What do Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have in common? An unhealthy Twitter habit

This morning’s Observer column:

Why do billionaires tweet? Is it because they no longer have to earn a living? Or because they’re bored? Or because they spend a lot of time in, er, the smallest room in the mansion? Elon Musk, for example, currently the world’s richest fruitcake, has said that “At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne”, adding that “it gives me solace”. This revelation motivated the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to do some calculations, leading to the conclusion that more than 8,000 tweets over 12.5 years suggests that, on average, Musk “poops” twice a day. (I make it 1.75 a day, but that’s just quibbling.)

So why does Musk tweet so much? One explanation is that he just can’t help himself. He has, after all, revealed that he has Asperger’s. “Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things,” he said on Saturday Night Live, “but that’s just how my brain works”. Understood. It may also be a partial explanation of his business success, because his mastery of SpaceX and Tesla suggests not only high intelligence but also an ability to focus intensely on exceedingly complex problems without being distracted by other considerations.

There are, however, darker interpretations…

Read on

Quote of the day

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You knows guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway, so it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them”.

General James N. Mattis, newly-appointed Head of US Central Command and therefore General Petraeus’s Commanding Officer.

The quotation comes from a speech he made at a San Diego Forum in 2005 and reported in today’s Herald Trib.

Encouraging, ne c’est pas?

The Quagmire

Hindsight, they say, is the only exact science. The trouble is that we need it now. The news that Obama had fired General McChrystal while keeping the policy that the general was trying to implement sent me scurrying to locate my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Why? Because it reviews the story of the US’s adventure in Vietnam with the benefit of hindsight, and in the process makes plain the futility and stupidity of the enterprise. And I’m thinking that US policy in Afghanistan has all the same hallmarks, and yet we’re locked into the doomed enterprise much as Lyndon Johnson was in the 1960s.

One comparison in particular strikes me. Tuchman points out that the more enfeebled, corrupt and incompetent the regime in South Vietnam became, the more influence it exerted on its superpower patron. Spool forward to Afghanistan and we have the Karzai administration — corrupt, incompetent and feeble — more or less holding the US government to ransom. Karzai stole the presidential election, and yet was endorsed by Obama and Gordon Brown. There are 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan fighting what they all recognise as a futile, unwinnable war. A steady stream of bodybags returns to the US and to RAF Brize Norton ever week (1,000 to the US, 300 to the UK) We have a fresh, new administration in Britain which is cheerily engaged in a root-and-branch examination of public spending, and yet there’s not a hint that an adventure that must be costing £100 million a week should be re-assessed. Instead David Cameron goes to Afghanistan, is photographed with Karzai and solemnly restates his administration’s resolute commitment to the whole doomed charade. And back in London almost nobody (except for the columnist Simon Jenkins) seems willing to ask the question that needs to be asked: what the f*** are we doing there?

But it was the same in the 1960s. There were a few voices in Washington who asked awkward questions, but in the main there was no public debate about the wisdom — never mind the ethics or the feasability — of the war in Southeast Asia. And so the killing continued until — eventually — the US bowed to the inevitable and scuttled.

Now Obama has fired a general but kept the war. Worse still, he has appointed a successor to McChrystal who, like General Westmoreland in Vietnam, is going to prolong the US commitment indefinitely. Andrew Sullivan has a wonderful column this week about the implications of appointing General Petraeus, “the real Pope of counter-insurgency”, to lead the war in Afghanistan. Here’s a sample:

Obama’s gamble on somehow turning the vast expanse of that ungovernable “nation” into a stable polity dedicated to fighting Jihadist terror is now as big as Bush’s in Iraq – and as quixotic. It is also, in my view, as irrational a deployment of resources and young lives that America cannot afford and that cannot succeed. It really is Vietnam – along with the crazier and crazier rationales for continuing it. But it is now re-starting in earnest ten years in, dwarfing Vietnam in scope and longevity.

One suspects there is simply no stopping this war machine, just as there is no stopping the entitlement and spending machine. Perhaps McChrystal would have tried to wind things up by next year – but his frustration was clearly fueled by the growing recognition that he could not do so unless he surrendered much of the country to the Taliban again. So now we have the real kool-aid drinker, Petraeus, who will refuse to concede the impossibility of success in Afghanistan just as he still retains the absurd notion that the surge in Iraq somehow worked in reconciling the sectarian divides that still prevent Iraq from having a working government. I find this doubling down in Afghanistan as Iraq itself threatens to spiral out of control the kind of reasoning that only Washington can approve of.

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives.

All of which seems to me to be spot on. We don’t need to wait for hindsight to realise the absurdity of what we’ve got ourselves into. The Americans will have to answer for themselves. But the UK is — theoretically — still a sovereign state: so why isn’t there a serious debate about it here? Now.

Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game

From openDemocracy

A third assessment of post-invasion violent deaths in Iraq was published on 9 January 2008 by the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious platform for medical research and scientific debates edited in Boston, Massachusetts. The lead article in the journal – “Violence-Related Mortality in Iraq from 2003 to 2006” – reports the results of an inquiry by the Iraq Family Health Survey Study Group (IFHS), involving collaboration between national and regional ministers in Iraq and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It finds that 151,000 (between 104,000 and 220,000) people died from violence in Iraq between March 2003 and June 2006…

Musharraf: Pakistan’s very own neo-con

Interesting column by Sidney Blumenthal on how Musharraf has lerned a thing or two from Bush and Cheney.

Musharraf’s coup spectacularly illustrates the “Bush effect”. His speech of November 3, explaining his seizure of power, is among the most significant and revealing documents of this new era in its cynical exploitation of the American example. In his speech, Musharraf mocks and echoes Bush’s rhetoric. Tyranny, not freedom, is on the march. Musharraf appropriates the phrase “judicial activism” – the epithet hurled by American conservatives at liberal decisions of the courts since the Warren-led Supreme Court issued Brown versus Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in schools – and makes it his own. This term “judicial activism” has no other source. It is certainly not a phrase that originated in Pakistan. “The judiciary has interfered, that’s the basic issue,” Musharraf said.

Indeed, under Bush, the administration has equated international law, the system of justice, and lawyers with terrorism. In the March 2005 national defense strategy, this conflation of enemies became official doctrine: “Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.”

So who didn’t ‘get’ it?

Lovely column by Geoffrey Wheatcroft which includes this gem:

As to the idea, flourished after the event by the dreaded liberal hawks as well as neoconservatives, that an invasion would bring democracy to Iraq, it’s tempting to say that comment is superfluous. In fact there is still something to be said – and it was said by Jacques Chirac at a meeting with Tony Blair that has been described by Sir Stephen Wall.

While reiterating his opposition to the war that was about to begin, Chirac made a number of specific points. He reminded Blair that he and his friend Bush knew nothing of the reality of war but that he did: 50 years ago, the young Chirac served as a conscript in the awful French war in Algeria, which Iraq resembles in all too many ways. Then he said that the Anglo-Saxons seemed to think that they would be welcomed with open arms, but they shouldn’t count on it. In a very percipient point, Chirac added that a Shia majority shouldn’t be confused with what we understand as democracy.

He ended by asking whether Blair realised that, by invading Iraq, he might yet precipitate a civil war there. As the British left, Blair turned to his colleagues and said, doubtless with that boyish grin we happily see less of nowadays, “Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it.” Well, who got it?

Is the oil, then?

Writing in the LRB, Jim Holt thinks it is

Iraq is ‘unwinnable’, a ‘quagmire’, a ‘fiasco’: so goes the received opinion. But there is good reason to think that, from the Bush-Cheney perspective, it is none of these things. Indeed, the US may be ‘stuck’ precisely where Bush et al want it to be, which is why there is no ‘exit strategy’.

Iraq has 115 billion barrels of known oil reserves. That is more than five times the total in the United States. And, because of its long isolation, it is the least explored of the world’s oil-rich nations. A mere two thousand wells have been drilled across the entire country; in Texas alone there are a million. It has been estimated, by the Council on Foreign Relations, that Iraq may have a further 220 billion barrels of undiscovered oil; another study puts the figure at 300 billion. If these estimates are anywhere close to the mark, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil resources. The value of Iraqi oil, largely light crude with low production costs, would be of the order of $30 trillion at today’s prices. For purposes of comparison, the projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.

Who will get Iraq’s oil? One of the Bush administration’s ‘benchmarks’ for the Iraqi government is the passage of a law to distribute oil revenues. The draft law that the US has written for the Iraqi congress would cede nearly all the oil to Western companies. The Iraq National Oil Company would retain control of 17 of Iraq’s 80 existing oilfields, leaving the rest – including all yet to be discovered oil – under foreign corporate control for 30 years. ‘The foreign companies would not have to invest their earnings in the Iraqi economy,’ the analyst Antonia Juhasz wrote in the New York Times in March, after the draft law was leaked. ‘They could even ride out Iraq’s current “instability” by signing contracts now, while the Iraqi government is at its weakest, and then wait at least two years before even setting foot in the country.’ As negotiations over the oil law stalled in September, the provincial government in Kurdistan simply signed a separate deal with the Dallas-based Hunt Oil Company, headed by a close political ally of President Bush.

How will the US maintain hegemony over Iraqi oil? By establishing permanent military bases in Iraq. Five self-sufficient ‘super-bases’ are in various stages of completion. All are well away from the urban areas where most casualties have occurred. There has been precious little reporting on these bases in the American press, whose dwindling corps of correspondents in Iraq cannot move around freely because of the dangerous conditions. (It takes a brave reporter to leave the Green Zone without a military escort.) In February last year, the Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks described one such facility, the Balad Air Base, forty miles north of Baghdad. A piece of (well-fortified) American suburbia in the middle of the Iraqi desert, Balad has fast-food joints, a miniature golf course, a football field, a cinema and distinct neighbourhoods – among them, ‘KBR-land’, named after the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most of the construction work at the base. Although few of the 20,000 American troops stationed there have ever had any contact with an Iraqi, the runway at the base is one of the world’s busiest. ‘We are behind only Heathrow right now,’ an air force commander told Ricks…

Blackwaters run deep

Maureen Dowd in the NYT has been mulling over the Blackwater affair…

Americans have been antimercenary since the British sent 30,000 German Hessians after George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

But W. outsourced his presidency to Cheney and Rummy, and Cheney and Rummy went to war on the cheap and outsourced large chunks of the Iraq occupation to Halliburton and Blackwater. The American taxpayer got gouged, and so did the American reputation.

The mercenaries inflame Iraqis even as Gen. David Petraeus tries to win their trust.

Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, summoned the 38-year-old crew-cut chairman of Blackwater, Erik Prince, to defend his private security company yesterday.

Once there was the military-industrial complex. Now we have the mercenary-evangelical complex.

Mr. Prince, a former intern to the first President Bush and a former Navy Seal, is from a well-to-do and well-connected Republican family from Michigan.

He and his father both have close ties to conservative Christian groups. His sister was a Pioneer for W., raising $100,000 in 2004, and Erik Prince has given more than $225,000 to Republicans…

Dowd says that Blackwater has been “the beneficiary of $1 billion in federal contracts, including a no-bid contract with the State Department worth hundreds of millions.”

The blame game

From today’s New York Times

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 — President Bush, appearing confident about sustaining support for his Iraq strategy, met at the Pentagon on Friday with the uniformed leaders of the nation’s armed services and then pointedly accused the war’s opponents of politicizing the debate over what to do next.

“The stakes in Iraq are too high and the consequences too grave for our security here at home to allow politics to harm the mission of our men and women in uniform,” Mr. Bush said in a statement after his meeting with the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines in a briefing room known as the Tank.

The meeting, which lasted an hour and a half, was among the president’s last Iraq strategy sessions before he leaves for Australia to meet with leaders of Asian and Pacific nations. It came on the eve of a string of reports and hearings that, starting next week, could determine the course of the remaining 16 months of Mr. Bush’s presidency.

Beginning on Tuesday, when Congress returns from its August recess, lawmakers are prepared to debate what to do in Iraq in daily hearings that will culminate on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 with appearances by the ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, and the military commander there, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Congress has mandated a progress report from the White House before Sept. 15, and Mr. Bush chided lawmakers for calling for a change in policy before hearing the views of the two men who are, as administration officials repeatedly point out, “on the ground in Iraq.”

What’s happening is that Bush & Co are preparing to blame the Democrats for undermining the Iraq venture just when it appeared that it might have turned the corner.

The outlines of the argument are beginning to emerge. Here are the headlines:

  • There is some evidence that the ‘surge’ has worked in Baghdad; and
  • If US forces were given more time and resources, there is a chance that some kind of workable country would have emerged from the mess; but
  • The lily-livered Democrats killed off that possibility, and therefore
  • It was the Democrats who ‘let our boys down’.

    One of the problems we outsiders have is that it’s almost impossible to reach any informed judgement about the current overall position in Iraq. Of course the media reports are bad, but I don’t trust them because we know that Western media cannot operate in 99 per cent of the country.

    For that reason, I found the recent report by Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution very interesting. Here’s their ‘overall assessment’:

    There is a great deal going well in Iraq but, unfortunately, also a great deal going badly. Points of view often heard in Washington, that the war is already lost on the one hand, or bound to be won if we are adequately patient on the other, seem at odds with conditions on the battlefield and throughout the country.

    The greatest progress has been made in providing security to the Iraqi people in those areas currently under direct U.S. military supervision—namely, Baghdad, its outlying areas to north and south (the “Belts”), al-Anbar province in the West, and Ninawah and Salah ad-Din in the North. Overall, we felt that progress in security was actually greater than what we had expected given how recently the increase in troops as well as the change in U.S. and Iraqi strategy and tactics under General David Petraeus had occurred.

    We assessed that national, macro-level economic progress remained marginal, but there was some considerable local economic progress, typically correlated with the presence of a fully-staffed provincial reconstruction team (PRT) or such a team embedded within a military unit (EPRT). We saw effectively no signs of progress in the high-level political discussions meant to effect national reconciliation.

    Current U.S. strategy envisions the provision of greater security making possible local economic and political progress (of which we saw some modest but noteworthy evidence) and strategic-level national reconciliation or accommodation (of which we saw no evidence). Our observations suggest that the Coalition is making progress in accordance with this strategy—although it is very early in the process, there are still very significant hurdles to overcome, and there is no evidence that can prove that this strategy is destined to succeed. Nevertheless, especially given the difficulties of finding a viable alternative strategy (a “Plan B”) for Iraq that would safeguard U.S. interests, we conclude that the progress made so far argues for giving the surge and its attendant military and political strategies more time. However, we caution that the U.S. is not yet irrevocably headed for success in Iraq, so the Administration and the Congress should remain vigilant. The change in course in Iraq has produced enough success to warrant supporting its continuation at least through the remainder of 2007, but progress should be continuously reassessed, especially beginning again in early 2008.

  • Hmmm… Note the way the Brookings guys try to have it both ways. On the one hand,

    “given the difficulties of finding a viable alternative strategy (a “Plan B”) for Iraq that would safeguard U.S. interests, we conclude that the progress made so far argues for giving the surge and its attendant military and political strategies more time.

    [Translation: it’s worth persevering. Indeed we have no option but to persevere.]


    However, we caution that the U.S. is not yet irrevocably headed for success in Iraq, so the Administration and the Congress should remain vigilant.

    [Translation: we never said it was a sure thing, so don’t blame us for not portraying the downside.]

    Don’t you just love that phrase “the U.S. is not yet irrevocably headed for success in Iraq”?