Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading

Conflict update: April 10-14 2017

First off all, apologies for not doing one of these earlier this week. I had intended to crank something out on Wednesday but, well, when Wednesday rolled around I didn’t want to anymore.

Second, Easter and Passover greetings to my Christian and Jewish readers. This is one of the rare years when the Orthodox and Catholic Easter dates align with one another, so I don’t have to specify which Christians for a change. I’ll probably be back to regular programming on Monday, so I wanted to get an Easter message out just in case I don’t have the opportunity again before Sunday.

OK, so, strap in. I’ll try to make this as short as possible. Forgive me if some smaller stories fall through the cracks.

THE TRUMP DOCTRINE

If you assume that Rex Tillerson is actually able to speak on his boss’s behalf, then it’s possible that a “Trump Doctrine” is beginning to take shape:

Days after President Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack that killed children, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Monday that the United States would punish those “who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

Hey, that’s interesting. So does that mean we’re going to punish the Saudis for committing crimes against the innocents in Yemen? No? Well, how about punishing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next time he disappears some political opponents or massacres a bunch of protesters? Not that either, huh? OK, well surely we’ll want to protect innocents in Bahrain from their–oh, I see. Are we at least planning to punish Bashar al-Assad for the myriad crimes he’s committed against innocents that haven’t involved nerve gas? Hah, not even that, cool.

Hey, what about those ~270 or so innocents we bombed in Mosul about a month ago? Or the ~50 or so we bombed at evening prayer in al-Jinah around that same time? Are we going to punish ourselves for those crimes?

No, don’t answer, I already know. This is quite a doctrine we’re developing. We’ll punish those who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world (offer may not be valid in your area).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: March 2-5 2017

GOVERNMENT OF THE MARKS

There’s long been this narrative on the right that America spends vast sums of money helping feed and clothe the poor around the world while our own people/military/deficit starve/wastes away/balloons. This is, of course, a giant pile of bullshit, maybe the most bullshit of all the bullshit stories the right has fed the American people in my lifetime. The ubiquity of this narrative, and the inability/unwillingness of politicians on the center-left to counter it, leads to nonsense like this:

A large majority of the public overestimates the share of the federal budget that is spent on foreign aid. Just 3 percent of Americans correctly state that 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, and nearly half (47 percent) believe that share is greater than 20 percent. On average, Americans say spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget.

The Republicans who have invested heavily in selling this narrative to the American people, of course, know they’re shoveling bullshit. Or at least they did. The Republican Party that used to peddle lies to their marks has now been replaced by a Republican Party made up of the marks themselves, and we just elected one of them president. So this is unsurprising:

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month.

Reuters and other news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third.

“We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here,” White House Office of Management Budget director Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Saturday, adding the proposed cuts would include “fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid.”

Mulvaney said the cuts in foreign aid would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the U.S. military budget.

“The overriding message is fairly straightforward: less money spent overseas means more money spent here,” said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Representative.

That’s nice. Except we’re not spending that money “here.” We’re “drastically” cutting the pittance we already spend on trying to make life a little less shitty in poorer countries and repurposing the “savings” toward the shit we use to fucking bomb those same countries because that’s how America gets its kicks. The fact that cuts in foreign aid will probably make America less secure, thus requiring still more military spending, is a feature, not a bug.

Trump’s budget is likely DOA in Congress, thankfully. But as a window into how these people view the world it’s…well, I was going to say “troubling,” but that would suggest that it’s not entirely in keeping with everything else about Donald Trump.

Anyway, that was the big Trump news this weekend, I’m sure there wasn’t anything else.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 25-26 2017

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

New Trump National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has only been on the job a few days, but I wonder if he shouldn’t already be looking for the exits:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

This is nice, and certainly not in keeping with the administration’s “Clash of Civilizations” view of Islam, but the NYT’s optimism notwithstanding, it doesn’t signal any change in the administration. McMaster, per the NYT’s reporting, has less influence than ultra-Islam haters Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller (both of whom have “walk-in privileges” for the Oval Office, while McMaster does not), so if they don’t like what McMaster is saying, they’ll just make sure Trump never hears it. So then the question becomes how long McMaster will stay in an advisory job in which he has no real influence.

SHIʿISM

ali_sistani_edit1

Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Wikimedia)

Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri has written an interesting piece on the role that inter-Shiʿa political disputes in Iraq have highlighted the theological gap between Iraqi Twelvers, based in Najaf, and Iranian Twelvers, based in Qom. Iraqi clerics, following the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stick to a much more quietist tradition that says religious figures should steer mostly clear of worldly politics, while Iranian clerics, following the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have a…well, substantially different view of the proper relationship between religion and politics. In the middle is Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is undeniably political, so not really aligned with Najaf, but is at odds with Qom over Sadr’s harsh criticism of the Iraqi government, which Iran supports. Sistani turns 87 this year, and he’s such a domineering presence within Iraq’s Shiʿa religious community that his death will undoubtedly have a major impact on the Najaf-Qom-Sadr relationship.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 22 2017

TRUMPLAND

Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:

WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, PART ??? of ???

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!

YEMEN

yemeni_civil_war

Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.

SYRIA

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And it’s settled then

As expected, once-and-would-be-future Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has opted to heed the Supreme Leader’s “advice” and steer clear of next year’s presidential election:

Iran’s hard-line former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday he won’t run in next year’s presidential election, ending weeks of speculation after the country’s supreme leader discouraged his candidacy.

Ahmadinejad could have posed a strong challenge to President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who many believe will seek a second term after his administration struck the landmark nuclear accord with world powers.

It also could have exposed the still-lingering wounds in Iran from the widespread unrest that followed Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 re-election.

“By the grace of God, I am proud to continue as a small soldier for the revolution,” Ahmadinejad said in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is a positive thing even if Rouhani isn’t reelected next year. Ahmadinejad was uniquely belligerent even for an Iranian hardliner, and with America definitely about to elect a president who will be more hawkish toward Iran than Obama has been, Ahmadinejad’s return to the scene was the last thing anybody needed.

TIP JAR

Who’s left to run against Rouhani?

ahmadinejad

I feel you, bro

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hypothetical “political comeback” has been one of the more interesting stories in the run up to next year’s Iranian presidential election, had a whole lot of cold water dumped on his plans today:

Ayatollah Khamenei made the statement about Mr. Ahmadinejad during a lecture for seminary students at his office. He was responding to rumors, circulating in Tehran for weeks, that he had barred Mr. Ahmadinejad from participating in the coming election.

“Someone, a man, came to me,” he said, presumably of Mr. Ahmadinejad, in the typically elliptical style of Shiite clerics. “I told him not to take part in that certain issue, both for his own and the country’s good.”

“I did not tell him not to participate,” the supreme leader continued. “I said I do not find it advisable that you participate.”

If that sounds a little wishy-washy, it’s only because, technically, Khamenei can only advise candidates about running, he’s not allowed to block them from doing so. But in Iran, the “advice” of the Supreme Leader is generally the last word on a subject. Ahmadinejad could still run, obviously, but he’d be publicly flouting Khamenei’s wishes, which would definitely hurt him with voters, and the Guardian Council, which can bar candidates from running, seems likely to disqualify him, something they were considering before Khamenei piped up.

This is a bit of a surprise from Khamenei, who hasn’t exactly been current president Hassan Rouhani’s biggest fan of late, but it’s not that surprising–Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by a very public spat between him and Khamenei over political appointments and, generally, over the powers of the president vis-à-vis the Supreme Leader. Rouhani, though he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Khamenei and has criticized some of the more restrictive elements of the Iranian regime, hasn’t tried to openly challenge Khamenei’s authority the way Ahmadinejad did (his criticisms have been carefully worded to avoid directly going after Khamenei). And don’t discount lingering resentment over the 2009 election and subsequent protests/crackdown as a factor–Khamenei would undoubtedly like to avoid reopening that can of worms. Ahmadinejad and his pals are also at the center of ongoing corruption problems in the Iranian economy, problems that have done almost as much to discourage foreign investment in Iran as the lingering uncertainty over sanctions has. Add all that up and a potential Ahmadinejad candidacy becomes a pretty toxic mix.

Plus, it’s entirely possible that Khamenei values the stability that would come from yet another two-term presidency (no Iranian president since Khamenei himself was elected in 1981 has failed to be reelected) over having a more like-minded person in that office.

Rouhani is the obvious beneficiary of the Supreme Leader’s “advice.” Continue reading