An anniversary story: Fall, dissolution, and political violence

Today, 9 November, celebrates another anniversary the Berlin Wall officially fell.

It has been commonly believed that the fall of the Wall was a peaceful one, and also marked a “peaceful” dissolution and transition of East Germany’s patron, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – the Soviet Union – into independent countries (albeit now led by Russia in various iterations of economic/political organisations such as the Eurasian Customs Union).

That year of 1989, however, was really a different story, as were the years before and after.

Before November 1989, violence and death were  endemic to the crossing of the Berlin Wall – crossings from east to west. East German border guards were given a “licence to kill” to shoot at defectors, and more than a thousand people lost their lives.

In the years before 1989, as Soviet leaders were attempting to reform, there were riots in Kazakhstan based on a nascent ethnic nationalism, political protests in the Baltic states, and environmental demonstrations in Armenia. Then in April 1989, Soviet troops massacred demonstrators in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Tbilisi, which was followed by inter-ethnic violence in Georgia’s autonomous/breakaway territory of Abkhazia. In June 1989, riots again occurred in Kazakhstan.

After the fall of the Wall, in January 1990 ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis – which had been escalating for years prior – exploded into open warfare, killing Soviet soldiers in Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) in the process. Gorbachev sent troops into Baku to regain control, but eventually Azerbaijan along with the other republics was to break from the Soviet Union.

T-80UD tanks in the Red square during the 1991 soviet coup d’etat attempt. Location: Northern ramp of Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge (not exactly Red Square, some 200 meters south from its formal southern edge, with Nabatnaya tower in sight)

– Photo and caption from Wikipedia (public domain).

The last major event was the failed hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, before the USSR fell proper.

Yes, there were many other non-violent, even peaceful events and incidents across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. But it would be a mistake to forget the political violence that occurred, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was anything but peaceful, and that state and societal collapse is less straightforward, and more significant than most people expect.

Look at the state of play between Russia and Ukraine now, and international politics in general.

Thailand and Singapore – crises and…opportunities in 2015

Some interesting news and insights from two Southeast Asian countries.

Exclusive: Who's Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

Experts investigate the Erawan shrine at the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok, Thailand, August 18, 2015. Image Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

First, in Thailand, Shawn Crispin writes in The Diplomat exploring the possible deeper background, the players, and ultimately the causes of the Bangkok Erawan Shrine bombings, in ‘Who’s Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

A security adviser with access to Thai intelligence reports says agents outside of the police are pursuing leads that indicate extensive Thai involvement in what appears on the surface to be a foreign-executed attack. Local intelligence cited by the adviser indicates that the plot was planned for over one year, before the Uyghur deportations but likely after the military’s May 2014 takeover. The adviser says the apparent Thai actors have concealed their identities in various ingenious ways, including the use of Internet-based communication applications that are knowingly difficult, if not impossible, for local intelligence agencies to track and detect.

Then, in Singapore, two different views of the Singaporean General (parliamentary) Elections with similar broad conclusions: see “No easy win for Singapore’s PAP” in The Diplomat again, and “In staid Singapore, a national election that could change its course” from the South China Morning Post.

No Easy Win for Singapore’s PAP

Image Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Bring the [ruling party’s lightning sigil] home”, states one placard above…because, you know, it was like a spy out in the cold, or stuck fighting senseless wars in a foreign land, or lost like sheep wandering a desert for 40 years…oh sorry, those are real issues.

Both articles conclude that the ruling PAP will form the next government.

Let’s then look at some of the main none-too-subtle differences, either by omission or commission/contradiction, and my token critique particularly of the SCMP article, in brackets.

Continue reading

Human terrains, all-too-human flaws

When I was in graduate school, I attended a guest lecture* on the the US military’s ‘Human Terrain System’ (HTS) that was being pioneered in Afghanistan from the second half of the 2000s. I found the concept and reality mildly interesting, and I thought it had some potential.

But in light of the US invasion of Iraq, I knew they still had a very long way to go, and I suspected that there were more problems than not. Somehow that feeling proved correct.

Ted Callahan, a United States Army Human Terrain Team social scientist, talking to local residents to investigate a tribal dispute in the village of Wum Kalay, Paktia Province, Afghanistan on Aug. 12, 2009. Credit Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

This article published by the New York Times last month, ‘The quiet demise of the Army’s plan to understand Afghanistan and Iraq‘, is a worth a read.

The author has written a book about it, titled The Tender Soldier.

The trope about Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires” seems to hold true of ideas as well, including well-intentioned but ill-conceived ones.

*guest lecture: in my grad school, translated as “a talk within a compulsory conference that we had to attend in order to fulfil credits so that we could actually graduate.”

2003 Invasion of Iraq – The ‘commemorative’ round-up (UPDATED)

Last month marked the 10th year (on 19 March 2003 to be exact) since the US-led invasion of Iraq, also known as the Iraq War. This is a war that has cost (for the United States at least) up to three trillion dollars and at least 190,000 deaths – military, ‘contractor’, and civilian(*).

Here is a selection of articles giving a broad overview of reflections.

Leading up to it, James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine ruminates on his initial and consistent opposition (good man!) to the George W. Bush administration’s and neo-conservatives’ folly. Fallows gives a seven-point commentary.

American academic and foreign policy wonk Daniel Drezner does some (perhaps necessary) navel-gazing about how US foreign policy has been affected since 19 March 2003. He has backed off from his initial support of the invasion, but still not repentant regarding the use of force – to achieve security, democracy, or whatever else. Does this then not make him a ‘chickenhawk‘?

And for the love of the gods, Dan, please stop using the phrase ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. Oh look here, a ‘spade’! I call it what it really was – an INVASION. Of another sovereign state.

Where the neo-conservatives are not mentioned…
Former Ronald Reagan staffer, Republican, and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan does even more navel-gazing about how the invasion has affected the US Republican Party. (Why do I say ‘navel-gazing’? Hint: No mention of the neo-conservative ‘wing’ – any one of them – and their role, anywhere. Yes, exactly.)

…And where they are
International relations scholar Robert Kelly posits a neo-con ‘theory’ (of international relations or otherwise) behind their justification of the war. Bear in mind that he’s not trying to justify it from their point of view, but rather to come up with a plausible explanation why they pushed so hard for war – and got it.

Personally, I think any such theories are hogwash, flawed to the point of ridiculousness. There are theories and ideologies that are appropriate for certain times, and others that are not. The ‘justifications’ for invading Iraq – including from the so-called liberal imperialists interventionists – belong to the latter category.

In the meantime, from author and former US State Department employee Peter Van Buren: the World’s. Largest. Embassy. Ever. will soon stand largely empty.

Taylor Marvin ruminates about learning The Wrong Lessons from Iraq.

Daniel Nexon goes more ‘macro’ into IR theory to discuss the over-arching cause of war between as a form of classic ‘interstate rivalry‘ and explores its specific dynamics.

John B. Judis reflects on what it was like to oppose the Iraq invasion in 2003, giving emphasis on the media and perceived credibility of political figures (hint: NOT George W. Bush).

There is also the US failure in Afghanistan, as seen by Stephen Walt. David Rothkopf contemplates the lessons learnt there and in Iraq, while Paul Rogers observes more broadly the ‘war on terror’ and the West’s inability to eliminate violent conflict [The US seems to be able to eliminate lots of human beings, though. I guess that’s why they think they’re ‘an exceptional nation’. – Ed.] (I’m kidding! There’s no ‘Editor’ for this blog.)

And a little blast from the past: Ghassan Michel Rubeiz wrote this in the run-up to the 2008 US presidential elections (Remember that one? Where’s the Hope and Change now?):

Continue reading

“So, what might King offer as an international thinker, and as a representative of a radical Christian tradition: a focus on the fundamental place of racism, class, and imperialism in international politics, as well as the moral need to confront these common problems. And where Wight and Niebuhr share King’s condemnation of violence, the radical Christian move is not to pacifism or the prudential use of violence, but to direct opposition and resistance through nonviolence.”

The Disorder Of Things

Monday 17 January marked the official US holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. While watching Monday’s Democracy Now! program, featuring substantive excerpts from King’s speeches,  the clarity with which he connected the domestic fight for equality to international politics, in particular poverty and war, struck me. The international aspects of King’s thinking, I believe, are important for two reasons.

King’s Radicalism

First, it challenges the interpretation of King as an insufficiently radical leader offered by some critics, and the co-option of King’s legacy not only by “moderate” liberals but also by conservative political figures in the US. King has become a symbol in the public consciousness of a safe reformism and a favorite icon for the type of liberal who abhors radicalism above any other political sin. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect…

View original post 2,398 more words

Will Opines

Today in the United States we have a federal holiday not due to the Presidential Inauguration, but to honor Martin Luther King, who was struck down by gunfire outside of his hotel on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, TN.  He was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike organized by the man who introduced him to non-violent civil disobedience, Reverend James Lawson.  We will celebrate the MLK who is best summarized in his speech on the March on Washington (I Have a Dream) as well as the one he gave the night before he was slain (I have been to the Mountaintop).  What we will not discuss or remember is the FBI’s remarkable campaign to demonize and discredit him.  And that is fuktup.  So I write this, in Quixotian fashion, for those unfamiliar with the basic facts who prefer to know. May you not forget.

This history is hardly…

View original post 792 more words

Grand Blog Tarkin

Pity the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced from the creative politics of his more practical predecessors. The grand image of global–or, better yet, multiversal–domination is a Mesopotamian artifact of superherodom.  The Joker’s low-tech banditry abounds in contemporary supervillainy, while Dalek “extermination” is little more than a charming, if impractical product of British public television. From a critical perspective, this shift is an unfortunate consequence of post-9/11 security cultures. If Judi Dench’s M is any indication–and s/he has been for a half-century–hero fandom should view the modern supervillain as a product of a more discreet Zeitgeist, of a less transparent, more opaque world of “shadows.” Hats off to Christopher Nolan, whose Joker is a mere interlude to Ra’s al-Ghul’s global League of Shadows, a happy marriage of Erik Prince (Bane, the mercenary) and young Emma Goldman…

View original post 867 more words