Thinking Aloud: Sunni Future in Iraq?

Sept. 23,  2014 by Darius 

As the US continues gathering allies to fight ISIS, several prominent people have mentioned the importance of getting Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq to fight ISIS.  These tribes are currently either (a) allied with ISIS or (b) largely on the sidelines of the conflict.  Getting them into the fight would be a shot in the arm for the anti-ISIS coalition.  But why would the tribes choose to fight?  These tribes have no future to look forward to in the Iraqi state.

As has become painfully obvious for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, a democratic system just does not work for them when Shias make up a large majority.  Iraqi voters split overwhelmingly along sectarian lines and are likely to continue this voting pattern into the far future.  Thus, Sunnis are doomed to remain a minority opposition in perpetuity unless and until Iraqi voters decide something is more important than ethnic/religious identity.

Another option for Sunni inclusion into a “democratic” Iraq is to create a Lebanon-like state, a kind of institutionalized instability.  In Lebanon, sectarian tensions were kept in check by the fact that different political positions were reserved for members of different religious communities: the president was always a Maronite Christian, while the prime minister was always a Sunni.  Indeed, something like this was adapted in post-US invasion Iraq.  A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, became the president of Iraq, while a Shia, Nuri al-Maliki, was prime minister, and a Sunni, Tariq al-Hashemi, was vice president.  In practice, though, Maliki called the shots, ran the show, and marginalized the other leaders.  In the end, Hashemi, the Sunni leader, was forced from the country on a politically motivated murder charge; he currently resides in Turkey.  Clearly, institutionalized power sharing has not worked for Iraqi Sunnis.

Finally, we’ve done this all before.  These same Sunni tribes were already coaxed into turning the tables against an extremist Sunni terrorist group in Iraq once.  What happened next?  Iraq’s Shia-dominated government broke its promises of political inclusion and once again marginalized and oppressed Iraqi Sunnis.

It is easy to understand why the Sunnis are either fighting alongside ISIS or sitting it out.  They don’t necessarily want an ISIS-style caliphate; they want control over “their” parts of Iraq.

To fight and die fighting ISIS on behalf of the Iraqi state, Iraq’s Sunni tribes are going to need something a whole lot more compelling than vague promises about the future.

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News You Really Need To See: “Chinese Politics: The Power of Xi Jinping”

“Chinese Politics: The Power of Xi Jinping”

The Economist, September 20-26, 2014, p.40

He pets calves, cups babies’ cheeks and kicks footballs.  He laughs and smiles in public. He holds his own umbrella, shuns a limousine, carries his own bowl of dumplings to a restaurant table and sits crossed-legged in a farmer’s hut.  His glamorous wife accompanies him on international tours; he stands tall and confident alongside world leaders.  Such behaviour is standard among modern politicians.  But in China Xi Jinping’s common touch and courting of public opinion are a striking departure.  Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, the party has been extolling the virtues of ‘collective leadership’ in which responsibilities are shared rather than concentrated in the hands of a capricious tyrant like Deng’s predecessor, Mao Zedong. … Mr Xi is not only jettisoning long-established convention; he is dismantling the very system of collective rule.  Since becoming military chief and general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 and president in March 2013, Mr Xi has been sending a clear message that the country is not just ruled by a faceless party—it is ruled by a man. … These changes in style hint at a profound shift in the nature of Chinese politics.  Even as he plays to the public gallery, Mr Xi is tightening his grip on power among the elite.  He has added a new layer of authority at the top, taken command of numerous committees, and now personally supervises overall government reform, finance, the overhaul of the armed forces and cyber-security. … [P]arty-backed adulation for Mr Xi has reached levels rarely experienced since the 1970s.  In the first 18 months of Mr Xi’s leadership, his name appeared in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, more often than in the comparable period of any other leader’s reign since Mao, according to a study by the University of Hong Kong.”

Quickie Analysis:  A very good piece on China’s leader and how he is changing Chinese politics.

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Thinking Aloud: “Midnight at the Pera Palace”

Sept. 22,  2014 by Darius 

Yesterday, I saw Georgetown professor Charles King discuss his new book Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern IstanbulMidnight at the Pera Palace tells the story of Istanbul between the end of World War I and World War II, an enormously colorful tale of reinvention and intrigue at the crossroads between East and West, between the 19th century and the 20th.

At the end of World War I, Istanbul was the only capital of the defeated powers to be fully occupied by victorious Entente troops.  Istanbul was also a city going through a major identity crisis: for centuries, it had been the leading Islamic city in the world, seat of power of the Ottoman sultans, whose empire had spanned most of the Balkans, the Middle East, and beyond.  Before that, it was the center of eastern Christendom going back to its founding in Roman times.  Suddenly, though, Istanbul was the second city of the new nation-state of Turkey.  It wasn’t the capital of anything, and it wasn’t the center of any religion.

Moreover, Istanbul was jam-packed with refugees.  Leftover fighting from World War I continued in Turkey until approximately 1923, and the fighting ended with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks fleeing Anatolia into the Balkans and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turks going the other way.  Many of these refugees passed through Istanbul.  On the other side of the Black Sea, the Russian Civil War was drawing to a close.  Over the course of three days in 1920, an estimated 180,000 White Russian refugees arrived in Istanbul as White General Piotr Wrangel led his followers in a mass exodus from Crimea.

All these events meant that Istanbul became the prime destination for Western journalists: John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein were all there.  Agatha Christie passed through Istanbul on her way to join her archaeologist husband in Iraq.  In 1929, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky arrived in Istanbul after his fall in the USSR; he would spend four years there.

During World War II, Turkey remained neutral until close to the end of the war.  As a result, it became an unparalleled hub of espionage.  British, German, American, and Soviet intelligence agencies vied with each other to buy information, meet operatives, and even assassinate rivals.  The spy game reached such heights that a song was written about American intelligence agents and their lack of discretion.  “Boo Boo Baby, I’m a Spy” became an instant hit and was routinely struck up whenever an American spy walked into a restaurant or café—whether the spy in question was ostensibly undercover or not.

During WWII, Istanbul was also the center of a network of Jews and non-Jews who worked to get Jews out of Nazi-occupied countries; this network is directly credited with saving at least 12,000 Hungarian Jews during the year and a half it operated.  One of those non-Jews, an Italian priest named Angelo Roncalli, who was then apostolic delegate from the Vatican to Istanbul, became Pope John XXIII about 15 years later.

I hope to read Midnight at the Pera Palace sometime soon.

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News You Really Need To See: “Analysts Say Pakistan Is Expanding Nuclear Force”

“Analysts Say Pakistan Is Expanding Nuclear Force”

The Washington Post, September 21, 2014, p.A1

In one of the world’s most volatile ­regions, Pakistan is advancing toward a sea-based missile capability and expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads, according to Pakistani and Western analysts.  The development of nuclear missiles that could be fired from a ship or submarine would give Pakistan ‘second-strike’ capability if a catastrophic nuclear exchange destroyed all land-based weapons.  But the acceleration of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs is renewing international concern about the vulnerability of those weapons in a country that is home to more than two dozen Islamist extremist groups. … For more than a decade, Pakistan has sent signals that it is attempting to bolster its nuclear arsenal with ‘tactical’ weapons — short-range missiles that carry a smaller warhead and are easier to transport. … It is unclear how much direct knowledge Sharif’s government has about the country’s nuclear weapons and missile-development programs, which are controlled by the powerful military’s Strategic Planning Directorate.  But the prime minister is the chairman of the country’s National Command Authority, a group of civilian and military officials who would decide whether to launch a nuclear weapon.”

Quickie Analysis:  Very interesting article examining how Pakistan, again, seems intent on increasing regional instability.  

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Thinking Aloud: Poised For the Future, Montenegro

Sept. 21,  2014 by Darius 

[Three weeks ago, I introduced my Poised for the Future Index, a metric which combines improvements in a country’s levels of educational attainment, its corruption levels, and its political stability to identify countries that seem positioned for strong economic growth in the future.  See for more information.]

Montenegro, one of the countries that does quite well on the Poised for the Future Index, does not get a lot of press.

Montenegro only became independent in 2006, being previously part of Serbia (and before that Yugoslavia).  It is the southernmost of the former Yugoslavian republics and achieved independence peacefully through a referendum (similar to the recent Scottish referendum).

According to UN statistics, its education system has become substantially better since independence, gaining 17% on the UN Education Index, despite starting from a higher base value than the other countries we’ve explored so far.

According to Transparency International, Montenegro is the 67th least-corrupt country in the world.  Though corruption remains problematic, the Montenegrin government has taken steps to strengthen and enforce anti-corruption laws.  The Montenegrin economy grew at very high rates before the 2008 recession.  Economic growth is built around tourism, and the government continues to invest in tourist infrastructure.

Montenegro has a respectable score on the Fragile States Index, and Freedom House rates Montenegro as “free.”  Freedom of the press is generally respected, and Montenegro is a functioning democracy.

Perhaps the biggest boon to Montenegro’s future, both political and economic, is the fact that it is a candidate country for the European Union.  Since 2008, it has been moving towards accession and, though significant obstacles remain, is likely to become a member of the EU in future years.

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News You Really Need To See: “A New Health Crisis in Liberia”

“A New Health Crisis in Liberia”

The Washington Post, September 21, 2014, p.A1

While the terrifying spread of Ebola has captured the world’s attention, it also has produced a lesser-known crisis: the near-collapse of the already fragile health-care system here, a development that may be as dangerous — for now — as the virus for the average Liberian.  Western experts said that people here are dying of preventable or treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and the effects of high blood pressure and diabetes, such as strokes.  Where services do exist, Ebola has complicated the effort to provide them by stoking fear among health-care workers, who sometimes turn away sick people or women in labor if they can’t determine whether the patient is infected.  And some people, health-care workers said, will not seek care, fearful that they will become infected with Ebola at a clinic or hospital. … When compared with 2013, the period of May to August 2014 saw a sharp drop in the percentage of infants delivered by a skilled birth attendant (52 percent to 38 percent); the percentage of women who received prenatal care within six weeks of confirming their pregnancies (41 percent to 25 percent) and women who receive treatment for malaria (47.8 percent to 29.4 percent), among other measures.”

Quickie Analysis:  The secondary and tertiary effects of the Ebola outbreak will kill for years after the outbreak ends.

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Thinking Aloud: Lessons From King Lear

Sept. 20,  2014 by Darius 

Last night, I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, the story of a British king’s descent into madness and his treatment at the hands of the malicious daughters to whom he leaves his kingdom.  Watching King Lear reminded me of a number of lessons that individuals, leaders, and countries should all heed.

  1. Don’t make it all about you. King Lear couldn’t stand to be contradicted and took personal revenge on those who didn’t say what he wanted to hear.  Yet sometimes we all need to hear what is not easy to hear.
  2. Don’t say anything you might want to take back later. In a fit of rage, King Lear banished his only loving daughter and his most faithful servant and advisor.  Later, Lear’s stubborn refusal to seek rapprochement accelerated the loss of his sanity.
  3. Verify your information before acting.  At a number of points throughout the play, Lear and others act rashly based on information from only one source – which turns out to be malicious and false.  Be sure of the facts, verified by multiple sources, before making a big decision.

I’ll admit, I find most Shakespeare, including King Lear, overlong and a bit ponderous, but there are always nuggets scattered throughout that continue to provide insight into the human condition, even in the 21st century.  And the insult “a most toad-spotted traitor” isn’t bad, either.

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