Bosnia and Herzegovina’s quandaries

I did a lengthy interview this week with Bosnian Federation Radio on Bosnia’s current quandaries. Here it is in English:

and in Bosnian:

I’ve got a book manuscript drafted that delves deeper into these issues. More on that anon.

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Yesterday Donald Trump lied about what Mexican President Peña Nieto said to him about paying for the border wall (Clinton has been quick to grab that opportunity), then gave a speech on immigration so full of exaggerations and misconceptions that it takes quite a while to read the fact-checking. That was all par for the course. Trump’s campaign is shameless in bending the truth to his bleak conception of the world.

The painful part is this: immigration is not one of America’s big problems. Illegal immigration, in particular from Mexico, is way down.  More Mexicans have been leaving than arriving. Mexican immigrationEnforcement at the border is up. Do what you like about the 11 million undocumented immigrants, it isn’t going to cut the violent crime rate, which is also way down,

violent crime rate 2

or significantly boost low-wage employment. American demographic growth, largely due to its Hispanic population, is one of the saving factors in our economic situation compared to the rest of the world, as it helps to sustain growth in demand that is sorely lacking in Europe, Russia, and even China.

Even Trump’s talk about immigration isn’t really about immigration. It’s about giving working class whites good excuses for why they are economically unsuccessful. Truth is the lower “middle class” (working class for the rest of the world) hasn’t seen any big increases in its net income for almost 40 years. Where income has been growingThat however is largely due to technological change and tax policies, in particular the Republican effort to lower taxes on upper “middle class” (aka rich) guys like me. I much appreciate that of course, but I won’t vote for it because of its consequences for my fellow Americans.

Too bad so many of them don’t see it the same way. Instead they look to a really rich guy, who is proud of his use of tax loopholes available only to the wealthy, to save them from the likes of Hillary Clinton, who wants to lower taxes and improve services to working class people. But those working class people, many of our white, male fellow citizens believe, are black and Hispanic. Splitting the working class along racial lines is a well-worn technique in American politics. It’s how the wealthy stay in power, and wealthy.

Trump is using this technique in ways that many thought were outmoded. He has learned how to express racist views in ways that the press will cover and his white supremacist supporters will cheer. That’s what building the wall is all about. It would have cost close to $5000 per illegal immigrant currently in the US, assuming had been 100% effective and came in at the $25 billion estimate everyone seems to assume. Clearly the wall is not the most economical way to block Mexicans, but it is a politically acceptable way to express hostility towards them.

The wall is of course not Trump’s only proposition. He also wants a “values” test for Muslims. This revival of the Cold War McCarran Act is almost laughable. Many people at Trump’s rallies wouldn’t meet my own values test, which would be based simply on the proposition that all people are created equal. That would include gays, lesbians, and transgender people as well as Muslims, Hispanics, blacks and others who are few and far between among Trump’s cheering crowds. I wonder why that is.

All this painful stuff is of course being broadcast not only in the US but also abroad. Trump doesn’t have to get elected to cause serious damage to America. He is of course entitled to his views, but I am also entitled to protest that he in no way speaks for me or the America I cherish. Still, it’s painful.


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Dear Mr. President,

HossamalSaadiSecretary Kerry last week failed to reach agreement with Moscow on coordinating attacks on extremists in Syria. Even his effort to reinstate the cessation of hostilities and ensure humanitarian access has proven a bridge too far for the Russians.

Syria is now in the sixth year of a war that has killed half a million people, displaced more than half the population, threatens the stability of friends throughout the Middle East, and has damaging repercussions among our European allies. Your remaining months in office provide an opportunity to steer this horrendous conflict towards a peaceful settlement. If you refuse to do more than you have done so far, it will discredit your efforts to reduce and reshape US commitments in the Middle East and haunt your legacy.

Your policy has been a judicious one. You have tried hard to keep the US focus on the most serious threats to our national security: the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. You have avoided military clashes with the pro-Assad coalition, including the Russian air force, the Syrian armed forces, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as its surrogates. You have provided military assistance to non-extremists prepared to fight the Islamic State as well as billions in humanitarian and other assistance to civilians.

The results in the past year have been good when measured narrowly against your objective: to block the main threats to the US. The Islamic State is losing territory, especially along the northern border with Turkey. The successful operation with Turkish support took Jarablus and blocked an unwarranted move there by the Kurds. This will cut off ISIS’s vital supply lines and reduce its revenue. An attack on ISIS’s capital Raqqa next year is a real possibility. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria has disowned its loyalty to Al Qaeda central, though it maintains goals that are anathema to US interests. We are currently talking with the Russians about jointly targeting what is now call Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS).

Your judicious approach has however had unintended consequences. Fully backed by Russia and Iran, Assad is gaining ground. Attacks on JFS, should the talks with Moscow eventually prove successful, will give him an opportunity to gain more. Over a million civilians are besieged. Few new refugees are escaping. Talks on a 48-hour humanitarian truce for Aleppo have bogged down. The stalwart rebels of Daraya have surrendered, after a four-year siege. It is clear the Syrian regime is again using chemical weapons. The Assad forces and their allies are killing the non-extremists America supports, driving others to make common cause with extremists. There is declining hope for a political transition to a non-Islamist, democratic regime that will preserve Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The US should not abandon that goal. Here are three things you can do in the next few months that will demonstrate American will and reignite diplomatic efforts in favor of a negotiated political solution to the Syria conflict that meets US requirements:

  1. Support legislation in Congress that imposes sanctions on those responsible for harm to civilians.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 would levy financial, trade, travel and arms sanctions on those who are responsible for human rights abuses and those who facilitate them. While its practical impact might be limited, because few of the perpetrators are likely to come within US jurisdiction, it would send an important signal and could raise doubts in the Syrian security forces about carrying out illegal orders to harm civilians. We should invite the EU to join us in imposing sanctions.

2. Ground the Syrian air force, both fixed wing and helicopters. 

John Kerry is still trying to get the Russians to do this, as the quid pro quo for cooperation with the US in attacking the former Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. If he fails, you should tell the Russians and Syrians that any Syrian aircraft responsible for bombing civilians will be subject to attack by the US. Few Syrian pilots will be prepared to take the risk. If they do, even shooting down one or two such aircraft, or striking them on land, would likely ground the entire fleet.

3. Get Hizbollah out of Syria. 

Lebanese Hizbollah has provided vital ground forces to Assad, especially in the fighting around Aleppo and along the Lebanese border. This Shia militia also contributes to Islamic State and Al Qaeda recruitment of Sunnis, as its activities illustrate all too clearly that the fight in Syria now has a sectarian dimension. Hizbollah is a terrorist organization that has killed Americans and will likely do so again in the future. If the US is fighting terrorism in Syria, it should not be immune. We should tell the Russians and Iranians that we want Hizbollah out of Syria or it will be subject to US attacks, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

You could also consider a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, to protect opposition-held enclaves in the north and south for example. But that would create target-rich areas that have to be continuously defended, both on the ground and in the air. The options above are less burdensome and would signal more unequivocally US determination to protect Syrian civilians wherever they live.

These moves would also improve the odds for a diplomatic solution. Once Assad is deprived of the air and ground assets that have enabled him to survive and even given him an edge in the fighting, the conditions will ripen for a negotiated outcome early in Hillary Clinton’s presidency. That would be a worthy legacy.

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Here is why we don’t need a wall

While Donald Trump has let up on deporting millions of people out of the US, he continues to press for the wall on the Mexican border, largely to prevent crime (especially murders). The Economist provides this compelling graphic illustrating why the wall is unnecessary:

Here is why you don't need a wall

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Believing in peace in Colombia

A SAIS alum living in Bogotá writes: 

While the world rejoices that the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached an agreement to end a 52 year-old conflict, my parents refuse to accept the terms negotiated in the agreement. “Those people should be in jail for what they have done to this country!” announced my father, a 65 year-old who in his life has not seen peace. “I am going to vote ‘No’ in the plebiscite, because I don’t believe in this government,” declared my mother. The October 2 will give Colombians an unprecedented opportunity to vote ‘Yes’, or ‘No’ on a yet-to-be determined question.

My parents are not alone in their skepticism of the agreement. Many Colombians, led by former president (2002-10) Alvaro Uribe Velez, are campaigning against it on the grounds that the government was too lenient in terms of transitional justice, political participation, and reparations for victims. The sentiment is understandable. The name FARC in Colombia carries the  psychological weight of massacres, kidnappings, bombs, and all sorts of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the world’s longest standing Marxist guerrilla.

The terms of the agreement are revealed in a 297-page document that the government has done a poor job socializing to the public. It contains important concessions by both the government and the FARC. Tellingly, the FARC agreed to disengage from the narcotics trade. However, the scourge of narcotrafficking will remain as long as consumers in Europe and the United States continue with their voracious and inelastic appetite for cocaine. The agreement also contains landmark steps on victims rights, a truth commission, and transitional justice for FARC-fighters, paramilitaries, and state actors who committed grave crimes in the context of the conflict.

The agreement will arguably take 20 years or more to implement, but its effects will begin to be seen on tomorrow, August 29,when the government and the FARC declare a complete bilateral ceasefire.  The accords will be signed in Bogota on September 23, which will signal ‘D-day,’ the beginning of the transition period when the FARC will move to 23 hamlet zones and eight temporary camps across the country for 180 days. This will be followed by an 18-month stabilization period, a 10-year period of implementation of the agreements and a further 10-year period to consolidate peace. This doesn’t mean Colombia is out of the woods yet, as there remain important  narcotrafficking Organized Armed Groups (GAO) and a smaller, yet fierce, communist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). These groups will continue their criminal activities for a while. But removing the FARC from the picture will make a huge dent in the bloodshed.

Colombia deaths

Figure 1: Showing the number of civilian, public forces, and FARC deaths during offensive actions and combats. Source: CERAC

As a result of the agreement, little will change for urbanites in Bogota, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. Yet for individuals living in distant rural areas, the effect will be enormous. No longer will the FARC recruit their children for war, plant landmines, destroy their makeshift infrastructure, or participate in battles in their territories. The implementation of the accords will mark the beginning of the implementation of an ambitious plan to redistribute land to victims, build tertiary roads, and provide rural electrification to the countryside, which has suffered from the abandonment of the State for over 200 years. It is an enormously complex challenge, to which the United States, European Union, and United Nations have pledged assistance.

Yet the opportunity to dream of a better country, one where political differences are debated and argued, where we finally get an opportunity to heal 52 year old wounds, depends on the October 2 vote. Peace with the FARC is within our reach. The referendum will initiate a transition to a period full of uncertainty but immense promise.

In order to fulfill that promise, the first order of business will be to rid ourselves of the generational bitterness caused by the longstanding confrontation. “Do you think you will see peace during your lifetime, Dad?” I asked. “Probably not,” he replied, “but your children might.”

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This is an extraordinary question. Heather McGhee has a good answer:

Hers would be good advice in many countries, across many social divides, not just in the US between whites and blacks.

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