Happy 2015!

2014 only has a few hours left, and I can’t decide if it’s really been an unusually awful year or if it’s just that 2014’s horrible events have been of a higher profile than the horrible things that have happened in previous years.

It’s been a pretty bad year though, hasn’t it? Just going by wars it’s been bad. The ones that were already going on when the year started have continued, particularly in Syria but also in South Sudan. The fighting in Iraq technically didn’t start in 2014 but it ratcheted up so much, between ISIS’s midsummer offensive and the U.S. response, that it basically became a new conflict this year. Afghanistan’s conflict is, by some measures at least, worse than ever. The Pakistani Taliban committed maybe their worst atrocity ever this year. Boko Haram ramped up its terror campaign in Nigeria, the civil war in the Central African Republic had its bloodiest year yet, there was the biannual attempt to save Gaza from the people living there, and too many smaller conflicts to count. There’s also 2014’s brand new wars, the Donbas war in Ukraine and the civil war in Libya.

Apart from war, 2014 also treated us to horrifying violence in Mexico, the biggest Ebola outbreak on record, multiple tragic airline catastrophes (including one at the last minute), the dumbest international incident of the century so far, whatever this was, and no Pittsburgh sports teams won anything. Also, we learned that still, in the year two thousand and freaking fourteen, some of us in America still can’t get a square deal from the legal system.

On the plus side, the economy is better, I guess, for some people, so that’s…something? And, you know, 2015 can’t be any worse, can it?

Pivoting from big things to small things, this particular blog saw a four-fold increase in page views this year, which even after you factor out the spammers is still pretty nice. On the other hand, 8 of my top 10 most viewed posts this year were actually written last year, so maybe I’ve already peaked (of course, hardly anybody read them last year, so that’s still progress). Our top 10 posts that were written this year, by views, were as follows:

  1. What is a “Man of Peace,” anyway? (written after Ariel Sharon died in January)
  2. U.S. Presidents and the Middle East: Teddy Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair (written on, that’s right, President’s Day)
  3. Badly drawn colonial borders are still a problem
  4. Islamic History, Part 16: the Caliphate of Abd al-Malik (685-705)
  5. Happy Sparkle Day to Megyn Kelly and Fox News!
  6. No, Vladimir Putin is not a cartoon super-villain, and he’s not the Defender of the Faith either
  7. The Crimean Tatars are not the stuff your dentist scrapes off of your teeth
  8. Islamic History, Part 18: the conquest of Iberia (711-759)
  9. Not even worth a trial?
  10. Islamic History, part 21: The Abbasids take over (750-786)

It was also a pretty good year for writing stuff that other people published, and for getting to say stuff on TV that somebody else later dubbed into Arabic. I hope to keep doing those things in the new year, but more often.

I want to thank you all sincerely for reading this blog and to ask your help in building it further in the new year. If you read something here that you like, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, wherever, or if you enjoy the site overall please let your friends know about it. Likewise, if there are things I can do to improve the place, or if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered here, leave a comment about it and I’ll do my best. I’d love to be able to come back here next year and say that page views increased another 400%, but I can’t do it without you! Thanks again and Happy New Year to you and yours!

The most wonderful time of the year

My wife was bugging me to reblog this again this year, so I hope you all enjoy it. I know things have been a little slow around here for a few days (at least until this evening, I guess); that’s because Friday was the last day of school for the holidays and so I’ve been on dad duty for the past two days. We’re traveling for the holidays, so it’s actually about to get even quieter around here. I’ll try to pop in now and then depending on whether I have time, but I don’t expect to be posting regularly again until sometime in the new year. Thank you for reading and making this year literally four times more successful for this blog than last year. I really appreciate your continued readership! Happy Holidays!

and that's the way it was

It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these, so please bear with me.

I woke up this morning with a major backache. This was my body’s way of pre-injuring itself in preparation for the thing I’d been putting off all week, assembling my daughter’s main Christmas present. This year she asked for a new play kitchen. She’s had a plastic kitchen-thing since she was so little that I remember being terrified that she might try to pull herself up on it, which if she’d ever done so would have sent child and kitchen tumbling to the floor. But now, what with her being in kindergarten and being a purveyor of only the finest of pretend haute cuisine, she needs something more in keeping with her personal tastes and style. We would have happily gotten her a perfectly fine play kitchen, but then my parents got…

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Saudi Arabia and oil prices

If I were a steadily employed person who regularly commuted to a workplace and had to fill his tank frequently, I’d probably be harping about low gas prices all the time. “Have you seen how low gas has gotten?” I’d say. “Man, gas was twice this expensive just a few months ago,” I would remark, as though I were saying something meaningful. But instead I’m a freelance writer, so I harp about other stuff and hope that some kind stranger will offer me some free gasoline so that I might go someplace someday. But it’s true, gas prices are really freaking low. U.S. light crude closed today at a little over $57/barrel, while Brent crude was around $62/barrel, and that was up for both of them. Overall oil has lost almost half its per barrel value since this summer. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it boils down to Econ 101: the global oil supply is higher than expected, thanks in part to the explosion of fracking in the U.S., and demand is lower than expected, owing to economic slowdowns, increased conservation efforts, etc.

OPEC met about a month ago, and it was assumed that the oil cartel would decide to reduce production in order to drive prices back up. However, the Gulf members of the cartel, led (or, ah, “encouraged,” probably) by the Saudis, blocked such a move, which was favored by poorer OPEC members like Venezuela and Iran. On Sunday, the cartel reiterated that it has no intention of cutting supply and no plans to call any kind of emergency meeting to discuss remedies for the sharp decline in oil prices. Everybody’s been trying to figure out why OPEC has responded this way. One theory reasons that the Saudis learned from the 1980s, when they responded to a similar drop in oil prices by cutting production, that you should never cut production because then you lose market share when the price rebounds. Another theory says that the Saudis are trying to lower the price of oil to the point where extraction by fracking becomes unprofitable, and thereby bury the U.S. fracking industry — this theory has been advanced by, well, the Saudis themselves, actually. But there’s more going on here than a historical cautionary tale and a desire to hurt U.S. suppliers.

There’s a particularly good piece in Foreign Policy today by Michael Moran that makes the argument that, in fact, the Saudis have little to worry about from U.S. fracking (the U.S. just doesn’t have the oil reserves to be a long-term competitor for the Saudis, and it’s not clear how these low prices will actually affect the fracking industry), and that it’s really Russia and Iran who are being targeted by the Saudi decision to keep prices low. Continue reading

Iraq: 2 steps forward, 1 step back

Forward: Kurdish forces liberated Sinjar and saved a whole bunch of Yazidis from their desperate straits in the mountains around the town.

Back: ISIS has probably regained control of the key refinery town of Baiji from the Iraqi army, though while they likely have retaken the town it’s not clear that they’ve captured the refinery yet. Losing Baiji was a big blow for ISIS, and losing it again will be a blow for the Iraqi army, underscoring just how much less effective a fighting force they are as compared to ISIS or the Kurds. It’s also a blow for the Shiʿi militias and their Iranian supporters, who were a big part of the Iraqi effort to drive ISIS out of Baiji last month.

Ukraine and NATO, sitting in a tree…

Of all the things Kiev could have done to try to defuse its conflicts with its eastern rebels and their Russian backers, this was definitely, um, a thing that they did anyway:

Ukraine’s parliament has voted to drop the country’s non-aligned status and work towards Nato membership.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move “counterproductive” and said it would boost tensions.

The BBC’s David Stern in Kiev says it is not clear when Ukraine will apply for Nato membership and many officials see it as a distant prospect.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pledged to seek Nato membership over Russian support for rebels in the east.

Obviously this is not a conciliatory step in Moscow’s direction, but it’s not unexpected. Poroshenko promised last month that Ukraine would hold a national referendum on joining NATO, and dropping the country’s “non-aligned” status (which has been legally in place since 2010) is the preliminary requirement for taking that step. The reactions from Moscow have been swift and angry.

On the other hand, it’s not clear where Kiev thinks it can go with this. NATO isn’t going to fast-track Ukraine’s membership — to be honest, it’s not even clear they’d be interested in slow-tracking it. It’s impossible to know this for sure without testing it, but it seems pretty clear that NATO expansion into Ukraine is a big national security red-line for Russia, maybe its biggest. Nobody apart from the fascist fringe in Kiev and a few Cold War dead-enders here in the U.S. (like TNR’s former Greatest Literary Editor EVER) wants a war with Russia, least of all the European members of NATO, who when push comes to shove aren’t even willing risk having their Russian natural gas supply cut off, to say nothing of the calamities that a real shooting war would bring. So NATO isn’t likely to roll out a welcome mat for Ukraine. In fact, if you go by the alliance’s “Principles of Enlargement,” Ukraine legitimately doesn’t qualify for membership: Continue reading

Yappy North Korea demands attention, and we should stop giving it to them

Pyongyang wants you to know that it didn’t hack Sony but it’s also SUPER MAD about “The Interview” and it will WREAK TERRIBLE VENGEANCE on all of us for such a flagrant insult:

While steadfastly denying involvement in the hack, North Korea accused U.S. President Barack Obama of calling for “symmetric counteraction.”

“The DPRK has already launched the toughest counteraction. Nothing is more serious miscalculation than guessing that just a single movie production company is the target of this counteraction. Our target is all the citadels of the U.S. imperialists who earned the bitterest grudge of all Koreans,” a report on state-run KCNA read.

“Our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland, the cesspool of terrorism,” the report said, adding that “fighters for justice” including the “Guardians of Peace” — a group that claimed responsibility for the Sony attack — “are sharpening bayonets not only in the U.S. mainland but in all other parts of the world.”

Have you ever heard of “little dog syndrome”? It’s the tendency for little dogs to behave aggressively with people and bigger dogs, which people usually ascribe to some kind of dog inferiority complex but is actually caused by owners indulging behavior in their little dogs that they would never allow in a bigger dog. DPRK has the geopolitical version of little dog syndrome. The Kim dynasty has run the country so deep into the shit that there’s really no way out at this point. A North Korean person’s average life expectancy at birth has dropped 5 years over the past 3 decades. Their people live in destitution while the ruling class pilfers whatever it can to wrap itself in luxury and opulence. Potential contenders for the throne (or whatever) are being purged like it’s the 17th century Ottoman Empire or something. Plus, militarily they can’t really hurt anybody else, and the higher echelons of the ruling group know this. They’re a very tiny toy breed in the global dog show. Consequently, just as many small dogs tend to yap and growl a lot, North Korea’s leaders tend to yap from time to time about their military might and their plans to unleash it on the rest of the planet in some catastrophic way.

Think about it, though: even if DPRK really was behind this hack (which is still an open question for a lot of cyber-security experts), it means that the country put its cyber resources into an effort to embarrass some executives at a movie production company for making a film that pokes fun at Dear Leader. That’s, uh, chilling. Real evil genius-type stuff. Continue reading

Read Jamelle Bouie on police and protesters

I’ve been trying to think of what to say about the tragic and senseless murder of those two NYPD officers in Brooklyn last night, or the one who was killed in Florida, and about the people who are now using those deaths as an excuse to attack the Michael Brown and Eric Garner protesters, but I wouldn’t be able to convey my thoughts any better than this:

Nothing here should be a surprise. Despite what these police organizations and their allies allege, there isn’t an anti-police movement in this country, or at least, none of any significance. The people demonstrating for Eric Garner and Michael Brown aren’t against police, they are for better policing. They want departments to treat their communities with respect, and they want accountability for officers who kill their neighbors without justification. When criminals kill law-abiding citizens, they’re punished. When criminals kill cops, they’re punished. But when cops kill citizens, the system breaks down and no one is held accountable. That is what people are protesting.

Given the dangers inherent to being a police officer—and the extent to which most cops are trying to do the best they can—it’s actually understandable that cops are a little angry with official and unofficial criticism. But they should know it comes with the territory. For all the leeway they receive, the police aren’t an inviolable force; they’re part of a public trust, accountable to elected leaders and the people who choose them. And in the same way that police have a responsibility to protect and secure the law, citizens have a responsibility to hold improper conduct to account.