Saudi-U.S. Tensions Mark Opportunity

For many years close ties with arch-conservative and sometime Salafi terrorist Saudi Arabia have imperiled long-term U.S. interests even as they facilitated a variety of poorly conceived U.S. short-term goals. Now, amid press reports of Saudi disenchantment, is it time for the U.S. to move toward a healthier equidistance, e.g., between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and Turkey?

Press reports of Saudi disenchantment with the U.S. are timely: U.S. national interests are increasingly undermined by Saudi support for regional militarists, be they private Salafi groups or military dictatorships or Zionist expansionists. Washington would gain freedom of action and influence by declaring its independence and maneuvering as a friendly neutral willing to do business with moderate Turkey and whatever Shi’i or Sunni forces might be willing to curb their own particular violent impulses. Washington’s goal should be to guide Riyadh, Tehran, and Tel Aviv toward less threatening, more stabilizing domestic and foreign policies over the long term, even at the expense of obtaining tempting but very expensive little tactical favors that only further endanger long-range U.S. national security and push the U.S. into corners from which it cannot easily escape.

Gunboat diplomacy–whether conducted by Israeli aggression against Palestine and Lebanon, U.S. aggression against Iraq, or Saudi aggression against Yemen or Bahrain–at best achieves short-term gains in return for disproportionate long-term losses. Americans will pay heavily for supporting yet another Egyptian military dictatorship, for tolerating Saudi financing of a new Salafi rebel front in Syria, for refusing to see the many obvious opportunities to do useful business with Iran, for failing to give more enthusiastic support to Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s vision of a moderate Mideast, for allowing Zionists as conservative as the Saudi sheikhs to push Israel steadily toward militarism. It is time to tell Riyadh quietly that U.S. cooperation is not the same as U.S. kowtowing.

Disengagement from Saudi Arabia will not, however, be either safe or easy: in the context of an angry and desperate Pakistan whose domestic instability has been greatly worsened over the past decade of short-sighted U.S. drone attacks, the danger of a militant Sunni axis powered by Pakistani military power and Saudi money is all too real. This danger does not justify U.S. kowtowing to the Saudi sheikhs who now stand so clearly in the path of history, but it should serve as a caution for the U.S. to move carefully as it (one hopes) repositions itself to encourage the modernization of a Mideast far too dangerous to ignore.

New 21st Century Realities

The 20th century world of “blocs,” i.e., rigid, hierarchical alliances that really were blocks, is passing; the 21st century world is emerging as a layered, networked, and very flexible world. Those countries aspiring to be leaders in the dramatically new 21st century will need to adapt to benefit from this new structure, which is the result of fundamental economic and technological drivers that old-fashioned decision-makers will resist only at their peril.

World affairs in the 20th century was at core simple: fascist vs. anti-fascist, communist vs. anti-communist, imperialist vs. national liberation, poor vs. rich. These simple distinctions into two blocks worked well to explain global divisions in political, economic, and geographic terms. One knew which side one was on, and the situation could remain fixed for decades. The 21st century is turning out to be vastly more complicated, with both antagonists and opportunities appearing with disconcertingly little warning…except to those who look far into the future. More, one will be disappointed if one looks for emerging blocs; rather, one will need to focus on layers, with an economic alliance on one level not necessarily matching the political alliance operating on another level, raising the question of which layer may contain the real driving forces. Will economics drive politics or politics drive economics? Will we find friends via racial, religious, and ideological ties or at the end of a cross-continental gas pipeline that took a decade to build?

A structure of layered alliances with an economic alliance structure at one layer very different from the political alliance structure at another and both very different from geographical proximity will of course not exist without links, resulting in a network. Add a new flexibility resulting from the potential for politics, economics, or geography as the primary driving factor to a much greater degree than during the 20th century, and the result is a highly flexible network rather than the extraordinarily hierarchical situation during the bipolar Cold War. The result will be to require far more sophisticated decision-makers with a vastly greater level of understanding of global processes than was required to be successful in the 20th century world. Successful strategic planners will need to see emerging ties resulting from a wide variety of long-term economic pressures decades before they become obvious.

The Sino-West Asian Development Zone. One may say that no such animal as a “Sino-West Asian Development Zone” exists, but the explosion of trade over the last decade among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and China [see Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation, for a valuable analysis] plus the many political arguments for closer ties among this odd group make the case for predicting the emergence of this new economic cooperation zone, with closer political ties surely to follow. Iran, malevolently marginalized by the U.S.-Israeli axis, and Iraq, ruined by the U.S. invasion, desperately need markets, while the rapidly developing Chinese and Turkish economies need energy. Solidifying plans for China to build nuclear power plants in Turkey [Financial Times] symbolize the long-term nature of this emerging alliance. Sino-Turkish trade growth over the past decade has been very rapid; China is now Iran’s leading trade partner [Free Beacon]. Iraq is Turkey’s second largest trade partner. China is poised to replace the U.S. conqueror as Iraq’s largest trade partner, a shift emblematic of China’s cautious but profitable foreign policy at the expense of a far more violent and erratic U.S. With European-Russian tensions over Ukraine drawing attention to European dependence on Russian natural gas and the winding down of U.S. economic warfare against Iran, Turkish interest in moving forward on a new gas pipeline from Iran into Turkey and on to Europe is rising [Today's Zaman 2/9/14], in what may become a crucial factor for the potential of a Sino-West Asian development zone. Although potential political roadblocks are legion (e.g., Israeli efforts to provoke U.S. war against Iran; Iraqi nervousness over Iranian influence; Baghdad’s dislike of tight Turkish relations with Iraqi Kurdistan; clerical ideological extremism in Iran), with U.S. influence in the Mideast on the wane, economic reasons for cooperation appear likely to dominate relations among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and China.

The Sino-Saudi-Pakistani Triangle. What is there not to like about a partnership between a rich oil exporter, a rising superpower with endless energy needs, and a marginalized country that needs a friend and owns the Islamic bomb? Indeed, this triangle has been sputtering along for decades, held in check only by U.S. power. But U.S. ties with the Saudis are not quite what they were before the global war against Saudi Salafi extremism, while U.S. ties with Pakistan are imperiled by the U.S. drone attacks and the winding down of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, worsened by U.S. reluctance to step up to the plate and provide Pakistan with desperately needed economic aid. With Sunni conservatism arguably intensifying in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, China now essentially Pakistan’s only friend, and burgeoning Sino-Saudi trade ties, this is one 21st century alliance where the political and economic layers dovetail nicely.

In brief, any Western decision-maker who imagines that “Iran is an outcast,” “Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally,” “N.A.T.O. member Turkey is in the Western camp,” or “China is a long way from the Mideast,” may be in for a big surprise.

A Concise Modern History of Eagles and Bears

For half a century, the eagle and the bear contended for supremacy, holding all the world’s creatures in a state of terror. One day, the bear starting thinking and realized he was running in circles and getting tired, so he growled to the eagle, “There are enough fish in the sea for us both; go in peace, eagle.”

Stunned, the eagle murmured assent, but events did not turn out as the bear had hoped. The eagle twisted its sharp beak into a smile but seemed unable to curb its appetite, snatching fish right out of the bear’s teeth. Both bear and eagle faced new tests: the bear had to learn to handle humiliation; perhaps more difficult, the eagle had to learn to handle hubris.

The bear retired to lick its wounds, pulled in its claws, and went into hibernation, dreaming of past glories and assessing future prospects. Overjoyed, the eagle flew erratically in every direction but soon came to find life oddly dissatisfying with no bear to challenge; worse, all manner of little forest creature started running loose in the new era of freedom. An intensely irritating group of mice hiding where the eagle could not reach them started making fun of the eagle, enraging it. The eagle struck, over and over; it caught a few, which only stimulated its appetite. In no time, mice seemed to be everywhere laughing and sneering, just out of reach. The eagle attacked the mice, then turned to fly majestically over the bear’s cave, then turned elsewhere, its attention constantly distracted by its own new freedom to soar without interference wherever it chose.

Hibernation does not last forever; spring arrives. So eventually, the chastened and very hungry bear poked its head out of its cave, only to see the eagle sitting on its now tattered nest nursing a broken wing…but absurdly still screeching and demanding obedience. Albeit less imposing, the eagle’s demands seemed somehow more irritating. After trying to eat everything in sight, the eagle had a stomach ache, was tired and confused, and had been unable even to catch the irritating little mice that had originally so whetted its appetite.

The eagle had lacked the wisdom to handle hubris; the bear grinned through its teeth and sniffed the breeze.

Listen to Your Federal Bureaucrats, Not to Politicians

Citizens, please keep in mind that two different “governments” exist in the “U.S. Government:” the smooth-talking politicians and the bureaucracy. If you want to know what is happening, never listen to a politician: they do not discuss events, and certainly not processes or causes; they discuss what they want you to believe. The bureaucracy, in contrast, is world-class: it continually gives the lie to the hot air from politicians and constitutes ones of the true jewels of American democracy. You pay for it, so use it!

Completely undermining Obama’s smooth talk about economic progress, here is what the U.S. Federal bureaucracy has to say about employment:

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) 

increased by 203,000 in February to 3.8 million; these individuals accounted for 37.0 percent of the unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed was down by 901,000 over the year. (See table A-12.) Both the civilian labor force participation rate (63.0 percent) and the employment-population ratio (58.8 percent) were unchanged in February. The labor force participation rate was down 0.5 percentage point from a year ago, while the employment-population ratio was little changed over the year. (See table A-1.) The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was little changed at 7.2 million in February. [Bureau of Labor Statistics.]

If you want to know where the U.S. economy is headed, this is really all you need to know, but to summarize even further, in February long-term unemployment rose, the rate of employment–already at historic lows–dropped a bit more, and the number of people on forced part-time remained steady. This is the picture of an economy on rock-bottom. Pay no attention to the distorted statistics about growth that lump billionaire gambling receipts via derivatives on Wall St. in with the declining earnings of Main St.; that sort of “averaging” has nothing to do with the real economy, except to cover up the existence of a class war by the rich.

 

Calling a Weakened America’s Bluff

Obama seems to be having a hard time with Putin over the very complicated Ukrainian issue. The traditional brute force of power politics approach heavily favors neighboring Russia, and the obvious preference of some Ukrainian citizens for Moscow over Kiev only strengthens Putin’s hand. The U.S. has historically played the strong card of principle, but Washington has, over the last 15 years, so abused and scorned the whole concept of basing international behavior upon principles that for Obama now to cite principle simply invites a degree of laughter that would only further weaken his position.

Almost everyone sees the attraction and morality of self-determination as an ideal; claiming to support it almost automatically strengthens one’s case. But how can Washington cite self-determination when it covers Israeli rejection of self-determination for Palestinians, rejects the Taliban right to have a say in Afghanistan’s future, invades and manipulates Iraq, supports military coups in Latin America, and publicly dreams of regime change in Iran while drawing only the most delicate of veils over all manner of illegal and aggressive efforts to provoke such regime change? Of course, there is nothing new in international relations about hypocrisy, but the point is that in rejecting principle when it had saw the chance for a quick short-term gain, Washington has caused itself considerable harm over the long term, and thus now Obama finds himself playing a needlessly weak hand on an issue with significant long-term national security implications.

So NATO sends jet fighters to Poland, virtually compelling Russia to respond, which it did by moving not just jets but a whole invasion force to its border with Ukraine. But it is hard to criticize Putin for deploying forces as he sees fit within his own borders, especially when the situation across the border is undeniably falling apart. Now that Obama’s effort to bluff with a weak hand has come a cropper, leaving the U.S. position significantly weaker than before he tried the bizarrely idiotic idea of promoting the militarization of the crisis, what is Obama going to do next? Ban Putin from visiting Texas any more?

Crimea: The Core Principle

Much needs to be said about the Ukrainian crisis, though almost all of the important lessons appear to be in the process of being shoved under various rugs. The most fundamental seems to me the right, denied by every politician in power everywhere, of people to choose their country and, it logically follows, for a regional majority to choose to become part of another country. Putin would have a very, very strong case if he were advocating a fair and honest referendum in Crimea (rather than one run by the Russian army).

The general principle of democracy now having been stated, let us all take a deep breath and consider what this principle would entail right up front (nothing fancy here; leave all the ultimate consequences for later consideration). To make this perfectly clear, I propose U.N.-supervised referendums, all on the same day, in the following regions:

  • Crimea
  • Chechnya
  • Palestine
  • Waziristan
  • Baluchistan
  • Tibet
  • Kashmir
  • Quebec
  • Vermont.

If Vermont votes to secede, I have just one caveat – please, please, allow me to sign up! As for Chechnya, Putin’s vicious suppression of Chechen aspirations for liberty–and when has a minority ever been treated worse than the Chechens???–gives the lie to his sudden concern for the aspirations of various Ukranian groups in the clearest possible terms.

Bottom line: No one should be forced to live in a country he does not want to live in (no, I do not want to get into all the obvious practical problems), and no local majority should be either. I am of course speaking of principles. Actually determining some set of feasible procedures is only step two. But why is it that despite all the talk about democracy, no one is willing to recognize the principle of self-determination when it requires “me” to give up territory to “them?”

Bottomed Out Economy

This graph shows the state of the U.S. economy: working populationfive years of absolutely flat employment as a percentage of the population [Bureau of Labor Statistics]. No recovery exists. The U.S. economy is at what at best can be called “flat bottom,” though even that is of course delusional, since it could get much worse. Indeed, the rising level of food stamp distributions suggests that it is getting worse. Covering this reality is the stock market bubble, the result of an Obama Administration policy of corporate welfare. This policy, aside from paying off those who fund the increasingly private electoral system (one dollar, one vote, thanks to the Supreme Court), has the additional virtue of making an economic disaster look positive.

The State of the Corpora…Ah…Union

My Fellow Americans,

The mistakes that were made in the years leading up to 2008 have been corrected, and we are recovering. Not only is the stock market booming but the massive corporate welfare program my buddy George and I began in 2008 has succeeded in restoring your wealth so effectively that you will soon need no more welfare at all…except for the regular things, like the oil corporation subsidy–which, I might point out, I was able to protect for you one more time. (Laughter.)  I also kept all of you protected from embarrassing court trials, you may recall, after, well, mistakes were made. Not only is your future secured, my fellow Americans but those unfortunate other Americans who did not have what it takes to retain their jobs are no longer unemployed: they are simply not counted, all 20,000,000 of them. And not just that! We are proud to announce that along with thus lowering unemployment, we have also succeeded in handing out food stamps to the largest percentage of Americans ever in history. But perhaps the single most important accomplishment of all is that the revolutionary new concept of “one dollar, one vote” has become the law of the land–with hardly a whimper of protest from that Great New Middle Class that was supposed to have been the champion defender of democracy. And all the while that crass, ever-so-cutely named “Patriot Act” remains on the books, in force, ready to smash down those who are not team players. Need I point out that no Neo-Con could have achieved this – only a leader capable of talking to liberals in their own language could have maintained in force a law that sends Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties straight to the archives!

In foreign affairs as well our accomplishments will go down in the history books. The long agonizing effort to establish permanent military bases in Iraq has been replaced by the far more sophisticated method of permanent drone warfare against the enemies of the corporations that continue to build the global economy. Even as the domestic troublemakers who thought they could “occupy” our street have been blown into orbit, our old friends are back in control of Egypt, and with all the chaos in Iraq making the headlines, the U.S. military has moved firmly into place in Africa. As for Afghanistan, fear not: “we” are not leaving.

Hand-in-hand, we who are privileged to do our modest part here in Washington and you, the great corporate leaders, stride together into the future on the two legs of domestic wealth transfer from that old-fashioned New Deal middle class that was becoming so problematic and international wealth transfer from hapless third world statelets into the hands of 21st century leaders who know how to make history.

We are beginning a new era. The Neo-Cons, give them their due, accomplished the great task of killing the ever-so-dull New Deal process of creating a fat and lazy middle class but the Neo-Cons were, frankly, pathetically barbaric, troglodytes even, not 21st century guys at all. Today, we modern types are in charge, and your wealth is more secure than ever, protected by a host of new presidential powers – presidential wars to be sure (nod to the Neo-Cons) but fought by intelligence agencies in the field and guys with joysticks safe back at home, domestic spying that can almost read the thoughts of every little citizen, a host of new regulatory procedures so complicated they will never be enforced, a justice system so crippled that only the most carefully selected scapegoats will ever be put on trial. Welcome to America the Neo-Lib!

Today, we are more secure than ever. It was once believed that America needed a world safe for business. Not true! Chaos is opportunity. Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt are in flames yet offer historic opportunities for American business. While I am keeping Iranian oil off the world market, Iraqi oil is set to boom, with $100 billion about to be invested by Exxon-Mobile and other Western oil companies. Meanwhile, legendary Afghan mineral resources are being identified.

The little people have their gay marriage controversies, their endlessly complicated health care options (that still enrich our great pharmaceutical and health insurance corporations), their occasional terrorist scares, and the endless battle over which type of guns they will be allowed to use to kill each other while we stand secure, making history together.

Measuring U.S. Decline: Middle Class Shrinking

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class household-income-distribution is continuing to shrink, even as the 40-year-long trend toward inequality accelerates (Washington Post and the Census Bureau). The graph to the right (from the excellent post on MyBudget360) illustrates how the mass of the U.S. population is now stuck well over on the poor end of income distribution – definitely not the picture of a healthy middle-class society.

This is actually a lot worse than it sounds since poverty is also rising, judging from the record level of people on food stamps. Thus, the historic rise of the middle class that occurred after World War II by replacing a shrinking class of the underprivileged and heralded the rise of the U.S. to global preeminence is now being reversed by both a shrinking of the middle class as its members slip one by one back into the now expanding class of the underprivileged. The decline of the U.S. as a symbol of a bright global future and the decline of U.S. power can be expected to follow…and indeed both trends are increasingly obvious with the failure of the Neo-Con colonial dreams in Iraq, the rise of an independent Iran, the opening of the Mideast to China, the decline in U.S. prospects in Afghanistan, the ineffectual two-decade U.S. adventure in Somalia, and–most of all–the seemingly terminal illness of the fatally corrupt U.S. financial system.

1SaezTop10PShareThe scope and reality of the current shift of national wealth away from the middle class and into the hands of the overprivileged is indicated by a graph from the invaluable Wearethe99% site depicting the proportion of income by year held by the top 10% of the population. The “Great Compression” years of 1941-1979 stand in stunning contrast to the post-Reagan collapse of the New Deal compromise over the last four decades. The linear trend toward accumulation of national wealth in the hands of the rich is the very picture of a class war arithmetically certain to turn the U.S. into a third world country unless reversed.

How the rich have engineered this financial revolution is really no secret: they took over the government, hiding to a great extent behind Republican smoke about “small government” and rewrote its laws for their own benefit, as Wearethe99%’s graph of the precipitous decline in tax rates for the rich over the last half century illustrates: the effective U.S. tax rate on the richest 400 Americans went from 50% in 1955 to 17% in 2007. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides a revealing analysis. Blaming Reagan for killing the middle class is not just liberal propaganda: “top marginal income tax rates in the United States or the United Kingdom were above 70% in the 1970s before the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions drastically cut them by 40 percentage points within a decade.” [Voxeu.org.] Cutting tax rates on the rich as their incomes exploded amounted to one of the greatest welfare programs in history. Tax code giveaways carefully designed to favor the rich ice the cake, as shown in a revealing little slideshow from Bankrate.comToday workers support the country, and the rich benefit; that is the law.

None of this should be news to anyone: these are significant not as news but as markers of the wholesale decline of U.S. society. But this of course has nothing to do with class war – i.e., none of the super-rich currently raking in the dough from a booming stock market held up by corporate welfare from the Fed would dream of intentionally milking the 99%.

Blow Your Whistle: It Is Your Duty

If you work for the Government and do not take your whistle to the office every day, resign: you are not serving the American people. It is your moral duty–and it should be your legal duty–to look for and report abuse of power.

At the core of any judgment about the course of democracy and liberty must lie the society’s and the ruling elite’s attitude toward the two-sided coin of whistle-blowing/obeying the law. The law is never the law; the powerful always get special treatment. Nevertheless, one might argue that the law should be the law…at least until we gain the maturity to fix its weaknesses. But in the meantime, those who abuse power must, one way or the other, be dealt with, and, after all, they are the ones who write the law as well as the ones who implement the law…frequently for the purpose of protecting themselves from being held responsible for the abuses they commit. And everyone is reminded daily by the dishonorable behavior of our government that those who work within the system to report abuses of power are promptly stabbed in the back for their patriotism. Patriotism is simply not a concept that much occupies the minds of Washington decision-makers.

Thus, the focus in response to whistle-blowing should always, always be on listening to the revealed evidence rather than judging the whistle-blower. In the case of Snowden, the Obama Administration did absolutely everything it could to conceal the message and punish the messenger.

The second level focus should be on placing the particular act of whistle-blowing in context. If a gang of war profiteer corporations is cashing in on a war of choice distinguished by a long list of apparent fraud (e.g., by illegally awarding a multi-billion dollar sole source contract to a buddy) or crimes against humanity (e.g., widespread torture, the dropping of white phosphorous on cities), a bureaucrat’s misdemeanor of reporting abuse of power  should be judged very sympathetically. If a president is running a secret program illegally, unconstitutionally using intelligence agencies to violate U.S. law by operating domestically to spy on all Americans, again a bureaucrat’s misdemeanor of reporting such abuse of power should be judged very sympathetically. The law is the law. Running a red light is illegal. However, one expects consideration when one runs a red light to save a child from an on-coming truck.

Whistles

Snowden is guilty. Slap his wrist, then give him the reward he deserves for saving the child of democracy. Then, put Clapper on trial for lying to Congress, put Obama on trial for running unconstitutional domestic spying, and put the guilty NSA officials on trial for not blowing the whistle.

Oh, sorry, ya can’t; ain’t no law requiring officials to uphold the Constitution by blowing their whistles. How convenient for those who abuse; kinda like making it illegal for a battered wife to fight for her life but “forgetting” to make beating up your wife a crime. Gee, guess we gotta fix the law.