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The Old Man Rages

I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.

There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, forty or seventy-five or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen.

Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US defence secretary, General James Mattis, involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.

There were also a few smaller missiles, delivered by British or French aircraft that tagged along after the Americans. They probably came within range of the Russian S-400 air defence system, by general assent the best in the world, but there was no risk of their being shot down. The Russians didn’t turn their system on.

It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.

It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.

The United States even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.

President Trump did say that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.”

So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.

The Russian Federation has half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. If Italy spent its budget the way Russia does, it too could have big conventional forces and a nuclear striking force big enough to deter even the United States from attacking it – but it could not sustain a global military confrontation with the NATO powers for even one year. Neither could Russia.

Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.

The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.

The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There were…on”; and “The Russian…Russia”)

Yemeni Missiles: SSDD

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is – a threat to the peace and security of the whole world,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last December, trying to drum up support for stronger international sanctions against Iran, and maybe even an actual attack on the country. Here we go again.

Those old enough to remember the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq will recall the deluge of doctored American ‘intelligence’ reports about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the attack. ‘Everybody’ was in danger, presumably including Bolivia, Switzerland and Nepal, so everybody must support the invasion.

President George W. Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the American intelligence services worked overtime to come up with reasons for doing it. We were told that Saddam had been trying to buy ‘yellowcake’ uranium in Niger (false, based on forged documents). The US could not afford to wait for final proof of Saddam’s intentions “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, said President Bush.

And former general Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, showed the United Nations General Assembly a vial containing a powder – harmless, one hopes – in order to emphasise that just a tiny amount of a lethal biological weapon Saddam was allegedly producing would kill gazillions of people. (Powell, basically an honest man, later called the speech a permanent “blot” on his record.)

In the end the United States got its war – and found no evidence whatever of an active Iraqi programme to build weapons of mass destruction. But no lessons have been learned. Ms Haley at the UN was laying a foundation of lies for a comparable Trump adventure in the Middle East. Same Story Different Day.

The story-line goes as follows. Iran is an aggressive and expansionist power that threatens everybody everywhere. The proof is that it is helping the bad guys in Yemen, known as the Houthis, to launch missile attacks on innocent Saudi citizens. In fact, it is actually giving the evil Houthis the missiles.

The Houthis, a large Shia tribe in northern Yemen, are indeed rebels, and they now control most of the country, including the capital. This greatly angered the Saudi Arabians, who installed the previous government in 2012 as a way of shutting down the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.

The Saudis didn’t like seeing their man overthrown, so they created a nine-country coalition of Sunni Arab states and started bombing Yemen in 2015. According to the UN, at least 8,670 people have been killed and 49,960 injured since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s war. But on 25 March one of the highly inaccurate Houthi missiles killed one person in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The anti-Iran propaganda machine went into high gear. “This aggressive and hostile action by the Iran-backed Houthi group proves that the Iranian regime continues to support the (Houthi) armed group with military capabilities,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki. And the inimitable Nikki Haley said that the missile “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it.

This is the nub of the matter: is Iran actually supplying missiles to the Houthis that are being fired at Saudi Arabia? If so, then the United States, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, has an excuse to attack Iran.

The American accusation basically depends on the ignorant but widespread belief that Yemenis, and in particular Shia rebels from the north, are too ‘backward’ to be able to make or upgrade missiles themselves. But most of the Yemeni armed forces’ weapons, including a variety of short-range ballistic missiles based on the old Soviet ‘Scud’ series, fell into the Houthis’ hands in 2015-16.

None of those original missiles could have reached Riyadh, but extending the range of a simple rocket like the Scud is not rocket science. You just reduce the weight of the warhead and lengthen the body of the rocket to carry extra fuel.

The Houthis have lots of people with metal fabrication and basic engineering skills, and it appears that they did exactly that. The upgraded missile is inaccurate (only one Saudi casualty in at least 40 launches) because lengthening it and lightening the warhead changes the balance, but it cheers the Houthis up because it lets them retaliate for all the bombing.

Jane’s Information Group Ltd, established in 1898, is the world’s leading independent provider of intelligence and analysis on defense matters. Here is what Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said about Yemen’s rockets in 2017 in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

“The Burkan-2 appears to use a new type of warhead section that is locally fabricated. Both Iran and North Korea have displayed Scud derivatives with shuttlecock-shaped warheads, but none of these match the Yemeni version. The range of the Burkan missiles also appears to have been extended by a reduction in the weight of their warheads.”

No nonsense about ‘made in Iran’ stickers. The Yemenis aren’t stupid, and they did it themselves. But the other story suits the Trump administration’s purposes better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“President…record”)

Self-Driving Cars

There are always some casualties when a new form of transportation comes along. In 1830, at the official opening of the world’s first railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, a well-known British politician, William Huskisson, was struck and killed by a locomotive. He was known to be clumsy and accident-prone, but it still cast a pall over the proceedings.

About eighty years later an ancestor of mine was the first person in Newfoundland to be run over and killed by one of those new-fangled motor-cars. And now this: on Monday Elaine Herzberg of Tempe, Arizona became the first person to be struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle.

There was a person sitting, hands off, behind the wheel of the ‘self-driving’ car that hit her, because these vehicles are still in the experimental stage. Uber, the company that was running these particular tests, issued the usual ‘our thoughts are with the victim’s family’ statement and suspended its on-the-road tests in cities throughout the United States. But the halt is only temporary: this technology is unstoppable.

It’s also relatively safe, at least compared to vehicles driven by human beings. Around a hundred Americans a day die in traffic accidents, but in developing countries it’s far worse. About four hundred Indians are killed in traffic accidents each day, although there are actually fewer motor vehicles in India (263 million in the US, 210 million in India).

The widespread use of self-driving vehicles will almost certainly bring down the death rates sharply everywhere, because even if computers can be as stupid as human drivers, they cannot be as impatient or angry or drunk. What the robo-cars, trucks and buses are going to kill in very large numbers is not human beings but jobs.

Automation goes in stages. Computers were not very clever in the 1990s, but they were already good enough to run the robotic arms and similar devices that took over the old assembly lines.

The Rust Belt is centred in the Great Lakes states of the US, and in comparable regions of northern England and northern France, precisely because those are the old mass-production heartlands of their respective countries. Assembly lines had already broken down the complex task of assembling a car, for example, into a hundred or so very simple tasks, so they were bound to be the first victims of automation.

The computers are much smarter now, and up to the extremely demanding task of driving a vehicle in traffic. There are still bugs in the programs, but in two or three or five years they will have been fixed and self-driving vehicles will be available for sale to the public. Those at the head of the queue to buy them will be the operators of fleets of vehicles.

Most people are aware that companies like Ford, General Motors, Tesla and Waymo are investing heavily in research to develop self-driving cars. Fewer realise that Daimler, Volvo, Uber and Baidu are already road-testing self-driving eighteen-wheeler trucks. The goal of this research, quite explicitly, is to eliminate all the driving jobs.

There are approximately four and a half million driving jobs in the United States: taxi-drivers, bus-drivers, delivery van drivers, long-distance truckers. That’s about four percent of all American jobs, and the driving share of total jobs is around the same in other developed economies. It’s a safe bet that at least half of those jobs will disappear in the next ten years, and they will almost all be gone in fifteen or twenty.

The long-term impact of autonomous vehicles on private car ownership will be just as great. A recent KPMG survey of car-industry executives found that 59 percent of CEOs believe that more than half of today’s car-owners will no longer want to own a car by 2025. Just summon a cheap self-driving taxi whenever you want to go somewhere.

It’s Uber on stilts. Self-driving taxis will be everywhere, and respond to the summons in just a minute or two. No parking problems ever again, and far less congestion on the roads because a taxi fleet one-quarter as big as the current total of private cars would suffice to meet even maximum rush-hour demand.

Privately owned cars are parked on average 95 percent of the time. In fact, there is hardly ever more than a quarter of privately owned cars being driven at the same time, even at peak hours. So in the longer term we will see a drastic decline in the number of passenger cars, and a less dramatic fall in the world demand for oil. (Almost three-fifths of world oil output goes into fuel for vehicles.)

We may also expect to see a major decrease in the number of deaths and injuries in traffic accidents. Self-driving vehicles will no doubt occasionally make mistakes that hurt human beings, but computer programs are bound to be less erratic on the roads than human beings. It’s a pity about the jobs, but on balance this is change for the better.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The Rust…automation”; and “Most…jobs”)

Trump and Kim

I think I know why President Donald Trump suddenly agreed to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a year of mutual threats and verbal abuse.

Anything short of a complete breakdown at the talks would virtually guarantee Trump next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, it would seem bigger and shinier than the one they gave to Barack Obama, because Obama hadn’t actually earned it. He got it just for being a nice guy.

Oh, no, wait a minute. If they gave it to Trump they’d also have to give it to Kim Jong-un, and that would be even sillier. Yet there probably won’t be a complete breakdown at the talks, which are due by May, because both men are strongly motivated to make them look successful.

Kim’s minimum goal is to establish North Korea as a legitimate sovereign state that is accepted by other sovereign states (including the United States) as an equal. Just having a one-on-one discussion with Trump about the security problems of the Korean peninsula gives him that. He will do his best to keep the meeting civil, and under no circumstances will he break off the talks first.

Trump’s main goal is to look good – to get a ‘win’ – and Kim’s advisers will have told him to let Trump win something. It doesn’t much matter what, so long as Trump can wave it in the air and claim victory when he gets home. But it will definitely not be an enforceable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

Look at it from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear weapons programme (involuntarily) after the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and twelve years later the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and hanged him. Well, the new Iraqi regime provided the rope and the gallows, but the US invasion would never have happened if Saddam had really had nuclear weapons.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his quest for nuclear weapons too. It never really amounted to much, but it worried Western powers enough to make them leave him alone most of the time. Then Gaddafi handed over all his pathetic scraps of nuclear weapons-related technologies – and NATO airpower subsequently backed the tribal rebels who finished him off with a bayonet up his backside.

So if the US sees you as a problem and you value your life, don’t stop until you get your nukes, and never give them up. The North Koreans understand this lesson very well.

No promise Trump could make would persuade the North Koreans to surrender their nukes. As far as Kim is concerned, nuclear deterrence against the United States has now been achieved, and he’d be mad to give it up again.

It’s a pretty flimsy form of deterrence – his rockets aren’t very accurate and his nuclear weapons don’t always explode in a fully satisfactory way – but even a 10 percent chance that North Korea could kill half a million Americans in a ‘revenge from the grave’ attack should be enough to deter the US from using nukes on North Korea.

A nuclear war between the US and North Korea would probably kill ten times as many North Koreans including practically every member of the regime – Pyongyang would be a glowing, radioactive pit – so Kim’s regime would never initiate such a conflict. But he needs the assurance that the United States will never resort to nuclear weapons either, and only North Korean nuclear weapons can provide the necessary deterrence.

You may deplore this kind of thinking, but it is entirely rational and it is at the heart of North Korea’s strategy. Kim’s willingness to talk about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is therefore just that: a willingness to talk, but not to act. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Does ‘denuclearisation’ mean no American nuclear weapons can be located in South Korea? Given the range of those weapons, how would that make North Korea any safer? Does it mean dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Certainly not. It’s just what Kim had to say to get the talks started.

His ultimate goal is to ‘normalise’ North Korean nukes, as Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons were eventually accepted as normal. This can only happen if the United States acknowledges a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the two countries, which Trump is not yet ready to do. But even by talking to Kim about it, he begins to give the concept substance.

Kim can promise Trump a “moratorium on nuclear and missile tests” because he doesn’t really need more tests. His nuclear weapons and rockets are far fewer and much less sophisticated than their American counterparts, but mutual deterrence can work effectively even when one side has a hundred or a thousand times more nuclear weapons than the other.

So Trump gets an early ‘win’, and Kim gets to nudge the United States a little closer to an understanding that its future relationship with North Korea will be one of mutual deterrence. Or maybe locking two narcissists in a room is bound to end in tears, but it’s well worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“Look…well”)