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Time to Look Back?

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

difeinstein
[AP]

I’ve been quiet for months on a range of political issues that used to occupy a fair bit of space on Ron’s View. largely because I’ve run out of things to say that aren’t said better by many others. But today I’m going to devote a post to quoting one of my betters, in the context of Dianne Feinstein waking up to CIA abuse in its years-long coverup of torture.

Here are Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman, reporting last Tuesday in the NYT:

A festering conflict between the Central Intelligence Agency and its congressional overseers broke into the open Tuesday when Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and one of the C.I.A.’s staunchest defenders, delivered an extraordinary denunciation of the agency, accusing it of withholding information about its treatment of prisoners and trying to intimidate committee staff members investigating the detention program.

In a New York Review of Books post yesterday, David Cole urges us not to lose sight of the more important story, the torture itself.

The old Washington adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime may not apply when it comes to the revelations this week that the Central Intelligence Agency interfered with a Senate torture investigation. It’s not that the cover-up isn’t serious. It is extremely serious—as Senator Dianne Feinstein said, the CIA may have violated the separation of powers, the Fourth Amendment, and a prohibition on spying inside the United States. It’s just that in this case, the underlying crimes are still worse: the dispute arises because the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chairs, has written an as-yet-secret 6,300 page report on the CIA’s use of torture and disappearance—among the gravest crimes the world recognizes—against al-Qaeda suspects in the “war on terror.”

[snip]

But the crime that we must never lose sight of is the conduct that led to the investigation in the first place. To recall: in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration authorized the CIA to establish a series of secret prisons, or “black sites,” into which it disappeared “high-value” al-Qaeda suspects, often for years at a time, without any public acknowledgment, without charges, and cut off from any access to the outside world. The CIA was further authorized to use a range of coercive tactics—borrowed from those used by the Chinese to torture American soldiers during the Korean War—to try to break the suspects’ will. These included depriving suspects of sleep for up to ten days, slamming them against walls, forcing them into painful stress positions, and waterboarding them.

The program was approved by President Bush himself, as well as Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and CIA Director George Tenet. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, Justice Department lawyers, wrote memos to whitewash the program. These acts were war crimes under the laws of war and grave human rights abuses. Yet no one has yet been held accountable for any of them.

[snip]

As I have argued before, accountability comes in many forms; there is little likelihood that former officials will be criminally prosecuted, even after the report is issued. But an official report can itself be a form of reckoning. … A secret report, however, is no accountability at all. In an encouraging sign, President Obama on Wednesday said that he favors making the report public so that the American people can judge for themselves the CIA’s conduct. You can bet the CIA will fight tooth and nail to frustrate that pledge. We must insist that President Obama keep this promise.

In law, we say that torture “taints” an investigation. The legal doctrine that precludes reliance on evidence obtained from torture is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule. But as this latest saga reflects, torture does far more than merely “taint” evidence. It corrupts all who touch it. The CIA’s desperate efforts to hide the details of what the world already knows in general outline—that it subjected human beings to brutal treatment to which no human being should ever be subjected—are only the latest evidence of the poisonous consequences of a program euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation.”

Obama has been the national leader in allowing his predecessor and colleagues to duck accountability. (Recall that in January 2011, shortly before his inauguration, Obama stated his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”) Let us hope that he does insist on release of the report at long last.

Categories: Politics, Torture

Having It Both Ways

March 2, 2014 Leave a comment

johnkerry

I don’t see much in the way of effective options for the US in response to Russia’s move into Crimea. Thus, I’m inclined to give Secretary of State Kerry some leeway in his efforts to address the crisis. Plus, I’ve felt a close connection to John ever since we ate dinner ten feet apart at Nantucket’s Ventuno three Septembers ago. (Last September we would eat at their very table, the best two-top in the house.)

Still, Kerry’s remarks this morning on Meet the Press were a bit much.

“It’s really 19th century behavior in the twenty-first century,” Kerry said of Putin ordering Russian military forces to move into Ukraine.

“You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests,” he said.

Uh-huh. We may have ceded the moral high ground on this one a few years back.

Categories: Language, Politics, War

Wild and Crazy WSJ

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment
A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

[From Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority]

When I first saw Tom Perkins’ letter to the WSJ yesterday, I was sufficiently stunned that I intended to write a post about it immediately. But I didn’t get to it, and now, 36 hours later, Perkins’ letter is an internet sensation. If you haven’t read it yet, follow the link above and do so. In it, famed Silicon Valley investor Perkins calls

attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel*, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht** was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Wow! Absolute madness. The wonder isn’t that he wrote it, but that the WSJ published it. Perhaps his connection with Rupert Murdoch is relevant, as a long-time News Corp board member (until 2011). Perkins has had a storied career, going back to his role in the early days of Hewlett-Packard half a century ago. But he would seem to be losing it.

Along these lines, Atrios captured the essence of Perkins’ argument in the following tweet:

Those Google buses? It might be worth re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the London Review of Books a year ago. Her ending:

Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

See also the discussion of the buses in a New Yorker blog post a few days ago by Lauren Smiley, recounting a possible resolution of the buses’ illegal use of public bus stops.

After years of complaints of the lumbering shuttles hogging San Francisco’s cramped streets—occasionally blocking public buses from making stops, double parking, or encroaching on bike lanes—the board of directors of the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin regulating them. The eighteen-month-long pilot program, slated to begin in July, will require that the shuttle buses be registered and that they make stops only at two hundred designated public bus stops. Companies will pay a dollar each time one of their buses uses a stop, which would add up to a hundred thousand dollars a year for each of the big companies, the agency estimates.

City leaders say that state law requires them to charge only enough to recover the fees required to administer the program. Yet the amount wasn’t enough for the dozens of detractors who lined up to speak at the agency’s meeting on Tuesday, at City Hall. Speakers called the buses “conquistador transportation,” and derided the transit agency for allowing “tech barons” to get away with paying such a low fee to use the city infrastructure—a dollar less than the current commuter fare on public buses—when their shuttles had been idling at the bus stops illegally for years.

[snip]

Then, there’s the issue of fairness. “If you and I park in front of a bus stop, and you’re there long enough, you’re going to get a ticket that’s more than a dollar,” David Campos, a city supervisor, told a group of merchants in his district last week.

Having tech companies pay a modest fee for the use of public bus stops to which they have no right is not the second coming of Kristallnacht.

*Perkins’ ex-wife.

**The 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht was this past November. On November 9, 1938, dozens of Jews were killed, thousands arrested, synagogues and businesses were destroyed. It was a major shift in the Holocaust gears.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics

Same Old

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m old enough to have watched President Nixon deliver many a speech in which truth took a vacation, yet I was naive enough to imagine that it was still in residence. Well, I learned my lesson. Decades later, when a president makes a national address, I assume that its primary purpose isn’t to announce substantive change but to spin a story.

So it was on Friday when President Obama gave a speech on N.S.A. abuses. As reported by Mark Landler and Charlie Savage in the NYT,

President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.

Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency’s spying practices, Mr. Obama said he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Mr. Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the N.S.A. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.

David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy (of which he is CEO), gets at the root of what most frustrates me about Obama: he has become just another “trust me” pol.

Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power — the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 — we instead got the wobbly, vague, “trust me” of a run-of-the-mill pol.

The great flaw within the president’s remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the “reforms” to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, “Don’t worry, I’m a good guy, I’ll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK.”

Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet’s history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power.

[snip]

The weakness of the president’s arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren’t, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.

That pretty well captures it.

But hey, at least Obama closed Guantanamo. Amirite?

rallnsa

[Ted Rall's January 17, 2014, comic]

Categories: Politics, Security

Compromise

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

tomfalseequiv

Ten days ago, I had a post laid out in my head on the mainstream press’s tendency toward false equivalence, but I didn’t get around to writing it. Now Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon makes it redundant. See especially the fourth panel. Plus, Jim Fallows has been on the beat with a steady stream of posts (latest here).

The reference to the Constitution in Tom’s fifth panel is a natural lead-in to a post by Gary Wills at the New York Review of Books today. An excerpt:

The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.

The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress because they got three extra votes for seats in the House of Representatives for every five slaves owned in the state—giving them 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833, and similar margins up to the war. Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.

Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.

Categories: Journalism, Law, Politics

America: Basket Case

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment


[Photograph by Jason Reed/Reuters]

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has a piece this evening at the New York Review of Books blog whose ending I can’t resist quoting. His subject is the view from abroad of the US government shutdown.

… is mere prelude to the greater panic to come if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, triggering a default. Markets around the world have October 17 circled on their calendars—and the global financial community is holding its breath.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to American voters. They might not realize how closely the rest of the world—their economies as well as their media and popular culture—follow, react to, and are affected by the ups and downs of US political life. But they do. And right now, they look at the stalemate in Washington the same way they look at the periodic gun massacres that afflict the United States: with a bafflement that America, mighty America, for so long the most innovative, creative, energetic society on the planet, cannot solve problems that smaller, poorer, feebler countries cracked long ago. Americans might not realize it, but this shutdown, like the gun epidemic, reduces US influence in the world. It makes nations, and individuals, who still want to regard America as a model see it instead as a basket case.

Categories: Politics

Nothing New Under the Sun

September 22, 2013 1 comment

alfalfa

The big domestic political news a few days ago was the House vote to make deep cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (food stamps). This was a follow up to the House Republicans’ decision earlier in the summer to separate SNAP from the farm bill and approve ongoing subsidies to farmers. And this despite the fact that the cost is minimal, the benefits enormous. I mean, food!

According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly four million people would be removed from the food stamp program under the House bill starting next year. The budget office said after that, about three million a year would be cut off from the program.

The budget office said that, left unchanged, the number of food stamp recipients would decline by about 14 million people — or 30 percent — over the next 10 years as the economy improves. A Census Bureau report released on Tuesday found that the program had kept about four million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also showed nearly 47 million people living in poverty — close to the highest level in two decades.

Historically, the food stamp program has been part of the farm bill, a huge piece of legislation that had routinely been passed every five years, authorizing financing for the nation’s farm and nutrition programs. But in July, House leaders split the bill’s farm and nutrition sections into separate measures, passing the farm legislation over Democrats’ objections.

The move came after the House rejected a proposed farm bill that would have cut $20 billion from the food stamp program. Conservative lawmakers helped kill the bill, saying the program needed deeper cuts.

I don’t quote Paul Krugman often. You don’t need me to find him. But he nailed it in his blog yesterday.

The idea that food stamps represent a problem — not a small blessing that has made this ongoing economic disaster marginally less awful — represents an awesome combination of ignorance and cruelty.

See too this passage five decades ago from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (courtesy of Atrios in a post yesterday in which he added the comment, “Our politics never changes”).

Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a longlimbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counseled one and all, and everyone said, “Amen.”

Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all. He was a proud and independent man who was opposed to unemployment insurance and never hesitated to whine, whimper, wheedle and extort for as much as he could get from whomever he could.

Categories: Politics, Writing

False Equivalence Beat

September 4, 2013 Leave a comment

humphrey

To review, false equivalence is the lazy or knee-jerk or phony-balance tendency of journalists to say “both sides do it,” the two sides generally being the Republicans and the Democrats. Examples abound. Jim Fallows has spent a fair bit of time at his Atlantic blog site recording some. See, for instance, here or, just last week, here.

From today’s NYT, I offer a new entry, courtesy of business columnist Eduardo Porter.

If companies could purchase the Congress of their choice, it’s unlikely they would buy the gridlocked Congress we have. The seemingly inexorable rise of political partisans — mainly on the right, but on the left, too — suggests that corporate money may be playing a much smaller role in the political process than expected.

I actually enjoyed the article, and the passage I’m criticizing is a minor aside. Plus Porter emphasizes that the rise of political partisans is primarily on the right. Nonetheless, a rise of political partisans on the left? Who? I mean, can he name even one?

I can name plenty on the right, Ted Cruz being the example of most recent notoriety. But who is a left-wing equivalent? I’m at a loss. Is anyone so driven by similarly doctrinaire (and detached from reality) views of the country and the world?

Let’s see. Cory Booker, the newest star of the Democratic Party? He’s as much a tool of Wall Street as Chuck Schumer. Al Franken? He’s to the right of his predecessor of half a century ago, Hubert Humphrey.

Where are these partisans?

Categories: Journalism, Politics

Journalist Friendly Fire

August 27, 2013 Leave a comment

rallmanning

[Ted Rall, August 22]

The responses of government officials and prominent members of the press to this summer’s Edward Snowden revelations and the trial/sentencing of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning offer me once again the opportunity to discover how far removed my views are from the mainstream. Just two days ago, for instance, I was astonished when I read Providence Journal syndicated columnist Froma Harrop’s latest piece, which the Seattle Times carried. She sure has it in for Glenn Greenwald.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport for nine hours — no waterboarding or electric shocks, just pointed questions and confiscation of David Michael Miranda’s computer gear. That prompted Greenwald to threaten Britain with more of his writings.

“I think they’ll regret what they’ve done,” he said. Miranda, meanwhile, accused British authorities of “psychological violence.”

Greenwald has enthralled paranoids on the right and the left with torrid tales of government perfidy. He’s a skilled enough communicator to leave the impression of revealing, or being about to reveal, appalling truths without actually delivering the goods.

But at some point even his ardent fan base will have to step back, take a look at the sweaty denunciations, the self-dramatization and the “opera buffa” plot, and conclude that this story is ripe for rapid deflation. Some critics call the style “outrage porn.”

Huh? This is both inaccurate and lazy writing. But regardless, is Greenwald really the story? Why not what we have learned from his reporting, and that of the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, among others? For example, Gellman revealed ten days ago that the “National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.” Isn’t that more important?

Which brings me to David Carr’s superb piece in the NYT yesterday.

It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.

What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

Jeffrey Toobin, who works for both CNN and The New Yorker, called Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison.” This week, he called David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under antiterror laws, the equivalent of a “drug mule.”

[snip]

What have Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald done to inspire such rancor from other journalists? Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.

In the instance of the stories based on the purloined confidential documents in the Manning and Snowden leaks, we learned what our country has been doing in our name, whether it is in war zones or in digital realms.

Blame the messenger.

Carr concludes:

If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pulitzer Prizes and Peabodies they expected. Same with the 2010 WikiLeaks video of the Apache helicopter attack.

Instead, the journalists and organizations who did that work find themselves under attack, not just from a government bent on keeping its secrets, but from friendly fire by fellow journalists. What are we thinking?

Indeed.

tomtomparallel

[Tom Tomorrow at Daily Kos, August 26]

Categories: Journalism, Politics

Rashid on Central Asia

August 11, 2013 Leave a comment

centralasia

[Mike King, in the New York Review of Books]

Two springs ago I found myself plowing through a sequence of books on the history of countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and along the Black Sea. (See, for instance, my post on Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road.) At the same time, the Seattle Art Museum had an exhibition on Central Asian ikats (post here) that reinforced my newfound interest in the region. And then a brochure arrived highlighting a trip to Central Asia and the Caucasus this October sponsored by the Met. (Bad timing.)

No surprise, then, that when I saw an article by Ahmed Rashid with the title Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia in the table of contents of the current New York Review of Books, I went straight to it. The article is behind a paywall, so you won’t be able to read it in full without subscribing. Too bad.

The opening draws one right in.

On the freezing night of December 12, 1991, in the heart of Central Asia, I stood on the icy tarmac of the airport outside Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, watching as the five former Communist Party bosses and future presidents of the republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan arrived wearing fur coats and hats. The honor guard, the military band, and the dancing girls holding frozen flowers went through elaborate drills, shivering all the while as the dignitaries’ planes landed.

It was a critical moment in the history of the world. Four days earlier Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union. The five republics were now suddenly independent but nobody had consulted the Central Asian leaders themselves. Angry, frustrated, fearful, feeling abandoned by their “mother Russia,” and terrified about the consequences, the leaders sat up all night to discuss their future.

It was strange to see the heirs of conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar—so cowered. They were tied to Moscow in thousands of ways, from electricity grids to road, rail, and telephone networks. Central Asia had become a vast colony producing raw materials—cotton, wheat, metals, oil, and gas—for the Soviet industrial machine based in western Russia. They feared an economic and social collapse as Yeltsin cast them out of the empire. That night a deputy Turkmen foreign minister told me, “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.”

Rashid reviews three books and two reports, all in the context of what may happen in the region after the US departs from Afghanistan next year. The closing two paragraphs give a sense of what’s at stake.

Tumultuous changes could well be in store—both internally as the Central Asian states are forced into greater reforms and democratization through pressure from below, and by policies pursued by the regional big powers. That the US is more or less exiting the region, while Russia faces a deep economic and political crisis that is unacknowledged by its leaders, will leave China in an even stronger position in Central Asia and Afghanistan. What, if anything, China, with all its strength, may do in the region is a mystery.

Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.

I’m particularly intrigued by one of the books under review, Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, which came out in May. Rashid writes:

The weird, the strange, the corrupt, and the grand are all evident in Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. He writes primarily about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has a population of just 5.5 million people who live in the highest mountain ranges in the world, with no resources except sheep herding and income from a single gold mine. They have tried hard to become a democratic state—overthrowing two presidents to do so. The result, not surprisingly, has been more misery and much chaos.

Shishkin, an American journalist of Russian origin, captures these events in a far corner of the world with breathless and poetic prose. … He relentlessly pursues and then tells the stories of the most corrupt and powerful and also the most sincere and admirable characters who inhabit these mountains.

If you can get hold of Rashid’s article, it’s well worth reading.

Categories: Books, Politics
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