Thursday, June 12, 2014

Continued Legacy of the War on Terror

This week, a Sunni jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), stormed the cities of Mosul and Tikrit while ill-prepared Iraqi police and military dropped their weapons and retreated. Taking advantage of their success, ISIS continued its drive by instigating sporadic attacks using weapons seized from Iraqi military installations that were once held by US military units.

Since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, violent attack on civilians and military installations have increased. The ISIS conquest is a reflection of the popular discontent that Sunni Muslims have for the central government under President Nouri Al-Maliki. Al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, has put no effort into welcoming Sunni Muslims into his government. His government has faced blistering criticism from his blatant attacks on Sunni members of Parliament, including an incident where a Sunni MP was arrested at the request of the administration. He has also faced charges of corruption and nepotism.

The ISIS action is reflective of a larger legacy that started with the second Bush Administration and inherited by the current administration. The so-called "War on Terror" has transformed geopolitical conflict across a vast swath of land from the Middle East to Africa to Eastern Europe. ISIS is one of many groups that were formed to take advantage of unstable regimes to spread their jihadist message. Here are some regional highlights:

  • In Africa, groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabab in Somalia have carried high profile acts of terror that have left hundreds dead or wounded. Boko Haram continues to be a thorn in the side of the Nigerian government as it continues its attempts to rescue over 200 school girls kidnapped by the group.  
  • A sustained rise in extremism in former Soviet territories led to one of the worst attacks on US soil since 9/11 - the Boston Marathon bombing. Fighters from jihadist groups in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other Eastern European countries have joined the fight against Assad in Syria and have joined up with groups in Yemen to attempt to topple the government. 
  •  ISIS has been considered so extreme that even elements of the rebels fighting Assad (who are aligned with Al Qaeda) have decided to fight them in addition to battling the government. ISIS continues to impose its extremist views on areas it controls in both Iraq and Syria, including carrying out executions for apostasy. 
  • Western governments are facing the terrifying reality that those who were radicalized in their home country and decided to join the extremist side in Syria might return with those views. Belgium experienced its first incident when a French-born jihadist who had been fighting in Syria killed three people at a Jewish Museum. 
The War on Terror has grown exponentially in scope from its inception as a way to find and uproot the terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It now extends from the former fiefdoms of dictators in the Middle East to the skies over Yemen and Pakistan to the streets of Boston and Benghazi and the Museums of Belgium. The US and its allies must maintain a military presence in order to ensure that the fledgling democracies in areas once controlled by dictators (including Sadaam Hussein) do not slip into complete chaos. It is through that necessity that the War on Terror continues to proliferate. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The War that Will End War - 100 Years On

In 1914, Author and Commentator H.G. Wells published a number of articles in London newspapers that eventually ended up in a anthology called The War that Will End War. In his commentaries, Wells blamed the Central Powers for instigating World War I and that their defeat and a stop to German Imperialism would bring about the end of war. The statement was picked up by Woodrow Wilson as a way to characterize both the effect and brutality of WWI.

Industrialized warfare and the destruction of entire generations left the United States questioning its exposure to Europe. Entangling and anachronistic colonial alliances brought world powers into a intractable conflict that only led to mass slaughter. Two months after sending the military into Europe, President Wilson lamented the colonial ties that created the conflict and appealed for a settlement and a "peace without victory."

WWI introduced the world to mechanized warfare. The human element was washed away under the repeated firing of machine guns, the explosions of grenades and tanks, the sickly smell of mustard gas and the anonymous destruction brought by the millions upon millions of artillery shells fired and bombs dropped on either side of the endless labyrinth of trenches. Trench warfare was a zero sum game where one side gained ground only to lose it again.

The kinds of experiences that soldiers brought back from the front lines scared and appalled the public. The president who had won re-election on keeping the United States out of the war had to head overseas to negotiate its end. In the short time that the US took part in WWI, it sustained over 320,000 casualties. In all, casualties from the war topped 37 million.

Out of the conflict came a framework and a start to the end of total warfare. Wilson, with the backing of the country, went to Paris to negotiate a peace. Wilson's 14-points included some of the most innovative and progressive post-war solutions that still hold as much legitimacy today as they did 100 years ago. Ideals like freedom of the seas, self determination for all countries and the formation of a unified body of peacekeeping countries were all included in Wilson's plan.

But, much like the war dead, his points became victim to colonial revenge and entitlement. Britain, France and Italy all exacted revenge on the Central Powers by slapping Germany with $300 billion in reparation payments, sending its already tattered post-war economy into a tailspin. The rise of extreme nationalism and Nazism can be directly connected to the effects that the war debt had on the country. While the US-made Dawes Plan tried to strike a compromise for repayment, the extreme deflation of the Deutschemark had done enough damage to the economy.

Despite the toll of the war, the roots of peace and open trade were fostered in Versailles. The League of Nations was created, which eventually spawned NATO and the United Nations. The Allied powers worked together to pass armament reduction treaties which included the Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons and a limitation on the number and size of warships. The Allied powers also signed the well-intentioned, yet ineffective, Kellogg-Briand Pact which renounced war as an instrument of national policy.

Wilson, who failed to get the United States Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, tried to sell the League of Nations to the people. Opponents of the League of Nations, the "Reservationists" and the "Irreconcilables," fanned the flames of isolationism and the loss of American sovereignty. They only had to point to the violence of the war and the "pound-of-flesh" that colonial powers exacted from Germany to turn the Senate against the treaty. Wilson's uncompromising push to include the US in the League of Nations blinded him to the less controversial points of his plan and he eventually sold them away only to see the US turn towards isolationism and anti-European sentiment.      

100 years on, the effects of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war are still pervasive. The rise of National Socialism, the beginning and end of the Soviet state, the Great Depression, the United Nations and Middle East conflicts can all trace their roots back to the splitting up of the Central Powers' colonial holdings after the war and the investment that the US made in European powers to rebuild their post-war economies. Borders were drawn without regard to ethnic, racial or religious ties, leading to future conflict. Post-war investment in Europe employed for debt repayment instigated the beginning of a World Depression.

On the Centennial of the Great War, Europe and the US should return to some of the lessons of Versailles and the messages ingrained in the 14-points, especially when current conflicts reflect both the legacy and the failure of the treaty.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hobby Lobby, et al vs. Its Employees

Next week, the Supreme Court will take up the next challenge to Obamacare - Hobby Lobby, et al versus the Contraception Mandate. At the center of the their argument lies one dangerous point - do corporations have religious rights? Hobby Lobby, et al argues that the contraception mandate violates their corporate religious conscience. If the Supreme Court were to rule in their favor, it would have wide-ranging consequences.

The right to free exercise of religion, enshrined in the first amendment, was created to ensure that the government or some sort of governmental entity (local, national, state, etc) does not favor or impose on its citizens one religion over another. It is the great equalizer when it comes to free expression of religious values. Corporations do not have the characteristics of an entity that would be able to express religious beliefs. As Davis Gans wrote in the LATimes this week - corporations do not express religious sentiments, no matter what form they come in. Corporations do not pray, they do not show devotion to a higher power and they do not have religious conscience. The major characteristics of a corporation, like limited liability and the going concern (unlimited life) make it characteristically (and legally) separate from the owner. To apply this religious protection to a secular, for-profit corporation would, as David put it, simply make no sense.

Beyond religious rights, the case will also tackle whether or not corporations have the right to impose their beliefs on their employees, and as a result restrict their access to federal programs that conflict with the owner's religious inclinations. Hobby Lobby, as Gans points out, is a large corporation that hires from all faiths, and to deny any employee access to contraceptives if access to such services do not conflict with that employees faith is, in my opinion, a violation of their rights.

If Hobby Lobby, et al. gets a favorable ruling, who would protect employees from being retaliated against for using services that are in conflict with the corporation's "religious conscience?" Could an employee be fired to not complying with religious-based directives from upper management? These questions must be considered when weighing the rights of Hobby Lobby's employees against the religious inclinations of the owners. Moreover, the Supreme Court should not extend religious rights to the corporation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

End of the Bernanke Era

Early next year, Ben Bernanke will step down as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank and for the first time in its nearly 100-year history, a woman will take his place. Janet Yellen, Berkeley Professor, and former president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, will be handed the reins of an economy in recovery. After clearing the Senate Banking Committee on semi-bipartisan lines, she will be in charge of a Fed that has seen increasing scrutiny and calls for transparency (and abolition - see Ron Paul).

Bernanke's tenure mostly involved facing down the worst recession since the Great Depression. His time was marked by both the unprecedented steps he took to avoid a bigger financial catastrophe and the tools he employed to foster a (albeit slow) recovery. Under his watch, the Fed became more well-known and transparent body, even if pronouncements about the economy remained purposefully vague. In other words, the power of his words moved markets.

Bernanke presided over:

  • TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program, AKA the "Bank Bailout") - Close to $450 billion paid to ailing banks to prop up their balance sheets after disastrous sub-prime mortgage market collapsed. To date, the return for taxpayers has been about 97%. 
  • Freddie/Fannie - Fed took control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae after they nearly collapsed over their low capital reserves and high amount of liabilities related to defaulted home mortgages. 
  • Federal Support of the Auto Industry (AKA, Auto Bailout, or Government Motors) - financial support for a failing auto industry. This program, which was approved by the Bush Admin, injected $25 billion into the ailing auto industry, mostly to the "big three" - GM, Chrysler and Ford. It was highly successful it making the companies profitable and all lines of credit extended have been paid back. 
  • Quantitative Easing (AKA, QE or Operation Twist) - Traditional monetary policy (keeping interest rates near zero) was not enough to stimulate the economy or grow employment, so the Fed decided to buy up government bonds to lower market interest rates. At the moment, QE3 involves buying up $85 billion/month. 
The significance of the steps that Bernanke took are embodied in both their immediate impact and their legacy. The policies, while necessary in staving off the worst effects of the recession, have left the recovery on such a dependency that any hint of easing monetary reforms have led to isolated market shock. Politicians and financial professionals have long held that bailing out institutions has brought an issue of dependence - if a bank can depend on a bail out even after risky, isolated behavior that does not benefit the public, there is no incentive to curb such activity. It is the quintessential problem that has defined "too big to fail." 

It will be up to the new chairwoman and the Fed to guide new policies on the risky behavior of banks. But, more importantly, Janet Yellen will have to make measured judgment about how and when to taper QE in a way that does not throw the US and the world back into uncertainty and recession. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Guns, Democracy and Rule of Law in CO and NY

Guns, and the right to own them, is an American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court. The National Rifle Association rivals the American Medical Association and the AARP in it's lobbying power and spending. Bombastic language around revolutions and the supposed surreptitious government takeover of arms have been the justification for a massive stock up of weapons during the Obama Administration. At the fringes of the gun culture, the Administration has been compared to Nazi Germany.

Gun culture in the purple state of Colorado and the staunchly blue state of New York has created anti-establishment heroes out of law enforcement agents and the recall of state legislators. In Colorado, the passage of gun control laws instituting universal background checks and limiting the size of high capacity magazines to 15-rounds (size of clips that CO police carry) have led to recall efforts against Senate President John Morse (D-CO Springs) and Senator Angela Giron (D-Pueblo). In NY, Sheriffs and gun owners in rural, conservative parts of the state are refusing to comply with the Safe Act, the country's strictest gun control law which bans the sale of assault rifles and banana clips.

Colorado Recall

The Colorado recall effort is a waste of taxpayer money. But, more dangerously, it is a perversion of the Democratic process. The gun owners who started the campaign to recall the two Senators say that the legislation passed is a violation of their second amendment. Besides the fact that these people are highly unequipped to judge the merits of the law via-a-vis the right to bear arms, they are turning democracy in the state into an Egypt-style "boot the unpopular dictator" out because they did not get their way. One of the primary criticisms of the coup that ousted Mohammad Morsi in Egypt was that it delegitimized democracy. If you elect someone you don't like, just oust them by force or recall (in this case).

There is an appropriate time and place for recall efforts. Just because a legitimately elected official does not vote in congruence with a specific ideological orthodoxy does not mean they should be recalled. Recall should be reserved for nearly the same reasons as impeachment: high crimes and misdemeanors. In Democracy, the way to influence the policy direction of your state or country is purely through the ballot box during elections. In this case, the best way to ensure that gun rights are preserved is to challenge the law in court, not recall the people who wrote it.

New York - Safe Act

The New York Safe Act controversy is purely political grandstanding on the part of Sheriffs. Six sheriffs in northern counties of the state have flatly refused to enforce the law. Some, like the County Sheriff in Eerie County, call it an act of civil disobedience. Much like the Colorado gun owners, they believe it is violation of second amendment rights. Their constituents, who hate the law, voted them into office, so they must oppose the law too.

The simplistic calculus that the Sheriffs have applied leads to the worse violation of the oath to protect and serve - enforcement of the law. If a law is passed in the state, it is the duty of the Sheriff (and police) to enforce the law, no matter what their personal feeling are on the matter. Not only must they enforce the law, but they should be obligated to require that every sheriff and anyone responsible for law enforcement at every level enforce the law.

Let Experts Handle It

Those who oppose the new gun law restrictions, whether they are constituents of State Legislators or County Sheriffs, should allow the laws to be reviewed for their constitutionality. Once challenged in federal court, these laws will most likely be found unconstitutional. That duty is left to the courts and judges who have the expertise to apply judicial review to these laws. Assuming you have the authority to judge the law on its constitutional merits and acting on that judgement, especially if you are responsible for upholding the law, is a perversion of Democracy and the justice system.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Are They Ready for Democracy?

In 2009, the UCLA School of Public Policy held a panel on the politics and environment in the Middle East. The panel, made up of mostly academics from the school, was asked about the future of Middle East politics. One Adjunct professor made a remark about the rising tide of discontent among regular citizens. She said that we can speculate on a macro scale, but the environment on the ground, in the streets and in the mosques is much different. And, that is something we needed to pay attention to.

To say she had a crystal ball would be an understatement. In the last 4 years, the Arab world has experienced uprisings fueled by the desire to popularly elect leaders. The reaction of governments in the countries besieged by calls for democracy have ranged from immediate reforms (Morocco, Jordan, etc.) to civil war (Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc.). A 3-year civil war in Syria still rages on, with civilian and combatant casualties reaching over 100,000 and millions displaced.

While some of the countries have avoided long, drawn out conflict, the ones who have displaced their leaders by force (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) still face an uphill battle towards full institution of a popularly elected government. And the ongoing civil war in Syria presents an age-old conundrum of choosing between the protection of civilians and democracy and the possible arming of future enemies.

Beyond the regional issues created by the Arab Spring, there remains a burning question about the Middle East: Are the countries of the Arab world ready for a Democracy?


Egypt remains the most volatile of the Arab Spring countries, post-revolution. The Egyptian people popularly elected a government represented by the supposedly moderate Muslim Brotherhood, under the leadership of Muhamed Morsi. As the interim government rewrote the constitution and installed a Parliament, the Military moved aside and allowed for a peaceful transition of power. One year later, in response to another popular uprising, Morsi was deposed by the Military and the Parliament was dissolved. Morsi, who had promised a government that would represent the people who had struggled under the yoke of former president Mubarak, did the exact opposite. He installed Brotherhood members to cabinet positions and pushed aside secular opposition parties.

What is most disturbing about the plight of Egypt is that those who voted and elected Morsi will not see the Democracy as a legitimate means of governing. The consequences of electing an unpopular leader in a Democracy should always be resolved through the ballot box. In Egypt, that is not the case. The current environment bodes unfavorably for a country struggling towards a peaceful resolution. As Morsi supporters hold demonstrations (some peaceful, some not), members of the police and military fire live rounds into crowds, killing both the armed and the innocent.


Syria presents the Obama Administration with a conundrum: armed support of rebels against the Assad regime may lead to weapons falling into the hands of groups connected with terrorist organizations. A couple of the more effective rebel groups have already pledged allegiances to terrorist groups working in the Arabian Peninsula. This trade-off seems almost irrelevant when considering the amount of bloodletting and acts of barbaric savagery that have been perpetrated by both sides. But, taking the short view in a humanitarian crises only works in complement to the long-term perspective. And, the prospects for having a stable country following the end of the Civil War are low.

Democracy in Syria will never take hold because sectarian loyalties have crossed international borders and seeped their influence into the conflict. Iranian military units, Hezbollah militias and Russia have provided weaponry and support for the Assad regime and the Brotherhood, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the Emirates have stepped up financial support for the Rebels. Syria has become less of a opportunity for Democracy and more of a laboratory for testing the extent of sectarian influence in the region.

Common Threads - Tyranny of the Majority

The Egyptian and Syrian conflicts represent a common threat in the region - uprisings, whether they supported by sectarian regimes or a result of popular protests, will not spawn a peaceful transition of power unless there is an assurance of complete representation. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned against the "Tyranny of the Majority" as an obstacle to the creation of a Democratic Republic. "Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by by common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure." Creating a will, or a central form of power, according to Madison, is the instrument of governments ruled by "hereditary or self-appointed authority" (Egypt pre and post-revolution).

It is only when you create a government that is represented by a variety of viewpoints, whether they be secular or religious, you foster the seeds of a representative democracy. In Egypt, secular and Coptic representatives were pushed aside for a largely Islamist government. Instead of voting that government out, protests led to a military overthrow. In Syria, a splintered Rebel group backed by Sunni-majority countries is fighting a regime backed by Shiite-majority countries. These conditions will only lead to either the installment of a self-appointed leader (Egypt) or the continuation of sectarian violence that has plagued the Middle East (Syria). In both cases, Democracy is far from certain.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Policing the World In a Nutshell

American foreign policy, when it comes to foreign intervention in conflict zones or war torn countries, is deeply rooted in a mentality established at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, one can argue that interventionism has its ultimate precedent not in American adventurism overseas, but the protection of our Manifest Destiny in our own, domestic sphere of influence.

If you don't like a history lesson, go to the bottom of the blog post...

President James Monroe penned the Monroe Doctrine in in 1823 as a veiled threat to colonizing European nations that they could not set up camp in United States' territory. While both sides claimed victory in the War of 1812, the United States emerged from this era (The Era of Good Feeling, as it has been called) with a sense of birthright to the entire continent, and no matter how powerful a colonial force was, we could muster the might to defeat them. We had beat back the British twice (debatable), stared down European impressment (kidnapping of US sailors) and even took out some Barbary pirates ("shores of Tripoli."). In summary, we had a big head about ourselves. 

Fast forward eight decades later, President Theodore Roosevelt (TR) updated the Monroe Doctrine with the Roosevelt Corollary. Deeply rooted in a policy of International Progressivism (not the progressivism of this era, although there are some similarities) expanded the US "sphere of influence" to include South America. In TR's humble opinion, chaos caused due to recent interventions in South America by European colonials seeking payments from debt heavy countries lead to hemispheric disarray. If the US was the arbiter of regional disputes and protector of the Western Hemisphere from wandering Europeans, all things would remain calm. Like former president William McKinley, TR was a fan of Alfred T Mahan and his book The Influence of Sea Power on History. He mixed the need for naval bases and international trade (as the book instructs) with Progressivism to create a foreign policy that helped user the US onto the world stage militarily and economically. 

During McKinley's presidency, the US declared war on, and defeated Spain. In doing so, the US received temporary control over Cuba and the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. TR, against his own aversion to chaos, agreed (early in the 20th Century) to foment a popular revolution in Panama to obtain the land to build the Panama Canal. TR also employed JP Morgan to intervene on Venezuela's debt problem with Germany (and other European nations) and negotiated the peace treaty between Russia and Japan (after the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War) in front of the US Navy in Portsmouth Harbor (he won a Nobel Peace Prize for that one). All of these events cemented the role of the US as both an expansionist power and a believer in interventionist foreign policy if there was a benefit or threat to the country. 

Subsequent presidents, from Taft to FDR would have to deal with the consequences of being involved in South America, Philippines and eventually Europe. President Taft used Dollar Diplomacy to exert US military might to protect trade routes (rooted in Roosevelt Corollary), Woodrow Wilson used his "14-points" to form the League of Nations (the US did not join), President Coolidge became the first president to visit Cuba, Allied powers passed the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war (that went well), went through an era of isolationism and eventually intervened in Europe to stop Nazism and in the Pacific to stem Japanese Imperialism. 

During the Cold War, the US viewed the world as split between the powers of Freedom (The US and European Allies) and the evil, monolithic, socialist states led by the Soviet Union and China. Foreign policy during this era was represented by proxy wars of various sizes and clandestine operations under the guise of Gunboat Diplomacy. We intervened with military might or CIA operation to stymie the supposed spread of socialism and the "falling of the dominoes" in Europe. If socialism was able to get a foothold in Europe and South America, the rest of the world would fall like dominoes. This kind of foreign policy was challenged by two dilemmas: Was a socialist leader was a nationalist (Titoism) or were they part of the evil empire (Soviet Union, et al)? How can we harmonize our need to foster democracy when a democratizing state turns to socialism?   

After the fall of the Wall, interventionism was used again to protect national security and, in some cases, as a moral imperative. During the H.W. Bush administration, we intervened in Kuwait to stop Saddam Hussein. During the Clinton Administration we sent troops into Somalia to capture a dictator and intervened in Eastern Europe to stop ethnic cleansing. We did not intervene during the Rawandan Genocide, which is something that Clinton regrets to this day.  

After 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, the Cold War foreign policy of containment and brinksmanship was replaced (and adapted) to fight against terrorists across the Middle East who had no country of origin. Because the United States was no longer fighting a single state, but groups who passed over borders and blended in with the population, security apparatus to ensure against further attacks translated into nearly unprecedented attacks on civil liberties. While we received international support in ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan (perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks), we did not have full international backing when we invaded Iraq to secure WMDs. 

Why is this important? 

The newest challenge the United States faces in the war torn Middle East is the Arab Spring. It combines all the challenges that past presidents of the 20th century faced when intervening in a conflict zone. Dictators, some who are family of US-backed regimes, are being overthrown by popular democratic movements. While we continue to support the spread of popularly elected governments, by the people for the people, we face a challenge of the rising tide of Islamic extremism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fervently opposed to the state of Israel, have taken up leadership positions after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, a NATO-backed removal of Muammar Gaddafi has left a power vacuum.

As of last week, the Obama Administration has decided to arm rebels fighting a 17 month war against President Assad in Syria. As of late, the death toll has been over 100,000 with a confirmation that Assad used deadly Serin gas on his own people. Assad is the son of a military dictator in a country created by colonial powers. The rebels are a mix of moderate and extremist Islamic fighters who are fighting for control of their country. But, if control of the country means the installation of an Islamist state with strict application of Sharia Law, the Administration would be held accountable for another regime that is violently opposed to the US and the existence of Israel. Worse yet, the US might lose control of Syria's deadly chemical weapon stockpiles. 

Obama faces a familiar extension of US foreign policy. It is the age-old trade-off between the support of a populist fight against a anti-democratic regime and the consequences of that support. The Administration must prove to the American people that intervention, even if by indirect military action, both maintains our security and is a moral imperative.