Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Running for the Exit

I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.
 —Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, writing about Joe Biden in his 2014 book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

[T]he likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
 —President Biden, discussing Afghanistan in a press conference on July 8

This is a foreign policy catastrophe, the likes we haven’t seen in decades, I’m afraid, internationally
 —Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, commenting on the Afghanistan situation in a radio interview on Monday
In the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was much media speculation about how much it might, at the end, resemble the country’s chaotic retreat from Vietnam in 1975. As it happened, there were a lot of similarities. From panic at the U.S. embassy, among others, to desperate last-minute crowding at the capital’s airport, there was plenty of fodder for déjà vu for those of us who remember well the fall of Saigon.

For one thing, the endgame was set up by a peace treaty. In the earlier case, it was the Nixon Administration’s pact with North Vietnam, which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. In the current situation, it was the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban a year and a half ago. In both cases, those pieces of paper were tossed aside once a subsequent U.S. administration pulled troops out suddenly. In 1975 it was the Ford Administration, which had little choice after Congress cut off all Vietnam funding. Today it is the Biden Administration, which announced four months ago the drawdown of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

One difference between the two situations is the reaction of America’s hard political left.

“Ho Chi Minh puts a lot of hope in our hearts,” declared a woman attending a spontaneous celebration in April 1975. “As we practice the philosophies we believe in we forget that there are other people who believe in the same thing but practice it differently because of their environment. The greater struggle lies ahead.”

Added a war veteran-turned-anti-war-activist, “It’d be so far out to be there right now.” He was referring to the capital of soon-to-be-absorbed South Vietnam, which had just been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The above quotes are from a 46-year-old event in Isla Vista, the densely populated student ghetto abutting the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. They were chronicled in the student newspaper The Nexus, and yes, I was the hack scribe who reported them. A similar event had been held weeks earlier to mark Cambodia’s surrender to the Khmer Rouge.

Some of the people at the April event were there simply to express relief at the final end of the war and the U.S.’s involvement in the region. Others were wholeheartedly celebrating a U.S. defeat at the hands of Communists. For others, the celebratory mood may have been more about something more general: a former colony casting out a Western superpower.

I can’t imagine that very many on the political left today are celebrating the Taliban’s victory. I no longer have the contacts I did during my Seattle days, so I’m not really sure. If any are celebrating, though, it cannot be without mixed feelings. While the new rulers of Afghanistan have done their best to project a more presentable image as their return to power loomed, their track record and unabashed world view suggest their rule will be a disaster for anyone who cares about western liberal democratic values in general or the rights of women and minorities in particular. In my experience, though, the hard left tends to see such rights and social issues not as ends in themselves but mainly as issues to exploit tactically in their ultimate aim: to see the that right people end up in charge.

To be clear, when I talk about the “hard left,” I’m not talking about people who vote for Democrats. My experience with hard-core leftists is that they mainly vote for fringe candidates in protest or, more often, don’t vote at all. If they do vote for a Democrat, it’s usually grudgingly and/or tactically. They do, however, show up en masse at demonstrations and protests, which sometimes results in generating enthusiasm and motivation for Democratic-leaning voters.

While the hard left is definite minority in America, it’s hard not to notice that views once considered on the political fringe have infiltrated the mainstream. A sign of this is the ardent media coverage—both left and right—of the so-called “squad,” a half-dozen Representatives who, according to opinion polls anyway, are well to the left of most Democrats—let alone most Americans.

As for Afghanistan, those of us who have seen this movie before know pretty much what to expect. In North America and Europe there will be reflections and recriminations about how the occupation of the country began and why it turned out the way it did. In Southwest Asia there will be strife and misery and perhaps yet another refugee crisis. (For years after the fall of South Vietnam, waves of so-called “boat people” flooded out of the country.) There will be heartbreaking tales of people, mainly women, whose lives and opportunities will be set back to a previous century. One also has to ask if Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will go back to being a haven and base for international terrorists.

In the last presidential election, we were told a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for returning to normalcy, sanity and competency. Things are definitely back to what’s considered normal in Washington, and I suppose the capital is as sane as it’s ever been—for whatever that’s worth. Competency? Even if you think ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was a good idea, you still have to wonder if the terms of withdrawal couldn’t have been negotiated better and whether the actual exit could have been handled more competently.

Watching Biden on countless Sunday morning news programs in the 1990s and 2000s, it was always clear to me he considered himself a foreign policy maven. Yet, to anyone paying attention, it was also clear that his ideas—which were just that, since as a senator or even vice-president he had little discernible influence on actual policy—were always a little off from establishment foreign policy thinking. Whether it was his idea of splitting Iraq into three countries or advising President Obama not to pull the trigger on Osama bin Laden, he always seemed oddly contrarian.

Reportedly, Biden overruled his top military advisers in following through on the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban. You have to wonder what that says about his judgment as he faces upcoming crises with places like Iran and North Korea.

Biden’s real strength was always in domestic politics, and that probably tells us more about his handling of Afghanistan than all his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Apparently, polls said that getting out of Afghanistan ranked as very popular among U.S. voters. If it remains popular after this fiasco—even after heart-wrenching footage of people clinging to taxiing aircraft in Kabul—then maybe the president will have succeeded on his own terms.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Bot and Sold

This is a cross-posting with my movie blog.

A funny thing happened on my film blog last month. No, it wasn’t something I wrote—or at least that’s not what I’m talking about anyway.

I have a page where each month I present a few statistics from the previous month. Mostly it’s to get an idea of who is looking at my blog but also to amuse myself. The page features a pie chart showing the various countries from where I am getting hits. Historically, about half the hits are from the United States with the next larger slices from places like the UK, Ireland and Canada. After that the slices get pretty fragmented into a few dozen other countries all over the world. I also list the ten weekly commentaries in my archive that have gotten the most hits. And then just for fun I list five of the most entertaining web searches that have found my site.

When I went to gather the numbers for May, I encountered something that hadn’t happened before. Ninety-seven percent of the hits were from one country, and that country was Indonesia. The U.S. came in second with two percent. Twenty-six other countries were tallied with percentages rounded off to insignificance.

Why did internet users in Indonesia suddenly take an interest in my movie reviews? The answer is that they almost certainly didn’t. Something else was going on. I think the term we’re looking for here is web bots.

While such a massive number of hits from one country is unprecedented for my humble site, this weird kind of bot activity is not. Only very belated did I realize that my site was prowled by Russian bots coming up to the 2016 election. During September, October and November of that year, 11.9 percent of my hits came from Russia (after Ireland at 34.13 percent and the U.S. at 20.45 pecent). That had never happened before. Historically, my hits from Russia had always been nil or negligible. Cluelessly, I just shrugged and thought it must have had something to do with a few movies I had reviewed that were made by an Azerbaijani filmmaker. He had contacted me through a Russian email address (Azerbaijan being a former republic in the USSR), and I figured that he must have just had a lot of friends and relatives checking out my reviews of his films.

It was an embarrassingly long time afterward that it dawned on me that it might have had something to do with the 2016 presidential election. In my defense, I was kind of oblivious to the Russian trolling thing because none of those political bot messages everyone talked about seemed to show up in my Facebook feed. Did you know that hidden in your Facebook settings is a profile page where Facebook displays all the information it think it’s found out about you—things like religion, political preference, etc.? From this I know that Facebook has never been able to figure out what political party I support, and maybe that’s why I somehow avoided all the bot propaganda that I kept hearing about in the wake of President Trump’s election.

When the 2020 election rolled around, I was more savvy, so I kept an eye out for any more bot funny business. Sure enough, the numbers went screwy again. In the period from September to November 2020, the second and third most hits (after the U.S. at 36.09 percent) were from Hong Kong (20.26 percent) and China (7.56 percent), respectively. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Does that mean Chinese bots were working mischief during the election? People who had screamed bloody hell about Russian interference four years earlier did not seem concerned about it anyway. After all, the right candidate had won.

What does it all mean? Beats me. I don’t mind all the extra hits, but it would be nice if, while the bots are at it, they’d click on some of ads and maybe buy something.

We’re definitely in a strange time when it comes to the internet. A few times lately our broadband service has been disrupted by denial-of-service attacks by malicious cyber actors. Also, the entire Irish healthcare system has been forced to go retro because of a ransomware attack (traced by the authorities to Russia) that put its online systems out of commission. That points up the risks in having systems that are overly centralized. There may be other lessons as well. More than one acquaintance who happens to be a nurse has said that they love having the system down. It means a lot less time filling out online forms and more time actually working with patients. It also means fewer statistics on Covid ‑19 cases and death and on progress with vaccinations on the nightly news—something the government may not be all that unhappy about.

Okay, I can understand all the Russian bot activity in 2016 and all the Chinese bot activity in 2020, but what the heck is the deal with Indonesia in May of 2021? That one has me completely confounded. I can only hope the bots are aimed directly at me because one of the characters in my most recent novel Searching for Cunégonde happened to have an Indonesian father.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dates with Destiny

This is a cross-posting with my book blog.

Coming up with titles for a book or a story can be either easy or frustrating.

In the case of the first two installments of the Dallas Green trilogy, the titles came fairly easily. In fact, I had the title Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead in my head for a long time before I seriously tackled the book itself. It was something a good friend of mine quipped during a discussion about Mexico, and it stuck in my head for years. When it came time for the sequel, the idea of Lautaro’s Spear came to me fairly easily, keeping consistency with the mention of major historical figures of Latin America. The third book, though, was a real struggle. I considered all kinds of figures from Irish history and legend but found them all unworkable. I ended up on settling for Searching for Cunégonde, which referenced a fictional character from French literature.

As for the fantasy books, I had had The Three Towers of Afranor in my pocket since high school. The Curse of Septimus Bridge was likewise straightforward, and I had the title of that book’s sequel settled (for now anyway) before I even started writing.

When coming up with titles for books, I try to come up with something that hasn’t been used before and which aspires to being unusual or unique. The goal, which may or may not be misguided, is to have something that would be easy to find in a web search.

Interestingly, coming up with a title for my recent short story proved to be one of the more frustrating experiences in coming with a title. I liked the idea of having a French word in it since one of the two main characters is French. Since the plot essentially consists of a meeting, the word rendezvous lent itself. As a title, though, it is hardly unique. If you search that title on the Internet Movie Database, you find there are no fewer than 150 feature films, short films, TV episodes that have the title Rendezvous, Rendez-Vous, Rendez-vous or some other variation as an original title or alternative (e.g. foreign language) title. The good news is that titles cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing to stop writers like me from reusing them. The drawback is the risk of having one’s work overshadowed by a better known one with the same name.

It’s not just films and books that have titles though. Something one may not think about is that political cartoons can have titles. I was reminded of this fairly soon after I released my short story as a small e‑book. One morning I glanced at The Times of London to see a cartoon by Peter Brookes lampooning U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s high-level meeting on climate in Shanghai in mid-April. Provocatively, it portrays Kerry and his Chinese interlocutor meeting cheerfully over the body of a Uighur while power plants belch out smoke in the background. The title is “Climate Change Rendezvous.”

This cartoon is a blatant homage to the famous Evening Standard cartoon by David Low which appeared in September 1939. That one was called simply “Rendezvous,” and in that context the word harkens back to its original meaning (before the French began using it to mean appointment or date): a place for troops to assemble.

Low’s cartoon depicted Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin meeting with exaggerated gestures of politeness over the body of a fallen Polish soldier. The cartoon was published 27 days after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact containing a secret protocol dividing Poland into “spheres of influence” between the Soviet Union and Germany; 19 days after Germany invaded Poland; and three days after the Soviets invaded the country. This joint military action was the official beginning of World War II.

It seems harsh to draw a parallel between talks over climate change and a cynical accord to carve up a sovereign nation, but if political cartoonists know anything, it is that subtlety and nuance are not friends to those trying to get a point across in a single image. Also, shock has a certain value when it comes to attracting eyeballs—and hopefully, brains. In the end, the cartoon is not really about climate change.

The plight of the Uighurs, referenced in Brookes’s cartoon, has been ongoing since the region was forcibly incorporated into China in 1930 but has escalated since 2014 when the Chinese government began the internment of more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in state-sponsored camps. Testimonies have described suppression of religious practices, political indoctrination, forced sterilizations and abortions, and infanticides. Critics have labeled Chinese policy both ethnocide and cultural genocide and have compared it to the Holocaust. So the cartoon’s comparison to the Hitler and Stalin regimes is not that far off after all.

Still, it may be unfair to imply, as the cartoon seems to, a moral equivalence between the U.S. and China, given that the Chinese government bears the responsibility for its brutal treatment of the Uighurs. Still, the suggestion that the U.S. government may be turning something akin to a blind eye to the atrocities in pursuit of a possibly quixotic climate deal with the Chinese is arguably fair comment. A century from now, will history celebrate John Kerry’s efforts at climate negotiation—or will the question loom larger of why the world left Uighur men, women and children to their fate?

That recalls another use of the word rendezvous. Politicians as dissimilar as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have at critical moments memorably invoked a moral crossroads with a common phrase—rendezvous with destiny.