Thursday, March 26, 2009

Afghanistan: Can Washington Change Enough to Win?

EXCERPT: "Winning" in Afghanistan for Washington, whatever that may mean, will require something much more difficult than meeting the challenges of operating in Afghanistan. It will require that Washington clean up its own act.

TEXT: In a brief essay that asks the right question (can the U.S. win in Afghanistan), Michael O’Hanlon offers some quick warnings of why the U.S. might lose in Afghanistan before concluding that we should go ahead with the Afghan surge with expectations of winning. Although a piece that attempts to be balanced, its treatment of the dangers illustrates what may be the primary danger of all facing Washington: its propensity to gloss over embarrassing realities about its own behavior.

The most glaring reality that Washington seems to be glossing over at the moment about Afghanistan is illustrated by O’Hanlon’s comment that violence in Afghanistan is “not nearly as bad" as in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. What he omits is the key point: it was the presence and behavior of American soldiers combined with the Bush Administration’s obvious long-term designs that provoked this violence. The first problem in Iraq was foreign boots on the ground; this was immediately compounded by the Bush Administration’s focus on military victory, as opposed to “turning the lights back on” or keeping social order (remember the history museum?). The second problem was the Bush Administration’s focus on colonizing, as opposed to declaring Saddam’s removal a victory and preparing for withdrawal. These two problems opened the door to al Qua’ida and the resultant five-year war.

The second embarrassing reality that Washington seems to be glossing over about Afghanistan is illustrated by another remark of O’Hanlon, that Washington has some “pretty good” Afghans to work with. Perhaps that is so, but several considerations warrant skepticism. Afghans who were committed to reform were frequently the ones who joined the crusading Taliban back when they were the good guys during the post-Soviet civil war era when everyone else was fighting for power. In addition, in view of the horrifying atrocities committed by the warlords in that civil war who ended up getting U.S. support to overthrow the Taliban, one might wonder if the leopard has truly changed its spots. Yet another cause for concern is the astonishing success of the Afghan illegal narcotics export business under Washington’s “friends.”

The third embarrassing reality that Washington is glossing over relates to yet another O’Hanlon remark, that Afghans are willing to tolerate “foreigners who want to stay just long enough to help them establish a viable state, viable military and police institutions and a stronger economy — and then leave.” Accepting that statement still fails to address the crucial issue: given American policy in Iraq (e.g., its bases that seem to have more permanence every day, the size of its embassy, its policy on who controls Iraqi oil), why would any Afghan believe this?

In order to determine whether or not an Afghan surge makes sense, it is necessary to show how Washington will:

  • Avoid provoking Iraq-scale hostility by its presence;
  • Find and work with Afghans who are both genuine social reform-oriented patriots and willing to cooperate with Washington;
  • Convince Afghans that it is not out to colonize the place.

These are tough requirements. The American record in Iraq and Afghanistan has been marred by contempt for local culture, trigger-happy troops, lack of concern for civilian casualties, over-use of high-tech weapons in civilian areas, jailing and torture of those whose guilt was not proven. Although some efforts to reform such behavior is evident, decision-makers responsible for such behavior have not yet been tried, which strongly implies a lack of sincerity in Washington about ending such abuses.

Cooperating with patriots is also tough, from the perspective of both sides. Americans in a position of military strength have typically had great difficulty dealing with locals as equals. On the other hand, patriots will have their own policy preferences and are unlikely to kowtow. The result typically is that Americans (like any other occupying power) tend to become involved with lackeys who command no local respect, while the patriots end up either marginalized or radicalized.

As for convincing Afghans that Washington is not out to colonize their country, at least three difficult steps probably need to be taken to achieve this:

  • America needs to leave Iraq, something it is not even close to doing, given the bases; the 50,000 troops Obama is leaving behind; the Persian Gulf fleet; and the 100,000-odd mercenary forces that always seem to be ignored when Washington officials publicly discuss American force levels in Iraq.
  • Washington needs to clearly reject its goal of regime change in Iran, one area where recent progress appears to be evident.
  • Washington needs to decide that it indeed does not want to colonize Afghanistan, a decision that the public evidence suggests has yet definitively to have been made.

It seems only logical that Afghans will look at U.S. policy toward itself, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, and Palestine in order to guess what future U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is likely to be. Washington’s attitude toward reform and liberation movements in these societies provides scant evidence to reassure Afghans. Oh, yes, there are all the well-known Afghan-specific reasons why a U.S. surge there may turn into a quagmire (the mountains, the Afghan military tradition and intense sense of patriotism, the skill of the Taliban at pointing out every mistake Americans may make). But before even worrying about those issues, Washington decision-makers need to figure out how to correct their own past mistakes in helping/pacifying/transforming Moslem societies. I have yet to see a coherent argument showing why this time will be different.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jewish Warnings About U.S. Military Aid to Israel

After writing yesterday's post on Israel, the Welfare Queen, I discovered the fascinating Jewish Voices for Peace website on the subject of U.S. military aid to Israel. Here is their opening statement:

Why we urge the U.S. government to suspend military aid to Israel until it ends its 37-year occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

U.S. military aid to Israel has a dramatic effect on Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. It has increasingly been used not to pay for defense but to finance the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. It keeps Israel from facing the difficult but necessary challenges of building a more democratic society, and encourages solving deep-rooted problems by military rather than peaceful and more effective means.

The U.S. funding that pays for the guns and ammunition, F-16 bombers, and Apache helicopters that are used to carry out Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and people serves neither Israelis, Palestinians, nor Americans.

In short, Israel cannot build a society based on the principles of democracy, human rights, and compliance with international law while brutally occupying another people and their land. The United States is currently paying for that occupation with its annual aid. That's why Jewish Voice for Peace urges the U.S. government to suspend military aid to Israel until Israel ends its 37-year occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

They also provide a discussion of the "top five things you should know about U.S. military aid to Israel, including:

1. Harm to Palestinian civilians
A large part of U.S. military aid to Israel goes to purchase tanks, helicopter gunships, machine guns, and bullets that are used against Palestinian civilians. Our tax dollars have been used to destroy homes; uproot trees and crops; seize land from its lawful owners; close all access to food, medicine, and the outside world for small towns in the West Bank and Gaza; staff checkpoints that cut off ambulances and other civilian traffic; and carry out assassinations that kill children in addition to summarily executing political leaders.

2. Harm to Israelis
In addition to the devastation it visits on Palestinians, the occupation threatens the democratic values Israel seeks to uphold. Massive military aid promotes militarism, which has led to a reliance on military, rather than diplomatic means to work for a solution to this ongoing conflict. More and more Israelis question the moral decay that accompanies the criminal actions of the military and the dehumanization of the Palestinian people. A peace rally at the height of Israel?s reoccupation of the main towns of the West Bank in April 2002 drew 15,000 protestors in Tel Aviv. Currently nearly 1,200 Israeli army reservists refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories because the occupation corrupts Israeli society and endangers, rather than enhances, the security of Israelis.

For those who may still question my comment yesterday about the declining morality of Israeli society, read this post, which discusses and reprints an article by Zeev Sternhell, an Israeli professor, authority on fascism, and Holocaust survivor. Sternhell asserts that "the political reality and moral climate in Israel are beginning to be far too reminiscent of Europe between the two World Wars."

And, on the topic of what friendship really means, consider the following by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz:

The peace circus roving the world's capitals would not have any success without the cooperation of the acrobats in Ramallah, headed by Mahmoud Abbas. So long as the Palestinian Authority exists, Israel has a partner in the peace dance. One step forward, two backward, until Hamas or demography wins in the end. Meanwhile, the citizens of Europe pay the teachers' salaries in the West Bank, instead of the military government, and the Japanese pay to rebuild public buildings Israel bombed in the Gaza Strip.

If the U. S. is serious about its declarations of friendship with Israel and its commitment to ending the conflict, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton needs to pass up on some of the makeup. Her declaration that Israel is the one who must decide whether it supports a two-state solution is obviously deceptive. This principle has not been an Israeli matter, or even a regional one, for some time now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Israel: Mideast Welfare Queen

Many Americans seem to think that giving Israel a blank check to amass limitless weapons and use them however it wishes is doing the Israeli people a favor. Alas, Washington has created the world’s ultimate welfare queen: by providing Israel as gifts with no strings attached the military and economic resources to dominate the Mideast, Washington has made Israel irresponsible. Since Israel feels, so far correctly, that it can do whatever it wants and leave the U.S. to pay the bill, Israel is losing all sense of proportion, becoming heedless of the consequences of its behavior.

Even if Washington politicians, mindful of the reverse flow of Israeli funds into their re-election coffers, never turn off the tap, the question of whether or not Israel can continue to move at will throughout the Mideast with a foreign policy based on the theory that its neighbors “only understand the language of force” should be of real concern to the Israel people. The political group that has controlled Israeli national politics for the last generation has made crystal clear its faith in military force as the solution to Israel’s international problems. Even if this faith were justified in theory, the conclusion that Israel can in practice continue to win all its battles is ever more suspect. Israel picked a fight with Hamas after its 2006 electoral victory only to see Hamas take control of Gaza; Israel invaded Lebanon later that same year only to see Hezbollah fight it to a standstill and emerge stronger in Lebanese politics; Israel has been threatening Iran with attack for years, only to see Iran steadily gain strength; Israel could not even end Hamas’ control of the walled-in Gaza, despite slaughtering over 1,000 Gazans and continuing its collective punishment of the Gazan population after its invasion.

But Israel’s predicament goes beyond the relative balance of regional military power. Israel is increasingly finding that military solutions to social, economic, and political problems simply do not exist. More, the attempt to solve militarily social, economic, and political problems is increasingly likely simply to put a temporary lid on the underlying issues, concealing them while the pressure builds. So, if Israelis feel insecure despite their preponderance of military power, it is perhaps not just paranoia, but also in part a sneaking feeling that their strategy for seeking security is one destined to fail.

Yet even all that is not the sum total of Israel’s dilemma, for, in truth, gifts do have strings. What can be given, can be withheld. Israel is only the Mideast superpower until Washington turns off the tap. Now that Israeli hubris has reached the point of vetoing critical American national security appointees, blatantly sabotaging highly sensitive U.S. foreign policy initiatives, and trying to push the U.S. into yet another war against a Moslem society, the tap may just be turned off.

Israeli patriots should pray that it will be…before it is too late for the security of the Israeli people. The longer the welfare queen flaunts her wealth before her neighbors, the more they will hunger for revenge. The more accustomed the welfare queen becomes to her unearned lifestyle, the harder it will be for her to adjust to being just another working stiff.

The longer Israel is spoiled by being allowed to play by special rules, the greater will be the shock to Israeli society when the world tells Israel to grow up and act like everyone else. Israel has been stiff-arming the U.N. for decades, but U.N. condemnation of Israeli violations of international law are becoming increasingly outspoken. Even Israeli media are gagging on the stream of revelations about Israeli barbarity, the rising savagery of Israeli culture, and the increasingly racist pronouncements of Israeli officials. As for Israeli foreign policy beyond Palestine, the now-common assertions among Israeli officials that Israel has the right to launch wars against vastly weaker and non-nuclear countries because they might someday attain the ability to make nuclear arms (Iran) or simply because they might import a weapon system that would give them the barest beginnings of the ability to defend themselves (Lebanon) suggest a level of paranoia that would make Israel certifiable if it were an individual.

It has in recent decades become clear that handing welfare checks to the poor or giving free food to poor societies does not work. Don’t give a man a fish; teach him to fish. Israel is showing that welfare works no better for countries than it does for individuals. Endless presents are addictive. It is simply a fact of human nature that we do not appreciate an endless supply of gifts. The mere fact that the gifts are endless and free somehow cheapens them; they end up being neither appreciated nor cared for, and, ironically, they end up not even serving the intended purpose.

The enormous outpouring of American weapons that has turned Israel into a regional superpower not only has not brought peace to the Israeli people, it has not even made Israel feel secure. On the contrary, the more militarily powerful Israel becomes, the more afraid it seems to become of the dark. Deep in its soul, Israel seems to know that oppressing and threatening its neighbors, denying food and medicine to women and children in Gaza, littering southern Lebanon with bomblets that explode in the hands of children is not giving Israel security. Even if it were, at the cost, it would be inexcusable, but morality and fairness aside, all those arms are not even achieving their purpose. And the more arms Israel demands, the more it misuses them, and the more insecure it becomes.

So Israeli patriots should pray that Washington starts to act like a true friend and forces Israel to grow up and learn how to play with matches without burning itself before it starts a fire that no one can control.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

More on Israel Undermining U.S. Policy on Iran

Interesting background from the Mideast Peace Pulse about Israel's apparent effort to sabotage Obama's Iran policy before it even gets off the ground.

For those who are counting, and those who care about the freedom of the U.S. to defend its own national security better be counting, this now appears to make the score: Israeli rightwing 2 - Obama 0 (the first Israeli rightwing victory being the vetoing of Freeman, of course).

Obama, I know you are a smooth dude and want to be friends with everyone, but these guys are playing hardball. Are you paying attention?

Obama Lightens the Mood; Peres Spoils the Mood; Khamenei Wants Substance

Obama told Iran that it cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations...through terror or arms."

Does this mean that Obama is very delicately signalling Iran that Israeli terror campaigns against the people of Gaza are to be ended or that the U.S. fleet will be removed from the Persian Gulf or that the U.S. is withdrawing the Bush threat of "all options on the table" and guaranteeing to prevent an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran? Those are perhaps the most obvious moves that Washington would make if it indeed wanted to implement a policy of giving nations their "rightful" places in the community of nations without the use of "terror" or "arms."

Obama should be given a (small) pat on the back for moving away from the egregiously insulting attitude of the Bush Administration toward Iran, though Obama has not, to my knowledge, apologized for Bush's "axis of evil" slap in the face or even officially stated that his administration rejects that statement. So Obama really has not even completely washed away the superficially disrespectful behavior of his predecessor. All he has done is respond in kind to Ahmadinejad's recent statment calling for "mutual respect."

So it can hardly come as a surprise that Khamenei responded by saying Iran was waiting for substance.
In contrast to the biased treatment of Khamenei's remarks by AP, Khamenei did not "rebuff" Obama. Rather, Khamenei quite reasonably noted that Iran was looking for an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran. He said:

We have no experience with the new American government and the new American president. We will observe them and we will judge. If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude.

What could be more reasonable? He might well have asked why, if Washington rejects terror and arms as the way to be part of the community of nations, Washington supported Israel's vicious attack on Gaza and opposes Iranian economic aid for the people of Gaza. He might well have asked why the U.S. has so many military ships in the Persian Gulf that they cannot even get through the entrance without running into each other. He might well have asked why the U.S. opposes the delivery of Russian defensive missiles to Iran, as though Washington wanted the option of attacking a defenseless Iran.

Khamenei did directly address the terrorism issue, stating that U.S. support for an anti-Iranian insurgency based in Pakistan "is still continuing" and recalling the U.S. shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988.

Since U.S. support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians is a key issue on which Tehran wants to see change, and Iranian support for those Palestinians is a key issue on which Washington wants to see change, it is also worth noting how Washington's "friends" in Israel supported Obama's attempt to change the tone of U.S.-Iranian relations. Copying Obama, Israeli President Peres also sent a greeting to Iran, but one calculated to ruin Obama's new tone, calling them "religious fanatics" and observing that "the Iranian nation will topple these leaders."

If, as Washington decision-makers like to say, "all options are on the table," then here are a few options Obama might consider:

  • he might apologize for the U.S. coup in 1953 that destroyed the Iranian democratic movement;
  • he might state that the U.S. opposes nuclear war and will hold to account any country that starts one;
  • he might state that the U.S. will not under any circumstances be the first to launch nuclear weapons;
  • he might take a hard look at U.S. policy toward the various activists/insurgents/criminal gangs/terrorists operating in Pakistan's Baluchistan;
  • he might think about how many naval vessels the U.S. really needs to keep in the Persian Gulf.
Obama might also reject the Peres remarks, which harken back to the most negative rhetorical flourishes of Bush and Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei's expression of willingness to change is an open door. He was referring only to attitude, but from attitude, all things follow. Obama should call his bluff, start changing substantive policy, and see where it leads.

Rebuilding America...and Honesty about the U.S. "Defense" Budget

In my recent "Rebuilding America" post, I described two alternative styles of living and advocated a national debate to decide which type of society Americans want to have. The two "styles of living" are essentially the fraudulent, short-term, dishonest, "live it up" approach that has characterized the last decade in particular vs. an honest, responsible, sustainable lifestyle. The underlying assumption of this whole discussion is that personal lifestyle, domestic politics, and foreign policy are all in the same basket.

Using the so-called "defense" budget rather than at-the-pump prices to pay for imported oil.

One of several issues that need to be considered in order to define a coherent lifestyle for society is the use of the defense budget. Americans would be much less confused about global affairs if our leaders made clear, honest public distinctions between offense and defense, not to mention actually telling the American people what percent of the so-called "defense" budget goes to do such things as subsidize the cost of gasoline.

When something like 40% of the world's total outlay for military forces is spent by the U.S., it is obvious that American military expenditures cover a lot that has little to do with defending U.S. national security. Conquering countries with oil and paying off dictators of other countries with oil may or may not be something Americans want to do, but the fact is that we are doing it - we are just pretending that we don't. Since we pretend that all we are doing is "defending" ourselves, it is next to impossible to discuss such basic issues as the amount of money we are spending to subsidize the price of gasoline or whether or not invading countries is a cost-effective method of lowering the price of gas. The resulting confusion is of course very convenient for members of the elite who like to make such decisions without public interference, but it is not so healthy for devising a long-term strategy for American survival in a world that is posing rising challenges.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Israeli War Crimes

The evidence of Israeli war crimes during its Gaza invasion continues to pile up. Amnesty International has repeatedly reported such evidence "wanton destruction" of homes and the use of white phosphorus bombs (not to mention that they came from the U.S.).

Now, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories Richard Falk has denounced Israeli failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians in a report to the U.N.

Emerging testimony by Israeli soldiers supports Falk's findings:

Israel was last night confronting a major challenge over the conduct of its 22-day military offensive in Gaza after testimonies by its own soldiers revealed that troops were allowed and, in some cases, even ordered to shoot unarmed Palestinian civilians.

The testimonies – the first of their kind to emerge from inside the military – are at marked variance with official claims that the military made strenuous efforts to avoid civilian casualties and tend to corroborate Palestinian accusations that troops used indiscriminate and disproportionate firepower in civilian areas during the operation.

Making the point that atrocities by the Israeli Army are nothing new, Lebanon's Daily Star recalled some of the historical record:

Israeli Army has a long history of involvement in atrocities against
civilians. This is especially true in Lebanon, where Israeli troops
cordoned off the exits from the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps while
militiamen massacred about 2,000 Palestinian civilians over three days
in 1982. The Israeli Air Force dropped parachute flairs to aid the
killings at night.

Israeli Air Force also extensively bombed civilian areas of west
Beirut, sometimes with white phosphorous munitions, which cause injury
or death via severe burns. In 1996, Israel shelled the UN base at Qana
in South Lebanon, killing more than 130 civilians while commanders
watched what unfolded via an aerial drone.

in 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon after Hizbullah conducted a
cross-border raid against Israeli Army forces. About 1,200 Lebanese,
the vast majority of them civilians, died in the conflict. Israel also
bombed civilian areas, sometimes with cluster munitions, the use of
which against civilians is illegal under international law.

has also carried out numerous air strikes on Palestinian leaders in
crowded areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, resulting in
numerous civilian deaths.

How much evidence will be required to hold Israeli officials to account? Is it time for a new Nuremburg trial?

Rebuilding America

A debate worth reading carefully over how to assess blame for the recession (Wall Street or Washington, as if one could tell them apart, given the revolving door) has just been held by the Rosenkranz Foundation.

The more fundamental point, in my opinion, is that the implicit message of the last decade has been that anything goes: the elite were excused in advance from taking responsibility for their behavior. Morality and responsibility start at the top. When foreign policy is based on lies and the blatant search for personal profit, the message (piracy is in) flows through society.

  • The parallel between the $72 million compensation given to Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld (see Ferguson's remarks in the debate) and the $15 million sole source contract given to Cheney's company Halliburton for supporting the occupation of Iraq is exact.
  • The parallel with the White House assertion of the various claimed extra-constitutional rights of the Imperial Presidency is also exact: the medium of exchange for Wall Street corruption is money; the medium of exchange for Washington corruption is power. If the coin of the realm (money or power) is used illictly for private gain, it is corruption.
  • The parallel with Bush's encouragement to Americans to continue life as normal during the invasion and occupation of Iraq is also exact. This was nothing more than a bribe: Washington will give you, the American people, cheap oil in return for you looking the other way as we, the elite, run foreign policy any way it pleases us. Washington's encouragement to everyone to buy a house, regardless of what the person could afford, and promotion of the bubble were just more of the same.
Thus, while I absolutely applaud the holding of this debate as a brilliant way to inform people about the causes of our current difficulties, I must say that it somewhat misses the point by asking the wrong question: Wall Street and Washington are not clearly distinguishable. The foxes guard the chicken coop. Financial and foreign policy cannot be separated either. America is generally governed by a shockingly coherent elite, whose members spend their years in power passing back and forth through a revolving door. This elite has done both good things and bad things, selfish things and patriotic/moral things. Its mood changes. Individuals sometimes matter; conditions sometimes send a message that breaks through the barriers of hubris and downright stupidity.

Bottom line: the problems we face today--whether the threat of terrorism, the financial crisis, or global warming--were caused by the immaturity, greed, and irresponsibility of this elite. Worrying about which part of the elite was most guilty may be useful as a guide to repairing the damage, and here the debate offers real value: the buck stops in the White House. It is the White House that sets the moral tone for the whole nation. That is most unfortunate since Americans insist on electing second-rate people as leaders: visionaries, philosophers, those who challenge us to achieve our best in moral terms, even open-minded reformers stand virtually no chance of winning the presidency. Since Americans choose not to elect outstanding individuals, they should not treat them like heroes, but they do, so the moral tone set by the White House is copied nationwide.

The point of reviewing the sordid history of the recession is not primarily to punish the guilty (though that should be done) but to shine light on the way forward: if immorality, profligacy, irresponsibility, exploitation of power for personal gain generated the thoughtless excesses that exhausted America's national wealth (be it America's good name, its economy, its military power), then it seems logical that the way to move forward is to turn toward the opposite, namely morality, moderation, responsibility, and the use of power for the construction of a sustainable style of living.

The U.S. needs a national debate over exactly what this means. Since the Democrats shied away from addressing this clearly in the election, the corruption of the past has yet to be rejected, and the country remains mired in moral confusion. The recession, embarrassingly, seems to be awakening American society more effectively than all the post-9/11 wars. That a (so far) modest decline in earning power would sensitize American society to the moral dilemmas it faces more effectively than the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Somalis, and Lebanese in itself says something quite fundamental about the state of American moral consciousness. Perhaps it is in fact the ironic combination of bloody foreign policy aggressiveness immediately leading to economic disaster that is finally beginning to get the message through to the so very self-satisfied and complaisant American society. Be that as it may, a few suggestions follow, in hopes that they may help to focus such a national debate.

Style of Living Alternatives

  1. Using the so-called "defense" budget rather than at-the-pump prices to pay for imported oil.
  2. Hiring mercenaries rather than U.S. soldiers to fight American wars.
  3. Encouraging Americans to ignore U.S. wars rather than asking Americans to sacrifice in wartime.
  4. Encouraging Americans to spend the country out of recession rather than combining belt-tightening with income redistribution.
  5. Democratic politicians blaming Wall Street rather than apologizing for their own guilt in creating the mood of irresponsibility that caused the recession.
  6. Borrowing and printing money to recover rather than strengthening fundamentals.
  7. Resisting Muslim protests with force rather than addressing Muslim grievances.
  8. Proliferating to Washington's allies rather than working toward a denuclearized world.
  9. Tinkering with Afghan, Israeli, Iraqi, Iranian policy rather than denouncing the neo-con preference for the use of force and obsession with "preventive" war.

This list could of course be much longer. The point is that the red alternatives together form one style of living--the style that has brought us both military defeat and recession because this style of living is not sustainable; the green alternatives form another style of living, one that sets long-term life-style sustainability rather than short-term personal profit as the goal.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Polish Perspective on American Financial Elite Zombies Threatening the World

There is no zombie free lunch

The financial plans of Barack Obama and Ben Bernanke will drain life and energy from the rest of the planet, says Krzysztof Rybinski.

Krzysztof Rybinski is a partner in Ernst & Young and assistant professor at the Warsaw School of Economics. He was deputy governor of the National Bank of Poland (March 2004-January 2008). His website is here

I urge everyone to read the brilliant, hilarious, science-fiction horror story version of how U.S. decision-makers are managing the global economic crisis written by the imaginative but very, very serious Polish economist Krzystof Rybinski.

In particular, I urge Americans to read his essay: get out of your shell and see how the recession that the dynamic duo New York financiers & Washington politicians is bringing to a main street near you (wherever you live on this little globe of ours). It is quite revealing to see the U.S. from the perspective of a thinker who lives elsewhere.

In fact, I would have reprinted the whole article on my website under the marvelous Creative Commons license that the Open Democracy global affairs analysis site adheres to, but that license requires that one simply reprint articles ... without "building on" them. But "building on" this insightful essay is exactly what we should be doing because it ties the whole global complex system together, showing how Americans--the richest large society on earth--are exploiting all the rest. More, the essay hints (very gently) at the global financial pain that will be felt by many (perhaps even Americans, eventually, since things are connected in a complex system) if U.S. decision-makers continue to borrow from the world to pay off exploitative members of the American financial elite.

So, read the article, then return here, and we will see if we can build on it to explore its implications.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Morality of U.S. Foreign Policy

According to CBS:

The United States engaged in acts of torture and “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” upon prisoners held at secret detention sites operated by or in conjunction with the CIA, according to details from a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Such acts constitute violations of the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross said.

The ICRC is the appointed legal guardian of the Geneva Conventions and oversees the treatment of prisoners of war.

According to author Mark Danner:

We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not. Since November, George W. Bush and his administration have seemed to be rushing away from us at accelerating speed, a dark comet hurtling toward the ends of the universe. The phrase "War on Terror"—the signal slogan of that administration, so cherished by the man who took pride in proclaiming that he was "a wartime president"—has acquired in its pronouncement a permanent pair of quotation marks, suggesting something questionable, something mildly embarrassing: something past. And yet the decisions that that president made, especially the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.

According to author Chris Floyd:

Obama Justice Dept. defends Rumsfeld in torture case. As Raw Story notes:

Language used in the brief of the individual defendants in the case, including Rumsfeld, having a "clear entitlement to qualified immunity" casts doubt on the hopes of civil and human rights activists that the Justice Department will take up calls to launch criminal prosecutions into the architects and policy designers of some of the most criticized Bush policies such as waterboarding, extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretapping.

Teaching Tehran a Lesson

British PM Brown instructs Iran on its "nuclear rights:"

We have to create a new international system to help non-nuclear states acquire the new sources of energy they need, because, whether we like it or not, we will not meet the challenges of climate change without the far wider use of civil nuclear power," he said.

Brown, however, said Iran's "current nuclear programme is unacceptable".

Iran has concealed nuclear activities, refused to co-operate with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and flouted UN Security Council resolutions."

Iran therefore faces a clear choice - continue in this way and face further and tougher sanctions, or change to a UN-overseen civil nuclear energy programme that will bring the greatest benefits to its citizens.

Translation: The West now concedes that Iran can be allowed peaceful nuclear energy as long as the West is convinced that there is no actual or even potential military component, but Iran absolutely will not be allowed the same rights as Israel, which, as always, constitutes a special case. In fact, Iran will not be allowed the same rights as Pakistan or India either, and this is the case despite the fact that Iran is making no nuclear threats against anyone while Israel, India, and Pakistan have all practiced an alarming and highly irresponsible degree of nuclear brinkmanship.

The above translation reveals no secrets to Iran's leadership. Those folks can read as well as anyone else. It may, of course, surprise and upset Americans, who are normally protected by their mainstream media cocoon from having to digest such bitter pills.

The serious issue here is the nature of the lesson that such diplomatic behavior teaches. A Martian analyst studying Earth Politics would advise his government to prohibit Martians from taking vacations on Earth: put simply, the behavior of Pakistan, India, and Israel raises serious concern about the possibility of nuclear war breaking out on Earth over the next decade or two.


Latest Israeli effort to pour gasoline on the Mideast political fires:

The IDF chief told Ross that Israel would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. He said that a diplomatic approach to Iran's contentious nuclear program must be taken first, but said Israel must also prepare for other possibilities.


Two primary reasons exist for such concerns:

  • the three cited countries have repeatedly exhibited behavior suggesting that they cannot be trusted to avoid the temptation, in a crisis, of using their nukes;

  • the world's powers, rather than focusing on efforts to mitigate this obvious threat, instead inexplicably seem obsessed with the possibility of a future threat from a country that has no realistic hope in the foreseeable future of achieving anything remotely like nuclear parity but which is deemed likely to engage in the suicidal use of whatever primitive nukes it can get its hands on. Since this country has no history of engaging in suicidal behavior, Martian analysts cannot explain why Earth powers have made this assessment.

Martians just don't understand far-away Earth.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Good Economic News (Really)

I could probably be criticized for dwelling on bad news, so here are a couple pieces of good news on the economy:

all those great banks that have been doing so much to support America lately now seem to be enjoying better stock prices;

Obama has taken my advice (or perhaps figured it out for himself) and will, eventually, help small businesses.

Mideast Friends

The U.S. needs friends in the Mideast. There, have I succeeded in making a statement that all Americans, regardless of political perspective, can accept?

Now that we are all on the same page, what kind of friends does the U.S. need in the Mideast?

  • Does the U.S. need dictators with efficient secret police organizations to keep down the rabble and do our torturing for us?
  • Does the U.S. need a land aircraft carrier to attack all who dare to oppose our will?

At worst, the U.S. is an ignorant savage on steroids who keeps tripping over his own shoelaces. (That’s what happens when you give shoes to a savage.) At best, the U.S. just can’t understand why everyone doesn’t just “eat cake” (two kids, nice lawn, SUV in the garage). Ah, in Palestine (for example), the roads are for Israelis; Palestinians are restricted to back alleys, and as for the garage, the Israeli Army just demolished it (along with the century-old olive grove) to build a new high-rise for illegal settlers (BYO AK-47).

What the U.S. needs is: friends who will help it mix at a party where it is the stranger. Turkey has started to play this role; indeed, Hillary is just now begging it to do more. That’s a start, and I am absolutely grateful for any help Turkey can provide, but after all, Turkey’s not necessarily so easy for Americans to understand either, and there’s a lot of issues between the U.S. and the Mideast for just one friend to resolve. It sure would be nice if the U.S. had an additional friend over there.

Imagine how American national security would be enhanced if there were, say, a small democratic country in the Mideast highly respected for its good neighbor policy and willing to explain to us out-of-touch Western Hemisphere types how things work back there in the old world. Imagine how many expensive missteps we could avoid if we had such a friend who could wink at shocked Mideasterners when we goofed up and pull us to the side when we were about to step in dirt.

But I’m dreaming. In the real world, the U.S. does not have such friends nor would it have the ability to distinguish such a friend from smooth-talking lackeys and exploitative manipulators. Too bad.

Israeli Thinker Notes Obama's Humiliation by Israeli Right Wing

Uri Avnery may be the most perceptive Israeli world affairs commentator currently practicing his art, so I can't help but be a bit satisfied to see that he reached exactly the same conclusion about the Israeli lobby having humiliated Obama that I did.

As a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman is an expert on the Arab world and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He has strong opinions about American policy in the Middle East, and makes no secret of them.

In a 2005 speech, he criticized Israel's "high-handed and self-defeating policies" originating in the "occupation and settlement of Arab lands", which he described as "inherently violent".

In a 2007 speech he said that the US had "embraced Israel’s enemies as our own" and that Arabs had "responded by equating Americans with Israelis as their enemies." Charging the US with backing Israel’s "efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations" and to "seize ever more Arab land for its colonists", he added that "Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians”.

Another conclusion is his belief that the terrorism the United States confronts is due largely to "the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by an Israeli occupation that has lasted over 40 years and shows no signs of ending".

Naturally, the appointment of such a person was viewed with great alarm by the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. They decided on an all-out attack. No subtle behind-the-scenes intervention, no discreet protestations, but a full-scale demonstration of their might right at the beginning of the Obama era.

Public denunciations were composed, senators and congressmen pressed into action, media people mobilized. Freeman’s integrity was called into question, shady connections with Arab and Chinese financial interests “disclosed” by the docile press. Admiral Blair came to his appointee’s defence, but in vain. Freeman had no choice but to withdraw.

The full meaning of this episode should not escape anyone.

It was the first test of strength of the lobby in the new Obama era. And in this test, the lobby came out with flying (blue-and-white) colours. The administration was publicly humiliated.

Now, what does a powerful but humiliated actor do to regain his self-respect and his influence?

Tehran Blows a Diplomatic Opportunity to Cultivate Turkey

Turkey demonstrated a new flexibility in pulling away from Israel during its recent attack on Gaza, and Gul has been trying to resolve the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute for some time. Tehran's rush to slap Gul down while he was still in town seems an egregious and short-sighted mistake that missed an opportunity, however slim, to cement its weak regional ties.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad should instead have listened more carefully to Gul:

Gul expressed optimism after his meetings in Tehran and said that ties between the U.S. and Iran would improve as both countries have the good will for bettering relations. He also praised the new U.S. administration, saying that President Barack Obama, who showed that his team would "listen to every one and establish dialogue regarding problems", was pursuing a very different approach from his predecessor.

Nice words do not make it so, of course, but this early in the Obama Administration, nothing is set in concrete. Read Gul's words as follows: "Think, folks, when the ice thaws, movement becomes possible. Help the current flow in the direction you want." Given the defeats suffered by the U.S. since 9/11, the economic mess, the rising challenge in Central Asia, and Israel's insufferable extremism, the context may just be right for Ankara to have some real influence on events. Iran would do well to position itself appropriately.

Turkey and Iran have many reasons to cooperate. Their economic ties are already expanding. They also have nuclear issues in common. As noted in the Turkish media, "Ankara does not want its nuclear energy program to be prevented by the arguments used against Iran."

Gul implicitly broke new diplomatic ground in a statement presumably designed to be heard in Washington as well as Tehran, saying that Iran's security concerns must be addressed as well as that Turkey will oppose Iran trying to address those concerns by developing nuclear weapons. Since Tehran claims that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, it should have loudly welcomed these words and embraced the Turkish message. After all, in fact that message requires a change in policy only from Washington, which has long carefully avoided recognizing Tehran's legitimate security concerns.

Look for this to become an election issue in Iran in the coming weeks. Ahmadinejad may need confrontation with the West for career purposes, though the arrival of the Obama Administration, diplomatic repositioning in Ankara, calming of domestic political waters in Lebanon, European Mideast initiatives, and pressure for Palestinian unity are beginning to make Ahmadinejad look a bit long in the tooth. Some outside of Ahmadinehad's inner circle in Tehran may feel that Iran's national interest points in a different direction.

More on Elite Corruption Fueling the Recession

Robert Reich can really get you thinking:

When it turns out that people like Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who took home $68 million in 1997, was the only Wall Streeter in a meeting last September at the New York Federal Reserve to discuss the initial AIG bailout with Tim Geithner, then New York Fed chair, among others, at the very time Goldman was AIG's largest trading partner, a distinct scent of self-dealing begins to emanate. When it turns out that Citigroup got a bailout deal last October far more generous than that given to any other distressed bank, when a top Citi executive was advising the Treasury and Fed, the scent increases. Goldman's past CEO was Treasury Secretary at that time, by the way, and another former Goldman's CEO was a top Citi official and also a former Treasury Secretary. I am not suggesting anything so crude as corruption. But could it be, given these tangled webs, that -- innocently, unintentionally, perhaps even subconsciously -- the entire bailout effort was premised on saving these companies rather than protecting the public? Or that the distinction between the two was lost, and still is?

But he is, in this case, leaning way over backwards to be polite to folks who have spent the last six months making America's financial crisis much worse than it ever needed to be. Everyone in Washington, Robert -- as you know well -- is exceedingly conscious of "conflict of interest." Everyone in the Washington bureaucracy gets trained to recognize it and warned repeatedly to avoid it, or even the appearance thereof. I am certainly not saying that no bureaucrat is ever guilty of it; au contraire. But when they step in it, they can smell it on their shoes. "Gee, I never thought..." is no excuse; all it means is, "Gee, I never thought you'd catch me."

For the CEO of Goldman to discuss bailing out AIG with the Government while Goldman is AIG's largest trading partner is conflict of interest. Reich may not be suggesting anything so crude as the passing of paper bags full of cash, nor am I. Cash bribes are for the small fry. Corruption in elite America is about the illicit sharing of power; the cash, all in good time, takes care of itself. When a politician shares power with a corporate CEO in a context of revolving chairs between Wall Street and Washington to enhance the careers of each at the expense of the national interest, that is corruption.

A simple, standard method for avoiding such conflict of interest exist. It is called "recusal." When you know you are personally involved in an issue so that your participation in the decision-making process would potentially affect your own pocketbook, then you excuse yourself from participation in that process.

If no one can be found in Washington who meets the above criteria, then we need a board of non-Washington people to make these decisions. Select one economist from each university in the U.S., put their names in a hat, and appoint the first seven whose names you pull out. Lock them in a hotel room for a week with the best food in town catered in, and tell them to spend $1 trillion to help their country.

Or perhaps we the people will have to follow the Pakistani approach...

Pakistan, that stellar example of sophisticated citizenry knowledgeably regulating the performance of their elected officials, just demonstrated to the world how to defend democracy. Thousands of individuals put their personal safety on the line marching straight through police lines ordered by a corrupt politician in love with his own power. Even more impressive, these citizens were marching toward military lines set up to defend power against people. The news today suggests that the people won in this case, but Tiananmen and many, many other cases have taught mankind the danger of defending democracy. The courage of the Pakistani people this weekend is a lesson for democracy that Americans watching its own elite misbehavior should take to heart.

The above is just a blog post. If you actually want a plan of action for repairing the structure of the American financial system, it isn't even necessary to put those economists' names in a hat: the plan already exists. And wonder of wonders, the author is a member of the Government! Yes, some good people do work for the U.S. Government.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Corruption on Wall Street...and in Washington

Robert Reich on corruption from the corporation that brought you the recession:

The real scandal of AIG isn't just that American taxpayers have so far committed $170 billion to the giant insurer because it is thought to be too big to fail -- the most money ever funneled to a single company by a government since the dawn of capitalism -- nor even that AIG's notoriously failing executives, at the very unit responsible for the catastrophic credit-default swaps at the very center of the debacle -- are planning to give themselves $100 million in bonuses. It's that even at this late date, even in a new administration dedicated to doing it all differently, Americans still have so little say over what is happening with our money.

Reich goes on to explain that, according to AIG's chairman, the company needs to "retain talent." Gotta admit, it does take a certain talent to be able to bring down the economy of the world's only superpower and then turn around and persuade that collapsing superpower to hand you, free of charge, its last dime.

I made some pointed remarks recently about using logic. Reich offers the following analysis, so logical that a child could have thought of it:

This sordid story of government helplessness in the face of massive taxpayer commitments illustrates better than anything to date why the government should take over any institution that's "too big to fail" and which has cost taxpayers dearly. Such institutions are no longer within the capitalist system because they are no longer accountable to the market. So to whom should they be accountable? When taxpayers have put up, and essentially own, a large portion of their assets, AIG and other behemoths should be accountable to taxpayers.

Yes, a child could have thought of it, but apparently our brilliant representatives in Washington did not.

Key Perspectives on Israel

If you have any opinions whatsoever about Israel, read these two articles:

1) The Case Against Israel's "Right to Exist"

by Roger Tucker

An Open Letter to Representative David Price (D) 4th District, NC

2) Israeli War on Palestinian Olive

by Khaled Amayreh

Pakistani Democracy Turmoil

Here is the textbook method for turning a politician into a hero:

LAHORE: The long march is on its way to Islamabad led by Pakistan Muslim League-N Quaid Mian Nawaz Sharif.

The long march comprises of lawyers, political workers and members of civil society.

Police tried to block the way of caravan at different locations. The PML-N Quaid managed to come out of his Model Town residence despite an order of detention which was served to him. However, the police retreated after a little while giving way to the caravan.

At GPO Road, clash broke out between enraged protesters and police which used heavy shelling to disperse the protestors. The Nawaz-led caravan comprising party workers and people kept marching on, breaking all the hurdles erected on their way while scuffles between police and protesters continued.

The caravan crossed the Kalma Chowk where heavy contingents of police were deployed to stop the march. However, the police disappeared after a while.

The number of people participating in the long march kept building up steadily and the caravan of hundreds turned into thousands. The police seemed to have changed its strategy and decided to retreat upon seeing the ocean of people approaching.

Sharif should be very grateful to Zardari for giving him something he simply could never have acquired on his own.

Great Depression Facts

Great Depression facts:
  • US stock values dropped by 80%
  • 11,000 of the US's 25,000 banks failed
  • unemployment was at 25 per cent
  • industrial production declined by 45%

And the final result was world war.

Washington Bias Undermining Its Influence in Levant?

One could almost be excused for getting the feeling that Washington has become so biased in favor of the Israeli Greater Israel faction and so hamstrung by the power of the Israeli lobby that it is being taken out of the Levant action.

On Hezbollah:

Britain is re-establishing contact with the militant group Hezbollah following the formation of a unity government in Lebanon, the British government said Thursday.

The Foreign Office said that it has established contact with the group's political wing but still has no contact with its military wing.

Britain ceased contact with members of Hezbollah in 2005 and listed the military wing as a proscribed terrorist organization last year.

The Foreign Office said that it had reconsidered its position following positive developments in Lebanon.

"Our objective with Hezbollah remains to encourage them to move away from violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with a range of UN Security Council Resolutions," the ministry said.

The ministry said Britain's ambassador attended a meeting in January in Beirut alongside a Hezbollah lawmaker, and that the government was seeking to build relations with other legislators attached to the group.

On Hamas:

A European parliamentary delegation on Saturday met with members of Hamas's political leadership-in-exile in Damascus to discuss ways to end the group's international isolation. The six-member EU delegation, which includes lawmakers from Britain and Ireland, said that their meeting with Hamas politburo leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus was intended to encourage more Europeans to recognise Hamas as a legitimate movement that was democratically elected by its people. "We believe that we should start talking with Hamas, and the more the delay, the more the suffering," Irish EU parliamentarian Chris Andrew said following the group's meeting.

On Palestinian unity:

The European Union will press Egypt Sunday to step up its mediation efforts to secure a Palestinian unity government and re-ignite the Mideast peace process.

Diplomats said a Palestinian unity government would lead the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip after an Israeli offensive. Hamas says power-sharing talks with its Palestinian rival Fatah are stuck because of disagreements over the political program of a future government.

The talks between key European Union, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian officials will also focus on efforts to open more crossings into Gaza for humanitarian aid.

In comparison with the various European initiatives to break the Levant stalemate, statements out of Washington look depressingly shortsighted and unimaginative. Indeed, they look intentionally obstructionist.

Secretary Clinton: "I believe that it?s important, if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it?s very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the quartet, by the Arab summit," source

So, Madam Secretary, you don't think it will be important for achieving reconciliation for Israel to know the conditions set forth by the quartet and the Arab summit?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that a successful Palestinian reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas must include recognition of Israel by Hamas.[as summarized by Haaretz]

Why, Madam Secretary, "must" Israel not also recognize Hamas?

Secretary Clinton: In the absence of Hamas agreeing to the principles that have been adopted by such a broad range of international actors, I don't see that we or they -- or anyone -- could deal with Hamas--CNN

And what about agreement, Madam Secretary, by Israel to the principles that have been adopted by a broad range of international actors (e.g., ending the illegal settlements, living within its internationally recognized 1967 borders)?

A senior American official on British policy toward Hezbollah: We don't see the differences between the integrated leadership that they see
A very thin excuse for not talking to a party that is part of the Lebanese government. It is now U.S. policy to pick and choose among various factions within the legally recognized government of a foreign country?

Secretary Clinton: There is no doubt that any nation, including Israel, cannot stand idly by while its territory and people are subjected to rocket attacks.

So, walling up 1.5 million civilians inside a concentration camp surrounded by soldiers and preventing them from importing food or medicine is what you, Madam Secretary, consider to be "idly standing by?"

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Learning from Our French Friends

Here's another lesson we Americans could learn from the French (remember, they were right about not undertaking that little neocon adventure in Iraq, too):

In industrial disputes in other countries, the bosses lock the workers out. In France, disgruntled workers lock their bosses in.

The head of the Sony corporation in France was held overnight in an electronics plant in south-west France yesterday by workers protesting against their redundancy terms.

The workers blocked exits from the factory with the trunks and branches of trees and forced the chief executive of Sony France, Serge Foucher, and the company's head of human resources, Roland Bentz, to spend the night in a conference room. Hostage taking? Industrial terrorism? Not in France. The "sequestration" of bosses has been a common tactic by French workers for several years. It is unusual, however, for the "prisoner" to be someone as senior as the national chief of a company as large as Sony.

Hezbollah Adopts Washington's Policy of No Talks Without Preconditions

Tearing a tattered page from Washington's own book, Nasrallah has announced that any U.S.-Hezbollah talks would only occur in accordance with Hezbollah's own "preconditions:"

Sayyed Nasrallah concluded his speech by tackling the “new” US stance towards Hezbollah and Hamas. His eminence remarked that the US administration has set conditions for any potential dialogue with the two resistance parties on top of which is recognizing Israel and abandoning violence.

"They say that the United States is Israel's ally, but we say that Allah is with us, as He was during the Israeli war in 2006. It's impossible that we would recognize Israel. Only the cowards recognize it," Sayyed Nasrallah said. "Whoever doesn’t wish to fight should at least not recognize Israel. As long as there is such a terrorist and aggressive entity, we will never be able to renounce the resistance. The resistance is our life, our glory, our sacredness and our honor."

The Resistance leader made it clear, however, that in case Hezbollah wants to engage in a dialogue with the US, it will impose its own conditions.

So, U.S.-Hezbollah negotiations, rejected by both sulking sides, have now begun...but in public! How nice. The two sides have cordially agreed to balanced conditions: I will sulk and refuse to talk with you while you sulk and refuse to talk to me, but if I were to talk, I would reserve the right to impose an entrance fee to compensate me for the humiliation of being in the same room with you.

Nasrallah also informed the world that Hezbollah has no dog in the Palestinian struggle, simply wanting to see Arab unity. Perhaps the Sayyed would be so kind as to clear up a little discrepancy in his logic: he supports Arab unity but will "never" recognize Israel. What happens if the Palestinians stop cutting off their own noses to spite their faces, present a unified face to Israel, and offer a deal that includes recognition of Israel? Surely, Hezbollah won't oppose a unified Palestine?!?

But, not to worry. Israel will surely figure out a way to sabotage any fair deal with the Palestinians, because a fair deal would mean the end to Greater Israel aspirations, the removal of all Israeli settlers from the West Bank, an Israel living within its legally recognized borders, the division of Jerusalem, and the end to the tensions that are exploited to justify the open firehose of U.S. military toys for the Israeli power elite.

Were Israel to adopt a good neighbor policy in place of its current Greater Israel policy, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran would be put in a serious fix. All would be suddenly scrambling for a viable foreign policy position, a situation one might think Israel would welcome. But I really don't think those so-called Islamic extremists have anything to worry about. The fact is that the extremists on both sides share a secret: they rely on each other for their power. Sometimes they have to fight to make it look good, but the elimination of either side would be a political disaster for the other.

"Power elite" - that portion of the elite whose goal is not just wealth and comfort but the exercise of power

"Extremist" - a political actor that prefers force to compromise for resolving conflict

See also this analysis of Nasrallah's speech as a warning to Damascus to take it easy until after Lebanon's election.

Housing Trends Negative

Housing trends:

foreclosure rate Feb. 09 30% above rate in Feb. 08 and 6% above Jan. 09;
foreclosures now increasingly seem to be resulting not from fraudulent loans but from recession-generated unemployment;
700,000 foreclosed homes at end of 2009 being held off market by banks.

Banks to EU: "Just Gimme the Dough!"

Just one more example of bank corruption...

Banks must disclose their problem assets if they want to avoid lengthy wrangling with Brussels over aid schemes, Europe’s top competition watchdog warned at the weekend.

In a tough-talking speech, EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes told executives that she would not sign off on restructuring schemes under European Union state aid rules if banks continued to conceal their troubled assets.

”To protect taxpayers and maintain the level playing-field, the public purse will simply not be open to banks who do not want to open their books in return,” she told a conference, organised by Deutsche Bank.

Ms Kroes expressed frustration at the way banks had been behaving to date. ”In many recent meetings with bank chief executives, I am told their bank is fine, but the other banks have problems. They cannot all be right,” she said.¬

”So the high levels of transparency we are demanding are essential for determining the full scope of our collective problems and rebuilding trust.”

Underscoring the threat to the global economy posed by corrupt banking practices,

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said that rich country fiscal stimulus programmes would be little more than a “sugar high” unless they were supported by concrete steps to clean up bad assets in banks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Economic Notes

Economic perspectives worth noting:

Putting the recession in historical context;

Two foreseeable stages in the financial crisis yet to come are further mortgage problems and the credit card mess;

One increasingly likely near-term (next decade) outcome is that the U.S. will look like Japan in the 1990s - a pathetic outcome but not a disaster, because even though Japan lost its economic superstar status it avoided starvation and revolution;

Unemployment still far short of Great Depression levels;

Bad governance is still the issue:
Now, in most parts of the country, a TARP is used to cover unneeded things, usually a pile of stuff nobody wants, far in the back yard. This is essentially the plan articulated by Bernanke and Geithner: Buy the bad assets, invest more capital in the zombie banks, and hope asset prices eventually recover. This is not a plan to do anything but buy time and extend losses. The scary part is that nobody else in the Obama White House seems to know enough about finance to argue the point.

Recession: The Price of Irresponsibility

The recession, according to one economist, is very broadly based, "propelled by a credit crisis spawned by a real-estate slump,...simultaneously rooted in housing, financial services and auto manufacturing." The bad news is actually much more fundamental than that. The recession is propelled by a general lack of responsibility on the part of individual Americans living a lifestyle they A) knew they could not afford and B) knew the planet could not afford. These individuals also concentrated on their profligate lifestyle rather than overseeing their governing officials, who themselves were behaving with even more irresponsibility--playing at war, running a foreign policy they A) knew their country could not afford and B) knew human society as a whole could not afford.

Anyone still reading this post may well be an exception. I personally know Americans who have been leading modest lives within their means, trying not to destroy the environment, trying to find honest politicians to support. But it is nevertheless broadly true that Americans have been behaving with an extraordinary degree of irresponsibility on several levels. Whether it was credit card debt, signing up for a mortgage you knew you could not afford, or looking the other way while politicians started immoral wars to bring you cheap gasoline, a lifestyle of irresponsibility has defined the years of denial and protests of innocence leading up to the day last fall when the bill was finally presented to the American people.

I am not sure how many people old enough to have clear memories of relatives who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II ever got into the habit of reading blogs. The blogging generation is very far removed from generation that overcame the (not coincidental) double challenge of economic disaster and militant rightwing extremism. My own memories of family members from that generation have left me with the unshakeable impression that the Great Depression/WWII generation of Americans had a degree of self-sacrifice, patience, morality, and personal lifestyle responsibility that puts to shame the generations born since. Readers with relevant memories are cordially invited to share them.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that the way out of the recession starts with basic lifestyle attitudes. Part of that is living within your means, part of it is living a sustainable lifestyle, and part is demanding that your governing officials behave themselves in office. That last one is hard; it requires real effort to learn enough about the world to see through the haze of self-serving propaganda flowing out of Washington. I admit that the average person is simply not going to take the time to get the necessary education, but there is a shortcut: just take a minute every now and then to ask yourself, "Does it seem logical that..." You fill in the blank.

Just to get you started, a few sample questions follow:

  • Does it seem logical that Wall Street executives should, after they trash the nation's economy, be given jobs in Washington repairing that economy?
  • Does it seem logical that those executives-turned-officials should be allowed to "solve" the financial crisis by handing your taxes to their former companies rather than, say, handing it out as small-business loans or using it to rebuild American dams and highways?
  • Does it seem logical that the rich can deduct interest payments on coastal mansions used only for vacation while millions are being foreclosed from their houses?
  • Does it seem logical that SWAT teams should be sent to force a homeowner to accept foreclosure?
  • Does it seem logical that a CEO of a company that accepts Government bailout funds should be allowed to keep the millions in profit he pocketed while destroying his company?
  • Does it seem logical that the same politicians who wrote the laws allowing Wall Street financiers and bankers to create the financial crisis should be in charge of writing new laws to end that crisis?
  • Does it seem logical that a mortgage loan officer who ruins people's lives by selling mortgages based on false income data and putting people on the road to foreclosure should be allowed to walk free?
  • Does it seem logical that the only way Israel seems able to achieve security is by reducing millions of Palestinians to a state of semi-starvation and by attacking them with tanks, helicopter gunships, and jet fighters?
  • Does it seem logical that we the American taxpayers should hand Israel endless billions of dollars worth of arms to conduct those attacks?
  • Does it seem logical that a leader who lies to the people about why he is starting a war should be allowed to walk away from office without being held to account and brought to public trial?
  • Does it seem logical that the the world's last standing superpower should be able to find no way to live in peace with Muslim societies except either to support local dictatorships or drop bombs on poor villagers year after year after year?

Once you get in the habit of asking "Does it seem logical that...", you'll be amazed how easy it is to think up your own questions. And believe me, once you train yourself to ask "Does it seem logical that...", it really isn't all that hard to find out the answer. The trick of the smooth-talking mortgage loan officer or politician is to prevent you from asking the question in the first place.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Obama's Israel Policy

Here's a very interesting interpretation from an Israeli perspective of the (to my mind) very, very timid initial steps of Secretary of State Clinton toward settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. From where we have been, perhaps this is progress of a sort. Obama's policy still falls miles short of illustrating any profound understanding of global Islamic realities, however.

Obama: Fight Back!

Now that the Israel-firsters, or more precisely the rightwing Israeli expansionist faction in support of a Greater Israel and their U.S. lackeys, have given Obama a humiliating defeat by killing Chas Freeman's appointment, the question is:

What is Obama going to do about it?

It is really very important for Americans to rise above the propaganda of the rightwing, militant Israeli ruling elite and consider that Israel is a whole country with a wide range of viewpoints. Those who are surprised need only take a look at the outspoken Israeli press, where freedom of speech is taken much more seriously than in the U.S. media.

What is my point? Protecting Israelis in no way equals swallowing the expansionist line of the elite faction that has captured control of Israeli politics.

Obama should appoint an advisory board on relations with Israel, to give him political protection, and include as many first-rate Israeli and Jewish-American thinkers (not political hacks) as possible. Four good candidates would be Uri Avnery, Ilan Pappe, Bernard Avishai, and Norm Finkelstein. Then, he should put U.S.-Israeli official ties on hold pending a review by that board of how best to protect the people of Israel...from all the threats that challenge them, explicitly including the threat of Israel forsaking democracy and transforming itself into a garrison state.

Right now, Obama looks like a weakling. That is a very dangerous situation for the leader of the world's only remaining superpower.