The Big Lie in the debate over the chaos unfolding in Iraq is that somehow, the rise of ISIS would not be occurring were it not for President George W. Bush’s ostensibly indefensible ‘war of choice’; that by removing Saddam Hussein and participating in an ill-fated ‘nation-building’ project, we fostered instability and created a vacuum for ISIS — now called the Islamic State — to fill. Take away the Iraq War (and bring back Saddam Hussein), and, according to the likes of David Axelrod, we wouldn’t have to deal with this problem, since it wouldn’t exist.
It is simply a lie. Saddam Hussein, one of history’s bloodiest tyrants, was never a source of stability, and, unlike other former Arab autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he was never ‘our bastard’; he was a longtime geopolitical nemesis and a clear threat to peace for as long as he remained in power. Saddam Hussein invaded two of his neighbors, fired SCUD missiles at a third, used chemical weapons on Iraq’s Kurdish minority, and funded regional terrorism. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the bipartisan Iraq Liberation Act into law, making regime change the official stance of the United States toward Iraq. (As non-interventionists never tire of pointing out, yes, we did cooperate with Saddam Hussein — once, in the 1980s, when we simply determined him to be the lesser of two evils in his war against Islamist Iran).
Iraq under Saddam Hussein would have been a breeding ground for the likes of ISIS. Like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist, a secular strongman who sometimes allied with Islamists against common foes, but had little in common ideologically with them. Like Assad, he would have been a ripe target for Islamist ire during the Arab Spring, and would have likely responded in a manner much like Assad. Hillary Clinton is right that Syria poses a ‘wicked’ problem to the United States. Right now, Iraq does as well — but Assad’s fate — and his willingness to use chemical weapons against the people he claims as his — mirrors what an Iraq run by Saddam Hussein would surely look like right now, holding all else equal.
Of course, it is not necessary to hold all else equal, because, upon the recognition that the Maliki government clearly was not equipped to deal with terrorist threats to Iraq, the United States should have never abandoned the country. It is true that the government wanted us to leave — but that should not have mattered; Iraq owes the existence of its government to us, and our mission there was not primarily a humanitarian one, but was conducted for national security purposes. Do people suppose that Angela Merkel wants tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Germany, or that Japan likes being denied its own military? Surely not. But Germany and Japan posed a threat to the United States and to the world order once, and we decided that it should never happen again — and we meant it. So it should have been in Iraq — but President Obama decided that his desire to fulfill an ideological campaign promise entitled him to suspend the reality principle. The ‘facts on the ground’ made it clear that Iraq was not ready to assume total responsibility for its own defense. This does not make Obama in any way responsible for the rise of ISIS, of course — ISIS alone bears responsibility for its own primitive savagery and inhuman barbarism — but it does make him short-sighted, perhaps foolish, even. His former Secretary of State certainly seems to think so.
I recently wrote an article entitled “The Plot Against The World Atlas” in which I pointed out the numerous secession movements active in virtually all regions of the globe. The latest place where this has just occurred is the autonomous region of Crimea which has declared its independence from Ukraine (and imminent merger into Russia). The status of neighboring eastern Ukraine is, as of this writing, uncertain as it too might be (forcibly?) separated from Ukraine. These developments have dominated world headlines for some several weeks.
But almost ignored has been another place considering secession, one of the world’s most famous cities (and its surrounding region). For more than a thousand years, the Venetian Republic existed until Napoleon invaded and took it over. Now the voters of Venice and it surrounding region are voting during the next week whether or not they will secede and re-create a sovereign state separated from Italy. It’s not a official vote, although Venetian secessionists are hoping its results will lead directly to the famed tourist city separating from Italy, and the creation of an independent nation.
Having visited Italy many times, and being a enthusiast of Italy’s music, cuisine, art, literature and culture, I thought I had some sense of what Italian history was, but after recently reading The Pursuit of Italy (2011) by British historian David Gilmour, I realized how little I did know about this European nation which arose after the demise of the Roman empire on its territory.
It also helped me understand what the citizens of Venice and environs are trying to do, why they are doing it, and why it just might succeed.
The “nation” of Italy did not exist at all until after the mid-nineteenth century. Portrayed as an heroic and epic unification of the Italian peninsula, the creation of a “unified” Italy was actually a hasty contrivance in which its component parts rather reluctantly were cobbled together.
After the end of the Roman empire in the mid-first millennium, A.D., the territory around Rome divided into numerous city states, kingdoms and duchys. In the eight century A.D., the young city of Venice became one of the modern world’s first true and successful republics (a thousand years, it should be remembered, before the creation of the United States of America in 1789). The Republic of Venice itself lasted for more than a millennium, and was one of the political glories of Europe until Napoleon decided to embroil it and destroy it in his schemes of conquest.
There were other states on the Italian peninsula, including most notably, the Piedmont Duchy of Savoy (capital: Turin), the Papal States (capital: Rome), Kingdom of Naples (capital: Naples), Kingdom of Sicily (capital: Palermo), Duchy of Milan (capital: Milan), Republic of Siena (capital: Siena), Republic of Genoa (capital: Genoa), Republic of Florence (capital: Florence), as well as city states in Mantua, Asti, Lucca, Ferrara and elsewhere. Each of the cities and regions developed their own dialect of what has become the Italian language, their own distinct customs, traditions, cuisine and identities — and in large and important part, maintain them today.
In effect, Dr. Gilmour suggest, there is no true “Italy” at all, but a conglomeration of idiosyncratic cities and places cobbled together. This goes a long way to explain, perhaps, why the Italian peninsula, source of so much of the Western World’s culture from Roman times to the present, has had since World War II one of Europe’s most unstable and dysfunctional series of governments.
Most Americans, if they think much about Italy, think of it as divided between north and south, with its dominant city being Rome, and most of its other major cities being in the north, i.e., Milan, Genoa, Florence and Venice. In fact, until the nineteenth century, the largest city in Italy was Naples, capital of southern Italy.
Boundaries between this potpourri of city states and regions changed frequently, as did their rulers, especially as Italy became a Mediterranean focal point of trade and commerce. The military intrusions of England, France and the Austro-Hungarian empire were frequent, and for many hundreds of years, much of southern Italy was part of the Ottoman (Islamic) empire.
Dr. Gilmour makes the case, with considerable evidence and persuasive argument, that the Republic of Venice — of all this myriad of republics, kingdoms, and duchys — was the most accomplished polity on the Italian peninsula for so many centuries in the past. With the plebiscite now taking place there, we might be seeing the re-emergence of that historic national personality, and the first of many renewed divisions in Europe now underway — in Scotland, Catalonia, Belgium — each of them more peaceable and voluntary than what seems to be occurring in Ukraine.
-Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
The nature of international life is that there are always “hotspots” or areas in some form of natural, economic, military or cultural crisis that draw the world’s attention and concern.
As far as I know, there has not ever been, nor will there likely ever be, a totally peaceful or untroubled planet inhabited by human civilization.
What is curious, having established that, is that the crises tend in occur over and over, albeit sometimes years apart, in the same places.
Currently, the world’s “hotspots” include Ukraine, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Japan, Turkey, the Middle East, Spain, Italy, Greece and Argentina.
The reader familiar with only a limited background in history will recognize that over the past several centuries these same places have had recurring crises of one kind or another.
The one listed “hotspot” perhaps least well-known to Americans is Ukraine. This Slavic eastern European nation is one of the youngest countries in the world. Settled thousands of years ago, it eventually became the center of medieval Slavic life, and Kiev, its largest city, the de facto capital of the region. The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, today much larger than Kiev, were then only outposts, and the tribes that created the Russian nation, then not as powerful and successful as those who lived in Kiev and its surrounding territory.
In the 1300s, Kiev had numerous rival rulers and declined. By the 1500s, however, the Romanov dynasty was established in St. Petersburg, and a Russian empire under the czars was created, stretching eventually all the way east to Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, and to the west, to central Europe. The early settlements of Kiev (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus) soon became subordinate and part of this empire.
Ukraine is remembered best in America today perhaps by its millions of Jewish immigrants and their descendants who came to the U.S. in waves from 1880 to 1920 following intense persecution by the Czar (and many Russians and Ukrainians) in a series of pogroms (or murderous attacks) on their ghetto communities in what was then called “The pale of settlement” — a region that included today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
Except for a short-lived Cossack republic in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a very brief period following World War I and the Russian Revolution (begun in 1917), modern Ukraine has not been a sovereign nation. Known as the “breadbasket” of Europe, the region produced most of the wheat and grain for two continents. After the Soviet dictator Stalin had consolidated his power at the outset of the 1930s, he instituted the deliberate and brutal starvation of the Ukrainian peasantry, and prior to the outbreak of World War II, millions of Ukrainians died from hunger. Nazi armies than overran Ukraine, and murdered millions more, including most of the Jews living in the region.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine became one of the breakaway republics that became independent nations on the new Russian border.
The problems that face Ukraine are many. Although by now a major industrial area, as well as agricultural area, it depends on other nations (primarily Russia) for its energy needs, including supplies of oil and gas. The western, and largest, part of Ukraine 1s inhabited primarily by ethnic Ukrainians (77% of the population) who speak their own Slavic language. Their memories of what the Russians had done to them under the czar and Stalin have made them decidedly anti-Russian, and eager to join the western European community. However, in the eastern part of the country, around Kharkov, most Ukrainians are ethnic Russians (17% of the population), and speak the Russian language. A third region, to the south, is the autonomous republic of Crimea which it had been “given” to Ukraine in the Soviet years. This is the most tropical part of Russia and borders on the Black Sea with naval access to the world. (The Russian fleet uses Crimean ports by agreement with the previous Ukrainian government.) Most of those who live in Crimea are pro-Russian.
Although now adopting a representative democratic political form, Ukraine’s history and ethnic divisions have overshadowed the new republic’s attempt to create a viable nation. Political and economic corruption was rampant, and as in neighboring Russia, oligarchs soon emerged controlling vast parts of the Ukrainian economy.
It has been suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin wishes to reconstruct the old Soviet empire. If this is so, then Ukraine is an absolutely necessary component of such a reconstruction. An independent Ukraine that is part of the western European Union would mean that the old Soviet Empire could not be put back together. Ukraine is too large geographically, too populous, too economically significant, and too strategically located for such a Putin ambition to be fulfilled without it.
This means that it is likely that Mr. Putin will continue to intervene in Ukraine until it is under his de facto control. The invasion and occupation of Crimea now apparently taking place would be only the first of many interventions. After securing Crimea, Mr Putin will move to control eastern Ukraine.
Europe and the United States, for obvious reasons, would oppose this turn of events, but, at least for now, lack enough leverage to counter it successfully. Ukraine’s immediate needs include a large infusion of funds, something Mr. Putin had offered the deposed Ukrainian president as an incentive not to join with western Europe. The U.S. and the European Union are now scrambling to come up with finds for Ukraine, but so far none of them are talking about enough funds to make a difference.
Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are clearly pro-Russian and would likely cooperate with some form of Russian “occupation.” Larger western Ukraine, where the recent revolution began in the capital Kiev, would like resist any Russian attempts to restore the previous government. Thus, there are prospects of a civil war, or the partition of Ukraine into two nations.
With the European Union already in an economic crisis overtaking several of its members states, including Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy; and the U.S. in an historic withdrawal from its leading role in world affairs, it would seem that prospects for Ukraine at the outset of 2014 are not very bright.
This part of the world has known suffering and violence continually for a thousand years. This suffering and violence will now continue for at least another sad chapter.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Except in those places where the issue is burning with new nationalistic emotions, most of the world is largely unaware how widespread is the phenomenon to make all contemporary geographical atlases obsolete.
National identities and national borders have been in constant change since recorded history began, but by the conclusions of the two world wars, the atlas of the world’s nations seemed, for the first time, to be more or less fixed. After World War I, the victorious nations of the United States, Great Britain, France and its allies attempted to redraw the national maps of the world, They, and the defeated nations of Austro-Hungary, Germany and the Turkish empire, had been colonial powers throughout the world. The victorious states attempted to enhance their control of territories outside their own national borders at the expense of the defeated states, but the colonial presumption, so carefully cultivated for the past five centuries, an echo of the empire conquests of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Carthagenians, Persians, Mongols and the early Arabs, was already fading as local national aspirations were rapidly gaining strength.
British, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Belgian and Russian explorers had created the earliest modern maps with the territories they conquered and exploited. By the onset of World War II, many of these colonized lands had been ceded to local sovereignty, especially those of the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese in North and South America. The Germans and Italians had lost most of their colonies in Africa; the Austrians had lost most of its empire in Europe. Colonies remained in Africa and Asia. The Middle East, not previously organized as true national states was refigured arbitrarily with League of Nation mandates, Big Power occupations and new kingdoms.
After the unprecedented violence and bloodshed of the first half of the 20th century, most of the remaining colonial territories, especially in Africa and Asia become independent states, and adopted what seemed to be permanent national borders. The world’s largest colonial power, the British empire, became the British Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary organization of former colonies symbolically led by the British monarch. Most of the French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies were gone. As with the British Commonwealth, lingering informal ties were maintained by the legacies of language and custom.
Today, there are almost 200 independent nations, most of which belong to the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, which was created as World War II was ending, and was hoped to be a worthwhile international institution in the world. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, the U.N. has devolved into a mostly feckless existence, even unable to maintain in its own organizational support for human rights, one of its founding principles.
Nevertheless, at the end of the 20th century, a schoolchild perusing a world atlas could perceive that the borders of most nations in the world seemed more or less permanent.
This has turned out to be an illusion, especially since so many borders had been so carelessly contrived. In a few cases, a redrawing of borders and creation of new states was peacefully agreed to — for example, Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in an amicable fashion. Less amicably, the region of Yugoslavia, so long a source of internal ethnic conflicts (one of which led directly to World War I) was divided into several nations. After the economic and political failure of the Soviet Union, created in 1919, its “empire” was also divided into numerous independent states. Germany, divided after World War II, was reunited. Ethiopia became two states, Ethiopia and Eritria.
At the onset of the 21st century, then, it again seemed as if national borders were more or less settled.
In Europe, however, ethno-national movements have once again arisen. Separatist forces are on the rise in Belgium (Flemish vs. Belgian), Great Britain (Scottish vs. British), Spain (Catalan, Basque and Galician vs. Castilian), Slovakia (Rusyn vs. Slovak), as well as other movements in France, Scandinavia, Rumania, Poland, Russia and the former Yugoslavia.
In a few weeks, the voters of the autonomous Spanish province of Catalonia will decide if they want to separate from Spain. It is not clear if, even if they do vote to separate, that the Spanish government will recognize it. The British prime minister has okayed a plebiscite in Scotland in which Scots have the choice to remain part of Great Britain or become a completely sovereign state.
North America is not free of this phenomenon. Well-known has been the effort of Quebec separatists to break off from Canada, but previous plebiscites have failed, although both English and French are now recognized as national languages.
Most recently, in the United States, a serious effort is being made to put on the state ballot the division of the state of California into six new and entirely separate states, each of which would remain in the Union. If the referendum were approved, it is not clear just how such an action could be accomplished without the approval of the U.S. Congress which would have to admit ten more U.S. senators. While this proposal is not “secession” (which set off the American Civil War in the 19th century), it might lead to similar actions in other existing states, and redraw the American map.
There is also the curious case of the state of Texas. A little-noted provision of the document which annexed Texas to the U.S. in 1845 is the right of the citizens of the Lone Star State to divide themselves into five states, but the U.S. Congress presumably would have to agree to it. If such an action were taken, it would not alter the number of the U.S. house, but it would add eight U.S. senators. Recent talk by some Texas politicians of seceding from the U.S. is empty talk.
The status of Puerto Rico, once a Spanish colony, and now a U.S. territory, could change. It could become a state, remain a territory or achieve total independence.
Indigenous groups in Mexico, Central and South America, as they are acquiring more political power, also have begun to clamor for separation from their existing national governments.
China is now composed of several regions and provinces which were once independent states, and where separatist movements are currently suppressed.
Active and long-time efforts to make the provinces of Kashmir and Punjab independent states are the most prominent and serious in India where many regions seek to break away from the world’s reportedly now most populous nation.
The Pacific Rim region contains not only several new and tiny independent nations, but the U.S., Britain and France even now control many of its islands and island groups, any of which could decide to seek independence.
The vast areas of both the Arctic and Antarctic are not yet defined by permanent recognized borders, but neighboring countries at both ends of the poles seem to maneuvering for territorial control, especially as valuable mineral rights become an issue.
In addition to the relatively serious separatist movements mentioned above, there are numerous small or incipient efforts to establish new sovereign states from existing nations now active throughout the world.
Atlas publishers will likely be busy in coming decades. Maps of the world are likely to be changed again many times, with no end of it in sight.
Cartography might well be one of the next “hot” professions.
-Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Several days ago, I suggested that American military action in Syria, the use of chemical weapons by Syrians against their own people notwithstanding, was not advisable. I enumerated the American past experience in the Middle East, going back to the Versailles Conference of 1919 when Euro-U.S. interference and involvement in the region began, and continuing with our inability to control events during the so-called “Arab Spring and its aftermath. I did suggest that some serious effort should be made to punish those who used the chemical weapons against civilians, which was clearly a horrendous war crime.
Since I wrote my thoughts in “What Should Be Done In Syria?” on these pages, no military action by the U.S. has taken place, but the Obama administration has ordered military preparations to make such action imminent. Before ordering that action, President Obama, as commander-in-chief, decided to ask for the support (but not the approval) of the U.S. Congress, and hearings for this are now taking place. It is not clear what Mr. Obama would do if he fails to receive congressional support. He has said it is not necessary, but he has asked for it anyway.
I would agree with the president that the proposed limited action, presumably bombing of Syrian targets (but no U.S. troops on the ground), does not require congressional approval. His gesture is clearly a political one. If he fails to get approval (more likely in the U.S. house than in the U.S. senate), he thus can rationalize his failure to observe his earlier warning to Syria that he would act if the “red line” of chemical weapons use was crossed. If he does get approval, he can share any blame that might result from U.S. action with the Republican opposition. His greatest risk would be taking action without the approval of both houses of Congress.
In the case of British Prime Minister David Cameron, he called Parliament back into session and sought approval for British action in Syria from a House of Commons his party clearly controlled. But in an historic turn of events, the House voted against his request, the first such action there since 1782 when the British leader Lord North asked for further military action against the rebellious American colonies, and was turned down. Mr. Cameron promptly withdrew his nation from the Western alliance planning to take action.
Only France today remains firmly committed to action in Syria.
Since there is very little support in the U.S. (and, to be fair, within the Obama administration) to commit troops to any action in Syria, the obvious choices seem limited to various aerial attacks by planes or missiles against Syrian military assets, including their remaining chemical warfare supplies. The question is: What meaningful result can occur from such a limited action? This question is especially pertinent since any element of surprise is presumably gone with all the publicity to our intentions in the region. A decisive military action or a highly successful special military operations might now be justifiable, but there is no indication yet that this is planned nor that Mr. Obama would order it.
Is Mr. Obama’s personal credibility, following more than a month of hesitation and delay, worth the expenditure of an expensive but only probable symbolic gesture? And what of that always critical factor, the unintended consequences, of any action we might take? “Unintended consequences” have been, so far, the major reality of our involvement in the seeming permanently hostile (to the U.S.) Middle East.
I do not share the same rationale that most U.S. “isolationist” officials and commentators have brought forward so far. I do not believe that the U.S. can retreat from its unique role in the world, nor be indifferent to threats, violence and subversion to the world’s democracies. But I do think that the use of American power, military and economic, must be employed more wisely and effectively than it has been. Nothing from the Obama administration so far indicates that any proposed military action would fulfill that goal.
Until and unless Commander-in-Chief Obama can prepare and execute a military action that would make a positive difference in the Middle East, Congress should withhold its support and consent.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
As it was two to three thousand years ago, the region we now call the Middle East has once again become, in recent years, the principal “war” battleground in the Western world.
The nature of war and conflict in this region is indeed “biblical” as the word is now used to describe something which is so generic to the major religious faiths of the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
To the other half of the planet, principally Asia and the nations of the Pacific Ocean, there must be a certain wondering how such a relatively small geographical part of the earth can be the source of such enduring violence, acrimony and war. Perhaps their puzzlement is similar to ours as we perceive the enduring conflicts of the Far East, rooted in Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Confucianism and now also Islam and secular Marxism.
It is part of the ongoing story of the human race that the ambitions and conflicts of its constituent groups (which formed after the Ice Age when “modern” civilization began) persist long after their geneses, long after the “reasons” and “causes” for them seemed pertinent.
Warfare is as old as the small groups of early humans who emerged from the caves and the steppes. Violence and aggression, it should not be forgotten, has not ever been absent from human history.
In our contemporary version, however, the crude clubs, spears and axes of early warfare have been replaced with devices of such “sophistication” and power that most persons in the world today recoil at the very notion of war. The problem is that “most persons in the world” do not have much to say about whether wars are fought or not. That is because another historic element of civilization, that is, the control of a group, nation, religion or people, remains in the hands of the very few (be they kings or emperors or dictators).
The introduction of democratic capitalism into human history is very recent, and represents a possible alteration, in the long term, of the phenomenon of war. Democratic nations, to be sure, have been involved in wars during their existence, but as former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz (later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for human rights) and others point out: there are very, very few instances of true democratic nations in the world going to war with each other.
There is only one true democratic nation now in the Middle East (I exclude Turkey whose leader has become increasingly dictatorial), and that is Israel. It should be no surprise that Israel has been the principal target and scapegoat for the other nations of the Middle East, nor should it be a surprise that, since democratic capitalism is a product of European Christianity, that the newer primary target is Christianity.
Syria is only one of the latest incidents of the seemingly endless geographical and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. Europe and the West tried to intervene in this region after World War I when it attempted to construct artificial nations from warring tribes. Time and again, Europe and the Unites States have interfered and intervened in this region, including toppling a Persian government, installing the shah, in Iran. More recently, we intervened in Iraq, and most recently, we tried to play a role in the so-called “Arab Spring.”
As a self-described “civilized nation,” we have declared that certain lines of violence and cruelty cannot be tolerated. This particularly includes the use of chemical warfare against civilian populations. There can be no doubt that chemical warfare has once again been employed in the Middle East (it was widely and devastatingly used in the first Iran-Iraq war a few decades ago) in Syria.
Seventy years ago, the U.S. introduced nuclear weaponry to warfare in order to bring World War II to a close. There can be no doubt that, as terrible was this cost to the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (probably 200,000 deaths), that the use of the atomic bomb in August, 1945 saved literally millions of lives of American and Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians, had there been a subsequent invasion of the Japanese mainland.
The horror of nuclear warfare, furthermore, has kept it from being used for seven decades, even though (disturbingly) more and more nations have acquired its capability.
During most of history, wars were either won or lost. After World War II, we have seen the emergence of wars with no winners. This has been particularly true in the Middle East, where in spite of using tiny Israel as a scapegoat, the most violence has been directed by one Arab group against another Arab group.
If the definition of the purpose of war, and its justification, is to “win,” what can the purpose be of a war that cannot be won?
Senator John McCain and other self-proclaimed “moralists” in both parties have urged President Obama to take action in Syria. I have been a persistent critic of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, but for once, I am sympathetic to his “caution” and hesitation. There is almost no support for such action in American public opinion (polls indicate up to 90% opposed to U.S. intervention). In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has just sustained an historic defeat in the House of Commons after he sought authorization to attack Syria. That defeat, which included votes from his own party, reflected British public opinion. President Obama has now agreed to a debate and vote in Congress before taking action in Syria. If Congress reflects American public opinion, Mr. Obama will also fail to get support for proposed military action in Syria.
What are our interests in a civil war in which both sides detest the United States? What are our interests in a regional conflict where chemical warfare is even contemplated, much less used? What are our interests in the Middle East where our every action, other than our historical support of the state of Israel, has been a failure?
Punish those individuals responsible for the use of chemical warfare if that is possible,. They are truly war criminals. But beyond that, any military action we might take promises terrible new wounds and unthinkable new disasters.
-Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Trying to understand events in other parts of the world is becoming increasingly difficult, paradoxically even as communications technology brings them physically into view almost instantly and so graphically.
Thus, the second “Arab revolt” in Egypt can be seen on the streets of Cairo in dramatic detail, and with numerous reports from local journalists and eye-witnesses on the spot in a continuous display.
But what we see, although vitally important to the event taking place, may not reveal much about what is happening behind the scenes where the most important decisions are being made.
When the first series of Arab national uprisings first began in 2011, they seemed to be spontaneous “grass roots” phenomena against totalitarian regimes, and were dubbed “The Arab Spring” in the West (U.S. and Europe) in an expectation that they would lead to new attitudes among Arab populations, an introduction of representative democracy into the region, and a reversal of the economic and political conditions which had dominated that part of the world for so long.
While it was true that many of the leaders of these uprisings were young and idealistic, the ruthless complexity of the Middle East also brought into contention for power many national and religious groups that would only replace one totalitarian regime with another. Any hopes that new governments might be more pro-American, less anti-Israel, and more tolerant of other religions (primarily Christianity) were soon dashed.
In a free election, leaders of the Moslem Brotherhood won control of Egypt, but soon proved unable to govern this largest of Arab nations successfully. Once again, large numbers of Egyptians took to the streets in protest against the new government. In fact, the numbers of protesters were so great that the true power in Egypt, its military, was forced to act to maintain order and stability. The elected leader was deposed, and many leaders of the Moslem Brotherhood have been arrested and otherwise detained. At the same time, the tone of most of the protesters was decidedly anti-American and anti-Israel.
On the surface, therefore, it might seem that only one Islamic regime will be replaced by another. That might be the case, but a little noticed event took place at the same time when the Israeli government agreed to Egyptian army movements in Gaza, something which is part of the Egyptian-Israeli agreements which have been in place many years. Also, quite notably, the Israeli government has been decidedly quiet about events in Egypt, although it is obvious they are following those events very, very closely. Does this mean a positive turn in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship?
We don’t know the answer to that question, nor to the question of what kind of government will now follow in Egypt, because, as I have been suggesting, we receive very little news beyond the raw television coverage in the public squares. Part of this is due to the very limited ability of American or European journalists to cover these events on the spot. Assaults on journalists have been frequent. Part of it is also due to the very limited access Western journalists have to Arab leaders and decision makers. And part of it is due to the bias of many journalists about U.S. and European foreign policies, especially those who want to portray those policies in a positive way, no matter what.
In 2011, there was a wave of optimism in the West following the so-called “Arab Spring.” This, it turned out, was premature at best, and perhaps even an overall misreading of what was happening.
In 2013, words of caution are much more in order.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
When a world figure dies, so much is written about them, I rarely feel compelled to join in on the avalanche of tributes and commentary.
The occasion of the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is one of those moments, She was unquestionably one of the giant figures of the latter half of the 20th century.
I have noted, however, among some writers and other figures in her country, and in mine, an attempt to denigrate Mrs. Thatcher, almost all of this out of political spite.
The words “divisive,” “controversial,” “headstrong,” “vindictive,”and “unwomanly” are among many terms employed pejoratively (some of these terms otherwise might not be considered negatives) in this petty spite. In fact, her most famous unofficial title, “The Iron Lady,” which she bore proudly, was originally penned by her sworn enemy, the Soviets, because of her long opposition to communism.
Margaret Thatcher, like all politicians, made mistakes. Some of her policies did not work out. But to have played a vital part, along with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev in ending the Cold War (1945-90), and in defeating totalitarian communism, places Baroness Thatcher in some very exclusive and important company. Completely on her own, she stood down attempts by the chronically dysfunctional Argentine government to annex the Falkland Islands, and helped restore a waning British self-identity.
The United Kingdom was once the greatest naval power the world has even known. It was for a few centuries the world’s greatest colonial power. At the outset of the 20th century, however, Britain was in decline, militarily and economically. By the end of the 20th century that decline had significantly increased. What has remained, however, on that small island is a legacy of language, law, and courage unmatched perhaps by any other national experience.
Even now, the UK remains outside (a Thatcher policy) the collapsing Eurozone, and holds its own with the major European powers of Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
Just as scholars, analysts and other commentators (including myself) are dissecting and reconsidering the careers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the heroes of the previous generation in the West, two great men who were, as all of us are, flawed and made mistakes, there will be time enough to analyze Margaret Thatcher’s time on the political stage.
The “death parties” and other “celebrations” of her death in the U.K. are childish and unbecoming of the British people. The denigrations of her contributions, at the moment of her death, are quite petty, especially by those men and women who fancy themselves as liberal advocates for women and feminism, but can’t allow that an English woman could accomplish so much for what she cherished and believed.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
I have been reading a great many books recently, biographies, history books and historical novels, which take place in the U.S., Europe and Asia in the period between 1934 and 1945.
This time has always interested me because it occurred before I was born or conscious of the world around me. I heard much about it from my parents, other family members and older friends over the years, and I did previously read a considerable amount about the U.S. and the worldwide depression, the rise of totalitarian fascism in Germany and Italy, the rise of totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union, the conquest of Europe by the Nazi armies and the conquest of Asia by the Japanese armies, and finally, World War II which brought the depravity of that era to a conclusion (as much as any period concludes anything before a new one springs out of what went before.)
There are many eras, of course, which are very interesting and deserve individual interest, and for Americans that often includes the colonial/revolutionary war period and the U.S. civil war period.
But I want to discuss the traumatic time of 1934 to 1945, a dozen years of unspeakable worldwide violence and terror that included the millions who died in the Stalinist agricultural and political purges in Ukraine and Russia,, nazi aggression, the Holocaust, the tens of millions of soldiers and civilians who died in the blitzkriegs, bombings and military campaigns.
There are , of course, the big names of this period, including President Franklin Roosevelt; Generals George Marshal, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur; Foreign leaders Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo, Emperor Hirohito and Charles DeGaulle.
But there are many other persons who played key roles in this pivotal time. Leaders and personalities in all of the affected nations, today much less well-known, helped determine what happened, as much more importantly, did ordinary citizens whose examples of courage, brutality, suffering and endurance made them heroes, victims, saviors, assassins, torturers and innovators in such a terrible time.
I have been reading not only accounts of London during the blitz, but also Paris during its occupation, Moscow and Leningrad during their sieges, Prague, Vienna and Warsaw when they were invaded, Berlin, Rome and Tokyo while they pursued their aggressions against most of the civilized world, and then when war fell disastrously on them, too.
The basic theme of this relatively short, but so immensely tragic, time, is the sudden appearance of such venal and totalitarian forces, the initial inability of the “civilized” resistance to them, the depravity of how some human beings treated their fellow human beings, and the final triumph of the civilized nations.
In our own time, most of us, surely in the U. S., Canada, and most of Europe, are living through nothing comparable. In other parts of the world, especially in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, whole populations are enduring the latest forms of totalitarian life. That we are spared such conditions should give us no satisfaction, but the world today is no more a cooperative place than it has been in the past. The United Nations is a gross failure as the protector of human rights.
One of the books I have recently read, “The Polish Officer’ by the American novelist Alan Furth who has turned out so many fascinating and brilliant spy novels of Central Europe in this period, is exemplary in how it portrays with extraordinary contemporary details, the color and mood of 1934-45, and illustrates that while there are important constants in human behavior, constants of heroism, venality, courage, barbarism and selflessness, no historical period is exactly like another.
In “The Polish Officer,” a young cartographer with aristocratic background holds the rank of captain in the Polish Army at the outbreak of World War II when the German army invades Poland. The novel opens just a the nazi Wehrmacht crosses the eastern Polish frontier and moves toward Warsaw, the Polish capital. At the same time, as a result of a secret pact with Germany, the Soviet army crosses the western Polish border to split the nation in two, and occupy it, dividing the spoils.
The Polish government, knowing its long history of subjugation and exploitation, quickly realized that its principal allies France and Britain would no be coming to their aid (although each country, honoring their treaties with Poland, declared war on Germany). Helpless, though courageous, Polish forces were no match for the nazi and Soviet armies, and the country fell in a few weeks .The Polish government moved en masse to Paris (and after Paris fell, to London). With Nazi troops about to enter Warsaw, the Polish captain was given a choice of whether fight on (and die), flee, or remain in Poland as an operative of the Polish resistance. He chooses the latter, and the novel then takes us through an unforgettable journey through occupied Europe as the Polish officer performs dangerous mission after mission, beginning with smuggling the Polish national gold reserves into Rumania, and then the sabotage of German army preparations for invading England, for the exiled Polish government and its Allies, most of whom are now on the island of England.
In addition to the literary skill of Mr. Furst in telling a riveting story, the author has a knack of filling his pages with amazing and apparently remarkably accurate details of daily life in occupied Europe at all levels of society. It is these details, so fulsome and compelling, which however remind me how different times are. There are good reasons why this is so, particularly differences of technology, including transportation, communications, medicine and medical treatment, weaponry, among others aspects of daily life.
I have long said and written, that while history does not actually repeat itself, it does instruct us. We may be entering a new dark and problematic period of history. New forces of terror, hatred and violence have appeared. An extended period of economic stress, fostered by worldwide debt and economic instability, has also appeared. How we get through and resolve this global crisis is uncertain, but it seems it will not be merely a repeat of the crises of the just completed 20th century.
Yet certain themes of human behavior do not appear to change from century to century.
The United States is understandably weary of war. We have recently taken serious casualties, and unlike at the end of World War II or at the end of the Cold War, our benefits of victory and national interests are not yet clear. Grievous as the losses were on September 11, they do not even come close to the losses in other parts of the world in the last century, or even our own losses in our civil war in the century before that. The totalitarian impulse, alas, does not go away. It is rapacious and violent in all its actions. We ignore it at our very great peril. Freedom is not a slogan, It is the fundamental condition of human life if we are to advance as a species and survive.
Freedom is the incomparable human destiny, and if we lose it, we lose everything we think we want to be.
-Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.
Hillary Clinton has decided to take the blame for the Benghazi mess:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells CNN’s “Out Front,” “I take responsibility” for the Mideast violence on Sept. 11, remarks coming on the heels of the VP debate in which Joe Biden suggested the White House hasn’t known of requests for more security in Benghazi.
In a clear nod to not only the election but the two debates coming in the next week, she added, “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”
Apparently it’s “gotcha politics” to demand that the president be held accountable for his embarrassingly inept handling of a foreign policy fiasco. Vice President Biden thought that it would be a fantastic defense of his boss’ competence to announce to the world that his administration was completely ignorant of critical security requests; now the Secretary of State apparently thinks that this exercise in buck-passing will reflect well upon the president, too.
This embarrassing merry-go-round of blame-shifting provides Mitt Romney with some incredible opportunities to eviscerate Obama tomorrow night over his leadership qualities — or lack thereof. One must suspect that he’ll take advantage of them.
In its beginning, there was only one set of Nobel Prizes. Swedish industrial mogul Alfred Nobel established the annual international awards to recognize great contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace more than 100 years ago. The Prizes soon became the worldwide standard for recognizing human achievement.
This reputation of the prize lasted through two world wars. But after World War II, those who decided who would win the Prizes, committees in Sweden and Norway, often and increasingly chose to use some of the Prizes to express their political opinions. A new Prize was added in economics, a quasi-scientific discipline.
While the recipients of the Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine have continued to have the reputation for making some of the greatest contributions to humanity (with only occasional controversy), the awards in peace, literature and economics have often become self-parodies of the Nobel committees, obviously (and frequently explicitly) ideological and political, and, if the truth be told, a laughing stock for many observers in the world.
Last year, however, I wrote in praise of the 2011 Prize in literature that went to the great Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. After many years of awarding this Prize to leftist writers of uneven stature, the Prize went to one of the world’s greatest writers, in my opinion, whose work was beyond politics. (In fact, Mr. Transtromer is a political liberal, but his literary standing is based on the remarkable quality of his poetry).
The Prizes in literature and economics have not yet been announced (but will have been by the time this published), so I have nothing to say about this year’s awards in these fields.
The Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine have been awarded, and as usual, they have recognized some of the world’s most outstanding scientists.
It is the just-announced awarding of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, however, which has provoked me to write this column. This year’s Prize went to the European Union. This supra-national organization of most of the national states of the European continent has been in a prolonged economic and political crisis for many years, a crisis, I might add, of its own doing.
This year’s award is beyond ludicrous, beyond self-parody, and is one more instance of the Norwegian committee’s masochistic damage to the reputation of a once highly regarded Nobel Prize for peace. (It echoes the award in a few years ago to Barack Obama before he had served as president. That award was made solely on the hope that he would, in the future, contribute to world peace. Does anyone, except his political partisans, seriously consider him worthy of a Nobel Prize for peace three years later?)
The award to the European Union this year is similarly based on hope that the institution will survive. It is a self-congratulatory and desperate act of some elitist Norwegian Europeans who are observing the European Union, one of the world’s most dysfunctional organizations, endure protracted economic distress and loss of public confidence.
Alfred Nobel’s original idea was to recognize the highest human achievements. The purely scientific Prizes maintain that high standard. The second group of Prizes (in literature, economics and peace) have become too often an insult to Mr. Nobel’s vision, and a sad joke about what human beings can yet achieve.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
It is a well-worn commonplace in U.S. presidential politics that foreign policy does not matter much to voters in choosing their chief executive. It is domestic policy which matters, we are told, and voters make their electoral judgments on either the economic performance of a first-term incumbent or when there is no incumbent, the performance of the party in power.
Recent history confirms that this is generally correct, and most recently, in 2008, it was certainly so, following two terms of President George W. Bush, and the mortgage banking meltdown which occurred during the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Republican nominee John McCain that year clearly had superior foreign policy experience, but in spite of much more experience in economic policy as well, seemed ineffective in dealing with the sudden economic crisis. His opponent, Democrat Barack Obama, had no visible experience in any governmental policy, but all he needed to do was offer the prospects of new policy which he skillfully did with his oratory and his slogan of “hope and change.”
We have a different kind of election in 2012. The incumbent this year was the challenger in 2008. His economic record, simply put, is that after almost four years, his policies have not solved the chronic problems of unemployment, lack of economic growth and recovery which he inherited. His one major domestic achievement, healthcare reform (known as Obamacare) is unpopular, controversial and expensive in terms of increasing the national debt. Its unpopularity was a catalyst for major Republican congressional victories in 2010.
Nevertheless, the campaign remains apparently close. Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent this time, Mitt Romney, has both public and private experience, the latter including an adult lifetime of successful business management. Mr. Obama and his campaign team have attempted to make Mr. Romney’s business experience controversial, and have spent huge sums in campaign advertising doing so, but there is no indication that they have been successful. On the other hand, Mr. Romney has had little foreign policy experience.
In the recent flare-up in the Middle East, including assaults on our embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and many other nations, President Obama’s reaction has seemed to many to be weak and apologetic. He and his supporters see it differently, of course, because Mr Obama has pursued a policy of trying to improve the American public image with Arab countries since the beginning of his term, a policy of apologizing for past U.S. policy while at the same time keeping an arm’s length from our ally in the region, Israel. This policy, right or wrong, has had consequences, but there was hope in the Obama administration that their efforts were paying off with the eruption of the so-called “Arab Spring” in which several Middle East nations overthrew existing regimes for new ones.
Recent developments, however, signal that the Obama approach to the Middle East is not working as intended. Demonstrations of anti-American attitudes have taken the form of assaults on our embassies and, in one tragic case, the assassination of our ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues. Efforts by the administration to significantly improve diplomatic security in the Middle East by sending in Marines have not been received well by host nations, and in at least one instance, refused. At the same time, Mr. Obama and his spokespersons have asserted that the demonstrations were not really anti-American, something which is plainly not true.
Mr. Romney, after an initial criticism of the Obama Middle East policy, has turned his attention to domestic issues. Like Mr. Obama in 2008, he need not try to second-guess the crisis; after expressing his disagreement, he can let the public make its own judgment if it wants more of the same or new “hope and change” under his leadership.
The economy is still the number one matter on voters’ minds. The election will be decided in states where economies have suffered in the current downturn. But the fragile condition of U.S. foreign policy in the face of international fiscal and military challenges has taken on a new urgency. In 1952, it was former General Dwight Eisenhower who won on the promise he would “go to Korea,” presumably to solve the Truman policies of a prolonged Korean War. Four years later, President Eisenhower seemed in command in the face of the Hungarian and Suez Canal crises of 1956. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was able to portray his opponent Barry Goldwater as a foreign policy extremist in the Cold War, but four years later, Richard Nixon made a comeback exploiting the public dissatisfaction with Johnson’s policy in Viet Nam. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a last-minute landslide victory against President Jimmy Carter whose policy to return U.S. hostages in Iran was failing.
So foreign policy issues have a way of intruding on American presidential politics, and the prolonged decline of U.S. status in the world, both economically and militarily, makes it likely this intrusion will occur in 2012. If Mr. Obama’s foreign policies are perceived by voters as failing, Mr. Romney ironically need not do anything more than indicate he offers the “hope and change” of a different foreign policy. He can then concentrate in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign on the issues of domestic policy and the economy which are foremost on the minds of voters.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
No one, including any Republican or Democrat, should avoid recognizing that the United States is now in a foreign crisis that threatens our national interests, our citizens here and abroad, most of our embassies and consulates, and our armed forces wherever they are stationed.
The first priority, in my opinion, is for the commander-in-chief (and president) to recognize and understand where the threat is coming from. To suggest that the whole radical Islamic world is in riot mode over an obscure amateur film that few have seen is ludicrous. The actions in Egypt and Libya, and now in much of the Middle East were clearly carefully planned anti-American efforts, coordinated by the Islamic radical movement, and timed to occur on the September 11 anniversary and afterwards. To further suggest that by denouncing the film and the filmmaker, and continually apologizing for them, that the anti-Americanism will somehow disappear, is beyond ludicrous.
The first duty of the commander-in-chief is to protect our diplomats, our soldiers and our citizens with unmistakeable resolve, clarity and force. Either he is in charge or he is not.
To try to blame the Republican nominee for president, expressing the outrage of most Americans, of “politics” just won’t wash. Mr. Romney must use reasonable caution in what he says, but he is duty bound to express his opinion under these circumstances. The Obama administration now says it will now include Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan in high-level intelligence briefings (as is the American tradition during an election year). That is step in the right direction. The priority is to make the current crisis recede, and partisans of both political parties should wish that most of all.
It seems obvious that Middle East countries which have received our financial aid and encouragement, but cannot provide security for American diplomats, have little or no respect for the United States of America, nor for the consequences of such a grievous breach of international diplomacy, and they need to know our country cannot tolerate such behavior.
Otherwise, what seems out of control now, will soon be magnified and become even more disastrous. This is not about Mitt Romney and anything he might say. It is about Barack Obama and his leadership in a crisis. All of us wish him well in this, for all our sakes. But he must take command.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
It is curious that polls suggest that more Americans trust President Obama more than Mitt Romney to run U.S. foreign policy. This might not last much longer, given the sad and dangerous events in Egypt and Libya (and now suddenly throughout the world) in which American embassies and our highest diplomatic representatives were not protected by their host countries.
It is not that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were directly responsible for these heinous acts of violence, but serious questions arise about whether their foreign policy has created a climate for extremist Islamic elements in those and other Middle East nations to act in such a violent manner and then not be concerned about the consequences of their actions.
At the beginning of his presidency, President Obama went to to the Middle East and apologized for the role of the United States, He has since repeatedly done so, always excusing the perpetrators of violence by identifying with their grievances or rationalizing them. Just after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Egypt (but before the assassination of the US. ambassador in Libya), the administration apologized for an obscure anti-Islamic film, made and shown in the U.S., that had presumably provoked the demonstrations. It now appears the film was only the pretense and cover for what was a carefully-planned series of attacks that included the assassination of our ambassador in Benghazi.The president hastily withdrew the State Department apology, especially in light of the events in Libya, but whether or not it was made at a lower level, it fit a long-established pattern of defensiveness and uttering public regrets for U.S. behavior and national interests.
It is one of the facts of modern life, so indelibly made clear by the aggression of Nazi and Soviet regimes in the mid-twentieth century, that passivity and weakness in the face of totalitarian bullying leads to more and more violence. We, as individuals, may yearn for a peaceful world, and lacking that, think we can avoid international violence simply by withdrawing from the world, but the unavoidable truth of our new century is (alas) the same truth of the past 5000 years of recorded history, that is, aggression is a permanent condition of human civilization and its various organizations into nations.
When Republican nominee Mitt Romney spoke up about the administration’s apology for the demonstrators who attacked our embassy in Egypt, Mr. Obama said his words were inappropriate and “politicizing” the situation. This from the man who “politicized” the war in Iraq when he was a senator and presidential candidate himself, this from a campaign which “politicizes” virtually everything and attacks their opponents with the most inappropriate charges and language imaginable!
And finally, this from the man who, speaking as president, said that Egypt was not an American ally. (He did retract this statement later, but the gaffe was eerily like the one President Gerald Ford made in the 1976 presidential debate when he said that Poland was not part of the Soviet bloc.)
In fact, Mr. Romney was expressing his personal outrage at the wrongheadedness and hypocrisy of Mr. Obama and his foreign policy. Not only that, I think Mr. Romney did it in a way that was quite presidential, and I noticed that in a press conference after the said events in Libya, he did not back down or apologize. He said he would continue to speak out about the continued failures of U.S.foreign policy by those temporarily in charge of it.
The more the Obama foreign policy degrades into chaos, and the more I hear from Mr. Romney in response on the subject, the more I think we are hearing from someone who should be in charge in Washington, DC, and soon.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Mitt Romney made his first foreign trip since becoming the 2012 Republican nominee-presumptive for president. As with so many trips of its kind before it, including a similar one by nominee Barack Obama in 2008, it was designed both to show off Mr. Romney’s foreign policy skills and to have appeal to ethnic constituencies in the U.S.
How did he do?
In baseball terms, in three at bats, he got two hits. His first at bat was in Great Britain, our oldest and historically strongest European ally. It coincided with the opening of the Olympic Games in London. Since Mr. Romney had been in charge of the Games a decade before, it seemed an appropriate time and place, but if the truth be told, the former Massachusetts governor flubbed it by implying that his hosts did not have their act totally together. Was it hubris about his own (and genuine) expertise on the subject, or just insensitive inexperience? Whether one of those or both, it was a mistake, and it cost him intensely bad press for the visit and overshadowed his later private visit with British Prime Minister Cameron, and Romney’s subsequent public statement that he would welcome back the small bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office if he were elected (President Obama had returned it to the British earlier) In sum, Mr. Romney fouled out over the right field line.
The next leg of his visit was to Israel where Mr. Romney seemed to score one success after another, emphatically stating his support for our ally Israel, and identifying with the anxieties facing the Jewish state. He declared that Jerusalem was the true capital of Israel (the U.S. currently has its embassy in Tel Aviv), and although he met with the Palestinian prime minister as well as with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he left no doubt where his political sympathies lay. In spite of the U.S. Anglo-Saxon heritage, there is no real “British” vote in the U.S., but there is a notable Jewish vote. Most American Jews traditionally vote Democratic by a large margin; in fact, Mr. Obama won 78% of the U.S. Jewish vote in 2008, but the president’s share of this vote, according to recent polls, has been slipping. Nontheless, Mr. Obama will win the majority of this vote this year. Perhaps the real constituency Mr. Romney was aiming at was the much larger U.S. Christian evangelical group of voters, many of whom have become strong supporters of Israel in the Middle East crisis. As a Mormon, Mr. Romney did not do especially well with this group during the primaries. His Israeli visit could do nothing but improve Mr Romney’s standing with evangelicals. Bottom line, Mr. Romney hit a home run over the center field fence.
The third leg of Mitt Romney’s travel across the Pond perhaps received the least attention from the media and political observers, but may have the most political impact back home. Visiting Poland, recently liberated from communism and the Soviet Union, he was welcomed by one of our newest allies, albeit one that may have felt slighted by the Obama administration. Mr. Romney was especially invited to Gdansk by Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity and the Polish revolution that liberated Poland. There. Mr. Walesa effusively greeted Mr. Romney and, for all intents and purposes, endorsed him. (Current leaders of Solidarity, it should be noted, disagreed with Mr Walesa, citing Mr. Romney as anti-union in the U.S.) From there, the former Massachusetts governor went to the capital Warsaw and met with the Polish president. There he paid special tribute to the memory of Pope John Paul II who had played such an important role in both the liberation of Poland and the overall defeat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. None of this could be lost on the very sizable (mostly Catholic) Polish-American electorate in the U.S., many of whom live in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Final tally, a triple to the left field corner for Governor Romney.
Keeping with a long-standing U.S. tradition, Mr. Romney made no direct criticism of President Obama during his trip, but his statements throughout provided many stark contrasts with Mr Obama’s actions and policies. In the final scorecard for this election, foreign policy will almost certainly count less than domestic economic policy. Supporters of President Obama understandably focus on Mr. Romney’s blunder in London, while supporters of Governor Romney will understandably focus on his successes in Israel and Poland. In reality, it was the introduction of Mitt Romney to the complex international stage.
If he is someone who learns from his experiences, as his 2012 primary/caucus campaign indicated he did (from his unsuccessful 2008 effort), Mitt Romney will benefit most personally from his British experience, however momentarily unpleasant, on this visit. As Barack Obama learned in 2008, that is, being a senator is not being a president, Mr. Romney has now has more evidence that being a governor is not the same as working in the Oval Office.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
The leaders of Italy and France essentially “blackmailed” Frau Merkel into reversing her decision to stop the bailouts, and one more time, a stopgap
“plan” has been put into place to stave off the day of European reckoning. A new and inexperienced conservative prime minister in Spain, and a
disappointingly weak conservative prime prime minister in Great Britain, have gone along, having their own hands full with local economic problems. Troubled economies in Greece and Portugal are doing nothing really to correct their own problems.
Having begun various programs of austerity, European leaders are now being pressured to reverse themselves to promote “growth.” In this case, the word “growth” is a euphemism for repeating the old policies which have caused the continental economic crisis. Its assumption is the discredited notion that an economy can spend its way out of its problems while, at the same time, increasing taxes on the rich.
Lest I be accused of simply pointing an American finger at the Europeans in their time of crisis, I need to cite the unfortunate role of the American president, Barack Obama, who has pressured the Europeans to adopt the “growth” approach and reject austerity. Mr. Obama, of course, practices in the U.S. what he preaches for Europe, and the result has been a lagging economy, high unemployment, slow growth and general pessimism about a recovery that does not ever seem to arrive. Mr. Obama’s motive is also informed by his belief that if the “growth” band-aid is not applied, the troubles of the European economy could hurt his own chances for re-election by further depressing American trade with Eurozone member nations in the near term.
The 2012 presidential election campaign is turning out to be not quite as expected. The nominees are no surprise; it was almost certain that Barack Obama would run for a second term, and likely that 2008 GOP runner-up Mitt Romney would be his opponent in November. But the conventional wisdom about each of these men, one type-cast as a charismatic and savvy campaigner and the other as a boring speaker and “cold fish,” is being turned on its head as the November campaign just begins in earnest more than two months before the two national conventions in late August and early September.
It is conventional to think of the remaining five months until election day to be a long time politically. But in terms of a presidential election, with overriding issues of the domestic economy almost always paramount, this may not be the case. Movements in the economy, and the statistics about them, appear slowly. One recent example of this took place in 1992 when a down economy was already beginning to recover by the late autumn, but it was not apparent enough to voters to save incumbent President George H.W. Bush’s re-election against challenger Bill Clinton. Only a year before, right after the Gulf War, Bush’s popularity had been very high, but those numbers had faded quickly.
In June 2012, the U.S. economy, suffering from a prolonged downturn, including historic levels of prolonged high unemployment, seems unable to recover. The worldwide economic crisis, particularly acute in Europe, appears to present even further challenges in the short turn. A recovery could begin over the next five months, but it takes longer than that for the evidence to be visible. Individuals and corporations do have substantial assets currently in cash which could fuel a recovery, but little incentive to do so. President Obama’s often-stated public policies, especially of higher taxes, bail-outs and more federal spending, and the increased public debt of his Obamacare programs, all tend to inhibit consumer and business optimism. New statistics indicate that U.S. families lost about 40% of their net worth from 2007 to 2010. Almost every adult has a good idea of their net worth, and such a massive shrinkage can only tend to prevent pessimistic consumers from spending their available cash. In fact, in these circumstances there is an incentive to hoard more cash and not to spend. Similarly, businesses will not take the risk of investing in expansion or hiring new employees in such an economic climate. Larger corporations, even if they are making profits, tend to reduce their payrolls during an economic decline in order to be more efficient and raise earnings.
The stock market, which following World War II became a principal part of what individuals consider their net asset value (through investments, employee pension funds, IRAs and other retirement savings) generally anticipates an economic recovery 6-9 months before such a recovery becomes obvious. The other major part (and often larger part) of what individuals and families consider their net asset value is the house they own. Real estate values, long in decline in most parts of the U.S., continue to be significantly down, even though the government props up the housing market with extraordinarily low interest rates.
The value of a voter’s pension or other retirement funds, and his or her real estate property, down 40%, cannot be hidden by political rhetoric, slogans and photo opportunities. Since all of these, plus job security, take time to change and become evident, historically much longer than five months, the commonplace that a lot can happen domestically before the election this year is just very unlikely.
One area, however, in which five months IS a long time is in foreign affairs. In 1956, dramatic world events, including the Soviet invasion of
Hungary and the Suez Canal crisis, occurred only a few months and days before the election, propelling President Eisenhower to an easy re-election against Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson. Perhaps Eisenhower would have won anyway, but the foreign crises (in which he was perceived to be the much better leader) made it a slam-dunk.
With international hot spots now scattered all over the globe, including the perennial Middle East crisis further complicated by the so-called “Arab Spring” and the threat of nuclear weapons being developed by Iran; the continued erratic and threatening activities of North Korea: the chronic anti-Americanism coming from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaraugu; and the drug wars in Mexico; and the possibility of some new crisis emerging from a part of the world now unanticipated, the attention of U.S. voters could be averted from their economic woes on short notice.
So far, President Obama has not generally acted in his foreign policy in ways that assert or strengthen U.S. power and leadership in the world. In fact, his policies have been to play down our international role, and withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. A new world crisis might normally enhance an incumbent president’s standing with voters, as it did in 1956, but that happens when an incumbent has shown mastery of foreign affairs, resolve and strength in dealing with our allies and enemies. The question then is: Would President Obama benefit politically if a new international crisis develops in the next five months?
Mitt Romney led through most of the Republican nomination process, but there remained throughout that time a lingering question of his ability to mount an effective campaign against an incumbent president, including his ability to raise funds and his willingness to aggressively oppose Mr. Obama (in contrast to 2008 GOP nominee John McCain’s lackluster campaign). Since his nomination was assured, however, Mr. Romney has begun to raise more money than the Democrats, has responded quickly and effectively to the campaign against him, and has shown a new stature. He remains a less-than-charismatic communicator, but he has, to be fair, shown much improvement over his failed effort in 2008.
At the same time, President Obama’s 2008 image as an eloquent and charismatic new leader has faded. His political base has weakened. His strong support from the left, as the latest Netroots convention has indicated, has noticeably weakened. His support among most ethnic groups is down (with the possible and important exception of Hispanic voters). His refusal to help the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the recent Wisconsin recall election cannot have enhanced his support among union voters. Although Mr Obama made many flubs and misstatements throughout the first three years of his presidency (as, to be fair, all presidents do), the Old Media ignored them and virtually all negative aspects of his performance in office. Today, even the Old Media (almost entirely liberal) is reporting more and more of Mr. Obama’s
problems, even as the New Media (mostly conservative) jumps on everything he says. Campaign year 2012 is a dramatically different political and media environment for the Obama campaign from what they experienced in 2008 and afterwards.
All of this does not mean that Mr. Obama cannot be re-elected in 2012. He still has, in the all-important electoral college, control of the large states of New York, Illinois and California, as well as most of the northeastern states. He will almost certainly win Minnesota, Oregon and Washington. But elsewhere, in numerous key battleground states he won in 2008, he is no sure winner. In fact, he could lose most of them. The visible confidence of the president and his campaign team, so evident only a few weeks ago, has been replaced with alarm, if not panic, in the face of the unanticipated strong Romney challenge and the continued bad news about the economy.
This is not what the Democrats quite expected to happen in 2012. Nor is it what many Republicans, thinking they would have to wait until 2017 to return to the White House, quite expected.
Now all bets are off.
-Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved. Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site.
From the official release:
“I welcome the expulsion of Syrian diplomats by the United States and other partner nations. But it only underscores the need for more assertive measures to end the Assad regime. President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals. We should increase pressure on Russia to cease selling arms to the Syrian government and to end its obstruction at the United Nations. And we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.”
My grandfather Morris Masiroff emigrated from Czarist Russia when he was a young musician more than 100 years ago. He had been drafted into the Russian army, and served for a time as the conductor of one of the Czar’s military bands, but after a series of violent pogroms, he, like so many of his co-religionists, fled Russian and sailed to the United States, settling briefly in New York City. He became a street peddler. My grandmother, whom he had known back in Russia, where she lived in a neighboring village, emigrated separately with her four sisters to New York a few years before. There she was reunited with my grandfather and they married. Soon after that, they moved to Erie. PA (for reasons I do not know, or if I once did, I have forgotten). It was precisely the turn of the century, and my grandfather, a clarinetist and a composer by profession, opened a small furniture store, expanded from his selling goods on the street. (This story was repeated, in assorted forms, in hundreds of cities and towns, and more than many hundred thousand times over the next few decades.)
For a musical artist, my grandfather (whom I do not remember; I was two when he died) obviously had some business skills as well in a very volatile and risky period of American capitalism, and he managed not only to survive, but to grow his business over the years until it occupied the floors of two five-storey buildings on opposite sides of upper State Street, Erie’s main downtown thoroughfare. He made it through a financial panic in 1907, a World War from 1917-18 and then the stock market crash in 1929. His business went on, however, and he put his money in as safe a place as you seemingly could in those days, The Second National Bank of Erie. By 1933, however, the Depression was worsening, and many banks were teetering. “Runs” on many banks were common (where panicky depositors lined up to withdraw their savings). When there was a run on the Second National Bank, thinking this was America and not Russia, my grandfather did not get in line to try to withdraw his money. In a short time, the bank ran out of funds to pay depositors, and it closed its doors forever. All his money was lost There was no bank insurance and no recourse. Not all the banks closed, and not all the deposits were lost, but in February and March, 1933, the nation came close to the collapse of its entire banking system. On March 4, 1933, a new president of the United States was inaugurated, and one of the first things he did was close all the banks in America for a few days, “a bank holiday,” he called it, and through his inaugural speech and aggressive action in his first hours and days in office, restored enough public confidence to re-open the banks without further panic.
Today, there is in the United States a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that guarantees, as a form of insurance, all deposits under $100,000 in U.S. banks (this limit has been expanded to $250,000 per account until the end of 2013). When banks have failed since 1934, no depositors have lost any money (shareholders in the banks, however, presumably did). Of course, this guarantee is not quite as
absolutely certain as some might think. It assumes that the guarantor, the U.S. government and treasury have enough money (“full faith and credit”) to back up the losses. The recent bailouts of major U.S. banks, following the mortgage banking crisis, were not bailouts of depositors in those banks. They were bailouts of the shareholders and the creditors of those banks.
I have told the story of my grandfather because, with the increasing reports of panic in Europe, and runs on some of its banks, as the European Union faces a continuing economic crisis, I think it may be useful to remember a time when panic and bank runs were very real and very devastating in the U.S.
I don’t know how he did it, but my grandfather somehow survived the loss of all his money in the Second National Bank of Erie. I think I remember hearing he took on a partner in the business who invested some cash. It was a difficult time to be in the furniture business, or any retail business. Few persons had any money to buy things. My grandfather’s furniture business was not an upscale one. It sold furniture to blue collar and working poor families in Erie, and often on credit that was not paid for an extended period of time. His willingness to
extend credit beyond normal limits created a very special loyalty for thousands of his Erie customers, most of whom did ultimately pay their bills during those difficult Depression days. After it was over, and World War II’ was over, most of them, now earning good money in the post-War period, came back again and again to buy their furniture. from Masiroff’s. When I was a teen-ager and worked in the family business (first as a janitor, but later as a salesman), I heard numerous stories from customers who told me how Masiroff’s helped them through bad times, and now they would buy their furniture and appliances at no other store. Younger customers would tell me time and again how their parents and grandparents insisted they buy their furniture only at Masiroff’s.
(By the 1970′s, however, family furniture stores, and many other family businesses, were replaced by chain stores and discount stores if they did not adapt. My uncle, my grandfather’s only surviving son, managed the store for the family, but he did not adapt. The business was liquidated at pennies on the dollar.)
In Germany and France today, the governments are in a position to stabilize their banking systems, even in the present period where most of the nation states of the European Union have a common currency, the euro. Great Britain, wisely it now seems, did not accept the euro, even though it joined the EU. Smaller European nations, however, are in deep trouble. There is now an expectation that Greece will
withdraw from the euro, and reinstate its former currency, the drachma. Anticipating this, many Greeks are beginning to withdraw their euro deposits from Greek banks, and depositing them in banks in Germany, Switzerland and France. They have assumed that, at the moment Greece withdraws from the euro, their accounts will automatically become drachmas that will quickly lose their value in
relationship to the euro of the rest of Europe. This scenario could then be repeated in Spain, Italy, Portugal and other smaller EU countries. These countries and their treasuries might not have the reserves to back up their local banks. Like my grandfather, the citizens of these countries could be wiped out financially, and this could lead rather quickly to a virtual collapse of most of the European economy.
This is, of course, the worst case outcome. Europe still has a very large economy, and Germany, most of Scandinavia, France and Great Britain still have very significant financial resources. The worldwide Depression of the 1920′s and 30″s was preceded by the collapse of a speculative “bubble,” but the true impact of disaster occurred because of the disappearance of credit in the money supply. In Europe, especially in Weimar Germany (a brief republic), extraordinary inflation, accompanied by massive unemployment, wiped out the post-war economies. In Russia, a decadent absolutist monarchy was also briefly replaced by a liberal regime, but the Russian economy had, at that time, little heavy industry, few entrepreneurs, no available investment capital, much actual starvation, and no past experience with democracy. It was thus easy prey to an insurgent and predatory communist takeover.
2012 is not 1932, but the basic conditions of human life remain unaltered. In a healthy democratic capitalist society, bad times are transformed into good times again. A healthy society not only provides for its poorest members, it provides opportunity for all its members to succeed and thrive. Only a very few centenarian Americans alive today remember well those scary times in 1932-33 when the U.S. banking system teetered on the edge of collapse, and real revolution was in the air. What would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had
not brought calm and then confidence back to the banking and free market system? The answer is that a political and economic system we now take for granted might have collapsed into anarchy, and who knows what after that.
The worst case is what did happen in parts of Europe then, and the cost was hundreds of millions of lives, unspeakable violence and human depravity.
Many more persons now live in Europe, and their standard of living, even in the poorest of countries, is many levels above the poverty and despair that existed only 80 years ago. When I read about runs on the banks in Europe, however, I think about how unsympathetic and impersonal history can be when political and economic leaders behave badly.
I’m just saying.
-Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved. Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site.
If it weren’t so disastrous a strategy, President Obama’s urging Europeans to abandon current attempts at “austerity” in favor of returning to their old policies of creating more public debt through “job creation” spending, would be laughable. Mr. Obama, now finding his soul-mate in new socialist French President Hollande and his economic ideas, is not without a political purpose, however. He is trying to hold off the collapse of the euro currency, and possibly the European Union itself, at least until the U.S. presidential election in November. A European economic catastrophe would have much impact on the U.S. economy in the long run, and it would dash any chance of U.S. economic recovery in the short tun, the latter almost certainly precluding Mr. Obama’s already problematic re-election.
Mr. Obama’s recommendation to Europe could be likened to a proposal that, after the Titanic had struck the iceberg that cold night in the north Atlantic, the Titanic crew should have destroyed the few lifeboats they had for the purpose of making firewood.
After more than a century of central government entitlement spending in the various European nations, and after two horrific world wars of violence and self-destruction, “austerity” is a complicated public policy to follow in Europe. To be fair, European politicians, especially in the smaller member nations which have more limited resources, have a genuine dilemma. It is especially difficult, and its measures are especially painful and shocking to those populations which know no other way of life. When you fully realize that one-quarter of adult employable Spaniards are out of work, for example, you have some true perspective on the extent of the economic crisis on that side of the Atlantic.
Compared to Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, the French are much more capable of enduring a program of austerity. The French economy is not in as bad shape as many others on the Continent. But, for now, the French seem turned in the wrong direction. Germany is the strongest economy in the European Union. Chancellor Merkel is being heavily pressured to abandon austerity measures, not only from the Obama administration, and her EU partners, but from restless German voters, some on the left and some of whom no longer want to bail out the rest of Europe.
The indelibly simple reality of world economics today, however, and especially in Europe, is that forms of “austerity,” sacrifice, “biting the bullet,” and adjustments of entitltements, are the only way out of the economic crisis. The longer it takes to happen, the more severe it will be on the populations of Europe and its member nations. The idea that the problem can be solved by “job creation” and more public spending is delusional. It is also a residue of the socialistic ideas born in Europe almost two hundred years ago, and practiced there to various degrees and in various forms since.
These ideas clothed in the language of idealism, compassion and egalitarianism (e.g..,”redistribution of wealth,”) have in practice brought to Europe cynicism, violence, suffering and depravity for more than a century.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved. Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site.
“Sensational” breaking news recently included datelines from France and West Virginia. The former was the defeat of incumbent French President Sarkozy by his socialist opponent in France’s presidential election, and the latter was the news that a criminal felon residing in a U.S. penitentiary (in Texas) had received 41% of the vote in the West Virginia Democratic primary against President Obama.
How are these events related?
They are part of a general political trend these days in which voters are demonstrating how unhappy they are with current economic conditions AND how current politicians are dealing with the problems arising from these worldwide and local political crises.
These two events perhaps got more headlines than other similar events, but it can also be noted that Greek voters rejected their current leadership and Indiana voter rejected long-time U.S. Senator Lugar, a fixture in Washington, DC for decades. in his attempt for re-election. There are numerous other similar examples occurring at all levels of government here and abroad.
Of course, not all of these events are of equal importance and validity. The narrow loss by M. Sarkozy and a more one-sided loss by the Greek government have been written off as voter rejection of recent government attempts at “austerity” as an approach to solve European debt crisis problems. But what will be the result of turning away from even the modest “austerity”that was attempted by the French and Greek governments now thrown out by their voters?
Virtually all of Western culture, in Europe and North America, has been indoctrinated with the notion that citizens are entitled beyond “life, liberty andmthe pursuit of happiness” to certain material benefits, including healthcare and old age pensions. Many Western societies also guarantee post-secondary school education. Each of these “entitlements” is very expensive, and requires government revenues to pay for them. In the past, the notion was promulgated that the cost of these entitlements could be paid for by charging them to future generations in the form of accumulating government debt.
In prosperous times, and while these entitlement programs were in their initial phases, this seemed to be a workable system. It did not take that long, however, for outflows to dramatically exceed inflows, and periodic “repairs” to entitlement systems took place. These “repairs” have not fixed their systems, however. They have, in most cases, only put off the time when draconian actions will have to take place to “save” the entitlement (if they can be saved at all).
In Europe, more than the U.S., perhaps, the belief that entitlements did not have to be paid for took greater hold. Many government entitlement programs were created in Europe long before they were initiated in the U.S. Instead of applying measures to limit the accumulating debt (that paid for current entitlement payments), the Europeans did the opposite. They shortened the work week, increased benefits, cut the retirement age, and universalized healthcare.
There are laws of financial gravity, however, and it was only a matter of time before the financial system, which is based on the principle that what is borrowed will be paid back, would be able to bear no more debt. That is exactly where most of the nations on Europe and North America have come to in the present crisis. The solution to this ongoing crisis in Europe has been essentially to use government funds to bail out the banks and other institutions which hold this debt. But in order to have the government funds to do this, the governments have to raise their revenues through taxes. Raising taxes, however, discourages businesses from expanding and hiring new workers. In fact, in an economic decline, businesses reduce their operations and lay off workers. Individuals facing higher taxes reduce their spending, which in turn, reduces demand and cause production to go down. These are fairly universal economic truths.
Spain today has almost one-quarter of its working age population unemployed. Other member of the European Union have varying amounts of very high unemployment. The obvious solution to these conditions is for the member governments to reduce the amounts of the entitlements they have been paying out, and to reduce government spending. Being Europeans, however, the natural impulse of EU politicians is also to raise taxes. With such high levels of unemployment, and European taxes already prohibitive, increasing tax revenue is not a fruitful path to restoring economic health.
That will not stop the politicians, however. It certainly will not inhibit M. Hollande, the new French socialist president. You can count on the European crisis, therefore to continue (and get worse).
I do not think I need add any comments to the electoral performance of the West Virginia felon who ran against President Obama in that state’s presidential Democratic primary from his current residence in a Texas penitentiary, and obtained 41% of the vote.
As for Richard Lugar, at 80 years of age, he ran one race too many.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved. Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site.
My home town has been an historic and major inland shipbuildng port for two centuries. Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet, which won a decisive victory on Lake Erie in the War of 1812 (“We Have Met The Enemy And They Are Ours”), was built in Erie, PA, and later the first iron-hulled warship, the Wolverine,, was built in Erie several decades later. Over the next hundred years, ships of all sizes were built by various boat builders at the port of Erie which also had the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes, and still has a major U.S. Coast Guard station. A few years ago, this industry was revived locally, and currently huge freighters, tugboats and smaller ships and boats are built and repaired in the city. My own interest in ships has kept me (now living far away) abreast of this industry, and in the course of my reading about it, I came across a term I did not previously know— a cofferdam.
A cofferdam (sometimes just called a coffer) is a temporary structure built over water which enables ship repair (among other purposes) to take place in a body of water on dry land. Usually using a steel enclosure, the water is removed and the space filled with dirt. It’s an expensive process, but it is done when putting a ship in drydock is unfeasible or, as is often the case, even more expensive than a cofferdam. If you live in a port city, especially on a Great Lake or near a major river, you have probably seen a cofferdam. The cofferdam. being temporary, is removed after use.
It has occurred to me that the way politicians are dealing with the current economic crises, is very much like using a cofferdam. Unfortunately, while the cofferdam is a practical and necessary device in ship repair, I think the fiscal cofferdams appearing in the US. and Europe these days function in an opposite manner. The U.S. economy, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the private pension fund system, mortgage banking system, healthcare financing system and other major economic structuress are in need of historic and very major repair. The great ship which is our economy really should be taken into drydock for serious and critical work. Putting an economic ship into drydock , however, involves delays, dislocations and other “inconvenient” problems, but if you don’t want a ship eventually to sink, it must be done.
Our politicians don’t want to face the hue and cry that would come from the citizenry (and voters) if they put the U.S. in the absolutely necessary (in my opinion) drydock to get the job of repairing our economy done right.
So the politicians avoid this drydock and construct economic cofferdams that only provide short-term and superficial repair. An even more egregious example of this is the behavior of politicians in the European Union today. Their debt problems are perhaps even more immediate and serious than ours, but instead of facing up to imminent dangers of delay, European leaders are constructing cofferedams everywhere on the continent..
Much has been made in recent weeks and months at the centenary marking of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a disaster which a hundred years later still grips worldwide fascination. Our cruise ships today are much larger, and much safer, but recently one of them sailing in the Mediterranean struck a rock, and sank, turning on its side, killing more than 30 persons.
An economy is a vastly large ship. When in need of major and critical repair, too much is at stake to simply construct a temporary cofferdam and just patch up the problem.
Commodore Perry, who commanded that key naval battle of Lake Erie in 1813, and who had personally supervised the construction of the U.S. fleet in Erie, PA two hundred years ago, had the most famous naval battle flag in American history. Its words still ring out today: “Don’t Give Up The Ship!”
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Continuing my discussion of world conditions and developments, I turn to France and its current presidential election.
The French are very proud folks. They are rightfully proud of their beautiful countryside, their extraordinary metropolis of Paris, their wines, their cuisine, their museums, and their contributions to world culture in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, film and dance. But they have an exaggerated pride in their politics and the influence of their language. With their large continental population (about 65 million), their large economy, and the fact that France is the number one tourist destination in the world, this nation continues to be one of the top nations of Europe (along with Great Britain and Germany).
The main problem for France is that it is in protracted demographic and economic decline. French was THE international language for more than a
century, but French has now been supplanted by English, as well as (increasingly) Mandarin (Chinese), Spanish, Russian and Hindi. Thanks to
the emergence of Brazil as an economic power, even Portuguese is becoming more important than French. (But don’t tell that to a French-speaking person. He or she will yell rude epithets at you in French!)
After several hundred years of absolute monarchies with strong ties to the Vatican, including naming Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, Louis
IV initiated a number of European wars at the end of the 17th century, and France became a dominant force in continental Europe along with Spain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a short-lived revolution a century later, Napoleon Bonaparte made himself emperor of France and put France back on the map at the beginning of the 19th century. He conquered much of Europe, and went all the way to Moscow. By 1815, however, Napoleon had been defeated. Later, the French empire began to shrink. Of course, France (as did her British,Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and German neighbors) established colonies throughout the rest of the world, bringing along her language, culture and law. At one time, France had the second-largest colonial empire in the world (after the British). Most colonies are now gone, although the French have made some of her smaller former colonies to be overseas departments (states) of France with full citizenship (and thus justifies holding on to them).
After Napoleon, France went through a protracted series of political ups and downs, including short-term restorations of the monarchy, and a series of republics. France was a military power at the outset of World War I, but by the time World War II began, her military power was outmoded and weak. France fell quickly to the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940, and a large part of France was partitioned into a Vichy government, subservient to Hitler, but technically independent. This collaboration became the shame of France, as most of the French went along (as did, to be fair, most of occupied Europe). Some of the French, to their great credit, did not go along, and formed a network of resistance which greatly aided the Allies when they re-took the continent in1944. Under Charles De Gaulle, a Free French army was formed and moved to England, and likewise contributed to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini in 1945.
After the war, the French reorganized into a new republic, and with the help of the U.S. Marshall Plan, recovered her economic well-being. France was a central player in the creation of the European Common Market, and its current successor, the European Union.
French politics continued its patterns of ups and downs. At the turn of the century, French society was torn by the notorious Dreyfus Affair in which
long-standing French anti-semitism became a central political issue. French leadership was part of the problematic Treaty of Versailles (1919)
in which the victors of World War I placed harsh terms on the losers just as the world economy entered a period of prolonged depression. Political and economic conditions quickly led to World War II, and French leaders (along with the British) were slow and inept in dealing with an aggressive and malevolent German dictatorship which soon combined with fascist totalitarianism elsewhere in Europe, and once again threatened the world.
In recent years, France has seemed often to overreach itself in its quest for world respect and influence. The French, as did the British and the Russians, acquired atomic weapons. When it became obvious that above-ground testing was a threat to world health, most of the nuclear powers limited themselves to underground testing, but the French, using their overseas Pacific territories, insisted on above-ground tests which had serious health consequences to nearby areas and populations. France, the colonial power of Viet Nam, was forced to withdraw from it in 1954. Soon after that, there was a traumatic separation of France from its Algerian territory in north Africa, something which profoundly divided the French people, and resulted in the creation of the Fifth Republic, the present system with a strong executive. Restored as president of France, Charles DeGaulle tried to rally visions of former French grandeur. Visiting Canada late in his last term, he recklessly incited French-speaking Canadians in Quebec to separate from Canada, long a member of the British Commonwealth. Although it has remained part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, France, unlike Great Britain, drew apart gradually from its historic alignment with the United States in foreign policy, although again to be fair, this separation followed what French leaders felt to be their economic self-interests (such as oil interests and markets in the Middle East). France, like much of the rest of Europe, has seen a huge wave of Islamic immigration that has upset past demographic and cultural national patterns. Although France was once the European nation with the closest ties to the Vatican, and was overwhelmingly Catholic, it has now become rigorously secular. Modern French anti-semitism, first made public during the Dreyfus Affair, and revived during the era of the Vichy government, has resurfaced, as have other ethnic and religious tensions.
France is still an economic power, but like all its neighbors, large and small, government debt, accumulated to pay for its vast welfare and entitlement systems, has threatened its solvency. Smaller neighbors such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, Hungary, etc., are feeling this crisis more acutely now, and lack some of France’s resources (its healthcare and educational systems are highly-rated), but the French economy remains in trouble. Taxation in France, compared to the U.S., is very high.
Contemporary France is in great flux. Its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, leads with a multi-party parliament. Like most French governments since World War II, he and the parliament are “right of center.” Unemployment is high, and the endangered Euro (the common currency adopted by most European nations) is in considerable difficulty. For the first time since the Common Market was founded, the survival of its successor institution, the European Union and its Euro currency system are in doubt. Germany is now the most stable and successful economy in Europe, but its ability and popular will to continue to “bail out” the rest of Europe are also in doubt.
In the first round of the 2012 French presidential elections, the center-right incumbent Sarkozy came in second, slightly behind the socialist Hollande. They will run against each other soon in a second round election that will determine the new president of France. Since Hollande and Sarkozy each received less than 30% of the total vote, minor party voters will determine the outcome. Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, was the surprise of the election, obtaining about 18% of the vote. The communist (far left) candidate received about 13% of the vote. A centrist candidate received 9%. Various fringe candidates of the right and left got less than 5%. On paper, Sarkozy should get most of the Le Pen vote and narrowly win re-election, but in reality, the far right Le Pen party would like to replace Sarkozy’s party as the major party of the right in France, so many of its voters (and leaders) might choose not to vote for Sarkozy, and let the socialists win. In fact, most French political commentators have concluded that this will happen, and that M. Hollande will win the presidency.
On the other hand, Sarkozy is outspoken and controversial, and while this has often made him unpopular in France, he outshines M. Hollande (who is rather bland) on the stump. Sarkozy also claims to be the only candidate who can bring France out of her current economic slump. M. Hollande has offered the usual leftist ideas to solve France’s problems, and many observers suggest he is not as strongly committed to the European Union as is Sarkozy. Thus, a grand and pivotal showdown likely will take place in France over the next few weeks, with the smaller parties jockeying to provide the margin of difference in the election (seeking thus to receive much influence in the new government).
[I need to interject here a word of caution and clarification for American readers about the terms left and right, conservative and liberal, when
discussing European politics. Currently, the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany are described as "conservatives," but the term is not the same as it is in U.S. politics. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy are considerably to the "left" of their American counterparts, especially in terms of government entitlements and welfare. Only the Czech statesman and current president Vaclav Klaus (not to be confused with the late Vaclav Havel) would fit the American definition of "conservative" among European leaders. Another group of European politicians called "Euroskeptics" (the British member of parliament William Cash has long been one of the most articulate of this group), and who oppose much of the European Union, would also be considered genuinely "conservative" by Americans.]
If M. Hollande wins the French presidency, he is likely to make expensive concessions to the demands of French union workers, and this in turn may make the pressure of the debt all the more problematic for France to resolve its long-term problems (many of which it shares with its neighbors and fellow European Union members.) But it is not clear, if M. Sarkozy wins, that he would be able to muster the necessary support for the significant and ultimately “unpopular” changes in public policy that is going to be required soon of all governments both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
-Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved. Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site.
Americans who live on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean, and who do,not spend much time in Europe, are often rightfully accused of being ignorant of what takes place on the east side of this body of water. No matter that conflicts in Europe have brought Americans into two “hot” world wars and a “cold” war in the course of the 20th century, that the population of Europe remains larger than the U.S., and that its economy (at least for now united in the European Union) remains one of the world’s largest.
But as Americans are learning at the outset of the 21st century, the major economies of Europe, Asia and (now) South America affect our economy in a major and critical way, and it is no longer wise or useful for Americans to be deliberately unaware of the so-called “global marketplace.”
Europe, to put it mildly, is in deep economic trouble. Various continental economies are virtually bankrupt from accumulated debt, much of that debt resulting from prolonged social welfare economies. One by one, the small and middle-sized nations of Europe, including Greece, Portugal, and central European nations which are not now members of the European Union, have faced dire crises that require the largest Euronations (most notably Germany and France) to bail them out. Every “crisis” seems to be “solved” in the short term, but the solutions increasingly appear to be temporary, keep recurring and appear to be growing.
The latest nation in Europe in public economic crisis is Spain, one of the more fascinating nation states of Europe, a nation which, having been a dominant force in the Western World in the 15th through 18th centuries, and previously having been ruled by the Arab empire, had declined in influence for more than a hundred years until the late 1930′s when revolts threw off the monarchy and then a brief democracy.
A fascist (falangist) uprising (1936-39) led to a dictatorship which was sympathetic to Hitler, and resulted in the isolation of Spain until the 1970′s when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, and his government was replaced with a constitutional monarchy/democracy that increasingly rejoined Europe and increasingly prospered.
Spain once had more colonies than Great Britain or France, but by 1900, those colonies were mostly gone. Nevertheless, Spanish law, culture and language was a legacy in North and South America, and in spite of Spain’s dramatic global political decline, Spanish literature, music and art held their place as major contributors to world culture. Names of artists such as Picasso, Miro, Dali, Gris, Tapies, Unamuno, Garcia Lorca, Aleixandre, Baroja, Arlt, Ortega y Gasset, Otero, Jimenez, Goytisolo, Albeniz, De Falla and Granados, are among the most prominent in the past century.
Soon after dictator Franco’s death, the far right falangist forces which flourished under his 36-year “reign” attempted to recover power with a bold coup d’etat. The young king, Juan Carlos, who had been installed by Franco as his “figurehead” successor, however, surprised the world with a personal courageous defense of the young Spanish democracy, the far right was defeated, and modern Spanish democracy was established firmly in place. Since that time, Spanish prime ministers, freely elected, have represented both the left and the right, with the current government led by a conservative who recently replaced a socialist.
King Juan Carlos, after heroically defending his country’s new democracy in the early 1980′s, became a national hero. His role as a constitutional monarch was (as is Great Britain’s) very limited, but his personal popularity and stature gave stability to Spain as it prospered. He reinforced his stature when a few years ago, he confronted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an international conference, and famously told him “to shut up.”
As the British have learned with their constitutional monarchy, however, royal families with their elite society and extravagant lifestyles paid for by the state, can run into problems with the royal children and grandchildren, as well as royal cousins, of even a popular monarch. This, sadly, has happened to Juan Carlos, first with business controversies involving the spouse of one of his children, and now, with the king’s own alleged improprieties associated with an elephant-hunting safari in Africa.
Today, as well, the Spanish nation is divided by its regions, its languages, and its violent history. Semi-autonomous Basque-speaking and Catalan-speaking states have arisen, with groups there calling for complete independence. Spanish is spoken in Galicia (northwestern Spain), side by side with Galician (that is closer to Portuguese), and immigrants to Spain pose challenges as they do throughout Europe. Memories of the brutal Spanish civil war still haunt Spain today.
As a long-time admirer of King Juan Carlos (and in full disclosure, his classmate at the University of Madrid, although I did not ever meet him personally), I am saddened by all these developments, including Spain’s economic woes and the royal family’s problems. I lived in Spain at the end of the Franco era, and revisited it after its new democracy was established (and its prosperity revived). I speak Spanish, and am a long-time student of Spanish culture. The new Spain, in my opinion, should be a vital part of European long-term recovery. Its language and culture has contributed heavily to the world we now live in. (More than 400 million persons speak Spanish.)
My point is that, for very good and self-interested reasons, we Americans should pay attention to Spain, its tribulations and its still-hopeful promise. A very recent challenge, the nationalization of the Argentine oil industry, much of it owned by Spanish investors, has greater implications than just a controversy between Buenos Aires and Madrid. The Spanish debt crisis could have, probably will have, major consequences for the larger European crisis. Whoever is elected president of the United States in 2012 will need to pay a lot of attention to Spain. and its former colonies in South and Central America, as they affect U.S. foreign policy and global economic well-being.
President Cristina Kirchner is the first woman elected and re-elected, president of Argentina, and the second woman to serve in that post. The second wife of Juan Peron also served as president from 1974-76, but was not elected. Mr. Peron’s first wife Eva (widely known as “Evita”) did not serve as president, but exerted enormous influence over her husband and Argentina politics before her premature death. All of the Perons, husband and wives, employed demogogic populism for years to win and keep power in this southernmost nation of South America as it endured crisis after crisis.
Mrs. Kirchner’s husband had previously been elected president of Argentina, and Mrs. Kirchner succeeded him . She, too, has adopted the peculiar brand of Argentine populism which utilizes both far left and far right ideologies that stir up resentment between the economic classes in the country.
The tragedy of Argentina is that it was, circa 1900, one of the largest and most prosperous economies in the world. Argentina has substantial land mass, and was settled in the 19th century by a number of Europeans in addition to the original Spanish settlers (who arrived in the 16th century). Argentina had considerable natural resources, and a major farm economy. It was, and is, justifiably famous for its home grown beef. In addition, a substantial culture arose in Argentina, and this culture has contributed to world literature, music and dance. Argentine Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers in any language in the 20th century. The tango, the national dance, is considered a global art form. Argentine music, fiction and poetry, painting and sculpture are highly regarded throughout the globe.
In spite of its resources and assets, Argentine politics has allowed its early prominence to decline into seemingly perpetual waste, demogogery and crisis. Its government was technically neutral in World War II, but sent aid to the fascist Spanish government of its then dictator Francisco Franco, and was a hotbed of Nazi activity in South America. More recently, Argentine leaders have tried to claim The Falkland Islands (also called Islas Malvinas), long-held territories of Great Britain, as their own. An earlier Argentine government, run by a military junta, precipitated a war on this matter when Margaret Thatcher was the British prime minister, a war Argentina promptly lost. Now, trying to distract the Argentina public from domestic problems, Mrs. Kirchner has tried to revive her government’s claims to The Falkland Islands, something which has almost no support outside Argentina. Her latest controversy, claiming to nationalize the oil industry in her country which is owned primarily by private Spanish investors, has now provoked hostility in Spain (which about 200 years ago was the colonial power ruling Argentina). Again, there is almost no international support for the Kirchner government’s claims.
Curiously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed sympathetic to the Argentine claims in The Falklands when she visited Buenos Aires a few years ago (at about the same time she and the Obama administration took sides with an illegal coup attempt in Honduras that was also supported by leftist South American leaders Chavez, the Castro brothers and leaders in Bolivia and Nicaragua). During his recent trip to Colombia (overshadowed by a Secret Service scandal), President Obama made no substantive comment either about the Argentine revival of its Falkland Islands claims or its attempt to seize internationally-owned oil interests in that country.
One of the constant themes of President Obama’s term in office has been his call for “taxing the rich” and redistributing wealth in the U.S. through increased regulations and major new entitlement programs (most notably Obamacare). Perhaps his reluctance to criticize the government of Mrs Kirchner reflects a sympathy with her “populism” and an admiration for her techniques of shifting public attention from real problems in her country to emotional issues that serve as a political distraction.
-Please visit Mr. Casselman’s personal site. Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.
Today, David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, reported that some of the documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout revealed some frightening requests he had for his followers:
Before his death, Osama bin Laden boldly commanded his network to organize special cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan to attack the aircraft of President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus.
“The reason for concentrating on them,” the al-Qaeda leader explained to his top lieutenant, “is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make [Vice President] Biden take over the presidency. .?.?. Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour .?.?. and killing him would alter the war’s path” in Afghanistan.
Although, according to the article, the Obama administration didn’t express considerable concern about the documents, I found one element particularly interesting: bin Laden cited as justification for the attacks Obama’s status as “the head of infidelity”, not the U.S.’s overseas military presence.
This stood out to me because it seemingly contradicted the argument that Ron Paul, his followers, and others of a libertarian bent offer – that al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups seek to attack America because of our operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. And, as I always love the foreign policy debates we have here at Race, I figured I would pass this article along to our esteemed community. What say you?
For those who don’t know, multiple terrorist attacks have struck Norway today. At this point, it is believed that 7 have died in a car bomb explosion at a government building in Oslo, and somewhere between 5-30 individuals have been killed by a gunman at a youth camp. Our thoughts, and wishes for speedy justice and healing, go out to our Norwegian friends on this tragic day.
Any nerd who obsessively pays attention to global affairs like I do has noticed the Arab Spring rumblings beginning to spread beyond the borders of the Arab world. Today, non-Muslim Europe came face to face with the anti-government protests that have been roiling the Middle East for the past year. Europe’s predominantly Christian nation of Belarus faced large, non-violent protests against the government, during which 140 demonstrators were aggressively corralled by plain clothes police officers into buses headed who-knows-where.
The Spring uprisings may completely change the face of the world in a matter of years, or even months. Will the next U.S. President have the wisdom and fortitude to set a positive example for these rapidly changing countries–to show them that what they need is civil liberty, not repression; due process, not torture and secret prisons; habeas corpus, not indefinite detention; free markets, not socialism or corporatism; free trade, not subsidization and protectionism; austerity, not money printing and debt accumulation; and a foreign policy of peace, not one of transnational nannying and war-mongering? Barack Obama has done the opposite in every one of these regards. Will #45 be the role model that this brave, new world needs, or will he/she merely become Obama/Bush Lite?
The Washington Post, that ever reliable liberal mouthpiece in our nation’s capital just slammed Obama’s foreign policy. In an editorial entitled “Silence on Syria” and credited to the “Editorial Board”, they tore into the President over his lack of response to the crisis in Syria.
IT HAS been four weeks since President Obama delivered an address on the Middle East in which he said it would be “a top priority” of his administration to oppose violent repression and support democratic transitions across the region, using “all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” He singled out Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has gunned down hundreds of peaceful protesters, choosing what Mr. Obama called “the path of murder.”
It seems fair to ask what Mr. Obama has done in response, given his pledge to employ all of the “tools” at the administration’s disposal. The answer can be summed up in one word: nothing.
The administration has excused its passivity by saying that it does not want to “get ahead” of allies in the region, and that it worries about the consequences of a regime collapse. But Mr. Assad’s violence is already causing serious problems for Turkey and for Israel, which has twice faced incursions on its territory from Syria by Palestinian refugees organized by the regime. Other U.S. Arab allies are observing Mr. Obama’s passivity with dismay: “Why doesn’t the United States have a policy?” one senior official from the Persian Gulf recently asked us.
Remember when the world was supposed to love America once again because Obama was President? Remember how his “smart diplomacy” as opposed to Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy” was going to make the world a better place? When Obama took over, the whole world was going to sit down in a circle holding hands and sing “Kumbaya” together.
That was three years ago — three very long years ago. Now Obama’s “leading from behind” in foreign affairs is increasingly wearing thin. Even his leftist allies are beginning to see it for what it is, a sign of weakness. It portends serious consequences for the world and for us.
Foreign policy has always stood out as one of my favorite things to debate or see debated here at Race. So, when I saw this AP article about China seeking to expand their influence in Pakistan, I figured it would prompt another stimulating, enlightening discussion from our community:
China has agreed to provide Pakistan with 50 more fighter jets in a deal clinched during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s trip to Beijing, Pakistani defense officials said Friday.
Gilani’s four-day visit highlighted Pakistan’s warm ties with China at a time of heightened tensions with Washington over the killing of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town by American special forces.
Pakistan is seen as eager to show a demanding Washington that it has a strong diplomatic alternative in uncritical ally China.
…Defense cooperation is a major aspect of what Pakistan and China call their “all-weather friendship,” a term Islamabad accentuates in contrast to more fickle Washington relations.
…While both countries have troubled relations with the U.S., it isn’t clear yet whether warmer ties between them will diminish the importance of their links to Washington.
Pakistan is furious that the U.S. did not inform it in advance of the May 1 raid that took out bin Laden. Some U.S. lawmakers want the billions in American aid sent to Pakistan reviewed amid suspicions that elements of its security forces protected bin Laden.
“I think Gilani hopes that by cozying up to Beijing, Islamabad can hedge its bets both vis-a-vis Washington to take it seriously and vis-a-vis New Delhi as a big power supporter against India,” said analyst Hugh White, a former Australian Defense Department chief.
Does this information support the frequent assertion by neo-conservatives that if the U.S. retreats from global commitments and ties, other, less benevolent, nations will fill the void – that America can shape global events or get shaped by them? Or does it simply suggest that the U.S. needs to revamp its diplomacy operations and objectives, with more concern and effort dedicated to advancing clear messages and goals and maintaining strategic support for allies?
Have at it!