Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Our Gal in Iraq

October 17, 2016

elizabIn the last episode (“Our Gal in Kabul”), daughter Elizabeth (now 23) was headed to a job with a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan, to sort out the country’s problems. Having put Afghanistan to rights, next she’s off to Iraq.

This time she’ll be working for the Danish Refugee Council (her third NGO), a topnotch outfit which she rates very highly, an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.

She’ll be stationed in Erbil, in the good part of Iraq. The one with sun-drenched beaches, four-star hotels and restaurants, spas, designer stores, opera. Well, okay – just sun-drenched. unknownActually, this is Iraqi Kurdistan which, though not without its problems, has put distance between itself and the mess that is the rest of Iraq. The Kurds have a long history of being America’s friends; we haven’t always done enough right by them; I’m gratified Elizabeth will be making a contribution there.

If it sounds like I’m living vicariously through my daughter – a common enough parental syndrome – well, perhaps a tiny bit. A part of me does have the feeling she’s doing the kinds of things maybe I should have. Oh, I have no regrets, I did have a great career, doing some important and worthy work. Yet in truth that was only sheer luck, since I was so clueless starting out, lacking the wit or imagination even to consider the full range of possibilities that might have been open to me. Can’t say that of Elizabeth. She is seizing the world by the horns, to live a meaningful life.

Her chosen path is not one followed by your typical American millennial. And it does please me to think that’s at least partly down to having had parents who were not typical either.

Pakistan: shooting polio doctors

October 2, 2016

images-1Dr. Zakaullah Khan was shot dead on September 11 in Pakistan. He was a leading figure in the push for polio vaccination. A huge global effort has nearly eradicated polio. Pakistan is one of only three countries where the disease still ravages children. In all three, this is thanks to the efforts of Islamist militants who deem vaccination a Western plot. They’ve killed about 80 Pakistani polio workers.

I’ve written of Pakistan as “the f**ked-up country.” Many nations (even America) do some things wrong. But if we’re giving awards for that, you could hardly beat a country that tries to exterminate not disease but disease fighters.

Some fatalists see such human follies as inescapable facts of life. But I’m a believer in free will, not fate, I see humanity as having choices, and responsibility for the choices made. America is a product of choices, and so is Pakistan. In fact, its very existence resulted from a choice.



Until 1947, Pakistan (and Bangladesh) were simply part of India. Nobody thought of them as separate. But as India’s independence was being negotiated, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of its Muslims, insisted on a separate Muslim state. There was no mass Muslim groundswell for this; maybe it was just that Jinnah fancied himself president of a country. The Brits didn’t much care; and Jinnah made himself such a pain-in-the-rear that India’s Hindu leaders gave in rather than have his stroppiness derail independence.

Fatalists also invest big historical events with inevitability. I again lean more to the view that individuals, and their actions, matter. Pakistan’s creation was a perfect example; there was nothing inevitable about it.

It was catastrophic from the start. Violence erupted among Muslims and Hindus sorting themselves between the two new countries. Estimates range up to two million killed. Another three million died in the ghastly 1971 war when Bangladesh broke free from the disaster that was Pakistan. Not that Bangladesh has done much better.

Meantime, a couple hundred million Muslims chose to remain in India. A smart choice because, for all its poverty and other troubles, India is a far more decent country than Pakistan. Far more democratic and peaceable, making progress. There have been some conflicts, even violence, between Indian Muslims and the Hindu majority – but nothing like the vicious animosity (several wars fought) between India and Pakistan.

Imagine . . .

Imagine . . .

But imagine a world in which Jinnah – and hence Pakistan – never existed. All those millions would not have been killed, none of those wars fought. India would long have been the world’s most populous country. There’s no reason to think it would be any less democratic – indeed, absent the conflict with Pakistan, Indians would have felt far more secure and confident. Without refuge in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban would have been beaten long ago. There might not even have been an Afghan Taliban – and hence no 9/11. A very different and probably better world.

We also hear much babble about arbitrary international borders, implying ethnically homogeneous nations are best, to avoid internal conflict. What rubbish. America is the most ethnically mixed country ever, and works pretty well – its polyglot diversity a strength, not a weakness. India likewise exemplifies this, with its large Muslim minority. That minority would have been much larger had Pakistan not been hived off – probably a good thing. I’d bet India’s Hindus and Muslims, more numerically equal, with the necessity of sharing a nation being even more acute, would have done even better at learning to live together.

images-2And I’m pretty sure no polio doctors would be getting shot.

World leaders admirable and loathesome

September 30, 2016

unknownLibertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was embarrassed the other day being unable to name a foreign leader he admired. At first I winced – it seemed ignorant. But then I pondered how I’d answer the question myself. It’s actually quite hard!

images-1Unfortunately, it’s far easier to name foreign leaders I revile: Putin, Mugabe, Maduro, Zuma, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-il, Castro, Al-Sisi, Al-Khalifa, Al-Bashir, Al-Assad (pretty much all the Als), Ortega, Lukashenko, Kaczynski, Orban, Erdogan, Obiang, Bongo, Prayuth, Nkurunziza, Tsipras, Museveni, Afwerki, Kiir, Salman, dos Santos, Kabila, Hun Sen, Mswati, Razak, Khamenei, Aliyev, Hasina (my wife would scold me if I failed to include a woman). That’s just a quick list off the top of my head.

Naming ones I admire is much tougher. Political life being what it is, even the better ones tend to be compromised in one way or another. Take India’s Modi. I had high hopes. And he has done much right. But not nearly enough. And he has blood on his hands. Our own President Obama has some admirable personal qualities, but I don’t admire his record in office.

images3But okay, after much thought, here’s my answer. I most admire the Dalai Lama. Maybe that’s cheating because he isn’t actually a head of state.*

unknown-1I also admire Aung San Suu Kyi – who hasn’t had time enough yet to disappoint. The same is true of Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. Possible candidates are Italy’s Renzi and Colombia’s Santos. And Canada’s Trudeau seems surprisingly admirable for a man from the left side of the political spectrum.

Not much of a list, for such a big world. And it’s sad that no American makes the cut – nobody on today’s political stage do I really admire.** Certainly not the two main presidential candidates. I’ll vote for Johnson, despite his Aleppo moments, for reasons of principle (the only candidate making economic sense), without admiration.

* And a strange choice for an atheist like me? No, he doesn’t believe in any gods either!

** Chris Gibson alas is leaving that stage. John McCain is disqualified for endorsing Trump. Charlie Baker did not, and seems an excellent man, but I don’t know enough about him.


September 22, 2016

So by mistake a U.S. airstrike killed sixty-odd soldiers of Bashar Assad’s Syrian army.

images-1Boo hoo.

We abase ourselves with apologies, while the Russians (who bomb hospitals and UN aid convoys) gleefully stick it to us with breathtaking hypocrisy. Well, those soldiers were human beings after all. Or had once been. More victims, really, of this horror.

At one point documentation emerged about eleven thousand tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. That was years ago already; I wonder what the count is now. Does anyone care? Nobody has been called to justice by any international tribunal.

I have no answers. Any good options on Syria were squandered long ago. We did go through the motions of training and deploying some indigenous good guys. They were wiped out. Last I heard, the force numbered four or five. Not four or five units. Four or five guys.

images-2And remember how President Obama made a fool of himself by failing to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use? And how Putin cynically “rescued” Obama with a face-saving deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons? Well, guess what? Of course it was just a charade. Assad has flagrantly violated the deal, continuing to freely use chemical weapons. With not a peep from Obama about it.

The Russians are not our friends. Any cooperation or coordination with them, in their Syrian military operations, is a trap. So is any negotiation with them because any deals they make are only self-serving and never honored. They just pocket the concessions and then make a mockery of their obligations.

As in Ukraine. Russia actually had signed a treaty with Ukraine, pledging (in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons) to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I guess that didn’t apply to Crimea, ha ha.

images-3So regarding Syria, nothing negotiated with Russia could be beneficial. We’re just played for patsies. The repeated “cease-fires” are a cruel joke. And what is our Syria policy objective anyway? Just to destroy ISIS? But doing that would help not just the blood-soaked Assad regime and its Russian patrons – and our great pals the Iranians – but also Al Qaeda. Because, although this is murky, the other main anti-Assad force, rival to ISIS, is the Nusra Front, now renamed JFS, which originated with Al Qaeda. Though objectively, among all Syria’s contending forces, JFS may actually be the least bad.

images-5And anyway, destroying ISIS is not a Syria policy because it would not resolve the basic conflict. Bashar Assad may “win” in the end by thoroughly destroying his country.

Then he can stand upon the seared devastation and declare,

images-4“Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”

Colombia’s peace deal: how to end wars

September 10, 2016

There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.



The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.



His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.

The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.

Unknown-1But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.

images-3In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.

All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.

Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)

imagesColombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.

Hillary’s convention speech II; and more Trumpery

July 30, 2016

imagesWell, Hillary did use some of the draft I wrote for her (see previous post). But mainly she insisted on giving the Standard Model Democratic Speech – covering every policy, every voter niche, stroking every interest group.

It was a speech for the ‘90s.

images-1Not only is Hillary running as a Democrat, she’s running as a Bernie Sanders Democrat (though Bernie always called himself not a Democrat but a socialist). Yet if Clinton is running as a Sanders Democrat, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the Bernie-or-busters. While her stances are practically a carbon copy of his, they still talk as though it’s a saint versus a Satan. As Sarah Silverman told them, they’re being ridiculous. Of course, their candidate always was.

UnknownHillary (like Andrew Cuomo) seems to think orating means talking loud. As though that shows your speech is really important and you really really mean it. Hillary often sounds as shrill as a harpy. And often looks like smiling is painful for her. Trump spent his entire speech scowling darkly, as though he could spit bullets. Why did Hillary try to imitate that?

Meantime, Trump has endorsed – encouraged – the idea of an enemy nation engaging in espionage against us and interfering in U.S. politics. This is the man who says only he can protect us.

But he also says he won’t necessarily protect other nations against an attack by that enemy, notwithstanding our treaty obligations to do so.

images-2And when asked about America’s opposition to Russia’s grab of Crimea, Trump said, “We’ll be looking at that.” Which is Trump-speak for “I don’t know what the frick to say, but that doesn’t stop me from saying something stupid.” His answer has been interpreted as bowing to the Crimea crime. But I doubt he meant that – rather, his answer revealed he knows nothing about Crimea, doesn’t know where it is, or why it’s an issue.

When a man thinks he knows everything, he thinks he needn’t bother himself actually knowing anything.

(I’m voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.)

Turkey’s phony “coup” plot

July 17, 2016

Turks are out in the streets, celebrating the supposed triumph of democracy over a supposed military coup attempt. President Obama has naively congratulated them.

UnknownTheir President Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a train. When you reach your destination, you get off.” For him, it’s been apparent that the destination is personal dictatorship. Can’t those Turks cheering in the streets see that’s where the train’s going?

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. But when I first heard the news, the idea of a military coup in today’s Turkey seemed rather implausible. Far more plausible that the whole thing was orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a pretext for grabbing more power and ramping up repression of political foes. He’d already gone far toward crushing them, silencing dissent and press freedom. Now this “coup attempt” has prompted a ferocious response, with the immediate arrest of thousands. Could so many have really been so transparently implicated in a huge coup plot?

Hundreds have been killed too. And, reportedly, 2,745 judges unseated, some arrested. Pretty fast work. Tell me the hit list wasn’t prepared beforehand. I’d call this a coup by Erdogan.



All the alleged “coup plotters” are being linked to the Gulenist movement, headed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate cleric, democracy advocate, and one-time Erdogan supporter, now in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has sought his extradition. God forbid.

I’m reminded of Turkey’s “Ergenekon” affair, a few years back, in which again large numbers of soldiers and others were prosecuted for alleged involvement in a vast underground anti-government conspiracy. The details were murky; and a lot of those charges eventually proved bogus.



In more halcyon times, Erdogan seemed to be doing the right thing, in moving toward a peaceful settlement regarding Turkey’s restive Kurdish regions. But then he threw all that progress away and turned back to violence, exacerbating the conflict as a way to get the country to rally behind him. Faking a coup plot would be another move in this cynical, criminal game.

Democracy is not a train, and not merely a political system either, but a culture; as John Dewey said, a way of life. At its heart is acceptance that other people are equally entitled to a role in society. Given our evolutionary tribalism, that concept is difficult for many folks, and hence it’s constantly under assault. For a long time, it seemed to be nevertheless winning, but lately the war against it has intensified, and too few people grasp what’s at stake.

images-1Democracy can be one bad man from the abyss. We’ve seen this too many times. Putin in Russia. Chavez in Venezuela. Erdogan in Turkey.

Let’s not add “Trump in America.”

Evaluating Obama’s presidency

July 13, 2016

UnknownPresident Obama’s approval ratings have risen as his tenure nears an end. That’s a typical pattern. And there may be anticipatory Obama-nostalgia, given his potential successors. And some always considered him the most wonderful president since FDR, or Lincoln, or Jesus.

I give him points for intellect, integrity, eloquence, and demeanor. In such respects he’s actually a model president, so the admiration is understandable. Alas however, he’s failed in three crucial respects.

images-1First, he promised a new post-partisan politics. But it was all talk and no walk. Obama’s intellect here disserved him, by making him arrogantly contemptuous toward lesser mortals with different views. It started even before he took office. There was never an effort to meet the other side half way, or even a tenth. Instead he was all about demonizing them, imagining he need only point out their errors, and they would just capitulate, or be punished by an enlightened electorate.

It doesn’t work like that. Opponents usually have reasons for their stances. And please don’t quote Mitch McConnell about making Obama a one-term president. For a political party, winning the next election is its raison d’etre, entirely legitimate. And while Republicans did refuse cooperation with Obama, that was only after he’d established a modus operandi of disregarding them.

Obama felt he could, having congressional majorities at first. He didn’t change that when the landscape changed. The result was a political climate so poisonous that Trumpery is a natural upshot. There’s blame all around. But it rings hollow for Obama to complain of partisan enmity by people he’s relentlessly sneered at.

Unknown-1Secondly: Obama fans point to the economic crisis he inherited, and how well we’ve done since. Fair enough. Though really the credit belongs far more to the Fed than the White House. But meantime, Obama’s biggest economic legacy lies in the future, and it’s not good. As ever more people are not working but collecting benefits, deficits and debt will explode. We’re skating along for now only because interest on our borrowings is so low. But at some point unsustainable debt levels will spook the markets, interest costs will balloon, and we’ll be busted.

To head this off, Obama appointed the Simpson-Bowles commission, which came up with a balanced deficit reduction plan. So far so good. But then Obama just ignored the whole thing. Now, his wasted eight years make the problem far tougher. That’s his chief economic legacy.

Third: the world situation has undeniably deteriorated on Obama’s watch. Queered by Bush’s bungled Mid-East intervention, Obama fell into the opposite mistake of hands-off. Iraq was making progress when he took office, but then he disengaged, and all hell broke loose. It also did in Syria where again his phobia of involvement made things much worse. How many times have we seen this movie? – where a little action at a critical juncture could head off so much agony later.

imagesHis signature moment was drawing a red line on chemical weapons in Syria, then funking it when the line was crossed. Shredding America’s international credibility, making Uncle Sam a monkey’s uncle.

More generally, the Arab Spring was an epochal moment of opportunity, where U.S. engagement might have helped midwife positive outcomes. We’ve done this before, like in post-WWII Europe, where deep and steadfast American involvement helped hugely – to our benefit. The Middle East cried out for this. Obama feared the consequences of acting; but inaction has consequences too.

imagesIt’s no surprise that a villain like Putin, taking Obama’s measure, would push the envelope. Russia’s Ukraine aggression up-ended a crucial norm of international conduct that had prevailed, pretty much, since WWII. Putin basically got away with it, and won. This is terrible for the global future.

All considered, President Obama has been great on style. Pity about the substance.

Brits: Don’t Brexit!

June 18, 2016

Britain votes June 23 on leaving the European Union (“Brexit”). Don’t do it!

UnknownThis is a big deal. Prime Minister David Cameron called the vote to placate eurosceptic members of his Conservative party, and lance the boil. But more top Tories than expected have plumped for leaving, including London’s clownish ex-Mayor Boris Johnson, angling for Cameron’s job.

The opposition Labour party notionally supports staying. Unknown-1But after decisively losing the last election with a left-wing platform, Labour picked a new leader, the ridiculous Jeremy Corbyn – a veritable caricature of a loony lefty – whose pro-EU stance is lukewarm at best.

So the “remain” campaign is anemic while Brexiteers are energized. It’s easier to enthuse people for change than for the boring status quo. And while older voters back Brexit, younger ones don’t, but they’re less likely to vote. So Brexit could win.

This would be disastrous. Eurosceptics actually have some fair points; the EU has a big democratic deficit, with a penchant for intrusive, nitpicking regulations decreed by Brussels bureaucrats. Nevertheless, Brexit would be economically suicidal. And coming on top of the still simmering Euro crisis, it could contribute to the whole European integration project unraveling. For all its flaws, that integration has been a good thing, making Europe more prosperous and peaceful, with freer trade and freer movement of people. Its failure would be a sad reversion to dismal older paradigms. It would weaken Europe as a U.S. ally and counterweight to a bullying Russia. And even if the EU survives, it would be a worse EU without Britain’s good influence.

Unknown-2Further, Brits would in effect be voting to break up their own country. Only recently Scotland rejected an independence referendum; but the Scottish National Party has since strengthened, and Scotland being very pro-EU, Brexit would prompt calls for a fresh independence vote, which they’d likely win.

Brexitism reflects a baleful phenomenon afflicting much of the West nowadays: bloody-minded voters lashing out against what they see as a rotten status quo. There is indeed much to reform in the status quo, but unfortunately these kinds of populist responses tend to be exactly the wrong medicine, bound to make things worse. Such politics exploit voters’ unsophisticated knee-jerk emotions. We see it with the rise of misguided movements throughout Europe, like Spain’s “Podemos,” the “Alternative for Germany,” France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party; Poland recently elected a really nasty populist government, which many Poles are already rueing.

images-1Of course the biggest manifestation is Donald Trump, exactly that sort of candidate, attracting voters who simply don’t know any better.

Conventional pols do a poor job combating the nonsense. It’s easier to coddle it than to cogently explain why it’s wrong. Like Hillary, who does know better, going populist on trade. It’s Yeats’s old story: the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Yet it’s hard to see quite where all this voter stroppiness is coming from. For all the hand-wringing about middle class angst, Western societies are not actually in bad shape. Most of those voting trumpily live very comfortable lives compared to the not-so-distant past. How easily we forget what “the good old days” were really like.

A big part of happiness is a sense of gratitude for one’s blessings. Too many spoiled people have lost this.

Renaming America

June 8, 2016

“America” is the most important name on Earth. It belongs to not just one continent but two, as well as the nation that is the world’s most important geopolitically, economically, and culturally.

And where did this name come from? We all remember learning in grade school that it’s from Amerigo Vespucci – but has it ever struck you how utterly bizarre and ludicrous that is?

imagesVespucci (1454-1512) was an insignificant personage. He made some early trips to the “New World” and published an account of them. Though there’s a question whether he actually wrote it. Anyhow, it misled mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller into thinking Amerigo Vespucci was the discoverer. So in 1507, on the first map showing those realms as actual continents, Waldseemuller used  a version of Amerigo’s name as a label. That map gained wide circulation and the name stuck. Thus did America get its monicker through a blunder.

Not a U.S. coin

Not a U.S. coin

The absurdity is highlighted by the fact that Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake, has never even been honored on one of its coins or stamps. There is no statue of him anywhere in the land bearing his name.

But must we be stuck with this dumb name for all time? We can change it. After all, America is quintessentially the land of reinvention. And countries do change their names. Dahomey became Benin; Upper Volta changed to Burkina Faso; Congo was called Zaire for a while; and now the Czech Republic is turning into Czechia.

Unknown-3Maybe we could do it democratically – with a public naming contest, like the British recently did to christen an important new naval vessel. Though apparently the Brits didn’t approach this with due seriousness – by popular acclaim, the winning name was Boaty McBoatface.

wuxOr perhaps we could hire one of those corporate management consulting outfits to do market research, with focus groups, etc., to devise a really trendy rebranding. These seem to favor meaningless letter sequences – like Philip Morris becoming Altria. America could wind up named something like Wuxibaf.

Speaking of corporate rebranding, our local supermarket chain, after decades promoting the name Price Chopper (carrying an obvious message) is switching to “Market 32.” Because it was founded in 1932. A brilliant move. Maybe America should change to Country 76. Or how about something with a little more attitude: Country #1. Instead of “Americans,” we’d be known as “Onesies.”

Unknown-4Or meantime, a certain presidential candidate has a penchant for putting his own name on everything. We could become the United States of Trump.

Well, maybe the name “America” isn’t so bad after all.