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I am back to writing for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel, which since my hiatus has found an additional home at Voice of Russia. The latest topic was on whether Russia, China, and the West could find a common approach to the challenges of the Arab Spring. My response is pessimistic, as in my view Western actions are driven by a combination of ideological “democracy fetishism” and the imperative of improving their own geopolitical positions vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, and China. This makes it difficult to find any middle ground:

It is true that many Muslims in the Middle East want their aging strongman rulers out, and democracy in. Even Osama bin Laden, who purportedly “hates us for our freedom”, once mused that the reason Spain has a bigger economy than the entire Arab world combined was because “the ruler there is accountable.”

And this is also part of the reason why we should refrain from fetishizing “democracy” as the solution to all the region’s ills.

That is because liberal democracy as we know it in the West, with its separation of powers – in particular, that of the Church and state – isn’t at the top of most locals’ priority lists. It only really concerns the liberal youth who initially headed the revolt, while the other 95% of the population is concerned with more trivial things, like unemployment and food prices. As per the historical pattern with the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring happened during a period of record high grain prices. And now as then, a revolution won’t magically create jobs or fill bellies.

In today’s Egypt, it is not foreign-residing technocrats like El Baradei, with his 2% approval ratings, who become President; nor is the cultural discourse set by young Cairo women who strip nude against patriarchy. Remove a secular, modernizing dictator from a country where 75% of the populations supports stoning for adultery, and sooner rather than later you get restrictive dress codes for women (de facto if not de jure), attacks against Christian minorities, and bearded Islamists worming their way into power.

As for Syria, the biggest practical difference is that the liberal minority in the opposition was sidelined even before the fall of the dictator, as it is the Islamists who are now taking the lead in the fighting against Assad.

Will the new regimes that emerge out of the Arab Spring be anywhere near as accommodating with the West as were the likes of Mubarak, or even Assad – who, as Putin reminded us, visited Paris more times that he did Moscow? Will religious fundamentalists be able, or even willing, to build up the (educational) human capital that is the most important component of sustained economic growth?wahh Will they even be able to regain control of their borders, or will they end up like Libya, an anarchic zone disgorging Wahhabi mujahedeen into neighboring countries that don’t really want them?

Western policy-makers do not seem all that eager to consider these questions. Maybe they think they can manipulate the Arab Spring to serve their own interests – after all, Assad’s Syria is an ally of Iran, supplies Hezbollah, and has security relations with Russia and China. They may be calculating that the geopolitical boon from removing the Alawites from power outweighs the costs of Islamists taking over in Damascus. Certainly there are grounds to doubt that genuine concern for democracy explains French, British, and American actions: After all, the two dictatorships friendliest to the West, Bahrain and Yemen, were actively supported in their crackdowns.

If the above interpretation is anywhere near true, there can be little hope for Russia and China finding common ground with the West. It would imply that the Middle East is a chessboard for Great Power games – and chess isn’t a game that you typically play to draw. The one thing everyone should bear in mind, though, is that no matter a man’s ideological leaning, he resents being a pawn. This is a life truism that was demonstrated in the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, that is being played out today in Mali, and that will continue to reverberate so long as the crusaders – for they are widely seen as such – remain in Dar Al-Islam.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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It’s been a few months in the building, since the decision to launch it at the WRF 2012, and I feel it is now developed enough to make it more widely known. I hope it will become as prominent as the current best specialized English-language Russian politics resource on the Internet, Russia: Other Points of View.

US-RUSSIA.org will also have regular discussion panels featuring short commentaries on topical issues of the day by members of its think-tank, moderated by Vlad Sobell. The very first one will be out soon and will focus on the assaults on the US’ Middle East embassies and what it implies for US relations with Russia.

It is the brainchild of Edward Lozansky, Soviet dissident turned promoter of US-Russian cooperation. (He also has an excellent restaurant in Washington DC which I highly recommend you visit anytime you’re there; it’s on the pricey side, but service, atmosphere, and – unusual for traditional/”Soviet” Russian eateries – the food itself are all top notch).

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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And the protestations of demented democratists be damned.

[tweet https://twitter.com/MiriamElder/status/245839025204785152]

And even apart from all the HBD stuff, here is the most succinct summary of why democracy is never going to flourish in the Arab world for the foreseeable future.

Libya isn’t among the countries above, but it is conservative even by Arab standards. Benghazi contributed the most jihadists per capita to Iraq.

Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad are (were) paragons of enlightenment and progress, at least to the extent their own populations allowed them to be. They kept the most regressive elements of their population in check while adequately developing the national economy and maintaining friendly relations with other countries. What more could one want?

To paraphrase a wise sentence from the Vekhi, “Thank God for the prisons and bayonets, which protect us from the people’s fury!” In other words, unapologetic reaction is the only sane political course in countries where 80% favor stoning for adultery.

But Western democratist idiots insist otherwise (yes, idiots: While imperialism by Islamist proxies is a tantalizing theory, the old adage that one should not attribute to malevolence what can just as easily be explained by stupidity comes into play). They think that the entire world conforms to their bizarre ideologies and if it doesn’t then a few bombs, grants, and copies of From Dictatorship To Democracy will patch things up.

So how’s that Arab Spring working out now, eh?

Would this outrageous breach of all diplomatic norms and ethos have occurred under Gaddafi? (no of course not…)*

RT was right. I was right. Even the NYT grudging admits it. Even Julia friggin’ Ioffe (kind of).

* Alexander Mercouris on the matter:

The US has now confirmed that it was none other than the US ambassador who was killed in Libya.

On the subject of whether this could have happened under Gaddafi, the short answer is no and we have conclusive evidence that proves this.

In February 2011 when the uprising against Gaddafi began the US and other western powers evacuated their citizens from Tripoli. There was considerable unease in western capitals that Gaddafi would try to hold on to these people as hostages. He did nothing of the sort. On the contrary he made sure that the Libyan authorities assisted with the evacuation, which could not of course have happened without their cooperation. Nor at any point during the fighting were any western journalists or diplomats who visited the part of Libya that remained under Gaddafi’s control any time threatened and harmed. I can only remember one incident when a British television returning from the rebel town of Zuwiyah after it had been recaptured by Gaddafi’s forces claimed to have been detained and beaten by Gaddafi’s security forces. For various reasons I had strong doubts at the time that this was true.

I happen to know various people who visited Libya whilst Gaddafi was in power. One was a Greek woman who bizarrely ran an estate agency there. The opinions of Gaddafi held by these people vary widely but all described a country that was very safe and very relaxed. Now that is “free” it is no longer either.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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As I noted before, the symmetry is amusing to say the least. Anti-regime characters such as Nemtsov and Navalny, who are marginal in Russia (both in popularity and media presence – as is logical, nothing undemocratic about that), are treated as Genuine Voices of the Russian People by the Western media. In its turn, Russia has wised up and returns the favor by providing a platform to Western dissidents such as Julian Assange, who by any halfway objective standards meets the definition of a political prisoner.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDLXPpooA18]

As of today, he has begun a 12 part series of interviews hosted by RT (the first one, an interview with Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, is linked to above; Kevin Gosztola provides an excellent summary). Whatever one’s personal attitudes towards Wikileaks, Hezbollah, Israel, the US, etc. it is beyond dispute that this is of public interest and as such, valid journalism. No wonder then that Independent Western Journalists (who as Greenwald repeatedly shows are nothing of the sort, being consistently deferential to state power in the West) and assorted blowhards like the plagiarist hack Luke Harding, Konstantin von Eggert, and the SWP Hive are all doing double time to condemn Assange, and RT for daring to give him a voice.

That is of course their prerogative, but it does cast a very unflattering light on their self-appointed status as champions of universalist dissidence and free speech. Obviously RT isn’t quite that either, but then again, it doesn’t claim to be. In other words, it has enough decency to avoid Western-style moralistic hypocrisy.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Sorry for not posting on either of my blogs for almost a week now and being slow on responding to the emails. I’ve been rediscovering the pleasures of old-fashioned book reading after purchasing a Kindle. I’m very happy with it. When faced between the choice of surfing the interwebs or reading a paper book, the former has been winning almost all the time in the past two years (see here for why h/t Oscar). The Kindle has somewhat rebalanced the equation.

Never fear. I’ve got a whole lot of post ideas in the chute, which will be forthcoming in the days ahead. But for now, I want to draw attention to an interesting dynamic in the Persian Gulf region. The rich Arab oil states – the UAE, Iraq, and now Saudi Arabia – are buying huge American arms packages. What the media has failed to cover is that the sales are at what are almost certainly massively overinflated prices.

Under the threat of Iranian missile attacks in the event of war, the UAE “concluded a $3.3bn Patriot missiles arms deal with the US” in December 2008 and is now looking for a $9bn deal for more air defense and Black Hawk helicopters. As a major oil export hub, this is much in its interests.

Then, coinciding with the US withdrawal of most troops from Iraq, the country concluded a $13bn deal to purchase American arms and military equipment, including “18 F-16 Falcon fighter jets as part of a $3 billion program that also includes aircraft training and maintenance”. Two years ago, Romania bought 48 F-16s for $4.5bn (half new, half used and modernized). That comes out at $95mn for each plane, whose current unit cost is now about $45mn. Iraq is now buying 18 F-16′s for $3bn, or $170mn for each. Anyone care to guess what percentage of that are kickbacks to Iraqi officials?

But if you think that’s impressive price gouging, take a look at the recent $60bn deal with Saudi Arabia. A modernized F-15 for the USAF costs about $60mn, including spares & support. About double that for export customers. So 84 F-15′s are $10.1bn. 70 upgrades to existing Saudi F-15′s. Let’s be generous and say it costs $80mn per plane, or 2/3 the cost of a new one. That’s $5.6bn. The unit cost of a Black Hawk helicopter is $14mn and of an Apache is $15.4mn. Let’s assume it’s around $30mn for export customers. In that case, 72 Black Hawks and 70 Apaches cost 4.3bn. All together, that’s around $20bn.

Of the $60bn deal, half of that will go just for the 84 F-15′s. That’s a cool $360mn for each one. That’s more than twice the unit cost of the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor! More even than its prospective export cost, which is about $250mn!

(Furthermore, note that the F-15′s are “monkey model” exports: due to Israeli concerns, “advanced sensors on the new Saudi F-15s will have technology built in to prevent them being used against their Israeli equivalents.”)

So in effect, the Saudis are paying $60bn for a package whose stand export price should be about $20bn. Massive profits to the US MIC (which will help it remain in the black despite Gates’ planned procurement cuts for budget reasons). Brilliant!

It’s not as if both Iraq or Saudi Arabia couldn’t have gotten better deals by shopping around elsewhere. A quick Internet search would show that there are plenty of fourth-generation planes available for well under $100mn per unit. For instance, since 2005, Venezuela has bought 24 Sukhoi-30MK’s, modernized 4.5+ generation fighters, for $1.6bn, after the US refused to supply F-16 spares to Chavez. (The whole $4bn package also included 50+ helicopters and missile defense systems). And I very much doubt that the US reputation for good after-sales maintenance can explain this big of a chasm.

So there must be ulterior forces at work, though as in the case of Iceland’s mercenary army, I can’t say which. Simple corruption on the part of Iraqi and Saudi officials? The influence of an occupying power? (The US, with its heavy military and intelligence presence in the Middle East, can easily pressure its client states, and what better way than to get their oil rich members to subsidize its MIC?). Rational calculation of national interests, i.e. maintaining good relations with the US? Discuss.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I was recently interviewed on Middle East geopolitics and the Iran Question by Marat Kunaev, a blogger and translator at InoForum. I would like to thank him for the opportunity to express my views on the topic and providing a possible gateway into the geopolitical commentary on Runet. I’m reprinting the interview from here, with a few very minor edits; Marat made a Russian translation here.

What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?

The mainstream media likes to make generalizations about this very diverse region. Most of these are idiotic, simplistic tropes (oil, Islam, terrorists, etc). I don’t think this is productive, so instead I’ll highlight two things that get little traction in the Western mainstream media.

First, water scarcity is the root of many of the region’s problems. The Middle East is the world’s only major region perennially incapable of feeding itself, forcing it to import “virtual water” in the form of food. One of the main causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is over the unfair distribution of water, which is skewed towards Israel and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. On a bigger scale, water flows are almost as important to the region’s strategic balance as the distribution of oil deposits. Control of the headwaters of the Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, coupled with the biggest economic base in the region, gives Turkey immense strategic clout. To the contrary, Egypt’s food production deficits make it potentially vulnerable, as seen in the food riots of 2008 when global grain prices spiked. The urban poor who are hardest hit tend to resent their secular authoritarian rulers and support Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, making good with Israel and seeking US protection and subsidies makes perfect sense for the Egyptian political elites: resources can be freed up from military spending towards maintaining domestic stability.

Second, the “Islamic Resurgence” is rather simplistically portrayed as single-minded opposition to the West. The real situation is a lot more complex. The movement takes a variety of guises, from the moderate Islamism of Turkey’s AKP to Al-Qaeda’s franchise-based terrorist cells to the internal clan-based conflicts of Shi’ite Iran’s “Velayat-e faqih” system. It is inaccurate to treat them as a hostile monolith. And many of their grievances do sound genuine to ordinary Muslims. For instance, even Osama bin Laden doesn’t hate the US for its “freedom”, but for its support of Arab elites that he sees as corrupt, anti-democratic and hostile to Islam — e. g., the House of Saud’s acquiescence in stationing US troops in the holy lands of Mecca and Medina to protect the oil exports whose proceeds overwhelmingly benefit influential cliques. But arguing that this interpretation has some validity to it is a sure road to a wrecked career in American mainstream journalism.

Should we wait for radical change in Afghanistan?

No. Even Ronald Reagan and Rambo were pessimistic, back in the 1980’s! :) Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan for much longer, and their finances won’t allow them to anyway. In a few years, the Afghan government will have to sink or swim without US ground forces to support it.

However, I doubt the Taleban will seize central control again. Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, and regional giants China, India, Russia and Iran have no interest in fundamentalists blocking access to them — especially in our world of increasingly scarce, harder-to-get resources.

How real is the possibility of US or Israeli strikes on Iran?

It’s one of those things that everyone talks about all the time, but never happens: until a spark sets of the bonfire, the Big Thing happens, and acquires the tinge of inevitability as viewed in the rear-view mirror of our common history. Kind of like World War One…

I wrote about this in my post The US Strategic Dilemma and Persian Deadlock. The key players are the US, Russia and Iran (the “triangle”) and Israel (the “wildcard”). Each have diverging interests that are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

The Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz.

Iran wants nuclear weapons to secure its mountain base, acquire the capability to project influence through its proxies (e. g. Hezbollah) with impunity and become the hegemon over the oil riches of the Gulf. Russia wants to keep the US occupied in the Middle East as it rebuilds its Eurasian sphere of influence, but all things considered, it would rather Iran not get the Bomb. The US is firmly against both Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and Russian hegemony in Eurasia: however, the tools at its disposal are insufficient to prevent both (it doesn’t have the hard power to contain Russian influence within its current borders, while a strike against Iran will have severe repercussions — up to and including a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which pass 40% of the world’s oil exports, the commodity underpinning America’s own global hegemony). As such, the US, Russia, and Iran are locked into an uneasy, but potentially sustainable, strategic “triangle”.

However, this “triangle” is broken by the “wildcard”, Israel. While the Israelis couldn’t care less what Russia gets up to, it sees an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an existential threat: not exclusively in a military sense — Israel has 200 nukes of its own (though Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic rantings aren’t reassuring) — but in a political and cultural one. If Iran gets the Bomb, a nuclear race will break out in the Middle East. A sense of doubt and uncertainty will seep into Israel. Hezbollah will grow bolder; the possible entrenchment of political Islam in Turkey or Egypt will create a strategic nightmare for Israel. Educated Jews will start leaving the Jewish homeland, undermining the tax base needed for increased military expenditures (e. g. on anti-ballistic missile systems), as well as the Jewish nature of the Israeli state itself. In short, a nuclearized Middle East will make Israel’s foothold in the Levant vulnerable, even untenable.

If Israel feels that the US is wavering in its commitment to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, then it will go it alone — perhaps with the covert agreement of states like Saudi Arabia, which aren’t much interested in seeing a hostile, nuclear-armed Shi’ite state on the other side of the Gulf either. The US will almost certainly be drawn into the fight in the aftermath — e. g. by an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, or even false flag Israeli attacks on the US.

In my opinion, the dates of likely Israeli action are from early-2011 (when the US acquires its Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb capable of busting concrete bunkers 60m deep) to end-2012 (the date by which Iran is likely to have developed workable nuclear weapons). Otherwise, the stage is set for the eventual nuclearization of the Middle East.

Should we expect a further strengthening of sanctions against Iran?

President Medvedev said on 23 September, 2009, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” What he means by this Aesopian language is that it is Russia that will be able to decide whether the results of strengthened sanctions are going to be “productive” (however you define that). Russia’s position is crucial because it is the only country with the spare refining capacity and secure trans-Caspian transport routes to successfully break any gasoline sanctions against Iran.

But even Russia’s participation will not dissuade Iran from working on the Bomb. To the contrary, it can even increase Iranian resolve if it creates the conditions for a “siege mentality” within the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, sanctions are in the interests of both the US (it would prefer accommodating with Iran to fighting it, if possible) and even Russia (to appease the US in exchange for concessions on other policy fronts). As such, sanctions are a very convenient pretext for delaying military action. But for understandable reasons, Israel is unlikely to be as patient.

What do you think are the real Russian, Indian and Chinese positions on Iran?

Though Russia might have a few more friends than just her Army and Navy, Iran certainly isn’t one of them. It’s just a lever to be used for extracting concessions from the US. At this time, supporting sanctions is good for Russia because the Americans are compromising on many spheres (e. g. on modernization, START, Georgia). However, a time may come when Russia performs volte face, e. g. if the US shows signs of reaching a reconciliation with Iran in order to refocus its energies on containing Russia, or ceases supporting Russia’s modernization drive.

China and India are both interested in cooperating with Iran to develop its hydrocarbons sector and lock in its oil and LNG exports. Both countries espouse non-Western values of “national sovereignty” and non-interference. Furthermore, India is interested in recruiting Iran as a western counterweight against its rival Pakistan. As a result, neither country has any interest whatsoever in stringently enforcing sanctions against Iran out of pure altruism.

What do you think are the positions of Georgia and Azerbaijan on military action against Iran and its aftermath?

Since Iran is in a “cold war” with Azerbaijan and supports its prime enemy Armenia, the Azeri elites would probably secretly welcome military action against Iran. Furthermore, there are twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and though they enjoy equal rights with Persians, it is Islam — or the system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jury — that really keeps Iran united (with help from the security apparatus). If Iran were to suffer military defeat, the regime may be discredited, and a liberal democratic one may even take its place.

map-iran-ethnicities

Map of Iran’s ethnicities.

In that case, centrifugal tendencies may become predominant — as in the last years of the Soviet Union — and maybe even a Greater Azerbaijan will emerge on both sides of the Caspian Sea in alliance with Turkey to the west. On the other hand, Azerbaijan can’t be too openly enthusiastic about undermining Iran because it borders Russia to the north, which is friendlier with Iran. That is why the Azeris categorically refuse to let Israeli planes fly over its airspace in a strike on Iran.

Georgia’s position is much harder to decipher, as it maintains fairly good relations with everyone except Russia — against which it is irrevocable opposed because of its liberation / occupation (cross out as you wish) of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though in previous years they’d have supported Israel, their current interests aren’t clear, since the Israelis stopped delivering arms to Georgia in exchange for Russia not delivering the S-300 air defense system to Iran. I don’t think a strike against Iran by either Israel or the US will cardinally change Georgia’s situation.

What do you think about the situation in the Russian North Caucasus and the Caucasus region in general?

Russia’s North Caucasus remains bloody and unstable, but secure under Russian control. Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s vassal in Chechnya: should he turn renegade, they’ll find another baron to replace him easily enough.

I doubt there’ll be another Georgia-Russia war. Its clear that the Ossetians and Abkhazians prefer implicit Russian control to explicit Georgian rule, and Saakashvili has no chance of changing this reality by military force. On the other hand, he remains genuinely popular amongst Georgians and secure in his rule. The cold war between Russia and Georgia will continue, but it’s unlikely to turn hot again; not unless Saakashvili is a total loon and tries to replay 08/08/08.

Another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also unlikely. Though Azeri military spending, bolstered by its oil wealth, now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget, the latter has had fifteen years to reinforce its positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Furthermore, direct Azeri attacks on Armenia proper will probably provoke a Russian military response through the mutual defense provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). Aliyev is a rational, calculating leader and would much rather enjoy Azerbaijan’s oil bounty than run the risk of military defeat and popular uprisings against his regime.

How would you interpret the recent Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal in the context of multipolarity?

It’s an ideological statement: the voices of formerly peripheral countries rejecting the Western consensus on nuclear rights and proposing an alternative project amongst members of the “Rest”. As such, it is a very strong endorsement of the multi-polar ideal. But in real life, the actors playing the key roles are the countries with both interests in the issue and power projection capabilities in the region: Israel, the US, Iran, and Russia. West or Rest, it doesn’t matter: only power and the will to power.

I’d like to thank Marat Kunaev for this interview. I tried to make my answers as thought-provoking as his questions, and though I might have failed in that endevour, I hope the gap is not unbridgeable.

Interviewed by Marat Kunaev.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.