Commentary No. 388, November 1, 2014
On Oct. 26, Pres. Dilma Rousseff of Brazil of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) won re-election in the second round of voting by a narrow margin against Aécio Neves of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB). Despite the name of the PSDB, this was a clear left-right struggle, in which voters generally voted their class position, even though the programs of the two parties were on many fronts more centrist than left or right.
To understand what this means, we must analyze the somewhat special politics of Brazil. Brazil’s politics are in many ways closer to those of western Europe and North America than almost any other country in the global South. Like countries in the global North, the electoral struggles in the end come down to a struggle between a left-of-center and a right-of-center party. Elections are regular and the voters tend to vote their class interests despite the centrist policies of the two main parties, who usually rotate in power. The result is constant dissatisfaction by the voters with “their” party, and constant attempts by the real left and the real right to push policies in their direction.
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Commentary No. 387, October 15, 2014
Amid the many and ever-evolving shifts of policies and geopolitical alliances in the various countries of the Middle East, one used to be at least sure what are the prime objectives of the major actors, both in the region and in the outside world.
This is not true of Syria today. Syrian politics today are formed by a triad: supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime; supporters of the caliphate that calls itself the Islamic State (IS); and so-called moderate Islamic groups that claim to be fighting both of the other two groups. Triadic struggles are notoriously difficult both to analyze and to predict because triads have an almost fatal way of reducing themselves in the relatively short run to a clearer two-sided struggle. However, in this case many of the main actors in the region and beyond are highly ambivalent about what it is they want. Many of them prefer to maintain the triad if they can, and are afraid of being forced to choose to which dyad they give priority. This ambivalence is particularly true of Turkey, although also of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Commentary No. 386, October 1, 2014
When does this story begin? It is difficult to decide. The modern story began in the nineteenth century, when the British and the Russians fought the “great game” competing to influence and control Afghanistan. They struggled directly and via Afghan proxies. The British thought they did better, but it was largely an illusion. I would call the contest a draw.
In the 1960s, the game was resumed with the coming to power of a ruler who sought to institute a new “liberal” constitution. He failed but opened the way for the emergence of parties of the left and right. His successor, Mohamed Daoud, was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), actually a Communist party. The PDPA established a totally secular regime, with full equality for women. The great game had resumed. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA regime and the United States (successor to Great Britain), supported the mujahidin who struggled against it and in favor of an Islamist regime.
Commentary No. 386, September 15, 2014
President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.
The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.
Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014
There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.
They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.
Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014
In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.
This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.
Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014
There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.
The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.
Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014
On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?
It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.
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