If I was still a practicing Catholic, I’d be tempted to pray to St. Angela of Foligno today, her saint’s day. She was known for walking away from wealth and practicing charity. Given the Chinese stock market’s plummet overnight, St. Angela might be the right guide for this leg of the journey.
China halts stock trading after market sinks more than 7%
Second time this week trading has been suspended in China, with free fall blamed on Chinese currency, lower oil prices, economic slowdown. Some also blame North Korea’s nuclear test, but anecdotes from Pacific Rim region suggest news about the test did not receive the same level of attention across Asia as in U.S. Not much feedback at the time this post was written in news media about response to market by China’s leadership.
Richard Perle’s long tail seen in North Korea
Worth revisiting an analysis on North Korea’s nuclear program written last January by Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). I agree with Hecker’s assessment, only surprised he didn’t name Richard Perle specifically for the cascade of diplomatic fail on North Korea that began under the Bush administration.
Self-driving cars, now self-driving passenger drones?
At CES 2016, China’s Ehang Inc. showed off a single-passenger drone, launched by commands entered on a tablet. The drone has no backup controls, which sounds scary as hell for a passenger flying 1000-1600 feet above the ground at +60 miles per hour. I can hear George Jetson screaming, “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” even now. FAA would be insane to permit these devices in the U.S.
Unnamed sources say VW may buy back polluting cars sold in U.S. This report could be a trial balloon floated by Volkswagen to see if a buy-back or a hefty discount on a new car will appease U.S. owners of so-called “clean diesel” vehicles. Is this really a satisfactory remedy to fraud?
Rethinking Saudi Arabia’s future in a time of cheap oil
Another worthwhile read, if a bit shallow. It’s time to model not only Saudi Arabia’s future, but a global economy no longer dependent on oil; what risks are there for OPEC countries if they cannot depend on increasing oil revenues? Could political instability spread across Central and South America as it has in the Middle East and Africa? How will climate change figure into the equation, as it has in Syria? And then back to economic unease in China, where the market has reacted negatively to lower oil prices.
I’m out of pocket this morning, will check in much later. Talk amongst yourselves as usual.
Power Imbalances in Ukraine
The western press is ginning up alarm because hackers caused a power outage in Ukraine.
Western Ukraine power company Prykarpattyaoblenergo reported an outage on Dec. 23, saying the area affected included regional capital Ivano-Frankivsk. Ukraine’s SBU state security service responded by blaming Russia and the energy ministry in Kiev set up a commission to investigate the matter.
While Prykarpattyaoblenergo was the only Ukraine electric firm that reported an outage, similar malware was found in the networks of at least two other utilities, said Robert Lipovsky, senior malware researcher at Bratislava-based security company ESET. He said they were ESET customers, but declined to name them or elaborate.
If you buy that this really is the first time hackers have brought down power (I don’t), it is somewhat alarming as a proof of concept. But in reality, that concept was proved by StuxNet and the attack on a German steel mill at the end of 2014.
A state of emergency was declared after four pylons that transmit power to Crimea were blown up on Friday and Saturday night. Russia’s energy ministry scrambled to restore electricity to cities using generators, but the majority of people on the peninsula remained powerless on Saturday night.
Cable and mobile internet stopped working, though there was still mobile phone coverage, and water supplies to high-rise buildings halted.
On Saturday, the pylons were the scene of violent clashes between activists from the Right Sector nationalist movement and paramilitary police, Ukrainian media reported. Ukrainian nationalists have long been agitating for an energy blockade of Crimea to exert pressure on the former Ukrainian territory.
Officials said concrete pylons supporting power lines near the village of Bohdanivka, in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, were damaged on Wednesday night.
“According to preliminary conclusions of experts… the pylon was damaged in an explosion,” a statement from police said on Thursday.
Crimean Tatar activist Lenur Islyamov suggested that strong winds might have brought down the pylon and denied that Tatar activists had been behind the latest power cut.
While the physical attack did get coverage, there seemed to be little concern about the implications of an attack aiming to undercut Russian control of the peninsula. Whereas here, the attack is treated as illegitimate and a purported new line in the sand.
I get why this is the case (though the press ought to rethink their bias in reporting it this way). After all, when our allies engage in sabotage we don’t consider it as such.
But the US is just as vulnerable to physical sabotage as cyber sabotage, as an apparently still unsolved April 16, 2013 attack on a PG&E substation in Silicon Valley demonstrated, and as the case of Crimea shows, physical sabotage can be more debilitating. We should really be cautious about what we treat as normatively acceptable.
Obama’s Terrorism Cancer Speech, Carter’s Malaise Speech
The right wingers who insist on calling any attack by a Muslim “terrorism” — who insist on tying the San Bernardino attack to ISIS, even in the absence of evidence — do it to prioritize the fight against Islamic terrorists over all the other ills facing America: over other gun violence, over climate change, over the persistent economic struggles of most Americans. Theirs is a profoundly unpatriotic effort to put war over every other policy priority, even far more pressing ones. That stance has led to a disinvestment in America, with real consequences for everyone not getting rich off of arms sales.
Last week, President Obama capitulated to these forces, giving a speech designed to give the attack in San Bernardino precedence over all the other mass killings of late, to give its 14 dead victims more importance over all the other dead victims. Most strikingly, Obama called attacks that aren’t, legally, terrorism, something his critics have long been demanding.
It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino.
And he lectured Muslims to reject any interpretation of Islam that is “incompatible” with “religious tolerance.”
That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.
Not only does this give too little credit for the condemnation Muslims have long voiced against terrorist attacks, but it holds Muslims to a standard Obama doesn’t demand from Christians spewing intolerance.
It was a horrible speech. But this line struck me.
I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.
In context, it was about terrorism.
I know we see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris. And I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.
Well, here’s what I want you to know: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it
But, particularly coming as it did after invoking dead children, it shouldn’t have been. Aside from those whose own kids narrowly missed being in Paris, why should we see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris, rather than in the faces of the young people killed in the Umpqua Community College attack or the over 60 people under the age of 25 shot in Chicago between the Paris attack and Obama’s speech? If we were to think of a cancer with no immediate cure, why wouldn’t we be thinking of the 20 6-year olds killed in Newtown?
We have a cancer, but it’s not terrorism. And it’s not just exhibited in all our shootings. It is equally exhibited in our growing addiction rates, in the increasing mortality in some groups. Obama gave the speech, surely, to quiet the calls from those who demand he address terrorism more aggressively than he address the underlying cancer.
Obama’s horrible, flatly delivered speech made me think — even as I was watching of it — of that far more famous malaise speech, delivered by Jimmy Carter, 36 years ago.
Carter’s malaise speech, after all, was offered at the moment so much of the current malaise, the cancer, started. Inflation-adjusted wages for the middle class had already peaked, 6 years earlier. That was the moment when the rich and the super-rich started running off with greater and greater portion of the benefits of America’s productivity.
And the overthrow of our client dictator in Iran months earlier would set off our decades-long dance with Islamic extremists. Indeed, just 12 days before Carter delivered what would be dubbed the malaise speech, he authorized covert support for what would become the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Our entanglement with the Saudis — and with it our refusal to ditch our oil addiction — has disastrously governed much of our foreign policy since, even while the petrodollar delayed the recognition that our economy isn’t working anymore, not for average Americans.
Carter correctly diagnosed his moment. After making an effort to hear from Americans from all walks of life, he recognized that people believed — correctly, we now know — that the future might bring decline, not progress.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July.
It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else — public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years.
He saw the gap growing between Washington’s policy wonks and the people they purportedly served.
Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation’s life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
36 years ago, Carter saw that the nation was at a turning point, a moment where it could choose to continue down the path it was (and remains on) or come together again.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.
There are parts of Carter’s speech that grate, now. Given his singular focus on energy independence, he pushed hard for coal and shale oil exploitation. Carter’s endorsement of saying something nice about America dismisses the possibility some introspection about America’s mistakes was in order.
Moreover, some areas of strength, the areas where Carter believed America would endure, have not.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
We still have unmatched military might and the largest economy, but that hasn’t brought us peace or respect for civil liberties. Instead, the monster Carter and his advisor Zbignew Brzezinski first unleashed led us to double down on our own malaise, one which led, after many years, to Obama’s cancer speech.
And while the initial response to the speech was quite positive, Carter squandered the value of the speech.
Obama was, in my opinion, wrong to capitulate to those who want to focus singularly on terrorism rather than on America’s problems more generally. Because both here and abroad, our failure to address the malaise Carter identified decades ago remains the more critical problem.
Ten Billion: A Kick in the Ass We’ve Needed
[Note: You can join Professor Stephen Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST.]
If we learned a cataclysmic, extinction-level event was hurtling toward our planet, how would we respond? How should we respond if we know we can minimize the threat?
This is in essence the question asked of us by Ten Billion, a film based on Professor Stephen Emmott’s eponymous book. The film premieres this Saturday at 22:00 UTC on SkyTV.
I was fortunate to screen Ten Billion recently. Crafted by director Peter Webber, it deftly evokes Koyaanisqatsi (1982), its name based on the Hopi word for “life out of balance.” Ten Billion similarly shows us a world even more off kilter, its resources relentlessly consumed by humans. Where Koyaanisqatsi‘s Philip Glass score was reflective and elegiac, Ten Billion‘s Alex Heffes’ score underlines the mounting urgency of crises.
These crises are many, pegged directly to population growth and its corresponding rate of consumption. The film’s use of a timeline depicting past and future projections of population are effective, like watching the tipping point of a virus infecting its host.
Effective, too, are comparisons between recent and archival photos depicting the changes wrought by humans. Evidence of glaciation loss is horrific, as one example.
Photos of earth from the International Space Station remind us that we are all in this together. There is no escape, no way around this; this is home, and we must work together to save it.
My sole critique is about the diversity of “climate migrants” — so-called in the film, but we know now that many who flee political instability are really “climate refugees.” Ten Billion depicts the plight of peoples affected most by climate change. Most live closer to the equator, and are therefore darker skinned. They have been too easily ignored by light-skinned northern cultures. We see that now with the response to Syrian refugees, whose home country began to fall apart due to severe drought long before overt military action began against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS.
We also see the same blindness in western response to world-record typhoons Bopha, Haiyan, Hagupit, Koppu hitting the Philippines year after year; cyclone Pam nearly wiping away Vanuatu this past March; and the combination of severe drought and catastrophic flooding affecting Chennai, India even now. There is little if any news coverage here in the U.S., and a nominal amount in the U.K. and EU, as if Asians and Pacific Islanders don’t even exist though they number in the billions. We ignore our role in exporting not only manufacturing jobs but associated air pollution to India and China.
Ten Billion would have been more effective holding a mirror up to the pale faces of northern climes, forcing them to see they, too, are affected. Whites fled both New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ahead of hurricanes like Katrina. They fled the coast of New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy — some who stayed and returned to the affected area are still dealing with post-storm damage years later. There will be more internal climate refugees again whenever the next Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits U.S.
And there will be refugees from drought, when the need for water in states like California finally exceeds the ability of other states to sell and ship enough to meet the shortfall. We are not prepared to deal with this generation’s version of the Okies fleeing a new Dust Bowl.
Until the west — especially the U.S. based on its consumption habits and political reach — realizes its own pale skin is invested in these crises, it may continue to look the other way while making idle greenwashed gestures like COP21 in Paris this week.
I am on the fence about Emmott’s understatement about his own background in this film. If he had been more explicit about his role as a scientist, would the public take his plea in Ten Billion more seriously?
It’s important to note this film may be part of a growing trend — scientists bypassing the suffocation of politicized corporate media, in order to reach the public.
We’ve seen this recently with the op-ed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech senior water scientist Professor Jay Famiglietti, warning California only had one year of water left in its reservoirs. Famiglietti didn’t wait for a report issued from either NASA or academia to filter its way into the stultifying news reporting process. He cut out the middle men and wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times to convey urgency and effect immediate action.
Some will criticize this film as expository and hortatory, failing to provide solutions to the crises we’ve created. This is not that film. This is not meant to guide us toward help, when so many other scientists have already told us for decades what is wrong and what action we must take to minimize the threat to our planet and ourselves.
This film is meant to be a much-needed kick in the ass, to propel us to action appropriate to a cataclysmic, extinction-level event.
Because as Emmott says, in concise terms familiar to civilians and scientists alike, we’re fucked if do not take immediate, appropriate action.
You can join Professor Emmott for a @reddit AMA TODAY Friday 04-DEC-2015 at 4:00 pm (UK) / 11:00 am EST. Emmott also has an op-ed today in The Guardian.
“It’s Good to Be Back,” Petraeus Says before He Offers a Vague Apology and Oil Market Advice
John McCain has officially launched David Petraeus’ rehabilitation tour.
Petraeus testified today before the Senate Armed Services Committee on what to do in the Middle East. But you could tell how much this is about rehabilitation for the heartfelt thanks Petraeus offered McCain for bringing him in to testify. “It’s good to be back,” Petraeus said, before launching into the most hailed part of the hearing, this vague apology.
I think it is appropriate to begin my remarks this morning with an apology, one that I have offered before, but nonetheless one that I want to repeat to you and to the American public. Four years ago I made a serious mistake, one that brought discredit on me and pain closest–to those closest to me. It was a violation of the trust placed in me, and a breach of the values to which I had been committed throughout my life. There’s nothing I can do to undo what I did. I can only say again how sorry I am to thoseI let down and then strive to go forward with a greater sense of humility and purpose, and with gratitude to those who stood with me during a very difficult chapter in my life.
He didn’t actually say what part of the scandal he was apologizing for, though some of the press seemed to be certain that it was about one or another aspect of it. His invocation of the pain he caused those closest to him suggests it was the affair itself. The timing — just over four years ago, August 28, 2011, was the day he gave his black books full of code word intelligence to Paula Broadwell for several days — suggests it was about actually leaking intelligence.
If the acts he apologized for were four years ago, though, it means this apology doesn’t cover the lies he told the FBI on June 12, 2012 about sharing this intelligence. And it doesn’t cover keeping those books with code word intelligence in the top drawer of his unlocked desk until FBI found them on April 5, 2013, the act — mishandling classified information — that he technically pled guilty too.
Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the lawyer he shares with Hillary Clinton, David Kendall, advised him not to apologize for lying to the FBI, given that would involve admitting guilt for something he didn’t plead guilty for.
So having apparently apologized for a range of things that didn’t apparently include lying to the FBI, David Petraeus gave unsworn testimony to Congress.
The testimony was about what you’d expect. David Petraeus’ surge was, according to David Petraeus, a huge success. Petraeus told of some great things Nuri al-Maliki did even while explaining some great things Haider al-Abadi is doing. Petraeus envisioned the break up of Syria while insisting that the same couldn’t happen in Iraq (because the Sunnis in Iraq would have no oil revenues). All casualties in Syria were the fault of Bashar al-Assad, and not the US ally-backed forces Petraeus watched get armed while he was still CIA Director. Petraeus denied, without being asked, that the military had a policy of ignoring Afghan bacha bazi, as reported in NYT this week.
Not a word was mentioned about the chaos CIA-led intervention in Libya has caused, or what to do about it (Petraeus did mention Libya in a passing answer to a question), not even in discussions of why the Russians would never be willing to work under US command in countering ISIS, not even from the party that remains obsessed about Benghazi.
Nothing was mentioned about how all the men we’ve — Petraeus — has trained have been prone to flee.
The closest Petraeus came to discussing the support for Sunni extremism our allies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — give (and therefore their role in the region’s instability) came when Petraeus discussed Turkey’s increasing targeting of PKK that happened at the same time Turkey agreed to let us use Incirlik Air Base, though Petraeus didn’t note any connection between those two things.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the hearing, though, came towards the end (after 2:11), when Thom Tillis asked a very reasonable question about how other countries (he didn’t say, but he probably had China in mind) reliance on Iran once they start selling oil will become important strategically.
After claiming Tillis’ break-even number for Iran’s budget (which accords with public reporting) was incorrect, Petraeus put on his private equity guy hat.
I’m the chairman of the KKR global institute and a partner in KKR, one of the global investment firms, uh [hand gesture showing breadth] big private equity firms in our country. And, first of all, by the way, the analysis on crude oil export shows that not only would the price of WTI, West Texas Intermediate go up slightly, so the producers would be better off, it would also have an impact on Brent Crude prices, which would come down, the global price, which is a lot of what we refine, and the price at the pump probably would go down. So it’s very interesting — if you look at, I think it’s the CBO that did the analysis of this. One of our analytical organizations here, I think, on Capitol Hill has looked at this. And it’s a very interesting dynamic.
[Tillis tries to interrupt, Petraeus keeps speaking.]
Beyond that, I don’t think we should get involved in markets as a country, unless we want to do something like sanctions. So again, you wouldn’t do it — if you want to use sanctions for economic tools as a weapon, gives thumbs up sign] fine, but otherwise I think you have to be very careful about intervention in the global markets.
Tillis tried again, restating his question about whether we should drill as much oil as we can to hedge against increased Iranian influence.
We ought to produce all the oil that we can, if we’re making a profit. If we can enable countries like Iraq to revive their oil industry as we did, it helps Iraq, it funds their gover–by the way they’re running into fiscal deficit now. But again, this is really about market forces I think, much more than getting involved in this as a country.
Not much of Petraeus’ answer made sense, but I can assure you, the head of KKR’s Global Institute is pretty excited about natural gas.
Sure, the expertise of a private equity guy might be worthwhile to Congress, though that affiliation was not listed on the SASC website.
But it’s all the more absurd given the rest of Petraeus testimony, most notably his silence about Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing influence, given that we do play in global markets precisely through our unquestioningly loyalty to the Saudis.
I guess the Senate — which turned out in big numbers — finds this kind of analysis useful. But it is, once again, about David Petraeus more than it is about testimony that will help us adopt a sound policy in the Middle East.
Reminder: Bybee Was Too Busy Protecting Big Oil to Oversee Torture
Jay Bybee just gave a speech at University of Utah on the Constitution at which he tried to claim the torture memos that bear his name included constraints that no one else has been able to find.
One middle-aged man stood to the side of the classroom with a sign reading “Torture Is a War Crime.” A woman of a similar age next to him tried to ask Bybee about executive branch power and “the secret torture of Muslims.” The moderator from the Federalist Society cut her off before she finished the question.
“That question is way beyond my ability to predict,” Bybee then replied.
After the question-and-answer period, Irvine approached Bybee and tried to ask more about the memos.
Bybee pointed to a section in one memo telling the CIA that if the facts change, to notify the Justice Department for an updated opinion. Bybee also invited Irvine to his offices in Las Vegas to discuss the issue further.
Irvine said he would visit Bybee the next time he is in Las Vegas.
Irvine said moments later that the speech didn’t make him feel better about the memos, though he found it interesting when Bybee described the constrictions on presidential power.
“That is not what I read in that  memo,” Irvine said.
It’s worth remembering, however, that Bybee claims — and the record supports his claim — that he wasn’t all that involved in writing the torture memos that bear his name. According to his own attorney, Maureen Mahoney, he swooped into the memo-writing process just weeks before they were finalized.
The reason she gave for why Bybee was so uninvolved in the nitty gritty of rubber stamping torture is worth noting. Jay Bybee was too busy protecting the secrecy of Cheney’s sweetheart Energy Task Force to oversee his nominal subordinate John Yoo on torture.
I wanted to draw attention to a footnote she includes to–apparently–explain that Jay Bybee was a very busy man at the time when he was supposed to be overseeing John Yoo’s attempts to legalize torture in the summer of 2002. (This is on PDF page 19)
Judge Bybee’s role in reviewing the memo began in earnest around mid-July, roughly two weeks before he signed them.5
5 During the summer of 2002, in addition to his work on national security issues, Judge Bybee, as head of OLC, was also heavily involved in a number of other difficult and pressing legal matters. Of particular note, Judge Bybee was engaged in the district court litigation in Walker v. Cheney, No. 02-340 (DD.C.). The attorneys in that case were working closely with the Department’s Civil Division and the Solicitor General’s Office. The legal issues involved in the case were peculiarly within Judge Bybee’s expertise because his scholarly research had been cited as authority by both sides. See Jay S. Bybee, Advising the President: Separation a/Powers and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, 104 Yale L.J. 51 (1994).
Walker v. Cheney, of course, is the suit the GAO took against Cheney’s office to try to force it to turn over documents relating to his Energy Task Force. After District Court Judge John Bates ruled against GAO in December 2002, it ended one of the more important efforts to subject Cheney’s office to Congressional oversight. Furthermore, this effort must be regarded as Cheney’s first attempt to assert that his was a Fourth Branch, exempt from oversight but also executive regulation.
How interesting, then, that Mahoney highlighted Bybee’s role in helping Cheney succeed in winning this suit to argue that Jay Bybee was doing what he should have been doing in summer 2002.
All one OLC office’s work of expanding Executive Authority to coddle corporations and torture prisoners.
Shell Announces $11 Billion Petrochemical Plant for Iraq: What Could Go Wrong?
Today’s entry in the “What Could Go Wrong?” sweepstakes is quite a beauty, courtesy of Reuters:
Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) has signed a deal with Iraq worth $11 billion (7 billion pounds) to build a petrochemicals plant in the southern oil hub of Basra, Industry Minister Nasser al-Esawi said on Wednesday.
Esawi told a press conference in Baghdad the Nibras complex, which is expected to come on line within five to six years, would make Iraq the largest petrochemical producer in the Middle East.
“The Nibras complex will be one of the largest (foreign) investments (in Iraq) and the most important in the petrochemical sector in the Middle East,” Esawi said.
Proponents of the deal undoubtedly will point to the fact that Basra is in the far southeastern part of Iraq, far from the swathe of territory controlled by ISIS. Others will even point to the apparent defeat of ISIS in Kobane and how that might signal a turning of the tide in the battle against them. And yes, oil output in Iraq has been steadily rising since that little blip in 2003. As of the time of that linked report from the US Energy Information Administration from 2013, there were other plans for another $24 billion or so in new refineries in Iraq’s oil-producing regions, so why not jump on this Shell plan?
It turns out that there is plenty of fodder for fans of Lee Corso to shout “Not so fast, my friend!” when it comes to this deal. Back in June, there were already rumblings that the big uptick in Iraq violence could threaten expansion of Iraq’s oil sector. Even that article, though, attempted to support the notion that the Basra area remained relatively safe:
As grim as the worst-case situations may be, most analysts still say there is no immediate threat to Iraq’s southern oil fields, which account for approximately 90 percent of the country’s production and oil export. Basra, the heart of Iraq’s oil economy, is situated in an area strongly dominated by Shiites who generally support the central government and are implacable enemies of the Sunni forces on the march in the north.
Badr H. Jafar, chairman of Pearl Petroleum, a consortium that operates in Iraqi Kurdistan, said it was “highly unlikely” that terrorists could disrupt production and operations in southern Iraq.
The New York Times article containing the quote above is dated June 13, 2014. Just a couple of days later, though, we have this:
Turkey’s consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra has been evacuated due to security concerns, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced June 17. The 18 staff members at the consulate, including the consul general, were were taken to Kuwait, Davutoğlu wrote via his Twitter account.
And that wasn’t just a one-off thing. Consider this tweet from October:
Thousands of Iraqis are living in penury and running out of money after fleeing fighting and settling in the south of the country, the UN’s food agency said on Tuesday, warning that the situation was becoming critical for families in Najaf, Kerbala and Babil.
Jane Pearce, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) country director for Iraq, said structures had not yet been put in place to cater for the people fleeing into the three southern provinces.
WFP is distributing food to 50,000 displaced families in Basra, Dhi Qar, Qadisiya, Missan, Wasit, Muthanna, Najaf, Kerbala and Babil.
WFP needs $292m for its operations in Iraq this year, and has a shortfall of $200m.
Imagine that. Yet another region where the US has no trouble finding funds for bombs, weapons and “training” and yet the WFP is facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. But never fear, I’m sure my adorable little troll will be around shortly to stamp his foot and inform us how disaster responders in all their glory have the situation safely in hand and the US can continue its work to create even more refugees because sufficient scraps will be found just in time to avert the worst.
And of course, folks living on the edge of starvation and death from exposure will never, ever be radicalized by such an experience. Sure, go ahead and build that $11 billion petrochemical plant. The US war-industrial complex will be happy to spend hundreds of times more than that amount defending the facility.
Saudi Royal Succession and Petrodollar Laundering
I was mostly offline when King Abdullah died, so while I got to read the fawning tributes to the regressive monarch, and have caught up in time to read about the contest General Dempsey is staging in tribute (h/t @tweetsintheME), I missed the far more important detail from last week’s succession: that King Salman named Mohammed bin Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince. As Steve Coll lays out, this makes the American favorite (and the architect of Saudi Arabia’s brutal internal policing) third in line for the throne. Coll draws a parallel to the way that Abdul Aziz ensured succession would pass from his oldest son, Saud, to the more competent Faisal.
Saud was corpulent, self-indulgent, and incompetent. Abdul Aziz rightly feared that he was not up to advancing and preserving what he had built.
Yet Abdul Aziz’s second surviving son, Faisal, was shrewd, austere, and serious. Before he died, the king forged a compromise: he decreed that his throne would pass laterally from his eldest son to his youngest son, however long that took. This meant that, while Saud would become king upon Abdul Aziz’s death, Faisal would become Crown Prince, in a position to run things while Saud indulged himself. That decision proved sound. Faisal and the larger royal family eventually persuaded Saud to resign. Faisal modernized Saudi Arabia in many respects until, in 1975, a family member assassinated him.
Coll argues this appointment will signal to the world the Sauds intend to stick around for the long haul (and, implicitly, will remain a ruthless police state as well).
Within the kingdom and outside, the choice of Muhammad bin Nayef as the Deputy Crown Prince, and the vehicle for dropping down a generation, will be read by many as a signal of reasoned debate and consensus about continuity within the Council. Bin Nayef ran counterterrorism operations in Saudi Arabia when the kingdom cracked down on Al Qaeda after 2003. He then became the interior minister. He is a favorite in Washington and London, regarded as more serious and committed to government than many others in the royal family. He is also a ruthless type who has spent his ministry’s enormous budget building one of the world’s most attentive police states.
I’m not surprised MbN has been slotted into the succession plans. But I’m rather interested in how this will affect a key tool of US-Saudi relations, the Technical Cooperation Agreement which I spent some time obsessing about when MbN came to the US to renew it just as Obama shuffled his cabinet post-reelection. The State Department has been sitting on a FOIA for the Agreement — which might explain details about how US government employees report up through the Saudi chain of command, or might lay out how the new cybersecurity agreement relates to having given the Saudis Third Party status at NSA. But it also might describe how this serves as a vehicle for petrodollar laundering — a way to bind the KSA to the dollar.
Whatever State was hiding, it was also hiding a relationship that put MbN squarely in charge of the relationship.
Meanwhile, the Brits have themselves been rolling out a strange petrodollar money laundering instrument. As Jack of Kent has begun to explore it, the Ministry of Justice has rolled out a fake commercial front, Just Solutions international (yes, small-i), that will increase judicial cooperation between England and Wales and the repressive Saudi government. JoK weighs this deal — which apparently is not yet a done deal — this way.
In respect of transparency, the simultaneous MoU and commercial bid are not in the public domain, and both of them should be, even if there was no question of a connection between the two. Both are documents which, on their own terms, should be published in the public interest.
In respect of domestic policy, your view on whether this is a a good way of scarce MoJ resources to be used – especially in a period of substantial cuts – will ultimately be a value judgment. And most people who follow the operation of the prison and probation services will legitimately wonder if the UK is in any position to market expertise abroad.
In respect of whether the proposal will improve the lot of those in the Saudi punishment system, your view will partly depend on whether you are satisfied by the the MoJ’s (eventual) responses to the questions posed by Amnesty International. And even if the assistance is a Good Thing, there is no reason why it should be offered by the UK on a “commercial” basis.
In respect of whether the proposal will give wrongful legitimacy to the barbaric Saudi punishment system will also ultimately be a value judgment.
However, in respect of the the concern as to whether the proposal creates a conflict of interest, the position is clear.
The MoJ, responsible for the legal system of England and Wales, is seeking a commercial relationship, by which it intends to make a surplus to be used for other services, with a foreign state which as the Corner House case alone documents coerces the legal system of England and Wales by illegitimate means at its disposal.
Interesting, PriceWaterhouseCooper seems to have a role, which it may also have had with iterations of the US petrodollar laundering ventures.
In short, it’s a weird deal that, like the TCA’s apparent current structure, blurs where our sovereign nation ends and where our contracts to sustain order in KSA begin. It might make the Saudis less oppressive. Or it might not — and it might tie the English corrections system more closely to the Saudi one.
And it would seem to put MbN, again, in a central role.
I don’t know if these are related or not, and I’m not sure how much, as Deputy Crown Prince, MbN will retain his portfolio in overseeing repression in KSA. But they’re both weird deals that deserve more scrutiny.
The Saudis, though, may have already decided they want more of the same.
Plane Meets Plow: The Curious End of Total S.A. CEO Christophe de Margerie
[Photo tweeted by @Enel_Aire, post time stamped 2014-10-21 at 09:45 (time zone unknown)]
Forgive my skepticism about the accident Monday night that took the life of Christophe de Margerie. CEO of French oil and gas company Total S.A. We’ve been told by enough analysts that several target countries, including Russia, are under siege, though these experts don’t refer to this openly as asymmetric warfare. The recent and ongoing drop in petroleum prices threatens cash inflows to those countries whose economies rely on oil revenues — Russia and Iran among them. The death of an oil industry executive isn’t unexpected given the amount of money in play; people die daily for far less cash.
Not as much as Moscow, mind you, but we get snow where I live in flyover country USA. Any time between mid-October and mid-April we can expect some frozen precipitation. A blizzard in October isn’t unheard of — we had one 17 years ago this week, in fact. I’ve lived with six months of snow per year for most of my life.
Early reports indicated the plane carrying de Margerie hit or was hit by a snowplow driven by a drunken operator, in poor visibility. It’s not clear exactly which hit the other based on different accounts across the internet. A Russian reconstruction video furnished to Le Figaro shows the plane’s wing clipping a vehicle upon landing — but the video exerts more effort on the fire and smoke than it does on the initial impact. Note in this second video of the plane after the crash during daylight hours that the wing which hit the plow as characterized in the video is missing.
At least one article claimed debris was spread 200 meters by the plane after impact. Perhaps the wing was in that debris, but it’s not reflected in the Russian reconstruction video. A more recent report said the snowplow was parked on the runway.
Ultimately, what we see is a plane that flipped over — either tipped over by the force of a plow, or flipped over after impact.
And no snow. This particular photo is rather pixelated, but it doesn’t reflect reduced visibility due to snowfall. There’s no snow in the second video link above, though visibility has worsened.
Other photos from the site similarly reflect no snow. Almanac data from the 48-72 hours before and after the crash reflects temperatures dropping below freezing, but 1 mm to 11 mm of unspecified precipitation between Monday and Tuesday in Moscow depending on the weather site consulted. There had been some snow, the first of the season, on Sunday night local time, but almanac data doesn’t reflect the same amount falling on Monday evening, nor does the almanac data shown in the graphic here report the precipitation on the correct date. (The 10 mm on Monday matches the photo of Sunday’s first snowfall, not the images published of the airport and crash site late Monday night/Tuesday.)
Could there have been a vehicle on the tarmac treating the surface with de-icer? Sure — but why didn’t the various accounts report just that? Not one report out I’ve seen in the last 24 hours has suggested runway icing was a problem.
Could the driver have been drunk? Hell yeah — it’s Russia, where alcoholism is extremely common and too often deadly. But the driver’s lawyer has said the driver was not under the influence as he takes a prescription heart medicine which does not mix with alcohol. Yet more reports indicate the dispatchers may have erred in their instructions, or were themselves under the influence.
Given the tensions between the west and Russia about Ukraine, and the subsequent likely attempts to unsettle Russia’s economy via oil price volatility, and given Total Oil’s position as fourth largest petroleum company, my hinky meter is stuck somewhere between Suspicious and Disbelieving as to the real cause of the CEO’s death.
Whether this tragic event was an accident or deliberate malfeasance, the question I’d like answered is cui bono? Who or what benefited the most from de Margerie’s untimely demise?
De Margerie’s last speech in front of Russia’s Foreign Investment Advisory Council during the day Monday was very pro-Russian, pro-oil development and anti-sanction. This is consistent with the CEO’s comments in September when Total’s joint venture with Russia’s Lukoil was halted due to the sanctions. In August, Margerie had expressed commitment to Yamal LNG, a joint venture development project between France’s Total and Russia’s OAO Novatek:
“I am doing everything,” to make progress, Chief Executive Officer Christophe de Margerie said in an interview on Yamal LNG. “There no reason to think that it won’t happen.”
One might reasonably assume the west had a beef with de Margerie, especially if there were any indications he encouraged work undermining sanctions intended to punish Russia for its incursion on Ukraine.
An additional risk factor for de Margerie was Total’s relationship with Iran; the firm had a long history with Iran, having developed its South Pars gas field prior to sanctions in 2009. Margerie kept Total’s foot in Iran’s door, meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at Davos this year. The CEO hoped to position Total to benefit once sanctions against Iran relaxed. This stance could certainly annoy a few key entities quite a bit.
But then two paragraphs later, it refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” not a threat.
In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of
the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these
A few more paragraphs later, it admits this report primarily looks at climate change’s impact on DOD, not its impact on the US.
Our first step in planning for these challenges is to identify the effects of climate change on the Department with tangible and
specific metrics, using the best available science.
I don’t mean to be churlish — and I do recognize that DOD is quite forward-thinking, among government agencies for its awareness of and initial preparations for climate change.
But that’s sort of the point. This is as good as it gets. And only secondarily does even one of the most progressive agencies in government, with respect to climate change, get to this kind of admission.
Maintaining stability within and among other nations is an important means of avoiding full-scale military conflicts. The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability. These developments could undermine already-fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently-stable governments, as well as increasing competition and tension between countries vying for limited resources. These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism. Here in the U.S., state and local governments responding to the effects of extreme weather may seek increased [Defense Support of Civil Authorities].
Climate change is going to be hell. It’s going to cause wars. And it will even require addition DOD resources domestically, in the form of Reserve troops to help local authorities cope with emergencies. And — though DOD doesn’t say it, certainly not in its publicly released document — the US is one of the places that will struggle with governance of the internal effects of climate change, even if they’ll do better than, say, Bangladesh or some harder hit countries. Certainly the US is no model of proactive government preparing for these disasters!
Meanwhile, here’s what else DOD does in the name of fulfilling its responsibility for the security of the country. (h/t OTB)
To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago.
What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.
Behind all these aircraft stands the supporting personnel and infrastructure necessary to any air operation. These range from ground crews and air traffic controllers to maintainers, armorers and intel personnel. Then there are the people in the air operations center who put together the air tasking order that details all the air activities for a 24-hour period. There are more people and more complexity when it is a joint and coalition operation.
Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. This is in a fairly benign environment.
That is, even while DOD notes — laudably, given how dysfunctional our government is — that climate change is going to destabilize countries and will even require deployment of the Reserve to limit instability in our own country, it is burning up fossil fuels at an alarming rate, even in its relatively circumscribed operation against ISIL.
This report edges us closer to the point where we call climate change a threat to the US, rather than just a threat multiplier to all the other things looming out there.
But until we’re there — until we recognize that climate change has killed far more people in the US since 9/11 than terrorism — we will continue to burn fossil fuel as a first or second response to threats on the other side of the world.