Tag Archives: Middle East

Romanov Redux

Russia’s ill-fated Romanov Family, c. 1913.

Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States, I referred to various photographs of the Trump family in their multi-million-dollar New York penthouse residence.  “The Donald” is, of course, featured prominently front and center, with his (third) glamorous, trophy wife perched nearby; along with their son, Baron, and the real estate magnate’s adult children.  Almost as prominent are the slew of plush, gilded furnishings spread throughout the abode.  I kept thinking I’d seen similar photographs before; various pictures from newspapers and magazine, as well as recollections of a TV show that truly embodied 1980s-era chic and gluttony: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  (Trump was featured in the very first episode and made recurring appearances.)

At one point, though, I turned to my massive collection of books and spotted one that displayed an even more accurate depiction of the Trump family; another clan who lived long ago in similar plush surroundings, perched high above the lowly masses.  Lindsey Hughes’ “The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613 – 1917” describes the life and times of Russia’s last monarchal family.  For more than 300 years, the Romanovs directly impacted world politics with their wealth and power; creating a massive empire that – even in today’s watered-down version – stretches across two continents.  From Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II, the Romanovs maintained a steady grip on the region; impressing their subjects and striking fear in their enemies.

But, by the time the dynasty marked its tercentenary in 1913, that grip had begun to weaken.  Like the rest of Europe’s royal families, the Romanovs remained encapsulated in their heavily-fortified palatial environs; far removed from the sundry plights tormenting their own people and oblivious to the real world lurking outside those jewel-encrusted walls.  Nicholas II was the first of the European monarchs to be ousted from power, as World War I intruded into Russian territory, and a growing internal revolution stalked the Romanov family.

While the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, essentially marked the start of World War I, the death of the Romanovs signified the end – not just to the war, but also to the long-held concept that power and wealth are best held in the hands and pockets of a blessed few and that those few are part of the same bloodline that is never to be disturbed or questioned.  It was shocking enough to international onlookers that a single gunman was able to kill Franz and Sophia with a few shots from a pistol; even as many outside of Europe initially wondered where was this place called Austria-Hungary.  But, as news of the Romanovs’ demise trickled out, the anger and frustration of an oppressed people became brutally apparent.  Nicholas and his immediate family, along with a handful of servants, were peppered with bullets in a basement far removed from their stately home; their bodies burned beyond recognition and dumped in neighboring woods.

The Trump family in their New York penthouse abode.

World War I was actually the culmination of the growing anarchist movement, which had its genesis in the heated anger of economic and social inequality among Europe’s working classes, before spreading westward across the Atlantic to plant itself in the U.S. and Canada.  Even México had succumbed to the wrath of the peasant masses; with outlaws Francisco “Pancho” Diaz and Emiliano Zapata joining forces to lead a revolt against a semi-monarchal dynasty of wealthy landowners and bankers.

This was the dawn of the 20th century; where ordinary people – the one who really keep a nation moving – finally stood up and collectively announced, “Enough!”  The rampages continued, as Europe began losing their colonial holdings in Africa and elsewhere, and Latin American nations saw military dictatorships crumble in the face of concerted human rights’ campaigns.  One of the 20th century’s last acts of peasant anarchy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In Romania, the chaos became lethal when leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were dragged before a court trial staged by their otherwise lowly subjects, found guilty and lynched in public.  That something so horrific could happen in 1989 shocked the world.  But, for the oppressed peoples of staunchly communist Romania, it was perhaps the best Christmas present they’d ever had.

To some extent, anarchism actually sprouted roots with the American Revolution, where a mass of English immigrant descendants decided they simply did not want to be slaves to the British Crown.  Shortly afterwards, French commoners took a queue from their American counterparts and launched their own revolution; one where they didn’t just extract their regal hoodlums from gigantic estates, but relished in the sight of royal heads literally rolling across wooden platforms.  Throughout the 19th century, Spain and Portugal stood virtually helpless as their colonial holdings in the Americas wrenched themselves from the clutches of royal decree – only to stumble through the difficulties of independence and struggles with democracy; quagmires that exist to this day.

In 1900, China’s Boxer Rebellion was a desperate attempt by commoners to boot out European interlopers, which included assaults on Christian missionaries and converts.  Some 100,000 people lost their lives in the various battles that summer.  But a growing dissatisfaction towards the Qing Dynasty and the family of Emperor Puyi (sometimes spelled P’u-i) compelled the working classes to descend upon the sacred and mysterious “Forbidden City.”  Puyi was only 3 years old when he ascended to the throne in 1908; less than four years later he was forced to abdicate and lived out the rest of his life as an undistinguished commoner.  At the start of the 20th century, it seemed that China was poised to endure the same experience as the African continent: be carved up by European colonialists.  But, if the Chinese people no longer wanted single family rule, did anyone believe they’d let bands of foreigners from the other side of the globe do the same?  By the 1930s, China had evicted the Europeans.

World War II fractured Europe.  A few royal families managed to survive; most notably in Great Britain.  But they were all financially and morally exhausted.  This culminated in the U.K. losing their colonial hold on India and Pakistan in 1947.  Next came the vast continent of Africa, where European decolonialization occurred over the ensuing four decades; a massive undertaking that involved millions of people on a scale the world had never experienced before.

The 20th century’s anarchist fangs reached across the globe, toppling the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1980s.  One of its high points was the release of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the dismantling of that country’s brutal apartheid regime within a decade.  South Africa had been the last of Europe’s many colonial assets to gain independence.

Imprisoned by the British in 1953 following the Mau Mau uprising and exiled in 1959, Jomo Kenyatta later emerged as one of the best-known African leaders. He served as Kenya’s first president from 1967 – 1978 and founded various pan-African nationalist movements.

A low point, though, was Argentina’s futile attempt to wrest control of the Falkland Islands from Great Britain in 1982; a brief conflict that resulted in more than 900 military deaths.  Why the U.K. insists on retaining control of this tiny cluster of isolated rocks 7500 miles from the homeland remains less of a mystery than a prime example of colonialist arrogance.  (Some Britons still refer to the U.S. as “the colonies.”)  While Argentina was in no political or financial position to engage in such a daring military feat at the time, they have since matured and solidified their infrastructure.  In 2012, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner blocked two British cruise ships that had visited the Falklands from docking on the mainland.  Argentina has vowed to enforce further similar bans in the future, which could damage the Falklands’ vital tourist industry.

In the Middle East, anarchism produced schizophrenic results.  Anti-royal sentiments led to the 1973 deposition of the Barakzai, Afghanistan’s royal family.  That may have set the stage for the Soviet Union’s bloody but futile attempt to annex that country in 1979.  However, the U.S. became unexpectedly mired in the antagonism of the Iranian populace towards their own royal family, the Pahlavis.  Shah Reza Pahlavi had crowned himself emperor in 1967 and led a brutal regime where dissidence was punished with unprecedented violence and oppression – tools common among wicked oligarchs.  Pahlavi’s 1978 ouster led to the notorious Iran Hostage Crisis, which caught both the U.S. and the world completely off-guard.  Concerned more with the Soviet threat and the oddly-christened “Cold War,” the U.S. government unwittingly experienced its first battle with Islamic extremism.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, royal families held on in Jordan and Syria.  The discovery of oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s allowed the region’s ruling families and their subjects to be pulled up from the doldrums of a tribal / fiefdom-style existence and dropped into the vats of unimaginable wealth.  No one seemed to care that women couldn’t drive cars, much less vote.

Average Mexican citizens rose up in 1910 to depose President Porfirio Diaz who ruled over them off and on for nearly four decades.

While anarchist anger dominated the 20th century, does the same hold true now?  Studying the Trump clan, I can’t help but conjure up images of the Romanovs.  Economic inequality is just as great now as it was a hundred years ago.  We’ve returned to that “Gilded Age” period where the bulk of the world’s wealth and power sit in the grubby hands of a privileged few.  The recent “Great Recession” was the worst economic downturn the U.S. had experienced since the “Great Depression.”  Both debacles were the result of greed and political incompetence; the former mess instigated by the verbally-challenged scion of another monarchal-type dynasty: the Bush family.  Aside from producing two of the worst presidencies within a generation, the Bush clan’s close ties to the Saudi royal family essentially allowed planning for and execution of the 9/11 events to go unnoticed; thus culminating in one misguided war and another illegitimate one, as the economy glided atop a housing bubble that didn’t just pop – it exploded.  If regulations and measures a liberal president had established some eight decades ago hadn’t been in place, both the U.S. economy and the U.S. populace would have sunk into chaotic and murderous oblivion.

Power and wealth usually go together; conjoined twins that sometimes have no mercy for the commoners squirming beneath them.  The leftist “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t gain as much traction as the right-wing “Tea Party,” which claimed passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 as the seeds of their founding; when, in fact, it was the election of the nation’s first biracial president that pissed them off.  If they were so upset about undue taxation, they would have put blame for the economic downturn where it belonged: on the backs of their own Washington leaders who keep propagating the myth of “trickle-down economics.”

But the rise of a foul-mouthed, thrice-married bombastic businessman to the highest office in the land has lit another fire beneath millions of ordinary Americans frustrated with a “jobless recovery”; no one going to jail for causing the recent banking / home loan debacle; and endless conflicts in the Middle East.  The illegitimacy of Donald Trump’s placement in the White House makes a mockery of the American democratic experience.  Our 18th century predecessors carefully designed a unique concept of governing and valiantly fought against the very people who brought them here.  The United States was an outlandish experiment that could have gone seriously wrong if so many people hadn’t realized its true value and potential over the ensuing centuries.  As a nation, we didn’t want a group of self-righteous elitists – families riddled with colorblindness, hemophilia and unbridled arrogance – to rule over us and not be questioned.  Our American forbears understood that humanity must work as a unit to achieve the best possible society.  The various civil rights actions of the past 200 years – from abolitionism to gay/lesbian rights – have helped to refine this strange idea known as democracy.

Looking again at the Trump clan, I still can’t help but think of the Romanovs and realize how much they all have in common.  However, I don’t wish the same fate upon the Trumps.  As brutal as we often seem to the international community, that’s not what Americans do or who we are.

Either way, we didn’t want or need a royal family 240 years ago to impose its fickle will upon our lives – and we don’t want or need one now.

 

Film footage of Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in May 1896.  It’s one of the earliest known (and one of the fewest surviving) motion pictures and the first known example of the new medium utilized to capture a major news event.

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Okay, Let’s Attack Syria, But…

warrior_of_ideas_196945

President Obama has placed himself into a quandary with Syria.  As the world observes what can only be deemed a human atrocity with a chemical assault upon Syrian civilians, the United States collectively contemplates intervention.  Obama won the presidency in 2008 primarily based on his opposition to the Iraq War – the illegitimate enterprise launch by the draft-dodging George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  We now know that American oil interests used the horror of 09/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Those same entities are surely behind Obama’s sudden desire to attack Syria.

It’s amazing how the U.S. government selects its battles.  President Bill Clinton says he didn’t interfere in the 1994 Rwandan massacre because he simply had no idea what had happened; a dubious claim at best.  Ronald Reagan sent covert military operatives into Central America allegedly to stamp out any communist insurgencies.  In reality, U.S. conglomerates like United Fruit wanted to maintain their lock on local commodities.

Chemical warfare is nothing new.  Technically, people have been using them for millennia; starting with poisoned arrows.  They gained prominence, however, at the start of the 20th century with a chlorine gas attack in Belgium in 1915.  Germany made good use of them during World War I.  Consequently, in 1925, an assemblage of nations banned chemical weapons with the Geneva Protocol.  But, things always look great on paper.

No one jumped when Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and sarin against Kurdish civilians in 1988; perhaps because the U.S. might have been involved.  Hussein may have used chemical weapons against the U.S. military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  A decade ago the U.S. accused Hussein of stockpiling uranium, which of course, prompted the invasion.  Notice how these things are cyclical?

Now Obama wants to don the mantle of international hero by ousting Bashar al-Assad.  So far, he hasn’t convinced too many in the U.S. Congress, nor has he been able to persuade our biggest ally, Great Britain.  He plans to take his case to the American public in a televised address tomorrow night.  Good luck.

But, if the U.S. does plan to attack Syria, here are two conditions I’d like to see take place first:

  • Raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations to fund the war.  Our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred without the benefit of significant tax revenue, which ultimately led to the current economic crisis.  Besides, all those rich folks and oil conglomerates are the one who benefited the most from the conflicts.
  • Institute the military draft for every able-bodied person ages 18 – 25.  But, this time include women and rich men.  Yes, if women want to be treated as equals to men in business and politics, that means they have to serve alongside men on the battlefield.  In the past, sons of affluent families have been able to bypass military service.  (Mitt Romney comes to mind.)  But, if those boys can expend energy racing their million-dollar speed boats or partying all night in Cancún, then they can damn well haul rucksacks across the Syrian desert.  There also should be no exceptions for conscientious objectors, such as Mormons, Amish, or Jews.

I won’t hold my breath on passage of either.  I know it’s a long shot to expect multi-millionaires to share the tax burden (not their hard-dollar wealth), or for “Millenials” to set down their I-pods and actually do something constructive.  But, what’s life worth if you can’t dream?  Ultimately, my dream is for the Syrian people to rise up and depose al-Assad all on their own.  Regardless, war is just too ugly for only a handful of people to endure.

Image courtesy Warrior of Ideas.

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Shocked and Awed

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Middle East Morass

Here we go again – more violence in the Middle East.  In case you’ve been in a coma, or preoccupied by Dancing with the Stars, Egypt is in another uproar; this time because President Mohammed Morsi has issued a mandate that grants him more political power.  This comes less than two years after Egyptian liberation activists forced Hosni Mubarak to resign, following a nearly three-decade reign.  Then, the “Arab Spring” erupted, as one country after another in the region started demanding truly democratic states; free speech, free elections, the freedom to walk down the street and not be hit by a car bomb.  But, just as things seemed to settle down – and they always just seem to settle down – Israel and Palestine have begun fighting once more.  Yawn – so what’s new?

Years ago, when I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas, I’d set my VCR to record the CBS Evening News.  I often made it home, as the VCR was recording, so I’d just lay down for a quick nap.  But, whenever news of the day’s events came to the Middle East, I’d just fast-forward the tape.  I didn’t want to hear – again – what crap was ablaze in that part of the world.  And, that part of the world is always ablaze.  If news reports of the region don’t show scattered body parts and ambulances swinging around street corners, I tend to think the end of the world has come and I didn’t check my email in time.

Just like every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has longed to end America’s dependence on foreign oil, every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has sought peace in the Middle East.  In the waning days of their respective administrations, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush became determined to draw up peace treaties.  But, Jimmy Carter came closest of any Chief Executive with the Camp David Accords.  In 1978, he succeeded in bringing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together to discuss two plans of action:

(1) a framework for the conclusion of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and;

(2) a broader framework for achieving peace in the Middle East.

The first provided for a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula and that region’s full return to Egypt within three years of the signing of a formal peace treaty between the two countries.  It also guaranteed the right of passage for Israeli ships through the Suez Canal.  The second was a more general framework (with vague terms) for Israel to gradually grant self-government and/or autonomy to the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and to partially withdraw its forces from those areas in preparation for negotiations on their final status of autonomy after a period of three years.  The two countries had been in an almost perpetual state of conflict since the 1956 Suez War, which had ultimately led to the 1967 “Six Day War.”  Israel invaded Egypt in May 1967, after the latter had forced the United Nations to withdraw from the Suez region.  Israel believed Egypt was about to attack them, so it engaged in what is now called a preemptive strike.

That’s how it’s been ever since.  The history of the Middle East is long and complicated, as you might expect from one of the birth places of modern humanity.  Early Egyptians built one of the most advanced and complex societies in the ancient world; they created one of the earliest forms of writing.  The ancient Israelites had lived in the area for thousands of years.  But, scores of powerful societies – from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Ottoman Empire – gradually forced them out in different waves over extended periods of time.  The British were the last; leaving in 1948, as the new Israeli state took shape.

Thus, I hate to see that entire region engulfed in a continuing state of war.  It’s one of the most culturally and archeologically significant places in the world.  I was upset, in early 2001, when the Taliban destroyed some of the oldest pre-Islamic statues in Afghanistan, including a 2,000-year-old, 165-foot-tall Buddhist masterpiece.

Since its founding as a formal nation in 1948, Israel is always fighting someone.  But, it seems they have no choice; they’re surrounded by enemies.  And, Israel is a small country, both geographically and population-wise.  Like every other nation, it has a right to exist in peace.  Its people have endured plenty of suffering, too; bounced around like trash sometimes; forced to move from one place to the next, while trying to maintain their unique
cultural identify and personal dignity.  The Nazi Holocaust of World War II compelled many Jews to flee Europe and settle in the area generally known before 1948 as Palestine.  They sought to establish their own homeland.

I actually support Israel.  They are the only true democracy in the Middle East.  They have the highest standard of living in the region and one of the highest in the world.  They also have one of the best national policies: every one of their able-bodied, able-minded citizens must serve in one branch of their military.  I feel the U.S. should adopt the same strategy, although wealthy conservatives, bleeding heart liberals and angry feminists would throw a fit.

But, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of this Middle East mess.  I’M REALLY TIRED OF IT!  Like presidential campaigns and Thanksgiving turkeys, it’s never-ending.  And, the entire world seems to stop and pay attention when a bomb goes off or a solider is kidnapped – which I’m sure is how Israel, Palestine and all the others like it.  At the start of the 2007 – 2009 Israel – Palestine conflict, even HLN’s Nancy Grace took time out from looking for missing White females to talk with Christiane Amanpour about the fighting.  I literally did a double take.  What the hell was Nancy Grace doing involved in that shit?!

But, that proves how much attention the Middle East garners whenever things go awry – which is all the time.  It’s the same conflict – the same issues – the same level of anxiety – and the same results.  People die, and the streets are bloodied.  Israel holds up its hands, saying they had no alternative but to defend itself, and Palestine, Egypt, or whoever claims they’re fighting for their own self-preservation.  Nothing changes.  Yet, the U.S. keeps jumping in to save Israel and work towards elusive peace agreement.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next – aside from more bloodshed and name-calling – and I don’t know what can be done about it.  But, sometimes I wish the U.S. would just stay the hell out of it.  I know that won’t happen.  But, I have these wild dreams sometimes and I like to think they can actually come true, if people would just listen to me.

Image courtesy of Olle Johansson.

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