Tuesday, 23 May 2017

How to read a US president’s speech

In his first overseas visit, US president Donald Trump landed in the Middle East to give a speech. If that reminds you of someone, it’ll be because his predecessor did the same thing. Don’t be surprised, Washington has a remarkable way of encouraging continuity.

The foreign policy in the second term of Bush 43 was more similar to Obama 44’s two terms than either will admit publicly. As the events of 9/11 faded into history the realities of organising a balance of power in the Middle East were emerging. The US needed Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia to balance each other and avoid Washington’s central fear: the domination of Middle Eastern energy by a single entity.

Back in 2009, Mr Obama said: “the first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.” Presidents 43, 44 and 45 all avoided using the term “Islamic terrorism.” Mr Trump came the closest when he said last week “Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds." What does this avoidance tell us about US foreign policy in 2017?

Mr Obama’s evasion was expected. There are only two kinds of people in the US: Christians and communists/progressives. Have you ever considered the possibility that Jesus was a Marxist? Well, I suppose with the historical order of things, we'd have to reverse this. We'd have to say not that Jesus was a Marxist, but that Marx was a Christian. Or more correctly, that Marxism is a sect of Christianity. Immediately, two groups will be horrified by this proposition: Christians and Marxists. By my count, this is, oh, pretty much, everybody.

Why is this relevant? Terrorism works for leftists – and so do many other forms of democratic activism. Terrorism is anarchism: a shattering of order. Is there such a thing as right-wing anarchism? Of course not: the concept is silly. If the word "right" means anything, its goal is not to shatter order but impose it. Therefore, terror in the Middle East aligned with Mr Obama’s leftism, which explains his hands-off attitude.

But Mr Trump’s verbal stumbling offers a chance to observe the incredible power of the US position. When people say "everyone has their own opinions," this is not a sign of weakness, abdication or relativism. Quite the contrary. It is the assertion that the concept of free speech and rational discussion has complete sovereignty over the conversation. And, as it turns out, those concepts are the bedrock of the Christian West. This is power in action, hidden behind a thin veil.

So when US presidents say there is no clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity, we must see this for what it really is. They are giving us an important message: since the Christian West is in total control of the world's system, we deny Islam the specific freedom even to be at war with us. And we all sit back, nod our heads, and agree with this form of statement. That is true power.

Islam is not the enemy because it has already been subsumed into the US-led “international community.” The conflict is only with those who act in competition – the extremists. Mr Trump has Washington’s playbook, even if he’s a little behind the times. The US is under no threat because it robs its rivals of agency. Almost an entire religion has consented to this without argument. Power isn’t about making things true or untrue, but the ability to make things exist or not exist.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

After massive cyber attack, State Department sharpens its knives again

From the New York Times:

"Hackers exploiting malicious software stolen from the National Security Agency executed damaging cyber attacks on Friday that hit dozens of countries worldwide, forcing Britain's public health system to send patients away, freezing computers at Russia's Interior Ministry and wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of computers elsewhere."

Nasty stuff. But not entirely, shall we say, unexpected.

Cyber attacks have been growing in sophistication and show no sign of cooling down. It's the Wild West out there, folks, and the government is about two day's ride on a fresh horse. Everyone online knows the cavalry isn't coming and it's up to you - whether as a corporate or an individual - to find and install your own cyber defences. Buck up and defend yourself, learn some jiu-jitsu or something.

The central problem here happens in the physical world too. When a scientist invents a new class of weaponry, eventually that technology falls to peasants and militia. It's the law of the concrete jungle: you can't keep a secret, especially if that secret might help other apes gain power. We do love our power. Perhaps nuclear weapons won't filter down, but that doesn't mean bad actors won't try to get their stinky hands on some suitcase nukes.

In the cyber world, the chances of the equivalent of a nuclear weapon falling down the food chain onto the databases of non-state actors are actually pretty high. The internet was built for one node to talk to all other nodes - all of which they know, and all of which they trust. Security was an afterthought because bottlenecks create inefficiencies and the whole point is the speed of communication. Scientists just wanted to pass documents. Today the internet is a series of tubes touching almost every square metre of human importance. You could say it got out of hand...

The efficiency incentivised actors with gigantic resources, such as nation states, to construct and use cyber weapons. However, when you fire a bullet it doesn't smash into the target and wander away. It explodes with bright flames. But cyber weapons do actually float around once they're used and anyone who knows how to do so can fire them again, and again. Of course, some of the more sophisticated weapons are difficult for the unintended user to operate. But cracking the code is surely just a matter of time. (Or you could just break into the NSA. Whatever's easiest.)

The most sophisticated weapons of nation-states will inevitably filter to the second tier actors of organised crime. After a while, they then find their way down to non-state actors, terrorists, anarchists and others. Again, this is not unusual in the history of weapons. The difference is the speed, which is made all the worse when the top tier can't hold onto their weapons.

So that's the reality of the cyber world. Cyber is difficult. Humans will figure out what to do eventually (the US military is already thinking about a parallel internet avoiding all the pitfalls of the first attempt). But for now, cyber attacks will be depressingly common. Hopefully, criminals are parasitical and don't want to kill the host. That's the best outcome because it doesn't take much imagination to see how autonomous cars, for instance, are frighteningly vulnerable targets. What if the cars were told to turn left, right now? Yeah...happy dreams, my Uber-riding friends.

But the reason I highlighted this story is it shows the largely silent battle for Washington bubbling to the surface. The NYT likes to pretend it's innocent here, and all decent, reasonable people are horrified by the idea that the government might control the press. None of them seem to be concerned at all that the press might control the government. Journalists and professors are all part of what is essentially one large institution: the press and university system. There are few ideological arguments between major universities, or between universities and the mainstream press. Even in its heyday, the intellectual diversity of the Catholic Church was a good deal higher.

In the article above, a connection has been made between the cyber attack and the NSA. Indeed, it lands in the first sentence. True, the NSA did misplace some serious cyber firepower to a group calling itself the "Shadow Brokers," which then onsold the software to the highest bidder. Naughty NSA, why can't they keep anything secret?

But the article's point is not to outline the actions of thieves. The paper couldn't care less about organised crime. The story actually offers the State Department, which keeps a dripping umbilical chord tied directly to NYT editors, a chance to vilify the incompetence of its traditional enemy: the Pentagon.

A few months ago, the CIA also lost some cyber weapons. What's interesting isn't that the CIA is vulnerable to hacking. Of course the CIA is vulnerable to infiltration. Pretty much the only thing it does well is allow adversaries in (I'm only half joking). What was interesting isthe discovery that the CIA has created its own cyber shop. The CIA has an implicit agreement with the NSA to collect data at rest (documents in computers, safes, a person's mind, etc) while the NSA was to gather data in motion (signals, bits and bytes flying through the air). Now we have solid evidence that Langley clearly isn't on friendly terms with the folk at Fort Meade.

The Pentagon has had a rough time over the past ten years. The Iraq War didn't proceed very well (largely because State Department diplomat Paul Bremer decided to disband the Iraqi army. Anyone who thinks the US doesn't know how to occupy and govern a foreign country isn't paying attention. It does. However, the diplomats and soldiers made Iraq a plaything in their never-ending battle to undermine the other and draw power. That a million Iraqi's died due to this factional fighting is, like, totally terrible, dude. But hey, no one ever said running the world's largest empire would be bloodless). The Pentagon's other problem was the Edward Snowden leaks.

I'm not sure what you think of Mr Snowden, but just because he worked for the NSA, doesn't mean he was a Pentagon guy. One of the worst own-goals at the Defence Department was its brain-dead idea to use contractors. I'm not saying the decision was made lightly. The Pentagon calculated it didn't have enough personnel after 9/11. But it still made a dumb decision. Both Mr Snowden and Bradley/Chelsea Manning are the result of lower of standards and chasing a discounted price.

Anyway, the hatred poured on the NSA after the leaks came largely from media and privacy groups demanding the Pentagon accept new limitations. One of the most persistent lies they recited was that the US government spies on its citizens. Yet evenpassing knowledge of the leaks shows it would violate the laws of physics, let alone sanity, to do this. No one can "listen" or "read" your conversations if they only have the date, time and duration of the phone call.

Yet those privacy groups played an important role. With them on the front lines calling for reform, the generals couldn't fire back publicly at the State Department. But I am telling you now, everyone in Washington knew the real players. And it wasn't the privacy activists. The State Department wanted to carve off the NSA from the Pentagon and put it under its control, just like it did with the CIA in the 70s and 80s. The State Department smelled blood in the water after the Iraq War and it wasn't going to let the opportunity slip away.

And you could hear the clanging of steel on steel as the two factions fought it out. But in the end, the Pentagon held onto its intelligence agency. The only thing that altered was a law dictating that phone and internet corporations must now store the metadata, rather than the NSA. That's it. That's the only change. If you'd said that in 2012, I wouldn't have believed you. I don't know what the Pentagon had to give up elsewhere, but it held onto the budget, power and reach of the world's pre-eminent signals intelligence agency. That's a big win.

Now State has noticed a new opportunity to paint the NSA as not only rogue and untrustworthy, but a danger to the people of the United States. It's hard to see President Donald Trump buying this, considering his closest advisors are Pentagon lifers, but State and the NYT have noticed how Mr Trump reacts to the democratic winds and it'll be interesting to see if they can stir up enough populist reaction to impact Mr Trump's thinking on this.

The second aspect here is people can think the NYT is "fake news" all they like, but during the Snowden revelations the harshest critiques of the NSA came from internet companies. After all, Google, Facebook and the rest are competing to gather, store and use internet data. From their perspective, the NSA stepped into their turf. And on the internet, it's the private companies, not the government, that has actual power.

So will State now cut into its rival across the Potomac? It's hard to know. It'll try its best. And with a Republican in the White House, the generals usually have an easier time. But with the framing of Mr Trump's administration as fascist and in cahoots with the Russians, the Pentagon will probably struggle to keep the bleeding to a minimum this time.

I just really hope the two factions keep their arguing within Washington and don't use other countries as proxy battlegrounds. After all, the best place for a civil war is at home.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Looks like you need more diversity over here

The basic purpose of Gleichschaltung was to make sure there was no space in society in which antisocial perspectives can flourish. It wasn’t difficult to be an anti-Nazi in the Third Reich. But you had to keep the grumbling to yourself. And you definitely weren’t allowed to mingle with other anti-Nazis to share your pathetic bellyaching about the new Germany.

The problem was that German society back then, like any society, contained many organisations which had nothing to do with politics. And in those circles, it wasn’t long before antisocial misinformation sprung up and began to flourish.

No problem! Everything could be Nazified. Racism is evil, pretty much everyone would agree with that. But then again, any method of social control can be used for good or evil. It can be used to eliminate good anti-Nazis or evil racists. And by the time 1938 rolled around in Germany, anti-Nazis were about as shunned as, say, segregationists in the US in 1978. Nobody wants to be on the losing team.

In his diaries, Victor Klemperer says even the cat magazines were, by the mid-1930s, writing about the “German Cat.” Companies weren’t immune from Gleichschaltung either. Does your corporation have a board? It better have at least one Parteigenosse (party member) on it. And how many Parteigenosse occupy positions at university departments? Looks like you need some more diversity.

Of course, I’m not saying that diversity is a method of social control. Perish the thought! Its goal is to “heal deep spiritual wounds,” and to “correct the evils of the past,” such as segregation, lynching and questionable soft toys. Those damn racist gollywogs.

And if we’re going to be honest, members of historically disadvantaged groups and Parteigenosses are pretty much used in the same way these days. Victims and potential victims of racism, sexism and homophobia have all kinds of diverse perspectives on society. Which is why they need to be included. It has nothing to do with power. At least, that’s the party line, anyway…

But it’s pretty much impossible to live in a modern society, have any kind of professional career or even personal life, and be anything but a secret racist. And I can’t help thinking that diversity has a lot to do with this.

Of course, we’re all about progress – ethical, artistic and scientific. Diversity definitely cannot conflict with progress. Diversity is progress! And so is science. And perhaps one way to clear this up would be to require that all researchers in sensitive and easily misinterpreted fields are diverse individuals. Obviously, the investigators (Parteigenosse) themselves are in the best possible position to verify this information. A perfect feedback loop.

So in the future, institutions should consider requiring scientists to submit their own DNA profiles, to show disadvantaged ancestry, as a precondition of funding. Surely this is a simple and foolproof way to ensure the data isn’t misinterpreted. And if there are no disadvantaged investigators in the field? Well – that doesn’t look good at all…

Or maybe the better option is to create and follow law. The rule of law is blind to colour, class or caste. As someone once put it, the purpose of law is to defend a million men against one, or one against a million. The day we abandoned this principle was the day we descended into murder and anarchy, and no step back toward safety and freedom can be taken but on its terms.

But that’s not exactly a popular opinion these days.

I have an experiment for you, dear reader. Do an image search in Google for Muslim Mom and Child, Asian Mom and child, Black Mom and child…

-----Then try “White Mom and child”…

Now try an image search in Google for Happy Asian Women, Happy Black Women…

-----Then try “Happy White Women”- scroll all the way down…

Notice anything about the male they tend to pair the final category with 99% of the time? Makes it easy to understand why kids these days think it’s “so natural” and “no big deal” to “embrace multiculturalism.”

I don’t know how much the “mom” spelling (Americanised, as opposed to anglicised “mum”) has to do with the results. But if you think diversity is a “nice thing to do” and there isn’t a synopsis toward which society is moving, perhaps a Google algorithm can convince you. Or do you still think Google is just a handful of code?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The curious case of terrorism in Indonesia

Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued a ban against the hard-line Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia after the group led protests in Jakarta to tip a gubernatorial election away from the incumbent Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.

The president banned the group for upholding values contradictory to the country's Pancasila principle of religious pluralism and threatening national unity. Jokowi’s decision reflects an increasing concern that the archipelago’s Islamic militant problem is once again gaining steam.

But since the deadly bombings in the early 2000s, terrorism has been poorly planned and executed in Indonesia. The militants clearly have the will, they just suspiciously lack the terrorist tradecraft to do so effectively. While Jakarta’s concern is legitimate, it’s worth unpacking how the Islam of Southeast Asia is different to the Islam of the Middle East, and why that matters.

Salafism, the virulent version animating the al qaeda movements, is primarily an Ossianesque reconstruction with obvious debts to Wilsonian nationalism. Communist intellectuals are responsible for Islamic terrorism but it hasn’t really caught on in the world’s most populous Muslim country. The question is why.

The Islam practised in the Middle East could be called “desert Islam,” while in Southeast Asia trade routes created a “merchant Islam.” For desert Islam, the Arab conquests stimulated a specific kind of process of Islamisation and militarisation. But it was commerce that spread Islam into Asia, transforming it into a highly prosperous trading zone.

Islam isn’t known for its agility and openness to interpretation, but that hasn’t stopped it from splintering. Merchant Islam has different politics and culture to its desert cousin. It recognises a tradition of mysticism, or Sufism, blending Hindu concepts of divinity. The Chinese, for example, often confuse Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Chinese and Japanese assumes Christianity was an exotic form of Buddhism.

But the Western colonial system had an impressionable impact on the evolution of both versions of Islam. Terrorism works for leftists – and so do many other forms of democratic activism. Islamic terrorism (which is in every case left-wing – as you can see every time Osama quotes Chomsky) hasn’t attached well to merchant Islam, but it nested with desert Islam sufficiently.

Islamic terrorism could work perfectly fine in Indonesia – if there was a need for it. Islamic terrorism is productive because it results in increasing communal deference to the Islamic community and expansion of the political power and privilege of Muslims and their progressive sponsors. In other words, the terrorist succeeds when, and only when, he is allied to an interested third party – either a military or political force.

So the question Jokowi really faces is: given that the politics of desert and merchant Islam are different, what conditions would compel an interested third party to provoke terrorism? If there is no terrorism, then we can assume the ruling class in the country already follows the revolutionary’s ideas. The playbook is simple: Don't slaughter the opposing camp if you don’t need to – recruit the opposing camp.

And by that playbook, well known wherever the West’s ideas of communism and democracy land around the world, it appears the Islamic revolutionaries and their progressive allies have been mighty successful in Indonesia already. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Your mileage may vary.

Friday, 28 April 2017

100 day Trump scorecard: Tactical victories, unforced errors, mostly incomplete

The world has not ended, fascism is not reborn and the enormous Washington machine carries on pretty much as per normal as US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days finishes on April 29.

A tradition of the US political system since Franklin D Roosevelt’s tenure, the first 100 days of a presidency receives tight attention by media and voters alike. Mr Roosevelt signed 76 pieces of legislation during this time, compared with Mr Trump’s 28 (along with 34 executive actions).

The US president has dismissed the 100 days premise on Twitter, calling the standard "ridiculous," while also outlining how much his administration has accomplished in its first few months. "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!" The term “S.C.” refers to the appointment of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch.

"I think you can go back and find an area, one or two, and say, 'OK, well, he didn't do this.' But I think you have to look at it in totality of what he actually did get done," White House spokesman Sean Spicer says. The initial days were eventful, but plenty of work remains for Mr Trump.

At the end of his first week in January, the president signed a series of executive orders to enact campaign promises. They included plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a fast-track for infrastructure projects, direction for building a border wall with Mexico, removal of federal funds for “sanctuary cities” and suspension of the US refugee programme.

All received loud opposition from Democrats, but the final order on refugees also led to blockages in the US court system which are yet to be resolved. Mr Trump responded to the criticism of the refugee order by re-drafting it in February. The order initially focused on halting movement from seven Middle East and North African countries, but was reduced to six in the second issuance.

In January, Mr Trump also extracted the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement following his “America First” policy. He cited serious concerns about low US workers from Malaysia and Vietnam wage competition.

The remaining 11 members of the TPP (including New Zealand) have tentatively upheld a reinvigorating the deal without the US. Japan, which spent significant political capital on the deal by breaking up its agriculture unions, is leading this effort along with Australia.

Other trade changes include a modernisation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which both Canada and Mexico say should be organised quickly. And although Mr Trump’s nomination for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is still unconfirmed, the office has been instructed to re-assess all trade deals for upgrade opportunities, to find the causes of deficits and to “identify trade abuses,” according to Mr Trump.

Another of his campaign goals was to halt hiring at government departments. To achieve this, he signed a 90-day freezing order for hiring federal employees, which was lifted on April 12. National security employees were always exempt from the order.

Mr Trump also entered office with an empty seat on the Supreme Court. He promptly nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. The final confirmation process was achieved with the “nuclear option,” referring to a Republican alteration of the success threshold to 51 votes, rather than 60.

At Mr Gorsuch’s swearing in, Mr Trump said: “a new optimism is sweeping across our land and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.” Another Supreme Court seat could be vacated this year.

Republicans also attempted to “repeal and replace” the Obamacare health legislation. Led by House Majority leader Paul Ryan, the effort came close but failed to gather enough votes. The party and Mr Trump will try again to replace the healthcare package next month.

Pieces of Obama-era coal, waterways and climate change policies were also either reversed or cancelled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received heavy criticism from the White House, including cutting its funding as part of the new administration’s fiscal budget.

That budget proposal aims to avoid increasing government spending, while increasing the US national security funds. To achieve this, Mr Trump announced intention to siphon money from the State Department and to slice programmes from other departments.

Republicans still hope to secure funding for the proposed border wall with Mexico, even as Congress is holding back the required money. Presently, the border wall is 930 kilometres long and the total length of the border is 3,201 kilometres. Mr Trump hopes to fill those gaps.

Along with Obamacare, three other major pieces of legislation are not yet completed. These include a national security strategy, a cyber-security executive order and a tax reform package. Regarding the latter, a handful of smaller actions emerged in April – review processes and winding back of banking measures introduced after the 2008 financial crisis.

However, Mr Trump reversed his intention to label China a “currency manipulator” after the Treasury Department did not allege China was committing such actions.

Throughout this time, Mr Trump’s political opponents attacked the administration’s alleged connections to Russia. In what essentially amounts to accusations of treason, they claim Mr Trump and his officials are colluding with the Russian government.

While no evidence has been submitted either of Russian hacking attempts on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last year or of malicious and hidden high-level cooperation, the flow of Mr Trump’s first 100 days have nevertheless been undermined by the accusations.

A series of nominated department heads were hampered by unnecessary legal testimonies and delays in their confirmations. Some were even forced to step down or compelled to recuse themselves for ongoing investigations.

It was however revealed that the administration’s transition team was under surveillance during the 2016 election campaign by domestic intelligence services looking for Russian connections, yet no evidence of collusion has been discovered. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was dismissed after it was found he lied about a poorly-timed discussion with the Russian ambassador.

Mr Trump also launched a series of missiles at a Syrian airbase following revelations of a chemical weapons attack in the country. Syria is receiving Russian military support and the missile attack has removed much of the energy behind the collusion allegations.

Finally, in the foreign policy realm, Mr Trump has sent his defence secretary on tours of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe to reassure allies in those regions and gauge any requirements of US diplomatic and military support in the coming months.

North Korea also continues to provoke with its nuclear programme. As it stands, the US intelligence community assesses Pyongyang will theoretically have the capability to send a nuclear-tipped missile to the Eastern seaboard of the US within four years. Mr Trump is hoping to carefully change the calculation of acceptable risk regarding the hermit kingdom.