Monday Wake Up Call – September 13, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP, CO – September 2021 photo by David Milley Johnson

Daniel Byman of Georgetown University has the cover article in the WSJ’s Weekend Review: “Why There Hasn’t Been Another 9/11”. He says that while jihadism remains strong globally, the US has been spared a repeat of 9/11:

“Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans. Since then, the US homeland hasn’t suffered any comparable terrorist assault, nor even one a tenth of the size. The total death toll from jihadist attacks inside the US over these last two decades stands at 107…”

Byman’s point is that despite losing in Afghanistan, the US has become skilled at limited interventions: a drone strike to kill a terrorist leader here, a raid by special operations forces there, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, among others. This has forced the terrorist leaders to hide constantly and has eliminated their ability to run large terrorist training facilities.

Our abilities to intercept terrorist phone and internet communications, monitor activity from the skies and coordinate in real time with our allies, allows us to be on top of most large-scale attacks that might be planned against us. From Byman:

“A jihadist arrested in Morocco may have made phone calls to an operative in France, who received money from a funder in Kuwait, who is tied to cells in Indonesia and Kenya and operates under the instructions of a leader in Pakistan…”

All of this is tracked. And the US then assembles this giant jigsaw puzzle, encouraging the arrests of suspects, while using drone strikes where arrests are difficult. Byman implies that we’re being kept safe because of our investment in anti-terrorist assets and technology.

He’s planting a stake in the ground for additional funding for America’s successor to the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Adam Tooze reminds us that US military spending was driven to new heights by the GWOT. Overall spending peaked in 2010 at $840 billion. You might expect that America’s defense budget would have decreased when we got out of full-scale Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and it did. Tooze says that overall DOD spending fell to $629 billion in 2015.

With Trump in charge, the Pentagon’s budget was pushed back over $700 billion. So far, Biden is staying the course. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan in no way signals a retreat from global ambition, as the budgetary request for National Defense in 2022 is $752 billion, a 7.4% increase.

And the amazing part is that the military doesn’t seem to have an articulated strategy to combat future threats. That may explain why it took 20 years, four presidents and $ trillions for America to replace the Taliban with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the think tank CSIS points out:

“It has been about 15 years since DoD explained, even roughly, how it calculated the force levels that it was proposing….”

Tooze says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“In other words, America’s grand strategists formulate goals, the Pentagon draws up lists of things it wants…but it is unclear how each of these decisions relates to the other.”

The US military is a giant professional organization run by leaders with postgraduate degrees. Like most large organizations, it is hierarchical and thrives on amassing internal power. The battle for resources between the branches of the military is intense.

The National Defense Strategy of 2018 redefined America’s future security challenge as great-power competition with China, not counterterrorism. The main arena isn’t the Middle East, but the Indo-Pacific. And Biden is doubling down on this strategic blueprint.

This requires transformative technologies: AI, robotics, cyber weapons, and new space technology. The technology will come from Silicon Valley, even though they have somewhat conflicting technological partnerships with China.

We’re no longer training military in Afghan villages in California, we’re planning on building robot submarines. All of this shows that the withdrawal from Afghanistan in no way signals a retreat from our military’s global ambitions, despite our historically mediocre military leadership.

Time to wake up America! The war hawks in each Party along with the defense contractors have no intention of taking their collective feet off the gas pedal of military spending. What animates the alliance between them are buzzwords and money.

Despite what you think, social programs will always need to be paid for by new revenue, while defense spending is always “on the house”.

To help you wake up, listen to “New York Minute” by Don Henley. While it has some deep relevance to 9/11, it was recorded in 1989 for Henley’s solo album, “The End of the Innocence”. It was one of the songs radio stations in NYC played frequently in the weeks after 9/11. The track features Toto members David Paich on piano and Jeff Porcaro on drums:

Lyrics:
Harry got up
Dressed all in black
Went down to the station
And he never came back
They found his clothing
Scattered somewhere down the track
And he won’t be down on Wall Street in the morning

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Thoughts on the Cuban Demonstrations

The Daily Escape:

Apartment block, Havana Cuba – 2014 photo by Wrongo. Most buildings in Havana are made of concrete and their outer walls are deteriorating from the salt air and deferred maintenance.

Cuba was in the news last week after tens of thousands took to the streets all across the country. Reports say that they were chanting for freedom and food. Wrongo and Ms. Right visited Cuba in 2014 and while we didn’t come away as experts in the country or its people, Wrongo has some thoughts about what’s wrong there today. And it isn’t a thirst for democracy.

First, Cuba is suffering from hyperinflation. Prices have skyrocketed and inflation is likely between 500% and 900% this year. This is on top of the economy declining 11% in 2020, and apparently continuing to fall further in 2021. The economy’s shrinking is due to Covid hurting tourism and to the continuing Embargo by the US; but the inflation is the Cuban government’s doing.

Cuba ended their dual currency system at the beginning of 2021. Before that, they had a domestic peso called a CUP, and Cuban convertible peso called a CUC. A dual currency system allows one currency to be used for purchasing domestic goods and services, and the other for foreign goods. The purpose is to make sure that a country doesn’t spend more money on external goods than it is earning from its exports of goods and services.

In a single currency system, when there’s way more demand for foreign goods than export earnings, if you allow people to purchase whatever they want, your single currency will lose value, leading to inflation or hyper-inflation. After Cuba transitioned to a single currency, Cubans could buy more foreign goods, but it has also led to hyperinflation.

Cuba’s caught in a trap: they don’t have enough of anything, including food. Their primary ally, Venezuela, can no longer help (also suffering from hyper-inflation). But shortages are shortages. Moderate inflation prices some people out of the market for a product. As prices go up, the demand goes down. Hyper-inflation imposes the costs on a different group of people, those who can’t get foreign currency, usually the poor.

This is one reason Cubans are in the street.

Second, housing is also a major issue. Most people live in an apartment or house that has been passed down from their parents. All children share equally in the inherited building, so homes are sub-divided into private spaces by the next generation. That means living space is very cramped. Arch Daily reports that:

“The average age of a home in Cuba is just over 75 years old, and three of them collapse every day. Cuba’s housing crisis is perhaps one of the most unique examples of urban inequity in the world.”

As you can see from the photo below, thousands of Cubans live in derelict homes.

Source: ArchDaily

Cubans are questioning how new housing will be built, or where the funds come from to repair existing structures. They are also seeking less state control over the homeownership process.

This is another reason Cubans are on the street.

Finally, Cuba has great home-grown Covid vaccines, thought to be 92% effective against Covid in clinical trials. It is administered in three doses, with two weeks between each vaccination. According to Dr. Guillen Nieto, inventor of the drug, 2.2 million Cubans have already received their first vaccination, 1.7 million their second and 900,000 the third dose. There are 11 million Cubans.

But Cuba just agreed to send 12 million doses to Venezuela, precisely when Covid cases are growing at home. In April they reported 31,346 cases and 229 deaths, compared to 12,056 cases and 146 deaths in all of 2020.

Another reason why people are in the streets. So far, none seem to be about democracy.

Now, Republicans are again bleating about Cuba. It remains to be seen whether the protests are a unique event that will be quashed by Cuba’s regime, or if it’s the start of a meaningful movement.

The US embargo has been our single strategy with Cuba since 1959, and it hasn’t worked. Hoping the population feels hungry enough and desperate enough to revolt against its government is cruel and capricious. The Cuban embargo has been one of America’s biggest foreign policy failures. If you want to change Cuba, you should flood it with American money.

That was starting to happen under Obama.

Based on Wrongo’s 2014 visit, Cubans like American goods. They like American dollars. They’d like access to better food than what they get under the government’s food subsidy program. Under Obama, it was starting to happen.

Trump put a stop to all of that because of Florida’s anti-Castro clique. They still think that cutting off ties to the regime will make a difference, notwithstanding 60+ years of failure.

So far, Biden is just continuing Trump’s policy. Florida didn’t vote for Biden, and its Governor, state legislature and Senators are all Republicans. Biden should just end the embargo and be done with it.

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Saturday Soother – June 19, 2021

The Daily Escape:

View of Lake Champlain from Hog Island, VT – photo by Kim Brown

A few items that were lost in the noise this week: First, the House voted 268-161 to repeal the 2002 AUMF, the Iraq War Authorization for Use of Military Force. The 2002 AUMF allows military action to defend the national security of the US against the continuing threat posed by Iraq. The other AUMF, the 2001 AUMF, issued to allow the president to order the invasion of Afghanistan, remains in effect.

The rationale for repealing these AUMFs is that the power to declare war properly belongs with Congress. Congress’s delegating a blank check to the president via the AUMF’s to make war promoted the indefinite, Middle East military engagements that turned Onion headlines about sons patrolling the same routes in Afghanistan as their fathers into a horrible reality.

Congress has been negligent in reclaiming their power. And while there’s a case for the kind of open-ended military actions of the 21st Century, that case should be made in Congress, where the strategy can be deliberated, and if approved, funded by Congress, our ultimate authority for both war-making and war-funding.

The 2002 AUMF repeal now goes to the Senate and if passed, to Biden, who has suggested he would sign a repeal.

Even if the repeal passes the Senate, the standard Republican line on AUMF repeal is that a replacement resolution must be passed at the same time. That will possibly kill the repeal. And depending on how it is written, it could defeat its entire purpose.

Second, this week, Lina Khan, the author of “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” was confirmed by the Senate (with 19 Republican votes) as Federal Trade Commissioner. A 32-year-old, British-born woman of Pakistani heritage is now Chair of the FTC, facing down the most powerful corporations in American history, backed by the full power of the US government.

Khan inherits an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, which seeks to break up the company over allegations that it copied or acquired and killed its rivals. The lawsuit is a test of Washington’s ability to check Silicon Valley’s power amid a broader debate about changing tech regulations. Kahn will be running an agency that lawmakers and experts for years have warned is under-resourced and lacking technical expertise.

Our existing antitrust laws are robust, but they have been weakened by business-friendly judges and clearly aren’t optimized for our digital world. A bipartisan group in Congress introduced a series of bills that would outlaw many of the allegedly anticompetitive tactics that tech companies used to solidify their dominance. But as with all reforms, it’s unclear whether they’ll pass.

Ms. Khan will be getting more resources. Biden has proposed an 11% funding increase for the FTC, boosting its spending from $351 million to $390 million. The president’s proposal will also allow the FTC to increase its headcount to 1,250, its largest staff since it was eviscerated in the early 1980s.

She enters the FTC with a 3-to-2 Democratic board majority, but it’s unclear how long that will last. Rohit Chopra (D) is awaiting his confirmation to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If he leaves, it could be difficult for Biden to build the bipartisan support needed to install another commissioner.

Finally, it was disconcerting to hear Putin, in his post-summit news conference, play back Republican disinformation. From the WaPo’s Dana Milbank:

“For the past few years, Republicans in Congress have echoed Russian propaganda. On Wednesday, in Geneva, Vladimir Putin returned the favor: He echoed Republican propaganda.”

Milbank notes that the Russians have adopted the talking points of right-wing media about January 6. Putin mentioned that the January 6 insurrectionists are not looters or thieves:

“Many of the suspects, have been hit with very harsh charges…. Why is that?”

Putin read some more from the Republican playbook:

“As for who is killing whom or are throwing whom in jail, people came to the US Congress with political demands….Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They face prison sentences. … They’re being called domestic terrorists.”

It’s surprising how awful Republican talking points sound when spoken by Putin.

On to the weekend, and our Saturday Soother! We will be continuing our yard work on the Fields of Wrong. You know you live in the wilds when Ms. Right can find bear poop 20 feet from our front door. Interestingly, it smelled like the bear had dined on fish. That’s probably enough outdoors reality for this week!

Let’s start our Juneteenth and Fathers’ Day weekend by listening to Harold Darke’s “Fantasy in E Major”. It is arranged here for string orchestra by Clive Jenkins because Drake’s arrangement is lost. It’s played by the Chamber Ensemble of London, conducted by Peter Fisher:

The video is beautiful because it includes paintings by English landscape artist, James Lynch. They’re lovely. Enjoy!

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Monday Wake Up Call – Memorial Day, 2021

Unknown soldier, US Cemetery, Normandy, FR – 2016 photo by Wrongo

Today is the 20th Memorial Day since we invaded Afghanistan. For those 20 Memorial Days, Americans have been complicit in our government’s sending American soldiers into a series of wars that everyone now knows were both too costly and ultimately, self-defeating.

The American public’s job? Apparently, to say that we “support the troops.”

The “thank you for your service” mantra has become an ingrained reflex, like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. Our default position is to thank, but not to think. For most of us, Afghanistan is like elevator music. It’s been ever present in the background, but we barely notice it.

What is American patriotism in the 21st Century? It isn’t about moral courage or deeply ingrained love of country. It’s about sad-button Facebook emoticons, 20%-off Memorial Day mattress sales, and flags and burgers on Monday.

Shifting from foot to foot during a yearly moment of silence, while thinking about dead soldiers, assuming that their deaths were part of an unfortunate but necessary action to preserve American “freedom” isn’t enough. Soldiers and veterans need a nation that can find the courage and conviction to stop misusing them.

Maybe 2021 is the year when we can finally look in the mirror and admit that we are really a nation of 330 million bumper-sticker patriots. The kind of people who are willing to sell out future generations to pay for endless war, no matter who gets killed, if our politicians and the Pentagon believe it’s the right thing to do.

Maybe this is the year we finally realize that the War on Terror took 20 years because Americans are afraid to question America’s grand strategy in the Middle East. Or question why military spending has to be so high. We have come to believe that kind of thinking should be taboo.

So, time to wake up America! Enjoy your burgers and beers, watch the Memorial Day celebrations in your town, or on TV. But tomorrow, don’t forget about the plight of our veterans and those currently still serving. And don’t get up tomorrow thinking that the politicians who vote for more war deserve any more support.

To help you wake up and to celebrate the 80th birthday of Bob Dylan, let’s listen to “Masters of War” from 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. Sadly, it’s still relevant 58 years later. The song is a condemnation of the people responsible for the atrocities that accompany war, and it was written about the Vietnam War. In the song, Dylan says to the masters of war:

“You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.”

More:

”And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”

Watch:

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Another Problem for Biden: Who Controls the Arctic Ocean?

The Daily Escape:

Cape Porpoise, ME – April 20, 2021 photo by Eric Storm

American has only two icebreakers that can operate at the North Pole. One is more than 40 years old, and the other is in drydock. This is a problem because the Arctic ice cap is melting, and many countries plan to use the Arctic Ocean as a much quicker transit route from Europe to Asia.

Why is this a big deal? Rockford Weitz, professor at the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program of Tufts University, has an article in The Conversation about the looming competition for control of the warming Arctic Ocean. He points to a recent voyage:

“A tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from northern Russia to China tested that shorter route this past winter, traversing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route in February for the first time with the help of an icebreaker. The route cut the shipping time by nearly half.”

It’s clear that even including the cost of having an icebreaker along for the trip, traversing the Arctic Ocean was cost-effective. The polar ice is melting quickly, so countries will need more icebreakers to help LNG tankers cross the Arctic.

Russia has 46 icebreakers and has 11 under construction. The US has three and has three under construction. Wikipedia says that the US icebreaker situation is currently so dire that the US Coast Guard is loath to send the working icebreakers too far north, because if one breaks down, it would almost certainly have to call for help from a nearby Russian icebreaker.

That demonstrates how bad US/Russian relations have become. At one time, both powers could cooperate on this kind of prosaic thing.

There’s more at stake. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic. As waters become passable, that will attract both more shipping and more mineral exploration. Weitz also says that the competition for control of the Arctic has reached new levels:

“Russia is now attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Cold War-era Arctic military bases and recently announced plans to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic.”

It’s remarkable to learn that the US military has been caught flat-footed with the retreat of Arctic sea ice. The retreat of the polar ice cap and the opening of a Northern passage have both been well covered in the media for years. Yet, both the arms merchants and hawks in Congress somehow missed this profit opportunity?

More from Weitz:

“Congress put off investing in new icebreakers for decades….Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.”

Congress has authorized construction of three more heavy icebreakers at a total cost of around US $2.6 billion but has so far funded just two of them. They take years to build. A shipyard in Mississippi expects to deliver the first by 2024.

The US has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, that can break through ice up to 21 feet thick. It was commissioned in 1976. While it is usually in Antarctica each winter, it was sent to the Arctic this year to provide a US presence, presumably to counter the Russians.

But the Polar Star’s crew had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment breaks. Our second icebreaker, the much smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, also suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and had to cancel its Arctic operations.

How is it possible that we spend roughly 10 times more on defense than Russia, but once again, we’re behind in a strategic situation? This proves that our defense procurement is corrupt. It has been for a very long time.

We have two problems. First, today’s Earth Day, and on its 51st anniversary, the Arctic Ocean is melting because of global warming. Despite that, the world’s saying: let’s all go up to the Arctic and produce more global warming. Second, our Defense Department has known for years that Russia had a big advantage in icebreakers, and that climate change would certainly open the area to competition.

What did the military and our Congress Critters do about these totally knowable things? As usual, nothing. American politics has become self-destructive.

Once again, the only skills the US Congress displays are obstruction and corruption. The beat goes on.

What did you expect?

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Russia’s Massing on Ukraine’s Border

The Daily Escape:

Red silo, Lansing, NC – 2021 photo by Greg Kiser

From Foreign Policy (FP):

“Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former US President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.”

This comes at a time when the administration is still conducting policy reviews on a new strategy toward Russia. So, is the Ukrainian-Russian “cold war” about to get hot?

Ukraine’s army commander Gen. Ruslan Khomchak says Russia has deployed 28 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, which would amount to 20,000-25,000 troops. Russian officials have not confirmed that, nor given any precise figures.

This Russian buildup in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions is new, but Russian “volunteers” have been helping the rebels since 2014. Here’s a map of the region:

Russia shares a long common border with the area claimed by the Separatists. At the same time, Ukraine has a very long border to defend. This explains why it has been a low-intensity conflict for the past seven years.

Naturally, this potential escalation alarms NATO and the US. It’s reported that a flurry of phone calls have been sparked between senior members of the Biden administration and both their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

FP quotes Jim Townsend, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense:

“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do….Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve?”

Ok, but the BBC reports that US forces in Europe were placed on higher alert, citing “escalations of Russian aggression” in the area, while Russia plays hardball:

“Russia has warned NATO against sending any troops to help Ukraine, amid reports of a large Russian military build-up on its borders. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would take “additional measures” if NATO were to make such a move.”

Sounds like game on for Biden. The Right-leaning Washington Times quotes Donald Jensen, of the US Institute of Peace:

“The Kremlin is testing Biden in a couple of places right now. That’s what the Kremlin does. It tests new presidents…”

Biden has also tested Putin. In addition to placing human rights abuse sanctions against Russia in March over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the administration has vowed to bolster US support for Ukraine.

It ramped up diplomatic efforts in Western Europe to halt construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

And while Biden moved quickly to extend the expiring New START nuclear deal with Moscow, he said in an interview he viewed Putin as a “killer.”

Russia has also conducted increased military activity in the Arctic. CNN reported that new imagery has revealed a major Russian build-up in a region that is now nearly ice-free due to changing climate patterns. They seem to be bidding to secure their northern coast, while attempting to dominate what will become a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Putin may not know what to expect from Biden but consider what happened under the previous guy. Trump backed off everywhere Russia got involved. In Syria, the US did not engage with Russian forces. In Europe, he disengaged from NATO. With Iran, he disengaged, while Russia made inroads. And then there’s China.

And Obama stood by when Putin took Crimea from Ukraine, a decision that Wrongo agreed with at the time. That no longer looks correct seven years later.

Are we likely to see preening and strutting by Biden and Putin? Absolutely. Who holds the upper hand in what at this point is a game of poker? Hard to say.

The pressure will be on Biden to respond strongly if Russia makes a concrete move into or beyond the disputed regions held by the “separatists”. Ukraine has asked to join NATO, but there is little interest in the US or Europe to agree to invite them in. The Kremlin bitterly opposes Ukraine joining NATO. That hasn’t stopped Ukraine president Zelensky from saying;

“We are committed to reforming our army and defense sector, but reforms alone will not stop Russia…NATO is the only way to end the war in [the] Donbas…”

Russia’s end game may be like what just happened in Azerbaijan: Russian peacekeepers on the ground controlling the territory. Ukraine could become another localized escalation leading to the deployment of Russian “peacekeepers”. That may be Putin’s short-run goal.

Putin is pushing Biden to think about things other than infrastructure and using reconciliation in the Senate.

How Biden and Europe play the hand will set the stage for much of the next decade in Europe.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 29, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Ranch land near Reno NV – February 2021 photo by Patrick Lanzing

The Conversation has an interesting article by Tony Kevin from Australian National University, that analyzes the Biden administration’s early missteps with both China and Russia. He says that:

“In two dramatic, televised moments, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have changed the dynamics between their countries perhaps irrevocably.”

Kevin quotes Putin saying the terms of working with the US have changed:

“Although they think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural, and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests. And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it. They will have to reckon with this, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, insults, they will have to reckon with this.”

Turning to China and the initial meeting disaster, Kevin says that the Chinese feel similarly:

“Putin’s…statement is remarkably similar to the equally firm public statements made by senior Chinese diplomats to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week.”

He quotes Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief:

“The US does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and to incite some countries to attack China.”

Jiechi said the US had no right to push its own version of democracy when it was dealing with so much discontent and human rights problems at home.

Biden’s campaign pitch was that his leadership would put the adults back in charge of foreign policy. But it’s hard to ignore Biden’s slap at Putin (calling him a killer), followed by the train wreck of the China summit in Alaska. Biden’s team is accomplishing the difficult task of making Trump look… er, not terrible.

Could it be that the world is moving on? That our competitors and friends no longer buy the “America is a force for good” story? After all, we’re showing them the worst of American values, by trying to overturn an election, by curtailing voting rights, and by refusing to do anything about mass shootings or the growing poverty that are endemic in the US.

The Guardian reports that we’ve fallen by 11 points in the latest report by democracy watchdog, Freedom House. We’re now below Argentina and Mongolia, and on a par with  Panama, Romania and Croatia!

Dismounting from our high horse will be difficult for the US, but do we have a choice? The world is suddenly signaling strongly that they’ve had enough of American faux exceptionalism and the belligerence we display when we engage with other nations.

Kevin concludes that we’re in a new kind of Cold War, not based on ideology like the original Cold War, but now it’s a war for international legitimacy. Moreover, Kevin adds:

“The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.”

The distribution of global power is changing. What matters now is the growing self-confidence of these two nations, particularly in comparison to what they see as a clearly weakened US. In essence, Russia and China are sending Biden a message:

“Don’t judge us or try to change us. Those days are over.”

Kevin concludes:

“The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money may be moving to Russia and China.”

Time to wake up America! It’s again becoming a multi-polar world. We can’t know what the outcome of this competition will be. But we seem to be at one of those points in history where things can take a very sharp and irreversible turn in a new direction.

These factors have been brewing for years. We’re witnessing a Russia/China strategic alliance which will force us and other countries to make some very hard choices about which side of the fence they’re on. To help you wake up, listen to the Foo Fighters newest, “Waiting on a War”:

Sample Lyrics:

I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young

Since I was a little boy with a toy gun

Never really wanted to be number one

Just wanted to love everyone

Here’s Dave Grohl’s motivation for writing the tune:

“Last fall, as I was driving my daughter to school, she turned to me and asked, ​‘Daddy, is there going to be a war?’ My heart sank as I realized that she was now living under the same dark cloud that I had felt 40 years ago. Every day waiting for the sky to fall. Is there more to this than that? Is there more to this than just waiting on a war? Because I need more. We all do. This song was written for my daughter, Harper, who deserves a future, just as every child does.”

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Turkey Reclaims Museum as a Mosque

Happy Saturday, fellow disease vectors! The Saturday Soother is on break this week. So today, we’re moving far afield from the horrors of the Trump administration and COVID to talk Turkey.

From the WaPo:

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia would become a mosque once again, brushing aside a legacy of Turkey’s secularizing modern founder, who converted the site to a museum more than eight decades ago.”

The Sophia represents the intersection of two of the world’s religions. The Sophia was built by the Romans in 360. The dome visible in the photo below was added in 537. Constantine made it the home of the Roman church (and named the city, Constantinople). It was an Eastern Orthodox Church for a short period. And from 1453 to 1931, it was a mosque. Here is a photo of the Hagia Sophia taken by Wrongo in 2013:

 

Since 1935, the Sophia has been a museum, neither a church nor a mosque. This was the solution devised by Kemal Ataturk, one of the 20th century’s great statesmen, to resolve competing claims by the Muslim and Christian communities in Turkey and neighboring countries.

The Sophia shows both additions and subtractions as its religion changed from Christian to Islam. Following the building’s conversion into a mosque in 1453, the minarets were added. Many of its Christian mosaics were whitewashed, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. The images were partially rescued by a team of archeologists from Edinburgh University between 1958 and 1962. Since then, there has been a continuing effort to restore and maintain some of the Christian provenance of the building:

2013 photo by Wrongo

Since Islam does not permit Christian-style depictions, it remains unclear whether this uncovered iconography will now be hidden once again. Here is a photo taken inside the Sophia that demonstrates the multi-cultural history of the building:

2013 photo by Wrongo

The medallion on the right above represents Allah, while the medallion on the left is for Mohammad. Behind the medallions is the nave of the original church, with the middle window pointing towards Jerusalem. The lighted arch in the nave was added when the building became a mosque. It points toward Mecca.

The Sophia was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, and receivers 3+million annual visitors. It has been an example of tolerance and pluralism in a world that is rapidly moving away from these concepts.

There is no shortage of mosques in Istanbul. From Reuters: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“For those who don’t know, really near to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Turks built the Blue Mosque, which is newer and big enough for all the Muslims in the area (and then some). Erdogan is just trying to provoke Christians and show to Muslims worldwide he is their leader.”

Until a few years ago, Turkey was held up as an example that Islam is perfectly compatible with multi-party democracy, a pro-Western foreign policy, and healthy economic growth.

Most of that has been weakened under Erdogan, and re-converting the Sophia to a mosque should make many Western countries rethink their alliances with Turkey.

The timing of the conversion is clearly political. Erdogan’s popularity has been sagging under the weight of a damaged economy. His AKP party lost control of Istanbul and Ankara to the opposition in the last elections. Their prospects for the upcoming elections are not very good either, so this current gambit is an attempt to strengthen Erdogan’s chances.

Some Turkish clerics are saying they are ready to whitewash the faces of the Seraphim that surround the dome. Here’s what they look like now:

2013 photo by Wrongo

It was a massive amount of work to uncover them, and it would be a tragedy if they are again covered up.

First prayers at the Hagia Sophia mosque are planned for July 24. This date is highly symbolic, as that is also the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, when Turkey gave up all claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire.

The artwork, now over 1500 years old, will most likely be lost again. Once more religious triumphalism will rear its ugly head. Once again, one group can rub another group’s face in the dirt.

The Sophia should keep all of its artwork, and remain open to all.

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 13, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Many Glacier, Glacier NP, MT – 2019 photo by MDodd

Let’s clear the air about Iran and their use of terror. Wrongo isn’t an apologist for Iran, although he thought that the Nuclear Deal was a positive step forward. We need to look carefully at the data supporting what our government and the US media say about Iran’s terrorist activities.

Here’s what the US State Department says about Iran and terrorism:

“Iran remains the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. The regime has spent nearly one billion dollars per year to support terrorist groups that serve as its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe. Tehran has funded international terrorist groups such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

It also has engaged in its own terrorist plotting around the world, particularly in Europe. In January, German authorities investigated 10 suspected Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force operatives. In the summer, authorities in Belgium, France, and Germany thwarted an Iranian plot to bomb a political rally near Paris, France. In October, an Iranian operative was arrested for planning an assassination in Denmark, and in December, Albania expelled two Iranian officials for plotting terrorist attacks.

Furthermore, Tehran continued to allow an AQ facilitation network to operate in Iran, which sends fighters and money to conflict zones in Afghanistan and Syria, and it has extended sanctuary to AQ members residing in the country.”

From Larry C. Johnson:

“You notice what is absent? A list of specific attacks that caused actual casualties. Plans and plots are not the same as actions. If Iran’s malevolent influence was so powerful, we should be able to point to specific attacks and specific casualties. But you will not find those facts in the U.S. State Department report because they do not exist.”

This State Department Annual Terror report details who is really responsible:

  • The Taliban was responsible for 8,509 deaths and 4,943 injuries, about 25 percent of the total casualties attributed to terrorism globally in 2018
  • With 647 terrorist attacks, ISIS was the next-most-active terrorist organization, responsible for 3,585 fatalities and 1,761 injuries
  • Having conducted 535 attacks, al-Shabaab was responsible for 2,062 deaths and 1,278 injuries
  • Boko Haram was fourth among the top-five terrorist perpetrators, with 220 incidents, 1,311 deaths, and 927 injuries

Not a single group linked to Iran or supported by Iran is identified. Here’s a table from the report’s statistical annex that identifies the worst offenders:

Iran doesn’t make the list. The attacks are predominantly from Sunni affiliated groups that have ties to Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

America takes exception to Iran because we have a long and negative history, but with justifiable complaints on both sides. Recently, Iran has thwarted the US’s actions in Syria. We should remember that Iran is a Shia Muslim state. When we removed Saddam Hussein and destroyed Iraq’s government, the Bush Administration installed Iraqi Shias in leadership. No GW Bush administration policymakers expressed any concern that these Iraqi politicians and military personnel had longstanding relationships with Iran, which naturally increased Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Iran also had a longstanding relationship with Syria. Obama decided that by eliminating Syria’s Bashir Assad, Iran would be weakened, but that policy backfired. Iran, along with Russia, came to the aid of Syria. Assad is now secure, and America’s influence in the ME has been weakened.

Time to wake up America! We need to get educated about which terror groups are committing what terror acts. Back in the 1980s, Iran was very active in using terrorism as a weapon to attack US military and diplomatic targets, but not so much lately. Iran was behind the early development of the IEDs used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many US soldiers died. That technology is now globally ubiquitous.

The real issue we should be asking our government to resolve is whether we can (or should) halt the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Administrations since Carter have bet that isolating Iran diplomatically, ratcheting up economic pressure, and using limited military power will somehow energize the Iranian regime’s opposition and lead to the overthrow of the Mullahs.

They forget that we’ve used that exact policy with both Cuba and North Korea. How has that worked out for America?

We shouldn’t mourn Gen. Soleimani; he was a bad actor who tried to build shadow Shia militaries in many ME Countries. But Trump and Pompeo need to stop ranting about Iran and terrorism.

The actual issues driving Iran’s growing influence in the ME aren’t based on acts of terror. Our recent policies and actions towards Iran are now accelerating their cooperation with China and Russia, not diminishing it.

Is that in the long term interest of the US?

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Trump Loses Syria, America Wins

The Daily Escape:

Lake of the Clouds, Michigan – October 2019 photo by kawl

The accepted view in DC is that Trump’s decision to green light Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria benefits US adversaries, including Iran, Russia and Syria.

There are collateral effects. The withdrawal of US forces and its behavior with the Kurds after many years of battles against ISIS helps to confirm Russia’s credibility and commitment towards its Middle East allies. By comparison, Trump’s actions paint the US as an untrustworthy partner.

The US foreign policy establishment and the mainstream American media keep making these arguments. American Neocons are openly complaining. They will blame Trump for “losing Syria.”

Are they correct, and does it matter?

When Trump announced over the weekend that all US troops are pulling out of northern Syria, it immediately led to the Kurds (the group we just abandoned) making a deal with Syria. Various outlets are reporting that the Kurds have made an agreement with Syria, and that Russia will be the guarantor.

This means that the Kurds will become part of the Syrian security forces. The Syrian Army has agreed to take control of all ISIS prisoners, families and those on the run.

According to free-lance Syrian analyst Danny Makki ‏ (@Dannymakkisyria) in a Twitter thread, here are the main points of agreement between the Kurds (SDF) and the Syrian government: (brackets by Wrongo)

1/ The abolishment of the SDF…with all the current Kurdish forces and military groups joining the 5th Corps (Assault Legion) under Russian control 3:12 AM – 14 Oct 2019
2/ A solid guarantee of full Kurdish rights in the new Syrian constitution with autonomy which will be agreed upon by Kurdish leadership & Syrian state.
3/ Joint coordinated effort by Syrian/Kurdish forces to remove Turkish presence in northern Syria including Afrin…
4/ Manbij & Kobani were agreed upon for SAA [Syrian Arab Army] to enter quickly, whilst Hasakeh has seen a wide scale deployment of Syrian troops, this will continue in Qamishli and other joint areas
5/ With Syrian forces now on the border area with Turkey it’s clear that this starts a new phase in the 8-year-long war where some sort of endgame is now taking shape – all border areas and administrational centers will be taken over by the Syrian government
6/ Within one month Kurdish leadership with start to take up some official roles within the current Syrian government to ease the transition period of N. #Syria until an new constitution/government is formed in the future

/snip/

12/ The agreement thus far is effectively a military one, based on self-defense and mutual interest with a number of set aims. The governance/land delegation/ISIS prisoners part will follow later
13/ Syrian forces will deployed on the entirety of the border with Turkey, this is the first time in 6 years that the Syrian army will have a serious presence in N. East Syria
14/ Although Manbij is one of the cities that the Syrian army would take according to the agreement, the situation there is still tense and it is unclear exactly who will control it.

Russia has been working hard to reach a comprehensive agreement with Turkey and Syria to halt the military operations including for Manbij, as soon as possible.

Syria is now on the way to regaining control over all of its territory, thanks to Russia and to a lesser extent, to Donald Trump. There’s no other way to put it. It appears that all that was needed was an announcement of the US withdrawal to fast track an end of the war in Syria.

It seems like every party is getting what it needed: Trump gets US forces out of Syria. Turkey feared a well-armed and powerful YPG, which was previously supplied and protected by the US. Now that the US is pulling out, Syria won’t allow any YPG attack against Turkey from northeast Syria.

Russia sees the end to their hot war in Syria, and a huge boost in their credibility and reputation in the Middle East. The Kurds won’t get their semi-autonomous Rojava territory, but they will be alive, living in their ancestral lands, and under Damascus’ governance.

But take it from Wrongo, (who has absolutely no respect for him), Trump did the right thing. Maybe its a Republican thing: Reagan got out of Lebanon. Nixon went to China.

Trump’s seeming willingness to work with Putin will ultimately make Syria a better place. Most Syrian refugees could wind up repatriated to a peaceful country.

Putin could not have orchestrated this without Trump’s willingness to buck the US foreign policy elites, the military, and our politicians.

Trump may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons, or he may not have even been aware of this predictable outcome. But we should chalk it up as a victory for the American people.

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