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The Fall of Kirkuk

Two big cities fell within 24 hours of each other last weekend. The fall of Raqqa in Syria, once the capital of all the territory ruled by ISIS, came after a five-month siege and was no surprise at all. The fall of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk in Iraq took less than a day and came as a complete surprise.

Possession of Kirkuk was critical for the project of Kurdish independence, because it was the source of most of the oil that would have made an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq economically viable.

The Kurds of Iraq came tantalisingly close to realising their dream of independence. Since the first Gulf War of 1990, five Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq have been ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which had American support because it opposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. That American support continued even after the US invasion that finally overthrew Saddam in 2003.

The new government the US created in Baghdad had no control over the KRG, and the would-be Kurdish state almost doubled its territory by taking over the other provinces with Kurdish majorities, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in panic before a suprise ISIS offensive in 2014. Three weeks ago, the Kurdish government even held a referendum on independence in both its old and its new territories.

It has been clear for some time that the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters would be no match for a rebuilt and combat-tested Iraqi army, which had already recovered all the other territory it lost to ISIS three years ago. Yet the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, still went ahead with his referendum on 25 September, and 93 percent of the voters said yes to independence.

But then Iran, which is worried about the loyalty of its own large Kurdish minority just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, decided it was time to take the Kurds down a peg or three. As the greatest Shia power, Iran effectively controls a lot of the sectarian militias that make up the new Iraqi army, and the Baghdad government was happy to act as its proxy.

The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, probably assumed that American support would shield him from Iraqi retaliation when he called the referendum, but it didn’t. When Baghdad sent its troops in on Sunday, the Trump administration merely muttered some weasel words about not liking to see friends fight, and by Wednesday morning the area controlled by the KRG had shrunk by almost half.

Only months ago the Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the struggle to free Mosul from ISIS control, and the Syrian Kurds have been the main American ally in the fight to destroy ISIS in Syria. But once ISIS was defeated those alliances were bound to end: betraying the Kurds is a old Middle Eastern tradition. The only surprise is how fast it has happened, and how comprehensively the Kurds have lost.

There are about 30 million Kurds, but they live on territory that belongs to four of the most powerful states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been seeking an independent Kurdish state for a century now, but all the countries that stand to lose large amounts of territory if it ever actually happened are profoundly opposed to that outcome.

Moreover, the Kurds themselves have never really been united, even within the borders of the KRG. In practice, control of the territory has always been split between factions centred on the Barzani or the Talabani clans. Each faction has its own militia, and they even fought a civil war that killed thousands in the mid 1990s.

People talk about the peshmerga as if it were a Kurdish national army, but it is actually a loose association of separate militias that answer to different commanders. In the past three years they cooperated in the war against ISIS, but they split over the question of Barzani’s referendum, which the Talabani faction thought was too dangerous. That turned out to be right.

There was no joint defence of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army finally moved. Indeed, there was hardly any defence at all; first the Talabani forced pulled out, and then Barzani’s troops had no option but to follow. The Kurdish dream of independence is at an end, and the Kurds will be lucky if they manage to keep even the autonomy they have enjoyed in Iraq since 1991.

Indeed, they will be lucky if can avoid another civil war over who is to blame for the catastrophe (from the Kurdish point of view) of the past few days.

On Wednesday, President Barzani gave a speech that said, presumably about the Talabani faction: “They want to drag us into a civil war, but we will in no way be doing this.”
But a lot of Kurds blame him and his referendum for provoking the disaster, and they will be looking for somebody to punish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…independence”; and “People…right”)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)

Adult Supervision

Here’s the scenario. Late one evening Donald Trump is watching Fox News and a report comes on that North Korea is planning to launch a missile that can reach the United States. (Kim Jong-un’s regime has said it is going to do that one of these days – but only as a test flight landing in the ocean somewhere, not as an attack.)

Trump misunderstands, and thinks Pyongyang is going to launch a missile AT the United States. After all, there was a graphic with the report that shows the trajectory of the North Korean missile reaching the US, and Trump trusts Fox much more than his own intelligence services. So he orders all US strategic forces to go to DEFCON 1: Defence Readiness Condition One – nuclear war is imminent.

The North Koreans spot all the unusual activity in the American forces – leave cancelled in Strategic Air Command, US nuclear subs in port sailing with zero warning leaving part of their crews behind, etc. – and conclude that an American preemptive attack is imminent.

The North Koreans go to their own equivalent of DEFCON 1: mobilising and dispersing their armed forces, evacuating their leadership from the capital to some bunker in the countryside, and so on. American intelligence reports all this activity, and this time Trump actually listens to them. So he orders a disarming strike on all North Korean nuclear weapons and facilities. With US nuclear weapons, of course. Nothing else would do the job.

That’s how the Second Korean War starts. Not many Americans would be killed, and probably no civilians, because in fact North Korea doesn’t yet have any long-range missiles that can accurately deliver nuclear weapons on the United States, but millions would die in both parts of Korea. With luck, the Chinese would stay out even as their North Korean ally is reduced to rubble, but who knows?

It’s just a scenario, but it’s one that keeps many people awake at night – including many senior people in the US military. That’s why reports have been surfacing recently that the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, the National Security Adviser, General H.R McMaster, and Trump’s Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, have made a secret pact that all three will never be abroad at the same time.

Why not? Because at least one very senior military officer must always be in the country to monitor orders coming from the White House, and countermand them if necessary.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these reports, but I believe them. In fact, I was already assuming that some arrangement like that was in place. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are serious, experienced and professional military officers, and it would be a dereliction of duty for them not to ensure that there is always at least one responsible adult between Trump and the nuclear button.

If one of these generals actually found himself in the position of having to stop Trump, he would face an agonising decision. All his training tells him that he must obey civilian authority, and he will certainly be court-martialled if he disobeys a presidential order. On the other hand, he must not allow millions of human beings to die because of a stupid mistake.

I’m sure they think about it, and I doubt that any of them knows which way he would actually jump if the situation arose. Providing adult supervision is a tricky business, especially when the child is technically your superior.

And having said all this, it occurs to me that some senior military officers in North Korea must face the same dilemma. They too have a child-man in charge, and they will be all too aware that if “little rocket man”, as Trump calls him, stumbles into a war with the United States, then they, their families, and practically everybody they have ever met will be killed.

Their dilemma is even worse, because they serve a petulant god-king who has the power of life and death over them and their families. To stop Kim Jong-un, if he were about to make a fatal mistake, they would have to kill him and accept that they would almost certainly be killed themselves immediately afterwards. Would they actually do that? They don’t even know the answer to that themselves, but I‘m sure they think about it.

There is probably not going to be a Second Korean War. Probably neither set of senior officers is ever going to face this ultimate crisis. A subtle form of adult supervision is exercised on a daily basis in both capitals, because even the loosest of loose cannons has to work through other people in order to get his orders turned into actions.

But things have come to a pretty pass when we can have this discussion without sounding crazy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Their dilemma…it”)

Coping with Trump

We have to face facts: there is no US federal government any more in the normal sense of the word. Social Security payments still get made and the 2.79 million federal civil servants still get paid, but there is no such thing as US government policy – especially foreign policy. Take the US defence secretary, former General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.

Depite his nickname, Mattis is a rational human being who thinks that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a bad idea. He knows that it’s too late to stop North Korea from getting them, but he also knows that it is still possible to stop Iran from doing the same. In fact, the job is done: Iran signed an agreement in 2015 that takes the whole issue off the table for ten years.

Matts is well aware that his boss, President Donald Trump, regularly fulminates about how bad the Iranian ‘deal’ is and keeps hinting that he will cancel it – in which case, of course, Iran could go ahead and get nuclear weapons in just a year or two. So he put his own job at risk on Tuesday by telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should keep its word and abide by the agreement with Iran.

Now he’s waiting for President Trump’s next tweet, which may well repudiate what he said. Trump won’t fire Mattis – he prefers to humiliate people in tweets until they quit – but his usefulness as secretary of defence is nearly at its end. Foreigners, including Iranians, know that Mattis is serious, but they also know that he does not speak for the president. Trump will do whatever he likes, so why bother even talking to Mattis?

It’s just the same with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state (foreign secretary). On Sunday he said that the United States has “lines of commuunication” open to Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime.

The subtext was clear: don’t worry about a nuclear war, folks. We’re talking to them (or about to talk to them, or talking about talking to them), and there’s still time for a deal that defuses the whole crisis.

It’s not clear that that’s actually true, if the deal must include North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim is well aware of what happened to other people who defied the United States but did not have nuclear weapons, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (dangling from the end of a rope) and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (a bayonet up the backside), so he is strongly motivated to hang onto his. But it is what Tillerson should say now, and it might help.

Trump didn’t wait 24 hours before he tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Like what? If negotiations are a waste of time, then the only alternative is force.

Does Trump mean he’s going to attack North Korea (whch would almost certainly involve the use of nuclear weapons)? Of course not. He doesn’t mean anything; he’s only venting, as usual. He has no idea what he’s going to do about North Korea, if anything. He doesn’t even know what he is going to think or say tomorrow.

The trouble is that Kim Jong-un probably doesn’t realise how aimless and inconsequential Trump’s tweets usually are. What Kim sees is most likely a death threat to him by the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth. He has seen a dozen more messages like it in the past six months, and he must be looking frantically for a way out.

Talking to Tillerson might have shown him a way out, or at least bought him some time, but he’s definitely not going to talk to a diplomat who has been repudiated by his own president. As foreign secretary, Tillerson is toast.

There have been calls in Washington for Tillerson to resign to avoid further humiliation, but others hope he will swallow his pride and stay in office as long as he can to postpone the appointment of a super-hawk like John Bolton or Nikki Haley. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter very much either way, because they would find that the Boss is undermining and discrediting them too. It’s what he always does to his subordinates.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that America’s allies and its opponents are both coming to the conclusion that they will just have to ignore the US and make their deals wihout it. Iran, for instance, has said that it might stick by the nuclear deal if all the other signatories stay loyal to their commitments.

Trump is a problem, of course, but for all his threats and boasts he doesn’t actually do much. It could be a viable strategy for the next three years.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The subtext…help”