Focal Points Blog

Is Assad Really a Master Strategist?


With recent events in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad seems to have pulled off two coups. In November, NBC’s Richard Engel described the more obvious of the two.

In exchange for destroying the poison gas and the factories that make it – a process that’s almost impossible to verify — there would be no U.S. military strike. Assad would get to stay in power and continue his war with “conventional weapons,” including artillery and Scud missile attacks on civilian areas, napalm dropped on schools, and starving the opposition into submission. Even more shocking is that Assad has weathered the crisis appearing to the world as reasonable, rational and ready to compromise.  
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Beta Testing Drones on Unwitting Subjects


In a moving testimony at the Guardian, Heather Linebaugh, a former drone analyst for the United States, writes:

“Whenever I read comments by politicians defending the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program – aka drones – I wish I could ask them a few questions. I’d start with: ‘How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?’ And: ‘How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?’”
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Hungary’s Relative Income Equality Hides Other Inequities

Robert Braun, chairman of Hungary's  New Economics Foundation

Robert Braun, chairman of Hungary’s New Economics Foundation

Cross-posted from

If you look just at the statistics, Hungary seems to be doing pretty well, inequality-wise. The country experienced a significant spike in poverty and household inequality after the political changes of 1989-90. But since then, its rate of inequality has remained around the European average. It moved from Scandinavian levels of inequality (according to the Gini coefficient) to a situation comparable to, say, France. Moreover, according to at least one estimate, significant government redistribution efforts have been responsible for this trend.

But these statistics obscure a couple important facts. Particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, the poorest segments of the population were hit hardest in terms of loan repayments. “Indebted households in the lowest income quintile pay a higher share of their income as debt repayment, and they are also more likely to be in arrears with their repayments because of financial difficulties,” according to one article on income inequality in Hungary.
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Pakistan Allows China to Use Karachi as Lab Rats in Nuclear-Energy Experiment

Karachi. Wikimedia Commons

Karachi. Wikimedia Commons

As if Karachi didn’t have enough problems. Already, it’s “far and away the world’s most dangerous megacity,” writes Taimur Khan in Foreign Policy. Due, in large part to Sunni attacks on Shiites, its homicide rate is “25 percent higher than any other major city.” Now it’s broken ground on two new nuclear power plants. All together now: What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, even more than you think and for a reason outside the bounds of nuclear energy’s attendant risks.
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Foreign Policy Thin-Sliced (12/26)

Image Wikimedia Commons

Image Wikimedia Commons

More Affection? When Was There Any?

“There’s now more appreciation and even some nostalgia for [George W. Bush’s] resolve, the clarity of his convictions; things that were sometimes seen as liability when he was in office are now looked at with more affection,” said William C. Inboden, a former aide and the executive director of the Clements Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University of Texas, Austin.  [Emphasis added.]

As Bush Settles Into Dallas, Golf Tees and Family Time Now Trump Politics, Peter Baker, the New York Times
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Is South Sudan a Failed State?

 South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Image Wikimedia Commons

South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Image Wikimedia Commons

Back in July 2011, after a long civil war, South Sudan split from Sudan to become an independent country. However, even though statehood was achieved and a new country was born, the efforts to transform South Sudan into a proper nation-state seem to have come to a standstill.

Is South Sudan a failed state? Even worse, is the country almost on the brink of collapse? In this article, I shall attempt to answer these questions.
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U.S. Determined to Re-freeze Thaw in Relations With Iran

Arak large

Iran’s Arak heavy-water facility

It was only supposed to be Iran’s uranium enrichment progress that was frozen after talks with Iran last month. But now, acting in bad faith by violating the spirit of the Geneva deal between the G5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran, the United States seems to be doing its level best to re-freeze the recent thaw in relations between the G5+1 and Iran. If you’ll bear with me for a final sub-Arctic-temperature metaphor, the United States has frozen the assets of (reports the Jerusalem Post) “companies and individuals engaged in transactions on behalf of other companies that the United States previously designated under the sanctions.”

Now is as good a time as any to ask what Americans ― from “low-information voters” to those who follow the news ― think the problem is between Iran and the West. Speaking in the broadest terms, many are under the impression that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Moving up one level of awareness, others believe that, at present, Iran is not building nuclear weapons, but that it must be stopped from enriching uranium lest it one day divert it to nuclear weapons.
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Tajikstan President Rahmon Brings Stability, But Not Prosperity

Emomali Rahmon, four-term president

Emomali Rahmon, four-term president of Tajikstan

Out of all the poor countries that emerged from the ashes of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Tajikistan stands alone as the poorest. While the papers surely talk about the rapid macroeconomic growth of the country, most of the ordinary Tajiks are yet to witness the brighter side of the economic progress.

Amidst such dismal scenario, back in November 2013, Tajikistan re-elected Emomali Rahmon as its leader, giving him a seven-year term at the office. Former chairman of a collective farm, Rahmon has been dominating the national politics ever since the country came into existence back in 1992 — he became the President in 1994, won for the second time in 1999, and then again in 2003 and 2006. It surely would have been a wonderful political resume had it not been for the absence of any serious political competition.

Question is, if there is rampant poverty in Tajikistan, why is everyone repeatedly giving one chance after another to Rahmon?
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Conn Hallinan’s 2013 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, winner of the 2013 White Man’s Burden award. Image, Wikimedia Commons

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, winner of the 2013 White Man’s Burden award. Image, Wikimedia Commons

The Creative Solutions Award to the Third Battalion of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division for its innovative solution to halting sporadic attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Zhare District: it blew up a hill that the insurgents used as cover.

This tactic could potentially be a major job creator because there are lots of hills in Afghanistan. And after the U.S. Army blows them all up, it can take on those really big things: mountains.

Runner-up in this category is Col. Thomas W. Collins, for his inventive solution to explaining a sharp rise in Taliban attacks in 2013. The U.S. military published a detailed bar graps indicating insurgent attacks had declined by 7 percent, but, when the figure was challenged by the media, the Army switched to the mushroom strategy*: “We’re just not giving out statistics anymore,” Col. Collins told the Associated Press.
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The Fallacy of Nuclear Deterrence, Chapter 238

Nuclear Test for FPIF

I posted recently about a 1985 article in Political Psychology titled “Toward a Collective Psychopathology of the Nuclear Arms Competition” by John E. Mack, the American psychiatrist and Harvard Medical professor.* Another insight of his runs something like this.

To make “the intention to kill off the bulk of the population” of the enemy in nuclear war morally able, the enemy that’s “created” (or demonized, as we might call it today) by the acceptable, the United States must be ― drum roll, please ― “monstrous to a degree virtually not experienced among the peoples of the human race.” Whether or not deterrence worked in preventing another world war, it’s apparent that many in the Soviet Union perceived the United States as ready and able to launch a first strike as it had in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, as Mack writes
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