Wednesday, October 31, 2018

NEW URL for Contradiciones

Effective October 11, 2018, I'm moving the Contradiciones blog to a different web address:

The new URL matches my Twitter address, @brucemillerca.

I've changed the name on this page to Contradicciones (Original). I didn't want an automatic redirect because the past posts will be here and I want them to be accessible.

Please join me at the new Contradiciones URL.

Though October 31, I'm going to post links here to each of the posts at the new blog address.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Elizabeth Warren on fighting and losing, Brett Kavanaugh edition

Elizabeth Warren on her Facebook page today (10/06/2018) said, "Don’t forget this: Even the fights we lose matter. History will remember that we didn’t go quietly. We resisted, persisted, and fought to be heard."

She's referring to the fight against putting a lying misogynist on the Surpeme Court.

But she put her finger on what may be the single biggest reason that the Democrats reached the state that yielded the disastrous results of 2016 up and down the ticket.

The Democrats haven't been willing enough to fight and lose on partticular programs and issues. The Republicans, on the other hand, staged countless sure-to-lose votes on abolishing the ACA ("Obamacare"). Today they have gone a long way toward wrecking it. And have certainly reduced access to health insurance for millions of Americans.

They used those losing votes to gin up their base voters. But they also served to establish a narrative which not only pleased their base. It also accustomed the press to regarding that position as a "mainstream" position, even though the program itself was very popüular. But they managed to make the name "Obamacare" unpopular.

That's one important example of this process. But only one. The Republicans were willing to take highly partisan positions and fight for them, even when it was unrealistic and impractical to think they would win on it immediately. While the Democrats have spent decades using Republican framing to argue for Democratic positions. And even on two of his most important successes as President, the economic stimulus of early 2009 and the ACA, Obama started the negotiations with the Republicans with a pre-comprised version aimed at getting Republican support - and negotiated the program down from there in the Republican direction.

What's important, of course, is not that the Democrats fight and lose. The point is that they should fight for key programs and principles.

The Washington Post featured an article yesterday that could reasonably be described as gushing over Trump's supposed political brilliance in getting the Kavanaugh nomination approved (although it hadn't gotten a final Senate vote yet). It's an example of how the Establishment press normalizes Republican radicalism, including Trump's. (Philip Rucker et al, ‘Willing to go to the mat’: How Trump and Republicans carried Kavanaugh to the cusp of confirmation 10/05/2018)

But it does give an example of the intensity gap between Democratic and Republican elected officials in fights like this:
Tuesday evening in Southhaven, Miss., Trump laid into Ford with the ruthlessness of an attack dog and the pacing of a stand-up comedian. The crowd roared with laughter and applause. Aides privately crowed as footage of the performance was played and replayed many times over, shifting the national discussion from scrutiny of Kavanaugh’s honesty and drinking habits to doubts about Ford’s memory. And in Washington, Republican senators — though they condemned Trump’s mockery of Ford — felt emboldened to aggressively demand Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which became a near-certainty Friday and looks to become official with a vote Saturday.

“As long as he was willing to go to the mat for him, it fortified probably people up here, too,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s third-ranking Republican leader.
Can anyone claim with a straight face that Barack Obama was "willing to go to the mat" fighting for Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination? Because Obama - and most Congressional Democrats - were unwilling to operate on the notion that, "Even the fights we lose matter."

Ron Elving gave this account of What Happened With Merrick Garland In 2016 And Why It Matters Now NPR 06/29/2018:
Democrats were outraged, of course, but were short of tools with which to respond. As the minority party — following a disastrous midterm in 2014 — they could not force a committee or a floor vote. They gave speeches, and they urged voters to turn out in protest in the November elections.

Scores of scholars — law professors, historians and political scientists — urged the Senate to at least have a process for Garland as a duly appointed nominee with impeccable qualifications. But some lawyers and academics pointed out that the Constitution empowered the Senate to "advise and consent" but did not require it do so. (Some adding that they thought the Senate still ought to do so.)
So they shrugged their shoulders, and said, hey, what can we do, the Republicans control the Senate. And used the nomination as one more item in their list of issues that they say they support but are notably reluctant to fight for.

Elving rightly notes that there is "ample evidence that the Supreme Court motivates conservatives more than it does progressives."

That's also true on about every other issue that matters to the Democratic base. But, hey, Nancy Pelosi is committed to PayGo!

Elving recalls that blocking the Garland nomination was sucessful for the Republicans in two important ways: "it prevented the seating of a Democratic president's choice" and "the vacancy became a powerful motivator for conservative voters in the fall."

"Again and again in the fall, candidate Donald Trump treated the Supreme Court as a touchstone, sometimes simply shouting the two words to his rally crowds. And indeed, polling has shown the court vacancy did mean a great deal to Trump voters, especially those religious conservatives who had personal misgivings about him," he writes.

The elected officials and party establishment of one the two major American parties are just more serious about achieving their programmatic goals. That party is not the real existing Democratic Party.

Friday, October 05, 2018

New indictments against Russian cyber-crime

John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, issued a statement yesterday about new indictments against Russian officials over cyber-espionage, part of which involved a kind of propaganda (USDOJ press release 10/04/2018):
A short while ago, the Dutch Minister of Defense and the United Kingdom’s National Security Advisor held a joint press conference announcing a recent intelligence operation against several Russian agents conducting a clandestine mission in The Hague.

The Joint UK/Dutch intelligence operation led to four Russian GRU officers being caught red handed in The Hague, while they attempted to breach the cyber security of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW].

This GRU target and an additional laboratory in Switzerland that was their next target were analyzing the deadly Russian nerve-agent recovered in the UK following an assassination attempt, as well as other chemical agents that were used in Syria against innocent civilians. ...

Our indictment today charges some of the same Russian operatives caught in The Hague, along with their colleagues in Moscow, as part of a conspiracy to hack a variety of individuals and organizations, in the United States, Canada, and Europe, to obtain information or access that was then exploited for the benefit of the Russian government.

More specifically, this indictment alleges a conspiracy to use computer hacking to obtain non-public, personal health information about athletes and others in the files of anti-doping agencies and sporting federations in multiple countries, and to release that stolen information selectively, and sometimes misleadingly. All of this was done to undermine those organizations’ efforts to ensure the integrity of the Olympic and other games. Other targets of this conspiracy were the chemical weapons laboratory in The Hague and a nuclear power company here in America.

Three of the seven defendants charged in this case were previously charged in the indictment brought by the Office of Special Counsel in July of this year, which pertained to a conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The current indictment did not arise out of the Special Counsel’s work. Nonetheless, these two indictments charge overlapping groups of conspirators. And they evince some of the same methods of computer intrusion and the same overarching Russian strategic goal: to pursue its interests through illegal influence and disinformation operations aimed at muddying or altering perceptions of the truth. [my emphasis]
The alleged cyber-attacks on weapons labs, the OPCW, and the nuclear power company are more in line with traditional espionage hard targets, targets that have some important national security role or could become targets for sabotage.

But probing the anti-doping agencies and sports federations to find potentially embarassing material to irritate other countries over the Olympics sounds more like an effort looking for propaganda material and/or facilitating Russian cheating at the Olympics. Obviously, releasing private individuals' medical records without their consent would be a bad act in itself. And poking around in those institutions could also potentially be used for blackmail or possibly help gain access to other systems with more obvious national security signficance.

Two things strike me in this press release. One is that while private acts of this kind are crimes that should be prosecuted, considering them individually as acts of war would be a blank check for every warmonger and mischief-maker with access to influence foreign and military policy. And what countries would we not be at war with by that standard? Even Micronesia has probably engaged in some kind of cyber-espionage on the US, who knows?

The other is that the goal of using information to make propaganda and misinformation around the Olympics strikes me as kind of a petty goal in the grand scheme of things. How that could function as political propaganda that might have any significan effect in US politics isn't at all clear.

Repeat after me: War.Is.A.Bad.Thing.

"There is a very real possibility that Donald Trump will start a new war in the Middle East, Joe Cirincione warns in
Trump’s March To War With Iran LobeLog 10/04/2018. "If that’s not his intention, then his administration is doing a damn good job of faking it."

He flags next month as an important possible escalation moment. "In early November, the administration will hit countries doing business with Iran with a new round of harsh sanctions. The likelihood that this pressure will explode into military conflict is rising dramatically."

A good result cannot be expected, except for weapons manufacturers and assorted other war profiteers:
War with Iran would be a painful and pointless disaster. It would make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like warm-up acts. It would cost trillions of dollars, kill tens of thousands of people and destabilize an already volatile region. It would trigger a global recession as oil prices spike and uncertainty collapses markets. It would also drive the spread of nuclear weapons and increase the risk of nuclear weapons use.

War would not in any conceivable scenario lead to the establishment of a popular, democratic, and pro-Western government in Iran. With war would come chaos. If the current regime were to fall, the power would pass not to demonstrators in the streets but to those with the guns—the Revolutionary Guard. In all likelihood, war would bring to power a more virulent, more dictatorial, and more anti-American regime than the current one in Iran. [my emphasis]
As Cirincione sees it, National Security Advisor and professional warmonger John Bolton has free reign at the moment to pursue military confrontation with Iran aimed a regime change.

A war with Iran is a really, really bad idea.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Are Russian information operations against the US a war?

Molly McKew defines herself on her Twitter account @MollyMcKew as an "information warfare expert." She has a couple of articles I want to highlight here: Brett Kavanaugh and the Information Terrorists Treying to Reshape America Wired 10/03/2018, giving a summary of some important alt-right contemporary history, from Gamergate to QAnon; and, Putin’s Real Long Game Politico 01/01/2017, a piece from just after the 2016 election on Russian information operations.

McKew also advertises herself as a "Foreign Policy and Strategy Consultant." Wired's author bio notes, "She advised Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat in 2014–15." The Politico description of her includes, "She is a registered agent for Georgian President Saakachvili’s government, which she advised from 2009-2013, and for former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat, who has been in prison since 2015." She begins her Politico piece by recalling "sitting on my front porch with a friend best described as a Ukrainian freedom fighter." So it's not surprising that she is sharply focused on Russian online propaganda messaging.

I try to be cautious with terms like "information warfare" or "information terrorism." Because what is being described is generally less immediately fatal than bullets and bombs, which are involved in actual war and terrorism. What is usually called information warfare is otherwise known as "propaganda." It deserves to be taken seriously. But it's effects play out in different ways than shooting people with guns. It's a distinction worth preserving.

Cyber-warfare is a broader concept, and some caution is appropriate in what to include in it, as well. Spying, espionage, sabotaging vital infrastructure, disrupting military operations, all those can be understood as part of warfare. Whether a foreign power monkeying with the computers at a power plant should be considered an act of war that justifies the guns-and-bombs kind of military response is another question.

The Wired article is a longread that explains a process that the alt-right currently uses to spread outlandish conspiracy theories. She talks about the online networks the alt-right has developed as a "runaway narrative architecture":
Gamergate became Pizzagate became QAnon became entrenched modern narrative architecture ripe for exploitation. The cadre mobilized a movement of misogyny and white nationalism and intimidation — of angry boys who reveled in the chaos god of Roger Stone — and cultivated the narrative to make it acceptable to a wider lane of conservatives. This is triggering violence and identifiable forms of extremism that we can no longer ignore.
Free speech discussions often bring up the famous line by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from a case called U.S. v. Schenck (1919). “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Trevor Timm explains in It's Time to Stop Using the 'Fire in a Crowded Theater' Quote The Atlantic 11/02/2012:
In 1969, the Supreme Court's decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio effectively overturned Schenck and any authority the case still carried. There, the Court held that inflammatory speech--and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan--is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" (emphasis mine).
The text of the Brandenburg v. Ohio decision is available online. As it happens, that ruling overturned a conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader for advocating political violence in the abstract.

Freedom of speech in US law does not give immunity to criminal conspiracies, whether the crime involved is stealing money or a mob boss ordering a hit on someone.

And we need to keep in mind that distinction when it comes to "information terrorism". Being a verbal scumbag is disgusting. But it's not the same as directing someone to commit an act of violence. Responsible people should also keep in mind the likely consequences of spreading inflammatory and/or crazy conspiracy theories on some of the human loose cannons out there. That doesn't mean we should minimize the irresponsibitlity of people like some of the political actors McKee describes in Wired. It does mean that a term like "information terrorism" should be used narrowly for direct incitement to violence or direct threats of violence. Not everything that makes people uncomfortable should be called "terrorism."

Also, if you're going to brag very publicly about hanging out with a "Georgian freedom fighter" at your residence in Washington DC, it might be prudent to exercise caution about encouraging expansive definitions of terrorism.

When it comes to foreign policy and the issue of Russian interference in elections via propaganda, McKee's January 2017 article was already engaging in threat inflation, one of the most damaging characteristics of US foreign policy since the Second World War:
What both administrations [Obama and Trump] fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.
I've always maintained that Russian interference in the US Presidential election in 2016 was a serious issue that needed to be seriously invetigated and countered. Much more information about that Russian effort is now in the public record than was the case when her Politico article was published.

But we also need to be realistic about it. Is there any way to reliably measure the influence of those notorious Russian bots? Not that I've seen. Direct intervention in the physical election systems is a more serious problem, but there is still no real evidence in the public record of which I'm aware that Russian hackers changed or erased votes or otherwise directly affected the voter count. But hacking election systems is illegal in itself. So are foreign donations to American political campaigns, and it appears that the NRA still has to account for its conduct in the matter of Russian money in the 2016 Presidential election. And, of course, there are numerous cases established by convictions in the Special Council's probe of Russian interference that involve inappropriate involvement by US political actors with foreign money adn actors.

But whether Russian bots amplifying Republicans smears and campaign themes rise to the level of those more concrete crimes is dubious. One Russian political intervention that might reasonably be judged as effective came in early 2016 in Europe. On New Year's Eve at the end of December, there were a number of sexual harassment of women in the German city of Cologne during the outdoor celebrations there in the plaza in front of the cathedral, many of them perpetrated by foreigners (Arabs and North Africans), and many cited by the police were asylum seekers. Germany and Austria and several Balkan countries were then still struggling with how to manage the ongoing wave of refugees that coming into Europe at the time in extremely high numbers compared to the years before and after. Russian information operations in 2015 promoted the notion that Germany would accept all comers, an action consistent with Putin's goal of weakening the EU by promoting tensions bewteen EU countries, in this case greatly assisted by the Hungarian government's handling of refugees.

The critics of Merkel's immigration policy of the moment seized on the Köln incident as an example of the dangers posed by her policy, thier message facilitated by the clumsy police public information operations after the event. Then in January, Russian state media seized on a routine news story of a 13-year-old girl named Lisa who had gone missing in Berlin and then turned up the next day. They actively spread the story that she had been kinapped by foreigners and raped for 30 hours, after which the police were said to have forced her to claim the sex was consensual in order to protect the Evil Foreigners. (Alice Bota, Das missbrauchte Mädchen Zeit Online 21.01.2016; Christine Kensche, „Der Fall zeigt, Lisa ist ein Missbrauchsopfer“ Welt 20.06.2017)

The Russian government used that story to promote the Putinist narrative that Europe was allowing itself to be overrun by dangerous foreigners. (Lisa's family is Russian-German.) Alice Bota quotes a commentator on Russian Channel One saying, "Underage girls are being raped, the police do nothing, the perpetrators go free. That is the new order in Germany." Presumabley because of the age of the girl, the circumstances of her disappearance were not immediately publicly explained. But Bota reports that the Berlin police did specifically and publicly said at the time she the girl was not raped.

The story was it spread in Europe, but did it have an effect in Germany and Austria? Bota gives no indication that it was. Russian propaganda was happy to magnify the Trump-style agitation against foreigners as rapists. But how much effect the magnification of such messages promoted by domestic xenophobes in the EU had is, as in the American election, hard to measure. Still, Kensche's 2017 report adds of the aftermath in Germany:
Fünf Männer attackieren die Flüchtlingsunterkunft gegenüber Lisas Schule. Ihre Cousine spricht am Rand einer NPD-Demonstration, die Partei hält eine Kundgebung gegen „Überfremdung“ ab. Hunderte Russlanddeutsche ziehen vor das Kanzleramt, auch NPD und Pegida mischen mit. Propagandaforscher erklären, Russland mache gezielt Stimmung gegen die Bundesrepublik.

[Five men attack the refugee housing opposite Lisa's school. Her cousin speaks on the fringes of a {far-right} NPD demonstration, the Party {NPD} holds a rally against "over-foreignization". Hundreds of Russian-Germans appear in from the Chancellor's office, and the NPD and {the far-right anti-immigrant group} Pegida join them. Propaganda researchers declare that Russia is making a targeted effort to turn the mood against Germany.]
The case caused some notable diplomatic tension between Russia and Germany. So it clearly had a real-world effect on politics.

In 2017, a fuller story emerged in court. It did involve a defendent identified as Ismet S., who presumably has some kind of immigrant background. When he was 18 and Lisa 13, they carried on a romance that included sleeping together once. He was convicted for the statutory rape and for child pornography.

McKew's Wired article gives a good description of the use of rape in political and ehtnic propaganda:
Through each iteration of this [online rightwing] network, rape has been a constant theme. Rape and pedophilia are potent triggers that elicit an intense emotional response from an audience. Rape has been used to fling charges of hypocrisy—almost always involving accusations against Bill Clinton or other Democrats. It has been used to highlight examples of "fake news" by pointing to the few cases where the media has promoted unsubstantiated rape allegations. It has been used in attempts to prove elite corruption by insisting that there is a secret cabal of elites who are pedophiles and predators. It has been used to normalize racism—referring to blacks and Muslims as serial rapists and to migrants as rapists and killers. And it has been used to justify misogyny by arguing that rape is "misunderstood."
McKew in the 2017 article paints the Russian influence operations as strikingly effective. But, compared to the concrete practices of bribery and injecting funds into foreign political groups, it's hard to argue that their propaganda bots are nearly as effective.

With direct manipulation of vote results, the kinds of measures that are needed to guard against that are largelyh the same as those needed to guard against voter suppression efforts. And the efforts to counter Russian propaganda are also part of the effort to combat general misinformation and "fake news" from domestic sources.

But even beyond information operations, McKew's depiction of US-Russia relatioships as "a war ... to be won, decisively — not a thing to be negotiated or bargained," is very much threat inflation. It's not a realistic way to see US-Russian relations. She even seems to be arguing that diplomacy is useless in dealing with Russia. She writes, "As Obama did, Trump has already made the first mistake in negotiating with the Russians: telling them that there is anything to negotiate." Which strikes me as a pretty nihilistic take on the subject.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Is the far right Austrian "Freedom" Party taking votes from the center-left?

A quick take from Anton Pelinka, who seems to be theAustrian political scientist most quoted in the press, on whether the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is taking votes that would otherwise go to the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ).

He seems to argue at least for the 2017 national election that it's not a significant number (Vorwärts-was sonst? Die Zeit 27.09.2018), "Most of the workers who voted for the [FPÖ] in 2017 were never SPÖ voters." ("Die meisten der Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter, die 2017 die Freiheitlichen gewählt haben, waren nie SPÖ-Wahler.")

But he doesn't elaborate. And his comment as formulated doesn't address how many 2017 FPÖ voters were potentially swing voters open to the SPÖ.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Is Angela Merkel's Chancellorship About to End?

The German-language press has been full of stories recently about the impending end of Angela Merkel's Chancellorship. I doubt that it is quite so eminent as the headlines suggest.
The recent flap started with Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of the Verfassungsschutz, the internal security agenca charged with monitoring and countering groups that aim to undermine the democratic order, which typically means political groups with a possible violent tendency. After recent anti-immigrant violence in the city of Chemnitz, Maaßen made public comments that seemed to minimize anti-immigrant violence and even to sympathize with the extremists.

The opposition called for his ouster over those comments and for "allegedly providing members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) with confidential material." (Judith Mischke, Merkel admits mistakes in case of domestic intelligence chief Politico EU 09/24/2018) The agreement the coalition reached was to take him out of that office and give him a promotion. The SPD rank-and-file and the opposition were outraged. So they moved him to a vaguely defined advisory position in the Interior Ministry.

Then came what Merkel expected to be a routine vote to re-elect Volker Kauder as the head of the CDU parlimentary club. Merkel supported Kauder, but the former deputy leader Ralph Brinkhaus was elected instead with 125 votes to 112 for Kauder. As Matthew Karnitschnig reports (Merkel loses key ally in conservative rebellion Politico EU 09/26/2018),
Before the vote, Merkel made a personal plea to the group at a meeting in the historic Reichstag building, telling members that she considers Kauder to be crucial to the stability of her coalition government. By selecting Brinkhaus against Merkel’s wishes immediately following her remarks, conservative MPs left no doubt that they are dissatisfied with the chancellor’s stewardship.
Merkel has been Chancellor at the head of a GroKo (Grand Coalition) of the CDU, CSU, and SPD since 2005, the exception being in 2009-11 when she headed a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition.

It's unlikely that either Merkel's CDU or the SDP would want to have a new national election after just having one last year.

Both the CDU and the SPD are facing political challenges. Merkel has to worry about pressure from the right from the CSU and the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), especially on immigration. The SPD has been losing support dramatically over the last 15 years. After the 2013 election, they had a chance to build a majority "red-red-green" coalition of the SPD, the Left Party, and the Greens. They didn't even try, they were so eager to be Angela Merkel's junior partner for four more years. After the 2017 election, the three parties together no longer have a parliamentary majority. If the SPD over the next few years shrinks to a minor party - a real possibility - 2013 will stand out as a key moment on that journey to irrelevance.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Arguing with facts against polemics and false claims

There is a lot of public discussion these days over pseudoscience, political conspiracy theories, crackpot history, malicious propgaganda and what the best ways to combat them may be.

One of the surprising findings of some studies is that in some fashion, provide correct information to debunk the false claims can have the effect of reinforcing belief in the false claim.

That has always struck me as intuitively wrong. I even suspect it's sometimes offered in politics in the US as a way to get Democrats to not bother to debunk the constant stream of misinformation and falsehood against Democrats from FOX News, Breitbart, Infowars, and various other rightwing media, including alt-right sources and foreign nations' propaganda operations.

Four scholars from the University of Illinois and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania published their results on their own study of that problem, Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation Psychological Science 28:11 (2017).

They found that in some cases, the reverse-debunking effect occurs, in which hearing the correct information can indeed reinforce the false belief. But it doesn't have to.

They offer the following suggestions for avoiding that result in the sense of a communication or linguistic strategy:
Recommendation 1: reduce the generation of arguments in line with the misinformation.

Recommendation 2: create conditions that facilitate scrutiny and counterarguing of misinformation.

Recommendation 3: correct misinformation with new detailed information but keep expectations low.
The first of the recommendations is the most troubling one. Because it suggests that the more detailed the argument against a set of misinformation is, the more likely the exchange is to strengthen the false belief. But this doesn't apply to casually held beliefs. As they explain, "The false beliefs on which we focus here occur when the audience initially believes misinformation and that misinformation persists or continues to exert psychological influence after it has been rebutted." If people hold a belief strongly and have thought and talked about the false enough have adduced multiple reasons for believing it, giving them a lot of arguments against it can kick off this proces: "when the elaboration process organizes, updates, and integrates elements of information, generating explanations in line with the initial misinformation, this process may create a network of confirming causal accounts about the misinformation in memory."

In other words, the harder people think about beliefs with which they had established an identification, the harder it may be for them to change their minds.

The second recommendations gets to the issue of framing, which has been much discussed in American politics, particularly i response to the work and recommendations of George Lakoff. Aside from providing an appropriate context for discussion, it also means providing not just facts rebutting the bad information but a new framework for understanding the matter, a different perspective.

Following from that, the third recommendation emphasizes providing the correct information as distinct from just refuting the bad. With a reminder that it won't always work! But other times it will.

The Annenberg Center provides a summary of the article here, "Debunking study suggests ways to counter misinformation and correct 'fake news'." ScienceDaily09/09/2017.

In the context of the immigration issue which is roiling the politics of the United States and the European Union, another implication of the first recommendation is important.

Speaking of this persistence-of-mistinformation effect, Stephan Lewandowsky notes, "one of the ways to get around that is to tell people not just that something is false, but tell them what's true. Alternative information makes it much easier to update your memory." (Susannah Locke interview, How to debunk false beliefs without having it backfire Vox 04/25/2018)

Lewandowsky also notes that the setting of a classroom-type situation is different from that in which political information and disinformation is often conveyed:
If you have a situation like a classroom where people are forced to sit down and pay attention, that's when more information is helpful. There's a lot of evidence of this in educational psychology.

Now the problem is in a sort of casual situation, people listening to the radio or having a superficial conversation — that's where the information deficit model doesn't apply. And superficially just throwing information at people probably will make them tune out. So you've got to be careful when you're talking about public discourse, TV, radio, media.
I've been thinking I should devote more posts to factual information on the immgration issue. Hearing the reality behind a strongly held belief that is associated with a person's political or cultural identity won't necessarily change their mind. But reality does matter!

The Austrian broadcaster ORF 2 program Im Zentrum carried a report last night (30.09.2018) on Politik und Pressefreiheit - Der Kampf um Macht und Wahrheit (video available at the link through October 7) on the status of press freedom in Austria today. It included Walter Rosenkranz, the head of the parliamentary club for the far-right FPÖ, which is the junior partner in the current national government; Beate Meinl-Reisinger, head of the NEOS party which holds seats in Parliament; Georg Wailand, the deputy chief editor of Austria's most widely circulated paper Kronen Zeitung; Armin Thurnher, publisher of the influential Vienna weekly Falter; and, Reinhard Kreissl, a sociologist of crime.

Rosenkranz defended efforts by the FPÖ-led Interior Ministry to encourage police to publicize details about the backgrounds of people suspected in violent crimes. Which is consistent with anti-immigrant propaganda efforts to stigmatize immigrants as more likely to commit crimes than native Austrians, which the crime statistics consistently show is not the case. There was some discussion about crime statistics and how to interpret them, including discussion about how the crime rate has been declining in Austria. Rosenkranz used the discussion to try to associate rape in particular with immigrants. Meinl-Reisinge challenged him into admitting that the most common national origin of the foreign rapists is Germany. The xenophobes preferred image of foreign rapists is that of an Afghan, Arab, or African perpetrator. This is similar to Donald Trump's anti-Latino propaganda.

My impression was that the discussion got the point across to anyone in the audience actually paying attention that the impression left by xenophobic agitators that Austrians are increasingly in danger of violent crime and it is the fault of immigrants, both of which ideas are false. On the other hand, Rosenkranz did what he could to highlight the image of foreign rapists, which presumably also reinforced that narrative in some viewers' minds. Debunking is complicated.

Walter Hämmerle reports in Die Schwarzmaler Wiener Zeitung 29.09.2018 that according to the FPÖ-led Interior Ministry's information, there were 510 thousand criminal complaints in Austria in 2017, which "is the lowest number in ten years." He observes that the numbers that are there include some serious concerns, "but taken in themselves provide no rational justification for the general pessimism" and general security in Austria.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Ford-Kavanaugh hearing

The hearing on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination featuring his own testimony and that of Christine Blasey Ford took place on Thursday. It was quite an event. The controversy over Kavanaugh's nomination has clearly become an important moment in public awareness of sexual assault and issues surrounding it.

There were obviously a number of news reports and commentaries:
The full hearings are currently available from PBS Newshour, Brett Kavanaugh responds to allegations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford 09/27/2018:

Forensic psychologist Karen Franklin has a great post at her In The News blog on sexual assault and the difficulties victims face when they report them, Kavanaugh exposed: Sexual assault as masculine theater 09/25/2018.

I don't get quite as enthusiastic as some of my Democratic friends do about conservative Republicans criticizing Trump and his supporters. But Jennifer Rubin's observations about Kavanaugh's ugly performance are worth noting (The most telling moment: Kavanaugh goes after Sen. Klobuchar Washington Post 09/27/2018):
First, he refused to call for an FBI investigation (even when Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois invited him to ask it of White House counsel Donald McGahn). When Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned about his friend Mark Judge, Kavanaugh slipped and said “you’d have to ask [Judge]”, who of course the Republicans refuse to summon as a witness. The refusal to get the facts is both a telling admission of concern about what they would find and a violation the judicial goal of truth-seeking. It’s a political calculation, exactly what you don’t want to see from a judge.

The worst moment was his confrontation with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) who questioned him about blackout drinking. She explained that she understood alcohol abuse because her father was an alcoholic. Have you ever blacked out? she asked. He sneered in response, “Have you?” It was a moment of singular cruelty and disrespect. One saw a flash in the exchange with Klobuchar the same sense of entitlement, cruelty and lack of simple decency that Christine Blasey Ford allegedly experienced way back when, the memory seared in her brain of two obnoxious teens laughing at her ordeal.
Ezra Klein provides a worthwhile commentary on the hearings in The Ford-Kavanaugh sexual assault hearings, explained Vox 09/27/2018.

Richard Wolffe comments on the judge's testimony in Brett Kavanaugh's credibility has not survived this devastating hearing The Guardian 09/28/2018:
He was hot and bothered from the outset, fiddling with his shirt cuffs, sniffing incessantly, anxiously unscrewing small bottles of water, spraying accusations across the political landscape.

He lapsed into his old role as a political hack, accusing a wide range of actors for his suffering: the media, the Democrats on the judiciary committee, a vast leftwing conspiracy, the Clintons. He predicted political Armageddon as sex was weaponized to destroy reputations, notably his own, as he was just on the verge of success.

One question I have after the hearings: Can everyone who is not a Republican now stop pretending that Sen. Lindsey Graham is anything but a rightwing Republican warmongerer and generally a nasty piece of work? (Jon Queally, He Wouldn't Say a Word to Christine Blasey Ford But Unhinged Lindsey Graham Breaks Silence, Has 'Full-Blown Temper Tantrum' to Defend Kavanaugh Common Dreams 09/27/2018)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

A few reactions to Donald Trump's speech to the UN General Assembly

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies analysing Trump's strange, nationalistic, belligerant speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, Trump's 'Dissociation from Reality' at UN The Real News 09/25/2018:

This is a German-language report on Trump's speech from Spiegel TV, Rede des US-Präsidenten vor der Uno: "Schwach, was Trump hier aufgeführt hat" 26.09.2018:

Another from WELT, LACHER UND SCHARFE ANGRIFFE: Warum Iran und Deutschland Trump so nerven 26.09.2018:

Abby Bard of the Center for American Progress characterizes the speech in this way, which is consistent with my impression, in Trump's UN Speech Hurts America and the International System The National Interest 09/26/2018:
The speech sounded as if it could have been given by a dictator who wanted the world to know why other countries had no business interfering in their country’s repressive domestic policies and bore a striking resemblance to China’s “non-interference” policy. It’s particularly ironic and deeply disturbing that Trump has couched his speech in the language of equity and diversity given his promotion of white supremacist talking points and use of racist language against immigrants.
She also notes that Trump's "theory of sovereignty only appears to extend into the humanitarian realm."

But she also notes in relation to Trump's verbal attacks on Venezuela, include humanitarian concerns, that it seems forTrump, "human rights only matter when there is an economic gain for the United States."

Monday, September 24, 2018

Andrew Sullivan, enlightenbed conservative?

US Democrats became accustomed long ago to trying to frame their programs and policies in conservative-sounding terms.

Now with Trump as President, many Democrats are eager to embrace conservatives critics of Trump. And seem to often do so in an overly-credulous manner.

Andrew Sullivan, conservative former editor of The New Republic is one well-known commentator who pitches himself to Democrats as one of the Respectable Conservatives. Sullivan argues for a enlightened conservatism, the Democratic dream that never seems to die, in America Desperately Needs a Healthy Conservatism New York 09/14/2018.

He cites a book, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition, by Roger Scruton, who Sullivan lauds as "arguably the most acute conservative thinker of his generation." Yes, that could be considered a low bar to clear.

But it wouldn't be entirely fair to judge Scruton by Sullivan's praise of him in this column. And the account of the history of conservatism that Sullivan gives here with reference to Scruton isn't especially impressive. Sullivan takes Edmund Burke as the founding spirit of modern conservatism. although Burke's famous polemic against the French Revolution situates him as a reactionary in the context of the time, as Corey Robin describes in The Reactionary Mind (2011).

Sullivan conjures a Goodie-Two-Shoes version of conservatism that bears little relationship to the lobbyist- and white-supremacist-driven reality of "conservatism" in the real existing Republican Party of 2018:

[Conservatism] saw all too well how the good intentions of liberalism could lead to its unraveling. It abhors war as the ultimate change-maker and disrupter; it despises concepts of race or gender that eradicate the uniqueness of the individual; it defends high culture against philistinism and mediocrity; it cherishes norms. It values the particular over the general, prefers present laughter to utopian bliss, relishes humor in all its forms, defends art as an apolitical force, and respects religion as a separate avenue for the search for ultimate truth, and a critical component of the civil and moral society that enables government to be small and limited. [my emphasis]

But the real point of Sullivan's article seems to be that the Mean Libruls are just as bad as the Trumpian conservatives. Which is what Republicans always argue to justify Trump's latest outrage.

And the bolded passage above is stock Republican rhetoric used against affirmative action and antidiscrimination laws. He goes on to list among more saccarhine goals he presents as his version of conservatism:
I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change. It is happening too fast, even for America, to sustain our society’s coherence and cohesion. The elite indifference to mass immigration — especially the illegal kind — is an ugly pact between Republican elites, eager for cheap, exploitable labor, and Democratic elites, who cynically encourage it because they think it will give them a reliable voting bloc.
In other words, his supposedly enlightened conservatism lines up with Trump and the TrumPutinists in European politics presenting immigration as a "demographic and cultural" menace to the Homeland.

I don't mind if Sullivan complains about Trump. But I don't find any reason to see his politics as enlightened conservatism. Or enlightened at that all, for that matter.

Friday, September 21, 2018

EU summit in Salzburg kicks cans down road

The EU heads of state and government had a summit meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Salzburg. There wasn't much drama. And not much was accomplished.

A Politico EU report on the summit opens with, "That was awkward." (David Herszenhor and Jacopo Barigazzi, Rocky mountain summit 09/21/2018)

Austria's Wunderwuzzi Chancellor Sebastian "Babyface" Kurz (ÖVP) currently holds the six-month rotating Presidency of the EU Council and so had a lot to do with shaping the agenda. His signature issue is his bitter opposition to immigration and apparently he is apparently equally determined not to address the current issue in Europe in a practical and serious way. So the first day of the summit was devoted to the topic of how the EU can shut out foreigners. Kurz as Council President established that topicfor the summit.

The main solution to the challenge of refugees from the Middle East and Africa coming to Europe to ask for asylum is called Turkey. Angela Merkel came up with that extend-and-pretend solution in 2016: the EU pays Turkey, and makes various other concessions, and Turkey holds what is now around three million refugees and prevents them coming to the EU. It's not a stable solution nor is it one that gives particular attention to what the refugees can do in the future. And if (when) the Syrian government launches its expected military assault on Idlib province, it could send up to 800,000 new refugees into Turkey and quickly destabilize the current arrangement even more.

Herszenhor and Barigazzi also report that Austrian hospitality was not nearly so obsessively-complusively organized as one might expect from Austrian stereotyples:
The media center was far too small for the 1,000 journalists in attendance and, thanks to a glass roof and unseasonably warm September weather, it effectively turned the building into a sauna. Adding to the ambience, butter-fingered catering staff repeatedly dropped glasses and coffee mugs, smashing them on the tiled floor — making the event feel like a Greek wedding.

The breakdowns continued until the very end, when the audio feed failed during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closing news conference.
Given how Kurz and his coalition partner and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) are combining anti-EU posturing with their anti-immigrant policies, it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out the glitches they report were at least partially intentional.

Thursday was devoted to Brexit.

If anything of substance was accomplished on either issue, it was not very evident.

They all did reiterate their consensus on strenthening Frontex, the EU border control and coast guard agency agency.

Miguel Otero-Iglesias gives this summary of what a real solution might look like - a solution the EU has been unable to deliver, despite the massive freakout about the large wave of refugees arrived in 2015-6 (Europe’s two-faced migration reality Politico EU 09/21/2018):
The most persuasive idea, advocated by the World Bank, is to develop legal channels of migration based on the demand of the job market and better education and retraining systems to cover the displaced local workforce. These programs could be financed by the introduction of progressive fees on working visas. Crucially, these visas would be for time-limited periods, and only those migrants who integrate well would then acquire the nationality of the host country.

But for such a scheme to work, borders would need to be better controlled, repatriation agreements further developed and better implemented, and inspections against hiring of irregular workers would have to be more intrusive and widespread.
It would also have to specifically address the fate of the millions of refugees now retained in limbo in Turkey, Italy, and Greece. And it calls for a reorientation of EU foreign policy to mitigate conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The NATO intervention in Libya in 2010 was a major contributor to the current situation. I wouldn't venture to say that Libya under Gaddafi had a model immigration policy. But they did provide some economic opportunities for African immigrants and blocked a significant portion of immigrants from going north toward Europe. (Otero-Iglesias's boiler-plate lines about displacement and retraining could use some work, because displacement of current workers is a minor issue at best, although public perceptions may be otherwise thanks to xenophobic propaganda.)

The EU was at least able to come up with a small story on Serbia maybe-sometimes-soon will make an agreement with Frontex to enhance their border controls, but certainly not to accept more of them as immigrants. (Frontex ja - Flüchtlinge nein Wiener Zeitung 21.09.2018)

Kurz has proven himself adept in his first year as Chancellor at making a show of doing something on his pet anti-immigration issue. Coming up with substantive solution hasn't yet shown itself to be a strong point for him. The EU summit continues that pattern.

It's even less surprising that nothing of substance got accomplished on Brexit. The current deadline for Brexit is March 2019. And all sides have an interest in waiting to the last possible moment to close the deal, with the qualification that economic uncertainty will be more pressing as the months roll on. Businesses and banks are making preparations for the split, so the terms of Britain's exit are important.

The main sticking point in the Brexit negotiations now is how to manage the borders between British Northern Ireland and Ireland. (Tom McTague, UK, EU still can’t solve Irish border conundrum Politico EU 09/21/2018)

The peace agreement that finally ended decades of bitter and violent conflict in Northern Island crucially involved free movement between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Once Britain is formally outside the EU, having the current level of free border movement would mean that Britain's border would not be a normal international border between and EU and non-EU countries. Britain in understandably reluctant to establish the regular border security and enforcement at a line inside Britain, at the border to Northern Ireland. In concept, that would be analogous to Texas having an open border with Mexico and the national border controls being enforced only at the Texas borders to other US states. That is not the way inernational borders normally work.

Wolfgang Münchau's Eurointelligence describes that current status of the negotiations in The long Brexit endgame has started 09/20/2018:
What complicates the Brexit process massively is the multitude of triangular games: there are three competing positions in the House of Commons, none of which commands a majority on its own: May’s Chequers’ Plan; a eurosceptic Canada-style Brexit; and Labour’s plan for a customs union. Everybody is playing the same game: as we reported yesterday Labour does not want the spectre of a second referendum to scare eurosceptics in the Tory party into supporting Chequers. The British government is playing the converse game. A treasury minister yesterday upheld the possibility of a second referendum for precisely this reason - to scare the eurosceptics into supporting Chequers.
In another post (EU ponders Irish backstop protocol to help May Eurointelligence 09/17/2018):
The EU‘s technical solution differs in some respects from that of Theresa May, but the technical details are not the critical point at this stage. More important is the legal procedure itself. The EU is offering a protocol to the Irish backstop clause in the withdrawal treaty, which sets out possible technical solutions in case no agreement on a future trading relationship is agreed. As long-standing observers of technically complex EU-level treaty discussions, we are not surprised to witness the grand entry of the protocol, an important legal device in EU diplomacy that often succeeds in overcoming seemingly insolvable problems. Important as it may be, in historical perspective the Irish backstop is not the most difficult obstacle EU diplomats ever had to surmount. [my emphasis]
Monika Graf makes a very appropriate cautionary observative in Krisen machen die EU stark. Derzeit gibt es keine. Salzburger Nachrichten 21.09.2018 (behind subscription). She picks up on the optimistic saying that crises make the EU stronger. That can't be said of the handling of the Greek crisis in 2015, which helped set the stage for the contentious inability of the EU to agree on a Union-wide solution for the refugee inflow of that year that continued into 2016, commonly referred to as the refugee crisis of 2015.

She points out a flip side of that optimistic saying, which is that the EU can only manage to come up with good common solutions on major issues when there is a crisis. And that's not a good thing:
Rational betrachtet müssten die EU-Staaten jenes Zeitfenster nutzen, das sich durch die gut laufende Konjunktur und die Erfolge bei der Eindämmung von Defiziten und Migration geöffnet hat. In allen Staaten der Eurozone wachst die Wirtschaft, sogar um die italienischen Banken ist es wieder ruhig geworden, und an der Südküste Europas sind bis August so wenig Menschen angekommen wie nicht einmal vor 2015.

[Rationally considered, the EU states must use this time window that has been opened by the postive economic cycle and the successes with the limiting of deficits and migration {immigration}. The economy is growing in all state of the eurozone, things have even calmed down with the Italian banks, and since August there were fewer people arriving that even before 2015.]
The Herbert Hooverish conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic continues to be harmful for economic policy. But the point that she's making here is that even taking view of the deficit obsessives, the EU should be making progress on major problems like immigration and presumably on reforming the eurozone before another crisis hits.

And depending on how the military situation in Idlib develops, a new surge in immigration could begin in the fourth quarter of this year.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Immigration and political radicalization

Wofgang Münchau's Eurointellgence Report (09/19/2018) makes this observation, which I would say applies to the US, as well: "Immigration has become to Germany what Europe has been to the UK - a permanent issue that ends up radicalising both sides in the debate, and society in general."

I wouldn't say that it applies to Austria, at least not yet. The far right (FPÖ) have made significant gains with anti-immigration demagoguery. And the conservative party (ÖVP) has also adopted a hardline anti-immigration program at the national level, although some of the party leaders in the federal states aren't yet willing to go full Orbán yet.

But the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) isn't showing any signs of what I would understand as radicalism yet. Although they have been pretty articulate in criticizing the ÖVP/FPÖ government's showy and highly ideological anti-immigrant policies.

Turkey, Idlib, Europe, and refugees

German-Turkish relations right now are providing an excellent test case for the "realist" school of foreign policy theory.

I have problems with the Realist approach on a theoretical level, for one thing because it can easily trend toward a amoral approach. And there are examples of foreign policy realists enganging in cynical and destructive behavior. Henry Kissinger is the living poster boy for that dark side of foreign policy realism.

On the other hand, people like Stephen Walt (who I quote here all the time), John Mearsheimer, and Andrew Bacevich. The late George Kennan had a more practical view of US policy toward Russia in the first years of the post-Soviet period than the triumphalist bipartisan view. Former German Minister Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer elaborates a Realist view of the rise of China in his Der Abstieg des Westens: Europa in der neuen Weltornung des 21.Jahrhunders (2018) that looks hopefully toward a peaceful development of that long and continuing process.

Dinah Deckstein et al report in "Freie Bahn für Erdoğan" Der Spiegel 37-2018 (08.Sept.2018) on Germany's currently conciliatory policy toward Turkey under Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian regime. The article reads like it incorporates a significant amount of "trial balloon" information from the German Foreign Ministry on its current move toward better relations with Turkey. And that's fine. Using such information doesn't prevent the journalists from doing their job in the article.

This is a key element of the story:
Doch die Bundesregierung sorgt sich derzeit wohl mehr um den atemraubenden Verfall der türkischen Lira als um Menschenrechte und Meinungsfreiheit. Würde das Land in den Bankrott stürzen, müsste Europa mit einer neuen Flüchtlingswelle rechnen, die den Zustrom des Jahres 2015 leicht in den Schatten stellen konnte.

Zum anderen will Deutschland verhindern, dass sich Erdoğan vollends vom Westen abwendet. In der Sicherheitspolitik flirtet er bereits seit geraumer Zeit mit Moskau. Nun hat er sich im Streit um die lnhaftierung eines US-amerikanischen Pastors auch noch mit US-Präsident Donald Trump angelegt.

[Instead, the German government right now is much more worried about the breathtaking fall of the Turkish lira than human rights and freedom of opinion {in Turkey}. If the country were to fall into bankruptcy, Europe would have to deal with a new wave of refugees that would easily overshowdow the inflow of the year 2015.

In addition, Germany wants to prevent Erdoğan from completely turning his back on the West. In security policy, he has already been flirting for some time with Moscow. Now, with the arrest of an American pastor, he has also now landed in a conflict with US President Donald Trump.] (my emphasis)
Turkey remains the extend-and-pretend solution to the longterm refugee crisis, as it was to the acute phase of it that occurred in 2015-6. Turkey currently is holding about three million refugees, which the EU is also paying them to do. At the current EU summit in Salzburg, the heads of state and government are taling about dending the "outer borders" of the EU and about fantasy schemes like establishing "asylum centers" in Northern Africa.

But Turkey is presently the main border control for the EU when it comes to refugees. And refugees are what politicians are talking about right now when they talk about border defense or protecting the borders. Not that they are worrying about the Russian Army making a blitzkrieg strike on NATO and EU countries.

Turkey is currently playing that role effectively. Effective in holding the three million refugees and maitaining them, albeit in questionable conditions.

Erdoğan's government is also deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, opposing the establishment of an independent Kurdish state and trying to avoid having a Kurdish support base in Syria for Kurdish secessionists in Turkey itself.

Turkey is currently on generally good terms with Putin's Russia, as are the anti-immigration EU parties like Heinz-Christian Strache's FPÖ in Austria and Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party in Hungary. Russia is also supporting Bashar Hafez al-Assad's Syrian government, which is poised to take the last major jihadist rebel stronghold, the province of Idlib that neighbors Turkey. An all-out Syrian assault on Idlib could produce as many as 800,000 new refugees into Turkey. Turkey doesn't want this, and neither do the EU governments.

Raimund Löw (Die Katastrophe von Idlib und die Rolle des Westens Falter 37/18; 12.09.2018) writes of the case of a full assault on Idlib at this point, "Die Vereinten Nationen warnen vor der größten humanitären Katastrophe seit Beginn der Kämpfe." ("The United Nations is warning about the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since the beginning of the fighting.")

And he observes, "Europäer und Amerikaner appellieren an Russland, einen verheerenden Showdown zu verhindern. Putin hat die Macht, ein Veto einzulegen. Ohne russische Luftangriffe gegen Idlib würden die Regierungstruppen keine Offensive wagen." ("Europeans and Americans are appealing to Russia to prevent a new disastrous showdown. Putin has the power to exercise a veto. Without Russian air strikes against Idlib, the government troops would not be able to mount and offensive.")

Russia this past weekend came to agreement with Turkey on establishing a buffer zone around Idlib with Turkish and Russian troops. (Angriff auf Idlib vorerst abgesagt: Durchbruch bei Putin und Erdoğan TAZ 18.09.2018; Carsten Luther, In Wahrheit ist es ein Ultimatum Die Zeit 18.09.2018; Ayla Jean Yackley, Turkey, Russia agree to buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib Al-Monitor 09/17/2018) This agreement at least postpones the offensive that Assad's government and his Iranian allies want. If a peaceful resolution, i.e., a peaceful surrender of the jihadists that involves them leaving Idlib, can be negotiated, a new round of carnage can be avoided. But there don't seem to be a lot of signs that such a resolution is likely. Carsten Luther cautions that Russia is not declining to back a Syrian offensive that would involve what he calls Putin's "destruction and explusion strategy." Only to a pause to establish the buffer zone fully controlled by Russian and Turkish troops by October 15.

As Yackley reports, "Idlib is home to between 50,000 and 90,000 armed fighters, according to diplomatic sources. Of these, between 10-20% are thought to be hard-line militants, including Jabhat al-Nusra, with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State."

The current issue of Der Spiegel (38/2018; 15.09.2018) has a report by Matthias Gebauer and Konstantin von Hammerstein has a report ("Deutsches Delta") about US pressure on Germany to threaten retaliation against Syria if Assad's forces use poison gas. Despite the American President's obvious fondness for Vladimir Putin, US policy is at the moment is against Assad and more-or-less pro-rebel, despite the embarrassing fact that one of the rebel holdout groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, is an Al Qaeda affiliate, whatever that may exactly mean these days. Yet another illustration of the Realist view that recognizes that the arch-enemy of today may be the ally of tomorrow.

Merkel's CDU seems inclined to make some kind of military commitment, while their junior coalition partner the SPD is reluctant. At least that's the public position being played out at the moment according to the Spiegel piece.

Given the fact that the democratic parties in Europe need to resolve the immigration issue that the far-right parties are currently exploiting, EU countries should think very careful about getting involved in escalating Middle East wars any further. As it stands, there is a very good chance during the last half of 2018 that a new acute phase of the immigration crisis could open for Europe.

Left parties and residents of Germany with Turkish backgrounds have concerns about the human rights and democracy deficits in Turkey, justifiably so. But pushing Turkey into deeper ties with Russia and letting the current refugee deal fall apart, or being indifferent to economic dislocations in Turkey, is not the current direction of German foreign policy. Dinah Deckstein et al report that Germany is seriously considering massive assistance to Turkey to modernize and expand their rail system. Even though, as Dinah Deckstein et al remind us, "Der Zustand der Demokratie und des Rechtsstaats in der Türkei hat sich in den vergangenen Monaten nicht verbessert." (The state of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey has not improved in recent months.")

But until the EU can work out a real solution - a comprehensive immigration reform as it was called in America not so long ago - Turkey will continue to have huge leverage on the EU. And Turkey also has the option to develop closer ties with China, which the EU has also to keep very much in mind.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Kavanaugh attempted rape story

The reported sexual assault accusation against far-right Judge Brett Kavanaugh, currently nominated by President Trump for a seat on the Supreme Court, was known publicly only as an anonymous allegation until this report yesterday from Emma Brown, California professor, writer of confidential Brett Kavanaugh letter, speaks out about her allegation of sexual assault Washington Post 09/16/2018.

The way the claim emerged raises some important questions about journalistic and political ethics. Both may sound like quaint considerations these days, and maybe in this case they are.

Irin Carmon

Sam Seder has a helpful report on the state of play of the issue in the public sphere as of Sunday (yesterday), Breaking: Kavanaugh Accuser Goes Public- Nomination in Jeopardy? 09/16/2018:

For Republicans these days, it's easy to process accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Deny the accusations against Republicans, try to discredit the accusers, and carry on as if it doesn't matter even if it's true. When the accusations are against Democrats, promote them all over the place, make up some more, call the Dems big ole hypocrites.

For Democrats, it's more complicated. The party is more committed to women's rights generally than the Republicans. They also have more concern for procedural and legal protections when it comes to allegations of misconduct. Which is not to say they are scrupulous about avoiding dubious or exaggerated accusations derived from "oppo" research. And in general, they are more committed to seeking evidence-based grounds for action.

I expressed my own concerns here last year about the haste with which Democratic Senators pushed Al Franken to resign from the Senate based on numerous but vague accusations which were far less serious than what the attempted rape Christine Blasey Ford is alleging against Kavanaugh. Franken had requested a review by the Senate ethics committee and was restrained in public about his pushback on the allegations, which is the kind of response I would hope the Democrats would encourage. I didn't find the Franken episode an encouraging example of how political parties should handle such accusations.

In the Ford case, here's how I'm understanding the accusation as of this point. These are some of the reasons that to me argue for Ford's credibility.
  • Her account of the assault is detailed.
  • She is telling her story publicly and in her own name, knowing that there are real, practical risks for her in doing so.
  • Ford is an experienced therapist who presumably understands the various practical and ethical issues with going public with such accusations.
  • She had discussed it with her husband and her own therapist in 2012, well before Kavanaugh had been nominated for the Supreme Court and long before most people would have imagined Donald Trump as a credibile Presidential candidate.
  • She provided some of her therapist's notes from the 2012 session.
One thing about the therapist's notes is that they partially contradict Ford's own current account. "The notes say four boys were involved, a discrepancy Ford says was an error on the therapist’s part. Ford said there were four boys at the party but only two in the room," Brown reports.

This is a reason to question the credibility of the account. But it certainly isn't disqualifying. The fact that Ford agreed to the release of the notes with that discrepancy included could also be taken as a sign of Ford's credibility.

Two further elements of the story argue circumstantially to some extent for Ford's credibility.
  • The autobiographical writing of the other man she says was involved is at least broadly consistent with the kind of incident she describes.
  • The Republicans produced a statement virtually immediately after the story emerged signed by 65 women claiming they knew him in high school and attesting to his fine character. They wouldn't have had such a document ready to release if they weren't expecting that something scandalous about his high school years might come out.
Is it relevant that Kavanaugh in his later life embraced far-right, anti-women's-rights political positions? I'll admit that the fact that he did adds a bit more circumstantial credibility to Ford's accusation to me. But, as we've seen over the last year, Democrats and supporters Democratic candidates have also engaged in sexual harassment or assault. And Bob Packwood, Republican Senator from Oregon 1969-1995, was one of the last arguably moderate Republicans in Congress and a supporter of women's rights issue. He resigned from the Senate in 1995 facing likely expulsion because numerous credible reports came to light of sexual misconduct on his part. (See: Tomothy Egan, Packwood Is Leaving As a Pariah In His State New York Times 09/09/1995)

So it's anything but a strictly partisan problem.

The follwing are considerations that could argue against the credibility of Ford's story.
  • There is so far no evidence of Ford having made a contemporary report or record of the attack. The Washington Post story quotes her as saying 2012 was the first time she had told anyone about it.
  • The incident was decades ago. One reason that the law has statutes of limitation on criminal prosecutions is the fact that eyewitness and victim accounts become less reliable over time.
  • Kavanaugh has "categorically and unequivocally" denied the charge.
Even before this attempted rape charge emerged, Kavanaugh had shown himself in various ways seriously disqualified to be a Supreme Court Justice.

And Congress can and should look seriously at Ford's accusations and of Kavanaugh's handling of it in the present. If, for incident, he can be shown to have lied under oath or lied to Congress or the FBI about Ford or this incident in some way, that could be an actual crime in itself.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The weirdness of immigration controversies in European politics

The immigration issue continues to be exploited by far-right radical and anti-EU groups in Europe. The situations in Germany and Austria are the ones with which I'm most familiar.

What I continue to find astonishing is how divorced from pracitcal and realistic solutions the public debate often is.

The current solution to the mass immigration problem originating from the Middle East and North Africa was established by Angela Merkel in early 2016 in negotiations with Turkey's authoritarian President Tayyip Erdoğan. The deal in simple terms was that Turkey would hold the refugees coming across the Mediterranean in exchange for the EU paying them to do so.

The EU outsourced its most difficult border control problem to Turkey, which currently holds three million or so refugees in conditions that are very likely not the best. A smaller number are also held in Italy and Greece.

In politics, a "solution" that holds for two and a half years is easy to count as a success. But this was always a delicately balanced arrangement that could fall apart at any moment if, for instance, Erdoğan's government decides it serves them better to start sending massive numbers or refugees north than to keep holding up their end of the deal. Italy's new government, in which the far-right Lega party led by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini controls immigration policy, is already posturing against EU agreements and international law to show how much his party hates foreigners.

It's a standard Angela Merkel extend-and-pretend solution.

And it can be thrown out of kilter by a Syrian military push into the Idlib province. Michael Peel reports (EU steps up planning for refugee exodus if Assad attacks Idlib Financial Times 09/14/2018):
The situation in and around Idlib, which borders Turkey, has added urgency because several million people are estimated to be gathered there.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this week that 30,000 people had been displaced from their homes by air and ground attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies on the opposition enclave, while a full assault could drive out 800,000.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, this week warned that the “impending humanitarian disaster” in Idlib must be a “deep and direct concern to us all”.
So it's not as though the EU governments and leaders don't know that they are facing a longterm, ongoing immigration crisis. But, as Peel also reports, the immediate goal is to clear current immigration camps in Greece by accelerating settlement of their current occupants to make way for new refugees.

But from his report, it appears that even that preparation is something ongoing for other reasons, "The proposal is primarily aimed at dealing with what 19 non-governmental groups on Thursday branded 'shameful' conditions at the island migrant centres." Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is meeting next week with the EU "migration minister" to discuss ways to free up 3,000 spots in the current camps.

Yes, with the imminent prospect of up to 800,000 refugees coming out of Syria to Turkey in the next few weeks, Greece and the EU are looking to free up 3,000 spots in current camps. The current camps that NGOs are criticizing, with good reason, for already bad conditions.

If this were a problem that appeared suddenly due to, say, an asteroid striking the Middle East, the EU's lack of preparedness might be more understandable. But the asteroid was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent destablization of Iraq and Syria, along with the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 which left Libya a failed state. That meant that Libya, which had previously absorbed large numbers of African refugees as workers, was no longer able and willing to do so. By virutally all Western news accounts, conditions in the current camps in Libya are genuinely horrific.

Since 2011 - the year of the NATO intervention in Libya - there has been a visible crisis of large numbers of refugees making their way on the very dangerous trip across the Mediterranean toward Europe. That was seven years ago. In 2018, the EU is struggling to free up 3,000 places in Greek refugee camps in face of the impending exodus of up to 800,000 refugees from Idlib.

That's what an extend-and-pretend solution looks like.

There is actually a practical, resonable, and humane way for the EU to handle this problem. Its basic elements are well known and have been discussed for years:
  • Establish individual country quotas for the reception of non-doucmented immigration flow. In the case of an Idlib situation, that could mean parceling out hundreds of thousands of refugees in a few months time. In less acute years, like most of 2016, 2017, and 2018 to date, the numbers would be radically lower.
  • Set up pro-active training programs and recruitment of immigrants for jobs which are not being filled by already-legal EU residents. In Germany and Austria, home assistance for the elderly is a job of which there is and will continue to be a growing demand. They are currently being filled mostly by immigrants, many of them from eastern EU countries. And for the same reason that agriculture in the US is completely dependent on immigrant labor, including massive numbers of undocumented workers: they can't get native workers to do it at any feasbile wage level.
  • Provide expanded development assistance to African countries in particular to provide local opportunities for people there.
Another measure that is much discussed is establishing asylum centers in Libya or other places outside of the EU borders where refugees can apply for asylum in Europe. This is known as the "Australian" solution.

But we don't need to know much about what Australia is doing to see that the latter proposal is only barely more than pure fantasy. And that's probably putting it too generously. No African country has agreed to such a scheme, and none are likely to do so. The proposal as it is being discussed runs into all sorts of problems in international and EU law. The only way the EU could insure that such camps would provide minimally humane and secure conditions in countiries like Libya would be to run the camps themselves. The PR problems of the EU setting up camps in Africa in which refugees could be, uh, concentrated, is actually the least serious problem involved.

The rightwing nationalist parties in EU countries are flatly opposed to a new system of refugee settlement and assimilation ("integration" in the official jargon in Germany and Austria). The weakened center-left parties have also been timid at best in validating this approach.

In Austria and Germany and other EU countries, the native birth rate is below the replacement rate, which means that population is expected to decline in coming decades. In order to have growing economies in the sense we currently understand economic growth, they will need significant numbers of immigrants. Several former Eastern Bloc countries are already suffering serious negative economic impacts because so many younger workers have already immigration to other EU countries.

Expanded developmental aid to African countries like Niger is certainly a worthy goal. Also a difficult one to pull off. And that talking point does nothing to address what will happen if another 800,000 refugees come into Turkey in the next few months. Politicians advocating this typically don't bother to reference the fact that the biggest development aid some African countries are currently getting comes from their citizens working in Europe who send money back to their families. And since those amounts are going to individual famililies, much of it presumably gets spent on consumption which boosts their economies. And is also, I assume, less vulnerable to massive diversion of funds than some traditional aid projects might be. In other words, African workers in Europe are a major foreign aid provider.

Much of the actual political rhetoric around immigration, though, is frivolous. The Austrian government has been taking various measure to make life for asylum-seekers in Austria more difficult, which does have the real effect of hurting real people. The rest is largely posturing. In one sense, Austria is a "free-rider" on border issues, because it doesn't have a Mediterranean coast. The current Chancellor Sebastian "Wunderwuzzi" Kurz likes to talk about boosting the presence of the border patrol Frontex, which the EU is currently doing. But if a situation like 2015 occurs again, which could happen at almost any time, and refugees are sent north to Hungary and Austria, what is Chancellor Wunmderwuzzi actually going to do? Gun them down at the border? And, if not, he's going to need a whole lot more than empty rhetoric about asylum centers in North Africa.

He rose to be Chancellor at age 31 because he skillfully exploited and fed xenophobic fears and, as Foreign Minister in 2015-16, did a lot of posturing against Germany and Angela Merkel which in the context, had no real downside for him politically. But if the current -house-them-all-in-Turkey solution doesn't work, he's like to find that chest-beating is a limited practical use in a new acute phase of the immigrantion crisis.

Meanwhile, Putin's government in Russia currently sees an advantage in weakening the US and a very useful instrument to promote it in the immigration issue. Viktor Orbán's government in Hungary is currently the main European model for the anti-EU parties from Austria to Czechia, Solovakia, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and France. Some of those parties like the FPÖ in Austria have formal friendship/cooperation agreements with Putin's United Russia party, an arrangement that seems to be a rightwing reflection of the arrangements the Soviet Communist Party had with affiliated Communist parties in Europe. Not surprisingly, the Putin-allied parties are agitating over immigration issue, which they polemically call a "migration" crisis, in ways that align with Putin's foreign policy goals.