Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Making Burundi great again

July 1, 2019

Burundi is a very fortunate country. True, they had a 12-year tribal civil war killing 300,000, but that ended in 2005. Fewer die these days. As for the economy, many Burundians are spared from having to toil at a job, while a quarter don’t live in extreme poverty!

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was appointed by God; he’s the nation’s “Eternal Supreme Guide.” If only all lands had one!

He garnered a well-deserved third term in 2015. Some nitpickers cited the Constitution’s two-term limit, but they were taught a salutary lesson, many hundreds sent to an even better place by the Eternal Supreme Guide’s valiant defenders. What part of “eternal” did they not understand?

Nkurunziza plans another re-election in 2020; to pacify even the most annoying nitpickers, there will be voting. However, he wisely foresaw difficulty paying for it, since miserly international donors now snootily stiff Burundi (due to fake news of brutality and corruption). So Nkurunziza prudently introduced an annual “Election Tax,” a mere dollar or so per household. Surely a small price to pay for democracy’s blessings!

Photo from The Economist

The tax is collected by his party’s “youth wing,” appropriately titled “Those Who See Far,” the “Imbonerakure.” (You can’t spell it without “boner.”) Groups of them come to homes bearing sticks. The Economist’s report did not mention carrots, but one can assume their use too. (One should also assume the money collected duly reaches government coffers.)

The Imbonerakure are admirably assiduous, visiting homes repeatedly, and even manning roadside checkpoints, to make sure the tax is paid. Many deadbeats claim they’d already paid; they would, wouldn’t they? But can they show a receipt for their supposed payment? Of course not!

Unresponsive to sticks or carrots, around 350,000 unpatriotic Burundians have slunk away to neighboring Congo. You’d think they’d know of Congo’s awfulness, but some people are oblivious. One woman there was quoted saying the Imbonerakure would come thrice monthly; claiming (or feigning) inability to pay, her whole family, including small children, was beaten up, her husband dragged away, never seen again. Shame on The (failing) Economist for printing such fake news!

Proving again that the press is the enemy of the people. But happily, Burundi itself, thanks to its Eternal Supreme Guide, is free of that curse!

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ALARM! Russia attacking America

June 21, 2019

On 9/11 we were attacked. America united fiercely, in outrage and resolve, to confront the enemy and prevent a repeat.

In 2016, a different enemy attacked us, with actually far greater damage. But this time we collectively shrugged, with many heads in the sand.

Russian Roulette, a 2018 book by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Korn, details Russia’s war on American democracy and how Trump’s election fit into it. Not news to anyone whose head’s above ground. But the book is an eye-opener about how deep and serious this is.

The 9/11 death toll was terrible, yet Islamic terrorism has never been an existential threat to our way of life. Russia is far more dangerous; has already harmed us more. The Obama administration never got it, the book shows. Obama fell into the trap of fixating on the over-hyped threat from the Middle East, and imagined Russia as a potential partner there. Thus the “re-set” effort to improve relations. But our worst enemy is not terrorism, it’s Russia.

Remember when Romney said this — and Obama mocked him as living back in the cold war? The cold war did end but this is a new and different one. If we fail to see Russia as our deadly enemy, Putin and the Russians certainly see us as theirs. And while during the cold war, the Soviets never imagined destabilizing America itself, that’s exactly what Putin is doing. It wasn’t only screwing with the election, but more generally working to aggravate our societal divisions. They’re doing it elsewhere too; Russia had a hand in the Brexit vote, which is tearing apart Britain’s body politic.

The book shows that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for years, playing him, dangling the lure of a big real estate deal (that never jelled). Drooling for it, Trump kept kissing Putin’s posterior. He naively fantasized that his idolizing Putin was mutual, and they could get along beautifully.

In fact, Putin hated Hillary because she (unlike Trump) had his number; and come 2016, Trump was a tailor-made guided missile for Putin to fire at America’s heart. A president who’d weaken the country with self-destructive policies, weaken its alliances and international prestige, exacerbate our internal divisions, and undermine our democracy. Personal vulgarity, lying, and corruption were added bonuses. Putin didn’t expect his election shenanigans would be enough to make Americans drink this Kool-Aid. But just 77,000 votes in three key states did it. A hole-in-one.

The book details just how extensive and sophisticated that election subversion was, clearly orchestrated at the highest levels, deploying state resources. Taking Hillary down with a tsunami of lies. I was NO Hillary fan, but the Russian-orchestrated demonization that took hold was just nuts. (Especially when compared against Trump’s flaws.) A particularly virulent item was the “uranium deal” which Hillary haters still keep bringing up. The book disposes of this in a few sentences, showing there’s nothing there.

Trump and his enablers pound the lie that the whole Russia story is a “witch hunt,” a “deep state” FBI plot to take him down, an attempted coup. That they “spied” on his campaign. The nonsensicality is obvious because while the FBI tarred Hillary publicly during 2016, they kept a lid on the explosive fact that they were investigating Trump-Russia links. And they had ample reason to investigate, plenty of evidence of Russia’s intervening to help him. The FBI knew the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and were spilling what they’d gotten. The FBI was also already looking at Trump advisor Carter Page, playing footsie with Russian operatives in Moscow. And George Papadopoulos. And of course campaign chief Manafort, long involved with pro-Russian interests.

So it was far more than the notorious “Steele Dossier.” Christopher Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. He was instrumental in our busting FIFA corruption, and also worked with the State Department. So his 2016 work having initially been paid for by Democrats didn’t taint it. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though the allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been scandalous had the FBI not pursued all this.

Meantime the FBI and intelligence services were oblivious to another huge part of Russia’s scheme: its devastating exploitation of social media. And the Obama administration seemed asleep at the switch about the whole thing. But the book chronicles the administration’s terrible quandary. Obama held back out of fear of looking partisan, and strong action could have backfired. He did hold a meeting with GOP Congressional leaders, trying to get them on board for a bipartisan outing of, and response to, the Russian subversion. Mitch McConnell refused.

Russia also tried to hack local election systems. This actually hasn’t been much investigated, but it appears Russia did succeed in some spots, like North Carolina. It’s not just vote counting, serious a concern though that is; in North Carolina they seem to have messed with voter records (concentrating on Democrats). Imagine millions coming to vote and finding they can’t; sowing chaos on Election Day. Russia wants to damage the idea of democracy itself, making it seem a sham, undermining public confidence in the integrity of elections. This is a huge vulnerability.

Much in the book is also documented in the Mueller report. Mueller tried to sound the alarm in his public statement, imploring us to take this seriously. We need presidential leadership to mobilize against the next Russian attack, but obviously we don’t have it. Trump takes the whole idea of Kremlin election meddling as a personal insult — while probably realizing it did help him win —leaving the door wide open for a repeat.*

Basically, the Russians got away with it, paying no real price. Obama had belatedly imposed slap-on-the-wrist sanctions but Trump sought to undo them. When Congress put them into law, Trump said he’d disregard that legislation. He’s been at war not with Russia but with America’s own FBI and intelligence services. It culminated in firing Comey as an attempt to squelch the continuing investigation (which is what led to Mueller’s appointment). Then in Helsinki he acted as Putin’s lap dog, endorsing his lies. Not only did Putin get his man in the White House, but the hoped-for benefits were amply forthcoming.

* Meantime, he recently said that if a foreign government offers dirt on a political opponent, he’d see no reason not to take it. In fact, doing so would be committing a crime.

Is China our enemy?

June 15, 2019

In 1989, China’s regime followed Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” shooting many hundreds of democracy proponents in Tiananmen Square. (Trump has called this a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot.”) Since then, even as China has modernized in many ways, its regime has become increasingly repressive, tolerating not the slightest chink in its absolute power. Its police state in Xinjiang is an Orwellian nightmare. Xi Jinping has made himself president-for-life. China bullies its neighbors, tightening its unlawful grip on a wide swath of the Pacific. It abuses world trade rules, its advance fueled by theft and dishonesty.*

So is China our enemy? Not exactly.

The Communist bloc, during the cold war, was our enemy. Its aim was world domination, ideologically, seeing the U.S. as a bete noir and wanting our failure or destruction. Putin’s Russia today, while non-ideological, has a similar outlook.

This again is not exactly true of China. While some regime elements do see us as conspiring to keep China down, that’s not exactly true of America. Wise heads in both countries understand there’s room in the world for both to prosper; indeed they’re in it together. Not a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is the other’s loss. China becoming more prosperous and powerful doesn’t necessarily require America becoming less so. To the contrary, trade with a prosperous America is good for China. Thus a win-win mentality.

It’s not Trump’s mentality. This is why he’s a bull in the China shop. A lot of voices say he’s right to confront China on trade, and I actually agree, up to a point. However, Trump sees every thing we buy from China as China raping us; he wants it to stop. That’s idiotic.

The win-win logic is a key concept of economics, called comparative advantage. We buy from China what China is better at producing; China buys from us what we make best. Both countries benefit — even if one buys more than the other.

Do we lose some jobs to China? Sure. But the money U.S. consumers save buying cheaper Chinese goods enables more spending on local products and services, creating jobs. More than are lost. By messing with that dynamic, Tariff Man loses us jobs.

Nations are enemies when their interests clash, in a zero-sum sense. That’s not our situation with China. Again, we have a mutual interest in our bilateral trade. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight China on intellectual property theft, human rights, or territorial aggression. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but you still have intercourse.

The tragic stupidity of Trump’s China stance is that it’s the opposite. He wants no fights with his “great friend” Xi over things like Xinjiang or silencing dissent. Nor is he even really confronting China over intellectual property theft, which is the trade fight we should be having. Instead, it’s the intercourse he wants to curtail.

“Intercourse” doesn’t even begin to cover it, as elucidated in a recent Thomas Friedman column (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/opinion/us-china-trade.html). Our two economies are totally intertwined. We have huge investments in each other. Both economies rely heavily on vast, interlinked supply chains, each supplying to the other things necessary for their productivity. For example, Apple has products assembled in China; Chinese technology firms need U.S.-made chips. If we rip all that apart, Friedman says, “we’ll all end up living in a less secure, less prosperous and less stable world.”

But he fears that’s happening; stumbling into a new cold-war-enemy relationship with China that’s totally unnecessary. “The erecting of an equivalent of the Berlin Wall down the middle of the global technology market,” dividing it into separate and mutually hostile spheres.

Instead we should be working to coax China into full partnership with the rules-based globalist economic order. Which is really in China’s own long-term best interests. In this, a united front with all our allies would help. But Trump has antagonized them, picking trade fights with them too. (Britain, for one, now sees its trade relationship with China as economically central.) So we’re on our own.

Bad enough that Russia is a big enemy. China would be far bigger. Its economy is already as large as America’s and will soon outstrip it. Its population is more than thrice ours. China’s increasing global importance is an inevitability we must live with; making the best of it. And we can. If instead we opt for all-out battle, we will lose.

* Counterfeiting is a big industry — a major problem in my own business field, rare coins. Maybe bigger than we even know.

Somaliland — “The country that was left for dead” — “A country doing everything right”

June 11, 2019

Those are quotes (From Edna Adan and Michael Rubin) from a June 8 conference we attended, at Marist College, on Somaliland development.

Someone might call it a “shit hole country” — seceded from Somalia, not internationally recognized, devastated by war, and beset by major problems. Yet Somaliland is pulling itself from the ashes.

Most attendees were Somali, a reunion among the many studying in the U.S., graduates of Jonathan Starr’s incredible Abaarso School which I’ve written about— a big part of the country’s rise.

Dr. Samatar

The opening speaker, Dr. Ahmed Samatar, spoke of philanthropy giving meaning to one’s life. This certainly resonated with me; our Somaliland involvement really excites me and my wife.

Samatar called the country’s development a Sisyphean battle against entropy. Citing four dimensions — the environment, economy, culture, and politics — he said all “bite quite hard” for Somalilanders. He quoted Marx that people make their own history, but do not make it as they please, constrained by the weight of the inherited past.

Harry Lee

One conference session was led by Harry Lee, heading up the expansion of the Abaarso project into an archipelago of K-12 schools, to be staffed mainly by home-grown teachers.* (This is our own focus.) The first is nearing completion. Lee said Somaliland’s literacy rate is under 30%. A majority of kids do go to school, but teachers are ill-paid and hence expend little effort if they show up at all (a common third world problem). Students basically can do sports or academics but not both. The new Kaabe schools target such problems, aiming to give kids real support and encouragement for achievement.

Anne Dix

The project is being partly funded by USAID; Anne Dix heads that program (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad). She gave a talk emphasizing the use of aid to enable local people to build institutions, with the aim of ending the need for such assistance.

Michael Rubin is a former Defense Department official currently at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that too often the U.S. focuses resources on “squeaky wheels” (like Somalia proper) while a country like Somaliland that’s “doing everything right” gets short shrift.

Michael Rubin

Rubin also feels there’s too much emphasis on governmental action, whereas real progress is bottom-up. And foreign aid often actually undermines democracy and good governance, substituting for local forces and absolving them of responsibility. But he was upbeat about Somaliland, calling its self-development efforts groundbreaking.

Jonathan Starr

Jonathan Starr led a workshop on economic investment. Opportunities seem ample because the country lacks so much; there should be many “no brainers.” One participant suggested wind turbines. But this actually proved illustrative of the problems. Starr said his own wind turbine project was a fiasco because there was no infrastructure for repairing breakdowns. Well trained, educated people are scarce on the ground. So is investment capital. There’s no good banking system. No good court system or rule of law. All things we take for granted, but these are the challenges in building a nation from the ground up.

Edna Adan

I could hardly believe I was chatting with a hero who’s done what Edna Adan has. Certainly my first encounter with a recipient of France’s Legion d’honneur! Adan built a hospital in Somaliland. Not a ramshackle affair; a big university teaching hospital that could fit in any U.S. city. On the side, she’s served in cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

Now 81, she was a dynamo at the conference. One workshop was on public health. Somaliland has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate; highest TB death rate. A big problem is people exploited because education and literacy levels are so low; thus the blight of counterfeit medicines and other fake treatments. Mental illness is commonly ascribed to demonic possession.

Edna Adan Hospital

A big factor in mental illness is qat. It’s a narcotic leaf, chewed; qat addiction is endemic in the region. Health effects are dire, and it ruins men as useful members of families and society.

Adan’s chief focus was on female genital mutilation (FGM). The idea is to keep girls virginally “pure” and marriageable, preventing promiscuity by making sex difficult and non-pleasurable. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one; most Muslim societies don’t do it. FGM is particularly rife in the Somali region.

There are three basic versions. One is a mere “nick;” another cuts off the clitoris and labia; the third (“infibulation”) seals off the whole area. Adan reported Somaliland’s FGM rate at little short of 100%, with most victims getting infibulation. It’s not generally done under sterile surgical protocols. The damage often includes lifelong problems with intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, infections, and incontinence, not to mention the mental trauma. (FGM actually also makes sex less fun for men.)

Adan said her own childhood FGM was inflicted by her mother and grandmother while her father was away — very typical. When he returned he was furious, which told her that what had happened was wrong.

Many nations have banned FGM, but it’s hard to enforce — you can’t jail every mother and granny. Adan said this battle must be fought by men and communities.

So, yes, Somaliland has deep problems. But human beings are all about surmounting challenges. It was great to see so many Somalilanders, such wonderful people. We shall overcome.

* Harry also produced a wonderful film, Somaliland, about Abaarso.

Plan-free fact-free anal sphincter foreign policy

May 16, 2019

Everyone before was stupid. He knows everything. Intelligence briefings, consulting experts, careful planning — loser stuff. The great deal-maker’s own great instincts alone would make America great again.

Are we there yet?

I’ve written about big-picture foreign policy — how since 1945 America’s painstaking construction of a cooperative global order has served our interests while also making a better world. And how Trump is nihilistically smashing it.

Bob Woodward’s book Fear explains that Trump likes to “fly by the seat of his pants . . . did not want to be derailed by forethought. As if a plan would take away his power, his sixth sense.” It portrays a man ruled by anger and ego, impervious to facts, incapable of focusing. For a time, adults around him struggled to forestall disaster. Now they’re all gone.

Let’s see how plan-free foreign policy is working out:

NORTH KOREA. The great deal-maker imagined just schmoozing his way to triumph. Returned from his first summit with Kim Jong Un declaring victory, problem solved, no more nuke threat. Nobel prize! Turns out (surprise) the “deal” was bullshit. North Korea agreed to nothing and continues testing missiles. Kim harvested valuable prestige at no cost. The great deal-maker has no plan.

IRAN. It took years for the U.S. and five other leading powers to negotiate a deal that would significantly slow Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Trump tore it up to replace it with . . . nothing. He had no plan. Now Iran will get a bomb sooner. While the regime hardliners, who hated the deal, are strengthened. Our allies are antagonized. And now too, with our modus vivendi with Iran shredded, there’s looming military conflict. Not a war we could “win;” almost certain to be a horrible mess and disastrous for American strategic interests.

VENEZUELA. Trump loves dictators. (Just hosted Viktor Orban who’s destroyed Hungary’s democracy.) So why not Maduro? Simple: his regime made the mistake of calling itself “socialist.”

Trump imagined pressure would cause Venezuela’s military to flip and oust Maduro. Didn’t understand the military is the regime, its leaders profiting, and terrorizing lower ranks against defections. And what about our threat of military intervention? Also sure to be a horrible bloody mess and disastrous for our larger interests.

So while loudly proclaiming Maduro must go, Trump has no plan.

SYRIA. What is the plan?

CHINA. Trade wars are easy to win? Tell that to the 1930s. What’s especially stupid is a democracy picking a trade war with a dictatorship that’s much more able to endure economic pain. Trump blundered into this battle with no plan for winning it.

He insists his tariffs on Chinese imports will be paid by China. Just like Mexico would pay for his wall. In fact American consumers will pay, through higher prices at the cash register. Estimates range up into the thousands per family. This will also mean U.S. job losses — estimated up to a million or more.

And this doesn’t count our economic damage from the retaliatory tariffs China is slapping on us.

True, our economy is doing great. No thanks to Trump’s trade war, but in spite of it. Without it we’d be doing even better. (And our prosperity actually owes far more to Obama than to Trump.) A 600 point fall in the Dow shows the market realizes how bad for us the trade war is.

Meantime, we might fare better against China if our allies presented a united front. The TPP deal would have been just that, but Trump ditched it, while further kicking our friends in the teeth, even picking trade fights with some of them too. So we’re now on our own battling China.

We do have real trade issues with China, but tariffs are not the remedy. Trump literally doesn’t understand global economics. He imagines if we buy more from China than we sell them, they’re ripping us off. No economist (except liar Peter Navarro) thinks that. If China can sell us widgets cheaper than we can make them ourselves, it’s to our advantage to buy theirs and make other things. What consumers save on widgets enables them to spend more elsewhere — creating jobs.*

ISRAEL & PALESTINIANS.  For half a century, very smart knowledgeable people couldn’t solve this. So Trump tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, with zero relevant knowledge and experience, to create a plan. Soon to be unveiled as the greatest thing ever. Apparently it will avoid the issue of a Palestinian state. Why did no one think of that before? But meantime Trump’s pro-Israel actions have already scotched America being seen as an honest broker, so there’s no way Palestinians will buy into whatever fabulous plan Kushner concocts.

I didn’t vote for Obama and heavily criticized his foreign policy. But Obama was a foreign policy genius compared to this anal sphincter.

* Woodward’s book details how economic advisor Gary Cohn failed to make Trump see he’s screwing the 84% of our economy that’s services to benefit (a little of) the 16% that’s manufacturing. Cohn finally resigned. The book shows Trump believes trade is bad, full stop. So willfully stupid it’s insane.

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)

Abdi Nor Iftin: American

May 11, 2019

I was only half listening when the story began on NPR. But soon it was riveting. Abdi, a Somali refugee barely surviving in Kenya, struggling to reach America. Didn’t sound like he’d make it. Incredibly, he did.

I was moved to write a poem. And to find Abdi to send him a gift. Then he authored a book and I was able to connect personally with him at a book fair. It was like meeting an alien from another planet.

The book is Call me American. It begins on what does seem another planet, another epoch, with Abdi’s 1985 birth into a Somali nomad herder tribe. Drought forces the family into the city, Mogadishu. Abdi is six when it becomes Hell. The word seems inadequate. Thomas Hobbes wrote of the social compact forestalling the “war of all against all.” In Somalia in 1991 that social compact broke down, and that war exploded.

The family tries to escape Mogadishu, but ultimately winds up back there. Along the way Abdi’s father is taken by gunmen. They eventually meet up again; he’s a shell of his former self. His mother is pregnant. No way that baby will survive.

Abdi’s sole education is Koran memorization, in a Madrassa run by a sadistic fanatic. But meantime he learns English by careful watching of American films; starts teaching English; becomes known as “Abdi American.”

Then the actual Americans arrive. “Ugly Americans?” Not to Abdi. But soon they’re gone, and Somalia goes from horrible to worse. The murderous warlord militias are supplanted by murderous hardline Islamists; and being “Abdi American” is no longer a good thing. Caught swimming with a girl at a beach, he’s sentenced to twenty lashes. Eventually he escapes to Kenya, where Somalis are hated and persecuted; it was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Thomas Friedman writes of the “world of order” versus the “world of disorder.” And how the latter’s inhabitants are desperate to reach the former. Pessimists view civilization as a thin veneer upon underlying human beastliness, but it does enable “the better angels of our nature” to flourish. We take this too much for granted, and Abdi searingly depicts for us the other side of the coin.

He’s an excellent writer, his seemingly matter-of-fact tone effectively conveying the horror. Death is so constant and routinized, you have to remind yourself it’s actual people dying. Reading the account, in my comfortable chair in my comfortable American home, brought to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Its point was that we can’t really know. What was it like to be Abdi?

English was his salvation. Brazenly accosting a western journalist leads to his supplying stories to BBC radio, and then “Team Abdi,” a network of Brits and Americans helping him. That, plus extreme effort, and huge luck, does finally get him to America. Most in his situation would have failed.

Abdi writes that exiting the plane in Boston felt like an historic moment. “Like when the first man walked on the moon.” Airport TV screens were showing news of the Ferguson protests. To Americans this signaled something bad. To Abdi it showed a freedom to challenge police unimaginable where he’d come from. Then, in a car, instructed to buckle his seatbelt: “I couldn’t believe I was in a place where people actually obey laws.” From the world of disorder to the world of order.

Most Americans today have no notion of this. For all their flag-waving, no grasp, indeed, of what this country is really all about. People like Abdi keep that idea alive. They make America great.

It’s fortunate he got here before Trump’s Muslim ban.

Venezuela’s tragedy: lessons for America

April 18, 2019

Javier Corrales is the Dwight Morrow professor of political science at Amherst. I recently heard him give a talk about the situation in Venezuela, divided into three parts: what he called “democratic backsliding;” economic collapse; and lessons for America.

Corrales explained that the democratic decline preceded and led to Venezuela’s economic disaster. And he saw reasons for concern that the story could repeat even in well-established democracies like ours.

Corrales started with “Democracy 101.” America, in the 1700s, basically invented the modern concept of liberal democracy. (Not to be confused with the “liberalism” that’s a political orientation of some Americans.) It’s rooted in the Enlightenment, with government accountable to people, and limited, to prevent tyranny by either a minority or a majority. A key means is to divide power among different government branches to check each other, with constraints upon government as a whole to leash its authority.

For a time, after WWII, and especially after the Cold War, liberal democracy was spreading. But then came a “democratic recession” beginning around 2006. Notable cases are Turkey and Hungary, and of course Venezuela. What we see is not the “old fashioned” putsch, but something that more insidiously starts in ambiguity — what Corrales called “executive aggrandizement,” with other centers of power being neutered or co-opted. The picture may ostensibly seem at first more democratic, with a majority thinking they’re getting what they voted for.

Then the regime uses and abuses laws, and creates new ones, to make an uneven political playing field. Elections are still held, but they’re manipulated by a host of measures to produce the desired results. The ruling party becomes a rubber stamp cheering section. The opposition is demonized and delegitimized. Press freedom and public debate are suppressed.

Political scientists use a host of criteria to measure a nation’s degree of democracy. Corrales presented a graphic timeline of Venezuela’s scores. They started low, with a dictatorship until the 1950s, when they jumped to a sustained democratic plateau. Then in 1999 Hugo Chavez (a former would-be putschist) got elected president, and Venezuela’s democratic score fell off a cliff. (Corrales also displayed Cuba’s graph — basically flatlined since the 1959 Castro takeover — and America’s, starting high and rising higher through the period, but with a noticeable drop in the last few years.)

Another set of criteria encompasses all the specific ways in which undemocratic regimes subvert fair elections, and here again a detailed chart was presented for Venezuela. At the start of the Chavez era, voting was still pretty much fair. But then the regime utilized ever more of the measures on the chart, to the point where today, Venezuela’s voting is a cynical charade.

The manipulation became necessary because whereas Chavez was actually popular for a while, the regime’s popularity faded, and nosedived under his successor Maduro. This leads us to the matter of the economic disaster. Venezuela is an oil state; that is, almost all its national earnings are from oil. Chavez was the beneficiary of a big spike in the global oil price, and he used the windfall to buy off political support from the poorer classes. Then the oil price collapsed with the 2008 global financial crisis. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.

In Venezuela’s case, the regime’s economic mismanagement became tragically evident, plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, with an inflation rate measured in millions of percent, and a tenth of the 30 million population escaping to other countries. Corrales explained that Chavez not only imprudently spent all the oil windfall (saving nothing), but went deep into debt besides. While some of this profligacy did trickle down to the poor, most was frittered away through corruption and incompetence. None was allocated to investment to build the economy.

So Venezuela suffered from an unrestrained state — and that was combined with a restrained private sector. The regime’s “socialism” led it to regulate private business so as to destroy it. Thus food, medicine, and all sorts of other goods (which Venezuela, so oil-concentrated, used to import) have disappeared from the shelves. While the regime’s fiscal indiscipline brought forth hyper-inflation. It made things worse by responding with price controls and even more punitive anti-business measures.

Corrales rejected any idea that America somehow bears responsibility for Venezuela’s travail. To the contrary, he said, the U.S. actually helped finance the regime by buying its oil (now stopped). Meantime its oil income has plunged due to its mismanagement, stuffing the state oil company with political hacks.

We keep hoping Venezuela’s military will oust Maduro. After his talk, I suggested to Corrales it won’t happen because the generals too are profiting from the corrupt system. He agreed. So, I said, the only path is the opposition taking up arms and starting a war. He smiled and nodded (somewhat to my surprise). Then I added, “Some things are worth fighting for.” He smiled and nodded again (ditto).

The lessons here for America should be obvious by now. I have written about the burgeoning phenomenon of political populism (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/what-is-populism/.) Corrales said the world’s democratic backsliding is driven by populism, defined by its perceived political betes-noires. On the left (epitomized by Venezuela) it’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism. Bernie-style populism inveighs against “neoliberalism,” corporations, and the rich. Right-wing populism typically demonizes the intelligentsia, elites, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and crime. For both right and left, the stomping on hated enemies can excuse the stomping on democratic norms. (Many Western lefties still defend Maduro.)

Also obvious is Trump’s following the playbook Corrales outlined: executive aggrandizement, undermining governmental checks and balances, demonizing and delegitimizing opponents and the free press. We even see election manipulation, with voter suppression. All this is how it starts. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“Occupied” — Norway, by Russia

April 12, 2019

Occupied is a Netflix series, a geopolitical thriller, produced in Norway. It’s terrific.

Norway is an oil-rich country. In Occupied, Jesper Berg has become prime minister, heading an environmentalist party, pledging to supplant oil with clean thorium-based nuclear power. However, Europe fears an energy crisis during the transition. Russia takes advantage of this, with a softish quasi-invasion of Norway, to force it to keep supplying oil. Berg accedes in order to avoid bloody military confrontation. But the situation becomes increasingly difficult and oppressive as it develops.

Indeed, this series’ producers succeed in sustaining remarkable dramatic tension throughout. I watch every episode with stomach clenched.

House of Cards was certainly fun to watch; but I kept turning to my wife with snide remarks about implausibility. (Like when the VP shows the President he’s still got the dead body she’d asked him to dispose of. “What does he imagine doing with it,” I said, “without implicating himself in murder?”)

Occupied is never like that. As a close observer of world politics, I find it totally realistic, with not a moment requiring suspension of disbelief.

Real life is full of ambiguity, and that’s certainly true in Occupied. Early, we’re introduced to “Free Norway,” seemingly a dark fringe terrorist group, committing atrocities. But as the picture grows more complex, one’s feelings about “Free Norway” evolve with it. Jesper Berg often seems to have a “deer-in-the-headlights” quality. In Episode 9 my wife remarked he’s acting like a fool. I didn’t agree. From the start, Berg finds himself in an impossible situation, and it progressively worsens. He struggles to deal rationally with a world where everything seems to militate against that.

One thing I did find myself questioning: where, in this story, is NATO, and America? Russia could not have screwed with Ukraine had Ukraine been in NATO — as Norway is. But it turns out Occupied is set in a near future where NATO is no more, and America has no interest in opposing Russia. The series was made in 2015!

I’m reminded of the story about Putin traveling to Finland and going through border control.

“Name?” the officer asks him.

“Vladimir Putin.”

“Nationality?”

“Russian.”

“Destination?”

“Helsinki.”

“Occupation?”

“No, just visiting.”

The tragic Trump foreign policy

April 8, 2019

Foreign policy rarely figures much in U.S. elections. China, Mexico, and Russia were actually prominent in 2016 — though not in a good way. A recent Thomas Friedman column points out that Democratic presidential hopefuls, so far, are focused on domestic issues. As if the rest of the world doesn’t matter.

Many Americans do think that way — “we should worry about problems here at home.” Trouble is, no country is an island. What happens elsewhere can hugely impact us here. Remember WWII?

World history is largely a history of such violent conflicts. Until lately. Steven Pinker has written compellingly about warfare’s decline. A key factor has been American leadership, after 1945, in building a rules-based world order, knitted together through global institutions and organizations, with a broad web of alliances, and by an international trading system, that makes more nations more prosperous. When they get richer, they have more of a stake in the system, and can buy more from us. Spreading democracy too is key, also promoting prosperity and reducing costly violence. Dictatorships feature in virtually all the world’s wars. More democracy, more stability, and more prosperity in other countries, all make America better off.

But this propitious world order is unravelling. And Trump, far from defending it, is actually helping to blow it up. Ripping up its institutional underpinnings. Like the World Trade Organization, promoting commerce through rules-based norms. Trump refuses to fill the American slots among WTO judges, paralyzing it. And he’s egged on Britain’s Brexit crazies, pulling apart the European Union. As if this reckless nihilism somehow helps America.

Friedman explains that the American-built world order is also under assault from not one but three regimes who see their interests as opposed to ours. Notice I said “regimes,” not “countries.” Those regimes aren’t really serving their people’s national interests but their own power (that’s the problem with undemocratic regimes).

The three are Russia, China, and Iran, all trying to bully their way to regional dominance, in order to whip up nationalistic fervor at home. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and forcibly seized Crimea, the most brazen of attacks on post-WWII global norms. Russia also works to wreck democracies by subverting elections. China violates international law by grabbing and militarizing a huge expanse of the Pacific, and aims to ensnare many other countries in debt traps.* Iran spreads its influence through destabilizing proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria (where Russia also makes murderous mischief).

Friedman further explains that while these bad actors all grow stronger, some other countries grow weaker — the “failed state” syndrome that creates more big headaches. Including fleeing populations that are politically destabilizing in the better-off nations they try to reach.

Climate change exacerbates all this, further disrupting the world. And while in the past our biggest fear was nuclear war, today a host of miscreants have a panoply of potent tools for causing havoc. A cyber-attack, for example, targeting vital infrastructure (like the power grid) is practically just waiting to happen. And even if we dodge that bullet, the gathering tsunami of technological change is up-ending the world’s economic game board. These are all global problems that require global thinking.

Yet Trump’s America is retreating, abandoning leadership, pulling up the drawbridge. Venezuela is the exception proving the rule (its mistake is using the hated word, “socialist”). But mainly it’s disengagement; a glaring example being the recent escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed. Time was, America would actively work to defuse such crises. The Trump administration’s response was instead, “Go at it.” In fact, he hasn’t even bothered to name an ambassador to Pakistan! Nor to Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.

And where America disengages, bad guys are all too eager to exploit the vacuum. Thus Russia’s messing with Syria, in response to America’s passivity (which began under Obama).

Some see a tension between a moralistic foreign policy and pursuing national interest. But happily, doing what is right most often actually serves our national interest, if viewed in proper perspective. It is good for America to have a world where morality and democracy thrive; and good for America when others throughout the world see us as standing for morality and democracy. That’s America’s tremendously potent “soft power.”

Trump doesn’t grasp this most basic of concepts; indeed, he’s actually in opposition to it. His foreign policy is assertively amoral. Aligning America not with the angels but with the bad guys. Like when Kashoggi’s murder implicated the Saudi ruler, Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. And professed being “in love” with Kim Jong Un, a truly vicious dictator. These things speak volumes to people throughout the world, who used to look up to America.

But it’s too charitable to see any theme at all in Trump’s foreign policy. It is really just incoherent and brainless. We have a president astonishingly ignorant about global realities; thinking he knows everything, and most of it is wrong.** In fact Trump’s erratic behavior shows he has no idea what he’s doing and is too arrogant to take sensible advice. This makes all the “America First” chest-thumping a tragic joke. (It’s also terrible for the future of the world’s other seven billion people.)

Trump recently announced U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, bragging that no previous president had acted so boldly. Well, there were very good reasons why none did! (And the great deal-maker gave Israel’s prime minister this gift for nothing in return.)

We desperately need to push the foreign policy re-set button with a new president who is on his or her game — bigly. One with the experience, understanding, seriousness, competence, sanity, and moral center to engage intelligently with world problems. To restore our precious web of invaluable global partnerships — with countries that share our democratic values — partnerships that Trump has been shredding. Some of the damage will be very hard to undo after four years (God forbid eight), but we must try.

Otherwise you can take your “Make America Great Again” hat and eat it.***

* Don’t know what I’m talking about? Do some reading.

** Am I presumptuous (or worse) for daring to think I know more than the president? Fact: I have forgotten more about world affairs than Trump ever knew. (Reading helps.)

*** My original draft had a cruder suggestion. But I exercise restraint.