Friday, March 06, 2015

What's to Fear?

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch has an interesting short essay entitled "Be Not Afraid".  In it, he argues that Americans have a distorted view of the dangers around them--specifically war, crime, and terrorism.  We are safer than we ever have been, he tells us, though we don't seem to realize it.

He is on very solid ground when it comes to the argument with respect to crime.  A single graph depicts the fact that a majority of American poll respondents, year after year since 2003, have responded that crime increased the previous year, while the data has shown the opposite.  Similarly, with regard to terrorism, actual incidents in the US since 2001 are very few (Boston Marathon and Ft. Hood are the only ones that come to mind); however, the attention paid to this threat seems only to increase. I would love to see a graph year-by-year of the number of TV eyeballs focused on fictional cops-and-robbers, crime forensics, and anti-terroristic activity.  These imaginary dramas--and the 24-hour news coverage of the events that are occurring--are what are driving the perceptions in people's minds.

War is a slightly different matter:  there are no comparative statistics on warfare within the US over recent years or decades, as there have been no warfare-related incidents (with the possible exception of some hostile submarine sightings on the coasts) within the 48 continental states in the last 150 years, so Rauch's argument is based on warfare in the world.   His claim for lower levels of warfare is based on less violence between sovereign nations: this is inarguably true, but barely touches on the predominant form of warfare these days, which is within countries, with the contribution of various forms of interference by external forces. I would argue that the pace of killing in this form has not lagged in recent decades, citing as examples Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Congo, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and now Syria.

If Rauch's argument is that, in a dangerous world, America is at the extreme safe end of the spectrum, I will concede that.  That qualification, though, is key:  it is still a dangerous world.

Europe:  An Island of Safety in a Sea of Troubles
While I think Americans tend to exaggerate their dangers, I would not say the same about Europe--if anything, the opposite.  In nearly every direction, beyond Europe's borders there is danger.  To the East, there is the Ukraine-Russia conflict, to the Southeast, the ongoing massacres in Syria and Iraq, and now, to the South, a rising danger of extremist Islamic groups gaining control of Libya.  The Ukraine/Russia issue I will take up shortly, but the violence to the South and Southeast create security issues for Europe in three ways:
  • the flow of refugees from the conflicts creates a destabilizing effect within European countries; 
  • young, gullible Europeans are being seduced into getting involved in the conflicts, with the likely results being kidnapping (which is feeding the negative loop) or horrible death; and
  • radicalized and traumatized Europeans may return to their otherwise peaceful lands and create the threat of domestic violence. 
Individual European nations have taken steps to protect against these threats.  I have seen a harder line taken against participants returning from the violence in the Middle East, some of whom have figured into recent terroristic incidents.  The next line of attack will be on those who take advantage of free speech to gull and inflame the vulnerable into going there; this kind of limitation may be useful but it is concerning in its own way.  In terms of the fleeing refugees, Italy has had to go it mostly alone in dealing with the makeshift boats overloaded with people from Africa and the Middle East who find their way to Libya, a short but perilous voyage from the Southern shores of relatively safe and prosperous Europe.  So far, the Italians haven't had much success dealing with the exploiters who provide the boats--and calling them "boats" is in many cases a stretch--and dump the refugees near the shore to fend for themselves, or drown, as many have done.

There is even a new threat rising to the North.  As the permanent ice in the Arctic Sea disappears and it becomes more generally navigable, I can foresee a contest for naval dominance there, one in which we can expect the Russians to move forward aggressively.   I'm not sure if the navies of the West--meaning European nations, Canada, and the US--are ready for this, but I'm sure the largest Russian fleet, based in and around Murmansk, will be on the scene.

The troubles between Ukraine and Russia are not going away anytime soon. The eventual solution is not hard to identify:  the Russian-speaking Donbas region must be demilitarized and given autonomy by Ukraine, but with some sort of international supervision that the border with Russia is kept free of movement of arms and military forces, and Ukraine should be compensated for Crimea. How long will that take?  I'd say years, probably five or more, and during those years the West needs not only to maintain the sanctions on Russia but step them up when necessary. The alternative will be more violence in the Ukraine--there is no clear line when Russian intrigue would stop, and plenty more military targets to go after.  After that, a very big line could be crossed, if the Russians find elements in the Baltic states--probably in Latvia--who will work with them to stir up trouble.  Those nations are in NATO and in the EU, and the result would be catastrophic for the region.

The problem with Russia is Europe--it is all too easy for the Russians to gain a measure of appeasement through a divide-and-seduce strategy.  Italian Prime Minister Renzi's current visit to Moscow (after one to Kiev) is a bit of a dangerous game in this regard.  (Here is an Italian account of it; it's more balanced than the ones you would find in America, and I hope you can push a button for a reasonable translation of it.)  Renzi wanted something in particular--Russia's backing for a UN resolution to counter the Islamic forces in Libya--and he got it. From what I can read, it appears that he gave up a chance to pressure Putin to release a Ukrainian fighter pilot (her name is Nadia Savchenko) who is languishing in a Moscow prison, on a hunger strike.

Putin and Renzi found lots of common ground to talk about to the press--for two examples, Putin will come to Milan's world Expo on the Russian day of honor there, and they both praised an Italian woman cosmonaut who was launched from the Russian spaceport--and Renzi laid flowers at the site of Boris Nemtsov's assassination, and he praised the Minsk accord and cease-fire.... but I don't see much mention of the sanctions. Italy is a country which is actually hit fairly hard by them, as there are many industrial agreements between Italian companies and Russian ones, Italy is dependent on Russia for energy, and, among many other Western nations, its economy profits from the free-spending Russian oligarchs who take their money out of the country.

Though the idea of a unified Europe is currently in retreat, the continent needs to consider moving forward to the next phase, which would be an empowered External Affairs department which represents in a unified way the European states on transnational matters.  There is a representative of the EU for this purpose:  an Italian woman, Federica Mogherini, has now taken the role after the term of a British one, but she doesn't seem to be able to speak authoritatively for the EU on much.  I imagine that Renzi's visit, and its content, was reviewed unofficially by other Europeans (by Angela Merkel of Germany, for sure), but there is always the danger of the individual states going to make their separate deals.  It's as if American diplomacy was subject to the whims, interests, and interference of the individual states, or, say, of Congress.  Imagine that!

Mr. Netanyahu goes to Congress
Which brings me, inevitably, to the last topic of the day.  Washington is so fixed on its navel-gazing (well, it is the center of the universe, after all!) that the main topic was whether Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel was interfering in our diplomacy, or if there was some affront in protocol to President Obama. I doubt that Obama is too concerned about the frivolous "Netanyahu for President" movement, and I also doubt that he will be dissuaded from continuing the difficult negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, by Netanyahu or by Congress.

To be fair to Netanyahu, he forcefully disavowed any attention to meddle in US domestic politics, and, though I am certain he is informed on the secrets of the negotiations, he didn't give away anything that isn't public (this was the White House's greatest concern). Furthermore, contrary to the doomsayers' belief, it is not his intention to torpedo an accord with Iran on the nukes.  If he wanted to do that, his military forces could surely do that, though it would be to no productive end--even for Israel--and that is what continues to restrain him.  Netanyahu wants a better deal.  He mentioned three specific things that he wants:  Iran to stop interfering in other states in the region, for it to stop "supporting global terrorism", and to end its policy of advocating Israel's destruction.  I think the last one of these is a reasonable request for the negotiations; the first will not happen, and the second isn't demonstrably occurring.  (ISIS and al-Qaeda are both completely opposed to Iran, the state and its people's predominant religion, for example.)

The part about the potential agreement "only" restricting Iran's nuclear development for ten years, though, isn't very convincing.  Ten years is a long distance to kick the can forward; the current Ayatollah of Iran will be long gone by then, as (politically) will Obama and Netanyahu.  In ten years, Iran could be opened up to the outside--if there is an agreement--and the world may have other issues, other nuclear proliferation to worry about.  I will say that it is somewhat hypocritical for the leader of a state (Israel) which never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has a secret program and which has developed nuclear weapons, to insist that no other country in the region be allowed to do so.  But we are all hypocrites when it comes to that--those who have them, and those who depend on the countries that have them.

The part that disturbs me, though, is that the Congressional leaders who thoughtlessly invited Netanyahu as a flanking maneuver to gain some edge in their political dispute (or to create distraction from their inability to legislate) are interfering in the politics of another state, Israel.  Netanyahu is in the final stages of a critical electoral contest, and the continuation of his leadership of the government is very much in doubt. The speech to Congress gave him a chance to portray himself to his country's voters as the statesmanlike leader of the nation, standing foremost in defending them from their greatest threat.  So far, polls afterwards suggest that he didn't get much of a boost, that his party may not finish first, but that he may be in the best position to build a new governing coalition after all.

Since Congress got involved, I may as well state my point of view about Israel's own business:  I am encouraged that the Israeli Arabs have put aside their internal differences and put forward a combined list, something I think they will find useful to retain, regardless of the outcome of the coalition dealmaking in the Knesset after this election.  They won't be included this time, but in some future government they may come to have influence, and as I have stated before, I trust their point of view, in identifying and earnestly working for a just solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, more than that of any other of the Israeli or Palestinian political groupings.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

I have to comment on the 47 Republicans who have infamously tried to undermine the position of the US (and Europe, Russia, China) in its delicate negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program:
If there is an agreement, it will not need to be ratified. If it is broken, it will reflect on our credibility, but that is it. If the agreement calls for sanctions to be lifted, that would have to be approved by Congress to be effective. Here's the key point, though: if the other countries remove the sanctions (as per the hypothetical agreement) and we do not, our sanctions will mean very little. That is why it is essential that this agreement be with all 6 parties (on "our side"), and that is why the Republicans' cheap political ploy to pressure Obama and suck up to Netanyahu never could have the slightest effect on the outcome (except, again, to damage our country's credibility as a negotiating partner).

I don't care about waving the Logan Act at them--a law with no teeth--the point is the colossal stupidity of the move, and the recklessness of the more senior Senators who signed on (I don't blame Cotton and Rubio so much for their naivete'--they are young and ill-informed-- though Rubio's should disqualify him from consideration as a possible national ticket candidate).
Someone like McConnell or McCain should be ashamed, though. They have experience, and experienced staff, and should have known better and dissuaded such a foolish move.