Corruption matters

Amid all the post-election “how the hell did we get here” analysis, a lot of which has focused squarely and rightly on the myriad failures of the Democratic Party, another piece of the puzzle has gotten lost a bit, and that has to do with what Donald Trump represented to a lot of voters–a vote against “the establishment.” We live at a time when, across the board, confidence in public institutions is as low as it’s been in my lifetime, and that’s why everybody who runs for federal office tries to portray himself or herself as an “outsider” even when that claim is laughably absurd. The allure of the “outsider” candidate is simply too powerful…so powerful that the imprimatur helped Trump, a man manifestly unqualified to be president who’s not even really an “outsider,” get elected anyway. This lack of confidence in public institutions is problematic in its own right, regardless of how the election shook out, but it’s become more acute now that it’s helped bring us President Trump.

Why is confidence in public institutions so low? Well, to be sure, decades of right-wing rhetoric about “the liberal media” and how “evil” government is have contributed quite a bit, particularly as Democratic Party elites have preferred to hide from that debate rather than engage with it. But particularly now, after the Iraq War and the housing crash among other things, a big part of the reason why confidence in public institutions is so low is that our public institutions simply don’t deserve our confidence. Writing in Foreign Policy, Sarah Chayes, a Carnegie Endowment scholar who’s written on corruption and its impacts around the world, offers an absolutely merciless and well-deserved critique of American corruption and the role it played in this election: Continue reading

Hurricane Matthew: where to donate

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, though that’s more about my inattention than any decrease in the amount of pain and suffering in the world, unfortunately. But as you probably already know, Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm, hit Haiti earlier today. It’s far too early to assess either the human or physical costs, but it’s a safe bet that both will be high. The storm is currently hitting eastern Cuba, and then it will continue north through the Caribbean before it begins to affect Florida and the US east coast.


Hurricane Matthew yesterday, as it was approaching Haiti (NOAA)

Immediate aid will be needed for people who have been displaced and long-term aid will be needed to rebuild houses and other structures. If you have the ability, you might consider giving to one of these charities or others not listed here (please do some research first; I’m trying to stick to 3- and 4-star charities per, and even for highly rated charities I find it’s a good idea to look into them a bit if you don’t already know about them):

Finding unity in terror

The death toll from Sunday’s car bombing in Baghdad just keeps climbing; Reuters says the Iraqi Health Ministry has now raised it to 292. 23 people are still hospitalized with injuries from the attack, but from what I can gather most of the increase in the number of dead has come from people who were previously classified as missing, not from people succumbing to their injuries. Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi reported yesterday that locked emergency exit doors and a general negligence toward safety in a shopping mall next to the blast site may have caused more deaths than the blast itself:

Gen. Abdel Amir Shammari, head of Baghdad Operations, a joint force of police and soldiers that protects the Iraqi capital, said the initial blast at a mall in the upper-middle-class Karrada district was caused by C4 plastic explosives packed into a van. But he said the area around the shopping center was filled with “flammable materials” and that the paneling used for the building’s facade contributed as much, if not more, to the higher death toll. Responsibility for the bombing was later claimed by ISIS.

“The fire exits were closed specifically in that mall, and big numbers of people were in a café watching a football match,” Shammari said in a television interview late Tuesday night.

The bombing on Sunday was the deadliest terrorist attack in Baghdad’s recent history. Shammari’s allegation that Iraq’s incompetence contributed to the extraordinarily high death toll jibed with an account from Iraqi-British scholar Sajad Jiyad, who lives in Baghdad and lost a friend in the attack.

Like most buildings in Iraq, Jiyad said, the mall was designed with minimal fire safety features such as sprinklers. The building’s exterior was made of combustible plastic sheets, and the shops inside and outside the mall were filled with flammable materials. The nearest fire station was in another neighborhood and the fire engines that did arrive at the mall quickly ran out of water.

“The door to the roof was welded shut to prevent the entry of burglars,” he wrote in a blog post, after touring the bomb site. “The only way in and out of the building was through the single front entrance.”

This would seem to put to rest earlier reports that ISIS’s bomb contained napalm; the fires caused by the explosion would have come from those flammable materials, not from the bomb itself. Jiyad’s account of the scene is just horrifying and heartbreaking: Continue reading

Oil price ping-pong

Don’t look now, but oil prices are starting to rise again. After bottoming out around $26/barrel in late-January, they’ve come back up into the $50/barrel neighborhood in recent days. There are several reasons, but they all come back to basic economics: supply is down and demand is up. The latter is relatively simple: cheap oil leads to cheap oil products, and low prices lead to higher demand. But the former has several causes: wildfires in Canada are cutting tar sands production significantly, for example, and those low prices also made fracking unprofitable for a lot of US producers, so US production is down.

One new wrinkle involves terrorist activity in Nigeria, but not from Boko Haram. A new group, the “Niger Delta Avengers” (really), has been attacking oil infrastructure effectively enough to cut Nigerian production by hundreds of thousands of barrels per day. Not much is known about the NDA yet, but among their stated aims is a redistribution of more of Nigeria’s oil revenue back to the people in the Niger Delta, particularly in the form of some serious environmental remediation for all the pollution that the country’s oil industry has caused there over the years.

Foreign Policy is telling us that “The Era of Cheap Oil Is Coming to an End,” citing an International Energy Agency estimate that the world’s oil production and oil consumption will probably be about even for the rest of the year. And, hey, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Cheap oil (along, to be sure, with a hefty dose of bad governance) destroys people’s lives in Venezuela, makes it harder for the Iraqi and Libyan governments to restore some stability to their countries, and increases the chances of a hardline political resurgence in next year’s Iranian presidential election. Yeah it sucks at the gas pump, but there are some bigger issues at stake.

But wait–in May, Scientific American told me that “The Age of Cheap Oil and Natural Gas Is Just Beginning”! What gives? I think it all depends on how you define “cheap oil.” We probably shouldn’t expect oil to get back to the low $30s/barrel and stay there, but at the same time it’s unlikely to get close to $100/barrel again for quite some time. The reason, again, is supply. Libya, for example, might finally be put back together, which would allow that country to increase its oil production. Iran is already putting more oil on the market, and can probably be expected to increase its production a bit even beyond what it already is. The NDA might be defeated, or appeased, allowing Nigeria to ramp production up again. Those wildfires in Canada will eventually be brought under control–well, either that or they’ll grow until they eventually consume the planet, in which case oil prices probably won’t be an issue anymore. And, most crucially, if prices climb back to the point where fracking becomes economically viable again, US production can be expected to rise again. All of these things would put downward pressure on prices. On the other hand, if things continue to deteriorate in Venezuela that country might have to cut back oil production, which would put upward pressure on prices.

So the upshot is that oil prices will probably find an equilibrium somewhere near where they are now and stay there, give or take, for the foreseeable future. This probably means a return to the days of the oil price spike, where the market reacts immediately to bad news, though again probably not as dramatically as it did back in the days of ultra-expensive oil.


My Iran election primer, at Medium

I just posted a primer for tomorrow’s Iranian elections at Medium:

The parliamentary elections are important  — a less hardline parliament means more space for Rouhani to implement his domestic agenda (although even an outright reformist parliament would be subject to being overriden by the Guardians’ Council and the Supreme Leader), and a more hardline parliament means Rouhani will struggle to get much done before he has to stand for reelection next year. But the Assembly elections are more significant. Usually the Assembly of Experts does little or nothing, but with Khamenei in his mid-70s and reportedly not in great health, there’s a good chance that the next Assembly will get to perform that body’s one major function: selecting a new Supreme Leader. Now, the Assembly doesn’t pick a new Supreme Leader in a vacuum, and outside voices, especially among the clerical elite and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will have input into the process. But a more moderate Assembly likely means a more moderate successor to Khamenei.

I didn’t include it in the piece, but IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, shown here in mural form, behind a body-building contest that was recently held in Kerman in his honor:


I swear this is a real thing

reportedly did kind of an unexpected thing yesterday: he endorsed Iran’s incumbent parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, for reelection. Here’s part of the report from IranWire:

Speaking to the families of Iranian soldiers who had died in the conflict in Syria, Soleimani, who commands Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, praised the speaker, who hopes to be elected to represent the seminary district of Qom — and has also attracted criticism from some of Iran’s fiercest hardliners.

Soleimani told the group he had admired Larijani’s commitment to revolutionary movements in the region throughout the influential candidate’s career, from his time at state-run Islamic Republic of Iranian Broadcasting to the present day. “He has always supported the Qods Force and I have always enjoyed his intellectual and practical support. I wish him success.” Soleimani’s comments make specific reference to Larijani’s time as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2005 to 2007.

This is a serious endorsement. Soleimani has been shown in recent public opinion polls to be one of the three most popular figures in Iran, behind Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (both of whom, but Zarif in particular, are basking in the glow of the successfully completed nuclear deal). But he’s also thought of as an ultra-hardliner, and Ali Larijani is more of a moderate conservative (he generally supported the nuclear talks, for example) who has been a political target for hardliners. Larijani has gone out of his way in the past to cultivate a good relationship with Soleimani, so there’s a personal tie there. But still, Soleimani’s endorsement will go a long way toward insulating Larijani from hardliner attacks and may even spill over to Larijani’s moderate allies.

While Soleimani’s decision to endorse Larijani may be a little surprising, it’s smart politics for him. With the makeup of the next parliament and the next Assembly of Experts in doubt, Soleimani presumably would like to keep his Quds Force, and all its various regional interventions, from becoming a partisan issue. So doing something nice for a prominent moderate politician could pay dividends for him down the road.

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How people in the Middle East explain ISIS

My latest at LobeLog looks at a recent Zogby Research poll of people in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. It’s a wide-ranging poll with a lot of meat to it, but the most illuminating material to me was how people answered the question of what causes extremism:

Still, it was in the area of extremism and its causes where the poll generated its most interesting findings. When asked to rate eight factors on a 1-5 scale (where 1 means “very important factor”) in terms of their importance as a driver of religious extremism, respondents in all eight countries gave “anger at the U.S.” the fewest number of ones and twos, although that factor was still rated as important by a majority of respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey. Zogby argued that this was a sign that Barack Obama’s attempt to leave a “softer U.S. footprint in the region pays off.” However, when asked whether the United States is playing a positive or negative role in combating extremist sectarian violence, large majorities in each country said that the U.S. was playing a negative role.

Instead, the two most commonly cited factors in the development of religious extremism were “corrupt governments” and “extremist and/or incorrect religious ideas.” Other commonly cited factors, like “lack of education,” “poverty,” and “youth alienation” also speak to a consistent sense that extremism is an internal problem stemming from poor governance. Majorities in each of the eight countries except Iran agreed that “countering the messages and ideas promoted by recruiters for extremist groups” and “changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideals” were “most important” in terms of defeating violent extremist groups like the Islamic State. Within Iraq, majorities from all three of the country’s major ethno-religious groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi?a Arabs, and Kurds) agreed that “forming a more inclusive, representative government” is the best way to resolve the conflict there, but even larger majorities from each group said that they were “not confident” that such a government will be formed within the next five years.

Now, it should be noted that majorities in all eight countries still gave “anger at the US” a 1 or 2, but the fact that it was the least-cited factor in all eight countries is interesting. More interesting is the degree to which people identify corrupt, repressive, ineffective government as the biggest driver of extremism in the region, followed by religious figures preaching extremist messages. Now, who knows what any particular respondent means when he or she thinks about “extremism,” but this is a pretty clear statement about what people in the region want and need, which is “better government.”

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Don’t help ISIS get what it wants

First of all, here’s something I didn’t write last night, because sometimes I am an idiot: to all those who lost friends and loved ones last night, and the day before in Beirut, and everyday in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere; to Parisians, Beirutis, the French people, the Lebanese people, and everyone else whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by violence: my thoughts are with you. I cover a lot of horrible events on this blog, because that’s what happens when you write about the Middle East, and I don’t say that kind of thing nearly often enough. But I’m saying it now.

Now, moving on.

Part of the rationale underlying attacks against Western targets, like 9/11, the 7/7/2005 attack in London, and last night’s attack in Paris is the desire to inspire a backlash against Muslims living in Western nations. Al-Qaeda and ISIS want to create an “us vs. them” dynamic in the relationship between “Islam” and “the West,” to make it impossible for Muslims to continue to live in the West, to show that Western claims to value “tolerance” and “inclusiveness” are shams. Don’t take my word for it, read what ISIS actually says on the subject:

“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens… Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of ‘Islam’ before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.”

It is also stated that, with the advent of the Caliphate, Muslims can no longer justify living in the West by claiming that the Muslim lands are ruled by apostate regimes:  “Again, the announcement of the Khilāfah preceding the events in Europe further demolished the grayzone, as many Muslims living in Europe and the Americas justified their residency amongst the kuffār with the fact that the Muslims’ lands were under the rule of apostate tawāghīt [tyrannical secular rulers]. Now, with the presence of the Islamic State, the opportunity to perform hijrah from dārul-kufr [the abode of unbelief] to dārul-islām [the abode of Islam] and wage jihād against the Crusaders, the Nusayriyyah [‘Alawites], the Rāfidah [Shi’ite], and the murtadd [apostate] regimes and armies, is available to every Muslim as well as the chance to live under the shade of the Sharī’ah alone.”

The “gray zone” describes places where Muslims live in the West and embrace “Western” (from ISIS’s perspective, anyway) values. ISIS (which has now officially claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks) wants to end it, to leave nothing but black zones and white zones, Muslim zones and Western zones. They count on Westerners to help them do it. Here’s more: Continue reading