Joan Didion, Californian

thelastlovesongJoan Didion seized my attention early, before I wrote for myself.  Assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in high school, I read with amazement her cool, detached descriptions of things I recognized growing up in California.  I graduated quickly to “The White Album” and it was there she was the first to suggest my life had literary merit: her description of my hometown as being some place she passed through, from the North Bay to the East Bay, because there was no place there to return a rental car as she suffered an emotional breakdown.    This implied to me, at age 18, everything and more than I wanted to know about growing up.

Her acute sensitivity to detail connected directly with the skeptical eye of the adolescent.  I admired her method of careful observation, finding revealed truth in the everyday that we adults take for granted, unchanging, and immutable.  But her method as it appealed to me when I was young marked me: the often passive but meticulous attention to the obvious or overlooked that other people in their haste or misdirection miss is useful (and lacking) in adulthood.  “Didionesque” became both a description and a model to emulate for my friends and me in our writing.

Her sensibility as a Californian and Westerner also endured.  After reading the great American writers of the South and the East (which from our perspective took in everything east of the Rockies), it was always pleasurable to return and read something that reflected my own surroundings and upbringing.   (For example, only a Northern Californian can truly appreciate her revelation that Huey Newton was “a Kaiser,” that is, a member of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization.  Who knew that the Black Panthers had a group medical plan?)

Only later did it occur to me that Didion’s public acclaim but lack of establishment laurels – she never won a Pulitzer Prize – suggested that her voice and regionalism could seem alien, even bizarre, to anyone not raised in my home state.  I am no doubt proved right in my intuition that Didion’s late memoir about the death and illness of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Quintana Roo, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was her first to win a National Book Award.  In her straightforward, literal and full-disclosure accounting of the trauma and dislocation of that year, it is her least Didionesque book.

The new biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daughtery, is haunted by death from the last pages.   We know, if we know Joan Didion, how the story ends.  But the most powerful and quietly devastating real-life manifestation of Didion’s flattening fear of catastrophe comes about half-way through the book, accounted for and tossed away.  Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, hired a young girl from Central America to look after their daughter.  The girl had a baby, who was then raised in the Dunnes’ house, which was kept obsessively clean to protect their own daughter.  When the mother and baby returned home to visit relatives, the infant’s unpracticed immune system collapsed, she contracted a fever, and died.

Didion feared not just the prospect of immediate disaster – the fatal illness, the heart attack, the life changed in the instant – but would have recognized the crushing, tragic irony of protecting a child so well that it kills her.  That this story is simply mentioned in passing in the first comprehensive biography of Joan Didion is just one of its many flaws but by no means its least.  (Like others, I’ve been annoyed by the author’s attempt to mimic Didion’s fictional style.)  Still, it’s important to note that we now have a fully developed narrative of Didion’s life to better understand her influences and her impact on American culture.

Death stalked Didion as the mysterious stranger killed acquaintances, friends, and loved ones as he closes in on those closest to her: her daughter and husband.  She is surrounded by horror which more than accounts for her desiccated dread.  Her niece was murdered, her agent died in his 50s, leukemia killed her sister-in-law, suicide claimed her brother-in-law, and some of the Manson victims she numbered among her friends.  Indeed, given how many people died in her life it is strange to realize that her memoir of her upbringing, “Where I Was From,” was written after her mother died around the turn of the millennium.

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Joan Didion, Malibu 1976.  Photo bi/via Nancy Ellison.

That memoir achieved a pinnacle in a theme she has explored since the 1960s.  “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote at the beginning of “The White Album”.  This may seem like overstatement until we recognize that we understand our own experience, history and public life through a series of stories rather than the longer, infinitely more voluminous series of details and events of our actual experience.  Storytelling saturates every aspect of adult consciousness, from the explanations we tell our children to the 30-second spots on television.  Storytelling is so pervasive that we mistake it for reality because there is no other, easily graspable way to communicate our experience.  But narrative, or story-telling, is not the same thing as experience.  Narrative is not reality: it is a way of picking out the most important and relevant details of our life and finding a common sentient thread to string through them in a way that makes sense.  Without this organizing principle, our lives would be incoherent.

For non-writers, and even for many writers, there is something spooky and slippery about narrative.  Some stories work themselves at a deep, almost subconscious level – the endurance of the gothic and Grimm fairy tales goes far to explain this and so does the “heroic journey”.  But what makes a “good” or “compelling” story is not something easily taught and takes some time for even professionals to learn.  Any newspaper cub reporter can tell you what it’s like to finally come up with a “great story” in a budget meeting, but she might be hard-pressed to explain why beyond a series of compelling elements lacking elsewhere.

Nonetheless the self-critical writer recognizes at some point that narrative can distort reality beyond recognition.  Didion’s dry, scathing views of San Francisco hippies, or young marrying couples in Las Vegas, or even those running the California aquaduct and Los Angeles freeway system, would not recognize themselves in her reporting.  They tell themselves different stories.  A good story can lead to the narrative version of sample bias, where we mistake the compelling exception for the rule.  And I’ve always worried that the drive for the “good story” means we may miss the profundity in the mundane.  Didion hammers at this, most tragically, in her reporting on the Central Park Jogger case: what makes the story of a lone, white, “attractive” victim so much more compelling than any of the other 3,254 reported cases of rape in New York City in 1989?  To the tabloid journalist – indeed, all of New York, it seemed at the time – the answer is obvious, beyond explanation.  But Didion shifted that spotlight to expose the even darker corners of New York – as well as our own bias and indifference – in one of her best essays.

Didion never goes so far as to explain explicitly what she means by story-telling or narrative.  At the beginning of “The White Album” she uses some peculiar analogies:  “The princess is caged in the consulate.  The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.  The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which”.  That can seem unintelligible to even the most sophisticated reader.

This question is the foundation for virtually all of her future reporting, from presidential races and the Central Park Jogger to her own background in “Where I Was From”.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Daughtery meticulously accounts, the narratives of public life irremediably fractured.  She no longer could recognize or understand events – her account of the five-year-old girl found clinging to a fence on Interstate 5 is one searing example – as she had traditionally.  These commonly accepted narratives, she wrote, were replaced by the sheer insanity of Vietnam, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and almost inevitably, the Manson murders.

Narrative had a particular relevance to Didion’s writing about politics, which she turned to in the 1980s and 1990s.  As I began to work in politics I found this writing less and less compelling, but her idea that narrative drives politics remains one of the most useful and penetrating critiques as it is practiced today.  Nevertheless I found Didion’s flat, skeptical ear when turned to the professional vocabulary of politics – always in quotes: “trade-offs” and “programs” and “policy” and “play” – could be easily turned to any other profession.   (Indeed, I can imply the same cynicism very easily with  Daughtery’s writing about the Dunne-Didion health crises which he unhelpfully leaves unexplained in layman’s terms: “hemodynamically significant lesion,” and “angioplasty,” and “congential defect of the aortic valve” and “radio-frequency ablation of the atrial-ventricular node”.)

Instead of revealing systemic cynicism, she has exposed the technical vocabulary of a committed if exotic profession.  It wouldn’t have made sense for her to explain it, since the exclusionary vocabulary was the point.  But what she found to be exclusive I found to be a specialist’s way to describe the work I did.  All professions are this way.  Perhaps she was yearning for a purer, amateur politics as reflective of the kind of fundamental American innocence we all seek in our political life.  But that doesn’t make her insight particularly extraordinary.

But in the beginning and the end, Joan Didion is a Californian.  It’s hard to overstate, as a native Californian, how much she writes for and about California and Californians.  The state’s uniqueness – climatological, social, cultural – has been plumbed for generations. But Didion was raised in its heart and writes about this state of mind from within.  She was born in Sacramento to fourth-generation Californians who can track their lineage back to and through the Donner Party that perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847.  Indeed, both Didion and Daughtery use this oft-told warning fable of hubris, tragedy and anthropophagia as a sort of talisman, the root of all fatal human folly.

But for the later arrivals – which includes most of the state and me – the settler narrative does not resound as profoundly as Didion’s depiction of an Eden whose compact with the snake in the garden includes the hot winds, the fires, the droughts and earthquakes, and a culture that seems unhinged, prone to murder.  Californians understand what it means to bear the Santa Ana, to watch the incinerated oak leaves fall from the sky, to dive under school desks when the building begins to shake.  The cults and random madness seem to be less immediate concerns.

Unlike observers from elsewhere, who write about these phenomena as freakish, exotic events, Didion wrote about them for what they were: permanent features of the landscape, an inescapable part of life in the garden.

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What matters most

Via Grist magazine.

A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate.  We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror.  I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign.  On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country.  On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.

It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters.  But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others.  The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things?  Why don’t we all think the same way?

This is a substantial issue.  I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris.  I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people.  But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.

This was not a matter of self-justification.  When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply.  I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts.  The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me.  More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I.  This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.

My initial query stands:  why do we feel differently about these things?  Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children?  Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues?  When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.

But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society.  There are more than enough problems we face to go around.  It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time.  While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time.  That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality.  Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions.  Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress.  Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.

What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective.  It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances.  But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence.  It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists.  That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed.  Imagine if they worked together.

More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life.  We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.

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A Patent Omission

Soviet Buran (left) and US space shuttle (right)

A recent story by the Planet Money team at NPR posed the question: what would happen to business and innovation if there were no patents?

For those who don’t follow the rise and flow of intellectual property law, this has been a trendy subject in recent years. Driven in large part by the complex — and aggressive — litigation between Apple, Google and Samsung over smart phone and software design, many smart people have posited that instead of protecting intellectual property and innovation in market economies, patents and other intellectual property protections have built fortresses around technology and impeded both creativity and economic growth.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for intellectual property reform. (For example, there’s a strange coincidence that copyright protections keep getting extended every time Mickey Mouse stands on the verge of entering the public domain.) But the Planet Money team skips that argument, probably because it would put to sleep their listeners, already bored by their overlong story of 15 minutes. Instead, they pose the much bigger question about no patents at all.

Patents are issued on machines and processes (trademarks and copyrights are on brand designs and creative products) and are issued by every major economy in the world. They provide limited protection to the innovator from unlicensed copying. These are especially important, as Planet Money notes, in software and pharmaceuticals, where development costs are high and production costs are low. Patents have been issued as early as the 15th century and are written into the U.S. Constitution specifically “to promote science and the useful arts”. So the fringe intellectuals who oppose patents, as quoted by Planet Money, believe that every advanced industrial economy that has provided patent protection has been wrong for more than 500 years.

That’s all well and good. But patent opponents are essentially arguing for a case that does not now exist. True, we do that routinely in political (and economic) debate. Try this, we say, it will be better my way. It’s hard to make solid economic arguments using only models because we can’t predict the future. But that’s what the opponents of patents are doing: Trust us.

Except there are several examples from history that the Planet Money team could have explored for the effect of patent-less economies. They simply ignored them. That’s too bad, because the debate over patents seems to come in waves of every 50 years or so. For example, the Netherlands specifically abandoned patents in 1869 but reinstated them in 1912. Germany didn’t adopt patents until 1877, Switzerland until 1907. How did this state of affairs affect these countries’ development? Planet Money doesn’t seem interested.

But probably the best example of a patent-less economy is the Soviet Union. From about 1922 until the collapse of communism 70 years later, the Soviet Union abolished all intellectual property protections. It was a socialist economy — the state owned everything, including ideas. Instead, the government issued “certificates of invention”, a sort of “Hero of Soviet Labor” for innovators that included a small stipend. That way we can measure creativity and innovation in the world’s largest socialist economy.

The results are stark. With the exception of sloped armor, a minor advance in antibiotics, and the AK-47 (for which I can find no record Mikhail Kalashnikov received a certificate of invention), the Soviet Union produced almost nothing new for 70 years. Virtually every major advance the nation built was stolen — aircraft (Tu-4), weapons (atomic and hydrogen bombs), computers and software (5e series, Agat, MOS) and spacecraft (Buran, see above). When the country opened up in the early 1990s, it was clear the advanced parts of the economy trailed the West by 30-40 years. The rest of the country was still living in the 19th century. Socialism was an economic calamity and had its worst effect on the innovative sector. Russia adopted intellectual property protections immediately.

That’s not to say the Soviets didn’t try. As the patent-less nations of the 19th century also did, Soviet innovators sought patent protection abroad for their innovations. The Soviet Union filed for 7,000 patents in the United States during the 20th century — comparable, one observer notes, to an advanced country like Belgium or Austria. (The observer fails to note both countries have a fraction of the Soviet Union’s population). But more importantly, there is little evidence that these patents led to commercialization. That is, despite the recognition of innovation by an advanced economy, the Soviet Union could not market the products — the results of these innovations — in advanced Western economies.

Perhaps Planet Money ignored the Soviet example because the effects of socialism were too distorting. Or maybe its results are so stark it simply pours cold water on the argument that patents hinder innovation and economic development. But it is important to look at this example in part because many patent opponents view them as market inhibitors. Yet in a socialist economy without patent inhibitions — indeed, in the worker’s paradise where the laborer owned the means of production — creativity and innovation died. Lesson learned?

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Russia and the Information Purification Directives

What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.

This has been long in coming as the Kremlin and its allies have steadily co-opted the press, attacked independent journalists, consolidated control of the Internetunified all organized “political” parties, brought petty prosecution against non-governmental organizations, harassed independent political actors, and persecuted those few remaining who dare raise their voice against the now-raging retrograde, unilithic nationalism sweeping over the country.

Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.

Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:

“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.

While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.

Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.

I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.

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The ontology of the ‘Unknown’

Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Known Unknown,” was accompanied by an extraordinary series of interview-essays in The New York Times where the filmmaker acknowledged that he felt he now knows less about the former twice-serving Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff than he did before he made the film. Rumsfeld’s clear pleasure engaging in verbal and semantic sparring, combined with a maddening lack of concern for concrete truth and that opaque Cheshire grin of his, made for an utterly compelling subject but brought no more illumination to his character or the matters of state that he influenced during his tenure.

I always felt that in the great “mystery” — John Keegan’s words — of the Iraq war, the political, strategic, and tactical dynamics of the conflict hinged on any number of key individual decisions and judgments. Had the French been convinced early on to join the Coalition and adopt the latter U.N. Security Council resolution authoring the invasion. Had the coalition force package been doubled or tripled for the invasion. Had the Iraqi Army not been disbanded. Had more time been allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors. The war would have gone very differently, and we would think about very differently. And so on.

The most important variable in the conflict were the weapons of mass destruction. If they had existed, and if they had been found, the political understanding of the conflict would be irreparably altered. (That may not have affected the insurgency afterward, but perhaps it would have if a larger, U.N.-backed coalition were on the ground.) This is, of course, the largest question involved in Morris’ Times essays, and yet unfortunately he forgets to mention (although this may be in the film, which I have not yet seen) perhaps the most important aspect of these weapons — that while they did not exist, Saddam Hussein acted as if they existed, and the fear of these weapons was just as important to the survival of his regime as their existence.

This ontological paradox is examined in one of the post-war CIA reports on the intelligence failures. It notes, in effect, that the CIA had little ability to interpret what looked like a cover-up of something as a cover-up of nothing because Saddam needed to appear to have weapons that had been destroyed in 1998 to deter internal threats rather than outside attack. This is at least as a complex puzzle to solve as any verbal jujitsu Donald Rumsfeld engaged in from the podium at the Pentagon.

But to unpack it also requires something that neither Rumsfeld really demonstrated during his years at the Pentagon nor what Morris (or, for that matter, many political observers during those years) manifests in his articles: keen analytical judgment. The conventional history of the “intelligence” about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says it was made up entirely by those looking for a pretext for invasion. But that’s not entirely the case.

I worked for a nonproliferation nonprofit at the time of the invasion. I knew about Iraq’s chemical weapons program and had studied deeply Iraq’s crash nuclear weapons program prior to its destruction after the 1991 Gulf War. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, I felt it was highly unlikely that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program because of the intense capital development that would require. But I also knew how well Iraq had hidden their nuclear weapons development program prior to 1991 — and the lengths to which the regime went to deceive weapons inspectors — and felt that it was possible it had hidden a chemical weapons program about as well since then. Not having any access to classified information, it was reasonable to assume that the Administration had better data. Many people in our coalition made the same assumption. Indeed, I think there was a broad presumption that Iraq had something, but our political position was to force Iraq to submit to U.N. inspections that would eventually uncover it. In other words, our judgment was faulty, too.

If there were others out there putting together the pieces and drawing the opposite conclusion — that Saddam had no clothes, that he had no weapons of mass destruction — I don’t know who they are. But that is the nature of good, keen judgment — facing incomplete information (especially when “incomplete” actually means absent, an abstract point about which Morris and Rumsfeld argue) and drawing the most accurate conclusion.

Morris is so disturbed by Rumsfeld’s deflection and penchant for argument that he wonders if there is anything substantial behind the quip and self-satisfied grin. Maybe there’s nothing more beyond the clever debate team captain’s tricks, he argues, and a mind made up to invade Iraq. Maybe there is no actual mind there capable of pure reason and problem-solving; no mind dedicated to, never mind interested in, concrete truth in the actual world.

It would seem from Rumsfeld’s record that Morris would be right. A mind like his is designed for and honed by a life in politics — arguing a point, driving a cause, giving no quarter, relentlessly in pursuit until he wins. The winner defines the political reality and that was how his political career evolved. But the one reality he could not shape was Iraq after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 and he did not have the imagination (a term he used relentlessly and with great irony prior to the invasion) to comprehend what was happening nor the ability to find a way out of the debacle he created. He fell back on the tools that had served him so well for so long, which were mostly language. But at a point early on those tools failed him — when his language no longer had any connection to the reality of the chaos in Iraq.

Morris doesn’t write about this, either, and Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have been humbled by his experience.  Morris appears amazed by this, and perhaps we are, too, given the experience he and we had with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rumsfeld doesn’t give us the satisfaction of McNamara’s comeuppance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experience and judge him for it.

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“What Forever Stirs in the Human Heart”

I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.

Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.

It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.

Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.

It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.

Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace.  The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.

Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics.  As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.

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Thinking Through Ukraine

(via The DailyKos)

I was at NATO when Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia, in August 2008. The action caught anyone not paying attention by surprise. The experts knew it was long in coming. I’m sure the same is for the unfurling crisis in Ukraine, which nonetheless doesn’t help us steer a course away from general war on the Black Sea, the doorstep of the European Union.

At the time of that short, brutal war I remember there were many calls for NATO to intervene and a tremendous amount of frustration that the Allies did not. But a French colleague pointed out to those of us assembled in my division — we were short-staffed during the August holidays — that NATO’s contribution at that point was not to inflame the situation but to defuse it. The European Union, led by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, led the political charge to end the war within a week.

I remember a little-noted post scriptum to that war — NATO’s inadvertent (I think) contribution — that may be useful to keep in mind in this crisis. That was the introduction of the NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 into the Black Sea after fighting had ended. SMG1 entered the Black Sea on a planned and routine patrol — either it was deliberately allowed into this highly primed theater or nobody thought to turn it back — and the Russian reaction was hysterical. After the Russians sank the small Georgian fleet and basically did what they wanted across the country, SMG1 fundamentally altered the force dynamic in the theater. SMG1 really got the Russians’ attention, and it suggests to me that Moscow will never pick a fight with an equal or superior adversary if it can avoid it.

It’s probably obvious, but an excellent commentary by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that the territorial grab in Crimea is not an isolated action but opens a second political front for Moscow. The revolution in Kiev was a green light to similarly minded activists in Moscow that thuggish regimes have their weaknesses, especially if the military can be sidelined. By mobilizing the armed forces against Ukraine, Russia both moved to crush the nascent west-leaning government in Kiev and communicated clearly to the domestic Russian opposition what consequences would follow for attempting to duplicate what happened there in Moscow.

This action also plays into the Kremlin’s interests by forcing our eyes off of other crises where it has waning influence, like Syria and Iran. Moscow can continue to back its client state and Damascus can destroy its internal opposition and rebellion (and weaken its neighbors with refugees) while we are diverted by Ukraine and Crimea. But we are powerful enough not to be distracted and must continue to pressure Syria and Iran while also resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

While Russia may look strong at the moment, it’s important to recognize that the country is acting from a position of weakness — and that the country’s action in Crimea is a fundamental and tremendous risk. If the Kremlin fails in Crimea or Ukraine, the weakness of the regime will be virtually impossible to ignore. No amount of propaganda about fighting fascists and the intransigent enemies of Russia will be able to cover for a failure of this kind. And with this failure, the domestic Russian opposition to the Kremlin will feel emboldened to move against the regime just as the opposition did in Kiev. So instead of being in a position of strength, in reality the Kremlin is extremely exposed. When Vladimir Putin fails, he will lose everything. So he can’t afford to fail, which is what makes this crisis so particularly dangerous.

Another reality I learned from the war with Georgia was the entangling nature of Russia’s relationship with the West. I think we were far more worried about this state of affairs than the Kremlin, but it was important and interesting (if not a little infuriating) to stop and deliberate on all the ways that NATO (and more broadly, the United States and the European Union) cooperated with Russia on issues and initiatives of mutual interest. We on the NATO staff literally cataloged all the ways we were working together with Russia, which still has a diplomatic mission on the same compound at NATO Headquarters. At that time, we were working together on overflight rights for resupply to to Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament (both START and the more concrete aspects of securing fissile material), ballistic missile defense, anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, energy security, and the High North. We’re still working with Russia on all those things, more or less — not least or more recent of which was the successful execution of a safe and secure Winter Olympics. All of these issues of mutual interest (and undoubtedly more) are on the table if we escalate this crisis.

It’s important to consider that the political situation in Ukraine may not be as polarized or volatile as it appears. Consider the map at the top of this post. Much as been made about how the country is split between western Ukrainian speakers and eastern Russian speakers. But a view of a linguistic map (and the CIA World Factbook) demonstrates the picture is far more complex than that. First, Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers blend fairly evenly throughout most of the country, especially in Kiev. The exceptions are the extreme west and extreme east. Second, Ukrainian-speakers are the outright majority in the entire country. Only in the south and the far east do Russian-speakers hold something close to an absolute majority, which explains in part why the Kremlin seized Crimea (which includes Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet), first.

So the larger lesson is: don’t take the linguistic or ethnic divide as concrete or immutable. Nobody has polled the Ukrainians about this situation. Nobody knows how much Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers have intermingled and inter-married. Nobody has even bothered to ask them much about what’s going on in their country. Only the most radical elements are speaking out. Do we want to make decisions about war and peace and secession and rebellion based on what we see on television or have read on the Internet just in the last few days?

What can we do? Other observers, not least of which include individual Allies, have been maddened by the endless emergency sessions of the UN, OSCE, EU and NATO, which have issued a stream of statements but taken no tangible action. Here is what we could do, almost immediately, for Ukraine in its time of need that doesn’t involve military provocation:

  • Deliver $15 billion in loan guarantees to secure the country financially.
  • Grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, fast-tracking the countries for NATO membership.
  • Finalize the Eastern Partnership with the European Union.
  • Prepare to ship LNG to Ukraine (and Romania and Bulgaria).
  • Prepare to airlift humanitarian, medical and food supplies to Ukraine.
  • Impose sanctions on Russia’s leadership.
  • Prepare to close off European trade with Russia.

It’s important to know that the force differential favors Ukraine in the East-West face-off. While Ukraine may be at a disadvantage right now facing Russia, Ukrainians are fighting on their own territory and with the support of the West. A variety of military options are available to NATO and Ukraine’s European backers. I hesitate to offer them here because I am not an operational or regional expert. But suffice to say NATO controls access to the Black Sea and the North Atlantic, and could control at will the airspace over the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is made up mostly of anti-submarine ships, which are vulnerable to surface combatants and aircraft, and as one observer noted, “The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.” Any action taken by NATO or even by any individual Ally would fundamentally alter the military balance in this nascent conflict to Russia’s detriment.

But getting to a point I made earlier, that’s what makes this conflict so potentially dangerous. Putin can’t afford to lose. And the escalation ladder goes right up to the nuclear trigger. While I think cooler heads will prevail, and I think it’s possible for everyone to fight without drawing in that option, those are the stakes involved. Indeed, that has to be in the back of everyone’s mind, if for no other reason than that was how one proxy war was brought to a close. The 1973 Yom Kippur War ended when the United States put its nuclear weapons on worldwide alert following a Soviet resupply to the embattled Arab armies. The alert got Moscow’s attention, and, not willing to escalate the crisis, both superpowers forced their proxies to the negotiation table. But in this situation, can we be sure the bluff won’t be called?

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Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream

The Church of St. John, Ohrid, Macedonia (via The Guardian)

With nods to George KennanJoan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.

Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.

Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.

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Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

A plenum convened in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 9, 2014 (via Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso)

The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.

It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union).  I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.

And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.

But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.

In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.

Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east  and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.

But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.

It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.

While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.

What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla,  Zenica and elsewhere.

As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum.  That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.

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Punk Is Not Dead

Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.

I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.

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