudged the American response, improvised madly when he was found out, and was fortunate the crisis ended as safely as it did... [These actions] reflect Khrushchev's domestic and personal position in 1962: besieged by troubles; increasingly irritated as setbacks mounted; determined to prove himself (to himself as well as to his colleagues); ready to lash out and take risks to regain the initiative. In that sense the Cuban missiles were a cure-all, a cure-all that cured nothing.

In many ways, Khrushchev was doomed from the start. It would have taken the most extraordinary of leaders to follow in the footsteps of a personality like Stalin and achieve success without doubling-down on the repression of the past. Khrushchev largely managed to avoid the worst excesses of the Stalinist instinct, but this left him with one less tool to suppress the various forces unleashed by the dictator's demise. He seemed to have a greater personal tendency toward freedom than Stalin (he could hardly have less, I suppose), but with a faltering economy beneath him and potential rivals surrounding him, he was in a rather difficult situation.

Fundamentally, Khrushchev did not have what it takes to be that extraordinary leader. In some ways what made him so interesting was simply how unexpected his success was, and the tumultuous nature of the times in which he presided on the world stage. But the aspects of his personality that made his rivals constantly underestimate him, particularly his lack of education and his crudity, were in the end true obstacles to his success. He did not have a strategic perspective, or a methodical mind. He often reacted impulsively, and he valued bombastic rhetoric over pragmatic planning. His development as a leader was also limited not just by his personal characteristics, but the nature of the system in which he rose. And that was a reality that would hamper the parade of successors whose tenures would be even more ignominious than the "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations."

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence

spence_search.jpgFor the entire lifetime of my generation and the one before, China has appeared to outsiders to have been a relatively stable political entity, run by a communist regime in Beijing with a massive army, enormous homogeneous population, and great hostility toward the West. Certainly there has been internal turmoil from time to time, but nothing that would seem to betray that this is a country that for most of its history has been torn asunder by civil war or blanketed by foreign conquest, with constantly shifting borders, devastating natural disasters, and weak central governance.

The complexity of China's history, as well as its expanse, prove formidable to anyone seeking even a basic comprehension. I had to listen twice to the entire 18-hour Teaching Company lecture series on Chinese history, titled "From Yao to Mao," before I even felt like I understood the rudiments.

The last dynasty to rule China, termed the Qing Dynasty, was actually led by the Manchu people, who invaded and conquered the preceding Ming Dynasty in 1644. Like India, China spent much of its recent history under foreign rule. The Qing, which would last until overthrown by the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, oversaw a tumultuous period in Chinese history as the Manchu consolidated power, fought off the remnants of Ming loyalists, and in the 19th-century, tried to cope with with the pressures of foreign interests. The forces which led to the collapse of the dynasty ensured several decades of chaos in the aftermath, until the Communists, in the wake of Japan's defeat in World War II, were able to drive the Nationalist forces out to Taiwan in 1949 and establish the People's Republic of China which is with us to this day. In The Search for Modern China, Yale professor Jonathan Spence covers this entire period from the late Ming until the book's publication in 1990, engaging in "an ongoing search" for a China that he does not think yet exists:

I understand a "modern" nation to be one that is both integrated and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas. If it is used in this poen sense, we should have no difficulty in seeing "modern" as a concept that shifts with the times as human life unfolds, instead of simply relegating the sense of "modern" to our own contemporary world while consigning the past to the "traditional" and the future to the "postmodern." I like to think that there were modern countries--in the above sense--in A.D. 1600 or earlier, as at any moment in the centuries thereafter. Yet at no time in that span, nor at the end of the twentieth century, has China been convincingly one of them.

Spence takes a straight chronological approach to the narrative, providing a thorough look at the political and economic life of the last four hundred years of Chinese history, with occasional asides devoted to religious or cultural issues. Spence moves relatively briskly through the 17th and 18th centuries, as the Qing take power and then consolidate their gains. The pace slows as external forces introduce new pressures to the country, with ramifications that echo into contemporary times:

China's Confucian-trained scholars were aware of the moral and economic pressures on their society in the early nineteenth century. Drawing on the intellectual tradition in which they had been raised, they proposed administrative and educational reforms, warned about the rapidly rising population, and urged greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. Some also pointed to the social inequities separating men and women, and pleaded for greater sensitivity toward the status of women in daily life.

The spread of opium addiction posed a particularly complex social dilemma. Scholars, officials, and the emperor himself were torn over whether to legalize the drug or ban it absolutely. At the same time, massive British investments in the drug's manufacture and distribution, and the critical part that opium revenues played in Britain's international balance-of-payments strategy, made the opium trade a central facet of that nation's foreign policy. The Qing, believing the problem to be a domestic one, decided to ban the drug. The British responded with force of arms. Defeating the Qing, they imposed a treaty in 1842 that fundamentally altered the structure of Qing relations with foreign powers, and ended the long cycle of history in which China's rulers had imposed effective controls over all foreigners resident on their soil.

Indeed, the relationship between China and the Western powers took on a very unique shape. It was not carved up or colonized like Africa, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. And yet its sovereignty was utterly ignored in the treaties and treatment that followed the Opium Wars. The consequences for the Qing government were catastrophic, and indeed it is some wonder that the dynasty held on as long as it did. Not only did the foreign intervention cast doubt on the strength and solidity of the ruling dynasty, it raised questions about the direction of Chinese society and its ability to keep up with the social and technological advances of the outside world:

This new foreign presence in China coincided with--and doubtless contributed to--new waves of domestic turbulence. Uprisings against the Qing had been growing in frequency during the later eighteenth century. The widening social dislocations of the nineteenth century brought even greater unrest, until in mid-century four major rebellions erupted, at least two of which--the Taiping and Nian--had the potential to overthrow the dynasty... Only an extraordinary series of military campaigns led by Confucian-trained scholars who put their loyalty to traditional Chinese values above all else, and were determined to perpetuate the prevailing social, educational, and family systems, enabled the Qing dynasty to survive.

And survive it did, at least through the first decade of the 20th-century, which still only takes us a third of the way through Spence's book. Almost five hundred pages are devoted to the period between 1911 and 1990, and it is remarkable the political transformations China experienced in that time frame. The aftermath of the Qing's fall is sometimes depicted as the rise of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-Sen, but it would be more apt to describe the first decade as a chaotic reversion to warlord rule:

The national finances were in disarray, with a depleted treasury in Peking and little money coming in from the provinces. Groups of scholars and bureaucrats had expressed a wide range of dissatisfactions with the defunct regime, and this discontent now had to be addressed. The army troops occupying Peking were numerous but hard to control, of doubtful loyalty, and liable to mutiny or desertion if their pay fell too long in arrears. Natural disasters had devastated the countryside, causing ruined harvests and starvation, and creating masses of refugees just when financial shortages made it difficult for local governments to offer famine relief. Many supporters of the defeated ruling house remained loyal and could be the focus for future trouble. Foreign pressure was intense, the possibility of invasion imminent. In the macroregions of central, western, and southern China, there was a strong chance that independent separatist regimes would emerge, further weakening central authority.

What follows from there is relatively familiar to students of history. Though ostensibly an Allied Power during World War I, the Chinese were ignored and mistreated by the Big Four at Versailles, watching formerly-German holdings handed over to the Japanese rather than back to the Chinese themselves. Over the next several decades the nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists violently compete for power, sometimes uniting in opposition to foreign aggressors (mainly Japan), but largely at each other's throats until the Communists win out in 1949, driving Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers to the island of Taiwan. The subsequent decades of Communist rule demonstrated that many of the problems besetting the Qing dynasty and its predecessors were not to go away quickly, and China's relations with the world remained extraordinarily complicated in the Cold War era.

Spence keeps a critical eye on the regime, highlighting the extremes of suffering that some of Mao's ideas produced and tracking the rise and fall (and sometimes resurrection) of Mao's colleagues and proteges. His narrative never gets stuck in muddy details, yet nor does it shy away from relying on charts and statistics when needed. He also ably roots the events of the last 50 years in the preceding centuries, lending a much-needed coherence to Chinese history that shorter, narrower works cannot provide.

The Search for Modern China ends with the notorious crackdown on the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, an event that embodied all the ambiguities of China's pseudo-embrace of modernity. Amidst a wave of economic reforms pushed by Deng Xiaoping came a desire for similar progress on the political and cultural fronts. Like so many times before, the Chinese leadership first showed encouragement or at least ambivalence, only to respond with crushing force once they came to fear the direction the blossoming movement was taking. Unlike the Soviet leadership, which (eventually) accepted its own demise rather than send troops against its own people, China has shown no such hesitation. And in the two decades since the crackdown, the disparities between economic freedom and political and cultural oppression have continued apace, despite lingering hopes in the West that economic exchange will force open the doors to liberal democracy. As defined by Spence in his opening pages, the search for "modern China" continues.

Sandals Royal Bahamian

Beach vacations were never my thing, but sometimes you just have to make sacrifices for the ones you love, and if that means spending a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas, so be it.

The weather is good, the water is clear, the people are friendly, the food is bountiful, the drinks just keep coming, and the Blackberry stays stateside. Not a bad way to relax for a couple of young lawyers. We'll do Europe next year.

More on Africa

It looks like I'm not the only one with Africa on his mind. Over at Begging the Question, Fitz-Hume has posted about various ways in which Africa keeps coming to his attention, including a review of Lord of War, a film that is getting good audience reviews but has gone largely under the radar due to lukewarm critics and, I suspect, a growing suspicion of all things related to Nicolas Cage. Anyhow, Fitz-Hume also had this to say:

But as fascinating as Africa is, the whole continent is so troubled that I get depressed just thinking about it. AIDS, genocide and ethnic violence, manmade famine, perpetual poverty, magnificently corrupt rulers who revel in the suffering to which they subject their people, violent religious extremism, the destruction of habitat, when I take a close look at Africa it's makes me begin to question the humanity of man.

There is a lot of truth in that. I have tried to take a step back and decide whether Africa is so much worse than other parts of the world in terms of its tragedy, its violence and the like. And I think in the end, it is worse. But not because of anything inherently wrong with the people there. I think the combination of geographical and historical forces can teach us a lot about why Africa is the way it is, and what can be done.

That's one of the reasons reading Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun has been so valuable. He has a way of bringing together the political, the sociological, the geographical, and the historical fabrics into a well-woven tale that does not explain all, nor attempt to, but does educate. Here's a good example, in which he discusses the lingering effects of the colonial system after African independence in the 1960s:

London and Paris, in order to induce their civil servants to go work in the colonies, created for those amenable to the idea a grand quality of life. A minor clerk from the post office in Manchester received upon arrival in Tanganyika a villa with a garden and swimming pool, cars, servants, holidays in Europe, etc. Members of the colonial bureaucracy lived truly magnificently. And now, between one day and the next, the inhabitants of the colony receive their independence. They take over the colonial state in an unaltered form. They even take great care not to alter anything, because such a state offers fantastic privileges, which its new administrators naturally do not wish to renounce. The colonial origins of the African state--a state wherein the civil servant received renumeration beyond all measure and reason--ensured that in independent Africa, the struggle for pwoer instantly assumed an extremely fierce and ruthless character. All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises--a bureaucratic bourgeouisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs the society and reaps the benefit.

I don't think all of the corruption seen in many African governments can be blamed on this colonial heritage, and I don't think Kapuscinski is making such a claim. But how else could the newly independent countries have been expected to respond? The colonial governments were the only model they had for how to govern these larges "nations" that had little or no connection to the tribal or clan affiliations by which most Africans had identified themselves for hundreds or thousands of years. Can they be blamed for not recognizing that the European colonial governments were awful and corrupt in their very design, and not merely in their application? This does not excuse the horrendous behavior of many individuals in their offices, nor the failure to effect meaningful reform in many countries in the decades since independence. It does however, give an insight to understanding the root of the modern problem, and makes clear that it can not all be blamed on "Africa."

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

See if you can spot the preposterously trivial and atonal sentence in this update on the missing person search in Aruba:

A team of Texas search specialists will begin hunting for Alabama teen Natalee Holloway in earnest Saturday, the same day the five suspects in the Aruba case are to appear before a judge.

Tim Miller, director and founder of Texas Equusearch, said most of the 24-member search team, including eight divers and one dog, had arrived by Friday night. Three more dogs and their handlers were to arrive Saturday.

The dogs, considered highly trained, will wear booties to protect their paws from cacti needles. At least $25,000 has been contributed for the search so far through the nonprofit group's Web site, Miller said.

Meanwhile, an Aruban judge in police custody in connection with the 18-year-old's disappearance faced more questioning Friday. Paul Van Der Sloot, 53, and four other suspects, including Van Der Sloot's 17-year-old son, are to face a judge who will decide whether they are to remain in custody.

Did you catch it? Let me try one more time:

The dogs, considered highly trained, will wear booties to protect their paws from cacti needles.

Yep, that's the one.

Economic Impact of China-Japan Rift

Tokyo is warning China about the economic consequences of the growing rift between the two countries:

China is Japan's biggest trading partner, but Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura has warned that bilateral ties, "including on the economic front, could decline to a serious state."

The diplomatic row could threaten to derail trade between China and Japan that last year was worth about $167 billion. According to Chinese government statistics, Japan has invested in more than 20,000 projects in China with total actual investment of more than $32 billion

The tension between the two Asian giants is being reflected on stock markets on Monday, with Japan's Nikkei 225 average down more than 3 percent in the morning session.

Taiwan -- for 50 years a Japanese colony and one of several bones of contention between Beijing and Tokyo -- is down 2 percent.

I still can't tell if there is something serious behind all of this, or whether this is a game of bluffmanship that is being taken too far.

The article also does not mention the potential economic impact this could have on the United States. My most simplistic thought is that to the extent both countries have to look for alternatives for trade and investment, the United States could benefit.

But I think that ignores the complexity of the global market, and fails to capture the negative cascading effects of a serious disruption in the Japanese-Chinese economic relationship. At least in the short-term, I think it would probably be a very bad thing all around.

UPDATE: At least I'm not the only one who doesn't know what's going to happen. NBC's three page analysis of the situation ends with this gem:

How America�s interest might be affected by the struggle for supremacy in Asia still remains to be seen.

So it seems.

Vexillology

I have recently begun spending inordinate amounts of time clicking through the Wikipedia for any random bit of information that strikes my fancy. Just now, a search on Gustav Mahler (who converted from Judaism to Catholicism to become artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera) led me to Sir Simon Rattle (a leading Mahler interpreter and the controversial successor to Claudio Abbado as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic) which led me to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (it rose to prominence with Rattle as conductor from 1980-1998) which led me to Birmingham (unbeknownst to me, the United Kingdom's second largest city) which led me to England (the only part of the United Kingdom without a devolved assembly) which led me to the St. George's Cross (a symbol on the flags of both England and the Republic of Georgia) which led me to the Union Flag (it is actually not symmetrical) which led me to the Union Jack (only the proper name for the Union Flag when flown from a ship's jack mast) which led me, most amazingly, to Vexillology:

Vexillology is the study of flags. A person who studies flags is called a vexillologist. The term was coined around 1960 by Dr. Whitney Smith of the United States, currently the foremost vexillologist in the world and author of many books and articles on this subject.

The word vexillology is a synthesis of the Latin word "vexillum" and the suffix "-logy" meaning study of (see List of ologies). The vexillum was a particular type of flag used by Roman legions during the classical era. Unlike most modern flags which are suspended from a pole or mast along their left side, the square vexillum was suspended from a crossbar along its top side, which crossbar was attached to a spear.

Vexillologists are active in several national associations under the umbrella of FIAV (F�d�ration Internationale des Associations Vexillologiques). Every second year, FIAV organizes an international congress of vexillology (ICV 2005 will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina). Internet activity of vexillologists centers around the Flags of the World (FOTW) Website and mailing list.

Who knew?

Disturbing Protests in China

china_protestsI do not know what to make of the recent spate of anti-Japanese protests in China, but it seems there must be more to them than meets the eye:

About 20,000 anti-Japanese protesters rampaged in Shanghai on Saturday, stoning Japan's consulate and smashing cars and shops in a protest over Tokyo's wartime history and its bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. Thousands of police watched but did little to restrain the crowd.

Japan filed an official protest, complaining that Chinese authorities failed to stop the violence.

The Shanghai government, however, blamed Japan for the protest, saying it was sparked by "Japan's wrong attitudes and actions on a series of issues such as its history of aggression," the official Xinhua news agency quoted government spokeswoman Jiao Yang as saying late Saturday.

It seems unlikely that such protests could occur without the acquiescence, if not the encouragement or initiation of the government. And why now? Who has been organizing them? When did the planning start? That said, I have heard an interesting analysis that says the Chinese government is fearful of interfering because any injuries to protesters might raise reminders of Tiananmen Square.

And though eyebrows certainly rise at the idea of China confronting any other government about a failure to confront fully historical atrocities (the Great Leap Forward, anyone?), this is not the first I've heard of Japanese schoolbooks white-washing their wartime aggression. This has been a major issue in Japanese-Korean relations as well.

This is troubling stuff. It will be interesting to see what comes of it and what role (if any) the United States plays in mediating relations between these neighboring Asian giants.

Sending Help to Sudan

Having just finished Samantha Power's stellar A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, it is gratifying to see that we may not be completely unable to do better:

After weeks of negotiations, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted Thursday to send 10,700 peacekeepers to Sudan to monitor an accord ending a 21-year civil war between the government and southern rebels.

The Security Council hopes the move will not only create lasting peace in southern Sudan after the civil war but help end current violence in the country's western Darfur region, where the number of dead from a conflict between government-backed militias and rebels is now estimated at 180,000.

This is still long overdue, but compared to our reaction to Rwanda (where we actually pushed the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping contingent), this is a vast improvement. I highly recommend that anyone troubled by the litany of genocides in the last century (and the American lack of response) should read Power's Pulitzer-prize winning book, and begin educating yourself about the situation in Darfur.

Laughing at UNICEF

I'm ashamed, I really am. For the second time in two days, I heard a UNICEF ad on the radio. It starts out detailing the destructive results of the recent tsunami, and the effect on children. And then it suggests, no kidding, that we "create a tsunami of our own. A tsunami of compassion." And that made me laugh. Both times. Congratulations to that ad's creator; you made me laugh at tsunami victims.

Atlantis Has Been Found... Sorta

And you can still visit:

Atlantis, the legendary island-nation whose existence has been debated for thousands of years, was actually Ireland, according to a new theory by a Swedish scientist.

Atlantis, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote in 360 B.C., was an island in the Atlantic Ocean where an advanced civilization developed some 11,500 years ago until it was hit by a cataclysmic natural disaster and sank beneath the waves.

Geographer Ulf Erlingsson, whose book explaining his theory will be published next month, says the measurements, geography, and landscape of Atlantis as described by Plato match Ireland almost exactly.

Some are more skeptical:

Others locate it solely in the long-decayed brain of Plato.

Harsh, man. Though I'm not sure which is a less romantic conclusion: that Atlantis was a figment of the imagination of history's greatest philosopher, or... well... Ireland.

Saudi Spousal Abuse

It ought to go without saying that spousal abuse is a horrible relic of an age when women were mistakenly subordinated to the absolute authority of their fathers and husbands. And at least in America, it is an issue that can now be publicly discussed, that generates political and social debate, with increased public and private efforts to end this abhorrent crime.

In Saudi Arabia, the issue is still kept behind closed curtains, and that makes this woman's courage all the more remarkable:

A popular Saudi television host publicly showed her bruised and bloodied face and has shocked her compatriots into openly talking about one of the kingdom's long-hidden problems: violence against women.

Rania al-Baz has been hailed as a hero for letting newspaper photographers snap pictures of her face and for frankly discussing her case after she said a beating by her husband earlier this month left her unconscious.

Al-Baz's television persona -- warm smile wrapped in a stylish headscarf -- made the photographs of her wrecked face after the April 10 beating all the more startling. Al-Baz suffered 13 facial fractures required 12 operations.

It may take this sort of blunt shock to the societal consciousness to get the issue out in the open. Let's hope her courage is not in vain and the issue gains traction.

The Socialist Victory in Spain

It is hard to know what to make of the Socialist victory in Spain, and I think this is true for a few reasons. For one, it is virtually impossible to disaggregate the various causes for this electoral outcome. In particular, we cannot assess how much of a effect the recent bombing had. Nor is it clear what effect that would be. Polling before the bombing suggested Aznar's Populist Party would win re-election, but they did not. As Kevin Drum has pointed out, there seem three broad possibilities to explain this: 1) the Socialists would have won without the bombing. This still leaves many questions unanswered, not least whether the ruling party's support for the Iraq war was a primary cause of opposition. 2) The bombing itself caused a shift in support, largely because the electorate blamed the Populists for angering al-Qaeda by supporting the Iraq War. 3) The bombing itself did not shift support, but the Populist Party's seemingly opportunistic handling of the investigation (trying to pin the blame on ETA) angered a grieving nation.

I should think that the third explanation raises few interesting questions. It seems pretty straightforward that misuse of national tragedies for blatant political purposes is not a smart strategy in the days before of an election. All President Bush has to do is include video from 9/11 in his campaign ads and he gets a firestorm of criticism.

The second explanation just does not seem highly plausible to me. I don't see a larger number of Spaniards saying "they blew up a lot of people, let's stop fighting against them" than saying "now that they are coming after us, we really need the Populists in power." I'm sure there are some people who said both. But would there really be so many more of the former than the latter that it would change the election's outcome? Now I have to concede that Spanish popular opposition to the war was always extremely high, so perhaps I am underestimating how betrayed they felt by the present government. But if that were true, than I'm skeptical that the Populists would have won anyhow. That level of opposition to the Iraqi war, and blame on the Populists, would seem to me to suggest that the first explanation was just as likely as the second. What may have changed, however, is not individual voter's views. What may have changed, and what I consider the strongest support for the second explanation, is that voter turnout changed. Perhaps those who opposed the war and opposed the Populist Party felt like they had that much more reason to go the polls, now that al-Qaeda had struck home.

Let us say though, for argument's sake, that there are Spaniards who did follow the logic of "al-Qaeda attacked us because of the Populist Party's support for the war in Iraq, and thus I am going to vote for the Socialists." There were surely some such people, though it is impossible to know whether there were enough to have changed the results. Here the second major difficulty is presented. How do we interpret this position? Do we read it as cowardice, that they are simply afraid of terrorist attacks and will do anything to avoid them? That they are caving in to terrorists? That this is a victory for al-Qaeda?

I don't buy that. Opposition to the war was so strong, that surely these people are not saying "I supported the war and I supported the Populist Party before, but because of the bombing I do not." Instead, it seems more likely that their position was something like this: "I have always opposed our involvement in Iraq, but until now the costs have been sufficiently low that it was not a deciding factor in my voting preferences; that is no longer true, and I'm no longer willing to overlook a misguided policy now that it has cost so many lives."

This latter position seems pretty defensible to me. Terrorist attacks are a cost to be taken into account, just like the effect on domestic crime rates is taken into account when debating crime legislation. If the costs of the policy outweigh the benefits, it is easily opposed. For those Spaniards who never saw much benefit to the war in Iraq, it is pretty obvious that any large-scale terrorist attacks are too costly.

Just because some in America would weigh the costs and benefits differently does not mean that Spanish voters have done anything cowardly or irrational.

Of course, this is all speculation hampered by a very limited understanding of Spanish politics. Unfortunately, that is true of much of the blogosphere's commentary on this incident. I have no comprehension of the domestic political differences between the parties, nor their general foreign policy approaches. Thus trying to understand the Spanish electorate is highly speculative for me.

What I think I can do is try to identify with the Spanish voter on a more general, abstract level. How would such an attack effect my voting preferences? If I already felt that my country's policies were misguided, the fact that terrorists also thought my country's policies were misguided is not much of a reason to change my vote. However, if my pre-attack policy preferences were at least somewhat based on a view of terrorism that was altered by the attack, then perhaps those preferences should change as well. I think this is a key area where American and Europeans part ways. For us, 9/11 was a watershed moment, the first truly successful, devastating foreign terrorist attack on our soil. We see the "war on terrorism" as starting on that date, and most of us had little or no opinions on terrorism in our general foreign policy preferences. Thus, for many Americans "9/11 changed everything."

We take that attitude, and we project it onto Spaniards. We expect that they should have the same reaction to this bombing as we had to ours. Or at least some similarly visceral, world-view altering reaction. And yet Europe has had a much different experience with terrorism than has America. We did not experience the IRA, the Red Brigades, ETA, etc. We had Patty Hearst. So even here, on this abstract level, I think it difficult as a young American to understand how this bombing appears to the average Spaniard.

Haiti and High School English

Kevin Drum has essentially my view of the situation in Haiti:

Aristide is no poster boy for human rights, but he was elected fair and (mostly) square. The rebels, by unanimous consent, really are just a gang of thugs, but it's possible they're better than Aristide. Or maybe not. What's more, the United States might have been backing them with arms and support. Or maybe not.

Whose fault was the breakdown in Haiti? Was Aristide just reaping what he sowed? Maybe. And did Aristide leave of his own (sort of) free will, or was he forced at gunpoint by U.S. troops. Who knows?

As a matter of policy, should the United States always back democratically elected leaders? Or is it OK to sometimes back the opposition, even armed opposition, if the elected leaders have clearly failed?

Yeah, it's a mess. And for those who claim to know what the right answer is? I'd say Vaclav Havel's wisdom seems particularly apt:

Keep the company of those who seek the truth, and run from those who have found it.

In fact, and I know this is quite a tangent, the only thing I gathered from the whole situation is that I should read Conrad's Heart of Darkness again. It's been sitting on my shelf, and what with our nation-building in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Haiti (again), I thought it was about time. The book is apparently (and unfortunately) destined to be perpetually timely.

It's been about 8 years since I was tortured with that novel in high school, and I have been wanting to rehabilitate Conrad for some time. There are a number of authors who are ruined forever for most high school graduates because of the way they are taught in the classroom. Off the top of my head: Conrad, Dickens, Shakespeare. In other words, the greatest writers in the English language.

If it happened to me, if I learned to dislike these authors because I was forced to read A Christmas Carol and Heart of Darkness while keeping a "diary" of important quotes and being inculcated with the teacher's interpretation of the text, then I'm sure it happened to millions of other young Americans. I've had the good fortune to be motivated enough to reclaim these authors. It started last year with Dickens' Great Expectations, which I loved, and continues now with Heart of Darkness and David Copperfield.

China and Human Rights

I have a longheld admiration for the propaganda talents of the Chinese government. I'm not an apologist for their horrific human rights record, and took several classes in college trying to figure out a sensible way of dealing with them back when they were the "next big threat" (this was in the couple years before 9/11, when all the Harvard international relations people had shifted from Cold War studies to Sino studies). But in the same way that one can be in awe of a truly talented compulsive liar, I am often delighted at China's anti-American propaganda. One of their favored tactics is to criticize our internal problems as human rights violations, suggesting we have no right to challenge them.

It is hard to take such criticisms seriously, considering the source. But it does provide an opportunity for some self-reflection, since even the slurs of a repressive regime might bear kernels of truth. And they've just released their fifth annual report on the state of America:

The 22-page appraisal, based on articles in U.S. newspapers and U.S. government statistics, reeled off snapshots of America�s social ills, from murder, rape and homelessness to the journalistic scandal over fabricated stories that befell The New York Times.

It seized on nationally publicized incidents like the fatal clash last November between Cincinnati police and a 41-year-old black man, the latest incident of racial tension in the Midwestern city which was hit by race riots in 2001.

I'm sure someone must have noted the irony of being able to ascertain the problems facing America from American newspapers. You know, that free press thing. And the Jayson Blair scandal! Shocking, shocking. Capitalist pigs.

On the other hand, on its face I largely (thought not fully) subscribe to this statement:

�Forty years after Martin Luther King�s �I Have a Dream� speech, the equal rights pursued by America�s blacks and other minorities remains a dream that can be aspired to, but not attained,� the report said.

That's a mostly apt criticism, and something I take very seriously. But again, consider the source. I'd be curious to see how many minorities in this country would trade their position for that of the average Chinese citizen.

And it turns out we don't have entirely democratic elections:

China also tried to expose the weight big business exerts on the American electoral process, quoting Britain�s Independent newspaper as saying President George W. Bush�s had amassed $200 million for the 2004 campaign.

�The presidential election, viewed as a symbol of American democracy, in reality is a money game played by the rich.�

Fair enough, that's another criticism which carries some weight. But at least we're talking about elections. Real elections. Where the people vote. You remember them, right? The people? How many votes did Jiang Zemin need to take power? How many members of the Chinese Politburo are there?

Anyhow, I thought it was worth a few laughs and a little bit of self-reflection.

Nader in Iran?

nader.gifDemocrats across America are up in arms at Ralph Nader's announcement that he's going to mount another unsuccessful run for the White House. Foreign policy analysts and Middle East reformers are up in arms over the results of Iran's parliamentary elections.

I have a solution to both problems: Nader should run for the office of President of Iran.

iran_elections.gifAfter all, the people there, like Nader, appear to have some pretty strange ways of telling reformers that they haven't gone far enough: they elect hardliners. Check out this explanation of the hardliner's massive victory:

They lost a good deal of credibility with the Iranian public because they failed to initiate many of the reforms they had promised. One could argue that in parliament their efforts to legislate reformist bills were blocked at every turn by the hardline Guardian Council. And there is plenty of evidence to back that argument.

But at the end of the day, they failed to deliver on important issues. And in some cases when many people expected them to stand up to the hardliners' excesses outside parliament, they proved feeble. I met a lot of people in the past few days who said to me that even if thousands of reformists had not been barred from standing in the elections, they still would not have voted for them.

So the hardliners prevented true reform, and the reformers failed to really stand up to them. What does the public do? Blames the reformers and gives a massive victory to the hardliners. After all, there's no real differences between them, right? Make perfect sense, in Naderland.

Israel's Wall

israel_wall.gifJust yesterday I was discussing with a friend how amazing it is that so little coverage has been given to the new wall Israel is building to shield itself from Palestinian terrorists. This is one of the biggest developments in that region in many years, and it's being overshadowed by Democratic primaries and our engagement in Iraq.

The fact that the administration has not taken an active public role has also kept the spotlight elsewhere. It goes to show just how much control the administration can wield over the news cycle by focusing its own attention on particular issues. Now the "wall question" is receiving some coverage because the International Court of Justice is going to hear the case:

The hearings begin on Monday and militant Palestinian groups have reportedly been warned by the Palestinian Authority to lay off the bombs, not to give any opportunity for Israel to say "We told you so -- we need the fence to stop the bombs."

The U.N. General Assembly decided in December to ask the court for an advisory opinion after Israel ignored a resolution demanding the barrier be taken down.

Israel has challenged the judges� authority in the case, saying it is a political matter, and will not attend the hearings.

The U.S. has officially supported Israel's position on the inappropriateness of an ICJ hearing, but has not taken a position publicly on the wall itself. The Red Cross has condemned the barrier. The Palestinian Prime Minister may be under investigation by his own Parliament on charges the family cement firm has provided building materials for the barrier (it appears certain that at least some Palestinian companies have done so). It's a whole little news world of it's own, and I've heard and seen little original reporting about it from the major American news sources (or blogs for that matter).

It's a momentous event, and yet we all remain in quiet ignorance. I have not been able to form a coherent position on the issue, so it is not that I'm urging advocacy for either side. I'd just like to see greater discussion of it.

Democrats, Foreign Policy, and Unilateralism

Armed Liberal has a thorough discussion of James Traub's article in today's New York Times Magazine. The topic: Democrats and foreign policy.

It's a long read, and Armed Liberal has done an excellent job discussing Traub's historical survey and its application to Dean and Clark. I'd like to point out a couple other passages of particular interest to the less political criticisms of the current administration:

To Brzezinski, the Bush administration's unilateralism, and its militarism, constituted a radical break with a consensus that stretched across several generations and presumably included not only cold warriors like himself but also the liberals he once opposed, like Cyrus Vance, Carter's secretary of state.

Brzezinski is quite hawkish and his criticisms of the administration are hard to dismiss as the rantings of a Bush-hater. I think the same can be said of Republican Senator Chuck Hagel:

Hagel sounded a decorous, Midwestern version of Brzezinski's rather frantic alarums. ''Crisis-driven coalitions of the willing by themselves are not the building blocks for a stable world,'' he said. And, ''Iraq alone cannot define our relationships.'' And even, ''Other countries have their own interests, and those interests need to be acknowledged and heard.'' Presumably that included France. Hagel also observed that ''the American image in the world is in need of immediate and long-term repair'' and suggested such instruments of ''soft power'' as educational and professional exchange programs, as well as increased language training for American students.

From these comments, Traub argues that it can be inferred that "the Bush administration stands very, very far from the foreign-policy mainstream: liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have more in common with one another than any of them have with the Bush administration."

This is basically my position, and it is incredibly frustrating. At this point I do not trust Howard Dean's positioning, and have yet to really make sense of Clark's true feelings (as opposed to his politicking in this primary race). And these seem to be the only choices on the left. The middle has somehow been abandoned.

Continue reading Democrats, Foreign Policy, and Unilateralism.

Israel Non Grata

At first, I shared Armed Liberal's anger at the lack of labelling of Israel on the State Department's map of Saudi Arabia. Then Kevin Drum stepped up and show us what a silly over-reaction this was:

Far be it from me to go easy on the craven, striped-pants Saudi-loving weasels in our State Department � as opposed to the craven, denim-clad Saudi-loving weasel in the White House � but I notice that this map of Iran fails to label Turkey and this map of Egypt fails to label Syria. Contrariwise, this map of China does label Taiwan, and we all know how our mainland Chinese friends feel about that.

Good work, Kevin. This is a much needed reminder for pro-Israel advocates to keep their finger off the trigger except when absolutely necessary.

The Shah's Redemption

I stopped reading Vodkapundit shortly after I entered the blogosphere, but once in a while I check back in. Bad idea. Today he has this stupidity to offer:

For all his faults and tyranny, the old Shah turned out to be a decent man. When push came to shove, he left his country rather than fight to the bitter end.

And that makes him a decent man? I'm beyond amazed at this thinking. Perhaps it makes the Shah a bit less evil than if he'd gone out with bloodshed, but come on, surrender does not equal redemption. The Shah was a nasty man who ran a nasty government. The fact that we dislike those who replaced him even more does not change that fact, nor does the fact that he left power relatively peacefully.

Incentives

Nathan Newman articulates exactly my thoughts on the recent wave of violence in Israel:

When suicide bombers launched multiple attacks on civilians over the weekend, their goal was to derail the "Roadmap" negotiations on peace in Israel and Palestine. This has been the pattern repeatedly over the years-- every move towards peace is met by terrorism by extreme Palestinians and military violence against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Right-- both aims being to derail peace by embittering the opposition population.

Sharon has given the Palestinian terrorists their wish and pulled back from negotiations.

Which of course means that Israelis are put in more danger in the future, since Sharon is demonstrating that the more Israelis killed, the more the terrorists win. Kill Israelis, terrorists win.

Foreign Shipping

The other item in the Atlantic Monthly that I really wanted to point out was a two-page spread on American military logistics, which passes on three particularly interesting facts:

Today the combined weight of the daily food and water, ammunition, gear, and fuel necessary to equip a U.S. soldier has reached about 400 pounds

That's up from roughly 60 pounds during WWII. This burden has far surpassed our military's ability to have self-sufficient logistics. The story points to the U.S. military's increasing reliance on non-military sources:

P.W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on military privitization, estimates that one of every fifty American deployed in the Gulf War was a privately employed civilian... For a second war in Iraq, Singer estimates, the ratio could reach 1:8.

There is nothing inherently wrong with privatization, but in this case I think there is:

A recent report by the General Accounting Office noted that fully 43 percent of major U.S. military cargo deployed overseas in 2001 was carried on foreign-flagged ships. Some of the ships carried advanced weapons, such as Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Stinger-missile launchers.

This war effort would have been a lot more difficult if a few such ships mysteriously never made it to port. Looks like yet another security vulnerability that is begging to be exploited.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the GAO report, which contains this anecdote:

An example of the dangers of such loss of control occurred in summer 2000. While in the North Atlantic, the captain of a commercial vessel carrying Canadian military equipment and three Canadian Forces personnel from the Balkans refused to proceed to the ship�s destination port in Canada after a dispute over payment to the vessel�s owner. The vessel, GTS Katie, was owned by a U.S. company but registered in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and crewed by non-U.S. citizens. Alarmed at the loss of control over its equipment, including sensitive items, the Canadian government was compelled to board the Katie with a contingent of Canadian Forces naval personnel from a nearby warship. The vessel was then brought safely into a Canadian port.

The report gives no further breakdown on WHAT nation most of these ships and their crews belong to, and as PG suggests in the comments, if it's a country like Denmark, we might not have as much to worry about. But what if it's, say, Belgium? Or Germany? Or perhaps the problem will be less nefarious than I suggest, more along the lines of the financial dispute illustrated by this anecdote. As the GAO report suggests, the potential problems are widespread.

The Horror!

Reuters notes this in their oddly enough section:

Drug dealers in Copenhagen's Christiania hippie colony took novel action on Wednesday by going on strike to protest against proposals to bulldoze the alternative "free city."

Damned organized actions. Tourists are not going to be happy. Imagine travelling all the way to Denmark to have some funny brownies and arrive in the midst of a massive hash strike.

Chinese Police Psyops

Interesting article about Chinese police efforts to combat all those advertisement fliers we see stuck all over phone poles and traffic signs:

Authorities in China are turning to technology to nab vandals--they use a computer program that spams the wrongdoers' mobile phones until they turn themselves in.

Officials in Hangzhou, the capital of China's Zhejiang province, have developed a system which bombards mobile phones with pre-recorded voice messages, according to the official newspaper, the People's Daily.

Businessmen who put up illegal advertisements which contain mobile numbers have become the target of the computerized phone-spammer.

The message (received at 20-second intervals) tells the target how to turn themselves in for punishment.

AIDS in Africa

An eye-opening story from the Washington Times on a study suggesting that tainted blood and dirty needles are the predominant causes of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. This goes against the "almost universal belief that heterosexual contact is primarily responsible for AIDS in Africa."

In the articles, which include a review of dozens of health studies throughout Africa, the authors question the "safe sex" premise behind Western-funded AIDS prevention programs.

"Roughly one-third of the spread of HIV in Africa can be associated with heterosexual transmission. ... A growing body of evidence points to unsafe injections and other medical exposures to contaminated blood as pathways" to HIV transmission, they write.

If the findings prove accurate, it would mean that as many as 20 million Africans may have been infected needlessly, for want of a clean syringe in procedures as simple as childhood vaccinations.

My first reaction is to suspect a devious anti-condom conspiracy behind this (it is from the Moonie Times after all), but I don't really like conspiracy theories. If true, this could be a blow to family-planning groups that have (rightfully) emphasized the spread of AIDS in Africa as an urgent target of their efforts.

History of the UN Veto Power

IHT provides a brief, but interesting look at the historical use of the veto power by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Rally in Korea

I missed it yesterday, but Instapundit posted about this rally in South Korea. 100,000 marched in support of the U.S. and our stationing of troops in the country. As noted below, I tend not to be intellectually persuaded by rallies, since there's often little evidence of what basis the individual protestors have for their involvement. Nonetheless, as someone who would actually like to be stationed in Korea (and if you ask for it, you get it), this is a welcome sign.

On a somewhat related note, I have a film recommendation: Joint Security Area, a South Korean film released in 2000. With gorgeous cinematography, great acting, and clear well-written subtitles, this is a real treat to watch:

As part of the Cease-fire Agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953, a 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created to act as a buffer between the North and South. In addition, the two sides agreed to create a Joint Security Area (JSA) around Panmumjeom, the site where the Cease-fire Agreement had been negotiated, where both sides could meet face-to-face. Unfortunately, because of the close proximity between the North and South, the JSA has been witness to a number of incidents over the last five decades. In 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked and killed two U.S. Army officers who were stationed in the JSA on behalf of the United Nations, while there were high-profile defections by a Soviet citizen (which resulted in a deadly firefight) and a Chinese military officer in 1984 and 1989, respectively.

Based on the Park Sang-yeon novel "DMZ", "Joint Security Area" centers on a modern-day cross-border incident in this flashpoint of North-South tensions, specifically at the 'Bridge of No Return', where prisoners-of-war were exchanged at the end of the Korean War. Swiss military officer Major Sophie Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, who appeared most recently in "One Fine Spring Day"), the daughter of a Korean expatriate and a Swiss mother, arrives in Panmumjeom to conduct an impartial investigation of the incident, which has resulted in two deaths. Not surprisingly, both sides remain tight-lipped about the details of the incident, and treat her investigation with suspicion.

What makes the film so special for an American is to see the conflicted feelings of the Korean people concerning the political separation and official hostility. From this side of the Pacific, it is easy to oversimplify the situation and forget that this is a unfinished civil war, with all its twisted loyalties and inner turmoil.

Kim Jong Il sings "In My Room"

Yet another daily whining, I mean warning, from North Korea. Today's rant:

[I]f the United States ignites a war on the Korean peninsula, the world "will suffer horrifying nuclear disasters," according to a newspaper article released by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.

The article in Rodong Sinmun also said the U.S. is "pushing ahead with nuclear war preparations in full swing on the Korean peninsula," according to the news agency.

North Korea has somehow become the obnoxious middle child in the Axis of Evil, starved for attention (oh bad bad terrible pun) and pissed off that America is so preoccupied with the Middle East. We've coddled the newborn reformers in Iran (though recent electoral defeats bode ill) and now we're cracking down on the wayward Iraqi teenager. Kim Jong Il must feel so left out.

Unfortunately, if left alone too long, the neglected middle child can become the most crazed, delusional, and dangerous of all. Think of Jan Brady, and be very afraid.