25 January 2015

GREECE GOES OVER THE PRECIPICE

The Greek election results represent a country throwing a national tantrum. In handing power over to the radical left Syirza party, which cannot possibly deliver on anything it has promised, they are sending a message to the European Union and IMF, which have insisted on an austerity program to mitigate the results of continuous government mismanagement and excessive debt. Unfortunately this has thus far resulted in a sharp drop in living standards, 25% unemployment, and extreme hardship over the past several years. But ironically the worst is over and the country finally was heading towards an economic recovery, at least prior to this election. 

The EU, and Germany especially, as the strongest economy in the region, required structural reforms to continue lending, including privatizing government assets, cutting pensions, salaries, and personnel, pressuring the Greeks to rationalize their dysfunctional state and its bloated public sector. This has caused great pain, and while actually producing results, at this point the people have had enough. The vote for Syriza is less an ideological shift than an emotional reaction and an expression of frustration. It is also completely irrational. This party is led by an ex-communist named Alex Tsirpas, who apparently left that party because it was not radical enough, and who is totally clueless as to how a government functions. 

This party has pledged to undo the austerity regimen and cancel a large part of their debt, while also double the minimum wage, increasing pensions, stopping privatization, while at the same time staying in the eurozone. This is simply impossible. If they move forward with this platform it will likely mean an exit from the euro and economic chaos within the country. The effect on Europe may be significant if it spreads to other European countries, such as Spain and Italy that have similar problems, and may roil markets around the world. However, unless markets panic the effect will not be all that significant insofar as Greece represents only 5% of the European economy.  

More troubling is the likelihood that Greece is but a harbinger for many other countries in Europe, given their low birth rate and slow economic growth,  which will be unable to sustain the generous benefits that have been promised, or possibly even service the debts they have assumed. There are comparable radical parties elsewhere with similar appeals, that are gaining traction, but  promising the sky cannot provide any solution and will likely make things worse, because radicals are incapable of governing. There will be capital flight, higher taxes, no access to financial markets, and a bleak future for those who follow this path. 


That radicals can so easily take control of a country and steer it towards disaster proves the wisdom of checks and balances in government, as well as the separation of powers. While Greeks can be proud of a great many achievements, including democracy, functioning self-government is not one of them. From the most ancient times right up to the present, political stability and effective government have been vanishingly rare. As one who has many ancestors from that country, it is at the moment an embarrassment.

CHAOS IN YEMEN

Houthi militiamen have taken control of Sana’a, the capitol of Yemen, and the US-supported president of that country has stepped down. The Houthi are Shia Muslims backed by their co-religionists in Iran. The country however, is predominantly Sunni Muslim, which is the prevailing branch of Islam through much of the world, and for historical reasons the two main branches of Islam loathe each other as heretics. Up until now the government of Yemen has been dominated by moderate Sunni Muslims, who have cooperated with the US in battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is an additional force to be reckoned with. It was they who claimed credit for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and who have aggressively plotted attacks against the west. 

Meanwhile the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia has died, causing more uncertainty in the region, although his successor is likely to follow the same policies. The traditional Sunni kingdom owes its legitimacy to being the guardian of Islam’s most holy sites at Mecca and Medina. Long a US ally, the country is certain to feel threatened by the expansion of Iranian-Shia influence through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen, which it shares a border with, as well as its own Shia population. All the ingredients are here for a long, drawn-out battle that the US  and its western allies ought to try and stay clear of. We would do well to remember that the main rationale, such as it was, for Al Qaeda’s attacks on the US, was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which in their view meant infidels at the gates of the holy places. This occurred primarily in order to protect the Saudis and the oil-rich gulf states from Sadaam Hussein, whose threat, following his defeat in the Gulf War, was not all that clear. US forces subsequently left Saudi Arabia, but the struggle with Al Qaeda continues. 

Our meddling in this region has proven to be disastrous and short-sighted. However, there may be some opportunity to gradually extricate ourselves as this situation unfolds. While both Sunni and Shia extremists hate us, they hate each other even more. If this conflict expands, it is increasingly possible that Al Qaeda and other such groups will shift their attention away from the west, and towards the more immediate conflict. This does not mean abandoning the region, but moving towards less active participation, especially with our own troops. The west may even quietly support or supply one side, and we cannot allow the world’s oil supply to be jammed up in the Straits of Hormuz, but we need to avoid becoming a primary antagonist here. 

But all of this changes if the Iranians succeed in obtaining a nuclear weapon, insofar as it would enable it to dominate the region as never before. The Israelis, as well as most Arab leaders, are rightly skeptical about the ongoing negotiations with Iran, and any deal that does not largely assuage their concerns should be resisted. Thanks to our ineptitude we have managed to clear the field for Iran by disposing of enemies on its borders, namely Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now Iran’s influence reaches as far as Yemen, and we must not forget that it is the one state that is actually controlled by radical Islamists. At this point by comparison the horrendously brutal “Islamic State” we are bombing in Syria and Iraq has more in common with bandits taking hostages. No doubt alarm bells are ringing in Saudi Arabia, and it is good that President Obama is stopping there at this time. Let us hope that the right decisions are made in this tricky situation, in which there are no easy solutions.  





22 December 2014

RULE BY RADICALS

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio faces a crisis of his own making with the police department, as a result of his own radicalism. Whatever the merits of the Eric Garner case, he did not respond thoughtfully or responsibly but ideologically, going on about racism, injustice and the police, and making broad, general statements having little to do with the actual case. There was no doubt that his activist heart was with street protesters, but you can’t run a city that way. Instead of rising above the fray, as he today ironically said a leader is supposed to do, he pontificated about the failings of society and yet again brought in his son, this time as a potential victim of the police. Then, having burned all the bridges with the NYPD, when two officers were subsequently murdered  over the weekend, he could only grasp at the one straw still available to him- the families of the victims, as a rationale for standing down. 

Even worse, the radicals who dominate the City Council, in an unprecedented and reprehensible gesture not only encouraged, but participated in demonstrations against their own police department, in solidarity with the Mayor. The odious NY State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, apparently taking a break from corporate shakedowns, in a naked power grab, announced he would investigate NY City police incidents, which brought an immediate rebuke from the DAs of the majority of the boroughs of the city. It is relatively early in the terms of all of these clowns, and they are only getting started. Things will only get worse. 

The basic reason for this is that radicals cannot govern effectively. They view everything through an ideological lens, and can only reckon with things based on how they comport with that vision. They not only lack any ability to approach things pragmatically; they reject pragmatism altogether. They are not liberals, but hard-left radicals. As a result, more and more things are not going to work as they should. A clash with the NYPD was almost inevitable, given their attitude towards law enforcement. Never before in the history of this city have we seen such contempt for the police on the part of public officials. Given their mindset it is no surprise that even when they try to make nice they only make things worse. Thus, after instigating much of the damage himself, the Mayor now wants to talk about “healing” and “coming together” which is what leftists do after they have irreversibly poisoned the well.


I predicted things would go bad last year, here: http://www.georgesarant.com/2013/10/the-ny-city-commune-of-2014.html. There will eventually be a correction because New York is not a radical town; it isn’t even all that liberal. Until then, hopefully the damage won’t be too bad. In the mean time, after what these public officials have done, there is no way the police are going to be mollified until there is a change, at which point my guess is that the public will be more sympathetic to the NYPD than this batch of politicians. 

21 December 2014

MINORITY RULE



During the holidays we inevitably are faced with objections from atheists regarding public Christmas displays. In their view, nothing connected to religion is allowed in the public sphere. We can argue about just what is religious, or what constitutes the public sphere, but what I want to address here is something more fundamental- the question, stated simply, of who is going to get their way. For whenever a symbol that is interpreted to be religious is removed because a small minority object, or simply because someone might object, the effect is not just to assuage the concerns of the minority in some neutral fashion, but to impose their preferences on the majority. 

We are ever sensitive to the rights of the minority, as we should be in a democratic republic, and believe they never should be oppressed, but such rights do not extend to imposing the minority view over everyone else. There is almost always going to be someone raising objections to just about anything the great majority of people are comfortable with. Should those who raise  objections always have their way? There are some who in effect maintain this position, to the extent that anyone who finds anything offensive must be indulged at the expense of the majority and common sense. 

There are some things about which legal claims are invariably made, that are not matters of law. If there were some sort of legal discrimination against a minority it would be unconstitutional, but there are no “cultural” rights (with the exception of Indians) outside of universities that have invented them. In symbolic and cultural matters the preferences of the majority should prevail. No one is being forced to adhere to them, nor is anyone being harmed. When the norms of the majority in society are not respected the social order becomes untenable. If the majority feels challenged or under siege it will react. For minority rights to be respected at all there has to be a cohesive majority that feels secure. There must be a prevailing majority ethos in society, otherwise there is at the very least alienation and instability, and ultimately social collapse.

In a courthouse where the ten commandments have been posted for over a century, and where they have been established by tradition and convention, it is a stretch to argue that they are banned by the constitution, which simply states that the government cannot establish a particular religion, not that religion is altogether prohibited from public life. I personally am not religious, but I recognize that most people are, and it is their sentiments that ought to prevail whenever such questions are raised. Those who want to ban Christmas displays are part of a constant chorus claiming that all minorities have rights, but the majority never has any rights. 

The objections of a few to virtually anything basically boils down to saying we don’t like that, and because it offends, bothers, or otherwise disturbs us it must be removed. Society cannot possibly function if in any instance that someone finds something objectionable that thing must be eliminated; it would then be impossible for there to be anything common. If every claim of this sort is honored it leaves society in an acultural state, and social bonds are severely weakened. 

But to maintain that the majority ought to prevail in such matters is not unfettered majoritarianism. The minority is still protected. Crucially, when the majority prevails it is not forcing anything on a minority. The minority is not being compelled to succumb to the majority position or practices.  It is therefore absurd to require that the majority submit to the minority position, but this is what constantly happens when a minority effectively vetoes the majority, often due to nothing more than the timidity of those charged with the administration of various venues. Christmas is a custom that has been with us for ages and cannot suddenly be undone on the basis of a theory. Thus there is no possible justification for allowing a minority that has deliberately singled out the holiday to spoil Christmas for everyone else.

12 December 2014

NATIONAL SECURITY AND THE DEMOCRATS


On their way out of controlling the US Senate, the Democrats appear to be possessed with a desire to break all the windows. It is as though they are never coming back, and if the mentality behind this scorched earth policy prevails, they may well not return any time soon. What is to be gained by releasing, on an entirely partisan basis, their CIA interrogation report five years after enhanced interrogations were banned and eleven years after the last terror suspect was water-boarded? Why do this now when in the past, secrets from World War II as well as the Kennedy administration were kept for many, many years? What can possibly justify spending $40 million on a process that didn’t even bother to interview principle program managers, and incomprehensibly, no CIA Directors? Apart from massaging liberal consciences there is no purpose to this. 

It provides rhetorical fuel to enemies of the United States, particularly those regularly abusing human rights, although it is hard to see how much waterboarding is going to motivate terrorists who are currently beheading people and already hate us. It is more troubling that, in attacking the intelligence services, and increasingly the military, which formerly had bi-partisan support, they have gone off the rails.  Even Barack Obama, the most liberal president ever elected, is now being attacked by the left.

John Kennedy would have a hard time fitting in to today’s Democratic party. Kennedy was a moderate who cut taxes and was strong on national security.  In the year he was elected Hubert Humphrey was the liberal candidate in the primaries, not JFK. (The myth that he was a progressive emerged later in the 60s when Bobby Kennedy became radicalized and moved the Kennedy family towards liberalism). It is toxic for a major party to be perceived as anti-national security given how little support that view has. To assuage their left the Democrats are alienating a majority of the population.

The issue here is not whether enhanced interrogation, which can still be distinguished from torture, is wrong or right. It is broadcasting what our intensions, strategy and position are, as if the the rest of the world was somehow composed of liberal humanitarians, rather than a large number of odious regimes and players. In reality we still face a serious terrorist threat. It is hard to find anything in these actions that is not detrimental to our security.

Liberals think it was “important” to issue this report at this time, not for any treasonous reasons, but rather due to righteous indignation and the warm and fuzzy feelings that comes with saying “we’re better than that.” By asserting “principle” over the lives of these people they play into the hands of those whose principles are far removed from their own, and put all of us in greater danger. But this vain exercise comes at great cost, as a result of throwing the people who risk their lives under the bus while they pontificate in safety and security. For in the real world, as George Orwell wrote, “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”


26 November 2014

WISHFUL THINKING

Most people have a set of values which inform the way they see the world, and which provide the foundation for their sense of right and wrong. This accounts for many of our political differences because the sense of what is good is not completely in synch. When that occurs we sometimes try to resolve things rationally by marshaling facts which we believe will support our position through an objective, impartial reading. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out: 

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. 

Thus it is not so much a matter of “having our own facts,” as Senator Moynihan once said, but rather the extent to which we are willing to admit them.


However when beliefs are dearly held they may be impervious to evidence. For example, those who believe the bible to be literally true and the word of God will not be moved by any conflicting information. For the true believer, even if something isn’t true it ought to be. But the true believer is not just the religious fundamentalist but anyone who sees the world primarily in political terms, because their “side” must be right. 

In the incident in Ferguson, Missouri some people reached conclusions based upon where their sympathies took them, either in favor of the police officer or the man who was shot. In doing this they treated it as an “issue” rather than as a particular situation in a particular place where only an impartial, disinterested party can get to the truth of the matter reliably. In this instance it was a Grand Jury, which reached a conclusion based upon evidence and eyewitness testimony. The negative reaction to this determination is based not on the actual truth, but on claims that were made previously, which was what what some people wanted to be true. Nothing can satisfy those committed to the notion that something must be true under any circumstances. 

The fallback position is that the process was flawed, and therefore cannot be given credence. The problem with this is that if the decision was in accordance with their beliefs they would not make this claim. The American legal system is by no means perfect, but it is certainly checked by disinterested, randomly selected citizens, whose judgement we ought to respect. All of us need to avoid prejudging incidents we do not have accurate information about, which leads us to succumb to our prejudices instead of accepting that we were wrong.


12 November 2014

TRIPWIRES


Vladimir Putin is deliberately escalating tensions with the West by sending bombers not only to European borders, but to the western hemisphere where they are traveling from the Arctic to the Caribbean. While much of this is saber rattling, it is a dangerous game that could end in catastrophe. There have already been near misses with commercial aircraft, and this aggressive posturing heightens the risk of mistakes. The Chinese appear to be on board with this and both Russia and China perceive the US to be weak and the Europeans even weaker. China is in a dispute with Japan over some islands that are basically rocks in the ocean, and her again a wrong move could lead to war. In the absence of resolve and firm resistance, if they calculate they can get away with something they will. 

All of this indicates the extent to which we are dependent upon the sanity and judgement of political leaders for our own survival. International cooperation is dependent on good behavior on their part. The more tensions escalate the more we are exposed. A cascading series of mistakes led to the carnage of World War I, and the unexpected is always present. There is no reason why the US and Russia should be in conflict, but Putin is pushing the envelope in an attempt to regain territory once held by the Soviet Union, and his recklessness is a cause for concern. He presides over a country that is losing population and is dependent on natural resources, especially oil and gas, for revenue. Falling oil prices are bad news for his government as well as various scoundrels around the world. But this weakness also causes him to lash out with what assets he has, namely a large military. The problem is that this ups the odds for mistakes happening, or miscalculation in terms of response. 

He has also whipped up a virulent nationalism and has widespread support for his aggressive actions. But he is not going anywhere any time soon given his grip on power, meaning that the West will have to deal with him for the foreseeable future. There was some degree of legitimacy in his claim for Crimea, which was always Russian until 1954. Russians and Ukrainians have common origins, but that does not translate into a choice for political authority. The European Union, with no appetite or capability for military action stirred the pot by attempting to extend itself to Ukraine, thereby provoking the Russians, who also blame the US despite the lack of any evidence indicating our involvement. But while gratifying in the short term, these actions are not in the long-term interests of Russia, which can only have a future as part of the European world. 


Given the precarious nature of wide-ranging force deployments there is increased likelihood that powers are going to bump into each other whether intended or not. Furthermore the US has a network of alliances and obligations that could force us into war unless adversaries know for certain that we will go to war. Things are most dangerous when there is uncertainty, vacillation, and when weakness is perceived. At the very least there has to be a concerted effort to reduce flashpoints before they erupt and drag us all to somewhere we don’t want to be.