Friday, October 31, 2014

Poland preps for war with Russia...without U.S. help

[HT: AS]. There are some very harsh words for President Obama and his administration in here.

How much of it is true about Obama's intention and fortitude isn't as important as the common perception within Poland that Obama is weak and America isn't reliable, that we aren't ready to defend our NATO-Article 5 commitments.

Alas, there are no prominent voices on the American Right who are pushing Obama to honor those commitments. Why? Probably because there's no constituency to be won from it. Americans don't care about Europe. It's much easier to bang and blame Obama for ISIS in the Mideast and Ebola in Africa. Republicans want to scaremonger and Monday-morning quarterback those two "crises" for partisan advantage. 

So there is no foreign policy leadership in either party.

By John Schindler
October 30, 2014 | Business Insider

Stopping the next Ebola outbreak in Africa (Lancet)

On the one hand, what's below is a damning indictment of the health effects of conflict, slavery, poverty, political instability and neglect of public health in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

On the other hand, it tells me that Ebola -- even without a vaccine or proven effective drug treatments -- can be stopped in countries with well-developed health systems and infrastructure such as running water. Indeed, Newsweek just concluded that:

An examination of health, economic and education data help explain why the disease escalated so severely in these three nations [Guniea, Liberia and Sierra Leone]; they also show why Ebola won’t rage in richer countries and what is required to not only halt this outbreak but prevent it from happening at this scale again.

Check it out [emphasis mine]:

Ebola has all but destroyed their health care systems. Before this crisis, Liberia had just over 50 doctors for its population of 4.3 million people; Sierra Leone had about 95 for its population of 6 million. After this crisis, when the temporary treatment centres are taken down and emergency response teams move on, there will be even fewer.

Yet of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent battling Ebola, little to none of it will go into lasting infrastructure or ensuring effective systems are in place for next time. These nations must be supported to build up their health, water and sanitation sectors, so that they might have a fighting chance at managing their next crisis.

This is a difficult sell to international donors. It is much easier to celebrate the opening of a village’s new water tap, or a group of children successfully vaccinated against disease, than to talk about the long-term partnerships and financing necessary to create effective national sanitation and water coverage.

But what is needed is partnerships and financing to build management systems as well as infrastructure. Support for national and local governments to become capable of managing their own affairs is more important than ever if we are to avoid a repeat of this terrible epidemic. It will cost far less in the long run.

Of course, we in the West and the U.S. in particular can say, "It's not our problem. We'll just close our borders." But this isn't realistic or humanistic. The world is global now. Especially if Ebola jumps to other countries, such as India or Pakistan, that also struggle with public health and sanitation, then that would make it that much harder to contain Ebola's spread. Think how many Americans and Britons travel to/from those two countries alone.

By Mariame Dem
October 31, 2014 | The Lancet Global Health Blog

Monday, October 27, 2014

Soros: EU, US must aid the 'new Ukraine' against Russia

I have not much to add to this op-ed by the alleged "evil" billionaire and "Colored Revolution"-maker George Soros, so I'm re-posting it in full, except to say: If there is some dumbbell in the Obama Admin. who is still not sure what to do about Ukraine, this is a good place to start.

The rest of my thoughts are highlighted below.

I will add this though: Americans who want a "strong" U.S. foreign policy had better realize that that requires more than tough words and finger-wagging by our government. In the case of Ukraine, it requires money -- billions, in fact, to lend to Ukraine's government as it tries to rebuild its army and simultaneously deal with economic recession and Russian economic-war tactics via trade sanctions and natural gas prices, not to mention economically crippling eastern Ukraine.

Anybody who says Obama isn't "tough enough" against Russia had better advocate billions of dollars in loan guarantees and aid for Ukraine -- a modern-day Marshall Plan -- or else they are political hacks who might as well be on the same side as Putin.  

By George Soros
October 23, 2014 | The New York Review of Books

Europe is facing a challenge from Russia to its very existence. Neither the European leaders nor their citizens are fully aware of this challenge or know how best to deal with it. I attribute this mainly to the fact that the European Union in general and the eurozone in particular lost their way after the financial crisis of 2008.

The fiscal rules that currently prevail in Europe have aroused a lot of popular resentment. Anti-Europe parties captured nearly 30 percent of the seats in the latest elections for the European Parliament but they had no realistic alternative to the EU to point to until recently. Now Russia is presenting an alternative that poses a fundamental challenge to the values and principles on which the European Union was originally founded. It is based on the use of force that manifests itself in repression at home and aggression abroad, as opposed to the rule of law. What is shocking is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has proved to be in some ways superior to the European Union—more flexible and constantly springing surprises. That has given it a tactical advantage, at least in the near term.

Europe and the United States—each for its own reasons—are determined to avoid any direct military confrontation with Russia. Russia is taking advantage of their reluctance. Violating its treaty obligations, Russia has annexed Crimea and established separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. In August, when the recently installed government in Kiev threatened to win the low-level war in eastern Ukraine against separatist forces backed by Russia,President Putin invaded Ukraine with regular armed forces in violation of the Russian law that exempts conscripts from foreign service without their consent.

In seventy-two hours these forces destroyed several hundred of Ukraine’s armored vehicles, a substantial portion of its fighting force. According to General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, the Russians used multiple launch rocket systems armed with cluster munitions and thermobaric warheads (an even more inhumane weapon that ought to be outlawed) with devastating effect.* The local militia from the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk suffered the brunt of the losses because they were communicating by cell phones and could thus easily be located and targeted by the Russians. President Putin has, so far, abided by a cease-fire agreement he concluded with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on September 5, but Putin retains the choice to continue the cease-fire as long as he finds it advantageous or to resume a full-scale assault.

In September, President Poroshenko visited Washington where he received an enthusiastic welcome from a joint session of Congress. He asked for “both lethal and nonlethal” defensive weapons in his speech. However, President Obama refused his request for Javelin hand-held missiles that could be used against advancing tanks. Poroshenko was given radar, but what use is it without missiles? European countries are equally reluctant to provide military assistance to Ukraine, fearing Russian retaliation. The Washington visit gave President Poroshenko a fa├žade of support with little substance behind it.

Equally disturbing has been the determination of official international leaders to withhold new financial commitments to Ukraine until after the October 26 election there (which will take place just after this issue goes to press). This has led to an avoidable pressure on Ukrainian currency reserves and raised the specter of a full-blown financial crisis in the country.

There is now pressure from donors, whether in Europe or the US, to “bail in” the bondholders of Ukrainian sovereign debt, i.e., for bondholders to take losses on their investments as a precondition for further official assistance to Ukraine that would put more taxpayers’ money at risk. That would be an egregious error. The Ukrainian government strenuously opposes the proposal because it would put Ukraine into a technical default that would make it practically impossible for the private sector to refinance its debt. Bailing in private creditors would save very little money and it would make Ukraine entirely dependent on the official donors.

To complicate matters, Russia is simultaneously dangling carrots and wielding sticks. It is offering—but failing to sign—a deal for gas supplies that would take care of Ukraine’s needs for the winter. At the same time Russia is trying to prevent the delivery of gas that Ukraine secured from the European market through Slovakia. Similarly, Russia is negotiating for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the borders while continuing to attack the Donetsk airport and the port city of Mariupol.

It is easy to foresee what lies ahead. Putin will await the results of the elections on October 26 and then offer Poroshenko the gas and other benefits he has been dangling on condition that he appoint a prime minister acceptable to Putin. That would exclude anybody associated with the victory of the forces that brought down the Viktor Yanukovych government by resisting it for months on the Maidan—Independence Square. I consider it highly unlikely that Poroshenko would accept such an offer. If he did, he would be disowned by the defenders of the Maidan; the resistance forces would then be revived.

Putin may then revert to the smaller victory that would still be within his reach: he could open by force a land route from Russia to Crimea and Transnistria before winter. Alternatively, he could simply sit back and await the economic and financial collapse of Ukraine. I suspect that he may be holding out the prospect of a grand bargain in which Russia would help the United States against ISIS—for instance by not supplying to Syria the S300 missiles it has promised, thus in effect preserving US air domination—and Russia would be allowed to have its way in the “near abroad,” as many of the nations adjoining Russia are called. What is worse, President Obama may accept such a deal.

That would be a tragic mistake, with far-reaching geopolitical consequences. Without underestimating the threat from ISIS, I would argue that preserving the independence of Ukraine should take precedence; without it, even the alliance against ISIS would fall apart. The collapse of Ukraine would be a tremendous loss for NATO, the European Union, and the United States. A victorious Russia would become much more influential within the EU and pose a potent threat to the Baltic states with their large ethnic Russian populations. Instead of supporting Ukraine, NATO would have to defend itself on its own soil. This would expose both the EU and the US to the danger they have been so eager to avoid: a direct military confrontation with Russia. The European Union would become even more divided and ungovernable. Why should the US and other NATO nations allow this to happen?

The argument that has prevailed in both Europe and the United States is that Putin is no Hitler; by giving him everything he can reasonably ask for, he can be prevented from resorting to further use of force. In the meantime, the sanctions against Russia—which include, for example, restrictions on business transactions, finance, and trade—will have their effect and in the long run Russia will have to retreat in order to earn some relief from them.

These are false hopes derived from a false argument with no factual evidence to support it. Putin has repeatedly resorted to force and he is liable to do so again unless he faces strong resistance. Even if it is possible that the hypothesis could turn out to be valid, it is extremely irresponsible not to prepare a Plan B.

There are two counterarguments that are less obvious but even more important. First, Western authorities have ignored the importance of what I call the “new Ukraine” that was born in the successful resistance on the Maidan. Many officials with a history of dealing with Ukraine have difficulty adjusting to the revolutionary change that has taken place there. The recently signed Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine was originally negotiated with the Yanukovych government. This detailed road map now needs adjustment to a totally different situation. For instance, the road map calls for the gradual replacement and retraining of the judiciary over five years whereas the public is clamoring for immediate and radical renewal. As the new mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, put it, “If you put fresh cucumbers into a barrel of pickles, they will soon turn into pickles.”

Contrary to some widely circulated accounts, the resistance on the Maidan was led by the cream of civil society: young people, many of whom had studied abroad and refused to join either government or business on their return because they found both of them repugnant. (Nationalists and anti-Semitic extremists made up only a minority of the anti-Yanukovych protesters.) They are the leaders of the new Ukraine and they are adamantly opposed to a return of the “old Ukraine,” with its endemic corruption and ineffective government.

The new Ukraine has to contend with Russian aggression, bureaucratic resistance both at home and abroad, and confusion in the general population. Surprisingly, it has the support of many oligarchs, President Poroshenko foremost among them, and the population at large. There are of course profound differences in history, language, and outlook between the eastern and western parts of the country, but Ukraine is more united and more European-minded than ever before. That unity, however, is extremely fragile.

The new Ukraine has remained largely unrecognized because it took time before it could make its influence felt. It had practically no security forces at its disposal when it was born. The security forces of the old Ukraine were actively engaged in suppressing the Maidan rebellion and they were disoriented this summer when they had to take orders from a government formed by the supporters of the rebellion. No wonder that the new government was at first unable to put up an effective resistance to the establishment of the separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. It is all the more remarkable that President Poroshenko was able, within a few months of his election, to mount an attack that threatened to reclaim those enclaves.

To appreciate the merits of the new Ukraine you need to have had some personal experience with it. I can speak from personal experience although I must also confess to a bias in its favor. I established a foundation in Ukraine in 1990 even before the country became independent. Its board and staff are composed entirely of Ukrainians and it has deep roots in civil society. I visited the country often, especially in the early years, but not between 2004 and early 2014, when I returned to witness the birth of the new Ukraine.

I was immediately impressed by the tremendous improvement in maturity and expertise during that time both in my foundation and in civil society at large.Currently, civic and political engagement is probably higher than anywhere else in Europe. People have proven their willingness to sacrifice their lives for their country. These are the hidden strengths of the new Ukraine that have been overlooked by the West.

The other deficiency of the current European attitude toward Ukraine is that it fails to recognize that the Russian attack on Ukraine is indirectly an attack on the European Union and its principles of governance. It ought to be evident that it is inappropriate for a country, or association of countries, at war to pursue a policy of fiscal austerity as the European Union continues to do. All available resources ought to be put to work in the war effort even if that involves running up budget deficits. The fragility of the new Ukraine makes the ambivalence of the West all the more perilous. Not only the survival of the new Ukraine but the future of NATO and the European Union itself is at risk. In the absence of unified resistance it is unrealistic to expect that Putin will stop pushing beyond Ukraine when the division of Europe and its domination by Russia is in sight.

Having identified some of the shortcomings of the current approach, I will try to spell out the course that Europe ought to follow. Sanctions against Russia are necessary but they are a necessary evil. They have a depressive effect not only on Russia but also on the European economies, including Germany. This aggravates the recessionary and deflationary forces that are already at work. By contrast, assisting Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression would have a stimulative effect not only on Ukraine but also on Europe. That is the principle that ought to guide European assistance to Ukraine.

Germany, as the main advocate of fiscal austerity, needs to understand the internal contradiction involved. Chancellor Angela Merkel has behaved as a true European with regard to the threat posed by Russia. She has been the foremost advocate of sanctions on Russia, and she has been more willing to defy German public opinion and business interests on this than on any other issue. Only after the Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down in July did German public opinion catch up with her. Yet on fiscal austerity she has recently reaffirmed her allegiance to the orthodoxy of the Bundesbank—probably in response to the electoral inroads made by the Alternative for Germany, the anti-euro party. She does not seem to realize how inconsistent that is. She ought to be even more committed to helping Ukraine than to imposing sanctions on Russia.

The new Ukraine has the political will both to defend Europe against Russian aggression and to engage in radical structural reforms. To preserve and reinforce that will, Ukraine needs to receive adequate assistance from its supporters. Without it, the results will be disappointing and hope will turn into despair. Disenchantment already started to set in after Ukraine suffered a military defeat and did not receive the weapons it needs to defend itself.

It is high time for the members of the European Union to wake up and behave as countries indirectly at war. They are better off helping Ukraine to defend itself than having to fight for themselves. One way or another, the internal contradiction between being at war and remaining committed to fiscal austerity has to be eliminated. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Let me be specific. In its last progress report, issued in early September, the IMF estimated that in a worst-case scenario Ukraine would need additional support of $19 billion. Conditions have deteriorated further since then. After the Ukrainian elections the IMF will need to reassess its baseline forecast in consultation with the Ukrainian government. It should provide an immediate cash injection of at least $20 billion, with a promise of more when neededUkraine’s partners should provide additional financing conditional on implementation of the IMF-supported program, at their own risk, in line with standard practice.

The spending of borrowed funds is controlled by the agreement between the IMF and the Ukrainian government. Four billion dollars would go to make up the shortfall in Ukrainian payments to date; $2 billion would be assigned to repairing the coal mines in eastern Ukraine that remain under the control of the central government; and $2 billion would be earmarked for the purchase of additional gas for the winter. The rest would replenish the currency reserves of the central bank.

The new assistance package would include a debt exchange that would transform Ukraine’s hard currency Eurobond debt (which totals almost $18 billion) into long-term, less risky bonds. This would lighten Ukraine’s debt burden and bring down its risk premium. By participating in the exchange, bondholders would agree to accept a lower interest rate and wait longer to get their money back. The exchange would be voluntary and market-based so that it could not be mischaracterized as a default. Bondholders would participate willingly because the new long-term bonds would be guaranteed—but only partially—by the US or Europe, much as the US helped Latin America emerge from its debt crisis in the 1980s with so-called Brady bonds (named for US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady).

Such an exchange would have a few important benefits. One is that, over the next two or three critical years, the government could use considerably less of its scarce hard currency reserves to pay off bondholders. The money could be used for other urgent needs.

By trimming Ukraine debt payments in the next few years, the exchange would also reduce the chance of a sovereign default, discouraging capital flight and arresting the incipient run on the banks. This would make it easier to persuade owners of Ukraine’s banks (many of them foreign) to inject urgently needed new capital into them. The banks desperately need bigger capital cushions if Ukraine is to avoid a full-blown banking crisis, but shareholders know that a debt crisis could cause a banking crisis that wipes out their equity.

Finally, Ukraine would keep bondholders engaged rather than watch them cash out at 100 cents on the dollar as existing debt comes due in the next few years. This would make it easier for Ukraine to reenter the international bond markets once the crisis has passed. Under the current conditions it would be more practical and cost-efficient for the US and Europe not to use their own credit directly to guarantee part of Ukraine’s debt, but to employ intermediaries such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the World Bank and its subsidiaries.

The Ukrainian state-owned company Naftogaz is a black hole in the budget and a major source of corruption. Naftogaz currently sells gas to households for $47 per thousand cubic meters (TCM), for which it pays $380 per TCM. At present people cannot control the temperature in their apartments. A radical restructuring of Naftogaz’s entire system could reduce household consumption at least by half and totally eliminate Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for gas. That would involve charging households the market price for gas. The first step would be to install meters in apartments and the second to distribute a cash subsidy to needy households.

The will to make these reforms is strong both in the new management and in the incoming government but the task is extremely complicated (how do you define who is needy?) and the expertise is inadequate. The World Bank and its subsidiaries could sponsor a project development team that would bring together international and domestic experts to convert the existing political will into bankable projects. The initial cost would exceed $10 billion but it could be financed by project bonds issued by the European Investment Bank and it would produce very high returns.

It is also high time for the European Union to take a critical look at itself. There must be something wrong with the EU if Putin’s Russia can be so successful even in the short term. The bureaucracy of the EU no longer has a monopoly of power and it has little to be proud of. It should learn to be more united, flexible, and efficient. And Europeans themselves need to take a close look at the new Ukraine. That could help them recapture the original spirit that led to the creation of the European Union. The European Union would save itself by saving Ukraine.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

More college grads won't fix income inequality

And anyway, we shouldn't have so many kids thinking their best bet is an expensive college degree, and with it onerous debt at the outset of their lives -- that prevents or delays marriage and household formation, the backbone of the middle class.

Yes, we do need to make college less expensive, not just offer more federal loans and grants. In fact, I say public universities should be FREE for students who qualify, as many European countries do.

More importantly, we need to develop (almost from scratch, sadly), a concurrent educational tracking system for the provision of technical-vocational training, paired with apprenticeships at real companies, as Germany does.  

Indeed, we don't need manufacturing workers or even necessarily engineers with 4-year degrees. Or if a kid wants to write software code for the next great app, he doesn't necessarily need a 4-year degree. These are artificial hurdles to entering today's workforce. But there is nothing in their place; so employers demand a degree because they don't know how else to find and filter candidates.

Meanwhile (and I can attest to this personally), in today's "parachute-in-and-start-running" hiring environment, employers are increasingly looking at certifications that attest to a candidate's concrete work skills, not necessarily their broad-based knowledge or ability to learn quickly as attested by a bachelors degree. That's sad, but it is what it is and I don't see it changing anytime soon. It's an employers' labor market now, and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future....

And then there are all sorts of in-demand jobs that can't find enough workers, such as nurses, home healthcare workers, medical office administrators, billing specialists and cost accountants that don't necessarily call for 4-year degrees. We end up over-educating future workers to fill these jobs who end up training on-the-job anyway to gain experience. 

As Pierson and Riley allude to, teachers may be the big exception to where federal action is warranted. We can't let the employment "market" determine where our best teachers go. We need the best teachers where they are needed most. To do that, we must compensate them accordingly. This requires concerted federal and state action. We can't just hope or leave this to chance anymore. Indeed:

Under the current system, teachers have more school choice than students do. Rather than sending the most qualified and experienced teachers to educate the kids who need them the most, we do the reverse.

That's a recipe for continued failure.  

But to end on a high note, I refer to the writings of education reform over-blogger (that's the only way I describe her verbal fecundity) Diane Ravitch, who points out that our K-12 system is not necessarily broken, it's just forced to deal with huge economic disparities that it is not equipped to remedy. Indeed, educational superstar countries like Finland took their best notes from U.S. public schools back in the day. So we DO know a thing or two about teaching our kids, we just need to do them without the politics and funding shortfalls.

By James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley
October 23, 2014 | Washington Post

Being an 'indispensable nation' is killing America

This op-ed is worth re-posting in full.

Never let it be said I'm a partisan hack: I support Borosage's indictment of President Obama's executive overreach in conducting military operations without Congressional approval for war. 

More damning to my mind has been President Obama's failure to articulate to the nation (and Congress) a national security-military doctrine/vision (call it what you will) that makes it clear when he thinks the United States should send its troops into battle, and when we shouldn't. Granted, this may be the most difficult job of any POTUS in an ever-changing world, and with inherited conflicts of past presidents.

Is it because Obama and his team doesn't have the strategic capacity to develop such a vision? Is it because Obaama is too arrogant to articulate it for us, we're just supposed to trust him not to do "stupid shit"? Or, most likely, is it because a timid Obama fears that no matter what he says, it will be parsed and pilloried by Republicans -- who also can't agree among themselves on a foreign policy -- looking to score partisan political points?

Borosage is right to point out that the opportunity cost of U.S. military adventures abroad is investment in piss-poor education and crumbling infrastructure at home. Maybe our government can buy guns and butter... but not forever, not at a sustainable cost. This is where the "fiscally responsible" yet "pro-military" Tea Parties and Republicans have fallen on their faces as an opposition, by refusing to specify just what they are willing to give up to achieve their stated top priority of fiscal balance.

By Robert L. Borosage
October 20, 2014 | Reuters

America — proudly dubbed the “indispensable nation” by its national-security managers — is now the entangled nation enmeshed in conflicts across the globe.

President Barack Obama, scorned by his Republican critics as an “isolationist” who wants to “withdraw from the world,” is waging the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan, boasts of toppling the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, launches airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State and picks targets for drones to attack in as many as eight countries, while dispatching planes to the Russian border in reaction to its machinations in Ukraine, and a fleet to the South China Sea as the conflict over control of islands and waters escalates between China and its neighbors.

The indispensable nation is permanently engaged across the globe. But endless war undermines the Constitution. Democracy requires openness; war justifies secrecy. Democracy forces attention be paid to the common welfare; war demands attention and resources be spent on distant conflicts. Democracy involves forging coalitions to get action in the Congress; war is waged on executive order. The Constitution restrains the executive in times of peace; constitutional strictures are trampled in times of war.

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they worried about the tendency of kings, or presidents, to make war for personal aggrandizement or national glory.  So they gave Congress the power to declare war, intent on “clogging, not facilitating” the rush to war.  For the Republic, peace would be the normal state of affairs. War was a disruption — entered into only with prior debate and consideration by  Congress, the elected body whose members best reflected the attitudes of their constituents.

The United States, in the words of conservative John Quincy Adams, would provide a shining example of liberty as long as “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroyShe is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

But now the pursuit of monsters to destroy is unrelenting. Almost inevitably, it seems, the restraints of the Constitution are being trampled. With little debate, U.S. leaders have chosen permanent global intervention even at the cost of undermining the Republic.

For the cost of war can be measured in dollars not spent here at home.

An educated citizenry is the foundation of a robust democracy. Yet from the absence of free, full-day pre-K to affordable colleges to advanced training, the United States is skimping on investment in educating its citizens. A modern infrastructure is also essential to a competitive, high-wage economy. But while Washington spends $3 trillion on Iraq, there hasn’t been a serious discussion about bringing America’s aged infrastructure, including our roads, bridges and airports, up to standard — which would cost about the same. 

A bridge to somewhere... now a bridge to nowhere.

Instead of this funding, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies spend more on their militaries than the rest of the world combined. Washington maintains more than 1,000 bases, called “military sites,” across the globe, plus 11 aircraft-carrier task forces that are essentially moveable bases. U.S. conventional and nuclear forces are unrivaled — yet Washington plans to spend another trillion dollars over the next 30 years modernizing nuclear weapons that the United States aims never to use. U.S. intelligence and covert forces are permanently engaged, often secretly creating the implicit commitments that will force the next intervention.

It is only America, as the president said in a speech announcing his intention to “degrade and ultimately defeat” Islamic State, which he refers to as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, that “has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorism … against Russian aggression … to contain … Ebola and more.”

This president, more than his predecessors, understands the perils of being the “indispensable nation.” Elected in large part to get the United States out of the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East, he now finds himself forced into another open-ended commitment.

In his speech to the National Defense University in 2013, Obama argued, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ ” Obama warned specifically about this. “The choice we make about war,” the president said, “can impact —  in sometimes unintended ways — the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends.”

Yet even with this awareness, and no reelection race facing him, Obama could not escape the imperatives of America’s role as the indispensable nation. The commitments are too many,  the engagement too permanent, the capacity unrivalled — seemingly making all things possible.  As a result, this former professor of constitutional law has governed over the greatest assertion of executive authority — claiming the power to make war, to surveil, arrest, detain and even kill Americans without prior judicial review or due process.

Ike warned us about the growing "military-industrial complex" that sought to feed itself at the federal trough.

His Justice Department has used espionage laws against reporters and whistleblowers.  The secrecy shields massive waste, fraud and abuse, as the military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against consumes the bulk of the national budget, aside from payments on the national debt and the insurance programs of Social Security and Medicare.

When President George W. Bush was about to launch the war in Iraq, millions of Americans – as well as many people around the globe — marched in protest. The large demonstrations against war led the New York Times to dub world public opinion a second superpower. Bush sought authority from Congress and a dramatic congressional debate took place, with strong dissent against the war.

When Obama committed the United States to the fight against Islamic State, he claimed the authority to act without Congress, though adding he would “welcome” congressional support. Yet with the midterm elections then a few months away, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress chose to postpone the debate and the vote.

The bombing began on presidential order. Americans accepted their role as spectators, registering no significant objection to this presidential war-making.  The indispensable nation is not only spending lives and resources on endless wars abroad, it is shredding its Constitution at home.

Ironically, America’s democracy is still strong enough to render it less than competent as a global policeman. Our military is the finest in the world, but still finds it hard to win a war. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that while presidents can commit the nation virtually anywhere, Americans sour on long, costly interventions on the other side of the world.

This leads to strategies like “no boots on the ground” — designed not to rouse public opposition but almost certain to fail. Polls show that Americans have no interest in policing the globe. If the Constitution no longer constrains the president from making war, the public still limits his ability to wage it.

Conservatives, do you want the good old days back?

When conservatives implore America to return to the good ole days, they don't understand what that entails.

For instance, a 90 percent top marginal tax rate. Check it out:

marginal tax rates

But hey, it was the golden age of America, right? So let's try it again and see what happens!

By Ben Walsh
October 22, 2014 | Huffington Post

Taibbi: U.S. has two criminal justice systems

[HT: Chief].  Taibbi's latest article is worth reading in full -- with outrageous personal anecdotes for my conservative readers! -- but this pretty much sums it up:

The Madoff case proved that in order to actually be convicted and jailed for a Wall Street crime, you practically have to show up, weeping and spontaneously confessing, on the doorstep of the regulatory authorities.

In the early 90s, the US convicted more than 900 people in criminal prosecutions connected to the savings and loan crisis, a mass-fraud scheme similar to the sub-prime mess, but far less serious. This time around, the number is zero. Not one significant Wall Street executive has seen the inside of a jail cell for even one night for the egregious crimes connected to the financial crisis.

Meanwhile, the US boasts the largest prison population in the history of humanity, edging out even the gulag under Stalin.

There are a lot of reasons for the disparity, but two stand out: there are virtually no cops on the Wall Street/rich white people beat, and what few regulators there are increasingly don’t believe that paper or computer thefts in the millions or billions are “crime crimes” that warrant jail time.

Black people and better-off white people have almost completely different experiences with U.S. police and the criminal justice system. It's really two systems masquerading as one.

By Matt Taibbi
October 17, 2014 | Guardian

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blackwater gets U.S. justice for 2007 Iraq killings

Sedulous readers will recall my opposition to private military contractors, (aka mercenaries), or at least our increasing reliance on them to do jobs the U.S. Military used to do for itself, such as security, logistics and even intelligence.

Why? Because in Iraq and Afghanistan, they haven't been subject to local law, military discipline or the chain of command. They are almost a law unto themselves. 

I also argue they're bad for morale, what with their fat paychecks while our troops' families back home depend on food stamps to survive. And strategically, it's dangerous for our military to lose capabilities it once had and become dependent on outside contractors. 

We do know why the explosive growth in mercenaries though, since 2001: 

  1) They don't count as "troops" that we should care about when generals or politicians talk about U.S. forces overseas; 

  2) None of us has to mourn them when they die or hang a yellow ribbon to keep them safe; 

  3) They are a great way for Republicans to hand out government cheese and re-collect it in the form of campaign contributions (Blackwater alone has collected more than $1 billion in U.S. Government contracts, many of them non-compete); and

  4) There isn't a single government service that Republicans don't want to privatize or outsource, as the eight year of Dubya-Cheney's regime proved.

U.S. mercenaries caused tragedy in September 2007, when a group of Americans from Blackwater, LLC opened fire at a crowded Baghdad intersection and killed 17 innocent Iraqi civilians and seriously wounded 20 others. I posted about it then, writing:

When Blackwater's highly-paid mercenaries indiscriminately shoot and kill innocent Iraqis, the Iraqi people don't know it was mercenaries who did it, they think it was U.S. soldiers. Mercenaries in Iraq are harming the mission of our real troops by turning the Iraqis against America.

Blackwater is a deadly menace, and yet another blight on America's image as our real soldiers try to win hearts and minds in Iraq. 

Or as I've said before in more sanguine terms, it's hard to "win hearts and minds" when you're shooting them in the head and chest. This has always been the fundamental contradiction of America's occupations, er, counter-insurgency efforts  in Afghanistan and Iraq. We call these places "wars" but we also "liberated" their people who we're trying to help while fighting them. 

Even now I hear hot-air pundits like Limbaugh and Hannity say we "lost" Iraq after gaining territory here or there, as if it was a conventional fight to take and hold ground from the Nazis. 

Anyhow... finally justice has been done for some of the Blackwater killers, in the U.S.: Three were found guilty of manslaughter and one of first-degree murder.

And as for Blackwater, well... like many PMCs, they change their name as often as most people change jobs. It went from Blackwater Worldwide to Xe Services, LLC to Academi, LLC and most recently, through a merger with a rival, to Constellis Holdings. Check out Blackwater's detailed but murky history here, including other U.S. federal charges against Blackwater, and its cozy connections with Republicans and even the Family Research Council

I'll leave you with this this beaut [emphasis mine]:

[T]he State Department's chief investigator [of Blackwater] reported being threatened by a Blackwater official in Iraq in August 2007. The investigator said project manager Daniel Carroll told him "that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq."

With such an attitude, it's not surprising that a few weeks later Blackwater killed and wounded all those Iraqis. Good thing somebody could and did do something about it!

By Dan Roberts 
October 22, 2014 | Guardian

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Navy Rear Admiral: DoD preparing for climate change

Republicans can call global warming science "political" all they want, but the U.S. Military cannot afford to be so blithe about the real effects of real climate change. Hence they are getting prepared.  

Gee, if only the party that says it most adores our nation's military would take note!

Voter-ID laws are a good ole fashioned poll tax

Rank-and-filed Republicans can never be convinced that there has never been an incidence of group voter fraud, much less an incidence that swayed an election. (Republican leaders know it's a sham to give them an excuse to suppress voting.)

So my conservative friends, just read this parallel in Hong Kong that Beinart found. It blew me away, because this Leung guy is speaking aloud what Republican leaders are saying behind closed doors:

If Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters succeed in booting C.Y. Leung from power, the city’s unelected chief executive should consider coming to the United States. He might fit in well in the Republican Party.

In an interview Monday with The New York Times and other foreign newspapers, Leung explained that Beijing cannot permit the direct election of Hong Kong’s leaders because doing so would empower “the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month.” Leung instead defended the current plan to have a committee of roughly 1,200 eminent citizens vet potential contenders because doing so, in the Times’ words, “would insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies.”

And for those who say getting a new photo-ID just to vote (not for any other use by the voter) isn't a poll tax, consider this:

Acquiring that free ID requires showing another form of identification—and those cost money. In the states with voter-ID laws, notes a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, “Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax—outlawed during the civil rights era—cost $10.64 in current dollars.”

It's not like poll taxes are OK if they are "affordable" by somebody else's standards. No. Poll taxes are forbidden, period. 

By Peter Beinart
October 22, 2014 | The Atlantic

Monday, October 20, 2014

Putin using Ukraine to make dictatorship at home (Politico)

This analysis is chilling, sobering reading. The special insights of Poland, thanks to its unique interactions with the Kremlin, are not something you read about often in the Western press. Definitely check this one out!

UPDATE (10.22.2014): Now the speaker of the Polish Parliament Radek Sikorski is backing off his statements to Politico and saying his recollection of Putin's words to Polish PM Donald Tusk about partitioning Ukraine were wrong, and that the meeting that he falsely recalled in Moscow didn't even take place. 

Methinks Sikorski is now remorseful for his candor and wants to take back the truth.

By Ben Judah
October 19, 2014 | Politico

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why Germany trains it workers better (Atlantic)

I've been saying this and talking about Germany's apprenticeships for years.

However, Jacoby cautions us that we can't hope to simply transplant Germany's system in the U.S. Why?

First, because we don't have the same system of strict academic tracking that Germany does from a young age. (Although there are second and third chances in Germany to get more or different education).

Second, because we don't have a state-funded system of vocational and higher education that Germany does. It all costs money, folks.

And third, because U.S. corporations don't have the same long-term view of developing "talent" (which, in the U.S., is supposed to come from nowhere). In Germany they know it costs time and money and yet they see the ultimate competitive value in it. Not so here.

Read on!

By Tamar Jacoby
October 16, 2014 | The Atlantic