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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – May 1, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Interior of the Oculus, NYC – photo by Timothy A. Clary

On Saturday, Wrongo scoffed at David Brooks, who said that Donald Trump’s foreign policy moves:

…have been, if anything, kind of normal…

Another part of US foreign policy that is FAR from normal is our effort to square the circle between our NATO ally Turkey, and our Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq, who are fighting with us to eliminate ISIS as a force in Syria.

Last Tuesday, Turkey triggered a crisis when it launched airstrikes on US-backed YPG Kurdish fighters. The YPG is a Syrian sister organization of the Kurdish PKK Party in Turkey. Turkey believes the YPG and the PKK are terrorist groups whose goal is to destabilize Turkey.

Within Syria, US Special Forces are embedded with the YPG and are coordinating YPG’s moves against ISIS around Raqqa. The Turkish airstrikes killed at least 18 people, destroying the group’s headquarters. The airstrikes triggered heavy artillery and mortar exchanges between Turkish troops and Kurdish forces along the border, raising concerns that Turkey might send its forces into Syria, something the US opposes.

The YPG wants to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa to protect against further Turkish adventures, something the US doesn’t want. Now we learn that the US has placed some of its very limited military resources in Syria between the Turks and the Kurds in an effort to calm the hostilities. From the WSJ:

American forces have started patrolling the Turkey-Syria border to prevent further clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters, which could undermine the fight against Islamic State, U.S. officials said Friday.

This is the second time we had to break up the fight between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. We made a similar move last month in Manbij, a northern Syrian town at the epicenter of a fight between Kurdish forces, Syrian government troops and Turkish-backed militants.

We have become our own UN-style peacekeeping force between Turkey and our Kurdish allies in the midst of our very real effort to take Raqqa from ISIS.

So, where are we going with Turkey, the Kurds and Syria? In the ME, the Kurds are one of the few groups the US can trust to perform militarily. They have fought alongside our troops in this region for years. In the past, we have sold them out in favor of Iraqi and Turkish geopolitical desires more than once.

OTOH, Turkey is a NATO ally, one who is the enemy of our Kurdish allies. We have several Airbases in Turkey which help with the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. If the Turks asked us to leave, our military effectiveness in the ME would be seriously weakened.

More than 25 million Kurds live in the region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the ME, but they do not have a permanent nation-state. The Kurds can see that a state could be created from the NE portion of Syria, and the region they already control in Iraq, if the Turks, along with Syria and its allies would allow it to happen.

Where does the US stand on this? Would we back the Turkish aspiration to control a Syrian buffer area between the Kurds to the East in Syria and in Iraq, and the Kurds in the West in Syria?

Would Russia, Syria, and Iran allow Turkey to succeed at that? What would happen if Russia and Iran moved against Turkey, if the Turks established a foothold in Northern Syria? Would the US come to Turkey’s defense?

Turkish President Erdogan is visiting Trump in DC in mid-May. Last Friday, Mr. Erdogan said he would personally urge Mr. Trump to stop working with the YPG, but Trump plans to directly arm them. What will the US response be to Erdogan, who looks more like a dictator controlling our only Islamic NATO ally?

Time for Trump and the State Department to wake up and solve the complex issues in Syria. Who knew being president would be so hard? This is not a time for shooting from the hip, or for deal-making, but for establishing principles for the end game in Syria with our most difficult NATO partner.

To help Trump and Tillerson wake up, here is the progressive rock band Yes, Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees. The ceremony was broadcast Saturday night on HBO. The band’s co-founder, Jon Anderson, reunited for a performance of “Roundabout” from 1971. He’s here with bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, guitarist Trevor Rabin and drummer Alan White:

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

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Trump’s Defense Budget

(The Wrongologist is heading to Florida today. The next column will be Sunday’s Cartoons)

The Daily Escape:

(Water Buffalo at night – Zimanga Private Game Reserve, South Africa)

Wrongo did not watch Donald Trump’s latest reality show. Many are giving him some credit, saying that “it’s the most presidential he’s ever been”. What a low bar.

We should ignore the tone, and focus on the content. Today let’s discuss Trump’s aspirations regarding defense spending, cuts in non-defense discretionary spending and Trump’s tax reduction plans. In his speech, Trump repeated his commitment to increasing defense spending by $54 billion.

The Budget Control Act caps military spending at $549 billion for 2018. Trump’s proposed increase would bring military spending to $603 billion. He indicated that would mean getting rid of the Sequester spending cap agreement. But, he didn’t address how the spending caps would be overturned (it requires 60 Senate votes). And there was also nothing said about the rest of the budget, including the subject of what programs will be cut to fund the defense increase.

The problem is math. Trump’s plans require solving simultaneous equations: It may be impossible to cut discretionary spending by enough to fund the defense increase. It will be difficult to give a big personal and corporate tax cut while spending $1 Trillion on infrastructure. As Bryce Covert at Bloomberg said:

To increase defense spending, cut taxes, spend money on infrastructure and the border, protect entitlements, and balance the budget, almost everything else must go.

Neither Trump nor Congressional Republicans had a better idea about how to accomplish that after the speech than they had before it.

Trump in particular, has no idea. In a Fox interview on Tuesday, Trump argued that his increase in defense spending could be covered not by severe spending cuts elsewhere, but by an increase in economic growth. He said:

I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy…

He promised on TV to grow GDP by 3% or more each year, not something that is all that easy to do. The economic concept behind his thinking is the Laffer curve, which says that an optimal level of taxation will assure high economic growth. It’s a discredited theory.

If Trump and Congress can’t get Sequestration eliminated and they still want to spend the $54 billion, non-defense spending would be 25% below what it used to be, bringing spending on these programs to the lowest level ever recorded. The historical low point of Discretionary non-defense spending was 3.09% of GDP in 1962; Trump’s proposal could bring it below 3%.

Military spending increases are never justified to Americans by what the money will be used for. Instead, we hear vague arguments about how we need to be “stronger”, or laundry lists of the various kinds of new hardware we need to buy, without any focus on the strategic rationale for the new hardware. For example, how do new aircraft carriers help defeat ISIS?

More military spending has an opportunity cost: If we spend on defense, that’s money we can’t spend on education, healthcare, or rudimentary things, like the State Department.

It can’t be enough to say that larger numbers will make us safer.

We need a geopolitical rationale for why additional defense spending is necessary. Trump hasn’t offered that argument. He and the GOP say that President Obama “neglected” the military, but in truth, Obama left our military stronger than it was under Reagan: If we look at total military spending by China, Russia and the US in 2015, the US accounted for 68% of that total, while Russia accounted for 8% and China for 24%

Under Reagan the totals were: US, 62%, Russia, 36% and China 2%. So we are up from 62% to 68% under the Kenyan Muslim.

We should be thinking about cutting defense spending, not increasing it.

Take a break and listen to guitar hero Joe Bonamassa playing “Further on Up the Road” live in 2009 at Royal Albert Hall with his hero, Eric Clapton:

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

 

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February 17, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(National Library of Ireland)

The NATO Defense Ministers are meeting this week, and a big issue is the financial support provided by the member nations. The US spends more of its GDP on NATO than any other member, 3.6%, or $664 billion in 2016. NATO countries have committed to spending 2% of their GDP on the military, but the only countries currently meeting that target are Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. At a preliminary meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the ministers would “stress the importance of fair burden-sharing and higher defence spending,”

New US Defense Secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis, warned that continued American support for NATO could depend on other NATO countries meeting their spending commitments:

Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do…I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the US and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms…If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense…

Europe is reluctant to pay for its own defense. The GDP of the EU approximates that of the US, but its military budget is less than half of ours. Trump is correct to question why Europe doesn’t pay its fair share. Of course, he isn’t the first US president to make that point.

This issue is well known, but a Win/Gallup survey provides a disturbing portrait of the will of people in Europe to defend themselves. The survey shows that 61% of people polled across 64 countries would be willing to fight for their country. However, there are significant differences in willingness to fight by region. It is highest in the Middle East (83%), but, it is lowest in Western Europe (25%).

Win/Gallup surveyed a total of 62,398 persons globally, and developed a representative sample of around 1000 men and women in each country. This is somewhat old data, the field work was conducted during September 2014 – December 2014.

In Europe, the highest number willing to fight was Finland at 74%. The Netherlands was at 15%, Germany was at 18%, Belgium, 19%, Italy, 20%, UK, 27%, France, 29%.  Except for Turkey at 73%, Greece at 54%, and Sweden at 55%, a clear minority of people in the NATO countries said they would be willing to fight for their country.

Only 44% of Americans surveyed said that they would fight for our country.

We should remember that like us, most European armies have professional militaries, and that is probably reflected in the survey results. Neutral Finland still has a draft, and trained reserve of about 900 000. They also have an 830 mile border with Russia.

It is also possible that there was confusion, with some respondents thinking about fighting an offensive war, while some could have been thinking of a defensive war. Another difference could be due to whether the respondents think an offensive or defensive war is more likely for their country.

Europeans have become used to having the US foot much of the NATO bill. The bigger question is raised by the Gallup survey: What would they do if we had a real fight?

BTW, would most Americans fight for America? Survey says “no”.

 

With the Trump administration’s moves to deport Mexicans, let’s remember a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in January 1948 that resulted in 32 dead. The news reported it as four Americans and 28 migrant workers whose names were not recorded. They were simply called “deportees” in news reports, because they were being deported back to Mexico. Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” to remember them. Here is Judy Collins with “Deportee”:

On Labor Day, 2013, a monument was unveiled listing the names of the 28 who perished in the crash. After 65 years, the names of the 28 were finally known.

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

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Will Erdogan Remain In The Trump Fan Club?

Trump has two towers in Istanbul. In December 2015, his local partner explored legal means to take Trump’s name off the towers after the Orange Overlord called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. In June, Turkish President Erdogan reportedly called for the removal of the Trump name from the towers.

But things have changed. The Economist reports that:

Mr. Erdogan appears to have changed his mind, both about the towers and about the man whose name appears on them. Although polls show that most Turks would have preferred to see Hillary Clinton as America’s new president, Mr. Trump’s election has been greeted in Ankara with a mix of schadenfreude and hope.

In fact, Erdogan has called US protests against Mr. Trump’s election “a disrespect to democracy”. The Economist says that Trump reportedly told Mr. Erdogan over the phone that his daughter, Ivanka, admired him, and flattery works all over the world.

Erdogan thinks that our Orange Overlord may be more amenable to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the coup attempt in July. Since July, Turkey has pressed the Obama administration to extradite Mr. Gulen. The Turks felt sure that Hillary Clinton would not extradite him, since her campaign accepted donations from his followers.

In November, Trump’s National Security Advisor, former General Michael Flynn, strongly supported Turkish President Erdogan in an op-ed at The Hill, suggesting that Erdogan is under siege by “radical Islam” and desperately needs our help. Flynn said:

The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam. We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.

Flynn also seemed to dismiss Erdogan’s crackdown on political dissidents and the dubious circumstances of the attempted coup which allowed Erdogan to solidify his power. So let’s review Erdogan’s actions since July:

  1. Turkey now has outstripped China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. In addition, 150 news outlets have been closed, ranging from TV stations to online enterprises.
  2. Erdogan has suspended or fired 110,000 civil servants, judges, teachers, journalists and soldiers. This has gutted the educated middle class of Turkey.
  3. He has restarted an internal war with Kurds in Eastern Turkey, and has arrested the leadership of the Kurdish minority HDP party, which got more than 10% of seats in the last election.
  4. He has sent the Turkish Army into Syria in what was first described as border defense against ISIS (a group he has long supported), but it has been revealed that his plan is to reach central Syria and depose Bashar Assad.
  5. The EU has suspended negotiations for Turkish membership for civil rights backsliding, but not before they gave Turkey €6 billion to stop sending refugees into the EU.
  6. Erdogan has threatened to reopen the flow of refugees if the EU doesn’t agree to further Turkey’s application to join. Opening the refugee flow is an existential threat to the EU, and thus, to NATO.

Trump is holding a tough hand while playing poker with Turkey. As a NATO member with the largest standing army in Europe, Turkey occupies an important place in NATO’s strategy. Trump has to balance Turkey’s support for the mutual defense of Europe against Turkey’s intentions to go one-on-one against Syria.

He has to balance the shaky EU refugee deal with Turkey against Erdogan’s effort to engage militarily against the PKK, a Kurdish group in Iraq and Syria who are allied with the US against ISIS.

Erdogan has made an overture towards Russia and China. A link with them would destabilize NATO even further. Erdogan seems to be testing Trump’s resolve and his commitment to NATO at the same time. Perhaps he sees an opportunity to garner some good old American baksheesh, so he’s putting a foot in the water to see if it’s comfortable enough to dive in.

That may be a poor play, since while Trump may be sympathetic to Turkish concerns about Mr. Gulen, the cleric’s fate rests with America’s courts. Meanwhile, The Economist reports that Trump’s team wants to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group, roll back the nuclear deal with Iran, and continue arming the PKK’s Syrian wing against ISIS.

Erdogan opposes all of these measures vehemently.

Some of Trump’s new team are not fans of Erdogan. In a tweet, Trump’s CIA-designate, Mike Pompeo, called Turkey an “Islamist dictatorship”.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump show certain similarities. Both are busy recasting and ruining their countries at the same time.

Let’s hope it doesn’t last.

 

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Turkish Democracy

Let’s pause in the ongoing discussion about the perilous state of US democracy in 2016 to focus on how far and how fast Turkish democracy has fallen.

Wrongo visited Istanbul in March 2013. At that point, Turkey seemed to be the better example of two Muslim-majority democracies that existed in the world (the other is Indonesia). Then came the Gezi Park demonstrations a few weeks later that left six people dead and 8,000 injured.

In July of this year, Turkey had an aborted coup attempt. In the three and half months since, Turkey has fired or suspended more than 110,000 government employees. They launched a military incursion into Syria, and have repeatedly threatened to do the same in Iraq.

So far, one third of Turkey’s highest-ranking military officers have been dismissed. Almost every major institution—military, judiciary, media, education, business—have been affected. And 170 newspapers, magazines, television stations and news agencies have been shut down, leaving 2,500 journalists unemployed.

Rights groups say the scale of the purges show Erdogan is using the coup attempt to crush all dissent. Erdogan has successfully manipulated the full-throated “patriotism” that the Turkish people showed after the attempted coup to create a constitutional change that would give him near-total executive powers.

The arrest and detention of judges, mayors, teachers, military personnel, civil servants, journalists and political opponents has shown that Erdogan is moving even further away from a pluralistic society.

On October 29, Turkey celebrated the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Republic, but just two days later, the 92-year-old newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic) became the latest target in a crackdown on opposition media. The government continues to use the state of emergency following the July 15 coup attempt as a pretext for silencing Turkey’s few remaining critical voices.

The Istanbul prosecutor’s office said the staff at the paper were suspected of committing crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and the network of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric that Erdogan accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt. The HuffPo reported that the state-run Anadolu agency said: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Journalists at the paper were suspected of seeking to precipitate the coup through “subliminal messages” in their columns before it happened,

Accused of using “subliminal messages.” This is the code language of authoritarian rule. Say goodbye to a democratic Turkey, it’s Erdogan’s country now. Such a sad turn for a nation full of bright and interesting people.

But it doesn’t end there. This week, also saw the State Department tell US Consulate family members to leave Turkey. The State Department has ordered the families to leave Turkey due to increased threats from extremist groups targeting US citizens.

Erdogan’s increasingly bellicose stance on the world stage has alarmed NATO (Turkey is a member) and the US, since it is becoming an ever more unpredictable partner, one over which we have decreasing leverage. From Reuters:

Erdogan warned this month that Turkey “will not wait until the blade is against our bone” in going after its enemies abroad and has hinted at a possible incursion into Iraq if a U.S.-backed assault against Islamic State in the city of Mosul causes sectarian strife which threatens Turkey’s borders. Frustrated that it has not been more involved in the Mosul operation, Sunni Muslim Turkey says it has a responsibility to protect ethnic Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in the area, once part of the Ottoman Empire. It fears Shi’ite militias, which on Saturday joined the offensive west of Mosul, will provoke ethnic bloodletting.

A Turkish ground operation in Iraq would be dangerous, risking embroiling its military on a third front as it pursues an offensive against Islamic State in Syria and against Kurdish PKK militants in its own southeast.

We need to think about how our two US presidential hopefuls would react to this mess once in power.

Whoever wins can’t just sloganeer about what to do with Turkey or about its ambitions in Syria and Iraq, any more than they can ignore what Russia’s and Iran’s objectives are.

Aydin Selcen, a retired Turkish diplomat who was consul general in Erbil, Iraq, the capital of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, said:

History is like a huge supermarket where you can find what you want. You can choose a historical perspective created to rally the masses. But you can neither build a foreign policy nor a military strategy based on that…

Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump should stay out of the supermarket of domestic public opinion as well. The answers to dealing with Erdogan and the attack on Turkish democracy while simultaneously dealing with a hostile member of NATO will not be found in “The Art of The Deal.”

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