Wednesday, 19 September 2012

In the Wake of the Surge, and Where the West Ends

by Michael J. Totten, a journalist and writer I discovered through World Affairs Journal.  'In The Wake of the Surge' is a group of dispatches from Iraq following the stroke of strategic genius that was General David Petraeus' decision to create a "surge" of troops in Iraq to finish the job.  It worked.  The dispatches are fascinating.  Most of what is said about Iraq is said by people who have never been there.  Even if they have they do not know the country or many people.  For example, the Kurds.  Who, as I predicted years ago, led the Americans to Saddam Hussein (who, incidentally, had a great death, ranting at the world with a noose round his neck until they led him away to be hanged, unlike Colonel Gaddafy, who was pulled from a hole in the ground and shot like the mad dog he was).  Iraqi Kurds like the Israelis, and the Americans.  They don't like Arabs.  At all.  And no-one is their friend.  The mood in Iraq changed, after 2003, and changed back again more than once.  But Iraq is now one of the more stable countries in the region.   These dispatches are valuable because although every now and again Tony Blair pops up to put the Guardianistas right,he shouldn't have to do it all on his own.

'Where the West Ends', somewhat by contrast, is another series of essays or dispatches, but interestingly is about the notion of "The West", or "us" as the racist Guardian calls it. Where does it end?  How do you know when you are in it?  Because the essays have this theme, they are more than just a road diary.  In Iraqi Kurdistan the writer's companion takes a picture of a laser scanner in a shop, because it is one of the few things there that remind him of home.  "Iraq is the only country in the world where Kurds wield any power".  So it seems.  In the Balkans, where I have travelled too (I have never been to Iraq) he is clear that we are in Europe.  Myself, I thought parts of Serbia seen from the train were not very European at all, but there we are.  He cites Churchill, "The Balkans produce more history than they can consume", which has to be right, and frighteningly, Radovan Karadzic, "Sarajevans will not be counting the dead.  They will be counting the living".  Which is right too.  Readers know the place in my heart occupied by Sarajevo.  His travels in places in Serbia and Bosnia not frequented by tourists, in 2008, produced some ugly anti-American behaviour from Serbs.  Tony Blair was a hero to the non-Serb Kosovars, but although identified as British I received nothing but kindliness and courtesy from Serbs in both those countries in 2009.  Totten also remind us that Arab jihadists, who went to Kosovo to fight against the Serbs, were "tourists with guns" who had no effect on the outcome of the war.

These American travellers did seem a little naive.  They could not read Cyrillic, so got lost in Serbian Bosnia because they could not read the road signs.  They were anglophone and expected others to speak English, as Americans tend to do.  I did not go so far off the beaten track as they did, but I still needed my cod Russian to help me communicate, and my ability to read Cyrillic (which is not hard to do) helped a LOT.  These two went to McDonalds so they could point at pictures of food.  I never had to do that - and in former Yugoslavia you can eat very well.  They were even surprised to find that in Montenegro, where hardly anybody lives, there are not many street lights.  Why would anybody light the roads there?  "When the future of Yugloslavia looked dim and precarious, Slobodan Milosevic looked for a way to rise in [sic] power and keep it.  He found one when he transformed himself from a communist apparatchik to a Serbian nationalist."

Present-day former Yuglosavia (a concept I fear we are stuck with) is more interesting politically than most people think, as Totten shows us.  Macedonia, two-thirds Christian in population, has made common cause with the Wahhabis, mainly so that they can call their Albanian minority, who are hated by the Wahhabis, terrorists.  And remember (most don't), that well after the break-up of the former Yugloslavia, in 2001, there was actually a civil war in Macedonia.

The Caucasus, a trouble spot for centuries: "Russians are as prone to cognitive egocentrism - the projection of one's own psychology on to others - as everyone else", coupled with "Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?  Wherever it wants".  Gallup International, in a 2004 survey, identified Kosovo, Afghanistan, Israel and Georgia as the most pro-American countries in the world.  And this was before the 2008 invasion of Georgia by Russia, which invasion was, mysteriously to me, much applauded by some commenting on this blog at the time.  Totten uses more than once the term "geopolitical spa" about countries where Americans can take a bath in water not tainted with anti-Americanism (this is a metaphor).  He finds some quotes and sources which have led me to take a lot of notes for further reading.  They include Ukrainian emigre Wasyl Hryshko, who describes Soviet collectivisation in Ukraine as "the first instance of peacetime genocide in history".  If Totten wonders where the West really ends, he finds its end very close to the borders of the EU, in western Ukraine, where he was shocked by the decrepitude and lack of hope he found.

Read these.  They might make you think.  And if they don't your mind is probably closed.

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