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Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)

Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

US Mid-Term Elections

Barack Obama said of the US mid-term elections that “the character of our country is on the ballot,” and the outcome proved him right. The United States is a psychological basket case, more deeply and angrily divided than at any time since the Vietnam War.

It’s not evenly divided, of course. The popular vote saw the Democrats lead the Republicans nationwide by an 8 percent margin, but that translated into only a modest gain in seats in the House of Representatives and in state elections because of the extensive gerrymandering of electoral districts in Republican-ruled states.

The more important truth is that the Republican Party is now almost entirely in the hands of ‘white nationalists’, and totally controlled by Donald Trump. It’s no longer ‘conservative’. It’s radical right, with an anti-immigrant, racist agenda and an authoritarian style – and about 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white males.

The Democratic Party is multi-cultural, feminist (84 of the 100 women elected to the new House of Representatives are Democrats), and even socialist. Only one-third of the Democrats in the new Congress will be white men – and almost half the Democrats in the House of Representatives can be classed as Democratic Socialists.

Donald Trump will get little further legislation through Congress, and a Democratic-controlled House will be able to subpoena his tax returns and investigate his ties to Russia, but he didn’t lose spectacularly on Tuesday. Indeed, he proclaimed that it was “a great victory” (because that’s what he always does, win or lose).

But Trump didn’t lose all that badly, either. The Republicans’ losses were within the normal range for a governing party in mid-term elections, so the political civil war continues unabated.

The divisions will continue and even deepen because neither of the major American parties understands what is making Americans so angry and unhappy. Donald Trump knows that it is fundamentally about jobs, but he is barking up the wrong tree when he blames it on ‘off-shoring’ and free trade and promises to make the foreigners give the jobs back.

Many Democrats suspect what the real problem is, but they won’t discuss it openly because they have no idea how to deal with it. What is really destroying American jobs is automation.

It’s destroying jobs in other developed countries too, with similar political consequences. The ‘Leave’ side won the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom because of strong support in the post-industrial wastelands of northern and central England. The neo-fascist candidate in the last French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, got one-third of the vote because of her popularity in the French equivalent of the US ‘Rust Belt’.

But the process is farthest advanced in the United States, which has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs – 8 million jobs – in the past 25 years. Only 2 million of those jobs were lost because the factories were ‘off-shored’ to Mexico or China, and that happened mostly in the 1990s. The rest were simply abolished by automation.

The Rust Belt went first, because assembly-line manufacturing is the easiest thing in the world to automate. The retail jobs are going now, because of Amazon and its ilk. The next big chunk to disappear will be the 4.5 million driving jobs in the United States, lost to self-driving vehicles. Et cetera.

The ‘official’ US unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is a fantasy. The proportion of American males of prime working age (25-54) who are actually not working, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, is 17.5 percent. Or at least that’s what it was when he did his big study two years ago.

Maybe the allegedly ‘booming’ economy of the past couple of years has brought that number down a bit, but it’s a safe bet that it’s still around 14-15 percent. This is a rate of unemployment last seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why isn’t there blood in the streets? There certainly was in the 1930s.

The Great Depression led to the rise of populism, the triumph of fascism and the catastrophe of the Second World War, so almost all developed Western countries created welfare states in the 1950s and 1960s in order to avoid going down that road again. The economy might tank again, but at least people would not be so desperate and so vulnerable to populist appeals.

It kind of worked: there is plenty of anger among the unemployed (and the under-employed), but they do not turn to violence. They do vote, however, and their votes are driven by anger.

Until the major parties can acknowledge that it is the computers that are killing the jobs (and that it probably can’t be stopped), the anger will continue to grow. You can’t begin to fix the problem until you understand it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 134, 14 and 15. (“Maybe…anger”)

Law and the Culture War

There was bound to be a backlash to the ‘Me Too’ movement, and the struggle over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court is clearly part of that culture war. ‘Me Too’ is going to lose this battle unless there is some new and horrendous revelation of Kavanaugh’s past behaviour in the next few days, and lots of people in the US and elsewhere see this as evidence that the war itself is being lost. That is not necessarily so even in the United States. It is certainly not so in the wider world, where the supreme court of the world’s biggest democracy, India, has just followed up its landmark decision in early September to decriminalise homosexuality with another judgement decriminalising adultery. Many people deplore adultery, but as Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously said half a century ago, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation….What’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.” But adultery was still a criminal offence in India until last week – and a very peculiar offence, because only men could be convicted of it. The law dated from the time when Britain ruled India, and reflected the Victorian belief that a married woman was her husband’s property. For another man to have sex with a man’s wife was therefore a violation of the husband’s property rights, and the violator should be punished by the law – whereas the woman was presumed to be unable to make her own decisions, and was therefore not legally culpable. The (male) adulterer was liable to a prison sentence of up to five years. The law was rarely enforced, but it was frequently invoked by husbands in divorce proceedings to smear the reputations of their soon-to-be-ex-wives. The case was brought before the courts by Joseph Shine, an Italy-based Indian businessman who was distressed by the suicide of a close friend who had fallen victim to the anti-adultery law. Shine just wanted the law to be enforced equally against men and women, but the Supreme Court went a good deal farther than that. The Indian court’s judgement went straight to the heart of the matter. “It is time to say that the husband is not the master,” said Chief Justice Dipak Misra. “Legal subordination of one sex over another is wrong in itself.” Adultery, he ruled, will no longer be a criminal offence. On Friday the same court declared that Indian temples have no right to exclude women “of menstruating age” on the specious grounds that they are unclean. “Religion cannot be the cover to deny women the right to worship. To treat women as children of a lesser God is to blink at constitutional morality,” said Chief Justice Misra. Now, it’s true that Misra was in a rush to get these cases settled before he reached 65, the legally mandated retirement age for judges. (He turned 65 on Tuesday.) It’s also true that there are those on the Supreme Court who do not agree with his liberalisation of India’s laws on sexual matters and gender equality. But there seems to be popular support among the educated public for his reforms, and the cases continue. Next up is the existing exception in India’s law on sexual assault for cases in which the perpetrator and the victim are married. The lawyer leading the case to make marital rape illegal put it clearly: a woman’s “sexual autonomy is not forfeited at the marital door.” There are places where these legal principles are still not accepted: many Muslim countries reject them (including Indonesia, where they are drafting laws to prohibit all sex outside the institution of marriage), and many countries in Africa. But nevertheless the example is spreading. In Kenya, the supreme court has agreed to hear arguments for legalising gay sex later this month on the grounds that the existing law banning homosexual acts in Kenya is identical to the one struck down by the Indian Supreme Court. Adultery has already been decriminalised in more than 60 countries, and abortion is now legal in most. There really is a culture war, raging simultaneously across all the continents. It is rarely fought with as much tribal ferocity as it is in the United States, but important issues are at stake everywhere. If Judge Kavanaugh joins the US Supreme Court, for example, abortion could once again become illegal in the United States. But in cultural matters progress often takes the form of two steps forward, one step back. It may feel more like one step forward, two steps back in the United States at the moment, but that is just a snapshot of a moment in time. Trudeau once told me that his reason for entering politics was “to civilise the law”, and in most parts of the world that project is still making progress. It is very unlikely that the United States will turn out to be a permanent defector from that enterprise either. _______________________________________ To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“The (male)…that”; and “Next…door”)