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Anzac Day, 101 years on …

April 25th, 2016 13 comments

101 years on from the first landings at Gallipoli, Australian troops are still at war over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Hardly anyone is fully aware of the history, which is one of the reasons we keep on repeating it. So, while we remember those who answered our country’s call, and particularly those who never returned, we should take the time to understand why they were there, and the futility of the wars in which we have engaged in the Middle East.

The struggle over the declining Ottoman Empire began well before the Great War itself, and was the proximate cause of the War (Sarejevo, where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated was a former part of the Ottoman Empire, taken by Austria Hungary in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908). For much of this time, Britain was allied with Turkey, trying to check the expansion of the Czarist Russian Empire. But, as it happened, when the Great War broke out, Britain and France were part of the Triple Entente with Russia, and the Turkish government decided that its best hope for survival lay with Germany. So, Australia was at war with Turkey.

The object of the Gallipoli campaign was to force a passage through the Dardanelles, allowing the Western allies to provide aid to Russia and, if possible, knock Turkey out of the war. The ultimate war aim, formalized in the Sykes-Picot agreement was to partition the Middle East between Britain and France, with Britain getting what is now Iraq and France getting Syria and Lebanon*.

British control over Iraq continued until the mid-1950s, when the US moved in with the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO, one of the network of Cold War alliances modelled on NATO. But Iraq pulled out, and partially the Anglo-American oil holdings, setting the stage for two decades of conflict as the Americans sought to maintain the Middle Eastern sphere of influence they had inherited from Britain.

That culminated in Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power in 1979, and his decision to launch a war with Iran, in which he received extensive support from the US. The rest is recent enough history not to need repeating. The present chaos is the outcome of a century of Western involvement, colliding with the many and varied aspirations of people in the region.

Perhaps one day, Australian armed forces will leave the Middle East, and return home for good. That would be the best possible way to celebrate Anzac Day. In the meantime, Lest We Forget.

* A variety of contradictory promises were also made to the Russians (seeking more territory), the Arabs (seeking independence) and the Zionists (seeking a Jewish homeland). But, with minor variations, it was the Sykes-Picot deal that was implemented in practice.

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I, for one … (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

April 20th, 2016 No comments

This para, presented matter-of-factly in the middle of a New York Times piece about the Repub convention bringing older strategists out of retirement, surprised more than, perhaps, it should

Paul Manafort, 67, all but disappeared from American politics in recent decades to advise international leaders, including strongmen like Ferdinand E. Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines, and Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed former president of Ukraine. Now, though, Mr. Manafort, who worked for the Ford campaign 40 years ago, is the lead convention strategist for Donald J. Trump

Combined with the link back to Joe McCarthy, I feel a bit as if we have moved on to some alternative reality timeline (I remember a great one, where Nixon won in 1960, and an author is trying to pitch the actual history of the 60s as an alternate reality story – CT commenters advises that it’s Divergence, by Barry Malzberg).

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Repeal Taft-Hartley (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

March 11th, 2016 29 comments

Assuming that the US Presidential election is between Trump and Clinton (or, for that matter, Sanders) the voting bloc that’s most obviously up for grabs is that of working-class whites[^1]. Relative to expectations, working class whites have done worse under neoliberalism/market liberalism than almost any other group in the population. So, they ought to be more solid than ever against the right. But it’s easy for tribalists like Trump to blame migrants and minorities for the losses that working class whites have suffered.

What’s needed to turn this around, I think, is something, in Trump’s words “yuge”. My suggestion is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. Way back in 1948, Taft-Hartley prefigured anti-union laws that were passed throughout the English-speaking world[^2] from the 1970s and have spread even further since then. Its repeal would, at a minimum, be a huge symbolic step.
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Known unknowns (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 27th, 2016 22 comments

In September 2002, according to Politico magazine, Donald Rumsfeld received a report (mostly declassified in 2011) stating that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons programs was essentially worthless. For example, the report says:

Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence

The report was seen by Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, but wasn’t shared with President George Bush, or with other members of the Administration, such as Colin Powell. And despite his musings about known and unknown unknowns (unsurprisingly the subject of some sardonic comment in the Politico piece, Rumsfeld showed no doubt in his public pronouncements about the supposed weapons.

This report ought to be (but won’t be) enough to discredit Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz once and for all. Given that they knew that the claimed legal basis for the war relied on spurious intelligence, both are guilty of the crime of a war of aggression. More to the point, in terms of US political debate, a Defense Secretary who sends thousands of US troops to their deaths in pursuit of a goal he knows to be illusory ought to be condemned out of hand.

On the other hand, does the report help to exonerate those who advocated war based on the spurious intelligence being pushed by Rumsfeld? Not to any significant degree. The fact that Rumsfeld was a four-flusher was obvious in December 2002, when Saddam denied having any weapons. As I observed at the time

In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way … Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying … The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything

Anyone who wasn’t already committed to war could have followed the same reasoning, and many did.

Categories: World Events Tags:

The Great War of 1911 (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 11th, 2016 16 comments

I recently read Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. It’s about a time traveller who returns to 1914 Europe, aiming to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and, therefore, the Great War. Of course, the war isn’t prevented, and it turns out that there are vast numbers of timelines flowing from the summer of 1914, all more or less disastrous. This has inspired me to draft an alternate history I’ve long had in mind, where the War starts in 1911, as a result of the Agadir crisis.

I’ve changed the dates of some actual events, and the outcomes of some internal political debates, to bring more aggressive leaders and policies to the fore. I’ve also borrowed one improbable event from an earlier war. Still, the result seems to me no more improbable than the actual genesis of the War, beginning with the fatal wrong turn by Franz Ferdinand’s driver. Feel free to disagree, or to fill in some details of your own.

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Categories: Books and culture, World Events Tags:

Climate change and the culture wars

December 14th, 2015 26 comments

As I’ve argued in a previous post, it seems likely [^1] that the global agreement on reached at COP21 will mark the turning point in efforts to stabilize the global climate. If so, it will mark the defeat of the right in one of the most bitterly contested arenas of their long-running culture war, and also one of the hardest to explain. There’s no obvious reason, apart from tribal hostility to “enviros” why this should have been a culture war battleground at all.[1]

There was, by 1990 or so, a well developed literature on “free market environmentalism” which pushed the idea that environmental problems were the result of inadequate property rights, and that the solution was to create such rights: in this case, tradeable emissions permits. Environmentalists were generally hostile to the idea, preferring direct regulation. Eventually most environmental groups came around to the view that a carbon price was essential to solving the problem. Instead of claiming victory, the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively, with the result that the policy outcome has included much more intrusive regulation, and much less reliance on markets, than would have been optimal. The oddity of a supposedly market-oriented government in Australia preferring “Direct Action” over price-based policies is by no means unusual.

Has the climate change culture war helped or harmed the right? The harm is obvious enough. The scientific and economic evidence on climate change is so clear cut that mounting a case against it requires a huge amount of willing gullibility (the fact that is labelled “scepticism” is one of the smaller ironies of the story). The result has been a big contribution to the lowering of intellectual standards that allows someone like Donald Trump to become a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination in the US.

The intellectual damage has been particularly severe for libertarians, who have traditionally thought of themselves as the smart, logical types, deriving their policy positions from rigorous deduction. As the case of climate change has shown, you can get any answer you want if you make up your own facts. So, we have the sorry spectacle of self-described libertarians making the kinds of spurious claims, in relation to wind farms, that were once the province of the least credible environmentalists, and demanding the appointment of highly paid government regulators. At the turn of the century, libertarianism had a plausible case to be the way of the future. Now, as far as I can see, it has disappeared from view in the US and survives in Australia only because of the vagaries of the Senate electoral system.

Against that, the struggle to save the planet from dangerous climate change has chewed up a huge amount of energy and effort on the left. Arguably, that has distracted attention from economic issues, and allowed the steady rise of the 1 per cent to go unchallenged. That analysis fits with the widely held view that the culture wars are just a device to keep the rightwing base agitated enough to turn out, losing time after time, but still providing the votes needed to keep pro-rich politicians in office.

[^1]: A Republican win in 2016 would certainly be a major problem. But the momentum is such that it would probably not make much difference. Even if a Republican Administration weakened environmental standards, no one is going to build a new coal-fired power station in the US, knowing that it might have to shut down after the next election.

[^2]: There was, initially, some significant support from fossil fuel interests (notably Exxon) through bodies like the Global Climate Coalition. But that dropped off quite early as most big corporations worked out that they were better off changing their business models to incorporate renewables than fighting to save the old ways of doing things. For at least the last decade, the economic issues have been secondary – it’s all culture war all the time.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Nothing learned, nothing forgotten

November 19th, 2015 81 comments

I haven’t posted on the recent terror attacks, or the various responses, because I have nothing new to say, and nothing old to repeat that hasn’t been said, or repeated, better by others. It appears that no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began. This 2003 post from the Onion just needs the dates changed to be applicable (or not, for those who support the side being satirised here) to the current debate.

Having said all this, have I learned anything myself? The Iraq war turned me from being a liberal interventionist (though opposed in the case of Iraq) to a strongly anti-war viewpoint.

By December 2005, I had this to say[^1]

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

The ten years since 2005 have confirmed me in the rightness of my views[^2]. But since the same is true of nearly everyone on all sides, that’s not very helpful.
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Labour Lords Resign the Whip (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 28th, 2015 8 comments

I don’t have much to say about this, but I couldn’t resist the multiple absurdities embodied in the title. For those who haven’t heard anything about this, two appointed members of the House of Lords (Warner and Grabiner) have announced that they will no longer follow the direction of the Labour Party on how to vote, and a third (Mandelson) has made noises suggesting he may go the same way. This is a result of the party’s leadership election, in which the members a (nominally, at least) democratic socialist party chose a (nominally at least) democratic socialist leader.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

October 20th, 2015 48 comments

I’m writing from the other side of the planet, but there are enough Oz-related links to offer some thoughts on the Canadian election result.

First, taken in conjunction with the recent removal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, this is a big win for the planet. Abbott and Harper were the only two world leaders who were clearly climate denialists (despite some official denial-denialism) and now they are both gone. That leaves only the US Republican Party as a serious political force dominated by denial (of course, a big “only”). The chance for a decent agreement coming out of the Paris conference in December has improved significantly

Second, as the UK election also showed, the combination of multiple parties and First Past the Post voting is highly unpredictable. If things had shaken out a little differently, Harper might have managed it back into some kind of minority government, or we could be seeing the NDP rather than the Liberals winning on the basis of strategic voting. Applying this to the UK example, the idea that Cameron’s victory was in some sense inevitable is fallacious. Had a few things gone differently, we could all be talking about the mysterious appeal of Ed Miliband.

Third, the supposed dark magic of Oz spinmeister Lynton Crosby did Harper no good. If anything, Crosby’s dog whistle strategy motivated the majority to vote strategically against Harper. But I suspect that people like Crosby are better at selling themselves to politicians than at selling politicians to the public.

Categories: World Events Tags:

My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East

October 4th, 2015 38 comments

Four years ago, I put forward a comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East (reproduced in full over the fold). Looking back from 2015, I think it’s clear that it would have yielded better outcomes all round than the actual policy of the Obama Administration, or any alternative put forward in the US policy debate. Not only that, but it needs no updating in the light of events, and will (almost certainly) be just as appropriate in ten years’ time as it is now.

Feel free to agree or disagree.

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The last Trump …

September 26th, 2015 11 comments

… has blown for any notion of “sane Republicans”. Comment seems superfluous, but I will repost some older pieces, going back to 2004, which I think stand up pretty well

Science versus the Republicans
Ignorance is strength
Has vaccination become a partisan issue?

Categories: World Events Tags:

How our Senate (and not the US Senate) blocked the TPP

August 4th, 2015 17 comments

Following the breakdown of talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership last week, I did a quick reaction piece for Inside Story, making the point that our much-maligned Senate was the most important source of resistance to the demands for yet more protection for US pharmaceuticals, demands that make a mockery of both the claim that the TPP is a “free trade agreement” and the “diffusion of knowledge” rationale for the patent system.

Bluffed

July 14th, 2015 111 comments

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.

Categories: World Events Tags:

The last gasp of (US) neoliberalism

May 13th, 2015 28 comments

The defeat of the “trade promotion authority” bill in the US Senate marks a big setback for Obama’s attempts to push the (still secret) Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement through Congress. As always, there’s plenty of manoeuvring to come, and the deal may still get up, but even so, it looks like the last gasp for the neoliberalism, in the US sense of the term.
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The tragedy of Gallipoli

April 25th, 2015 83 comments

100 years ago today, Australian and New Zealand forces landed at what is now Anzac Cove in the Gallipoli Peninsula, suffering heavy losses as they attempted to storm entrenched Turkish positions. Eight months later, having failed to dislodge the Turks, despite the loss of more than 10 000 killed and 20 000 wounded the Anzacs withdrew, managing to conceal the retreat and evacuate their positions with minimal casualties. This much, along with individual stories of heroism and suffering, is known to just about every Australian.

But there are many important facts that are less well known, and many questions that are rarely asked
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Categories: World Events Tags:

BBC News Hour

October 16th, 2014 58 comments

My piece on the incoherence of US and Australian policy in the Middle East, suggesting that we should leave the people of the region to sort out their own problems, attracted a fair bit of interest, including a discussion on the BBC. You can listen to it here (about 31:55) for the next few days. I’ll try to replace this with a permanent podcast link.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Yesterday’s enemies, today’s allies … and tomorrow ?

October 7th, 2014 39 comments

When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …

That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:

How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

My policy recommendation to the US is

an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.

Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Political change and climate change

September 23rd, 2014 126 comments

Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions

(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need

In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.

In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.

Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.

The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.

Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.

At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.

To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.

[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.

[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.

Categories: Environment, World Events Tags:

Third time lucky ?

September 17th, 2014 139 comments

So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here

* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.

* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.

I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Reagan and the Great Man in History

August 8th, 2014 23 comments

The latest controversy in the US about Rick Perlstein’s new book is an opportunity to post a couple of thoughts I’ve had for a long while.

First, the outsize Republican idolatry of Reagan is explained in part by the fact that there’s no one else in their history of whom they can really approve. The Bushes are a bad memory for most, Ford was a non-entity and Nixon was Nixon. Eisenhower looks pretty good on most historical rankings, but he’s anathema to movement conservatives: Eisenhower Republicans were what are now called RINOs. Going back a century, and skipping some failures/nonentities, Theodore Roosevelt is problematic for related but different reasons. Going right back to the beginning,and skipping more nonentities and disappointments, some Repubs still try to claim the mantle of the “party of Lincoln” but that doesn’t pass the laugh test. As many others have observed, the “party of Jefferson Davis” is closer to the mark. So, they have little choice but to present Reagan as the savior of the nation.

Something of the opposite problem is found on the left. I haven’t read Perlstein yet, but a lot of the discussion is based on an implicit or explicit assumption that the shift to the right in the US since the 1970s can be explained by the successful organizing efforts of movement conservatism, culminating in Reagan’s 1980 election victory. That’s an explanation with a lot of contingency attached. Suppose, for example, that the attempted rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages in April 1980 had been a success. That, along with some fortuitous good economic news, might have been enough to propel Carter to victory. By 1984, Reagan would have been too old to run as a challenger, and Bush senior would probably have been nominated.

I don’t think, however, that this would have had a huge effect on economic-political developments in the US. Other English-speaking countries, with very different political histories followed much the same route, ending up, by the late 1990s, with a hard-line rightwing conservative party driving policy debate and a “Third Way” centre-left alternative trying to smooth off some of the rough edges. The election of Carter, a conservative by the standards of the times, was a step towards that outcome.

I don’t want to overstate the determinism here. Individuals matter, and national circumstances differ. Still, I think we are talking about variations on a common theme, driven by global economic events, rather than a US-specific story beginning with Reagan’s 1964 address in support of Goldwater.

Categories: Books and culture, World Events Tags:

100 years on

August 4th, 2014 23 comments

It’s a century since Australia entered the maelstrom of the Great War, not by deliberate choice but as an automatic consequence of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. I had a piece on this tragedy in the International New York Times last week. Quite a bit of editing between my draft and the final version but I was very pleased with how it came out.

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With Reformicons like this, no wonder the Reactobots always win

July 6th, 2014 41 comments

Over the fold, a piece a posted in Crooked Timber on the miserable position of the “Reformicons” – conservative writers who are trying to put some intellectual lipstick on the pig that is the Republican Party.

This isn’t a problem in Australia – there are, as far as I can tell, no intellectually serious conservatives left at all. The dominant thinktank is the IPA, a mirror of the US Heartland Foundation, which is utterly discredited, even on the right for its embrace of delusionism on everything from economic policy to climate change.[1] Quadrant, once a serious publication, is now a sad joke.

And then there’s the Oz. Enough said.

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The 100 Years War

June 28th, 2014 91 comments

It’s 100 years since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).

More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.

Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.

[^1]: In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Reverse engineering Ross Douthat

June 28th, 2014 17 comments

Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?

The optimal choice is not to choose.

I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”

In this NYT piece, Ross Douthat tries to respond to Yglesias. He ends up both confirming the point regarding climate change and illustrating the true nature of reform conservatism.
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Disaster in Iraq foretold: Well, not quite

June 14th, 2014 142 comments

Along with the rest of the neocon crew, Andrew Bolt is blaming the collapse of the Iraqi state on Obama’s withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Exactly how Obama was supposed to repudiate an agreement signed by Bush, and maintain an occupation force against the wishes of the Iraqi government (he tried, but failed to negotiate an extension) is not explained. But, no matter.

At least Bolt and the rest warned us that Iraq was still too fragile to be left on its own, and that an indefinite occupation was needed. Well not exactly. Here he is in 2009, gloating over the fact that Obama was going slow on withdrawal and thereby disappointing his supporters. That could be read either way, I guess, but there’s no warning that Bush’s timetable needed changing.

More striking is this piece from 2007, claiming that “the war has been won“. Here’s what he has to say about future prospects

Violence is falling fast. Al Qaida has been crippled.

The Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs no longer face genocide.

What’s more, the country has stayed unified. The majority now rules.

Despite that, minority Sunni leaders are co-operating in government with Shiite ones.

There is no civil war. The Kurds have not broken away. Iran has not turned Iraq into its puppet.

And the country’s institutions are getting stronger. The Iraqi army is now at full strength, at least in numbers.

The country has a vigorous media. A democratic constitution has been adopted and backed by a popular vote.

Election after election has Iraqis turning up in their millions.

Add it all up. Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse.

If I were an American reading that, I would have said it was time to bring the boys and girls home, as Bush agreed to do in October 2008.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, World Events Tags:

King Cotton is dead, long live King Gas

March 21st, 2014 32 comments

I have a post up at The National Interest, arguing that embargoes imposed by commodity export countries in pursuit of geopolitical objectives rarely, if ever, work. Opening paras:

At the beginning of the Civil War, the leaders of the South were, as is normal at the outset of war, confident that their superior military prowess would yield a rapid victory. But the Confederates had another reason for confidence: their possession of a near-monopoly in the market for the most important commodity of the day: cotton.

Like oil in the twentieth century, cotton was vital to the industrial economies of the nineteenth, and particularly that of Britain, the preeminent naval and military power of the day. And the Southern United States was the world’s dominant producer of cotton, accounting for 77 percent of British imports in the 1850s.

Rhetoric about ‘King Cotton’ matched the most hyperbolic claims about ‘energy superpowers’ to be heard today. In 1858, South Carolina senator James Hammond said ‘old England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her…. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.’

The most immediate application, obviously, is to Russia and gas. Feel free to discuss the broader issues raised by the Ukraine crisis.

Categories: Economics - General, World Events Tags:

Pot, meet kettle

February 20th, 2014 80 comments

Andrew Bolt has a column (no link) in which he attacks a number of Marxist academics on the basis that they are morally responsible for all the crimes committed by Marxist regimes, regardless of their personal attitude to those regimes. Rather than explore the problems with this kind of cliam, I’ll point out that

* The Iraq war, launched on the basis of lies, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless

* Bolt eagerly supported the war and propagated the lies told to justify it

* Bolt derided and defamed those who correctly predicted its disastrous consequences

* Even when it was obvious that the death toll from the war was huge, and certain to grow further, Bolt continued to lie, and offered no apology to those he had defamed

* To this day, Bolt has continued to defend the war, and failed to acknowledge the falsehood of the claims he made in its support

Bolt is in exactly the same moral position as an unrepentant apologist for Stalinism or Maoism.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, World Events Tags:

The Repubs won’t Douthat (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 15th, 2014 11 comments

Ross Douthat is something of a punchline at Crooked Timber . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network[^1]). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.

In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.

By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.

Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.

This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.

Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.

But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.

It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.

And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.

It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.

[^1]: Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Everyone does it and in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

December 21st, 2013 26 comments

The general reaction to various revelations of spying by the US on its friends and allies, particularly in contexts such as trade negotiations has been “everyone does it” and “in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”. And, as regards direct retaliation against the US, that’s pretty much right. The situation is a bit different for junior members of the Five Eyes[^1], such as Australia. A case now being heard at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could set a precedent that will make such spying a high risk exercise.
Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags:

Crikey goes Godwin on tiny uninhabited islands

November 28th, 2013 18 comments

The usually sensible Crikey team has gone off the deep end (in an editorial sent out as email, can’t find it on their site) on the Australian government’s response to the recent dispute between China and, among others, the US over a group of “tiny uninhabited islands” (even the name is disputed). The longstanding policy of Australian governments, very sensibly, has been to avoid getting between the US and China on issues like this, of which there are a huge number, involving many parties and incomprehensible claims. Crikey not only endorses Julie Bishop’s abandonment of this policy, but uses the loaded term “appeasement” to describe opponents. So, a refusal to get involved in a game of posturing and sabre-rattling that has gone on, in one form or another, since 1949, is equivalent to selling out the Czechs to Hitler.

Crikey draws a comparison with Kevin Rudd’s willingness to take the Chinese leadership to task over human rights abuses, a willingness criticised by Bishop at the time. To see how absurd this is, you need only ask whether Chinese dissidents, who mostly endorsed Rudd’s speech (some thought it did not go far enough) are going to welcome our support for the anti-China position in this territorial dispute. The answer is obvious: for the most part, Chinese democrats fully support the government position on these issues.

The idea that, having just ignored human rights issues in Sri Lanka, the Abbott government has suddenly developed a concern with these issues in China is equally absurd.

Categories: Oz Politics, World Events Tags: