Saturday, October 03, 2015

The pivoting friend

In his news conference yesterday, President Obama provided a fairly vigorous defence of his Syria policy, based mostly on the actual or likely ineffectiveness of the proposed alternatives. However one gap in that defense was evident in his claim that proof of Russia's weakness in its Syria response is that its coalition has 3 members -- Russia, the al-Assads, and Iran, while his coalition has everyone else:

Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours.

Missing from his Russia coalition list is Iraq, which provides overflight permission for Russian military support to Assads and beyond that says it is in a new military pact with the others against ISIS, which of course is now clear is simply a fig leaf to protect the Al-Assads. And there's the stretched logic of the Obama Iraq policy: if the Al-Assads sustain ISIS by their brutality, and ISIS now is a trans-border threat to Iraq which US support to Iraq is helping them contain, isn't the US now thus undermining in its own policy since the Iraqi government supports the Al-Assads?

Friday, October 02, 2015

How many miles do we need for that?

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde understanding all too well the phrase needed to get the attention of global policy elites flying to yet another Very Important Meeting (this time in Lima) to save the world's economy --

I am calling on policymakers to make a policy upgrade to address the current challenges,

Then she called for the new policies to be "limousined" to implementation.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The long cold war

Niall Ferguson in the Financial Times (subs. maybe req'd) --

West blew its peace dividend in 20-year party of consumption and speculation ... The world’s short peace is ending. Errors of western policy — from bungled intervention in Iraq to non-intervention in Syria — only partly explain the return of conflict. More important is the lethal combination of economic volatility, a youth bulge, disruptive technology and the viral spread of a lethal ideology. The west had its peace dividend after 1991. We blew it in a two-decade party of consumption, leverage and speculation. First came the financial hangover; now comes the geopolitical reckoning. Dealing with it will mean relearning the arts of grand strategy and war.

His view of the four-part cocktail that has contributed to the current turmoil is certainly plausible. But linking it to a supposed economic binge is not so clear -- although such an argument sheds further light on the often moralistic tones of austerity advocates: ISIS is just another blowback from fiscal profligacy!

But in any event, what about the point the end of the Cold War was wasted in geopolitical terms? Another perspective would be that the Cold War cast an especially long legacy in Islamic countries. Islamist terrorism has many roots, but some key pre-1991 milestones are the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and another al-Assad's consequence-free crushing of a revolt (Hama), the politics around that episode itself the result of Cold War calculations. Then there are the former USSR central Asian republics that never quite liberalized and of course Saddam Hussein, who had played a few cold war cards of his own in a game that had a long way to go even when the cold war formally ended.

There was an economic and financial party, with the booze flowing most freely in financial centres. But linking this to Islamism requires almost Kissingerian intellectual gymnastics.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Choose horse carefully

Washington Post a few months ago ---

Mohammed [bin Naif] met with President Obama in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, discussing terrorism and regional issues. At the time, F. Gregory Gause III, a prominent international affairs professor at Texas A&M University, called Mohammed “America’s favorite Saudi official.” Gause cited the good cooperation between U.S. officials and the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Saudi Press Agency yesterday --

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior as well as Chairman of the Supreme Hajj Committee, this evening inspected the command and control center of Hajj security at the headquarters of the Public Security in Mina ... The crown prince expressed pride in the praise by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the venerable efforts of the security men in the service of pilgrims, despite what happened in the stampede in Mina and that this does not reduce the size of the efforts made by them.

If someone was looking to shove America's favorite Saudi official out of the way, the fact that he's Chairman of the Hajj committee during a disaster that killed nearly 800 people could be very convenient. For anyone who's bet the farm on him continuing in his role, it could be awkward.

US Senator threatens foreign leader

Ted Cruz at the Values Voters Summit:

And if the Ayatollah doesn't understand that [US won't allow him to have a nuclear weapon],  we may have to help introduce him to the 72 virgins.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Feeding the birther fever

From the White House web front page, something that could be read two ways.

First they came for the highly leveraged

RTE on the public inquiry witness statement of overstretched property developer Johnny Ronan who was caught out by the Celtic Tiger bust in 2008 --

He said [his company] Treasury's relationship with NAMA [state troubled asset company] began well but deteriorated and the agency also forced them to sell their entire Chinese business. Mr Ronan signed off his statement to the banking inquiry with the words "Arbeit macht frei", a German phrase, which means "work makes you free".

Billionaire investor Tom Perkins writing to the Wall Street Journal last year --

Regarding your editorial "Censors on Campus" (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich."

The rich aren't like you and me. They have more sense of grievance.

[note: Ronan even translated the phrase into Irish -- “Arbeit macht frei” nó, i nGaeilge, “Tugann saothar saoirse”]

Worst corporate rebranding ever

The insistent Web ad informs us that Bayer MaterialScience is now Covestro.  One could understand Volkswagen wanting to push the history eraser button, but Bayer, really? By that standard, the arrival of Eir is the epitome of good taste. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Is that a manager or technical grade?

Pentagon announcement of latest strikes in Syria and Iraq --

Recent coalition airstrikes have killed a senior leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and an al-Qaida explosives expert, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said today. Cook confirmed the Sept. 10 death of senior ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Turkmani and the July 5 death of French national David Drugeon, an al-Qaida operative and explosives expert. The press secretary said the coalition airstrike that killed Turkmani near Tal Afar, Iraq, “will help disrupt ISIL operations in the Tal Afar area and shows that their leadership is not beyond the coalition's reach.” Turkmani, an ISIL administrative amir, was part of al-Qaida in Iraq before joining ISIL and was a close associate of many ISIL senior leaders in Iraq, Cook said.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Muscat Sultans 2 -- Washington Drones 0

Statement from Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In response to the Royal Orders of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said and as per a request of the US government to assist in settling the case of the US citizens detained by the Yemeni security units, the concerned authorities in the Sultanate, in coordination with the Yemeni authorities in Sanaa, have managed to release two of the US citizens as they were transported this night from Sanaa to Muscat on board of an aircraft of the Royal Air Force of Oman in preparation to return home.

This carefully worded statement, among other things, refers to the Houthi militias who were holding the foreign citizens as "Yemeni security units." Anyway the point is that the usual US government approach of attempting to recover hostages -- meaning military operations and blanket refusal of ransom demands -- looks like it's been sensibly dropped in this case. Instead Oman, which has carefully kept neutral in the Yemen war -- at risk to itself in various ways -- was able to spring the detainees. It might be worth trying this "ask someone local for help" in other Middle East contexts as well.

Democracy, Whiskey, TED

Showing that the TED concept is fearless, Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi speaks at an independently organized (as per *) TED event in Baghdad.

Friday, September 18, 2015

If it doesn't happen on an EU border, it doesn't happen

Reuters --

The death toll in South Sudan from the explosion of a fuel truck this week has risen to 182, a regional official said on Friday. The blast occurred on Wednesday as crowds gathered around the tanker to gather fuel after it had veered off the road. An official had earlier said the toll could keep rising as South Sudan did not have adequate facilities to treat the burns. " ... Such incidents have happened before in the east African region where fuel tankers often have to travel long distances along potholed roads and pass through poor communities. There are almost no tarmac roads in South Sudan, one of Africa's poorest nations, which has been mired in conflict since December 2013. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Strategic complaining

White House statement 2 weeks ago at end of visit of Saudi King Salman --

Finally, the two leaders discussed a new strategic partnership for the 21st century and how to significantly elevate the relationship between the two countries. His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman briefed the President on the Kingdom’s views regarding the strategic partnership. The President and King Salman directed officials in their respective governments to explore appropriate ways to move forward in the coming months.

Saudi Press Agency today --

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made a telephone call today to U.S. President Barack Obama. During the call, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques expressed, in strong wordings, condemnation and disapproval of the grave Israeli escalation, at Al Aqsa Mosque, in Al-Quds, brutal aggression against worshippers at its plazas and the violation of the sanctity of Islamic sanctuaries. The King called for exigency to exert internationally concerted, serious and expedite efforts and offices to stop it, exigency of the UN Security Council intervention to take all prompt measurements to stop violating the sacredness of Al-Aqsa Mosque, protect the Palestinian people and religious sanctuaries, awarding the Palestinian people its legitimate rights, asserting that such aggression, flagrantly, violates the holiness of religions and gives a hand to fan extremism and violence, in the entire world. 

Presumably the "new strategic partnership" included the possibility that such problems could arise because after all the White House would never make such a prominent announcement about a totally meaningless strategy, right?

Another kind of fact check

With the pundits having thrown their Donald Trump toy against the wall and picked up the Carly Fiorina one instead, we better start paying attention. The fact checkers are working busily on some of last night's more extravagant claims, but among the problems with that methodology is that a claim which is simply in circulation without contradiction and/or lacks any definitive evidence can skate by unnoticed, despite its gravity. So here's Fiorina --

By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know [Iran IRGC head] General Suleimani's name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al- Assad.

That's both widely reported, denied only by sources that lack credibility (i.e. Russia), and plausible given the scale-up of Russian involvement in Syria over the last weeks.

But is it true? Even if the meeting happened, was it Iran talking Russia into something, or vice versa, or even a joint plan that might eventually see both of them dump Bashar al-Assad as long their other interests could be secured in a post-Assad Syria?

If it's widely accepted that Russia and Iran are there only to back al-Assad, then the chances of a messy compromise -- which is all that can save millions of Syrians from misery at this stage -- further recedes. So Fiorina's claim, which came as part of an explicit burnishing of her furrin policy credentials, could lead to some serious dead-ends.

Is he still our guy?

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - A shadowy spy master formerly the right-hand man to toppled President Blaise Compaore seized power in Burkina Faso at the head of a military coup on Thursday, less than a month before elections meant to restore democracy in the West African state. General Gilbert Diendere, who for three decades served as Compaore's chief military adviser and operated an intelligence network spanning West Africa, was named as the head of a military junta called the National Council for Democracy.

The photo is then Colonel Major Gilbert Diendere, chief of staff of the president overthrown in last year's coup (with today being the counter-coup). The occasion of the photo was the 2010 Operation Flintlock, which is a joint Pentagon and European annual military exercise with militaries in West Africa; Diendere was the local host that year. The 2015 host is the Boko Haram-butt-kickers in Chad.

No doubt the Pentagon types thought he was a heckuva guy.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Custodian of the possibly connected

On September 11, a shocking disaster causes considerable loss of life, and one or more members of the Bin Laden family may be involved. As a result, a travel ban is imposed to prevent the family members from leaving the country until inquiries are complete.

The USA after 9/11? No, since bin Laden relatives were infamously facilitated rapid exit from the country.

It's the Mecca crane disaster of 9/11/2015. Saudi Press Agency --

Meanwhile, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques reviewed the report of the Accident Investigation Committee which concluded the absence of criminal suspicion and that the main reason for the accident is the strong winds while the crane was in a wrong position. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques issued directives to refer the results of the investigation to the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution to complete investigation procedures with Bin Laden Group. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques also issued directives to impose travel ban on all members of the Board of Directors of Bin Laden Group, Eng. Bakr bin Mohammed bin Laden, senior executives in the Group and others connected with the project until the completion of investigations and the issuance of judicial decisions in this regard. --SPA

Friday, September 11, 2015

Idle rich

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, in the course of making an overall sensible argument against magical thinking on the impact of tax cuts --

When Reagan took the top tax rate from 70 to 50 percent in his first term, it increased the after-tax return on a dollar earned by 67 percent. (I’m leaving out state and local taxes for convenience.) When he cut it again to 28 percent in his second-term tax reform, that return increased by another 44 percent. But when Clinton took the top rate from 31 to 39.6, it lowered that return by only 12 percent. It should not have been expected to have terrible effects. And it shouldn’t have been surprising that any negative effects it had were overwhelmed by other trends, such as favorable demographics, falling energy prices, and technological change, among others. 

So when Reagan cut taxes, the effect was big because the percentage change in top rate was so large, while when Clinton raised taxes, it didn't hurt because the percentage change was small and other favourable things -- unlike the 1980s, apparently -- were going on.

The problem is that his logic is double edged. If cutting the top rate from 70 to 50 percent increases after tax return on an additional dollar by 67 percent, it also increases the return on every existing dollar taxed at the top rate by 67 percent. And the more you were earning already before the tax cut, the bigger that effect is. So the high earners don't have to work any harder to earn the same income as before, muting any effects on growth.

One of the mysteries of conservative economics is that the rich are always considered to need more money to make them work harder, while the poor need less money to make them work harder. In the real world, it's the opposite.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The anti-Iran deal bark at the moon

There's what must be an expensive full page ad in Tuesday's New York Times with photos of a stern looking group of gents with impressive sounding titles, against the Iran nuclear program deal. The ad is placed by the Friends of Israel Initiative, which is actually the Friends of Jose Maria Aznar initiative, and it seems to have been quiet for a while until the Congressional opposition to the Iran nuclear deal became a lost cause.

Anyway, one of the people deemed worthy of mention as being on the initiative opposed to the deal is "Lord David Trimble, Former First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Nobel Laureate." All of the members are cited as having years of experience in dealing with Iran which tells them this deal won't work. Trimble's specific experience is not cited, but how about his expertise in related matters such as terrorism? Consider for example the Sunday Independent 14 March 2004, 3 days after the 11-M train bombings in Madrid:

Mr Trimble said: "It's not absolutely clear yet who perpetrated these terrible deeds in Spain but ETA is still the prime suspect for it. I say to Mr Adams and Sinn Fein that they must end all links with ETA and terminate the party's globe-trotting around the world to fraternise with similar revolutionary elements." Mr Trimble added: "They can't continue to play games like that and demand political credibility."

The entire article is one long string of tenuous and tendentious connections implying that Basque separatists, with IRA support, had carried out the 11-M bombings. This was a desperate attempt by then Spanish PM Aznar to avoid the more obvious theory -- quickly proven -- that it was Islamist militants motivated by the Iraq war.

David Trimble also holds to the theory that Ian Paisley's dogmatic opposition to an Irish peace deal which everyone knew would eventually come brought a decade of unnecessary violence while resulting in personal gain for Paisley. A little of that insight into why people are so implacably opposed to an Iran deal that looks a lot like any deal would have to look like might be helpful now!

Monday, September 07, 2015

Need to know basis

David Cameron explaining to the parliament how legalities are being scrupulously complied it in the RAF drone strike against Reyaad Khan in Syria --

The United Nations Charter requires members to inform the President of the Security Council of activity conducted in self-defence. And today the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations is writing to the President of the Security Council to do just that.

Today is 7 September. The strike took place on 21 August. 

Identity confusion

It seems apt. At the Northern Ireland versus Hungary match in Windsor Park, there is an ad for the Northern Ireland Executive on one of the stands. But it is partially obscured by a banner for what seems to be a unionist oriented Australia based supporters club. At this stage one would bet on the down under club lasting a lot longer than the NI executive

Sunday, September 06, 2015

In its native habitat

New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Robert Draper

Zoellick and Fontaine belong to a nomadic tribe of worldly Republican technocrats who migrate from academia to government to nonprofit policy centers to the private sector.

That sure sounds like a spotting in nature of the Very Serious People (VSP)!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Man in "answers front door" outrage

Let the Obama-Saudi king bow controversy resume!

Give the lawyers jerseys

A star football player is suspended after what most fans find to be a distasteful incident. But he goes through several layers of appeal and eventually gets the suspension lifted, clearing him to take the field in his next game.

Tom Brady and Diarmuid Connolly.

The quarterback for the New England Patriots and a forward on the Dublin Gaelic Football team.

What's common in both cases is that after exhausting their league's internal processes and losing, they won before lawyers. In Brady's case, when the Patriots took the case to federal court. In Connolly's, when he took it to an external panel composed of lawyers and headed by a judge. Both decided the case on grounds of due process.

On the one hand, sport is now big money and high profile, so perhaps every i needs to be dotted and t crossed on process. But are sports fans really prepared to have critical decisions made off the field, especially by a professional class whose job it is to bog down real world accountability in endless process? For Ireland in particular, do we really want the people who've been so effective at delaying any legal accountability for the financial crisis getting a say in yet another arena?

Something else Angela might want to talk to Vlad about

In news that will shock only the White House national security experts, Vladimir Putin confirmed yesterday that Russia is providing active military support to Bashar al-Assad --

[Google Translate version of his remarks] But we already provide sufficiently serious support for Syria and technology, and military training, weapons. We have big contracts have been signed with Syria still five to seven years ago, we fulfill them all in full. So we are considering various possibilities, but until then, what you say, even on our agenda is not necessary. But we will hold consultations with our Syrian friends, and with the countries of the region. I have already said, with whom we exchange views on this issue and who are conducting a dialogue. Thank you very much.

Since Bashar al-Assad's indiscriminate use of weapons is part of the cause of the Syrian exodus, it's just one more reason why Russia presenting itself as any sort of honest broker on Syria is a sick joke. The picture above is Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a recent harmonious visit of Putin to Budapest; they're cut from the same cloth, which is worth reflecting upon when Orban's motives for his recent behaviour are being divined. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Road from Damascus

Hopefully the European Union will come up with a means of accommodating the vast numbers of displaced people within its borders, but the intense focus on solutions to the migrant crisis raises another question: what exactly do the many more Syrians still in Syria have to do to get the same level of attention of their plight?

Activists in Douma tried this clever staging in the style of an ISIS propaganda video -- it got a couple of day's worth of attention in the western media, which is not bad given that's about the same attention span as the western media have for attacks in which hundreds of civilians at a time are killed.

Maybe if all these children showed up caged in orange jump suits in Budapest?

Photo: Bassam Khabieh, Reuters. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Closer to the storm

Very good animated map from Le Monde showing the evolution of numbers of displaced people in the Middle East over the last 2 decades. It provides a good perspective on the current European migrant tumult, which is probably best seen as the later stage of a crisis that has been at least 4 years in the making, 

The bad shepherd

Jordan news agency (Petra) --

Anti-Narcotics agents in Mafraq Governorate thwarted a bid to smuggle 500,000 narcotic pills to a neighboring country using livestock, a statement released by the Public Security Department (PSD) said Wednesday. It said Police officers and Anti-Narcotics team were tipped off about a vehicle carrying sheep heading towards their jurisdiction area that contains large hauls of narcotics. Police deployed checkpoints on roads and stopped the vehicle and after searching it, they found the drug pills glued to the sheep in the form of small balls stuck to the wool of the sheep.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Just wait for the Maidin Mhaith Burger

Irish Times --

The fast-food chain McDonald’s has been forced to withdraw the term “artisan” from material promoting a new “Irish” burger which features bacon and cabbage. The global corporation’s description of its new McMór burger fell foul of Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) guidelines published earlier this summer. Under the rules something can be described as artisan only if it is made in limited quantities by skilled craftspeople. Also, the processing method must not be fully mechanised and should use food grown or produced locally “where seasonally available and practical”.

It's worth noting at the outset that Mór means "big" in Irish so the burger was being marketed, inter alia, as a lot of burger. Anyway one can understand the perspective of both sides here as McDonald's was making an attempt to use additional Irish-sourced ingredients in its burger, while the FSAI saw a need to preserve some meaning to food marketing terminology. But still, it's revealing that the one sacred, er, cow, that McDonald's couldn't touch in its promotion was the one that might encroach on hipster turf. Since the humble burger has indeed been co-opted by hipster artifice, the words of W.B. McYeats may be most apposite --

the fools caught it, 
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it 
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

Or least in having a plain, simply adorned, burger.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Winds of change, again

Parts of the world seem to be into the second generation of "colour revolutions" such as the Malaysian yellow "Bersih" protests above and the Lebanese "you stink" movement. Among the interesting thing about both cases is that they defy the simplistic characterizations that were imposed on the first generation, which tended to be seen in terms of whether they were somehow aligned with USA interests, which therefore became a basis for assessing whether they were legitimate or not. By the time the Arab Spring rolled around, incumbents had calculated that they could shoot and win, or at least not lose. So good luck to the latest incarnation of the phenomenon.

Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

It's not just the airlines

Retired Major General Robert Scales writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal 2 months ago in the context of Iraqi army failures --

The stark consistency of contemporary history tells us several things as we ponder why the Iraqi military is proving to be so inept in its war against Islamic State. First is the immutable tenet that wars are human endeavors and that culture counts. Arab culture is based on family, tribe and clan. Thus it should come as no surprise that Arabs fight best in formations that are organically grown and organized around familiar groups that share more than the same national flag. Such units fight best on the defensive. Knowing the soldier next to you stiffens your resolve to stand and fight, but helps much less amid the confusion of an offensive advance. The fact that the small Iraqi army garrison at Ramadi, manned by the best of the Iraqi regulars and regionally recruited militias, held on for more than a year against Islamic State is testimony to the strength of a defense based on close tribal ties. Yet Arab militaries can be victorious on the offensive given certain prerequisites, which we saw in the successful Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They must achieve and sustain overwhelming dominance in firepower. Their method of attack must be well rehearsed and methodical. Their offensive campaign must have very limited and straightforward objectives, which can be achieved quickly by following a carefully scripted and tightly controlled battle plan.

Wall Street Journal news article today --

Fewer than a hundred U.A.E. troops and their unmarked armored vehicles landed in a small fishing harbor on the outskirts of Aden in July, according to Emirati officers who participated in the operation. This secretive intervention prevented the Houthis from overrunning this port city, which had a prewar population of 1.5 million. Thousands of additional U.A.E. troops, with their fleet of tanks and Apache combat helicopters, arrived in the weeks that followed. They have since pushed the Houthis out of the city and seized most of the two neighboring provinces. The ground operation, which Saudi Arabia has joined, is the biggest by Sunni Arab states against the growing influence of Shiite Iran since the Arab Spring began.  

As the latter article explains, invading Yemen doesn't fit the criteria of an easy operation that can be achieved with overwhelming firepower permitting a quick exit. But the UAE -- 7 emirates under a single flag -- is showing that as Arab armies fight more and more wars, they are, like other armies, getting better at it. Of course, money helps.

The broader point is that the old assumption that the Gulf militaries would be too timid to do anything with USA backing is dead. They can, and they are.