Book Review: The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad is a book about political unrest in the Middle East by Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. The book is a compilation of his notes and articles over a 20-year period (1996-2016) while traveling throughout the Middle East. Cockburn did direct reporting where possible, and relied upon first-hand accounts when venturing into certain places was too dangerous.

Cockburn begins with his reporting from Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States began its intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Next, he shares his experiences of Iraq under sanctions from 1996, 1998, and 2001, followed by his experiences there during the American occupation from 2003 to 2010. This is followed by his next forays into Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.

The next part of the book focuses on the Arab Spring and the events that followed, with particular emphasis on countries in which the rulers were not quickly deposed. Cockburn begins with the Libyan Civil War of 2011 that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power, along with the difficulties that followed. Sectarian violence in Yemen from 2009 to 2015 and the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 each get a chapter.

The last part of the book covers recent developments in Syria and Iraq. First, the Arab Spring in Syria and its development into the Syrian Civil War from 2011 to 2014 is discussed in two chapters. Another two chapters are devoted to the contemporaneous destabilization of Iraq. This culminates in the rise of ISIS and the establishment of the Caliphate, in and near which the final four chapters take place.

The book gives important insight into just how terrible daily life is for people in war-torn lands, including the near-absence of basic utilities, shortages of essential items, rampant unemployment, and fear of mistreatment both from rebel groups and one’s own government. The book is filled with anecdotes of behavior which have not been seen since the Renaissance in the West, and knowledge of this behavior helps to explain animosity toward migrants from that region. The reader may be familiar with some of the events described, but almost anyone would find new information somewhere in the book.

One comes away from the book with a sense that both Western and regional powers had to be trying to perform so poorly. Western powers sought to punish Saddam Hussein without regard for the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of sanctions. They ignored cultural attitudes and sectarian divisions while turning a blind eye to mass corruption that greatly weakened the nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. They removed dictators who were stabilizing forces, thus creating power vacuums which were filled by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. It is difficult to be so maliciously incompetent without intending to do so.

Overall, Cockburn does an excellent job of conveying the reality on the ground in most of the conflicts in the War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring. The only real improvement would be to add sections on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, which only get passing mentions as sources for jihadists in other places. The Age of Jihad belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of recent history, the Middle East, revolutions, war, and/or the effects of foreign intervention.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: The Invention of Russia

The Invention of Russia is a book about the history of the Soviet Union and the formation of modern Russia by Russian journalist Arkady Ostrovsky. The book focuses on the time period of the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin. Special attention is paid to the role played by the media in shaping narratives and steering the population from the Soviet era to the present.

The prologue deals with the author’s experience during and immediately after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015. He briefly overviews events over the past few decades that factored into Nemtsov’s murder, and the author’s experiences through those years are also discussed.

The book proper is divided into two parts, each with five chapters. The division between the parts is roughly set at the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. The first chapter begins with the end of the Soviet Union, then backtracks to give the reader a sense of Soviet history up to Gorbachev’s rise to power, with emphasis on the events that foreshadowed it, such as de-Stalinization and the crushing of the Prague Spring. The second chapter covers the time from Gorbachev’s appointment to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nature of perestroika and glasnost are discussed, as well as how the Chernobyl incident affected both. Later in the chapter, Ostrovsky details the split between the liberal reformers and the Stalinist hardliners, as well as the beginnings of the privatization of state assets which formed the class of Russian oligarchs. The third chapter explores the final two years of the Soviet Union, including the economic difficulties, the rise of Yeltsin, the worries of the KGB and other elements of the Soviet power structure, the January Events in Lithuania, and the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. The fourth chapter looks at the role played by the media in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how the generational shift from the shestidesiatniki to their children affected the changes. The Kommersant newspaper is highlighted as an example of the new Russian media, as well as one of several examples of less than honest business practices in the early 1990s, which occurred due to the moral vacuum left by communism. The fifth chapter covers the time from the end of the Soviet Union up to the 1993 crisis, with particular attention to the role of television, radio, and print media in shaping the narrative and saving Russia from another Communist takeover.

The sixth chapter continues the discussion of the 1993 crisis, then moves on to the creation of NTV, Russia’s first Western-style television station. Of course, NTV had to compete with Channel One and other state media, which caused tensions with the state when NTV covered the first Chechnya war from the Chechen point of view. The chapter concludes with the 1996 election, in which the media played an essential role in bringing Yeltsin up from single-digit polling to a victory over Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist challenger. The seventh chapter continues with the events after the election, including a battle between oligarchs that turned into a political crisis, continued troubles with Chechnya, the search for a vision for Russia moving forward, and finally, the 1998 Russian financial crisis.The eighth chapter shows how this milieu combined with NATO airstrikes in Serbia and an overly propagandistic media was able to elevate an obscure KGB agent named Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia. The decision of most of NTV’s leadership to side against this was the beginning of the end for the station. The ninth chapter covers the time from the beginning of Putin’s rule to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, including the ouster of several high-profile opponents of the regime, the bringing of NTV into the control of Gazprom and its gradual turn toward the regime, further trouble with Chechen terrorists, the Russo-Georgian War, and the activities of various media personalities. The tenth chapter looks at Putin’s rule in light of Russian popular culture, the rise of the bureaucrat-entrepreneur, the protests of 2011-13, the military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the use of propaganda to manufacture support for foreign aggression.

The book is excellent at face value, providing a perspective that can only come from a native person who lived through many of the events described in the book. But it is even more valuable to libertarians and reactionaries for the obvious parallels between Russian history and the current state of affairs in the West, as well as for the warnings concerning the improper dismantling of government monopolies, as happened during the transition from the Soviet Union to modern Russia.

To conclude, the unique explanations of historical events and the focus on the role of the media in steering the ship of state make this book an invaluable addition to the collection of any activist, analyst, historian, strategist, or student.

Rating: 5/5

Interview with Barbara Howe

On Wednesday, August 22, 2012, Libertarian North Carolina gubernatorial nominee Barbara Howe held campaign events in Gaston and Lincoln Counties, NC. There was 5K run in Gastonia, NC at in the morning and a 5K run in Lincolnton, NC in the afternoon. I ran in the afternoon 5K in Lincolnton, NC, and caught up with Mrs. Howe for an interview at 6:00 p.m. Videos of the interview may be found here and here.

MATTHEW REECE: My name is Matthew Reece, and I am here in Lincolnton, North Carolina with the 2012 Libertarian nominee for Governor of North Carolina, Barbara Howe. Mrs. Howe, thank you for joining me.

BARBARA HOWE: Glad to be here.

MR: For those who don’t know about you, tell me a bit about your background.

BH: Well, first let me say the reason I look all hot and sweaty is because I just finished a 5K run, so please forgive me. My background is…I grew up in North Carolina, a lifelong resident. I spent about five years away when my husband was in school early in my married life, but other than that, I have lived in North Carolina all my life. I was born in Wingate, NC, just south of Charlotte. I grew up there. I went to Pfeiffer College and graduated with a degree in English and Psychology. I married a man named Tom Howe in 1976. We have three children. Since my marriage, I have been a full-time stay-at-home mom. We home schooled…the whole nine yards. The children are all adults now, young adults. I have two sons and a daughter. We built our own house in Granville County. I mean, literally built our own house with our own two hands. So, that’s me in a nutshell. I have been involved in Libertarian politics since about 1976.

MR: For most voters, the economy is first and foremost in this election. North Carolina’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. What policies do you propose to bring jobs to North Carolina?

BH: Well, a common myth…you’ll hear a lot of politicians say, “I’m gonna create jobs!” Government doesn’t create jobs. Government gets in the way of job creation, but it doesn’t create any jobs. My proposal would be: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, create more certainty for small business owners so they all know what the rules are from one day to the next and don’t have to guess so they can actually offer products that consumers want. The notion that government creates jobs is just ludicrous, and in North Carolina, we even are worse than that, because we offer massive tax incentives to lure large businesses here in hopes of job creation. As my friend Mike Munger who ran for governor [of North Carolina as a Libertarian] in 2008 said, “They’ll come for money, they’ll leave for money,” so the best way to lure jobs here is to have low taxes, low regulation, a solid infrastructure, and good education, and if we put those in place, job creators will flock here.

MR: You mentioned cutting taxes. By how much?

BH: Well, I can’t imagine any of us thinks we’re paying too little in taxes. I’m not going to give you a firm number right now, because we would have to examine exactly…once I get in office, we’d have to examine the budget inch-by-inch and determine what’s duplicative, what’s not necessary, what can be provided by the private sector, and start eliminating things right away. So, I can’t give you a number. It will be massive though.

MR: Your platform mentions eliminating “burdensome regulations.” Give me some examples.

BH: The mounds of paperwork people have to do. You have to get a privilege license in order to do business in North Carolina. The privilege you’re getting is to collect sales tax for the state of North Carolina. That kind of paperwork, that kind of burdensome regulation, is just something that business owners don’t need to deal with. The list is probably too long to count, and I can’t…beyond that one I can’t pinpoint one right away. My son and I ran a small business briefly in the early 2000s and just filling out that kind of paperwork was a nightmare, so I can imagine what people who have big businesses have to do.

MR: North Carolina currently receives 31% of its budget revenue from the federal government. Do you believe that this is a problem?

BH: Absolutely, because one of the reasons we’re in the budget crises we’re in now is that we got all this TARP money and stimulus money and now, that money is disappearing because the federal government is in a bind too. So, we put into place programs that we only had temporary funding for, and so now we’re kind of stuck with them, and no way to pay for them. I would do everything I could as governor to decrease our dependence on the federal government. That might not make me very popular because North Carolina taxpayers do pay a lot of tax money to the feds, but every dollar they send, they attach strings to it, and it costs us money just to get some of those dollars.

MR: Let’s talk about energy policy. There is a push to bring hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” to North Carolina. What is your position on this?

BH: My position on that is about the same as it is on every environmental issue. We have to protect property rights. I am all in favor of energy exploration and people doing business here in North Carolina. If a company wants to come and explore the possibility of fracking in North Carolina and they think its worthwhile, they have to come here without tax incentives from North Carolina, they have to pay their own bill, they have to have bonds enough to protect the people they might harm if there is environmental damage, and under those circumstances I would be…I would sign off on fracking. But under those circumstances, unless it is really worth their while, they’re not going to come to North Carolina anyway. From [what] I understand, the resources in North Carolina are not that great, and if the cost is too much, they won’t explore it.

MR: Duke Energy is being accused of being too cozy with the Obama administration because of its financial support of the Democratic National Convention. The Charlotte-based utility has solicited donations, donated office space, and guaranteed a loan to the convention committee. As governor, would you seek to stop a public monopoly governed by regulation, such as Duke Energy, from taking such actions?

BH: That’s a good question. I haven’t given that particular issue a lot of thought. I’m not familiar enough with this issue to really give you a thoughtful answer.

MR: Give me an overview of your education policy.

BH: Well, what we have now in North Carolina, and probably every state in the Union, is a monopoly, one-size-fits-all education program, government-provided education, and the government decides the curriculum. And parents are pretty much stuck unless they can afford to pay twice, either going to private school or home schooling. What I would like to see is much more competition available to parents to be able to send their kids where they feel [their children] will get a good education. Since we are constitutionally mandated by the North Carolina Constitution to provide education, we have to work within those parameters. What I would advocate for at this time is tuition tax credits, so that any taxpayer, whether it is the parent, the grandparent, members of your church, [or] your boss at work, could provide tax credit scholarships to send any kid to any school. And how this would work is that the business would set up a scholarship fund, parents could use their tax liability toward tuition at a private school, and what would happen in the market is that there would be all kinds of small schools popping up all over the place trying to meet the needs of this market. Some kids would go to schools that focused on mechanical things. Some kids would go to schools that focused on art. Some kids would go to schools that focused on math. So we would be able to meet the needs of every child in North Carolina. I have three children. They’re all very different, and they don’t learn the same way, and our expectation that we can throw 30 kids into a classroom and teach them all the same thing at the same time and expect them to learn at the same rate is ridiculous. So we need a market-based, market-driven education system that would help parents get the education their kids need.

MR: Would it be a good idea to amend the Constitution to remove the public education requirement?

BH: Well, you’re calling for a constitutional convention there. While I think it would be, that would be a hard sell at this time, I’m pretty sure. But eventually, if we just get into a more market-based education system, I think we can solve a lot of the problems, but ideally we would get government out of the business of education altogether.

MR: Let’s move on to social issues. You opposed Amendment One. Some libertarians come at this from the position of marriage equality as a constitutional right, while others take the position of separation of marriage and state. What is your position?

BH: My basic position is that government really has no business in marriage, other than enforcing the contract that two adults make. And so, the notion that we grant the right to marry seems anathema to me, and I would like to see government out of the business of marriage, and the only role they would have is enforcing the contract.

MR: You are an opponent of capital punishment. If one person has taken the life of another without due process of law, has that person not forfeited the right to his or her own life?

BH: My opposition to capital punishment is that I don’t advocate killing prisoners. I am a big proponent of people using all the self-defense within their power. If somebody is bothering you, and you’re at liberty to stop them any way you can, that’s fine. But once you’ve caught the person and rendered him helpless and harmless, I don’t think you have the right to kill him. So what we do in government is we catch the criminal, we put them in jail, we try them and they’re found guilty, and then they’re pretty much harmless to us. We’ve put them away and they can’t harm other people. So I am opposed to the state killing prisoners, because there is a chance that they’re wrong, and if you have created the ultimate penalty of death, you can’t rectify that if you’ve made a mistake.

MR: One issue that divides libertarians is abortion. Where do you stand on abortion?

BH: Well, I have to describe myself as pro-choice. I don’t like the division of pro-life and pro-choice because, of course, I want every baby to be conceived and loved and born into a happy, healthy home, but the reality is that’s not going to happen. Where I do come down with the right-to-life crowd is that I think government should stay out of it. That means your tax dollars shouldn’t go to fund abortions. So I am a strong advocate of getting government out of the abortion business. I don’t think government should be making healthcare decisions for women, and frequently it is a health decision, and the decision has to be made between the woman, her partner, and her doctor, and government should stay out of it.

MR: The Obama administration is clashing with some states that have legalized medical marijuana. Would you seek to repeal drug laws in North Carolina?

BH: Absolutely. The drug war is a terrific failure. It has created more problems than it has solved. It has made our streets unsafe. It has corrupted politicians. It has corrupted policemen, and drug dealers are running rampant and making a killing. If the drug war were to end, drug use probably would stay about the same. Ever since we implemented the drug war, drug use has remained pretty much constant. We need to focus on the issue of the medical needs of individuals who get involved in drugs and not make this a legal problem. We have our prisons full of simple drug users. They’re not hurting anybody but themselves, which is unfortunate, but we don’t need to bankrupt our country and ruin lives over the drug war. I would advocate, especially for medical marijuana, it seems like a no-brainer. Its a proven fact that marijuana has certain medical benefits, and the fact that we continue to make this illegal and prosecute people for it is horrendous in my opinion.

MR: What is your position on voter identification laws?

BH: That’s a good question too, because I have mixed emotions. I have no problem with us knowing who is voting, but I also think, I think other people have said this, its a solution in search of a problem. I’ve heard that the amount of voter fraud is just infinitesimal. It has never been enough to sway an election. So I think we have bigger issues, and I know the opponents of the voter ID are concerned about the disenfranchisement of older voters or people who don’t have driver’s licenses, and the implementation is going to cost the state something too. And as I say, it seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

MR: You have said that governments are instituted to defend our rights, not to limit them. But when we look at history, governments have a terrible track record when it comes to actually fulfilling this responsibility. Might we conclude that government is incapable of fulfilling this duty?

BH: Well, what did the founders say? You have to remain ever vigilant, and the tendency is for government to grow and liberty to yield…I don’t have the quotes down right, but that’s why as a Libertarian, even as a Libertarian, I have a very hard time running for office because the last thing I want to do is tell you how to run your life, but I realize that in order to get that kind of government that is limited strictly to just protecting individual rights, I have to be involved in the process. And you’re right, it just continues to get bigger and bigger and its going to be hard to rein in, but we have to start somewhere.

MR: As a third party candidate, you face challenges that Republicans and Democrats do not. Tell me about your experiences with this.

BH: Well, I have been involved in the Libertarian Party in North Carolina for many years, since the late 1970s. North Carolina is a particularly difficult state in which to get…to get on the ballot. I can’t compose that sentence very well grammatically. Our last petition drive in 2008 when we got Dr. Munger on the ballot took us 3.5 years and cost us over $150,000. Our resources were drained, our energy was drained, and it shouldn’t be that way. Any group of committed individuals who want to form around a political idea and create a political party ought to be able, through volunteer efforts, to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot so they can let their voice be heard in the political arena. North Carolina makes it extremely difficult; that’s why we only have three recognized parties right now, and as in North Carolina that bar to get on the ballot is based on voter turnout and election results, and it is a constantly rising bar, and as the elections go forward, the hurdle is going to be so high [that] no other party will ever qualify for North Carolina’s ballot unless they’ve got millions of dollars like Americans Elect had. We still don’t know how much Americans Elect paid to get on the ballot in North Carolina, but we speculate it was a couple million dollars.

MR: Those who are sponsoring the gubernatorial debates seem to want to exclude you. What, if anything, will you do to fight for inclusion in the debates?

BH: Well, I have contacted the debate sponsors. Beyond that, there is not a whole lot I can do. They are private organizations. I’m not taking them to court. I’m disappointed that my two opponents would even agree to debate without me on the stage. I think its a disservice to the voters of North Carolina not to let them hear from all their options. They may listen to me and decide not to vote for me. That’s fine. But I really ought to be able to participate in the process like the other two.

MR: Last question. What do you say to voters who are leaning toward Pat McCrory or Walter Dalton, but have not made up their minds?

BH: One of the arguments we get as Libertarians is “Well, if I vote for you, I’m going to waste my vote because one of those other guys is going to win. So I’ve got to keep Walter Dalton from winning so I’ve got to vote for Pat McCrory, or I’ve got to keep Pat McCrory from winning so I’ve got to vote for Walter Dalton.” You’ve only got one vote. One vote. And no gubernatorial election has ever been decided by one vote. You have to cast your vote for the person you really want to win. If you’re voting for Dalton or McCrory because you don’t want the other guy to win, they’re not going to know that’s why you cast [your] vote. They’re going to think its an endorsement of what they believe. So cast your vote for the person you really want to win. I hope its me. If its not me, I’ll accept that. But don’t cast your vote because you’re afraid of a wasted vote.

MR: Mrs. Howe, it has been a pleasure.

BH: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.