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US Election: Not Another Corbyn

Psephology – the statistical study of elections and trends in voting – is the darkest of the dark arts, and you can lose your soul if you delve into it too deeply. But sometimes you have to do it a bit, and this is one of those times.

On Wednesday the US Senate acquitted President Donald Trump of both charges in his impeachment trial on a straight partisan vote, with only two members of the 53-strong Republican majority even voting to hear more evidence. But this doesn’t mean that the other 51 really think Trump is innocent. They may be cowards, but they’re not stupid.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander acknowledged that Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine’s president into launching a fake investigation that would smear Joe Biden, then the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was “inappropriate”. In fact, he had only voted to shut the trial down because “There is no need for more evidence to prove what has already been proven.”

It just wasn’t a grave enough offence to justify impeachment, Alexander said, and besides, there is an election next November. “I believe that the constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday,” he concluded.

Alexander was only brave enough to say even that much because he will retire from the Senate this year. But he is right in saying that the upcoming presidential election is the only way that Trump can now be brought to book. That would require the Democrats to nominate a candidate who can actually beat Trump. Does such an animal actually exist?

The shambles of last Monday’s Democratic ‘caucuses’ in Iowa, the first step in the process of choosing the party’s presidential candidate, leaves much unclear, but it is becoming obvious that Joe Biden, the early front-runner and alleged ‘safe pair of hands’, is not the right man.

If you think a middle-of-the-road candidate is the best bet to beat Trump, Pete Buttigieg is your man. He came first overall in the Iowa caucuses with 27% of the votes; Biden trailed far behind with 16%.

If you think that only a radical break with the Democrats’ traditional MOR stance can beat Trump, then you also have two choices: left-wing Bernie Sanders (who actually says the word ‘socialism’ in public), or centre-left Elizabeth Warren (who at least doesn’t flinch when Bernie says the s-word).

Again, however, there was a gulf in Iowa between the two more radical candidates: Sanders got 25% of the vote, Warren only 15%. These number may change slightly when Iowa finally sorts out the mess in the vote-counting, but probably not by much.

They may change a lot more when the primary elections move to states that are not, like Iowa, 90% white and relatively prosperous (meaning slightly below the US median household income, but with much less inequality than in most states). But it would require a minor miracle for the leaders and the trailers to change places in either case.

So let us assume that the real choice, after a few more primaries, is starting to look like it’s between Sanders and Buttigieg. Which of these men is likelier to beat Trump?

Money is a big factor in any US election, and Sanders can certainly raise money, as he showed in his 2016 run for the nomination. Maybe Buttigieg will turn out to have the same knack now that he’s a front-runner, but that remains to be seen.

There are a couple of problems with Bernie Sanders. He would be 79 if he took office next January (and he had a heart attack last October). More importantly, he may frighten as many voters as he excites. Think: who in politics does he most resemble?

What other left-wing politician in an English-speaking country spent decades in the political wilderness, trying to sell hot-gospel socialism to a largely inattentive audience?

Who then suddenly caught the attention of the nation’s despairing youth, trapped in a stagnant, low-wage economy, and built a national following that suddenly delivered him onto the main stage?

And who led his party into a national election on a radical left-wing programme – and went down to the worst electoral defeat it had suffered in half a century?

Jeremy Corbyn, the English Bernie Sanders, that’s who. It was Corbyn who put Boris Johnson, Britain’s mini-Trump, back in office for another five years with a huge majority in parliament. That’s not the sort of outcome the Democrats want.

So what will the elders of the Democratic Party do if they find that Sanders, not Buttigieg, is the popular favourite going into Democratic Convention in July. They will probably throw their support behind Michael Bloomberg, the ultimate MOR candidate.

It could work. He’s far richer than Trump.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“They…case”; and “Money…seen”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Iran Is Not An Exception

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. It begins to seem possible that it could be one of the last, if not the very last.

The protests that broke out on Friday in at least 21 cities in Iran seem to have died down, although that is uncertain since the entire country is silenced by an almost complete internet shut-down. But the death toll, according to Amnesty International, is at least 106. Other reports suggest that it might be twice that number.

This is at least five times the number that were killed in the last outbreak of protests in late 2017, and unofficial reports put the number of injured at around 3,000. Snipers have been firing into the crowds, who are denounced by state-controlled media as ‘hooligans’ and ‘thugs’ who are under foreign influence, or even in foreign pay.

The pace of the protests is picking up, too. The previous mass protests were way back in 2009, and were against the manipulation of election results, not against the regime as a whole. In 2017, and again this time, they were against the whole system of repression and corruption that sustains the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs.

This latest and biggest outburst of defiance in the streets is at least partly due to the unilateral trade sanctions imposed on Iran last year by the Trump administration. Washington scarcely bothers to deny that the real objective of its sanctions is regime change, or that the impoverishment of the Iranian population is the means chosen to attain that goal.

In the past year Iranian oil exports have dwindled to less than 200,000 barrels per day, compared to two million bpd before the US reimposed oil sanctions almost exactly a year ago. Inflation has soared, the value of the Iranian rial has collapsed, and life has become much harder for the poor.

The poor have nothing to fall back on and quickly become desperate. The young had nothing to start with, and see no future for themselves in an economy that is currently shrinking by 6% annually. These two groups are the real target of the sanctions, and the strategy seems to be working.

The trigger for these protests was a 50% rise in the price of petrol (gas), but that was just a last straw, not a major economic blow to the poor. It’s still only $0.12 a litre ($0.45 per US gallon), and most of the poor don’t have cars anyway. Indeed, the government’s stated reason for the price increase is to raise $2.5 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

The poor are not impressed, since their health costs have gone up by 20% and the price of meat and vegetables has risen by around 50% in the past twelve months. It’s their anger and desperation that drive the poor and the young out into the streets, but it’s really the sanctions that have made them so angry and desperate.

So can the religious despotism that has ruled the country for the past forty years survive? In the short run, probably yes, because the ayatollahs have several million fanatical and well-armed supporters in the Revolutionary Guard and its part-time affiliate, the Basij militia. In the slightly longer term (2-5 years), probably not.

Because most Iranians follow the Shia version of Islam while all the countries around them except Iraq are overwhelmingly Sunni, Iran is seen as a special case whose politics has little relevance for elsewhere in the region. That is not true. The differences are big, but the politics in the region’s various countries tends to march in step, or even to rhyme.

Right next door to Iran, in Iraq, other young men are protesting in the streets, and there too they are being shot down by the ‘security’ forces. Two months ago thousands of young Egyptian men and women took to the streets to demand the resignation of the military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Four thousand were arrested. The non-violent revolutions in Sudan and Algeria continue.

In Egypt, Algeria and Sudan money and privileges are monopolised by a military elite, in Iraq by an elected but deeply corrupt civilian elite, and in Iran by a religious and paramilitary elite. There is poverty and anti-regime anger everywhere, but in Iran it is also being stoked by Donald Trump.

Revolution in Iran would probably be a long and bloody process, because the theocratic regime has a coherent ideology and would go down fighting. Nobody knows what kind of regime would follow, and nobody knows if such a revolution would stay confined to Iran.

Despite the Sunni-Shia gulf, the last revolution in Iran inflamed similar Islamist movements in many Arab countries. Another Iranian revolution could also ignite anti-regime revolts elsewhere in the region. Trump should be careful what he wishes for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The trigger…desperate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ambazonia

Sometimes Donald Trump gets it right. In February he cut off US military aid to the central African country of Cameroon because of its appalling human rights record (and didn’t even offer to restore it if the Cameroon government dug up dirt on his political opponents at home). Last Friday he acted again, dropping Cameroon from a pact that promotes trade between sub-Saharan African countries and the US.

OK, it probably wasn’t really Trump’s idea. There’s still a few professionals left in the State Department, and it was probably one of them who pushed it through. The appeal to Trump may just be that he is punishing a country that is expanding its trade with China – but the human rights abuses in Cameroon really are off the scale.

Cameroon’s main claim to fame until recently was its ruler, Paul Biya, the oldest and longest-ruling dictator in the world (86 years old and in power for the past 42 years). But Biya wasn’t all that bad, apart from the usual corruption and the occasional political murder, until the downtrodden English-speakers started protesting seriously about two years ago.

The ‘anglophones’, as they are known in majority French-speaking Cameroon, have been pushed into a corner basically because they don’t fit the mould. A century ago hardly anybody in the region spoke either English or French, but the vagaries of colonial policy put some of the locals into the British empire and some into the French – and then independence brought some of them back together again.

More than four-fifths of the 25 million Cameroonians live in French-speaking parts of the country. Only one-fifth live in the anglophone region – but that region is right up against the border with Nigeria, where around 190 million people use English as their lingua franca.

That shouldn’t have been a problem if Cameroon had respected the rights of its English-speakers, but having giant Nigeria right next-door made the country’s francophone ruling elite uneasy. Predictably, but very stupidly, Biya and his cronies saw separate institutions for the anglophones as a potential cause for division, and started eliminating them.

They unilaterally changed the country’s federal structure into a unitary one, ending anglo self-government. They replaced English-speaking judges and English common law with francophone judges and French law. Government jobs automatically went to ‘loyal’ francophones even in anglophone areas.

Every step they took to erase the differences between anglos and francos only deepened the divisions between them. Finally the anglophones began publicly protesting – and when their representatives were all jailed, more radical protesters began demanding independence for the anglophone region, which they dubbed ‘Ambazonia’. They got arrested too, and the next wave of protesters turned to violence.

It wasn’t very effective violence at first, because they lacked weapons, experience and organisation, but you can always buy the weapons in Nigeria or take them from dead regime soldiers and police. For the rest, you just climb the learning curve – and by now, two years in, it’s a full-scale insurgency, so both sides are behaving with extreme stupidity.

The regime should be making the kind of concessions that would reconcile its anglophones to being Cameroonian citizens, but it’s doing nothing of the sort. The thugs have taken over, and its soldiers and police are acting as unpaid recruiters for the rebels, killing young anglo men at random and burning whole villages where some local resident is suspected of being one of the ‘Amba-boys’.

The rebels are equally devoted to self-harm. They have closed down all 6,000 schools in the anglophone region because the national curriculum requires the students to be taught French. Not taught IN French; just taught to speak French. If the teachers try to keep the schools open, the rebels burn them down. Sometimes they kill the teachers too.

The original blame for the breakdown rests almost entirely with the Biya regime, but the rebels are catching up fast in the stupidity stakes. It has become a classic guerilla war, in the worst sense of the word, and it could blight the lives of an entire generation.

What makes it even more bizarre is that it’s not even about genuine ethnic, religious or linguistic differences. Cameroon has enough of those: many different tribes, Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, and around 250 different languages, some spoken by only a few thousand people. But this war is about which FOREIGN language people speak!

It is a mercifully rare problem in Africa, because while most African states contain many languages, they have kept the borders that the colonialists imposed. Everybody living inside those borders has therefore inherited the same colonial language, usually French, English or Portuguese, and uses it to communicate with their fellow-citizens whose home language is different.

It’s an arbitrary solution with its roots in tyrannical oppression by foreigners, but there’s no other way that large numbers of Africans could share a modern state together. Most of the linguistic groups are too small. And Cameroon shows what is all too likely to happen, human beings being what they are, if that situation does not prevail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“OK…scale”; and “It wasn’t…stupidity”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Betraying the Kurds Again

Everybody betrays the Kurds. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition. But given Donald Trump’s reputation for treachery, it’s astonishing how bad he is at it.

This particular betrayal got underway on Sunday night. After a telephone conversation with Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump declared that he had started pulling American troops out of Syria. It’s time for US forces “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal,” he tweeted.

Did Trump realise that he was effectively giving Turkey permission to invade northern Syria and expel the Syrian Kurds from their homes? His own officials patiently explained that to him last December when he tried the same stunt for the first time, but maybe he forgot.

So they reminded him again, and by lunchtime Monday Trump had changed his tune a bit. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he tweeted.

But Trump did not explain exactly what was ‘off limits’. Did the Turkish president have a green light to invade northern Syria, or not? Erdogan is going ahead with the operation anyway, assuming that Trump’s threats are just the usual empty belligerence and bluster. It’s a safe assumption.

The weird thing is that Donald Trump’s basic attitude to wars in far places is pretty sound. Don’t invade Iraq. (Wrong enemy.) Don’t have a war with North Korea over nuclear weapons. (Make a deal.) Get American troops out of the Middle East. (Duh.) The problem is in the execution.

We saw it two weeks ago when Trump, having decided to pull American troops out of Afghanistan and sell his Afghan allies down the river, changed his mind at the last minute and cancelled a planned meeting at Camp David to sign a deal with the Taliban.

We saw it last week when a US delegation met the North Koreans in Sweden for their first talks on nuclear weapons in seven months. Trump declared the meeting a great success, but the North Koreans accused the Americans of showing up “empty-handed” and said they would not engage in “such sickening negotiations” again.

Calling Trump ‘transactional’ is just a polite way of saying that he has no long-term strategy at all. He doesn’t even understand that his adversaries often do have such strategies, so they run circles around him.

Erdogan’s strategy is quite clear. He says he is going to create a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria by driving the ‘Kurdish terrorists’ out. It will be 480 km long and 30 km deep (three times the size of Prince Edward Island), and in this strip just south of the Turkish border he will ‘resettle’ 2 million Syrian Arabs, more than half of the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

However, this plan sounds quite different when you translate it into plain English. The zone in question is already safe for the Kurdish people who live there and the Arab minority who live alongside them, because they defeated the Islamic State extremists who were trying to conquer it. There are no terrorists there now.

The army that destroyed Islamic State was an alliance between the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG and some smaller Arab militias in the region. It fought in close alliance with the United States and lost more than ten thousand killed. (Only seven American soldiers were killed in action in Syria.) It has now restored peace throughout the area, and there were no attacks on Turkey at any point in the war.

Erdogan’s aim is to drive all the Kurds living within 30 km of the border out of their homes and replace them with Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees. Almost all of those refugees will be from elsewhere in Syria, but they won’t get any choice in the matter either.

Why is Erdogan doing this? Because it will greatly shrink the number of Arab refugees in Turkey and because, having falsely portrayed the Syrian Kurds to his own supporters as a security threat, he can then claim credit for having solved the problem. It’s brutal and immoral, but it’s sound politics.

What can the Syrian Kurds do to save themselves? They will have a brief opportunity in the next week or two, after US troops have left the ‘safe zone’ and before the Turks have established control.

If the Syrian Kurds can hold off the Turks for a few days, and meanwhile invite Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus to reoccupy what is, after all, sovereign Syrian territory, the Turkish invasion might actually stall.

It would only work if the Russians are willing to back that strategy, which is doubtful. But the Syrian Kurds have almost certainly been talking to Damascus about this idea already, because they could see Trump’s betrayal coming a mile off.

The Kurds could probably still get a fairly good deal on local autonomy from Damascus at this point – and Assad, for all his faults, is much likelier to stick to a deal once he makes it than Trump is.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The weird…again”)