Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.

Iraq’s Tragedy: “Nothing Is Written”

June 17, 2014

Iraq’s civil war is a metastasizing of a 7th century religious dispute over whether Ali was the first caliph or the fourth.

UnknownNow, obviously, the “firsters” are blessed by Allah, while the “fourthers” are accursed and deserve ignominious death. There’s no atrocity too far in pursuing this vendetta.

Rodney King said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Iraqis say, “Fuck that.”

This Ali business is in fact the root of the Sunni-Shiite schism. Some insist we have no dog in this fight. And it’s true that Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki has fueled the conflict by stupidly conducting himself as Shiite leader rather than leader of the whole nation.

Nouri Al-Maliki

Nouri Al-Maliki

However, bad as he is, he’s a lot less bad than those bloodthirsty ISIS/ISIL creeps (Zarqawi’s old gang), whose triumph would be ghastly. And while they probably can’t take over the country, they could effectively break off a piece of it.

I weep at this sorry denouement to the Iraq War; while its critics will again crow, “nyah, nyah, nyah.” From the narrow standpoint of America’s interests, Iraq might now be worse than we started with. But Tony Blair says today’s mess is less a consequence of Bush’s Iraq policy than of Obama’s Syria non-policy. Certainly true insofar as ISIS/ISIL grew into a monster only in consequence of Syrian developments. Unknown-1And how might things be today if we hadn’t invaded in 2003 and Saddam were still in power? Counterfactual history is a difficult discipline.

But it’s almost conventional wisdom that attempting to remake Iraq for the better in 2003 was foolhardy from the get-go. This is the Andrew Bacevich “Limits of Power” school that says don’t even try. (They love the word hubris.) Yet human beings were not put on this planet to leave well enough alone and fatalistically accept the status quo. If so, we’d still be living in caves. imagesRobert Kennedy liked to quote George Bernard Shaw: “Some see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”

The fatalistic Bacevichian sees a society like Iraq’s as immutable, with any effort at change bound to fail. That used to be said of America’s south and its racial culture, integral to that society’s very fabric. Yet optimists were undeterred in trying to change it – and it did dramatically change. (Today, the state with the most black elected officials is Mississippi.) And in 1945, two of the world’s worst miscreants were Germany and Japan. They too were totally changed. Nothing in human affairs is immutable.

In fact, that’s in our biology. Our great evolutionary adaptation was our ability to change ourselves, when circumstances change.

So why not Iraq? You might say that’s different – a different kind of society, in a different historical situation. All true, but who could have predicted such vast change in Germany, Japan, or the U.S. South? The key difference, vis-à-vis Iraq, was vision, commitment, leadership, energy. I fault Bush not for aiming high in Iraq but for botching the shot. Iraq might have been transformed – but not by our half-assed effort. After all the human and moral capital expended in this venture, the fecklessness of the follow-through was criminal.

Unknown-2Of course Iraqis themselves bear prime responsibility. After all is said and done, we Americans did give them the opportunity for a better country, and they’ve muffed it. Because they’re not a nation of Rodney Kings. Yet still it didn’t have to be this way. Just as cultures are not immutable, nor is history an ineluctable force. Individuals matter; actions matter. It wasn’t inevitable that Iraq would get a Maliki. In fact, in the election that brought him to power, Maliki actually got fewer votes than Iyad Allawi – who might have been a different kind of visionary leader.

I’m reminded of a scene in Lawrence of Arabia. On the desert camel march, one man falls behind. Unknown-3Lawrence decides to go back for him. Another tries to stop him. “That man is finished,” he says. “It is written.”

Lawrence replies: “Nothing is written.”

June 6, 1944

June 6, 2014

imagesOn this day 70 years ago the greatest invasion force in the history of the world, led by the United States of America, set out to liberate Europe from barbarism.

My father, and my wife’s father, though they did not hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day, did sacrifice years of their lives and took part in the overall enterprise. I salute them, and all those like them who (unlike me) made such sacrifices, including the ultimate one. But if I had been one of those men jumping from landing craft at Normandy, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes. In fact, many never even made it as far as the beach.

Bumper stickers saying, “War Is Not The Answer,” or “War Never Solves Anything” are puerile. War isn’t always the answer, and doesn’t solve everything – but sometimes it is, and does. Diplomacy could not have rescued Europe from the Nazis; nor freed America’s slaves (nor will it free Syria from Assad). images-1Sometimes the reality of the human condition requires us to face up to hard choices, and not wish them away with shallow pieties. It isn’t noble to renounce violence and leave the world at the mercy of those who don’t.

In his March 28 West Point speech, President Obama (otherwise so fond of “false choice” rhetoric) drew a false choice between war and no war. images-3Nobody is suggesting we rampage into, say, Syria, or Ukraine, with boots on the ground and guns blazing. Yet plenty could have been done*, short of “blundering into war,” to prevent or at least moderate the indisputable crumbling of international order and security that has occurred on Obama’s watch. His assertion of undiminished American global puissance was ludicrous empty swagger. The world knows that actions speak louder than words.

Obama also said terrorism is our biggest threat. images-5How foolish. The threats that can really harm America include that mentioned crumbling, of the paradigm that has until lately kept peace among big powers; flagging support for economic openness and trade; rising authoritarianism; climate change; and humanity’s age-old nemeses of disease, ignorance, hunger, and intolerance. Meantime, at home, America’s political paralysis and failure to tackle fiscal imbalances presage economic ruin.

Terrorism? images-4Its main threat is provoking yet more over-reaction, and distracting us from those other far more dangerous challenges.

We rose to the challenge on D-Day. Would we do it again today?

* We still have not answered Ukraine’s plea for military aid to suppress Russian-instigated thuggery; nor fulfilled Obama’s previous promise of aid to Syria’s rebels. His 3/28 speech re-promised it. Three years ago it might actually have made a difference and advanced our interests.

 

 

Soldiers Without Borders: A Modest Proposal

May 27, 2014

images-1My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is studying International Relations at Tufts and will spend this fall with an NGO (“non-governmental organization”) in Jordan working on refugee issues. (Yes, I’m very pleased.) The other day she said to me, “Couldn’t someone hire a private army to rescue those Nigerian girls?”

Recently here I proposed a “League of Democracies” to legitimately bypass a deadlocked UN on difficult world problems. images-2But I’ve also often envisioned an international NGO that could execute missions requiring armed force, funded by some billionaire(s) or by donations, much like Doctors Without Borders.

This might sound like a comic book idea – an independent international crime-fighting organization a la The Avengers or Mission Impossible. It might indeed target some gangsters and criminals, but would mainly focus on higher-order problems. While sometimes, nations can and do step up to the plate militarily, as France has creditably done in Mali and Central African Republic, that doesn’t always happen. images-3It may be politically difficult, and legal niceties can get in the way. One wishes for a private organization that can just do it.

It’s actually not without precedent. A 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup attempt by mercenaries was privately funded. Unfortunately, it was busted and the principals (including Mark Thatcher, Margaret’s son) jailed. I say “unfortunately” because Equatorial Guinea’s dictatorship is one of the world’s vilest. The backers of that effort hoped to recoup their investment somehow through oil concessions; but there’s no reason why similar missions couldn’t have the kinds of disinterested motives that guide numerous conventional NGOs – again like Docs Without Borders.

Such a military organization need not cost a vast amount of money. As my wife chimed in to the conversation, much could be achieved using drones. images-4And in many situations a relatively small professional and technologically equipped armed force (akin to our “Seal Team 6″ commandos) could be effective against larger but comparatively less organized or competent ones (like Nigeria’s Boko Haram). A lot of rotten dictatorships could be knocked over without too much actual firepower.

Admittedly, this proposal raises some tricky issues that would need to be carefully thought out. The advantage of an NGO model here is that, without accountability to national governments with all their political and legal constraints, etc., it would have far greater freedom of action. But on the other hand, choosing missions would be very fraught, and no doubt often vehemently criticized from some political quarters. And as we’ve seen too often, military interventions can be messy, with unintended consequences. Pacifists would condemn any use of force; some would say the whole thing would grossly violate international law, calling it a rogue army pursuing “vigilante justice.”

Maybe so, were there an operative system of international justice, akin to national ones. But there isn’t. The International Criminal Court lacks enforcement means and is handicapped by the same political constraints as the UN (hence no action on the crimes of the century thus far in Syria). Concepts of international law and national sovereignty should not be countenanced to shield atrocities. The UN itself has codified a “Responsibility to Protect” where a national government cannot handle, or is causing, a humanitarian threat. While it may seem disturbing in a philanthropic context to go in with soldiers, not doctors, sometimes only guns can stop bad people using guns.

And in a world where true rogue armies do operate – like, again, Boko Haram, or Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda, of child soldiers brutally dragooned – not to mention national armies that are tools of dictators, perpetrating horrors like Syria’s – I’d welcome an NGO force run by the kinds of people who run Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee. A respected governing board of “the great and the good” would be important, to maintain serious moral purpose and guard against crackpots and hot-heads. images-5Yet I’d hope it would not flinch from doing gutsy things. Such an army might effectively combat some of the world’s bad ones, in ways the “international community” seems unable to get its act together to do; and I’d be willing to take our chances that its noble intentions would result in more good than harm.

It’s often said that America can’t be the world’s policeman. And it’s at least true that America cannot answer every moral call. We need a “Soldiers Without Borders.” How about another go at Equatorial Guinea?

 

 

The Worried Optimist: A “Broken Windows” Theory of World Order

May 3, 2014

David Brooks’s 4/30 column helps crystallize my own thoughts. I’ve argued here, and in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, that in the big picture we’ve been progressing toward Immanuel Kant’s vision of a trading network of peaceful democracies. images-5As did Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, and Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. But lately a lot’s been going wrong.

Spiraling downward are nations like Venezuela, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Egypt, whose revolution is producing a regime even worse than before; creeping authoritarianism afflicts Turkey; sectarian bloodletting recrudesces in Iraq; unbridled Chinese nationalism bullies its neighbors; Islamist violence seems everywhere; South Sudan blows up; Israelis and Palestinians act not to resolve their conflict but entrench it; Iran holds truculent; and of course Syria descends into metastasizing nightmare, while Putin tramples about, instigating havoc and laughing at the puny sanctions incurred. Devils dance while angels cower.

Is it to time to change this blog’s title?

Paraphrasing Brooks, the perennial problem is the strong preying on the weak. Starting with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the world had been getting a grip on this. Nazis and Communists challenged the resulting liberal system but were successfully beaten back. Democracy has expanded phenomenally, and democracies don’t fight each other. All good. But Brooks quotes foreign affairs wise man Charles Hill that this centuries-long trend of geopolitical progress may be stalling out, images-2and entering a phase of deterioration. This is what “wolves of the world” like Putin are testing against, for what pickings among the weak they can grab.

Today, says Brooks, the system is under assault not by a single empire but a swarm of bad actors large and small. Whereas Nazis and Commies were unambiguously foes we had to fight, now we face a more insidious infection, a “death by a thousand cuts.” images-3No individual problem (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, etc.) may seem threatening enough to justify the cost and effort of wrestling it down, “but, collectively, they can kill you.” That is, kill the system undergirding world peace and prosperity.

“How,” Brooks queries, “do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?” While “people will die for Mother Russia or Allah,” few will die “for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places.” Few seem to understand it, and too many actually oppose it, never mind fighting for it. But we’re not actually talking about fighting and dying. While some (like Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour the other night) obtusely cast the choice as war versus no war, in fact much could be done without shooting, which is not being done. Brooks notes the West’s balking at even a little economic pain to deploy meaningful sanctions on Russia. And look what happened when President Obama merely suggested a modest action to punish Syria’s regime (far short of “war” or anything that might resolve the problem).

This is why Obama’s foreign policy of tiptoeing caution is actually so profoundly dangerous for the world’s future. Brooks again: ”The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous thing. Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement.” Unknown-1

At least some enforcement is needed for rule of law to work; some cop on the beat. Recall the “broken windows” theory of criminology: tolerate a few broken windows, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood succumbs to disorder and lawlessness.

Only America is capable of the necessary global leadership. What’s at stake is not just a bit of Ukrainian territory (the “broken windows”); it’s the whole world, the liberal, democratic, peaceful environment that has brought so much prosperity and freedom to so many. 20140503_cna400Failure to meet the challenge bodes very ugly consequences. And, as of now, we are failing. The Economist’s latest cover wonders, “What would America Fight For?” Credibility, it says, is easily lost and hard to rebuild; the West is losing it; and “is so careless of what it is losing.”

Well here’s a positive proposal. The UN’s creation embodied lofty hopes, but thwarted by what proved to be a design flaw, the Security Council veto, making it too often an obstacle to resolving problems. We need a new organization: a league of democracies. Eligibility might be a tricky issue, though the EU’s application of strict membership criteria seems to work okay. A majority of nations would surely qualify, and such a league would enjoy great moral legitimacy, to fill the role the UN cannot.images

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this.

I remain an optimist; albeit a worried optimist.

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.


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