Tuesday, January 29, 2013 Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romney in Israel: Now We Know

Now we know that Mitt Romney did not really much care for the idea of not criticising the President, or contradicting the nation’s current foreign policy, when outside the United States. “Diplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel’s adversaries,” he proclaimed in a speech in Jerusalem on Sunday. In the same address, he referred to the city as “Israel’s capital”, in defiance of official U.S. policy on the matter.

Now we know, or rather we can confirm, that Romney has no ear for poetry or language, and lacks the ability to turn a phrase and convey real human emotions. During an address at a fundraising breakfast Monday morning that was supposed to convey his appreciation and even love for Israel, Romney said, “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things”. I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things. The trees are the right height. Its roads and houses are small.

Now we know there’s nothing Romney will not do to peel Jewish voters away from the Democrats, no matter how offensive his gesture. Jeffrey Goldberg described as “very vulgar” his decision to be photographed in prayer at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av – the day on which the First and Second Temples were destroyed, “one of the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar”. “I’m sure, by the way,” Goldberg added, that conservatives “would endorse an Obama campaign stop at Yad Vashem on the Holocaust Memorial Day”.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Strategic Vision, What Brzezinski Doesn’t See

In his bright if occasionally problematic review of the current condition of the United States and its place in the world, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski calls with some justification for the expansion of the Western alliance through Eurasia, with Turkey and Russia’s integration into existing economic and military frameworks, once their internal and external politics reach a condition where they are simpatico with ours.

Brzezinski envisions a somewhat diminished America which is, he seeks to stress, the “promoter and guarantor of greater and broader unity in the West, and the balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the East”. With respect to the latter, his attention is focused on China – for obvious reasons – and her relationship to India, South Korea, and Japan amongst others.

What Brzezinski fails to foresee, in his world beyond 2025, is either the place for Israel in this new global dynamic, or the consequence of the rise of China for the country and the Middle East more widely. In fact, on the subject of what Brzezinski describes as a “larger and vital West”, he doesn’t appear to have any thoughts on such matters at all, save a passing reference warning the United States against “a solitary military action against Iran or just in cooperation with Israel, for that would plunge America into a wider and eventually self-destructive conflict”.

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Considering France’s Strategic Vision: An Essay

TOULOUSE – Lunchtime on any given sunny Thursday in the centre of Toulouse perfectly encapsulates everything Anglo-Saxons envy about the seemingly-idyllic French mode de vie. In the middle of the working day, employees take off an hour or oftentimes more to enjoy a two-course formule du midi or a seasonal plat du jour on a picturesque square like Place St. Georges, all for under $25 including a glass of cold, crisp white wine, locally sourced of course.

When contrasted with the ugly way in which workers in London and New York unhinge their jaws in order to swallow whole pre-packaged sandwiches on the dash back to the office – all in the name of additional, precious trading nanoseconds – the more languid and dare it be said chic Gallic lunch is made to seem all the more desirable.

And why ever not? I am not one to suggest for a moment that the French need to give this practice up, for it does sit rather well with me. Nor should they be required to surrender the practice of retreating from the cities during the month of August when they become veritable sweatboxes. But the Anglo-Saxon with a mild bout of indigestion can at least take some comfort in the fact that said Gallic lunch is a milder expression of all that is wrong with the present state of the French economy and society, one which is stumbling blindly towards a condition of stagnation and sclerosis.

Zbigniew Brzezinski neatly summarises the state of play in his bright if occasionally problematic new work, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. When addressing the subject of Europe, its position in the world, and relative decline since 1973 in comparison to the United States, Brzezinski asserts that the continent has become “too self-satisfied”, and that it acts “as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (Brzezinski 2012, 36).

One of the faults with Brzezinski’s work is over-generalisation. Evidently, state largesse is not a continent-wide problem. The United Kingdom government, for example, has recently embarked on a series of austerity measures that seek to scale down the size of the welfare bill as a proportion of government expenditure. And, in Germany, the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s also restricted access to state benefits, reducing the claimant period for the full unemployment allowance to in the most part 12 months, down from 36.

Rather, when Brzezinski references “Europe” in the abstract, he clearly has in mind the profligate nations of Catholic Europe, as it were: those nations like Italy and Spain with bloated deficits and engorged welfare states. Though it has not suffered as awfully as these other Mediterranean states, France could just as easily be indicted for the crime of wanting to become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home”. It is a country which, in the immediate, is suffering the consequences of having a weighty and immobile public sector at a time when the economy needs to be nimble and agile in order to recover and renew itself in this globalised era of interconnectedness and economic interdependence.

Her extensive state structures which own sizeable chunks of ostensibly private companies and employ directly 5.3 million workers, or 20% of the labour force, allowed France to buffet the worst of a recession which destroyed other economics more exposed to massive fluctuations in the health of the private sector. But as the United States is pulling itself out of the doldrums, albeit ever-so-slowly, and the Germans are experienced their lowest rates of unemployment since unification in 1990, the French economy is struggling to pick up steam whilst the rest of the continent suffers the consequences of the single currency and sovereign debt crises.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

President Obama kills it in a speech to the United Auto Workers Union in Washington, D.C., February 28, 2012.

This notion that we should have let the auto industry die, that we should pursue anti-worker policies in the hopes that unions like yours will buckle and unravel—that’s part of that same old “you are on your own” philosophy that says we should just leave everybody to fend for themselves; let the most powerful do whatever they please. They think the best way to boost the economy is to roll back the reforms we put into place to prevent another crisis, to let Wall Street write the rules again. They think the best way to help families afford health care is to roll back the reforms we passed that [are] already lowering costs for millions of Americans. They want to go back to the days when insurance companies could deny your coverage or jack up your rates whenever and however they pleased. They think we should keep cutting taxes for those at the very top, for people like me, even though we don’t need it, just so they can keep paying lower tax rates than their secretaries.

Well, let me tell you something. Not to put too fine a point on it—they’re wrong. They are wrong.

(Source: barackobama.com)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Le Meilleur Homme: Sarkozy in Light and Shade

There is no perfect candidate running for the French presidency. Then again, putting it mildly, since the inculcation of the Fifth Republic France has never had a perfect President.

The first, Charles de Gaulle, was a quasi-fascist military ruler with a nasty prejudice towards the non-French and Anglo-Saxons in particular. He took power under the cloud of a coup d’etat led by Jacques Massu and other fifth columnists in Algeria, and clung to power by bullying other nations and over-egging the narrative of French resistance during the Second World War. De Gaulle, it should be noted, led this so-called effort from a palatial structure on Carlton Terrace in St. James’s, and subsequently spent the better part of his presidency deriding the very peoples and nations who liberated France not once but twice from foreign aggression during the twentieth century — he was, then, the very epitome of an armchair general.

Those who followed de Gaulle could hardly be as pompous, but the French hardly witnessed a great deal of improvement in the calibre or moral fortitude of their leaders. François Mitterrand was a Petainist sympathiser who laid flowers annually on Armistice Day on the grave of the leader of the Vichy government, a puppet regime which collaborated with the Nazis and was complicit in the Shoah. Mitterrand also hid a secret daughter whom he had fathered with his long-time mistress, opposed German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and presided over such disasters as the genocide in Rwanda (a former French colony and the most Catholic country in Africa), the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and the HIV contaminated blood scandal.

He was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist race-baiter with ideas above his station, who lead the effort in by-proxy support of Saddam Hussein, in opposition to the long-postponed liberation of Iraq. A French court convicted him late last year of “diverting public funds and abusing public trust” during his tenure as Mayor of Paris — Chirac used the city government as a platform to construct a powerful political and electoral organisation with himself at the centre, using public funds to pay members of his party for jobs which did not exist.

I say all this not just out of a combination of glee and disgust, but to put into some sort of context the competency which marked the Sarkozy presidency above all others, relatively speaking of course. This is not say to that he hasn’t been a little embarrassing, at times seeming as if he was stumbling from one comedic incident to the next: from his drunken post-lunch press conference after meeting Vladimir Putin, to a contretemps out on the stump where he castigated a citizen for neglecting to shake his hand.

The problem for Sarkozy is that these moments which should be considered trifling and ethereal have been blown up, as to make seem more monumental than they truly are, and paint a portrait of Sarkozy as an aloof, bumbling fool, not fit to inhabit the Élysée Palace. This goes some way to explaining why, based upon the most recent survey conducted by French polling organisation CSA, Sarkozy would lose in a runoff with the PS candidate François Hollande by 20 points.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Seven Notes on the State of the Union

  1. Obama’s State of the Union was crammed full of minor policy tweaks, mostly on the form of tax breaks or tax hikes designed to stop jobs leaving the United States, and encourage those that have already left to return home. My underlying thought throughout the entire address was that, given the calcification of Congress, little or none of his address will actually get passed. See the American Jobs Act for reference, if you catch my drift.
  2. In its tone, and in its agenda, Obama’s speech was rather conservative. Charles Krauthammer commented on Fox that the President’s scope for change has narrowly significantly since Election Day 2008 — forced in no small part by the aforementioned do-nothing Congress. In terms of substance, the speech focused on American manufacturing, lowering the corporate tax rate for entities which create jobs in the United States, domestic energy production, and free trade agreements.
  3. The zeitgeist at present centres around the corrosive state of Washington, and the disproportionate influence of monied interests in politics. Obama offered up nothing to solve either: only a bill that bans insider trading by members of Congress, which I thought was illegal anyway.
  4. America’s other hot button topic at this time, income inequality, was directly tackled by the President. He proposed that, “Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes”. There was no indication as to how this might be implemented, and in order to get it done, Obama would have to engage in battle with the Republican House of Representatives. It will likely have to wait until after November 2012.
  5. It occurred to me during the speech — particularly seeing as the whole thing was bookended by the story of Seal Team Six — that President Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments really are untouchable. In sum he removed Gaddafi in six months with no boots on the ground; located and killed Osama bin Laden; opened up relations with Burma; has helped to coordinate sanctions on Iran; cemented ties between Israel with greater economic and military cooperation; and concluded the liberation of Iraq. Beat that, President Gingrich!
  6. This from Andrew Sullivan: “This notion that a country, a democracy, should have the same attitude as troops fighting a war is preposterous and slightly creepy. Yes, we should put aside our differences to get important things done, put aside ideology to focus on solving problems. But we are not a military and the president is not our commander. He is our president. We have every right to argue with one another and to distrust one another at times. The whole idea of getting each others’ backs in a boisterous democracy is deeply undemocratic. I do not want to be a citizen trained like a member of the Navy SEALs. Nor should anyone. This isn’t Sparta. It’s America. And to use the raid on bin Laden as the model of our future cooperation struck me as too easy and trite an analogy”.
  7. In comparison with this previous efforts, this speech was particularly nationalist in that threatening-but-sort-of-okay American fashion. Obama spoke of bringing jobs and wealth home and sticking it to other nations — particularly China. Addressing the Republicans, he said, “Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home”. I understand the sentiment, but I hope this does not signal some awful isolationist turn in an election year.
Monday, January 16, 2012 Wednesday, November 9, 2011 Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lower Unemployment — Cut VAT

There it is. Unemployment is now above 2.5 million for the first time during David Cameron’s governorship. The rate of joblessness overall is 7.9pc: in perspective, this level is less than the 9pc+ that’s crippling the U.S. economy, but nevertheless still a sad indictment of the government’s present economic agenda.

Let’s set one thing straight to begin with: I continue to support the deficit reduction programme being pursued by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. It is essential to the nation’s long-term health, since budget deficits of the kind the Brown government was operating were unsustainable and potentially cancerous in the long term.

The International Monetary Fund’s wonderful new chairwoman, Christine Lagarde, continues to back our austerity agenda, particularly at a time when both the United States and the Eurozone are failing abjectly to pursue a similar tact. At once, she was correct to state that during this moment of global economic uncertainly, cuts to public expenditure are rising the risks to the British economy. Both the Treasury and the Bank of England, Lagarde added, should be “nimble”. I concur.

The problem, in essence, is that because the government is required to slash spending across the board in order to bring the deficit under control, they have in a rather Thatcher-esque manner lost sight of the jobs agenda.

Now more than ever, we have an economy which is heavily reliant upon individuals and families spending their spare capital on — for lack of a better term — stuff, in the retail sector in particular. Thus, I side once more with Ed Balls in appealing for a liberal stimulus: a reverse in the VAT rise initiated by George Osborne, from 20pc back to 17.5pc, at a cost of £13 billion.

This bold gambit would lower the cost of essential goods and services, in effect putting pennies and pounds back into people’s pockets. In the immediate, it would help to stimulate consumer spending, bring down inflation, increase trade between British companies, and boost job creation. The latter is the goal: to echo President Obama’s tone to House Republicans, George Osborne needs to pass this measure right away.