Scared By Russia, Sweden And Finland Make War Pact -IBTimes

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A blast from the past, balance of power politics in Europe:

“The defense ministers of Sweden and Finland announced Thursday a new military cooperation agreement that could see the two countries go to war together in the event of an attack. The new relationship comes amid ongoing aggressive behavior from Russia in the region. Neither country is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, whose charter stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all, mandating a reaction from every allied nation.”

http://www.ibtimes.com/scared-russia-sweden-finland-make-war-pact-1821906

Yanis Varoufakis: How I became an erratic Marxist -The Guardian

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In this article, Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, explains his political outlook and how it developed. Agree, or disagree, the ideas he presents here are the product of careful consideration.

“Almost all schools of thought, including those of some progressive economists, like to pretend that, though Marx was a powerful figure, very little of his contribution remains relevant today. I beg to differ. Besides having captured the basic drama of capitalist dynamics, Marx has given me the tools with which to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism. For example, the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.”

http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist

What ISIS Really Wants -The Atlantic

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The following article is a long, detailed discussion of ISIS’ ideology, how it influences their policies, and what the implications are for the West’s attempts to deal with the threat they pose.

“The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

There are a number of things to consider when reading this article. First, how accurate is the description of the groups ideology. Although the article does give a good account of how ISIS explains its ideological position, there have been critiques of the way the article deals with Islamic thought (see: http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/02/18/3624121/atlantic-gets-dangerously-wrong-isis-islam/).
Second, are ISIS’ goals derived from their ideology, or does ideology just provide legitimacy to mundane political goals after the fact.
Third, are there ideological schisms within ISIS and if so, what could they mean for ISIS’ policies? Ideological movements (communists in the USSR and Khomeini’s Islamist followers in Iran) looked monolithic at first but it did not take long before deep divisions became apparent. We actually know very little about what is happening inside of ISIS right now. It is possible that ideological divisions may lead to moderation, with soft-liners diluting the ideological zeal of the movement. But it is also possible that divisions will lead to more extreme behavior as competing factions try to out-bid each other for ideological legitimacy.
Fourth, there is a tendency to see ideologies as static, when in fact they may evolve over time. It may evolve because of internal divisions and debates. Or, it may evolve as the organizational needs of the movement change. Right now, ISIS is in its formative stages. The extremism and violence provides the group with an identity, improves solidarity and intimidates internal dissent.However, if ISIS survives over the long term, it will likely begin to function more and more like a regular state, with regular institutions etc… In the Iranian case, the day-to-day demands of running a state and keeping it safe had an important moderating effect on the ideology of the leadership. This may, or may not happen with ISIS.

Boots on the Ground: The Realities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria -Center for Strategic and International Studies

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As the US election cycle starts building, there will a great deal of debate about expanding the US military mission in the Middle East. Unfortunately, much of that debate will be “posturing”. Below, Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies {CSIS, but not the same as Canada’s CSIS}) provides a lengthy and detailed discussion of the complexities involved with putting ‘boots on the ground’.

“The Obama administration and its strongest opponents in Congress may not have all that much in common, but one thing they do share is the constant misuse of the word “strategy.” Strategy does not consist of stating a broad policy goal and empty rhetoric. It consist of stating an actual plan with clearly defined goals, specific means to achieve, milestones for action, estimates of the necessary resources and their availability, estimates of cost-benefits and risks, and metrics to measure success. A sound bite that fits in Twitter or a fortune cookie is not a strategy.

Getting this wrong is particularly dangerous when one starts talking about the use of military force and mindlessly throwing around terms like “boots on the ground” with no actual definition of what is involved or what the term is intended to mean. Every American has to accept the fact that the coming presidential election means two years of vacuous partisan political posturing, but any form of war is serious and the stakes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are all too real.”

https://csis.org/publication/boots-ground-realities-afghanistan-iraq-and-syria

This map shows how Iranian weaponry is making Sudan one of Africa’s most violent hotspots -Business Insider

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An interesting look at the pattern of small arms distribution in the Sudan, and a link to a much more detailed study:

“Iran also reaps a strategic dividend from their ties with Sudan. Their warships have docked at Sudan’s Red Sea ports, and the relationship is a rare instance of Iran building close ties with a Sunni Muslim government, or with a state outside of the Middle East.”

“In return for being an Iranina client, the ever-embattled regime in Khartoum receives crucial Iranian help in setting up and operating its domestic arms capacity. And it gets plenty of weapons, too. The Small Arms Survey sites UN sources that report Iran was responsible for “13 percent of Khartoum’s self-reported arms imports from 2001 to 2012.”

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/this-maps-shows-how-iranian-weaponry-is-making-it-to-one-of-africas-most-violent-hotspots-2015-2#ixzz3ReuJBWFw

We keep trying to understand Putin. Why do we keep getting him wrong? -WP

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Here are a couple of articles trying to explain Russian foreign policy in terms of Vladimir Putin’s personality because, as the first article puts it, “how hyper-personalized his government is”. This article laments our poor understanding of Vladimir Putin, and highlights some of the problems associated with focusing on personality and the individual level of analysis:

“There’s no world leader as over-analyzed as Vladimir Putin. Just last week, we learned of a 2008 Pentagon study that concluded the Russian president’s “neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy” and that Putin probably had Asperger’s syndrome. He’s also been called a narcissist, diagnosed with “pleonexia” (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others), and simply been accused of being a “thug.””

The alternative it suggests, which focuses on Putin’s world view, also sounds a bit simple:
“Putin’s frame of reference for how the world works is totally different to ours. He lives in a different world”. But there is a little more nuance to it, suggesting the roots of his world view can be found in Russia’s historical experience rather than Putin’s early childhood or a neurological disorder.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/02/12/we-keep-trying-to-understand-putin-why-do-we-keep-getting-him-wrong/

The second article, entitles “The Accidental Autocrat”, is more detailed, arguing: “Understanding Putin requires exploring three core aspects of his political and personal character: the fighter, the Chekist, and the believer. These roughly correspond to Putin’s instincts, his professional training and methods, and his religious and patriotic convictions. The parts may seem not to fit, but that is often the case with Russia’s rulers. (After all, Stalin, the “Red Czar,” was trained in a Georgian seminary.) Putin is best understood not as a divided character but as an integrated if complicated one: the Russian in the Kremlin.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/the-accidental-autocrat/303725/

When reading either or both of these articles, you should keep a couple of questions in mind: First, how much of Putin’s personality as it is reported is manufactured for consumption. Secondly, even if Putin’s persona is entirely genuine, did political conditions in effect ‘select’ that type of leader. That is to say, if Putin had not come to power, the way Russian politics have been working, someone else exactly like him would have. Finally, how much autonomy does Putin have as a decision maker? Is he constrained by state institutions (probably not), powerful constituencies and/or political opponents, or public opinion? Ultimately, Putin may actually have a great deal of autonomy, but you should always ask yourself this question before you accept that the individual is the key to the decision-making process.