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Monday, December 21, 2015

Democrats divided on how to approach Russia

The three Democratic candidates for President of the United States had another chance over the weekend to lay out their plans for US-Russia relations.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders again stressed the need for an "international coalition", including Russia, to defeat Da'esh (Islamic State).

"This is a war for the soul of Islam. The troops on the ground should not be American troops, they should be Muslim troops. I believe that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have got to step up to the plate, have got to contribute the money that we need, and the troops we need to destroy ISIS with American support."

This is a sentiment that has been in American minds for a while-some Americans wonder why the United States has to fight battles halfway across the world when substantial military powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have these threats at a much closer proximity.

But Sanders' idea is still a bit faulty. There is already an international coalition to fight against the vile terrorists still controlling large swaths of Iraq and Syria, but it is a deeply divided band of groups fighting the terrorists in Syria, both inside Syria and outside it. A recent political cartoon from The Salt Lake Tribune shows Presidents Obama and Hollande observing the "anti-ISIS coalition", which consists of multiple different heads of state, including President Putin, pointing pistols at each other.

Cartoon by Pat Bagley, appeared in Saturday Nov 28 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune

The disagreements and divisions in this coalition are numerous. Turkey and Russia are at odds because of the Russian plane shot down by the Turkish Air Force. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey  do not want Bashar Al-Assad to stay in power, while Russia and Iran do. Disagreements regarding the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have come to the forefront as well.

Sanders was quickly questioned as the debate moderator told him that has happened many times before and asked him about a plan B if his approach proved unsuccessful, to which Sanders stuck to his guns and argued that his plan would work provided wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar contributed to their potential.

The problem here is that Saudi Arabia in particular has been criticized for its widespread export of Wahhabi Islam-a fundamentalist sect of Islam. Its human rights record is one of the worst in the world and non-Muslims are not allowed to practice their religion openly in Saudi Arabia.

Clinton, like some of her Republican counterparts, advocated for a no-fly-zone over Syria in order to "gain some leverage" with Russia, but unlike some of the Republicans, she shied away from the question that followed-whether she would shoot down a Russian plane, claiming that it would not come to that.

The reality is that a no-fly zone, while it could, like Clinton said, provide safe haven for people fleeing violence  is a serious risk. But if Russia doesn't approve of it like Clinton suggested they might citing an agreement made in Geneva a few days ago with the supervision of the UN, it would only exacerbate tensions where they are already high.

The other issue dividing Russia and the US in Syria is Assad and whether he will stay in power in Syria. Since the Russian intervention, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has seen his position in power, though still uncertain, strengthen. Forces loyal to his government are slowly but surely gaining ground, much to the chagrin of Turkey, the United States, and much of the Arab world but to the relief of Iraq and Iran.

It cannot be forgotten that Assad's violence against his own people has been one of the main reasons that what began as a peaceful uprising became a civil war. The brutality of Da'esh has overshadowed his crimes and allowed him to stay as an alternative to the fractured opposition and it is still very unclear as to who will run post-war Syria.

Sanders seemed less interested in replacing Assad than Clinton, citing the multiple recent revolutions that ended in instability and violence in the Middle East, namely, Libya and Yemen.

It is a difficult tightrope to walk in Syria, and there are very few sides in the Syrian conflict that seem to be approved of by all sides.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Republicans Continue to Discuss the Future of US-Russia Relations

The debate schedule marches on in the United States. On Tuesday, the top nine Republican Party candidates as well as four less popular candidates debated each other again, this time focusing mostly on national security and on fighting terrorism. 

Understandably, the debate started in Syria, where a complicated civil war has become a proxy crusade for the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. 

Governor John Kasich of Ohio was first to chime in, and he didn't leave much reservation about his view.  

"I don’t understand this thing about Assad. He has to go. Assad is aligned with Iran and Russia. The one thing we want to prevent is we want to prevent Iran being able to extend a Shia crescent all across the Middle East. Assad has got to go."

Kasich is correct that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is an Alawite Shia Muslim allied with Iran and Russia. He is also correct that Syria and Iran enjoy close relations. Syria and Iran have been allies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, Syria turned to Iran as a new ally as Iran cut off relations with Israel after the 1979 Revolution. Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War which took up most of the 1980s despite the rift between Arabs and Persians. The countries continued to strengthen relations in the 2000s during the US invasion of Iraq and the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.

The idea of Iran "extending a Shi'a crescent all across the Middle East", however, is melodramatic and not entirely accurate. It's true that Iran is vying for influence in the Middle East as one of its largest, wealthiest, and most stable powers, and it is an Islamic Republic that offers support to Hezbollah (a Shi'a terrorist group in Lebanon), but Shi'a Islam is not a dominant faith in the Middle East, not to mention the great division still exists between the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam. Furthermore, Syria is a predominantly Sunni country. The only countries in the world where Shi'a Islam is the predominant faith are Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq, which has a considerable Sunni minority. 

Kasich went on to defend the idea of supporting the "moderate rebels", a phrase that has been the subject of harsh ridicule in press outlets both inside and outside the United States. 

"And there are moderates there. There are moderates in Syria who we should be supporting. I do not support a civil war. I don’t want to be policeman of the world. But we can’t back off of this. And let me tell you, at the end, the Saudis have agreed to put together a coalition inside of Syria to stabilize that country. He  (Assad) must go. It will be a blow to Iran and Russia."

Saying "I don't support a civil war" is utterly ridiculous when one's been raging for nearly five years, but this civil war is not cut and dry. There are moderate rebels in Syria, but they are not united, they're not consolidated in the same regions, and they possess multiple different agendas. The Kurdish minority forces known as the People's Protection Units (known by its Kurdish initials YPG) has effectively carved out most of the northern border with Turkey into an autonomous region. They are allied with a moderate Arab-Kurdish force known by its initials SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) marching south to take back land from Da'esh in the southeast regions. Some factions of the loose coalition known as the Free Syrian Army are moderates, but they are overshadowed by the Islamist forces they fight alongside. 

Real estate mogul Donald Trump exercised caution. 

"We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad. Assad is fighting ISIS. Russia is fighting now ISIS. And Iran is fighting ISIS. We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t go — and I watched Lindsey Graham, he said, I have been here for 10 years fighting. Well, he will be there with that thinking for another 50 years. He won’t be able to solve the problem...We have to get rid of ISIS first. After we get rid of ISIS, we’ll start thinking about it. But we can’t be fighting Assad. And when you’re fighting Assad, you are fighting Russia, you’re fighting — you’re fighting a lot of different groups."

This doesn't sound much different than what the Obama Administration has been doing lately, though Washington has not spoken with the fire and expletives that Trump has in regards to Islamist terrorists. It is evident from recent talks that the Obama Administration has realized removing Assad became a whole lot more difficult since Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to get directly involved in the country's civil war. Fighting two forces is indeed difficult from a distance even with the United States' military capabilities. 

Trump again implied staying out of Syria's leadership dispute was the best course of action, which is sure to resonate with voters fed up with the complicated nature of the war and the lack of results acheived. And he is absolutely right to warn against the risks of fighting and/or expanding a proxy war where Russia is involved. 

Fiery foreign policy rhetoric was present in the debate, but this time it was from Kasich. 

"Frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies."

Anger and frustration against the Kremlin's policy is in many cases warranted. This kind of statement, however, isn't likely to win over many people in Moscow. Apparently, "speak softly and carry a big stick" is no longer in use by the GOP. 

Speaking of fiery rhetoric, Carly Fiorina was called to clarify her earlier remarks about "not talking to Putin". 

"I didn’t say I would cut off all communication with Putin. What I said was as president of the United States, now is not the time to talk with him. Reagan walked away at Reykjavik. There is a time and a place for everything. There is a time and a place for talk. And there is a time and a place for action.
I know Vladimir Putin. He respects strength. He lied to our president’s face; didn’t both to tell him about warplanes and troops going into Syria. We need to speak to him from a position of strength. So as commander in chief, I will not speak to him until we’ve set up that no-fly zone...and I will not speak to him personally until we’ve rebuilt the 6th Fleet a little bit right under his nose; rebuilt the missile defense program in Poland right under his nose; and conducted a few military exercises in the Baltic states."

Fiorina's comparison to the Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev is a bit faulty. The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland did fall apart at the last minute, but a deal was struck slightly less than a year later in Washington. The climate in which Reagan and Gorbachev met was also much, much different. Gorbachev was not riding the wave of an approval rating in the eighties fueled by nationalism and military campaigns. Putin is. In fact, Gorbachev's rule came at the end of a war in Afghanistan and a nosediving economy. The Russian economy is sputtering from sanctions and the resource curse, but it's hardly in the nosedive that it was in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, detailing in a debate watched by millions the rebuilding of the missile defense program in Poland and the 6th Fleet is hardly covert. 

Chris Christie also got in on the debate when he was asked if he would be "prepared to shoot down that Russian plane and risk war with Russia [if a no-fly zone with Russia was implemented]?

"Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it. A no-fly zone means a no-fly zone, Wolf. That’s what it means...I would talk to Vladimir Putin a lot. But I’d say to him, “Listen, Mr. President, there’s a no-fly zone in Syria; you fly in, it applies to you.” And yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now."

This quickly led to a rebuttal from Senator Rand Paul. "Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate. My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, “Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.” Russia already flies in that airspace. It may not be something we’re in love with the fact that they’re there, but they were invited by Iraq and by Syria to fly in that airspace. And so if we announce we’re going to have a no-fly zone, and others have said this. Hillary Clinton is also for it. It is a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for World War III. We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war."

Christie retorted quickly. "I’ll tell you what reckless is. What reckless is is calling Assad a reformer. What reckless is allowing Russia to come into Crimea and Ukraine. What reckless is is inviting Russia into Syria to team with Iran. That is reckless. And the reckless people are the folks in the White House right now. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the reckless people. And if you think that a no-fly zone is a reckless policy, you’re welcome to your opinion. But how is it working so far? As we have 250,000 Syrians murdered, slaughtered; millions running around the world, running for their lives. It’s not working. We need to try something else. And that is not reckless."

Christie is correct that Assad is no reformer, and that Russia's intrusion into Crimea and Ukraine was done without regard for the international community's opinions. The choice of calling the Obama Administration "reckless" is odd, though, most American hawks usually use the words "weak", "ineffective", or "incompetent".  

A no-fly zone is, as Senator Paul said, extremely risky. Putin might back down if it is set in motion but the risk that kind of action invites is not likely to sit well with many Americans and even if he does back down, US-Russian relations will continue to deteriorate. 

Ben Carson also had a memorable quote on US-Russian relations. "We need to get rid of those [archaic energy exploitation rules] allow ourselves to really make Europe dependent on us and other parts of the world dependent on us for energy. Put him [Putin] back in his little box where he belongs."

Whether deregulation would be as effective as Carson alleges is not known for sure. Considering how low the price of oil is these days, it may not even be necessary from America's point of view. The idea of Putin being put in (Apologies for this bad joke) a little box "where he belongs" is quite amusing, though. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Another Chance to Chuck Chavismo: Venezuela's Elections

Tomorrow, the citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela head to the polls to elect a new National Assembly.

Since 1998's Presidential Election, the country has been led by Hugo Chavez and his allies, most visibly current president Nicolas Maduro, who took over in 2013 in a snap election due to Chavez's death at the age of 58. Maduro will stand as president until 2018 as the president serves a six year term in Venezuela. Until 2009, the President was limited to two terms, but that changed in a referendum. Since 1999, the country has slowly but surely drifted from a relatively democratic country to one where democracy has been severely undermined by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Along the road, Venezuela saw some of its rampant poverty alleviated, but the last two years have sent the country spiraling out of control due to low oil prices, triple-digit inflation, shortages of basic supplies, government mismanagement, and continued crime and violence. Mass protests have been plaguing the country for the last two years.

The PSUV seems to have run out of ideas. Millions of Venezuelans have packed up and left their country due to Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution". Despite enormous oil reserves (the largest proven in the world), oil's stubbornly low price has send Venezuela's economy, which is so dependent on the export of black gold, into a serious recession, and President Maduro's government has offered no solutions. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, while not exactly the most competent of leaders, at least had high oil prices and a connection to the average Venezuelan to fall back on. Maduro lacks both, and all the rallies in the world against the "imperialistas gringas malditas" (damned gringo imperialists) aren't going to save him from polling numbers, which unanimously state that the Socialists will lose this election by a landslide provided it is free and fair.

And therein lies the problem.

Even if the elections do turn out like the polls claim they will, with the democratic opposition winning in a landslide, the risk of the current government undermining the opposition is quite high. Very little concessions have been made since the opposition came close to winning the 2013 Presidential election, and a well known opposition figure, Leopoldo Lopez, still sits in jail. Luis Manuel Diaz, another opposition figure, was recently murdered. 

If the PSUV tries to undermine the democratic process, there's a large chance the country will see protestors jamming the streets once more as was seen in the last two years. And they don't seem to be straying from their path. In a Foreign Policy piece by Leopoldo Lopez, the situation has been described as such:

"What more are they trying to hide from the international community? The government has already gerrymandered districts so that 52 percent of voters, in pro-opposition urban areas, elect just 39 percent of parliament, and has set up fake parties with names mimicking legitimate opposition parties to confuse voters."

To put it very lightly, Venezuela is in a rut. It's hard to say whether the opposition will be more competent in governing the country as it is a loose coalition of many different parties which could break down and stall as seen in other countries, but at this point, any government that is able to govern in a more democratic and fair manner may be better than the PSUV.

Left-wing politics have long been popular and populist among the peoples of South America, often as a response to American support for right-wing dictatorships in the past, especially in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Leftist governments are in power today in not just Venezuela, but Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In many of those places, however, they are in decline or mired in controversy. Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, is facing impeachment. Ecuador's left-wing president just signed a bill ending term limits.

That's not to say that socialism is necessarily the cause of the problems that plague many of these countries. Chile's President, Michelle Bachelet, is a Socialist, but Chile itself is wealthy, stable, and democratic. But left-wing populism has the potential to corrupt and forget its original ideas just as much as right-wing governments do, and Venezuela is a prime example of that. The opposition must be allowed to govern with the mandate of the people they are likely to win on Sunday, and if it means putting the Bolivarian Revolution on hold, then so be it. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Putin's State of the Nation: An Analysis

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual State of the Nation Address to both houses of the Federal Assembly.

He opened his address with words of gratitude towards the members of the Russian Armed Forces fighting against “international terrorism”. A moment of silence was held for the defenders of the Fatherland, as they are called each February 23rd in commemoration.

Putin dove into a monologue about fighting terrorism next. He spoke about the many terrorist attacks Russia has been hit by.

We still grieve for them and will always grieve, along with the victims’ loved ones, “ he declared somberly.

Putin then claimed that “It took us nearly a decade to finally break the backbone of those militants. We almost succeeded in expelling terrorists from Russia, but are still fighting the remaining terrorists underground.”

This is a confusing claim. If Putin is referencing the two Chechen Wars, then it’s a bit boastful of him to claim that terrorism was almost expelled from Russia. It is true that Chechnya is much more stable than it once was, but stability doesn’t necessarily stamp out an ideology. The terrorists that engineered the recent attacks on Paris were French citizens, living in a democratic, stable, and free country, and they were still driven to the poisonous ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, Chechnya isn’t the only region of the North Caucasus that presents a challenge to Russia’s fight against terrorism While Groznyy’s brand new skyscrapers gleam and sparkle, regions such as Ingushetia and Dagestan still struggle from poverty and corruption. Ethnic minorities from these areas face discrimination and open racism, and Islamic fundamentalism still festers in these areas. If Putin wants to fight terrorism within Russia, he must not forget these areas.

            Next, Putin spoke about the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s involvement in that war. Unsurprisingly, he wasted little time in laying blame on While he did not name any specific nations as culprits, his implications that the west-namely the United States and European Union, have turned Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria into hellish nightmares. It is abundantly clear that the Kremlin is much more interested in stability than democracy in the Middle East, and it certainly is hard to argue that many of these countries were much more stable before foreign intervention.

            However, stability cannot be the only factor in examining what’s going on in the Middle East. Pro-Kremlin Russians are keen to point out the close relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia as being hypocritical to the values the United States touts, and it is certainly true that the close relationship runs contrary to the ideas of democracy and liberty. The Kremlin cooperates with the Saudis as well, however, despite the rivalries related to Iran and to oil production. And it is ironic that Putin would accuse the western powers of “brutally imposing their own rules” in the region when every one of the countries he mentioned as being destroyed by the west were brutal dictatorships beforehand. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi openly praised acts of violence and terror. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have presided over a stable and developed nation but he actively oppressed Shia Iraqis and carried out genocide against the Kurdish minority living in northern Iraq. Bashar Al-Assad’s troops fired live rounds into peaceful protests in the first stages of Syria’s uprising. The Taliban in Afghanistan conducted repression of the Afghan people much like Saudi Arabia does today, and it’s only more ironic considering the Soviet War in Afghanistan was fought on the grounds of an ideology as well.

            President Putin clearly and decisively described the reason for military involvement in Syria: “The militants in Syria pose a particularly high threat for Russia. Many of them are citizens of Russia and the CIS countries. This is why it has been decided to launch a military operation there based on an official request from the legitimate Syrian authorities. Our military personnel are fighting in Syria for Russia, for the security of Russian citizens.” These are understandable reasons, but why now? The Syrian Civil War has raged for over four years and only recently has the Kremlin decided to get directly involved. Da’esh has posed a threat for much longer than Russian troops have been directly involved in the region. Two chief reasons for this involvement that have been debated were also left out, namely, the desire of the Kremlin to keep Assad in power, and the presence of a Russian military base in Syria’s north.
            Putin then turned his attention towards Russia’s newest enemy, the Republic of Turkey. Turkey has received strikingly similar criticism from different sides of the globe for its perceived lack of urgency in fighting Da’esh. Critics of the Kremlin allege that Putin is more interested in helping Al-Assad advance on Free Syrian Army posts, while critics of Turkey claim Ankara is using its military might to beat up the Kurds in Syria rather than advance on Da’esh posts. Both criticisms have some validity to them, as Turkey still struggles to keep its Kurdish southeast regions stable and Russia’s close ties to the Assad government. The two countries are continuing their squabble, now trading accusations of oil purchases from the terrorists in Syria. From the tone of Putin’s remarks as well as those made by President Erdogan of Turkey, it looks like the spat between Moscow and Ankara isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.  

            Putin’s speech left out one very important and recent Russian foreign policy maneuver, and that is Ukraine. Ukraine was not mentioned once in Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly. Frankly, hours could be given to speculation as to why the still simmering conflict in the Donbas wasn’t mentioned. It could be argued that the sanctions levied against Russia have been replaced by the news out of Turkey and Syria, but those sanctions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and it’s still evident that they continue to sting the economic capabilities. A need to diversify and expand the economy away from oil and natural gas was brought up in the address, but specifics were rare and if action’s going to be taken, it would be helpful to see it sooner than later, and military campaigns in Ukraine as well as Syria aren’t likely to help that too much.

            The war in Syria and icy tensions with Turkey have provided new talking points for Putin to rally the people around the white, blue, and red. How long they’ll stay around to distract from stagnation and uncertainty at home is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Crimea left dark and cold as Kiev and Moscow squabble

The Crimean peninsula, which has been grabbing headlines since Russia’s sudden annexation in February of 2014, has been plunged into darkness. 

Electric pylons which bring power into the disputed peninsula from Ukraine have been disabled, and now the delivery of goods is being suspended according to one of the most despised figures on Russian state media, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Kiev seems to be trying to cut the peninsula off from all goods and services for its perceived transgression of moving under Russian control. 

This comes across as a clumsy, nationalistic move by Kiev, despite the fact that it comes in response to the biggest land grab provocation Europe has seen in decades. 

If forces loyal to Ukraine want to punish the Crimeans for being pushed into their new living arrangement, they are being short-sighted at best and malicious at worst. These are the same people who dismissed the referendum to join Russia in March 2014 as an unfair farce. An unfair election, which the Crimean referendum likely was, is not the fault of the people. It is the fault of the government who implemented that rigged process. Kiev’s decision to cut off the Crimean peninsula in retaliation for the Russian annexation punishes ordinary citizens rather than those who took Crimea from Ukraine. 

One could argue that the people voted to join Russia, but nobody except the Kremlin seems to believe that the referendum was conducted in a fair manner. No international observers were allowed in, Russian troops patrolled the streets of Sevastopol and Simferopol, and no time was allowed to organize comprehensive campaigns for both sides as was seen in the Scottish independence referendum. 

If this is Kiev’s idea of coercion, it’s not working. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interviewed a handful of Crimeans about the situation and most pointed the finger right back at the former capital of their country. It’s true four or five people may not speak for the entire peninsula, but isolating Crimea will only sour relations further. 

While Kiev is blinded by nationalism, the Kremlin is actively relishing in playing the part of neglectful swindler. To forcibly take over a peninsula where two million people live and then refuse to invest into its infrastructure is a similarly ridiculous and malicious practice. If Crimea has been returned to its rightful home under the white, blue, and red, what is preventing Russia from providing federal services to the new region? Is it not Russia, and therefore, entitled to the proper infrastructure the Kremlin delegates to the other parts of the country? 

If the Kremlin is going to annex a piece of land in patriotic fervor, it should provide for that land. If Kiev wants to punish those it deems accountable for their loss of territory, pulling the plug on two million of your until-very-recently citizens is not going to win any hearts and minds. The average Crimean probably is more concerned as to whether they can live in comfort rather than which flag flies at the local government building. 

What the Kremlin did to retake Crimea drew international condemnation. If the Kremlin truly believes the people of Crimea wanted to become part of Russia, they should have let the people decide that for themselves in an open and internationally monitored referendum, not the hasty and rigged process that took place in March. 

If Ukraine wants Crimea back, they’re going to have to prove to the Crimean people that they can govern in a more effective, free manner than what Moscow can do. They’re not going to see the Crimean people welcome the Ukrainian Armed Forces back with open arms if evidence points to those same people cutting off basic supplies. If Ukraine becomes a strong, cleanly governed, and vigorously democratic country and an example for Eastern Europe, perhaps those Crimeans who voted to move back to Russia will reconsider. But that’s a long way off.  

Meanwhile, if Moscow is insistent on keeping this chunk of land in the Black Sea, the least they can do is provide for it rather than sleazily dropping the utility bill back in Kiev’s lap. 

All may be fair in love and war. But nobody is right in the latest chapter of this war.