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Choose a Side: Trump and the Sunni-Shia War

The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

President Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.

Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq the local government’s troops were mostly Shia (as is most of the population), and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove Islamic State steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey despite the fact that those two countries, both ruled by devout Sunni regimes, were sending money and arms to the extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy Islamic State.

On the other hand, Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian and impulsive President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him (he recently called the Germans “Nazis” and the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists”).

In 2015 Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election. Now he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy Islamic State but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against Islamic State for years.

There are even Turkish troops in northern Iraq (without permission), and Erdogan has threatened to use them if the Iraqi army abuses Sunni Muslims during the reconquest of Mosul. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replied (in November): “We do not want war with Turkey…but if a confrontation happens we are ready for it.”

Erdogan has gone rogue, and Turkey’s recent, quite fragile reconciliation with Russia is not restraining him. The two countries, together with Iran, are jointly supervising the shaky ceasefire in Syria, but they do not share the same goals and they are not really allies.

Into the midst of all this vicious complexity wanders the boy-man Donald Trump, with his full-spectrum ignorance, short attention-span and shorter temper. His appointee as National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, doubtless advised him to support Turkey’s ambitions, but then it was revealed that Flynn was in the pay of the Turkish government and he had to resign.

If Trump cosies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Erdogan…resign”)

A Short Generation in Scotland

Maybe they reach sexual maturity very young in Scotland. What else could explain the fact that they are going to have another referendum on Scottish independence only three years after the last one?

The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation event. That was the one thing that then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond agreed on: even a one-vote majority would settle the matter for a generation.

In fact, the majority to stay in the United Kingdom was close to half a million. It couldn’t have been a clearer outcome. There was none of the obfuscation for which Quebec’s referendums on independence from Canada were famous (like the 106-word question in the 1980 referendum that did not even mention the word “independence”).

The referendum in Scotland simply asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country” – and the Scots said No by a 55%-45% majority. But only thirty months later, the next generation of Scots must already have arrived.

Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond’s successor as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of the Scottish government, announced on Monday that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence in late 2018 or early 2019. She didn’t even have the grace to say best two out of three.

It’s Sturgeon’s job to promote the idea of independence, of course, but she needed a plausible pretext to demand a re-run of Scotland’s own referendum so soon. The English nationalists who committed the entire United Kingdom to leaving the European Union in last June’s referendum gave her that pretext: 53 percent of the English voted to leave the EU, but 62 percent of Scots voted to stay.

Why such a difference? Because the “Little Englanders” who voted to leave were seduced by the neo-Elizabethan fantasy of a swash-buckling, free-trading England that would stay rich by living on its wits. (Unlike the real Elizabethan England of 400 years ago, whose major foreign source of income was piracy.)

Scotland was never a great power, and it views the European Union as an economic and political safe haven. A large majority of Scots have no desire to leave the EU – especially if they are being dragged out of it by the gravely deluded English.

So Nicola Sturgeon can reasonably say that there has been a “material change of circumstances” since the first Scottish referendum, and claim that this change justifies another one. However, her claim is seriously undermined by the fact that Scots are opposed to another referendum, even under current circumstances, by a three-to-two majority. The whole referendum process is just too painful and divisive.

Moreover, there has been another “material change of circumstances” that hurts the case for Scottish independence. Low oil prices and the gradual depletion of the North Sea oil fields have cut the Scottish government’s tax take from North Sea oil revenue from $14.2 billion in 2008-09 to only $2.2 billion in 2015 and a mere $73 million this year. The oil income that subsidised Scotland’s high social spending is finished.

Then there is the fact that the European Union is made up of sovereign states, and that such states instinctively cooperate to discourage and punish separatism in any of their members. Brussels has plainly stated that an independent Scotland would not automatically retain EU membership.

This is the “Barroso doctrine” – that if any part of an existing EU country becomes an independent state it has to apply for membership – and the European Commission has just reconfirmed that Scotland would be subject to this rule. The application process for new members normally takes many years.

So an independent Scotland could find itself outside the EU single market because of Brexit, and outside the British single market as well because of its secession from the United Kingdom. Scotland exports four times as much to the ROUK (Rest of the United Kingdom) as it does to the EU, so this could spell economic disaster.

At the same time Scotland would also find itself outside NATO, the main Western alliance. As Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General, told Sky News: “By leaving the UK, (Scotland) would also leave Nato. Of course it is absolutely possible to apply for membership and then the allies will decide.” But that would certainly take years.

The future looks distinctly unpromising for an independent Scotland that breaks away from the United Kingdom just as the UK pulls out of Europe. (It hardly looks golden for England either.) The Scots didn’t vote yes for independence even when there was no Brexit in the offing. Why would they do it now?

One reason would simply be anger at the arrogance and stupidity of the Little Englanders who have presented them with this unpalatable choice. But there is little enthusiasm in Scotland for independence on these terms. Most Scots just wish the whole question would go away.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“In fact…independence”; and “At the same…years”)

Turkey Referendum

Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler or the Nazis loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.

The argument – the referendum, more precisely – is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.

Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens, and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.

“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.

Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticise him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close, because the country is still split right down the middle – and it’s no longer left vs. right. It is primarily secularist vs. Islamist.

When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.

In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism”, named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive, and Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.

His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers
were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK, and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory 5 percent a year.

Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally, and secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.

These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum – but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.

In order to win back control of parliament he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To get their support he had to break the ceasefire with the PKK and reopen the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.

Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but he almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organised that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.

Since last July Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.

His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised – but the Turks may yet surprise him.

The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying, and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“When…public”; and “His default…him”)

Dutch Election

The Dutch political system may not have been deliberately designed to produce middle-of-the-road outcomes, but it certainly works that way in practice: many small parties, multi-party coalitions to create a majority government, perpetual compromise. It is almost impossible to radicalise a system like this, but Geert Wilders is going to try.

Wilders is the founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), which currently holds only twelve seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. But he is aiming to make it the largest single party in the March 15 election – which, in ordinary times, would probably give it the leading role in the next coalition government.

But these are not normal times, and the PVV is far from a normal party. It really only has one policy – stop the immigrants – and it is unshamedly racist and anti-Muslim in its rhetoric. Wilders recently called Dutch residents of Moroccan origin “scum”. He vows to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban the sale of the Koran, and stop all further immigrants or asylum seekers from Muslim countries.

He is the Dutch Donald Trump, a silver-maned provocateur who deploys the maximum possible nastiness in his campaign talk and his frequent abusive tweets. In fact, some people argue that Trump must have taken lessons from Wilders, who has been working this side of the street for at least a decade already, but the concept of convergent evolution probably applies. Populists are almost always racists too.

Which brings us to the question that is most interesting for people who don’t live in the Netherlands. Can racism and xenophobia alone, without any help from economic desperation, persuade a traditionally liberal Western electorate to cast its values aside and vote for an authoritarian bully with an anti-Muslim obsession?

Trump had lots of help from economic despair. The key voters who gave him an electoral college victory last November were in the Rust Belt states: men (they were mostly men) who would usually have backed Democratic candidates, but switched to Trump because he promised to “bring back the jobs” and stop the non-white immigration.

There was certainly a large element of racial panic in the American vote. A survey by Zack Beauchamp of the opinion polling and recent academic research on the topic, entitled “White Riot” and published on Vox on 20 January, documented the argument that “the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.”

On the other hand, the Rust Belt states south of the Great Lakes, the former industrial heartland of the United States, are the places that have suffered the greatest job losses over the past few decades, which is why cities like Cleveland and Detroit are decaying and partly abandoned. And they are emphatically NOT major destinations for new immigrants to the US.

Trump himself always ensures that he hits on both immigration and job losses in his speeches and tweets, and he is the world’s expert on the fears and prejudices of his supporters. Could we perhaps speculate that his supporters say that they are frightened about immigration and especially Mulim immigration, but that their racism is really driven in large part by their anger at the steep decline in the number of well-paid industrial jobs?

Of the six states with over a million immigrants – California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey – only Florida (where Trump won by a whisker) and Texas (which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980) voted for Trump. California, whose ten million immigrants make up 27 percent of the state population, voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton.

It would seem that, in the words of the old Phil Spector song, to know, know, know them is to love, love, love them (the immigrants), or at least not to fear them. Whereas Michigan, a Rust-Belt state that voted Democratic in the previous six elections and where only 6 percent of the population are immigrants, voted for Trump.

You can see the same pattern in the Brexit vote in England last June. The prosperous big cities are where the immigrants are, and every one of them except Birmingham voted Remain (in the European Union). London, where half the school population is non-white, voted Remain by a 60-40 majority, as did Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

The narrow Leave majority countrywide was won in depressed northern industrial cities where immigrant populations are low, and in prosperous rural areas where there are virtually no immigrants at all. So there was again racial panic at the changing ethnic face of England in areas where immigrants were largely absent, but especially in post-industrial areas where they are (wrongly) blamed for the loss of well-paying jobs.

In populist revolts elsewhere, the manifest racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated in the opinion polls masked a deeper resentment about the loss of jobs. In the Netherlands, where unemployment is only 5 percent, Geert Wilders is depending on racism alone, and he is not heading for a Brexit- or Trump-style victory. The latest opinion poll gives him just 15 percent of the vote.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“You..jobs”)