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: February 18-19 2017

Trumplandia

Say, this seems nice:

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the dining patio. If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of American government, a so-called winter White House where Mr. Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives and other presidential guests.

But Mr. Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there on Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.

I’m not going to pretend that the wealthy and powerful never had special access to the levers of power in DC before this, but as with so many things about Trump, he seems to have taken the grossest parts of American politics and made them grosser.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and tried to assure the attendees that the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering.” Reuters, at least, suggested that he was received tepidly at best, though the NATO bit got him some applause.

Paul Pillar wrote a typically insightful piece a few days ago about the utter confusion surrounding Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy, and what it says about Trump’s foreign policy more generally.

We’re Still All Gonna Die

Because it’s the one part of the government that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can’t be seen to contradict or gut, the one part of the government that will definitely be allowed to continue research into climate change and its impacts is the Pentagon. Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, ironically for this cabinet, was actually pretty forward thinking on renewable fuels and the national security implications of climate change when he was a flag officer.

The War on Terror (Old School Edition)

Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind radical Muslim cleric whose involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent terror plots in the United States earned him a life sentence in federal prison, completed his sentence when he died on Saturday morning. He was 78 and, really, won’t be missed.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

Iraq

Continue reading

Fake News and the March to War

Fake news and war have been partners in (literal) crime several times in American history–Remember the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, the mushroom cloud smoking gun, etc.–so it’s deeply traditional for a mostly fake news outlet like Fox to commemorate the rise of our first Fake News President by bringing us another entry in war-mongering Yellow Journalism. In this case, a Houthi naval attack on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea yesterday was apparently MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP BREAKING FLASHING RED LIGHT EXCLAMATION POINTS. Yes, the Houthis were actually trying to blow up a US vessel but mistakenly hit a Saudi one instead, somehow.

How do we know this attack was MEANT FOR A US WARSHIP OMINOUS FLASHING PREPARE FOR WAR TEXT? Because one of the Houthis shouted “DEATH TO AMERICA” while carrying out the attack. He did this while reciting the Houthi slogan…which includes the phrase “DEATH TO AMERICA.” So in reality this means nothing, but because you can’t get the war you want unless you’re prepared to invent some justifications along the way, the Republican Party’s favorite fake news outlet took this ridiculous Pentagon invention and happily published it.

Rather than do a line-by-line debunking here, I annotated the Fox report at Genius. I know it’s shouting into the void, but annotating it helped me stop being mad, and these days that’s about all you can hope to accomplish.

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Obama nominates hawkish Ashton Carter as next Secretary of Defense

After Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed both said “thanks, but no thanks” to the chance to become Barack Obama’s fourth defense secretary, the last top candidate standing was Dr. Ashton Carter, who previously served as Obama’s (2011-2013) Deputy Secretary of Defense and (2009-2011) Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and before that was Bill Clinton’s (1993-1996) Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs. His government experience is so prodigious that Harold Pollack at Wonkblog today praised him as the rare successful smart guy (his Ph.D. is in theoretical physics) who has really devoted himself to public service as opposed to helicoptering in to DC for a couple of years to burnish his CV.

He's either deeply committed to public service or he enjoys posing for mediocre portrait photos.

He’s either deeply committed to public service or he enjoys posing for mediocre portrait photos.

Carter certainly has the credentials for the gig, but forgive me for having concerns about a guy who wins praises for his “firm grasp on strategic affairs” from people who used to work on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Carter seems disturbingly hawkish (John McCain supposedly loves the guy, so make of that what you will). He co-authored a column in 2006 calling on the Bush administration to start a war with North Korea over a planned North Korean long-range missile test, which is pretty freaking hawkish. His outside-government resume shows service at a lot of organizations that would really like to see America go to war with Iran, and he worked on a 2008 report for the Bipartisan Policy Center that Jim Lobe called “a roadmap to war with Iran,” because its policy recommendations would have made military strikes virtually inevitable without a complete Iranian capitulation on the question of uranium enrichment (which isn’t going to happen). He’s also (via Vox) been criticized by non-proliferation types for stridently defending America’s nuclear arsenal from potential budget cuts.

Ironically, one of the biggest knocks against the Obama national security/foreign policy team — its insularity and centralization within the White House — may prove to be a good thing in terms of limiting Carter’s input into strategy. While Carter may be more effective than the outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel was in terms of getting his views into the conversation, something Hagel wasn’t able to do, and in terms of delivering messages to the press, which Hagel was so bad at that he’d mostly ceded that role to JCS Chairman Dempsey, you have to think that it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to be able to shake the White House off of its course in terms of the nuclear talks with Iran. Anyway, if anybody is going to wreck the talks and put us on course for a war with Iran, it will be the new Congress, not the new Defense Secretary.

Chucked out

Chuck Hagel has, ah, “resigned” as Secretary of Defense, because somebody has to take the blame for, well, the election results I guess (full confession: I respect Hagel’s stance on cutting the military budget and his skepticism for American military adventures abroad). If we’re going by substance, it’s not clear why Hagel had to go. Was it because of the American response to ISIS? I don’t mean to be a stick in the OMG ISIS IS GOING TO DESTROY US ALL mud, but if you haven’t noticed lately, ISIS is losing in Iraq. Is Hagel out because our Syria policy is a mess? Because Hagel’s been pushing for clarification on our Syria policy for a few weeks now, and if you’re firing people over Syria then you should probably start with 3/4 of the White House national security team including the President, plus reality for presenting America with a set of lousy options there. Ukraine is still a nightmare, and the Taliban is winning again in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to figure how Hagel is to blame for either, given that we’ve never even hinted at military force in Ukraine and that Afghanistan’s problems are as much internal as anything to do with U.S. policy there.

No, Hagel is going for two reasons: one, somebody in the administration had to fall on his or her sword after the midterm elections and two, Hagel was pretty bad at the bureaucratic aspects of his job. He’s been inarticulate at best and contradictory at worst in his communications with the media, the top ranks of the military didn’t like him, and while he hasn’t been the biggest reason for Barack Obama’s meandering, at times directionless-seeming foreign policy (which is a question of style over substance, for the most part, but style does matter when it comes to politics), he hasn’t exactly been part of the solution either. The thing is, though, that the White House team that mostly has been the biggest reason for that meandering foreign policy is apparently staying in place. That may have contributed to Hagel’s removal as well, as Steven Clemons says that Hagel had “substantial frustration” with the White House foreign policy operation. It’s possible that Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice just couldn’t work together anymore, and Hagel wasn’t enough of a bureaucratic in-fighter to make his case to Obama.

In other words, he wasn't very good at the political aspects of his job, which seems odd for a former Senator, but there you go.

In other words, he wasn’t very good at the political aspects of his job, which seems odd for a former Senator, but there you go.

So Hagel is out, but I don’t think you’ll notice very much. One thing this move does is it opens up the possibility that a Democratic president might, and please sit down before you read the next part because it’s shocking and radical, appoint an actual Democrat to run the Pentagon. The fascination that Bill Clinton and now Obama have had with Republican Secretaries of Defense is, as Waldman notes in that piece, both understandable and terrible for the Democratic Party’s public image on national security. The problem for those of us who don’t think American military might has accomplished very much in recent years is that, despite the potential party change, any Democrat that Obama might appoint to the office (the betting favorite is Michèle Flournoy, who would mark another welcome milestone as the first female Secretary of Defense) is likely to be a bigger hawk than Hagel was.

When someone’s paycheck depends on not understanding a problem…

…don’t be surprised when they don’t understand it:

On Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) reiterated that he doesn’t think climate change is worth fighting, or that human beings are to blame.

Ryan is running for re-election in his Wisconsin district against Democratic challenger Rob Zerman. According to a report by the Associated Press, the question of humanity’s responsibility for climate change came up during a debate on Monday between the two. “I don’t know the answer to that question,” Ryan said, when the moderator pressed each candidate on the topic. “I don’t think science does, either.”

Ryan also asserted that “we’ve had climate change forever,” and that the benefits of policies to cut carbon emissions “do not outweigh the costs.”

Paul Ryan may not be a scientist, but as an elected U.S. Representative he ought to at least know what scientists say about this stuff. He doesn’t, but then I guess he’d be jeopardizing his paycheck if he did.

"Hey girl, that's not the planet heating up, that's just me feeling the burn."

“Hey girl, that’s not the planet heating up, that’s just me feeling the burn.”

Also, while we’re talking about the cost-benefit analysis, how interesting that Ryan regurgitated that talking point on the same day that his beloved Pentagon, the only domestic program he wouldn’t gut in his ridiculous budgets, issued a report that came to exactly the opposite conclusion:

Drastic weather, rising seas and changing storm patterns could become “threat multipliers” for the United States, vastly complicating security challenges faced by American forces, the Pentagon said in a new report on the impact of climate change released Monday.

The report, described as a “climate change adaptation roadmap,” included a foreword from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in which he urged the nation’s military’s planners to grapple now with the implications of a warming planet, even as scientists are “converging toward consensus on future climate projections.”

“Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning,” Hagel said. “Our armed forces must prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats, weighing risks and probabilities to ensure that we will continue to keep our country secure.”

Climate change brings with it food and economic insecurity, natural disasters, the need to maintain a surface presence in the now open-water Arctic, and all while threatening naval bases in areas that are vulnerable to rising seas. But, you know, the benefits just aren’t worth the costs.

I’m sure this is a Good Thing

The Pentagon looks toward the Enemy of the Future, which is obviously crowds of unhappy protesters:

A US Department of Defense (DoD) research programme is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies. The multi-million dollar programme is designed to develop immediate and long-term “warfighter-relevant insights” for senior officials and decision makers in “the defense policy community,” and to inform policy implemented by “combatant commands.”

Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD ‘Minerva Research Initiative’ partners with universities “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US.”

Minerva apparently used to study things like why some disaffected people choose to become terrorists while others stick to non-violent protest movements (which admittedly seems like something worth getting a handle on), but here they’re just studying the non-violent folks, who apparently somehow “support” the violent ones.

The thing is, we’re undoubtedly going to see a rise in civil unrest around the world in the years to come, because of climate change. Hungry people tend to take to the streets to seek remedies for their hunger, and if you don’t buy that I’d suggest asking some Syrian rebels (not the fundamentalist kind, but the ones who were out protesting before Assad escalated it into a war) why they were protesting Assad’s government and see what they say. Or ask some Egyptian folks, if Papa Sisi will allow it, whether Tahrir had anything to do with, say, higher food prices. But if our government is spending more time planning for the civil unrest caused by climate change and environmental protests than it is trying to mitigate the effect that climate change itself is having and will have on all of us, then that seems fairly chilling to me.