Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's the same, except when it's different

Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal, glossing over his predictions of late 2010 --

On the face of it, the similarities of the undoing of the terrible regimes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi are striking. The spectacles of joy in Tripoli today recall the delirious scenes in Baghdad's Firdos Square in 2003—the statues pulled down, the palaces of faux grandeur and kitsch ransacked by people awakening to their own sense of violation and power, the man at the helm who had been full of might and bravado making a run for it, exposed as a paranoid and pretender, living in fear of his day of reckoning.

In neither case had the people of these two tormented societies secured their liberty on their own. In Baghdad, the Baathist reign of terror would have lasted indefinitely had George W. Bush not pushed it into its grave. 

So, Saddam would have lasted forever without the Bush invasion, even as we now know that Arabs can get rid of seemingly well-entrenched dictators with much more selective foreign help?  Perhaps realizing the contradiction, the rest of Ajami's article is a narrative of how Libya's neighbours were much more well inclined to regime change than Iraq's.  Er ... Iran? Which requires him to dance between claiming that Iran regressed into a historical Persian rivalry with Iraq while Saudi Arabia failed to embrace Iraqi regime change because they saw it as inspired by ... Iran!

There wasn't only one

Matthew Yglesias, amid another weirdly flippant reference to Nazi Germany ("Operation Anschluss")

 [Quoting Hans-Olaf Henkel]  That is why we need a plan “C”: Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands to leave the eurozone and create a new currency leaving the euro where it is. [end quote]

you could see this as basically a re-creation of the Holy Roman Empire. ... Someday, rich Northern Italy might succeed in separating from the poorer provinces and might want to sign up, approximating the HR Empire at its greatest extent. We might look back on the past 200 years as a kind of weird interregnum characterized by a series of madcap schemes (by Napoleon, Hitler, Jean-Claude Trichet, etc.) to impose political unity on western Europe.

Hilarious, except for one problem.  The Holy Roman Empire didn't use a single currency.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Dick Cheney interview with Wall Street Journal --

As we finish up, Mr. Cheney diverts into a consideration of the sorts of responses governments may have to make when confronted by things in the news now, such as "flash mobs" using social media to organize riots through London. "It's going to present us with some pretty significant challenges that we've only begun to address."  "Tough problem," the public-policy lifer says, before finally stepping back from a challenge: "My generation is not going to have to deal with it. But yours is."

OK, there were certainly some complex social phenomena behind the London riots.  But conceptually and technologically, it's hard to see what's difficult about them.  Indeed, precisely because of the use of social media, the flash mob networks are much easier to monitor than the kind of snooping that Cheney wanted to do.

Which raises the question: did Cheney really understand the technological aspects of terrorism, or was it all just part of something alien to a man from another era, but a man who had been given the bureaucratic power to, seemingly, control it?

Also, that "public policy lifer" spent the years between his Bush I and Bush II assignments as CEO of Halliburton.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weather lingo

With the term Heat Dome having been rolled out a few weeks ago as an alternative to a boring old heatwave, it now looks like, judging from Fox News anyway, that we should get ready for Surge Dome to replace boring old storm surges such as one feared from Hurricane Irene.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Republican nightmare

Reuters --

Saudi Arabia is excavating a new archaeological site that will show horses were domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Arabian peninsula, the country's antiquities expert said on Wednesday.

The nightmare being that (1) evidence that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old and (2) the proof is in ... Saudi Arabia!

Probably more of a tweet

So if Warren Buffett was taxed more (or paid more taxes voluntarily), does that mean he wouldn't have the US$5 billion handy to bailout Bank of America? 

Bombs to Damascus

New York Times on Dick Cheney's book --

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says in a new memoir that he urged President George W. Bush  to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site in June 2007. But, he wrote, Mr. Bush opted for a diplomatic approach after other advisers — still stinging over “the bad intelligence we had received about Iraq’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction” — expressed misgivings. 

Was this the only split in the Bush Administration regarding a war on Syria?  Take a look beginning at the 26th minute of this Syrian TV interview with Bashar al-Assad.  Now not to take his side in anything -- the sooner that the Syrian people get around to a Libyan solution, the better -- but he has no particular reason to make up the story he recounts at that stage of the interview.  In which he says that they were all aware of all the "After Iraq, Syria" chatter in 2003, but even moreso that he was shown a list of specific targets that the Americans were going to attack, and the threat only receded after Afghanistan and Iraq got more complicated (which might explain incidentally why Syria was facilitating jihadis getting to Iraq during this period).

So anyway, it's great that Dick Cheney is telling it like he saw it in his book, but he's probably not telling it all.  Someone wanted to invade Syria in 2003-04 and got talked out of it.  Who and Why?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Libya smart alec comment

Wouldn't it be wise for Muammar Gaddafi to propose that any war crimes trial for him or his sons be held in Scotland?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Service to news editors

This Bahrain news agency story is responding to what it says is a Washington Post story when it's actually a Washington Times story.

He Yadda Yaddad the worst part

Matt Yglesias has a strange post about monetary policy in Nazi Germany.  It plays off the again topical issue of FDR's monetary policy in the New Deal era but the reader is left with the distinct impression that the story of 1930s German economic policy is two monetary wheezes (a parallel currency and then gold seizures in Austria and Czechoslovakia) from which it was just a hop, skip, and jump to the war effort finally getting the economy to full employment.

But what's strange is to propound so authoritatively about Nazi economic policy and never mention fiscal policy, which is where all the action was.  Here's a review by Alex Harrowell of Adam Tooze's excellent book on the topic that lays it all out: monetary policy didn't have a whole lot to do with Germany's 1930s "boom" which was in fact a ruthless military-industrial buildup financed by suppression of consumption and propaganda-boosted labor supply.  Monetary policy was just the increasingly desperate leak-plugging operation on the side, as Nazi economic lunacy ran into the mundane problems of all economic lunacy -- shortages and repressed inflation, not least of foreign currency.   Only in Rick Perry's fantasy world does this tell us anything about the American policy dilemmas today.

UPDATE 13 SEPTEMBER: Yglesias returns to the topic:

In broader terms, the policies of Adolf Hitler were far inferior to those of his predecessors in Germany. But the Nazi regime, under the leadership of Hjalmar Schacht, implemented highly effective monetary policies ...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Note to editors

If, after every occurrence of the country name "Bahrain" we have to have "home to America's Fifth Fleet", can we also have for "Syria" something like "home for 40 years to a USSR/Russia naval base?"  Incidentally, Syria (unlike Bahrain) is using its own naval facilities to shell dissident areas, so keeping track of these naval assets is important.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Agent Bush: Mission Accomplished

New York Times

BAGHDAD — As leaders in the Arab world and other countries condemn President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on demonstrators in Syria, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq  has struck a far friendlier tone, urging the protesters not to “sabotage” the state and hosting an official Syrian delegation.  Mr. Maliki’s support for Mr. Assad has illustrated how much Iraq’s position in the Middle East has shifted toward an axis led by Iran. 

Photo (Paul Morse): July 2006 White House meeting between Maliki and George Bush.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pop Culture Crossover

Daily Star of Lebanon

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea has described Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt as the American television sitcom character Sergeant Schultz.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

And anyone can go to Dubai

In the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell muses on the latest World's Tallest Tower project in Jeddah:

A well-designed building in Jeddah could enhance the visits of the millions of pilgrims who pass through it each year on their way to Mecca. On the other hand, a badly designed building could make a pilgrimage to Mecca feel more like a shopping weekend in Dubai.

Above, the garish Big Ben imitation overlooking the central courtyard in Mecca.  The complex includes a massive mall, hotels, and luxury apartments.

Photo: Salah Malkawi for the New York Times.

Cause and effect

Wall Street Journal article on another European policy elite summer --

"If you didn't allow vacations during crises, [EU leaders] would not have had a vacation in the last three years," said Kim Oosterlinck of the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Crisis, what crisis? Oh, that one. Right.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, statement following the Eurozone-rescuing summit of 21 July --

So, ladies and gentlemen, we needed a credible package: we have a credible package. It deals with both the concerns of the markets and of citizens. It responds also to the concerns of all Member States of the Euro area. It is a package that every government has signed up to. For the first time in the crisis, the politics and the markets are coming together.

Jose Manuel Barroso, letter to EU heads of government 3 August --

The 21st of July bold decisions on the Greek package and the increased flexibility of the EFSF (precautionary use, recapitalisation of banks and intervention in secondary bond markets), are not having their intended effect on the markets. Markets highlight, among other reasons, the global economic uncertainties due to both economic growth and the protracted decision on budgetary adjustments in the US but, first and foremost, the undisciplined communication and the complexity and incompleteness of the 21st July package.

Incidentally, for someone complaining about communications problems, his press statement of August 3 is notably less bleak than the letter he was writing at the same time and which was made public today and from which the above passage is taken.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

It's better than Arab cottage cheese

Over the last couple of years, there was a vibrant cottage industry among American conservatives in travelling to Israel and proclaiming the discovery of a new economic miracle in the land of milk and honey.  The canonical texts -- which launched a thousand op-ed pieces -- are Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer and The Israel Test by George Gilder.

To the extent that these books had any economic methodology -- as opposed to an implicit Up Yours to Israel's immediate neighbours -- it involved talking to a highly selected sample of successful export-oriented rich people in Israel and using these venture capital-dependent cases to draw conclusions about the overall success of Israel's economy. 

Minor issues such as the validity of comparing Israel to clapped out dictatorships and petro-states as opposed to small European states (a peer group that Israel itself seeks) can be set aside.  Because it turns out that Israel's American boosters missed the story.  The story being that actual Israelis were growing ever more frustrated with the basic cost of living, complaints now exemplified in the tale of the over-expensive cottage cheese and the vested interests that lie behind it.  Here's an excellent article from another of those actual Israelis that explains the economics of the problem.  The neocon view of Bibi Netanyahu as a combination of Churchill and Thatcher on the Jordan looks a bit rougher against this backdrop (not to mention Bibi about to quietly follow Barack Obama's once outrageous 1967 peace line principles of a few weeks ago).

In the spirit of seeking general principles where there might not be any, the lesson appears to be that when The National Question dominates domestic political debate, it leaves huge room for economic mischief.  That's a problem we know in Ireland.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Above (via European Council photo service), Council President Herman van Rompuy and Commission President (since the Bertie Ahern-brokered deal that put him there in 2004) Jose Manuel Barroso initiate the Eurocrat orgy of self-congratulation following the July summit that kept Greece on the official financing morphine until the next spasm and so saved all of the Eurozone from contagion.  We were told.

Today --

Italian authorities will meet on Tuesday to discuss growing market turmoil that has sent borrowing costs spiraling to dangerous levels and threatened to drag Italy into full-scale crisis.