Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Chris Hayes on the Return of the Neocons

Continuing the coverage of the coverage: Once again, the US news media turns to those who led the US into the Iraq debacle for advice and commentary on the current escalating violence in that country…

You can find Tony Blair’s piece (mentioned in the clip) here; and BBC’s coverage of Boris Johnson’s response here.

Blair’s piece seems to be arguing along the lines of, “Consider the reasons we went into Iraq. Is the situation in Syria not similar if not worse? Ergo, we should invade that country, too. Regardless of the fact that it will be costly, dangerous, and unpopular.” That’s a considerable paraphrasing, given the rambling, over-long nature of the former-Prime Minister’s article.

Chris Matthews also covered the return of the Neocons…

Rachel Maddow on Michael Hastings, Media & Iraq Warmongers

Caught this on the Monday episode of Rachel Maddow Show – it’s a great segment about Michael Hasting’s fearless journalism, and his unflinching approach to rooting out corruption and stories anywhere, regardless of who it might upset. In his posthumous novel, The Last Magazine, is also an indictment of American journalism. Here’s the clip…

Penguin Books’ China eSpecials – World War I, History & Politics

I stumbled across the first four of these eBook specials earlier today, and thought I’d share the information. With the UK and elsewhere paying a lot of attention to the Great War, I was very happy to see that Penguin Books had released these four books focusing on China’s experiences during the time. This is the type of topic that is all-too-often overlooked by the West. I do hope more in a similar vein are on the way – either about other periods of China’s history, or other nations’ experiences during the two World Wars and other momentous moments.

Bickers-GettingStuckInForShanghaiRobert Bickers, Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund – The British at Shanghai and the Great War

After 1914, between tiffin and a day at the race track, the British in Shanghai enjoyed a life far removed from the horrors of the Great War. Shanghai's status as a treaty port – with its foreign concessions home to expatriates from every corner of the globe – made it the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. The city’s inhabitants on either side of the conflict continued to mix socially to mix socially after the outbreak of war, the bond amongst foreign nationals being almost as strong as that between countrymen. But as news of the slaughter spread of the Far East, and in particular the sinking of the Lusitania, their ambivalence turned to antipathy.

Robert Bickers is also the author of Empire Made Me, The Boxers, China and the World (with R.G. Tiedemann), and The Scramble for China.


Fenby-SiegeOfTsingtaoJonathan Fenby, The Siege of Tsingtao

In 1914, Europe was not the only continent coming to terms with a new form of conflict. Through a mix of complex alliances and global ambition, the war had spread to northern China, where the German-held port of Tsingtao became a key battleground. To strike a blow at Kaiser Wilhelm's naval forces, Britain and its ally Japan lay siege to the port during October and November. In The Siege of Tsingtao, the first of the Penguin China Specials on the First World War, celebrated historian Jonathan Fenby examines the causes of the battle, the ulterior motives for it, and the path it helped set East Asia on for decades to come.

Jonathan Fenby is also the author of The Penguin History of Modern China, Will China Dominate the 21st Century? and others.


FrenchP-BetrayalInParisPaul French, Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution

At the conclusion of “the war to end war”, the victorious powers set about redesigning the world map at the Paris Peace Conference. For China, Versailles presented an opportunity to regain territory lost to Japan at the start of the war. Yet, despite early encouragement from the world’s superpowers, the country was to be severely disappointed, an outcome whose consequences can still be felt today.

Paul French is also the author of Midnight in Peking, Through the Looking Glass, Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand, and North Korea: State of Paranoia, among others.


ONeillM-ChineseLabourCorpsMark O’Neill, The Chinese Labour Corps

As the young men of Europe were fighting in the trenches, a little known contingent of Chinese labourers crossed the world to provide support vital to the Allied war effort. Largely illiterate farmers from northern China, these men were simply attempting to make a better life for themselves, ignorant of the war and its causes. Under brutal conditions many died for their efforts, and their involvement wasn't recognised for decades – it is still not widely known. In this fascinating First World War China Special, journalist Mark O’Neill brings their story to light, describing in detail the labourers’ recruitment, their daily experiences in a foreign land and the horrific work they carrier out – including the clearing of remains from battlefields.


And, two bonus Penguin Specials, time not connected to World War I, but still focusing on China:

FrenchP-BadlandsPaul French, The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking

The Badlands, a warren of narrow hutongs in the eastern district of pre-communist Peking, had its heyday in the 1930s. Home to the city's drifters, misfits and the odd bohemian, it was a place of opium dens, divebars, brothels, flophouses and cabarets, and was infamous for its ability to satisfy every human desire from the exotically entertaining to the criminally depraved. These vignettes of eight non-Chinese residents of the precinct White Russians, Americans and Europeans bring the Badlands vividly back to life, providing a short but potent account of a place and a way of life until now largely forgotten, but here rendered unforgettable.


GarnautJ-Rise&FallOfHouseOfBoJohn Garnaut, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How A Murder Exposed The Cracks In China's Leadership

When news of the murder trial of prominent Communist Party leader Bo Xilai’s wife reached Western attention, it was apparent that, as with many events in the secretive upper echelons of Chinese politics, there was more to the story. Now, as the Party’s 18th National Congress oversees the biggest leadership transition in decades, and installs the Bo family’s long-time rival Xi Jinping as president, China's rulers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their poisonous internal divisions behind closed doors.

Bo Xilai’s breathtaking fall from grace is an extraordinary tale of excess, murder, defection, political purges and ideological clashes going back to Mao himself, as the princeling sons of the revolutionary heroes ascend to control of the Party. China watcher John Garnaut examines how Bo’s stellar rise through the ranks troubled his more reformist peers, as he revived anti-“capitalist roader” sentiment, even while his family and associates enjoyed the more open economy's opportunities. Amid fears his imminent elevation to the powerful Standing Committee was leading China towards another destructive Cultural Revolution, have his opponents seized their chance to destroy Bo and what he stood for? The trigger was his wife Gu Kailai’s apparently paranoid murder of an English family friend, which exposed the corruption and brutality of Bo’s outwardly successful administration of the massive city of Chongqing. It also led to the one of the highest-level attempted defections in Communist China’s history when Bo’s right-hand man, police chief Wang Lijun, tried to escape the ruins of his sponsor’s reputation.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Good Read: Brian Beutler on Cantor Loss Legacy (TNR)

I’ve only recently started reading Brian Beutler’s work for The New Republic (that I’m aware of, anyway).

I think he has a very good, fluid style. This, naturally means I’m more likely to read his work even if I disagree with his analysis. I do think there is great value in good style as well as good content, and it is always nice to discover a new voice.

CantorEricI just finished reading his his June 13th piece, “The Legacy of Cantor’s Defeat Is Shaping Up to Be Incredibly Small”. While the article started a little strangely, with a real-world anecdote that is ultimately meaningless in its banality (some journalistic tricks and tics will forever irk me), I thought I’d share a pair of good paragraphs:

Cantor’s defeat probably didn’t imperil or kill any major bills. It may have sent them downriver in body bags, but they weren’t going to pass anyhow. That probably includes immigration reform – the one issue that supposedly (though not actually) did Cantor in. But the great irony in all this is that McCarthy hails from a California district with a large immigrant population and is much more favorably disposed toward comprehensive reform than Cantor was.

Looking way ahead to September, I suppose it’s possible that a cabal of disenchanted hardliners will decide to make something of all this by trying to shut down the government again. But unless it was part of an elaborate conspiracy to sacrifice GOP seats as a pretext for ousting John Boehner, it’d be an incredibly weird, delayed primal scream, and suggestive of a strange unfamiliarity with how Cantor’s exit changes the balance of power in Congress.

The piece is also a nice alternative to those by still-hyperventilating journalists and commentators who appear to think the sky may have fallen. As he writes at the end, this furore surrounding this story was a “firestorm of our own creation”. He comes to this conclusion logically, too, after laying out the arguments for why this “unexpected defrocking of a Majority Leader” will ultimately be rather anticlimactic:

The office [of Majority Leader] is vested with the kind of procedural power that’s theoretically vast, but largely invisible to anyone not paying close attention. In a well-functioning majority, it’s also largely pro forma. What made the Cantor surprise such a juicy insider story is that the current majority is so fractious that the vacancy carried with it the potential to reignite a Republican civil war. We might still get a small one. But when the dust settles, we’ll be left with a leadership team with very little of consequence left to do and thus few decision points at which the presence of an outsider might muck things up.

McCarthyKevinNewI confess, lately I have been rather out-of-touch of the politicking of Congress and, particularly, the Republican leadership. Therefore, I cannot really offer informed comment on how Cantor’s loss, or his now-apparently-assumed replacement by current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will really change the way the House of Representative operates under Republican control. Beutler’s article offers a reasonable analysis that I’m inclined to agree with.

When I shared a media round-up from the Wednesday after Cantor’s loss, I pointed to an article by Justin Landon, an experienced former Congressional staffer. He posited that Cantor’s unexpected defeat could lead to the nuttier voices in Congress (new and old) gaining traction and prominence. Here’s what he said:

Corralling a Republican caucus that has turned over half its members in the last two elections has been no easy task. With demands for absolutist positions and conservative martyrdom, Boehner has only survived thus far thanks to luck and Eric Cantor’s connection to the Congressional leaders of the Tea Party movement. In other words, the next Speaker of the House is probably going to be someone who’s a little nuts… without Eric Cantor and thus John Boehner, we’re in for a long six years of political demagoguery. An already crippled Congress may be slipping into a coma from which we may never wake.

Will this happen, if McCarthy – Cantor’s “closest lieutenant” according to Beutler – moves in to the Majority Leader’s office? It would all depend on how busy the 115th Congress proposes to be. Beutler suggests, as mentioned in the first block-quote, that this will have minimal practical impact because there aren’t any major bills on the horizon. And how much difference will there really be, even if McCarthy approaches the role the same as Cantor? It appears to me, that the Tea Party and more extreme Republicans are pretty much a law unto themselves, rarely corralled by the leadership – unless their mutual goals coincide (obstructing anything Obama- or Democrat-promoted, for example).

If you believe the narrative that immigration is what killed Cantor’s election, that won’t be on the docket – nor will it be pushed or even whispered of by any Republican who will be in a tight or contested race in 2016. Let us hope, though, that cooler and more intelligent heads prevail, and the United States does move closer to addressing what is certainly one of its most broken policies.

Recommended Reading: Leslie H. Gelb on Current Iraq Situation


Photo Source: Reuters/Daily Beast

I just wanted to draw your attention to this excellent piece by Leslie H. Gelb at The Daily Beast, “Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem”. Here are a couple of the best take-aways.

First, on the subject of newly resurgent violence and active insurgency groups in the country:

“When the jihadis took over the city of Mosul and began their march towards Baghdad, Washington was of course shocked. But officials, legislators, and policy experts in that fair city should not have been shocked. What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now.”

Second, on why the US should not re-intervene, and the inevitability of blame and recrimination from those the US is trying to “help”:

“before the U.S. government starts to do the next dumb thing again, namely provide fighter aircraft and drone attacks and heaven knows what else, it should stop and think for a change. If America comes to the rescue of this Iraqi government, then this Iraqi government, like so many of the others we’ve fought and died for, will do nothing. It will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job. And when things go wrong, and they certainly will, this cherished government that we’re helping will blame only America. Don’t think for a moment it will be otherwise. Don’t think for a moment that the generals and hawks who want to dispatch American fighters and drones to the rescue know any better today than they’ve known for 50 years.”

And, also, his rather bleak outlook for the two American wars in the Middle East and further afield:

“No amount of U.S. air and drone attacks will alter this situation. This kind of outcome was inevitable for Iraq given the political lay of the land in that country. It is almost certainly what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. There too, we’ve fought and died, equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops. The Kabul government is a corrupt mess not worth fighting for. There too, Americans should not be surprised if the Taliban soon regains the offensive and Afghan troops take off their uniforms, lay down their arms and run. Remember Vietnam? The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too. And to be sure, the United States and friends are not providing a great deal of arms and equipment to friendly Syrian rebels. But then, the jihadis didn’t have much to fight with or many men to do the fighting and they seem to be doing all too well in Syria.”

And a caution to avoid (more) meddling and to leave it to the Iraqi people to address and solve this problem:

“Before the United States jumps off another cliff, let’s simply stop and take note of the bloody realities of more than fifty years. These internal civil wars, including the fights against these terrible extremists, are won and can only be won by the people Americans want to help—not by American troops, planes, drones, trainers, equipment and arms. And in the interest of a great majority of people in these countries who suffer from these wars, Washington owes it to them to try, just try, the diplomatic path of decentralization and federalism.”

“Let us turn, now, to Captain Wrong…”

In the midst of the recent developments in Iraq, of increasing violence and the advances of the ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) faction, the New York Times did a peculiar thing. Peculiar intellectually, but by no means unusual.

In their article “U.S. Said to Rebuff Iraqi Request to Strike Militants” (June 11, 2014), Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt turned to one Kenneth M. Pollack for analysis and input on the situation. Pollack is a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council official, and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Here’s what Pollack had to say:

“U.S. military support for Iraq could have a positive effect but only if it is conditioned on Maliki changing his behavior within Iraq’s political system,” Mr. Pollack said. “He has to bring the Sunni community back in, agree to limits on his executive authority and agree to reform Iraqi security forces to make them more professional and competent.”

This all sounds rather reasonable, of course. What’s peculiar, as pointed out by Rachel Maddow this past week, is why they would turn to Pollack for analysis. He was, after all, the “Captain of Team Wrong in 2002” (Maddow). The US media has a pretty extensive history of calling on people who have been so wrong in the past. (See, for example, William Kristol and George Will, to name but two.)

PollackKM-ThreateningStormThe above epithet is based on some of the content of Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Here are three snippets:

“a full-scale invasion of Iraq to remove the Iraqi regime, scour the country for WMD, and rebuild a stable, prosperous Iraq”

At least the “scour … for WMD” suggests that the WMD may not exist (if you read that quotation through a rather even-handed, generous lens).

“… in purely economic terms, it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars…”

Oops. Estimates for the overall cost of the US misadventure in Iraq are around the one trillion dollars. Well done, sir.

“Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated…”

Also wrong, as it happens. But not entirely so. To play devil’s advocate, he was partially correct. U.S. forces were not targets of a generally hostile Iraqi population. They were, however, generally the targets of those Iraqis who were hostile.

What made Pollack’s statement ultimately wrong is that, actually, invading and occupying forces do inevitably become the targets of insurgencies and disaffected and revolutionary forces among the occupied. History has a great many examples of this. To assume the US forces would be anything but occupiers suggests a rather gullible and uncritical reading of the American plans to begin with. How could the US have been anything but an occupier? They committed to protecting Iraq, under the “Pottery Barn Rule”, so famously expressed by then-General Colin Powell. How else could they do this but by establishing, effectively, an occupying presence? Therefore, it was inevitable that hostile Iraqi forces would target the US forces in the country.

This was especially the case after a government was set up – although, to be fair, there was no real way to predict that it would be so exclusionary in practice. [And, I’m fully aware, that this piece has benefited from hindsight, but I still think the point is a valid one.]


Here’s the Maddow clip, from the episode referenced above and which inspired this post:

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Two Interviews with Hillary Clinton

I’ve just started Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir, Hard Choices, about her time in office as President Obama’s Secretary of State. The book has, of course, been generating a lot of interest and media attention, and the book tour has been extensive. Below are two recent interviews.

First, an interview with Jeremy Paxman for BBC’s Newsnight. It’s a good, short interview. If Clinton had come across as well during the 2008 campaign, I have a feeling she would be sitting in the Oval Office right now…

Second, a longer interview from HBO’s History Makers and the Council on Foreign Relations, in which Clinton is interviewed by CFR President Richard N. Haass

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (US and UK). Clinton also recorded a message for her publisher about the book and what it is supposed to be…

And also on writing the memoir…

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Eric Cantor, David Brat & What it All Means… (News Round-Up)

CantorEric-2014SalonEric Cantor [Credit: Salon]

While I have been experiencing a near-complete isolation from news media, recently (I basically live in a rather-well-appointed boondocks, with extremely limited internet access), Eric Cantor’s surprise loss on Tuesday is worth addressing. Given my inability to follow the elections in any kind of real-time, I’ve relied on others’ reporting and commentary to offer something of a picture here. What’s presented here is by no means an exhaustive account of the various theories about Cantor’s defeat.

To begin with, the fact: Eric Cantor has been ousted by Tea Party challenger David Brat, an economics professor from Randolph-Macon College, who won the Republican primary with a 55-45 margin. Now, on to what some others have written about this result.

Immigration CantorDavid Brat [Credit: MSNBC]

]George Zornick of The Nation asks, “How did this happen? How did one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress lose to a political neophyte that he outspent 40-to-1?” There does not seem to be much of a consensus as to why this has happened – although, that does appear to be evolving rather rapidly. I thought I would pick up on what a few of the commentators I follow have said…

“America in the World” edited by Jeffrey A. Engel, Mark A. Lawrence & Andrew Preston (Princeton University Press)

EngelLawrencePreston-AmericaInTheWorld2014‘A History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror’

How should America wield its enormous power beyond its borders? Should it adhere to grand principles or act on narrow self-interest? Should it partner with other nations or avoid entangling alliances? Americans have been grappling with questions like these throughout the nation’s history, and especially since the emergence of the United States as a major world power in the late nineteenth century. America in the World illuminates this history by capturing the diverse voices and viewpoints of some of the most colorful and eloquent people who participated in these momentous debates.

Volumes such as this are incredibly valuable to researchers who, like me, do not have easy access to primary documents, or the means to acquire them. Collecting sources selected by experienced academics in the field of US foreign policy, it can take out some of the legwork required when starting a new research project.