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Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Erdogan expands targeting of journalists
on: May 03, 2016, 12:37:15 PM
Erdogan Expands His Assault on Journalists Beyond Turkish Borders
May 3, 2016http://www.investigativeproject.org/5337/erdogan-expands-his-assault-on-journalists-beyond
A caricature depicts Ebru Umar working away despite a Turkish ball and chain tied to her ankle.
Ebru Umar was angry. A Dutch journalist of Turkish heritage, she has been known to take that anger to the page. On the night of April 24, from her summer home in Kusadasi, Turkey, she took it instead to Twitter, raging against a letter the Turkish Embassy in the Netherlands sent to Turkish organizations throughout the country. The message: Please report anyone who has insulted Turkey or its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If possible, include the perpetrator's name, e-mail address, and other identifying information.
In tweets laced with profanity, including "#f***ererdogan," Umar decried the edict (which the embassy had later unconvincingly explained was "misinterpreted" as a result of "unfortunate wording"). Even more, she condemned the many Dutch-Turks who supported it. Tweeting late into the night, she cursed Erdogan, cursed his supporters, and battled verbally with Dutch Turks who responded by threatening to turn her in to the police. Then she went to bed.
Soon after, a knock at her door signaled that someone had followed through with the threat: Turkish police officers stood outside. Umar spent the night in prison. Though she was released the next day, she may not leave the country. This land arrest could easily end in days, or it could last years. Meantime, as Dutch officials negotiate with the Turkish government to bring her home, she continues writing and condemning the oppression facing her and other journalists.
That's not just in Turkey, which now stands 151st in a list of 181 countries ranked for press freedom.
"The biggest problem [in Turkey] is freedom of thought, and especially freedom for journalists to engage in political commentary," Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk declared last year.
Increasingly, Turkish officials are making demands of, and threats against, journalists abroad.
The notice from Turkey's embassy to the Netherlands, for instance, followed Germany's decision a month ago to charge comedian Jan Boehmermann for reading an anti-Erdogan poem on his talk show. The poem referred to yet another incident in Germany: the satirical broadcast of a song titled "Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan," which included such statements as: "Equal rights for women: beaten up equally."
Shortly after the "Erdowie" satire aired, Erdogan demanded it be deleted from the station's web site and wiped from the internet. The TV station refused.
But if German broadcasters had defied Turkey's demands, Chancellor Angela Merkel has proved more malleable. There are political reasons for this. As Dutch journalist Jeroen Wollars said on Dutch TV program "De Wereld Draait Door" the day after Umar's arrest, Germany has become completely dependent on Erdogan in the face of the recent agreement over Syrian refugees, which essentially gives the Turkish president the power to stop the wave of refugees to Europe or permit it to continue. Hence, when the Turkish government demanded Boehmermann be prosecuted for insulting its president, Merkel caved. The 35-year-old satirist now faces jail time on the grounds of section 103 of the German penal code, which criminalizes insulting a foreign head of state.
"Erdogan has become extremely aggressive since the deal," noted Turkey-based Dutch journalist Lucas Waagmeester on "De Wereld Draaait Door." "And it's not just Erdogan – it's the Turkish soul." In pursuing that aggression, Holland must have seemed like a strategic target. Dutch Turks voted heavily for Erdogan in Turkey's snap election last November, suggesting that they would be sympathetic to his call.
But no one had counted on Ebru Umar.
Legally, Umar faces the same dilemma confronting Boehmermann: Dutch law also prohibits insulting foreign world leaders. (Though in the shadow of the Boehmermann case, several parliament members have called for repealing the law.) Meantime, pundits on Dutch news and talk shows debate the issue, speaking of the "long arm of Erdogan" and condemning her arrest.
But not everyone agrees. The day Umar was released from jail, her Amsterdam apartment was burgled, her old laptop stolen, and the word "whore" scrawled in the hallway. "NederTurks," as Umar calls them – second and third-generation Dutch Turks – continue to threaten her on Twitter, and say in media interviews that she "deserved" to be arrested.
She insulted our president, they say. In other words, they view Erdogan as their president, and take conservative Turkish values – not Dutch – as their own. What's more, identifying with Erdogan indicates that they support restricted speech, a more Islamist culture, and have turned against the free secular society in which they were born.
For this, Umar views them as traitors to their country, and to their parents and grandparents who left everything behind, she writes, to give them freedom:
"I think your parents, who left house and home to give you a homeland of freedom and security, are proud of you. Your parents who for years have missed their families, have lived and worked in often appalling conditions so that you, their children, could have a better life than they did. Congratulations for your totally failed Dutch-ness. Congratulations for your total loyalty to a pair of mountain goats from Turkey – goatf*ckers, if you will, whom you follow as soon as they call on you to behave like the NSB [a Dutch fascist party active from the 1930s to 1945]. Any idea what the NSB was? Oh, wait, no – the lessons in school about WWII have been scrapped, right? Yes, thanks."
Dutch officials have begun voicing concern about Ebru's safety if she does return to The Netherlands. Even so, she has refused police protection. A similar reaction by another outspoken writer, Theo van Gogh (whose column she took over after his 2004 murder by a Muslim radical), proved fatal.
Meantime, what the Dutch are calling the "long arm of Erdogan" continues to extend its grasp. On April 25, as Umar was leaving her prison cell, American freelancer David Lepeska, who has lived in Istanbul for years, returned from a brief holiday in Italy only to be denied re-entry at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. Instead, the freelancer, who has written for Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy and others, was held for 20 hours before being ushered onto a flight to Chicago without explanation. Contacted by e-mail the following day, he said only, "A bit heartbroken, but determined to return."
But even if he is able to go back to Istanbul, what kind of country will he be returning to? In March, authorities seized control of the country's most popular newspaper, Zaman. In August, 2015, two American journalists working for Vice were arrested and charged with terrorism, along with their Turkish associate. Last Thursday, two editors from Turkish daily Cumhurriyet were sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoons.
For all its exotic charms and celebrated cultural riches, Turkey is fast becoming a land where no journalist, no matter where he or she may come from, can be safe.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: Health Thread (nutrition, medical, longevity, etc)
on: May 02, 2016, 11:22:55 AM
Though there may well be exploitation, IMHO it may not be all BS. There are Native Americans of the American southwest/Mexican northwest who have psychedelic induced religious experiences.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Pravda on the Hudson: East vs. West in the Arctic Circle
on: April 28, 2016, 11:53:54 AM
Hamburg — TRAVELING through the chilly landscape around the arctic city of Murmansk, Russia, it quickly becomes clear that this barren region is, in fact, a strategic centerpiece in President Vladimir V. Putin’s vast armory. The overland road from the Norwegian border passes by miles and miles of double-row fences of ice-crowned barbed wire, warning signs and surveillance cameras. Many of the gray, silent settlements along the way appear to be less towns than military installations, with soldiers in long, thick coats trotting through the streets.
But to grasp the full military import of this place, the Kola Peninsula — Russia’s northwestern-most territory — you would have to look down on it with thermal imaging from high above. Instead of ice, you would see a long stretch of land bathing in the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Kola Peninsula is a gigantic marine pier, guaranteeing Russia’s naval fleet access to the Atlantic and offering a hub for operations in an area of the world that might well become the next crisis zone between Russia and NATO: the North Pole.
The area around the pole is not yet divided up among its adjacent states. Its waters — and potentially rich natural resources — are claimed by Russia, as well as by three NATO members: America, Denmark (via Greenland) and Canada. Many of these claims overlap.
It’s not a purely lawless region: The United Nations Law of the Sea includes rules for settling such claims, largely based on how far the continental shelf of the respective country extends below the sea. These rules are supported by the White House, but they have yet to be ratified by the United States Congress, because Republicans are reluctant to leave the decision over America’s economic borders to a United Nations body.
Some Republicans are convinced that, after the invasion into Ukraine, Russia’s military buildup in the High North is preparation for yet another land grab. “The Russians are playing chess in the Arctic and our administration still seems to think it’s tick-tack-toe,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, accusing the Obama administration of a “strategic blunder.”
Atomic ice-breakers at the port of Murmansk. Credit James Hill for The New York Times
Whatever his intent, President Putin has indeed ordered the Russian military to increase its capabilities in the North. Russia is building six new bases, refurbishing old runways from the Cold War era, constructing new icebreakers, and putting modern submarines with nuclear warheads into service.
Few know for sure just how symbolically important the North Pole is to Mr. Putin. In 2007, the Kremlin had a submarine place a metal Russian flag on the seabed, right at the pole. Was it just a photo op? Legally, the gesture no more makes the pole Russian than Neil Armstrong’s 1969 flag makes the moon American.
Then again, the Arctic presents a huge strategic opportunity for Mr. Putin to make gains against the West. Russia, the largest country on earth, has one big geostrategic disadvantage: limited access to the world’s oceans. Its Black Sea fleet, stationed in Crimea, could in case of conflict be denied passage through the Bosporus, whose gatekeeper, Turkey, is a NATO member. Mr. Putin’s Baltic fleet would meet the same obstacle in the Skagerrak, the strait between Denmark and Norway. But the Arctic is open territory — and, in a time of melting ice caps, open sea as well.
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The Russians, of course, see things differently. Policy makers and analysts in Moscow say Russia is not on the offensive, but on the defensive. NATO has repeatedly proved that it doesn’t stick to international rules, Nikita Lomagin, a professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg, told me. Thus, he said, Mr. Putin does not believe he can count on “soft security” alone. And the modernizing of the Northern Fleet, with its nuclear-missile submarines, was partly a reaction to NATO’s missile defense shield.
Both sides might be justified; that’s not the point. A Russian proverb says that the past is unpredictable. And indeed, the “Arctic pivot” is reviving Cold War stereotypes at a time when East-West communication is practically nonexistent. Russians and the West should bear in mind how easily political uncertainties can become rigid convictions.
Confidence-building measures — treaties, regular dialogue, joint commissions on global challenges — helped defuse one Cold War. We need new measures, now. The world can’t expect Mr. Putin to take the first steps, so it’s up to America to show sobriety and to avoid giving Russia any pretext for military action. Moscow’s propaganda machinery performed masterfully in the Ukraine crisis; it can easily do so again. For the United States, ratifying the Law of the Sea would be one splendid pre-emptive strike.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes
on: April 28, 2016, 10:19:16 AM
The Cheapening of the Comics
A speech by Bill Watterson delivered at the Festival of Cartoon Art, Ohio State University, October 27, 1989.
Opening remarks | Peanuts, Pogo and Krazy Kat | Comics then and now | Syndicates owning strips | Licensing | Strips drawn by assistants | Shrinkings size of strips | What can be done? | Summing up
I received a letter from a 10-year-old this morning. He wrote, "Dear Mr Watterson, I have been reading Calvin and Hobbes for a long time, and I'd like to know a few things. First, do you like the drawing of Calvin and Hobbes I did at the bottom of the page? Are you married, and do you have any kids? Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
What interested me about this last question was that he didn't ask if I'd been apprehended or arrested, but if I'd been convicted. Maybe a lot of cartoonists get off on technicalities, I don't know. It also interests me that he naturally assumed I wasn't trifling with misdemeanors, but had gone straight to aggravated assaults and car thefts.
Seeing the high regard in which cartoonists are held today, it may surprise you to know that I've always wanted to draw a comic strip. My dad had a couple of Peanuts books that were among the first things I remember reading. One book was called "Snoopy," and it had a blank title page. The next page had a picture of Snoopy. I apparently figured the publisher had supplied the blank title page as a courtesy so the reader could use it to trace the drawing of Snoopy underneath. I added my own frontispiece to my dad's book. and afterward my dad must not have wanted the book back because I still have it.
Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat have inspired me the most over the years. These strips are different in almost every way, but their worlds captivated me. Looking back on them, I think they can teach us something about comic strip potential.
Peanuts was my introduction to the world of the comic strip, and Peanuts captured my imagination like nothing else. Because it was the first strip I read, its many innovations were lost on me, and I suspect most readers of Peanuts today have forgotten how it single-handedly reconfigured the comic strip landscape in a few short years. The flat, simple drawings, the intellectual children, the animal with thoughts and imagination - all these things are commonplace now, and it's hard to imagine what a revolutionary strip it was in the '50s and '60s. All I knew was that it had a magic that other strips didn't.
A lot of the magic for me is in those deceptively simple, stylized drawings. For me, the few lines that make up each character, their faces, and gestures are remarkably expressive. Two dots with parentheses around them have become the cartoon shorthand for eyes looking uneasy or insecure. When Charlie Brown's eyes do that, you know his stomach hurts,
Peanuts has held my interest for many years because the strip is very funny on one level and very sad on another. Charlie Brown suffers - and suffers in a small, private, honest way. Schultz draws those quiet moments of self-doubt: Charlie Brown sitting on the bench, eating peanut butter, trying to work up the nerve to talk to the little red-haired girl - and failing. As a kid, I read Peanuts for the funny drawings and the jokes, and later I realized that the childhood struggles of the strip are metaphors for adult struggles as well.
Peanuts is about the search for acceptance, security, and love, and how hard those self-affirming things are to find. The strip is also about alienation, about ambition, about heroes, about religion, and about the search for meaning and "happiness" in life. For a comic strip, it digs pretty deep.
Of course, the strip has a flair for weird humor, too. Snoopy in goggles, his doghouse somehow riddled with bullet holes, yelling, "Curse you, Red Baron!" is, I submit, as bizarre an image as anything ever seen on the comics page. Peanuts defined the contemporary comic strip.
And Pogo? Pogo was an almost opposite approach to the comic strip. The drawings were as lush as the foliage of its Okefenokee setting, and the dialogue was as lush as the drawings. With the possible exception of Porkypine, there was not a soul-searching character in the cast of hundreds. Pogo was trusting, good-natured, and innocent, which generally meant it was Pogo's larder that got ransacked whenever someone got hungry. Most of the other characters were bombastic, short-sighted, full of self-importance, and not just a little stupid. What better vehicle for political satire and commentary? Pogo was largely before my time, so, like Peanuts, I can only imagine how it must have shocked its first readers. Considering how controversial many papers find Doonesbury in the 1980s, one has to wonder how Pogo got away with its political criticism 30 years earlier.
Again, much of Pogo's magic for me was in the beautiful drawings. where the animals looked so real and animated you imagined their noses were probably cold to the touch. Part of the magic was the amazing dialects they spoke, which mangled English with awful puns and unintended meanings. Part of it was the gutsiness of attacking the fur right on the "funny" pages and pulling no punch. Part of it was the strip's basic faith in human decency underneath all the smoke and bluster. Part of it was the rambling storytelling, where every main road to the conclusion was avoided in favor of endless detours. Part of it was that Grundoon talked only in consonants, P.T. Bridgeport talked in circus posters, and Deacon Mushrat talked in Gothic type. And, of course, part of it was that it was very, very funny. The strip had a mood, a pace, and atmosphere that has not been seen since in comics.
I discovered Krazy Kat when a large anthology of the strip was published in 1969. The book is an editorial disaster, but it did show a lot of Krazy Kat strips, and I admired the work immediately. Krazy Kat seems to be one of those strips people either love or don't get at all. Krazy Kat is nothing but variations on a simple theme, so the magic of the strip is not so much in what it says but in how it says it. Ignatz Mouse throws bricks at Krazy out of contempt, but Krazy interprets this as a gesture of affection instead. Meanwhile, the law - Offissa Pupp - futilely tries to interfere with a process that's completely satisfying to all parties for all the wrong reasons. This weird, recycling plot can be interpreted as a metaphor for love or politics - or it can just be enjoyed for its own lunatic charms. The strip constantly plays with its own form, and becomes a sort of essay on cartoon existentialism. The background scenery changes from panel to panel, and day can turn to night and back again during a brief conversation.
Similarly, Herriman played with language and dialect, inserting Spanish, phonetically spelled mispronounced words, slang, and odd, alliterative phrases, giving the strip a unique atmosphere. The drawings are scratchy and peculiar, but they provide a beautiful visual context to the equally idiosyncratic writing. Krazy Kat's sparse Arizona landscape, like Pogo's dense Georgia swamp, is more than a backdrop. The land is really a character in the story, and it gives a specific mood and flavor to all the proceedings. The constraint of Krazy Kat's narrow plot seems to have set free every other aspect of the cartoon to become poetry, and the strip is, to my mind, cartooning at its most pure.
These three strips showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring. All these strips work on many levels, entertaining while they deal with other issues. These strips reflect uniquely personal views of the world, and we are richer for the artists' visions. Reading these strips, we see life through new eyes, and maybe understand a little more - or at least appreciate a little more - some of the absurdities of our world. These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.
In a way, it's surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That's not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium's history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it's a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We've lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don't even know what they're missing. Not only can comics be more than we're getting today. but the comics already have been more than we're getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn't even know it.
Consider only the most successful strips in the papers today. Why ate so many of them poorly drawn? Why do so many offer only the simplest interchangeable gags and puns? Why are some strips written by committees and drawn by assistants? Why are some strips still stumbling around decades after their original creators have retired or died? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards? Why do so many of the comics look the same?
If comics can be so much, why are we settling for so little? Can't we expect more from our comics pages?
Well, these days, probably not. Let's look at why.
The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.
Part of the problem is that the very idea that cartoons could be art has been slow to take hold. I talked about Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts to show that the best cartoons have a serious purpose underneath the jokes and funny pictures. True, comics are a popular art, and yes, I believe their primary obligation is to entertain, but comics can go beyond that, and when they do, they move from silliness to significance.
The first comic strip cartoonists were staff artists of major newspapers, and consequently, from the beginning, cartoonists were regarded as simple employees of their publishers rather than artists. when the creator of a popular strip left his employer, the cartoonist was rarely able to take his creation with him intact. Very early strips, such as The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Buster Brown, all appeared in two versions, one by the original creator and one by an imitator hired by the publisher who lost the creator. The comic strip came into being as a staff-produced graphic, and comics have never escaped the perception that they are a newspaper "feature," like a weather reap, instead of a forum for individual expression. In fact, despite the grim violence of Dick Tracy, the conservative politics of Little Orphan Annie, the social satire of Li'l Abner, and the shapely women that have graced dozens of other strips, the comics have somehow come to be thought of as entertainment for children. Cartoonists are widely regarded as the newspaper equivalent of Captain Kangaroo. The idea that comics are potentially one of the most versatile artforms is sadly foreign. Our expectations and demands for comics are not high.
Today, comic strip cartoonists work for syndicates, not individual newspapers, but 100 years into the medium it's still the very rare cartoonist who owns his creation. Before agreeing to sell a comic strip, syndicates generally demand ownership of the characters, copyright, and all exploitation rights. The cartoonist is never paid or otherwise compensated for giving up these rights: he either gives them up or he doesn't get syndicated.
The syndicates take the strip and sell it to newspapers and split the income with the cartoonists. Syndicates are essentially agents. Now, can you imagine a novelist giving his literary agent the ownership of his characters and all reprint, television, and movie rights before the agent takes the manuscript to a publisher? Obviously, an author would have to be a raving lunatic to agree to such a deal, but virtually every cartoonist does exactly that when a syndicate demands ownership before agreeing to sell the strip to newspapers. Some syndicates take these rights forever, some syndicates for shorter periods, but in any event, the syndicate has final authority and control over artwork it had no hand in creating or producing. Without creator control over the work, the comics remain a product to be exploited, not an art.
Why does this happen? As the syndicates will tell you, no cartoonist is forced to sign the ridiculous contracts the syndicates offer. The cartoonist is free to stay in his $3.50 an hour bag boy job until he can think of a better way to get his strip in the newspapers. Simply put, the syndicates offer virtually the only shot for an unknown cartoonist to break into the daily newspaper market. The syndicates therefore use their position of power to extort rights they do not deserve.
Sacrificing ownership has serious consequences for the artist. For starters, it allows the syndicate to view the creator as a replaceable part. To most syndicates, the creator of a popular strip is no more valuable than a hired flunky who can mimic the original. Some syndicates can replace a cartoonist at will, and most syndicates can replace a cartoonist as soon as he quits, retires, or dies. This attitude is simply unconscionable, but it's the standard practice of business.
Cartoonists and syndicates alike tend to exaggerate the syndicate's role in making strips successful. Ultimately, though, the level of sales is determined a lot more by how good the strip is than by who sells it. Reader polls across the country shows surprising consensus about which strips are good, and editors do their best to print what the readers want. The syndicates bring the cartoon to the market, but they can't keep it there. Only the cartoonist can do that. Syndicates simply do not need or deserve comic strip ownership for the job they do.
By having complete control over the comic strip, the syndicate can ruin the work. Although there has never, ever been a successor to a comic strip half as good as the original creator, passing strips down through generations like secondhand clothes has been the standard practice of the business since it began. Incredibly, syndicates still today tell young artists that they're not good enough to draw their own strip, but they are good enough to carry on the work of some legendary strip instead. Too often, syndicates would rather have the dwindling income of a doddering dinosaur than let the strip die and risk losing the spot to a rival syndicate. Consequently, the comics pages are full of dead wood. Strips that had some relevance to the world during the depression are now being continued by baby boomers, and the results are embarrassing.
Suppose you're a painter and you go to an art gallery to see if they'll represent you. They look at your work and shake their heads. But, since you show some basic familiarity with a paintbrush, they ask if you'd like to continue Rembrandt's work. After all, you can paint. Rembrandt's dead, and some buyers would rather have a Rembrandt forgery than no Rembrandt at all. It's an absurd scenario, but this is what goes on in comic strip syndication.
Comic strips have a natural lifetime. and any cartoonist ought to be able to quit or retire without fear that his syndicate will hire some hack illustrator to keep the work going. It's time syndicates stopped maiming their comic strips by passing them on to official plagiarists. It's also time that the would-be successors of comic strips had more respect for their own talents and for the work of those who created something original. If someone wants to be a cartoonist, let's see him develop his own strip instead of taking over the duties of someone else's. We've got too many comic strip corpses being propped up and passed for living by new cartoonists who ought to be doing something of their own. If a cartoonist isn't good enough to make it on his own work, he has no business being in the newspaper.
Syndicate ownership of strips also gives them control over comic strip merchandising. Today, newspaper sales can't bring in a fraction of the money that licensing can bring. As the number of newspapers has diminished, and as the remaining papers run pretty much the same 20 strips everywhere, the growth of a syndicate now depends on dolls and greeting cards more than newspaper sales. Consequently, the quickest contracts are going to strips with licensing potential. One syndicate developed a comic strip after it had settled on the products: the strip was essentially to be an advertisement for the dolls and TV shows already planned. The syndicate developed the characters and then found someone to draw the strip. Lots of heart and integrity in that kind of strip, yes sir. Even in strips with more honorable beginnings, the syndicates are only too happy to sell out a comic strip for a quick and temporary buck, and their ownership and control allows them to do just that.
Of course, to be fair to the syndicates, most cartoonists are happy to sell out, too. Although not to the present extent, licensing has been around since the beginning of the comic strip, and many cartoonists have benefitted from the increased exposure. The character merchandise not only provides the cartoonist with additional income, but it puts his characters in new markets and has the potential to broaden the base of the strip and attract new readers. I'm not against all licensing for all strips. Under the control of a conscientious cartoonist, certain kinds of strips can be licensed tastefully and with respect to the creation. That said, I'll add that it's very rarely done that way. With the kind of money in licensing nowadays, it's not surprising many cartoonists are as eager as the syndicates for easy millions, and are willing to sacrifice the heart and soul of the strip to get it. I say it's not surprising, but it is disappointing.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don't buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don't care.
And then we have established cartoonists who have grown so cavalier about their jobs that they sign strips they haven't written or drawn. Anonymous assistants do the work while the person getting the credit is out on the golf course. Aside from the fundamental dishonesty involved, these cartoonists again encourage the mistaken view that once the strip's characters are invented, any facile hireling can churn out the material. In these strips, jokes are written by committee with the goal of not advancing the characters, but of keeping them exactly where they've always been. So long as the characters never develop, they're utterly predictable, and hence, so easy to write that a committee can do it. The staff of illustrators has the same task: to keep each drawing so slick and perfect that it loses all trace of individual quirk. That way, no one can tell who's doing it. It's an assembly line production. It's efficient, but it makes for mindless, repetitive, joyless comics. We need to see more creators taking pride in their craft, and doing the work they get paid for. If writing and drawing cartoons has become a burden for them, let's see some early retirements and some room for new talent.
And while cartoonists and syndicates continue to cheapen their own product, newspapers worsen the situation by continually shrinking the comics to ever smaller sizes.
The newspaper business has changed. Afternoon papers are failing everywhere, and few papers are in the competitive situation that comics were invented to promote. Television brings that latest news at six and 11 in full-color action. Newspaper circulation is not increasing with the population, while newspaper costs continue to grow. Consequently, over the last several decades, newspapers have been squeezing the comics into less and less space to cut expenses.
When Krazy Kat was drawn, comics regularly ran a full page on Sunday - an entire newspaper page all to itself. Comics were like posters. Now most papers commonly print strips a quarter of a page on Sundays, and sometimes even smaller. Daily strips have shrunk, too. Strips had already lost a lot of space by the time I cut out a Pogo strip in 1969. Today, 20 years later, I work with almost a third less space than that. As comic strips are printed smaller and smaller, the drawings and dialogue have to get simpler and simpler to stay legible. Cartoons are just words and pictures, and you can only eliminate so much of either before a cartoon is deprived of its ability to entertain.
The adventure strip, a newspaper staple in the '40s, has all but pasted away, and we've lost much of the diversity of which the comics are capable. It's not too surprising. At current sizes, there is no room for real dialogue, no room to show action, no room to show exotic worlds or foreign lands, no room to tell a decent story. Consequently, today's comics pages are filled with cartoon characters who sit in blank backgrounds spouting silly puns. Conversation in a comic strip is a thing of the past. The wonderful dialects and wordplays of Krazy Kat and Pogo are as impossible now as the beautiful draftsmanship that characterized those strips and others. All the talk about how "sophisticated" comics have become shows a woeful ignorance of what comics used to be like. Comics are simpler and dumber than ever.
The situation is ironic. All across the country, newspapers are going to great expense to add color photographs, fancy graphics, and bold design to their pages in order to entice readers away from the steady blue light of their TV screens. It is strange that after all that expense and work, newspapers refuse to take advantage of the comic strip, the one newspaper graphic that television cannot imitate. When 20 strips are reduced and crammed into two monotonous columns on one page, the result is singularly unattractive and uneffective. Newspapers pay for their comics and then refuse to let comics do their job.
Here, then, is the situation: despite the proven popularity of the comics, newspapers print them miserably, while syndicates have taken it on themselves to control, exploit, and cheapen their product. Between the two, cartoonists all but abandon the artistic responsibilities of their craft. Somehow, I can't shake the idea that this isn't how cartooning is supposed to be... and that cartooning will never be more than a cheap, brainless commodity until it's published differently.
What can be done? I'm not a businessman, but I'll toss out some ideas just to start some discussion.
First of all, we should keep in mind that newspapers and syndicates are by no means essential to the production of comics, There are all sorts of ways to publish cartoons, and if syndicates and newspapers won't hold up their end of the bargain, maybe there's an opportunity for a new kind of publisher let's start with eliminating both the syndicate and the newspaper. Consider for a moment that there may well be a market for comic books that has never been tapped simply because comic books have traditionally been an even sloppier; dumber, and more exploitive market than newspaper comics. But suppose someone published a quality cartoon magazine. Imagine full-color, big comics in a lush, glossy format. Why not? Just because cartoons have always been treated as schlock doesn't mean that sleazy packaging, cheap paper, poor color; bad writing, and crude art are what comics are all about. Imagine a publisher who recognizes that the way to attract readers is to give them quality cartoons... and that the way to get quality cartoons is to offer artists a quality format and artistic freedom. Is it inconceivable such a venture would work?
Or let's say we keep the syndicates but abandon the newspapers. So long as newspapers refuse to respect the legitimate needs of the comic strip, why don't the syndicates take control of their product and publish the comics themselves? Each syndicate could put out a weekly comic book of all its strips. Comic books originally started as reprints of newspaper comics, and they were so popular an industry was created to produce new comic books to fill the demand. Suppose the syndicate gives each of its cartoonists five pages to draw and color any way he wants, then binds the results, and sells them at chain bookstores and in supermarkets with the magazines and tabloids. Offer subscriptions, too, what the heck. Think of all the kids who unload $10 a week collecting miserably done super-hero comics, and you know there's got to be a market out there somewhere. What syndicate is going to try something new to showcase the talent it's collected?
Or let's say we keep the syndicates and the newspapers. There are still ways to improve comics. For one thing, the syndicates could again take over the printing, and the comics could be sold to papers as a preprinted insert. Or the syndicates could print the insert with advertising, and let the ads pay for its inclusion in the newspaper. Either way, the syndicates could start printing their comics big, in color, and on good quality paper that people could keep and collect. If advertisers are paying for the comics section inserts, for example, editors can hardly complain that they don't get a citywide exclusive on their strips.
Or, if we assume no syndicate has the foresight to promote the quality of its own product, at the very least one would think an imaginative newspaper editor could come up with a way to add another half-page of space to the comics section and print the work as it was intended to be published. Given the readership of the comics page, couldn't an advertiser or two be persuaded to sponsor the comics section for a single ad of his alone at the top of the page? I don't believe all the possibilities have been exhausted.
I admit my ideas here are rough. Obviously, if I had any business savvy at all myself, I'd lump the whole business tomorrow and self-publish. See, that's another alternative! My point is simply that cartoons are not necessarily doomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship. With the right publishing, comics can move into whole new worlds we've never seen. Moreover, I think any effort to improve the quality of comics would very likely be rewarded in the marketplace. Think of the people who cut out certain comics to put on refrigerators, or to put in scrapbooks, or to send in letters, or to stick on their office walls. Give them a nicely printed, big color comic on good paper and see if they don't jump. I think the public would respond if there was a publisher out there with an ounce of vision. For too long, syndicates and cartoonists have been congratulating themselves whenever things don't get worse. I don't think that's good enough. This very weekend we've got syndicate executives, cartoonists, readers, and newspaper people all together. let's knock some heads together and see what we can do. Let's ask people what they're doing to improve the state of comics.
I started out talking about Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat. These strips suggest a world of possibilities that cartoons can offer. Comics are capable of being anything the mind can imagine. I consider it a great privilege to be a cartoonist. I love my work, and I am grateful for the incredible forum I have to express my thoughts. People give me their attention for a few seconds every day, and I take that as an honor and a responsibility. I try to give readers the best strip I'm capable of doing. I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personal expression. That's why I don't hire assistants, why I write and draw every line myself, why I draw and paint special art for each of my books, and why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip's message with merchandising. I want to draw cartoons, not supervise a factory. I had a lot of fun as a kid reading comics, and now I'm in the position where I can return some of that fun. I try to draw the kind of strip I'd like to read, but I'm not entirely able to. This business keeps me from doing the quality work I'd like to be doing... and because I'm being cheated, so arc my readers.
Newspapers can do better. Syndicates can do better. Cartoonists can do better. The business interests, in the name of efficiency, mass marketability, and profit, profit, profit are catering to the lowest common denominator of readership and arc keeping this artform from growing. There will always be mediocre comic strips, but we have lost much of the potential for anything else. We need more variety on the comics page, not less. Those of us who care about the comics need to start speaking up. This is an excellent place and time to do it.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Stratfor on the US Election
on: April 28, 2016, 08:30:26 AM
By Rodger Baker
Stratfor strives to provide impartial geopolitical analysis and forecasts that identify critical trends in global and regional affairs, explaining the world's complexities in a simple but not simplistic manner. Through the years we have always sought to adhere to these core underlying principles, with mixed success. Remaining "unbiased" in part means staying out of politics, avoiding policy prescriptions (or proscriptions), and addressing issues not from a good/bad or right/wrong approach but rather from a view of effective/ineffective. It means at times stepping away from the emotions of issues, examining deeper compulsions and constraints, and observing how leaders and global actors modify their behavior based on the shifting circumstances in which they find themselves.
It is a difficult endeavor and one that draws various accusations from our readers. We are accused of seeing the world through Cold Warrior lenses, of not caring about human rights and human dignity, of promoting some form of old-school realpolitik. At times, this underpinning philosophy draws equal accusations of being liberal shills, of being too centered on the United States, and of justifying the behavior of dictatorial or repressive regimes. At our best, we garner equal quantities of impassioned responses from all sides of an issue. Criticism is not something we shy from, particularly if our mandate is to ease back the curtains of perception and reveal, as best as possible, the underlying realities of a very complex world system.
For a company accused of being too focused on the United States, we also often receive criticism from our readers for failing to write enough about it. It has been noted more than once that we largely steer clear of covering U.S. politics or even presidential elections. In the grand scheme of geopolitics, over time the role of individuals is largely washed out — to be overly simplistic, the individuals rarely matter. This is, of course, not true, but it is a way to look beyond the subjective desires of leaders and instead to examine the objective realities they face, the circumstances that shape and constrain their options, the structure of the system in which they work, and the upbringing and background that color the way they see and interpret information and make decisions.
In some ways one could argue that, on a broad global scale, the difference in individual presidents, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to whoever succeeds him, has only minimal implications. Bush did not enter the White House with the intent to invade Afghanistan (it is highly unlikely that any U.S. president could conceive of a worse place for a maritime power to find itself). Obama did not enter the White House intending to be engaged in a conflict in Syria. One could perhaps argue that Franklin Roosevelt did intend to enter the war in Europe. But his initial comments, along with those of Woodrow Wilson ahead of U.S. involvement in World War I, gave little sense that this was the direction in which he was headed. Wilson sought to focus on domestic political issues; Roosevelt led an increasingly isolationist nation. World events placed stark choices before them. Bush had September 11. The Syrian civil war, the overall fight against terrorism and the rebalancing of the Middle East placed Syria on Obama's agenda, despite his grand proclamations of a Pacific pivot, which even at the end of his presidency looks a whole lot more modest than envisioned.
Geopolitics can help us understand the implications and pressures on different states, and the way those may limit or compel certain responses. But geopolitics is predictive of broad trends, not of final decisions. We strongly reject the idea of geopolitical determinism, but we also reject the idea that politics is somehow so fundamentally different from other fields that the human agent is supreme. Few completely reject Adam Smith's assertion of an invisible hand in economics; we argue that geopolitics helps us identify elements of a hidden hand in international politics. The narrower the time frame, the more discrete the geography and the more immediate the decision, the less geopolitics explains. But there are other analytical and collection tools to help account for that. Given our broad mandate to use geopolitics to explain the flow of the world system, rather than looking at individuals as unrestrained decision-makers, we seek to understand the circumstances and environment in which they operate. We don't call elections, but we do seek to identify the forces that shape the processes and the realities that will face the officials who rise to power, through whatever means.
Bias, Intentional or Otherwise
So more immediately, we are asked why we do not address the current U.S. presidential election. The first answer is that the contest is not yet at the election stage. We are watching the intraparty competition play out on the way to the nomination. This is politics at its most basic level: a component of a geopolitical approach, but only a component. Perhaps there is room at this stage to read from the primaries some of the broader undercurrents shaping society that will continue to play a role once a president is elected. But frankly, the market is saturated with assessments of the minutiae of day-to-day campaigning. If we are to help our readers understand the world system, there is only so much that we could add to that daily flow of information, assertions and assessments of the current campaigners — and little at this stage yet rises to broader significance.
Perhaps more directly, we do not cover the U.S. election at the same day-to-day depth as the general news media or political commentators not only because we are not political commentators but also because, for the most part, our staff lives in the United States. And this is where the risk of bias materializes. We are designed to be a neutral, nonpartisan service. On U.S. politics (as opposed to policy), it is hard to maintain that nonpartisan approach. Just by living here, we have a stake in the outcome of the analysis that could taint our perceptions. This is not insurmountable — one does not avoid bias by denying its existence but rather by recognizing openly and honestly what that bias is.
Bias is not always intentional. Intentional bias is the easiest to overcome, since it is the most obvious. On the other hand, subconscious bias requires more intense searching to discover. Bias is a natural result of numerous factors: Upbringing, family life, personal experiences, faith, education, friends and location all shape the individual and the way the individual sees things. We often argue here that one piece of information in five hands is of greater value than five pieces of information in one hand, thanks to the variety of perspectives that can be brought to bear. This is why Stratfor's analytical staff is multinational in composition. Techniques such as acknowledging and identifying bias, using alternative viewpoints in the analytical process, and clearly laying out assumptions as differentiated from facts all serve to help overcome bias. Perhaps the best individuals we could use to cover the U.S. election, then, would be foreign nationals living abroad, able to observe the process through less invested eyes.
A Dispassionate View
If we were to apply our process to the U.S. election, as divested of outcome and involvement as we are with other countries, it would perhaps be jarring to our U.S. readership (and perhaps our foreign readership as well). We would discuss the struggles within the opposition conservative party. With no viable centrist candidate, it is instead torn between a strong right-wing fringe candidate with a reputation among his own party in Congress for being uncooperative and an outsider businessman/media star who has openly donated to both parties in years past and who favors provocative statements (perhaps even intentionally provocative, given his extensive media experience). We would talk about the clashes within the ruling liberal party between an establishment candidate, the spouse of a former president and potentially the first woman to assume the U.S. presidency, and an avowed socialist who, despite his age, has drawn heavily on youth support.
We would look at a nation that is still recovering from a massive economic downturn, one that rocked the world. A country where the financial institutions that contributed to the crisis not only appear to have avoided punishment but also are once again thriving, exacerbating the gap between the status of economic recovery overall and the public's perception of economic stability. It is a country that, not necessarily seeing a strong economic recovery for the middle class or blue-collar labor, is now turning against immigration (once again — this has been a fairly typical cycle since nearly the nation's foundation).
It is a country that has been heavily engaged in overseas conflict for well over a decade, where support for the seemingly interminable, distant war is flagging. A country not only facing an imprecisely defined opponent (is terrorism a thing, an ideology or a group of people?) but also seeing the resurgence of peer rivals (Russia and perhaps China). It is a country dealing with a fracturing Europe, long the center of a global alliance structure. A country coming to grips with the unrequested, but no less real, shift of the global center of gravity from the North Atlantic to the North American continent. It is a country that appears to have a global responsibility but that, after years of extensive involvement, has come to question that duty.
It is a country with a changing population that, like those in Japan, South Korea and even China, is grappling with the changed significance of a college education. Meanwhile, a large segment of the population is soon heading for retirement. It is a country undergoing a new round of internal debates over just what social justice means in the "American" context; each expansion in the concepts of freedom and personal rights is considered by some as advancement and by others as further deviation from a known "ideal." It is a country that, consistent with its relative security, has the leisure to debate morality but also to question whether equality and individual freedom are achievable or even desirable at their extremes.
In short, it is a country that, on the largest scale, is now emerging as the center of the global system. On a narrower scale, it is a country ending a cycle of heavy international military engagement and shifting back toward, if not isolationism, at least the pursuit of (or reliance on) a balance-of-power strategy to manage the world system without policing it. It is a country that is coming out of a major economic crisis and seeing its labor market change with shifting technology. Although the shifts have led to new business methods and economic activity, they have also brought job losses in some sectors. It is a country that, like many other places in the world, is struggling with national identity at a time when globalization appears relevant and desirable.
What we see, then, is not yet the U.S. election, but instead the stage for that election. The process is less about the candidates than about the system that has allowed these individuals, as opposed to others, to rise to prominence. We see not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, or even John Kasich. Instead, we see the way these individuals — the systems in which they operate and the undercurrents of society — lead to this broader debate on a national level. What any of them will do as president will be a much different story. We can see the space into which they will emerge and how that might constrain their options. But a president does not exist in a vacuum. There is a Cabinet, a Congress, the courts, a society and the international system. It is not that the individual doesn't matter but rather that the individual will exist in a space that he or she largely does not control. Looking at the candidates, then, if we were to get partisan at all, it would be to find the ones most able to adapt and to act in a rapidly changing environment.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Donald Trump
on: April 26, 2016, 12:56:31 PM
Orange-Hued Makeup on an Orange-Hued Corpse of a Campaign’
Michael Brendan Dougherty, columnist for The Week and sparring partner of our Kevin Williamson, has been somewhat sympathetic to Donald Trump, contending he’s a natural response to a Republican party that has forgotten the white working class.
Somewhere along the line, he feel out of love with Trump, hard, and he’s pretty intensely repulsed by the talk of a Trump makeover:
Becoming an establishment creature now would dispirit many of Trump’s core supporters. It would wreck any momentum his candidacy had at renovating the Republican Party’s stale ideology. Trump will have worse problems than even Mitt Romney did in trying to explain the convenient evolution of his views. Trump’s unreliability extends even to his own stunts. Months ago he skipped a Fox News debate to raise $6 million for veterans. They haven’t seen the money.
Trump cannot succeed in a general election without an unforeseeable intervention from beyond our normal politics -- think a sudden economic crash, a terrorist attack, or the likelihood of war. A little campaign makeover certainly won’t change what is now the most well-defined and lustily disliked campaign in modern memory. The Trump reboot will not make Trump viable. It just makes his new campaign manager viable. This is nothing more than another layer of orange-hued makeup on an orange-hued corpse of a campaign.
Okay, but . . . some of us saw this from the beginning. Some of us are a lot less surprised by the off-the-charts unfavorable numbers and the disastrous outlook for Republicans in November with a Trump nomination. Some of us put enormous effort into trying to avert this scenario, and some of us never wrote:
. . . it seemed that Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency contained the seeds of an ideological revolution. Trump had tapped into something that felt like a fresh European import, an ideological right wing motivated by populist nationalism rather than conservatism . . .
In Trump we suddenly seemed to have the kind of culture warrior imagined by thinkers like James Burnham, who opposed liberalism not because it offends the Constitution or runs roughshod over the little platoons of civil society, but because it is the verbal justification for the contraction of Western societies: the diminution of their military power and the demographic decline of their native populations.
Over in the Federalist, Grant Stinchfield, a conservative talk-show host in Dallas, Texas, suddenly realizes who he voted for:
Donald Trump is off the rails. He is a train wreck. It’s not just his antics and childish behavior that has me so put off, it’s his failure to improve as a candidate.
After nine months on the campaign trail, I expected Trump to fully grasp the issues and have in-depth policy solutions to our problems. Yet he still is “winging it.” He has failed to surround himself with top-notch, respected experts to craft a legitimate conservative platform. The reality is now clear: Trump has no depth, and he fails to grasp even the most basic conservative principles.
I fell victim to my own hatred. Donald Trump offered me a vehicle to stick it to the bloviating bureaucrats I despise. I dedicated my life to exposing self-promoting career politicians and their love of big government programs. Trump was the guy who was going to scare the hell out of the “establishment,” the guy who was going to turn Washington on its head. So I voted with anger in my heart. I gave my vote to Trump with expectation he would find his way by putting smart constitutional conservatives by his side. Trump didn’t find his way; he got lost.
Gee, if only someone had warned him.
There Is No New Trump, Continued
The “improved” Trump talk is all pretty moot, because you can’t change the style of a guy with the impulse control of a toddler.
He doesn’t like hearing he has to do things differently. There is no point to hiring the “best people” if you refuse to listen to the advice of the “best people.”
Let’s check in with the best people:
Donald Trump is bristling at efforts to implement a more conventional presidential campaign strategy, and has expressed misgivings about the political guru behind them, Paul Manafort, for overstepping his bounds, multiple sources close to the campaign tell POLITICO.
Trump became upset late last week when he learned from media reports that Manafort privately told Republican leaders that the billionaire reality TV star was “projecting an image“ for voters and would begin toning down his rhetoric, according to the sources. They said that Trump also expressed concern about Manafort bringing several former lobbying colleagues into the campaign, as first reported by POLITICO.
Now Trump is taking steps to return some authority to Manafort’s chief internal rival, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Neither Lewandowski nor Manafort responded to requests for comment, though Manafort on Sunday during an interview on Fox News blamed Lewandowski’s regime for shortcomings in the campaign’s delegate wrangling operation.
Lewandowski’s allies responded by privately questioning whether Manafort has done anything to improve the situation. They grumble that Manafort has spent a disproportionate amount of time on television -- just as Trump himself has been avoiding the Sunday morning talk show circuit at Manafort’s urging.
When you hear anecdotes like this . . .
After Trump’s resounding victory in last week’s New York primary, for instance, Manafort handed the candidate a speech he’d written for him that aimed for a more presidential tone, according to two campaign sources. Trump took a quick look at it and told Manafort he’d consider using such a speech down the road, but in the glow of his huge win in his home state, he preferred to wing it.
How long does Manafort stick around? How often does a candidate brag about ignoring his advisers’ recommendations during a speech?
“If I acted presidential, I can guarantee you this morning I wouldn’t be here,” Trump told a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 at Crosby High School, where others stood outside, listening to audio provided for the unlucky.
The gym rocked.
“My wife tells me, ‘Be more presidential.’ My daughter tells me to be more presidential. And Paul Manafort and Corey [Lewandowski, another top aide] and a lot of them say, ‘Be more presidential,’” Trump said. “And now people are starting to say, ‘You know, look what got you here.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Russia's Military Revival
on: April 25, 2016, 11:44:17 PM
Hat tip to Big Dog for this one:https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2016-04-18/revival-russian-military
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military rotted away. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of peacetime demilitarization in world history, from 1988 to 1994, Moscow’s armed forces shrank from five million to one million personnel. As the Kremlin’s defense expenditures plunged from around $246 billion in 1988 to $14 billion in 1994, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the government withdrew some 700,000 servicemen from Afghanistan, Germany, Mongolia, and eastern Europe. So much had the prestige of the military profession evaporated during the 1990s that when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, its captain was earning the equivalent of $200 per month.
From 1991 to 2008, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin, Russia used its scaled-down military within the borders of the former Soviet Union, largely to contain, end, or freeze conflicts there. Over the course of the 1990s, Russian units intervened in ethnic conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and in the civil war in Tajikistan—all minor engagements. Even for the operation in Chechnya, where Yeltsin sent the Russian military in 1994 in an attempt to crush a separatist rebellion, the Russian General Staff was able to muster only 65,000 troops out of a force that had, in theory, a million men under arms.
Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.
Beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, Russia acted meekly. It sought a partnership with the United States and at times cooperated with NATO, joining the peacekeeping operation led by that alliance in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. To be sure, after realizing in the mid-1990s that NATO membership was off the table, Moscow protested vehemently against the alliance’s eastern expansion, its 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Russia was too weak to block any of these moves. The Kremlin’s top priority for military development remained its nuclear deterrent, which it considered the ultimate guarantor of Russia’s security and sovereignty.
Those days of decay and docility are now gone. Beginning in 2008, Putin ushered in military reforms and a massive increase in defense spending to upgrade Russia’s creaky military. Thanks to that project, Russia has recently evinced a newfound willingness to use force to get what it wants. First, in February 2014, Moscow sent soldiers in unmarked uniforms to wrest control of Crimea from Ukraine, implicitly threatening Kiev with a wider invasion. It then provided weaponry, intelligence, and command-and-control support to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, checking Kiev’s attempts to defeat them. And then, in the fall of 2015, Russia ordered its air and naval forces to bomb militants in Syria fighting President Bashar al-Assad, intervening directly in the Middle East for the first time in history.
These recent interventions are a far cry from the massive campaigns the Soviet Union used to undertake. But the fact is, Russia is once again capable of deterring any other great power, defending itself if necessary, and effectively projecting force along its periphery and beyond. After a quarter century of military weakness, Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.
MAXIM SHEMETOV / REUTERS Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, June 2012.
GEORGIA ON ITS MIND
The story of Russia’s military modernization begins with its 2008 war in Georgia. In August of that year, Russian forces routed troops loyal to the pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and secured the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Russian protectorates. The five-day campaign was a clear success: Moscow prevented NATO from expanding into a former Soviet state that was flirting with membership, confirmed its strategic supremacy in its immediate southern and western neighborhood, and marked the limits of Western military involvement in the region. By increasing its military footprint in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia also bolstered its control of two strategically important areas in Transcaucasia—securing the approach to Sochi, the location of the Russian president’s southern residence and Russia’s informal third capital, in the former, and placing Russian forces within striking distance of Tbilisi in the latter.
Yet for all these gains, Russia fought its brief war against Georgia with unreformed, bulky remnants of the Soviet military. Russian soldiers were forced to use outdated weaponry, and Russian officers, overseeing troops who were insufficiently prepared for combat, even had to give orders using civilian cell phones after their military radios failed. By the end of the conflict, Russia had lost five military aircraft, including a strategic bomber. Moscow won the war against a much weaker enemy, but the flaws in its own military were too glaring to ignore.
And so two months after its war with Georgia, the Kremlin embarked on an ambitious program of defense modernization and military restructuring. These efforts, which Russian officials have projected will cost some $700 billion by 2020, are intended to transform the Russian military from a massive standing force designed for global great-power war into a lighter, more mobile force suited for local and regional conflicts. Moscow has pledged to streamline its command-and-control system, improve the combat readiness of its troops, and reform procurement. And in a radical break from a model that had been in place since the 1870s, Russia adopted a flexible force structure that will allow it to quickly deploy troops along the country’s periphery without undertaking mass mobilization.
Russia’s defense industry, meanwhile, began to provide this changing force with modern weapons systems and equipment. In 2009, after a hiatus of about two decades, during which the Kremlin cut off funding for all but company- or battalion-level exercises, Russian forces began to undertake large-scale military exercises, often without prior warning, to improve their combat readiness. Perhaps most important, Russian soldiers, sailors, and airmen came to be paid more or less decently. By the time the Ukraine crisis broke out, Russia’s military was far stronger than the disorganized and poorly equipped force that had lumbered into Georgia just five and a half years before.
EUROPE GOES BIPOLAR
The Russian military executed the Crimea operation brilliantly, rapidly seizing the peninsula with minimal casualties. Blueprints for the takeover must have existed for years, at least since Ukraine expressed interest in joining NATO in 2008. But it took a reformed military, plus a remarkable degree of coordination among Russia’s various services and agencies, to pull it off.
The operation in Crimea was not a shooting war, but actual fighting followed a few weeks later in the Donbas. Instead of ordering a massive cross-border invasion of eastern Ukraine, which Moscow had implicitly threatened and Kiev feared, the Putin government resorted to a tactic known in the West as “hybrid warfare”: providing logistical and intelligence support for the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas while undertaking military exercises near the Ukrainian border to keep Kiev off balance. Moscow did send active-duty Russian officers to eastern Ukraine, some of whom were ostensibly on leave. But the bulk of the Russian-provided manpower in the country was made up of volunteers, and regular Russian units operated there only intermittently.
The story of Russia’s military modernization begins with its 2008 war in Georgia.
At the same time, Russia put NATO countries on notice: stay out of the conflict, or it may affect you, too. Russian warplanes—which in 2007 had resumed Cold War–era patrols around the world—skirted the borders of the United Kingdom, the United States, and several Scandinavian countries and got close to Western planes over the Baltic and Black Seas. Putin later admitted on Russian television that he had even considered putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert to defend its interests in Ukraine.
Russia benefited from its Ukraine campaign in several ways. The gambit allowed Moscow to incorporate Crimea, and it kept Kiev fearful of a full-scale invasion, which made the new Ukrainian leadership abandon the idea of using all of the country’s available forces to suppress the separatist rebellion in the Donbas. It also directly challenged U.S. dominance in the region, terrifying some of Russia’s neighbors, especially the Baltic states, which feared that Moscow might pull off similar operations in support of their own minority Russian populations. By provoking even deeper hostility toward Russia not only among Ukraine’s elites but also among its broader population, however, Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have also had a major downside.
Moscow’s use of force to change borders and annex territory did not so much mark the reappearance of realpolitik in Europe—the Balkans and the Caucasus saw that strategic logic in spades in the 1990s and the early years of this century—as indicate Russia’s willingness and capacity to compete militarily with NATO. The year 2014 was when European security again became bipolar.
PUTIN BREAKS THE MOLD
For all its novelties, the Russian offensive in Ukraine did not end Moscow’s tendency to project force only within the borders of the former Soviet Union. Russia broke that trend last year, when it dove into Syria’s civil war. It dispatched several dozen aircraft to Syria to strike the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and other anti-Assad forces, established advanced air defense systems within Syria, sent strategic bombers on sorties over the country from bases in central Russia, and ordered the Russian navy to fire missiles at Syrian targets from positions in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. By doing so, Russia undermined the de facto monopoly on the global use of force that the United States has held since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
MAXIM SHEMETOV / REUTERS Russian military vehicles before a rehearsal for a Victory Day parade in central Moscow, April 2015.
Moscow’s immediate military objective in Syria has been to prevent the defeat of Assad’s army and a subsequent takeover of Damascus by ISIS, a goal it has sought to achieve primarily through the empowerment of Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Its political objective, meanwhile, has been to engineer a peace settlement that protects Russian interests in the country and the wider region—above all, by ensuring that Syria’s postwar, post-Assad government remains friendly to Russia; that Moscow is able to retain a military presence in Syria; and that Russia’s wartime partnerships with Iran, Iraq, and Kurdish forces produce lasting political and economic ties.
Even more important, Putin seeks to confirm Russia’s status as a great power, in part by working alongside the United States as a main cosponsor of a diplomatic process to end the war and as a guarantor of the ensuing settlement. Putin’s historic mission, as he sees it, is to keep Russia in one piece and return it to its rightful place among the world’s powers; Russia’s intervention in Syria has demonstrated the importance of military force in reaching that goal. By acting boldly despite its limited resources, Russia has helped shift the strategic balance in Syria and staged a spectacular comeback in a region where its relevance was written off 25 years ago.
The operation in Syria has had its disadvantages for Moscow. In November 2015, a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border, the first such incident between Russia and a NATO country in more than half a century. Russia refrained from military retaliation, but its relations with Turkey, a major economic partner, suffered a crushing blow when Moscow imposed sanctions that could cost the Turkish economy billions of dollars. By siding with the Shiite regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Russia could also alienate its own population of some 16 million Muslims, most of whom are Sunni. Faced with this risk, Moscow has attempted to improve ties with some of the Middle East’s Sunni players, such as Egypt; it has also wagered that keeping Assad’s military afloat will ensure that the thousands of Russian and Central Asian jihadists fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria will never return to stir up trouble at home. Thus, Moscow’s war in support of Assad and against ISIS has also been an effort to kill individuals who might threaten Russia’s own stability.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Where will the Russian military go next? Moscow is looking to the Arctic, where the hastening retreat of sea ice is exposing rich energy deposits and making commercial navigation more viable. The Arctic littoral countries, all of which are NATO members except for Russia, are competing for access to resources there; Russia, for its part, hopes to extend its exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean so that it can lay claim to valuable mineral deposits and protect the Northern Sea Route, a passage for maritime traffic between Europe and Asia that winds along the Siberian coast. To bolster its position in the High North, Russia is reactivating some of the military bases there that were abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also building six new military installations in the region. Tensions in the Arctic remain mild, but that could change if there is a major standoff between NATO and Russia elsewhere or if Finland and Sweden, the two historically neutral Nordic countries, apply for NATO membership.
In the coming years, Russia’s military will continue to focus on the country’s vast neighborhood in greater Eurasia.
More likely, Russia will take military action near its southern border, particularly if ISIS, which has established a foothold in Afghanistan, manages to expand into the Central Asian states, all of which are relatively fragile. The countries with the region’s largest economies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will soon face leadership transitions as their septuagenarian presidents step down or die. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where Russia keeps small army and air force garrisons, will not prove stable in the long term; like Turkmenistan, they are home to high unemployment, official corruption, ethnic tension, and religious radicalism—the same sort of problems that triggered the Arab Spring.
The memory of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan is still too fresh for the Kremlin to seriously contemplate invading the country again to put down ISIS there; instead, it will continue to support the Afghan government and the Taliban’s efforts to take on the group. But that is not the case in Central Asia, which Russia considers a vital security buffer. If the government of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan faces a major challenge from Islamist extremists, Russia will likely intervene politically and militarily, perhaps under the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance to which all four states belong.
In the coming years, then, Russia’s military will continue to focus on the country’s vast neighborhood in greater Eurasia, where Moscow believes using force constitutes strategic defense. If Russia’s venture in Syria fails to achieve Moscow’s political objectives there, or if Russia’s economy significantly deteriorates, that instance of intervention beyond the country’s near abroad may prove to be an exception. If not, Russia might learn to efficiently use its military force around the world, backing up its claim to be one of the world’s great powers, alongside China and the United States.
A NEW STANDOFF?
Even as Moscow has reformed its military to deal with new threats, Russian defense planning has remained consistently focused on the United States and NATO, which the Kremlin still considers its primary challenges. Russia’s National Security Strategy for 2016 describes U.S. policy toward Russia as containment; it also makes clear that Russia considers the buildup of NATO’s military capabilities a threat, as it does the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses and the Pentagon’s ongoing project to gain the ability to strike anywhere on earth with conventional weapons within an hour. To counter these moves, Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and its own air and missile defenses. Moscow is also revising the deployment pattern of its forces, particularly along Russia’s western border, and it will likely deepen its military footprint in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are safe, however, even if they do not feel that way: the Kremlin has no interest in risking nuclear war by attacking a NATO member state, and the sphere of Russian control to which Putin aspires certainly excludes these countries.
At the same time that Russia is rebuilding its military, NATO is ramping up its own military presence in eastern Europe. The result will likely be a new and open-ended military standoff. Unlike during the Cold War, however, there is little prospect for arms control agreements between Russia and the West anytime soon because of the many disparities in their conventional military capabilities. Indeed, the Russian armed forces are unlikely to become as powerful as the U.S. military or threaten a NATO member state with a massive invasion even in the long term. Although Moscow seeks to remain a major player on the international stage, Russian leaders have abandoned Soviet-era ambitions of global domination and retain bad memories of the Cold War–era arms race, which fatally weakened the Soviet Union.
What is more, Russia’s resources are far more limited than those of the United States: its struggling economy is nowhere near the size of the U.S. economy, and its aging population is less than half as large as the U.S. population. The Russian defense industry, having barely survived two decades of neglect and decay, faces a shrinking work force, weaknesses in key areas such as electronics, and the loss of traditional suppliers such as Ukraine. Although Russia’s military expenditures equaled 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015, the country cannot bear such high costs much longer without cutting back on essential domestic needs, particularly in the absence of robust economic growth. For now, even under the constraints of low energy prices and Western sanctions, Russian officials have pledged to continue the military modernization, albeit at a slightly slower pace than was originally planned.
Putin and other Russian officials understand that Russia’s future, and their own, depends mostly on how ordinary citizens feel. Just as the annexation of Crimea was an exercise in historic justice for most of the Russian public, high defense spending will be popular so long as Russian citizens believe that it is warranted by their country’s international position. So far, that seems to be the case. The modernization program could become a problem, however, if it demands major cuts to social spending and produces a sharp drop in living standards. The Russian people are famously resilient, but unless the Kremlin finds a way to rebuild the economy and provide better governance in the next four or five years, the social contract at the foundation of the country’s political system could unravel. Public sentiment is not a trivial matter in this respect: Russia is an autocracy, but it is an autocracy with the consent of the governed.