Friday, April 28, 2006

Al-Qaeda's Media Strategy

"The al-Qaeda leadership has increased its focus on propaganda and is emphasizing its ideological struggle to make up for diminishing control over the global network, the US State Department said in a report released Friday."

Al-Qaeda's media strategy was the subject of a provocative and interesting essay in the Spring 2006 issue of TNI by Marc Lynch. He noted:

"Even before 9/11 Al-Qaeda adapted with ruthless efficiency to the rise of satellite television and the Internet, grasping before virtually anyone else the political possibilities inherent in new media technologies. Zawahiri and Bin Laden both recognized the revolutionary significance of these developments, with Bin Laden understanding that “rhetoric and satellite propaganda can be on equal footing with unmanned bombers and cruise-missiles.”

"Al-Qaeda, therefore, invested heavily and creatively in propaganda and media from the start. Media became even more central to its strategy after the loss of its Afghan base, when Al-Qaeda metamorphosed into the more virtual, diffuse organization that Peter Bergen memorably labeled “Al-Qaeda 2.0.” The global arena of contention, the absence of a physical territory, and an environment constricted by Western and Arab counter-terrorism operations made the media the premier site of its political action. ...

"Those who suggest that Al-Qaeda cannot win in Iraq miss the primacy of its media strategy: Every day that the occupation of Iraq generates graphic footage of American occupation and Islamist “resistance”, Al-Qaeda wins. Seizing the Iraqi state is hardly necessary, or even desirable, for Al-Qaeda’s media-centered strategy. ..."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Failing Basic Diplomacy--Rice, Greece, Turkey and GAZPROM

Do policymakers in Washington really believe the hype that the United States is such the indispensable nation, the sole superpower, that the normal rules of bargaining and diplomacy don't apply?

Secretary of State Rice very publicly "warned" Greece and Turkey about allowing the Russian firm GAZPROM to have a stake in the proposed Greek-Turkish gas line, and sent strong signals that the U.S. preference is for natural gas from Azerbaijan to be piped through the line.

First and foremost, Greece and Turkey will make their decisions based on economic rationales and their own national interests. If the Azerbaijan project makes sense, great. If GAZPROM makes a better offer, and the Greek and Turkish sides are satisfied, why is this a paramount U.S. concern--especially if the U.S. government is not going to be putting up funds?

Greek and Turkish readers of TWR, please correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that GAZPROM or the Russian government is threatening force or exercising undue pressure for your governments and companies to take part in energy projects. Neither Ankara nor Athens, as far as I am aware, have requested help or protection of the U.S. government vis-a-vis Russia. Indeed, the New Anatolian had this to say:

Turkey wants to be considered a partner in energy projects. Turkish officials say that Turkey is a strategic partner with Russia and has an important role in transmission of its energy resources to the world markets, adding, there are many regional projects most of which involving Turkey, and Russia and others should not see Turkey just a transit country but a partner in energy projects.

What the Greeks and Turks want are more favorable terms from Russia. Of course they are going to bargain and having the Azeri option is important. But it is my sense is that a growing number of Turkish and Greek business and political figures are eager to market the Turkey-Greece line as a "southern" route for Russian gas to Europe, to complement the Baltic "northern route" to Germany, which would allow Russia to reduce its dependence on Ukraine and Poland as transit routes.

But I digress from the main point. This past week, Secretary Rice has publicly argued against a project that is in Russia's economic interests. Next week, she is going to try to convince Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia should be prepared to abandon its lucrative economic interests in Iran. And this is how you build a consensus?

If Russia stiffs the United States on Iran, THEN that's when you push hard for the Azerbaijan project--NOT the other way around.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Robert McFarlane and breathing room for energy

With all of the talk about steps we need to take toward energy independence--I wanted to share some of former National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane's thoughts on how we can make the transition. The complete essay ("The Challenge of Energy Security") will appear in the Summer 2006 issue of The National Interest.


For the immediate future, therefore, we should be looking at two countries as integral partners in ensuring the energy security of the Western world.

The first is Brazil. In 1975, after the first oil shock, the Brazilian government made the decision to invest heavily in the technology of ethanol production, so as to utilize the country’s vast potential for growing sugar cane. Today, about 20 percent of the auto fuel in use in Brazil is ethanol. Brazil produces about 4.2 billion gallons of ethanol (and has about 50 percent of the global ethanol export market); indeed, Brazil has the capacity to become the Saudi Arabia of ethanol, and an important partner in ensuring America’s energy security if only we would open our market to it. Today, while we do not tax oil imports, we impose what amounts to a 57 cent a gallon tariff on ethanol imports. Other Western Hemispheric countries with a climate suitable for sugar cane cultivation could become ethanol exporters as well. And Latin America ethanol can easily be exported to the United States via tankers.

The second is Russia. Russia possesses some 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves; natural gas has the demonstrated capacity to generate electric power and fuel transport. Today there is more than 600 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Yamal peninsula. None of this gas is currently being exported, and it would be enormously expensive to link this region into Russia’s existing pipeline networks. But the peninsula is well-suited to become a major center for the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG). With temperatures at 20 below zero, it is much cheaper to liquefy gas here than in Qatar, Nigeria or Trinidad. It is a 3,800-mile trip from Yamal to terminals in the Canadian maritime provinces (where the gas can be piped into the North American distribution network), one-third of the distance to ship LNG from Qatar to the Western Hemisphere. Finally, it should be noted that there are very few terrorists in Russia’s Arctic Circle—unlike the oil and gas terminals in the Persian Gulf.

The United States cannot depend upon a finite supply of hydrocarbons located in unstable foreign regions. At the same time, we need at least twenty years to really move the United States toward full-scale deployment of alternative sources of energy. Brazilian ethanol and Russian gas could help us to buy the time and security we need.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Provocations by Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Counterterrorism Center's Osama bin Laden unit and anonymous author of Imperial Hubris, gave a very provocative but thought-provoking presentation today at The Nixon Center.

"America is totally unprepared to pay the price in blood, treasure and change of lifestyle" that would be required to defeat militant Islam. In part, this is because official Washington fails to recognize the motivations of the Islamists, and, quoting Rami Khoury of Beirut's Daily Star, is promoting a fantasy foreign policy based on imagined realities.

We are at war with militant Islam not because of who we are; American national security is threatened by the policies that we pursue. This doesn't mean that the U.S. government is evil or comprised of warmongers; it does, however, mean that we have to face up to assessing the costs and benefits of U.S. action.

Based on his analysis of bin Laden's speeches, Scheuer identifies six main U.S. policies that draw the ire of the Islamists:

1) civil and military presence in Saudi Arabia
2) unqualified support for Israel
3) military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world (Yemen, Mindinao, etc.)
4) policies designed to keep the price of oil low
5) U.S. support for governments oppressing Muslims (India, China, Russia, etc.)
6) U.S. support for police states in the Islamic world

A decade of polling confirms that these six themes resonate in the Islamic world (even if Muslims don't agree with bin Laden's methods).

We must shape policy accordingly--assessing the costs and benefits of particular policies.

Scheuer says it has been hard to have a realistic assessment because of what he terms "historical confusion." The belief of the last three administrations that the U.S. government has responsibilities to the world and not to the United States; the erosion of the constitutional and moral priority of protecting American lives and interests; the belief that every war and crisis around the world impacts U.S. national security interests. We should return to the Founders' common sense approach that the national interest consists of those matters which mean life or death for the nation.

He criticized the "moral cowardice" and unwillingness to spend the capital necessary to get things done; our inability to achieve energy independence (and so give us more options to withdraw from the Middle East); our inability to secure our borders; our willingness to be distracted from critical tasks like securing the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal in favor of other less pressing matters; our unwillingness to accept that fighting and winning wars means inflicting catastrophic damage on the enemy; that the tendency to engage in half-fought, inconclusive wars allows for the resurgence of enemies.

Very frank and unpolitical assessments. As one comment from the floor--said after Scheuer was asked what he would do if he were president--was that Scheuer could not get elected at all by expressing these views:

"No nation has a right to exist--not the United States, not Belgium, not Israel, not Saudi Arabia." Nations rise and fall based on their own ability to secure their existence and win allegiance.

Elections in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to convince those with the guns to abide by the process. There is "no way to salvage Iraq", although "we cannot leave Afghanistan until will have killed bin Laden", given his unique and historic position in Al-Qaeda.

We must be prepared to be "extraordinarily brutal" in destroying the current generation of Islamist insurgents.

The U.S. strategy should be one of deflection: the U.S. should get out of the way of an internal Muslim war (as he put it, Muslims should be killing Muslims, not Americans--the Islamist struggle is with regimes in the Muslim world.)

Bin Laden found the "glue" for his movement in anti-Americanism; this is what holds it together.

The United States has a huge emotional commitment to Israel; it is not grounded in security interests.

A great deal of heated debate and discussion followed. A very "un-Washington" presentation, indeed. But definitely food for thought.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Accidents at the White House?

There is a long tradition in American politics of "accidents" at the White House which enable the president or senior government officials to meet controversial people or deliver unpleasant messages without having them be graced with the official seal of approval. JFK meeting Martin Luther King; Clinton "just happening" to run into Salman Rushdie; the first president Bush meeting the prime minister of Lithuania as a "private citizen" in order not to weaken Gorbachev ...

And during Hu Jintao's "official" (not "state") visit to Washington, a series of gaffes and mistakes. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank described how the "protocol-obsessed Chinese leader suffered a day full of indignities -- some intentional, others just careless." A reporter for a Falun Gong affiliated newspaper with a prior record of confronting Chinese leaders on their overseas trips was issued a press credential; the Secret Service took 3 minutes to respond; the official White House announcer introdued the national anthem of the "Republic of China" (the Nationalist style and retained by the government on Taiwan), and so on.

Standard responses: sorry, mistakes are made; we have a free press and it is difficult to control events, and so on. The problem is that the Chinese Embassy staff are not country cousins dazzled by life in Washington. Anyone who followed the 2004 presidential campaign knows how both the Bush and Kerry teams choreographed events, controlled access, stage-managed productions to a flourish. What's the credo of the Godfather? Accidents don't happen to people who treat accidents as a personal insult. So will they assume that these accidents were done deliberately, a way to call attention to U.S. complaints about China (religious persecution, Falun Gong, Taiwan), but without having to put the president on the spot?

All of this begs a more serious question. The Sino-American relationship is one of the most critical building blocks of the international political and economic order. China cannot "go away" (not certainly if we want our debt financed). How do we deal with disagreements and tensions? Do we downplay them in our official statements but have them pop up "with plausible deniability"? I don't know.

At any rate, as Milbank pointed out: "Bush apologized to the angry Chinese leader in the Oval Office. "Frankly, we moved on," National Security Council official Dennis Wilder told reporters later. It was, he said, a "momentary blip."

Maybe, but Hu was in no mood to make concessions."

So, instead of any major breakthrough, what did the White House announce today?

"MEDICARE CHECK-UP: Prescription Drug Benefit Enrollment Hits 30 Million . . . ."

And we're surprised at how the talks on Iran in Moscow are going?

Neo-Conservative Realist on Iran?

I read Reuel Marc Gerecht's "To Bomb or Not to Bomb" in the April 24th issue of The Weekly Standard with great interest. Of course, I didn't care for the use of "realist" in quotation marks as a synonym for "the do nothing" crowd. But I found it refreshing that Gerecht followed the same approach as Pat Lang and Larry Johnson did in the spring TNI in assessing the consequences of different types of action vis-a-vis Iran.

What is most useful is that Gerecht's article is much more sober in assessing risks and costs. No "going to be greeted with sweets", no "we can foment ethnic rebellion against Tehran", no "Iran can be easily turned into a democracy", no "this is over in six months." He talks about years, he talks about real challenges, he talks about having to stay focused.

I would disagree with some of his assessments--but what makes the piece useful (and in marked contrast to some of the other Iran pieces that have appeared that make it seem that Iran would be so easy to solve, if only we applied the right level of will and force), it does take into account different scenarios and potential unintended consequences.

Gerecht abandons what Harvey Sicherman in Orbis last year described as the "hustle" in foreign policy--promising decisive action at low cost--and lays out strategy--what are our objectives, what are costs, what are consequences. Significantly, I read his piece and felt that a major point is that the purpose of U.S. action should primarily be to remove the nuclear threat. If democracy can be facilitated as a side benefit, fine; encourage it, great--but the focus is on removing a threat. This article seems to be much more focused on threat management than on taking, as its starting point, grand transformation.

This is the piece that should have appeared, by the way, in 2002, prior to Iraq. Perhaps we would have a lot less disillusionment and we could be having a more realistic discussion about Iraq.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dealing in Contradictions

This was an editorial I wrote in 2004. I think it still has relevance today.

Dealing in Contradictions

Nikolas Gvosdev

One of the alarming tendencies in American discourse about foreign policy is the prevalence of "if A, then B" style thinking. Like Marxists clinging to dialectical materialism, we tend to act in a way that if our first assumption is correct, all our subsequent ones must be also.

Here are some of the reigning ones:

1) Iraqis were glad to be liberated from Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Therefore, they support U.S. plans for their country.
In 2003], Ray Takeyh and I observed, " Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein but show little inclination to be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic or foreign policy." Opinion polls taken in Iraq confirm this--most Iraqis are indeed grateful that the United States removed Saddam Hussein, but this gratitude has not transformed itself into a desire to accept American control of Iraq's destiny.

2) The governments in Iran and Cuba are repressive. Therefore, they lack popular legitimacy (and do not have to be engaged).

In this era of enthusiasm for democracy, it is easy to overlook that a government that represses its citizens may still have key sources of legitimacy, especially to the extent it can tap into nationalist sentiment. Iranians may grumble about the Guardian Council's decision to ban reformist candidates and its track record of eviscerating reforms; Cubans continue to leave the island in search of a better life elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that U.S. forces bent on "regime change" would be greeted with flowers and candy by the locals. It also means that "stick only" policies--such as sanctions--are based in a flawed assumption that these regimes are "near collapse" and only require "just a little more pressure" to fold.

Selective engagement policies, on the other hand, recognize that the regimes in Havana and Tehran have some staying power without conveying a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." It recognizes that there are some immediate interests that cannot be met while waiting for a regime to "eventually" fall.

3) Countries that are democratic do not seek weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, democratization is a counter-proliferation policy.

As Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House, argues in his piece on "democratic hegemony" that will appear in the forthcoming summer 2004 issue of the magazine, tyrannies have sought weapons of mass destruction as a way to thwart or forestall pressure to liberalize and to conform to international rules of good behavior.

So if a regime is no longer tyrannical, it will no longer seek weapons of mass destruction, right?

This assumes that its motivation for developing WMD had to do with its form of internal governance. India and Israel--democracies both--developed a nuclear deterrent because they believed that the security of their states was in jeopardy without it and that other states would not rush to their defense (Israel facing the Arab world, India facing China and Pakistan).

Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah. And it is interesting that the press has been quoting young Iranians--those who are most dissatisfied with the rule of the mullahs--who proclaim that they will not stand by and allow their country to be forcibly disarmed.

My guess is that even a full-fledged liberal democracy in Iran would keep intact the country's nuclear infrastructure, even if pledging not to actually assemble weapons (as India did between 1974 and 1998) as a hedge, given the neighborhood. And my guess is that a peacefully reunified Korea might keep the infrastructure constructed by the north, for the same reason.

Assumptions are necessary to help guide thinking about policy decisions. But assumptions need to be revised in the light of actual events.

W.W.t.B.D.? Offshore balancing.

One of the strategic lessons the East Romans learned after Justinian's campaigns to reconquer large sections of the old Empire was that large-scale occupations drain resources. By the mid-point of the Byzantine Empire (the so-called "Macedonian Renaissance"), the strategy has shifted, both in Western Europe but more importantly in the Black Sea basin (and the key strategic sectors controlling access to the Eurasian plains)--to maintaining control of only a few key outposts that could easily be resupplied by sea and from which power could be projected rapidly and quickly (e.g. outposts in the Crimea, the "Exarchate of Italy)--and which could be brought to bear to support local, pro-Byzantine powers (the Khazar Khanate, etc.).

Would Byzantine strategists have moved to occupy Iraq? Probably not. They most likely would have taken control of some key strategic facilities, and then identified locals who could take over various districts and regions.

I think that the Byzantines would have been in full agreement with the strategic vision outlined by Lawrence of Arabia that will in turn serve as the basis for an interesting essay in our summer issue by John Hulsman and Alexis Debat, "In Praise of Warlords."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

W.W.t.B.D.? Iran.

As the Moscow meetings get underway, Russia has again reiterated its opposition to using punitive sanctions against Iran, and China also signaled it does not yet support a move to sanctions.

So what would the Byzantines do? They would, I think, support the idea of backing opposition groups to pressure the regime, although I think they would go about it with a greater degree of finesse. Obviously, creating democracy would not be on the agenda, and their support of the opposition would be tactical, to be ended when needed.

I think, however, that they would have a much more direct and mercenary approach. How much would it cost to end the program? Is such a cost worth paying, and would there be adequate guarantees?

It seemed that the EU-3 was inching toward this approach, but in our modern world of "ethical" foreign policies outright bribery is seen as somewhat distasteful.

Covert operations? The Byzantines were big fans of the use of intrigue. They would probably have paid agents in place close to the centers of power.

Getting others to do the fighting. The lesson of the First Crusade!


My toddler son Adrian has discovered the joy of re-arranging books in the library and so I had the opportunity to become reacquainted with Dimitri Obolensky's Byzantium and the Slavs. One of the chapters, "The Theory and Practice of Byzantine Diplomacy", seemed to be quite relevant to current events.

The Byzantine-East Roman Empire was the superpower of its day, with multiple international commitments, a near-monopoly on advanced military technology (Greek fire being the WMD of the day), and a small but very professional military. The Byzantines were the first to really develop what we would recognize as an intelligence service--and some of the areas of the world they were most involved in are the same that bedevil us today (Persia, the Eurasian plain, etc.)

Obolensky and others have always lamented the lack of excellent, in-depth studies of the Byzantine diplomatic experience. I would go further and express regret that Byzantine lessons aren't studied for insight today.

What Would the Byzantines Do? will be the guiding theme this week for The Washington Realist.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Russia to Host Iran Talks

It will be interesting to see whether, at these talks next Tuesday, some version of the Scowcroft proposal might be placed on the table. Certainly, it is clear that Russia and China want to shift the focus away from Iran-the-regime to the non-proliferation question, which is their primary concern.

Will there be an attempt to get Washington to essentially forego efforts at regime change if a united front on what to do about Iran emerges at these talks?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Unreality in Washington

It can get increasingly difficult to attend think-tank events in the DC area.

I am tired about hearing the U.S. described as a superpower. Yes, we are. Big whup.

The reality is that there are severe domestic constraints on how we can utilize and deploy that power. We can put less troops into the field today that Mussolini's Italy--and Italy of the 1930s was far from being the world's greatest power. Americans do not want to assume the burden of empire--which is why we seem to have to resort to lies to motivate them (the "next Hitler", the imminent mushroom cloud, etc.)

Moreover, our economic prosperity depends on many factors no longer under our control--imported energy, supply chains (read Barry Lynn on this!), etc. We require the active cooperation of the intelligence services of other states in areas where we have limited reach.

The free lunch attitude is also irritating me. Because we seek to do good in the world, others will reward our virtue. That the U.S. only seeks to do good, not to advance its own interests.

I liked John Owen's piece in the current issue because he notes why other states, even other democracies, may not see the extension of democracy as being in their interests, but also because he notes some hard-headed, realpolitik reasons why democracy promotion serves U.S. interests. Perhaps being out at Charlottesville puts him beyond the beltway.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Gas, Russia, Realism

Gasoline price check: saw regular gasoline priced at $2.85 at a service station on New York Avenue in Washington, DC. Prices inexorably creeping upward.

As with the Iraq war, so with Russia: we have had an opportunity to "test" the theories of the pundits. The prevailing rage: that we could have a selective relationship with Russia that would not compromise vital U.S. interests. That theory only works, as it did during World War II, if the threat posed to one side is equally a threat to the other. We don't have convergence on Iran.

So we have several choices.

One choice, and one whose proponents I respect for their consistency, is to argue that Russia in the end does not matter or cannot or will not offer any real assistance. Therefore pursuing a policy of neo-containment in the Eurasian space should not depend on Iran policy since the United States should be prepared to shoulder the burden of dealing with Iran without Russian assistance.

If Iran is such a major threat to the United States, as both the president and the secretary of state have stated in recent weeks, the "number one" national security priority, then it is a bit surprising that we don't seem more concerned. If we think we need international assistance for dealing with Iran, then isn't it time to start the negotiations with China, Russia, etc.?

I think that we continue to have a great deal of unrealism in this town that difficult problems must have cost-free solutions. I again commend the Lang/Johnson piece on Iran in the current issue--outlining every course of action against Iran (including doing nothing) and pointing out that all of them have high costs.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Georgia: Instability Prediction

Some people were surprised when, at the annual conference of the Professionals in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Affairs at Georgetown today, I shared an analyst's prediction about possible instability in Georgia and the chance--up to 50 percent--that Mikheil Saakashvili may not end up serving out two full terms in office.

There is a certain naive optimism that colored revolutions create permanent state of affairs, a point that Irving Louis Horowitz, writing in the spring issue of TNI, makes clear is a fallacy. Democratic transitions are always reversible.

The prediction of instability doesn't seem far-fetched. Another massive energy crisis, a successful prison break, blowback from a failed military offensive in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Or the problem in any super-presidential system where political parties, the parliament and regional authorities are weak--a crisis strikes the president and if there is no adequate means of succession, the state becomes dangerously unstable.

We should be prepared for contingencies like these ...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Dance Begins ... India, Iran and the United States

Secretary of State Rice made a strong case on the Hill for ratification of the U.S.-India nuclear deal ... but now the dance begins.

The United States has a number of real concerns. India's ties with Iran, supevision of the civilian nuclear program, etc. Ratify the deal first and Washington potentially loses leverage over India. Impose too many conditions and reservations and India may get the message that no deal is likely to be forthcoming.

India has concerns. What happens if New Delhi accommodates all of Washington's concerns in advance--and the deal still can't make it through due to the combined efforts of the Pakistan and arms control/nonproliferation lobbies? It is the bird in hand versus two in the bush dilemma.

I think the real pitfall lies in the fact that both sides are going to try and hedge their bets. India is one of the best examples that democracy at home does not always translate into harmonious alignment with the United States abroad. The U.S. has a good deal of leverage based on what it has to offer--not only in the nuclear field but in so many different areas--but some of it is also "one time" leverage, meaning that the U.S. will not be in a position to turn the tap on and off at will (hence the hesitation of some members of Congress over India's Iran ties).

Sooner or later we will reach the plunge point where we either go ahead or we don't. The fate of this deal should be closely monitored.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Getting Russia Wrong

We hosted Alexei Pushkov today, the host of the Russian news and analysis program Post Scriptum (perhaps it might be compared to Nightline), which runs on Center-TV, a station which is not under the control of the Russian federal government. Alexei is also a contributing editor to The National Interest. While he agrees with the general direction of Russia, he is always blunt and frank and never hesitates to offer insightful criticism.

Alexei opened his remarks by questioning the commonly-held perception in the West that Russia under Vladimir Putin is "no longer" a democracy. From the Russian perspective, he said, what they had under Boris Yeltsin was not a real democracy--it was a period when state assets were lotted, when elections were manipulated, and when the country teetered on the brink of anarchy.

Whether you like Putin or not, he is a democratically-elected leader, he noted. He currently has a 76 percent approval rating and polls conducted by the independent Levada center indicate that if he were to stand for a third term, he would get 45-50 percent of the vote.

Because the State Duma and the Federation Council are under the management of the Kremlin administration, they are less democratic; the appointment of governors is also technically less democratic but is a gamble that appointment from the center will produce local leaders less in the pocket of local oligarchs and criminal elements.

With regard to the mass media, Pushkov said that it was the freest in the late Gorbachev period. After 1994 it fell under oligarchic control and was used by them to further their own private interests. There was pluralism only to the extent that different media outlets belong to different oligarchic groups. What you have today is the replacement of oligarchic control by state control designed in theory to ensure that the media promotes the national interest, although government control can be unneeded and excessive at times.

He compared political developments to the swing of the pendulum, from anarchic, manipulated "so-called" democracy of the Yeltsin era to a moderate authoritarianism under Putin with strong bureaucratic controls but with a wide zone of freedoms for Russians. The danger is that bureaucratic clans could replace oligarchs--but he expressed optimism that under Putin, the government is more responsive to the society, citing, for example, how reform of welfare benefits was altered after massive civil society protests.

He rejected the notion that in foreign policy Russia is becoming more imperialistic, saying that Russia pursues its interests and seeks to maximize influence and that economic tools are part of that process. He noted that democratic countries often tie economic benefits to political goals--what was the purpose of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment?

Russian foreign policy is less pro-Western today but it is also based on a clearer conception of Russian national interests. Russia may agree in general principle with the United States (e.g. Iran should not have a nuclear weapons capability) but this does not mean Russia will support the U.S. position 100 percent.

Moreover, he was very blunt: what are rewards for full support of the U.S. position? That the administration and Congress will graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik? Who cares? Symbolic gestures are not enough. He cited the U.S. torpedoing the Moldovan peace settlement in 2003 as sending a very negative symbol to Russia that even in an area of less than prime importance to U.S. national interests, Washington was more concerned about allowing Russia to set an agenda for the post-Soviet space or giving credence to Putin's ability to help settle the frozen conflicts of the region.

Is Russia a problem or partner for the United States? If the United States defines its national interests as the pursuit of global hegemony, then there will be difficulties; supporting America's global leadership to work constructively with other countries is another matter altogether. Here there is ample room for a productive U.S.-Russia partnership.

An interesting view from Moscow.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Gas Price Tipping Point

While filling up today, at approximately $2.70 per gallon, I was reminded of a comment Robin West made at a luncheon at the magazine last summer; that $3 per gallon gas was the political tipping point. In particular, he noted that the American pattern of exurban development would start to come under serious pressure if gas prices moved above the $3 mark.

I have run across real optimists in Washington who insist that what goes up must come down, based on the price cycle of the 1970s and 1980s, but I can't see a real fall in the price unless India and China moderate their demand; Iraq comes back fully online; there is no instability in Nigeria or Iran; there is a constant move towards shifting to alternative liquids (as James Schlesinger noted in our winter 2005/06 issue, the energy crisis is a liquids crisis, the problem of powering our transporation infrastructure).

And I don't know if we are doing enough to 1) take measures to weather short-term crises and 2) to really prepare for the transition away from oil. These are issues that we will try to address in the summer issue of the magazine.

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