Pointless Anger at the UN

From the BBC:

Syria war: Anger after Russia vetoes resolution at UN


Russia has vetoed a draft resolution at the UN Security Council that would have condemned last week’s alleged chemical attack in Syria and demanded that Damascus cooperate with investigators.

The resolution was presented by the US, UK and France, who reacted angrily to Russia’s decision.

It was the eighth time Russia has protected its ally at the council.

Why is anyone angry at this? It was an absolute certainty that Russia was going to support its ally Assad and veto any resolution, if anyone was surprised – let along angered – by this then they ought to be fired immediately for being so unimaginably stupid that euthanasia becomes a serious consideration.

There’s no point being angry at Russia: they have made it clear they support Assad and either don’t believe he used chemical weapons or don’t care that he did. And there’s no point in being angry at their wielding a veto, this is what all the permanent members do when their allies are ganged up on (justifiably or not).

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley condemned Russia’s action: “You are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death,” she said.

So what’s new? If you don’t like how the system works, then change it or walk away. All this latest resolution has done is provide an opportunity for people to go on a jolly to New York and to demonstrate how useless the United Nations is. Again.

Preaching Extremism with Impunity

Happenings in France:

A mosque in the eastern suburbs of Paris was ordered closed on Tuesday because authorities deemed it “a threat to security”.
The mosque, located in Torcy in the Seine-et-Marne department, was deemed by authorities to be “a threat to public order”.
Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said the mosque had “become a place where radical ideology was advocated”.
“Some of the preaching was openly hostile to France’s laws and was inciting hate to other religious communities, primarily Shia Muslims and Jews.”
He added that there was a risk of “a breeding ground that threatened security and public order” in France.
In the official police order for closure, Imams were said to have “legitimized armed jihad” over the past two years, “calling on members to pray for jihadists to destroy the enemies of Islam in France and around the world”.

I have a Muslim friend living in a European capital, and I occasionally meet him and speak about the issue of extremism being preached in mosques across Europe. He hails from an Arabic-speaking country where mosques are carefully watched by the authorities and Imams are licensed by the state.

He told me he once went to a mosque in the city where he now lives and was amazed, absolutely staggered, to find extremism being openly preached and leaflets being handed out in support of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. He said back in his home country this wouldn’t have been tolerated for one second: the mosque would have been shut down and the Imam thrown in jail. He said that this particular mosque was hardly unusual.

What he could not for the life of him understand was why the authorities in the west allow these places to remain open, preaching extremism. He says western governments, rather than hassling moderate Muslims and the general population, should simply start rounding up the obvious extremists who preach their poisonous creed with impunity. He said if they are local they should be jailed and if they are foreign they should be deported immediately.

Although I am fully wedded to the ideas of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and due process I could not help but think my friend did have something of a valid point. It’s all very well us telling moderate Muslims that they should do more, but they might well turn around and ask when we intend to do start doing something about it. As I have said before, why should moderate Muslims put their heads above the parapet and tackle the extremists in their midst when the host governments can’t even bring themselves to admit there is a problem?

Trump and Nato

What’s Trump up to now?

US President Donald Trump has said Nato is “no longer obsolete”, reversing a stance that had alarmed allies.

Let me just park that there for a second and quote a paragraph from ZMan’s latest offering:

Another thing about Trump  that makes him an extreme outlier in national politics is that he is not an ideologue. Most of our politicians are quite stupid. All of their intellectual energy is focused on the endless scheming and game playing that is politics. What passes for ideology in American politics is really just a laundry list of policies aimed at buying votes from interest groups. That’s why they sound like robots. They stick to the script, even in the face of a public revolt, because that’s the safe and easy way to do it.

That’s not Trump. He is not married to any policy. In the campaign, he would regularly say something one day and then take it back two days later when it proved to be unpopular. It is safe to assume, for example, that Trump has zero interest in health care. He’ll sign off on anything that is popular with the voters. He’s also willing to dump a bad policy without worrying a bit about being called a hypocrite or inconsistent. Trump is practical about these things. If it does not work, he tosses it aside and moves onto to the next thing.

This will be terribly frustrating for partisans, but Trump is a goal oriented guy.

I don’t disagree with any of that, and I think it is a good thing that the United States finally has a President who might borrow the words of Keynes and say “when the facts change, I change my mind.” Of course this would mean that Trump is also prone to manipulation by vested interests (and many believe this is happening right now over Syria), but I think on balance it is better to have a flexible President who listens to his advisers rather than a narcissist like Obama who is convinced he’s the smartest one in the room and is interested only in his “legacy”.

But that doesn’t mean that everything Trump changes his mind on is good, though. Let’s get back to his remarks on Nato:

Mr Trump has repeatedly questioned Nato’s purpose, while complaining that the US pays an unfair share of membership.

Nato was formed for one purpose: keeping the Soviets out of western Europe. If we assume the Russia inherited Soviet regional policies along with their embassies, nuclear weapons, and permanent seat on the UNSC, that means Nato exists to keep the Russians out of western Europe.

There are some people who believe there is nothing to fear from Russia and nobody in the west should bat an eyelid if Putin & Co go around invading neighbours and annexing peninsulas, and that is fair enough. In that case, Nato has no reason to exist. There are others, like me, who think Russia’s regional ambitions are a concern and Nato should continue in the role it was originally formed to play. It is important to understand that confronting Russia over, say, the annexation of Crimea or sabre-rattling on the Estonian border is very much consistent with an overall aim of keeping Russia out of western Europe. It is better this confrontation happens in the east at an early stage than on the borders of Austria and Germany later on when the west has no choice and the Russians have the wind at their backs.

However, if this is the purpose of Nato then it is imperative that each of its members pulls its weight and commits itself fully to the military and diplomatic aims of the organisation. If they continue to do what most of them have done for the past few decades, i.e. rely on the Americans to provide 99% of the military capability and sit there carping about American warmongering while at the same time undermining them diplomatically by doing cosy business and political deals with the Russians then the organisation, as Trump originally said, really is obsolete and should be wound up pronto. I was hoping Trump’s statement would force the Nato member states to carefully consider where their long-term interests lay and to decide the future of the alliance accordingly.

But this:

At a joint press conference with Mr Stoltenberg, Mr Trump said: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more Nato can do in the fight against terrorism.

“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.

“I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

How the hell is Nato useful in the fight against terrorism? From what I can tell, most terrorism we see in the western world today is a result of two things:

1. Failed Muslim-majority states in the Middle East and elsewhere.

2. Extremely poor government policies in western countries which border on negligence if not outright treason.

Nato is of absolutely no use in tackling either of these. I don’t even think the assault on Afghanistan that kicked the Taliban out of power should have been a Nato mission: a “coalition of the willing” would have been good enough. Sure, there was some symbolism there but all it achieved was to muddy the waters as to what Nato’s purpose is. Things were already rather opaque when the organisation was used to attack Serbia over Kosovo: regardless of the rights and wrongs of that mission, it should never have been carried out under the banner of Nato. It allowed the Russians to claim, with some justification, that Nato is not merely a defensive organisation (although I don’t believe for one second they genuinely think it represents an offensive threat to Russia).

In short, Nato ought only to exist to fight Russians trying to get their mitts on western Europe (or roll tanks over its allies and up to its borders); if the member states don’t want that then it is obsolete. Shying away from its primary purpose by pretending it can be used to fight terrorism doesn’t change this analysis, regardless of what Trump is now saying.

Earlier this week Nato welcomed Montenegro as its 29th member nation.

Which is as much proof of the organisation’s obsolescence as you need.

A Synopsis of The Book

It occurred to me that I should probably tell people what this book I’m writing is about. So here’s a synopsis:

A middle-aged divorcee living in London meets Katya, an intriguing Russian-American woman some eight years his junior on a popular online dating site. With her facial piercings, bohemian style, and artsy outlook she is not his usual type but the two get along fabulously well and soon they are embarked on what promises to be a healthy, long-term relationship.

Then one morning, after a romantic night together, Katya reveals a secret about her past which destroys all his assumptions and makes him realise that he doesn’t know this woman at all. Only he is hopelessly in love, and so instead of leaving he decides to stay with her in the hope her past is behind her and there are no more secrets to be revealed. But the more he learns about Katya the more questions are raised: why did she divorce her husband back in New York? Why is she so drawn to the Burning Man festival that takes place each year in Nevada’s Black Rock desert? And why is she with him in the first place?

In an effort to find out he accompanies her to Brooklyn and enters the world which has shaped her life since she fled Moscow and her estranged family a decade before. What he discovers forces him to confront his own weaknesses and insecurities and question just how far he is willing to go in accepting Katya once the truth is known.

The book is written in the first person and is set on the Eurostar between Paris and London where the protagonist is recounting his experience to some friends, a married couple, he met by chance at Gare du Nord. The actual story takes place in London, moves to New York, and then comes back to London with a brief visit to Vilnius somewhere in the middle.

The themes that are touched on are, to varying degrees (I can’t list all of them because of spoilers): the middle-age dating scene for men, online dating, what men expect from romantic partners in middle-age, the difference in mindset between men in their twenties and middle-aged men vis-a-vis romantic relations, women’s sexual history and how men view them, Russian women and other aspects of Russia, third-wave feminism (and its effect on young women), drug use, sex, artsy types, Burning Man, Brooklyn’s arts scene, and the general interaction between a man and a woman from very different worlds when they attempt to form a relationship.

I appreciate it might not be everybody’s cup of tea but I wrote it mainly because I reckoned I had a complete story with this one, and that’s half the battle. I’ve kept it as realistic as possible in the hope that people – both men and women – will be able to relate to the characters and situations, or at least find it interesting. I am confident that I am saying something different, stuff that hasn’t been put into writing before, at least not in novel format. I’m also confident that the story is interesting enough and my writing is good enough that people will like it.

Only one way to find out, though.

Another Update on the Book

The status of my book is as follows: as of this morning I have written 80,000 words in chronological order from the start, checked over at least once. The first half of those are in sufficient state to be put in front of an editor; the other half probably could as well at a push.

I reckon the final word count will be between 90,000-95,000 words, leaving me with 10,000-15,000 to go: the ending. Of those I have written somewhere around 5,000 in first-draft form, meaning I have about 10,000 to write from scratch. I know what I’m going to write, I just need to work out the structure of the ending such that it balances both within itself and the rest of the book. The way things are looking it will be 12 chapters plus an epilogue.

Once I have finished writing the ending I will go back over the second half that I’ve not properly scrutinised, and then print the whole thing out and go back over it again with a red pen making adjustments and improvements where I think they’re needed and trying to spot any mistakes or overused phrases. I’m hoping all of that will be done sometime around June or July.

Then I’ll need to get it in front of an editor. My aim is to get an edited, fully-formatted version out there ready for marketing by September: that will be a year from when I first started. Then I suspect the real effort will begin…

US Foreign Policy Lacks Clarity? Good

The BBC, like everything else except perhaps the weather, costume dramas, and cookery shows, isn’t very good at analysing foreign policy:

Of course the thing about red lines is that they need to be crystal clear.

Yes, which was exactly the problem with Obama’s use of the term: a “bunch of chemical weapons” indeed.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike this seemed to be the case.

Well, yes: use chemical weapons, get Tomahawks fired at you.

The message was: use nerve gas again and consequences will follow.

That too.

But on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer muddied the waters.

Asked if air attacks with conventional weapons might also draw US punitive action, he said: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, you will see a response from this president.”

Barrel bombs, though, tend to be large canisters filled with explosives and shrapnel that are typically dropped by Syrian government forces from helicopters. In other words they are conventional rather than chemical munitions.

So was Mr Spicer broadening the red line? Belatedly the White House had to issue a clarification noting that what he really was saying was that barrel bombs containing chemical weapons would draw a US response.

I think the BBC is reading too much into this: Spicer could have used any terminology. The message is: the Trump administration can and will use military force against those it doesn’t like, in stark contrast to the policies of Barack Obama.

This lack of clarity would not matter quite so much if it was not characteristic of the Trump administration’s whole approach to foreign policy. And the stakes could not be higher.

The stakes are the same as when Obama was in charge, and we didn’t see the BBC running front-page articles about how his policy of dithering, hand-wringing, and backtracking was catastrophic even though it so obviously was.

There seems to be no central guiding brain behind the evolution of the Trump team’s foreign policy. The US president himself has failed to articulate any clear approach.

Which can be both a good and a bad thing. One of the worst aspects of Obama’s foreign policy was his constant flip-flopping and failure to back up his words with actions. This emboldened the likes of Putin and Assad to take steps which they were confident would not result in any serious reaction from the United States. The problem with this was it left the road wide open for a miscalculation, whereby somebody like Putin would either take a step too far or lose control of a situation and America would have no choice but to act, resulting in a war that nobody really wanted. Obama and Kerry also had the habit of immediately telling the world what they were not going to do in the wake of a geopolitical crisis, helpfully crossing off those options they weren’t considering. This only served to embolden America’s enemies further and increase the likelihood of a misstep.

As things stand, Trump’s approach seems to be a lot more sensible: show that he is willing to use force, and willing to use it where Obama wouldn’t, but otherwise keep quiet about what he will or won’t do given any particular situation.

With regard to Syria that may be unsettling. With regard to North Korea, it could be potentially catastrophic.

Sure, it might be better to come up with a concrete, workable policy on issues such as Syria and North Korea  – but this assumes it is possible to arrive at one. North Korea has been an intractable problem since the 1950s and there is no solution that I can see regarding Syria short of keeping well out of it. In the absence of a clear policy, it is probably better that Trump remains unpredictable and keeps America’s enemies guessing. This is far less likely to result in a catastrophe than Obama’s idiotic habit of using empty words, encouraging escalation, crying when it happens, and then doing nothing.

Beating Up Passengers Because We Can

Oh well done, United Airlines:

Videos showing a man being violently removed from a United Airlines flight have provoked an outcry on social media.

The footage taken inside the airliner shows a man being violently pulled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle as passengers prepared to take off from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening.

Little wonder the US government has to invent “security concerns” in order to force passengers to fly their substandard airlines instead of the vastly superior foreign ones.

As I have commented elsewhere, this is merely a natural extension of the police-state tactics that were introduced to the airline industry following 9/11: simply cite “security” and the door is open for police brutality of the type normally seen on the streets of Africa or South America. The fact they were prepared to do this in full view of the public shows how blasé the authorities have become about this sort of thing.

I am heartened by the response of the public, who were appalled and objected loudly. I am also glad that somebody videoed it and made sure everyone was aware that this is how business and the government combine to treat airline passengers these days. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if legislation is rapidly introduced to ban the taking of videos in aircraft – citing “security concern” of course.

There are some people on the internet pointing out that the customer was in breach of the law and by refusing to leave the plane was committing a criminal offence and therefore the police had every right to arrest him and remove him by force. This might be strictly true, but I don’t find the argument holds much water. You might as well say that Rosa Parks ought to have been arrested because she was actually committing a criminal offence by being black and sitting in that particular spot.

I hope this incident costs United Airlines dearly, but I suspect their lobbyists and bought-and-paid-for politicians will ensure it doesn’t.

VOIP in the UAE

Further to yesterday’s post on Uber, there’s an interesting analogy with governments banning the service: the UAE government’s ban on VOIP calls.

The reason for this ban is succinctly explained in a comment on this forum:

In Dubai there are only two telecom service providers which are Du and Etisalat, Du has monopoly in Dubai and Etisalat has monopoly in Abu Dhabi, both of these service providers managed to convince government to stop Skype,facetime and whatsapp calling giving security reasons but in actual these service providers want to mint money because in UAE around 80% population is expat so they need ISD service and if these services can be availed through internet then these telecom providers would not be able to mint money.

In Simple terms to mint money they banned these services.

Naturally, as the commenter above says, the UAE government cited security concerns as a justification for the ban, claiming the VOIP services provided by the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime are not “secure” and don’t comply with the national telecoms regulations. This is why when you buy an Apple product in the UAE it doesn’t have the Facetime app loaded and it’s not accessible from the Apple store. I don’t know how they block users who already have it loaded, but they managed to block Skype over the fixed-line connections by detecting when it was in use. Most people I knew who lived there simply signed up to a VPN which bypassed all these restrictions.

As far as I can tell the ban is still in place but it’s becoming increasingly embarrassing for a country that is trying to present itself as ultra-modern and forward-thinking:

Internet restrictions in the UAE, especially banning video and voice calling through social networks such as Snapchat and Whatsapp has not only reportedly angered users living across the country, but also pushed Saeed Al Remeithi, the UAE Federal National Council’s (FNC) youngest member to query the country’s internet restrictions.

Remeithi voiced his opinion openly during an FNC session yesterday, saying that the UAE representatives were “embarrassed in the international federation by this issue,” citing the United Nations declaration that internet use is a human right.

However, Hamad Al Mansouri, the head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority attributed these restrictions to state security and cyber-terrorism concerns saying: “The security factor is important in the country. If we neglect it, online calling will impose risks.”

And put a huge dent in the revenues of those with vested interests in the status quo, much like taxi drivers the world over.

Hotel Internet and Uber

Via Samizdata (and others), it appears Italy has banned Uber:

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

In my recent post on Budapest I said:

I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers.

I remember back in 2004-2006 when I did lots of business travel one would have to check in advance whether a hotel would have internet in the rooms. In those days this meant an ADSL connection in the wall and (sometimes) a cable, and not all hotels had them. In December 2005 I went to Korea and found the (wonderful) hotel had a 100mbs ADSL connection in the room that required no login or faffing about whatsoever, and they didn’t even bother to advertise it. When I went back to Seoul a couple of years later I said:

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.

I cite this passage because it shows how unusual it was back then to find a functional internet connection in a hotel room even as late as 2007. Within a few years an internet connection became standard everywhere, and shortly afterwards this transformed into a WiFi option which eventually became standard. It may be the case that some hotels still charge for it, some require fiddly logon procedures, and the quality can vary but it is almost unheard of nowadays to find a hotel without WiFi, and it is usually free and often good. I suspect in the age of iPads and WhatsApp, any hotel that didn’t offer WiFi both in the rooms and common areas would quickly go out of business: people simply don’t use the telephone or even wired internet these days.

I reckon in a few years we’ll be seeing the same thing with Uber, or at least a very similar service that works in much the same way. If Uber can survive a little longer, we will soon have a demographic that has only used Uber and is completely unfamiliar with the archaic practices and unwanted delights of a traditional taxi service, and will not contemplate using the latter any more than they would accept having no internet in a hotel room and instead have to use the single desktop in the hotel “business centre” with a broken mouse and an AZERTY keyboard left in Cantonese mode by the last user.

I give it five years, ten at the most, before cities where Uber is banned and no similar alternative exists start to see a serious reduction in visitor numbers. Like having a decent internet connection, being able to use an Uber-like service will soon become a key requirement of a holiday.

Bravery in the Face of Safety

From the BBC:

A viral photo of a woman smiling at an English Defence League (EDL) protester in Birmingham was snapped after she stepped in to defend a “fellow Brummie”, she has told the BBC.

The image of Saffiyah Khan has been shared thousands of times since it was taken at Saturday’s demonstration.

Ms Khan, from Birmingham, said she had intervened when she saw another woman surrounded by about 25 men.

Ms Khan, who was born in the UK and is half-Pakistani, half-Bosnian, said she “wasn’t intimidated in the slightest”.

I’m not surprised she wasn’t intimidated. Why would she be? The EDL might occupy the knuckle-dragging end of the political right but they don’t go in for beating people up at protests, let alone young women. One might be able to imagine circumstances where confronting a bunch of protesters would be intimidating, but going up against of middle-aged white men in Britain? Nah. Never in a million years was she going to come to harm, and she knew it.

She added: “He put his finger in my face. It was very aggressive. A police officer was there and the man took his finger out of my face. I wouldn’t have responded violently.”

Had the circumstances been slightly different she’d have found herself arrested for breaching the peace.

The picture was shared by, among others, Piers Morgan, who called it “photo of the week”, and Birmingham Labour MP Jess Phillips.

People need their heroines, I suppose.