zenpundit.com » geopolitics

Archive for the ‘geopolitics’ Category

Two eminently watchable TV series by Hugo Blick

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — I suspect Mike Sellers & Ali Minai might find them of interest as subtle narrative avenues into complexity ]
.

I’ve been watching Black Earth Rising , British writer-director Hugo Blick‘s latest series, starring Michaela Coel:

As with his earlier series, The Honourable Woman featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal, I’m transfixed. Here is complexity delivered — in both cases, brilliantly — on TV:

Once Blick puts down his first card, as a viewer you think, “Oh, that’s good. That will be interesting.” Then he essentially flips the other 51 into the air and lets them fall all over the script. That’s the ambitious beauty of The Honorable Woman, which explodes across each episode with elaborate twists involving the Israelis, the Palestinians, the British and the Americans.

**

Sources:

  • Hollywood Reporter, The Complicated, Ambitious Brilliance of ‘The Honorable Woman’
  • Hollywood Reporter, ‘Black Earth Rising’: TV Review
  • IndieWire, Netflix Thriller Shows the Danger of Treating Global Politics Like a Game
  • **

    I have been discussing systems dynamics and complexity with my game designer friend Mike Sellers recently — see his brilliant book, Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach — and complexity, glass bead games and AI with a new friend, Ali Minai — hear our podcast at BrownPundits. Let’s make it clear: I’m the student here.

    In the course of our discussion, I’d written:

    I think of novels and plays as offering approaches to an intuitive grasp of complex situations

    and

    I think polyphony and counterpoint are what we meet with in the social world, and indeed in our conflicted minds and hearts, and that Bach will prove to be the great master of our age, once we’ve matured enough to learn from him. But listening must come first, and that seems a skill that’s wildly at variance with our times..

    Mike responded:

    Novels and plays give us, I think, something of an implicit systemic view, in that we understand how a greater whole (a love story, a tragedy, etc.) emerges from the mutual interactions between actors. Same with counterpoint and polyphony — the notes mutually interact at the same time, and set up call-and-response interaction within our minds across time, to create a larger experienced whole from the entire musical piece.

    I’m trying to make those relationships more explicit and more generalized, seeing the commonalities in books, music, biology, and games

    so — for both Mike and Ali — I’d recommend these two Hugo Blick series as contemporary works of Shakespearean subtlety, to consider as avenues into coomplexity. And although I lack the linguistic skills to appreciate him I’m sure Ali would like to add the Urdu poet Ghalib to the list..

    So that’s my interest.

    Complexity, what is it? Which avenue takes us deepest into the heart of the matter?

    **

    Hugo Blick?

    Hugo Blick, who likes to teach the ambiguities to which a probing sense of morality will necessarily find itself subject, might like to examine “Combat charities” in the West and their jihadi twin:

    A NEW PHENOMENON OF THE 21ST CENTURY BATTLEFIELD

    “Combat charities”—entities that seek to provide non-profit military and political assistance to weaker armed groups or minorities resisting the military onslaught of others (like ISIS)—are one mechanism for foreign anti-ISIS volunteers to join the fight. “Combat charities” are a new rising phenomenon of the 21st century battlefield and political dispensation. They can significantly affect both local orders and international politics. [ … ]

    Thousands of Western foreign fighters have traveled to the Middle East in recent years to join the fighting that has engulfed the region. They have overwhelmingly participated on the side of jihadi organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front).

    However, a smaller and often unnoticed segment of these volunteers has embedded with groups that resist the jihadis, such as Kurdish, Assyrian, and Yazidi militias. These fighters vary in their motivations for joining the fight: Some are driven by moral outrage and seek to prevent the atrocities minority groups have suffered at the hands of the jihadis, while others are motivated by co-religionist solidarity. Some seek a sense of adventure and the adrenaline highs of military tourism, while others wish to escape problems at home, finding in the fight a form of self-medicating for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. [ … ]

    THE WESTERN PATHBREAKERS

    SOLI is the oldest and most established combat charity in the world. Founded and led by American citizen Matthew VanDyke, it operates in Iraq, and is building abilities to operate in Syria and North Africa. Since its creation in 2014, SOLI has helped form, train, and to certain extent equip the two largest Assyrian militias in northern Iraq fighting against ISIS. [ … ]

    …AND THEIR JIHADI TWIN

    Founded in May 2016, Malhama Tactical is the first sunni jihadi private military company. As Rao Komar, Christian Borys, and Eric Woods reported in Foreign Policy magazine in February, during its short existence Malhama Tactical has provided training and battlefield consulting for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaida) and the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Uighur extremist group from China’s restive Xinjiang province.

    Get that? Rival combat charities to throw a heavy dose of ambiguity into the already three-cornered Syrian situation..

    IMO, these combat charities on both sides of an already fraught situation might make excellent fodder for Hugo Blick‘s subtle story-telling mind..

    **

    Viewing:

  • Netflix, Black Earth Rising
  • Amazon, The Honorable Woman
  • Further reading — the full combat charities report:

  • Brookings, Combat charities or when humanitarians go to war:
  • Heartless? What’s heart? Since when did that have anything to do with anything?

    Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — and to think I thought that little red heart was just an emoticon! ]
    .

    The Washington Post, supposedly a paper which takes political matters seriously, featured this caption in its email to me today:

    Is this heart thing something to be taken seriously? Just on occasion, as with the impact of cancelling DACA on people who were, at least recently, children? Or in matters of economics, too? And the deployment, threat and use of nuclear weapons? In diplomacy?

    I mean, the number of situations in which this somewhat vague “heart” entity might be invoked and prioritized is hard to estimate. What was it Pascal said?

    The heart has reasons reason knows not of..

    That in itself is a somewhat confusing statement. Is it a paradox?

    Ah well, I’ll retire to poetry: poets, after all, think themselves the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and as one of them legislated not so very long ago:

    My heart rouses
              thinking to bring you news
                        of something
    that concerns you
              and concerns many men. Look at
                        what passes for the new.
    You will not find it there but in
              despised poems.
                        It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
              yet men die miserably every day
                        for lack
    of what is found there.

    What is found there? This heart thing, perhaps? Heart’s the second word in that poetry bit — it could be worth a try.

    T. Greer on the Geopolitics of Rising India

    Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Friend of zenpundit.com, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on the implications of Indian power relative to an increasingly aggressive China. It’s one of the better pieces I have read on the topic in some time.

    Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

    Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They’ve titled their piece “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam,” and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

    However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:

    Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]

    From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

    I’ve phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India’s rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India’s Ministry of Defence… but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   

    Read the rest here.

    Greer gives very pragmatic advice to American policymakers courting India as to reasonable expectations and to the Indian defense establishment as to where Indian defense dollars would give PLA generals the greatest fits. This is sensible as both groups are likely to overreach: America too quickly pressing India for defense commitments it can neither afford nor politically digest and India seeking a naval contest with China for nationalist prestige at the expense of other critical defense needs.

    China will build its own cordon sanitaire against itself by the relentless bullying and interference in the internal affairs of all its major neighbors in the Pacific Rim, friendless other than for two rogue state clients, Pakistan and North Korea and impoverished Cambodia. Our job is to assist China’s neighbors, including great powers India and Japan, in accelerating their acquisition of the military capacity to resist Beijing’s coercion; if it is less than an East Asian NATO, that’s fine. What matters is a robust counterbalance that has to be reckoned with in Beijing’s calculus.

    Russian Sanctions and Soviet Ghosts

    Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    A friend asked me to weight in on the response of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev to the signing by President Trump of the Russia sanctions bill passed by Congress.  A translation of Medvedev’s remarks today:

    “The US President’s signing of the package of new sanctions against Russia will have a few consequences. First, it ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration. Second, it is a declaration of a full-fledged economic war on Russia. Third, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. This changes the power balance in US political circles.

    What does it mean for them? The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the President is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power. A non-systemic player has to be removed. Meanwhile, the interests of the US business community are all but ignored, with politics chosen over a pragmatic approach. Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).

    The sanctions regime has been codified and will remain in effect for decades unless a miracle happens. This legislation is going to be harsher than the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it is overarching and cannot be lifted by a special presidential order without Congress’ approval. Thus, relations between Russia and the United States are going to be extremely tense regardless of Congress’ makeup and regardless of who is president. Lengthy arguments in international bodies and courts are ahead, as well as rising international tensions and refusal to settle major international issues.

    What does it mean for us? We will steadily continue our work on developing the economy and social sector, take efforts to substitute imports, and solve major national tasks, relying mostly on ourselves. We have learned to do so in the past few years, in conditions of almost closed financial markets as well as foreign investors’ and creditors’ fear of investing in Russia upon penalty of sanctions against third parties and countries. To some extent, this has even been to our advantage, although sanctions are meaningless overall. We will cope.”

    My short take on this is that we are all watching a gambler or manipulator (President Putin not Medvedev) who has overplayed his hand and is now flailing about, trying to stir the pot a little, because they don’t have a follow up play.

    Longer take: I find the reference to Jackson-Vanik extremely interesting. Far more than the crude effort to push Trump’s buttons or the lack of understanding on how our constitutional machinery works and agitprop spin.

    Most Americans have forgotten Jackson-Vanik and the refusenik issue but Russians of Putin’s generation have not and it means something very different to them than to us. The reference to Jackson-Vanik is aimed less at us than their domestic audience and I find that quite telling. I certainly would not have used it if I were in their shoes. It would be like Xi exclaiming that some action by the US was an “unequal treaty“.

    Here’s the significance in my view. During early Détente, the Soviet side had the objective of leveraging better relations with the US to improve the Soviet economy. Brezhnev personally valued this outcome as a way to have both guns and butter. There were Soviet internal political drivers at work too in that Brezhnev was using Detente and the material rewards that would flow from it, to elbow aside Kosygin and Podgorny in the politburo and become the de facto leader of the USSR. And Nixon and Kissinger obliged, having the theory that a combination of trade, aid, American credibility, linkage, arms control, the China card and such could tame the Soviet bear and split the Soviet bloc while easing US problems in Vietnam. So in this time period you had incongruities like the rabidly anti-Communist Bill Casey, then Nixon’s head of the Import-Export Bank, defending credits, loans and various deals with Communist countries in Congressional testimony.

    Well, Congressional Democrats led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson began putting sticks in the spokes of Nixon’s wheel, culminating in Jackson-Vanik in 1974. The Soviets reacted with rage out of all proportion to the actual value of the US-Soviet trade at the time, protesting this law was a violation of Soviet sovereignty; more to the point, Jackson-Vanik terminated the prospect of any future spigots of American cash that Brezhnev intended to use to increase consumer goods or reform moribund Soviet agriculture. Furthermore, it wounded Soviet prestige by essentially denying the equality between the Superpowers that Brezhnev and company were fairly desperate to trumpet on the world stage.

    While there was an effort to sustain Detente through the Ford administration it was winding down and it collapsed entirely under President Carter as Soviet foreign policy became increasingly aggressive and adventurous in the Third World. The Soviets saw Jackson-Vanik as a turning point in relations with America and complained bitterly about the law ever after. In retrospect, you could trace the American pressure that nudged the USSR toward collapse in 1991 back to Jackson-Vanik; and whether Russian nationalists see the law as part of the vast Western conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union or not ( many would) it is certainly seen as an example of our hostility. These events were part of Vladimir Putin’s formative experience in acquiring his chekist-siloviki worldview when he was a law student already in the KGB recruit track.

    So given the vulnerability of the export based, relatively small Russian economy their reaction today strikes me as bluster and empty bravado. They really can’t win a serious economic confrontation with the West ( which these sanctions are not) and they know it. There’s some panicky, sky is falling, undercurrents here. The danger is that Putin’s regime if handled poorly may attempt to compensate, as did Brezhnev’s USSR, with small, foreign adventures. Russia can’t really afford this either – not sustained combat operations over months against a new semi serious conventional opponent, but subversion, terrorism and little green men paramilitaries are cheap

    Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

    Monday, October 3rd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a study in the mighty and their lowly, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood ]
    .

    all-morons

    Vice News, Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

    **

    First, if you’ll permit, the simple truth:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    That’s Laurence J Peter, and it’s a quote so succinct and powerful that Jeff Conklin puts it, in large print, above the title of his pamphlet on wicked problems:

    conklin-cover-wicked-problems

    The simple truth is that the truth is complex, beyond the minds of elites and morons, deplorables and desirables alike.

    **

    Next, the untruth:

    The untruth is in a view down the nose from one human person at another, or at a group, a crowd, a mob — a diversity of others.

    Clinton:

    You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.

    Romney:

    There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. .. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. .. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

    Such sentiments remind me irresistably of the Magnificat — given here in my own version:

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.
    He feeds the hungry,
    and tells the rich they can go fetch their own food.

    **

    And then the nuance..

    Let’s start with the fact that I’m a snob. I’m an almost equal-opportunity despiser. I prefer not to act on my snobbery, except when choosing which sorts of books and music I wish to consume, but it’s there in me, like an undertow, like an unrest.

    Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the setup, as described in What Washington Gets Wrong:

    73 percent of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor, 71 percent of them think the public knows little or nothing about science and technology policy, and 61 percent of them think the public knows almost nothing about childcare. In fact, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like social security, public schools, crime, defense and the environment, it was hard to find government officials who thought the public knew “a great deal.”

    Assuming Americans know so little, government officials tend to use their own judgment rather than the people’s when making policy decisions. With issues of science and defense, more than half of officials think they should “always” or “mostly” heed their own opinions. With crime, welfare and the environment, at least 42 percent of officials who felt the same way.

    Okay, first off, government officials — how well do they stack up?

    This is from Counterpunch — it’s a succinct summary of a Jeff Stein piece from the New York Times:

    There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

    Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

    Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

    That was in 2006, ten years after Osama bin Laden’s Decxlaration of War against the United States, and five years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

    In fact, one might say, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like defense.. government officials aren’t necessarily terribly savvy. And I’m relieved to know that by March 2014, at least, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, knew that ISIS has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

    Of course, if Dabiq falls, as it very soon many, that strategic vision may get stretched to breaking point..

    **

    So much for government officials. What of the general population, down on whom those paragons of virtue look?

    In November 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, according to National Geographic News:

    In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

    Ast forward to 2006, and a National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study of American youth between ages 18 and 24 finds:

    Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map ñ even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across televisions screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005. Three-quarters (75%) of young men and women do not know that a majority of Indonesiaís population is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world), despite the prominence of this religion in global news today. Neither wars nor natural disasters appear to have compelled majorities of young adults to absorb knowledge about international places in the news.

    Of course, that’s young people.

    Young people today .. if you want to dismiss these findsings .. or young people are our future .. if you want to let the impact settle in.

    **

    Here, for my convenience, is a map kindly provided by The Washington Post in 2013, in an intriguing Ezra Klein piece aptly titled Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?

    syria-on-the-map

    Maybe Firesign Theater had it right when they titled their 1971 album: I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.


    Switch to our mobile site