City of Venice Flooded

The ancient Italian city of Venice has slowly been sinking for many years. Early Wednesday morning, an unusually high tide flooded most of the city once again, forcing its denizens to wade through knee-high waters or make use of the improvised, elevated boardwalks set up in St Mark’s Square and other public spaces.

The waters reached a peak of almost 1.5 meters above sea level Wednesday, flooding about 60 percent of the city’s streets according to authorities. The level came close to last year’s record 1.6 meters; Venice’s worst flooding in over two decades. Responsible are the strong southern wind and rain combined with the lagoon city’s periodic tidal phenomenon.

A system of movable barriers that is supposed to protect the city from high tides is under construction but not expected to be operational anytime before 2014.

Venice is not the only place in northern Italy that has fallen victim to bad weathers this season. Lasting snowstorms and cold have forced airports and public transportation to largely shut down throughout the region all the while wreaking havoc on traffic in the different cities.

The Polluted Health Care Debate

The United States Senate sets to vote on a health-care bill over Christmas this Tuesday after what have been months of fierce political debate. As the opposition warned of “socialized medicine” and “death panels”, public support for “Obamacare” and the president himself understandably plummeted.

Although America’s health care is among the most expensive yet one of the most restricted systems in the world, people began to fear that under the Democrats’ plans, they would face a further decline in quality against ever rising costs. Strangely enough, people also indicated that by majority that health care today is too costly on the whole and that it placed a serious burden on the already fragile American economy. President Obama repeatedly stressed that America’s health care is in desperate need of reform but critics seem to have a point when they say that the Democrats will only make it more expensive.

Unfortunately, Republicans prefer instead to devise little doomsday scenarios and warn people that their elderly will soon be put to death if the Democrats have their way. They point at countries as Canada and the United Kingdom and say, “look how bad things are over there.” In fact, health care in these both countries is far from terrible.

In spite of the rather communist qualities of the British National Health Service, it operates at a lower cost per capita ($2,560, compared to $6,096 for the United States in 2007) while providing better care (PDF). Canada on the other hand, while much cheaper per capita than the American system, provides an approximately similar quality of care. It would appear then that a collectivization of health care doesn’t necessarily make things better or worse. A lot of other factors are in play.

Rather than denouncing “socialized medicine” as being impractical therefore, opponents should point out that it is immoral.

The NHS in Britain was established after the end of World War II, in 1948, with the express purpose of providing health care to all, “regardless of wealth.” Its principles were that the service should “meet the needs of everyone,” “be free at the point of delivery” and “be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.” This gave all Britons a right to proper care, no matter whether they were able to afford it or not. Need, not ability became the standard according to which care would henceforth be distributed.

This is a strange twist of ethics. Imagine that the law were to give people a right to much more basic needs than health care such as food and shelter. No such laws exist of course, for if people indeed are entitled to such rights, others must inevitably provide for them at their own expense.

Granting people a right to health-care demands that others provide such care, for free if necessary. Only a government can allocate care under such conditions for few individual doctors and nurses would go about their work unpaid any more than a supermarket would remain in business for long if it is to meet peoples’ “right to food”.

Even the Republicans, supposedly the champions of the free market, dare not question the alleged right to health care in the United States. Probably because they know how most people would respond to such criticism: “Should we just stand by then and let people die?” they’ll ask

Perhaps proponents of collectivization are only more than willing to pay so that others need not insure themselves but as long as they can’t answer the simple question, “Why shouldn’t we?” to their own charge without speaking of non-existent rights and undeserved charity, no man should be held responsible for the health and care of others against his own choice.

That is what opponents of “Obamacare” should have argued. Because they didn’t, collectivized health care is now likely to become a reality in the United States.

The “Other War” Already?

Around this time last year, it was Afghanistan that we called the “forgotten war”. Now, with President Obama announcing a troop increase of tens of thousands and an Iraqi-style surge to prepare for the beginning of withdrawal by 2012, no one bothers to report about Iraq anymore. It would seem that the media can only handle one war at a time.

Fortunately Fareed Zakaria is there with analysis in Newsweek. The United States still have 120,000 troops in Iraq after all. The country is scheduled to hold elections next March while American forces will start leaving by August. “Month of parliamentary horse-trading will likely ensue,” notes Zakaria while the American withdrawal is bound to put further pressure on the “country’s ability to handle its own security.”

How we draw down in Iraq is just as critical as how we ramp up in Afghanistan: If handled badly, this withdrawal could be a disaster. Handled well, it could leave behind a significant success.

For while the costs of the war have been great and “perhaps indefensible,” Iraq could still turn out to be “an extraordinary model for the Arab world.” In spite of the political differences between the country’s Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds, the Iraqis are negotiating about their future, peacefully for the most part. Iraq’s political landscape is becoming more pluralistic and democratic; its press is free; its provinces have considerable autonomy; and its focus has shifted from jihad to business.

All in all, “the Obama Administration has a window of opportunity to cement these gains in 2010” by conducting an “aggressive and persistent” diplomacy in Iraq, “pushing the three groups to resolve the basic issues of power-sharing” before all Americans have left the country.

Future Arctic Battleground

Global warming is rapidly changing the Arctic landscape. In the summer of 2008, for the first time in recorded history, the polar icecap retreated far enough to allow shipping north of Eurasia and North America; by 2013, these sea routes are expected to be completely ice free during the summer.

The region promises more than shortcuts for international shipping however. The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore. No wonder then that nearby countries are only too eager to make the high jump into the cold.

There are some complications: energy prices need to be high enough to make production in such an extreme environment economically viable. To make matters worse, some Arctic coastal states have not settled on the regulatory standards for development yet which is especially hampering Norway.

It isn’t stopping the Russians from more or less trying to annex the Pole for themselves of course. Gazprom has partnered with the Norwegian company StatoilHydro in the Russian Arctic and hopes to bring the enormous Shtokman field in the Barents Sea on stream by 2013. The field holds enough gas to provide the whole of the United States with electricity for six years!

Russia made its designs on the Arctic abundantly clear in August 2007 when it planted its flag on the seafloor of the North Pole. In good Cold War fashion, it subsequently began patrolling the Arctic once again with bombers and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Whence all the fuss? As former Director of the FSB and current secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev stated last year: “The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base.” This, perhaps, to compensate for waning influence in Central Asia.

Russia isn’t the only interested Arctic state. In 2008 Canada held its greatest military exercise ever conducted in the region and the country is spending $40 million on scientific research that is meant to bolster its Arctic claims. Together with Denmark, Norway and the United States, Canada in part contests the Russian pretenses but Russia doesn’t shred from threatening with war over ownership of the giant untapped oil and gasfields. Indeed, it has already shown itself quite willing to violate Canadian airspace just to make a point.

The United States remains strangely silent when it comes to the Pole. Earlier this year, in Foreign Policy, Scott G. Borgerson called upon Washington to take on a more active stance in the Arctic but only recently did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak on the issue.

With Canadian-Russian aminosity flaring up, the Pole “is an area that we have to pay real attention to,” said to Clinton, “but it’s not an area that I get called about by reporters or have to answer questions about at the White House yet.” Most opinion- and policymakers do not seem to be aware yet of the great possibilities, and the great dangers, that the melting of the Arctic will provide. It’s about time the United States get involved nevertheless, if only to prevent the Arctic from indeed becoming a future battleground.

The End of American Ascendancy

After two decades of almost uncontested American hegemony, the sole superpower of our age is in decline. Or so we are told. The financial meltdown; the rise of China; the failed foreign policies of President Bush or Obama, depending on from which side of the aisle you approach the problem — all seem to indicate that the United States is no longer alone at the game of playing master of the world.

To the right, this is a matter of great concern. Charles Krauthammer writes at The Weekly Standard that “decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” He suggests that “America is in the position of deciding whether to abdicate or retain its dominance,” and it’s those wishy-washy, putrid liberals in Congress and the White House that are steering America on a course for decline.

Krauthammer blames President Obama for having gone on world tour and apologize for every wrong ever committed by the United States. The consequence, he writes, is that any moral claim that America might have to world leadership has been effectively undermined. “According to the new dispensation, having forfeited the mandate of heaven — if it ever had one — a newly humbled America now seeks a more modest place among the nations, not above them.” How, without America paramount, is the international system to function?

Henry Kissinger once said that the only way to achieve peace is through hegemony or balance of power. Well, hegemony is out. As Obama said in his General Assembly address, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” […] And if hegemony is out, so is balance of power: “No balance of power among nations will hold.”

Rather, multipolar arrangements not of nation states but of groups of states acting through multilateral bodies, whether institutional (like the International Atomic Energy Agency) or ad hoc (like the P5+1 Iran negotiators), will set the tone, Krauthammer predicts.

At World Politics Review, Thomas Barnett takes issue with Krauthammer’s gloomy view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy which, according to him, accepts that “globalization is an inescapable condition of profound interdependency — the destroyer of zero-sum competition.” Republican hawks, on the other hand, think of globalization as “nothing more than the next playing field upon which fierce great-power competition and conflicts will unfold,” in spite of the fact that no great-power war occurred during the last six decades and classic state-on-state war has been virtually eradicated.

Barnett claims globalization and, indeed, the whole postwar “international liberal trade order” for the left and boasts that the “Americanization” has been accomplished. There is no need, he suggests, for American hegemony when culturally and economically, American influence is supreme. Besides — something he doesn’t take into account — militarily, the United States will remain the uncontested superpower for decades to come.

So why is the right so scared? For one thing, the economic and political rise of China worries conservatives. The first cannot be prevented and actually benefits the United States in the shape of trade and hopefully, political change in the near future. The emergence of China unto the world stage in a political and military sense however is where Republicans draw a firm line, “while accusing the Democrats of preemptive surrender in their effort to rebalance America’s global security responsibilities with the domestic need for economic regeneration.”

No matter how you game out America’s current strategic trajectory, the inevitable result is increased Chinese influence over the American economy and the global security situation.

All the more reason to be nice to China. Krauthammer however probably isn’t worried so much about the Middle Kingdom in the first place; it’s rogue states as Iran and North Korea, global terrorism and resurging Russia that should be on his mind when he fears that America is losing its strategic advantage.

In the face of those challenges, the Obama Administration mustn’t waver. But if indeed there is a “New Liberalism” that, as Krauthammer claims, abhors the notion of American exceptionalism and believes American hegemony to be corrupting and unjust, it’s not in the Obama White House that it prevails as of yet.

Can Iran Be Contained?

Washington’s latest approach to the Iranian missile threat seems to be rather an old-fashioned one: isolating the problem (financially for instance) and attempting to destabilize it from within — in other words: containment.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for The Washington Post, isn’t having any of it. It is wrong, she writes, “to think a nuclear Iran can be contained.”

The theory of containment is a Cold War one, notes Pletka, and applying it to modern-day Iran is false. There is no mutually assured destruction because the Obama Administration is too hesitant to ensure it; there is no clear leadership in Iran, especially after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s heavily contested reelection last June; and there are no allies nearby, for the neighboring Arab states are afraid of Iran. Iran on the other hand, doesn’t lack self-confidence.

Tehran probably sees itself more in the mold of India, a great power whose nuclear weapons are acknowledged and now accepted, than of North Korea, a lunocracy without serious global aspirations or influence.

If Iranian officials ponder withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty, it’s because they no longer want to be constrained by status-quo powers and their status-quo treaties.

Pletka’s argument doesn’t sound too convincing however. After all, containment worked pretty well in the past. What’s really so different about Iran?

Moreover, Pletka largely ignores the Israeli perspective. She admits that a nuclear Iran will be tempted to use its nukes “as a shield from behind which it can engage in adventurism in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel” and that the latter is unlikely to tolerate that, but Israeli action can harm America’s interests.

Obama administration officials confess that they believe Israeli action will preempt our policy debate, as Israel’s tolerance for an Iranian nuke is significantly lower than our own. But subcontracting American national security to Israel is an appalling notion, and we cannot assume that an Israeli action would not provoke a wider regional conflict into which the United States would be drawn.

Thus America must strike now lest it be drawn into a “wider regional conflict” that Iran is unlikely to instigate in the first place? With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and supposedly still fighting a Global War on Terror, it appears America is already quite involved in a wider Middle Eastern conflict.

The very reason Iran is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is because it is afraid of Israel and the United States. Pletka believes that Iran is bullying us all into accepting it as a nuclear power while hardly anyone in Washington likes the notion of that — and Israel is unlikely to accept it.

Israel Threatens Force Against Settlers

Although the Israeli Goverment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank altogether, it is imposing a moratorium on the building of new homes in the occupied territories — and it is willing to use force against Israeli settlers who refuse to abide by it.

Some Jewish colonists were so enraged by the government’s announced settlement freeze that Defense Minister Ehud Barak felt compelled to warn them that military force might be used if they continue to flout the ten-month agreement. Settlers have repeatedly blocked inspectors and security personnel from entering their communities with resistance growing increasingly hostile.

According to a memo leaked to Israeli media, the Defense Department is preparing to deploy unmanned drones to photograph illegal settlement construction. The document goes on to specify that military police, special forces and communication specialists to jam cell phone frequences could all be called upon to enforce order.

The plan was probably leaked by settler sympathizers although there are skeptics who suggest that the authorities themselves were responsible as it could help the government portray itself as willing to confront domestic opposition for the sake of attaining peace.

Peace, however, is hardly to become a reality any time soon. With about 300,000 Israelis currently living in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authorities rejected the Netanyahu Goverment’s compromise to slowdown settlements construction with the exception of East Jerusalem and 3,000 homes currently under construction in the West Bank. Seeing as how the United States also insist that Israel shut down settlement construction in its entirety, there is little reason to assume that any sort of negotiations will be resumed in the near future.

The Iranian Missile Threat

One might not be too much impressed anymore with reports about Iranian missile tests, seeing as Iran is still wrecked by student uprisings while their president uses his UN podium time to deny the Holocaust. Fortunately there is John Noonan at The Weekly Standard to explain why they are something to worry about nevertheless.

First, the Sajjil-2 is a solid fuel rocket. That’s the type of power source that we use in our own Minuteman III rockets, as solid fuel is stable in flight and requires no preparation time ahead of a launch. Liquid fuel, which powers the Iranian Shahab-3 fleet, is highly corrosive and sloshes around in a rocket’s downstage, destabilizing flight and degrading accuracy. It’s so toxic that the fuel eats away at a missile’s internal tanks, and thus needs to be inserted right before launch. That prep time is important, as it gives us a little extra warning prior to a hostile missile launch, which could be used to kill Iranian birds before they fly. With this new Sajjil-2 system, Iran has the ability to keep their missiles hot and ready for execution, killing any chance of an advanced warning or neutralization actions prior to a launch.

No good stuff, certainly. So far though, it appears only Israel really has to worry.

Second concern is that this missile is staged. Our Minuteman III ICBMs are a three stage, solid fuel system that have impressive range and accuracy (particularly impressive considering the fact that the fleet is approaching its 40th anniversary). Iran now has a two stage, solid fuel rocket. When they figure out how to add that third stage to the Sajill-2, they’ll have a delivery system with the legs to reach the east coast of the United States.

Wonderful. This means that when they’re done, Iran has the ability not only to threaten Israel, NATO, and American military bases throughout the region but the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

What’s more, Noonan notes that these missiles are built for a specific purpose: “strategic delivery of a nuclear reentry system.”

So what is America doing? For one thing, it announced its intention to isolate Iran financially, stopping money from going in and, hopefully, from going out, for it’s Iranian cash that is financing such nastiness as Hezbollah and the war in Yemen, among other things.

Washington also intends to loosen sanctions on computer software and boost acces to Internet services as Google and Twitter, seeing as how these are helping students organize themselves in protests against the government that are still happening throughout the country every now and then. Isolating the problem and attempting to destabilize it from within seems to be the approach nowadays — something that sounds a bit like good ol’ fashioned containment, don’t you think?

The Peace Abbas Rejected

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has revealed the peace plan that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September of last year. “Abbas did not respond, and negotiations ended,” according to Haaretz.

The peace plan encompassed an exchange of land, with Israel gaining Jerusalem and a little over 6 percent of the West Bank — parts that are home to 75 percent of the settlement population living in the occupied territory. Dozens of other settlements in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern Samarian hills and in the Hebron region were to have been dismantled.

The Palestinians were to have been compensated for the loss of territory with strips of land north and south of the West Bank and additional ground east of the Gaza Strip. To provide safe passage between the two parts of Palestine, Olmert offered to secure a highway that would remain Israeli territory but lack any Israeli presence.

Haaretz notes that in a formal reply, the former prime minister’s office claimed that their map contains a “number of inaccuracies that are not consistent with the map that was ultimately presented” but based as it is on different official sources, it ought to provide a rough idea of what was offered to the Palestinians nonetheless.

Although the Olmert Plan was less generous than what Ehud Barak offered as prime minister at the 2000 Camp David Summit, it is still difficult to understand why Abbas refused to consider it. He could have provided his people with a sovereign state and end the conflict once and for all but apparently, it wasn’t enough.

Now, due to some clumsy diplomacy on the part of the Obama Administration, Abbas is refusing to so much as sit down with the Israelis in spite of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to largely freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank. One wonders what more the Palestinians are honestly expecting to get.

Europe’s Uneven Recovery

Europe’s massive deficit spending is finally catching up with it. As Stefan Theil writes for Newsweek, markets reacted sharply this week “after rating agencies downgraded the public debt of Greece and warned about the outlook for several others.” With a deficit running at over 12 percent of GDP, Greece runs a serious risk of becoming the first developed country since the end of World War II to default on its debt.

Another South European country, Spain, is not much better off. We previously warned that its stubborn socialist policies are in fact hampering all of Europe; last week, Standard and Poor’s slapped a negative outlook on the country. Read more “Europe’s Uneven Recovery”