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Brazil after Dilma

On Tuesday former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff left the presidential palace in Brasilia and boarded a plane for her adopted home city of Porto Alegre. She leaves behind a successor who risks indictment for far worse offences than the ones that brought her down, and a country that has lost its right to a place among the BRICS

The BRICS began as a collection of large, fast-growing countries in the poorer parts of the world that Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs identified as emerging global powers in 2001: Brazil, Russia, India and China. (South Africa and the capital S were added in 2010.) The BRICS even started holding annual summits, although they were rarely more than orgies of self-congratulation.

Nobody enjoyed their new status more than the Brazilians, but it was always an illusion. China and India, with 1.3 billion people each, were indisputably great powers. Russia was a recovering great power, not a new one. But Brazil, like South Africa, was an imposter, lacking the critical combination of population, resources and industry that entitles a country to a place in the first rank.

Brazil was a fairly plausible imposter during the years of the great boom in commodity prices, but for the past two years it has been in deep economic trouble. It was Dilma Rousseff’s misfortune to win the 2014 presidential election just as the bottom dropped out of the country’s economic “miracle”.

Her predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, exploited the boom to build a modest welfare state that lifted 50 million Brazilians out of poverty. Rousseff struggled to maintain those gains in the midst of Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s – the economy shrank by almost 4 percent last year – and became the least popular president in Brazilian history.

Her unpopularity, plus a huge corruption scandal that implicated some members of her Workers’ Party (though not herself personally), created the atmosphere in which it became possible for the Brazilian Congress to impeach her. She describes it as a “constitutional coup” designed to remove an elected left-wing government from power, and she is quite right.

Rousseff was not impeached for corruption. She was found guilty of window-dressing government accounts before the last election, in order to minimise the impact of the collapse in Brazil’s export earnings on her spending promises. It was a petty misdemeanour for which she received a grave punishment at the hands of a Congress full of people who have committed actual crimes.

It is universally acknowledged that the Brazilian Congress is one of the most corrupt legislatures on the planet. 58 percent of the members are currently under investigation for involvement in the “Lava Jato” (car wash) scandal, in which they allegedly got kickbacks on contracts with the huge, state-owned Petrobras oil monopoly.

Few of these people are associated with Rousseff, since the Workers Party holds less than one-tenth of the seats in Congress and depends on coalitions for a majority. A cynic
might say that that’s why Rousseff has supported federal prosecutors who are investigating Lava Jato – but the same cynic would also have to acknowledge that one of the motives for impeaching Rousseff is to shut the investigation down.

Indeed, the majority leader in the Senate, Romero Juca, was secretly recorded discussing precisely that goal – and he is a close political ally of Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice-president (from another party), one of the leaders of the campaign against her, and now her successor as president.

President Temer himself has been accused of skimming $300,000 off a nuclear-energy contract, so it shouldn’t be too long before some kind of amnesty is cobbled together for everybody who faces indictment in the Lava Jato case.

Under Temer, a centre-right politician, it also shouldn’t be long before austerity measures begin to cut into the increased spending on education and welfare that has transformed the lot of the Brazilian poor since the turn of the century. Money is scarcer now, of course, but there are other possible ways of coping with it than just imposing more sacrifices on the poor.

So what kind of Brazil emerges from this sorry story? It will be a much diminished country in wealth, in reputation, and in international influence, and the social and economic gulf between the rich and the rest will widen once again.

None of the BRICS apart from India is doing very well at the moment: Russia’s oil income has collapsed, China’s claims of continuing economic growth are deeply suspect, and South Africa’s economic growth last year was 0.5 percent. As Warren Buffet once said, it’s only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s been swimming naked. Everybody, it turns out.

What’s especially sad about Brazil is that it really did use its boom to rescue a generation of the very poor from misery, and was starting to address the extreme corruption of its political system as well. Now most of that will be rolled back. The crooks are back in charge.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Rousseff…crimes”; and “None…out”)

Is ISIS Really Losing?

The word on the streets is that Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL to its many enemies) is going under. In January it lost control of the city of Ramadi in Iraq after a long siege; in June it also lost Fallujah. In March it lost Palmyra to Syrian government troops, and last month it lost Manbij in northern Syria to the US-backed Syrian Kurds after another long siege.

These are all places that ISIS took in mid-2014 in its initial surge of conquests (which ended with the proclamation of the Islamic State), or in the subsequent year of slower advances that ended with the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015. Since then it has been nothing but retreats – and last week Turkey entered the ground war in Syria as well, to fight Islamic State and “other terrorists”.

To cap it all, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the closest associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the man who proclaimed him to be the head of a revived Caliphate (“Islamic State”) only 26 months ago, was killed in a US air strike on 30 August. He was the organisation’s chief propagandist and a senior operational commander, and he will be missed.

But the streets on which “the word” about Islamic State’s impending defeat is being heard are in Washington, not in the Middle East. People on the ground know that things have not been going well for Islamic State recently, but they remember that just one year ago it was Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that was teetering on the brink of collapse.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria last September saved Assad, and it will probably be the Turkish military intervention in Syria this year that saves Islamic State. Not that President Recep Tayyib Erdogan loves Islamic State – he used to let it use Turkey as a transit route for recruits and supplies, but that largely stopped a year ago – but he doesn’t see it as Turkey’s main enemy.

For Erdogan, the big threat is the secession of the south-east corner of the country where Kurds (20 percent of Turkey’s population) are the local majority. All the countries next to that corner of Turkey (Iran, Iraq and Syria) also have Kurdish majorities living along the border, and the Turkish nightmare is for one of those areas to become an independent Kurdish-ruled state

That is exactly what has been happening in northern Syria. The Syrian Kurds made themselves available to Washington as America’s main ally on the ground, and with huge help from American air strikes their army has driven Islamic State back all along the border. It now controls a deep strip of territory along 80 percent of Syria’s border with Turkey, a proto-state that the Kurds call Rojava.

This is entirely Erdogan’s fault. If he had been loyal to Turkey’s alliance with the United States and closed the border with Syria, neither Islamic State or the rival Islamist movement, the Nusra Front, would have grown to dominate the entire Syrian rebel movement. But he didn’t close it, because he was so keen to overthrow Assad that he backed anybody who was fighting against him.

Faced with the threat of an Islamist-ruled Syria, Washington made a de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurds, and they have served it well in the fight against Islamic State. But that just makes them a bigger threat in Erdogan’s eyes, and so he sent his army into Syria last week.

Not very deep into Syria so far, and of course to justify this intervention to the United States Erdogan has said that it is to fight “Islamic State and other terrorists”. But since Turkey always officially refers to Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria as “terrorists”, it doesn’t take great geopolitical insight to figure out who Turkey’s main target is.

Islamic State is well aware of this, which is why it evacuated the border town of Jarablus, where the Turkish army crossed into Syria, without a fight. Why not just step aside and let the Turks make contact with their real target, the Syrian Kurdish army, without wasting everybody’s time?

Contact has now been made, and Turkey is busily shelling and bombing Kurdish-led forces in Manbij, the next town south from Jarablus. The coming months will probably see a steady expansion of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds, and a corresponding drop in the latters’s military effort against Islamic State.

Naively (or was it just fake naivete?), US Secretary of State Ash Carter called on Turkey to stay focused on the fight against Islamic State and not to engage the Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim curtly replied that “operations will continue until all terrorist elements have been neutralised, until all threats to our borders, our lands and our citizens are completely over.”

So the Syrian Kurds will be busy fighting the Turks, and Islamic State will survive. It is an iron rule of Middle Eastern politics that everbody always betrays the Kurds eventually – and Washington will too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“To cap…missed”; and “Naively…over”)

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Geology moves very slowly, and so do geologists. The Working Group on the Anthropocene was set up in 2009, but only presented its recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town last Monday. The Working Group’s experts have concluded that we are now living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. That is, the epoch when human beings are reshaping the Earth.

Epochs (e.g. the Triassic, the Jurassic, or the Cretaceous) are usually big chunks of time: tens of millions of years. The Anthropocene, by contrast, is only about sixty-five years old, which is why many geologists are reluctant to accept it as a whole new epoch in the Earth’s history. But they probably will, in the end, because the evidence is already there in the rocks.

The radical idea of defining an entire epoch by the impact of human civilisation on the planet was advanced for the first time in 2000, by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen. Modern human beings have been around for 200,000 years, he pointed out, but only in 1950 did our numbers and and the products of our science and industry grow so great that we became a dominant factor in the planet’s evolution.

Now we make the weather (by causing global warming with our greenhouse gas emissions). We are even melting the ice and raising the sea level.

We and our domesticated animals account for more than 90 percent of the total weight of all large land-dwelling animals (bigger than a chicken) on Earth. Our crops have pushed wild plants off most of the fertile land on the planet.

And if there are any geologists around a hundred million years from now, they will be able to detect our existence just by examining the rocks.

The acid test for defining a geological epoch is: are there clear differences in the make-up of the rocks? With us, it’s easy. In the 1950s, radioactive elements (radionuclides) from hundreds of open-air nuclear bomb tests appear in the sediments all around the world.

Even more ubiquitous are the tiny fragments of plastic, the particles of aluminum and concrete, and the tiny balls of unburnt carbon that pour out of our power stations, all embedded in the muds that will one day be rocks. The human race may or may not survive, but we have already left indelible evidence of our existence in the rocks.

The real goal of those who want to declare a new Anthropocene epoch, however, is not just to tidy up the geological record. They want to highlight the fact that, for better or worse, we are now in charge of the entire planet.

Paul Crutzen didn’t just propose a new epoch called the Anthropocene. In 2006, he was also the first scientist to go public and say that we may have to resort to “geo-engineering.” We are disabling the Earth’s natural mechanisms for maintaining a stable environment, he said, and in order to survive we may have to take responsibility for maintaining all the global cycles and balances ourselves.

That is not a good thing. In fact, it is a terrifying thing, because the Earth system is immensely complex and there are large parts of it that we do not even understand yet. It was another scientist, Jim Lovelock, who first pointed out what a huge and ultimately crushing burden we will have to shoulder.

Lovelock’s great insight, as important as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century, was that the Earth’s living things, its atmosphere, its seas and its rocks are all part of a single interacting system. He boldly called it Gaia, but more timid scientists call it Earth system science. And in the very act of recognising it, he realised that it was breaking down.

Writing in 1979, he warned that if we disable Gaia’s natural functions, then one day we will wake up to find that we have inherited “the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer. Gaia would have retreated into the muds, and the ceaseless intricate task of keeping all the global cycles in balance would be ours.

“Then at last we would be riding that strange contraption, ‘the spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’.

“We can guess that at less than (ten billion people) we should still be in a Gaian world. But somewhere beyond this figure…lies the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of the spaceship Earth, or gigadeath to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.”

So far we are only seven and a half billion people, but that’s no consolation. The world’s per capita energy consumption is so much higher than Lovelock foresaw in 1979 that we may be on the brink of that final desperate “choice” already. (And UN figures predict that we will be at ten billion by 2050 in any case).

Welcome to the Anthropocene.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“Epochs…rocks”; and “We…planet”)

Why Are Wars So Hard To End?

After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?

We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.

The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for fifteen years.

When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 percent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.

FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 percent of younger Colombians are now literate).

Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.

On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?

Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given garantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust
was in short supply.

It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.

Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.

Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.

Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.

There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.

Perhaps that is true, but it may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 13. (“We’re…Syria; and “Every…moment”)