Tuesday, June 30, 2009

China Raises Fuel Prices

The FT reports that China has raised fuel prices across the board. Gas is now more expensive in China (about $3 per gallon) than it is in the US. What does it say about the US, when a developing country under recessionary pressures, like China, increases gas prices, while a rich country like the US keeps them low? Europe has kept gas prices high for years by adding taxes of various kinds.

Tom Friedman among many others has been calling for higher gas prices in order to promote other, greener forms of energy, but without success. When gas prices went much higher last summer, although they were still low compared to Europe, it was because of manipulation of the financial market, according to Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, not because of any intelligent policy decision.

It looks like the US could at least pursue a policy as sensible as the Chinese, although our policies appear to be controlled by oil and gas and financial interests who are only interested in boosting their profits, not by our national interest.

Elliott Abrams as Ghost and in Person

Elliott Abrams' return to op-ed pages has given me fits. See his WSJ and NYT op-eds. Now the ghost of Iran-Contra is back, although Abrams has now moved from Latin American issues to his real love, Middle East issues, where he is lobbying hard for Israel.

I don't know how Abrams happened to start in Latin America. I'm guessing he got his job as Assistant Secretary for Latin America at the State Department through the connections of his wife's father, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, the influential Jewish magazine. I'm guessing Abrams would rather have worked on the Middle East then, but Reagan (or maybe George Shultz) was unwilling to give him that important a job. Thus, he ended up with Latin America, where his main job was to assure that the US pursued a very conservative agenda. Those were the days when the Reagan Administration greatly feared that it was going to be invaded by El Salvador or Nicaragua.

It was Abrams' efforts to shore up right-wing governments in Central America, like the military coup that just took power in Honduras, that led to his involvement in Iran-Contra. It is ironic that Iran and a Central American coup share the top of the news cycle twenty years later. I think things are better in both places, but they still have a long way to go, especially in Iran. I'm not optimistic that significant changes are going to be implemented in Iran as a result of the recent protests. Thinking is changing there, but it will take a long time to bring any concrete changes to fruition, and there is a possibility that things could get worse. There is a lot of talk that on the authoritarian side in Iran, the leadership has moved from being dominated by clerics to being dominated by the military. And the military is back in power in Honduras. The more things change the more they stay the same.

On "Morning Joe" this morning, Mike Barnacle kept asking guests whether the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities meant that a new government that is Saddam-lite might be taking over. The main response seemed to be, "Not now, but who knows what will happen in a few years." Of course, one of the main effects of the US invasion of Iraq has been the strengthening of Iranian influence there. Fareed Zakaria mentioned last Sunday that nobody was paying attention to what Iranian cleric Sistani was doing in Iraq, where he is currently living in Najaf.

Abrams' job as Israeli spokesman and lobbyist is, of course, to do all he can to get the Obama Administration to beat Iran about the head and shoulders.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Elliott Abrams Is Bank Again

Elliott Abrams has another op-ed, this time in the WSJ. It, of course, goes totally against Tony Judt's op-ed on Israeli settlements. He says the US agreed to the settlements that Obama's administration is now questioning. He's basically saying that George W. Bush was an unpatriotic, cowardly President who was afraid to stand up to the Israelis. Abrams says in effect, "I put words in Bush's mouth recognizing the settlement, and he said them." However, Abrams and Bush failed to bring anything to fruition as a result. Bush kissed Sharon's ass as instructed by Abrams, but no legal document was signed. They failed. The world has moved on. It's like Abrams is trying to enforce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It's dead. Get over it!

But all these articles about settlements show that the Israelis are genuinely worried. They have obviously told their Israeli agents to go all out to get the US off this settlements kick. They may succeed; Jews have lots of money and power in the US. But at least for a few shining moments the US seems to be pursuing a policy defined by US interests, rather than Israel's. Let Elliot Abrams, Bret Stevens, and the rest of the Likudniks on the WSJ editorial page stew for a little while longer.

MTCR Still Around

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls for a missile test ban to supplement the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Interestingly the article puts the MTCR in the context of the Reykjavik Summit, where Richard Perle famously stopped President Reagan from agreeing to sweeping arms control limitations with the Soviets. Perle was also instrumental in limiting the MTCR, mainly by trying to get super strong controls that other countries would not agree to. It was a typical case of the best being the enemy of the good. What we got was worse than if the US had had a more flexible negotiating position.

Anyway, the good news is that the MTCR is still alive and is probably the strongest regime controlling missile proliferation. It could have been stronger, but at least we got something.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Settlements, Schmettlements

This NYT op-ed by Tony Judt, a Jew, about the illegality of all Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory illustrates the best in Jewish thinking on the Israel situation. And it's published in the NYT, which is owned by Jews. So there is open-minded thinking on this issue in the Jewish community, even in the US. (Israelis appear more open-minded on Israeli issues in general than American Jews do.) Meanwhile Paul Wolfowitz seems to be spouting a right-wing Zionist diatribe in the Washington Post calling on President Obama to take a stronger, more public stand against Iran. So, is Wolfowitz just a neo-con like many fundamentalist Americans, or does he have an Israeli agenda, since Iran is a much greater threat to Israel than to the US?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Elliott Abrams Is Back

I was unhappy to see an op-ed by Elliott Abrams in today's NYT about Lebanon and Iran. I was going to write a letter to the editor saying that they should have mentioned in his profile that he is a convicted felon; however, according to Wikipedia, he is not a convicted felon. It says that while felony charges were prepared against him for Iran-Contra, he pleaded guilty only to two misdemeanors. It doesn't sound as good to say that he is a confessed petty criminal. Plus, it says Bush I pardoned him; does that mean he's no longer guilty even of a misdemeanor?

He has gone on from success to success despite Iran-Contra, serving as a senior official in Bush II's NSC and now at the Council on Foreign Relations. My opinion of the Council on Foreign Relations just went down several notches.

With all the furor over the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum, there's a lot of talk about anti-Semitism. But it's people like Abrams who stir up anti-Semitism. He's held high positions in government mainly because he is a Jew with strong Jewish network connections. Another example is Michael Milken, who really is a convicted felon. Now he's back in the news, hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Bernie Madoff is unlikely to follow in Milken's and Abram's footsteps of redemption, because Madoff hurt other Jews, not Gentiles, i.e., he cut his ties to the Jewish old boy network. Another member of the club -- Mark Rich, whose pardon by Bill Clinton almost cost Eric Holder his appointment as Obama's Attorney General.

Apparently it's okay (politically correct) to complain about the old boy network of white men, but it you say the same thing about Jews, it's anti-Semitic.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Diplomatic History Only Interesting If White Men in Charge

The NYT reports that traditional history is decreasing in importance at most universities. It says that while universities are giving decreasing importance to diplomatic or international history, they are giving increased importance to the history of things like women's studies, race, and cultural issues. The ironic thing is that just as history is getting away from a "great man" focus of history that until recently focused on white men, because they were at the top of the heap, women and other races are becoming more important. In tandem with the drop in diplomatic history, the leading diplomats in the US have been Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Hillary Clinton, none of them white men.

My own concern about this is that the loss of interest in diplomatic or international history is likely to result in a lack of the expertise needed to conduct diplomacy. My experience was that diplomacy really is directed by the man (or woman) at the top. As I move up in the State Department (not particularly high), I found that the higher I went, the more likely it was that senior people would take an interest in, and control over, the issues I was working on. In fact, often the issues would be decided by the White House, not just by the Secretary of State. Historians might resent that the system works this way, but denying that it does is likely to result in an unrealistic understanding of history.

I was just listening to Obama talk about health care, and he repeated a line I've heard before when people complain about all the things he is involved in, such as the auto industry, he said he would rather not be involved in these issues, because he already has so much on his plate, and then every issue he mentioned was a foreign policy issue -- North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Republicans Destroyed the CIA

Today's NYT front pages the conflict between Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, and Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA over who should be station chiefs at embassies around the world. In describing the dispute, the NYT simply says, "Mr. Blair took over an office born out of the intelligence failures before the Iraq war." In retrospect those intelligence "failures" were born out of the Bush administration's desire to have the CIA produce the intelligence that the White House wanted. Because the CIA was reluctant to produce politically motivated intelligence, the White House moved to reduce its clout by installing a new bureaucracy above it -- hence Blair vs. Panetta. But it's also the military versus the civilians. The NYT says one dispute is whether to make the head of London station an NSA officer rather than a CIA officer. Then it goes on to say the Defense Intelligence Agency might be more appropriate to head up the Iraq station, etc. However, NSA is primarily military; it's always headed by a military officer. DIA of course is military, as are most other intelligence operations. It's interesting that in the run up to the Iraq war the two small intelligence organizations that were least willing to buy Cheney's claims about Iraq's development of nuclear weapons were the State Department's and the Department of Energy's, two civilian organizations. The CIA is the other big civilian spy operation, and Bush/Cheney hated it and wanted to destroy or emasculate it. It looks like they succeeded to some extent. Hopefully the CIA will go down fighting.

Where's Volker

This article in yesterday's NYT chronicled the infighting among Obama's economic advisers, but it didn't mention Paul Volker. I find that disturbing, because Volker is the only one who has really gotten the US out of an economic mess. Greenspan looked like he did, but it turned out that he was only postponing trouble and making it worse. Larry Summers was Bob Rubin's deputy, when they looked great, but not it turns out that they led the changes that got us into this economic mess. We don't really know about Geithner, but suspicions are that at the New York Fed, he was in bed with the Wall Street wizards who got us into this mess. Bernanke gets points for taking unorthodox steps at the Fed that may have prevented the financial system from imploding, but he did it by making money easier and basically making everybody happier. I'd feel better if he had made somebody hurt. I'd prefer that the bankers hurt, but if it had to be the general population, so be it. Bernanke has done smart things, but he has not done difficult things. When you mess up by overcharging on your credit cards or by making a bad investment, it's unusual to have someone give you a billion or a trillion dollars to make it alright. Usually you have to cut back in some way. But that's because you can print money like Bernanke does. It's unlikely that zero interest rates are the answer to every problem.

So far, for the last several decades, nobody in government has inflicted pain on the US economy. Private citizens, of course, the leaders of our banking and investment establishment, have produced the savings and loan debacle, the tech stock bubble, the housing bubble, and then the financial system meltdown.

Volker actually got us out of the Nixon-Carter-Reagan stagflation quagmire by prescribing tough medicine for the US economy. Nobody else has had the foresight or the guts to do the same thing in response to our more recent problems.

Granted Volker is in his 80's, but these young whipper-snappers ought to be seeking out his advise and listening to it. The NYT article intimates that Summers doesn't have a very high opinion of anybody else's opinions. I hope Obama listens to Volker more and Summers less.

Friday, June 05, 2009

NYT Op-Eds

It may happen frequently or infrequently, but it looks like all the authors of op-eds in today's New York Times are Jewish. Actually, I'm not sure about the guy who did the cartoons of an old graduating class, but his name sounds Jewish -- for sure Krugman, Brooks, and Livni are. In theory there's nothing wrong with this, but I worry that it gives the reader a slanted perspective. The Times is owned by Jews; so, maybe it's on purpose, but the news usually seems pretty balanced, although there are probably lots of Jewish writers in the newsroom as well.

I am hoping that reading the Financial Times op-eds will give me some balance, although who knows, they may be Jewish, too. Certainly one of the most celebrated Financial Times columnists until he left to join the Obama administration was Larry Summers, who is Jewish. In addition, a lot of the bad business practices that led to the current financial debacle were carried out by Anglos, both in New York and London, (probably not WASPs, since the P for Protestant seems to be a dying breed).

I am somewhat heartened that Niall Ferguson, who I think is Scottish, has taken on Paul Krugman, at least on the issue of inflation, in the Financial Times. I think Jon Meachum, who may be Episcopalian, is also a fresh voice on these issues.

Meanwhile, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions is in the news all the time because of his role in examining Sotomayor for the Surpreme Court. He comes from my background: Alabama, U of A Law School (about the same time I graduated there, although I don't remember him), now lives in Mobile, and presumably Protestant. But I don't agree with him on much of anything. I agree with Brooks and Krugman much more often, not to mention Tom Friedman, with whom I agree most of the time.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Selig Harrison Wise on North Korea

Selig Harrison was correct to point out on Fareed Zakaria's CNN GPS show that the US and its Japanese and South Korean allies were the first to fail to honor the agreement with North Korea.  The right-wing North Korea haters may be right that North Korea would not have lived up its agreement with the US, but we'll never know, because the US abrogated the agreement first by failing to provide North Korea with the heavy fuel oil that we promised.  

After we reneged on the agreement, North Korea restarted its nuclear reactor and produced the plutonium for several more atomic bombs.  But apparently the Rush Limbaugh crowd got some kind of satisfaction from revitalizing the North Korean nuclear weapons program.