The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Krauthammering Away At Russia, Missile Shield

Charles Krauthammer is clearly a smart guy, which makes the Parallax Brief wonder seriously why he penned last week a combination of flab and fallacy on US-Russia relations, titled Obama’s Supine Diplomacy, for the Washington Post.

Krauthammer justifies the titular accusation thus: that Russia has already provoked the US on several fronts:

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Balanced Analysis on Russia

Russia lost its empire and superpower status less than 20 years ago, and is still groping to find its new role on the world stage and in its former territories. Recently, that effort appears to have become more assertive and detached from western liberal ideals. But how can the West go about building a benign, mutually beneficial relationship with a resurgent and recalcitrant Russia? And how should Russia’s new role within its old sphere of influence develop?

These questions and more are explored by Timothy Garton Ash in a erudite and balanced article for the LA Times.

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Iran Satellite Launch no Barrier to Soft Power

Dealing with the Middle East is clearly President Obama’s most pressing foreign policy task, and the politics and complexities of the region also make it by far his most exacting. Obama must deal with the region as a whole, yet within the Middle East pot, he is faced with a broth of caustic, distinct, and often mutually repulsive ingredients seemingly always at boiling point.

It is the process of dealing with these ingredients individually while simultaneously managing the effects of doing so on the others that has made the Middle Eastern foreign policy soup hitherto indigestible for US presidents.

And Iran just made Obama’s task more difficult by launching its first homemade satellite into space.

If true, this is an extremely alarming development, as the technology for putting a satellite into orbit is directly adaptable the process of putting a warhead into orbit as part of an ICBM’s flight path. Developing ‘staged’ rockets is vital if Iran’s military is to extend the range of Iran’s Shahab missiles, which are currently limited to 1200 miles (2000km).

The news does nothing to aid Obama’s quest to strike a more conciliatory tone with the Muslim state. Demonstrating an understanding of the technology that could in theory allow it to target countries beyond its backyard provides ammunition to those who wish to see military action against Iran, or at the very least a continuation of the failed Bush policy of hard-line isolation and sanctions.

However, hope remains for those of us who believe that the Bush-era diplomatic freeze with Iran was egregious and monstrously counter-productive. First, on the domestic front, Obama has a tremendous mandate so soon after his election and following the deeply unpopular, ineffectual, and mostly incompetent Bush administration. In fact, pressure is on Obama to unveil policies which contrast to those of his predecessor.

Second, Obama’s worldwide popularity makes it far more difficult for foreign leaders to criticize him personally, or blame America for their woes, than was the case with the widely reviled Bush. Iran may already be struggling in the face of a more conciliatory tone.

Third, the administration’s efforts toward Iraq withdrawal are likely to garner further good-will in the Middle East, putting a quid pro quo back on the table, and, in combination with point two, making public opinion less of a problem for Middle Eastern countries dealing with America.

Finally, perhaps Iran could change soon, too. Iran’s economy is in a parlous state, and there is reason to believe that the Ahmadinejad belligerent, hard-line regime is not popular. Given elections in June, Obama and his team could be soon faced with a more moderate Iranian leader, such as Mohammad Khatami.

While it would be fatuous to assume the ayatollahs will decide to walk to road to Damascus and discover the wonders of capitalism and Jesus, there is reason to believe that the time is ripe for the US, led by Obama and Clinton, to gain traction with Iran for the first time in a decade.

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The Right is Against Fairness

A big problem with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party specifically, and the American conservative movement in general (and for that matter the extreme right-wing of the Conservative Party and movement in Britain, too) is that it is slavishly ideological. Anything is acceptable in the name of progressing the Right’s cause; nothing anyone outside the team ever does is ever good.

With this in mind, I found, via Matthew Yglesias’s consistently outstanding blog, a colossally idiotic article by James Besser concerning the possible appointment of a special envoy to aid the Israel-Palestine peace process:

“Some Jewish leaders say the very qualities that may appeal to the Obama administration — Mitchell’s reputation as an honest broker — could spark unhappiness, if not outright opposition, from some pro-Israel groups.

“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.””

Abraham Foxman, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, should be ashamed: as Yglesias himself points out, the article is “incredibly stupid—nobody comes out against fairness.

But herein lies the problem with the pro-Israel lobby, and, I might say, the Right in general. They have a blinkered, ‘you’re either unequivocally with us, or you’re a sworn enemy’ approach to ideology that would make a jihadist proud, and simply can’t tolerate deviation from the play book on any matter at any stage, even if deviating is the right thing to do.

Nowhere is this tendency more evident than with Israel. So hysterical is the right’s defence of Israel, that it has become next to impossible to criticize Israel’s actions without being labeled as a terrorist sympathizer who wants to deny Israel the right to exist.

I’m nowhere near smart enough to disentangle the complex knot of issues that comprises the Israel question, but I would suggest one of the biggest roadblocks to peace is that both sides are primarily supported by absolutists who will brook no compromise or discussion. Of course, this kind of idealogical absolutism has been traditionally associated with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Muslim extremists in general, but the sooner we realize that we have a very powerful contingent in the so-called Judeo-Christian world with similarly intractable, although diametrically opposed, views, the sooner we can sideline both sets of crazies, who would both rather see a continuation of scenes like the one depicted in the picture above than accept compromise.

That way, more reasonable types may be able to get on with the task of finding a “meticulously even-handed”, “fair” solution to what is ultimately an inhumanly destruvtive problem.

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Global System More Fragile than we Think

Much of my recent reading has been dominated by the financial crisis sweeping the world. Working in an investment bank at the moment feels rather like being a office cleaner for the Pentagon during the Cuban Missile Crisis: there is no respite from the torrent of apocalyptic news but there is little one can do to influence the situation.

However, while the effects of the current credit crisis and financial turmoil on economies, job markets, and businesses are difficult to underestimate, there is also a broader, global issue at play. Until recently, I had assumed that globalization was a new phenomenon, driven by modern developments in logistics and communication. But if you, like me, assumed this, you’d be wrong.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate for Economics takes up the story:

“…our grandfathers lived in a world of largely self-sufficient, inward-looking national economies — but our great-great grandfathers lived, as we do, in a world of large-scale international trade and investment.”

I first heard of this ‘first great globalization’ when watching Naill Ferguson’s excellent television series, The Ascent of Money. In it, Ferguson alluded briefly to a world which was, in relative terms, as financially interconnected as it is today.

Serendipitously, I stumbled on Krugman’s op-ed at around the same time, and what makes the first great globilization such a frightening story is the tightly corresponding similarities to the world of today: technological advances, increasing integration, and full blown globalization that fueled unparalleled economic growth.

Further, people of the time, like now, assumed that war would be so unprofitable and economically damaging that it would never happen. Of course, we now know understand the fallacy of this thinking, but the story has some sobering implications for the world of today. Krugman explains:

“But then came three decades of war, revolution, political instability, depression and more war. By the end of World War II, the world was fragmented economically as well as politically. And it took a couple of generations to put it back together…

Can things fall apart again? Yes… the belief that economic rationality always prevents war is an equally great illusion. And today’s high degree of global economic interdependence, which can be sustained only if all major governments act sensibly, is more fragile than we imagine.”

Certainly worth a read for those interested in history, economics, and geo-politics and foreign affairs. And something else that is of interest is Ferguson’s recent review of a book covering a related subject for the Financial Times.

The point I’m trying to make is that while we live in a stable, interconnected, increasingly prosperous world, it only takes one financial or economic shock handled in the wrong way to bring nationalism back into vogue in one or two places, encourage countries to pull up the barriers, and, at the very least, lead to a domino effect that sends us drifting away from the model of increasing integration and division/specialization of labour which has made the world more prosperous than ever before. Conflict is unprofitable, but it didn’t stop us last time, and to think it will this time is folly.

I would hope we would now be more mature, but I’m not so sure. It is well known, for instance, that the Smoot-Hawley Act expedited the onset of the Great Depression, yet China and Russia have both overtly sidestepped toward a more protectionist stance of late, and dark rumblings of an Sino-American trade war can be heard just over the horizon.

You have been warned.

Filed under: Economics, Foreign policy, , , , , , , , , , ,

Bush Administration Went Exactly As Planned

The Bush Administration’s rap sheet is longer than my arm. So well catalogued are the failures that listing them all here would be superfluous, but suffice to say, from Dick Cheney’s opaque Energy Task Force in the early days, through to by far the biggest economic mess since 1929 at the end, the Bush Administration has been one, nightmarish, sparsely punctuated litany of disaster and criminality.

On this matter, Guardian.co.uk today has an interesting video collage of journalists’ verdict on the Bush administration’s legacy, which briefly garners analysis on each disaster. For me, it doesn’t go far enough in its criticism, but its overt efforts to refrain from shrill invective makes it all the more damning. 

This raises an interesting question, though: the evidence strongly suggests that Bush was the worst president ever, but how exactly did it all go so very wrong? 

The best way to understand the Bush Administration, in my view, is to realize that it didn’t go wrong. In fact, it went exactly as planned. 

Take, for instance, the administration’s criminal abuse of executive power and willful disregard for the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. A significant number within the Bush Administration had been bristling for 20 years against the restrictions placed on executive power after Watergate. According to Jane Mayer in her brilliant expose of the war on terror, The Dark Side, Cheney told Bush early on that at the very least they needed to leave the office of the president ‘stronger’ than when they found it.

This conceited, authoritarian bent, rather the need to fight terrorists, gave birth to the abuses of executive power, the rip-tide roll back of individual freedoms in America and abroad, the abjuring of the legislative branch, and the disregard for international law and the Geneva Conventions that have characterized the Bush administration.

Similarly, Bush was successful in pushing through his economic and social policies, such as giving tax breaks to the rich and large corporations, and blocking additional healthcare provisions. Having so many more Americans outside health insurance, and turning a huge budgetary surplus into a deficit so big it could redecorate Solomon’s Temple, was not some form of bad luck, but a direct consequence of the successful passage of the Bush Administration’s economic and social policies.

Of course, the best example of this phenomenon is that no matter how many times the Bush Administration was warned prior to 9/11 of the dangers of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, they simply wanted to ignore it. Again, they were successful in implementing their ideals, namely, that Bin Laden should not be treated as a priority. 9/11 was job done for the Bush Administration as well as Al-Qaeda.

On the question of ‘how did it all go wrong,’ Vanity Fair this week is running a must-read oral history of the Bush Administration in which a plethora of senior American and foreign diplomats, politicians and bureaucrats, as well as senior figures within the Bush Administration itself, provide an insider view of the key moments of Bush’s presidency.

I’ll leave you with one quote from the article which in particular reminds us of just how pregnant with failure even the early days of the Bush Administration were. 

Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism advisor:

The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader—well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?

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Defending Bush Administration’s Record an Impossible Task

It was not a surprise to see self-described “extremely right wing” historian Andrew Roberts (right) penning a piece in the Telegraph to defend the Bush Administration

And he certainly does a better job than Bush Administration counselor, Ed Gillespie, who mustered a set of monumentally pathetic arguments, reliant wholly on weasel words, to debunk the ‘myths’ of the Bush Administration.

Even Roberts, though, adept as he is at crafting a compelling argument, has to rely on some pretty tenuous reasoning to defend what is ultimately indefensible.

Says Roberts:

History will show that, in common with the rest of his administration, the British Government, Saddam’s own generals, the French, Chinese, Israeli and Russian intelligence agencies, and of course SIS and the CIA, everyone assumed that a murderous dictator does not voluntarily destroy the WMD arsenal he has used against his own people. And if he does, he does not then expel the UN weapons inspectorate looking for proof of it, as he did in 1998 and again in 2001.

Mr Bush assumed that the Coalition forces would find mass graves, torture chambers, evidence for the gross abuse of the UN’s food-for-oil programme, but also WMDs. He was right about each but the last, and history will place him in the mainstream of Western, Eastern and Arab thinking on the matter.

For a moment, let’s ignore evidence that suggests the CIA and SIS, as well as UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, did not believe Hussein had the ability to use weapons of mass destruction. What Roberts claims here, in effect, is that being wrong about WMDs was acceptable because plenty of other people were wrong, too.

Roberts is arguing that his and the Administration’s logic was so valid that even though he, Bush and the rest of the Right were proved wrong – disastrously, murderously wrong – it doesn’t mean that they were actually wrong. Oh no, not for a moment wrong: it was simply a case of that pesky evidence getting in the way of an otherwise sound argument. Again.

You know something is very seriously lacking with the George W Bush presidency when his die hard supporters have to resort to arguments as feeble as that to defend his Administration.

Wisely, Roberts avoids domestic policy.

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Why is Closing Guantanamo Bay so Difficult?

guantanamo1It is clear to me that extra-judicial captivity has no place in a civilized society. What makes us better than the despots and the terrorists is our moral code, and when we forgo that, there really isn’t much between us and the bad guys.

No doubt those on the lunatic fringes of the Right would accuse me of ‘moral relativism’, or else some other barely understood buzz-phrase. 

On this point, I would argue that the west’s (or,  if you prefer, the liberal democracies’) way of doing things is better not because we’re ‘us’ and they’re ‘them’, but because of our actions. Britain’s system of government isn’t better than, say, Iran’s just because Britain’s Britain: It is better because it offers democracy, free speech, enshrines the rule of law, etc, etc. If suddenly Britain converted to a dictatorship, repealed democracy, and crushed any dissenting voices, then we couldn’t claim to be better than Iran.

Similarly, I don’t think we can hold people in prison indefinitely, denying them their basic human rights in the process, without sacrificing some moral capital.

It certainly makes one feel less like a sandal wearing, feeble voiced peacenik to say: “Do you think you can play nice with these people?”, or “We need to fight at their level,” but it’s worth considering whether we really want to do anything on “their level.”

On that score, it should be obvious to most sane observers, that Guantanamo is an example of a moral repugnance I’d have scarcely considered possible before the neo-con kabal of moral degenerates and criminals seized the White House

However, GTMO is not only a violation of every ideal we in the West hold dear, it also has another, quite pernicious side effect. Once an individual is taken out of the judicial system, it is virtually impossible to put him back in, and all evidence acquired under torture – or advanced interrogation techniques – will be inadmissible. This means that we can never establish properly who is guilty and who is not, who did what and where, and the victims of these terrible crimes will never have the comfort of knowing justice has been done.

But, there is a final knot left to untie: GTMO is also extremely difficult to close. If one cannot put an individual back in the justice system to be tried and/or imprisoned, and one cannot release him for suspicion he may be a danger, how can one close it?

This is a question addressed far more effectively by the Financial Times’ Willem Buiter, so I thought I’d share.

http://blogs.ft.com/maverecon/2009/01/spineless-in-washington-obama-and-guantanamo-bay/

It’s also one that Barak Obama is going to have to deal with more decisively when January 20th comes around. Good luck with that.

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