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Donald Trump

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Terrorism – A Sense of Proportion

London in March: five dead. Stockholm in April: another five dead. Manchester in May: 22 dead. London again in June, this time on London Bridge: eight dead. Barcelona in August: fourteen dead. Five mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Europe in six months, and all but one (Manchester) carried out using rental trucks. Is it safe to go to Europe any more?

No, of course not. It isn’t safe to live anywhere. You can get killed by a vehicle driven by a non-terrorist, or by falling down the stairs, or even by drowning in the bath. Indeed, you are far likelier to die from any of those causes than from terrorist attacks no matter where you live in the world. But in those other cases your death will not be “news”.

The only part of the world where Islamist terrorism really is a serious threat to people’s lives is the greater Middle East (including Pakistan). There is a kind of civil war between modernisers and cultural conservatives going on in many Muslim-majority countries, and the terrorist threat to ordinary citizens’ lives is ten or twenty times higher than it is in the West. But even there it is far smaller than it looks.

What makes the “terrorist threat” look big in the West is the natural human tendency to be fascinated by violence. The mass media know their audience, and they cannot resist catering to this appetite: that’s why thousands of fictional characters die violently on television and in movies every week.

Violence in real life is even more interesting – especially if there is some possibility, however remote, that it might affect the viewer. So the media reflexively, instinctively inflate the threat, and to people who don’t understand statistics (i.e. almost everybody), terrorism starts to look like a very big deal.

There is no way to avoid this without imposing official controls on media coverage, and it’s not worth paying that price, so we’ll just have to live with the media’s hype. We will also have to live with the terrorism itself, even though it’s generally considered to be political suicide to say this in public.

That’s why Donald Trump thought he could discredit London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, after the London Bridge attack by tweeting “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’”

Trump was deliberately distorting the mayor’s message: Sadiq Khan had actually told Londoners not to be alarmed by “an increased police presence.” But Khan wouldn’t have been wrong if he had told them not get their knickers in a twist because of the occasional terrorist attack. Like most Londoners, he really knows that the attacks will continue for quite a while, and that they are not going to do a lot of damage.

After all, it’s obvious that we’re not going to run out of Islamist extremists any time soon, and that the security services cannot prevent wannabe terrorists from getting their hands on trucks or vans (or knives). So there will probably be lots more low-tech terrorist attacks over the next decade.

Don’t panic. The entire European Union has lost just 62 killed in terrorist attacks so far this year, which is about one person in every eight million. The loss ratio is even lower in the United States: eleven killed in four terrorist attacks so far this year. Four times as many Americans are killed every day in ordinary murders.

So the right response to low-tech terrorism in every Western country is to keep calm and carry on, even knowing that the attacks will probably continue until the present generation of jihadis ages out. (Generational turn-over is what really ends most ideological fashions.)

In the meantime, the priority is not to turn against Muslim communities in the West – because it’s wrong to blame millions of people for the actions of a few hundred gullible, attention-seeking young men, but also because that’s exactly what the Islamic State propagandists want people in the West to do.

Ten or fifteen years ago, Islamist attacks on Western countries had a specific strategic goal: to lure the West into invading Muslim countries, thereby radicalising the local populations and driving them into the arms of the Islamist revolutionaries. The ultimate goal of those revolutionaries was to gain power in their own countries, not to “bring the West to its knees” or some such drivel.

That game is pretty much played out now: the Islamists cannot hope to sucker the West into doing any more large-scale invasions. So why carry on encouraging terrorist attacks in the West?

Because it’s dirt cheap, it promotes the brand, and it might, if they get lucky, cause huge internal conflicts in Western countries with large Muslim populations. So far, to the immense credit of both the majority communities and the Muslim minorities themselves, this has not come to pass.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“That’s…damage”)

Reservoir Dogs in the White House2

NB: THIS IS AN UPDATE OF THE ARTICLE THAT MOVED EARLY MONDAY MORNING, TAKING ACCOUNT OF ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI’S DISMISSAL.

AS I MENTIONED IN THE EARLIER VERSION, SCARAMOUCHE OFTEN ENDS UP DECAPITATED.

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in (Quentin Tarantino’s film) Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since the shooting started – Sean Spicer, Michael Short, Reince Priebus – but nobody would call them unscathed. The latest to take a bullet is Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who was appointed only ten days ago.

Scaramucci, who could be a Quentin Tarantino character himself – he seemed to be channeling Steve Buscemi’s role as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs – topped all the other bizarre events in the White House last week by delivering an obscenity-laced rant that forced the resignation of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

And why has the new chief of staff, General John Kelly, now fired Scaramucci? Maybe for being a potty-mouth, but more likely because Scaramucci was insisting that he reported directly to Trump, not through Kelly.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Scaramucci…Kelly”; and “This…House”)

Reservoir Dogs in the White House

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s North America correspondent, nailed it in a report on 27 July. “Where Abraham Lincoln had his famous ‘team of rivals’ in his administration, this is something different,” Zurcher wrote. “Trump White House seems more akin to the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, where everyone is yelling and pointing a gun at someone else, and there’s a good chance no one is going to come out unscathed.”

Several walking wounded have limped out of the White House since then, including ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, but nobody would call them unscathed. And in has come Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, who appears to have escaped from the same Quentin Tarantino movie. Maybe Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink.

Fun fact: Scaramuccia (literally “little skirmisher”), also known as Scaramouche, is a stock character of the Italian commedia dell’arte. He combines the roles of a clownish servant and a masked assassin carrying out his master’s will. He often ends up decapitated.

Things are falling apart in the White House much faster than even the keenest observers of Donald Trump’s behaviour would have predicted, and the important part is not the dysfunction. The United States would work just fine – in fact, rather better – if Trump never managed to turn his tweets into reality. What matters is that he is cutting his links with the Republican Party.

Trump was never a real Republican. As a genuine populist, he is ideology-free. If Barack Obama had fallen under a bus and Trump had chosen to run for the presidency in 2008, he could just as easily have sought the Democratic nomination.

Senior Republicans knew this, and they tried quite hard to stop him from winning the Republican nomination last year. After that they were stuck with him, and he did win the White House for them, so they have been in an uncomfortable partnership ever since. That is now coming to an end.

Part of the unwritten deal was that establishment Republicans get senior roles in the Trump White House. Reince Priebus, dismissed last Friday, was the most important of those people. He followed deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and press aide Michael Short, all of whom had already been pushed out.

What’s left are alt-right white nationalists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, New Yorkers with Democratic leanings like Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn, Trump family members (Donald Jr and Ivanka), ex-businessmen like foreign secretary Rex Tillerson (who may be about to quit), and a triumvirate of generals in high civilian office.

This is a recipe for paralysis, but who cares? Did you really want a White House team that enabled Donald Trump to impose his will (or rather, his whims) on the United States and, to some extent, on the world? Well, no, and neither do senior Republicans – but they do care very much about controlling the White House.

Republicans who think long-term are well aware that the changing demography of the US population is eating away at their core vote. This may be their last chance, with control of both Houses of Congress and (at least in theory) of the presidency, to reshape their image and their policies in ways that will appeal to at least some of the emerging minorities.

They can’t do that if they don’t control the White House, and the only way they could regain control there is for Trump to go and Vice-President Mike Pence (a real Republican) to take over. A successful impeachment could accomplish that.

It would be very hard to engineer such a thing without splitting the Republican Party, even if the current FBI investigation comes up with damning evidence of Trump’s ties with Russia. Nevertheless, the likelihood of an impeachment is rising from almost zero to something quite a bit higher.

It would be a big gamble. The Republicans in Congress couldn’t really get Trump out before November 2018, and the turbulence of an impeachment might cost them their control of Congress in the mid-term elections. In an ideal outcome, however, it would give the Republicans time to go into the the 2020 election with President Pence in charge at the White House and some solid legislative achievements under their belts.

What would Trump do if he faced impeachment? Maybe he would do a kind of plea bargain and resign, but that would be quite out of character. His instinct would be to fight, and he fights mainly by creating diversions. The best diversion is a war, but against whom?

Even Trump would have trouble selling a war against Iran to the American public. Despite all the propaganda, they don’t really feel threatened by Iran. Whereas North Korea says and does things provocative enough to let Trump make a (flimsy) case for attacking it.

If he thought his presidency was at stake, he certainly would.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Fun…decapitated”; and “This…House”)

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”)