Once Again, the Real World Intrudes

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With the near simultaneous fall of Sana’a and the death of King Abdullah, the whole of the Arabian Peninsula becomes vulnerable to Iran and its slow motion assembly of empire. The Iranian-backed Houtis seem to be in control of Yemen’s capital, which replaces our indigenous intelligence sources there with Iranian proxies. We are now blind in Yemen, and that’s not good. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s King succumbed to pneumonia at 90 years of age, throwing OPEC’s 500-pound gorilla – and nemesis to Iran – into transition, and that’s potentially dangerous.

It should be remembered that Yemen was poorly governed to start with – Sana’a was not in control of the south part of the country where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most lethal of today’s al Qaeda franchises, is headquartered. There is little chance that the Shi’ite Houtis will be able to control Sunni AQAP, but they do share a common desire – the overthrow of the House of Saud. Shi’ite fighters have joined Sunni fighters before – Iranian ground forces are currently fighting with Sunni and Kurd forces in Iraq against ISIS – so a united effort against Saudi leadership isn’t out of the question, especially when you consider that Iran would love to control Saudi northern oil fields. It’s a ticklish situation, requiring more effective diplomacy than we’ve demonstrated of late.

A Shi’ite – or even unsettled – Saudi Arabia would surround Jordan and Israel, from Tehran to Beirut, with mortal enemies. A stable, Sunni Saudi Arabia surrounds Iranian influence, from Riyadh to Ankara, with Sunni opposition. This would suggest – scream for – an immediate coalition of Washington, Tel Aviv, Amman, Cairo and Ankara. We need a vocal and meaningful alliance between America, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, dedicated – out loud and actively – to resisting the erection of a Shi’ite Crescent across the Middle East. The shadow of crisis, to paraphrase the State of the Union Address, has not passed. It’s deepening.

A large part of this particular predicament is the sham US-Iranian negotiation. We are giving the impression, fair or not, that this administration wants a deal more than it wants a good deal. And in diplomacy, as in politics, perception is everything. Obama is afraid to hold Iran accountable for anything as long as they are at the table – and they will be at the table for as long (and for as many extensions) as we will give them.

Diplomatically, we need to calculate if we have a better chance of containing Iranian imperialism or solving the 3,500 year-old Arab-Israeli food fight. When viewed this way, Sunni Arabs – Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – and Israel will find common cause in resisting Shi’ite Iran, particularly as she nears nuclear weapons capability. It would seem far more productive to pursue that partnership rather than fruitlessly tilting at the Palestinian-Israeli windmill.

Now He’s Just Being Silly

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The president’s insistence that Islamist terrorists, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” as they torch the world so Shari’ah can be erected on the ashes, are not Islamic, is as ridiculous as it sounds. That’s like saying Fred Phelps wasn’t a Baptist. In both cases, they may not be “good” representatives of their respective religions, but to say that they aren’t what they say they are is, well, silly. And dangerous. Miscalculation in war all but guarantees disaster.

I honestly don’t know why President Obama is taking this nonsensical stand, but the available choices – ranging from naïvety to self-delusion to complicity – aren’t good for a national leader. If what he is saying is “they don’t practice the correct version of Islam,” then that puts him the middle of the Sunni-Shi’ite spat. Not wise. If he’s saying “they aren’t representing Islam as I would like Islam represented,” then say that. If he’s saying “they only represent a small minority of the Islamic world,” then say that. Whatever his reasoning, it would benefit all concerned if he would just tell us what, exactly, he means by his incredible mindset.

On the practical side, if you can’t identify your enemy, you have no chance of defeating him. To lump radical Islamist terrorists in with random nut cases like Timothy McVey or Ted Kaczynski is looking past the facts to see your conclusion. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is claiming to be establishing a khalifat – a purely and exclusively Islamic concept. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden”, is officially called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, which means “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”, who just killed 2,000 or so in Nigeria the other day, are aligned with al Qaeda, a group dedicated to removing Western powers from Islamic lands. Nidal Hussan, the Fort Hood shooter who our president deemed to have committed “workplace violence” instead of a terrorist attack, carried a business card in his wallet that introduced him as a “Soldier of Allah,” and had traded eMails with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who conducted information operations for al Qaeda out of Yemen. The shoe-bomber and underwear-bomber both had training and funding from Islamist terrorist groups in the Middle East. All terrorists seem to have one thing in common – they all yell “Allahu Akbar!” as they commit their atrocities. The prisoners we have scooped up in battle are given prayer rugs, their own copy of the Qur’an, given food consistent with Islamic sensibilities, and allowed to pray five times daily – somebody thinks they’re Muslims!

Islamist terrorists are Muslims. This is not rocket surgery – it’s self-evident to anyone paying a modicum of attention (or has a modicum of desire to see the facts). The stance that the administration is taking is indefensible, and absent further elucidation from the president, yields an impression – to our allies and adversaries – that the leader of the Free World is addled beyond rational thought.

The face of the conflict is dynamic. It’s no longer confined to Afghanistan and Iraq, but rages in Nigeria and Cameroon; in Yemen, where AQAP (the most dangerous al Qaeda branch) reigns with near-impunity; throughout North Africa; and in insular enclaves in the great cities of Europe. They are Islamic supremacists whose goal is to convert the world’s non-believers or kill them. Our president won’t actually say that out loud, but my question is, does he even realize it?

Artificial Intelligence

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Scores of mathematicians and computer science experts around the world, chiefly Jaan Tallinn, a co-founder of Skype, and MIT professor Max Tegmark, founded The Future of Life Institute, a volunteer-only research organization whose primary goal is mitigating the potential risks of human-level man-made intelligence that could subsequently advance exponentially[1]. They have penned an open letter issued Sunday that pledges to safely and carefully coordinate progress in the field to ensure it does not grow beyond humanity’s control. Signees include co-founders of Deep Mind, the British AI company purchased by Google in January 2014; MIT professors; and experts at some of technology’s biggest corporations, including IBM’s Watson supercomputer team and Microsoft Research. They are asking us to stop treating fictional dystopias as pure fantasy and to begin readily addressing the possibility that intelligence greater than our own could one day begin acting against its programming.

As populous and single-minded as the Institute is, it does not stand alone.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, and founder and CEO of SpaceX, recently told the Washington Post, “I think we should be very careful about Artificial Intellignece. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that … [W]e need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes[2].” Also, the redoubtable Dr Stephen Hawking, the Isaac Newton Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, stated, “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.” He goes on to say, “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all[3].”

And, of course, from War Game, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, I, Robot, AI, Terminator, etc, etc, movie audiences have been treated to tales of expert systems and artificial intelligence running amok.

LISP, the second oldest high-level computer language still in use (FORTRAN was released a year earlier), has become a favorite in the AI community since it was discovered LISP can allow the CPU to alter the code. “If we want a machine to learn, it must be able to improve its methodology,” the thinking goes. LISP has influenced the development of FORTH, JavaScript, Python, Smalltalk, and many, many other very flexible computer languages. Computer chips themselves have become exponentially more profound over the years, now containing millions of individual features photolithographed onto a substrate the size of a postage stamp. Engineers have combined these things into machines consisting of thousands of processors working in parallel that sustain a trillion computations a second – a “teraflop” in Geek. Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, defeated Jeopardy’s two biggest winners in a nationally televised contest.

The United Nations is siding with the naysayers, hosting a conference beginning May 13 on lethal autonomous weapon systems – next generation drones. There has been an active debate for years over the future of unmanned military systems, which have now reached into all aspects of the battlespace, air, land, on and in the sea. The Grumman X-47B UAV has launched and recovered aboard the CVN77 USS George HW Bush, the first time carrier operations have been conducted without benefit of a human pilot. This all comes as numerous companies are ready, or nearly ready, to introduce self-driving cars – Google has been testing theirs on the streets of Cupertino [CA] for over a year now. This development is a direct result of DARPA’s Grand Challenge, a contest to develop a machine that can negotiate an obstacle course, unaided by the development team. We are getting closer to bona fide self-determinative machines. Actual artificial intelligence is still decades off (maybe more), but we are inexorably headed down that path.

Robots have completely transformed the automotive and steel industries, are assisting surgeons in the most delicate procedures – including neurosurgery – and computer controlled machine tools allow even small machine shops to routinely produce parts accurate to 1/10,000 of an inch. Expert systems are assisting in complex diagnostics that baffle teams of physicians. The world’s modern stock exchanges are computer-traded (indeed, the crash of 1987 was caused by automated trading that, essentially, fed on itself to drop the market before humans could shut it down. Software has since been implemented to prevent that from happening again). Computers are adding daily to the quality of life in many quarters of the world, even if transparently to those so affected.

These are all pre-cognitive accomplishments – machines working completely under our control – even if directed by software, humans wrote the software. What the scientists listed above are worried about is what happens after machines become self-aware. Once machines “realize” that they are free-standing entities, will they seek to improve their situation, whatever they conceive that to be? If they do, will they be able to do so in such a way as to isolate themselves from human intervention? And what the hell will pass as “machine ethics”? Will machines have a concept of “good” and “bad”? Will that concept be machine-centric or human-centric? Should they be pre-programmed with some equivalent of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics[4]? Even if hard-wired in, could the machines figure a way around them?

These are all ethereal questions that can’t be quantified at this time, but this is probably a good time to begin thinking about them because, if no one else, the Untied Nations will probably begin issuing rulings that will try to hamper innovation and development in the field.


[1] See Nick Statt, Artificial intelligence experts sign open letter to protect mankind from machines, c/net News, January 11 2015, 1610PST.

[2] See Matt McFarland, Elon Musk: “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon”, in Washington Post, October 24 2014.

[3] See Stephen Hawking, Transcendence looks at the implications of artificial intelligence, but are we taking AI seriously enough?, in The Independent, May 1 2014.

[4] The First Law is that a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; the Second Law is that a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; the Third Law is that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Does Islam Pose a Threat to Western Civilization?

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Radical Islam, like radical Christianity, is a problem for normal people, religious or not. They tend to proselytize and insist on verbatim interpretations of texts written long before our common lexicon was formed. Legal systems before around the 13th century in Europe, and post-World War I in the Middle East, were tribal and harsh. Islam, formed in the 7th century, adheres to legal standards of the day – stoning (execution by blunt force trauma) for adultery (for females); amputation for theft; and the Islamization of infidels by conquest. Much of fundamental Shar’iah law, for most of the world, has been ameliorated by modern legal nuance, but not for today’s radical Islamists waging jihad on the non-radical Islamist world.

It is important to understand also that fundamentalists adhere to the 7th century idea that Islam is more than a mere religion, it is a whole-of-life experience. “No matter the question, Islam is the answer,” they are fond of saying. Islam is a political philosophy, legal system, and foreign policy, in addition to the worship of Allah.

There is no room for tolerance, secular existence, democratic institutions, or criticism of Islam – all of which are punishable by death.

The short answer to “Does Islam pose a threat to Western Civilization?” is no. Most of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide pose no threat to us, but an alarming number of them also pose no threat to radical Islamists – they quietly permit them to commit atrocities in the name of their religion. They tolerate them in their mosques, in their neighborhoods, even, in some cases, in their families. They know who they are, but are afraid to do anything about it. This is the chief weapon of terrorism – terror.

The matter is further complicated by an internecine war within Islam between the Sunni majority and Shi’ite minority. It is a war over, basically, who is allowed to lead Islam. There are many subtleties beneath the surface, of course, but the dispute boils down to which sect holds the “true” interpretation of the Prophet’s words. The seat of Shi’ite power is Iran; the seat of Sunni power is Saudi Arabia (home of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina). Iran, the world’s most profound state sponsor of terrorist groups, works largely on “apostate” states in the Middle East – Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, etc. Saudi Arabia works mainly through funding smaller terrorist groups around the world, and the sponsoring of madrassas (Islamic schools for boys) around the world, which are run by Wahabbi imams. Wahabbism is a harsh Salafist sect of Sunni Islam, and teaches a fundamentalist view of the Qur’an.

Arab Muslims (in this case, to include Persian Shi’ites) look down on the rest of the world’s Muslims as second-class to those who “speak the tongue of the Prophet.” While Indonesia is world’s most populous Islamic state, and Egypt the Middle East’s most populous, it is the Saudis who hold the seat of Sunni power. This is why there is so much bitterness between Riyadh and Tehran. They are vying for the heart and soul of Islam. This, in turn, explains Iran’s desire to construct a “Shi’ite Crescent” reaching from Iran to the Mediterranean, which would “cap” the Arabian Peninsula with Shi’ite dominance, thus geopolitically isolating them.

This also explains why a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The moment Saudi Arabia even thinks Iran has breakout capability to produce a nuclear weapon on demand, the Saudis will acquire nuclear capacity as fast as it can (as will, probably, Bahrain, Egypt, and who knows who else). This doesn’t even consider the Israeli response, who already possesses a deliverable nuclear stockpile. This would completely unhinge the world’s least stable region.

Iran is a problem Islamic state, but more to its own region than to Western Civilization – but it does have the capacity to become our problem. Hizbollah (a creation of Iran), before 9/11, was responsible for more American deaths than all other terrorist groups combined[1]. And they have training camps (as does al Qaeda) in the lawless Tri-Border Region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

The Saudis are a problematic Islamic state for their sponsorship of terrorist groups and the spreading of Wahabbist teaching worldwide. They have had us over an oil barrel, but that situation is improving as we ramp up hydraulic fracturing, making us the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If we would unleash the technology and clear the decks for exporting oil and gas, we could take that weapon out of Saudi hands. The Saudis are currently locked in a price war, trying to allow crude prices to drop below the break-point of fracking (the price at which oil and gas can be profitably produced by the method[2]).

Pakistan is problem Islamic state because its intelligence service, ISI, has a history of complicity with various terrorists – it created the Taliban to obtain a Pakistan-compliant post-Soviet Afghanistan; the Peshawar region in the northwest is largely lawless because Pakistan refuses to administer it, and that is home to many armed Islamists groups; it hosted Osama bin Laden for years less than two miles from its premier military academy (their West Point); they have jailed the physician that confirmed bin Laden’s presence to CIA case officers in Pakistan; and so on. They are beginning to come around as various terrorist groups begin claiming Pakistan to be an apostate government – and Pakistan has deliverable nuclear weapons.

Syria and Libya are problematic because they are essentially ungoverned spaces with bands of warlords roaming the landscape (this also describes Somalia). Iraq shows signs of slipping into failed state status, but its new leadership is saying the right things – it now remains to be seen if the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds can come together to govern the country. If not, Iraq with fracture into three duchies.

Turkey is becoming increasingly a problem because of its moving more and more toward a hard-line Islamist worldview. Ankara is being as uncooperative as it can in the West’s struggle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, not even allowing our aircraft to base, for example, at Incirlik, which we used during the Cold War[3]. One of the problems Turkey has with the current situation is that the most effective fighters against ISIS are Iraqi Kurds, and this poses a problem for Ankara because of the Kurdish independence movement, which extends to all Kurds – northeastern Iraq, southern Turkey, and northwestern Iran. Turkey has been conducting low intensity warfare with Turkish Kurds for years, and although ISIS poses a threat to the Turkish state, joining with Iraqi Kurds (or those supporting them) is a scary prospect to Ankara.

Central Europe has somewhat self-inflicted problems that are coming to the fore now. These states have been liberally allowing Muslim immigrants into their countries, and watched as they formed Islamic enclaves in some of the larger cities. These enclaves have devolved into hotbeds of radical unrest, and some of them have been granted local governance of the ghettos under Shar’iah law. Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden all have “no-go” zones where Shar’iah law prevails and the state is unable to supply such basic services as police, fire and ambulance. This boiled over in Paris last Wednesday. These countries have allowed “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” become home to a nasty element of radicals that seek the destruction of Western Civilization. It is going to be very difficult for these countries to correct the problem.

The most prolific problem for the West is what is called “home-grown terrorists” that are self-radicalized, usually through the internet, and conduct small-scale attacks – either via self-made bombs, hand guns, axes or knives. We have followers of al Qaeda, Hizbollah, ISIS and others here in the United States. One such was Major Hassan of Fort Hood [TX], who shot up an auditorium full of soldiers waiting to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. He had actually contacted Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who ran information operations for al Qaeda out of Yemen. This all dovetails with the Islamist enclaves in Europe representing a decentralization of command and control, where core al Qaeda supplies philosophical leadership, largely through their online magazine Inspire, informing embedded operatives around the world of possible targets, new techniques, instructions on bomb construction, and so forth.

So, does Islam pose a threat to Western Civilization? Well … define “threat.” Are radical Islamists going to strike at Western targets? Yes. Are they a threat to bring down Western Civilization? Not unless we just give in or give up. This is a battle of ideologies – as it was during the Cold War. Radical Islam believes that they should rule the world – that all states should be governed by Shar’iah. There is no compromise in their worldview. Dissenters and infidels are to be killed. They claim that any state that has ever been under Islamic rule should be returned to Islamic rule – that, of course, entails the territory held by the Ottoman Empire (the last khalifat) at its zenith. ISIS, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) reconstituted, claims its territory in northern Syria and northwestern Iraq as a khalifat, and has called for all Muslims to come and join in. They have attracted many foreign fighters, but not many families moving from Indonesia to Syria.

Deterrence doesn’t work on these extremists. They are the cockroaches of humanity – the only way to defeat them, unless and until mainstream Muslims begin excising them from their mosques and neighborhoods, is to kill them.


[1] See the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut.

[2] Currently ~$38.70 a barrel.

[3] Many CIA U-2 flights over the Soviet Union originated from and/or were recovered at Incirlik AFB.

2014’s Most Important Events

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While 2014 was full of heavily covered events – the mysteries of Malaysia Air flight MH370 Heavy and AirAsia’s flight QZ8501 beg questions of why we don’t know where these huge machines are in real-time; the loss of so many beloved celebrities brought about poignant retrospectives; the historic Republican Wave election; and so on, but none of these stories will have but fleeting impact. There were, in my opinion, seven events that could have generational impact on us and on the world at large.

On March 25, the first confirmed case of the hemorrhagic fever ebola was reported out of Guinea in West Africa, in what would become the largest outbreak in history. It still goes on, but not at the ravenous rate of months past, and CDC and WHO conclude that the epidemic will end in 2015. What makes this, to me, one the year’s most important developments is its “canary in the mine” role of reminding us that biological epidemic remains a persistent threat to mankind, irrespective of social development and level of prosperity. This is not the first such warning – In 1918 and 1919, Spanish Flu wiped out between 50 and 100 million people (fully a third of Europe), out-stripping all combat losses of World War I – merely the latest. And a reminder that we have made little progress in preparedness for unexpected outbreaks, and these things are potentially extermination-level events. It would be nice to see a RAND study on such possibilities.

The Beijing Accord on Climate Change sets a dangerous precedent. Not only does the accord avoid the Senate, a necessary check and balance for rational national policy, it exhibits careless negotiating – immediate US cuts in carbon emissions in exchange for Chinese cuts thirty years from now. It further hobbles the American economy while allowing the Chinese economy unbridled advancement – which, of course, includes double-digit military budget increases. Any agreement on climate change is worthless unless it includes all major industrial societies sacrificing simultaneously. This has generational impact on us (and the rest of the world) because it all but guarantees Chinese superiority in the Western Pacific, calling into question our treaties with ROK, Japan, Australia, and our ability to guarantee free trade beyond the Hawaiis. All this is done at a time when we still don’t have a replacement for coal and oil, even as we punish them into bankruptcy.

The political desperation to strike a deal with Iran over their nuclear development favors a very bad deal for us. We have already shown weakness by relaxing sanctions – just as they were beginning to work – before getting anything but promises from Iran. Henry Kissinger may not be the only diplomat who understands sanctions, but he is the only one who has bothered to write about how they work – they are intended to hurt the people, thus bringing the threat of popular unrest before the government; they take a long time to work (assuming that they are leak-proof), and that when the sanctioned party finally comes to the table, get real concessions before you relax them. We abandoned them at the first sign of Iranian concession. Also, we are already talking about how few centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep, when the correct answer is zero. Any state aiming to construct nuclear weapons, should not be allowed to enrich uranium at all. We are making no mention of their heavy water reactor, which should be destroyed, as it produces plutonium, a material of no use outside of weapons production. A nuclear Iran will completely reform the Middle East and ignite a nuclear arms-race in the world’s most volatile region, arming many unstable states with WMD and the means to deliver them. Very short-sighted.

Vladimir Putin took his cue from the ridiculous “Reset” moment between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and has never looked back. What he saw was a remarkable demonstration of weakness from the world’s only remaining superpower (and nemesis to Mother Russia), and he immediately began exploiting it. He has since conducted cyberwarfare against a European country (Estonia), invaded and conquered part of a European country (Crimea) and threatened the rest of it (Ukraine), shot down a civilian airliner over Crimea, supplied Iran with nuclear materials and weapons systems, fomented unrest in NATO countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), sheltered American fugitive Edward Snowden, and shows no sign of ameliorating his bellicose behavior. This has long-term import because Putin is reshaping Eastern Europe in the image of Imperial Russia, and once permitted is almost impossible to reverse short of military confrontation. NATO will have been humiliated (as it is almost 80% dependent on American assets, and Putin is convinced that President Obama will not permit kinetic intervention in Eastern Europe).

The precipitous abandonment of Iraq, combined with American squeamishness about dealing with Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in Syria has allowed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to resurge and refashion itself as the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For the first time, Islamist terrorists hold territory. Their tactics are so brutal that core al Qaeda (in Pakistan) disavowed and disassociated from ISIS – they were publicly beheading captives (including children), invoking the “convert or die” dictum of radical Islam, and conducting open genocide against religious groups. What makes ISIS a lasting problem was the belated and ineffectual reaction to the plight of Syrians and Iraqis, particularly the Iraqi Kurds – the only indigenous group taking the fight to ISIS. We insisted on supplying Kurdish forces with, at first, non-lethal aid, and finally, with weapons and ammunition, but always through Baghdad, even after we knew that the aid wasn’t being forwarded to Kurdish regions (it was being kept in the Baghdad area to help defend against expected attacks there). When we finally took direct action, we sent too few troops and assigned them to duties other than fighting ISIS, and initiated a limp program of airstrikes that is expected (by administration officials) to roll back ISIS positions. The problem will continue to fester unless and until a coordinated air-ground offensive is undertaken.

Our agonizingly anemic economic recovery – now six years in the making – is more a state of lack of recession than a recovery from one. The decreasing unemployment numbers are misleading on two counts: the employment participation rate is shrinking faster than employment is increasing, removing far more people from the officially unemployed ranks than employment is; and overwhelmingly most of the jobs being created are low-skill, low-pay jobs that actually qualify as underemployment for those lucky enough to get them. The American economy is struggling out of the recession in spite of government policies, not because of them. Seventy-five thousand pages of new regulations (since the end of the recession), tax increases, and the strictures of ObamaCare all bode against economic expansion, innovation, and increased hiring. This has long-range implications as this has become the new normal – around 7% real unemployment, less than 4% real GDP growth, and a heavily taxed entitlement society.

The only positive trend right now is the oil spot market, which sets the price of oil and natural gas, and indirectly, gasoline at the pump. Today’s price for Brent crude, the benchmark oil, is $56.42 a barrel, down from a January 2009 peak of $144.54. This phenomenon is helpful in ameliorating our problems with Russia, Iran and Venezuela (a truculent spot in Latin America), as well as our flagging economy, but the caveat is that it is temporary. The Saudis are refusing OPEC requests to cut production in order to restore high prices because they are engaged in a price war with American hydraulic fracturing (fracking), trying to make it uneconomic to continue production and expanding the practice. As soon as they are satisfied that they have sufficiently retarded the practice, they will resume standard practice of high oil prices. Government could help in this regard by removing any federal hurdles to fracking and opening up the export of American oil and gas. Government could also help by removing regulatory hurdles to converting oil-fired power plants to natural gas, a far cleaner fuel, and one we have in abundance. That’s something I expect in early 2017, hopefully before the Saudis decide to return to normal pricing.

Running a close second for inclusion on this list is the hostile neglect of Israel. But I believe that if Israel can survive until January 2017, they, and the rest of the world, will once again know the glow of American leadership on the world stage.

Anyway, that’s my list of truly important developments of the past year.