The tsunami and earthquake that tragically struck Japan today could not come at a worse moment for the Japanese. The economy has been struggling for almost two decades to recover and seemed poised to make progress, but now has suffered yet another bitter blow. The costs of rebuilding will add to already high deficits and high anxiety. It is only fortunate that there is perhaps no other country in the world as well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their consequences as Japan.
That said, the disaster also resonates in many ways with what is happening elsewhere in the world. It reminds us that "black swans" are not rare events. Indeed, the first few months of this year have demonstrated yet again that nothing in this world is as commonplace as the unexpected. That is no doubt more a commentary on the way we arrive at expectations than it is on the nature of life on the planet. In just the past 10 weeks alone, we have seen revolutions, earthquakes, major economies downgraded by credit ratings agencies, spiking energy and food prices, and the usual accompanying market roller coaster rides that bespeak the fact that we are collectively spun around by events more often than your average weathervane is by the daily breeze.
Another way the tsunami resonates is with the images we have already seen on the television of it sweeping ashore -- a great black wave of destruction -- causing havoc and then retreating to the sea. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if that was not how we were ultimately going to view the upheaval that has rocked the Middle East this year. There came a wave and great drama and then, almost as quickly, the wave withdrew and was forgotten.
Certainly, we are at risk of such an outcome at the moment. If Qaddafi succeeds in pushing back the rebels during the next couple of days, the world may well conclude -- if it has not done so already -- that supporting the Libyan opposition may be a losing proposition. And if Qaddafi wins and reestablishes his control on the country through brutality, it will send a strong message to other regimes across the region that the right response to rebellion is to be both ferocious and merciless.
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If one of the secrets to success in any job is choosing the right predecessor, then Dilma Rousseff may be starting out with one strike against her.
Her current boss and political champion Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could well be the toughest act to follow anywhere in the world. Despite the efforts of some commentators to take him down a notch or two (much like young guns in the old American west who used to try to boost their reputations by going after the fastest gun in town), Brazil's charismatic president has done a remarkable job. Confounding -- and consigning to the trash heap of history -- old distinctions between left and right, Lula has overseen an economic boom, major social reforms and the elevation of Brazil's standing to the top ranks of nations in the world. (See the excellent story in today's Latin Business Chronicle ... rapidly becoming required reading for anyone interested in Latin America ... summarizing Brazil's recent economic accomplishments. It's pretty dazzling stuff.)
The question is: What's a girl to do? Dilma, who almost certainly will become Brazil's first woman president -- despite a recent slight slip in the polls due to a scandal that doesn't in any way implicate; her one of those curiously timed dust ups that happen to come to light in the weeks before an election -- is going to inherit a country with very high expectations. Some critics expect that absent Lula's extraordinary gifts that she will falter. But read her story and you discover an exceptionally accomplished, tough as nails, politically canny, professional manager who will come to office much better prepared and equipped than some other leaders who have taken over major powers recently.
In fact, given that a centerpiece of her tenure will be the efforts to tap the enormous oil reserves off Brazil's shores -- thus making Brazil a major petropowerhouse -- her background as former energy minister is ideal. The fact that in that capacity she chaired Petrobras, the state's oil giant that recently completed a massive financing that made it the fourth most highly capitalized company in the world, gives her much more business understanding than many political leaders ... even if her views on the national responsibilities of that company make some market purists uncomfortable.
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One of the greatest challenges America faces at the moment is our inability to tell the difference between what makes news and what really matters.
Not only is this week's "big story" in Washington -- the Rolling Stone-assisted career suicide of General Stanley McChrystal -- not actually an important story, it's not even the most important national security story of the week. It's not even the most important story about a key general quitting this administration at a vital moment in a badly bungled struggle.
In fact, in the botched coverage of the McChrystal hullaballoo I see not just one but six degrees of wrong.
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Today is yet another primary day in America. Some of the biggest decisions the country faces will be left to the tiny handful of voters who show up to vote. And once again the results will remind us of one of the enduring truths of democracy: The majority is often wrong.
This fact is as true today on global issues as it is on domestic ones. Blame it on ignorance. Blame it on the distorting lens of the media. Blame it on the spinmeisters and snake oil salesmen. But the reality is that more often than we care to admit, the people are dopes.
I know this will outrage some. But they are among the dopes. And as usual, a careful analysis of the facts undercuts their position. (But facts are to these people as my advice is to my cats -- just ambient noise that they ignore on their way to a sunny spot on which they can curl up and sleep. Which is why, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, the "public is everything and nothing...the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant.")
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that contrary to the populist liturgy the world would be an even bigger mess than it is if public opinion guided every major decision. And that's saying something.
For example, in July 1941, polls indicated only 17 percent of Americans supported the idea of intervening in the war in Europe. Or consider that 68 percent of Americans believe that "angels and demons are active in the world." (If you are one of them, please stop reading this. We could get to some big words later and the rest of this is just going to make your head hurt.) Or that George W. Bush was elected not once but twice to be president of the United States.
Now, we shouldn't be surprised. The reality is that the majority of the people haven't the slightest idea as to what they are taking about most of the time. In a 2007 poll it was found that more than two-thirds of Americans couldn't name the president of Russia and eight out of ten couldn't name the Secretary of Defense (while almost two thirds could identify Beyonce Knowles). In 2006 only just over a third of Americans between 18 and 24 could find Iraq on a map and fewer than three in 10 thought it was important to know the location of countries in the news.
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But not everyone deserves to have their opinion garner the same amount of respect. If you don't know anything about a subject, why should your viewpoint matter? It's why the founders of the republic opted for representative democracy -- the people should have a voice ... which would allow them to pick professionals who would study the issues to make their decisions for them. It's a better idea than the alternatives but you have to admit, even it hasn't worked out so well if our elected officials are the metric we're going to use to judge.
There are plenty of issues in the news right now where it is absolutely clear the public and the truth are on different sides of the argument. Take just these five:
The list goes on and on, a poll this month showed that only 37 percent of Americans favor more government regulation of the financial system despite all obvious evidence to the contrary. And a poll last month showed that 53 percent of Americans believe same sex marriages should not be recognized.
Why raise this? Because people too often confuse majority opinions with what is right and too often suggest that it is the responsibilities of leaders to heed the majority. It clearly is not. In fact, often what has distinguished great leaders is their ability to actually lead people away from the problems to which they, left to their own devices, might have been heading.
Finally, is this an argument for elites? Heck, no. (Unless you mean should people with the education and experience to make decisions actually be listened to more carefully than say, I don't know, radio talk show hosts or movie directors who don't know the slightest thing about geology?) Elites get it wrong as often as the majorities do. For years they thought Pluto was a planet. Few predicted the fall of the USSR. Few predicted the market collapse of a couple years ago. Heck financial markets assume that half the elite will be on the opposite side of any deal from the other half. No, this is just an argument for giving the facts and the experts a bit of a listen when it comes to really important decisions because believe what you may about angels, it is generally not a good idea to make plans based on their intervention.
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Everybody is concerned that Barack Obama is not emotional enough. MSNBC has seemingly devoted weeks of programming to try to get the president to be outraged about the oil spill in the Gulf. Liberal commentators are suggesting that the key for managing the crisis is that the president should show his feelings -- weep like Representative Melancon, rail like James Carville, mist up like a CNN reporter covering virtually any natural disaster.
But that's not what worries me. First of all, I don't think it will help a blessed thing to have Obama chew the scenery like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (or frankly, like Al Pacino in any movie -- personally, I think he thinks scenery chewing is a great way to add fiber to his diet). It's not who he is and American voters are smart enough to know that. What they want is not histrionics. They want action.
That said, I do have a worry. I think Obama is not unemotional. I think he is catatonic. I think he may be shell shocked. Let's look at the past week or two. Of course, we start with the Gulf. We have the Israeli flotilla fiasco. We have the thousandth U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan. We have the Sestak mess and the Romanoff sequel. We have a Blagoevich trial starting in Illinois that is sure to feature several of the president's closest advisors prominently. We have essentially no job growth other than a bunch of folks the government has hired temporarily to work on the census. We have the stock market teetering. We have Europe wracked by new worries about bank derivative exposure and countries like Hungary. We have Iran's nuclear program buying week after week and little in the way of a global response. Now we have reports that Jim Webb's favorite country, Myanmar, is working on going nuclear. Who's helping them? The North Koreans who are on the verge of a shooting war with the South Koreans. The Japanese Prime Minister tries to do a solid for the U.S. and what happens to him? Booted out of office. Mexican political bigshots are disappearing off the streets. America is on the opposite side of the immigration issue from the President. It's hot out. The worst hurricane season in years is being predicted. Umpires can't even call baseball plays correctly. Larry King was flirting with Lady Gaga.
Emotional? We should be thankful the President of the United States is not curled up in a ball on the floor of the Oval Office weeping. That he can still get dressed in the morning, that he is still willing to show up for work, is a sign of great fortitude.
It's easy to carp. It's easy to give advice. It's not easy to sit where the buck stops. It's not an easy time to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And perhaps the hysteria engines in the U.S. media ought to think about that when they are barking nonsensical emotional advice at the White House in a set up that is very reminiscent of the tactics the U.S. used to get Manuel Noriega out of his hideaway in Panama. (For those of you who don't remember, that involved large, loud speakers...)
Frankly, what the president is doing, staying cool and trying to handle items one at a time is precisely what we need right now. My sense is that as bad as things are in the world, they are only going to get worse this summer. Markets will teeter. Wars will spark. The weather will not cooperate. It's going to be a long hot one... and that is precisely why we ought to be delighted we have a cool customer in the White House.
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With the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserting that his country would not support sanctions against Iran and his dismissal of U.S. calls for a negotiating timetable with that country, several important questions are raised. They are:
First, how do you like your Iranian nukes? Fried or over-easy?
In other words, without sanctions Iran's program progresses. That leaves two choices: Israel steps up and takes military action to set back the program or second, we simply roll-over and get used to the world's largest state-sponsor of terror producing the nuclear weapons the U.S. intel community now believes they are capable of making.
My sense is that the risk of Israeli military moves just went up dramatically ... and it was pretty high to begin with. But they will only set back the Iranian program briefly if they do intervene and the resulting turmoil on the international scene is likely to produce plenty of blowback for an Israel that is already more isolated than it has been in forty years.
But on the question at hand, let's be absolutely clear: Russia has just essentially unilaterally given the green light to Tehran to join the nuclear weapons club. Russia can block action in the Security Council and no effort to, for example, halt oil and gas flows to Iran could work without Russian cooperation. The last chance of stopping the Iranians over the long-term has probably therefore been undercut. As disturbingly, the Russian message is clearly that this is something they actually support. Otherwise, they could have kept their own counsel while negotiations continued. They didn't have to tip their hand now unless they wanted to scuttle the entire negotiation process. They are saying they believe their approach is the one most likely to work with Tehran. Tehran may even find ways to pretend it is working. But without any effective international levers against the Iranians, they have been given the go-ahead to pursue whatever agenda they choose.
Second, in a related vein, what was Bibi doing in Moscow?
If he was there, as current speculation suggests, to press the Russians to stop shipments of S300 missiles to Iran, that didn't turn out so well, with Russia standing by its right to engage in arms sales with the Iranians...and then adding a threat of severe consequences if Israel or another state used military measures to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At this point, with the Russians providing so much diplomatic, political and military cover for the Iranian efforts, it is almost tempting to start referring to Tehran's initiative as a joint Russian-Iranian nuclear program.
Third, will it be NPT 2.0, NPT 1.1 or N2PT?
Once it is recognized that Iran's entrance into the nuclear club proves (yet again) the impotence of the non-proliferation treaty do we go for an entirely new agreement, a variation on what we have now or just accept that what we have is really the N2PT, which is to say the non-nonproliferation treaty (this is one case where a double negative definitely does not equal a positive.) A completely new deal is, in reality, a non-starter because it would be impossible to get agreement from many nations to opt in. The U.S. view is to renovate the sagging framework of the existing agreement with a much more robust international mechanism for dealing with the creation and disposal of nuclear fuel. But the real question is whether or not there will ever be an enforcement mechanism strong enough to enable multilateral inspections and to ensure multilateral action in the face of proven violations. Actually, Russia has gone quite a long way toward answering that ... which in turn raises another question: Just what is the best way to safely dispose of spent nuclear agreements?
Finally, just how much does Russia have to do before they go from being a contentious partner to actually once again being an enemy?
Ok, this is rhetorical. Given that this week Russia became the world's largest petroleum exporter, we're not going to be outright enemies with them. After all, we've long proven that if you give us a nice meal and pump enough oil into us, we're easy ... or at least flexible. Still, after a rough visit to Moscow by Obama, differences on missile defense, Russia's calls for a new global currency, Russian efforts to place itself at the center of every emerging global alliance to counterbalance the United States, provocative weapons deals with among others Tehran and Caracas, possible missile shipments on board ships that disappear and reappear, aggression in the near-abroad and torpedoing our efforts to stop Iran short of gaining nuclear weapons, you've got to start wondering when we're going to get the message. They'll take whatever we have to give but their agenda diverges from ours on a wide array of critical issues and on some, they conflict with us directly and, one might almost say, exultantly.
Oh, we'll try to put a good face on it. But note: they have given us every incentive to start working hard on our new BIC strategy ... which is to say trying to isolate Russia among the leaders of the emerging world by forging stronger ties with China, India and Brazil (among others). This in turn raises the final question in this litany: which is how much do you think we can get on eBay for one virtually new, unused reset button? Perhaps there is a museum somewhere that would like to put it in a display alongside Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.
Every so often a straight, reported story comes across the wires that is news, analysis, and commentary all at once. The best such stories are also metaphors and provide their own punch lines. The truly transcendent ones take big issues and reveal truths about them beyond the collective abilities of the billion monkeys at a billion keyboards that is the blogosphere.
An AP story released late Monday afternoon achieves all these things. As such, although it is only the 11th, it is already my nominee for story of the month. The headline says it all: "Drug cartels smuggle oil into the U.S."
It's not a long story. The facts are pretty straightforward. Mexican drug gangs have been stealing Mexican oil and selling it to U.S. distributors. The U.S. government has caught on to the scam and one oil exec in the U.S. has pleaded guilty. The Mexican government says it is part of a new wave of stealing the country's oil patrimony.
What the Mexican government doesn't say is that the drug cartels that are smuggling tankers full of oil into the United States are probably operating more efficiently than Pemex, the country's calcified national oil company.
What the story doesn't have to say is that it was only natural for drug lords to branch out from feeding one U.S. addiction to feeding another.
Today Hillary Clinton made a statement in Thailand that the United States would work to create a defensive shield to help protect Gulf allies from a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Her point is that Iran should not think creating nukes will give them a strategic advantage because we will work relentlessly to blunt any edge nukes might provide.
Seems reasonable enough. Not surprisingly though, Clinton's comments landed in Jerusalem like a dud scud. According to Agence France Presse, Israel's Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor responded:
I heard without enthusiasm the American declarations according to which the United States will defend their allies in the event that Iran uses nuclear weapons, as if they were already resigned to such a possibility. This is a mistake. We cannot act now by assuming that Iran will be able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, but to prevent such a possibility."
I also agree with this view. That's what I like about the Middle East. It's rife with complexities and no issue has fewer than three sides. What I don't like much about the Middle East is when it becomes, as it often does, that magical fantasy land where passions can be applied to fantasies to produce facts ... or where the insupportable is often the unshakable foundation of absolute certitude. (Which explains a number of religious developments in the region ... but I will gingerly sidestep that discussion for now.)
My recent post on shifting attitudes in Israel and the United States regarding the relationship between the two countries produced among those commenting on it a host of really interesting comments from all over the spectrum ... and some of the nasty/loony stuff we could all do without.
Of course, item number one in this latter category is racism or prejudice of any sort against any group. Examples of this were visible in a number of the comments, sometimes boldly, sometimes insidiously. The big winner in the makes-ya-wanna-barf contest came from a guy named "briand" who, in reference to a rather overheated pro-Israeli post by AllanGreen, wrote, "If this is parody, kudos! I think the thing I'll miss the most about you Jews is your sense of humor. Not so much the apartheid/lebensraum mentality though." Scroll on through the comments ... there's lots of hatred there, in and among some fairly thoughtful arguments for one side or another.
Another commenting technique that drives me up a wall is imputing views to me (for whatever reason) that I don't actually hold. For example: I'm no fan of the settlements, think they ought to be dismantled, am not a Zionist, don't support the views of the Likud, and based on his track record to date am no Bibi fan. I also don't think that taking a tough stand against the Iranian nuclear program implies the need to attack and lay waste to Iran. Rather, we need an international program of inspections and enforcement that explicitly asserts the right to use force to compel compliance and offers a multilateral guarantee of providing that force. (Not just in the case of Iran, by the way, but in the case of all future signatories of the new NPT we will start negotiating next year ... an NPT that should offer the framework within which the deal with Iran ought to be included.)
Another aggravating approach which often undercuts otherwise reasonable arguments is making insupportable assertions. For example, one reader argued that Israel had Iran and Ahmadinejad all wrong, that the Iranian president's comments about destroying Israel were really a deliberate, unfair misquoting of him and that by extension; Israel had nothing to fear from Tehran. Really? Aren't we forgetting 30 years of official pronouncements or the guy who chants "death to Israel" at afternoon prayers? I think it was the same reader who argued another reason to chill out about any potential Iranian threat was that Iran has not attacked anyone in 250 years. This overlooked, as another reader pointed out, the fact that the country has for decades been the world's leading state sponsor of terror...which ought to count for something.
In this vein, one of the most popular insupportable assertions is that somehow solving the settlements problem or even the larger Israel-Palestinian problem will in turn solve or contribute greatly to solutions for all our other problems in the Middle East -- this despite the fact that many of the biggest problems in the region antedate the founding of Israel by a number of centuries.
In the interest of dispelling this misconception, here, off the top of my head, are 15 major problems in the Middle East that would not be solved by solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:
This doesn't include related issues like the tensions between extremist or tribal Islamic groups with roots in the region and Russia, China, and other bordering countries. Perhaps you have others, feel free to add. (Just try to restrain yourself if you feel the impulse to make a comment that uses as its primary source The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
Dismantle the settlements. Create two states. Create an internationally monitored buffer between those states. Let billions in aid flow in to help relieve the plight of the Palestinians. Please, do all these things. They are all long overdue. But know this: They may remove an irritant, they may remove an argument from extremists, they may put U.S. relations on a more even footing with other countries in the region. But they won't make the Middle East appreciably less dangerous or difficult and I guarantee you, they won't stop efforts by the countries of the region to continue to scapegoat, confront and battle Israel on countless other pretexts.
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While the attention of the world is on the G20 in London, Washington still percolates with discussions on related and other issues. Here are a few snippets picked up in casual encounters in the past day or so:
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.