Wednesday, November 14, 2018

May's Days are Numbered

The text of the draft Brexit deal has not been made public. Prime minister Theresa May will present it to her cabinet shortly. The question is how many of her ministers will resign when the text reveals what most suspect, what Yves Smith has termed a "half-pregnant Brexit": a customs arrangement with the European Union which maintains duty- and quota-free access along with EU regulations on competition, state subsidies, as well as adherence to European Court of Justice rulings; and there will be some sort of Irish backstop, which for all intents and purposes will bind Northern Ireland closer to the Republic of Ireland.

No one likes this deal. Tory "Leave" ultras, "Remain" neoliberals, Corbyn Momentum Labourites, Ulster unionists all have promised to reject May's draft if it contains what people think it does.

Stephen Castle captures the prevailing sentiment at the end of his story "Britain and E.U. Agree on a Draft Deal for Brexit":
One influential pro-Brexit lawmaker, Steve Baker, said on Tuesday that about 50 pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers might oppose Mrs. May’s deal.
“What the prime minister is likely to ask us to support is not merely imperfect. It is to put us into a position that is worse than Article 50, worse than E.U. membership — less of a voice, more difficult to escape from.”
“It’s not kind of a grubby compromise that we can put up with and sort later,” he added. “It’s worse than membership.”
Even if May can weather this cabinet meeting without a revolt, and she is then able to present the draft to the EU for a vote at the end of the month, it will still have to clear the British parliament after that, and, from what I can tell, there's no way that happens.

For one, May's coalition partner, Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, is opposed. According to The New York Times' helpful "Brexit Draft Deal: Moment of Truth for May as U.K. Cabinet to Meet":
The prime minister’s Conservative Party does not have a majority in Parliament, so her government relies on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which voiced opposition to the deal even before it was made public.
The D.U.P.’s leader, Arlene Foster, made clear in her statement late Tuesday that she was not happy with the emerging deal. She was traveling to London on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior D.U.P lawmaker, went further, telling the BBC on Wednesday that what he had heard of the draft Brexit deal “undermines the constitutional and economic integrity” of the United Kingdom, and warning that he was not afraid of precipitating a general election by opposing the plan.
I don't have an organic sense of the British parliamentary system, but it seems to me that if the DUP is unhappy with the draft Brexit deal once it's made public the Orangemen can collapse May's government even before the deal reaches a parliamentary vote.

Brexit was never about economics; it was always about politics and the Conservative Party's effort to staunch the bleeding caused by UKIP's Little Englanders.

Just as the road is running out on Trump's "Lost Cause" nationalism, so too are the days numbered for Theresa May and her attempts to muddle through with a Brexit vote she inherited.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Khashoggi Back in the News

Now that the U.S. midterm elections are out of the way -- with the exception of high-profile races in Florida and Georgia -- a steady diet of Khashoggi news has resumed. On successive days over the holiday weekend the NYT's David Kirkpatrick, the Gray Lady's principal reporter during the Arab Spring revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square, with various pen pals, published:
Before Erdogan arrived in Paris for the centenary commemorating the end of World War One, he announced at a press conference in Ankara that Turkey had provided to the U.S., Germany, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia copies of the audio recording of Khashoggi's murder. The U.S. declined to comment. France denied it.

Sunday The New York Times tied in the Mueller probe with the Khashoggi killing by reporting that George Nader and Joel Zamel met with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's right-hand an, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, to pitch a plan to sabotage Iran's economy. Al-Assiri was more interested in talking about Murder, Inc. He wanted to know if Nader and Zamel could assassinate Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Nader demurred, but said that there was a company in the UK that he could refer al-Assiri to.

As Kirkpatrick and his co-authors put it:
Both Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel are witnesses in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, and prosecutors have asked them about their discussions with American and Saudi officials about the Iran proposal. It is unclear how this line of inquiry fits into Mr. Mueller’s broader inquiry. In 2016, a company owned by Mr. Zamel, Psy-Group, had pitched the Trump campaign on a social media manipulation plan.
Then, yesterday, something of a first. We are actually getting snippets of dialogue from the Khashoggi murder audio recording. One of the 15-man Saudi hit team, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, can be heard to say, Tell your boss the deed is done.

Of course Mutreb doesn't say, Tell MbS the deed is done. But at this point everyone knows that the crown prince is guilty of murder.

Trump has promised a big announcement this week of punitive measures directed at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So far all the U.S. has managed are public statements promising to discontinue in-flight refueling of Saudi-UAE fighter-bombers and promising to level sanctions against the guilty Saudis under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Trump sinks or swims with the crown prince. The administration's launch of its total embargo on Iran got off to a shaky start last week. But all in all it's proceeding as planned. SWIFT has cut off Iran's central bank. The Iranian economy will be suffocated gradually.The U.S. needs Saudi regional clout. It can't sanction both al-Saud and the Islamic Republic of Iran simultaneously and expect anything other than failure. So expect Trump's "big announcement" about Saudi Arabia to be all smoke and mirrors.

A real difficulty for the U.S. position in Yemen is that control of the House now returns to the Democrats. There are plenty of indicators that Congress is not going to be satisfied with an administration proclamation ending mid-air refueling. All assistance to the Saudi-UAE coalition must stop.

Hodeidah is hanging by a thread. Peace talks have been pushed back to the end of the year, not the end of the month as originally promised. The Saudis no doubt demanded the delay in order to have time to capture Hodeidah and bring the Houthis to the bargaining table as supplicants. As is often reported, 80 percent of all food comes through Hodeidah. Once the Saudi-UAE-U.S. coalition takes control of Hodeidah, they control Sanaa.

One positive development to note: the reporting on the war in Yemen has definitely improved since the Khashoggi assassination. For instance, the latest dispatch from Al Jazeera goes beyond the usual "more than 10,000 killed," citing 56,000, and then concludes:
Concerned by the rise of the Houthis, a US-backed Saudi-UAE military coalition intervened in 2015 with a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling Hadi's government.
Since then, data collected by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project has found that more than 18,000 air attacks have been carried out in Yemen, with almost one-third of all bombing missions striking non-military sites.
Weddings, funerals, schools and hospitals, as well as water and electricity plants, have been targeted, killing and wounding thousands.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Some Thoughts on the National Football League Season Currently Underway

There is plenty to consider this Friday morning -- a breakthrough on Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU is rumored; the Saudi-UAE-U.S.-led offensive against Hodeidah is approaching a tipping point; peace talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been postponed -- but I want to unburden myself in regards to the National Football League.

We're currently in week ten of a 17 week regular season, which is followed by another month of playoffs, capped by the U.S. religious national holiday, the Super Bowl.

At an earlier time I used to post regularly on the National Football League. So far this season, I've done only one. It had to do with the season opener and the continuing panic over the ratings drop.

There is some evidence from the beginning of the season that the loss of viewers has ceased. The reason being given is an increase in high-scoring, competitive games.

I think that's a fair assessment. The problem is, I'd say, is that the games over the last month-plus, while still high scoring, have not been competitive. Take last night's game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers routed the Panthers in a blowout. From early in the second quarter the outcome was never really in doubt.

It's a problem for the league if two of the marquee teams can't provide engaging entertainment.

Another example: Last Sunday night's ballyhooed match-up between Brady and Rodgers, Patriots vs. Packers. It was basically a nothing burger. Brady is still Brady, maybe a notch or two below what he was in his prime, but Rodgers is clearly not the player he once was. His game is based on mobility and peak athleticism. He's suffered too many injuries; and now that he's in his mid-30s, his powers of rejuvenation are greatly diminished. It's a problem for the league because Aaron Rodgers is its commercial exemplar.

There are other problems too: the horrendous quality of the Oakland Raiders and the disappearance of Marshawn Lynch; the poor start of the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles; the horrendous quality of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bright spots are the rise of the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs and their prolific offenses.

We'll have to take a look at the ratings after the Thanksgiving holiday. We very well could see a return to last year's poor numbers.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

2018 Midterms: Realignment Election

This morning World Socialist Web Site argues that the European elite, based on press reaction to Tuesday's midterms in the United States, believe Trump is here to stay and the constituents of the "indispensable nation" have fully embraced fascism.

That's way off base. Trump showed the inherent weakness of the Bannon strategy of catering to a hard-shell Dixiecrat base. Yes, Trump triumphed in the senate, but that victory only highlighted the essentially undemocratic nature of the U.S. Senate.

The piece to read this morning is Thomas Edsall's "The Polarizer-in-Chief Meets the Midterms." Edsall goes into the Trump lock on the senate. He also succinctly lays out the import of the 2018 midterms in his opening paragraphs. Basically, thanks to Trump, it was a realignment election, but not in the ways the Republican Party wants:
There is no clearer sign of the changing shape of the Democratic coalition than the fact that going into the 2018 midterm elections, six of the 20 richest congressional districts were represented by Republicans but that when the new Congress is sworn in, all 20 will be represented by Democrats.
The Democratic Party is continuing to extend its core support among minority constituencies — now 41 percent of the Democratic electorate— into upscale, often suburban, areas as college-educated white women abandon the Republican Party in droves and as education, more broadly, becomes a new partisan dividing line.
There are, to give another example, 13 well-to-do congressional districts that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. All 13 have Republican congressman. On Tuesday, Democrats won 10 of those districts.
What European observers don't understand about U.S. politics is it never strays far from the Civil War. That's bedrock. Needless to say, it's not terribly wise to base a strategy for national governance on the Lost Cause.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Hillary Deemed the Big Winner, Pelosi likely Speaker and Trump on Thin Ice for 2020

The tally this Wednesday morning is Democrats +26, with votes in tossup California districts still being counted. So it's likely to look like Democrats +30 when all is said and done. Enough to control the U.S. House of Representatives, but nowhere near the blue tsunami predictions of Dems +50 of several months ago.

Trump's midterm shellacking is looking a lot like the shellacking that W. took his second midterm in 2006. Then, hailed as a great blue dog triumph, it was Dems +30, with Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the house.

Interestingly, the principal "morning after" write-up in The New York Times ("Democrats Capture Control of House; G.O.P. Holds Senate" by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns) attributes Democratic gains to Clintonian centrism:
The Democrats’ broad gains in the House, and their capture of several powerful governorships, in many cases represented a vindication of the party’s more moderate wing. The candidates who delivered the House majority largely hailed from the political center, running on clean-government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the health care system rather than transformational social change.
To this end, the Democratic gains Tuesday came in many of the country’s most affluent suburbs, communities Mrs. Clinton carried, but they also surprised Republicans in some more conservative metropolitan areas. Kendra Horn, for example, pulled off perhaps the upset of the night by defeating Representative Steve Russell in central Oklahoma.
FiveThirtyEight agrees, saying the Democratic capture of the house is attributable to the party's strong showing in Romney-Clinton districts:
Indeed, a theme of the evening was that suburban areas came up big for Democrats.
We’ve often used so-called “Romney-Clinton districts” as a stand-in for these areas — districts that voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 but switched their allegiance to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Republicans had hoped that these places had voted for Clinton because of an aversion to President Trump, but that they would remain loyal to their more traditionally Republican representatives. That didn’t end up being the case. Not only did Democratic House candidates win most Romney-Clinton districts, but in at least six of the 13 races, they did so by margins that exceeded Clinton’s margin over Trump.
Given this conventional wisdom, don't bet against Pelosi resuming her role as speaker.

But what does this election say about Trump? He's popular with rural America, not popular in the suburbs and despised in the metropolis.

What's interesting is that if we look at the Trump GOP through the lens of Kevin Phillips' breakthrough The Emerging Republican Majority we see a Republican Party moving in the opposite direction from the one Phillips' plotted. Phillips saw the future of the GOP in the new working-class suburbs created out of white flight and "negrophobia." Those suburbs are now Democratic (Washington's Eighth CD is a wonderful illustration). Overtly racist messaging is not enough anymore. The only place lynch-mob appeals resonate is with the rural electorate.

And you can't capture the electoral college with rural votes alone.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Europe Awaits U.S. Midterm Election Results

Besides igniting a conflagration in the Middle East that has the potential to dwarf all others of the last 40 years, Trump's war on Iran, which began phase two yesterday with punishing sanctions on the Iranian energy and banking sector, is a challenge to Europe. Can Europe act on its own or is it merely an appendage of the United States?

We'll find out shortly.

The European Union has vowed to stick with Iranian nuclear deal, the JCPoA, the deal that Trump is trying to scuttle. In order to keep Iran's economy from collapsing, Europe must find a way around U.S. control of the global banking system.

Steven Erlanger reports in "As U.S. Sanctions on Iran Kick In, Europe Looks for a Workaround" that
But the Europeans have found it difficult to set up an alternative payment mechanism to sidestep the American-dominated banking system and allow Iran to continue selling its oil and goods. The so-called special purpose vehicle would act as a clearing house: Iran’s proceeds from sales of oil and gas would be offset against Iranian purchases, a form of barter without explicit financial transactions.
So far, however, no European country has agreed to host the vehicle, for fear of American retaliation.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the foreign and finance ministers of Britain, France and Germany said they “deeply regret” the reimposition of American sanctions and that work would continue to set up the special payment vehicle.

“We remain committed to implementing” the nuclear deal “as a matter of respecting international agreements and of our shared international security, and expect Iran to play a constructive role in this regard,” the statement said.

Realistically, European officials say, they may be able to preserve only 20 percent to 30 percent of existing trade with Iran, given that large European companies with ties to the United States have already pulled out of Iran or are in the process of doing so to avoid the sanctions. Stefano Stefanini, a consultant and former Italian diplomat based in Brussels, said that the European officials think 40 percent would be optimistic.

Of all the issues between Europe and the Trump administration, Iran has become the most divisive. The Europeans are actively working against United States policy, which effectively puts them in league with Russia, China and Iran.

“It is a huge strain in the trans-Atlantic relationship,” Mr. Stefanini said.

If the Europeans manage to create “a small breach in the hold that the U.S. has on international financial transactions, that could be replicated,” he said. And if they fail, he said, “it will be another big grievance with Washington, creating another minefield.”

So far, European unity is holding, but there are worries among some European officials that Britain may not remain so firm in the face of a Washington that wants to give little quarter to Iran.
There is plenty to be skeptical about in terms of Europe's chances of pulling this off: Germany is headed for elections sooner rather than later; the UK, for Brexit; Italy, for confrontation with Brussels. It's not a propitious time to strike a blow to dollar hegemony and erect the foundation of a future multi-polar world.

On the other hand, the existential nature of the breech between Europe and the United States is reason for hope. It is now -- after the about-face on the JCPoA, after Yemen, after Khashoggi -- undeniable in elite circles that the U.S. is an unhinged, predatory, destructive power. There is no pot of gold at the end of the U.S. rainbow. It's all death and destruction.

Capitals around the globe are watching to see what happens today. Does the population of the "indispensable nation" support this rainbow of death and destruction?

If Trump somehow manages to hold the House for the GOP, and thereby earns distinction as a super-historical figure of realignment in a class with FDR, then Europe will have to quickly get busy building bridges to Russia and China.

Then again if the Democratic vote is solid and Trump is rejected by a wide margin Europe will probably want to dawdle for another couple of years waiting for the next Obamaesque neoliberal savior to materialize in 2020 and knit the uni-polar world back together.

Monday, November 5, 2018

2018 Midterms

Consensus opinion is tomorrow the Democrats will win the House; the Republicans, the Senate. Nothing in the last month -- the pipe bombs, a synagogue shooting or the immigrant caravan -- has changed this overall picture.

Trump has made the midterms about himself, which, while helping the GOP hold the Senate (by boosting rural turnout), guarantees strong Democratic participation at the polls, something we saw numerous times in various special elections over the last year-plus.

The Democrats don't have a unifying set of policies or a unified leadership, but what they do have is a "Never Trump" message. In this case, "No" should be enough. Much has been made about Trump's rock-solid 40% support, but the other side of that coin is the rock-solid national majority that disapproves of Trump.

These midterms are the first national election since the Trumpocalypse of 2016. Not only is Trump tilting against a generic ballot that favors Democrats (albeit one that has narrowed substantially), but he is also tilting against history. In the last century, the president's party almost always loses seats. The two exceptions were FDR during the dark days of the Great Depression and George W. Bush post-9/11. Trump is not in the same category of super-history. But it's not for lack of trying.

I live in a very blue bubble. Voter registration is up in the King County. This is a good sign because, for the most part, King County determines which way the state votes. There is a modest carbon "fee" on the statewide ballot, which has been a magnet for millions of dollars in Big Oil attack ads.

There is also a competitive race in the suburban 8th CD that has been held by the GOP for decades. My guess is that if the Democrats can capture the district it will mean that Trump is routed.