Saturday, February 13, 2016

Our new friend Bashar

Reuters photo (by Alaa Al-Faqir) of an unexploded cluster bomb in a town in Deera province after Syrian government airstrikes. Many countries have signed the convention adopted after a conference in Dublin in 2008 to stop using cluster munitions, but not Russia or Syria. Incidentally, the same Reuters story reports that even the principals think that the Kerry-Lavrov Pact is more likely than not to collapse. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Fox given stakeholder role in henhouse

From the latest delusional iteration of the Kerry-Lavrov Pact, the Munich statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG):

The ISSG members decided to take immediate steps to secure the full support of all parties to the conflict for a cessation of hostilities, and in furtherance of that have established an ISSG ceasefire task force, under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, and including political and military officials, with the participation of ISSG members with influence on the armed opposition groups or forces fighting in support of the Syrian government.

So Russia is co-chairing, and thus co-vetoing, a process meant to lead to a ceasefire, while it's actively engaged in flattening Aleppo!

The rush in which the statement was put together is revealed by the fact that it uses two different names for the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra and ANF (al-Nusra Front). At least it avoided the Pentagon cover name for attacks on al-Nusra Front, the Khorasan Group.

Syrian battlespace about to get more crowded

When historians look back at what is now just an emerging Middle East disaster, they'll marvel at the amount of time spent by the various players in agreeable European locales: London, Geneva, Munich, and Brussels. Indeed, they may wonder whether the prospect of a "negotiating" trip to Europe was part of the distorted incentives that made prolonging war the best option. Anyway, about that Brussels leg (Saudi Press Agency) --

RIYADH, Jumada 03, 1437, February 12, 2016, SPA -- Brigadier General Ahmad bin Hassan Asiri, the Military Advisor to the Minister of Defense, asserted that the decision of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to send ground troops into Syria is an "irreversible decision." This came in remarks made by Brig. Gen. Asiri to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting of the international coalition to counter ISIL (Da'esh) which was held at the headquarters of NATO in Brussels on Thursday.

The Obama administration seems as eager as ever to airbrush out the many blotches on their Syria policy. But the signals are coming loud and clear from Riyadh that they're looking for a way to send troops to counter the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis. The White House can't say it wasn't obvious what was going to happen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New advisers needed

It's somewhat strange that "not really moving the needle" hasn't joined "JV team" and "we have contained ISIS" in the President Obama list of cursed phrases about Syria, because as for the needle, at this point not just Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin but also Turkey, actual Syrian rebels and Obama's own defence department agree that Russia has moved the needle in Syria, a lot. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Oil states need stimulus

In a truly bizarre editorial, the Wall Street Journal has found the real culprit in the USA's oil belt recession due to low oil prices -- Barack Obama!

With oil and gas drilling now hurting, tech is the main growth area left and even that is in question as the global economy slows. In a normal expansion, growth elsewhere would offset a downturn in commodity markets like oil, but not this time. All of which made it strange last week to hear President Obama use January’s lackluster jobs report as an opportunity to claim economic triumph. “The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” he said, mocking Republicans for “their doom-and-despair tour” in New Hampshire. He’s right if his comparison is Europe or Brazil, but that’s little consolation in Oklahoma.

In a vast country where the Journal would be quick to claim that regional outcomes must be due to conservative policies, it's somehow the job of the federal government to immediately provide an alternative source of boom for states in a commodity bust. The Journal's preferred response in other situations, such as Flint -- "on yer bike, losers" -- is apparently not acceptable.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The needle and the damage done

President Obama just before Christmas, assessing the Russian military intervention in Syria --

And I do think that you’ve seen from the Russians a recognition that, after a couple of months, they’re not really moving the needle that much, despite a sizeable deployment inside of Syria. And of course, that’s what I suggested would happen -- because there’s only so much bombing you can do when an entire country is outraged and believes that its ruler doesn’t represent them.

The large-scale assault on Aleppo is a glaring contradiction of that assessment, which was flawed from its assumption that the al-Assads would be looking for legitimacy from the entire country. They only need an Alawite coastal belt with an quiescent Sunni hinterland, and the Russians can derive enough strategic value from that to make it worth their while.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Federalized medicine

The C-Span clip is Marco Rubio after a campaign rally in Ames, Iowa -- when even sympathetic audience members who stick around for the meet and greet are able to get more revealing answers to policy questions than Rubio provides in the main speech. In this case, a questioner gets Rubio to clearly state -- as one has to multiply-click on his website to establish -- that his alternative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) involves giving everyone a federal tax credit that can be used to purchase a health insurance plan from any insurance company in any state, regardless of where they live. That may sound innocuous, but it's actually an unravelling of the entire American health insurance system, which relies on state-by-state regulation. The only way to forestall an insurance death spiral as healthy people purchase policies in the least regulated state would be a massively increased federal role in health insurance -- way beyond what ACA has. 

Jesus wasn't keen on Stand Your Ground

That's from Marco Rubio's website. Referring to the gun rights as interpreted by courts based on words written in the late 18th century as sacred. Words have meanings!

Grand solutions are killing the Syrian people

Global policy elites implemented their two-pronged answer to the Syrian crisis this week: a fund-raising conference in London for neighbouring countries coping with the refugee influx, and negotiations to end the war in Geneva.

The outcome has been a predictable but nonetheless apparently surprising (to the aforementioned elites) disaster.

London sent the signal that there was billions of dollars on the table to cope with refugees in other countries. Geneva sent the signal that the warring parties in general, and the al-Assad regime in particular, should maximize their military gains before getting dragooned into peace talks.

The outcome: a massive Russian-backed assault on Aleppo, and tens of thousands more refugees headed to neighbouring countries who've been assured that the donors are there to help them cope, something that the al-Assad regime knows as well.

Heckuva job.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Alien versus Predator

The Taliban reach deep into the insult reservoir in an e-mail interview with Bloomberg News regarding ISIS activities in Afghanistan --

“a scruffy and uncouth production of nations in the Middle East" that “has no place in our community."

The Irish people have views too

From yesterday's House of Commons questions to David Cameron regarding his very tentative renegotiation of EU membership --

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): When the Prime Minister meets various EU leaders over the next few months, will he make clear to them that the result of the referendum is to be decided by the British people, and that they should not try to interfere in any way with the British people’s views? Will he particularly say to the Irish Taoiseach [Enda Kenny] that it was not at all helpful, and indeed it was very uncomplimentary to the people of Northern Ireland, for him to imply that if the people of the United Kingdom decide to leave the European Union, that would threaten the peace process? The 

Prime Minister: I absolutely agree that this decision is for the British people, and the British people alone, and they certainly do not want to hear lectures from other people about that. It is because this affects Britain’s relations with the rest of the world, and other issues, that there may well be people who want to make a positive contribution, and that is a matter for them. I think that the peace process is secure and we must keep going with it, and I believe that the Taoiseach is a friend of the United Kingdom. He spoke up very strongly for Britain at the European Council, and I think he was quite influential in trying to build good will, and saying that we in the European Union should recognise that if a country has a national interest at stake and needs things fixed, we must be a flexible enough organisation, because otherwise we will not be able to sort those things out.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

We're going to need a bigger Green Zone

Reuters --

Iraqi security forces have begun building a concrete wall surrounding the capital Baghdad in a bid to prevent attacks by Islamic State militants, a military statement said on Wednesday. Islamic State, the ultra hardline group that seized vast swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad, claimed several attacks in recent months in the Iraqi capital. The last one, on Jan. 11, targeted a shopping mall and killed at least 18 people, according to police sources. The planned security barrier will surround the city from all sides, said Baghdad Operations Command's head Lieutenant-General Abdul Ameer al-Shammari, in a statement published on the defense ministry's website. The preparatory work on the wall started on Monday, he said.

This comes a couple of days after news that the Iraqi Kurds are building a long trench facing the rest of the country.

Lines on a map are becoming less and less relevant in the Middle East.

Bobos in pickup trucks

David Brooks takes note of the Trump stumble in Iowa --

Social inequality is always felt more acutely than economic inequality. Trump rose up on behalf of people who felt looked down upon, made them feel vindicated and turned social conduct on its head. But in Iowa on Monday night we saw the limit of Trump’s appeal.

Despite the Austen-esque sweep of that statement about social inequality, Brooks presents zero evidence that it's true. It seems rather that he has transplanted his hilarious and accurate diagnosis of upper middle class envy -- status-income disequilibrium -- to much lower down the income distribution, and without explaining where the status mismatch arises. If the relevant group has lower status and lower income, there's no disequilibrium. It's just plain old inequality.

Further down the Euphrates river

Reuters --

Tens of thousands of trapped Iraqi civilians are running out of food and medicine in the western city of Falluja, an Islamic State stronghold under siege by security forces, according to local officials and residents. The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias - backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition - imposed a near total siege late last year on Falluja, located 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad in the Euphrates river valley.

Al-Assad regime sieges of Syrian towns are rightly getting a lot of attention, especially when set against the farce of "peace" talks in the luxury of Geneva. But there's a major blind spot about similar sieges in Iraq, because the alignment of international "partners" and local forces is different. And remember, re-taking Mosul from ISIS will be all this multiplied many times.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Briefly noted

Andrew Roberts (in the Sunday Telegraph) does a tour through the Trump-Mussolini comparisons, but like many conservative writers, he ignores the more obvious comparison of Trump with Silvio Berlusconi (seen above at AC Milan's match with Inter on Sunday). Could it be that Mussolini is the preferred comparator because it's easier, at least if one resorts to the argumentative style of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, to then claim that Trump is not conservative?

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The coveted David Brooks endorsement

David Brooks' New York Times column yesterday --

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop. The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives. But Republicans have walked away from their traditional Burkean turf. The two leading Republican presidential candidates offer little more than nativism and demagogy. David Cameron has offered an agenda for a nation that is coming apart. There desperately needs to be an American version.

Leave aside that Brooks has been hailing the significance of David Cameron speeches for over ten years. There is a Burkean conservative, running in the Republican presidential primary, who is drawing precisely on Tory ideas; as he said in his own words a while ago:

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond are charting a new vision of social justice. It recognizes that the problems caused or aggravated by the growth in government cannot be corrected by a crude reduction in its size. Policy must also deliberately foster the growth of what Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” of civil society: families, neighborhood associations, private enterprises, charities and churches. These are the real source of economic growth and social vitality.

His name: Rick Santorum.

The above words were written by Santorum and Iain Duncan Smith 10 years ago. Indeed, when David Brooks mourned the exit of Santorum from the Senate soon after that piece was written, a loss he blamed on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bobos, he wondered what would happen to Santorum's agenda.  Brooks rediscovered Santorum when was running 4 years ago, but then dropped it again.

So what happened? Well, when "social justice conservatives" got around to actually proposing some specific policies, it turned out to be just the old "on yer bike" prescription in more tasteful packaging. Paul Ryan has the same shtick today. Trump and Cruz are not substitutes for that agenda, but the logical consequence of its non-delivery and its lack of credibility with lower income households. Incidentally, when Santorum was most gung-ho about social justice conservatism, his book "It takes a family" was explicitly pitched in opposition to another current presidential candidate who was talking about how families need a level of support between themselves and the government.

Her name: Hillary Clinton. Burkean conservatives might like her policies.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Afraid to call it by its true name

A click-by drop-in the Republican "kiddie table" debate last night was enough to be made aware of what is presumably National Rifle Association-approved terminology for spree killings (via CBS News) --

to identify people who actually might be dangerous and who abuse Second Amendment rights.

That's courtesy of lesser Presidential candidate former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. You see the trick: they're not crazy people with guns, they're people who abuse 2nd amendment rights!

Next time is different

The International Monetary Fund used a wheeze to lend huge amounts of money to Greece in 2010 without requiring that existing Greek debt should be restructured, even though it was (and is) clearly unpayable. The wheeze was to declare that if there was a possibility that financial markets would freak out about debt being restructured, but the country still needed the money, the IMF could lend the money anyway. That was called the systemic exemption. It did succeed in ramming through the money for Greece, but not much else about it has worked, so it's being abolished. Except that it hasn't entirely gone away --

The new policy would also allow the IMF to deal with rare “tail-event” cases where even a reprofiling [short extension of due date] is considered untenable because of contagion risks so severe that they cannot be managed with normal defensive policy measures. In these rare cases, the IMF could still provide large-scale financing without a debt operation [restructuring], but would require that its official partners also provide financing on terms sufficiently favorable to backstop debt sustainability and safeguard IMF resources. This could be done through assurances that the terms of the financing provided by other official creditors could be modified in the future if needed (say in the event of downside risks materializing). If official partners could not provide such assurances (or if the member’s debt was deemed unsustainable at the outset), the terms of official financing would have to be sufficiently favorable to bring debt to the green zone.

So just at the time when financial market behaviour is looking more puzzling than ever, the exemption is still there for events declared to be "rare" and there's big wiggle room in the provision for other partners (such as the Eurozone's beloved Troika) to simply promise that they'll do something if something particular happens in the future. The financial system thrives on risk because of an assumption that if really bad risk materializes, a different set of rules than normal will apply. And that's the signal they're still getting from the IMF.

Maybe he was too young to remember 9/11

Marco Rubio in last night's debate (transcript via New York Times) --

ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq — not the city of Dubuque; I mis-said — mis-said that wrong once (inaudible) time — the city of Dabiq in Syria. They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown. This group needs to be confronted and defeated. They are not going to go away on their own. They’re not going to turn into stockbrokers overnight or open up a chain of car washes. They need to be defeated militarily, and that will take overwhelming U.S. force.

Thus in one debate segment he: forgets completely about Al Qaeda, notes that ISIS wants a massive military showdown in Syria, and then promises to give it to them! Besides stepping into a similar contradiction that Cruz caught him in last time, both he and Cruz said they wouldn't vote to authorize the use of force in Syria in 2013 ("red line") because that would have been against Bashar al-Assad, not ISIS  ... even though there was no ISIS before Bashar al-Assad started killing protestors. Rand Paul had, as usual, the intellectual consistency to argue that it was futile to bomb either of them.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another culprit

The report of the legislative inquiry into Ireland's banking and fiscal crisis was finally published yesterday. Although the report doesn't have any real bombshells or directions, it's still an achievement as a consensus assessment by an often dysfunctional political system of what went wrong. Anyway. despite a rich cast of villains, there's one trail not pursued by the report despite its shadow being in several places. Specifically (page 13) --

The Constitution allows significant decision-making powers by Cabinet to make far-reaching decisions without any prior engagement with the Oireachtas (parliament). Members of the Oireachtas, including the Opposition are constrained, with the added issue of limited resources, in their ability to influence the decision-making process.

Later in the report, it's mentioned that the mid-2000s Central Bank was reluctant to use its apparent enforcement powers against banks, because of fears of a constitutional challenge (page 147). As a meta-challenge, the report itself was constrained in its approach and access to information by constitutional issues.

Yet though Ireland has amended its 1937 constitution in many ways despite the big hurdle to doing so -- the need for a referendum -- nothing in the report's recommendations points to the constitution itself, or at least the interpretative industry that has grown around it, as something that needs amending. That's a big blind spot.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Those crazy Gulf Arabs and their petrol subsidies!

Bloomberg News

Drivers in the U.S. oil hub of Houston can fill their tanks for less than the cost in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the first time since 2008 as falling crude prices push Middle East exporters to cut government fuel subsidies.

This goes back to the point that gun sales were not the only thing at record levels in 2015.

They didn't build that

New York Times interesting detail on the history of Tyco, which will merge with Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls and use Tyco's Cork headquarters for the combined company in another corporate inversion --

The transaction signals the end of the Tyco name, which started in 1960 when the company was a small research laboratory for the United States government, later growing into an industrial giant through a series of diverse acquisitions. 

A small firm that got its first break from ... the government!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Our overhasty storm

The Telegraph is getting great clickbait mileage out of "Storm Jonas." In other words, the predictable reductio ad absurdum nears. The UK and Irish met offices got into the Weather Channel mania of naming winter storms. Jonas is an American winter storm that is not named by the US National Weather Service because, er, it's a winter storm. The remnant of the Atlantic low that once was Jonas arrived in Britain and Ireland, but was not deemed by the respective met offices to rise to the next scheduled name, Gertrude. So the media gave it the Weather Channel name anyway!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Henry killed prisoners of war

The New York Times has an informative look back at the impression -- or lack thereof -- that Ted Cruz made as part of the George W. Bush legal team in the Bush v Gore Florida election dispute in 2000. But to read it is to  be reminded of what was essentially a suppressed election, since the final decision was to not count all valid votes in Florida. Anyway, here's the incident associated with the photo above --

Another lawyer, Noel J. Francisco, recalled pausing his work with Mr. Cruz at one point for a literary break. “We kind of locked arms, and we read out the St. Crispin’s Day speech from ‘Henry V,’ ” he said. “ ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ I have a picture of that in my office.”

That ability to imagine themselves as players in a myth-heroic historical chapter when what was actually going on was a stolen election is an insight not into Cruz but the entire Republican establishment. That's where diagnoses of where things have gone wrong for them might want to dwell.

Koch Brothers increasing US dependence on Arab oil!

Reuters --

Several oil-trading sources have said that U.S. refiner Koch may have fixed a tanker to ship 2 million barrels of Omani crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The company declined to comment. The shipment would be the United States' first crude imports from Oman since 2013, according to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). "Maybe Koch can take it into its own system, but refiners there are not too keen on the grade. Basrah Heavy is much better," said Adi Imsirovic, a member of the Surrey University Energy Economics Centre, referring to the Iraqi grade.

The logic is complicated; essentially all the yelling and screaming about the urgent need to allow American crude oil to be exported has in fact created an incentive to import oil because of the price differentials. It goes to show how oil market policy is especially unsuited to sloganeering.

Incidentally, the fact that the domestic oil industry faces more competition when export restrictions are lifted is, in an obtuse way, why Ted Cruz is an American and not a Canadian. That was part of the 1970s tradeoff between living in Texas or Alberta.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Arab Spring, changed utterly version

Jordan's King Abdullah in Aqaba attending the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule. His great-grandfather Sharif Hussein, Lawrence of Arabia, all that stuff. It's a revolt that succeeded but then veered off in completely unintended directions: facilitating the emergence of Saudi Arabia, and via the creation of unstable monarchies in Iraq and Syria, opening the way for Baathism and a decades-long sequence of disastrous miscalculations, the latest of which unfolds in Syria today. Of course, it's a story that can't be told without reference to two World Wars and continued interventions of western countries in the Arab world. Like Easter 1916 in Dublin, an anniversary to be observed in mind of what came later.

Photo: Petra News Agency.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Davos must be really pricey this year

Wall Street Journal on big financial investor musings at Davos --

Elliott Management chief Paul Singer, who runs a $26 billion hedge fund, said, “If central banks double down on their policies of QE, ZIRP and NIRP, it could cause a loss of confidence in central bankers, paper money in general, or one or more currencies, and lead to a collapse in bonds and stock prices.”

Paul Krugman explained a few months back the context in which comments like these should be judged. Singer believes that a President Rubio would solve the above problems.

Parkinson's Law meets PPPs via Sir Humphrey

Then UK Treasury has been under years of pressure to show that Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and the associated Private Finance Initiative (PFI) actually save any more relative to plain old public delivery. That same PPP mania spread to to the Republic of Ireland and left some of the country's best farmland paved over for underused toll motorways.

Anyway, as part of the general effort under George Osborne to generate all sorts of miraculous savings that will pay for new infrastructure while cutting taxes, there's an updated "code of conduct" for existing contracts on how savings can be generated. Except that it's not a guide to generating any actual savings -- it's entirely a process for discussing how it might be done. Example, for the private operator side of the contract --

Ensure constructive engagement with their PFI/PPP partners, including the public sector, through the reasonable interpretation, taking account of professional responsibilities and obligations, of all existing rights and obligations set out in the project documents so as to facilitate a clear understanding by the public sector and its stakeholders of the costs and benefits of efficiency and savings opportunities.

The entire document (a mercifully short 3 pages) is the same Yes, Minister blather just updated to the mid-2010s. Though as usual for Yes, Minister, there's a sentence in there that tells the truth for anyone who knows where to look:

It is recognised that due to the multi party nature of PFI/PPP projects it may not be possible for individual signatories to deliver efficiencies and savings on behalf of their partners. The commitments set out below should therefore be interpreted and applied by each party in the context of the involvement and role of that party in each transaction.

In other words, since there are so many players in these projects, it's difficult to generate cost savings because everyone can define their own area so narrowly. If only there was a single operator of the entire project who could take the national perspective!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How many battalions does Davos have?

In a widely cited article, the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin says that the problem with the Davos World Economic Forum is that it's so sanitized, exemplified in the exclusion of the World's Looniest Country, North Korea, from this year's event. Certainly it would have been nice to know if a DPRK official has something to add to the perpetual shouting and roaring across the DMZ, but it's difficult to see that on its own as a revealing a gap.

But the more telling absence from Davos this year is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although at first attributed to the fallout from the Cologne fiasco, and then denied, it seems clear that Mrs Merkel correctly calculated that praise at Davos for her migrant policy would backfire at home. Indeed the sense that it's a self-validating elite talking to each other couldn't be clearer with Christine Lagarde there to release an on-message refugee report. That's not the audience that needed to be convinced. But maybe they need the time to decide how they'll explain it to the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The new Middle East

In a sign that Saudi Arabia is not relaxing its diplomatic offensive against Iran, the government has today released (via Saudi Press Agency) a documentation of what it describes as decades of support to terrorism, including --

20.Iran was involved in Buenos Aires bombings in 1994, which resulted in the deaths of 85 people and the wounding 300 others. In 2003, British police arrested Hade Pour Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, for conspiring to carry out attack.

That would be the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina's capital, where indeed it is generally although not universally accepted that a Hezbollah cell operating with Iranian support was responsible.

The news is therefore that Saudi Arabia, however obliquely, is including an Israel grievance in its list.