The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook

    Project Cassandra members say administration officials also blocked or undermined their efforts to go after other top Hezbollah operatives including one nicknamed the ‘Ghost The Ghost One of the most mysterious alleged associates of Safieddine, secretly indicted by the U.S., linked to multi-ton U.S.-bound cocaine loads and weapons shipments to Middle East.,” allowing them to remain active despite being under sealed U.S. indictment for years. People familiar with his case say the Ghost has been one of the world’s biggest cocaine traffickers, including to the U.S., as well as a major supplier of conventional and chemical weapons for use by Syrian President Bashar Assad against his people.

    A fascinating read by Josh Meyer for Politico. 

    [Source: The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook]

    From God to big Data, the many sources of authority

    Authority. Used to come from God and other religious entities. Some enlightened folks told us we had a moral compass within ourselves. So we had the power to make the best decisions. Now? Facebook. 

    Yuval Noah Harari for the FT

    Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called ‘Dataism’.

    Responding to a complex world with teamwork

    Yaneer Bar-Yam is a complex systems scientist and he has an idea about solving some of the world's biggest woes.

    But first, what are complex systems?

    From the one and only Wikipedia

    The study of complex systems represents a new approach to science that investigates how relationships between parts give rise to the collective behaviors of a system and how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment.

    Here's the problem according to Yaneer's post on Medium

    Why should governments fail? Because leaders, wheth-er self-appointed dictators, or elected officials, are unable to identify what policies will be good for a complex society. The unintended consequences are beyond their comprehension. Regardless of values or objectives, the outcomes are far from what they intend.

     And his solution?

    There is a solution. It is not a form of government, no “ism” or “ocracy’’ will do. It begins with widespread individual action that transforms society — -a metamorphosis of social organization in which leadership no longer serves the role it has over millennia. A different type of existence will emerge, affecting all of us as individuals and enabling us to live in a complex world.

    To be successful in high complexity challenges requires teamwork. Each team member performs one part of what needs to be done, contributing to the complexity and scale of what the team does while limiting the complexity each individual faces.

    How can you be amazed , Lebanon?
    How Lebanon inspired the Syrian Civil War written by the author of Moulahazat, a blog discussing Lebanese politics.

    The End of the ‘Developing World’

    The End of the ‘Developing World’

    How to run a country

    How to run a country

    The plans to use nuclear weapons to blow up incoming asteroids

    The plans to use nuclear weapons to blow up incoming asteroids

    What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian. Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity. What are the politicians selling? How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?
    Wisdom courtesy of Russell Brand.

    Even Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein called for “some redistribution” to create a stable and just society. But despite the growing consensus in Washington, Wall Street and academia, there hasn’t yet been concrete action and the situation is only taking a turn for the worse.

    The US has the highest level of income gap of any of the advanced countries, with the top 1% capturing over 90% of the income growth.

    By consolidating its remaining regional assets, Iran may be trying to strengthen its hand in the nuclear poker game it is playing with the international community. At a time when Washington is engineering a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel – respectively Iran’s greatest rival and enemy in the region – it makes sense.

    Hizbollah, for all its military might, has been dented by scandals and setbacks, and faces an uncertain future. Its leaders are probably realistic enough to know the Assads cannot win and that they could be left on the wrong side of history. Both Iran and Hizbollah may be reading shifts within the dynamic stalemate of the Syrian conflict itself.

    An insightful piece in the FT on the situation in Lebanon and the supposed spillover of the Syrian civil war. The macroeconomic approach is interesting.

    Another complaint about austerity

    It now may be clear to readers of this blog that I am not really in favour of austerity economics. Perhaps this is due to my naive or idealistic perception of the world but perhaps austerity has basic problems that no one seems to want to tackle. 

    Published in the Financial Times, this piece by Gillian Tett did really uncover some of these problems:

    “There’s a lot of little kids going hungry round here,” explained one friend, who works in a local community centre. Indeed, just the other day she had spoken to a family where the child had been chewing wallpaper at night. “He didn’t want to tell his mum because he knew she didn’t have the money for supper,” she explained. “We hear more and more stories like this.”

    To many readers of the Financial Times, such tales may seem hard to believe. After all, if you live in the more pleasant parts of southern and central England today, the idea of children chewing wallpaper seems far-fetched. To be sure, the “squeezed [English] middle” is howling about government austerity, inflation and stagnant wages – but life feels bearable for most Home Counties dwellers. And for the jet-setting international cadre in central London, austerity is just a theoretical word.

    The problems are, in my humble opinion, excruciatingly simple. Kids are hungry and they do not understand why. They are human beings who lack food in some of the most developed countries in the world (a useless title if you can’t feed your children) and even though they might not inevitably become angry towards government, the transition to adulthood is not going to be all jolly and nice. They are not going to look back and say “the government did that for our own good”; one of their relatives might die from hunger and this will be the end of their hoped for exemplary citizenship. 

    Although one must always think about the long term and therefore accept sacrifices in the short term, sometimes the weight of these sacrifices are simply too heavy to bear. 

    The rationale that people will be better off suffering now from the lack of public spending (less education, less health care) in order to enjoy their lives in the foggy future is not appealing to anyone, even those who theorise it. 

    The solution surely cannot be as dramatically simple as erasing debt wholly. But it cannot be as dramatically simple as asking people not to eat anymore—because this is really what it is. 

    The misconception of state dependence

    A fine, fine piece written by Amia Srinivasan for The Stone about how Americans loathe state dependance; that some people are dependent on the state’s actions to survive. After analysing what it means for poor people, Srinivasan realises:

    But if the poor are dependent on the state, so, too, are America’s rich. The extraordinary accumulation of wealth enjoyed by the socioeconomic elite — in 2007, the richest 1 percent of Americans accounted for about 24 percent of all income — simply wouldn’t be possible if the United States weren’t organized as it is. Just about every aspect of America’s economic and legal infrastructure — the laissez-faire governance of the markets; a convoluted tax structure that has hedge fund managers paying less than their office cleaners; the promise of state intervention when banks go belly-up; the legal protections afforded to corporations as if they were people; the enormous subsidies given to corporations (in total, about 50 percent more than social services spending); electoral funding practices that allow the wealthy to buy influence in government — allows the rich to stay rich and get richer. In primitive societies, people can accumulate only as much stuff as they can physically gather and hold on to. It’s only in “advanced” societies that the state provides the means to socioeconomic domination by a tiny minority. “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other,” the writer John Berger said about the 20th century, though he might equally have said it of this one: “It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”

    The irony isn’t only that the poor are condemned for being dependent on the state while the rich are not. It’s also that the rich get so much more out of their dependence on the state than the poor. Without the support of the state, poor people’s quality of life would certainly drop, but only by degrees: their lives would go from bad to worse. Take the state’s assistance away from the rich, however, and their lives would take a serious plunge in comfort. No wonder rich people are on the whole conservative: the most ferocious defenders of the status quo are usually those who are most dependent on the system.

    So, the question should not be why Americans loathe and fear dependence on the state, but rather: why do Americans loathe and fear some forms of state dependence but not others? Why is state dependence condemned when evinced by the poor, but tolerated, even unrecognized, when enjoyed by the rich? What justifies this double standard?

    This analysis of American society is absolutely spot-on. 

    #5: “We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it.” Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s – that’s half a century, folks – but it never changes because the stakes don’t seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the “war on drugs” has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn’t hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won’t hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn’t be … well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we’re going to pretend it’s a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It’s obvious that our basic approach to Iran’s nuclear program has been misguided, and that we’ve spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don’t expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.

    What if foreign policy officials suddenly told the truth?, some funny answers there. 

    An article by Stephen Walt for Foreign Policy. The link goes to the cached version of the article. 

    Nordic countries as political role models

    Fascinating article in last week’s Economist on how Scandinavian countries could be a political role models for any other country, as they masterfully combine elements from the right and the left, to govern successfully. 

    All Western politicians claim to promote transparency and technology. The Nordics can do so with more justification than most. The performance of all schools and hospitals is measured. Governments are forced to operate in the harsh light of day: Sweden gives everyone access to official records. Politicians are vilified if they get off their bicycles and into official limousines. The home of Skype and Spotify is also a leader in e-government: you can pay your taxes with an SMS message.

    This may sound like enhanced Thatcherism, but the Nordics also offer something for the progressive left by proving that it is possible to combine competitive capitalism with a large state: they employ 30% of their workforce in the public sector, compared with an OECD average of 15%.



    The best countries to be born in are small, peaceful, homogenous, liberal democracies.

    Study evaluates the best and worst countries to be born in, based on 11 indicators.


    How average Americans versus Hillary Clinton spend their time. No wonder why she’s quite tired since she spends more time in an airplane than the time average Americans read, eat and drink or do the chores. 

    François Hollande Surprises France With Firm Stance

    François Hollande Surprises France With Firm Stance

    On gun control in America

    Jason Kottke gathered some of the best reads on gun control. So I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. 

    We start off with an article published in the New Yorker which asks us to think about what will it take to make gun control happen:

    What does it take? If a congresswoman in a coma isn’t sufficient grounds to reevaluate the role that firearms play in our national life, is a schoolhouse full of dead children? I desperately want to believe that it is, and yet I’m not sure that I do. By this time next week, most of the people who are, today, signing petitions and demanding gun control will have moved on to other things. If you want to understand why the gun debate can occasionally feel rigged, this is the answer: the issue is characterized by a conspicuous asymmetry of fervor. The N.R.A. has only four million members – a number that is probably dwarfed by the segment of the U.S. population that feels uneasy about the unbridled proliferation of firearms. But the pro-gun constituency is ardent and organized, while the gun control crowd is diffuse and easily distracted. In the 2012 election cycle, N.R.A. spending on lobbying outranked spending by gun control groups by a factor of ten to one.

    Then Gary Wills, in the New York Review of Books argues that American children are being sacrificed to “our great god Gun”. In the Bible, God said: “you shall have no other gods before me”; he was also talking about Moloch, a God worshipped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who was associated with the sacrifice of children. For Wills, the gun is America’s Moloch:

    Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains-“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily-sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

    The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

    Very pessimistic, sadly realistic. His theory fits the reality really well. 

    Next up, Firmin DeBrabander writes for The Stone (NYT blog of philosophers who write on timely and timeless issues) and says that an armed society isn’t such a beautiful ideal of society:

    Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name – that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

    This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly – not make any sudden, unexpected moves – and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

    Finally, James Fallows a veteran writer for The Atlantic said Americans should be talking about gun safety and not gun control:

    I will henceforth and only talk about “gun safety” as a goal for America, as opposed to “gun control.” I have no abstract interest in “controlling” someone else’s ability to own a gun. I have a very powerful, direct, and legitimate interest in the consequences of others’ gun ownership – namely that we change America’s outlier status as site of most of the world’s mass shootings. No reasonable gun-owner can disagree with steps to make gun use safer and more responsible. This also shifts the discussion to the realm of the incremental, the feasible, and the effective.

    A more optimistic view. 

    I’m not American. I live in France and in England. And something strikes me: why aren’t we blaming the recent events that occurred in America on the country’s relative youth? Saying that some countries are younger than others isn’t condescending. European countries made mistakes centuries after centuries and remained unabashed.
    The United States of America were created about 230 years ago. And 230 years after their creation, most Western European countries were still killing each other (with swords and the like).

    History doesn’t make itself and change will not happen if no one is here to… well, make it happen. But if there’s one thing I’m sure about, deep down, is that one day, the United States will be a land free of guns for sale in shopping malls and children killed by too-easily-gunned-up madmen. The sooner the better. 

    Why the anti-corruption movement is the new human rights movement

    For the last two years, people have taken to the streets to protest against corruption – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. And rallies occurred all around the world (Tunisia in 2010, Russia in 2011, India, China…).

    There are striking similarities between these protests, which still need to be unified and the human rights movement. 

    Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate:

    Still in its infancy, the international anti-corruption movement has the potential to enhance and augment human-rights rhetoric enormously. Both rely on arguments about justice, fairness, and the rule of law. Though it probably won’t be long before someone finds a way to cast “anti-corruption” as another form of Western imperialism, for the moment the movement’s other strength is its universalism: Its arguments and tactics work in democracies as well as dictatorships.

    Make sure to read this article published in The Economist. An excerpt: 

    The anti-graft laws of national governments are making progress too. America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and Britain’s Bribery Act impose potentially savage penalties on firms that do business by sleazy means. That includes having weak in-house anti-corruption policies. The results are mixed. At a conference earlier this month in Prague organised by the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, Thomas Firestone of the Moscow office of Baker & McKenzie, a law firm, said foreign managers trying to penalise bribery with dismissal face tough Russian laws that hamper such firings. Perversely, the most corrupt employees can thus gain hefty severance payments. Such clashes between local and international laws abound.