“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Bollettino

Perhaps LI’s mood, lately, has effected our vision. We are seeing black in black. Our worst case scenario for this election seems to be coming true. Not only does Bush seem to be winning it, but he seems on the verge of winning it by a large margin.

So, is this just a case of a population taking a large detour from the reality principle – a mass neurosis? Mass neurosis among males has another name – war. Tom Friedman, the warmonger, gave as his reason for supporting the war in Iraq that we had to attack somebody after 9/11. You don’t have to charge 150 per to recognize a classic case of substitution and compulsion when it drops a bomb on you, or shanghais your kids making part time money in the Guard into a pointless death in the desert. We fight one war – a real one – with a comic dearth of troops and follow up, prolong it by way of incompetent mercenaries in Peshawar, while we turn our soldiers into mercenaries for an ex-Ba’athist president-for-life in waiting in Najaf, Mosul, Fallujah, and all the other names that grace the obituaries or the medical charts for the one limbed, the brain damaged, the scorched, and we crown this accomplishment with an election in which the moderate promises that he will have our soldiers out of there by 2008.

In the NYRB, this week, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. ponders how we got here in a review of The Vulcans. His answer, depressingly enough, is that we can lay a heaping helping of blame on Leo Strauss.

LI believes that Leo Strauss has as much to do with strategy in the Middle East as, say, the Shriners or the Freemasons. A lot of neoconservatives connected because they went to Chicago and took classes with Leo, or with one of the Straussians. The emphasis here should be on connection. Strauss’ idea of the noble lie, if that is his idea – wasn’t like Edison trying out that one last filament in the light bulb. The idea that you get ahead by telling people what they want to hear, while you are really pursuing another agenda, could have been jotted on a cocktail napkin by any Madison Avenue exec worth his expense account in the last one hundred years. We have serious doubts Paul Wolfowitz needed Hegel's Gesammelte Werke to figure out how to push a war through the soft maze of a D.C. establishment filled with corrupt know it alls and brownosers who all benefit from the military industrial complex -- otherwise known as metro D.C.'s major employer.

A more serious problem with Schlesinger’s article is that it accepts the Bush administration’s premises that the invasion of Iraq was about spreading democracy. Again, a brief glance at America’s history will tell us that none of the one hundred fifty some American military interventions were fought, according to American politicians, for anything else. We defeated the Indians, drove back the Mexicans, and penetrated the jungles of the Philippines for democracy. One imagines that if we had been able to poll Atilla’s horde, they would have mentioned “bigger horses” as a key motivator. Such is progress that our desire for a transportation system that guarantees all Americans the ability to make it on their own, at 65 mph, from LA to NYC, in metal capsules weighing 9 to 10 thousand pounds is now called democracy. In fact, the Pentagon pump house boys did, for a while, convince themselves that Iraqi households were filled with covert Republicans – and we don’t mean the Guard. That was because the only Iraqi they met socially was one named Chalabi. But even Paul Wolfowitz is not completely insane. The thought was that a new order in the Middle East could be implemented by an aggressive America with little native opposition, so that Israel would assume a first rank position, in alliance with Iraq and, eventually, a Pahlavi-ist Iran and a broken up Syria. This fits nicely with the traditional American pattern. In theory, it is a policy that could deliver on America’s two major interests – preserving Israel’s power, and preserving the state of the world’s oil economy – with a bonus – it would free us, to a certain extent, from an onerous relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Democracy, here, is merely a codeword for privatization. This can be thought of as the ultimate wave of privatization – taking away the oil from the various Middle Eastern governments that control it. The plan was, in fact, coherent with Cheney’s domestic plan, which had its meltdown in California in 2001, and will no doubt be back again in 2005.

The Wolfowitz doctrine hasn’t worked. It fact, it has exploded spectacularly, and will no doubt continue to create chaos down the road. However, this is neither because of democracy nor Strauss. Wolfowitz, a man who thinks Suharto (the one dictator outside of Mao who could compete with Saddam Hussein in the ‘Australian crawl through a sea of blood’ event) was a great man, could give a tinker’s damn about democracy. The American occupation of Iraq has been notable for a lot of things – the air bombing of cities we already occupy is one of them, that’s unique -- but democracy is not among them. The word has, of course, been used a lot, but to mistake that for the real thing is to mistake the phrase “yours sincerely” in everyday correspondence for a court administered oath. If democracy had been happening in Iraq, the most unpopular political figure in Iraq, Allawi, would not be running the place; the Iraqis themselves would be spending their oil money, instead of not having the power even to inquire into how it is spent; and the largest government building in Iraq, a palace paid for by Iraqi money for the past twenty five years, would not presently be the American embassy.

Of course, to admit that we aren’t fighting for democracy in Iraq would be to commit the sin against the holy ghost and the founding fathers, which is perhaps why an old Democratic politburo member like Schlesinger goes on about Leo Strauss. But perhaps, just as in psychoanalysis, the cure will only start when we admit what we really desire.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that moment.


Friday, September 10, 2004

Bollettino

A tape that the murderers made in Beslan has been released. An account in the Independent describes it as a minute long pan showing the hostages in the gym, and the bombs strung up on the basketball hoops.

It seems to LI that the disaster of last Friday was fatally bound up with the way the murderers strung the bombs. It was as simple as that. In an overheated school with 1,200 prisoners and dissension among the murderers themselves, there was every chance of accident. The point at issue, in the media, was whether the Security forces responded too hastily to the initial explosions heard in the school. Yet given the circumstances, it is hard to see how the crisis could have proceeded to a peaceful settlement, given the criminal nature of the terrorists, the lies of the government, and the fury of the inhabitants of Beslan. Reports from the survivors claim that when the murderers disagreed among themselves, some were even murdered by the chief.

There are two different interpretations that have immediately latched onto the murder of, according to Gazeta.ru, 600 people. One is the official line, which is spoken by Putin: the terrorists were composed of Arabs as well as Chechens, showing that Al Qaeda was behind the taking of the school. The other is that the murderers were a group composed of the usual ethnic mix of Basaev’s militia. The latter school blames everything on Putin’s policy in Chechnya.

LI believes this, from what we have read so far: when a war is fought that employs the scorched earth tactics that the Russians have employed in Chechnya since 1999, it changes the composition of the resisting force in an almost Darwinian fashion. Moderates are selected out by the very intensity and scope of the fighting. This happened, for instance, in Cambodia in 1970 – the U.S. forces, which attacked with random bombing the communist sanctuaries in Cambodia, aiding the government that had deposed Sihanouk, picked off those groups that were adverse to the hardcore Khmer Rouge. The latter were as hostile to the Vietnamese communists as they were to the Americans. Villages that were bombed provided sources of manpower and rage for the Khmer Rouge, which gained in power only after that incursion, and those bombings, occurred.

Similarly, the destruction of Chechnya has no doubt played into the hands of Basaev and strengthened that network that relies on contacts between diaspora Chechens and terrorist militias like Al Qaeda.

However, the proof that Al Qaeda had a hand in the Beslan crime is only inferential. If the school, as has been reported, was so infiltrated this summer by undercover terrorists that they were able to bury arms under the floor of the school, that is the kind of preparatory work that sounds very much in the Al Qaeda vein. On the other hand, Basaev has learned a lot about murdering over the last decade, and he has been spectacularly successful at it in the last year.

One should also never estimate the purely criminal element involved here. The thieve’s world is a real world, with a top – which has gone on to own most of Russia’s industries – and a bottom, which has joined, for one motive or another, numerous bands.

If readers can get it, read the London Times article by Loretta Napoleoni about the Al Qaeda connection. Two grafs:

“In the early 1990s the Northern Alliance -then funded by the Russians -blocked the advance of the Taleban. To weaken the coalition of warlords from the North, al-Qaeda and its Muslim sponsors decided to force the Russians to fight on a new front by fostering a conflict in the Caucasus: the fight for independence in Chechnya provided the golden opportunity.
The Chechen Islamist guerrilla groups were then weak and poorly funded; bin Laden and his network of sponsors strengthened them militarily and financially. In 1994, some Islamist elements in Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, began nurturing Shamil Basayev, a young Chechen fighter. Trained and indoctrinated in the Amir Muawia camp, near Khost in Afghanistan, Basayev returned to Chechnya to form the first army of Chechen jihad.”

It is a source of continuous amazement, to LI, that America’s alliance with Pakistan causes no comment in the press whatsoever. The evidence continues to mount that if there was one state, pre 9/11, that was devoting its resources to international terrorism, it was the state into which we have poured six billion dollars since 9/11.

As for our other ally: “Veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad soon arrived in Chechnya, among them the Jordanian-born Khattab (a pseudonym), whom Basayev had met and befriended in Pakistan. Khattab was close to bin Laden and his network of financiers and administered the money. In 1995, a Saudi charity funded his journey to Chechnya, together with several training camps, while bin Laden contributed $25million towards the jihad in Chechnya.”

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Bollettino

The WP gives one of those “let’s pretend to care about the casualties’ articles that are bound to occur as US casualties hit 1,000 – and will reoccur at 1,500 and 2,000 – that contains some astonishingly stupid grafs generated by the WP line that “nobody” could have guessed what a butcher shop Iraq was going to become.

“Before the war, predictions by even the most skeptical Bush administration critics did not include scenarios of escalating violence this long after the invasion, or of the U.S. military issuing a news release such as the one it sent out Tuesday morning, headlined "Fighting Continues in Eastern Baghdad." In addition, several cities near Baghdad have slipped from U.S. control in recent months and have become "no-go zones" for U.S. troops.
"No one that I know of, to include the most pessimistic experts, predicted a full-scale insurgency would break out within a couple of months of the overthrow of the old regime," said Steven Metz, a guerrilla warfare expert at the Army War College.
Now, Metz said, "the current situation may be sustained for a very long time."
Really? So nobody could have predicted this, eh? Hmm. LI remembers writing several posts pointing out that occupations generally become more, not less dangerous as they are prolonged. We like to think of ourselves as gifted – but we aren’t that gifted. We were stating a generalization known to any military historian who bothered to look. And, according to our blog, last May, after Baghdad fell, Adnan Pachachi said this to Business Week: . "Very soon there will be a void in the power structure of Iraq, and Iraqis should fill that void, It is not in the interest of the U.S. to prolong its military presence. Their soldiers will be exposed to greater danger as time goes on."

Ah, but Pachachi was, let’s face it, an Iraqi – what important D.C. thinktank had he ever published an important paper in? What important dinner had Sally Quinn ever invited him to?
As the Iraq war continues to wend its corrupt, corpse laden way through the American body politic, it just may have one healthy effect – to generate disgust with the D.C. elite that governs this country. A brain dead, arrogant, bribe-able mass of second raters if ever there was one, comparable to the French governing elite on the eve of World War II.

As for predictions – this gets us close to a topic we are going to do a post about later. But we reprint here a post we wrote last year, Monday, March 31, 2003:
When this War began, Mr. Limited Inc and Mr. Gadfly had a little discussion about the nature of forecasts. Mr. Limited Inc took exception to Mr. Gadfly's idea that nothing could be known about what the future held. Au contraire mon frere, we said. We know that one thing will happen and then another thing will happen. This might seem like a whole lotta null set, but it is really a whole lotta structure. We reject radical skepticism about the structure of the future. However, to be honest, we are making a point that is besides the point for Mr. Gadfly, who was pointing out something about knowledge. . Nobody in the U.S. knows enough about Iraq, and nobody in Iraq knows enough about the U.S., to make any wise prediction as to the outcome, on a realtime basis, of their encounter. This is actually a very strong point. We even think it is one of the strongest points that can be made.

But we think our point is also strong. Structure is important because, while it doesn't give us a picture of the substance of future events, it gives us a rule about how they must unfold. Ignoring the "then and then and then" structure puts a plan on a collision course with reality. When a plan violates the principle that the past has already happened (or, in other words, when a plan is premised on an incompletely known past, or a past that has been distorted by the planner in some way), it will fail, even if its outcome, by happy chance, occurs. If I try to burn down a building on a stormy day with wet matches, the building is not going to torch -- but a lightening stroke might do the trick. Plans have a trajectory over time. Planners who aren't sensitive to the temporal nature of the plan's actualization are also in violation of the above rule, although in a subtler sense -- they are adding to the past as they try to control a process that is going on into the future. We have to understand, in other words, how to sum over probabilities, and how to revise ourselves when those probabilities are realized over time.

This is why, so often, business plans go awry. Businessmen are peculiarly prone to becoming prisoners of the superlative. They are addicts of the vision statement, in which �best practices", "superb performance", and the "highest levels of excellence" vie with each other to debauch meaning. They throw around locutions like �"world class," and they are big believers in a crude version of William James' Will to Believe -- they like to think that wishing on a star will make your wish come true, or at least true enough that they can get sell their options on the star before it twinkles out. Ross Perot is the echt businessman. He came dancing out of that culture, he mouthed that culture's platitudes, and he seemed to speak a slightly deranged variant of the English tongue. Bush has the same problem. Language is always such a naysayer. But all too often, the vision statement fails. The dogs won't eat the dogfood. The punchdrunk won't drink the punch. What to do? After all, one has just indulged in an orgy of orgulousness? At this point, you look around for traitors. Failure becomes a question of disloyalty.

This is pertinent: after all, we are being directed in this war by the CEO mindset armed.

This is important if, as we think is the case, we are seeing the war split into two. One is the war against Saddam the Horrific. The other is the war against the post-Saddam guerrilla. The latter has no name, yet; the incipient program is simply, repel the invader. As the invader triumphs, setting up a state run by Rumsfeld's creepy buddy, Jay Garner (who has a first class ticket to Bushs monster ball, being one of the numerous hawks who have day jobs as Perlish vultures), we will have a new war. In this one, the Iraqi state will be our ally against Iraqi "terrorists" -- that is, the people who are firing on American forces and their Iraqi collaborators. In the new war, the goal will be a lot clearer -- it will be to repel the occupiers. As the krewe of Iraqi exiles preferred by the Pentagon are installed (over the resistance of other Iraqis) get set up, the traditional lines of the conflict will become clear a client state, an imperialist sponsor, and the usual poisonous symbiosis between them, with the client depending on the sponsor to sustain it at the same time that that dependence renders it illegitimate.

Slate's Fred Kaplan wrote an interesting report, last week, on how the military gamed its own war game on Iraq. The war game pitted two teams -- the blues, representing true blue America, and the reds, representing red as in blood Saddam H. As soon as the red team started acting in such a fashion as to upset the blue team, the rules were changed, moves were disallowed, and in general the pre-ordained triumph of the blues was vindicated at the expense of the game's realism.


Kaplan restrains himself when it comes to the Strangelovian name of the Red commander Van Riper, one "p" away from Ripper, if you can believe it �Here are three grafs that tell a lot about Bush's War:

For instance -- and here is where he displayed prescience - Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to Red troops, thereby eluding Blue's super-sophisticated eavesdropping technology. He maneuvered Red forces constantly. At one point in the game, when Blue's fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, "refloated" the Blue fleet, and resumed play.)

"Robert Oakley, a retired U.S. ambassador who played the Red civilian leader, told the Army Times that Van Riper was "out-thinking" Blue Force from the first day of the exercise.

"Yet, Van Riper said in his e-mail, the game's managers remanded some of his moves as improper and simply blocked others from being carried out. According to the Army Times summary, "Exercise officials denied him the opportunity to use his own tactics and ideas against Blue, and on several occasions directed [Red Force] not to use certain weapons systems against Blue. It even ordered him to reveal the location of Red units."

Finally, Van Riper quit the game in protest, so as not to be associated with what would be misleading results.��

The blue game is the one they are reporting 24/7 in the American news media. We wonder how long it is going to take before the Red game is reported. Iraq, as we keep reminding our loyal band of readers, is not Afghanistan - or not, at least, the Afghanistan of our dream war. In reality, Afghanistan is heating up again -- we simply aren't paying attention to it. As why should we - we aren't planning on making Afghanistan an American protectorate. That cow doesnt milk, as we say in Texas. Or is it that cow doesn't hunt dogs? We always mix up our folksy phrases.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Bollettino

LI decided that, due to world events, the best thing to do at the moment would be to read some Tolstoy. So we’ve been reading a novella – The Cossacks – and the Prisoners of the Caucasus. We were pointed to the latter story by an essay in Russian Studies in Literature, Spring 2004 by Paula A. Michaels (Prisoners of the Caucasus: From Colonial to Postcolonial Narrative), which considers Tolstoy’s stories and two films which derive from it.

Now, we are grateful for Ms. Michaels pointer. But we read the story in a state of recoil from Ms. Michaels article.

You see, Ms. Michaels is infected with the American penchant for fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians read the bible literally – fundamentalist academics operate with the same procedures, but (usually) different sacred text. In Ms. Michaels case, Edward Said’s Orientalism is holy writ, and she happily applies it like a treasure map on which the magic x that marks the spot stands for racism. Thus, she can guide herself through any text unfortunate enough to fall into her hands.

Ms. Michaels dutifully -- and this was useful to LI -- gives us an account of a narrative type in Russian literature – the captive of the Tartars. She shows how the two films deriving from Tolstoy’s story give us a more modern, sensitive account of the thing. And she tells us what she thinks of Tolstoy’s story, premised on two suppositions. Tolstoy can only be, a., using the protagonist to reflect his own feelings, and b., a racist imperialist Russian. She has no intention of wrestling with her texts as fictions. That fiction has its own world, in which irony, allegory, and the sudden evanescence and reconstruction of ideological lines are commonplace, is not acceptable, and is sent back to the back of the classroom if it raises its hand. Fiction, obviously, isn’t serious. Fundamentalism takes texts much more “seriously” than they take themselves – and if they engage in shenanigans, so much the worse for them! Here is how Ms. Michaels sums up the story:

“As already mentioned, Tolstoy’s tale, not surprisingly, portrays
the Caucasian natives in ways conventional for nineteenth-century
European Orientalist literature. His narrator, Zhilin, repeatedly
describes his captors as ill-smelling, suggesting that they are uncivilized,
dirty, and diseased and reflecting his revulsion for them.
While some Caucasian characters are given names, other are impersonally
referred to as the “red-faced Tatar” or the “red-bearded
Tatar.” When the brother of the “red-bearded Tatar” is killed by
Russian soldiers, a funeral procession is described in detail. Not
only does this finely drawn picture impart authority to the author
and his narrator, but it increases the reader’s alienation from the
exotic subjects filtered through an ethnographic lens. Here and
elsewhere, the reader encounters the Caucasian natives solely
through the narrator’s representation of them and their ways. As
Zhilin does not speak their language, they are rendered largely
mute in this tale. When they do speak broken Russian, their simple
phrases and grammatical errors infantilize them for the reader.
Tolstoy juxtaposes the anonymity, exoticism, and childlike barbarism
attributed to the Tatars to the cleverness, bravery, and determination
of his Russian protagonist. From the very beginning,
they encounter a wily adversary as Zhilin proves to be a tough
negotiator over the ransom price. Zhilin goes on to demonstrate
his skillful hands and agile mind by repairing his captor’s watch,
healing the sick, and making a toy for Abdul Murat’s son. These
acts build bridges between himself and his captors, integrating him
into their community to some extent and cultivating their trust in
him. He proves, however, that these acts are part of a crafty plan
when he uses their trust, particularly that of Abdul Murat’s children,
to facilitate his escape. When read against the images of the
mute and childlike Tatars, there is no mistaking Tolstoy’s imperialist
stance. The Russians are smarter, more civilized, and worthy
of the empire they have conquered.”

There is, of course, no mistaking… there was no mistaking before the story was read, and certainly none after it was read. We loved her use of "not suprisingly" -- this is the strength of fundamentalism, its elimination of surprise. Once you have your paws on the Truth, you can bat away that imp of the perverse, the writer's impulse to surprise. Ms. Michaels, expert detective, knows that a story is just a stance, an imperialist stance. It is a disguised lecture, or op ed piece.

From that account, one would never expect a text that had paragraphs like this:

Zhilin is captured by a red bearded Tartar who sells him. The Tartar lives in the same village where Zhilin is kept as a captive. One day, Zhillin goes to see how he lives. The old man shoots at him. Afterwards, the man comes to Zhillin’s master to complain about him. Zhillin’s master explains to his Russian captive:

"'He is a great man!' said the master. 'He was the bravest of our fellows; he killed many Russians and was at one time very rich. He had three wives and eight sons, and they all lived in one village. Then the Russians came and destroyed the village, and killed seven of his sons. Only one son was left, and he gave himself up to the Russians. The old man also went and gave himself up, and lived among the Russians for three months. At the end of that time he found his son, killed him with his own hands, and then escaped. After that he left off fighting, and went to Mecca to pray to God; that is why he wears a turban. One who has been to Mecca is called "Hadji," and wears a turban. He does not like you fellows. He tells me to kill you. But I can't kill you. I have paid money for you and, besides, I have grown fond of you, Iván. Far from killing you, I would not even let you go if I had not promised.' And he laughed, saying in Russian, 'You, Iván, good; I, Abdul, good!'"

Luckily for all of us, as Ms. Michael notes, Russian scholars have fully absorbed the lesson that Russian literature is only the clothing around various hegemonic and racist postures. Time marches on, and we, who breathlessly keep up with it, can certainly put our noses in the air when considering the, well, 19th century and before then. Yuck!

“Extending the arguments of Edward Said, literary scholars in recent
years have well documented the ways in which prerevolutionary
Russian literature can be understood as an expression of
imperial identity.5 The same kinds of representations that Said noted
in the scholarly and artistic literature of Western Europe are readily
detectable in the Russian case. Nineteenth-century Russian imperial
expansion brought writers, adventurers, ethnographers, military
men, missionaries, and others into contact with a variety of
ethnic groups, which Russians filtered through their own shifting
sense of ethnic and national identity.”

Tolstoy’s barbarous times are passed, and now we can make multi-culty films of his novel and show him up for the imperialist stancist he is –even if, in the decade we are making these films, we are also plowing the Chechen fields with corpses. The stance we take, us moderns, is that we are infinitely more progressive than the likes of Tolstoy. As one of Flannery Connor’s characters says, when she is told that the monks of old slept in their coffins, “they warn’t as civilized as we are.”

Reading Ms. Michael’s essay made me sad. There is one thing you will never get a fundamentalist – Christian, Moslem or academic – to believe in: literature. Entertainment is fine, they have their favorite tv shows, but literature? you must be kidding me.

So I moved on, looking for another essay. Which I’ll save for another post.


Bollettino The most depressing news of the day comes from the NYT article about the one murderer who was taken in Beslan. “Among the most arresting television images here on Monday, along with the parade of coffins and the keening of crowds of mourners, was the face of a terrified man, gripped tightly by two masked soldiers, who was identified as the only hostage-taker to be captured alive."By God, I did not shoot!'' he mumbled when asked if he had fired on fleeing hostages. "By God, I have not killed!''Asked by the soldiers if he had not had pity on the children he had held for 51 hours without food or water, he pleaded: "Yes, I did have pity! I have children, too.''Speaking in a slurred voice, he said, "They gathered us in a forest, a person known as 'commander,' and they said that we must seize a school in Beslan.'' He said the orders had come from Aslan Maskhadov, a Chechen rebel leader, and Shamil Basayev, a militant warlord.”Maskhadov is not just a “Chechen rebel leader,” but was the president of the late Chechen Republic in 1999. At that time, it was Maskhadov who was accusing the Russians of surreptitiously supporting Basayev, who was attacking villages in Daghestan with his usual brutality. Maskhadov, at that time, declared his hostility to Basayev and his ‘criminal gang’ quite clearly. He was not able to control him, however, and soon the Russian attack on Chechnya brought down the fragile Chechen state. Fastforward five horrible years. Maskhadov’s forces have kept distinct from Basayev’s. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which has some of the best sources about the Chechen conflict, reported in March that Russian attacks on Maskhadov’s forces were weakening them, and consequently strengthening Basayev’s “extremist” forces. “The capture this week of the pro-independence Chechen defence minister Magomed Khambiev, following on from the death of influential commander Khamzat Gelayev, has radically changed the balance of forces within the rebel movement fighting the Russians. The developments have strengthened the extremist wing of the Chechen rebel movement and badly weakened pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov, and may have far-reaching consequences for the future of the conflict in Chechnya Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist who is still resisting the Russians more than four years after the start of the second conflict but rejects terrorist methods, has now lost two of his closest supporters. He must now rely on only two commanders for close backing, Vakha Arsanov and Isa Munayev. By contrast, the radical Islamist side has four powerful figures in Shamil Basayev, Saudi-born Abu Walid, Dokku Umarov and Abdul-Malik Mezhidov.”If the man quoted by the NYT is telling the truth, the alliance of Maskhadov and Basayev spells the end of the ‘rational’ Chechen resistance, and its collapse into an utter nihilism that threatens to create more Beslans. The thought is almost unbearable. If the man’s confession was, on the contrary, ‘fed’ to him by way of extensive beating, then we see the continuance of Putin’s strategy, which has always been to demonize the Chechens in order to stir up a genocidal hatred of them. Our instinct is that the second possibility is the more probable. It is, to say the least, odd that the NYT seems so ignorant of Maskhadov’s name. The best commentary on the response to Beslan, and its larger meaning, comes from Figaro, a conservative paper. Laure Mandeville’s article intelligently recognizes that the Western voices condemning the Children’s Massacre at Beslan have not been raised, in the past, to prevent that train of causes that led up to the massacre: “In France, only the president of the UDF, Francois Bayrou and the late president of the Commission on Foreign Affairs, Jack Lang (PS) have shown themselves critical. The first calls the responsible politicians to “adopt new political strategies” in order to avoid “such dramas,” the second denounces the “French authorities” whose “complaisance towards the Putin regime … has ended by becoming simply repugnant.” “Our country should demand explanations from the Russian government on the circumstances of this drama.” The incapacity of the West to ally amicable solidarity to a critique of Putin’s choices in the Caucasus is explained by different and conjoining causes, according to whether one is positioned in Washington or Europe. Even if Americans were recently put in the position of criticizing the decline of liberties in Russia, President Bush – busy with his electoral campaign, the quagmire in Iraq, and his mission as commander in chief of the struggle against international terrorism – has every interest in presenting the crisis in Beslan as a manifestation of the hydra of terror. Europe, under the influence of France and Germany, has difficulty putting in question the ‘anti-war axis’ Paris-Berlin-Moscow that presidents Chirac and Schroeder went to celebrate at Sotchi a week ago. However, true questions must be posed about both the taking of the hostages and the upcoming dangers arising from the Russian political strategy in the Caucasus.
…In holding to its diplomatic formulas, the West is pretending to forget that Moscow is reaping what it has sown. The late Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, while condemning the taking of hostages, has underlined the role of Russia in radicalizing the guerrillas. “The cause of the Beslan tragedy and the infinite spiral of violence in Chechnya and in the region is the political strategy of Putin’s, who is guilty of massive crimes,” Mashkadov protests. “A quarter of the Chechen population, among which we count 40,000 children, have been exterminated in the last ten years.” (No one knows how many Chechens have disappeared since the beginning of the conflict in 1994.)”The truth is, Beslan reveals the radical dissymmetry between the moral and the political world. In the moral world, nothing justifies the murder of children, and their parents. Nothing justifies murder. Nothing justifies the murder of innocents. Nothing justifies the murder of the guilty. Dickering with blood – the pretence that the absolute prohibition on murder can only be guarded by its state sanctioned violation – is an appeal from principle to history that history repudiates. There is no final murder – murders come in terms of ‘another.” Another murder, another murder, another murder – this is how the series has unrolled since Cain. But if Cain was the first murderer, he was also the first politician, with the politician’s eternal question: am I my brother’s keeper? And the politician’s eternal impulse to limit brotherhood, to initiate hatred, to turn it into systematic gain.
Sometimes, LI thinks that the post 9/11 landscape is characterized by one thing: we have reached the exhaustion point in the political system globally. And as the strains appear, in Iraq, Ossetia, Chechnya, Moscow, New York, etc., we, who have been raised specifically not to perceive these questions or to answer them, cocooned in suburbs and by infinite tv, are experiencing a vast, unconscious helplessness. This is not our field. This is not our expertise. These emotions that are called up can find no objective satisfaction, except in childish calls for aggression, to which the state responds with the child's favorite toys: the bomber, the neat always improved missile, the gun. To be met with the improvised bomb, the hostage, the box cutter.
And for most, I think the answer has to be: turn away. Don’t look. I can't really say I think that impulse is wrong. But at the moment, I am having trouble making my own internal migration.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Bollettino

LI has been grimly trying to accommodate ourselves to the thought that Bush will be the president for the next four years. This looks more and more probable. The NYT includes a story about the laughable Kerry campaign – a campaign that has spent a month focusing on foreign policy without suggesting what Kerry’s foreign policy would actually be, which is quite a feat – with a story of how the Kerry-ites are trying to reinvigorate themselves by connecting to Clinton. The story includes this immortal line:

“On Saturday, Mr. Johnson drew applause from Democrats assembled for a weekly strategy meeting at Mr. Kerry's headquarters when he reassured aides that the campaign had settled on a clear line of attack against Mr. Bush, people at the meeting said. “

Is there anything more pathetic?

Since the Dems rolled over about Iraq – after all, isn’t the real issue that Kerry was a GENUINE hero back in the days when Mick Jagger was young? – the media has been left in a vacuum. As the Post explained long ago about its systematically flawed coverage of the WMD issue, since both ‘sides’ – there are only two sides, Democrat and Republican, in our wondrous freedom loving Flatland for the media – agreed about the issue, the newspaper found it hard to get outside of the narrative, which would mean taking seriously the protests of all those silly anarchist types in the street. My God, the Post didn’t even want to report on them – much less take a thing they said seriously. Since the two sides again agree that the occupation of Iraq was a good idea from the beginning, merely flawed by a few Iraqi bad eggs, the sidelessness of it all has pushed stories about Iraq into the B section. There were a thousand American wounded last month. Today, seven Americans died in a bomb near Fallujah – yesterday, another helicopter was downed. These are all yawners to the media, and evidently to Kerry. At least, we haven’t heard him refer to those injuries, or to Najaf, or to anything pertinent happening in Iraq. He does think it would be nice if more wine was served among the coalition of the willing.

Looking back on the Democratic primaries, one has to marvel at the Howard Dean effect. For a brief time, he galvanized the party into something that looked like life. It lumbered around like life, and it even occasionally spouted a truth that was like life – as in Dean’s derided opinion that capturing Saddam Hussein wouldn’t make Americans any safer. I am not sure of the numbers, but I believe since the capture more Americans have been killed than before – but to contemplate this is the utmost impoliteness, and it isn’t countenanced at tables in D.C. Why, it makes one sound like Michael Moore. So the Dem party walked and talked, and we all thought: the zombie days are passed. LI thought, at the time, that this was so obviously a good thing that maybe the former zombie would drop by a spine store and pick up a spare. Alas, then came the convention, with Kerry reporting for duty in what has turned out to be Daschle’s Navy -- a wacky bunch of hapless vets who just can't get it together in the face of mighty Bush and his fiercesome genius, Karl Rove (who is to genius as Schlitz is to beer -- the cheapest variety).

At least LI is hoping for some consolation in the upcoming Dem defeat -- that is, that Daschle will be going down with the ship. But that is, perhaps, to project more rationality on this party than it possesses.


Sunday, September 05, 2004

Bollettino

We are still stunned here about events in Beslan. The best report about the hostage taking is this extremely frightening story in the Washington Post. According to the people the Post interviewed, there were no “Arabs” at the scene, just Basaev’s Chechen jihadists. However, given the grotesque and largescale nature of the seizure of the school and the segregation of the hostages, it is hard to tell whether the Russian claim is correct or not.

LI has been rather stunned, too, by the ignorance or indifference shown in the American response to Beslan. For example: one of the blogs we go to daily, Crooked Timber, is made up of some of the Internet’s best and brightest academic bloggers, yet in the two comments they have posted so far, it is as if no background knowledge about Chechnya whatsoever has penetrated to this group – and, by inference, outside of the small circle that has been concerned with the inhumane and sinister war that has devastated Chechnya since 1995. The CT post on the school begins with a point that is simply nonsense … “the hideous events in Beslan are the property of the people who lived there” … as if victimage was a sort of intellectual property right – and proceeds to make two points that seem particularly ill judged:

“2) Should we expect, going forward, that all other conflicts involving Muslims on one side will be similarly compromised, and what should policy-makers do differently because of this?
3) What the hell has gone wrong with the particular strain of Islam which apparently tells people it’s OK to kill children, and what can be done about it?”

LI isn’t sure what ‘strain’ is being talked about. And as for what the hell has gone wrong, that is a long story of Western complacency about the destruction of Chechnya as well as a story about how the circle around Yeltsin protected itself from prosecution for its massive thievery and abuses of power, with the complicity of the Clinton administration and the EU. It is a story about the roots of Putin’s own power, and a story about the covert cooperation between the Russian security forces and the guerrillas around Basaev in the nineties, who wished to drive a wedge into Chechen society.

Perhaps the idea of the Moslem strain CT mentions relates vaguely to the significant differences between, on the one hand, the Wahabi faction – or vakhabi -- which has penetrated into the Chechen struggle via Basaev and various foreign fighters, and the dominant form of Islam in Chechnya, the Sufi brotherhoods, who have developed a form of resistance to the Russians that goes back two hundred years. For the Sufis, it is ridiculous to talk about jihad. The vakhabi faction is vehemently opposed to the cult of saints, to Sufi ritual, and to the theology of Sufism in general. There have been clashes between the two groups. LI, no expert on Chechnya, has at least been to the library in the last two or three years and read up on the topic in two or three books. One would think that among the CT collective, somebody would know something about Chechnya. Apparently not.

The vakhabis are supported by two factors. One is that the Russian government has used them on the principle of divide and conquer. Thus, in the late nineties, the circle around Yeltsin kept an odd connection going to Basaev. Berezhovsky, the ignominious oligarch, was the point man. He was definitely involved in some manner that has yet to be cleared up with Basaev’s incursion into Daghestan – the formal cause of the second Chechen war. The vakhabis have also received massive financial support from the usual suspect – Saudi Arabia.

This is one summing up of the religious aspect of the Chechen conflict (one that, in LI’s opinion, gives far too much intellectual leeway to the assumption of the generosity of Russian intentions) by four scholars at the William R. Nelson Institute at James Madison University:

Thus, Vakhabites challenged the official Chechen leadership (President Maskhadov and its supporters) and posed a serious threat to the foundations of the Chechen society. As a result, official Grozny was becoming more and more critical of vakhabism in its statements and declarations. However, Maskhadov took no decisive action, as he feared that would exacerbate the situation in the republic. Confrontation between traditionalists and radicals resulted in violence several times; for instance, as noted above, Vakhabites clashed with Sufi Muslims in May, 1998 in Gudermes and Urus-Martan and then again in Gudermes in July, 1998 (approximately 50 people were killed that day). Fearing that fundamentalists will destabilize the situation in the republic and attempt to rebel against Grozny, Maskhadov declared the state of emergency, dissolved and disarmed the Shariat Guards and Islamic regiment, and ordered to exile the well-known warlord Khattab, a mercenary from Jordan who allegedly cooperated with radicals. On July 23, 1998 there was an attempt in Grozny to assassinate Maskhadov, an attempt probably organized by Vakhabites. Observers from Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya itself agreed that at that point the republic was on the brink of civil war.

Despite their relatively strong positions, Vakhabites were not able to assert their influence throughout the republic, much less impose their ideology in its entire territory. However, they went ahead with their plans to occupy neighboring Russian regions and invaded Daghestan in August, 1999. Although members of Sufi brotherhoods may have participated in the invasion as well, the idea and its implementation are blamed by the Russian government and the local population primarily on Vakhabites. Subsequent investigations and the fact that the officials Grozny from the very beginning announced that they did not have anything to do with the events in Daghestan and condemned the aggression further convinced Moscow that fundamentalists had started their jihad and the situation in Chechnya was out of control. Vakhabites were perceived as a major threat to peace and stability in the Northern Caucasus and the territorial integrity of the Federation. The invasion of Daghestan and the Vakhabites' plans to wage a holy war against Russia until the creation of a "purely" Islamic state in its southern territories were the top reasons that prompted the federal government to start a military operation in Chechnya immediately after the defeat of those who attacked Daghestan.

As the federal troops advanced into Chechnya, however, they had to fight not only Islamic extremists but also the members of Sufi brotherhoods who, like in 1994-1996, Russian control for various reasons opposed. Unlike fundamentalists, Sufi Muslims do not fight for a religious cause and tend to have more reasonable positions on issues. Moreover, their dissatisfaction with the situation in the republic in the 1996-1999 period encouraged them to cooperate in a number of cases with the Russians. As a result, many of the Sufi communities engaged in negotiations with the federal representatives and avoided armed conflict. Some of them openly supported the military operation and organized volunteer troops to fight against both Sufi and Vakhabite rebels on the Russian side.”

We think that the “some” fighting on the Russian side were definitely in minority. The Russian occupation, which has seen the planned destruction of major Chechen cities, massacres of Chechen men, and the routinization of kidnapping by the Russian army, has alienated the vast mass of Chechens.

As for Basaev, the Jamestown Newsletter, which is a very good source for information about Chechnya, has published an interview with a French journalist, Sophie Shihab, who is very conversant with the situation in Chechnya.

“On Berezovsky’s responsibility for the outbreak of the second war: “It has never been proved, but it has also never been disproved – and the evidence for it is considerable…The offensive [of Basaev’s forces into Dagestan] provided the pretext for renewing the war. Very soon the rumor circulated that Basaev was financed by the Russian warmongers, headed by Berezovsky….There is a whole pile of evidence suggesting the common responsibility of Berezovsky and the FSB…for the attacks in Russia in August and September of 1999, which precipitated the war and the election of Putin. Thus were created bonds between them, but also hatred. Their lines [i.e., Putin’s and Berezovsky’s] diverged in December 1999, when Berezovsky, conscious that the generals around Putin had taken the initiative away from him, announced that he favored negotiations with the most radical Chechens. But even in exile Berezovsky has kept major financial interests, and thus political power, within Russia. And his impunity on the subject of Chechnya, like Putin’s, remains complete.”

LI hopes that this post isn’t taken to excuse what happened in Beslan. Our point is, rather, that what happened in Beslan has causes that go to the heart of the legitimacy of Putin’s government. There is a demonic synergy between Basaev’s terrorists and Putin’s FSB. Many of Putin’s more curious actions, which have been attributed to his desire for power – his war on Berezovsky, for instance, and on the other oligarchs – can be explained as compulsive acts of disguising by a man who legitimized his power with a massive lie, precipitating an at first popular war against a suspect people. Putin, like Claudius, the King of Denmark, believes, evidently, that arms provide the kind of authority that covers all crime, and that he can drown his guilt in other people's blood. But such rulers are always beset with ghosts. Beslan, the planes that were downed, the black widows blowing themselves up in stadiums and subways, the siege at the theatre, all are the unending results of that primal crime.

We’ve pushed this point over and over again in various posts we’ve written about Chechnya. For those who are interested, look up our posts starting at October 17, 2003.