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As Palmyra Falls to ISIS, What Are the Syrian Government’s Prospects?

2015 May 21
tags: , , ,
by Ian Welsh

Palmyran AmphitheatreSo, yet another city falls, and the city has some very nice ancient architecture, which we will no doubt soon see sledgehammered.  Some Palmyrans apparently thought the international “community” might protect them since they’re a great cultural site. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

ISIS has fought well and fought smart, and came into a regional war which had been going on for years.  (One can argue, in Iraq, since the first Gulf War.) They have a huge ideological advantage in claiming to be the Caliphate reborn, and they have made ground. I keep hearing speculation that Syria’s government is on its last legs, but I have no feel for whether this is true or not. In large part, they appear to have been giving back gains.

One advantage the Syrians have is that they have to fight in their core areas; if they lose, there will be no mercy from ISIL. Everyone knows what they do to prisoners. A second advantage is that Hezbollah can’t afford for Assad to fall. If he does, their supply routes to Iran are cut off.

Back in 2008, I was in Las Vegas, and I sat at a table with a wealthy Syrian merchant and his beautiful wife. We talked about what we did, and he thanked me for what I did at the time, because he understood that I got paid shit in order to work against events like the Iraq war. I thought that was awfully gracious, given how little success those of us who oppose such stupidity as Iraq or arming the dissidents in Syria have had.

It’s not that I have any mandate for Assad; he’s a truly horrible man who appears to personally delight in torture. But war and anarchy have huge costs, and the early opposition were always very dubious people–perhaps not quite as bad as ISIL, but certainly no great improvement over Assad and without the saving grace of competence, meaning that they couldn’t necessarily expect to win the war quickly.

And Assad proved to be a lot more determined than most observers expected, the Syrian army, under Iranian and Hezbollah tutelage improved, and so on.

I’m not against all war, or against all violence. Sometimes they are the least worst option. But Syria never passed that test.

I wonder what happened to the gracious Syrian merchant I met. Are he and his wife and children alive? Being wealthy, did he get out? It’s not that he was more deserving of life than any other Syrian just because he happened to play blackjack with me.

But he was kind and gracious, and I remember him. And I wonder how many kind and gracious Syrians and Iraqis have died, men and women I would have liked, in the Middle East.

With no Iraq invasion, there is no ISIS. Saddam was a bastard, but again, the status quo was better than what the invasion caused.

The barrier for “just war” is high, and it is both pre- and post-facto: Fuck it up, and it doesn’t matter how wonderful your intentions were. Idiots used to go on about the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break, it you own it.” They didn’t mean “You then have to fix it.” Japan and Germany were rebuilt, but the preparations for Iraq made it clear that such rebuilding would never happen there, and the aftermath of Libya has been a clusterfuck.

Perhaps George Washington, whom I believe (with those who lived at the time) was the greatest of America’s Founders, was right. Not just for America, but for all nations, when he advised avoiding all foreign entanglements, and to be a friend to all nations.

Perhaps not always right, but perhaps you really do need to pass the “Nazi” test, and Saddam, Assad, and Qaddafi were never Hitlers, despite the rhetoric used to justify each war or intervention or “aid.”

Leave people alone. If they want to overthrow their rulers, great, but that’s their business and not yours. Short of actual genocide (which we never intervene against anyway–see Rwanda or Cambodia), war is almost always worse than the status quo, and outside intervention rarely seems to make the situation better. (See the Ukraine for this also–and yes, Maidan was an intervention by outside forces.)


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The Control of Parties and the Rise and Fall of Ideologies

2015 May 19

All political parties have ideological beliefs. If it seems a party does not, it generally means they accept the status quo (invisible as an ideology) or they are a cult of personality, which is still an ideological position.

For those who hold an ideological position which does not control the current majority party, the job is to keep a party firm in an alternative ideology.

In first-past-the-post systems, there are often two or three parties which are viable. In most places with real democracy parties do not have more than two or three terms, then the public grows tired of them and votes for the second party.

If your ideology controls the second party, odds are strong you will eventually wind up in power, just because of public fatigue with the current party.

Therefore your job, as a left-winger, right-winger, or whatever, is to keep control of that party. This takes precedence over winning the most immediate election.  Winning by becoming a lite version of the other ideology does not serve you. Having the second (or every) party be neo-liberal is not in the interests of anyone but neo-liberals.

If you are the first party, of course, it is your job to make it so that the second party (and however many other parties there are, if possible) accept the postulates of your ideology. As many have noted, Margaret Thatcher was not successful so much because of her policies, but because Labour came to adopt them as well, just somewhat watered down.

There is no alternative

- Margaret Thatcher

Now what was said about second parties is true of third parties and all the way down. The New Democratic Party (socialist, labor-based) came from virtually nowhere in Alberta to win because they still existed. They will be able to raise corporate taxes and so on because they kept true to some socialist principles. Though I have grave disagreements with Syriza, they are in power because they still exist and came out strongly against austerity.  They could have watered that down and been in power sooner.

The Communist Party in Greece, castigated by many for not joining Syriza, was correct not to do so: they did not believe that Syriza would do what was necessary, what they believed in, so they did not join.

The Liberal-Democrats in England killed themselves by joining the Tories as a minority partner.  They gave into almost everything the Conservatives wanted, and as a result were seen as Tory-lite. No reason to vote for them.

Let me put this precisely: The job of a political party is either to get a few specific people into power, or it is to offer a clear option to the voters. If it is the second, then your job is to make sure that option remains available. In many cases, if you do so, you will get into power fairly soon—after two to three terms. In other cases, if you are a minor party, it may take decades.

If you genuinely believe in your policies, in your ideology, whatever it is, then that is fine. The public has a right to choose, you just make sure they have a real choice and not a menu that is all of the same.

Every ideology fails.  Every one.  There will always be a point where people are hungry for something else, and you will be there.

Then, once in power, your job is simply to show that your ideology can work. If you fail to do so, the public is entirely justified in throwing you back out. Of course, an ideology being badly implemented once or twice does not mean it is necessarily flawed, it may just mean it was badly executed or that the circumstances were not right for it to succeed. You will need to evaluate which case is true before you dedicate your life to such an ideology and fight to keep your party aligned with that ideology.

An ideology can lose for a long time before it wins. The Greens and the Pirates have won little, but that does not mean they might not be the parties of the future.  Old parties can become new parties: Labour was not always neo-liberal; in Canada, the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau is directly opposed to many of the policies of his father in the 70s and early 80s.  (Trudeau elder having introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms Justin had the Liberal party vote to largely abrogate.)

Neo-liberals should fight to keep Labour in England and Liberals in Canada neo-liberal. Those who support other ideologies can fight to change those parties; fight for other parties, or create new parties.

In all cases, again, the job is to provide a clear choice for the population, someone to vote for. (This is why I dislike purely regional parties, though obviously that problem is hard to avoid if your mandate is independence. It is a pity the Scottish Nationalist Party could not have run nationally: perhaps all of Britain should join Scotland.)

Party control, in any case, in many democracies, and especially one where structures favor having only two or three major parties, is generally more important than winning any individual election. Most anything your opponents do can be undone if you get into power and still believe in undoing it. Again, this is why Thatcher won by changing Labor–because the old Labour party would have just undone virtually everything she did.

What we have had, now, for about 40 years, is a rightward ratchet: a very right wing party gets in power and does radical things or a moderate neo-liberal party like Labour or the Democrats gets in power and basically accepts the status quo, with very minor rollbacks, and continues the rightward drift in most areas.

Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, pushed through NAFTA, started the no-fly list, and heavily restricted welfare. Obama ramped up the drone program, went after whistle-blowers far more than Bush and is, in general terms, far worse on civil liberties than even George W. Bush.

Stopping ratchets means keeping control of the party which will be back in power eventually. This is hard to do, after two consecutive losses, a party will begin to believe it needs to become like its opponents to win. This was true of the Republicans in the 40s as much as it is true of Democrats after Reagan and Bush Sr. or as much as it was true of Labour after Thatcher and Major.

If you have lost the battle for the second party, then (while maintaining an outpost there for a future takeover attempt), you should find a third party to champion your cause. You will not be able to stop the ratchet effect (left, right, totalitarian, permissive, or whatever). But when the ideology fails, as it will (I guarantee this, it is not in question, only matter of time), then you will have another fair shot at power. You may not succeed, new ideologies may arise to supplant you, or other problems may stymy you, but you will have your shot.

Keep control of parties. If you cannot, create them.


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Egypt’s Freely Elected President, Morsi, Sentenced to Death

2015 May 16
by Ian Welsh

Really?  Really?

An Egyptian court has pronounced death sentences on ousted president Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 other people over a mass prison break in 2011.

And people wonder why Islamic groups become more and more radical over time. There is one set of rules for non-Islamic groups and another for Islamic groups. If they win fairly and within the rules (as when Hamas won the Palestinian elections), they are denied the fruits of their gains. If you claim that fair elections and democracy constitute legitimacy, then overthrow those who win when you don’t like them, no one can take your criteria for legitimacy seriously.

Peaceful means have now failed, legitimate means have now failed; expect those who support Islamic government to become more radical and violent. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood was defeated militarily before, but this is not then: Islamic groups are on the rise, and often on the offensive, all through the region.

If you won’t let the reasonable people in the opposition take power, you will soon meet the unreasonable people.

Note also that Sisi has set a precedent with his executions. When the next Islamic group takes power in Egypt, they will follow suit. They will almost certainly purge the deep state in a bloodbath.

In this respect, Sisi has provided the perfect Machiavellian lesson to the opposition: You cannot leave men with guns in their positions when they oppose you. You must eliminate them.

Legitimate ways of transferring power are supposed to eliminate the need for Machiavellian practicalities. The men with guns, the deep state bureaucracy–even if they don’t like the new government–bow before them, precisely so that each new regime doesn’t feel it has to destroy the previous regime. This is so that society is not wracked by purges.

Al-Sisi and those who back them will reap as they have sowed. I feel very little sympathy for them, but I do feel great sympathy for Egyptians as a group. They tried.

At the time the Egyptians rose, I was castigated for my “cynicism.” It turns out to have been realism. Those who ignore where the real power lies in society in favor of mealy-mouthed niceties about “people power” are, too often, leading their flocks into a slaughter.

Allah bless Egyptians. They are going to need it.


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Does Attention Deficit Disorder Medication “Work”?

2015 May 14

I’ve been skeptical of the official narrative on many mental illnesses for some time.  The evidence that many psychoactive drugs work is weak, at best. In many cases, there is reason to believe that interventions with less unpleasant side effects work as well. In fact, in many cases, doing nothing at all produces better long term results than medicating.

This lengthy paper on the subject is interesting:

it is quite simply hard to see how drugs such as methylphenidate and atomoxetine can have been licensed to “treat ADHD” in the UK. Once we probe behind the “symptom reduction” claim the alleged “benefits” of the drugs are difficult to ascertain. Claims tend to be somewhat folksy such as “improving the quality of life”. The only certain positive effect of stimulant drugs is a short-term increase in ability to concentrate; an effect which is the same for everyone whether or not they have an ADHD label. But the ADHD narrative concedes that this does not translate into an improvement in long-term outcomes. The actual “beneficiaries” of ADHD drugging may be those parents and schools who are glad to see a reduction in the disruptive behaviours which constitute an ADHD diagnosis. But this is not an advantage to the young person. On the other hand the harms are real and tangible and accrue to the young person. For example, methylphenidate routinely causes insomnia and stomach aches. Imagine the effect of suffering from drug induced insomnia throughout your childhood. Atomoxetine is linked to suicidal thinking and suicidal attempts.

If you’re of a certain age, the whole ADHD concept strikes you as strange; We just called such children hyperactive or troublemakers and teachers and parents just dealt with them. There’s no known “cause” for ADHD, as Wylie points out. It is a checklist driven diagnostic category.

Whenever an article like this is written, someone who suffers from the diagnosis will pop up in comments and say “It works for me!” A great, many things work for a great, many people (and the placebo effect is strong), but that isn’t really the point.  The point is whether the medication is beneficial  enough to outweigh any negative side effects.

When behavioral therapy is almost as effective as drugs with nasty side effects, as is the case with ADHD, it’s hard not to suggest that CBT should be done instead, and first, and drugs should be used, if at all, only after behavioral therapy has failed.

But behavioral therapy is expensive, takes trained practitioners to apply and it is hard to centralize the profit-making from it.  Giving the kid a pill makes the problem (for parents and teachers) go away, and if it isn’t as good for the child as therapy, well, it’s easy.

(And, as usual, exercise also works well for people with ADHD, as it does for depression, and many other mental issues.)

Read Wylie’s full paper.


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The Establishment Is Losing Control: Britain Shows Us Change Is Possible

2015 May 13
by Ian Welsh

The Guardian is widely considered a left-wing newspaper:

Guardian cover says Labor Lost Because Not Right Wing Enough

Guardian Cover Shot

When the election results first became clear, I pointed out that Thatcher’s real victory was not the policies she had put in place or the changes she had made to the UK, it was that the main opposition party had become neo-liberal as well. This meant that her project would continue, no matter who was elected.

Neo-liberalism is successful because it is the only alternative to itself; there is no other option but neo-liberalism. Of course, you can choose between flavors of neo-liberalism (“How fast should we do this project?”, “How cruel should we be to poor people?”, and “How quickly should we divest the public sector and the population of their income and wealth and give it to the rich?”), but all you’re choosing between is how quickly the neo-liberal project (which includes austerity as  its logical late form) will proceed.

Other than the process of how actual material circumstances turn into ideology, which then turns into action, nothing is as important as controlling the acceptable matrix of options.

What the Guardian is doing here is attempting to make sure that in response to its loss, Labor becomes even more right-wing, even more dedicated to neo-liberalism. One can equally and easily make the case that Labor was not left wing enough, and that’s why Scotland went SNP (which was more left-wing than Labor); and that’s why left-wing voters didn’t turn out to vote. But that’s not what The Guardian has chosen to do. The Guardian chose to put, on their front page, the assertion that Labor lost because it was not right-wing enough.

Note that most people read only headlines and that the most important headline is the one on the front page. Yes, The Guardian has published articles suggesting that labor wasn’t right-wing, but most people will never read those articles. In “journalism,” as in real estate, the three most important things are location, location, and location.

Do not think that The Guardian’s editors do not know this, or do not understand the consequences of what they are doing. This is their business, and they are good at their business. The conclusion which should be drawn, absent strong evidence otherwise, is that if they are taking an action likely to push Labor right, they know they are doing it, and they want to do it or they wouldn’t do it.  (Since, again, writing the opposite article would be easy enough.)

Now note that this system is breaking down on the peripheries. The Scots voted for the SNP, which was very left-wing by current standards. Albertans recently voted for the Canadian New Democratic Party, the most left-wing party in Canada, which the establishment never thought stood a chance of winning, and which ran on (among other things) increasing the corporate tax rate.

These are glimmers: sparks and little more. But they and the rise of other third parties, including ones I would argue are failing (like Syriza), indicate that the establishment is losing control of the democratic process; their framing is not sufficient.

Given an opportunity to vote for what appears to be a real alternative to the status quo (as opposed to a fake alternative like Labor under Millibrand), many people are starting to do so. This isn’t limited to the left-wing, mind you. UKIP, the anti-immigrant, essentially-fascist party in the UK got over 10 percent of the vote.

In Scotland’s independence referendum, the young voted for independence–it was the pensioner class that kept Scotland in the union.

The winds are shifting, and opportunities are arising. Many people in the core nations know that their lives are getting worse, and they are looking for political options to change that. Note that many of them aren’t that fussy–as in the 1930s, this doesn’t have to head towards anything good. A man on horseback who promises jobs and security and to stop bailing out bankers could easily take power in many countries.

Nor is the time quite here yet for major change, I think. Give it five to ten years, for simple demographic reasons. The new generations must rise, the old generations must get older, and in many cases, die, in order for change to be possible beyond the margins.

Nothing lasts forever: no regime, no form of government, no ideology. Neo-liberalism has gone from middle-aged to old, but still clings to power with an iron gauntlet. But concealed beneath that gauntlet is a shaky hand.

The time is soon. The young, even most of the middle-aged, will see it. Whether that time leads to a better world, or a worse one, is yet to be determined. Pick your sides.


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Tesla’s Home Battery System Is Not the Best Solution

2015 May 11

Why? Because it’s a lithium battery. The advantage of lithium batteries is that they’re relatively small. The disadvantage is that they’re lithium. Salt water batteries, though larger, are generally a better idea because:

  • At the end of their lifetimes, you just drain them. Lithium batteries have to be disposed of properly.
  • Salt water is in plentiful supply. If lithium batteries really take off, we may see supply and price issues.
  • While smaller is better in some situations, larger is better in others. You can throw a Powerwall into your pickup truck, but a salt water battery is too large for that.

I generally admire Elon Musk; he’s one of the only people to come out of the dotcom boom who is doing good work that needs to be done, but lithium household batteries really aren’t the best solution from an ecological viewpoint. Though, yes, combined with renewable energy they’re certainly better than most of the status quo systems.


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Conservatives Appear to Have Won in the UK: What the Left Should Do

2015 May 7
by Ian Welsh

Or so the exit polls are showing.  A likely bare majority government.

The consequences of this are likely to be severe; I would expect most of the remains of the post-war welfare state to be swept away.

I am torn between two reactions:

  • Although this is only a bare majority government, people did vote for Conservatives enough for them to get in and it’s not like they didn’t know the consequences. They have had years of Tory austerity. As H.L. Mencken once said: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.”
  • On the other hand, Labour under Miliband ran as Tory Lite; as the lesser evil. Voters tend not to be inspired by the “not quite as bad as the other bloke, but they’ll get in eventually and do what they were going to do anyway.” And that was his platform.

I’m seeing a lot of despair from my British friends on the left. And my British friends on the sane, for that matter. Here’s what to do: Either take over the Labour Party, or, if you think that’s impossible, pile into the Greens. Or, heck, create a new party.

I will point to Alberta, where the left-most party in Canada won on a platform of, among other things, raising taxes.  They came, essentially, from nowhere.

Want to win from the left? Be left-wing. Offer a real alternative to neo-liberalism.

I note, also, that Scots may really be regretting not voting for independence. Most of the wonderful social policies Scots value more than the English will now be taken away from them.

Failure of courage when there is a real alternative will reap the expected results.

This is all very sad, but the post-war welfare state has been under assault in England since Maggie Thatcher’s election in the 1970s. The true magnitude of Thatcher’s victory was not her policies, it was that Labour became Tory Lite; she changed the acceptable policy matrix for not just the Conservatives, but for the main opposition party as well.

Until that “acceptable policy window” changes, the trend will continue right–it cannot do anything else. Each Labour interregnum will be just that, a period in which neo-liberal policies are pursued at a slower rate than during Conservative governments, but in which the trend is not reversed.

This is true in almost every country in the West of which I can think (Iceland and perhaps Finland being the lone exceptions).

Offer a real alternative, with real left wing policies. If you can’t capture an existing major party, pile into a minor party or create a new one.


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Alberta Elects the New Democratic Party (NDP)

2015 May 6

This is fairly extraordinary: For non-Canadians, the NDP is the most left-wing party in Canada and Alberta is the most right-wing province in Canada. It’d be like an Elizabeth Warren-inspired party winning Texas. (As a Canadian let me say that this is amazing and almost unthinkable even a few years ago.)

Following were NDP’s key promises:

  • An increase in the corporate tax rate from ten to twelve percent;
  • A $15/hr minimum wage;
  • A review of the royalties that petrocarbon producers pay (which have plummeted in recent years);
  • A ban on corporate donations for elections;
  • A phase out of coal power.

Alberta is the heart of the modern conservative revolution in Canada and was the fastest growing economy during the last fifteen years, thanks to massive increases in oil prices. Alberta also saw a rise in immigration from other parts of Canada, which I suspect had played a huge part in this surprise vote.

I am more interested in whether this means Alberta might be in play during a federal election, however. Traditionally, Alberta has gone right-wing in super majorities, federally. If it’s willing to vote NDP at the national election (which, so far, polls don’t show), the next election may be far more interesting than this one.

Canadian elections can be volatile; there have been a lot of upsets recently and the polls have gotten it wrong repeatedly. Federally, the Liberal Party seems most likely to win, but it’s leader, Justin Trudeau, has been caught flat-footed a number of times, tending to support the same policies as the Conservative Party.

I’m hoping, and now have slightly more hope, that the NDP wins instead.


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Regular Posting to Resume Soon

2015 May 5
by Ian Welsh

Yesterday was a travel day and one of those cases where a four and a half hour itinerary turned into a 16 hour trip, to be topped off by someone doing some sort of machine work outside the window of my new place during the day. I’m operating on about seven hours sleep for the past three days.

Airbus sure knew what they were doing. Air travel really has become like traveling on a Greyhound, but with the extra joy of intrusive security checks.

Hope y’all are having a better beginning to your weeks!

Noam Chomsky Owns Sam Harris and Indicts Bill Clinton

2015 May 2
Picture of Noam Chomsky

Picture of Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky had a private email session with Sam Harris about Clinton’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory which Clinton allegedly believed was also manufacturing a nerve agent. I really recommend reading the entire exchange, which is hilarious and horrifying on multiple levels. First, because Harris just doesn’t get that Chomsky is smashing him flat and asks for permission to publish it. Second, because the sort of ethical reasoning Chomsky uses is so alien to so many people in the world (and, sadly, especially to Americans).

To put it simply, Clinton’s destruction of that factory meant that many people didn’t get the drugs they needed to survive. So they died. The number of people who died was much larger than the number of people who died in 9/11. Harris just doesn’t seem to get it, he thinks “intent” matters more and that Clinton deserves the benefit of the doubt. Chomsky points out that any intelligent person would have predicted the effects of bombing that factory and Clinton did it anyway.

If he did it without malice, well, that means he felt nothing even though he had to know he was killing all those people. Feeling nothing about mass murder–and that’s what it was–is arguably worse than murdering someone you acknowledge as human, as having worth.

(There is also a a brief discussion of the Iraq sanctions of the 1990s, which were a terrible crime, as well.)

The point I want to emphasize is this: If you knowingly do something which a reasonable person knows will lead to large numbers of deaths, you are on the hook for those deaths. It may be the “least worst option” in some cases (though not, I think, in either of these cases), but you are still responsible.

A reasonable man (and Clinton is a brilliant man, famed for staying up all night doing research, right down to reading all the appendices and footnotes, unlike many executives), is responsible for the effects of his actions that a reasonable man forsee.

This is Ethics 101—it is also Democracy 101. If you cannot understand this, you cannot hold your legislators and executives responsible.

Chomsky also dismisses questions of motives as irrelevant; virtually everyone says they have great motives, including the Japanese during their mid-20th century wars. At the end of the day, you can only judge with reasonable expectations and by results. Everything else is BS.

I will finally note something a lot of people don’t seem to understand, because they have been exposed more to propaganda about Chomsky rather than his own writings or his seminal work in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. Like him or hate him, Chomsky is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Even at age 86 and slowing down, getting into the intellectual ring with him is like trying to bear hug a grizzly. It is unlikely to end well for you

It sure didn’t for Sam Harris.


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