My Key stories of the world in 2014

Twenty fourteen was a busy year for the planet and in general a rather unhappy time. But believing as I do that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction (big brother) it swings back (personal freedom), I am such an optimist that I see some hopeful signs for 2015. These are the developments that I think are important (and/or felt like writing about).

Torture: A big plus this year was the eye-opening report of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Torture. It found that the CIA used torture (violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Declaration Against Torture, and the I, II, and IV Geneva Conventions of 1949 all of which were signed by the United States and are thus binding laws of the land) and that it was not effective in gathering actionable information that couldn’t have been obtained with traditional interrogation techniques. Admittedly Senator Diane Feinstein was angry about CIA illegal hacking of computers of the Committee staff who have the legal responsibility of CIA oversight and may have been settling some scores. But if you do not find these abuses of power frightening, you live in the wrong country. While the report might not have been fully balanced, its findings on the ineffectiveness of torture are consistent with the earlier findings. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/torture-is-immoral-and-doesn’t-work/

Our common sense assumption that a prisoner being tortured will tell his captures whatever they want to hear in order to stop the pain was dramatically confirmed by the recent news that Nian Bin was released by the Chinese government after eight years in prison for murders he did not commit. He was originally tortured into admitting the alleged crimes. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-china-a-rare-criminal-case-in-which-evidence-made-a-difference/2014/12/29/23f86b80-796b-11e4-9721-80b3d95a28a9_story.html

Hopefully these disclosures will reign in these embarrassing and appalling abuses by the United States government.

Greece: Since joining the EU and adopting the Euro (still very popular in Greece as protection against the bad old inflation days), Greece has enjoyed and unfortunately recklessly indulged in a higher living standard (consumption) than it earned (produced) by borrowing from the rest of Europe at the low interest rates paid by Germany. This mispricing of the risk of lending to Greece by financial markets resulted in part from the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to rate Greece sovereign debt realistically (treating all sovereign debt of its members alike). It also reflected the moral hazard of the wide spread belief that the EU, ECB, and international financial institutions such as the IMF would bail out holders of such debt. But no one and no country can live beyond its means forever. What can’t go on forever, won’t. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/greeces-debt-crisis-simplified/, https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/saving-greece-austerity-andor-growth/

The balance between what Greece (short hand for individuals, firms, and government domiciled in Greece) imports and (pays for with) exports can be restored by lowering the cost of Greek goods and services. This will increase its exports and decrease its imports. This can be achieved by lowering wages and other costs of production or increasing productivity. Lowering wages without an increase in productivity simply acknowledges the reality that Greeks are poorer than most other Europeans. Increasing productivity improves Greek competitiveness and thus exports while also increasing its real standard of living.

The loans provided to the Greek government by the troika (EU, ECB, and IMF) tied to (i.e. conditional on) reductions in the government’s borrowing needs (reducing government employees, increasing tax revenue, etc) and structural reforms to make the economy more productive, provided an alternative to its default and forced sudden cut in government spending that markets would have forced on it otherwise. There is debate about which approach would be best for Greece in the long term. Hopefully Greek voters will face and debate this choice honestly in the presidential elections in January: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/greek-impasse-forces-early-elections-and-fears-of-euro-crisis-return/2014/12/29/3be75924-8f4e-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html The implications for the EU and the Euro are huge. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/the-greek-referendum/

Cuba: President Obama has decided to diplomatically recognize Cuba after a half century long failed policy of sanctions. Not only have our economic sanctions failed to displace the Castro brothers and their pernicious regime (most other countries do not observe our sanctions and trade and invest with Cuba anyway), we have no business (or national self interest) in adopting and promoting a regime change as national policy, however much we might wish for it. Moreover it is very much in our national interest to have good information on and channels of communication with every country with a government no matter how chosen. The linked article by Marc Thiessen illustrates the arrogant and dangerous thinking of our neocons. If Thiessen supports something, I start out against it until convinced otherwise: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/marc-thiessen-cuban-dissidents-blast-obamas-betrayal/2014/12/29/cc68ffcc-8f5b-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html

Crony capitalism: President Eisenhower famously worried about the dangers of the military industrial complex as he sought to conduct a cold war with the USSR: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/eisenhowers-farewell-address-50-years-later/. It is difficult for the government to objectively serve the public interest while dealing with or regulating industry. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/free-markets-uber-alles/ The relationship that develops in such a situation often serves the interests of the regulated industry more than the general public. The result is what we call crony capitalism and it is the enemy of true capitalism as much as its variants– socialism and fascism. One of the particularly alarming examples of truly disgusting and damaging crony capitalist deals is described in the following article. It involves JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Eric Holder’s Justice Department agreeing on what seems like a large fine, but is more accurately described as a bribe, to suppress evidence of criminal behavior on the part of Chase. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-9-billion-witness-20141106.

Twenty fifteen will be a better year than was 2014 if public outrage at the use of torture, the abuse of the privacy of American’s, the bailing out of and favoritism toward Wall Street and the costly and counter productive deployment of American military around the world, result in rolling back these dangerous excesses. My fear is that nothing will be done and that there will be more the same. I hope that I am wrong.

Syria and the Red Line

On August 21, 2013, a chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 men, women and children on the outskirts of Damascus. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry attribute the horrifying attack to the Assad government. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 forbid the use of chemical weapons. The use of force to punish violators of the ban may be authorized by the UN Security Council. The United States is not unilaterally authorized under international law to do so.

President Obama continues to surprise me. Despite over a 100,000 casualties in Syria’s two-year plus civil war, he has wisely resisted direct involvement in a conflict that the U.S. has no obvious self-interest in. We have no real control over the unfolding events and outcome of the struggle underway there. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome that serves our interest in peace and democracy in the region much less in having a friendly regime. There is no obvious successor to Assad’s regime, though radical Islamism (al Qaeda) forces seem to currently dominate the anti-government forces. Edward Luttwak argues in a NY Times op-ed that a stalemate is the least bad of bad options. “In-Syria America Loses if Either Side Wins”

Obama then foolishly drew a red line against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. It now seems very likely that Assad has crossed it in a big way. If the U.S. does not act decisively it will lose credibility and its red lines will become meaningless. If it acts, as Obama has suggested, in a limited, “surgical” manner that does not tip the balance of Syria’s civil war, will it have “taught” Assad a lesson that will detour him from using chemical weapons in the future? More likely it will affirm U.S. powerlessness in the area. And what about the inevitable collateral damage even if our rockets hit their intended targets and Syria’s unpredictable countermeasures? In a statement released September 1, the International Crisis Group stated that: “To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand…. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable.” “Syria Statement”

In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that: “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” More recently he added that: “Simply the application of force rarely produces and, in fact, maybe never produce the outcome we seek.” According to Daniel Byman of Brookings Institute “A limited bombing campaign against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure is likely to produce the worst of all worlds: raising expectations and further involving the United States in the Syrian civil war without significantly altering the balance of forces on the ground.” “Syria Crisis-Military Action”

Syria’s use of chemical weapons without consequences could render their prohibition toothless. However, not only is the US not legally authorized to police world agreements, it can’t afford to go into another war and still remain economically and militarily strong. Given Russian and Chinese opposition, the UN Security Council will not authorize the use of force. A U.S. attack on Syria would violate international law every bit as much as Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons has. That does not mean that nothing can be done within the framework of the law in reaction to the use of chemical weapons. If we continue to disregard international law, why would we expect others to abide by it? Globalization, which has dramatically reduced poverty around the world, would suffer. We would be left to police the world by military force (and how has that been working for us?) until we burned ourselves out.

In his rose garden address to the nation Saturday the President said that: “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets….  And I’m prepared to give that order.” His surprise, however, was his promise to seek Congress’s authorization, something he had not considered necessary for Libya. “But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests,… I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Regrettably he did not seem to seek this authorization as a legal requirement of the constitution but rather as a pragmatic way to build public support. What ever his reason the step is welcomed.

Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith reviewed the legal arguments over the President’s war powers in a recent New York Times article: “What Happened to the Rule of Law?”  The Obama administration has pushed Presidential authority further than any previous administration. A return to the rule of law, domestically and internationally, is America’s best chance of survival in a dramatically changing world.

Congress should say no to Obama’s request for an illegal and unpromising attack on Syria. But we can thank him for asking.