Monday Wake Up Call – March 29, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Ranch land near Reno NV – February 2021 photo by Patrick Lanzing

The Conversation has an interesting article by Tony Kevin from Australian National University, that analyzes the Biden administration’s early missteps with both China and Russia. He says that:

“In two dramatic, televised moments, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have changed the dynamics between their countries perhaps irrevocably.”

Kevin quotes Putin saying the terms of working with the US have changed:

“Although they think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural, and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests. And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it. They will have to reckon with this, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, insults, they will have to reckon with this.”

Turning to China and the initial meeting disaster, Kevin says that the Chinese feel similarly:

“Putin’s…statement is remarkably similar to the equally firm public statements made by senior Chinese diplomats to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week.”

He quotes Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief:

“The US does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and to incite some countries to attack China.”

Jiechi said the US had no right to push its own version of democracy when it was dealing with so much discontent and human rights problems at home.

Biden’s campaign pitch was that his leadership would put the adults back in charge of foreign policy. But it’s hard to ignore Biden’s slap at Putin (calling him a killer), followed by the train wreck of the China summit in Alaska. Biden’s team is accomplishing the difficult task of making Trump look… er, not terrible.

Could it be that the world is moving on? That our competitors and friends no longer buy the “America is a force for good” story? After all, we’re showing them the worst of American values, by trying to overturn an election, by curtailing voting rights, and by refusing to do anything about mass shootings or the growing poverty that are endemic in the US.

The Guardian reports that we’ve fallen by 11 points in the latest report by democracy watchdog, Freedom House. We’re now below Argentina and Mongolia, and on a par with  Panama, Romania and Croatia!

Dismounting from our high horse will be difficult for the US, but do we have a choice? The world is suddenly signaling strongly that they’ve had enough of American faux exceptionalism and the belligerence we display when we engage with other nations.

Kevin concludes that we’re in a new kind of Cold War, not based on ideology like the original Cold War, but now it’s a war for international legitimacy. Moreover, Kevin adds:

“The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.”

The distribution of global power is changing. What matters now is the growing self-confidence of these two nations, particularly in comparison to what they see as a clearly weakened US. In essence, Russia and China are sending Biden a message:

“Don’t judge us or try to change us. Those days are over.”

Kevin concludes:

“The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money may be moving to Russia and China.”

Time to wake up America! It’s again becoming a multi-polar world. We can’t know what the outcome of this competition will be. But we seem to be at one of those points in history where things can take a very sharp and irreversible turn in a new direction.

These factors have been brewing for years. We’re witnessing a Russia/China strategic alliance which will force us and other countries to make some very hard choices about which side of the fence they’re on. To help you wake up, listen to the Foo Fighters newest, “Waiting on a War”:

Sample Lyrics:

I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young

Since I was a little boy with a toy gun

Never really wanted to be number one

Just wanted to love everyone

Here’s Dave Grohl’s motivation for writing the tune:

“Last fall, as I was driving my daughter to school, she turned to me and asked, ​‘Daddy, is there going to be a war?’ My heart sank as I realized that she was now living under the same dark cloud that I had felt 40 years ago. Every day waiting for the sky to fall. Is there more to this than that? Is there more to this than just waiting on a war? Because I need more. We all do. This song was written for my daughter, Harper, who deserves a future, just as every child does.”


Dems Should Talk Foreign Policy

The Daily Escape:

Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Italy – 2018 photo by Marco Zanta. The glass-enclosed extension is a restaurant.

Every Democratic candidate for the 2020 nomination is discussing domestic policy: Medicare for All, Free College, and all of the other jump shifts in policy, but what about global politics?

Biden isn’t unique among candidates in saying the 2020 election is about a return to the way things were before Trump, the Economist reports:

“’This too shall pass,’ Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. ‘We will be back.’ The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball.”

It is problematic to rely on the ideas of a Clinton operative, but the Economist quotes Jake Sullivan, a 2016 Hillary advisor who says that the thrust of the Democrats’ foreign policy approach is simple: reverse much of what Trump has done. Sullivan talks of a “back to basics” approach: Value alliances, stress diplomacy:

“Compared with domestic policy….there is less focus on new ideas.”

All of the Democratic candidates would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. They would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, possibly with new pre-conditions for lifting sanctions. All would reassure NATO allies of their full commitment to the alliance.

Most Dems agree with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China. However, they would ask America’s allies to work with us on the outcomes.

Biden has a long foreign policy track record. He proposed cutting Iraq into three states for the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. He wanted to arm the Ukrainians against Russia. He opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya.

The other candidates have said less, and have no distinctive foreign policy positions.

It would be great if we actually talked about foreign policy in the 2020 primaries. Let’s take a step back and remember 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s other nuclear-armed superpower, we became the sole superpower. Until then, our strategy had been to contain the Soviet Union, but afterwards, lacking a global competitor, neither Party put forth a coherent global strategy.

We blundered into the Middle East with the Gulf War in 1991. After 9/11, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. We then hatched the war on terror, and subsequently expanded our globalized military across the world. And when the ledger finally closes on our expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost will approach $4 trillion.

Had we spent that amount on domestic priorities, we could have shored up Social Security and Medicare for a generation. We could have paid for the repair of our crumbling infrastructure. Instead, we’ve emerged from our Middle East blunder with two global competitors, China and Russia, along with a huge fiscal deficit. Neither had to happen.

America has failed to see the connections between our global strategy and domestic strategy. Providing incentives to our multinational corporations that enabled them to make goods abroad has marooned large swaths of our domestic workers.

A reasonable question to discuss is whether we can continue supporting globalization while building good jobs in the heartland of America.

And there should be a real debate regarding Trump’s foreign policy. He has sided more closely with Israel. He’s walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. He’s threatened Venezuela with possible “military options” that are being seriously discussed at the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, the Israelis told Bolton and Pompeo that the Iranians are preparing to attack the approximately 5000 US military personnel in Iraq. That may or may not be true, but it led to Pompeo visiting Baghdad.

Do American voters want another war in the Middle East? Trump is daring Iran to fully withdraw from the Nuclear Deal. Who will become the fall guy if there is an Iranian closing of the Straits of Hormuz? Trump, or Iran?

Trade talks with China seem stalled. North Korea’s recent missile tests press Trump’s bet on a deal with NK. Surely Kim is carefully watching Trump’s moves in the Middle East.

Then there is Russia. The Dems overreached with Russiagate, but the Russians are working with Syria to eliminate one of the last places in Syria (Idlib) where terrorists still hold sway. Neither Israel nor Bolton seem to want a stable Syria. Will they try to force Trump to obstruct this important operation?

Debate by Democrats may focus on military spending, with some wanting to cut it, and the mainstreamers being more cautious. A new policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, should be discussed.

Regardless, Trump will surely attack Dems as “soft” on national defense.

But Democrats should thoughtfully challenge the Right-wing assumption that America must have a military-first strategy, rather than a diplomacy-first strategy.

We’re stretched thin trying to have a military presence everywhere in the world. It’s worth a real debate.


Saturday Soother – May 27, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Baltimore Oriole

Trump returns from his international visits having moved the US into siding with the Sunnis in the Middle East. In this, he has also sided with his generals. This also puts him on the side of al Qaeda, a Sunni terror organization that did you-know-what.

Significantly, it is clear that the entire Trump foreign policy is anti-terrorism. That is one approach, but Trump’s take is mystifying: He calls Iran an enemy because they are a sponsor of terror, which is true. But he embraces Saudi Arabia, the largest sponsor of terrorism by far in the ME, and has attempted to make them his ally in the War on Terror.

The Saudis will now expect that the US will accept that their $110 billion in defense purchases and $40 billion in contributions from the Saudi state’s sovereign wealth fund will buy them enhanced power in Washington and that their demands will be greeted with great receptivity in the future.

That will probably be a difficult pill for Israel to swallow.

Siding with the Sunnis means that the “Shia Crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria) will be difficult for the US to maintain as friends, partners, or allies. In fact, it was reported this week that Russia, Syria and Iran have been proclaimed as allies by the Iraqi Interior Minister. For all the money and blood that we spent, for all of the domestic programs that we sacrificed, the US now has little to show for its last 15 years in Iraq except a huge, and under Donald Trump, a growing national debt.

We are obviously and irredeemably ignorant, and apparently determined to remain so. The Shia Crescent will be an Iranian/Shia alliance extending through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the sea, with Russian and Chinese backing to boot.

Whomever heads ME strategy for Trump needs to hear: “You’re fired!

Trump also met with NATO and the EU, and both relationships look less confident than at any time in recent history. In fact, European Council President Donald Tusk has said that Trump and senior European Union officials failed to find common ground on the main issues at their meeting in Brussels.

Consider this: Trump emerges from this trip as closer to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel than he is with the democracies of Western Europe. We can now start preparing for US War on Terror Part B; followed by Sunni insurgency 3.0: now with even better weapons and funding.

Do these thoughts make you feel that you need something to help you calm down? Wrongo’s advice is stop watching or reading the news for a few days, as he did while traveling in Europe. Talk to locals in your area. Ask them about why they think as they do.

Then grab a vente cuppa chamomile tea and listen to Janine Jansen play French composer Jules Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.


Is Obama Misusing Sanctions in Venezuela?

President Obama imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelans yesterday. From the White House fact sheet: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

President Obama today issued a new Executive Order (E.O.) declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela. The targeted sanctions in the E.O. implement the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which the President signed on December 18, 2014.

Unfamiliar with the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 (the Act)? It was passed in both Houses by a voice vote, so we have no record of anyone opposing the Bill. The same day in which the US said that they were going to normalize relations with Cuba, they also confirmed that the Act would open Venezuela to sanctions. So, while we are trying to normalize relations with Cuba, we move against Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally. It looks like Venezuela will replace Cuba as a foreign policy toy for the US political right.

So, what is going on here? Venezuela’s president Maduro thinks the US is out to get him, claiming that we have attempted 16 coups in the past two years. OK, probably an exaggeration, since we were able to bat 1.000% in our one try at a coup in Ukraine. OTOH, Maduro showed some evidence of a possible coup launched by exiles living in the US. There was apparently, a “100-day Plan for Transition”, designed by the coup plotters. It stipulated a series of measures which included the privatization of all public services.

In response, the US has been saying Maduro is making the coup thing up, accusing him of fabricating some of the intelligence he was using to make his case. OK, maybe Maduro is making shit up, but our response is to declare a National Emergency under the National Emergencies Act?

Then, we impose economic sanctions. Obama’s EO defines sanction targets as those who undermine democratic processes, engage in violence or human rights abuses, those that limit freedom of expression, and those involved in public corruption

BTW, how many National Emergencies does the US have today? Venezuela is #31.

The WH fact sheet referenced above argues that Venezuela is among the most corrupt countries in the world. Fine, but it has the same score as Yemen, while it beats Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well Uzbekistan (another US ally). And all of them are worse on human rights than Venezuela.

From Emptywheel: (emphasis and brackets by the Wrongologist)

In other words, the Administration is claiming that Venezuela’s corruption and human rights abuses present a much bigger threat to the US than a string of countries we’ve already destabilized that are worse in terms of corruption and human rights, [including]…Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s more severe human rights abuses.

Reuters was quick to point out that the sanctions did not threaten Venezuela’s energy sector or broader economy, for good reason: We are Venezuela’s top trading partner, and they were the fourth-largest supplier of crude to the US in 2014. And how exactly is Venezuela, a nation of 29 million, with a small military, a threat to the US?

In 2002, there was a brief, military coup attempt in Venezuela, which arrested then President Hugo Chavez. During the period he was detained, George W. Bush promised quick recognition of the coup plotters. But before Washington could formally recognize the coup government, a mass uprising by Venezuelans and parts of country’s military led to Chavez’s release from captivity.

The Venezuelan economy is in terrible shape, and Maduro’s polling badly. You’d think the administration would be smart enough to do nothing, and not create an America-centric rallying point for Maduro, who now gets to say that our sanctions foreshadow another 2002-style coup.

Threat to US national security? Of course Venezuela is a threat. Obviously it was behind 9/11, and is close to acquiring WMD, and something about yellow cake…?

It’s not about oil. It’s never about oil.

We have used sanctions to impose our will successfully on Iraq and Iran. The jury is out on whether sanctions will work with Russia. Targeting Venezuela, as we did Cuba, where most of the rest of the world didn’t cooperate with our plan, is an overreach by Mr. Obama.



Obama’s National Security Strategy Dissed by Republicans

For the third time in a century, America might be asked to save Europeans from themselves.

As is evident in Congress’s unease, events are spiraling out of control in Ukraine. We are again getting drawn into Europe’s centuries-old propensity towards self-destruction. It is evident that Europe seems unwilling and/or unable to contain the geo-political ambitions of Vladimir Putin. It is also evident in the European Union’s (EU’s) stand-off with Greece, which grows uglier by the day. And Greece’s overtures to the Russians make the situation possibly even more alarming.

After WWII, America helped rebuild Europe. That provided the early foundations for the unprecedented period of European stability and prosperity that has followed. Is Europe willing to throw that away? Our global role raises many questions for America’s policy makers:

• Are the Europeans being careless with their hard-won peace and prosperity?
• What is our strategy with Ukraine and Russia’s aggression?
• What is our strategy for the greater Middle East, including Israel, Iran and ISIS?
• What about China?

All of these questions are on the table as the Obama administration seeks a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS this week. It is particularly relevant that the Obama administration released its new National Security Strategy (NSS) last Friday. It was greeted by Republicans with disdain. Given the major issues we face throughout the world, most thought it should have been more concrete in its outline of strategy.

It isn’t often that an administration’s own recently retired top official would blast the NSS. Former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who retired last year as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said on Fox News Sunday:

We need a much broader strategy that recognizes that we’re facing not just this tactical problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria…We’re facing a growing, expanding threat around the world…

It’s normal for any president’s political opposition to deride a new NSS. And no NSS is likely to be compared to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Flynn, who led the DIA for two years under Obama, has some credibility. He used the analogy of a quarterback leading a football team down the field:

I feel like when we say ‘ready, break,’ every player on the team is going off into other stadiums, playing different sports…

By contrast, the administration is describing their approach as “strategic patience” – signaling that they intend to avoid any substantial commitments (at least involving any direct military presence on the ground) for the next two years. This codifies Mr. Obama’s “leading from behind” as at the core of US strategy.

Strategic Patience brings along with it a very high Wimp factor. But should it be dismissed out of hand as weakness, or as a simplistic attempt to avoid foreign policy commitments? The Wrongologist has written before about the urge to “do something”. This is called the “Politician’s Syllogism”, a logical fallacy:

1. We have to do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we have to do this.

We hear this most Sunday mornings on “Bloviating with Old Politicians”, featuring John McCain. In fact, Sen. McCain’s wingman, Sen. Graham, launched the first strike against Obama’s NSS, tweeting:

I doubt ISIL, the Iranian mullahs, or Vladimir Putin will be intimidated by President Obama’s strategy of ‘Strategic Patience.’ Lindsey Graham

Many other Republicans piled on during the next few days, but no one offered an alternative strategy.

Iran is far more important than Ukraine, which is more important than ISIS, which is a strategic side show. Short of ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, what are the Republicans suggesting we do?

If Strategic Patience is acceptable for our adversaries like Russia or China, it should be acceptable for us. The realities of US resource allocation and the current balance of power dictate we focus on the long game, which may mean that saving Ukraine, or lives in Syria, won’t make it to the top of our list. The most important rule that America’s would-be interventionists must learn is that the “first do no harm” doctrine must apply.

The amount of treasure the US has expended on foreign interventions since 2001 is irreplaceable. We could have covered the Mojave in solar thermal plants, and no longer need foreign oil. We could have completely renovated our transportation infrastructure. We could have built a high speed Internet across the US for what we spent on what are now piles of junk and wrecked installations in the Middle East, not to forget the wrecked lives of our soldiers and their loved ones.

US politicians and foreign policy elites really must resist the urge to “do something” in response to every perceived foreign policy crisis.



What Can America Learn from its Competitors?

(This is the third column about US foreign policy. The other two columns are here and here.)

The past two columns have argued that our foreign policy does not employ any non-military strategies in areas where we compete with other nations or where there is local or regional conflict.

We have an insular view of our competition. We tend to see Vladimir Putin as a military strategist, massing his troops on the border of Ukraine, rolling over Crimea, providing the missiles to shoot down civilian airliners. Some, or all of that may be true, but Mr. Putin is a busy man who also uses soft power and commercial power. China, our great Asian competitor, follows a similar strategy to Russia’s.

We could learn a lot from our competitors. Last week saw Russia and China making soft power and commercial initiatives in South America. The Economist reports that Brazil’s President Rousseff hosted Mr. Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping as part of a summit of the BRICS group of emerging countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

While in South America, Mr. Putin also visited Cuba where he announced plans to re-open an intelligence base. Russia also agreed to write off 90% of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet-era debt. Putin then went on to pitch the export of Russian nuclear technology to Argentina and a $1 billion anti-aircraft missile defense system to Brazil.

Mr. Xi met with the leaders of CELAC, a club of all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries. In Venezuela he met with officials regarding China’s $50 billion in oil-backed loans. Chinese trade with the region has grown more than 20-fold in this century:

BRICS trade

China has become a big investor, trading partner and lender in the region. While Latin America’s ties with China are far more recent than those with Russia, they are also much more important. Russia, which had made major inroads into Latin America in the 1960’s and 1970’s is now playing catch-up in many countries, and is closest to Venezuela.

By contrast, the US has a history of attempted and successful overthrows of governments, and meddling that have kept South America suspicious of our motives for decades. We have diplomatic problems with Brazil stemming from the NSA’s tapping of Ms. Rousseff’s personal mobile phone. We are deeply involved in a debt default to private US hedge fund lenders by Argentina, which was heard by our Supreme Court, who found in favor of the lenders not the country. We continue to view Cuba through a Soviet-era lens. The region no longer looks only to the United States and Europe.

While the BRICS countries were in Brazil, they agreed to establish a New Development Bank (NDB) at their summit meeting. The NDB will have a president (an Indian for the first six years), a Board of Governors Chair (a Russian), a Board of Directors Chair (a Brazilian), and a headquarters (in Shanghai). They also created a $100 billion Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), meant to provide additional liquidity protection to member countries during balance of payments problems.

The BRICS wanted a vehicle that matches their rising economic strength, and they wanted a bigger voice than they have in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although the BRICS are one-fifth of the global economy, they are just 11% of the votes at the IMF. The BRICS bank/CRA could challenge World Bank-IMF hegemony. The new bank’s partners already lend more than the World Bank, which made $52 billion in loans last year, while China made loans of $240 billion and Brazil made $88 billion.

The WaPo Monkey Cage reported that Mr. Putin extolled the NDB and CRA as a way to prevent the “harassment” of countries whose foreign policy clashes with America or Europe (like his annexation of Crimea, perhaps?). They also observed that Mr. Xi Jinping sees a geopolitical role for the BRICS as part of his push to set up a new alternative to US ‘hegemony’. Mr. Xi has a vision of China as a leader of the non-aligned nations, a concept first developed in the 1950s. He says this despite taking an increasingly militarized stance on disputed maritime borders in Asia.

Taking a step back, China and Russia are seeking economic dominance of huge swaths of the world, while the US is trying to maintain its current dominance of the same swaths.

And one way China and Russia attempt to do this is through trade, investment and lending, while the US uses military and currency dominance. One major issue in the next decade or two will be whether the dollar can remain the world’s reserve currency. Although at this moment there is no contender in sight, the BRICS’ NDB and CRA could be the first step in China and Russia’s grand plan.

How we respond with soft power, how well we solve our domestic economic problems will go very far towards determining whether the US can blunt the geopolitical challenges from China and Russia.

Guns ain’t gonna get it done.



Sunday Cartoon Blogging – June 29, 2014

Americans prefer not to think about, and rarely allow elections to turn on foreign policy. Events, however, are not cooperating.

No Exit from Iraq:


The cartoon points out a different, subjective “reality.” Objective reality knows that there is always an exit ramp out of that loop. We perceive it doesn’t exist, since we fear the possible consequences. That blinds us to the options of seeing and using the exit.

Dems and Repubs send same message on Iraq:

Our options in Iraq are poor, and none:

However, sending Cheney to help ISIS might work:

In domestic news, Boehner digs in on Executive Orders:

The GOP feels that the primaries vindicated their approach:

Football not anywhere near as confusing as Cricket: