The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Syria Strike And The Trump Effect

Syria Strikes

It’s been an amazing experience, watching the world’s reaction to Trump’s recent strike on the Al Shayrat airbase in Syria. Rarely before has there been an opportunity to observe so many different conspiracy theories being formed in real time, and remarkably rapid real time at that. According to the various left and right wing rags which currently seem to pass for news media, Trump has variously conducted this strike in collusion with Russia and Syria for reasons which aren’t immediately clear, in collusion with Raytheon in order to raise their share price, in collusion with his own press office in order to raise his approval ratings… and this is even before we get to the Alex Jones end of the spectrum.

What’s amazing about this is that quite a bit of this kind of idiocy is coming from the mainstream media. While it’s axiomatic that any media will always make a dog’s breakfast out of any military story, it’s rarely been done to this extent. While I understand that reality isn’t nearly as entertaining as the hysterical witterings of partisan screamsheets, I do feel it’s probably important on some level, so let’s break down both what’s happened and what’s likely to happen.

BACKGROUND OF THE STRIKE

Very few media outlets spent any time at all avoiding the incorrect assumption that this was the first major chemical strike of the Syrian civil war. As such, it became difficult to see that there was any real background to the strike, as it seems to serve the turn of  sensationalist reporting to present this action as random and bizarre. A full transcript of Tillerson and McMaster explaining the rationale behind the action can be found here. Even if you don’t believe a word they say, it makes sense that even blatant lies coming from the White House are going to bear some relation to the truth, even if that relationship is purely inverse.

For those of you who can’t be bothered reading lots of stuff in order to answer questions, I’ll provide a quick summary here. Previous chemical attacks had gone unpunished by the Obama administration (despite Obama’s efforts to get congressional approval for a near identical strike). This appears to have emboldened Assad, who stepped up his campaign of terrorising civilians in rebel held areas in order to aid his campaign. Whether this was a miscalculation, or was business as usual, this provided the Trump administration with the necessary pretext to signal their marked difference in approach. The official narrative from Trump is that he was watching television, had an attack of the feels, and called for options from the Joint Chiefs. This is worryingly plausible, given what we know about Trump, but there are some important factors to consider before we all retire to our bunkers.

The strike itself was perfect and copybook arms-length intervention. Not only was an attempt made to pre-establish a legal justification (Trump’s statements heavily hinted at collective self defence being the element in question), the strike itself was strictly, fussily in line with principles of proportionality, limitation, and targeting. Many outlets rightly pointed out that this strike looked to have been prepared months or even years in advance. This makes sense – an action like this would have been on the books as an option since the beginning of the conflict, with only the GPS co-ordinates wanting for completion.

EXECUTION OF THE STRIKE

Going further on the legal theme, much hay has been made of the fact that Syrian and Russian troops were informed of the impending action. This has been used as ‘evidence’ of collusion with Russia, Syria, China, the inhabitants of Planet X, and so on. Which is, needless to say, pretty damn silly. Notification of the strike is in line not only with certain elements of the international law of armed conflict, it’s also in line with numerous precedents. Like German U-Boat command in WWI. And WWII. And British submarine command. And the USAF. And so on, and so forth. Sure, it could mean that the Trump administration are colluding with their lizard overlords to create a New World Order, but it’s probably more reasonable to link this behaviour to the past behaviour exhibited during countless military actions conducted by countless administrations the world over.

The purpose of the strike was clearly to target relevant materiel. Or at least, as much materiel as could be targeted with a mere 59000 pounds of high explosive. For anyone who actually understands these matters, this always looked like a slap on the wrist – a largely symbolic act. It’s rather in the same category as a fine – the infliction of expense via the destruction of some very costly equipment. Casualty and damage reporting after the fact would indicate that people died, but it’s important to remember that these figures come from the Syrian regime and other less than credible sources. Regardless of this, the fact remains that this is about as distant and as minor as it’s possible to get while still being able to claim direct action.

REACTION TO THE STRIKE

War with Russia isn’t really on the cards unless the US is hell bent on making it happen. This is owing to the simple fact that Russia is neither ready nor able to win even a dirty little local war with the USA. So Russia’s reaction to the strike has largely been to open a war of words. Let’s focus, then, on the element that isn’t purely verbal.

Russia has intimated that any future strike will be met with “force”. This statement, initially worrying, should provoke some examination to try and figure out exactly what they mean. A quick scan of Sputnik, RT, and other Russian propaganda disseminators, allows us to discern that what Russia is heavily telegraphing is their intention to use BUK and S500 air defence systems (already deployed for over a year) in defence of any Syrian air installations to come under similar attack. While this will make things a bit tense, it’s important to note that exactly this level of hostility was repeatedly operative in the recent Balkan conflict, with the net result of the world failing to burst untimely into WWIII.

As for the likelihood of deep US intervention in Syria, I’d say that’s anyone’s guess. Will Trump be persuaded that his only option moving forward will be to establish regional hegemony a la Dubya? Or will his base force him to maintain the arms-length policy he inherited from Obama? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, no matter how well they conspiracy.

LEGALITY OF THE STRIKE

Much has been said about whether or not the strike was legal, largely by partisan and entirely unqualified sources. There’s a good break down here, but I’ll once again summarise. The short answer to the question, “Was the strike legal?” is: yes and no. Or maybe, and probably not. The thing about international law is that it’s complicated and, like any law, it is by definition arguable. Is this aggression against a sovereign nation for no reason? How ‘legitimately sovereign’ is the Assad regime? Can the collective self defence argument be used? Who knows? This stuff needs testing in courts, most of which the US doesn’t recognise, so the point is largely moot (in the American sense of the word). What we do know, is that the US government is required to make its arguments to congress regarding the legality of the strikes some time within the next day or two, so it’s up to us to wait for that and either analyse those arguments ourselves, or wait for some media outlet to spin them into more entertaining hysteria.

The Appearance of Government

While everyone’s been watching Trump burn his own face with the arse-gas which he uses for speech, our own government has been quietly stabbing itself in the eye with the stupid stick. Things have got so bad that I’m hearing Peter Dutton, horse-faced mental defective and general bad news bear, being spoken of as ‘leader in waiting’. Actually, I’m pretty certain that Mr Dutton is a fundamentally decent man, if only because he lacks the intelligence for genuine evil, and there’s also the fact that, unlike the current PM, he’s not a mealy-mouthed, spineless coward. But seriously, these basic pre-requisites for membership of the human race do not necessarily translate into qualifications for national leadership.

This government’s record has not been exactly stellar. After sneering at Labor’s inability to retain the same leader for more than seven minutes, they proceeded to roll their own, before limping back into government on the slimmest of possible mandates, and then steadfastly refusing to recognise that their position in power was based purely on sufferance. And now, deep into a lame duck second term, their only clear achievement has been to repeatedly waste our time and money. A startling lack of policy direction, moral leadership, economic management, or even the ability to control the simplest of narratives has marked this as an epoch of some of the most despicable, ineffectual leadership this country has ever endured. And a quick look at our history will reveal that that’s really saying something.

Many people have recently been outraged by proposed changes to 18c, which is possibly the only piece of legislation the greater public knows the name of, but I simply don’t care. A proposition to swap three vague words for two, with as much chance of passing the senate as Pauline Hanson has of passing a grade six English exam, simply doesn’t strike me as worth paying any attention to. And then there’s the ‘omnibus bill’, which represents three solid years of attempting to pass budget measures which have repeatedly been flagged as both unnecessary and unwanted – the clearest example yet that changing the label on a steaming turd only works if Apple are involved. The marriage equality debate, which probably shouldn’t be happening at all, isn’t really happening unless you define a debate as meaningless posturing followed by extreme inaction – all of this is apparently evidence of our tax dollars at work.

What is the current government’s agenda? Nobody knows. What is their vision for the future of Australia? It depends which cartoonish cabinet member you ask. What is our position with regard to the seismic strategic and economic threats a deeply stupid White House presents us with? Nobody has the slightest clue. What, in actual fact, is this government actually for? Apart, that is, from saturating the airwaves with nonsensical nation-building rhetoric, and the parliament with bills they know will be rejected? Why, as Australians, do we put up with such piss-poor leadership? I guess it’s because the only viable alternative government is likely to be just as stupid, in different ways. And as for the minor parties, apart from the current de-facto PM, Nick Xenophon, they’re pretty well all as dangerous as they’re comical.

Beneath all this, however, lies a central uncomfortable truth. We knew, when we voted, that we were unenthusiastically defaulting to party lines without any real expectation of proper government. The voting public is not as stupid as we make ourselves out to be – we had no reason to suspect that any of our available choices would actually achieve anything worthwhile. So what confuses me, is why we weren’t screaming in the streets about a situation where our elected leaders no longer even pretend to serve us, and where even the appearance of government has been sacrificed in favour of narrow factional fights that have absolutely nothing to do with the needs of the people or the state. On the principle that democracy tends to produce the government we deserve, I’d strongly recommend we lift our game or, at the very least, our expectations.

Fred Nile’s Insidious Theocracy

Fred Nile

A lot of people find Fred Nile faintly amusing. I understand this, as a casual glance at God’s own MP can leave a mistaken impression of some harmless old throwback shouting into a secular and unresponsive darkness. The truth, however, is far more disturbing.

The Christian Democratic Party (CDP), of which Nile is president, is a small, but potent force in Australian politics. Sure, they’ve hardly any seats in parliament and, like most personality cult parties, the CDP has lost about as many seats as it’s held through endorsed members splintering off to do their own even whackier stuff. But bums on legislative seats is not the whole story by a long shot. The CDP fields multiple candidates in multiple states every election and by-election, not because they expect to win, but because their profile makes them reasonably certain to attract enough votes to receive Electoral Commission funding. You can click the link and do the maths, if you like, but the long and short of it is that parties can draw close to $1.5 million dollars in funding and ‘reimbursements’ by winning a single seat. Add to this the odd few thousand, up to a cap of about $12,000, which candidates receive if they garner at least 4% of the vote, and it becomes apparent that the CDP is a proper moneymaker.

This is not, of course, a rort in any sense of the word. The funding exists for sensible and admirable reasons, but the sad reality is that seasoned political operators will invariably ‘game’ this and any other system around. So what begins as a democratic initiative to encourage worthy candidates to stand again, evolves into a fundraising arm of what I can only describe as one of the most bigoted, non-violent extremist groups I have ever encountered. Fred Nile’s harmless old coot persona does not survive more than a few seconds of scrutiny. His ideas aren’t so much old fashioned as they are Mediaeval. Homosexuality, in his world, is a ‘mental disorder and lifestyle choice’, ‘adoption unnatural’, and any and all forms of fertility or sexual treatment/therapy a gratuitous misuse of God’s procreative design features. And as if this weren’t enough, Nile is said to have resigned from the Uniting Church because it “officially decided to part with a literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Bible“.

What I wonder is why this party isn’t given the same treatment as Neo-Nazis or Islamist Jihadis. Sure, they’re not beating up minorities in the street or beheading people on the internet, but their beliefs are at least as regressive and hateful. And how much harm – how many suicides, breakdowns, and so on – are brought about by the airing of their hateful ideas? If the limit of free speech is generally agreed to be the incitement of hate and harm, why do Fred Nile and his Christian Jihadis get not only a pass, but a bunch of our money? It must boil down to the double standard which is operative when we’re dealing with Christian extremists – a result of the fact that, in some ways, our country is still very Christian. Sure, church attendance is dropping, and secularism is a rising force, but as a whole we are still biased towards the notion that familiar evils, like Nile’s, are somehow less dangerous or harmful than exotic ones.

The Curious Effect of the Sharia ‘Threat’

It’s a well known fact that importing Muslims into our country puts us under threat of having our culture obliterated and our hapless citizens yoked to the harsh and oppressive juggernaut that is Sharia Law. That is, it’s well known amongst people who are unclear on the definitions of the following words:

  • Muslim
  • Threat
  • Culture
  • Sharia
  • Law
  • Fact
  • Mat
  • Cat
  • Sat

Leaving such minor matters aside, we are still confronted with the reality that a growing number of Australians is embracing the idea that the Islamification of Australia is a threat which exists outside the realm of paranoid white supremacist fantasy. This growing anxiety is pushing more and more of our fine citizens to the political right, where we find such sterling products of the democratic process as Pauline Hanson, Corey Bernardi and George Christensen.

Now, to be fair, I do need to point out that the right wing is not the exclusive province of the sort of people who inspire the design of signs like this:

No, the political right has its fair share of savvy, intellectually agile and politically sophisticated adherents, well grounded in the complex theoretical bases behind nativist monoculturalism, protectionism, and so on. It’s just that they tend to limit themselves to painstakingly levering these concepts into the tiny minds of shrill populists, presumably via the exclusive use of words of one syllable.

This situation is imbued with a twofold irony. Firstly, there is the fact of people like Hanson – a spokesperson for the people who is incapable of coherent speech. And then there is the deeper and more worrying irony, mostly having to do not with the nationalist or white supremacist side of politics, but with the stolid core of ultra-conservatism.

This core, represented by the likes of Bernardi, Nile, and Christensen, is one possessed of deep religious roots, and an unshakeable belief in the idea that civil law should be informed by one or more of the many flavours of Christianity. As crazy as this idea might sound, it’s not a conspiracy theory I have confected in order to fight fantasy with fantasy – this is an openly stated position.

This means that the imaginary threat of a sharia-based criminal code is causing a movement towards politicians who believe that religion is a sound basis for the creation of laws.  Or, to put it another way, the fear of religious law is causing people to support politicians who wish to enact religious law.

This being the case, I think our most urgent policy priority should be the mass production of this warning sign:

Let’s hope it’s as least as effective as the chainsaw one.

Trump, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and Beyond…

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iran Nuclear Deal, or, to give it its proper name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been described by President Trump as “the worst deal ever negotiated”, and likely to cause a “nuclear holocaust”. Throughout the course of his campaign, Trump made repeated references to the JCPOA, telling anyone who would listen that the deal was a “joke”, and that he intended to re-negotiate, revising key provisions, lengthening time limits and generally changing the current plan into a kind of extended penance. As always with President Trump, there is some doubt as to how much, if any, of what he’s said is meant to be taken seriously, but let’s do our best.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the JCPOA contains no provisions for checking Potential Military Applications (PMA), no safeguards to prevent Iranian weapons development now or into the future, and that it virtually guarantees a nuclear armed Iran within fifteen years, followed shortly by a nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, none of these claims is true.

Let’s first look at the provisions of the plan. PMAs were a sticking point during negotiations, and it became apparent to even the casual observer that the Iranians, beyond a natural unwillingness to share their secrets, were also unclear as to the exact extent of their secret research programs. In the UNCLAS version, very little is said about PMA, but it is nevertheless apparent from various textual clues that the issue was dealt with. Similarly, the provisions with regard to intrusive inspection, the closure of various pathways to weaponisation (enrichment and plutonium), and various other strictures, all point to an agreement which is perfectly competent to achieve its stated aim: a temporary freeze of Iran’s progress towards nuclear weaponry. President Trump, however, does not see it that way. In President Trump’s view, Iran is a “bad” and “terrorist” state, needing to be kept at all times under the mailed fist of US hard power. It’s difficult to see, given this view, how any deal could have struck him as satisfactory.

Hassan Rouhani Iran Nuclear Deal

Hassan Rouhani, unique amongst Iranian presidents for being more stable than his US counterpart

Now for the safeguards designed to prevent Iranian weaponisation of its nuclear program which, according to Trump, do not exist. Firstly, there’s provisions for inspection, facilities re-purposing from high level enrichment and Plutonium manufacture to power generation, technology, replacement programs for cycling out 20% enriched uranium, the list goes on… And Iran has been pathetically eager to comply. Completion of each action plan has been tagged to the lifting of sanctions and, more importantly, the release of the associated funds. The deal, from Iran’s point of view, is easy to understand. In exchange for restored oil wealth, access to global markets, normalisation of trade and other relations, and a place at the negotiating table, they take a fifteen year halt in a nuclear weapons program which took twenty years to produce next to nothing, and which isolated them so badly that one of their key trading partners was North Korea. President Trump’s belligerent paranoia aside, it’s difficult to see a situation where Iran voluntarily breaks the deal. There’s too much to gain, and at such little cost. And while it is true that Iran could restart weaponisation post agreement, there’s little reason to expect this. A large part of the agreement is clearly designed to end Iran’s isolation – a key factor in their clandestine rush for the bomb.

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump labelled Iran a ‘terrorist state’ when addressing AIPAC

It’s axiomatic, though, that Christian conservatives cannot see any future in the Middle East without Israel, heavily force-multiplied by the US, maintaining military superiority. A rehabilitated Iran would necessarily change the dynamic. Iran is a natural hegemon – it has ample resources, an educated and numerous populace, access to the sea and a position of key strategic importance. All it really lacks is money. The deal itself, being a UN deal brokered by P5+1, is not US property. Energy hungry P5+1 members Russia and China have a strong interest in its success, as does the UK, who hopes to profit from expanding G/O exploration.

Now that Trump has finished appeasing the GOP’s Zionist donors, the time is ripe for one of his trademark backflips. It’s far from clear whether he can kill the deal (I’d say he can’t), but he is easily capable of killing relations with Iran. Given the likely interventionism of a Trump administration, this would be a critical mistake. Iran has a long (albeit covert) history of co-operation with the USA, and has been a key collaborator in US campaigns in the Middle East. Iranian support, or at least non-aggression, is vital to any operation in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Additionally, Iran has reach and effectiveness far out of proportion with its military power, thanks to decades of investment in power projection by paramilitary and covert proxies. If President Trump really intends to establish safe zones in Syria, escalate the campaign against IS, and generally re-establish US hegemony in the Middle East, all this will be much easier with Iran’s cooperation and assistance. This is a problem for the near future, of course. In the meantime, President Trump should work on gaining better control of his public utterances before the laws of consequence come into proper effect.

One Nation’s False ‘Liberalisation’

Shan Ju Lin One Nation

Shan Ju Lin, One Nation’s Asian candidate for some seat in Queensland I don’t care about and have never heard of, has been something of a propaganda double-whammy for Ms Hanson’s erratic populist juggernaut. Not only did the visible fact of her ‘non-whiteness’ seemingly put to bed the idea of the party’s racism, her subsequent sacking for making ‘anti-gay’ comments must surely be used by the pointy-headed side of politics as ‘proof’ that One Nation is also free of other forms of bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s tackle the racism first. Pauline recently embarked on a dictionary-fuelled rant on the meaning of the word ‘racist’, helpfully providing us with a disingenuously monolithic definition, possibly as an exercise in clever sophistry, but more probably as a function of her incompetence with the English language. The fact of the matter is that there are many shades of meaning involved in racism which cannot necessarily be found in a dictionary. Anyone looking for a full appreciation of the term need only perform a few more clicks in Google to discover that ‘racism’ also covers Hanson’s obvious and clearly stated positions of forced assimilation in pursuit of some mythical Australian monoculture. One Nation is racist not because it disdains skin colour or point of origin, but because of its much more insidious and dangerous bigotry directed at other ways of thinking and being – in essence, its intolerance of the existence or even influence of other cultures. In many ways, this is more purely hateful than a simple aversion to black and yellow people, in that it’s more deeply considered, and therefore more disgustingly ungenerous and narrow-minded. So really, the fact of Shan Ju Lin’s heritage is irrelevant – her deep seated and militant intolerance towards immigrants of every kind, and her insistence on dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps on grounds which are frankly insane, reaffirm rather than contradict the bigotry which lies at the heart of the party.

And then there’s the curious case for dismissal of homophobia. This should emphatically not be seen as evidence that Pauline Hanson is in favour of gay rights. Shan Ju Lin herself stated that she issued the Tweets because One Nation had “no policy” with regard to marriage equality or LGBTI rights beyond a vague declaration of support for a plebiscite on marriage equality. No, what we’re seeing here is nothing more than a beleaguered chief of staff trying desperately to hold on to control of the party’s narrative. The recent farcical goings on with Rod Culleton, the persistent insanity of Malcolm Roberts and Pauline’s own unfortunate delusional belief in her ability to speak comprehensibly have seriously eroded any capacity for positive messaging. This is clearly a party engaged in frantic damage control in order to maintain whatever vestiges of credibility which remain to them before they field another bunch of whackos, this time for the House of Reps.

And, in true One Nation style, they are going about this by weeding out crazies, oblivious to the starkly obvious fact that a One Nation shorn of lunatics will be a party without a single, solitary member.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Delusions of Adequacy

Australian Christian Lobby

This is the ACL’s idea of an ‘argument’. Note the complete absence of logic of any kind.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is a frustrating organisation, not least because of its militant parochialism and refusal to accept that positions based on a combination of Christian revanchism and bigotry are, in fact, revanchist and bigoted. Its tendency to bleat out an utterly fabricated narrative of persecution, its insistence on blaming some amorphous ‘left wing media conspiracy’ for reverses generally caused by its own media incompetence, and its startling inability to pursue or even to form any kind of logically coherent argument are all extremely annoying. And Lyle Shelton, their managing director, is the kind of attention-seeking, self-pitying, incompetently grandiloquent noisemaker who makes the fists of all right-thinking folk become seriously itchy.

So, given just how annoying they are, it’s not hard to understand why someone blowing up a van in their carpark could immediately be put down to a targeted attack. I myself thought it highly probable, given how I feel every time Shelton opens his stupid gob or mashes ineffectually at his keyboard. And I wasn’t alone in this. There are huge sections of the voting public who apparently take ghoulish glee in attributing any and every act of non-domestic violence to Muslim terrorism or Muslim immigration or Muslims in general, possibly because a narrative as inherently irrational as Islamophobia requires quite a lot of fodder to sustain. Within twenty minutes of the first run of the the story, thousands of comments claiming that this was definitely the work of Islamic State and that the leftard libtard media was deliberately suppressing any mention of this, had engulfed certain pointy-headed and ill-spelled corners of the internet. Incontrovertible, iron-clad arguments like: “It was a quiet area, so it must have been a terrorist attack” were helpfully formulated, presumably to assist the police in their investigation, and not to muddy the waters with irrational reactionism. Quite a valuable contribution given that the poor, helpless counter-terrorism and  security experts of the world tend to be stuck with the idea that mass casualty attacks are generally conducted in busy areas at busy times of day. In order to cause mass casualties. Such narrow, blinkered thinking was obviously much enriched by the public’s insightful contributions.

In any case, during the initial phase of this story, the ACL actually had my sympathies. It doesn’t matter how mendacious, petty, bigoted or deluded one’s beliefs are – no law abiding organisation deserves to be the target of political violence. Shelton’s initial Twitterings were mostly generous and politic, though his comment, “hard to believe this could happen in Australia” sounded an ominous warning of the stupidity to come. And my word did he deliver. It appears that in the wake of the explosion, his first and admirable priority was to see to the welfare of his staff, which meant cutting short his holiday and returning to Canberra. In view of the fact that the building was empty at the time, and that none of his staff were injured or killed or, presumably, present at the time, this seemed a little odd. But then, if someone blows up the front of your building, it makes sense that you should repair immediately to the scene. It appears, however, that upon his return he did little other than stand in front of cameras and say stupid things stupidly to the media.

Australian Christian Lobby

Lyle Shelton, proclaiming his organisation’s suspect martyrdom.

By the end of the day, the ground was laid out as follows. The Canberra police had interviewed the suspect, who was unknown to police, and therefore presumably to domestic intelligence, and who said that his sole aim was to “blow myself up”. This, and the host of other factors militating against the interpretation of this event as an attempted mass casualty attack led the police to conclude that there was “no ideological or political motive” behind the explosion. Shelton, of course, wasn’t at all happy about this, and by evening he had proclaimed that the police had been too quick to jump to conclusions, jumped himself to the conclusion that the ACL was the victim of a terror attack and blamed the Greens and other parliamentarians for inciting anti-Christian terrorism by using the word ‘bigot’ to describe his bigoted views.

And then, of course, the story faded from view. This is partly because the only sources of credible information are a tight-lipped police command and a man with burns to 75% of his body, but mostly because the ACL is basically not all that important. Sure, it’s loud in its claims to represent the Christian community, but there isn’t any real evidence that it does. Its base, purportedly largely made up of Pentecostal and non-conformist churches, does not in fact support its views on marriage equality. Its measurable impact on elections is negligible to non-existent. To an informed observer, the ACL’s principle role is to be trotted out in front of the cameras whenever journalists want to provide the appearance of balance by padding out a panel with a talking head from the lunatic Christian right. And this represents, for me, the single most frustrating thing about the ACL – their persistent and unfounded delusions of adequacy. On no level do they actually contribute in any meaningful way to the debate on any issue, but their notoriety and fatuous self importance means that they have a profile which is all out of proportion to their relevance.

So, in the unlikely event that there’s anyone out there who actually is planning an attack on the ACL, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only would such an action be illegal, immoral and inhuman, it would also be of material assistance in backing their delusional narrative of persecution. They’re just not important enough to attack. In fact, I’m convinced that they’re not even important enough to respond to. Like every other screaming toddler, I firmly believe that the best tactic by far is to simply ignore them.

Wargaming a Trump Doomsday Part 3 – General Stupidity

Donald Trump

It’s very difficult to get away from the fact that Donald Trump is basically a fool. In this context, I’m using the word ‘fool’ in its mediaeval sense – a clown. For reasons which appear to be a combination of pragmatism and narcissism, Trump has spent most of his public life being a buffoon, presumably to attract our attention – to ‘raise his profile’, to use the euphemistic parlance of the professional vanity vendors of public relations.

While this may be deeply distasteful, it isn’t really problematic – one can always choose to ignore a fool – until that fool becomes POTUS. The inescapable fact of presidential office is that statements emanating from it have immediate and complex agency, being capable of generating effects via not just their overt meanings, but also through their various implications and substrata of meaning. In other words, stuff the president says matters, because stuff he says makes other stuff happen.

Here, in all its glory, is the single biggest threat represented by Trump, namely, that he might almost have been purpose built to accidentally bring about the end of the world as we know it. I haven’t done the maths, but I suspect that the scope for unintended consequences grows exponentially the less clear one’s actual intentions are. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody has any real idea of what Trump actually intends to do.

There’s a few possible reasons for this. I don’t intend to argue one of the things I suspect – that Trump’s inscrutability is at least partially due to the fact the has no clear idea of his own intentions beyond the barely coherent aspirational slogans he’s been bandying, qualifying and withdrawing. I’m leaving that one alone simply because I neither know the man nor possess the gift of telepathy. But one reason above all stands out as clear cause for the world’s current mystification when it comes to the president elect’s intentions: the fact that it’s basically impossible to derive precise meaning from anything he says.

I acknowledge that much of the media has not so much failed to understand Trump as they have refused to (viz. the ‘bigly’ controversy), either through distaste, disgust or just plain snobbery. I think, however, that this has only been a small part of the problem. The biggest problem with the way Trump talks is that a life spent fulfilling the dual roles of cameo clown and snake-oil merchant means that he has spent most of his time on Earth using language to obscure rather than elucidate meaning. This is especially dangerous given that, in the Machiavellian world of statecraft, it is a truism to state that uncertainty is a catalyst for violence.

Let’s take the Middle East as a prime example. This is a complex and explosive set of situations, and the outlook for a Trump presidency is not encouraging given the zen-like, mutually contradictory positions which the president elect has proclaimed on Twitter. A careful analysis of his simultaneous wish to disengage US troops from foreign conflicts and resolve the Middle East (which he apparently views as a monolithic or unitary single situation) through overwhelming force yields exactly bupkis. Nobody has any idea what he is going to do. And given that the US is militarily capable of anything up to and including ending all civilisation as we know it, the stakes are high, and it is less than helpful to create a situation in which the players are competing blindfolded.

Trump is an uncertainty factory. In business, it’s sometimes a very good idea to obscure your motives and intentions. One of the few moments of clarity we’ve had so far is the realisation that this is very much the game he is playing with China – he wishes to keep China off-balance by obscuring his true position on ‘One China’, which is clearly a negotiating gambit. This model of proceeding may be excellent for the boardroom, but its implications for the summit table are potentially disastrous. State and non-state actors, when presented with a combination of existential threat and deep uncertainty, tend to react with spectacular force. And when statements coming out of the president’s mouth are not only mutually but internally contradictory, it’s difficult to imagine a situation imbued with greater uncertainty.

There’s also the fact that his administration picks don’t follow any discernible pattern. While it’s generally seen as a positive to build an administration with diverse viewpoints, it’s not usual to build one with individuals whose views are mutually and absolutely irreconcilable. This makes the drift and trend of the future administration impossible to predict or even satisfactorily analyse. This might be fine for the punters, who don’t necessarily value decisions produced by actual thought, but it’s potentially catastrophic at a higher level, where most decisions are made by strategic thinkers of one sort or another.

This, in my opinion, is the real threat. There’s not much irreversible harm any POTUS can intentionally do in four or eight years – such is the robustness of the US system. But the scope for accidental harm is literally apocalyptic. The single biggest danger, to my mind, is that the world won’t end with a whimper, but with an accidental bang caused by an inarticulate, incompetent buffoon tapping away at his smartphone at two in the morning.

Wargaming A Trump Doomsday Part 2 – China

Trump and China

PLA-N Frigate Sanya in Cambodia [Reuters]

The US relationship with China has been problematic for as long as it’s existed. From colonial exploiter to the current tetchy marriage of convenience, there have been periods of freeze, thaw and warfare of most varieties – cold, hot, proxy and direct. The current relationship is fraught with difficulty and complexity. China’s fundamental social and political values are not just different to the USA’s, they’re almost entirely irreconcilable. Add to this a worrying degree of economic co-dependence,  and it’s easy to get the idea that the only thing keeping China and the US from war is the liberalist international order, of which Trump and his advisers appear to be so contemptuous. And from there is but a short step to the left wing screamsheets’ confident prediction that President Trump will inevitably propel us into catastrophic global warfare.

But this isn’t really the case. China has arguably attracted more printed falsehood than any other nation apart, perhaps, from the ancient Sumerians. This is due, in part, to the exigencies of propaganda requirements over the ages, but I think that what it mainly indicates is a Western world which has never really fully understood China, its aims or its place in the world. There is much more than the liberalist international order keeping China from war with the West. There are many, many factors, but the two which I feel to be most important are:

  1. They are not ready;
  2. They are not willing.

China does not have a modern military force, it has a rapidly (and this is a very relative adverb) modernising one. China is also not an expansionist power. The rights which they have been attempting to arrogate to themselves do not represent new aspirational boundaries, but old, revanchist ones. China’s number one priority has remained unchanged for hundreds of years – unity. China’s ruling powers have always been aware that to keep their disparate and often quite discontented empire (yes, it’s an empire) together, its peoples need to be convinced that they are under an invincibly strong government which is able to provide prosperity. Thus, China’s apparent aggression, assertiveness, or whatever you wish to call it. Some of it can be accounted for by their mission to restore themselves to pre or early Manchu boundaries, and the rest is for home consumption.

So, after that little primer on China, how exactly can President Trump push this self-obsessed, bought and sold, internally paranoid power to a state where it actually looks belligerently at something other than itself? As it turns out, there are really only a couple of apocalyptic touchpoints. Sure, Trump can severely degrade any diplomatic relationship just by being himself, but the only real doomsday scenario here is war – be it conventional, economic, or a delightful mix of the two.

Probably the most likely of these is a trade war. Trump’s declared trade and economic policies have worrying (for China) overtones of protectionism. There are a few ways in which Trump could attempt to reinvigorate the USA’s manufacturing sector (assuming he intends to pursue this, and that’s a big assumption), and the most direct and obvious one is to strangle foreign imports with tariffs and other protectionist measures. This will seriously impact a nation like China and the knock on effect is most likely to be a sort of price war in which both economies will attempt to undercut each other, both in each other’s markets and across the world. This is an extremely worrying scenario, being likely to cause great pain and suffering and, if pushed far enough, history tells us that this can lead to war. Having said that, it’s not all that likely. Not only is it unlikely that Trump will actually embark on a fully fledged and immediate program of protectionism, China will also do everything in its power to prevent a trade war. Leading Chinese academics and commentators, who generally speak for the state, are already making multiple overtures to the Trump administration on this front. Articles, think-tank pieces and a raft of other media are being co-opted to sell Trump the message: “Let’s use our combined market power to make both our nations great again.” I find it highly unlikely when given conciliatory offers of favourable trade terms in exchange for trade guarantees, that any Trump administration will ignore these and try to push on without actually working China. Especially considering that the only possible outcome of a trade war between these two is that they will both lose. Trump’s gaggle of bankers and corporate raiders know this very well indeed, no matter how tough his sinophobic administration pick likes to talk.

And then there’s Taiwan. The whole world knows, by now, the story of the infamous phone call. What I don’t think most of the world understands is what it actually meant. We have two competing narratives here: the left sells the story that incompetent Trump impulsively took the Taiwanese call, while the right says it was months in the planning. The likelihood is that neither of these stories is true, but in the end, I don’t think it really matters. Short of official recognition of Taiwan, there’s very little to suggest that the status quo is receiving anything more than a bit of a shake. It’s pretty clear that Trump is playing a game of brinksmanship here. He wishes, with largely meaningless gestures, to assert US credibility on cultural and political issues. This is apparent in his support for Taiwan and Hong Kong. The reality of his support, though, is that apart from that element which is clearly for home consumption, it’s almost certainly a gambit. There are some tough negotiations ahead on a number of issues if Trump is to make even token efforts to satisfy his base, and it’s apparent that he’s counting his chips and letting the other players know he has them.

To the extent that it’s possible to determine the actual intentions of a more or less inarticulate demagogue, I think the most sensible analysis here is that what we’re looking at is not so much the precursor to an apocalypse as it is an adjustment back to an older version of the USA. Once again, when it comes to China, Trump would have to be spectacularly unlucky to trigger doomsday in this case, as China neither wants nor needs a direct confrontation and will work feverishly to prevent one.

Turkey, Russia, Murder and Islam

Assassination of Russian Ambassador

Most of us are aware by now that the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead by a 22 year old Turkish policeman who the Turkish regime is tentatively linking to Fethullah Gulen, the figure who was also blamed for the abortive military coup earlier in the year and who basically acts as Turkey’s ‘Goldstein’ a la 1984. The screamsheets (my new name for all media, shamelessly stolen from Cyberpunk) have done their usual best to spread despondency and panic, and the conspiracy theorists can’t be far behind. I’d like to get in before them and try to break down what this attack actually means.

Firstly, we need to understand a little bit about what’s happening in Turkey at the moment. A full situational appreciation would take thousands of words, but a brief, somewhat simplistic rendering should be sufficient for our purposes here. In very crude terms, Turkey is conflicted between secular nationhood and Islamist regional hegemony. Erdogan, authoritarian, populist and Islamist, is attempting to undo, prick by prick, the grand experiment in secular nationhood kicked off by Ataturk. His consistent tendency has been to expand the powers of the presidency, nudge state law closer to Sharia, and to position Turkey as a regional hegemon at the very least. Many suspect that he seeks imperial power, with his detractors comparing his regime to the Ottoman Empire.

These are big changes which strike at the core of Turkey’s revivified vision of itself in the wake of its humiliation at the end of WWI. This has led to a nation which is sharply divided. There are many splinters and factions, but two broad schools of thought can be identified – populist, interventionist, Islamist and expansionist on the one hand; middle class, secular, republican and non-interventionist on the other. Erdogan’s straw man opponent, one time ally Fethullah Gulen, is almost exactly analogous to Trotsky – hounded out of the USSR and subsequently blamed for every riot, production shortfall or particularly nasty winter. Gulen believes in interfaith dialogue, secular government and science – basically, Ataturk’s westernising, secularising vision. He’s also vehemently opposed to Turkey’s support of elements seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad. It’s this last belief, loudly proclaimed from Gulen’s exile in the USA, which conveniently allows the Erdogan regime to pin this assassination on his influence. This is not to say that the Gulenists are necessarily innocent, but rather that Turkey’s attribution should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this socio-political ferment could produce someone like Mevlut Mert Altintas, the police officer who shot the Russian Ambassador. This is not an isolated attack – Turkey has been wracked with violence for some time now, with car bombs, suicide bombings and shootings having become so routine that western media outlets have largely given up reporting on them. What is unique is the targeting of a Russian dignitary. The motives behind this have to be seen as fairly transparent. There are many groups who wish to see Turkey fall out with its old enemy, Russia, for a whole confusing spectrum of reasons. And groups aside, there’s also the simple fact that many Turks despise Russia, vehemently support the rebellion in Syria and are broadly sympathetic to the aims and worldview of extremist Islamist militia. It should be noted that I’ve made no attempt to attribute responsibility for this attack. The investigation, such as it is, is in a very early stage, and it’s highly probable that we may never know the truth of it as very few of the investigating bodies are of the kind whose conclusions can readily be believed at the best of times.

Taken in context, the most probable deep motivation would either be to unseat Erdogan, highlight Russia’s pro-regime actions in Syria, or both. Erdogan is tap dancing on thumb tacks when it comes to Russia. They’re one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, but their interests in the region are diametrically opposed. So long as Erdogan pursues an anti-Assad policy while maintaining his hegemonic ambitions, the possibility of an irreconcilable conflict with Russia looms large. Mismanagement of this relationship could very well see him ousted through loss of popular support, such support being the only limiting factor on the Turkish military’s capacity to remove him from power. So we can see that the focus here is largely inward when it comes to Turkey, and the measured restraint of Russia’s response is an indication that they understand this.

Implications for the end game, however, are slightly more worrying. Erdogan, secure in his popular support for now, is still somewhat beleaguered  on the international front. The price he has paid for his policies has been to devolve his role into that of ‘strongman’. What’s key, in this position, is the perception of the degree of control he has over his country. Turkey’s relationship with Russia and, somewhat more worryingly, its status as a NATO member, now rest largely on this perception. While it’s very unlikely that anything Turkey can do will lead to all out war, too much more of this nonsense will see Erdogan isolated, possibly removed from power, and Turkey on the brink of becoming yet another domino in the failed state effect which is sweeping its immediate region.