Communism in Green

While the revelations of “Climategate” are still making headlines and world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss global warming, slowly but steadily more and more commentators are questioning the dubious qualities of environmentalism. Indeed, some are comparing it outright to totalitarian ideologies of the past.

Charles Krauthammer, writing for The Washington Post, quoted Czech president Vaclav Klaus as warning that environmentalism is well underway to become the new socialism. Or, as Krauthammer puts it, “the totemic ideal in the name of which government seizes the commanding heights of the economy and society.”

Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green. The cultural elites went straight from the memorial service for socialism to the altar of the environment. The objective is the same: highly centralized power given to the best and the brightest, the new class of experts, managers and technocrats. This time, however, the alleged justification is not abolishing oppression and inequality but saving the planet.

Krauthammer calls on Congress to bring these overzealous bureaucrats to a halt. Saving the planet is one thing, but trampling on the United States Constitution and sacrificing the economic order that has long brought the country prosperity might rather be too high a price to pay for it.

Global warming is real but “Climategate” unveiled some of the weaknesses of the environmentalist school that cannot be ignored. The evidence that says man is responsible for the process appears inconclusive at this stage but that is not the most pressing question politically. Rather we should ask ourselves whether the alternative provided by the eco-socialists, which borders on a rejection of industrial society and promotes self-sufficiency, is realistic and morally justified.

For it is industry that provides many of the answers to climate change in the form of renewable energies, fuel efficient engines, genetically enhanced crops, dams to protect regions from flooding and systems to warn against imminent weather hazards. Turning back the clock three hundreds years and abandoning the enormous technological progress that has been made in the meantime is not just impossible — it wouldn’t solve our problems.

The Next Republican Candidate

President Obama has hardly completed his first year in office or speculation about which Republican will run against him in 2012 has surfaced already. With leftovers from the last election as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin probably too right wing and therefore unelectable, Mitt Romney remains the most high profile of potential candidates. Another name is being tossed around Washington however: the name of John Thune, the 48 year-old junior senator from South Dakota whose staunchly conservative views and youthfulness might well lure Republicans into electing their own version of Barack Obama.

Some media have been quick to pick up on the news. The New York Times described him as charming while Politics Daily is positively smitten with the man. He is “handsome”, “passionate” and “has gone out of his way to bolster his conservative bona fides,” we learn. For example, Thune called his faith his “anchor” and joined the effort to amend the United States Constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage. He supported the invasion of Iraq as a war of liberation — to bring religious freedom to the country would “open the door, obviously, for the Christian faith there as well,” he said. The Republican base might like to hear things like this, but how will he speak to moderates?

On his website, the senator does some more Republican smoothtalking by defending the Second Amendment right to own and bear arms while writing that “government has a duty to promote and protect the family” and pledging to “continue to fight for the life of the unborn,” meaning: abortion is a no-go unless the mother’s life is threatened.

On the other hand, he talks about the need to protect the environment, promote sustainable energy and reform health care — positions that independent voters might find appealing.

On some of the most important issues that an American president must deal with — the economy, homeland security and foreign policy — Thune volunteers no more than slogans however. “America must have a strong military,” he says. We must reduce the tax burden to promote growth. “Our tax dollars should be spent wisely” and law enforcement officials should have “the tools they need to fight the War on Terror.”

Since Thune isn’t a candidate for the presidency yet, it would perhaps be unfair to demand that he elaborates on these position. Right now though, it’s all the Republican talking points that no one can really disagree with — who doesn’t want America to have a “strong military”? and who doesn’t think that “tax dollars should be spent wisely”? — lacking a vision that anyone contesting Barack Obama in 2012 must be able to display.

Ayn Rand and the Christian Right

Politico announced it last month: “Ayn Rand is having a mainstream moment.” The fountainhead of Objectivism, the philosophy that holds man as an heroic being and values life as an end in itself, died in 1982 but two recent biographies, rumors of an Atlas Shrugged (1957) film adaption and her embrace by the popular right have reinvigorated interest in Ayn Rand’s work. Reason Magazine summed it up on their December cover: “She’s back!”

As Politico notes, this revived popularity “comes at a time of renewed government intervention in the private sector. […] It’s an era of big government all too similar to the dystopia described in Atlas Shrugged.” Not surprisingly therefore Congressmen and media personalities that are skeptical of this comeback of big government are more prone than ever to come out as Objectivists.

That is not to say that the right has embraced Rand entirely. Writing for the National Review Peter Wehner, a former Bush Administration official, describes Objectivism as “deeply problematic and morally indefensible.” Rand herself, he believes, was “a nut”. Her small-government philosophies have “very little to do with authentic conservatism,” according to Wehner, “at least the kind embodied by Edmund Burke, Adam Smith […] and James Madison. […] What Rand was peddling is a brittle, arid, mean, and ultimately hollow philosophy.” Why? Because Rand was an atheist and therefore represented “the antithesis of a humane and proper worldview.”

Bill Greeley, a blogger at the New Clarion is not impressed. “Authentic conservatism was the first enemy of capitalism,” he counters. Wehner has not to fear Ayn Rand so much — “it’s capitalism, human nature and ultimately the facts of reality” that are religion’s foremost enemies.

The Christian Science Monitor is rather more pragmatic in its assessment of Rand’s newfound popularity and gives the floor to Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009). “Though she’s not religious,” writes Burns, “Rand brings a strong sense of good and evil to the debates over economic policy.” The Christian Right, she opines, “is being swept to the side by the rush of events.” That might be overly optimistic though considering how brain-dead the GOP has become in recent years, it wouldn’t be a bad development at all.

Can We Win in Afghanistan?

Writing in July 2008, retired United States Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Gulf War veteran and critic of the initial American strategy in Iraq, assessed the war in Afghanistan and concluded the following.

  1. “Afghanistan is in misery.” Life expectancy is low and violence and crime are rampant. At the time, McCaffrey expected Afghan governance to worsen at least until the summer of 2010.
  2. An enormous majority of the Afghan people reject the Taliban but have little faith in the government’s ability to provide them with security and jobs. They do trust the foreign forces but are suspicious about their long-term commitment.
  3. Afghan and NATO forces are militarily superior to the insurgents but they “cannot win through a war of attrition.”
  4. The war has basically run into a stalemate while Afghanistan’s political elite is “focused more on the struggle for power than governance.”
  5. Additional forces are required to break the deadlock.
  6. There is no “sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations” which is hampering the war effort.

General McCaffrey specifically called on NATO to provide more troops. International cooperation was, and is, of the utmost importance in winning the war, he wrote — more than a year ago.

In a similar finding last November, the general appeared all the more pessimistic. “The Taliban believe they are winning,” he wrote and the Afghan people “do not know who will prevail.” Their trust in the Afghan government has declined further while allied casualties have “gone up dramatically.”

There is some reason to be hopeful though. “The Afghan National Army is a growing success story,” and “ISAF is reinforcing just in time to rescue the deteriorating tactical situation.”

David Betz at Kings of War is skeptical however. He notes that none of McCaffrey’s original six concerns have really been addressed. That seems only partly true.

Yes, Afghanistan is still in a deplorable state. Civilian casualties and unemployment figures remain high while the military and ideological power base of the Taliban might well be gaining strength. They are waging a successful propaganda campaign that portrays the Taliban as a disciplined and truly Islamic alternative to the corrupt and incapable Kabul government and to the Western troops which they claim intend to occupy the country indefinitely.

President Obama attempted to counter this claim when he announced a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces; a decision that General McCaffrey thinks was the wrong one:

Our focus must now not be on an exit strategy — but effective execution of the political, economic, and military measures required to achieve our purpose.

The United States cannot appear to be “scuttling from Afghanistan,” agrees Betz. “We most definitely should, however, have our eyes on the exit and how to achieve the most seemly passage through it as is possible.” Why, yes, eventually. But right now, foreign troops are all that stand between Afghanistan and the Taliban ruling it once again.

The president’s date for the ‘beginning of the end’ will not see the immediate and complete evacuation of NATO forces. Rather, as Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates explained on December 2 while testifying before the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs Committees, the United States is in Afghanistan for the long run — even though it will be with fewer troops

Throughout his election campaign, President Obama stressed the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, he knew, was the ground where the real War on Terror was being waged. He was right. With the recent inclusion of Pakistan in the administration’s approach to the war, the United States has the ability, and must gather the will, to defeat the forces of extremism that operate from the mountainous border region between the two South Asian states and from where they continue to threaten the stability of that entire region.

A Government by the People

Scale model of the United States Capitol
Scale model of the United States Capitol (Andy Castro)

Just a few days ago, President Barack Obama and his staff announced their Open Government Directive. In a memo, beginning with the lines, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” the White House announced its intentions to work toward a form of “collaborative democracy,” in which citizens would be able to input their ideas and contributions toward governance.

With programs like Peer-to-Patent already around, collaborative government seems closer than ever. Its tool? The Internet. Or, the “tubes,” as disgraced former senator Ted Stevens referred to them.

The directive lays out a specific timetable that can be found online and that orders all executive departments to create “open government” websites within ninety days of December 8, 2009.

It seems quite clear that this is a major change in how citizens will be able to deal with government. What is the nature of the change? As Clay Shirky tells us, “the impulse to share important information is a basic one, but its manifestations have often been clunky.” Read more “A Government by the People”

Obama Last Transatlanticist?

Will Barack Obama turn out to be the last transatlantic American president? Nicholas Kitchen wonders in The Washington Note. Although his wind of change met the approval of nearly all of Europe, a series of diplomatic gaffes and mishaps has strained relations, he claims.

The Obama Administration supposedly downgraded ties with Britain from a “special relationship” to a “special partnership” — whatever the difference there might be. As James Pritchett has argued, such a downgrading is not unnatural: Britain simply isn’t the global power it used to be, not in economic nor in military terms and the United States have little reason to pretend otherwise. Kitchen seems to consider it a failure nonetheless.

And it’s not just Britain that Obama managed to upset. No, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy expressed their “annoyance” with his administration’s “attitude toward sensitive historical anniversaries” apparently. According to Kitchen these “diplomatic contretemps” were the products of a serious divide:

[O]ver the best response to the financial crisis and in particular the issue of regulation of complex financial services instruments, with Mirek Topolanek using the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union to describe American bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell”.

And what does Obama do? He goes to Asia and declares himself the “Pacific president”.

Outrageous? Not really. Kitchen is fair to note that it’s mostly the Europeans themselves who are to blame:

[T]he truth remains that if Europe wants to be a major player on the world stage it needs to think of its role more strategically and systemically if the United States is not to regard the relationship with China as its most important bilateral tie.

There is probably little that will prevent the Americans from considering the latter relationship of greater significance, however, and for good reason: the Sino-American relationship is bound to define the twenty-first century, one way or another.

At the New Atlanticist, James Joyner defends the Obama Administration’s Pacific orientation. That is not to say Washington has forgotten about Europe, he writes. “Just because other countries now get more attention doesn’t mean the transatlantic relationship isn’t the most important one.”

[I]t’s difficult to imagine an evolution of the international system that would have China — or any other rising power — coming to have more similar values and interests than exists between the United States and Western Europe.

If not for the military and political alliance, that is still strong no matter how little attention President Obama were to pay to it; the cultural and economic ties between both sides of the North Atlantic would suffice to ensure mutual dependence for decades to come. The Obama Administration isn’t neglecting Europe. It simply realizes that there are more partners out there.

Obama Accepts Nobel Prize

In Oslo, Norway today American president Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, the president outlined his vision for peace and the role which the United States must play in achieving it.

Recognizing the horrors of total war and genocide, Obama named the League of Nations and the United Nations as instruments in the preventing of another world war. At the same time he stressed the continued necessity of force. “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” he said and “negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” American weapons of war have kept the peace in many parts of the world since the end of World War II although the advent of the Nuclear Age still poses a danger to world peace. Read more “Obama Accepts Nobel Prize”

Sino-American Naval Conflict of 2015

A recent post on The Best Defense grabbed my attention. It gives a quick review of an issue of Orbis magazine’s article by Commander James Kraska, a professor at the United States Naval War College, who sets out a hypothetical conflict in which China sinks the USS George Washington.

The writer has this to say about it:

I usually like this sort of article that attempts to look back from a possible future event and explain how we got there. But I didn’t find this article … particularly persuasive.

Commander Kraska points to current counterinsurgency operations as a weakness for the United States Navy and says that they are taking their “eye off the ball” and not focusing on the Navy’s primary role: protecting the United States from blue-water threats and safeguarding American interests abroad. Read more “Sino-American Naval Conflict of 2015”

Jerusalem Capital of Two States?

After conferring for two days in Brussels the foreign ministers of the European Union called for “the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead […] to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.” With a soon-to-be-appointed joint foreign minister and the Americans once again committed to bring about peace in the Middle East, Europe too appears determined to finally achieve some result.

The two-state solution is something most European countries have supported for a long time, so what’s new? Well, for one thing, the Council decrees that it “will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem,” unless both Israel and the Palestinians agree otherwise. A way must be found for Jerusalem itself to become the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state — “through negotiations.” Read more “Jerusalem Capital of Two States?”

Japan Lingering in Economic Trouble

Although still the world’s second economy, Japan has taken quite a beating in recent years. The 1990s were a decade of prolonged stagnation with government spending, a steadily increasing public debt and an almost nonexistent interest rate hampering economic progress. The recession came on top of that and hit the country hard.

Urban dissatisfaction with Japan’s traditional ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, had been rampant for several years until this August, rural voters joined them in electing the Democratic Party of Japan to power. Established in 1998, the Democrats claim to be more liberal in the classical sense than their opponents, favoring the taxpayer and “self-reliant individuals”. The government should, in their view, limit itself to “building the necessary systems” for a society that is framed by “transparent, just, and fair rules.” Supposedly they prefer to let the market run its course but even before they won a majority and got to form a government, the Democrats distanced themselves from the small-government policies of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. His approach was to take the blame for recent job losses and a widening social inequality. Economically then, we do not have to expect a radically different course from these new power-brokers.

In spite of East Asia’s resurgence during the last quarter there are reasons to be cautious about a speedy recovery for Japan, notes Edward Hugh at A Firstful of Euros. Japanese manufacturers continue to curb on capital spending and salaries, making any recovery in domestic demand unlikely in the short run. Moreover, Japan’s long-term prospects are gloomy. The country’s workforce is shrinking and aging, writes Hugh, which, if the new government refuses to compromise on social security, will inevitably demand greater financial sacrifices from the rest of the population not too long from now. Lastly, Japan’s economy still faces the risk of “getting caught in yet another deflationary spiral,” especially after retail prices dropped dramatically last October.

Government stimulus measures did strengthen consumer spending and exports to Asian neighbors during the third quarter of 2009, producing a modest 1.2 percent growth rate over the previous quarter when Japan’s economy had already moved out of recession. Yet retail prices plunged by 2.6 percent during the same period; the fastest pace of price decline recorded since 1958. Consumer spending also fell during the third quarter after it had risen slightly earlier in the year when the government handed out money and rebates for people buying energy saving home appliances. Industrial output is still down by 15 percent compared to last year while Japanese companies are reluctant to invest as uncertainty over exports and a weakening currency persists.

It is exactly this anxiety about Japan’s export driven economy that continues to upset economists and investors alike. Cheaper products from nearby East Asian states, China foremost, threaten to upset the structure of Japan’s economy under which it has prospered for more than half a century. Meanwhile, the country’s domestic market simply isn’t strong enough to ensure continued growth should exports fail.

An aging Japanese workforce is only part of the problem. The long-term effects of repeated shortterm interventions in the private sector during the 1990s are starting to be felt and not just in the shape of a mounting public debt that exceeds GDP twofold. Labor productivity has been impaired due to substantial labor hoarding in non efficient sectors, according to Hugh while “expanded credit guarantees, intended to counter tight credit, have had similar adverse side-effects.”

Unfortunately, in spite of their rhetorics, there is little to suggest that with the Democrats in power, Japan will denounce big government spending to allow its domestic market to gain strength. As is typical during times of economic turmoil, the government feels that it has to fix the problem while especially in Japan’s case, government has been and continues to be the real problem.