Monday, August 18, 2008

Wallerstein on Georgia and Geopolitics

Geopolitical Chess: Background to a Mini-war in the Caucasus
by Immanuel Wallerstein

The world has been witness this month to a mini-war in the Caucasus, and the rhetoric has been passionate, if largely irrelevant. Geopolitics is a gigantic series of two-player chess games, in which the players seek positional advantage. In these games, it is crucial to know the current rules that govern the moves. Knights are not allowed to move diagonally.

From 1945 to 1989, the principal chess game was that between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was called the Cold War, and the basic rules were called metaphorically "Yalta." The most important rule concerned a line that divided Europe into two zones of influence. It was called by Winston Churchill the "Iron Curtain" and ran from Stettin to Trieste. The rule was that, no matter how much turmoil was instigated in Europe by the pawns, there was to be no actual warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. And at the end of each instance of turmoil, the pieces were to be returned to where they were at the outset. This rule was observed meticulously right up to the collapse of the Communisms in 1989, which was most notably marked by the destruction of the Berlin wall.

It is perfectly true, as everyone observed at the time, that the Yalta rules were abrogated in 1989 and that the game between the United States and (as of 1991) Russia had changed radically. The major problem since then is that the United States misunderstood the new rules of the game. It proclaimed itself, and was proclaimed by many others, the lone superpower. In terms of chess rules, this was interpreted to mean that the United States was free to move about the chessboard as it saw fit, and in particular to transfer former Soviet pawns to its sphere of influence. Under Clinton, and even more spectacularly under George W. Bush, the United States proceeded to play the game this way.

There was only one problem with this: The United States was not the lone superpower; it was no longer even a superpower at all. The end of the Cold War meant that the United States had been demoted from being one of two superpowers to being one strong state in a truly multilateral distribution of real power in the interstate system. Many large countries were now able to play their own chess games without clearing their moves with one of the two erstwhile superpowers. And they began to do so.

Two major geopolitical decisions were made in the Clinton years. First, the United States pushed hard, and more or less successfully, for the incorporation of erstwhile Soviet satellites into NATO membership. These countries were themselves anxious to join, even though the key western European countries -- Germany and France -- were somewhat reluctant to go down this path. They saw the U.S. maneuver as one aimed in part at them, seeking to limit their newly-acquired freedom of geopolitical action.

The second key U.S. decision was to become an active player in the boundary realignments within the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This culminated in a decision to sanction, and enforce with their troops, the de facto secession of Kosovo from Serbia.

Russia, even under Yeltsin, was quite unhappy about both these U.S. actions. However, the political and economic disarray of Russia during the Yeltsin years was such that the most it could do was complain, somewhat feebly it should be added.

The coming to power of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin was more or less simultaneous. Bush decided to push the lone superpower tactics (the United States can move its pieces as it alone decides) much further than had Clinton. First, Bush in 2001 withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then he announced that the United States would not move to ratify two new treaties signed in the Clinton years: the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the agreed changes in the SALT II nuclear disarmament treaty. Then Bush announced that the United States would move forward with its National Missile Defense system.

And of course, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. As part of this engagement, the United States sought and obtained rights to military bases and overflight rights in the Central Asian republics that formerly were part of the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States promoted the construction of pipelines for Central Asian and Caucasian oil and natural gas that would bypass Russia. And finally, the United States entered into an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to establish missile defense sites, ostensibly to guard against Iranian missiles. Russia, however, regarded them as aimed at her.

Putin decided to push back much more effectually than Yeltsin. As a prudent player, however, he moved first to strengthen his home base -- restoring effective central authority and reinvigorating the Russian military. At this point, the tides in the world-economy changed, and Russia suddenly became a wealthy and powerful controller not only of oil production but of the natural gas so needed by western European countries.

Putin thereupon began to act. He entered into treaty relationships with China. He maintained close relations with Iran. He began to push the United States out of its Central Asian bases. And he took a very firm stand on the further extension of NATO to two key zones -- Ukraine and Georgia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union had led to ethnic secessionist movements in many former republics, including Georgia. When Georgia in 1990 sought to end the autonomous status of its non-Georgian ethnic zones, they promptly proclaimed themselves independent states. They were recognized by no one but Russia guaranteed their de facto autonomy.

The immediate spurs to the current mini-war were twofold. In February, Kosovo formally transformed its de facto autonomy to de jure independence. Its move was supported by and recognized by the United States and many western European countries. Russia warned at the time that the logic of this move applied equally to the de facto secessions in the former Soviet republics. In Georgia, Russia moved immediately, for the first time, to recognize South Ossetian de jure independence in direct response to that of Kosovo.

And in April this year, the United States proposed at the NATO meeting that Georgia and Ukraine be welcomed into a so-called Membership Action Plan. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all opposed this action, saying it would provoke Russia.

Georgia's neoliberal and strongly pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was now desperate. He saw the reassertion of Georgian authority in South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) receding forever. So, he chose a moment of Russian inattention (Putin at the Olympics, Medvedev on vacation) to invade South Ossetia. Of course, the puny South Ossetian military collapsed completely. Saakashvili expected that he would be forcing the hand of the United States (and indeed of Germany and France as well).

Instead, he got an immediate Russian military response, overwhelming the small Georgian army. What he got from George W. Bush was rhetoric. What, after all, could Bush do? The United States was not a superpower. Its armed forces were tied down in two losing wars in the Middle East. And, most important of all, the United States needed Russia far more than Russia needed the United States. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, pointedly noted in an op-ed in the Financial Times that Russia was a "partner with the west on . . . the Middle East, Iran and North Korea."

As for western Europe, Russia essentially controls its gas supplies. It is no accident that it was President Sarkozy of France, not Condoleezza Rice, who negotiated the truce between Georgia and Russia. The truce contained two essential concessions by Georgia. Georgia committed itself to no further use of force in South Ossetia, and the agreement contained no reference to Georgian territorial integrity.

So, Russia emerged far stronger than before. Saakashvili had bet everything he has and was now geopolitically bankrupt. And, as an ironic footnote, Georgia, one of the last U.S. allies in the coalition in Iraq, withdrew all its 2,000 troops from Iraq. These troops had been playing a crucial role in Shi'a areas, and would now have to be replaced by U.S. troops, which will have to be withdrawn from other areas.

If one plays geopolitical chess, it is best to know the rules, or one gets out-maneuvered.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chasing the Obama mirage

A reply to the 'Open Letter to Barack Obama' (see below).

Lance Selfa in Socialist Worker
Chasing the Obama mirage
Progressives who see a kindred spirit in Barack Obama are fooling themselves.
August 14, 2008

SINCE CORRALLING the Democratic presidential nomination in May, Sen. Barack Obama has spent the last few months moving to the "center" on a number of issues that motivated his supporters during the primaries.

His somersault from opposing to supporting the rotten Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill that pardons major telecommunications companies for their collaboration with the Bush administration's illegal spying program occasioned protests from liberals.

Thousands of Obama supporters filled his campaign's interactive Web site with protests of his sell-out on the FISA bill, and other prominent supporters expressed unease in editorials in various liberal publications.

One group of prominent Obama supporters issued "An Open Letter to Barack Obama" in the pages of the liberal Nation magazine. After congratulating Obama for his campaign's "tremendous achievements" that have "inspired a wave of political enthusiasm like nothing seen in this country for decades," the letter went on to raise concern: "[T]here have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance."

The open letter goes on to enunciate a list of policies--including withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable and universal health care--that the signatories consider a minimum program for Obama to pursue. It concludes, in part: "If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don't. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected president."

In the light of such indications of unease among his liberal supporters, Obama felt compelled to note the displeasure among "my friends on the left"--only to slap them down again.

"Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center," Obama told a crowd in Powder Springs, Ga., on July 9. "The people who say this apparently haven't been listening to me. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp...I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith...That's not something new; I've been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look centrist is not true."

While most people would probably look at Obama's statements as a back-of-the-hand swat at his critics, prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers of read the opposite into them: " [T]he speech is actually directed at what Obama calls 'my friends on the left.' I can't remember a presidential nominee specifically courting left-wing voters and activists before. Honestly, I really can't. This is a sign of increased respect and being taken more seriously."

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DESPITE THE signs of discomfort with Obama in the liberal camp, Bowers' response is actually much more indicative of the lengths to which many leading progressives are willing to go to consider Obama--already a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs, the Senate, and with campaign coffers stuffed with millions in corporate cash--as one of them.

Typical of this willful suspension of disbelief was the founding statement of Progressives for Obama, issued in March over the signatures of prominent figures like Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich and Danny Glover. Conceived as an intervention into the Democratic primaries on Obama's behalf in the wake of his March 2008 speech on race, it opens by proclaiming, "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama."

The statement's key idea is that the support for Obama generated in the Democratic primaries--heavy voter turnouts and decisive backing from African Americans and young people--constitutes a social movement that stands in the traditions of the great American social movements of the past, like the labor movement of the 1930s or the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s.

As its authors write, "We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama's unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined."

The statement concedes that Obama "openly defines himself as a centrist." But this becomes the reason for the "formation of a progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal...And it will be the Obama movement that makes it necessary and possible to end the war in Iraq, renew our economy with a populist emphasis and confront the challenge of global warming."

There's no doubt that Obama's campaign--or at least its incarnation during the Democratic primaries--mobilized first-time voters and raised hopes for "change" among millions of people. But declaring Obama's campaign a social movement is an exercise in sophistry at best, and self-delusion at worst.

A discussion of social movements is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the mobilization of millions in militant struggle in the union movement of the 1930s or in the civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s--against the forces of the state and employers--is a different phenomenon than voting in a bourgeois political primary. To confuse the two is to lose any realistic way to assess what is actually needed to win the type of social change the Progressives for Obama seek.

Any effort to tailor demands for progressive reforms to what is acceptable to an Obama administration's assessment of the politics of "the possible" risks settling for a lot less than could be won with an independent mobilization that forces all Washington politicians to address the movement's agenda.

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THAT IS the real lesson of the 1930s and 1960s: what will determine the direction of social and political change in the U.S. will be grassroots movements on the ground, not tallies at the ballot box. Progressives for Obama would most likely agree with that point, but in their actions so far, they have, as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it, lent their names and reputations to an effort "to allow Obama to 'pass' for what he is not: a progressive."

The arguments of Progressives for Obama also head off the possibility that those genuinely interested in voting for an end to the war in Iraq, a single payer health care plan or an end to government violations of civil liberties will find prominent advocates for their point of view.

The underfunded independent candidacies of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader are raising those demands. But with the likes of Progressives for Obama pledging to "seek Green support against the claim of some that there are no real differences between Obama and McCain," and with Black nationalist-turned-Stalinist Amiri Baraka comparing those who would vote for McKinney or Nader to the German left whose disunity allowed Hitler to triumph (!), it's clear that genuine left voices will be muffled in 2008.

With so many millions wanting to see the end of Republican rule, Obama, rather than McKinney or Nader, will capture the vast majority of votes from those seeking progressive change. But regardless of any "moves to the center," his candidacy has raised expectations among large numbers of people that Obama has no intention of meeting. An Obama presidency will prove that--and set the stage for grassroots movements to emerge in larger form.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Socialist Worker August 9th

This Socialist Worker (#2113 August 9th) leads on the massive energy price rises and calls for a windfall tax on profits as a first step towards nationalization, which is obviously connected to the People Before Profit Charter. And maybe a harbinger of the future is a story about Edinburgh council building houses.

Alex Callinicos's column is on 'What's behind the return of the Tories' starts with the big Observer Review piece, 'So are we all Tories now?' (it must be summer). Labour decline and Tory revival have happened before , but this is very different from the late '70s, in which Thather marked a sea-change - Cameron marks consistency. There isn't a tide of reaction, more 'weary contempt'. Callinicos sees two processes. The first is the familiar downturn in Labour fortunes as it betrays tradtional voters. The second is a steady decline in Labour roots, with membership down to 176,891. The impact according to Callinicos is ambiguous and I find Callinicos himself being ambiguous - pointing to reactionary pressues and a 'marked rise in worker combativity' - strikes 'mark an important step forward for workers after the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s' (still seems limited to me). 'Everything is still to play for' - but it's a long time that that hasn't been something like that

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica from a Serbian socialist organization Marks21 on 'Serbia's nationalist forces in disarray'. I don't know anything about this group, but its politics seem perfectly compatible with the International Socialist Tendency. The analysis says Karadzic's arrest marks a downturn for Serbian nationalist politics, especially with the small numbers who demonstrated in protest, even though there is massive anger about the hypocrisy of the West. The nationalists have been seen as the 'social' opponents of neo-liberalism, so now there is space for radical left politics - an anti-NATO campaign (with involvement of Macedonians and Greeks) to be launched in the autumn, building up the protests at the forthcoming NATO 60th anniversary in Strasbourg.

Simon Basketter & Simon Assaf have the centrespread on 'Oil there was and will be blood', with a nice map and graph in the print edition. Yes, the oil industry is important and nasty. Simon Assaf also writes on 'Multinationals' scramble fuel new conflicts' focussed on the econmoic and military impact on Africa.

Dalia Said Mostafa provides a good appreciation of the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine who died in July. There's also an interview with Harold Rosen about his time in the CP in the 1930s (originally published in 2004)

And to mark the Olympics there is also Chris Bambery writing about the politics of sport and it commodification in 'Race to the Bottom'.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Wallerstein on Obama and Afghanistan

Commentary No. 238, August 1, 2008
"Afghanistan: Shoals Ahead for President Obama"

Obama has founded his campaign and become attractive to the American voters in large part on the basis of his position on the Iraq war. He opposed it publicly since 2002. He has called it a "dumb" war. He voted a gainst the "surge." He has called for a withdrawal over 16 months of all combat troops. He has refused to agree that it was wrong to oppose the surge.

While doing all that, he has always argued that the United States should do more in Afghanistan. This explicitly includes sending 10,000 more troops as soon as possible. He does not seem to think that the war there is somehow dumb. He does seem to think that the United States can "win" that war - with more troops and with more assistance from NATO. Once president, he may be in for a rude surprise.

Obama would do well to reflect upon the recent interview in Le Monde given by GĂ©rard Chaliand. Chaliand is a leading geostrategist, specializing in so-called irregular wars. He knows Afghanistan exceedingly well, having been in and out of there over the last thirty years. He spent much time with the mujahidin during their struggle against Soviet troops in the 1980s. He currently spends several months a year in Kabul at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, of which he was one of the founders.

He is very clear on the military situation. "Victory is impossible in Afghanistan....Today, one must try to negotiate. There is no other solution." Why? Because the Taliban control the local powers throughout the east and south of the country, where Pashtun populations prevail. Doubling the number of Western troops, doubling the projected size of the government's army, and spending far more than the present 10% of outside aid for economic development might change the situation. But Chaliand doubts, and so do I, that this is politically likely for the United States and the NATO countries. The German Foreign Minister has already warned Obama not to press Germany for more troops to fight the Taliban. It is not that the Taliban can win either, says Chaliand. Rather there is a "military impasse." The Taliban, who are geopolitically astute, are patiently waiting until the West "gets tired of a war that drags on."

To see how the United States has got itself into this cul-de-sac, we have to go back a little bit into history. Since the nineteenth century, Afghanistan has been the focal point of the "great game" between Russia and Great Britain (now succeeded by the United States). No one has ever gained long-term control over this crucial zone of transit.

Today, Afghanistan has on its border a state called Pakistan, which has a large Pashtun population precisely on the border. Pakistan's prime geopolitical interest is to have a friendly Afghanistan, lest India - but also Russia, the United States, and/or Iran - come to dominate it. Pakistan has been supporting in one way or another the Pashtun majority, which today means the Taliban. Pakistan is not about to stop doing this.

Under President Carter, the United States decided to try to oust a so-called Communist government deemed too close to Russia. We know now, via the release of archives from the Carter administration as well as via a famous interview given ten years ago by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then Carter's National Security Advisor, that U.S. support of the mujahidin predated by at least six months the intrusion of Soviet troops. Indeed, one of the objectives was precisely to lure the Soviet Union into intervening militarily on the correct assumption that this would ultimately badly misfire and weaken the Soviet regime at home. Br avo! It did that. But the U.S. policy also at the same time spawned both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban - a classic case of blowback for the United States. In any case, none other than Brzezinski is warning Obama against repeating the Soviet error.

So, Obama is promising something today he is in no position to deliver. It is all very well for him to receive the implicit endorsement of the Iraqi government for his Iraq proposals. He is riding high on that, and will reap credit from the U.S. and world public for his stance. But he can undo that credit by failing to deliver on an impossible promise concerning Afghanistan. His gang of 300 advisors is not serving him very well on this issue. Obama knows how to be prudent when necessary. He is not being very prudent at all on Afghanistan.

by Immanuel Wallerstein

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