18 June 2014

GET OUT OF THE LINE OF FIRE

The USA has not been blessed with leaders with a clear-eyed, long-term geopolitical view of the interests of the country for decades, and that record, along with the consistent ineptitude of the present administration, makes inaction preferable to action on a number of fronts. Iraq is descending into a chaotic civil war, due to the precipitous disengagement of the Obama administration and a total lack of strategic vision. There is no question that the blunders of the Bush administration are responsible for instigating these problems, but in that case at least half the blame belongs to Saddam Hussein himself for so successfully faking WMD capabilities in order to be perceived as a more formidable force in the region. That posture backfired, as did his removal. Sadaam was an awful dictator, but he counterbalanced the equally odious Iranian regime, which became the principal beneficiary of his demise. Broader strategic thinking would have made that outcome obvious. 

More importantly, Sadaam was a secular leader who checked religious extremism as long as he was in power. The same dynamic is at work in Syria now, where the US currently has zero credibility or respect, having drawn a  “line in the sand,” which it then ignored.  A wiser, long-term geopolitical understanding would have informed us of the saliency of the religious extremism in the two branches of Islam, and guided our strategic thinking accordingly. This is a long term, historic conflict that could still last centuries. Do we want to be part of that? At this stage, given the bumbling proclivities of our leaders, I think the best course for the US is to use this as an opportunity to get out of the line of fire. By that I mean ceasing to be enemy number one to extremists on both sides of the Islamic rift.  We have managed to fumble our way into that position, and it is now time to extricate ourselves. 

There are many countries in the world with an “Islamic problem,” meaning either a restive minority population or conflict with an aggressive neighbor. The US is not one of them, and a cursory examination of global borders makes that obvious. There is no inherent reason for the US to be at odds with any of these players, but for inserting ourselves into their affairs. Contrary to the beliefs of some on the left, it’s not about oil. We are more self-sufficient in this hemisphere than most other countries, and would be even more so but for the anti-energy policies of this administration, which sooner or later will be undone. The people who depend on mideast oil are the Japanese, the Europeans, and increasingly, the Chinese. Consequently what happens in the area is of far more consequence for them than it is for us. 

As for cultural conflict, Europe has a large, unassimilated Muslim population. Russia, and even China have restive Muslim minorities. Thus, the problems are far more acute for them, so why should the US wind up being the Great Satan? Bin Laden (who primarily targeted the US for stationing forces in Saudi Arabia, which are now gone) is dead and most of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack are accounted for. The Muslims are not our problem, and the more we disengage from conflict with them the less we would be targeted. Their main goal is obtaining power within the Islamic world. They are basically a headache for the existing regimes, who until now have managed to deflect such hostility onto the west. We are not sufficiently ruthless for this kind of conflict.

This does not mean cutting and running, but making a realistic policy that in essence says you don’t bother us and we won’t bother you, for if you do you will be annihilated with overwhelming force.  We would basically make an offer they couldn’t refuse. Let the CIA do its job for a change and come up with accurate information on these movements. Given the nature of the present administration I do not see a better path. 


We have paid dearly for all of this, not just in lives and treasure, but in terms of our own liberties. We now have a massive security state that is adept primarily at inconveniencing us at airports. Yet the end result is a situation no better than it was before, and given the instability in the area, arguably worse. We need to focus on rebuilding strength at home, where our way of life has deteriorated significantly. I am not suggesting isolationism here, but realism, as per Theodore Roosevelt’s axiom, speak softly but carry a big stick. 

15 June 2014

BEING OUT OF IT

I’ve been down with Lyme disease for the past several days and haven’t been up for much of anything as a result. This is the second time I’ve had it, and the seventh year in a row that I’ve been bitten by the ticks that cause it. This is due in large measure to the pathway that tick-bearing deer have made for themselves across my property. They start out at a preserve east of here, cross the beach, and then somehow manage to scale a two hundred foot sandy cliff from the shore in front of my house.  From there they linger in a patches of brush and copse, while helping themselves to plants in the garden. Then they continue on, past a dune to the west and probably somehow make it to the next woodland preserve. The nuisance is still superseded by the wonder of it, and in any case other creatures, like raccoons can also carry the ticks,  which are thus hard to eliminate.

If recognized soon enough antibiotics will get rid of the disease, but this is the sort of malady with which you don’t feel up to doing much of anything, at least until drugs  kick in. It isn’t so serious as long as it’s being treated, but a kind of ennui sets in and things you usually spend time become onerous, such as being constantly online, so I’ve been unplugged over this period, not just from computers, but most television as well. It is amazing how much time you suddenly have to do things you thought you’d never find time for, even while not being well. Other things that previously seemed urgent are less compelling. You become much more attuned to the ebb and flow of life around you, and the most important thing you want to find out is the weather report.


The biggest deterrent to tuning out is that you might miss something. But with sufficient detachment you realize that in the larger scheme of things, life goes on without you, as it did before, and as it surely will when you are gone. You see that your time is truly limited, and really think about what you are spending it on. You can get a slight sense of this when traveling, but everywhere you go the world is wired, and as long as you remain connected you are never completely detached. You don’t get a true sense of life apart from electronics, or of life that is not  socially networked to everyone all of the time. 

Yet no one will go to their grave wishing they had spent more time on the Internet. I am in no way suggesting that everyone should drop out, but rather consider how much time you are spending with electronic media, especially while other things remain unattended, and try to place some limits on it accordingly. I try to limit social media to fifteen minutes a day now, because otherwise you can get drawn in for hours, and miss the larger truth that life is what is happening while you’re on the Internet. 

02 May 2014

NASHVILLE

I’ve just returned from spending some time in Nashville, and I liked it a lot. The city is pristine and pleasant, and as I often say, returning to New York City is an embarrassment in these categories. What is perhaps most striking about Nashville is how new so many things are, the way Long Island or California was in the 1950s and 1960s.

The the downtown area on Broadway was really jumping with live entertainment and mostly young people jamming the bars and restaurants. That may be why we had a curious experience at the upscale “upstairs” of one of them, when a waiter asked us for identification. I haven’t been asked for proof since I was a teenager and the drinking age was still 18 in New York, but anyway we incredulously handed it over. He studied it with more scrutiny than a TSA agent, and when I asked what that was about he explained that  they’ve been getting harassed or busted for underage customers so they decided to ask everyone without exception for I.D. That was pretty lame and makes about as much sense as everyone having to take off their shoes when boarding a flight, and the food wasn’t that good either. 

We went to the Grand Ole Opry twice; once at the old Ryman auditorium and again at the “new” Opry (which is forty years old) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Contemporary country singers tend to all sound the same to me so I was pleased to hear some older stuff as well as bluegrass and cowboy singers. However, if you lack  much meat on your behind, as I do, you will find sitting in the Ryman auditorium sheer torture, since the seating consists of extended hard wooden pews. At the new Opry at least the seats are padded. The excellent, varied, and relatively inexpensive  programs make up for any inconvenience. 

For a change of pace we also went to a concert by the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn concert hall, which is a very impressive facility with fine acoustics. It is reminiscent of the kind of design you see in concert halls across Europe, but with more modern details. The Mozart program they played sounded as good as anything I’ve ever heard in New York. The downtown contains some architecturally interesting skyscrapers that don’t have the cookie cutter steel and glass look of so many other cities. The reproduction of the Athens Parthenon in centennial park is very impressive, and if you haven’t been there since the statue of Athena was added, filling the space from floor to ceiling, it will blow you away. There are also many interesting places in the vicinity of the city, such as plantations, gardens, the Hermitage, etc. that are well-preserved reminders of the past. 

This is a place with a vibrant pulse and the “music city” name is very appropriate, although there is a lot more to it than that. The musical base is very broad. If you doubt that just watch an episode of the television show Nashville just for the music. It seems to be a very livable city. This is the kind of place that, along with vast sections of the country, people on the coasts are just oblivious to, or view with  a misplaced contempt. That is essentially a kind of reverse-prejudice against  a largely Anglo-American culture that is far more pronounced than anything emanating back. As much as I like the “diversity” (to use a purloined phrase) back home in New York, I also appreciate places where things are just basically American. It is well worth a trip for the entertainment venues alone and I look forward to returning on business as well. 



16 March 2014

RUSSIA AND UKRAINE PART 2

There are those who are criticizing President Obama for not doing more about Russia and the Ukraine. I would argue that he and Kerry ought to be doing less because what they are doing is so inept it is almost comical. We have a weak leader (as perceived by a majority of Americans) playing a weak hand. Given that, less is better than more, lest the US be perceived as even weaker. Red lines that are indefensible and threats of “consequences” that impress no one are pointless. Given the nature of this administration, the less action there is the less embarrassment there will be.

Putin sees a power vacuum, with weak, irresolute western leaders that he has only contempt for, and he is acting on it. The main basis for the “illegality” of Russian actions is an agreement made in the 1990s to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine as it gave up its nuclear weapons. Among the signatories to this were Russia and the US. So Russia has reneged on another agreement. Who is surprised by this? For it is not only international agreements that they have discarded but also contracts with gullible western corporations dumb enough to do business there under current conditions. 

The notion of the “west” and Russia as the “east” is a false dichotomy. The Russians inherited the same Greek foundation as the west via Greek monks who created their alphabet and converted them to Christianity a thousand years ago. It is ironic that after more than seven decades of communism Russia today is far more Christian than the west. It is through this prism that Putin views western countries as degenerate and weak. But Russia also feels threatened by NATO expansion to its borders, which is one of the main reasons that Putin wants the former Soviet republics to get in line with Russia. 

The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia, which involves more than just arbitrary government. Normal business cannot be conducted with parties who renege on contract agreements. This will continue as long as there is not a a truly independent judiciary. Constitutional government requires more than the formal edifice of institutions with separate powers. Putin’s government is not so much in opposition to this as several steps removed. His model now is essentially that of the state as protector of traditional values, defender of the faith, etc.  with himself at the apex of the state. Nevertheless his government still has support with the majority of the population.

This is not to suggest that Russian aggrandizement should not be opposed, but realistically just what assets do we have available for this? This administration does not have the standing in the world to support its posturing. We need to take a longer term view to a post-Obama (and Putin) world. If Russia annexes Crimea based upon a popular vote it will backfire on them badly. For if Crimea can have self-determination then logically the restive regions in the Caucasus could do the same. Thus Chechnya and Dagestan could use the same pretext to break away from Russia. What the US and other western countries need to do is focus on rebuilding the economy, institutions, and strength at home before we can be taken seriously abroad. 




15 March 2014

DON'T GIVE UP THE INTERNET

If someone set out to deliberately undermine the United States he could not do worse than this President. Now he has decided to give control of the Internet to the “world.” This has to do with domain assignments, etc. which are working fine in their present, American, incarnation. There may be some foreign resentment of the fact that the US controls key aspects of the Internet, never mind that they originated and evolved in America and have been working fine. Nevertheless no on can say that the US has in an real way disadvantaged others with this. What’s next? The dollar?
One could argue that the Internet has long since become an international phenomenon and it therefore ought to be under the purview of an international body. However, there are many other instances of global standards being maintained by a particular country. For example Britain and Greenwich Mean Time, as well as other standards and measure. It is thus, not unprecedented for standards that originated in a particular country to be maintained by that country. Only a basic hostility to the US can account for a wish to change this. 
Furthermore the record of international bodies is less than impressive. There are many countries clamoring for various forms of censorship, and this is the surest path to that end. It will also provide the pretext for exclusion, i.e. of Israel, as has happened in other international bodies. How about Islamic, or any other restrictive standards? How about erasing something because some regime somewhere finds it offensive? This is effectively taking the part of repressive regimes rather than the people on the street. The possibilities for mischief are endless, but what is certain is that it will be the end of the wide open Internet. Some governments may   oppose the US hold on the Internet, but the people don’t because they trust it to be free and open. That will end the minute the US gives up control. For an American President to take such a step is just disgraceful. The only way to stop this now is through congress and by making our voices heard. 



06 March 2014

WHAT TO DO ABOUT RUSSIA & UKRAINE?

Russian actions in Ukraine continue to dominate the headlines, and there is no common western policy beyond expressions of disapproval. The question now is what should be done about Putin’s actions? The short answer is, not much. First, because not much can realistically be done by outsiders, and second, given the extent to which the Obama administration has abandoned leadership in the world, things like this are bound to happen in that power vacuum. With the “reset” in relations with Russia in shambles who can have confidence in the ability of this administration to handle this appropriately?

There has been some tough talk from Hillary Clinton, which makes some sense on the surface. She compares the Ukrainian situation to that of Nazi Germany, which grabbed the Czech sudetanland followed other territories on the pretext of protecting Germans in those areas. When there was no effective response Hitler’s appetite increased until the invasion of Poland finally brought on World War II.  However, Putin is not Hitler, and the global context is quite different. Britain and France were committed to alliances with Poland. No one apart from Russia is allied with the territories of the former Soviet Union, which we can assume Putin dreams of recreating. But what can he realistically do in that regard?

If Russia were to regain all those territories the Russians themselves would become a minority in the federation. They would have a substantial, growing and increasingly restive population on their hands. They have yet been unable to completely subdue the existing Muslim population in Chechnya and other Russian territories in the Caucasus. The Russian population is roughly 142 million and declining, with a non-Russian minority at nearly 20% and growing. Russia cannot possibly maintain a stable society with more ethnic minorities in its fold. Putin is no fool and he must know this. But he also knows that he can annex some territories with little to lose. 

Crimea, which is now basically occupied, has a Russian majority and the regional government is seeking a referendum on joining Russia. That should be amended to say rejoining Russia, insofar as Crimea was in fact Russian territory until Kruschev ceded it to the then Ukrainian SSR, in what was basically an internal shuffle, never imagining an independent Ukraine. From the Russian point of view they are simply reoccupying historically Russian territory. Given the history and the demographics there is not much of a case for a strong response to this by anyone. Putin took advantage of the political turmoil in Ukraine. A similar case could be made for Russian majority areas in eastern Ukraine. As long as there are substantial majority-minority population differences there is certain to be instability, and a degree of sorting out would mitigate that and eliminate any pretext for further aggrandizement. A more Ukrainian Ukraine could then pursue its goal of joining the west via the European Union. 


What disturbs much of the world is the use of force in this situation, and for that there should be consequences. The problem is that there is really no one in a position to do much of anything. The next step would be to give a strong message along the lines of “this far but no further.” The problem is that the US administration has drawn red lines before that fell away without consequences, and has no credibility left. The outrage of some hawks on the right is misplaced. This is not the Soviet Union. Russia is not an enemy and there is nothing to be gained by treating it like one. The notion of the west versus Russia is a false dichotomy. . Russia has been a part of the “west” in some sense, at least since Peter the Great. The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia. To be continued. 

26 February 2014

UPRISINGS IN UKRAINE AND VENEZUELA

Ukraine and Venezuela are exploding with popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. In Ukraine the people have triumphed as the government has been driven from power. In Venezuela the struggle continues, but freedom cannot indefinitely be suppressed. In both cases the US has zero influence due to the deliberate weakening of American power by the current administration, which is further seeking to reduce the Army to below-WWII levels. The US is no longer respected in much of the world, and it will take considerable effort to recover from this disastrous decline. But you would not know much of this from the coverage in American media.

This is not to suggest that there ought to be military intervention, or the threat of it, particularly in Ukraine, where the situation is decidedly complex. The Russians are mobilizing forces on the border of Ukraine, but there is little we can do about it. The problem in Ukraine is the western half is mostly Ukrainian and oriented toward Europe. In the eastern half there is a large, and in some areas dominant Russian population. Although this may have come about from Soviet efforts to export Russians to the region. at this point it is an unchangeable reality. The complexity of the situation arises from the fact that they share a common history flowing from the city of Norse-controlled Kiev over a thousand years ago, after obtaining their alphabet and Christian religion from the Byzantine Greeks. Thus, although it is in present day Ukraine, Kiev is also the spiritual home of the Russians. 

But after Mongol invaders destroyed much of what was in their path there was some divergence. Western Ukraine was occupied by Poland  in 1349 and then Lithuania for centuries until the eastern portion reverted to Russia in 1654. It was subsequently divided between Russia in the east and the Austro-Hungarian empire in the west, and after World War I was incorporated as a republic within the USSR. In 1954 Russia ceded Crimea to Ukraine, clearly as part of the Russian dominated union never anticipating it would not be under their control. Modern independence only came after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thus, not surprisingly the Russians consider the status of Ukraine to be in their vital interests, and realistically an independent Ukraine can only exist as long as Russia tolerates it. The European Union is favored by western Ukrainians, but the military power of the EU is nonexistent, and integration with Ukraine may only be possible  if Russia itself becomes an EU member. While we may sympathize with the democratic will of the people, given its leadership vacuum there is not much the west can or should do. Warnings from John Kerry are laughable, and at this point, for better or worse, Vladimir Putin is going to determine the outcome. 


Venezuela is a different story. The repressive socialist regime there is a posturing enemy of the US and a troublemaker in the region. It has gone so far as to align itself with Iran. The standard of living has declined as one would expect it to in a country with all out socialism as its goal and the people appear to have finally had enough. Here we should intervene, not militarily, but by providing full support to the opposition, especially since the regime will accuse us of doing that anyway. For Venezuela is located in what we used to consider our own back yard. Deposing the Chavista regime is in our national interests and would be a severe blow to the evil satellite regimes that have sprung up with their aid. But given the sympathies of the current administration it would be a pleasant surprise if they actually did anything.