Lessons and Questions.

Boko Haram first rose to the attention of people in Europe and America in mid-2014.[1] Then Nigeria occupied the center of attention. However, the Nigerian military appeared incapable of defeating Boko Haram. The military has been used as a source of income for politicians, rather than as a fighting force. Furthermore, the Nigerian government largely spurned Western offers of assistance.[2] Boko Haram also spilled into the surrounding countries of Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. It conquered a territory the size of Belgium. So the Western countries (France and the United States) turned to those same neighboring countries to lead the fight against Boko Haram. American Special Forces troops were assigned to assist the African military forces actually willing to fight Boko Haram. The Americans established a base for drones in northern Cameroon. From this base surveillance drones have been hunting Boko Haram forces throughout the whole four country area.

Chad has played an important role in this process. Chad has a troubled recent history, to put it mildly.[3] As a result, its troops have a lot of experience at fighting armed opponents (as opposed to shooting at civilian demonstrators). Unlike Nigeria, Chad had devoted most of its defense budget to training and equipping the soldiers. Having already battled the Islamist uprising in Mali in 2013, troops from Chad helped roll back Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger during 2015. Recently, this strategy began to pay off as Boko Haram was forced out of territory it had controlled and lost much of its ability to wage “conventional”—if irregular–war.

However, the armies of Chad and Cameroon can defeat Boko Haram, but they are too small to hold all the ground and to provide security. So, defeat in one form of warfare has caused Boko Haram to turn to another form: suicide bombings and road-side IEDs. For example, since July 2016, Boko Haram has carried out at least 40 suicide bombings in northern Cameroon alone. Recently, a pair of suicide bombers struck in Chibok in northern Nigeria, killing 12 and wounding 15. So far, Boko Haram’s campaign is working. An estimated 100,000 people have fled the Far Northern region; driving from one village to the next requires a military escort; and the local economy is hardly functioning.

With the regular armed forces strung out on other operations, the government of Cameroon has had to improvise. One response has been to organize self-defense groups called “comites de vigilance” in each village. These local militias aren’t—yet—particularly well-armed. They possess a mix of what amount to “zip guns,” machetes, and bows and arrows. However, their chief role is to be alert to any strangers who appear, then to inform the army.

These developments raise a number of questions. First, most of Chad’s troops are Sunni Muslims. Why will they fight against an ISIS affiliate, when the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria will not fight against ISIS? Second, both Chad and Iraq get most of their income from oil, but the price of oil has fallen. Will this affect their ability to sustain the struggle? Third, will a defeat of ISIS forces lead to the same switch to relying purely on terrorism within Iraq and Syria?

[1] Yarolsav Trofimov, “ Nations Turn to Chad to Fight Jihadists in West Africa,” WSJ, 22 January 2016; and “After Losing Land, Boko Haram Responds With Bombs,” WSJ, 29 January 2016

[2] Probably the two are related. The former French territories have maintained contact with France. In addition, Israel has provided some training in Cameroon.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chad

Advertisements

A Geographer Reads the Newspapers 1.

 

Singapore is a microscopic island-country. It should be poverty-stricken: it’s tiny and has no natural resources. In fact, it is very prosperous. It has a great port and it is located at one end of the Malacca Straits, a major world shipping channel between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Need fuel or repairs or supplies? Stop in Singapore. Picking up or dropping off a cargo for anywhere in Southeast Asia? Stop in Singapore. Business generates profits (ka-ching!) and those profits mean that Singapore is a good place to borrow money. So, you’ve got a good idea for a pot plantation on a remote island or a new textile factory in Bangladesh or a TS brothel on Soi Cowboy? Stop in Singapore. These “core” businesses than send out local shock-waves. What that means is that there are sky-scrapers, office buildings, and slums all over the place. However, you can’t build these without construction workers.

In contrast, Bangladesh is an economic disaster area. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of poor people. The “surplus” population is shoved off to work abroad in Malaysia, the Persian Gulf, and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers abroad then send home part of their pay to the wife or mother back home. These are called “remittances.” The remittances help keep afloat the national economy. At the same time, Karl Marx mistakenly described religion as “the opiate of the people.” Truth is, sometimes it is the “speed” of the people. A lot of miserable Bangladeshis have embraced radical Islam. This scares the government of Bangladesh, so it locks up a lot of the leaders.

Singapore’s population is 74% of Chinese descent, 13.4% of Malay descent, 9.2% of Indian descent, and 3.3% of other descent. About 15 percent of the population is Muslim. In short, it is a Chinese island with a bunch of non-Chinese. Most Muslims are immigrant laborers.

Sometime in the week of 17-24 January 2016, Singapore deported 27 men back to their home country of Bangladesh.[1] The police in Singapore had suspected the men of being involved with Islamic militants. They were all members of the same “study group”[2] that had turned to Islamic radicalism. Singapore announced that the men were linked to Al Qaeda and/or ISIS, and that they had been planning terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

The government of Bangladesh then charged 14 of the men as terrorists. The other 13 were released to their families (whose addresses were, no doubt, noted for future reference). The police said that the men held radical Islamist beliefs, but they hadn’t broken any law in Singapore.[3] However, the government press release insisted that the accused were not affiliated with either Al Qaeda or ISIS. They were just, you know, ordinary Islamist fanatics. Possibly, the government suggested, they were linked to the opposition parties. (Wink, wink.) Nor were the men planning a terrorist act inside Bangladesh. Nor had they been “radicalized” while they were in Bangladesh. Instead, they had become radicalized while in Singapore.[4]

Singapore is a golden link in a chain of prosperity, poverty, and migration in South-East Asia.   That chain is now under stress.

[1] Julfikar Ali Manik, “Terrorism Charges Filed in Bangladesh Against 14 Men,” NYT, 24 January 2016.

[2] Probably they weren’t debating “what would Mohammad drive?”

[3] So, in Singapore you can be arrested and deported because the cops don’t like the look on your face. Bear this in mind when you’re making vacation plans. Still, see Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952).

[4] I still can’t give blood to the Red Cross because I was in France when there was an epidemic of “mad cow disease” and I might be a carrier. (Certainly would explain the teaching evaluations.) Same thing goes for the idea that Muslims had been radicalized in Bangladesh. If people start thinking that Bangladeshi = suicide bomber, then no more labor permits for Bangladeshis. No more remittances. The whole country sinks even before global warming goes to work.

 

The Gun Show.

Since 2009, when President Obama first began talking about gun control, gun sales have increased. The stock market value of gun manufacturers like Smith and Wesson and Ruger rose by 900 percent.[1] Now the president has begun taking executive action to extend federal control.

How big is the problem of unlicensed gun sales? A study of “Armslist.com” found that 600,000 guns were offered for sale on-line by unlicensed dealers. Of these, 4.5 percent were sales by “high volume dealers”–people who sold 25 to 150 weapons a year.[2] So there are a small number of people knowingly skirting the law in much the same way, perhaps, as many drivers ignore the speed limits[3] or sell marijuana. Guns purchased on-line will not be sent directly to the purchaser. They will be sent to a licensed gun-dealer who can carry out an on-line background check before turning over the gun to the purchase. Many, if not most, gun show sales also require a background check. (Lots of people have a Wi-Fi connection.)

When President Obama issued his executive order on gun-sales, he sought to bring all those who sell or trade guns under federal control.[4] Specifically, anyone who sells guns could be considered a “gun dealer.” Any of them who do not have a federal license—which will not be issued to applicants in the same way that federal lands are to be closed to coal miners by executive order—could be subject to heavy fines. White House spokes-person Josh Earnest[5], claimed that the penalties to be levied on people “hiding behind the hobbyist exemption” would force many people to seek federal gun-dealer licenses. So, that’s the end of that. These dealers are thought to sell hundreds of weapons a year. Some of these hundreds of weapons may be used in the thousands of gun homicides that happen each year. Both small gun dealers and knowledgeable federal officials doubt that the new order will have any effect.

How does it play in Peoria? As of early January 2016, 51 percent of Americans were opposed to tighter gun laws; while 48 percent supported tighter laws.[6] As of mid-January 2016, more than half (54 percent) of Americans opposed President Obama’s use of executive orders to alter the gun laws [relating to who is a gun-dealer], while 44 percent approved it. So, Americans are clear in their own mind about what they believe on this matter. At the same time, however, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans supported President Obama’s directive for expanded background checks for gun-buyers.[7] What about the party-affiliation breakdown? Well, virtually all Democrats (85 percent), two-thirds (65 percent) of Independents, and just over half of Republicans (51 percent) support expanded background checks. 

What’s the difference? Well, we have an existing system of back-ground checks and anyone can see that the system doesn’t catch enough of the killers. So extending it makes sense without changing the law by presidential ukase. Changing the legal definition of who is a gun-dealer smacks of President Obama’s all-too-evident belief that he is the ruler of the French Second Empire, rather than president of the United States. The former adjunct professor of law appears to have a problem with many Americans about how he understands the Constitution.

[1] Compared to 800 percent for Apple and 147 percent for the benchmark Standard and Poor’s 500 index.

[2] The NYT did not report on the hand gun versus long gun balance of this trade. Hand guns are the chief killers.

[3] See: Route 202 southbound at 6:30 AM. Just reporting on what I have seen.

[4] Hiroku Tabuchi and Rachel Abrams, “Obama’s Gun Initiative Seen as Having Limited Effect on Unlicensed Dealers,” NYT, 8 January 2016.

[5] “Josh” is an old term for “joke.” “Earnest” is an old term for “I’m serious.” So, which is it?

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 January 2016, p. 17.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 January 2016, p. 17.

Annals of Counter Terrorism 1.

Emanuel L. Lutchman lived in Rochester, New York.[1] He was born about 1990. His mother died soon afterward and he was raised by his grand-mother in Florida. He was diagnosed with mental problems early on. When he was 13 he returned to Rochester to live with his mother’s side of the family. He never graduated from high school. By 2006, at the latest, he was having “contact” with the police. In part, this stemmed from his unsteady mental health. In part, this stemmed from crimes. He did a five year bit for robbery. He became a Muslim while in prison. Prison doctors also loaded him up on meds for his mental problems. At some point he got married and the couple had a son, but Lutchman found the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood a burden. He had a felony conviction, but no high school diploma. Who would hire him? After he got out of prison, he began to follow radical Islamist web-sites and complained on Facebook about the injustices of “the system.” He soon came to the attention of the authorities, who sprang into action. His grandmother said that he was visited by FBI agents in early Fall 2015. They asked him to work as an informant. He declined.[2]

Then he contacted a member of the Islamic State abroad. The government became aware of this and sicked on him several informants. The informants soon won Lutchman’s confidence. He told them of his desire to stage an attack in the near future. The informants told Lutchman that they would help him. His first thought was to imitate the Tsarnaev brothers by building a pressure-cooker bomb. However, he didn’t have enough money to buy a pressure cooker.[3] He thought about a stabbing attack in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. His wife had a knife and he could get a ski-mask for $5. So, this was more in his price-range.

When Lutchman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the internet contact urged him to kill many “kuffar” (Unbelievers). Lutchman then made an audio recording of himself pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He sent the recording to one of the informants. The informant gave the recording to his government superiors. Soon afterward, the superiors told the informant to pull out of the operation. This left Lutchman down-cast. He texted the informant that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.” The other informant quickly bolstered Lutchman’s resolve. He also took him to a Rochester Walmart. They scored ski masks, knives, a machete, and some other stuff. The bill came to $40. Lutchman didn’t have any money, so the informer paid the bill. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force then arrested Lutchman the next day.

William J. Hochul, Jr., the United States Attorney in Buffalo declared that “this New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York, but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop anyone who would cause harm in its name.”

The ISIS member with whom Lutchman was in contact has not been publicly identified.

[1] Benjamin Mueller, “Rochester Man Charged With Planning a Machete Attack on Behalf of ISIS,” NYT, 1 January 2016.

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

[3] They range in price between $20 and $120. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

The Gracchi.

According to the guiding theory of the Democratic Party, a big government that robs the rich to give to the poor should be a permanent winner in electoral politics.[1] It isn’t, in spite of continual Democratic efforts to paint the Republicans as Rich Swells and the mere creatures of Big Business. Eduardo Porter conjectures that working-class whites assign greater importance to “racial, ethnic, and cultural identity,” than to “economic status.”[2]

In December 2015, one poll reported that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump in a general election—if only college-educated people voted. On the other hand, Trump would beat Clinton if only people without a college education voted.

Porter is at pains to argue that, while Trump also polls ahead of his Republican rivals with women and upper-income voters, his main base is “less-educated, lower-income white men.”[3] He argues that white, working-class voters (especially men) are “nostalgic for the county they lived in 50 years ago.”[4] These people—he doesn’t quite say “those people”—“would rather not have a robust government if it largely seems to serve people who do not look like them.” While 62 percent of white Americans would prefer a smaller, less providential government[5], only 32 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics desire that end.   As a result, America could experience “an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.” Actually, it isn’t that clear. Whites account for 62 percent of the population, while African-Americans account for 13.2 percent and Hispanics account for 17.1 percent. Taken together, the supporters of a smaller government total better than 46 percent of the population. That’s a big constituency that spans racial lines.

Porter confuses other issues as well. He approvingly quotes one scholarly paper that argues that “racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” For one thing, Trump has not attacked blacks to the best of my knowledge. Indeed, he has sought the support of traditional leadership figures in black communities. Trump’s white, working-class base agrees with the candidate’s policies on building a wall along the border with Mexico; deporting illegal immigrants, virtually all of whom are Hispanic-Mexicans; and registering Muslims as potential terrorists. All these can be read as expressions of concern about the loss of jobs to foreign competition, the open flouting of the rule of law, and security in an age of terrorism. For another thing, while Porter accepts that people can have predominant non-economic concerns, he ignores the chance that people are ideologically opposed to welfare dependency. Something else must be driving them. That “something” appears to be race, as in “racism.” Again, however, Porter turns a blind eye to long-standing traditions of self-reliance as an American virtue.

America’s economy, society, and place in the world have all changed in ways that most people do not like. Democrats and Republicans are both nostalgic and they offer policies aiming at “restoration.” We need something better.

[1] “Tax, spend, elect” is one version of a motto attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisor Harry Hopkins. The authenticity of the phrase is disputed. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_and_spend

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Racial Identity Returns to American Politics,” NYT, 6 January 2016.   This is a variant of what Marxists term “false consciousness.” People think that that they belong to a different social class than they actually do, so they behave in the wrong fashion. In this case, people assign less importance to “economic status” than liberals think that they should.

[3] That is, the foundation of the New Deal coalition and of its successors until the Seventies. Now much despised.

[4] President Obama and other Democrats have been talking about restoring the middle class to its former prosperity. Why isn’t that “nostalgia”?

[5] This group spills well outside of the Republican constituency, let alone the Trump constituency.

The heat is on.

Diplomatic historians will be familiar with the idea of “two table games.” That is, governments deal with both other states and with domestic constituencies. This analytical approach arose in part as a result of the domestic problems that led Wilhelmine Germany to court the danger of war in 1914. By the early Twentieth Century, the fake-parliamentary government of the Second Reich faced a serious challenge from the rapidly expanding Social Democratic Party, with the powerful labor unions at its back. Middle-class parties were also growing restive with a government dominated by big business and the reactionary “Junker” land-owners of Prussia. To rally support for the established order, Germany pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Either Germany would achieve some diplomatic triumph that would redound to the credit of conservative leadership or the country would face a diplomatic crisis that led all parties to rally ‘round the flag. In the end, however, this policy brought on the First World War.[1]

According to one well-informed analysis, something like the same thing is contributing to the current Iran-Saudi conflict.[2] On the one hand, supporting the spread of the Wahhabist message of conservative Islam has been one way for the Saudis to fend off unrest. Such conservatives have seen Iran as a revolutionary and anti-Saudi force since the Iranian Revolution began (1979). They have quietly criticized the Saudi government for inertia in the early stages of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. That criticism may have helped spark the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Saudi non-intervention in the struggle against ISIS.

On the other hand, handing out free stuff has been another way of fending off discontent.[3] The slump in world oil prices brought about by the American “fracking” revolution forced Saudi Arabia to choose between reducing production to push earnings back up or accepting lower earnings to maintain their share of the market. Saudi Arabia opted for the latter course because they recognized that if they lost customers, they would never get them back. However, lower income meant that the Saudi public budget had to be cut. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a 14 percent cut in its budget, leading to reduced subsidies for all sorts of things.

For their part, Iranian conservatives are unhappy with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the suspected openness to “liberalization” on the part of younger people. New elections loom in February 2016. What to do? Anything that revived revolutionary fervor and rallied people to the defense of the Islamic Republic would be welcome.

Adding to the grounds for complaint by Saudis about various aspects of government policy is the problem of radical Sunnis. What to do? In October 2014, a Saudi court convicted a Shi’ite cleric named Nemer al-Nemer of sedition and sentenced him to death.[4] On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed him—along with 47 Sunnis linked to al Qaeda. In Iran, crowds stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy.[5] Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni-ruled Arab states followed suit.

In 1914 German leaders misjudged where their policy could lead them. People had great confidence in rationality. There isn’t much rationality in “playing chicken.”

[1] See, for example, Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977).

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Mideast Internal Politics Fuel Rift,” WSJ, 5 January 2016.

[3] It’s the mirror-image of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” No taxes = no right to representation.

[4] In both Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, Iran has long used Shi’ites as instruments of Tehran’s policy.

[5] It is difficult to believe that the government of Iran did not understand the implications of one more embassy invasion, especially since the seizure of the American embassy figures as the Iranian “Boston Tea Party.” Perhaps that’s why the police failed to prevent it.

Affirmative Action.

Between 1940 and 1965 the Democratic Party slowly shifted from relying on anti-black racism to a forthright advocacy of “equality as a fact and as a result.”[1] Since the end of the Civil War, opportunities for African-Americans within the modest federal government had bounced around, with the appalling Woodrow Wilson doing much to roll-back advances made under his Republican predecessors. However, after 1932 the dramatic expansion of the size of the federal government and the turn to employing private contractors to execute its will created new conditions. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order that required government contractors to identify and eliminate obstacles to the employment of minorities (by which Johnson meant African-Americans). This basic commitment to justice swiftly became the consensus in American politics. In 1969, President Richard Nixon issued his own executive order that required contractors to hire so as to reflect the racial composition of their area. Many states followed the lead given by the federal government. Ten years of expanding affirmative action initiatives followed.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.[2] For one thing, there were people who saw “affirmative action” as “reverse discrimination.” If one kind of discrimination is wrong, then all kinds are wrong. So, there was a principled opposition to affirmative action. For another thing, affirmative action disrupted and devalued a well-established system of apportioning opportunity.[3] At all levels of American society, some people get things because of patronage or connections. That’s true of “legacy” admissions to Ivy League universities; it’s true of family firms; and it’s true of union hiring halls. Increasing minority representation gored somebody’s ox in many of these cases. For yet another thing, some people are racists. They assumed that African-Americans were innately less capable than were whites. For liberals of this stripe, inferiority meant that African-Americans needed to be protected and guided by an expanded state, rather than left to their own devices. For conservatives of this stripe, inferiority meant that nothing achieved by any African-American came by way of merit, but only by manipulation.

In 1975 Allan Bakke, denied admission to medical school at the University of California at Davis, sued. In 1978 the US Supreme Court found for Bakke, rejecting the use of quotas to apportion opportunity. The case touched a nerve among conservatives in particular. In 1980, former California governor Ronald Reagan won the presidential election. He issued his own executive order ending the affirmative action requirement for federal contractors.

The American system of federalism means that the policy of the federal government is not necessarily the policy of the individual states. Hence, a sustained effort has been made to persuade the Supreme Court that affirmative action is un-constitutional. In 2003, without much enthusiasm, the Supreme Court upheld the basic constitutionality of affirmative action. It’s easy to find people who feel wronged by affirmative action. So, it’s still on the docket.

[1] “The origins of affirmative action,” The Week, 28 June 2013, p. 9. Between 1865 and 1965 much of the Democratic voter base consisted of Southern whites, who upheld the system of “Jim Crow.” Indeed, it seems likely that at various points in its history, every single member of the Ku Klux Klan was a Democrat. Dis-franchised Southern blacks were nevertheless counted for the purposes of apportioning representatives just as if they had the right to vote. This inflated Democratic numbers in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.

[2] Isaac Newton, Third Law of Motion. But maybe not, at least not in politics, society, and the economy. Otherwise we’d be stuck in the same place for millennia. This shows the perils of applying the lessons of physics to the less reliable world of human activity. So does the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But I digress.

[3] Indeed, that was the idea.