Islamic Sectarianism

The Middle East and north African countries were held in check by ruthless autocrats for decades until the introduction of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the loud speaker that is social media, sent the message to the Muslim world that autocracy was not the only option, and so the “Arab Spring” emerged first across north Africa and conspicuously Libya and Egypt, but then in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

This turn of events – the overthrow of tyrants – was a double-edged sword, for the tyrants had accomplished one positive result during their reign.  They had managed to keep a lid on Islamic sectarianism, a malady potentially pandemic in many Muslim countries with sizable sectarian minorities, whether Shia or Sunni.

What has evolved now is a full-bore sectarian civil war between the two prominent Islamic sects.  It is not confined to a single country or even a single region, and so intense it calls into question the practicality of maintaining many of these nations as is – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc.   These nations are composed of the two Islamic sects that will never again live peacefully together, so that to keep these nations intact ensures permanent disorder, that is, no end in sight to the sectarian violence.

The reaction of the West has often been to misinterpret this evolution as an assault on Western values and religions when, in fact, even though this assault may indeed be taking place, it is really more in the vein of collateral damage.  The main objective of this sectarian conflict is for the Sunni to put an end to the Shia and for the Shia to put an end to the Sunni, an internecine war among Muslims.  On a larger geopolitical basis, this sectarian conflict is represented by Iran and its bloc of nations representing the Shia side and by Saudi Arabia and its bloc of nations representing the Sunni side.

We in the United States have a bitter history and knowledge of the ruthlessness of civil war so that we should not underestimate how ruthless this one may become.   So what is to be done?   So far, the emphasis seems to be to target and bomb the Sunni side – bombing in Syria and Iraq to eliminate ISIS, the most extreme element on the Sunni side, although Yemen now sees bombing of the Shia side as well.  In effect, the idea is to bomb the oppressed minority into submission or oblivion.   But will this be effective in the long run?  I think not.

A more effective, long-term approach to end this sectarian civil war would be to evaluate the countries that are mired in it, and to subdivide them along sectarian lines.  We can only emerge from the sectarian civil war with Islamic nations that make sense by containing no oppressed minorities.  A Shia central government with an oppressed Sunni minority or the reverse — that very scenario is the cause of the civil war, and so its elimination is the real, political solution, not endless bombing.

Syria should be divided into a Shia western nation and a Sunni eastern nation that includes the Sunni section of Iraq, preferably under the control of the Sunni tribesmen, not ISIS.  The Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran should have their own nation so that they are not subject to a central government intolerant of their religion and way of life. What remains of Iraq should be exclusively Shia.  Yemen should be similarly divided along sectarian lines as well as any other country that has this sectarian cancer.

To those who would protest and say we should retain the territorial integrity of these nations, I counter that their sectarian composition – trying to mix the two Islamic sects under one roof — is the cause of the problem.  How can it possibly be the solution?  Neither will the sectarian civil war that has resulted be resolved by introducing the decidedly Western concept of fair treatment of minorities, as we have clearly seen under a Shia Baghdad now oppressing Sunnis and a Sunni (Saddam Hussein-led) Baghdad that had been oppressing Shias – in essence, doing the same thing but expecting a different result, the definition of insanity.

Only a sharp and clear separation of the two sects into their own distinct nation states, so that there are no oppressed religious sects within any countries, will put an end to this Islamic civil war, while wishful thinking about the fair treatment of minorities will merely perpetuate it, as we have already witnessed twice in Iraq.  Some may say that to subdivide these nations along sectarian lines is not practical, that such a solution is the wishful thinking.  I would counter that, in fact, it is the only solution.  And it has worked before in the creation of Muslim Pakistan in separating it from Hindu India along religious line — and it can work again, elsewhere.

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“You Are So Alone”

I must admit to have been a Trekkie — for the series with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  But I’m not ashamed to admit that I never missed an episode, and still enjoy the reruns, although now I think some of the razzle dazzle technology a bit outdated, with the except of the tricorder (first smartphone?) and beaming people up and down and all around — no better way to travel.

Despite being popular culture, there were some episodes that had a real contemporary edge to them and a strong message.  I remember one where there were two races on this planet who hated each other with a visceral hatred that they could barely contain.  They were in mortal civil war at each other’s throats when the Enterprise showed up to mediate the conflict.  What was truly brilliant about this episode about racism was that the two races were in fact almost identical except for one seemingly trivial difference.  One race was all white on the left side of their bodies and all black on the right side.  The other race was the reverse — all black on the left side and all white on the right.  That ridiculous difference was the basis of their intense hatred.  The episode, simply but  eloquently, showed just how ludicrous it was to hate someone else for their skin color, and, with this little bit of imagination, the message hit home.

The show definitely had a strong moral center, as witnessed by the “Prime Directive”.  This was the guideline set down by the United Federation of Planets (i.e., headquarters) for any of its Starfleet vessels in their interactions with other cultures in the universe.  The Prime Directive (also known as Starfleet General Order 1) prohibited Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations.   How enlightened that was when you compare it to United States foreign policy since World War 2 where we have done nothing but interfere in the internal development of other nations — e.g., Vietnam, Iraq, etc.

But there was one episode where Mr. Spock has a long soliloquy about what it means to be a human being that bordered on Shakespearean, in my mind.  I don’t remember the plot of the episode at all or any of its other details other than Spock conducted a mind meld with a human and for the first time experienced what it was like to be totally human instead of Vulcan and human.  Frankly, I am still bowled over by his words.  I am bowled over by them because they ring so true yet also profound: “How compact your bodies are.  And what a variety of senses you have.  This thing you call… language though — most remarkable.  You depend on it, for so very much.  But is any one of you really its master?  But most of all, the aloneness.  You are so alone You live out your lives in this…shell of flesh.  Self-contained.  Separate.  How lonely you are.  How terribly lonely.”

The Bard of Avon would be envious.

Star Trek Quotations

Prime Directive

Two Ships Passing in the Night

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On the Brink

I’m fascinated by the Edwardian Age, that period from the 1890’s to World War 1 when civilization had seemingly reached a pinnacle.  The world had been at peace for decades, and it seemed like war itself was a thing of the past, outmoded, irrelevant.  A new age of civility and manners had dawned on mankind, and industrialization had created immense wealth and widespread prosperity.  In America, this was the Newport era where the wealthy (“Robber Barons”)  built their “cottages” by the sea.   The wealthy on both sides of the “pond” enjoyed themselves with extravagant leisure activities like the new game tennis or endless summer lawn parties for the “in” crowd.

The arts were thriving, and culture had seemingly fused the best of old traditions with amazing modern innovations like the automobile and the bicycle.  In one area the Edwardians did achieve a zenith in culture that had never been reached until then or since, and probably will never be reached again: high fashion.  Men wore the perfect tuxedo and top hat, while curvaceous women — shaped by the devilish corset — enjoyed outrageously stylish big hats and stunningly elegant dresses.  Their high fashion really  puts our Kentucky Derby fashion statement to shame — there simply is no comparison.

Many wealthy young American women married into the British and European aristocracies —  a clear trend.  They brought their financial assets with them, and therefore restored the fortunes of a great number of old European houses, so that European aristocracy witnessed an unexpected renewal and flourished once again.   It was a golden age that looked out upon the future not just with mere hope but with bright confidence — nothing could ever possibly go wrong again, and everything would certainly always go right, to bigger and better things, to a higher and higher state of civilization.

Then Sarajevo happened.  Entangling diplomatic alliances took a very local incident and inflamed it into a general European crisis.  And so war burst upon the Europeans suddenly, like a steamroller exploding out of the night.  And what war!   Trench warfare, “no man’s land,” machine guns, heavy ordinance with gigantic cannons, a new and formidable weapon called “tanks,” airplanes with machine guns and bombs, gas attacks, and a horrendous new affliction dubbed with the apt name “shell shock” — all the horror that modern military technology could bring to bear upon the art of killing large numbers of human beings.  In this diabolical type of war, humans were not really individual soldiers anymore, but so many ants to be crushed en masse under foot by the war machine.

And no one in the Edwardian Age — busy whiling away their leisure time playing tennis at a lawn party in Newport — saw it coming.  Busy with social media and our smart phones, are we not the same today as the Edwardians — without a clue we are on the brink?  Our threat — lest you forget — is nuclear.  Whole cities can be destroyed in a blink.  But that can’t happen, right?

(Still one of the classics, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Nazi Germany because it was thought it would demoralize the military.  In my opinion, the book is a must read for anyone who considers themselves educated, but, if you prefer, there was also a fine early film made based on the book.)

Edwardian Era

Edwardian Fashion

The Edwardians — a novel

Sarajevo

Shell Shock

All Quiet on the Western Front

A Speech Like No Other

LBJ

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Venezuela

Rather than sanctions, the United States should consider taking the humanitarian high road and provide Venezuela, a country on the precipice of actual starvation, with food — with no strings attached.  Frankly, we do humanitarian a lot better than we do military.  Wouldn’t it be a nice change of pace if the rest of the world actually respected something we did abroad?  And the farmers in the United States wouldn’t mind a bit if the government bought some of what they have to offer.  We could simply tell the world that, while we don’t agree with the politics of the current regime in Venezuela, we refuse to see people starve in the Western Hemisphere.

North Korea — What to Expect

Crimea

Nuclear Winter

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North Korea — What to Expect

It is hard to see what direction Secretary of State Pompeo will take negotiating with North Korea.  I say this because the ultimate objective for the United States is for North Korea to denuclearize, but having nuclear weapons is really the only card North Korea has to play.  So why would they give them up?   They wouldn’t.

If they do give up their only winning card, the question remains, how would North Korea be protected from a US attack, which is what they really fear?  A treaty could be arranged so that Russia or China, even Russian and China, would guarantee the North Korea borders from attack — that if North Korea were attacked by anyone, one or both would come to their aid.  But why would North Korea trust such an agreement, as it would put one or both of these countries at odds with the United States without much to gain from it themselves?

Furthermore,  everyone is keenly aware of what happened in Libya.  The United States negotiated with Muammar Gaddafi to back away from having nuclear weapons.  He agreed, but subsequently the United States became very involved in his overthrow.  Remember the once all-powerful Gaddafi hiding in a storm drain, and then slaughtered by his angry captors?  That lesson of how vulnerable a country and its leader are without having the ultimate weapon was not lost on Kim Yong-Un or anyone else.  So that the United States might guarantee the North Korean borders if the regime agrees to denuclearize — all of that rings kind of hollow in this light.

Consequently, I see the basic negotiation of denuclearizing North Korea going nowhere.  But does that mean there is no benefit from further negotiation?  Here there is some hope, for there is a subtle benefit that is realistic and achievable.

North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war.  What was signed way back in 1953 was an armistice, not a treaty that ended the war.  So technically they are still at war.  In fact, up until recently, the tension in the demilitarized zone was palpable and very threatening.  The two sides down through the years have shown recurring bouts of open hostility, including an active series of “war games” with American participation in South Korea and unrelenting warlike broadcasts by North Korea.

It could very well be the case that some wars are not started from a sudden decision, but rather a series of small steps and irritations that slowly lead to a crescendo of outrage on either side, so that the slightest spark reaches — to use a nuclear metaphor — critical mass,  and so you have an explosion of outright hostilities.  You have yourself a war.  This was certainly the case in World War 1 where the spark was the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  Just imagine — an entire world set ablaze because just one person is shot dead.

But it might be that peace works in the opposite direction — a series of small steps at forgiveness and reconciliation until the parties involved become surprised at and even taken aback by any animosity, so that the thought of war seems preposterous, remote.  That first step toward peace in this case might be a much ballyhooed peace treaty that finally ends the war between North Korea and South Korea.  That’s the achievable benefit.  It would in fact change little about the current circumstances, but it would change the mood dramatically, and would be that tiny but real first step away from war, away from the abyss.  A journey of a 100 miles begins with the first step.

But, unfortunately, there is further reason for pessimism about the Korean predicament.  It has to do with the prospects for the country to become unified again.  What you have in South Korea is a Western-style democracy and a capitalist society.  It is a wealthy, industrious, and innovative country with its citizens used to quite a bit of personal freedom as well as civil rights and voting rights.  In short, the people are independent, well to do, and exercise a good deal of self-determination in the conduct of their own lives.

Contrast all of that to what exists in North Korea.  North Korea is a hereditary military dictatorship based on the cult of a supreme leader.   It is a poor country that is barely able to feed itself.  We’ve all seen the satellite night photographs of a pitch black North Korea.  Much of the country’s productive capacity is spent on developing an overly massive military or wasted by the regime for showy propaganda structures that serve no useful benefit for its society.  Its people have no rights and have been thoroughly indoctrinated in a Stalinist-like regime where individuals who voice the slightest disagreement with the regime simply disappear, either permanently or to Gulag-like prisons.  So there is no dissent to speak of, and the people are like robots in their total submission to the state and its supreme leader.  I submit that two such disparate regimes will never ever be reconciled, certainly not without a lot of bloodshed and civil war.

It’s interesting to sit back and look at the Korean situation from the point of view of what would be the worst case scenario from the American perspective and from the North Korean perspective.  The American perspective is pretty easy to understand.  We would not want to see South Korea overrun by North Korea.  This could happen in either of two ways.  The United States might negotiate to leave South Korea if there was sufficient guarantees that North Korea would not invade.  But the United States having left, North Korea might renege on this agreement and invade anyway.  Alternatively, an outright war could break out.  Seoul would be destroyed by the artillery bombardment, the tactical nuclear weapons used by the United States might not be effective in deterring the million-man North Korean army that invades South Korea, and so the whole peninsula, or what’s left of it, would fall to North Korea.  In either of these possibilities, the net result would then place Japan at severe risk — the next domino to fall.  And there is also the outside chance of a North Korean nuclear-armed missile managing to hit American soil.  That’s the American nightmare.

The North Korean worse case scenario is pretty obvious.  The United States military always has its “hawks” recommending that now is the time to take advantage of the enemy — that any further delay is to our disadvantage.  The hawks are always there pressing this argument in every international conflict.  After all, fighting and killing are what they do.   Actually, in this case, the hawk argument, that time is not on our side, is not a hard one to make.  North Korea today probably does not have the reentry technology or the accuracy to hit specific targets in the continental United States, but in 5 years?  Today it is estimated they may have 15 nuclear weapons, but in 5 years?  The clock is ticking.

Nevertheless, should the perception unfold that the North Korean regime is consciously trying to play us along in order to deceive the United States to gain the upper hand in a game of nuclear chicken, such a growing perception would play into the hands of the hawks who would merely reiterate that time is running out on our advantage to ATTACK.  The worse case scenario for North Koreans unfolds when leadership in Washington becomes persuaded by this argument and ultimately agrees with it.  If that synergy between Washington and the hawks were to happen, all of North Korea would hang by a nuclear thread hovering above an annihilation one can scarcely imagine.

Crimea

Nuclear Winter

European Union (EU) and Tariffs

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Nuclear Winter

68_Statue silhouette black flat

The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed in 2011, replacing START 1, and runs until 2021.  It limits the number of warheads of the US and Russia to 1550 each. It’s interesting to try to imagine what the United States would turn into if 1550 nuclear warheads were to hit their target here.  These modern warheads are not comparable to the two nuclear bombs dropped in WW2, which are puny in comparison.  The modern warheads are much more powerful – some, for instance, more than 3000 times the explosive capacity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Major targets are assumed to be hit with not just one but multiple warheads to ensure that at least one warhead gets through.  So it is safe to assume that all major cities would simply be obliterated, given the magnitude of these weapons, leaving intense radiation in the surrounding area.  Most of the smaller cities would also be hit, creating more radiation zones.  All the strategic military sites would be targeted, of course, as well as major industrial sites, producing still more radiation zones.  Basically, every missile that struck would create a large radiation zone where it would be hazardous for humans to tread, perhaps for decades.

The electrical grid would be destroyed so that there would be no power and no electricity.  All 61 of the nuclear power plants in the US, without power, would no longer be serviced with the necessary cooling process and so they would all have unstoppable melt downs, creating radiation zones around them of approximately 50 miles in every direction – and these radiation zones would be permanent and very lethal.  Food distribution would simply end; and most of the population would not know how to grow food and therefore would be unable to feed itself, so that perhaps 90% of the population would die from starvation within a few months, or even sooner, depending on when their existing food supplies run out.  Tap water would be a thing of the past, so that finding and purifying water would be a major and constant challenge (the human body can be in starvation mode for prolonged periods of time and can go without food entirely for up to 3 weeks, but cannot do without water for more than 3 or 4 days at most).  There would be no government and no law and order, and those who managed to survive the initial attack would quickly drop the thin veneer of civilization and turn into savages willing to do anything for food and water.  There would be no hospitals or medical services, and cadavers would not be buried, as there would be no one to bury them. All the radiation would of course have an enormous impact on wildlife as well as the once fertile soil.

There would be small pockets of survivors in the remote countryside far removed from urban areas and from the various radiation zones.  These rare individuals would survive because they just happened to know how to survive in the wild, like the fabled mountain men of the Old West.  They would also be able to survive because they would be able to  separate themselves and stay far away from the desperate.  The survivors in the northern states would consider their predicament facing harsh winters without heat.  Many would attempt to migrate to the south to avoid severe winters.  But this trek would be on foot, as the roads would be a shamble and many sections would simply be destroyed by missile strikes.  And the trek would have to give a wide berth to urban areas, as these would be a radiation hazard.  One option for survivors in the northern states like New England, facing the difficult urban corridor from Boston to Washington, might be to go north instead, to Canadian communities that were still intact.

All of the above would also take place in Russia.  It would start in just 20 minutes and be over in a matter of hours.  To the rest of the globe, these two countries would be considered no-go zones to be avoided at all cost.

Nuclear Weapons Around the World

Map of the World’s 17,000 Nuclear Weapons

North Korea — What to Expect

On the Brink

Crimea

European Union (EU) and Tariffs

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European Union (EU) and Tariffs

Trump’s comment that the EU is a “foe” from an economic point of view made me look into our trade relations with Europe.  It turns out that we have a consistently large trade imbalance with the EU every year.  Most people are aware of the gigantic trade imbalance with China that has persisted now for decades, but may not be so aware of this problem with the EU.  Here are the numbers for 4 years:
2014 276.3 billion
2015 271.9 billion
2016 269.5 billion
2017 283.3 billion
So what the above means is that, on a net basis, for those 4 years, over a trillion dollars has left our country and gone to the EU — quite literally, on a net basis, the US is 1 trillion poorer and the EU is 1 trillion richer.  Why is this happening?  Why is the US selling to Europe so much less than we are buying from them when the US, by any measure, has very good companies and very competitive products?  I suggest the problem occurs because of EU tariffs.  Actually, tariffs are almost a definition of what the EU really is.  For states that are members, the EU is a genuine free trade zone — there are no tariffs between member countries, that’s the whole point.  But for the rest of the world, including the US, the EU uses prohibitively high, protectionist tariffs to shield domestic industries of member states from foreign competition.
It will be interesting to see what impact there will be on the trade balance between the US and the EU if a genuine free trade agreement is put in place where there are no tariffs at all on either side so that American products will be unimpeded by EU tariffs and their products unimpeded by our tariffs — a completely level playing field.  Who knows — we may even see a trade surplus on the US side of the ledger.

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