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Archive for March, 2018

Yemeni Missiles: SSDD

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is – a threat to the peace and security of the whole world,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last December, trying to drum up support for stronger international sanctions against Iran, and maybe even an actual attack on the country. Here we go again.

Those old enough to remember the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq will recall the deluge of doctored American ‘intelligence’ reports about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the attack. ‘Everybody’ was in danger, presumably including Bolivia, Switzerland and Nepal, so everybody must support the invasion.

President George W. Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the American intelligence services worked overtime to come up with reasons for doing it. We were told that Saddam had been trying to buy ‘yellowcake’ uranium in Niger (false, based on forged documents). The US could not afford to wait for final proof of Saddam’s intentions “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, said President Bush.

And former general Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, showed the United Nations General Assembly a vial containing a powder – harmless, one hopes – in order to emphasise that just a tiny amount of a lethal biological weapon Saddam was allegedly producing would kill gazillions of people. (Powell, basically an honest man, later called the speech a permanent “blot” on his record.)

In the end the United States got its war – and found no evidence whatever of an active Iraqi programme to build weapons of mass destruction. But no lessons have been learned. Ms Haley at the UN was laying a foundation of lies for a comparable Trump adventure in the Middle East. Same Story Different Day.

The story-line goes as follows. Iran is an aggressive and expansionist power that threatens everybody everywhere. The proof is that it is helping the bad guys in Yemen, known as the Houthis, to launch missile attacks on innocent Saudi citizens. In fact, it is actually giving the evil Houthis the missiles.

The Houthis, a large Shia tribe in northern Yemen, are indeed rebels, and they now control most of the country, including the capital. This greatly angered the Saudi Arabians, who installed the previous government in 2012 as a way of shutting down the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.

The Saudis didn’t like seeing their man overthrown, so they created a nine-country coalition of Sunni Arab states and started bombing Yemen in 2015. According to the UN, at least 8,670 people have been killed and 49,960 injured since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s war. But on 25 March one of the highly inaccurate Houthi missiles killed one person in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The anti-Iran propaganda machine went into high gear. “This aggressive and hostile action by the Iran-backed Houthi group proves that the Iranian regime continues to support the (Houthi) armed group with military capabilities,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki. And the inimitable Nikki Haley said that the missile “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it.

This is the nub of the matter: is Iran actually supplying missiles to the Houthis that are being fired at Saudi Arabia? If so, then the United States, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, has an excuse to attack Iran.

The American accusation basically depends on the ignorant but widespread belief that Yemenis, and in particular Shia rebels from the north, are too ‘backward’ to be able to make or upgrade missiles themselves. But most of the Yemeni armed forces’ weapons, including a variety of short-range ballistic missiles based on the old Soviet ‘Scud’ series, fell into the Houthis’ hands in 2015-16.

None of those original missiles could have reached Riyadh, but extending the range of a simple rocket like the Scud is not rocket science. You just reduce the weight of the warhead and lengthen the body of the rocket to carry extra fuel.

The Houthis have lots of people with metal fabrication and basic engineering skills, and it appears that they did exactly that. The upgraded missile is inaccurate (only one Saudi casualty in at least 40 launches) because lengthening it and lightening the warhead changes the balance, but it cheers the Houthis up because it lets them retaliate for all the bombing.

Jane’s Information Group Ltd, established in 1898, is the world’s leading independent provider of intelligence and analysis on defense matters. Here is what Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said about Yemen’s rockets in 2017 in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

“The Burkan-2 appears to use a new type of warhead section that is locally fabricated. Both Iran and North Korea have displayed Scud derivatives with shuttlecock-shaped warheads, but none of these match the Yemeni version. The range of the Burkan missiles also appears to have been extended by a reduction in the weight of their warheads.”

No nonsense about ‘made in Iran’ stickers. The Yemenis aren’t stupid, and they did it themselves. But the other story suits the Trump administration’s purposes better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“President…record”)

Dictators and Elections

Why do they bother?

Last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, got himself ‘re-elected’ to his fourth six-year term by a 76 percent majority on a 76 percent turn-out. This week (26-28 March) the Egytian dictator, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be ‘re-elected’ with close to 100 percent support, although probably on a very low turn-out. A quarter-billion people are being inconvenienced in order to wield what amounts to giant rubber stamps.

So why do they bother? Both dictators control the mass media in their countries, so they can be reasonably confident that most people will not be exposed to much criticism of their actions. They both can and do have people who oppose them arrested or killed (and Sisi’s enforcers also torture people). Yet they feel the need to go through these fake democratic elections in order to validate their rule.

The charade goes even further in many African countries. At some point in the past, often after popular protests or even a revolution, term limits were imposed on the presidency, but later the man in power (it’s always a man) realises that he actually wants to rule the country for life. Once again, however, abolishing the term limits is done with due ‘democratic’ decorum, generally involving a state-managed referendum.

China is the latest dictatorship to end term limits, making Xi Jinping in effect president-for-life, although it skipped the referendum part. Indeed, even China pretends to be a democracy, more or less, although the Communist Party must always be in the ‘leading role’ and there are no direct national elections. Why do they go through all this rigmarole, when the outcome is invariably a foregone conclusion?

Egypt’s pharohs felt no need to ask the people’s opinions on their performance as rulers. The kings of 18th-century Europe ruled by ‘divine right’, not by the popular will (and they didn’t actually ask God’s opinion on their performance either). But at some point in the past century, democracy has won the argument world-wide.

It has not won all the power struggles, and many dictators survive in practice, but they are all obliged to pretend to have popular support. This is a very big change from the past, when tyrannical power was generally based on a combination of religious authority and brutal armed force. Why, and in particular why now?

The anthropologists may have an answer. It is now pretty widely agreed in their profession that pre-civilised human beings almost all lived in bands where all adult men, at least, were treated as equals, and all had an equal right to share in decision-making. They even had well-established methods for making sure that nobody got too big for his boots.

These primitive ‘democracies’ all collapsed in the early stages of civilisation, when the huge rise in population (from dozens to millions in a thousand years) made it physically impossible for everybody to take part in the discussion about means and ends any more.

At the same time all the traditional social controls that kept ambitious people from seizing power failed too. You can’t shame people into respecting the opinions and personal freedoms of other people if the numbers get so big that you don’t even know them personally. Result: five thousand years of tyranny.

But give these mass societies mass media, and they regain the ability to communicate with one another. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that they want to be treated as equals again. The first successful democratic revolution happened in the American colonies in 1776 because printing presses were everywhere, and over half the population was literate.

Now mass media are everywhere, and even the dictators have to pretend that they are in power by the will of the people. It will be a long time before they actually disappear (if they ever do), but they already rule less than half of the world’s people, and they all have to go through a charade of democracy to legitimise their rule.

When the first results of the Russian election were coming in last week, a reporter asked Vladimir Putin if he would run again in six years’ time. “What you are saying is a bit funny,” Putin replied. “Do you think that I will stay here until I’m 100 years old? No.” But that’s what Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former ruler, would also have said when he had been in power for only eighteen years.

In the end Mugabe stayed in power for 37 years, and he was 93 and planning to run for another term when he was finally overthrown last year. Putin would be a mere 85 years old when he broke Mugabe’s record, although China’s Xi Jinping would have to live until he was 97 to do the same. I’ll bet neither one makes it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The charade…conclusion”)

Self-Driving Cars

There are always some casualties when a new form of transportation comes along. In 1830, at the official opening of the world’s first railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, a well-known British politician, William Huskisson, was struck and killed by a locomotive. He was known to be clumsy and accident-prone, but it still cast a pall over the proceedings.

About eighty years later an ancestor of mine was the first person in Newfoundland to be run over and killed by one of those new-fangled motor-cars. And now this: on Monday Elaine Herzberg of Tempe, Arizona became the first person to be struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle.

There was a person sitting, hands off, behind the wheel of the ‘self-driving’ car that hit her, because these vehicles are still in the experimental stage. Uber, the company that was running these particular tests, issued the usual ‘our thoughts are with the victim’s family’ statement and suspended its on-the-road tests in cities throughout the United States. But the halt is only temporary: this technology is unstoppable.

It’s also relatively safe, at least compared to vehicles driven by human beings. Around a hundred Americans a day die in traffic accidents, but in developing countries it’s far worse. About four hundred Indians are killed in traffic accidents each day, although there are actually fewer motor vehicles in India (263 million in the US, 210 million in India).

The widespread use of self-driving vehicles will almost certainly bring down the death rates sharply everywhere, because even if computers can be as stupid as human drivers, they cannot be as impatient or angry or drunk. What the robo-cars, trucks and buses are going to kill in very large numbers is not human beings but jobs.

Automation goes in stages. Computers were not very clever in the 1990s, but they were already good enough to run the robotic arms and similar devices that took over the old assembly lines.

The Rust Belt is centred in the Great Lakes states of the US, and in comparable regions of northern England and northern France, precisely because those are the old mass-production heartlands of their respective countries. Assembly lines had already broken down the complex task of assembling a car, for example, into a hundred or so very simple tasks, so they were bound to be the first victims of automation.

The computers are much smarter now, and up to the extremely demanding task of driving a vehicle in traffic. There are still bugs in the programs, but in two or three or five years they will have been fixed and self-driving vehicles will be available for sale to the public. Those at the head of the queue to buy them will be the operators of fleets of vehicles.

Most people are aware that companies like Ford, General Motors, Tesla and Waymo are investing heavily in research to develop self-driving cars. Fewer realise that Daimler, Volvo, Uber and Baidu are already road-testing self-driving eighteen-wheeler trucks. The goal of this research, quite explicitly, is to eliminate all the driving jobs.

There are approximately four and a half million driving jobs in the United States: taxi-drivers, bus-drivers, delivery van drivers, long-distance truckers. That’s about four percent of all American jobs, and the driving share of total jobs is around the same in other developed economies. It’s a safe bet that at least half of those jobs will disappear in the next ten years, and they will almost all be gone in fifteen or twenty.

The long-term impact of autonomous vehicles on private car ownership will be just as great. A recent KPMG survey of car-industry executives found that 59 percent of CEOs believe that more than half of today’s car-owners will no longer want to own a car by 2025. Just summon a cheap self-driving taxi whenever you want to go somewhere.

It’s Uber on stilts. Self-driving taxis will be everywhere, and respond to the summons in just a minute or two. No parking problems ever again, and far less congestion on the roads because a taxi fleet one-quarter as big as the current total of private cars would suffice to meet even maximum rush-hour demand.

Privately owned cars are parked on average 95 percent of the time. In fact, there is hardly ever more than a quarter of privately owned cars being driven at the same time, even at peak hours. So in the longer term we will see a drastic decline in the number of passenger cars, and a less dramatic fall in the world demand for oil. (Almost three-fifths of world oil output goes into fuel for vehicles.)

We may also expect to see a major decrease in the number of deaths and injuries in traffic accidents. Self-driving vehicles will no doubt occasionally make mistakes that hurt human beings, but computer programs are bound to be less erratic on the roads than human beings. It’s a pity about the jobs, but on balance this is change for the better.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The Rust…automation”; and “Most…jobs”)

Duterte: Mass Murderer in Power

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.

He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.

On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.

Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.

That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.

It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.

Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.

It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.

The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015 (but up to six per 100,000 people in 2016 due to Duterte’s killing spree).

In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the ‘extrajudicial’ murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.

Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.

He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.

Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.

He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“On Sunday…self-awareness”; and (“Amphetamine…people”)