Monday, January 16, 2017

Believe the Scorpion: 'Winter is Coming'

Review by Bill Doughty

What's the best thing we can do to defeat threats to our nation and world?

Brainy world chess champion Garry Kasparov offers advice, history, analysis and a prescription in his thoughtful "Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped" (PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group, 2015).

Kasparov challenges us to keep human rights in the forefront – to not look away in the name of political expediency – when dealing with President Putin and his cronies. And deal we must, he says, or risk the appearance (or reality) of appeasement.
"Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong, and on the universal values of human rights and human life, we have engagement, resets, and moral equivalence. That is, appeasement by many other names. The world needs a new alliance based on a global Magna Carta, a declaration of fundamental rights that all members must recognize. Nations that value individual liberty now control the greater part of the world's resources as well as its military power. If they band together and refuse to coddle the rogue regimes and sponsors of terror, their integrity and their influence will be irresistible. The goal should not be to build new walls to isolate the millions of people living under authoritarian rule, but to provide them with hope and the prospect of a brighter future."
Havel (L) and Kasparov (R) meet at Democracy & Security conference, 2007.
Former Czech President Václav Havel is quoted, describing "politicians who kiss and embrace politicians, almost dizzy with the smell of oil and gas." According to Kasparov, Putin's wealth and power are provided by Western companies, especially "energy giants," investing in Russia "as Russian oligarchs spread their wealth."

This book comes with an endorsement from former Navy pilot and Vietnam War POW Senator John McCain (pictured below): "As one of the most influential critics of Vladimir Putin's reign of terror, Garry Kasparov has become a champion for the causes of freedom, democracy, and human rights in Russia."

Written after the invasion of Ukraine but before Russia's foray into Syria, this still-timely book shows how Putin – Time's Person of the Year in 2007 – came to power after Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the pivotal first year of the Millennium. 

Among the events in a tumultuous 2000, a faulty torpedo exploded aboard the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in the frigid Barents Sea, resulting in the death of 118 Russian sailors. That same year Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda targeted USS Cole (DDG 67), killing 17 American sailors.

Terrorism and military tension were once again on the rise in the 21st century, a combustible mix ready to explode in the fall of 2001.

President Putin.
Grandmaster Kasparov explains how history's chess pieces have moved – from Cuba's Bay of Pigs to Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, from Chechnya to Ukraine – and dozens of other hotspots on the planet, as ideals of freedom and democracy clashed with fascism and totalitarianism, as elections took place or power was seized and consolidated.

North Korea is mentioned several times. In 2001, "the Russian president had already established personal relations with Kim Jong-il and was ready to play a broker role on the Korean Peninsula."

Former North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il and Putin in 2002.
Kasparov describes the nature of a fascist kleptocracy such as Stalin's and Hitler's. "Dictatorships must be feared to survive and so they cannot bear to be mocked." Fear and disinformation are fomented, and freedom of speech is intolerable. 

Are dictators born or raised that way? "As with most nature-nurture questions, it's both in varying degrees of balance."

This book is filled with word gems, like:

  • "If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, compromises on principles are the streetlights."
  • "When Putin loaned the presidency to his shadow, Dmitry Medvedev it should have been clear to all that democracy was dead."
  • "Even after Western firms were repeatedly betrayed, cheated, and threatened by their Russian partners and kicked out of partnerships or the country, they came back looking for more like beaten dogs to an abusive master."
  • "The mullahs, monarchs, and dictators are pushing back against the threat to their medieval ecosystems."
  • "True nature can override logic and self-preservation."

The last bullet above refers to fabulist Orson Welles's story of the scorpion and the frog: 

"The frog carries the scorpion across the river on its back, convinced by the scorpion's logic that it will not sting him because if it does , they will both die. In the middle of the river the scorpion stings the frog, who says, dying, 'Logic? There is no logic in this!' The scorpion replies, 'I know, I can't help it. It is my character.'"

Fortunately, "Few humans are truly scorpions – complete psychopaths."

Kasparov warns, "Don't trust a scorpion because logic and being in the right doesn't help you very much when you're dead."

Dissidents are true patriots, dedicated to higher ideals as espoused in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, according to Kasparov.

"If we rouse ourselves from our complacency and relearn how to stand up to the dictators and terrorists who threaten the modern world we have built, we can alter our course," he writes.

In other words: Read books.

Using Malala Yousafzai as an example of how education threatens fascists but empowers citizens, Kasparov, the chess champion prescribes a solution: "What these thugs cannot abide is the flowering of education, with the noteworthy exception of militant religious-teaching that often closes minds instead of opening them. They despise the possibility of an educated population, knowing it would mean the end of their kind for a generation."
"If there is anything I have learned from my extensive travels all over the world to promote chess in education it is that talent exists everywhere. The question is how to give it the opportunity to express itself and to thrive. This opportunity that education creates is what is lacking in so much of the undeveloped world and in parts of the developed world as well if we are honest – a shortfall that has wide-ranging and damaging effects. Education is the most effective way to address poverty and violence, even to tackle complex issues of terrorist groups and vicious warlords."
"Winter Is Coming" is, of course, a title taken from George R. R. Martin's "Game of Thrones," but Kasparov recommends another author "to understand the Putin regime in depth": Mario Puzo, author of "The Godfather" (a book novel published in 1969 that I read in high school English class, hiding a paperback version behind the assigned Carson McCullers book; sorry, Ms. Baker).

Kasparov advises: "The rise of Vladimir Putin and his St. Petersburg clan has been described as Machiavellian, but it is better described by the achievements of Don Vito Corleone: the web of betrayals, the secrecy, and the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal – it's all there in Puzo's books."

Other authors and works recommended or inspired after reading "Winter Is Coming" include David Halberstam's "War in a Time of Peace," George Orwell's "1984," Hanna Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism," and Masha Gessen's "The Man Without a Face."