Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Guns and money

From a New York Times report showing the link between corruption  in the Iraqi military and its collapse in June --

The Iraqi military and police forces had been so thoroughly pillaged by their own corrupt leadership that they all but collapsed this spring in the face of the advancing militants of the Islamic State — despite roughly $25 billion worth of American training and equipment over the past 10 years and far more from the Iraqi treasury.

Despite?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Aleppo

Not sure for how long Le Monde will leave this excellent feature unpaywalled but clicking through it shows the totality of the Assad regime's use of barrel bombs to wreak destruction in the rebel-held parts of the city, which is about 2/3 of it over all. No red lines crossed, no controversy about whether the US should intervene to protect the city. Just a lot of TNT and shrapnel in Russian helicopters.

The centre moved

Revealing description from a Wall Street Journal news article of the current mood in Israeli politics --

Many centrists in Israel back demolitions, arguing they were effective in preventing past terrorist attacks and will work again as a crisis widens in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pleb means not liking rugby?

One strand of the latest in the plebgate trial --

In one of a series of written statements produced by Mr Mitchell's legal team, [Bob] Geldof described the MP as an "advocate for the less fortunate" and a "good man". "I came from a poor Irish, not particularly well educated background and he does not," he said. "I am in fact 'a pleb' and he is not. Never once in all our time did he patronise me, talk down to me, behave in a superior manner to me, deride, insult or dismiss me or my opinions." Geldof said he had never heard the Conservative MP "use the ridiculous and archaic expression 'pleb'".

Bob Geldof went to Blackrock College.

World outraged at military destruction of homes and agricultural land near Gaza City*

Paid to Google

The Washington Post has a plausible discussion of what ties together the bizarre list of Islamic organizations designated as terrorist groups by the United Arab Emirates. The Council on American Islamic Relations designation is attracting particular attention.

One possibility that is complementary to the Post's emphasis on Muslim Brotherhood connections: the government may have hired a consulting firm to assemble the list for them, and whether through the incompetence of the consultants or them not being told what the purpose of the list was, they did a search engine sweep of groups that get mentioned -- by anyone! -- in the context of Islamic extremism. They got the cheque, and Abu Dhabi got the list. This is the government that has an American consulting firm -- the Camstoll Group -- on a specific assignment to bash Qatar.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Maastricked

Speech by Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB:

... the Maastricht Treaty enshrines the principle of monetary dominance. Indeed, price stability in the region as a whole is the single most important coordination device for other economic policies, reaching out into various policy domains across the member states of the euro area.

When Ireland, France, and Denmark voted by referendum on ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, did anyone explain at the time that it was embedding monetary dominance in the European Union?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fupla Cocal

RTE --

A spokesperson for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has confirmed that Google Translate was used to translate English into Irish on a Government website promoting the 1916 commemorations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New islands every 6 months

The New York Times' Tom Friedman's ever-fluctuating list of Middle East "islands of decency" -- does the composition of the list depend on his imminent travel plans?

12 November 2014 --

We need to protect the islands of decency out here — Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman — from ISIS, in hopes that their best examples might one day spread. 

15 June 2014

And the reason that both Tunisia and Kurdistan have built islands of decency, still frail to be sure, is because the major contending political forces in each place eventually opted for the principle of “no victor, no vanquished.”

September 14, 2014

It’s a combination of a legitimate geostrategic concern — if ISIS jihadists consolidate their power in the heart of Iraq and Syria, it could threaten some real islands of decency, like Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon, and might one day generate enough capacity to harm the West more directly — and the polls.

October 29, 2014

ISIS needs to be contained before it destabilizes islands of decency like Jordan, Kurdistan and Lebanon.

19 June, 2014

Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

June 25, 2014

The situation is not totally bleak. You have two emergent models, both frail and neither perfect, where Muslim Middle East nations have built decent, democratizing governance, based on society and with some political, cultural and religious pluralism: Tunisia and Kurdistan. Again both are works in progress, but what is important is that they did emerge from the societies themselves. You also have the relatively soft monarchies — like Jordan and Morocco — that are at least experimenting at the margins with more participatory governance, allow for some opposition and do not rule with the brutality of the secular autocrats.

Monday, November 10, 2014

And such small portions

For all the grief that Barack Obama is taking about the decision to send military trainers to Iraq, you'd think the Iraqi government would sound a tad more enthusiastic, but a statement from the Prime Minister's office comes across otherwise --

Despite the fact that this step is a bit late, but we welcome it as it comes in the right context.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

An uncommon thief

On the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Brian Carney (free link) has a correct-in-spirit diatribe about the injustice of the Irish bank bailout. However, in his eagerness to lay all the blame at the door of the ECB, there is an important error in his logic:

Specifically, Mr. Trichet threatened in a letter dated Nov. 19, 2010, to revoke the credit lines of Ireland’s banks unless the government agreed to (1) request a bailout; (2) impose stringent budget cuts; (3) recapitalize its banks; and (4) fully guarantee the Irish banks’ outstanding liabilities to the ECB ....Mr. Trichet’s final condition—an Irish sovereign guarantee of the ECB’s own lending to Irish banks—is especially telling about his motives. 

Here's the aforementioned letter. Clause (4):

The repayment of funds granted in the form of ELA shall be fully guaranteed by the Irish government, which would ensure the payment of immediate compensation to the Central Bank of Ireland in the event of missed payments on the side of the recipient institutions.

As that final part makes clear, the loans in question were Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), which is not ECB lending. It's lending by the national central bank when ECB facilities can't be used. The Irish bailout was indeed a heist, as Carney calls it. But the heist was in motion long before those 2010 ECB letters.

Friday, November 07, 2014

In defence of Vladimir Putin, albeit reluctantly

So apparently there's outrage over published remarks of Vladimir Putin on the (excellent) Kremlin website. He was meeting with young historians on Wednesday and said --

Or, for example, there are still arguments about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the Soviet Union is blamed for dividing Poland. But what did Poland itself do, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia? It took part of Czechoslovakia. It did this itself. And then, in turn, the same thing happened to Poland. I do not want to blame anyone here, but serious studies should show that these were the foreign policy methods at the time. The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, “Oh, how bad.” But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?

The outrage being that Putin seemed to endorse the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

But did he? There's a longer discussion of which this was a part --

But I completely agree with you that we need to fully study this period, as well as others. Why? That period is also interesting. Because before that, we had the so-called Munich Agreement in 1938. And what is it? Incidentally, your colleagues in western nations hush it up. Chamberlain arrived, shook his paper and said, “I brought you peace” when he returned to London after the talks. To which Churchill, I believe, in private, stated, “Well, now the war is inevitable.” Because appeasement of the aggressor, which Nazi Germany was, would clearly lead to a major future military conflict, and some people understood that. There should be a deep multilateral study of what was happening before World War II. 

[then the section above] 

Moreover, even knowing about the inevitability of war, supposing that it could happen, the Soviet Union desperately needed time to modernise its army. We needed to implement a new weapons system. Each month had significance because the number of Katyusha rocket launchers or T-34 tanks in the Soviet army was in the single digits, whereas thousands were needed. Each day had significance. So idle thoughts and chatter on this matter on a political level may have a purpose, in order to shape public opinion, but this must be countered with serious, deep, objective research.

The issue is really his inconsistency in criticizing Chamberlain's Munich deal, and then justifying the pact with Hitler on the grounds that the USSR needed time to rearm. So did Britain, and Chamberlain used the late 1930s period before war to massively build up the RAF -- which proved to be the guarantor of its security.

It's especially exciting when the maps keep changing

Vladimir Putin speaking to the Russian Geographic Society --

Geography, without any doubt, and we are also repeatedly talked about this, can and should be one of the most exciting school subjects.

So bad, we don't know who they are

Pentagon statement from the first round of US-led air strikes in Syria in September --

Meanwhile, Kirby said, the Defense Department still is assessing U.S.-only strikes against the terrorist organization known as the Khorasan group. “We did have good information that they were in the final planning stages of an attack against Western targets -- potentially the U.S. homeland or Europe,” he said. ”We’re not going to take our eye off this group, or their capabilities or their intentions,” he added.

Note: no mention at the time that the Kardashian Khorasan Group is a name that only the US uses for one faction of the Nusra Front.

Now, 3 days ago, at a Pentagon press briefing --

Q: The Khorasan Group is closely associated with Nusra. Many of the targets that you hit on that first day of strikes in Syria against Khorasan were also identified by locals as Nusra sites and things, facilities shared by the two groups. Is there any assessment of what damage or what those initial rounds of strikes was on Nusra Front as opposed to Khorasan in terms of changing their operations or disrupting them? Were those strikes, you know, weeks ago, effective or ineffective?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: On Nusra? You know, I don't have an assessment for you on that Julian, and I don't know that I would even be able to provide that to you. The targets that we hit that night, and we talked about this afterward, were aimed at facilities that we knew were in use by members of the Khorasan Group, a group that we also had strong reason to believe were in -- near the execution phase of long-planned strikes on Western targets. As I said before, we know we hit the targets that we were aiming at and had good effect on them. It remains to be seen if there was an -- a like effect on actual leaders. The nexus of Khorasan and al-Nusra gets murky at times. We know that they certainly do share some of the same goals and communicate. But I don't know -- I wouldn't be able to give you an assessment of what effect those strikes had on al-Nusra versus the Khorasan group, specifically.

Note: Now the position is that  Kardashian Khorasan and Nusra are all mingled so it can be hard to tell one from the other.

Finally, 1 day ago, Pentagon statement --

U.S. military forces conducted airstrikes last night against five Khorasan Group targets near Sarmada, Syria, U.S. Central Command officials reported today. The strikes involved U.S. bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft, officials said, all of which left the strike areas safely. Though Centcom is still assessing the outcome of the attack, officials said, initial indications are that it had the intended results, striking terrorists and destroying or severely damaging several vehicles, as well as buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas or bomb-making and training facilities. 

... Khorasan Group is a term used to refer to a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qaida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets, Centcom officials explained. The strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front's clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, they added, and did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole. Rather, officials said, they were directed at the Khorasan Group, which is taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests and whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people.

So the current position is that, yes, Nusra and  Kardashian Khorasan are mingled, but we're really, absolutely sure that we only targeted the little bit of Nusra that was aiming for external attacks but we definitely no sirree did not have any impact on the broader Nusra that's fighting ... Bashar al-Assad!

Nigeria with rockets

There's a difference?

David Brooks in the New York Times --

The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Revolution from the inside

As the USA sorts through the mid-term election aftermath, here's a hint of the delusion or cynicism (or both?) that the country is in for more of: the incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declaring that by re-electing a DC-based Senator -- himself -- to his 6th Senate term (i.e. 30 years and counting), they had voted for "real change in Washington."

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Trick of language

The accumulation of history in the Middle East can lead to some strange conjunctions. One current one is the Al Qaeda group with the Hebrew name. That would be the Sinai peninsula-based Ansar Beit al Maqdis (about whom surprisingly little is known) -- its name comes directly from the Hebrew word for the temple (yes, that temple). If you're not careful with translations, you can end up thinking that the Egyptian government thinks that the group is actually run from Jerusalem. They don't, right?

Clowns with Attitude



Great story from the Irish Times recounting a seemed-like-a-good-idea interview of the head of the Irish Industrial Development Authority on CNBC's Squawk Box.

For a bit of historical context, remember that the US tea party movement was effectively launched on this show in 2009 (see clip above), setting forth a tidal wave of financial sector ignorance that still dogs the country today. Not much time to know that Ireland is a country when you're catering to elites perpetually angry about the government doing stuff. 

Iraq accuses French President of helping ISIS


Statement from office of Prime Minister of Iraq today --

With these evident victories, we firmly deny the statements attributed to French President Mr. Francois Hollande about failure of our troops to achieve any victory. In addition to being incorrect, these statements are not at all suitable, as they will contribute to the psychological warfare against our troops, and will only serve the enemy, which considerably depends on terrorism and psychological warfare; therefore we call for accuracy and objectivity before making any such statements that are far from reality.

A long way from their cordial meeting on 12 September.

It might be worth asking the White House whether they agree with Hollande's assessment.


Monday, November 03, 2014

Bashar laughs and laughs and laughs

Washington Post report on the al-Nusra Front overrunning of moderate Syrian rebel positions in Idlib --

A Jabhat al-Nusra base was one of the first targets hit when the United States launched its air war in Syria in September, and activists said the tensions fueled by that attack had contributed to the success of Jabhat al-Nusra’s push against the moderate rebels.
“When American airstrikes targeted al-Nusra, people felt solidarity with them because Nusra are fighting the regime, and the strikes are helping the regime,” said Raed al-Fares, an activist leader in the Idlib town of Kafr Nabel.
“Now people think that whoever in the Free Syrian Army gets support from the U.S.A. is an agent of the regime,” he said.
Fleeing rebel fighters said they feared the defeat would spell the end of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella name used by the moderate rebel groups that the United States has somewhat erratically sought to promote as an alternative both to the Assad regime and the extremist Islamic State.

Since the half-hearted US support has been so effective in destroying the moderate rebels, the biggest risk that al-Nusra faces at this point is that by the time the supposed US$500 million in new US aid comes on stream, they'll be the only alternative to ISIS still standing and the US will decide to give the aid to them.

Tribe not an ethnicity, so no outcry

From a Reuters report on large scale massacres of the Albu Nimr tribe in al-Anbar province of Iraq --


One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheikh Naeem al-Ga'oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken. State television said on Sunday that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered airstrikes on Islamic State targets around the town of Hit in response to the killings. Officials at a government security operations command center in Anbar and civilians reached by Reuters said they had not heard of or witnessed airstrikes.

The US is intervening to hold together a country whose government has apparently little interest in holding it together.

The marketing guys want to label it Irish Tequila

Bloomberg News --

Diageo Plc (DGE) and Tequila Cuervo La Rojeña SA are in late-stage talks to swap liquor brands in a deal that would give London-based spirits giant Diageo the 50 percent of Don Julio tequila it doesn’t already own, said a person familiar with the matter. As part of the deal, Cuervo, owner of the Jose Cuervo brand of tequila, would get the Bushmills Irish whiskey brand.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Stuff people care about

At Vox, Ezra Klein laments that Gamergate would be just a narrowly-specified row about video game culture and feminism except that a professional class of politicizers swooped in and politicized it --

Gamergate is going to happen again. As polarization proceeds, our political identities become powerful enough to drive our other identities. As Washington locks up, the political outlets that normally spend their time covering fights in Congress need to find fights that will engage their audience elsewhere. As cultural mores change ever more rapidly, the battles over what's acceptable to say and do will become even fiercer. And as everyone becomes more and more dependent on web traffic, skirmishes with deep digital roots will become increasingly attractive to cover.

The result will be a cycle we'll soon come to recognize: glancingly political fights will attract coverage from professionally politicized outlets and quickly be turned into deeply politicized wars. Once political identities are activated, these fights will spread far beyond their natural constituencies — in the Gamergate case, people who care about video games — and become part of the ongoing conflict between the red and blue tribes. Expect more Gamergates.

A couple of observations. First, this row was named Gamergate by the people involved in it long before the national media took notice. As in, Watergate. Which was a political scandal. So the framing of these shouting and roaring episodes as political already reflects a relationship between popular culture and politics that long precedes the Internet and a supposed acceleration of cultural differentiation. 

The second issue is whether these rows are really specialized arguments that polarized tribes then adopt and transform to general signals of position, as Klein says, or instead disagreements within an elite class that people one inch removed from (e.g. not regular readers of Vox) couldn't give a rat's arse about?

Let's put it in terms of the claim that political identities are driving other identities. One of the fascinating things about the USA is how much of it chugs along, at enormous scale, essentially oblivious to red and blue tribology (cities, schools, sports, and services, just to pick a few examples). Next week's inevitable crashingly low and unmotivated election turnout is just part of the illustration of that. Off course there is a lot of money sloshing around with an interest in people keeping stoked on particular issues, which it partly achieves by funding media outlets. But is it driving identity? That's a major stretch.

Get off my lawnn

On the Fox News Channel Huckabee show -- on Saturday night up against college football -- there was a feature on that elusive young person voting pattern. Millennials, if you will. Except that in the screen text bar at the bottom, it was titled "The Millenial Vote."

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Crankara

This is an interesting New York Times article about how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rapidly beefing up the executive presidency, a post that was essentially created by him as Prime Minister. Certainly there are plenty of grounds for concern about authoritarian tendencies. But the bill of particulars the article sets out for how Erdogan-era Turkey has been a difficult player in international relations includes --
  • Not letting George Bush use Turkey as a base for invasion of Iraq in 2003
  • Believing that the Sykes-Picot map-drawing is a major cause of the Middle East's problems today, and
  • Questioning why the focus on battling ISIS is not matched by any new strategy for dealing with Bashar al-Assad.

Those crazy Turks!

Friday, October 31, 2014

More winds of change

Le Monde quotes one of the protesters who helped drive Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré from power yesterday --

« Quand je suis né, Blaise Compaoré était déjà président, expliquait l’un d’eux. Je viens d’obtenir ma maîtrise en droit, je ne trouve pas de travail, mais lui est toujours là. C’est normal ? »

"When I was born, he was already President ... I just got my law degree, I can't find a job, but he's still there, this is normal?"

Not the only country where that excellent question could be asked, not least for cases where the strongman has handed off to the son.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

High maintenance

Kuwait Times --

Kuwait’s most wanted thief allegedly involved in numerous vehicle robberies was arrested in Salwa, security sources said. The citizen, who was earlier in police custody for car robberies and was released by mistake, was nabbed following a widespread manhunt launched by the police. Case papers indicate that a citizen had been arrested in Mubrak Al-Kabeer for stealing a luxury car in order to present it to his girlfriend as he had been used to giving her a new vehicle every month.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Putin was in awe

Sepp Blatter doing an incredible job of insulting people in one sequence during opening remarks of the Russia FIFA 2018 World Cup organising committee. For reference note that the recent and prospective list of World Cup hosts is South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, and that the calls for a boycott of 2018 are based on the Russian incursion and continued subversion of Ukraine --

I am honoured specifically also because of the presence of your head of state, the President of the Russian Federation, Mr Putin, because he was the architect on the paper to bring the World Cup to Russia. This is very important to underline, because there was a very big competition to have this 2018 World Cup back in Europe. They want to have everything. Generally, when in the compound of Europe, they are speaking about the big European countries, not politically, but those that have a stand in football. And so, we had the candidature of England, we had the candidature of Spain and Portugal, we had the candidature of Belgium and Holland, and then finally, it was Russia the winner.
You could say it’s normal. It was not normal, because if you know the way the Europeans – and here, I speak with the European Union – they try to get all the assets, and when it comes to football, they wanted to have this World Cup. And I’ll tell you, one of the losers of this World Cup, they are still unhappy and they are still saying that it is a mistake of FIFA and a mistake of this Blatter that we didn’t get the World Cup. And it was the country that has invented not only the game, but fair play – they have invented fair play. And you know what that means? Fair play means that you learn to win – that’s easy – but you also learn to lose, and this is not so easy.
But I’m very happy to be here because it is time to say thanks to you for the organisation committee here. It’s now a big task. It is a big task, but it goes on the rotation of the World Cup. The last big event – okay, you have had a lot of events here in Russia – the last, biggest, event you have had were the Olympic Games in 1980. And then the Olympic Games, you know, you have been a little bit bothered because there was a boycott. And just to close these parentheses, they speak again about the boycott of the World Cup. But the World Cup is not the Olympic Games. The World Cup is football, and football cannot be boycotted. Football cannot be boycotted in any country, and it will not in Russia – definitely not. And FIFA stands strong behind this organisation in Russia. That’s one thing.

Just to pick out one thing, Sepp Blatter has told Russia that there is nothing, nothing, they could do which would result in a boycott of the 2018 World Cup.

New neighbours

At Vox, Zach Beauchamp finds a number of reasons (plus one to be sure) to declare victory over ISIS --

For months, ISIS has been trying and failing to take Kobane. Its recent push, beginning on around September 16, looked likely to succeed. But Kurdish fighters, with heavy American support, have pushed ISIS back. Kobane could still fall, but the Kurdish resistance has shattered the perception of ISIS invincibility — a crucial element of its recruiting pitch. "The [loss of] prestige in the jihadi movement could do a lot of damage to them," Garteinstein-Ross suggests. "ISIS can draw so many recruits because they're seen as the strong horse, because they're winning. [Kobane] shifts that perception."

The red flag here is the analysis of ISIS in terms of the strong horse metaphor -- an old expression of Osama bin Laden's, whose greatest trick may have been to get the Bush White House to think about the Middle East in those terms.

The FT's David Gardner has an alternative explanation of Kobane/Ain al-Arab --

The siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, for example, on the border with Turkey, is often described as strategic or symbolic. Yet there is no especial imperative why the warriors of the Isis caliphate should expend the lives of about 500 of their number to seize this particular stretch of Turkey’s 1,300km frontier with Syria and Iraq. They have turned Kobani into a symbol, but by attacking it they have driven a wedge between the neo-Islamist rulers of Turkey and their Kurdish minority.

Looking at maps and declaring that they've lost this town or that town is not going to cut it. ISIS is moving along the rivers and showing they can slowly tighten the stranglehold around cities without ever having to mount a direct assault. As someone else quoted in the FT article says, they've been reading up. Especially on East Asian insurgencies.

If your humble blogger was advising the White House, the advice would be that it's time to talk some Viet Cong veterans out of retirement and ask them what the US should have done against them in the 1960s. Because that's where we are now in Iraq/Syria.