Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Make your case, Mr. Obama

After the G20 meeting, President Obama will be heading to NATO for the 60th anniversary meeting/celebration/thing. The smart money says he'll be pressing for more NATO commitment (in combat troops, trainers, and money) to Afghanistan. Thus far our European allies have been reluctant to commit large numbers of troops to the war effort in Afghanistan. They see it as America's problem, so America should fix it.

President Obama needs to make the case to the NATO leaders and to the people of the EU that victory in Afghanistan makes the entire Western world safer, and failure is disastrous for everyone. America may have started the war, but the consequences stretch well beyond the Middle East. Not only to North America, but to other NATO countries as well.

Mr. Obama set Europe aflame with Obamania on his visit during the campaign. Now he needs to use that popularity and his spectactular eloquence to appeal to NATO countries for help. The US Military is still stretched thin, and no matter what the rhetoric, we can't enough of our troops out of Iraq in the next year. If the "Af-Pak" situation is to be stabilized, it's going to take an international effort. It is up to Mr. Obama to galvanize the world behind this cause.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Another good question

John Mearsheimer asks another interesting question today: What is Israel up to? He doesn't see an endgame in the current trajectory that Israel is on regarding Palestinian statehood. To be honest, neither do I. The response I posted:
It looks to me like the victory of ideology over common sense. In that, the Israeli conservatives are not alone, but few others have such high stakes. I can only see this ending badly and bloodily. I hope against hope that Mr. Obama shows the intestinal fortitude to play hardball with Israel regarding new settlements. And he needs to start doing it *now*, and not wait until he's a lame duck, like most presidents seem to do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Anyone have an answer?

John Mearsheimer asks how we were so badly let down by the "experts" in both finance and foreign policy.

This is a great question, and one to which nobody has an answer. I (at the ripe old age of 18 or so) opposed the Iraq war from the start. But I opposed it on the grounds that it was an invasion of a sovereign country that did not pose a threat to the United States. I did not think far enough ahead to make the connection with Vietnam, the French occupation of Algeria, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then again, I was in high school. So why didn't those great foreign policy thinkers make the connection? That is something I certainly can't answer. I'm sure it had something to do with hubris, but not everyone could have been drinking the Kool-Aid, right?

I think the financial crisis has a simpler explanation. Greed. Most of the smart people in finance were making money hand over fist. Nobody wants to admit that such a profitable thing might be disastrous in the long term. Not to mention, it's different this time. That still doesn't explain why there weren't any people at all willing to snap out of it, but I think it is a large part of it.

If anyone has a better explanation (or any explanation at all), I would love to hear it.

It just seems so much more amusing...

...when the British do it. MEP Daniel Hannan lays into Gordon Brown at the EU Parliament. For some reason, the sniping between Democrats and Republicans here in the States never seems as eloquent or as downright entertaining as partisan bickering in the U.K.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Words are overrated

James Nachtwey

And now for something completely different...

Billionaire Mark Cuban posted this fun idea from a small businessperson. Cuban is the kind of guy that truly believes in America's entrepreneurial spirit and does what he can to nurture it.

I highly recommend looking through his blog, he has a lot of interesting ideas, and certainly isn't afraid of speaking his mind. (Any NBA/Dallas Mavs fans already know that.) If nothing else, it is interesting to get insight into the mind of a self-made billionaire.

Doublethink?

Today the Republican leadership in Congress slammed the President's budget, saying that it "taxes too much and borrows too much from our children." I would be interested in hearing how they suggest we fight the deficit by cutting taxes. After 8 years of fiscal irresponsibility, I have a very hard time listening to Republicans spout on about "passing debt to our children". Did they just find God on fiscal responsibility this year? Now that the President has to spend trillions bailing out and stimulating an economy that "got drunk" on George W Bush's watch, Republicans suddenly discovered the idea that deficits and debt are bad?

Yes, this budget has a lot of spending. Yes, some of Mr. Bush's tax cuts are allowed to expire. Should the President continue those tax cuts and make the deficit even larger? Personally, and I guess this makes me a socialistliberalpinkocommunist, I wouldn't have a problem with a tax hike across the board. The deficit needs to get under control, and cutting spending won't be enough. Right now we have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fund, an economy to help recover, and broken health care and Social Security programs.

Spending can only be cut so far. Cutting taxes will not increase revenue. The idea that higher taxes mean that people will stop working right before they hit the next tax bracket is insane, since you only pay that higher rate on the money earned in that bracket. The rest is taxed at the lower rate. Obviously, right now is probably a bad time for a tax hike, what with the recession. But at some point, the debt will have to be addressed, and taxes will go up. A gas tax (another evil liberal idea, I know) will hurt, but it will provide revenue and cause an increase in interest in green technology. When gas was at $4/gallon, the interest in hybrids and subcompacts was skyrocketing. I'm afraid that as gas gets cheaper, people will forget about this and go back to the big gas-guzzlers. There's no reason to wait until the debt becomes a crisis. This needs to be addressed, and soon.

...and with that rant, I'll stay away from domestic politics for a while.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A surge in intelligent strategy

David Kilcullen, the man behind the shift in strategy that made the surge work, gave an interview to the Washington Post. Of particular interest are his thoughts on the dire situation Pakistan is in, as well as how he characterizes the reaction to his ideas in '04 and '05.

Kilcullen understands counterinsurgency better than anyone, and the tactics that he and Gen. Petraeus implemented in Iraq have obviously improved things. His "28 Articles of Counterinsurgency"(pdf) are well worth reading. They'll give you an idea of how the military has to change from a Cold War mentality to a new counterinsurgency mentality if it wants to be successful in "new wars". I have not yet picked up Kilcullen's new book, The Accidental Guerilla, but I hear good things, and I'll certainly be reading it.

And yes, I found this on Tom Ricks' blog. Again.

Talking about not talking...

Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco and The Gamble) links to a fascinating discussion on his blog. Major General Mike Oates opened up a discussion on the blog for his Task Force Mountain regarding "Don't ask, don't tell." This sort of dialogue should be sought regarding a policy that seems anachronistic to civilians. It is good to see some discussion among those whom changes to this policy would affect.

Personally, I think the best argument for allowing gays to serve openly is that the same arguments were made about women and minorities. If racism and sexism in the military can be overcome... why not homophobia? Anyway, I'll let the blog speak for itself, now that I'm done bloviating.

Friday, March 20, 2009

There is a reason...

...why I link to one particular Washington Post columnist on this page. Mr. Pearlstein's most recent column does a good job of bringing people back to earth regarding the hysteria surrounding these AIG bonuses. And Steven Colbert, showing why his show wins Emmys for writing, viciously satirized this insane populism that is sweeping the nation. Jon Stewart, of course, had his own pithy segment, where he mocks himself, among others.

This populism gets old very fast, from where I'm standing. We already had the blatant pandering during the presidential campaign to anti-NAFTA groups and the inane idea of a gas-tax holiday. This populist streak is also threatening to make the crisis worse, if America starts looking out for itself to the detriment of the rest of the world. Some elements of this have already started, and one must just hope it ends here. After all, didn't we learn our lesson in the 30s?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Star Wars

...of the Reagan kind, not the George Lucas kind.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a nice article about the evolution of Missile Defense from the 50s until the present. I've been an opponent of Missile Defense since I first heard about it when I was about 6 years old. During the Cold War, it had the potential to destabilize the Mutual Assured Destruction theory that kept the US and USSR from launching a few thousand nukes at each other. More importantly, outside Tom Clancy's The Cardinal in the Kremlin, there's never really been a Missile Defense system that has actually worked. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been--and are being--spent without significant progress.

Barney Frank is a bit pejorative when he refers to it as "protecting the Czech Republic from missiles from Iran", but he is right in pointing out that the money certainly could be better spent elsewhere. In these days of trillion dollar deficits, programs that don't work (and never have) should be cut. Thankfully, it seems that President Obama is not a huge fan of Missile Defense either. The persistent rumor is that he is using it as a bargaining chip to get Russia to step up sanctions on Iran. If he can pull that off, he'll be able to reduce the defense budget by a significant amount without affecting the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan while simultaneously waving a stick at Iran to go with his carrots.

Here's hoping that Missile Defense is on the way out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Julian Tavarez is a class act

On signing with the Washington Nationals:

"Why did I sign with the Nationals? When you go to a club at 4 in the morning, and you're just waiting, waiting, a 600-pounder looks like J. Lo. And to me this is Jennifer Lopez right here. It's 4 in the morning. Too much to drink. So, Nationals: Jennifer Lopez to me."
Sounds like he used to dream about playing for the Nats.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Potentially scary stuff...

Former NSC member Will Inboden thinks that we should worry about China, Nigeria, Egypt and Turkey more than we are. I have to admit that I hadn't really thought about the impact the economic downturn might have on the stability of these countries. President Obama has yet another thing to keep him up at night...

Monday, March 16, 2009

The stock market runs on rainbows and unicorn farts...

...so the Obama team needs to keep the rainbows shining and the unicorns farting. As much as I hate to link to ludicrously right-wing blogs, this guy has a point. So much of the economy (the DJIA, especially) runs on consumer confidence. Right now, even people who aren't in danger of losing their jobs, and aren't retiring soon are cutting back on spending. People who need a new car/tv/etc are waiting until the economy is "doing better" (what exactly is meant by that is up to debate) until they go out and buy one. As FDR would say, the thing to fear is fear itself. That fear is driving down consumer confidence, which is driving down consumer spending, and that can't be good for the economy. It's not surprising, then, that the Obama administration is starting to sound more like the Obama campaign. It no longer serves their purposes to continue talking about how dire things are. Now they need to make people feel like it is safe to spend and invest, if they want the economy to turn around.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is the U.N. obsolete?

Obsolete may be too strong a word, but changes are certainly necessary, and America needs to take the lead, as Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth explain in this very fine essay. (It's only available to subscribers at the moment, sorry.) Viable international institutions are vital in a globalized world.

One change I would like to see is the formation of a standing international "Quick Response Peacekeeping Force". This would be a well-trained and well-equipped force made up of volunteers from member nations. As it currently stands, anytime the UN approves a peacekeeping/peace enforcement mission, it has to ask member nations for troops and equipment, which then have to be handed over to nominal UN control and brought to the country where the mission will take place. All this takes time and is a logistical problem. If the UN had a nimble fast-action force that could be sent anywhere in the world as soon as a decision is made, many lives could be saved that were otherwise lost while the UN scrambled to find troops and equipment.

The force would need to be exceptionally nimble--with its own transport aircraft and lots and lots of helicopters. Peacekeeping missions need helicopters to function, and the UN does not have enough. The Economist had an article on the problem over a year ago:

The situation is even more acute for the United Nations. Its peacekeepers need the power and mobility that helicopters offer in remote, rough places but find it increasingly difficult to beg and borrow enough.

...
For UN peacekeeping, Western countries generally prefer to send money rather than troops and vital equipment. The bulk of the UN's manpower comes from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. India is already the biggest donor of helicopters to the UN, while Pakistan is busy fighting militants in its tribal areas. “The situation would change overnight if China, which is starting to get involved in peacekeeping, were to lend some of its helicopters,” says Mr Gowan. Another source might be Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet-block countries, which have plenty of helicopters, but have so far offered few of them.
If the UN had a standing reaction force, it could step into bad situations like Darfur in a matter of days and weeks, instead of months and years. While the fast-action force jumps in immediately and puts boots on the ground, the UN can look into getting long-term troops and equipment into the country. In the meantime, lives are being saved. Over time, the original force can be replaced by troops raised the traditional way.

The trouble with Kool-Aid...

...is that commentators may also partake.

Put less cryptically, the point to which I am slowly getting is that laypeople rely on journalists and purportedly (hopefully) disinterested observers to distill complicated topics into something people understand. After the little spat between The Daily Show and CNBC, what seems clear is that the "experts" reporting on the dense jungle of finance were drinking the same Kool-Aid that traders were. Words of caution and whistle blowers were lost amid the deafening roar of the hedge-fund managers raking in cash.

Unless one has a degree in Finance or is just a genius of sorts, many or most of the issues involved in the sub-prime crisis, housing bubble, credit crunch, etc are hard to understand at best and completely unintelligible at worst. How many average Americans knew what "commercial paper" was before the crash? So, we rely on what we're told by the "experts". Well, the experts were drinking the Kool-Aid this time, and the people bought into it, just like always.