The Weekly Dispatch


June 10 - 16

This Week: Elections in Iran, Tear gas in Turkey, Sarin in Syria, and Failed Talks in Korea

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 10 − 16!

This is the second dispatch in the new format, and the first “off week,” so this week is just the world briefing. I’ll have a longer form essay again next week.

World Brief


Hassan Rowhani, a cleric and former nuclear negotiator, was elected President in a landslide on Saturday, securing 50.7% of the vote, more than 30% more than the next closest candidate and enough to avoid a run-off. Rowhani was seen as the most moderate candidate, and received a huge boost on Tuesday when Mohammad Reza Aref, the reformist candidate, dropped out and endorsed Rowhani.

Rowhani was the most moderate of the presidential candidates, but that’s not saying much: all six candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, which rejected several other candidates seen as challenging to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While the president doesn’t have a lot of power in the country, his victory is very much a victory for the moderate and reformist groups in Iran: both the moderates and the reformists had threatened to boycott the elections, but at the last minute decided to throw their support behind Rowhani. The size of his victory over the other candidates - especially combined with the poor performance of Saeed Jalili, seen as Khamenei’s personal pick - suggests the political tide may be turning against the conservatives and hardliners in Iran.

North Korea

On Monday, North and South Korea agreed to high-level government talks aimed at re-opening two joint projects, including the Kaesong industrial plant closed in the latest spate of threats by the DPRK. On Tuesday, though, the planned talks collapsed over a dispute over who would attend the talks: South Korea proposed to send their unification minister, requesting the North do the same. The North responded by offering to send a lower-ranking official; when the South responded in kind, the North accused them of “grave provocation” and cancelled the talks. On Sunday, North Korea proposed high-level bilateral talks with the US government.

NightWatch points out the North’s guest list shell game with South Korea indicates the North has no real interest in the talks - the North’s original offer of talks proposed the countries send ministerial-level officials, and they clearly reneged on this offer. The offer to the US would likely meet the same fate - the DPRK isn’t offering talks because it wants to, it’s offering talks because China has demanded them, and it’ll take any flimsy excuse it can to call them off and claim injury.


The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it had concluded the Syrian Government had used chemical weapons on its own people several times in the past few months. In response, the US would begin supplying the rebels with weapons and ammunition.

My sense is this has less to do with the use of chemical weapons - the incidents the administration indicates were back in October, and the evidence now is just as strong as it was then - and more to do with the string of military defeats the rebels have suffered recently. The Syrian army, with strong support from Iran and Hezbollah, have retaken rebel territory and are staging for an attack on Aleppo. The loss of that city would be a huge - possibly fatal − blow to the rebellion. As reluctant as the administration has been to get involved in Syria, it clearly doesn’t want the Assad regime to survive, and it especially doesn’t want Hezbollah and Iran to get credit for the victory. Arming the rebels, despite concerns over islamists in their ranks, is the only way to prevent that from happening now. Once again, Syria is bereft of good options.


The showdown in Turkey between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and protestors angry at his increasingly autocratic government continued this week. On Monday, Erdogan agreed to meet with leaders of the protest movement on Wednesday, a promise he undercut by ordering police to clear the square on Tuesday. A meeting with a group of protest leaders on Thursday led to a tentative agreement in which construction in the park would be postponed until after a hearing against the plans, but many protestors rejected the agreement and vowed to stay in the park - as one protestor put it, “Of course the prime minister has to respect the courts – that’s the rule of law, it is not a concession.” On Saturday evening, riot police stormed the park, using tear gas and rubber bullets to eject the protestors. The protestors vowed to return, while on Sunday Erdogan held a triumphant rally with his supporters in Istanbul.

The protests are almost certainly not over - the brutality of the police crackdown on the original park protestors was what sparked nearly three weeks worth of widespread protests to begin with. What is over, though, is Erdogan’s broader political ambitions: Erdogan, who is barred from serving more than two terms as prime minister, has been trying to amend the constitution to create a more powerful president with hopes of being elected to that office. Already even his allies were lukewarm to the idea; after this debacle, it’s almost certainly dead. The protestors may not succeed in saving Gezi Park, but they have effectively brought down Erdogan.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


May 28 - June 9

This Week: Penguins in Turkey, and a new format for the Dispatch

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 28 - June 9!

Starting with this Dispatch, I’m switching up the layout. I started the Dispatch to help me improve my writing and my analytical skills. It’s worked well for a year and a half, but I’m finding myself without enough time to write anything in-depth. To more closely align this project with my other goals, I’m changing the format - I’m going to keep the world briefing, though it’ll be a bit shorter, and I’m going to start including a longer, more in-depth essay every other week. I’m hoping this will give me the chance to explore a variety of issues more deeply while still offering value to you, the reader.

As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!

World Brief

Domestic Surveillance

The Guardian and the Washington Post this week published two documents illustrating the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. The first is a court order instructing Verizon to turn over all call records to the agency; the second a set of powerpoint slides describing a system called Prism which purports to give intelligence agents access to all customer records from a variety of web companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and more.

The companies mentioned in the Prism program have all issued similar denials, stating they A) have never heard of Prism, B) don’t give the government a “backdoor” into their systems, and C) only comply with legal requests. None of that’s particularly reassuring: Prism is an internal NSA codename, the slides are sparse on technical details, and, as the Verizon court order shows, a request being legal doesn’t make it a lot less concerning. Some transparency might help the government make its case: it’s possible, as the President and several members of Congress asserted, that the program is limited, focused only on specific threats, and both useful and necessary to national security − but right now, all we’ve got to go on are a handful of slides and an alarmingly over-broad secret court order.


The EU failed to renew an arms embargo against Syria, opening the door for Britain and France to supply weapons to the uprising. Both countries have said they will not do so, though, unless peace talks fail. Opposition leadership announced they would not participate in talks, though, until they got resupplied with weapons and ammunition.

The announcement by the UK and France was designed to put pressure on Assad ahead of the peace conference. The last couple weeks, though, have been particularly bad for the opposition - Hezbollah and Iran have helped the Syrian army with its most successful offensive to date, forcing the FSA to abandon a key city entirely and putting the rebels in their weakest bargaining position in more than a year. Neither the rebels nor the Assad regime are placing any real stock in the peace talks - why on earth anyone else is remains a mystery.


The Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs, the two most violent gangs in Honduras, declared a cease fire with the government in exchange for help rehabilitating their members.

This is extremely similar to a truce last year in El Salvador between the two street gangs, both of whom were originally LA-based street gangs whose members were deported back to Central America. If the overall peace holds, it could be a significant change, both for Honduras, which has the worst murder rate in the world, and for drug trafficking through Central America.


Prices rose more than 6.1% in Venezuela in the month of May alone, raising the annualized inflation rate to 34.2%.

Most of the price pressure is due to economic mismanagement during Hugo Chavez’s presidency and rampant government spending leading up to the 2012 election, but it’s Chavez’s already unpopular successor Nicolas Maduro who will have to pay the bill. Back in April, I predicted a rough few years for Maduro - his United Socialist Party has secured its support largely through government-funded social programs and widespread subsidies, but the inflation they’re producing is becoming a huge drag on the economy. Maduro has neither the charisma nor the rising oil prices that kept Chavez afloat; he’s going to have to choose between Chavez’s “21st century socialism” and a functioning economy.

Penguins in Turkey

Turkeys Woman in Red

On May 31st, after four days of protests over park redevelopment plans, Turkish police stormed Taksim Square, attacking protestors with water canons and tear gas. News of the crackdown on what’s quickly become the largest protests in recent Turkish history spread quickly on Twitter and international media, but inside the country, CNN Turkey showed a documentary on penguins. The penguins have since become a symbol for the protests, showing up in graffiti, internet memes, and even on the shirt of an actor interviewed on CNN Turkey. There’s a reason the penguins have become such a symbol: CNN Turkey’s penguin documentary, more than the park itself, represents what these protests are really about.

A Bit of Turkish History

The modern Turkish state was founded in the 1920s out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire. The Turkish Republic is the brainchild of its first President, Mustafa Kemal, later given the honorific title of Atatürk, or Father of the Turks. Atatürk designed Turkey as a modern, secular nation-state abolishing the Sultinate, establishing a representative democracy, and pressing for equal rights and representation for women. He is still celebrated today as the father of modern Turkey. In the decades that followed, though, the repression of Islam, the oppression of the Kurdish people, widespread corruption, and a series of repeated coups have cost the Kemalists much of their support among the people.

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP), a center-right Islamic party, in 2002 was largely seen as a repudiation of the Kemalists. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been Prime Minister for 12 years now, and the AKP has won every election since with nearly 50% of the popular vote. For his part, Erdoğan has made good on his mandate: Turkey’s GDP has grown rapidly last decade, a series of court cases against generals seem to have blunted the threat of military coups, the peace process with the Kurds is starting to show fruit, and Turkey has been taking a much more active and prominent role in the world stage. So how does a popular, democratically elected government with a strong performance record wind up facing the sort of protests we’re seeing?

The Penguins

There’s no one thing which has turned Turkey against Erdoğan. Even though almost all of Turkey identifies as Muslim, the AKP’s attempts to impose a moral code on a nation accustomed to a secular, modernist lifestyle have rubbed many the wrong way. A recent law banning alcohol sales at night or within 100M of a mosque or school met with annoyance by many Turks. Even in a country where 80% don’t drink, the law seemed paternalistic and overbearing. Erdoğan’s decrees encouraging women to have at least three children so the nation can grow strong and attempts to outlaw abortion came off ham-handed and out of touch. The rapid redevelopment of Istambul is another component of the anger. Erdoğan’s government has concentrated on construction as a driver of economic growth, and several protestors expressed their anger over the number of shopping malls being developed without public input. In a particularly tone-deaf move, a bridge over the Bosphorus strait is now being named after an Ottoman Sultan responsible for a massacre of Alevis, a group that makes up about 10% of the Turkish population. The common thread across all the protestors’ complaints is what is seen as Erdoğan’s attempts to shape Turkey in his own image as an Islamist nation.

This is where the penguins come in. Until the police crackdown, the protests at the park were relatively minor. The attack by the police, though, and the accompanying media blackout, have become a focal point for the anger in Turkey against Erdoğan. The proper lens for the Turkish protests is Occupy, not Tahrir: the protestors aren’t looking to overthrow the government, they’re protesting a government they don’t feel is listening to them. Erdoğan has said that he could put a million supporters in the street if he wanted, which is completely beside the point: there’s hundreds of thousands of people already protesting, and their main complaint is that a democracy isn’t supposed to be winner-take-all.

Erdoğan or the Nation

Erdoğan has been defiant since the protests began, vowing to go forward with the redevelopment plans. He threatened to send his own supporters into the street, has called the protestors “looters” (a phrase they now wear with pride), and has spoken ominously of “running out of patience” with the protests. Should he succeed in ending the protests by force, it will be with chilling effects on Turkey’s democracy. The Taksim protests are larger and more widely supported than the Occupy protests ever were. They represent the legitimate grievances of a large portion of the Turkish population and a serious push-back against a growing authoritarianism on the part of the government. There’s no way to end these protests by force and still have a representative system afterward.

Any peaceful end to the protests will have to involve the AKP. There’s simply no other legitimate opposition to speak of - many of the protestors even voted for the AKP. Fortunately, while Erdoğan may be the face of the AKP, the party is not monolithic. Others in the party have taken a more conciliatory tone, most notably Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s President. Gul is a cofounder of the AKP (along with Erdoğan) and was responsible for having the the police pulled out of Taksim Square after the initial crackdown. He gave a spirited defense of the right to protest shortly thereafter, and has been working to try to calm the situation. Gul and others in the AKP represent the best chance for both a peaceful end to the protests and the political change required to prevent their re-emergence.

I suspect this will end with Erdoğan backing down. He has a lot of support, but he doesn’t have the sort of support either inside or outside the government to be able to end the protests by force. My guess is that the rest of his party will pull enough support from him to force him to back off or to resign. Turkey is still a democracy, and Erdoğan is not a dictator. The other remaining wildcard is the military. While Erdoğan largely brought them to heel, it’s unlikely they’d sit idly by and watch Erdoğan steamroll the protestors. For the AKP, then, the choice is either bring Erdoğan back into the fold or face the possibility of another coup. I suspect they’ll choose option 1.

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Dispatch this week, and I hope you like the new format. My intention right now is to publish the brief news summary weekly, and to have a longer essay attached every other week. I’ve found a week’s news is easier to summarize than two, but one week’s a pretty quick clip for longer-form writing. As always, I welcome feedback!

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


May 20 - 27

This Week: Hezbollah bets on peace talks, North Korea steals a boat, and bombings in Niger.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 20 − 27!

Note: This week’s dispatch is a bit short because it’s a holiday.


The Lebanese group Hezbollah has made good on its earlier promises to become more involved in the Syrian civil war, supporting the Syrian Army’s recent assault on Qusayr, a rebel-held city used for transporting supplies. After several days of fighting, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared the group’s full commitment to the fight to save the Assad regime in Syria. The group’s increased involvement in the civil war is spreading the conflict into Lebanon; minor street battles have raged all week in the north of that country, and a pair of rockets that hit Beirut were blamed on Syrian rebels.

Hezbollah relies on Iran for weapons, money, and supplies. The Assad regime in Syria has been the main conduit for Iranian support; if Assad falls, Hezbollah’s access to its patron will be severely curtailed. The peace talks, on the other hand, offer a better outcome, since any peace agreement will wind up preserving at least some of the current regime’s power. How much power Assad retains depends on how strong his hand is at the negotiating table - in other words, how much territory he still holds. If Hezbollah can help Assad take back parts of the country before negotiations begin, they may be able to preserve their current support network. In that case, Hezbollah’s support for the regime will pay dividends for the group, both by maintaining its current resource pipeline and by buying favor with both the Assad regime and the Syrian military.

The US has hesitated to arm the rebels because of the extremist groups among them. The fear is that weapons could wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, or worse yet, a rebel victory could provide a safe-haven for extremists. That’s a possibility. On the other hand, if the Assad regime survives, Hezbollah, a group that the US has declared a terrorist organization which does Iran’s dirty work, might get a huge boost in its operational capabilities, as well as a vast new territory to operate from.

North Korea

The Chinese press revealed on May 19 that a Chinese fishing vessel was seized by North Korea on May 5. The Chinese report said North Korean authorities had asked for $98,000 in ransom. A day after the seizure was made public, the boat was returned; the owner said he did not pay the ransom. On May 22, North Korean Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae made a visit to China, the highest-ranking North Korean official to do so since Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011. The meeting was apparently not a social call: China repeatedly emphasized its desire for a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula and apparently instructed the DPRK to resume multilateral talks with South Korea and the west.

The fishing boat incident is bizarre: the piddly amount of ransom demanded and the huge likelihood of blowback from the Chinese indicates it was a rogue DRPK naval group, not an officially sanctioned action. China’s handled these seizures before with relative quiet, but the Kim regime’s stock in China is pretty low right now. The North Koreans have enshrined nuclear weapons in their constitution – it is literally against DPRK law to end its nuclear program − so denuclearization talks aren’t likely to be productive. China’s made it clear, though, that the last couple months’ rhetoric and instability are not to its liking, and forcing the North back to the table would be a huge embarrassment for the regime, even if the talks don’t go anywhere. My guess is China is also banking on what happens if the regime falls: nuclear weapons make what’s already a bunch of messy scenarios much, much worse.


On Tuesday, suicide bombers struck a military base and a French-owned uranium mine in the northern part of Niger. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, an islamist group which had been fighting in Mali, claimed responsibility. A day later, Mokthar Belmokhtar, a militant whose group attacked an Algerian gas refinery in January, also claimed responsibility.

This is the first major terrorist attack in Niger. The targets and the groups responsible leave little doubt this is spillover from Mali (itself spillover from Libya, as a Nigerien official pointed out). The attack in Algeria, the campaign in Mali, several attacks in Libya, and now the attacks in Niger show the geographic range of the groups. The militant groups are not particularly capable - a French force of a couple thousand was capable of routing them from Mali. Unfortunately, the African militaries intended to replace the French aren’t terribly capable either. Even in the two attacks in Niger, the Nigerien army apparently required reinforcement by French special forces to repel the militants. This doesn’t bode well for France’s attempts to withdraw from the region, nor the territorial integrity of the countries affected.

Thanks for reading, and my best for the week ahead!


May 13 - 19

This Week: Japan grows, Kurds Grease Turkey with Oil, and North Korea tests unimpressive missiles.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 13 − 19!


On Monday, the Financial Times reported on an energy deal between the Turkish Government and the Kurdish Regional Government of Northern Iraq. The deal, confirmed a day later by Prime Minister Erdogan, includes a partnership with Exxon Mobile on oil exploration in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq.

The Financial Times says the deal has been in the works for a while, and this might explain the sudden success of the peace talks between Turkey and the PKK. For the Kurds, this will be a huge win; they’ve been in conflict with the central government in Baghdad over oil revenues for the better part of a decade, and this deal loosens the Kurds’ dependence on oil infrastructure in the rest of Iraq. For Turkey, the deal promises more secure energy supplies at a better price and will allow them to cut imports from Iran as the US has demanded. The US has been cool on any oil deal that doesn’t include the Iraqi government so far, but given the state of the Iraqi government right now, I’m guessing the administration will take the win on Iranian oil and let this one go. So far, the deal is a great example of political realities trumping historical animosities.

North Korea

On Monday, after a week of relative calm on the peninsula, North Korea replaced its Armed Forces Minister, retiring a general who had been responsible for sinking a South Korean warship and shelling an island. A day later, an aide to Japanese Prime Minister Abe made an unannounced trip to North Korea for four days of talks. On Sunday, the DPRK launched four short-range anti-ship missiles into the sea of Japan.

The clearest signal this week was the launching of the anti-ship missiles: while South Korea and the US decried the action as a matter of policy, the tests were as non-threatening as a missile test gets. The Kim regime is obviously playing to a domestic base, but it looks like they’re not trying to provoke their neighbors with this launch - the short-range anti-ship missiles aren’t particularly impressive. The last few months of provocations have been an absolute disaster for the DPRK: they lost the Kaesong industrial complex and the $90M/month it provided, the Chinese cut off their bank accounts and starved them of oil for a month, they provided fuel to the hawks in South Korea and Japan to strengthen their own military forces, and they got slapped with another round of Security Council sanctions. We’ll see how the next few months go, but the first half of this year should provide enough fodder to demote or fire half the military command - if it leads to a bit less political jockeying in the DPRK, we may finally get some peace and quiet from the hermit kingdom.


What looked to be a quiet presidential election in Iran opened up on the 12th with last-minute applications by two candidates. The first, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is the protege and chosen successor of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the second, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a cleric who supported both the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the dissident Green Movement in 2009.

Both men are seen as a challenge to the existing political establishment, though Rafsanjani is the more interesting of the two: he was seen as close to Ayatollah Khamenei, and apparently helped orchestrate his ascension after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. His support of the Green Movement uprisings in 2009 caused him to fall out of favor with the establishment, but he is still a member of the Assembly of Experts. He has been endorsed by the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement and is seen as the best chance for the moderates in Iran.

Iran is facing enormous economic challenges, due in large part to the sanctions it faces - estimates of its inflation rate are between 30% to 100% per year, and that’s not likely to improve anytime soon. That level of economic collapse is dangerous for a regime: the Arab spring was kicked off by protests over food prices and water scarcity. Given the challenges the country’s facing, Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard should seriously consider just giving this one to Rafsanjani - if he succeeds in repairing Iran’s economy, great, the revolution continues and everyone gets to keep their heads; if not, in five years they can send the moderates into the woods and claim a “new start.” That’s damned unlikely, though - more likely is a replay of 2009, with a rigged election and a nasty crackdown to follow.


Following the massacre in Borno last week, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast of the country, granting the military broad powers to combat Boko Haram. The military was quick to take up the mandate, launching a series of airstrikes on militant camps on Friday.

The Nigerian army hasn’t acted with restraint so far, and Goodluck’s declaration won’t be good news to anyone living in the northeast. The big question is the affect an all-out assault on the group will have on Nigeria’s neighbors: Nigeria is bordered by Niger to the north, Chad to the east, and Cameroon to the south. Boko Haram has already been active in Cameroon and Chad is just shy of ungoverned. Niger looks the most stable of the three, but the recent insurgency in Mali and the presence of a new US military drone base underline the country’s vulnerability.


Japan reported annualized economic growth of 3.5% for the first quarter, a phenomenal pace for a country whose growth has been effectively zero for nearly two decades. The growth has been partly attributed to the extremely aggressive monetary policy pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On Friday, Abe announced a plan for more than $680Bn in infrastructure investment, as well as a focus on regulatory overhaul to improve economic efficiency.

Abe has committed to an extremely aggressive economic policy, one in many ways the opposite of the Eurozone’s austerity-first policies. Early signs are encouraging - exports rose 3.8% in the first quarter and the Japanese stock market rose more than 70%. This isn’t because Japan is in any better shape than Europe: it’s debt levels are estimated at 230% of GDP and the ossified regulatory structure and rigid labor market have shouldered much of the blame for Japan’s stagnation, while the Bank of Japan has steadfastly refused to engage in monetary expansion despite nearly two decades of near-deflation (the BoJ board has expressed its concerns about the new policy as well). Abe still needs to show his policies can make growth stick - Japan faces several daunting challenges, including a rapidly aging population - but it’s good to see someone somewhere actually taking growth seriously.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


May 6 - May 12

This Week: Pakistani Elections, Guatemalan Trials, North Korean Banking, and Chinese Hacking.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 6 - 12!

North Korea

The Bank of China, a state-owned bank that is the second largest in China, closed the account of North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank this week as required by recent sanctions on that country. On Tuesday, North Korea moved two medium range missiles off “launch-ready” status, easing fears of another pending missile test.

The bank’s move is inconvenient for the DPRK, but there are other institutions they can still do business with, even within China. The real significance is diplomatic: the bank is state-owned, which means the shutdown is a political decision. China is finally exerting real pressure on North Korea, which has, under Kim Jong-Un, spurned China on multiple occasions recently. NightWatch noted a bit ago that China had not exported any oil at all to North Korea in February; that, combined with the banking decision suggests China has decided to remind the Kim regime of its status and obligations. Whether or not it works remains to be seen - the recent bellicosity from the regime suggests internal politics are at play, but relocating the two missiles is a positive sign. Nobody expects the situation on the Korean peninsula to be resolved anytime soon, so seeing some indication of outside limits placed on the North’s range of action might be the best we get for now.


The Pentagon directly accused the Chinese government of hacking American military and commercial networks in its annual report to Congress. China refuted the claims, as it has refuted previous accusations over cyberattacks.

This is the first time the US Government has openly accused the Chinese government of hacking US computers. Chinese hackers have been increasingly aggressive in the last few years, and while private investigations have pointed to the Chinese government, US officials have not commented on the record until now. I doubt the US will take any serious action to retaliate - despite all the recent rhetoric about cyber-warfare, nobody’s going to jeopardize US-China relations over this sort of low-level espionage. Still, I’d expect these accusations to get louder, and I’d expect to start seeing trade action against China until it gets its act together. Already, several Chinese telecom companies are effectively blocked from US government contracts, and I suspect the administration will try to make the Chinese hacking program more costly and much more public going forward.


After a week of violence, including the kidnapping of the son of the former Prime Minister and a spate of bombings on election day, Pakistanis went to the polls on Sunday. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party looks to have won a handy majority, though the final results are not yet in. The party is headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed by the military in 1999.

If Sharif and the PML-N form a government, it will be the first time power has peacefully changed hands in Pakistan in the 40 years since the current constitution was drafted. The head of the military has stated the military will not intervene, and so far that seems to be the case. The cloud of violence over the election, though, is deeply troubling; many candidates were not able to campaign for fear of attack by the Pakistani Taliban. While the military’s absence from politics is generally laudable, this does seem like one area they could provide some value.


After a long and complicated trial, a Guatemalan court sentenced General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, to 80 years in prison for committing genocide and crimes against humanity over the Guatemalan military’s attempts to exterminate the Maya Ixil Indians during the early 1980s. Montt is the first former head of state to be put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal.

Montt ducked an earlier indictment attempt in 2007 by getting elected to parliament. His term ended in early 2012, and he was arrested shortly thereafter. Previous attempts to bring charges have been blocked by prosecutors and judges loyal to the general, and this trial was nearly scuttled as well. I’m glad to see justice done in Guatemala.


A brief note on Syria: I discussed the allegations of sarin use in the last dispatch, and I mentioned that they were still just that, allegations. Since then, the rhetoric and the intelligence have gone in opposite directions: much of the intelligence community agrees there’s no real evidence of sarin use, while the political rhetoric is moving increasingly towards intervention in Syria. While I’ve endorsed arming the opposition in the past, I want to reiterate: As of now, there is no real evidence the Assad regime has used sarin gas. The Obama administration’s “red line” has not been crossed, and suggestions to the contrary are inaccurate.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


April 29 - May 5

This Week: Israel, Hezbollah, & Sarin in Syria, China goes camping in India, Myanmar & Nigeria face ethnic violence.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 29 - May 5!


On April 22nd, Nigerian officials reported a clash between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram, a militant group, leaving more than 185 people dead. On May 1st, Human Rights Watch disputed the government’s account of the clash and accused the military of going on a rampage, burning more than 2000 houses and killing over 200 people. The Army denies the claims, but villagers from the town recounted stories of soldiers dousing houses with petroleum and lighting them on fire.

Nigeria is home to one of the bloodiest insurgencies in the world right now. The country is largely split between the ruling Christians in the South and the Muslim minority in the North, and the gross inequality between the two groups has fueled ongoing conflict. Boko Haram, an islamist group whose name loosely means “Western teachings are forbidden,” is the latest group to take up the conflict, and they’ve waged a bloody bombing campaign for more than two years, leaving hundreds dead. The military has contributed to the casualty count as well: its responses to attacks by Boko Haram are often indiscriminate attacks against villages, though the attack in April was large even by the standards of the conflict. Boko Haram’s behavior is deplorable, but it’s in line with the group’s aims: the rampant violence is meant to cause the collapse of the Nigerian State. The Military’s actions are just senseless, and it’s hard to see how it accomplishes anything but turning more people against the government and destabilizing the state further.


Another wave of anti-Muslim violence struck Myanmar on Tuesday when a Buddhist mob burned more than 100 homes, ransacked two mosques, and injured 10 people, one fatally, after a muslim woman collided with a buddhist monk while walking down the street.

The attacks are the first since March, when ethnic tensions spilled into riots. The anti-muslim sentiment has been an ongoing problem for Myanmar in the last year, with more than 200 people killed so far and tens of thousands displaced. Human Rights Watch has accused the Myanmar government of encouraging the ethnic violence, and footage from the attacks in March show police standing by while the mobs rampage. The violence and the government’s complicity are particularly disappointing given the recent promising moves towards democracy in the country - in the last year and a half, the country held elections, freed hundreds of political prisoners, and has liberalized the press. It has been praised highly by the US and the EU, but the recent campaign against the muslim minority should prompt some consideration before the last of the sanctions against the country are lifted.


On April 15th, around 30 Chinese soldiers advanced more than 10km past the Indian border into disputed territory, setting up a small camp with several tents and a banner declaring the area Chinese territory. After a three week standoff and several attempts at negotiations, the Chinese soldiers finally withdrew on May 5th.

While the Chinese government was quick to point out the border between India and China is not well defined, the incursion was a fairly transparent attempt to push China’s claim on the territory (the banner was a nice touch). China has several outstanding territorial claims with neighbors, and it has been getting more assertive in sending patrols to areas it considers its own, but this was fairly brazen.


On Tuesday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, warned the group could become more heavily involved Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. On Friday and Sunday, a series of airstrikes attributed to Israel struck several Syrian military installations, including missile storage facilities and a research center connected to Syria’s chemical weapons program. Israel has not yet officially confirmed the strike, and while the Syrian government called the airstrikes a “declaration of war,” the country has not indicated any official response yet. Meanwhile, the British Defense secretary said the evidence offered of chemical weapon use by the Syrian government was “too degraded” to be conclusive, while a group of UN Inspectors announced they had strong suspicions that opposition groups had themselves used sarin gas.

Hezbollah has already been active on behalf of the Syrian regime for some time, but Nasrallah’s announcement is the first by the group that hints of their activities in the region. The Syrian regime has been one of the primary supporters of Hezbollah, serving both as a source of weapons and as a conduit to Iran, and the group has affirmed its loyalty to the Assad regime several times already. When asked about the airstrikes, Israeli officials responded “The state of Israel is protecting its interests and will continue doing so” - reports suggest the targets of the Israeli attacks were Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah. The Israelis are betting that the Syrian army is already too busy to respond, which seems like a good bet – the last thing the Assad regime needs is another front in the war. The question is how seriously Iran takes the threat of losing Syria. The country has been Iran’s main point of influence in the broader Middle East - if Iran sees Israeli intervention in Syria as a serious threat to its own strategic landscape, Israeli action may lead to a broader conflict even if the Syrians opt to turn a blind eye.

The chemical weapons are a larger issue. I mentioned last week that the evidence for government was extremely shaky — a problem compounded by the Syrian opposition’s history of half-truths and exaggerations. It’s not looking better as the week goes on, and if the UN inspector’s reports wind up being true — and that’s a big “if,” especially since they’re in the country at the invitation of the Assad regime itself — it would almost certainly kill any proposals to funnel arms to the opposition. For the regime, the only possible reason to use chemical weapons right now is to test whether or not the West is serious, and that’s entirely too dangerous a game when the Syrian Army is still capable of inflicting plenty of damage the old fashioned way. Already after a week of rumor, the US is closer than it’s come in two years of conflict to getting involved - Assad’s managed this war too closely so far to screw up this badly now. For the opposition, on the other hand, accusations of chemical weapons use are the only thing that seems like it will get them the outside help they’re desperately seeking, which means any claims need to be subject to extreme scrutiny.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


April 22 - 28

This Week: Syria's Red Lines, Iraq's Maliki problem, and the Kurdish Peace Process.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 22 − 28!

This is the third in a series of increasingly weekly dispatches. I’m hoping to keep it up.

I’ve also added the New York Times’ Emphasis plugin - it allows you (and me) the ability to link to specific paragraphs within a dispatch, instead of just the dispatch itself. I’ve mostly added it so I can cross link to other posts more easily, but if it’s the sort of thing you’d find useful, check the link above to see how to use it.


Israel claimed this week to have proof that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in an attack that took place on March 19. The White House said on Thursday that US intelligence agencies had come to a similar conclusion, which the administration has previously said would be a “red line” in the Syrian conflict. On Friday, President Obama said that the US was still waiting for more conclusive evidence before deciding how to proceed, as the current evidence remains unreliable.

There are three reasons for the White House’s caution. First, the evidence is still spotty: the soil samples passed through many hands on their way to the intelligence agencies, the symptom reports are largely hearsay, and the rebels have been known to fake evidence of attacks in the past. Given the stakes, it’s prudent to wait until more solid evidence is available. That said, the evidence isn’t that shaky, and the situation in Syria isn’t going to allow much proper investigation - at the end of the day, this matter will be decided on the basis of intelligence assessments, not hard evidence. Second, the last time the US made bold claims about WMDs and a dictator in the middle east, it didn’t go particularly well - US claims of this sort are subject to a lot of scrutiny right now. Finally, though, we frankly don’t want to get involved. The US and the West have done everything possible to avoid actually committing military resources into a messy situation, and the hesitation to make a declaration on Syrian chemical weapon use is certainly driven in part by a desire to put off involvement as long as possible. This is a noble goal after a decade of military adventurism, but it’s starting to become untenable.

If the evidence continues to accumulate that the Syrian Army used chemical weapons, the US will be forced by its own rhetoric to act. Obama has called chemical weapon use a red line often enough that, if it becomes clear Assad has crossed that line, not taking action would be a substantial blow to US credibility abroad. This doesn’t seem a particularly compelling reason to go to war, but there are numerous conflicts around the world that are at least partially held in check by the credibility of US military assurances - including Israeli concerns over the Iranian nuclear program and the state of affairs in the South China Seas. A breach of US credibility in Syria would have effects beyond the Syrian conflict.

There are two actions the US could take to tip the balance of power in the Syrian conflict without actually putting boots on the ground. First, we can start actually arming the rebels. Fears of weapons being funneled to extremists are overblown - the extremists are already far better armed than the rest of the Free Syrian Army - and I think this is almost certain to happen if the White House decides the “red line” has been crossed. This would also give a boost to the groups most palatable to the US and restore part of our reputation among the opposition - there will still be a Syria five years from now, and it would be nice if the people in charge had good things to say about the West. The second, more costly, action would be imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, disabling the Syrian air force. The largest force disparity between the opposition and the government is in air power - the FSA is capable of taking and holding territory, but they’re still extremely vulnerable to the Assad regime’s air force. Removing the threat of bombings would allow the opposition true safe havens within the country and strengthen their hand significantly. The Syrian air force and air defenses are strong enough that this is a high-cost action, but neutralizing Syria’s air force would also mean the West could dodge questions of sending anti-air weapons to the opposition altogether, which would significantly lower the danger posed by weapons falling into extremist hands. The Free Syrian Army is underfunded, underarmed, fractious, and unable to effectively counter the Syrian air force - and despite all that has still managed to wage an effective campaign against the government. With any real outside support at all, I’d expect the tides to shift in favor of the opposition.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the US is extremely wary of getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East. The problem is, after 50-plus years of US engagement in the world, we’re too big and too connected to the rest of the world to be able to pull back like we want to. Syria is increasingly an example of this: the resentment building against the US in Syria isn’t because we got involved, it’s because we’ve avoided involvement in the face of mass atrocities and slaughter on the part of the government. If we ignore the use of chemical weapons, we’re sending a strong signal to the world, and not a good one.


Iraq’s simmering sectarian conflicts exploded on Tuesday when government forces stormed a protest camp, resulting in a gun battle that left 26 people dead. That assault sparked several days of sectarian conflict across the country, leaving at least 40 more dead.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has managed to drag Iraq back into the sectarian war it just barely survived during the worst days of the American occupation. The day after American forces left Iraq, Maliki, a Shia, ordered the arrest of his Sunni Vice President on charges of running a death squad. The sectarian situation hasn’t improved since then - Maliki has continued to use government forces to persecute and arrest prominent Sunni leaders on flimsy evidence, and the Sunni minority in Iraq has started talking about joining their brothers in Syria in the fight against the Shia, who rule both Syria and increasingly Iraq. This is a sharp and unfortunate turnaround from the days of the Sunni Awakening, in which the Sunni militias turned against al-Qaeda fighters and helped end the country’s ferocious civil war. If there’s hope for Iraq right now, it’s that Maliki isn’t particularly popular even among Shia - Iraq is, for now, still a democracy. If the country can survive Maliki’s tenure for another year or so, the next elections may see him out.


The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared its fighters would withdraw from Turkey on May 8, marking a significant step in ending nearly 30 years of armed conflict in the country.

The withdrawal is the next step in a peace process which, after being stalled for years, started showing real promise this year. The tide seems to have shifted for the Kurds: they control the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Syrian army has left Kurdish lands in Syria, and, if the Turkish peace process continues, they could have a home in Turkey again. For Turkey, this looks like a political play: F. Stephen Larrabee of the Rand Corporation suggests Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is looking to shore up Kurdish support for a bid at the presidency next year. Whatever the cause, the end of a 30-year insurgency is good for all parties.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


April 15 - 21

This Week: Maduro "Wins", Musharraf makes a mistake, Italy bumbles, and Guinea Bissau is astonishingly corrupt.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 15-21!

Astute readers will note the events in Boston this week are missing. They were omitted after consideration for two reasons: first, I’m assuming anyone reading this has already been glued to the news out of Boston all week anyway - there’s really no need for a recap at this point. Second, I simply have nothing else to add right now: there’s a lot of theories about motives, affiliations, and outside groups, but nothing solid. If it looks like there’s some solid evidence to tie this to other conflicts or events, I’ll certainly aim to cover that, but right now there’s nothing but speculation.

Regular readers will also note this breaks a recent Dispatch trend by appearing to actually be a Weekly dispatch. I’m trying to get the Dispatch somewhat back on track - it’s actually a bit less stressful when it’s on a real schedule.


Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor Nicolás Maduro won an unexpectedly narrow victory against opposition candidate Henrique Caprilles, taking 50.6% of the vote to Caprilles’ 49%. Caprilles’ supporters took to the streets on Monday after being denied a recount, but by Tuesday, a sharp state crackdown left 7 people dead and prompted Caprilles to call off a march planned on Wednesday for fear of further violence. On Thursday, the National Electoral Council agreed to an expanded audit of the vote, though on Friday Maduro was sworn in as President.

The outcome is an embarrassment for Maduro and the Chavistas. Maduro was expected to win handily - Chavez had beat Caprilles himself by around 10 points less than 6 months ago. Given the advantages Maduro had - almost unlimited access to state funds, use of the state television station, and the blessing of Chavez himself - it’s likely he would have lost in a fair election. Given the widespread allegations of voter fraud, intimidation, and ballot stuffing, it’s likely he lost this one too, but that’s not how Venezuela under Chavez works. Chavez is dead, though, and given Venezuela’s flagging economy and the tough choices that will need to be made over the next few years, Caprilles and the opposition stand a good chance during the next election - provided Maduro doesn’t turn to the Army or his more militant supporters to shore up his support.


Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who returned late in March intending to take part in the upcoming Presidential Elections, has been confined to his house for at least two weeks to face charges of terrorism for firing judges in 2007. Musharraf has had a rough couple weeks: After a tepid reception upon his return, Musharraf was approved to run for parliament in a northern district before being banned by election officials. Disqualified from running for office, his bail was revoked by the courts, who ordered him arrested on the spot. He fled the court to his fortified villa, which has now been declared a “sub-jail,” though on Thursday he was re-arrested and brought back in front of the court, which placed him under house arrest for the next two weeks.

Musharraf’s ill-advised return appears to have been a flight of self-delusion for the former general, but it does pose some danger to the fragile politics of Pakistan. The courts will almost certainly rule against Musharraf: the head of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was one of the judges removed by Musharraf in 2007, and the frontrunner in the current election is Nawaz Sharif, whose previous term in office was cut short by Musharraf’s 1999 coup, so it’s fair to say he doesn’t have many friends outside the military in Pakistan right now. The question is how many friends he has at all - the military so far has responded tepidly to Musharraf’s return, but the Pakistani courts have never indicted a general like this before, and there’s a possibility that a ruling against Musharraf could lead to a dangerous showdown between the military and the courts.

Guinea Bisseau

A US Grand Jury indicted Antonio Injai, the head of Guinea-Bisseau’s armed forces, on drug- and weapon-trafficking charges following a months-long DEA sting operation leading to the arrest of the former chief of the Guinea-Bissau navy José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto. The charges underscore recent accusations by both the DEA and the UN that the country is a major trafficking hub in West Africa.

The details from the DEA indictment are eye-popping: Na Tchuto’s brazenness and the sheer volume of cocaine discussed are stunning. Last April, the Guinea-Bissau army took over the country in a coup, and the military has been running the show since them. The country’s response to the indictment was to fire their top intelligence official for failing to spot the DEA sting operation, which I think says all that needs saying about the government’s stance. The real question is what the indictments will actually accomplish: the country is already well-known as a narco-trafficking hub, and the army was already known to be involved, so there’s not a lot of news here.


After repeated attempts to elect a new President, a required step to calling new elections, the Italian parliament re-elected current President Giorgio Napolitano to a second seven-year term.

Giorgio Napolitano is the first president to be re-elected in the Italian republic’s 67-year history. He is currently 87, which means he’s extremely unlikely to make it through a full 7-year term. His re-election is an open admission of the absolutely dismal state of Italian politics.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


March 31 - April 14

This Week: Kerry Jet-Sets, Morsi's days are numbered, Kim Jong-Un's missiles are prepped, and Syria gets flak jackets.

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for March 31 - April 14!

Note: This Dispatch was written on Sunday. Developments on Monday are not covered.

I missed a couple weeks for a couple reasons, but the Dispatch is back. I’m going to move writing back to Sunday - it’s too easy to slip during the week. Also, I’m now self-hosted again - tumblr gave me a few issues - so do let me know if you see any problems. Note the RSS feed has changed (same URL, but it’s been regenerated), so there may be some oddness there, and some associated weirdness with Mailchimp. That said, if you’re reading this in an RSS reader or an email, it’s obviously working well enough.

I also have a new post up on Bitcoin on my other blog - if you’re interested in the crypto-currency, you can read my take here:

Bitcoin is a 21st Century Hawala

So, let’s get to it!


Venezuelans went to the polls today to decide who will succeed Hugo Chavez, who passed away last month. Pre-election polls had Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s vice president and chosen successor, ahead of opposition leader Henry Capriles by more than 10% leading into the elections.

Capriles and the opposition might be dodging a bullet here. Venezuela’s economy is in poor shape, and it’s not heading towards recovery. If Maduro wins, he will have to consolidate his hold over the fractious groups that make up Chavez’s movement; clean out the rampant corruption that threatens the movement’s support among the people; deal with soaring crime rates, rampant inflation, and falling oil production; and figure out how to maintain Venezuela’s role in the region without its charismatic leader. It’s going to be a rough term regardless of who’s in office, but it would have been a death knell for the opposition to take power for the first time in 14 years in light of all the challenges Venezuela faces. As is, unless Maduro is a much, much better politician than he seems to be, I think he and the rest of the Chavistas are in for a nasty few years. I’ll be very interested to see if the movement holds together in light of the extremely serious challenges it faces.

Update: Preliminary results indicate Maduro won by a mere 51-49.


The head of al-Qaeda in Iraq announced a merger with the al-Nusra Front, a prominent Syrian opposition group, on Tuesday. The al-Nusra Front followed up a day later by publicly pledging its allegiance to al-Qaeda, though it backed off from the talk of an actual merger. The group had been blacklisted by the US State Department for its ties to al-Qaeda in December. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Syrian opposition, pledging more US support for the opposition, though that aid is still restricted to nonlethal items like flak jackets and communication equipment.

The US has been reluctant to send weapons to the Syrian opposition in fear that they could wind up in the hands of groups like the al-Nusra Front. It’s a bit late for that, though: the al-Nusra front is already by far the best armed and trained group in the opposition thanks to its ties to the Iraqi insurgency. Because of that, the US’s caution, while understandable, has spawned exactly the situation it sought to avoid: al-Nusra is the best armed group in the opposition, which means it is the most capable and successful of the rebel groups. Its power and prominence is directly derived from its ample support by outsiders, while the secular groups the West prefers are languishing for want of weapons. As John McCain put it, “I can understand why a fighter in Syria is not comforted by the fact that he might get a flak jacket, especially when he’s being pounded with Scud missiles and air power.” We’re not making friends by refusing to arm the people we ostensibly support in Syria, we’re breeding resentment and increasing the comparative strength of the groups we don’t want assuming power. In the meantime, any semblance of secular Syrian opposition bleeds and dies for want of proper support.

North Korea

After more than a month of bluster and aggressive moves, including the closure of an industrial complex shared with the South, North Korea moved a pair of medium-range missiles into place on the east coast of the country, indicating it plans to attempt a missile test. South Korea and the US have warned the country not to go forward, while Japan has threatened to shoot the missile down. The most likely date for the launch would be April 15, the birthday of Kim il-Sung, the first leader of North Korea.

An assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence service, made the rounds this week. The previously-classified assessment declared with “moderate confidence” that the DPRK could now make a nuclear missile small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, while cautioning the device’s reliability would be “low.”

Finally, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited China in hopes of eliciting that nation’s support in finding a solution to the tensions on the peninsula. The meeting was apparently productive, with China indicating support for both denuclearization and continued peace talks.

The DIA report would be alarming, but the DIA has a bad track record assessing military capabilities - other intelligence agencies disagree with their assessment of the DPRK’s capabilities, and I do as well. North Korea so far has managed to test two quasi-successful nuclear devices underground and has managed to successfully launch one of its ballistic missiles - it’s highly unlikely they could successfully launch a nuclear ballistic missile right now.

The most likely resolution to the current crisis is a missile launch on the 15th. As long as the North doesn’t do anything stupid, like launch it at Japan or South Korea, that’ll probably be the end of the current crisis. That said, if the North miscalculates and provokes either country into shooting down the missile, the crisis could easily escalate. Neither South Korea nor Japan are in any mood to let the North slide right now.

Kerry’s trip to China looks successful — the Chinese seem to be losing patience with the North after repeated snubs by Kim Jong Un. I’m guessing Kerry also pointed out how much US military hardware was being moved into the region because of the recent tensions - far from buffering China against the West, the DPRK has done wonders for improving ties between the US and South Korea and Japan. The last thing China wants now is a war sending a wave of refugees across the North’s border.


It’s been a rough month for Egypt’s embattled president Mohammed Morsi. After riots forced the police from Port Said, the military has taken over the city, sparking calls for military intervention elsewhere in the country. In Cairo, clashes between supporters and opponents of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood last month gave way to far more disturbing sectarian clashes between Coptic Christians and Islamists, which left several dead. The country’s suffering economy is taking its toll as well - in late March, the government announced it would start rationing subsidized bread, a further stress on the nation’s poor, and chronic food and fuel shortages and regular blackouts plague the country.

I’m frankly not sure what the path ahead looks like for Egypt. Morsi is a failed leader. He was never able to walk the line between his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest of Egyptian society well enough to shore up his support; he failed to reform the police and the interior ministry; when pressed, he turned the police against the protestors again; he’s lost control of at least one major Egyptian city; the economy has spiraled even further down; and the military is starting to play a prominent role in internal politics again. At this rate, there’s no way Morsi survives as Egypt’s leader - if he were half the politician he’d need to be to fix this mess, he wouldn’t be in it in the first place.

As to the rest of the country, the basic problem is that the country’s revolution didn’t actually challenge the country’s power structures. Both the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood are factions from the Mubarak era, the judiciary is still stacked with Mubarak’s judges, the police and the interior ministry are still designed as tools of repression, not security or safety, and nobody’s managed to clean out the widespread corruption or interest groups that built up over 40 years of autocratic rule. In the two years since Mubarak was overthrown, the country has not had a genuinely representative government: parliament was dissolved almost instantly, Morsi was the product of intense back-room dealings, and the current “constitution” was a rough hatchet job on the Mubarak-era version.

I don’t know what the road between here and a functioning Egyptian government looks like. The most likely event now is that the situation on the street continues to deteriorate until the military removes Morsi from power. At that point, if the leaders of the military are smart, they’ll take the time to ensure a transition to a genuinely representative government, one that has some legitimacy to the protestors in Cairo, Port Said, and the rest of Egypt. Given how badly the transition was screwed up last time, though, I don’t have a lot of confidence.

Thanks for joining me! Hopefully the Dispatch will be back on a more regular schedule in the next couple weeks.


March 7 - 18

This Week: North Korea yells a lot, I get ranty about Cyprus, and Pakistan's government makes it.

Welcome to the Dispatch for March 7 - 18!

North Korea

In an unanimous vote, the UN Security Council passed a new round of economic sanctions against North Korea following the country’s recent nuclear test. In response, the DPRK declared the 1953 armistice agreement with South Korea nullified and began making motions to prepare for military action, though only rhetoric has followed so far.

NightWatch has been following North Korea’s actions closely, and much of the below is at least informed by his analysis - if you’re interested in more information, I encourage you to subscribe to NightWatch.

NightWatch notes that the DPRK has taken several “high-cost” actions that indicate preparation for a conflict above and beyond the normal cheap rhetoric and military tours. Many high-ranking officials are now living underground, reserve units have been called up, and non-military industrial production has been halted. NightWatch notes that these are extremely expensive actions to take, since they strongly impact civilian life, cut food production and available resources, and run the risk of promoting backlashes amongst an already restive population - this indicates the North is serious about the latest round of provocations. NightWatch judges the next two to three weeks as the most likely window for any DPRK military action, as early April is the planting season, when keeping civilian military reserves out of the fields becomes even more expensive.

It’s highly likely that the North will engage in some sort of military provocation with the South soon, though this doesn’t mean they want an actual war - as bellicose as the rhetoric from the North is, they well know war would be suicide for the regime. The most likely scenario right now is that the North is trying to reshape the negotiating landscape, and any pending attack on South Korea will be intended to show that the armistice, and the negotiating positions built up around it, are well and truly dead. They’ve been stuck with a losing hand for a while, and with China losing patience, the North may see this as their last opportunity to secure a better deal before their Chinese patrons start really tightening the screws. The question now is what role Kim Jong-Un is really playing in all this: he’s either a 28 year old with scant leadership experience playing the most dangerous game of brinksmanship in the world, or he’s been relegated to a figurehead by the military, who rely on the constant state of near-war to justify their positions of privilege in the otherwise bankrupt state. Neither case is good.


On the brink for a number of years, Cyprus began negotiating a bailout from the IMF, ECB, and European Commission, collectively known as the Troika, earlier this month. The final package was agreed upon on the 15th, but it included a startling provision: a one time 6.75% levy on all deposits under EUR100,000 and a 9.9% levy on all deposits over EUR100,000. The provision prompted a bank run in Cyprus, forcing the closure of the country’s banks through this week, and the Cypriot Parliament resoundingly rejected the agreement on Tuesday. Cyprus is seeking to renegotiate the package now, and is also considering other options for obtaining the needed capital.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with the biggest and most consequential aspect of the situation, the demand by the Troika that ordinary Cypriots’ savings be confiscated to pay for the bailout. This is the dumbest policy move from the Eurozone since, well, possibly ever - and that’s a stiff field after the last 5 years of shitty economic policy. The one iron-clad rule of banking regulation is that you never touch small savings, because that will instantly cause bank runs, which turn small banking problems into giant catastrophes. Until now, the Eurozone has insisted that small depositors are sacrosanct, even if their wages, jobs, livelihood, and chances at any sort of reasonable economic future were not, and that small concession has prevented giant queues outside banks and further bank collapses. Now, while trying to convince people that the levy doesn’t actually violate that promise, the Troika has made the worst possible move they could have, spooking not just Cypriots but anyone in any country in the Eurozone which might possibly face some form of banking hardship - which, at last glance, was just about all of them.

The baffling part is that the total bailout amount needed by Cyprus was about $10Bn, which is a rounding error for the Eurozone at large. After almost a year of relative stability, the Troika threw the entire Euro area into chaos over a bit more than half of NASA’s annual budget. There’s a lot of politics at play here: Cyprus is known as a banking haven and they’ve been playing loose with their banking regulations for a while, a lot of the money in Cypriot banks is Russian, and it’s an election year in Germany - not a great year to go hat in hand to the German public. That’s no excuse for policy this bad, though, and especially over an amount of money smaller than Yahoo!’s market cap. In general, if the amount of money required to prevent this sort of problem wouldn’t even make it onto Forbes’ top 10 list, just sign the goddamn check and be done with it.

The root problem is that the Eurozone is still treating a banking problem like a sovereign debt problem. The blueprint for Cyprus is the same as it was for Ireland and Spain: the banks collapsed, forcing the government to take on the banks’ debts, sparking a sovereign debt crisis. The real problem is that the banks should have been regulated and backstopped by the ECB in the first place, but instead of just recapitalizing the banks, the Eurozone has insisted on lending to national governments, which means the governments are now deeply in debt for the money needed to prop up the banks. That, combined with highly counterproductive austerity programs, have turned a banking crisis into an economic and political disaster. The US faced the same scenario in 2008, but because the Federal Reserve stepped in to backstop the banks directly, we’ve largely escaped the morass the Eurozone has blundered into. Until the ECB and the European Commission start dealing with the banking problem as a banking problem and stop trying to project a morality play onto the situation, they’re going to keep lurching from self-created crisis to self-created crisis.


On March 16, the Pakistani government completed its full 5-year term in office, the first civilian government ever to do so. Elections of a new government are expected in early May.

The PPP, Pakistan’s ruling party, leaves behind a country wracked with corruption, crumbling infrastructure and a weakening economy and facing the rise of militant islamists and social discord. Their tenure has been checkered at best, but few expected them to make it this far. I’ve been extremely pessimistic about Pakistan this year, and I still am, but this is a milestone to be celebrated.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!