Category: International

Guns v. Country

It’s tough to surpass The Onion with their synopsis of conservatives’ gun policy: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The New York Daily News had their own snappy headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This” – as they mocked four conservatives for their usual empty platitudes in the wake of yet another mass shooting. The New York Times issued its first front-page editorial in nearly 100 years, calling for a ban on high-powered weapons, and lamenting the disgrace of conservative gun policies.

Following San Bernardino, conservatives werent content to offer their customary palliative – prayer, and a call for even more guns. As a special bonus, they defeated a law that would have made it illegal for people on terror watch lists, the mentally ill and convicted felons to buy guns. The stupid never ends.

There’s an unfortunate resemblance between conservatives’ approach to this issue, and their approach to universal health care. The US ranks near the bottom of the developed world in every health measure: infant mortality, child mortality, adult mortality and life expectancy. And Americans pay more than double the OECD average in per capita healthcare expenses. The thing sets the US apart from those other countries is that it does not have universal, government-paid health insurance. The US has spent decades trying to reinvent the wheel, though the cure for poor health and high healthcare costs has been well-known for ages, with success stories the world over.

It’s the same with gun control. The solution has been effected in every other developed western country, with excellent results: make all guns harder to obtain; and ban the most dangerous guns altogether. Instead the US has done nothing – and to go with the easiest access to guns in the western world, the US not coincidentally has by far the highest rate of gun violence. The murder-by-gun rate in the US is at least eight times higher than it is in every country in Western Europe. It’s 60 times higher than the UK rate.

America’s gun troubles extend to every corner of the country. 49 US states have higher gun-murder rates than every country in Western Europe. (The rate in Vermont is a bit lower than that of Portugal.) At the high end, Missouri’s gun-murder rate is 25 times higher than the typical Western European country. Louisiana’s rate is nearly 40 times higher.

Moving beyond comparisons with Western Europe: the US gun-murder rate is 50% higher than that of Argentina; triple that of Chile; 3.5 times that of Israel; six times that of Greece; seven times that of Canada; twelve times that of India; 35 times that of Australia; and 175 times that of Poland.

In response to a 1996 mass-shooting, Australia passed strict gun control legislation – and hasnt had a single mass shooting since. Australia’s gun murder rate has dropped by 60%; it’s violent crime rate has dropped by more than 20%; and studies show that the price of guns on the black market has gotten so steep, that criminals lack the means to purchase them.

Meanwhile, the US has had more than 350 mass shootings in 2015 alone, and is on track for 30,000 dead from guns by year’s end – making for a very typical year. We neednt wonder what a solution might look like, or whether it might succeed. The cure for the national scourge of gun violence is gun control – same as it’s been everywhere, the world over.


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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is off for winter break – we’ll see you in the New Year.



Nice paper showing how gun prices make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, when stricter gun control is adopted:

Stupidity from the usual suspects:

Success stories abroad:

The US body count:

We at the Field Guide offered our own market-based solution: require that gun owners buy insurance to cover any harm their gun may do – including harm done after it’s stolen. Then sit back and watch as the insurance market prices guns into oblivion. Sorry for trying to reinvent the wheel – we just like listening to conservatives argue against free markets.




Guns, Bees, Terrorists and the Flu

About 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks. In the flu season that followed, about 30,000 Americans died – which made for a very typical flu season. And in the 14 years since 9/11, very few Americans have been harmed by domestic terrorism – while the flu has killed about 500,000.

Even in the worst of cases, the threat to life posed by terrorism is one or two orders of magnitude smaller than the threat posed by the flu. In its effort to fight terrorism, the US has invaded two (or three) countries, spent trillions, and killed far more people in the process than terrorism ever has. Meanwhile, unfailingly, the flu kills ten times 9/11 every season – with no speeches, no outrage, and no troops sent to foreign shores.

Watching the local news, there’s never a shortage of stuff to be freaked out about. Aspiring to be freaked-out rationally, Americans should be scared by the flu. By comparison, terrorism never amounts to very much, and the cure has proved to be far worse than the disease.

Unfortunately, we cant apply the same approach to diminish the threat posed by gun-violence. That’s because, unlike terrorism, guns actually kill a huge number of Americans – about 30,000 per year, very similar to the flu. About 1.25% of all US deaths each year are attributable to guns and the flu respectively. Terrorism: not so scary. Guns and the flu: scary.

So as we construct our narrative for what happened recently in San Bernardino, the key fact isnt that the perpetrators were Muslims. Muslims comprise 1% of the US population, but are responsible for just 0.6% of the mass shootings in the US in 2015 (2 out of 353) – making Muslims 40% less likely to commit mass shootings than everyone else in the US. You’re way more likely to be shot by a Christian.

That the attack in San Bernardino was an act of terrorism also isnt terribly crucial. This year, twice as many Americans will die of bee stings as they will from domestic acts of terrorism. Four to eight times as many will die from peanut allergies. Ordering these threats from largest to smallest: peanuts, bees and terrorists are really not all that scary.

The story out of San Bernardino is that yet another American went nuts, availed himself of his nation’s cheap and plentiful gun supply, and shot a whole lot of people. This story has played out so many times in recent US history that we hardly need to recite the litany of Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Colorado, Oregon, etc.

The US does not have a problem with domestic Muslim violence. Nor does it have very much of a problem with domestic terrorism. America has a gigantic problem with guns.

More next week….


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We’re All French – Let’s All Be Smart Too

The Paris attack is a tragedy – it is not a call to arms. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we observed,

In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.

Nothing has changed. In a free society, bad people can more easily do bad things. When they do, our biggest mistake is to make our society less free. As Paul Krugman put it, “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”

French President Francois Hollande has asked to extend the state-of-emergency for an additional three months, expanding the power of the police – a far less dire assault on liberty than was the Patriot Act. But one New York Times editorial writer now argues for a full-scale invasion of Syria and Iraq – seemingly incognizant of the fact that the rise of ISIS is the direct consequence of the last US invasion. According to Roger Cohen,

To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground. After the protracted and inconclusive Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is reasonable to ask if this would not be folly. It is also reasonable to demand – and many will – whether military action will only have the effect of winning more recruits for ISIS as more lives and treasure are squandered. Terrorism, the old nostrum has it, can never be completely defeated. Such arguments are seductive but must be resisted…. Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

“Inconclusive” is a charitable term to describe the outcome of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Utter and abject failure” better conveys the reality that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan exist any longer, and that Iraq is now a training ground for international terrorism – something it never was before the US occupation.

As for “the good” that might come of invading Iraq (again) and Syria, we might learn from the example of Israel, which, despite its half-century long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, failed to curb terrorism through military force. The British military similarly failed in Northern Ireland. This is because terror networks, like ISIS, Hamas and the IRA, are primarily political organizations. They lack proper armies that can be met on the field and destroyed. Their personnel can seamlessly disappear into villages and towns in the face of an invasion, and can persist in the shadows for decades. The power of such organizations lies mainly in their ability to attract new adherents. And while movements come into and go out of fashion, their half life is often measured not in years but in decades.

The Paris attack was ideally calculated to produce fear and anxiety in the people of the city – targeting its best loved playground. The Canal-St-Martin neighborhood is a weekend destination for almost everyone, with hip bars and cafes, inventive restaurants, and a street-life that’s impressive even by Parisian standards. No one who has lived in Paris can fail to appreciate how easily they might have been one of the victims.

Though it’s far easier to type than to actually live by this advice – our best response is to mourn for those we lost; to trust in time to heal our psychological wounds; and above all: to carry on.


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Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide is off next week for Thanksgiving.




A Tale of Two Intelligence Failures

The GOP hopes that by repeating the same lie again and again, people will come to believe it. And some have. But Hillary Clinton never asserted that the attack on Benghazi occurred spontaneously out of a protest over a video. Her comments immediately after the attack condemned the use of violence to further religion, and specifically condemned those who would justify such violence as a response to an offensive video. It would have been difficult for her to avoid any mention whatsoever of the video, given that the official CIA assessment of the attack on Benghazi embraced the protest theory, and did so for nearly two weeks after the attack.

On Sept. 16th 2012, five days after the attack, Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, made the Sunday morning talkshow rounds. Relying on the best and latest CIA intel, she advanced the theory that the Benghazi attack may have begun as a protest over a video. For three years the GOP has tried to conflate Clinton’s comments with Rice’s, insisting that the protest story was a cover-up dreamed up by Democrats to help President Obama in his reelection bid.

We hearken back to Colin Powell’s testimony before the UN, in which he assured the world that he knew that Iraq had WMD. He even had satellite imagery to back his story. On February 5, 2003, Powell told the world,

My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence…. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more…. Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons…. We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more.

No one has ever suggested that Powell lied. (Whether he was lied to remains an open issue.) He seems to have been a well-meaning public servant, who had the bad luck – or poor judgment – to rely on faulty intel for the most important public statement of his career.

The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the intelligence failure that led the US to erroneously believe that Iraq possessed WMD, and scrutinized Powell’s speech specifically. The Committee concluded in its report that “[m]uch of the information provided or cleared by the CIA for inclusion in Secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.” Powell has since disavowed his UN speech.

That investigation – into how the Bush Duh administration managed to invade the one country in Bush Duh’s “axis of evil” that did not have a WMD program – lasted slightly more than a year. That’s about the same amount of time taken by the Senate Watergate Committee, which culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. By comparison, this eighth (!) investigation into Benghazi is still rolling after nearly 18 months – and that’s on top of the seven previous congressional investigations.

The seventh congressional investigation into Benghazi, undertaken by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, looked into and discovered the source of the protest story – and found that it began in the CIA. For nearly two weeks after the attack, the official CIA assessment held that the attack on Benghazi emerged spontaneously from a protest over a video. Though that initial assessment proved to be incorrect, it was nonetheless based on numerous sources. The CIA shaped Susan Rice’s talking points, and no doubt the Secretary of State was privy to their assessment too.

Colin Powell and Susan Rice – and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton – have all been the victims of intelligence failures on the part of the CIA. Coming after seven previous Congressional investigations, the current inquiry is no more than a political smear campaign, operated by the GOP, and paid for by taxpayers. That opinion is supported by public statements from high-ranking GOP officials, including former speaker John Boehner, one-time speaker aspirant Kevin McCarthy, GOP congressman Richard Hanna, and former Benghazi investigator Major Bradley F. Podliska. Benghazi was a tragedy – but it has been exhaustively investigated. What continues today is the GOP’s exploitation of that tragedy for political gain.


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scroll down in the NYT article above to find this nugget:

Senior Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential conversations, said that Mr. Boehner had long been suspicious of the administration’s handling of the attacks and that Mrs. Clinton’s emails gave him a way to keep the issue alive and to cause political problems for her campaign.



Benghazi: From Scandal to Farce

This past Sunday, Bob Woodward made the talkshow rounds and, doing his level best to impersonate a reasonable person, he expressed a nuanced opinion of the eighth (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi. Woodward accepted the GOP’s position that there are “legitimate questions,” subject to the Democrat’s qualifier that there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. He said,

You have inconsistencies. This is a tragedy, and it should be investigated…. But there’s no crime here on [Hillary Clinton’s] part. And to try to criminalize it and suggest, as some people have said, ‘Oh, she’ll be in jail.’ There’s no evidence of a crime. There is evidence of inconsistency. I mean, my God, this is our business, our lives — people saying one thing privately and saying something different publicly.

The only problem with Woodward’s position is that there are no “inconsistencies” between the public and private statements of Hillary Clinton on the subject of Benghazi. Woodward’s fault is common among journalists: the fact that are two sides to any given story does not mean that both merit repeating.

Hillary Clinton’s public statements immediately after the attack on Benghazi continued the themes of a statement given just hours before the attack, by the US Embassy in Cairo, while it was dealing with a large protest over a video on the internet about the prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims found offensive:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions…. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Clearly, the embassy was trying to defuse the situation, by expressing sympathy for people who had been offended. Secretary Clinton’s public statement later that same day, after the attack on Benghazi, picks up on the same themes:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

as does her public statement the day after the attack:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear – there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith.

Before and after the Benghazi attack, the State Department and Secretary Clinton remained remarkably consistent: (1) recognizing the right to free speech; (2) but condemning the use of that speech to denigrate religion; (3) while reserving their strongest condemnation for those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion.

We have since learned that there was no protest at Benghazi, and that the attack was pre-planned and carried out by Islamist militants. Clinton suspected as much, writing just hours after the attack, in a private email to family members, that the attack was carried out by an “al-Qaeda-like group.” She also told Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil the following day, “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest.”

The GOP has tried to turn this into a scandal – claiming that Clinton and others were publicly pushing the theory that the attack on Benghazi was a spontaneous protest over a video, in order to provide political cover for President Obama in the heat of his reelection campaign. They say that Clinton dishonestly espoused the spontaneous protest theory in public, revealing in private communications that she knew that the attack was planned beforehand, and carried out by Islamist militants – that it had nothing to do with the video.

But Clinton never asserted – publicly or privately – that the Benghazi attack developed spontaneously out of a protest over a video. She merely observed the fact that “Some… sought to justify…” the attack on Benghazi as a response to the video. That remark doesnt even bear upon who was behind the attacks, or what precipitated them – it merely condemns a particular reaction to the attack: those who would “justify” violence in the furtherance of religion.

Whence the notion that the Benghazi attack arose spontaneously out of a protest over a video? Was it cooked up in a back room of the State Department or the White House? Nope. The seventh (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi, undertaken by the House Intelligence Committee, asked this very question, and they found that the protest story originated in the CIA. For nearly two weeks after it happened, the CIA’s official assessment of the attack on Benghazi held that it emerged spontaneously from a protest over a video. While that theory ultimately proved incorrect, it was backed by a significant amount of intelligence.

The Field Guide’s analysis continues next week.


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Putin’s Syrian Sideshow

On the right, there’s a bizarre narrative. Obama is cast as a weak and ineffective leader, and Putin as strong and decisive. Though those depictions are utterly ludicrous, they are superficially reinforced by goings-on in Syria today, where Putin has deployed the Russian Air Force, ostensibly to support the Assad regime, while the Obama administration quietly funnels aid to the Free Syrian Army.

For the record, Obama has the most successful foreign policy of any president since World War II. He didnt just get the US out of two dead-end wars, killing Osama bin Laden along the way. The Iran deal was an outright coup. The US got China to agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reversed decades of bad policy when it restored relations with Cuba. Obama secured an ABM treaty with Russia, but also, audaciously, presided over Ukraine’s defection to the US sphere. History books will look back on Kiev’s alignment with the US, EU and NATO as marking the end of the Russian Empire.

By comparison, Putin has overseen a period during which Russian power and influence has shrunk to its lowest ebb in three centuries. While he was President in 2004, the Baltic States – each former constituents of the USSR – joined NATO; as did former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria and Romania. Albania, another former Warsaw Pact member, joined NATO in 2009, while Putin was Prime Minister.

Putin’s greatest defeat is the loss of Ukraine, which has been politically united with Russia for most of the past 300 years. Ukraine’s population is one-third of Russia’s. An analogous loss for the US would be every state from the Rockies to the Pacific – California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii – seceding to form an alliance with China. That’s Putin’s legacy.

Even Putin’s efforts to hang on to Crimea and Donetsk – crumbs from the table – have come at a steep price: US and EU sanctions, coupled with low oil prices, have wrecked the Russian economy. And in the end, that’s really what Russia’s ongoing foray in Syria is all about: a cynical sideshow to distract Russians from the consequences of Putin’s disastrous tenure.

Putin has otherwise chosen an odd time to come to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Between defections, casualties, and lack of support among Alawites, Assad has lost sixty to seventy percent of his army since 2012, and now controls perhaps twenty percent of Syria. In the wake of Russian bombing runs, Assad lacks the infantry to move in and capture new territory – loyalist forces are straining to hang on to the little they still hold.

There remains little role for foreign powers in the Syrian Civil War, and Obama is wise to largely remain on the sidelines, and not add to the misery of a conflict that has now killed more than 300,000, and displaced upwards of seven million. Funneling aid to the Free Syrian Army – the most liberal of the several belligerents – is a reasonable policy. Bombing ISIS assets from the air might be constructive, but it’s a messy business, with frequent loss of innocent life. Comparable US policies in Iraq have had limited success, even when coordinated directly with the Iraqi army.

With the GOP paralyzing Congress, Obama has been focusing on foreign policy for years, and the fruits of those efforts are impressive. Obama’s reserve in dealing with Syria is to be commended. Putin’s dalliance, by comparison, is an act of desperation, and yet another hardship for the beleaguered Syrian people to endure.


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A Good Deal with Iran

Last week, the Field Guide took on the critics of the Iran deal. This week we get further into the deal’s specifics, showing why it’s by far the best option for the US and world community, in its effort to head off Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear weapons can be fueled by plutonium or uranium. The Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tackles Iran’s ability to use either material as a basis for a weapon.

Plutonium does not occur in nature – it must be produced. Production requires a specific type of nuclear reactor. Iran has such a reactor at Arak. However under JCPOA, Iran will modify that facility to minimize plutonium production. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will participate in Arak’s redesign and reconstruction, and the entire site will be subject to constant IAEA surveillance – before, during and after.

Uranium, by comparison, is relatively plentiful in nature. But for uranium to be used in a nuclear weapon, it must first be “enriched.” Uranium enrichment is a complex process requiring, among other things, the use of sophisticated centrifuges. JCPOA controls both the quantity and quality of Iran’s centrifuges, while also placing hard and fast limits on the quantity and quality of enriched uranium that Iran can possess. The reductions in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are dramatic. Iran’s operational basic centrifuges will be reduced by more than two-thirds. All of their advanced centrifuges will be shut down. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be reduced by 98%. Relevant sites will be subject to constant IAEA monitoring. Iran’s release from sanctions is contingent on the IAEA’s verification of compliance.

JCPOA’s strictures are tough enough to have won the endorsement of many nuclear scientists. Other commentators suggest that Iran’s considerable concessions are without precedent for a country that was not defeated militarily. Abroad, there is no real debate on the virtues of JCPOA – the other parties (China, France, Russia, UK, Germany) are poised to move ahead. So why, then, does the US Congress appear so divided? The main reason is the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups. But this only begs the question: why is Israel opposed to the deal, particularly if several leaders within Israel have warned that Iran will shortly be able to obtain nuclear weapons under the existing sanctions regime, in the absence of JCPOA?

Israel has more skin in this game than any other player, and so their trepidation must be taken seriously. As detailed in an insightful article in the Atlantic, Israel is faced with two unattractive and unavoidable outcomes. Under sanctions alone, Iran will remain relatively impoverished, but will obtain a nuclear weapon, and more likely sooner than later. Under the deal just struck, Iran will grow wealthier, but is much less likely to obtain a nuclear weapon. As the article puts it, “Israel either has an Iran with nukes, or an Iran that is powerful regionally in every other way.”

Our best guess is that Israel, wisely or not, wants to have it both ways. They want Iran to be kept in financial straits under sanctions. And should Iran come too close to developing a weapon, Israel would use a military strike to keep them in check, as they did in 1981, when the Israeli air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.

There is an even more cynical interpretation. Israel remains the beneficiary of three billion dollars of US military aid per year. Having made peace with Egypt and Jordan, and with Syria a shambles, that aid is increasingly difficult to justify. Since Iran is now Israel’s only significant regional threat, it could be that elements within Israel see a warming of relations between the US and Iran as undercutting the remaining rationale for the flow of all that cash.

Taking the broadest of views, over the long haul, the US and Iran are not adversaries across every dimension. JCPOA is not a zero-sum game: as trade between Iran and the US and its allies increases, all sides will grow richer. Over time, close trade relations can become a basis for better relations in all areas, and can grow into a bulwark against aggression. As the Field Guide has frequently noted, trade and affluence are democracy’s best foot-soldiers. As Iranians grow wealthier, they will come to demand political power commensurate with their material well-being. This is the dynamic that secured democracy across the globe, from France, England and the US, to Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. In the very long term, the wealthier Iran becomes, the more likely that its interests, and those of the West, will align.


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The Iran Deal and its Malcontents

The deal with Iran will very likely be a fundamental part of US foreign policy and world geopolitics for many years to come. And it seems to be a pretty good deal. The point of departure for any analysis is that sanctions alone would never have stopped Iran from building a bomb. Sanctions didnt stop North Korea, who only built their bomb after Bush Duh killed the Agreed Framework, which was secured by Clinton, in favor of a sanctions-only approach. This is why trading sanctions for inspections is the right move. The overarching US goal was to make that trade on the best possible terms. It’s a big improvement over the status quo.

Opponents to the deal rarely offer specifics on what they believe to be lacking. The naked assertion that “negotiators could have done better” could have been posited in the aftermath of any deal. And it’s worth noting that almost no one who makes that criticism goes on to explain why they think a better deal could have been had. Many supporters of the deal have expressed surprise that Iran conceded so much.

Critics fall into a few camps. By far the largest entirely avoid specifics – they oppose the deal because they oppose it, and we might dismiss their viewpoint for its arationality. Next are the miscreants who decry a 24-day waiting period for inspections. There is no such waiting period – this misrepresentation has been likened to the “death panel” lie that the right peddled in its attempt to discredit Obamacare.

One small group of critics suggest that the US should have first strengthened sanctions, and then negotiated a better deal from a stronger position. It’s an interesting point, but unconvincing. The US depends on many nations to partner with on sanctions to make them effective – doing so takes a very long time, and it’s not clear that the effort would have succeeded. Meanwhile, Iran would have continued work on its nuclear program.

There’s a very small group that takes issue with some of the deal’s specifics. Senator Lindsay Graham, for example, has complained that the number of centrifuges should have been reduced more. However the reduction that was obtained pushes out Iran’s nuclear timetable (to obtain a critical mass of fissile uranium) from two months to one year. Senator Chuck Schumer complains that the deal only runs for ten years – without explaining why he thinks that the sanctions regime would have prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon within ten years. Many, including the present Israeli Prime Minister, have asserted that under the status quo, Iran would develop a weapon in just one or two years.

A basis for concern seemed to emerge when the AP reported a secret side agreement to the larger deal, called “separate arrangement II” or sometimes “the Parchin agreement.” Ostensibly, it’s a draft of an agreement between the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran, granting to Iran the authority to conduct its own inspections of certain military sites. Upon closer scrutiny, the AP story seems to have been written to generate a maximum of controversy over a largely trivial set of facts.

The agreement purports to cover only a one-time inspection of a very minor site. The inspection has to be signed off on by the IAEA for Iran to get relief from sanctions. The stakes on this inspection are very low for the US, but very high for Iran. The head of the IAEA came out with a public statement dismissing the AP story as a misrepresentation, and asserting that the inspections regimes it has secured with Iran are consistent with long-established IAEA practices. In sum, the AP story is a red herring, calculated to inspire fear in people who dont have the facts.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Iran deal include 36 top US military leaders, who state bluntly in their open letter, “There is no better option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon”; and 29 scientists, including six Nobel laureates, who attest to the deal’s efficacy; as well as five other heads of state, who were partners of the US to the negotiations, and are parties to the deal.

The Iran deal is a huge diplomatic coup for the Obama administration, and has been enthusiastically embraced in other countries as the West’s best opportunity to avoid war, and as a vast improvement over the status quo. Coverage of the deal continues next week, when the Field Guide takes up its substance, politics and geopolitics.


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24-day waiting period debunked:

AP story on the Parchin side agreement debunked:

critiquing the critics:

the ays:

the AP story:

spectacular analysis:



Who’s Down with TPP

It aint your grandpa’s trade agreement. Though the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is attended by the usual chorus, featuring competing refrains of “International Trade Took My Job” versus “International Trade Got me a Better Job, plus some Sweet Deals at Walmart,” the controversial aspect of TPP isnt the opening of borders through the elimination of tariffs. It’s about strengthening the power of corporations over national governments, and limiting governments – democratic or otherwise – in their ability to regulate industry.

A relatively minor story just out of Congress serves as a good illustration. The House Agriculture Committee voted to repeal a US labeling law that requires meat to specify its country-of-origin. What’s interesting is why the committee moved to eliminate the law: not because they thought country-of-origin information was superfluous or irrelevant to consumers; but rather because the World Trade Organization decided that the labeling law discriminated against Canadian and Mexican firms. If the US fails to repeal the law, Mexico and Canada will be permitted to retaliate, and that will be costly.

Ignoring whether these labeling laws are actually good or bad for US consumers – we focus instead on the process. An international tribunal made a decision, and Congress is now likely to respond by changing US laws – not for the interests of their electorate (as if!), but without regard to their interests.

TPP goes even further. It would create new supra-national tribunals, in which firms could sue governments for their failure to respect TPP’s provisions. Prevailing firms could effectively collect their “lost profits” from taxpayers. And the tribunals would not be staffed by independent judges with lifetime appointments – but rather by corporate representatives on a rotating basis. Today you’re a plaintiff, tomorrow you’re a judge, and next week you’re a plaintiff again. Nice work if you can find it….

Tariffs have already been all-but eliminated across international borders by existing trade agreements. Modern-day trade agreements like TPP are much more concerned with dispute resolution processes and harmonization of national laws, to smooth things out for multinational corporations. That in itself isnt a bad thing. In past decades, the US pushed to make commercial laws uniform across the fifty states. The resulting Uniform Commercial Code has helped to facilitate interstate commerce.

But TPP would go even further, and may too much restrict the latitude of governments. For example, TPP takes aim at banking regulations. While we could all probably get on not knowing whether our pork chop hails from Texas or Manitoba, we should not be thrilled to see US banking reforms – passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – undone.

Free trade is good – and freer is usually better. That the parties to a transaction may be based in different towns, states or countries isnt terribly important to the analysis. If everyone acts according to their individual interests, the net result is usually that everyone is better off. While things usually are that simple, circumstances arise when people, through their governments, should restrict trade to further a greater good.* And the problem with TPP is that it promises to run roughshod over democratic processes, by which individual nations tailor their laws according to their own values and their perception of the national interest.




* For example, it doesnt much matter whether a factory releases carbon dioxide in Canton, Ohio or in Guangdong, China – the impact on global warming is the same. While people in one country might reasonably accept a dirtier local environment as a cost of having more local industrial jobs, their decision to not regulate carbon impacts people in all countries. And so it’s quite reasonable for other countries to limit trade with the polluting country, as a means of protecting their own environment.

Another example: Left to themselves, laborers tend to organize and demand better pay and working conditions. Therefore there is little pressing need for western countries to impose their own labor standards on the developing world. However some third world governments systematically harass and suppress labor movements in an effort to artificially maintain a competitive advantage. It is reasonable to respond with trade restrictions if only to ensure a level playing field, if not to promote human rights.


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Iran Dealings

The Field Guide has taken a hard line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran cannot be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon, and US military force should be applied, as a last resort, to prevent it. But reciprocally, this means that any prospective deal with Iran must be pursued to the fullest, given the alternative.

A deal with Iran isnt just about blocking its path to a nuclear weapon. It should be seen as part of a larger plan to integrate Iran, politically and economically, back into the community of nations. The removal of sanctions will lead to the considerable enrichment of Iranians, raise many from poverty, and expand the ranks of its middle-class and wealthy. It will create and strengthen ties across borders, between Iranians and economic actors in other countries.

In the long-term, as a populace grows in wealth, political actors will become more wary of pursuing policies that degrade living standards. This dynamic will prove a far better safeguard against war than the agreement itself. When it was announced that a framework for a deal had been struck, people in Tehran spontaneously took to the streets in celebration – a fact not missed by Iran’s rulers, who are already under pressure to reach an agreement. Should a final deal be reached, and sanctions be lifted, the pressure to uphold it will only increase over time as Iranians grow more prosperous.

Even the world’s poorest countries can readily develop nuclear weapons under the right conditions. Governments like North Korea’s persist with little internal resistance because they control virtually all of the country’s resources. Sanctions only reinforce the status quo, because they undermine industry, which naturally rises up as a counter to centralized state power. By comparison, totalitarian regimes like those in Iran and China will inevitably yield power to an increasingly affluent populace, by the same historical processes that brought democracy to places as diverse as England, France, the US, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

And this is why the lifting of sanctions should not be seen as a point of weakness for any prospective Iran deal, but as the key to long-term peace and security. Of course, any deal must provide for inspectors’ unfettered access to sites of interest. And the West must retain the power to reimpose economic sanctions should Iran fall out of compliance; and also to impose sanctions in response to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. While a deal is to the mutual advantage of all parties, it should be based on verifiability, not trust. But over the long haul, the deal will become self-sustaining, as international trade and shared prosperity make war too expensive to fathom.


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