A new cold war

On Stephen Kotkin, ‘Myth of the new cold war’, Prospect First Drafts, March 28, 2008

Deepak Tripathi

I am sorry to inject a bit of confusion, but, actually, both Kotkin and Edward Lucas (an ex-colleague many years ago in the BBC World Service) could be right in whether there is a new cold war. It depends on perceptions. And the central players in the new cold war may not be America and Russia.
The last cold war which ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union was more real because it involved a prolonged confrontation between two different power blocs, each with a clear ideology and social system. The West, which saw Soviet communism as a threat, engaged in containment until the USSR collapsed. China’s break from the Soviet Union and strategic defection to the West muddied the waters, but the divisions between the two main power blocs remained intact.

Today, if neoconservatives, and those who buy their rhetoric, are to be believed, radical Islam has replaced communism as the main threat to Western liberal democracies. It is a greatly mistaken view, because one billion Muslims spread all over the world cannot be seen as a single bloc. There are so many shades and interpretations of Islam. Followers of the Islamic faith live in different cultures. And there is no line of demarcation between Western liberalism and Islam as such.

Despite the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’, President George W Bush is engaged in what is widely seen, rightly or wrongly, in the Muslim world and elsewhere as containment (of Islam).

Many in the West and the Muslim world see each other as a threat. Steps taken by states in the name of combating the threat – immigration, visa restrictions, collection of private information, personal profiling, stop and search policing of immigrants – can easily be seen as part of a containment policy.

These are features of a new cold war, or shall we say ‘war on terror’. Today’s ‘new cold war’, if there is one, is a product more of perceptions, less of reality. And Russia, if anything, is an ally of the West. I await the arrival of the next President in the White House in the hope there will be less strident rhetoric and ignorance.


Understanding suicide bombers

On The American Prospect Magazine – Ezra Klein Blog, ‘Mr AQI and US’, March 24, 2008

Deepak Tripathi

One thing that frequently strikes me is poor knowledge of history when experts discuss suicide bombers. If they are to be believed, people who are prepared to die as they launch attacks are ‘weird’, even ‘deranged’. For us in western countries, it does seem strange that anybody would want to blow themselves up to kill others. Al-Qaeda tactics are seen as new by terrorism pundits of today.

Not so, actually.

The concept of martyrdom while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy goes back hundreds of years if not more. When the Mughal armies repeatedly invaded what is now India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, soldiers of Hindu princely states with saffron turbans on went to fight in the certainty of being killed (they too called it martyrdom). Back home, their women lit up funeral piers and jumped into flames for fear of being violated by the enemy. Similar episodes happened during the struggle for Indian independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We know about the Japanese practice of hara-kiri and about Tamil suicide bombers more recently. Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad or Hamas suicide bombers are not unusual in the context of history. Hindus and Christians did it, as recently as just twenty years ago in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. And a small number of Islamic fundamentalists are doing it now, with disastrous consequences.  

I believe in liberal, democratic values. From where I stand, there is something fundamentalist about all acts of deliberate self-sacrifice, however misplaced the belief which drives individuals to suicide attacks. But I have the luxury of a comfortable, relatively carefree lifestyle. I do not know the suffering, the pain, the humiliation of those who are at the other end. And I cannot appreciate how a tiny number of young people – children of middle-class families – are so profoundly affected by what they see that they are prepared to do the most unthinkable.

Fundamentalism cannot be fought with fundamentalism of the opposite kind.

It requires security measures in the short run and, in the long run, genuine political steps that will deprive Osama bin Laden of his constituency.    

The tragedy of Tibet

On John Kelly, ‘Gordon Brown agrees to meet Dalai Lama in May’, Prospect First Drafts, March 20, 2008

Deepak Tripathi  

When a powerful nation is rattled, its leaders usually resort to brute force and intemperate language. This is what we see in the recent conduct of the Chinese authorities in Tibet. Terms of abuse like ‘the Dalai clique’ and unproven accusations that the Dalai Lama has orchestrated the recent riots in Tibet illustrate this. Few people outside China find such allegations credible.

Repression and rebellion are frequent companions. Violence cannot be condoned, but equally a repressed people can take only so much. The Dalai Lama’s sadness and frustration were all too obvious when he described the Chinese crackdown in Tibet as a ‘cultural genocide’. Restrictions on the teaching of Tibetan, freedom to practice religion and way of life over half a century are a deliberate campaign against Tibetan culture. Despite all this, Tibetans have shown extraordinary resilience over the last 50 years.

The world had abandoned Tibet years ago. What makes the tragedy even greater now is that, in the post-9/11 world, the state can do no wrong in dealing with citizens who oppose its repressive policies. The Chinese government depicts the Tibetan protestors, many of them Buddhist monks, as a small politically-motivated group of criminals. Yet China admits that the disturbances have spread to neighbouring provinces of Tibet. President George W Bush says that politics has no part to play in the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. His words must be music to the ears of Chinese leaders.

Nonetheless, recent events are a reminder that, for all its economic success, there is a festering crisis in China. Almost twenty years ago, a systemic crisis led to upheaval in what was the Soviet Union. The character of the Chinese crisis may not be wholly economic. But the boom has created a dangerous gap between rich and poor.

Economic development gives discontented people means to communicate – mobile phones, internet cafes and, to some extent, freer word of mouth through travellers. Communication in restrictive societies leads to the very political debate which their rulers do not welcome.


Iraq: Taking Stock Five Years On

On Seumas Milne, ‘Blowback all over again’, Guardian Comment, March 21, 2008

Deepak Tripathi  

The architects of the war in Iraq are congratulating themselves, equipped with new ‘public opinion surveys’ and ‘figures’ demonstrating that the ‘surge’ has reduced violence in the country. Seumas Milne’s excellent article brings a much-needed perspective to the debate.

As Milne points out, behind the surge, in large part, are the Sunni militiamen in the Awakening Council, an American creation, which is showing signs of falling apart. The militia was as big as 80,000 strong I did not know and I thank Milne for bringing the size to my notice. A disaffected parallel army of this size is a time bomb. What can be expected of a militia consisting of hired gunmen, on daily wages, who have not been paid?

Future threats aside, and there are many, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution in Washington presents a noteworthy analysis today of the Iraq war. Someone with a critical mind, instead of buying the propaganda, would do well to put Riedel’s analysis alongside President Bush’s claim that the war has been a strategic victory for America.

Just who have been the winners? It is widely acknowledged now that Iran is a big winner. Iran’s enemy number one in the region, Saddam Hussein, has gone and the secularist Baathist Party has been dismantled by none other than Paul Bremer – Bush’s first ‘Viceroy’ in Iraq. Iran’s relations with Baghdad are steadily improving, to the extent that President Ahmadinejad, whose country Bush threatens to bomb from time to time, visited the US-occupied Iraq just before the fifth anniversary of the invasion. Iraq is now a Shi’a-ruled country – something that weakens America’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan. The high price of oil suits Iran very well. Iranian businesses and intelligence in the Shi’a-dominated southern Iraq thrive. It has significant oil reserves and the only outlet to the sea.

The Kurds are winners, because they have an independent state in all but name. It points to some nightmarish prospects for Turkey, which is becoming increasingly edgy. A strong and confident Iran is bad news for Israel in Hamas-dominated Gaza and Lebanon, where Hezbollah thwarted an Israeli invasion two years ago.

It looks like a strategic victory, but not for America. Meanwhile, Washington continues to arm Sunni militias in a flawed strategy to fight Al-Qaeda. In a country where corruption is rampant and loyalties can change overnight, such short-termism is a recipe for further trouble.

Not long ago in the 1980s, the United States armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the results are all here to see. A large militia like the Awakening Council, with tens of thousands of hired men, in effect on daily wages, is a sign of things to come. Clearly, Bush and Cheney live in oblivion.