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47 per cent true (crosspost from CT)

September 27th, 2012 10 comments

As Chris Bertram says in comments here, Romney’s main hope of getting away with his claim that 47 per cent of the US population are non-taxpaying moochers is the expectation that very few people will actually regard themselves as part of that 47 per cent. The same calculation is made by those who have pushed this talking point for years such as well-known plagiarist Ben Domenech and general lowlife Erick Erickson. It’s unsurprising that they should think this. After all, they’ve been making this claim, in one form or another for years, going back to the WSJ’s attack on “lucky duckies” in 2002. The claim has been refuted time and again with the points that most of the 47 per cent are workers subject to payroll tax, or retired people, but this refutation hasn’t reached the Fox News audience, many of whom don’t realise they are the moochers being attacked here.

But I don’t think this will help Romney, and the reasons why reflect some important developments in relation to post-truth political discourse in the US.

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The white working class (crosspost from CT)

September 27th, 2012 2 comments

For quite a while now (pre-dating Obama, but more frequently since he was elected), I’ve been reading about the Democrats’ troubles with “the white working class”. In some ways, this is unsurprising. In every country with which I’m familiar, a substantial proportion of the working class votes for the more conservative/rightwing party. And, even compared to the most wishy-washy of social democratic and labor parties elsewhere, the Dems aren’t exactly fervent champions of the worker. Still, the Repubs are even worse, so it seemed surprising to read that they regard the white working class as their base. Other things I read (sorry can’t find links now) made things even more puzzling. On the one hand, in the US as elsewhere, higher incomes are correlated with voting for the conservative/rightwing party, which seems to cut against the thesis. On the other hand, I’ve read that the average income of the US working class is the same as that of the population as a whole, which goes against the whole idea of “working class” as I understand it.

All became clear(or, at least, clearer) when I discovered that US political discussion uses two very different (though correlated) concepts of “working class”. The first is the more or less standard one – people who depend on wage labor (normally in manual or low-status service occupations) for their income. The second, specific to the US, and standard in most political polling, is “people without a 4-year college degree”, a class which includes such horny-handed sons and daughters of toil as Bill Gates and Paris Hilton. More prosaically, it includes lots of small business owners, and (since college graduation rates were rising until relative recently), over-represents the old.

Data on US voting patterns is surprisingly scarce, but Andrew Gelman has a big data set confirming the point that Republican voting rises with income. Andrew kindly sent me the data, which classifies voters by education (5 levels), income (5 categories) and race/ethnicity(4), for a total of 100 categories, and gives, for each group the proportion voting Republican. I’ve used this to look at an income-based definition of working class, encompassing everyone with an income less than $40 000. I’m not sure of the exact definition of this variable, but it seems pretty clear that people with income at this level are unlikely to be living on income from capital or a high-status job. To focus on the claim about the white working class, I’ve divided the 100 categories into four roughly equal-sized groups: working class whites (income less than 40K), middle/high income whites with and without college degrees, and all non-whites. Then I’ve looked at how many votes the Republicans got from each group in 2008.

As the pie chart below illustrates, the biggest group in the Republican voting base, and the group with which they do best is that of middle/high income whites without college degrees (the percentage after the group name gives the Republican share of the vote for that group). There’s nothing surprising in this, since all three variables are correlated with Republican voting. It’s the practice of calling this group “working class” that causes the confusion.

Disaggregating, the extreme case is that of high-school educated whites with incomes over $150K, 81.7 per cent of whom supported the Republicans in 2008. They’re a small group of course, but not negligible at about 1 per cent of the sample (155 out of 19170).

The two remaining groups of white voters are split pretty evenly between Reps and Dems, while, as is well known, non-white voters strongly favor the Dems.

The Republican voting base
(percentages after each group give proportion of that group voting R).

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How Europe Saved Obama

September 19th, 2012 18 comments

That’s the title of a piece that I wrote for the National Interest, responding to the ECB decision to undertake unlimited bond purchases. There’s been lots of news since then (on which I’ll write if I get time), but it only confirms the key point – Romney’s dwindling chances relied heavily on a European economic crisis happening before November, and that is now highly unlikely. The key paras

When Barack Obama celebrates his second inauguration next January, the man who did most to ensure his election victory is not likely to be there. But perhaps the president should make a note to reserve a seat for the head of the European Central Bank.

With no convention bounce and little prospect of a convincing win in presidential debates, challenger Mitt Romney’s hopes have been centered on an October surprise. Under the current circumstances, that means an economic shock sufficient to discredit Obama’s promise of a slow but steady recovery from the economic crisis. Until last week, that shock seemed likely to come from Europe. The possibility of a Greek exit from the euro, seemingly off the agenda a few months ago, had reemerged as a major factor in the investment plans of U.S. companies.

Last week, however, new ECB president Mario Draghi finally bit the bullet. Announcing that “the euro is irreversible,” Draghi committed the ECB to unlimited purchases of government bonds. Weidmann, the sole dissenter on the ECB board, has so far not carried out his threat to resign.

The ECB decision marks an effective end to the euro-zone sovereign-debt crisis, though not to the European depression or to the failed policies of austerity. At best, the euro zone is now in the same position as the United States and Britain: there is the prospect of a sluggish recovery but no immediate danger of collapse. A true recovery will require both a shift in central banking policy from targeting inflation to targeting nominal GDP, which looks a bit likelier now, and a shift from austerity to fiscal stimulus, which does not.

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Problems with probabilities

August 28th, 2012 53 comments

Peter Hartcher is an insightful commentator on political issues, but we are all prone to fallacious reasoning about probability, and this article about Australian views of the US election illustrates quite a few of them. I don’t mean to pick on Hartcher, whose errors here are trivial compared to the practice of deriving strong conclusions from trivial fluctuations in poll numbers, but this is, as they say, a learning opportunity. Hartcher notes that most Australians, like most people everywhere outside the US, would prefer Obama and goes on to say

But Australians’ answers to another poll question on the US election were troubling. Asked which candidate they expect to win, 65 per cent name Obama and only 9 per cent Romney in the poll conducted by UMR Research.

This is not a question about preferences but expectations. And it is far removed from the realities in the US. The contest for the presidency is finely balanced.

The average result of eight leading polls of US voting intentions shows 46.9 per cent of Americans support Obama and 45.5 per cent Romney, according to realclearpolitics.com. That’s a difference of just 1.4 percentage points, which is within the margin of polling error. For statistical purposes, it’s a dead heat.

”Australians could be in for an unpleasant surprise on November 6,” the UMR Research pollster Stephen Mills observes.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/australians-deluded-on-meaning-of-us-election-20120827-24wia.html#ixzz24qESpbzw

There are lots of problems here.
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The grandfather clause (repost)

August 12th, 2012 30 comments

With the announcement of the Romney-Ryan ticket, I decided to repost this piece on the most striking (to me) aspect of Ryan’s plans, namely the exemption of those currently over 55 (or maybe those who were over 55 in 2010 or 2011, when the plan was first announced. If everything goes to plan for the Repubs, Ryan would be the presumptive candidate after Romney’s second term in 2020. Coincidentally or not, that’s just about the point when the exemption runs out. People retiring after that will have spent a decade or more paying taxes to support benefits for those grandfathered in, but won’t be eligible themselves.
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Hicks case dropped

July 25th, 2012 108 comments

After nearly 10 years, military trials at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp have produced a total of six convictions. One of those was David Hicks, who agreed to a plea bargain under which he would be sent back to Australia to serve out his sentence. On his release, he wrote a book about his experiences. Under “proceeds of crime” laws, the earnings from books about a criminal career are liable to confiscation, and the Australian government accordingly froze the proceeds and took action to have them forfeited.

The news today is that the Director of Public Prosecutions has abandoned the actions and paid Hicks’ legal costs[1]. Although no rationale was given, the general presumption is that the US conviction would not stand up in an Australian court, either because (as Hicks alleged) Hicks’ guilty plea was extracted by torture, or because the whole system failed to meet basic standards of due process.

Most simple of all is the fact that, unlike the usual case of plea bargaining (which is problematic enough), the options aren’t pleading guilty or going to trial. Rather those who plead guilty get a definite (and usually relatively short) sentence on top of their detention, while those who do not are held indefinitely without trial. All of this is relevant now that the Obama Administration is trying to “normalise” the plea bargaining process, by getting those who have pleaded guilty to testify against others accused of more serious crimes. Evidence extracted under this kind of duress is obviously worthless.

None of this proves that Hicks was innocent, either morally or legally. But that’s an inherent problem in a corrupted legal process. Since the trials are rigged in such a way that they can never produce an acquittal (those who might be acquitted are simply kept in detention without charge), a conviction doesn’t prove anything[2]. Morally, Hicks’ eagerness to go to war in any cause that would take him (he applied to join the Australian Army after returning from Kosovo) is pretty repugnant, but those who gave us Gitmo and the Iraq War are in no position to throw stones.

fn1. The only other Australian detainee, Mamdouh Habib, was threatened with similar action, but this did not proceed. He eventually received a substantial (but secret) settlement in return for dropping claims against the Australian government for its alleged involvement in his torture.

fn2. This is a problem even in the standard plea-bargaining system and has given rise to something called the Alford plea, apparently used by Hicks. The accused pleads guilty for legal purposes, while maintaining their innocence of the alleged crime.

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Washington’s Pattern of Military Overreach

June 23rd, 2012 28 comments

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The National Interest. Opening paras:

On October 1, 1950, the forces of a U.S.-led coalition, acting under the authority of a UN resolution, drove the forces of the Korean People’s Army across the 38th parallel and back into North Korea. It was the culmination of a string of stunning military victories.

From the surprise North Korean invasion in June, U.S.-led forces had taken just four months to mount an amphibious landing at Inchon, break out from defensive lines around Pusan and drive the KPA into headlong retreat.

With the North Korean forces routed, the United States was in a position to dictate the terms of peace. Instead (with Russia absent) the United States secured a UN resolution demanding the reunification of Korea. By October 19, U.S. forces had occupied Pyongyang (the first and almost certainly the only time the United States captured a communist capital). Not satisfied with this, General Douglas Macarthur pushed on rapidly. By the end of October, his forces were close to the Yalu River, marking the border with China.

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European Elections and the Debt Debacle

May 17th, 2012 61 comments

That;s the title of my latest piece in The National Interest. Here’s the three-para teaser

European Elections and the Debt Debacle

The victory of socialist François Hollande in the French presidential election has been interpreted, correctly, as a repudiation of the austerity policies imposed on the euro zone by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in collaboration with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who endorsed Sarkozy in the election.

Hollande’s win was part of a backlash across Europe, with pro-austerity parties from Britain to Greece taking electoral drubbings. Even in Germany, Merkel’s coalition parties were crushed in a state election in Schleswig-Holstein.

It’s safe to predict that Hollande and Merkel will soon come into conflict over austerity. But Hollande’s real opponents in the struggle over European economic policy are not Merkel and the German government but the European Central Bank and its chairman Mario Draghi.

Categories: Economic policy, World Events Tags:

We shall remember them ? (repost*)

April 25th, 2012 87 comments

On Anzac Day, there are two important things to remember

* Thousands of brave men died at Gallipoli and in the Great War and we should always honour their memory

* The Gallipoli campaign was a bloody and pointless diversionary attack in a bloody and pointless war. Millions of soldiers were killed, and tens of millions of civilians starved and mistreated in a fight over trivial causes that were utterly irrelevant by the time the war ended. The War that was supposed to “end war” only paved the way for the even greater horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. Nothing good came of it.

From what I’ve seen of the last surviving Diggers they were fully aware of both of these things. At one time, it seemed possible that, as the generation who fought in the war passed on, we would forget the first of them. Now the danger is that we will forget the second. We should judge as harshly as possible the political and religious leaders who drove millions, mostly young men, to their deaths, and honour the handful who stood out against the War, including Bertrand Russell and Pope Benedict XV.

* I’ve posted versions of this on previous Anzac Days. There is really nothing new to say, except to hope that we will soon be able to celebrate an Anzac Day without the thought that Australians are still fighting and dying in pointless wars.

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How (not) to defend entrenched inequality

January 25th, 2012 46 comments

The endless EU vs US debate rolls on, but now with an odd twist. Although the objective facts about economic inequality, immobility and so on are far worse in the US than the EU, the political situation seems more promising. (I’m not talking primarily about electoral politics but about the nature of public debate.)

In the EU, the right has succeeded in taking a crisis caused primarily by banks (including the central bank, and bank regulators) and blaming it on government profligacy, which is then being used to push through yet more of the neoliberal policies that caused the crisis. And, as we’ve just seen, formerly social democratic parties like New Labour in the UK, are pushing the same line.

By contrast the success of Occupy Wall Street have changed the US debate, in ways that I think will be hard to reverse. Once the Overton window shifted enough to allow inequality and social immobility to be mentioned, the weight of evidence has been overwhelming.

This post by Tyler Cowen is an indication of how far things have moved. Cowen feels the need, not merely to dispute some aspects of the data on inequality and social mobility in the US, but to make the case that a unequal society with a static social structure isn’t so bad after all.
Update Cowen offers a non-response response here. Apparently, disliking arguments for inherited inequality, such as his point 3 (because of habit formation, social mobility reduces welfare) is a “Turing test” for reflexive leftism.

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Status quo on way out

January 8th, 2012 57 comments

That’s the headline for my first Fin article for 2102, over the fold

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The show just goes on, and on

December 11th, 2011 36 comments

That’s the headline for my piece in the Fin on Thursday, looking at the clown show that is the Republican primary campaign. It’s amusing in retrospect to look at Alan Moran’s letter (republished at Catallaxy) in response to my last piece on this topic, touting the merits of Herman Cain and Rick Perry

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Wrong turn for the right

October 29th, 2011 13 comments

That’s the title of my column in Thursday’s Fin, over the fold

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Tea Party didn’t mind bailing out Wall Street, only Main Street

October 19th, 2011 21 comments

My Fin column from last week is over the fold. It’s mainly about the Occupy Wall Street protests, but in this post I want to stress a misleading comparison with the Tea Party. It’s often suggested that the Tea Party arose in response to the bailout of Wall Street, and until I checked, I had somewhat accepted this claim, even if it was obvious that the protest served the interest of its supposed targets.
In reality, though, there is no truth at all to this claim. To quote from the article

The first Tea Party protests were held in February 2009, shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, and four months after the Bush Administration bailed out the banks. The event that did most to drive the Tea Party protests was a rant delivered by journalist Rick Santelli from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To the cheers of traders, Santelli denounced bailouts, but not the bailout of the financial sector. His ire was directed against attempts to help struggling homeowners refinance mortgages taken out during the real estate bubble.

I used to see the Tea Party as having had some genuine elements, but co-opted by Wall Street and the Repubs. Now, it’s clear that Repub activists ran the show from day one. Some individual participants may have been sucked in by anti-bailout rhetoric but the organizers were on the side of the 1 per cent all along.

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Categories: Economic policy, World Events Tags:

Tahrir in Wall Street

October 3rd, 2011 55 comments

It’s time to talk about the Occupy Wall Street movement. As with the movement itself, I have more enthusiasm than analysis to offer at this point. I’m in Washington DC at present and i went to a (very small) meeting [1] a couple of weeks ago which was part of the planning for a similar protest starting on 6 October (more info here). Things have certainly grown since then, and it could be quite a big event.

In the generally undirected spirit of the movement, here is an open thread for your comments, predictions and so on.

fn1. As a visitor to the US, I’m not actually involved in the organization, but I was interested to hear about it and sympathetic to what I heard. Those at the meeting seemed more ordinary, and of all ages, compared to the media images of ragtag youth at the Wall Street protest.

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My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East …

September 21st, 2011 20 comments

… got some interesting reactions on Crooked Timber. Its is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far.

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The just fight not fought

September 14th, 2011 72 comments
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The end of tyranny

August 23rd, 2011 9 comments

The seemingly imminent downfall of Muammar Gaddafi may not represent “the end of history”, but, for the moment at least, it’s pretty close to being the end of tyranny, in the historical sense of absolute rule by an individual who has seized power, rather than acquiring it by inheritance or election. Bonapartism (if you exclude its more specialised use to refer to supporters of the Bonaparte family claim to rule France) , is probably the closest modern equivalent. Forty-odd years ago, this kind of government was the rule rather than the exception in most regions of the world (notably including South America and the Communist bloc), and was represented even in Western Europe by Franco and Salazar.

Now, there’s Mugabe clinging to a share of power in Zimbabwe, along a bunch of less prominent, but still nasty, African dictators in the classic post-colonial mode (in the original CT version of this post, I underestimated the number of these who are still around, but they are clearly a dying breed). Add in a handful of shaky-looking strongmen in the periphery of the former Soviet Union, and that’s about it for tyrants in the classical sense.

Normally classed as tyrants but not meeting the classical definition, Kim jr, Assad jr and Castro minor (and some others mentioned in comments), the first two of whom are certainly tyrannical in the ordinary modern sense, but all of whom inherited their positions, as of course, did the remaining absolute monarchs. The historical evidence, starting with Cromwell jr, and running through Baby Doc Duvalier and others is that regimes like this hardly ever make it to the third generation. They combine the low average ability inherent in hereditary systems with a lack of either royal or revolutionary, let alone democratic, legitimacy.

More interesting cases are those of Museveni in Uganda and Kagame in Rwanda, illustrations of the point that tyrants in the classic sense need not be bad, at least relative to the alternative they displaced. But these seem to be isolated examples, owing much of their appeal to the horrors that preceded them and the fear that those horrors might return.

More surprising to me are the number of cases where classic tyrants, having established one-party states, have been succeeded by self-selecting oligarchies – China is the most striking example, but Singapore also fits. Looking at the evidence of the past, I would have predicted that such oligarchies would either collapse in short order or see the emergence of a new tyrant, but there is no sign of that for the moment.

I don’t have a good theory to explain the rise of so many tyrants in the modern period, beginning with Bonaparte (or maybe Cromwell), or the sharp decline of this form of government from around the mid-1960s. But it seems that it’s a development worth noting.

fn1. Putin is often presented as being a near-dictator. But he doesn’t need to repress his opponents – it’s pretty clear he would easily win elections in Russia with or without doing so. Conversely, there’s no real evidence to suggest that he could or would hold on for long if public opinion turned sharply against him.

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Gollum and Smeagol on the debt deal

August 2nd, 2011 36 comments

Responding to the Mordor-inspired debt ceiling deal, I thought it was time for a Lord of the Rings post

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Don’t look at the rich?

July 31st, 2011 24 comments

My last post, arguing that the share of US income going to the top 1 per cent of households is now so great that any effective policy must be financed by reducing or more effectively taxing the income of this group produced a range of interesting (and some not so interesting responses). First up, it elicited what appears to be new variants on a couple of standard rightwing talking points. More interesting to me is a response from Matt Yglesias arguing (as I read him) that, even if there is no serious prospect of reversing the shift of income to the top 1 per cent[1], there is still plenty of capacity for progressive political actions based on a broadly neoliberal (US sense) agenda.
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Where the money is

July 27th, 2011 104 comments

Over at Crooked Timber, there’s been an extensive neoliberalism (mainly, though not exclusively, in the US sense of this term, which is broadly akin to “Third Way” Labor”) and political theory. I’ve been largely on the sidelines. That’s mainly because, observing the US political and economic situation, I have a very clear view on what policies could, in principle, sustain a progressive political movement, but (given my distance from the scene and the absence of anything substantial enough to force its attention on the mass media) no real idea about how such a movement might develop. Here’s a post I put up there, slightly edited to remove some points that led to thread derailment.

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Tragedy in Norway

July 25th, 2011 84 comments

As usual on such occasions, I haven’t had much to say about the horrific events in Norway. It’s generally better, in such circumstances, to pause for reflection, and certainly some who rushed to judgement have gone badly wrong in doing so, here as on previous occasions. This is not the time for judgement, but that time will come.

Categories: Life in General, World Events Tags:

Reality-based journalism in the US

May 24th, 2011 54 comments

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

* USA Today comparing Republican climate change delusionism to birtherism and saying

The latest scientific report provides clarity that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It paves a path to a future fraught with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, shifting agricultural patterns, droughts and wildfires.

* The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

* Even GOP house journal Politico draws the formerly off-limits link between “skeptics” and “deniers”, regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

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Categories: Media, World Events Tags:

Wake-up call, part II: revenge of the snooze button?

May 11th, 2011 10 comments

A while ago I wrote a post responding to a Lowy Institute blurb for a new book by Michael Wesley, called There goes the Neighborhood and described as ‘A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians’. In response, I said that ‘At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory’, and concluded ‘unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep’.

Michael Wesley has now responded, and sent me a copy of the book, which I hadn’t read when I responded to the blurb. It turns out that he agrees with me that most of the threats that worried us in the past have dissipated. Also, as I surmised, his main concern is about the way in which the rise of India and China changes our strategic environment. He concludes

In short, we’re entering a world not of threats but of agonising choices that will come at us constantly. My bet is that we’ll look back on the vanished threats that Quiggin talks about with nostalgia for a world that all seemed so simple.

I agree with Wesley that the rise of India and China makes life more complicated in important ways. In the past, our foreign policy consisted, in essence, of the US alliance. That alliance gave us some protection against our local fears, most notably with respect to Indonesia, while also exposing us to some big costs (the need to join faraway wars in which we had no say) and an increased risk of nuclear annihilation, which faded away along with the Cold War, though it hasn’t disappeared.

In the new world, Wesley correctly argues, an uncritical adherence to the US alliance would be a disaster, particularly in the event of a major dispute between the US and China. I agree, and I think most serious foreign policy types already know this. Kevin Rudd’s recent visit to Washington seemed to be devoted, in large measure, to hosing down any expectation that Australia would line up with the US against China in any future dispute (a much more sophisticated line than the updated “All the way with LBJ” line, typically repeated by visiting PMs, up to and including Gillard). Even under the Howard government, generally gung-ho about the US, our diplomats sent the same kind of message from time to time.

Wesley also wants the Australian public to be more engaged and informed, pointing to the deplorable ignorance and anti-Indonesian prejudice surrounding the Schapelle Corby case. Actually, I think this was a good learning experience – most people eventually worked out that, while she cut a sympathetic figure in prison dress, Corby was given a fair trial, (if fact, the Indonesian courts had bent over backwards to give her justice, admitting evidence that would never be allowed in Australia)[1]. Australians are gradually adjusting to the idea of Indonesia as a friendly neighbor rather than a foreign threat. Even so, I think they are well justified in leaving to the experts the kind of diplomacy involved in telling three great powers what they want to hear, while committing ourselves to none of them.

 

fn1. While I’m on this, I’ll welcome the news that the death sentence imposed on Scott Rush has been commuted. This case was a far worse travesty of justice than anything in Corby’s case, but those most to blame were the Australian Federal Police, who sent Rush to possible death in Indonesia, rather than warning him off (as his parents begged them to do) or arresting him on arrival in Australia (which would have reduced their chances of convicting the ringleaders).

After OBL

May 3rd, 2011 37 comments

The death of Osama bin Laden has inevitably produced a gigantic volume of instant reactions, to which I’m going to add. Doubtless I’m repeating what others have said somewhere, but it seems to me that most of the commentary has understated the likely impact, particularly as regard US politics. That impact is by no means all favorable – while the Republicans are the big losers, Obama will also be strengthened as against his critics on the left, among whom I’d include myself (admittedly as a citizen of a client state rather than the US proper).

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Looking first at the impact on the Islamic world, I don’t differ much from what I see as the conventional wisdom – Al Qaeda was already struggling for relevance in the light of the democratic upsurge in North Africa and the Middle East, and the death of bin Laden will weaken them further, even if they manage some terror attacks in reprisal[1].

As regards the political impact in the US, comparisons to GHWB and Gulf War I are beside the point. Hardly anyone in the US cared about Saddam or Kuwait before his invasion, and most of them promptly forgot about them once the cheering died down after Desert Storm. Even in GW2, it was clear that Saddam was just another nasty dictator of whom the Bush Administration had decided to make an example. By contrast, bin Laden was unsurprisingly, the object of more national fear and hatred than any figure since Hitler or Stalin.

Equally importantly, bin Laden and 9/11 were central to a Republican narrative about foreign policy as a crusade against Islamofascism and its liberal dupes/fellow-travellers/ineffectual resisters that has now collapsed almost completely. The story had been unravelling ever since the Iraq/WMD fiasco, but the contingent fact[2] that Obama has succeeded where Bush  failed has left the Republicans with almost nothing to say on an issue they expect to own.

That won’t wipe out the impact of bad economic conditions, but I suspect that the lack of Republican credibility on foreign policy (and for that matter, the birther issue) will encourage critical analysis of their fraudulent claims on economics as well.

Coming to the bad news, the success of the US intelligence machine in locating bin Laden is obviously going to strengthen Obama’s position in claiming that he has special knowledge that justifies suspending civil liberties. Reading the accounts in, for example, the New York Times, it’s clear that their sources are trying to make claims for intelligence extracted under torture  even though (on my reading) they didn’t actually get anything useful from these sources (the NYT quotes an intelligence source as saying that the value was in what was not said, which could justify just about anything).

There’s an outside chance that, having secured his standing on the issue, Obama will return to the policies he campaigned on. Failing that, as the fear of terrorism fades, there may be a gradual return to the rule of law, although the precedents set in the last ten years are likely to remain.

Finally, like most people in the world, I’m glad bin Laden is dead. I would have preferred to see him face trial for his crimes, but he was (assuming the official account to be correct) given the chance to surrender, and didn’t take it.

<strong>Update 4 May</strong> The parenthetical qualification in the last sentence turned out to be a sensible precaution, reflecting past experience of these announcements. As <a href=”http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/”>almost always seems to happen</a>, the revised account from the government is very different from the original one. Whereas the original story suggested a gunfight with bin Laden using a woman as a human shield, the new version has an unarmed bin Laden shot when his wife (also unarmed) ran at the assault team and was herself shot, though not fatally. That doesn’t preclude a call to surrender, but it certainly seems that he wasn’t given any time to think it over.

fn1. BTW, has there been any statement from AQ confirming or denying OBLs death?

fn2. It’s interesting to ask how history would have changed if the military had done as good a job with the Iran hostage rescue ordered by Carter as they did in the present case.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Yemen again

April 7th, 2011 39 comments

The news from Yemen is grimly familiar – more protestors shot by President Saleh’s security forces and plainclothes thugs. But now the US government has shifted position, letting it be known in various ways that it’s time for Saleh to go. Their hope now is that a replacement will allow the operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to continue as before. A few thoughts about this.

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There goes the neighborhood ?

March 24th, 2011 19 comments

I just got a plug for a new book by Michael Wesley of the Lowy Institute (published by UNSW, 20 per cent off offer here) for which the blurb states

The challenges that lie ahead are international, not domestic. Michael Wesley, Head of the Lowy Institute, Australia’s most respected policy think tank, argues that the benign and comfortable world that has allowed Australia to be safe and prosperous is vanishing quickly.

Wesley and Lowy have always seemed sensible to me, and I haven’t read the book or even seen a summary of the argument, so I’m shooting from the hip in response (this is a blog, after all). That said, the quoted claim seems to me to be impossible to sustain.

At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory. The threat or reality of global war was ever-present from 1914 to 1945, only to be succeeded by the threat of global annihilation in the Cold War. There was a brief period of premature optimism then (though wars continued in Yugoslavia and elsewhere through most of the 1990s) ended by S11 and, in our own region, the Bali terror attack. While the Global War on Terror is still dragging on, it’s become obvious over the last decade that Al Qaeda is not the existential threat that it seemed to be. Nothing new has emerged to replace it. Looking at previous work by Wesley, I suspect he’ll want to talk about the rise of China and India. But China today is far less of a threat to Australia than it was when real communists like Mao Zedong ran the show, and the rise of India seems entirely beneficial to us (among other things, ending the old fear that the starving millions of South Asia would come to fill the empty spaces on our map).

Within our immediate region, the big news is surely the spectacular success of Indonesia in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. While Suharto kept the lid on things, his regime was scarcely a comfortable neighbour, since no-one knew when it would fall or what would happen when it did. When Suharto finally went, a decade or so ago, there were plenty of risks, with East Timor an festering source of dispute and resenment between Australia and Indonesia, Aceh in open revolt, JI a powerful force, and the military stirring up religious tensions. Now all of these things have greatly abated. And as far as I can see the same is true of problems in Malaysia, the Phillipines, Vietnam (it was only in 2002 that the Russian navy finally pulled out of Cam Ranh Bay) and most of our other neighbours.

The book is described, predictably enough as “A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians”. But unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep.

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All necessary measures

March 18th, 2011 44 comments

The surprisingly successful counterattack by the Gaddafi forces in Libya has produced an even more surprising response. Whereas a day or so ago it seemed unlikely that the US, let alone the UNSC, would support a no-fly zone, the UNSC has now passed (10-0 with China among the abstentions) a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. At least according to the NYTimes, that includes airstrikes directed at ground forces.

The only question now is who will supply the necessary force, and this is primarily a diplomatic issue – the military requirements are well within the capacity of France, the US, the UK, the Arab League and probably quite a few others. But whoever supplies the planes, it seems clear that Gaddafi’s regime is doomed. It is striking that, having been regarded as a member in good standing of the international community only a couple of months ago, he is now unable to secure a single vote in the UNSC.

The vote has big implications for the UN and also for the remaining Middle Eastern dictatorships/monarchies, most notably Bahrein and “Saudi” Arabia

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The end of the nuclear renaissance

March 14th, 2011 210 comments

For the last few weeks, I’ve been planning a Slate-style contrarian post, arguing that the US and maybe other countries should increase the subsidies for nuclear power associated with the attempt to launch a ‘nuclear renaissance’. My argument would have been two-fold. First, the straightforward point that it’s desirable to explore all options for non-carbon based electricity, and that the existing subsidies (combined with the absence of a carbon price) were not sufficient to make this happen (a decade after Bush launched the program, there are only a handful of starters, and most of the early proposals have been abandoned).

The second was political – for a substantial group (mostly on the political right), the desirability of nuclear power is an article of faith, and their (outdated) view that environmentalists resolutely oppose it forms part of the reason for adopting anti-science views and do-nothing policy positions on climate change. More funding for attempts to develop the nuclear option might convert some of them, and embarrass some others into dropping this particular talking point.

But after the disaster in Japan, and the failure of cooling systems at nuclear plants there, it’s most unlikely that anything along these lines will happen.

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Earthquake/tsunami in Japan

March 12th, 2011 77 comments

Yet another terrible disaster, this time in Japan. Already our floods which destroyed so much, and killed a number of people seem like a relatively modest event in retrospect. And all of these things are insignificant in comparison to the daily toll exacted by poverty and hunger in the world.

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