Political Round-up: Myanmar, Iran, and Romney

Some articles I found interesting and my commentary on them….

First, “Burma’s Punk Scene Fights Repression Underground“.

I have become a regular reader of Der Spiegel, and this article caught my eye for a few reasons. It reports on the difficulty of being a punk in Burma. Or at least being in the punk scene. Nobody will ever suspect me of being sympathetic to that genre or subculture or whatever it is, but I think that both the existence of that scene there and suggests the extreme fragility of this move towards democracy.

I cannot claim to be especially widely traveled, but Myanmar ranked as one of the most surreal trips I have been on. Not surreal in any special kind of way, I suppose; going to places like Myanmar (i.e., petty Asian dictatorships) are surreal in an almost cliched manner, but I guess the naive manner of being that cliche makes it only more surreal. Kind of like Sasha Baron Cohen’s new film, “The Dictator”. There is a clear template for this kind of thing, and everyone knows what it is, so you can make a movie about it. But, when you go to one of these places, you are nevertheless surprised how accurate the cliche is. And, you walk around, looking at the locals faces trying to detect a trace of irony on their faces, as if you expect them to jump out of character and say, “We had you going for a second, didn’t we?” But, what makes the whole thing so troubling is just how serious it is. How seriously even the opponents must take the propaganda and respond to it.

When I was on a mountain overlooking Mandalay five years ago, I was approached by a young Burmese man who wanted to talk about the dictatorship. These guys are not hard to find, and you are always suspicious about their motives. Are they genuinely opposed to the regime? Or, has this become just another part of the tourist attraction–“Come talk to real, live democracy activists!”? Are they provocateurs? In Sri Lanka, which is a lot like Myanmar, even when it appears diametrically opposite, people were always approaching me and striking up conversations with plausible back-stories, only to conclude with some sort of request for money (to buy tea, or their daughter likes to collect foreign currency, or sex with their wife, or we have no change; I finally stopped counting). In Myanmar, it was democrats who always approached, but I do not recall anyone of them asking for money or favors.

There were beggars in Yangon, especially poor Indian street-urchins, but that was a different story.

Anyway, this young man–a college student/tour guide, he said, like many of them–and I were looking over the city at the prison below, and with him already having directed the conversation to politics, I asked what he thought about the regime’s oft-repeated put-down of Aung San Suu Kyi, that she was married to a foreigner, which was the legal ground for denying her the right to run for office. He responded with a passionate explanation that she had been forced to live abroad for so many years and that she had no choice but to marry a foreigner and that the government should not hold this against her.

For me, that is the secret of dictatorship. The plausibility of their claims, even amongst their opponents. The young man did not respond to my provocation by saying that ‘what does it matter whom she is married to?’ The regime’s attack on Suu Kyi stuck even with the democrats, and it was hard for them to respond to.

One could find more exaggerated instances of this; the economic and social havoc that have been caused by the generals’ faith in astrology and supernatural omens, for example. But, Burma is an extremely superstitious (although I think that is an inappropriate word in the Asian context) country, so that aspect is not a cause for criticism. The effects are, but not the underlying explanations. For example, a couple decades ago, before the 8888 uprisings (August 8, 1988), the government took the existing currency out of circulation and replaced it with more ‘auspicious’ denominations (multiples of 8 or 9, I think). What was the real motive for this? I certainly don’t know, but that the regime used this reasoning to justify the move says a lot. And, I never heard any of the Burmese complain about that aspect of the action. Only the effects, namely that “our daughters had to go to Thailand to earn money, where they caught AIDS”. So explained the famous “Mustache Brothers” in Mandalay, and he wasn’t joking.

In other words, in order to counter an obviously outrageous and ridiculous act–changing currency denominations overnight in order to make them more auspicious–one had to take recourse to “the foreigners are corrupting our women” line.

In any case, to take it back to the Spiegel article, I took a bus from Yangon (Rangoon) to Moulmein (among other spellings), and it was 10 hours of non-stop, loud music videos. Pot-holed roads, breaking down every once in a while, military checkpoints, women and children bathing in cisterns, etc. But, the music videos were what really stuck with me. They were Burmese but filmed in New York and were all based on Western tunes, especially Fifty Cent. It was all very “renao” (literally, “hot noisy”), as they say in Taiwan.

This situation struck me, because rap music has been the most anti-establishment genre of music in the West, and yet it was playing here as background music, in a society that prides itself on being exceptionally traditional, pure, Buddhist, and un-Western. Again, this is another cliche surreality. Like Bin Laden with porn. Is anybody surprised any more?

But, I mention this instance, because the Spiegel article notes that punk is ‘real rebellion’ in Myanmar. But, I wonder if anyone in the regime actually cares. My first night in Moulmein, I ate dinner at a restaurant by the water and was approached by another young man who, if I recall correctly, said he was a pharmacist. He was really into the heavy metal scene, and I guess he expected me to be, too. I had the sense he had been watching a lot of MTV or whatever and that this had colored his perception of foreigners a lot.

It was unusual to be approached quite so publicly, however. I wasn’t in an out-of-the-way location, but I wasn’t on the well-trod tourist path where Burmese felt safe to approach. I was trying to size him up. Ethnicity, class, politics, motive, etc, but I was kept rather off-balance by having to dissuade him from his assumption that I was really into rock music or that I conflated rock music with “freedom”. I never could decide 100% if he was a drug dealer, a government agent, or just naive, or some combination. In my experience, being 100% earnestly naive requires an extraordinary amount of self-deception and cunning. In the end, I had little choice but to take him at face value, but I had a hard time trusting him, so there wasn’t much room for the conversation to expand into. And, I was exhausted from that bus trip.

In other words, I take reports like this in the Spiegel with a grain of salt. The regime never really seemed to care about this kind of thing, probably because it resonates so little in Burmese society. If one were to think of the Japanese youth subculture, I think it points to how politically inconsequential this sort of thing is in Asia and elsewhere. And, I don’t think one should take Burmese punks as bellwethers for democracy one way or another.

This little experiment in democracy is extremely top-down, the military is still holding the reins, and we will not know anything about how substantive this all is until there is a confrontation between the democrats and the military. I think we can only understand this move on the part of the regime as an attempt to prevent any such confrontation, but of course, one will have to occur sooner or later. So, as hard as the regime is trying to avoid another 8888 Uprising by working so hard to control the outcome (in 1988, after demonstrations forced the regime to hold free and fair elections, they then negated the results when found out that they had lost), the problem is that democracy and a military state cannot co-exist for very long.

My bet is that the military again believes that it can move Myanmar closer to its Theravadan brother states, especially Thailand, where the military is always ready to step in, but I think that Burmese culture is the ultimate impediment. It is too moralistic and superstitious to manage even as dubious a democratic system as Thailand’s, which itself has some big challenges looming when the king passes away.

Second, how Israel should handle Iran…

The Iranian threat: What Israel really thinks

Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat to Israel? If so, how? Because Iran might nuke Israel? Or, because Iran’s nuclear ability would shift geopolitical weight in the region and force Israel to think twice before striking back at Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas?

And, is Iran rational? Michael Omer-Man, the Jerusalem Post blogger, points out that the attempt to change Iranian behavior by sanctions suggests that this possibility has not been discounted. But, if Iran shrugs off sanctions and threats, does that prove it is  irrational? Of course, the problem is, what does “rational” mean in this context?

I think the implication is that they are too zealous religiously to be deterred by MAD. They would neither care about murdering nor being murdered. I suppose I would be foolish to completely discount this possibility, but I confess that I have a hard time imagining that the Iranians cannot wait to nuke Israel. I do not deny that Iran and a lot of other Muslims and/or Arabs would like to wipe Israel out, and I would hardly be blase about a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but I do not think that necessarily means that they would nuke Israel the first chance they got.

I think somebody should shoot my neighbor’s dog, but just because I go out and buy a gun doesn’t mean I intend to do that.

To imply that Iran is eager to make a first strike seems dangerous. And, I believe that is the real question, and that is what makes this situation similar to Iraq before the US invaded. Not the question of whether or not there is a WMD program. I didn’t believe the Iraqis had a significant one, while I do believe the Iranians have one. But, it is still necessary to accurately assess the enemy and weigh the costs and benefits of a multitude of actions (or inaction).

For me, the problem of striking Iran by either NATO or Israel is that of the day after. If the strikes fail, then what next? The Israelis won’t seem to have many other options left. If they are absolutely convinced that Iran is “irrational”, that it is a chasm out of which only the most horrible things can unpredictably appear, then mustn’t they conduct a first strike?

If the Americans are in the lead, however, and air strikes fail, what then is left? A ground invasion? Can anyone conceive of such a thing? After two drawn-out Middle Eastern wars, are we ready for an even bigger one, especially now that we are flat broke?

In either instance, if we are not willing to either nuke Iran or send in ground forces, then eventually we will have to accept a nuclear or nuclear-capable Iran.

But, can we? What if the Iranians are “rational”? What if they don’t mind making a devastating strike on their enemies while maintaining plausible deniability? For example, by means of a terrorist nuclear strike? We know that the Iranians are not above that kind of thing. And, I would expect a suitcase bomb in Washington before I expected one in Tel Aviv. How likely is that?

Or is the problem a variation of that? Not that the Iranians are looking to make any kind of first strike, but that once they had that capability, they would up the pressure on everybody in the region–Americans, Arabs, Israelis–by throwing their weight around? Constant threats to close Hormuz or meddle in Iraq or Bahrain and so forth? And, that by overestimating their own strength, everybody could get dragged into an increasingly hot confrontation wherein the Iranians felt that the only way to win was to strike first?

To me, that is a far more worrisome scenario than the “Iran is irrational” argument. A “rational” Iran is what we should be contemplating, and I am sure that, as this JP blog suggests, that is also the real Israeli concern.

Certainly something must be done, from a geopolitical perspective. (By which I mean that, as an American, I have doubts about how involved we should be in the Middle East, but since we are there, I am going to set aside those doubts for the moment). But, this is a long-term problem. If Iran is going to acquire a major boost in its geopolitical power, which is the real danger, then that can only be countered through a broad and serious coalition against all Iranian activity in the region, not specifically its nuclear ambitions. That is to say that the world powers need to unite around a position that would increase the costs of Iranian actions (conventional, asymmetrical, nuclear, etc) against the rest of the world.

Easier said than done, I suppose, but I wonder if our sabre-rattling is productive or counter-productive with respect to that kind of action. I am generally under the impression that east of Iran (Russia, China, India, etc), they don’t especially care one way or another and they can’t see any reason to stick their necks out for something that is generally peripheral to them. So, how do you motivate them? By saying that if you guys don’t do something, I’m gonna bomb them. But, since Asia is reluctant to get involved,  it seems that sabre-rattling is as likely to get them to drag their feet. If sanctions are perceived as only the first step in a bombing campaign, then they are likely to balk at even that. But, how then do we get them to sign on to a more constrictive approach to Iran generally? What would it take to create an anti-Iranian alliance?

Well, there is, of course, a deeper problem while we are considering that. Iranian society. When are they going to dump the mullahs and the military? My suspicion is that when the Arab states are more democratic than they are, the Iranians will dump the regime within months. The civil war in Syria, for example, could be key, not only to raising the democratic bar in the region but in forging an anti-Iranian alliance, at least among the Arab regimes.

But, that may be looking too far ahead, since the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution has hardly been inspirational. Just as in Myanmar, the army hardly looks ready to depart the stage, and it has reportedly been stirring up anti-American and anti-minority sentiment there to maintain its legitimacy. Even so, it is possible that the fall of the Assad regime could be the spark that sets off an Iranian revolution, although one wonders what might happen if the threat of a strike approached and overshadowed the fall of Assad or if the Israelis struck Iran before Assad fell.

As an American, I am loathe to go into Iran. I have really had enough of Middle Eastern wars. As a world citizen and an American, however, I do believe we have an interest in the region and that we must respect Israel’s right to defend herself. I would prefer that we play a much longer game than we’ve been playing. One can say that the Americans have notched up two victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at what price?

I have argued before that Bush, Jr may have turned out to have been a Middle Eastern Napoleon, invading his monarchical neighbors in the name of freedom and democracy and then getting thrown out by his neighbors under the same banners. Would the Arab Spring have happened if the region hadn’t been embroiled in a decade-long war against Arab dictatorship? I don’t know, but I do believe that the invasion focused some Arab minds to consider more seriously or more intensely on why the Arab narrative had shaped up the way it had.

Despite all the uncertainties that hang over the ultimate fate of the Arab Spring, it is hard to imagine a simple return to the pall of Arab national socialism that hang over the region for decades on end. When and if the situation stabilizes, that will likely force the Iranian people to reconsider their own identity and what role they want to play in the region. One should not forget the Turks, either.

The Iranians have been able to play the democracy card for a long time, while writing off the Arabs and Turks, but Turkey has become more democratic and more openly Muslim–and one perhaps should not write off the Iranian existence as an influence in that respect, either–but Iran is looking increasingly isolated and backward. And, that is the real key to this whole situation, in my opinion.

It is not the state of international relations with reference to power politics, trade ties, etc that will really change the dynamics of the situation, but the growing sense on the part of the Iranians that history is leaving them behind, that their neighbors (i.e., the societies and cultures whom they interact with) are slowly becoming uninterested in them except as nuisances, that they are not especially unique, and that people are looking elsewhere for regional leadership.

In fact, if one were to set aside the nuclear question, I think the story for Iran in recent years has been the decline of its regional power. Its successes in maintaining proxies and so on have only managed to turn the rest of the region against it.

In that respect, too, we must accept that bar a domestic uprising, some kind of confrontation with Iran is inevitable, if not from the Israelis or Americans, then from the Arabs. But, the Arab/Sunni world is still too much in a ferment perhaps to be ready to stand up to Iran. Huge question marks hang over Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and tomorrow it could be somewhere else. And, then there is the tension within the Arab/Sunni world between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey for influence over the others. If it is the Sunni element that is to predominate in the region, then that will draw influence towards the Sauds and Turks, but what kind of Sunni order do the Arabs want? I suspect that they desire a more Turkish variety. So, one can imagine that the Sauds will have to struggle with some kind of Arab Spring of their own, sooner or later, although it may be more top-down, and there have been some small signs recently of a very cautious thaw.

But, how might the Egyptians respond to such a shift in influence? Would they resist it? How? Would they provide a third alternative? What? Would they side with Turkey or Saud? Why?

In the meantime, the best thing that can be done for the region is to nurture the Arab Spring, to make it as peaceful and democratic as possible. The answer to the Iranian problem is first and foremost the Arab Spring, I believe, and we should delay military action in order to let the Spring flower or die as it will.


Mitt Romney Carefully Avoids Insulting Ron Paul

Mitt Romney has always been my second choice, and I had found it odd that other people found it odd that I felt that way. After all, Republicans of an ideological bent are all looking for someone other than Romney (or so we are told), so if we don’t get our particular kook to win, we’ll opt for another one. We certainly wouldn’t settle for the establishment candidate.

As a Paul supporter, the thing that distinguishes Romney from both Gingrich and Santorum is that he is a leader. Santorum and Gingrich are windbags, although I don’t meant that to be quite as harsh as it sounds. Except maybe for Santorum. Santorum and Gingrich both tend towards moralistic opportunism, and both of them see ‘profound’ roles for the state in society. Romney is a pragmatist, who appears to be conscientious and prudent. On the surface, this is exactly the opposite of Paul. Paul, after all, is the ultimate idealist who cares nothing about pragmatism or tactics, but that is certainly not how Paul and his cohorts see themselves. They see themselves as far more hard-nosed and realistic than the money-printers and fire-eaters and welfare-statists, who can create a mammoth federal program, a bureaucracy, and a constitutionally suspect law for every human foible that exists.

Apart from Paul, Romney seems like the only other candidate who would have the skill and ability to deal with any problems in a semi-competent fashion. Santorum would be a Catholic Bush, and Gingrich a Republican Clinton. I suppose someone could say that Romney would be a Republican Obama, over-polished, weak-willed, and prone to health-care programs. I think that is slightly missing the point with Romney, however. I think that, in general, Romney is similar to Paul in terms of their aversion to getting the government mixed up in social questions. Romney answers the “abortion question” one way or another because it makes such little difference. How many pro-life Republicans have been in power, and what good has it done that cause?

Gay marriage, abortion, etc have little place in a presidential campaign, because the president really doesn’t have any significant say when it comes to those issues, but you have to play to the crowd in the bleachers. That’s democracy.

So, my perception of Romney is that he is personally quite conservative, but also mostly a social libertarian. Which is relatively close to Paul’s position.

Then, there is the question of taxes, spending, and finance. And, I think the question is much simpler here. Whom would you trust to reduce taxes, streamline the state, and get our finances in order, if you exclude Paul? It would have to be Romney. Santorum and Gingrich are too focused on social issues, and just don’t really see money as a fundamental political or social issue. They are always ready for a new program. After all, that’s how you make your mark in politics.

The third area is foreign policy. Again, Santorum and Gingrich seem far more trigger-happy and bombastic than Romney. Romney, in my estimation, would at least carefully weigh the options before setting out on an adventure. Again, however, this means looking past the campaign rhetoric, but if you are at least doubtful about the wisdom of going into Iran, I suppose that you would select the fella whom you suspect does not seem quite so eager to start bombing.

The fourth area is the security apparatus and constitutional rights. I cannot see any clear differences between the three non-Paul candidates, so I’ll call it a draw.

But, I think for the reasons of temperament and political orientation–more socially liberal and fiscally conservative–Romney makes for a better second choice than do Gingrich and Santorum.

For me, however, there is one more factor that kind of ties these things together. I remember Romney’s final campaign speech of the 2008 race. It was at some sort of conservative gathering in DC, I think, and he talked about the book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”. If you have read it, it is an attempt to explain the relative prosperity of the West and the East. Other books, such as Guns, Germs, and Steel do something similar from a geographic perspective, which is also valid, but in terms of social structure, the “Wealth” book is more apropos. In any case, Romney mentioned the importance of the rule of law and individualism as the fundamental factors that made the West and America wealthy and free. And, as an American libertarian who lives abroad and named his blog after Herodotus, I can’t help but take note of that.

In other words, I think that compared to Gingrich or Santorum, Romney is more in the mold of the old-style republican, one who sees it as his duty to try to shape a liberal state, free but united. I believe Paul’s principles are far sounder than Romney’s, but I much prefer Romney’s republican pragmatism to the big state, compassionate conservative ideologies of the other two.

Of course, Romney might turn on Paul sooner or later, so I might trash him when the time comes, but even then, I believe that Romney is more committed to fundamental American values (republicanism, law, individualism) than either Gingrich or Santorum. But, none of them can hold a flame to Ron Paul.


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