Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Obama must get tougher on Putin

Why Obama must get tougher on Putin. My latest piece for The Week.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Fiscal Cliff?

The DC rumor mill is awash with news that a debt deal may be on the horizon. We shall see. Until news of a deal (or failure to reach a deal) becomes clear, I won't make any more comments. 

My most recent writings on this topic -

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Falkland Islands - US Policy fail

The US position on the Falkland Islands was absurd during the 1982 war and remains equally absurd today. Newly released British records indicate that at the height of the conflict (and as the British were about to win a conclusive victory) President Reagan attempted to pressure Margaret Thatcher into a negotiated peace. Reagan apparently sought a solution in which the islands would come under the orbit of an international peacekeeping force. This was an idiotic and immoral suggestion. The islands represented British territory that had been forcibly seized by a foreign state. Had Thatcher accepted Reagan's proposal, she would have qualified British sovereignty and rewarded Argentinian aggression. While we sometimes have political disagreements in important areas (see my comments on the US-UK intelligence relationship and US-UK extradition treaty), on this issue the British deserve our unconditional support.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is maintaining a similarly idiotic policy position on the Falklands. By continuously calling for negotiations, the President is letting down our closest ally on an issue of paramount UK concern. It is unacceptable. Imagine if Britain was telling us to negotiate with Russia over the future sovereignty of Alaska

Safe to say, we would not be happy.

 PS - Sad news about Gen. Schwarzkopf. He was a great general - focused on the mission and his men and not politics.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Syria, Debt Negotiations, Hezbollah, Russia, Piers Morgan

1) Syria
The defection by the head of Syria's Military Police to the rebels represents another step towards Assad's collapse. As I predicted a few weeks ago (I speak at - 10.32, 15.23, 22.25), defections will increase as momentum continues to root more firmly with the rebels.  While because of the sectarian make up of Assad's power base, certain elite units are unlikely to withdraw their support for the dictator, Assad's days are nonetheless numbered. He simply has insufficient financial, military and popular power to sustain against the rebel onslaught. The United States must exert increased pressure on Russia to end their support for his regime. We want to ensure that he departs Syria as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.

2) Debt Negotiations
President Obama's return to Washington is as much a political stunt as it is a gesture towards resolving the debt impasse. He should never have gone to Hawaii amidst such a serious financial crisis. Unless Obama is willing to offer Boehner serious entitlement reforms and unless Boehner offers Obama increased tax revenues, there will be no deal. Hopefully we can get some kind of short term deal to avoid the sequester cuts. With regards to defense, I have argued that these cuts would be catastrophic. A short term deal is far from ideal. However, perhaps the new Congress can act more seriously than its predecessor?

3) Hezbollah Christmas Message
Hezbollah's greeting to Christians illustrates the importance that the group places on the maintenance of a cross-sectarian support base. The organization seeks to maintain an image of a Shia liberator allied to the ambitions of ''the oppressed" across the Middle East - not just for Shia, but for all. The problem for Hezbollah is that by supporting Assad's continuing murder in Syria they have undercut this narrative. Ultimately, I still believe that Hezbollah will abandon Assad before the end. The truth is that Hezbollah is an extremist terrorist group dedicated to the assertion of an authoritarian and fundamentalist Shia theology. They might have a better PR strategy than Al Qa'ida, but their pretense of affinity for democracy is not real.

4) Russia
Putin's Russia offers the US no meaningful relationship. We must be much tougher on Putin. I will have an opinion piece on this issue in the coming days.

5) Piers Morgan
The deportation petition against Piers Morgan is stupid. He is lawfully present in the United States and he has the right to freedom of speech. True freedom of speech doesn't exist in the UK. We must ensure it continues to exist here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A very bad night for the GOP

Tonight was a very bad night for the Republican Party. In failing to support Speaker Boehner's plan to avoid tax raises for 99.8% of Americans, far-right Republicans have handed President Obama a huge victory. They have empowered the President politically - allowing him to paint Republicans as intransigent ideologues servient only to the rich. And they have betrayed their obligation to their country. The obligation to put national interest before all else. And when we are facing a debt crisis, the national interest is important. 

What happens next? I suspect that the chances for a debt resolution before Christmas have evaporated. Speaker Boehner knows that he cannot agree to a deal that fails to address trend cost inflation in Medicare/Medicaid (As I have previously argued such a deal would be worthless) and President Obama now believes that he holds all the cards (the GOP still controls the House so at least on paper, the President is wrong). Common ground has become far more sparse. Unfortunately, because of this evening's antics, the public attitude towards the GOP will be extremely negative. Conservatives have dug ourselves into a hole. The President will appear as the great conciliator who has been frustrated by Republican intransigence. I do not believe that the President has negotiated fairly, but truth will be less important than perception.

This is my plan for resolving the debt crisis.

New York Times article that has annoyed me

I find this article to be ludicrous. In arguing for stimulus in preference to austerity, the article is arguing for a false economy. Where does short term stimulus take us? If it creates government jobs that are unsustainable in the long term (especially at the state level - state governments cannot sustain unaffordable jobs) and even more debt at the Federal level, then it creates a condition of false recovery hiding a deeper future fiscal retraction. The British welfare system is the central obstacle to the UK's fiscal health. It allows for a society in which the incentive to work is subordinated to the incentive to take government benefits (and not work). And what about the interest payments on debt from new stimulus? Where does that money come from. Plus, the government is not an efficient organization compared to private sector entities. Because government jobs do not exist on a predicated foundation of objective-achievement-reward, the incentive to be productive as a government worker is not in competition with private sector equivalent incentive. For a serious take on the growth of the US welfare state - see Casey Mulligan. For my thoughts on why capitalism is better than socialism  - see my article from a few months back.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Benghazi and Gun Control

A couple of thoughts today -

1) Benghazi
The independent investigation into the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi has been released. The report notes that there were major security threats in the weeks and months that lead up to the attack. As I have previously argued, these threats suggested the need to improve the US security posture in Benghazi. Unfortunately this need was ignored. And Americans died. This incompetence was unacceptable and it's therefore appropriate that relevant State Department officials resigned. Diplomats risking their lives for their country deserve and require the support of their country. President Obama's Administration was asleep on this issue.

2) Gun Control
For my thoughts on post-Newtown gun control - see the last two posts on this blog.
President Obama's gun control task force has the potential to engage seriously and realistically on the issue. Or it can gravitate towards the liberal authoritarian wing of the Democratic Party and make suggestions that are doomed to failure.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown and the second amendment

"These are people we know and love. So loved by their parents, so innocent, and their death is so senseless." Rabbi Shaul Praver, Newtown.

20 elementary school children and 7 others massacred. Friday was a truly horrific day for America. Amidst such terrible loss, the victims and their families now deserve our honesty. Those of us who support gun ownership must openly explain why we do so. We must also suggest solutions to help reduce the probability of future gun related atrocities.

In the aftermath of the Aurora massacre, I stated that my support for the right to gun ownership had three roots. While I stand by this affirmation, in light of the Newtown massacre, I feel it's necessary to provide a more developed reasoning for my position.

So here it is.

The first reason I support the right to bear arms- democratic preservation. 

The original motivation of the second amendment was to establish a timeless guard separate from government, against tyranny. Recent Supreme Court rulings have upheld this viewpoint. While some argue that the right to bear arms is a dated relic, I disagree. Faced with high technology capabilities which offer government an unparalleled potential for intrusive power, though remote, the threat of tyranny is not extinct and must not be discounted. An armed citizenry protects against tyranny. In essence, the second amendment provides a physical capability to complement the ideological framework of our founding documents. Put simply, arms are the mechanism that would allow "the people" to "throw off'' a government that sought to detain us under "absolute despotism". However, it isn't just the capability of arms that's important for our functioning democracy. When Government knows that the people have weapons to defend themselves, government is more closely restrained to democratic conduct by this understanding.

Second- personal protection. The most basic human right is human security.  The Supreme Court has found that the operative clause of the second amendment grants an inherent right to bear arms. This is especially important in terms of the security that firearms can provide to more vulnerable members of society like the elderly or infirm. In contrast, where gun ownership is excessively restricted, public security is left almost entirely to government authority. In this reality, individuals are placed in physical danger and psychological fear. This often understated psychological element is crucial. For example, during the August 2011 London riots, in the inability of the Police to control the disorder, an undercurrent of helplessness and a palpable sentiment of fear spread across the city. Abandoned by government, people were forced to resort to extra-legal action. In a democracy we are due not only the right to feel secure, but also the individual means to provide ourselves with effective security (the police cannot be everywhere at once).

On the counter side, gun control advocates like to claim that the United States suffers from an unmatched position of violent crime. This isn't true. While we have a comparatively high murder rate (and must do more to address this problem), common violent crime levels are extremely high in much of Europe. In addition, access to firearms doesn't necessarily drive gun related criminality.  Firearm related homicides are higher in South America than in the United States, yet South America has more restrictive gun laws than the US. Gun laws in Connecticut are some of the most restrictive in the nation - but as the Newtown massacre and the ongoing tragedy in gun law restrictive Chicago illustrate, laws alone cannot provide a condition of security.

My third reason for supporting the second amendment - culture. Guns are an important element of the ideational traditions which define many American communities - hunting, range shooting, decoration etc. These activities may be distasteful to some, but for others they are deeply personal expressions of individual freedom. They deserve the tolerance of public authority.

Clearly each of my three components has its imperfections. For one notable example, fringe anti-government groups often excuse their illegitimate violent intentions by claiming a warped interpretation of the constitution.

BUT there is a route that allows for an effective balancing of gun rights and public protection.

We should work to ensure that where an objectively substantial cause for concern exists (IE - a combination of threats and comprehensive medical evaluation) mental health records can be used to restrict access to weapons.

We should more actively prosecute those who engage in the illegal transmission of arms to others.

We should aggressively punish those who carry arms when they have no right to do so (criminals with violent records etc).

We should improve RICO laws to enable greater action against gang leaders who allow their subordinates to carry weapons.

We should improve security at schools - with new Federal laws and funding if necessary. For example - providing teacher with firearms training and allowing those who pass such courses to have weapons at their disposal.

Finally, we should ensure that beyond the basic constitutional right to bear arms, states are given a wide latitude to determine the contours of gun control in their respective locales. Local democratic will should determine much of American gun law.
            In the aftermath of national tragedies like the Newtown shooting, we must find a commonality of balanced purpose. Protecting the innocent and preserving the right to bear arms are both imperatives, but they are not mutually exclusive.

Update - My other pieces on guns for The Week, The Guardian and my blog.
From 9/11 remembrance but Newtown made me remember it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

North Korea missile test

From my perspective, the latest North Korean missile test raises three immediate points.

1) North Korea's decision to fire the missile over Okinawa is a deliberate challenge to the United States (the US has a major military presence on the island). The US response must be clear and robust. While it is likely that this test is partly the result of Kim Jong Un's desire to flex his muscles and in so improve his credibility with the North Korean generals, it's also important that consequences follow this provocation. As such, the United States should summon a UN Security Council meeting to condemn North Korea and to begin moves to tighten international sanctions against the regime. The North Korean leadership must be made to understand that every action like this one, drives them further away from a detente with the international community. A detente that North Korea desperately needs in order to strengthen their presently shambolic economy.

2) North Korea's ballistic missile capability is improving. The regime's paranoia and predictably unpredictable behavior mean that North Korea will become an increasing international security challenge in at least the near-medium term future. The United States and the international community must ensure that we do not neglect the need to be vigilant in the face of increasing North Korean aggression. International security does not begin and end in the Middle East.

3) Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their destructive enabling components (for example ballistic missiles) presents the key security concern of our age. As I've noted with regards to other parts of the world, we must be attuned to this threat.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hamas, Israel and a lasting peace

Khaled Meshal, the Hamas Chairman (leader) paid a visit to Gaza yesterday.  He had some interesting things to say, including the line below.

“Palestine, from the river to the sea, from north to south, is our land, not an inch of it can be conceded.”

Many commentators like to argue that Hamas has moderated its tone and substance in recent years. They suggest that Hamas is more open to compromise and negotiation with Israel in pursuit of a durable, long term two state solution. This analysis is flawed. For Hamas, the solution for peace is to drive Israel into the Mediterranean Sea. In short, the group retains an existential commitment to the destruction of Israel.

This commitment was first enshrined in the highly anti-Semitic 1988 Hamas covenant. An organizing statement which included the affirmation that:

'[Peace]  initiatives... are in contradiction to the  principles  of the Islamic Resistance Movement...  There is no solution for the Palestinian problem  except  by Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility.'

There are positives - the fundamentals of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement are already largely agreed upon - see David 2000 and Olmert 2008. Unfortunately, the ability to reach a final deal is made exceptionally difficult by intransigents on both sides. I say both sides, because when Hamas spouts its idiocy about the destruction of Israel, those words empower Israeli extremists who also oppose peace.

While I believe that a peace deal will be achieved in the next fifteen years, I also strongly believe that such a deal will be impossible until Hamas either loses power or relinquishes the most extreme tenets of its ideology or, is just ignored by the Palestinian Authority.

Friday, December 7, 2012

War on the Young - Democrats and Republicans are punishing America's future

Whatever reforms they produce, the debt negotiations will fundamentally alter the future relationship between the federal government and younger Americans. In short, under-35 Americans will have to work substantially longer, pay more tax and will receive less benefits in retirement. In part this evolution is unavoidable - demographic and economic realities mean that major changes to the social-government contract are needed. However, young Americans should not have to repair our sinking national ship alone. The need for balanced sacrifice makes intellectual sense – it helps us find the minimum $4 trillion+ ten year trend savings we need, but it also it makes moral sense- our national psyche is embedded in a notion of shared sacrifice in pursuit of common national interests. Unfortunately at the moment at least, ‘shared balance’ is a phrase that neither Democrats nor Republicans have any interest in hearing.

The Democrats seemingly have little interest in serious entitlement reforms - they believe that the rich can somehow pay down the debt without necessary structural reforms to Medicare. As this video illustrates, a ludicrous presumption. On the flip side, Republicans only want to reform entitlements for those over 55. And while both parties argue that their positions are reflective of ‘fairness’, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s Medicare beneficiaries will receive an average of three times the amount that they paid in. This reaches into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per person. And the money has to come from somewhere. Where better than from young Americans who lack the AARP style organization to mount a meaningful political resistance? 

Young Americans didn't build the national debt and we shouldn't have to bear the weight of its relief.

The Week

From today, I will be contributing to - The Week.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A debt deal, the fiscal cliff or the economic abyss?

In the absence of a major deal on debt reduction IE - $4 trillion+ ten year new revenue/sustaining trend savings (or at least a $2 trillion pay down with reliable future negotiations), the fiscal cliff would be the least bad option. Ultimately in the absence of a comprehensive deal, the economic outcome would be far worst. In this scenario the debt markets would continue to lose confidence in the future of the US economy. An ensuing confidence crisis would reverberate throughout the economy with continued restrained hiring by companies, as well as reduced capital purchases. In addition, the political landscape would be characterized by even greater partisanship and imbued negativity. In essence, the economy would become increasingly leeched by a growing condition of doubt - a doubt that would require resolution by a major debt deal or would inevitably result in the 'abyss'. What would the abyss mean? the economy would be characterized by a market induced risk premium on debt (leading to v. high interest rates), significant inflationary pressures, a collapse of the entitlement system and an evaporation of the already challenged trust in government. In addition, because of the Fed's present monetary policy to restrain interest rates, the abyss would occur in the context of higher interest rates and therefore an excess annual interest repayment level for the Federal Government of about $200 billion.

     In short, where the 'cliff' would be an economic tropical storm, the 'abyss' would be a category five economic hurricane.