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Putin, Montesquieu, and Catherine


In a post-Beslan emergency session in Moscow, Putin met with cabinet ministers and regional governors to overhaul the political system, greatly centralizing authority, all in the name of national security. It's hard to imagine any Russian or post-Soviet state as suffering a "weakness of state executive powers," but so it is.

Within 24-hours the White House said that Putin's centralization was a Russian internal matter and SecState Powell said that it is "alarming" and that it "could take Russia off the path to democracy," an opinion I find bluntly unrealistic and has me favoring the White House over State. When readers hear Powell speak of a "proper balance," they should know how Russian democracy works, and for that I look to Dmitri Simes.

Let me set the stage with comments Simes made in 2001, a decade into the Soviet collapse when some were calling Russia "finished," as a starting point for Putin's consolidation:

[On 'consolidate political power' v. 'repression] Yeltsin, with an exception for a short period in 1996 and 1998, always relied very heavily on security forces. Most unsavory KGB generals were part of his entourage and were instruments of his power. This is not new. I think that the issue today is consolidation and stabilization of the Russian society. There is still a lot of repression. There are many undemocratic practices, but you have to heed the direction and the direction is not toward greater repression. The direction is to restoration of a certain degree of stability.

[On the State] People were raised to believe that the state was an enemy, but also the state was always the authority. You do not bargain with the state, either you fight against the state or obey the state… Or you cheat the state… There is no meaning of truth in the way you have in Western societies, because you have to believe that you will be treated with the minimal fairness by the state. [You] also have a situation of ingrained corruption, generation after generation. I don’t think it’s something that will stay there forever, but I think it will have to be addressed for several generations before you will see any European-style democracy in Russia.

[Value to US foreign policyUS foreign policy agenda [depends] upon Russian cooperation. [The] Russian position is very important [on] America’s most important strategic relationship [China]. What kind of weapons Russia will agree to supply [China]? Would Russia agree to have some kind of tactical alliance with China?... Russian cooperation with Iran. Russian position on proliferation. Russia has a role [in every] major foreign policy. It is not the same role as in the case of the Soviet Union...,but Russia causes a considerable impact primarily on nuclear weapons.

[That Russia is not looking for either an American or a European model] I think that’s exactly right. The Russians are not only not ready for western-style democracy; they are not interested in western-style democracy. They believe that they have to find their own way, which in many respects will be European, but which will also be influenced by Russian culture, Russian tradition. They also believe that they have to define their own national interests, which they believe are not antagonistic to the United States, but also are not identical and I think that we will see a very complex relationship between Russia and the United States.

Back to Simes in 2004 for a realistic look at Putin's actions:

Putin was moving in the direction for quite some time. He clearly feels that in order to change things in Russia, and he's got a sense of mission he wants to change things, you need to have real power -- not a performer power granted by the Russian constitution, but real power. [G]overnors today - they are heavily influenced by the Kremlin -- but there is no line authority. The Kremlin cannot tell them what to do. [No one is] truly responsible. [Most of the] so-called independent legislators... are not democrats [but] people connected with provincial corrupt structures and their presence in legislature adds little to Russian democracy.

[There's nothing to 'take away" as] they don't have legitimate local government in Russia. [The] whole government of North Ossetia [is] run by a former Soviet party official, former Soviet diplomat who is part of the old power structure. [Elected yes, but] make no mistake, in fact he was appointed. But the situation was created when in fact they appoint the governors, that's why these people who were in the room with Putin who was talking about eliminating their elect status and yet they applauded him because they do not have the guts to challenge him.

The Kremlin has power without responsibility. Putin wants to concentrate the decision making in the Kremlin [which makes sense but] taken alone it's grossly insufficient. I think that under current Russian conditions where corruption is perverse, where local mayors and governors are frequently associated with criminal gangs [if] Putin wants to change something, he needs to put himself in charge first.

[You] have to have other reforms to start creating legitimate civil society. You should give local mayors, real mayors more power, and you also should have a struggle against corruption. Those reforms were promised by Putin, but he did not begin to implement them yet.

Catherine was fond of quoting the arch-democrat Montesquieu that "a wise ruler who favored reason over passion could best ensure the welfare of his or her subjects" and by extension that Russia could only be run by a firm central hand. Putin would approve.

Power Play
Sept 14, 2004

Putin Moves to Centralize Authority
By Peter Baker
Washington Post
Sept 14, 2004

Gordon Housworth

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Poverty mimics AIDS, only more slowly but with equal impact and with a twist


As the UN-HABITAT released the 2004/2005 edition of The State of the World's Cites, I was struck by the flow of humanity into the world's cities that has produced some 175 million documented international migrants -- and who knows how many undocumented ones -- and an underclass that is mired between desperation and a "race to the bottom" for those 'fortunate' enough to gain work with firms that are part of the supply chain of firms seeking cheaper labor and so drive wages down until they reach a baseline and then shift capital and jobs across borders to lower cost regions. UN-Habitat Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka noted that the volume of slum inhabitants will "double to nearly two billion by 2030" and thereby form 40% of the estimated city population of "nearly five billion people by 2030."

In Bribery is a $1 trillion USD annual business - $2.7 billion per diem, I noted that "Corruption -- the misuse of public office for private gain from whatever source, AIDS, poverty, and famine rank high on my alarm chart for producing dysfunctional or depopulated states that can be exploited for terrorist and criminal purposes." But little will be done, as in Looking past a pandemic tipping point, I note that "AIDS in Africa has taught us that local governments and societies can ignore a disease and its impacts just as successfully as the supposedly distant, well-to-do first world societies."  So it will be with this poverty as the more relatively well-to-do, and I include myself, focus on more near-team matters.

Just as I believe that AIDS will get out of hand despite the attention being given to it and the valiant effort of the few, I feel the same will happen with this urban underclass such that extremism will flourish in these global slums as governments will not tackle the poverty in time to interdict its drivers. I agree with Tibaijuka's comment that, ""The poor are not terrorists, but the hopelessness in which people find themselves can create conducive conditions for criminals to manipulate the situation." I do not agree with her hope that this report "will encourage governments to invest in slums and work on solutions to the simmering problems."

[Of the 175 million documented migrants,] the more developed economies attract most of the international migrants (77 million), followed by the transition economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics (33 million), Asia and the Pacific (23 million) and the Middle East and North Africa (21 million). In many cities, lack of affordable housing and discriminatory practices force the newcomers to live spatially segregated lives in ghettos where they suffer labour exploitation, social exclusion and violence.

As you might expect, the migration is not uniformly divided just as urban poverty is increasingly concentrated in particular neighborhoods, "racial minorities in some societies, international immigrant groups in others."

As an aside, I did find two bright spots: While the migrant suffers in their transplant nation, their home nation benefits:

Remittances back home are second only to oil in terms of international monetary flows, providing an important and reliable source of foreign exchange finance. In 2003, for example, the Indian Diaspora sent back US$ 15 billion, exceeding the revenues generated by the country's software industry.

And in Asia and the Pacific region, albeit some of the most recent poor, the impact of globalism has been described as "one of the largest decreases in mass poverty in human history."

Yet in these urban, dislocated pockets of privation, the sufferers will not be dead as with AIDS, but alive, angry, close at hand, seeking redress, and willing to listen to approaches from either criminal or terrorist factions.  Despite the present danger of al Qaeda, the net number of their group in the US and much of Europe is small in comparison to the sea of immigrant poor -- soon to be 2 out of 5, and in the case of the UK and France, a very great part of that same urban poor is Muslim.

I hope, but do not believe, that Tibaijuka will be successful in getting host nations to "base their economic policy on basic moral values," and thereby halt the "race to the bottom" by putting a floor under this growing urban poor. I also believe that firms in the host nation all the way up their supply chains to the wealthier end-user nations will largely favor shareholders' profits calls over the provision of basic services to the impoverished.

The sad analogy that I use in these cases is the withdrawing of one's hand from a pail of water. There is a slight ripple, a small change in level, and all is as before.

State of the World's Cities 2004/2005 - Globalization and Urban Culture
ISBN No.: 92-1-131705-3
HS Number: HS/726/04E

Spreading Slums May Boost Extremism: UN Agency
World Bank DevNews
Headlines for Tuesday, September 14, 2004

UN-HABITAT Report Celebrates Multicultural Cities
Barcelona, 14 September 2004

Gordon Housworth

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Domodedovo: negating layers of Russian security for as little as 7,000 rubles - $234 USD


Early indicators point to as little as $234 US (7,000 rubles) were able to circumvent the security at Domodedovo, bringing down two airliners. There should be, must be, a lesson here for US, European, and other security groups as similar grey-area 'process gaps' that never appear on the 'as-designed' security map designed to meet a specified group of 'attack scenarios' must surely exist within our own systems. To believe that they do not, is to defy human nature and to invite future disaster.

Consider the difference between defensive and offensive success:

  • Defensive success: Ability to detect threat in time and check aggressor’s plan
  • Offensive success: Ability to mask intent, plan and implement, and defer discovery until too late for countermeasures

Good adversaries look at the least demanding means of success. They examine the inadequacies of your own security. They exploit things you consider unimportant. They exploit holes in databases that no longer provide appropriate or timely reporting.

Domodedovo had put in place a number of systems and inspections that presumed that individual travelers would engage the system directly. Domodedovo appears to have failed to consider the legions of fixers, scalpers, blackmarketeers, and their apparatchik contacts.

The likely suspects, two Chechen women -- the only two bodies unclaimed of those killed, arrived in Moscow earlier in the day of the flights (short time spans reduce the detection interval) from Dagestan, adjacent to Chechnya. They may or may not have been traveling with explosives -- I think not -- and find plausible the Russian opinion that the two women met a third party who provided the explosives (pre-positioning is a long accomplished skill of Chechen efforts) and the instruction to contact a ticket scalper, very possibly one who was himself innocent but deemed effective in getting people in need onto planes on short notice.

The target was a Krasnodar native, Armen Artyunov, who illegally sold tickets at Domodedovo airport and "who reportedly specializes in securing tickets for sold-out flights."

Artyunov reportedly received 5,000 rubles ($167) for his help in purchasing both tickets. A fee of 2,000 rubles more ($67) went to Artyunov's apparatchik contact at the airport who received two bribes, one to get the first woman onto a Sibir Airlines flight, and the second, when the other Sibir flight was sold out, to get the second woman onto the Volgograd Aviaekspress flight. If early reports are correct, the contact then "helped her pass a security check."

Both women "were seated in the rear of the airplane when the RDX device exploded." I am curious to see if that seating was by passenger request as a detonation in that area would be much more likely to sever control circuits which "would explain the sudden loss of control and emergency power after the explosion," as opposed to an explosive decompression which may or may not have downed the airliners.

In a stroke, all of Domodedovo's security precautions were negated, and for about $234 USD. Depending upon where the RDX was located (on person, in carry-on) and how it was armed (mechanical, RF-trigger, timer, altimeter), it is likely that both aircraft were doomed from the moment that they put wheels in the well. Offensive success at its best. Masterful and elegant in its simplicity.

We must take careful note.

Airline Employee, Ticket Scalper Arrested In Connection With Twin Airplane Explosions
RFE/RL Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Russia Volume 8 Number 172
Thursday, 9 September 2004

2 Arrested in Russian Planes Probe
Tuesday, September 07, 2004
Associated Press

Analysis: Who Downed The Russian Jets?
By Roman Kupchinsky
RFE/RL Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Monday, 30 August 2004

Gordon Housworth

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International terrorism in Russia; more Chechen export than Arab import


I am more of the opinion that what passes for 'international terrorism" in Russia and the CIS is highly capable Chechen forces at work there and moving freely to and from other terrorist hotspots in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Given the fluidity of the al Qaeda franchise and the rise of the entrepreneur terrorist, I do not doubt that so called 'Arab' personnel can come in and out on Chechen smuggling routes and that those entities may bring needed items, but I feel that they are as likely to be the junior, at best peer, member when compared to the skills of the Chechens and that Arab forces are useful but not necessary for the Chechens to carry out their actions against CIS assets. See Continued Chechen prowess in the face of superior Russian numbers, 26 June 2004.

Some needed history: There is a very strong Chechen diasporia that has a very strong Turkish-Chechen axis. The Ottoman Empire had long provided a military and religious canopy to Caucasian tribes in their resistance against the Russian Slavs. Russia wrought its revenge following the Russo-Persian wars of 1804-13 and 1826-28 and the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57 when it forcibly cleared the region, relocating thousands of Chechens and Circassians elsewhere in the czarist empire, a process that Stalin would later repeat under fear of the Chechens offering aid to Germany. Many Caucasus peoples fled to Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Jordan and the Black Sea littoral:

Turkey is the principal ally of the Chechen independence fighters. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, almost all the peoples of the Caucasus region -- including Chechens -- have had close ties with Turkey, which though secular is still part of the Islamic world… Each week Turkish Muslim groups and the Gray Wolves organize demonstrations against the Russian government... The Gray Wolves run the mosques and commercial activities in some parts of Istanbul. It is in these mosques, in the suburbs of the city, that offerings are collected after daily prayers for the Chechen refugees. It is money that probably also goes to soldiers on the front lines.

As the conflict in Chechnya has intensified and played out its more dramatic moments, such efforts have multiplied. According to some estimates, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign Mujahedeen in Turkey on their way to fight in Chechnya. Their movements across Turkey certainly could not take place without at least the tacit consent of the Turkish government. Indeed, it is no longer a secret that the main training camp for the Chechen fighters is at Duzce, a town between Istanbul and the Turkish capital of Ankara.

The Chechens have been operating an extensive 'farm team' well beyond the boundaries of Chechnya. The late Fred Cuny wrote:

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Chechens reacted swiftly. The Chechens, under their newly elected president, Dzhorkar Dudayev, declared their unilateral independence and proceeded to set up a separate state. As the Chechens say, the business of Chechnya was business--in all its forms. Dudayev allowed the local Chechen economy to deteriorate and unemployment to rise: but he and his associates grabbed some planes from Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, and began trading with the newly independent, former Soviet states to his south and east. He also established links to Iran and Turkey and soon a variety of goods were entering Chechnya marked for destinations further north in Russia. Opium, heroin, and hashish were among the more profitable commodities sent northward. Dudayev and his colleagues were also able to engage in the profitable business of exporting arms. As the Russian army pulled back from the Caucasus and Central Asia, large amounts of its equipment were sold illegally to the Chechens, who then offered them to anyone with cash. Apparently, Muslim nations supporting Bosnia were among their better clients.

I should add that there is a school of thought that radical Islam began to take hold only after the 1994 Russian invasion, that "Chechnya’s ever-closer embrace with radical Islam was by no means inevitable [at the time]," and that it was a later internal rebellion that raised the stature of the Islamists.

However, I again vote with Cuny:

For three years the Russian government ignored Chechnya's declaration of independence and its other embarrassing activities; Russia had other problems. But by mid-1994, Dudayev had gone too far. He was courting Muslim radicals in Iran and the Middle East, toying with declaring an Islamic state and imposing Shariah law, and continuing to send millions of dollars worth of untaxed goods into Russian's markets.

[Yeltsin] believed that the Russian people, who generally have deep contempt for the Chechens as the perceived kingpins of Moscow underworld, would support a quick military intervention to bring them to heel. They also believed that the Chechens would flee in the face of Russian army.

Major miscalculation that. The Chechens are quite able to fend for themselves, buttressed by their criminal activities, a point ignored by Chechen apologists. They have developed exceptional skills above and beyond those talents that are now for sale.

Chechen Rebels Mainly Driven by Nationalism
New York Times
September 12, 2004

Analysis: Is Al-Qaeda Operating Inside Russia?
By Roman Kupchinsky
RFE/RL Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
September 3, 2004

Istanbul: Gateway to a holy war
By Ali Isingor
Special to CNNItalia

Gordon Housworth

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Continuance of denial and hubris are not grounds for success


Ba'athist, jihadist, and national/personal militia terrorists have established new camps in central Iraq, often in areas thought safe, as US Central Command acknowledges that "more areas in Iraq are under rebel control today than there were last year." The Sunni triangle, including Fallujah and Ramadi, is seeing the formation of new camps and the fortification of earlier ones. Convoy attacks and kidnapping are rising along the Baghdad-Najaf highway. Arms and personnel smuggling is rising accordingly.

Ismail Zayer, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Sabah al-Jedid:

"There are terrorist camps. They have stored lots of arms and ammunition. They have equipment for forging documents and passports. They have positioned themselves to have contacts with people in places like Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as with people in the south."

To the south, Shi'ite militias flourish. It appears that the Shi'ite Hezbollah "has deeply infiltrated Basra and surrounding areas, so much so that it virtually runs the province, with the help of Shi'ite militias, and is committed to establishing vilayat-e-faqih (rule by the religious clergy according to the Shi'ite faith)." Iranian revolutionary guards "have already established pockets, especially in Ammarah and Basra." Iranian intelligence operates under the auspices of the Sayyed al-Shohada party which calls itself a branch of the al-Majlis al-Alla (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq - SCIR). Iranian monies from religious "welfare funds" underpin it all.

The US-appointed interim Allawi government is being made to look hollow for its promises to uproot armed opposition, and I can only expect their situation to worsen as their security forces suffer increasing casualties yet have neither the resources, skill, support (from Iraqis either frightened or waiting to side with a more likely winner), and intelligence to accomplish the mission.

One should expect this impotence to continue until the US rehabilitates the Ba'ath Party and its banned Arab nationalists (a ban already partially relaxed), the armed forces, and tribal chiefs that operated under Saddam, i.e., in the absence of viable US power, restore those whom the US defeated but can run the shop. Even that may now be impossible as we have let Shi'ite militias fill the vacuum we ourselves created.

I follow Francis Fukuyama, who while describing himself as a neocon, proposed a very different version than that of Charles Krauthammer's "democratic globalism" which came to dominate neocon philosophical underpinnings, and think that he has much good to say (and now that he has broken openly with Krauthammer will no doubt have more to say.)

Fukuyama is one of the few to separate nation-building (creating or repairing the cultural, social, and historical ties of a people) and state-building (creating or strengthening governmental entities to include its armies, police, judiciary, tax and banking, health, education, et al). Nation-building commences with security stabilization, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, infrastructure rebuilding, restarting economic activity. Fukuyama rightly observes that this capacity is within the ability of the US and the UN. The creation of "self-sustaining [Fukuyama emphasizes this level in order to produce stable institutions] political and economic institutions that will ultimately permit competent democratic governance and economic growth" can only follow once stability is underway. Expecting to decapitate Baathist leadership, turning over a working government to new leaders, the US completely failed to prepare contingency plans against the possibility of a general state collapse, while baring the UN from attempting to do so.

Larry Diamond, recently a Senior Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, had this to say about security:

In postconflict situations in which the state has collapsed, security trumps everything: it is the central pedestal that supports all else. Without some minimum level of security, people cannot engage in trade and commerce, organize to rebuild their communities, or participate meaningfully in politics. Without security, a country has nothing but disorder, distrust, and desperation-an utterly Hobbesian situation in which fear pervades and raw force dominates. This is why violence-ridden societies tend to turn to almost any political force that promises to provide order, even if it is oppressive.

Without security, political, economic, and social reconstruction " grinds to a halt." In an NPR interview, Diamond calls it the "seminal failure [in Iraq] from which other miseries flowed." Without the fruits of security, the nascent government -- it is not remotely a state -- is deprived of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, attackers, and other states, and so is open to predation.

Fukuyama cites the "most serious post-war planning mistakes" by the US as:

  • Afterthought establishment of a post-war reconstruction organization
  • Insufficient authority granted to it
  • Placing it under Pentagon control

Reconstruction in Afghanistan is no better, merely crowded out of the limelight. If we are going to rebuild anything, including our credibility, we must immediately adopt realistic, corrective actions not blinkered by Unipower ideology.

Rebels extend control in Iraq
By Peyman Pejman
Asia Times
Sep 11, 2004

After Muqtada, the militias ...
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Asia Times
September 1, 2004

What Went Wrong in Iraq
By Larry Diamond
Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004

Nation-Building 101
by Francis Fukuyama
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004

Gordon Housworth

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Imperial Rome became Italy; de Tocqueville's America becomes what?


While I have often wondered how Romans became Italians, I have only recently begun to wonder what became of de Tocqueville's American citizens and what has replaced them. That painful quandary was laid bare by Menand's The Unpolitical Animal, which starts off well enough with political philosophy that de Tocqueville would recognize: individual rational choice, appreciation of consequences, voter rationality between the preferred philosophies of governance by left and right, and the undecided who see any rote commitment as curiously fanatic, et al.

That opening paragraph is the last thing that de Tocqueville would recognize as Menard cuts to a collection of articles drawn from the pages of Campaigns & Elections: The Magazine for People in Politics, and the message could not be more different:

Don’t assume that your candidate’s positions are going to make the difference. "In a competitive political climate," as one article explains, "informed citizens may vote for a candidate based on issues. However, uninformed or undecided voters will often choose the candidate whose name and packaging are most memorable. To make sure your candidate has that ‘top-of-mind’ voter awareness, a powerful logo is the best place to start." You want to present your candidate in language that voters will understand. They understand colors. "Blue is a positive color for men, signaling authority and control," another article advises. "But it’s a negative color for women, who perceive it as distant, cold and aloof. Red is a warm, sentimental color for women—and a sign of danger or anger to men. If you use the wrong colors to the wrong audience, you’re sending a mixed message."

It goes downhill from there, but back to first principles: Converse's 1964 The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics in which Converse saw two classes of voters:

  • Ideologues: the ten percent "of the public [that] has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system," who "have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what"—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy."
  • Non-ideologues: the all-others, whatever their preferred label, who "basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of "constraint": they can’t see how one opinion… logically ought to rule out other opinions."

These non-ideologues either "vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest…, form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad… or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever."

But what about public opinion? Converse believed that people feel compelled to voice an opinion, but survey analysis indicates that "people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions," i.e., the public holds "opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles."

Fast forward to today, three theories jostle:

  1. Electoral outcomes are essentially arbitrary, the will of the people being carried by "slogans, misinformation, "fire alarms" (sensational news), "October surprises" (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and "gotchas.""
  2. "Democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face," i.e., in the face of incomplete information, people's opinions and preferences are dictated by elite opinion. Political campaigns essentially become "struggles among that elite," those able to draw ideological differences and see policy implications.
  3. People use shortcuts, "heuristics," to reach judgments about political candidates. This intuitive "low-information rationality" is a good enough substitute for the richer data set.

Only heuristics offers me hope, but it makes me queasy that voters can consistently substitute cue interpretation and elite selection for informed, reasoned judgment.

Continuing Converse, Morris Fiorina feels that the electorate is not polarized and that there are very modest differences between red-blue states. It is the elites that are highly ideological, polarized -- what I have to come to call "shouters," most of whom are on the right and many of those are on Fox and talk radio -- a fact that continues to frighten me as so many of these sources alternately use bogus and biased data and badger those that disagree.

If the elites polarize and then one side can shout down/blot out the other, then I despair that the electorate can get the accurate shortcuts and cues to vote for the foreign policy, and those who would implement it, that is in the electorate's long term best interest.

Parle Italiano?

The Unpolitical Animal
How political science understands voters
by Louis Menand
New Yorker
Issue of 2004-08-30
Posted 2004-08-23

Democracy in America
Volume I, 1835 and Volume II, 1840
Alexis de Tocqueville

The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics
Philip Converse, 1964, In Ideology and Discontent. Edited by David Apter. New York: Free Press, 206-261

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America
Great Questions in Politics Series
by Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, Jeremy C. Pope

Gordon Housworth

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When fiction exposes a fault line in fact: CDC, NIH and NBC


Hamlet may not have had detective TV in mind when he said, "For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ," but NBC's premiere of "Medical Investigation" did just that when its dramatization of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) assigned organizational ownership to NIH Bethesda instead of CDC Atlanta, i.e. terrific publicity going to the other guy.

Sometimes called the "medical CIA" or the "virus hunters," CDC is justifiably proud of the EIS established in 1951 at CDC Atlanta, Georgia, as a combined training and service program in domestic and international applied epidemiology. Staff that pass through its 2-year program go on to become its eyes and ears, much like retired FBI staff at Kroll became a farm team for serving FBI agents, and can be recalled to support an essential mission.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are but two units of Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) whose mission is to protect the health of Americans and provide essential human services. Just as with law enforcement fault lines between federal, state, and local units, so do barriers and competition exist among our health care guardians. On a variety of issues and disease preventions and interdictions, "both the NIH and CDC continue to behave as if on-campus interests were all that mattered." That competition is mirrored across a swath of states and universities beyond the federal patch, and those institutions have relationships that are stronger with one federal entity than another.

While the AMA article is kind enough to speak of the series as a "hybrid NIH and CDC agency," the Post article can only allude to the competition, even partisanship, that is propelled by zero-sum contributions to ego, professional recognition, and funding.

At the kindest level, some CDC members and supporters in the wider public health community see a tilt to the wealthier NIH, a tilt sanctioned by DHHS Secretary, Tommy Thompson. It is true that:

The CDC, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has long had to beg for help in its investigation of mysterious death and disease. It acquired the property for its main Atlanta campus only after Coca-Cola Co. baron Robert Woodruff helped give the agency land on the cheap in the 1940s.

NIH says no slight is intended, that they "never said they wanted it this way" and after all, "the show is not a documentary but entertainment." The struggle has continues at a low boil to prevent retribution. NIH says that it tried to tell NBC that the "show's heroes were on the wrong federal payroll." Opponents say that NIH did not try very hard. 

Personally, I think that some at NIH feel that they were fortunate to get something for nothing, i.e., that the bland NIH acquired a bit of the macho CDC image, never a bad thing in the gentle battle for funding before Congress, a process that I think modeled the funding presentations of the military intel units to NSA, a process that the Air Force won handsomely, followed by the Navy, with the Army taking the hindmost.

NBC says that they will mention CDC more in future episodes. Vigilant eyes will continue to survey the epidemiological fault line in our biological defense structure.

A CDC Drama, Starring the NIH
Some See Conspiracy in NBC Show's Inaccuracies
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 8, 2004

Taking medical mysteries to prime time
By Susan J. Landers
AMNews staff. Aug. 23/30, 2004
American Medical Association

Vying for biodefense dollars
By Peg Brickley
The Scientist
January 15, 2003

The Epidemic Intelligence Service in the United States
Stephen M. Ostroff
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Eurosurveillance, Vol 6, #3, March 2001

Gordon Housworth

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Domodedovo to Beslan: pursuing a terrorist war in the face of public distrust


Commencing with a strike against Domodedovo International in Domodedovsky district south of Moscow, one of Russia's best international and CIS/domestic airports, certainly preferable to Sheremetyevo-2, and continuing thorough the attack against the opening day festivities of Beslan's School No. 1 in North Ossetia, Chechen insurgents handed the Russian Federation what is called its "9/11" equivalent. I use the term "continuing through" as these are but two memorable, closely spaced attacks in a series of operations in which the Chechens have counterattacked Russian assets.

One of the unifying elements of this affair -- beyond the difficulty of Russian and regional authorities have in combating terrorism -- is their struggle to gain the trust and forbearance of a populace expecting the worst of administrative incompetence and feeble efforts to shift any responsibility. The Russians shatter every rule of crisis management and seem to have learned little, if anything, from the likes of the 12 August, 2000, Kursk submarine debacle in which naval command first said "the Kursk had "encountered difficulties", and had been allowed "to drift to the sea bed"." and then tried to blame a collision with a US sub before it emerged that the bow of the vessel was blown off by an inadvertent weapons detonation, and that a small group of survivors in the stern were allowed to suffocate.

In the case of the Domodedovo attack, Chechens simultaneously downed two airliners taking off from what is considered to be one of the most secure Russian airports at the heart of the Russian federation, Moscow. An Itar-Tass news item of the same day of the attack, Domodedovo Airport boasts of newest security systems, since scrolled to archive, noted:

The airport "is literally crammed with surveillance cameras, and specialists analyse the current situation on-line."

At the beginning of the year, the airport installed new British metal detectors and baggage scanners. "It is impossible to carry arms, an explosive device or a banal pocket knife through them."

Ticket office personnel maintain constant contact with Interior Ministry officers. Each suspicious passenger is checked out through the ministry’s main information centre.

That did not keep two Chechen women, roommates said to be ""clean" of demonstrable rebel ties" from the same apartment in Grozny, Chechnya, from paying cash at the last moment and boarding a Tupolev Tu-134 and Tu-154.

In the case of the Beslan attack, Chechens struck on one of the most festive days in a region where the first day of classes draws children, parents, family, and teachers en mass, all in their best clothes, the children carrying flowers. The death toll was extraordinary and many were from the youngest.

In the face of almost certain terrorist cause, the airliner crashes were laid to the "nearly unbelievable," "mathematically unlikely" alternatives of human error and mechanical malfunction, the latter only gaspingly credulous due to "an airline industry so old and poorly maintained that two planes might go down by accident at the same time." Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief for the radio station Echo Moskvy, who has already come "under fire from the Ministry of Press for its coverage of the Durbrovka [Theatre Centre on 23 October, 2002] events noted that "the government cannot acknowledge anything like a terrorist act comparable to 9/11." Venediktov went on to say that "To admit this is more than a weird accident would be to admit defeat in their war on terrorism."

The Beslan school event commenced in the same manner, as the government withheld the scale of the carnage, including appalling video. A political analyst, Sergei Markov, "said the deadly outcome of the school standoff had left Putin at a loss" and that "They don't know what to do." Markov went on to say that "it had been clear that the government had engaged in a clumsy coverup... Everybody understands they are lying... Everybody can do the math and know there were more than 1,000 people inside the school."

Possibly in an effort to shield Putin, the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya TV network broke tradition of previous mass fatality crises and admitted that it had minimized the magnitude of the hostage crisis, blaming "generals and the military and civilians" for failing to act "until the president gives them ideas of what to do."

While it is true that Rossiya did not include an apology or acknowledge that the hostage-takers had demanded an end to hostilities in Chechnya, it is a remarkable about face.

Even flatworms learn, as I like to say.

Russians Caught Between Unacceptable, Unbelievable
By Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
August 26, 2004

Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis
Public Was Misled On Scale of Siege
By Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
September 6, 2004

Basic Principles for Crisis Communications
The Global PR Blog Week 1.0

Gordon Housworth

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Controlled failure is not generally acceptable foreign policy: attrition is not victory


It is so easy to answer Richard Holbrook's question as to "How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?" We only get half of Marshall McLuhan whereas bin Laden gets it all. While we focus on the medium, bin Laden focuses on the message, gets the message perfectly tuned for his audience, uses our medium to disseminate it, while we broadcast things that are unintelligible short of their ability to insult that same target audience. Mr. Holbrook is a very bright fellow, so why is this so hard?
Permit me this example. In August 2002, I wrote this in a private note on the death of Abu Nidal:

"In this case, the death of Abu Nidal is the end of an era. This was a bit of a falling "Arab Wall" so to speak. Along with Carlos the Jackal, he was nearly the al Qaeda of his day. Born Sabri al-Banna, Abu Nidal was accused of having killed or injured 900 people in attacks in 20 countries since 1974. He was wanted in the US, UK and Italy and was condemned to death by the PLO. While the AP said that "Abu Nidal was born in Jaffa in 1937 [in] British-governed Palestine[,] later moved to Nablus, and he left the area to organize opposition to the establishment of Israel," it does not tell you that he was the son of the most prosperous orange grower in Jaffa, a child born with a silver spoon who attended French and Arabic schools, that was around the age of eleven when his family was thrown off their orchards and thrust into a refugee tent in Gaza. I never supported what he did, but I could understand why he did it. Whenever I told his story to Israeli supporters, they invariably looked at their shoes until I changed the subject. Abu Nidal was monomaniacally focused and ruthlessly effective. In a way, I shall miss him. But I only have to wait as we are breeding a generation in Palestine to replace him."

The flaw in my forecast was underestimating how little time it would take. Multiply that anger by hundreds of thousands and one begins to get a flavor of the hatred, hopelessness, and opportunity void that marks Palestinians and has seeped into the fabric of Arabs and a goodly number of Muslims. Go to the (tame by comparison) English al Jazeera and look at The Sharon Land-Grab Segregation Wall. Look at the maps of proscribed land, the walls, the isolation adjacent to relative plenty, and ask yourself what would you do in their place. I believe that the Security Wall is a failure of imagination, and will not bring Israel long term security as it will insure the economic collapse of what I call "Paltustan," the Palestinian Bantustan on its doorstep.

Staring at one's shoes has, of course, not been an effective response for either Israelis or Americans who are chained to Israeli action in the minds of Arabs who perceive Israel as a US client state but vastly overestimate our control over it. Abu Ghraib was the toxic icing on the cake which in Arab eyes showed them that we were as duplicitous and base as the Israelis. Leave aside what they do among and to themselves; a completely different yardstick is used against us whether we like it or not.

Current US policy to the Middle East is less effective than shoe-staring. I caution readers not to brand me anti-Bush as it not clear that a Clinton or other Democratic administration would have done better, but while Democratic performance is an unknown, we have prima facia evidence that the policy on offer is merely controlled failure that our weapons and technology will not overcome in isolation from cooperative diplomacy and a sustained multi-administration, multi-generational hearts-and-minds campaign that should have a Marshall Plan level of focus and commitment.

Shibley Telhami speaks of our failure to see or deal with Arab anger that continues to rise even as our overwhelming force on the ground is unable to achieve our aims:

No matter what else we do in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the "prism of pain" for Arabs through which they read U.S. intentions, in the same way that the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and associated terrorism are now the prism of pain through which Americans will continue to see the Arab and Muslim worlds...

First, it is impossible to succeed in our reform policy without having in place a robust Arab-Israeli peace process that commands regional trust. Second, we cannot succeed if we continue to ignore public opinion in the region. The gap between governments and publics increases the rulers' incentive to repress at the same time that it decreases our leverage with them.

As I believe that we have no mechanism for, or even see a need for, trust building; no chance of a Marshall Plan option; and that US opinion will not shift; then we must continue both our failure to win the war of ideas and our robust attrition -- where we are the force being attritted -- until we are forced to withdraw.

Double Blow To Mideast Democracy
By Shibley Telhami
Washington Post
May 1, 2004

Winning the war of ideas
By William Fisher
August 8, 2004
The Jordan Times

Gordon Housworth

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Did Stanford merely meet Abu Ghraib or is there more?


As I try to digest the Schlesinger Report, I am struck by three themes:

  1. The effortless path by which unsupervised, regardless of how well trained or intelligent, guards become prison monsters noted in Linear connection from Abu Ghraib to the Stanford Prison Experiment was indeed at work at Abu Ghraib, but is not sufficient in totality to describe the excesses.
  2. The lack of systemic planning and attention to the overall resources and management needed to both win a war and administer an occupation, the omissions of interrogation at Abu Ghraib being mimicked in the "inefficient-to-shoddy intelligence practices" noted in Operation OUTREACH from the Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL).
  3. The rising level of aggressive interrogation in global counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, many techniques of which actually rose from training US forces received to resist expected interrogation if captured as cited in A survey of US POW interrogation and Abu Ghraib in particular, Part I and Part II.

It would appear that the Abu Ghraib excesses which have demolished what might have remained of US respect in the Arab and Muslim world were visited on common criminals rather than valid intelligence subjects and were carried out for the amusement of unsupervised, untrained, effectively isolated, and I would say partially disorientated soldiers, many of those reservists. Left to their own, especially on a predominately "night shift" that is all too often devoid of "management oversight," military or commercial, the descent into the Stanford and Yale documented conditions was assured.

Next is the matter of who 'left them to their own' and how far responsibility and culpability should rest. The reader's answer will say as much as to their politics as to military efficiency, given the polarization over the current US administration. While US myopia in unfamiliar land has in the past shown no single political stripe, the inability of the administration to assign any culpability to its members is without recent precedent.

By comparison, the US military has in the post-Vietnam era made good efforts to perform a lessons learned exercise after each major action and does a better job than civilians in fixing cause, defining change, and assigning culpability. What bothers me is that the military has begun to shield some of those key lessons learned due to their embarrassing conclusions of ineptitude or unpreparedness. Is it the military or the administration, or both, that is doing the shielding?

I lean to disciplinary action against the immediate commanders as they did not execute unit oversight and showed political tone deafness to Arab and Muslim reaction to these excesses. They failed the "above the fold in the Times" test miserably. My concern is that assigning higher culpability mixes military mismanagement and responding to civilian/administration demands for 'better results.'

My personal feeling is that the military is being left to take the blame when it was not they who set the manning levels to accomplish a greatly underrated task.

Relevant notes:

Rationalizing military accountability with systemic design faults

Systemization of aggressive interrogation

A survey of US POW interrogation and Abu Ghraib in particular, Part II

A survey of US POW interrogation and Abu Ghraib in particular, Part I

Linear connection from Abu Ghraib to the Stanford Prison Experiment

Abu Ghraib 800th MILITARY POLICE BRIGADE report now on-line

Abu Ghraib debacle

Excerpts From the Schlesinger Report
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page A13
Washington Post

Senior Officers May Be Charged
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page A13

Pentagon panel: Top brass was lax in Abu Ghraib oversight
NBC, MSNBC and news services
Updated: 9:10 p.m. ET Aug. 24, 2004

Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations
Chairman, The Honorable James R. Schlesinger
August 2004

Gordon Housworth

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