Category: International

Bergdahl Rules

The successful effort to obtain the release of captured US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl set a high water mark for idealism, and highlights the best of American governance. Though the subtleties of law and principle implicated in Bergdahl’s case are easily manipulated by cynics, and thus misapprehended by the unwitting many, a great deal of good, and a fine precedent, has nonetheless proceeded from a difficult situation.

The evidence strongly suggests that Bergdahl deserted. While he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence, for our purposes, we’ll assume that Bergdahl will be convicted of desertion, and that the Obama administration expected as much as they worked to obtain his release, ultimately paying a significant price. It’s also reasonably assumed that the five Guantanamo prisoners, whom the US gave up in exchange for Bergdahl, are indeed dangerous, simply because the Taliban wanted them. And so the threshold issue is why the US would give up so much to rescue a deserter, who has likely been brought back to the US for the sole purpose of standing trial, to thereafter serve a lifetime sentence in a military prison.

The rationale was best expressed in the terse phrasings of Army Chief of Staff Anthony Odierno: “It was always a high priority that every soldier deployed to Afghanistan would return home. We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Or as a US Admiral put it, “If a man goes overboard, we will go and get you – we wont stand around asking if you jumped.” The commitment of the US military to every one of its servicemen has no exceptions for poor performance. The policy of leaving no man behind has no asterisk after it.

Some have raised the issue of the US policy against negotiating with terrorists. However the Taliban has never been classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization, neither under the Bush nor Obama administrations. The US went to war against Afghanistan not because the Taliban – its rulers – were terrorists, but because they were harboring terrorists. The Taliban is better regarded as an especially brutal, repressive regime (and-or insurgency), in the vein of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Trujillo, etc. And the US has exchanged prisoners with many such regimes in the past, including Nazi Germany, the USSR, and even the Confederate States of America. Right-wing hysteria notwithstanding, the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban does not set a precedent or mark a departure from longstanding US policies.

A particularly silly criticism of the deal is that the US paid “too high a price” for Bergdahl – that after years of negotiating, the US in the end caved in and sent five enemy combatants for a single US soldier. Such critiques are particularly frivolous, advanced as they are in a factual vacuum, by people who were not privy to the negotiations. More absurd is the “problem” such critics seem anxious to head off: the US placing too great a value on the lives of its soldiers.

A more interesting issue is President Obama’s decision to flaunt the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which mandates that 30 days notice be given to Congress before any prisoners are transferred from Guantanamo. That law, which Obama signed into effect, poses a separation of powers issue, and there is a very good chance that it is an unconstitutional usurpation of executive authority by Congress. (Obama said as much in his signing statement.) While in other countries the courts could resolve the matter with an advisory opinion, the US Supreme Court only has jurisdiction over live “cases and controversies” – i.e., the president cannot inquire as to whether a law is constitutional – he must make his own decision and act without the benefit of the Court’s opinion. And in such circumstances, very few conlaw scholars take the extreme viewpoint that the president must “faithfully execute” laws that seem to run afoul of the Constitution.

It would have been far easier for the Obama administration to do what some on the right-wing lunatic fringe suggested: try Bergdahl in absentia, obtain a verdict of guilt, and disown him. (Though it’s naive to imagine conservatives rallying behind the president as Bergdahl’s corpse was dragged through the streets by his captors.) Instead of taking an easy way out, the Obama administration stood fast to principle: faithful to the policy of bringing every man home; and to the presumption of innocence; and the commitment to due process, which affords the accused the opportunity to face his accusers and participate in his own defense. While the price paid for Bergdahl may have been dear, in the end it wasnt one soldier that the US was paying for, but a set of principles that go to the foundation of the republic.


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How Liberals Saved the US – and Conservatives Killed Europe

The US frequently goes through regional recessions. One part of the country slumps because of the failure of some industry, or the fluctuation of commodity prices, or natural disaster. But since social insurance is largely federal – medicare, SNAP, TANF, social security – they continue despite the weak local economy, as do big-ticket federal spending items: highways, agriculture, student loans, etc. All told, these programs combine to guarantee a minimum of income to recession-hit areas, smoothing out some of the bumps along the road that every economy suffers from time to time.

Local economies in Las Vegas, Miami and Phoenix were ground zero for the worst financial crisis in 75 years – but they had a safety net to ensure that their recession had a bottom. Six years later, they are growing again, fast as ever. The US economy as a whole added more jobs in 2014 than in any year since 1999. The cost was significant – the US ran trillion-dollar deficits for several consecutive years, with President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner resisting pressure to reduce deficit spending too much too soon in the face of the worst economy since World War II.

The European Union operates very differently. While the currency is federalized – controlled by a single central bank, the ECB – social programs and government spending are almost entirely dependent on the finances of individual countries.

Ground zero for the financial crisis in the European Union was Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. On the eve of the crisis, they were all up-and-coming economies, seeing fantastic year-over-year growth. That kind of growth lures investors – and banks made progressively riskier loans in the hope of cashing in on the boom. You could tell the same story about Vegas, South Florida and Arizona through 2007.

But when the recession hit, the European Union had a very different plan for its hardest-hit countries. Instead of increasing government spending, and allowing them to run deficits – as every liberal economist urged – the ECB called for the exact opposite. With many countries unable to raise the cash to meet their obligations to creditors, the ECB would only underwrite further lending if those countries practiced “austerity.” To avoid default, they were forced to cut government spending dramatically – at a time when people and businesses had no money to spend either. Government programs of every stripe were cut back or eliminated.

At the time, conservative economists theorized that countries who drastically cut government spending would find the bottom of their recession more rapidly, and would bounce back that much faster. For the US they predicted “debasement of the dollar,” “hyper-inflation” and a prolonged slump.

Liberals at the time warned that austerity would send weak European economies into full-fledged depressions, and be a drag on growth across the EU. They projected that deficit-spending would save the US from a much deeper recession, and while the US would come out on the other side with more debt, it would also have many more jobs. Liberal economists dismissed the threat of inflation entirely, warning instead of the threat of deflation in Europe.

Years later, liberals theories have been borne out, resoundingly. The US rebounded faster and stronger than Europe, and inflation remained near historic lows all along. In Europe, conservative policies have proved to be an abject failure – as liberals also foresaw. Time will tell whether the Euro itself will survive years of conservative mismanagement.


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Invading Iran

It’s rarely appreciated that the Soviets were ideal Cold War dance partners. While mutual-assured-destruction isnt the ideal calculus to preserve western civilization, there is an advantage to playing any game with a nation whose national sport is chess. The Soviets could be trusted to (1) understand the game, (2) recognize their own self-interest, and (3) act accordingly. The onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that the Soviets were playing to win – but its resolution demonstrated that they were also keen on not losing.

It’s the West’s dealings with Iran that make us wax nostalgic about our last big adversary. To be clear, Iran, nuclear or otherwise, doesnt pose an existential threat to life on earth, as did a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The big problem with Iran is that its leadership may be looking to the next world for its champagne and caviar (and-or virgins), and so they may not respond predictably to the threat of their own annihilation. When the US merely cuts off North Korea’s rulers from its supply of western goodies (e.g.), they get upset. People who arent expecting an afterlife take it badly when the present life doesnt meet expectations. Godless communists, with all their eggs in the material world, respond predictably to rewards and punishments in the here-and-now.

It isnt that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is unreasonable. On the contrary, such a weapon would confer a huge security benefit on Iran. Bush Duh, with unrivaled incompetence, made this exquisitely clear by invading the one country in his infamous “axis of evil” that did not have a nuclear weapons program! Iran took the obvious lesson: even if you abandon your WMD programs and open yourself up to UN weapons inspectors, the US may invade anyway. Having witnessed the respective cases of North Korea and Iraq, Iranian leadership no doubt appreciates that nuclear weapons are a far better guarantee against US aggression.

If the world could be certain that Iran would use nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only, there would be no reason to consider military action to forcibly end its nuclear program. The problem is that the objectives of Iran’s ruling mullahs arent at all clear. This is especially troublesome for Israel because it could be wiped out with a single bomb – and perhaps some in Tehran are crazy enough to think that their imaginary friend (AKA Allah) would generously reward such an act, even if they were annihilated themselves shortly thereafter. Simply put, Iran’s leaders cannot be trusted to recognize and act in their own material self-interest, and may use nuclear weapons even if doing so would result in their own destruction.

Israel’s military is to some extent a US proxy force, and as such it is worth protecting. However a US decision to take military action against Iran neednt concern Israel, because the US has many other assets within striking range of an Iranian nuclear weapon, from infantry and hardware to ships. Saudi oilfields could also be targeted. An Iranian nuclear weapon would have many potential regional targets whose destruction could alter world geopolitics, economics, and the military balance for decades. The US simply cannot allow that threat to materialize. Iran’s nuclear program will soon, hopefully, be ended via diplomacy. But it is the opinion of The Liberal Field Guide that it must in any event be ended, by any means necessary.

To be perfectly clear: air power alone will not do the job. Only a full-scale invasion will guarantee success of a mission whose purpose would be to (1) destroy Iran’s military apparatus and WMD programs, (2) overthrow its government and (3) hunt down and kill or capture its leadership. Iran, far more populous and mountainous than Iraq, cannot be occupied for any duration. Once all objectives are fulfilled, a complete withdrawal of all forces would follow immediately.

This would be a truly awful course of action, which is why we hope that a deal will be reached. Its government deposed and its military destroyed, Iran is likely to splinter along ethnic lines into several states, with the lives of tens of millions of people ruined in the war, and the chaos that would follow for a generation. But as bad as that scenario may be, a nuclear Iran could engender far worse. A nuclear exchange would kill many more people than a conventional war, and destabilize the entire world.

Founded as it is upon rationality, liberals are quick to realize that war is an ugly and inefficient means to achieve one’s ends; and thus the occasions when war should be advocated for are exceedingly rare. But liberalism is not pacifism – and events in Iran are fast approaching the point where war becomes the least undesirable of several unattractive options.


Euro on the Brink

The European Union is a sweet deal for Germany – and the Euro makes that deal even sweeter. Germany isnt like most rich western countries. Proportionately, it has a double-size manufacturing sector. German exports are double that of the UK, triple that of France, and equal to the US, though Germany is only one-quarter its size. And while Germany runs a huge trade surplus, it’s still by far the EU’s biggest importer too.

More than any other nation, Germany depends on the EU’s open borders. And the common currency is a great facilitator of trade, lowering transaction costs and eliminating exchange-rate risks for Eurozone transactions. Given that Germany has the most to gain from a common currency – and the most to lose from its collapse – you’d think Germans would be very careful about keeping their Eurozone partners happy. Think again.

Up until 2008, countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain benefited greatly from the common-currency zone too. The Euro made it easier for foreign banks to extend credit, and as Euros poured in, real estate boomed, building skyrocketed, incomes rose, and tax revenues soared. Spain ran a budget surplus in 2007. But when the music stopped, fannies far outstripped seats. The financial crisis rendered many banks insolvent, so they stopped lending. Given the small size of those countries relative to the enormity of capital flows, their economies crashed. Things were tough all over – but small, developing countries like Greece got it worse.

From the wreckage, two schools of economic policy emerged. One is typified by Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Great Depression. He, along with Tim Geithner, and ultimately Barack Obama, believed that the government needed to maintain pre-crash spending levels, even if deficits soared. Since consumers were broke and investors were freaked out, the government was the last man standing – to keep the economy going, they reasoned, the government would have to step up as the spender of last resort. Conservatives at the time heavily criticized Bernanke, Geithner and Obama for super-low interest rates, quantitative easing and generous deficit spending, predicting the devaluation of the dollar, increasing unemployment and hyper-inflation.

The other school was made up of fiscal and monetary conservatives, like Angela Merkel. Fearing inflation, they preferred to reduce deficits by slashing government spending, in the hope that the economy would bottom out, and business would pick up again once the recession ran its course. Interest rates were held steady to reduce the risk of inflation and to safeguard the currency. Liberals at the time criticized Merkel and the European Central Bank (ECB) for these policies, predicting that recessions would deepen into depressions, inflation would turn into deflation, and economies would founder for lack of demand.

Countries like Greece werent even free to choose their own course – the realities of the Eurozone meant that Greece had to accept the dictates of the ECB, which is and has been dominated by conservative economists.

Who was right? Six years and seven trillion dollars of debt later, US employment markets are approaching pre-crash levels, budget deficits have shrunk to sustainability, the dollar is at its strongest in years, inflation is at its lowest in a half-century, and the US economy is growing at its fastest pace since before Bush Duh. Meanwhile in Europe austerity has returned the Continent to recession. Unemployment is high, deflation hovers as a constant threat, and the countries that got hid hardest slid into full-fledged depression, with unemployment exceeding 25%, while the Euro has depreciated to its lowest levels in a decade.

It took Greeks seven years of misery to elect a government that shares their disgust with the status quo, and the failed German approach to the crisis. If only Greece had credibly threatened to leave the Eurozone seven years ago, a lot of suffering might have been avoided – Germany might have been coerced to do what was in its own best interest to do: zero out interest rates, and pour money into struggling states to keep their governments spending and their economies afloat – i.e., do what the US did under Obama, Bernanke and Geithner.

Today, it’s less clear what will happen if Greece exits the common currency – the Euro may in fact survive. And that, unfortunately, has emboldened Germany into playing chicken with Greece’s new government, which seems intent either to end current fiscal policies or to resurrect the drachma and go their own way. Germany’s handling of the Great Recession could hardly have been worse – but Germans themselves still have a lot to lose. The demise of the Euro would be a painful blow to Germany and a weak Continental economy.

Conservatives in the past have demonstrated a fearsome inability to learn from experience. Let’s hope, for Europe’s sake, that the dramatic triumph of liberal economic policies will not be lost on European policymakers – and that they will seize on the US example to plot a better course going forward.


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The Real Global Warming Issues

Global warming is for real. Even the most skeptical climatologists subscribe to the basic notion that man has pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the planet has and will continue to warm.  However they do not agree on how much the planet will warm as a function of atmospheric CO2 – and the range of values is as large as the chasm between best and worst case scenarios.

Some models assume the climate to be very sensitive to CO2 levels, while others assume much less sensitivity. A simple value that’s commonly used to compare sensitivities among models is the amount of warming that ensues from a doubling of atmospheric CO2. (Mankind has thus far jacked atmospheric CO2 by more than 40% over pre-industrial levels, to its highest concentration in several million years, since before our species existed. Doubling is expected to occur during the 2050s.)

At the low end are models predicting that doubling atmospheric CO2 will yield an increase in average planetary surface temperature of 1 to 1.5 C degrees. That kind of warming would be inconvenient, not disastrous – assuming, of course, that mankind succeeds only in doubling CO2, not trebling it, which is quite possible given current emissions. At the other end of the spectrum are climate models predicting a 6 to 7 C degree increase for the same doubling. This isnt merely a death sentence – it means we’re dead already: the CO2 we’ve already released will inexorably wreck our civilization-friendly biosphere no matter what we do.

How does one pick and choose among these different climate models? A clever answer to that question may win you a Nobel. While many models converge on a sensitivity of about 3 C degrees, it’s not at all clear that the true value should be near the mean or median. But lacking a better criterion for judgement (only climatologists can judge individual models on their merits), we would suggest that a sensitivity of 3 C degrees is a reasonable basis for making public policy prescriptions – leaving open the real chance that the actual value may be much higher or lower. That level of sensitivity should motivate us to act on global warming without delay. An increase in mean surface temperatures of just 2 C degrees may prove disastrous. A 3 degree increase will end life as we know it.

The catch is that cutting CO2 is not costless. Cheap energy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in India and China, and stands to lift hundreds of millions more. The developed West has much less at stake in terms of human misery, and their economies are far less energy intensive. Thus it’s reasonable that the developed and developing worlds should approach global warming differently. Aggressively cutting back emissions is far more attractive to western countries on a simple cost-benefit analysis. The developing world, by comparison, can reasonably tolerate higher emissions in pursuit of faster growth.

This leads us to another strategy to approach global warming: do nothing, except grow the world economy with cheap energy, and hope that future generations, with their higher incomes and superior technology, will be better able to manage the mess we leave them. Consider how primitive technology from the year 1915 looks to us today. Given that the pace of innovation is increasing, 2015 will look even more primitive to the people of 2115. Problems that are incurable to us may not be so daunting to them. It may be that the best gift we can make to future generations is greater wealth, technology and productivity – not lower CO2 levels.

Of course wealth and climate change are not independent – a rapidly changing climate will impoverish future generations, as they are forced to divert resources to deal with crop failures and rising seas. Likewise, cutting emissions too aggressively will undermine economic growth, leaving millions in poverty, and robbing future generations of the means to cope with whatever problems they face.

Modeling climate is a tricky business. Guessing at what generations 50 and 100 years hence might be capable of is even harder. While global warming is a real problem, the best approach is not at all clear. We have options, and must pay careful attention as new facts arrive, to plot our best course for the future.


Editor’s note: Reluctantly, effective next week, the Field Guide is cutting back to one post weekly, to make time for other projects. Sincere thanks to the LFG faithful – we hope to return to twice or thrice weekly by the end of the year.


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Resisting Hebdomania

The salient feature of the recent terrorist attack in Paris is its target: the media. The toll was much smaller than jihadist attacks in Madrid and London, and the operation was far less complex. But by going after a popular periodical, the attack sought to chill free expression, which is at the bedrock of western democracies.

French authorities are to be commended for vociferously championing free speech, and particularly for defending the especially puerile and inflammatory style of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is likewise to be lauded for fighting on, publishing yet another exquisitely offensive depiction of Mohammed just days after the attack. Indeed we are all indebted to the likes of Charlie Hebdo: if the protections of free speech extend to cover them, then the rest of us can be assured of ample space for our own exchanges of ideas.

Protection of free expression takes subtly (and not-so subtly) different forms in different western countries. In France, for example, you are free to show Jesus having anal sex with God and the Holy Spirit (as Charlie Hebdo did in a 2013 cover illustration) – but you can go to jail for denying that the Holocaust happened, and you can be fined for using the word software (e.g.) or other imported words in place of a French word. Most ironically, Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, was banned by the French government in 1970 for making fun of Charles de Gaulle’s death. Concerning freedom of expression, more is more. The suggestion that political commentators should tread particularly lightly on religious beliefs is misguided. It is better to counsel citizens to be tolerant of different opinions – even those that are intended to offend.

Some have taken the occasion of this attack to point out the numerous flaws in French policies toward its growing Muslim population. The Kouachi brothers, after all, are not foreign nationals – they are Parisians, born and raised. This perhaps is the most frightening aspect of the attack – that it was not perpetrated by foreigners, as was 9/11, but by disaffected citizens, as was the Oklahoma City bombing.

While France should be more liberal in its policies toward Muslims, its failings should not be held up as a proximate cause of this unfortunate attack. Many citizens within France, the US, and practically every western country, have legitimate complaints about government practices, and the actions of private groups as well. They do not justify the murder of fellow citizens. France could surely deal with its Muslim minority with greater long-sightedness and sensitivity. But this observation does not lend an iota of legitimacy to last week’s attack.

We should take comfort in the fact that attacks such as these are exceedingly rare – even though they are relatively simple to carry out. (Two teenagers killed as many people in Columbine; a mentally disturbed 20 year-old killed twice as many in Sandy Hook; one intrepid Norwegian killed five times as many.) There is little a modern nation of 3, 60 or 300 million people can do to eliminate all such attacks; invariably, the price for a small amount of additional security is a lot of lost liberty.

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.


Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide has awoken from its (blissfully) long winter hibernation – we thank you for your patience, and look forward to serving all your liberal needs in the months ahead.





Swiss Sanity and Madness

American liberals might take comfort in knowing that other western countries are also beset by a conservative minority mucking up the works of government. Even Switzerland, that paragon of civility, has its very own conservative party to serve as a fount for bad old ideas. The good news is that Swiss voters were recently able to beat back two especially misguided conservative ballot initiatives.

In a country whose high living standards depend significantly on a steady supply of foreign labor, one measure sought to tightly restrict immigration. Another would have handcuffed Switzerland’s capable central bank by forcing it to dramatically increase its reserves of gold. Each initiative exemplifies the primitivism common to conservative movements worldwide: a gratuitous bias against foreigners; and a scientific illiteracy fostering debunked beliefs and practices.

To understand the failed immigration initiative, it helps to understand a bit about Swiss politics. While Switzerland is a very rich country, its conservative party, the SVP, is based in Switzerland’s poorer rural backwaters. (Sound familiar?) Though the bulk of Switzerland’s immigrants head to cities to find work, opposition to immigration is nonetheless based in less-affluent agrarian communities. (Sound eerily familiar?)

In 2009, the SVP succeeded in holding an especially disgusting referendum to illegalize the building of minarets. Horrifically, it passed – and lacking constitutional protections for freedom of expression, it is now the law of the land. Paradoxically, the Swiss government has long been a good world citizen, taking in refugees from all over the world, including predominantly Muslim countries like Iraq and Bosnia. Switzerland’s Muslim population has grown over the past 30 years, from 1% to 4.5%.

At nearly four times the US rate, immigration into Switzerland has been brisk. However the Swiss economy has had no difficulty absorbing additional workers, with unemployment under 4% for the past ten years. Beginning as an amalgam of several distinct ethnicities and four official languages, Switzerland has long been extremely diverse. The foreign-born now make up 29% of its resident population, double that of the US, and the most any major western country. Diversity has served Switzerland well: it is the wealthiest country in the West, and close to the top in per capita income and life expectancy.

There is hope that Switzerland’s economic success will temper its conservative movement – that they might be cautious about killing the golden goose. While the minaret referendum passed with 57% of the vote, the anti-immigration measure failed with just 26% in favor. And hearteningly, the gold-hoarding referendum did even worse, with the support of just 23% of voters, despite aggressive SVP campaigning.

Conservative misapprehensions of history and science notwithstanding, gold has no intrinsic value, and there are no valid reasons – geopolitical or scientific – for central banks to heavily rely on gold as a reserve asset. For good reason, virtually every country has abandoned the practice.

Conservative belief in the intrinsic value of gold is especially goofy, considering that the godfather of intrinsic-value theory is Karl Marx, who needed it to validate his notions on the value of labor. That conservatives today make the same mistake about gold that Marx made about labor does not diminish their esteem for yellow metal. Conservatism, after all, is a largely about belief in a vacuum – a hearkening back to an imaginary past, not a real world.

Swiss sanity in killing these two measures was tempered by their decision to reject a third measure that would have ended a tax regime sheltering rich foreigners, encouraging them to reside in Switzerland. Just as some countries create special tax havens to attract business, Switzerland has its own cottage industry of attracting the idle rich to live in their mountains. They buy Bentleys and chalets and negotiate an individual lump-sum tax with the canton in which they reside (for real) – passing their tax burden on to ordinary people. Several cantons have eliminated the practice, requiring everyone to pay their fair share. The measure would have forced all cantons to eliminate it, but unfortunately it only gained 41% of the vote.

While two out of three on the referenda aint bad, the SVP has unfortunately grown in popularity, and now holds a plurality of popular support and legislative representation. Its chief selling points remain xenophobia, isolationism, anti-environmentalism and opposition to government services. The latter position does not prevent them from continuing to support agricultural subsidies – farmers, after all, are the SVP’s largest constituency; and adherence to principle remains a trait unknown among conservatives.


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Plight of the Bidoon

The 14th amendment makes the US a special place. If you’re born in the US, you’re a citizen of the US – end of inquiry. The facts of your parents’ citizenship, the status of their legal (or illegal) residence, and other such minutia are irrelevant. While the US has had its share of underclasses, it has not in modern times had a stateless underclass (like Israel has with Palestinians). By operation of the 14th amendment, this generation’s undocumented immigrants engender the next generation of US citizens, solving lots of ugly problems before they form.

Many countries do not automatically confer citizenship upon the native-born. This is usually just a problem for individuals born in unusual circumstances. Rarely is it a problem for large numbers of people, simply because countries with significant immigrant populations are not generally foolish enough to create a giant mess for themselves by denying citizenship to the native-born.

There are several noteworthy cases however. The Dominican Republic has a sizable ethnically-Haitian population, including hundreds of thousands of individuals who were born in and lived all their lives in DR, but who are not recognized as citizens by either country. Japan has a small Korean population left over from colonial times, upon whom Japan refuses to confer citizenship. Israel, spectacularly, has some 2 million Arabs in the West Bank who, since 1967, have been living subject to Israeli authority without being afforded a scintilla of political representation in Israel’s government, much less citizenship.

And then there are Kuwait’s Bidoon. Also called “Stateless Arabs,” they are descendents of Arabs from other countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq), who have been living in Kuwait since its 1961 founding – without being allowed to acquire citizenship. They have no legal right to reside in any country in the world, including Kuwait. Among Kuwait’s 4 million residents, they number about 100,000.

Kuwait has long been a majority-immigrant nation, with ethnic Kuwaitis comprising only one-third the resident population since as far back as 1975. And Kuwait’s economy has thrived for decades, relying on its enormous number of foreign workers, who hail primarily from Asia. After falling off for a few years, the foreign-born population has recently recovered, adding an additional one million in the past 10 years.

And Kuwaitis are not okay with it. Perhaps the most liberal and democratic state in the Middle East, Kuwait’s government has long had an uneasy relationship with the hordes of migrant workers that the ever-booming Kuwaiti economy requires. While it has recently weighed a few ill-conceived measures to remove a large number of its foreign workers, it has not gone through with any of them, because every enlightened Kuwaiti recognizes their utter dependence on foreign labor to maintain their extraordinarily high living standards. But one unfortunate side-effect of such anti-foreign sentiments is the ongoing mistreatment of the Bidoon.

Bidoon are Kuwaitis in all but name. But they arent merely denied political rights – they are denied access to the most basic public services, including health and education. Bidoon cant even get a drivers license. Kuwait’s latest move has been to secure Comoros citizenship for the Bidoon. While Kuwait is among the richest countries in the world (per capita GDP is 50% greater than the US), Comoros is among the world’s poorest (per capita GDP is 10% less than that of Haiti). Obviously no Bidoon will be eager to find a new home in Comoros. Rather, as citizens of Comoros, the Bidoon’s status will be normalized: as foreign nationals, they will have access to many basic Kuwaiti government services.

Clearly, this will be a major improvement for the lot of the Bidoon. As Comoros nationals within Kuwait, they effectively graduate from statelessness to disenfranchisement. However in the long run, justice demands that Kuwait recognize both the civil and political rights of its native-born Bidoon, who have lived and worked in Kuwait for all of their lives, descended from people who, likewise, for more than half a century, could call no other place their home. The Bidoon deserve nothing less than full Kuwaiti citizenship – to not merely live and work in peace, and be accorded basic human rights, but to participate as equals in their own governance as well.


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A Big Deal on Climate

The details are barely in, but it seems, at long, long last, that the number 1 and number 2 world economies – also the number 2 and number 1 world polluters – have finally come to an agreement on carbon emissions. This is such a big deal, and such good news, that conservatives are tripping over themselves to take a giant dump on it – as a preemptive first strike, since this deal is poised to take a giant dump on them.

That’s because conservatives for years have used China as a shield to avoid serious discussion of the issues related to climate change. Cap and trade, the subsidization of renewable energy sources, new EPA standards on greenhouse gases: name a climate-change initiative, and you can line up conservatives around the block to oppose it, with China the first and last word they utter. They’ve been telling us for years that the US would be a sucker to work toward any reduction in emissions, because the US would merely be encouraging Chinese polluters – with the logic that whatever the US doesnt pump into the atmosphere, the Chinese will pump extra to compensate, taking American jobs and profits along the way.

China, for their part, have long opposed adhering to a common set of standards with the developed West, reasonably asserting that (1) present atmospheric CO2 levels are chiefly attributable to the past activity of Western economies, not China; and (2) unfettered Chinese development has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and promises to lift hundreds of millions more – just as it did in the West over the past two centuries.

The rest of the world has thus been held hostage to the intransigence of the world’s two largest economies and polluters. After all, any deal on climate change that doesnt include the US and China leaves out nearly half the world’s emissions and half the world’s economy.

But everything changed when US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that they reached agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. China has finally agreed to capping emissions, while the US has agreed to steeper reductions. And now there is every reason to be optimistic that the US, China, and the rest of the world can hash out the deal that has long eluded them, when the climate summit meets in Paris in late 2015.

Obama seems ready to do an end-run around the US Senate, which is now controlled by conservatives, and headed by Mr. Coal himself, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. Any further international deals on climate are likely to be styled as “Agreements” – as opposed to “Treaties” – further to a 1992 treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Treaties require 67 votes in the Senate, where even 50 are now impossible. In past decades, what was once the world’s preeminent deliberative body could have been relied upon to see past partisan posturing on the most critical issues of the day, to at least have an intelligent debate. No more: the cancer that is conservatism has made the US Senate so dysfunctional that it cannot even meaningfully address matters concerning the planet’s long-term ability to support life.








Who Lost North Korea

As South Korean spies ended weeks of speculation by revealing the mundane cause of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s recent absence from public view (ankle surgery), a much more ominous bit of news was simultaneously reported: North Korea has begun work on a submarine-based nuclear missile launching system. With present technology, North Korea may be able to strike Alaska, or perhaps Washington state. With sub-based missiles, they could potentially hit any city in the US. While this project will take years, the long-term prospects are chilling. And no matter how conservatives try to wriggle out from under the inescapable truth, blame for North Korea’s nuclearization falls squarely on the Bush Duh administration.

A little background info is crucial. There are just two paths to creating a nuclear fission weapon. One uses uranium, which involves a technologically complex enrichment process. The other uses plutonium, and is much quicker – if you have a ready supply of plutonium, which can be readily produced in certain kinds of nuclear reactors.

When Bill Clinton came to the White House in 1993 – fresh out of Little Rock, without a scintilla of foreign policy experience – he inherited a Korean peninsula already in nuclear crisis. Clinton competently negotiated a deal, and under the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted its uranium enrichment program, and also shut down its plutonium-producing nuclear plant – blocking both paths to nuclearization. In exchange, the US promised to build North Korea two new nuclear plants – of a kind that could not be harnessed to manufacture weapons – and to supply them with fuel oil in the interim. The Agreed Framework also put the US and North Korea on track for improved relations.

Fun fact: North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor – source of its weapons-grade plutonium – was constructed on Ronald Reagan’s watch, during 1980-86.

Enter Bush Duh. Late in 2002, the US accused North Korea of violating the Agreed Framework by restarting its uranium enrichment program. Whether or not that’s true, in the 21 years since the Agreed Framework was signed, North Korea has never detonated a uranium-based nuclear weapon. What is true is that the US failed to follow through on its promises to build two new reactors and deliver fuel oil. The reactors were far behind schedule, and oil shipments were often delayed – all because conservatives in Congress opposed the agreement, and sought to sabotage it by withholding funding. This makes it particularly laughable for conservatives to blame North Korean nukes on Clinton, since they did everything they could to undermine his otherwise effective policies.

And so because of congressional conservatives, North Korea had legitimate gripes about the US failing to keep up its end of the bargain. With ham-handed diplomacy, Bush Duh so thoroughly alienated North Korea that they pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, restarted their Yongbyon reactor, and – while Bush Duh slept – they ran it for two years, producing enough plutonium to build several bombs. Duh dozed on as North Korea shut the reactor down, extracted the plutonium, and got to work. They successfully detonated their first nuclear weapon in late 2006 – during Duh’s 6th year in the White House.

Bush Duh followed up that 6 year snooze-a-thon with inaction in the face of North Korea’s missile tests, as the North worked on the development of a nuclear weapons delivery system to allow them to strike US allies, as well as the US mainland. He was, after all, quite busy in Iraq, confirming what UN inspectors said before the US invasion: that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Duh!