Thursday, January 30, 2020

Role Reversal

From then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's rejection of Ronald Reagan's 1982 peace proposal --

What some call the ''West Bank,'' Mr. President, is Judea and Samaria; and this simple historic truth will never change. ...  By aggressive war, by invasion, King Abdullah conquered parts of Judea and Samaria in 1948; and in a war of most legitimate self-defense in 1967, after being attacked by King Hussein, we liberated, with God's help, that portion of our homeland. Judea and Samaria will never again be the ''West Bank'' of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan which was created by British colonialism after the French Army expelled King Feisal from Damascus. ... The matter of security is of paramount importance. Geography and history have ordained that Judea and Samaria be mountainous country and that two-thirds of our population dwell in the coastal plain dominated by those mountains. From them you can hit every city, every town, each township and village and, last but not least, our principal airport in the plain below.

Nearly 40 years later, the mindset of Begin's letter is now fully reflected in an American -- not Israeli -- "peace" proposal. And Reagan's idea of Palestinian autonomy achieved by an association with Jordan, which at the time seemed like a retreat from a Palestinian state, now looks positively benign compared to what's currently in the table. And this was before the settlements issue had reached the scale it has today.

If that's what the last 4 decades have done, what is a reasonable expectation for the next four?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

About that US withdrawal from Iraq

On the way back from his Jerusalem visit (and remarks there that nearly ended Trump's joint Gantz - Netanyahu DC visit before it had even started), US Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Shannon --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Morning, everybody. We’re the Pences. 
[American] TROOPS: Morning, sir! 
 THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great to see you all. And thank you for your service. This is — now, is this your unit out of Fort Worth and National Guard? Is this where —
 LIEUTENANT COLONEL KELLEY: Fort Bliss. But it’s a combination. This is mostly the National Guard guys and (inaudible). 
 THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay, so this is National Guard?  
LIEUTENANT COLONEL KELLEY: Some of my guys are over there, sir. 
 THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay, well, Fort Bliss and National Guard. Great. Well, let me — this is my wife, Karen. We are really delighted to have a chance to see you all — to see you all. On behalf of your Commander-in-Chief: Thank you for your service to America. And we just look forward to meeting as many of you as time permits. I know you’re headed to a deployment in Iraq.

Later on, Pence refers to the Iraq deployment as being for 9 months. Thus, the regular troop rotations, including drawing from the state national guards, continue uninterrupted. 

That awful man

Just about nothing went well in the interview itself or the aftermath of Mike Pompeo's NPR Q and A with Mary Louise Kelly, but one guess as to when things went off the rails is that it happened even sooner than the pivot to Ukraine -- which tough guy Pompeo said was supposed to be off-limits -- specifically when Kelly asked this question:

But again, you say you're determined to prevent them [Iran, nuclear]. How do you stop them? I was in Tehran two weeks ago. I sat down with your counterpart there, Javad Zarif, and he told me, quote, "All limits on our centrifuge program are now suspended."

Javad Zarif is technically the Iranian foreign minister, and therefore technically Pompeo's counterpart. He's also a sociopathic clown who tweeted a broken heart emoji as part of a condolence message for the IRGC shooting down the Ukrainian airliner, and his reputation is sufficiently toxic that he managed to get disinvited from Davos (something that even his deeply unpopular Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil couldn't manage).

Most likely, Pompeo hates Zarif, and was annoyed at any comparison to him. And the downhill got steeper from there.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Offer not applicable in Suez

From US Vice President Mike Pence speech at the Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem --

And I’m proud to say, as Vice President of the United States, that the American people have been with you [Israel] every step of the way since 1948. (Applause.) And so we will remain.

Role confusion

During US Vice President Mike Pence appearance with Israeli caretaker PM Netanyahu today --

 AMBASSADOR DERMER: Yeah, thank you. If I could just stand for one second. Mr. Vice President, Mr. Prime Minister, if I — if you could stand. Together with President Trump, no three people have done more to cause this historic move of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem than the two of you and President Trump. 
 AMBASSADOR DERMER: There’s time for me later on. (Laughter.) To honor — to honor your contribution, I have caused the United States flag to fly over this embassy. These two flags I’m going to present to the two of you are two of the earliest flags — I’ve a third one that we’ll bring back for the President. But I’d like to present each of you with the United States flag that flew over the United States Embassy in Jerusalem in its early opening days, if I can do that.

Ron Dermer is the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. So what is he doing presenting Pence and Bibi with an American flag from the US Embassy in Jerusalem?


From Donald Trump's closing news conference in Davos --

Q Mr. President, can I ask you about the EU trade deal: Do you have any timeline for that? And if you don’t hit that timeline, if there is one, are you automatically going to go to auto tariffs or is there another — 
 THE PRESIDENT: I have a timeline. Q — is there another avenue, other than auto tariffs? 
 THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Great question, actually. I don’t have a timeline, but maybe I do, in my own mind. They have to move relatively quickly, but they have to treat us fairly. The European Union was formed pretty much for this reason, I suspect — you know, if you really think about it. Why was it formed? They formed their airplane company, which does very nicely, and now is doing better than ever because Boeing has not had a good time of it. They have — they have — they better start recovering fast. I hope they do. They have some good people in there now. They have great people in the company, but they have some good people leading it now. So, hopefully, that will be taken care of.

As usual there are so many tangents in his response that the direction is impossible to discern, but he seems to think that the European Union was formed to support companies that could compete with American firms. That might be somewhere on the list, but it was originally formed so that countries could agree on ways to manage declining industries (coal, steel, fishing, agriculture) before getting around to potentially supporting new industries. Not understanding why your trade partner is pursuing a particular policy undermines your chances of changing it. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Party Line

If a corrupted WhatsApp message was sent from the phone of Saudi Crown Prince MBS to Jeff Bezos, it does not mean that MBS himself sent the message. Others could have had access to the same phone, with MBS permission. For example, MBS's reputed digital enforcer, Saud al-Qahtani

Swiss time was running out

From the Trump media event with the Swiss President --

PRESIDENT SOMMARUGA: — (inaudible). And you know that Switzerland President has only for one year. PRESIDENT TRUMP: Right.

How he got there

From the Trump impeachment trial brief --

The President of the United States occupies a unique position in the structure of our government. He is chosen directly by the People through a national election to be the head of an entire branch of government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and is entrusted with enormous responsibilities for setting policies for the Nation.

That's just factually wrong. The President is indirectly elected. The people choose the members of the electoral college, and the electoral college elects the President. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Is there more news?

We are not far into 2020 and already it seems like another breathless year of developments, the fourth since 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump.

But something strange has happened to the filter for what counts as news. The turn of the year brought a few reminders of big events from not to long ago: another anniversary for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake / tsunami in which at least 250,000 people died, and the latest German announcement on coal power phaseout, which reminds us that the world is still dealing with the consequences of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.

These were massive events.

Then there's a set of events from the Middle East, the Syrian war since 2011, the Syrian mass migration to Germany in 2014-15, the French terrorist attacks in 2015. And there's more from any and every region of the world, stuff that would get noticed, at least by people in the "news" business. The problem is that the proliferation of ostensible engagement in news through social media has commingled political developments with general events and distorted the perceptions of both.

In fact, for the USA, you could turn the logic around and argue that there's been very little news since 2016. There is self-generated "news" from the political system, but no 9/11, no oil price shock, no large new military operations overseas. Of course there's been lots to track as non-political news, including "this American carnage" as Trump labelled it. But nothing to disturb the political system from the very resilient, very noisy, fairly bad equilibrium in which it currently lies.

One conclusion being it's just possible that 2020 could see a major non-political news event pulling the political system into unchartered territory, where having instincts honed based on a pre-occupation with other political actors and hangers-on is not going to be much help. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Quote of the Day

Simon Kuper in the Financial Times --

[Trump's] tweets approach Orwell’s ideal of prose that sounds like speech; in fact, social media blur the very distinction. Trump has even mastered a rhetorical genre that Orwell didn’t have: huckster’s utopianism.

Monday, January 13, 2020

He correctly uses "couldn't care less"

As opposed to the common, but nonsensical "could care less."


There's a lot going on in the latest Hassan Nasrallah speech -- not just the revelation that he reads the editorial cartoons in the Washington Post. Among many things, two to note here. First, Nasrallah makes an interesting claim about the fateful Soleimani trip to Baghdad: his ally, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces Deputy Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who was killed the same drone strike, advised him not to come --

why did Abu Mahdi go to the airport to receive Hajj Qassem [Soleimani]? Why? Knowing that he called and Hajj Qasim was present with us and called Abu Mahdi and said to him, Hajj, do not come to Baghdad, the atmosphere is tense, he said to him, No, I am coming, and he knows that the [climate] is tense, but he went to Hajj Qasim to the airport, I believe that God Almighty chose for these two beloved leaders, the two brothers who lived together and had an excellent and exceptional spiritual relationship to be martyred together,

Nasrallah also makes a claim about the Iraqi Kurdish president Masood Barzani demeanor during the early days of the ISIL expansion in 2014 that it clearly based on Soleimani --

I hope Mr. Masoud Al-Barzani to be thankful to [] Soleimani, who admitted Years ago ... when ISIS was close to Erbil, when the Kurdistan region almost fell into the hands of ISIS and [Barzani] contacted all your friends, but they did not help you, and you called the Iranians, so you came on the second day, by recognizing Hajj Qassem Soleimani and with him brothers, [] he was with him Brothers from Hezbollah also went with him to Erbil, and Hajj Qassem, who went to Erbil and my brothers who were with him, told me that Masoud Barzani was shivering, his hands trembling with fear. But the rapid presence of Hajj Qassem Soleimani and the Islamic Republic next to you is the one who removed this danger from you, which was unparalleled in your history in the Kurdish region.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Beirut reader writes

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah during a trademark extended discourse on Sunday, the main topic being the Soleimani and Muhandis assassinations --

In any case, the outfit I am wearing, I am a religious science student and is inappropriate to bring you the picture, but I recommend watching the cartoon published by The Washington Post, the Washington Post comics comment on Iranian missiles on Ein al-Assad and Trump's stance.

It's not clear which cartoon he means. The Washington Post has two editorial cartoonists, Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes, and both had relevant cartoons this week. From the context of the speech, he could mean either this one by Toles or this one by Telnaes

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Full circle

Part of the Iranian "revolutionary" regime's claim to righteous legitimacy is that, in the 1980s, Iran was the victim of chemical weapons usage by Saddam Hussein, with western connivance, and the US Navy shot down an Iranian civilian passenger plane. Iran the victim in a world not interested in accountability.

Now they have connived in Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons usage in Syria, and shot down a civilian airliner.

They've become what they defined themselves against. 

Emoji condolence guy

Davos starts in 10 days. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is apparently attending -- a favourite forum for light touch media interviews.

Can one of the interviewers ask him why he thinks a broken heart emoji is an appropriate element of a condolence tweet (no link, intentionally) to the bereaved from Ukrainian International Airlines PS752, shot down by Iran?

UPDATE 20 January: For whatever reason, Zarif became a hot potato at Davos and he is not attending

Overnight scrubbing likely

Look to the Twitter feed of Russia UN Deputy Permanent Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy for how the Ukrainian flight (PS752) tragedy was already being sucked into a Russian information operation just like their denial of the truth on MH17.

UPDATE: The Iranian leadership were told on Wednesday that a missile had caused the disaster. Everyone working on MH17-style disinformation about the attack was working on an already known lie. 

When they was fab

Qeeen Elizabeth in Oman 1979Queen Elizabeth takes a photograph as Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Prince Philip look on, during her visit to Oman in 1979.

A planned leg of the trip to Iran was cancelled after the Iranian revolution.

The Sultan's death was announced late Friday evening in Muscat.

Photo via Flickr.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Neil Peart RIP

Adding to the theories

The facts about the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 will be slow to emerge, but they will emerge. Commercial airline catastrophes are extremely rare, but we now seem to have two events (the other being MH17) pointing to the need for more diligence by Russia in who they provide with their anti-aircraft systems.

Anyway, the mystery of why this particular flight when there others in the air around the same time. Maybe completely random. Or maybe the Russian anti-aircraft system being used by the Iranians perceived that there was another hostile aircraft using the same vector as the Ukrainian plane to camouflage its presence. This was the tactic that led the Syrian Baathist military to shoot down a Russian plane when an Israeli fighter was using its approach as a screen. Now there are several problems with this theory, beginning with the fact that the Ukrainian plane was on an outbound, not inbound path (the latter being the more likely screened approach for an attack). But this is a situation where the weird has to be considered as possible. 

Trump is not the only problem

John Kerry in the New York Times --

We were working with allies to deepen sanctions on Iran for its involvement in Yemen, its transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and its actions in Syria, its human rights violations, its threats against Israel and its ballistic missile program. The nuclear agreement would have been justified if it did nothing more than prevent Iran from building a bomb. But it also created opportunities for the United States to bring pressure on Iran on other issues.

What is the evidence that the nuclear agreement had any positive impact on Iran's "actions" in Syria? Like Susan Rice a few days ago, Obama-era senior officials are being permitted a massive blind spot on the carnage in Syria which continues to this day. 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Ballad Of Harry And Meghan

You can't get there from here

Donald Trump --

For far too long — all the way back to 1979, to be exact — nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond.

The one nation that didn't tolerate Iran's behaviour back in those early days was ... Saddam Hussein's Iraq!

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Sources and methods

Donald Trump, during a wide ranging Q and A with Greek PM Mitsotakis --

But we had tremendous information [on Soleimani]. We’ve been following him for a long time. And we followed his path for those three days. And they were not good stops. We didn’t like where he was stopping. They were not good stops. We saved a lot of lives.

The known stops during those 3 days are Beirut (as Hassan Nasrallah was happy to discuss) and Damascus. But Trump appears to indicate that the entire Soleimani trip was under US surveillance.

Incidentally, it's also worth mentioning that despite the infinite hot takes on the situation, the media appears to have missed the significance of Mike Pompeo's postponed trip to Ukraine and Central Asia, even when the State Department keeps reminding everyone that it was postponed!

Monday, January 06, 2020

Another option is Grecian 2000

From Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah wide-ranging speech upon the assassination of Qasim Soleimani --

This [being a martyr] is his intention since he was a young man and joined the fighting fronts in Iran, and he kept carrying this wish and this goal and this goal, who walk in this way, some of them fall in his quarter or in the middle of it before the end. And this longing dies to meet, and others do as the time progresses, the glow, the strength, the presence and the burning, the Hajj Qasim and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, were of the second type, especially in recent years, and when the person’s life spans, he sees the graying has filled his beard and his hair, and becomes afraid to die sick, or on the mattress,

Sunday, January 05, 2020


Statement from US military Africa Command --

During an attack by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida group in East Africa, earlier today, one (1) U.S. service member and two (2) Department of Defense contractors were killed at a Kenya Defense Force Military Base in Manda Bay, Kenya. In addition, two (2) Department of Defense members were wounded. The wounded Americans are currently in stable condition and being evacuated.

So with one attack, Al Shabaab killed more Americans than during the entire end-of-year crisis in US-Iran relations, which began with a militia rocket attack on a Kirkuk base 27 December.

But one phase of the Iran / Iraq crisis was the stunt outside the American Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Day which (1) had a bad resonance for the Trump Administration in terms of Tehran and Benghazi precedents, and (2) caught everyone bored in front of their screens on a holiday -- it became a massive international crisis.

Al Shabaab made the mistake of striking late on a Saturday night in a fairly remote part of Kenya ... and no-one's narrative can handle it. Even with dead Americans. 

Saturday, January 04, 2020

We will always have Tom Friedman

His New York Times latest:

I write these lines while flying over New Zealand,

It was already at 11

Susan Rice in the New York Times:

Iran's destabilizing activities in the region, notably in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, have only intensified [since May 2018].

How has anything Iran has done in Syria been worse since the US left the nuclear deal? The Syrian catastrophe has been unfolding since 2011 e.g. Susan Rice in a valedictory interview, January 16, 2017

We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.


A poster of Qasem Soleimani has been placed next to the Israel - Lebanon frontier at the so-called Shebaa Farms disputed area. The message reads "With your blood, we will cross it."

Note: it's been snowing in this part of Lebanon. Donald Trump has been known to use snow in the Middle East as evidence against climate change.

Photo via Lebanon National News Agency


The photograph shows Qasem Soleimani delivering a speech at the 10th anniversary commemoration of the mysterious 2008 death of Hezbollah senior official Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus (that's Mughniyeh's image on the podium). There are certain similarities in the eventual demise of both men, and Soleimani's speech certainly had some hints that he knew he might eventually go the same way. He concluded --

"The enemy knows, but must be serious about the retribution of Imad Mughniyah not to shoot missiles and kill one, the retribution of these bloods is the destruction of the Zionist regime and the enemy knows that this is a divine promise that will surely come true."

Whether these were his final instructions to the Iranian government remains to be seen.

Photos via FARS

Friday, January 03, 2020

Other than that, they're OK with it

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi statement --

The two martyrs were great symbols in achieving victory against the terrorist ISIS. The assassination of an Iraqi military commander holding an official position is an aggression against Iraq, the state, the government, and the people. Carrying out liquidation operations against Iraqi leadership figures or from a brotherly country on Iraqi soil is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, a blatant attack on the dignity of the country and a dangerous escalation that ignites a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world.

Now we know why Mike Pompeo postponed his Ukraine trip

Thursday, January 02, 2020

History Lesson

This is the Turkish Airlines plane "Kushimoto." As the associated Turkish Airlines webpage explains, the plane is an A330 with a replica livery of a 1980s DC-10 that was used to rescue Japanese travelers stranded in Tehran during an air blockade in the Iran-Iraq war. For Turkey, that rescue was seen as returning a century-old favour, when Japanese villagers had rescued Turkish sailors whose ship was destroyed in a typhoon.

The point: Turkey takes its relations with Japan seriously. They won't be impressed at being used as a pit-stop in the Carlos Ghosn escape. 

Bad traveler

Two days ago, the US State Department was emphasizing the importance of Mike Pompeo's imminent visit to eastern Europe, including Ukraine, and Central Asia. Today, in the doldrums of New Year's Day, the visit was postponed with no new date, on the following grounds --

due to the need for the Secretary to be in Washington, D.C., to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East.

This makes no sense. If nothing else, by traveling he would have been in a similar time zone to Iraq and actually better placed to monitor things.

Instead he appears to have found a convenient way out of a very awkward meeting with the Ukrainian President Zelensky, while parrying his fear that, however remote the possibility, he would be out of the office if something happened to a US diplomat abroad -- thus revealing his insecurity that his Benghazi antics against Hillary Clinton could be used against him. It's almost like he has his eye on a political campaign!