Post #71 –Should We “Balance” Threats to the Environment?

How does a US administration promote greater energy independence, protect its fragile environment, and make both oil executives and environmentalists happy?  President Obama’s answer is to give something to everyone, thus balancing pleasure and pain and hoping everyone will stay off his back.  Thus, he has decided to veto the Keystone XL project, greatly expand protected areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“Anwar”), and restrict greenhouse gas emissions by federally owned facilities and vehicles. These actions make environmental groups happy and anger Republicans.  In the case of Anwar, however, Obama has thrown the Republicans a large bone: opening up significant Atlantic Ocean coastline to new oil and gas drilling.

To administration officials, this coupling of energy and environmental policy is responsible stewardship, a proper balancing of production and protection.  But is this stewardship or just plain politics?  Sure, it’s wonderful that the Anwar will be larger by millions of acres; I derived a certain pleasure watching Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski go apoplectic on public television as she railed against Obama’s decision.  And the idea of pitting Republicans from different states against one another—Alaska’s “loss” is North Carolina’s gain—is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy.  But in the end, does this balancing act really balance?

First, opening up a huge swath of federally owned shoreline—from Virginia to Georgia—to oil and gas exploration risks another BP-type disaster.  This is no small bone to calm the savage dogs on the right. Department of the interior officials are quick to reassure us that safeguards will be in place before exploration begins and that the leased area is 50 miles from shore.  But we’ve been down that road too many times to feel reassured.  Recall, for one thing, that the Deepwater Horizon rig was 41 miles from Louisiana’s shore.  For another, since the BP spill, no new safety regulations have been enacted by Congress, and in the current climate, if they are issued, they will have to come from the administration itself.  Who will be president when the time comes?

Second, how does this trade-off square with a tougher approach to climate change?  There are literally trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of recoverable oil in these federal lease areas.  When drilling finally gets underway, supposedly after 2020, what impact will all this new fuel have on the climate?

Third, Atlantic Coast governors anticipate a revenue windfall from the oil leases.  Will that actually happen?  Will the new riches really be used for education, environmental protection, development of “soft” energy sources, and other good purposes?  Or will the windfall mainly wind up in the producers’ pocketbooks?

Fourth, how will the oil and gas leasing decision affect the livelihoods of coastal people who rely on tourism, fishing, and other traditional industries?  We have only to look at the Louisiana bayou for one answer.  Oil drilling and thousands of miles of underwater pipelines to the Gulf of Mexico have contributed to enormous loss of bayou wetland.  Combined with all the levees that keep the Mississippi River’s rich sediment from reaching the delta, the oil companies’ operations threaten to end local people’s livelihood—trawling for shrimp, crab, and various fish—within a generation.   The bayou will be no more.  (See a gem of a book, Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell, for further detail, as well as www.mississippiriverdelta.org/discover-the-delta/what-went-wrong/.)

Looking for balance when tough choices must be made is certainly a challenge for any political leader, especially (as in Obama’s case) when faced with divided government.  But just as with the problem of protecting privacy while widening the government’s surveillance net—another contentious issue on which Obama seeks balance—the notion that somehow everyone can be satisfied or at least neutralized doesn’t always wash.  Protecting the environment at a time of looming catastrophe, like protecting civil liberties in the face of terrorism, must have priority.  Some values and objectives defy balancing, period.

Which brings me to a moving presentation in Eugene, Oregon by Mary Wood, Professor of Law at the University of Oregon and author of Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age (http://law.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/City-Club-2-Jan.30.pdf).  She is a strong advocate for the public trust doctrine, which evokes “an ancient moral covenant that runs from one generation to the next, to protect natural bounty so that it will pass down the lineage of Humanity.”  Under this doctrine, she says, government officials are “strictly obliged to protect this natural wealth for the citizens.”  Applying the public trust doctrine means, for example, that the public has an enforceable right to protect forests, fisheries, and air from destruction and pollution, and therefore to stop every environmental assault that is creating irreversible climate change.  The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have clearly been inadequate to protect our natural resources, Wood argues.  “A trust approach treats the resource as common property shared by all states and nations as co-trustees, each having the duty to protect the shared resource. . . . It offers a common platform of responsibility that citizens can use worldwide to hold governments accountable even absent an international climate treaty, which may never come about.”

The public trust doctrine is an important approach to dealing with climate change, one that actually has a long history in the US.  Shortly, a lower-level court in Lane County, Oregon, will hear a suit brought by two teenage girls to define the public trust when it comes to young people’s rights in an era of climate change.  Stay tuned.

Post #70 – When It Comes to Foreign Policy, Obama Has the Upper Hand

The President and quite a few members of Congress are at a standoff over two important issues of foreign-policy process.  Many in Congress, from both parties, dislike his proposal for Congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State.  Others dislike his negotiations with Iran which, if successful, would end in an executive agreement rather than a treaty.  In the case of the authorization, critics (mostly Republicans) either want a greater US investment in the struggle against the IS, especially in Syria, or (mostly Democrats) are suspicious that the authorization’s limited time frame for US involvement (three years and no “enduring offensive ground combat operations”) will not really bind the next administration.  As for the Iran agreement, forty-seven Republican senators made their position apparent with their unprecedented letter to Iran’s leaders warning that any agreement the Obama administration might reach would have little real meaning, since they have the ability to undermine it.  These senators demand a treaty, which of course they have the votes to scuttle, though their real game is to prevent any agreement at all.  Along with some hardline Democrats, the Republicans demand more sanctions on Iran to prevent it from going nuclear.

From a peace and conflict resolution perspective, how might we view these debates?

The authorization being sought by the administration, while intended as a compromise between endless US involvement and limited intervention, is—as some critics maintain—something of a subterfuge.  We’ve had enough experience with the exercise of presidential war powers to know that when presidents face strategic failure abroad, “national security” consistently wins out and limits on their power are ignored.  No president is going to walk away from the fight against IS, in which the US is already deeply invested, short of at least the appearance of victory.  The Obama administration has said as much by insisting, just as George W. Bush did, that the president really doesn’t need a new authorization from Congress.

All that Obama really wants is an update of the authorization he inherited after 9/11.  But whether he gets it or not, he will still carry around the same blank check Bush got to wage war against terrorism anywhere and in any form.  What Congress should authorize is a very tightly worded law that terminates all US military activities other than training within 18 months, removes any possibility of reentry into the Middle East theater (including Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and calls for using US diplomatic and economic resources to promote a Middle East coalition (which would include Iran) against the IS.

On Iran, the Republican senators made a peevish and amateurish move by writing to the ayatollah.  They became the mirror image of the hardliners in Tehran, inserting themselves into the negotiations in a brazen attempt to disrupt what might be a breakthrough with Iran. They should have addressed the President with something like the following:

Mr. President, as a former US senator you are well aware of the importance of consulting Congress on major foreign-policy issues.  With Iran, we believe the issues are so important as to warrant a treaty which, under our constitution, requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate by a two-thirds vote. Submitting a treaty to the Senate affords full public debate and avoids the harmful consequences of secret diplomacy.  An executive agreement is an end-run around our democratic process, and in this case, where negotiations with Iran affect our friends and allies in the Middle East, we need a full-fledged debate and vote.

Even though the Republican senators really aren’t all that interested in the constitutional issue, they do have a point in raising it.  As readers know, I fully support the nuclear talks with Iran and hope it will lead to deeper engagement.  But the President’s insistence on an executive agreement rather than a treaty is part of a disturbing and longstanding pattern of presidential avoidance of Congressional participation in the foreign policymaking process.  The Vietnam War set that pattern in concrete: use of executive agreements increased dramatically, Congress had little to do but pony up money to support the war, and the “imperial presidency” became part of the language.  That’s why the War Powers Act became law, though it has not proven able to seriously weaken presidential war making power.

And there is where the two cases—the Middle East authorization and the Iran agreement—come together.  For both, the President has the upper hand, by precedent and by the very nature of the foreign-policy process.  He can decide to ask for additional war-making authority from Congress, or not.  He can ask the Senate to “advise and consent,” or not.  As military and diplomatic commander-in-chief, he can deploy his constitutional authority—or not.  It would be no different if a Republican were president, as Bush I and Bush II showed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Not a pleasant conclusion.

Post #69 – Crime and Punishment in China: The Underside of Reforms

China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, is vigorously carrying out a campaign against corruption.  The targets have been high-ranking party and military officials, past and present; province and other local officials; and a few tycoons.  On the surface, Xi’s campaign would seem to be a commendable effort to cleanse the system of one of its worst vices.  But there is more to the story than appears—not only regarding corruption but crime and punishment in general.

I have long argued that China’s foreign-policy behavior is mainly conditioned and constrained by priority concerns at home, above all the maintenance of rapid, state-led economic development.  Although Beijing has displayed considerable assertiveness on some external issues—notably, maritime territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian countries—the PRC leadership’s focus is what it has always been, on maintaining domestic social and political stability so that development can proceed unhindered by popular forces.  This priority, which has strong historical roots, prompts any Chinese leader to ensure by whatever means necessary that order and economic development go hand in hand, that the communist party’s authority and legitimacy never be questioned, and that the military remains firmly under party control.  If the leadership upholds those priorities, it believes, China will achieve great-power status and will ensure the country’s security from external threat.

This understanding of Chinese priorities is as relevant today under Xi Jinping as it was in earlier times, notwithstanding differences in the economic and social policies of Chinese administrations.  When it comes to internal security, Xi is more Maoist and Leninist than Marxist—committed, that is, to the maintenance of the one-party state and ideological purity far more than to social equity and reduction of class distinctions.  Yes, Xi is an economic reformer, furthering the ambitions of Deng Xiaoping to make China a major international player.  But Xi insists, just as Deng and Mao did, that “democratic dictatorship” must prevail amidst economic changes—first, because those changes may cause social disruption; and second, because the Chinese Communist Party officials may succumb to the lure of the market and enrich themselves, thus undermining the party’s claim to exclusive right to rule.

Those concerns have some validity.  The rapid pace of China’s market socialism has aroused criticism of official policy from many different sources—intellectuals, think-tank experts, NGOs, even former senior party and government officials, not to mention ordinary people who experience the widening gap between rich and poor.  Many people hurt by new economic priorities have become upset to the point of hostility toward authorities: workers laid off from state-owned industrial enterprises, farmers whose lands have been seized without fair compensation, citizens whose law suits and petitions have been ignored or even led to their being jailed, and people forced from their homes by government and private construction projects (such as dams, urban renewal, and golf courses).

To divert attention from these problems and demonstrate attentiveness to popular resentment, Xi launched the anti-corruption campaign soon after taking office in 2012.  Together with the income gap, official corruption is a major source of people’s disenchantment with the one-party state.  Among the so-called “tigers” who have been punished are Zhou Yongkang, head of internal security; General Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission; Liu Zhijun, onetime minister of railways; and Bo Xilai, the party leader in Chongqing who was on his way to joining the apex of communist party power, the politburo’s standing committee.  Thousands of local-level officials and senior military officers just below the top level have also been punished for corruption, which usually takes the form of bribery, graft, or sale of patronage.

On the other hand, Xi’s own family has amassed a fortune in the reform era, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported last year (http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/report-details-overseas-accounts-of-chinese-elite/?hp).  Cronies of the first family have likewise profited without fear.  Numerous Chinese billionaires have been coopted (and protected) by being brought into the communist party’s legislative organs (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/asia/in-chinas-legislature-the-rich-are-more-than-represented.html).  Thus, whereas being a tiger can be risky, and watching them being caged may be popular with the Chinese masses, being a “princeling” as part of a prominent family or being part of the president’s inner circle can be richly rewarding.  It affords exceptional opportunities for lucrative investments, senior corporate and banking appointments, access to offshore tax havens, and education abroad.  Politically attuned Chinese easily identify this privileged elite.  They see that those officials who are toppled typically do not include Xi’s closest associates, and thus how often cronyism triumphs over justice.

One prominent Chinese writer has rightly called Xi’s approach “selective punishment” (www.nytimes.com/2015/01/17/opinion/murong-xuecun-xis-selective-punishment.html).  With a few exceptions, the crackdown targets political rivals and people outside the official “family.”  It is “more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government,” often relying on extra-judicial means.

Xi regards corruption as one of the most important threats to China’s security. Western-style democracy is another. Here he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who warned that “international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”  To combat this supposed threat, but at the same time to exploit it, Xi Jinping has engaged in what Elizabeth C. Economy terms a “power grab.”  Political reform to him means “consolidating personal power by creating new institutions, silencing political opposition, and legitimizing his leadership and the Communist Party’s power in the eyes of the Chinese people” (“China’s Imperial President: Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip,” Foreign Affairs, November-December 2014).

From Economy’s article and other sources, here are the specific ways in which the Chinese leadership’s anti-Westernism has manifested:

 

  • Strengthening regulation of the Internet, not only by censorship and shutdowns of web sites but also by arresting and humiliating popular bloggers;
  • Cracking down on NGOs that hold the promise of becoming an organized opposition;
  • Restricting academic research and teaching that reflects Western ideas, such as civil society, judicial independence, and press freedom;
  • Prosecuting newspaper editors and writers, lawyers, artists, professors, women’s rights activists, and others who are too outspoken in behalf of individual or group rights, and/or challenge the party-state’s authority too vigorously;
  • Responding forcibly to indications of ethnic or local independence, such as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, Tibet’s quest for autonomy, and separatist tendencies in ethnic minority areas.

The bottom line: reform and repression are not contradictory trends in China.  Rather, they are mutually reinforcing.  Selective punishment ensures that reforms do not lead to domestic chaos.  Reforms, by meeting many people’s material needs, sustain people’s faith in communist party leadership and thus reduce the need for large-scale, violent repression such as happened in Mao’s time.  These companion actions are supposed to be the key to restoring China’s greatness internationally—the “China dream,” in Xi Jinping’s slogan—while preventing the undermining of the communist party’s authority.  But as many observers have suggested, it’s a delicate, perhaps unsustainable balancing act.

Post #68 – Netanyahu’s Visit and the US Opportunity

Washington is on edge these days.  Democrats are bewildered, the President is seething, Republicans are salivating, K Street and J Street lobbyists are working overtime—all because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to town.  But there’s no need to fret just yet; there may be a silver lining here.

Someday, if we’re real lucky, Netanyahu’s forthcoming address to Congress at the invitation of the Republican majority will be regarded as (you’ll excuse the expression) a godsend for US policy in the Middle East.  By causing a ruckus in Washington, he may set in motion a recalibration of US relations with Israel.  Susan E. Rice, the President’s national security adviser, said in a televised interview that Netanyahu had “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”  Not the usual diplomatic language—and quite at odds with Netanyahu’s insistence that, far from using the visit to political advantage as he seeks reelection, he must speak out against a possible US-Iran nuclear deal that would be a “great danger to the state of Israel.”

Not that President Obama or liberal Democrats are going to jettison Israel or weaken security ties to it. That’s politically inconceivable, in no small part because such a wholesale change in course would badly hurt the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.  But greater balance in US policy toward Israel, such that Tel Aviv would no longer exercise a virtual veto and the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) would not automatically buy influence in Congress, would be a welcome change.  Obama has made a good start by pressing for a nuclear agreement with Iran despite considerable pressure from Israel and from Congress, some of it from hard-line Democrats.

As I’ve written before, a US policy based on the human interest and by definition distanced from Israeli priorities would actually benefit Israel’s security while also promoting broader US interests in a Middle East peace.  This new policy would also lend hope to the Palestinian people that they, like their Israeli neighbors, can live a decent life with personal security.

Such a policy ought to include:

  • Termination of further Israeli settlements in disputed territory and of Palestinian lands.
  • Mutual Israel-Palestine diplomatic recognition and exchange of security assurances.
  • Promotion of a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone.
  • Release by Israel of funds due the Palestinian Authority.
  • A major increase in international development assistance to Palestine, with the focus on water, education, and job-producing construction.
  • Internationalization of Jerusalem.
  • Removal by Israel of obstacles to free movement of people for work and other ordinary purposes.

Let’s see if the President and Secretary of State John Kerry can withstand the predictable blizzard of nonsensical criticism that he doesn’t love either Israel or America.

Post #67 – Presidents and War

President Obama has submitted a request to Congress for authorization—actually, reauthorization—of wars the United States has been fighting for many years.  Though he considered the initial authorization in 2001 to President George W. Bush sufficient to prosecute the fight against ISIS, he evidently decided that an update might not be a bad idea in view of some disgruntlement, mainly among liberal Democrats, about being at war without enabling legislation.  But it’s all posturing; though the rhetoric for and against will be intense, in the end Obama will get what he wants, just like every president before him.

War politics in the United States is all about presidential prerogative.  My study of the issue has led me to several generalizations about presidents and war powers.  Put together, they amount to concluding that the US will remain at war in the Middle East in one form or another for years to come; that Congress will go along with what the president wants; and that the next president will inherit these wars, just as Obama inherited Bush’s wars.  Plus ça change . . .

My generalizations:

  • Congress may sometimes be asked to authorize a war, but presidents make war. The academic notion of shared powers is something of a myth. Only in rare instances—I think, for instance, of the Boland Amendment that prohibited intelligence agencies from supporting the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, and the six-month (not days) limit that Congress placed on President Reagan’s troop commitment in Lebanon in 1983—will Congress come together to attempt to tie the President’s hands in a war situation.  But those attempts mattered little.  The Boland Amendment failed to prevent President Reagan’s National Security Council from secretly funneling money to the Nicaraguan contras.  And Reagan pulled US troops from Lebanon after the disastrous attack on their barracks in Beirut.
  • Deference to the President on national security is the tradition, often couched in terms of not “hamstringing” him. Even the President’s most hostile critics will bend to his leadership when national security is believed to be at stake.
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support presidential war making. Today, some of them—for example Senator Marco Rubio of Florida—are saying the President should have the authority to use “all means necessary” to defeat ISIS.  In other words, they want to go beyond what Obama is asking under the authorization resolution.  That’s the same mistake Congress made in 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when it gave Lyndon Johnson a virtual blank check in Southeast Asia (“to take all necessary steps . . . to promote international peace and security”).
  • Presidents have many options when it comes to the use of force abroad—options that Congress can do little about. Look at what Obama has already done without Congress: bombing in Syria and Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, air strikes against ISIS, and (just reported in the Times) Special Operations raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Advisers, trainers, intelligence analysts, mercenaries—all of these are substitutes for
    “ground troops” that would otherwise be forbidden.
  • The one preventive Congressional action against an imperial presidency—the War Powers Act of 1983—has never been effective. No president has ever regarded it as a legitimate exercise of Congressional authority in war.  No president has been forced to abide by the WPA’s key provision: 60 days in which to get Congressional approval of a troop deployment or have to withdraw the troops.  Only a few presidents (including Obama) have even acknowledged the Act when planning military action abroad.  All presidents have insisted that as commander-in-chief they have all the constitutional authority they need to make war.
  • Thus, when Congress votes to authorize military action abroad, as they will shortly, what they are really doing is legitimizing what the President has already decided to do—and would do even in the absence of Congressional authorization.

 

No country is more militarily engaged than the US around the world—fighting three Middle East wars, sanctioning Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs (while leaving “all options on the table”), confronting Russia over Ukraine, and conducting intelligence, training, and other military support missions in many countries in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia.  Congress can attempt to frustrate the President’s policies on any of these issues, but the President literally calls the shots.  The current authorization resolution will not be an exercise in democratic decision making or checks-and-balances.  It will be an exercise in executive power, with no real limits.  Forget about Obama’s proposal of a three-year commitment, and no US ground troops.  These “limits” are easily overcome by later appeals to helping US allies, “protecting our troops,” and of course promoting “the national interest.”

The United States is a warfare society, no matter whether under a liberal or a conservative administration.  A warfare society produces two lasting realities: a social deficit, in which crucial homeland problems are shortchanged by military expenditures; and a moral deficit, in which “national security” is consistently distorted to justify interfering in others’ struggles, on the pretense that American motives are benevolent and American values are universally shared.  As Martin Luther King said in his famous speech on Vietnam in 1967, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  So it seems.

Post #66 – Playing “Chicken” in Ukraine

Should the US dramatically increase military support to Ukraine as it faces defiant separatists in the east who are backed by Russian intelligence, advisers, and heavy weapons?  Key members of the Obama administration reportedly are ready to say yes, arguing that Vladimir Putin must be brought to his senses about the pressure he is putting on Ukraine’s government, in defiance of the September 5 cease-fire agreement that has clearly broken down.  A star-studded panel of eight Pentagon and former officials have written a report (noted in the New York Times of February 2) that urges a $3-billion increase over three years in “lethal” US military aid as the proper way to respond to Putin.  In short, all these current and former officials evidently have concluded that “non-lethal” equipment now being given to Ukraine, such as night-vision goggles and trucks, is insufficient.

But is this major policy shift wise?  At least three large considerations need to be brought into the discussion.  First is the fact that sanctions on Russia have had their intended effect.  Russia is hurting. Patience, not escalation of force, is needed—just as it was when George H.W. Bush wrongly decided in 1991 to leapfrog sanctions and go after Saddam Hussein directly.  The move didn’t work.  What will “defensive” weapons to Ukraine—anti-tank missiles and drones, for instance—accomplish?  My guess is that they will help Ukraine’s air force bomb targets in urban areas, further increasing civilian casualties.  They will enable Ukraine’s army to hit Russian tanks and locate artillery positions; but they will not stop shipments of additional tanks and artillery.  Moreover, let’s face it: what one side in a conflict regards as a “defensive” weapon is “offensive” to the other side.  This bit of sophistry should not go unanswered.

Second is that Ukraine’s government is not an innocent victim here.  Russia’s direct role in the fighting is fact, but so is brutal treatment of the separatist areas by Ukraine’s government.  It has caused considerable civilian casualties and damage to many buildings with its assaults, and by isolating the east’s economy it has left thousands of people without basic social services.  Both sides have responsibility for violations of the cease-fire and devastation of that part of the country.

Third is the questionable logic that further militarizing the conflict will help bring about a political settlement that all sides agree is the only sensible way out.  Those who believe more force is needed make an old and tired argument: Sanctions backed by power will move the opponent to the bargaining table.  The former US representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, one of the authors of the report cited above, said as much in an interview on National Public Radio (www.npr.org/2015/02/02/383346073/as-tension-grows-should-u-s-offer-lethal-aid-to-ukraine).  We must “raise the cost” to Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, he said, and the only cost that will make a difference to Putin is in body bags.  (“We know from the history in Afghanistan and other places that when Russian soldiers die, then the cost and the debate in Moscow and in the rest of Russia will go up.”)  Is that so?  Is Putin the sort of leader who, thriving these days on a nationalism built on visions of Greater Russia, will respond to Western power by backing down rather than staying the course?  Daalder could only say, “hopefully.”

By the way, note the authors and sponsors of the report that is fueling the debate in favor of lethal US aid to Ukraine.  Far from being objective observers, these are experts wedded to the old Cold War practice of pushback.  The three foreign-policy groups behind the authors—the Atlantic Council, headed now by Daalder; the Brookings Institution; and the Chicago Council of World Affairs—are influential mainstream organizations that rarely move outside predictable lines of argument.  They are reliable supporters of a US “national interest” that favors toughness, the supremacy of American values, and corporate globalism.  They think checkmate, not peace.

Should the President agree with his advisers, the net result will most likely be more innocent deaths, increased intensity of fighting, and a proxy war between the Russian Federation and NATO.  If we want to see Ukraine’s future, take a look at what has happened to Kobani, Syria now that Kurdish fighters have “liberated” it from ISIS.  The city is a moonscape; there was nothing to liberate.

In Ukraine we have both a civil war and a proxy war.  Four sides need to have their interests met.  For the US/NATO and Ukraine, that means Russian adherence to a cease-fire and reaffirmation of Ukraine’s sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders.  Russia in return wants most of all the assurance that Ukraine will never join NATO and become a pro-Western military outpost on its border—an expression of its historical security concern.  Is that demand unreasonable?  Ukraine certainly has the right, as a sovereign nation, to join any international organization it wishes.  But sometimes—and I believe this is one such time—exercising sovereignty to enhance security actually undermines it.  A militarily neutral Ukraine on Russia’s doorstep seems like a better bet on Ukraine’s future than playing “chicken” with Russia and heightening the risk of terrible destruction (per the cartoon at www.alternet.org/comics/comics-matt-bors-coverage-ukraine-crisis).

Post #65 – Give Greece a Chance

The electoral victory of Alexis Tzipras may provide new hope for the overwhelming majority of Greeks, who are living in Third World-like conditions as the economy deteriorates and external debt piles up.  While many European political leaders, starting with Angela Merkel in Germany, see a leftist Greek government as a threat to their politics of austerity, they should recognize that their own approach has failed utterly and that Greeks deserve a chance to take a fresh approach.

Tzipras has announced priorities that, at least on paper, sound reasonable and necessary from a human-interest point of view.  As reported by the New York Times (www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/world/europe/alexis-tsipras-greece-debt.html), his plan starts with addressing Greece’s humanitarian crisis, in which millions have fallen into poverty and loss of work; stimulating economy with government funds rather than (in the usual manner of austerity programs) cutting social welfare to the bone; negotiating debt relief with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European bankers and governments (external debt now stands at around $270 billion); and seeking “fairness” and equity in society by zeroing in on wealthy tax evaders and corrupt politicians.

The Germans and others who hold Greece’s debt seem to care far less about the human costs of austerity than they do about ensuring that the debt is repaid.  They have staked out a tough negotiating position—no debt writeoff—that contrasts with Tzipras’ expressed hope for compromise without “submission.”  In fact, Tzipras has made clear that far from reneging on Greece’s debt, what he wants is “time to breathe and create our own medium-term recovery programme.”  He wants a new debt agreement, not extension of the bailout deal that expires at the end of February.  The IMF and its European partners need to be supportive of his new direction, acknowledging that Tzipras was elected to get Greece out of a crisis that they failed to resolve.  Holding his feet to the fire will improve nothing and hurt many.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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