The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Syria, Great Power Games, And Cost

It is unfortunately necessary to view situations like the one in Syria in terms of some sort of grand game. This is because, for those most accustomed to having and dealing in it, power is a kind of marketplace which, at the lower end of the purchasing power spectrum, needs must be bought with blood, force, and terror. Because of this, to speak coherently about great power movements, grand strategy, tactics, and geopolitics, it’s necessary to talk in terms of ‘phases’, ‘gambits’, ‘resources’, and ‘collateral’. I suppose it’s the greatest injustice of human history that greatness exists in inverse proportion to simple human morality.

I want to break down the most recent chain of events in Syria. Also, spoiler alert, I’m going to argue that nothing very much has or is likely to change (always allowing, though, for the randomness of The Trump Effect). But before I do this, I want you to look at this picture.

Photo: Erbin News/NurPhoto (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images) 

This is a photo of a row of dead children, killed in an alleged chemical attack. There are no obvious signs of chemical burns, but this isn’t necessarily conclusive. Children are lower to the ground, and when oxygen is evacuated by heavier than air gases, they tend to suffocate and drop before adults do. There’s also the fact that children are not as resilient, or as large as adults. This being the case, levels of exposure to toxic gases too low to cause burns can infiltrate their bloodstream via soft and mucosal tissue, which is burnt and blistered in the process, causing multiple organ failure, seizures, agonising pain, and other fatal but often externally invisible damage. I’d like to point out two things. Firstly, this photo is from Ghouta in 2013 – the conflict in Syria is such that I can reach back half a decade and find an image of mass child casualties. And secondly, during all the ensuing discussion about ‘the game’, it should definitely be remembered that the currency in this ‘game’ is pictured above.

One of the big questions about the Syrian conflict is whether it’s moving into either a terminal or normalising phase. Put simply, opinion seems to be split between analysts who think that we are moving into a sort of endgame, and those who believe that the tempo of conflict is settling into a permanently sustainable condition. It’s unsurprising that there’s such a wide range of opinions on this subject. There’s just too many variables. The situation on the ground, even with IS and major rebel groups steadily folding up their positions, is still mind-bendingly complex. And the more splinters and fragments get rolled up, the greater the consolidation of action from the great powers using Syria as a proxy ground, and therefore the greater the level of uncertainty. At the moment, Russia, the US and allies, Turkey (nominally but not demonstrably a US ally), Iran, and Israel all have visible assets in the field vying for national interest, national security, and national prestige. For this reason, it is no longer possible to understand the situation in terms of simple binarism. The combined interests and commitments of all the players have melded into a kind of hostility soup, lending the conflict a sort of independent agency all its own, and putting us all in a realm where the conflict itself could generate significant outcomes independent of deliberate actions of any of the players.

In this environment, then, it’s pretty easy to justify spectacular reaction to actual deliberate action on the part of the Syrian regime. It’s important to point out that it’s not certain that a chemical attack has been carried out, or that it was carried out by the Assad regime. What is certain, however, is that the Assads, both father and son, have used chemical warfare, helicopter gunships, and extra-judicial torture and murder to combat minor dissidence in the past. It is therefore reasonable to assume that they would be and have been willing to use all these means and more in the current conflict which, shorn of the protecting hand of Russia, would represent an existential threat to the Assad regime. It’s also certain that Russian media and state (often indistinguishable from each other) lie with the facility and brazenness of decades of practice. So despite the lack of conclusive evidence, I am going to proceed on the assumption that the Syrian government has gassed its own people. Again.

Given this, a certain chain of events is practically inevitable. ‘Red Line’ policy is the issue here, and Trump has made it very clear that he does not consider it notional or aspirational. A confirmed chemical attack will generate a military response, and has done in the past. Or rather, I should say that a confirmed chemical attack which garners sufficient public attention will do so. Quite a few reports of chemical attacks have gone unaddressed, largely because they haven’t been reported outside local media. In this context, there are quite a few unfortunate factors at play here. Firstly, it’s very difficult not to see a connection between Trump’s random and unbelievably stupid decision to announce his intention to pull out of Syria, and the subsequent attack. It’s actually worth considering that, in spite of all the rhetoric, it’s very possible that Assad can see real disadvantages to the withdrawal of US power from the region. This is counter-intuitive, sure, but the fact is that an entire theatre of the war is tied up and held down by US forces and their proxies and allies, and if the US were to pull out, the resultant chaos might overwhelm his already beleaguered grip on his territories, even with his Russian allies present. I’m pretty certain that Assad is now in the same position as everyone else – more or less locked into a standoff which needs must be drawn down gradually if it is not to entirely subsume one or more of the state actors involved.

Add to this the almost certainly Israeli strike the day after. Israel has conducted strikes against this airbase before, arguing that it is a training and supply base for Hezbollah militants (which is possible to probable). Unfortunately, Israel rarely acknowledges strikes in Syria, and currently has a host of problems of its own. There is the horrible possibility that Israel has been greenlighted as some kind of proxy for the US in this strike, but there are some levels of stupidity which I doubt even the Trump administration is capable of. Regardless, Trump will almost certainly receive a package of measured, proportionate responses from Mattis, and will then pick and play one. Just like last time. And then the whole dreary business will go on, forever and ever, amen.

Or perhaps it might not. Perhaps the erratic and chaotic nature of both the conflict and its major players will assert itself into a full blown war regardless of the frustrating, but arguably world-saving structure of the UNSC. Or perhaps an actually decisive response on the part of the West might finally emerge as a result of there being just one too many pictures of dead children laid out in rows in the street. I doubt it, though – the game is such that the safest option for us by far is to just keep playing.

China – Paper Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

In the lead up to the Crimean war, historian and novelist George MacDonald Fraser noted that a sudden and inexplicable obsession with Russia, as feverish as it was hysterical, gripped the British public. Given that Russian and British mercantile and security interests had been colliding in Central Asia for decades, and that Russia had just made one of its more successful periodic lurches in the direction of The Black Sea, threatening a sudden shift in the global balance of power, the casus belli underlying the French and British intervention on behalf of the Ottomans was eminently rational in that an analysis of the situation reveals clear and clearly understandable reasoning. What MacDonald Fraser is pointing out is that the conflict was undertaken for reasons of high statecraft and geopolitics, but that the public, enthusiastically backing their government, simply did not understand it in those terms. Many analysts are pointing to strong parallels between nineteenth century Russia’s collision with Britain, and China’s resurgence today, and I agree. But what I see as the strongest parallel is that gulf of incomprehension which sits between the actions and decisions of government, and the sentiments of the people.


Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

The fact is that there are a great many people who have a direct interest in overstating both the soft and hard power of China. This interest is not always and often not purely mercenary. The security services are a case in point. In the marketplace of access to public funding, hyperbole and fashion have as much to do with resource allocation as actual threat, and China watchers see it as their duty to beat the war drums in order to secure the funding and personnel they know are necessary to cope with China’s changing status. They have many helpers in this process. Without going into too much detail, there is a close and long standing relationship between sections of the security community and the popular mass media, and the calculated sharing of analysis and other intelligence for broadcast is an old and familiar method of influencing the political mood to help secure allocations. This kind of marketing, however well-intentioned, does have a tendency to produce less than ideal second and third order effects. The first and most obvious is polarisation of the discussion. Academics and other analysts, upon seeing this overstatement, will immediately respond by understating or dismissing the threat. This is all well within the bounds of the rules of argument, and within the upper circles of the discourse, does not tend to have the effect of creating blind spots or false beliefs. But the way that discussions like these are simplified for mass broadcast leads to the inevitable formation of polarised opinion – one set of outlets and their adherents will scream a narrative of Chinese apocalypse, while the other will swear blind that China is a peaceful nation of public benefactors and perfect institutions. Obviously, neither of these narratives can be entirely true.

I think that on some level, people are well aware of this dissonance. When viewed as either an invincible superpower or benign plucky underdog, China’s status and actions simply don’t make sense, which is why those who wish to cast it in either of those lights need to shout and obfuscate in order to do so. The attenuation of meaning and complexity of an idea travelling from specialist to non-specialist circles is to be expected, but when it comes to issues like this, I personally believe that the discourse itself is the most dangerous part of the whole picture. To that end, I feel it becomes important for everyone who is capable of so doing to push as much balanced, untainted information out into the public domain as possible. A quick search of Google analytics tells me that the most prominent topics for Australians in the China discussion are Chinese foreign investment and Chinese influence/interference.


There is not a little hint of the ‘yellow peril’ mentality when it comes to discussions of Chinese foreign investment. Foreign investment needs to be encouraged and should generally be seen as a positive, and the extent of Chinese investment in Australia is relatively small, and largely driven, it would seem, by individuals buying homes and other properties. Given this, however, the proportion, small as it might be, is in fact exceptional. People whose job it is to know these things wish to understand why so many Chinese are buying so much property, and this question is often asked publicly, giving rise to the public’s vague notion that ‘The Chinese’ are buying our country out from under us, when the truth is that China’s slice of the foreign investment pie is somewhere around five percent. But that’s not to say that we can simply ignore Chinese investment. Where there is real concern is in the lack of transparency in China’s state systems. Careful work needs to be done to ensure that Chinese state and corporate interests are not able to hide their investment using Trojan Horse style tactics. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence for this happening, but for those whose job it is to watch these things, this is a possibility which deserves serious attention. The issue here isn’t so much private homes or farms – Chinese ownership of these assets doesn’t really matter one way or another, from a security point of view. The Commonwealth has a duty to protect the property rights of citizens and foreign investors, certainly, but the rights of that second group can easily and very rapidly be suspended. What’s worthy of close attention is the acquisition of intellectual property as a consequence of investment in other kinds of property. As a favoured member of the US military tech circle of love, we have firewalls up around sensitive and critical industries when it comes to foreign investment, and quite a lot of the noise we’re hearing about this is focussed on reminding those in power that these walls need to be assiduously maintained in the interest not only of national security, but the status and trust in which we are held by our closest ally.


Much of the current concern around Chinese influence seems to centre around a book with a highly sensationalist title and blurb, but which consists, in fact, of a reasonably comprehensive shopping list of ‘facts’ sewn together with a mixture of valid analysis and typical misunderstandings of Chinese culture and practice. Academia, as always, has been less than helpful, demonstrating their usual weird inability to express anything to the public in a manner likely to correspond with their intended message. The current debate surrounding Chinese ‘suppression of free speech’, and influence in academia is, in essence, a family dispute which is being aired in public. Some academics, many of whom are in fact Chinese, are deeply concerned about the readiness with which universities and schools are snatching up funds in exchange for the establishment of CCP friendly or even affiliated friendship groups, think tanks, or other influence vectors. They also point out, with justifiable concern, that Chinese and Chinese Australian students are vulnerable to these vectors as, to the same degree which they offer support and companionship, they generally demand loyalty and advocacy. This kind of organisation has parallels with every national power’s presence in and relationship with other countries, but in the case of China, the concern is that theirs are blatant, and more than likely effective, recruitment centres for Chinese foreign intelligence assets. While this needs to be watched and controlled, it is certainly not worth panicking about. In a counter-intuitive sort of way, we sort of want our allies and trading partners, as well as our enemies, to have agents here. To a certain extent, the more they know about us, the less likely they are to act in an insane manner, and any reasonably competent security service will know enough about their presence to occasionally use them as a useful diplomatic back channel. I’m not saying we should throw open the gates and let the nosy and indiscriminately ravenous CCP intelligence arms into our house, but a reasonable and reasonably well monitored foreign presence is basically just a sign of normal relations. But I wander from the point. The point is that the current spat we are seeing played out in the media is basically a pamphlet war between academic factions which, in typical academic style, is wrangling over funding sources couched in high concept multisyllables around morality, democratic principles, and national interest, with typical academic blindness when it comes to how their messaging will be received by a public not in the habit of knowing or understanding anything in complex ways. This is not to say that China’s influence is confined to obscure Chinese student associations – the recent furore over Labor funding sources proves this isn’t the case. But I think there is a tendency to see Chinese influence as monolithic and centralised. In some cases it certainly is, but in most instances the hand of the CCP is enmeshed in subtle and complex ways, and there are also a great many ethnically Chinese influence peddlers who are not in any way aligned to the current Chinese government or its interests. As with most great power presence, the dogfighting factions of the home state are more or less reflected in the makeup of the interest groups present on foreign soil.


So is China a credible threat worthy of our attention? Yes, of course they are, but we need to remember context. Responsible strategists need to weigh the threat potential of every major player, and it’s vital that we remember that these calculations do not necessarily imply the existence of a live and current threat. What we’re most often talking about is threat in the abstract – a complicated function of potential, current capability, and intent. Does China represent the kind of threat presented by the USSR at the height of The Cold War? On all three of those metrics the answer is ‘no’. Where China is most a threat to the world is in its rapid development, expansion of influence, and frankly toxic attitude to the rule of law both domestically and internationally. The ‘rise of China’ has strategists and historians worried because the lesson of history is that rapid shifts in the balance of power cause war. But strategists and historians are generally incapable of thinking in units of time smaller than a decade, and are generally far more concerned with what can be done than with what will actually happen. This arises from a duty to inform government of potential contingency as part of the process of ensuring readiness for the maximum number of possible futures. What this does not translate to is any valid reason for thinking of China as a current urgent existential threat. As dangerous and morally repugnant as the CCP’s regime is, their interface with the international community is complex, and driven at least as much by a desire for inclusion as by the aspiration, universal amongst large nations, to dominate their region and be a major player on the world stage. This means that we need to tread a fine line. It’s very important that a player as volatile and rapidly accelerating as China be watched and managed very carefully indeed, but a frame of thinking which casts China as an immediate and implacable threat is as dangerous as it is foolish.

Faith As Insanity

Everyone who’s ever been or raised a child should immediately understand epistemic regress. This is the idea that it’s possible to ask an infinite number of ‘why’ questions for any proposition. Why is a bird not a fish? Because we have a mutually agreed framework of criteria for deciding what species animals belong to. Why should I agree to that framework? Because if you don’t you’ll make me really cranky. Why should I care if I make you cranky? Because I’ll probably throw you out the window.  Why do you defenestrate people when you’re cranky? And so on.

Epistemic regress isn’t just an annoyance, however – it’s a serious epistemological problem in that it calls in to question the idea that we can know anything at all. If knowledge is meant to rest on some kind of foundational truth, then there has to be a proposition which cannot be queried with a ‘why’ question – that is, a proposition which does not require justification. If we go with the alternative idea, that knowledge can rest on inference – that there’s things we can know because we know other things – it’s pretty easy to see that the problem gets even worse.  And it seems that it’s not just philosophers and toddlers who are aware of this. Perpetually asking ‘why’ will almost always get the same, essentially foundational response: “It just is,”  or possibly a punch in the mouth. What both of these responses really refer to is the idea that we must be justified in believing certain things – that we have to draw the line somewhere – so that we can get on with more important things than the nature of reality and truth, like earning money so we can buy craft beer and Ikea.

The point is, there is an undeniable hole or void at the bottom of what can be known or understood, so everybody must eventually draw a line somewhere, and this really isn’t an issue. Which is why I’m not going to make any cheap cracks about believing in magic or listening to disembodied voices. Epistemologically, there’s not a lot of difference between believing in ‘Justice’ and believing in ‘God’. But there is, however, a world of difference when it comes to the methods and motives behind any conscious decision to hold religious faith. In the case of a randomly chosen atheist (me), said atheist understands the nature of the problem, and is happy to accept that operational assumptions are required in order to live a life which occasionally involves going outside and interacting with people. I know that I can’t know things, so I make up my own mind about what to do about that. In my case, what I mostly do is complain and share nihilistic memes. And, most importantly, I accept that there is an area of real uncertainty in which I can go on asking infinite ‘why’ questions in the hope that perhaps, at some point, some thought will occur which will solve all or part of this problem. Or not. I don’t really care, as I understand that the point of the process is not to find answers to impossible questions, but rather to conduct validity audits on my own consciousness and thought.

Let’s compare this with the religious viewpoint. For the purposes of this discussion, I define ‘religious faith’ as belief in the existence of a god or gods who are responsible for the creation and operation of some or all of the universe. I am also limiting this to those who believe in a god that is not entirely abstract and transcendent, which would seem to be the vast majority of the faithful – there would be no point in trusting, ‘listening’, or praying to a completely transcendent god, so I therefore assume that those who do those things do not believe in one.

The religious (amongst others), faced with the inescapability of the aforementioned void or absence, respond by personifying it before attempting to establish a personal relationship with this personification.  If we take Christianity as a case in point, this is what is meant by the fact of it being a ‘mystery’ religion. The central tenet of connection with the Christian god is that, as a being, this god is unknowable and ineffable, which is fine, and that furthermore this god has agency, will, concern for the faithful, and an ability to communicate with them. Which isn’t fine at all, on any level. As an insane proposition, this goes far, far beyond the concept of having an imaginary friend. It is a decision to view the whole universe as inhabited with sentience, and furthermore, with a sentience that is somehow cognisant of a tiny bag of meat and water crawling across the surface of a speck of dust within it. This would be the cognitive equivalent of deciding to start a romantic relationship with a dining room table, and then worrying that the sun might find out about the affair and become jealous.

Now I’m not saying that all people who believe in some god or other are clinically insane – as a proposition, that doesn’t hold up to even a second’s examination. And it’s just as easy to argue that my own acceptance of the void and futility, and decision to proceed with my pointless and unimportant life in any case, is also insane. In fact, I’d agree with that argument. I think that the whole business of being a self aware mortal human is loopy and irrational in a deeply likeable way. But what really does separate me from a religious viewpoint is the fact that I have not wilfully decided to anthropomorphise the yawning pit underpinning our knowledge of reality. Because that’s really what most religious faith boils down to – a projection of the human self onto the faceless id of the universe. Love, forgiveness, approval, disapproval – god is basically a way of turning the entire sum of reality into an imaginary friend who is in fact a reflection of ourselves. So when I look at my version of insanity, and compare it with the narcissism and anthrocentrism of most major religions’ interpretation of reality, I find it pretty easy to decide which of the two is more morally and intellectually acceptable.


Tony Abbott On Balance

Warringah’s fearless PM in exile, Tony Abbott, has been in the news again defending the rights and feelings of that beleaguered minority of Australians known as ‘The White Heterosexual Middle Class’, this time by pointing out that the invasion of Aboriginal territories, repeated attempts at both cultural and actual genocide, and continuing Darwinist paternalism towards indigenous Australians have been, on balance, a good thing – not just for the waves of settlers who benefited from the wholesale appropriation of land and rights, but also for those people who were dispossessed, marginalised, and murdered. He has said that the First Fleet brought the light of civilisation, scientific curiosity, and political equality to the benighted peoples of our great continent. He then went on to point out that this civilisation was a bit crude, wasn’t great at medical science, and didn’t really have all that much equality. You can read his totally not incoherent, rambling, or logically inconsistent argument in full here.

On that basis, I would like to call for Tony Abbott to join the rest of the nation in celebrating a holiday commemorating the day marriage equality legislation passed the house. Because, on balance, it was a good thing. Sure, he fled the house in order to abstain, and to show that what was being done was happening very much against his will. And sure, he has complained loudly and repeatedly that such a step would violate his own tribal taboos and destroy an important pillar of his traditional way of life. But the thing is, what that day really represents is the moment Australia was brought up to speed with the rest of Western civilisation. There he was, practising his parochial, primitive, and outdated way of life, when a political movement which started in the heartlands of the West landed in his native parliament house and changed his beloved nation forever. The bright light of pluralism and political and legal equality was wafted over the seas to land on our shores, dragging Tones and his ilk kicking and screaming into the ambit of the broad moral and legal consensus of the twenty first century.

Sure, this happened without his consent, but there’s three hundred and sixty four other days on which we can wear a conservative Catholic armband. What we should be celebrating is the modernisation and enlightenment of this our great nation. His minority group has certainly been marginalised and subjected to the horrors of name-calling and whatnot, but on balance, what happened that day was a good thing, not just for the millions of Australians who were in favour of marriage equality, but for him as well – now Tones is blessed with the benefits of living in a thoroughly modern and pluralist nation, whether he likes it or not.

Given all this, I call on the honourable Tones to turn out on December 7 next year draped in a rainbow flag in order to honour the day when our great nation moved forward into the modern world and destroyed forever his traditional way of life. Because it was really only his own personal religious prejudices which took a hit that day – so according to his own rationale, what’s good for the horribly, savagely mistreated goose should also be good for his really only slightly miffed gander.

Trump’s Stock Market Myth-Making

Donald Trump

The stock market, especially the Dow, has been performing very well under Trump. Various measurements do, in fact, indicate the “record-breaking” gains which have been repeatedly claimed, but whether or not we decide to quibble with the selected metrics, Trump’s first year stock market performance is definitely in the top five, alongside names like George H W Bush, Roosevelt, and Obama.

And this is where we hit our first snag: the phrase, “Trump’s first year performance”. Western governments in general, and US Presidents in particular, are consistently given far too much credit and/or blame for the state of the economy. It seems there are two kinds of cognitive dissonance at play. The first is the fact of most democratic elections being fought with complex economic policies as one of their major pillars. The vast majority of the populace simply does not understand even the most basic principles of economics, and yet they are generally unshakably convinced of the rightness of their chosen candidate’s economic policies. But by far the most germane dissonance is the tendency to praise the President for encouraging the growth of a Free Market Economy, while simultaneously crediting him as if he were in charge of a Command Economy. Trump is not unique in this regard. The tendency of all political discourse around economics is to fall prey to this serious logical fallacy. Western democratic governments do not control their economies. This is in accordance with one of the fundamental principles of Western democracy. This means that simplified, cause/effect views of economic policy and activity need to be taken with a grain of salt, and if they also come with a package of cheerleading for one or another form of ideology, then it is a cubic tonne of salt which is required. Looked at objectively, giving sole credit for economic performance to a POTUS is akin to crediting the umpire, and the umpire alone, for an Ashes win.

Of course, not everyone falls prey to this kind of thinking, regardless of how much politicians try to encourage it. There is, of course, a significant minority of the electorate, including commentators and analysts, who possess sufficient nous to understand the true nature of the nexus between government and economy. Discourse at this level tends centre much more sensibly and accurately around the role of governments as regulators and influencers of economic performance and activity. In these circles, the unusual degree of credit/blame assigned to POTUS makes more sense – the office has a peculiar and unique influence on both the global and national economies, for a whole complex of reasons far too tortuous to elucidate here. Let’s just say that military and diplomatic power, geography, and the interplay of various economic cartels, make the attitude and actions of a US President particularly significant. Where this all falls down, however, is in the areas of ideological partisanship and the very real fact that economics is almost purely theoretical.

It is no secret that the bulk of the US media is now, and always has been, openly partisan. There are clear and obvious identifiers, when looking at the US media, which allow us to label most outlets as either Democrat, Republican, or tinfoil hat crazy. If we take the very sensible decision to leave outlets like Alex Jones, Breitbart, and Raw Story out of the picture, a quick sampling of Democratic and Republican outlets helps us to see the extent of this problem when it comes to clear-sighted evaluation of Trump’s administration as positive or negative economic influencer. When we look at the Dow Jones Index in isolation, the gains under the current administration outstrip everyone but Roosevelt. When we look at absolute dollar value of the market, Trump comes in a distant second to Obama. But these rankings don’t really mean anything. Outlets like Bloomberg, for example, tread very lightly – almost imperceptibly – over the fact that Obama’s Keynesian response to the GFC means that the dollar value measurement is always going to exceed that of a president walking into a relatively strong economy. And what focus on the Dow alone ignores is the value of a measurement biased so heavily towards theoretically questionable assumptions on the effect and impact of equity market adjustments. But what can be said, without question, is that theoretical extrapolations of cause and effect can be constructed to favour Keynesian, monetarist, neo-conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or (somewhat less convincingly) Illuminati based ideological positions, with breathtaking ease.

In terms of reporting, all sides of the political divide are more or less equally guilty of cherry-picking, bias, and selective memory. The facts are basically ineluctable, and apply to all presidents – all governments, in fact – claiming sole credit for economic performance. It is usual for stock market value to increase, and to increase sharply in the first year of a presidency. This is partly because it tends to dip around election time, but mostly because that first year is when most presidents increase and retrench spending in certain areas, and thus clarify their intentions, providing a degree of certainty. There is, however, a real Trump effect happening in this instance. Possibly the only thing Trump has been clear about is his intention to be business friendly. So the boost deriving from this certainty within the business community is, in fact, down to him. But a great deal of the economy’s strength has to do with both local and global factors which are not only outside his control, but of the control of any sitting government. And given Trump’s destabilising effect in other areas, it’s very important to be clear-sighted about the one positive claim of his which actually has some credence.

Syria – War Without End

This week has seen the culmination of a months long military buildup targeted, somewhat embarrassingly for us, at Kurdish strongholds near the Turko-Syriac border. Turkey’s intentions have long been known – this is not by any means a surprise attack – but they have been frustrated by both Russia and the USA in turn, the Russians because they did not like Turkey’s anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxies, and the USA because they have yet again armed and encouraged a marginalised ethnic paramilitary organisation for short term gain. The ground in Syria is confusing, even at the best of times, and this single, relatively new front, is no exception.

In order to understand Turkey’s actions, we have to remember a little bit of history. Turkey was invented at the conclusion of WWI. Previously the heartland of the once great Ottoman Empire, the scavenging rapacity of the Western, still very colonial powers left them in serious danger of becoming a rump state, i.e., a nation too small and too isolated to ever function properly within its region. Much of the credit for Turkey’s miraculous stability and prosperity through most of the twentieth century is given to Mustapha Kemal’s eager embrace of Western style modernisation, but it has to be remembered that the real basis for Turkey’s current power lies in the lightning series of aggressive military campaigns undertaken by Kemal while everyone else was busy dealing with the aftermath of Versaille. In a manner very similar to Israel in the sixties, the Turkish military carved its way to control of major access points and trade routes which would have been denied them according to the original lines on the map. What most of us vaguely remember from these short, sharp, and really quite nasty wars, is the dispossession of the Kurds and the Armenian genocide.

Insofar as the Kurds are concerned, their territories were carved up in various deals and tit for tats between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Being an indigenous mountain people, the Kurds simply fell off the priority list of the League of Nations through a combination of entrenched Western chauvinism and the dirty rough and tumble of post war bargain-making and diplomacy. Given that their dispossession and reduction to minority status was in direct violation of the first treaty for the region, and also that as a numerous mountain tribal complex they were already reasonably well armed and acclimatised to warfare, various Kurdish groups began insurgencies, guerrilla, and terror campaigns, many of which are still running to this day. And it is this background which helps to explain why the Turkish government is both implacably opposed to Kurdish sovereignty, and assured of broad popular support for a campaign of subjugation, or even extermination. The territory the Kurds are naturally asking for is, in many cases, the exact territory taken by Ataturk as vital to the power and function of the Turkish nation. And a significant portion of the populace have lived for decades with blitz attacks, bombings, kidnappings, murders, and some instances of full blown civil war, all inflicted on them in the cause of Kurdish independence.

Given that Turkey is a NATO member and nominal ally of the US, it’s natural to wonder why they armed and trained some of their ally’s bitterest regional enemies in the first place. It should be remembered that the US, along with the rest of the Western world, was extremely reluctant to intervene in the Syria crisis in any way. The rise of IS, and their unexpected success in re-drawing the Middle Eastern map were the main trigger for US intervention, and one of the first targets of IS were the strongholds of Kurdish militias just south of Turkey and in the north of Iraq. Add to this the FSA’s general incoherence and lack of success, the fact that many of the other rebel factions were more or less tied to Al Qaeda, and an Iraqi army which had lost most of its seasoned and effective leadership to IS and Al Qaeda affiliates, and the decision becomes easier to understand. At the time it was made, the FSA was either licking its wounds in camps on the Turkish border or being pounded by Russian air power intent on accidentally on purpose confusing them with IS and the Al Nusra Front, with the rest of the territory being a happy hunting ground for Sunni insurgents, Iranian proxies, and other unacceptable or otherwise utterly ineffective allies. The Kurds were basically the only option beyond a full scale, boots on the ground invasion.

This latest Turkish offensive could be seen as yet another worrying precursor to WWIII, but more rational reflection reveals that this is not, in fact, the main cause for concern. Turks fighting Kurds has been ops normal for decades, even if not to this scale. And while it’s very difficult to see the USA brokering any kind of deal while its government is in the hands of a petulant, incoherent child, or even to predict what they might do on any given day, if they stick to historical form they will simply abandon the Kurds to their fate. What’s worrying here is that there is every sign that a deal has been cut, and that Western interests have been frozen out. The trigger for the attack seems to have been the withdrawal of Russian observers, deployed to the region as a buffer against Turkish aggression. Given that the Turks are spearheading their assault with Turkish armed and flagged FSA fighters, it’s pretty apparent that they’ve cut a deal with Russia, which also means that they necessarily have an understanding with the Syrian regime, as Russia’s client. What also seems clear to me, however, is that Syria, Russia, and Turkey combined, are not by any means certain to eliminate or neutralise the Kurdish threat. Their attention is divided, their capability limited, and their scope for action seriously hampered by global, and especially US, attention. So what this front most probably indicates is an escalation in yet another interminable slowburn of bloodshed for an already beleaguered region.

Tim reviews… The Bachelor!

OK so I’ve started like 1,000 posts on reeeeeally smart topics, but I never seem to finish them because I’m not very smart, so I decided to just review an episode of the US Bachelor instead. We’re already up to Episode 3 though so I’ll have to catch you up.

The plot… Arie Luyendykzxyk is some kind of Camry racing car driver who has never won a race because he races in a Camry and who is famous for being rejected on national TV by a Disney princess named Heaps White and has now decided that he should be the one doing the rejecting on national TV so he jumped in his Camry and drove to California in a totally genuine attempt to find love with a group of normal fame-averse people who love Camry drivers.

The cast…

  • CamArie… the hero of our story, who is really cool cos he races CamAries and looks like John Travolta.
  • Bibiana… one of our villainous villains, whose parents created her name out of thin air by combining their favourite book (Bible) with their favourite state (Indiana). Apparently they almost named her Koranacheussets, but then they decided they didn’t really care for Boston.
  • KrystalMeth… another villainous villain, who is fun at first but ends up making your teeth fall out.
  • Androgynous extras… a group of 23 other people named Lauren who will generally not feature unless they get reeeeeally drunk or burn their boob on a waffle iron or get in a fight with Koranacheussets or KrystalMeth.

OK… Episode 3… let’s do this.

We begin with the entire cast sitting casually in the lounge room, because obviously it’s California and no one would dare go and sit outside or swim in the pool. The previous episode’s antagonists, Koranacheussets and KrystalMeth, have decided to sit next to each other because the producers made them. KrystalMeth says that it’s the Bachelor, so toes are going to get stepped on, which makes her choice of open-toed slippers somewhat silly.

Chris Harrison appears like magic looking exactly the same as he did 15 years ago. He reminds the cast that the first rule of Bachie is you talk about Bachie, or rather, to Bachie, at every possible opportunity, because #timeisprecious. This week there will be two “very fun” group dates, and one romantic one-on-one date. An audible gasp makes it way around the room, which was either due to surprise or a simultaneous and spontaneous tightening of sphincters.

“You know they say,” says Chris, “that behind every good man are a loving home, a good education, and a decent socio-economic background. And also a very strong woman.” The women agree wholeheartedly, blissfully unaware of the apparent corollary, that behind every very bad man is a weak woman who nags a lot and is crap at Instagram. “And we’re about to put that to the test today,” he concludes. Which I’m guessing means some kind of spelling bee or fight to the death. The date card is read out, and what do you know, the people attending are eight nobodies, Koranacheussets and KrystalMeth, which is a surprise to everyone.

They arrive at the venue to discover that the date is… WRESTLING. Because every woman wants to wrestle another woman in front of a huge crowd on date with a Camry driver. CamArie appears to much ovulation, as do the instructors, two women from GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and no, I am not making this up. The first move the GLOWs teach them is the extremely deadly and impossible to defend forward roll, which is of course how Conor MacGregor has won most of his fights.

Four amazing things then happen in quick succession. First CamArie tells us he’s looking for someone who is going to have fun with wrestling another woman in front of a huge crowd on date with a Camry driver. Then, amazingly, the women start having fun. Then the GLOWs tell the women they’re having too much fun. Then one of the GLOWs decides she wants to have fun herself, so she makes her own fun, out of Koranacheussets’ name, by saying it doesn’t even make sense. Koranacheussets could have of course explained that it makes complete sense because favourite books and favourite states are totally a thing, but she’s too upset so she doesn’t.

One of the women, who is probably named Lauren, then has her haired pulled by one of the GLOWs, and even I’m starting to think that this is getting a little weird. CamArie, being the totally good man that is looking for a strong woman to stand behind him, says nothing on these developments, and instead begins wondering whether he is actually a good man, given that it requires a strong woman standing behind him, and he is currently single and making women wrestle each other in front of a large crowd on a date with a Camry driver. All of this is just too much for Koranacheussets and WOPNAL (Woman Probably Named Lauren), who both exit the ring to have a long hard look at themselves, and think about why they are crap people and not having fun wrestling another woman in front of a huge crowd on date with a Camry driver.

But look, perhaps I’m being too hard on CamArie. In his defence, he does wait around until WOPNAL and Koranacheussets have spent 20 minutes composing themselves and re-entered the ring, before going over and telling them that hey, he feels uncomfortable too, because it’s really hard having 10 woman wrestle for your affections.

It’s then time for the women to go and choose their costumes, and as Guns ‘n’ Roses would say, get in the ring. The fights themselves are boring, in that no one was injured, and the producers somehow forgot to make KrystalMeth and Koranacheussets fight to the death.

As a reward for the enforced humiliation, CamArie takes all the ladies to an actual trailer park, which seems oddly appropriate. Within seconds of arriving, KrystalMeth has whisked CamArie away to a romantic trailer within earshot of everyone else, where CamArie tries to prevent her from talking with his patented Face-Grab Mouth-Trap (TM) kissing technique. Like so:


This works for a while, until KrystalMeth asks him whether she needs to “Be… aggressive… Be, be aggressive” on group dates. She then says she wants to make sure she doesn’t get lost, which admittedly can happen when being followed by 20 cameras on a reality TV show.

Then of course it’s Koranacheussets’ turn, and she tells CamArie that group dates are intense. At this point CamArie should really have pointed out that they’re not in tents at all, they’re in trailers, but he is also apparently too stupid to know the difference.

CamArie then takes the WOPNAL that had her hair pulled into a very nice trailer indeed, where he lovingly tells her, “When I saw you were upset, I was like, oh that’s interesting.” That is a word for word quote, by the way, proving once again that he is indeed an already good man who needs a very strong woman behind him even though he can’t be a good man yet because he doesn’t have a strong woman behind him. “You know,” he continues, “I’d like you to tell me when you’re upset, because then I can make you feel better, and that makes me feel like a man.” Also an actual quote. Hmm.

At this point it’s painfully obvious that all CamArie wants to do is Face-Grab Mouth-Trap (TM) the crap out of her, which he does, because he made her feel better, so he’s a man, and that’s what men get to do when they make people feel better. So he does.


Back at the mansion, someone named Lauren was just selected for the one-on-one date, with a card that says, “You had me at merlot.” Seriously.

CamArie is now in a trailer with someone who looks suspiciously like Rizzo from Grease, which, given his uncanny resemblance to John Travolta, makes for a fascinating sub-plot. In any event, CamArie’s hands are starting to feel weird, so he needs to do something with them, like grab yet another woman’s face.


CamArie is quickly turning into Kisstopher Columbus, discoverer of the New World. And Lipstenstein. Rizzo then gets the rose, which will make both Kenickie and Sandy very upset.

It’s now time for the one-on-one… you know, the one where Lauren “had him at merlot”. Which means, as Lauren says in a sudden blaze of intuition, that it might have something to do with wine. Once they arrive at the winery, CamArie observes that “I could totally see myself here”, which is amazing, because he is there. I LOVE THIS SHOW. The rest of the date is equally amazing for two reasons. Firstly, Lauren is talking NON-STOP. Secondly, CamArie is actually eating his dinner, WHICH NEVER HAPPENS. The obvious conclusion is that he would rather grab his fork than Lauren’s constantly-talking face, which means that things are not looking good for Lauren. The nail in the coffin is when CamArie asks what was missing in her last relationship, and just as she replies that it was a lack of romance, CamArie shovels in a mouthful of beans. And we all know what beans means. And if you don’t know what beans means, you at least know that it doesn’t mean a rose. Lauren goes home, and her biggest regret is probably talking too much, because now she is hungry as well as single. Not CamArie though, he goes home full of beans. (see what I did there?) A mysterious man arrives at Bachie central to remove her bag in front of all her friends, and, just like that, she is gone forever, or at least until the next season of Bachelor in Paradise.

It’s time for the second group date now, and the good news is that this one just involves dogs. Sorry I mean competing with dogs on stage in front of a huge audience, which is totally chill. The bad news is that one of the Laurens, whose name is Annaliese, had a very traumatic experience with a dog when she was a baby. In an amazing coincidence, the Bachelor film crew were there to capture the moment:

100% actual footage of dog trauma

The actual date involves the women trying to get the dogs to do things on stage. Which is exactly as boring as it sounds, so we pretty much move straight to the cocktail party. Chelsea notes that “It was tough to be around dogs in a playground setting”, and that she “adores the person that she has become”. CamArie responds that “Sometimes, it really feels good to reflect”, which is either the world’s most scathing put-down, or a confession that he wants to be a mirror. Either way, she appears to not be worthy of having her face grabbed. I’ll tell you who is worthy though… the next woman he talks to, whose name is probably Lauren. And the next woman he talks to, whose name is also probably Lauren. But not the next one, who he tells “This whole thing is difficult, you know what I mean?”. To which she obviously replies, “No CamArie, I do not know what you mean. Is that even English?”. Another Lauren then arrives to ask if she can interrupt, and, honestly, I haven’t seen CamArie this happy since he grabbed Lauren’s face two minutes ago. He then makes himself feel better by grabbing the next Lauren’s face and eating it. And the next Lauren’s face. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I think he’s kissed like 8 people tonight, which is totally the whole point of this show. #kisstophercolumbus

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for… the rose ceremony. CamArie arrives in his Camry, which looks suspiciously like a Mercedes. AND OMG THERE IS SUDDENLY A GORGEOUS WOMAN THERE WHOSE NAME IS SIENNE AND NOT LAUREN. But there’s no time for that because Koranacheusettes has prepared a romantic nighttime day bed and telescope to woo CamArie into astronomy and a Face-Grab Mouth-Trap (TM). The Bachie Gods are geniuses, however, so of course at that precise moment, someone (actually) called Lauren drags CamArie outside, where they miraculously discover the nighttime day bed and telescope, which provides all the romance and astronomy needed to initiate a full-blown Face-Grab Mouth-Trap (TM). In a shocking twist that no one saw coming, Koranacheussets decides to head outside at that very moment to see what’s going on, and is told to come back in five minutes. She then says, and I am not joking, that “The struggle is real.” I LOVE THIS SHOW.

Needless to say, Rizzo gets a turn on the astronomy nighttime day bed too, where CamArie asks her, “Where do you come from?”. Rizzo replies that, when two people really love each other, they get drunk and go to their trailer and grab each other’s faeces. Oh sorry I meant faces. Typing is not my strong suite. (that one was on porpoise)

The Lauren who had her hair pulled, whose name is now Tia, is now eating CamArie’s face. Or he’s eating hers, it’s difficult to tell. What is NOT difficult to tell is that Koranacheussets has still not been on her own nighttime day bed and used her telescope. And OH CRAP Annaliesesese just basically asked for a kiss and was turned down, which I literally did not think was possible for CamArie. Aaaaaaand then two minutes later he’s grabbing face with someone else probably called Lauren. Poor Annaliesesese eventually asks for a kiss and is told to go home. Such is the power of strong men who race Camrys for a living.

The rose ceremony arrives and, mercifully, it’s Koranacheussets who is going home. This seems a little strange, in that she has not yet fought to the death with KrystalMeth, so I think the producers must be drunk. In any event, she finally retires to her nighttime daybed and uses her telescope to gaze into the endless abyss of space, and contemplate why she apparently wasn’t good enough to have her face grabbed by a guy who races Camrys.

The end.

Is Trump Going Down?

There’s a lot of excitement amongst the very broad spectrum of people who hate Trump. The indictment of Manafort and Gates is being heralded as the final nail in the coffin of the Trump presidency, and there is already wild speculation about the range and shape of charges which could be laid against members of Trump’s administration and family, with many rightly pointing out that the fact of these two words being interchangeable is appalling. While this isn’t exactly irrational, it is somewhat premature. I would suggest that it’s best viewed as a first nail, always assuming that key figures in the Trump administration are actually guilty of collusion, which I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to, regardless of how tempting or natural this would seem.

The indictment is probably best interpreted as an example of The Capone Gambit, where seemingly peripheral infractions are used against the investigation target. Add to this the heavy weight of precedent (and its absence), as well as presidential powers, and it becomes clear that it’s much more accurate to view this as the first step in a longer game. Given what is known about the character of Manafort, it’s possible this game could play out very quickly indeed, but the endgame is far from clear. Several possibilities need to be considered. Namely, that the Trump administration may have been competent enough to set up a deniable structure, the fact that collusion can be extremely difficult to prove, and the possibility of Trump and his senior staff actually being innocent, even if only technically.

A close reading of the indictment reveals that the charges laid against Manafort and Gates do not relate directly to the investigation target. These two men are being charged with lobbying for a foreign power without declaring the fact, receiving and controlling moneys in foreign accounts without ditto, and lying to federal investigators and entities. While the titles of the charges sound impressive and momentous, and are getting the usual very loud play in tabloid headlines, the fact is that they’re quite narrow in scope. Manafort’s association with the foreign power in question (Ukraine) has a distinct air of low hanging fruit. His association was already quite well known, to the extent of being reported in the media, and there is a grain of truth in conservative arguments that this kind of polite fiction (lobbying for a foreign govt while saying you’re not) is endemic and widespread. What’s more serious is the accusation of money laundering. To be fair, the scheme allegedly set up by Manafort and co looks much more like tax avoidance and fraud than anything in the washing of blood money spectrum, but the right of forfeiture is what’s important here. It appears that serious efforts have been made to locate and identify assets with a view to their seizure by the US govt. This is very clearly the stick. Manafort’s open greed and expensive tastes are obviously being used as a lever to coerce testimony. Will Manafort sing? Nobody really knows, but it’s hard to imagine that a man like him would stonewall and fall on his sword into penury.

All of this sounds very promising for those who wish to be rid of Trump, but certain important things need to be remembered. What’s being attacked here is not the administration, but the campaign. Without direct and compelling evidence of wrong doing, one would expect it to be easy for the administration to simply deny all knowledge. Admittedly, the Trump administration does not have the best record for basic political competence, but surely it’s safe to assume that the skills required for protection of the principal in this case are not confined to insiders on the hill. While it’s very obvious that this investigation could potentially end the Trump presidency, the Manafort/Gates indictment should be seen as an early stage attempt to turn the enemy’s flank, so to speak – a gambit designed to open new channels of inquiry.

Quite a bit of the analysis circulating at the moment seems also to have lost sight of the investigation’s frame of reference. This is not solely an investigation of Trump. What is being attempted to be established is the fact and extent of Russian interference in the election, which inquiry was brought about by widespread media reports and accusations. What is much more directly related to this are the charges made against Pappadopoulos, who has reportedly pleaded guilty. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that this is certainly not one of the big fish, but the potential ripples from his confessions are quite large. But once again it has to be remembered that this all refers to a specific act of collusion conducted within the Trump campaign – an act which any half-way competent organisation would have firewalled from its principal as a matter of course. It would be astonishing if it turned out that a direct line of complicity could be drawn even to senior leadership in the Trump campaign. Of course, there’s plenty of precedent for astonishing incompetence amongst Trump’s people, but there must surely be a limit.

It should also be remembered that Trump can pardon people. And while this may cause outrage, it’s still a fact. The recent pardoning of Arpaio is a case in point – none of the outcry or protest changes the fact that Arpaio’s numerous transgressions have been pardoned, with all that that implies. So criminal charges against individuals or entities linked to Trump are of potentially limited impact. What’s much more dangerous to the Trump administration is the risk of impeachment. If enough key people roll over and point fingers, there is a real possibility that key members of the administration, including the president himself, could be sufficiently implicated to trigger constitutional provisions for impeachment. Which obviously could end the Trump presidency. But would it? And what would happen if it did? The possible consequences are enormous, and possibly very dangerous for the US and its allies. Which is something which Mueller must have in his mind, making it reasonable to assume that whatever happens from here on in is going to happen, at least on Mueller’s part, slowly and carefully.

Having said all that, this is a scandal which dwarfs Watergate. There is a very real chance of this presidency, already beleaguered on multiple fronts, crumbling under the weight of its troubles. But as far as this specific event is concerned it is, to coin a phrase, just another brick in the wall.


Why you should vote “Yes”, even if you don’t want to

Well, the day is finally here. The High Court challenges have been struck down, the campaigns have been run, and now here I am, walking up the street to cast my vote, in the warming sun of spring-time Sydney.

As I approach the polling place, I cannot help but smile that the vote should take place in a church. How satisfying, to imagine god looking down upon me as I vote. I must remember to look up and wink at him, right when I mark my ballot paper. Not in a sexy way, mind. That would be a little hypocritical, given why I’m here. Just in a completely platonic “Hey buddy, I got this” kind of way. But anyway… what a sweet irony, that the democratic process of this lucky, prosperous, fair-go-for-all country should call on me to vote in god’s own house. And how fortunate, that that same democratic process is giving me an opportunity to have a say in how other people live their lives.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it. It’s not just a say in how they live their lives. It’s about how their lives affect me. Even they admit there aren’t many of them. What is it, like 8% at most? And yet they already affect every aspect of our lives, and, more importantly, the lives of our children. That’s what this is really about – a battle. A battle for the minds of the young. Because the future is forged in the minds of the young. And fart jokes. Fart jokes are also forged in the minds of the young. Their side has always known that. Probably not the bit about fart jokes, because they never appear to have a sense of humour. But definitely the bit about the future. And that’s what they’re trying to do here.

But even if they weren’t trying to convert our kids, I’d still vote “No”, because they’re wrong. As simple as that. They’re wrong and they want to drag the rest of us down with them. I can’t stand the thought of all the things they do and say behind those closed doors. It’s gross. And ridiculous. It’s… it’s… dammit. I was trying to combine “gross” and “ridiculous” into a word but I can’t, because I’m so angry and grodiculous.

These are the thoughts that consume me as I shuffle along in the queue, smiling at my own righteousness, and breathing in the delicious smell of sausage. In fact, all I can smell is sausage. Far out, now all I want to do is eat a sausage. Not in a sexy way, mind. That would be a little hypocritical, given why I’m here. It’s just a democracy sausage. I’m allowed to eat a democracy sausage.

Eventually I find myself completely alone in a small cardboard cubicle next to 30 other people completely alone in their own cardboard cubicles. I try and stifle the similarities with that weird night out in Hong Kong, and I look down to see a piece of paper, and a crappy pencil, and a simple question. But no sausages.

And the question is beautiful. And just what I wanted. And I will vote “No”, because that’s what I believe, and that’s what they deserve. So I grab my crappy pencil, which is way too short and digs into my palm. And as I look down at my hand, and at the pencil digging into my palm, I am struck with both the simplicity and the power of it all. There’s no fighting in the streets, no storming of the palace gates. All it takes is me, armed with a simple pencil, and answering a simple question, and the lives of many are changed forever. And I imagine the hand of a “Yes” voter poised above the same ballot, possibly right next to me, and I grin as I imagine what she must be thinking. She’s also thinking about the simple question, and the simple pencil, and about how right now millions of her fellow citizens are grinning, just like me, at being able to have their say in how she lives her life. Her hand is probably shaking… with rage, or fear, or embarrassment, that something so dear to her, something so innate and precious, is being subjected to the whims of a bunch of complete strangers.

Wait, what? Where did those thoughts come from?

This isn’t about her! It’s about me, and my children, and what’s right. Right?

My pencil hovers above the “No” box. Now it’s my hand that is shaking. What am I doing? I look once more at the question before me, the question previously so simple and beautiful:

“Should we continue to allow the public practice of Christianity?”

I read it again, and again, and again. And suddenly everything is not as simple as I thought. Their faith is misplaced, and it does affect my life, and they do try and influence our children.

But it is precious to them. And sincere. And their right.

We’re all different, but we’re all in this together. And a part of our democracy would die if we were to take it away from them.

So I vote “Yes”. Not because I agree.

But because it’s right.

North Korea – Our Favourite Disneyworld Ride

North Korea

When I woke up the other day, I thought that either hell had frozen over, or that I’d been transported to an alternate universe. The reason for this was that every major news outlet, even the two remaining reputable ones, was reporting the DPRK’s test firing of an ICBM. DPRK is, of course, our favourite comedy villain, The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, and ICBM is Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

I’m very tempted, at this point, to launch into some highly abstruse alphabet soup, complete with missile designators, performance graphs, finely sliced shades of definition for ‘inter-continental’ and ‘ballistic’, and a semantic disambiguation of the ICBM trope from its actual technical meaning. Thing is, there’s quite a bit of this stuff publicly available right now, and since nobody, journalists included, seems to have read or understood it, I don’t really see why I should bother. Let’s instead boil it down to simple terms suited to what I am reluctantly forced to call the ‘discourse’ on this subject.

Question: Does North Korea currently possess, in the apocalyptic sense all of us Cold War babies understand the term, any ICBMs?

Answer: Almost certainly not.

And there in the answer is what I think is the essence of the problem. For those of us who are accustomed to having their statements listened to and acted upon, and who actually care about this beyond the action of clicking on an article (I’m looking at you, journalists), a flat yes or no on this question is almost impossible to issue. This is because the study of security, international relations, and other related fields, breeds a healthy and not entirely unjustified paranoia. Certainty is a luxury of the ignorant or un-involved. There is a chance, roughly equivalent to the chance that human civilisation was initially formed by fish-shaped aliens, that the DPRK does, in fact, have a functional arsenal of ICBMs. And the existence of this miniscule chance is enough to render it impossible for most of the security and intelligence establishment to say that they definitely don’t. And it is this miniscule gap which Trump, Kim Jong Un, and the world’s media in general has taken to with a crow bar.

The fact is, the DPRK’s last successful missile test was surprising for most analysts. Right up to the point where they’d had enough time to actually analyse the data and come to the conclusion that this wasn’t, in fact, a new missile, but rather a clever mashup of some old ones. And that this test represented not a re-write, but a slight adjustment in the rogue nation’s nuclear timetable. The idea that the DPRK was heading towards developing nuclear tipped missiles capable of inter-continental range is not a new one, and nor is the idea that they’re getting closer. So why the sudden hysteria? The answer can’t be technical – the simple fact is that the projections haven’t actually changed that much. Certainly not enough to justify all this extra noise in both camps. So what is, in fact, the cause?

The answer isn’t as bloodcurdling as many would like it to be, but it is depressing, if that’s any comfort. The fact of the matter is that the drastic increase in chilling DPRK disaster porn is almost certainly being driven by politics (there’s that ‘almost’ again – I can’t help myself). Idiot in Chief President Trump has made up what must by courtesy be called his ‘mind’ to ‘solve’ the diplomatic tangle surrounding the DPRK. In doing so, he has sent a clear message to Kim Jong Un that acting out like a toddler having a tantrum in a supermarket is once again a policy which will generate diplomatic returns, and to the rest of the world that he’s a goddamned idiot. What opening this dialogue does for both leaders is create opportunities to meet and negotiate, while simultaneously pumping out enough rhetoric and propaganda to satisfy their own domestic requirements.

It should be noted that Trump and Kim have key similarities. They both rely heavily on a kind of personality cult to legitimate their power. They both have a requirement to look and act like crazy people in order to satisfy their political bases. And they both have access to a voting public capable of believing they’re on the brink of war in spite of zero pre-positioning or additional mobilisation taking place. So far, so comical.

What isn’t comical, however, is the very real potential for the world to stumble over its feet into an actual armed confrontation by joining in with the hysterical fantasies of megalomaniacs and clickbait generators. There’s ample precedent for this kind of nonsense, and it’s all gut-bustingly hilarious until the coffins start coming home. So while I do understand that the North Korea ride is definitely one of the most emotionally satisfying, I’d urge everyone to please, for the love of all that’s good in the world, just click a few more times. To read more than just headlines. To treat all of Trump’s statements as seriously as we treat Kim Jong Un’s haircuts. And, most important of all, to get off this stupid ride before we all nose it off the rails with our shouty groupthink silliness. We’ve had our thrills and spills, and it’s time to stop before somebody really gets hurt.