Sunday, May 24, 2015

Diverse meanings of diversity

Something is missing from the photograph accompanying RTE's story on Joan Burton's (consensus) claim that Ireland is now a nation of inclusion and diversity.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My caliphate for a horse

Fred and Kimberly Kagan in today's Washington Post, only a couple of months after proclaiming what a good job the Iraqi Prime Minister was doing against ISIS --

Had the Islamic State been dealt a rapid and crushing blow in Iraq, one might have hoped for a collapse in support for the organization and the dwindling of these various movements, all of which were preexisting organizations that swore allegiance to the Islamic State opportunistically in the hope that they would prove to be early backers of what Osama bin Laden liked to call “the strong horse.” The Islamic State’s success against the United States in Iraq makes the group look, indeed, like a strong horse and is likely to strengthen its efforts to recruit individuals and groups to its ranks.

Here's an attempted intellectual history of the strong horse philosophy of Middle East politics: Bernard Lewis to Dick Cheney to George W. Bush. Not a word about WMDs.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Load-bearing country

Paul Krugman lays out the scheme that's been going on for a while -- to narrow the terms of USA's Iraq adventure to the issue of incorrect intelligence. Just because it happens to be closest corresponding date from 12 years ago where the Administration addressed Iraq, here's Condi Rice on 16 May 2003 discussing it at a commencement address:

Our democracy is still a work in progress, not a finished product. The hard work begins anew each day. Yes, we practice what we preach but 225 years after the fact we are still practicing; practicing each day to get it right. And by doing so we strengthen America's moral authority and the currency of these values across the world. We must always remember that while America cherishes the ideals of equality, justice, and the rule of law, we do not own them. 

As President Bush has said, the values of freedom are not America's gift to the world but God's gift to humanity. People everywhere share the most basic yearnings for liberty to create, speak, and worship in freedom. When these values are under attack, we must not ? and we will not spare any effort in their defense. When freedom is being sought by brave people living under tyranny, we must stand on their side. And when newly free people are seeking to build the institutions of law and democracy, we have an obligation if asked to help. And we are. 

This summer in Afghanistan a working draft of a new democratic constitution will be presented at town hall meetings across the country. In Iraq, leaders from every province and ethnic group have declared their commitment to a democratic future for their country. And last week, President Bush announced an important initiative for working in partnership with the people of the Middle East to bring more economic opportunity, better education, and more freedom to the region. The United States will help countries seeking to reform their judiciaries, provide training for the growing number of women seeking elective office, establish media law projects, and support new parliamentarians and civil society organizations. 

 This enterprise will be long, not short. Often, progress will come in small, quiet steps, less dramatic than the toppling of statues. Occasional setbacks are inevitable. But these efforts are vitally important and they are an essential element of the war on global terror. President Bush is fully committed to their success both as an American, and as a person of faith. As he said last week, "[W]e are determined to help build a Middle East that grows in hope instead of resentment."

This was 2 months into the war, with no WMDs yet found -- but no shortage of war rationales. That was the real time "debate" on Iraq. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Still looking for excuses

Wall Street Journal editorial on what Jeb Bush should have said about Iraq --

So how to do better? Mr. Bush could cite the experience of his father, George H.W. Bush, who as CIA director in the Ford Administration organized a “Team B” panel of outside experts to question his agency’s estimates of Soviet military power and strategy. Historians still debate the merits of Team B’s conclusions, but the point is that the quality of intelligence, like everything else, improves with choice and competition. 

There already was a Team B on Iraq.

It was called "UN Weapons Inspectors."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

US Air Force surrenders to Islam

In this photo of the arrival of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, behind the younger Prince Mohammed bin Salam (bearded) is the Saudi flag, which is a version of the Shahada. The script says that there is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.  Where's Pamela Geller when you need her!

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Inaction can be shocking

Perfectly informative but revealingly headlined Independent (UK) article --

Syria crisis: Turkey and Saudi Arabia shock Western countries by supporting anti-Assad jihadists

For a different perspective, how about --

Syria crisis: Western countries shock Turkey and Saudi Arabia by seeming ready to cut a deal with Assad

Because that really was the situation until 2 months ago, with the industrial-scale torture, the barrel bombs, the chemical weapons, and indeed the original unnecessary repression all to be swept under the Khorasan rug. Then the regional players got their act together. In a couple of years, those US-trained rebels will be ready to help with the post-Assad state.

They're telling the French the real plan

The White House is doing its best to spin the no-show of Saudi King Salman at the Camp David US-Gulf summit as par for the course. But it turns out that while the Saudi rulers were reportedly feeling stressed for time by the need to pay attention to the crisis in Yemen, they did have time for an en route to DC stopover in ... Paris! Here's the top 2 next generation princes, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman being met at the airport by foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

If all you've got is a hammer

To be convinced that the UK election outcome was driven by views on austerity -- either that it worked or that its failure was camouflaged or that it packaged a false narrative about the 2008 financial crisis, which is the debate zone that Paul Krugman is in -- you have to believe that:

1. The Tories simply pulled austerity policies out of thin air in 2010 and not in reaction to real-time fiscal outlooks of the time;
2. Labour had failed to present distinctive economic polices other than somewhat less deficit reduction (and thus ignoring their proposals for higher income, home and banking sector taxes, energy price freeze, etc);
3. The dynamics created by the Scottish independence referendum mattered less than the austerity debate in determining electoral outcomes; and,
4. You're more confident in your ability relative to voters to attribute outcomes for jobs, housing, and cost of living to the respective roles of fiscal policy, land use, productivity developments, migration, and international influences like oil prices and you know it's really all about paths for public revenue and expenditure relative to baselines and the effects are so strong they'd be visible to the naked eye!

Friday, May 08, 2015

Beware media coverage of coalitional election systems

The previous incumbent PM who we were assured had swept to a freedom loving election victory was Benjamin Netanyahu.  He ended up scraping together a one seat majority that may not last.

UK exit poll

If true then the lasting contribution of the Democratic Unionist Party to UK politics will have been to break up the union. Come in Agent Paisley: Mission Accomplished. 

UPDATE: to be less opaque, with a 12 seat majority, Cameron is eventually going to need those 8 DUP votes, even if he doesn't need them right away. And he'll need them on devolution and EU issues, where he has difficult constraints within his own party.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Fog in channel and along wall

The two stories featured most prominently on Telegraph website on election eve --

Election 2015: I know Labour - don't let them and the SNP tear our nation apart, says Sir John Major

Anglo-Saxons' would rip Europe apart after a Grexit, says Juncker

Note the logic: outrage at the self-manufactured accusation that the SNP would tear "our nation" apart trumped only by outrage that an EU veteran would imply that elements in England want to tear the EU apart!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

His latest fling

French President Francois Hollande, the special guest at the summit of Arab Gulf countries in Riyadh. There's symbolism somewhere about the revised role the US is seen as playing in the region.

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Can't see the drones for the bombs

White House statement on Yemen, specifically on a National Security Council meeting with the incoming UN special envoy on the Yemeni peace process --

Ms. Monaco underscored the importance the United States places on rapidly shifting from the military conflict in Yemen to all-party negotiations under UN auspices, and offered strong U.S. support for Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s efforts. She noted that this shift would allow Yemen to resume the inclusive political transition process outlined in the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the National Dialogue outcomes, and relevant UN Security Council resolutions and focus on combatting al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. ...  Finally, Ms. Monaco and Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed agreed that all Yemenis must come together in a political dialogue to serve the needs of the Yemeni people and counter the shared threat from al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is exploiting the crisis. 

So the White House is defining a satisfactory solution to Yemen's crisis as one where everyone agrees that the big threat is AQAP and, implicitly, is fine with US drone attacks on AQAP and anyone else who might be in the vicinity. No other threat to Yemen -- such as its corrupt former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who tactically agreed with the US on the evilitude of AQAP -- is singled out the same way. Does the extreme tangle of a Yemen peace dialogue really need an externally-imposed demand of agreement to a militarized solution to the existence of one entity?

Poverty reduction through gravity

David Brooks, using the Baltimore disturbances as a platform, says we need to unlock the hidden dimension of relationships to truly understand poverty --

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors ... The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

David Brooks, around 6 months, ago in his ad-worthy riff on Interstellar --

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good. As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, “My Bright Abyss,” “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication. ...”  

Could it be that we need to put some of that wasted anti-poverty money into NASA so that they can crack the gravity-coded relationship-healing message that we may already be sending our poorer selves?

Friday, May 01, 2015

Invisible Hand

The topic is UK economic policy. The Tory switch from insane and needless austerity to easing off and letting growth resume post-2012 is such a stark illustration of austerity madness that it should be clearly visible in the data.

Above is Central Government receipts and expenditures since 1997 (source: Office of National Statistics, Figure 4). This doesn't include the additional debt that the government was absorbing through the bank rescues.

Spot the austerity!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bankrupt quote

Irish econo-pundit David McWilliams before the parliamentary banking crisis inquiry --

The Irish banking crisis began in 2000, not in 2008 as is sometimes suggested. It began in 2000. The great English economist John Stuart Mill, speaking about the railway crash that happened in Ireland during the Famine, said that crashes do not destroy the wealth of a nation, they merely evidence the extent to which wealth has already been destroyed by stupid decisions taken in the boom.

Much of McWilliams' presentation to the inquiry was about the thousands of words he'd written with no apparent effect. We know the feeling. McWilliams keeps attributing that quote to JS Mill, when it's actually a paraphrase of a quote from proto-Austrian economist John Mills. But what did JS Mill say about the 1847 railway speculative crisis? --

It is not, however, universally true that the contraction of credit, characteristic of a commercial crisis, must have been preceded by an extraordinary and irrational extension of it ... This combination of a fresh demand for loans, with a curtailment of the capital disposable for them, raised the rate of interest, and made it impossible to borrow except on the very best security. Some firms, therefore, which by an improvident and unmercantile mode of conducting business had allowed their capital to become either temporarily or permanently unavailable, became unable to command that perpetual renewal of credit which had previously enabled them to struggle on. These firms stopped payment: their failure involved more or less deeply many other firms which had trusted them; and, as usual in such cases, the general distrust, commonly called a panic, began to set in, and might have produced a destruction of credit equal to that of 1825, had not circumstances which may almost be called accidental, given to a very simple measure of the government (the suspension of the Bank Charter Act of 1844) a fortunate power of allaying panic, to which, when considered in itself, it had no sort of claim.

Mill could not be clearer that he's talking about a financial crisis not caused by a prior lending boom, but instead one arising from borrowing to finance physical investment and thus prone to running out of steam when lending for some reason dries up (in this case, a need for increased credit to pay for food imports). Mill also discusses how although there was no ground for panic (because there was no lending boom), the government could prevent panic anyway by allowing the issuance of additional currency to meet the higher demand for credit.

To review, it was a different 19th century Mill talking about a different crisis, although ironically, a crisis that was handled better by the central bank than the 2008 Ireland/Euro crisis was. Nonetheless, the inquiry committee lapped it up!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nice coastal enclave you've got there

If you'd been relying on the recent conventional wisdom to understand the Syrian civil war, you wouldn't be predicting subsequent events very well. The rebels can't sustain a presence in Damascus. They can. They're stuck in the eastern parts of the country and can't take new territory from the regime. They can. And they can't threaten the regime's Alawite heartland on the coast, and they can't unify to battle the regime. They can, and they can. Reuters has the latest --

Islamist insurgents including al-Qaeda's wing in Syria, Nusra Front, captured the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, for the first time in the four-year-old conflict ... Islamist groups agreed to unite in the battle for Jisr al-Shughour under the name "Battle for Victory". The formation of alliances by groups before major battles is one of the factors behind the advances, sources say. By taking Jisr al-Shughour, the insurgents have edged closer to the coastal province of Latakia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's stronghold, and are now less than 8 km (five miles) from villages loyal to the government near the coast. "Jisr al-Shughour is more important than Idlib itself, it is very close to the coastal area which is a regime area, the coast now is within our fire reach," Ahmad from Ahrar al-Sham said.

It's about 75km from Jisr Al-Shughour to Latakia.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A noble transaction embiggens the smallest mind

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaking at a trade conference in Washington DC; as with all her speeches, she can't resist the just-so quote --

Let me conclude by quoting one of the sharpest thinkers of his generation. Two hundred years ago, the French philosopher Montesquieu said – and I will give you the French version first: “Le commerce guérit des préjugés destructeurs: et; c’est presque une règle générale que, partout où il y a des mœurs douces, il y a du commerce; et; que, partout où il y a du commerce, il y a des mœurs douces.” 

“Trade is the best cure for prejudice. It is an almost general rule that, wherever there is good citizenship, there is trade, and that, wherever there is trade, there is good citizenship.” 

The most destructive economic prejudice is trade protectionism.

Sacre bleu! She's taking the 200 year old expression mœurs douces, which is typically translated as gentle or agreeable manners, and rendered it as "good citizenship." She's taken Montesquieu's careful discussion of associated changes in societies over time and between each other, and made it into a policy statement that anyone who's against further trade liberalization is like a pre-industrial brute. And she's ignored the rest of his discussion about how trade damages individual relations by forcing more and more interactions between people into a form of exchange.

The hostage curse

The White House statements today on the killing of two Al Qaeda hostages by a CIA drone strike is frank enough but of course words are cheap compared to ultimate frustration of an allied-military death ending to a protracted kidnapping. Words are also cheap compared to the ransoms that might have secured the hostage release. There are particular questions about the Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, who was kidnapped with a German colleague, Bernd Muelenbeck. It somewhat slipped below the radar screen when it first occurred (German, English), but Muelenbeck was released last October. If the White House is doing a comprehensive evaluation of what went wrong in this case, it needs to focus on hostage policy. Italians might be asking the same question.

UPDATE: The statement from Elaine Weinstein is worth reading.

Those strange foreigners with portraits of royalty on the walls

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), US House Majority Leader.

Photo: Emirates News Agency (WAM).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Scotland and Ireland

David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday --

Think about what this means, this is, this would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country [SNP] would be involved in altering the direction of the government of our country, and I think that is a frightening prospect, for people thinking in their own constituencies is that bypass going to be built, will my hospital get the money it needs?

To the left is Joseph Biggar, one of the foremost practitioners of the Irish Parliamentary Party strategy of disrupting House of Commons business and wielding the balance of power to advance Home Rule in Ireland. This sometimes involved blocking bills that applied to the entire UK, e.g. the Threshing Machines Bill of 1877. It was around this time that he was caricatured in Vanity Fair.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Libyan migrant crisis

The European Union statements today (example) on the Mediterranean migrant tragedy are filled with references to finding the "root causes of migration." That's a tall order, at least if those root causes are supposed to correspond to immediate solutions.

In fact, the problems begin with the definition of the crisis itself: it's seen as too many people risking their lives trying to get to Europe. That's serious, but it's a smaller order of magnitude than the migrant crisis within the Middle East and North Africa -- millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, at least a million more within Iraq itself (above), and then the extended movement from across the Sahel to go north, the majority of whom won't get as far as a dangerous boat ride to Italy, but will run into plenty of other perils.

The Syrian case also shows the fallacy of linking the migration crisis to the military intervention against Gaddafi: that intervention brought many problems, but so did not intervening against Bashar al-Assad.

There's a high risk that once the EU decides the problem is mainly the sea crossing, the solution will be a de facto blockade of Libya. But that will be nowhere near a solution to a crisis that spans three continents.

Photo: Internally displaced Sunni Iraqis stuck at a checkpoint outside Baghdad; photo Reuters via New York Times.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Back in the USSR

Writing on the Wall Street Journal opinion page, Republican intelligence players Michael Mukasey and Kevin Carroll are outraged about various things, including that current CIA Director John Brennan once referred to Jerusalem as Al Quds (its Arabic name), but they have a solution for all his transgressions --

But the boss has already said that purported concerns about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon are dishonest. Human nature being what it is at Langley as elsewhere, how likely is it that an evaluation suggesting that Iran is up to something would make it beyond operational channels, through reports officers, analysts and CIA managers, up to policy makers? Not very, unless Congress acts promptly to put in place an alternative team of analysts, much as George H.W. Bush did when he was CIA director in 1976 under President Ford. That was an election year, and détente with the Soviet Union was the overriding administration policy. During the campaign, the question of whether our military power was falling behind Moscow’s was a charged issue. Mr. Bush commissioned a team of independent experts known as “Team B” to provide analysis of the Soviets’ capabilities and intentions that competed with the CIA’s own internal evaluation. Team B highlighted dangers posed by the U.S.S.R.’s growing strategic nuclear forces, informing President Reagan’s later determination to counteract those capabilities. 

Here's a good Wikipedia account of Team B. The bottom line is that its analysis was, to use the technical term, shite, and it misread nearly everything about the USSR but especially its potential for aggressive nuclear war and the strength of its economy. But the 1980s saw massively higher defence spending motivated by Team B, jobs for many its members, and its alumni would then play a key role in making the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

And now the Eye of Team B is upon ... Iran!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bank robbers

General Electric (GE) used to run a large financial operation -- a bank: GE Capital. It's decided to get rid of it. As Paul Krugman explains, this is because US regulators decided that since GE Capital was acting like a large bank, it should be regulated like one. That hasn't stopped the howls of outrage about overzealous regulation. The Wall Street Journal adds more. GE Finance wasn't just a bank; it was a tax dodge factory --

In cutting loose its banking business, General Electric Co. isn’t just shedding a profitable lending operation. It’s also losing a rich source of tax breaks.... GE says its effective tax rate could rise to 20% or more in the future, roughly double last year’s rate of just over 10% ... What that means in practice, a person familiar with the matter said, is that GE Capital can borrow in the U.S., using the interest it pays to offset its industrial profits at home, and then make profits by investing the money out of Uncle Sam’s reach overseas.

Just what your friendly neighbourhood bank was meant for!

Jordan tells Saudi Arabia to get out of Yemen while they can

Seemingly oblique comment from Jordan's King Abdullah in interview with Brett Baier on Fox News --

As commander of special operations many years ago, I was involved in training of Yemeni special forces, so I know the complications of Yemen .. I think that .. I would humbly suggest that the quicker we find a political situation to that issue, the better.

Much of the focus of the subsequent panel discussion was on his remarks about his Iran and the general impact of the Arab Spring. Yet he essentially just told his Gulf neighbours, and the US supporters of their Yemeni operation -- based on personal military experience -- that they're backing a loser.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Springtime for Saleh

Reuters, 18 March 2011 --

Gunmen on rooftops shot dead up to 42 protesters at an anti-government rally in Sanaa after Muslim prayers on Friday, enraging the opposition and prompting President Ali Abdullah Saleh to declare a state of emergency. Medical sources and witnesses told Reuters that Yemeni security forces and plainclothes snipers, who protesters said were government security men, had opened fire on the crowds. The Interior Ministry put the death toll at 25, but doctors said 42 people had died and at least 300 were injured. 

Despite widespread condemnation of that incident and others like it, there's never been any accountability for it. Four years later, Saleh is now bankrolling and supporting the Houthi revolt, and his aligned forces include snipers on rooftops in Aden. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Not least the trick where he cons gullible western governments that he might be the solution to Yemen's endless faction fighting.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It would be a lot easier if they dumped Bashar

Hypocrisy in the Middle East is nothing new but yes, indeed, Iran did issue a blustering condemnation of alleged Saudi genocide in Yemen while being studiously silent about the Assad regime atrocities against civilians in general and Palestinians in the Yarmouk camp in particular. Slight exception: Iran did issue one statement of "concern" about Yarmouk, but entirely blaming ISIS and not the regime siege, and implying that ISIS is an agent of ... Israel!

Monday, April 06, 2015

If you spin a barrel bomb, it's a centrifuge

If we're going to ridicule Barack Obama, rightly, for his Yemen model of success, then how about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Al Quds) presenting as a good model for Iran -- Syria? (CNN State of the Union) --

If you said two years ago, if you said that the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad would remove all the chemicals from Syria, would destroy and remove, dismantle and remove from Syria all the materiel and weapons-making -- chemical weapons that they had, you would have said that's unrealistic. You know, that would have been true then. But the application of subsequent pressure on Syria produced exactly the result that we need here. So, what's unrealistic today with the sufficient application of pressure will become realistic for Iran tomorrow as well. 

Anyone who's been paying attention to the ground news from Syria knows that (a) chemical weapons have most likely been used by all sides, including Assad, since his stockpile was supposedly removed, and (b) the overall pace of killing has increased. That's what happens when you focus on one weapon and one type of use of a general capability.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

New counterparts needed

Seemingly perfectly reasonable White House statement on phone call between Barack Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta --

He reiterated that he looks forward to meeting with President Kenyatta again in Nairobi in July, when the two leaders will discuss how to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation ...

Actual situation today in Kenya (Reuters) --

... as Kenyan churches hired armed guards to protect their Easter congregations.  

The entire anti-terrorism paradigm of the US is they can beef up formal security forces to do the job. But with Thursday's evidence fresh in their minds of a small group of terrorists being given the 15 hour run of a campus to shoot whoever they wanted, Kenyans have concluded they need to do the anti-terror job themselves. Maybe that US anti-terror training will include that someone in uniform has to pick up the phone.

Low ranked refugees

Good BBC News update on the dire situation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee "camp" in Damascus but perhaps a lazy, if understandable, choice to illustrate the story with a photograph -- the iconic UNRWA photo -- which is now 15 months old. There is no doubt that the situation in the district has gotten worse since that photograph was taken. In addition to the increased misery, yet another Syrian war narrative has fallen: this time, that the ISIS can't hold territory in the Assad regime stronghold of Damascus. It's nice for Assad that the foreign policy elites have decided to assume that's in his area of permanent control.

UPDATE: Bloomberg News also uses the 2014 photo for a current Yarmouk story, but at least dates the photo.