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.

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.”

Other days of September (post-9/11 stories)

I’ve posted about ‘September 11’ before, here and here. This post includes other links and stories.

Perhaps what I remember most about that day in September 2001 was the sheer ordinariness of it all.

I had gone to bed that night where I was in the southern hemisphere, and awoke the next day, 12 September, feeling that nothing particularly of interest would affect me that day. Boy, was I wrong. 

The events of 11 September 2001 may not have changed the world; rather, as many commentators have argued, it re-defined the relationship of the pre-eminent world power, the United States, to the rest of the world.

Sadly, the US has been asserting its power and influence to the detriment of peoples in other states long before that. In the southern hemisphere, Latin America has suffered the worst of it for quite some time. One occurred on 11 September, 1973.

Other days: Chile, 1973

Remembrance at the 40th anniversary of the right-wing military coup on 11 September that overthrew Salvador Allende turned ugly as some protestors clashed with police. The basic message of human decency and rights should not be forgotten, however. The CIA-backed coup and regime resulted in horrific human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

As Americans remember Sept. 11, 2001 with video montages, scattered candlelight vigils, and an avalanche of #neverforget Facebook and Twitter posts, Chileans are remembering a different 9/11—Sept. 11, 1973, the day a CIA-backed military coup ousted a democratically elected president with a right-wing strongman.

Tensions in the South American country have been rising for weeks in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the morning in 1973 that Chile’s military, with the secret support of the United States, flew fighter jets over Santiago and bombed its own presidential palace. Within hours, Chilean President Salvador Allende—Latin America’s first popularly elected socialist president—was dead. He was replaced by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed, tortured, and exiled tens of thousands of Chileans. For the next 17 years, Chileans lived under an economically prosperous dictatorship that showed little regard for human rights.

The regime of Augusto Pinochet lasted nearly 20 years. In a country still split by that legacy, the sister of one of the regime’s victims

Reyes Manriquez noted that it is not usually the families of the victims that cause trouble for the police; often, it is young people who have no direct memory of the dictatorship.

“The families have lived through enough violence,” she said

There are other things that the younger generations and victim-families can do — strive towards making sure that such things can never happen again, in their own country as well as others.

Other links

On the Syrian crisis and the humanitarian-interventionist concept known as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, openDemocracy has published a series of articles:

“This week we are launching a series of articles that address the usefulness and relevance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the current debate over Syria. R2P was first proposed in 2001, in the wake of NATO’s controversial intervention in Kosovo.  As eventually endorsed by UN Member States in 2005, R2P provides that the international community, acting through the UN Security Council, should act decisively – including as a last resort through the use of force – to halt mass atrocities. But the divided Council’s manifest failure to do so in Syria – even in the face of mass atrocity, 100,000 killed, and millions forced to flee – calls into question the relevance of the doctrine, even as it reignites support for a more robust R2P to support non-UN authorized military action.

Justice in Conflict, on Syria, where not all deaths are treated equally:

Even if you have not watched the videos of the alleged chemical weapons attack, it is not difficult to understand the intense desire to do something about what is happening to civilians in the Syrian conflict. Tens of thousands of Syrians are now dead, and it is increasingly difficult for many to continue to look away from that conflict. But the fact that the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died begs the question: why the current intense need to punish Syrian actors for these particular deaths? Violating Syria’s sovereignty in response to deaths from the chemical weapons attack without a UN mandate is an illegal act just as is a military intervention launched outside the UN in response to these other deaths. So, despite the international law violations committed by Syrian actors against civilians throughout the conflict, why is the United States contemplating violating another set of international laws in this instance but not the others? Why act in the name of nearly 2000 deaths from chemical weapons and not for the tens of thousands killed by other means?

In The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart writes about the cocoon that many American Jews unknowingly find themselves in:

I used to try, clumsily, to answer the assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terser reply: “Ask them.” That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews—mostly Americans—to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. Of the more than two hundred advertised speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, two were Palestinians. By American Jewish standards, that’s high. The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single Palestinian.

His earlier article, ‘The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment’, is worth a read too.

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?):

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