Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Our Dubai Trip: Shopping Mecca

March 29, 2014

Unknown-1Dubai’s main attraction is shopping. Maybe not an obvious vacation choice for us non-shoppers.

Luckily, there was a big international art fair, with worldwide dealers exhibiting cool modern work. Almost as cool was ogling the other attendees.

Dubai is not a place of historicity. IMG_3215It has the feel of one that arose from the desert yesterday, which is pretty much true. Patches of desert remain, among the skyscrapers. Dubai is also one of the most internationalized of countries – indeed, the natives are a small minority of the population, which is not even mostly Middle Eastern, a great many inhabitants being from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

But back to shopping. The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest, with 1200 stores (and it sprouts the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa). imagesRight inside the entrance we were greeted by a dinosaur, and her handler. The dino was a full size fossil skeleton of an 80 footer. The handler was an attractive young Filipina whose job was to explain about the dinosaur to passing visitors like us. UnknownShe was well schooled in all things dinosaurian, properly scientific; but at the end sweetly confided that she had trouble reconciling that science stuff with her “beliefs.”

We spent an hour sauntering through The Mall of the Emirates, though without setting foot inside a single store. The anchor attraction there is the indoor skiing facility – yes, in fact, an entire enclosed snowy winterland, with the temperature kept below freezing. Visitors can rent cold weather gear – padded jackets, woolen caps, mittens, boots. Sure amused us, coming to Dubai to escape such weather in Albany, NY. In Dubai, they pay to experience it.

Dubai is a wealthy country and the glitz of its malls makes ours here seem almost shabby in comparison. This is not a place for Abdul Sixpack to shop. images-1As my wife remarked, “You’d think the world runs on shoes and handbags.” Designer shoes and bags at that. Are there enough wealthy people to keep so many upscale stores in business? Apparently. Wearing a full burqa is not incompatible with carrying the most chic designer handbag. Not to mention a bag of purchases from Victoria’s Secret.

Sinful you might call this conspicuous consumption, no doubt bringing in the word “inequality” and drawing invidious contrast between the pampered, privileged folks buying Hermès bags and Prada shoes, and the unwashed masses who can’t feed their children. As if (many imagine) children go hungry because others have wealth they spend on luxuries.

Also in Dubai (photo by Elizabeth Robinson)

Also in Dubai (photo by Elizabeth Robinson)

But that’s not how the world works. In fact such spending by the rich supports a slew of jobs that make the poor less poor. Sneer if you like at the trophy wives buying Prada, but be careful what you wish for – without that spending, the poor would be a lot worse off. And don’t imagine that if the rich had less in the first place, others would have more. The world doesn’t work that way either.

Anyway, I wasn’t put off by watching Dubaians thronging to the malls to shop till they drop. I love it. Better this than grim-faced austerity (and poverty). images-2And I couldn’t help thinking, strolling the mall while the news was full of Crimea, that this is a far better model for how life should be.

Gucci, not guns. Make money, not war.

Russia Acting From Weakness — ?

March 26, 2014

President Obama says Russia is actually acting out of weakness.

Maybe the most fatuous thing I’ve heard a president say. If this is weakness, we could use some in the oval office.

The Economist’s latest editorial (worth reading) suggests that even China should feel threatened by the principle Russia is asserting in Crimea — if Crimea can secede, why not Tibet? This too is fatuous. Russia and China don’t recognize any principles. They do what suits them, and justify it howsoever.

20140322_LDP001_0(From The Economist’s cover. The sign says STOP or the West will put you on the naughty step)

But The Economist is right that Crimea represents a profound undermining of the world order, requiring a robust response. We’ve grown complacent in recent decades, taking for granted that military conflict among major powers (and grabbing territory by force) is a thing of the past. But in fact this modern world system is not on automatic pilot, somehow governing itself. It requires a hands-on system operator. The UN isn’t that. America is the only entity capable of filling that role.

However, lately, we’ve been asleep at the switch – disengaged and dreaming. And we see the consequences. They are severe. While Obama emolliently suggests that, well, after all, Russia is merely a regional power and no direct threat to us, that is fatuous too. This concerns the way the whole world works. If you don’t think Russia is a big concern, how about China? If Russia can grab Crimea, why can’t China grab those islands it’s been disputing with Japan and other nations? Or grab Taiwan? Every small or weak nation in the world is threatened by the “principle” of Crimea.

UnknownThe Economist deems it urgent for America to reassert leadership – right away. Mr. Obama, no more of your low-key constitutional law professor, have-it-both-ways, split every difference, lead-from-behind, “false choices” self. Wake up, damn it!

Specifically, The Economist says Russia must see the cost of its crime being more than expected – whereas so far, it’s actually been even less than the cocksure Putin might have expected. While Europe does need Russia’s gas, Russia’s need to sell it to Europe is greater, because that’s a critical prop to Russia’s economy. Cutting off the gas would hurt Europe, but hurt Russia more. We should act swiftly to supply Europe with liquefied gas from our newly abundant fracked production.

The President always stresses consultative, collective approaches. That’s fine, but you know how it is when a committee has no leader (as with the Obamacare website). Obama must press the Europeans hard, for a strong collective response, even if it entails some economic pain, which we should share.

It’s unfortunate that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s lynchpin, has a personal style much like Obama’s. Maybe if the Germans won’t get with the program, we should threaten them with economic sanctions.

“The World Without Us” — America’s Global Role

March 23, 2014

We got this film from Netflix on a misunderstanding. A book with the same title imagined Earth’s future if humans disappeared. But the film is a documentary exploring the consequences if America retreated from the world. 

images-2It was well done, though it had subtitles riddled with errors. I didn’t know we’d fought a Persian Golf War.

The film introduces fictional presidential candidate “William Turner” with an unabashedly isolationist platform. He’s no kook, but a slick candidate earnestly spouting familiar tropes: Unknown-1America has spent too many lives and dollars overseas, sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, being a bully, and all we’ve achieved is enmity and hatred; we should instead focus on our own needs here at home, like job creation. It’s made to sound highly seductive; yet the film goes on to show how misguided this really is.

We begin in Europe, as populous and rich as us, asking why it couldn’t shoulder a bigger role in security matters. But Europe is not a nation and doesn’t act like one; it’s a squabbling family, with no appetite for biting bullets. So in the 1990s ex-Yugoslav wars in its backyard, Europe dithered for years while atrocities mounted, until finally America cried “Enough!” and bombed the Serbs into accepting the Dayton peace deal we brokered. Unknown-2When trouble recrudesced in Kosovo in 1999, America, having learned the lesson, moved quickly this time,  again bombing the Serbs into submission. We had no U.N. authorization.

In the film, historian Niall Ferguson says that when America acted unilaterally in Kosovo, he and many like him were aghast (“agassed” in the subtitles). But Ferguson candidly admits he was wrong –  that America’s action was right, probably saved many lives, and made the world better.

“William Turner” types make “intervening in other countries’ internal affairs” sound nasty and illegitimate. That’s what we did in Kosovo. It’s what we didn’t do in Rwanda (800,000 dead), Darfur (200,000 dead), and Cambodia (1.7 million dead; Vietnam eventually intervened there to end the carnage).

Next, the Middle East. Too bad the Yugoslav lesson was forgotten (if Obama ever knew it) when it came to Syria (140,000 dead and counting; 9 million refugees).

Syrian street scene

Syrian street scene

The 2008 film predated Syria’s civil war, but argued that the Mid East is a volatile area liable to explode without America’s  deep engagement; which Syria proves true.

But why should we care? Why not just let others sort out their own problems? Apart from the simple humanitarian concern, today’s world doesn’t consist of disconnected self-contained ghettoes. In a globalized world, there’s really no such thing as a “local” problem, everything being connected to everything else. And regarding the Middle East in particular, there’s oil to be concerned about.

Unknown-3The film presents some interviews with typical “no war for oil” platitudes. A European favors solar and wind power, not violence; “Use your head,” he smugly concludes. Then the film shows how silly this is. How vital oil is for the entire world’s economy, and thus, to the well-being of people everywhere, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, who tend to be hit hardest by any economic dislocation. And it’s actually not America that depends most on Mid East oil; it’s Europe and Asia, who are the chief beneficiaries of America’s global engagement. Not only have we kept oil flowing — America’s navy also plays a critical role in keeping open the sea lanes by which that oil flows to Europe and Asia, and by which much other world trade travels.

When people cynically say the Iraq war was “all about oil,” that may be partly true, but they seem to imagine we simply grabbed the oil — the behavior of conquerors throughout history — including WWII Japan (now getting its oil thanks to America’s global role). But we don’t grab oil, we pay for every drop. Had the Iraq war been “all about oil,” surely we could have simply made a deal with Saddam to buy it, saving ourselves the trillion or so the war cost.

Japan, as the film shows, with its restrictive pacifist constitution, is a particular beneficiary of the U.S. security umbrella. And one might ask why Japan shouldn’t just pay for its own defense. Well, here’s something to think about. Absent America’s role, Japan, neighbor of nuclear-armed China and North Korea, would be forced to go nuclear itself. An increasingly jingoistic China deeply mistrusts Japan, and would be apoplectic if Japan got nukes. This would not be good.

South Korea too is under the umbrella. It’s more populous, and vastly richer, than North Korea. Why does the South need us? Unknown-4Well, North Korea is the most militarized society on earth, with an army of 1.5 million. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is right near the border. The North tried to seize the South once before, and nearly succeeded till America stepped in. Our defense of South Korea is the only thing deterring repeat aggression.

Then there’s Taiwan. The Chinese insist it’s part of China, and upon their right to take it by force some day. Taiwan is a prosperous democratic free market country playing an important role in the world economy, which we have pledged to defend. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have untold disruptive consequences. But China wouldn’t dare try it as long as we stand behind Taiwan. Cutting Taiwan loose just isn’t an option.

And so it goes, all over the world. America plays an indispensable role in global security and stability, and lubricating international commerce. On our recent Dubai trip, a Pakistani cab driver volunteered the understanding that small countries like Dubai are effectively protected by America. No other nation can fulfill this role. Without it, the world would be a much worse place — worse for everyone, including us. 

We already see the consequences of even a little bit of American disengagement, of “leading from behind.” Failure to engage early in Syria produced a metastasizing horror. And if we’d been more decisive about Syria, would Russia have been emboldened to invade Crimea? And if Russia gets away with that, with barely a slap on the wrist, what’s next? China is in dispute with various nations, most prominently Japan, over Pacific territorial claims. Will China now feel free to settle them by force?

At film’s end, President Turner runs for re-election touting fulfillment of his promises. Our troops have all come home. Nothing is said about how the world fares.


Maybe too soon for the shit to have hit the fan.

A New Cold War?

March 17, 2014

DUBAI, U.A.E. — I recently  participated in a discussion where someone said, “Why is Obama taking such a strong stance on Ukraine?” Huh? Meantime, the “Obama is weak” trope is commonplace; with the retort being, “What would you have him do? Send troops?”

UnknownThis is a 1938 moment. It’s clear we’re really just hoping Herr Putin will be appeased by Crimea only, and won’t go further. We play-act at diplomacy with the Russians virtually laughing in our faces while they do send troops — shredding a key principle which has undergirded the modern world’s peace among major nations, and threatening return to an earlier and nastier paradigm. If Russia can invade a place on the phony pretext of protecting its countrymen, well, there are a lot of them in a lot of places. We can’t have this. Russia must pay a price sufficient to get this demon back in the bottle.

I’ve suggested that Obama’s fecklessness on Syria emboldened Russia. Actually, we can go back to 2008 (pre-Obama) when Russia was countenanced to grab a chunk of Georgia with scarcely a murmur of scolding. Or back to the 1990s, when I already felt we were muffing the opportunity to enfold Russia securely into the world community. We were too inhibited by our habitual enmity, unable to turn completely on a dime. Nor could Russia, but we should have been better.

It’s been widely argued that expanding NATO to Russia’s border was a mistake, a provocation. But it was Russia that chose to see it that way, though we did fail to spin it differently. However, now we see that NATO expansion was not a mistake; being obligated to defend all its members debars Russia from invading any of them, like the Baltics. Likewise Ukraine, had it been brought into NATO.

So, yes, we are in a new cold war. It’s not of our making. If we failed in friending Russia, it’s really Russia  that has unfriended us. For quite some time Putin has been on a vicious anti-Western jag. And this lot is just as bad as the Soviets if not worse. Russia has trashed its 1990s Budapest treaty guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (which international law would require anyway), on the ridiculous pretext that Ukraine now has a different government, which Russia refuses to recognize, calling it the product of a coup (whereas in fact Ukraine’s parliament properly ousted Yanukovych for his crimes) — while Russia does recognize the new Crimean “government” installed by its soldiers after chasing out the elected officials at gunpoint. The secession referendum, also at gunpoint, is also insupportable. As is the claim that Russia is acting to protect its countrymen. While Putin denies Russian troops are even there!

imagesHe and his apologists seem hepped up with a Nietzschean sense of Russian moral superiority over a flabby West. Our indeed flabby response to the Crimean atrocity can only abet this sickness. What makes Russians so puffed up about their nation? — thoroughly corrupt, cynical, undemocratic, bullying, drunk on military swagger and literally drunk on vodka – a nation so crummy that, not coincidentally, its birth rate is just about the world’s lowest. (Who’d want to raise a child there?) Russians seem to feel, “We may be a crummy nation, but we’re a strong one.” Well — bully for you.

Much more could be done (non-militarily) to punish Russia, but we’re too economically beholden. (As Lenin said, the capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.) I used to think globalized world trade would make military adventurism foolhardy, endangering a nation’s linkages to the global economy. But now we see that cuts both ways; nobody is actually willing to punish military adventurism by cutting those links at cost to themselves. 

Europe is held hostage to Russian gas; we should use our new fracked gas bounty to free them from that. Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and, more importantly, the WTO, which it worked so long and  hard to get into. Or, at least, this should be explicitly threatened if Russia annexes Crimea, rather than our thus far piddling, unspecified, and thus non-credible threats. Going to the UN Security Council would only point up our diplomacy’s make-believe (because of Russia’s veto there) — but why not instead convene the General Assembly (where there’s no veto) for a resolution to condemn Russia’s action  and pretext?

World in Tumult: Tufts EPIIC Symposium

March 3, 2014

MENA Postcard aOn Sunday we attended this annual event at Tufts University. This year’s topic was the Middle East and North Africa. The six-day symposium hosted around fifty international visitors. (Our daughter Elizabeth made a presentation, see below).

The morning speaker was Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and high State Department official, currently at the Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

He invoked America’s tradition of supporting people struggling for democracy, but also acknowledged a tension between such ideals and security interests. The Mid East is not a single entity, and policy must be individually tailored to each Arab country. Thus we did support democracy in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; but in Bahrain, not so much. A concern there was buffering Iranian power.

Egypt is a dismaying case – right back under an authoritarian military regime (maybe even more repressive than Mubarak’s), outlawing the nation’s largest political group. Not smart, Burns said, if you’re trying to unite the country. (Egypt’s regime is actually not trying to do that.) Burns thinks America should do more to nudge Egypt’s regime toward democratization.

I consider overdone the notion of security concerns conflicting with democratic advancement. In the longer, larger view, U.S. security interests are best served by a more democratic world (a democratic Russia wouldn’t do what it’s doing today; nor, indeed, would a democratic Syria); and by our being perceived as a true supporter of people’s democratic aspirations.

Regarding Syria, Burns thinks America missed a big opportunity a couple of years ago in failing to materially support the revolution (see my 2/5/12 post); and another when President Obama failed to punish Assad for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (see my 9/11/13 post).  Burns was scathing about an international community that thinks it can do nothing about Syria; and about America’s too long trying to work with the Russians who’ve given us nothing. Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block even humanitarian aid to Syrian victims. When, he queried, will there come Syria’s “Srebrenica moment” – recalling when atrocities in Bosnia finally shamed the international community – led by the U.S. – into forceful action, including a bombing campaign, to finally resolve the situation in 1995 (with a 1999 Kosovo repeat) – sidestepping the UN where similarly Russia’s veto protected Serbian aggression. Burns said that in Syria we should likewise go around the UN and intervene, at least to create humanitarian corridors, with a coalition that many Arab states would join.

UnknownBurns acknowledged the familiar refrain, “We can’t be the world’s policeman.” But he said Syria is everyone’s concern, and likened America’s role to that of the world’s system operator. Since WWII, and especially since 1991, America has indeed fulfilled this vital role. If we don’t, the world could go to Hell.

And so, Ukraine — whose “profound crisis” Burns felt compelled to address despite the conference focus on the Arab world. He ruled out direct military engagement against Russia, as far too dangerous, but otherwise called for the assertion of confident American leadership, using every possible means to “dishonor” Putin, including expelling Russia from the G-8.

During the question session, an attendee from Russia bridled at the negative characterization of Putin; actually denied that Russian troops had entered Ukraine’s territory; and said Burns was wrong about Russia blocking humanitarian aid in Syria. She cited a Security Council resolution ten days earlier, authorizing such aid, with both Russia and China voting in favor.

Burns responded that, yes, such a resolution had passed; but so watered down by Russia and China that it was toothless and meaningless. He called this one of the most cynical actions in UN history.

I wonder, had Obama manned up on Syria, would Putin now have been emboldened to invade Ukraine? This is why projection of weakness is so dangerous – more dangerous, in fact, than resolute action. Wimping out on Syria may well have bought us an even nastier problem. So often in such matters, avoidance of costs today only means greater costs tomorrow.

Russia claims it’s only acting to protect its people — against nonexistent threats. Then there’s all the hysterical rhetoric about “Nazis” in control in Kiev put there by a Western conspiracy. Even if these ludicrous lies were true, Russia’s military aggression would make no sense. The Russians are drunk on military testosterone.

Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes

In the afternoon session, Curt Rhodes, founder and leader of Questscope (an NGO helping vulnerable young people in the Mid East) gave a truly eloquent description of what it means to be a refugee. And Elizabeth Robinson discussed her summer visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, holding 85,000 displaced Syrians, where she researched the camp’s economic life.

Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson

She had interviewed the camp’s head, Kilian Kleinschmidt, working for the UN, which has taken over responsibility from Jordanian authorities. Kleinschmidt is trying to make Za’atari a different kind of refugee camp, where the inhabitants themselves are empowered by having more say about what goes on.

It may be noted that the 85,000 in Za’atari actually comprise less than 1% of all those made refugees by Syria’s conflict – a number now approaching half the country’s population. These are real people, no different from you or me. Imagine what it means, what it feels like, to lose every aspect of normal life. And to the 9+ million refugees, of course, must be added the 140,000+ killed; at least 11,000 of them starved and tortured to death in the regime’s dungeons. Srebrenica moment? I guess the world now has a greater capacity for shame than in the ’90s.

Assad continues to insist he’s fighting terrorists. Syria must be populated almost entirely by terrorists to necessitate air-dropping barrel-bombs in crowded urban centers. Reportedly, Assad was recently asked, by his children, why all the violence? He replied, “Because there are bad people in the world.”

Inger Andersen

Inger Andersen

Happily, the afternoon ended on a hopeful note, with a talk by Inger Andersen, a World Bank Vice President. Talking about the Arab Spring, she stressed that revolutions take time, and we should not lose heart over setbacks. Andersen saw real progress happening in some of the countries, notably Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen. But, while there’s been a political awakening, economic awakening is a tougher thing. In any major transition, growth can be expected to slump, and the Arabs face a double crisis: the original economic dysfunction, compounded by the uncertainty and other fallout of abrupt change. However, Anderson saw opportunities for big benefits just from opening up and simplifying the business climate, though entrenched “rentier interests” will resist. And ultimately, political reform that cements citizen rights and pluralism will promote economic growth. Andersen said that a spirit of freedom has been released in many Arab hearts and minds, and she sees a region transformed, with a newfound optimism for the possible.

The President’s Ukraine Speech

March 2, 2014

imagesGood evening, my fellow Americans, listen up, and the rest of the world too. That includes you, Mr. Putin.

I know I was a complete wuss on Syria, and let Putin and Assad make fools of us. But I learned my lesson.

Now, about Ukraine: this is serious.  You know, it’s always guys like Putin (and the Chinese) who are always yammering about how nations should not interfere in other nations’ internal affairs. Translation: don’t nobody stick their noses into the atrocious way we Russians and Chinese treat our own citizens.  But those guys sure don’t practice what they preach, as we’re seeing now with Russia’s blatant intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine.

All this nonsense about protecting the interests of Russian people in Ukraine. Am I the only one, or does this remind anybody of, like, 1938, when Hitler was all “Gotta protect the poor oppressed Germans in the Sudetenland” ? We know how that turned out.

But listen, Vladimir, I’ve got some news for you: Ain’t no Russians in Ukraine. Maybe some people with Russian ancestry; but they’re not Russians now, they’re Ukrainians. You got that? They’re not “your” people. They’re Ukrainians. So get your fucking nose out of Ukraine’s internal affairs.

UnknownWe know the history. That in 1954, Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine on a whim, never thinking it would ever make any difference because it was all part of the USSR (which was called the “Dungeon of Nations”). But then in 1991 Ukraine became an independent country, with Crimea of course being part of it, as it has been ever since. Crimea is no longer up for grabs. We simply cannot tolerate a world where territories remain up for grabs like Russia now seems to think applies to Crimea. That principle was settled way back in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, and it’s a fundamental underpinning of the modern world, and the peace among major powers that has existed since 1945. We cannot allow that to unravel.

Now, I’m not saying that all borders are inviolable. We recently had the case of Sudan dividing into two nations based on a negotiated settlement among the Sudanese. That’s fine. And maybe in Ukraine, the people in Crimea and some other parts might prefer to join up with Russia – batshit crazy, you might think, but never mind. The point is that the whole question is an internal issue for Ukrainians to decide among themselves. It’s not to be settled by military intervention from outside.

So let me be absolutely clear. If there is any threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, we, the United States, will do whatever it takes – whatever it takes – to protect and defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That most definitely includes military assistance to the government of Ukraine.  So, Mr. Putin, if you’re going to be messing with Ukraine, you’re going to be messing with us.

And don’t give me any of this UN shit. Everybody knows the UN is irrelevant in a case like this simply because Russia has a veto in the Security Council. images-1We cannot allow a blatant violation of crucial international norms to go down because of Russia’s self-serving veto. If Ukraine asks for our help to defend it against Russian military aggression, that request would be all the legal legitimacy we’d need to act, with no need to even talk about the UN. I am sure that most of the nations of the world — the responsible grown-up nations — will back us on this. I will ask for not only their moral support, but their material support, to join us in doing whatever it takes to secure Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

We are taking this forceful stance because we deem it absolutely essential to preserve the peace of the world. If Russia is allowed to get away with this crap in Ukraine, then the whole world suddenly becomes a whole lot less secure. And if I did not say what I have just said, I should certainly go down in history as the most feckless president we’ve ever had.

Ukraine’s Revolution: It’s 1989 Again

February 23, 2014

        “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

                      — Martin Luther King

imagesMy favorite year was 1989. Today, in Ukraine, it’s 1989 again – complete with toppling Lenin statues. (Yes, inexplicably, they still had them.)

I’m thrilled, but I won’t get carried away.  These stories don’t always play out well. Egypt is certainly a sobering case in point. Russia had a revolution in 1991 and wound up Putinized. And Ukraine itself had its “Orange Revolution” that turned out poorly. But this one looks much more like the real thing.

Though it’s a volatile situation. While Yanukovych’s support in the country as a whole is shredded, he still has a base in the Russified east and could still continue or even escalate the bloodshed. If those easterners actually want to be ruled by a thoroughly corrupt murderous thug, subservient to another thoroughly corrupt murderous thug in the Kremlin, maybe they should be allowed to enjoy it. images-1But a preferable outcome would be Yanukovych put on a trial for his crimes and swiftly executed, a-la-Ceausescu 1989. Let him be the final victim of the violence he unleashed.

Meantime, there are some lessons. One is that this is the Twenty-first Century. And in this century, bad guys can’t get away with what they used to. Or at least they sure can’t count on it. Time was, if you just shot enough people, you’d be home free. It worked in Tiananmen Square. It may be working in Syria. But it didn’t work in Ukraine’s Maidan Square. This is progress. The world is improving.  Though it’s a darn shame a lot of Ukrainians had to get shot before the shooting was seen to fail.

It failed because Ukrainians — enough of them at least — understand that they needn’t tolerate it any more. They’ve read Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man. They insist on having a normal modern free country, not some sorry-ass replica of Putin’s Russia. (Maybe someday enough Russians will too.)

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister whom Yanukovych beat in the last presidential election, has been released from 2-1/2 years imprisonment on bogus corruption charges, and says she will run for president again. Perhaps her election platform should be a simple one: “No shooting.”

Another lesson is this: nonviolence is all well and good, but sometimes there are things worth fighting for, and sometimes you do have to fight. Otherwise you hand the world over to thugs like Yanukovych with no scruples about using violence to gain their ends. It’s a tragic reality that passive nonviolence may not cut it in such cases.

Ukraine has had its revolution thanks to courageous people willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it. I melt in reverence toward such heroic people. UnknownI’m a big talker when it comes to issues of freedom and democracy, but would I have been willing to go into Maidan Square in freezing cold to face hard men with clubs and guns? I don’t think so.

Egypt, and the Future of Democracy

January 21, 2014

UnknownEgypt’s new constitution was approved last week by a 98% vote. When a vote is 98%, you know it ain’t democracy. In this case, no opposition campaign was even permitted; people were arrested just for hanging signs.

The result was nevertheless called plausible because most Egyptians are fed up with the turmoil introduced by the 2011 revolution. Yet only 38.6% turned out to vote. Meantime, that civic exhaustion is making the army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a popular hero for cracking down, and a shoo-in for the coming presidential election.

I endorsed the July coup, ousting President Morsi, because his undemocratic behavior seemed to legitimate it. But I expressed concern lest his successors emulate Morsi – that instead of working to ameliorate divisions in Egyptian society, they’d exacerbate conflict by trying to annihilate the Islamists. And so they have.

images-1We’ve seen this movie before – The Empire Strikes Back – the return of the so-called “deep state” – the military, the police, all the elements accustomed to control by force, together with all their powerful and corrupt economic cronies. The 2011 revolution seemed to shake this “deep state.” But it recovered its mojo and it’s back.

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi called last week’s constitutional referendum a vote “for a better economy, for social justice, for new legal protections expanding human dignity and liberty,” and “the dawning of a new Egypt.”





Orwellian verbiage if I ever heard it. The reality is precisely the opposite. Not the dawning of a new Egypt, but a fall back to the old one. Amid all this palaver about human dignity and liberty, it’s not just Muslim Brothers who’ve been rounded up and jailed, but also legions of the democracy and human rights advocates who were the vanguard of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the press is less free than ever too. When Senators Graham and McCain met with el-Sissi after the coup, they reported him intoxicated by power. Electing him president will reprise Mubarak and his stifling regime.

*     *     *

But Egypt is not the only case of democracy in trouble.

images-2Bangladesh is a sorry mess, its politics for decades poisoned by a vendetta between two venal widows of former leaders (the “battling begums,” they’re called); the army tried stepping in, but only made things worse; now the civilian government of one of the begums has been dubiously re-elected after a vote boycott by the opposition, and seems bent on entrenching itself in (mis)government forever.

In Ukraine the citizenry struggles desperately against President Yanukovych intent on replicating Putin’s Russia.

I’ve written about Sri Lanka, whose President Rajapaksa finally defeated a long-running insurgency, but instead of building on this for national reconciliation, is gutting the nation’s democracy to cement control by his band of brothers.

images-4And I’ve written about Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra (no would-be tyrant, it seems) won a fair and decisive election victory; but the opposition “Democrats” (actually anti-democrats) refuse to accept it, and have been destabilizing the country, seeking in effect a minority dictatorship. To resolve this, Yingluck has called an early election – which the “Democrats” are boycotting (because they’d lose again).

It’s been my gospel that, in the big picture, the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution; that while nothing in human affairs is ever linear, notwithstanding zigs and zags democracy is rising because it addresses fundamental human yearnings (see my initial comments on Egypt’s 2011 revolution). But admittedly we’re seeing lately more zigs than zags. Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine – and there are others – together with the ostensible flourishing of authoritarianism in Russia and China – and its stubborn persistence in still other places like Cuba – all might seem to make my gospel as wishful as belief in Heaven.

Unknown-1Perhaps in truth the great wave of democratic progress, in the latter part of the 20th century, represented a harvest of “low hanging fruit;” in societies where (using a related metaphor) the soil was fertile for democratic seeds to take root; whereas the places singled out above are the tougher cases, with stonier soil.

A couple of threads run through all of them. The will to power is of course very strong; even stronger is the will to retain power once gained. Fettering that human ambition is a key challenge for any democratic system (as the writers of The Federalist recognized). And it’s very hard to do where civil society is weak. That’s true in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where democratic consciousness is not sufficiently developed to be able to thwart illegitimate power. Ukraine hangs in the balance on this. images-3A similar story is Venezuela, which couldn’t keep Chavez from shredding its democracy. Of course, he was originally elected, which points up another problem: where democracy is not mature, voters are too often suckered by the likes of Chavez, Yanukovych,  the begums, and el-Sissi.

Another factor is an ethos of pluralism. This means accepting that elements of society other than your own have a legitimate role to play, a right to participate in governance, and even to wield power if acquired through fair process. For all America’s partisan divisions, it would be unthinkable for election losers to go into the streets to overturn the result. We take that for granted; but such is exactly what Thailand’s election losers are doing. They don’t share our ethos of pluralism. The same is true of other nations I’ve discussed. This is particularly a problem in Arab countries like Egypt: a refusal to accept that segments of society other than one’s own have a legitimate role that must be respected and accommodated.

Unknown-3If that sounds childish, in fact it is. But people outgrow their childish traits, and most of us become mature adults. The world is still divided between childish and mature societies. But the former will, in time, grow up too.

Modi for India

December 27, 2013

imagesI have a mental “Wall of Shame” with pictures of the world’s baddies (and relish X-ing out the face of any who (like Qaddafi) goes down). In 2002, Narendra Modi earned a spot on that wall.

That was the year of a veritable pogrom by (majority) Hindus against (minority) Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. It was horrible; a thousand or more died. The state’s recently elected leader was Modi, of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist political party.

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

It would be too much to call him responsible for the atrocities – but only just. He was certainly responsible for doing way too little (almost nothing) to stop them. And ever since, he’s refused to express any remorse over what happened.

Now Narendra Modi is the BJP’s candidate for India’s prime minister.

India, since 2004, and for most of the time since independence, has been run by the Congress Party; and the party has been run by the Gandhi family dynasty (no relation to the Mahatma; it’s Nehru’s descendants).

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh

The current party chief is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the assassinated Rajiv; she sensibly passed up the prime minister’s post in favor of Manmohan Singh, a well-intentioned technocrat who had played a big role in India’s early 1990s economic reforms. Previously India had been mired in stultifying socialism, “the license raj,” and the consequent “Hindu rate of growth” (i.e., very little growth at all).

That had kept India as the poster country for squalid poverty – a country where most people didn’t even have toilets and went in the streets. images-1Half still do. But the mentioned reforms undid socialism’s worst effects, boosted economic growth, and began lifting millions out of poverty.

It’s true, and inevitable, that the progress has been very uneven, great numbers remain in deprivation, and inequality may even have increased as more have grown rich. But the country as a whole is richer, the middle class is expanding, and poverty numbers have been shrinking. It’s simply due to a freer economy. Lefties hating market economics will try to insist India’s poverty has worsened. That’s nonsense.

I heard anti-capitalist crusader Arundhati Roy indict a litany of alleged evils of free market economics in India. I kept thinking: she’s missing it completely. Nothing she denounced is actually free market economics; to the contrary, it’s non-free market economics, it’s India’s culture of cronyism, corruption, and over-regulation that stifles competition and economic opportunity; it’s government perverting the free market. Unknown-2So fixated was Roy on demonizing “capitalism” that she couldn’t see this Indian elephant in the room.

Which, despite the 1990s reforms, is still there. India’s growth has been slipping back down toward the “Hindu” rate. Desperately needed is another round of reform, to attack the true problems behind Ms. Roy’s indictment, and further open up the economy. But the 81-year-old Singh and his Congress party government seem to have completely run out of steam, paralyzed by inertia and populist political pandering, as well as cronyism and corruption.

Unknown-3Waiting in the party’s bullpen is the next Gandhi scion, Sonia’s son Rahul – a nothingburger who nobody, not even he, can imagine leading a nation of a billion people. India has had enough of the Gandhis and their Congress party.

Which brings us back to Narendra Modi. Who, in contrast to the Gandhis, is a self-made man from low-caste antecedents. And who has done in Gujarat what so desperately needs doing for all India: he’s curbed corruption, run the state effectively, opened up its economy, slashed stifling regulation, and attracted investment. Unlike typical Indian politicians, Modi eschews all language of wealth redistribution, talking instead of wealth creation. And it hasn’t been just talk. Under Modi, Gujarat’s economic growth and improvement, and consequent poverty reduction, have greatly outpaced the rest of India’s.

Yet Modi continues unrepentant about the 2002 riots, and his BJP remains a Hindu supremacy party. Bad stuff; though Modi has softened his Hinduist rhetoric, now insisting leaders must be secular, and that economic development trumps religious factionalism. And if he won’t apologize to Muslims, he seeks to change the subject: “I want to ask poor Muslim brothers whether they want to quarrel with poor Hindus or fight against poverty. I want to ask poor Hindus whether their concern is disputes with poor Muslims or the fight against poverty. . . Let’s defeat poverty together.”images-3

We do not live in Heaven where perfection reigns. Human life is messily imperfect and often presents us with problematic choices. But choose we must. India should vote for its future, not its past, and choose Modi.

Israel: Triumph and Tragedy, Past and Future

December 6, 2013

Unknown-1A recent Thomas Friedman column discusses a book by Israeli newspaper columnist Ari Shavit – My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Friedman deems it an antidote to both the “do no wrong” Israel of its slavish defenders and the “do no right” Israel of its harshest critics. Here’s my take on Friedman’s take on Shavit’s take.

Zionism did succeed in a miracle of sorts, transplanting a people from one continent to another; resurrecting and reinventing their culture; and “making the desert bloom” was no myth. images-1But there was a problem: the land was already inhabited. Woe to those in the way of someone else’s dream.

Shavit has a chapter titled “Lydda 1948.” Lydda was a Palestinian Arab town in Israel, ethnically cleansed during the independence war.  Thousands of its inhabitants were expelled on July 13 by Jewish forces. This was not the only such crime. While it doesn’t make the whole Zionist enterprise criminal, and it’s far too late to rectify, Shavit deems it a moral duty for Israelis to own up to the truth, to empathize with the Palestinans, and help them overcome it.

But the Palestinians, for their part, have not overcome the trauma, and remain frozen in victimhood. Too many are imbued with the fantasy of undoing 1948; undoing Israel itself. This leads to the tragic intransigence that rejected, in 2000, the best chance ever for a two state solution; a perfect case of the perfect as the enemy of the good. Since then one could only weep as Palestinians remain intransigent while expanding Israeli West Bank settlements inexorably make a Palestinian state ever more untenable.

But, Shavit argues, Israel cannot wait for the Palestinians to come to their senses. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank (as it did from Gaza), or (Friedman’s words) “the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.”

imagesI would put it a bit differently: the underlying virus is religion. Perhaps odd to say about a country whose fundamental identity is uniquely religious. The idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland is okay; but unfortunately it attracts extremists. These are the “Haredim,” the ultra-orthodox, whose men believe they should not work but instead study the Torah* while their wives stay home and raise their children – at public expense. Tolerable perhaps if indulging a small minority, but when it comes to those children the Haredim are highly prolific – I guess the men don’t spend all their time immured in scripture. So they are growing much faster than the rest of Israel’s population, making their privileged status a toxic public issue. UnknownObviously, you can’t have a country full of men doing nothing but moon over scrolls and procreating.

Such religious zealotry also plays a big role in the settler movement. They believe they’re on a mission from God to populate territories he gave them. As these West Bank settlers become thicker on the ground, cheered on by the growing Haredi population back home, their increasing political clout makes it ever harder to rein them in.

And this, again, undermines prospects for a Palestinian state within the same West Bank. It will effectively become part of a Greater Israel, wherein religious zealots have greater say, and Palestinians (outside Israel proper) have none at all. But they’re not going away; in fact, their population growth rates are also high. The only laggards in this population race are unfortunately the moderate secular Jews, who understand that the idea of an apartheid Israel keeping the Palestinians down forever is insane.

Nor could Israel fully assimilate all the Palestinians as citizens without giving up its character as a Jewish state. The zealots seem oblivious to this fundamental dilemma, and are driving headlong toward catastrophe. But that’s zealotry for you.

Where is the Israeli – or Palestinian – Mandela?

* The first five books of the Bible, and related matter.


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