25 January 2015


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.


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.