The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh. The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down. However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.
Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late. The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office. Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.
Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position. While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time. When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow. Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin. That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.
Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive, shallow and objectively wrong. The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right. Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”
Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached. That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country. We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one. Consider:
1. What options does the US have? In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea. Neither are the Europeans. Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.” This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action. This cannot be unilateral. Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced. That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.
2. Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory? Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core. The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state. Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled? Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia? Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?
3. If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out? The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power. Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.
The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability. Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered. If isolated, domestic oppression would grow. The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed. Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.
Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.
I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine. Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case. But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable. Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say. That kind of thinking is obsolete.
Last week Ukrainians celebrated as their corrupt pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev in the face of a popular revolt. The Parliament met to ratify the popular uprising as Ukrainians celebrated – at least in the western part of the country.The eastern portion is mostly ethnic Russian, however, and while they don’t like Yanukovych, they reject the revolution in the West. The current hot spot is the Crimea, which is over 85% ethnic Russian with very few ethnic Ukrainians. Russia’s parliament gave President Putin approval to send Russian military forces to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in the Crimea.
So, what’s going on?
The Ukraine is a split country. The eastern party is heavily ethnic Russian, while the west is primarily Ukrainian. Moreover, the Crimea itself was given to the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, when it didn’t seem to matter what was actually in Russia. 13% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Tartar, who were brutalized under Stalin and oppose being annexed by Russia.
In recent years the EU and Ukraine were working on an free trade and association agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the West, and yielded nearly $30 billion of aid and grants. This was seen by many Ukrainians as a way to start needed economic and political reform. Putin pressured Yanukovych to reject the EU agreement in favor of a closer trade relation with Russia, as Putin builds his own customs union, currently including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. If Ukraine joined that group, it would increase Russia’s economic clout in the region and stymie EU efforts to democratize and modernize Ukraine.
The Customs Union allows travel between the three states with just an internal passport, as well free trade. It appears less a move towards free trade than an effort by Russia to piece by piece re-create as much of the old USSR as it can. Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe and a mistake. In August of last year Ukraine became an “observer” to the customs union, a first step towards joining.
The biggest obstacle to Russia’s plan was the imminent agreement between Ukraine and the EU. To prevent Ukraine from signing the EU deal, Putin used a carrot and stick approach on Yanukovych. Russia cut natural gas costs, promised $15 billion aid to Ukraine, but also closed the borders of the custom union to Ukrainian goods for a time. Yanukovych ultimately scuttled the EU deal.
That act triggered a wave of protests that ultimately grew to a revolt forcing Yanukovych to leave the country. Ukrainians in the West were horrified that the country would turn its back on the west in order to cozy up to an authoritarian regime in Russia. What seemed a victory for Putin has suddenly turned into a crisis. His response has been to invade Ukraine, but so far limited to the Crimea.
To Russian nationalists, the Crimea is an integral part of “Mother Russia.” Yes, Ukraine has internationally recognized borders, and allowing Russia to change them with force violates fundamental tenets of international law. However, the alternative might be civil war and bloodshed, for a conclusion that probably is no better. The Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only 50 years, has hardly any ethnic Ukrainians, and would be a small price to pay to get true independence and the capacity to move towards the West.
Still, hardliners in Kiev do not want to give up any sovereignty, and there is fear that this could spiral into other conflicts. If other former Soviet Republicans disintegrate into ethnic fragmentation the result could be cascading instability.
Yet when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgia in 2008, it ironically made it easier for Georgia to pursue its own path without constant crises with Russia. A Ukraine without the Crimea may be “freed” to turn to the west. If Ukraine resists to try to keep the Crimea, that could be an incentive for Putin to up the ante, and take more of Ukraine – the places where ethnic Russians still make up a large part of the country. So would Russia be satisfied with just the Crimea, or might it demand Ukraine be split on broader ethnic grounds?
Compare that map to this map of Ukrainian ethnicity – it is clear that the vote followed ethnic lines, meaning that Ukraine is an ethnically divided state. It is not at all clear that it will be possible to avoid some kind of division, given that there appears to be no compromise between tilting west to the EU, or east to Russia.
The US and the EU have limited options. While some hawks want to chug the 7th fleet into the Black Sea and announce complete support for the interim government in Kiev, it’s hard to see how escalating the affair would be American or EU interests, and easy to see how that could set up a path to an even more dangerous and volatile crisis. It’s also almost impossible to envision Russia simply giving up on control of the Crimea.
I think a division of Ukraine in some way is the best solution. Both parts of Ukraine have important pipelines, each have oil shale deposits which could be potentially lucrative. The UN should call for a cease fire recognizing de facto Russian occupation of the Crimea. If it becomes obvious that Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine do not want to be with the western portion of the state, talks on a peaceful divorce from the Ukraine should begin, overseen by the UN. While some will see that as a victory of Putin – Russia forcing the division of a sovereign state to expand its sphere of influence – it is it. It shows that there are real limits to Putin’s goal of asserting regional hegemony; the western portion of Ukraine would over time be stronger and more prosperous. That would bring western influence deeper into the region.
One thing is for sure, an escalation of the crisis and violence is not in anybody’s best interest.
And that’s just one of the many tweets and posts of racist outrage over a Coca-Cola commercial celebrating diversity. If you want to see a series of screen shots of equally or even more offensive bizarre-ness, click .here
So what did Coca-cola do to offend America’s brownshirts? Seems they had a commercial where “America the Beautiful” was sung in a number of different languages. The song reflects a sense of love for the splendor and diversity of this land. To me it was the perfect song for Coca Cola to use to celebrate America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.
Here’s the ad:
Reactions from the right have been swift and harsh. Besides the neo-nazi vomit one can find on the link above, pundits put their feet in their mouths reacting. In a surreal statement, Fox’s Allen West said that the commercial showed that Americans are not “proud enough” and that this commercial was truly disturbing. More from West:
If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come – doggone we are on the road to perdition. This was a truly disturbing commercial for me, what say you?
The irony. If you are scared, defensive and weak, you will fear that an ad showing diversity somehow threatens ones own status. Fear of other languages singing “America the Beautiful” is the response of a coward, of someone who doesn’t understand or accept the reality of American diversity and change.
Over at Breitbart Patrick Leahy whines about an “openly gay couple” being in the ad (how dare they do that in America!) and claims:
As far as the executives at Coca Cola are concerned, however, the United States of America is no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution and American traditions in which English is the language of government. It is not a nation governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. It is instead a nation governed by some all inclusive multi-cultural synthesis of the various forms of government in the world, as expressed by the multiple languages used in the Super Bowl ad to sing a uniquely American hymn that celebrates our heritage.
Besides the fact that Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics for the song, was a lesbian, what on earth in that commercial opposes the Constitution? And really – liberty is only an Anglo-American tradition? Are the only free people those who speak English?
It’s fear. They fear diversity, they fear a country in which soon over half the population will not be white, and an ever growing hispanic minority gains political and cultural clout. The fear globalization, they fear change, they fear the inevitable. They are scared little children, grasping at something that is already slipping away.
Fear drives the worst in our nature. People afraid lash out angrily. They hurt others, thinking that the damage is justified. They rationalize heinous acts, believing them defensive. They lose the capacity to see just how absurd and bizarre their claims are. Rational thought is the first victim of fear.
Glenn Beck demonstrates this by being unable to separate homage to American diversity from everyday politics:
“It’s an in your face — and if you don’t like, if you’re offended by it, then you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration, you’re for progress. That’s all this is, is to divide people.”
Uh, no. It doesn’t say a thing about immigration. And why on earth would one be offended by it? Oh wait, I know! FEAR. Glenn Beck is very scared man – he recently thought that Kenmore was in a liberal plot to change America because it calls some of its dishwashers and vacuum cleaners “progressive.”
Sigh. They are right on one thing – America is changing, and they can’t stop it. Just as America in 1985 was fundamentally different than America in 1935, so it will be profoundly different in 2035. Change is the American way, and increases in diversity and the impact of globalization can’t be stopped. It is inevitable that they will lose the strange “English only” fantasy of what they think America should be. They are fearing the inevitable.
Yet it floors me that they don’t realize how pathetic and whiny their reactions sound. They are humiliating themselves, making themselves laughingstocks, and they don’t even know it!
Although Wall Street got away with creating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there were some who saw it coming, sniffed out the true nature of the mortgage backed bonds and the craziness of an out of control under-regulated housing market. Those people are the subject of the Michael Lewis book The Big Short mentioned in the previous post.
They cover a range of character traits. There is the self-promoting Greg Lippmann whose desire to spread the news in bombastic fashion helped convince a number of people that the housing market was a bubble and the securities backed by those mortgages were toxic. Then there is Steve Eisman, a blunt, honest hard nosed investor who would offend just about everyone he met. He started as a conservative Republican but realized as he learned about the game on Wall Street that the real mantra was “fuck the poor.”
The first one who really sniffed out what was happening was a one eyed doctor turned stock blogger turned investor, Michael Burry. He read through the material with an almost superhuman patience and attention to detail. He realized that the investments were crap, especially the bonds backed by subprime mortgages. When his son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome he realized he had it too. That had given him the focus to figure out what everyone else was missing as early as 2003 – and also explained the lack of social skills that alienated his investors who were planning to sue him before suddenly his bets paid off. They never thanked him.
Ultimately they figured out that not only were the big banks creating mortgage backed bonds that seemed to pass off risk, but when they didn’t have enough of those they packaged the bonds into CDOs that, thanks to rating agency incompetence, would magically turn BBB mortage backed bonds into AAA investments. Then they took it a step further with synthetic CDOs. To Burry, Eisman, Lippmann and a few other characters Lewis describes, this was blatant fraud. For Eisman it was a moral cause – the big banks were pulling in billions, earning their traders bonuses in the tens of millions – because they were able to create bonds so complex that the rating agencies didn’t realize they were crap. Investors thinking they were getting very low risk bonds were being fleeced.
The thing that shocked them, however, is that when the inevitable collapse hit, the big banks themselves were exposed. They had rigged the game, but played the sucker anyway. Corporate leadership didn’t understand the way this new derivative bond market operated, and individuals looking only to maximize their bonuses didn’t care about the long term. At some point they had to keep playing because that was the only way to keep the game alive. But it was unsustainable.
What I find intriguing is the personality characteristics of those who figured it out. They share a few traits. First, they were honest and not afraid of what others thought of them. In a world where most people seek approval from others and want to be liked/appreciated, these guys didn’t care. Eisman would blurt out comments offending powerful CEOs giving a talk, not care what he wore to the golf course, and genuinely didn’t seem to mind what others thought of him.
Second, they were remarkably self-confident. If it were me figuring out the insanity of the derivative market and how the big banks were setting the entire world economy up for disaster, I’d say “wait, these are the most intelligent big institutional investors on Wall Street – they must know something I don’t.” And while the thought crossed their minds now and then, they had confidence in their analysis and conclusions. They were willing to place multi-million dollar bets on an outcome the media, Wall Street and government dismissed as impossible.
Finally, they were oddly moral. For Eisman it was righteous indignation at how big money was not only screwing the small investor but also putting democratic capitalism at risk. For Burry it was a strong sense that the truth mattered, and he needed to follow it. Lippmann was grandiose and self-promoting, but was up front trying to help others see what was happening. In fact, they all tried to shout out warnings only to find that the rich and powerful either responded like deer in a headlight or laughed them off.
Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett, who created Cornwall Capital and discovered first that even the AAA rated CDOs were certain to fail, were pre-occupied by what this meant for society as a whole. The system was sick, could it potentially fall apart?
Those traits: honesty, lack of concern for what others think (as long as you’re being honest), self-confidence and a strong moral streak gave them the capacity to truly comprehend what was happening. They were not intimidated by the big names in media and on Wall Street who dismissed such concerns, did not feel like “I must be wrong because the big guys all say differently,” and stoked a sense of moral outrage and purpose.
There is something to learn from this example. These traits gave them the capacity to avoid the hypnotic effect that culture, media and “conventional wisdom” can have on people. All around experts repeated the mantra that “the bonds are safe, housing prices won’t fall, this is real, the money will keep growing…” They did not fall victim to the power of those suggestions; instead, they saw through the facade and ended up turning a huge profit.
They not only saw through it, but it was obvious to them. Now whether one reads the book by Micheal Lewis or one of the others out there dissecting the crisis (The End of Wall Street by Roger Lowenstein, All the Devils are Here by McLean and Nocera, House of Cards by Cohan about the end of Bear Stearns, etc.), it is so obvious in hindsight that one has to ask “how could they have been so stupid? How did more people not see it coming?”
The answer: groupthink and a kind of cultural hypnosis due to the power of pervasive suggestion. The only way to keep one immune from falling into such a trap is to foster true honesty, not worry what others think if acting honestly, be self-confident, and have a moral core. Not only might one see through scams and thus make money (or avoid losing it), but one will also live a life less controlled by the hypnotic suggestions permeating our culture and media, and instead develop the capacity to be true to oneself.
The new semester is underway and I’m teaching an honors course: ”Consumerism, Politics and Values.” We start with the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis, describing the housing bubble and derivative market mania that caused the collapse of the economy in 2008.
The housing bubble and subsequent crisis was created by the big banks who were able to pull off the equivalent of a high stakes ponzi scheme and get away with it. Alan Greenspan, onetime devotee of Ayn Rand, even admitted that events had proven his “markets get it right” philosophy wrong.
Markets don’t always get it right; unregulated, markets can create calamities. We shouldn’t forget what happened.
Back in 2000 we entered a recession thanks to the puncturing of the dot.com bubble. It had been a classic bubble and when the bubble burst the economy went into a needed recession to balance out the excesses of the late 90s. Then on 9-11-01 al qaeda attacked the US with a devastating blow to the American economy. The blow wasn’t a direct result of the terrorist attack, but an indirect one – the federal reserve decided to offer extremely cheap credit to help pull us out of the recession. That turned out to be poison. That is the one area where the government shares the blame – bad monetary policy. But that alone could not have created this crisis.
The housing bubble was also not a sub-prime lending problem, nor one related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They had their faults, some extreme, but nothing they did could have caused the economic collapse. What happened can best be viewed by considering risk and incentives.
Risk: Between 2002 and 2005 virtually all risk was removed from the mortgage market – or so it seemed. Banks and mortgage brokers knew they’d sell their mortgages to one of the big Wall Street banks. That meant they had no risk – so every home loan was a win for them, regardless of whether the lender could pay it back. The banks then took the mortgages and turned them into mortgage backed derivative bonds which they sold, pushing the risk to the investors. These bonds received a AAA rating from the rating agencies, meaning they were viewed as the safest form of investments. 98% of mortgages get repaid. Investors gobbled them up, thinking they were essentially risk free. There was, it seemed, no risk!
Incentives: Mortgage brokers thus had incentive to cheat – to make loans they knew couldn’t be repaid. This started the housing market booming. As prices went up, banks, brokers and buyers had incentive to create risky mortgage instruments. Since value was going up so fast, it appeared that if you could buy a house at $100,000, it would be worth as much as $150,000 in two years. So if you couldn’t afford a standard mortgage, you could buy one with artificially low payments for two years. At that time the house would be worth more, you could refinance at a standard rate and take out a home equity loan for easy money. Everyone wins! Meanwhile, the banks gobble up more and more mortgages as they are making massive amounts of money – hundreds of trillions of dollars in mortgage backed derivatives!
As with any bubble, everyone thinks all is great until it pops. Housing prices started to drop in early 2007. The first pain was in the worst loans, the subprime market. No one panicked – that market wasn’t big enough to cause a crisis. Little did people realize that the entire derivative bond market, even bonds with the best loans, were toxic.
Soon prices started to drop. Thanks to the people at CNBC and the other business “reporting” networks, people had the belief that real estate prices might level off, but wouldn’t go down. While some like Peter Schiff had been warning people, most of the media were predicting real estate price growth as late as 2007. People simply didn’t believe the party was ending.
Many people were directly affected. People who had adjustable mortgages planning to refi with a higher value ended up bankrupt. People who bought the AAA ranked derivative bonds ended up losing their entire investments. This included groups like fire departments and school systems which thought a AAA bond was no-risk. People who had been doing real estate speculation thanks to the rising prices went from being nouveau riche to old fashioned poor. Those who simply bought houses at record high prices ended up under water – they often owe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their homes are worth.
Of course, this all lead to massive loses on Wall Street and an economic downturn that is still with us today. People totally outside the housing market lost their jobs or their investments when the economy tanked. The ones who suffered the most were the poor. The wealthy can take a hit on their portfolio and still enjoy nice homes and an easy life style, after all.
Yet the ones who did this – the ones who created the derivative bonds and then worked to disguise or avoid risk, taking massive short term profits even knowing that in the long run everything could collapse – they’re doing well. No one had to repay their bonuses or their income from the bubble years. Most simply found new work. Sure, Bear Stearns, Lehmann Brothers, and a number of other banks went under. Yet the people working there found other work. Some probably ended up with a dramatic downsize in lifestyle, but prison time or actual penalties? Nah, they were just doing business.
Many people are still livid about the lack of accountability, but that’s the its always been. The wealthy have power and clout, and can usually avoid accountability, especially if they’re in the financial sector. In this case both Democrats and Republicans accepted the free market mantra and refused even modest regulation. Yet tighter regulation might have avoided the collapse and we’d be at 5% unemployment now.
It’s also proof – absolute proof – that the ideology that the market is always best is dead wrong. It is just as wrong as the Communist belief that a state run economy is more fair. Ideologies delude more than enlighten. Reality is messy, ambiguous and paradoxical. People enslaved by simplistic ideological beliefs tend to interpret reality in a way that suits their beliefs and avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs. We need accountability, rule of law, and transparency — especially in the market.
So now six years from the collapse we’re still reeling, trying to correct imbalances that could have been avoided. The people who created the mess and made huge profits off the bubble got away with it.
On a libertarian-leaning blog, a usually rational and interesting poster made this comment:
It’s all so pointless. We will never convince the majority of people to embrace liberty, instead of looking to government to be Mommy. At least not until government fails so badly that its incompetence is made clearly manifest. And even if that happens, I suspect that the majority of the electorate will look for a man on a white horse, rather than freedom, and the responsibility for their own lives. There’ll always be a cohort that thinks government could do everything for everyone if only the right people were running it. And, it seems, quite a lot of people will listen to them.
Arguing with progressives is pointless, too. It’s like arguing with people in a movie theater who won’t stop texting. It’s a waste of time to say anything to them, because if they had a shred of civility or decency, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you’re a Progressive, I just assume at this point that you’re too abysmally stupid to waste time with on reason or debate.
There are some breathtaking assertions there. Progressives are abysmally stupid, don’t use reason, have no shred of civility or decency…all because they have a progressive political perspective. That means, according to this blogger, that progressives refuse to embrace liberty, want government to be mommy, and don’t want to take responsibility for their own lives.
Wow. If people on the right or libertarian side of the isle really believe that about progressives, no wonder they hate us so! Any one who knows me or reads my blog knows that I am a firm believer of people taking responsibility for their lives and choices – students hear that mantra from me all the time – your future is up to you, you can’t blame anyone else. I’m also for liberty – human liberation from all forms of oppression so we can live as freely as possible – as my primary value.
My biggest critique of government programs is that they can create a psychology of dependency which harms those receiving that aid. I don’t think the answer is to cut people off – often when children are involved that would be cruel. But rather right and left should create more effective social welfare programs which are built around community action. Community organizers should be the hub, and those who can should contribute to building community in order to get aid.
I daresay I’m not abysmally stupid either. Yet I’d describe myself as a progressive.
Why are we at a point in this country where the political sides can believe such caricatured images of the other side? I have no doubt that the poster, while perhaps recognizing that he is being a bit over the top and venting, truly believes that progressives oppose freedom and want the government to do everything.
And its not just progressives who get caricatured, the right is often portrayed as heartless, emotion driven nationalists who don’t care about the destruction caused by war, who would love to see the poor suffer, don’t care about pollution in our rivers, or the potential damage caused by global warming. They just want what they can get, selfishly consuming with no regard for others. I know lots of conservatives, and that caricature doesn’t fit any of them.
But how to get past this kind of rhetoric? One way is to think of the concept of freedom. I submit that both right and left generally have freedom as a primary value. Neither has it as the only value, otherwise they’d oppose all laws. For each having a stable and effective community is also important. So perhaps part of the difference is how they draw that line. Both might agree that a police force is necessary to maintain order, but they might disagree on health care.
From the left: not having health care denies the poor (nearly 50 million) true freedom because they are more likely to avoid seeking health care and may die or suffer, they are vulnerable to health cost bankruptcies, and their children are less likely to receive quality care, and thus do not have equal opportunity. Universal health care enhances freedom.
From the right: having guaranteed health care denies the wealthier true freedom by taking their tax dollars, and mandatory insurance does not allow them to opt out. Universal health care harms freedom.
OK, you know what – there are ways to understand where both sides are coming from. Yet the two sides usually shout at each other (I think the right shouts and ridicules the left far more than the reverse, but I understand that could be a biased perception) and don’t stop to think that their disagreement is not about core values, but how the system functions.
The left tends to view freedom in two ways: 1) negative freedom or freedom from external; and 2) positive freedom, or the possession of the resources and power to fulfill ones goals. Poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, structural barriers hindering the capacity to achieve ones goals (racism, etc.) all limit freedom. Often these limits come from the way society is structured, whereby the wealthy elite achieve more positive freedom at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged.
The right tends to view liberty as simply not being hindered by laws or external restraint. Maximum freedom is when external constraint is non-existent. Because people are not angels, you have to have some laws to prevent overt exploitation, but while the left sees structural exploitation as the problem, the right (or libertarians) tend to focus purely on actual physical violence. The religious right also sees a role for laws to protect basic traditions and customs.
Again, there are solid arguments for each. The right has an agent-based view of human relations – society is the result of individual choices that each actor is responsible for. The left has a structure-based view: society is structured in a way that empowers some and disadvantages others.
The fact is that neither extreme view can be correct. No one can deny that structure matters – it takes a lot more effort to make it out of rural poverty or a ghetto to be successful than it does from a wealthy suburban family. Even though its possible for both, one is more likely to be successful than the other. But it is possible for both – structure doesn’t determine everything, one can make choices to rise from poverty to become successful.
So reality is somewhere in the middle – and that means that disagreements on the nature of freedom are legitimate, one doesn’t have to dismiss the other side as opposing liberty. It’s too bad that as a society we’re more likely to ridicule the other side and caricature them than actually discuss these issues. Because frankly, the US is facing numerous problems and neither side has the power to simply implement their “solution.” We either sink or swim together.
Right now 30 countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about the future of Syria. It’s dubbed Geneva II, as it seeks to find a way to implement the path towards an end to the Syrian civil war and transfer of power outlined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012. The impetus for this meeting came from increased Russian and American cooperation about Syria after the historic agreement to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, one of the major victories of Obama’s foreign policy.
100,000 have been killed in fighting that has lasted almost three years. 9.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, a country of just under 23 million. The Syrian government and main opposition parties are taking part in the talks, though the rebels doing the fighting so far refuse.
The war is unique. First, it appears deadlocked, neither side has a true upper hand. The government has some nominal advantages, but the rebels are strong enough to resist. Second, the opposition forces are themselves splintered, with extremists alongside secular forces and no obvious alternative to Assad. It’s not clear what a democratic election could yield, many fear that the winner might be friendly to al qaeda. In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon invited Iran to join the talks. It was hoped that the Iranians might help bring some realism to the Syrian governments stubborn refusal to hand over power.
In the politics of the Mideast, one of the most important and troubling alliances has been that of Iran and Syria. On paper they look like they should be rivals. Syria is majority Sunni Muslim led by a former Baath party (now renamed the National Progressive Front). The Baath party is a secular Arab socialist party, originally was aligned with the Soviets in the Cold War. Saddam Hussein’s ruling party in Iraq was a Baath party. Meanwhile Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government is completely opposed to Baath party ideology. So why are the two so closely allied?
Although 74% of Syria’s 23 million people are Sunni Muslim, they do have a sizable Shi’ite minority. This includes the Assad family, which is Alawite Shi’ite. That’s a different Shi’ite sect than the leaders of Iran, but it’s a connection. Still, up until 1979 Syria’s biggest ally was Egypt – indeed, the two countries merged from 1958 to 1961. But once Egypt made amends with Israel, and Iraq’s regional ambitions grew, Syria forged an alliance with post-Revolutionary Iran. The Syrians feared Saddam’s regional ambitions and were loathe to make peace with Israel, which still held a part of Syria, the Golan Heights.
During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 Syria sided with Iran, earning the ire of the Saudis who supported Saddam Hussein. The Syrians and Saudis found themselves on the same side after Iraq invaded Kuwait; both participated in President Bush’s coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Meanwhile, Syria’s proximity to Lebanon made it possible for Iran to build up Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, pressuring Israel and contributing to Lebanon’s disintegration.
Bashir Assad took over leadership in Syria when his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 and the Syrian-Iranian alliance deepened. When it was done the US was the net loser, while Iran and Iraq became moderate allies – something which drew Syria even closer to Iran. Going into 2011 the Assad regime looked stable and effective. Then came the Arab Spring.
Mubarak resigned in Egypt, NATO assisted the rebels in Libya, but in Syria the uprising led to a drawn out and bloody civil war, full of complexities. Early on, with Russia and Iran both siding with Syria, international pressure was limited. After the landmark agreement between the Russians and Americans, the tide seemed to be swinging against Assad.
Inviting Iran to the talks was a masterstroke. The Iranians, who recently agreed on a plan to limit and allow oversight to their nuclear energy program, could be further drawn into the diplomacy of the region. In realist terms, they could be brought to become a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one, learning that there is more to gain by working with the international community than being a pariah.
In so doing, it was hoped that Iran could help the Syrian government find a way to give up power gracefully. Iran would be there as Syria’s ally, and could aid the negotiations. Alas, it is not to be. The US criticized the Secretary General, arguing that Iran should not be there unless it agrees in advance that Syria’s government must step down. That, of course, could not be Iran’s position going into the talks; it’s certainly not the Syrian government’s position!
The reality is that there is so much anti-Iranian bile within the US government and Congress that any sop to Iran would lead to a backlash that could harm the nuclear energy agreement, or induce votes for more sanctions against Iran. As it is, the removal of sanctions in exchange for that agreement is yielding billions of dollars of new Iranian trade with the West. Still, Iranophobia runs deep in the US and Israel. Moon had no choice but adhere to the wishes of the US; the Secretary General is not as powerful as permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In so doing, the job of creating a peaceful transfer of power in Syria has become more difficult. It would not have been easy if Iran were there, but Iranian participation created new options. Moreover, Iran’s public is increasingly opposed to their hard line rulers, and increased trade will bring Iran closer to the West. Right now there is a chance for a game changer in western relations with Iran, one that could save lives in Syria. It appears, sadly, that too many in the US are far too comfortable with the image of Iran as a permanent enemy. And the Syrian civil war drags on, with the extremists growing stronger as the fighting continues.