Archive for category Arab Spring

President Obama: One of the Greats?

This image is taken from the Washington Monthly which has a story The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.   I’ve been puzzling my liberal friends and annoying/shocking my conservative buddies by repeating my prediction that President Barack Obama will likely be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.

Liberals believe that Obama has somehow not been strong enough, some claim he’s been “GOP Lite.”  He caved on the debt ceiling, extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t stood up to the GOP.   They see his efforts to make deals with Speaker Boehner as having been weak and foolish.  To many on the left Obama is a militarist who has continued US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing what he needs to to curry favor with the Pentagon.   Moreover, he’s too close to Wall Street, having used advisors like Summers, Geithner and other “insiders” instead of embracing radical reform.   Instead of pushing change, he’s trying to be liked by Republicans who want only to destroy him.

Republicans think Obama has been dangerously radical, weak on defense, and unfriendly to business.   They see the modest compromise ridden health care reform the Democrats see as sometimes worse than doing nothing as some kind of radical dangerous burst of socialism.  Sometimes the criticism is bizarre.   Newt Gingrich warns that Obama has been “pretending” to be reasonable for four years in order to slam his agenda down our throats after his re-election.

The often bizarre beliefs his opponents hold about him is indicative of Obama being a transforming President - when the country is in transition, many people don't like it!

In short, the extremes of each party have tended towards seeing anything not in line with their perspective as bad.  They are in two parallel universes, showing the depth of the partisan division over Obama’s Presidency.

Given tea party noise, continuing unease about the economy and the partisan divide it’s easy to miss all that the President has accomplished.  That list of fifty accomplishments is pretty substantive, and beyond what most Presidents do in their first four years.  Now some on the right might think some of these accomplishments are mistakes — policies we shouldn’t have engaged in.   But that’s a different issue.   In terms of getting things done, Obama has been an effective activist President.

Rather than put together an argument about why he may be destined for greatness, I’ll channel an historian from the year 2050…hold on, turning out the lights, starting the seance…OK….

“Why do we consider President Obama to have been one of America’s great Presidents?  Well, in 2008 the United States slipped into a severe recession caused by thirty years of deficit spending and current account deficits as the country binged on cheap consumer goods produced elsewhere and bought with borrowed money.  Many said the US was in collapse, and predictions ranged from complete breakdown in authority to a weakened state groveling to the Chinese to keep them from dumping dollars and treasury notes.   Two dubious wars had divided the country, harmed the economy, tarnished America’s image and seemed to symbolize US decline.

President Obama came into this horrible situation and arguably prevented the Great Recession from becoming a depression.  Forging a compromise heavy on tax cuts to help please Republicans, the stimulus package of 2009 helped save the US and arguably the globe from a spiraling depression.   Obama also continued President Bush’s policy of rescuing the credit markets with the Troubled Asset Relief program, which also staved off depression and prevented a banking collapse.

His first years were rough, even as he engineered major changes like a health care reform program that over time has cut US health care costs and which now enjoys immense support.  He supported the civil rights movement of that era by ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” carefully bringing the Pentagon on board to undercut opposition.  In foreign policy he not only patched up relations with the rest of the world (being more popular abroad than at home during his first term), famously getting along with leaders of diverse views, but he also took a stance for freedom, helping push out dictators in the Arab Spring.

When the global economy turned around his second term, his popularity grew, and many now credit President Obama with saving the US from decline as a superpower.  He recast US policy as one of working with like minded states to pragmatically solve problems, beginning the alternative energy cooperative that has allowed a smooth shift from fossil fuels to alternatives in a way that did not bring about a feared oil catastrophe.   As one biographer put it, ‘President Obama is a major reason why ‘peak oil’ became simply a transition, not a disaster.’

His shift of emphasis from hard power to soft power, as well as limited American involvement won support at home from a public weary of middle east wars, and caused other countries to recognize the need for cooperation – America isn’t going to do it alone. It paid dividends when diplomatic pressure forced Iran to give up its nuclear program and gave room to Iran’s dissidents who ultimately forced the clerics to move towards a truly democratic and modern Iran.  Obama’s shift also turned the US into a kind of hero to the Islamic world, credited with helping end the regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.   Without a mix of US pressure and support the Saudi Royal Family would have never ceded power without a fight.

Historical causality is often hard to label.   Things had gotten so bad by 2008 that perhaps any leader would have become great, the times can make the man.   But President Obama’s pragmatism, willingness to compromise, and recognition that the US could no longer say “we lead, you follow” helped guide the US from its unipolar moment to its position of multipolar cooperative shared leadership.   It was in his second term that the initial plans were created to recast the power grid, restructure the American tax code (which had become byzantine in its complexity by 2008) and ultimately put the US on a path of sustainable success…”

Bringing about "change you can believe in" doesn't happen overnight.

The reality is that President Obama took charge at a time when the country was in transition, and at this point, if you see above the noise and uncertainty, there are real signs that we’re making progress.   We’re not only starting to restructure the economy but recast our role in the world and set up policies with an eye on a very different future than the world of the 20th Century.

Yes, his foes will never accept that — many still hate FDR, and no one denies his greatness.  But President Obama is in the midst of a transformative Presidency, starting the country on a new direction.   That is a recipe for greatness.

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I Ran like a Rock?

The future of Iran - as long as war doesn't mess things up!

The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era.   Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.

But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran.    If so, will Iran be like Iraq?  Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?

Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out.  He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.

Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided.  If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.

They key is to figure out what a state is.   German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism.   Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system.   Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.

In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system.   However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism.   Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war.   In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.

Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists.   Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.

The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s.  Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow.   Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states.   Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.

As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power.    The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil.  Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold).   China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region.    Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.

So what’s going on?   First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs.   The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely).   It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack.   The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.

War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown.   The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk.   Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.

The US is well positioned to contain Iranian regional power

US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts.  The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war.   If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.

Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring.   The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state.   This would play into the hands of extremists.   Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later.   One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that  brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.

Iran's internal opposition is real and powerful - and does not want the US to act against their state.

I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.

In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson.    One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory.   Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks.    It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq.   The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.

So war with Iran in 2012?   I doubt it.  I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.

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A Retrospective of 2011

TIME magazine’s naming of  “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by.   Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.

This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was.   I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street.    Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street.   The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi?  Pshaw!

Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP.   The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible.   Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.

No one knows where all this will go.   The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go.   As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse.   The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event.    The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent.   Such is how history unfolds.

New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance?   OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm.  Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo?   The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former.   We’ll see.

All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way.   By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events.   I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered.   The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.

2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail.   No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up.    It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people.   But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517.   After that Europe was at war until 1648.   Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.

It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out.   The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe.   I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.

President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war.  Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid.   That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.

2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but  the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008.   The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.

For me personally it’s been a very good year.   I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students.   The weather was great and the students superb!   We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week).    The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff.   I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding.   Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.

The new Mallett school, built in 2011

My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!)   In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus.   Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst.  Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth.  Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.

These changes aren’t new to 2011.   I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close.   So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood.   Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:

See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality

Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there

We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side

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Predictions for 2012!

1.   President Obama will win re-election, albeit narrowly if Mitt Romney is the GOP standard bearer.   He wins handily against Gingrich, Paul or Perry.   Jon Huntsman is the one Republican who could knock off Obama (I mean, the guy speaks Mandarin — we’re not talking oranges here!)

2.   Mitt Romney will win the GOP nomination.    Romney-Thune vs. Obama-Biden.

3.   The economy will improve — unemployment will still be high, but there will be a sense of relief that the great recession is finally giving way (2013 will be the year of inflation, but we’ll not dwell on that now).    This will be enough to help Obama, but isn’t a true ending of the crisis – structural imbalances still exist, very serious ones in fact.

4.  Occupy Wall Street protests will grow again in the summer, but activists will make a concerted effort to be positive and politically engaged, a very stark comparison to the summer of 1968 when protesters stormed the Democratic convention.   This will help focus the election year conversation about relative wealth and the middle class, giving Democrats a boost.

5.   The Democrats will keep the Senate and narrowly take back the House in an election that will have people saying “who’d have thunk this a year ago.”    I’ll e-mail them a link to my blog.

6.   The Democratic majorities will be narrow in each House, and President Obama will call for the “reasonable center” to govern.   It will.

7.   The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl with Tom Brady – the best QB in the league today – MVP.

8.   Maine will pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage, tbe the first referendum to get popular support for gay marriage, not relying on the courts or a friendly state legislature.  This will mark a turning point for this issue.

9.   Iran’s nuclear controversies notwithstanding, the people will rise up in protest against the clerics that guide the Islamic Republic, leading to a severe crisis.   China, the EU and US will stay out publicly, but privately facilitate a way for change to come to Iran that doesn’t completely drive out the Supreme Leader and Guardian Council.   One result of this will be Iran publicly eschewing nuclear weapons.

10.   North Korea will also undergo a very positive change, this time driven by China.   China will influence, bribe, threaten and cajole the North Korean military to undertake a major change in policy, opening the country.   North Korea will rely on China to help it overcome high debt and poverty, and cede to China control of its nuclear weapons.  Whether North Korea will unify with the South or connect in some way with China remains an open question (not to be decided in 2012).

11.  Angela Merkel will emerge as the “person of the  year” for 2012, thanks to her steering of the EU through crisis and claims that her work with President Obama helped him secure re-election.    A feminine face on German leadership in the EU will help Europeans accept that German leadership is not only required, but no longer something to fear.

12.   Syria’s President Assad will fall, around the same time Iranian protests rachet up.   The tension in the region will escalate, as no clear successor to Assad’s government will emerge.

13.   Iraq will continue to suffer unrest and division, with Iranian and Syrian instability spreading.   Some will say the US should go back, but President Obama will note that the Iraqis have to build their own future.

14.   The unrest will have a surprising side effect — it will lead to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that will surprise a lot of people.   Spooked by what Mossad says the impact of regional instability could mean for Israel, Netanyahu decides that some kind of agreement for a two state solution needs to be reached, and thanks to Wikileaks, he knows Hamas’ bark is worse than its bite.    President Obama will be part of this late summer agreement, enhancing his re-election chances.

15.  Russian President Vladimir Putin will become more openly authoritarian in his bid to win re-election as President.  But the Russian people are not as docile as they were in Soviet times and Russian protests will threaten Putin’s grip on power.   Ultimately Putin will be pushed out by bureaucratic insiders, but that will not satisfy the crowds.

16.  Mideast unrest will cause a spike in oil prices by late summer.    By the end of the year this will show itself in a slowdown of the economic recovery.

17.  After some bad early press, the Chevy Volt and other electric car alternatives will make a comeback due to technological innovations and continued government support for research and development.

18.  The EU and China will reach an agreement that expands Chinese investment in the EU and further links their economies.   In the US some will decry the EU’s “switching sides” and abandoning the US for China.   However, it simply reflects the changing balance of global politics.

The myth is that the Mayans predicted 12-21-12 as the end of the world. It may be at least the end of an era.

19.   A conference will be held near the end of the year to deal with increased threats to global economic stability and on going financial turmoil.    It will take place in Asia with the bold purpose of forging a ‘new global economic order,’ or what some call a ‘new Bretton Woods’ (though much different than the old).   The US will have to accept its diminished role due to high debt and structural economic deficiencies.    China will recognize that it can no longer simply grow as “factory to the world” and needs to shift its economy as other Asian states supply cheaper labor and products.  African states will focus on getting a fair return on resources, and the first major talks on long term energy sustainability will take place in order to avoid future ‘resource wars.’

The conference will begin around December 3rd and not close until near Christmas, the weekend of the 22nd.   Pundits will have a field day comparing this to the Mayan calendar prediction that the world will end on 12-21-12.   “The old world of US dominance and state-centric economics is indeed being pushed aside by these historic agreements; it’s both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.”

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2011: A Watershed Year?

I am currently reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  It is the first time I have ever read a Stephen King novel.  That’s nothing you are supposed to admit in Maine, he’s a state treasure.  But not being a fan of horror or even fiction for that matter, I’ve just never read one of his books.     The premise is a time traveler could alter history by intervening at “watershed” moments – events that alter the course of history — such as the assassination of JFK.

More on the book when I’ve finished it, but 2011 may prove to be such a watershed, even if it doesn’t seem that way yet (though it feels that way!)   The reason can be found in time magazine’s choice as “Person of the Year” – the protester.

What started out as protests in Tunisia at the end of 2010 seemed relatively unimportant.   On January 14, 2011 Tunisia’s President Ben Ali gave in to the surprise unrest by resigning.   By late January Egypt was in turmoil and on February 11, 2011 Hosni Mubark’s 30 year reign in Egypt ended.   This was completely unexpected, Mubarak was seen as a rock of stability.   Unrest spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.   Libya’s Gaddafi, in power for 42 years and seen as virtually invulnerable,  fell after a short civil war.   Yemen’s President appears on the way out and Syria remains awash with revolt and government violence.   The Arab world will never be the same after 2011.

Protests were not limited to the Arab world, however.   As the EU worked to try to save Greece from default, austerity programs caused massive protests there.   That could be expected; after all, austerity programs and budget cuts have brought out protesters in Europe before.   But in August another movement rose, which was unexpected:  Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Nobody thought the OWS protests would amount to much — after all, even at the height of the Iraq war when the public had turned against the conflict actual anti-war protests were barely noticed.   I still remember a student asking me about what was happening on Wall Street in late September.  “Yeah, I heard about that.   I’m not sure exactly what’s happening,” I replied.   I thought that it was just another activist protest that would quickly fade.    Within a week OWS was taking off and altering American political discourse.

Its impact could go far beyond what people now expect.    No longer does the tea party’s talk about ‘taking back’ America resonate, but public discourse has shifted to whether or not wealth and the burden of dealing with our large debt and deficit is fairly distributed.   Fair does not mean equal.   Only the most radical OWS protester would oppose there being rich and poor folk, so long as those results reflect actions taken by individuals and not a rigging of the game.   Rather, there is real concern that in the last three decades de-regulation, tax cuts and the anti-government mood may have shifted things too far to the side of the wealthy in a way that harms the middle class.

Part of this is a rethinking of what freedom means.   The “right” has defined freedom simply in terms of negative freedom, not having the government ‘get in the way.’   But a government role in helping foster positive freedom – real opportunity and social justice — is increasingly a mainstream topic.

While the Republicans are beating each other up over who is a ‘true conservative,’ playing to a tea party discourse that appears to be fading, it may be that President Obama by the end of next year will be heading for a landslide victory.   That seems an odd prediction to make, given that at best Obama’s approvals have been inching up only slowly.    Yet when a discourse shifts, an early almost imperceptible trend can become a tsunami.

Moreover, while the Tea Party seemed to be a short term media event defying America’s demographic and culture change, OWS feeds into demographic changes that create a more diverse and socially liberal America.   That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Democrats, even if they are able to harness its power in 2012.   People could be breaking out of the conformity demanded by 20th Century political ideologies, discovering ways to both empower themselves and force accountability from those with wealth and power, both business and governmental.   Such political discontent cuts to the core of the system, and while a democracy can handle such pressures better than a dictatorship, we could be on the verge of fundamental change in the US.

Most recently the protests have spread to Moscow.   Inside the Kremlin they debate whether to crush the protest movement now in its infancy, or let people vent and let the protests peter out.  The notion of actually responding to them or that the people may force change doesn’t even register.    That could prove to be a fatal error.

Just as the printing press allowed the reformation to spread rapidly in Europe, the power of the internet and social media gives the people information, voice and the tools to organize and communicate.   We don’t know what that means for the future, but it could portend a complete change in the very core of political action and organization.   This could be the start of the collapse of the sovereign bureaucratic state and the rise of, well…we don’t know!

People are hesitant to predict radical change.   Usually such predictions are wrong; systemic inertia is strong and people find a way to muddle through.      Yet I’m amazed each day how much I learn about through facebook — stories my friends posts, links to information I’d otherwise not notice.    Multiply that by all the millions linked and connected, and it can’t help to have an impact.   We as citizens are becoming better informed, empowered and able to act.   The elite are less able to control the discourse or dominate the culture.

2011 was the year of the protester.   From Cairo to Athens to Wall Street to Moscow people are rising up in ways unexpected and strong.    Perhaps we’re on the verge of what “Inner Simplicity” labeled a “black swan event” last August.  We could be in the process of change that impacts politics, culture and leads into a new era.

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The Decembrists!

On December 14, 1825 (or December 26 with the new calendar) a society of military officers led 3000 soldiers in an uprising against the ascension to the throne of Czar Nicholas I, who was replacing his father Czar Alexander I.  They were hoping to bring liberal reforms to Russia, believing their system to be out of date and stagnant.   Czar Nicholas I, who was destined to become a brutal and conservative Czar, put down the revolt, and since the uprising took place in December the upstarts were called ‘the Decembrists.’   (Pssst – if you googled this hoping for something about the band the Decembrists, this isn’t the page for you).

It is now nearly 200 years later and a new group of Decembrists are trying to bring change to Russia — young people angry about the November election which saw United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev win a majority of seats in the State Duma, though with far, far fewer votes than in 2007.  In that election they had 64% of the vote, this time it was officially 49%.   Most are convinced that the actual total was much less.  Medvedev called it proof that Russia was democratic, since they lost so many seats, but many in Russia believe the result was rigged.

Putin and Medvedev - beer drinking buds enjoying soccer

And they have reason to believe that.    As the election was taking place election monitors were suddenly told to leave; they could no longer monitor the election voting and counting.   That’s the equivalent to having student in an exam grab her text book and tell the professor to leave as she finishes the test — it’s tantamount to announcing that you’re going to cheat.

In Russia social media is driving a growing call to go to the streets and force the election to be held again, as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded.   Saturday in Moscow 50,000 people gathered, protesting peacefully.  The police were said to be numerous and friendly — Putin clearly doesn’t want images of Russian police crushing protesters, but it’s also clear that the government doesn’t know what to do.

Putin’s essentially kept the media under control and relies on the fact that Russians historically do not defy authority.  Even the famous Russian revolution of 1917 was actually a coup d’etat, not a true popular uprising.   Protests of opposition leaders and public calls for calm on the day after the election seemed effective; protests were relatively mild — and the pro-United Russia rallies were relatively large.

However, there is a growing discontent and call for action among the Russian youth that suggest that perhaps like so many other movements this year, from Cairo to Wall Street, the dissatisfied may have more support and staying power than the elite anticipate.   To be sure, December is a horrible time to start a mass protest movement in Moscow.  Temperatures already can dip well below zero and it’ll only get colder as time goes on.   If the heat of the Arab desert helps ignite the blood of the protesters there, the Russian winter might cool the enthusiasm in Moscow.

Still, what if?   What if growing protests start to threaten the stability of Putin-Medvedev state?   Where could these protests lead?

Women's rights activists try to join the protest

One thing Moscow’s police will prevent is the occupation of a public place.  One reason the movements in Cairo and elsewhere were so successful is they could occupy 24/7 a public spot to give protests an identity and on going presence. People could join or leave as they saw fit, they didn’t have to organize every event.  That’s unlikely to happen in Moscow and probably in the rest of Russia.

Russian demographics are very different than the youth-centric Arab world.    The median age is 38 and they’re experiencing negative population growth.   On the other hand the youth are well educated, modern and connected.  They are also very angry about what is happening to their country.   Until recently leaving Russia was a goal of many young folk, figuring that the corrupt patronage system of United Russia would simply persist, leaving limited opportunity.

Putin, for his part, claims to want to revitalize and modernize the economy.   But with the money flowing in due to high oil and gas prices, the temptation to give into corruption — corruption that has been a part of Russian politics and life for decades — is high.   Putin had been riding a wave of popularity as Russians were disgusted with the flagrant growth of wealth of the so-called “oligarchs” or “new Russians” in the 90s, when the country suffered poverty and massive disruption as communism fell while oil prices were low.

Putin took them on and they either had to sell their assets back to the state and take a diminished role or, as in the case of  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, end up in prison.  Khodorkovsky was a multi-billionaire determined to take on Putin’s effort to reassert state control.   He is now in jail.

Message: play by Putin's rules or else

The fall of the oligarchs and the rise of oil and gas prices improved life for Russians who saw the chaotic anarchy of the Yeltsin years give way to stability and economic growth.    Even those who realized that high oil and gas prices were the main cause of improved conditions gave Putin the benefit of the doubt.   The oligarchs had acted like the worst caricatures of capitalism and most thought the state needed to get involved to bring the Russian economy into the 21st Century and stabilize democracy.

With Putin’s determination to seek the Presidency for a third term, playing a kind of tag team match with Medvedev, many Russians have had enough.   Especially the youth see oil money being squandered to line the pockets of the elites while Russia’s economy remains under developed and corrupt.

Communism fell twenty years ago this month — on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, nearly to the day 166 years after the Czar Nicholas put down the Decembrists.   The youth now have grown up in a post-Communist era, hearing promises of better times to come as connections and media access to Europe and the West grows.   They realize that their leaders have yet to have grasped the promise of democracy and economic modernism; that the old KGB agent Vladimir Putin is too wedded to the tactics of the past to really guide Russia into a better future.

So now they are taking to the streets.   Czar Nicholas easily disposed of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, so far the collapse of communism in December of 1991 has yet to yield a modern vibrant Russia.   As protesters try to take things into their own hands, defying Russia’s tradition of authrotarian rule and public docility, the world watches to see if the winds of change are going to sweep from the heat of the Arabian dessert to the steppes of the Russian tundra.

Back on January 19 this year I wrote a blog post speculating on whether the Tunisian revolt could possibly spread around the Arab world.   It seemed very unlikely at the time, it went against everything people thought and expected about countries like Egypt and Libya.  But something’s up.   The world is in motion, change is real.   Perhaps the Decembrists of 2011 can start a true Russian transformation.

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Arab Winter?

The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting.  While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.

The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far.  The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%.   What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim.  First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.

These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections.   The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats.   More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over.   Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).

In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March.   The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council.   Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical.    Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.

The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable.   Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive.  The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface.   The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode

Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself ablaze, igniting the Tunsian uprising

Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy.   We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to.  Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain.   Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined.   The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.

Almost the entire region is rated "not free," as the Arab world has been the most oppressive region of the planet

In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power.   That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning.   Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.

Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters.   They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice.   That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties.   That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.

Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals.   The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense.  They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military.    The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism.  Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.

A vision of a new Egypt: Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time to protect them from Egyptian police last February

A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity.  Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour.   This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.

So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter?   No, at least not yet.  We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult.  Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat.   That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.    Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours.   And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.

It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose.    The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way.   The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.

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Striking Iran Risky and Unnecessary

 

The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon?  Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.  To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power.   Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil.    Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’   But what if it’s accurate?

Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something.   Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone.    Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites.   However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.

1.  The US would be acting virtually alone.   China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran.   They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report.   This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council.   European allies also oppose military action.   If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences.   If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.

2.  The Risks are immense.   Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be.   While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real.  US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power.    Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.

Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII.   Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.

17 million barrels of oil per day flow through the 2.2 mile outlet of the Persian Gulf

Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon.    All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history.   Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong.   In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.

3.  The risk of doing nothing is mild.    Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value.   Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran.   Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic.   Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal.    Deterrence works.   Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance.   They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.

Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests.   We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs.    The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be.   The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil.   The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.

4.  Iran is changing anyway.   Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections.   Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people.   A war with the US threatens that process.   It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region.    The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway.   It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.

The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran.  Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems.   A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!

With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous.   The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path.   Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.

So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action.     Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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