Saturday, August 31, 2013

This will be close

President Obama is to ask Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Assad regime. In 1991, when George HW Bush was seeking authorization to use force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait -- a much clearer case of a breach of international law -- the Yes votes were hardly a stampede: 250-183 in the House, and 52-47 in the Senate. At that time, Republicans in Congress were overwhelmingly in favour and the issue was how many Democrats would join them (examples: Harry Reid and Al Gore). The most obvious factors that have changed since then -- war fatigue and the tea party -- would lower those vote numbers. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

When the Private Eye material writes itself

BBC --

A further 30 Conservative MPs - including a number of serving ministers - are reported to have missed the vote, which was called at short notice during Parliament's summer break. Among those, it has emerged that international development secretary Justine Greening and foreign office minister Mark Simmonds were present in Parliament but did not make it into the Commons chamber to vote. A spokeswoman for Ms Greening said she and Mr Simmonds, who is responsible for Africa policy, were discussing another foreign policy issue during the vote. The division bell, which rings across the Palace of Westminster to alert MPs to imminent votes, did not sound on Thursday evening, she added, and the two ministers were apparently unaware the crunch vote on the government's motion was taking place. "Mark Simmonds asked to speak to her [Ms Greening] about a separate Foreign Office issue and took her to the ministers' meeting room, which is a small room near the chamber which ministers often use between votes, and the clerks did not ring the bell," she said.  But a House of Commons spokesman said there had been no fault with the division bell. 

[So as not be too obtuse ...]

Now the beef is going to a French restaurant

Taking the dodgy dossier out on Syrians

So after seemingly everyone enjoys a good posture on not intervening in Syria to show how sophistamacated they are, the following questions may present themselves.

1. Does anyone think it's a coincidence that it's the same UK political system which can't articulate a coherent stance on European Union membership is the one that can't mobilize a coherent position on Syria? It's UKIP's foreign policy now.

2. Does anyone think that the de facto policy towards regional messes implied by the new conventional wisdom -- let the neighbours sort it out -- has any success stories to hand? Somalia? The Democratic Republic of Congo? Or cases of regional great power vetoes on intervention, like North Korea?

3. Does anyone really think that Europe can wall itself off from an Afghanistan in the eastern Mediterranean, which is where Syria is headed?

4. Does anyone really think that Bashar and Maher al-Assad are more likely to head to the negotiating table if there's no western intervention?

UPDATE: We didn't think the UKIP aspect would this literal!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Classics of non-denial

Saudi Press Agency --

Jeddah, Shawwal 22, 1434, Aug 29, 2013, SPA -- Commenting on what has been published recently by Wall Street Journal quoting Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Chief of the General Intelligence and Secretary General of the National Security Council, a source said that Prince Bandar does not make any press statement and does not hold an interview with any newspaper or others. Therefore, it is not true to what has been quoting of Prince Bandar for that newspaper.

The section of the WSJ article that has excited the most controversy --

Qatar is "nothing but 300 people…and a TV channel," the Saudi prince yelled into a phone, according to a person familiar with the exchange. "That doesn't make a country." Saudi officials declined to comment on the exchange.

Thus, the Journal never claimed to have a press statement or interview with Prince Bandar.

Over the top

Cultural criticism of contemporary music is a strange business. It now seems to be conventional wisdom that drum solos like in Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick were "self-indulgent," but it's left to generally conservative social critics to indicate that there was something seriously wrong with the anorexic exhibitionism of Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards (no link, just watch MTV peddle that shite for the next 6 months instead of actual music videos). There seem to be parents out there who planted their kids in front of the MTV VMAs and maybe are gradually recognizing that particular branch of the Viacom Corporation is not the best custodian of their upbringing. May we suggest instead intensive study of drum solos?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Caliphate for a Horse

Years of Iraq blogging is relevant again. Max Boot in Commentary magazine's blog on the USA's options in Syria --

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

The horse is back! Osama bin Laden delivered his famous weak horse/strong horse quote not after Sudan 1998 but in Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11 and with the NATO operation against him and the Taliban underway. It was the obsession with "strength", channeled from Bernard Lewis to Dick Cheney to George Bush which led to the view that radical Islam could only be quelled with a massive military initiative.

Now we're again hearing this logic in the claim that there's no point in responding to the chemical weapons attack unless it's of the strong horse variety.

It might be imputing too much deviousness to wonder if conservatives are only playing up the all-or-nothing option not because they actually want all, but because they want nothing. Al Qaeda versus Hezbollah with Iran and Russia on a drip-feed of support to a hated government in a prolonged war probably looks like a good outcome in some quarters.

Shame about those Syrian civilians.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


From a Wall Street Journal article quoting the Russian government response to a perceived outrage --

"What happened today is beyond all bounds. We think this is a very strange situation, given the nature of our relationship," said Russia's first deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, according to the Interfax news agency. He said Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been informed and urged Russia's Foreign Ministry to use "all possible levers" to resolve the matter.

Could this be the Kremlin finally asking why their pal Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons?

No, they're just upset that Belarus is playing hardball in a cartel dispute about potash.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

He had a chance

It is Saturday night and we could be accused of digging up old posts instead of coming up with new material.  But this photo (from 2010!) stands as refutation of the idea that the Sunni Gulf Arabs have always had some intrinsic vendetta against the Alawite Bashar al-Assad. That's President Assad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sitting next to each other at the Nobles' Palace restaurant when the King visited Damascus just 3 years ago.

Then Assad let things get to the point where he's gassing Damascus suburbs. Tough to blame an outside sectarian agenda for that one.

UPDATE: This Wall Street Journal article (subs. maybe req'd) notes that King Abdullah exerted some effort to win over Bashar al-Assad from his Iran comfort zone before concluding that al-Assad wasn't for turning.

Friday, August 23, 2013

False start

Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post --

The authoritarian regimes we supported — in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, even Spain and Portugal (ruled by fascists until the mid-1970s!) — in time yielded democratic outcomes. Gen. Augusto Pinochet, after 16 years of iron rule, yielded to U.S. pressure and allowed a free election — which he lost, ushering in Chile’s current era of democratic flourishing. How many times have communists or Islamists allowed that to happen?

How many times have Islamists had power for there to be a meaningful decision to let someone else have power?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Crazy countries are not always crazy

Wired magazine current issue --

The reason is MERS: Middle East respiratory syndrome, a disease that has been simmering in the region for months. The virus is new, recorded in humans for the first time in mid-2012. It is dire, having killed more than half of those who contracted it. And it is mysterious, far more so than it should be—because Saudi Arabia, where the majority of cases have clustered, has been tight-lipped about the disease’s spread, responding slowly to requests for information and preventing outside researchers from publishing their findings about the syndrome.

New York Times today in an article noting that after months of research, the virus has been found in bats --

Knowing that one bat had an identical virus is a start, but more testing will be needed, said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the Saudi deputy health minister who was a co-author on the study and gave a presentation on the virus in Washington on Wednesday ...Those restrictions can add months to the testing process, Dr. Memish said. That is one reason the bat samples were tested sooner, although other problems emerged: one of two frozen shipments of bat samples – the one the positive bat was in – was opened at Customs on entry into the United States and had thawed out by the time it reached Dr. Lipkin’s lab 48 hours later. What was recovered from that sample, however, was a 100 percent match, which is virtually unheard of in virology, the study said.  ...

In his presentation Wednesday, hosted in Washington by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Health Security, Dr. Memish said he only learned of the existence of the new virus in his own country when he read about it late last September on ProMED, an outbreak-alert service. Dr. Memish said that by then, it was too late to advise travelers not to come to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which draws 4.5 million pilgrims. “That put an incredible strain on our system,” he said.

Just because there wasn't hour-by-hour coverage of the MERS investigation on cable news (amidst the shark attacks and missing white women), it doesn't mean that stuff wasn't happening.

Big countries can be crazy

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, on the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus --

All of this really looks like an attempt, at any cost, to create a reason to produce demands for the U.N. Security Council to side with the regime's opponents and undermine the chances of convening the Geneva conference.

Note: the Russian position is not that various things might have happened. It's that the rebels somehow suddenly got the ability to launch chemical weapons over several areas simultaneously and used them against people in areas that they control -- all with the objective of thwarting peace talks that were already in danger of not happening.

That's deep Stalinist sociopathic conspiracy theorizing masquerading as a respectable foreign policy position. The mystery is why it carries so much weight with other countries that should know better.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's how they'll celebrate the 60th anniverary

John Bolton weighs in on the Wall Street Journal opinion page about why the US should support the Egyptian military crackdown in preference to Muslim Brotherhood government --

Third, for purely economic reasons, the Suez Canal must remain open. Annually, some 14% of global shipping and 30% of oil supplies pass through the canal. The Brotherhood is far more susceptible to suicidal impulses if it means harming the West. Egypt's military does not prize martyrdom.

The last time Suez Canal passage led to war, it was after a military coup, repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a general -- Gamal Nasser -- riding a wave of populism to a confrontation with Israel and the West. Bolton must know about the 1956 Suez Crisis but apparently the Green Menace is having some effect on his ability to bring it to bear in this case.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Or the Seychelles?

The latest in a line of opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal presenting the ill-effects of the USA's system of taxation for overseas citizens, this one from investment banker Ken Moelis --

Congress should borrow from U.K. policy and provide an immediate tax holiday to any American citizen who takes up residence and works in Africa for more than one full year. The incentive of paying a maximum local tax rate of, for example, 15% in Mauritius may be just the motivation needed to get our most ambitious and forward-thinking Americans to put down roots in one of the world's most important regions.

Is someone planning to retire to Mauritius?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The crisis will be over?

European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn --

"Today's [GDp] figures, when combined with other recent positive survey data are encouraging and suggest the European economy is gradually gaining momentum. They support the European Commission’s 2013 spring forecast and its projections for a subdued, mild recovery in the second half of 2013. The data also supports, in my view, the fundamentals of our crisis response: a policy mix where building a stability culture and pursuing structural reforms supportive of growth and jobs go hand in hand. This slightly more positive data is welcome - but there is no room for any complacency. Self-congratulatory statements suggesting "the crisis is over" are not for today.

So in consecutive sentences he praises policies he has advocated but just does not want to publicly claim they have worked, yet. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Maverick act does not travel well

Reuters analysis of USA policy challenge in Egypt:

A visit by outspoken Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Cairo last week, intended to help pull Egypt back from the brink, seemed to backfire, enabling the military to rally public opinion against "foreign interference".

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How Bahrain showed the way

It has been tempting for the last two and a half years to ignore Bahrain. Too small and too locked in by its regional and global connections for any other outside influence to mean much. Yet it looks like the case study for Egypt now. Gadaffi tried force and lost. Assad tried force and caused a civil war. Ali Abdullah Salah in Yemen tried force and just about managed to exit physically and financially intact. So its track record has not been great. But the government in Bahrain showed that if you use force, short of all out force, that forces people to choose sides, you might win. Manama in February 2011, Cairo today.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Most Trusted Name in Local News

Sequence of news stories at 9am pb east coast of USA on CNN, with Cairo convulsed and reporters for the channel on the scene.

UPS plane crash in Alabama, 2 fatalities and lots of looping footage of emergency vehicles

Hannah Anderson social media messages complete with screen grabs thereof

Bank robbery gone awry in Louisiana

Real housewives of NJ legal drama

Google privacy rules

By that last item, MSNBC was well into Egypt coverage.

UPDATE: Egypt was the 6th item.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gnome of Zurich

Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm has an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today which blames Bill Clinton inspired mortgage loans to low income households for the global financial crisis. That has been debunked enough. What is stranger is that the Journal never mentions that Gramm made his first post Senate stop a job with Union Bank of Switzerland which nearly went under except for exceptional support from the Swiss government and access to other global central bank relief mechanisms. And it was the investment banking division, not the plain vanilla lending that did the damage. The part that Phil Gramm was in.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Recent terror alert likely had Saudi angle

The general focus of the explanation for the recent terrorism alert in the Middle East has been on something that may have been in the works in Yemen, although there are elements of this that sound either preposterous on its face (e.g. a supposed SPECTRE-style meeting of all Al Qaeda affiliates) or are subject to doubt even by some of the governments involved.

But now there is an intriguing news report from the Saudi Press Agency --

The security spokesman at the Ministry of the Interior said that the security authorities through monitoring and follow up of published messages of incitement and hatred through social networks managed at the beginning of the last ten days of the holy month of Ramadan to arrest two expatriates (a Chadian who was previously deported and returned with a passport of another state, and the other is a Yemeni.) The two recruited themselves for the service of deviant thought, as evidenced by their seized items which included computer hardware, electronic media and mobile phones and which indicated their communication with the deviant group abroad either by electronic encrypted messages or through identities via the social networks (such as Abu Alfidaa, Hspouy, Muawiya Almadani, Rasasah fi Qusasah, and Abu El Feda Aldokulai) so as to exchange information about impending suicide operations in the region. Their initial statements also supported this fact.

The "deviant group" is the standard terminology for Al Qaeda. Of course the statement is cagey, but it suggests that whatever information breakthrough took place over the last few weeks had as much to do with Saudi surveillance as any of the programs of the US National Security Agency. 

One likes to believe in the freedom of music

Does the President of MTV networks, Van Toffler, know that he's the white guy in this Offspring video? Because that's what he is, a corporate tool who uses phrases like "my peeps" in corporate e-mails. Explanation here, and if various blocking tooks will let you, video explanation from Stephen Colbert here.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Iftar gossip

There was that tantalizing meeting of Saudi Prince Bandar and Russian President Putin a week ago. Well now this Reuters story presents a version of what happened:

Syrian opposition sources close to Saudi Arabia said Prince Bandar offered to buy up to $15 billion of Russian weapons as well as ensuring that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia's position as a main gas supplier to Europe. In return, Saudi Arabia wanted Moscow to ease its strong support of Assad and agree not to block any future Security Council Resolution on Syria, they said. A Gulf source familiar with the matter confirmed that Prince Bandar offered to buy large quantities of arms from Russia, but that no cash amount was specified in the talks. One Lebanese politician close to Saudi Arabia said the meeting between Bandar and Putin lasted four hours. "The Saudis were elated about the outcome of the meeting," said the source, without elaborating.

What Lebanese politician would be close enough to Saudi Arabia to have that kind of information?

Makkah, Ramadan 25, 1434, Aug 3, 2013, SPA -- The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud received, separately, at Al-Safa Palace here today, visiting Yemeni President Abdo Rabo Mansur Hadi and the accompanying delegation and the former Lebanese Premier Saad Al-Hariri. The King held an Iftar banquet in honor of his guests. Both the audience and the banquet were attended by Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the Governor of Makkah Region; Prince Abdul-Ilah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Advisor to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques; Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Second Deputy Premier, Advisor to and Special Envoy of the Custodian Two Holy Mosques; Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, Minister of Education; Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; other princes and the Minister of Culture and Information Dr. Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja.

Poetry Corner

Lines written upon the demise of "Superquinn"

Farewell then, Superquinn
Homegrown upmarket Irish grocery chain
"You'll come for the prices and stay for the service"
Yes, that was your catchphrase
And indeed it always seemed worth going the extra few miles to Blanchardstown
For the better fruit and veg and brighter store
Now you will just be "Supervalu"
The missing E symbolizing the final exit of Quinn
Given the recent associations of that name
It's probably just as well

(with the customary apology to EJ Thribb)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Uncommon market

Wall Street Journal editorial page on the latest Gibraltar fracas --

With GDP per capita nearly twice that of their neighbors in Spain and 3% unemployment compared to 26% north of the border, that's unlikely to change any time soon. Maybe the better path is for Spain to try to become more a part of Gibraltar—at least by adopting its low-tax, free-trading economic model.

Essentially therefore the advice to Spain is to become a giant duty free shop -- which would mean being outside the EU customs union. Free-trade indeed!

Monday, August 05, 2013

The world is sloped

There's a resilient talking point among a certain genre of cosmopolitan American pundit that the rest of the world -- and specifically Western Europe and East Asia -- are more technologically advanced and better at delivering modern services, especially ones consumed by said pundits, than the USA. A selection of examples from arch-exponent of this view, Thomas Friedman:

[2007] Look at our infrastructure. It’s not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. I still can’t get uninterrupted cellphone service between my home in Bethesda and my office in D.C. But I recently bought a pocket cellphone at the Beijing airport and immediately called my wife in Bethesda — crystal clear. I just attended the China clean car conference, where Chinese automakers were boasting that their 2008 cars will meet “Euro 4” — European Union — emissions standards.

[2008] It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop. Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

He has since made this into a more general theme that America needs to invest more in infrastructure.

Now, that may be true. But if the motivating examples are, as they appear to be for him, airports and wireless communications technology, they need more elaboration. A lot more. Here's a European Commission report from just over a week ago:

As European holidaymakers head to the beach and mountains for their ritual summer holidays, new figures show virtually none of them will have 4G access when they arrive. Three out of every four people living in the EU can’t access 4G/LTE mobile connections in their hometowns, and virtually no rural area has 4G. In the United States over 90% of people have 4G access.

And here's a nice Wall Street Journal article on airport efficiency:

Asian airports have something in common with airports in Europe: they’re far less efficient than their American counterparts. That’s according to Tae Oum, lead author of a new airport efficiency study by The Air Transport Research Society at the University of British Columbia. Compared to those in the U.S., Asian airports have a lower productivity ratio, use more employees and pass more costs onto consumers and airlines, he says.

Of course, "efficiency" is not the same thing as "looks cool" and it's definitely not the same thing as "flashy lounges available to globe-trotting pundits." But that former notion of efficiency probably corresponds a lot more to the cost/quality bundle of a typical airport passenger than the Moustache travelling experience. So which one should the country be basing policy on?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Project manager

In the photo (from Saudi Press Agency), King Abdullah who is holding court in Mecca for the end of Ramadan meets the new Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim. Unusually for these photos, the curtains are open and clearly reveal a large number of construction cranes outside, presumably related to the next phase of Mecca expansion. Maybe Sheikh Tamim will take a hint about what's actually involved in getting ready for FIFA 2022 World Cup.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

This one goes up to 11

White House statement on Vice President Joe Biden's phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki --

Regarding the situation in Syria, the two leaders discussed the importance of working together to isolate extremists on all sides of the conflict there.

Who are the extremists on the Assad regime side that are more extreme than the regime itself?

Everything's gone green

At National Review's The Corner. Eric Stakelbeck puts the microscope to Al Qaeda --

In fact, al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and its allies now cover more geographical ground across the Muslim world than they did on 9/11 — everywhere from Pakistan’s tribal regions to Yemen, Somalia, Sinai, Syria, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Europe, and the Sahara desert region, specifically northern Mali and southern Algeria.


Shiny new toy

So John Henry has bought the Boston Globe from the New York Times company but he is really, really, not losing interest in his major overseas investment, Liverpool Football Club? He'll have dumped his ownership in the club by Christmas.