Thursday, September 18, 2014

Syria and the Ukraine

Preachers say: Do as I say, not as I do.
—John Selden, Preaching

Today’s question is what is the difference between what the United States may or may not do in Syria and what Russia may or may not have done in the Ukraine. The main difference is that according to Vladimir Putin what happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has nothing to do with anything Mr. Putin or Russia did whereas what’s about to happen in Syria has a great deal to do with what the United States plans to do. If Mr. Putin were not credible, the differences between what’s happening would be less pronounced.

Russia now owns Crimea and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine are trying to take over that part of Ukraine. This is all being done without any help from Vladimir Putin. If anyone has any doubts about that they were put to bed by a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich. On September 11 he reaffirmed that: “No Russian troops are fighting in south-eastern Ukraine. There were no and there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. The Russian army is not fighting there. There are volunteers who cannot stay away from the suffering and events unfolding in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

NATO members and non-NATO members are of course upset with Mr. Putin because (a) they don’t believe him or his spokesman and (b) they don’t think he has a right to engage in military action in a sovereign country irrespective of his reasons for doing so. That is why sanctions are being placed on Russia.

What Mr. Obama proposes to do in Syria is quite different. Syria is governed by Bashar al-Assad. Three years ago Syrian Sunnis began a revolt against Mr. Assad and the result has been three years of a brutal and bloody civil war. During the war Mr. Assad has used poison gas, barrel bombs and other cruel methods of waging war to kill some of the 88.7% of the people who reelected him as president on June 3, 2014. The Sunnis being less well armed have been unable to drive Mr. Assad from power and as a result of the conflict more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 1 million have become refugees. The Sunnis who began the revolt have been joined by some exceptionally violent Sunni types known as ISIS or Islamic State who have been fighting the less extreme Sunnis as well as Mr. Assad and his forces. When ISIS captured a government base near the Syrian city of Raqqa in July 2014 it beheaded the officers and soldiers it had captured and placed the severed heads on posts in the central town square for all to see. In September and August ISIS beheaded two American journalists and one British journalist and posted videos of the beheadings on line. Those three beheadings (but not the earlier ones) galvanized the west. Although the United States had been flying bombing missions over Iraq to fight Islamic State, following release of the videos of the beheadings it determined to do more. In an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, President Obama announced that in order to defeat ISIS he will authorize direct attacks against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.

Bombs may be dropped inside Syria without the permission of its president. As Mr. Obama explained in his speech to the nation: “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIS in Syria, as well as Iraq. . . . . If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” Mr. Lukashevich commented on the president’s plan saying: “This step (bombing in Syria) in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.” (Since Russia was uninvolved in the Ukraine he did not need to explain why Russia had not taken those steps or why what it did was not a similar violation.) So here is how it all is working out.

Mr. Putin invaded Crimea and is engaged in efforts to take over eastern Ukraine but says he did not do that. Mr. Obama acknowledges that he plans to bomb a country that has not given consent to being bombed because Islamic State is taking refuge there. Mr. Obama does not plan to put any U.S. troops in combat operations in Iraq or Syria although less than a week after he offered that assurance, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chief of staffs, said at some point he might recommend to the president that the United States have troops involved in attacks on Islamic State when accompanying Iraqi troops. His remarks were followed the next day by Mr. Obama saying there would be no American troops engaged in combat in Iraq. Neither Mr. Obama nor General Dempsey mentioned the possibility of ground troops in Syria. It will only be subject to bombing-at least for the next few weeks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

iPhones, Us and Me

Remorse sleeps during a prosperous period but wakes up in adversity. —Jean Jacques Rousseau, Confessions

It’s enough to make us all want to quit sending nude photos of ourselves to our closest friends. Of course, the propagation of the nude photo on the Internet by means of the iPhone is simply the latest example of a creative use to which that medium has been put by some of its owners.

When members of earlier generations wanted to capture images of events they wished to preserve for posterity, they did it by committing the event to memory, if a private sort of event, or to film, if a non-private event. Images of public kinds of event that were preserved for posterity were taken with cameras and the subjects would be shown doing all sorts of things like climbing mountains, sailing ships or simply sunbathing on beaches. When recording memories of times on the beach, the raciest photos were defined by the coverage afforded by the bathing suit in the photograph. Times have changed.

The iPhone as camera has found opportunities to display its skills in places where few, if any, of their owners would, in days gone by, have thought of taking cameras. Although the new discovery may seem titillating to the iPhone and its owners, there is a downside to the use of the iPhone to preserve memories of what may take place in the bedroom. The downside becomes apparent when the parties to the bedroom activities are no longer friends and the events were recorded on the iPhone. If the possessor of the iPhone wishes to embarrass the former friend, he or she can simply e-mail images from happier times to mutual friends, not didactically to show what sorts of activities the former friends had engaged in, but vindictively to embarrass the person who didn’t own the iPhone. At least one court has addressed the issue of use of photos of lovers engaged in amorous pursuits once the pursuit has ended. A German court ruled that at the end of a happy relationship either party may be required to delete “intimate or revealing photos and videos” that the couple made in happier times. The court’s ruling did not apply to pictures taken of the woman when fully clothed since the court observed those had “little, if any capacity” to compromise the woman.

We have now learned that it is not only the ordinary who enjoy photographing themselves, either alone or with others in what in earlier days would have been considered private poses and activities. September arrived with the news that some prominent celebrities’ e-mail accounts had been hacked and pictures they had intended to share with only a few select friends were now being shared with the world. Those unfamiliar with modern ways may wonder why anyone takes a selfie or asks a friend to take photographs of himself or herself without the benefit of clothing. Even greater wonder is inspired by the question of why, having been taken, they are posted in a place where a hacker can discover and disseminate them on the Internet. Whatever the reason, it happens and now we can all enjoy photos of some celebrities wearing only what they were given at birth. Those whose photos have been shared with the world are, of course, furious even though in most cases (unless surreptitiously taken) they are the ones responsible for the photographs having been taken in the first place. It is not, however, only the celebrities who have been embarrassed by the disclosures. Apple has been as embarrassed by the distribution of these pictures as the unclad celebrities, albeit for different reasons. Endless news stories and editorials have criticized the company for the fact that the iCloud is not as secure as people thought and suggested that the fault lies with the company and not with the celebrity stars. There is, of course, another way to look at it.

Even if a celebrity has been told that he or she has “a heavenly body” many people might wonder why its possessor would want to place its naked image in the iCloud for friends to see. In announcing the breach of iCloud security that permitted the heavenly bodies to be viewed by the general public, one headline exclaimed: “Leaks of nude celebrity photos raise concerns about security of the cloud.” The headline might more appropriately have read: “Leaks of nude celebrity photos raise concerns about the good sense of some celebrities. ” It is easy to demand an explanation from Apple as to why its site can be hacked by voyeurs. Someone should demand an explanation from the aggrieved as why they posted the images in the first place.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Faux War

— War, children, is just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.
—Mick Jagger, Gimme Shelter (1969)

Wars can, of course, be started quite by accident. They can be started because the warriors on one side or the other are overly enthusiastic about what they are doing and their enthusiasm leads them to do things that may have unintended consequences. They can also be started because one side or the other lacks a sense of direction and accidentally invades another country. Or they can be started because scenes from video games appear on the internet and give the impression that aggressive acts are taking place that are in fact not taking place except in the mind of the creator of the games but the other side is unaware that what appears to be an invasion is in fact merely an illusion. All those things have been happening in the Ukraine but as Vladimir Putin would be the first to explain, there has been no invasion of that country by Russian forces.

The first thing one must keep in mind is that there are really no Russian soldiers involved in that conflict. Some of the Russians who are there are soldiers, but they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers- except insofar as fighting as a soldier is considered being a soldier. Explaining when a soldier is not a soldier, Alexander Zakharchenko, the East Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist leader explained it this way: “Among us are fighting serving soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom. . . . There have been around 3,000 to 4,000 of them in our ranks.” He refers to them as soldiers but since they are in fact on leave they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers but as citizen volunteers. The fact that some of them were seen driving Russian issued armored vehicles is no surprise because it is not unlikely that in Russia a soldier on leave is required to take his or her armored vehicle with him or her to the beach or wherever the soldier is planning to go on vacation, in order to keep it in good running shape.

It is not only the vacationing soldier who can create the impression of an invasion. The same thing can happen when a soldier with a bad sense of direction and no GPS wanders into what would be considered enemy territory if the territory into which he or she wandered was at war with the country on the other side of the border. That happened to at least 10 Russian paratroopers in late August.

There was no suggestion at the time of their capture inside Ukraine that they were folks who had foregone a beach vacation in order to enjoy some rest and recreation time in Ukraine and, accordingly no one suggested that they were not in fact acting as soldiers. They were apparently real paratroopers doing real paratrooper kind of work and they simply got confused as to where the border between Russia and the Ukraine was. Since they mostly enter countries from the air and the pilot of the airplane tells them where they should land, it’s easy to see how that mistake could happen. A Russian defense ministry spokesman said the paratroopers who had probably come in from the air, were “patrolling the Russian-Ukrainian border, [and] crossed it by accident on an unmarked section.” He went on to point out that they offered no resistance when they were captured thus conclusively demonstrating that they were not engaged in hostile activity but were simply lost.

Another thing that can cause a war to start by accident is if one side, in order to demonstrate the bad acts of the other side, broadcasts to the world images of a purported aggressor sending self-propelled armored vehicles into another country if those images are in fact simply images taken from a video game. That happened on August 26 when NATO showed pictures of a convoy of self-propelled armored vehicles that appeared to be driving into the Ukraine. The images were, of course, not real. Russia’s Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov explained that NATO was using “images from computer games” to prove that there were Russian troops in the Ukraine. He said, referring to these images, that “hiding the evidence is an outstanding characteristic of the U.S. and many EU countries” when it comes to the Ukraine. (It is not clear why showing a video from a computer game would be considered “hiding the evidence” and no one asked Mr. Lavrov to explain.) Of course if those pictures were not from a video game Mr. Lavrov would have had a tough time explaining why their entering Ukraine was not part of an invasion.

If it were not for the helpful explanations by Mr. Putin’s assorted spokesmen we might be concerned about how events in Ukraine will ultimately play out. For good reason.