Thursday, June 18, 2009
Monday, June 15, 2009
Outreach now by Washington to the Iranian opposition would conjure memories of 1953, when the United States whipped up street crowds as part of a successful coup to overthrow Mohammed Mosaddeq. Any suggestion that the Iranian opposition is in league with the United States would damage the movement’s standing in the eyes of average Iranians who are growing disenchanted with the current government but still wary of the United States for historical reasons.
If Iranian oppositionists and reformers hope to make gains now or in the future against the ruling ayatollahs, they must stand on their own in this moment. There is no support the White House could offer that would help their cause.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Mosaddeq perhaps more than any other figure in modern Iranian history showed how a combination of populist energy and sophisticated politicking behind closed doors can deal major blows even to a powerful government unafraid to steal elections. That vibrant political legacy is on display now in the various forms of opposition mounting against Ahmadinejad, who may indeed still prevail even so.
For a great book on Mosaddeq’s rise and fall, read All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer. And for those looking to understand the complicated internal political machinations of Iran, the Persian Puzzle by Kenneth Pollack is a thorough and lively overview worth picking up.
Monday, June 8, 2009
There is another more hidden tripwire for large-scale hostilities out there too as the newest tensions between Washington and Pyongyang mount. If the White House is indeed serious about grabbing North Korean ships, the Pentagon will almost certainly beef up both naval forces and ground troops in and around South Korea. The last time the United States did this was in the 1994 crisis, when North Korea’s nuclear program first came to light.
In that standoff, the Clinton White House drew up plans to destroy North Korea’s main nuclear reactor with airstrikes and positioned ground forces and naval assets to face an expected North Korean retaliation against South Korea. But North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, then ailing and in the twilight of his time in power, seemed to have misread the U.S. thinking behind the buildup, which he watched carefully. He apparently thought the U.S. forces gathering around the Korean peninsula might be planning an invasion of North Korea. And he seemed at the time determined to strike first if that were the case. Kim Il-sung had paid close attention to the 1991 Gulf War, in which U.S. forces openly massed around Iraq while Saddam Hussein basically just sat and watched in a false sense of comfort. No way was Kim Il-sung going to let that happen to him.
Kim Jong-il, like his father in 1994, is ailing and approaching the end of his time in power. He mostly likely had a stroke recently, leaving his ability to think through strategic moments looming ahead as the current crisis escalates impaired. And let’s not forget that even on his sharpest days Kim Jong-il is a deeply freaky paranoid hermit who leads a massive army that worships him like a cult. See today’s news about the sentencing of two U.S. journalists to 12 years of hard labor for the latest example of dark North Korean weirdness and unpredictability.
In the weeks and months ahead, Kim Jong-il may make the same miscalculation that nearly led his father to launch a pre-emptive war or commit some other worse blunder with potentially bloody consequences for thousands. No one should envy the Obama administration officials tasked with trying to guess what counter-moves Pyongyang may make as the White House goes forward with its new measures to deal with the North Korean threat.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Marr makes a strong case for 1776, the year American was born. He’s pretty convincing. But many online commentators strongly disagree with good reason in looking over history going as far back as 480 B.C.
In recent decades I tend to think 1989 stands as the most important year historically. The abrupt end of the Cold War certainly reshaped the world as we know it. Before that, 1968 has to rate high, as author Mark Kurlansky shows in his vivid book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.
Lately I’ve been reading 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies. If you have not heard of the book, it’s a fascinating study on how imperial China almost certainly reached the New World with voyages of discovery well before the Europeans did.
I think you can argue that China offered another world-shaping year in 1949, when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and made himself per capita the most powerful dictator history has ever known. The advent of modern China arguably looks set to shape as many lives around the world now and in the future as the advent of America has, a point Marr stresses in highlighting 1776.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
In 2007, the sitting White House launched just three drone attacks in Pakistan, but in 2008 the pace of the bombings increased dramatically to 34. For 2009, the Obama administration has already pulled the trigger on 16 such attacks, and dozens more seem imminent as the assassination program emerges as the chief U.S. instrument for fighting bin Laden’s organization in Pakistan.
The attacks, and their civilian casualties, have of course produced political backlash in Pakistan in general -- but not so much in the tribal badlands formally called the Federal Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), where the strikes have taken place. From the article:
- The one place the drone strikes do seem popular is in the FATA itself. The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a Pakistani think tank that does work in the tribal regions, found that more than half the people it polled in the FATA say the drone strikes are accurate and are damaging the militant organizations. Fewer than half said that anti-American sentiment in the area had increased due to the drone attacks. This is perhaps less surprising than it might initially seem; if a bunch of heavily armed religious nutcases took over your neighborhood, you too might not mind if occasionally they were whacked by mysterious missiles falling from the sky, whatever their provenance.
Monday, June 1, 2009
But the goodwill Obama’s election has generated will not erase some fundamental differences in worldviews any time soon. The Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2006 published the most comprehensive study I know of examining the sharp divergences in opinions and perceptions between Westerners and Muslims. The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other offers a sobering reminder of how far apart Western and Islamic societies are today culturally and politically even as they increasingly share the same geographic space.