Sunday, November 26, 2017

Flimsy bet

Excellent New York Times analysis exploring the catastrophic security strategy failure of the Egyptian government in Sinai --

One person who did have some sway over Mr. Sisi was Egypt’s chief of defense staff, Mahmoud Hegazy. American officials saw him as the only person in Mr. Sisi’s inner circle with the authority to publicly contradict him, a former United States official said. They also had a personal bond: General Hegazy’s daughter is married to Mr. Sisi’s son. But last month Mr. Sisi fired General Hegazy, after an outcry over a devastating militant ambush on a security convoy south of Cairo that killed 16 police officers, and possibly many more. The move dismayed senior State and Defense Department officials who saw General Hegazy as a check on Mr. Sisi in a circle of advisers that has become ever smaller and, some fear, ever more sycophantic, said the former official, who spoke anonymously to protect internal deliberations on an important ally that rarely receives public criticism well.

So, this is an insight from within the US securocrat establishment that the key part of their military cooperation with Egypt rested on the relationship of a single person with President Sisi. There is no strategy, just a hope that one person, now fired, can bring a message to the top.

Incidentally, since that orb clutching moment in Riyadh, there have been two massive terrorist attacks in Islamic countries, the Friday atrocity and the Mogadishu bombing a few weeks ago.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Choice of words

In early 2001, a hot potato landed on the desk of the then Irish Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue. It was the summary of an internal police inquiry ("Carty report") into allegations of serious misconduct by Donegal police, including mishandling of a murder investigation. There seemed to be enough in the report summary to launch a broader independent inquiry into rogue elements in the police force, which might have even gotten into similar misconduct in adjacent counties, such as Cavan and Monaghan.

What did the Minister do?

He sent the summary report to the government's chief legal adviser, Attorney-General Michael McDowell.

McDowell, recognizing a hot potato when he saw one, said that he couldn't make a decision without seeing the full report. And the usual "ongoing investigations" excuse provided a dodge for government ministers from needing to see the full report, and so the allegations sat for over a year before their seriousness eventually became the basis for action. With the slow pace of the Irish legal system, that was a lot of time to lose, and by keeping everything very legalistic and narrow in scope, the broader relevance -- including to current circumstances -- was lost.

Things caught up with the government in 2005, when people started to ask about the lapses in timeline in reacting to the original information. Here's Eamon Gilmore in 2005 trying to get a straight answer to who saw what and when; note that the Minister for Justice of the time is now ... Michael McDowell! --

... My colleague, Deputy Howlin, drew attention to the fact that last Friday the Minister, Deputy McDowell, informed the House that the Carty report was not delivered to him or to the then Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, at a time when its full contents would have definitely been of interest to them and would have enabled them to make earlier judgments on some of the issues involved. ... However, during his period as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue repeatedly indicated to the House that he had the Carty report. On 7 February 2001, in response to parliamentary questions, he did not indicate in any way that he did not have the Carty report, although he had plenty of opportunity to do so. On 23 May 2001, he stated that "the investigation by Assistant Commissioner Carty was completed and presented to me and, in turn, to the DPP". ... Either the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, had the report in 2000 or 2001 — as he told the House on 23 May 2001 that Assistant Commissioner Carty's report was completed and presented to him and, in turn, to the DPP — or he did not. ... This is not a minor matter concerning some incidental documentation that got lost in the amalgam of material that goes through a Minister's departmental office. This was a major report on an investigation into matters of the most serious character concerning the conduct of gardaĆ­ in Donegal. 

It was to no avail. McDowell and Bertie Ahern blustered through the questions relying on the distinction between having a precis or a distillation versus the actual report, and ignoring the broader question of why the precis wasn't alarming enough for quicker action. 2005 was the mid-year of the worst government in the history of the state, but at the time, an economic boom made them immovable. A few months after McDowell and Ahern had sidestepped their hazy memories of 2001, Maurice McCabe would make his first complaint about police misconduct in Cavan. That set in motion events which are playing out this weekend. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

England's difficulty is Ireland's ... fault?

Ruth Dudley Edwards, taking a Sun-level of analysis to the opinion pages of the Financial Times --

For reasons to do with Ireland’s complex electoral system of proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies, Mr Coveney [Irish foreign minister] keeps a nervous eye on the competition and courts the green vote, which has caused him to push a nationalist agenda and make bellicose statements about Brexit that Mr Varadkar [PM] began to echo. On Wednesday, Mr Coveney chose a Northern Ireland business breakfast to emphasise what had previously been hinted at: that Ireland is right behind EU negotiators in refusing to go to the next stage of the talks without progress on the rights of EU citizens, the financial settlement and the border. It is prepared to use its veto if necessary, and, for now is insisting that the border should be somewhere in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland de facto still in the EU. Apart from being anathema to unionists, as Ray Bassett, a rare dissenting voice among retired senior Irish diplomats, put it, “the demand that Britain will be economically dismembered, with the North staying in the customs union while the rest of Britain goes its own way, is universally seen as undeliverable by any British government”. The UK accounts for 14 per cent of Irish exports and 25 per cent of Irish imports and there is additionally a high volume of services trade between the two countries. What people like Mr Bassett and Graham Gudgin of the think-tank Policy Exchange point out is that trade with Britain as a whole is infinitely more important to Ireland than that with Northern Ireland in particular.

It's all there: the bizarre analysis that a Fine Gael-led government is driven by an ultra-nationalist flank, that Ireland's position on Brexit only suddenly emerged last week, a quote from a man with an ostensible credential but zero expertise on multilateral trade and relations, Ray Bassett, dubious conclusions from trade statistics, blaming Ireland for a British desire to leave the Customs Union, no actual solution offered (she calls for imagination), and later down in the column, a fusing of pro-Brexit accommodation with anti-austerity tropes -- two days after Philip Hammond's budget shows what Brexit budgets are going to look like.

The train has unfortunately already left the station in terms of the access of these wreckers and hucksters to the media, but the least response might be to resolve that general election analysis, if there is a general election, will be scrutinized particularly closely for influence of  opportunistic and delusional agitation from the gallery.


Three things to contemplate about today's atrocity in Al-Arish.

1. Life in Cairo will go on as "normal" -- after all, it's White Friday.
2. It's worth reminding yourself of the career of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. If Anwar al-Awlaki was the alive-past-his-death philosophical inspiration for many terrorist attacks, al-Zarqawi plays the same role in terms of the tactical role of brutality. Seemingly inexplicable "why would they attack a mosque" becomes very explicable.
3. Where were the security forces?

The Pundit of Arabia

The context: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is making some intriguing noises about changing the political posture of the country, and an eager Thomas Friedman hops on a plane to Riyadh to get the story in person, and in particular whether things might have changed as Friedman would want with respect to Israel --

After I [Friedman] laid out this idea, the crown prince looked at me with mock astonishment and said, ''Have you broken into my desk?'' ''No,'' I said, wondering what he was talking about. ''The reason I ask is that this is exactly the idea I had in mind.

And so, the Pundit is validated. The Crown Prince continues --

''But I tell you,'' the crown prince added, ''if I were to pick up the phone now and ask someone to read you the speech, you will find it virtually identical to what you are talking about.

Friedman goes on to praise the Crown Prince as untainted by corruption.

The year? 2002. Friedman is visiting Crown Prince Abdullah in the wake of severe tensions in the US-Saudi relationship after 9/11. The Arab Peace Initiative to which their discussion referred never goes anywhere, but in fairness to both of them, that's as much if not more to do with Israel than the Arab states.

Anyway, the cycle continues. Friedman was just in Riyadh with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) looking for another of his islands of decency and declares the start of an Arab Spring with Saudi characteristics, coming from the top rather than the street. And as part of that Arab Spring, MbS has locked up Abdullah's son Miteb on charges of corruption.

One final thing. at that 2002 meeting, Friedman was listening intently and perhaps gullibly to a lot of what Abdullah told him, but not this:

As for the ''axis of evil'' and reports of a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq, the Saudi leader said: ''Any attack on Iraq or Iran should not be contemplated at all because it would not serve the interests of America, the region or the world, as there is no clear evidence of a present danger. Iraq is contemplating the return of the inspectors, and the U.S. should pursue this because inspectors can determine if Iraq is complying with the U.N. resolutions.''

Friedman would go on to support the attack on Iraq.

That Irish political crisis, explained

Ireland's apparent lurch towards a mid-Brexit election that nobody claims to want is a perfect distillation of the broader phenomenon of the interaction of a degraded media and political culture with vested interests -- it's not just Ireland. The applicable features are:

An aura of "scandal" is created around process, not substance. In this case, it's an irrelevant e-mail that the Minister of Justice says she can't remember getting (it's irrelevant because she had no influence over the subject of the e-mail, and her not remembering had no effect on the outcome). But for a media class that grew up with Watergate "what did they know and when did they know it" in the ether, that's enough. Things that might actually be scandalous in Ireland (poverty, traffic fatalities, conduct of banks) don't get politically instrumentalised in the same way.

The lawyers are the one class definitely coming out ahead. The iterations of the same underlying affair ("McCabe") have been going on since 2006, and each involves progressively higher levels of inquiry, with judges and top-flight lawyers in charge, but never quite resolving anything. Nice work if you can get it. In the USA, the Trump-Russia and #metoo eruptions are a legal bonanza.

The alleged solution to resolving the underlying affair won't solve anything. It will be an election where as usual, people who vote put a few numbers on a ballot paper. What emerges at the other hand is supposed to be a government empowered to take action on every issue that arises from the moment it takes power. That's not working out too well for the UK and Brexit, and when Angela Merkel comes back as Chancellor, people might wonder what all the fuss was about.

Nobody has a reliable indicator of actual public views about the "scandal" or electoral outcomes.  Polling is hopelessly contaminated by the same circularity as the scandal itself (it's a scandal because it's being reported as a scandal, and we're asking about it in opinion polls because it's a scandal). As the Trump-Clinton election battle showed, whether particular revelations have a public impact has a lot to do with whether they change perceptions about behaviour relative to a norm: Trump's Access Hollywood tape was certainly awkward, but it's now obvious that there was a lot of tacit knowledge of the culture that he was talking about. But for Hillary Clinton, the standard was perhaps a public belief that she was less slippery than Bill, so the constant refrain about e-mails took their toll.

Which brings us back to process. If it takes an 11 year timeline to explain why something is a scandal, it might be worth stepping back to ask whether the issue is really one forgotten e-mail. But that would get into the role of media and political culture in explaining how the country is run, a discussion that too many people would rather not have.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Friends of Putin

Two days after hugging Bashar al-Assad in Sochi, President Putin today hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Moscow. al-Bashir is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, so Putin has really had quite a cast of visitors recently. al-Bashir doesn't seem to mind that he didn't get an al-Assad style hug, but his comments during the public part of the meeting are a good insight into what it takes to be on Putin's good side. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A bigger scandal than St Petersburg Twitter trolls

That's Vladimir Putin hugging surprise visitor Bashar al-Assad in Sochi today, ahead of a tripartite summit (Russia, Iran, Turkey) to discuss the way forward in Syria. Whatever government victory has been achieved in Syria, it's been achieved with use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate air and artillery bombing, massive levels of displacement, egregious human rights violations in Bashar's jails, and around half a million fatalities, mostly civilian. But it's hug time in Sochi

Thanksgiving on the Nile

Cairo billboards, a key advertising tool given the dire Cairo traffic, are currently heavily featuring Black Friday sales at malls, and the rival Amazon version customized for the Middle East, White Friday. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

One strand at a time

Lost in the Zimbabwe turmoil is this interesting development in Angola, via Reuters --

LUANDA - Angolan President Joao Lourenco dismissed Isabel dos Santos as chair of the state oil company Sonangol on Wednesday, in a dramatic move against the family of the former president. Analysts said the change was likely aimed at cementing Lourenco’s power and trying to avoid a decline in production at the country’s biggest company, which has come under fire from international partners for delays in approving projects. The daughter of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled Angola for 38 years until stepping down in September, was replaced by Carlos Saturnino, the president’s office said in a statement.

Angola and Zimbabwe (along with Mozambique) have a similarity that delayed independence and civil war meant that they have only recently arrived at that post-colonial challenge of transition from the first government -- and the first family. Isabel dos Santos still has plenty of money and no doubt a refuge prepared in Portugal, but maybe, just maybe, these countries will move on from dynastic rule.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Russia in "still killing civilians" shock

It's depressing how far down the priority list Syria has shifted, and the focus on Russia's information wars has obscured the fact that, directly or indirectly via its support for Bashar al-Assad, it is still indiscriminately attacking civilian targets in Syria. It's so routine that the social media bots and trolls don't even bother defending or obscuring it. 

Ireland in "island" shock

From yesterday's Brexit legislation debate in the UK House of Commons, a spectacle for many reasons including the fact that the only Irish MPs present were from the Brexit-fevered DUP and so it was left to the Scottish and Welsh nationalists to emphasize the lunacy of what Tory Brexit means for Ireland; here's the latter --

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Plaid Cymru) Transport and logistics experts are warning of the disastrous consequences of a hard border between Wales and the Republic of Ireland for the ports of Holyhead, ​Fishguard and Pembroke Dock. How is the Secretary of State ensuring that his decisions as part of the negotiations do not damage the competitiveness of Welsh ports, which employ thousands of people directly and indirectly? 

 Mr Davis (Brexit Secretary) That is precisely why Government policy is to deliver a frictionless trade arrangement between us and the EU27, most importantly the Republic of Ireland.

There's nothing new here in the delusion that "frictionless" means something different than the currently frictionless solution of Britain being in the EU, but it may be relevant to note that Davis thinks the solution for seaports will be the same as the solution for a land border. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Quote of the Day

New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik on Donald Trump's preference for safe space interviews --

At the Pennsylvania interview on Oct. 11, Mr. Hannity engaged the home-team crowd as if hosting a live “Apprentice” finale. What did they think of Mr. Trump, he asked? (Yay!) What about Congress? (Boo!) And what about the media? (Booooo!) It’s that cheering crowd, one suspects, that is really driving the dynamic here. The point of all the delicate meringue questions is not simply to avoid challenging the president. It’s to avoid challenging the audience.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Pedant's Corner

From that Tom Newton Dunn Sun article that appears to have been written in a pub --

In an ‘all island’ solution, Leo Varadkar is now insisting Ulster remain part of the single market and customs union while the rest of Britain leaves it.

Leo Varadkar doesn't have to insist that the Ulster counties of Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal remain part of the single market after Brexit, since they are already in Ireland. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The key word is improper

Financial Times with weekend feature on the troubles of Deutsche Bank, among which, a link to the finances of Donald Trump:

People close to the relationship said more than $300m of loans were outstanding to Trump, but the bank's probe found no improper Russian connections. Deutsche insiders said the bank was keen to be subpoenaed by [Robert] Mueller in order to dispel the rumours.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Outraged in Armonk

A letter to the editor of the Financial Times --

Headlines matter, especially large-type, front page, above-the-fold headlines. This article does not provide any credible information supporting its sensational headline.

That's David Boies, 2 weeks ago, responding to a FT article that was critical of his apparent role in obstructing line of sight to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein.

His righteous indignation looks a bit different now in view of the revelations coming from Ronan Farrow's New Yorker article

Hotel Riyadh

Associated Press via Washington Post --

CAIRO — Saudi Arabia has barred Yemen’s president, along with his sons, ministers and military officials, from returning home for months, Yemeni officials tell The Associated Press, a sign of how much the leader-in-exile has been deeply weakened in a war fought in his name by the Saudi-led coalition against rebels in his country. The officials said the ban was prompted by the bitter enmity between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition and has come to dominate southern Yemen, the portion of the country not under rebel control. Hadi and much of his government have been in the Saudi capital Riyadh for most of the war.

Hadi thus joins Saad Hariri, Lebanese Prime Minister, as a leader who, once arriving in Riyadh, is having trouble leaving.

If only the Saudis had stuck to that arrangement with Ali Abdullah Saleh

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Accounts and accountability

Before people get too excited thinking that the Paradise papers might be a source of political damage to Vladimir Putin and associates, they might want to contemplate how a similar hope for the Panama papers played out, via a Washington Post chat with Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan --

Q: Your book suggests that Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. might be a response to the Panama Papers, the enormous 2016 leak of documents from an offshore banking network. Why do you think that leak of financial data angered the Kremlin so much? 

A: It was seen as an attack on personal friends of Putin, his immediate circle. It's a line you cannot cross with Putin, and the Russian media learned that in a hard way. When a small Moscow publication reported in 2008 that Putin divorced and was going to marry a famous gymnast, the publication was immediately shut. When the RBC media holding published stories about Putin's daughter in 2015, the media holding's owner corporation was raided by police, and the media holding soon changed hands. Worse, Putin believed the Panama Papers attack was sponsored by Hillary Clinton's people — this, in a way, provided him with a “justification” for a retaliatory operation.

The more of this data that is out there, the better. But the political effects of tax avoidance/ evasion data dumps are asymmetric, depending on the nature of the media and information channels in various countries (note by the way that Wikileaks refused to handle the Panama papers, which also had an impact on how that release was perceived).


Four months ago, at the Hamburg G20 summit, Angela Merkel chats with the leader of the delegation from Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim al-Assaf. He is now detained as part of the anti-corruption crackdown in Riyadh. It is not clear whether, behind the summit blather, participants understood the underlying volatility in Saudi Arabia, but with one of their fellow attendees now under arrest, maybe belatedly, they do. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Stepping Stone

The brilliant David Gardner in the Financial Times:

Anyone now drawing up a separatist's guide to success should be aware: you need an unanswerable consensus among your own people on becoming an independent nation, and an accord around you that this is a legitimate desire that should be put to a vote. But try not to push this in times of war (Iraq) or economic stress (Spain). In the meantime, perhaps follow the motto of Rome's first emperor, Augustus, festina lente, or make haste slowly — a bit like the Basques.

History returns

Reuters --

BEIRUT  - Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday in a televised broadcast, saying he feared a plot to target his life and criticizing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. “We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of (his father the late prime minister) martyr Rafik al-Hariri. I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” he said.

For the last few weeks, the Syria know-it-all section of social media has assured us that the biggest problem in Lebanon is a few statements from the Saudi Arabia Minister of State for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan. Could it be that the problem is actually an organization with a track record of assassinating Prime Ministers and supporting chemical weapons users?

Friday, November 03, 2017

The new punching bag

While Russian disinformation aimed at last year's US election is getting the most focus, there's been no larger arena for a sustained disinformation campaign than Syria (MH17 probably got a more intense version of the same, but it hasn't lasted as long). From the beginning, an effort to obscure Bashar al-Assad involvement in atrocities, most notably usage of chemical weapons, and to characterize his opposition as either ISIS or too weak be deserving of external support.

As a minor but recent episode in this campaign, consider the case of Thamer al-Sabhan. He has had what is essentially a journeyman career in Saudi politics, from a very brief stint as ambassador to Iraq to Minister of State for Gulf Affairs -- a non-existent position in Saudi officialdom until it was created to ease him out of the Iraq job. 

But if you read certain sections of online media, he's not just a mid-level, mid-career Saudi diplomat, in fact a mastermind and instigator of a Saudi multi-front campaign against Hezbollah and all its allied militias, and is catapulting the region towards a major war as a result of his activities. Here's an example of a Twitter thread where al-Sabhan predictably appears (about half-way down) as the boogeyman -- a thread that includes widely cited Syria expert Joshua Landis. And the "evidence" for all this is simply some excitable quotes from al-Sabhan, which never convey his relative influence on the Saudi government.

And while he's been a hate figure in Syria commentary for some time, what elevated him in the last few weeks to this exalted status? News reports that he had visited Raqqa with US envoy Brett McGurk, which were then hyped up by Iranian official and semi-official media to stoke "outrage," which the Twitter commentariat duly supplied. 

Meanwhile, aid conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there's still been no accountability on the government for any of crimes of the last six years. But people on Twitter are ready to sigh and move on.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

How the Irish became legal

It's worth a reminder that the Diversity Visa program now being mocked by Donald Trump and sympathizers as the means by which the Uzbekistan suspect in the New York City truck attack entered the country was originally a large-scale backdoor legalization of the USA's undocumented Irish immigrant cohort from the 1980s.