Russia in Syria Part III

On Russian culture, which is bound up in this whole ball of wax…

One of the many definitions of culture is that it comprises the traits and beliefs passed on from one generation to another. A most elastic term, it encompasses not just arts, sciences, law, general knowledge, and religion, but also, attitudes, which are not consciously thought, but secret to the unconscious, in uneasy meld with the primitive mind. We didn’t have to think about this too hard until the post colonial period, when cultures less advanced than western got guns and bombs.

Only very recently, perhaps only since World War II, have western cultures  institutionalized altruism in a big way. The development was preceded by representative democracy, and universal suffrage, which made politically insupportable the concept of aristocratic entitlement. Execution of a government in an even-handed way, which is similar but not identical to “without corruption”, required that the civil servant internalize altruistic principles. This was originally facilitated by allegiance to monarch, then flag, and then a sequence of documents, most notably, the U.S. Constitution (with lots and lots of administrative law), and the European Convention on Human Rights. But no form of government can function only according to the letter of the law. These documents offer guidance to the civil servant on institutional altruism: to act with concern for the individual above the institution. The degree to which an individual experiences institutional altruism may be questionable to the unfortunate who is caught in a regulatory grinder. But against the background of history, it’s remarkable nevertheless.

It is a continual puzzle  why so many world leaders, wearing elegant western business suits with correctly knotted ties, contrive governments that appear to imitate all the organs of a western democracy, but in which the processes are mere mimicry. In Russia, until the accession of Vladimir Putin, there was an attempt to create a western style democracy, but it failed. Putin’s inheritance was a very large country with an ideological vacuum. History’s dustbin contained only the Tsar and Communism. The actors of Putin’s ascension were organized crime, oligarchs, combinations of the two, and the Orthodox Church.

In order to govern the place, Putin reached for a pre-cultural concept: friends, glued together by money and self interest One cultural concept  survived, patriotism,  love for the Russian state as the embodiment of “Russian culture.” Throughout the 19th Century, as the Russian Empire incorporated nomadic societies in Central Asia, the acquisitions were described as enlightening primitives the glories of Russian culture. A culture does not have to declare itself great or superior, but that it does so is characteristic of the Russian.

Friends help friends, who in Russia must be adherents to Russian culture. This does not admit more altruistic behavior than occasional earthquake relief. With such a system, a single diplomatic principle is compatible: raison d’État , “a purely political reason for action on the part of a ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice, or honesty is involved.” Cardinal Richelieu’s name has a strong association with the phrase. In the Thirty Year’s War, France, a Catholic state, backed Protestant rulers to keep France whole.

Russia’s choice today has a surprising analogy. The population of Russia is 14% Muslim. Of that 14%, only 5% are Shiite. Backing Iran separates the Sunnis of the Russian Caucasus from larger Sunni populations in the Middle East. So we have a theory, with relations with Iran as an example, that Russian foreign policy is based purely on self interest.

By contrast, U.S. foreign policy is based on both self interest and idealistic altruism, in proportions sufficient to make the electorate chronically unhappy. It has also been criticized by proxies suddenly dumped at the expiration of usefulness. Apparently, altruism does not make the U.S. a reliable buddy.

Is there other validation to this theory of Russian policy? Although Russian promotion of the Ukraine separatism has the geopolitical aspect of countering NATO expansion, the actual event appears to have been a cascade. It was started by small groups of Russian right-wing nationalists, subsequently embraced by Putin’s inner circle, and then by a popular wave, that Russians in the Ukraine must be saved from dirty Ukrainian culture, by making the land under their feet part of Russia. So Russian intervention in Ukraine bears the marks of both raison d’État and “friends.”

In this discussion, the term “friends” encompasses all forms of power and bonding in Russia. In Russia, the civil servant works for whoever pays him. In the absence of the codified altruism of a western state, personal loyalties are all there is beyond the trivial. Rather than devise a different thought system for international affairs, Russia simply extends what it has at home.

We are now prepared to analyze Russian policy in Syria, based on

  • raison d’État diplomacy
  • “friends”, bonds of loyalty,extending to international affairs
  • the costs and risks to Russia, which are considerable

The assertion that Russian foreign policy is based on self interest admits a possible exception. Among foreign entitites, can there be real friends, as opposed to friends of convenience? Apparently, yes.

To be continued shortly.

Russia in Syria Part II

With respect to Russians in Syria, important linkages figure:

  • Were it not for the existence of ISIS, the Russians would not now be in Syria.
  • ISIS is a transnational phenomenon.
  • The military power of ISIS, compared to the presence of a significant western army, is negligible. The same comparison cannot be assumed with the Russians.
  • Sociology: ISIS has no cultural overlap with any civil societies. It is a breakdown phenomena.

We may find it difficult to accustom ourselves to what resembles a fictional world of supervillains reminiscent of Dr. Evil, with a host of like-minded subalterns, grading into a murderous rabble. Yet this, the almost infinitely evil world of a “shooter” computer game, is a reasonable approximation. The Venn Diagram is a useful visualization tool. Imagine two overlapping circles, drawn on a page. You may color the circles if you wish. Slide (or draw) the two circles so that the overlap represents something common between the two. You might try “shared values” for two different cultures. Interesting comparisons, in degree of overlap, might be seen with:

  • U.S. versus E.U
  • U.S. versus Russia
  • E.U. versus North Korea
  • U.S. versus China
  • U.S. versus Saudi Arabia

Shared values could be replaced by shared interests, with differing results. Even in the case of the U.S. versus North Korea, if the ruling class of North Korea is excepted, there is tremendous overlap, illuminated by the stories of defectors. With ISIS, this is not so. To be mathematically precise, a certain segment of the captive Sunni population prefers ISIS to the status of a minority endangered by the Shiite state. Among that group, there is some small overlap with the civilized world. It is not exploitable as a germinal political force.

In this drama, the Syrians who desire western good for Syria play the part of Bambi in Bambi Meets Godzilla. Hence the direct cause of Russian intervention is ISIS, which has been lensed variously: as radical Islam, or as a religious cult. Perhaps these categories grant it too much. It may be no more than a volcanic eruption of atavism, bursting out of the human urge to kill.

Perhaps, at the end of Part III of “Russia in Syria”, you might take away what appears to be a prescription. But this pot has been boiling for over a hundred years. With that as an excuse, please forgive the apparent digression to Iraq. Your takeaway will be so colored. Iraq and Syria are national fictions, distinguished only by the territorial boundaries of the Western colonial mandates. The French carved Syria, as the British carved Iraq, from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Suppose you are an engineer, assigned the task of making a vacuum bottle, i.e., something with good glass walls and a cork that keeps out the air. But the specification has a curious aspect: one wall is missing. The customer, who has no experience making vacuum bottles, turns out to be rigid on the spec. This is what happens when a  foreign policy of rigid moral definition is joined to a real situation. Syria an Iraq are not separate.

The military power of ISIS is negligible compared to a motivated military force with modern underpinnings. That Iraq does not have such a force has been blamed on Nouri al-Maliki, the first prime minister of Iraq. This presents an interesting challenge to the argument that the Obama Administration’s failure to, or decision not to (you make your choice)  negotiate a residual presence in Iraq is why the situation has regressed. If there had been a residual presence, Iraqi response to ISIS would have been impeded by:

  • Antipathy to U.S. presence.
  • Continued presence of Maliki, with corrupting manipulation of the military.

The replacement of Maliki removed the direct drag of his presence. Haider al-Abadi is or was the hoped-for motivational and unifying leader. But with the fall of Ramadi, it became apparent that something deep and pernicious remained. Even without Maliki, the system behaved pretty much as it had when he was running the show. In Western analysis, there is “rot”, which is to be cured by a motivational leader. With the fall of Ramadi, al-Abadi has “failed”, so there is now grumbling that he is not motivational and unifying. I remarked on this in “Ash Carter says the Iraqis Have “…’no will to fight’ in Ramadi”…Patton’s Response”

This is a theme of U.S. policy, that leaders of quality drive the genesis of nationhood. I can’t think of a successful instance. An example worthy of study, and with excellent documentation, is that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose successful coup was in large part the baby of Miles Copeland, arranger and trumpet player for Glenn Miller, and – incidentally – C.I.A. officer. One of his several books is “The Game of Nations”. No one could quite figure out why the C.I.A allowed publication. The only explanation that makes sense is that they could not bring themselves to come down on a plank owner.

This digression had a dual purpose. First, to emphasize that Iraq and Syria are not separate. Second, to put you in a Dr. Evil frame of mind. Analysis,  as distinct from action, is necessarily amoral. This is not so different from a kind of mathematics called the calculus of variations, where fictitious degrees of freedom are introduced, worked with, and then removed. John von Neumann’s advice to Richard Feynman was “You don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in.” Afterwards, you can slip back into your moral comfort zone – possibly with less comfort.

To be continued shortly.

Russia in Syria, Part I

The Russians are in Syria, and it looks like they want to hold some land. (Reuters) U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says this will only worsen the situation. The U.S. expresses alarm (CNN). Let us review the moral underpinnings of our concern. The government of Bashar al-Assad, a family based enterprise of the Alawite sect, has committed wholesale atrocities against the Sunni majority. His father, Hafez al Assad, with differing particulars, did the same thing.

The dynamics of the Assad government cannot be dissected from the extended family, or their ancestral home, Qardaha, a village in Latakia. Neither can it be separated from the curious syncretistic Alawite sect, perhaps the only in the world, excepting cults, where the religious codes are secret. The syncretistic part is the curious melding of Islamic and Christian traditions. Hafez al Assad commanded the Syrian Alawites to behave in a more Islamic fashion, and they complied. In place of a coherent set of religious beliefs,  the Alawites are glued by village culture, and the compression of the surrounding sea of Sunnis. In this case, it becomes easy to abstract the concept of a cohesive minority from the usual religious embroidery.

The early response of the Assad government to the Sunni uprising, when it was centered in Aleppo, bears remarkable similarity to that of the 1982 Hama Islamic uprising. The government of Assad’s father, Bashir-al-Assad, conducted a massacre of an estimated 20,000-40,000 residents. The suppression was successful because the social dynamic of Syria’s then stationary village society was not then receptive to conflagration. The massacre was preceded by the siege of a compact city, which could not be replicated in the context of the current, broader conflict.

The history of this conflict has featured  a lot of hand-wringing, punctuated by the new concern that Russian involvement will lengthen the war, thereby increasing civilian casualties. The Alawite army is weakening. Without some fundamental change,  ISIS victory is inevitable. Throughout, international expressions of concern have contained implicit assumptions about who has the right to live, and who is destined to die. Given that the Alawite government has committed atrocities, and that the Alawites have lives of privilege, should they suffer the fate of an ISIS victory? It should not surprise that over the extended Middle East, the degree of concern varies widely.

Since the inception of the Syria uprising, U.S. policy has evolved from complete passivity to  ineffectual support of the scarce elements who affect enmity to Assad and friendship to the U.S. In other words, the U.S. policy has been to find reasonable people and support them. Community development, in Syria and Iraq! The community is a very positive base for social change in enclaves. Unfortunately, the region is not an enclave; it is a vortex of conflict, with a constant inflow, manipulated by religions, ideology, lust for power, and, indirectly, because Syria has virtually no oil, the oil curse.

Into this witches cauldron go also the ghosts of the Great Game, the Crimean War, and the Ottoman Empire, to which all the contested territory belonged before the First World War. The ghosts threaten because

  • “Community development”, identification and support of elements that with support could prevail over religious extremism, has failed.
  • Russia is a land power, with borders that can never be made secure.
  • Sadly, Arab Spring. In a parody of Gresham’s Law, bad elements pushed out good.

Current foreign policy has been much criticized for apparent passivity on Syria, and the complete exit from Iraq. Most of the criticism has the intent of political capital.  The best of it comes from Lindsey Graham, who asks for renewed U.S. ground presence in Iraq.

Many specifics of U.S. policy to date are questionable. Yet even if early policy had been more proactive, more agile, with greater force, and greater cunning,  the desired goal could have remained elusive. Sometimes a desired goal exists in moral, but not practical terms. This is deadly to successful foreign policy. It’s not enough to feel good about what you are trying to accomplish.

In the western U.S., forest fires are not extinguished. They are contained, and allowed to burn out. But in Syria/Iraq, containment is not possible. What then?

To be continued shortly. Until then, prep yourself.

2016 Presidential Race; Why are there no heroes?

Political analysis is one of the most developed fields of prediction. This is not to say the pundits get it right; their records are hit-and-miss. But their machinery, involving grave pundits saddled to complex mathematical machinery with 3-D visualizations, captivates.

Sometimes predictive insight comes from an initial question that has no direct connection with the eventual question. Since political pundits seem to have so much trouble competing with exit polls, perhaps a question that opens up the invisible zeitgeist would be a fruitful alternative to the pundit’s complexity and specificity.  What form could the question take? For anyone with a partisan political outlook, it’s a real mind stretcher. To limber up, let’s review the brief years in which modern America was born. We segue with a general discussion of heroism in presidential elections.

In presidential races, heroes have been conspicuously absent, except for the occasional war hero, whose presidency is typically undistinguished or with signs of incompetence.  The traits of the hero are apparently incompatible with those of the successful politico, which involve active trading of one’s principles for the Greater Good of the moment. And yet if a president, in the process of being morally debauched, manages to do some good that outlasts his term, history grants him the hero’s mantle.

If this election, a candidate manages victory with a platform of complete negativity, as in “no more this…and no more that”, it will be a first.  There is always some version of “a chicken in every pot”, which Herbert Hoover actually recycled from Henry IV of France.  Jeb Bush’s version is “4% growth”(annual.) After election, as if to wash away the stains of the campaign, a president seems bound to try to create a myth that will outlast his administration. JFK’s audacity was not to promise, but to demand. His second demand was Man on the Moon. Lest it seem frivolous, the program catalyzed the rest of the technological 20th century, including the computer you are this moment using. But my favorite demand is actually his first, the exhortation of his inaugural speech, written by Ted Sorensen. Don’t make me spoil the invocation of an American Caesar. Watch his renewed demand for the service and sacrifice to the principle  of American Exceptionalism.

The United States of 1963 was a cruel place, where racial and cultural discrimination, police and civil brutality, and demands for cultural conformity were much different from today. Kennedy’s oration was directed at the enfranchised electorate.  The disenfranchised had the Civil Rights Movement. In historical judgment of a president, we must take measure of  political background of the times. Watch Martin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” , the visible pinnacle of the organized Civil Rights Movement that started gaining steam on December 1, 1955, with the arrest of Rosa Parks. Three months after MLK’s speech JFK was dead, his place in the pantheon a debatable sum of the man and the times.

For  the primacy of his role in the enlargement and extension of the Vietnam War, LBJ is one of the most reviled presidents. But his political acumen, a euphemistic reference to necessary moral debauchery, enabled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . Instead of a demand, LBJ offered a promise, the Great Society. With war and cruelty subtracted, these turbulent times were the birth of modern America. To our credit, we are not idle inheritors of moral capital; it has continued to evolve under our stewardship.

But in contradiction to the footsteps of giants that we see through the lens of time, JFK and LBJ had personally abhorrent traits. Ronald Kessler’s In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,  is a sobering read. The depravities and personality traits of some recent presidents could not be more disturbing  if it turned out they had their own personal email servers.

The revelations about these  presidents have fueled historical revisionism.  Both seem too flawed for pivotal roles in the authoring of modern America. But stripped of saintly motivations, what happened, happened. We are left to wonder the proportions in which they lead, followed, and drifted with the currents.

The current contenders, apart from lapses of etiquette, deportment, and personal email servers, seem upstanding by comparison. Yet they share the  inability to find in today’s issues, the grounds of potential greatness. Like some sacred religious tome, the legacy of the early sixties has solidified into definition, not invocation.

The question, which claims the promise to unlock future mysteries, is: Why is this so? We could round up the usual suspects:

  • The electorate.
  • The candidates.
  • The American dream, and revisions thereof.

And so forth. To the political partisan, the candidate is the image of salvation, remaining whole till the next Burning Man Festival. You have that much time to figure out the answer. If you can turn in your homework early, you may be able to claim your place at the pundit’s round table.






OT: The Post Internet Fortune Teller in Chelsea, NYC

This OT excursion is only a temporary loss of focus. In search of a place to run this piece, motivated by personal experience, I thought, why not my own blog? It affords the opportunity  to compare the time-honed methods of traditional fortune tellers with the methods of those who currently pursue future knowledge. The techniques of divination may overlap.

The Post-Internet Fortune Teller in Chelsea

Ofri Cnaani, post-internet artist and instructor at the School of Visual Arts, SVA,  has a show at Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 W 24th St., Chelsea, running through October 24. Ofri has used the cyanotype process, known to us as “blueprint”, to create spaces that, if not dreamscapes, inhabit the same places as dreams. Several other composite works turn computer frustration into art. I am somewhat disappointed with the omission of the infamous Microsoft “Blue Screen of Death.” This computer equivalent of cyanide would have been well served by cyanotype. On the other hand, anyone who has actually experienced the Blue Screen of Death might prefer to forget it. Ofri is a Mac user.

If you would relish the chance to stare directly into Ofri’s eyes, go to the show. It’s part of the “process”, a performance event called, “Wrong Tools”, in which Ofri plays the post internet transmogrification of the Gypsy fortune teller. Gone are the beads and curtains, replaced by discarded computer chachkis. The tarot deck is replaced by one depicting and betraying those who have fallen to the cruel logic of the Internet. One personal possession and two chosen by the participant from bins of cast-offs are melded by Ofri into your personal reading and personal work of art. But two traditions remain: the card flip, and locking eyes with the Internet Spirit, channeled, in this case, by Ofri.

My card was flipped. I wailed in sorrow as it betrayed my fate: “Your posts are being used against you.” Ofri interrupted my lament, commanding me to stare directly into her eyes, “for the process.” Our not-quite-blazing eyes locked for the prescribed interval, during which I was completely unconscious of what happened, if anything. A whir of a photocopier, and my personal work of art was handed to me, sharply downscaled in beauty from the cyanotypes, but a keeper nonetheless.

“Wrong Tools” was a reminder of my own gypsy adventures. I wrote a script about gypsies. It actually got optioned, though nothing came of it. I was diligent. I joined the Gypsy Lore Society. I read such sociological literature as exists from the intense curiosity of sociologists of this apparently insoluble underclass. And with the insane synchronicity in my life, I had a Gypsy quasi-girlfriend (she wanted to hook me, but I didn’t want to be hooked.) Her mom was actually super nice. She had been Jimi Hendrix’s last girlfriend, inspiration for his song, “Gypsy Eyes.”

 The Gypsies (more correctly, “Rom”) of her class were nothing like the stereotypical gypsies, who also exist. In Atlantic City, scouting locations for the film, I landed directly on top, parking-wise, of the last remaining ofisa on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The ofisa had traditional elegance, reprising the temporary, transportable opulence of a nomad’s lifestyle. The human adornment was an obviously very intelligent and not unattractive young woman and her grandmother. The young woman had all the material to be a lawyer, but was condemned to be married off. How was this to be accomplished? By family arrangement, or by way of her performance art? The question lingers.

In manner and appearance, there was an Sephardic resemblance. Nothing else distinguished her, except for obvious intelligence, and the weight of her gown, which caused her to sweat. By watching the rate of bead formation on her forehead, I had an instantaneous readout of her stress level. Never before, perhaps, was she studied as closely as I was to study her, as, simultaneously, she tried to divine me. Sweat, as every interrogator knows, is gold.

 I was accompanied by the cinematographer. To get the most out of it, I forked over the twenty bucks for a reading. I was  conducted to a tiny back booth, where she tried to script ninety seconds that would not compromise her reputation, so dearly supported by her gown, the rugs, the beads, the spiritual figures and figurines, and several hundred pounds of chachkis.

 She actually did pretty well. I think she might have “divined” three things, two of which I remember:

  • Money comes to me easily and leaves me easily. Sure. I had just dropped a twenty on her. Easy come, easy go.
  • I have woman troubles. A man comes in with another man. Where is the woman? Play the averages. Ergo, the man has woman troubles.

The ninety seconds exhausted her. Swaddled in the fabric yards of tradition, her glow was replaced by sweat. I cannot imagine how she survived the rest of the day without a change of clothes, into something more appropriate, like a bathing suit.

Perhaps I forget the other things she told me because they were a potpourri of things that are true and false for everybody. For another twenty bucks, I could have had another ninety seconds of her script. But alas for her divination of my traits, easy come easy go has limits. I have my regrets also, but it wasn’t about the twenty bucks. I would have liked to know her better, but I shied from the risk and the pain.

Are Ofri’s “Wrong Tools” the wrong tools for the job? Conduct yourself to Andrea Meislin, compare to my Gypsy experience, and then decide.