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North Korea’s ICBM

“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about his country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday. And indeed Americans are not happy about it, although it would be overstating the case to say that panic is sweeping the United States at the news that North Korea’s ICBMs can now reach America.

One reason for the lack of public panic is that Alaska is not a central concern for most Americans, and Alaska is the only part of the United States that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile can actually reach.

Another reason is that the US authorities insist that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to fit on its ICBMs. (It’s not clear whether they have actual intelligence that confirms this, or are just whistling in the dark.)

And a third reason might be that Americans are secretly embarrassed by the sheer hypocrisy of their own government’s position in this affair.

Well, no, not really. The vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware that there is any hypocrisy involved in demanding that North Korea refrain from getting what the United States has had for the past 72 years. So is the US government.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being entirely sincere when he said that North Korea’s ICBM test “represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.” Wrong, but entirely sincere.

He is obviously aware that the United States has had nuclear weapons since 1945, and has even dropped them on Asian cities. He knows that his country has had ICBMs since the 1950s, and still has hundreds ready to launch on short notice. How is the American posture different from the one that North Korea aspires to?

Two differences, really. One is that the United States has at least a hundred times as many nuclear weapons as North Korea, and delivery vehicles at least two technologcal generations further down the road. Another is that the United States has a clearly stated policy that says it might use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Weirdly, this just makes American ICBMs sound more dangerous than North Korea’s.

That’s not really true. The United States used its first nuclear weapons as soon as it got them in 1945, but despite all the wars it has waged in the 72 years since then it has never used them again. Nuclear weapons are so terrifying that they actually force the people who possess them to think seriously about the consequences of using them.

Pyongyang has obviously been thinking hard about the grave implications of nuclear weapons too, because it never actually threatens to use North Korea’s nukes in a first strike. It’s always about deterring a nuclear attack on North Korea. And though the North Korean regime lies and blusters a lot, you can believe it about this.

North Korea will probably have ICBMs that can reach big American cities in three to five years if it keeps up the current pace of development and testing. That would buy North Korea a limited degree of safety from an American nuclear attack, because one or more of its missiles might survive a US first strike and be able to carry out a “revenge from the grave.” That is how nuclear deterrence works, at least in theory.

But even full-range nuclear-tipped ICBMs would not give the North Korean regime the ability to launch a nuclear attack on America (or Japan, or South Korea) without being exterminated in an immediate, massive nuclear counter-strike. So you can probably trust the North Korean regime not to do anything so terminally stupid – unless people like Kim Jung-un are literally crazy.

That’s why American diplomats work so hard to convince everybody else that the North Koreans really are frothing mad, impervious to logic, and not even interested in self-preservation. Only then can they argue that the North Koreans should be denied nuclear weapons, although Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, French, Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis can be trusted with them.

There is no evidence that the North Koreans really are crazy. In the 64 years since the end of the Korean War they have never risked a war, and they are extremely unlikely to do so now. And while there is a rather erratic leader in Washington at the moment, there are probably enough grown-ups around him to avoid any fatal mistakes on the American side either.

So North Korea will probably get its nuclear deterrent in the end, and we will all learn to live with it – like we learned to live with mutual US-Russian nuclear deterrence, mutual US-Chinese nuclear deterrence, and mutual Indian-Pakistani nuclear deterrence.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Pyongyang…this”; and “That’s…them”)

Qatar Showdown??

The deadline that Saudi Arabia and its allies set for Qatar to submit to their “non-negotiable” demands has just postponed from Monday to Wednesday. Since Qatar has already made it plain that it will not comply – it says the demands are “reminiscent of the extreme and punitive conduct of ‘bully’ states that have historically resulted in war” – the delay is a sure sign that the bullies don’t know what to do next.

They presumably thought that the Qataris would buckle under their threat, and didn’t bother to work out their next move if it didn’t. So what happens now? Does Saudi Arabia invade Qatar? It could easily do so if it wanted to: Qatar has one-tenth of Saudi Arabia’s population, an undefended land border, and tiny armed forces.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has the support of Donald Trump in his blockade of Qatar, and he could probably talk Trump into accepting an invasion too. Moreover, this is the man who committed Saudi Arabian forces to the vicious civil war in Yemen on the mere (and largely unfounded) suspicion that Iran is helping the rebels militarily.

Bin Salman’s terms for ending the blockade of Qatar were so harsh that it looks like he wanted them to be rejected. The thirteen demands included completely shutting down the Qatar-based al-Jazeera media group, whose satellite-based television network is the least censored and most trusted news organisation in the Arab world.

Qatar was to break all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely non-violent and pro-democratic Islamic movement that was a leading force in the “Arab Spring” of 2010-11. It was to end all support for radical Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and above all for the organisation that was called the Nusra Front until late last year. (It then changed its name in an attempt to hide its ties to al-Qaeda.)

Qatar was to hand over all individuals who have been accused of “terrorism” (a very broad term in the four countries operating the blockade). It would have to expel all the citizens of these countries who currently live in Qatar (presumably to stop them from being contaminated by the relatively liberal political and social environment there).

Finally, Qatar was to end practically all trade and diplomatic contact with Iran, even though its income comes almost entirely from the huge gas field it shares with Iran. Oh, and it must pay compensation for the nuisance it has caused, and accept regular monitoring of its compliance with these terms for the next ten years.

The four countries operating the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahradi and Egypt – three absolute monarchies and one military dictatorship) are really just trying to suppress democratic ideas in the region. The accusation that Qatar is “supporting terrorism” would be more convincing if Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had not been doing exactly the same thing.

They all helped the Nusra Front with money, and ignored its ties with al-Qaeda because it was fighting the Shia-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now they have all stopped doing that, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE are condemning Qatar for doing it: the pot is calling the kettle black. But the “supporting terrorism” charge does get the Americans (or at least one ill-informed American called Donald Trump) on board.

Qatar will pay a price for rejecting the Saudi demands. Almost all its food is imported, and in future it will all have to come in by sea or by air. But Qatar is rich enough to pay that price.

In the end Saudi Arabia will almost certainly not invade. The 10,000 American troops based in Qatar give it no political protection (Washington will always put Saudi Arabia first), but the mere hundred-odd Turkish troops who are based there would help to defend the country if Qatar chose to resist.

“We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stand towards the 13 demands.” Saudi Arabia won’t risk even a small war with Turkey, so it will restrict itself to using its financial clout to stop other countries from trading with Qatar.

As Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, told the Guardian newspaper last week: “One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say that if you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice (to boycott Qatar).”

But that’s not likely to work either. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has started another fight he can’t finish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Qatar was to hand…there”)

Venezuela: Hand Grenades From A Helicopter

After almost three months of daily anti-government demonstrations, what Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro needed most was an excuse to impose martial law, or at least to use major violence and mass arrests to close the protests down.

On Tuesday, Maduro got his excuse. A stolen police helicopter flew over the Supreme Court building in Caracas – and dropped a couple of hand grenades near it.

As “terrorist” incidents go, it was so incompetent and downright silly that you begin to suspect that it wasn’t a “false flag” operation sponsored by the government after all. If Maduro’s people were aiming to give themselves an excuse for a crack-down, surely they would have come up with something more impressive than a guy in a helicopter dropping a couple of hand-grenades at random onto the Supreme Court lawn.

The man behind this attack was Oscar Perez, a police officer who announced in a video posted on Instagram that he was launching an armed struggle against tyranny.

“We are a coalition of military employees, policemen and civilians who are looking for balance and are against this criminal government,” Pérez said, and the four armed men standing behind him in the video tried to look fierce. The ski-masks helped a bit, but it was hard not to giggle. They really didn’t look very dangerous.

But you have to work with the material at hand, and President Maduro did his best to inflate the incident into a major terrorist attack. “I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace,” he said. “Sooner or later, we are going to capture that helicopter and those who carried out this terror attack.” (And while we’re at it, we’ll round up a lot of other people who support the opposition.)

Maduro can no longer stay in power by democratic means. There is no doubt that he won the presidency by a narrow but genuine majority (1.5 percent) in the 2013 election that followed the death of Hugo Chavez, the hero-founder of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But there is also no doubt that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election of 2015.

What made the difference between those two elections was the price of oil. In 2013 it was around $100 per barrel. By 2015 it was in the low $40s, and it is still there today.

Venezuela is not a rich country, although most Venezuelans believe it is. It has a lot of oil, but it produces almost nothing else and imports practically everything it consumes. So it is rich when oil is at $100 – but it is very poor when it is below $50. The country is therefore now broke.

For reasons having nothing to do with alleged plots by the US or the wicked local elites, per capita income in Venezuela has fallen by more than half in the past two years. So people are angry, including many of the poor people who benefitted from Chavez’s generosity with the oil revenues back in the Good Old Days. There is a presidential election due next year, and as things stand now Maduro would probably lose by two-to-one.

The National Assembly has had a two-thirds majority of opposition members since the 2015 election, and it has been pressing hard to bring the presidential election forward to this year. Maduro had to stop that, and his first step was to have the Supreme Court, which is packed with Chavez and Maduro appointees, strip the National Assembly of all its powers and take them for itself.

This is what triggered the daily anti-government demonstrations that began in early April. The Supreme Court’s action was clearly unconstitutional, and after three days that also saw protests from members of his own party Maduro ordered the judges to backtrack on their decree. But the protesters, with the bit between their teeth, stayed out in the street. Despite 70 dead in the past three months, they are still there today.

So Maduro, desperate to sideline the National Assembly, then came up with the idea of rewriting the constitution. There was no referendum to test popular support for this idea, and the people in the “constituent assembly” are being chosen according to rules set by the Maduro government.

The new constitution will presumably prevent any further unfortunate accidents like the opposition parliamentary victory in 2015 – and by a happy coincidence (for Maduro), it also provides an excuse for not holding the scheduled presidential election in 2018. After all, new rules are coming. Why do it under the old rules?

Nobody is fooled by all this flim-flam, and it is no surprise that Oscar Perez, whether he is a deluded revolutionary or a secret government stooge flying false colours, chose to drop his little hand-grenades on the Supreme Court. It has become a symbol of the illicit manipulation by which Maduro clings to power, and therefore a natural target for those who oppose the government (or pretend to).

In either case, Maduro has his pretext, and will now clamp down harder and try to terrify the opposition into submission. It is probably going to get much nastier yet in Venezuela.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“As…lawn”; and “The new…rules”)

Philippines Insurgency

A month ago, hardly anybody outside the Philippines had ever heard of Marawi. Now it’s the latest front in the war against Islamic State. More evidence, if you needed it, that the terrorism associated with Islamic State will go on long after Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has been killed or captured.

“We have actually preempted the establishment of a wilayat (a province of Islamic State),” said Ernesto Abella, the spokesperson of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, which is definitely overstating the case. The response of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was slow and clumsy, and government policy has been lax and inattentive.

It’s not even clear that the attempt by the Maute group of Islamist fighters to take over Marawi, an unimportant city of 200,000 people in the centre of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines, was actually a bid to create a “wilayat” of Islamic State. It is necessary to control some territory to declare a wilayat, so they had a motive, but this fight started almost accidentally.

The fighting broke out in the city after a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leading figure in another, bigger Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf that has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Fighters from that outfit and others joined the Maute group that predominates in the Marawi area in a general uprising on 23 May – and the AFP’s reaction was so hesitant that between 400 and 500 fighters were able to take over the city.

The insurgents weren’t numerous enough to hold the whole city once the army got its act together, but for the past month they have controlled between ten and twenty percent of it. The government claims to have killed 280 militants for the loss of 69 AFP soldiers and 29 civilians and promises that it will be over soon, but it has been a profoundly unimpressive performance.

Equally unimpressive has been the performance of the government led by “Rody” Duterte. Like every government before it, it has paid little attention to monitoring the seas around the Philippines, so it is easy for foreign militants to slip into the country.

It has been far worse than any previous government in its disregard for the law: Duterte’s “dirty war” against drugs has involved thousands of extra-judicial killings. It has been a major distraction (and a huge crime, of course), and it has effectively de-professionalised the police. Death squads do not do effective police work.

Above all, Duterte has failed to push for ratification of the 2014 peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is Islamic but not extreme Islamist, and the agreement granted it considerable autonomy in the area of central Mindanao under its control. However, the legislation to implement the deal stalled in Congress in 2015, and has never been put back on the agenda.

With nothing to show for its attempt to reach a peaceful compromise with the government, the MILF leadership has been unable to stop its more hard-line members from defecting to other, more radical groups that reject the agreement. Most of those groups are associated with Islamic State or at least share its ideology, so the situation in Mindanao is worse than it was when the peace deal was signed.

The siege of Marawi will be over in another week or so: the AFP claims there are only 100 fighters left in the city (although it isn’t very efficient at sealing off the city and stopping other from arriving). The larger problem of radicalisation among discontented and disadvantage Muslims in Mindanao will continue, and may well grow. The only thing that would stop it is good governance, and that is not on offer under Duterte.

It’s an accident of history that this problem even exists. Islam was being spread east across the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines by Malay traders, and there were already several Muslim rulers in the Philippines when the Spanish arrived in 1570. But few of the common people had converted to Islam yet except in Mindanao, and under Spanish rule the rest of the Philippines was converted to Catholicism instead.

No cause for complaint there: history is full of accidents like that. But it is true that successive Filipino governments encouraged the emigration of Christians to Mindanao, and that Muslims have now fallen to 20 percent of the population even in Mindanao. (Nationwide, only 5 percent of the population is Muslim.)

The demand for a “Muslim homeland” in the Muslim-majority parts of Mindanao has been strong for decades, and a sensible Filipino government would have made the necessary compromises long ago. That’s not going to happen under Duterte, but the worst that can happen is an ugly local problem that need not concern the rest of the world.

That is more than can be said for next-door Indonesia, which is 90 percent Muslim and has two-and-a-half times the population of the Philippines. As General Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia’s military chief, said last week, there are Islamic State-affiliated sleeper cells “in almost every (Indonesian) province.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“It’s an…Muslim”)