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20 October 2018   Leave a comment

The media is reporting that President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is pushing for a US withdrawal from the the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty (INF).  The treaty prevented a dangerous arms race in Europe which threatened to destabilize nuclear deterrence by introducing smaller weapons with reduced flight time.  The fear was that by introducing weapons with more “limited” destructive power and which reduced the time necessary to make strategic decisions, the introduction of these intermediate-range missiles made nuclear war more likely.  The New York Times describes the role of the INF:

“The weapons ban — signed in Washington in December 1987 by both men — resulted in the destruction of 2,692 missiles. Washington demolished 846, and Moscow 1,846.

“The American side destroyed missiles it had sent to Western Europe in response to the SS-20, including Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles. The low-flying weapons hug the ground to avoid enemy radars and air defenses.”

The threat to leave the treaty is based upon a fear that the Russians have already broken the treaty by introducing a ground-launched cruise missile, known as the 9M729.  The plan to leave the INF reflects the changing US view of nuclear deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in its foreign policy which was spelled out in the Nuclear Posture Review which was published in February 2018. 



The Pew Research Center has published some interesting results from a poll it conducted on how the global publics view the role of China in world affairs.  One of the more interesting findings is that a commitment to human rights is inversely correlated to unfavorable perceptions of increased Chinese participation in global affairs.  Nevertheless, there is little disagreement over the fact that China has become a much more important actor in the international system.   The US is indicating that it is considering sending one of its naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait, a move that the Chinese would regard as an intrusion in its  internal affairs.  There is a growing movement in Taiwan toward independence; the Chinese regard Taiwan as a rebel province. 



Richard Haas has written a short article on the crisis in US-Saudi Arabian relations following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  He draws a very important distinction between support for Saudi Arabia and support for Crown Prince Salman.  That distinction may, in fact, make very little difference, but it is a distinction that must be recognized before any additional steps are taken.  It seems unlikely, however, that neither Prince Salman or US President Trump will acknowledge that difference for a number of reasons that are matters of state concern.  Personal diplomacy is a very risky business. 


Posted October 20, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

19 October 2018   Leave a comment

The US and South Korea have cancelled their annual military exercise which typically occurs at the end of the year.  This year’s exercise, named “Vigilant Ace”, was expected to be quite substantial, similar to last year’s massive exercise which involved 230 aircraft, including top-of-the-line F-22s and F-35s.   This is the sixth military exercise that has been cancelled since US President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim.   The exercises have been cancelled in order to display good faith as the US and South Korea negotiate with North Korea.   Thus far, however, there is little evidence that North Korea has made any substantive moves toward denuclearization. 


Michael Kimmage has written a book review of Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Virtues of Nationalism.  The book is generating heated discussions because its argument is that nationalism is the only reliable safeguard for freedom in today’s world.  Kimmage describes Hazony’s argument in this way:

“The ethics of nationalism, for Hazony, are a blessing in international affairs. Here he has in mind an international order of the future rather than anything close at hand. Hazony envisions a peaceful order of autonomous nations. This would be a world without empire and the coercive internationalism represented by the European Union and the United Nations—’international institutions that seek to wield coercive authority over their member nations.’ Each nation would rule over itself and only itself. They would be proud to do so, and in their pride would lie the foundation for mutual respect. The ‘mutual loyalty’ within the nation would translate into bonds of international empathy. A multiplicity of political forms broken into local and regional patterns would suit something deeply felt in human nature—that which is tribal and national in the best sense of the word.”

The argument resonates with much of the political passion in the world today.   But it also ignores the horrors that nationalism inflicted on the world in the 20th century.  Internationalism may not provide a riveting identity, particularly in the bureaucratic forms of the UN or the European Union.  But both those institutions were created after World War II in order to rebuild a world torn apart by nationalism. 


Tensions are escalating between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.  Two rockets were fired from the Strip into Israel and the Israeli air force retaliated.  There were protests at the border and many Palestinians were wounded by Israeli fire. The Israeli press is reporting that a major escalation may occur.  Israel is massing armored forces along the border with the Gaza.  Reuters describes the context of the emerging crisis:

“More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade.”

Middle East Eye quotes the UN envoy for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov:

“On Thursday, Mladenov, the UN envoy for the Middle East, said that with its economy in a freefall and tensions rising with Israel, Gaza was crumbling.

“‘Gaza is imploding. This is not hyperbole. This is not alarmism. It is a reality,’ Mladenov told the UN Security Council.

“He cited World Bank figures showing official unemployment at 53 percent, with more than 70 percent of Palestinian youths jobless in the small coastal territory.

“Every second person in Gaza now lives below the poverty line, he said.

“‘Barring substantial steps to reverse the current course, this precarious sense of calm is doomed to give way under the mounting pressure. It is already beginning to fray,’ he said.”

Reuters is reporting that around 60 Israeli tanks are massed along the Gaza Strip border.

Posted October 19, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

18 October 2018   Leave a comment

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has written extensively on economic inequality in the US and the world.  He has just published a very succinct essay in Scientific American which explains the growing inequality in the world as a result of a system that has been shaped by the confluence of political and economic power to favor the rich. 

“Since the mid-1970s the rules of the economic game have been rewritten, both globally and nationally, in ways that advantage the rich and disadvantage the rest. And they have been rewritten further in this perverse direction in the U.S. than in other developed countries—even though the rules in the U.S. were already less favorable to workers. From this perspective, increasing inequality is a matter of choice: a consequence of our policies, laws and regulations.

“In the U.S., the market power of large corporations, which was greater than in most other advanced countries to begin with, has increased even more than elsewhere. On the other hand, the market power of workers, which started out less than in most other advanced countries, has fallen further than elsewhere. This is not only because of the shift to a service-sector economy—it is because of the rigged rules of the game, rules set in a political system that is itself rigged through gerrymandering, voter suppression and the influence of money. A vicious spiral has formed: economic inequality translates into political inequality, which leads to rules that favor the wealthy, which in turn reinforces economic inequality.”

The critical question is whether this inequality will lead to underconsumption, a condition in which there is insufficient demand in an economy to sustain economic activity.  We do not know where that tipping point is, but we have passed the tipping point for the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Hurriyet, a major Turkish newspaper is reporting that Mashal Saad al-Bostani, a 31-year-old lieutenant of the Saudi Royal Air Forces and one of the 15 Saudi Arabians who entered and left the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on the day of Jamal Khoshoggi disappearance, has died in a “suspicious car accident” in Riyadh.    US Secretary of State Pompeo said in a statement today that he had advised US President Trump to give the Saudi Arabians a few more days to conduct their investigation.   It seems highly likely that the US and Saudi Arabia will come up with a plausible, but not credible, story about rogue agents botching an interrogation in hopes that the news cycle will simply move on in time.  US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has announced that he will not attend the financial conference being sponsored by the Saudi Arabians next week.  We will see how the Saudis respond to this decision.  

Posted October 18, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 October 2018   Leave a comment

There is an increasingly surreal discussion going on about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  He entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul 15 days ago and has not been seen since.  There are widespread reports of a audio documenting Khashoggi’s torture, dismemberment, and death, but we have little direct confirmation of what the audio reveals.  The closest direct description of the audio evidence that I have been able to find was revealed by Middle East Eye:

“It took seven minutes for Jamal Khashoggi to die, a Turkish source who has listened in full to an audio recording of the Saudi journalist’s last moments told Middle East Eye.

“Khashoggi was dragged from the consul-general’s office at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and onto the table of his study next door, the Turkish source said.

“Horrendous screams were then heard by a witness downstairs, the source said.

“‘The consul himself was taken out of the room. There was no attempt to interrogate him. They had come to kill him,’ the source told MEE.

“The screaming stopped when Khashoggi – who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate on 2 October – was injected with an as yet unknown substance.

“Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who has been identified as the head of forensic evidence in the Saudi general security department, was one of the 15-member squad who arrived in Ankara earlier that day on a private jet.

“Tubaigy began to cut Khashoggi’s body up on a table in the study while he was still alive, the Turkish source said.

“The killing took seven minutes, the source said.

“As he started to dismember the body, Tubaigy put on earphones and listened to music. He advised other members of the squad to do the same.

“’When I do this job, I listen to music. You should do [that] too,’ Tubaigy was recorded as saying, the source told MEE.

“A three-minute version of the audio tape has been given to Turkish newspaper Sabah, but they have yet to release it.”

This description may or may not be accurate.  The Turks claim to have the audio evidence but they have yet to release it.  That reluctance may be due to a desire by the Turks not to reveal their surveillance of the Saudi Consulate.  Or it may be because the Turks are using the tape to force concessions from Saudi Arabia on matters concerning Syria, the Kurds, or the location of gas pipelines from Qatar.

What we do know is that US President Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a fact-finding mission.  The photograph of the meeting between Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Salman is strikingly dissonant–the smiles belie the seriousness of the matter being discussed. 

Moreover, when Pompeo left Turkey, he made this comment about his fact-finding mission to the press:  “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They [the Saudis] didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”  Deferring to the Saudi self-interrogation of this crime is a pathetic position.  Obviously, the US is not really interested at all in finding out the truth.  It is also not clear how much financial interests are driving US policy toward Saudi Arabia. 

More importantly, it appears as if Pompeo failed to negotiate some sort of rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  Instead, it appears as if President Trump’s defense of the Crown Prince has angered Turkish President Erdogan.  US-Turkish relations are already fragile, but if the charges against the Crown Prince are proven, Turkey will emerge as a more powerful actor in the Middle East. 

Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman, May 20, 2017

Posted October 17, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 October 2018   Leave a comment

The global economy produces about $80 trillion worth of “stuff” every year.  That figure measures what the global market counts as economically valuable as determined by the prices at which goods and services are sold.  It is not necessarily what each one of us might regard as valuable (there are many things for sale in the market that many of us would never think of buying, and far more things that many of us would never consider selling).  But it is a measure of what people are willing to buy and sell, and that economic activity is broken down by states.

The fiscal year just ended for the Federal government and it ended with a 
$779 billion deficit.  That deficit is 17% more than it was last year and the increase is quite dramatic given that the country has a booming economy and is not fighting a major new war.   Government spending last year only grew by 3% so the deficit is largely the consequence of much lower tax receipts because of the tax cuts passed by Congress last year.  Most strikingly, corporate tax revenues declined by 31% despite large increases in the profitability of companies in the US because the corporate tax was reduced from 35 to 21%:  “Corporate profits jumped 15.4% year-over year in the first half of 2018, compared with a rise of just 6.1% in the first half of 2017, before the tax cuts went into effect. That’s the biggest semi-annual jump in profits since 2012.” The tax cuts were passed on the assumption that they would increase economic growth substantially and therefore tax revenues.  That assumption does not appear to be valid.  At some point, the deficit will become unsustainable, at which point taxes will have to be raised or government spending has to be cut.  How that pain will be distributed is a question of great political moment. 

It is very difficult to determine US policy in Syria.  President Trump made it very clear when he was a candidate that he favored a US pullout from the country.   But US commitments to Israel and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran in the region make keeping that promise.   President Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has been quoted as saying: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”  Colin P. Clarke and Ariane Tabatabai have written an essay for The Atlantic which outlines the long-term difficulties of the inability to define precisely US goals in Syria. 

Posted October 16, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

14 October 2018   Leave a comment

US President Trump threatened Saudi Arabia with “severe punishment” if the allegations concerning the disappearance of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.  National Public Radio relates the Saudi response:

“‘The Kingdom also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action,’ Saudi Arabia’s state-run news agency said Sunday, ominously noting that the country plays ‘an influential and vital role in the global economy.’

“Citing an ‘official source,’ the Saudi Press Agency added that Riyadh ‘affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it.’ Rather, if Saudis face ‘political pressures’ such as accusations or sanctions, ‘the outcome of these weak endeavors, like their predecessors, is a demise.'”

There is considerable confusion about the evidence which Turkey purports to have proving that Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.  That confusion most likely stems from the fact that Turkey does not wish to reveal how it has “bugged” the Saudi Embassy.  But several media outlets report that the evidence has been shared with the US.   The controversy has threatened a major conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia whose official title is the “Future Investment Initiative” but is often referred to as “Davos in the Desert” which is scheduled for 23-25 October.   Many participants have dropped out of the conference and pressure is being applied to many more, including US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, to cancel as a protest.   The US-Saudi relationship is murky given the private financial interests President Trump has with Saudi citizens which have yet to be fully disclosed.

One of the most important parties in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition is the Christian Social Union (CSU) which has ruled in the southern German state of Bavaria for many years.  For the first time since the 1950s, the CSU appears to have lost its majority in the Bavarian Parliament.  The CSU lost support on the issue of migration, and the pro-immigration party, the Greens, gained significant support.  But the right-wing party, Alternative for Germany, earned 11% of the vote and will therefore have seats in the Bavarian Parliament.  The loss raises serious questions about Merkel’s already fragile coalition, and an increasingly polarized German electorate with gains on both the right and the left.  A weaker German government is not good news for the beleaguered European Union. 

The US and the Taliban have been meeting face-to-face for several years in Qatar to discuss a possible end to the conflict in Afghanistan.  The meetings have not yielded substantive results, but there are reports that the two sides are discussing a possible pull-out of the roughly 14,000 US troops in the country.   The talks are only preliminary and it is difficult to see how they will move forward, but the mere fact that the topic is being entertained as a topic is a new position for the US.  The Taliban controls more territory than it did at the time of the US invasion in 2001, but it cannot control any of the major cities for any period of time.  But the people of Afghanistan have made it clear that they want the fighting to end

Posted October 14, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 October 2018   Leave a comment

Ben Rhodes is a former deputy national-security adviser to Barack Obama and he has written an excellent backgrounder on the US-Saudi Arabian relationship for The Atlantic.  The Trump Administration has elevated Saudi Arabia as perhaps its second-most important ally in the Middle East–second only to Israel.  Saudi Arabia has emerged as an important supporter of the still-yet-to-be-released Middle East peace program which will undoubtedly ask the Palestinians to make incredible concessions to Israel.  The Trump Administration hopes that Saudi Arabia can help to dampen the Arab rage that would follow from such a deal.  The US is also depending upon Saudi Arabia to serve as a bulwark against the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, even though Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are significantly weaker than Iran.  The price of the US support, however, has been high.  It has been forced to accept Saudi war crimes in the Yemeni civil war, to say nothing about the persecution of dissidents in Saudi Arabia, to back Saudi Arabia in its dispute with a far closer US ally, Canada, and to back a massively ineffective embargo against Qatar, which hosts one of the largest US naval bases in the world.  The most recent outrage over the possible murder of a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, suggests that Saudi Arabia believes that the US will do nothing to oppose whatever actions it conducts in the region.  In short, the US appears to be the junior partner in this alliance. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power 4 years ago in India, and it has been consolidating its power very systemically.  Its appeal is largely based on its emphasis on India as a Hindu nation, largely displacing the formerly dominant Indian Congress Party whose platform emphasized secular nationalism.  Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi the party has engineered a number of electoral victories, although it has also suffered some setbacks.   Interestingly, however, it is beginning to appear as if Hindu nationalism has also set off other nationalisms within India, mitigating the power of a single idea of Hinduism.  What has happened in India since 2014 mirrors much of what has been going on in the rest of the world.  But the real question now is how nuanced the idea of nation can become–it can be a truly fragmenting ideology. 

Posted October 13, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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