Next Steps in Syria.

After the American pull-out, Iraqi Shi’ite sectarianism undermined the army of Iraq as a fighting force.   In Summer 2014, the fundamentalist Sunni movement called the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked out of eastern Syria into Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Then Iraqi Shi’ite sectarianism came to the rescue.  Various Shi’ite militias, under the umbrella term Popular Mobilization Forces, were called upon to save the day.[1]  At first blush, the militias didn’t seem capable of stopping the advance of ISIS forces, which quickly over-ran Mosul and drew close to Baghdad itself.

However, the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war has long involved Shi’ite Iran’s support for embattled Shi’ite regimes elsewhere.  Iran has been a principal ally of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria.  When ISIS tore into Iraq, Iran responded with aid and support.  The Iraqi militias received a lot of training, weapons, and direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.  To whom are the militias more loyal, the government of Iraq or the government of Iran?  The issue is going to become pressing as the Assad regime appears to be triumphing in western Syria and the Iraqi offensive erodes the ISIS position in western Iraq.

Having sectarian militia featured too prominently in the fight against ISIS posed all sorts of problems for the government of Iraq.  So, the brunt of the attack on ISIS-held Mosul has been born by the regular army of Iraq, backed-up by paramilitary national police.  The Shi’ite militias were deployed to cut off the lines of communication between Mosul and the ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria.  In the course of their operations, the militias have seized some of the territory along the border with Syria.

Once Mosul falls, will the Iraqi militias cross the border into Syria?  Iraqi militia intervention in Syria would raise another set of problems.  The Assad regime is beset by ISIS, but also by Sunni “moderates” and by Syrian Kurds.  Could/would the Iraqis limit themselves to fighting ISIS?  The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has concentrated its attacks on the Syrian “moderates.”  Would the irruption of a foreign Shi’ite military force into Syria reignite Sunni resistance?  Shi’ite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah have long been an important prop to the Assad regime.  More recently, Iraqi Shi’ite militia troops were airlifted in to western Syria to join the fight against the “moderate” Sunnis.

Turkey, which has reduced its opposition to the Assad regime while continuing to support rebel forces that are fighting against ISIS, is deeply alarmed by the advance of Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq because this threatens to create a Kurdish proto-state outside its borders.  That Kurdish state could support Kurds within Turkey.  The United States has long insisted that the fight against ISIS should be the real point of concentration for military efforts in Syria.

Spokesmen for the Syrian “moderate” rebels are insisting to Western journalists that Iraqi intervention in eastern Syria would be a disaster.  Iraqi intervention “will cause a sectarian ignition,” said one.  It “will ruin everything” said another, perhaps causing Sunnis to flock to ISIS as their only defense against the Shi’ites.  More significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has opposed further Iranian expansion.  Similarly, Saudi Arabia would be even more alarmed—if that’s possible–by Iranian proxies intervening in force against Sunnis on a new front.

The decision on this question may rest with other people.  Both sides in the Syrian civil war are close to or past the point of exhaustion.  Vladimir Putin, ruler of the regional power, has chosen not to worsen relations with the United States by taking up President Obama’s challenge.  He may prefer to insist on a pause before any action in eastern Syria.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Will Iraq’s Shi’ite Militias Cross Into Syria Next,” WSJ, 30 December 2016.

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What government can accomplish 1.

People want to live in San Francisco.[1]  However, the price of housing is really, really high.  So, people want to live in Oakland as a fallback.  Here the price of housing is merely really high.  Even so, Oakland rents have spiked by 70 percent over the last five years.  Oakland rents for a one bedroom apartment now average $2,500 a month, or $36,000 a year.  However, many of the potential tenants are “artsy”—musicians and artists–so they don’t have any money.  (I suppose they could live in North Richmond.[2]  However, North Richmond lacks panache, in addition to other deficiencies.[3])  How to square this circle?

The Fruitvale[4] section of Oakland provided an alternative solution.  Chor Nar Su Ng had bought an old warehouse in 1988; in 2013, she rented the building to Derick Almena.  Almena then sub-let space in the warehouse at a really low rate of $600 a head.  This became the now-gruesomely-named “Ghost Ship” warehouse/art space/residence.

On 2 December 2016, a fast-moving, smoky fire broke out during a concert and party at the “Ghost Ship.”  In the end, 36 people died.  Now, people want to know why.

The state of California requires that certain buildings be inspected on a regular basis, but most other buildings are inspected on local initiative.  Oakland’s Fire Department compiled a database of buildings to inspect in about 2000.  According to Oakland authorities, the Fire Department’s database had become outdated.  Oakland’s Fire Department had been without a Fire Marshall for three years before Teresa Deloach Reed won the position in Spring 2016.  Oakland’s Fire Department still is 62 people under complement, in spite of adequate funding.

Reed had a lot of ground to make up.  Neither the Oakland Fire Department nor the Building Department had inspected the warehouse that came to house the “Ghost Ship” in thirty years.  However, several near-by businesses said that they had been inspected on an annual basis.  The warehouse had been inhabited for several years, but the men in the firehouse 200 yards down the street had never noticed people—rather than trucks—going in and out of the “warehouse” at all hours.  From 2014 to 2016, someone filed five complaints about the “Ghost Ship” building and an adjoining lot with the Building Department.  The complainants alleged “unsafe conditions.”  So, why didn’t anyone inspect the “Ghost Ship”?  Well, building inspectors needed the approval of the owner to enter the building.  Apparently, no such approval was forthcoming, so no inspectors entered the building.   Finally, the concert, during which the fire broke out, was required to be registered with the city.  No one registered it.

It turns out that the “Ghost Ship” is but one of at least a dozen similar arrangements.  There are hints that the city gave them a conscious pass on safety regulations. According to the New York Times, “Oakland is trying to strike a difficult balance: keeping residents safe without making them homeless.”

It is worth asking if there are limits to what government regulation can achieve.   This isn’t a libertarian tirade against all regulation.  Regulations have to be enforced to be effective.  Enforcement depends on adequate human and financial resources.   Those aren’t always available.  Regulations can increase faster than do resources.  Then, social and political circumstances can change, as when Oakland became home to an arts community.

To some—uncertain—degree, personal judgment and responsibility are essential.

[1] Thomas Fuller et al, “A ‘Ghost Ship’ All but Unseen, Until 36 Died,” NYT, 23 December 2016.

[2] See: https://www.roadsnacks.net/these-are-the-10-worst-bay-area-suburbs/

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Richmond,_California

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fruitvale,_Oakland,_California

Saudi Arabia in Search of Allies.

Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with the danger from Shi’ite Iran.[1]   Government spokesmen continually portray Iran as “expansionist and interventionist.”  Moreover, the basic values espoused by Shi’ite Iran clash with those that under-pin Sunni Saudi Arabia.  As one Saudi Shi’ite put it, “What we are asking for, we ask for everyone in Saudi Arabia…: We are against corruption, and we are for women’s rights, for elections, against sectarianism.”  The 2011 “Arab Spring” sparked widespread protests in the Shi’ite areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.  The government saw these as an Iranian effort to sow disorder.  A heavy repression (mass arrests, executions of leading dissidents) fell on the Shi’ites.  This has driven dissent underground.

Saudi Arabia pursued an equally vigorous course abroad.  In 2015, it intervened in Yemen’s civil war to prevent pro-Iranian Houthis from taking complete control of the country on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border.[2]  Assisted by the Egyptian navy, the Saudis imposed a blockade of Yemen’s ports.  The Saudis also unleashed a devastating bombing campaign.

The struggle against Iran has sent Saudi Arabia in search of allies.  Egypt’s military government–in power since General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, overthrew the Mohammed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013—sees political Islam as the country’s chief danger.  This, in turn, means that the “moderate” Sunni rebels in Syria—with an ideological affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood—pose a greater danger than does the Assad government.  Then there is the even greater danger from the Islamic State.  Until 2015, Saudi Arabia also opposed the Brotherhood.  After the coup, Saudi Arabia poured in financial aid to the Sisi government.

Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan is an exponent of political Islam who feels threatened by a military coup.[3]  An anti-Islamist military coup in Egypt might put ideas in the head of more secular Turkish generals.  So Turkey opposed the overthrow of Morsi.  Also, Turkey favored the Sunni “moderates” in Syria.  This created a divide between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In 2015, however, the succession to the Saudi throne of King Salman changed the Saudi position on the Muslim Brotherhood.  This opened the road to cooperation with Turkey.

Back in Summer 2016, Saudi Arabia had two chief allies in the struggle against Shi’ite Iran: Turkey and Egypt.  Turkey joined Saudi Arabia in supporting the Sunni rebels against Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Egypt played a valuable role in the struggle against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Owing to their different stances on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, those two allies were estranged from one another.

For the moment, Russian intervention has tipped the balance in favor of the Shi’ites.  The Russian alliance with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad government of Syria against the “moderate” rebels appears on the verge of winning the day in that struggle.  Turkey, which refused to break diplomatic relations with Iran after mobs ransacked the Saudi embassy to protest the execution of a Shi’ite imam, seems to be making its peace with Russia and its Shi’ite allies.  Meanwhile the economically costly Yemen war drags on as Saudi Arabia imposes austerity policies on its coddled subjects.  It’s trite to say, but alliances are complicated things.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Efforts on Iran,” WSJ, 1 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis See Time on Their side in Yemen,” WSJ, 23 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Contain Shiite Unrest at Home,” WSJ, 2 September 2016.  Yes, I’m just cleaning out my files over Christmas break.

[2] Whether this posed an actual danger given the many problems of Yemen is open to question.  See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/08/20/yemen-and-nomen-2/

[3] Also, he’s one of those guys with a sunburned personality who goes “Ouch” at every perceived slight.

American public opinion in 2016.

Most Americans thought that the country is in trouble.[1]  Better than four fifths (82 percent) said that the people in Washington don’t care about ordinary people; more than three-quarters (77 percent) saw the country as deeply divided over core values; more than three-quarters (76 percent) disapproved of Congress; almost three-quarters (74 percent) believed that the country is headed in the wrong direction; better than two-thirds (70 percent) thought that the presidential election brought out the worst in people; two-thirds thought that the tax system favors the wealthy; almost two-thirds (63 percent) thought that race relations are poor and over half (55 percent) expect them to get worse; and half (50 percent) thought that America’s best days had passed.

All those are opinions.  Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.  Therefore, it has alarmed some people that many Trump voters believe things that are demonstrably not true.  Two-thirds of Trump voters believe that unemployment has increased during President Obama’s two terms; 60 percent believe that millions of illegal aliens voted I the election; and 40 percent believe that Trump won the popular vote.[2]

So, liberals are right to tout the achievement of the Obama administration in the area of employment?  Well, not exactly.  Almost all (94 percent) of the new 10 million jobs created from 2005 to 2015 are not traditional jobs.  They were either temporary jobs or contract-based jobs.[3]  In 2012, Hostess sold its snack-cake brands to a private equity firm.  Those brands then employed 8,000 people.  The investors paid $186 million for the troubled firm.  In 2016, the investors sold the revived firm for $2.3 billion.  At this point, Hostess employed only 1,200 people.[4]  Perhaps this explains some of the belief that the economic recovery is a fraud.

Under these circumstances, it should surprise no one that one-sixth (so, 16+ percent) of Americans are taking medication for depression, anxiety, or some other psychiatric ill.[5]  It would probably be higher if doctors weren’t so starchy.  Not everyone can get or thinks to ask for a script.  Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans deal with stress by self-medicating with comfort foods.  Astonishingly for me, a mere 15 percent name pizza as their drug of choice.  In any event, two-thirds (66 percent) claim that they feel no guilt about bellying-up to the pasta bar.  As a result, in part, of consuming more in dark times, better than a third (36 percent) of Americans are merely overweight, while better than an additional quarter (28 percent) are actually obese.[6]  Must have been a lot of stress over the years.

Perhaps the solution to these problems would be to ignore the news.  In spite of their gloom over the state of the union, most Americans take a sunnier view of their own circumstances.  Over half (51 percent) think that the economy is improving; almost two-thirds (64 percent) are happy with their financial situation; better than three-quarters (77 percent) are happy with their jobs (or perhaps just happy to have one); and the vast majority (84 percent) are happy with their family and friends.  (Christmas should take care of that.)  So, apparently, it is awareness of the difficulties and deficiencies of others that inspires the pessimism about larger matters.  Empathy kills.

[1] “Poll Watch: The way we were in 2016,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 24.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 17.

[3] “The bottom line,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 46.

[4] “The bottom line,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 46.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 16.

[6] “Poll Watch: The way we were in 2016,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 24.

Semi Automated Weapons.

Machines want your job!  Well, they would if they could feel desire.[1]  I guess I really mean that your employer wants your job.  Not for him/her self, or even for some idiot nephew/niece.  S/he wants it for a machine.  Liable to get it too.  Only about 13 percent (1/8-1/7) of job losses are the result of foreign competition.  The rest are the result of automation cutting the need for workers.[2]

Thus, in 1962, about 530,000 people worked in the American steel industry.  In 2005, about 130,000 people worked in the American steel industry.  That’s a 75 percent drop in employment.  However, steel production did not fall.  New technology of steel production just cut the need for workers.  More recently, computer and electronics manufacturing shed jobs thanks to automation.

However, in spite of the headlines in the New York Times, foreign competition really has taken away a lot of jobs from Americans.  China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) led to the loss of 2-2.4 million American jobs since 2000.  Apparel and textiles—the most basic products of any early-industrializing country—have suffered heavy inroads from foreign competition.

It isn’t likely to stop with manufacturing jobs, nor is it isolated to the United States.  In January 2016, one of those “we’re here to help” groups, the World Economic Forum, predicted that 5 million jobs in the top 15 economies world-wide will be lost to computer systems and robots by the end of 2020.  Two-thirds of the lost jobs will be in “office and administrative jobs.”  Already existing technologies could allow machines to do 45 percent of current work activities.  [NB: I don’t think that means 45 percent of jobs, just 45 percent of the work that many people do.  It wouldn’t be difficult to sell this as an improvement for anyone whose work includes a lot of drudgery that prevents them from doing higher-order work.]  “Work that requires creativity, management of people, and caregiving is least at risk.”

What are some of the implications of these changes?  They are both social and political.

Workers cast aside as a result of Chinese competition have had a difficult time adjusting.  As a group, they have a higher unemployment rate and reduced real income for the rest of their lives.  Also, apparently, they feel an impulse to vote for Donald Trump so as to send a wake-up call to the two mainstream political parties.  Trump and others have pandered to this by blaming immigration, and out-sourcing, and foreign competition for huge job losses.

In the past, workers flowed from declining sectors to growing sectors.  This didn’t go seamlessly: new workers who saw their parents displaced chose other lines of work, but the displaced parents had a hard time getting jobs in the “new” economy of that era.  In the past, economic change created new forms of manual labor for those without a lot of education.  This time, however, new jobs for men without college degrees have not arrived to help those displaced by change.

Perhaps more importantly, it isn’t clear that displaced workers want to adapt to new conditions and there is a policy interest in some quarters that wants to facilitate not adapting.  Thus, a story in the NYT says of one displaced worker that      “Many of the new jobs at factories require technical skills, but he doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t want to.”  [NB: That is, he doesn’t want to adapt.]  The policy proposals of many labor economists would accommodate this resistance to adaptation: strengthen unions (so that they can obstruct employer efforts to modernize production until foreign competition does what automation was not allowed to do); create more public-sector jobs (regardless of need); raise the minimum-wage (although this seems to contribute to the search for more automation); and increase the earned-income tax credit (essentially a form of welfare for the unadaptive).  Basically pay people to be unadaptive.  That is, create a market for people who resist change.  “If you build it, they will come.”

[1] “The bottom line,” The Week, 29 January 2016, p. 32.

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “What’s Really Killing Jobs?  It’s Automation, Not China,” NYT, 22 December 2016.

Erdogan in 2017.

Donald Trump is not a fascist, but there is good reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is a fascist.  He became prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002; then became president; then campaigned for much stronger powers for the president; then, in June 2015, saw the AKP blocked from winning an outright majority for the first time; then played the anti-Kurdish/antiterrorism card to regain a majority for the AKP in November 2015 elections; then ruthlessly exploited a failed in July 2016 to purge Turkey’s civil and military institutions of purported supporters of the coup; and then proposed a referendum on greater powers and time in office for the president.

One of Erdogan’s closest advisers told the Wall Street Journal that “In these lands [i.e. the Middle East], if you need to survive, you need a very strong system.”  The proposed constitutional changes include getting rid of the prime minister and transferring powers from parliament to the president.  If the voters in the referendum–tentatively scheduled for June 2016–approve his plan, Erdogan could remain president until 2029—or until the cows come home.[1]

The AKP has 316 seats in the legislature.  It needs 14 more have number required to win parliamentary approval for the referendum.  Where will Erdogan find the votes he needs?  One theory is that the conservative MHP party will support the legislation in hopes of gaining a voice in the new government.  However, between May and November 2015, Erdogan refused to form a coalition government when his party lacked a majority.  Why would the MHP view the offer of a vice-presidency in the new government for its leader as anything other than a short-lived transaction to get the referendum approved?  The MHP would soon find itself discarded.  Erdogan seems more likely to use national security issues to stampede support.

In the mellow, holiday-induced state of mind, it might be possible to view the prospects for the Middle East in 2017 with a certain optimism.  The horrible Syrian civil war appears to be grinding to an end with an Assad victory in western Syria.  In Iraq, the Shi’ite majority, with the backing of Iran and a lot of American airpower, are battering at the eastern borders of the ISIS caliphate.  The caliphate seems likely to collapse entirely in the coming year.[2]  The Iranian nuclear agreement has muted the drum-beat for a new war for the time being.

However, Erdogan’s justification for strengthening the powers of the president rests on a belief that things are going to get worse, not better in the Middle East.  First, there is the Kurdish problem.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq created an autonomous proto-state in northern Iraq.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have played an important part in the containment of ISIS.  Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its national existence.  The Shi’ite majority in Iraq takes a similar view.  The Kurds are likely to rise to the top of their opponents’ To Do list once the fate of the Assad regime is settled and ISIS is defeated.  Attacks on the Kurds will pose problems for American diplomacy.

Second, there is the problem of Turkey’s future orientation.  Will Turkey remain in NATO and continue to press for membership in the European Union (EU)?  In 2016, Erdogan unleashed a flood of refugees and economic migrants on the EU in a bid to extort financial aid and revived negotiation on Turkish entry into the EU.  On the other hand, recently Turkey has patched up its several quarrels with Russia.  What real inducements can Vladimir Putin offer Turkey to shift its alliance?  Aside from the psychological affinity of two authoritarian leaders?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Violence Bolsters Erdogan’s Power Play,” WSJ, 23 December 2016.

[2] Surviving fighters are likely to flee abroad.  Many of these refugees will become a counter-terrorist policing problem in Europe and elsewhere in Arab countries.  ISIS itself will cease being a military problem.

Emeralds.

Celts[1] (pr. Kelts, not Selts) often have red hair and green eyes.  If a man is involved with a woman of Celtic descent, then he starts thinking about buying her stuff that is red or green.  A dark green dress, for example, or a Mandarin red silk wrap with gold and black dragons embroidered on it.  Or jewelry, if you’re at that stage of life (i.e. career, i.e. income) that allows you to go beyond the basic clear white diamond engagement ring.  Rings, ear-rings (clip or post depending on whether you’ve been smart enough to notice if she’s had her ears pierced), and necklaces.  Green or red jewelry means emeralds or rubies.

Here’s where things get complicated.  The best rubies come from Myanmar (Burma).  Mostly the mines are in central and northern Burma.  These regions fell under British control after the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885).  In 1948, Burma became independent of Britain as a republic.  Subsequently it took the name of Myanmar. It has had a military dictatorship for decades and, more recently, there has occurred the whole unfortunate genocide of the Rohingyas thing.  But that’s another story for another time.

The best emeralds come from Columbia.  The tectonic plate movement (up-thrust and subduction) along the western edge of South America pushes hot rock and gases up through yielding sedimentary rocks.  Those gases include beryllium, chromium, and vanadium.  They flow into gaps in the sedimentary rocks, cool, and harden into emeralds.  As it happens, most of these deposits are found in the Boyaca (pr. Boy-yaka) and Cundinamarca districts, which lie on the eastern slopes of the Andes.  Much of this territory was first explored by Spaniards under the command of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1496-1579).  (Jimenez led several disastrous-to-catastrophic expeditions into the interior, then died of leprosy.[2])  Much later in the bloody history of Columbia, a conventional civil war between left and right[3] molted into a decades-long struggle between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, and drug cartels.  Tens of thousands of people have died.  The leader among the left-wing rebels is the “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia or FARC).  They started off as peasant Communists sponsored by Fidel Castro’s Cuba back when it was trying to export its own revolution.  Communism didn’t work out, so they turned to Capitalism[4]: dealing drugs and kidnapping people for ransom.  Not that FARC was alone in the resort to drug dealing.  Columbia soon became the major source of cocaine imported into the United States.[5]

Nor was FARC alone in the kidnap and ransom trade.[6]  They were just very good at it.  The movie “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000) examines the business.  The movie is about Columbia, thinly disguised at the fictional country of “Tecala.”  During the filming, Meg Ryan had a steamy interlude with Russell Crowe.  Her eyes are blue, not green.  He would have given her sapphires.  So much for the hoped-for symmetry in my little essay.

Control over the emerald mines has become a key source of wealth for all the combatants.  A black market has developed.  Hence, Columbian emeralds are considered “conflict gems.”  Tiffany’s and Cartier don’t sell emeralds.  Hard thing to learn at Christmas.

[1] People who trace their distant ancestry to Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gonzalo_Jim%C3%A9nez_de_Quesada

[3] See, La Violencia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Violencia  A version of this appears in the novel by R.M. Koster, The Prince, as “La Rabia.”

[4] Kind of like post-Communist Russia and the Peoples’ Republic of China avant le fait.

[5] For one aspect of this issue, see Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2015).

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnappings_in_Colombia and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnap_and_ransom_insurance