A New START

Pressing the “restart” button — that is how the Obama Administration, literally, initiated its policy toward Russia after the cool Bush and Putin years. Now, in an interview with Fox News, National Security Advisor Jim Jones suggests that the president might win another foreign policy success on one of the very issues dear to him: nuclear proliferation.

“All of the dialogue is encouraging, they’re positive,” said Jones about the negotiations that are going on in Geneva, Switzerland these days. Russia and the United States are attempting to draft an arms control deal to replace the existing START agreement that expires new Saturday. “We’re down to the last few paragraphs and sentences.”

That is good news for Obama who hopes to have a new treaty signed by the time he heads for Oslo, Norway next week to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. The reduction of nuclear weapons is said to be the subject of his acceptance speech.

The current START and SORT treaties limit both the number of nuclear and conventional weapons that Russia and the United States may possess. Still each maintains nuclear arsenals of thousands of warheads. The United States is estimated to have about 10,000 warheads of which 2,623 are operational. The Russian number more ambiguous: it said to have 4237 warheads operational in 2007 but this might be an exaggeration. There is no doubt however that the country has between 8- and 10,000 of such weapons in storage. (For comparison, the world’s third nuclear state, France, maintains about 300 warheads operational.)

The Geneva negotiations focus only on the operational warheads but its goal is more ambitious than any agreement signed between the former Cold War adversaries so far: both intend to cut their arsenals of operational warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 within the next seven years. Should such an agreement come about, President Obama can boast an enormous step forward in the fight against proliferation.

Sarkozy Strikes at the City

With France, along with Germany, leading the way of European recovery, President Nicolas Sarkozy has both the power and the prestige to launch a reinvigorated campaign against what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of finance. With his countryman Jean-Claude Trichet heading the European Central Bank and UMP-ally Michel Barnier soon to be installed as the union’s internal market commissioner, Sarkozy appears to have everything in place to make the world see “the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.” No wonder that people are worried in the City of London.

London was quick to respond. Mayor Boris Johnson traveled to Brussels to lecture the European Parliament but his entourage of rabble-rousers and cameramen did little to persuade them. Nor was Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling’s argument that “London is New York’s only rival as a truly global financial center,” and therefore Europe should strengthen, not weaken it, well received.

Earlier, in conference with his colleagues from across the continent, Darling compromised on the creation of a European financial regulator. French finance minister Christine Lagarde praised the deal which according to Darling leaves considerable responsibility with national authorities. That is not how his counterparts sold the agreement at home.

Nevertheless, there is some truth in Darling’s statement. A European Systemic Risk Board is to be put in place to spot irregularities in the financial system that threaten to harm it. But it will have no power to leap upon banks to put any questionable practices to a halt. Rather it is supposed to issue recommendations and warnings alone.

Sarkozy has more weapons in store to bombard Paris to the world’s next financial capital however. A European Alternative Investment Directive seeks to install a framework for all alternative fund managers which in London is rather perceived as an attempt to shackle another sector of “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” capitalism. If that were true, Paris in fact stands to gain very little: hedge funds taking a pre-emptive decision to leave London headed straight for Switzerland, not Paris or Frankfurt.

There is more reason for Londoners to be hopeful. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes in the Telegraph, Barnier is actually “deeply averse to trampling on British sensitivities.” Moreover, his director-general, Jonathan Faull, is British. “Given the circumstances, the Barnier-Faull team is the best that Britain could hope for.” Whether that will stop Sarkozy remains to be seen.

Spanish Socialism is Hampering Europe

Most of the economies of the European Union are slowly moving out of recession. Both Germany and France are boasting modest growth rates and they are pulling other countries, like Italy, on the road to recovery. There is one country that seems utterly incapable of keeping pace however and that is Spain.

Government stimuli have been of some help but the Spanish national bank warns that early signs of recovery are misleading: because imports have fallen even more dramatically than exports have, BNP-figures might appear optimistic but in truth, the country lacks a solid foundation for economic growth.

During the ten years between 1997 and 2007 the Spanish economy was almost exclusively driven by a rapidly expanding real estate market, producing a stable growth rate of 4 percent annually. In the same period the country attracted almost four million immigrants. Now that construction has come to a standstill many of these people are moving away while millions of Spaniards are left unemployed with so much as two million living off unemployment benefits.

Spain’s prime minister Rodríguez Zapatero came to power in 2004 promising to diversify the country’s economy. He intended to invest in renewable energies, bioengineering, high-speed infrastructure, construction and logistics to encourage innovation and the emergence of a solid services economy. Now, five years later, the prime minister continues to repeat his promise will little progress made in the meantime.

“My government’s ambition is to make this an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial country while upholding the social welfare state,” said Zapatero last July. He foresaw no trouble combining the two at the time. “Some people will say that a social welfare state and a competitive economy are incompatible, that innovation is incompatible with workers’ rights. They want to deregulate workers rights, deregulate social rights. That is exactly the same tune as people who say we have to deregulate the financial markets and I do not dance to that tune.”

As a result, Spain faces both an enormous trade deficit and a deficit on the state’s budget of almost 10 percent with the public debt, of course, mounting fast. Zapatero nevertheless counts on foreign investments to carry his country out of recession although no one in their right mind would entertain the notion of investing in Spain nowadays.

It’s not just money from abroad that is lacking however. Spanish banks are hesitant to borrow which is hurting small businesses and the whole of the real estate market because people can’t a mortgage.

Today, finally, the Spanish government announced long awaited labor market reform after unemployment reached a staggering 19.3 percent in October this year. Zapatero proposes to provide for greater flexibility, reducing high dismissal costs but also reducing working hours to preserve employment: a controversial step that seems unwise considering how little it did to once ail Britain’s economy during the 1970s.

Spain’s lack of recovery left the European Central Bank with a difficult choice to make. As the French economy grows once more it is expected to see inflation go up above the European average next year. France has proposed to temper it by increasing the interest rate (a step Australia and Norway have already taken) although this would hurt the Spanish economy terribly by further depriving it of credit. The Bank had to chose between serving France, whose recovery is helping other European economies also, and supporting wearisome Spain because its own government lacks the political will to do so. For the time being, it elects do to the latter, maintaining the interest rate at 1 percent.

Dean Rehabilitates Socialism

In a speech delivered in Paris, France on May 4, 2009, Howard Dean, until January of this year the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared that the debate about whether to “have” capitalism or socialism is over. “We are going to have both,” said Dean.

After comparing President Obama with John F. Kennedy and taking pride in the multiculturalism of modern-day America, Dean claimed that both capitalism and something he calls “communitarianism” are part of “human nature.” According to Dean, all people feel the urge to care for others besides themselves or, as he puts it, all want to be “part of a community.”

Apparently Dean sees no contradictions between capitalism and socialism for he innocently suggests that America ought to figure out “which proportion of each” it is going to have “in order to make this all work.” In Dean’s words, this is the “sensible” thing to do.

In fact, there is nothing sensible about it. Capitalism and socialism are almost perfect opposites of each other and cannot coexist. Where the first depends on the individual, the second is concerned only with the wellbeing of the collective; where the first promotes ingenuity, the second demands conformity; where the first favors freedom, the second relies on cohesion because altruism, regardless of what Dean might say, is not part of human nature. Rather altruism, although the foundation of any collectivist ideology, goes against it; it goes against the most primal human will: the will to live.

Socialism has held so many nations under oppression; it has condemned so many people to self-destruction and death that is almost unimaginable that an American of all people, a citizen of the very country that resisted socialism with reason and with force for half a century, should now champion it in blissful ignorance of its cruelties and hardships.

Whether you hold capitalism as a system responsible for the current recession or not, socialism is most certainly not an alternative. No socialist state has ever prospered economically for it denies the very human qualities that drive progress. Denying that is inexcusable.

India Matters

Reaffirming American relations with India was one of the few foreign policy successes of the Bush Administration. A nuclear power with an impressive but stable economic growth, India is already the South Asian superpower and likely to become more than that. It works with Brazil and Russia and even with China (the so-called “BRIC”) to strengthen its international position and it plays a pivotal, albeit an oftentimes overlooked, role in the Middle East.

President Obama was wise to invite his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh for the White House’s first state dinner on November 24 — a clear sign that the current administration also intends for India to be part of its “multilateral” strategy. According to the president, India is “indispensable” in the building of “a future of security and prosperity for all nations.”

Singh, as finance minister during the first half of the 1990s, broke with India’s past of moderate socialism and instituted a series of reforms that carried the country out of recession. As prime minister, he continues to promote privatization and free trade while while investing generously in a massive campaign against poverty. Obama recognized these achievements when he declared that, “[a]s leading economies, the United States and India can strengthen the global economic recovery, promote trade that creates jobs for both our people, and pursue growth that is balanced and sustained.”

In another one of the president’s crusades, bringing proliferation to a halt, he also acknowledged the importance of India. “As nuclear powers, we can be full partners in preventing the spread of the world’s most deadly weapons, securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists, and pursuing our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” Both countries have known the “pain and anguish of terrorism,” the president spoke, so they must stand together to “promote the development and prosperity that undermines violent extremism.”

Prime Minister Singh responded in kind when he opined that India and the United States are “bound together” by common values and a shared dedication “to meet [the] challenges of a fast-changing world in this twenty-first century.”

There is an elephant in the room that neither leader spoke of. America is investing in Pakistan to support its war on terror at a time when India and Pakistan are accusing one another of involvements in terrorist attacks in their countries. After fighting three wars the two countries are still engaged in something of a nuclear cold war. Pervez Hoodbhoy notes however on the New Atlanticist, that most of India “would like to forget that Pakistan exists.” Fast on its way to become a true superpower, India “has no need to engage a struggling Pakistan with its endless litany of problems,” according to Hoodbhoy.

That’s not how Pakistan sees it. Islamabad is by no means comfortable with India’s newfound American approval. The Obama Administration will have to carefully balance its commitment to Pakistan against its relationship with India. It needs the first to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful end but once that’s done, India is really the onle country in South Asia that matters.

Will NATO Pitch In?

Responding to President Barack Obama’s renewed commitment to the war in Afghanistan, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO pledged 5,000 additional Western troops to support the 42,000 NATO soldiers already on the ground.

His promise seems a bit uncertain however. France and Germany announced that they will both wait until the Afghanistan conference in London next January before making a decision while Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, the only other NATO members, besides the United Kingdom, with more than a thousand troops stationed in Afghanistan currently, are troubled by rising opposition to the war effort at home. In fact, Canada and the Netherlands both intend to withdraw forces next year.

Poland has pledged an additional 600 troops nevertheless while of the remaining NATO partners only Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom appear willing to answer Obama’s call. The first have promised 250 forces each while the United Kingdom will add 500 soldiers to the 9,000-strong force is has already deployed in Afghanistan. (A figure that apparently does not include Special Forces.)

Cheney Takes Another Hit at Obama

President Barack Obama is projecting “weakness” because of his “agonizing” over whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney complains. “I begin to get nervous when I see the commander-in-chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” said Cheney.

After spending eight years more or less undercover Cheney has come out as a fierce critic of the Obama Administration especially where the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned — wars, of course, his administration launched and, arguably, mismanaged for years.

Cheney continues to question the president’s ability to steer the war in the right direction when he nags that, “[e]very time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander-in-chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” Apparently, after neglecting the Afghan war throughout almost his entire two terms in office, now, Cheney is concerned with the soldiers on the ground.

Asked whether he believes that the Bush Administration bears part of the responsibility for the difficulties faced in Afghanistan today, the former vice president answered, “I basically don’t,” without volunteering to elaborate.

What he was willing to elaborate upon was Obama’s supposed weakness however. He called the president “far more radical than I expected” and correctly observed that Obama “campaigned against much of what we put in place.” We referring, of course, to the previous administration. “I think that our adversaries […] see that as a sign of weakness,” said Cheney. Traditional allies of the United States see it in a wholly different light however; they are extremely relieved to find a government across the Atlantic that is once again taking them seriously and treating them on equal footing. Denouncing that only demonstrates all the more what colossal foreign policy misjudgments the last Bush Administration made.

Cheney’s fear that Obama’s pondering encourages America’s enemies in the Middle East seems rather misplaced. A war of such importance as the one in Afghanistan demands a president that isn’t afraid to consider all of his options before making a decision. In fact, one-sided advice is probably what led George W. Bush to severely underestimate the magnitude of the war in the first place. So when Cheney accuses the president of using the war in order to score political points, he really ought to take a look in the mirror — and not just when it comes to Afghanistan.

Republican Party Lost Direction

Many appear to agree that in spite of their increasing popularity in the polls, today’s Republicans are divided when it comes to their party’s future. After the evangelic surge under George W. Bush, the populist, anti-Obama rhetoric that is espoused nowadays by the likes of Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin fails to charm part of the conservative backbone that would like to see their GOP move back to the old-styled small government, free-market philosophies which used to make it great.

Just a few days ago, JD Roger quoted Ronald Reagan-biographer Steven Hayward when he declared the Republican Party “brain dead”. Hayward longs for the days when right-wing intellectuals as Allan Bloom, Milton Friedman and Francis Fukuyama fueled the party’s agenda with their writings on the accomplishments of Western-styled democracy, individualism and free-market economics. What we get instead, he complains, is ridiculous “birthers” and “tea partygoers” who are encouraged by blustering lunatics as Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Writing for The Washington Post, Jon Cohen and Dan Balz explain in part why so many people turn to listen to these hysterics. Besides a strong anti-Obama sentiment, they write, there is actually little that holds the Republican Party together these days. Not even half of the people who identify as a “Republican” approve of the direction in which the party’s leadership is pushing them. Moreover, they don’t really know who their party’s leaders are supposed to be anyway. No more than two out ten people favor Sarah Palin while just 1 percent said former President Bush represented “the best reflection of the party’s principles.”

In spite of strong internal disagreement on issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, the Post states that most Republicans “see the party as paying too little attention to federal spending. Most strongly oppose the government’s use of hundreds of billions of dollars over the past two years to bolster the economy.”

Yet it was under the last Bush Administration already that government spending skyrocketed while Republicans in Congress today dare hardly to voice any criticism of massive bailouts and outright government takeovers of business. The economic downturn has apparently been able to silence even the staunchest of capitalists in Washington even though many Republican voters are protesting evermore loudly against further government intrusion in their private lives — and in their private businesses.

Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

Some confusing news from Washington today. The New York Times alleges that President Obama “plans to lay out a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan” while The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has come up with a “revamped war strategy in Afghanistan that includes tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces and benchmarks for the eventual transfer of Afghanistan’s defense to the Afghan government.”

Next Tuesday the president is scheduled to meet with members of Congress before speaking at West Point where he will outline his exit strategy for the war. Apparently, the Times believes this signals a “winding down” of the American involvements in spite of the sending 30,000 extra troops.

According to an anonymous official, Obama “wants to give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down” although for now, it seems, we will see a lot more action first before anything winds down. There is no talk of even a time frame yet, let alone withdrawal. The Times‘ assessment therefore would seem rather premature at this stage.

Whatever the president says on Tuesday he is likely to be attacked for it from both the left and the right. Where the latter calls upon him to send in even more additional troops than he already will, Michael Moore suggest in The Huffington Post that Obama fire General Stanley McChrystal — even though just last May he replaced the previous commander, General David McKiernan for failing to implement a more irregular strategy. Firing another general just six months later seems rather like a bad idea but then again, Moore apparently has utterly no idea what the war is about.

I know you know that there are LESS than a hundred al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan! 100,000 troops trying to crush a hundred guys living in caves? Are you serious? Have you drunk Bush’s Kool-Aid? I refuse to believe it.

You better start believing it, Mr Moore. Obama might become a “war president” as you so dread, but he understands that the United States must persevere in Afghanistan. This war is of immense importance to maintain America’s credibility as well as the security of the region. That Obama remains determined to bring it to a successful end deserves praise for that reason.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.