Archive for the ‘International Affairs’ Category.

I am Trying Really Hard to Be Open-Minded About the Iran Deal, But....

...the President and his supporters sure make it hard.  In his speech last week at American University he said:

Just because Iranian hardliners chant “Death to America” does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe. (Applause.) In fact, it’s those hardliners who are most comfortable with the status quo. It’s those hardliners chanting “Death to America” who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus. (Laughter and applause.)

That last part seems to have gotten the Conservatives in an uproar, and I suppose I can see why, though I am reluctant to join in the usual Internet rush to burn someone over what may have been a ham-handed joke.

It is actually the first sentence that floors me.  Either the President is straight-out being deceptive, or he is a total foreign policy naif.  Iran is not like the US.  People in Iran are not allowed to consistently chant messages with which the rulers do not agree.  As a minimum, they are met with violence and arrest (e.g. in 2009 with the Green movement).  So if anyone is chanting "Death to America" at public events, it is with the tacit approval of the nation's rulers.  It may very well be that the mass of Iranians don't agree with that message, but in Iran, what the mass of Iranians believe is largely irrelevant.

The Saudis Tried to Kill The Shale Oil Business. It May Turn Out The Other Way Around

This article on Saudi Arabia, shale oil, and oil prices was interesting throughout

Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began.

Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the budget deficit will reach 20pc of GDP this year, or roughly $140bn. The 'fiscal break-even price' is $106.

Far from retrenching, King Salman is spraying money around, giving away $32bn in a coronation bonus for all workers and pensioners.

He has launched a costly war against the Houthis in Yemen and is engaged in a massive military build-up - entirely reliant on imported weapons - that will propel Saudi Arabia to fifth place in the world defence ranking.

The Saudi royal family is leading the Sunni cause against a resurgent Iran, battling for dominance in a bitter struggle between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. "Right now, the Saudis have only one thing on their mind and that is the Iranians. They have a very serious problem. Iranian proxies are running Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon," said Jim Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Money began to leak out of Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring, with net capital outflows reaching 8pc of GDP annually even before the oil price crash. The country has since been burning through its foreign reserves at a vertiginous pace.

1997 Prediction: "Monetary union, in the end, will result in a gigantic blackmailing operation"

Arnulf Baring in 1997

"They will be subsidizing scroungers, lounging in cafes on the Mediterranean beaches.

Monetary union, in the end, will result in a gigantic blackmailing operation.

When we Germans demand monetray discipline, other countries will blame their financial woes on that same discipline, and by extension, on us. More they will perceive us as a kind of economic policeman.

We risk once again becoming the most hated people in Europe."

The Greek Problem is Not a New Thing

I found this quote from an older Finem Respice article about Greek financial problems in the mid-20th-century to be pretty funny:

So hopeless was the state of Greek finances that, even as [the Nazis] routinely hung with piano wire prominent citizens and officials on the thinnest of provocations, and even given three years to do it, the Nazi's were somehow unable to compel what amounted to a totally subservient collaborator government to put its fiscal house in order.

The Axis administration soon realised it would be a waste of effort to get the Greek government to balance its accounts.

Later, in 1945, it was a British problem.  These problems from the late 1940's should sound really familiar:

Fortunately for Germany, by the time the matter came to a head the Germans had RSVP'd to Scobie and Greece was Britain's problem. It wasn't just partisans the British would end up having to fight....

What followed could only be described as a comic progression of populist pandering, the spread to the national economy of a series of parasitic labor unions and cabals, and a confidence on the part of the Allies in their own fiscal administration abilities that was as enduring as it was inflated.

At first [British Treasury Secretary] Waley sold gold to support the drachma, conditioning the sale on a series of fiscal and monetary reforms the Greeks adopted in principle and promised to implement– at some later date when it was somewhat more convenient. It was around this time Waley quipped:

...the Greek government are in effect paying doles to a large part of the population who spend all day parading in the streets in idleness with political demonstrations as their chief occupation.9

Liberation governments, fearing popular backlash were terrified of taxing the Greeks. Instead they continued to look for sources of wealth to redistribute, and were happy to resort to even the most gamey monetary policies to buy time. After raiding "punitively" the only entities with wealth of any kind (businesses) in 1945 in order to buy popular support with cheap food and wage increases, the Greeks were, again, running out of options.

The whole thing is interesting, and depressing.

Congrats Greece! You are Slightly More Free Than Bangladesh, Burundi, And Yemen

The Heritage Foundation ranks Greece #130 on its economic freedom list, which puts it in the "mostly unfree" category.   Of course, these rankings depend a lot on the categories and the weighting, but the story here is still telling.  The next worst European country I can find is Slovenia at #88 and the first EU country I see is Italy at #80, not great but a good fifty spots higher.

Which begs the question, asked by Megan McArdle today, of why Europe wants Greece anyway.  In terms of political-economy, it had little in common with the rest of the continent.  Everyone assumes the EU is trying to prevent a domino effect, with the other PIGS nations defecting from the Euro, but I think the Greek capitulation this weekend shows how unlikely this is -- it is clear Greece will do absolutely anything to stay in the Euro, and so it is reasonable to assume Portugal, Spain, and Italy face the same incentives and are thus not ready to leave the Euro on a whim just because Greece does.

Some More Thoughts on Greece -- When European Charity Runs Out, All That is Left is Inflation

People keep talking about reducing Greek debt to a sustainable level, but part of the problem is that there is not such level.  Even at zero.  The problem is that Greece is running a government deficit even before any debt service, so if creditors were to waive all of its debt, it would still need to be borrowing new money tomorrow.  Debt forgiveness is not enough -- what the Greeks need is for Europe to write off all its debt, and then (having lost all their money on the old debt) start lending new money immediately.  Note also that any bailout agreement reached this month will just put everyone back in the exact same place a few months from now.

This situation cannot be expected to change any time soon, for a variety of reasons from demographics (Greece has the oldest population in Europe, and a relatively rich pension system) to ideology (the current pseudo-Marxist government will never implement the reforms needed to turn the economy around, even if they promise to do so under duress).

With structural solutions unlikely, Greece has only the options of charity and inflation. Greece still seems to be hoping for charity, which they make harder by spewing derision at the same folks whom they are begging for alms.  Europe, certainly Germany, is in no mood to be charitable any longer, but may still do so depending on their calculation about which action -- bailout or exit -- has the worse long-term consequences for keeping Portugal, Spain, and Italy both in the Euro and continuing to pay their debts.

Lacking charity, the only thing left is inflation.  Some folks think I am advocating that option.  I am not.  The best possible hope for Greece is to slash its economic regulation, privatize business, and cut back on the public sector -- but that is not going to happen with the current government.  Or maybe any government.

I say inflation is the only option because that is what balances the budget and "solves" debt problems when politicians are unable or unwilling to make any hard choices.  It is sort of the default.  If they can't balance the budget or figure out how to pay off debt, then inflation does it for them by reducing the value of pensions and outstanding debts**.  This is what will happen with a Grexit -- a massive bout of devaluation and inflation what will greatly reduce the value of any IOU, whether it be a pension or a bank deposit.

Eventually, the one good thing that comes from inflation and devaluation is that the country becomes really cheap to outsiders.  Tourists will flock in and olive oil will sell well internationally as the new drachma loses its value, creating value for people holding stronger currencies and potentially forming the basis for some sort of economic revival.  My wife and I decided a few months back to postpone the Greek vacation we wanted this year -- too much turmoil is still possible -- and wait for it to be a bargain in 2016 or 2017.


**Postscript:  This is exactly why the Euro is both immensely seductive and a dangerous trap for countries like Greece.  Seductive, because it could pursue any sort of destructive banana republic fiscal policy it wished and still have a strong currency.  A trap because it can no longer print money and inflate away its debt problems.

Does It Seem To Anyone Else That China Thinks Its Playing Civ 5?

I Have Been Wondering This Same Thing

In an article on an incipient bank run in Greece, Zero Hedge wonders, "What is perhaps more shocking is that anyone still had money in Greek banks at all..."  I agree.  With talk for weeks of capital controls and the example of raids on depositor funds (even supposedly insured deposits) in Cyprus, my money would have been long gone.  Even in the US in 2008-2010, I took our corporate funds out of the main Bank of America account and spread them all over.  It was a pain in the butt to manage but even facing much smaller risks than in Greece, I thought it was worth it.

Has The US Undermined European Self-Reliance?

Kevin Drum featured this really interesting Pew poll.


This is pretty amazing.  Few European citizens support their country fulfilling its NATO treaty obligations to their neighbors, perhaps because most expect the US to do it for them.

Kudos to Jeff Flake on Cuba

I missed this story originally but saw it pop up on our local news again.

Mr. Flake, who has spent a decade in a lonely battle against his party to push for easing restrictions on Cuba, is the chief Republican defender of the new Obama policy. White House officials are counting on him to make their case to his party’s rank and file, even as Republican leaders and Cuban-American lawmakers, like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, threaten to keep the president from appointing an ambassador or funding an embassy in Havana.

At a Capitol Hill hearing presided over by Mr. Rubio on Tuesday, the two men sat next to each other, somewhat awkwardly, as Mr. Rubio grilled administration officials on a policy he has called a “concession to tyranny.” But even before the hearing, Mr. Flake had moved ahead: Last week he filed a bill to end the decades-old ban on American travel to the Communist island nation.

Good.  The Cuba embargo has been a big, obvious, sustained failure.  While we have embargoed them they have moved no closer to freedom, while scores of countries with which we actively engage have become more free, in large part due to the effect of engagement by their citizenry with the West.

Flake really is an engaging guy.  I watched him at a taping of the NPR game show "Wait, wait, don't tell me" and he charmed an audience of NPR Democrats.

India: One Foot In, One Foot Out of the Modern World

I just filled out a tourist visa application for one of my kids going to India.  I found it intriguing that on the one hand:

  • If you are a student, you had to give employment information on your source of support, but the only options were spouse and father.  No option for mother's occupation
  • You had to specify a religion -- no option for "atheist" or "none" or "none of your freaking business"

On the other hand:

  • There was a gender option for "transgender".

Anyway, the Indian online visa process had the Italians beaten hands down.  Actually the Chinese beat the Italians as well.  And, everyone I know who is not American tells me the US is the worst about visas.

The Un-discussed Foreign Policy Alternative

I was going to write a longer post on foreign policy vis a vis terrorism and ISIS, but I lack both the time as well as confidence in my foreign policy knowledge.

I will offer this, though:  There seem to be but two policy positions being discussed

  1. The largely Conservative position that there is a dangerous and violent authoritarian streak running through the world of Islam and that we need to saddle up the troops and go break some heads and impose order
  2. The Progressive position embodied by the Obama Administration that there is nothing abnormal going on in Islam and that what we see is random violence spurred by poverty and thus we should not intervene militarily (I consider the current AUMF proposed by Obama to be political posturing to satisfy polls rather than anything driven by true belief).

Why is there not a third alternative to be at least considered -- that there is something really broken in a lot of Islam as practiced today (just as there was a lot of sh*t broken with Christianity in, say, the 14th-16th centuries) and that Islam as practiced in many Middle Eastern countries is wildly illiberal (way more illiberal than any failings of Israel, though you wouldn't know that if you were living on a college campus).  But, that we don't need to saddle up the troops and try to change things by force.

Conservatives who can look at things like serial failures in Federal education policy and reach the conclusion that we should be skeptical about Federal initiatives on education seem unable to draw similar conclusions from serial failures in US interventions in the Islamic world.  And for its part, the Obama administration seems to be living in some weird alternate universe trying desperately to ignore the reality of the situation.

Yes, I know the first response to all folks like me who advocate for non-intervention is "Munich" and "Czechoslovakia".  So be it.  But if we sent in the military every time someone yelled "appeasement" our aircraft would be worn out from moving troops around.  And we seem to be totally able to ignore atrocities and awful rulers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a minimum, I would like to see a coalition of Arab states coming to us and publicly asking us for help -- not this usual Middle East BS we hear that Saudi Ariabi (or whoever) really in private wants us there but publicly they will still lambaste us.  Without this support we can win the war but we have no moral authority (as we did after WWII) in the peace.  Which is one reason so many of our interventions in the Middle East and North Africa fail.

Christians vs. Muslims

I think this author, like many others, gets it wrong by comparing Jesus and Mohammad to try to get at the roots of modern Islamic violence.  I don't think you can explain the (relative) non-violence of Christians today vs. the prevalence of violence among certain portions of the Islamic religion by looking at their scriptures.

The reason is that for hundreds of years ago, Christians were the world's crazed terrorists.  They would burn you to death for being a heretic, or being gay, or being suspected of witchcraft.  When the first Crusade was called by the Pope, hordes of Christians in the Rhine Valley headed north (rather than south and east) to forcibly convert or kill Jews in numerous German communities.   The Christian on Christian sectarian violence of the 30 years war was perhaps the worst cataclysm Europe ever endured until the 20th Century.

I am sure Christians would say that such violence is inconsistent with true Christianity, etc. but never-the-less history shows that Christians have no less inherent propensity to religious violence than Muslims.  Christians have moved on -- matured, maybe?  I am not sure what the word is.  Unfortunately, parts of Islam have not, which makes it dangerous today in a way that Christianity is not.

Surprise! Greek Problems Were Not Solved By Kicking the Can Down the Road

Greece is looking like it's falling apart again.  Or perhaps more accurately: Greece continues to fall apart and the lipstick Europe put on the pig a few years ago is wearing off and people are noticing again.

I warned about this less than a year ago:

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

In that same article, I expressed myself skeptical that the Greeks had done anything long-term meaningful in their labor markets.  They "reformed" their labor markets in the same way the Obama administration "reformed" the VA -- a lot of impressive statements about the need for change, a few press releases and a few promised but forgotten reforms.  At the time, the Left wanted desperately to believe that countries could continue to take on near-infinite amounts of debt with no consequences, and so desperately wanted to believe Greece was OK.

I have said it for four years:  There are only two choices here:  1.  The rest of Europe essentially pays off Greek debt for it or 2.  Greece leaves the Euro.  And since it is likely Greece will get itself into the same hole again some time in the future if #1 is pursued, there is really only leaving the Euro.  The latter will be a mess, with rampant inflation in Greece and destruction savings, but essentially the savings have already been destroyed by irresponsible government borrowing and bank bail-ins.  At least the falling value of Greek currency would make it an attractive place at for tourism if not investment and Greece could start rebuilding its economy on some sort of foundation.  Instead of bailing out banks and Greek officials, Germany should let it all fall apart and spend its money on helping Greece to pick up the pieces.

By letting Greece join the Euro, the Germans essentially let their irresponsible country cousins use their American Express Platinum card, and the Greeks went on a bender with the card.   The Germans can't keep paying the bill -- at some point you have to take the card away.

US to Normalize with Cuba -- Limiting Free Interchange with Authoritarian Regimes Only Benefits Their Leaders

I certainly am no Castro apologist, but it strikes me that 50+ years of embargoes and pointless travel restrictions have not brought his regime to heal.  So it is past time to recognize this and perhaps try something else.  So kudos to President Obama for doing something that apparently only a lame duck President who no longer has to worry about winning the Florida electoral votes can do, he is going to normalize relations with Cuba.

This should be good news for anyone who opposes the Cuban regime and its oppression. Time and again over the last 50 years, we have seen cultural and economic interchange fell more authoritarian governments than any amount of military action.  When we cut off free exchange with authoritarian regimes, we are doing their leaders a favor.

Morally Lost

Much of the Conservative pushback on the torture report today has been to argue that the torture was actually much more useful in terms of information gathering than the Senate report concludes.  Who gives a cr*p?  Are these really the same folks who lecture me about morality for wanting to allow gay men to marry, but are A-OK with torture?

In the rape discussion, those who show skepticism about false stories of rape are considered, unfairly, rape apologists.  But these folks I am hearing today are truly torture apologists.  It is sickening.  If Conservatives were truly just in a Bismarkian blood and iron mode, I guess at least they would be internally consistent.  But many of these guys are neo-Conservatives, who are essentially advocating torture as a means to spreading our positive values around the world.

Conservatives, correctly I think, criticized the Obama Administration for blaming the Libyan embassy attack on YouTube video.  They argued that he should have been standing up in front of the world and explaining free speech and educating the world on why we don't punish folks for its exercise, even when we disagree with them.  All fine, except how does advocating for torture play into this bully pulpit theme?

A Small Silver Lining in the Very Black Torture Cloud

Well, the Senate torture report is out and it is every bit as bad, perhaps worse, than expected.   There are summaries all over but this one seems as good as any.  And here. Essentially the CIA:

  • Tortured and detained more people than they ever admitted
  • Were more brutal than they ever admitted
  • Were more haphazard and incompetent than can be believed (losing suspects, outsourcing torture to a couple of outside psychologists with no interrogation experience or credentials)
  • Achieved far less than they bragged from the torture, with results that now appear to approximate zero
  • Lied about everything to everyone, up to and including Congress and the President

The CIA needs a forced enema of its own, though I am skeptical they will get it.

I will say that there is nothing really particularly surprising here to a libertarian.  This sort of lawlessness often occurs in fairly transparent government agencies (think VA) so it should be no surprise that it occurs in an agency like this that has zero accountability (because it can yell "classified" as the drop of a hat).  An agency empowered to hide stuff and keep secrets is going to hide stuff and keep secrets.  I am not even sure that if we really could turn the CIA upside down that this would be the worst thing we would find.

At the risk of diluting the totally appropriate horror with which this report should be received, I will observe a couple of positives:

  1. Three cheers for partisanship and divided government.  They get a bad rap because gridlock, but without confrontational, competitive, even polarized rivals for power, this sort of thing would never have come out.  You can see pretty clearly from the minority comments that Republicans would have buried this had they controlled the Senate.
  2. One cheer for American exceptionalism.  Yes, the hubris and arrogance that often accompanies American exceptionalism went a long way to contributing to these errors.   But there are not many countries in the world that would publish this report.  Forget for a minute Russia or China or Mali.  Even among western democracies there are not many countries that would voluntarily call for penalty strokes on themselves.  I can't imagine, for example, France ever making such an admission (and not, I think, because the DGSE's hands are particularly clean).

Everything Looks Like a Nail When You Have A Hammer

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

Anyway, that is a bit beside the point.  I found Drum's conclusion from all this odd:

If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

For those that are not frequent readers of his, I need to tell you that one of the themes he has been pounding on of late is that the US should not be worried about either its debt levels or inflation -- attempting to rebut the most obvious critiques of his strong support for more deficit spending and monetary stimulus.

I would have thought the obvious moral of this story was that austerity and dismantling all sorts of progressive labor market claptrap led to a recovery far faster than expected**.  But since Drum opposes all those steps, his  conclusion seems to be simply a return to his frequent theme that debt is A-OK and we shouldn't be worried about addressing it any time soon.

** I don't believe for a moment that Greece has really changed the worst of its structural labor market, regulatory,  and taxation issues.  This story gets written all the time about countries like, say, Argentina.  Sustained incompetence is not really newsworthy, which is likely one reason we get so few African stories.  They would all be like "Nigeria still a mess."  A false recovery story gives the media two story cycles, one for the false recovery and one for the inevitable sinking back into the pit.

Yet Another Reason to Open our Relations to Cuba

The only reason people like Michael Moore or Tom Harkin can get away with singing praises of Cuban socialism is because most Americans can't go visit and see for themselves.  By keeping Cuba off-limits, we are doing the communists' work for them by allowing them to provide cherry-picked videos and stories through useful idiots that have zero bearing on the true life of the average person in Cuba.

Wealth and China Through History

The media tends to talk about the growth of the Chinese economy as if it is something new and different.   In fact, there probably have been only about 200 years in the history of civilization when China was not the largest economy on Earth.  China still held this title into the early 18th century, and will get it back early in this century.

This map from the Economist (via Mark Perry) illustrates the point.

economic map


Of course there is a problem with this map.  It is easy to do a center of gravity for a country, but for the whole Earth?  The center in this case (unless one rightly puts it somewhere in the depths of the planet itself) depends on arbitrary decisions about where one puts the edges of the map. I presume this is from a map with North America on the far left side and Japan on the far right.  If one redid the map, say, with North America in the center, Asia on the left and Europe on the right, the center of gravity would roam around North America through history.

Is Israel Really The Worst Country On Earth?

The American Studies Association has voted to initiate an academic boycott of Israel ostensibly to protest its denial of civil rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories.   Forgetting for a moment Israel's unique security concerns (what would the US do if Mexico routinely lobbed rockets and artillery shells into US border towns), the implication is that the Palestinians in Israels have it worse than any other group in the world, since this is the first and only such boycott the ASA has ever entered into.  Is it really worse to be a Palestinian in Israel than, say, a woman anywhere in the Arab world** or about anyone in North Korea?  Do academics in Cuba have more ability to write honestly than they do in Israel?  I doubt it.

The only statement the ASA makes on the subject that I can find is in their FAQ on the boycott

7) Does the boycott resolution unfairly single out Israel? After all there are many unjust states in the world.

The boycott resolution responds to a request from the Palestinian people, including Palestinian academics and students, to act in solidarity. Because the U.S. contributes materially to the Israeli occupation, through significant financial and military aid - and, as such, is an important ally of the Israeli state - and because the occupation daily confiscates Palestinian land and devastates Palestinian lives, it is urgent to act now.

A couple of thoughts.  First, I am not sure why US material aid is relevant to choosing a boycott target.  I suppose the implication is that this boycott is aimed more at the US than at Israel itself.  But the question still stands as to why countries like Saudi Arabia, which receives a lot of US material aid as well, get a pass.  Second, the fact that Palestinian academics can seek international help tends to disprove that their situation is really the worst in the world.  I don't think the fact that the ASA is not hearing cries for help from liberal-minded academics in North Korea means that there is less of a problem in North Korea.  It means there is more of a problem.

I am not a student of anti-semitism, so I can't comment on how much it may explain this decision.  However, I think it is perfectly possible to explain the ASA's actions without resorting to anti-semitism as an explanation.  As background, remember that it is important for their social standing and prestige for liberal academics to take public positions to help the downtrodden in other countries.  This is fine -- not a bad incentive system to feel social pressure to speak out against injustice.  But the problem is that most sources of injustice are all either a) Leftish regimes the Left hesitates to criticize for ideological reasons or b) Islamic countries that the left hesitates to criticize because they have invested so much in calling conservatives Islamophobic.

So these leftish academics have a need to criticize, but feel constrained to only strongly criticizing center-right or right regimes.  The problem is that most of these are gone.  Allende, the Shah, Franco, South Africa -- all gone or changed.  All that's left is Israel (which is odd because it is actually fairly socialist but for some reason never treated as such by the Left).  So if we consider the universe of appropriate targets -- countries with civil rights and minority rights issues that are not leftish or socialist governments and not Islamic, then the ASA has been perfectly consistent, targeting every single country in that universe.

** To this day I am amazed how little heat the gender apartheid in the Arab world generates in the West in comparison to race apartheid in South Africa.  I am not an expert on either, but from what I have read I believe it is a true statement to say that blacks in apartheid South Africa had more freedom than women have today in Saudi Arabia.  Thoughts?

Update:  I twice emailed the ASA for a list of other countries or groups they have boycotted and twice got a blurb justifying why Israel was selected but with no direct answer to my question.  I guess I will take that as confirmation this is the first and only country they have ever targeted.  They did want to emphasize that the reason Israel was selected (I presume vs. other countries but they did not word it thus) had a lot to do with he fact that Israel was the number one recipient of US aid money (mostly military) and that it was this American connection given they represent American studies professors that made the difference.  Why Pakistan or Afghanistan, who treat their women far worse than Israel treats Palestinians, and which receive a lot of US aid, were not selected or considered or mentioned is not explained.  Basically, I would explain it thus:  "all the cool kids are doing it, and we determined that to remain among the cool kids we needed to do it too".  This is a prestige and signalling exercise, and it makes a lot more sense in that context, because then one can ask about the preferences of those to whom they are signalling, rather than try to figure out why Israel is somehow the worst human rights offender in the world.

By the way, by the ASA logic, it should be perfectly reasonable, even necessary, for European academic institutions to boycott US academic institutions because the US government gives aid to such a bad country like Israel.  This seems like it would be unfair to US academics who may even disagree with US policy, but no more unfair than to Israeli academics who are being punished for their government's policies.   I wonder how US academics would feel about being boycotted from European events and scholarship over US government policy?

We Should Do A Lot More Than A Handshake

I am not sure the exact date it started, but our embargo on Cuba is over fifty years old.  At what point do we declare failure?

Sure, the communists and Castro and Che Guevara all suck.  But how much longer are we going to punish Cuba's leaders by making their citizens miserable?  History has shown that communist countries become less communist by interacting with the (quasi) capitalist democracies.  The most stable dictatorships (think North Korea) are those who are the most obsessive in masking alternatives from their citizens.  How much longer are we going to continue doing the Castros' work for them?

Open up our relations with Cuba, not because they have somehow gotten better or deserve our respect but because this is the only way they are going to get better.

Ignoring Syria is Like Penn State Ignoring Child Molesting

That is according to our senior Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini  (via Expresso Pundit)

The U.S. is big enough and strong enough to act on behalf of the innocent victims, including children, who were killed in Syria by the chemical weapons. But those who are against it say this is not our fight. That we shouldn’t go it alone. That the chemical attack wasn’t against Americans. That we can’t be sure what we’d be getting ourselves into. And that there is no clear objective, other than acting in response to an atrocity.

I understand the reasoning.

Given all that, however, I wonder why was so many Americans were furious with former Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary.

Remember him?

He was the guy who saw the now imprisoned former coach Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in a Penn State shower.

McQueary was vilified for not acting to stop the attack.

This is an absurd comparison for any number of reasons.  The most obvious is that no one would have been put in danger, and the financial costs were nil, for the Penn State coaches to stop Sandusky's abuse.  Further, Penn State officials had a clear legal obligation for the safety of folks on their property.  Finally, Penn State had the ability to easily stop and prevent the illegal activity.

None of these statements are true for Syria.  The costs in lives and property, both to ourselves and to the citizens of Syria, are potential enormous.  It's not clear it is the US's job to police the area, and in fact history has proven that unilaterally adopting the policeman role, even with the best of intentions, can hurt our country's reputation and relations in the long-term.  Finally, its not at all clear that we could stop Assad from doing whatever he wishes, short of sending in troops to remove him from power, and even then his replacement may likely be just as bad.  Oddly for a liberal in the foregin policy sphere, Montini seems to be making a form of the "might makes right" argument, that the US is obligated just because it is big and strong.

Tellingly, I don't see Montini advocating for use military force to help citizens in any other of the scores of countries where they are being mistreated.  It is more likely that what Montini is really concerned about is the loss of the prestige and credibility of Barack Obama.  A lot of blood has been spilled for thousands of years for the prestige of state leaders.  I for one am happy if this country is finally wising up to this game.

Punitive Bombing

I grew up in the 1970's, a time when a lot of Americans post-Vietnam were questioning the value, even the sanity, of war.  Opinions were certainly split on the subject, but one thing I remember is that the concept of "punitive bombing" was widely mocked and disdained.  Which is why I find it amazing to see bipartisan, multi-country support for exactly this tired old idea as applied to Syria.  Has bombing ever done anything but radicalize the bombed civilian population against the bombers?  The reaction to the London Blitz was not to have the English suddenly decide that they had been wrong in supporting Poland.  Nor did Germans or Japanese generally reprimand their leaders for the past policies as as result of our firebombing Tokyo or Dresden.  Or look at drone strikes in Afghanistan -- do you get the sense anyone there is saying, "Boy, have we ever been taught a lesson."

In the comments, readers are welcome to contribute examples of countries who "learned their lesson" from punitive air strikes and changed their behavior.

PS-  Apparently the reason we "must" have at least air strikes is that we have established a policy that we will "do something" if countries use chemical weapons.  And if we don't have air strikes, the world will think we are weak, right?  But the problem is that this logic never ends.  If the country then ignores our air strikes and behaves as before, or perhaps performs an FU of their own by using chemical weapons openly, then what?  Aren't we obligated to do something more drastic, else the world will think we are weak?

Spying on the Press

Well, the silver lining of this story is that the press, who until now have generally yawned at libertarian concerns about warrantless searches and national security letters, particularly since that power has been held by a Democrat rather than a Republican, will now likely go nuts.

You have probably seen it by now, but here is the basic story

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

The AP believes this is an investigation into sources of a story on May 7, 2012 about a foiled terror attack.  This bit was interesting to me for two reasons:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

First, it seems to fit in with the White House cover-up over Benghazi, in the sense that it is another example of the Administration trying to downplay, in fact hide, acts of organized terrorism.  I have criticized the Administration for throwing free speech under the bus in its Benghazi response, but I must say their reasons for doing so were never that clear to me.  This story seems to create a pattern of almost irrational White House sensitivity to any admission of terrorist threats to the US.

Second, note from the last sentence that the White House is bending over backwards to investigate the AP basically for stealing its thunder before a press conference.  Wow.  Well if that were suddenly illegal, just about everyone in DC would be in jail.

Update:  Some thoughts from Glenn Greenwald

how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as "cruel and inhuman".

But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration's true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as "regular Americans". Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- once the most vocal defender of Bush's vast warrantless eavesdropping programs -- suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.