Friday, July 31, 2015

New York Times headline commentary

Interesting conjunction of Israel news headlines (screenshot from the NYT Middle East page Friday morning US eastern time). And also, the headline on this article should be "Pentagon plan to help Bashar al-Assad by having Syrian rebels fight each other fails."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mysterious source of instability in Lebanon

White House --

On August 1, 2007, by Executive Order 13441, the President declared a national emergency with respect to Lebanon pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701-1706) to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the actions of certain persons to undermine Lebanon's legitimate and democratically elected government or democratic institutions; to contribute to the deliberate breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, including through politically motivated violence and intimidation; to reassert Syrian control or contribute to Syrian interference in Lebanon; or to infringe upon or undermine Lebanese sovereignty. Such actions contribute to political and economic instability in that country and the region. Certain ongoing activities, such as continuing arms transfers to Hizballah that include increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, serve to undermine Lebanese sovereignty, contribute to political and economic instability in Lebanon, and continue to constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.

The rest of the statement says that the President will continue to exercise the powers under the order for another year. It's very difficult to tell what exactly is being done under the order. The list of sanctioned individuals seems to include just 4 people: Assaad Hardan, Hafez Makhluf, Wiyam Wahhab, and Michel Samaha. All seem to relate to old-style Damascus meddling in Lebanese politics, which is of a different order these days given the Assads' dependence on Hezbollah.

So what is this unmentioned source of these sophisticated weapons systems to Hezbollah which constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security of the USA?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Know when to fold them

Some key paragraphs, that would have had several attendees squirming, from Barack Obama's really excellent African Union speech --

I have to also say that Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end. (Applause.) Now, let me be honest with you -- I do not understand this. (Laughter.) I am in my second term. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as President of the United States. I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more interesting job. I love my work. But under our Constitution, I cannot run again. (Laughter and applause.) I can't run again. I actually think I'm a pretty good President -- I think if I ran I could win. (Laughter and applause.) But I can't. So there’s a lot that I'd like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law. (Applause.) And no one person is above the law. Not even the President. (Applause.) And I'll be honest with you -- I’m looking forward to life after being President. (Laughter.) I won't have such a big security detail all the time. (Laughter.) It means I can go take a walk. I can spend time with my family. I can find other ways to serve. I can visit Africa more often. (Applause.) The point is, I don't understand why people want to stay so long. (Laughter.) Especially when they’ve got a lot of money. (Laughter and applause.) When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife -- as we’ve seen in Burundi. (Applause.) And this is often just a first step down a perilous path. And sometimes you’ll hear leaders say, well, I'm the only person who can hold this nation together. (Laughter.) If that's true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation. (Applause.)

Civil and financial engineering

Irish political debate has its occasional dips into absurdity.

Today we have left-wing politicians claiming vindication in their campaign for zero user-cost household water supply not in the achievement of that goal, or even success in principle on the argument for zero user-cost water ... but on a statistical ruling by the European Union statistical agency that the debt of the new water utility is part of the government sector. For context, bear in mind that the balance sheet of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), which takes on far more risks than a water utility, is not on the government balance sheet through a special purpose vehicle ownership wheeze. Or that one way to get Irish Water off the government balance sheet would be to privatize it, which is presumably not what its opponents want!

But for a day, the callers to the radio shows will all be experts on Eurostat rules regarding the balance sheet rules of public utilities. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The truth hurts

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour today --

"If that [action against Assad] was done before, [the] Assad regime wouldn't be killing so many people, or pushing them to Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq or Lebanon. There wouldn't be any place or power vacuum for Daesh, for ISIS, to be active ... Assad lost this legitimacy long before; unfortunately, because of inactivity of international community, he continued his crimes, and he created a power vacuum -- he admitted this vacuum a few days ago -- and ISIS filled this vacuum. ... Eliminating ISIS is of course a strategic objective, but there should be some other elements .. We have to have a strategy about the future of Syria ... If there is one person who is responsible for all these terrorist crimes and humanitarian tragedies in Syria, it is Assad's approach, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs against civilians."

Four years after the first opportunity, there are now two genies out of the box: ISIS and Kurdish separatism in Syria. Just as the Obama administration has convinced itself that it can intervene against ISIS without helping Assad, it seems to have convinced itself that it can coax greater Turkish intervention against ISIS without putting the Kurdish question on the table too.

Messy diplomacy

One unusual feature of President Obama's east Africa visit is that he met with a former International Criminal Court indictee, President Uhuru Kenyatta (the charges were dropped). Now while in Addis Ababa he had a regional meeting on South Sudan, and (via Reuters) --

Those at the talks also include Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibarahim Ghandour and the African Union's Dlamini Zuma.

Since three presidents were there (Obama, Museveni, and Kenyatta), the presence of the Sudanese foreign minister was an obvious wheeze to avoid the formal presence of current ICC indictee, Omar al-Bashir. It's a recognition of reality that Sudan will have to be involved in a settlement but it also shows that the throwing-of-shapes that sometimes goes on regarding which countries can attend particular talks (e.g. Iran on Syria) is just that. There's always some way to work around who's talking to who, regardless of who's in the room.

And they say mean things about King George III

National Review's The Corner, David Pryce-Jones --

In office, Obama rid the White House of a bust of Winston Churchill, who in his day epitomized everything Britain stood for. He also directed that British prime minister Gordon Brown enter the White House through the kitchen.

At least regarding the Churchill bust, Pryce-Jones doesn't repeat the claim that it was loaned to the White House after 9/11, but in any event, the basic grievance relates to the White House returning an object that had been vanity-borrowed by a previous occupant. But as for Gordon Brown entering the White House through the kitchen, that's simply false. It's a mangled version of a story involving Obama and Brown having a side meeting at the UN General Assembly.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

English racket

Greek newspaper Ekathimerini has quite a scoop with the recorded phone call of former #MinisterofAwesome Yanis Varoufakis regarding an alleged Syriza Plan B to take over the tax administration system network and use it as an alternative payments system if relations broke down with the ECB. But isn't the other scoop in the story the context of that mid-July phone call? --

In a teleconference call with members of international hedge funds that was allegedly coordinated by former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, 

Hedge funds and former Tory ministers getting the inside story on a plan to develop an alternative payments system within the Euro? It's almost as if there's as kind of Anglo-Saxon conspiracy afoot!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Birds of a feather

FIFA President -- still! -- Sepp Blatter and Russian President Putin meet in St Petersburg ahead of the World Cup draw. Says Sepp --

We are saying ‘yes’ to Russia and assuring you of our support. This is especially important in the current geopolitical situation. We must speak not only of our desire to make the world a better place; we also want to do something tangible to support peace, to support the development of football.

Is Sepp proposing some specific intervention in eastern Ukraine to achieve these lofty goals?

Photo: Kremlin.

Did things just get better or worse?

Reuters --

Turkish fighter jets and ground forces hit Islamic State militants in Syria and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in Iraq overnight on Saturday, in a campaign Ankara said would help create a "safe zone" across swathes of northern Syria. 

When Turkey agreed to demands that it take a greater role in fighting ISIS, wasn't it inevitable it would mean them taking on Kurdish militants as well?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Off message

Sermon by Ayatollah Khamenei at the end of the Ramadan, as reported on his website --

Referring to the slogans “Death to Israel” and “Death to the US” chanted by the Iranian nation on the Quds (Jerusalem) Day, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution said, “Major orientations of the Iranian nation should be understood through these slogans and not on the basis of the biased language of foreigners, which is unfortunately repeated by some people who misunderstand [the realities] inside [the country].” In his second sermon, Ayatollah Khamenei referred to tragic developments in the region, saying, “Unfortunately, unholy and mischievous hands made the blessed month of Ramadan bitter and difficult for many nations in the region [including] in Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine and Syria. These issues are important for the people of Iran.”

By the way, when he mentions the problems in Syria, he doesn't mean the ones caused by Bashar al-Assad.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Feather touch regulation

Debate in Dáil Éireann (Irish Lower House) on Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Bill, 2002, Wednesday 19 June, Minister of Finance Charlie McCreevy --

As a precaution the Central Bank has formally written to all credit institutions within its remit to re-emphasise the need for compliance with best international standards of management and controls. Moreover, it has asked that there be independent verification that these controls are being operated.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Be careful with stray apostrophes

Pentagon website --

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2015 – In the world of political-military affairs, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey likes to say that he is “the dash.” The dash is not the name of some superhero. It is the punctuation mark found between “political” and “military” when both factors exist in a given situation. 

At the very least, General Dempsey shouldn't go any Arab countries claiming that he's "Dash."

Good guy Gulf

Charles Krauthammer railing against the Iran deal in the Washington Post --

Imagine how Iran’s acquisition of the most advanced anti-ship missiles would threaten our control over the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, waterways we have kept open for international commerce for a half-century. 

The US period of keeping the Gulf open for commerce includes the time during the Iran-Iraq war when Saddam Hussein came up with the strategy of attacking Iranian oil tankers, which prompted a US-led multinational intervention to protect oil coming from Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries -- but not from Iran. The de facto alliance with Saddam meant turning to a blind eye to an Iraqi air force missile attack on the USS Stark, killing 37 sailors, and a grudging US apology to Iran when the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655, killing 290 people.  Understandably, Iran is not so excited about the US commitment to open waterways in the Gulf.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Obama to Middle East: Can you please hold?

From President Obama's Iran deal press conference --

Now, in terms of the larger issues of the Middle East, obviously that’s a longer discussion. I think my key goal when I turn over the keys to the President -- the next President -- is that we are on track to defeat ISIL; that they are much more contained and we’re moving in the right direction there. That we have jumpstarted a process to resolve the civil war in Syria, which is like an open sore in the region and is giving refuge to terrorist organizations who are taking advantage of that chaos. To make sure that in Iraq not only have we pushed back ISIL, but we’ve also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd are starting to operate and function more effectively together. And to be in a conversation with all our partners in the region about how we have strengthened our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran. And that includes providing additional security assurances and cooperation to Israel, building on the unprecedented cooperation that we have already put in place and support that we’ve already put in place. It includes the work that we’ve done with the GCC up at Camp David, making sure that we execute that. If we’ve done those things, then the problems in the Middle East will not be solved. And ultimately, it’s not the job of the President of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East are going to have to solve some of these problems themselves. But I think we can provide that next President at least a foundation for continued progress in these various areas.

The next President won't be in office until January 2017. That's 18 months from now. And his goal is just to have some started some processes by then!

The strands of Saddam

A strange echo of the July 1990 Saddam invasion of Kuwait in the identity of the Chattanooga Tennessee shooter Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez --

KUWAIT, July 17 (KUNA) ­­ The Interior Ministry on Friday confirded that the man who killed four US marines in two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Thursday was not "of Kuwaiti origin." The "terrorist" who was subsequently killed, as US officials confirmed, was "of Jordanian origin, born in Kuwait" in 1990 during the Iraqi invasion of the country

That was a tough time to be born in Kuwait, especially to a non-Kuwaiti family and to a nationality (most likely Palestinian) that was seen as insufficiently loyal to the coalition against Saddam. "Jihadi John" is also from that era.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The rogue state network

Reuters --

Russia plans to supply Syria with 200,000 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) per year via the Crimean port of Kerch, two trading sources told Reuters.

It looks like the Russian sanctions busting plan is to invade enough places and prop up enough dictators so that there will be a trade zone that they entirely control.

Note the White House summary of a President Obama phone call with President Putin:

The leaders committed to remain in close coordination as the JCPOA [Iran deal] is operationalized and also expressed a desire to work together on reducing regional tensions, particularly in Syria.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Khartoum's safe harbour

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir meeting Saudi King Salman in Mecca. An unpleasant conjunction with Nick Kristof's gripping, depressing reports from Sudan.

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

One reason why the IMF shouldn't be in the room

IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus looking over the shoulder of a politically terminal ill Indonesian President Suharto as he signs the 1998 bailout conditions, while below, a picture from today as IMF Managing Director looks over the shoulder at Euclid Tsakalotos and the Greek finance minister's desk with a similar daunting list of demands on the table.

Photos: Francois Lenoir/Reuters at the Eurogroup and Agus Lolong/AFP via Getty in 1998

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Fly the oligopoly skies

It's quite an achievement for the Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins to write an entire pro-US airline article on the latest cartel accusations and never mention the most recent evidence of a cozy cartel: all the airlines getting together to complain about the most significant new entrant in international service,, the Arab Gulf airlines.

When sharks collide

Isn't it a bit odd that the 2016 Honda Pilot ad is a family in the aforementioned minivan singing Weezer's Buddy Holly, a song that two decades ago was the epitome of pop rock cool, and whose video referenced a show, Happy Days, that had spawned the expression "jump the shark" which was in its heyday at that time ... and now that song, by attaching itself to an ad for a minivan, has, er jumped the shark?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Monday, July 06, 2015

There's always an Irish angle

Text of a certain letter

Athens, 12 June 1975 

Sir, On behalf of the Government of the Hellenic Republic, I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that Greece hereby applies to become a member of the European Economic Community in accordance with the provisions of Article 237 of the Treaty establishing that Community. 

(s.) Constantine Karamanlis [PM of Greece]

That letter was sent to, and acted upon, by the then president of the EEC Council, Garret Fitzgerald, the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs!

If only there was a group in Syria fighting both the Assads and ISIS

New York Times --

On the edge of Damascus, insurgents opposed to both the Islamic State and the Assad government launched a new offensive on government positions in the Jobar neighborhood — a once bustling region long reduced to rubble by shelling and airstrikes. In the northern province of Aleppo, insurgents battling the government range from the Nusra Front to local rebels that have in the past received American support. They are fighting Mr. Assad’s army on one front, and the Islamic State on another.

The new labels keep coming

The "Troika" seems so long ago now. Statement from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker --

He will have a conference call among the "Euro-Institutionals" (with the President of the Euro Summit, the President of the Euro Group and the President of the European Central Bank) on Monday morning.

This seems to be the first appearance of the phrase "Euro-Institutionals" and interestingly it's a new threesome that excludes the IMF.Note by the way that the president of the Euro summit is Donald Tusk of Poland, which is not a Euro country. Good luck to the Greek people keeping track of the evolving architecture this week. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Picking a head of state

It's incidental to the main issues, but one lesson of the Greece crisis is that if you're going to have a president in a parliamentary system, it might be better to have the position directly elected by the people and disentangled from parliamentary procedures, as Ireland does. The current Greek political impasse began when the parliament couldn't elect a president, a decision forced prematurely by the former prime minister Antonis Samaras. One dimension of Lebanon's latest political drama is the inability of its parliament to elect a president. Parliamentary election of the president is a mechanism that hasn't served the eastern Mediterranean very well!

Thursday, July 02, 2015

It was the barrister wot done it

Former Irish Minister of Finance Charlie McCreevy obliquely explains the country's botched financial regulatory structure prior to the crash --

The new regulatory structure was set up during my time and culminated in two separate Bills in 2002 and 2003. In 1998 the Government agreed in principle to the setting up of a single regulatory authority for financial services. Interestingly, the idea of an SRA was first mooted in 1989 but it was decided not to go ahead with same at that time. We asked Michael McDowell to chair the implementation advisory group.