15 January 2020   Leave a comment

The entire Russian government resigned today as President Putin pushed through government reforms that would enhance the powers of the President and the Parliament and reduce the powers of the Prime Minister and other governmental officials. The details of his proposed changes were not entirely spelled out, but some observers believe that Putin intends to remain the leader of Russia for life:

“He gave no details as to what that could mean. But the proposal led some observers to speculate that, after Putin’s term runs out in 2024, he could decide to take the helm of the State Council and effectively continue to govern Russia from there. ‘Putin looks like he is counting on becoming the head of the State Council, which will get increased powers and become a key decision-making platform with input from the Presidential Administration, the government and the governors,’ Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, wrote in a Facebook post. In all but name, this newly empowered entity, with Putin at its helm, could then begin to function as a de facto Kremlin.”

Putin’s announcement caught government officials in Russia by surprise. One proposal for changing the constitution would be to elevate the power of the State Council, which is now an advisory committee. The BBC reports:

“One of the standout proposals is making the State Council a formal government agency enshrined in the constitution.

“At the moment it is an advisory body packed with 85 regional governors and other officials including political party leaders. It is so large that when it meets it fills a hall in the Kremlin.

“But Mr Putin clearly has designs on its future. One theory is that he could become a new, powerful leader of the State Council.”

Sputnik, a Russian media outlet that reflects the sentiment of the Russian government, described the move as a “democratizing” change:

“‘What we talk about there – is the classic democratic system with three pillars of government – judiciary, the government and executive’, says Ben Aris, political analyst, editor-in-chief of Business News Europe. ‘So he is talking about a classic democratic government. This is not what we hear normally in the press about ‘Putin’s Russia’ and his personal control. This is about constructing a long term stable political system with checks and balances where the bits of the government play the proper role as defined by the constitution which is not the case now’.”

Putin has been in power in a variety of offices for 21 years and his tenure has been somewhat rocky. He has accomplished many strategic goals in foreign policy, notably the invasion and annexation of Crimea as well as keeping Syrian President Assad in power after a nine-year civil war. But his domestic popularity has declined recently as he tried to push through pension reforms that many citizens oppose. The New Statesman assesses his current popularity:

“Oil prices have been more responsible for economic growth than astute policymaking, 20 million Russians live below the poverty line and incomes have declined for five straight years.

“Economic stagnation has been accompanied by recent political turmoil. The summer of 2019 saw widespread anti-government protests on the streets of Moscow, orchestrated by an increasingly resilient political opposition.

“After 20 years in charge, are the tides turning against Putin? When Putin first came to power, in 1999 as prime minister and then in 2000 as president, ordinary Russians were the least of his concerns. From the start, he focused on neutralising the elite: the governors and party leaders, the bureaucrats and, of course, the oligarchs. Putin quickly established a quid pro quo: if the elite forsook any attempt to block or resist his power, the regime would protect its wealth and influence.”

Putin follows the steps of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who persuaded the Chinese government to abolish terms limits opening the door for him to remain President for life. US President Trump has also broached the idea of being President for life.

Posted January 15, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

14 January 2020   Leave a comment

The Pew Research Center has published a very extensive poll on global favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward US President Trump and the US as a whole. Interestingly, the summary polls indicate that most in the world have unfavorable views of President Trump (although citizens in states currently led by right-wing leaders have a favorable view of President Trump) but favorable views of the US.

On specific issues, there is little support for most of President Trump’s initiatives except for his overtures to North Korea:

“Looking at the median levels of support across these countries, disapproval is strongest for Trump’s policies of the U.S. increasing tariffs or fees on imported goods from other countries, the U.S. withdrawal from international climate change agreements, and the U.S. building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Fewer than half in all 33 countries surveyed approve of these policies.

“Global publics also disapprove of the Trump administration’s policy of allowing fewer immigrants into the U.S. However, there is some support for the U.S. restricting immigration among Israelis and some publics in Central and Eastern Europe.

“Additionally, most publics disapprove of the U.S. withdrawing from the Iran nuclear weapons agreement, but Israelis support this action. Israelis also support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, while Tunisians, Lebanese and Turks strongly disapprove of this policy.

“Trump garners strongest approval for his negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the country’s nuclear weapons program. This includes majority approval from people in Japan and South Korea, as well as Israel, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Poland and Germany.”

The report is quite long, but well worth the effort.

US President Trump tweeted the following today:

We have had a number of different explanations for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, and there has been a great deal of controversy over whether the Iranian general was planning an “imminent” (not “eminent”) attack on US troops. The word is important. If the attack was indeed imminent, then the President in his role as Commander in Chief can use force to protect US soldiers without consulting Congress. If the attack was not imminent, then the President does not have the authority to conduct an act of war without a declaration of war from Congress. For Mr. Trump to say that it does not matter if an Iranian attack was imminent conveys his total lack of appreciation for the Constitution. The tweet also indicates a very cavalier attitude toward the truth, an attitude that all should regard as unacceptable.

Posted January 14, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 January 2020   Leave a comment

New research indicates that the oceans are rapidly warning due to climate change. Much of the data for this research comes from a system of free-floating monitors called Argo that measure the “temperature and salinity of the upper 2000 m of the ocean.  This allows, for the first time, continuous monitoring of the temperature, salinity, and velocity of the upper ocean, with all data being relayed and made publicly available within hours after collection.” The Guardian summarizes some of the conclusions of the research:

“The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.

“The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.

“Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires, as well as an inexorable rise in sea level. Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, with the number of marine heatwaves increasing sharply….

“The results show heat increasing at an accelerating rate as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. The rate from 1987 to 2019 is four and a half times faster than that from 1955 to 1986. The vast majority of oceans regions are showing an increase in thermal energy.”

CNN reports that the “world’s oceans are now heating at the same rate as if five Hiroshima atomic bombs were dropped into the water every second.” Needless to say, the warming of the oceans poses serious problems for the future of the planet.

Argo floats, 13 January 2020

Posted January 13, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

12 January 2020   Leave a comment

In 2011 Libya was thrown into political chaos after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. It was an important year because a number of Arab countries went through what came to be known as the “Arab Spring” in which despotic governments were overthrown by protesters looking for more accountable governments. In the case of Libya, however, there was an intervention, led by the US, ostensibly to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Since that time, the country has been divided among a variety of factions, none of which has been able to achieve legitimacy or sufficient power to control the entire country. One center of power was located in Tobruk and was led by what was called the Council of Deputies; the other center of power was located in Tripoli and was led by the General National Congress. Since 2014, the UN has recognized a Government of National Accord as the official government of Libya, but it has failed to achieve control over all of Libyan territory.

Since last April, the forces in Tobruk, led by Khalifa Haftar, have mobilized against the government in Tripoli and other powers, notably Russia and Turkey, have sought to gain influence over events in Libya. The fighting has led to concerns that Libya may dissolve into a “second Syria”. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France have supported Haftar with military assistance. Italy and Turkey support the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and Turkey has begun to send troops to the country, again, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. There is also lip service to the Tripoli government by other European governments and, to a very limited and half-hearted extent, the US.

This story, unfortunately, is familiar. None of the outside powers have any real interest in Libya other than oil and a self-interest in stopping the flow of refugees through Libya to Europe. But the direct intervention by Turkey into the conflict may expand the turmoil to a regional crisis. John Andrews tries to determine Turkey’s interest in Libya:

“This will be a military and diplomatic folly. Erdoğan already has the distressing example of the Syrian conflict on Turkey’s own doorstep. Does he really imagine that sending a few hundred – or even many thousand – Turkish troops to aid the beleaguered GNA will somehow resolve Libya’s tragic and bloody turmoil, itself the result of the 2011 intervention by foreign powers that toppled Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime?

“If Erdoğan expects either a GNA victory or an imminent peace settlement, he is deluding himself. Haftar’s well-equipped LNA has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and (at least covertly) France. With mercenaries from Russia and Sudan on his side, Haftar must feel rather more optimistic than Fayez al-Sarraj, the GNA’s prime minister. Support for the GNA from Turkey and Qatar, along with the fig leaf of UN recognition, weighs rather less in the military balance.”

The great powers almost always take advantage of turmoil in weaker countries. This situation, however, comes close to a free-for-all since the UN, without the strong backing of the US, has proven to been inadequate to the task of protecting the interests of the Libyan people.

Posted January 12, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

11 January 2020   Leave a comment

The Pew Research Center has published a fascinating report on how American citizens regard the fairness of the US economic system. The report reveals that the vast majority of Americans think the US economic system is unfairly biased toward the interests of the rich.

“The survey finds, among other things, that most Americans believe there is too much inequality in the United States, with a majority of those who hold this view saying that major changes to the economic system are needed in order to address inequality.

“Across income groups, Americans tend to agree that the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Two-thirds of upper-income adults (66%) say this, as do 69% of middle- and 73% of lower-income adults. No more than about a third in each income group say the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.”

The report goes over the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and on some of the questions there are sharp divergences. But there does seem to be some common agreement. On the question regarding who in the US has too little power, the answer suggests that most Americans know what is going on in the society: “When it comes to who has too little power and influence in today’s economy, three groups stand out for Americans: people who are poor (75% say this), small businesses (73%) and the middle class (72%).”

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was re-elected in a stunning blow to Beijing’s preferred candidate, the Kuomintang party’s Han Kuo-yu. When Tsai was first elected in 2016, Beijing imposed several strict policies on Taiwan because it was believed that Tsai was less committed to reunification of the island to the mainland. Tsai’s overwhelming victory was attributed to the protests in Hong Kong which made people in Taiwan very suspicious of Beijing’s commitment to the “One Country, Two Systems” policy which was supposed to govern Hong Kong’s government until 2047. It is also likely that Taiwanese voters were thinking of China’s treatment of Uighers and Tibetans in the mainland. The US State Department issued a statement that will likely roil US-Chinese relations:

“The United States congratulates Dr. Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election in Taiwan’s presidential election. We also congratulate Taiwan for once again demonstrating the strength of its robust democratic system, which—coupled with a free market economy and a vibrant civil society—makes it a model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world.

“The American people and the people on Taiwan are not just partners—we are members of the same community of democracies, bonded by our shared political, economic, and international values. We cherish our constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, nurture private sector-led growth and entrepreneurship, and work to be positive forces in the international community.

“The United States thanks President Tsai for her leadership in developing a strong partnership with the United States and applauds her commitment to maintaining cross-Strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure. Under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people.”

The Global Times, which is a reliable indicator of the sentiment of the Chinese government, offers a dim, and somewhat threatening, view of the outcome of the election:

“Tsai’s authorities are able to maintain their rule by playing tricks to woo voters, but they are unable to tie the Taiwan society to the chariot of Taiwan secession. In fact, the Taiwan society has formed a collective consciousness to oppose Taiwan secession among Taiwan people. Even the US has refrained from publicly promoting Taiwan secession, which will lead to a showdown with Chinese mainland. China has enough international support to safeguard its one-China principle. 

“The reelection of Tsai will increase the uncertainty across the Taiwan Straits. It may encourage Tsai and the DPP to take the extreme path. 

“Yet no matter how much uncertainty there is across the straits, the fact that the Chinese mainland is getting increasingly stronger and the Taiwan island is getting weaker is an inevitable reality. In the long run, the role the US can play across the straits will be gradually weakened. Recognizing and complying with the reality is the only feasible option for Taiwan’s peaceful development. If Tsai and the DPP authorities are to lead the island toward the opposite direction, history will label them as a sinner of all Chinese people.”

It is easy to understand Beijing’s discomfort, but one cannot help but feel that Beijing’s behavior toward regions who do not share the common feeling of most Chinese people is largely responsible for the outcome.

Posted January 11, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

10 January 2020   Leave a comment

Neta Crawford is at the Watson Institute at Brown University. She has run a project for many years trying to determine how much the wars since 11 September 2001 have cost. It is a very difficult task, since the money spent is spread among many different agencies, and much of the money spent is deliberately disguised. Crawford has done a remarkable job, including not just the money spent, but also determining how much money will be spent serving veterans who have suffered physical and mental trauma and the interest we will be paying on the deficits run up to finance the wars. The actual numbers are staggering. CNBC reports:

“American taxpayers have spent $6.4 trillion on post-9/11 wars and military action in the Middle East and Asia, according to a new study.

“That total is $2 trillion more than the entire federal government spending during the recently completed 2019 fiscal year. The U.S. government spent $4.4 trillion during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the Treasury Department.

“The report, from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, also finds that more than 801,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting. Of those, more than 335,000 have been civilians. Another 21 million people have been displaced due to violence.”

We should keep this information in mind as there seem to be some in the Trump Administration who wish to change the regime in Iran and there is substantial evidence that Iran will take steps to avenge the death of General Suleimani. The Federal Government will run a deficit of almost $1 trillion this coming year. A hot war with Iran will be substantially more expensive than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Wars without conscription and without taxes are catastrophic delusions.

Posted January 10, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

9 January 2020   Leave a comment

Iran offered the world a good example of war diplomacy in its response to the US strike that killed Qassem Suleimani. First, Iran demonstrated its capabilities by using ballistic missiles instead of rockets. Ballistic missiles are far more accurate and devastating than rockets and represent a greater threat to an adversary. In essence, Iran was sending the message that it had the capability to inflict great losses on US forces. Parenthetically, I wonder why the US did not use its vaunted anti-missile systems to shoot down the incoming missiles–it lost the ability to prove that it could defend its forces. Apparently those anti-missile systems are not as effective as we have been led to believe.

But the far more important message was that Iran did not wish to escalate the conflict. First, it sent messages to Iraq and to the US through the Swiss intermediaries to warn of the attack. The messages gave the US and Iraq three hours to protect their forces. Second, the missiles were sent to areas in which there were no US or Iraqi troops. The deliberate intent to avoid human casualties was an important measure to reduce the need to retaliate. Third, Iran clearly indicated that it did not wish to take any actions that would justify a counter-attack on the Iranian homeland. Iran is well aware of the fact that some members of the Trump Administration, such as the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, support a larger policy of regime change in Iran. The restrained Iranian response was likely a major disappointment to those hawks.

National Public Radio conducted an interview with Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) on the briefing he received from the Administration on the reasons for the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani. He had earlier described the briefing as one of the worst he had ever received: “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate….What I found so distressing about the briefing is one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran,’ and that if you do ‘You will be emboldening Iran.’”

But in the interview he described an attitude of absolute contempt for Congressional war powers:

“As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the supreme leader of Iran. If at that point, the United States government decided that it wanted to undertake a strike against him personally, recognizing that he could be a threat to the United States, would that require authorization for the use of military force? The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting. I think it was unprofessional, inappropriate and reflective of a certain cavalier attitude toward the Constitution to refuse to make a commitment on that front.”

If the assassination of the highest political leader of a state is not an act of war, there are few other circumstances that would meet that criteria. It also seems clear that Senator Lee did not think that the briefing justified the characterization of Suleimani’s threat as “imminent”. If the threat was not imminent, then the justification that the US acted in self defense is not at all persuasive. If the threat was not imminent, then the act of war requires Congressional authorization.

The House of Representatives voted for a War Powers Resolution today which may have the effect of restraining further actions by the US in Iran. The vote was 224 to 194, mostly along party lines. The measure was passed as a concurrent resolution, not as a law. Such a resolution is “considered to be enacted once both chambers approve it and is never presented to the president for his signature — rather than a joint resolution, which Mr. Trump could veto.” A concurrent resolution would not have the force of law. It is not clear whether there are enough votes in the US Senate to pass a regular bill and it is likely that, even if it does pass, President Trump would veto the bill. But the resuscitation of the war powers of the Congress is a development that is long overdue.

Posted January 9, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

%d bloggers like this: