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General

Driving Round Pegs Into Square Holes – Why We Keep Screwing Up in the Middle East

Posted August 28, 2014 by The Mound of Sound

Since 1918 when the defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany triggered the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the West has established a reputation for screwing up in the Middle East.  It can be said to have begun with the French and British carving up the place to suit their interests, drawing straight lines where none existed before, corralling often hostile ethnic groups into artificial countries with names like Iraq, Iran and Syria.

For all of that, we’ve never screwed up quite on the scale as our adventures in the Middle East/South Asia in the 21st century.

At the start of this business, almost a century ago, there was a fellow we didn’t listen to, Colonel T.E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia.”  We didn’t listen to him then and that was a screw up.  We haven’t listened to him ever since and that remains an ongoing screw up.

John Hulsman, president of a global political risk consultancy, writes that it’s time we finally accepted the wisdom of Lawrence.

T E Lawrence, a man who through both theory and practice established himself as the regional Middle Eastern expert par excellence in the early twentieth century, followed a very simple but very different analytical route to wisdom: the actual study of others, rather than the narcissistic devotion to being only able to see the world through one’s own point of view.
As Lawrence put it, there is a seminal way to avoid these nasty surprises: “experience of them [local peoples], and knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.” In other words, true analysis is more about them, and less about us. US secretary of state John Kerry – a man seemingly perpetually surprised that the world does not operate like a Boston dinner club – would do well to take note.
In psychology, the capacity for taking others’ perspectives onboard is referred to as having a theory of mind, an understanding that others’ internal experiences are different from one’s own. In a common test for autism, a school-aged child is shown a bag of, say, sweets. Then, the child is shown that the sweets have been removed and replaced with pennies. The child is asked, “What would another person think is in the bag?” If the child answers “pennies,” that child has no theory of mind. This deficit can, in extreme forms, render a person almost unable to interact with others in a recognisably social way. The same problem writ large in Western policy has crippled strategy in the Middle East for over a century.
For example, in modern Iraq, failure to determine the true local unit of politics has been the original sin. That unit has remained the fiercely independent ethno-religious groupings of the Sunni, Shia, and the Kurds, rather than the Western preference for some sort of imposed, centralised, Iraqi construct. This analytical failure has unsurprisingly spawned the chaos of the past century.
For example, in modern Iraq, failure to determine the true local unit of politics has been the original sin. That unit has remained the fiercely independent ethno-religious groupings of the Sunni, Shia, and the Kurds, rather than the Western preference for some sort of imposed, centralised, Iraqi construct. This analytical failure has unsurprisingly spawned the chaos of the past century.
For as Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds is how the locals primarily see themselves, rather than as Iraqis, as Westerners desire. The long-time rulers of Mesopotamia, the Ottomans, had known better. They had divided the region up into three separate provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, respectively dominated by the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. For in the end, reality will out.
Lawrence also said that “the beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them”, at least in part to develop a theory of mind – their mind, to be exact. Until we learn to stand in the shoes of the people of the region and analytically look at the world the way they do, we cannot hope to guess the decisions they will make, the help they will accept, the reforms they will adopt, the deals they will uphold – and the fears to which they will fall prey. Until we demonstrate a theory of mind, Lawrence’s lessons will have to be learned again and again.
Isn’t it time we stopped screwing up?
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General

Israel & Gaza: Tectonic shift in past 24 hours

Posted August 26, 2014 by CuriosityCat
Israel’s embattled prime minister

The Egypt-brokered truce agreement just struck has resulted in two shifts in the underlying political forces in that area.

The first shift is a de facto recognition by Israel of the pan-Palestinian government that Abbas had set in place, as Zvi Bar'elwrites in Haaretz:

But this is just a preliminary agreement. The important agreement will come in another month, when both sides return to Cairo to negotiate over core issues like a port and airport, prisoner releases and Gaza’s reconstruction. Over the coming month, the cease-fire’s stability will be tested, and that is the innovation in yesterday’s agreement: The truce is of unlimited duration. 

Thus for the first time, Israel has agreed to a confidence-building process with the Palestinian government to which Hamas and Islamic Jihad are also parties.

The negotiations won’t be direct, but this is clearly a pan-Palestinian agreement with Israel. 

Thus Israel has not only recognized the Palestinian unity government, but also acknowledged that Gaza and the West Bank can no longer be separated. Without these two facts, neither yesterday’s deal nor those to follow would have any practical meaning. Effectively, Israel has recognized Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups as an inseparable part of the Palestinian polity with which it will also have to conduct broader diplomatic negotiations in the future.

The second major change is that the Israeli cabinet is not united around the truce itself. Some reports suggest that the Israeli prime minister did not call for a vote on the truce from cabinet members because it might not have passed.
This is the take of Attila Somfalvi in Ynet News:

Political rumblings began within the Israeli government Tuesday evening after a long-term ceasefire with Hamas went into effect at 7pm local time and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett called for a Cabinet vote on the decision, citing that ministers hadn’t been consulted about the deal.
According to Bennett, the decision had been made exclusively by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cabinet members were only updated on the decision by telephone.
The Cabinet appeared to be split on the deal, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan opposing the decision, and supporting further military action in Gaza.

If the ceasefire does not result in peace, the Israeli prime minister will find his political career under attack. A significant breach of the truce could lead to a new prime minister.
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Australia

In Drought News

Posted August 26, 2014 by The Mound of Sound

Central America continues to reel under severe, multi-year drought.  Guatemala has declared a state of emergency in 16 of the country’s 22-provinces.  Experts believe the impact on agriculture could soon leave hundreds of thousands of families without food.

As America’s west coast and southwest continue to be plagued by drought, an article at Treehugger examines how Americans might look to Canadian waters to ease their pain.  The article revives a long-forgotten idea to dam James Bay and divert the excess freshwater via canal to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Presumably the diverted James Bay water would then be drawn into the U.S. via the Mississippi River.

In Australia, farmers are bracing for a possible, late season El Nino to worsen an already serious drought.

When a scorching drought struck eastern Australia in 2006, cattle farmers Robyn and Paul Kendal had to slaughter nearly all their livestock and spend around a year of their normal turnover on feed to keep the remainder alive.
With a recurrence of El Niño, the weather pattern behind the drought, looming and dry conditions already affecting an area larger than South Africa, another major drought could be one struggle too many for farmers such as the Kendals.
“In 2006, we saw the lowest amount of rains here since records began…and we still haven’t recovered from that even today,” said Robyn Kendal, whose 3,000-acre (1,215 hectares) cattle farm is about 500 km (300 miles) southwest of Sydney.
China’s agricultural heartland is said to be experiencing its worst drought in 63-years.  In Brazil, severe drought is impacting agriculture and urban water supply. The city of Sao Paolo could run dry within a few months.
Across the Middle East and East Africa, most of the conflict hot spots – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan - reveal how destabilizing drought can be in vulnerable countries.
The good news is that world cereal grain production is up this year thanks to good crops in the U.S., the E.U. and India.


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General

It seems the Kurds had to retreat because they ran out of ammo

Posted August 10, 2014 by Ian Welsh

No, really. Maybe instead of giving weapons and ammo and money to the Iraqi army so they can abandon it on the field to ISIS (now calling themselves the Islamic State), the US should be supplying the Kurds, who will actually fight. Just a thought. As for Iraq, the government policy of trying to fiscally [...]

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General

Kurdish Peshmerga fail to hold Sinjar Mountains

Posted August 5, 2014 by Ian Welsh

This is bad.  Very bad. As the article (which you should read) points out, the Peshmerga had the higher ground, and still lost (holding out all of 2 hours). I don’t expect these are the best Kurdish units and the article does not speak to numbers (though ISIS, traditionally, wins while outnumbered), but it is [...]

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Allan's Perspective

What to do about Hamas?

Posted July 8, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Dear Readers: There isn’t anything that is going to solve the problems in the Middle-East anytime soon since some Arab States are committed to the destruction of Israel, and the Jews are committed to populating the West Bank with settlements to the point where the Palestinians are forced out! BUT! The problem with Hamas is […]

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Allan's Perspective

Ford the Junkie?

Posted July 3, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Folks, all the local and national media outlets in Canada are suggesting that it’s time for Rob Ford to get out of politics ……….., but let’s face it, deep down they’re really glad he’s back! (Rob also said yesterday that he has tried a lot of different drugs, but never did heroin. Well, let’s face […]

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Allan's Perspective

Kardashian speak with forked tongue!

Posted June 24, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Dear Readers: Your ever humble, and much maligned reporter weeps for society! POLITICAL CORRECTNESS has gripped our land and the nuts are running the show kids! Reality TV star Khloe Kardashian has sparked outrage online after sporting a traditional Native American headdress to her niece’s lavish birthday bash.Listen boys and girls, if some asshole can […]

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Allan's Perspective

I’m not at all confused about Saturday morning!

Posted June 14, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Nope, everything is as “right as rain” if you will pardon the expression. Yesterday was the famous “Friday the 13th” motorcycle rally in Port Dover, Ontario, and as usual, tens of thousand of bikers gathered for the event. Even the rain didn’t seem to deter the hard-core bikers, as the streets of Port Dover filled […]

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I’m sorry Dave, but I cannot allow you to jepardize the mission!

Posted June 9, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Yesterday, at a University of Reading demonstration in London, a computer convinced human judges that it was actually a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. By convincing one-third of the judging panel of its humanity, it became the computer ever to pass the famous Turing Test. ` The Turing Test is a controversial test invented by Alan Turing […]

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Allan's Perspective

Not all holes are assholes, but some are!

Posted May 29, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Kimberley Big Hole – South Africa – Apparently the largest ever hand-dug excavation in the world, this 1,097 meter deep mine yielded over 3 tons of diamonds, before being closed. Folks: These holes are not only amazing, but some are really terrifying – Especially the final one ! The sheer scale of these holes reminds […]

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Allan's Perspective

Muslims not responsible for rising pork prices!

Posted May 6, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Dear Readers: Don’t say we never say anything nice about Islam, or Muslims in general. We are telling right here that they are NOT responsible!CONTRARY TO SOME REPORTS, THIS IS NOT A MUSLIM CONSPIRACY TO GET RID OF NON-HALAL MEATS, FOLKS! (See our article on British Subway sandwich shops!) —————————————————————– Our “Asshole of the day” […]

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Allan's Perspective

Outrage vs. Ignorance! A Truly Sterling Performance!

Posted April 29, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Folks, the Sterling scandal has taken on a life of its own, and is getting far too much attention…………………, much more than it deserves! With this in mind I am going to make a few comments, and then never mention the subject again. First of all: Donald Sterling made those unfortunate, stupid and racist remarks […]

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Commentary

Goodbye Afghanistan, Goodbye!

Posted March 12, 2014 by Allan W Janssen

Today, for the first time in many years, we are no longer stuck in a hole called Afghanistan. Your much maligned reporter keeps saying we should just build a fence around the Middle-East and only take it down after everyone there has regained their senses, or killed themselves off, but we both know this is […]

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