The Art of Thinking Well

Richard Thaler has just won an extremely well deserved Nobel Prize in economics. Thaler took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational.

Thanks to his work and others’, we know a lot more about the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking.

Before Thaler, economists figured it was good enough to proceed as if people are rational, utility-maximizing creatures. Now, thanks to the behavioral economics revolution he started, most understand that’s not good enough.

But Thaler et al. were only scratching the surface of our irrationality. Most behavioral economists study individual thinking. They do much of their research in labs where subjects don’t intimately know the people around them.

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group.

This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in. If Thaler’s work is essential for understanding how the market can go astray, Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now.

Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted.

As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it.

Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.

Jacobs notices that when somebody uses “in other words” to summarize another’s argument, what follows is almost invariably a ridiculous caricature of that argument, in order to win favor with the team. David Foster Wallace once called such people Snoots. Their motto is, “We Are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.”

Jacobs nicely shows how our thinking processes emerge from emotional life and moral character. If your heart and soul are twisted, your response to the world will be, too. He argues that by diagnosing our own ills, we can begin to combat them. And certainly I can think of individual beacons of intellectual honesty today: George Packer, Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander and Caitlin Flanagan, among many.

But I’d say that if social life can get us into trouble, social life can get us out. After all, think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time. But the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.

Jacobs mentions that at the Yale Political Union members are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.

How many public institutions celebrate these virtues? The U.S. Senate? Most TV talk shows? Even the universities?

Back when they wrote the book of Proverbs it was said, “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.” These days, a soft tongue doesn’t get you very far, but someday it might again.

The New York Times

Syria: The Myth of a Regime Victorious

These are my last days as the UK Special Representative for Syria. As I look back at three short years in this role, much has changed in Syria, and yet much has remained the same.

For sure, this conflict has seen far worse times and atrocities, the vast majority of these perpetrated by an Assad regime that cares not at all for the Syrian people. Syria has seen chemical weapons use, brutal sieges, forced migration and – far from the public eye – arbitrary detentions, torture and disappearances. Much of this continues today, under the guise of a just war against terrorists, masking the truth of a total war on Syrians.

Today, there is much talk and lazy analysis of Assad and his backers having ‘won the war’, through a combination of military advances, under cover of heavy air bombardment, and a series of many hundreds of so-called ‘reconciliation deals’ with besieged communities, faced with the choice of surrender or starvation and bombing.

The propaganda machine screams reconciliation, while the military machine puts community leaders and civil society activists on green buses headed towards a dangerous and uncertain fate.

For all the complexity this war presents, I am confident still in three facts.

First, there is no such thing as a ‘win.’ There never will be a ‘military solution’ to this conflict. Assad’s forces stretch ever thinner and depend ever more on foreign militias and air power to prop them up. Behind the advancing front line, Syrian Arab Army and militias leave behind them a fractured landscape intimidated by local warlords seeking personal gain above all.

Of course it can be argued that Assad doesn’t care, so long as he keeps a chunk of ‘useful Syria’ and Syria’s seat remains warm at the UN thanks to Russian protection. The regime’s mission, after all, has always been to survive and dominate the country, not bring it peace.

But this should give us no comfort. The toll that the regime and its backers have exacted is staggering: well over 400,000 dead; over 13 million in need; over half the pre-war population displaced within Syria or forced to flee; an economy shrunk by over 60%; a people traumatised; a generation of kids with no education or hope.

Assad’s regime bears overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people, fuelled extremism and terrorism, and created the space for ISIS. The United Nations has before now called attention to the ‘devastation of the Syrian mosaic’ of the country’s diverse communities. Assad and his regime are largely responsible for this, while claiming to defend it.

This brings me to my second point: Syria can only find true peace with transition away from Assad to a government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. As Ibrahim al-Assil has written so eloquently in the Washington Post only days ago, Syria cannot be stabilised under Assad’s leadership: Syria’s institutions are broken and near destroyed; those in charge of them think only of enriching themselves; a regime which has perfected state sponsorship of terrorism and so-called ‘weaponisation’ of refugees will only go on to do so again.

Finally, the hatred of the regime and desire for a better future that propelled millions of Syrians into the streets in 2011 perseveres to this day – young Syrians from all walks of life tell me it is only a matter of time before the revolution will come again.

I am often challenged on my country’s focus on Assad’s wrongs. Why do we not shine a light on abuses by others?

First, I do not presume to ignore any and all abuses conducted in the name of this war. But second, Assad’s self-described ‘government’ has the primary responsibility to protect its population. And third, it is Assad’s war machine that has killed, maimed or forced to flee the vast majority of Syrian victims of this conflict.

My third fact concerns what’s happening now: de-escalation. The international community has a moral obligation to reduce and calm violence across the country.

Critics will say that de-escalation is a step by the international community towards normalisation with the regime, or, indeed, the exact opposite: that calming different parts of Syria in different ways is a step towards breaking up the country or at least freezing the conflict in perpetuity.

Yet others will question whether Western countries can meaningfully use reconstruction as leverage to force transition. After all, Assad – not the Russians – has made clear that he won’t let his enemies ‘accomplish through politics what they failed to accomplish on the battlefield and through terrorism’.

The regime, it is argued, will survive on what limited help it can gain from something generally described as the East. Assad, then, will wait us out until we give in.

These are hard challenges to contemplate, but contemplate them we must. It means very clearly that any work on de-escalation has to preserve the Syrian identity of de-escalated areas. And it means that the West needs to hold firm to the position that it will only help with Syria’s reconstruction when comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is ‘firmly under way’.

These last words are critical: reconstruction at transition, and not before. To engage early is to bet that we can reform Syria from within, as Assad and his regime remain in power. That is naive and ignores the regime’s singular focus on itself, rather than on Syria and Syrians.

This leads me to a fourth fact where, unlike the previous three, I am not confident on how it plays out: that transition must proceed and that Syrians will decide how this happens.

The easy and lazy way to look at this is that Syrians will decide transition, and leave it there. After all, there is the Geneva Communiqué and UNSCR2254. Both are clear enough.

The harder way to look at this is to recognise first that negotiations in Geneva have not made progress in 18 months, notwithstanding the sustained and patient work by UN Special Envoy de Mistura. For all the criticisms made of the Opposition, again it is the regime that bears overwhelming responsibility; it has never shown it is prepared to negotiate, but rather has played for time while attacking Syrians back home.

What to do about this is no clearer to me than when these Geneva talks started in January 2016. I can only recall that if the Geneva talks had not been invented, they would have to be, that there are a number of firm principles which de Mistura has already reached, and that the onus for advancing a peace process lies firmly with those who back Assad to win, even if that victory looks pyrrhic. Meanwhile, we should ensure that Geneva understands and reflects the views of millions of Syrians out there without a real voice.

One thing that is clear is that Syrians must see accountability for human rights violations and abuses conducted throughout this war, again if there is to be enduring peace.

It pains me that the Geneva process has been unable to make progress on the critical issue of detainees and the disappeared. The pressing challenge is to discover where people are and ensure their welfare and that they are released. The longer-term task is to ensure accountability for the suffering inflicted on them.

Moving to peace — and a just peace at that — in Syria matters, for Syria, for the region, and for the world. Absent movement forward, Syria’s tragedy will continue, a stain on the world’s conscience.

As I prepare to move on, let me pay tribute to the many Syrians that I have had the privilege to work and partner with in their quest for peace. Their patience, resilience and courage humble me.

Syrians are never overwhelmed by the challenges before them, nor daunted. It has been my pleasure to work with my team across the region to support Syrians in their communities, doing what we can, with what we have.


*UK Special Representative for Syria*
*Exclusive Opinion for Asharq Al-Awsat*

The Iran Deal: the Dog’s Dinner Obama Dished Out

“Trump violates international treaty!” “Trump tears up pact signed by world powers!”

These were some of the headlines that pretended to report US President Donald Trump’s move on the “Iran nuclear deal” last week. Some in the Western media even claimed that the move would complicate the task of curbing North Korea as Pyongyang might conclude that reaching any deal with the world powers, as Iran did, is useless.

But what is it exactly that Trump has done?

Before answering that question let’s deal with another question. Is Obama’s Iran “deal” a treaty?

The answer is: no.

It is, as Tehran says “a roadmap” in which Iran promises to take some steps in exchange for “big powers” reciprocating by taking some steps of their own.

Even then, the “roadmap” or “wish-list” as former US Secretary of State John Kerry described it, does not have an authoritative text; it comes in five different versions, three in Persian and two in English, with many differences.

The “wish-list” hasn’t been signed by anyone.

Nor has it been submitted, let alone approved, by the legislative organs of any of the countries involved.

The various texts do not envisage any arbitration mechanism to decide whether or not it has been implemented. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was not involved in shaping the deal, is charged with the task of assessing and, if possible, certifying, Iranian compliance. But there is no mechanism for assessing and certifying whether other participants have done what they are supposed to do.

Legally speaking, the so-called deal doesn’t exist and thus cannot be “torn up” by anybody.

The trouble with the “deal” starts with its genesis.

Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary and an ardent supporter of Iran, had told me that the idea began at a meeting in his official residence in London with then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At that time the IAEA had established that Iran had violated the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and had asked the UN Security Council to take action. The UNSC had passed resolutions that Iran had rejected because the mullahs didn’t want to appear to be repeating Saddam Hussein’s “mistake” of walking into “UN resolutions trap.”

Straw came up with the idea of creating an ad hoc group to work out a deal with Tehran, by-passing the IAEA and the Security Council, thus flattering the mullahs that they were given special treatment because their regime was special.

It seems that Rice was receptive and initiated a “bold move” by inviting then secretary of Iran’s High Council of National Security Ali Ardeshir, alias Larijani, to Washington exactly at the time that Straw was about to leave office.

Over 100 US visas were issued for Larijani and his entourage. But Iran’s “Supreme Guide” vetoed the visit at the last minute.

When Barack Obama entered the White House, he revived the scheme and after secret talks with Tehran in Oman, arranged by his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he transformed the idea into a process.

Tehran felt that in Obama it had a friend in Washington.

And, Obama really went out of his way to woo and flatter the mullahs.

He created a parallel Security Council, composed of the five “veto” holding powers plus Germany which was and remains Iran’s principal trading partner.

The concoction, dubbed P5+1, was never given an official status.

It was not formally and legally appointed by anybody, had no written mission statement, implied no legal commitment for members and was answerable to no one.

Tehran accepted the trick with its usual attitude of sulking pride.

Larijani’s successor, Saeed Jalili, boasted that the Islamic Republic’s “special status” was recognized by “big powers”, implying that such things as NPT or even international law as a whole didn’t apply to Iran.

Jalili proved a pain in the neck. He saw talks with the P5+1 as a mechanism for Iran to suggest, if not dictate, the course of events on a global scale.

He was not ready to talk about Iran’s nuclear cheating unless the P5+1 also discussed Iran’s plans for a range of international problems. In one meeting, Jalili displayed his “package” dealing with “problems that affect humanity”, from the environment to the “total withdrawal of the American Great Satan” from the region.

Somewhere along the way, the European Union, encouraged by Britain and Germany, hitch-hiked and secured a side-chair along the P5+1.

The idea was to use the EU foreign policy point-person as a punching bag against Iranians who appeared unwilling to play. Thus the P5+1 was enlarged into a Group of 31, that is to say 28 EU members plus the US, China and Russia. (At one point Brazil, Turkey and Kazakhstan also seemed to have won side-chairs with the group but were quickly disembarked.)

Once Jalili was out of the picture, as the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, named his Foreign Minister Mohammed-Javad Zarif as point-man, things began to move fast.

During his long years in the US, part of it as diplomat in New York, Zarif had established contacts with the Democratic Party, including John Kerry who took over from Mrs. Clinton as secretary of State. Zarif persuaded his bosses not to miss “the golden opportunity” provided by Obama’s administration which included many “sympathizers” with Iran.

Thus, in just two years what had proved impossible for 10 years became possible.

A vague text was established, fudging the issue, and declaring victory for both sides. The participants in the game agreed to keep the text away from their respective legislatures so as not to risk scrutiny of the witches’ brew they had cooked.

The so-called “deal” was dubbed a non-binding “roadmap”, implying that the “roadmap” isn’t the same as the journey.

Two years after unveiling, the ”roadmap” remains just that.

Neither Iran nor the G31 have delivered on their promises. Iran’s path to developing nuclear weapons remains open, although this doesn’t mean that Tehran is currently making a bomb. For their part, the G31 have not canceled the sanctions imposed on Iran.

Both sides have lied to one another and to their respective audiences.

Obama has left a dog’s dinner of diplomatic deception. Interestingly, Trump hasn’t thrown that dog’s dinner into the dustbin and promises to rearrange and improve it.

Is that possible?

The Dangers of Refusing to Link JCPOA to Tehran’s Behavior

“What is negotiation but the accumulation of small lies leading to advantage?”
(Felix Dennis)

It was a nail-biting moment for many as they waited for President Donald Trump to announce his position on “certifying” the nuclear agreement between major Western powers (plus Russia and China) and Iran; officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although many leaks and announcements about Trump’s position proved to be true, it was so important that it drew immediate responses.

In the Middle East, the region most directly concerned about Iran’s nuclear plans, contrast in reactions could not have been greater. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani angrily condemned Trump’s position widespread applause came from Arab countries disadvantaged not only by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also its political exploitation of the international community’s silence towards it.

It is the silence that has allowed Iran to conquer and expand in the Region, thanks to its militias and conventional weapons.

Indeed, in the Middle East, specifically in the Gulf area, there are two serious threats posed by Iran’s ambitions for hegemony, including the nuclear agreement. The first is political, the second is nuclear.

The political threat is for all to see in the armed sectarian agitation, aided and sponsored by Tehran, whether through geographically dominant militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, ‘Fatemiyyoun’, ‘Zaynabiyyoun’ and Hezbollah militias in Syria and Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen; or through gangs involved in terrorism and clandestine activities as the ones we hear about in Bahrain, other Gulf states, and North African countries.

Sure enough, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which plays a vital role in Iran’s political, security and economic life, continuously highlights its interventions and has openly boasted its ‘control of four Arab capitals’. Moreover, Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of the ‘Quds Brigade’ of the IRGC, never misses an opportunity to appear inspecting the front lines in Iraq and Syria, although he is supposed to be ‘wanted’ and chased by the international community as a terrorist suspect!
As for the nuclear threat, it is no less dangerous from a purely scientific viewpoint.

It has a geological-seismic dimension that has adverse consequences on the safety of the Gulf region; given the fact that Iran straddles highly unstable, and thus, dangerous seismic faults. Furthermore, many Iranian nuclear reactors and installations have been built in vulnerable earthquake fault lines; and if we remember that only a short distance separates the port of Bushehr (home to one the major installations) and the eastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula, we may imagine what disaster may befall the whole region from any leakage like that we witnessed in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

Of course, the governments of Germany, France and the UK have every right to oppose or agree with Washington’s policies, but their insistence on defending the nuclear deal with Iran is based, in a large part, on economic interests. These governments, spurred by German, French and British companies and banks eager to enter Iran’s market of 90 million customers, refuse to acknowledge the link between the agreement and Iran’s harsh treatment of opposition at home, or its aggressive interventions in neighbouring Arab countries.

Indeed, Iran’s aggressive interventions have caused two major problems:

1- The refugee problem afflicting the countries of Western and Central Europe.

2- The problem of extremist terrorism under ‘Sunni’ Muslim slogans, provoked by Iran’s ‘Shi’ite’ Muslim slogans.

According to reliable statistics, Iran’s exports to EU countries have risen by % 375 between 2016 and 2017, European companies have invested heavily in the almost ‘virgin’ Iranian market, and there is rapid progress in banking facilities that is running parallel with these investments.

Thus, the three European governments’ positions look no different from that of Barack Obama’s administration which sponsored Tehran’s rehabilitation, accorded it all kinds of excuses, and gambled on making it a regional ally. They, just like the former US Democratic administration did before, are intentionally separating between nuclear technology and political repercussions. The three governments have ignored the fact that Iran’s lies second the World (after China) in the number of executions and first relative to population; and that many of these are of a political nature, mostly targeting ethnic and sectarian minorities.

Furthermore, the three governments, while claiming to defend human rights, have done nothing with regard to Tehran’s maltreatment of figures that were part of its regime’s elite like ex-premier Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and former Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, not to mention the first president of ‘The Islamic Republic’ Abolhassan Banisadr, still living in exile in France!

Berlin, Paris and London, which are repeating Obama’s same excuses that limit Muslim terror to Sunnis, refuse to admit Tehran’s active role in aiding and abetting even extremist Sunni Muslim groups worldwide, and co-operating with them, including Al Qaeda.

The three governments want us to accept former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s inverted logic when he stated, time and time again during the US-Iran nuclear negotiations, that they solely touched on the nuclear side and never included any “other issues”. It is the same “logic” that Kerry reiterated this week as he criticized President Trump’s refusal to “certificate” the JCPOA while taking a tough line too against the IRGC and its appendages after highlighting their destructive role regionally and globally. As for the “other issues” mentioned by Mr Kerry, and ignored then by the Obama administration, were Iran’s political, military and intelligence interventions in Arab countries.

Finally, the three European governments which have always claimed the moral high ground in welcoming refugees from the Middle East, could do better by adopting the maxim “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

The ounce of prevention in this case, is simply, ridding the World of the evils of extremism, destruction and hatred, all of which create and fuel terrorism.

What Congress Should Do Now About Iran

You’re a member of Congress who opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the grounds that the plan had critical flaws and the Obama administration had in essence given away too much without permanently cutting off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. However, you correctly recognized that President Trump’s decertification stunt would alienate allies, give Iran the high ground and threaten to unravel the JCPOA with nothing to take its place.

What’s more, you’ve now heard that Trump is threatening to impose sanctions in January to effectively end the deal.

What in the world do you do now, especially if you are a Democrat seeing the president try to make you and your party an accessory to a foreign policy catastrophe?

Maybe Democrats go along with the proposal from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to create penalties for breach of the JCPOA, as well as a penalty in case Iran does not negotiate on removal of the sunset clause. That, however, seems unlikely because Congress does not trust this president and really cannot gauge whether the actions would trigger the end of the JCPOA.

Corker may work some magic, but right now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards unless Congress can manage to pull back Trump’s unilateral waiver authority. (Congress also should take the opportunity to redraft the waiver authority and the recertification requirement. Congress would need to approve reimplementation of sanctions — that is, take unilateral authority away from the president — and do away with certification in exchange for full transparency and information-sharing with Congress on the status of the deal and on Iran’s behavior.)

Democrats understandably want to be partners, not stagehands in the president’s theatrical productions. If Corker’s effort doesn’t bear fruit, Congress might ignore decertification and focus in a bipartisan way to set new standards for dealing with Iran on a list of items including its missile testing, the sunset clause, Iran’s regional aggression and so on.

In other words, Congress could craft the policy the administration won’t, with flexible benchmarks for progress.

That’s the suggestion of long-time Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. He urges that we “invite the British, French and German ambassadors for quiet discussions before finalizing the legislation and work genuinely to make this a bipartisan product, meaning Democrats need to be involved in crafting this lest it become again not a national policy but a narrow political policy.”

Benchmarks that relate to changes to the JCPOA (e.g., enhanced inspections) would unify the United States and the European Union and provide the negotiating position to bargain with Iran. Benchmarks that are not directly covered by the JCPOA could be the basis for joint US-EU action on non-nuclear sanctions.

The real problem here is winning back the trust of Europeans so we can present a united front and pressure Iran on both nuclear and non-nuclear items.

Ross explains, “The Europeans will be open to some of our concerns as long as they can preserve the JCPOA — and here is the challenge for the administration and the Congress: how to get the Europeans to see that the key to the maintenance of the deal depends on meeting at least some of our concerns.” He suggests that “the administration requires a calibrated diplomacy that reflects our leverage but does not overplay our hand and permits the Europeans the time to see that we are making a good faith effort and not simply seeking a cover to walk away. ” But who thinks this administration is capable of doing any of that?

Ross offers an intriguing proposal: “A premium needs to be put on [the] administration that can orchestrate a complicated set of discussions and in a way that they support and don’t undercut each other,” he says. “That is why I think an outside senior figure who has credibility should be appointed . . . [who] would convey a message of good faith to the Europeans and help give them an explanation with their own publics.”

That would, in essence, take the administration and the president out of the day-to-day haggling over the deal and not make Congress the fall guys if things go wrong (e.g., if legislation triggers a collapse of the JCPOA). Why not former senator Joe Lieberman or former CIA director Robert Gates or former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams? Someone of that caliber could help defuse tensions between the United States and the E.U. and convey a level of seriousness without rattling our allies. If nothing else, appointment of a negotiator could soothe the president, who would be assured that we are doing “something.” (The trick, of course, is getting Trump to be quiet and let such a person do his job.)

Unfortunately, there are no great options here and a very, very problematic American president. We’ll need to find a way to muddle through. Corker has suggested one avenue; we’ve come up with another. Perhaps Democrats have a third approach. Everyone in the effort, however, would need to agree that the purpose is not to destroy the JCPOA and get into a military confrontation with Iran but to strengthen the deal and Western resolve to contain Iran.

The Washington Post

The Kurdistan Quagmire Proves Newton’s Third Law

In this week’s crisis over Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds are experiencing a painful version of Newton’s Third Law: In Middle East politics, as in physics, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.

The initial action was Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani’s decision to push ahead last month with a controversial independence referendum, despite strong warnings from the United States, Turkey, Iran and the central government in Baghdad that the Sept. 25 vote would backfire.

The counter-reaction came Monday, as Iraqi troops, backed by Shiite militias, took control of a key military base and oil fields in the region around Kirkuk, an area controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga militias but claimed by Baghdad. For the United States, it was a dilemma of watching one friend make a damaging mistake, and another friend retaliate.

Some members of Barzani’s regional government in Irbil described the Iraqi move as a military assault, but a statement by US Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, reported “coordinated movements, not attacks.” A Centcom official said the Iraqi advance had been arranged in discussions with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. (The PUK, based in Sulaymaniyah, is a historic rival of Barzani’s dominant Irbil-based group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.)

Barzani’s allies have argued that Iran is secretly orchestrating the Kirkuk confrontation. But a US official closely involved in policy described that allegation as “misinformation.” While Tehran and its Iraqi allies may have encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move on Kirkuk, US officials said that it was Abadi’s decision — and that he would have faced heavy Iraqi opposition if he hadn’t responded strongly to the referendum and its breakaway bid.

A measure of the breadth of Iraqi criticism of the Kurdish independence move was a statement issued two weeks ago by Ali Sistani, a moderate cleric who tries to resist Iran’s meddling. He rejected the referendum as “an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.” Ever the balancer, he also urged Baghdad “to consider the Kurds’ constitutional rights.”

Having cautioned Barzani against the referendum, US officials were peeved when he went ahead anyway. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sept. 29 criticized the “unilateral” vote and said its results “lack legitimacy.” Prior to the balloting, Tillerson had proposed an alternative “road map” for discussions to resolve tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, but this last-minute appeal was rejected, US officials say.

The Kurdish miscalculation has had unfortunate consequences. But sometimes in the Middle East, mistakes open the way for new discussions, and US officials hope this will be the case with the Kirkuk crisis. US officials were working Monday to establish joint security measures to reduce tensions near the Kirkuk oil fields, so that production can continue, and to share information on the ground and counter inflammatory reports that could escalate the conflict. Officials hope these initial military and intelligence contacts will be a prelude to a broader political discussion involving Barzani and Abadi.

“The US wants to be an honest broker between the two,” said one senior US military official. He warned that if tensions aren’t resolved soon, the confrontation could undermine the joint Iraqi-Kurdish stand against ISIS, which has seemed to be entering its final stage. “This could consume a lot of energy and cause us to lose momentum when we’ve got ISIS on the run,” the senior official said.

Iran may not be pulling all the strings in Iraq, but it has a decisive presence there and will benefit from the confrontation between Abadi and the Kurds. That’s the unfortunate irony of the Kirkuk clash: In a week when the Trump administration was trying to launch a new campaign to counter Iran’s regional behavior, US officials must struggle to extinguish a sudden flare-up between the United States’ two key partners in Iraq — one that’s all the more frustrating because policymakers in Washington saw it coming.

The Washington Post

White Nationalism Is Destroying the West

On July 14, 2016, as French families strolled along Nice’s seafront promenade, a Tunisian man driving a large truck rammed into a crowd, killing 86 people. A month later, the mayor of nearby Cannes declared that “burkinis” — a catchall term for modest swimwear favored by many religious women — would be banned from the city’s beaches; a municipal official called the bathing suits “ostentatious clothing” expressing an “allegiance to terrorist movements that are at war with us.”

One of the law’s first victims was a third-generation Frenchwoman who was ordered by the police to strip off her veil while onlookers shouted, “Go back to your country.” Still, many French politicians and intellectuals rushed to defend the ban. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy called modest swimwear “a provocation”; Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent philosopher, argued that “the burkini is a flag.” But what they presented as a defense of secular liberal values was in fact an attack on them — a law, masquerading as neutral, had explicitly targeted one religious group.

When rapid immigration and terrorist attacks occur simultaneously — and the terrorists belong to the same ethnic or religious group as the new immigrants — the combination of fear and xenophobia can be dangerous and destructive. In much of Europe, fear of “jihadists” (who pose a genuine security threat) and animosity toward refugees (who generally do not) have been conflated in a way that allows far-right populists to seize on ISIS attacks as a pretext to shut the doors to desperate refugees, many of whom are themselves fleeing ISIS, and to engage in blatant discrimination against Muslim fellow citizens.

But this isn’t happening only in European countries. In recent years, anti-immigration rhetoric and nativist policies have become the new normal in liberal democracies from Europe to the United States. Legitimate debates about immigration policy and preventing extremism have been eclipsed by an obsessive focus on Muslims that paints them as an immutable civilizational enemy that is fundamentally incompatible with Western democratic values.

Yet despite the breathless warnings of impending Islamic conquest sounded by alarmist writers and pandering politicians, the risk of Islamization of the West has been greatly exaggerated. Islamists are not on the verge of seizing power in any advanced Western democracy or even winning significant political influence at the polls.

The same cannot be said of white nationalists, who today are on the march from Charlottesville, Va., to Dresden, Germany. As an ideology, white nationalism poses a significantly greater threat to Western democracies; its proponents and sympathizers have proved, historically and recently, that they can win a sizable share of the vote — as they did this year in France, Germany and the Netherlands — and even win power, as they have in the United States.

Far-right leaders are correct that immigration creates problems; what they miss is that they are the primary problem. The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who are exploiting fear of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal.

Anti-Semitic and xenophobic movements did not disappear from Europe after the liberation of Auschwitz, just as white supremacist groups have lurked beneath the surface of American politics ever since the Emancipation Proclamation. What has changed is that these groups have now been stirred from their slumber by savvy politicians seeking to stoke anger toward immigrants, refugees and racial minorities for their own benefit. Leaders from Donald Trump to France’s Marine Le Pen have validated the worldview of these groups, implicitly or explicitly encouraging them to promote their hateful opinions openly. As a result, ideas that were once marginal have now gone mainstream.

The trend is unmistakable. Hungary’s ruling party has plastered anti-Semitic ads on bus stops and billboards; an overtly neo-Nazi movement won 7 percent of the vote in Greece’s 2015 election; Germany’s upstart far-right party, which includes a popular member who criticized Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame,” won 13 percent in last month’s election.

In France and Denmark, populist leaders have gone to great pains to shed the right’s crudest baggage and rebrand themselves in a way that appeals to Jews, women and gay people by depicting Muslims as the primary threat to all three groups. But their core goal remains the same: to close the borders and expel unwanted foreigners.

Cultural and demographic anxiety about dwindling native populations and rapidly increasing immigrant ones lies at the heart of these parties’ ideologies. In America, Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, worries about the impossibility of restoring “our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” In Europe, the right frets about who’s having the new German or Danish babies and the fact that it’s not white Germans or Danes — a social Darwinist dread popularized by the German writer Thilo Sarrazin, whose best-selling 2010 book, “Germany Abolishes Itself,” warned that barely literate Muslims were poised to replace the supposedly more intelligent German race.

The leader of the Netherlands’ newest far-right party fears that Europe will not exist “as a predominantly white-skinned, Christian or post-Christian, Roman-law-based kind of society” a few decades from now. “If I go to a museum, and I look at these portraits, they are essentially people like me that I can see. In 50 years it won’t be,” he worries.

France, more than any other country, has been the source of these ideas.

In February 2016, French right-wing groups descended on the town of Calais, protesting a huge informal refugee camp there known as the “Jungle.”


The New York Times

Bank of England Governor Takes a Crack at the Inflation Mystery

A domestic view won’t explain the disconnect between employment and prices.

Central bank sleuths are on the case. What explains the “mystery,” to use Janet Yellen’s word, behind low inflation and strong employment?

It’s a question that requires global detective work, a point amplified by the Federal Reserve minutes this week when someone (who may have been Yellen) remarked on the global nature of the challenge. Inflation and wages remain stubbornly low despite a global upswing. What gives?

Discussing this with a senior Asian official this month, I was referred to a speech by Mark Carney a few weeks ago. The Bank of England governor was on to something in a somewhat overlooked Sept. 18 speech probing the links between globalization and domestic prices. The main takeaway: Domestic economic conditions and the ability of domestic labor to extract wage increases have shrunk in importance. What matters isn’t what the person living next door to you can command for his labor; it’s what the person across the ocean can get.  

The rise of global supply chains, the pool of international labor, and borrowers and lenders operating in a host of currencies — all of those factors impact inflation. The tension here is that central banks have mandates given to them by domestic governments and legislatures. They in turn answer to voters mostly uninterested or ill-informed about developments overseas and how they shape the economic life of a given nation.

The role of imported goods in keeping down prices at, say, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is pretty well understood. Thank goodness for services, where trade is less liberalized. Were it not for the higher cost of services, inflation in the most developed economies would be even more microscopic. Carney reckons goods prices in the UK fell an average 0.3 percent over the past two decades; services rose by an average 3.4 percent.

Then there are the supply chains and the role of various components coming from an array of countries with different labor and pricing terrains. This, too, chips away at the primacy of domestic conditions in determining inflation.

And the big one: labor markets. Note the plural. Not just one country. The jobs market may be tight in the US, Germany or the UK without giving much impetus to compensation growth. Here’s Carney again:

The doubling of the effective global labor pool represents a huge, positive supply shock for the global economy. It has encouraged the shift of the production of goods and services that use lower-skilled labor intensively to countries with an abundance of lower-skilled workers – predominantly emerging market economies – while production of goods and services requiring more highly skilled labor has concentrated in countries with a greater share of higher skilled labor – predominantly advanced economies. The growing ability to split production components and tasks through global value chains has amplified this effect.

Globalization has also increased the contestability of labor markets, weakening the extent to which slack in domestic labor markets influences domestic inflationary pressures. That is, the increased ease with which activities can be off-shored or domestic vacancies filled by sourcing workers from abroad may have reduced the relative bargaining power and wage expectations of workers. While it is difficult to measure precisely, available evidence suggests that contestability effects could be significant. Greater openness appears to have reduced the sensitivity of wages to domestic labor market conditions.

Something that tends to be overlooked: Skilled workers tend to save more money than other workers. And those savings are managed by funds and banks with global reach and global portfolios. And as the world population ages, the amount of retirement savings swells, rolling around the world, looking for return and keeping market interest rates low. This means that interest rates and financial conditions in any given country may say more about global capital flows than they do about local conditions.  

All this brings us to the question that dare not speak its name: Do we need a global monetary policy rather than a collection of national ones? Carney doesn’t go there. That’s a fight he doesn’t need right now, given the mess created by the British electorate’s decision to thumb its nose at the world.

But it’s a worthwhile subject for a future column. One big challenge would be getting national politicians to openly say that their central bank needs to think about the world, not just their electoral districts. That is an extremely tough sell. Bravo to Carney for his contribution to solving the mystery. Same to Claudio Borio, who made provocative remarks on the same a few days later. If we don’t ask the right questions, we surely won’t get the explanation for — let alone the solution to — the case of the missing inflation.

Bloomberg View

The New Bloc against Tehran

Iran

The pace of developments has taken us by surprise. Ever since Washington announced its decision against Iran’s government, Britain and Germany shifted their stance from insisting on remaining loyal to the commitments of the nuclear deal to announcing that they support Trump’s plan to confront Tehran’s regime in the Middle East.

The problem is not related to an agreement over nuclear activity as much as it is about the wars, which Iran is regionally managing. It is unreasonable to let the regime loose in the region and allow it to spread chaos, threaten other regimes and dominate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. All this would basically be its reward for decreasing uranium enrichment!

Britain and Germany criticized Iranian practices and announced they will join the US in confronting Tehran’s policy. This position foils Iran’s attempts to adopt the entire agreement in one package to impose it on everyone without distinguishing between preventing nuclear activity, which qualifies it for military supremacy, and between the dangerous practices of the regime, which is benefiting from the nuclear deal itself.

We must acknowledge that the White House wittingly managed the battle with its European allies who completely rejected backing down from the agreement and refused to take any action that may lead to tense relations with Tehran.

However, President Trump put two options before them: correct the mistakes related to the agreement or cancel it altogether. He insisted on refusing the previous situation. This stance is in harmony with the Republican Party’s view and his government, of course, supported the decision.

The wheel will begin to turn again to pressure Tehran’s regime, which will be responsible for the next economic and political crisis it will suffer from – that is if it refuses to change its behavior and to suspend its military and militant activities in the region.

The US and governments that support it it do not oppose Iran’s right to establish a civil nuclear program, but Washington expects Tehran rein in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its intelligence apparatuses in the region.

Iran must withdraw the militias, which the IRGC established and trained and which consist of powerless refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other countries. It also developed “Hezbollah’s” roles and turned the party members into mercenaries who launch wars on its behalf in the region.

It is preparing the Houthi Ansar Allah group in Yemen for this same purpose. Iran also used a naval network to smuggle weapons to conflict areas in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon and used ships to smuggle supplies to fund the Yemeni war. It tried to do the same in Syria via the Mediterranean Sea. Iran also has activities in Afghanistan as it has supported the war there ever since the American invasion of the country following the September 11 attacks.

Iran could not have expanded in this manner in the region if those who signed the agreement hadn’t submitted to its conditions and hadn’t lifted sanctions randomly. Tehran could not have expanded in Syria if the former US administration, under Barack Obama, hadn’t been lenient with it out of fear that it may not sign the deal.

The challenge will be in proposing a new project to Tehran. This can include lifting sanctions in exchange of keeping the deal and getting Iran to commit to withdrawing all its foreign militias from conflict zones and pledging to stop supporting local militias allied with it, like the Houthis, the League of Righteous People, “Hezbollah in Iraq” and others.

To pressure Iran, Washington said it will revive its support of the Iranian opposition that is seeking to topple the regime. Obama’s administration had stopped doing that and had suspended supporting academic, political and media activities directed against Tehran in order to please Rouhani’s government.

Now that the political confrontation is back on, Tehran is faced before a new equation: stop wars or be sanctioned again. All this will be accompanied with the formation of a new bloc, whose aims are to pressure Iran and guarantee the implementation of sanctions.

Facebook Is Ubiquitous. But Will It Be Trusted?

Facebook

This has been the year of Facebook. Its stock price has increased by around 50 percent as it continues to assert its dominance in user activity and digital ad revenue. It undercut one of the companies trying to catch up with it, Snap, by adding a similar feature, Stories, to its increasingly dominant Instagram service. And scrutiny surrounding its role in the 2016 presidential election continues to grow, as politicians seek more information about Russia’s involvement on Facebook in the weeks and months leading up to last November.

How should Facebook respond to its moment? To think about where the company might go from here, consider the history of television and how its identity evolved with the culture.

As a news medium, television came of age in the 1960s. If the 2016 was the first “Facebook election,” 1960 might have been the first television election, with the aesthetic contrast between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon helping to put Kennedy in the White House. Asked about the influence of television on politics in the early 1960s, someone might have said that it made our leaders look better and strengthened our institutions. The period from Kennedy’s inauguration to his assassination might have been the high point for American institutions.

But those were early days for television as a news medium, and as institutional trust began to wane, television adapted. Video footage of the Vietnam War and protests back at home shocked Americans and helped create some of the cultural divisions in the country that persist to this day. The investigative journalism show “60 Minutes” debuted in 1968, and its formative years were during the tumultuous Nixon administration. In his book, “How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life,” David Frum noted that television was the only American institution to show a rise in confidence during this period, garnering credibility by attacking the credibility of everyone else. The cultural roots of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which mocked American leaders during the 2000s, or the “takedown journalism” of the present day’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” were formed decades ago.

Facebook is coming of age in a much different environment. Institutional trust is at a nadir. That’s presumably one reason that Facebook calls itself a technology company or a “platform,” rather than a news company. The problem with that “platform” claim comes when groups beyond the pale, like white supremacists, use the medium for hate, or when nefarious foreign governments use it in an attempt to sway American elections. A recent study of college undergraduates showed that only 29 percent believe Facebook has a positive impact on political discourse, compared to 57 percent who believe it has a negative impact.

Ultimately, if Facebook wants to be more influential and more valuable, it has to be a platform that garners the trust of its users and advertisers. It can’t be seen as being a den for hate groups and scam artists. It’s slowly making moves in this direction, trying to help users see where content comes from in order to build trust on the platform.

Strengthening institutions is impossible without a concerted effort from the public, voters, politicians and news mediums. Television’s ratings are in decline, and Facebook’s influence continues to grow. Its legacy does not have to be fake news and Russian influence. But those will be dominant themes unless Facebook takes control of its platform and earns the trust of the public.

(Bloomberg)