Monday, October 22, 2007

Clinton on Foreign Affairs

In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Hillary Clinton presents an essay about what she would do as president, with respect to foreign affairs (Clinton, H.R. (2007). Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century. Foreign Affairs, 86 (6), Nov/Dec. The essay is one of a series by 2008 presidential hopefuls. I have previously reviewed essays by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and Rudolph Guliani.

Like Edwards in his essay, Clinton apparently believes that Americans are God’s chosen people, that we have the duty to spread the American way of life to all other people, whether they care to have it or not. Also like Edwards, Clinton seeks international respect and gratitude for American leadership in promoting what she terms, “The American Idea.” This messianic vision is deeply disturbing to me, and I believe it will be also to most world leaders. Societies are different, cultures and values are different, governments are different. It doesn’t make sense to assume that everyone should look like us. That is what the most extreme Islamic terrorists believe about themselves! It’s parochial, ahistorical, dangerous, and wrong, wrong, wrong. I did not expect Clinton go down this yellow brick road.

America is the richest and most powerful country in the world right now, like the Romans in their time and the Persians in theirs. This is our moment in history to be top dog. Responsibility does come with that. But for Clinton, “leadership” means to get all other countries to behave as we would like, using diplomacy of course rather than guns wherever feasible. But that’s lightly veiled tyranny, not leadership.

A second major disappointment in this essay is the dearth of ideas and specific proposals. Instead there is paragraph after paragraph of platitude and doublespeak, with just a few exceptions that I’ll get to in a moment. As putative Democratic front-runner before any vote has been cast, perhaps Clinton believes the nomination is hers to lose. In that case there is no percentage in saying anything unusual. It seems a shame to waste such a bully pulpit, but maybe her calculation is correct.

Clinton starts by lamenting America’s loss of status in the eyes of the world under the Bush administration. The rhetoric here is well-worn: snubbing of the U.N., unilateralism, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, ignoring the Israel-Palestine conflict, rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and so on.

I happen to agree that those administration policies or inactions have been individually harmful, but what is Clinton’s specific complaint? Only that we have alienated allies at a time when we need global cooperation. That’s pretty tepid.

She yearns for the American “values, leadership, and strength [that] inspired the world for the last century.” Again there is an image problem in her view, when in fact that is the least important of all the challenges facing this country.

Clinton’s main concern is “to reclaim our proper place in the world…” presumably as God’s chosen people. Who voted for that? Nobody that I am aware of. That is a megalomaniacal vision, not a sober needs assessment. I find it frightening. I can only hope it is just boilerplate to recruit the mindless.

Her list of challenges facing the country includes the usual suspects: two wars, terrorists (she uses the propagandistic term, “war on terror”), nuclear proliferation, China, Russia, the Middle East, climate change and global epidemics. She fails to mention energy-oil, water shortages, growing population and how to feed it, and refugees. There is nothing about immigration, which by definition is an international issue. Some of these topics are taken up later despite their omission in the "challenge" list.

As would all other candidates, Clinton would rebuild the American military, although she offers no specific ideas about how, except to hint, intriguingly, that she would cancel the “Star Wars” missile defense program to fund a military upgrade.

Clinton is unquestioning in her belief that “the value of democracy will continue to inspire the world.” She is convinced that “The values that our founders embraced as universal have shaped the aspirations of millions of people around the world…” Odd then, isn’t it that not every country in the world has a democracy like ours, and many have no democracy at all? Could it be possible that democracy is not the panacea for the world’s ills? This idea is unthinkable for Clinton.

The War In Iraq
Clinton would end the war in Iraq. How? Safely, in a way that restores stability in the region, and engages countries around the world in securing Iraq’s future. Well, who could argue with that! How would it happen? She would convene a committee to draw up a plan to do it. When would it happen? In a deliciously ambiguous phrase, she says this committee would draw up a plan for withdrawal “starting within the first 60 days of my administration.”

It seems there is withdrawal, and there is withdrawal. Clinton would withdraw troops but order “specialized units” to remain and fight in Iraq, to combat al Qaeda and other terrorists. They would “also provide security for U.S. troops.” Troops? What troops? I thought they went home. Maybe not all did. These mysterious “specialized units” would also provide “training” for the Iraqis, and “some forces” would be left in the Kurdish areas. Hmm…

On the positive side, Clinton does realize that for long term success in the region, all the countries in the area must be engaged in stabilization efforts, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia. What is less clear is how all those players might be induced to work together better than they have so far.

Clinton is aware, as no other candidate has been in these essays, of the Iraqi refugee problem. Some 2.5 million Iraqis are now war refugees. Disturbingly, Clinton says it will take a “multibillion dollar international effort” to deal with that crisis, under the direction of the UNHCR. Again, few specifics are offered.

On Israel and Palestine, she would work to implement the basic idea that a Palestinian state would be established in exchange for full recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Great trick if you can do it. She mentions not a word about the Israeli settlements, the wall, refugees, or water rights.

The War on Terror
Unfortunately, Clinton adopts the same fear-mongering propaganda that the Bush administration has used so successfully. “Terrorists cells are preparing for future attacks” she assures us. But to her credit, she understands that education, intelligence, and law enforcement are the crucial tools in combating terrorism, not invading foreign countries. But there is the short term awkwardness of people trying to kill us.

Also smart is her plan to ramp up crop-substitution programs in Afghanistan to deprive the Taliban of opium funding and the government of much of its corruption. I don't think there is any crop that can substitute economically for opium, but if farmers planted coffee or soybeans but we paid opium prices for it, that would be cheaper than fighting an interminable war.

About Pakistan, Clinton hints suggestively that state boundaries mean little when problems are regional on the ground. This hints at an agenda for covert operations.

In her capacity as senator from New York, she slips in a little domestic agenda by saying she would invest in first responders to provide interoperable communications, something that, amazingly, has still not been done. She would also safeguard the transportation of hazardous materials. She does not mention hardening of the ports and nuclear plants.

Talking to Adversaries
Back to foreign affairs, Clinton criticizes the Bush administration for refusing to talk to Iran about nuclear weapons, but does not actually say she would do anything different. She notes that if Iran were to completely acquiesce to all Washington’s demands, a not very likely scenario, then she would be prepared to offer in return “a carefully calibrated package of incentives.” Ah, diplomacy!

Nuclear Arms
Unlike any other candidate’s proposal, Clinton would reduce America’s nuclear arsenal and urge Russia to do the same. This is an easy promise to make, since most of the arsenal has aged out anyway, and new conventional weapons are almost as deadly as the old nukes. Still, it is a good initiative for setting the tone for nonproliferation.

She would also seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, another fine gesture, although again, we do all our nuclear tests with supercomputers these days anyway. A more meaningful proposal is to establish an international atomic fuel bank to control access for peaceful uses. That could work.

Clinton offers multiple criticisms of Russia’s behavior, personalizing it to Putin, perhaps betting that he will be out of power by the time she gets in, not a bet I would make. What would be her stance toward Russia? To “make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference.”

Well, nobody cares for “regional interference,” but that aside, Clinton paints a stark dichotomy: Russia can only be our partner if it rejects authoritarianism and adopts genuine democracy. But Russians like authoritarianism. Historically, they are accustomed to it. It works for them. Putin’s approval ratings are over 70% in Russia. Why should he adopt a democracy like ours? I think Clinton’s blindness to her cultural chauvinism is a serious flaw and a potential impediment to her effectiveness as president.

In one of the few really interesting and creative ideas in her essay, Clinton suggests that the U.S., China and Japan should join up to develop new clean-energy sources and energy efficiencies to combat climate change. China is well aware of its dependence on imported energy and of its dangerous carbon pollution problem. It might eagerly embrace a technology transfer from the U.S. and Japan in those areas. What we could expect in return is not said. But it is an idea that has potential and it could break the Kyoto Protocol standoff.

In a related idea, she proposes an international energy forum comprised of the world’s major carbon emitting nations, linked to the International Energy Agency, and to China and India. It sounds cumbersome, but it might get the right players talking about climate change and ecology.
Concerning Asia and India in particular, Clinton only avers that we must “cooperate on issues of mutual concern.” Hard to argue with that!

She has much the same advice for dealing with Latin America, although she is pointedly silent on the tricky international issue of U.S. immigration policy.

Clinton criticizes the African Union for not denouncing Zimbabwe’s Mugabe for his perpetration of economic disaster, but recommends only that we should “help Africans develop both the will and the capability to address their own problems.” Another not very incisive analysis.
She recognizes the threat of HIV/AIDS but does not associate it particularly with Africa. One interesting Africa policy is the suggestion that if there were a global system of carbon credits for curtailing pollution, “all of Africa can provide carbon credits to the West.” That would amount to massive foreign aid to Africa financed by Western businesses, not a model that has ever been tried, and not one likely to be well received in the Western business community. Creative, though.

Global Initiatives
In her second innovative idea (although it is actually similar to an idea of Edwards’), Clinton proposes an “Education for All Act” that would provide $10 billion over 5 years to train teachers and build schools around the developing world. Where this money would come from and how it would be distributed is not specified. In its outline it is a good idea, but without details it smacks of a hollow feel-good proposal.

A slightly more specific idea is for the government to work with NGOs and charities like the Gates foundation, (if they were interested in such collaboration), to “solve” problems like providing clean water, stopping HIV/AIDS and other diseases, strengthening labor and trade standards. She doesn’t have a specific proposal on the globalization of trade. There is probably nothing that can be said about that tropic which could not be excoriated by somebody.

Around the world in general, Clinton emphasizes that the U.S. must be clear about its position on torture, women’s rights, and human rights in general. As an American, I support the same values, but at the same time, I am aware that women don’t have too many “rights” according to the Quran, and it would be a bad mistake to stuff Western ideas up the noses of people who do not agree with them.

“Rights” of any kind are either declared or granted by someone in specific cultural contexts. Calling them universal does not make them so. I am against torture, slavery and human trafficking anywhere, but still, I would resist blanket condemnations and move quietly, with cultural sensitivity. Education, law enforcement, and economic incentives are the way to go, not public humiliation or nagging.

Clinton praises the fact that women are now more free in Afghanistan than they were under the Taliban. That is a good thing, but it came at quite a cost which we are not yet done paying. I’m just saying, think twice, act once when it comes to promulgating “rights” around the world.

Clinton closes with a 200 year old quote from Daniel Webster glorifying “the power of the American idea." Again I note that this American idea is above all, American. Not everybody sees things our way. Nobody else has our particular history and culture. If the most powerful nation on earth imposes its peculiar “idea” on the rest of the world, on the excuse that it is, after all, a “universal” idea, no good can come of it.

This was a deeply disappointing essay from Clinton. It was a lot bland noodles with just a few spicy sprinkles. I don’t expect the president to be an intellectual, but I do expect more self-awareness than this essay reveals.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bush Administration's Huge Tax Hike

The Bush administration, in its reckless pursuit of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without regard to cost, has unintentionally imposed an enormous new tax on the American public in the form of higher gasoline prices.

A barrel of oil is now about $88, close to its all time inflation-adjusted high of $90 right after the Iranian revolution of 1979. According to Reuters, this will translate into gas prices around $4 a gallon by next spring (

That amounts to a huge tax increase. We can’t not drive, so everybody must pay. Since it hits everyone indiscriminately, it is a flat tax, and that hurts lower income people most, because if it costs $80 to fill up the tank, that’s a whole day’s pay for a low wage worker, but only pocket money for a rich person.

The war in Iraq alone has cost more than a trillion dollars ( Right now it is costing us about $200 billion a year, or more than $300 million a day.

Where does all that money come from? We borrow it by selling US Government bonds. These bonds offer a high rate of interest. I own a couple myself. They are a good deal, assuming I do eventually get my money back. Foreign governments buy the bonds in enormous quantities.

But lately, foreign governments have been less confident about the US’s ability to pay back all that debt. Faith in the US economy has declined, in part due to this mountain of debt. That decline translates into a weaker dollar compared to other foreign currencies. For the first time since I can remember, the US dollar is worth about the same as the Canadian dollar. Going skiing in Canada used to be a real bargain, with every US dollar buying well over a dollar’s worth of goods and services there. No longer.

There is more at stake than my ski vacations. Oil is priced internationally in dollars. If you are a seller of oil, an OPEC country, and the value of the dollar goes down, your profits go down, unless you raise your price, which they have done. Thus $88 a barrel and soon, $4 a gallon gasoline. Hence by reckless spending, the Bush administration has caused a huge tax to be levied on Americans.

Some people have argued that the invasion of Iraq was ultimately about oil. I don’t believe it was. If it were about oil, we’d have the oil now, or its income stream. But we don’t have anything to show for the adventure. I think the invasion was about egocentric self-aggrandizement, not oil, but indirectly, because of the war’s enormous cost, one result has indeed been about oil.

It took a certain number of body bags coming home to get the American public’s attention about the Iraq war. Amazingly, that took over two years. Now, despite intermittent grumbling, Americans are not paying attention to how their own government’s actions are putting an enormous tax on them. Will $4 a gallon gasoline get their attention? Even if it does, and I’m not sure it will, people probably will never link their pain at the pump to the wars. The causal chain exceeds the carrying capacity of the average American's mind.

But overall, there is a silver lining, for high priced gasoline makes alternative energy schemes look economically competitive. Solar, wind, wave, geothermal, photosynthetic algae, and clean coal start to look seriously attractive. (Nuclear remains vastly more expensive than any other energy source if you look at total cost including waste disposal).

Right now ethanol is all the rage as an alternative fuel. I have commented before in this blog about the folly of that. Ethanol will never be the solution, especially not ethanol from corn. That’s just the political money machine at work. Other ethanol stocks are not much more hopeful. Attractive alternative fuels include artificial petroleum (Economist: “Ethanol, Schmethanol” 9/27/07).

Every few election cycles for the last couple of decades, some suicidal politician has recommended a large tax on the price of gasoline, precisely to finance alternative energy. No political career has ever survived the outraged protests such proposals inevitably bring from the public.

Yet amazingly, the Bush administration has managed to double or triple the price of gasoline over just a few years. It is actually a marvelous political achievement that will do the country a lot of good in the long run. We should be thankful.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Independent Taiwan?

I love news stories that last for one day, or even half a day then disappear. I assume that government or money interests are successful in suppressing the information, even though that never works in the long run.

One such story that flashed by was on 9/27/07, when Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party passed a resolution asserting separate identity from China.

Taiwan has been occupied since at least 1600, first by Melanesians, then Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese people. It was a named province of China since 1885 but was lost to the Japanese ten years after that. Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to the end of the Second World War, when in 1945 the victorious Allies gave it back to China. When the communists took over China in 1949, the defeated Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, where they ruled for 40 years. Only in 2000 was the first non-Nationalist president of Taiwan elected.

The U.S. and most other western governments recognized Taiwan as “The Republic of China” snubbing the legitimacy of the communists on the mainland. Billions of dollars of U.S. aid poured into the ROC. But in 1971 the United Nations finally recognized “Red” China as “the” China, replacing Taiwan, which was unceremoniously bumped out of the organization. In 1979 the U.S. officially recognized the Peoples Republic of China as the “real” china, communist though it was.

When I visited “Formosa” (the Portuguese name for the main island), in 1979, I accidentally ruined my U.S. passport by getting a “Republic of China” visa stamp in it. It was not possible to gain entry into the PRC with that stamp in my passport, since the Chinese did not recognize the ROC as an entity that had the authority to give passport visas. Thus, my passport was “illegal” from the Chinese point of view.

In order to visit Shanghai and Beijing, I had to get a temporary, duplicate, “clean” passport from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Then I was allowed to enter China, with one of the first groups of American tourists ever to do so. Never mind that it made no sense that an American was coming to China with a passport empty of visa stamps. How did I get to China if I had been nowhere else? But that little fiction was good enough for the Chinese, who let me in.

Movement toward political independence in Taiwan gained momentum shortly after the US recognized the PRC. By 2000, Taiwan claimed to be a sovereign state “equal to” the PRC. The PRC responded by conducting missile tests around the island, prompting president Clinton to send U.S. military ships to “monitor” the situation, causing the missile tests to stop.

When the Taiwanese government asserted separate identity from China last week, the mainland was understandably not pleased but reacted with clenched teeth.

A top Chinese official restated the PRC’s policy of “zero tolerance” for any kind of Taiwan Independence. He urged “all Chinese” to realize the country’s reunification (AP newswire, from Xinhua Agency, 9/27/07). The official also noted, “We will not allow anybody to secede Taiwan from the People's Republic of China by any means," (same source). He noted that the Chinese central government will stick to the "one country, two systems" principle adopted in Hong Kong and Macao.

China’s claim to its Taiwan “province” is just as valid as Israel’s claim to its cultural island carved out of Palestine by the Allied victors. Yet many Americans, myself included, would love to see an independent Taiwan. Its secession seems like an economic and political fact-on-the-ground. If the democratic and capitalistic Taiwanese do not want to be ruled by the PRC, what advantage would it be to China to force them into submission?

If Texas declared independence from the United States (as it has actually done in the past), would the federal government allow that? Not a chance. Texas would be forced, militarily and economically to remain in the union. It must seem the same situation for Beijing looking at Taiwan.

But if Taiwan persists in its quest to attain independence, what will happen? My guess is that China will invade. There will be a nasty fight but Taiwan will lose, with much bloodshed. The US will do nothing, because legally, China would be within its rights, and economically, China is more important to us than Taiwan.

The Taiwan leaders are probably betting that they could get away with a declaration of independence prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as China wouldn’t want to sully its moment on the world stage with a bloody invasion and the inevitable world criticism that would bring. But that view, while probably correct, is short-sighted. By 2009, when the Olympics are over, the Chinese would invade with impunity.

The Taiwanese might be calculating that in their brief springtime of freedom in 2008, they could form diplomatic and military alliances that would armor them against a Chinese attack in 2009. But what country would be stupid enough to walk into that trap? Alas, the U.S. has a strong record of diplomatic stupidity. I can only hope that behind the scenes planning for such stupidity is not the reason that news of this development is being kept so quiet.