Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Today's Longitude Challenge

It's about to be 2015. We still don't know where a plane is, exactly, when it's in mid-flight; we don't have accurate passenger lists for ferries travelling between two sophisticated maritime countries, and as for dubious ships wandering the eastern Mediterranean, we don't seem to know -- or care -- at all about who's on them.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The short way to excess profits

It is revealing that when star conservative intellectual Yuval Levin cites an example of "cronyism" in the end-of-year budget legislation, it's related to the hated (for him) Obamacare law, and by the way, it's a provision that benefits Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which provides health insurance to over one-third of Americans -- some cronies!

Yet here's actual cronyism in the same law that goes unmentioned by him --

(3) by amending subsection (d) [of Dodd-Frank] to read as follows: ``(d) Only Bona Fide Hedging and Traditional Bank Activities Permitted.-- ``(1) In general.--The prohibition in subsection (a) shall not apply to any covered depository institution that limits its swap and security-based swap activities to the following: ``(A) Hedging and other similar risk mitigation activities.--Hedging and other similar risk mitigating activities directly related to the covered depository institution's activities. ``(B) Non-structured finance swap activities.--Acting as a swaps entity for swaps or security-based swaps other than a structured finance swap. ``(C) Certain structured finance swap activities.--Acting as a swaps entity for swaps or security-based swaps that are structured finance swaps, if-- ``(i) such structured finance swaps are undertaken for hedging or risk management purposes; or ``(ii) each asset-backed security underlying such structured finance swaps is of a credit quality and of a type or category with respect to which the prudential regulators have jointly adopted rules authorizing swap or security-based swap activity by covered depository institutions.

That's a provision that weakens an element of the Dodd-Frank banking regulation law which would have restricted the type of derivatives trading that deposit-taking banks can conduct; the amendment was a gift to banks with large investment banking operations. The list of trading that is now allowed -- as above -- is wide enough to get many of the good old pre-2008 stuff through. Now that's cronyism!

Levin's apparent blindspot on the financial sector is also evident in his Brooks-lauded First Things essay Taking the Long Way to Liberty which talks about all sorts of ways that society should have disciplines and constraints to be truly fulfilling, including that the poor should work, but not a word about the corrosive effect of huge returns to ethically and economically dubious financial activities.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sticky Wicket


From Paul Krugman's New York Times austerity=baseball bat column today --

Let’s start with a tale from overseas: austerity policy in Britain. As you may know, back in 2010 Britain’s newly installed Conservative government declared that a sharp reduction in budget deficits was needed to keep Britain from turning into Greece. Over the next two years growth in the British economy, which had been recovering fairly well from the financial crisis, more or less stalled. In 2013, however, growth picked up again — and the British government claimed vindication for its policies. Was this claim justified?

The chart above is from an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of UK fiscal policy since 2008. IFS is widely respected. The story is very simple. There has been a significant slowdown in the UK trend rate of growth, which appears to date from the 2008 financial crisis and not the later move to austerity. UK public spending is set disproportionately in cash terms (health spending, welfare, pensions, salaries) while revenue is generally set as percentages, which ultimately means percentage of the economy.

So if you're setting spending in cash but revenue in percentage of something that's growing more slowly, you've got a big problem over time. That's what the IFS chart shows: the gaps between the lines was getting very large, very quickly.

The point is that the Tory/LibDem coalition was not being completely loony in thinking spending policy would have to change. The timing was not great, but the damage could be offset by the Bank of England, and over time interest on growing debt was itself going to squeeze spending even in the absence of discretionary cuts. As the IFS has been pointing out, the same fiscal logic is boxing in whoever wins the May election.

The point isn't that Krugman is wrong. It's that the push for austerity wasn't coming from long-dead economists or that there were lots of choices. And it's worth acknowledging the surprise of how well the UK economy has held up despite the austerity still in the pipeline.

UPDATE: This Matthew Yglesias Vox piece is very useful as a contrast in showing how the US was able to achieve very large cash adjustments to its budget in a short time, something that is much more difficult for the UK to do since it runs a tighter ship on health to begin with and other spending commitments are embedded in policy.

We found the Khorasan Group!

Remember that mysterious group which the Pentagon was proclaiming it was targeting in its bombing raids on northern Syria but no one else had heard of, and it actually seemed to be Al Nusra Front, which spends most of its time fighting Bashar al-Assad?

Well, the good news is that the general skepticism about there being a group called Khorasan was unjustified.

The bad news is that the group actually has nothing to do with Syrian rebels and if anything is part of the coalition against ISIS. This comes via am in-depth Reuters report, which also raises broader questions about the point of a US strategy to hold together a country, Iraq, which is falling apart --

In a house on the outskirts of Baghdad, a Shi'ite tribal leader sat and imagined his world as "a dark tunnel with no light" at its end. "Iraq is not a country now," he said. "It was before Mosul." The sheikh, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would like to see his country reunited but suspects Abadi is too weak to counter the many forces working against him. Now the Shi'ite militias and Iran, whom the sheikh fought in the 1980s, are his protectors. It is a situation he accepts with a grim inevitability. "We are like a sinking ship. Whoever gives you a hand lifting you from the sea whether enemy or friend, you take it without seeing his face because he is there." 

Iranian-advised paramilitaries now visit his house regularly. He has come to enjoy the Iranian commander of a branch of the Khorasani Brigades, a group named for a region in northeastern Iran. The commander likes to joke, speaks good Arabic and has an easy way, while other fighters speak only Persian, the sheikh said. He expresses appreciation for their defense of his relatives in the Shi'ite town of Balad, which is under assault from the Islamic State.

Vampire Squid meets Holy Ghost

Goldman Sachs arranged and participated in an $835 million loan channeled via a Luxembourg-registered special purpose vehicle to a Portuguese bank -- Espirito Santo -- that was about to go bust; the loan in turn was backing an oil refinery project -- the price of oil about to crash -- in Venezuela -- a country on the verge of default.

Somehow, that loan made it into the liabilities of the "good bank" that the government of Portugal created when it broke up Espirito Santo.

The Wall Street Journal, (free link) which has been all over the story from the start, now reports that common sense has prevailed and the loan is being dumped into the bad bank, which probably can't repay it.

Goldman is of course lawyering up. It took a long time, but Europe's bank regulators might finally be on the level of who they're dealing with.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Putin is planning his next land grab

Vladimir Putin meets with his Minister for Emergency Management who reports on his planning for 2015 as follows --

Experts predict a growing number of tourists on the territory of the Russian Federation this year. Therefore, together with the regions we are focussing on all the possible traditional holidaymaking locations.

That sounds like it might be a problem

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal gives a matter-of-fact explanation of the latest Angel di Maria injury (via BBC Sport) --

"It is not a muscle injury," he said. "It is more the pelvis does not have the right relationship with the leg."

Friday, December 26, 2014

Meteorology endangered by editor demands for click bait

Apparently, judging by the Daily Telegraph, declines in barometric pressure in winter North Atlantic low pressure systems are now "weather bombs."

Warplanes passing in the night

Adjacent headlines on Reuters website this afternoon:
 


  • Islamic State targeted in 31 strikes by U.S., allies: Task Force 9:25am EST
  • Syrian air force kills 45 civilians in stepped-up raids: monitor 5:36am EST


  • But remember the official line on the anti-ISIS airstrikes is that they are not in any way facilitating the Assad regime.

    Thursday, December 25, 2014

    Some things weren't meant to be litigated

    The symbolic detail from Ruadhán Mac Cormaic's excellent analysis in the Irish Times of a grotesque case in which Ireland's legal framework for the right to life of the unborn has resulted in a clinically dead woman been kept alive while the survival prospects of her 18 week old foetus are being debated --

    Her father looks out into the court and inclines his head towards the microphone. “My daughter’s dead,” he says softly. “I just want her to have dignity, to be put to rest.” To his right, three judges, headed by Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, their expressions serious and solemn. To his left, 17 lawyers, squeezed into three rows of seats, and a public gallery filled with more barristers, some doctors and a smattering of onlookers.

    It's a bonanza for the legal class. For everyone else involved, it's a miserable Christmas.

    This is not the only example of Ireland's over-deference to its legal profession.

    UPDATE: The High Court ends the madness.

    Monday, December 22, 2014

    Heavenly oil market

    Statement (Saudi Press Agency) after Saudi Arabia weekly Cabinet meeting --

    The minister [of Information] said that the cabinet discussed a number of topics on local affairs and reviewed what is going on in the petroleum and international market of incidental problems, reiterating that the economy and industry of the Kingdom are capable of bearing temporary fluctuations in oil income and considering them as normal, and it emphasizes that what it is doing will achieve the best results for the Kingdom, and it is continuing in its balanced policy in a strong and firmly manner relying on Allah Almighty and then the wise leadership, strong economy and strong global petroleum industry.

    It's probably not a positive for oil prices that they were clear that Allah will be the prime determinant of policy.

    Sunday, December 21, 2014

    Law and Order meets Life on the Street

    Yesterday's murder of two New York Police Department officers is inevitably been seen as a New York City story, which among other things has to do the heavy media presence in the city in general, and the Fox News presence in particular -- the story is being packaged with not so subtle messaging about its link to protests against recent deaths at the hands of police.

    But anyway, it should be seen as a story as much about Baltimore as Brooklyn. Even on television, Baltimore provided the masterpieces of gritty crime series (Homicide and then The Wire). In this case, the killer had shot his girlfriend at a Baltimore suburb apartment building before heading to New York, and Baltimore had already seen a shooting of a policeman apparently motivated by the previous tensions over Ferguson and related incidents.

    More broadly, Baltimore is afflicted by everything that's wrong with the interaction of American urban and gun control policy. It's a poverty-stricken city in a state that attempts to implement gun control policies, but sits on the border of a state -- Virginia -- where the only question is how many guns per month you can buy. In turn, Baltimore is just a short day's drive up I-95 from Georgia, where there's an entire sub-industry that lives off allegedly local-use gun sales that repeatedly find their way into crimes north of the Potomac river.

    The Brooklyn shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, was a Georgia resident with a girlfriend in Baltimore and connections in Brooklyn: the East Coast gun transit system ("Iron Pipeline").

    Friday, December 19, 2014

    U Amadan would have been fine

    The Wall Street Journal helpfully reports on an outrage concerning vehicle registration vanity plates --

    Take, for example, the term U EJIT. A DMV [dept of motor vehicles] reviewer in California recently rejected it saying it sounds too much like the word that an Irish driver might blurt out to a motorist who cut him off (“You eejit,” meaning, “you idiot”).

    Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    Tom Friedman takes over this blog

    If only there had been a market-traded Soviet ruble to crash in 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and perhaps thus dissuade them from doing so, the world in general and Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular could have been saved a lot of trouble since then.

    Why Windows still sucks

    What Windows just did when asked to "troubleshoot" a seemingly working Internet connection that wasn't working.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2014

    It's all relative

    Washington Post --

    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban gunmen stormed an elite army high school Tuesday  [in Peshawar] in a killing spree that claimed at least 141 lives — nearly all students — and brought defiant calls from Pakistan’s leaders to strike back harder against militants.

    It's not clear what "elite" means in a context where the army couldn't protect its own facilities and children, and the attackers apparently wore army uniforms.

    Sunday, December 14, 2014

    Less informed, but it's the same Cheney

    Dick Cheney on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, 14 December 2014 --

    Now when you're dealing with terrorists, the likes of Al Qaeda or the ISIS, I haven't seen them water board anybody. What they did is cut their heads off.

    Fact: ISIS waterboards hostages, and indeed the orange jumpsuits that it forces them to wear are themselves a Guantanamo reference.

    Anyway, the broader point is that the Dick "I'd do it again in a minute" Cheney is the same one that was Vice President for 8 years, even if he's not getting as many news sources as he used to. Here he is with Chuck Todd's predecessor, Tim Russert, on September 16, 2001 --

    [Cheney] We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective. 

     MR. RUSSERT: There have been restrictions placed on the United States intelligence gathering, reluctance to use unsavory characters, those who violated human rights, to assist in intelligence gathering. Will we lift some of those restrictions? 

    VICE PRES. CHENEY: Oh, I think so. I think the--one of the by-products, if you will, of this tragic set of circumstances is that we'll see a very thorough sort of reassessment of how we operate and the kinds of people we deal with. There's--if you're going to deal only with sort of officially approved, certified good guys, you're not going to find out what the bad guys are doing. You need to be able to penetrate these organizations. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters if, in fact, you're going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena. I'm convinced we can do it; we can do it successfully. But we need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission. 

    MR. RUSSERT: These terrorists play by a whole set of different rules. It's going to force us, in your words, to get mean, dirty and nasty in order to take them on, right? And they should realize there will be more than simply a pinprick bombing.

    VICE PRES. CHENEY: Yeah, the--I think it's--the thing that I sense--and, of course, that's only been a few days, but I have never seen such determination on the part of--well, my colleagues in government, on the part of the American people, on the part of our friends and allies overseas, and even on the part of some who are not ordinarily deemed friends of the United States, determined in this particular instance to shift and not be tolerant any longer of these kinds of actions or activities.

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Iraq amnesia

    Vox has a map showing "the 54 countries that helped the CIA with its torture-linked rendition program."

    Inexplicably, Iraq is not on it.

    Iraq is not only a documented rendition of at least one tortured detainee (Hassan Ghul), it also of itself became a raison d'être for the torture program, even though the war there bore no resemblance to the ticking bomb/attack on US scenarios that were being used to justify it.

    UPDATE: Deadspin's amusing list of 46 Vox errors doesn't include this one, most likely because Vox itself still has not corrected it.

    The moral poison of the 2003 invasion of Iraq

    From the sickening Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA detainee program --

    The CIA's response to Committee questions then asserted that "[i]t was not until Abu Jaf'ar was subjected to EITS [enhanced interrogation] that he provided detailed information [about] his personal meetings with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and Zarqawi's advisors," and that "[i]n addition, Abu Jaf'ar provided information on al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) finances, travel, and associated facilitation activities."The provided information was inaccurate.CIA records indicate that, while still in U.S. military custody, Abu Ja'far described multiple meetings with al-Zarqawi, other members of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, and individuals who were to serve as al-Zarqawi's connection to senior al-Qa'ida leadership. Abu Ja'far also provided insights into al-Zarqawi's beliefs and plans.  (page 450)

    Remember that this was all about getting intelligence on who was then the latest designated super bad guy in an overseas war that was going badly. Having let torture out of the box to prevent another 9/11, it was being used as part of the unnecessary war in Iraq. The futility is brought into even starker relief by recalling that ISIS -- the new designated super bad guys -- are the descendents of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's group.

    Tuesday, December 09, 2014

    The first thing we do, let's stop listening to the lawyers

    Ireland 2008-2010: Official legal advice says we can't put the banks into bankruptcy because there might not be enough money left in liquidation to pay all the depositors who rank equally with senior creditors.

    Ireland 2014: Official legal advice says that bankruptcy may be so effective in recovering value that even after all senior creditors are made whole, some speculative subordinated debt holders may see profits, especially if they bought in when values were depressed by the previous legal advice.

    Incidental observation: the junior bondholders who might make money on the bankruptcy recovery are the ones who successfully challenged Ireland's legally-advised attempts to restructure its banks outside of bankruptcy. The latest development shows that Ireland always had a credible threat to put the banks into bankruptcy, and therefore extract better terms from its bondholders than it actually got with one hand tied behind its back -- by its own lawyers.

    Monday, December 08, 2014

    They face it on TV

    Joe Biden in a weekend speech to the Saban forum --

    We can only -- I’ll speak for myself, I can only imagine how Luke’s [Somers] parents feel today.  Murdered in the second attempt, came so close.  This is a despicable crime.  And we mean what we say when we say from -- speaking for the intelligence community, the military, the government as a whole, we will be relentless in our efforts to bring to justice those who have caused -- some already have been brought to justice in the raid.  But there’s much more to do.  It’s a tragic reminder of the violence we face in the Middle East and a potent reminder of what Israelis face every day.

    Israelis face al Qaeda hostage taking every day?

    Anything for liquidity

    Apparently it's a point of controversy in Ireland whether the original bailout deal required water charges. According to the IMF-government document (page 30)

    Memorandum of Understanding on SPECIFIC ECONOMIC POLICY CONDITIONALITY November 28, 2010 ..


    In advance of the introduction of water charges The government will have undertaken an independent assessment of transfer of responsibility for water services provision from local authorities to a water utility, and prepare proposals for implementation, as appropriate with a view to start charging in 2012/2013.

    Saturday, December 06, 2014

    The grand unified theory of global foreign policy disasters

    Glenn Greenwald on Thursday's brazen terrorist attack in Chechnya, the same day that Vladimir Putin was giving a big state of the nation speech --

    That’s the nature of war. A country doesn’t get to run around for years wallowing in war glory, invading, rendering and bombing others, without the risk of having violence brought back to it. Rather than being baffling or shocking, that reaction is completely natural and predictable. The only surprising thing about any of it is that it doesn’t happen more often.

    Er, actually that's Greenwald on what was an apparent lone-wolf terrorist attack a couple of months in Quebec. He hasn't said anything about the latest Chechen spectacular.

    Which is sort of interesting, because for all the analysis of Islamist terrorism which says that it's all just US foreign policy coming home to roost, the same theory applies ten times over to Russia. It was Russia as USSR which invaded Afghanistan, spawning the original Al Qaeda. And it was Putin's Russia which flattened Grozny -- twice! -- which sustained Chechen extremism, and it's not incidental that Chechens form an important element of ISIS. And who knows that fun is emerging from the petri dishes that Russia has created in eastern Ukraine and Syria now.

    Thursday, December 04, 2014

    It's gold up north

    From UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne's Autumn Statement --

    And we’re announcing a new Sovereign Wealth Fund for the North of England so that the shale gas resources of the North are used to invest in the future of the North.

    Just like how Scotland got a Sovereign Wealth Fund so that oil resources of Scotland were used to invest in the future of Scotland!

    Also, is the North of England sovereign now?

    Wednesday, December 03, 2014

    The world's worst judges

    A couple of days after Egypt's Supreme Court struggled with the question of who was in charge of the country when former president Hosni Mubarak was president, their lower court colleagues have found that 185 people are collectively responsible, and subject to the death penalty, for the death of 12 policemen.

    Birds of a feather

    Wall Street Journal news report on Venezuela's economic problems --

    Venezuela Finance Minister Rodolfo Marco is in China this week seeking loans from the Asian country, which has already extended the South American nation nearly $50 billion in credit since 2007. Mr. Marco will next head to allied Iran and Russia also in search of financing, Mr. Maduro [President] added.

    So the country's big plan to deal with economic mismanagement and falling oil prices is to look for loans from countries with ... economic mismanagement and falling oil prices.

    Tuesday, December 02, 2014

    Truth in advertizing

    It's revealing that GM has dropped any pretense that large SUVs such as their Sierra Denali are for rugged individualist Joe the Plumber working class types and are actually for super-rich Americans who need a vehicle that can tow their luxury speedboat while providing the same sense of interior luxury as that speedboat.

    Saturday, November 29, 2014

    Man in "scheduling conflict" shock

    Having a Freedom of Information Act is all the rage these days, but is filling space on news websites really the intended use thereof? --

    Now new documents released to RTE confirm that U2 have worked closely with the IDA [Industrial Development Authority] throughout the recession to help attract in foreign direct investment. In an email from Bono to the IDA CEO Barry O'Leary on 13 December 2013, the singer explains how he had "been bending over backwards" to try to attend the authority’s annual conference on 7 January last in Dublin Castle. Details of email correspondence, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Bono was unable to attend the conference as he was filming in New York as it was "the only time a director we want to use is free."

    Rebels on the couch

    Washington Post --

    The U.S. military will subject Syrian rebels taking part in a new training program to psychological evaluations, biometrics checks and stress tests under a screening plan that goes well beyond the steps the United States normally takes to vet foreign soldiers, a sign of the risks the Obama administration faces as it expands support for armed groups in Syria.

    Hopefully whatever rebels they can round up for this screening before the training won't be suffering from psychological trauma due to 3 years of being shot, gassed, and barrel-bombed by Bashar al-Assad's forces.

    Also, via the New York Times, we learn that it only seems to be controversial among non-Syrians that the US intervention against ISIS is helping Bashar al-Assad.

    Friday, November 28, 2014

    Convergence is the new cricket

    From David Cameron's big migration speech --

    So we will insist that when new countries are admitted to the EU in the future, free movement will not apply to those new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing Member States.

    Among the reasons this is tricky is that migration is itself one of the ways that poorer European countries converge to the existing member states.  It also means that the UK will have a convergence test for EU accession migration just as it has the (vindicated) Five Tests for euro membership. Can the EU retain its core objective if the big countries start putting more and more tests on the mechanisms which are meant to make the countries more like each other?

    UPDATE: Very good UK immigration background from Kenan Malik in the New York Times; interestingly, Cameron's speech (not directly referenced by Malik) seems tailored precisely to the kind of polling evidence that Malik discusses.

    Thursday, November 27, 2014

    Pot, meet kettle

    Reuters quotes an outraged oil minister of large oil producer Venezuela leaving the OPEC meeting in Vienna after a failed attempt to cut production --

    "The U.S. is producing in a very, very bad manner. The shale oil, I mean it is a disaster from the point of view of climate change...," Ramirez told reporters.

    Note: Venezuela has been importing oil from Algeria, imagine the carbon footprint on that trade!

    Tuesday, November 25, 2014

    Guns and money

    From a New York Times report showing the link between corruption  in the Iraqi military and its collapse in June --

    The Iraqi military and police forces had been so thoroughly pillaged by their own corrupt leadership that they all but collapsed this spring in the face of the advancing militants of the Islamic State — despite roughly $25 billion worth of American training and equipment over the past 10 years and far more from the Iraqi treasury.

    Despite?

    Friday, November 21, 2014

    Aleppo

    Not sure for how long Le Monde will leave this excellent feature unpaywalled but clicking through it shows the totality of the Assad regime's use of barrel bombs to wreak destruction in the rebel-held parts of the city, which is about 2/3 of it over all. No red lines crossed, no controversy about whether the US should intervene to protect the city. Just a lot of TNT and shrapnel in Russian helicopters.

    The centre moved

    Revealing description from a Wall Street Journal news article of the current mood in Israeli politics --

    Many centrists in Israel back demolitions, arguing they were effective in preventing past terrorist attacks and will work again as a crisis widens in Jerusalem.

    Tuesday, November 18, 2014

    Pleb means not liking rugby?

    One strand of the latest in the plebgate trial --

    In one of a series of written statements produced by Mr Mitchell's legal team, [Bob] Geldof described the MP as an "advocate for the less fortunate" and a "good man". "I came from a poor Irish, not particularly well educated background and he does not," he said. "I am in fact 'a pleb' and he is not. Never once in all our time did he patronise me, talk down to me, behave in a superior manner to me, deride, insult or dismiss me or my opinions." Geldof said he had never heard the Conservative MP "use the ridiculous and archaic expression 'pleb'".

    Bob Geldof went to Blackrock College.

    World outraged at military destruction of homes and agricultural land near Gaza City*

    Paid to Google

    The Washington Post has a plausible discussion of what ties together the bizarre list of Islamic organizations designated as terrorist groups by the United Arab Emirates. The Council on American Islamic Relations designation is attracting particular attention.

    One possibility that is complementary to the Post's emphasis on Muslim Brotherhood connections: the government may have hired a consulting firm to assemble the list for them, and whether through the incompetence of the consultants or them not being told what the purpose of the list was, they did a search engine sweep of groups that get mentioned -- by anyone! -- in the context of Islamic extremism. They got the cheque, and Abu Dhabi got the list. This is the government that has an American consulting firm -- the Camstoll Group -- on a specific assignment to bash Qatar.

    Saturday, November 15, 2014

    Maastricked

    Speech by Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB:

    ... the Maastricht Treaty enshrines the principle of monetary dominance. Indeed, price stability in the region as a whole is the single most important coordination device for other economic policies, reaching out into various policy domains across the member states of the euro area.

    When Ireland, France, and Denmark voted by referendum on ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, did anyone explain at the time that it was embedding monetary dominance in the European Union?

    Thursday, November 13, 2014

    Fupla Cocal

    RTE --

    A spokesperson for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has confirmed that Google Translate was used to translate English into Irish on a Government website promoting the 1916 commemorations.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2014

    New islands every 6 months

    The New York Times' Tom Friedman's ever-fluctuating list of Middle East "islands of decency" -- does the composition of the list depend on his imminent travel plans?

    12 November 2014 --

    We need to protect the islands of decency out here — Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman — from ISIS, in hopes that their best examples might one day spread. 

    15 June 2014

    And the reason that both Tunisia and Kurdistan have built islands of decency, still frail to be sure, is because the major contending political forces in each place eventually opted for the principle of “no victor, no vanquished.”

    September 14, 2014

    It’s a combination of a legitimate geostrategic concern — if ISIS jihadists consolidate their power in the heart of Iraq and Syria, it could threaten some real islands of decency, like Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon, and might one day generate enough capacity to harm the West more directly — and the polls.

    October 29, 2014

    ISIS needs to be contained before it destabilizes islands of decency like Jordan, Kurdistan and Lebanon.

    19 June, 2014

    Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

    June 25, 2014

    The situation is not totally bleak. You have two emergent models, both frail and neither perfect, where Muslim Middle East nations have built decent, democratizing governance, based on society and with some political, cultural and religious pluralism: Tunisia and Kurdistan. Again both are works in progress, but what is important is that they did emerge from the societies themselves. You also have the relatively soft monarchies — like Jordan and Morocco — that are at least experimenting at the margins with more participatory governance, allow for some opposition and do not rule with the brutality of the secular autocrats.

    Monday, November 10, 2014

    And such small portions

    For all the grief that Barack Obama is taking about the decision to send military trainers to Iraq, you'd think the Iraqi government would sound a tad more enthusiastic, but a statement from the Prime Minister's office comes across otherwise --

    Despite the fact that this step is a bit late, but we welcome it as it comes in the right context.

    Sunday, November 09, 2014

    An uncommon thief

    On the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Brian Carney (free link) has a correct-in-spirit diatribe about the injustice of the Irish bank bailout. However, in his eagerness to lay all the blame at the door of the ECB, there is an important error in his logic:

    Specifically, Mr. Trichet threatened in a letter dated Nov. 19, 2010, to revoke the credit lines of Ireland’s banks unless the government agreed to (1) request a bailout; (2) impose stringent budget cuts; (3) recapitalize its banks; and (4) fully guarantee the Irish banks’ outstanding liabilities to the ECB ....Mr. Trichet’s final condition—an Irish sovereign guarantee of the ECB’s own lending to Irish banks—is especially telling about his motives. 

    Here's the aforementioned letter. Clause (4):

    The repayment of funds granted in the form of ELA shall be fully guaranteed by the Irish government, which would ensure the payment of immediate compensation to the Central Bank of Ireland in the event of missed payments on the side of the recipient institutions.

    As that final part makes clear, the loans in question were Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), which is not ECB lending. It's lending by the national central bank when ECB facilities can't be used. The Irish bailout was indeed a heist, as Carney calls it. But the heist was in motion long before those 2010 ECB letters.

    Friday, November 07, 2014

    In defence of Vladimir Putin, albeit reluctantly

    So apparently there's outrage over published remarks of Vladimir Putin on the (excellent) Kremlin website. He was meeting with young historians on Wednesday and said --

    Or, for example, there are still arguments about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the Soviet Union is blamed for dividing Poland. But what did Poland itself do, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia? It took part of Czechoslovakia. It did this itself. And then, in turn, the same thing happened to Poland. I do not want to blame anyone here, but serious studies should show that these were the foreign policy methods at the time. The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, “Oh, how bad.” But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?

    The outrage being that Putin seemed to endorse the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

    But did he? There's a longer discussion of which this was a part --

    But I completely agree with you that we need to fully study this period, as well as others. Why? That period is also interesting. Because before that, we had the so-called Munich Agreement in 1938. And what is it? Incidentally, your colleagues in western nations hush it up. Chamberlain arrived, shook his paper and said, “I brought you peace” when he returned to London after the talks. To which Churchill, I believe, in private, stated, “Well, now the war is inevitable.” Because appeasement of the aggressor, which Nazi Germany was, would clearly lead to a major future military conflict, and some people understood that. There should be a deep multilateral study of what was happening before World War II. 

    [then the section above] 

    Moreover, even knowing about the inevitability of war, supposing that it could happen, the Soviet Union desperately needed time to modernise its army. We needed to implement a new weapons system. Each month had significance because the number of Katyusha rocket launchers or T-34 tanks in the Soviet army was in the single digits, whereas thousands were needed. Each day had significance. So idle thoughts and chatter on this matter on a political level may have a purpose, in order to shape public opinion, but this must be countered with serious, deep, objective research.

    The issue is really his inconsistency in criticizing Chamberlain's Munich deal, and then justifying the pact with Hitler on the grounds that the USSR needed time to rearm. So did Britain, and Chamberlain used the late 1930s period before war to massively build up the RAF -- which proved to be the guarantor of its security.

    It's especially exciting when the maps keep changing

    Vladimir Putin speaking to the Russian Geographic Society --

    Geography, without any doubt, and we are also repeatedly talked about this, can and should be one of the most exciting school subjects.

    So bad, we don't know who they are

    Pentagon statement from the first round of US-led air strikes in Syria in September --

    Meanwhile, Kirby said, the Defense Department still is assessing U.S.-only strikes against the terrorist organization known as the Khorasan group. “We did have good information that they were in the final planning stages of an attack against Western targets -- potentially the U.S. homeland or Europe,” he said. ”We’re not going to take our eye off this group, or their capabilities or their intentions,” he added.

    Note: no mention at the time that the Kardashian Khorasan Group is a name that only the US uses for one faction of the Nusra Front.

    Now, 3 days ago, at a Pentagon press briefing --

    Q: The Khorasan Group is closely associated with Nusra. Many of the targets that you hit on that first day of strikes in Syria against Khorasan were also identified by locals as Nusra sites and things, facilities shared by the two groups. Is there any assessment of what damage or what those initial rounds of strikes was on Nusra Front as opposed to Khorasan in terms of changing their operations or disrupting them? Were those strikes, you know, weeks ago, effective or ineffective?

    REAR ADM. KIRBY: On Nusra? You know, I don't have an assessment for you on that Julian, and I don't know that I would even be able to provide that to you. The targets that we hit that night, and we talked about this afterward, were aimed at facilities that we knew were in use by members of the Khorasan Group, a group that we also had strong reason to believe were in -- near the execution phase of long-planned strikes on Western targets. As I said before, we know we hit the targets that we were aiming at and had good effect on them. It remains to be seen if there was an -- a like effect on actual leaders. The nexus of Khorasan and al-Nusra gets murky at times. We know that they certainly do share some of the same goals and communicate. But I don't know -- I wouldn't be able to give you an assessment of what effect those strikes had on al-Nusra versus the Khorasan group, specifically.

    Note: Now the position is that  Kardashian Khorasan and Nusra are all mingled so it can be hard to tell one from the other.

    Finally, 1 day ago, Pentagon statement --

    U.S. military forces conducted airstrikes last night against five Khorasan Group targets near Sarmada, Syria, U.S. Central Command officials reported today. The strikes involved U.S. bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft, officials said, all of which left the strike areas safely. Though Centcom is still assessing the outcome of the attack, officials said, initial indications are that it had the intended results, striking terrorists and destroying or severely damaging several vehicles, as well as buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas or bomb-making and training facilities. 

    ... Khorasan Group is a term used to refer to a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qaida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets, Centcom officials explained. The strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front's clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, they added, and did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole. Rather, officials said, they were directed at the Khorasan Group, which is taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests and whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people.

    So the current position is that, yes, Nusra and  Kardashian Khorasan are mingled, but we're really, absolutely sure that we only targeted the little bit of Nusra that was aiming for external attacks but we definitely no sirree did not have any impact on the broader Nusra that's fighting ... Bashar al-Assad!

    Nigeria with rockets

    There's a difference?

    David Brooks in the New York Times --

    The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club.

    Thursday, November 06, 2014

    Revolution from the inside

    As the USA sorts through the mid-term election aftermath, here's a hint of the delusion or cynicism (or both?) that the country is in for more of: the incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declaring that by re-electing a DC-based Senator -- himself -- to his 6th Senate term (i.e. 30 years and counting), they had voted for "real change in Washington."

    Tuesday, November 04, 2014

    Trick of language

    The accumulation of history in the Middle East can lead to some strange conjunctions. One current one is the Al Qaeda group with the Hebrew name. That would be the Sinai peninsula-based Ansar Beit al Maqdis (about whom surprisingly little is known) -- its name comes directly from the Hebrew word for the temple (yes, that temple). If you're not careful with translations, you can end up thinking that the Egyptian government thinks that the group is actually run from Jerusalem. They don't, right?

    Clowns with Attitude



    Great story from the Irish Times recounting a seemed-like-a-good-idea interview of the head of the Irish Industrial Development Authority on CNBC's Squawk Box.

    For a bit of historical context, remember that the US tea party movement was effectively launched on this show in 2009 (see clip above), setting forth a tidal wave of financial sector ignorance that still dogs the country today. Not much time to know that Ireland is a country when you're catering to elites perpetually angry about the government doing stuff. 

    Iraq accuses French President of helping ISIS


    Statement from office of Prime Minister of Iraq today --

    With these evident victories, we firmly deny the statements attributed to French President Mr. Francois Hollande about failure of our troops to achieve any victory. In addition to being incorrect, these statements are not at all suitable, as they will contribute to the psychological warfare against our troops, and will only serve the enemy, which considerably depends on terrorism and psychological warfare; therefore we call for accuracy and objectivity before making any such statements that are far from reality.

    A long way from their cordial meeting on 12 September.

    It might be worth asking the White House whether they agree with Hollande's assessment.


    Monday, November 03, 2014

    Bashar laughs and laughs and laughs

    Washington Post report on the al-Nusra Front overrunning of moderate Syrian rebel positions in Idlib --

    A Jabhat al-Nusra base was one of the first targets hit when the United States launched its air war in Syria in September, and activists said the tensions fueled by that attack had contributed to the success of Jabhat al-Nusra’s push against the moderate rebels.
    “When American airstrikes targeted al-Nusra, people felt solidarity with them because Nusra are fighting the regime, and the strikes are helping the regime,” said Raed al-Fares, an activist leader in the Idlib town of Kafr Nabel.
    “Now people think that whoever in the Free Syrian Army gets support from the U.S.A. is an agent of the regime,” he said.
    Fleeing rebel fighters said they feared the defeat would spell the end of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella name used by the moderate rebel groups that the United States has somewhat erratically sought to promote as an alternative both to the Assad regime and the extremist Islamic State.

    Since the half-hearted US support has been so effective in destroying the moderate rebels, the biggest risk that al-Nusra faces at this point is that by the time the supposed US$500 million in new US aid comes on stream, they'll be the only alternative to ISIS still standing and the US will decide to give the aid to them.

    Tribe not an ethnicity, so no outcry

    From a Reuters report on large scale massacres of the Albu Nimr tribe in al-Anbar province of Iraq --


    One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheikh Naeem al-Ga'oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken. State television said on Sunday that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered airstrikes on Islamic State targets around the town of Hit in response to the killings. Officials at a government security operations command center in Anbar and civilians reached by Reuters said they had not heard of or witnessed airstrikes.

    The US is intervening to hold together a country whose government has apparently little interest in holding it together.

    The marketing guys want to label it Irish Tequila

    Bloomberg News --

    Diageo Plc (DGE) and Tequila Cuervo La Rojeña SA are in late-stage talks to swap liquor brands in a deal that would give London-based spirits giant Diageo the 50 percent of Don Julio tequila it doesn’t already own, said a person familiar with the matter. As part of the deal, Cuervo, owner of the Jose Cuervo brand of tequila, would get the Bushmills Irish whiskey brand.

    Sunday, November 02, 2014

    Stuff people care about

    At Vox, Ezra Klein laments that Gamergate would be just a narrowly-specified row about video game culture and feminism except that a professional class of politicizers swooped in and politicized it --

    Gamergate is going to happen again. As polarization proceeds, our political identities become powerful enough to drive our other identities. As Washington locks up, the political outlets that normally spend their time covering fights in Congress need to find fights that will engage their audience elsewhere. As cultural mores change ever more rapidly, the battles over what's acceptable to say and do will become even fiercer. And as everyone becomes more and more dependent on web traffic, skirmishes with deep digital roots will become increasingly attractive to cover.

    The result will be a cycle we'll soon come to recognize: glancingly political fights will attract coverage from professionally politicized outlets and quickly be turned into deeply politicized wars. Once political identities are activated, these fights will spread far beyond their natural constituencies — in the Gamergate case, people who care about video games — and become part of the ongoing conflict between the red and blue tribes. Expect more Gamergates.

    A couple of observations. First, this row was named Gamergate by the people involved in it long before the national media took notice. As in, Watergate. Which was a political scandal. So the framing of these shouting and roaring episodes as political already reflects a relationship between popular culture and politics that long precedes the Internet and a supposed acceleration of cultural differentiation. 

    The second issue is whether these rows are really specialized arguments that polarized tribes then adopt and transform to general signals of position, as Klein says, or instead disagreements within an elite class that people one inch removed from (e.g. not regular readers of Vox) couldn't give a rat's arse about?

    Let's put it in terms of the claim that political identities are driving other identities. One of the fascinating things about the USA is how much of it chugs along, at enormous scale, essentially oblivious to red and blue tribology (cities, schools, sports, and services, just to pick a few examples). Next week's inevitable crashingly low and unmotivated election turnout is just part of the illustration of that. Off course there is a lot of money sloshing around with an interest in people keeping stoked on particular issues, which it partly achieves by funding media outlets. But is it driving identity? That's a major stretch.

    Get off my lawnn

    On the Fox News Channel Huckabee show -- on Saturday night up against college football -- there was a feature on that elusive young person voting pattern. Millennials, if you will. Except that in the screen text bar at the bottom, it was titled "The Millenial Vote."

    Saturday, November 01, 2014

    Crankara

    This is an interesting New York Times article about how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rapidly beefing up the executive presidency, a post that was essentially created by him as Prime Minister. Certainly there are plenty of grounds for concern about authoritarian tendencies. But the bill of particulars the article sets out for how Erdogan-era Turkey has been a difficult player in international relations includes --
    • Not letting George Bush use Turkey as a base for invasion of Iraq in 2003
    • Believing that the Sykes-Picot map-drawing is a major cause of the Middle East's problems today, and
    • Questioning why the focus on battling ISIS is not matched by any new strategy for dealing with Bashar al-Assad.

    Those crazy Turks!

    Friday, October 31, 2014

    More winds of change

    Le Monde quotes one of the protesters who helped drive Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré from power yesterday --

    « Quand je suis né, Blaise Compaoré était déjà président, expliquait l’un d’eux. Je viens d’obtenir ma maîtrise en droit, je ne trouve pas de travail, mais lui est toujours là. C’est normal ? »

    "When I was born, he was already President ... I just got my law degree, I can't find a job, but he's still there, this is normal?"

    Not the only country where that excellent question could be asked, not least for cases where the strongman has handed off to the son.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014

    High maintenance

    Kuwait Times --

    Kuwait’s most wanted thief allegedly involved in numerous vehicle robberies was arrested in Salwa, security sources said. The citizen, who was earlier in police custody for car robberies and was released by mistake, was nabbed following a widespread manhunt launched by the police. Case papers indicate that a citizen had been arrested in Mubrak Al-Kabeer for stealing a luxury car in order to present it to his girlfriend as he had been used to giving her a new vehicle every month.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    Putin was in awe

    Sepp Blatter doing an incredible job of insulting people in one sequence during opening remarks of the Russia FIFA 2018 World Cup organising committee. For reference note that the recent and prospective list of World Cup hosts is South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, and that the calls for a boycott of 2018 are based on the Russian incursion and continued subversion of Ukraine --

    I am honoured specifically also because of the presence of your head of state, the President of the Russian Federation, Mr Putin, because he was the architect on the paper to bring the World Cup to Russia. This is very important to underline, because there was a very big competition to have this 2018 World Cup back in Europe. They want to have everything. Generally, when in the compound of Europe, they are speaking about the big European countries, not politically, but those that have a stand in football. And so, we had the candidature of England, we had the candidature of Spain and Portugal, we had the candidature of Belgium and Holland, and then finally, it was Russia the winner.
    You could say it’s normal. It was not normal, because if you know the way the Europeans – and here, I speak with the European Union – they try to get all the assets, and when it comes to football, they wanted to have this World Cup. And I’ll tell you, one of the losers of this World Cup, they are still unhappy and they are still saying that it is a mistake of FIFA and a mistake of this Blatter that we didn’t get the World Cup. And it was the country that has invented not only the game, but fair play – they have invented fair play. And you know what that means? Fair play means that you learn to win – that’s easy – but you also learn to lose, and this is not so easy.
    But I’m very happy to be here because it is time to say thanks to you for the organisation committee here. It’s now a big task. It is a big task, but it goes on the rotation of the World Cup. The last big event – okay, you have had a lot of events here in Russia – the last, biggest, event you have had were the Olympic Games in 1980. And then the Olympic Games, you know, you have been a little bit bothered because there was a boycott. And just to close these parentheses, they speak again about the boycott of the World Cup. But the World Cup is not the Olympic Games. The World Cup is football, and football cannot be boycotted. Football cannot be boycotted in any country, and it will not in Russia – definitely not. And FIFA stands strong behind this organisation in Russia. That’s one thing.

    Just to pick out one thing, Sepp Blatter has told Russia that there is nothing, nothing, they could do which would result in a boycott of the 2018 World Cup.

    New neighbours

    At Vox, Zach Beauchamp finds a number of reasons (plus one to be sure) to declare victory over ISIS --

    For months, ISIS has been trying and failing to take Kobane. Its recent push, beginning on around September 16, looked likely to succeed. But Kurdish fighters, with heavy American support, have pushed ISIS back. Kobane could still fall, but the Kurdish resistance has shattered the perception of ISIS invincibility — a crucial element of its recruiting pitch. "The [loss of] prestige in the jihadi movement could do a lot of damage to them," Garteinstein-Ross suggests. "ISIS can draw so many recruits because they're seen as the strong horse, because they're winning. [Kobane] shifts that perception."

    The red flag here is the analysis of ISIS in terms of the strong horse metaphor -- an old expression of Osama bin Laden's, whose greatest trick may have been to get the Bush White House to think about the Middle East in those terms.

    The FT's David Gardner has an alternative explanation of Kobane/Ain al-Arab --

    The siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, for example, on the border with Turkey, is often described as strategic or symbolic. Yet there is no especial imperative why the warriors of the Isis caliphate should expend the lives of about 500 of their number to seize this particular stretch of Turkey’s 1,300km frontier with Syria and Iraq. They have turned Kobani into a symbol, but by attacking it they have driven a wedge between the neo-Islamist rulers of Turkey and their Kurdish minority.

    Looking at maps and declaring that they've lost this town or that town is not going to cut it. ISIS is moving along the rivers and showing they can slowly tighten the stranglehold around cities without ever having to mount a direct assault. As someone else quoted in the FT article says, they've been reading up. Especially on East Asian insurgencies.

    If your humble blogger was advising the White House, the advice would be that it's time to talk some Viet Cong veterans out of retirement and ask them what the US should have done against them in the 1960s. Because that's where we are now in Iraq/Syria.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2014

    They might find it in time for Hanukkah

    Stuff you can't make up (via Reuters): a company backed by Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney wants to drill for oil ... near Jerusalem. The end-times -- for parody -- may be upon us:

    U.S.-based Genie Energy could turn to the courts or even Mongolia in its effort to challenge a local government decision that has blocked its hunt for oil just over 40 kilometers from Jerusalem, a senior official at the group said. Genie, backed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, says it aims to secure energy independence for Israel, a country that has never had a serious oil find despite years of exploration.... Genie Energy was spun off from telecoms group IDT Corp in 2011. As well as Murdoch, it has attracted investment from financier Jacob Rothschild. Together they own a 5.5 percent stake worth $11 million. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is on the advisory board.

    Friday, October 24, 2014

    Just make sure England doesn't get into a world war before the deal is implemented

    The FT's Philip Stephens note that the Scottish Nationalists may be finding, as Kincade says in Skyfall "Sometimes the old ways are the best" --

    Scotland’s nationalists have not given up and could yet win enough Westminster seats to hold the balance of power.

    Risky business

    Wise words from Amanda Taub at Vox --

    The only way to find out what happened is to wait for evidence — no matter how desperate we are for answers in the meantime. 

    A worthy plea for people to wait and see who might have contracted Ebola from the New York City patient rather than speculate about it?

    Er, No, Because in that case she says--

    Mayor Bill di Blasio said on Thursday that "our understanding is that very few people were in direct contact with him," which would lessen the likelihood that he could have transmitted the virus to anyone in New York.

    The earlier quote is an injunction against assigning probabilities to the Ottawa shooter being an ISIS-radicalized Muslim (as it turns out, he was).

    Apparently, some low frequency but high profile events are more worthy of estimates than others. 

    Thursday, October 23, 2014

    Our non-obsession with the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu attack

    An article in Vox by Amanda Taub proclaims:

    Our obsession with the Ottawa shooter's religion reveals more about us than about him

    It then argues  that since we don't yet know the shooter's religion, let alone his motivations (which is true), we shouldn't be talking about potential jihadi motives.

    Leaving side the general temptation to discuss everything about every high profile shooting before the facts are known, it is a bit odd for Vox -- data-driven journalism! -- to be arguing that people have no basis to be connecting dots when Canada was still trying to interpret the events barely 2 days beforehand when an alleged Islamic convert rammed his car into two soldiers in a town 30 miles south of Montreal. Of course there could be no connection at all. But data-driven journalism! is all about living with interpretations based on probabilities. And since terrorism in North America is very, very rare, some of those empirical probabilities are going to be based on small sample sizes.

    So the Ottawa incident is not just about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. It's about that incident seen in the light of the earlier incident where a gun was not used -- and therefore already inclined to be ignored -- even though the ramming soldier technique bears strong resemblance to the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby ... which was motivated by the killers' interpretation of their religion.

    Boys with toys

    So if Russia can't supervise the snow plough drivers at its own airport in Moscow, what's the chance they had any control of any anti-aircraft weapons systems that they gave to the Ukrainian rebels?

    It's months later, Crimea is still annexed and MH17 is still shot down.

    Pop culture is memory

    Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal --

    Today, no one except some veterans and military historians remembers Khe Sanh because in the end it had scant strategic significance: Even though the U.S. won the battle, it lost the war. Not long after having “liberated” Khe Sanh, the U.S. dismantled the base because it served little purpose. This history is worth mentioning because of the parallels, limited and inexact to be sure, between Khe Sanh and Kobani, a Kurdish town in northern Syria. 

    Bruce Springsteen, lyrics to Born in the USA --

    Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
    They're still there he's all gone

    Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    Remember, it's only those awful Americans who back Israel to the hilt

    Kremlin press release --

    Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, during which the Russian President congratulated Mr Netanyahu on his 65th birthday and wished him success in his important state activity.
    Vladimir Putin also sent Mr Netanyahu a message of greetings on his 65th anniversary, where he noted that during his years as Prime Minister and in other government positions, Mr Netanyahu has won the respect of his compatriots and great authority in the world. Mr Putin highly assessed Mr Netanyahu’s significant contribution to the development of friendly relations between Russia and Israel.



    Friday, October 17, 2014

    He's not the one writing it off

    Financial Times --

    Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza leader, has toned town his anti-German rhetoric but still wants to negotiate a massive write-down of Greek debt, set to peak this year at 174 percent of national output, a level he considers unsustainable.

    Who are those non-crazy leftie economists who think that debt to GDP of 174 per cent is sustainable?

    Thursday, October 16, 2014

    They could "improvise," if you will

    The New York Times has a superb in-depth piece -- the kind that lesser media outlets would never finance -- on how Saddam's 1980s-era chemical weapons (back when Baathist dictators with chemical weapons were cool) bedeviled the US military post-2003. The story's final hook is that Saddam's main chemical weapons site, which is believed to still contain numerous dangerous munitions, is now controlled by ISIS. The story also notes that their capture of the site was referenced in a Move Along Folks sort of way when it first happened. This Reuters story from July well captures the official indifference:


    U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said last month that the United States' best understanding was that "whatever material was kept there is pretty old and not likely to be able to be accessed or used against anyone right now."
    "We aren't viewing this particular site and their holding it as a major issue at this point," Kirby said. "Should they even be able to access the materials, frankly, it would likely be more of a threat to them than anyone else."

    It was an ISIS predecessor group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was using these same munitions in roadside bombs.

    How the Irish saved civilization

    Outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, presenting what he sees as his ultimate vindication (via Wall Street Journal) --

    “We were very close to the abyss at certain moments,” he said. “Now, when we see some of our countries, including the spectacular growth of Ireland, it’s the great, unequivocal demonstration that the policies designed were the right ones.”

    Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    Bashar's man in Baghdad


    The White House says that its military action against ISIS is to help Iraq, but it's absolutely not helping Syria. The above is the Assad regime ambassador to Iraq meeting the new Iraqi Prime Minister yesterday, where they amiably discussed their joint struggle against ISIS.

    [previous post on this topic]

    Monday, October 13, 2014

    Our man in Damascus

    Reuters --


    The United States says it does not want to help Assad's government despite bombing Islamic State, the most powerful group fighting against Damascus in a three-year-old civil war. Washington aims to help arm moderates to fight against both Assad and Islamic State. But within days of the start of U.S. air strikes in Syria last month, Assad's government stepped up the tempo of its own air campaign against rebels closer to the capital Damascus. The Observatory said the Syrian air force had struck 40 times on Monday in areas in Idlib and Hama provinces, including dropping oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel. Typically Damascus has carried out no more than 12-20 raids a day.

    Those indiscriminate Syrian regime attacks -- including but not limited to the barrel bombs -- are almost certainly war crimes. So if they're being facilitated by US military action ...

    Saturday, October 11, 2014

    Cranky map-driven post

    Kevin Drum surveys the Islamic world and concludes: We have a Saudi Arabia problem, not an Islam problem.

    Elaborating in a deep dive on the same issue, he adds: But generally speaking, Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Islam's problems.

    Leave aside the fact that his Vox-style map proof barely shows Pakistan, and omits most of Africa including Algeria and Nigeria and let's say it's true that Islam's problems appear centered on Saudi Arabia. It's such a tight correlation that it's almost as if Islam itself might come from Saudi Arabia, and that the Ruler of Saudi Arabia could be considered the "Custodian," if you will, of Islam's holiest sites!

    Cranky sports couch potato post

    What is the thinking behind sports highlight shows where the format is guys in the studio yelling at the highlights of a game that they've already watched? {here's looking at you, MLB Network)

    Also:
    WHY?

    Wednesday, October 08, 2014

    The region ate my homework

    Barack Obama at an election fundraiser in Connecticut --

    With respect to ISIL, it's American leadership that has galvanized the international community to take on what is really the logical conclusion of the sort of violent extremism that's been building up in the Middle East for far too long.

    So ISIS/ISIL -- which you might think is what emerged from the brutalization of the Syrian population by Bashar al-Assad -- is actually a pre-ordained culmination of trends in a regional hotbed of extremism!

    Pot, meet kettle

    The New York Times lamely gives a White House official anonymity to bash Turkey over the Kobani/Ain-al-Arab crisis --

    “This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticizing an ally.

    Where were Turkey's NATO allies during the last 3 years of hell across the border in Syria?

    Tuesday, October 07, 2014

    Flattening and rebuilding city in "not solution to terrorism" shock

    Reuters --


    A suicide bomber killed at least five police officers and wounded 12 others on Sunday during festivities for a local holiday in Grozny, the capital of Russia's troubled North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Russian news agencies reported. The site of two separatist wars and a festering Islamic insurgency, Chechnya has seen a period of relative calm under the strong-arm rule of Moscow-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and suicide bombings have been a rare occurrence in recent years.

    Important to keep this in mind as Russia tries to build support for its "realist" position of Bashar al-Assad being the only solution to Islamist terrorism in Syria and Iraq.

    Monday, October 06, 2014

    It would be pronounced Ooh Eeh

    By the same logic under which we're all supposed to be referring to ISIS as Da'ash, the IRA should have been called OE (Óglaigh na hÉireann).

    Friday, October 03, 2014

    White House in WB Yeats Paganism allusion outrage!

    Vice President Joe Biden --

    Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

    Leave aside the minor misquotation. Yeats used to describe ISIS. There are no coincidences!

    UPDATE: The White House transcript does not include the Q&A where Biden made the controversial remarks about Turkey and the UAE. 

    Tuesday, September 30, 2014

    Immaculate taxes

    From the European Commission's critical letter regarding Ireland's tax treatment of Apple --

    According to the excerpt at recital (37), the reduction of the margin after a certain level above USD [60-70] million would have been motivated by employment considerations, which is not a reasoning based on the arm’s length principle. 

    Tax decisions that may have involved thinking about job creation -- Eeek!

    Sunday, September 28, 2014

    Gilligan's Peninsula

    It's Sunday, so you've a bit more time on your hands.

    First read Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph -- those awful Qataris!

    Then read some superb Glenn Greenwald journalism in The Intercept noting how, in the USA, there's a lucrative and well-funded UAE operation to make everyone say -- those awful Qataris!

    Gilligan's article follows the template precisely -- citing chapter and verse US Treasury designations that seem damning for Qatar, even though if you know the Syria fundraising beat, it's all being run from Kuwait and the only evidence is that some known Syrian rebel fundraisers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia visited Qatar to conduct some of their activities there.

    Even Gilligan's headline -- Qatar as Club Med for terrorists -- is lifted from an op-ed in the New York Times by the Israeli ambassador to the US, only obliquely acknowledged at the end of the article.

    Very important question therefore for Andrew Gilligan: did he rely in any way, in terms of packaged information or financing, on the Camstoll Group* for this article?

    *Added: Or other consulting/lobbying firms with contracts from a government entity in the UAE?

    UPDATE: Very interesting piece from last year by Alastair Sloan noting some pro-UAE undercurrents to another Gilligan article.

    How click bait happens

    UAE's female pilot Mariam Al Mansouri 'disowned by her family' screams the Daily Mail headline [no link].  The source turns out to be a Palestinian news site -- funny how they had the scoop on a UAE story -- which in turn is simply a cut and paste from an unvalidated statement issued by people with the same surname. There are a lot of Al Mansouris in the UAE. There's not a shred of evidence in the story that the quotes come from anyone linked Mariam al-Mansouri's family. But that's the speed of the news cycle now. She hasn't even had time to get into a Tom Friedman column and already the media pack want a new narrative.

    Saturday, September 27, 2014

    Fog in Channel

    The Heritage Foundation has opinions on quite a few things, and one issue that is getting another run around the block is whether the UK should join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the old days of the 1990s, this was seen as a stalking horse for getting the UK out of the EU, but with the latter issue now out in the open, it has returned as the solution to what a post-EU UK would do in terms of trade relations. Theodore Bromund and Nile "Churchill bust outrage" Gardiner provide a discussion of the options, and come down in favour of a UK-UK free trade agreement instead of NAFTA membership.

    There are various debatable points in the discussion. For example, they note the much higher number of trade agreements that the small European countries outside the EU have been able to negotiate relative to the EU. But that's because small country free trade agreements are relatively easy to negotiate: there's a standard template and not too many vested interests. The world wasn't rocked by the recent Iceland-China free trade agreement -- and neither were Iceland or China.

    Perhaps a deeper problem is lurking in one curious omission from the Bromund-Gardiner paper. It never mentions the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA is an agreement that those aforementioned small European countries, except Switzerland, have signed with the EU. Essentially they agree to take on all of the EU regulations and standards, but without any associated political process. By doing so, they can tap into the free movement principles of the EU.

    One major question for a post-EU UK is whether it would join the EEA. Given that the UK is, er, in Europe and is highly integrated with it, it would almost certainly have to. Once it does that, the path to a US-UK free trade agreement is much less obvious: the EEA is fairly intrusive, but at the same time not much of a problem for the UK in terms of adjustment, since it currently complies with all EEA requirements by being in the EU. So which of those intrusive EEA elements would have to go to meet the obligations of a US-UK trade agreement? That's messy, difficult -- and a major part of the reason why the EU decided a long time to handle trade policy at the EU level. Any gains from a US-UK agreement would have to be offset against losses from EEA unwinding -- something that those aforementioned small European nations have not been willing to contemplate.

    Friday, September 26, 2014

    That new wiser US middle east policy

    1980s: Tacitly support the Baathist dictator (Saddam) on the ground that the Islamo-crazies that he's fighting (Iran) are worse

    2010s: Tacitly support the Baathist dictator (Assad) on the ground that the Islamo-crazies that he's fighting (ISIS) are worse.

    And the current policy really is tacit support for Assad.

    Thursday, September 25, 2014

    That makes it better

    A Wall Street Journal processology on how the Arab monarchies were gotten onside for the attack on ISIS in Syria concludes as follows --

    The UAE, which some defense officials refer to as "Little Sparta" because of its outsized military strength, had the most robust role. One of the UAE's pilots was a woman. Two of the F-15 pilots were members of the Saudi royal family, including Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of the crown prince. In the third wave of the initial attack, half of the attack airplanes in the sky were from Arab countries.