Friday, March 29, 2019

Blunting America's Sanctions Against Iran

Updated June 2019

With representatives of the Trump Administration repeatedly making comments about Iran like this:
 would almost think that Iran has no friends anywhere in the world.  Much to Washington's chagrin, recent developments would strongly suggest otherwise.

Here is an article from Iran's Press TV:

On March 18, 2019, the Chairman of the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Baqeri met in Damascus with his counterparts, Syrian General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and Iraqi Lieutenant General Othman al-Gahnimi to discuss future co-operation, particularly in the struggle against terrorism.  The three leaders believe that militants and terrorists were bankrolled by the United States at the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011 and that Russian assistance was required to reverse the course of the war and protect the Assad government.

Here is a key quote from the article:

"Baqeri added that withdrawal of foreign forces that are present in Syria without any authorization from the country's government is also top on the agenda of the three states.

Commenting on the presence of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria, Baqeri said terrorists active in those countries posed a threat to Iran's security, adding that the Islamic Republic dispatched its military advisors to the two Arab countries at their request.

Baqeri emphasized that no foreign armed forces should be deployed to any country in the region without its legal permission, adding that Iran will continue its fight against terrorists in Syria as long as the legal Syrian government demands it."

Here is a direct quote from the Major General:

"[Those foreign] forces who are present in Syria without any authorization from the country's government must leave the Syrian soil as soon as possible... 

As Iran has come to Syria at the official invitation of Syria's government, the presence of other countries should also take place through the Syrian government's coordination and authorization."

When Iran's Major General Baqeri refers to "foreign forces" that are present in Syria he is referring to the United States which has not received any form of permission from the Syrian government to participate in the ongoing conflict.   He also warned about the efforts made by the United States to fuel insecurity in the Middle East

During the meeting, Bashar al Assad met with the three key military personnel as shown in this picture from SANA:

Here is a quote from President al-Assad from the meeting:

"Syria's strong relation with both Iran and Iraq has been enhanced further during the war on terrorism and its backers in which the blood of the Syrian hero soldiers was mixed with that of the Iranian and Iraqi soldiers. The meeting, for the principles, mainly dignity and honor, which distinguish our peoples and of which we are proud, proves that Syria, Iran and Iraq are in the same battle and trench against the same enemy." 

On March 20, 2019, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shiogu met with President al-Assad to deliver a letter from President Vladimir Putin.  At the meeting, the two men discussed several key issues including the fight against international terrorism, Middle East security and post-conflict settlement including efforts to help Syrian refugees return home and improving the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Despite Washington's attempts to isolate Iran, this meeting actually shows that there is a very strong alliance between Iran, Iraq and Syria.  What is particularly ironic about this alliance is the fact that one of the nations, Iraq, has been the "beneficiary" of a decade and a half of American state re-engineering.  Iran, Iraq and Syria along with Russia have all come to the realization that, by working together, they can protect each other from the terrorist threat that looms in the region.  By co-operating with each other, the four main parties involved in the Syrian conflict will blunt the impact of American sanctions against Iran and will only serve to increase Iran's influence in the region, the exact opposite of Washington's plan for the region.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Moving the Goalposts - Washington's Agenda for Venezuela

At a recent press briefing, Elliot Abrams, America's Special Representative for Venezuela, clearly laid out how Washington continues to manipulate its own narrative on the Venezuela issue.  In this posting, we'll start by looking at Venezuela's constitutional requirements for relieving its president from duty and follow by looking at the key exchange in the press briefing which clearly outlines how the Trump Administration is changing the goalposts when it comes to pushing Maduro out of office and shoving Juan Guaido into the vacancy.

Let's start by looking back to January 23, 2019.  On that day, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, Juan Guiado, declared that he was assuming the office of the presidency of the nation on an interim basis on the basis of Article 233 of Venezuela's Constitution from 1999 which reads as follows:

"Absolute faults of the President of the Republic: death, resignation, dismissal decreed by the Supreme Court of Justice, permanent physical or mental incapacity certified by a medical board appointed by the Supreme Court of Justice and with the approval of the National Assembly, the abandonment of the office, declared by the National Assembly, as well as the popular revocation of its mandate.

When there is an absolute lack of the President-elect or President-elect before taking office, a new universal, direct and secret election shall be held within the following thirty consecutive days. While the new President is elected and takes office, the President of the National Assembly will be in charge of the Presidency of the Republic.

When there is an absolute lack of the President of the Republic during the first four years of the constitutional period, a new universal and direct election shall be held within the following thirty consecutive days. While the new President is elected and takes office, the Executive Vice President or Executive Vice President will be in charge of the Presidency of the Republic.

In the previous cases, the new President will complete the corresponding constitutional period.

If the absolute lack occurs during the last two years of the constitutional period, the Executive Vice President or Executive Vice President shall assume the Presidency of the Republic until the completion thereof." (my bold)

Note that there are specific requirements to meet the requirement of "absolute absence" of the elected president which is required to appoint his/her replacement as I have highlighted above.  When there is an absolute lack of a President, a new universal (i.e. nationwide) election is to be held within 30 consecutive days.  In the current situation, with Juan Guaido appointing himself as the nation's president on January 23, 2019, the universal election should have been held no later than February 22, 2019.  Unfortunately for the United States and Mr. Guaido, current President Nicolas Maduro has not seen fit to resign his office which has greatly complicated the issue.  The only solution to the dilemma appears to be one that was recently offered by Elliot Abrams, Donald Trump's hand-picked Special Envoy to Venezuela as I noted above.  Let's look at the key exchange which clearly outlines how the Trump Administration is moving the goalposts to suit its own ultimate plans for Venezuela when it comes to pushing Maduro out of office and shoving Juan Guaido into the vacancy.

Here is the question that was asked by the representative for the Washington Post:

"…Could you explain to us the article (Article 233 as outlined above) under which Mr. Guaido declared himself president? It is said that it has expired last month. Could you explain that to us? What is the --"

Here is Mr. Abrams' answer and the continuing exchange:

"As to the Venezuelan constitution, the National Assembly has passed a resolution that states that that 30-day period of interim presidency will not start ending or counting until the day Nicolas Maduro leaves power. So the 30 days doesn’t start now, it starts after Maduro. And they – that’s a resolution of the National Assembly.

QUESTION: When did they – they did that after he --

MR ABRAMS: They did that – this is roughly a month ago. We could try to find the date for you.

QUESTION: When he was – when he was – took the mantle of interim president, that wasn’t there.

MR ABRAMS: Yes, when – that’s correct. And so people --

QUESTION: Can you do that ex post facto like that?

MR ABRAMS: When people ask a question how do --

QUESTION: That seems to be like saying I was elected for four years to be president, and then two years in you change the rules so that your term didn’t start – hasn’t even started yet. How does that happen?

MR ABRAMS: Well, you don’t get a vote because you’re not in the National Assembly.

QUESTION: Well, you don’t. You’re not in the National Assembly either.

QUESTION: If it matters, does the U.S. view that as constitutional under their system?

MR ABRAMS: Yes. I mean, we’re taking the – the National Assembly is the only legitimate democratic institution left in Venezuela, and their interpretation of the constitution, as you know, is that as of the date of this alleged term for Maduro, the presidency is vacant. But they have also said that that 30-day period starts when Maduro goes.

QUESTION: So Juan Guaido is the interim president of an interim that doesn’t exist yet?

MR ABRAMS: The 30-day end to his interim presidency starts counting. Because he’s not in power, that’s the problem. Maduro is still there. So they have decided that they will count that from when he actually is in power and Maduro’s gone. I think it’s logical.

QUESTION: So then he really isn’t interim president, then?

MR ABRAMS: He is interim president, but he’s not --

QUESTION: With no power.

MR ABRAMS: -- able to exercise the powers of the office because Maduro still is there.

QUESTION: So their interpretation is that until and unless he actually has the power to run the country, he’s not actually the interim president?

MR ABRAMS: No. Their interpretation is that the constitution requires a 30-day interim period, but it – those 30 days should not be counted while Maduro is still there exercising the powers of his former office."

Apparently, as we can see from Mr. Abrams' tap dancing, re-engineering a nation in Washington's preferred image is not as simple as one might hope.  Once again, the narrative supersedes the facts and Washington’s narrative does not fit with what is really happening on the ground in Venezuela. That said, if you move the narrative goalposts often enougheventually you might get something right.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Boeing and Its Connections to Washington

Updated December 2019

With Boeing finding itself on the receiving end of bad news thanks to issues related to its 737 Max 8 model and with Washington's seeming reluctance to be among the first nations to banish these airplanes from the sky, especially considering the large number of 737 Max 8s that are flying in American airspace, I thought it would be prudent to look at a key aspect of Boeing's business model.

According to Defense News, in 2018, Boeing was the fifth largest defense contractor in the world when measured in terms of defense revenue (2017 data) as shown here:

According to Boeing's financial results for the fourth quarter of 2018, the company had record fourth quarter revenue of $28.3 billion ($101.1 billion on a full year basis) thanks to record commercial delivers and higher defense volumes.  Here is a table showing the company's revenues and earnings from its Defense, Space and Security operations:

Higher revenue in the fourth quarter of 2018 was driven by increased volumes across F/A-18, satellites and weapons.  During the quarter, Boeing was awarded a contract for a joint ground system to provide tactical satellite communications for the United States Air Force, completed a successful test for the United States Air Force's Minuteman III and unveiled the SB>1 DEFIANT helicopter to the United States Army.  In January 2019, Boeing also delivered the first two KC-46 Tankers to the United States Air Force.  It is key to note that Boeing's order backlog at Defense, Space and Security was $57.166 billion of which 70 percent or $39.9 billion represents customers inside the United States (i.e. U.S. taxpayers).  Boeing projects that revenues for its Defense, Space and Security segment will be between $26.5 and $27.5 billion for fiscal 2019.

Now, given that Boeing is a very important part of America's military-industrial-intelligence network, let's look at a key aspect of Boeing's business which receives relatively little attention.  According to Open Secrets, here is a historical look at Boeing's contributions to political candidates by political party going back to 1990:

Boeing's total political contributions of $4.551 million in 2018 put it in 82nd place out of 19,087 organizations.

Here is a table providing a detailed breakdown of the same data:

Here is a table showing how the political contributions were divided between the House and Senate:

Here are the top recipients of Boeing's generosity:

Here is a list of members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services:

Here is a list of key members of the House Committee on Armed Services:

It is interesting (but not terribly shocking) to note that there is some overlap between the House and Senate recipients of Boeing's generosity and the list of members of the Committee on Armed Services.

Lastly for this section, let's look at which members of the House and Senate own Boeing stock:

Let's look at Washington's other favourite pastime, lobbying.  Here is a graphic showing how much Boeing has spent on lobbying over the past two decades:

Boeing's lobbying expenditures of $15.12 million put it in 10th place out of 4,163 lobbying entities in 2018.

As you can see here, Boeing stands in first place among its Defense/Aerospace peers when it comes to spending on lobbying:

In 2018, Boeing had 98 lobbyists, 71 (or 72.4 percent) of which are revolvers (i.e. had government connections).  Here is a partial listing of the lobbyists that worked on Boeing's behalf in 2018:

Here are the government agencies and government bodies that Boeing lobbied in 2018:

Here is a partial listing of issues that concerned Boeing in 2018:

Boeing was among the top ten lobbyists when it came to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1), the bill that saw the corporate income tax rate drop to 21 percent, an obvious benefit to Boeing.  That said, it is interesting to note that Boeing's effective federal and state tax rates looked like this over the decade between 2008 and 2017:

Apparently, an effective tax rate of 8.4 percent is seen as way too high for a company that made total pretax profits of $54.865 billion over the decade.  But, thanks to the tax cuts, here is what Boeing has proposed:

As you can see from this data, Boeing is one of the big players when it comes to spending money to gain influence in Washington.  Apparently, Boeing's management is well aware that Washington is for sale and that there is an excellent chance that spending money on political candidates and lobbying will be returned many-fold to Boeing's bottom line. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

America's Next Battleground and Our Dystopian Future

Let's open this posting with this video:

Rather sobering, isn't it?

This dystopian video entitled "Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity" was obtained by "The Intercept" under a Freedom of Information Act request.  The video was used as part of training at the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations University and was made for an internal military audience to assist in outlining the challenges of operating in urban areas with populations greater than 10 million people (i.e. megacities).  According to World Data, there are currently 18 megacities, however, if we look at the example of Tokyo in Japan (which comes in at number 19), the population of its metropolitan area is closer to 35 million than it is to the actual population of Tokyo which is just over 9.5 million as shown on this listing:

It is apparent that the U.S. military is very concerned about waging war in major urban areas.  The example of what happened to the U.S. military in Baghdad (population 8.765 million) is a prime example of how conventional military forces get bogged down in densely populated areas.  For 15 years, the U.S. military occupied the Green Zone, a 10 square kilometre area in downtown Baghdad, surrounded by concrete, blast-proof walls and razor wire as shown on this satellite photograph:

The Green Zone was defended with the aforementioned walls and razor wire which were augmented with earthen berms, armed checkpoints which were defended by M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and HUMVEES equipped with .50 caliber machine guns.  On December 10, 2018, parts of the Green Zone were finally opened to the public over a two week trial which allowed access to the area from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am along the 14th of July Road (the date that the Baathists began to rule Iraq) however, side roads still remain either closed or under heavy security.

While the video in this posting is, to put it mildly, sobering, the U.S. military seems to have a fixation with urban warfare.  In June 2014, the Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies released a publication entitled "Megacities and the United States Army - Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future" as shown here:

The publication opens with this:

"Cities with populations of ten million or more are given a special designation: megacity. There are currently over twenty megacities in the world, and by 2025 there will be close to forty.1 The trends are clear. Megacities are growing, they are becoming more connected, and the ability of host nation governments to effectively deal with their explosive growth and maintain security is, in many cases, diminishing...

Megacities are growing so fast that it is becoming increasingly difficult for host nation governments to keep up with infrastructure and resource requirements. Drivers of instability are already present and in many places are growing by the day."

According to the authors, while the United States will most likely be asked to step in and operate in one of the world's megacities, it is ill-prepared to do so:

"Megacities are a unique environment that the U.S. Army does not fully understand...

It is inevitable that at some point the United States Army will be asked to operate in a megacity and currently the Army is ill-prepared to do so...

The problems found in megacities (explosive growth rates, vast and growing income disparity and a security environment that is increasingly attractive to the politically dispossessed) are landpower problems. Solutions, therefore, will require boots on the ground." (my bolds)

The publication notes that megaurbanization will become an increasing problem in the near future:

"World-wide, a historic transition is underway. Over half of all people currently live in cities, and the rate of migration is accelerating. By 2030, cities will account for 60% of the world’s population and 70% of the worlds GDP.  Each day, an estimated 180,000 people across the globe migrate to cities. 3 In the next century, the urban environment will be the locus where drivers of instability will converge. By the year 2030, 60% of urban dwellers will be under the age of 18.

The cities that grow the fastest will be the most challenged. Urban areas are expected to grow by 1.4 billion in the next two decades, with that growth occurring almost entirely in developing world.  As resources become constrained, illicit networks could potentially fill the gap left by over-extended and under-capitalized governments.

The Army’s largest and most recent example of urban operations is small in comparison to the challenges ahead. In Baghdad, the Army fought for almost a decade in an urban environment with a population of 6.5 million people.  By 2030, there will be 37 cities across the world that are 200-400% larger than Baghdad."

And, we all know how long it has taken the U.S. military to extricate itself from the Baghdad nightmare, don't we?

Here is a graphic showing the geographic extent of the megacity problem:

The publication notes that historical methods of isolating cities no longer applies to megacities since the massive scale of megacities makes it impossible for traditional military forces to physically surround and isolate urban areas that contain tens of millions of people spread over an area of hundreds of square miles.  Additionally, the arrival of nearly ubiquitous cell phone and internet coverage makes it impossible to virtually isolate megacity environments as quoted here:

"Attempting to isolate one, as recommended by current doctrine, will be difficult and likely lead to unforeseen consequences. Instantaneous information transfer, robust international surface and air shipping, and mass migration (legal and illegal) connect the cities around the world in ways undreamed of only a decade ago. Robust and redundant external connectedness makes isolating a modern city nearly impossible. Indeed, recent attempts at shutting down social media in Turkey, Egypt and Libya illustrate how resilient modern communications systems are becoming."

According to the U.S. military, these megacities are highly vulnerable to instability for the following reasons:

1.) Population Growth and MigrationOne of the hallmarks of megacities is rapid hetero and homogeneous population growth that outstrips city governance capability. Many emerging megacities are ill-prepared to accommodate the kind of explosive growth they are experiencing.

2.) Separation and GentrificationRadical income disparity, and racial, ethnic and sub cultural separation are major drivers of instability in megacities. As these divisions become more pronounced they create delicate tensions, which if allowed to fester, may build over time, mobilize segments of the population, and erupt as triggers of instability.

3.) Environmental Vulnerability and Resource CompetitionUnanticipated weather events and natural disasters can be powerful catalysts which can devastate city systems, interrupt- ing governance and service delivery. While natural cataclysms occur across the globe, and have through- out human history, these events will affect larger populations, densely packed into urban centers in ways and on a scale never before seen. Environmental disasters and resource scarcity (real or perceived) can produce relative resource disparity, competition, and instability which can rapidly exceed the capability of local authorities to address.

4.) Hostile Actors: If internal or foreign actors conducted offensive operations which exceeded a  city’s capacity to contain or defend against them, external intervention could be required to return the city to its previous state.  This would be especially true if the city is in an allied country or the threat is preparing to extend its hostilities to the U.S. homeland or its citizens abroad. 

Let's close with an analysis of three cities in the study with Lagos and Dhaka being examples of what can (and will) go wrong and New York City being an example of how megacities should evolve:

Here is a final quote from the video:

"This is the world of our future.  It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable. The threat is clear. Our direction remains to be defined. The future is urban.

And, the next war will likely be fought in an urban environment by a military that is likely to cause massive civilian casualties, just as it did in the case of Baghdad which is still resulting in civilian deaths nearly 16 years after the beginning of hostilities.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Far-Right Violence Against Religion in the United States

Thanks to research by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism or START, we have a compilation of far-right fatal violence against religious institutions and individuals in the United States over the three decade period from 1990 to 2018.  

START's data is sourced from the United States Extremist Crime Database (ECDB).  This database includes open-source data on financial and violent crimes associated with far-right, far-left and al-Qaeda-influenced groups and movements and tracks criminal incidents committed by extremist groups and their supporters.  These crimes include attacks on law enforcement, abortion providers, ethnic and social groups which are then sorted according to the ideology of the criminals involved.  According to the ECDB, there have been over 217 ideologically motivated homicide incidents committed by far-right adherents in the United States over the period from 1990 to 2018.  Most of these attacks were committed by white supremacists against minority groups due to their perceived religious or racial background or sexual orientation with over half of all attacks relating to racial/ethnic identity.  A small percentage of attacks took place because the attacker believed that they were ideological enemies of the far-right ideology.

Here is a table showing the number of ideologically motivated homicides against religious institutions committed by far-right extremists over the period from January 1990 to October 2018:

Here is a graph showing the number of ideologically motivated homicides committed against religious institutions and individuals by white supremacists over the three decades:

Here is a graph showing the number of ideologically motivated homicides committed agains religious institutions and individuals by other far-right extremists over the three decades:

Here is a graph showing the number of ideologically motivated homicides committed agains religious institutions and individuals by white supremacists and far-right extremists over the three decades:

Far-right religious-based homicides that took place prior to 2018 have not been evenly distributed across the fifty states; most states had less than five ideological murders over the past 28 years.  In contrast, five states had more than ten far-right ideological homicides as follows:

California - 33
Texas - 21
Pennsylvania - 15
Florida - 14
Oregon - 11

While there is some correlation between state population and the number of religious-based ideological homicides such is not always the case as the state of New York had only six far-right connected homicides over the 28 year period.

Let's look at some details of the types of religious groups targeted by the far-right:

1.) Jewish individuals and institutions - over the 28 years, there were 11 ideologically motivated attacks that claimed 23 lives that purposely targeted people with actual or perceived Jewish identity.

2.) Other religious individuals and institutions - over the 28 years, there were 7 ideologically motivated attacks that claimed 29 lives that purposely targeted people with religious affiliations that were considered an affront to the far-right.  These included Muslims, Black church members and Christian churches that were theologically unacceptable to the far-right.

It is important to note that far-right extremists have had other ideological targets over the three decades including the deaths of 54 victims who were part of the justice system (i.e. on-duty police officers, officials of the justice system, security guards, judges, military personnel).  

This statistical analysis of ideologically-driven homicides that are directly connected to America's right-wing fringes provides us with a glimpse of the side of American society that few of us understand.  While the number of religious  ideologically-driven homicides is low compared to the total number of annual homicides in the United States, it is interesting to see how far some individuals are willing to go to protect their own viewpoint on American society and their version of Christianity.