John Kerry’s Diplomacy

 

kerry

Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration.   Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th.    The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation.   Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons.   If the process stays on track  sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.

This is a success for the Obama Administration.   The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy.   An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism.   Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem.   There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy.   They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.

There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading.  Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation.   Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence.   Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence.   More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.

Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case.   Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia.   Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate.   If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.

No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia.   That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best.  But Putin is not stupid.  He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.   His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.

Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts.   That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be.   But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west.   They won’t be tied to Russia.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary.   They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east.    Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.

Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd.   Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states.   That day is long gone.  Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.

For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying.   Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion!   But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy.  In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat.   That’s why patient diplomacy can work.

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2014 is not 2010

This my first post on “campaign 2014,’ analyzing the races and following the election cycle.   One thing is certain from the start – 2014 is a lot different than 2010.

Some things are similar.   Right now things are looking good for Republicans to make gains in the House and perhaps win the Senate. It is a midterm election, which usually brings a more conservative demographic to the polls, something also good for the GOP.   President Obama’s job approval rating is below 50%, which usually means that his party is in trouble in any midterm.   But there the similarities end.   The differences are important and offer some optimism about what has been a dysfunctional political system.

Gone is the tea party rage and passion

Gone is the tea party rage and passion

1.  The tea party is a spent force.    In 2010 the tea party was surging!   Anger over the passage of Obamacare was palpable, and rallies were being held across the country for a new movement to “take back America.”   Entertainer Glenn Beck was at the height of his popularity, calling for a movement to fundamentally transform the US to more conservative/traditional values.    Now Beck says he’s sick of politics and wants to produce movies.

Tea party approval is down at around 20%.   More importantly, the anger, rage, and rallies have been replaced by typical political banter.   In 2010 and 2012 the tea party actually hurt the GOP by producing candidates that could not win.   Sharon Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck all lost races a moderate Republican would likely have won.  That would have put the Senate at 50-50 today!

When the tea party downed Senator Lugar in the primary, they handed a certain Republican seat to a Democrat

When the tea party downed Senator Lugar in the primary, they handed a certain Republican seat to a Democrat

The good news for the Republicans is that tea party influence is waning, and it looks like strong establishment candidates have been recruited.  The bad news is that they’ll lose some of the passion the stronger tea party brought to 2010; it isn’t likely to be any kind of massive wave election.   But they now have a real shot at the Senate.

2.   The trend lines are different

In April 2010 President Obama’s job approval was at about 50%.  By election time it was down to 44%.   In general, continued anger at an economy that had not started a real recovery, tea party passion, and a general sense that things were getting worse rather than better caused a backlash against Obama and the Democrats.    Now the economy is poised to increase the rate of job growth in the summer, and President Obama’s approval is recovering from its lows with the rollout problems of Obamacare enrollment.  Obama’s approval went as low as 40%, but has slowly recovered.   As the story line becomes more positive about Obamacare, the Republican hope that the issue will drive the election is fading.   The trend can’t be called good for the Democrats, but unlike 2010 it doesn’t suggest any sort of wave.    It will be a normal election cycle.

3.   Nothing is set in stone

In retrospect, 2010′s wave for the GOP was inevitable.   A poor economy, a President with low approval ratings, anger and passion among the opposition in a midterm election which always sees a higher proportion of Republicans vote was a recipe for a certain GOP win.   This year, events can still drive the election.   Strong summer economic growth and more good Obamacare news might boost Democratic chances.   A White House scandal could harm Democrats, as could new bad news about Obamacare.    So as of April, what we don’t know about the 2014 election cycle far outweighs what we do know.

Will the Senate Go GOP?

senate

Now that conspiracy theories about skewed polls have been demolished, even conservatives recognize the power behind Nate Silver’s prediction methods.   Click the link and read his analysis – it’s the best you’ll find at this point, and he admits that it is very close, and a variety of things could skew the elections either way.    At this point he predicts 50.8 Republicans and 49.2 Democrats.  However, if you don’t want to read his in depth analysis, here is my perspective:

The Democrats hold a 55-45 majority.  That means the Republicans have to pick up six seats.   That is a tall order.   21 Democratic and 15 Republican seats are up for election (that’s more than 33 due to some special elections), which means that the Republicans have real opportunities.   In Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia open seats (or in the case of Montana, recently filled by someone appointed by the Governor) are seen as almost certain to shift to the Republicans as these are strong red states.   Two other open seats, Iowa and Georgia, will probably stay Democratic and Republican respectively.

That would put the Republicans at 48 states, three short of a majority.    So far, only one Republican incumbent looks to be in real danger, that is ironically Mitch McConnell.  Five Democratic Senators are in trouble, and one Democratic open seat (Michigan) has no clear favorite.   So among those seven races, Republicans have to win four seats to gain a majority.   That’s do-able, but not easy, especially in a normal election cycle.

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a "passionate centrist."  Could his candidacy make a difference?

Former GOP Senator Larry Pressler (1979-97) is running as an independent in South Dakota, claiming to be a “passionate centrist.” Could his candidacy make a difference?

First proviso:  In 2012 North Dakota was considered certain Republican for most of the year until Democrat Heidi Heitkamp ran a surprisingly strong campaign and squeaked out a victory.  So nothing is certain.

Second proviso:  There may be surprises.   Here in Maine Susan Collins is considered by most to be a very safe Republican hold.  However, she’s receiving strong opposition from Democrat Sheena Bellows, who has shown surprising fundraising prowess and organizing skills.   In Maine there is a lot of emotion against the incumbent Governor, meaning there is likely to be strong Democratic turnout.   It’s not likely (Collins had 61% in 2008), but is possible, that Bellows could be a real threat to Collins.   These are the kinds of “what ifs” that could benefit either party.

One can't discount surprises, like Democrat Sheena Bellows running a surprisingly strong campaign in Maine - a blue state - against Susan Collins.

One can’t discount surprises, like Democrat Sheena Bellows running a surprisingly strong campaign in Maine – a blue state – against Susan Collins.

The polling now shows Democrats Kay Hagan (NC), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Mark Pryor (AR) in the most trouble – but all are very close.   Mitch McConnell looks to be in trouble in Kentucky.  Democrats Begich (AK) and Udall (CO) have close races, but look better positioned.

Here’s the problem for the Republicans:  Incumbents do have a tendency to pull out close elections.  Mary Landrieu was endangered back in 2008 but ended up with a comfortable 7 point victory.  To be sure, that was a Presidential election year and she benefited from the higher turnout, but it’s always dangerous to underestimate an incumbent.

So, given that this is a ‘normal election cycle’ I suspect that the Republicans will fall short of gaining a majority – though they are likely to gain seats.  A 50-50 Senate is a real possibility.   Joe Biden, as President of the Senate (an official role of the Vice President) would have the deciding vote, but if the Democrats held on to that slim of a majority they’d be susceptible to losing it should a member die or resign.   At this point, though, the battle for the Senate looks to be the biggest 2014 election story.

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Rwanda as a Case for Non-Intervention?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.

Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.

Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others.  Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries.  Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power.   They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.

It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control.    The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support.  Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment.   This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.

They did not fear western intervention.  After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done.  As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there.    In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.

It almost worked.  The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out.   The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.

Common scenes in that three months of hell

A common scene in that three months of hell

The story line usually goes like this:  Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis.   Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG.    This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage.   In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together.   France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.

But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:

Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state.   Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up.   We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood.   We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners.   We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated.  But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.

It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.

To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks.   Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition.  Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.   Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly.  After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.

More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda.   A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers.   Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?

I don’t know.   To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it.  I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed.   It’s worth thinking about.

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Obama Destined to be Remembered as a Great President

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama.   But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong.   The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.

My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest.   The reasons full into four categories:  1)  Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.

Domestic Policy:   The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year.   It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis.    There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad.  But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century.   He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009.   He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs.    Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008.  Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.

He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift.  He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive.   Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.

Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more.   Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people's future, Michelle Obama's focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people’s future, Michelle Obama’s focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

Foreign Policy.   The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations.   He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence.  Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008.    Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama's foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America's image in a way many Americans don't yet grasp.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama’s foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America’s image in a way many Americans don’t yet grasp.

Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War.   President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.   When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws.  That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation.   Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.

Economic success.   When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control.   Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs.   That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

Personal/cultural factors:  Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency.   He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy.  He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse.   Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.

The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change.  They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies.  He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift.   The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes.  He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path.  He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.

Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory.   Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.

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The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast.   While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied:  The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that.   The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.

One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran.   The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons.  The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Both states straddle the Persian Gulf.   Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows.  With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them.  In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government.   Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!

In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government.   As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain.   And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia.   Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole.  Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda.  The reality is quite different.  Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam.   Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present.   They can’t even shop in stores which have men!   Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia!   The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men.   In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them.  We do business with them because they have oil.  Lots of oil.

Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be.    The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades.  Last year, the US took their place.   Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened.  We can afford to have them a bit upset.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

Beyond that, they have no real alternative.  Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies.  That affects everyone, especially the Saudis!   They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat.   They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population.   When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades.  The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune.   Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have.   It will not last deep into the 21st Century.

Therein lies the dilemma for the US.   Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American.   That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79.  Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis.   So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.

Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world.   The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest.   Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.

So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously.  He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye.  If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe.  But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.

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Bashing the Poor

stewartpoor

Jon Stewart has recently taken on Fox New’s shameful and completely irrational effort to claim that the poor in America are moochers and are somehow ripping off the American people.   After FOX news responded to the first report, Stewart doubled down and completely demolished Eric Bollingsworth’s effort to “school” Stewart.   Why don’t pundits ever get that Stewart lives for such responses and uses them to create some of his best work?

Fox’s argument was straight forward.   The poor in America are moochers.  First, they aren’t really poor.  They have refrigerators, they can use EBT cards at organic markets, purchasing stuff like “wild organic salmon.”   To be poor, apparently, means you have to live in third world conditions, barely scrapping by.   Government aid should be used to buy the cheapest food possible, preferrably expired, definitely not organic.  And you shouldn’t have a television or any modern convenience since those aren’t actually necessary for survival.   If you’re not suffering, you’re not really poor.

Poverty is always relative; you compare wealth within a country, not to some objective standard that applies to the third world and the past as well as now in the US.

Poverty is always relative; you compare wealth within a country, not to some objective standard that applies to the third world and the past as well as now in the US.

The second point is that the poor are able to game the system.   But they can’t prove how often this happens.   Instead they find anecdotal evidence, like “Surfer guy” who did truly abuse the system, and claim that he “literally represents millions of poor.”   He doesn’t, they offer no proof that he does, they just try to ignite anger and emotion from their viewers.

Stewart’s ire is correctly tuned on Fox news here because they are engaged in a cheap propaganda ploy designed to support an ideology that argues against community or anything but the so-called “free market.”   Never mind that free markets cannot exist without a strong, effective state.   Unregulated markets collapse, because there is no check on the abuse of power by those with the most wealth and clout.

Fox relies on the ignorance of Americans about just how skewed wealth distribution is towards the very wealthy, and how far it is from the ideal Americans hold.

Fox relies on the ignorance of Americans about just how skewed wealth distribution is towards the very wealthy, and how far it is from the ideal Americans hold.

And, of course, poor people really live rough lives sometimes.  I know poor students who work 40 hours a week, study, and have to live off the cheapest food possible.  Yes, they do have refrigerators – and stoves, heat in winter, and cupboards.   Compared to the third world, or American life in the early 1800s, they have conveniences beyond belief.  They even have electric lights!   Often they have computers (necessary to study) and even a TV.   But that does not make for an easy go at things.

Single parents find the situation even more difficult.  To work they need child care, child care is expensive.  They want to feed their kids healthy food, but that’s more expensive.   To get good food for their kids, they often sacrifice their own diet.   They might have nice clothes for their kids and themselves – but usually that’s been purchased at a second hand or thrift store.   Or perhaps they find cheap made in china toys and clothes at Walmart.

Through 1979 the wealth gap was decreasing, since then there has been a radical relative shift of wealth from poor to rich

Through 1979 the wealth gap was decreasing, since then there has been a radical relative shift of wealth from poor to rich

So when the poor are demonized as moochers, it’s really a “big lie.”  The poor are worse off.  This affects nutrition, makes it less likely they will get adequate health care, dental care, and educational opportunities.   Yes, they will have a TV and a refrigerator, but won’t have access to what most of the country takes for granted.

I took my kids to swim at the fitness center today.   I skied all winter with them, amazed at how they mastered the mountain (and scary jumps) at such young ages.  I purchase shoes that help me avoid a recurrence of planter fasciitis.   My wife and I eat out when we decide we want to, and sometimes take all four kids (each of us has two from a previous marriage).   We’re hoping for a vacation this summer – nothing fancy, but getting away and doing something fun.   We’ll go to water parks, buy camping equipment, even if we use it in the backyard.   And while it was a stretch, we splurged on a hot tub.

Every well off family has these opportunities.  The very wealthy have no boundaries, they can’t spend all their money on stuff, so they look to invest it to create more money.   In theory that should be good for the economy, but in practice so much money seeking only to make more money inflated bubbles.

After taxes and transfers the US has the biggest gap in wealth in the industrialized world.  Our tax system is the least progressive.

After taxes and transfers the US has the biggest gap in wealth in the industrialized world. Our tax system is the least progressive. GINI index measures wealth distribution; the lower the number the more equal the distribution.  It is used by the CIA and seen as the best measure, especially in a comparative sense.

The poor struggle.  Drive through rural Maine, or the rural south.   Go into the inner city and look at living conditions.  Talk to people who are struggling.   It is perverse that a working class man not on welfare sees the single mother with an EBT card as the enemy, while the upper crust chuckle about how they rigged the game and make it seem like those with the least wealth and power are the problem!   Fox news is their propaganda wing.

 

Although the wealthiest Americans are the wealthiest in the world, our median - the middle of earners - is not close.

Although the wealthiest Americans are the wealthiest in the world, our median – the middle of earners – is not close.  Our middle class is worse off than most middle classes in the industrialized world.

So if you look at the real picture, the very wealthy have been using deregulation and a warped ideology to try to convince those losing out that somehow less taxes and less regulation is good for them.  More “freedom.”  That, again, is the big lie.   The most perverse aspect of all of this is how it’s built on massive debt.   That has created an economy that while still huge, no longer is sustainable.   Unless things change, Americans will soon look back at the 20th Century as the good old days now gone, nostalgic for the time America’s middle class was envied.  Those days are already gone, America is no longer the best place to live in the industrialized world, especially for the poor and the middle class.

Total debt  - public and private - is at unprecedented levels.  Only during the height of the great depression did it get close, and that was short.  This is a sign of endemic economic weakness.  Our foreign debt is 100% of our GDP - creating real vulnerability.

Total debt – public and private – is at unprecedented levels. Only during the height of the great depression did it get close, and that was short. This is a sign of endemic economic weakness. Our foreign debt is 100% of our GDP – creating real vulnerabilities.

The reality of these statistics will ultimately shape the politics of this country.   People are not going to take this, and they’re not going to take how wobbly our economy has become.   A few can still believe that somehow America’s the envy of the world and has the best standard of living, but that’s simply not true any more – and things are likely to get worse.

It’s important to break the misguided ideology of free markets, ultra low taxes and deregulation.  That does not increase freedom, it destroys the fabric of our society – and ultimately will send the US on a downward spiral.

 

Hard to read:

Hard to read: Box one, Trump (as Bill the Cat): My God, this is such a quality country.  Little Girl: What do you mean, Mr. Trump?  (2) Trump:  My Palm Beach cottage has 118 rooms, how many rooms does your cottage have?  Girl:  One, but we have nine beds; Reynalda sleeps in a box.  (3)  Trump:  I have a boat, do you have a boat?  Girl: When the plumbing breaks our sofa floats.  (4)  Trump:  I have a dream, a dream that one day I might get six points on margin for the Eiffel tower deal.  (5)  Trump:  What do you dream about?  Girl:  Dinner.   (6)  Trump: And imagine in this great, quality nation, folks like you haven’t strong folks like me up by their intestines.  (7)  Doll:  Yet.  Girl: Hush.

 

 

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Moscow’s Game

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

The Russians intend to stay in Crimea for good – Putin has no desire to negotiate or allow Crimea to rejoin Ukraine.  Moreover, the Crimeans probably prefer it that way.   The West can threaten sanctions and issue travel bans, but Crimea is so integral to Russian history and Black Sea interests that they will not back down.   It is a fiat accompli, the West ultimately will have to accept it.  It’s not worth another Cold War.

Ultimately Putin wants the West and Ukraine to accept that Crimea is Russian.   The key to getting that acceptance may be to spread unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine - sentiment is mixed

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine – sentiment is mixed

Although, as pointed out in previous posts, eastern Ukraine is ethnically Russian, with Russian the primary language spoken, many see themselves as Ukrainian.  Most do not approve of the revolt in Kiev or the new government, but are not necessarily keen to join Russia or declare autonomy.    Many others would support separating from Kiev.  The people there are divided.

This gives Russia a weapon in the fight to gain international acceptance of Crimea as a part of Russia.   It is not hard for Russia to incite protest and violence in eastern Ukraine, to amass troops along the Ukrainian border, and create real fear that Russia is ready to divide Ukraine.   The price for keeping Russia at bay may be for the West to accept that Crimea is lost to Ukraine.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman's sentiment.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman’s sentiment.

There are reasons Moscow wouldn’t want to devour eastern Ukraine.   The region is an economic backwater, even taking control of Crimea will be expensive for Russia.  The diplomatic, economic and political consequences of an incursion deeper into Ukraine would be tough for Moscow to endure.  Crimea is strategically important, eastern Ukraine is not.

Yet Moscow can support pro-Russian protests and make menacing noises about east Ukraine in a frighteningly believable manner, upping the ante and putting fear in the hearts of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev.   By now they realize that for all the rhetoric, neither the US nor the EU are willing to risk too much against Russia.

So as the new government in Kiev ponders its options, Putin might make a pitch – a guarantee not to invade eastern Ukraine and to cease any effort at destabilizing the region in exchange for Ukraine’s voluntary agreement to surrender all sovereign rights to Crimea.   At this point Kiev is adamant they’ll never do that, but as the crisis continues, the deal may look good.   Putin may even offer to assure the eastern Ukrainians that they should accept the Kiev government.

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

The US and EU could also exert pressure on Kiev to accept losing Crimea in exchange for more aid and support in their effort to westernize.   If Kiev and Moscow reached an agreement, the argument that President Obama made – that the West would “never” accept the Crimean vote to join Russia – could be overcome.   The US and EU can accept it if the Ukrainian government voluntarily makes a deal with Moscow to cede Crimea.

Moscow’s game is to make it in the interest of the West and Ukraine to accept the reality that Russia controls Crimea.   The danger is that the pro-Russian protests could get out of control, creating a real crisis in eastern Ukraine.   If that happens, Russia might be tempted to consider intervention, which would ratchet up the danger.

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