The Pandemic and Oil

The Pandemic & Oil

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Sept. 6, 2020

During the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565 AD), a mysterious plague spread out of the Nile Valley to Constantinople and finished off the Roman Empire. Appearing first in China and North India, the “Black Death” (Yersinia pestis) radiated throughout the Mediterranean and into Northern Europe. It may well have killed close to half the world’s population, some 50 million people.

Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but its impact may be civilizational, weakening the mighty, raising up the modest, and rearranging axes of power across the globe.

The Middle East is a case in point. Since the end of World War II, the wealth of the Persian Gulf monarchies—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar—has overturned the traditional centers of power that dominated the region for millennia: Turkey, Egypt and Persia. While those civilizations were built on agriculture, industry and trade, the monarchs were fabulously wealthy simply because they sat on a sea of oil.

The monarchies—Saudi Arabia in particular—have used that wealth to overthrow governments, silence internal dissent, and sponsor a version of Islam that has spawned terrorists from the Caucasus to the Philippines.

And now they are in trouble.

The Saudi owned oil company, Aramco, just saw its quarterly earnings fall from $24.7 billion to $6.6 billion, a more than 73 percent drop from a year ago.

Not all the slump is due to the pandemic recession. Over the past eight years, Arab oil producers have seen their annual revenues decline from $1 trillion to $300 billion, reflecting a gradual shift away from hydrocarbons toward renewable energy. But Covid-19 has greatly accelerated that trend.

For countries like Saudi Arabia, this is an existential problem. The country has a growing population, much of it unemployed and young—some 70 percent of Saudis are under 30. So far, the royalty has kept a lid on things by handing out cash and make-work jobs, but the drop in revenues is making that more difficult. The Kingdom—as well as the UAE—has hefty financial reserves, but that money will not last forever.

In the Saudi case, a series of economic and political blunders have worsened the crisis.

Riyadh is locked into an expensive military stalemate in Yemen, while also trying to diversify the country’s economy. Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is pushing a $500 billion Red Sea mega project to build a new city, Neom, that will supposedly attract industry, technology and investment.

 However, the plan has drawn little outside money, because investors are spooked by the Crown Prince’s aggressive foreign policy and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  The Saudis are borrowing up to $12 billion just to pay Aramco dividends of $75 billion a year.

The oil crisis has spread to Middle Eastern countries that rely on the monarchs for investments, aid and jobs for their young populations. Cairo sends some 2.5 million Egyptians to work in the Gulf states, and countries like Lebanon provide financial services and consumer goods.

Lebanon is now imploding, Egypt is piling up massive debts, and Iraq can’t pay its bills because oil is stuck at around $46 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs a price of at least $95 a barrel to meet its budgetary needs—and to feed the appetites of its royals.

When the pandemic ends, oil prices will rise, but they are very unlikely to reach the levels they did in the early 2000s when they averaged $100 a barrel. Oil prices have been low ever since Saudi Arabia’s ill-conceived attempt to drive out smaller competitors and re-take its former market share.

In 2014, Riyadh deliberately drove down the price of oil to hurt smaller competitors and throttle expensive arctic drilling projects. But when China’s economy slowed, demand for oil fell, and the price has never recovered.

Of the top 10 oil producers in the world, five are in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the UAE and Kuwait. All of them are in dire straits, although in Iran’s case this is exacerbated by US sanctions. With the exception of Iraq—where massive demonstrations have shaken the country’s leadership—most of those countries have been politically quiet. In the case of the monarchies, of course, it is hard to judge the level of dissatisfaction because they do not tolerate dissent.

But how long will the royals be able to keep the lid on?

“It is a transformation that has speeded up by the corona virus cataclysm,” says Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn, “and will radically change the politics of the Middle East.”

There is no region untouched by the current crisis. With the exception of the presidents of Brazil and the US, most world leaders have concluded that climate change is a reality and that hydocarbons are the major culprit. Even when the pandemic eases, oil use will continue to decline.

The virus has exposed the fault lines among the mighty. The United States has the largest economy in the world and is the greatest military power on the globe, and yet it simply collapsed in the face of Covid-19. With 4 percent of the world’s population the United States accounts for 22 percent of the pandemic’s fatalities.

And the US is not alone. The United Kingdom has more than 40,000 dead, and its economy has plummeted 9 percent. In contrast, Bangladesh, the world’s most crowded country, with twice Great Britain’s population, has around 4,000 deaths and its economy has contracted by only 1.9 percent.

“Covid-19 has blown away the myth about ‘First’ and ‘Third’ world competence,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.

Turkey, Vietnam, Cuba and Nigeria all have far better records fighting the virus than Great Britain and the European Union.

Partly this is because Europe’s population is older. While Europe’s average age in 43, Africa’s is 19. Younger people infected with corona virus generally have better outcomes than older people, but age doesn’t fully explain the differences.

While Turkey developed sophisticated tracking methods to monitor measles, and Nigeria did the same for Ebola, the US and United Kingdom were systematically starving or dismantling public health programs. Instead of stockpiling supplies to deal with a pandemic, Europe and the US relied on countries like China to quickly supply things like personal protection equipment on an “as needed” basis, because it was cheaper than producing their own or paying for storage and maintenance,

But “need” doesn’t work during a worldwide pandemic. China had its own health crisis to deal with. The lag time between the appearance of the virus and obtaining the tools to fight it is directly responsible for the wave of deaths among medical workers and first responders.

And while the Chinese economy has re-bounded—enough to tick the price of oil slightly upwards—the US, Great Britain and the EU are mired in what promises to be a painful recession.

The neo-liberal model of low taxes, privatization of public resources and reliance on the free market has demonstrated its incompetence in the face of a natural disaster. The relationship between wealth and favorable outcomes only works when that wealth is invested in the many, not the few.

The Plague of Justinian destroyed the Roman Empire. The pandemic is not likely to do that to the United States. But it has exposed the fault lines and structural weaknesses that wealth papers over—until  something like Covid-19 comes along to shake the glitter off the system.

                                    —30—

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempoireseries.wordpress.com

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China and the US: The 21st Century’s “Great Game”

China & the US: 21st Century’s “Great Game”

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 18, 2020

 

From 1830 to 1895, the British and Russian empires schemed and plotted over control of Central and South Asia. At the heart of the “Great Game” was England’s certainty that the Russians had designs on India. So wars were fought, borders drawn, and generations of young met death in desolate passes and lonely outposts.

 

In the end, it was all illusion. Russia never planned to challenge British rule in India and the bloody wars settled nothing, although the arbitrary borders and ethnic tensions stoked by colonialism’s strategy of divide and conquer live on today. Thus China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal battle over lines drawn in London, while Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul vie for tiny uninhabited islands, remnants of Imperial Japan.

 

That history is important to keep in mind when one begins to unpack the rationales behind the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.

 

To the Americans, China is a fast rising competitor that doesn’t play by the rules and threatens one of the most important trade routes on the globe in a region long dominated by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially called for regime change.

 

According to Ryan Hass, former China director on the National Security Council, the Trump administration is trying to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by administrations that follow. In short, a cold war not unlike that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

To the Chinese, the last 200 years—China does tend to think in centuries, not decades—has been an anomaly in their long history. Once the richest country on the globe that introduced the world to everything from silk to gunpowder, 19th Century China became a dumping ground for British opium, incapable of even controlling its own coastlines.

 

China has never forgotten those years of humiliation or the damage colonialism helped inflict on its people. Those memories are an ingredient in the current crisis.

 

But China is not the only country with memories.

 

The U.S. has dominated the Pacific Ocean—sometimes called an “American lake”—since the end of World War II. Suddenly Americans have a competitor, although it is a rivalry that routinely gets overblown.

 

An example is conservative New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens, who recently warned that China’s Navy has more ships than the US Navy, ignoring the fact that most of China’s ships are small Coast Guard frigates and corvettes. China’s major strategic concern is the defense of its coasts, where several invasions in the 19th and 20th centuries have come.

 

The Chinese strategy is “area denial”: keeping American aircraft carriers at arm’s length. To this end, Beijing has illegally seized numerous small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to create a barrier to the US Navy.

 

But China major thrust is economic through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not military, and is currently targeting South Asia as an area for development.

 

South Asia is enormously complex, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Its 1.6 billion people constitute almost a quarter of the world’s population, but it only accounts for 2 percent of the global GDP and 1.3 percent of world trade.

 

Those figures translate into a poverty level of 44 percent, just 2 percent higher than the world’s most impoverished region, sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 85 percent of South Asia’s population makes less than $2 a day.

 

Much of this is a result of colonialism, which derailed local economies, suppressed manufacturing, and forced countries to adopt monocrop cultures focused on export. The globalization of capital in the 1980s accelerated the economic inequality that colonialism had bequeathed the region.

 

Development in South Asia has been beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which require borrowers to open their markets to western capital and reduce debts through severe austerity measures, throttling everything from health care to transportation.

 

This economic strategy—sometimes called the “Washington Consensus” –generates “debt traps”: countries cut back on public spending, which depresses their economies and increases debt, which leads to yet more rounds of borrowing and austerity.

 

The World Bank and the IMF have been particularly stingy about lending for infrastructure development, an essential part of building a modern economy. It is “the inadequacy and rigidness of the various western monetary institutions that have driven South Asia into the arms of China,” says economist Anthony Howell in the South Asia Journal.

 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) takes a different tack. Through a combination of infrastructure development, trade and financial aid, countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe are linked into what is essentially a new “Silk Road.” Some 138 countries have signed up.

 

Using a variety of institutions—the China Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank–Beijing has been building roads, rail systems and ports throughout South Asia.

 

For decades, western lenders have either ignored South Asia—with the exception of India—or put so many restrictions on development funds that the region has stagnated economically. The Chinese Initiative has the potential to reverse this, al;arming the West and India, the only nation in the region not to join the BRI.

 

The European Union has also been resistant to the Initiative, although Italy has signed on. A number of Middle East countries have also joined the BRI and the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have signed on to China’s Digital Silk Road, a network of navigation satellites that compete with America’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and European Union’s Galileo. China also recently signed a $400 billon, 25-year trade and military partnership with Iran.

 

Needless to say, Washington is hardly happy about China elbowing its way into a US-dominated region that contains a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies.

 

I a worldwide competition for markets and influence, China is demonstrating considerable strengths. That, of course, creates friction. The US, and to a certain extent the EU, have launched a campaign to freeze China out of markets and restrict its access to advanced technology. The White House successfully lobbied Great Britain and Australia to bar the Chinese company, Huawei, from installing a 5G digital network, and is pressuring Israel and Brazil to do the same.

 

Not all of the current tensions are economic. The Trump administration needs a diversion from its massive failure to control the pandemic, and the Republican Party has made China bashing a centerpiece of its election strategy. There is even the possibility that the White House might pull off an “October surprise” and initiate some kind of military clash with China.

 

It is unlikely that Trump wants a full-scale war, but an incident in the South China Sea might rally Americans behind the White House. The danger is real, especially since polls in China and the United States show there is growing hostility between both groups of people.

 

But the tensions go beyond President Trump’s desperate need to be re-elected. China is re-asserting itself as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with worldwide. That the US and its allies view that with enmity is hardly a surprise. Britain did its best to block the rise of Germany before World War I, and the US did much the same with Japan in the lead up to the Pacific War.

 

Germany and Japan were great military powers with a willingness to use violence to get their way. China is not a great military power and is more interested in creating profits than empires. In any case, a war between nuclear-armed powers is almost unimaginable (which is not to say it can’t happen).

 

China recently softened its language toward the US, stressing peaceful co-existence. “We should not let nationalism and hotheadness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” says Xu Quinduo of the state-run China Radio. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.”

 

The new tone suggests that China has no enthusiasm for competing with the US military, but would rather take the long view and let initiatives like the Belt and Road work for it. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese don’t want to see Trump re-elected and they clearly have decided not to give him any excuse to ratchet up the tensions as an election year ploy.

 

China’s recent clash with India, and its bullying of countries in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, have isolated Beijing, and the Chinese leadership may be waking to the fact that they need allies, not adversaries.

 

And patience.

 

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India and China: Behind the Conflict

India & China: Behind the Conflict

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 2, 2020

 

 

Chinese and Indian forces have pulled back from their confrontation in the Himalayas, but the tensions that set off the deadly encounter this past June—the first on the China/India border since 1975—are not going away. Indeed, a combination of local disputes, regional antagonisms and colonial history have brewed up a poisonous elixir that could pose a serious danger to peace in South Asia.

 

In part, the problem is Britain’s colonial legacy. The “border” in dispute is an arbitrary line drawn across terrain that doesn’t lend itself to clear boundaries. The architect, Henry McMahon, drew it to maximize British control of a region that was in play during the 19th Century “Great Game” between England and Russia for control of Central Asia. Local concerns were irrelevant.

 

The treaty was signed between Tibet and Britain in 1914. While India accepts the 550-mile McMahon Line as the border between Indian and China, the Chinese have never recognized the boundary.

 

Sir Mortimer Durand, Britain’s lead colonial officer in India, drew a similar “border” in 1893 between Pakistan (then India’s “Northern Territories”) and Afghanistan that Kabul has never accepted, and which is still the source of friction between the two countries. Colonialism may be gone, but its effects still linger.

 

While the target for the McMahon Line was Russia, it has always been a sore spot for China, not only because Beijing’s protests were ignored, but also because the Chinese saw it as a potential security risk for its western provinces.

 

If England, which had already humiliated China in the two Opium Wars, as well as by seizing Shanghai and Hong Kong, could lop off Tibet—which China sees as part of its empire—so might another country: Like India.

 

Indeed, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and absorbed Kashmir and Jammu in 2019, the Chinese saw the grab as a threat to the security of Tibet and its restive western province of Xinjiang. The area in which the recent fighting took place, the Galwan Valley, is close to a road linking Tibet with Xinjiang.

 

The nearby Aksai Chin, which China seized from India in the 1962 border war, not only controls the Tibet-Xinjiang highway, but also the area through which China is building an oil pipeline. The Chinese see the pipeline—which will go from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang—as a way to bypass key choke points in the Indian Ocean controlled by the US Navy.

 

The $62 billion project is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a piece of the huge Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure and increase trade between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and China.

 

China moves some 80 percent of its oil by sea and is increasingly nervous about a budding naval alliance between the US and Beijing’s regional rivals, India and Japan. In the yearly Malabar exercises the three powers war game closing the Malacca Straits through which virtually all of China’s oil passes. The Pakistan-China pipeline oil will be more expensive than tanker supplied oil—one estimate is five times more—but it will be secure from the US.

 

In 2019, however, India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, pledged to take back Aksai Chin from China, thus exposing the pipeline to potential Indian interdiction.

 

From China’s point of view the bleak landscape of rock, ice and very little oxygen is central to its strategy of securing access to energy supplies.

 

The region is also part of what is called the world’s “third pole,” the vast snowfields and glaciers that supply the water for 11 countries in the region, including India and China. Both countries make up a third of the world’s population but have access to only 10 percent of the globe’s water supplies. By 2030, half of India’s population—700 million people—will lack adequate drinking water.

 

The “pole” is the source of 10 major rivers, most of them fed by the more than 14,000 thousand glaciers that dot the Himalayas and Hindu Kush. By 2100, two-thirds of those glaciers will be gone, the victims of climate change. China largely controls the “pole.”

 

It may be stony and cold, but it is lifeblood to 11 countries in the region.

 

The recent standoff has a history. In 2017, Indian and Chinese troops faced-off in Doklam—Dongland to China—the area where Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim come together. There were fist fights and lots of pushing and shoving, but casualties consisted of black eyes and bloody noses. But the 73-day confrontation apparently shocked the Chinese. “For China, the Doklam stand-off raised fundamental questions regarding the nature of India’s threat,” says Yun Sun, a senor fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

 

Doklam happened just as relations with the Trump administration were headed south, although tensions between Washington and Beijing date back to the 1998-99 Taiwan crisis. Then US President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area, one of which traversed the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland. The incident humiliated China, which re-tooled its military and built up its navy in the aftermath.

 

In 2003, US President George W. Bush wooed India to join Japan, South Korea and Australia in a regional alliance aimed at “containing” China. The initiative was only partly successful, but it alarmed China. Beijing saw the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” and the current tensions with the Trump administration as part of the same strategy.

 

If ones adds to this US anti-missile systems in South Korea, the deployment of 1500 Marines to Australia, and the buildup of American bases in Guam and Wake, it is easy to see why the Chinese would conclude that Washington had it out for them.

 

China has responded aggressively, seizing and fortifying disputed islands and reefs, and claiming virtually all of the South China Sea as home waters. It has rammed and sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels, bullied Malaysian oilrigs, and routinely violated Taiwan’s air space.

 

China has also strengthened relations with neighbors that India formally dominated, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Maldives, initiatives which India resents. In short, there are some delicate diplomatic issues in the region, ones whose solutions are ill served by military posturing or arms races.

 

Was the dustup in the Galwan Valley an extension of China’s growing assertiveness in Asia? Partly, but the Modi government has also been extremely provocative, particularly in its illegal seizure of Kashmir and Jammu. In the Galwan incident, the Indians were building an airfield and a bridge near the Chinese border that would have allowed Indian armor and modern aircraft to potentially threaten Chinese forces.

 

There is a current in the Indian military that would like to erase the drubbing India took in its 1962 border war. The thinking is that the current Indian military is far stronger and better armed than it was 58 years ago, and it has more experience than China’s Peoples Liberation Army. The last time the Chinese army went to war was its ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

 

But that is dangerous thinking. India’s “experience” consists mainly of terrorizing Kashmiri civilians and an occasional fire fight with lightly armed insurgents. In 1962, India’s and China’s economies were similar in size. Today, China’s economy is five times larger and its military budget four times greater.

 

China is clearly concerned that it might face a two-front war: India to its south, the US and its allies to the west. That is not a comfortable position, and one that presents dangers to the entire region. Pushing a nuclear-armed country into a corner is never a good idea.

 

The Chinese need to accept some of the blame for the current tensions. Beijing has bullied smaller countries in the region and refused to accept the World Court’s ruling on its illegal occupation of a Philippine reef. Its heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its oppressive treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, is winning it no friends, regionally and internationally.

 

There is no evidence that the US, India and China want a war, one whose effect on the international economy would make Covid-19 look like a mild head cold. But since all three powers are nuclear armed, there is always the possibility—even if remote—of things getting out of hand.

 

In reality, all three countries desperately need one another if the world is to confront the existential danger of climate change, nuclear war, and events like pandemics. It is a time for diplomacy and cooperation, not confrontation.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tipping the Nuclear Dominos

Tipping The Nuclear Dominos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 12, 2020

 

If the Trump administration follows through on its threat to re-start nuclear tests, it will complete the unraveling of more than 50 years of arms control agreements, taking the world back to the days when school children practiced “duck and cover,” and people built backyard bomb shelters.

 

It will certainly be the death knell for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, passed by the UN’S General Assembly in 1996. The Treaty has never gone into effect because, while 184 nations endorsed it, eight key countries have yet to sign on: the US, China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Iran and North Korea.

 

Evan without ratification, the Treaty has had an effect. Many nuclear-armed countries, including the US, Britain, and Russia, stopped testing by the early 1990s. China and France stopped in 1996 and Indian and Pakistan in 1998. Only North Korea continues to test.

 

Halting the tests helped slow the push to make weapons smaller, lighter and more lethal, although over the years countries have learned how to design more dangerous weapons using computers and sub-critical tests. For instance, without actually testing any weapon, the US recently created a “super fuze” that makes its warheads far more capable of knocking out an opponent’s missile silos. Washington has also just deployed a highly destabilizing low-yield warhead that has yet to be detonated.

 

Nonetheless, the test ban did—and does—slow the development of nuclear weapons and retards their proliferation to other countries. Its demise will almost certainly open the gates for others—Saudi Arabia, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and Brazil—to join the nuclear club.

 

“It would blow up any chance of avoiding a dangerous new nuclear arms race,” says Beatrice Fihn of the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and “complete the erosion of the global arms control framework.”

 

While the Trump administration has accelerated withdrawal from nuclear agreements, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement, and START II, the erosion of treaties goes back almost 20 years.

 

At stake is a tapestry of agreements dating back to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty that ended atmospheric testing. That first agreement was an important public health victory. A generation of “down winders” in Australia, the American Southwest, the South Pacific and Siberia are still paying the price for open-air testing.

 

The Partial Test Ban also broke ground for a host of other agreements.

 

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) restricted the spread of nuclear weapons and banned nuclear-armed countries from threatening non-nuclear nations with weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, key parts of the agreement have been ignored by the major nuclear powers, especially Article VI that requires nuclear disarmament, followed by general disarmament.

 

What followed the NPT were a series of treaties that slowly dismantled some of the tens of thousands of warheads with the capacity to quite literally destroy the planet. At one point, the US and Russia had more than 50,000 warheads between them.

 

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty reduced the possibility of a first-strike attack against another nuclear power. The same year, the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) put a limit on the number of long-range missiles. Two years later, SALT II cut back on the number of highly destabilizing multiple warheads on missiles and put ceilings on bombers and missiles.

 

The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement banned land-based medium-range missiles in Europe that had put the continent on a hair-trigger. Four years later, START I cut the number of warheads in the Russian and American arsenals by 80 percent. That still left each side with 6,000 warheads and 1600 missiles and bombers. It would take 20 years to negotiate START II , which reduced both sides to 1550 deployed nuclear warheads and banished multiple warheads from land-based missiles.

 

All of this is on the verge of collapse. While Trump has been withdrawing from treaties, it was President George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 that tipped the first domino.

 

The death of the ABM agreement put the danger of a first-strike was back on the table and launched a new arms race, As the Obama administration began deploying ABMs in Europe, South Korea and Japan, the Russians began designing weapons to overcome them.

 

The ABM’s demise also led to the destruction of the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) that banned medium-range, ground-based missiles from Europe. The US claimed the Russians were violating the INF by deploying a cruise missile that could be fitted with a nuclear warhead. The Russians countered that the American ABM system, the Mark 41 Ageis Ashore, could be similarly configured. Moscow offered to let its cruise be examined, but NATO wasn’t interested.

 

The White House has made it clear that it will not renew the START II treaty unless it includes Chinese medium-range missiles, but that is a poison pill. The Chinese have about one fifth the number of warheads that Russia and the US have, and most of China’s potential opponents—India, Japan, and US bases in the region—are within medium range.

 

While Chinese and Russian medium-range missiles do not threaten the American homeland, US medium-range missiles in Asia and Europe could decimate both countries. In any case, how would such an agreement be configured? Would the US and Russia reduce their warhead stockpile to China’s 300 weapons, or would China increase its weapons levels to match Moscow and Washington? Both are unlikely.

 

If START II goes, so do the limits on warheads and launchers, and we are back to the height of the Cold War.

 

Why?

 

On many levels this makes no sense. Russia and the US have more than 12,000 warheads between them, more than enough to end civilization. Recent studies of the impact of a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan found it would have worldwide repercussions by altering rain patterns and disrupting agriculture. Imagine what a nuclear war involving China, Russia, and the US and its allies would do.

 

Partly this is a matter of simple greed.

 

The new program will cost in the range of $1.7 trillion, with the possibility of much more. Modernizing the “triad” will require new missiles, ships, bombers and warheads, all of which will enrich virtually every segment of the US arms industry.

 

But this is about more than a rich payday. There is a section of the US military and political class that would like to use nuclear weapons on a limited scale. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly reverses the Obama administration’s move away from nuclear weapons, reasserting their importance in US military doctrine.

 

That is what the recently deployed low yield warhead on the US’s Trident submarine is all about. The W76-2 packs a five-kiloton punch, or about one-third the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a far cry from the standard nuclear warheads with yields of 100 kilotons to 475 kilotons.

 

The US rationale is that a small warhead will deter the Russians from using their low yield nuclear warheads against NATO, The Trump administration says the Russians have a plan to do exactly that, figuring the US would hesitate to risk an all-out nuclear exchange by replying in kind. There is, in fact, little proof such a plan exists, and Moscow denies it.

 

According to the Trump administration, China and Russia are also violating the ban on nuclear test by setting off low yield, hard to detect, warheads. No evidence has been produced to show this, and no serious scientist supports the charge. Modern seismic weapons detection is so efficient it can detect warheads that fail to go critical, so-called duds.

 

Bear baiting—and dragon drubbing in the case of China—is a tried and true mechanism for opening the arms spigot.

 

Some of this is about making arms manufactures and generals happy, but it is also about the fact that the last war the US won was Grenada. The US military lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, made of mess of Libya, Somalia and Syria, and is trying to extract itself from a stalemate in Yemen.

 

Just suppose some of those wars were fought with low-yield nukes? While it seems deranged—like using hand grenades to get rid of kitchen ants—some argue that if we don’t take the gloves off we will continue to lose wars or get bogged down in stalemates.

 

The Pentagon knows the Russians are not a conventional threat because the US and NATO vastly outnumber and out spend Moscow. China is more of a conventional challenge, but any major clash could go nuclear and no one wants that.

 

According to the Pentagon, the W76-2 may be used to respond “to significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” on the US or its allies’ “infrastructure,” including cyber war. That could include Iran.

 

Early in his term, President Trump asked why the US can’t use its nuclear weapons. If Washington successfully torpedoes START II and re-starts testing, he may get to do exactly that.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Military Spending and the Pandemic

Plague & War

Dispatches From the Edge

May 9, 2020

 

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise”

–Albert Camus

“The Plague”

 

Camus’ novel of a lethal contagion in the North African city of Oran is filled with characters all too recognizable today: indifferent or incompetent officials, short sighted and selfish citizens, and lots of great courage. What not even Camus could imagine, however, is a society in the midst of a deadly epidemic pouring vast amounts of wealth into instruments of death.

 

Welcome to the world of the hypersonic weapons, devices that are not only superfluous, but which will almost certainly not work, They will, however, cost enormous amounts of money. At a time when countries across the globe are facing economic chaos, financial deficits and unemployment at Great Depression levels, arms manufacturers are set to cash in big.

 

Hypersonic weapons are missiles that go five times faster than sound—3,800 mph—although some reportedly can reach speeds of Mach 20—15,000 mph. They come in two basic varieties, one powered by a high-speed scramjet, the other –launched from a plane or missile—glides to its target. The idea behind the weapons is that their speed and maneuverability will make them virtually invulnerable to anti-missile systems.

 

Currently there is a hypersonic arms race going on among China, Russia and the US, and, according to the Pentagon, the Americans are desperately trying to catch up with its two adversaries.

 

Truth is the first casualty in an arms race.

 

In the 1950s, it was the “bomber gap” between the Americans and the Soviets. In the 1960s, it was the “missile gap” between the two powers. Neither gap existed, but vast amounts of national treasure were, nonetheless, poured into long-range aircraft and thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The enormous expenditures on those weapons, in turn, heightened tensions between the major powers and on at least three occasions came very close to touching off a nuclear war.

 

In the current hypersonic arms race, “hype” is the operational word. “The development of hypersonic weapons in the United States,” says physicist James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, ”has been largely motivated by technology, not by strategy. In other words, technologists have decided to try and develop hypersonic weapons because it seems like they should be useful for something, not because there is a clearly defined mission need for them to fulfill.”

 

They have certainly been “useful” to Lockheed Martin, the largest arms manufacturer in the world. The company has already received $3.5 billion to develop the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (Arrow) glide missile, and the scramjet- driven Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (Hacksaw) missile.

 

The Russians also have several hypersonic missiles, including the Avangard glide vehicle, a missile said to be capable of Mach 20. China is developing several hypersonic missiles, including the DF-ZF, supposedly capable of taking out aircraft carriers.

 

In theory hypersonic missiles are unstoppable. In real life, not so much.

 

The first problem is basic physics: speed in the atmosphere produces heat. High speed generates lots of it. ICBMs avoid this problem with a blunt nose cone that deflects the enormous heat of re-entering the atmosphere as the missile approaches its target. But it only has to endure heat for a short time because much of its flight is in frictionless low earth orbit.

 

Hypersonic missiles, however, stay in the atmosphere their entire flight. That is the whole idea. An ICBM follows a predictable ballistic curve, much like an inverted U and, in theory, can be intercepted. A missile traveling as fast as an ICBM but at low altitude, however, is much more difficult to spot or engage.

 

But that’s when physics shows up and does a Las Vegas: what happens on the drawing board stays on the drawing board.

 

Without a heat deflecting nose cone, high-speed missiles are built like big needles, since they need to decrease the area exposed to the atmosphere Even so, they are going to run very hot. And if they try to maneuver, that heat will increase. Since they can’t carry a large payload they will have to very accurate, but as a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, that is “problematic.”

 

According to the Union, an object traveling Mach 5 for a period of time “slowly tears itself apart during the flight.” The heat is so great it creates a “plasma” around the craft that makes it difficult “to reference GPS or receive outside course correction commands.”

 

If the target is moving, as with an aircraft carrier or a mobile missile, it will be almost impossible to alter the weapon’s flight path to intercept it. And any external radar array would never survive the heat or else be so small that it would have very limited range. In short, you can’t get from here to there.

 

Lockheed Martin says the tests are going just fine, but then Lockheed Martin is the company that builds the F-35, a fifth generation stealth fighter that simply doesn’t work. It does, however, cost $1.5 trillion, the most expensive weapons system in US history. The company has apparently dropped the scramjet engine because it tears itself apart, hardly a surprise.

 

The Russians and Chinese claim success with their hypersonic weapons and have even begun deploying them. But Pierre Sprey, a Pentagon designer associated with the two very successful aircraft—the F-16 and the A-10—told defense analyst Andrew Cockburn that he is suspicious of the tests.

 

“I very much doubt those test birds would have reached the advertised range had they maneuvered unpredictably,” he told Cockburn. “More likely they were forced to fly a straight, predictable path. In which case hypersonics offer no advantage whatsoever over traditional ballistic missiles.”

 

While Russia, China and the US lead the field in the development of hypersonics, Britain, France, India and Japan have joined the race.

 

Why is everyone building them?

 

At least the Russians and the Chinese have a rationale. The Russians fear the US anti-missile system might cancel out their ICBMs, so they want a missile that can maneuver. The Chinese would like to keep US aircraft carriers away from their shores. But anti-missile systems can be easily fooled by the use of cheap decoys, and the carriers are vulnerable to much more cost effective conventional weapons. In any case hypersonic missiles can’t do what they are advertised to do.

 

For the Americans, hypersonics are little more than a very expensive subsidy for the arms corporations. Making and deploying weapons that don’t work is nothing new. The F-35 is a case in point, but nevertheless, there have been many systems produced over the years that were deeply flawed.

 

The US has spent over $200 billion on anti-missile systems and once they come off the drawing boards, none of them work very well, if at all.

 

Probably the one that takes the prize is the Mark-28 tactical nuke, nick named the “Davy Crockett,” and its M-388 warhead. Because the M-388 was too delicate to be used in conventional artillery, it was fired from a recoilless rife with a range of 2.5 miles. Problem: if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction the Crockett cooked its three-man crew. It was only tested once and found to be “totally inaccurate.” So, end of story? Not exactly. A total of 2,100 were produced and deployed, mostly in Europe.

 

While the official military budget is $738 billion, if one pulls all US defense related spending together, the actual cost for taxpayers is $1.25 trillion a year, according to William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. Half that amount would go a long way toward providing not only adequate medical support during the Covid-19 crisis, it would pay jobless Americans a salary

 

Given that there are more than 31 million Americans now unemployed and the possibility that numerous small businesses—restaurants in particular—will never re-open, building and deploying a new generation of weapons is a luxury the US—and other countries—cannot afford. In the very near future, countries are going to have to choose whether they make guns or vaccines.

 

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India & the Corona Virus: Independent Press Fights Back

India & The Corona Virus

Dispatches From The Edge

April 12, 2020

 

 

While the corona virus has focused much of the world on Europe and the United States, India promises to be the greatest victim of the disease. But other than a slick public relations campaign, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to confront the crisis. Indeed, a number of policy moves by Delhi have likely fed the spread of the dangerous virus.

 

When Modi announced a 21-day nationwide shutdown on March 24, he did so without any warning. Almost before the Prime Minister had finished talking, panicked city residents—mostly middle class—poured into the streets to stock up on food and medicines, almost certainly accelerating the spread of COVID-19.

 

The shutdown instantly made tens of millions of people jobless, setting many of them in motion toward their home villages. Since public transportation has been shut down, that involved journeys of over 300 miles. And because many villages are blocking outsiders, where migrants will get food and water is anyone’s guess.

 

Except for a few independent news sources, much of the chaos set off by the March 24 orders has gone unreported. Using a combination of financial pressure and outright censorship, Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have silenced much of the media. Newspapers and broadcast outlets are finding that criticism of Modi or the BJP results in the loss of government advertising, a major source of revenue. Modi has also filed expensive and difficult to fight tax cases against opposition media outlets.

 

In the case of the corona virus, the government got the Supreme Court to order all media to “publish the official version” of the health crisis, which, in practice, has meant feel-good stories.

 

The success that the BJP has had in corralling India’s 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, and 178 television news channels has been sharply condemned by media organizations. Reporters Without Borders rates India a lowly 140 out of 180 countries on its freedom index.

 

Modi has led a high-profile campaign to create a regional response to the COVID-19 crisis. On March 15, Modi convened a teleconference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to create a corona virus emergency fund and exchange medical information. On March 26, Modi expanded the effort to draw in the G-20, an international forum of wealthy governments and banks that includes the European Union.

 

But there is suspicion that Modi’s regional and international efforts have more to do with repairing his government’s reputation than confronting the health crisis.

 

Modi’s unilateral seizure of Jammu and Kashmir in violation of the Indian constitution—and subsequent crackdown on any and all opposition to the takeover—was widely condemned internationally. The recent move by the Modi government to redefine “citizenship” in a way that excludes Muslims has also been wide criticized. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Eights, Michelle Bachelet, called the law a violation of several international agreements that India is a party to.

 

There has been scant follow through with the SAARC or the G-20, and the government has done little at home. India’s public health system is fragile at the best of times, with only 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. In contrast, Italy has almost seven times that figure.

 

One important independent outlet reporting on the Covid-19 crisis has been Rural India Online, part of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a network of reporters and photojournalists who report on India’s rural dwellers who make up 70 percent of the population.

 

P.Sainath, PARI’s founder and editor—a winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award and Amnesty International’s Global Award for Human Rights—is sharply critical of the Modi government’s actions, and PARI’s reporters have covered what the mainstream media has been intimidated from reporting: the massive number of poor who have taken to the roads to return home, cancer patients sleeping outside of hospitals in the hope of getting treatment, and day laborers who cannot afford to miss any work. One told PARI reporter Shraddha Agarwal, “Soap won’t save us if we die of hunger first.”

 

PARI reporters have also done a number of stories on India’s sanitation workers, few of whom have been provided with gloves or masks. “The government is saying clean hands constantly,” Mumbai sanitation worker Archana Chabuskwan told PARI reporter Jyoti Shinoli. “How do we do that?” Hand sanitizers are too expensive—Chabuskwan makes $2.63 cents a day—water supplies are iffy and social distancing is impossible. “We have to share a public toilet with hundreds of people.”

 

If sanitation workers do get sick—or, for that matter, any of Mumbai’s 20 million residents—they are in trouble. Government hospitals currently have 400 ventilators and 1,000 intensive care beds available for the entire city.

 

India’s health crisis is longstanding, and while the actions of the Modi government will almost certainly worsen the current crisis, for the past 30 years Indian governments—right and center—have cut back on health care and privatized much of the system. “We have one of the lowest health expenditures—barely 1.2 percent (as a share of the GDP) in the world,” writes Sainath. Almost a quarter of a million Indians die each year of tuberculosis and 100,000 children from diarrhea.

 

The US spends about 17 percent of its GDP on health.

 

According to Sainath, “Health expenditures across India today are possibly the fastest growing component of rural family debt.” A study by the Public Health Foundation of India found that in 2011-12 some 55 million people had been impoverished by health costs, 38 million by the cost of medicine alone.

 

That is what a substantial part of India’s 1.3 billion people face as COVID-19 ramps up, and they are unlikely to get much help from the BJP or Modi. When China finally went public with the dangers posed by the corona virus, India was convulsed with sectarian riots touched off by some of Modi’s cabinet members. Over 50 people were killed in New Delhi and hundreds injured as rightwing mobs organized by the Rashtyria Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rampaged through the streets.

 

The RSS—an organization that philosopher and political commentator Aijaz Ahmad describes as the “oldest, largest and most successful far-right group in the world today”—is the real power behind Modi. The BJP is largely a front for the RSS, a Hindu fundamentalist organization that is “profoundly hierarchical and secretive,” according to Ahmed.

 

The top-down, no warning decree on the corona virus is typical of the way the RSS functions. In 2016—again, with no warning—Modi unilaterally canceled all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, throwing the country into currency chaos and further impoverishing large numbers of poor Indians.

 

The RSS’s major goal is the creation of a Hindu-centered state, and it is not shy about using violence to do that, either of the mob variety, or by assassination. Gunmen have killed several prominent opponents of the RSS over the past several years, killings that have never been solved.

 

The focus on religion has skewed the government’s priorities. The chief minister of India’s most populous state, Utter Pradash, spent $91 million to build a huge statue of the god Ram, while short changing emergency medical facilities.

 

With much of India’s mainstream press either co-opted or cowed, it is alternative sources like the People’s Archive of Rural India that has picked up the slack and reported what is happening to the vast majority of Indians that live outside the huge metropolises, as well as what slum dwellers and city sanitation workers are facing.

 

So far, Modi and the RSS have avoided having to answer for the increase in violence and the social priorities that have widened the gap between rich and poor. But COVID-19 may change that.

 

The PARI has put forth a series of demands to address the current crisis, including the immediate distribution of surplus grains, a shift from cash crops to food crops, and the nationalization of private medical facilities nationwide.

 

The COVID-19 crisis is the third disease to go pandemic since the great 1918-20 flu, which may have killed up to 100 million people. But climate change is producing conditions that favor the growth of diseases like the corona virus and vector-driven pathogens like dengue and malaria. The next pandemic is just around the corner, and unless there is a concentrated effort to make health care a human right, it is only a matter to time before the next mega-killer strikes.

 

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How Austerity and Anti-immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed

The Corona Virus & Immigration

Dispatches From the Edge

Mar. 25, 2020

 

As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.

 

Why?

 

Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the US. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity”—more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

 

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, rightwing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

 

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way be accident. Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though the immigrant population—a little over 600,000—is not large by international standards. Immigrants as a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain as well.

 

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, The Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

 

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, topped only by Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years, we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year]” equal to the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

 

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

 

As long as there is no a major health crisis, countries muddle though, but when something like the Corona virus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

 

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal. From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults age 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of Corona virus deaths in Italy is 81.

 

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough troops or resources to resist it.

 

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

 

The US is in a very similar position, but for somewhat different reasons. As Pulitzer Prize-winning medical writer Laurie Garrett points out, it was managed care that has derailed the ability of the American health system to respond to a crisis. “What happened with managed care is that hospitals eliminated surplus beds and surplus personnel. So, far from being ready to deal with surge capacity, we’re actually understaffed and we have massive nurse shortages across the nation. “

 

Much of that shortage can also be attributed to managed care. Nurses are overloaded with too many patients, work 10 and 12 hour shifts on a regular basis, and, while initially well paid, their compensation tends to flatten out over the long run. Burn out is a major professional risk for nursing.

 

Yet in a pandemic, nursing is the most important element in health care according to John Barry, author of the “The Great Influenza” about the 1918-19 virus that killed up to 100 million people, including 675,000 Americans. A post mortem of the pandemic found “What could help, more than doctors, were nurses. Nursing could ease the strain of a patient, keep a patient hydrated, calm, provide the best nutrition, and cool the intense fevers.” Nurses, the study showed, gave victims “the best possible chance to survive.”

 

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system and a deteriorating infrastructure—Rome was literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector or burdensome national debt.

 

Berlusconi, leader of the rightwing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giogia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

 

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

 

The Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

 

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of International Law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

 

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

 

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

 

Nor is Italy is facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching—but not reaching—2.1.

 

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population, not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

 

Spain—which saw the rightwing anti-immigration party do well in the last election—is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

 

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, too, old people need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

 

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in chocking off immigration. While the US replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

 

It may be that for-profit health care simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe—which have better outcomes than the American system’s—only work if they are well funded.

 

To the biblical four horsemen—war, famine, wild beasts and plague—we can add two more: profits and austerity.

 

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Turkey’s Failed Gamble in Syria

Syria-A Turkish Dilemma

Dispatches From The Edge

March 6, 2020

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest gamble in Syria’s civil war appears to have come up snake eyes. Instead of halting the Damascus government’s siege of the last rebel held province, Idlib, Turkey has backed off, and Ankara’s Syrian adventure is fueling growing domestic resistance to the powerful autocrat.

 

The crisis began on Feb. 25, when anti-government rebels, openly backed by Turkish troops, artillery, and armor, attacked the Syrian Army at the strategic town of Saraqeb, the junction of Highways 4 and 5 linking Aleppo to Damascus and the Mediterranean. The same day Russian warplanes in Southern Idlib were fired upon by MANPADS (man portable air-defense systems), anti-aircraft weapons from Turkish military outposts. The Russian air base at Khmeimim was also attacked by MANPADS and armed Turkish drones.

 

What happened next is still murky. According to Ankara, a column of Turkish troops on its way to bring supplies to Turkish observer outposts in Idlib were attacked by Syrian war planes and artillery, killing some 34 soldiers and wounding more than 70. Some sources report much higher causalities.

 

But according to Al Monitor, a generally reliable on-line publication, the column was a mechanized infantry battalion of some 400 soldiers, and it wasn’t Syrian warplanes that did the damage, but Russian Su-34s packing KAB-1500Ls, bunker busting laser guided bombs with 2400 lb warheads. Syrian Su-22 fighters were involved, but apparently only to spook the soldiers into taking cover in several large buildings. Then the Su-34s moved in and brought the buildings down on the Turks.

 

The Russians deny their planes were involved, and the Turks blamed it all on Damascus, but when it comes to Syria, the old saying that truth is the first casualty of war is pretty much a truism.

 

Erdogan initially blustered and threatened to launch an invasion of Idlib—which, in any case, was already underway—but after initially remaining silent, Rear Adm. Oleg Zhuravlev said that Russia “cannot guarantee the safety of flights for Turkish aircraft over Syria.”

 

The Turkish President is a hardhead, but he is not stupid. Troops, armor and artillery without air cover would be sitting ducks. So the Turks pulled back, the Syrians moved in, and now Russian military police are occupying Saraqeb. Russia has also deployed two cruise missile armed frigates off the Syrian coast.

 

But for Erdogan, the home front is heating up.

 

Even before the current crisis, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been demanding that Erdogan brief the parliament about the situation in Idlib, but the President’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted down the request. The rightwing, nationalist Good Party—a CHP ally— made similar demands, which have also been sidelined.

 

All the opposition parties have called for direct negotiations with the Assad government.

 

The worry is that Turkey is drifting toward a war with Syria without any input from the Parliament. On Feb. 12, Erdogan met with AKP deputies and told them that if Turkish soldiers suffered any more casualties—at the time the death toll was 14 dead, 45 wounded—that Turkey would “hit anywhere” in Syria. To the opposition that sounded awfully like a threat to declare war.

 

Engin Altay, the CHP’s deputy chair, said “The president has to brief the parliament, Idlib is not an internal matter for the AKP.” Altay has also challenged Erdogan’s pledge to separate Turkey from the extremist rebels, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. “Is this even possible?” he asked, “There is no way to distinguish these from each other.”

 

Turkey made an agreement with Russia in 2018 to allow it to set up observation posts in Idlib if it pledged not to support extremists like Tahrir al-Sham , but Ankara has facilitated the entry of such groups into Syria from the beginning of the war, giving them free passage and supplying them with massive amounts of fertilizer for bombs. In any case, the extremists eliminated any so-called “moderate” opposition groups years ago.

 

“Turkey said it would disassociate moderate elements from radicals,” says Ahmet Kamil Erozan of the Good Party, “but it couldn’t do that.’

 

The Kurdish-based progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarian Necdet Ipekyuz charged “Idlib has become a nest for all jihadists. It has turned into a trouble spot for Turkey and the world. And who is protecting these jihadists? Who is safeguarding them?

 

Erdogan has jailed many of the HDP’s members of parliament and AKP appointees have replaced the Party’s city mayors. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands dismissed from their jobs. The media has largely been silenced through outright repression—Turkey has jailed more journalists than any country in the world—or ownership by pro-Erdogan businessmen.

 

But body bags are beginning to come home from a war that looks to a lot of Turks like a quagmire. The war is costly at a time of serious economic trouble for the Turkish economy. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and the lira continues to fall in value. Polls show that a majority of Turks—57 percent—are more concerned with the economy than with terrorism. While Turks have rallied around the soldiers, before the recent incident more than half the population opposed any escalation of the war.

 

And Turkey seems increasingly isolated. Erdogan called an emergency session of NATO on Feb. 28, but got little more than “moral” support. NATO wants nothing to do with Syria and certainly doesn’t want a confrontation with Russia, especially because many of the alliance’s members are not comfortable with Turkey’s intervention in Syria. In any case, Turkey is not under attack. Only its soldiers, who are occupying parts of Syria in violation of international law, are vulnerable.

 

The Americans also ruled out setting up a no-fly zone over Idlib.

 

Erdogan is not only being pressed by the opposition, but from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) within his own ruling coalition. The MHP, or the “Gray Wolves,” have long represented Turkey’s extreme right. “The Turkish nation must walk into Damascus along with the Turkish army,” says Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP.

 

Erdogan has no intention of marching on Syria’s capital, even if he could pull it off. The President wants Turkey to be a regional player and occupying parts of Syria keeps Ankara on the board. But that line of reasoning is now under siege.

 

Turkey’s allies in the Syrian civil war are ineffective unless led by and supported by the Turkish army. But without air cover, the Turkish army is severely limited in what it can do, and the Russians are losing patience. Moscow would like the Syria war to end and to bring some of its military home, and Erdogan is making that difficult.

 

Moscow can be difficult as well, as Turkey may soon find out. The two countries are closely tied on energy, and, with the sanctions blocking Iranian oil and gas, Ankara is more and more dependent on Russian energy sources. Russia just built the new TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black sea and is building a nuclear power plant for Turkey. Erdogan can only go so far in alienating Russia.

 

Stymied in Syria and pressured at home, Erdogan’s choices are increasingly limited. He may try to escalate Turkish involvement in Syria, but the risks for that are high. He has unleashed the refugees on Europe, but not many are going, and Europe is brutally blocking them. He may move to call early elections before his domestic support erodes any further, but he might just lose those elections, particularly since the AKP has split into two parties. A recent poll found that 50 percent of Turks say they will not vote for Erdogan.

 

Or he could return to his successful policies of a decade ago of “no problems with the neighbors.”

 

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Irish Elections and Reunification

Irish Elections & unification

Dispatches From the Edge

Feb. 15, 2020

 

The victory by Ireland’s leftwing Sinn Fein Party in the Republic’s recent election has not only overturned some 90 years of domination by the island’s two center-right parties, it suddenly puts the issue of Irish reunification on the agenda. While the campaign was fought over bread and butter issues like housing, the collapsing health care system, and homelessness, a united Ireland has long been Sinn Fein’s raison d’être. In the aftermath, Party leaders called for a border referendum on the subject.

 

But nothing is simple in Ireland, most of all, reunification.

 

For starters, the election’s outcome is enormously complex. Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) did get the largest number of first-choice votes—Ireland has a system of rated voting—but not by much. The center-right parties that have taken turns ruling since 1922—Fine Gael (the Irish Tribe) and Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny)—took 22% and 21% respectively to Sinn Fein’s 24.5%.

 

Although other progressive parties, like the Greens, also did well, it would be extremely difficult to form a government without one of the two big traditional parties. Fine Gael has ruled out working with Sinn Fein because of its association with the Irish Republican Army, but Fianna Fail is hedging its bets. Party leader Michael Martin was coy in the aftermath of the vote, saying he respected the democratic decision of the Irish people.

 

But getting from the election’s outcome to actual governance promises to be a difficult process, and one that, in the end, might fail, forcing yet another general election. Sinn Fein will be reluctant to play second fiddle to Fianna Fail—the latter won one more seat than Sinn Fein—since junior partners tend to do badly in follow up elections. Sinn Fein would have won more seats if it had fielded more candidates, but it was reluctant to do so because it had taken a beating in local elections just seven months earlier. The Irish lower house, or Dail, has 180 seats.

 

If governance looks complex, try reunification.

 

On the one hand, there are any number of roadblocks to reuniting the Republic and Northern Ireland, many of them historical. On the other hand, there are some very practical reasons for considering such a move. Sorting them out will be the trick.

 

Northern Ireland—called the Plantation of Ulster by Elizabeth I—was established in 1609 after driving out the two major Irish clans, the O’Neills and the O’Donnels, and seizing 500,000 square acres of prime farm land. Some 20,000 Protestants, many of them Scots, were moved in to replace them.

 

From the beginning, Ulster was meant to be an ethnic stronghold. Protestants who used native Irish labor had to pay special taxes and eventually even intermarriage with Catholics was discouraged. Protestant farmers got special deals on rent and land improvements—the “Ulster Privilege”—and Catholics were politically and economically marginalized. Hatred between the two communities was actively stoked by extremist Protestant organizations like The Orange Order. The name comes from William of Orange (William III), the Protestant husband of Mary II, queen of England.

 

This is hardly ancient history. Up until recently, Protestants controlled Northern Ireland through a combination of disenfranchising Catholics and direct repression. In 1972 a peaceful march in Londonderry demanding civil rights was attacked by British paratroopers, who gunned down 24 unarmed people, killing 14 of them. “Bloody Sunday” was the beginning of “The Troubles,” a low-scale civil war that took more than 3600 lives and deeply scarred both communities.

 

Getting past that history will be no easy task, even though the Good Friday Agreement ended the fighting in 1998 and established the current assembly in Northern Ireland, the Stormont. A recent agreement between the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the largely Catholic Sinn Fein Party has the Stormont up and running after a three-year hiatus.

 

The practical reasons for re-examining reunification are legion.

 

During the 2016 Brexit vote, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the European Union (EU). A majority of Protestants voted to leave, but a strong Catholic vote tipped the scales to “remain.” Northern Ireland gets more than $780 million yearly from the EU to support agriculture and encourage cultural development and intra-community peace.

 

What was once one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world has been dismantled, and Ulster exports to the Republic are worth $4.4 billion a year. And because the border is open, the North has an outlet for its goods through the Republic. If Ulster follows Britain out of the EU, however, that will change. While there is agreement not to reestablish a “hard” border, Ulster’s imports from Britain will still have to be inspected to make sure they follow EU regulations.

 

The Protestants were promised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there would be no EU inspections, but “promises” and “principles” are two words that don’t easily co-exist with the word “Johnson.” The Prime Minister—no longer dependent on the DUP for votes in the London Parliament—double crossed the DUP and agreed to a EU inspection regime in the Irish Sea.

 

It is not clear how most of the people in both countries feel about reunification. Exit polls in the south found that most voters would support a referendum on unification.

 

Polls also show that many Northern Irish would consider it as well, although that sentiment is sharply divided between “unionist” Protestants and “loyalist” Protestants. The former are more concerned with stability than religious sectarianism, and if Brexit has a negative impact on Ulster—the outcome most economists expect—they might be open to the idea.

 

The “loyalists,” however, will certainly resist, a fact that gives Irish in the Republic pause. The south has gone through a long and painful economic recovery from the crash of 2008 and many are not enthusiastic about suddenly inheriting a bunch of people who don’t want to be there.

 

Sinn Fein argues that the Good Friday Agreement essentially says that the Irish have a right to choose without reference to Britain, and is pushing for a border referendum. Under the Agreement, however, if the vote to reunite fails, another can’t be taken for seven years.

 

Sinn Fein did as well as it did—particularly among the young—because of its political program to build 100,000 homes, freeze rents for three years, increase aid to education, house the homeless, improve health care, and tax the wealthy. Those are also issues in the north, where 300,000 people are currently waiting to see a medical specialist. Some15,000 medical workers recently went on strike to protest long hours and poor pay.

 

At this point, Ulster’s Sinn Fein has seven representatives to the British parliament, but refuses to send them because they would have to swear an oath to the Crown. If Sinn Fein has any hopes of getting enough people in the north to consider reunification, however, it will have to rid itself of such nationalist trappings, and convince the majority of Protestants that their traditions will be respected.

 

This may be less difficult than it was several years ago, because the Catholic Church in the Republic has gone into deep decline, pummeled by charges of child abuse and the exploitation of unwed mothers. The Catholic Church in the Republic fought hard against initiatives in 2015 and 2018 supporting gay marriage and abortion, and lost badly both times.

 

If unification is the goal, supporters in the Republic and Ulster will have to be patient, and show that they can deliver a better life for the entire community. That will have less to do with Ireland’s “long sorrow” ancient hatreds than with decent health care, good schools, affordable housing and well-paid jobs. All the Irish can get behind that program.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turkey: Looking for Quagmires

Why is Turkey Looking for Quagmires?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 5, 2020

 

On the surface, Turkish intervention in the Libyan civil war appears to be a savvy move on the Eastern Mediterranean energy chessboard, a check on plans by a consortium of the European Union (EU), Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus to exploit offshore gas and oil deposits. In exchange for military support, the beleaguered UN supported Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli signed an agreement last November that re-draws maritime boundaries in the region, giving Ankara a seat at the table.

 

Or at least that is what Turkish President Recep Tayyir Erdogan hopes. But “hope” and “Libya” are not two words that easily mesh, and Ankara is finding that the Turkish intervention is less like a move in a game of skillful maneuver than an old fashioned quagmire. Why the Turkish autocrat thought choosing sides in a civil war was a good idea is hard to fathom, especially after his debacle in Syria.

 

When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Erdogan jumped in with both feet, arming and feeding the opposition to the Bashar al Assad government, aiding Al Qaida extremists crossing the Turkish border, and predicting that the Damascus regime’s days were numbered. Nine years later, Turkey is swamped with 3.8 million refugees, and Ankara’s allies are barely clinging to Syria’s Idlib Province in the northwest.

 

While last year’s invasion of Syria did drive most of the Kurds from Syria’s eastern border, Syrian and Russian troops blocked Ankara’s plans for a 20-mile deep cordon sanitaire to which it could re-locate millions of refugees. After almost a decade of intervention, Erdogan finds his army bogged down on the losing side of a civil war, growing discontent at home over the refugees and the economy, and looking outmaneuvered by Moscow and Damascus.

 

And yet once again Turkey is picking sides in a civil war, and this one more than 1,000 miles from the Turkish border.

 

There is a certain logic to Ankara’s move. Turkey’s claim to energy resources is based on its occupation of northern Cyprus, and Turkey objects to being left out of the regional energy agreement drawn up by the consortium. But since no country in the world recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Ankara’s claims for a slice of the energy pie have been ignored.

 

When Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and Palestine formed the Eastern Mediterranean Forum last year, Ankara was left out. Some Forum members want to built a pipeline to ship natural gas through Crete to Italy and Greece.

 

The confrontation over energy has, at times, gotten ugly. Turkish warships drove off Italian drillers last year, but backed down from an American energy company accompanied by a US destroyer. Tensions are high between Athens and Ankara, and some sort of military clash is not out of the question, in spite of the fact that Turkey and Greece are both members of NATO.

 

The Turkish president’s usual sure footedness seems to have deserted him. By openly declaring for one side in Libya, Turkey has damaged its ability to influence events. The Russians and French are also deeply involved in Libya, backing the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) based in Tobruk. Italy backs the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

 

The French have been sneaking weapons to the LNA, and a Russian private company, the Wagner Group, is supplying mercenaries and trainers. But the European involvement is undeclared and unofficial, allowing those countries to play a mediating role in the future.

 

However, by guaranteeing it would protect the Tripoli-based GNA government, Turkey has painted itself into a corner. Its only real ally is Qatar and (clandestinely) Italy.

 

Openly arrayed against the GNA are the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which along with French supplied rockets and Russian mercenaries and drones, have driven the Tripoli government out of Surt and are knocking on the door of the capital. Erdogan’s plan to use Turkish soldiers was scotched by the unanimous opposition of the 22-member Arab League and the Jan. 20 Berlin Conference on the war. And Turkey’s plan to use Syrian mercenaries seems to have died aborning. That Erdogan really thought Syrians would want to fight in Libya suggests a certain disengagement from reality.

 

Erdogen initially assumed that his intervention would be supported by Morocco, where the President’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is closely aligned with Rabat’s Ennahda Party. But instead of opening its airfields to Turkish warplanes, Morocco is remaining adamantly neutral, as is Algeria.

 

At home, Erdogan’s intervention has been popular. Many Turks are nostalgic for the old days when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East and North Africa, and the GNA is allied with the ethnically Turkish militias in Misurata. Libya was the last Ottoman holding to break free from Istanbul’s rule.

 

But how long that popularity holds is an open question. The Turkish economy is in recession and unemployment is at 14 percent. Turkey will soon have to cope with hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees fleeing from the Syrian Army and Russian air power in the northwest.

 

A number of other foreign adventures have gone south as well. Last month several Turkish contractors and policemen were targeted by a roadside bomb in Somalia. Turkey has poured more than $1 billion into that war-torn country, taking over its major airport and sea port. But if you want the definition of “quagmire” you does not have look much further than Somalia.

 

In the last round of local Turkish elections, Erdogan’s AKP took a thrashing, losing the mayoralty races in Turkey’s six largest cities. His hugely expensive scheme to dig a massive canal to link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara has run into a buzz saw of opposition in Istanbul, and was one of the reasons the AKP lost the election.

 

The loss was a double blow because Istanbul was where Erdogan got his start in politics. It was also a piggy bank for the AKP, which cashed in on kickbacks by construction firms. The city represents more than 30 percent of Turkey’s GDP.

 

Has the most powerful and successful politician since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, started to stumble? For almost 20 years, Erdogan has dominated the country through a combination of clever politics and an iron fist. He has built a formidable election machine through his construction schemes—the canal is the latest— stuffed ballot boxes, virtually eliminated any opposition media, and tossed thousands of his opponents into prison.

 

But Syria is a disaster, Libya looks like a bridge too far, and the African Union is considering withdrawing troops from Somalia, leaving Turkey to inherit the two-decade old war. Erdogan is at odds with the EU and every country in the Middle East save Qatar. And even Qatar seems to be positioning itself to settle its differences with two of Turkey’s regional foes, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

 

At home, the Turkish lira is plummeting, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and massive construction projects no longer keep the economy humming. In the past Erdogan could rely on religiously conservative Kurds to back the AKP, but his repressive policies toward the Kurdish community has alienated that minority.

 

Lastly, the AKP has splintered, spinning off a center-right party attracting those who are weary of Erdogan’s one-man rule

 

 

Counting Erdogan out, however, would be premature. He can keep the EU at bay by threatening to unleash millions of refugees now residing in Turkey. He can count on the loyalty of the military and the police to keep much of the opposition cowed, and he can still rely on most religious Turks.

 

While there are no national elections scheduled until 2023, Erdogan is likely to push that up to 2021, if not before, figuring he can pull out another victory. But the AKP has never gone into an election with the opposition controlling the major cities and divisions with in its own ranks. Erdogan may get his early election. It may not turn out the way he wants.

 

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