The Great Game–latest round.

“What do Russians want?”—Sigmund Freud.

One theory holds that the pursuit of foreign policy gains is driven by domestic concerns.[1] Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine are intended to distract Russians from their current economic hard times by reviving Russian parity with the United States. However, even though Russia remains burdened by economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine and constantly assailed by Western leaders, Putin has called for new parliamentary elections in April 2016. That doesn’t look like a worried man. More likely, Putin’s chief concerns are international rather than domestic.

Vladimir Putin habitually gloms together a range of international events as evidence of the malign effects of American interventionism: Iraq (2003), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Libya (2013). Georgia and Ukraine may seem like a bad case of emotional sunburn, but it’s hard to argue with the examples of Iraq and Libya. As Putin made clear to New York Times reporter Peter Baker some years ago, he wants the Americans to stop it.[2] Apparently, Syria is the place where he intends to make his point.

Russia is trying to show that it is a better ally and worse foe than is the United States. In essence, the Russians want Assad to stay in place until they agree that he should go and that he be replaced by a regime friendly to Russia. At the moment, the Russians are willing to fight and the Americans are not, so Putin is likely to get his way.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been modest: 50 aircraft; 6,000 troops to service and protect the planes; and about $3 million a day. With that backing, however, Assad’s forces have expanded their territory at the expense of their foes. The anti-Assad forces approved of by the West often fight cheek-by-jowl with the anti-Assad forces disapproved of by the West (the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front). The Russians don’t seem much inclined to fine distinctions and the most-recent cease-fire agreement allows for attacks on both ISIS and the Nusra Front. The current fear in Washington seems to be that the Russians will continue their attacks on a broad swathe of anti-Assad forces after the cease-fire nominally goes into effect. If past performance is any guide, the US will not do anything more than protest as its nominal clients are killed.

However, now Assad’s troops are close to encircling the rebel city of Aleppo. If they can cut the main supply routes into the city before the cease-fire begins, then the cease-fire will allow a siege to run forward undisturbed. Any attempt by Assad’s opponents to break out of or break in to Aleppo would constitute a violation of the cease fire. Seen in that light, Putin’s insistence that he will honor the cease-fire may be “sincere.” The fall of Aleppo might put the last nail in the coffin of the non-ISIS part of the insurgency.

That still would leave ISIS. Would the Russians back a Syrian effort to reconquer the eastern part of the country from the Caliphate? If they did, what sorts of questions might that raise for other countries? The United States would have to decide if it would co-operate with such an attack. After having complained that the Russians have not been attacking ISIS, it might be embarrassing to refuse to join an attack on ISIS. If the Syrians did attack eastward, would they navigate around the Syrian territories held by Kurds? Leaving the Kurds in place would pose a problem for Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been after Assad’s head for years. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!”[3]

[1] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Wins Policy Points. Now What?” NYT, 24 February 2016.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.”

[3] Joel, 3: 14.

Africa Adio.

A while ago, you wouldn’t have thought that Sub-Saharan Africa would become a hot-bed of Islamism. In culture, it was African, rather than Arab; in religion it was Sufi, rather than Wahhabist.[1] Sufi leaders—many of them not particularly well-educated and perhaps similar to the village priest of the European Middle Ages or the mountain reverend of the Appalachians–preached accommodation with formally secular governments and co-existence with Christians. People sought the consolation of religion mainly when they grew older.

However, the situation has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. As was the case before with post-liberation Arab states, Sub-Saharan governments have failed to deliver higher living standards or respectable authority. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has sponsored conservative Sunni evangelists throughout the Muslim world. Sub-Saharan Africa was no exception. Thousands of eager young theology students from the region have studied in Saudi “universities.” Modern telecommunications allowed for the rapid spread Wahhabist preaching.[2] As a result, in recent years vast numbers of the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa have switched affiliation to Wahabbism.[3] More mosques are attended by larger congregation of younger people.[4] Many of those mosques have been built with Saudi money.

Then the American overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 opened one pathway between the ISIS caliphate and Sub-Saharan Africa, just as it opened a pathway in the opposite direction for migrants driven by poverty between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean sea-route to Europe. The migration to Europe and the rise of Boko Haram are two sides of one coin.

As a result, pro-Western governments have been operating in an increasingly difficult environment. Boko Haram turned to armed struggle in northern Nigeria in 2009. In 2013, an Islamist movement partnered with an indigenous Tuareg rebellion in Mali.[5] French troops beat back that threat. When the president of Niger openly sympathized with the victims of the Islamist attack on “Charlie Hebdo” in early 2015, mobs burned down forty Christian churches and the French cultural center. Additional British, French, and American special forces soon joined the fight, while the US set up bases for observation drones in Cameroon and Niger. On the other hand, ISIS seems to have increased its support for the Islamists, both remotely through the Internet and directly through dispatching advisors. Driven off the battlefield, Boko Haram resorted to terrorism. In January 2016, Islamists terrorists killed 86 people in Dalori, Nigeria, 32 people in Bodo, Cameroon, and 30 people in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.[6] In early February Boko Haram suicide bomber killed 58 at a refugee camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.

Yes, these bastards need killing. However, mowing the lawn isn’t going to solve the problem over the long term. It will take sustained economic development and good government.

[1] Basically, esoteric (focused on individual communion with Allah and loosey-goosey about assimilating elements of traditional African religion), rather than exoteric (focused on the strict observance of rites).

[2] In a different context, the American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki offers a good example. See: “Just like imam used to make.”

[3] See Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2003).

[4] Would it force the analogy to see the supporters of Bernie Sanders and of Donald Trump in the same light? Angry or idealistic people who see the system as rigged against them is one common feature. That isn’t meant to denigrate either the young Islamists or the supporters of the American candidates denounced as “populists” in the mainstream American media. Nor is it an endorsement of their policies.

[5] See: “Sahel of a Good Song.”

[6] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Jihad Comes to Africa,” WSJ, 6-7 February 2016.

A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 2.

Attacks by the military forces of other countries, notably of Chad, have driven Boko Haram off the conventional battlefield in northern Nigeria.[1] Two things have resulted from this military success. On the one hand, Boko Haram has turned to ordinary terrorism: suicide bombings in villages, along with attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners in states neighboring Nigeria. Suicide attacks happen almost daily now. The attacks have disrupted the local economy. Food has become scarce. Famine is a real danger. About 2.8 million people have fled the region for safety in the south.[2] However, there is no organized system for dealing with these refugees. Some have gone to live with relatives, some are housed in makeshift camps. Much of the income of these states comes from oil, so the fall in prices has squeezed budgets.[3]

On the other hand, many of the estimated 2,000 captives seized by Boko Haram in the last several years have been liberated. While Westerners transiently mobilized behind the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag (and then largely forgot about the 200 captives), the actual families of the returnees are not so enthusiastic. The women among them have been labelled “annoba” (epidemics) or “Boko Haram wives.” There is a suspicion that they were radicalized in captivity. They might have been allowed to return as recruiters of new jihadists. Moreover, many had been raped or forced into marriage with Boko Haram soldiers; some are now mothers of children or are pregnant. This adds to the difficulties of reintegration.

Partly, there appears to be a widespread belief that character is transmitted through the blood or genetically.[4] Local people have said that the children—born or not-yet-born—carry “bad blood.” They have been described as “hyenas among dogs.” One mother said that “When I think of the baby that will come, it disturbs me a lot because I always ask myself this question: will the child also behave like [Boko Haram]?”

Partly, one wonders if traditional notions of “honor” and “purity” are involved. Are the women now seen as not fit for marriage and likely to be permanent economic and psychological burdens on their families. The food shortages and displacements would only compound these anxieties. That’s not pretty to say and may have no basis.

The two different strands of this problem entwine in the female suicide bombers who carry out some of the suicide attacks. On 9 February 2016, two girls killed 58 and wounded 78 at a camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.[5] Some of them appear to be captives who were turned into weapons. Theories about these suicide bombers vary. Some believe that the women have been “brainwashed” in some fashion (like Patty Hearst with the Symbionese Liberation Army). Others believe that the women are unwitting (like the “muscle hijackers” on the 9/11 flights) or extorted in some way, and that the bombs are detonated by remote control. A third possibility is that the female captives share the “bad blood” or “honor” assumptions of their fellow villagers and believe that their lives are effectively over. Some recent female suicide bombers wore their hair pulled back away from their faces in a local burial style.

[1] Dionne Searcey, “Women Freed From Boko Haram Face Rejection at Home,” NYT, 17 February 2016.

[2] In comparison, Germany has taken in about a million refugees in the last year in what is generally regarded as an eye-catching human catastrophe.

[3] The propensity of government officials in Nigeria to steal everything that isn’t nailed down or red-hot adds to the problem. Moreover, many of the Nigerian refugees are Muslims in a predominantly Christian country.

[4] John Locke and his “tabula rasa” haven’t penetrated much here apparently.

[5] Usam Sadiq Al-Amin and Dionne Searcey, “Young Bombers Kill 58 At Nigerian Refugee Camp,” NYT, 11 February 2016.

The GWOD: The Global War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs has looked like a Stage IV Vietnam for a while now. Since 1998, the number of people smoking “dope” (as we called it in my Ute) or snorting “blow” (ditto) has increased by fifty percent.[1] The number using opiates has increased by 200 percent. All the while, the government of the United States has poured in money in an effort to defeat the drug trade. Apparently, it isn’t working very well. It may not be working at all.

A central pillar of the war on drugs has been to restrict the supply in order to push up price. That, it was anticipated, would reduce demand. So, Peru and Bolivia send out their makeshift armies to destroy the coca plants in the fields. Stateside, however, the price has hardly moved for twenty years. Why? Apparently, in part, because the cultivation of coca has expanded so much that troops can’t destroy all of it. Instead, the stable price reflects the ability of the drug cartels to force the peasant producers to bear the costs of crop eradication.[2] If soldiers destroy a mountain clearing of coca bushes, then the peasant farming them is ruined. Other fields remain undiscovered and untouched. This suggests that the drug cartels encourage the planting of as much as twice as much coca as they will need, then use the capture of up to half of the growers as a way both to discipline the growers and to toss a bone to the police.[3]

Then, the price for raw coca paid to the farmer is so low that it is a small share of the total cost of production of cocaine for sale on the street. Most of the additional costs are incurred inside the United States. Pushing up the cost of coca leaf, even by 100 percent, would only raise the price of cocaine on the street by an infinitesimal amount.[4]

In contrast, spending a dollar on drug education in the US reduces demand about twice as much as a dollar spent on reducing supply in South America, while addict treatment reduces it by a factor of ten. Still, when’s the last time you saw a movie where the hero wore a cardigan sweater instead of camo? (OK, Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.”) Indeed, it is possible that marijuana legalization in a few Western states has done more damage to the drug cartels than has the DEA. Given that the cartels use their vast wealth to kill cops and to corrupt government, that’s a good thing.

This isn’t to argue that drugs are “good” for you. They aren’t, anymore that is alcohol, or tobacco, or going into a hospital.[5] All of which are legal, but regulated.

[1] Tom Wainwright, “If Economists Waged the Drug War,” WSJ, 20-21 February 2016.

[2] Apparently, in Economics, this is called “monopsony”: the ability of a single buyer to determine the price of a good without regard to normal market forces. “Monopoly” is the ability of a single seller to determine the price of a good without regard to normal market forces. Cool!

[3] To follow the Vietnam analogy, this amounts to faking the “body count” in order to meet the production targets. Odd to think of the US Army in the same terms as the Soviet economy, but there it is. On the other hand, one could follow the prostitution analogy. In the later 19th Century and afterword, city governments responded to prissy—generally female-headed– “Goo-Goo” moralist campaigns against vice by concentrating commercial sex in Red Light districts like the Tenderloin, the Combat Zone, and Storyville. Then they arrested, and fined or jailed, working girls and madams as a way of levying a tax on the industry and to render the workers docile. Ain’t capitalism swell?

[4] According to one calculation, by 40 cents on each $150 gram.

[5] Where you could—just imagining here—have nurses not read the chart of someone who had a Tram-flap reconstruction of a breast after a mastectomy and become angry that the patient has difficulty sitting up; or have someone come in for an infection, then leave a sponge in the wound, then leave another sponge in the wound after the patient had returned when the site blew up; or have a surgeon bolt from the operating room to his July 4th events without telling the family of the patient that she was going to die that night. I’m sure that this stuff never happens in real life.

Snow on the roof.

In the Nevada caucuses, with 95.3 percent of the counties reporting, Hillary Clinton picked up 52.7 percent and Bernie Sanders picked up 47.2 percent of the vote.[1] This is an important victory for Hillary Clinton after Sanders tied her in Iowa and thrashed her in New Hampshire.

That isn’t the same as saying that it was a total loss for Sanders. A year ago, in February 2015, 58 percent of self-identified Democratic voters in Nevada favored Hillary Clinton, while 4 percent favored Bernie Sanders. In March 2015, 61 percent favored Clinton, while 7 percent favored Sanders. In July 2015, 55 percent favored Clinton, while 18 percent favored Sanders. In October 2015, 50 percent favored Clinton, while 34 percent favored Sanders. In December 2015, 51 percent favored Clinton, while 39 percent favored Sanders. In January 2016, 47 percent favored Clinton, while 43 favored Sanders. In early February 2016, they were tied at 45 percent each. In mid-February 2016 they were pretty much where they ended up, with 53 percent favoring Clinton and 47 percent favoring Sanders.[2]

Clinton’s numbers were pretty steady for a year, although there was a certain amount of erosion. Sanders’ numbers, however, shot up. Where did he get these voters? Mostly, they came from people who had previously favored Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or Tommy Carchetti, or who had been undecided. Thus, Clinton has a hard core of steady support. There also appears to be a substantial Anyone-But-Clinton (ABC) group among Democratic voters.

Nevada actually is a big blank space on the map. Three-quarters of the state’s population lives in or around Las Vegas, the county seat of Clark County. In Clark County, Clinton won 54.9 percent and Sanders won 45.1 percent. According to the 2010 census, Clark County’s racial makeup was roughly 61 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, 10.5 percent African American.[3]

Although African Americans made up 10.5 percent of the Clark County population in 2010, they turned out at a higher rate than did other groups, totaling 13 percent of the people at the caucuses. Then they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton (76 percent) over Sanders (22 percent). Clinton also did better among older voters than did Sanders.

The ABC movement is centered among younger people and Hispanics. Sanders crushed Clinton among under-30 voters (82 percent-14 percent); and among under-45 voters (62 percent-35 percent).[4] Among Hispanics, Sanders beat Clinton by 8 percent. While, 29 percent of the population is Hispanic, they turned out in much lower numbers, representing only 19 percent of the people at caucuses. Perhaps this represents the Clinton heavy use of Hispanic surrogates in the last stage. This may have suppressed part of the Democratic vote. Had Sanders found a way to fully mobilize the Hispanic vote, he might have won. Whites turned out at a rate of 59 percent, a hair below their share of the population. Clinton and Sanders essentially split this group.

Probably, this will not block her from winning the nomination. Will it affect Democratic turn-out in November? Does Clinton speak only for older people and African Americans?

[1] See:


[3] Yes, I know it doesn’t quite add up and leaves out Asians, etc. It’s the effect of the White, non-Hispanic versus White Hispanic mishagosh.

[4] Abby Philip, John Wagner, and Anne Gearan, “Black vote key in Democratic caucus in Nev.,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 February 2016.


The Turks want the Assad regime gone as a first order of business, and they are attacking Kurdish forces as a second order target. The Saudis want the Assad regime gone and they are attacking Houthis in Yemen as a second order target. The Russians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they are attacking non-ISIS opponents of the regime. The Iranians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they have committed both their own military advisers and client Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to that end. The Shi’ite government if Iraq isn’t making any concessions to the Sunnis of Iraq in order to win them away from ISIS. In the past year, Germany has received about a million refugees from the Syrian civil war. The Kurds are fighting ISIS, even if the rest of the Iraqis are making a half-hearted effort, but that’s because they are trying to establish the territorial basis for an independent Kurdistan. Germans are more concerned about the behavior of Muslim hicks toward European women than they are about the undoubted dangers of terrorist wolves hiding among the refugee sheep. In short, nobody—except American politicians—seems very concerned about ISIS these days.

The common assumption on the Potomac seems to be that ISIS has gigantic ambitions and will seek to wreak havoc in Western countries through terrorism. However, ISIS has little chance of expanding its territory. It made big gains in areas where the opposing forces were rotted by demoralization or were pre-occupied with other conflicts. There is little chance that it can make similar progress against the armies of Turkey, Iran, and Israel. It may not even want to make huge gains. In the words of one observer, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “wanted to create an Islamic state in Syria—sacred land that, according to Islamic prophecy, was to be the site of the apocalypse.”[1] (See: Islamism as a Story.) That’s not quite the same as conquering the whole of the Middle East.

Heightened security in Western countries can limit the danger of ISIS terrorism, even if it cannot totally prevent it. The Israelis have lived with this danger for decades. OK, it hasn’t done their society and politics a lot of good. Still, Israel is still there. ISIS poses no existential threat to Western countries.

That isn’t the same as saying that ISIS hasn’t created problems. The European vulnerability to the flood of Syrian (and other) refugees has opened a means for other states to pressure the Europeans. Turkey started the process, but the Russians are in a position to either add to or to reduce the flood. What would the West give Russia to get it to play ball in Syria? Probably it will not be much fun to be a Ukrainian.[2] Probably it will involve a climb-down on sanctions. Probably it will involve letting the Assad regime survive or transition out on Russian and Iranian terms.

[1] Sohrab Amari, WSJ, 9 February 2016, p. A11.

[2] At the same time, Western democracies already seem to be experiencing buyer’s remorse over their support for Ukraine. Pervasive corruption and a very halting program of economic modernization are angering many people who didn’t look closely at the Ukraine or at its quarrels with Russia before the most recent revolution.


There is a certain irony in the conquest of much of Syria by ISIS.[1] After 9/11, the Assad regime declined to join the American “global war on terror” (GWOT) in any serious way. Instead, it harbored Sunni Islamists. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, large numbers of foreign fighters passed through Syria on their way to join Abu Musab al Zarqawi. One Islamist leader explained Assad’s tolerance for these terrorists: “we [are] focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel.”

In 2007, the balance of forces in Iraq suddenly shifted. Zarqawi’s fundamentalism and his savagery had estranged many Sunnis in Iraq. This led to the “Awakening” movement that greatly reduced the need for American forces while offering much intelligence to the American Special Forces man-hunters. The George W. Bush Administration surged in reinforcements that allowed the US to restore order in Iraq and to pursue the Islamists. The situation began to improve. The Americans killed Zarqawi. Soon, his surviving followers took shelter in eastern Syria, beyond the reach of the man-hunters and the bombs. This allowed many American decision-makers to start looking for an eventual escape route. For his part, Assad seems to have started rounding-up Syrian Islamists whose usefulness had now declined.

Then came the “Arab Spring.” Popular uprisings—generally non-violent—began against the tyrants who ruled (and still rule) much of the Middle East. These movements rocked Tunisia, then Egypt, then Syria, and then Libya. The Tunisian regime soon struck its tents, but it took various types of American pressure to bring “reform” to Egypt and Libya. America had no such leverage in Syria.

At first, Bashar al-Assad responded to the popular challenge by force. This might well have done the job if he had stuck to his last. His faced a loose coalition of talkers-more-than-doers who were often at odds with one another. Like the young Egyptians of Tahrir Square, they seem to have had little support among the populace at large.

Instead, however, Assad tried to tar the rebels as Islamists. To this end, he released a lot of experienced Islamists from his jails. As expected, they took up arms against the regime. Assad then cast his government as the only viable barrier against jihad. Meanwhile, the surviving Iraqi Islamists had reconstituted themselves in eastern Syria as ISIS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their leader. As the civil war dragged on, ISIS took control of much of the eastern part of Syria. Then, in Summer 2014 it attacked into western Iraq, routing Iraq’s army.

The results of Assad’s policies has been appalling. Huge numbers of deaths, hordes of miserable refugees, and a society laid in ruins. Many observers regret that the powers had intervened early on to replace Assad and create some kind of viable successor state. There are reasons to question this view. On the one hand, Assad followed a particularly disastrous version of the same course that is being followed more successfully by Egypt.   There the army turfed the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and has used the struggle against radical Islam as cover for a revived military dictatorship. So far, that approach seems to be working, mowing down young secular opponents of the old regime with as much enthusiasm as Islamists. So, it was not a foregone conclusion that Assad’s policy would fail.

On the other hand, the “coulda-woulda-shoulda” view ignores the reality that the Syrian civil war is a proxy war for Shi’ites and Sunnis. It also ignores the reality that Russian agreement to yet another American intervention-overthrow would have been necessary to get UN approval. That wasn’t likely to happen after the Libyan imbroglio.

[1] Charles R. Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency (OUP, 2015)