Friday, December 26, 2014

Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks (The Onion)

Here is one of the funnier stories from The Onion that I came across this year (though it appeared back in 2010), offered as a contribution to merriment during the holiday season—which can otherwise feel pretty depressing for anyone following the news. It seems that Henry Ford was right:  History really is bunk.

(I vaguely recall that an Iranian news service once quoted an Onion spoof as a genuine scoop, so if anyone from abroad feels puzzled when they read this, let me assure you—even though I feel silly about stating the obvious—that the Onion is a satirical publication.)

—Jeff Weintraub

The Onion
October 7, 2010 (Issue 46-40)
Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks

WASHINGTON—A group of leading historians held a press conference Monday at the National Geographic Society to announce they had "entirely fabricated" ancient Greece, a culture long thought to be the intellectual basis of Western civilization.

The group acknowledged that the idea of a sophisticated, flourishing society existing in Greece more than two millennia ago was a complete fiction created by a team of some two dozen historians, anthropologists, and classicists who worked nonstop between 1971 and 1974 to forge "Greek" documents and artifacts.

"Honestly, we never meant for things to go this far," said Professor Gene Haddlebury, who has offered to resign his position as chair of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. "We were young and trying to advance our careers, so we just started making things up: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, the lever and fulcrum, rhetoric, ethics, all the different kinds of columns—everything.

"Way more stuff than any one civilization could have come up with, obviously," he added.

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be "not much help at all," they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

"That was a bitch to write, by the way," he continued, referring to the epic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. "But it seemed to catch on."

Around the same time, a curator at the Smithsonian reportedly asked for Haddlebury's help: The museum had received a sizeable donation to create an exhibit on the ancient world but "really didn't have a whole lot to put in there." The historians immediately set to work, hastily falsifying evidence of a civilization that— complete with its own poets and philosophers, gods and heroes—would eventually become the centerpiece of schoolbooks, college educations, and the entire field of the humanities.

Emily Nguyen-Whiteman, one of the young academics who "pulled a month's worth of all-nighters" working on the project, explained that the whole of ancient Greek architecture was based on buildings in Washington, D.C., including a bank across the street from the coffee shop where they met to "bat around ideas about mythology or whatever."

"We picked Greece because we figured nobody would ever go there to check it out," Nguyen-Whiteman said. "Have you ever seen the place? It's a dump. It's like an abandoned gravel pit infested with cats."

She added, "Inevitably, though, people started looking around for some of this 'ancient' stuff, and next thing I know I'm stuck in Athens all summer building a goddamn Parthenon just to cover our tracks."

Nguyen-Whiteman acknowledged she was also tasked with altering documents ranging from early Bibles to the writings of Thomas Jefferson to reflect a "Classical Greek" influence—a task that also included the creation, from scratch, of a language based on modern Greek that could pass as its ancient precursor.

Historians told reporters that some of the so-called Greek ideas were in fact borrowed from the Romans, stripped to their fundamentals, and then attributed to fictional Greek predecessors. But others they claimed as their own.

"Geometry? That was all Kevin," said Haddlebury, referring to former graduate student Kevin Davenport. "Man, that kid was on fire in those days. They teach Davenportian geometry in high schools now, though of course they call it Euclidean."

Sources confirmed that long hours and lack of sleep took their toll on Davenport, and after the lukewarm reception of his work on homoeroticism in Spartan military, he left the group.

In a statement expressing their "profound apologies" for misleading the world on the subject of antiquity for almost 40 years, the historians expressed hope that their work would survive on its own merits.

"It would be a shame to see humanity abandon achievements such as heliocentrism and the plays of Aeschylus just because of their origin," the statement read in part. "Moreover, we have some rather disappointing things to tell you about the pyramids, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, penicillin, the Internet, the scientific method, movies, and dogs."

Freedom of expression & freedom of conscience in Mauritania – Mauritania's first death sentence for "apostasy"

Even if a country tolerates minority religions, it can't claim to have religious freedom unless it is possible for individuals to decide to change from one religion to another without having to fear significant penalties.

Now, it so happens that in a large number of Muslim-majority countries—not all of them, by any means, but a sizable proportion—converting from Islam to another religion is, at the very least, legally problematic (as carefully documented, for example, in Ann Mayer's excellent and totally non-Islamophobic book Islam and Human Rights).  It is perfectly OK to convert from a non-Muslim religion to Islam, of course, but converting from Islam to another religion can get you into serious legal trouble (here's one relatively mild example) and/or make you a target for unofficial violence (which is likely to go unpunished).  In some Muslim-majority countries, apostasy (from Islam) is actually a capital crime—that is, it carries the death penalty. (As far as I know, there are currently no non-Muslim countries where apostasy is a capital crime.) And that's not just an empty threat. As some recent cases from several countries including Iran and Sudan have reminded us, people accused of converting from Islam to Christianity or other non-Muslim religions really do get charged with apostasy and face possible execution.

Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

=> Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

Someone else who just got this surprise was Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir in Mauritania. On Wednesday he received Mauritania's first-ever death sentence for apostasy. I guess that's a milestone of sorts, but not one that I would regard as worthy of celebration.  However, according to the AFP report (below), "The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns."

The joke is that Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir is not an apostate at all, but he probably doesn't find that joke very funny.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. As I couldn't help musing back in January:
If Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson or David Hume had been told that this sort of thing would still be a common occurrence in the 21st century, I wonder what they would have thought. I suspect that Voltaire and Jefferson would have been skeptical, but probably not Hume.
 France 24 (AFP)
December 25, 2014
Mauritania issues first apostasy death sentence

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) - A Muslim man has become the first person to be sentenced to death for apostasy in Mauritania since independence in 1960 after a court ruled he had written something blasphemous.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who is around 30 years old, fainted when the ruling was read out late Wednesday in a court in Nouadhibou in the northwest of the country, a judicial source told AFP.

The defendant -- who has been detained since January 2 and pleaded not guilty to the charge when proceedings opened on Tuesday -- was revived and taken to prison, the source added.

Sharia, or Islamic, law is in effect in Mauritania but the enforcement of strict punishments -- such as floggings -- have been rare since the 1980s.

Mauritania has the death penalty but has not executed anyone since 1987, according to human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Such sentences were mainly reserved for murder and acts of terrorism.

During the hearing the judge told Mohamed that he was accused of apostasy "for speaking lightly of the Prophet Mohammed" in an article which was published briefly on several Mauritanian websites.

In it he challenged some the decisions taken by Islam's prophet and his companions during the holy wars, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He also accused Mauritanian society of perpetuating "an iniquitous social order" and defended those at the bottom rungs of society who he described as "marginalised and discriminated against from birth".
[JW: Reading between the lines of some other reports like this one, I get the impression that Mohamed's most serious offense was criticizing the oppressive quasi-racial caste system in Mauritania and the persistence of slavery, which has been officially illegal in Mauritania since 1981 (and technically a crime since 2007) but is very much alive in practice.]
Mohamed, named by some local media outlets as Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, explained that it was "not his intention to harm the prophet", the source added.

His lawyer asked for leniency as he said his client was repentant but the judge agreed to the prosecutor's request for the death penalty.

No information was immediately available on whether Mohamed would appeal.

Local Islamic organisations said it was the first time text critical of Islam had been published in the country.

The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Religious toleration in Iran – Mohsen Amir-Aslani executed for heresy, Soheil Arabi condemned to death for "insulting the Prophet" on Facebook

Heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy (from Islam, not from other religions) are all crimes in Iran, potentially subject to the death penalty, and that's not an idle threat. Iranian courts sometimes do sentence people to death for those offenses.

On September 29 of this year Mohsen Amir-Aslani was executed for heresy—technically, for “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth". The "innovations" cited against him included suggesting that the Jonah story, which is in the Koran as well as the Bible, is symbolic rather than factual. This interpretation was held to constitute an insult against the prophet Jonah.

Soheil Arabi has been on death row for allegedly blasphemous Facebook posts, and a month ago Iran's Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. According to the latest report on this case from Human Rights Watch (December 2, 2014):
Iran's judiciary should vacate the death sentence of a 30-year-old man who faces imminent execution for Facebook posts linked to his account. On November 24, 2014, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld a criminal court ruling sentencing Soheil Arabi to hang. The court transferred his file to the judiciary’s implementation unit, opening the way for his execution.

A Tehran criminal court had convicted him in August of sabb al-nabbi, or “insulting the prophet,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death penalty. Arabi’s legal team has asked the judiciary to suspend the death sentence and review the case. [....]

Nastaran Naimi, Arabi’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence agents linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested her and her husband at their home in Tehran in November 2013. They soon released her but transferred her husband to a special section of Evin prison that the Revolutionary Guards control, where they kept him in solitary confinement for two months, subjected him to long interrogation sessions, and prevented him from meeting his lawyer, she said. They later transferred Arabi to Ward 350 of Evin prison.

Vahid Moshkhani, Arabi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that instead of upholding or overruling the lower court verdict, the Supreme Court unlawfully added the charge of efsad-e fel arz, or “sowing corruption of earth,” to Arabi’s case. In addition to carrying a possible death sentence, the charge also forecloses the possibility of amnesty, he said. [....]
One might think that locking in Arabi's death sentence this way would be considered sufficient. But just to make sure everyone knows they're serious, his accusers have piled on various other charges, too.
On September 4, 2013, judiciary officials sentenced Arabi to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” in a separate case stemming from the same Facebook posts.  [....]

On November 28, 2014, an Iranian news site published a story alleging that Arabi had been given a death sentence not for having “insulted the prophet,” but because he had raped several women. The news site said it had evidence to back up this claim but did not produce any information. In response, Saham News, a site critical of the Iranian government, published pictures of the lower court verdict to counter any claim that the judiciary had prosecuted Arabi for rape or illicit sexual relations, and one of his lawyers denied that his client had ever been prosecuted for such a crime. The judiciary has not commented on allegations that Arabi has been charged or convicted for sexual assault.  [....]
Some parallels between these gambits and a similar kitchen-sink approach in connection with Amir-Aslani's execution may be ominous signs for Arabi.
On September 24, prison officials at Rajai Shahr prison in the city of Karaj executed Amir Aslani, whom the judiciary had convicted of “sowing corruption on earth” for allegedly advancing heretical interpretations of Islam and insulting the prophet Jonah. After the execution, a judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaeili, denied that authorities had executed Amir Aslani for his religious beliefs, and said his hanging was related to “illicit” forcible sexual relations with several women. In fact, the Supreme Court had [....] ruled that the rape charges were invalid due to lack of evidence.  [....]

=> Of course, Iran is hardly the only country in that part of the world where theocratic repression is a problem—actually, it's not the worst in this respect. As I noted in 2013, it's true that
the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't have a sterling record [....] when it comes to freedom of conscience in general or freedom of religion in particular.  There is not even the pretense of granting non-Muslim religions legal or cultural equality; certain religious minorities, like the Baha'i, are persecuted with special ferocity; Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution; and so on.  But there is no question that, overall, there is much more religious toleration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia (a country routinely described as our "ally" and as a quintessentially "moderate" Arab power).  Everything is relative.
—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam (Dani Rodrik & Claire Berlinski)

Since Turkey's AK Party, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began winning national elections in 2002, one of its achievements has been to break the political power of the Turkish military and, more generally, to dismantle the "deep state" apparatus of the old Kemalist establishment. (For more on that, see here.) A big question is whether, in the end, this process will lead to a strengthening and consolidation of constitutional democracy or the replacement of one quasi-authoritarian system with another.

The AK's campaign against the Kemalist establishment was carried out in collaboration with the followers of the cleric Fetullah Gulen, who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Over the past year and a half, that alliance broke down spectacularly and turned into an increasingly all-out power struggle.

(For some background, see these posts from December 2013 and mid-2014: Why are Erdogan and the Gulenists slugging it out?, Who is Fetullah Gulen, what is the Gulenist movement, and what are they up to?The civil war within Turkish political Islam, & Continuing civil war between Erdogan and the Gulenists within the apparatus of the Turkish state.)

Dani Rodrik, the (very fine) Turkish political economist who recently moved from Harvard's JFK School to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, offers this compact assessment of the current Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam, the process that led up to it, and its implications for Turkish democracy:
Here is the one paragraph version of what is happening in Turkey.

During the last decade in which he has been in power, Erdogan has allowed the Gulen movement to take control over the police, judiciary, and large parts of the state apparatus. The Gulen movement in turn established a republic of dirty tricks, with illegal wiretaps and video recordings, fabricated evidence, framing of innocent people, slander and disinformation as its modus operandi.  The monster Erdogan created eventually turned against him as the common enemy, the military and the rest of the secular establishment, were vanquished. He is now trying to slay the monster. That means purges, bringing the judiciary under his control, tightening the screws on the Internet and social media, and greatly expanding the powers of MiT, the national intelligence organization. The collateral damage for Turkish democracy – or what remained of it – is huge.

We cannot look at all this and focus only on what Erdogan is doing without at least acknowledging that the Gulenists also bear considerable responsibility for bringing the country to its current crisis. The idea that there was something like the rule of law or Turkey was democratizing before Erdogan began to tighten the screws on the Gulen movement is dangerous nonsense. [....]
This may not capture the whole story, but it certainly captures some important dimensions of it.

Some might argue that Rodrik's perspective is distorted by the fact that his father-in-law, a military officer, was among those caught up and imprisoned in the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer prosecutions that ran from about 2007-2012. But it might also be suggested that this connection helped give Rodrik some special insights into what he calls the"republic of dirty tricks" used by the previous AK-Gulenist alliance as part of its long-term campaign to supplant the Kemalist establishment and dismantle its "deep state" apparatus. At all events, it's clear that this is a game in which none of the contenders has been especially concerned about playing within the rules of formal legality.

=> Back in 2011 Claire Berlinski & Okan Altiparmak, drawing on the Wikileaks cables about Turkey, offered this unflattering portrait of Erdogan and his style of political leadership
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests. [....]

On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak ... prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”

Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees [....]

In subsequent cables, Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information [....]

"According to a broad range of our contacts, Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press. According to others with broad and deep contacts throughout the establishment, Erdogan refuses to draw on the analyses of the MFA, and the military and National Intelligence Organization have cut him off from their reports. He never had a realistic world view, but one key touchstone is a fear of being outmaneuvered on the Islamist side by 'Hoca' Erbakan’s Saadet Party. Instead, he relies on his charisma, instincts, and the filterings of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or are lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies, e.g., Islamist foreign policy advisor and Gul ally Ahmet Davutoglu."

Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:

"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame." [....]
And yesterday Berlinski offered this colorful addendum about the other major figure in the AKP-Gulenist slugging match, Fetullah Gulen. Many western analysts seem to have pretty favorable impressions of Gulen and his agenda, but not Berlinski. And in this particular piece, she's not trying to avoid sounding intemperate.
Until recently, I lived in Turkey. It seemed to me then unfathomable that most Americans did not recognize the name Fethullah Gülen. Even those vaguely aware of him did not find it perplexing that a Turkish preacher, billionaire, and head of a multinational media and business empire—a man of immense power in Turkey and sinister repute—had set up shop in Pennsylvania and become a big player in the American charter school scene. Now that I’ve been out of Turkey a while, I’ve realized how normal it is that Americans are indifferent to Gülen. America is full of rich, powerful, and sinister weirdoes. What’s one more?

It’s normal, too, that Americans view news from Turkey as less important than other stories in the headlines. After all, Turks aren’t doing anything quite so attention-grabbing as hacking Sony, destabilizing the postwar European order, or rampaging through the Middle East as they behead, rape, crucify, and enslave everything in their path. Thus, the reader who has noticed the news from Turkey might believe the story goes something like this: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian thug running Turkey, has been rounding up journalists who bravely exposed his corruption.

That American readers now understand that Erdoğan is a corrupt authoritarian is an improvement. (They may vaguely recall that not long ago, he was viewed by the large parts of the Western intelligentsia—and by the very same news organs reporting the latest developments—as a liberal-minded reformer.) But this is actually a story about two thugs.  The details may be hard to follow, but the devil is in the details. The journalists recently arrested by Erdoğan are loyal to Gülen, who has made himself quite cozy in the United States. The phrase commonly used to describe this state of affairs—“self-imposed exile”—should not leave the reader nodding pleasantly. It should leave him wondering, “What does that mean? Why have we offered him exile?”

In failing to stress the double-thugged nature of this situation, American officials have unwisely conveyed to the world that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan. So does the commentary oozing from think tanks, journalists, soi-disant experts, and European luminaries. We’d be better-advised at least to pretend to be against all corrupt authoritarians. We might even be wise to suggest, if only by means of a hint, that yes, we do understand that this has been a long decade of Turkish crackdowns, many inspired and executed by Gülen’s thugs. We might even indicate—in some subtle way—that while authoritarian crackdowns are not to our taste, there is at least some dark and cosmic justice in the world when the authors of crackdowns get a smackdown of their own.

It is certainly possible that we give the impression that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan because we do indeed prefer him.  [JW:  This strikes me as implausible. My guess is that the US government has no favorite in this fight. But then what do I know?]  But readers should be reminded (or informed, if they were not aware) that Gülen is the one in the United States, where he is accruing power daily, and Erdoğan is at least separated from us by an ocean. It would seem Gülen now has enough power that when his boys get locked up, the West squeaks, whereas we didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when anyone else’s boys were rounded up, and haven’t much bothered to do so at any similar moment in the past decade. We may prefer Gülen because he is smarter and vastly more subtle than Erdoğan. But if only for this reason, he may well be the more dangerous of the two. It seems all-too-plausible that many Americans don’t even realize he’s here, much less that he is a thug.

I hope that our policy makers, at least, are fully aware that Gülen is no noble figure. Perhaps they are of the belief that he’s a thug, but at least he’s our thug. Gülen seems to think that we may be the thugs, but that we are his thugs. He is behaving accordingly, directing campaign contributions to politicians in the districts where his schools operate. [....]

I hope this isn’t the case, but it’s consistent with the evidence. Also consistent is another disturbing hypothesis: We still have no idea who Gülen is, and truly believe Erdoğan—head of our NATO ally—is locking up modest martyrs whose only crime was to expose his corruption. The corruption is real, the lockup is real, and, yes, Turkey is our NATO ally. But Erdoğan hasn’t been rounding up journalists of no special distinction (or none, at least, beyond their principled stance against corruption). He has [most recently] been rounding up Gülen-allied journalists, who are not so much epic heroes in the battle against Turkish corruption and for Turkish press freedom as they are operatives for the Turkish president’s existential rival.

Turkey does have epic heroes. One of them is named Ahmet Şık. The people now being locked up only very recently had him locked up, because he wrote a book suggesting that Gülen’s thugs were precisely the kinds of people who might practice corruption and lock up journalists. Şık is a better man than I, so to speak, for he found it in his heart to respond to the latest news with these words: “The former owners of the period of fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing fascism. To oppose fascism is a virtue.” My first reaction was different: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” It took me several minutes to remember that I am an American and thus opposed to fascism, too. As all right-thinking people should be. [....]

Turkey has requested that we extradite Gülen. What should we do about that? Americans must be baffled, given what they’ve been told. Common sense might say, “Of course we would extradite a corrupt authoritarian to our trusted NATO ally.” If that fails to happen, it might suggest that one—or many—of our inbuilt assumptions is wrong. [....]
Maybe. Or maybe this portrait of Gulen and the Gulenists is just a little overwrought?  I don't feel qualified to say for sure, though I do think it's clear that this account has, at least, considerable elements of truth in it. (And Berlinski's analyses of Turkish politics have always been well informed and acute, so anything she says needs to be taken very seriously.)

At all events, Turkey is a sufficiently important country, for a lot of reasons, that this unfolding political drama is also very important ... so we should all stay tuned to see how it develops.

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, December 19, 2014

Is Saudi Arabia deliberately helping crash world oil markets in order to hurt Iran?

It's not totally implausible.

Plummeting oil prices are generating economic and political effects around the world. I don't think any serious analyst would suggest that this situation can be attributed entirely or straightforwardly to actions (or plots) by any of the major players in the international oil market. A lot of factors have come together to put downward pressure on oil prices, including a slowdown in demand by industrialized countries undergoing an economic slump, the increasing flood of shale oil (and natural gas) from North America, the reduced effectiveness of the OPEC cartel, and so on.

But it does seem possible that policy decisions by Saudi Arabia based on geopolitical as well as strictly economic concerns might be one significant piece of this larger picture. It's interesting that the Saudis have not responded to falling oil prices by trying to orchestrate production cutbacks that might help counteract the slide. On the contrary, they've been ramping up their own production. It's possible that this policy is the result of strictly business calculations—i.e., they concluded that it would be fruitless to try to maintain high oil prices, and they would lose a lot of money in the attempt, so they might as well recoup their losses by just selling more oil at lower prices. According to some analysts, it's as simple as that.

But it's also possible, and not incompatible with most of the factors just outlined, that an additional factor involving Middle Eastern geopolitics is also involved. Again, the Saudi regime couldn't have created the current situation all by itself. But perhaps it decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of the situation by deliberately helping accelerate the drop in oil prices. After all, the countries most hurt by falling in oil prices include not only Iran, which the Saudi regime regards as a dangerous foe, but also Russia, which happens be the other crucial supporter of the Assad regime in Syria (which the Saudis regard as an anti-Sunni Iranian client regime they would like to see overthrown). And they can't quickly compensate for lost revenues with short-term production increases, as Saudi Arabia can.

That's the argument put forward yesterday by Andrew Scott Cooper in Foreign Policy:  "Why Would the Saudis Deliberately Crash the Oil Markets? Simple: to undermine Tehran". Some highlights
Today, oil prices have again plummeted, from a high of $115 per barrel in August 2013 to under $60 per barrel in mid December 2014. Western experts, predictably, have seized the opportunity to ponder what cheaper oil might mean for the stock market. As for why prices have dropped, some analysts have suggested it has little to do with any manipulation of Saudi spigots: A December essay in Bloomberg Businessweek credited the American shale revolution with “breaking OPEC’s neck.”

There’s no doubt that shale has eroded Saudi Arabia’s “swing power” as the world’s largest oil producer. But thanks to their pumping capacity, reserves, and stockpiles, the Saudis are still more than capable of crashing the oil markets — and willing to do so. In September 2014, they did just that, boosting oil production by half a percent (to 9.6 million barrels per day) in markets already brimming with cheap crude and, a few days later, offering increased discounts to major Asian customers; global prices quickly fell nearly 30 per cent. As in 1977, the Saudis instigated this flood for political reasons: Whether foreign analysts believe it or not, oil markets remain important venues in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for supremacy over the Persian Gulf.

This isn’t the first time since the late 1970s that Saudi Arabia has used oil as a political weapon against its rival.  [....]   Signals of a new flood emerged as early as June 2011. While addressing an audience of senior American and British officials at a NATO operations base, Prince Turki warned Iran not to take advantage of the regional unrest triggered by the Arab Spring. Paraphrasing some of Turki’s comments, the Guardian noted that Iran’s economy could be squeezed hard by “undermining its profits from oil, something the Saudis … were ideally positioned to do.”

The Saudis understood, too, that the best time to crash the markets would be when prices were already soft and consumer demand low. In early December, just a few months after Saudi Arabia unleashed its latest oil flood, Obaid wrote in a Reuters article that his government’s decision to depress prices is “going to have a huge effect on the political situation in the Middle East. Iran will come under unprecedented economic and financial pressure as it tries to sustain an economy already battered by international sanctions.” Around the same time, the Saudis were no doubt pleased to see bread prices shoot up by 30 percent in Tehran. (Bread is a staple of the Iranian diet, and its prices are a bellwether for the economy.)

On Dec. 10, the Saudi oil minister said his country would keep pumping 9.7 million barrels per day into the global markets, regardless of demand. For their part, the Iranians have shown alarm, if not yet panic. Without naming names — he didn’t have to — President Hassan Rouhani decried the “treacherous” actions of a major oil producer whose “politically motivated” behavior was evidence of “a conspiracy against the interests of the region…. Iran and the people of the region will not forget such conspiracies.” The previous day, Vice President Eshag Jahangiri had described the rapid plunge in oil prices as a “political plot … not a result of supply and demand.”

Riyadh’s real hope, if history is any indicator, is that escalated production will force Rouhani’s government to implement an austerity budget that will ultimately stoke underlying social unrest and once again push people into the streets. If this happens, it might not lead to an event as significant as the shah losing his grip on power — but it would reinforce the Saudis’ faith in oil as a potent weapon in the battle to dominate the Middle East. And oil floods, in turn, would likely continue their periodic, dangerous rattling of both the markets and the region.
This analysis may or may not be entirely correct—a confident judgment about that is beyond my expertise. But it strikes me as plausible that it does, indeed, capture a significant part of the picture.

On the other hand, it's also true that for decades the Saudis (as well as their enemies) have often tried to  exaggerate the effectiveness of their "oil weapon". So we shouldn't swallow this line of analysis too uncritically either. But one way or another, what's indisputable is the key role played by the ongoing struggles and mutual hostility between the regimes in Tehran and Riyadh in the politics of the Middle East.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Elizabeth Warren takes the fight to the Money Power

Great speeches that combine solid substance, clear explanation, rhetorical power, and political passion have become rare in American politics. Elizabeth Warren's speech on the Senate floor on Friday, December 12 was an exception. It's not very long, and it's worth listening to it carefully and in full (below).

The immediate target of this speech was an especially outrageous provision slipped into the 1600-page Omnibus Spending Bill at the last moment, without public discussion, that would repeal Dodd-Frank's prohibition on banks using federally insured deposit funds to gamble on certain types of particularly risky derivatives. (Not surprisingly, this provision was actually written by CitiGroup lobbyists.) But Warren used this specific scandal as a starting-point to develop a much more comprehensive argument that deserves wide and serious attention.
[Once again] we're watching as Congress passes yet another provision that was written by lobbyists for the biggest recipient of bailout money in the history of this country. And its attached to a bill that needs to pass or else we entire federal government will grind to a halt.

Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up.

Enough is enough.

Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th-hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough.

Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists. But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just 6 years ago?

We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them! [....]
Warren's speech included an obligatory reference to Teddy Roosevelt, and her invocation of TR was on-target. Back during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for prominent public figures to denounce the corruption of political as well as economic life by concentrated economic power and the misdeeds of what Roosevelt called "malefactors of great wealth".
A century ago Teddy Roosevelt was America's Trust-Buster. He went after the giant trusts and monopolies in this country, and a lot of people talk about how those trusts deserved to be broken up because they had too much economic power. But Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too much political power. Teddy Roosevelt said break them up because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations up our democratic system.
But during the New Gilded Age we have been living through over the past several decades, and even since the financial crisis and economic crash of 2008 that the forces of concentrated economic power and numerous malefactors of great wealth played big roles in bringing about, they have gotten away almost scot-free. Not completely, perhaps, but to a remarkable and infuriating degree.(And not only have the plutocrats been systematically coddled and largely shielded from public criticism, but whenever they do receive any mild criticisms, they and their propagandists whine that they're being vilified and persecuted by dangerous extremists. The whole situation would be ludicrous if its consequences weren't so harmful.)

In this speech, Warren takes them on clearly and directly, and part of what makes her message here vivid and effective is that she gives these forces a paradigmatic (corporate) embodiment, CitiGroup—while making it clear that the problem is a lot bigger than just CitiGroup. She also doesn't hesitate to emphasize that the corruption of our politics by the influence of Big Money reaches deeply into both major parties, not just the Republicans.

One further note. Even people who are generally sympathetic to Warren's position (as we all should be!) may not necessarily agree with one of her key conclusions: It's not enough to try to regulate the most dangerous activities of the big banks and other financial institutions, they need to be broken up.
You know, there is a lot of talk lately about how Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. There is a lot of talk coming from CitiGroup about how Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. So let me say this to anyone listening at Citi — I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. It should have broken you into pieces! If this Congress is going to open up Dodd-Frank in the months ahead then let's open it up to get tougher, not to create more bailout opportunities. If we're going to open up Dodd-Frank, let's open it up so that once and for all we end too big to fail and I mean really end it, not just say that we did.
But whether or not you agree, the arguments leading up to that conclusion have to be taken seriously. Perennial debates between those who want to emphasize breaking up oligopolies and "trusts" and those who want to emphasize regulating them in the public interest go back to the Progressive era and the New Deal. In this case, Warren is suggesting that the financial behemoths commonly described as "too big to fail" are also too big, and too politically powerful, to regulate effectively—not least because they will use their political power to sabotage, distort, and eventually dismantle even half-serious efforts at financial regulation. That's a prolonged and complicated process, largely carried out behind the scenes. But this particular scandal may have helped to bring it out into the open.

—Jeff Weintraub

[Addendum, 12/14:  For some further explanation of what the fight over the CitiGroup-written provision was about, see Paul Krugman's column on "Wall Street's Revenge: Dodd-Frank Damaged in Budget Bill". Beyond the intrinsic significance of that specific provision, this also has to be understood as one battle, or skirmish, in a long-term political struggle.]