Archive for the ‘Europe’ category

John Pilger on Wars and ‘Wars of Perception’

12 July, 2010

“The Charge of the Media Brigade”

By John Pilger

ON LINE Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

First published in New Statesman on 8 July 2010.

The TV anchorwoman was conducting a split screen interview with a journalist who had volunteered to be a witness at the first execution of a man on death row in Utah for 25 years. “He had a choice,” said the journalist, “lethal injection or firing squad”. “Wow!” said the anchorwoman. Cue a blizzard of commercials for fast food, teeth whitener, stomach stapling, the new Cadillac. This was followed by the war in Afghanistan presented by a correspondent sweating in a flak jacket. “Hey, it’s hot,” he said on the split screen. “Take care,” said the anchorwoman. “Coming up” was a reality show in which the camera watched a man serving solitary confinement in a prison’s “hell hole”.

The next morning I arrived at the Pentagon for an interview with one of President Obama’s senior war-making officials. There was a long walk along shiny corridors hung with pictures of generals and admirals festooned in ribbons. The interview room was purpose-built. It was blue and arctic cold, and windowless and featureless except for a flag and two chairs: props to create the illusion of a place of authority. The last time I was in a room like this in the Pentagon a colonel called Hum stopped my interview with another war-making official when I asked why so many innocent civilians were being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then it was in the thousands; now it is more than a million. “Stop tape!” he ordered.

This time there was no Colonel Hum, merely a polite dismissal of soldiers’ testimony that it was a “common occurrence” that troops were ordered to “kill every mother fucker”. The Pentagon, says the Associated Press, spends $4.7 billion on public relations: that is, winning the hearts and minds not of recalcitrant Afghan tribesmen but of Americans. This is known as “information dominance” and PR people are “information warriors”.

American imperial power flows through a media culture to which the word imperial is anathema. To broach it is heresy. Colonial campaigns are really “wars of perception”, wrote the present commander, General David Petraeus, in which the media popularises the terms and conditions. “Narrative” is the accredited word because it is post-modern and bereft of context and truth. The narrative of Iraq is that the war is won, and the narrative of Afghanistan is that it is a “good war”. That neither is true is beside the point. They promote a “grand narrative” of a constant threat and the need for permanent war. “We are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats,” wrote the celebrated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “that have the potential to turn our country upside down at any moment”.

Friedman supports an attack on Iran, whose independence is intolerable. This is the psychopathic vanity of great power which Martin Luther King described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”. He was then shot dead.

The psychopathic is applauded across popular, corporate culture, from the TV death watch of a man choosing a firing squad over lethal injection to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker and a new acclaimed war documentary Restrepo. Directors of both films deny and dignify the violence of invasion as “apolitical”. And yet behind the cartoon façade is serious purpose. The US is engaged militarily in 75 countries. There are some 900 US military bases across the world, many at the gateways to the sources of fossil fuels.

But there is a problem. Most Americans are opposed to these wars and to the billions of dollars spent on them. That their brainwashing so often fails is America’s greatest virtue. This is frequently due to courageous mavericks, especially those who emerge from the centrifuge of power. In 1971, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers which put the lie to almost everything two presidents had claimed about Vietnam. Many of these insiders are not even renegades. I have a section in my address book filled with the names of former officers of the CIA, who have spoken out. They have no equivalent in Britain.

In 1993, C. Philip Liechty, the CIA operations officer in Jakarta at the time of Indonesia’s murderous invasion of East Timor, described to me how President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had given the dictator Suharto “a green light” and secretly supplied the arms and logistics he needed. As the first reports of massacres arrived at his desk, he began to turn. “It was wrong,” he said. “I felt badly.”

Melvin Goodman is now a scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He was in the CIA more than 40 years and rose to be a senior Soviet analyst. When we met the other day, he described the conduct of the cold war as a series of gross exaggerations of Soviet “aggressiveness” that wilfully ignored the intelligence that the Soviets were committed to avoid nuclear war at all costs. Declassified official files on both sides of the Atlantic support this view. “What mattered to the hardliners in Washington,” he said, “was how a perceived threat could be exploited”. The present secretary of defence, Robert Gates, as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s, had constantly hyped the “Soviet menace” and is, says Goodman, doing the same today “on Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran”.

Little has changed. In America, in 1939, W.H. Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives […]
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong


Hearts, Minds and Wallets – China in Africa Interview

5 July, 2010

This is an interview I gave last week for Eric Olander of the ‘China Talking Points’ website –

With reference to my recent article, ‘Hearts, Minds and Wallets: Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa‘, Eric wanted to discuss the issues surrounding China’s expanding economic and political influence in Africa, and the hysteria demonstrated by Western commentators about this trend. My own perspective, while recognising potentially negative outcomes of Chinese involvement, is that Africa’s new relationship with China has great potential to spur development – far beyond what has been achieved through Western intervention – and that most commentators have historical amnesia with regards to the West’s activities on the continent.

China in Africa Podcast: Winning Hearts, Minds and Wallets by ChinaTalkingPoints

Russia, Poland, Germany and the Future of Europe

26 May, 2010

Unfortunately, life has been pretty hectic for me over the last month or so, thus my straight reposting of others’ writings.  This is the latest piece from one of my new favourite analysis sources, Stratfor, on the current political and economic turbulence in Europe.

George Friedman, “Germany After the EU and the Russian Scenario”

25 May 2010

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Discussions about Europe currently are focused on the Greek financial crisis and its potential effect on the future of the European Union. Discussions these days involving military matters and Europe appear insignificant and even anachronistic. Certainly, we would agree that the future of the European Union towers over all other considerations at the moment, but we would argue that scenarios for the future of the European Union exist in which military matters are far from archaic.

Russia and the Polish Patriots

For example, the Polish government recently announced that the United States would deploy a battery of Patriot missiles to Poland. The missiles arrived this week. When the United States canceled its land-based ballistic missile defense system under intense Russian pressure, the Obama administration appeared surprised at Poland’s intense displeasure with the decision. Washington responded by promising the Patriots instead, the technology the Poles had wanted all along. While the Patriot does not enhance America’s ability to protect itself against long-range ballistic missiles from, for example, Iran, it does give Poland some defense against shorter-ranged ballistic missiles and substantial defense against conventional air attack.

Russia is the only country capable of such attacks on Poland with even the most distant potential interest in doing so, and at this point, this is truly an abstract threat. In removing a system that was really not a threat to Russian interests — U.S. ballistic missile defense at most can handle only a score of missiles, meaning it would have a negligible impact on the Russian nuclear deterrent — the United States ironically has installed a system that could affect Russia. Under the current circumstances, this is not really significant. While much is being made of having a few U.S. boots on the ground east of Germany within 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) of the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, a few hundred technicians and guards are simply not an offensive threat.

Still, the Russians — with a long history of seeing improbable threats turning into very real ones — tend to take hypothetical limits on their power seriously. They also tend to take gestures seriously, knowing that gestures often germinate into strategic intent. The Russians obviously oppose this deployment, as the Patriots would allow Poland in league with NATO — and perhaps even by itself — to achieve local air superiority. There are many crosscurrents in Russian policy, however.

For the moment, the Russians are interested in encouraging better economic relations with the West, as they could use technology and investment that would make them more than a commodity exporter. Moreover, with the Europeans preoccupied with their economic crisis and the United States still bogged down in the Middle East and needing Russian support on Iran, Moscow has found little outside resistance to its efforts to increase its influence in the former Soviet Union. Moscow is not unhappy about the European crisis and wouldn’t want to do anything that might engender greater European solidarity. After all, a solid economic bloc turning into an increasingly powerful and integrated state would pose challenges to Russia in the long run that Moscow is happy to do without. The Patriot deployment is a current irritation and a hypothetical military problem, but the Russians are not inclined to create a crisis with Europe over it — though this doesn’t mean Moscow won’t make countermoves on the margins when it senses opportunities.

For its part, the Obama administration is not focused on Poland at present. It is obsessed with internal matters, South Asia and the Middle East. The Patriots were shipped based on a promise made months ago to calm Central European nerves over the Obama administration’s perceived lack of commitment to the region. In the U.S. State and Defense department sections charged with shipping Patriots to Poland, the delivery process was almost an afterthought; repeated delays in deploying the system highlighted Washington’s lack of strategic intent.

It is therefore tempting to dismiss the Patriots as of little importance, as merely the combination of a hangover from a Cold War mentality and a minor Obama administration misstep. Indeed, even a sophisticated observer of the international system might barely note it. But we would argue that it is more important than it appears precisely because of everything else going on.

Existential Crisis in the EU

The European Union is experiencing an existential crisis. This crisis is not about Greece, but rather, what it is that members of the European Union owe each other and what controls the European Union has over its members. The European Union did well during a generation of prosperity. As financial crisis struck, better-off members were called on to help worse-off members. Again, this is not just about Greece — the 2008 credit crisis in Central Europe was about the same thing. The wealthier countries, Germany in particular, are not happy at the prospect of spending taxpayer money to assist countries dealing with popped credit bubbles.

They really don’t want to do that, and if they do, they really want to have controls over the ways these other countries spend their money so this circumstance doesn’t arise again. Needless to say, Greece — and countries that might wind up like Greece — do not want foreign control over their finances.

If there are no mutual obligations among EU member nations, and the German and Greek publics don’t want to bail out or submit, respectively, then the profound question is raised of what Europe is going to be — beyond a mere free trade zone — after this crisis. This is not simply a question of the euro surviving, although that is no trivial matter.

The euro and the European Union will probably survive this crisis — although their mutual failure is not nearly as unthinkable as the Europeans would have thought even a few months ago — but this is not the only crisis Europe will experience. Something always will be going wrong, and Europe does not have institutions that could handle these problems. Events in the past few weeks indicate that European countries are not inclined to create such institutions, and that public opinion will limit European governments’ ability to create or participate in these institutions. Remember, building a super state requires one of two things: a war to determine who is in charge or political unanimity to forge a treaty. Europe is — vividly — demonstrating the limitations on the second strategy.

Whatever happens in the short run, it is difficult to envision any further integration of European institutions. And it is very easy to see how the European Union will devolve from its ambitious vision into an alliance of convenience built around economic benefits negotiated and renegotiated among the partners. It would thus devolve from a union to a treaty, with no interest beyond self-interest.

The German Question Revisited

We return to the question that has defined Europe since 1871, namely, the status of Germany in Europe. As we have seen during the current crisis, Germany is clearly the economic center of gravity in Europe, and this crisis has shown that the economic and the political issues are very much one and the same. Unless Germany agrees, nothing can be done, and if Germany so wishes, something will be done. Germany has tremendous power in Europe, even if it is confined largely to economic matters. But just as Germany is the blocker and enabler of Europe, over time that makes Germany the central problem of Europe.

If Germany is the key decision maker in Europe, then Germany defines whatever policies Europe as a whole undertakes. If Europe fragments, then Germany is the only country in Europe with the ability to create alternative coalitions that are both powerful and cohesive. That means that if the European Union weakens, Germany will have the greatest say in what Europe will become. Right now, the Germans are working assiduously to reformulate the European Union and the eurozone in a manner more to their liking. But as this requires many partners to offer sovereignty to German control — sovereignty they have jealously guarded throughout the European project — it is worth exploring alternatives to Germany in the European Union.

For that we first must understand Germany’s limits. The German problem is the same problem it has had since unification: It is enormously powerful, but it is far from omnipotent. Its very power makes it the focus of other powers, and together, these other powers can cripple Germany. Thus, Germany is indispensable for any decision within the European Union at present, and it will be the single center of power in Europe in the future — but Germany can’t just go it alone. Germany needs a coalition, meaning the long-term question is this: If the EU were to weaken or even fail, what alternative coalition would Germany seek?

The casual answer is France, as the two economies are somewhat similar and the countries are next-door neighbors. But historically, this similarity in structure and location has been a source not of collaboration and fondness but of competition and friction. Within the European Union, with its broad diversity, Germany and France have been able to put aside their frictions, finding a common interest in managing Europe to their mutual advantage. That co-management, of course, helped bring us to this current crisis. Moreover, the biggest thing that France has that Germany wants is its market; an ideal partner for Germany would offer more. By itself at least, France is not a foundation for long-term German economic strategy. The historic alternative for Germany has been Russia.

The Russian Option

A great deal of potential synergy exists between the German and Russian economies. Germany imports large amounts of energy and other resources from Russia. As mentioned, Russia needs sources of technology and capital to move it beyond its current position of mere resource exporter. Germany has a shrinking population and needs a source of labor — preferably a source that doesn’t actually want to move to Germany. Russia’s Soviet-era economy continues to de-industrialize, and while that has a plethora of negative impacts, there is one often-overlooked positive: Russia now has more labor than it can effectively metabolize in its economy given its capital structure. Germany doesn’t want more immigrants but needs access to labor. Russia wants factories in Russia to employ its surplus work force, and it wants technology. The logic of the German-Russian economic relationship is more obvious than the German-Greek or German-Spanish relationship. As for France, it can participate or not (and incidentally, the French are joining in on a number of ongoing German-Russian projects).

Therefore, if we simply focus on economics, and we assume that the European Union cannot survive as an integrated system (a logical but not yet proven outcome), and we further assume that Germany is both the leading power of Europe and incapable of operating outside of a coalition, then we would argue that a German coalition with Russia is the most logical outcome of an EU decline.

This would leave many countries extremely uneasy. The first is Poland, caught as it is between Russia and Germany. The second is the United States, since Washington would see a Russo-German economic bloc as a more significant challenger than the European Union ever was for two reasons. First, it would be a more coherent relationship — forging common policies among two states with broadly parallel interests is far simpler and faster than doing so among 27. Second, and more important, where the European Union could not develop a military dimension due to internal dissensions, the emergence of a politico-military dimension to a Russo-German economic bloc is far less difficult to imagine. It would be built around the fact that both Germans and Russians resent and fear American power and assertiveness, and that the Americans have for years been courting allies who lie between the two powers. Germany and Russia would both view themselves defending against American pressure.

And this brings us back to the Patriot missiles. Regardless of the bureaucratic backwater this transfer might have emerged out of, or the political disinterest that generated the plan, the Patriot stationing fits neatly into a slowly maturing military relationship between Poland and the United States. A few months ago, the Poles and Americans conducted military exercises in the Baltic states, an incredibly sensitive region for the Russians. The Polish air force now flies some of the most modern U.S.-built F-16s in the world; this, plus Patriots, could seriously challenge the Russians. A Polish general commands a sector in Afghanistan, something not lost upon the Russians. By a host of processes, a close U.S.-Polish relationship is emerging.

The current economic problems may lead to a fundamental weakening of the European Union. Germany is economically powerful but needs economic coalition partners that contribute to German well-being rather than merely draw on it. A Russian-German relationship could logically emerge from this. If it did, the Americans and Poles would logically have their own relationship. The former would begin as economic and edge toward military. The latter begins as military, and with the weakening of the European Union, edges toward economics. The Russian-German bloc would attempt to bring others into its coalition, as would the Polish-U.S. bloc. Both would compete in Central Europe — and for France. During this process, the politics of NATO would shift from humdrum to absolutely riveting.

And thus, the Greek crisis and the Patriots might intersect, or in our view, will certainly in due course intersect. Though neither is of lasting importance in and of themselves, the two together point to a new logic in Europe. What appears impossible now in Europe might not be unthinkable in a few years. With Greece symbolizing the weakening of the European Union and the Patriots representing the remilitarization of at least part of Europe, ostensibly unconnected tendencies might well intersect.

Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Resurgence

16 April, 2010

A very interesting analysis of the situation in Kyrgyzstan and its wider significance.

“Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Resurgence”

By Lauren Goodrich

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

This past week saw another key success in Russia’s resurgence in former Soviet territory when pro-Russian forces took control of Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz revolution was quick and intense. Within 24 hours, protests that had been simmering for months spun into countrywide riots as the president fled and a replacement government took control. The manner in which every piece necessary to exchange one government for another fell into place in such a short period discredits arguments that this was a spontaneous uprising of the people in response to unsatisfactory economic conditions. Instead, this revolution appears prearranged.

A Prearranged Revolution

Opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan have long held protests, especially since the Tulip Revolution in 2005 that brought recently ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. But various opposition groupings never were capable of pulling off such a full revolution — until Russia became involved.

In the weeks before the revolution, select Kyrgyz opposition members visited Moscow to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. STRATFOR sources in Kyrgyzstan reported the pervasive, noticeable presence of Russia’s Federal Security Service on the ground during the crisis, and Moscow readied 150 elite Russian paratroopers the day after the revolution to fly into Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan. As the dust began to settle, Russia endorsed the still-coalescing government.

There are quite a few reasons why Russia would target a country nearly 600 miles from its borders (and nearly 1,900 miles from capital to capital), though Kyrgyzstan itself is not much of a prize. The country has no economy or strategic resources to speak of and is highly dependent on all its neighbors for foodstuffs and energy. But it does have a valuable geographic location.

Central Asia largely comprises a massive steppe of more than a million square miles, making the region easy to invade. The one major geographic feature other than the steppe are the Tien Shan mountains, a range that divides Central Asia from South Asia and China. Nestled within these mountains is the Fergana Valley, home to most of Central Asia’s population due to its arable land and the protection afforded by the mountains. The Fergana Valley is the core of Central Asia.

To prevent this core from consolidating into the power center of the region, the Soviets sliced up the Fergana Valley between three countries. Uzbekistan holds the valley floor, Tajikistan the entrance to the valley and Kyrgyzstan the highlands surrounding the valley. Kyrgyzstan lacks the economically valuable parts of the valley, but it does benefit from encircling it. Control of Kyrgyzstan equals control of the valley, and hence of Central Asia’s core.

Moreover, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is only 120 miles from Kazakhstan’s largest city (and historic and economic capital), Almaty. The Kyrgyz location in the Tien Shan also gives Kyrgyzstan the ability to monitor Chinese moves in the region. And its highlands also overlook China’s Tarim Basin, part of the contentious Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Given its strategic location, control of Kyrgyzstan offers the ability to pressure Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Kyrgyzstan is thus a critical piece in Russia’s overall plan to resurge into its former Soviet sphere.

The Russian Resurgence

Russia’s resurgence is a function of its extreme geographic vulnerability. Russia lacks definable geographic barriers between it and other regional powers. The Russian core is the swath of land from Moscow down into the breadbasket of the Volga region. In medieval days, this area was known as Muscovy. It has no rivers, oceans or mountains demarcating its borders. Its only real domestic defenses are its inhospitable weather and dense forests. This led to a history of endless invasions, including depredations by everyone from Mongol hordes to Teutonic knights to the Nazis.

To counter this inherent indefensibility, Russia historically has adopted the principle of expansion. Russia thus has continually sought to expand far enough to anchor its power in a definable geographic barrier — like a mountain chain — or to expand far enough to create a buffer between itself and other regional powers. This objective of expansion has been the key to Russia’s national security and its ability to survive. Each Russian leader has understood this. Ivan the Terrible expanded southwest into the Ukrainian marshlands, Catherine the Great into the Central Asian steppe and the Tien Shan and the Soviet Union into much of Eastern and Central Europe.

Russia’s expansion has been in four strategic directions. The first is to the north and northeast to hold the protection offered by the Ural Mountains. This strategy is more of a “just-in-case” expansion. Thus, in the event Moscow should ever fall, Russia can take refuge in the Urals and prepare for a future resurgence. Stalin used this strategy in World War II when he relocated many of Russia’s industrial towns to Ural territory to protect them from the Nazi invasion.

The second is to the west toward the Carpathians and across the North European Plain. Holding the land up to the Carpathians — traditionally including Ukraine, Moldova and parts of Romania — creates an anchor in Europe with which to protect Russia from the southwest. Meanwhile, the North European Plain is the one of the most indefensible routes into Russia, offering Russia no buffer. Russia’s objective has been to penetrate as deep into the plain as possible, making the sheer distance needed to travel across it toward Russia a challenge for potential invaders.

The third direction is south to the Caucasus. This involves holding both the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges, creating a tough geographic barrier between Russia and regional powers Turkey and Iran. It also means controlling Russia’s Muslim regions (like Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan), as well as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The fourth is to the east and southeast into Siberia and Central Asia. The Tien Shan mountains are the only geographic barrier between the Russian core and Asia; the Central Asian steppe is, as its name implies, flat until it hits Kyrgyzstan’s mountains.

With the exception of the North European Plain, Russia’s expansion strategy focuses on the importance of mountains — the Carpathians, the Caucasus and Tien Shan — as geographic barriers. Holding the land up to these definable barriers is part of Russia’s greater strategy, without which Russia is vulnerable and weak.

The Russia of the Soviet era attained these goals. It held the lands up to these mountain barriers and controlled the North European Plain all the way to the West German border. But its hold on these anchors faltered with the fall of the Soviet Union. This collapse began when Moscow lost control over the fourteen other states of the Soviet Union. The Soviet disintegration did not guarantee, of course, that Russia would not re-emerge in another form. The West — and the United States in particular — thus saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to ensure that Russia would never re-emerge as the great Eurasian hegemon.

To do this, the United States began poaching among the states between Russia and its geographic barriers, taking them out of the Russian sphere in a process that ultimately would see Russian influence contained inside the borders of Russia proper. To this end, Washington sought to expand its influence in the countries surrounding Russia. This began with the expansion of the U.S. military club, NATO, into the Baltic states in 2004. This literally put the West on Russia’s doorstep (at their nearest point, the Baltics are less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg) on one of Russia’s weakest points on the North European Plain.

Washington next encouraged pro-American and pro-Western democratic movements in the former Soviet republics. These were the so-called “color revolutions,” which began in Georgia in 2003 and moved on to Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This amputated Russia’s three mountain anchors.

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine proved a breaking point in U.S.-Russian relations, however. At that point, Moscow recognized that the United States was seeking to cripple Russia permanently. After Ukraine turned orange, Russia began to organize a response.

The Window of Opportunity

Russia received a golden opportunity to push back on U.S. influence in the former Soviet republics and redefine the region thanks to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the crisis with Iran. Its focus on the Islamic world has left Washington with a limited ability to continue picking away at the former Soviet space or to counter any Russian responses to Western influence. Moscow knows Washington won’t stay fixated on the Islamic world for much longer, which is why Russia has accelerated its efforts to reverse Western influence in the former Soviet sphere and guarantee Russian national security.

In the past few years, Russia has worked to roll back Western influence in the former Soviet sphere country by country. Moscow has scored a number of major successes in 2010. In January, Moscow signed a customs union agreement to economically reintegrate Russia with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Also in January, a pro-Russian government was elected in Ukraine. And now, a pro-Russian government has taken power in Kyrgyzstan.

The last of these countries is an important milestone for Moscow, given that Russia does not even border Kyrgyzstan. This indicates Moscow must be secure in its control of territory from the Russian core across the Central Asian Steppe.

As it seeks to roll back Western influence, Russia has tested a handful of tools in each of the former Soviet republics. These have included political pressure, social instability, economic weight, energy connections, security services and direct military intervention. Thus far, the pressure brought on by its energy connections — as seen in Ukraine and Lithuania — has proved most useful. Russia has used the cutoffs of supplies to hurt the countries and garner a reaction from Europe against these states. The use of direct military intervention — as seen in Georgia — also has proved successful, with Russia now holding a third of that country’s land. Political pressure in Belarus and Kazakhstan has pushed the countries into signing the aforementioned customs union. And now with Kyrgyzstan, Russia has proved willing to take a page from the U.S. playbook and spark a revolution along the lines of the pro-Western color revolutions. Russian strategy has been tailor-made for each country, taking into account their differences to put them into Moscow’s pocket — or at least make them more pragmatic toward Russia.

Thus far, Russia has nearly returned to its mountain anchors on each side, though it has yet to sew up the North European Plain. And this leaves a much stronger Russia for the United States to contend with when Washington does return its gaze to Eurasia.

French ‘Game of Death’ Torture a Disturbing Social Critique

19 March, 2010

“French TV contestants made to inflict ‘torture’”

A recent French TV documentary that replicates an experiment from the 1960s provides us with some disturbing insight into society and human nature. The documentary makers created a fake game show in which people who believed they were contestants were tested on their willingness to cause others pain. The ‘Game of Death’ was like a normal TV quiz show, except that contestants were connected to an electrical generator and given increasingly powerful electrical shocks when they got questions wrong. Unknown to the experiment’s guinea pigs, everyone involved in the game and the studio audience were actors except for them, and no one was really being electrocuted. The guinea pigs were encouraged by the studio audience and the show’s hostess to pull a lever to inflict increasingly severe punishment on their supposed rival contestants. This was sometimes taken to the point at which the victim of the electrocution would pretend to die.

The frightening results of the game show experiment were that out of 80 people tested, only 16 refused to pull the lever. 82% of participants agreed to inflict the punishment even though they were aware of the pain it was causing the other contestant. The documentary-maker Christophe Nick says he was amazed by the people’s willingness to obey sadistic orders. “They are not equipped to disobey … They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to”. These results are similar (though worse) than the original experiment on which the documentary was based. See some news coverage on the ‘Game of Death’ on Youtube here:

The original Yale University research was conducted by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, and is now known as the Milgram Experiment. Milgram’s 1961 experiment aimed to test people’s obedience to authority figures, and was later publicised through his contributions the ‘Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology’, and in the book ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’. They were inspired by recent prosecutions of former Nazis, and sought to understand how seemingly normal people could act immorally and sadistically. In the Milgram Experiment there are three participants, the ‘scientist’, the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’. The teacher is the person the experiment is testing, while the scientist and the learner are actors. The teacher is instructed to ask the learner memory-testing questions and punish them with increasingly-high-voltage shocks each time they get the questions wrong. The learner pretends they are being electrocuted, and later in the experiment may even start to call for help, before eventually pretending to fall unconscious. The experiment continues until the teacher refuses to obey the scientist’s orders to continue delivering the shocks, or goes all the way.

While many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment, most would continue when they were assured that they would not be held responsible. Even people who exhibited extreme opposition to the experiment often continued when told: “Please continue”; “The experiment requires that you continue”; “It is absolutely essential that you continue”; “You have no other choice, you must go on”. The frightening results were that a massive 65% of experiment participants went all the way to the end, and almost all the participants administered shocks at levels way beyond an acceptable limit. See how a British documentary replicates the Milgram Experiment on Youtube here:

Milgram wrote that, “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”.

In the French ‘Game of Death’ the results were even worse, with 82% willing to obey. Mr Nick says that his experiment is a commentary on people’s increased willingness to obey when they are on TV, and thus on the fad of Reality TV shows. The documentary is certainly a sign that the need for social education and resistance to ideas of conformism is as urgent as it has ever been, and a great remaining challenge for those who want to steer humanity along a better path.

Niger Coup Just a Blip in Exploitation of African Resources

23 February, 2010

“Military junta seizes power in Niger coup”

In news from the Sahara: late last week a military coup in the West African nation of Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, toppled the government of President Mamadou Tandja and has subsequently drawn sanctions from the African Union. But rather than cause the normal murmurings about the intractability of African state collapse, these events have drawn quite positive evaluation from analysts in articles circulating in the international media with titles like, “When is a coup a good coup?” and “Niger Coup Another Chance At Democracy”. Around ten thousand people also took to the streets in Niger on Friday and Saturday rallying in support for the takeover. The United Nations and African Union have, however, condemned the events and noted their “disapproval of unconstitutional changes of government”.

During the Cold War, Niger was ruled by a series of pro-Western dictatorships funded and armed by states like France and Israel. Rather than working against these anti-democratic regimes, France often stationed elite troops in the nation in order to sure up their control (as it does to this day in countries like Gabon). President Tandja was first elected in 1999 and was returned to power in an election in 2004. While his second term as president expired in December last year, he had delayed elections by decree supposedly to allow time to complete some major investment projects. But 71-year-old Tandja’s longer-term intentions were made clear earlier in 2009, when he changed election laws to abolish the limits on presidential terms of office – a move deemed unconstitutional by the nation’s highest court. Niger was subsequently suspended from the West African regional organisation ECOWAS.

Troops stormed the presidential palace in the capital Niamey during a cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon, arresting the government and announcing the suspension of the constitution. Senior army officer Colonel Salou Djibo, was then named head of a military government that is calling itself the ‘Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy’ (CSRD). Meanwhile the main opposition movement, ‘Co-ordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic’ (CFDR) – which combines political parties, trade unions and human rights groups – has welcomed the take-over, criticising Tandja’s “stubbornness in power”, and saying that Tandja was never going to leave power without violence.

The new military council has promised a return to civilian rule after they draft a new constitution and hold elections. This was also promised in other regional coups over the last two years, in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, with mixed success. In the case of Mauritania, the coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz subsequently resigned from the military and was elected president as a civilian candidate, though in obviously dubious circumstances. This series of coups thus demonstrates a concerning trend of pseudo-legitimate seizures of power by military figures; and generally looking around the region there are more than a handful of leaders who either came to power over the years in coups, or have been in power for several decades.

Niger, which ranks 182nd on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, below Afghanistan, suffers from entrenched poverty – with 61% of its 15 million-strong population living on less than $1-a-day. Yet it has large and yet untapped reserves of minerals (including uranium), making it a target for strategic machinations by global powers like the United States and China. Indeed, false allegations about Saddam Hussein’s designs on Niger’s uranium helped to justify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. During Tanja’s rule the French energy firm Areva began work on a $1.5 Billion project to build the world’s second-biggest uranium mine, while China’s National Petroleum Corporation signed a $5 Billion deal in 2008 to begin oil extraction by 2011.

The importance of Niger’s minerals, and its people’s lack of international political power, makes it likely that democracy in Niger will continue to take a back-seat to global realpolitik over the coming years. An anonymous senior French diplomat has already spoken positively of the coup as a resolution to political stalemate, while US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has said that Tandja brought the coup upon himself by “trying to extend his mandate in office”. Peter Pham, Senior Fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, points out that, “If you are a leader in Africa and you want to hold on to power all you need to do is hold periodic polls, make sure you aren’t caught in mass atrocities, avoid arbitrarily rewriting contracts –and don’t start wars with your neighbours”.

It is likely that in the next few months to a year Niger will transition back to civilian rule, but almost certainly under a president beholden to the will of international investors. What will be interesting to see is whether a conflict develops between Western and Chinese-backed factions trying to control the state, or if the looting of Niger’s natural resources can be conducted in an orderly and bi-partisan fashion by the global powers. It is also clear that strategically the Sahara is becoming far more important to the energy security of Europe. Billions of dollars are being invested in the extraction of oil and uranium, and the production of solar power, in order to break European dependency on fuel products shipped from Russia, and through Russian-influenced territories in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

British National Party Welcomes Hanson, Shines Light on Howard

17 February, 2010

“British ultra-right party woos Hanson”

This week, as former Australian politician Pauline Hanson announced she will be moving to Britain indefinitely to find new opportunities and ‘contentment’, she has been welcomed to her new nation by the leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin. Griffin said that the BNP had long observed Hanson’s career in the One Nation Party and felt sympathy because of her ‘persecution’ through the mainstream Australian political parties’ “politically correct intimidation and bullying”. He also warned that Hanson would have to choose her new home carefully because British Labour had let in “3 million spongers”, and that inner London was now like the “Third World”.

So it is clear that the British National Party are not really a bunch of open-minded and cosmopolitan chaps. In fact, on the British ‘Question Time’ programme in October last year the Conservative Party leader David Cameron called the BNP “a bunch of fascists” and “Nazi thugs”, while the Labour Party Home Secretary Alan Johnson, said that, “These people believe in the things that the fascists believed in the Second World War… They believe in the purity of the Aryan race. It is a foul and despicable party and however they change their constitution they will remain foul and despicable”.

So while Hanson was never as sophisticated as the British National Party, and there is little in the Australian political tradition that could link her movement with a fascist heritage, for many Australians it was always clear where her policies lay on the global political spectrum. Griffin’s welcome is a posthumous judgement on the policies that Hanson was able to make acceptably mainstream over a number of years. Hanson – go join your fascist buddies!

However, in addition to this is the implication it has for the government of John Howard. Why? Because the Howard government defined many of their years in power in terms of racist confrontations, and gradually stole One Nation’s policies and position on the ideological spectrum. Howard’s dictum, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, would certainly not be out of place inside a meeting of the UK’s fascist BNP.

On all the major issues of race, from refugees and immigration, to anti-Muslim fear surrounding the ‘War on Terror’, to the treatment of Australia’s indigenous population, the Howard government was at the forefront of scare-mongering and racial persecution. As the Australian newspaper’s Mike Steketee has written, Hanson “created space for Howard to reposition himself politically”. And the Howard government subsequently adopted many of her ideas on turning away asylum-seekers (giving those who did make it through only Temporary Protection Visas); denying Aborigines an apology on the stolen generation, attacking ATSIC and launching a national intervention in the Northern Territory; and perpetuating a campaign of fear about and state surveillance of Muslim Australians.

Hanson’s BNP welcome should not just be a judgement on how Hanson’s politics should be classified. It also shines a light on how unacceptably right-wing the policies of the Howard government were able to become. Possibly the only way they could have been worse was if they handed the leadership over to the real crazies, like Tony Abbot… And when we look at where the current Rudd government stands in relation to Howard, remember that whenever they have remained close to the Howard line, they make a fascist happy.