Posted on 13-03-2018
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The President of the United States quoted today:

“As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

It could be a sign that an administration which goes out of its way to avoid criticizing Russia and just fired a Secretary of State who had the temerity to do so will not be constrained by facts in it its actions. After all they can always make up alternative facts.

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Posted on 13-03-2018
Filed Under (Foreign Policy, Politics) by Rashtrakut

It was a departure long expected, but the timing still took everyone by surprise.  Donald Trump finally canned his feckless Secretary of State.  In vintage cowardly Donald Trump fashion he could not do it face to face.  Rex Tillerson evidently found out about his departure on Twitter.  In the chaos that defines the Trump administration, they could not even get their story about the timing right.  A Tillerson aide who contradicted the story that he had been told about this on Friday also got the boot.

This of course is a boon for conspiracy theorists.  Just yesterday this blog noted that the administration seemed unwilling to criticize Tsar Vlad.  Tillerson deviated from the script by openly blaming the Russians, and a few hours later he was gone.

This ends the tenure of one of the worst Secretaries of State in living memory, if not American history.  Tillerson clearly did not have influence with Donald Trump leading to other countries ignoring him.  On his watch 60% of the State Department’s top ranking career diplomats resigned and new applications fell by half.  Key positions remained unfilled.  Treating the state department like the corporate bean counter he was his budget cuts slashed morale, staff and eviscerated American soft power.  He will not be missed.

And yet the remedy may be worse than the cure.  He is replaced by Trump sycophant, CIA director and foreign policy hawk Mike Pompeo.  Mike Pompeo will be replaced at the CIA with a career agent tainted by torture.  Increasingly the few people willing to stand up to Donald Trump’s worst impulses are being replaced by people who will encourage them.  Secretary of State Mattis remains one of the few checks on precipitate action, something that The Onion (which is on fire today) noted in its own fashion.

Look for a lot more hawkish stupidity in this administration’s actions against Iran, Syria and North Korea.

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Posted on 12-03-2018
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

One has to wonder what Putin has on Trump.  Trump generally is fond of dictators, but he has never whispered any criticism of Tsar Vlad.  He has even made excuses for Putin killing troublesome journalists.  The administration has refused to enforce sanctions that overwhelmingly passed Congress or to spend funds appropriated to combat Russian meddling in our political processes.

So it should come as no surprise that the administration will not directly criticize the Tsar for the latest outrage.  Last week, a former Russian spy and his daughter were attacked in the United Kingdom with a nerve agent.  This brought back memories of the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Today the British Prime Minister openly accused the Russians of orchestrating the attack and gave them 48 hours to make the case that the attack was not a state sponsored plot.

Unsurprisingly, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged questions about Moscow’s involvement in the attack and treated us to generic pablum about standing with America’s closest ally.

If the United Kingdom does take action (and as a common investment destination for Russian oligarchs, it has some leverage), it will likely have to do so alone.  The administration of the Muscovite Candidate will not take on Tsar Vlad.

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Posted on 09-03-2018
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

As noted in the previous post Trump shocked the world by agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un.  Less then 24 hours later, the usual walkbacks have started.  Misstating the North Korean promise for talks regarding denuclearization the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that North Korea has agreed to denuclearize and progress on this would be needed before the summit takes place.

It appears that in an attempt to shut down criticism of Trump meeting Kim Jong Un unconditionally, the White House has added a poison pill to the whole mess.  Denuclearization as a precondition to talks is preposterous.  Outside the loony tunes world of Trumplandia, nobody expects North Korea to do this.  Trump’s “Nixon goes to China” moment could be over before it started and the incoherence of this administration is on display once again.

 

 

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Posted on 09-03-2018
Filed Under (Foreign Policy, Politics) by Rashtrakut

In his typical seat of the pants way of managing things, Donald Trump surprised the world by announcing (actually having the South Koreans announce) an impending summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in May.  Taken by surprise were the Pentagon and the State Department.  Just a few hours before the feckless Secretary of State had been announcing that talks were not on the horizon.

Given that the administration’s incoherent policy to date included Mike Pence glaring at North Korea, making a fool of himself at the Winter Olympics and making silly demands like requiring the abandonment of the North Korean nuclear weapons program as a pre-condition of talks, it is not surprising that talks were not going anywhere.  The stage was set for Kim Jong Un to make his offer of an in person meeting and Donald Trump’s ego promptly bit at the bait.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a President meeting a rival face to face.  Under a competent administration it is possible that there could be some progress made towards reducing North Korean paranoia and reckless behavior.  Unfortunately there are a lot of perils with THIS president meeting Kim Jong Un.  Lazy, uninformed, uninterested and incurious about the details of policy matters, Donald Trump still functions as a reality show host and only cares for the spectacle of the photo-op.  On at least two occasions he has publicly met with Democratic members of Congress only to have Baghdad Sarah clarify that he did not mean what he said.

The autocrats of Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines have played Donald Trump (who seems to have a soft spot for autocrats) like a fiddle with flattery designed to boost his insecure ego.  This is something that the North Korean despot has likely noticed between large bites of emmental cheese.

Finally, there is the hollowing out the State Department under the incompetent Rex Tillerson.  Even had he been willing/able to read a policy briefing, there is no American ambassador to South Korea and the Senate has not confirmed the top diplomat to South Korea.  It is hard to see Donald Trump making the effort between rounds of golf to bring himself up to speed on the issues to be discussed here.

There will be some who will credit Trump’s reckless brinkmanship in the past few months and loose talk by the warmongers in his administration of a bloody nose strike for bringing this meeting about.  However, given the likely policy gains of such a summit it is hard to see why the bellicose talk was needed.

When Barack Obama received shrill cries from the foreign policy establishment that he was willing to meet with America’s enemies, he clarified that obviously there would have to be ground work before such a meeting.  Such ground work took place before his trip to Cuba.  There has been no such ground work here.

After watching the fate of Saddam Hussein (who had not yet obtained them) and Muammar Gaddafi (who voluntarily dismantled his WMD program) it is hard to see Kim Jong Un ever handing over his nukes (even though his artillery trained on Seoul is probably sufficient to make any offensive war a non-starter).  So at best we will get some unverifiable commitment of the sort that North Korea has repeatedly reneged upon.  We will likely get some easing of sanctions for good behavior i.e. the same dog and pony show that we have seen over the past few decades.  And then there is the risk of Trump blurting out something dumb as is his wont.

In exchange Kim Jong Un achieves a North Korean foreign policy goal for at least the past 20 years – a summit with the American President.  He gets the propaganda value of broadcasting his acceptance as a world leader to his people.  He also gets the opportunity to deal with a naive self proclaimed deal maker and will likely walk away with his nuclear program intact.

We still do not have the details of the location and exact timing of the summit.  However, at this point it is hard to see this as anything other than a win for Kim Jong Un.

 

 

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Posted on 09-01-2015
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

World news was understandably distracted by the events in France the last few days.  It overshadowed a surprise election upset in Sri Lanka last night.  Its been a few years since this blog discussed the authoritarian President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka who has spent the years following the end of the civil war suppressing dissent and trying to create a political dynasty.  In the triumphalism that followed the destruction of the LTTE, Rajapaksa spent almost no time in healing the divided nation and chose to ignore the reasons the war started in the first place.  The last few years Sri Lanka has been approaching pariah status, with Rajapaksa unwanted at international summits.

Yet even with his corrupt nepotistic despotism he remained very popular with the Sinhalese majority and called early elections in November expecting to win.  It seemed the plan would work until his former health minister entered the race, challenged the despot and won.  Rajapaksa has gracefully admitted defeat, ceding the stage to the new President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena appears to have cannily capitalized on resentment among Sri Lanka’s minority groups and people turned off by the Rajapaksa clan taking control of all parts of government.  Yet, it is not clear whether he will bring any relief to Sri Lanka’s struggling minority groups.  Ethnic tension on the divided island could flare up allowing for a return of Rajapaka back to power, like Daniel Ortega did in Nicaragua.  Hopefully Sirisena bridges the gap that proved to be a chasm to far for Rajapaksa to leap – from politician to statesman.

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Posted on 27-08-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The capture of Russian paratroopers 20 miles inside Ukrainian territory is the latest expose of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.  Russia laughably claimed that the soldiers happened to get lost and just happened to stumble across the border.

However, reports indicate the Russian military has started military operations in Ukraine attacking Ukrainian forces closing in on Donetsk in the rear.  The downing of Flight MH-17 by his thugs had briefly backed the Russian despot into a corner, but with domestic pressure rising and Ukrainian forces on the brink of victory Putin appears to have decided to send direct military aid.  The half empty aid convoy last week appears to have been a distraction for the real invasion.

This happens as the Putin met the president of Ukraine in Minsk to discuss peace, even while he engages in bald faced lies about his invasion.

The problem for Ukraine is that Putin cares more about Ukraine than either the United States or Europe.  The other problem is that the economic tools at America’s disposal are limited since Russia is a minor trading partner.  Europe stuck in a long recession exacerbated by German demands for austerity is unwilling to risk further harm to its economy.

The result is Tsar Vlad is merrily annexing land from a neighbor with impunity.

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Posted on 29-05-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

It is hard to overemphasize how the promise of the Arab Spring has turned into the depressing of an Arab Winter.  Other than Tunisia, the hopes of democratization in the region have fallen by the wayside.  Libya an artificial welding together of three Ottoman tribal vilayets under a flag has lapsed into chaos.  Yemen is a failed state rapidly running out of water.  Saudi Arabia has crushed the democracy movement in Bahrain (because it was Shiite).  At the same time it has projected itself as the patron of the Sunni rebels against the Alawite Baath regime in Syria.  Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war and a rapid exodus of population.

And then there is Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world which was once its cultural heart.  Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Pharoah President, was sentenced to jail for embezzlement last week along with his sons.  In the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, Egypt actually had a free and fair election.  Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood which won the elections did not understand, that successful democracy requires the ability to respect institutions.  Mohamed Morsi showed some autocratic tendencies that aroused the ire of the secular portions of the country.  However, he was still the freely and fairly elected leader of Egypt.  Morsi’s incompetence paved the way for the thugs who backed the Mubarak regime to launch a coup.

For some reason, the corrupt, brutal and inefficient Egyptian Army is still popular in Egypt.  The Egyptian Army has not engaged in massacres like the Baath regimes of Syria and Egypt – but it is every bit as ruthless.  The fall of Morsi was followed by a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and the brutal suppression of their street protests.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not a supporter of democracy.  However, they are quick to note that they won a democratic election and it was stolen from them by force.  The result will be the inevitable radicalization of its hard core supporters who see no reason to engage within the parameters of the Egyptian constitution.  For now, the Brotherhood is on the run.

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi the head of the Egyptian army then anointed himself as the new man to save Egypt.  Spooked by the Muslim Brotherhood, much of Egypt’s secular element has allowed itself to being co-opted by the elements that used to support Hosni Mubarak – the very elements that had brought protesting mobs into Tahrir Square.

The election of el-Sissi was a foregone conclusion.  He faced no real rivals and the government was portraying him as Egypt’s only savior for the last 10 months.  There of course has been no real substance as to how the savior will work his miracles.

The result was the expected landslide for el-Sissi.  Yet the anointment turned into a farce.  The government wanted to show a turnout of 80% to demonstrate the deep reservoirs of support for the new Pharaoh.

The turnout ranged from 38-44% well below the 52% turnout in the election that elected Morsi.  The panicked government kept the polls open for two more days in a desperate effort to get more voters before announcing the results.

It did not help that the result was a foregone conclusions or that the Islamists who turned out to elect Morsi largely stayed at home.  The vote also probably reflects a deep ambivalence (his run for the presidency was greeted by a twitter hash tag that translates to “Vote for the Pimp“) about the self-proclaimed savior who has not identified any real program of reform (other than stomping the Brotherhood).  Egypt now faces the real possibility of reversion to the malaise of the Hosni Mubarak era for the sake of “security.”  The current government is essentially old wine in new bottles.

Hosni Mubarak may be headed to jail, but his clone has now ascended as the new Pharaoh.  What a waste.

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Posted on 26-05-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The European project has brought an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity to Western Europe.  When it was conceived in the ash heaps of World War II, the extent of its success could hardly be imagined.  After 1,000 years of hostility France and Germany would work to build a new Europe.  Yet over the past 20 years it is hard to avoid the impression that Europes elites are losing the argument with their own people.

The elitism has been on display since the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union.  It took Denmark two referendums to approve the treaty.  The French approved it with the support of barely 51% of voters.  Yet the elites soldiered on.  Later treaties amending the Maastricht Treaty (the Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon) were generally kept safe from the vagaries of the voting public, after the Irish voters rejected each treaty in their first referendums necessitating a second referendum to approve the treaty.

Rather than the voters, parliaments would approve the treaty.  This is not uncommon in representative democracies.  The problem is that other than the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom almost every mainstream party in Europe is pro-Europe.  This short circuited the debates over increasing tensions over the loss of national sovereignty, the effect of unrestricted immigration and the effect of binding together the continent in a currency union via the Euro without the fiscal and banking unions to make it work.

The great recession has laid bare the fundamental flaws in the half-assed approach to creating a United States of Europe without political and fiscal union.  Stuck in the Eurozone, Southern Europe no longer has the flexibility to devalue its currency.  Germany the primary creditor to Southern Europe caught up in its historical nightmares of hyperinflation (and also benefiting from a stronger Euro) will not let the Euro devalue.  Even worse, it has insisted on insane fiscal austerity that has turned recessions into depressions.

Economic malaise haunts the Eurozone.  Xenophobic parties are on the rise across Europe.  Last week came the first signs that political retribution may be at hand.

The United Kingdom Independence Party has long been dismissed as a bunch of racist kooks.  The UKIP won a surprising victory in local elections held across England, which will send a shiver down the spine of the main three political parties in the UK.  They followed that up by winning the most seats in the European Parliament elections. It must be noted that the British government has also reacted to the recession by double dip recession inducing austerity.

Likewise in France the xenophobic National Front beat the more established parties in the elections to the European Parliament. Far right parties also did well in Denmark, Austria and Hungary.

Europe’s elites ignore this resentment at their own peril.  It is troubling that the elites in Brussels are still in denial about the real pain their policies have caused outside their ivory towers and attribute it to a failure of “national will.”

While, the UKIP and the National Front still poll under 30% of the national vote and it is unlikely they will actually seize power in either country they have tapped into a rich vein of resentment at the way the European Project has been hurtling across to union without taking into account the sentiments of the countries involved.  The rise of economic immigration from Eastern Europe into countries that are not immigrant societies has aggravated ethnic tensions that allows xenophobes to flourish.  The debates between the UKIP’s Nigel Farrage and the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg were a demonstration that the elites were losing the argument with the public. The election results have confirmed that.

It is time for Europe’s elites to engage in some introspection before economic turmoil puts the European project into jeopardy.

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Posted on 18-05-2014
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

India’s month long election process finally came to an end last Friday.  Everyone expected the ruling coalition led by the Congress to lose and the Bharatiya Janata Party coalition to win or become the largest grouping in the new parliament.  The actual margin of victory was unclear.

After 10 years in power the Congress government was drifting aimlessly.  Corruption scandals had sapped its credibility.  Economic growth had slowed down, and the government was unable to offer up a meaningful economic program short of blatant populism.

Meanwhile, the BJP had anointed the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its standard bearer.  Even though he was tainted by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, Modi was able to point to the stellar economic performance of Gujarat on his watch and his acumen as an administrator.  In contrast, all the Congress Party had to offer was a hapless bumbling dynastic scion, Rahul Gandhi.  As the Congress declined in the last few years, the BJP and regional parties had stepped into the void.

Then there was the newest player in the political scene, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party.  The 2014 elections came too soon for the party to take advantage of a population tired of the coruption that permeates all parts of Indian life.  And as it turned out, the AAP would be a bit player in the emerging “Tsunamo”.

As the image below shows, the results were breathtaking.

2014 Indian Lok Sabha Election Results (Source: Wikipedia)

2014 Indian Lok Sabha Election Results (Source: Wikipedia)

The BJP won…and it won Big.  For the first time since 1984 a single party won a majority in Parliament.  For the first time since 1984, a pre-election coalition won over 300 seats.  The once mighty Congress party was reduced to less than 50 seats, which due to a constitutional quirk requiring 10% of seats to recognize a leader of the opposition means that the position will stay vacant for the first time since 1989.

The map shows how the BJP reached victory by winning close to 100% of the seats in its base states.  While it won relatively few seats along the eastern seaboard, the BJP made deep inroads in the vote count that should unsettle the ruling regional parties.

Yet the results in Punjab, show the potential pitfalls for the BJP if it fails to deliver.  Punjab is ruled by a coalition of the BJP and a Sikh party the Shiromani Akali Dal.  The incompetent Akalis are unpopular and so is the Congress.  As a result, the fledgling Akali Dal won its only 4 seats in Punjab – a sign for the AAP that should it gets its act together, there is political space to for the party to grow.

For the ruling Congress, the results could be a death knell.  Reliant on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the party has been allergic to any other politicians with mass appeal.  Yet the unimpressive scions on offer leave them little hope but to pray for the BJP to stumble.

When he takes office this week (likely on Wednesday), Narendra Modi will become the first Prime Minister of India born after independence.  He will also be the first non-Septuagenarian/non-Octogenarian to hold the office in 18 years.  India’s youth bought into his promise of change and getting India working again and with a comfortable majority in Parliament he will have all the opportunity to succeed.  Yet, his party does not hold a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, whose consent is needed on certain legislation.  Many of the problems facing India also fall under the power of the states.  In Gujarat, Modi operated as a one man show.  He will now have to learn to play nice with others.

Modi brings with him a feeling of euphoria in the aftermath of a national election not seen in decades.  His personal story of rising to the top from an economically disadvantaged background makes his thumping of India’s most enduring dynasty even more compelling.  India’s stock markets have shown their excitement by jumping to new peaks.

Congratulations Mr. Modi.  Good luck as you get to work. Don’t eff it up.

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Posted on 18-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

For the last few weeks Vladimir Putin has been mocking the intelligence of the world by denying the Russian invasion of the Crimea.  Even if the laughable interpretation that the soldiers taking over the peninsula were “local self-defense units,” the Russians had no explanation for the Russian tanks patrolling the streets.  Then this weekend came the mockery of a referendum on the fate of Crimea.  The status quo was not an option on the ballot.  Resentful Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum.  Support for unifying with Russia which measured in the 40s somehow manifested in a Soviet style 97% majority (aided by voting miracles like the votes cast in Sevastopol exceeding the voting population).  Fresh off this mockery, Putin then proclaimed that Crimea had “always” been a part of Russia (even though it did not become a part of any Russian state till the late 18th century and the current Russian majority is the product of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing).  The mask is off and Putin has now openly annexed the Crimea.

What happens next is where the danger lies.  Russia is now pushing for the Finlandization of Ukraine – demanding it remain non-aligned and drastically federalize its constitution to meet Russian diktats.  In the last few weeks Putin has asserted the right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians beyond his borders – a statement that probably sends a chill down the spines of his neighbors.

Yet in the long run Putin’s embrace of the Chinese model of making friends and influencing people belies a deep weakness – the KGB thug has been unable to steer his most valuable neighbor into his embrace with carrots and now tries the stick.  This model has not worked well for China, which counts on rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea as its ally.  Burma’s junta scared by a future as a Chinese colony choose to release Aung San Suu Kyi and cautiously democratized.  ASEAN countries and Japan scared by Chinese saber rattling have run back to Uncle Sam’s embrace.

This is the future for Russia.  Even if Putin detaches parts of Eastern Ukraine, he now has an extremely resentful neighbor on his western front.  And the reward for this is Crimea – a province that relies on Ukraine for its water and electricity and is currently unreachable from Russian territory by road.  He has ensured Russian expulsion from the G8 (not that Russia belonged there to begin with) and has sent alarm bells ringing in Russia’s former Warsaw Pact prisoners and the Baltic States.  All this because for the second time in a decade Ukraine would not be ruled by Russia’s anointed leader.

Russia has the ability to cause mischief (notably in Iran and Syria) but barring miscalculations that lead to war in Ukraine, not much more.

The reaction in the United States has been typical.  The Republicans agree with President Obama’s plans in substance (other than the silly desire to put missiles in the Czech Republic) but want more effective posturing.  Mitt Romney not realizing his 15 minutes are up showed up to predictably bash the President but had no real substance to add in terms of solutions.  The Obama administration’s hands are tied by the reality that its sanctions can have limited effect on Russia.  The substance has to come from Europe, where the United Kingdom has been cheerfully accepting the wealth of Russian oligarchs and Germany is worried about the economic fallout.  The next week will be critical to see if the Russians spend their time digesting the Crimea of proceed with the dismemberment of Ukraine.

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Posted on 03-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations read a purported letter today from the impeached  ex-President of the Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych where the corrupt oligarch calls for the use of Russian troops  “to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defending the people of Ukraine.” If genuine it constitutes a major departure from Yanukovych’s press conference last week where he stated the use of military force was unacceptable.

It also indicates Putin is relying on his quisling to find a justification for the invasion of Crimea.  Yanukovych’s letter also claims there have been acts of terror requiring foreign intervention.  Even though parts of the Maidan movement are xenophobic and fascistic, the Crimea is ruled by an autonomous republic dominated by ethnic Russians.  No actual cases of these atrocities in the Crimea have yet come to light.

Putin’s government at present is reduced to talking out of both sides of its mouth, claiming that their quisling is the legitimate president of Ukraine bit acknowledging that restoring his kleptocratic regime to power is not possible.

The concern now is preventing the escalation to a shooting war.  Russia denies that it gave ships of the Ukrainian navy an ultimatum to surrender.  We will find out tomorrow.

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Posted on 03-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

This blog obviously is not a fan of Tsar Vlad and his invasion of the Crimea.  However it does feel that the cheerleaders and supporters of the Bush administrations Iraq war in the media and in office (a list that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Grumpy and Senator Lumpy) should desist from pontificating that such invasions are unacceptable.  Russia has long held that American policy has been hypocritical and here we continue to bear the brunt of the Bush administration’s frittering away American credibility abroad.

On a related note Peter Beinart has a column worth reading about the Russian sense of an ever expanding America after the United States reneged on its agreements not to expand NATO east after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Libya exposed the European components of NATO as paper tigers.  However, some level of Putin’s paranoia does stem from an alliance that was conceived as a bulwark against Russia expanding to Russia’s borders.  The United States has been hostile to similar expansions in its backyard (Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua etc.).  Russia has also previously justified its recognition of the separatist Georgian republics based on the Western recognition of Kosovo.

America’s questionable behavior is still no justification for Russia’s invasion of the Crimea under the spurious guise of protecting its compatriots.  However, the pontificators in the United States would be wise to exercise self awareness and avoid easy charges of hypocrisy.

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Posted on 03-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

It has become an article of faith among American conservatives that Vladimir Putin is a Machiavellian maestro running circles around the United States.  The reality is the Russian despot rules over a petrostate with nukes that is gradually morphing into the stereotypical “Oriental” despotism.  Putin earned plaudits at home by improving on the inebriated Boris Yeltsin and “pacifying” Chechnya in a manner that brings to mind the famous quote attributed by Tacitus to the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus regarding Pax Romana:

Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

The Russian Federation may not be in a state of anarchy of the Yeltsin years but it is a profoundly diseased state.  Putin has grasped on the sinews of power but has fundamentally failed to regenerate the institutions of the state that create great leaders.  Wealth is concentrated with the oligarchs so long as they remain loyal to the Kremlin.  Public dissent is not tolerated and public protests require permits.  Journalists have been killed and opposition leaders have been locked up on spurious charges.  The last round of elections in Russia and the blatant rigging of the results underscored a deep dissatisfaction with the path Putin’s Russia has taken.  Yet with no rivals visible and with any threats snuffed out, Tsar Vlad continues to rule.  Oil, nukes and size ensure that for now Russia will not be a basket case like the next door (Russian subsidized) despotism in Belarus.

Yet Tsar Vlad is deeply paranoid.  The color revolutions over the past decade (Green in Iran, Rose in Georgia and Orange in Ukraine in 2004), even if they were not all successful, have evidently create a determination that Putin’s creaky aristocracy will not be next.  The fall of his patsy Viktor Yanukovych, even though he distrusted him, was an unwelcome slap in the face that eliminated the buzz from the Sochi Olympics.

The trigger for the protests that brought down Yanukovych was his backtracking on an agreement with the European Union in favor of a Russian led customs union.  Over the course of the crisis Putin dangled the bait for the 15 billion dollar loan Ukraine desperately needed and at times withheld funds when Yanukovych showed signs of wobbling to the protesters in the Maidan.  All of this was to no avail.  His fellow kelptocrat fled Kiev and the despised opposition took over in Kiev.

Ukraine is a divided country with a large Russian speaking population.  It desperately needs Russian natural gas and financial help.  Putin could have disavowed Yanukovych as a corrupt incompetent and made the desperate Ukrainian regime the type of offer that wins friends.  That would have been the act of a statesman.

But Tsar Putin has never been confused with a statesman.  The man who felt the fall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy has over the years been obsessed with restoring Russian prestige in the near abroad.  So the wounded Tsar chose to flex his muscles by invading the Crimea under the shield of a laughable subterfuge.

In the finest Russian tradition of acting to protect its compatriots – who never were really in any danger – Russia sent soldiers in camouflage into the Crimea in violation of a 1994 agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders.  The Crimea has always been a sore sport for Russia since Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily gifted to Ukraine in the 1950s.  With a majority Russian population it has long seethed at ties to Kiev.  Yet for the last 20 years it has internationally been recognized as a part of Ukraine and has had its own autonomous sub-republic.   More worryingly Tsar Vlad declared a right to interfere on behalf of Russian minorities anywhere which sent chills down the spines of Russia’s neighbors.

The intervention leaves the United States with few options.  Military intervention is unthinkable and Ukraine is not a NATO member.  The United States needs Russian cooperation in Syria and Iran.  Yet the usual suspects have gone to the TV shows bleating about this being due to American “weakness.”  Senator Grumpy already proclaimed that “we [were] all Ukrainians,” a reminder of his similar dumb comment during the 2008 Russian war with Georgia.  Senator Lumpy excoriated President Obama’s weaknesses for encouraging the Russians.  Senator Rubio desperate to regain his conservative bonafides in time for the 2016 Presidential primaries proclaimed that “Russia has a government of liars.”

None of this is immediately helpful for solutions on what the United States should do with Tsar Vlad’s petulant invasion.  Senator Grumpy in his continuing efforts to get us into another war wants the United States to bring Georgia into NATO. The immediate aftermath will be a cancellation of the impending G-8 meeting in Sochi.  Russia which never really belonged in the group will likely be suspended from the organization.  The primary weapon will likely be some type of targeted economic retaliation – even though sanctions have had limited effects on countries in the past.  Hopefully the solution includes a generous economic assistance package to the wobbly Ukrainian government (hopefully without the German depression inducing austerity prescriptions).

But for now we watch and wait…and hope that Putin’s miscalculations and bluster do not trigger a civil war in Ukraine.

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Posted on 24-02-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Over the last year it has become an article of faith among opponents of President Obama that Vladimir Putin has taken command over the world stage.  The event of the last week confirm how ridiculous that view is.  Putin’s corporatist state is essentially a oil producing state with nuclear weapons that struggles to keep control of its “near abroad.”

Since late last year the Ukrainian capital of Kiev has been subject to series of mass protests that would not die.  The trigger appears to have been the sudden decision of President Yanukovych to abruptly abandon a deal with the European Union in favor of one with Putin’s Russia.  The thought of being folded into Tsar Vladimir’s embrace was not a pleasant one for many in the western part of the country and they took to the streets.

Ukraine is a deeply divided country religiously, linguistically and politically.  The western part tends to be Catholic, speak Ukrainian and wants closer ties to Europe.  The East (and the Crimea) where Yanukovych drew his support tends to be Orthodox, speak Russian and favors closer ties to Russia.  These are divisions Russia has eagerly played on over the last decade.

An attempt to rig the presidential elections in favor of Yanukovych in 2004 led to the so called Orange Revolution.  Unfortunately the gains of the Orange Revolution were squandered by incompetence and squabbling allowing Yanukovych to gain power in the 2010 elections.  However, once in power Yanukovych too squandered his victory.  He tossed his election opponent Yulia Tymoshenko into prison on what appears to have been a trumped up charge.  Along with his own coterie of oligarchs he spent his time enriching himself and mismanaging the Ukranian economy.  By late last year Ukraine desperately needed foreign aid and the 15 billion dollars offered by Putin seemed tempting.

Late last year Yanukovych attempted to clear the protesters in the Maidan by force, a move that backfired.  As time dragged on the protests became radicalized with many protesters engaging in violence against the police and starting to seize local city halls.  Then last week Yanukovych appears to have unleashed snipers on the crowd leading to the specter of civil war.

The problem for Yanukovych was that his support base was brittle.  His oligarch supporters appear to have wanted no part of a pariah state and when a final negotiated solution to share power fell through he abruptly fled.

Jubilant protesters stormed parliament and Yanukovych’s mansion outside the city and parliament promptly voted to impeach Yanukovych and revert to the 2004 constitution that weakened presidential powers.  An arrest warrant has now been issued for Yanukovych’s arrest.

The pictures from his estate (complete with a private zoo with peacocks) display just how far Yanukovych went in feathering his nest.


 

Yanukovych has so far refused to accept his deposition and there are rumors that he may have fled to the Crimea, the most intensely pro-Russian portion of Ukraine.  Peeved at the deposition of his patsy and the abrupt pro-EU turn Ukraine has taken, Russia has withdrawn its ambassador from Kiev.  The next step from Moscow is unclear.  Russia has in the past cheerfully splintered some of the former Soviet Republics, a strategy that predates Putin – See Transnistria.  The temptations to play such games in the East and particularly in the Crimea (home of Russia’s black sea fleet) will be strong.  However, so far nobody in Ukraine seems to be discussing such an eventuality.

The challenges for Ukraine are grave.  The country is an economic mess.  Sections of the opposition are notoriously anti-Semitic and fascistic.  Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison a martyr to Yanukovych’s regime but carries with her the baggage of unsavory business dealings from the 1990s and the squabbling in the aftermath of the Orange revolution.  Yanukovych is gone but the core problems remain…added with the worries of a neighbor who controls the switch to Ukraine’s natural gas supply and has been known to use it for leverage.

Once the adrenaline rush from the dramatic fall of Viktor Yanukovych fades the bleak reality of digging out of the rubble lies ahead.

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Posted on 05-09-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Jon Stewart returned from his sabbatical and gave his unique take on Syria.  Helps that I agree with him, but his take on the discredited neo-con warmongerers starting around 4:20 was hilarious.  Enjoy the clip below:

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Posted on 01-09-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Barack Obama surprised observers yesterday by electing to get Congressional approval for Syria.  He also appeared to go out of his way to assure the American people that this would not be an open ended military involvement.  The climbdown was clearly in response to the growing opposition to war in yet another Middle East quagmire, punctuated by the shocking rebuff to British Prime Minister David Cameron by the House of Commons this week.

Fans of constitutional governance should rejoice.  The decision also forces Congress to declare where they stand on the issue, instead of waiting to see what they could criticize the President for.  Of cours fans of the imperial Presidency are not delighted at the decision.  Warmongerers are unhappy that Obama is not going all in on regime change – still no suggestions from them on what the new regime would look like.

Senator Grumpy lashed out at the thought of the limited war.  His war loving amigo Senator Lumpy agreed.  Former Senator (and still war loving mega douche) Droopy was horrified that the President thought he had to go to Congress before bombing someone in the Middle East.

Left unsaid in all of this is what happens if the initial bombing does not change Assad’s behavior (which is likely).  What happens then?

Barack Obama backed himself into this conflict by drawing his imaginary red lines.  He has wisely toned down the rhetoric after gauging the opposition, but this was a stupid red line that should never have been drawn.  Once again I cannot help but wonder what happens when these lines are crossed by the other Middle East country Grumpy, Lumpy and Droopy want to bomb – Iran.

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Posted on 30-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The last few years have seen a more muscular French foreign policy with interventions in its former colonies Ivory Coast and Mali.  France was also the loudest proponent of taking down Gaddafi (probably to overcompensate for its support of the Tunisian dictator and Pharaoh Mubarak at the start of the Arab Spring).

Of course having advocated war in Libya, France (and Britain) ran out of missiles when faced only with Gaddafi’s puny military.

President Hollande has toned down his bellicosity a bit in the aftermath of the vote in the house of Commons.  However, its appears that a handful of French missiles may join the American barrage against Syria.  Quite a turn of events from a decade ago when the Neocons were renaming French fries and referring to “Old Europe.”

Meanwhile in Britain recriminations abound.  Having miscalculated the level of opposition to the war Cameron’s toadies are attacking Labour for endangering the special subservient relationship.

However, for now little has changed.  Even without Britain, Barack Obama’s rush to a half baked war continues.  Looks like the Gallic Rooster will join the American Rooster in its Syrian war.

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Posted on 29-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Maybe it is time to call them Freedom Muffins.  The haggis eating warm beer swillers in the House of Commons delivered a resounding slap to head poodle Prime Minster David Cameron today by rejecting military intervention in Syria. Even though the vote was not binding, Cameron acknowledged the sentiment in the country and Parliament tersely noting:

It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.  I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”

So much for the special relationship..it cannot work when Britain does not recognize its role as lapdog. In the United States President George W. Bush Barack Obama remained unbowed and indicated that the United States was ready to act alone. Our Congress only wants to be consulted but does not want the responsibility of authorizing the war. The British parliament has learned the lessons of Iraq. Our Washington bubble has not, even though the proposed intervention is extremely unpopular. So, for now the administration is unlikely to suffer the humiliation of David Cameron.

Fareed Zakaria dumbly and stubbornly supported the Iraq war but in the video below cogently sets forth the quagmire and bloodbath facing us (whether or not we interfere).

The do-gooders are united in the need to send Assad a message. Yet apart from a belief in magically identifying in the good guys of the opposition, none of them has identified what the end game is and how we prevent an ethnic bloodbath and install a stable government in Syria. The mistaken urge to maintain credibility is driving us to a war in Syria…and it will do so again in Iran.

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Posted on 27-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

With Secretary Kerry’s speech Monday American military intervention into the Syrian quagmire seems inevitable.  Last year Barack Obama allowed himself to be backed into a corner by saying that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government constituted a red line.  Last week that line appeared to be crossed as horrific images of casualties from a nerve gas attack near Damascus emerged.

So like Libya, a human rights calamity is driving the United States to war.  The Syrian government and their Russian patron have of course denied that they used chemical weapons.  With the military balance slowly tilting in its favor the use of chemical weapons at this juncture is puzzling.  However the United States enters into a quagmire that it will be hard to extricate itself from.

Stupid comparisons to the Kosovo intervention have started.  The virtues of air power are once again being touted.  Yet in Kosovo the Yugoslav government only capitulated when the exasperated American government intimated that boots on the ground were on their way.  Here boots on the ground have been ruled out.  After the example of Libya the Russians are adamantly against any regime change.

American airstrikes by themselves are unlikely to solve this conflict.  Unlike Gaddafi, the Baath regime is backed by communities like the Alawites who have every reason to fear a massacre.  The Syrian opposition itself is now dominated by radical jihadists so the merits of them replacing the brutal Baathist regime can be debated.

But after a year, the warmongerers have their wish.  America is about to militarily intervene in an ethnic conflict where it has absolutely no idea as to the end result it wants or can achieve.  The suffering of the Syrian people is appalling.  However, the explanations as to why an exhausted America must be the gendarme of the world are not compelling.

It does not bode well for the prospects of war with another country in the region where Barack Obama against his better judgment was compelled by the outcry from the media, the right-wing and the Israeli government to draw a line in the sand – Iran.

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Posted on 21-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Egyptian military appears to have crossed its Rubicon and decided to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.  By arresting the Muslim Brotherhood leadership it will probably cripple the hierarchical organization in the short run.  However, it makes the chance of an Islamist insurgency all that much more likely.  Perceiving themselves cheated of a democratic mandate some Islamists will likely turn to violence.  History never repeats itself exactly, but the Egyptian army appears to have gambled that they will have the staying power to crush an insurgency like Algeria did.  It is a dangerous gamble that will likely have bloody repercussions.  Egypt is much larger than Algeria and at the heart of the Arab world, not a country out in the fringes of the Sahara.

The Egyptian military bears much of the blame for the potency of the brotherhood.  Under the corrupt dictatorship of Mubarak, the secular opposition was crushed.  The Brotherhood was allowed a measure of action and allowed to organize.  This allowed the Pharaoh to point to the emerging Islamist threat for Western aid.  Now the army is out to crush an entity it allowed to develop strong roots during Mubarak’s inefficient and corrupt misrule.

This leaves America in a horrible situation.  On the one hand it tosses half-hearted denunciations of the brutal Baath regime in Syria – the Islamist opposition there not helping matters.  At the same time it will turn a blind eye as its (still) official ally slaughters its opponents.  Even though he knows better this places Barack Obama back with the much maligned American hypocrisy during the cold war.  So far American attempts to mildly criticize both sides have drawn the ire of both sides.  What happens if the Egyptian public turns on the army if there is a repeat of the corrupt authoritarian rule from the Mubarak years (a likely option) is anybody’s guess.

In the short run the public violence in Egypt will likely die down.  In the long run it appears we will see Algeria on the Nile.

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Posted on 15-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Last year I commented that the Egyptian alliance appeared to have run its course.  Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have since been toppled in the coup that we dare not call a coup, but the same sentiment holds true.  Once again in the Middle East we are faced with the ugly reality that elections do not constitute democracy.

Morsi was popularly elected and the Muslim Brotherhood in large part because of Pharoah Mubarak’s policies was the largest political grouping in Egypt.  But he was a thin skinned leader who was intolerant of dissent and like other majoritarian ballot box despots like Hugo Chavez had little regard for the minority groupings.  Worse he mismanaged Egypt’s economy (though conspiracy theories about the role of Mubarak supporters abound).  By the time he was toppled the public mood had changed.

Yet the coup in all but its name left America in a precarious situation.  Having belatedly supported the Democratic transition from Mubarak, the Obama administration twisted itself in loops trying to support an elected if authoritarian and incompetent government but trying not to trigger the ban on American aid required by law after a coup.  The result satisfied nobody on the Egyptian street.  The anti-Brotherhood supporters were outraged that Obama appeared to support Morsi.  The Brotherhood who did not believe in democracy to begin with was outraged that the rules of electoral legitimacy don’t apply to them and took to the street.

The result has been violence and distressing signs of early 1990s Algeria (where the army voided an Islamist election victory resulting in years of turmoil and violence).  The Egyptian army which never cared for the Brotherhood to begin with has been extremely hamfisted and brutal in clearing the street.  Hundreds were killed in yesterday’s assault on the protestors camps.  Nobel Laureate and Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei resigned in protest after the crackdown.

The army’s actions highlight once again just how little leverage the United States has in the region and how absurd it is for the United States to twist itself into knots over trying to preserve an aid package it appears the Egyptian establishment does not care about.  Trying to have it both ways once again leaves America exposed to charges of hypocrisy – i.e. we don’t care about bloodshed as long as it is our guys doing the shooting.

At this point it is time to stop the ridiculous tap dance about the coup and acknowledge it as such.  Egypt’s army may have a point that the Brotherhood is not willing for talks, but that is no justification for the bloodbath it unleashed.  The Arab Spring continues its bloody turn and once again highlights the importance in institutions and respect for the rule of law (even by the rulers) in keeping a democracy functional.  Just as important is time and patience to get these established.  On all these points, Egypt has failed.  And so Egypt bleeds.

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Posted on 09-05-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

After all the hype, the Republican whistleblowers simply did not deliver. The testimony was riveting and it showed the sense of urgency as the consulate was attacked. But after all that, Gregory Hicks did not challenge the Pentagon’s assessments that the F-16s would not have been helpful and the ballyhooed special ops team in Tripoli may not have saved lives either.

These decisions made in the heat of the moment may have been erroneous, but that does not a scandal make. While the Republicans have been desperately trying to “get” President Obama and Hillary Clinton they have been unwilling to consider whether their budget cuts to embassy security opposed by the State department may have been a factor (and to be fair it is not clear that it would have saved lives in Benghazi). It is still clear what exactly was covered up and the motive for doing so.

The administration really had no motive to hide Al Queda involvement, since their claims of success have been primarily against Al Queda Central. There are many regional groups claiming affiliation with Al Queda and they operate independently of the leadership hiding in Pakistan. If Benghazi was triggered by one such group it would still not undercut the administration’s claims of success in Af-Pak.

Jon Stewart continues to get under the skin of Faux News by pointing out how unhinged their coverage has been. Videos below:

Video 1

Video 2

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Posted on 21-03-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The ten year anniversary of the commencement of the Iraq quagmire passed this week. I have been reading the assorted mea culpas of various stenographers journalists with some satisfaction and some dissapointment. Americans are famously ignorant of foreign affairs, but on Iraq so many journalists who should have known better blindly accepted the Bush administration’s bullshit.

I was not blogging at the time but and arguments at the time were made primarily on the ultra-conservative Texas A&M message boards. But I do remember the gist of my points.

First the rationale for the war had an element of “lets throw as much shit as we can and some of it will stick” quality to it. Saddam was a monster (no argument there, but hardly an argument for war), he is funding terrorists and Al Queda, he is about to get WMDs, taking him out will magically make Iraq an oasis of democracy in the region and (chuckle) an ally of Israel. This is about the same time George W. Bush gave his silly “Axis of Evil” speech. An axis implies cooperation…but tossing Saddam’s Iraq with the Ayatollahs’ Iran was always a joke. Worse that speech knee capped the moderate Iranian President Khatami who had been cooperating with America over Afghanistan.

The Al Queda links were always tenous and as we are finding out this week pretty much non-existent. The arguments that a foreign invasion would magically turn the Arab Yugoslavia into a beacon of democracy (not to mention a buddy of Israel) fundamentally misread the nature of the region and the effects of a foreign occupation. Many commentators at the time noted that while Iraqis may welcome the toppling of Saddam, a proud people would never stand for an indefinite occupation let along American military bases. And it is this element of the administration’s war chatter that bothered me even more.

I harbored no fondness for Saddam. Removing him in the right circumstances would have been a highly desirable act. Yet Bush Jr. ignored why Bush Sr. hit pause in 1991. An occupation of Iraq was always going to be an extremely difficult venture. Yet people like Condoleeza Rice were touting the successful reconstruction of relative homogenous and war exhausted Germany and Japan after World War II (with far more troops on the ground) as examples of how it could be done. Even the Bosnian peace happened after the combatants had exhausted themselves in their attempts to kill each other. And much smaller Bosnia had as many troops as the administration was proposing for Iraq.

Many American allies knew this was bullshit and unlike Bush’s poodle in London refused to play along. Their reward was to be tagged as “Old Europe” and “Cheese eating surrender monkeys.”

The worst part of Iraq was that we did not finish the job in Afghanistan. Afghan reconstruction faltered under the venal and incompetent Karzai. Bin Laden escaped to his Pakistani hideout. Pakistan merrily continued its two faced strategy in the region. Afghanistan will probably never be a stable country, but a genuine opportunity to harness the war weariness of the Afghan people in true nation building was lost.

Sadly the perpetrators of this disaster have somehow not recieved the full amount of derision they desrve. Messers. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Krauthammer, Bolton, Kristol, McCain etc. still pontificate on national media as if their views have any credibility and still beat the war drums for Syria. The corporate media still plays the role of stenographer over journalist. Small, broke and weak countries like Iran are still touted as existential risks. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Sadly the perpetrators of this disaster have somehow not recieved the full amount of derision they desrve. Messers. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Krauthammer, Bolton, Kristol, McCain etc. still pontificate on national media as if their views have any credibility and still beat the war drums for Syria. The corporate media still plays the role of stenographer over journalist. Small, broke and weak countries like Iran are still touted as existential risks. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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Posted on 06-03-2013
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer yesterday.  The Venezuelan President who was recently re-elected to another term leaves behind a tumultuous legacy.  A man who reveled in taunting the West and consorting with the rogues gallery of the world, he also was genuinely loved by many of Venezuela’s underclass.

It is hard not to review the reign of Chavez and come back with a feeling of a wasted opportunity.  Chavez identified a legitimate problem in Venezuelan society.  Like many resource rich countries Venezuela’s oil wealth did not trickle down to the masses.  Under Chavez poverty levels in Venezuela dropped (as they did across Latin America) and the rise in oil prices allowed him to fund a number of populist policies.  Yet a lot of the largesse was wasted in crony politics, subsidizing Fidel Castro, funding other leftist politicians across Latin America.  The vaunted Bolivarian revolution is proving unsustainable (and hypersensitive to oil prices).  Crime has risen, inflation has skyrocketed, corruption is high and nationalization policies have led to a brain drain in the professional class who have emigrated to more welcoming shores.

A bigger problem for this blogger was Chavez’s authoritarian instincts.  He was a walking example of how winning elections does not make you a democrat.  The judiciary was packed with his cronies, opposition press was muzzled and after losing a referendum on amending the constitution he issued decrees on those provisions in any case.  Under the guise of leftist and anti-imperialist solidarity he funded terrorist movements like FARC and embraced tyrants like Gaddaffi.

As the Economist notes, now comes the reckoning.  For now reflexive anti-Americanism will rule the day.  Chavez may have squandered the opportunity to rebuild Venezuela’s infrastructure, but the oil resources are still available for a wiser ruler to use it for the benefit of the masses as Chavez originally intended.  For that to happen Venezuela needs to avoid any other megalomaniacal Caudillos.

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