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Johnson’s Cunning Plan

The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he actually needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he has to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he has to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piles up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turn against it.

So Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and it is clear that there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win, and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed only because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks in the midst of a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by provoking Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses extreme language to stoke resentment and mobilise anger, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. (“The plotting…plan”)

Jokowi and Justin

The news out of Indonesia this week is disturbing. In West Papua, the Indonesian-ruled half of the world’s second-biggest island, New Guinea, the native people are definitely restive. 1.8 million of them, 70% of West Papua’s native population, signed a petition demanding the right to self-determination last year, and now much of the island is in revolt.

It’s not only about independence. It is a protest against the racist contempt of many Indonesians for the ethically and culturally different native Papuans. The demos began last month after videos circulated of Indonesian security forces calling protesting Papuan university students ‘monkeys’, ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’.

On Monday, at least 27 people were killed in protests in two West Papuan provincial capitals, and the Indonesian government closed down the internet throughout the territory in an attempt to stop the flames of unrest from spreading. Meanwhile, 3,000 km. to the west in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, people are protesting against a very different outrage.

This one is legal. Official respect for civil and human rights in Indonesia has greatly improved since the overthrow of Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship in 1998. The current president, Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’ to one and all), is seen as a sort of Asian Justin Trudeau by his many admirers, and he has just won a second five-year term in a free and fair election. And suddenly, this.

Last week the Indonesian parliament was about to pass a revised version of the country’s criminal code after years of debate – and the public finally noticed that it is a nightmare of prejudice and intolerance. Many people were aghast, and the public protests began at once.

The 628-article draft penal code demands a year in jail for extra-marital or pre-marital sex, even for foreign tourists. If they didn’t actually catch you at it, just living together as a couple would still earn the guilty parties up to half a year in prison.

The new code criminalises all same-sex activity, and bans abortion except in cases of rape or medical emergency (four years in jail for women who unlawfully terminate their pregnancies). And forget freedom of the press: four years in jail for ‘insulting’ the president, the vice-president, parliament, religion, the national flag or the national anthem.

The student-led protests spread all across Indonesia, and last Friday Jokowi intervened. The outgoing parliament will not vote on the new code this week. Instead, the newly elected parliament will take it up again after it opens next month, and he will ask it to ‘review’ fourteen controversial articles before it votes.

But no apology from Jokowi for letting things get this far, and certainly no acknowledgement from him that in West Papua Indonesia is effectively a brutal colonial power. What happened to the good guy we thought we knew?

It’s like pictures of a younger Justin Trudeau in blackface. The disillusionment is extreme: Mr Nice Guy has feet of clay right up to his armpits. But no politician with aspirations to longevity can always be a good guy.

West Papua, like Indonesia, was part of the Dutch East Indies, but the two had little in common: very few native West Papuans are even Muslim, although Muslim immigrants from Indonesia now account for almost half the population. The people of West Papua wanted independence, but the United States thought it would be safer from Communism if it were ruled by an Indonesian dictator.

So in 1969 West Papua became part of Indonesia by a UN-sanctioned ‘Act of Free Choice’. That is to say, the Indonesian army murdered around 30,000 West Papuans between 1962 and 1969, and then rounded up 1,026 West Papuan men and held their families hostage. An Indonesian general told them that if they voted for independence, their tongues would be ripped out – so they ‘voted’ to be part of Indonesia.

Indonesia has no just claim to West Papua, and the vast majority of West Papuans want independence. But they are almost outnumbered by Indonesian immigrants now, and no Indonesian politician who refuses to condemn West Papuan separatism could survive. So Jokowi just keeps quiet when the subject comes up – and similarly with the criminal code.

Indonesia used to practice an amiable, tolerant form of Islam, but decades of Saudi subsidies for the extreme and intolerant Wahhabi version of the faith have created a powerful activist minority who seek to impose their values on everybody else by law.

No politicians, including Jokowi, wanted to make themselves vulnerable to accusations of being anti-Islam by opposing the new criminal code’s oppressive measures publicly while they were running for re-election. However many politicians, probably including Jokowi, were hoping for public protests after the election, and the protests have duly occurred.

Now it’s politically safe to intervene, and the worst provisions of the new code will probably be dropped in due course. But that’s the reality of how politics works. Within the bounds of the possible, Jokowi is still a good guy.

So is Trudeau, for that matter, although his wounds were self-inflicted. Basically still a good guy, although not nearly as smart as he thought he was.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“West…Indonesia”)

The Democratisation of Airpower

Big shifts in the military balance happen quietly over many years, and then leap suddenly into focus when the shooting starts.

It happened to classic blitzkrieg tactics in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when both sides lost half their tanks, mostly to cheap, infantry-fired anti-tank missiles, in just three weeks. And it happened to ‘air superiority’, in the sense that it has been understood for the past 75 years, in Saudi Arabia last week.

Tanks ruled the battlefield from the German blitzkrieg of 1940 until 1973. Only more or better tanks could stop them. Tanks have got a lot more sophisticated since 1973, but so have the anti-tank weapons, which are a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more plentiful. There is no longer a single, simple equation for battlefield success.

Air superiority, the other main component of blitzkrieg, had a much longer run of success. The powers that could afford to design and build the most advanced combat aircraft controlled not only the sky but the land beneath it, and could batter weaker states into submission (NATO against Serbia, the US twice against Iraq, NATO again in Libya, etc.) with few casualties of their own.

Fast forward to September 2019 in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom should be among the privileged, invulnerable few, for it has a very high-tech air force and the best air defences money can buy. It can also call on the immense power of the United States, which maintains military bases in a number of Gulf states and has promised to protect it. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was a swarm of cheap drones and cruise missiles that the Saudis didn’t even see coming. According to the Houthi rebels in Yemenis, who claim to have launched them, there were at least ten Samad 3 drones (the Saudis say eighteen drones hit the Abqaiq oil processing site) and an undisclosed number of Qasif K-2 cruise missiles (the Saudis say four cruise missiles struck the Khurais facility).

The Saudis didn’t see them because they flew nap of the earth, so low they were hidden from Saudi radars. They were launched from three different sites, but timed to reach their targets simultaneously from three different angles. They took out half the oil-processing capability of the world’s second-biggest producer for at least some weeks – and the whole swarm of them only cost one or two million dollars.

That’s assuming they were built in low-wage Yemen. They’d cost twice that to build in Iran, and at least ten times as much in the United States. But that’s still pretty cheap when you consider that a single F-35 fighter costs $122 million. You get a very capable airplane for your money, and a couple of them could do equal damage to those oil processing facilities – but they wouldn’t do a much better job.

They could also get shot down, which would be a very large amount of money (plus maybe the pilots’ lives) down the drain. The drones and cruise missiles can also be shot down, of course, but they’re cheap, they have no pilots, and if there are enough of them, some are likely to get through. If they don’t get through today, send more tomorrow.

The Saudis made it extra-easy for the Houthis (or the Iranians, if you believe the Saudi-American version of the story) by not having any short-range air defences for their most important economic assets, or at least none facing in the right direction. But this is because Saudi Arabia doesn’t plan to do its own fighting in any confrontation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s defence budget ($67.6 billion last year) goes mostly on buying very expensive military equipment from the United States, but what it is really buying is American military support. In return for all that money, the Kingdom expects Americans to do the actual fighting for it, just as it hires Sudanese and Pakistanis to do the ground combat in its war in Yemen.

The Saudis shouldn’t count on that. Donald Trump knows nothing about foreign affairs or military strategy, but this is the sort of deal he has spent a lifetime imposing on others. He’ll make the sales, but he won’t deliver the services.

The big question that is finally going to be asked, in countries rich and poor, is why the air forces insist on buying ultra-expensive manned aircraft instead of flocks, swarms and fleets of small, cheap, disposable unmanned vehicles. The truth is that air forces are run by pilots, and they like to fly planes, but what happened in Saudi Arabia last week will finally give the civilian authorities arguments that the aviators cannot resist or ignore.

So the shift to primary reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for offensive action will get underway at last, and the result will be the democratisation of air power. Only rich countries with a mastery of high technology can own F-35s. Even the smallest, poorest country (and some non-state actors too) can afford to build or buy a few thousand drones and a couple of hundred basic cruise missiles.

Democratisation is a double-edged sword.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The Saudis…services”)

Whodunnit?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not really necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert, and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo’s turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 9. (“Within…them”; “It changed…missiles”; and “The biggest…clients”)