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Donald Trump

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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”)

Robot Take-Over?

Wittenberg is the German city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door 500 years ago and launched the Protestant Reformation. To mark the anniversary, the local Protestant authorities have installed a robot called BlessU-2 to deliver blessings in 5 languages.

The robot priest has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. After you have chosen your language the robot raises its arms, recites a verse from the Bible, and says “God bless and protect you.” It also beams light from its hands.

Just what we needed – and it comes with the full support of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” explained spokesman Stephan Krebs to the The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood. “The idea is to provoke debate.”

When pressed, Krebs admits that they are not planning to replace human pastors with machines: “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.” Good luck with that, then – but most people will just see this as another, rather comical example of robots taking over what used to be human jobs.

There’s been much talk about the “robot revolution” in the media recently. Automation has already killed millions of jobs, we are warned, and cannot be stopped. To former assembly-line workers and bank tellers whose jobs were automated out of existence two decades ago, that has the ring of truth. Ten years from now, it will probably also ring true to millions of former taxi-, bus- and long-distance truck-drivers.

And automation may also be bringing us a political revolution. Many people suspect that shocking polical events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a 30 percent vote for the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s recent presidential election are linked to the growing numbers of angry, jobless people in the Western industrialised countries.

But wait a minute. What “growing number of jobless people”? The official unemployment rate in the United States is now down to 4.5 percent. That statistic, however, only counts those who are actively looking for work. It does not count those who have given up looking for work.

If you include all those who are not working and not just the job-seekers, then 17.5 percent of American men of prime working age (24-55) are, to use the old word, “unemployed”. The last time US unemployment was at that level was in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Moreover, this hidden reef of unemployed people is biggest in the former industrial heartland of the United States, now known as the Rust Belt, where a critical number of ex-Democratic voters were so angry that they switched to Trump and put him into the White House.

This new reality is partly hidden by the fact that so many of these unemployed people have managed to wangle their way into disability benefits: one American worker in sixteen is now certified as disabled, whereas in 1960 (when health and safety standards were far lower) only one worker in 134 was. But back then the official statistics on unemployment were pretty close to the truth.

Exactly the same applies to the United Kingdom, where unemployment is officially only 4.8 percent. But Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reckons that almost one-third of the people on incapacity benefits in Britain would actually be working in a full-employment economy, and that the true jobless rate in some northern post-industrial areas reaches 17 percent.

The “angry men” (and angry women) who make up this hidden reef are the key group who voted for Trump (and Brexit, and the National Front). The Americans among them have been told by Trump that their jobs were stolen by foreigners, but both in the United States and elsewhere they were actually mostly taken by automation.

Not all the jobs will go, of course, but a study released in March by financial services firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted 38 percent job losses to automation in the United States in the next fifteen years.

The risk is not just mass unemployment, but the political radicalisation that comes with it. We’re not going to stop the automation, so we will have to redistribute the remaining work. We also have to find ways of putting real money into the pockets of those who have no work, or else the whole capitalist business model will collapse. (Not enough customers.)

And we have to find ways of subsidising people without treating them like “losers”, because that’s what really drove the the anger that put Trump in office. Otherwise, the populist demagogues who get elected in twenty years’ time may make us look back fondly on the Trump years.

But cheer up. We won’t really have robot priests.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“When…jobs”; and “Exactly…percent”)

Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)

Preposterous Times

All the talk of special prosecutors and the like will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best. Even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.

Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates.

However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.

Most of the concern at the moment is focused on North East Asia where Trump’s
scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict”. But most other major players in the North East Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.

The Middle East is more frightening than north east Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war one way or another, none of the regimes really feels secure – and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.

He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime – an allegation that has not been conclusively proved – but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.

This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past forty years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.

Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next ten years. And on Friday Trump is making his first foreign visit – to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.

Although Prince Mohammed is almost forty years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.

Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.

In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, accordin to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.

This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.

Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody And the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.

Never-the-less, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.

It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy – or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live ibn preposterous times.

There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018 no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.

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To shorten to 7 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most …looks”; and “Prince…too”)