27 August 2011

From Libya to Syria Changes in Turkish Foreign Policy

A couple of days ago, I wrote that Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu went to Benghazi to offer a substantial sum to the National Transitional Council (NTC) of Libya to be used in forming a government. I also noted that a summit with rebel leaders including Mahmoud Jibril was planned for the next two days.

Apparently, the summit took place and Jibril was in Istanbul along with other NTC leaders. They asked Turkey's help with frozen Libya assets and with Libya's intention to ask for a UN seat next month.

I had not seen that reported in Western sources so I went back to the BBC site and did a search for Jibril and Istanbul and found no entries. I did the same with Google and this is what I found:
(Reuters) - Libyan rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril will meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Wednesday to discuss prospects for a political transition in a post-Muammar Gaddafi era. (...)
Sarkozy has called for a special "Friends of Libya" conference to be held in Paris in the next 10 days which could bring together as many as 30 foreign leaders and international organizations to help ease Libya's reconstruction and transition into a democratic state.
How do they know that, you might ask, well, this was the last sentence:
The details are due to be finalized at a meeting of senior diplomats in Istanbul on Thursday.
No mention of Jibril being in Istanbul. The Istanbul meeting was just to organize the Sarkozy summit the following week.

I guess that is why I appear contrarian.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs seems to be on his way out.

I don't mean that he is dying, we all are. He is just leaving his "meaning of life" behind. Usually, death intervenes shortly thereafter.

Incidentally, I didn't take the announcement as a sign that his condition worsened. My guess is that he was planning to leave at this point but wanted the markets to get used to the idea that Tim Cook is the new CEO of Apple.

Speaking of passing, last week, I was saddened to hear of Jack Layton's untimely death. I did not know him. I was sad because he was one of the very few people about whom you could say "he was a mensch" without fearing a riposte from your audience. And that's rare for anyone, let alone a politician.

Jobs, by all accounts, is not a mensch. He is a visionary, an exceptionally gifted observer of economic and technological trends and a very demanding boss. People always point to his achievements like Macintosh computers or those ubiquitous techno-gadgets like iPhone, iPod and and iPad.

To me, these are not achievements, they are the result of the choices he made at critical moments. I consider those choices his greatest achievements as they were very difficult and no one else made them at the time (or, I believe, could have made them). Hence, instead of his professional career with its ups and downs, and some dubious techno-gadgets like the Newton along the way, if you just look at those choices, you will see that he has an unbroken record of making the right move every single time.

23 August 2011

Libya: Jousting for Presence

Right now everyone is talking about who among the nameless rebel leaders will emerge as the unifying leader. Speculations about tribal loyalties and how rebel units identify themselves on ethnic or regional bases are all over the Internet.

I don't know enough about the ethnic map of Libya to speculate (and I doubt that the great majority of the "experts" know enough to venture a guess). Besides, I am more curious about the jousting of foreign powers for presence in Libya.

When I first commented on Libya, I said that President Sarkozy was a significant player, as by pushing for an intervention in Libya he was trying to achieve several domestic and international goals. I also suggested that he was making a mistake by trying to exclude Turkey from the proceedings.

Well, it turns out that the rivalry continues. I knew that Turkey, who turned its back to signed contracts worth several tens of billions of dollars in Qaddafi's Libya, was going to try to position itself as a friendly Muslim ally with the new rebel government. Sarkozy had also the same thing in mind, except that he also has to fight off Italy and the UK for oil licences and reconstruction funds. According to the Turkish press (Le Monde online does not have this yet), French minister of foreign affairs Alain Juppé will be holding a meeting with the transitional rebel government in Paris next week.

Well, the Turkish minister of Foreign Affairs, Davutoglu, the architect of the neo-Ottoman policy and "zero problem with neighbors" approach, is apparently in Benghazi as you read this. He will be the first minister of foreign affairs to visit the "new Libya."

Moreover, he invited [link in Turkish] the rebel leaders to Istanbul tomorrow (Wednesday) or Thursday for official consultations. If they accept, Sarkozy summit may not be as relevant as he hoped for.

Also and perhaps very significantly, he said before his departure that what took place in Libya should be a lesson to all regional leaders. If I were the Syrian president I would take that seriously.

Finally, BBC reports that "Turkey has announced it is giving $300m (£181m) to the NTC, including funds to form the new government."

I do not need to underline the significance of that announcement at this moment in time.

The newspaper Zaman (to which I linked above) is close to the current administration. Their headline was "Turkey-France Competition is on, but Round One Belongs to Ankara."

So it is.

Socialism for the Banksters

Remember TARP and the accompanying bailout?

Paulson's weekend move to collect $700 billion with a three-page proposal with no oversight attached?

Well, that did not include loans given by the Federal Reserve to these same financial institutions. The top 10 got a little over $100 billions of TARP money and they paid that back relatively quickly.

It turns out that, around the same time, the Fed gave them $1.2 trillion in loans and that was kept a secret until now.
The largest borrower, Morgan Stanley, got as much as $107.3 billion, while Citigroup took $99.5 billion and Bank of America $91.4 billion, according to a Bloomberg News compilation of data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, months of litigation and an act of Congress.
Actually, Bloomberg has a lovely interactive chart here.

It wasn't just the Wall Street Galtian overlords who benefited from this largesse:
Almost half of the Fed’s top 30 borrowers, measured by peak balances, were European firms. They included Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, which took $84.5 billion, the most of any non-U.S. lender, and Zurich-based UBS AG, which got $77.2 billion. Germany’s Hypo Real Estate Holding AG borrowed $28.7 billion, an average of $21 million for each of its 1,366 employees.
Of course other perennial favorites were there as well: Belgium's Dexia and France's Société Générale, both of which teetering towards insolvency, got there shares.

22 August 2011

The Facebook Revolution Continues

The unraveling of Qaddafi's regime reminded me the humble origins of this unread blog. A good friend of mine had asked what was happening there as she could not figure it out from the regular coverage. And I applied what I would call a macro-analysis of the region to the early hostilities there to spell out some possibilities. Later on, I began writing about a variety of issues using the same approach.

One of the reasons I appear contrarian is the fact that most pieces of information we get from the corporate media or independent sources on the Internet, seems to be based on micro-analyses. In fact, the word analysis might be a misnomer in this instance: they consists of successive statements of the kind "Person A said this, analysts believe (x+y) was the motivation behind this, a spokesperson denied the existence of that equation."

When you have a collection of these mini-facts and their denials and counter facts, you reach a level of fluidity where almost anything can be argued, corroborated and then within a span of days can be completely reversed without anybody noticing.

And I don't mean Atrios' "Our Bastard/Not Our Bastard" game (though it is a lovely game: remember this or April Glaspie response before the invasion of Kuwait).

Before a lone fruit vendor brought down Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, I used to get chain emails about Tunisia being a model for the Muslim and Arab world. They would extol its virtues in bringing down unemployment, in narrowing the gender gap, in expanding the tourism sector and in achieving impressive growth despite a lack of natural resources like oil and gas.

Libya's Moment of Exultation

It looks like Qaddafi is on his way out. He was a stubborn and arrogant man and it looks like he will pay for this with his life. He could have left early on like his Tunisian counterpart did and avoid unnecessary bloodshed and carnage.

The rebel victory is impressive by any measure. This was a ragtag, untrained force that was incapable of using NATO weapons given to them just a few months earlier. They seemed unorganized and without a clear command structure. Yet, they managed fairly complex military operations, they (must have) formed sophisticated supply lines and they beat a superior force quickly and convincingly.

I agree with Juan Cole in that "Libyans deserve a moment of exultation."

I will only make a small note for the future. When I started this blog, I wrote to a friend of mine predicting that as long as there is oil there and (without a dictator like Qaddafi) a chance to affect the control of that oil, peace will be elusive for Libya. Some powers will back some groups and others will back other groups and peace will prove to be much more difficult than war.

So, despite my misgivings about mentioning this in their moments of exultation, I have to note that I am not very optimistic about Libya's future. Besides obvious ones like France and Britain, I expect other less obvious powers like China to get involved there.

This is one instance where I hope I am wrong.

I also have a small request from the media outlets around the world: Now that Qaddafi is on his way out, can we finally agree on a single spelling of his name?

If the rebel leadership manage that, this could be their first peace-time achievement.

13 August 2011

Global Economic Meltdown and the Euro

A good friend of mine -let's call him Feroze, to protect the innocents- sent me a message asking if we are seeing the end of the Euro. He was also wondering if the so called market forces are nuts to try to damage Eurozone countries. Feroze is a successful restaurateur and knows about investor behavior and market forces. His question echoes the BBC's Business Editor Robert Peston who asked the same question in British English, as in "Are Markets Bonkers?":
Are lenders to government, creditors of banks and investors in shares behaving in the kind of way that would guarantee them the kind of losses that presumably they would wish to avoid?
 I ask this question, because there is something of a paradox about investors' and creditors' current obsession with whether huge economies - the US, Italy, Spain and latterly France - will be able to repay all their debts. 
 The natural reaction of the governments of these countries, when they fear that it will become harder and more expensive for them to borrow, is to do what they think their creditors want - which is to introduce austerity measures, to reduce their respective deficits, the gap between what they spend and their tax revenues.    (...)
Now here's the thing.
With economic growth in the developed Western economies so weak, these austerity measures are convincing investors and creditors (the same ones who don't want to lend to Italy and Spain, or different ones?) that the risk of a slide back into recession has become larger. 
My take is that, despite Feroze's and Peston's reasonable questions, markets are indeed very sane. The crazy ones were the observers who gleefully cheered on massive austerity measures, as I pointed out.

11 August 2011

Why Is No One Worrying About Pakistan?

Yesterday, I saw on BBC that a drone attack killed 21 people in North Waziristan. Official sources claimed, as they always do, that the ones who perished in the attack were all terrorists.

A month earlier, several drone attacks killed 30 people in various regions of Waziristan.
At least 13 people died in a missile strike on a house on the North-South Waziristan border. Earlier, missiles killed 10 people in South Waziristan.
On Monday night, officials said seven died when a drone targeted a vehicle in the Gorwick area of North Waziristan. 
In both pieces, arcane details (which were clearly provided by official sources) were presented without any substantial discussion of the context in which these drone attacks are taking place. I find that insouciance remarkable as US- Pakistan relations seem highly tense and unstable even to an outsider like me. Frankly, I dont believe that President Asif Ali Zardari is in a position to do much if events get out of hand. And with Pakistan's obsession with India and its newly acquired nuclear arsenal, I feel a lot less comfortable about this situation than most observers.

Let me enumerated the incidents in the last ten months.

08 August 2011

Syria and the King's Speech

In the last few days, with corporate media preoccupied with the inexplicable unhappiness of the markets with spending cuts for which they clamored for so long, the Syrian adventure continued in relative obscurity. We have ADD, we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time.

As we averted our gaze, Assad's entourage of thugs moved their focus and artillery to Deir al-Zour and have been pounding this small eastern city since Sunday morning.

But there are indications that things are moving towards a denouement of sorts.

At the beginning of the month Secretary Clinton met with Syrian opposition leaders, a first for the Obama administration. The following day, there was a meek Security Council statement pushed through by Russia and China. Then, Secretary Clinton, during a visit to Canada, stated that approximately 2,000 people were killed by the Syrian regime in recent months and urged everyone to apply pressure on Assad.

So far, nothing earth shattering. Then, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia went on al Arabiyya TV station and declared that Syrian clampdown is unjustified and unacceptable. Hours later, Saudi ambassador to Syria was recalled. And immediately afterwards, Bahrain and Kuwait recalled their ambassadors as well.

Admin Stuff

I was alerted to the fact that commenting requires registration. This was the default setting for Blogger, apparently.

I dislike doing that myself, so I don't see why I should force other people do it. I am not worried about concern trolls or flame wars: they only come with popularity.

So, obscurity has its upsides.

Feel free to leave comments. I am unlikely to respond to individual comments but I will read them all.

And I will appreciate them all, good, bad and snarky.

05 August 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Corporate Media

A very long time ago, in a far away galaxy, I spent a month as an intern in a large newspaper. I was a third year university student and the editor in chief was a friend of our Research Methods professor. Se he gave us a half serious mission to come up with a blueprint to increase his paper's circulation.

We took it more seriously than him and wrote a full report. The number one recommendation was to have a framework that unites all reporting. Without such a cohesive framework, we argued, news items will reach contradictory conclusions or worse, will be of the "he said - he said" type gossipy pieces. Number two was to have continuity of reporting. If your previous day piece reached a certain conclusion you should not change this the following day, at least not without reference to your earlier item, and not without explaining why you changed your conclusion.

Needless to say, he didn't like it. Stupid kids, what do they know, he said to our professor.

I remembered this episode when I saw the headlines the day after the debt ceiling reporting.

03 August 2011

Ramadan in Syria

It looks like it is going to be a bloody month in Syria.

As Juan Cole noted, Ramadan is a tricky month for both sides. Apart from a very day of fasting (and not drinking any fluids), the daily prayers are increased to six, the last being "taraweeh" or "tarawih" which consists of at least 20 raka'at. That takes anywhere from an hour to two. Typically people stick around after these last prayers and stay up so that they can eat one last time before dawn and go to bed to wake up as late as possible.

On the one hand people are tired and weak. On the other hand, they are congregated all the time in large groups and that naturally leads to conversations about whatever that is on their minds. In this nstance, the obvious topic could be the infidels of the Baath party. People also have this feeling of purging and cleansing during Ramadan and as such they might be closer to martyrdom: dying in a holy month, when your body and mind is cleaner, is not an undesirable thing for a Muslim.

My guess is that, as the Syrian army closed off the Turkish border to ensure that Turks cannot use a massive exodus as a pretext to intervene, they grew confident that they can repeat the 1982 massacre and they are getting ready to turn this pious town into a bloody example once again. The problem is that this will not be as easily achieved as last time. Even with communications cut off, people have access to satellite phones, the Internet and all kinds of informal means to get the word out. And that will render the previous attitude to ignore what is taking place impossible.

01 August 2011

Obama and the Debt Deal

One of the problems of a polarized world is that it removes the possibility of a shared reality. In such a world, each side decides what reality is and stick to it no matter what evidence is shown to them to question their belief in their version of reality.

Obama has been a conservative President. Yet, the right successfully branded him a Marxist and the left continues to claim that all his Cheney-Bush policies were part of an 11-dimensional chess game.

To me this is odd: even before his election, during the Democratic primaries, a good friend asked me if I thought he would make a good president and I said that he might but he would be a lot more conservative than Hilary Clinton. My interlocutor was not convinced because in her mind Hillary and Bill were interchangeable, and as Bill was a fairly moderate Democrat, she assumed Hillary would be too. Whereas just a simple comparison of their early national health insurance policies could have shown easily where each stood. And Obama stood next to Mitch Romney.

Since then, as Greenwald painstakingly documented once again, he did very little that can be held out as being different from what Bush-Cheney would have done.  Yet, this last deal is still being seen as him surrendering to Republicans. It is not. He is convinced that economy would be better off if the safety net brought in by the New Deal can be eliminated or weakened sufficiently. This has been the conservative objective supported by their relentless meta-discourse about how markets functioned perfectly with fewer distortions. And Obama is a believer.