Archive for March, 2014

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.

Advertisements

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.

images-1

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?

Pleasantville: A Subversive Allegory

March 14, 2014

“Pleasantville” was a 1998 film starring a young Tobey Maguire as Dave, a high schooler whom his popular slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) considers a hopeless dork. He fixates on re-runs of a bland 1950s family TV show, “Pleasantville.”

Enter Don Knotts as a mysterious TV repairman who, long story short, zaps Dave and Jennifer into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, slotting them into the roles of that family’s kids.

UnknownIn Pleasantville it never rains, the high school basketball team never loses (never misses a shot), and sex never occurs. It’s not necessary because the town is frozen in time, as are its inhabitants, never having been younger than they are now, hence they didn’t have to be conceived. (This is unstated, but inferred.) Also, Pleasantville is the entirety of existence. Outside its borders there is nothing.

Dave and Jennifer manage to find the repairman on their TV, and beg to go back home. The repairman only agrees to think about it. But meantime, Jennifer alters her character’s chaste relationship with her boyfriend. In “Lover’s Lane,” they have sex.

Thus begins the shattering of Pleasantville’s stasis. Unknown-1Other kids follow to Lover’s Lane. Then, suddenly, inconspicuously at first, amid the black-and-white, a flower blooms into color!

Of course it spreads, this metaphor for change, knowledge, and liberation. Soon, some of the kids themselves are turning colorized. The basketball team loses.

Unknown-2The Mom remarks she doesn’t know what goes on in Lover’s Lane. So Jennifer gives her The Talk: “When two people love each other . . . .” Mom, shocked, says “George [her husband] would never do anything like that!” But Jennifer explains that a woman even by herself . . . . and next thing, Mom is in the bathtub on a self-discovery voyage.

The result is so explosive that a tree by the house bursts into flame. imagesThere’d never been a fire in Pleasantville, and the firemen don’t know what to do. Dave shows them, and puts the fire out, becoming the town hero. This gets him a girlfriend, Margaret, who’d been someone else’s – further rocking the town’s seemingly eternal verities.

Its still mainly black-and-white population sees the colorized minority as a threat to its way of life, and conflict brews, even turning violent. In one scene, Margaret’s ex-boyfriend accosts the pair and ends with a taunt about “your colored girlfriend.” Soon we see a shopkeeper putting up a sign: NO COLOREDS.images-1

To the film’s credit, having made the point, it doesn’t belabor this riff. Indeed, I found the movie hilarious, but in a marvelously droll, understated way. A real masterpiece of cinematic art.

I also saw it as a political allegory, for fairly obvious reasons. There’s even a book-burning scene. But it was more than political. When the repairman finally reappears, Dave has changed his mind, and wants to stay in Pleasantville. But now he’s told he and his sister have messed the place up and must leave. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Dave protests. “Oh yes you did,” the repairmen replies – and shows a replay of Dave biting into a big red apple.Unknown-3

But Dave refuses expulsion from his newfound paradise. He turns off the TV, and with it, the repairman.

I’ve always loathed the Adam and Eve story. Never mind the atrocious idea of punishing unborn generations for a sin committed by others; and even the idea, more vile still, that someone had to be tortured to death to expiate that sin; but what was this so-called “sin?” Effectively, seeking knowledge. That’s no sin. It’s our great virtue. If there’s a God who’d punish this, our response should be not obedience but rebellion.

Apparently the makers of “Pleasantville” thought so too.

Of course, the revolution triumphs. In the end, all Pleasantville emerges into glorious color. And there is a world outside it (where Jennifer, reformed, goes off to college, to get more knowledge).

And the repairman is never heard from again.

Freetards

March 11, 2014

Paul Rapp is a local lawyer who writes a column on intellectual property in an “alternative” newspaper, Metroland. One of his 2013 columns started with a vicious tirade against free market economics (or, typically, a caricature thereof) — and its defenders (encompassing virtually 100% of serious economists). Prominent in Rapp’s rant were words like “obscene,” “racist,” “bullshit,” “cretins,” and “freetards.”Unknown

But his main point was to argue that internet service should be a public utility — like telephone and electric service, which society has decided should be universal. And in furtherance of that goal,  some people’s service gets subsidized by others.

However, what Rapp was really concerned about was his own internet service. Massachusetts, he said, “has some public/private thing going on” to run fast connection wires along main roads. But who, he asked, will run the cable (quite expensively) two and a half miles from the main road up to his house — and how will it be paid for? (Not by him, God forbid.)

Unknown-1Paul Rapp is an attorney (who charges for his services) and is presumably not economically disadvantaged. Choosing to live miles from a main road, why does he think he’s somehow entitled to have his costly internet connection paid for by anyone but himself? What would you call someone who wants service provided to him for free?

A freetard?

21st Century Socialism and the War on (Small) Business

March 8, 2014

UnknownWhen I wrote about the “war on business,” some commenters dismissed this, saying profits have been strong, while it’s middle class jobholders who are hurting. True, up to a point. Big, established corporations, that can work the political system, and get government subsidies and protection against competitors, are indeed doing well. But smaller, newer firms face ever mounting obstacles. They’re tied in knots by complex regulatory schemes like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank (which big firms can cope with). And we get roughly all our net job growth from small businesses. If they’re struggling, and big firms needn’t compete with them for labor, no wonder worker pay is anemic.

California is a poster-boy for the war on (small) business. While the Silicon Valley scene is humming, because those firms gotta be there, many other companies are fleeing (or not starting). Exemplifying California’s business landscape is CEQA, an environmental review law that allows anybody to sue to stall any project. So if you want to open a new gas station, one nearby can sue to block you. Anybody with a financial motive can hold any project hostage by threatening to sue under CEQA, to extract concessions. Unknown-1Labor unions do this all the time. A recent issue of The Economist quoted a California observer about the state’s attitude toward business: “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you.”

But California is a business paradise compared to Venezuela, which the late President Hugo Chavez brayingly set on a path to “Twenty-first Century Socialism.” Among Venezuela’s “worker’s protection” laws is one effectively making it impossible for a business to fire anybody. There’s always the law of unintended consequences, but here the consequences are entirely predictable: workers who can’t be fired don’t work very hard. Or, for that matter, at all; absenteeism is rampant. Firms have to bribe employees to leave. And meantime the government laments sagging productivity!

Unknown-2You might think such “worker protections” applicable to the private sector would also cover government workers. Don’t be silly. Typical of authoritarian “socialist” regimes, in the Venezuelan worker’s paradise government workers have almost no rights at all, can be fired peremptorily (better stay politically correct), and don’t even think about organizing a strike or protest because they’ll throw your ass in jail.

Venezuela’s disaster may be approaching a climax, as the dysfunction of its “Twenty-first Century Socialism” wrecks the country. The regime, blinded by its twisted ideology, responds with even more counterproductive policies. I’m almost sorry Hugo Chavez didn’t live to see the denouement.

Socialism might be benign if people were angels. But they are not, power corrupts, and giving government so much economic and social power is a very bad idea. Twenty-first Century socialism isn’t any upgrade on the Twentieth Century version.

Yet lefties enjoy making mock of righties for throwing around the word “socialism,” as though it’s a bogeyman either imaginary or harmless. imagesI recently heard a re-broadcast interview with the late Pete Seeger, the folk singer who never really repented his Communist past, nor ever let a cross word pass his lips about any “socialist” regime (like Castro’s). The word “socialism” came up, with the usual sniggers, and Seeger said (paraphrasing), You know, the Post Office is a totally socialist thing, it’s textbook socialism, entirely owned and run by government; and of course everybody loves it.

Unknown-3Then Seeger surprised me by adding: But you know, no government-run post office in the world ever thought up anything like Federal Express; it took the private sector to come up with it; such innovation just isn’t in the DNA of a stodgy government bureaucracy.

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.