My Weekly Reader 17 October 2018.

During the 1500s, the “Wars of Religion” that accompanied the Reformation and Counter (or Catholic)-Reformation wreaked havoc on Europe.  One response appeared in the creation of “absolute” monarchies that had the rights and resources to stamp out rebellion.  Such monarchies could spawn new conflicts, but absolutis, called out to kings who took their responsibilities seriously.  In England, the Stuart kings who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, were convinced absolutists.  The English Parliament sought to check the claims to royal rights.  Under the second Stuart king, Charles I, push came to shove.  A civil war broke out (1644-1648).

C.V. Wedgewood chronicled the long struggle in two excellent books (The King’s War, The King’s Peace).  Here she portrayed King Charles as deceitful, even dishonest in his relationships with others (both friends and enemies).  She portrayed him as uncertain, even fearful, in pursuing the course he set out.  He comes off as a poor sort of king to lead a troubled country or to win the war that would decide that country’s future course.

His opponents were very different.  In the course of the war, power passed to a group called the Independents.  These were dissenters from the Church of England (the Protestant state church).  They rejected both the hierarchical administrative structure of the Church and many of its doctrines, which seemed to them too close to Catholicism.  In the words of Thomas Macaulay, “they knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”  Oliver Cromwell, who rose up to be a formidable soldier and politician, came to be their “chief of men.”

Perhaps 300,000 people died in the civil war before Parliament won.  The Parliament captured the king, found him still determined to assert his claims, and had to decide what to do.  A compromise—the Treaty of Newport—had been offered to the defeated king.  He rejected the terms, which would have included the exiling of his chief supporters, a radical reform of the Church of England, and parliamentary control of the army.

The dominant faction in the Parliament, with their power rooted in the army rather than in the voters, decided to put King Charles I—“that man of blood”–on trial, to convict him, and to execute him.  This amounted to a judicial murder.  It could be justified only by a “cruel necessity” of bringing peace to the country without submitting to royal absolutism.[1]

In her third book on the subject, she focuses on the defeated king in the last, brief, stage of his life.  She portrays Charles as an in many ways admirable human being.  He remained committed to a conservative version of the Church of England and to his own understanding of the royal powers.  In his trial he refused to recognize the right of Parliament to put him on trial.  Convicted and condemned, he met death with great courage.  In sum, a better man than a king.

The trial and execution of King Charles I had ambiguous effects.  Over the short run, it consolidated the victory of Cromwell, the army, and the Independents, while laying royal absolutism in the dust.  Cromwell established what amounted to a military dictatorship.  It alienated many Englishmen, just as had royal absolutism, and scarcely survived Cromwell’s death (1658).  In 1660, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne and England has remained a monarchy to this day.  However, Parliament confirmed its authority and it grew with the passage of time.

[1] C.V. Wedgewood, A Coffin for King Charles (New York: Macmillan, 1964).

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My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

Kishinev 1903.

When our family did a study-abroad stint in Paris, I failed to get my sons into the local French public schools.  As a fallback, I enrolled my older boy in a commercial language class.[1]  He soon reported that his classmates were Portuguese plasterers and Moldavian cleaning ladies.  (He spent the rest of his time panhandling).  Now Moldavia is just a squalid and impoverished country waiting to be flossed from the gap between Ukraine and Rumania.  Better than a hundred years ago, however, it was just a squalid and impoverished territory of the rotting Russian Empire of the Tsars.  In Moldavia, there was a town called Kishinev.

Kishinev became a railroad town on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire.  It attracted businessmen and entrepreneurs and people looking for jobs.  A dozen factories sprang up, but most people shopped in street bazaars.  By 1897, almost half (46 percent) of the city’s population were Jews.  Perhaps 50,000 people.  Familiarity did not breed fraternity.

In Spring 1903, as Easter approached, rumors circulated among the Orthodox Christians of Kishinev, that Jews had engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children so that their blood could be used for making mazo for Passover.[2]  Other rumors—somewhat better grounded in reality—also circulated that government authorities had approved three days of retribution.

Kishinev’s Jews were not without preparation for this attack.  After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1881), 200 attacks on Jewish communities happened.

On 19-20 April 1903, mobs of Moldavian Christians ran amok in a “pogrom” (an anti-Semitic riot).  The town’s government and police did not protect the embattled subjects of the Tsar.  The mobs left behind 49 dead Jews, a great deal of property damage, and many raped women.

The Russkie ambassador to the United States claimed that oppressed peasants had merely counter-attacked against Jewish money-lenders.  That didn’t sit too well with TR.[3]  Vladimir Korolenko, a Russian writer of no great ability, but of great courage, wrote a book about the pogrom called House Number 13.[4]  Sholem Aleichem’s play, “Tevye and His Daughters,” became the basis for the musical, then movie “A Fiddler on the Roof.”  It is set in Ukraine in 1905.  Eventually, the family decides to emigrate to the United States to escape oppression.

The pogrom was traumatic, but not only in the obvious ways.  Jews began to tear at each other over the refusal of many men to fight back.[5]  Some Israeli attitudes may find their origins in Kishinev as much as in the Holocaust.[6]

In Maus: My Father Bleeds History, Art Spiegelman has his protagonist, Vladek Spiegelman, observe of pre-war Nazi Germany that “there is a real pogrom going on there.”  Before 1945, a pogrom like Kishinev offered the only terms that Jews had for understanding extreme danger.  It wasn’t enough.

[1] I took the younger boy on extended walks around Paris.  We found Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise.  We saw the steam-powered tractor developed by the French revolutionary armies to pull cannon.  We ate a ton of crepes with melted sugar.  He later won the French prize at St. Andrew’s School.

[2] Steve Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (2018).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz-CVvxVHpw

[4] Let us now praise famous men.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Korolenko

[5] Chaim Bialik, “The City of Slaughter.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayim_Nahman_Bialik#Move_to_Germany

[6] I’m not trying to be snarky here, but see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpnmfbLiRng

My Weekly Reader 23 July 2018.

“Globalization” means the trade in goods and services, the flow of capital, and the movement of workers across national boundaries with little or no national constraints.  This is an old story in human history, but it accelerated dramatically after 1945[1] and it has moved at astonishing speed since 1990.[2]  Globalization has spawned disruptive costs that accompany its immense benefits.  Much attention has focused on some of the costs more than on the benefits.

The political reaction against globalization commands the headlines.[3]  Examples include President Trump’s “America First” policies of tariffs and limits on migration; the British vote to leave the European Union (“Brexit”); and Angela Merkel’s suddenly precarious leadership of Germany.  The most persuasive interpretations see this reaction as rising from two sources.  One is the unequal distribution of both the benefits and costs of globalization.  The other is the resulting discrediting of the elites as leaders in the eyes of everyone else as followers.

One can point to many flaws in democratic governance.  However, part of the current problem is that democracy actually works.  Donald Trump won the 2016 election; a narrow, but real, majority of British voters chose “Brexit”; Italian voters supported the current coalition of anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties that governs the country.  Many of the reforms seem intended to blunt the responsiveness of politicians to the popular will.  These include giving the president of the United States more authority to commit the country to treaties that could not pass the Senate; extending the time between elections to buffer politicians from the public moods; raising the pay of politicians so that a better class of person will go into politics; and instituting civic literacy tests for voters.

Trends that have nothing to do with globalization, but which will rock a globalized world economy get lost in the shuffle.[4]  For example, in Western countries, robots look like a mechanical version of China: low-cost, high-productivity workers.  In developing countries, however, they are just as great a challenge.  Hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and elsewhere have been pulled out of abject poverty by industrialization.  Their jobs, too, are at risk.  Developed countries will have no incentive to off-shore production and developing countries will have to compete with their own robots.

Then soon–but possibly not soon enough–a demographic shift will occur from low birth-low death to low birth-high death.  The United States already depends upon immigration for its population growth (and the financial stability of Social Security).  Japan and many European countries (Germany and Italy for example) are in much worse shape in terms of their young workers-elder retirees ratios.  China will soon enter the ranks of countries this imbalance.  How will different societies pay for their aged, non-working populations?

[1] After the Second World War, the United States led the construction of an open “Free World” economy through institutions like the World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

[2] The collapse of the Soviet Union discredited centrally-planned, non-market economies in the eyes of previous true believers.  Russia, the former “captive nations” of the Soviet Empire, and the Peoples Republic of China all adopted capitalist market economies.  Many other leftist economies in the developing world (notably India) did the same thing.

[3] Dambisa Moyo, Edge of Chaos (2018).

[4] Ian Bremmer, Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism (2018).

My Weekly Reader, 10 July 2018.

Russo-American relations had deteriorated under the simultaneous presidencies (2000-2008) of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.[1]  However, constitutional term limits meant that Putin could not run for a third consecutive term.  So, he became prime minister while his client, Dmitri Medvedev, became president.  However, all power remained in Putin’s hands.

Barack Obama also became president in 2009.  Obama made one of his campaign advisers on foreign policy, Michael McFaul, head of Russian affairs on the National Security Council.  McFaul then became a principle architect of the Obama administration’s attempt at a “reset” of the relationship with Russia.  The administration hoped to draw Russia toward the American-led international system.

The “reset” began well.  In July 2009, the Russians began allowing the United States to use Russian airspace to airlift supplies to Afghanistan.  In September 2009, the U.S. dropped its plan to build anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe.   In March 2010, the two countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In May 2010, the Russians agreed to impose sanctions on Iran in an effort to get it to end is nuclear weapons program.  The U.S. then lifted sanctions on Russia.

Then things went sour in a hurry.  Why?  There are two answers here.  One answer is that the Libyan Revolution from March to August 2011 began the breakdown.  In this account, the “Arab Spring” spread to Libya; the Gaddafi government set out to suppress it; Libya was a Russian client and Russia had a veto on any Security Council authorization; the Americans got Russia to abstain by limiting the resolution to “protecting civilians,” rather than overthrowing the regime; and then they went ahead and overthrew the regime.[2]

To make matters worse, in Fall 2011, Putin and Medvedev again switched jobs.  This infuriated many Russians.  Demonstrators filled the streets and the unrest continued during the run-up to the March 2012 presidential elections.  It doesn’t seem to have sat too well with Washington either.  In December 2011, Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton declared that “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.”[3]  This amounted to taking sides against Putin.

Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, prefers another explanation.  He thinks that Putin is “paranoid” and sees the U.S. as “the enemy.”  He is possessed of “fixed and flawed views.”  The Russian people themselves follow Putin because of “a deep societal demand for this kind of autocratic leadership, and this kind of antagonistic relationship with the United States and the West.”

When Secretary of State Clinton made her statement on the Russian elections, the United States had already overthrown the autocratic governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and leaned on the Egyptian military to topple Hosni Mubarak.  The American government-funded National Endowment for Democracy was at work in Russia.  Is it a surprise that Putin is paranoid?  McFaul should have re-read Kennan before he entered government.

[1] Daniel Beer, Does Vladimir Putin Speak for the Russian People?” NYTBR, 8 July 2018, reviewing Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace (2018).

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] See: https://www.cnn.com/2011/12/06/world/europe/russia-elections-clinton/index.html

My Weekly Reader 14 June 2018.

Well before the arrival of Europeans on the Eastern seaboard of North America, the Native Americans had advanced far beyond simple bands of wandering hunters-and-gatherers.  They had become settled hunters-and-farmers; their communities had grown from bands to confederations of tribes.  It would be easy to portray their situation as an Eden and the Europeans as the snake in the Garden.  This over-simplifies things.

First, the Native Americans were Stone Age people whose lives could be very hard.  Europeans were an Iron Age people whose axes, knives, cooking pots, and muskets could ease those hard lives.  Second, many tribes disputed with others.  Trading with Europeans gave them access to European technology, but alliances could give them the bulge on rivals.  Cooperation co-existed with conflict between .Europeans and Native Americans.

Yet conflict became endemic.  The two different peoples despised one another.  The Europeans—Spanish, French, Dutch, and English—were all monotheists, believing themselves to be in the left lane of the highway to Heaven and everyone else to be taking the off-ramp to Hell.  Endlessly busy in pursuit of gain, the Europeans found the Native Americans to be an idle lot.  The Native Americans were commonly animists, believing that each living thing possessed a spirit.  Lacking much material wealth, the Native Americans couldn’t comprehend the acquisitiveness of the Europeans.

The imbalance in real strength between the two sides doomed the Native Americans.  Certainly, the Europeans possessed an immense technological advantage over the Native Americans.  Sailing ships, firearms, and iron tools all surpassed anything Native Americans could produce.  More importantly, there were just a lot more Europeans who wanted to live in North America than there were Native Americans who might want to keep them out.  The spread of European diseases compounded, but did not cause, the imbalance.

The first American “way of war” rested on the English understanding of the Native Americans.  The Native Americans could not stand and fight against heavily armed and armored Europeans.  They faded away into the forest at the English approach.  So march to a stockaded village, burn it down along with stored food and crops in the field, then go home.  On occasion, the English could trap the enemy inside their stockade.  Then they applied fire and sword.

An early war in New England illustrates these realities.[1]  Before 1600, the Narragansett confederacy had dominated southern New England.  Then the Pequot tribe intruded itself into the Connecticut River valley.  In 1622, they had expanded their territory by defeating the Narragansett.  In 1630, the Puritan settlers began to arrive in Massachusetts Bay.   Conflicts arose between the Narragansett and the English from time to tie, but the Narragansett understood the danger to themselves.  In 1636, they palmed off the murder of a rough-around-the-edges merchant ship captain by some of their own allies as the handiwork of the Pequot.  Then they sent a bunch of warriors to fight with the English against the Pequot.  The war ended with a gory massacre of many Pequot trapped inside their own stockade at Mystic.  Some of the survivors became slaves of the Narragansett.  Forty years later it would be the turn of the Narragansett in King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

[1] James A. Warren, God, War, and Providence (2018).

My Weekly Reader, 29 May 2018.

The war correspondent Thomas Ricks reads war books for the NYT Book Review.  It’s not worth summarizing his summaries, but he often has interesting observations to make.  Discussing a book[1] on the rise of autonomous-killing machines (“war-bots” like the “fem-bot” in “Austin Powers”) he reports that the Stuxnet computer virus was injected into the Iranian nuclear project’s computer system through flash-drives loaded with porn.[2]  More alarming, and less comic, is the contention that machines can learn and that, as they learn, they will become still more autonomous.  “The bottom line,” says Ricks, “is that the more an autonomous weapon is let free to roam in time and space, the more likely it is that something will go catastrophically wrong.”  So, while it seems impossible to stop the development of autonomous weapons, people should be working hard to prevent the development of autonomous nuclear and chemical or biological weapons.  There are degrees of catastrophe.

The Syrian Civil War (2011-the present) seems to have been going on forever (although not for anywhere near as long as the war in Afghanistan).  Will it never end?  A couple of scholars who have written recent books think not—or not anytime soon.[3]  Seeing the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq as consequences of the destruction of tyrannical “republics,” they think that there will be follow-on conflicts even after the likely victory of the Assad regime over its opponents and the defeat of the Islamic State.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration is starting to take fire from new critics.  The New Zealand political scientist William Harris has described it as “feckless” in Syria and Ricks says he portrays Secretary of State John Kerry as “almost buffoonish.”  (If you’ve ever seen photographs of Kerry in a one-to-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, you might already have suspected this to be the case.)  Ronan Farrow has taken time off from belaboring highly-placed swine in other areas of American public life to upbraid political leaders for the shrinking role of American diplomacy in maintaining world order.[4]  However, not all of his argument serves his purpose.

Farrow once served as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, one of the pro-consuls of the American empire.  Holbrooke had “negotiated” an end to the horrible war in Bosnia, so he aspired to become Secretary of State.  However, he got stuck in civil life through the political incompetence of several Democratic presidential candidates.  Later, denied the top job at Foggy Bottom, he settled for special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Well, not really “settled.”  Farrow describes Holbrooke as “grasping, relentless,” and “oblivious to social graces in the pursuit of his goals.”[5]  In short, he was a jerk, especially in the eyes of other power-seekers and power-wielders in the Obama foreign policy establishment.  On the other hand, he thought that the only way out of Afghanistan lay in talks with the Taliban.  One key point here is that no administration wants to get charged with having lost a war, even when the war became unwinnable on another administration’s watch.  In a sense. Holbrooke was what Raymond Chandler once called a “tarantula on a piece of Angel’s food cake.”

A second point, however, is that individual ambitions and animosities (or amities) shape policy decisions.  Democrats didn’t have (and don’t have) a deep bench on foreign policy.  Holbrooke was an old guy from the Clinton administration from which the Obama administration wished to distance itself.  However, Holbrooke had accomplished something, and he had supporters as well as opponents.  So he got a job.  He died doing it.  Still, his “failure” to persuade could be read as a sign of how little traction Hilary Clinton possessed when serving as Secretary of State.

[1] Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.

[2] So there is a market for pornography among Iran’s technical elite and it is tolerated by the watch-dogs of the regime.  Meanwhile, women are policed for immodest dress.  Tells you a lot about the Iranian Republic right there.  Still, one can be curious about the particular type of porn that interests Iranian scientists.  Suppose “Stormy Daniels” is a rock star.

[3] William Harris, Quicksilver War: Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict; Ahmed Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Operational Realities and Innovations of the Islamic State.

[4] Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018).

[5] Actually, this is pretty “American” behavior in the time before the Preppies, Yuppies, and investment bankers seized control of American foreign policy.  And much else.