Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We Live or Die as a High-Energy Society

I have a long-running, passionately argued debate with a dear friend whose values once were very similar to my own. No longer. Now she has changed her life to a simplified, rustic style that will (maybe someday almost) lower her “” to a “” level. She sends me little discreet messages encouraging me to follow her example.

But I won’t. I try not to live wastefully in my high-rise apartment condominium, but I cannot claim to be frugal. My main contribution to the environment is to reduce my greatly. (She still flies around the world, surely offsetting any benefits she has bestowed on it by her otherwise reduced standard of living.) If we did a complete audit of our annual ecological damage, I bet mine would not be much worse than hers, though I do drive a car and eat meat.

Still, the reality is that I have chosen to go down with the ship, if that is what will happen. She hopes to survive the upcoming . And that is what our dispute is about. I adore this modern urban capitalist civilization. It’s the greatest one that has ever existed, if only by enabling billions of people to survive with increasing comfort and cultural advancement. That’s stunning success! And, as said in a recent lecture in Toronto, we are a high-energy society and we will live or die as a .

From my point of view, the challenge is to find ways to live, rather than die, as a high-energy society. The worst failure would be to have to regress to living in local, low-energy communities of the very kind that my friend is trying to create. Marx called it “the idiocy of rural life.” Creativity comes from living in where we're exposed to others very unlike ourselves. To do so requires cities, and universities, and technology that changes all the time.

She wants to live “in .” But nature has never been in equilibrium and never will be. Still, I want to take responsibility for living on our planet and making it work. If we make a mess, we have to clean it up. That doesn’t mean restoring it to some idyllic pastoral condition, for we must keep moving forward rather than trying to establish a new . Always the forward motion is precariously tending toward collapse, but we press forward anyway, and invent new ways of adapting. Human beings have always been forced to innovate; they don't change unless situations require it. Even would not be adopted if the population didn't outgrow its means of subsistence; hunters and gatherers hate to have to shift to farming because it is hard work -- but that's how we've been forced to progress, thank God.

We live on a tight-rope — and it’s especially thrilling now. Other people say 2008 was a terrible year but I enjoyed it immensely, for it constantly called upon me to innovate. Ethically I must support our urban civilization, rather than to abandon it. If it dies, I will go down with it. But what a splendid challenge! Crises reveal the , showing us our responsibility for our world — a high-energy world that will either live or die as such.

So Happy New Year, my beloved ones. This new year will bring brilliant challenges to us all — and we have the extraordinary privilege of being alive at this unique moment of the human journey! Onward, my friends!


Friday, December 26, 2008

People Love Their Dictators

So now have come right out and made it plain. They want a state, with themselves at the helm. And it seems that they will get it. They are going to enact a law saying that Russians who criticize their country will be treated as . Since their party holds the vast majority of seats in the , this law will certainly pass. I will be a terrible liability to my friends. If I call them, I could get them into serious trouble, for we would certainly talk about politics and they could not pretend that they approve of many decisions.

What surprises me is the disparity between the fears of the regime and the actual support that it enjoys. Right now there’s a deepening recession and Putin-Medvedev have been handling the discontents in a heavy-handed way. For example they tripled the import taxes on Japanese cars, which infuriated the people of Vladivostok, who use such cars almost exclusively. So there were protest demonstrations and , which cannot win the hearts and minds of Vladivostok’s citizenry.

Some of my Russian friends have been wishing for an, for they believe only poverty will turn public opinion against Putin-Medvedev. All I can say is, be careful what you wish for. Economic distress can breed or God knows what. It’s not necessarily going to turn people into freedom-loving democrats.

But the Russian government is paranoid. They believe that the rest of the world (mainly the US, of course) is funneling money and wild ideas to various trying to stir up a color revolution in Russia. I wish that were possible, but clearly you can’t run a unless the people want it. The guys in Washington can’t foist it on a reluctant populace. And the truth is, the Russian populace adores Putin.

That’s not unusual. Most in the world are loved by the people. Stalin was adored. So were Hitler, Mao, and today still Fidel Castro – even by millions of Canadians who say they are democrats. So Putin is still their guy, even though he suspects otherwise. Last week he wanted a rule saying that presidents could hold office for . Nobody objected, so it passed. Now he wants to keep Russians from talking to foreigners, sharing ideas that might be critical. And that law too will pass.

I wrote an e-mail to , offering to do anything possible to help her. She’s a beautiful old lady, respected and loved by all Russians for her life-long activism on behalf of . She is opposing this law as strongly as possible, but it won’t help.

When I visited her in the spring she was the most optimistic person I met in Moscow. She was convinced that within fifteen years Russia would be a democracy. The people are changing, she said, and soon will be able to hold their government accountable.

I didn’t argue with her; after all, I was there to interview, not to debate her. But I knew that democracy cannot be claimed under all possible circumstances, just because the people are “ready” for it. Dictatorship is a trap. When people are prevented from communicating, they cannot plan ways of getting rid of a regime that they dislike. And nothing keeps Putin-Medvedev from blocking communication to the outside at any time. This new measure shows it.

So what can we do to help Russians retain their freedom? From one point of view, it is really up to the people to dissent, to protest, for themselves. But when the trap snaps shut, or the gulag prison door slams shut, they cannot accomplish this alone.

, the wise old dissident, told me that freedom will not come from the top down, nor from the bottom up, but largely from sideways. We, living outside the country, have various ways of helping Russian democrats — both by supporting civil society there and by having our own government put pressure on them. They don’t necessarily want to be pariahs in the world, though Putin and Medvedev are seething with resentment, for reasons both valid and invalid.

The challenge is for to do superlative negotiating. He will have to walk a fine line, not allowing himself to betray the human rights that must be upheld, but also not allowing himself to criticize Putin-Medvedev so strongly as to confirm their paranoia. He cannot get around to those negotiations for a long time, since the economy and other domestic issues must come first. I’m afraid that will just exacerbate matters unless he gives her explicit orders to be as friendly as possible.

But I couldn’t do it. I don’t know many people who could. And that scares me.

As a private citizen, all I know to do is work with the press to focus attention on this. I have sent a couple of e-mails to friends and I will send more. Contact me if you have any good ideas.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Hurrah for Loose-lipped Spies!

Now that has died, another unsavory side of the story is coming out. of pointed it out — though I suppose he is not the only person who has realized what had happened. Anyway, Friedman’s article is the only version I have heard.

It seems that (see photo) had been the number three man in the , deeply loyal to his boss, . Hoover was feared by everyone in Washington because he collected all the dirt he could, using his own agents, and could have blackmailed almost everyone. And when Hoover died in 1972, the number two man retired, leaving Mark Felt as the de facto head of the FBI. However, did not appoint him as the official head – a slight that must have rankled.

Felt got even. Though he could have gone to the justice department with his information about the illegal actions of Nixon’s “plumbers,” he chose instead to leak the information to two young journalists on the Washington Post. According to Friedman, understood what was happening, and so did their boss, — that instead of uncovering the secrets themselves, they were being spoonfed the story by the head of the FBI, which was spying on the president of the United States and using the information to settle a personal score. By keeping Deep Throat’s identity secret, they were also keeping hidden a part of the story that seems just as important as the facts they disclosed. What was the FBI doing, spying on the US president?

Only about four years ago did Mark Felt disclose his own identity. Presumably, at that point anyone else could have published the revelations that Friedman has now released. His analysis is speculative, yet it would be hard to think of an explanation other than the one he proposes. The FBI had been collecting evidence — spying on the president and his staff. That inference needs no additional investigation, for it apparently speaks for itself. And to Friedman it is a shocking story.

He goes on, at the end of his story, mulling over the for facing this kind of situation. It applies to himself as well, for he heads an organization, Stratfor, that trades in “” — sort of a commercial CIA. He writes,

“In intelligence, we dream of the well-placed source who will reveal important things to us. But we also are aware that the information provided is only the beginning of the story. The rest of the story involves the source's motivation, and frequently that motivation is more important than the information provided. Understanding a source's motivation is essential both to good intelligence and to journalism. In this case, keeping secret the source kept an entire -- and critical -- dimension of Watergate hidden for a generation. Whatever crimes Nixon committed, the FBI had spied on the president and leaked what it knew to The Washington Post in order to destroy him.”

What ethical principles should guide journalists? And how do those principles differ from the ethics of spies? I’m not sure. What's the difference?

I remember having a conversation once with in the cafeteria of the . We were talking about spies, but he used the term casually and without apparent disdain. He had worked throughout his long life at the UN and knew plenty of spies, and he said that he thought spying was good. The more information that individuals and countries have about each other, the better it is. We should encourage spying.

I wouldn’t want to make that into a general principle, for there must be plenty of exceptions, but in general I think it’s true. Partly I take that position because if I were a spy, I would not keep information secret. I am just not good at that. I don’t have much of a sense of privacy about my own personal matters; I gossip quite freely; and I have leaked confidential information from a hiring committee once or twice in my life. I should be ashamed, but I’m not. Don’t tell me your secrets because I will almost certainly blab. And that's probably a good thing.

There’s a story in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine about , ’s press secretary. It seems that the Obama team is absolutely leak-proof. That’s supposed to be good, and because I trust Obama, I will accept the assumption that it is indeed good. But not everyone is good, and in general I think it’s excellent for journalists, spies, and gossipy friends to reveal all the dirt that they can find out in Washington, whatever be their motivations.

Just think: had been duped so much that he unknowingly gave a deceptive speech in the UN about Iraq’s supposed WMDs. Somebody should have told Powell. How much trouble we would have been spared, had the truth been revealed before Bush attacked Iraq!

So hurrah for loose-lipped spies!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

It’s Pakistan, Not Afghanistan, Dummy!

My two all-time favorite journalists are and . Coincidentally, both of them have offered surprising analyses lately about the . And neither of them suggests any answer to the question that their analyses immediately brought to my mind.

I’ll start with Dyer, whom I don’t read very often anymore because no Toronto paper carries his syndicated column. But he gave two lectures here on November 11 and I went to them. Most of his comments seemed directed toward dispelling myths that have been created to justify the current war in Afghanistan — such as the notion that the had invited to their country as a launching pad for his 9/11 attack on the United States. Or the notion that the US and other allied armies carried out a successful war (at least initially) against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In fact, says Dyer, the country was in the midst of a between the Taliban (mainly a group) and various ethnic groups from the northern region. The Taliban administration of the day did welcome bin Laden (who, along with about 40,000 other Arab volunteers, had heroically helped them fight against the Russians in the 1980s) but they almost certainly were not involved in planning his attack on America and probably did not even know about it before it happened.

After 9/11, it was not the US troops who came in and conquered al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Instead, it was about 500 fighters. They arrived with money to pay the Afghan militias, who did all the fighting on the ground. The CIA also instructed the helpful US planes which enemy targets to bomb. That military operation went well, sending bin Laden and his gang fleeing over the border into Pakistan. After the fighting was over, the full panoply of US and allied troops came in to smash al-Qaeda’s empty camps and set up an occupation regime, installing the northern leaders as the new government. In effect, the US was joining an ongoing civil war, taking the side of the northern minorities — Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras — against the Pashtuns. The Taliban are the force fighting for Pashtun power, and they have regained control of most of southern Afghanistan.

Thus, according to Dyer, we are involved in an Afghan civil war, fighting against people who are not terrorists. Yes, al-Qaeda are but they were defeated in Afghanistan and the survivors are now in Pakistan. Even President is, quite reasonably, trying to make a deal with the Taliban. We should support that solution simply by going away and leaving the country to the Afghans.

As Doug Saunders points out, the war that we’re supposedly fighting in Pakistan is quite a different war — one that is actually over. That war was authorized under , to defend against the al-Qaeda attacks against the US and other countries. But can any future terrorist attacks be launched anymore from within Afghanistan? No. Saunders has gone around Afghanistan asking US, Canadian, and British military leaders how many fighters they were seeing inside the country’s borders. They all said, “none.”

Moreover, al-Qaeda could not re-establish itself in Afghanistan because the Taliban do not even sympathize with them. Saunders quotes one Afghan politician as saying,

“Only 20 percent of the insurgents who form the core of the Taliban are fighting the ideological war. The rest are aggrieved tribes who have been mistreated by some government official or drug trafficker or some foreign intelligence operators or by the transnational al-Qaeda terrorists. It also consists of unemployed youth and criminal groups. All these are alliances of convenience. They are fighting for different reasons.”

In the bloody areas where our troops are fighting, their Taliban enemies regard al-Qaeda, not as an ally, but as another foreign invader. Saunders quotes several other journalists who have traveled around interviewing the Taliban fighters; they see no sign of al-Qaeda sympathies.

Canadian soldiers are supposed to fight the Taliban insofar as they are going to let al-Qaeda operate again, and there is only one branch of Taliban that fits that description: one in the far southeast led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. It doesn’t hold much territory or popular support.

So what’s the point of staying there? If anything, the presence of foreign troops in the country is exacerbating the opposition to themselves. Saunders cites an American expert in the area who says that the presence of large numbers of is providing the terrorists with an enemy, making it easier for them to recruit others as terrorists.

Saunders writes. “Al-Qaeda is gone, and not likely to return. To the extent that it is still around, it’s because we’re attracting it. If both those statements are true, then no matter how ugly it looks, the war’s over.”

So Dyer and Saunders agree: We should just go home and leave the Taliban alone. They pose no danger to the rest of the world.

That sounds reasonable to me. Yet it offers no answer to the obvious question: What about bin Laden and al-Qaeda? They are in . Are they capable of organizing another attack against a foreign country? Why not? A different group from Pakistan just attacked Mumbai, so why couldn’t al-Qaeda do even more?

I asked Dyer whether it would be possible for the US to go capture or kill bin Laden, then leave the Taliban alone. He said, “Whether or not you get bin Laden, leave the Taliban alone. Getting Osama doesn’t matter.”

Well, I think it may matter — and so does . If you listen closely to what he says about moving the war from Iraq into Afghanistan, it is not the Taliban that he talks about fighting. It’s al-Qaeda. As a US political leader, I don’t think he can ignore bin Laden. In general, the hunting of terrorists is not a military operation, but a matter for the police and various intelligence-gathering agencies to carry out. When it comes to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, that may not be the case; military action may be required. (At least the Pakistan police seem not to be up to the job.) Obama said last summer that he would kill or capture Osama if, as US president, he finds out where he is. Although this statement provoked a controversy, I rather doubt that Pakistanis in general would react badly against such a raid —despite the supposedly favorable attitude of public opinion toward bin-Laden. But what would it take to capture or kill Osama? I would like an answer.

I take satisfaction from Dyer’s and Saunders’s advice regarding Afghanistan. But it doesn’t tell me how to solve the real problem — al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

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