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The Iraq catastrophe

isis

A total disaster. I don’t even know how to think about it. The core states of the Arab world—Iraq, Syria, Egypt—are swirling down the drain. Imploding. And there’s not much outside powers can do about it. Just two comments. First, however the wars in Iraq and Syria play out there will not be a redrawing of borders or a formal breakup of those states. It won’t happen. Sykes-Picot is not dead. On this, I entirely agree with Gregory Gause’s post last month on the Monkey Cage blog. Second, I have zero tolerance for bloviators in the US who are using the Iraq catastrophe as a club to bash the Obama administration and its policy toward the region. Let it be clear: Obama’s Middle East policy can in no way be held responsible for what’s happening in Iraq. Or in Syria. If one wants to play the blame game, one needs to go back to those who committed the original sin in Iraq in 2003. On this, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy got it exactly right in a post on Friday, “The Iraq mess: Place blame where it is deserved.” Money quote

If Prime Minister Maliki, whom the United States eventually settled on as its favored Iraqi leader, had made a serious effort to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds, rather than acting like a sectarian ward heeler, the departure of U.S. forces might not have created the political stalemate and institutional power vacuum that the jihadis, first in Anbar Province and now in Nineveh and Saladin, have exploited.

None of these things happened, but the greatest mistake was the initial one. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, the Bush Administration opened Pandora’s Box. Given what has happened since 2003, it is almost comical to read the prewar prognostications of the neocons and paleocons for what would happen after Saddam was gone. There was talk of turning Iraq into a democratic model for other Middle Eastern countries—making it another Turkey, or even a Jordan, with a Hashemite restoration. Today it is faced with the prospect of a bloody dismemberment into three sectarian mini-states: the Sunnis in the west and northwest; the Kurds in the northeast; and the Shiites in the center and the oil-rich south. (It’s unclear where Baghdad, a city divided along religious lines, fits into this picture.)

The irony is painfully acute. Eleven years ago, in response to a terrorist attack by a group of anti-American religious fanatics, the United States invaded an Arab country with hardly any jihadis, or very few of them, to overthrow a secular dictator. Today, with much blood and money having been spent, northern and western Iraq is full of jihadis, and the U.S. government is figuring out how to prevent them from overrunning the rest of the country.

Also in The New Yorker are commentaries by Dexter Filkins, “In extremists’ Iraq rise, America’s Legacy” (June 11th) and “Wider war” (June 23rd issue). See also Filkins’ April 28th Letter from Iraq: “What we left behind.” The lede: An increasingly authoritarian leader [Nuri al-Maliki], a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future.

Now Filkins does pin some responsibility on the Obama administration for the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis in 2011. But in a piece in Politico (June 15th), Colin H. Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama administration, asserts that “No, Obama didn’t lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” and in which he explains why a SOFA could not be negotiated with the Iraqis.

Other worthy pieces I’ve come across over the past few days:

Marc Lynch, writing in Monkey Cage, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” (June 12th)

The FT’s David Gardner, “Iraq’s implosion reflects Syria’s lost national narrative” (June 13th). The lede: Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption has enabled itinerant gangs to claw their way back.

LSE professor Toby Dodge, writing in The Guardian (June 13th), “Iraq doesn’t have to fall apart: It can be reformed.” The lede: The advance of Isis is the result of terrible decisions made since 2003. Iraqis themselves must chart a new course if the state is to survive.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “After Mosul: If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States” (June 11th).

À suivre. Évidemment.

MoS2 Template Master

calendrier-coupe-du-monde-2014-france

It begins in a few hours—at 4:00 AM where I happen to be at the moment (Singapore), so I’ll miss the game (Brazil-Croatia). Like several hundred million people the world over, and likely more, I’ve been looking forward to this. I will be spending the next month watching as many games as possible (back in France, where they’ll all be in the evening). I’m for Les Bleus, bien évidemment, even though I have no illusions that they’ll go too far (to the Round of 16 at least—they’re in a relatively easy group—, maybe even to the quarterfinals). On verra. In the meantime, I’ll post any interesting, highbrow articles or worthy commentary on the subject I come across. Here’s one already, by University of Michigan political scientist—and soccer specialist—Andrei Markovits, who, writing on the political science blog Monkey Cage, says that “National characteristics do not explain soccer styles.” See also the other articles in the Monkey Blog’s series on politics, political science and the World Cup.

BTW, it appears that Team USA is not in the real Group of Death after all. According to this analysis by Nate Silver (who else?), the real Group of Death is Group B, followed by D.

7767657273_mondial-de-football-2014-les-huit-groupes

Bangkok recommendations

Thip Samai, Bangkok

Thip Samai, Bangkok

I just spent several days in Bangkok, an exceptional city that anyone with the inclination to travel should visit at least once in his/her life. For those who do plan a trip there, here are just a couple of recommendations. First, in terms of food, Bangkok may well be the greatest city in the world, as (a) Thai cuisine is arguably *the* world’s greatest and (b) there is no point in recommending restaurants, as the eating experience on the street—at the countless food carts and hole-in-the-wall open-air restaurants, where the food is prepared in front of you—is such that a comparable eating experience will likely be found nowhere else in this world. Bangkok is a daily eating festival. But let me recommend just one restaurant, which, in the estimation of Bangkok Thais—and this has been confirmed—, makes the best Pad Thai in the city. Pad Thai is its specialty. That’s all the restaurant does. The name and address: Thip Samai, 313 Thanon Mahachai, Samranrat, Phra Nakorn (open from 5PM to late). It’s centrally located—not far from the Wat Phra Keao and Khao San Road—but not in an area that tourists are likely to stay, so one will have to take a taxi (a meter taxi, and insist on the meter; don’t bother with tuk-tuks, which are a rip-off; cut-and-paste and hand the taxi driver this: 313 ถ.มหาไชย สำราษราษฎร์ พระนคร กทม). When I arrived at the restaurant last Saturday around 9:30PM, I had to wait in line for almost half an hour to get a table. And I was the only non-Thai, signifying that (a) locals really like it, meaning that it’s definitely a good restaurant and (b) it has, for some curious reason, not made it into the guide books. Fortunately the menu was translated into English. So was it worth it? Yes. Absolutely. Here’s a video (it’s exactly like this).

While I’m at it, I also recommend the riverside restaurants at the Tha Phra Chan pier, just north of the Wat Phra Keao (otherwise, take the ferry from Wang Lang, the nº10 stop on the Chao Phraya river express).

And I will give some free publicity to my hotel, the New Siam Guest House II, which is ideally situated and can’t be beat in terms of value for money.

My namesake

Wat-Arun

I won’t be posting much over the next couple of weeks—and likely not at all on politics or current events—and I am far away from the banks of the Marne and not following the news comme d’habitude or spending too much time on the Internet. I am presently in the city in which this edifice—that carries my name—is a landmark (the pic is not mine, though I’ve taken a few of my own). As my readers are cosmopolitan and well-traveled in their great majority, most will immediately know where I am ;-)

Two Days, One Night

Deux jours une nuit - Affiche

The Cannes film festival ended on Saturday night. Congratulations to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for winning the Palme d’or for his 3¼-hour ‘Kış Uykusu’ (Winter Sleep). He’s a fine director—I’ve seen five of his previous six feature-length films (the last I had a post on)—and will look forward to this one when it opens in the summer.

One film that was in competition at Cannes, but which came away with nothing, was Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s ‘Deux jours, une nuit’ (Two Days, One Night). This is too bad, as it’s an excellent film. It opened in France on Wednesday and I, of course, had to see it illico. I will see anything and everything by the Dardenne brothers. The subject of this one is a 40-ish woman named Sandra—played by the always excellent and sublime Marion Cotillard—, a mother of two with devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione), who’s coming off a bout of depression that got her onto sick leave for a few months, and who is suddenly being laid off from her job at a small company (in the greater Liège area, where all the Dardenne brothers’ films are set) that makes solar panels. The procedure for her layoff—the Belgian Code du travail is clearly different from the French—was a voice vote by the personnel, the choice being for her to be laid off in return for each of them receiving a bonus of €1,000, or her not being laid off but then no bonus—and, apparently, with not-so-subtle pressure from the plant’s foreman (Olivier Gourmet) for the personnel to opt for the former. So she was canned, though with the boss, after entreaties from her and a colleague friend in the parking lot after work on Friday, agreeing to do the vote over on Monday morning and by secret ballot. So Sandra, desperate to keep her job—the unemployment rate in Belgium’s Wallonia being around 13% these days—, had the weekend to find each of her sixteen co-workers and try to persuade them to vote to retain her, but thereby foregoing their bonuses. And that’s the movie, of her, in a defeatist mood, but prodded by her supportive husband, tracking down her colleagues one-by-one, at their homes, in cafés, at their places of work in their second jobs, and putting them on the spot… It’s the best film I’ve seen in some time on the world of work for those in the lower half of the 99%, who live from paycheck to paycheck, need every last euro they make—not just to survive but also to realize their middling class consumption dreams—, and for whom the prospect of unemployment, always looming, is something that cannot be contemplated. If one wishes to be convinced of the necessity of strong trade unions and/or robust labor law—neither of which is mentioned in the pic, BTW—, see this movie. The acting is first-rate—which may be seen in range of the reactions of Sandra’s co-workers, and, of course, Marion Cotillard, who’s in almost every frame. Hollywood press reviews (tops) are here and here, French reviews (tops) are here, trailer is here. Don’t miss it!

I’ve seen two other films in the past week that premiered at Cannes. One was David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’—for which Julianne Moore won the best actress award—, which delivers a biting critique, to put it mildly, of the us et coutumes of the amoral—when not immoral—, superficial, cynical world of Hollywood and its obsession with money and fame. Not an original theme but one that can always be approached from unique angles. The pic is definitely more watchable than Cronenberg’s last one, ‘Cosmopolis’—which was the worst film I saw in 2012—, but left me somewhat cold, as every last character is so loathsome and odious. And while I am quite sure that many in Hollywood are like those in the movie, I have a hard time believing that most are. It is not an essential film IMO but may be seen. Reviews so far are good (e.g. here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

maps-to-the-stars-poster

The other Cannes film seen was ‘The Homesman’, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. I like Tommy Lee Jones and will a priori see anything he directs. This one is a sort of road movie on the high plains, set in mid 1850s Nebraska—though mostly shot in New Mexico—, with the Jones character, named George Briggs, accompanying a headstrong, independent, no-nonsense unmarried woman—but who is actively seeking a man—, named Mary Bee Cuddy, played by a fine Hillary Swank, who has volunteered to transport three mentally disturbed plains women to Iowa. Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter called it “[a]n absorbing, melancholy look at the hard lot of women in the Old West.” I was absorbed enough, I suppose, but won’t say it’s an essential film. I mean, it was okay. It may certainly be seen. One criticism: I was not convinced by the act Mary Bee committed fifteen minutes from the end—of why she did it; I didn’t like the scene too much—or by the film’s ending. Variety’s review is here and French reviews (good) are here. Trailer is here.

The-Homesman-affiche

Another film seen lately, that premiered at the Berlinale in Febrary, and which, like the above, was shot in New Mexico, was Franco-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Two Men in Town’ (French title: La Voie de l’ennemi). It’s a remake of Franco-Swiss director José Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title—which I have not seen—, entirely set in a New Mexico border county (it’s not the first film Bouchareb has shot in the US and in English) and with the kind of Western vistas that French/European audiences like. The cast—Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn—is great. The pic is well-acted and absorbing. But it has a few implausibilities and an unsatisfying ending. So I really can’t give it the thumbs up (though it is far superior to Bouchareb’s calamitous 2010 ‘Hors-la-loi’, which is the worst movie ever made on the Algerian war of independence). Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety got it right. See also Deborah Young’s review in THR. French reviews were good overall. Trailer is here.

la voie de lennemi

Yet one more massacre

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.  (Credit: abc7.com)

The six Isla Vista massacre victims, from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang.
(Credit: abc7.com)

[update below]

Joe Nocera of the NYT has a must read column today on the Second Amendment, “What did the Framers really mean?” For those who are maxed out on their free NYT access or are too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

Also worth reading is Michael Moore’s reaction to the Isla Vista massacre, posted on his Facebook page (h/t Lisa H.)

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night’s tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA — I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) “interests.” The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do — and yet we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: “Why us? What is it about US?” Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses — and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won’t pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won’t consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people,” they’ve got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Yes, as this is America, it will indeed happen again. Very soon.

UPDATE: Americans get killed by guns every day, by people who are not criminals or “bad guys.” Every last day of the week. If one does not believe me, read the “Holiday Weekend Gun Report: May 23-26, 2014” on Joe Nocera’s NYT blog.

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Photo: AFP/Pierre Andrieu

Photo: AFP/Pierre Andrieu

It was a disaster. A catastrophe. Worse than anyone expected—and certainly than I expected. I knew the FN would do very well, even come in first place ahead of the UMP and PS—as the polls predicted—, but not with 25% of the vote and a participation rate (43%) higher than in 2009. I am going to follow my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer and not do an instant analysis, though, like Art, I will offer a couple of instant comments (and, BTW, I entirely agree with his).

First, the FN’s score is nothing to sneeze at. For the frontistes to come in first place nationally and with a quarter of the vote—and even in a low participation election—is a very big deal. But this does not make the FN the nº1 party in the country. GMAB! On this, Olivier Duhamel and LCP’s Jean-Baptiste Daoulas are entirely right in relativizing the FN’s victory. The fact is, it was a high abstention election, with the FN’s national vote total (4.8 million) equaling that of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s in 2002 but falling well short of Marine LP’s in 2012 (6.4 million). When it comes to membership, number of elected officials—and their quality and competence—, financial resources, ability to turn out crowds at rallies, and you name it, the FN remains a dwarf; it does not rise to the ankle of the UMP and PS. The FN has exactly two deputies out of 577 in the National Assembly—and wouldn’t win too many more if élections anticipées were suddenly held, as MLP is demanding—and controls a grand total of eleven mairies out of 36,000+. And the FN remains totally isolated, as no institutional party of the right will ally with it. The result of the European election, which was a big setback for the UMP, will only cause to UMP to take a harder line against any dealings with the frontistes. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the UMP and FN will enter into some kind of common program as did the PS and PCF in the 1970s. And no party in France can win an election or exercise power without a coalition with other parties possessing distinct bases of support. The FN’s predicament here will not change in the coming years, this I promise.

Art Goldhammer is correct in saying that the FN is a fixture on the political landscape and will not likely be removed. But it is still very much a protest party. One hears and reads continually that the FN now has a structured base of support, which is true in some parts of the country—in the southeast and certain dying industrial towns in the north—but a lot of its support, I am convinced, is soft. E.g. in the bureau de vote in which I was an assesseur in Sunday’s election—which is the most relatively leftist in my very right-wing banlieue (meaning that the PS, Front de Gauche, and écolos together are normally in the 40-45% range)—the FN came in a close third with 17%, which is double its usual score (and in my own adjacent precinct, the FN won 14%). The FN is hardly present in my town. It hasn’t even run a list in municipal elections since 1995. In the 15 years I’ve been living here, I have never seen FN activists hand out leaflets in the marchés during election campaigns. Many of those who voted FN in my neighborhood yesterday were first-timers, expressing ras-le-bol. It’s been this way with the FN for three decades now, though just a little more nowadays.

Another point. European elections are particular; for many voters, it is a low stakes election and ideal for protest voting. And European elections do not prefigure the outcomes of the subsequent (higher stakes) presidential and/or legislative elections. E.g the 1994 European outcome—a calamitous score for the PS (14%) and excellent one for right-wing souverainistes and populists (Bernard Tapie)—was followed the next year by an unexpectedly respectable score for the PS presidential candidate and with the souverainistes sidelined. The 1999 election—in which right souverainistes humiliated Nicolas Sarkozy’s joint RPR-DL ticket (the core of the future UMP)—was followed by a decade of the UMP in power. And the PS biting the dust in 2009—with 16.5%, just a hair ahead of Europe Ecologie—in no way prefigured the 2012 presidential race. So yesterday’s outcome offers no hints for 2017.

Which is not to say that the PS can relativize what has just happened to it. François Hollande and the Socialists are in a deep hole and one has no idea how they can possibly dig themselves out of it. The election outcome was as decisive a rejection of Hollande’s austerity policies as one can get. So what are Hollande and Manuel Valls going to do? Stay the course, implement the pacte de responsiblité, and cut €50 billion in spending? If that happens, Valls will plummet in the polls, and with Hollande descending into maybe even the single digits. I personally know of no one at the present moment who will defend the Socialists—and I travel mainly in left-wing circles. Hell, I was an assesseur for the PS and didn’t vote for them (casting my ballot for Europe Ecologie). But if Hollande were to change course, where would he go and how? With France now diminished in Brussels and Strasbourg, will he really take on Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi? His situation really does seem hopeless.

Another thing. The Front de Gauche, at 6%, did not do well at all. And the extreme left (NPA, Lutte Ouvrière et al) has all but vanished. The French left is K.O., more so than at any time in memory. At least Europe Ecologie rose to the occasion, winning almost 9% and in the absence of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

As for the configuration of the European parliament, we’ll know about that in a few days. À suivre.

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