Moldova: the forgotten in-between Russia and the EU

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The difficulty of the implementation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership is as we have witnessed that these countries constitute the so-called Russia’s “backyard”and for strategic and historical reasons, Russia is not willing to let go easily. The paradigmatic case was Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, but Russian efforts to hinder  the post-soviet space relationship with the EU started years before.

Beyond the military means and political involvement, Russia has wielded its power in the form of economic sanctions and bans to imports and goods from the EaP countries. But Russia’s loss of power  is patent, recurrently in Ukraine and Georgia, both having left the Commonwealth of Independent States . The  republics’ eagerness to become close partners with the EU have resulted in Russian attempts to interfere in the countries’ political arena and processes; economy and trade relations through the use of a variety of means ranging from military and occupation to economic sanctions and trade bans.

But just like Georgia or Ukraine, the situation of Moldova has been an in-between position that cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration its causes and consequences, to be sure: state capture, structural poverty or a great migration crisis 

Moldova, as other post-soviet countries witnessed as well this state capture from the 1990’s, culminating in the so-called “billion-dollar theft”, the 2012-2014 theft of one-eighth of Moldova’s economy, which led to a few politically motivated arrests, but it has never been recovered. The same years, Moldova saw itself involved in the massive theft that became known as the “Russian Laundromat”, a scheme led by government officials and members of Moldova’s judiciary, who had moved $20.8 billion in funds stolen from the Russian treasury through Moldova’s banking system. The case is another example of how Moldovan regulators have been captured by corrupt interests and consistently fail to indict those responsible for large scale financial crimes.

Russian ambitions in the post-soviet space are nothing new. In Moldova, the situation is worsening as this path of post-soviet state capture is being transferred to Russian hands since the 2016 election of Igor Dodon: the audio-visual sector, the railway and even the international airport are slowly being financed (and thus controlled) by the Russian Federation. Energetic dependency gives further power to Russia in Moldova, as most of their gas comes from Russia, little diversified.

State capture has had its consequences on Moldova, as the Human Development Index of 2019 positions Moldova in the 107th place out of 189, making it the poorest country in the EU neighbourhood. Endemic corruption, the main consequence of normalised state capture for a long time now and the poverty created by this situation has made emigration levels an all-time high.

Despite the fact that Russia is slowly gaining political significance once again in Moldova, the European Union is still a close partner with the country. The Republic of Moldova is today between the East and the West, and each player, in particular Russia, have interests in the country.

Although often overlooked, the geopolitical implications of Moldova cannot be underestimated.

When silence does not make it better: US-Russia Nuclear Relations

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Today’s world faces numerous issues: crisis of liberalism, trade and economic wars between the major geopolitical rivals, populists and autocrats who hold their seats in parliaments and other governmental bodies. However, all those problems would become unimportant in case of another, not worldwide war, but a nuclear one.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there are 9 nuclear-weapon states in the world: five of them are under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), three of them are not, and one state -Israel-, is an undeclared nuclear state. The biggest amount of nuclear missiles are situated on the territory of the United States and Russia, making them their heritage from the Cold War. 

The nuclear policy of the two countries is as different as their approach to the foreign policy. On the one hand, Russia’s military doctrine, included in the 2010’s edition states that first of all, Russian government considers NATO and its enlargment as the main threat to the country. Secondly, the right to use the regular army on the territory of another state which poses a threat to the sovereignty of the country as well to the rights of russian-speaking citizens, and last but not the least, there is the fact that nuclear weapons may be used against the state which violates the sovereignty and poses a threat to Russia’s existence.

On the other hand, the United States remains the only country in the world which has used nuclear weapons against another state. Luckily, there have not been any other cases in world’s history. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 established that nuclear weapons may be used only in case of nuclear attack from another state, great losses among citizens and serious damages to infrastructure and central authorities. In this regard, as its opponents and threats  the US names Russia and North Korea.

Relations between Russia and the US in terms of nuclear policy are not easy. However, keeping in mind that nowadays Russia is a state under sanctions regardless of numerous attempts of Vladimir Putin to depict it as “a democratic state”, it is going to be difficult to continue the dialogue in the sphere of nuclear non-proliferation.

America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty  and the denunciation of the INF Treaty  create a serious and dangerous precedent in the international relations. Moreover, the absence of  information on negotiations on the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III  (START III) or the signing of a new treaty do not make that situation clearer. If after 2021 there is no extension of the existing treaty or a renewed one, then the parties will find themselves without any binding agreements in terms of strategic nuclear forces and it will create a legal – and dangerous- vacuum in their relations. 

Even if both states claim that it is impossible to use the preemptive strike, even if they are aware of the hazardous consequences of using nuclear forces, there is still a great need in for  dialogue between the US and Russia. After all, the economic problems, violation of human rights or climate issues would become totally irrelevant if nuclear weapons were used by any state.

The Democrats’ plan for the Middle East

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This year, the American people will elect their president for the next four years. The US’s vast influence and importance in most corners of the world makes him either an important ally or a dangerous enemy. Nevertheless, there is a region of the world where American military and diplomatic actions have proven counterproductive:the Middle East.

During the 2003 invasion and later occupation of Iraq, the US lacked a consistent strategy to stabilize the country. Later, the Obama administration’s decision to leave Iraq (2009), created a vacuum of power that was filled by militias and extremist groups. Finally the recent crisis over the thousands of ISIS prisoners after the “defeat” of the caliphate shows the lack of a coherent grand strategy for the Middle East.

With the 2020 election coming up it is important to understand the Middle East policy of the main democratic candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren. With the loss of American hegemony and the increase in Great Power competition, the oil rich Middle East still matters to US interests. Its large amounts of oil and its volatility makes it important for the US and its allies to avoid the region to fall in the wrong hands. Further destabilization of the region or another war would jeopardize US geopolitical, geo-economic and security interests.

Israel: Biden, Sanders and Warren all support a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Biden is the more “pro-Israel” of the three, assuring a no-strings attached continuity in military and financial aid to Israel. Warren and Sanders both support the continuity of military and financial aid to Israel on the condition that the country takes steps towards peace with Palestine.

Iran: Biden, Sanders and Warren agree that the US should try to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran agrees to comply with the deal. They also propose strong diplomatic measures to try to weaken and deter Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and its ballistic missile program. On the use of military force against Iran, only Warren discards the use of military force to stop Iran from testing a nuclear weapon, while Biden is the only one that will consider the use of military force to protect oil shipments through the strait of Hormuz, even though this could escalate into a military conflict with Iran.

Saudi Arabia: Biden, Sanders and Warren agree that the current relationship with Saudi Arabia, based on cheap oil imports and weapons sales need to be reevaluated. They all oppose the war in Yemen and publicly condemned the assassination of Khashoggi. The three candidates also recognize the importance of Saudi Arabia in the region and the need to work with the Saudis in order to assure security and stability in the region.

There is little difference between the candidates proposals for the Middle East and as it has been the case for the last twenty years, the candidates policies look more like concrete objectives rather than an overall grand strategy for the region. The main issues being: containment of Iran, prevention of proxy wars, energy security, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and curving Russian and Chinese growing influence in the region.

It is clear that a new administration would have to work multilaterally with the support of international organizations (United Nations), regional and international allies in order to avoid losing influence over the region which would have serious repercussions for American foreign policy, economic and security interests.

Coronavirus: an affective understanding of global panic

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What started the 31st of December 2019 in the city of Wuhan, China, as a Pneumonia of  unknown cause has turned to the newest highly contagious internationally spead 2019-nCoV (Coronavirus) in the first days of 2020. The Coronavirus crisis and consequent global panic follows other global public health crises related to outbreaks of diseases such as SARS in 2003, Zika in 2015, Ebola in 2014-2016  or MERS in 2012( both provoking deaths in parts of Asia and Africa still today).

Understanding global panic is hard in many ways.  Some  commentators have highlighted the side of the politics of fear, a mainstream  comprehension of fear understood as a tool of governance positing in this case China as a geography of fear inspired by an event which has a global reach.  From this reading, fearmongering  is used by big media outlets and politicians, speading fear and making people vulnerable to certain restrictive measures, against the WHO’s Eemergency Commitee recommendations, like we are seeing: border closure, travel bans and so on. In this regard conceptualising global panic just in these terms is purely self-explanatory: it all ends in irrationality, precaution measures and controlling masses.

But I propose another understanding, from the conceptualisation that has been made from  affective theory. Very briefly, affective theory proposes  ‘to examine the ways in which feelings can (re)produce dominant social and geo-political hierarchies and exclusions’

From affective theory, and particularly within the frame of one of its proponents, Sara Ahmed, we can read global panic and understand how affect is embedded in China, coronavirus (re)marking it a geography of fear, and the Chinese, the bodies to fear (or hate), once again. For Ahmed, affect and emotions (fear,hate, love) are cumulative, just like any form of capital, and thus has its historical development. From European colonization of Chinese land to the yellow peril , to the fear of China and its rise to great power status, to the current Coronavirus situation, there is a continuum in what Ahmed refers to as affective economy.

There is no doubt that particular contexts and situations provoke a certain reading of those bodies affected, in particular when an outbreak of a disease is where those geographies and those bodies are located and already marked; marked different from European, Chinese and China circulates as an “other”- like this very case: a non-clean other, an infected other.  Emotions of fear transform into hate, which circulates  then easily, getting attached to anybody of  perceived similar characteristics despite all other circumstances. This attachment will provoke then new affect, accumulating to the one that is there, and moving forwards to (re)produce perceptions of Asian peoples and Asian geogrpahies.

To be sure, Coronavirus creates the best opportunity for the reintensification of discourses that are already enrooted in large parts of societies. In this case the campaign  launched by Asian peoples #imnotavirus #jenesuispasunvirus #yonosoyunvirus is relevant to understand rise of racism from affective theory. At the same time the travel bans (particularly in the US), disruptions in Asian markets and in key economic areas or even Taiwan trying to take political advantage of the situation respond to similar affective logics, nontheless expressed differently depending on the politics, history, and contexts that shape particular perceptions of China and its peoples.

Finally, this reading does not oppose others, but can help in explaining beyond “precaution” or “risk” how affect circulates, why are some measures imposed and wonder if there would have been such cases of racism against peoples from Asia in Europe had it been an European outbreak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rest in Pieces: Brexit’s Aftermath

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‘Let’s Get Brexit Done!’ Boris Johnson’s slogan for his latest campaigning became reality with the end of January. Indeed, it is done, at least when one understands Brexit as nothing else but the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Because this is essentially what happened. Most urging questions, including the border issue between EU member state Ireland and UK member Northern Ireland, trade relations, the status of EU citizens living in Great Britain, and the like, remain unresolved regarding the long term. Hence, there is still plenty of political work to be done, both in Brussels and London.

It is therefore fallacious to jump to overly optimistic conclusions which appear to be widespread in both media and politics. While some celebrate the reincarnation of self-determination, others welcome getting rid of an awkward negotiating partner. Still others are just happy not to be bothered any more by the never-ending story of extending withdrawal talks again and again.

Yet, sorry to say, all these perceptions fall short. This is best shown by the perhaps most prevalent myth surrounding Brexit: That the EU now finally is a real union again. Proponents of this thesis have a fair point when arguing that the entire storyline of Brexit so far comes closer to a horror movie than a love flick. The back and forth of the negotiations between London and Brussels just as lockdowns and dead ends in British politics indeed sent a strong signal to the 27 remaining EU members. Leaving the often-disliked union in those days is as unattempting as never before. As David ‘Oops-a-Daisy-I-accidently-made-my-country-leave-the-EU’ Cameron and Theresa ‘Dancing-Queen-aka-Brexit-means-Brexit’ May showed strikingly: Such an agenda easily turns into a political suicide mission.

What tends to be forgotten, however, is the fact that the voter generally is oblivious. In other words: Having a strong community spirit now does not equal a guarantee for standing strong forever and ever. Besides, whether the sense of community actually is as alive and kicking as assumed should be questioned. The so-called ‘Friends of Cohesion’ recently convened in Portugal to agree on their post-Brexit strategy. Needless to say, this circle of ‘friends’ does not incorporate all 27 EU states. With numerous more or less formal sub groupings within the EU, from the Eurogroup to PESCO to Visegrád, when the chips are down, every member state will look for the alliance that is most promising to its very national advantage.

With the pressing schedule to get Brexit really done until the end of the year – let us leave aside the quite likely event of a prolongation for a second – the EU would be wise to avoid falling into pieces even more (ironically, the decision makers at the River Thames faces the same risk: think Scotland). Instead, Brussels would be better off staying strong together, overcoming dissents quickly, and, ultimately, speaking with one voice internationally.

Else, the EU may rest in pieces.

They are all evil: Trump’s “Vision” of Peace and Prosperity.

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Yesterday, Donald Trump, in the middle of his very own process of impeachment, announced his Middle East Plan, the so-called “deal of the century” negotiated with Israel without the Palestinians, and as Netanyahu is under investigation for fraud and bribery charges. Beyond this move -both on the US and Israel labeled as “distraction”  from the ongoing internal proceedings regarding the political future of the president and prime minister respectively- the deal of the century carries material consequences for the lives of the Palestinians living under Israel occupation and settler colonialism. 

Some commentators have suggested that the Peace to Prosperity Vision 2020 (“Vision”) echoes the situation of 1917 and the Balfour Declaration, leaving again the Palestinians out of the negotiation table on their own homeland and further ignoring their opposition to it. Highly unlikely, Trump might think that he is actually doing a favor to the Palestinians and that with this Vision, both him and Netanyahu are really approaching a solution to the conflict. Received amidst mixed reactions, it is convenient to highlight and analyze some of the most remarkable comments within the document.

Palestinians are likely to be terrorists, especially in Gaza. The document states throughout that all Palestinian leaders and authorities are terrorists. Most of the population might be as well. Among other examples: “Gaza is a very complicated situation. It is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and, as a result of Hamas’ policies, is approaching a humanitarian crisis. It is time to help the Palestinians achieve a hopeful and prosperous future(…)” (p.2). The same idea is spread out, at least the word terrorism linked to Palestinians and their leaders is mentioned 40 times.

Of course, this thinking does at least two things. Firstly, it delegitimizes Palestinians and pictures them as evil terrorists that are constantly threatening Israel. The “Vision” literally states that “A realistic solution would give the Palestinians all the power to govern themselves but not the powers to threaten Israel“. The consequence is, therefore, “limitation of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinian areas such as maintenance of Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River”.

Secondly, by picturing Israel as a legitimate state under threat, the politics of settler colonialism, aggression, and other atrocities are easily overlooked. In Gaza, these politics have involved over the years, and with the support of the United States, the bombing of key infrastructure in the strip, including hospitals and schools; years of blockades and electricity cuts, hindering access to humanitarian aid, the cutting of funds by the US to the USAid in the region and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

Although the document makes a great effort in trying to depict the US as the Palestinian savior while highlighting all the advantages the Palestinians will benefit from,  one might ask whose peace and whose prosperity is this plan referring to. Certainly not to the party that being the most affected by it, has not been included in the negotiation.

 

Groupthinking into bad political decisions

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Leaders and other responsible figures have made numerous political decisions throughout history that turned out to be bad. There are various factors that could have contributed to making these decisions and their poor consequences, and one of them recognized in the early seventies is groupthink.

The term groupthink was coined by a psychologist Irving Janis, who published a book on the matter in 1972, in which he analysed decisions of the US government that had unfavourable or favourable outcomes, such as Bay of Pigs fiasco or Cuban missile crisis, respectively. Since then, the scholars have described different political decisions preceded by the groupthink conclusions and decisions to act.

Groupthink occurs when a group of people desires more to reach unanimity than to engage in rational and logical decision-making. The main drive for this process is extreme cohesiveness, but there are other factors presented in the graph below. Poor decision-making involves biased discussion, failure to seek expert advice, minimizing conflict, avoiding alternatives, suppressing personal doubts, which all lead to a distorted view of reality, neglect of ethical issues and excessive optimism with the outcome of policy fiascoes.

Adapted from Janis & Mann, 1977

Although the theory of groupthink emerged primarily with the aim to explain political decision-making, latter studies suggested that there are other contexts in which groups engage in this mode of thinking and the theory found its application in management, especially in big corporations, and in some other areas of internal governance, e.g. the launch of the Challenger. However, it continued to be used in analysing different foreign policy decisions, for instance Iraq and the War on Terror or terrorist radicalization.

As every theory, this one was also subject to criticism. Scholars have pointed out different conditions that influence groupthink, that were not provided by Janis, such as political structure, social identification and low self-efficacy, manipulation of the decision-making process. Groupthink is certainly not the only process that leads to making bad political decisions. However, when one is in a position to be involved in a group that is to make important internal or external policy decisions, they should bear in mind that this process can occur and lead to adverse consequences. The role of the group processes should never be underestimated. Even more so in foreign policy decision making.

Peace is as far as ever for Libya

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The continued fighting taking place in Libya between the two local forces competing for power and their apparent inability or unwillingness to cooperate has put the country in the middle of what has become a complex international conflict with no future positive prospects.

With a growing international fear about the Libyan conflict, world leaders have gathered in Berlin to try and find a way to end the fighting between the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Saraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. The conference’s aim was to get foreign powers to stop intervening in the war, to uphold an arms embargo and to nominate a UN ceasefire monitoring body – but concerns over the unwillingness to abide by these agreements are ever-growing.

With the intervention of foreign powers in the conflict, the conflict in Libya can no longer be seen as a binary Haftar vs Tripoli one. Among other parties, the GNA has the support of Turkey and Syrian rebel militants and the LNA has the support of Russia and its military private contractors as well as Sudanese militias. Since 2011, Libya has been the clear example of continued foreign interference and therefore consequent fragmentation of the security sector in Libya but also in the already fragile region.

In a parliamentary vote, Turkey decided to come to the aid of the GNA, which was followed by the deployment of Turkish troops and an additional 2,000 Syrian fighters. On the other side, the LNA is receiving support from Sudanese rebel groups from Darfur, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) together with the Russian private military contractor Wagner. Adding more fighting factions to a conflict is like adding oil to the fire –  the presence of these forces has been met with clashes between local militias or minorities and the foreign militias.

The participation of external proxy forces with both the GNA and the LNA not only shows the fragility of states in the region but also their reliance on foreign manpower and therefore the exacerbation of the conflict. Thus, it is evident that peace in Libya depends on foreign actors’ readiness to give room for alternative political manoueuvres.

Until we see an end to meaningless and precarious foreign presence, meddling and financing, there will be no meaningful political talks that will pull Haftar from Tripoli and therefore peace will remain highly improbable.

The Iraqi Dilemma: Between Geography and Diplomacy

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Over the past forty years Iraq has had military conflicts with both Iran and the US, and those wars have brought nothing but political instability, economic crisis and death to Iraq.

Iraq – Iran war: On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and started a devastating war that would last eight years, involved several countries and created instability in the Middle East for decades to come.

US invasion of Iraq: In 2003, the US invaded Iraq and, after a couple months, US forces overthrew the government and captured and later executed Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. The US’s occupation of Iraq proved to be a disaster. The Iraqi government put in place by Washington was too weak to control its own territory, leaving a vacuum of power in the country that was soon filled by violent militias and extremist groups, including the newly created ISIS.

Despite its difficult situation, over the past years, Iraq has managed to regain control of its major cities, push back ISIS, rebuild its oil industry ,and has been taking steps to solidify its newly formed democratic institutions. However, the Iraqi government has had to deal with a very complicated geopolitical scenario.

It has had to struggle to maintain its sovereignty, to improve its relationship with Iran (its most important neighbor) and to manage its military and economic relationship with the US. This dilemma has shaped Iraqi diplomacy and, today, Iraq’s diplomatic efforts are of utmost importance in order to avoid another conflict which the country will probably not be able to endure. As stated by Iraqi president Barham Salih  The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor”.

Nevertheless,  the assassination of Qassem Suleimani -a pillar in Iran’s foreign policy- has made Iraq the main stage in the conflict between the US and Iran. The US drone attack that killed Suleimani was conducted without the knowledge of the Iraqi government, violating its sovereignty and leaving the country in a very delicate situation. Iraq cannot afford to take sides in the dispute without jeopardizing its survival and overall the regional stability.

Politically, the government has to manage a divided parliament between Shiite – majority and close to Iran – and Sunni – minority and opposed to Iran – as well as pressure from both sides to limit each other’s influence in the country.

If Iran and the US keep escalating their war games and refuse to sit down at the negotiating table, the regional consequences would be disastrous for the Middle East and Iraq. Among other, the scenarios could go from  an US intervention in order to protect its regional interests to competition for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran creating more proxy wars in the region and an increase in the intensity of Israel’s conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine both militia groups backed by Iran.

Iraq must at all cost avoid alienating either the US or Iran. Baghdad will have to push for a a diplomatic solution in order to deescalate the conflict, because war will be unbearable for both Iraq and the region.

The US-Iran 2020 mess

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We are not even through the middle of the first month of 2020, and it is already too much to bear for Iran. On January 3rd the US forces, on the soil of Iraq, killed their top general Soleimani. Following the killing that came more or less as a surprise to the international community, Iran proclaimed American forces to be terrorist (what a turning point, ha?) and shot some missiles to two US military bases, again on the soil of Iraq. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Who is to be trusted when talking about the results of this attack? Iran claims to have fired 15 missiles and killed at least 80 ‘American terrorists’. On the other hand, the US and Iraq reported no casualties. Iran pulled itself out of the nuclear deal. The US introduced sanctions. The international community has taken a rather soft stance towards the development of the situation. And as if it all were not messy enough, Iran accidentally shot down a commercial flight and left 176 people dead.

Although some claimed that Iran missile shot down the plane and even videos of the crash were released (but who could claim they were to be trusted), for a couple of days Iran rejected these allegations, but refused to give over the black box to Boeing. In the wake of January 11th, Iran admitted shooting down the Ukrainian commercial flight by mistake. The citizens of Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Britain and Germany are all dead due to ‘human error’.

Things like this don’t just happen. But sometimes they do. In 1988, a commercial flight was shot down by accident, because it was mistaken for an F-14 Tomcat. The plane was Iranian, a commercial flight 655, carrying 290 people. The attackers were American, fired from a guided-missile cruiser of the US Navy.

In 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down when flying over Ukraine, from the pro-Russian separatist controlled territory and by the Russian missile brigade. In total 298 people died. In 2018, a Russian surveillance plane was shot down by Syrian forces accidentally, leaving 15 people dead. There are more examples since the WW2. But all this raises the question of responsibility.

Human error is inevitable in various situations. However, usually when a human error occurs, it has bad consequences. Who is to be held responsible in situations like this? Is it the very person that shot the missile? Is it his superiors? Are the people who did not clear the airspace during and shortly after the attack?  Milgram’s explanations of obedience could provide an insight to this matter. It is now a commonplace in social psychology, the diffusion of responsibility and the agentic state. One exempts himself from responsibility when having entered the agentic state, which is characterised by unquestioning obedience. In this state, personal responsibility is transferred to the person giving orders, i.e. the superior. That is why mostly higher military instances are trialed for war misdeeds.

This is a normal behaviour that is characteristic for all people, although some can resist it but only if having high levels of consciousness at the given moment. That is, unfortunately, not common for military forces since they are trained to be obedient. This is not to justify any of the shooting downs of the wrong targets. This is to explain where it should be looked for responsibility. IRGC Amir Ali Hajizadeh is well aware of this and he took responsibility for this incident. However, the mess is getting bigger in Iran, with the protests against government due to the crash.

Errors like this must be avoided. This collateral damage is at the hands of ordinary people. It may just be too much to carry the weight of it.