Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Three Exciting Candidates

September 15, 2014

UnknownI first noticed Neel Kashkari in 2008 as a remarkably young Indian-American, standing beside the Treasury Secretary and being tasked with sorting out the floundering banking system. Having accomplished that, he’s now the Republican candidate for California governor.

Jerry Brown (first elected 40 years ago! – seems like yesterday) has actually been a great governor this time around, resurrecting the state with reforms that few once thought doable. But there’s more to be done, and Kashkari is the one who gets it. In a nation whose economy is hobbled by too much business regulation, California may be the most regulation-happy state of all, virtually building a moat to keep new businesses out, and a catapult to eject existing ones.* Unknown-2No surprise that its unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.

Kashkari wants to fix this, and also another part of the problem, education, which in California is abysmal and strangled by bureaucracy, which Kashkari pledges to slash. He sensibly favors charter schools too (not that they’re necessarily better than public ones, but because both will likely be better if in competition with each other).

Kashkari also thinks Brown is nuts to budget a gazillion dollars on a high-speed rail boondoggle when California has much more pressing needs, like a water supply crisis.

But, unusual in today’s GOP, Kashkari combines all that economic good sense with classical liberal social views. He’s marched in a gay pride parade. He wants a more humane immigration policy. He wants others to be able to follow him in achieving the American dream.

This is my kind of Republican, embodying the reasons I became one myself, in the Pleistocene, when it was not a party with its head up its rear, but stood for values good for all Americans (and would-be Americans). This kind of Kashkari Republicanism might have a future. A Republicanism of grumpy old white men who don’t believe in evolution will prove themselves wrong by going extinct.

Unknown-1Speaking of grumpy old white men, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, 78, trying to fend off the Tea Party, turned himself into one of them stoopit Republicans. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’s Democratic opponent has withdrawn, leaving him up against independent candidate Greg Orman, who’s getting much support from Republicans of the non-stoopit variety (yes, there are many of us, even in Kansas). Orman says he voted for Obama in ’08 and Romney in ’12, and, much like Kashkari, seems to make good choices in selecting from both the right and left sides of the policy menu.

Greg Orman,. cartooned in The Economist

Greg Orman, cartooned in The Economist

But Orman’s real attraction is his assertive critique of the partisan enmity that so afflicts today’s U.S. politics, with each side demonizing the other as not just wrong but evil. We need to can this, and boost up that “radical middle.”

Next, Brazil. The line goes, it’s the country of the future and always will be. What keeps Brazil from being an economic dynamo is big government. Yes, even worse than America’s; Brazil’s economy is so strangled with regulation and government meddling that businesses just throw up their hands in despair.

The current caretaker of this stultifying system is President Dilma Rousseff, a standard-issue unimaginative old lefty (sees nothing amiss in Venezuela, etc.), up for re-election. Many Brazilians are fed up and realize something must change. But, frustratingly, the best candidate, offering real change, Eduardo Campos, with a program of unshackling the economy, was running a distant third. Then in August he died in a plane crash.

Marina Silva, an ascetic black woman, risen from dire poverty (taught herself to read at 16!); former environment minister; had run third in the previous election. But trying again, she was blocked from the ballot on a technicality. So she joined Campos as his vice-presidential running mate.

Marina Silva

Marina Silva

And with Campos’s death, Silva has replaced him as their party’s presidential candidate. This seems to have electrified Brazilians. Partly it’s a personality thing – in a country plagued by repeated scandals, Silva’s backstory and perceived unimpeachable integrity are highly attractive. But she also appears to have bought into Campos’s agenda of economic liberalization. And she now looks likely to win the election. It would be a bracing breath of fresh air for Brazil.

* I’ve written about this here, and here.

Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

September 5, 2014

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.

James Foley’s Head Was Not Chopped Off

August 20, 2014

foley20n-1-webAmerican journalist James Foley was beheaded by the “Islamic State.” You might picture his head on a block, neatly chopped off with an axe. It wasn’t. The killer grabbed Foley’s head in one hand and sawed it off with his other using a 6 to 8 inch knife.

The video has been taken down, so I (thankfully) couldn’t find it. But I found this picture. So you can imagine the bloody horror. My intent is not to creep you out; but we must understand the true monstrousness of a religious movement that inspires people to commit such acts.

Obama, Hillary, and “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

August 19, 2014

imagesBill Clinton had “It’s the economy, stupid.” For President Obama, it’s “Don’t do stupid stuff” (sanitized version) in foreign affairs. Now comes Hillary saying that’s no foreign policy. She’s right.

“Stupid stuff” in Obamanese means Iraq. But Obama is so afraid of his shadow that “Don’t do stupid stuff” works out as don’t do much of anything – which unfortunately becomes don’t do smart stuff. Smart stuff is recognizing and seizing opportunities. While Obama assiduously instructs us that there are no good options in Syria, in fact this wasn’t always true. Earlier, we clearly had a window of opportunity to act in our interests (see my 3/2/12 and 11/29/12 blog posts). It would have been smart (and also right). Obama didn’t act.

images-1Was it riskless? Of course not. Nothing ever is. That’s life. You take a great risk every time you drive. Some risks are worth taking.

And of course failure to act doesn’t avoid risk – but can itself be very risky. In world affairs, it’s often really a choice (as David Brooks says) between doing something small now, or facing much greater costs later to clean up the mess. images-2Call it the “stitch in time” theory of foreign policy. Bosnia was a perfect example. So was Syria (and not just in hindsight; this was obvious early on; see again my 2012 blog posts). Once we might have gotten a big bang for our buck. Obama punted. So now, predictably, we face a giant mess.

Meantime, despite his saying it’s a fantasy to imagine that arming Syrian rebels will achieve anything, Obama is now arming Syrian rebels. Or says he is. (He’s said it before, without follow-through.) He’s probably right that it’s pointless now – so why do it? Similarly, he dithered about the “Islamic State” threat until it got beyond our ability to act usefully, yet now we are acting anyway, while Obama assures us that we do not intend to accomplish anything significant there. As though we’re allergic not to military action per se, but only purposeful military action.

images-3Don’t do stupid stuff? But hasn’t Obama done one colossally stupid thing? That would be drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria; then ignoring line crossings; then threatening military punishment when they became egregious; then funking it by needlessly seeking permission from a Congress that would never have agreed; and then letting Putin make fools of us with an irrelevant chemical weapons cop-out. This was literally the stupidest presidential performance I’ve seen, and had dire effects in shredding American credibility.

images-4It’s enough to make one wish we had a man, like Hillary, in the White House.

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

August 13, 2014

Last year, when President Obama was mulling limited air strikes to punish Syria’s chemical weapons use, he stopped and decided it would need a Congressional vote. (I was critical.)

imagesNow we are doing air strikes in Iraq, which seems a bigger and open-ended effort, and even sending (dare say it) boots on the ground. Yet there is no whisper about any Congressional vote.

Can someone explain this to me?

The Muddle East

August 3, 2014

imagesColumnist David Brooks recently opined (quoting Richard Haass) that the Middle East may be entering its Thirty Years War. The reference is to the cataclysm that engulfed 1600s Europe, mostly faith-based conflict, prosecuted with utmost savagery, causing monumental death and destruction. (It ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, basically establishing the modern concept of the sovereign nation state.)

We were long told that the Mid East’s repressive regimes provided “stability.” UnknownThis was always nonsense: the deceptive stability of a volcano before eruption. Like volcanos, such regimes build up internal pressures leading to inevitable explosion.

The only hope is venting the pressures peacefully by means of an open society. That’s the path to genuine stability. But unfortunately most Middle Easterners seem too bloody-minded for this. Egypt blew its chance; its newly entrenched regime seems bent on trying to contain the pressures more fiercely than ever, and to destroy any chance for a civil society where disparate groups can coexist.

The poster boy is Syria, where Assad thinks he’s winning, as if creating a wasteland is a victory. Libya seems to be descending into a Hobbesian tribal war of all against all. images-1Half of Iraq has fallen under a replica of a Seventh Century caliphate – a theme park you wouldn’t want to visit. Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a spiral of violence that can create only losers, no winners. Predictably, Israel’s Gaza operation has killed way more Israelis, and damaged its security more, than Hamas alone ever could have.

Thomas Friedman divides the world between the realms of order and disorder. In modern times, the former has actually expanded hugely overall, but it’s been a tough slog, and we don’t sufficiently appreciate the achievement. Unknown-1It’s a fundamental law of the cosmos that in the long run disorder (“entropy”) increases. Hence it’s much harder to build – and maintain – order than to disrupt it. It’s the difference between rolling a stone up a hill and rolling it down. The last few years have seen a great recrudescence of disorder. We mustn’t be complacent.

I’m always struck by how these situations reliably mobilize the requisite legions of young men to pick up guns and revel in nihilistic violence. Like in today’s Ukraine too; and the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts; and a thousand other examples one could name. That mentality seems so totally alien to my own. But some would say I delude myself, and we all harbor such proclivities. images-3Philip Zimbardo explained his famous Stanford “prison guard” experiment* by saying people aren’t innately evil but, rather, conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Some people (especially young men) seem all too eager to embrace circumstances empowering them to violence (especially if they see nothing better to do with their lives). Society’s Job One is to curtail such circumstances. And the fact is that our modern Western societies have done an absolutely terrific job of this. The Muslim societies of the Mid East, not so much. And they don’t give enough young men better things to do with their lives. Maybe it will indeed take a Thirty Years War before they find a better way.

images-4Curiously, the fossil record suggests that in the Middle East, for tens of thousands of years, people actually lived side-by-side with members of – not different tribes, or races, or religions, or sects – but a different species – Neanderthals.

* Students assigned to role-play as “guards” got into those roles so thoroughly that the experiment had to be stopped because of “prisoner” abuse.

Ukraine Plane Shame

July 21, 2014

UnknownThe world knows perfectly well who did it. All talk of investigation and forensic evidence just  muddles moral clarity.  This isn’t a criminal trial requiring proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And what’s to doubt anyway? Who else could conceivably have done this but the Russian-instigated insurgents with Russian-supplied high tech weapons? That missile wasn’t something you pick up at Walmart. The perps were recorded preening about it on the phone. And if it’s a bum rap, why would they tamper with the evidence?

Russia’s slimy statements only deepen its shame. But more, lying so blatantly and transparently bespeaks not just a habitual liar, but a compulsive liar. Russia is one sick puppy. (That it nevertheless inspires such patriotic fervor is mindless.)

imagesWhy would the Ukrainian Russophiles shoot down a Malaysian airliner? Not from rational calculation. They are drunk on military testosterone (and probably literally drunk too, my wife notes). Russia’s giving missiles to such swaggering jackasses was like putting a gun in the hands of an infant. (Unless it was Russian personnel themselves who launched the missile.)

We’re told “there’s no military solution” – by people who always say that, no matter what the situation. In my last post I wrote that the “war never solves anything” bunch is wrong, that sometimes war is the answer. It is in Ukraine. There is a military solution.

I say so because this is not even a legitimate conflict – between clashing interests, each with at least some arguable right on its side, which could be negotiated. It isn’t that at all.

images-2I am extremely sensitive to people’s right to self-determination, and if there were any genuine glimmer of a desire to secede, I’d say let them. But, in fact, ethnic Russians are not even the majority in these regions. And moreover, it’s become clear that not even a majority of the ethnic Russians want Ukraine’s break-up. Referenda showing otherwise are bogus, votes ginned up at gunpoint. (The purported 97% vote in Crimea was 99% phony. I doubt a truly free and fair vote would have backed Russia’s annexation. Crimea was a crime.)

images-3So what is really going on now in Eastern Ukraine? Instigated, orchestrated, and lavishly equipped by Russia (with barely a fig-leaf of deniability), a bunch of misfit thugs has taken the opportunity to play war, holding the rest of the local population hostage. Warlords have emerged, carving out criminal fiefdoms. images-1Many Russian military types have leading roles in what The Economist calls a “tricksy” invasion. Russia’s true aim here is actually obscure. Don’t assume Putin is some mastermind playing some deep long game. He probably doesn’t really know what the fuck he’s doing, apart from just wanting to mess with Ukraine, and get attention paid.

So what should be done about these insurgents? Kill them. Ukraine has been left with no option but the military one. If there were genuine grievances at issue, I’d say negotiate, but there aren’t. This is just lawlessness. I’m not a bloodthirsty type, but these creeps have their hands covered with blood and will have brought their destruction upon themselves. Unknown-1“Leaders” like Borodai and Pushilin should be executed for treason and murder. (But they’ll slink off into Russia like Yanukovych.)

I only wonder whether Ukraine’s army has the stomach, the capabilities, and competence to do what’s needed. Its performance so far does not inspire confidence. This battle could be very destructive and bloody, and could serve to drive more locals to the rebel side. On the other hand, are they really willing to die for holy Russia?

If Putin does not soon pull the plug and abandon the rebels to their fate, then we should help Ukraine with all possible military assistance (no, not sending troops) to end this criminal nonsense as swiftly as possible.

The New Gaza War: What Is The Point?

July 19, 2014

I am no pacifist. Some say war never solves anything; I say it sometimes does; and there are things worth fighting for. But about this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I say: what is the fucking point?

The logic of war is the pursuit of some strategic goal. But what strategic objectives are these combatants pursuing?

Unknown-1For Israel, ostensibly, it is to stop rocket attacks, and destroy infiltration tunnels. But past history shows bombing Gaza to rubble doesn’t stop such attacks. Especially when Hamas can disclaim responsibility for rogue elements supposedly acting on their own. (Just like Putin renounces invasion of Ukraine yet actually invades by subterfuge.*) And meantime, ravaging Gaza provides inhabitants with fresh grievances, to vent the only way they can: rockets.

Anyhow, while the rocket attacks are nasty, they are really pinpricks. They do little damage and hurt few people. A clear case of the cure worse than the disease. The “cure” is extremely costly, not only in money and lives (mostly Palestinian, but some Israeli — it will wind up exceeding the rocket death toll), but also costly in damage to Israel’s larger national interests. Because, again, it creates more Palestinian grievance; renders even more remote the prospect of ultimate peace; and feeds the narrative of Israel as an international villain.**

Morin, Miami Herald

“Hamas Loves the People of Gaza; they even gave us these free tee shirts!” (Morin, Miami Herald)

And what about Hamas? Hamas rejected a cease-fire, refusing to renounce rockets — as though they have some kind of right to shoot rockets at Israel. What do they hope to gain with rockets? As if they could make Israelis capitulate and give up their country. But Hamas is said to have a more limited objective, for Israel to relax its restrictions on Gazan commerce. Yet the rocket attacks make Israel more, not less, hostile toward Gaza; its response to rockets is not to offer sweeteners, but bombing. Maybe if there’s something Hamas really wants from Israel, the way to get it is with flowers, not rockets.

I’m making it sound like there’s no logic to any of this. But there is. I wrote here recently, when the latest round started with teenager murders, that such provocations are intended as provocations. To create more victims, to provoke the other side into greater hatred and still further provocations, to stoke the conflict. By people who are intoxicated by the conflict (mostly religiously inspired) and don’t want it resolved.

Palestinians fetishize and sacralize “resistance.” Resistance is their raison d’etre. God forbid the object of resistance should cease to be. Ostensibly they resist Israeli oppression. In truth they resist actually living normal lives. The cartoon is exactly right: Hamas’s war aim is to make “martyrs” of as many of their own people as possible.

Israel is no better. It too acts as though it prefers having the conflict to solving it. As if this can continue forever. Of course it cannot. The situation is already becoming untenable. And Israel has no end game.

UnknownThere’s an old Laurel and Hardy bit. The pair drive up to a man’s house and get into an argument with him. In anger, he breaks something on their car. So Hardy calmly marches up to the house and breaks something. Tit for tat, and soon the man is methodically destroying the car while the duo are engaged in methodically destroying his house.

That’s Israel and the Palestinians.

* Putin and Russia, who cynically supplied the weapon, must be held responsible for the downing of the Malaysian plane, killing 298. This is not a “tragedy” — it’s a crime.

images** However, regarding all the moves to ostracize and boycott Israel – what are these people thinking? That Israel is, like, the worst evildoer in the world? Are they totally ignorant, or blind? How about China, with its repression of Tibet, and locking up democracy advocates like Liu Xiaobo? Where’s the boycott of China? Or, for that matter, Syria? Not even Syria! Only Israel.

Mexico and India: Some Good News For a Change

July 12, 2014

imagesThe world is always full of bad news, but here’s something in line with this blog’s title.

Background: Mexico had a big revolution/civil war a century ago. When the dust settled, power was monopolized by the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” (PRI), whose rule was anything but revolutionary. Mexico stagnated with a closed rentier economy of crony capitalism, its big shots labelled “dinosaurs.”Unknown

The PRI’s chokehold was finally broken by the opposition PAN party winning the presidency in 2000. PAN’s program was right, but it was stymied not only by PRI holdovers but also a third left-wing party. So after two PAN presidencies, little had actually changed.

Peña Nieto

Peña Nieto

In 2012 the PRI recaptured the presidency with Enrique Peña Nieto. Bad news? To the contrary. No dinosaur he. The Peña administration’s tone was set at the start. Emblematic of Mexico’s dysfunction was a teacher’s union so politically entrenched that it controlled the whole school system. Unknown-1Its boss: Elba Esther Gordillo, a quintessential dinosaur. Peña had her arrested on charges of (flagrant) embezzlement and organized crime.

But he was just getting started.

Carlos Slim

Carlos Slim

Peña has moved boldly to reform, shake up, and open up Mexico’s politics, educational system, and economy, by promoting competition and curbing the kind of monopoly power that has so long hobbled the country. (His telecommunications stranglehold made Mexico’s Carlos Slim one of the world’s richest men.) A centerpiece of Peña’s agenda is to break what for generations has been a PRI sacred cow: exclusive government control of the energy sector.Unknown-2

Not all of Peña’s initiatives have yet been successfully pushed through, and inevitably, there have been stumbles and criticisms. And Mexico still has some very bad problems, notably horrendous gangster violence. But you can say this: Peña has changed the rules of the game, and shown what true visionary leadership looks like.  Now this is what I call progressive. (What a contrast to loudmouth lefty populists of the Chavez sort.)

Modi

Modi

Similarly heartening was the recent smashing election victory by Narendra Modi in India. His BJP party won an outright parliamentary majority – seemingly impossible given India’s fractured politics with numerous regional and caste-based parties usually divvying up the spoils. The stale old Congress party was practically annihilated. This gives Modi a tremendous opportunity to remake India for the better. He’s been talking the right talk. Now let’s see the walk.

Hateful Jews

July 6, 2014

               The best lack all conviction, while the worst

               Are full of passionate intensity

                        — W. B. Yeats

images-1I almost titled this, “I Hate Those Jews.” That’s what I first thought – shocking myself – my own ancestry being Jewish – when I heard about the Palestinian boy apparently burned alive in “revenge” for three murdered Jewish teens.

Of course I don’t hate all Jews. Only those Jews so twisted by religious fanaticism that they could do such a thing. And unfortunately Israel has too many like that.

What kind of Bible do they believe in, that sanctions such horror? images(Oh, right; the Bible is full of such atrocities, commanded by their God.)

Here’s why I put the word “revenge” in quotes. It’s associated with “retribution” which has nasty atavistic connotations; though as I’ve explained, the concept of retribution is actually morally justifiable. It means punishing someone for a wrong he’s done. But that Palestinian boy wronged no one. To torture and murder him for crimes committed by others is sick barbarism.

But, actually, it’s worse than that; even worse than the mere sadistic murder of an innocent child. Because this was not just a crime of indiscriminate vengeance. UnknownIt was a totally cynical act, calculated to stoke communal hatred. The same was probably true of the preceding murder of the three Jews. It’s been going on for decades: fanatics using violence to make their own side hateful to the other, to make peace and reconciliation impossible.

There’s a larger lesson, also seen playing out in Iraq. Pacifism is very nice, but violence is very efficacious. In the Israeli-Palestinian situation, again and again, the worst people, willing to use the greatest violence, get their way; so too in Iraq; and of course in Syria, and Egypt, and other places. This reality of the human situation will persist so as long as people have bones that break and flesh that tears (or burns).

What is the answer for it? Obviously not pacifism, which merely hands the world over to the worst, the most violent. Instead, such evil must be opposed, and opposed with all necessary force. And we must be willing to make the judgment of evil.

Yes, such judgments are fallible. Yes, that’s black-and-white talk, and reality is often grey. But our human responsibility requires us to make, and act upon, such judgments, to the best of our ability, to prove Yeats wrong.

Unknown-1That’s what we did on D-Day; and in 1776; whose anniversaries were recently marked. I too long for a world where such sacrifices aren’t necessary. But wishing won’t make it so. Some things are worth fighting for.


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