Tuesday, October 06, 2015

How the anti-Assad propaganda works

With the arrival of Russian troops Syria has once again become big news. And once again I see the same propaganda tricks in the media. An overview:

80% of the Syrians is Sunni
This was in a recent article in the NY Times. Estimates before the war gave 70% Sunni, 12% Christians, 12% Alawites and 6% Druze, so very likely this puts the number of Sunni way too high.
More important is the suggestion that Assad is supposed by those 70 or 80%. Yet it is far from the truth. This number includes the Kurds (15% of the population) and many Arab Sunni's (mostly in the cities) who prefer Assad over the rebels. The rebels know this and they one of their demands at the negotiations is that Assad should not be allowed to take part in coming elections. The clearly aren't sure that they would win.
The only thing that those claims make clear is the sectarian motives of the countries that support the uprising.

Assad started the conflict by using violence against unarmed protesters
According to the law Assad would have the right to do so - provided it the violence is measured. Governments don't have the monopoly of violence for nothing. Against a color revolution that aims to gradually take over the state - first occupying the central square and then overrunning the parliament - it certainly would be justified.
But there are more lies in this claim. It also ignores that the protests never were nonviolent. On the first day of protest in Daraa the Baath party headquarters and the building of a mobile phone company owned by an Assad relative were set on fire. This would become standard operating procedure in following protests in other cities.
The protests also had another violent element that seldom is reported. While the main protests happened peacefully on the main square of a city in the streets around that square there were violent groups of youth who battled the police and prevented it as long as possible from reaching the square.

Assad is using violence against his own population
Obama has a standard operating procedure: first he instigates the population of a country to start an uprising and then he accuses its government of using violence against its own population. Pure hypocrisy!

the uprising is spontaneous
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have spent billions of dollars on funding the uprising. They pay for its arms and they pay the rebel fighters a wage that is much higher than what the subscripts in Assad's government army receive. Without this money the uprising would have ended long ago.

Assad is only interested in prolonging his own rule
Any suggestion that Assad has non-selfish motives is discarded. The rule of law, the secular character of Syria or even the protection of the Alawites: all such arguments by Assad and his supporters are discarded with a wave of hand.

Putin wants to distract the attention from the bad economic situation at home
Many newspapers have published theories like these. It is a dirty discussion tactic because questioning someone's motives deflects the attention from the facts on the ground. Besides that motives are usually mixed and impossible to prove as they happen in someone else's head. A reader of the NY Times ("Carolyn") made nice comment on this: I don't know why so many feel compelled to assign ulterior motives to the Russia government when it's doing exactly what it declared it would do. There's no mystery; no "testing NATO," no "testing the U.S.", no embarking on a Cold War. Russia does not have "an inferiority complex," nor does she want to "assert herself" as a world power because she IS a world power, and HAS BEEN since WW II. Russia has two objectives as was openly declared: supporting Assad and wiping out terrorists. That's exactly what she's doing; no guess work needed.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Croatia foolishly misses the point in the refugee crisis

Latest news has it that in the fight against the refugee stream the Croats are bussing the refugees towards the Hungarian border.

Their assumption is that this will force the Hungarians to let them through. But what they forget is that it will also tell refugees who are still in Serbia that it is a good idea to go to Croatia. As a result it will lead to an increase of the refugee stream. And as an EU member Croatia will in the end be forced to shoulder its part.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The myth of stagflation

Oil prices rose fast in the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks. As oil cost more some prices in the Western world rose and this was registered as “inflation” and the Western central banks jumped to the conclusion that they had to raise the interest rates to fight this inflation.

Inflation itself is not as bad as is often claimed. Sure, Weimar type inflation where the money that you receive in the morning has lost most of its value in the evening is destabilizing. But people can very well live with a stable inflation of around 10%. Countries like Italy have industrialized and become wealthy in such circumstances.

The main job of the central banks is not to fight inflation: it is to maintain a stable environment and to prevent bubbles and the resulting disastrous boom and bust economic cycles. And there is no question of bubbles in those circumstances: the driver of those rising prices is not excessive demand but the fact that the prices of some imports are rising due to circumstances that are not related to the national economy.

One could still make the argument that the prices are rising and that those rises will result in other rises and could so cause a standard inflationary cycle: workers are demanding wage increases to correct the inflation and companies are increasing the prices of their products because their raw materials and workers cost more.

Yet there is also another mechanism at work: the terms of exchange have worsened and now the country needs to export more to pay for its imports. This will take time: new trade relations have to be established and new markets have to be conquered. It may also take some time before the newly rich countries - like the oil sheikhs in the 1970s - start spending their new wealth. Over time internal consumption may have to fall to release production capacity for the new exports. However, that will only work once the new export links have been established. Reducing demand before that time by "inflation fighting" will only drive companies into bankruptcy and reduce the capacity of the economy to make those exports.

However, it is very questionable whether rising interest rates to fight inflation is the best way to achieve those results. In the 1970s and 1980s they caused stagflation. The Western economics seemed stuck in stagflation until the mass spending of Reagonomics got it out of the swamp. It looks like the best way to address this kind of situation is to let the price hikes have their course without taking anti-inflationary measures. Initially the government might even spend more to make up for the extra money flowing over the borders - while simultaneously redirecting the economy to export more.

Interestingly we see the same discussion now in oil exporting countries and specially in Russia that immediately following the sinking oil prices saw its currency fall. As a result imports cost more in terms of the local currency and the central bank is signalling rising inflation and taking "appropriate measures" that may well be very inappropriate.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When friends commit crimes

In its ambition to be world ruler the US always has had its share of misbehaving friends. Mobutu was probably the most famous among them, but there have been many others. Out of fear of losing their support the West tended to ignore their misbehavior.

Nowadays Israel and Saudi Arabia are among the misbehaving friends. And we see the US bending backwards in order not to lose their friendship.

Doing so the US is showing itself a false friend. Good friends occasionally tell each other the truth. Forcing Israel to behave better towards the Palestinians could in the long run be better for Israel's future.

In the case of Saudi Arabia this issue is even more clear. By starting a war against Yemen the royal family has painted itself into a corner. The main initiator of the war is crown prince Muhammad, king Salman favorite nephew. Stopping the war would be a major defeat for Muhammad. This is by excellence an opportunity for the US to show itself a true friend: by stopping all support for the war and starting humanitarian support for Yemen it could force Saudi Arabia to end its war. On the short term the Saudi's certainly would blame Obama - also in an effort to save Muhammad's face. But in the long term they would have to admit that it was the best option.

Yet this kind of behavior takes courage. And until now that has been missing.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The limits of international justice

In traditional societies conflict resolution is done by usually older men who are respected for their wisdom. As their respected status shows they are deeply rooted in their society and subscribe to its values.

In modern society judges are supposed to follow the written law. Judges have become rather anonymous people whose main accomplishment is often just finishing the right education. Yet it is not difficult to see that their verdicts are still highly influenced by the surrounding society. In racist societies verdicts of the discriminated minority tend to be harsher. And when society becomes more tolerant on issues like abortion this is reflected in the verdicts - even when the law doesn't change. Yet one thing has changed: there is now a bureaucracy behind those judges that determines who gets appointed and who gets promoted and this bureaucracy has considerable influence too.

But nowhere are judges less connected to society than in international justice. International judges are very dependent on those who appoint them and that makes their allegiance to neutral justice questionable. Recently this became apparent in two cases: the release of Sudan's president Bashir by South Africa - in spite of an extradition request by the ICC - and the 50 billion dollar verdict against Russia in the case brought by the Yukos shareholders.

Many African leaders face a similar problem that Bashir faces: insurgent regions. They may not like Bashir's bloody approach, but at the same time they know that it is not always possible to solve such problems bloodless. And so they consider that if they consent to Bashir's extradition now they might be targeted next - when Western politicians might find it useful. At the same time they have little trust in the judicial process at the ICC: they have seen the murky process in which judges are selected and they have seen judges schmoozing with Western diplomats. They also see that the US is supporting Ukraine in its use of scorched earth tactics and random shelling against the insurgence in its Eastern regions.

We see similar problems in the Yukos case. The excuse for submitting the subject to international judges and not leaving it to local judges in Russia is that some holding was stationed in Cyprus. But what would happen if the US banks and other financial companies that got a haircut in the financial crisis used their foreign subsidiaries as an excuse to take the US government to an international court? It is well known that many of the judges in those commercial cases previously worked for lawyer firms representing companies in similar cases. And when they quit as a judge these same firms may offer them a well paid consultancy job. Given this context these judges may know their laws well, but their neutrality is questionable.

Traditionally this impossibility of justice was solved by diplomacy. This approach certainly had its defects too. But one has to wonder whether the new approach is better.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Will Israel help ISIS to victory?

The New York Times has a strange article today: Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk:

As Israel prepares for what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese organization that fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006, Israeli military officials and experts are warning that the group has done more than significantly build up its firepower since then.
Effectively, the Israelis are warning that in the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel’s fault.

The big question is: why now? Hezbollah is very busy in Syria and would be plainly foolish to open a second front with the Israeli's.

Israel's former ambassador Oren has several times that he prefers Al Qaeda over Assad.

So the big question is: is Israel contemplating to attack Hezbollah in order to help AL Qaeda win in Syria. These sudden threats may point in that direction and may be meant to prepare the public opinion for it.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Saudi's and Israeli's are reaping what they sowed

Israel and Saudi Arabia are making a lot of noise these days about the fact that an American agreement with Iran would make that country the local superpower. What they forget to mention is that twenty years ago that wouldn't have been the case. At that time Iraq and Syria were the natural counterweights against Iran. Unfortunately both countries were destroyed by the US - thanks to much lobbying from ... Israel and Saudi Arabia.

So they are just facing the internal inconsistencies of their foreign policies. Now they want the US to destroy Iran. And if that is finished they will bring up the next candidate for destruction - very probably Turkey - that will then be the regional hegemonist.

Maybe it is time that Israel learns to live with its neighbors in peace. Maybe it is time that Saudi Arabia stops exporting its extremism and learns to accept that it isn't the regional superpower that some of its leaders want it to be but that it never will be as it is too divided internally.

Friday, April 24, 2015

John Brennan - key figure in the Obama administration

Buzzfeed has a portrait ("The Untouchable John Brennan") of John Brennan, the director of the CIA.

Brennan defended torture, played a very important role in the drone killings and managed to get away with spying on the Senate. The key: he has a very close relationship with Obama.

The article also mentions that he spent two periods of several years in Saudi Arabia. It doesn't elaborate on that, but it may very well be the explanation why the Obama administration is so eager to do what the Saudi's want: a.o. in Syria, and now in Yemen.

The Yemen play

Iran advised the Houthi's not to take Sanaa. The Houthi's took it anyway when they found that it was virtually undefended. But for a long time they prefered to stay there and didn't make much effort to conquer the rest of the country.

The main focus of the Houthi's has always been Al Qaeda. One of their motives for their uprising was their perception that Hadi was supporting Al Qaeda and its hate campaign against the Zaydi's. The Houthi's only started their offensive towards the south after the murderous bombing of two Zaydi mosques in Sanaa.

The Zaydi's are "fiver" Shiites and in many ways closer to the Sunni than the Iranian branch of Shiism. They are estimated to constitute around 40% of the Yemeni population. Zaydi kings ruled over northern Yemen for over 1000 years. The Houthi movement consists mostly of Zaydi's but contains also some Sunni's.

Unfortunately for Yemen foreign interventions - always done with money rather than soldiers - are very popular in Saudi Arabia. And after the problematic outcomes in Syria and Iraq they are longing for a success story. Yemen looked like an easy target - and so the new king sought to raise his popularity by targeting it. It doesn't matter that the storyline of Iran-fueled Shiite aggression is fake: the Saudi public opinion loves it.

All signs are that the Houthi's are open to dialogue. But it is much less clear whether the Saudi's are.