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The Strategy of the Paris Attacks

After Ahmed Merabet, a French policeman, was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, his brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love.”

It was moving, but to say that all Muslims who commit cruel and violent acts in God’s name are “false Muslims” is like saying that the Crusaders who devastated the Middle East nine hundred years ago were “false Christians”.

The Crusaders were real Christians. They believed that they were doing God’s will in trying to reconquer the formerly Christian lands that had been lost to Islam centuries before, and they had the support of most people back home in Europe.

Similarly, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were true Muslims doing God’s will, and some people in Muslim-majority countries agree with them. But there is an important difference from the Crusades: the supporters of the young French terrorists are a minority everywhere, and among Muslims living in Western countries they are only a tiny minority.

This is not a “war of civilisations”. Seventeen innocent people killed in Paris is not the equivalent of the Crusades. For that matter, neither was 9/11. These are wicked and tragic events, but they are not a war.

There is a war going on, but it is a civil war within the “House of Islam” that occasionally spills over into non-Muslim countries. As foot-soldiers in that war, the three killers in Paris probably did not fully understand the role they were playing, but they were serving a quite sophisticated strategy.

Two of these Muslim civil wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ignited by US-led invasions in 2001 and 2003. Four others, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the northern, mostly Muslim half of Nigeria, have begun since 2011. Others go back even further, like the war in Somalia, or have flared up and then become dormant again, like Mali and Algeria.

In every one of these wars the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims killed by other Muslims. From time to time non-Muslims in other countries are killed too, as in New York in 2001, in London in 2007, in Bombay in 2008 and last week in Paris, and these killings do have a strategic purpose, but it’s not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission.” Quite the contrary.

The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world. Should it continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

Some aspects of modernisation are very attractive to many Muslims, so stopping the changes would require a lot of violence, including the overthrow of most existing governments in Muslim countries. But that is the task that the Islamists in general, and the jihadi activists in particular, have undertaken.

As they are minorities even in their own countries, the Islamists’ hardest job is to mobilise popular support for their struggle. The best way to do this is to convince Muslims that modernisation – democracy, equality, the whole cultural package – is part of a Western plot to undermine Islam.

This will be a more credible claim if Western countries are actually attacking Muslim countries, so one of the main jihadi strategies is to carry out terrorist atrocities that will trigger Western military attacks on Muslim countries. That was the real goal of 9/11, and it was spectacularly successful: it tricked the United States into invading not one but TWO Muslim countries.

But smaller terrorist attacks that lead to the mistreatment of the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries also serve the cause. They can create a backlash that victimises the local Muslim minorities, thus generating yet more “proof” that there is a war against Islam.

This strategy actually has a name. Appropriately it is in French: “la politique du pire”. It’s the strategy of making things worse in order to achieve one’s ultimate goal – in this case, revolutions that will sweep away the existing governments in almost every Muslim country and put the Islamists in power instead.

There is a sub-theme in some of the Middle Eastern wars that muddies the waters a bit: in Syria, Iraq and Yemen the general radicalisation has also revived and militarised the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But even in these countries most of the killings are of Sunni Muslims by other Sunni Muslims.

There will be more attacks like the ones in Paris, because lost young men seeking a cause abound in every community, including the Muslim communities of the West. We can’t arrest them all, so we will go on having to live with a certain amount of terrorism from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremist groups and trying not to over-react — just as we have been doing for many decades already.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“This strategy…Muslims”)

Asylum-Seekers: The Limits of Tolerance

The language of the immigration debate in Germany has got harsh and extreme. German Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked the anti-immigration movement in her New Year speech, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

The “anti-Islamisation” protests all across Germany on Monday fizzled out in the end. 18,000 people showed up at one rally in Dresden, where the weekly protests by the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) began last October, but that hardly counted because there are few Muslims – indeed few immigrants of any sort – in Dresden.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Western countries is always highest where there are few or no immigrants. In big German cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart that do have large immigrant populations, the counter-demonstrators outnumbered the Pegida protesters ten-to-one. But the debate is not over.

Germany is taking in more immigrants that ever before: some 600,000 this year. That’s not an intolerable number for a country of 82 million, but it does mean that if current trends persist, the number of foreign-born residents will almost double to 15 million in just ten years. That will take some getting used to – and there’s another thing. A high proportion of the new arrivals in Germany are Muslim refugees.

Two-thirds of those 600,000 newcomers in 2014 were people from other countries of the European Union where work is scarce or living standards are lower. They have the legal right to come under EU rules, and there’s really nothing Germany can do about it. Besides, few of the EU immigrants are Muslims.

The other 200,000, however, are almost all refugees who are seeking asylum in Germany. The number has almost doubled in the past year, and will certainly grow even larger this year. And the great majority of the asylum-seekers are Muslims.

This is not a Muslim plot to colonise Europe. It’s just that a large majority of the refugees in the world are Muslims. At least three-quarters of the world’s larger wars are civil wars in Muslim countries like Syria (by far the biggest source of new refugees), Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya.

Many of these refugees end up in other predominantly Muslim countries (like Lebanon, where between a quarter and a third of the population is now Syrian refugees.) But Europe is relatively close, and a much better place to be if you can get there: each asylum-seeker who is accepted by Germany gets free accommodation, food, medical care and clothing. Adults also get $160 a month. Moreover, if they make it to Europe, the war cannot follow them.
Every country has an obligation to accept and protect legitimate refugees seeking asylum, but in practice some dodge their responsibilities. Last year the United Kingdom, which has 65 million people, accepted less than half as many refugees as Sweden, which has 10 million people. But even the best-intentioned countries, like Germany, are starting to show the strain.

It’s easy to mock the fears of Germany’s “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”- only 5 percent of Germany’s population is Muslim. But 9 percent of the children born in Germany in recent years have Muslim parents because of the higher birth rates of Middle Eastern immigrants.

If the current wave of asylum-seekers continues – and there is no particular reason to believe that the Syrian civil war will end soon – then Germany will add another two million Muslim immigrants to its population in the next decade. And they too will have higher birth rates than the locals.

With its current asylum policy, Germany could be 10 percent Muslim ten years from now. You might reasonably ask: what’s wrong with having a 10 percent Muslim population? But it’s hard to think of a Muslim country that would welcome the relatively sudden arrival of a 10 percent Christian minority with equanimity.

And special thanks to the Islamist thugs who committed the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris on Wednesday for making it even harder for Europeans to see the difference between terrorist fanatics and ordinary Muslims. Most Europeans still try to see things in proportion and not judge all Muslims by the acts of a few, but they are failing more frequently. People are people, and their tolerance has limits.

Even in Sweden, the most heroically open country in Europe, where they are expecting more than 100,000 asylum applications this year, former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said just before last September’s election: “I’m now pleading with the Swedish people to have patience, to open your hearts, to see people in high distress whose lives are being threatened. Show them that openness, show them tolerance.”

Once more, the Swedes did that. The mainstream parties, all of which share that vision of Sweden, have formed a coalition government that is pledged not to slam the gates shut on asylum-seekers. But the anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, more than doubled its vote and became the third-largest party. Even in Sweden, time is running out on tolerance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Many…strain”)

The “Oil War”

“Did you know there’s an oil war? And the war has an objective: to destroy Russia,” said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in a live television speech last week. “It’s a strategically planned war … also aimed at Venezuela, to try and destroy our revolution and cause an economic collapse.” It’s the United States that has started the war, Maduro said, and its strategy was to flood the market with shale oil and collapse the price.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin agrees. “We all see the lowering of oil prices.” he said recently. “There’s lots of talk about what’s causing it. Could it be an agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to punish Iran and affect the economies of Russia and Venezuela? It could.” The evil Americans are at it again. They’re fiendishly clever, you know.

We are hearing this kind of talk a lot these days, especially from countries that have been hit hard by the crash in the oil price. Last Thursday Brent crude hit $55 per barrel, precisely half the price it was selling for last June. The Obama administration’s announcement last week that it is preparing to allow the export of some US oil to foreign markets may send it even lower. (US crude oil exports have been banned since 1973.)

When the oil price collapses, countries that depend very heavily on oil exports to make ends meet are obviously going to get hurt. President Putin, who has let Russia get itself into a position where more than half its budget revenue comes from oil and gas sales (some estimates go as high as 80 percent) is in deep trouble: the value of the rouble has halved, and the economy has already slipped into recession.

Venezuela, where government spending is certainly more than 50 percent dependent on oil exports, is in even deeper trouble – and, like Putin in Russia, President Maduro of Venezuela sees this as the result of an American plot. Various commentators in the West have taken up the chorus, and the conspiracy theory is taking root all over the developing world.

So let us consider whether there really is an “oil war”. The accusation is that the United States is deliberately “flooding the market” with shale oil, that is, with oil that has only become available because of the fracking techniques that have become widespread, especially in the US, over the past decade. Moreover, Washington is doing this for political purposes, not just because it makes economic sense for the United States to behave like this.

In order to believe this conspiracy theory, however, you really have to think that a rational US government, acting in its own best economic interests, would do the opposite: suppress the fracking techniques and keep American oil production low, in order to keep its imports up and the oil price high. But why on earth would it want to do that?
You will note that I am going along with the notion (a necessary part of the conspiracy theory) that all important business decisions in the United States are ultimately made by the US government. That is ridiculous, of course, but we don’t need to refute this delusion in order to settle the question at hand, so let it pass.

Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as a means of recovering gas and oil, particularly from shale formations, has its roots in early attempts dating back as far as 1947, but it was the development of cheap and reliable techniques for horizontal drilling in the late 1980s that slowly began to transform the US oil industry.

By 2012, over a million fracking operations had been performed in US wells – but in 2012, last year’s events in Ukraine were unforeseen and the United States and Russia were still on relatively good terms. Many oil-exporting countries were worried by the prospect that rising US oil and gas production would shrink American imports and thereby cut their own profits, but it was still seen as a supply-and-demand problem, not a strategic manoeuvre.

The operators wanted to make a profit, and Washington liked the idea that rising US domestic oil production might end the country’s dependence on imported oil from unstable places so much that it gave tax breaks and even some direct subsidies to the companies developing the fracking techniques. But that’s no more than what any other government of an oil-producing country would have done.

So did the US develop fracking to hurt its enemies? The dates just don’t work for Russia: fracking was already making US production soar years before Washington started to see Moscow as an enemy. As for Venezuela, it continues to be the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, at a time when the glut of oil on the market would let Washington cut Venezuela out of the supply chain entirely.

And Barack Obama is not opening the flood-gates for massive American oil exports that will make the oil price fall even lower. The US still imports a lot of oil, and will go on doing so for years. He has only authorised the export of a particular kind of ultra-light oil that is in over-supply on the domestic market: only about one million barrels of it, with actual exports not starting until next August.

If this is a conspiracy, it’s a remarkably slow-moving one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 12. (“You…industry”; and “The operators…done”)

2014 Year-Ender

The main purpose of year-end reviews, of course, is to hold the ads apart. But they can also serve as a kind of annual check-up on the political health – and also on the economic, demographic and even physical health – of the planet and its teeming human population. So imagine that we are a panel of high-priced medicos reviewing the health status of our most important client, the human race.

The first thing to note is that the client is still piling on weight at an alarming rate – up from two billion units to seven billion in the past seventy-five years – but continues to thrive, for the most part. And most of the ailments that it worries about are mere hypochondria.

Take, for example, the widespread concern (at least in the media and among what Bob Fisk calls the “think-tank mountebanks”) that the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in the no man’s land between Iraq and Syria will lead to catastrophe. There will allegedly be a surge in terrorist attacks around the world, a Sunni-Shia religious war spanning the entire Middle East, or even a global religious war between Muslims and everybody else.

The Sunni fanatics and the Shia fanatics are far too busy trying to kill each other to have time to spare for attacking non-Muslims. (Besides, most Muslims don’t want to attack anybody; they just want to be left in peace.) Quite a lot of the slaughter in Iraq and Syria is driven by religion, but we are still a long way from a religious conflict that directly involves the really important states of the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

Even the anticipated surge in terrorist attacks outside the region is not likely to come to pass. The only strategic purpose for such attacks by any organised group of Islamist extremists is to gain support and recruits within their own region. If they can lure Western powers into killing lots of Muslims in their region, then their cause will prosper locally.

As it turns out, Islamic State has not even needed to carry out terrorist attacks in the West to achieve this goal. Videos of Western hostages being beheaded have been enough to get the bombing going again, and Western governments are no more troubled by the sheer pointlessness of the bombing than they were in the past. Both sides are playing for the home audience, and really don’t care much about the impact of their actions on the alleged enemy.

The whole “Islamic State” panic is a tempest in a fairly small teacup. The casualties are small, and the entire region matters little economically or strategically except to its own inhabitants. Even in the unlikely event that a Sunni-Shia religious war should engulf the whole of the Middle East, it would have no more effect on the rest of the planet than the European wars of religion four centuries ago had on the Middle East. That is to say, hardly any.
So in terms of the global system’s health, the rise of radical Islamism is not a life-threatening disease. It’s a local infection that will probably have to run its course. If it really gets bad, some quarantine measures may be needed, but this is not ebola.

Speaking of which, the ebola outbreak in Africa seems on the way to being contained, although it will probably remain as a low-level chronic problem in the three West African countries where it reached epidemic status: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. There is a small risk that ebola might take root in a densely populated country whose people travel widely, like Nigeria or, even worse, India, but so far, so good.

The other great shock of 2014 was a war in Europe. The Ukrainian revolution of last February was a messy and complicated business, but it need not have ended in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and in a Russian-backed separatist war in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces.

We owe that mainly to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s world-view as a former agent of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, which (as the old saying had it) thwarted ten anti-Soviet plots for every one that actually existed.

The KGB was full of very clever people – indeed, it was the most intelligent and best informed part of the old Soviet regime, one of the world’s strongholds of institutionalised stupidity – but it was also a nest of paranoid fantasists. You may debate to your heart’s content whether this was a Russian cultural phenomenon or an extreme case of the disease that infects every great-power spy agency, but that’s why Putin reacted the way he did.

Western European governments are so divided and introspective that they could not come up with a credible plan to boil an egg, and they care very little about the parts of Eastern Europe beyond the European Union’s borders. The only section of the American population that sees President Obama’s administration as capable of hatching a plot is the extreme right, and they think he’s a foreign-born Communist plotting the overthrow of the United States.

Various Western politicians showed up in Kiev to cheer the protesters on, but these were just the usual suspects taking advantage of a good photo op. Their real intended audience, as usual, was back home. As for NATO, it is another Cold War institution that has long outlived its purpose, but it no more wants to bring Ukraine into the fold than it longs to recruit Mongolia as a member. Too much trouble, and no profit whatever.

There was no Western plot, but Putin is driven by the belief that there was. He has taken Russia into a confrontation with the West that it cannot win, and the country’s economy is already crumbling under the twin strains of coping with Western sanctions and the collapse of the oil price. He is finding it almost impossible to back away without losing face, but he has nothing to gain by continuing the conflict either. Risk of a new Cold War: minimal.

So far the patient’s health is looking pretty good. There is the usual clutter of minor ailments – a mini-civil war here (Libya, South Sudan), civil rights protesters under attack there (Hong Kong, Missouri) – and there is a significant possibility that next year will bring another recession. That’s as inevitable as catching a cold once in a while. But there has been nothing really out of the ordinary this year, nothing that sets off alarm bells.

The only big worry the doctors have is the same one that has bothered them for the past twenty-five years: the patient simply won’t stop smoking. Their increasingly grave warnings are met with empty promises to cut back or quit entirely, but not right now, just some time far in the future. Maybe.

The news flows in endlessly, and some of it has significant impact on many people’s lives – a billion people’s lives when India elects a new prime minister or China gets an (unelected) new president, both of which happened this year. But truly fundamental change is much rarer than people think (and than the media encourage them to think). Now that the threat of large-scale nuclear war has died down, only one thing qualifies.

Climate change is the spectre at every feast, the unstoppable rot that undermines every positive development. The failure at Copenhagen in 2009 bleeds indistinguishably into the fudge at Durban in 2011 and on into the feeble compromise in Lima in 2014, which sets us up for the bigger disappointment of Paris in 2015. And even if by some miracle we get a useful agreement in Paris next year, nothing will actually be done until 2020.

The patient thinks there’s still plenty of time to quit. There isn’t.

To shorten to 950 words, omit paragraphs 12, 13, 14 and 18. (“The KGB…whatever”; and “The news…qualifies”) To shorten further to 725 words, omit also paragraphs 8, 9 and 16. (“So…good”; and “So…bells”)