Monday, June 15, 2009

Berlin, Day 3: A good day to be a political scientist

Well, it is always a good day to be a political scientist, but with interesting elections of late in Lebanon and Iran, there are heaps of good questions out there. Too bad we cannot provide definitive expectations. We can focus on the key dynamics and make some educated guesses. But as long as personalities and other ad hoc factors matter, we can only be humble. To build on Rumsfeld, the key are the known unknowns--we don't know if the military will shoot and, if so, upon whom? We know that the Iranian clerics have organized to repress and that the police are doing so. But, it could turn. The coup-proofing that the Iranian regime has developed (allowing the Revolutionary Guards to develop alternative sources of income, the existence of multiple sources of repression, etc.) seem to be robust enough.

But I was really referring to an interesting day of interviews, a very good start to my week in Berlin. I started with an interview with a consultant who used to work in Afghanistan in various roles (NGO, UN, German government). Then, I had lunch with a member of the German Ministry of Interior and talked police stuff--another place where caveats can shape effectiveness. Then I had conversations with German and Dutch officers working in the Ministry of Defense. Finished with an interview of a member of the Bundestag. I am probably more confused than before, but that is a natural part of the process. Confusion exercises my brain muscles, which is why I try to be confused at all times.

Some interesting (at least to me) observations along the way:
  • The German MoD is ensconsed in an area mostly populated by Art and Music Museums [complete with military version of the ubiquitous bear statue in the MoD parking lot]. This is a strange juxtaposition, but, then again, the German military is more focused on softer forms of power--development more than counter-insurgency.
  • Neither the Germans nor the French like to use the term counter-insurgency in large part due to their respective pasts in Yugoslavia during WWII and in Algeria/Indochina. Why does the past COIN during Vietnam not have the same effect in the US? Rumsfeld tried to keep the US military from using the word insurgent, but that was not because of the ideological or cultural meaning of the term--he just didn't want to recognize the reality of civil war in Iraq. But still, this is an interesting contrast. After all, Vietnam was a disaster, and the US military did seek to forget it all, leading to the failures of 2003-05. But the American people don't care that it is called counter-insurgency.
  • Big Egyptian Embassy, just a couple of doors down from the German Ministry of Defense. Hmmm. This connection might explain how the Germans were able to have a huge dig in Egypt in the mid-1930s, staffed with lots of soldiers, and then free to run large, fast convoys through the streets to the port.
  • Just before I got to the MoD, a guy in a car wanted directions. He had an Italian accent, and then started to hand me his card. I then realized it was the same scam effort that I encountered early in my trip to Paris. I moved on quickly.
Tomorrow, more interviews: Foreign Ministry, Canadian DATT, think tank type.

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