Christopher Hitchens is hardly worth mentioning these days on the subject of foreign policy, but for some reason they still let him write columns on the subject, so here’s mentioning:
Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn’t want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command.
Yeah, no, that’s actually not true. As I recall it was sort of the people who wanted us to invade Iraq who kept talking about Saddam Hussein’s awesome power of violence, viz., the WMDs that turned out not to exist. Those of us who didn’t want to invade Iraq tended to focus on the fact that invading a country that hasn’t attacked you, or really even done anything that would constitute a legitimate provocation, is illegal, because it’s illegal, and immoral, because it entails killing a lot of people (including children) for no good reason, and foolish, because it leads to consequences that may spiral horrifically out of control in unpredictable ways. I for one didn’t really have a smidgen of doubt, watching the tanks roll in on March 21, 2003, that they’d be in Baghdad pretty soon; but the fact that your enemy is weak isn’t usually considered sufficient justification for waging war upon him.
Despite incidents like yesterday’s shootings, it seems that the lid has been firmly fixed back on the boiling kettle of Xinjiang race-relations, so perhaps now is the time to take a look at how this situation developed and was covered by the media, especially as compared to the ongoing situation in Iran. Obviously the situation in Xinjiang is very different, as it involves a revolt within a minority making up less than one percent of the Chinese population rather than the enraged outcry of the majority, but in both we saw autocracies attempt to control information potentially harmful to their rule.
Whilst both the Iranian rebellion and the Urumqi disturbances started with peaceful demonstrations involving university students, the young Uyghurs of Urumqi totally failed to set the agenda in the way that their counterparts in Tehran did. From the first internet access and mobile phone communications in the city were restricted, nor has any video come out yet that I have seen showing the police to have been the drivers of the subsequent largely anti-Han violence. In contrast to Tehran as well as last year’s troubles in Tibet, foreign journalists were allowed limited access to the region almost immediately, and their reports largely meshed with those of the local government.
Despite being widely heralded as a potential weapon against autocracy, Twitter had little effect in spreading news about the disturbances unfavourable about the government. Blocked in Xinjiang and now the entirety of mainland China, the reports that were relayed from Xinjiang via it using the rapidly dwindling number of un-blocked proxies were largely repeats of Chinese state media, or reports from Han within the region. I have been unable to find even one Uyghur twitterer in Urumqi (although I would be happy to be put in touch with one) – this is not surprising, whilst China has a good number of people using either Twitter or the Chinese Tweet-a-like FanFou, these are almost entirely east-coast Han Chinese. Essentially, even the Twitterers who managed to get around the block were still largely repeating the governments line, nor has any evidence come out to disprove this line. Uyghur separatist movements carried reports which were, frankly, fanciful, and not borne out by independent reports, neither Rebiya Kadeer nor anyone else in the separatist movement was able to convey a credible message.
Even more impressive were the Chinese authorities actions to prevent a back-lash against the Uyghur. Websites like Anti-CNN.com, a site highly critical of the western media and supportive of the Chinese government often quoted approvingly by state media, were reportedly blocked in an effort to prevent inflamatory anti-Uyghur invective in the wake of the disturbances and the reports of attempted vigilantism by the Han in Xinjiang leading to violence. People’s Daily even scrubbed editorials written in the immediate aftermath of the Xinjiang disturbances describing the rioters in excessively condemnatory terms. Compare these actions, those of a dictatorship secure in its position, with the continual accusations of treachery directed at Musavi even before the Iranian elections, and you can see just how expert the Chinese Communist Party’s control of information really can be.
The news that Nick Ferrari, a presenter of Iranian state-owned English-language news channel Press TV, has quit his job at Press TV’s London studios in protest of the crushing of demonstrators there, has brought into focus the issue of western journalists working in the state media of oppressive regimes. Whilst it might be natural to simply label all such journalists either has-beens or willing tools of their employers, the fact that a journalist of the calibre of Andrew Gilligan (Telegraph ‘London Editor’ and he of David Kelly-affair fame) works for them was enough to give me pause.
Iran is just one of the oppressive or authoritarian regimes to launch its own English-language news media in the past few years in an effort to get its own version of the story across. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) launched its English-language station CCTV 9 back in 2000, including news programs fronted by western journalists, one of whom went on to front a program at Press TV. The Russia Information Agency (RIA) launched its Russia Today news channel in 2005, which came to particular prominence during last year’s South Ossetia war when one of its western correspondents also quit over skewed reporting. Another channel which might be included in this is the Al-Jazeera news channel, subsidised as it is by the Emir of Qatar, although this channel has gained much more of a reputation for fair reporting than any of the other channels mentioned here.
The question is, why would anyone who is aware of the nature of the governments behind such channels wish to work for them? Firstly, some would seem to have an almost child-like ignorance of the potentially compromising position that their work puts them in. When asked in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post why he would work for CCTV, Eddie Maher, a New Zealand-born who achieved a degree of fame whilst working as an weatherman in Australia, replied that he saw his job as:
“not trying to read into the news, not thinking about what is behind the content. Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly. That is my bottom line. Because I’m in China, some news may be regarded as politically sensitive or whatever, but that doesn’t affect my interpretation of it to the audience.”
Others are clearly ideological fellow-travellers of their employers. For example, self-styled ‘anti-zionist’ and host of Press TV’s “The Real Deal” George Galloway presumably sees nothing wrong with Press TV’s hosting of articles denying the Holocaust on its website. However, there are those who seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference through working for what are little batter than government mouthpieces. Richard Burger, long-time China-blogger and, until recently, foreign editor and columnist for the Chinese state-owned Global Times said in a recent interview that:
“My own conclusion is that they sincerely want to present the foreigners and English-speaking Chinese here and abroad with a different type of newspaper experience. Sure, they toe the party line on certain topics, but even on the most sensitive of these, they seem willing to present alternative viewpoints, even if they are directly and outspokenly critical of the government.
I think this will be their signature, a panoramic view of the news with lots of analysis and discussion. As I said, it does tow the party line, but they seem genuine about allowing
serious dissent and disagreement “
Indeed, Global Times has made some relatively liberal moves, such as an editorial which, whilst not actually describing the events, dealt with the impact of the Tiananmen square massacre in a sympathetic way. All the same, the taint of having worked for the state media of an oppressive regime and rendering overt assistance to government policy, as compared to the tacit assistance rendered through working for such a government in education or industry will be difficult to avoid.
Matthew Yglesias had an uncharacteristically weird post yesterday on the #iranelections uprising as part of the old “end of history” thesis:
The geographical scope in which Shi’a Islamism and velayat-e faqih could possibly become the dominant form of government is obviously pretty limited because there aren’t that many Shia Muslims in the world. But despite that limit the Islamic Revolution represented the only real example I think you could come up with of a true ideological alternative to liberal democracy in the world. And part of what we’ve seen over the past several weeks is the collapse of that alternative.
I don’t understand where China is supposed to sit in this narrative. Clearly, the Chinese model of a dominant ruling party which essentially professionalizes the business of government and hands it over to a self-selecting and to some extent meritocratic elite, while dramatically restricting the ability of the populace to participate in politics and limiting freedom of expression and assembly in order to ensure stability, is an “alternative” to the liberal democratic model. And it is, so far, a quite successful alternative.
What Yglesias might be saying is that the Chinese model is not an “ideological alternative” because the actual structure of the regime is not determined by a clearly articulated ideology. The supposed ideology the regime embraces, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist stuff, is (on this view) not actually believed by anyone, while the real rationale that structures the political system is only explicitly stated in analyses by foreign observers, not by the regime itself. But I think this view, if it is the view Yglesias takes, is wrong. The philosophy that undergirds the structure of the Chinese regime is part of a millennia-old Confucian tradition in much the same way that liberal democracy partakes of the millennia-old Greek tradition. This philosophy has absorbed Marxism in much the mushy and indeterminate way that Buddhism was folded into a Confucian tradition, after temporarily becoming the official state ideology in the Tang dynasty.
The Chinese philosophy of governance is hard to understand and encapsulate for Westerners in large measure because the Confucian tradition of writing and argument is quite dissimilar from the Western tradition, and doesn’t involve as much rigid logical elaboration, so we often can’t figure out what they’re saying. But the underlying precepts are quite consistent and come up over and over when one gets into political arguments. One might argue that because it’s so deeply embedded in Chinese or East Asian culture, this model of governance is not exportable (beyond East Asia, anyway) and thus doesn’t represent an “ideological alternative”. But I think this isn’t quite true, either. There are elements of the Chinese approach to governance that can be embraced by many countries. I’ve heard Ethiopians say that their government seems to be trying to reshape its structure into a Chinese-style single-party mandarinate, under the influence of Chinese success. And, of course, liberal democracy is deeply imbricated in a Western European cultural inheritance and has for this reason been very difficult for many non-European countries to embrace.
In fact, the Iranian political model might be described as a variant of the Chinese one, with the mullahs and the Guardian Council as the moral/ideological “parallel structure”, instead of the Communist Party. (Remember that the Iranian revolution was a late-70s anti-colonialist revolution with plenty of Marxist participation.) The weakness of the Iranian system is probably that because of its fundamentalist religious character, it is proving less adaptable to consumerist capitalism, feminism, and other forms of social change than the Communist Chinese system. Then again, the Iranian problem might simply be that Iran suffers from a resource curse, while China doesn’t.
But the main point is that I think the Chinese ideological challenge to liberal democracy is pretty strong. Let’s take an example. Broadly speaking, Western liberal democracy takes the view that individuals are the best judges of their own interests, and that a society that leaves them to pursue those interests will mostly arrive at greater wealth and happiness for everyone. Confucian political systems take the view that individuals, left to themselves, will engage in destructive feuds and be seduced by charlatans into ruinous schemes, and that every society needs a well-educated class of wise men who have a solemn responsibility to protect harmony and the general welfare. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which of these views seems more plausible relevant?
That’s a pretty strong ideological challenge, no?
Reihan Salam argues the US should impose sanctions on Iran and refuse negotiations, rather than negotiating with a post-#iranelections Ahmadinejad regime if it is in US interests (as Daniel Larison suggests), because:
I agree with Larison that the Iranian regime values survival above all else, and I even agree that a policy of not interfering with Iran’s internal affairs makes a nuclear deal (faintly) possible. I happen to think that there is a better achievable outcome, a la post-1994 South Africa.
The shortest explanation of why this is wrong is that the apartheid regime was bitterly opposed by the great majority of the people it ruled, whom it oppressed and excluded from power by virtue of their skin color. Its collapse was inevitable. 5 million white people could not indefinitely continue to rule over 20 million black people and 5 million colored ones. The Islamic Republican system, however, is not bitterly opposed by the majority of people over whom it rules, and there is no clear reason why a hybrid theocratic-democratic government should not persist indefinitely in a country where only a minority of citizens are clearly secularist. All of the candidates for President in Iran support the Islamic Republican system.
There are numerous other crucial reasons why South Africa sanctions made sense and Iran sanctions don’t. Briefly:
1. The decision-making elite in South Africa were a Western-oriented international business class; punishing them by cutting off access to the West was an effective targeted sanction.
2. Oil is a lot more important than gold and diamonds. Especially to China.
3. The external “others” for South African whites were black Africa and Communism. Sanctions imposed by the white capitalist West were like an intervention by family — very convincing. The external “other” for Iran is the US and Europe. The US sanctioning Iran is like the USSR sanctioning apartheid South Africa — not very convincing.
4. It is not clear what the US would demand as a condition to lift the sanctions. What do we want here? A rerun of the elections, with foreign monitors? How does that work, exactly? A non-Islamic regime? Foolhardy to make such a demand.
5. The US had no pressing business in southern Africa, and could afford to engage in a foreign policy based on principles. The Middle East is a powderkeg and we have a lot of other important goals there.
The upshot is that further US sanctions on Iran and a refusal to negotiate over nuclear weapons won’t force a South African-style transition to democracy. That is not going to be the way things play out.
Interesting piece by Raymond Tanter in the Jerusalem Post (via Sullivan), but its contention that the shift of power in Iran away from the Supreme Leader and towards the President will make Iran less anti-Israel seem pretty equivocal to me. It rather depends on who’s President, doesn’t it? Taking real foreign policy away from the stable Supreme Leader and putting it into the hands of politicians who are driven by demagogic political incentives could result in a political opening to Israel — or it could mean that the anti-Israel populism of Ahmadinejad, previously ineffectual, starts to have some real-world consequences. Meanwhile, this seems a rather weird observation:
The Iranian regime’s antipathy toward the MeK [Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the longstanding Marxist Iranian political/guerrilla exile group] is not only because this organization has potential for threatening the regime; the MeK as a member of the NCRI – a coalition of religious and secular groups – is also an ideological challenge to the regime in the same manner that Israel is threat. Iranian clerics saw themselves locked in an ideological battle against encroaching forces of modernization, secularization and democratization. Because Israel also personified these factors, it was bound to come in conflict with an Islamist Iran.
Research of the IPC finds that the NCRI positions itself as a modern, secular, democratic force that allows for religious diversity among its adherents, which Israel also represents; thus, the NCRI is an ideological threat to the regime of Khamenei.
I really don’t think Iranian hostility towards Israel stems from the secular, democratic aspects of Israeli society. Let’s put it this way: if The Jewish Home, Moledet, United Torah Judaism, and other right-wing religious parties were running Israel, restricting Muslim and Christian religious practice, and generally making the country even less of a secular democracy, would that make Iran and its government less hostile towards Israel? The idea that Iranian goverment antipathy to Israel stems from its secular democratic character seems to me a self-excusing dodge of the same kind the “they hate us for our values” crowd used to employ in the US.
This is what Iranian state TV is choosing to broadcast to sedate the masses? Seems an odd choice.
Filed under: Iran
Yesterday Matthew Yglesias posted a nod to philosopher Derek Parfit’s chapter “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics“, with reference to the mistakes people make in thinking about action to mitigate climate change. Reading Parfit’s chapter, I was struck by its relevance to the moral decisions facing potential dissidents and political activists — i.e. at the moment: if you’re an Iranian, should you go out in the street and risk getting killed, or stay at home? Parfit begins:
It is often claimed that, in cases that involve very many people, any single altruistic choice would make no difference.
He goes on to elaborate a series of reasons why consequentialists should find that this is not true. Basically, the argument is that if a collective action by millions of people greatly benefits millions of people, any one person’s contribution to that immense benefit is still substantial, and that any other way of thinking about it leads to absurdities.
But the most difficult cases Parfit considers concern various kinds of Prisoner’s Dilemmas, especially ones with a complex range of outcomes and large numbers of participants. The problem with those kinds of cases is that you have to take into consideration what each participant knows about the outcomes of different actions, and what he knows about the intentions of other participants, in order to decide whether or not he has acted morally. In a situation with five possible outcomes from bad to good, and three participants, it’s entirely possible for Actor 1 to do something that would be good in 66% of the cases but that turns out to be awful because of what Actor 3 happened to do, which Actor 1 couldn’t possibly have predicted.
For example, let’s say that if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army mutinies and prevents bloodshed, then there will be a “velvet revolution”-type peaceful transition to a democratic system. But if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army doesn’t mutiny, then 1,000 people will be massacred and the regime will become more repressive; and there is no reason to believe that this outcome will lead to a democratic transition any sooner than might have happened otherwise. And meanwhile, one of those 1,000 people massacred could be you, or secret police might identify you at the rally and kick your sister out of university, or whatever. Should you join the march?
I have known several appealing young democratic activists in autocratic countries inspired by visions of creating “velvet revolution”-style transitions to democracy. In conversations with them, one inevitably feels compelled by empathy to offer one’s opinions about what they should do. And I generally wind up making it implicitly clear, just out of empathy, that I don’t think they should be engaging in pro-democracy activism. The issue depends, for me, on the question of how large the democracy movements in their countries already are. Where such movements are quite substantial, then participation makes intuitive sense. But in countries with tiny, irrelevant dissident movements, where autocratic governments are in firm control and there seems very little likelihood of change on any scale shorter than the generational, I think it’s not worth the risk. I can’t sit across from someone I find appealing and intelligent and wish for them anything other than that they keep their heads down, get a well-paying job, read widely and have informal unrecorded discussion groups with close friends, and wait for the moment twenty years down the road when some kind of shift may become possible. I can’t wish for them that they make an example of themselves and wind up jailed, their reputations and careers ruined, with exile the only promising option — an option that generally renders all their attempted activism irrelevant.
But sometimes, the brave ones go ahead and do it anyway. And in those cases I don’t think Parfit’s moral math or my wimpy skepticism even matter, because I don’t think such people are chiefly motivated by consequentialist thinking. I think that the Iranians who go out to protest are chiefly motivated by considerations like honor and hope.
Hamid Dabashi makes an interesting point in the NYT today (via Andrew Sullivan natch): that the Iranian students seem less like revolutionaries than like civil rights protestors. But I think much the same could have been said of the crowds that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Dabashi:
To me this was a post-ideological generation, evidently cured of the most traumatic memories of its parental generation, from the C.I.A.-sponsored coup of 1953 to the Islamic revolution of 1979. The dominant political parameters of third world socialism, anticolonial nationalism, and militant Islamism that divided my generation of Iranians seem to me to have lost all validity in this generation. I see the moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime….If I am correct in this reading, we should not expect an imminent collapse of the regime. These young Iranians are not out in the streets seeking to topple the regime for they lack any military wherewithal to do so, and they are alien to any militant ideology that may push them in that direction. It seems to me that these brave young men and women have picked up their hand-held cameras to shoot those shaky shots, looking in their streets and alleys for their Martin Luther King.
It seems, from a distance, to be true that the Iranian protestors are motivated not by revolutionary ardor but by a demand for normalcy. But that was also precisely the case with the crowds, young and old, who tore down the Berlin Wall and swept away the Soviet Bloc regimes in ’89, and later with the nonviolent revolutions in Serbia and Ukraine. They, too, were post-ideological; what they wanted was to live in a “normal” country, where normalcy was defined as a liberal democracy with a mixed economy and guarantees of individual rights.
The problem was that the states they lived in, as they were then structured, could not accommodate the demand for normalcy. It was the abnormality of the state that made them into revolutionaries. The question is whether the Iranian state can find a way to reform itself to accommodate its people’s needs, or whether it will continue to make revolutionaries of anyone who desires a normal society.
Filed under: Iran
I won’t be able to write much on this today as I have the far more optimistic job of heading out to the countryside to report on a project to improve cookstoves for Vietnam’s poor to contribute to energy sustainability.