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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Why Can’t We Quit Poking Iran?

The Daily Escape:

Fall in the Eastern Sierras – photo by Deirdre Harb

You may not remember the tangled history the US has with Iran, but you know that Trump decertified the Iran deal that was developed by the US and 5 other major powers (Russia, China, Germany, England and France). In his decertifying speech, Trump said:

We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout…

Just three countries publicly support Mr. Trump’s decision: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We all know that Iran calls the US “the great Satan”, but we forget how we earned the title. Here is a quick review from the BBC:

  • In 1953, the US overthrew Iran’s elected government. We (and the UK) were not going to stand by and let their Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The CIA led a military coup, and re-installed the Shah.
  • In 1979, a coup overthrew the Shah, and Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the Iran government. In November 1979, Iran took over the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for what was 444 days, until 1981.
  • In 1985-86, the US secretly shipped weapons to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s help in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The profits were channeled to rebels in Nicaragua, creating a political crisis for President Reagan.
  • In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian Airbus A300 killing all 290 people on board. We said it was a mistake, and Iran apparently forgave us.
  • In 1999, Iran’s new president Katahimi called for “a dialogue with the American people” that went nowhere.
  • In 2002, GW Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Now, nothing in the above excuses Iran’s efforts to destabilize parts of the Middle East, or their deep, abiding hatred of Israel. Nothing excuses Iran’s role in developing and introducing the IED’s that were so lethal to US troops in Iraq.

Time has done little to heal the wounds that each country has inflicted on the other. Mutual enmity remains on full display.

But Trump, like Obama and GW Bush, searched for a way to reduce our presence in the Middle East and shift attention to Russia and China. The solution for all three Presidents was to pit Middle Eastern governments against one another creating a balance of power, attempting to prevent any single country from becoming too influential.

If they make war against each other, that’s an acceptable outcome, as long as Israel remains unscathed.

In that context, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was something that the US and its European allies couldn’t allow. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided a means of halting the program’s progress without risking the outbreak of war. The deal prevented the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb destabilizing the region.

By attempting to reopen the JCPOA by withdrawing, Trump hopes to either rein in Iran’s regional meddling, or persuade Tehran to broaden the deal to include restrictions on its ballistic missile program, and on its support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Neither of Trump’s goals are reachable. Iran gains nothing by agreeing to them. And the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agree that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not complying with the deal. So, as long as Iran upholds its end of the bargain, the Europeans plus China and Russia, are unlikely to agree with any US attempt to reinstate broad sanctions.

And Trump is making his negotiations with North Korea more difficult. Walking away from the Iran deal justifies North Korea’s belief that negotiation with the US on nuclear issues is futile. Particularly when one president’s agreement can be so easily torn up by his successor.

The American Right has considered Iran one of the “axis of evil” since 9/11. In that context, Trump’s desire to replace diplomacy with sanctions and eventually regime change, is ideologically consistent. The Right is simply using its electoral victory to advance a long-held policy.

We should remember that most of the GOP presidential candidates in 2016 were against the Iran deal, and probably would have acted similarly to Trump.

We are at a crossroads in our relationship with Iran. With the Iran deal, our long-term antipathy could have been moderated, and ultimately replaced by alignment of goals in the Middle East. Peace might have broken out.

But Trump has insured that will now take decades longer than it might have.

 

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Saturday Soother – September 2, 2017

(Wrongo is ceasing labor for Labor Day weekend. Blogging will resume on Tuesday, 9/5. Enjoy the fruits of your labor!)

The Daily Escape:

Harbin Opera House, Harbin, China – 2015 photo by Hufton Crow. Harbin is China’s eighth-most populous city. It is located in the extreme northeast of China.

Feeling anxious? Seeing too much of the devastation in Houston?

Amazing what it takes to push the Trumpet off the front pages for a couple of days. The clean-up and rebuild will take years, the scale of the losses are beyond imagining.

To top that, Lil’ Kim fired a missile across Japan, and onto the front pages. Appropriately, it wasn’t important enough to move Harvey out of our consciousness, but it showed we need to pay more attention to North Korea (NK). You probably think of NK as a backward place, but according to the Economist, its 25 million citizens are surprisingly well-wired:

Perhaps half of all urban households now own a Chinese-made “Notel”, a portable media player. Over 3m have mobile-phone subscriptions, with NK-branded smartphones like the Pyongyang and the Arirang. South Korean NGOs that smuggle foreign films and TV shows into the North on USBs receive text messages from their contacts there with requests for specific titles (South Korean soaps and Hollywood dramas are popular).

The NK government abetted the communications revolution. In 2008, it developed a 3G network. Today, there are more sanctioned NK mobile phones than illegal Chinese ones. Many use them to conduct business on the black market, by checking prices elsewhere in the country. Notels can be bought for around $50 on the black market, sold in state-run shops.

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, signal jammers for mobile phones have been set up along the border with China. These are powerful enough to ruin cell service for Chinese living on the other side. North Koreans are banned from calling abroad.

Most North Koreans do not have access to the internet, and the few who are allowed to go online are limited to a state-run intranet with 28 mediated websites. The Economist says that NK censorship tools have allowed the regime to automate surveillance. For example, they have the ability to make unsanctioned media files on phones and Notels unreadable. TraceViewer is installed by default on NK phones. It takes random screenshots of users’ devices, so big brother is always watching.

Kim Jong-Un’s calculation is that technology allows it to gain more control than it loses. It dictates what kinds of handsets North Koreans use; it can shut off the mobile network whenever necessary. The appeal to the regime is that it knows it can’t keep all information out, so it is better to monitor it.

Makes Kim seem like a rational actor. Let’s hope so.

And let’s try to forget about this past week for a few hours, as we start the Labor Day weekend. The thought of Labor Day always reminds Wrongo of the lyric from the Jackson Browne tune, “The Loadout”:

They’re the first to come and the last to leave,

Workin’ for that minimum wage

The Loadout” was recorded live in Maryland at a show in August, 1977. Browne had been working on the idea with his band, but they didn’t have an arrangement they liked. When Browne did three encores, they were out of material, but still wanted to play. Russ Kunkel (the drummer) suggested they play the new song and see what happened. The resulting performance was good enough to make the album, “Running on Empty”.

It was the first time the band played the song, and they created a medley with it, segueing into “Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)”, with Rosemary Butler on vocals along with David Lindley doing the falsetto.

Find a cup of Joyride Coffee’s Cold-brew (sadly, only available in kegs at a barista near you) and listen to “The Loadout”:

Those who read the Wrongologist on the execrable Feedburner can view the video here.

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If You See Something, Say Something

The Daily Escape:

Interior, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Spain

But don’t say something if you haven’t seen it.

You have to wonder about what the Trump administration is thinking when it comes to foreign policy. On Monday night, the White House warned that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is preparing another chemical-weapons (CW) attack, and that if Bashar followed through with it, there will be “a heavy price” to pay.

The universal response was surprise, because no evidence was offered as proof of the claim.

And then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley weighed in:

You’ll notice she said “any” attacks will be blamed on Damascus, thus leaving the door wide open for someone to commit a “false flag” attack. When you long for John Bolton to return as UN Ambassador, you know things are very bad.

And initially, nobody had told the Pentagon or the State Department about the “plan” to go after Syria again:

  •  On June 27, Paul Pillar and Greg Thiemann warned on Defense One that President Trump was “cherry picking” intelligence to justify war on Iran, Syria’s ally, − in a replay of the Bush Administration’s propaganda campaign to justify the March, 2003 Iraq invasion.
  • Pat Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis proposed that international observers should be posted at Syrian air bases to independently verify which type of munitions is being used by the Syrian Air Force. That is an idea that the US, Russia and Syria should agree with.

Defense Secretary Mattis was quoted by the BBC saying, “They didn’t do it.” Mattis’ face-saving claim was that the Trump warnings to Russia and Syria “worked” and that the Syrians no longer planned a new CW attack from Shayrat air base. Go, Donald!

Let’s unpack this: By acknowledging there are more CW in Syria, the Trump administration admits that intelligence exists to prove that claim. If the CW do exist, that violates the agreement Obama made with Putin after the 2013 attack on the Syrian city of Ghouta.

The deal with Putin was the justification Trump used to justify the Tomahawk strike at the Shayrat airbase in April. The administration said they had received intelligence indicating there were stockpiles of CW at the airbase, even though no actual proof was ever provided that CW were really present.

In fact, Seymour Hersh published a lengthy account in Die Welt this week based on conversations with US officials, debunking the idea that Syria was behind the April CW attack. Hersh warned that the US was setting the stage for another “false flag” attack by the jihadists, to be blamed on the Syrian government. Here are three questions:

  1. What is the Administration’s source of the new Syrian CW intelligence?
  2. What hard evidence has the source given about a Syrian CW stockpile?
  3. Since Trump decided to blurt (via Spicer) that Syria was planning more CW attacks, why didn’t he simply claim that Assad is keeping a stock of chemical weapons in violation to the agreement Putin made with Obama? After all, Mattis has already admitted that much.

And this, from NY Mag:

Plenty of critics…saw this as a Wag the Dog scenario of made-up intelligence. But…Syria is a dog that can wag its own tail, and ours too if we let it. And if the Trump White House is issuing ultimatums that its own national-security team doesn’t want to take full responsibility for, based on intelligence that is too secret to share with mid-level staff…chances are it’s not fully briefed on how that wagging tail will affect key players like Russia and Iran.

Isn’t it interesting that Trump’s response to the “intelligence” that Russia hacked the election is “show me the proof”. But when he says, “Syria is about to use CW again”, it requires no proof?

That’s beyond cynical.

What is our Syria strategy? If the Administration is thinking about launching another attack on Syria, we have to ask: what are we doing? Most Americans accept that we should fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

But, is the Trump administration doing anything to end our role in Syria that isn’t about transforming it into a war with Russia and Iran?

Some music: Here is Artists for Grenfell, fifty artists, including Nile Rodgers, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Liam Payne, the London Community Gospel Choir, and others, who teamed up to re-make Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a charity single in memory of the Grenfell Tower fire:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump’s Dangerous Game: Regime Change in Iran

The Daily Escape:

Engelberg, Switzerland – photo by miracolei

Politico reports that the Trump administration is thinking about regime change in Iran:

As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key allies of President Donald Trump are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just that in testimony to Congress about the State Department’s budget:

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on [its regional] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.

As a member of Congress, Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo last year called for congressional action to:

Change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime…

All of this may have gone unnoticed in Washington, but it was heard in Iran. Iran’s ambassador to the UN filed a formal protest over Tillerson’s statement, saying it revealed:

A brazen interventionist plan that runs counter to every norm and principle of international law…

Critics of regime change say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew a democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hard-liners. That’s why President Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the UN, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

Then there is the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration worked with the international community to put in place a program that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It’s important that this program work not just because Iran is an adversary, but it’s also key for preventing other countries in the region from developing their own nuclear weapons.

We can debate how rational the Iranian regime is, and whether or not their religious beliefs might make them less prone to act responsibly with a nuclear arsenal. The safer course is not to get distracted by regime change arguments, but instead, hold to a policy based on anti-proliferation and avoidance of a regional nuclear arms race.

But the Iran hawks want to change the status quo, because they say America can’t be safe this way.

They are blind to the fact that Iran is changing. It has now twice elected a (relatively) progressive president. Their young people are progressive. Obama understood that, and that it was likely that within the ten year life of the Nuclear Deal, progressivism and the desire of Iran’s young people to be part of the outside secular would prevail.

We can agree that Iran’s government poses some risk to the US, but we should also be clear that this has been true for decades, and it has been manageable. We have suffered more from the terroristic Sunni-based ideology exported by Saudi Arabia. Nothing comparable can be said about Iran. In fact, Iran’s primary effort at destabilization has been their support for Palestine vs. Israel.

So, our regional “allies” are working to make us less safe than is Iran.

We can’t disentangle ourselves from the region, but we should refuse to take actions that are sure to inflame things. From Booman:

It would seem our only compelling national interests in the middle east are nonproliferation, and humanitarian conflict-reduction both for its own sake and to reduce the attendant population flows and contagious violence.

Wikipedia lists 19 US efforts at regime change just since WWII. If there is one thing we should all know by now, it is that whatever takes the place of a toppled regime is frequently no better and often even worse than the government that has been overthrown. Let’s learn from history!

An attempt to overthrow the government in Iran is sure to fail, and the political fallout could be catastrophic. Iran’s current theocratic government exists because we overthrew their last democratically elected government, replacing it with the Shah. That sowed the seeds for the Iranian Revolution.

Calling for regime change in Iran is a fundamental error in strategy that endangers us, inflames the region, and will be catastrophic if we act on it.

Here’s a tune for Tuesday, Sam Cooke 1960’s hit “What a Wonderful World”, with a line that expresses Republican thought about Iran: “Don’t know much about history”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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The US/Russian Confrontation in Syria

The Daily Escape:

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, 2016 – photo by Wrongo

They told Wrongo that if he voted for Hillary, we’d be at war in Syria. He voted for Hillary, and sure enough, looks like we could get into a war with Syria! Particularly after this:

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet from Carrier Air Wing 8 on board the USS George Bush shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 ground attack aircraft near Raqqa, Syria after the aircraft struck ground troops in Ja-Din, south of Tabqah, near Raqqa.

According to most sources it is the first time a U.S. combat aircraft has shot down a manned enemy aircraft in aerial combat in nine years.

The pro-Assad regime Syrian Su-22 that was downed had attacked Syrian Democratic Forces aligned with the U.S. led coalition and inflicted casualties on the friendly forces as they were driving south of Tabqah before it was intercepted.

Russia was displeased. They announced that they could possibly shoot down any US air craft operating in western Syria:

In the combat mission zones of the Russian aviation in the air space of Syria, all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.

Treating US and allied planes as “targets” does not mean the Russians will shoot at them. What they’re saying is that they will track the planes as they would track any target, they will send their own planes to observe the targets, and possibly escort the targets out of the area.

This gets tricky: what happens if the “target” refuses to be escorted away? Do the Russians then shoot at the target? They haven’t said. But until they do start shooting, we’re not in a hot war. We’ve just moved a step closer to one possibly occurring soon.

And this would be the most dangerous confrontation between the US and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wrongo remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis very well. He was in college. We sat around thinking that DC (where we lived) would be taken out by nuclear missiles launched by the Russkies.

This is one outcome of Trump’s outsourcing full control of military action on the ground to the generals.

One miscalculation, and Trump’s generals are making new foreign policy. Clemenceau was correct when he said that “war is too important to be left to the generals”. Who we decide to fight is one of our most important national decisions. From the American Conservative:

There has never been a Congressional vote authorizing US military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the US claims to be pursuing there. The US launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the UN or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense.

The US says we are in Syria to fight ISIS and evict them from Raqqa. But we have also been arming the Syrian opposition for at least three years. And we have been a party to the Syrian civil war for at least a year before that. But the underlying assumption, that it is in our interest to be fighting in Syria, has not been seriously questioned by most members of Congress.

Americans are so accustomed to fighting wars on foreign soil that we barely notice that the policy has never really been debated or put to a vote. If this Syrian confrontation leads us into a larger conflict with Russia, will it finally be time to notice what’s happening?  

Shooting down a Syrian jet shows the dangers that come from conducting a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government.

It was shot down because it was threatening rebels opposed to the Syrian government, and the US supports those rebels, apparently up to and including destroying Syrian regime forces that attack them. We say we are there to fight ISIS. That has sufficient support by the people and the Congress. If we are also fighting to oust Assad, we are doing something that requires a full debate.

Without that debate, when we shoot down a Syrian plane inside its own country, we have committed an act of war against another state.

A bit of music. Here is Paramore with “Hard Times”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

All that I want Is to wake up fine
Tell me that I’m alright
That I ain’t gonna die
All that I want
Is a hole in the ground
You can tell me when it’s alright
For me to come out

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Trump Encourages War in the Middle East

The Daily Escape:

Nile River, Cairo, April 2017 photo by Amr Nabil

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”  Groucho Marx

How true Groucho, how true. There is a power play underway in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain all cut ties with Qatar:

Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries severed diplomatic and some commercial links with Qatar Monday, a dramatic move that exposed divides among US allies in the Middle East over policy toward Iran and the role of political Islam in the region.

This is a complex situation since the US’s primary air base (al-Udeid) for striking ISIS targets is based in Qatar. We have more than 10,000 people stationed there. When Trump was in Riyadh, he boasted that the US-Qatari relationship was “extremely good” and that he and the Emir would be discussing the purchase of “beautiful military equipment” made in the US.

That was just a few weeks ago. Yesterday, Our Orange Flake tweeted:

Just to be clear, Trump tweeted his support for a blockade of a country that hosts one of US’s largest military bases. He is trying to take credit for an avoidable and potentially dangerous regional crisis that may undermine our current effort to destroy ISIS, and might possibly even put Americans at risk.

It’s worth remembering that the first Gulf War originated in Saddam Hussein’s misinterpreting comments by the GW Bush administration as a green light to go into Kuwait.

Do the Saudi’s think Trump gave them a green light? Maybe. Today, Al Jazeera is reporting that the Saudis issued an ultimatum for Qatar to comply with 10 demands. These are the Saudi demands:

1. Immediately break diplomatic relations with Iran
2. Expel all Hamas members
3. Freeze bank accounts of Hamas members and stop dealing with them
4. Expel all Muslim Brotherhood members from Qatar
5. Expel anti-GCC elements
6. End support of “terrorist organizations”
7. Stop interfering in Egyptian affairs
8. Cease broadcasting the Al Jazeera news channel
9. Apologize to all Gulf governments for ‘abuses’ by Al Jazeera
10. Pledge not to carry out any actions that contradict the policies of the GCC and adhere to its charter.

If the list of demands as published are real, it’s hard to see how the Qatari’s can back down. For starters, Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field. It is doubtful that Qatar will break diplomatic relations with their partner.

It looks like the Chinese and Russians are urging Qatar to make some concessions – no doubt they are prepared to do so, but in effect, that list requires unconditional surrender. That will be a bridge too far for Qatar. The pace at which this situation is unraveling is astounding: Turkey is fast-tracking a bill approving troop deployment in Qatar.

Will this situation go hot? If the Qataris don’t back down, then at best, this will lead to a massive disruption of LNG shipments. At worst, it could mean a regional war, aimed at regime change in Qatar.

If it were to go hot, the Qataris have no real military options. Their military is very small, and their outdated French Mirage fighters and older generation tanks are no match for what the Saudis have. Most of the Qatari soldiers are Pakistani mercenaries, who aren’t stupid. They do have very good air defense systems, which means the Saudi’s would most likely shoot from a distance, causing lots of collateral damage.

The biggest question is what will the friends of the Qataris do. The Chinese, Russians and Europeans will be urging compromise, but the Iranians (and the Turks) may be angry enough to try to confront Saudi Arabia.

And the Saudis are probably thinking that they need to take action before foreign troops can make landfall in Qatar. It is difficult to see how the Saudis back down, since they’ve just put everything on the line. And if Trump keeps tweeting support for the Saudis, that will keep emotions high.

This doesn’t look like it will end well.

Perhaps the Saudis are trying to goad Iran into closing the Straits of Hormuz. They (along with the Israelis and the Trump administration) have been spoiling for a fight with Iran, or to be more precise, spoiling for an excuse to drag Iran into a confrontation with the US.

The Saudis may be calculating that with Trump in charge, they finally have a chance to persuade the US to engage, assuming they can engineer the closing of the Straits as an excuse.

This shows how easily our regional clients can influence US policy when the leader of the free world has so few fixed positions.

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Wake Up Call – Memorial Day 2017

The Daily Escape:

NYC’s Grand Central Station – 1943

On Memorial Day we commemorate those who died in the military service of our country. In 1974, a sci-fi novel called “The Forever War” was released. It is military science fiction, telling the story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war. The protagonist, named Mandella, is sent across the galaxy to fight a poorly understood, apparently undefeatable foe.

Sound familiar? Today the forever war is not simply fiction. Our all-volunteer military has been fighting in the Middle East for the past 16 years in the longest war in American history. And there is little reason to hope that we will not be fighting there 16 years from now. Brian Castner, a former explosive ordnance disposal officer who served three tours in Iraq, observes:

Our country has created a self-selected and battle-hardened cohort of frequent fliers, one that is almost entirely separate from mainstream civilian culture, because service in the Forever War, as many of us call it, isn’t so much about going as returning. According to data provided by the Center for a New American Security, of the 2.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, half have done multiple tours. More telling, 223,000 have gone at least four times, and 51,000 have done six or more deployments.

We can’t get our fill of war. In fact, since 1943, the year the picture above was taken in New York City, the US has been at peace for just five years: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1997 and 2000 were the only years with no major war.

So today, we gather to celebrate those who have died in service of our global ambitions. We watch a parade, we shop at the mall, and we attend a cookout. Perhaps we should be required to spend more time thinking about how America can increase the number of years when we are not at war.

Wrongo can’t escape the idea that if we re-instituted a military draft, and required military service of all young Americans, it would soon become impossible for the politicians and generals to justify the forever war.

So, wake up America! Instead of observing Memorial Day with another burger, get involved in a plan to re-institute the draft. It won’t stop our involvement in war, but it will unite American mothers and fathers to bring about the end of this forever war, and any future “forever war”.

To help you wake up, we also remember the death of Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. Here is “Blue Sky” from their “Eat a Peach” album. Wrongo loves the guitar interplay between the long-gone Duane Allman and Dickey Betts on this tune:

Dickey Betts wrote this about his Native American girlfriend, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – May 27, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Baltimore Oriole

Trump returns from his international visits having moved the US into siding with the Sunnis in the Middle East. In this, he has also sided with his generals. This also puts him on the side of al Qaeda, a Sunni terror organization that did you-know-what.

Significantly, it is clear that the entire Trump foreign policy is anti-terrorism. That is one approach, but Trump’s take is mystifying: He calls Iran an enemy because they are a sponsor of terror, which is true. But he embraces Saudi Arabia, the largest sponsor of terrorism by far in the ME, and has attempted to make them his ally in the War on Terror.

The Saudis will now expect that the US will accept that their $110 billion in defense purchases and $40 billion in contributions from the Saudi state’s sovereign wealth fund will buy them enhanced power in Washington and that their demands will be greeted with great receptivity in the future.

That will probably be a difficult pill for Israel to swallow.

Siding with the Sunnis means that the “Shia Crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria) will be difficult for the US to maintain as friends, partners, or allies. In fact, it was reported this week that Russia, Syria and Iran have been proclaimed as allies by the Iraqi Interior Minister. For all the money and blood that we spent, for all of the domestic programs that we sacrificed, the US now has little to show for its last 15 years in Iraq except a huge, and under Donald Trump, a growing national debt.

We are obviously and irredeemably ignorant, and apparently determined to remain so. The Shia Crescent will be an Iranian/Shia alliance extending through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the sea, with Russian and Chinese backing to boot.

Whomever heads ME strategy for Trump needs to hear: “You’re fired!

Trump also met with NATO and the EU, and both relationships look less confident than at any time in recent history. In fact, European Council President Donald Tusk has said that Trump and senior European Union officials failed to find common ground on the main issues at their meeting in Brussels.

Consider this: Trump emerges from this trip as closer to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel than he is with the democracies of Western Europe. We can now start preparing for US War on Terror Part B; followed by Sunni insurgency 3.0: now with even better weapons and funding.

Do these thoughts make you feel that you need something to help you calm down? Wrongo’s advice is stop watching or reading the news for a few days, as he did while traveling in Europe. Talk to locals in your area. Ask them about why they think as they do.

Then grab a vente cuppa chamomile tea and listen to Janine Jansen play French composer Jules Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Russia’s Growing Influence With North Korea

The Daily Escape:

Lanterns lit last week for Buddha’s Birthday, Samgwangsa Temple, Busan, South Korea – photo by Jason Teale

Yesterday, Wrongo mentioned that Russia might prove helpful to Donald Trump in his efforts to deal with a nuclear-capable North Korea (NK). Today, Stratfor has a column about Russia’s relationship with NK. Rather than quote extensively from a long article, Wrongo has condensed from it, particularly about the history of Russia/North Korean relations.

History gives perspective: The Soviet Union and the US were the actors that split North and South Korea at the end of WWII. In the 1950s, both Koreas became a proxy battleground, pitting the communist North against the US-aligned South. After China and North Korea agreed to an Armistice with the UN and South Korea in 1953, the Soviets helped to build up the military and security forces in NK, ensuring its stability. Some Soviet-era military equipment is still in use today.

The Soviets were a key NK economic partner throughout the Cold War. They accounted for nearly half of NK’s foreign trade in the 1970s and 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, trade dropped off. China now accounts for 90% of NK’s imports, but about a third of that is Russian-sourced.

Putin saw the strategic value of good relations with NK, including how Russia could manipulate its influence in the region to pressure NK, or to put pressure the US and South Korea. Russia has criticized NK’s nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile programs, and participated in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks along with China, the US, Japan and North Korea and South Korea.

In 2014, Russia joined in levying sanctions against NK, halting supplies of ships, helicopters and minerals in response to its continued nuclear tests. But, neither China nor Russia has cut their economic or military ties with NK. And both governments have opposed expanded sanctions or regime change.

Russia and NK have improved ties since the breakdown in Russia’s relations with the West over Crimea and Ukraine. In 2014, Moscow officially settled NK’s Soviet-era debt of $11 billion, forgiving most of it. NK granted Russian business executives long-term multiple-entry visas for the first time. In addition, Russia has provided millions of dollars’ worth of food aid to NK in recent years, including nearly half of the country’s grain imports.

One way that the two countries have expanded their cooperation is through the employment of temporary NK workers in Russia. Nearly 50,000 North Koreans were granted Russian work permits in 2015. In April, Russia’s parliament passed a bill allowing NK workers to travel visa-free to Vladivostok. Russia estimates that North Korea receives $170 million in remittances from its workers in Russia.

No doubt, Russia sees its relationship with NK as small potatoes. But Russia is not small potatoes for NK. While it will not replace China as NK’s primary partner, Russia has the capacity to play spoiler to the US plans to control NK’s nuclear ambitions. Today, Russia has its hands full with Syria, Crimea and Ukraine. But, its influence on the North Koreans can give it leverage, in the event that America’s Orange Negotiator needs help making a deal on the Korean peninsula.

Putin could add weight to China’s effort to lean on NK, forcing NK to come to the table. In return, His Orangeness might be persuaded to go easy on Putin’s goals in Ukraine or Syria, in addition to whatever he will owe China, if the pressure succeeded.

Russia can’t solve our problem with NK, but it might be able to move the dial enough either to play the spoiler, or to be an ally in any American efforts to defuse the Korean problem.

Here is a martial song from North Korea: “Leader, Just Give Us Your Order!” Don’t you just wonder what that order will be?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Warning! Don’t scroll through the comments, it weakens the mind. A recent one says:

“Comrade Kim Jong Un, just give us the order to wipe out all imperialists and to reunificate Korea!”

Reunificate!

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Monday Wake Up Call – May 8, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Canada Warbler

Last Thursday, Iran, Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum on the creation of “de-escalation” zones in Syria. This represents the beginning of a new phase in the Syrian civil war. If the agreement and the cease-fires it envisions hold up, it could become a de facto partition of the country into zones of influence, some based on religious sect, and a recognition that at this point, neither the regime nor the rebels can win this conflict.

A glance at the placement of the proposed “de-escalation zones” shows that they are jihadi dominated areas under the protection and support of foreign sponsors; Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, the Gulf States and possibly, the US.

The text of the agreement says the de-escalation zones allow for an improvement of the humanitarian situation and to “create favorable conditions to advance a political settlement of the conflict.” In the zones mapped out under the agreement, the use of weapons, including “aerial assets, shall be ceased.”

The agreement was not signed by the Syrian regime, which is interesting. This means that Iran, Turkey and Russia are the guarantors of the facts on the ground post-agreement, and it shifts the conflict from one between the regime and the various opposition rebel groups, to one between the powerful foreign proxies that have sent weapons and in some cases, their armed forces into the country.

The US was not a direct participant in the negotiations for the agreement, but was present as an observer during the discussions. US Secretary of State Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, stayed in touch during the discussions.

The agreement shows the degree to which Russia has outmaneuvered the US and is dictating terms in Syria. This sends a clear message to Trump that while the Americans are putting down roots in northeast Syria with the Kurdish YPG, the US role is not formally recognized by Turkey, Iran or Russia despite the fact that the area is de facto under US protection.

It remains to be seen if this agreement is the beginning of the map for a new Syria or just breathing space before the next round of war.

This is a gift for Donald Trump. He consistently called for safe zones while campaigning, so he can easily support this move. Also, Putin and Trump seem to be tacitly co-operating to keep Turkey out of parts of northern Syria. A question is whether the US will go along with the plan. The US plans to stay in Syria to finish off ISIS, while the other powers prefer to finish off the rebels fighting the Assad regime first.

Despite that, ISIS still controls much of the land mass of Syria, albeit not its population centers.

The answer may depend on how much the White House wants to take at least some of the credit for bringing peace to Syria, and Thursday’s agreement may be the best shot America’s got.

Clearly, Putin is thinking in terms of a “grand strategy”, where the Syria situation is one of a number of critical elements of a possible US-Russia relationship. If the US-Russia relationship can be genuinely reset in a better direction, then it will impact many fronts: Perhaps Putin can get Trump to agree to Putin’s land grab in Crimea and the Donbass region of Ukraine. Perhaps they can work together to end the civil war in Syria, defeating ISIS along the way.

Notably, when Tillerson and Lavrov spoke last week, Syria and North Korea were two topics on their agenda. Maybe Russia could prove to be a more important factor in the North Korea situation than most realize.

So wake up Trump administration! Take that baby step forward by supporting the de-escalation agreement. If it fails, the other guys are to blame. If it succeeds in stabilizing the refugee situation while leading to a political solution in Syria, the credit will partially accrue to America. To help them wake up, here are the Rolling Stones with “Start Me Up” from their 1981 album “Tattoo You”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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