Sunday, September 29, 2013

Blurred Lines

Above is the outline of a redrawn Middle East map about which Robin Wright muses in today's New York Times. Although the underlying logic of the new regions is close to standard cocktail party chatter among the pundit class at this point, there''s one curious thing about the map. Somehow, amid this tumultuous redrawing, the following countries would be unaffected (leaving aside Egypt which is fair enough):

Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

While their history and borders is inextricably linked with the other disappearing countries, those are nice places to go to conferences and meetings where such maps could liven up a conference presentation without imperiling visas or relationships.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bad quotes are like bad pennies

David McWilliams in the Irish Independent yesterday (via Irish Economy) --

The famous English economist, John Stuart Mill, said the following of crashes: "The crash doesn't destroy wealth, it merely reflects the extent to which wealth has already been destroyed by bad investments made in the boom."

We've been there before. It's from proto-Austrian economist John Mills, not John Stuart Mill.

You can't keep a bad man down

Say what you like about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but the man has a sense of humour.

Financial Times -- Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose rising star in international finance and politics crashed to earth following a sex scandal, has found a new career – in investment banking. The 64-year-old economist and former head of the International Monetary Fund, who went from rescuing countries to fending off sexual-assault accusations, is to join Anatevka, a small investment banking firm based in Luxembourg.

Above, the firm's eponymous song from Fidder on the Roof.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Putin will say the Syrian rebels did it

Wall Street Journal -- Unusually heavy rains around the Russian city of Sochi caused mudslides and floods to wash over a number of roads in the area where the 2014 Winter Olympics Games is set to be held. Emergency sirens blared in the city Tuesday followed by a voice message warning residents that the Sochi River could overflow its banks, according to a statement on the city administration’s website. It warned that the volume of water had risen to “dangerous levels,” threatening to overcome one of Sochi’s bridges.

Monday, September 23, 2013

This bubble will burst

Jazeera Sport Channel 3 is currently entertaining the Gulf and beyond with exciting live coverage of Bradford versus Leyton Orient.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Russians were busy with some weapons shipments

Reuters report on UN debate on crimes against humanity in North Korea --

North Korea's main ally China, joined by Belarus and Syria, were among countries defending it during the 90-minute debate.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Blessed are the peacemakers

From the UN inspectors' report on the chemical attack in Damascus on August 21, photographs of the rocket fragments in which the sarin was delivered. The bottom segment includes Cyrillic script. There are only so many places, beginning with Russia, with where it could have come from. The report also hints that the timing of the attack was specifically chosen for favourable weather conditions (low air circulation at ground level). Whoever did it wasn't just trying their luck, and knew a lot about chemical weapons.

And they've gotten away with it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

We're dancing mechanic

The US President --

’cause a robot can’t– build a road–

Not President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama.

A non-offer they couldn't refuse

From the Council of Eurozone finance ministers ("Eurogroup") statement on Cyprus --

The Eurogroup welcomes that the Cypriot authorities will continue to gradually relax the administrative measures that had been put in place in view of the unique and exceptional situation of Cyprus' financial sector. Further relaxation will be in line with the roadmap of 8 August 2013.

The statement thus takes as given that it was Cyprus that imposed capital controls and has the choice to relax them.

In fact it's because the European Central Bank refused liquidity support to the country's banks, even though they are now solvent.

Shouting at him also works

From the Geneva news conference announcing Peace in our Time and Never Again, aka the USA-Russia deal on Bashar al-Assad's already-used chemical weapons:

MODERATOR: The first question will come from Anne Gearan of The Washington Post. 
QUESTION: Yes. Good afternoon. And if – Minister Lavrov, if I could beg your indulgence to please give at least part of your answer in English, could we get a couple of specifics, please?

Lavrov did not answer in English.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

George W. Bush: An Apology

The following text and variations thereof will soon be appearing in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy magazine, websites of international relations think-tanks etc. With acknowledgement for the style to Private Eye.

Corrections and Amplifications

We would like to correct a major misperception that has arisen over our assessment of the foreign policy performance of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Regarding Mr Bush, our use of phrases such as "blithering idiot," "clown," "dolt" and "not fit even to be extricating San Diego college students from the drunk tank in Tijuana" may have given the impression that we had unfavorable views of Mr Bush. Correspondingly for Mr Obama, phrases such as "the Metternich of our time," "world peace is now at hand" and "he'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony" may have led readers to believe that we rated Mr Obama highly. In view of recent events, we now realize that what we meant to say was that Mr Bush's occasional verbal slips were merely masterful distractions that allowed him to get what he wanted, while Mr Obama's seemingly refined academic musings clearly merit not much more than an adjunct position at Faber College. 

We regret any confusion that our poor choice of words may have caused. 

At least Bush knew he was being taken for a ride

From Vladimir Putin's ostentatious end-zone dance over Syria on the op-ed page of the New York Times --

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

Can one of the reporters on John Kerry's plane ask him whether (a) he agrees with the above statement or (b) if he disagrees, what point he sees in dealing with a government headed by someone that believes it?

Photo from a 2005 Bush visit to Russia.

If that had been the war, Germany would have won

European Commission President in his "state of the union" speech to the European Parliament --

Next year, it will be one century after the start of the First World War. A war that tore Europe apart, from Sarajevo to the Somme.

Wasn't there a whole "eastern front" thingy to World War I, which had rather significant implications for what the next decades in Europe would look like?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When things matter

The chart above shows a stylized and so fake but accurate representation of the frequency of usual suspect liberal-leaning blogs posts about the Syrian crisis.  As the reader will observe, we are confidently projecting a complete loss of interest once the current phase of indecision has passed. Because all the other stuff -- the millions of refugees, the war crimes, the transparent bad faith of Russia, the existing intervention of Hezbollah, the rebooting of Al Qaeda -- where's the posture and pose value in blogging about that?

Send lawyers, guns, and money

There's one obvious outcome of the US Congressional stalling on the military strikes on Syria. Once people in the US and Europe start to dwell on the fact that they've been played like a violin by Maher al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, the easy response will be to demand all sorts of indictments of the al-Assads, and the flooding of Syria with new weapons for the rebels. It'll be a field day for international criminal specialists and weapons traders.

For ordinary Syrians, it will suck way more than US missile strikes on the Assads would have.

Heckuva job.

Making the cars run on time

Victorious conservative election campaign in Australia --

Tony Abbott, who wants to be known as the infrastructure prime minister, is proposing to accelerate infrastructure investment in order to help prop up demand as mining investment spending goes into decline.

Victorious conservative election campaign in Norway --

Norwegians voted in a Conservative ruling party led by Erna Solberg, ending an eight-year tenure for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg that was marked by economic stability and an unprecedented domestic terror attack. ...  "Today, voters have given the Conservatives our best Parliament election results in 28 years," Ms. Solberg told her party members in a speech late Monday. "Voters have given us a mandate to go through with the Conservative policy of better schools, better roads and increasing Norway's competitiveness to ensure that Norway remains a welfare state," she added.

It's a little odd that it's the conservatives coming to power with the promise of big projects. Perhaps it's just the politics of late-boom resource rich countries. But see also HS2 and Boris Island.

It also points to one difference between American conservatives and their overseas counterparts, notwithstanding attempts of supporters of the former to say that there's potential of the recipe in the latter: conservatives in other places are not intrinsically afraid of sounding like they will build stuff. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

Musical Interlude

You may ask yourself: Am I really being asked to click on Madonna's Like a Prayer on this blog? The answer is Yes, because this song is sufficiently good to be repackaged -- apparently without attribution -- by independent rock darlings Imagine Dragons as Demons.

We'd been having that deja vu sense every time we heard the latter song -- which is in heavy rotation -- and finally the origin song clicked. From a quick use of the Google, it appears that a few blogs and tweets have also been struck by the resemblance.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

It's not nicknamed Faux News for nothing

Strange denial sequence today from Saudi Arabia (although perhaps yet consistent with a recent tradition) --

[Middle East Monitor] In an interview with Fox News, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said the Kingdom has helped Egypt both before and after the revolution. Following the deposition of President Mohammad Morsi, Saudi offered huge financial sums to help Egypt overcome the country's political crisis and crippling economic recession. However Faisal added that, "Every beginning has an end. Saudi Arabia offered grants and loans to Egypt, but will not continue to support it forever. Therefore, the Egyptian government must quickly find a solution to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to obtain a loan. We cannot support Egypt forever." -

Saudi Press Agency -- Jeddah, Shawwal 29, 1434, Sep 5, 2013, SPA -- Referring to statements attributed to Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and quoted allegedly by Fox News, an official source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that those statements are incorrect completely. The source added that the Minister of Foreign Affairs did not make recently an interview or speak to Fox News or other mass media.

The first item is now flagged with an addendum that the quotes are being verified.

UPDATE: In fairness to Fox News, there is currently no evidence that they ever reported such a quote from Prince Saud. 

Don't wait by the phone

Labour leader Ed Miliband's theory of the Syrian conflict last week during the House of Commons debate on UK military intervention --

We must ensure that every effort is made to bring the civil war in Syria to an end, and principal responsibility for that rests, of course, with the parties in that conflict, and in particular President Assad.

Ed Miliband's theory of the Syrian conflict during Questions to the PM yesterday --

Nobody disagrees about our revulsion at the use of chemical weapons. As I say, the question is how to deal with it. What I said to the Prime Minister was, given the difficulty of getting direct talks moving between the Syrian Government and opposition, is there not a case for getting the regional partners involved? We all know the role that Iran has played in fuelling this conflict. However, given that successful diplomacy involves talking to those with whom we profoundly disagree, what is the Government’s position on Iran participating either in a contact group or as part of the Geneva process?

So a conflict that last week was principally about the warring parties this week is about their regional backers -- who somehow are going to be induced to the negotiating table now after polite asking by the UK overcomes their 2 year reluctance to do so. He also still wants peace talks even after the chemical weapons attack for which of course he hastens to express his "revulsion," a luxury not available to the people who would have to sit the other side of the table from the Assad regime.

He needs to accept that the price of last week's vote was irrelevance.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Grozny, continued

The table above is from the French government's intelligence conclusions about the Bashar al-Assad chemical attack in eastern Damascus. Apparently French intelligence is in on the massive American conspiracy to blame the Al-Assads for the attack. Anyway the point is that many of the Syrian delivery systems for chemical attacks use Russian rockets. Not that we needed another reason to view Russian contributions to the "debate" with a grain of salt, but there you go.

By the way, the French called mustard gas "Ypérite" after its first use against their troops in Ypres in 1915. They know what they're talking about.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

It's an argument that has circulated since the question of responding to Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons began, but for some reason your humble blogger was particularly irritated by hearing Dominic Tierney make it on CNN last night, someone whose CV suggests he should know better: why should we single out chemical weapons for an international response when conventional weapons kill many more people?

Regulating the conduct of war is a messy and non-idealistic business. It begins from the premise that bad things are going to happen and that since parties are already at war, the normal means of enforcement don't mean a whole lot. In particular, the norms of war have to be realistic about excuses and justifications. Thus of course a norm of war should ban the use of conventional artillery against civilians. But it's impossible to operationalize this because one side can always claim that its weapons just aren't accurate enough or that the enemy is mingling in civilian areas, making precise attacks impossible.

Hence the approach of banning types of weapon, especially chemical weapons which are clearly indiscriminate at their point of use, and which contort people's normal survival instincts: in a chemical weapons attack, rushing for shelter will probably kill you. Of course it's a blunt norm but one which reflects a century-old public revulsion, can be verified, and has some prospect of prevention, deterrence, and enforcement.

Can we get on CNN now?