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Biased wording in Syria Poll by CBS/New York Times

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Responses of Don't Know or No Answer for 28 New York Times/CBS polls. Blocks represent the density of observed DK/NA percentages for the 28 polls. The black line represents the probability of each DK/NA rate given a poisson distribution. The green dotted line depicts the mean of the observations. The black dotted lines depict two standard deviations above and below the mean. The most recent Syria poll, with a 14% DK/NA rate, is well above 10.5 (two standard deviations from the mean). It is therefore highly likely to be invalid based on an overly-ambiguous question format.

Responses of Don’t Know or No Answer for 28 New York Times/CBS polls. Blocks represent the density of observed DK/NA percentages for the 28 polls. The black line represents the probability of each DK/NA rate given a poisson distribution. The green dotted line depicts the mean of the observations. The black dotted lines depict two standard deviations above and below the mean. The most recent Syria poll, with a 14% DK/NA rate, is well above 10.5 (two standard deviations above the mean). The question is therefore highly unlikely to be valid and should be clarified for future polls.

CBS News and the New York Times released a poll yesterday on opinions regarding Syria. The poll posed a question to 965 adults nationwide worded as such: “Do you think the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups, or doesn’t the United States have this responsibility?” Answers included “Yes” by 24% of respondents and “No” by 62% of respondents. CBS headlines interpreted the poll as “Americans Against Intervention in Syria.” The New York Times stated, “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.”

While the wording of the poll question on North Korea was acceptable, the question on Syria was ambiguous due to usage of the word “responsibility” and the phrase “do something”. It would be very possible to think that the US has no responsibility to act in Syria, but should do something nonetheless. It is also possible to think that the U.S. has a responsibility to do something, but should nevertheless refrain from acting. Finally, “doing something” is ambiguous, and does not necessarily mean “intervention” as asserted in the reporting of the poll by the New York Times. The biases are countervailing, and lead to ambiguity. Continue reading

GDP Per Capita and Democracy Explain 87% of the Social Progress Index

Model 1: Effect of GDP Per Capita on the Social Progress Index

Figure 1. Effect of GDP Per Capita on the Social Progress Index (Model 1)

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 2013.

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Social Progress Imperative, a global group that produces well-being data for 50 countries, released their Social Progress Index (SPI) today. The index compares countries not on GDP, but rather on a single quality of life metric as a function of housing, health, education, and environmental sustainability. The index is backed by Harvard Business School professors and the Skoll Foundation (WSJ).

Sweden, Britain, and Switzerland have the best Social Progress Index scores, because these countries have some of the highest GDPs per capita of the fifty countries in the index. It is no coincidence that the three lowest SPI scores – Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Uganda, have very low GDPs per capita. The best way to understand SPI is therefore to control for GDP per capita. Corr Analytics did simple regression analysis on SPI. Approximately 84% of the index is explained by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (see technical details below). Countries with large economies relative to their populations will have more wealth that can be channeled to the basic necessities measured by SPI. Therefore the simpler standard used by economists for decades — GDP per capita — works quite acceptably for well-being. Continue reading

Increased risk of religious violence in, and refugees from, Egypt, as well as consolidation of President Morsi’s power

Egyptian riot police in Cairo, January 28, 2013. Photo credit: Jackq, Dreamstime.

Egyptian riot police in Cairo, January 28, 2013. Photo credit: Jackq, Dreamstime.com.

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

A muslim mob attacked the seat of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church on Sunday, resulting in Christian-Muslim riots and an anti-government outburst by the Coptic Pope yesterday (WSJ).

This religious strife significantly increases the probability of additional attacks on Christians, greater cohesion between Muslim factions, and domestic consolidation of President Morsi’s Islamist administration and Muslim Brotherhood power-base. Continue reading

New US peace initiative for Israel and the Palestinian Territories unlikely to yield quick gains, if any

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

A new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry today in Israel is unlikely to bear fruit, especially in the short-term. Secretary Kerry unveiled the plan, which is purposefully non-specific. It includes meager US-funded economic incentives, and a call for supporting the Arab League’s 2002 proposal for Israel to accept the pre-1967 border in exchange for recognition (WSJ).

Israel will not accept the 1967 borders, and any proposal for the same is an attempt to solicit Arab nations on other issues. Likewise, Palestinians will not be influenced by scarce development funding available from the Department of State. Such development funding is the price of admission for a new peace initiative, another in a string of de rigueur Israeli-Palestinian peace processes led by successive US Secretaries of State. Continue reading

Risk of NATO overstretch in Syria

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

The Obama administration is currently under pressure by certain US lawmakers, as well as Britain, France, and Israel, to take limited military action in Syria. These actions could include securing a humanitarian corridor into the country, providing military equipment to the non-Al Qaeda affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), and destroying the Syrian Air Force (WSJ).

Such measures might remove a bit of pressure from rebels and provide a public opinion boost to current participating governments in the US, France, and Britain, in that voting publics in those countries would feel that their governments were doing something positive to end the Syrian crisis. However, due to the limited nature of the proposed military measures, they would not alter the balance of forces on any side of the complex conflict and could lead to notable negative consequences. Continue reading

Deterrence pro tem: increase South Korean control of US nuclear assets targeted against North Korea

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Recent negotiations initiated by South Korea with the United States to obtain acquiescence for South Korean production of nuclear fuel show that South Korea is serious about improving its energy and security independence from the United States. Such moves are a response to growing public opinion pressure in South Korea, which perceives the need for a stronger and more independent counterweight to North Korean threats. Such steps in the fuel production cycle could eventually lead to an independent South Korean nuclear weapons capability (WSJ).

The United States seeks to assure its ally verbally, and with military training exercises, overflights, advanced fighter presence, and naval destroyer movements. But relying on an outside deterrent has become increasingly unnerving to the South Korean public. While the United States and its allies won the Cold War against the Soviets, the United States appears to be overstretched on the global stage from a South Korean perspective. Eleven years of war against terror have not yielded a clear victory. China is ascending. Nuclear proliferation edges forward, with recent proliferators being India, Pakistan, Israel, and as recently as 2006, South Korea’s belligerent neighbor North Korea. Deterrence pro tem would increase deterrence of North Korean belligerence. Continue reading

Movement of missile defense ship to North Korean box signals increased probability of conflict

While the probability of conflict on the Korean peninsula is still quite low, the latest military and diplomatic movements signal a greater likelihood of an outbreak.

The US moved missile defense ships to a zone near Korea that is optimal for defending against North Korean missile strikes, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for a swift military response without concern for politics. Both events demonstrate that the mood of the South Korean public is more bellicose than prior to the 2010 North Korean attacks. The South Korean response, according to public opinion polls, was weak. The South Korean Defense Minister of the time was forced to resign as a result (WSJ).

However, the probability of conflict is still low. The North Korean government and China know that given this history, any new attacks by North Korea would almost certainly result in a strong and potentially fatal US counter-attack. China will have already counselled its client state in North Korea to lay low for the time being.

Improved diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran

Saturday marked the first flight between Egypt and Iran since 1979. The election of Islamist President Mohamad Mursi in Egypt in June 2012 significantly thawed relations between the two countries. Diplomatic ties had been cut by Iran in 1979 when the deposed Shah took refuge in Egypt, but the heads of state from the two countries visited in February and the relationship is now largely mended (Reuters).

President Mursi was a leader in the pan-Islamist movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which has approximately 600,000 members who pay a percentage of their incomes to the organization. It has members worldwide, and promotes Sharia law and the unification of Arab states. These goals are, incidentally, shared by the terrorist group Al Qaeda. The 2011 popular overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt served as a strong indicator of the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing power. The US announced diplomatic relations with the group immediately following. Egypt was a strong US ally against the Soviets during the Cold War, and was a voice for stability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The manifestation of the Arab Spring in Egypt, which deposed long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak, has not been kind to US foreign policy goals in the region.

Iran and Egypt are the third and sixth largest Muslim countries by GDP. Iran has a GDP of $522 billion and Egypt has a GDP of $231 billion (United Nations 2011). While the economy is half that of Iran, Egypt will attempt to expand its regional power status in the Arab states, Africa, and closely align with Iran and China.

For indicators of balancing against NATO and tilting away from the US, watch for Egypt joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an observer state, as has Iran. Watch for increased commercial relations with North Korea and Iran, and improved diplomatic ties with Pakistan. For indicators of nuclear club aspirations, watch for Egyptian efforts to improve types of nuclear power generation that yield fissile by-products for potential use in nuclear weapons. Also watch for increased Egyptian government links to organizations with likely ties to global terrorism. Egyptian political instability will continue until more authoritarian rule is imposed by either the Islamists or the pro-western faction. Expect further loss of value in Egypt-tied investments, including equities, commercial debt, and sovereign debt. Egyptian oil production is less than 1% of global supply, so there should be negligible effects on oil prices.

The Chinese are Playing Us on North Korea, Again

The United States Treasury Department claimed on March 22 that it was confident that China would back new United Nations’ financial sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions punish North Korea for the nuclear tests of February 12. An anonymous Chinese official — almost certainly speaking at the direction of his government – on March 22 revealed that China halted oil exports to North Korea.

Unfortunately, the pro forma Chinese punishment of North Korea for its most recent nuclear test will be intentionally lightweight. China had a similarly weak response to the first North Korean nuclear test on October 6, 2006, and it proved an insufficient disincentive to further nuclear and missile development. It increased backing to UN financial sanctions, and ceased oil exports to the country for a short period. As in 2006, China knows that Iran is likely to supply the energy shortfall to North Korea resulting from any loss from China’s embargo. Without a much stronger set of sanctions and enforcement mechanisms, a network of embargoed, rogue, and failed states have the outside option of trading with each other, and regaining overt Chinese and Russian support when international attention fades.

Anything more than a slap on North Korea’s wrist would chill Chinese relations with authoritarian regimes across the globe. For this reason, China can ill-afford any drastic action against North Korea. China is a long-time supporter of authoritarian governments worldwide, from Uzbekistan to Syria. This support is concretized in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China is the key diplomatic supporter of North Korea, and can dictate many North Korean policies based on China’s economic power and physical proximity. Other authoritarian states will watch the magnitude of Chinese reaction to North Korean behavior to calibrate the trust they can place in their own relations with China. These global relations between China and authoritarian regimes are crucial for China to obtain relatively inexpensive raw commodity imports that fuel its present top priority of economic growth. It is inconceivable that China would risk slowing its own economic growth because of a recent uptick in threats to the West from North Korea.

Short-term sanctions, however, will occur. China believes the young Kim Jong-Un, the new leader of North Korea, has overstepped his bounds with recent tests and threats towards the United States and South Korea. The increased Chinese support to sanctions and a decrease in North Korea’s access to oil markets serve China as both a message to Kim Jong-Un to follow a slightly quieter path, and a tool to stave off criticism of China at the United Nations were it not to support sanctions. Time is currently on the side of China and North Korea, leading to a trend of which China is well aware. China’s economy is growing much more rapidly than Western-allied economies, which strengthens China’s military and diplomatic position with respect to the West. North Korea continues tests of its nuclear and missile technology, with no effective response from the West. With the latest sanctions, China is telling North Korea not to rock the boat because the race is being won.

Watch for China’s long and short-term strategies to have an immediate effect on Kim Jong-Un by decreasing his public belligerence. Also watch for China to ease pressure on North Korea as soon as it either complies or public attention goes elsewhere. Without a Chinese-supported embargo on imports and exports to North Korea, plus enforcement by international naval vessels deployed to the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, the latest round of financial and oil restrictions will be ineffective; North Korea will continue to progress in developing and proliferating nuclear weapons and missile technology.

North Korean WMD terrorism as much a threat as nuclear-tipped missiles

Today North Korea put their medium-range missiles on combat alert and repeated threats against US military bases including in South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii. The US Defense Department sent a strong signal by flying two nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth Bombers over South Korea in training exercises, and through comments to the press by the Defense Secretary that indicate a readiness for conflict should that be necessary. A Defense Department spokesman softened those comments by reiterated that the US seeks to deescalate tensions, and that the important goal is to stay ahead of North Korea in terms of its capability to marry a nuclear warhead with a missile delivery vehicle (CNN). However, a potentially greater threat from North Korea is an unconventional or terrorist delivery of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Were a nuclear device to explode in a major port city, for example, it would likely cause up to one trillion dollars of damages, 500,000 deaths, and $40-70 billion in trade losses  (BloombergCongressional Research Service).

It is unlikely that the North Koreans would follow-through on their most recent threats, and unlikely that were they to try, a missile strike would be effective. The North Koreans are having difficulty with the technical challenges of component miniaturization that would allow them to place a nuclear warhead on a missile. To stave off such an attack in the future, the US must nevertheless maintain robust intelligence, deterrent, and preemptive strike capabilities. North Korea could provide us with an unpleasant surprise. Saddam Hussein surprised the world in 1990 with the progress he had made towards achieving nuclear status, and there is much more technological improvement in rogue state nuclear capabilities twenty years later.

China and Russia are likely sharing, to a limited extent, nuclear technologies with Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. These rogue states are likely sharing with each other as well. This sharing does not necessarily have to be state-sanctioned. A poorly-supervised agency within a rogue state would have the capability to proliferate nuclear or other WMD technologies without the knowledge of its government. Many individual scientists or government officials in these corrupt countries, if offered sufficient incentive, would likely be willing to share technological expertise or hardware necessary for the making of blueprints or reverse-engineering.

Staying ahead of North Korean improvements is a challenging task, and risky. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said,  “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Press Briefing, February 12, 2002)

The risk is not only that North Korea has a nuclear delivery capability about which we are unaware, but that they could be considering unconventional approaches to delivery. These approaches could include smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States, Japan, or South Korea. Radiation detection used on all containerized cargo coming into the United States does not effectively detect nuclear materials encased in lead. X-ray scanning, which might detect such encased materials, is only used on 4% of the highest-risk cargo inbound to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has found it impractical to implement a 2007 Congressional mandate to scan 100% of incoming containerized cargo  (Bloomberg). Implementation of scanning and detection technologies is currently insufficient to guard against nuclear terrorists or rogue states that use containerized cargo as a delivery vehicle.

North Korea could also simply drive nuclear materials and components across the Canadian or Mexican borders, or smuggle them on fast boats from a nearby Latin American country. Such components can be reassembled once in the United States.

Finally, North Korea is in a unique position to use biological weapons of mass destruction. Often referred to as a hermit kingdom, North Korea has the world’s strictest restrictions on immigration and emigration. This makes them relatively invulnerable to blowback from a biological WMD. The most dangerous biological weapons are highly contagious. Contagion through humans is the delivery vehicle. Thus a strong disincentive for use of biological weapons by non-secluded states is the danger that the contagion will spread to one’s own country. This applies to a much lesser degree for North Korea. Biological weapons have the advantage over nuclear weapons in that they cannot be detected by radiation detectors or x-ray scanners, can be produced by small teams of bio-chemists with relatively ordinary lab equipment, and would be easily smuggled in containerized cargo. North Korea certainly has the capability to construct such weapons, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” applies. Finally, unconventional delivery of WMD has the advantage over missile delivery for North Korea in that its origin is less traceable.

The United States came close to a preemptive strike against North Korean nuclear capabilities in the 1990s. While there are certainly risks of retaliation against regional US bases and allies, such a strike is still on the table as a policy option. It could have a salutary demonstration effect for other rogue states and proliferators, including Iran and Pakistan. The option of waiting, and continued technological development by a belligerant and immature North Korea, could make it impossible to take such actions in the future.