29 May 2012
Recently in Grand Strategy in the Pacific I discussed the change of command at Pacom — US Pacific Command — and some remarks by the incoming admiral, Samuel J. Locklear III, in an article on the DOD website, Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance.
In the article cited above we find this explicit evocation of transnational threats:
Transnational threats pose another concern and area of emphasis for Pacom. Locklear identified cyber threats as the most daunting, noting the importance of secure networks not only for Pacom’s military operations, but also for regional stability and economic viability.
After a quote on the transnational threat posed by hackers, Admiral Locklear is quoted as follows:
“In the terrorist world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. [Terrorists] look for areas of opportunity. And they find areas of opportunity in places that are disenfranchised, that have poor economies and opportunity to change the mindset of the people looking for a better life but don’t know how to get it.”
The DOD article cites three specific transnational threats: cyber threats, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE previously cited in Grand Strategy in the Pacific cited transnational threats as one of five “Focus Areas” along with “Allies and Partners, China, India, North Korea.” Specifically, the strategic guidance document says this regarding transnational threats:
5. Counter Transnational Threats
i. Work with Allies and partners to build capacity and share information to counter violent extremism, transnational crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ii. Disrupt violent extremist organization networks and defeat the threats they pose.
iii. Partner with other nations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies.
The January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, does not mention exactly the same mix of threats found in the Pacom strategic guidance or Admiral Locklear’s remarks, but it does prominently refer to “violent extremists” on page one:
“…violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland. The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of
destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”
The concern regarding “violent extremists” is repeated on the next page:
“Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”
While the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document makes no explicit mention of “transnational” threats, in the above discussion of violent extremists these extremist movements are mentioned in conjunction with “non-state threats.” This is a theme that continues later in the same document:
“To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the global commons – those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms or other anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security.” (p. 3)
Compiling the remarks on particular threats from UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, and the quotes from Admiral Locklear, we get this list of presumably transnational threats:
● Cyber threats, cyber espionage, hacking
● terrorism, violent extremists, non-state threats
● transnational crime, including drug trafficking
● WMD proliferation, ballistic missiles, “the diffusion of destructive technology”
While I think few people would argue that these listed transnational threats are serious problems facing the world, and indeed most are recent threats that emerged as strategic trends in the late twentieth century and are only now coming into their own as major threats that could disrupt life and commerce in the major nation-states of the world (being threats to “regional stability and economic viability”), even from a purely conventional standpoint there are some problems with this strategic laundry list. I admire the concision and focus of these strategic guidance documents, but I am troubled by the overall strategic incoherence of the goals outlined.
The threats identified superficially present themselves as appropriate concerns for the world’s powers to seek to counter, but which fail to cohere as a grand strategy. The failure of a grand strategy to be coherent means that efforts can end up being at cross-purposes, dissipating themselves to little effect, meaning in turn that the threats may not be decisively met. Worse yet, if a threat comes under pressure, it will buckle and disappear if it was inconsequential, but if the threat is real and growing, and it meets with just enough pressure to stimulate it, to force its leadership to weld the organization into a disciplined force, a weak and insufficient effort to counter a strategic threat can be worse than no effort at all.
There is no question that transnational crime, especially highly profitable crime such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, often comes together with terrorism, violent extremists, and non-state threats to create a toxic and difficult to eradicate force. Violent extremists have no intrinsic objection to crime, and crime can be employed to pay the bills for ideologically motivated violence. The destabilizing effects of pervasive transnational crime creates further criminal opportunities in an escalating cycle of criminality. It is a legitimate strategic concern that networks of violent criminal elements will traffic in WMD and all manner of destructive technologies, but it must be understood that the primary threat here is trafficking, and not the employment of such technologies.
It is the nature of transnational and non-state threats to be amorphous, flexible, evolving, geographically scattered, unstructured, and non-hierarchical. A transnational or non-state threat holds and defends no territory, has no permanent relations with other political entities, has no formal economy, has no permanent installations, no permanent personnel, and possesses no industrial plant and no infrastructure. It is a pure fantasy to attribute the pursuit of ballistic missile technologies to non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are a large and bulky technology that requires permanent facilities and a substantial industrial plant to produce or operate. It is only slightly less of a fantasy for a non-state entity to acquire WMD. If a non-state entity wanted to acquire WMD, they would seek the smallest, lightest, and most portable instances of WMD, and these would, for obvious technology reasons, be the most advanced versions of the technology, therefore the most difficult to acquire and the most expensive.
Further, the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document speaks of, “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary,” and this of course has great appeal, but is precisely what is most difficult when it comes to transnational and non-state threats. I discussed this previously in The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, where I wrote:
“[A] response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.”
A comprehensive grand strategy is also (ideally) a coherent grand strategy, and there is little either comprehensive or coherent about claiming to target groups with no permanent territory, personnel, assets, infrastructure, or industrial plant. One can expect the ongoing targeted assassinations of key personnel and charismatic leaders, as is currently the case, but the effect of such strikes is limited and local, whereas a truly transnational threat is non-local, non-regional, and non-individual. The criminal and terrorist network will repair itself and go on with its business, since it has little or no structure or hierarchy to destroy.
It is easy to find someone to kill, or a target to bomb, but this approach, if iterated irresponsibly, will do far more harm than good, especially when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Just as Mao said that a guerrilla moves among the people like a fish in sea, so too terrorists and criminals also move among the people like fish in the sea, and when you try to strike back at the moving, amorphous, adapting transnational threat hiding among the people, you hit the people far more often than you hit the threat. And every time you hit the people instead of the terrorist or the criminal, you create new enemies whom the terrorists and criminals will seek to recruit.
On a deeper level, if transnational threats become the all-purpose category of military threat (which seems to be the case here, with ballistic missiles and WMD thrown in the same grab-bag with non-state actors), there is the potential danger of calling any threat a transnational threat, and deriving the converse implication that any transnational movement is a threat. In the long term, such an attitude will serve any nation-state poorly, since one of the major strategic trends of our time is the rise of non-state actors, and not every non-state actor is maleficent. It has been said that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The danger, then, is seeing every non-state actor as a nail. In a strategic climate of opinion where “transnational” becomes a synonym for “threat,” there is the very real danger of stigmatizing as a threat that which may be the key to future peace and prosperity. And with the growing role of non-state entities in the international system, committing yourself to a course of action of opposing non-state entities means putting yourself in on the losing side of history and taking on a fight you cannot win.
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3 December 2011
I have just finished listening to Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — and America Is Building — a New World by Thomas F. Madden. The author makes a tripartite distinction between empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust. He formulates an elaborate analogy between the growth of the Roman Empire and the growth of the de facto American empire. The author would point out that the Roman Empire, at least during its phase of growth, was also a de facto empire, because Rome preferred allies to conquered territories, and did all that it could to avoid foreign entanglements while also seeking to secure its frontier.
From what I have written briefly about the book above, the contrarian cast of the book should be clear. This is to be welcomed. Too many people write popular histories and rely on regurgitating conventional wisdom in order to avoid offending their public and therefore selling more copies. Thus I welcome the author’s contrarianism. I also appreciate the author’s studied distantiation from any declension narrative. He goes out of his way to point out that his parallelism between Rome and America is not the familiar parallel of Rome became decadent and fell, therefore America, which is becoming decadent, will soon fall. Madden emphasizes that his parallels are between the Roman Republic, a thousand years before it fell, and America. He also explicitly acknowledged, near the end of the book, that all empires fall, but that if an empire has a thousand years of life that this is a good run. I agree.
Much is Madden’s argument is closely parallel to what I have called The Credibility Paradox: Rome once, and America now, have credibility in foreign affairs not because they sought or seek power, but precisely because they avoided or avoid it. Empires of conquest grow because a sovereign power actively seeks to control other peoples, conquering them in order to rule them. Empires of trust grow because a sovereign power does not seek to control, and therefore has credibility when it comes to power. Not wanting to rule, an empire of trust comes into power by refusing power. Madden tells some stories of cases in which dying kings actually willed their kingdoms to Rome, such was the trust and confidence that these kingdoms would be well ruled by Rome.
In the latter parts of the book, Madden formulates another detailed analogy between the terrorism that the US faces from Islamic militants and the terrorism that Rome faced from Jewish militants. In one place he quite explicitly argues that the Romans had it worse in first century Palestine than the US has it today in the same general region.
By touching on issues of terrorism he brings up an important point of contemporary relevance, although he avoids using some familiar terminology, and it isn’t clear that this is purposeful or not. The position he formulates is the familiar line that political Islam is the problem, and that Islam must modernize and become a personal faith rather than a political doctrine. However, Madden never speaks of “political Islam” in his discussion.
Madden also writes — and I agree — that Islam in the minds of many of its practitioners, is still an essentially medieval belief system. I think that this is true because Islam is about six hundred years behind Christianity in terms of its social development, and when it has passed through its medieval phase — think of Christianity six hundred years ago and you should understand what I mean by having a “medieval phase” — it will experience its own modernization through internal forces. This view of mine entails the idea that what we think of as the high point of medieval Islamic civilization (which occurred during the Christian Middle Ages) was not a medieval period for Islam, but was rather Islam’s “classical antiquity,” and the great empires of Islam of the Middle Ages are then parallel to the Roman Empire. I don’t think that Madden holds this view at all, but I wanted to mention my own point of view here.
In any case, when Madden develops his position of Islam as a medieval belief system, he nowhere mentions the idea of cosmic war that has been developed by Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God and Reza Aslan in How to Win a Cosmic War. I discussed both of these books in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception. I think that Madden’s formulations could have been improved by drawing on the idea of cosmic war, since that seems to be what Madden is getting out, but he didn’t use the term or explicitly invoke the concept. Also, the “solution” that Madden urges (force Islam to modernize) strikes me as being as unworkable as Aslan’s “solution” (refuse to fight a cosmic war).
Madden, Juergensmeyer, and Aslan have in common an explicit recognition that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated. Madden extends this model to Jewish terrorism in classical antiquity, and I think that his argument is a sound one. Again, he didn’t call it a cosmic war, but we can say that ancient Jewish terrorists waged a cosmic war against Rome. In this struggle, Rome prevailed, but at the high cost of destroying the temple, depopulating Jerusalem, and sending the Jews into exile — events commemorated in Rome by the Arch of Titus, which can still be seen today. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, Madden’s message is a hopeful one, in so far as he explicitly states that terrorism can be overcome, and suggests that he is hopeful that it can be overcome in our time through less brutal methods.
Madden’s treatment of terrorism set me to thinking, and I realized that he is right, is so far as terrorism could be much worse today, and has been worse in the past. While Madden’s focus of concern is a comparison of Rome and America, if we go a little farther afield we can produce an even more “successful” example of terrorism than first century Palestine, and that is the cult of the assassins, also known as Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Muslims (as well as by many other names).
The story of the assassins is so astonishing that it would seem to have been taken from a Hollywood film rather than actual history, but the assassins were real, and we might even say that they constituted the apotheosis of terrorism. If we take the murder of Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092 as the first victim of the assassins, and fall of the last assassin fortresses in 1265 to the Mamluk sultan Baybars as the end of the group, the assassins exercised an influence throughout the region for more then 170 years — which is quite a run for a terrorist group. If any government today thought they were facing a threat that could last nearly two hundred years, there might be a certain sense of hopelessness in fighting such a menace.
The assassins began as a stateless entity — essentially an NGO — but grew to such power that they seized fortresses and held territory for almost a hundred years. They organized secret cells throughout much of the region, and such was their power at the height of their influence that it was felt that anyone, anywhere, anytime could suddenly become the victim of the assassins. By killing prominent figures at politically sensitive times — they murdered Conrad of Montferrat just before his coronation in 1192 — they fulfilled the essential function of terrorism, inspiring disproportionate terror in the populace at large, and especially among the political leaders who feared that they would be the next target.
The fear that anyone, anywhere, anytime could become a victim is curiously parallel to the situation of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, since under these latter circumstances the same formulation was found, and was the basis of escalating fears: anyone, anywhere, anytime could be killed by a nuclear missile appearing as though from nowhere. But a nuclear weapon is an anonymous agent of death; an assassin was a very personal agent of death. I am not sure which is worse, or which inspires the greater terror. Certainly, both are effective.
The point here is that we must recur to something as monumental and as a horrific as mutually assured destruction in order to understand the impact that the assassins had on the Levant during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the success of the assassins that led the major military powers of the day to eventually undertake military operations to destroy the fortresses held by the assassins. Eventually this action was successful, and the archive of the assassins was burned, so that the record of history consists exclusively of hostile witnesses. Perhaps if the assassin’s library had been preserved we would view them in a different light, and not call them terrorists (as I am doing here). From what we do know about them, however, the assassins seem to deserve to be called the apotheosis of terrorism.
Like Madden’s upbeat closing note that Jewish terrorism in the Levant was eventually ended by Rome, and that we can hope that terrorism today can be defeated at a lower cost, I can also observe that the assassins were eventually defeated, but it was a long, hard slog.
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27 July 2011
What does it mean when an government, military, or police official makes a public statement that there will be no negotiation with terrorists? I think intuitively we think of a situation as it is unfolding, and the sense of “negotiation” involved is that of a crisis/hostage negotiator. This is the most obvious paradigm of negotiation with terrorists, but it is not the only negotiation that is possible.
When a society changes itself in response to terrorism, this is essentially a social negotiation with terrorists. There may be no talks held between government officials and representatives of a terrorist organization, but an indirect form of negotiation takes place in the media. This is the sense of “negotiation with terrorists” that is captured in the film Munich, when, after an exchange of targeted bombings, the character Carl says, “They’re talking to us. We’re in dialogue now.” (scene 107) This is a “dialogue” that takes place in newspaper headlines.
After the 11 September 2001 simultaneous terrorist attacks on US targets, significant changes in daily life appeared in the US. The most obvious result was the increase in airport security. Despite some grumbling and a few high profile complaints, for the most part people accept this with equanimity. It is seen as the price that you must pay for security. But it is also a social negotiation with terrorism. Truly enough, it sends a strong message to terrorists, that the US will employ all of its powers to keep its citizens safe and the strike back at the terrorists, but it also tells the terrorists that they can successfully change the way of life in a targeted nation-state.
In the wake of Anders Behring Breivik’s shocking attack in Norway, there is a question as to how Norway will “respond” to the attack. When US officials and journalists use the term “respond” one gets a feeling that there is an expectation that dramatic and proactive steps will be taken. However, the initial Norwegian response does not seem to be at all following this model.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made a public statement that Norway’s response would be, “more democracy, more openness, more humanity, but without naivety.” I am sure that there are those who would already discern naïveté in this statement, but from what is known so far, the Norwegian public seems to agree. USA Today has reported (in Can Norwegian punishment fit the crime?) that a poll taken by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten showed that 71,000 of 97,000 respondents held that Norway should not re-instate the death penalty for the crimes of Anders Behring Breivik.
From the point of view of the individual, and individual accountability, there are some who would see this as a “soft” response to crime, but from the perspective of the possibility of social negotiation with terrorists, Norway’s position is the most hardline position possible: Norwegians will not enter into a social negotiation with terrorists. It is only from the perspective of the big picture that we can see this hardline position for what it is. There are many who will see it otherwise, but this is due to their inability to see the forest for the trees.
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24 July 2011
It now appears that the responsible party for the bombing and shootings in Norway was an individual, an ideologically motivated “Lone Wolf” who practiced meticulous care not only in planning his attacks, but also in documenting his planning and preparation that extended over a period of many years. While the sheer scale of the carnage makes it difficult to believe that a single individual could have perpetrated these attacks, this is now a lesson in how “successful” a lone wolf attack can be when everything “goes right” according to the perspective of the attacker.
After the Oklahoma City bombing it was reported that the truck bomb assembled by Timothy McVeigh had only incompletely exploded, so that despite the massive destruction it caused, this destruction would have been even worse had the bomb performed as planned. With this in mind, I would guess that the bomb assembled by Anders Behring Breivik was of a similar design, and also reportedly assembled from fertilizer, like the Oklahoma City bomb, and that the extraordinary destructive power of the blast was due to the bomb functioning as intended.
Breivik, however, killed far more people in his shooting rampage than he did with his bomb. I can’t recall an incident outside a war zone in which a single individual killed so many in a single shooting rampage. As with this bomb, Breivik’s meticulous planning and preparation, coupled with the vulnerability of individuals living in a highly open society, seems to have yielded the intended result. If we compare Breivik’s shooting rampage with that of the Columbine killers, for example, who had hoped to kill hundreds, Breivik’s massacre approached the scale of efficacy to which the Columbine killers has aspired, without themselves achieving that scale.
However, Breivik’s “success” on a tactical and operational level — if we define success as the identification of an explicit objective and taking offensive action in order to attain that objective, both of which were embodied in Breivik’s plans — is coupled with a complete and utter failure on a strategic level. In this Breivik is to be compared not with Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — other isolated, ideologically motivated killers — but to Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was highly successful on an operational level, repeatedly carrying out simultaneous attacks on an international scale, but its strategic agenda never even got off the ground. Because of the tactical and operational efficacy of Al Qaeda, they posed a genuine threat, and so major military operations were taken to counter their power and influence. From this, many drew the conclusion that Al Qaeda had achieved its ends through its spectacular acts of terrorism. It had not. The terrorism was not an end in itself, but had an objective.
The strategic agenda of Al Qaeda was, narrowly conceived, to topple the Saudi government and to put in its place a militant Salafist regime in some respects modeled on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but ultimately modeled on the first community established by the Prophet himself in Medina (to which example the Taliban also looked). The grand strategic ambition of Al Qaeda, on the widest scale, was to trigger cascading revolutions throughout the Islamic world that would topple governments throughout the region, installing traditionalist regimes and ultimately the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the re-invigoration of the Islamic world.
Thus while Al Qaeda’s spectacular acts of terrorism were effective on a tactical and operational level, they were strategic failures, and, I would argue, utterly misconceived as the operations that would bring about the desired revolutionary contagion and the regime change desired. In fact, a very different revolutionary contagion did come to the region, though it was not based upon the ideological model of Al Qaeda, and the regime changes that have occurred as a result of this revolutionary contagion have not installed retrograde traditionalist regimes seeking to turn back the clock, but rather progressive regimes seeking to join the modern world.
What Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik have in common is that they are ideologically-inspired violent revolutionaries. They are believers in revolutionary violence, and moreover believers that they can serve as the trigger for a wave of cascading revolutionary violence that will transform the political and social landscape. This mode of thought embodies what I have called a cataclysmic conception of revolution.
Another obvious point of reference here is Theodore Kaczynski, the unabomber, who also viewed himself as a one-man cadre whose actions would trigger a revolution, and indeed it was widely reported today that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto included extensive extracts from Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future.
Since Anders Behring Breivik is alive and in custody, he may well provide the most thorough and complete picture of the violent revolutionary yet. Mostly the violent revolutionary accepts his death as the price of triggering a world-historical event. The death of violent revolutionaries itself serves an integral function in revolutionary violence, since a surviving revolutionary lives to see the failure of his cause and his careful plans and preparations come to nothing. A violent revolutionary whose death is written in to the histrionic scheme of his plot to trigger cascading revolutionary contagion can go to his death believing that, with his triggering action, the revolution has already begun, and it is merely a matter of the remaining events unfolding according to the ideological script.
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22 July 2011
When I arrived in Oslo in 2009 I wrote a post titled Oslo, The Quiet City, in which I remarked on the preternatural quietude of Oslo. Even Kyoto, with its stately gardens, is loud and busy in comparison. Oslo remains the quietest city I have ever visited, and so the shock of today’s bombing in Oslo must have multiplied the terror by an order of magnitude. Residents familiar with the quiet routines of Oslo, largely absent the Schopenhauerian noise of other capital cities, would have had their day torn apart by the unprecedented violence.
In the early stages of terrorist attacks we have become accustomed to saturation media coverage at a time when no information has yet become available, and so the television news outlets opt for a looped meme of violence, explosions, death, and carnage. I suspect that this approach to the coverage of terrorism has something to do with the success of terrorism as a political weapon. As it happens, I just today received in the mail a copy of Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare, which bluntly states in the opening of Chapter 4:
“Terrorism… is a weapon of warfare, which can neither be ignored nor minimized. It is as a weapon of warfare that we should study it.”
These texts published in the Classics of Counterinsurgency Era series are proving themselves to be not only uncompromising but also prophetic. From the same series I have David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, which is similarly uncompromising and prophetic.
From the initial reports and the early video available in the aftermath of the Oslo attack, the bomb seems to have been extraordinarily powerful. Also, the damage seems to have exploded outward from the inside of a targeted building (or buildings). This suggests that, unlike the Oklahoma City blast, it was not a large car bomb parked outside in the street. It could have been a large car bomb parked inside in a parking garage.
While the size of the blast suggests sophistication and a minimal coordination of resources and organization, we also know from the Oklahoma City bomb that a large and powerful device can be assembled by one “Lone Wolf” or a small group — e.g., by a terrorist cell. Individuals and small, isolated cells are a tough nut to crack for intelligence services.
The subsequent shooting at a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utøya near Oslo, which claimed further victims (and possibly more than the bombing in Oslo), has been reportedly tied to the bombing by Norwegian police (according to the BBC). The Norway News reports that 80 students have been killed, which for a shooting is a very high death toll. A 32 year old ethnic Norwegian has been taken into custody in connection with both attacks.
The Norway News also quoted an online statement of Abu Sulayman al-Nasir of the group Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (Assistants of the Global Jihad) as having said the following on online forum Smukh or Shamikh:
“We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations and we have demanded that the countries of Europe withdraw from the land of Afghanistan and end their war on Islam and Muslims. What you see is only the beginning and there is more to come.”
It is possible that this preemptive claim of responsibility is authentic, but it is also possible that it is an opportunistic claim intended to shore up the Jihadist “street cred” of the little-known group making the claim.
While Norway’s involvement in NATO operations points to a retaliatory attack carried out by Jihadists — and there have been quasi-militant jihadist sympathizers in Norway (the case of Mullah Krekar is relevant here) — it is difficult to reconcile this with the arrest of a lone ethnic Norwegian. Only time and further information will sort this out. And I suspect that the major intelligence agencies of Europe as well as the US will be sending staff to Norway to assist in the investigation, if the Norwegians will agree to accept such assistance.
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21 January 2011
Although the public debate over strategy frequently takes the form of men in ties surrounded by microphones and cameras, doing their best to project an image of gravitas, dignity, and respectability, there is more often than not a surreal quality to these oh-so-serious pronouncements. It is almost as though, in planning some of our most complex and expensive strategic weapons systems, that the strategic threat such weapons systems are intended to counter has been plucked out of the clear blue sky. In writing this I have in mind the recently announced strategic missile defense system planned by NATO, which I discussed in NATO’s Gambit.
Now, the threat of ballistic missile attack is not plucked out of the clear blue sky. We know for a fact that there are many nation-states that have developed ballistic missiles and are intent on improving the range and accuracy of these extant weapons systems, and we know that other nation-states are attempting to develop such weapons systems. The great concern is that ballistic missiles could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) quickly and accurately to a distant target. This threat is real. However, it is not the only threat. Moreover, and more importantly, I do not believe that it the most likely threat.
What gives the surreal quality to the plan to develop an ABM system to counter the WMD ballistic missile threat is that political leaders are behaving as though “rogue” nation-states were going to cooperate in fielding a weapons system that conforms to our plans and expectations rather than trying to surprise us. This is not the way the world works. In NATO’s Gambit I wrote:
“I don’t think that the system, once built, would be any more effective than the Maginot Line. If ballistic missiles can be shot down with any degree of reliability, then rogue regimes pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and intent upon their use, would use any means of delivery other than ballistic missiles.”
What other methods of delivery might be considered? The traditional triad of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems consists of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and submarines. I have already suggested above that ICBMs are too obvious. They have the advantage of being a technology that can be realistically developed (they have ample proof of concept), of striking rapidly, and of being difficult to counter. Difficult, but not impossible. And I think it is fair to say that no “rogue” nation-state, and certainly no terrorist organization, could get its hands on a strategic bomber that could penetrate the air defenses of NATO member states or other advanced industrialized nation-states. This would require either masses of bombers to overwhelm air defenses, more than state-of-the-art stealth, or an inside ability to bring down air defenses by the use of spies or electronic counter-measures. All of these are beyond the efforts of the kind of adversaries NATO plans against.
One common terrorist nightmare that has been discussed is the possibility of a “suitcase nuke,” but this too requires high technology, which must either be developed or purchased. With the nuclear test ban treaty, and the relative ease of detecting nuclear tests, the amount of testing required to produce a reliable, miniaturized suitcase nuke is beyond the ability of all but a very few industrialized nation-states.
A variation on the theme of suitcase nukes is the scenario of a nuclear device in a shipping container. Millions of shipping containers move around the world every day, and a nuclear device inside such a container would not be limited by concerns of the miniaturization of technology. Awareness of this threat has resulted in the installation of radiation monitoring in ports. This system of monitoring is imperfect, but with time and increased experience and expertise, one could expect a reasonable degree of detection. However, the shipping container vector remains a very real threat.
Another threat is that posed by the third leg of the triad, and always the most stealthy leg of the triad: submarines. Everyone is familiar with the idea of submarines as a strategic threat, but building a missile boat is almost as complex and difficult as the considerations mentioned above in relation to strategic bombers or miniaturized suitcase nukes. Only a very few industrialized nation-states are tooled to produce a submarine that can reliably launch either ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. The latter two threats are particularly of concern because a submarine could move close in to shore and fire off missiles that would strike targets in less than fifteen minutes. Even excellent air defense systems would have difficulty defending against this. But we are protected after a fashion by the barriers to entry presented by this difficult and expensive technology.
There is, however, another submersible WMD threat that I have never seen discussed, although I certainly can’t claim any kind of thorough knowledge of defense-related scenarios. Submarines are ships, and one of the great things about ships as that they can carry a lot of weight, and, compared to tanks or airplanes, they have a lot more space. What this means is that even a crude nuclear device could be constructed within the hull of a basic submarine. While advanced submarine technology is beyond all but a few nation-states, basic submarines are not. Some time ago in The Future of Terrorism I suggested that, given the fact that even drug smugglers are using submarines these days, it would not be beyond the reach of a non-state terrorist entity to build and operate a submarine.
In the same spirit, a non-state entity or a rogue nation-state could build a submarine for the express task of carrying a nuclear device stealthily into the harbor of a great city. Many of the world’s largest, richest, and busiest cities are port cities with busy shipping lanes that might well be infiltrated by reasonably stealthy submarine technology. We recall in this connection that during the Second World War, Günther Prien in U-47 infiltrated the UK’s Home Fleet’s anchorage in Scapa Flow and sunk the Royal Oak at anchor. Take a look at a map of Scapa Flow, and you can see what a feat this was.
The submersible threat vector might be organized in any of several different ways. For example, a remotely operated, uncrewed submarine could be sent into a harbor, or a small suicide crew could pilot a submarine into a harbor, planning to detonate the weapon themselves and die in the delivery, or a crewed submarine could drop a large nuclear device at the bottom of a harbor and escape before its detonation. If it is objected that no rudimentary submersible could make a long distance trip and therefore be able to sneak into a harbor, it is obvious that this is not necessary. A mothership with a hull open to the sea could approach a shoreline (still in international waters), drop a submersible into depths without anyone being the wiser, and the submersible with its WMD aboard would have only a short, stealthy trip to make to deposit its deadly cargo.
Submarines, as I have pointed out previously, are a robust and well-documented technology. Rudimentary nuclear weapons are nearly as robust and well-documented; the real challenge is not in the design, but in obtaining the materials. No miniaturization would be needed to build a nuclear device into a still relatively small submersible. Moreover, the surrounding water would act as insulation to defeat detection of radioactivity. A reasonable degree of stealth would be sufficient to infiltrate a busy commercial harbor. None of this lies beyond the means of the nation-states that NATO considers dangerous, and it is much more likely to be successful than a rudimentary ICBM.
A real nightmare scenario based on this strategic threat could involve nuclear devices pre-placed throughout the world, and either timed to go off simultaneously or rigged to detonate on some command signal. Imagine the consequences for a maritime nation-state if it suddenly lost all of its major port facilities in one fell swoop. This would be a loss from which there could be no quick and easy recovery.
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14 October 2010
A few days ago in Politicized Anger I mentioned that I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. In the book, Aslan mentioned that he took the idea of cosmic war mentioned in the title of his book from Mark Juergensmeyer’s book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8 of which is concerned with the idea of cosmic war. Juergensmeyer is a well-known scholar in religious studies who began his career at the Union Theological Seminary, studying to become a Methodist minister, there a student of Reinhold Niebuhr.
When I first saw Aslan’s How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror — for I happened upon it browsing the shelves of a library; I hadn’t read any reviews or even heard of it before I saw it — I was immediately interested and intrigued as I could see right away that a cosmic war clearly falls under the umbrella of the eschatological conception of history.
In several posts — Three Conceptions of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and The Naturalistic Conception of History, inter alia — I have been developing a general framework for understanding the overall conceptions that people bring to their understanding of history. This framework is based upon differing conceptions of human agency in the world. That is to say, the framework for understanding how people understand their history is based on how they understand their role in history. Are we helpless before the events of the world? Can we make of our lives anything we desire? Must we seek to supplicate unseen powers? Is human being-in-the-world no different in essentials from a tree’s being-in-the-world? A “Yes” to one of these questions places you, respectively, under the catastrophic, political, eschatological, or naturalistic conception of history.
Juergensmeyer in his above-mentioned book discusses several contemporary examples of religiously-inspired terrorism and war, saying that the religious militants have been “driven by an image of cosmic war.” He goes on to say:
“I call such images ‘cosmic’ because they are larger than life. They evoke great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but can also be translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle — cosmic war — in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.”
Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8, pp. 149-150
Aslan in his book follows Juergensmeyer closely in these formulations. Aslan says of the 11 September hijackers:
“They were engaged in a metaphysical conflict, not between armies or nations but between the angels of light and the demons of darkness. They were fighting a cosmic war, not against the American imperium but against the eternal forces of evil. A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war — an earthly battle between rival religious groups — a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.”
Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Introduction, p. 5
I find this very interesting, but I would like to see it developed with much greater care and rigor. Both Juergensmeyer and Aslan are rather cavalier in their language. I heartily approve of Aslan’s careful distinction between holy war and cosmic war, but I would also suggest that in the interests of analytical clarity we should also distinguish cosmic war and metaphysical war, with the latter as the broader category, while the former is a particular kind of metaphysical conflict, and especially a supernatural kind of metaphysical conflict. This is important, as one could characterize the crusading spirit of early twentieth century communism (or even the French Revolution earlier) as exemplifying a metaphysical conflict of an explicitly materialistic (perhaps naturalistic) metaphysic.
I would myself prefer to speak in terms of eschatological war as being an expression of the eschatological conception of history, but it is just as well with me to speak in terms of cosmic war. The point I want to make in this connection is that the idea of cosmic war does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. It is part of a way of seeing and understanding the world; it is part of a Weltanschauung. This is relevant to some of Aslan’s claims.
Twice in his book, near the beginning and near the end, Aslan writes that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight one. We are to decline eschatological combat. Aslan is right when we says that cosmic wars are unwinnable, and therefore also unlosable (p. 8). But Aslan also claims that aggrieved communities have legitimate grievances, and that these need to be addressed. I agree with this, but I also know from my reading of history the near hopelessness of this task. What task? The attempt to “help” people in utilitarian and pragmatic ways when their grievances are not expressed in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Many efforts of the US around the world have come to grief on this rock.
Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.
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16 April 2010
As the evils of the world prior to the Industrial Revolution were embodied in the figures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death — so the evils of the industrialized world, in which science has largely conquered pestilence and food is plentiful to the point of becoming problematic, might be summarized as revolution, genocide, and terror. Last night as I was thinking about this it struck me that I would like to write a book titled Revolution, Genocide, Terror or Revolution, Genocide, and Terrorism, and with a subtitle something like “The Underbelly of Political Society” or “The Underside of Political Modernity.” You get the idea, I’m sure.
While the emergence of consolidation of the nation-state in the early modern period brought many quantifiable goods to human society, as certainly as it facilitated the elimination of ancient evils it simultaneously facilitated and exacerbated contemporary evils. So the nation-state has largely replaced the brutal archaism of hereditary aristocracy, but the established mechanism for political change is now revolution, and revolutions have proliferated even as they have lost their efficacy to bring about authentic change. And the nation-state, by instituting a political order putatively based on ethnicity and nationality, has pioneered new methods of oppression and violence based on ethnicity and nationality that was almost absent in ages of polyglot empires. Among these methods are what Daniel Goldhagen called “Eliminationism” in his book Worse than War, which I discussed in Genocide and the Nation-State.
The response to state-sponsored oppression and violence has been asymmetrical reciprocity of oppression and violence on the part of non-state actors, and thus terrorism has become the established mechanism of grievance. The systematic organization of nation-states, with regular police forces and standing armies, along with their insistence upon a legalized monopoly on violence, virtually guaranteed that those opposed to the policies of nation-states would find themselves forced to choose between passive acquiescence and asymmetrical violence.
Perhaps it is a universal truth that the passing of one political order and the initiation of another must bring the parallel passing into history of one set of goods and evils associated with that order, and the initiation of a novel set of goods and evils paralleling the initiated political order. While the identification of goods and evils belongs to the ideological superstructure of the political order, the goods and evils themselves would seem to be inherent in politico-economical infrastructure. Moreover, the inherent goods and evils of a particular social structure would seem to be integral, each being the mirror image of the other.
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18 March 2010
In The Pretense of Prediction I wrote that one finds, “side-by-side in contemporary societies there are ideologies that are growing and other that are contracting, ideologies that are newly born and others that are dying, ideologies undergoing transformation and ideologies caught in a limbo of stasis, their prospects unknown.” In the same post I also wrote in regard to contemporary ideologies that, “It is difficult to name them, since it is difficult to be objective on the topic precisely because the only ideology that can change the fates of individuals and nation-states is one that resonates within us. We do not understand a successful ideology as much as we feel it and respond to it.”
It is crucial to understanding the political situation of our time to understand which ideologies are living options for us at this time. To distinguish between living and dead ideologies can be quite difficult, and one must make an effort to go beyond ideological appearance in order to reach ideological reality. Ideologies, like fish or insect with adaptive coloration, often mask themselves so that they are difficult to distinguish from the background. The most successful ideology is that ideology that is pervasive throughout our thought and reasoning without our even being aware of it. Once we become aware of an ideology it is often already dead or at least dying.
When we look to the contemporary world with an eye toward explicating its living ideologies, first of all we see perennial human motivations such as greed, self-interest, and the desire to live in comfort. A motivation of this kind is not in itself an ideology, though such motivations are powerful constituents in all ideologies. For our present purposes, I will not attempt a definition of an ideology, but I will position ideology as being more comprehensive than perennial human motivations but less comprehensive than a Weltanschauung.
No less a philosopher than Alfred North Whitehead, co-author of Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, wrote, “I now state the thesis that the explanation of this active attack on the environment is a three-fold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.” (The Function of Reason, p. 8, also reformulated on p. 18) It is this perennial desire to live, to live well, and to live better that underlies the perennial motivations of greed and self-interest mentioned above. Such drives must be accounted a part of human nature, but in themselves they do not rise to the level of constituting ideologies. Thus while these perennial motivations are certainly present in contemporary history, they do not act within history as ideologies do.
Because contemporary living ideologies are mostly unconscious, they are mostly not named, so that the attempt to formulate a short list of living ideologies must force us into coining a number of awkward neologisms. The lack of names for many living ideologies corresponds to the lack of a clear conception of what that ideology is, so that coining a neologism, however imperfect, can only suggest an even more imperfect conceptualization of the ideology.
With these caveats in mind, I am going to attempt to name a few living ideologies, not necessary all of them ideologies that decisively change the destinies of both states and individuals (as I have focused on previously), but ideologies that are a living influence in the lives of many people today, and which not infrequently can be seen — perhaps implicitly — on the evening news.
Non-denominational Marxism — By this I mean a generic leftism that no longer feels itself bound to slavish adherence to Marxist texts, but which is still in sympathy with Marxist thought.
Anarchism — While mostly limited to young people without jobs or families, and overlapping at points with non-denominational Marxism, anarchism needs to be recognized as a separate ideology as they stand in that tradition of those armed bohemians who have given organized nation-states so much trouble in the modern era.
Environmentalism — Environmentalism is easily the most comprehensive and pervasive ideology of our time. For the same reason that it is comprehensive, it also consists of diverse strains that cannot all be reconciled or summed up in one definition.
Fundamentalism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, you name it, every religious tradition has its fundamentalist wing that seeks a revolutionary return of social life to imagined forms it might have taken prior to the many revolutions that have shaped the modern world.
Nation-statism — This is the most awkward of our ideological designations today, and the least recognized. Nevertheless, as it is the default position of practically all elites and diplomats, the centrality of the nation-state to political life, and the incomprehensibility of any alternative, makes it a powerful if misunderstood ideology. There is a sense in which nation-statism is what nineteenth and twentieth century nationalism has become with its institutionalization in the state system.
Terrorism — On every inhabited continent that is a significant minority that is devoted to terrorism as an end in itself. Where civil wars drag on for decades, terror becomes a habit, and the absence of terror in perpetual war zones is as inconceivable as the absence of nation-states is for nation-statism.
Resistance — It would better, though more awkward, to call this resistance/struggle/rebellion. It overlaps at one extreme with terrorism and at another extreme with non-denominational Marxism. With these three ideologies we could define a spectrum in which resistance is the middle ground, the Aristotelian “Golden Mean” of disaffected radicals, and that is why, despite the fact that it is not recognized as an ideology, it is one of the most powerful ideologies of our time.
My above list is admittedly highly imperfect. It is intended as a starting point, not as a final typology of contemporary ideologies. If I continue to think about this I will no doubt need to return to the list to revise and amend it, perhaps adding neglected ideologies and merging others (such as the spectrum I noted above in Resistance).
In my above attempt to think critically and systematically about contemporary ideologies it strikes me that it is a peculiar characteristic of ideologies in our time that means and ends are conflated. I can imagine someone telling me, “You can’t count terrorism or resistance as ideologies, because they are means to ends, not ends in themselves.” But this is precisely what I am saying. I believe that a great number of people have ceased to believe in ends and aims and instead believe in means. As people come to passionately believe in certain means, these means are transformed from mere means to ends in themselves.
Terrorism has become an end in itself. It is the most obvious example of what we might call an exapted ideology: something that originally was not an ideology but which has evolved into an ideology. Starting from this glaring example, I think if we look carefully, most of the items on my above list can be understood as means that have, to a greater or lesser degree, been transformed into ideologies. The ideologies of today are mostly exapted ideologies.
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26 October 2009
While most geopolitical eyes are focused on the Afghan run-off election, there is another up-coming run-off election in Uruguay that holds its own interest for observers. I have not yet had the good fortune to visit Uruguay (I hope to remedy that situation at some point) though I have followed its affairs from afar, like a distant admirer. By all accounts, Uruguay is a cosmopolitan and sophisticated place, though it is a rather small country with few natural disasters so that one does not often hear much news from the country.
While Uruguay went through the experience of military dictatorship at the same time neighboring Argentina and Brazil had military dictatorships (apparently it was the thing to do in Latin America during the late 1970s and early 1980s), it seems to have had deep and genuine democratic traditions for most of its history since independence, and was once called the “Switzerland” of Latin America. Uruguay is also a land of high ideals. José Enrique Rodó, the author of Ariel, was Uruguayan, as is Eduardo Hughes Galeano in our own time.
Uruguay’s situation, sandwiched between two rather large nation-states, Brazil and Argentina, has put it in a difficult position at times, but there is a sense in which it escaped some of the worst historical misfortunes that visited these latter countries. As we noted, Uruguay had a military dictatorship from about 1973 to 1984, but Uruguay was never a slave state in the way (and to the degree) that Brazil was, and Uruguay did not experience anything like Peron and Peronism. Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, has long faced Buenos Aires over the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, as a much smaller commercial rival. Jorge Luis Borges uses this differential in size to precise effect in his story “Funes: The Memorious” (“Funes el memorioso”) to emphasize the character of the narrator’s reception in Uruguay as a porteño: he was a city-slicker, in contradistinction to the more rural traditions of Uruguay.
The civil disorder of the 1970s that led to a military takeover was rooted in unresolved social conflicts that go back to Spanish colonial precedents. The present election battle and its consequent run-off is in turn rooted in the civil disorders of the 1970s. One finds these deep social conflicts reflected in the work of the Uruguayan playwright Florencio Sánchez (17 January 1875 – 07 November 1910), who wrote of the traditional rural life of the gaucho and its conflict with emerging urban ways of life. (Sánchez, like many a disillusioned humanist, became an anarchist at the end of his short life; like Rodó, he died in Italy.) The deteriorating domestic situation in Uruguay in the late 1960s led presidents to restrict civil rights until the transition to military government was an obvious development of the political trend. An urban guerrilla group, the Tupamaros, also known as the MLN (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional), fought the government and became an object of repression and suppression by the military government.
Jose “Pepe” Mujica was once a member of the Tupamaros and has now received 47.5 percent of the votes in the election of 25 October, in which his main rival, Luis Alberto Lacalle, received 28.5 percent of the votes. Since Senator Mujica did not receive 50 percent of the vote there will be a run-off, but it should be obvious from the numbers what direction this contest is trending.
Unless a political miracle saves the campaign of Lacalle, “Pepe” Mujica will be the next president of Uruguay. In the public mind, both candidates are tainted. There were corruption allegations from Lacalle’s earlier term as president, while Mujica has his guerrilla past. But is the latter an asset or a liability?
If former membership in a guerrilla organization is a liability, it would not seem to be very much of a liability given the way the numbers are trending. Should it be a liability? It could be argued that most if not all politically involved Latin Americans who lived through the 1970s and 1980s would have had some tie to political violence, whether that tie would be a connection to former military rulers or some connection to the armed struggles of guerrilla and revolutionary movements that proliferated contemporaneously with military rule. The gains of each fueled the fears of the other.
There is an international character to this contest that makes it especially interesting. The contending parties represent factions that constituted internationalized forms of political violence in the 1970s and 1980s. The military dictatorships notoriously collaborated on “Operation Condor”, which was an international cooperative effort to target anti-government activists. The activists themselves were similarly international in character. Like the Army, Navy Air Force, and the Marines who all salute the same flag, the broadly-based leftist anti-government activists all looked toward international communism as well as indigenous nationalism. The full name for the Tupamaros was Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupac Amaru, named after the leader of an 18th century Inca revolt against Spanish rule. The Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) of Peru chose the same indigenous figure as its titular symbol. The Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army of Bolivia, about which I wrote in Evo Morales’ Ideologist, also used the name of an indigenous insurgent and also was inspired by communist ideals.
Of course, the contest is ultimately about local issues and attitudes, of which much could be written, not about the international ramifications of the election. Still, the issues that make the election of interest from the global standpoint resonate locally as well. Mujica has a reputation for not speaking like a politician, i.e., for honestly and openly speaking his mind when he should be “diplomatic.” One look at his photo and you can see that he is an old soldier and not someone given to suffer fools gladly (and at the same time quite blind to his own foolishness, like many an old soldier). Also, he has campaigned in a fashion so humble as to alarm those who want their president to have a sufficiently presidential aura. In this context, his years as a guerrilla fighter, and his subsequent years in prison under the military regime, are the ultimate “street cred” for a politician to prove that he will both fight for and sacrifice for his beliefs. As attractive as this is from a populist standpoint, one still must ask whether his beliefs are such that it is worth fighting for them and sacrificing for them.
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