Posted on 24-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Update on a post earlier in the month when Turkey and Armenia signed their historic accord.  Turkey’s domestic cousin Azerbaijan has tossed the first (and expected) roadblock in the attempted rapprochement.  Like with most regional disputes the final normalization of ties is going to require a regional settlement and a lot of patience.  The benefits to the region and the world’s (particularly Europe’s) energy supply are great.  An added benefit will be the diversification of energy supplies so that Europe does not have to rely as much on Russia’s mercurial mood swings the next time they want to send a message to Ukraine  or another country that displeases it.

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Posted on 24-10-2009
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

The Battle of Agincourt is one of the most famous victories in English history.  Unlike the battles of Crecy and Poitiers in the preceding century which arguably were even greater victories in the preceding centuries, it has the benefit of being immortalized by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare also succeeded in varnishing the image of Henry V.  The New York Times has an article about the recent dispute about just how impressive a victory it was.  I read about the controversy recently in the postscript to Bernard Cromwell’s novel set around the battle, and am inclined with my non-academic gut to side with Cromwell’s admittedly non-academic thesis.

Medieval chroniclers can be notoriously biased, but attempting to get a definitive answer based on medieval records (particularly the France of the time which was slipping into civil war) is even harder.  All the chroniclers of the day agree on the fact that on St. Crispin’s day Henry V’s dysentery infested army achieved something remarkable.   Now it could have been cause by the sheer imbalance in casualties and the number of the French nobility killed or captured.  But it seems unlikely that the French would have been as certain of victory if the armies were fairly equal in size or that the rout of an army of equivalent size would have caused such a commotion across Europe or such a blow to the French national psyche.

Agincourt’s reputation is inflated in the larger historical context.  While it gave Henry V a short term victory and even an acknowledgment as the heir to the French crown the long term English conquest of France was untenable.  Henry’s early death prevented him from experiencing the likely bitter dregs of defeat faced by his great grandfather Edward III towards the end of his long reign.

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One of the emerging narratives of American military operations in Afghanistan is that the combat there is just another round of the Afghan civil war.  Peter Bergen the posted this column last week disputing this and discussing the “merger” of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  Then comes Vahid Brown with this column suggesting the interests are not as aligned as Bergen thinks.  Which is it?

Ideological movements that claim a global reach have historically run hard into the brick wall of national sentiment.  The Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and other communist countries ultimately put their national interests first instead of heading off into hare brained crusades like Che Guevara (which ended with his execution in Bolivia).  The founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al Saud used his alliance with the fundamentalist Wahhabi ulema and the religious militia the Ikhwan to propel him to power.  But when the Ikhwan wanted to continue a global jihad and raid neighboring states he crushed them.  As Brown’s link shows, Hamas and Hezbollah have been pragmatically presenting themselves as national movements even if they may have sympathy with Islamic radicals elsewhere  (as an aside Hezbollah from Al-Qaeda’s perspective are Shiite schismatics).

Of course the cold rationality displayed by other fundamentalists does not always translate to the mind of Mullah Omar.  This could be a feint meant to distract public opinion.

But, American foreign policy rhetoric in the cold war and post-9/11 has not always appreciated that every communist and every jihadist is not automatically in bed with each other.  It was this rhetoric that was used to justify the Iraq misadventure (where Saddam Hussein was not an Islamic radical to begin with).  While there may be broad sympathy by ideologues for the cause, it does not always translate into any direct or effective aid.  The Afghan Taliban regime has cause for bitter feelings towards Al-Qaeda.  It is possible that they may be willing to engage in the more pragmatic goals of regaining power instead of engaging in the nihilistic crusades like the one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi waged in Iraq, but at the same time availing themselves of the military aid and training Al-Qaeda is able to offer.

To what extent these purported divisions can be exploited in unclear.  But if they can lead to a repeat of the Iraqi scenario when Sunni groups banded together against Zarqawi’s blood lust,  America, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be better off for it.

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Posted on 24-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

With Czech President Václav Klaus backing down in face of the carrots and sticks offered by his exasperated European colleagues, it appears that it is only a matter of time before the Treaty of Lisbon comes into force.  As Europe draws ever closer to forming some sort of unified state, the public support for the new union appears underwhelming.  Not since the Act of Union in 1707 created the United Kingdom, does there appear to be less support in the public for the creation of a united state.  While the Europeans are not rioting on the streets like the Scots did in 1707, the ruling classes of Europe seem to be aware of the tenor of public opinion.

After the difficulty adopting the Maastricht Treaty and the debacle of the attempted ratification of the European Constitution, Europe’s leaders kept the decision out of the hands of its fickle electorate electing for parliamentary ratification.  Ireland, the only country to hold a referendum initially rejected it.  The economic crisis appears to have given the Irish a greater appreciation for being a part of Europe and a second referendum approved the treaty.

The irony of the European Union has been the undemocratic and bureaucratic framework it tossed on top of a league of democracies.  Public opinion in Europe has long been leery of the bureaucrats in Brussels and concerned about the implications of national sovereignty.  At the same time the national governments have been unwilling to devolve power to the directly elected European Parliament turning it into a debating forum.

Creating a European Union was an elitist if noble minded and practical concept to begin with, even if it has been extremely beneficial to Europe.  However, even with the Lisbon Treaty the European structure is likely to remain a somewhat weak confederation for the foreseeable future.  The European “Foreign Minister” appears likely to more of a liaison between the national governments than the creator of a “European” foreign policy.  The President will be an amiable figurehead with little executive power.  While the powers of the European Parliament are rising with each treaty, it still does not have the power of legislative initiative to initiate new legislation which must come from the appointed European Commission.

So while more driblets of power have been handed over to Europe, many things still remain the same.  The more powerful European States will still run their own foreign policy and there is no discussion of drafting something like the “Treaty Clause” of the United States Constitution which would assign this right to the European Government.  What the Lisbon Treaty does do is tie the economic bonds of the union even closer.  The practical result is that the smaller or poorer members who deviate too far from the line wanted by Germany and France (and from time to time the United Kingdom when it decides it is European) will be forced to toe the line or face reductions on their cherished subsidies.  This power cannot be used too often because it will aggravate the resentments the European public feels towards Brussels.

A United States of Europe will truly come into being only when the directly elected European Parliament and the executive branch truly obtain the initiative to direct policy independent of the member states, even the powerful ones like France and Germany.  If the European public is not enthralled by the current structure there appear to be no signs that the national governments are willing to surrender their powers to such an extent.  So for all the rhetoric and treaties, the answer to the question posited above is nobody.

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