Friday, September 29, 2017

The Catalonia referendum and the art of subtlety

On 1 October Catalonia will hold an independence referendum.

A lot has been written about the dubious legality of the enterprise. The Spanish constitution doesn't allow it. And its claim to be binding - while it was only supported in the Catalan parliament by the government party that won a majority of the seats with 48% of the votes - goes against the Catalan constitution that needs a 75% majority to be changed.

But there is more than legality. There is also the enthusiasm on the streets for independence. And there is the rather hamfisted approach of the national government that is explained by many pro-independence activists as an effort to rob them of their democratic rights. Such sentiments don't look at laws. They are more responsive to demagogy and facts on the ground.

The Spanish government is going too far in its efforts to stop the referendum. They should learn from Iraq that allowed a similar referendum to take place - while being very clear about its opposition - but then punished by demanding control over the airports. Similarly Madrid could make clear that - although they don't approve - they won't take measures against voting in schools. Instead they can think up measures that could be taken later on to punish the Catalan government if it tries to implement independence.

Such an approach would have the following advantages:
- it avoids fighting a battle that you cannot win. There is no way Madrid can stop the people from voting. Losing this battle will make them look weak and embolden the separatists.
- it avoids further polarization - that works in favor of Catalan separatists whose ideology puts lots of emphasis on victimization by Madrid.
- it will make Catalans more open to arguments from Madrid.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Hillary still doesn't get it

Hillary Clinton is about to publish a book about the election campaign. In it she complains that her positions were about the same as those of Sanders and that Sanders instead attacked her integrity by highlighting contradictions.

She still doesn't get it.

Hillary used the same opportunistic strategy as Bill: having a good look at opinion polls and taking those positions that appeal most to leftish and centrist voters. What is missing is a vision that connects those points. And that is the big difference with Bernie Sanders.

Bill Clinton lacked such a vision too and we saw the result in rightish policies like concessions to Wall Street and an aggressive foreign policy.

Both Hillary and Bill surround themselves with the 1% and have taken over much of their world view. The difference is that Bill is a more empathic person than Hillary. That gave him at least a bit of understanding of the point of view of the rest of humanity. It also helped to make him look more understanding even when he wasn't. Bill's skirt chasing didn't hurt either: it brought him in close contact with at least some people outside the 1% bubble.

Neither Bill nor Bernie are so alienated from poorer people that they would put them away as "deplorables". Let's face it: this was not a mistake. This is how Hillary thinks. If she hadn't been caught with this there might have been another incident. And even without it many of her potential voters sensed the disconnect: there were too many signs like her refusal to publish her speeches at Goldman Sachs. It was part of Sanders' strategy to highlight such signs. Trump would double down by calling her a liar.

Hillary had rather few public appearances. Her age and some kind of strategy may have played a role in this. But it may also have been that - given her large disconnect with her audience - each appearance cost her too much energy. Anyway, by taking so few opportunities to meet her target audience Hillary wasted opportunities to reconnect as each appearance is also an opportunity to get a feeling of how the audience thinks and feels.

Part of campaigning is to control what is being said about you. The best way to do that is to make the news yourself. Trump is a master at that. Wave after wave of (usually well deserved) bad publicity comes rolling in his direction and then he makes some outrageous statement that his followers like and it just disappears. Sure, waiting out a crisis of bad publicity is a time honored strategy too. But it is not very smart when other candidates have a really appealing message. And it is a risky strategy in a time of elections when the media will pick up any kind of news about you - no matter how insignificant they might consider it in other times.

"She deserves it". It was an argument that worked - to a certain extent - within the Democratic Party apparatus. Within a political party there are a lot of jobs to allocate and people will be more inclined to support an insider like Clinton than an outsider like Sanders. Even if they might sympathize with Sanders they know it is better for their career to support Clinton: Clinton can hurt or reward them: Sanders not. But for the average voter this is irrelevant. They ask "what's in it for me?" and they look at her behavior in the past and the present. When they hear Clinton fans tell them that she deserves it it mainly tells them that they don't have real arguments.

Poor Hillary. She just doesn't understand what she did wrong. She did everything according to the book and yet she was defeated by an obvious lying crook. Unfortunately her incapacity to understand is a good illustration of what she missed as a candidate: a vision that people can buy into. If she had understood that she would at least have been able to take compensating measures like choosing a vice-presidential candidate with a vision. By freezing out Sanders and his followers after she had won the primaries she did exactly the opposite.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

EU wants to centralize its capital markets even further

EU Observer brings the new that EU wants to fast-track the capital markets union. The reason is Brexit that places the main capital market of the EU (London) outside its borders.

Some quotes:

The UK's exit from the EU makes a union of the 27 national capital markets more urgent, the European Commission said on Thursday (8 June).
"As we face the departure of the largest EU financial centre, we are committed to step-ping up our efforts to further strengthen and integrate the EU capital markets", said commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, who is in charge of financial services.

Dombrovskis presented a mid-term review of the Capital Markets Union (CMU), a plan launched in 2015 to increase links between EU markets and develop financial tools in order to facilitate investments and boost the economy.
Most of the proposals presented so far deal with specific financial products, such as venture capital or insurances.

"The EU needs CMU today more than ever," said the review unveiled on Thursday. It insists that Brexit "reinforces the urgent need to further strengthen and integrate the EU capital market framework”.

With 751,000 financial sector employees and the industry's gross added value of £80.935 billion (around €93 billion), the City of London has been one of the main actors and beneficiaries of the CMU so far.

The City has been necessary to provide services for the rest of the EU, such as ensuring risk-management services and providing the necessary amount of liquid cash for transactions, notes the commission's review.

I would think that the Brexit is an argument for the opposite policy. Venture capital or insurance have been around for centuries. We don't need integration for that. What Brexit shows is that centralization of such an important sector of the economy puts us all at risk. We need a spread of risk, not putting all our bets on one pony.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Comey show: the FBI director and the pea

Yesterday was Comey's day at the Senate. I listened to a part of it but I was not impressed.

First of all there is that ridiculous anti-Russia hysteria - including senators who lie that we here in Europe are even more obsessed about it. We have trust in our elections. It is the Americans - who allow their oligarchs to buy elections - who are worried about manipulations.

Russiagate reminds me of Monicagate. In both cases the real facts are maybe a bit embarrassing but certainly not a big deal. There are only two reasons for this circus. One is that it keeps the president for a long time negative in the news. The other is the hope that the president will somewhere during this judicial circus make a misstep and then you can persecute him for obstruction of justice or something similar.

It seemed to me that Comey was playing "The Princess and the Pea" with Trump as the bully who hurt his tender judicial aura. My impression is that something rather different was playing in their interaction. Trump was annoyed that those endless Russia investigations made it impossible for him to have a sound foreign policy. Newspapers judged everything as possible evidence that he was favoring Russia and that made it hard to make decisions based on their merits. So Trump first asked Comey whether it was possible to end this circus. Comey was non-committal. But Trump - for all his defects - is a good judge of character: he has built a television career on it with his The Apprentice show. And Trump very likely concluded that Comey was a "showboat" who liked the spectacle and would keep the issue in the news as long as possible.

Who wouldn't have fired Comey if that was the conclusion?

Here is a critical article about Comey from 2013 - when he became FBI director. According to the article While Comey deserves credit for stopping an illegal spying program in dramatic fashion, he also approved or defended some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration during his time as deputy attorney general. Those included torture, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detention.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Was the Macron email leak a false flag?

When there is a political scandal one should always ask the question "Cui bono": who benefited? In the case of the Macron email leaks it most likely was Macron. The newspaper reports about the leaks basically said that nothing harmful could be found - and that Macron thus was clean. And it helped the Macron campaign to paint Le Pen as an agent of Putin. Of course there is always a possibility that the Russians "got sloppy" as the pro-Macron press wants us to believe, but there are a lot of red flags that point the other way:

- The (pro-)Russian press had been negative about Macron for months. So why were the leaks published at the last moment? Information needs time to sink in. Journalists and Le Pen supporters would need time to study the mails for interesting/harmful information. And if they found something Macron would need time to react: with leaks it is often the inadequate or lacking reaction that converts believers.

- The last emails in the leak are from 24 April. The leak was published on 5 May. So it seems like the data thief wasted eleven days. Even worse: the mails were published just before a no-election news period in the French media. As a consequence their influence on the election was very low. And French journalists had very little incentive to investigate the emails.

- Organisations like Wikileaks publish the information in trenches. This has two advantages: it keeps the leaks in the news and it offers the opportunity to stress different aspects at a different time. The Macron failed to do this.

- By now leaking has become a science and organizations like Wikileaks have shown us what works and what doesn't. Dumping a big amount of mails or other documents does not work: it causes a short stir and after that it is old news. Journalists don't have the time to find the real hot items and when they find something a week later it may be old news that someone else revealed before. So typically the trove is revealed in tranches and each tranche is accompanied by a press release that tells what emails to look for and what they tell. In contrast there was no press release accompanying the Macron leaks.

- We saw almost immediately news articles that there was nothing interesting to see and that there were fake mails between the real ones. One has to admire those superhuman journalists who managed to study 7 gigabytes of emails within a day and who even found time in the process to conclude that some of those mails were fake.

- Later on we saw news articles that the CIA had been monitoring the attack and that the French had prepared themselves by adding fake mails - what seems to be a common tactic in businesses. If the American secret services were so close to the fire they might as well have been a bit closer than they admit.

- Even after the mails were released I haven't seen one good article discussing their content. The claim that nothing harmful can be found sounds shallow to me. When a team of journalists digs through the emails they will find something interesting. It doesn't have to be harmful to Macron's campaign. But there might be information on how Macron saw his adversaries and what kind of tactics he used against them. Or how he intends to operate in the coming elections for the parliament. Either this information isn't there - what would suggest that the mails have been filtered - or the press has been rather sloppy.

- we hear the usual talk about shady Russian hacker organizations who did it and traces of Russian editing software - that point to modifications - in the leaks. But by now we know from Wikileaks that creating false traces is an accepted tactic within the US security services.

Dividing the mails in tranches and publishing each trench with a press release takes a lot of work. It may have been that the hacker didn't have those resources. There have already been suggestions that American neo-nazis were involved.

It seems to me that either the hackers were extremely incompetent or this was a false flag. Of course a combination is also possible.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The departure of Flynn

Flynn didn't make much friends during his short term. He repeatedly lied on two issues (his talks with the Russian ambassador and the security clearance for his son) to Pence and others and it has been claimed that his management style was chaotic. The lie about his son was very likely the most harmful as it was such a a black and white issue and so sure to be found out.

But what has been very little discussed until now is the role of the security services. We do not know what exactly happened but I am afraid it happened the following way:
The security services had his conversations with the Russian ambassador on tape. They invited Flynn for a discussion about something general like his "Russian contacts". They did not tell him they had his conversations on tape. They did tell him that they knew about his contacts with the ambassador and they told him that that would have violated some very old law that forbids citizens to do diplomacy. They did not tell him nobody has ever been convicted on basis of that law and that prosecution on basis of it likely wouldn't hold. They didn't provide him time to rethink his conversation with the ambassador in the light of this information - that must have been new to Flynn. Neither did they tell him that lying to the FBI can be heavily punished. So they had an "interrogation" where they only asked what they already knew and where they deliberately brought Flynn in a position where many people would lie.

In my opinion this should have consequences - for all the intelligence officers involved. Intelligence officers are there to serve the government - not to set boobytraps for it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The mysterious Mosul offensive

It is now about a month ago that Iraq started its offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS - with the support of the US.

From the beginning it has appeared as a weird operation to me. There was just too much territory around Mosul that needed to be conquered first. And they weren't even close to surrounding the city. It looks to me as a politically motivated operation - most likely Obama wants to have this finished before he hands over power to Trump. He must be well aware that the fall of Mosul - and his initial passive reaction to it - are among the biggests errors of his heritage.

But while it may make political sense it doesn't make much military sense. As it is unlikely that the ISIS defenses will break down it means that increasingly exhausted troops may increasingly get stuck in ISIS defenses.

The normal logic of a military offensive is that you assemble a lot of troops and material at one of a few locations so that at that location your forces are clearly superior to those of your enemy. Then you overrun his defenses and look how far you can come. However, unless the enemy defenses totally collapse you will find after a couple of days that your numeric superiority has evaporated and that you are suffering increasingly heavy losses against a well entrenched enemy. It is then time to stop and resupply and to consider what would be the best location and tactic for the next attack.

It looks like in Mosul that rhythm has been broken by the pressure for military success. There seems to be no strategy at all. It is attacking on all fronts and keeping attacking. And yet Tel Afar on the supply line of ISIS to Syria is protected by Turkey. Rumors are that already 3500 anti-ISIS fighters died. ISIS members who flee towards Syria are left unharmed. Very little is done to bridge the gap between Sunnites and Shiites.

Compare this to what is happening in Aleppo. First the government surrounded East Aleppo. Then it took some time to conquer the North of that area, a mainly industrial area that was relatively easy to conquer. Then it mainly let the siege do its own work and focused on the area to the West of Aleppo while keeping the pressure up in the East with occasional attacks and threats.

It is generally expected that it is a matter of time before the rebels lose East Aleppo. For Mosul the scenario is less clear. If ISIS is driven out it may well be a matter of brute force with a lot of American involvement that will leave the city devastated. Unlike the Russians in Syria the US in Iraq seems unable to forge a broad alliance that can provide future stability.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

7 Reasons why the US bombing of Syrian Army positions was no accident

Does anyone still believe that the bombing in Deir Ezzor was an accident? Let me list the indications that is was not:
- conflicting reports: some say that the area had been observed by the US for days. Others that the decision was made on the spot.
- the Pentagon is trying to deflect the attention with an investigation whether the targeted soldiers were "former prisoners turned into makeshift conscript soldiers". Of course this is completely irrelevant.
- ISIS was ready and attacked immediately after the bombing
- strategic importance: this was not just the killing of a few of the thousands of Syrian soldiers in the area. It was a very strategic attack that gave ISIS control over the mountains near the airport and that way makes it impossible for the Syrian army to use the airport for its supplies. It may well lead to the fall of Deir Ezzor to ISIS.
- the Pentagon had made it very clear that they didn't like the truce. This was the perfect way to sabotage it.
- it is the second US led attack on Syrian government positions in the East of Syria. Previously we saw the US had the Kurds attack government positions in Hasakah. Note also that the US did nothing when in May 2015 ISIS conquered Palmyra and according to reports considered it even a good development. Interestingly now too the US had its allies (Danes, Australians and Brits) doing the dirty work.
- If the US had really felt sorry about inadvertently helping ISIS it would acknowledged the damage that it had caused - now it suggested just to have killed some Syrian troops that it didn't like anyway -, it would have transferred the responsible commander, appointed some high ranking person to lead the investigation, involved at least one of the other countries that had participated in the bombing and made some other moves to make it clear that it really regretted what happened. We saw nothing of it. Other than a vague announcement of an investigation the US acted as if nothing had happened.
- And then there was the performance of Samantha Power, one of the leading neocons, at the United Nations. She didn't show any regret at all and was in full attack mode.
- the timing of the attack - one day before the Russian elections - may have been no coincidence.
- When Russia contacted its American contact person for monitoring the truce he initially wasn't there. Only on a second attempt did they succeed in contacting and was the air attack on Deir Ezzor cancelled - after nearly an hour. Here too, the Pentagon is in attack mode, calling the first Russian call incoherent and blaming that for that reason they weren't understood well. This doesn't show any regret or desire for improvement. It is a deliberate insult that can only harm the cooperation.
- And finally there is that attack on the aid convoy. We see the classical contradicting statements: first the US claimed that Syrian planes did it and later they shifted the accusations towards the Russians, claiming that the Syrian army was not advanced enough to have done this. Yet rebels claimed that barrel bombs had barrel bombs had been used - a specialty of the Syrian army. In fact the attack carries all the classical symptoms of a false flag incident: the Syrians and Russians had nothing to gain from it while for the US and the rebels it comes very convenient to detract the attention from the Deir Ezzor incident and to have one more reason to end the truce.

See this article: US strikes on Syrian troops: Report data contradicts 'mistake' claims:
The report, released by US Central Command on 29 November, shows that senior US Air Force officers at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar, who were responsible for the decision to carry out the September airstrike at Deir Ezzor:
• misled the Russians about where the US intended to strike so Russia could not warn that it was targeting Syrian troops
• ignored information and intelligence analysis warning that the positions to be struck were Syrian government rather than Islamic State
• shifted abruptly from a deliberate targeting process to an immediate strike in violation of normal Air Force procedures
The Russians were informed that the targets were nine kilometres south of Deir Ezzor airfield: they were actually only three and six kilometres from that airfield, respectively, according to the summary of its findings.
Originally, the CAOC had initiated a process called “Deliberate Targeting”, which is used for fixed targets and requires extensive and time-consuming work to ensure the accuracy of the intelligence on the targets, according to the report. But that had been changed abruptly to “Dynamic Targeting”, which involves “fleeting targets” – those that are either moving or about to move - for which intelligence requirements are less stringent.
The authors of the report found that change to be improper, given that the sites being targeted were clearly identified as defensive positions and could not justify such a switch to a hastily prepared strike. But again, it offers no explanation as to why.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

What's wrong with "Wir schaffen das" [Merkel]

On 31 August 2015 Merkel for the first used her now (in)famous sentence "Wir schaffen das" when discussing the increase of refugees. In many circles it was greeted as a courageous and moral standing. I beg to disagree.

It is a well known principle that the best place for refugees is neighboring countries. Yet the UN is complaining that is receiving less and less money to support the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And the EU has cut at least as much as the rest of the world. Money can't be the problem: The total the UN asks for is 4.5 Billion dollar but it receives only a fraction of that. Yet the EU is spending much more on receiving the refugees and on paying off Turkey.

The EU has a problem that a large part of the refugees are economic refugees. Even many Syrians are not fleeing the violence but the economic catastrophe that is caused by the violence. In such a situation an experienced politician like Merkel knows that although you may do your best to receive refugees in a decent way it is not wise to say anything that might be explained by would-be refugees as an encouragement. It is puzzling that she did it anyway.

Then there is Turkey. Turkey was at that moment already trying to blackmail the EU by flooding it with refugees.In that light encouraging refugees to come was puzzling. Unfortunately Merkel's behavior towards Erdogan would become even more puzzling. In the refugee agreement she insisted on giving Erdogan largely what he wanted. Strange - you should punish blackmailers, not rewards them. By giving Erdogan what he wanted - including a visa-free travel agreement - and by going to Istanbul and telling the press there that the refugee agreement had brought Turkey closer to an EU membership Merkel helped Erdogan to win the elections a few months later.

The refugees are fleeing for the war in Syria. Turkey plays an important part in that war as the insurgents are mainly supplied through its territory. For a long time Turkey actively prevented refugees from travelling further towards the EU - seeing them as a reservoir from which it could recruit more rebel fighters. It is not really clear why it suddenly changed its policies and opened the gates. One theory is that it wanted to put the EU under pressure to do more to support the uprising. Other theories point to the fact that the US is supporting Merkel's position and mention old theories that Merkel is a CIA asset. They point to America's military doctrine that wants to prevent that the rising of dominant countries on other continents - including Europe.

The EU has largely supported Turkey's and America's active support of the uprising. Yet this constitutes a severe violation of international law. Stopping that support would soon end the war and the refugee crisis. Yet this option is considered taboo.

Merkel's "Wir schaffen das" was also undemocratic. She didn't have any mandate from the German parliament when she opened the door with her statement. It was a solo action. And it is by now widely detested among the population. She doubled down when next she tried to force the other EU countries to open their doors for refugees too.