The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Building Armies during Guerrilla Wars

History isn't really meant to be studied for direct relevance to contemporary issues. If you do, you risk reading into the past based on your conceptions of the present, or drawing a forced meaning out to influence a contemporary debate.

Nonetheless, my choice of study of my dissertation I have admit is not entirely innocent. I am looking at the training by the French of a Vietnamese National Army (1950-54) during the Indochina War. Time and place are always marked by differences - here they are too numerous to list - but I did choose the subject as a case study of a recurrent strategy of wars in the Third World. The explicit aim of fighting a war in a country with the end-goal and exit strategy being the creation of a sustainable government and training of indigenous forces to replace your own. This pattern has been repeated in the U.S.'s wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan (and the Soviets too) and Iraq.

Graduation: Class of 2008

So as I read Tom Ricks, I am uneasy:
Several times the Bush administration tried to transfer responsibility for security to Iraqi army and police forces, only to see them unable to handle the burden. Now, once again, the Americans are trying to get Iraqi security forces to take over, as most U.S. troops withdraw from Iraqi's cities. Will the Iraqis be able to keep the population relatively secure? To be honest, I don't know, and no one else does. It's a matter of faith. And the leap comes tomorrow.
General Ray Odierno assures us: 'I do believe they are ready.'

Having spent a good chunk of the last week combing through U.S. foreign policy documents and the personal papers of then French President Vincent Auriol, I admit I am even more wary of politicians and generals telling us anything about how good a job they're doing.

I think the act of fighting a war can impose a kind of doublethink. Whether or not the Iraqi Army and the war are going well, the effort itself if it has any chance to be successful requires a degree of cheerleading. And in your own mind, your rhetoric can prevent you from having a more clear-headed view of the situation.

Combat: Class of 1953

I can’t help think of those French generals in Indochina who promised – every year – that within two years they’d have enough Vietnamese troops to knock out the Communists. And this, despite the continuous problems in training competent officers, in draft dodging and desertion and the fact that every time they handed areas to ‘their’ Vietnamese, the results went from mixed to disastrous. And this kind of optimistic discourse existed in both public and private as French leaders in charge of the war 'over there' tried to sell it to the public and political elite at home. All the while, their rather more detached American colleagues filed consistently negative reports.

This example from 1952 is typical: as a Marshal of France assured his government that the extra Vietnamese troops could allow them to deal 'decisive blows to the [Communist] Viet Minh]' by 1953, American diplomats reported from their conversation with the top French commander that despite his optimism he 'did seem to gloss over one very important aspect of the matter – the fact that there is a lack of confidence by the French High Command in both the ability and the reliability of Vietnamese effectively to assure security.' And this kind of dissonance, between vaguely hopeful wishful thinking by French leaders and the wry commentary of Americans repeats itself all the way to Dien Bien Phu and the establishment of the dysfunctional state of South Vietnam.

What does all this mean? For now, I'll just note that to make an army out of nothing and fight a guerrilla war at the same time - depriving that army of accountability and limiting the period of training to few extremely costly years - is a task of extreme difficulty. I am not aware of any examples of this strategy having succeeded (as opposed to fully destroying an insurgency and then having many peaceful years to create a viable army). I'll no doubt have more to say once the paper is done.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Solar Plane

I have recently wondered how cheap airlines like EasyJet and Ryan Air are going to keep costs down and be environmentally friendly when airplanes are going to need fuel for the foreseeable future. The new prototype plane by Solar Impulse tells me alternative energy isn't going to be of much help in that regard for a while: it has the wingspan of an airbus, the weight of a car, and a cockpit for one (1) passenger.

It is, however, pretty cool and will hopefully fly without any fuel at all and able to go around the world in 25 days. Dr Bertrand Piccard, who runs the project, will fly the finished plane in Spring 2010 and attempt to go around the Earth in 5 hops. It sounds like there are many risks: the flight has to match the simulations and the weather has to be decent, too much turbulence would wreck a plane which is also a 60 meter hang-glider.. It all feels very adventurous, pioneering and sci-fiesque. Cool interview with him on the BBC page.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sterile and Marginal

Is anyone else struck by how sterile the 'debate' over Obama's rhetorical support (or lack of thereof) for the Iranian protesters is? Does it really make that big a difference either way? Aren't the events in Iran basically internally driven? It seems to me this 'controversy' only has any traction if one assumes the U.S. president's words have omnipotent powers.

That the Republicans have seized upon this as an issue I think is the product of two things. The first rather base and cynical, which is their need for a political football. It is all very theatrical and opportunistic, but hey, that's part of the game. The second is a sincere belief that Ronald Reagan huffed and puffed and blew the Berlin Wall down. Hence we have precedent.

I wouldn't touch the long, complicated and sterile (there's that word again) debate about the merits of the 'Reagan Victory Thesis' with a ten-foot-poll. But I will say this: in the absence of something big - like armed conflict with the outside world - these revolutionary/reformist processes are in the immediate basically internal. After all, the 'tough' rhetoric had stopped before the Soviet Union was disintegrating. By May 1988, Ronald Reagan was in Moscow proclaiming that the U.S.S.R. was no longer an Evil Empire and when East Germans broke through the Iron Curtain, George H. W. Bush repeatedly made the point of not 'dancing on the Berlin Wall'.

Not that words are wholly without influence. But it does strike me as rather marginal in the current situation. If and when the crackdown comes we can start discussing more unequivocal condemnation and sanctions. (Not that they particularly work.) But at the end of the day, neither the U.S. nor the West generally is able or willing to put any hard material backing - military or otherwise - behind the protesters. As soon as we've established that, the debate is academic. Rhetoric may have done great deal to encourage dissent - say - in Hungary in 1956 or Iraq in 1991. But it seemed like nothing but false hypocrisy when the West watched impotently as guns were fired and blood ran in the streets.

Incidentally, George F. Will I think is the only prominent conservative to have not jumped onto the bandwagon.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Ivan Rioufol

A fellow blog has made a cottage industry on commenting on the 'Rioufolliene' thought-of-the-day coming out of the op eds of the Figaro. It has everything: vicious attacks on Barack Hussein Obama (no one else has their middle name so relentlessly emphasised), invocations of Islamo-fascism and the Axis of Evil, assertions that the leaders of Iran desire something like nuclear suicide, lamenting of postcolonial 'guilt', and - yes - a narrative that includes Nicolas Sarkozy riding as knight in shining armour to the rhetorical rescue of democracy in Iran.

Read it, just to be reminded that no one has a monopoly on bad faith and the production of mean-spirited, reactionary garbage.


'Minarets of Menace'

The Daily Show has been reading my mind..

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

An hour with McNamara (1996)

And that [our gasoline consumption] is disgraceful. In the first place, our automotive fuel consumption per capita is roughly twice that of, say, Germany. And this is a problem. It's an environmental problem: we are putting more greenhouse gas emissions in the upper atmosphere that are going to lead to climate change. It's a financial problem: it costs us far more. It's a security problem, this fuel comes out of the Middle East and we are more dependent on a very volatile region. We are not buying anything for it. We are not buying greater comfort, more convenience, or greater mobility...

Now I come back to contemplation. I think it is the responsibility of a leader, an action-oriented individual in our society, whether public sector leader or private sector leader, to contemplate as well as to act and to think about his role in society. And I want to suggest that the role in society of a petroleum executive today, in addition to making profits for his company, ought to be to help society increase efficiency in the use of petroleum. I don't think they think of themselves that way. They should.
Honestly, how great is Robert S. McNamara? I highly recommend this hour-long interview of him on his upbringing, the Depression, business over academia, 'action vs. contemplation', liberalism, Vietnam, cars/gas/climate change.. And this was in 1996.. Forget the end of the Cold War, forget 9/11, the trends that dominate our world today have been in place since at the 1970s if not earlier.

I don't know if Errol Morris saw this interview prior to shooting his The Fog of War. McNamara covers a lot of the same ground, even using phrases identical to those in the documentary, but he also talks about different stuff, often in the specific context of Nineties. Well worth watching.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reflections on the Revolution in Iran

It was not so long ago that that Iran was made a member of the 'Axis of Evil' by George W. Bush. It was a crude, almost childish example of speech writing, awkwardly meshing a similarly cartoonish phrase Ronald Reagan used to describe the Soviet Union with a Hitlerite term that evokes the most terrible force, the darkest years the world has ever seen.

It did not square all that well with the actual members of the new 'Axis'. The governments of Iraq, Iran and North Korea had indeed varying degrees of 'evil' but it did seem profoundly misleading to compare their tin-pot dictatorships with Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. - two vast empires that had literally had the potential to destroy the United States and, perhaps, dominate the world. Never mind that the members of this supposed 'Axis' did not have particularly close relations and two of them - Iraq and Iran - had been at each others' throats for decades. Nonetheless, the totalitarian imagery was evocative, and served the administration's purpose of instilling a lurid and demonic, albeit somewhat blurry, image of the enemy into public opinion as the necessary prelude to all war and confrontation.

I can't help but be struck by the colossal number of spectacular images and video coming out of Iran right now (some here, TPM has lots) and how it will affect the country's image abroad. I think of the extent to which they both confirm and contradict preconceptions. Yes, there are big, intimidating rallies with foreign chants and banners with alien script. Yes, there are upturned cars and buses burn. Indeed, supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad show off disturbing anti-American imagery and slogans. But much more striking is how normal the people of Iran must seem to those expecting a more terrorist-totalitarian-'Islamofascist' vibe. These people do not look like the submissive, deprived citizens of the Soviet Union or oppressively robotic North Koreans on parade. Nor do they for the most part look like the ghostly burqa-clad women that float around Kabul or the scraggly old crackpots in turbans that appear in Al Qaeda's periodic videos.

Instead, we witness a society that seems much like our own and yet enticingly exotic. Red-White-and-Green take the place of our own colors at the rallies. The ubiquitous green of everything - banners, shirts, faces, glasses - evoke not a frightening fundamentalism, but happy memories of Kiev. We see 40something males sporting their polos and paunches, marching in orderly fashion. There are long-haired young men in T-shirts and jeans that look like they were grabbed off some London campus. Pretty girls walk in their summer clothes - their modesty assured by a light scarf covering half their hair - sometimes with braids, sunglasses, make-up or even tank-tops.

And we see them all gallantly face off with troopers wielding batons and wearing black body armor.

Instead of 1979, this feels like 1989. It is as though watching East Germans rallying against Communism as we hold our breath to see if the Russian tanks are rolled out. We look with apprehension for a repeat of Tiananmen. But would that be possible in the age of Facebook, cameraphones and YouTube? These tools, so frivolous in their normal usage, would ensure that every household knows the face of violence and tyranny. These events hold the potential to stir change in both the United States and Iran. That when gazing at the other, there would not be the ugly, distorted reflections of the "Great Satan" and the "Axis of Evil", but two nations might see each other for the first time.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Depressing Poll

"Do most Islamic nations want to have a positive and peaceful relationship with the United States?"

In my insomnia, I have decided to write on a piece of news that has been bugging me for a while. According to a Rasmussen poll, a whopping 32% of Americans believe the answer to the above question is 'yes'. I don't know how Americans understood the question, but I find it disturbing no matter which way they interpreted it.

OIC participants

Did they interpret 'nations' to mean governments of Muslim-majority countries? Do they have any idea that the vast majority of these governments are either American allies or have normal relations with the United States? Of the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, pretty much only Syria and Iran could be construed to be outright 'enemies'.


Did they forget that Muslim nations form a vast and diverse group, of which Middle Easterners form a surprisingly small minority? That the biggest Muslim country is Indonesia? Or that there are more Muslims in Africa or South Asia than the Middle East? Around two thirds of Americans apparently believe that the Muslim World - from the Senegalese peasants outside Dakar, to the Malay businessmen in Kuala Lumpur and from the godless post-Communist bureaucrats in Almaty to the jubilant Kenyans celebrating 'Obama Day' in Mombasa - on the whole wants conflict with the United States.

And is it not still terribly unreasonable, if we assume most respondents were ignorant that there are indeed Muslim countries outside of 'Arabia', to believe most ordinary men on the street in most Middle Eastern countries want bad relations with the United States in principle? Do they expect Americans in Egypt or Syria to be spat at in the street? I think it is better to be predisposed to the notion that ordinary people - to the extent they think about the United States - are more offended by specific U.S. policies than America itself until proven otherwise. That would seem to me understandable enough given that - for better and for worse - the pronounced and overwhelming American power and influence in the region is used with systematic disregard for the sentiments of its inhabitants.

Or is it that Americans have become prejudiced towards an entire religion because they have been saturated with images of violence, extremism and anti-Americanism from a handful of countries and terrorist movements? For all the talk of Iran and Hezbollah, all the lurid images of terror attacks and hysterical demonstrations, you will find almost nothing on the 1.5 billion Muslims strewn across every continent - Imams and agnostics, Sub-Saharan Africans and southeast Europeans, illiterate peasants and urbane intellectuals, burqa-clad women and make-up ladden girls in headscarves - characterized more by their differences than anything else. You almost never get a sense that they are people as one finds people in all corners of the globe, with their own painful struggles and petty worries, with their occasional exciting adventures and banal daily lives, with all their qualities and all their flaws. The effort to educate the American people on this issue, it seems to me, has been mismanaged with criminal negligence. We would do better to read more Fred Halliday and Alaa Al-Aswani.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Vladimir Putin

I do not know enough about Russia today to have a full assessment of Vladimir Putin. I am quite impressed by his political career. This man, hand-picked by the disgraced Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, went from obscure intelligence officer to an enormously popular and unchallenged master of a rising, confident Russia.

Image-building: Manly-Man, 1800s

I can't help but think of Napoleon Bonaparte (no doubt because I am reading about him). Both he and Putin faced the challenge of establishing a new regime atop the debris of a stillborn democracy. No small part of any political career is shaping perceptions of one's self: creating an image, taking credit for successes, dodging blame for disasters. A new biography of Bonaparte's rise emphasizes this aspect of him - publishing his own newspapers describing his military campaigns and victories, rushing home to France to explain when in the midst of disaster in Egypt or Russia - as the first modern spin-doctor.

Can it last?

As Bonaparte established his legitimacy on the prestige of his military victories in Italy against Austria, so Putin founded his regime on the successful and brutal prosecution of the war in Chechnya. He benefited from a spectacular recovery of the economy, in no small part due to the explosion of oil and gas prices. He took credit for ending the 'anarchy' that reigned under Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin. He consolidated his power and that of the Russian state, manifesting itself in an arbitrary despotism, having journalists mysteriously murdered in grotesque ways and destroying the business empires of hated 'oligarchs'.

Image-building: Manly-Man, 2000s

Gorbachev and Yeltsin (rightly or wrongly) are sources of shame and embarrassment for most Russians. Gorbachev is perceived to have willfully sold out to the West and destroyed the great state. Yeltsin looked like an incompetent, drunk tool. Putin stood up to the United States and the West on Iraq and Kosovo. He ostentatiously reasserted Russia's influence in the 'near abroad' - the vast areas of the former Soviet Union home to many millions of ethnic Russians - engaging in coercive energy politics in Ukraine and invading parts of Georgia. He cultivates an image of virile power. So, we get photos of Putin bare-chested showing his manly musculature (beats Nicolas Sarkozy), as well as a book on being a black-belt judo master, and even a story of his saving people from a tiger. He successfully escaped blame for a number of bungled affairs from the sinking of the Kursk submarine to the Beslan school massacre.

I don't know what this will mean for Russia in the future. I would hope we see a kind of reconciliation between Russia and the rest of Europe. Can one dream of a Russia with a strong welfare state, a healthy population, a rich and diverse economy, liberal democratic politics, engaged - even integrated - in some way with European institutions? The Putin years seem to suggest something very different. The economic underpinnings of Russia today seem to me very narrow. A state characterized by a reliable flow of cash from energy coupled with an otherwise weak economy strikes me as a recipe for an unaccountable regime (a 'petro-state' in the jargon). However, the transition to Putin as Prime Minister, a very strange story, also suggests at least a kind of plebiscitary despotism.

If I am to indulge in the Bonapartist analogy once more, one vast difference between the two regimes is in their relationship to war and peace. General and First Consul Bonaparte of France become Emperor Napoleon I of the Grand empire. This was made through war. And it was the necessities of continuous war between France and its neighbors that led to the degeneration of the state into a purely military regime subjugating all of society and the continent for victory: it meant only conscription, taxation and the strangling of trade with England. The concentration of powers in Napoleon's hands became unlimited.


Putin has no more war. He rules a secure state. The vicious circle of war and dictatorship - what Doris Kearns Goodwin has called 'the iron ring of tyranny' - does not exist in Russia today. In the Soviet Union, the military-industrial complex and the bureaucratic state long justified its domination of society and the economy, and isolation from the world, in terms of the necessities of civil war, war with Germany, and the existential threat posed by American atomic superiority. The general peace of the world today means internationalist and democratic pressures in Russia face a good deal less obstacles than in the past.

Drawings for the first time with thicker graphite: detail tends to suffer and shading is rather more difficult but also allows for experimenting with spreading color with my fingers. Colors slightly enhanced. K.G.B. Fishing. Shades.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

More Doodles

A mix of images:

* Quick and dirties of Yeats of Irish Uprising fame (that line by his mouth is supposedly a scar) and Pierre Mendes-France.
* Quick attempts at shading of Ike (eh..) and Orwell (OK).
* Two more Fanons, quite good really, one from a different position and the other from another photo (not sure which side of his face his little cheek-scar really was). Conveying emotion is very difficult though, have neither quite the 'see beyond' stare of the original in the first, nor the scowl in the second. Points to who can say which part of the second drawing I redid a zillion times and am still not happy with.