Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s stance on the Syrian civil war has grown complicated.[1]  There are Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism has threatened the territorial integrity of all three countries.[2]  If the Kurds can establish a Kurdish state in Syria and/or Iraq, then they will have a base for supporting rebellion by Kurds in Turkey.[3]  The civil war in Syria caused a collapse of authority by the Assad regime in many parts of the country.  Since 2012, in the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey, Syrian Kurds established their power in a number of enclaves.  The first Kurdish troops joined up, at least in part, to oppose ISIS on its own demerits.

Then, in 2015, ISIS reared its ugly head as a threat to Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and led by Iranian generals, rose up to resist ISIS.  The United States sought to counter two enemies—ISIS and Iran, which were themselves enemies—by mobilizing Kurdish troops against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  The Americans tried to put a veneer of we’re-not-only-Kurds on this by recruiting some Arab fighters for what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.  This hasn’t fooled anyone.

By mid-2016, Kurdish forces seemed intent on linking-up several of their enclaves along the border with Turkey.  In August 2016, the Turks launched a major attack on ISIS forces across the border to pre-empt a Kurdish conquest.  As the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, it became a matter of time until the Turks, Kurds, and Americans would have to decide on next steps.  In late January 2018, Turkey—an American ally in NATO—attacked Kurdish troops—American allies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations have continued to sour.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003.  In July 2016, opponents of Erdogan tried to overthrow him in a coup.  They missed their punch.  Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup.  Gulen lives in the United States and the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Turkey.  In 2016, Erdogan began building links to Iran and Russia.

Sometimes, there aren’t good solutions to problems.  If you wanted someone to fight ISIS and if you didn’t want it to be only Iran and its Iraqi clients, then either the Kurds or the Turks were going to have to do it.  The Turks showed no interest in a major intervention.  That left the Kurds, with all the baggage that choice would carry.  Similarly, should the United States now choose Turkey or the Kurds?  Erdogan seems bound away from a Western orientation.  The Kurds have proved themselves valuable allies at a time when the Syrian civil war continues down an uncertain path.  Perhaps there is a way to compose the differences between Turkey and the Kurds, at least over the longer term.  Or perhaps not.  Won’t know until we try.

[1] Sewell Chan, “What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on American-Allied Kurds in Syria,” NYT, 23 January 2018.

[2] The Assad family allowed one Turkish Kurdish leader to operate from Syria for a long time.

[3] This is the same reason that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state.  Doesn’t matter what commitments they may have made in earlier and different times.  For that matter, this is the same reason that there isn’t a Confederate States of America.  Before we start preaching to others.

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The Fifty Years War 1.

Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China threatened the survival of millennia of human progress.  They had to be fought to the death.  Otherwise darkness would spread over the Earth.  It would be easy to characterize this as the Children of Darkness versus the Children of Light.  Life isn’t like that.  Instead, squalid moral compromises imposed themselves in this titanic struggle.  So, from 1939 to 1989, we embraced the lesser tyrannies in order to defeat the greater tyrannies.  The United States allied itself with the British Empire and Stalinist Russia to defeat Hitler’s Germany.  Then the United States allied itself with Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Saudi Arabia, post-Nasserite Egypt, Asian dictatorships (Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam), Shavian Iran, then Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a great many African dictatorships.

We got our hands dirty in the process.  Very dirty.  We tolerated the atrocities of inhumane regimes allied to our cause.  We ourselves–and not just the soldiers we sent to do our bidding–committed atrocities.  We advanced the interests of the private corporations that we used as instruments and proxies.  We slighted the humanitarian organizations that expressed an important strand of American idealism.

And we won.  Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union as created by Joseph Stalin, and Communist China as created by Mao Zedong have all been laid in the dust.  We won, but not we alone.  We had allies, notably Britain and its Commonwealth of Nations, and the Western European countries that created the European Union, and Japan.

Squalid moral compromises didn’t always have squalid outcomes.  One great story of the second half of the Twentieth Century has been the expansion of democracy.  Places where democracy failed in the Thirties and Forties (Italy, Austria, Germany, France) have become solidly democratic political systems.  One-time dictatorships (Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Baltic states, Japan) have become democratic societies.  Formal colonial empires have been dismantled, allowing many societies to make a mess of things on the own and for the advantage of their own elites, rather than by and for Western elites.  The idea of Democracy has expanded.  Women have the vote and a greater chance at participation in most Western societies.  “Democracy” has come to mean government action to promote material welfare and opportunity in many countries.

Still, the “Fifty Years’ War” had its costs.  Not all of them were numbered in economic terms or human lives.  The war cost us in social and psychological terms.  Chief among them seems to be the entrenching of a war mind-set.  This appears in the overblown hostility to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the fear of radical Islam.  Loathsome as these are, neither poses an existential threat.

What have we done, what will we do with our victory?  That is, “What do we offer?”  NOT the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” declared by Winston Churchill.  Rather we want to offer honest work at decent pay; family homes; the right to your opinion, even if it is nutty or you don’t care to say; equal treatment under the law; and a tolerance for diversity.

What we aspire to offer everyone isn’t what we do offer to everyone yet.  Still, it’s better than wearing a suicide vest into a steamy rural market or writing malware in a freezing tenement.

Default Setting.

I’m not sure that History weighs on us, but Memory certainly does.[1]  For example, inflation and deflation are subjects of learning and memory for those who experience them.  Deflation (falling prices) plagued American borrowers and benefitted American lenders in the last quarter of the 19th Century.  People looked at inflation (rising prices) with longing or loathing.  If you were, say, 64 in 1934, then you were born in 1870.[2]  Growing up, you would probably have heard about reams of paper money printed without any fixed relationship to gold in order to finance your particular country’s search for victory in the Civil War.  As an adult, you would have read with exultation or dread, depending on your social class, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech and the Populist calls for the free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16:1.  That is, you would have been familiar with inflation as a good thing (for debtors) or a bad thing (for creditors), rather than as just a normal thing.  In the wake of the election of 1896, a conservative victory, Congress enacted American adhesion to the gold standard.  However, that was just Congress, a bunch of gutless poltroons (why else would you bribe them?) who might change their minds with the wind.  As a result, many lenders inserted “gold clauses” in contracts.  These obligated borrowers to repay in gold coins of “present weight and fineness” or in paper of equivalent value.  Basically, “gold clauses” were inflation-proofing insisted upon by lenders.  They applied to various contracts, but especially to bonds—government and corporate IOUs.

OK, skip ahead to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Taking the leadership of a country sunk in the slough of despond, Franklin D. Roosevelt opted for inflation over deflation.  He severed the United States from the Gold Standard, which kept currencies fixed at specific rates of exchange, and then revalued the dollar.  This allowed Roosevelt to “raise” the price of gold held by the United States and print more dollars to accommodate its higher price.  The “price” of gold rose from about $21/ounce to $35/ounce.  So, by about two-thirds.  This inflated prices and devalued debts.  Great!  For anyone who had debts not inflation-proofed.

At this point, Roosevelt’s policy slammed into the “gold clauses” on many bonds.  Because of the two-thirds rise in the price of gold, debtors had to pay lenders about two-thirds more than they had borrowed.  One of those debtors was the United States government, which owed about $20 billion in gold-clause bonds.[3]  In 1935, the Supreme Court—in the “gold clause cases:–held that the government could abrogate public and private gold clauses.  That is, the U.S. government is not obligated to pay its debts and it did not pay them in this case.

Still, it is a commonplace that the United States has never defaulted on its debts.  That reassuring belief keeps people buying Treasury bonds when the deficit and national debt keep growing to extraordinary levels.  Except, maybe Bill Gross when he was at PIMCO.[4]

[1] That’s probably why “we” never learn from the past, but individuals often do learn from the past.  There is no way to transmit the acquired knowledge.  They why study History at all?  Because smart people will be among the few who learn lessons and for everyone else, it’s pretty entertaining.

[2] Sebastian Edwards, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold (2018).

[3] Worth about $380 billion in 2018 dollars.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/03/pimcos-gross-asks-who-will-buy-treasuries-when-the-fed-doesnt/72276/ ; https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/05/bill-gross-on-deficits-and-the-fed/238682/

Chain Migration.

From 1789 to 1808 the United States had a policy of unrestricted immigration; from 1808 to the 1920s the United States had a policy of unrestricted immigration for people of European origins; and from the 1920s to the 1960s the United States had a policy of restricted immigration that favored people from Northwestern Europe.[1]  These changes reflected struggles between economic necessity and national identity.

In 1960, 70 percent of immigrants came from Europe.[2]  Early in 1964, in a little noticed part of his campaign for a “Great Society,” President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed that “a nation that was built by immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission “What can you do for our country?’  But we should not be asking ‘In what country were you born?’”  The election of a liberal Congress in November 1964 opened the flood-gates for a host of long-stalled reforms.[3]

A new immigration law compromised between the traditional policy that prioritized immigration from northwestern Europe and a new policy that prioritized candidates with skills and education needed by the United States.  Conservatives chose family re-unification as the device for defending the traditional sources of immigration.  The new “Immigration and Nationality Act” of 1965 capped annual immigration at about a million people and assigned about 80 percent of the slots to ‘family reunification” candidates, but only about 20 percent to “needed” candidates.  Moreover, eligible family members shifted from spouse and small children to add adult children, brothers and sisters, and parents.

What looked to be a resounding victory for conservatives turned out to be something else entirely.  While the Irish and Italians continued to migrate in droves from desperately broken societies, the rest of Europe dried up as a major source of migration to America.  Britain, France, and Germany were both short of labor themselves and building “social” states that offered steadily rising standards of living for most people.  Eastern Europe lay within the Soviet empire, from which few could escape.  As a result, the large share of family reunification slots increasingly flowed toward the previous minority sources of Asia, Latin America, and Africa.  By 2010, 90 percent of immigrants were from non-European sources.

Is there anything wrong with this approach?  From the economic point of view, there is—at least in some eyes and some ways.  On the one hand, traditionally, most immigrants came to America as young people seeking economic opportunity and political freedom.  They found a hard and demanding land that gave nothing away and insisted that immigrants assimilate to an “Anglo-Saxon” culture.  America ended up with lots of adaptable strivers.  An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study has reported that skill-based immigrants are more likely to be younger, better educated, more fluent in English, and quicker to get work than are the family-based immigrants.  Thus, American immigration policy misses the opportunity to fully enrich the country’s human capital.  On the other hand, a battle over limiting or reducing immigration is counter-productive for a country that is short of skilled labor and likely to suffer slower economic growth as a result.

So there is a case for immigration reform.  However, it should involve shifting (even reversing) the distribution of slots between “family” and “skill” immigrants.  Of course, even this solution dodges the question of whether the United States should be aggressively recruiting from countries with a dim future—like Taiwan.

[1] From 1808 the involuntary immigration of African slaves was restricted; from the 1880s Asian immigration to the West Coast was restricted; and from 1924 the immigration of people from southern and eastern Europe was restricted.

[2] Greg Ip, “Kinship Emerges as Immigration Flashpoint,” WSJ, 18 January 2018; Tom Gjelten, “The Curious History of ‘Chain Migration’,” WSJ, 20-21 January 2018

[3] See: Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”  Greg Ip argues that Jonson saw immigrants as deserving the same right to equal treatment without regard to race that he wished to insure for American citizens.

My Weekly Reader, 29 May 2018.

The war correspondent Thomas Ricks reads war books for the NYT Book Review.  It’s not worth summarizing his summaries, but he often has interesting observations to make.  Discussing a book[1] on the rise of autonomous-killing machines (“war-bots” like the “fem-bot” in “Austin Powers”) he reports that the Stuxnet computer virus was injected into the Iranian nuclear project’s computer system through flash-drives loaded with porn.[2]  More alarming, and less comic, is the contention that machines can learn and that, as they learn, they will become still more autonomous.  “The bottom line,” says Ricks, “is that the more an autonomous weapon is let free to roam in time and space, the more likely it is that something will go catastrophically wrong.”  So, while it seems impossible to stop the development of autonomous weapons, people should be working hard to prevent the development of autonomous nuclear and chemical or biological weapons.  There are degrees of catastrophe.

The Syrian Civil War (2011-the present) seems to have been going on forever (although not for anywhere near as long as the war in Afghanistan).  Will it never end?  A couple of scholars who have written recent books think not—or not anytime soon.[3]  Seeing the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq as consequences of the destruction of tyrannical “republics,” they think that there will be follow-on conflicts even after the likely victory of the Assad regime over its opponents and the defeat of the Islamic State.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration is starting to take fire from new critics.  The New Zealand political scientist William Harris has described it as “feckless” in Syria and Ricks says he portrays Secretary of State John Kerry as “almost buffoonish.”  (If you’ve ever seen photographs of Kerry in a one-to-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, you might already have suspected this to be the case.)  Ronan Farrow has taken time off from belaboring highly-placed swine in other areas of American public life to upbraid political leaders for the shrinking role of American diplomacy in maintaining world order.[4]  However, not all of his argument serves his purpose.

Farrow once served as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, one of the pro-consuls of the American empire.  Holbrooke had “negotiated” an end to the horrible war in Bosnia, so he aspired to become Secretary of State.  However, he got stuck in civil life through the political incompetence of several Democratic presidential candidates.  Later, denied the top job at Foggy Bottom, he settled for special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Well, not really “settled.”  Farrow describes Holbrooke as “grasping, relentless,” and “oblivious to social graces in the pursuit of his goals.”[5]  In short, he was a jerk, especially in the eyes of other power-seekers and power-wielders in the Obama foreign policy establishment.  On the other hand, he thought that the only way out of Afghanistan lay in talks with the Taliban.  One key point here is that no administration wants to get charged with having lost a war, even when the war became unwinnable on another administration’s watch.  In a sense. Holbrooke was what Raymond Chandler once called a “tarantula on a piece of Angel’s food cake.”

A second point, however, is that individual ambitions and animosities (or amities) shape policy decisions.  Democrats didn’t have (and don’t have) a deep bench on foreign policy.  Holbrooke was an old guy from the Clinton administration from which the Obama administration wished to distance itself.  However, Holbrooke had accomplished something, and he had supporters as well as opponents.  So he got a job.  He died doing it.  Still, his “failure” to persuade could be read as a sign of how little traction Hilary Clinton possessed when serving as Secretary of State.

[1] Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.

[2] So there is a market for pornography among Iran’s technical elite and it is tolerated by the watch-dogs of the regime.  Meanwhile, women are policed for immodest dress.  Tells you a lot about the Iranian Republic right there.  Still, one can be curious about the particular type of porn that interests Iranian scientists.  Suppose “Stormy Daniels” is a rock star.

[3] William Harris, Quicksilver War: Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict; Ahmed Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Operational Realities and Innovations of the Islamic State.

[4] Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018).

[5] Actually, this is pretty “American” behavior in the time before the Preppies, Yuppies, and investment bankers seized control of American foreign policy.  And much else.

Pakiban III.

Pakistan never wanted anything to do with the American war on the Taliban.  An ideological congruence existed between the Taliban and powerful elements in Pakistan.  An Islamist regime gave Pakistan strategic depth to its east against India.  Afghan Islamists had been valuable allies in the war against the Soviets.  Pashtun values have a powerful appeal for some kinds of people, even if they aren’t Pashtuns.[1]

On the other hand, after 9/11, Americans were hot under the collar.  Richard Armitage flew into Pakistan and made Pervez Musharraf an offer he couldn’t refuse.[2]  But neither Armitage nor Musharraf supposed that the Americans would still be in Afghanistan 17 years later.  They were going to invade the country, kill Osama bin Laden and his merry men, and leave.  Yet, here we still are, with no clear purpose except to avoid defeat.  In the meantime, Pakistan’s policy has turned back to its original pole-star.  Moreover, it has sought alternatives to being bullied by the Americans.[3]

Pakistan sees India as its essential enemy.  Pakistan blames India for the dismemberment of greater Pakistan in the successful secession of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.[4]  The Pakis believe that India has been supporting a secessionist movement in Baluchistan.  Paki leaders have, for a long time, suspected that India would exploit conditions in Afghanistan as a way to put pressure on Pakistan.  In particular, Afghanistan has long argued that the existing Afghan-Pakistan border needs to be revised.   To this end, Pakistan has pursued closer relations with both China and Iran.  Since 2017, Pakistan has been trying to patch up its relationship with Russia.

So long as the United States remains in Afghanistan, it is subject to pressure from Pakistan.  The chief supply routes to American forces there run through Pakistan.  To this end, the Obama administration and the early Trump administration tried to rein-in India in Afghanistan.  They hoped to conciliate Pakistan and win its support against the Taliban.  At the same time, the United States has poured in financial and military aid, while soft-pedalling concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, American troops and American drones have attacked Taliban forces in their Pakistani safe-havens.  This has enraged Pakistanis.  For example, in 2011, anti-American protests flashed across Pakistan.  These temporarily shut down supply routes to American forces in Afghanistan.

That approach has not worked.  In August 2017, the Trump administration called on India to do more in the fight in Afghanistan.  This guaranteed a bad reaction from Pakistan.

During the Clinton administration, the Taliban sheltered Al Qaeda from a combination of ideological congruence and Pashtun values.  The United States hesitated to attack Al Qaeda from a combination of prudence (not wanting to accidentally set off an Indo-Pakistan nuclear war) and incredulity (that a tiny movement could actually declare war on the United States, that the U.S. could kill the people responsible, and that Bill Clinton—a “dope-smoking draft dodger”–could be president).  While the Paki conditions still apply, none of the American ones do.  Get out.

[1] Compare https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bmDhfEtNh0 with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a16jACPxSig

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1zcuYLRbq0

[3] Yarioslav Trofimov, “”Pakistan’s Fears Fuel Afghan War,” WSJ, 25 August, 2017

[4] There is a lot of self-delusion in this view.

Steele, Steal, Stolen, or Given?

Back when “President Donald Trump” was merely a twinkle in the eye of residents of the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane,[1] a conservative organization/web-site hired Fusion GPS to dig up some dirt on Trump, help run him off the road in a hurry so that normal people could chase the Republican nomination.[2]  Well, that didn’t work.  When the Republicans packed it in, the Clinton campaign, through a lawyer “cut out,” took over.  Only at this point did GPS Fusion hire Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s Russia connections.[3]

Steele is an accomplished former British intelligence officer.[4]  He once headed the Russian department of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6).  He contacted a couple of Russian sources: a “former top-level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin” and a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry official.”[5]  They provided him with a bunch of dirt on Donald Trump for the Clinton campaign to use.  Here’s the thing to my ignorant eye.  Vladimir Putin doesn’t like people to do stuff without checking with him first.  No way to run an organization according to American best business practice literature.  Still, Putin seems to like this approach.[6]

In Steele’s words, Moscow “cultivated” Donald Trump “for at least five years” before the election of 2016.  Both Donald Trump and some of his aides[7] “showed full knowledge [of] and support [for]” the Russian leak through Wikipedia of the e-mails stolen from the Democrats.  For its part, Trump and his aides would “sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” and ease up on sanctions against Russia.  Furthermore, Steele reported that the Russians have a it-would-embarrass-anyone-but-Donald-Trump video tape of Trump instructing Russian prostitutes to urinate on the bed of a Russian luxury hotel once used by the Obamas.

On 20 June 2016, Steele sent the first of his reports to Fusion GPS.  However, Steele was in a wee bit of a lather.  He also shared his reports with the EffaBeeEye and with journalists.  At the end of October 2016, Mother Jones ran an article reporting the existence of the “Steele dossier.”  This didn’t blunt Hillary Clinton’s drive for defeat.  Later, John McCain sent a copy of the dossier to the EffaBeeEye.[8]  Then BuzzFeed published the whole thing.

Common opinion holds that the Russians sought to harm Clinton’s chances of becoming president.  Often, journalists portray this hostility to Clinton as springing from a desire to favor Trump.  However, Putin had reason to hate Clinton, but he couldn’t just kill her.  He hates the United States, but can’t just nuke us.  So, vicious pragmatist that he is, he has settled for the next best thing.  He also trued to sink Trump as well.  “Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, it shines and stinks.”—John Randolph.

[1] Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (1988).

[2] Sounds like a good idea to me.  So long as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Sideshow Bob doesn’t become president.

[3] Why target only the Russian connections of a businessman with multi-national operations?  Did GPS Fusion have prior knowledge of Russo-Trumpian skullduggery that allowed them to target this particular issue?  Or did they pursue multiple lines of inquiry and the Russian one is the first to hit pay dirt?

[4] “The Steele dossier,” The Week, 2 February 2018, p. 11.

[5] Wait, there are a couple of Russian officials who have been “sources” for a senior intelligence officer of an enemy state and they’re still walking around? Not buying 20-30 Big Macs to tide them over on the train-ride to Siberia?

[6] For example, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/23/here-are-ten-critics-of-vladimir-putin-who-died-violently-or-in-suspicious-ways/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ec13e0aab80b

[7] Steele names Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Cohen.

[8] Which would seem to have obtained a copy from Steele himself earlier on and was sitting on it.