Friday, September 30, 2011

Refocusing U.S. Foreign Policy

Washington's addiction to the outdated use of force to resolve all problems is needlessly undermining U.S. national security and doing what no adversary can do - pushing the U.S. toward international irrelevancy. Just because you have a hammer does not mean you should wash windows with it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Elizabeth Warren Speaks the Truth on the Economy

There is a class war in the U.S., and the financial crisis exposed it to all, but those under attack--the American people--have not yet begun to fight back against the super-rich.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Military and Financial Adventurism: Two Sides of a Bad Coin

Global war against Muslim political activists and domestic economic crisis both appear here to stay, so it is high time for Americans to recognize that they are connected and to start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Realists Denying Reality

The politicians in Washington who so love to brag about their "realism" are in deep denial, to the point of threatening U.S. and all human security. Realism is not about acting like a tough guy; realism is about facing the truth and planning for the future.

Some politicians present themselves as realists, i.e., as hard-headed, long-range thinkers who can be trusted to defend U.S. national security. The more extreme of these demand the submission of the rest of the world as they pursue their realist imperial policies in a world they perceive as being a zero-sum, tooth-and-claw environment. In order to scrape together the resources for their expensive foreign adventures, they further demand that the American people accept low wages, bad health care, and superficial democracy. Such, they say, is the price of freedom. Lets take them at their word, for a moment, and consider how their policies might in fact serve U.S. national interestsover the long run.

For most Americans, the long run is not even in their vocabulary. It requires an unconventional way of thinking to plan for a time whenwell, shall we say, when your children are grown? Thats not too far down the road, is it?

When your children are grown (and you expect to be settling down for a comfortable retirement), Southern Californiawhere all your winter fruits and vegetables come frommay be a dust bowl.

In the Southwestern U.S. the tipping point has probably already been passed. The scientists now predict that levels of aridity last seen in the 1930s Dust Bowl will have become the norm by mid-century. [Allianz.]

The original report, Major Tipping Points in the Earths Climate System, on which the above conclusion was based spells out why reality is even worse than would be inferred from the above comparison to the Dust Bowl:

Here, comparison has already been made with conditions seen in the 1950s multiyear drought or the 1930s Dust Bowl. However, it is important to note that, while conditions are similar, the future intensified aridity in the Southwest predicted by Seager et al. (4) is caused by different processes and expected drying is “unlike any climate state we have seen in the instrumental record”. [73]

On the drowning East Coast, it may be hard to take seriously the potential collapse of southern Californias invaluable farmland as the Sierra snowpack disappears, but consider:

Global warming is intensifying the water cycle the process of precipitation, infiltration, and evaporation. In the future, the wet will get wetter and the dry will become drier.
Every system requires energy: the more energy, the more vigorous the system. The sun powers the life-giving system that is the water cycle and thanks to greenhouse gases, there is more energy, or simply heat, in the system. [Allianz.]
It is hard to imagine any portion of the U.S. more central to the American way of life and American power than the lush fruit and vegetable lands of southern California. A true realist would deem the protection of this treasure a realistic thing to do. This video, featuring California state environmental scientists, explains what is happening to the crucial Sierra snowpack and the immediate impact of nonaction, including two current trends of rising lightning, dying forests, and—as a result—more and hotter forest fires.

If you are still troubled by the true meaning of realism, watch the first two minutes of this five-minute video.

How are the realists with their Mideast wars, their health care system that leaves 30 million Americans behind, their financial system that coddles billionaires and puts 20 million Americans into the unemployment lines, their sneering at the warnings of the worlds scientists about global warming preparing the U.S. for the loss of Southern California?

  • Are the realists conserving global hydrocarbon supplies?
  • Are the realists developing a healthy green industrial base to provide clean energy?
  • Are the realists promoting small, local farms to ensure food supplies as Southern California runs out of water?
  • Are the realists implementing a plan to combat the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide that is threatening our childrens way of life?

Call them realists, empire-builders,  neo-cons, or just elitists (of both major parties), they are doing no such thing. They are not planning for the long-run survival of our way of life. They are not thinking about how your children will live when they grow up or how you will live when you get to what you imagine will be your retirement age.

Realism today is not about brute force; realism is about facing the truth and taking action to protect human security.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Differentiating Friends From Foes

Determining who wins and who loses may be more a matter of how a policy is implemented than what the policy is or, certainly, who is advocating that policy. The international contest over Palestine is a case in point, made only more complicated by the context of Iran's challenge to the U.S.-centric global political order. The failure of policymakers to understand these subtleties costs much wasted blood and treasure.

In Foreign Policy Winners and Losers, I described a simple way to evaluate any specific foreign policy action by discriminating between who wins and who loses as a result of that action. In moral terms, the best policy is one in which we all win; the worst in which just one state (or, worse, one group or individual) wins. This would seem to be a straightforward way to clarify the highly distorted and confused debate that currently undermines national security by virtually precluding the development of a consistent and beneficial foreign policy. It would seem to facilitate distinguishing, for example, between policies that help the elite rather than the society and would seem to expose such fallacies as claiming violence by a friend is OK while violence by an enemy is bad.

But all is of course not so simple. Here's a challenge for this method that cuts to the core of contemporary foreign policy debate:

How are we to rank on the Continuum of International Behavior the behavior of a system challenger?

Tehran presents itself today as the champion challenger to the U.S.-centric global political system, and Washington seems to concur. The degree to which either side may be pretending is hard to determine, since Washington refuses to offer Tehran the option of being accepted as an equal and respected but independent player, while Tehran's "challenge" is so encompassed in rhetorical smoke that it can be difficult to discern much policy fire. Does Tehran want nuclear arms or does it just want the U.S. to offer it a respectful hearing and a guarantee of security and, of course, recognition that it has the same  right to nuclear arms that is exercised by Israel? Does Washington provoke Iran out of incompetence, slavish obedience to the Israeli right, or because Washington sees the uses of having an enemy and just can't find a more imposing one, at the moment, than the military and ideological midget Iran?

Whatever the degree of sincerity on either side, both feed the image of Iran as the giant-killer, regardless of how unrealistic that image may be. Beyond that, however, disagreement is rife: whatever one side terms "required," the other terms "unacceptable." The endless talking of each side past the other merely serves to raise tensions and blind both observers and participants. If the policies of each side could be evaluated fairly, a needless war even more mutually disastrous than that imposed on Iraq by the U.S. might be avoided. The Continuum of International Behavior would seem to constitute a reasonable candidate tool for this purpose, except that evaluating winners and losers resulting from a policy with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the international political system is a bit harder than with a typical policy aiming at some narrow, short-term goal.

So, limiting the discussion for the moment to Iran's policies, two problems immediately present themselves:

  1. Determining winners and losers of the specific policy;
  2. Deciding whether or not the real goal of the policy is to further Iran's presumed goal of founding a new global political order.

Consider Tehran's campaign in support of justice for Palestine. If Iran achieved its stated goal of justice for Palestinians, regional anti-Israeli sentiment would decline, benefiting Israeli society, but the decline in tension would cause the Israeli right to lose votes and perhaps result in a fundamental shift back toward a polity ruled by those favoring democracy, a good-neighbor policy, racial and religious equality. The losers would be the ruling rightwingers and in particular Jewish fundamentalists and Israeli expansionists. Israelis favoring democracy would win; those favoring a garrison state would lose.

And what about Iran? If Tehran received the credit for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Tehran would surely gain regional status, so over the short term, Tehran would win and more specifically Ahmadinejad would win. But if a U.S., European, or Turkish-led movement (much less concessions voluntarily offered by Israel itself) were credited with providing justice to Palestinians, Iran not gain, while those credited with bringing justice would. Moreover, as regional tensions declined, Tehran would lose its bully pulpit, and Iran's influence in the Levant would decline. For Iranian society, as opposed to the current Tehran regime, the issue is different; resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a way that minimized Iranian influence and activity in the Levant would go far toward ending the U.S./Israeli security threat to Iran.

In sum, the current Tehran regime benefits from espousing Palestinian independence but would be a big loser if Palestinians actually gained independence, as long as Iran did not receive the credit in regional eyes. Rather than opposing everything Tehran wants, Washington would serve its interests better by judging issues on their merits and supporting issues of common interest to all in the hopes of getting some of the credit.

At least two lessons follow. First, crudely, it is not about who advocates a policy but who gets credit for implementing it. Opposing a good policy because your antagonist thought of it first only ends up making you look churlish and giving your opponent a free ride.

Second, our allies are no more unitary actors than our enemies. Even in Washington, most policy-makers seem now to understand that enemy states may be ruling populations of perfectly normal and harmless people with whom the U.S. could potentially cooperate, but these same policy-makers remain almost totally incapable of seeing that the same principle applies to allies. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as having racist or fascist tendencies does not automatically become America's friend just by winning office. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as pursuing expansionist policies that endanger Israeli national security will also endanger U.S. national security. Such Israeli politicians will be winners with policies that leave the U.S. the loser. Just as everyone in an adversarial state is not an enemy, everyone in an allied state is not a friend.

All the involved societies benefit from providing justice to Palestinians: a cancer infecting every society is removed. In each involved country special interests exploiting the tensions flowing from the dispute will be the losers if Palestinian justice is achieved. But it is not that simple. This discussion began with the premise that Tehran wants to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political order. Without judging who might be the winners and losers, if Washington wants to avoid that outcome, it should seek lower tensions in the Levant by addressing Palestinian concerns. Rather than allowing Tehran to parade as the champion of Arab justice, Washington should lead the way, leave Tehran to choose whether to follow or not, and gain the credit for accomplishing something in the interest of all who desire a secure and cooperative international environment. Achieving justice for Palestinians per se does not tell you who the winners and losers are; the determination of who wins and who loses depends on how justice for Palestinians is achieved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Foreign Policy Winners and Losers

Honestly admitting who wins and loses for any recommended foreign policy action would clarify what is today a dangerously self-defeating U.S. foreign policy debate.

The vigorous nature of the public debate--both in the U.S. and elsewhere--about U.S. foreign policy behavior indicates that the nature of U.S. foreign policy behavior is generally considered by all observers to be important. That much at least we can agree on, but beyond that, at least in the U.S., the debate illustrates nothing so much as the level of confusion that exists. There is no consensus about the definition of terms, the meaning of morality, or anything else. And as long as the debate is confused, we have little hope of resolving anything, little hope of ending the endless mistakes that are costing the U.S. and the world rapidly increasing amounts of blood and treasure.

Even the simplest attempt to clarify will surely provoke controversy, but nevertheless, here goes...

Consider a single dimension along which all possible state behavior in the international realm might be located, going from behavior with national (i.e., selfish) objectives at one extreme to behavior with international objectives (i.e., for the common good) at the other. Implicitly, behavior for selfish reasons that is also in the best interests of everyone else can be considered to be for the common good (after all, "we" are part of "everyone"). My concern here is not with the intent of the behavior; who really knows even why they themselves do what they do, much less why anyone else does so? Rather, my concern is with the impact - who gains, who gets hurt. (Later, it will be necessary to consider the time frame: short-term vs. long-term gain or harm.)

I assert that if we could locate whatever behavior is being considered by ourselves or our adversaries on this continuum, then we could discuss much more intelligently what we think about that behavior. I further suggest that the breakthrough step toward accomplishing this apparently simple task without coming to blows would be to enumerate who gains and who loses.  The hot knife of identifying winners and losers would slice through the butter of our opaque foreign policy debate, exposing all manner of bias and false assumption.

Before getting to the stage of honestly admitting who the winners and losers are, one should probably simplify by selecting a specific policy, and a useful step toward that is consideration of where policies in the abstract should be located on the continuum.

Now, the theoretical stage is set for the specific foreign policy players, who will appear in subsequent  posts. But you can try this yourself: 

  • Who--what states, what societies, what parties, what special interests--really would be the winners and losers if Turkey and Egypt were to create a viable moderate Mideast?
  • Who really would be the winners and losers if the Israeli-Lebanese border were pacified?
  • Who really would be the winners and losers if terrorists were pursued as international criminals and brought to public trial rather than being used as the excuse for wars, invasions, and occupations without end?

Having thought that through, would you still locate relevant policies in the same place on the continuum of international behavior as you first thought?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Erdogan Off to a Slow Start in Cairo

Erdogan, who just kicked the Israeli ambassador out, arrived in Egypt, where the people just kicked out the Israeli ambassador, who reportedly fled dressed as a Muslim. Despite this perfect welcome, Erdogan fell short with a speech to the Arab League lacking creativity and a sour dose of old-style thinking from his guys back in Ankara. This is not the performance he needs if he is to become the leader of a new Mideast.

Erdogans address to the Arab League, judging from media reports, consisted of relatively moderate rhetoric empty of substance, if anything undercutting his stance as self-promoted leader of a new Mideast. Erdogan will need diplomatic creativity rather than warm air to make an impression on famously turbulent but directionless Mideast affairs. In particular, his failure to applaud Cairos demand that Israel stop violating Lebanons border seems to have been a real missed opportunity to establish common ground with an Egyptian military clearly digging its heels in.

Behind the Rhetoric
If Erdogan omitted substance from his rhetoric in Cairo, elsewhere he was taking real action. Turkey is sending three frigates into the Eastern Mediterranean to put some constraints on Israel's ability to write its own rules in Mediterranean international waters. The Turkish frigates will reportedly sail with orders to disable the weapons systems of any Israeli vessels encountered in international waters. It is hard to believe that Ankara would relinquish control to such a dangerous degree, but true or not, the report sends a message.  [Today's Zaman 9/12/11.]

A separate report that Turkey has figured out a way to repair its F-16s, previously crippled by U.S.-installed software preventing them from targetting the F-16s Washington provided to Israel, purportedly adds real muscle to Ankara's military repositioning.

Making the reasonable point that Israel causes the trouble it faces in the Mideast, Erdogan told the Arab League on Tuesday:

Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state. While Israel is trying to secure its legitimacy in our region on one hand, it is taking irresponsible steps which unsettle its legitimacy on the other.

Erdogan termed the creation of a Palestinian state not an option but an obligation but, judging from reports, stopped short of proposing any action to back up even those moderate words, thus leaving the door open to working with Israel toward a deal that would support secure borders for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In striking contradiction to Erdogans high moral tone concerning Palestinian desires for justice, however, Turkish Interior Minister Sahin stated the same day that Turkey could launch an incursion into Iraq to attack Kurds at any time. Both Turkey and Israel insist on marginalizing a minority, both refuse to negotiate with that portion of the minority that demands independence, and both assert the right to attack across international borders in order to subjugate that minority. The hypocrisy of Ankara simultaneously criticizing Israels illegal and unjust behavior while asserting the unilateral right of Turkey to behave undermines Erdogans laudable foreign policy project of creating and leading a responsible and moderate Mideast center. If Erdogan looks good, that is only because of the appalling level of incompetence on the part of Mideast rulers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Turkish-Egyptian Possibilities

Does a little anti-Israeli PR from Cairo when the Egyptian government obviously needs to calm down its population really matter?

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry website reports:

On receiving the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr affirmed the importance of exerting all possible efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon and protecting it from all regional developments which might be negatively reflected on the country and the importance of excluding any political actor from the Lebanese equation
Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counselor Amr Roushdi stated that the Minister stressed that the main guarantee for Lebanese and regional stability is the immediate halting of the daily Israeli violations of the Lebanese airspace and respecting the Lebanese sovereignty over its space and soil.

In the context of a world nearly united in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian state, the popular Egyptian calls for an end to the Egyptian-Israeli alliance, the collapse of Israeli-Turkish ties, and the utter loss of U.S. credibility as a peace broker, yes, it matters.

While it is likely that no one would anticipate immediate Egyptian military moves to protect Lebanon, the mere launching of a diplomatic initiative focusing attention on Israel's belligerence against Lebanon changes the Mideast political environment. It says that now, suddenly, Israel no longer has the essentially unchallenged (except by Iran) right to do what it wants. (It also says that Iran no longer "owns" the issue of supporting Palestinians, something Washington should applaud.) Already on the defensive over the U.N. campaign by Palestinians for recognition of a Palestinian state and over its attack on the international delegation trying to bring aid to Gazans, Israel will now be preoccupied by a third embarrassing diplomatic battle.

Will Israeli FM Lieberman advocate support for anti-Egyptian terrorism, as he did with Turkey? (One might well wonder why Israel would want to legitimate the use of terror as a tool of state policy...) Indeed, Lieberman's threat suggests more clearly than anything else the disarray of the Israeli government. Israel's free ride during the post-9/11 years may be drawing to a close.

Given the obsequious attitude of Washington toward anything desired by the Israeli right, the military side of the whole issue of the Israeli campaign of Lebanese border violations seems likely to be minor, although the imminent transfer of Turkish warships to the Eastern Mediterranean with the apparent intent of protecting future popular efforts to break Israel's Gaza Ghetto blockade raises the possibility of a future military response on behalf of Lebanon.

For now, however, the real significance of Cairo's statement is its perfect timing in support of Erdogan. Erdogan will get off the plane today in Cairo knowing that his trip is already a success: Cairo is now publicly committed to raising the heat on Israeli transgressions of international law. Moreover, Cairo has selected an issue, very possibly after careful secret discussions with Ankara, that can only make Israel look bad and in response to which Tel Aviv probably will not be able to do much. Beating up on helpless Lebanon only accomplishes one thing: it legitimizes Hezbollah. A real friend of Israel would so inform them, but Israel's lackeys in Washington are not, in the end, such friends.

So Tel Aviv must watch helplessly while Cairo and Ankara bask in the strong, warm sunlight on the high moral ground. After all, who can object to the integrity of international borders?

One caveat is important: the whole idea of a military alliance between Turks and Egyptians is, well, shall we just say "sensitive" and leave it at that? I mean, all that U.S. military aid in limbo, and Turkey probably does not want to be expelled from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty for Protecting Israel Organization). Then, there's all that historical baggage...I mean, let's just say that Cairo and Ankara do create a military alliance and do emerge supreme in the Mideast. Down the road a bit, sure, but let's just say they do. Then what? Will the land of Nasser, the Custodian of the Three Holy Pyramids play second fiddle to the new Ottoman Empire? Will the neo-Ottomans, who used to rule Egypt, play second fiddle to an impoverished country dependent on U.S. aid?

So, over the long run, many sensitivities will need to be managed. Nevertheless, for now, even a tiny step toward serious Turkish-Egyptian military cooperation in the context of worsening relations between each and Israel constitutes a tipping point. The weakening regional position of the U.S. only underscores this. Arguments over how many centimeters down the slippery slope this carries the Mideast are beside the point. The momentum has shifted. Instead of a dominant dynamic of U.S.-Israel-Saudi control of the Mideast, one now sees the potential rise of dominance of a new dynamic: political initiative shifting to a moderate (primarily peaceful and supportive of international law) coalition with real military power and popular support that will challenge Israel's right to play by special rules. Washington of course remains free to continue supporting everything Tel Aviv does, but only at the cost of harming U.S. national security a little bit every single time it does so.

And Erdogan? All he has to do is shake hands with Egyptian leaders, congratulate them loudly on their foresight, proclaim Ankara's strong support, visit the pyramids, and go home. That will suffice to change the dynamics of Mideast affairs. Anything beyond that will be icing on the moderate Islamist, moderate nationalist cake.

And that raises the question of what further steps Cairo and Ankara might indeed take in the context of an Egyptian call for Israel to respect Lebanese security, a Palestinian campaign for statehood, and Ankara's announcement that its warships will start patrolling off the coast of Israel and Lebanon.

Syria and Palestine. A strongly worded joint call for peaceful resolution of domestic conflict that lays out a set of principles to be applied equally in Syria and in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would put Cairo and Ankara nicely on the moral high ground.

Lebanon. A joint statement supporting the territorial integrity of Lebanon would be a minimal step. Joint naval patrols off Lebanon's coast would add substance. Holding discussions on possible joint military aid to Lebanon and leaking the story to the media would go a step further. If they want to be really creative, Cairo and Ankara could announce support for the principle of the integrity of "all regional state borders," specifically including the borders of Bahrain, Lebanon, a future Palestinian state, and the 1967 borders of Israel.

Gaza. And then, there's Gaza. Some initiative regarding the right of Gazans to participate in international trade, fish off their coastline, receive the income from any hydrocarbons in Gazan territorial waters, and travel into Egypt is the absolute minimum that must come out of the Turkish-Egyptian summit in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Whatever else the two sides do, Cairo must figure out a way to start extricating itself from its complicity in the Gaza Ghetto.

The amazing thing about Erdogan's visit is the abundance of possibilities on the Egyptian-Turkish table.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Emerging News: Egypt Warns Israel Over Lebanon

Cairo has reportedly warned Israel to cease its constant violations of Lebanon's border with its warplanes. On the eve of Erdogan's summit visit, this is an interesting initiative for Cairo suddenly to take. If Cairo wants to make progress toward a military alliance with Turkey, what better issue for joint action could have been thought up than a diplomatic move to protect poor, nearly helpless Lebanon?

If this report is not true, it should be. Is Erdogan kicking himself for letting Cairo take the obvious first step, or might they have jointly decided to allow the Egyptian military dictators to get the credit for it? Keep watching. This could turn into something.

Two Societies

Is it just a coincidence that I am thinking, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about how to organize society?

Consider a mythical society organized on the principle of open debate in the free marketplace of ideas as the road to problem resolution. Consider an alternative mythical society organized on the principle that might makes right. We can surely agree that these constitute two clear alternatives for constructing a human community. Indeed, they are pretty good end points, two extremes, simple and mutually exclusive. One could sort out all real human societies somewhere between these two extremes, and if one did so, one would quickly see that one had thereby rated all those societies. We would all no doubt concur that one extreme was "good" and the other "bad." We would all choose to live pretty close either to one extreme or the other. That much we can all agree on.

The disagreement would come over choosing which end of this "continuum of human societies" was to be considered "good" and which "bad." It won't require much imagination to guess that Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin would have strongly preferred living in a society based on "might makes right." Indeed, they did and presumably enjoyed the experience, at least until Saddam went underground and Joe lay down on his final sickbed terrified of his doctors. But ask yourself how many public figures in the United States today might, in their heart of hearts, agree with Saddam and Joe.

Listen! I can almost hear the protests already! Everyone is yelling, getting angry, feeling insulted (i.e., guilty), and starting to pick up rocks to throw at me. "It depends!" they say.

I beg to differ. It does not "depend." It is conceivable that the strongest among us might, theoretically, at least once in the course of human history happen to be right, with everyone else wrong, but even if so, that individual's strength would be an irrelevant detail, a curious coincidence. Indeed, it would be a statistical anomaly, because there is no poison more likely to induce stupidity than power.

Can we slice and dice this fundamental choice about social organization? Can we, for example, have a foreign policy at one end of the scale and a domestic health or financial or environmental policy at the other end of the scale? Can one department of government be run according to the principle of "might makes right" while another is run according to the principle of "open debate?" How might the two respective secretaries participate in a policy-making session with the President? Would the former bring a gun to the White House, while the latter invited a dozen of his experts to testify? And what about the President himself? Can he make foreign policy at 9:00 on the basis of the former principle and sincerely devote himself to considering the needs of the domestic weak and poor at 10:00 on the basis of the latter principle? Or, to reverse the situation, can a leader who oppresses his population be trusted honestly to implement international treaties with weak countries?

Perhaps some such amazing event has occurred during some instant of history, but I would not bet my mortgage on it.

The sad truth is that today in the U.S. many CEOs of financial corporations and many politicians are doing their best to push American society as fast as they can toward the "might makes right" end of the scale.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Building a Mideast Strategic Triangle

Erdogan's hopes for a new Mideast have been given a boost by...Israel! But as the dispute deepens, its long-term impact becomes more difficult to calculate.

Insisting on its right to murder opponents in international waters, Israel dismissed Turkish demands for a clear apology. What did Israel care? It was supreme in the region. Then, the Arab spring cracked the foundation of Israels strategic plans. Ignoring the shift, Israel killed several Egyptian policemen. What was Israel thinking that they were just Lebanese? So now Israel finds itself having wrecked ties to Turkey precisely at the moment it has infuriated Egyptians, nicely setting the stage for the Turkish-Egyptian summit, where Erdogan wants to discuss a possible Turkish-Egyptian alliance that could reshape the Mideast.

Cairo surely wants to avoid angering Washington, its U.S. military aid being treasured far more than justice for eight dead Turks. But the protesters are in the streets tearing down the wall Israel put around its Cairo embassy, not attacking the military rulers of Egypt, and the rulers of Egypt would just as surely like to keep it that way. Israel has made Erdogans task much easier than it might have been.

And Israels response? Just to ensure that Erdogan does not lose momentum in his campaign to unite his country behind him, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman is planning a revenge campaign of supporting anti-Turkish terrorism! Responding to diplomatic moves by launching a terrorist campaign may be a bit much even for Netanyahu, but Liebermans brilliant reposte is now openly known so the point made by Israels piracy against the Mavi Marmara has been underlined: cross Israel and you will be attacked.

While Israels tactics may at first glance appear curious, they do have at least one logical explanation: provoking international tensions can be relied upon, as always, to freak out Israelis and win votes for the extremist ruling clique, not to mention even more military aid from the obedient U.S. Congress. The hidden agendas, both at the party and individual levels, contributing to the rising state-to-state tensions will make controlling Egyptian-Israeli-Turkish relations increasingly difficult.

Wouldnt it be interesting to be a fly on the wall when Erdogan sits down with the Egyptian generals!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pursuing Financial Criminals

Judicial movement against some of the institutions that created the financial crisis are intensifying, although so far there is little indication that individuals in the financial corporations, much less the Government, will be held responsible. Despite these limitations, this process is a bellweather of the health of our democracy and merits close attention. With luck, we will all eventually have a clearer indication of the degree to which the appearance of fraud reflects reality even if the degree of corporate-government collusion remains concealed by the fog of politics.

  1. The SEC sued Goldman Sachs for fraudulent betting against its own customers in 2010. Goldman settled a few months later, paying a half billion dollar fine.
  2. The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) sued Goldman Sachs for misrepresentation in August 2011. The NCUA is the Federal credit union regulator. This is its fourth suit flowing from financial schemes that contributed to the recession.
  3. Goldman Sachs and two other firms agreed in August 2011 to cease foreclosure fraud and compensate victims.
  4. A class action suit was filed against Goldman Sachs in August 2011.
  5. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie Mae, is bringing suit against 17 banks and mortgage firms, including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Deutsche Bank, and Countrywide Financial.
It is also unclear how many of the victims of the financial scheming will be compensated.

Exports: A Winner Over the Years

Amid all the gloom and doom about the U.S. economy, exports would seem to be a bright spot:


 If you go back to the original chart and extend it back a couple decades, you will see that the growth trend is fairly steady throughout. The U.S. needs its trade partners; I wonder what might happen to the domestic economy if Washington put its emphasis on stimulating exports rather than fighting wars?

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Appearance of Elite Collusion Against Democracy

Apparent fraud brought us the financial crash of 2008 and resultant, on-going tsunami of (permanent?) unemployment: apparent fraud throughout the whole system of elite rule, which was characterized by government agencies concealing information to prevent open democratic debate, rosy scenarios, conflicts of interest, and failure to hold anyone responsible for his actions. Will those leaders stay under this cloud of apparent guilt for the rest of their lives, staining the name of democracy, or will they have their day in court?

The shocking and sobering expose of corporate-government financial collusion to enrich the rich by stealing from all the rest of us offered by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner in Reckless Endangerment concludes with the following assessment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010:

It did not insist that large and unmanageable institutions be cut down to size to alleviate their threats to taxpayers in the future. Nor did it increase the accountability of those running institutions that will need government assistance in the future.

Therefore, despite this presumed reform of the corrupt U.S. financial system, will, they ask, a debacle like the credit crisis of 2008 ever happen again? Their answer: Most certainly, because Congress decided against fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail institutions when it had its chance. [304-305]

Congress failed the American people. That is the outside peel of the infinitely-layered onion of elite corruption.

As for why Congress failed, peeling back the second layer of the onion makes that question is easy to answer: the foxes still guard the henhouse. As the authors make painfully clear, many of the key individuals in charge of bending and breaking the rules, of looking the other way and of carefully planning and implementing fraudthose there at the creation of economic ruin for millions of Americansremain either in power officially or active behind the scenes. No real prospect of bringing these men to justice is visible on the horizon.

Ripping one more layer off this rotten political onion, the problem goes well beyond the handful of corrupt, short-sighted, and arrogant politicians, Wall Street executives, and mortgage company managers named in Reckless Endangerment. As the authors make clear, the real rot was systemic: the collusion not just of individuals but of the institutions at the core of the system, including Wall Street, mortgage companies, rating agencies, the privileged semi-governmental Fannie Mae, Congress, the White House, both the Democratic and Republican branches of the monopolistic/elitist political party that runs the whole show, and most shockingly even the actual regulatory agencies designed to prevent such corrupt and apparently criminal governance.

From all sides, the leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder bulldozing aside every courageous, far-sighted, and patriotic civil servant who warned of the coming disaster. Whatever other lesson one takes away from the financial collapse of 2008, we should all remember this one: it was no surprise. It resulted from the willful denial of truth and a literally incredible inability on the part of everyone who was profiting to remember the warnings of the very recent past (the original Depression, the S&L scandal of the late 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management scandal, the 2001 Enron scandal, the 2001 crash of the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market, the 2002 WorldCom scandal) in the interest of maximizing personal profit. And who can blame the thieves? After all, we let them keep what they stole, and it seems that no one wants to know how many layers of the onion are rotten.

It is hard to imagine how faith in democracy in America can be restored unless those members of the elite under the cloud of a prima facie case of criminal behavior can have their day in court to make the case to the American people that they are in fact not guilty. If they by some miracle do not deserve to be jailed, they have the right to clear their names.

Far more important, the American people deserve closure on what must be one of the most egregious betrayals of the American people by a rapacious gang of the ruling elite in American historyor perhaps not. Perhaps if the Geithners, the Raines, the Greenspans, the Blankfeins, the Bensingers, the Weills, the Lewises, the Paulsons, the Gramms, the Leaches, the Blileyes, the Franks, the Johnsons, the Clintons had their day in court, they would explain how they all had our best interests at heart.

The Appearance of Fraud

Republican member of the House of Representatives Darrell Issa has been trying to protect Goldman Sachs from being investigated while pouring his wealth into Goldman accounts. If he thinks Goldman is a valuable and upright American institution, then why is he afraid of an investigation that could exonerate Goldman and restore its tattered reputation?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

American Decline?

We have reached a level of political irresponsibility over the past 35 years, and specifically over the past decade, where we can now quite realistically see the possible collapse of the U.S.-centric world order as the U.S. is allowed to decay from within.

The core assumption of the above statement, which introduced The Speech Bernanke Should Have Given, is that the U.S. is in decline. Clearly, no military competitor is even on the horizon, despite the grumbling about China’s launching of a two-decade old ex-Soviet aircraft carrier. The U.S. economy also remains enormous, though the total GNP of 1.3 billion Chinese is now approaching the GNP of 300,000,000 Americans and the two countries are dangerously linked by American reliance on Chinese loans. So, is the U.S. truly in decline?

American decline is more subtle. A traditional, WWII-style frontal clash between the U.S. military and that of any conceivable enemy would surely result in a quick U.S. victory, but such a situation is utterly unlikely. Meanwhile, the enemies the U.S. has faced on the battlefield seem always just beyond American reach. The U.S. has not been able to conquer either the insurgents of Afghanistan or Iraq, failures that suggest a significant decline in the ability of the U.S. to wield its weapons effectively. What matters is not the number of guns and the size of bombs but the degree to which one’s weapons enable one to achieve one’s goals. It is difficult to identify a single national security goal that the U.S. has achieved by force in the last decade: the terrorist campaign against Iraqi civilians that did not even exist when the U.S. invaded not only continues but is intensifying; Taliban influence not only continues but is on the rise in Afghanistan; Hamas seems increasingly secure in Gaza, while Palestine as a whole has seized the initiative in its struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation; Hezbollah is the majority party in the Lebanese government; anti-Western Islamic militants are increasingly influential in Somalia. The U.S. today is brilliantly qualified to win WWII; it is dismally unqualified to resolve issues such as the worldwide Muslim grievances about the way they have been treated by the West. Obama’s response to the Arab Spring, albeit far more realistic than Neo-Con militarism, nevertheless continued to demonstrate a lack of comprehension in Washington of Muslim grievances. To say that the U.S. has impressive weapons is irrelevant; the point is the degree to which the U.S. has the appropriate tools for solving the problems it faces. Unfortunately for Americans, the tools being employed by Washington are increasingly irrelevant to the most serious international challenges facing the U.S. The first way in which the U.S. is in decline is in its declining ability to design the appropriate tools for international conflict resolution.

Force is an extreme expedient; most problems are resolved through less expensive methods, and the best method is to be so trusted and admired that others aspire to follow one’s lead. Unfortunately for the U.S., its behavior over the past decade has eroded its reputation as a moral leader. Iran defies the U.S. with impunity, in great measure because its argument that the U.S.-centric world order should be organized more fairly is beyond dispute. Russia and China seem increasingly to be moving in directions that are not so much in defiance of the U.S. as based on the assumption they do not really need to pay attention to the U.S. Russia, ignoring U.S. military noise, calmly signs contracts building up its hydrocarbon empire. China appears to be operating on a completely different time-scale, not resisting U.S. military moves but, like Russia, ignoring them, while it develops its own economy, gets on its feet militarily, and prepares for a future world in which the U.S. will have either collapsed or mired itself in economic dependence on China’s continuing willingness to support American over-consumption. U.S. allies like Brazil and Turkey, rather than kowtowing to Washington, increasingly see Washington’s behavior as part of the problem and unilaterally assert the right to take leadership roles—not to defeat the U.S. but to fill the gap created by Washington’s incompetence. The little antagonists of the U.S. are neither cowed nor defeated; rather, they seem to learn and adapt faster than the U.S., running circles around the giant. Even those who do exactly what Washington calls upon the world to do (e.g., become democratic) do so on their own, more in spite of Washington than at Washington’s command: what do the millions of activists in the Arab Spring owe to a U.S. that followed or opposed but never led or even kept pace with their movement? Moral leadership gets one influence for free. The second way in which the U.S. is declining is in its evaporating moral leadership.

Military might and moral leadership are tools of foreign policy. Both, over the long term, are linked to the domestic circumstances of a society. A society that is obviously happy, self-confident, just, and productive is the foundation for a state’s military might and simultaneously a model for emulation. Ironically, the conditions that enable a state to maintain a powerful military make that powerful military less important. The world will rush to follow a great society. But the endless political buffoonery in Washington, be it presidents landing jets personally on aircraft carriers or Congressmen tying themselves in knots over debt ceilings, raises eyebrows worldwide and brings wide smiles to the faces of America’s enemies. Far more seriously, all can see the signs of collapse in one facet after another of that marvelous jewel of the imagination, the American Dream: the middle class model of the 1950s with a single breadwinner able to finance a nice suburban life style for his family was replaced in the 1980s by the same lifestyle financed through the fulltime work of two parents (who thus could not but ignore their kids, leaving them to be babysat by drugs) and now in 2011 has become a family with at least one breadwinner unemployed and the friendly neighborhood bank foreclosing and putting them on the street. As for the core of any society’s success in the modern world—the educational system, where every decent U.S. high school student in the 1960s studied a foreign language and took four years of history (pathetically superficial though it may have been), today neither standard is observed; meanwhile, if the universities still teach science at all, the classes are composed mostly of foreign students planning to take their new knowledge back to their own countries, where expertise is far more precious than in a U.S. in denial about the most fundamental issues of modern science (e.g., evolution, global warming, environmental pollution). Meanwhile, highway bridges of the world’s greatest highway system collapse, old dams threaten catastrophic flooding, and nuclear power plants are maintained in service for decades past their planned  service life without being properly maintained. The wild scare talk of politicians about a terrorist bomb notwithstanding, the collapse of the U.S. as world leader is more likely to result from the evaporation of a U.S. city as the result of a nuclear meltdown from a rusty pipe in the cooling system. The third pathway to decline in the U.S. is the degradation of the U.S. physical infrastructure.

An even more insidious problem is the declining faith, for good reason, of the American people in their own institutions. Sneering at Big Government is endemic, though no persuasive argument is ever made indicating what institution could be trusted to replace government. In fact, Big Government does deserve a failing grade – but mostly because it is too small. Regulatory agencies responsible for oversight over Wall Street, the food industry, and corporate pollution of the environment have all fallen grossly short of fulfilling their duties in recent decades. And who respects Big Pharma, Big Finance, or Big Oil? The fourth pathway to U.S. decline is the justified popular loss of faith in American institutions.

But the good news for Americans and all who hope for the reemergence of a morally sound, sympathetic, and realistic American leadership of the world lies at the core of this sad story: the problem with U.S. behavior is self-inflicted and fully within the capability of Americans to overcome. It is precisely because of American military superiority that it should virtually never resort to violence any more extreme than peacekeeping or international police work. Once American society succeeds in recognizing this truth, the door will be open for Americans to elect a government capable of identifying the real challenges facing this country and the rest of the world (for the most serious problems today are almost exclusively common ones) and focusing on devising effective long-term problem-resolution strategies. The War on Terror, at its best, was no more than burning down the house to put out a fire in the bedroom: short-term conflict resolution at its most mindless. Such emergency crisis response sacrificing the long term in the interest of short-term survival is in no way called for: the U.S. has the resources and the time to take the long view and do things right. Such a long-term approach would have several aspects, all obvious, none currently being implemented: most fundamentally, the focusing of national energy and resources on domestic housecleaning, in brief:

                                                 “Empire – No; Jobs – Yes.”                     

Specifically, the refocusing of national energies on the state of domestic society would entail:

  • Using the crisis level of unemployment as an opportunity to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, fixing the dams and bridges and sewage systems and rusting nuclear power plants while employing those looking for work;

  • Launching a national campaign to improve the quality of public education at all levels, A) bringing public science and math education up to world standards so the next generation will have some hope of being able to compete with the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers graduating from Chinese, Japanese, and Indian educational systems and B) funding the revolutionary improvement in social studies, world history, and language studies (particularly regarding the Arab world and China) that will be required to produce a generation of Americans capable of understanding the international political challenges of the 21st century and capable of exercising oversight over the their elected officials;

  • Political reforms to facilitate honest elections open to reform candidates, the recall of corrupt politicians, the strengthening of government regulatory agencies, and the minimization of corporate bribery of Congressmen.

The U.S. is in decline for a multitude of reasons, but not because of a declining population or a shortage of resources or an overwhelmingly powerful enemy or bad luck. The U.S. is defeating itself. The decline will end the day Americans join hands and decide they no longer want to decline.


Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War;
Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment;
Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big To Fail.