Obama did not exactly say, “Putin, trust me, we Americans know what it means to get stuck in a quagmire, so take this warning to heart.” Nor, of course, did Putin take it that way. Pity.

President Obama noted publicly that “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.” Obama will quite probably be proven correct, but to understand the outrageous hypocrisy of the remark, simply remove the names by abstracting as follows:

An attempt by [a global power and a regional client] to prop up a [vicious regional dictator] and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.

There was, for you young readers who haven’t studied your history, once a guy named Leonid who discovered this for himself in Afghanistan. Too bad Leonid was too old to write a history, for we are all still suffering from the consequences two generations later, and it would have been considerate of him to have warned us against repeating his mistake. Now, to be fair, I suspect Obama has in fact read some history, judging from his path-breaking (we hoped) Cairo speech way back at the now long forgotten beginning of his White House years, but in the rush of trying to run the world, one overlooks even the most obvious of lessons, which leads to having to rush all the more to learn them all over again…which brings us to the hypocrisy of Obama’s pot calling Putin’s kettle “black.”

This very week, as Putin solidifies his military position in Syria and flattens Aleppo (wasn’t that once a city that supported Assad?), Obama, who has been vigorously arming Riyadh with the bombs it has been using the past couple years to flatten Yemen, actually opened fire against one side in the very long Yemeni civil war. Did any Houthi imagine that Obama would respond to a Houthi rocket attack on a highly threatening U.S. destroyer sneaking around off the Yemeni coast by apologizing for the havoc wrought across the world’s most abused society by U.S. bombs over the past two years? [Note: it remains unclear whether it actually was Houthis rather than some false flag element hoping to provoke a thoughtlessly violent American response.] Bad judgment by the Houthis it may have been, and yet, fighting for your political rights against the combined might of Western bombs and Western-supplied Saudi jets for two years and then watching a U.S. destroyer, armed to the teeth, sticking its nose where it did not belong (was it…no surely not…inside Yemeni waters???) must get frustrating. More to the point, to quote a certain U.S. politician, all this is going to get the short-tempered superpower that just moved from the background of the Western campaign to manipulate the Yemeni civil war into the limelight “stuck in a quagmire.”


Dear Donald, Dear Hillary, “If elected, will you continue the Obama policy of supporting the Saudi aerial war against one side in the Yemeni civil war?”


Provoking an Oil War Is a Bad Bet for the U.S.

Perhaps Washington has a secret plan for defeating Tehran in a contest over oil, but Tehran has enormous tactical advantages, while the relevance of Washington’s vast military superiority appears questionable. Has anyone in Washington actually thought this out?

Departing Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitriy Rogozin cautioned that:

Iran is our close neighbor, just south of the Caucasus. Should anything happen to Iran, should Iran get drawn into any political or military hardships, this will be a direct threat to our national security.

These are words Washington should weigh carefully. Rogozin did not retire; he was promoted…to deputy prime minister. It seems reasonable to read his words as a clear warning from Moscow that anything remotely like an invasion of Iraq-style adventure by Washington against Iran would be seen as endangering Russian national security. Instead of wondering if Iran can close the Straits of Hormuz, we should be wondering if Russia could do so.

Russia obviously has a wide range of reasons for avoiding a conflict with the U.S., so the question reduces to:

What is the minimum amount of Russian assistance to Iran that would enable Iran to reduce oil shipments through Hormuz sufficiently to cause a severe impact on U.S. policy?

To lay out some scenarios takes little more than common sense and imagination. It is hard to think of anything easier to hit than a monstrous oil tanker, though the difficulty of actually sinking one is debatable. The Exxon Valdez disaster implies that they sink all too easily, but they do have certain passive strengths. Nevertheless, any contest between an oil tanker and a modern military is obviously heavily weighted in favor of the attacking military. That said, reality is even worse for those dazzled by the idea of a quick, easy victory over Iran.

The reason is not all that complicated: the real issue may well be more a combination of finance and psychology than technical or military considerations. How many oil tankers would have to sink or even catch fire before shippers would refuse to continue be sitting targets? Iran has a huge tactical advantage in this game. Someone should list all the anti-ship missiles and mines on the world market today capable of stopping an oil tanker. How long would it take for the U.S. to clear a burning oil tanker from the strait? How much interference to oil shipping (reportedly 14 tankers per day through the strait) would one burning oil tanker cause?

Iran has had more than a decade to prepare for this situation since the last time the U.S. fought a naval war against it to aid Saddam and protect oil tankers. This time Moscow may be less cooperative with Washington. Beyond that lies Beijing’s strong interest in keeping Iranian oil flowing. Then there’s the little issue of domestic support.

If direct conflict erupts between Washington and Tehran, Tehran hardliners will gain an immediate boost in popularity as defenders of the country. Meanwhile, interruptions in the oil flow will be placing one more economic burden on the shoulders of Westerners. As war brings Iranians together, it will be ripping Western societies apart. What are the chances that pampered Westerners will prove willing to accept economic sacrifice as long as Iranians who are fighting for their independence–with the “full encouragement” of a harsh, semi-autocratic regime?

And all the above concerns just direct military conflict.


One more possible Iranian tactic that all those American weapons could not deal with: 

introduce so much hysteria into the oil market that price spikes will allow it to earn the same revenue from a reduced volume of exports [Mark Heller, New York Times, thanks to Friday Lunch Club ]


The assumption that a war over the international oil supply will be military is in many ways a comforting one for Americans, since military superiority is Washington’s one strong card. But why would Tehran choose to play the game this way? The easiest way for Iran to fight back is simply to stop exporting hydrocarbons. If the resulting rise in Western gas and heating fuel prices does not hand victory to Iran, the next most obvious target would perhaps be the roughly 2 million barrels per day exported by Iraq, where many oil workers might be expected to feel some sympathy for a fellow Shi’i society under attack by the U.S. Exactly how does Washington imagine it might respond to the combination of Iran halting exports combined with a quiet sabotage campaign by its friends in Iraq?

U.S. Policy on Iran Invites Third-Party Provocations

U.S. policy toward Iran is not just designed to fail but designed to hand the initiative to America’s enemies.

Washington claims that its goal is to prevent Iran from militarizing its nuclear technology but single-mindedly adheres to a policy designed to avoid achieving that goal. Assuming Washington is sincere in its professed intent but simply confused about how to get there, the policy–which has the obvious practical effects of alienating Iran, whipping up tension, and prolonging the crisis atmosphere–contains the profound hidden danger of creating ideal conditions for third-party provocations designed to trick the two sides into open conflict.

Secretary of State Clinton recently stated:

We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution that restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). [IPSNews 1/11/12.]

Nevertheless, Washington carefully avoids any public hint that it might actually be willing to listen to Tehran’s perspective or, much less, accommodate reasonable Iranian interests in independence, participation in regional affairs, and national security.

The higher international tensions rise and the deeper the level of mutual distrust, the more difficult it will be for decision-makers on each side to stay calm, restrain radicals, resist popular anger, and investigate calmly whatever incidents may occur. Even for Americans, it is difficult to avoid the automatic assumption that the string of murders of Iranian scientists has been carried out by Washington; how much more difficult must it be for Iranians? Thoughtful American observers, including Juan Cole and Jim Lobe, are suggesting that these murders may be the result of Mossad financing of the MEK, a violent anti-regime Iranian dissident organization, and for purposes of undermining U.S. efforts to settle the nuclear issue. This highly logical hypothesis may well be true, but any number of other scenarios are also quite conceivable – from direct Israeli action [an hypothesis backed by an impressive array of evidence] to private financing by a rich believer in Israeli expansion to a truly cunning plot by al Qua’ida to replace the Iraqi trap, that cost so much American blood and treasure, with a sharper Iranian trap.

Indeed, revelations now just beginning to appear in U.S. and Israeli media about examples of Israeli deceit that directly harms U.S. national security show that the danger of provocations that could trap the U.S. in an undesired war are not just theoretical.

Israeli Anti-American Deceit Revealed

Israeli Mossad agents posed as CIA officers in order to recruit members of a Pakistani terror group to carry out assassinations and attacks against the regime in Iran, Foreign Policy revealed on Friday, quoting U.S. intelligence memos. 

Foreign Policy’s Mark Perry reported that the Mossad operation was carried out in 2007-2008, behind the back of the U.S. government, and infuriated then U.S. President George W. Bush. [Haaretz 1/13/12.]


In the end, it does not matter who the provocateur is. The point is that by designing a policy that is almost certain not to achieve its professed goal, Washington is setting itself up for being trapped by a provocation from a hostile third party. Ironically, it does not even matter if Washington’s real goal is to provoke a war that will enable it to colonize Iran, control the global oil market, and buttress its floundering empire. Even if Washington is hoping for war, it is still bad policy to put the initiative in the hands of an unknown hostile party. Just to note one obvious example, letting a hostile force control events means that we will not even know who might be President when the fatal match is struck. By following a policy designed to fail, Washington is, as you read these words, placing U.S. national security in the hands of its enemies.

Transparency! Responsibility! Regulation!

AmericaAmerican society and ruling eliteneeds some good, old common sense New Years Resolutions. To me, three seem pretty much to sum it up: transparency, responsibility, and regulation.
It is only common sense that a democracy cannot function if officials are allowed to hide what they do from those who hired them; no powerful official can for long resist the temptation in a dark closet to do something he has good reason to hide: the solution is to turn on the lights. Taking responsibility for your behavior is understandable to any well-bred three-year-old. Again, this is common sense: who will consistently behave responsibly when told they do not have to? Finally, not only do most of us fall short of sainthood, there is always a truly evil person in every crowd. For him certainly, but also just to help guide the rest of us to stay on the straight and narrow, it is, once again, only logical that we need regulation.
Transparency by those in power allows democratic political oversight and trains the elite to behave responsibly, while regulation reinforces responsibility. A century ago Lenin won a revolution with the famous slogan peace, bread, land. That was a slogan capturing the essence of what Russians thought they should receive from their government. Today, in the U.S., the issue is not about what government should give people but about how the elite that runs both government and corporate power centers behaves. Put briefly, an elite that behaves transparently and accepts responsibility for its actions would revolutionize America but could continue to exist; such an elite would be compatible with democracy. Absent such a revolutionary change in behavior, either the elite or democracy must give way.
In Finance. Four years after the entirely man-made 2008 financial crisis, the carefully concealed government program that rescued both the financial system (justifiable) and the millionaire crooks who almost broke it (unjustifiable) is only now leaking out into the public realm. Someday, a politician must be put on public trial and ordered to explain why bailing out the rich with taxpayer funds should be hidden from the taxpayers.

Lack of Financial Regulation

thanks largely to the fact that credit default swaps existed in a totally unregulated area of the financial universethis was the result of that 2000 law, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, sponsored by then-senator Phil Gramm and supported by then-Treasury chief Larry Summers and his predecessor Bob RubinCassano could sell as much credit protection as he wanted without having to post any real money at all. So he sold hundreds of billions of dollarsworth of protection to all the big players on Wall Street, despite the fact that he didnt have any money to cover those bets. [Matt Taibi, Griftopia, (Speigel and Grau Trade Paperbacks, 2011), 101.]


Who led the fight to keep taxpayers in the dark? Naturally, it was the Fed, that so-called Federal regulator complicit in the creation of the financial crisis by its cosy (read: corrupt,as in, dont forget to give me a nice Wall Street management position after my years in the government, now, good buddy) relationship with those it was assigned to regulate plusthe banks it was supposed to have been regulating. This is really not very hard to understand: if you were a billionaire who became a billionaire by cheating investors by persuading them to purchase what you knew to be bad investments and the government handed you free money from the pockets of American workers after you got in trouble, wouldnt you want to keep it secret?!? To find out what Washington was doing with taxpayer money behind the backs of taxpayers, Bloomberg had to file Freedom of Information requests! What was the bottom line?
banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Feds below-market rates
Either the Fed was so irresponsible and just plain stupid that it threw away $13B of taxpayer money orthis constitutes outright corruption.
in Foreign Affairs. Two countries today are responsible for generating a decade-long crisis that could provoke a disastrous war, perhaps even a nuclear war, by their game-playing over the concept of nuclear transparency: Israel and Iran. Regional nuclear monopolist Israel plays the dont ask-dont tellcharade, while Iran appears to be playing exactly the game that got Saddam killed: pretending for short-term status to have the ability to militarize nuclear technology overnight. Both Tel Aviv and Tehran need to grow up and support regional nuclear transparency as the first step toward the establishment of a shared security regime.
As for Washington, it should–as sole superpower–defend the interests of mankind and–as the elected government–defend U.S. national security: both obligations would be better served by promoted stability founded on mutual security than by getting into the middle of a squabble between foreign politicians playing games for personal advantage. Yes, moves to lower regional tensions would put the careers of Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu at risk. So what?
in Domestic Affairs.
When corporations are either 1) permitted by a society that provides them a business-friendly environment to enrich themselves or 2) are even assisted by corporate welfare to enrich themselves and their business behavior subsequently endangers the welfare of society, then that society must have a legal process for holding such corporations as entities and the managers of such corporations and their government friends personally responsible. Goldman Sachs executives, despite appearing to have engineered the collapse of AIG only to profit further from that disaster via a monstrous taxpayer bailout [Taibi, 118; Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics(Penguin Books: 2010), 228-9], remain free and rich while the millions who have lost homes and jobs remain homeless and unemployed.


Responsibility in Financial Affairs
Even though they werent really in danger of losing any money by holding on to [WM: AIG executive] Neugers securities, they were returning them anyway, just to force AIG into a crisis. [Taibi, 116] In essence, the partners of Goldman Sachs held the thousands of AIGpolicyholders hostage, all in order to recover a few billion bucks theyd bet on [WM: AIG executive] Joe Cassanos plainly crooked sweetheart CDS deals. [Taibi, 118.]

in Foreign Affairs. The war party infamous for the savaging of Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Somalia (using Ethiopian troops), Afghanistan, Pakistan should be held legally responsible in open court not only for what it did to foreigners but for the resultant American deaths and the harm to American principles. Were crimes committed (e.g., lying to the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq, illegal wiretapping, Abu Ghraib, war against civilian populations in such places as Fallujah)? Let the system of justice reach a decision. Throwing a rug of political denial over the rotten foundation of American democracy is not the way to prepare for the future.


Responsibility in Foreign Affairs
At the height of what looked like success in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials fretted endlessly about how, in the condescending phrase of the moment, to put an “Afghan face” or “Iraqi face” on America’s wars.  Now, at a nadir moment in the Greater Middle East, perhaps it’s finally time to put an American face on America’s wars, to see them clearly for the imperial debacles they have been — and act accordingly.  [Tom Dispatch 1/3/12.]
in Domestic Affairs. In 2010 a meek and vague new financial regulatory bill was signed into law, leaving the crucial details to be determined by the very regulatory foxes (e.g., in the Fed) whose irresponsibility and collusion brought us the financial crisis in the first place. We are being conned.


Regulation in Financial Affairs
We are now in the worst of all worlds, where many TBTF institutions have been bailed out and expect to be bailed out in any number of future crises. They have as yet faced no sustained regulatory scrutiny, and no system is in place to put them into insolvency should the need arise. Even worse, many of these institutionsstarting with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chaseare starting to engage once more in proprietary trading strategies,”…[Roubini, 224].
in Foreign Affairs. Regulation is relevant to foreign policy in two ways: the establishment of international law, which U.S. presidents have shamefully made careers out of violating in recent years, and domestic efforts to hold politicians to account for the foreign policy they implement. Regarding the latterthe idea of holding senior officials personally responsible for their foreign policy actions–the most egregious trend is the rising ability of the President to make war without the consent of Congress. (Yes, there is something in the Constitution about this.)
What Could Obama Do?Everyone, conservative or liberal, is now aware that Obama has yet to respond to the hopes of Americans for a savior to rescue the country from the combination of the neo-con orgy of empire and government-facilitated financial crime. Yet he can yet become an above-average president in his first term, opening the door to greatness in his second. No, he does not have the power to pass significant new laws; any conversation he has with Republicans in 2012 will be doomed to failure; the stumbling gait of the elite-crippled American giant gives him little power to change the world. All this is sad but true.
Nevertheless, Obama is President. He has the power to defend the 99%. He can, for example, urge the Attorney General to start seriously investigating both corporate crime and corrupt politicians who were either on the take to corporations or exploiting their positions for private gain. There is plenty of time before Election Day to bring some of the obvious suspects–who wrote laws to facilitate bank fraud and then bailed their buddies out or who invaded other countries on false pretensions–to trial. That is just an example. It comes under the heading Responsibility.
One of the greatest failures of the Obama Administration was the absence of a clear, public denunciation of the recent practice of giving the finger to international law, a crucial shield defending democracy. Obama does not need an act of Congress to stand up before the American people and speak to us of the principles conducive not to the long-term security of the U.S. empire but of American democracy. Lying to the American people about the reasons for war, making nuclear threats against non-nuclear powers, advocating preventive war as a regular policy option, hiring mercenaries and pushing open-ended authorizations for unilateral presidential action to facilitate presidential wars without Congressional declarations of war are great ways to defend the militarist heart of an imperial garrison state; they are not so good for defending the security of a democratic society of free citizens. This is just a second example; it comes under the heading Regulation.A great President is one who will inform the naïve American people that he too must bow before the law; in a word, like those of us who elect the President, he too must be regulated, and a great President would wish to leave behind such a legacy.
The U.S. Government needs three New Years Resolutions: transparency, responsibility, regulation. If Obama wants to lead the U.S. proudly into the 21st century, he can start now.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Human nature creates crises: the safer, smoother, more stable things are, the more risk people will take, sooner or later wrecking all that stability. Despite the outpouring of analyses of the 2008 Financial Crisis, it remains unlikely that society has internalized this lesson about the ever-present threat of human nature even as regards economic crises, however obvious the message may be. How much less likely is it that we are anywhere close to protecting ourselves from self-inflicted political crises?
We all are now aware that the shortsighted, selfish behavior of a few millionaires on Wall Street, a few politicians, some compliant regulators, and–truth be told–more than a few of the “other 99%” looking to cheat their neighbors for a quick buck can combine to generate a financial tsunami. It’s not about foreigners. We are our own worst enemy. What most complacent and confused Americans fail to understand is the degree to which we make our own international political crises as well. From the American War in Vietnam to the Global War on Terror to the looming war against Iran (backed by Russia, China, and maybe Pakistan), the U.S. has the power to take the initiative and create these disasters but lacks the power to resolve them in a beneficial manner.
Note clearly that this discussion concerns self-inflicted crises, those resulting from the conscious choice to engage in unnecessarily greedy behavior. A crisis caused by an external force, human or natural, lies outside the discussion. Here the concern is on a class of crisis caused by perfectly avoidable human greed leading to obviously risky behavior (in effect, investing in a chain letter). To put it differently, the class of crises of interest here is a class for which one should expect the guilty to be named and punished (both by the judicial system for crime and by God for their sins).
Since everyone is now thinking about utterly unnecessary and egregiously man-made financial crises even as we are hit by repeated utterly unnecessary and egregiously man-made political crises, a question that seems timely and useful flows from the above paragraphs:
Can our recently learned lessons about financial crises help us to avoid political crises?
In The Black Swan, Taleb reports an alleged pattern of economic risk-taking:
The economist Hyman Minsky sees the cycles of risk taking in the economy as following a pattern: stability and absence of crises encourage risk taking, complacency, and lowered awareness of the possibility of problems.[78.]
Nouriel Roubini, the economics professor who predicted the 2008 Financial Crisis in brilliant detail, described the vicious cycle of economic crises as consisting of [once I delete the economic adjectives] the following steps [Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics 18.]:
  1. Worries drop;
  2. Costs fall;
  3. The bubble drives growth;
  4. Increasingly risky ventures are undertaken.
Applying this abstract vicious cycle (to which I would simple add the obvious final stepcollapse, i.e., the point at which the cycle ends…with a bang) derived from economics to international relations is suggestive. Whether in economics or politics, the dynamics of the bubble of greed are frequently equivalent. In the aftermath of 2008, the point as regards economics must be obvious to all, whether they have read Marx, Keynes, Minsky, and Roubini or not. Every poor, naïve, uneducated (or just greedy) homeowner who took out a mortgage that he or she obviously could not afford and has now lost that home is today an expert in bubble economics and the danger to us all posed by unregulated capitalism.
But international politics is harder to see clearly through the fog of greedy politicians who classify information to prevent the voters from learning the truth and who wave the bloody shirt of foreign menace to promote their careers. Language too helps to obfuscate. We do not talk of imperialist bubbles. But if one abstracts to clear away the clutter of detail, the dynamics of greed, willful denial, moral hazard, and willingness to riskeven promote—“collateral damage in so-called Global War on Terror looks like nothing so much as the 2008 Financial Crisis. Leaders became increasingly confident that they could not be stopped, with their appetites for new victories, new wealth, and new power rising apace. As the new policybe it the issuance of new securities based on sub-prime mortgages or military adventures in yet another Muslim societyproceeded without major defeat, each new venture seemed less and less costly. Every small gain was used to justify a larger gain, every small risk to justify a larger risk. Even when the risks were seen, they were dismissed; after all, it was the poor who would suffer from unemployment and foreclosureor death on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the case of the wars, most of those poor were foreigners. Moreover, like the Wall Street firms bailed out by politicians generous with taxpayer funds, the White House was too big to fail.” Like Wall Street megabanks, the White House knew it and took advantage of it: moral hazard gone wild. Like big bank CEOs, presidents and vice presidents are almost never held criminally accountable in court for their sins. And then suddenly, the financial/imperial party was over, and the victims were left to clean up the mess.

In the abstract the pattern of failure is clear: failure of the people to carry out their democratic responsibility to monitor their leaders, arrogance, abuse of power, denial about the risks, corruption, lack of concern about collateral damage, and moral hazard.

As long as society trusts those in power, the powerful will abuse that trust for personal advantage, be it the selling of bad securities or the selling of bad wars. The more society is willing to countenance collateral damage to workers driven into unemployment and homeowners foreclosed, or Muslim wedding parties bombed and Muslim societies denied the right to civil liberties and national independence from the globalization avalanche, the more the rich and powerful will hold parties at the expense of everyone else. Bubbles are very good business for those who create them. Theywill never stop doing so until weput in place the moral strictures, legal regulations, and judicial holding to account necessary to stop them. But it is not that simple, for many of us were tempted to buy houses we judged we could flip into the hands of a more naïve neighbor to skim an unfair profit; many of us looked the other way while innocent Muslims across the globe were slaughtered in the name of global war to retain all the undeserved special privileges that make possible a rich life in a poor world. So in the end, the old saying is true: we get the government we deserve.

Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Reconciliation

The Obama Administration’s stance toward Iran, while at least refreshingly nuanced, remains caught in the overall grip of provincialism and absence of creativity that has characterized U.S. policy since the Islamic Revolution. Recent remarks by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reflect this disturbing combination of insights amid blindness.

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made important remarks on Iran this Friday which included both realistic caution and continuing evidence of the profound and dangerous degree of self-delusion in Washington. To his credit, General Dempsey supported Panetta’s attitude that war is not the answer, but other comments suggested that Washington remains deeply disconnected from reality. Asked if Washington was making efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to avoid accidental incidents that might lead to an undesired conflict, Dempsey said:

We have discussed this but have not come to a decision about opening up links or a hotline to seek an option to de- escalate any incident. It’s not our behaviour that’s the impediment to progress here. 

While this may well have just been a thoughtless and casual response, such lack of sensitivity to a longstanding adversary’s perception of reality betrays an astounding degree of provincialism, suggesting that an undesired war is indeed a very real possibility. Evidently the general and, almost surely, the rest of the Administration, would benefit from deeper consideration of which side’s behavior constitutes “the impediment to progress.”

U.S. and allied behavior includes the following impediments:

  • introduction of nuclear arms into the region (Israel);
  • threats of aggression;
  • establishment of a ring of military bases surrounding Iran;
  • highly public economic warfare against Iran;
  • sailing of nuclear-capable submarines off Iran’s territory waters (Israel);
  • a long violent invasion and occupation of Iraq designed to put Iraq firmly in the U.S. camp;
  • the belligerent sailing of a powerful U.S. attack fleet in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian behavior includes the following impediments:

  • impolite rhetoric demonstrating a lack of sensitivity to Israelis;
  • defensive aid to Hezbollah;
  • murky nuclear transparency designed to get away with as much as possible without clearly violating Iran’s nonproliferation commitments;
  • military and financial aid to Iraqi political allies to facilitate resistance to the U.S. invasion;
  • a political campaign to promote regional resistance to Israel;
  • a political campaign to promote the restructuring of the global political system away from its current U.S.-centric position toward a more “democratic” system that would deny the U.S. its current position of supremacy.

Examine the two lists. While both sides are playing tough, there can hardly be any doubt that U.S./Israeli behavior is vastly more provocative than Iran’s. After all, Iran’s impediments mostly add up to perfectly legitimate defensive moves and calls for global political reform, while Washington’s impediments are focused on the application of force (even if one does not count the appearance of a U.S.-Israeli terrorist campaign to murder Iranian nuclear scientists). Add the overwhelming preponderance of force on the U.S./Israeli side, and the mountain of U.S. impediments to improved relations emerges clearly. Those U.S. impediments may or may not bother Iranian hardliners, who benefit enormously from being able to scare their people into support or submission simply by letting them see what Washington is doing, but they are great cause for concern on the part of anyone hoping for regional peace.

If Washington ever decides that it wants to solve the U.S.-Iranian conflict, at this point, it probably has no effective short-term option; through short-sighted animosity, it has boxed itself into a corner and ceded its freedom of maneuver to the Israeli war party extremists. Over the long term, however, Washington does have an option that would be low-risk since it requires no strategic weakening of the fundamental U.S. power position but which might pull the rug out from under Iranian hardliners: offering Iran a bargain including respect, inclusion, and security in return for cooperation in moving toward a regional nuclear regime based on transparency on the part of all countries either in the region or with military forces in the region. Such words would not ever impress all Iranians (how could they, given the history of U.S. duplicity toward Iranian democratic aspirations?), but over time might well impress enough Iranian national security officials to change Iranian policy. The real impediment is this: as the side with the power, it is up to the U.S. to come to the realization that the first move is up to Washington, not to a weak–if noisy–Tehran that sits nervously in a defensive crouch.

Iranian-Israeli Death Dance

In 2007 a scenario analysis of Iranian-Israeli relations suggested that the two sides would harm themselves by continuing on their confrontational course. That finding is coming true, with the harm now visible in both the domestic and foreign situations of each society. Meanwhile, the bilateral death dance continues…
With Israeli militarists firmly in control of both Israeli and U.S. Mideast policy, the Israeli-Iranian confrontation remains in endless crisis. Neither side is making any effort to create new approaches to any possible resolution so it remains impossible to determine what either side wants, intends, or would settle for. Does Tehran want to dominate the region; does it intend, when able, to take an existential risk to achieve that goal; would it settle for security and inclusion? Does Tel Aviv want to retain its military dominance and permanent suppression of the Palestinian people; does it intend to take an existential risk to maintain that dominance; would it settle for a nuclear but transparent Iran and a two-state solution? Washington will neither offer Tehran a sufficiently sincere compromise nor put sufficient pressure on Tel Aviv to determine the bottom line of either side. The only aspect of the mess that is clear is that the constant tension works to the advantage of the extremists on each side, cementing their hold on power and virtually precluding rational discussion.
The above was true in 2007, when the scenario analysis Iranian-Israeli Confrontation was done; it remains true in late 2011. Yet much has changed. Ankara has staked out rhetorical leadership of a neutral position offering Tehran great potential leverage, an opportunity of which clumsy Tehran hardliners have yet to take advantage. The Arab Spring has weakened Cairos adherence to the pro-Israel camp as well. Meanwhile, Obama has allowed Tel Aviv to obstruct his efforts to turn around U.S. ties with the Muslim world even as the U.S. position in Iraq has continued its downward course. By skillfully and remorselessly undermining Washingtons freedom of movement, Netanyahu has also steadily weakened the value of U.S. support even as he has fractured Israeli society into an increasingly violence-prone and overtly racist majority and a minority increasingly concerned about the long-term survival of Israeli democracy. The result has been to strengthen Irans regional position, weaken Israels regional position, and to enhance the risk of Israeli aggression and of Iranian militarization of its nuclear technology.

Israeli Views of Israel

Ruth Dayan:
We built this country inch by inch, and we lost so many lives. We built public and social institutions, schools, factories. What’s going on today is awful. They’re ruining this country. I am a proud Israeli. I’ve lived through every war, endured every moment of suffering, but I never stopped believing in peace. I lost friends and family members. I’m a peacemaker, but the current Israeli government does not know how to make peace. We move from war to war, and this will never stop. I think Zionism has run its course….

And this continuous expansion of the settlements everywhere—I cannot accept it. I cannot tolerate this deteri oration in the territories and the roadblocks everywhere. And that horrible wall! It’s not right. [Daily Beast 10/30/11.]

Retired Chief of Mossad Meir Dagan:

In his first public appearance since leaving the post in September, Dagan said earlier this month that the possibility a future Israel Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”[Haaretz 6/1/11.]

We have to think about what would happen the day after. [Der Spiegel 11/8/11.]

Haaretz Commentator Gideon Levy:

The nuclear powers also ignore the fourth chapter of the treaty for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons that calls for dismantling them. They are permitted to ignore it. The world lives in peace too with the fact that 189 countries have indeed signed the treaty but that there are four, including Israel, that have not. The world has learned to live with the North Korean and Pakistani bombs even though this is a danger that is no smaller than that which Iran poses….
Israel, which has not signed the treaty, is in the same company as North Korea, Pakistan and India – that is, very dubious company. No one asks why, no one asks for what reason, not in Israel and not in the rest of the world…
There is a great deal of hypocrisy in Israel’s attitude toward the world….
Like Israel, Iran will apparently not heed the words of the world. But does Israel want in any way to resemble Iran?  [Haaretz 11/10/11.]


It is time for another look at the alternative futures of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation.
The 2007 study offered four predictions:

Prediction #1: Co-Evolution. Iran and Israel will co-evolve: without either necessarily perceiving it, they will influence each other, revolve around each other like binary stars, each in its individual orbit but bound to the other by their mutual insistence on making the other a priority, and traveling an unseen path together. Most likely, all the while each will see only its own uniqueness; neither will perceive the increasingly significant points of similarity as their mutual adaptation subjects them to similar pressures. Judging from current trends, each will feed on the other’s hostility to the detriment of both.

Prediction #2: States of Criticality.
Potential states of criticality threatening disaster will occur. They are fundamental danger zones. A wise society will avoid them. As tensions rise and groups organize to push radical agendas, thereby making tensions rise further, it is easy to slide into the unmarked state of criticality where going one step too far leads to some sort of disaster – perhaps a tremor, perhaps the “big one.”

Prediction #3: Tipping Points. Positive feedback loops will bring to the fore dynamics that were previously insignificant, and tipping points will be reached, to general astonishment.

Prediction #4: Adaptation.
Adaptation will occur in unforeseen ways – sometimes at an unexpected location, sometimes after an unexpected delay. However it happens, Israel and Iran they will change, although our perceptions of them may not. The Israel still perceived in some quarters as a plucky pioneering movement of idealists adopted selective assassination of terrorists and then moved beyond that to assassination of opposing political leaders. Iran’s messianic Shi’ite spirit of the early 1980s has evolved into a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. vs. the Taleban in 2001 and support for the U.S.-sponsored regime in occupied Iraq today. Change is predictable; if unseen, the fault almost certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Prediction #1, Co-Evolution, is supported by circumstantial evidence. The bilateral tension occupies an artificially important place in the politics of each state. Domestically, Tehran appears to have cracked down on dissidents with a degree of viciousness unusual even for Iran because of its defensiveness engendered by threats coming from Israel and its obedient superpower sponsor. Meanwhile, Israeli society is sliding steadily toward racist violence, a trend primarily the result of its colonization of the West Bank but one exacerbated by Netanyahus determination to play domestic policies off against policy toward Iran. The result is that Iranian-Israeli tensions are making both the Tehran and the Tel Aviv regimes more hardline than they would otherwise have been, thus exacerbating domestic political problems.
Concerning foreign policy, each state increasingly is finding its options limited by its addiction to extremist rhetoric and genuine security fears resulting from the Iranian-Israeli confrontation. Israeli freedom of thought and maneuver regarding its central predicament of how to deal with Palestinians is severely constrained by tensions with Iran. Iranian freedom of thought and maneuver regarding how to deal with the ring of U.S. military bases along its borders and the instability inherent in Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghan insurgencies is similarly constrained by tensions with Israel.
In sum, Iran and Israel are co-evolving both domestically and internationally in ways that harm both of them because they have allowed themselves to become so closely linked by bilateral tensions artificially whipped up by their respective political leaders that they cannot find the freedom to focus on other arguably more fundamental and more serious problems. This evolutionary process is making each country less democratic and less secure.
Prediction #2, States of Criticality, isin early November 2011demonstrably true for a sudden state of criticality is exactly where the two states are at the moment, for no obvious reason other than the publication of yet another ambiguous IAEA report that states it cannot prove the negative (that Iran absolutely does not have any nuclear militarization plan in process). On this slim reed balances an explosion of clamor over the idea of launching the worlds first unprovoked nuclear attack.
Prediction #3, Tipping Points, has yet to be substantiated, but the occurrence of one of the predicted states of criticality suggests that the probability of a tipping point is rising.
Prediction #4, Adaptation, is more obvious on the part of the U.S. than the two primary actors. Both ruling parties in the U.S. are now firmly under Israeli influence so extreme as virtually to constitute control regarding U.S. Mideast policy. In reaction to this, however, open discussion of the long-time taboo question of whether or not the U.S.-Israeli alliance might be harming U.S. national security has now struggled into mainstream thinking, with long-term consequences yet to be discerned. In Israel, while the media discuss Israeli policy toward Iran far more profoundly and honestly than U.S. media do, groupthink has taken firm hold at the political level, leaving those Israelis concerned about Netanyahus warmongering with no political representation. Adaptation this is, albeit not in a direction likely to enhance either Israeli security or Israeli democracy. Groupthink is almost never a wise strategic course. Somewhat less visibly perhaps, from the outside, Iran too is adapting, as its domestic politics become increasingly bitter and divided. Indeed, Prediction #4 is essentially a rewording at a different level of analysis (state rather than two-state system) of Prediction #1, since the very meaning of co-evolution is that each state is not only adapting but adapting in tandem with the other.
In sum, the analysis done in 2007 made predictions that amounted to a warning that the two states would each harm themselves by failing to change course, and that warning has proven on target. The respective regimes have only themselves to blame for not heeding the warning; its accuracy supports the methodological argument that scenario analysis constitutes a useful tool for sharpening thinking about complex foreign policy dilemmas.

Democratic Action By You…to Save America

The U.S. financial system is broken, and the people know it, but the rich who rule dont see a problem. Can the American people figure out a way to reform the system without burning it to the groundby an end run around the corrupt ruling elite?
Debate is intensifying over the implications of the apparent emergence of a two-class economy (the uber-rich and the other 99%). The rich say its good; more and more of the rest disagree. Whatever the truth of that debate, two things are undeniable: 1) the shift in U.S. society toward inequality and 2) the failure of the uber-rich to manage professionally the economy from which they have derived such exorbitant personal rewards.
The data on rising inequality are stark:
Since 1980, about 5 percent of annual national income has shifted from the middle class to the nations richest households. That means the wealthiest 5,934 households last year enjoyed an additional $650 billion — about $109 million apiece — beyond what they would have had if the economic pie had been divided as it was in 1980, according to Census Bureau data. [Bloomberg Businessweek 10/13/11.]
When inequality is rising because some are rising faster than others, thats one thing. When inequality is rising, but the winners take care of the losers (providing honest jobs for all willing to work, taking care of all children, making good education available for all who are willing to study, and ensuring that the population is given a health care safety net, and using the police to provide security for all), that too may be defensible. But when inequality occurs because the rich are impoverishing the rest through brazen, illegal, and unproductive financial trickery and a corrupt political system designed of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite, then it is time to change the system.
At that point, the debate should perhaps start centering on the question, When should all options’—a phrase the political elite now likes to toss around in the foreign policy context–be put on the table? Personally, I still do not believe the U.S. has yet reached quite that point, but it is moving in that direction frighteningly fast.
How the elite reacts to the incoherent but heartfelt popular protests on Wall St. will say much about whether or not we will be able peacefully to reform the economic system in the U.S. that the elite has so disgracefully mismanaged over the past generation. So far, Washington and New York Mayor Bloomberg have essentially given the finger to the protestors; no wonder their protest is spreading. Expect violence as the elite temporizes.
A bit more government effort to identify, arrest, and try those who brought us the recession would send a welcome message to the protestors. Treasury Secretary Geithners promise this week of such action is somewhat encouraging, though he is one of the foxes guarding the henhouse, so we need to reserve judgment until we see action. Elimination of the Senate 60% majority rule and a serious demonstration of Democratic backbone in support of financial reform would also send a message. So far, it is a dangerous standoff between greedy politicians and weak-kneed politicians, with the people confused and increasingly angry.
The official news agency of that great American creditor, the Peoples Republic of China, which did so much to finance the U.S. invasion of Iraq with loans that our children will have to pay back, put it neatly:
Unbiased eyes can see through these anti-Wall Street protests a clear need for Washington, which habitually rushes to demand other governments to change when there are popular protests in their countries, to put its own house in order. [Xinhua, 10/10/11.]
Indeed: domestic and foreign policy are related. Might that have anything to do with the wild claims about Iranian plots coming out of Washington even as Americans are demonstrating on Wall Street for economic justice? Might some imagine that another nice little war in the Mideast would distract short-sighted Americans from the real source of their discontent?
As for specific solutions to U.S. financial problems, the protestors are now calling for the highly practical and eminently moderate solution of individuals transferring their bank accounts to banks that represent depositors interestsin other words, to banks that are banks, not brokerages or gambling firms, a sort of Glass-Steagal (the New Deal reform that put a legal wall between brokerages and banks) by democratic action rather than law.  
Hmmmcan we the people really change things without going through our legally elected but highly distracted (by temptation) representatives? Can we figure out ways to change our behavior directly, as individuals in order to counteract the elitist distortions in the economic system and put working Americans back on their feet? Bank at a local bank that is not part of a huge chain. Buy high quality made-in-America products even if you have to pay a bit more. Support environmental groups fighting against corporate pollution of your air and drinking water. Grow vegetables and share with your neighbors. Persuade those neighbors to change how they live. Don’t sit around waiting for the politicians to save you: that is exactly what they are counting on.

Short Voter Guide for Restoring the U.S. Economy

The mid-term future for the U.S., as the result of apparent short-term and secular negative economic trends amplified by political failure from both major parties (splitting conservative elite rule over the U.S.), appears highly unfavorable. Those who benefit have generated much confusion, but some simple steps toward a solution benefiting society can be taken by a concerned voter.
Americans and the American Dream are currently experiencing death by soundbite. It is no wonder we are all confused. The very short video below of a recent Elizabeth Warren campaign talk on how we got in this mess and how to restore America constitutes the best “sound bite” answer I have heard. Listen, then read on.

Elizabeth Warren on Restoring America

Read together, two articles on economics in the October 9 New York Times paint a grim picture. David Leonhardt argues in The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good, [Sunday Review, 5] that secular trends during the Depression were actually much more positive that secular trends in todays increasingly hollowed-out economy. We fail to see the silver lining in the grim Depression because the positive secular technology-development trend in the 30s was hidden from our sight by the horrible short-term wave of highly visible unemployment. The second half of the economic picture is given by Jeff Sommer in An Ugly Forecast Thats Been Right Before, [Sunday Business section, 8] about the Economic Cycle Research Institutes current assessment that the U.S. is entering a second recession. The message of the two articles taken together, then, is that now both short-term (next couple years) and mid-term (next decade or two) economic prospects are bad. (Note that neither speaks to long-term capacity of a society blessed with an abundance of resources and at least minimal education and common purpose.)

If one adds to this dismal economic forecast for the next generation or so the evident continuation of Government failure (whether one attributes that to intentional politician greed or simple incompetence) to address the problems society is facing, a positive outlook is hard to sustain.
What should a voter do? The key to understanding the mess is avoiding being tricked into buying false categories (e.g., big government vs. small government, conservative vs. socialist, good vs. evil). Such simplistic sound-bite categories serve only to confuse. Rather than arguing over the size of government, consider what you want government to do and what you are willing to pay for it (e.g., for schools, roads, defense, protection of the air you breathe, protection from criminals). Rich conservatives love big government when it puts money (e.g., bailouts of Wall St., tax havens for Big Oil) in their pockets. Rather than arguing over good vs. evil, ask how others see their world, ask who benefits, then and search for mutually beneficial outcomes.
More specifically, here are a few straightforward clues to identifying good leaders:
First, demand leadership that concentrates on rebuilding national infrastructure rather than waving the red flag of small government; those who tout small government usually want welfare for the rich and small government for the poor.
Of course an active government needs money. So, second, look for candidates who admit that this money can only come from a combination of taxing the superrich and from our grossly fattened-up military budget. That of course will entail redesigning foreign policy to rely primarily on diplomacy (i.e., working to find win-win solutions) rather than force to maximize one-sided benefits. A good starting place might be to address the monstrous army of expensive private contractors (many outright mercenaries) holding quarter-million-dollar-a-year jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that either locals or U.S. civil servants should be doing at far less cost and with far greater responsibility than out-of-control private companies whose goal is profit.
Third, government regulation must, once again, replace the legal piracy known as trusting corporate America.  For a start, look for politicians who appoint financial watchdogs from outside the gang of foxes who brought us the recession in the first place, e.g., folks like Elizabeth Warren rather than Tim Geithner. Look also for leaders demanding that those responsible for causing the recession be held personally responsible in court. [On punishing financial criminals, see this small piece of good news.]
Politicians make all this appear far more complicated than it really is, because winning the next election is almost universally more important to them than solving the problems and, all too often, because they intentionally caused the problems for their personal benefit in the first place. A solution is not impossible, but it seems very unlikely to appear by itself: the combination of negative short- and medium-term economic trends makes that point. To turn the U.S. around, you voters will need to get past sound bites and insist that politicians stop giving the abusive elite a free pass to use your tax dollars for their personal benefit.
This essay offers some simple hints about how to start thinking about a solution to the U.S. economic debacle. Those readers who want more detail may wish to take a look at:
Too Big to Exist, which proposes putting fat institutions on a diet;
The Way Forward, a plan for restoring the U.S. economy by Nouriel Roubini et al.;
Mayor Bloomberg and Occupy Wall Street By the Numbers, class warfare data from Juan Cole.

Military and Financial Adventurism: Two Sides of a Bad Coin

Global war against Muslim political activists and domestic economic crisis both appear here to stay, so it is high time for Americans to recognize that they are connected and to start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.

Two long trends characterize the political environment of the U.S. today: an expensive, forward-leaning foreign policy and a debilitating economic crisis. Neither is being resolved. If fraud is the act of selling something on false pretenses, then both Washington’s policy toward the Islamic world and the joint Washington-Wall St. attitude toward the behavior of Big Finance are fraudulent. Washington is selling its militant stance regarding global political Islam as in the interests of U.S. national security, even though it is actually undermining that security by provoking hostility. Washington is selling its coddling of Big Finance as “reform,” even though it is precisely the lack of thorough reform that is setting us up for a second financial crisis. The situation in each policy realm is in fact so bad that the moderate tone of the above words itself approaches deception. [Those who would like to read a summary of U.S. policy toward the Muslim world that does not try so hard to be polite can turn to the award-winning U.S. foreign policy reporter Nick Turse; those who want the criminal nature of the financial crisis spelled out for them can turn to economist and former Federal financial regulator William Black.]

That the U.S. faces these two adverse trends simultaneously is obvious, but these two trends tend nevertheless to be considered in isolation. Therefore, the incredibly dangerous, non-linear ways in which the two might feed off each other is overlooked, as are the potential solutions that might be obvious were we to think of them together. For example, the obvious solution to the budget crunch is to stop wasting so much money spinning wheels in counterproductive efforts to control an endless series of Muslim cultural, political, psychological, and economic brushfires not amenable to military solutions in the first place.

Before focusing on solutions,  however, we need to understand the context in which we as a society currently find ourselves, and “train wreck” is not the appropriate metaphor; more accurately, the appropriate metaphor is “double train wreck.” The problem is not just that Washington faces two major problems, but that each is making the other worse. The military-political crusade against not just presumed terrorists but a global array of politically active Muslim groups advocating justice for Muslim societies rests on moral grounds and national security grounds concerning which debate is perhaps possible, but one thing is clear: Washington’s approach is expensive.

That drain of resources for military adventures leaves less to combat the weakened economy that has resulted from the financial adventures of gambling bankers, brokers, and mortgage firms. In addition, America’s foreign creditors are increasingly reluctant to loan us the funds to power a military campaign they find distasteful in the first place, while such trade partners as Saudi Arabia are looking for less controversial partners, and allies such as Turkey beginning to view the U.S. as a hopelessly incompetent global leader. The links also work the other way: a gutted economy of unemployed workers combined with a financial system now focused not on investing in the American economy but on manipulating the savings of Americans to enrich the elite can hardly avoid weakening the ability of the U.S. to spend about half the world’s military budget all by itself. So the war undermines our ability to maintain a strong economy, while the weak economy undermines the war. The urgency for Americans to understand that these two trends are interacting is hard to overstate.

Nevertheless, all that is, frankly, obvious. What is not obvious is exactly how the two negative trends of endless military adventure and endless economic crisis will interact. Since the public debate pays little attention to the fact of their interaction in the first place, it is not surprising that little insight about the actual dynamics of how these two trends interact is available. Are the interactions additive or multiplicative (i.e., exponential)? Is there a time delay that will generate nasty instability? Is there a logical approach to resolving the two problems jointly, whereby we need to do X on foreign policy in tandem with or before or after we do Y on the domestic economy?

It is a safe bet, unfortunately, that no one knows. Suffice it to say that since neither adverse trend shows any sign of being resolved, we’d better start trying to figure out how global war and domestic economic crisis impact each other.
Technical Note: I kept technical terms out of the above overview, but the implication is that the nexus of domestic economic trends and foreign policy constitute a complex-adaptive system characterized by exceedingly complex causal dynamics. Therefore, not only is the prediction of any specific event hard because all the parts are evolving, but surprise is easy to predict because the underlying forces work in irregular ways. Recent examples of surprise include 9/11, the bursting of the mortgage bubble, the size of the CDO market, the viciousness of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006…

Do you want more surprises?