Saturday, March 2, 2024

THE MULTIPARTY CONGRESS, FACTIONS, AND GRIDLOCK

The U.S. Congress is currently trapped in a condition of what might be described as the more common circumstance of gridlock where the two houses are controlled by majorities in each of the two  major political parties.  That is, in effect, true as the Senate is controlled by a tiny majority (51/49) of Democrats and the House by a similar small majority (219/213) by Republicans (there are three empty seats out of the total 435).  But the current reality is that the disfunction that exists reflects  a "de facto" existence of two different political groups in each party who exercise political power beyond their respective numbers.  This is much more apparent in the House of Representatives but still exists in the Senate.

The major organizational structure which promotes this "four party' reality is the existence of ideological fringe groups called caucuses.  On the far Left in the House is the Congressional Progressive Caucus and on the far Right is the Freedom Caucus.
Of the current total of Republican House members, the Freedom Caucus numbers @40 or 18%.  But of the 213 Democrat House members, the Progressive Caucus numbers 99 or 46%.  Since the Republicans currently hold the majority based on their slim numbers, and the all important Speakership, the existence of the Freedom Caucus has more significance for their agenda that that of the Progressive Caucus on the Democrats.  A defection of only three Freedom Caucus votes from an otherwise party line vote would block any Republican party initiative. 

In the event that Democrats take control of the House in the 2024 elections the 99 votes of the Progressive Caucus will be a formidable influence from the far Left.  For now, in the House, the Freedom Caucus has been able to use the lack of a federal budget and the prospect of a "shut down" of the government if one is not passed or a "continuing resolution" which simply extends the level of existing spending, is not passed, to try and pass such things as border security legislation or significant cuts in federal spending.  Members of the Progressive Caucus have threatened to withhold support for pending foreign aid bills if President Biden doesn't take a more forceful stance with Israel with respect to a cease fire in the Gaza war.  Recently the House and Senate agreed to a 
continuing resolution of sorts, to avoid the imminent government shut down but it is an extremely short term fix and leaves the problem of an ideological impasse looming over the very near future.                                                                                   
In general, the existence and policy preferences of these two more ideologically rigid congressional party sub-groups make bargaining and compromise impossible which seriously impacts the normal legislative process.  

There are serious issues with serious consequences if no action is taken.  The Biden administration wants to continue significant military aid to Ukraine whose troops are now being outmanned and out gunned by the Russians.  They also want to continue the program of long term aid to Israel.  Unfortunately both these issues have become significantly politicized.  The Freedom Caucus influenced House Republican majority want's to pass and submit two separate aid packages for consideration by the Senate and signature by the President.  The Biden administration want a combined package to keep the Republicans from attaching separate non-relevant policy requirements to each.  

Objectively, this blockade by both sides makes little sense.  What the Republicans want to add to the aid appropriations are significant cuts in overall federal spending and strict border security measures.  These are legitimate issues.  Economists on both sides of the partisan fence have long warned of the dangers of unrestrained federal deficits and the accumulation of federal debt which now roughly equals the total Gross Domestic Product of the U.S., the world's largest economy.  Border security is now the foremost cited election issue in public opinion polls with millions of immigrants causing social and economic chaos in large cities throughout the nation.

But cutting federal spending, except in defense spending is an affront to Progressive dogma which the Biden administration is unwilling to risk.  Border security has been made a social issue instead of an economic issue by the Progressive wing of the Democrat Party which has led Biden to ignore the problem up until now.

But the politicization of the underlying foreign aid issues is on both sides.  The Freedom Caucus is heavily influenced by former President Trump who is the presumptive Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election.  Trump has shown himself to have adopted even more of an isolationist orientation than during his presidential term. He has what seems like a simplistic attitude towards international relations which also seems to be more based on a lack of understanding or disinterest in the vast complexities of the subject; "When I'm President I'll end the Ukraine war in 24 hours."; "I'll secure the border by building a wall and making Mexico pay for it." He equates "America first" with American withdrawal from international responsibilities which have threatened continued U.S. aid to Ukraine which has been supported by major U.S. allies in NATO  who see Russian expansion as a formidable threat.  

With respect to Israel Trump has taken a more sympathetic position while President; moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; recognizing the strategic border area between Israel and Syria  known as The Golen Heights, as Israeli territory; and promoting the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arabic nations.

But still, the Trump influenced Freedom Caucus in the House joins the Progressive Caucus in a position of "sacrificing the good in favor of the perfect" by not compromising to move forward with these important policies.  

If the influence of these two extremist sub-parties isn't enough of a disfunction, the whole legislative and international orientation of the government is over lain by the raw politics of the 2024 election.

With respect to aid to Israel, Biden is feeling pressure from the Left of his party and Arab population concentrations in Michigan to rescind his early "unconditional" support for Israel after the heinous attack by Hamas on October 7th and demand a permanent ceasefire under the threat of terminating historical U.S. military aid.  The significance and horror of this attack on Israel has been abandoned by much of the American media in the face of Israel's invasion and bombing of Gaza where Hamas resides and is embedded in the highly dense civilian population.  

Biden has tried to mollify his progressive critics by calling for a cease fire in the Gaza war "as soon as possible", and negotiations for a Palestinian state in its' aftermath. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his "war cabinet" have rejected both possibilities and have only agreed to a six week ceasefire if the hostages held by Hamas are released. Of course a ceasefire in any conflict can only put in place by the agreement of the two parties to the conflict, Hamas and Israel. It cannot be imposed by Biden, American college students or Arab-Americans in Michigan. So far, Hamas and the Israeli government are miles apart on the terms of such an agreement.

Those threatening a cut off of military aid is over estimating the short term effect on Israel's military capabilities and war strategies as well as under estimating the long term political effect of a cutoff of aid to Israel.  Netanyahu, while unpopular in Israel with respect to domestic issues, has wide support for his war policies and is unlikely to accept a cease fire as long as Hamas remains as a terrorist threat and a political force in Gaza.  

In the broader picture, the U.S. has major security interests in the Middle East region and Israel is an important  ally and counterweight to the regional and hostile ambitions of Iran. the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have mutual security interests with respect to Islamic terrorism and Iranian expansion.  Biden has also stated that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China invaded it and his administration has been building stronger security relationships with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.  While these nations are not in the Middle East, to send the message that Biden's policies are just temporary promises  subject to domestic electoral political pressures would have a negative impact on U.S. credibility and would appear ominously similar to Republican candidate Trump's recent criticism of U.S. collective defense obligations under the NATO treaty. 

One would hope that Biden is more likely to continue to try and tamp down the Arab-American and other protests by upping criticism of Israel's war tactics but avoiding actual threats to terminate decades long military assistance to Israel.

All of this is symptomatic of a fundamental fragmentation of the American body politic.  Polls show that the two most important issues to voters are the economy and border security, which common sense would demand that compromise is necessary for the general welfare.   But campaign "experts", opinion "journalists" and political activists continue to promote the tactic of identifying and promoting narrow or single issue voting blocs with uncompromising positions.  In general terms the two major caucuses include these smaller groups with the result being policy gridlock. This can't be resolved without a broader political consensus providing significant majorities to one party or the other in the Congress. However, the fragmentation of the country by the promotion of multiculturalism, race and religion as political identities makes this highly improbable.                                                                                                                      

  















Friday, February 9, 2024

THE "END OF DEMOCRACY": UNSERIOUS POLITICAL THEATRE

The outline of the 2024 presidential election already seems to be a replay of the 2020 election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  But even before the recent Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, the tone of the campaigns were set.  Polls showed, and continue to show, President Biden in significant trouble.  Biden's age and obvious mental befuddlement hang over him like a dark shadow while wide spread dissatisfaction with three years of open borders and inflation causing trillion dollar spending programs, attacks on the fossil fuel industry while gasoline prices spiked and Bidens' lurch to the far Left on social policies, have provided a fertile field for Trump's campaign.

On the other side, there are many reasons for voters to say "not again" to another four years of Trump.  Trump has broken all the rules, norms and standards of decent behavior and presidential dignity.  He is a national and international embarrassment. His erratic and personal style of governance is a regrettable and dangerous substitute for any president's primary and needed attribute, leadership. The list of his abnormal traits and consummate arrogance provides many valid reasons to vote against him.  But the desperate Democrat campaign smear of "the end of democracy" isn't one of them.  

The founders of America's constitutional system created a framework with the basic foundation being avoidance of concentrations of power.  The result was the separation of powers; three independent branches of government with counter balancing "checks and balances" including a federal judiciary protected from political influence by lifetime tenure.  Legislation must be passed by both houses of Congress; a presidential veto is possible but can be overturned by a 2/3 vote in both houses. Presidential appointments are subject to Senate approval. Presidents have significant unilateral powers in some areas, especially foreign policy and trade,  if specifically granted by legislation or judicial review of constitutional provisions.  The power to issue "executive orders" is not a open ended power to rule by edict. Executive orders are subject to judicial review and often run up against the separation of powers doctrine as both Trump and Biden found out during their respective administrations. 

But Biden, or his campaign staff, have bought in to the apocalyptic strategy to avoid debates on policies which are his weakest points.  Biden has made the strategy clear;  "Democracy is on the ballot."  ''Whether democracy is still America's sacred cause . . . is what the 2024 election is all about."

The evidence that Biden himself mentions most is Trump's participation and incitement of the January 6, 2020 assault on the Capitol by mobs of his supporters. This of course was an attack on the heart of our democracy both by infrastructure and process.  This followed Trump's challenges in several key states of the results of the November vote. Challenges of voting outcomes when they are narrow is a common and legal procedure. Assault on the capitol and attempts to interrupt the counting and certification of the Electoral College votes in the Congress is not. 

But neither was successful. All Trump's challenges in state and federal courts after the election were turned down for lack of evidence. Georgia's Republican Secretary of State who officiated that state's election turned down Trump's personal request to "find" enough votes for him to make him the winner in that state. In the Electoral College certification process on January 6, Trump's own Republican Vice President Mike Pence, who was on the ballot with him, chose the Constitution and his oath to uphold it, and refused to illegally manipulate the process.  

Although, Biden himself stated "I don't consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country", he has made no distinction by labeling Trump and his "Maga" supporters as the underlying "threat to democracy "should Trump win in 2024. And of course, the Democratic Left in Congress, the media and opinion journals, have dutifully engaged in the simplistic and over wrought claim.  The problems with it are as obvious as the convenience of using a simple "existential" label with few specifics.                       

The few examples of an attack on the democratic system of the U.S. which the left wing media and opinion writers cite are mostly focused on Trump's admittedly hostile attitude to well established "norms of behavior"; extreme hyperbole, claims of his intention to do things quickly without specifically mentioning legislative cooperation, or questionable approval by the federal courts.  

An example of "what Trump might do in a second term" is withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which he hinted at in his first term.  Of course, this has nothing to do with the state of democracy in the U.S.  Indeed, the U.S. congress included an amendment in the 2024 Defense Authorization Act which requires any President to get congressional approval to withdraw from NATO including a 2/3 vote in the Senate.

Democrats also assert that Trump will try to repeal "Obamacare", the government health insurance act passed when Obama had majorities in both Houses of Congress.  Of course this would require legislation passed by both houses and also would itself be an exercise in democratic process. An attempt to do this failed in 2017 during Trump's administration.

Trump has himself said he could use the "Insurrection Act" to use federal troops to put down destructive political protests.  But the Insurrection Act is another democratically enacted statute. In general the term currently in use refers to 10 U.S.C. 332-335 which authorizes the president to "call into federal service" units of state's National Guard 'and "use such of the armed forces as he considers necessary in a state if any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination or conspiracy if it hinders the execution of the laws of the state or the U.S. "

Is such an action "undemocratic" or "authoritarian"?  Not if the President follows the text of the statute.  

The prospects of Trump actually using the Insurrection Act in this way depend on several things.  One, he has said he will, but Trump routinely says he will do things and then acts as if he didn't say them.  Two, actual anti-Trump or anti-government protests or just about any large protests that turn in to violent and destructive demonstrations or riots must occur.  Then, the process of nationalizing state national guard units will take time and the protests may have run their course before such action could be completed.  But if not then the question of what the rules of engagement of such forces should be.  Will they be armed with the usual military weapons?  Will the weapons be loaded and available for the protection of the troops? Will the risks of such a response turn into a replay of the 1970 Kent State University disaster?  Even Trump would not want that kind of disaster on his hands.

Certainly there have been episodes in which local law enforcement was inadequate to maintain order.  The 2020 protests which occurred after the police killing of George Floyd quickly turned into riots with looting and the destruction of public and private property in 40 cities in 20 states.  The city of Portland, Oregon alone suffered 100 days of violent protests while police were ordered to stand aside.  The January 6, 2020 attack on the nation's capitol itself deserved the use of National Guard units to protect the personnel and process of the nations representative government.

Democrats claim that Trump, if elected will "weaponize" the Dept. of Justice to seek revenge against his political enemies.  He has actually said he would; and then he said he wouldn't have time to do that; another episode of Trump's outrageous bluster.  But if he tried it, it would require massive changes of personnel in the Dept. of Justice first, before "Trumped up" charges against others could be brought about.  Indictments would have to be sought in Grand Juries manned by ordinary citizens. The major road block for such actions that actually went to trial would of course be the federal judiciary which is beyond the reach of the president.

But the charge of the "end of democracy" is such a grandiose political driven election tactic as to have limited influence on the uncommitted who will play a critical role in the election. It is essentially "preaching to the choir" of confirmed Trump haters. Polls don't show much, if any, impact on Biden's declining job approval.

 The nation's democratic system operates across thousands of local and state government institutions, which like the federal judiciary mentioned above are "far beyond the reach" of any president. 

However, Trump's inability as President to destroy the nation's representative democratic, federal system, is by no means a recommendation for his election.  Again by any set of historical norms, basic rules and standards of character, he should have politically disqualified himself long ago.  The fact that he leads in most public approval ratings over President Biden perhaps says much more about Biden than about Trump. 

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

GAZA: WIDER WAR PROSPECTS AND REALITIES

The Israeli War Cabinet and Prime Minister Netanyahu have acknowledged that the goal of eliminating Hamas from Gaza will take "months" or "whatever is necessary".  The major political issue currently is the plight of Gaza's civilian population, @2.3 million people whose physical conditions are untenable. There seems to be no easy solution for this domestic catastrophe since the suggestions and demands of those not direct participants in the conflict contradict the war aims of the Israeli government.  But they also contradict the interests of Hamas if the primary step is a permanent cease fire which Israel would certainly demand includes the disarmament of Hamas fighters.  Without such a condition a ceasefire would represent a victory for both Hamas and its' sponsor Iran which is unacceptable to Israel.  Indeed, a Hamas spokesman has declared that the atrocities committed on October 7th against Israeli civilians was just a "rehearsal" for future attacks. 

Without a ceasefire the next most important issue on the agenda of the Biden administration, and which Secretary of State Blinken is reported to discuss, again, with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with a number of regional political leaders, is the avoidance of an "escalation' of the Gaza conflict into a regional war. Such an escalation would present Biden with a difficult political problem at the outset of his 2024 presidential campaign. It would depend on the nature of such an event and the possibility of pressure for the U.S. being drawn directly into it, presumably on the part of Israel. The alternative would be staying out and demanding a hopeless diplomatic solution which would put Biden's credibility as an avowed supporter of a strategic ally versus a conflict avoider based on political pressure from the Progressive Left of his Democrat party. His decision could hurt him in either case in the upcoming election.
 But in practical terms the conflict is already a regional war in geographical terms but not much of a "wider war" considering the participants and "relatively" limited nature of the current conflicts and the history of such conflicts.   The question is, to what levels the current regional conflicts will expand and who will be the major antagonists.

The prospects for escalation are centered around four areas;  Israel's northern border with Lebanon; the occupied West Bank currently under administrative control by the Palestinian Authority and its' Fatah political party;  the northern section of Yemen on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula; and U.S. and "allied" bases in Syria and Iraq.  The major threat is the border with Lebanon which is controlled by the Iranian sponsored Hezbollah militia.  A limited but serious missile attack on Israeli towns close to the border by Hezbollah has been going on for some months.  Israel has responded with artillery and air strikes but neither side has demonstrated the probability of ground combat by their respective armed forces beyond aggressive public statements. 

Although designated as a "terrorist group"  Hezbollah by virtue of its' size, weaponry and combat experience in Syria in support of Syrian President Assad in his battle against a loose coalition of anti-Assad militias, Hezbollah is a formidable adversary. However,  Hezbollah  does not exist in a social and political environment that is unified in its support for them.  The population of Lebanon is roughly one third Christian, one third Shi'a Muslim like Hezbollah, and one third Sunni Muslim.  The Lebanese government which is divided along these lines and maintains a national military, is conflict averse and opposes any expansion of Gaza war into its' territory. Memories of the fifteen year long civil war (1975-1990) and its' economic and structural destruction as well as the deaths of 120,000-150,000 people, are still strong. This was followed by the short Israeli/Hezbollah war in 2006.  A Hezbollah missile attack on major Israeli cities or a major cross border attack would cause missile sites and bases in Lebanon to come under attack as well as a response by Israeli ground forces.  Clearly, the threat of "regional expansion" of the Gaza conflict lies in the hands of Hezbollah and its' sponsor Iran, not with Israel whose leaders have made it clear that they seek no large scale conflict in Lebanon and who have exercised considerable restraint in the face of missile attacks on border communities.  But those attacks have resulted in the evacuation of 150,000 Israel citizens from their homes creating a situation which cannot be tolerated indefinitely.   

 With respect to threats to widen the Gaza war on the part of the Houthi militias in Yemen, the threat they represent hardly deserves their inclusion.  The Houthis are another Shi'a tribal surrogate of Iran.  They are themselves operating under a truce with government supporters suspending a lengthy civil war (2014-2022) which wrecked havoc with Yemen's civilian population and remains politically unsettled. Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen, supports the internationally recognized government opposing the Houthis and supported that government militarily during the conflict. A widening conflict between the Houthis and the U.S. led international maritime presence in the Red Sea could upset the truce in the Yemen civil war which would not affect the Gaza war but put the Houthi resistance movement at significant risk.    

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arabian peninsula. It's only significant sources of export income are degrading oil and natural gas reserves.  Yemen itself is 1,600 miles from Israel and the Houthis have expressed their "support" for Hamas by attacking international shipping in the Red Sea in transit to and from the Suez Canal.  They have done this with armed drones, missiles, and small boats. This in no way helps Hamas or hurts the Israeli war effort, and after questionable delays the Biden administration has organized an international naval response to protect civilian shipping and has "implied" that further attacks will bring a more serious military response, presumably, a further much delayed attack on the Houthi missile and small boat  launching sites. 
The Houthis have tried to use their "support" for Hamas and the Palestinians as a tool to generate domestic support in the face of severe economic hardship in the territory they control but time is running out for their interruption of vital international maritime trade. 

Other concerns about a "regional war" include attacks by a variety of small Islamic terrorist groups on American and allied troops in Iraq and Syria. The number of U.S. military personnel is relative small at around 2,500 and consists of "advisors" who are part of a continuing operation against the international terrorist  Islamic State.  These attacks and counter attacks have been small so far without American fatalities and the idea that Biden will undertake a major military operation as a result is unrealistic.  The easy solution would be to withdraw this small military presence which is not going to be a deciding factor in the local terrorist problem in any case. There presence does not have the full support of the Iraqi government in any case. 

The fourth concern about a widening of the Gaza war most mentioned is a dramatic increase in anti-Israeli terrorist activity or even a third Intifada, or popular uprising, by Palestinians, in the West Bank. So far the increase in hostilities there have been mostly on the part of radicalized Israeli settlers who have been attacking Palestinian civilians. The Israeli military who have been attacking small Palestinian terror cells in the West Bank must intervene to stop the radical settlers from further inflaming the local population and should cooperate with the Palestinian Authority administrators to the extent they can, to limit the expansion of hostilities.  In any case the situation in the West Bank is not a part of a "wider regional war" although it could complicate the Israeli war effort in Gaza. There is no heavily armed or organized Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and tensions and conflict have been part of the Israeli occupation for decades. While Iran could conceivably attempt to  intervene indirectly by smuggling arms into the West Bank, it is not in the interests of the Palestinian Authority which exercises domestic governance and receives significant monetary aid from abroad, to assist or participate in a general uprising. In most of the post-Gaza war  discussions so far the Palestinian Authority is mentioned as serving as the fundamental governmental entity in a future Palestinian state which would include Gaza. Officials in the PA will not want to put that scenario at risk by taking an active role in opening a new anti-Israeli insurgency. 

Is a wider regional war possible?  Of course, wars are essentially unpredictable.  But Israel is not seeking such and escalation as it devotes it attention and resources to the conflict with Hamas in Gaza. A wider war is largely up to Iran whose regional aspirations are behind its sponsorship of Islamic client groups.  A direct conflict with Iran is highly improbable as Iran has demonstrated an unwillingness to expose itself the destruction such a conflict would bring and it prefers a strategy of attrition towards Israel through the use of its' surrogates and now the domestic political/electoral pressures on Biden's Israeli policy of "rock hard support".   

The war in Gaza will end when Israeli leaders accomplish their goal of eradicating the Hamas leadership and disarming the rank and file; or when the Hamas leaders see the end in sight and flee to a sympathetic nation, although the list such places is quite short.  Of course the subsidiary conflicts in the region will continue as they have for decades and it will take decades more for a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem, if one is even possible.








  

Thursday, December 7, 2023

GAZA: WAR AND POLITICS

The Israeli-Hamas war has entered it's third phase after the collapse of the hostage exchange truce which was an important but limited success.  The first stage after the Hamas terrorist rampage of Israel on November 7 was the prolonged and intensive bombing campaign of Hamas operational centers spread throughout Gaza but concentrated on the north.  The second phase was the much anticipated IDF ground attack also emphasizing the Hamas presence in the north.  The current phase is a continuation of both previous operations and like the others, complicated by the Hamas tactic of imbedding it's forces in the dense Gazan civilian population. 

Emotionally intense videos of the vast destruction and human casualties of the bombing campaign as well as the loss of utilities, water and food that the civilian population of Gaza has suffered and will likely continue to suffer as the war continues. This has created an international opinion reversal from the initially brief outrage over the heinous atrocities committed by Hamas and its terrorist militia associates in Israel, to a more generalized hostility and condemnation of Israel for its response.

This reversal was predicted by seasoned observers of the 75 year long history of what is at its' core a racial/religious based conflict focused on claims of historic rights to lands in what is one of histories most ancient regions of civilization.  

In the current version of the conflict, President Biden was quick to make his public support for Israel strong and unequivocable. Making a quick trip to Tel Aviv he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and announced "Our support for Israel is 'rock solid'.  He concluded his visit by exchanging a "bear hug" with the Prime Minister.  Although Biden has a long history of adlibbing without careful consideration of the political sensitivities of his remarks, he undoubtedly felt secure in expressing renewed strong support for Israel that has been a fundamental political element of U.S. foreign policy by administrations of both parties for the entirety of the existence of the Jewish state. Also, the Jewish vote in American presidential elections though a small percentage of the national popular vote, has been concentrated in large states like Florida, California, New York and Illinois and has historically gone to the Democrat Party by upwards of 80%.  

 Now, reality has belatedly raised its inconvenient political face to confront the Biden administration over the President's strong, and now seemingly impetuous, vigorous support for Israel and its' understandably strong response to the Hamas attack. Much has been made in U.S. opinion journals of the strong anti-Israel, and by implication, anti-U.S. support  of Israel in the "Arab street" as evidenced by large, hostile public protests.  Of course it should be noted  that there are no Arab or other Islamic nations in the Middle East that are political democracies which enshrine freedom of speech and assembly as does the U.S. and other Western democracies.  Arab states and Iran have long tolerated or encouraged anti-Israeli national attitudes in part as a long established tactic to offer up a common enemy to unite and divert attention from such domestic policies as poverty and ruthless and arbitrary  governance. So it is not surprising that a war involving both the perennial "enemy" Israel and an Arab, Islamist political entity, no matter its terrorist character, would stimulate public anger.  But, the anger and protests have spread across Western Europe and the United States. These events have taken on a decidedly ideological character as the political Left bolstered by Arab, Islamic immigrants abroad and Arab hyphenated Americans and holders of temporary student visas in the U.S. have assumed the role of leading activists.  It has also caused divisions in the historically liberal American Jewish community with supporters of Israel and supporters of leftist pacifist and racial attitudes facing a conundrum of loyalties.

The Biden administration is now feeling political pressures from the Left in an election year, and one in which Biden's candidacy is facing an unprecedented lack of enthusiasm from his own party. The result has been yet another instance of "interpretation' of Biden's unscripted public remarks by his guardians.

The emissary of this reinterpretation is Secretary of State Blinken who found it necessary to make a hasty trip to Israel and confront Prime Minister Netanyahu over "U.S. concerns".  In his post conference media event Blinken said: "I underscored the 'imperative' of the U.S. that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the south." "I made it clear that Israel 'must' put in place humanitarian protection plans that minimize further casualties of innocent Palestinians".  These would include "safeguarding" hospitals and power stations and creating "safe areas" out of the combat zone.  Also, Blinken went on, "Israel must permit civilians who fled south to go back north before Israel resumes operations." Of course "safe areas" for civilians would also be safe areas for Hamas supporters and combatants and allowing "civilians" who fled the north to go back would also include Hamas fighters who are indistinguishable from true civilians.

This is very strong language to be directed at a sovereign nation who was attacked by an external enemy  and who considers itself in a state of war with that enemy.  The obvious implication is that Blinken and President Biden's "rock solid" support of Israel is in reality conditional, meaning they consider the historic support for Israel exemplified by large annual financial aid to be dependent on their approval of Israel's domestic and defense policies.  In this case those policies are founded on Israel's belief that it is engaged in a war for national survival.  Blinken's use of the words like "must put in place", and "imperative of the United States" with regard to the conduct of such a war is a profound intervention into basic principles of sovereignty.  The obvious domestic political motivations of such a departure from Biden's original unqualified support undermines Blinken's alleged humanitarian concerns.

A previous attempt by the Biden administration to intervene in Israeli domestic policy occurred when the extreme right wing members of Netanyahu's governing coalition proposed legislation that would limit their Supreme Court from overturning legislative decisions. While this policy would be a direct rebuttal of the U.S. Supreme Court's long standing constitutional interpretation of the legitimacy of "judicial review' by the Court (Marbury vs. Madison), no such provision exists except by tradition in Israel. When Biden reproached Netanyahu, a coalition member responded by saying that "Israel is not the fifty-first star on the American flag." That same attitude would seem to apply in this more serious situation.  Although as yet unspoken, the Israeli war cabinet, as long as it has the support of the Israeli people, will continue to carry out the strategies they believe will provide the ultimate and necessary elimination of Hamas as a threat to the Jewish state. 

Finacial aid to Israel is not premised solely on their right to establish and maintain a Jewish state after centuries of harsh discrimination and suppression. The U.S. has legitimate national security interests in supporting the sole democratic state in the region which also possesses  the strongest military.  Since 1979 and Iran's establishment of a revolutionary Islamic theocratic state, it has promoted hostility to the West and the U.S. as it attempts to establish itself as a dominant regional entity. Israel plays an important role as a counter weight to those ambitions especially as Iran continues to seek to become a nuclear power.  

Making U.S. aid to Israel conditional will not go unnoticed by other recipients of similar financial aid.  Egypt, home of the largest Arab population in the Middle East is also a recipient of significant annual aid from the U.S.  This assistance came as part of the historic peace treaty implemented between Egypt and Israel in 1979. General security guarantees were put in place including military and financial aid. The result has been a total since 1978 of $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in financial aid going to Egypt.  Egypt is governed by a military dictatorship.  The present government of President General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power after a coup which replaced President Mohammed Morsi who was elected in 2013 and then imprisoned.  Al-Sisi then staged another presidential election in which Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party was not allowed to participate.  This party was the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic group which has been connected with sponsoring Islamic terrorism abroad.  Al-Sisi "somehow" managed to squeak by with 97% of the votes cast. Although the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act bans aid to governments who took power by military coup, President Biden has taken the position that U.S. national security interests out weigh human rights in the case of Egypt but not his domestic political interests with regard to Israel, and in September of this year, 2023,he sent another 1.215 billion dollars in military aid to Egypt. 

Essentially, Biden took the traditional path in his initial strong support for Israel, a seemingly safe position before the IDF moved into Gaza and considering the historical support of America's Jewish population for liberal Democrat candidates.  Now with his job approval sinking dramatically, and the vital youth and minority voting blocs showing signs of weakness for his 2024 reelection, he is using his administration spokesmen to alter his political message, an obvious election based crack in his "rock solid" support for Israel.         Demanding that Israel protect civilians while conducting a war in a densely populated urban environment sounds like a human values message but no one making these demands, including the UN, the  Pope, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus has offered ideas on how this is possible.  What they propose instead is a "cease fire" which would give the terrorist  Hamas and their sponsor Iran a victory from which they could rebuild and continue their avowed program to destroy the state of Israel.   

But Biden can't have it both ways and tilting back and forth will continue to make some groups angry. Few will switch their support to Trump but some on election day will just stay home and join thousands of others who are simply disgusted with the ridiculous choice imposed on the nation by blind loyalist minorities in both parties.




















  

 


 







Friday, October 27, 2023

GAZA: THE HARSH REALITY OF EXISTENTIAL POLITICS

 The invasion and brutal terrorist attack by Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza, is now just three weeks old and already the heinous brutality of the terrorist group has been replaced on international media including in the U.S., by the plight of the inhabitants of Gaza who are caught in the middle of the ongoing Israeli air assaults in preparation for a full cross border ground attack by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).  This was all but inevitable as the media in the Western world follows controversy, exaggeration and speculation especially as regards victimization which is a long term socio-political theme in the equally long term Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

President Biden, to his credit, made the case that the inhuman depravity of the Hamas invaders cannot be accepted or rationalized and he made it clear that the U.S. will support Israel as it exercises its right of self defense including a combined forces, air and ground, military response.

The Gaza population is indeed suffering as the debate and air assault approach new levels .The debate is led internationally by protests and local media in Islamist nations across the Middle East and Islamic immigrants in Western nations; all dutifully reported  by national media in the U. S.  Domestically, the usual Left wing groups and individuals have proclaimed their opposition to Israel ranging from outright condemnation and "solidarity" with Hamas terrorists,  to calls for a "cease fire" and "diplomacy" to stop any Israeli invasion of Gaza.  College students, always anxious to support the alleged victims in any dispute and engage in  role playing as Ghandi like pacifists or brave "freedom fighters" from the safety and comfort of their college campuses, display their profound naiveté and ignorance of the complexities and realities of this horrendous crime by Hamas.  Of course the national media gives them the attention they seek.  And of course, they are joined by the voices of the usual grievous groups and religious spokesmen who demand a cessation of hostilities, a diplomatic vs. a military response and the usual platitudes about "embracing the humanity of all people" to achieve lasting peace without violence.

One can only wonder how these groups and individuals can be so divorced from reality.  How is it possible to "embrace the humanity" of a terrorist group that engages in the slaughter of infants, young children and the aged as part of a campaign of atrocities carried out against civilians who were not policy makers and was based simply on their ethnicity, religion and/or nationality.  Diplomacy means negotiations. It involves " give and take" with the goal being eventual compromise.

 Negotiations to do what?  The founding document of Hamas calls for the elimination of the state of Israel. Should Israel negotiate its own existence?  A "cease fire"? As long as Hamas exists it will constitute a terrorist threat to Israel.  What would a cease fire accomplish? The roughly two million civilians in Gaza cannot be evacuated. Surrounding Arab/Islamic states won't take even a portion of them. A cease fire simply allows Hamas to rearm and reenforce its fortifications which will lead to a longer, bloodier war. Hamas is not a legitimate government; Gaza is not a nation state; Hamas and its junior partner fellow terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, have demonstrated no concern for the safety or welfare of the residents of Gaza, instead using them as a tool to stimulate hate for Israel in other Islamic nations. 

 The current claims that anti-Israeli protests "world wide" could stimulate a wider regional conflict need closer examination.  With respect to these protests in Islamic Middle Eastern and African nations, public opinion was never in play and thus entirely predictable.  Islamic nation's populations have been deeply antagonistic to Israel since Israel's founding in 1948.  Israel  has fought four wars of survival  against neighboring Arab states in  1948,1956,1967,1973, as well as a 1980 conflict with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a terrorist group which had taken refuge in Lebanon, and "intifadas"  i.e. general violent uprisings by Palestinian populations and continuous domestic terrorist attacks.

The potential "wider war" has a low probability of involving direct aggression by Iran whose Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, throughout the long history of Iran's hostility to Israel has sought to protect the Iranian nation even in the face of Israeli sabotage attempts on Iran's nuclear project.  Iran prefers to use and support client terrorist groups as it's agents; Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Houthis in Yemen.  The "wider war" essentially means the possibility of a Hezbollah attack on Israel's northern border with Lebanon and a possible uprising by civilians and small terrorist groups in the West Bank.  A Hezbollah ground attack from Lebanon would lead to a large response by Israel into southern Lebanon and serious destruction of Lebanese infrastructure by IDF air power.  It would  more likely be predominately a massive missile attack but with the same Israeli response.  It would probably prolong the war in Gaza as Israel shifted military assets to that front but Hezbollah and Hamas combined lack the numbers, armor, artillery, and air power to defeat the IDF.  Hezbollah is currently shooting some missiles into northern Israel as a diversionary tactic with respect to the impending ground invasion of Gaza and Israel is responding with air attacks. 

The previous Arab/Israeli "wide wars" have involved Egypt, Syria and Jordan.  Now Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and receives @1.4 billion dollars annually  in aid from the U.S. and  has refused entry of Palestinians as migrants trying to leave Gaza.  Jordan also has a peace treaty with Israel and has been a more moderate political player in Middle East politics.  Jordan's King Abdullah and his wife have both condemned Israel's air campaign in Gaza but Jordan is home to a large number of Palestinians who the King must placate to avoid domestic chaos.  The King's father fought a war in 1971 with a large Palestinian terrorist group  who tried to take control of Jordan. Syria has been tied down with its own civil war since 2014 and is in no position to threaten Israel.  

Israel will eventually invade Gaza.  There is no possibility of a negotiated settlement.  A commitment not to invade and destroy Hamas would be the equivalent of a surrender in the face of an act of war by Hamas on October 7th and perpetuate the hostilities and civilian casualties on both sides.

 In spite of the usual "peace" voices i.e. the UN, the Pope, the New York Times, and various activist groups in the U.S. and Western Europe who choose to ignore the vicious intransigence of Hamas and its' supporters and their quest to destroy the state of Israel, the Israeli "war cabinet" and IDF will not be deterred. This issue of the hostages held by Hamas complicates the situation.  But the hostage's fate is entirely in the hands of Hamas which will do what they feel is best in support of their interests. Basic "humanity" is not on the table when dealing with Hamas. They might believe that a general release before the Israeli ground invasion would somehow put them in a better position internationally, but they have already threatened to kill the hostages and are now claiming that the Israeli bombing campaign has killed fifty hostages. But  time is running out for successful negotiations primarily involving the government of Qatar. Tragically, these innocent people might eventually be one more group of victims of the utter depravity of this terrorist group. The people of Israel are mostly united in the goal of eliminating this constant threat which defied the basic norms of humanity in their attack on Israel's civilian population. There is no other realistic choice.





Friday, April 7, 2023

THE MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION

 While the Russia/Ukraine war dominates the news there are significant events occurring in other regions and in today's highly integrated world, these events have links to the Ukrainian conflict and to the related and larger power evolutions between Russia, China, and the United States.

For decades the U.S has had a positive relationship with two important though quite different nations in the volatile Middle East. Israel has survived four major conflicts with Arab states and a continuous conflict with Palestinian militias and terrorist groups, all with U.S. assistance. Israel is the only western style  democracy in the region. Its' highly efficient military, superior intelligence apparatus and thriving free market economy, serve as an important counter weight in an often unstable and conflictual neighborhood.  

Since the end of World War II and the rapid exploitation of the enormous crude oil reserves in the area of the Arabian peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a key player in the politics of the region.  First granted diplomatic recognition by the U.S. in 1940, American oil companies stepped in to develop Saudi Arabia's oil when the Kingdom lacked the technical expertise and investment capital to do it internally.  Since then a mutually beneficial diplomatic, security and economic relationship has been a staple of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia has been supportive during the Cold War years (1947-1991), and the post Iran revolution (1979) establishment of the anti-West Iranian  Islamic Republic. 

In spite of the long history of cooperation, the Kingdom has maintained a level of independence and occasional opposition to U.S. regional policies especially with relation to  U.S. support for Israel.  During the Arab/Israeli "Yom Kippur war" in 1973, U.S. support for Israel resulted in a Saudi led oil embargo on the U.S. which quadrupled oil prices and led President Jimmy Carter to declare that access to international oil markets was a "vital" U.S. security interest and the embargo was tantamount to economic warfare.  This episode, although occurring fifty years ago, is demonstrative of the cautious "fence sitting" need that the Saudi leadership has followed through the years do to its' position in a volatile region of Islamic fundamentalism, and ambitious authoritarian leaders. 

Saudia Arabia is home and "protector" of the two most important of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca, the birthplace of Islam's founder the Prophet Mohammed and the location of the Ka'ba', a small structure purported .to be a mosque built by Abraham, a foundational figure in the history of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The city of Medina, is Mohammed's  burial place.  

As such, although the Kingdom practices and enforces a fundamentalist approach to Islam, called Wahhabism and adherence to Koranic Shariah theocratic law, Saudi Arabia's friendly relationship with the U.S. and European states has created tensions with other fundamentalist Islamic groups in both of Islam's major sects, the Shi'a and Sunni theocracies. Iran, a Shi'a dominated nation, has been particularly hostile to the Saudi government and has been a regional rival since Iran's Islamic revolution. 

U.S. administrations have tried to keep Saudi Arabia and its' huge oil production and reserves out of the Soviet/Russian sphere of influence and protect it as a counter balance to Iran's regional ambitions.  Thus Saudi Arabia has been a major customer of  American made military equipment for many years.

Consequently, the U.S./Saudi relationship has been one of supporting mutual interests while realistically acknowledging and accepting as necessary, differences in culture and perceptions of regional threats and the proper responses to those threats. The diplomatic reality and context of U.S. relations with the Kingdom is that Saudi Arabia is not a constitutional democratic republic.  It is a hereditary, theocratic, autocratic monarchy. 

The U.S. Saudi relationship has suffered since the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign when then Democrat candidate Joe Biden promising to build "the most progressive administration since FDR" engaged in unrehearsed "shoot from the lip" one liners, first promising to "shut down the major American oil and gas companies" as part of his new environmental crusader image with the obvious implied threats to the international fossil fuel industry as whole which represents the majority of the Saudi national income.  Shortly after his election to President,  Biden decided to play the role of leading international critic of the Saudi regime. One issue was the Saudi Arabia's involvement in the civil war in Yemen which borders the Kingdom on the south.  The Saudi Air Force had been flying missions against the Houthi insurgents, a Shi'a client group of Iran trying to overthrow the Yemeni government. The war was devastating to the Yemeni civilian population but instead of assuming a diplomatic role of trying to sponsor negotiations to end the conflict Biden decided to take sides. The fact that the U.S. was supplying the weapons the Saudi Air Force was deploying became an issue for the American political Left which of course ignored the role of the insurgency in the war, or Saudi Arabia's security interests in the conflict on their border. President Biden declared:  "I would like to make it very clear, we are not going to in fact, sell more weapons to them (Saudi Arabia). "I will end the sale of materiel where they are going in and murdering children" 

Biden then decided to return to an incident in which a Saudi journalist who was a critic of the Saudi government was murdered in 2018,  The journalist, Jamal Kashoggi was a Saudi citizen, and political opinion contributor to regional journals and to the Washington Post. Kashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Because he had been a critic of the Saudi government it was generally assumed that Saudi officials were behind the murder. It was later reported in the U.S. that CIA officials had confirmed that theory.  For some reason, newly elected President Biden decided to make the incident a political cause celebre' and implied that the de facto head of the Saudi government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmin had given the order for the assassination.  

The long history of Saudi/American cooperation then took a further plunge when Biden made series of politically arbitrary public statements that seemed not to be the product of any consultation with experienced State Department officials.  

"We are going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are."

"There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia."  He then imposed sanctions on high ranking Saudi intelligence officials.

Mohammed bin Salman, at 37 years of age and the Crown Prince and son of the aging King  with essentially absolute powers, will be an important player in the critical Middle East region and in the world for future decades because of Saudi Arabia's dominant role in the OPEC-Plus 13 member oil cartel which produces 37% of the world's oil. President Bidens's extraordinary insults had demonstrated a kind of morally superior attitude and when speaking of the government of Saudi Arabia they were clearly directed at it's leader. Biden, if indeed he knew what he was doing, was speaking to his domestic progressive political core but has struck a serious blow to an eighty-three year cooperative relationship with an important ally. 

Biden quickly was forced to confront reality as oil prices soared with the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Facing political opposition at the price of gasoline at the pump in the U.S. he naively  elected to make several phone calls to bin Salman to ask him to use his influence in OPEC to increase oil production in order to lower prices.  Understandably as the "pariah" and "murderer of children" and "lack of socially redeeming values " the Crown Prince and head of the Saudi government, refused to take the calls.  Biden then made an embarrassing trip "hat in hand" trip to Saudi Arabia in July, 2022 to personally ask for an increase in oil production and was summarily rebuffed.

The damaged relationship with Saudi Arabia has since had wider implications.  Saudi Arabia has not joined in the U.S. led economic sanctions program against Russia nor has it publicly condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  In March of this year, China brokered a return of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and its' long time foe Iran, giving China another step forward in its' influence in the region, as the U.S. role diminishes.

In April of this year Saudi Arabia led several key members of the OPEC Plus cartel in a surprise announcement to cut oil production in May, 2023, by 1.2 million barrels per day.  The Kingdom and Russia (the Plus in the cartel) will each cut production by half a million barrels per day to raise prices. In addition Saudi Arabia announced an agreement to supply refineries in China with 690 thousand barrels of oil per day.  

But the diplomacy challenged Biden wasn't through reducing the influence of the U.S. in the Middle East.   The new conservative government in Israel, the major ally of the U.S. in the region since its' creation as a state in 1948, announced significant changes in the Israeli judicial system which would give the conservative controlled parliament the Knesset, powers to appoint members of the Supreme Court and even to overrule Court decisions.  Such changes of course would if applied for the U.S. would upset the vital Constitutional "separation of powers" fundamental to U.S. democracy so they were a shocking proposal even in a democratic ally. The proposals did predictably stimulate significant public protests in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has since delayed the planned changes but the issue remains a highly controversial possibility.  

President Biden, who claims to have known Netanyahu for decades, attempted to lecture him publicly about the "threat to democracy" he was imposing.  That of course is true as an independent judiciary is vital to the democratic process to avoid concentration of powers.  But the issue is an internal one and will be settled politically within the Israeli system. In parliamentary systems, Prime Ministers and their cabinets are much more vulnerable to dismissal than in the U.S. presidential system.  They need not be impeached and removed they simply need to lose support of a majority in the parliament and be subject to a vote of lack of "confidence" which would require a resignation or a new election.  That procedure has given Israel five elections in the last four years.  Biden's intervention and public judgements along with his terse statement that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House in the "near term", did not help Netanyahu and he responded as would be expected by pointing out that Israel is a sovereign nation and governed by its' citizens and not outside nations.  A member of Netanyahu's cabinet made it even clearer when he stated that "Israel was not another star on the American flag."  Still, Biden seems personally offended by how Netanyahu and his far Right coalition government is running their nation.  Part of it might be the members of the government's outright hostility to the Palestinians in the Israeli controlled West Bank and the apparent complete loss of any possible negotiation for a Palestinian State in that territory.  That was President Obama's stated position when Biden was his Vice President and Netanyahu was also then the Prime Minister of Israel.  But with Biden's loss of influence with Saudi Arabia, a similar move by Israel away from the U.S. would be seriously damaging to U.S. interests.  Iran has not diminished its' hatred for the "Great Satan" U.S  and is still pursuing nuclear weapons.  Hamas, the terrorist local government of Gaza has not given up its' goal of "wiping Israel off the map", Hezbollah, the Iranian supported Shi'a terrorist militia which controls Lebanon and is intervening in support of Syria' dictator Assad in that country's civil war, and the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group all remain major threats to the region.  The U.S needs Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as clearer heads in Washington. Unfortunately, if the current trends in play for the 2024 presidential election hold true and a replay of the 2020 election is in store, clearer heads will be in short supply no matter the outcome. 


 

 



 



 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

UKRAINE: THE POLITICAL/SECURITY CONUNDRUM

This February, 2023 the international media and some independent political groups took notice of the First anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indeed some groups labeled rallies in support of Ukraine as "celebrations".  What would be cause for "celebration" could only be the fact that Ukraine's armed forces had successfully blocked the previously anticipated  quick victory and occupation of Ukraine's major cities by  numerically superior Russian forces. 

Much credit is deserved by the vigor and leadership of Ukraine's army but the rapid and significant dispatch of military aid to Ukraine by the U.S. and European allies was the essential component of the successful resistance up to date.

Now after one year of heavy fighting and what appears to be close to a prolonged stalemate in geographical control, voices in the U.S., still the primary donor of military equipment, are questioning the projection of the need for more billions of dollars in a "policy without a strategy" and a fundamental "lack of a threat to vital American interests" to justify it. 

While these criticisms as yet are coming from a relatively small group of conservative media figures and members of the more conservative wing of Republican Party in Congress, they will surely grow in the face of a prolonged continuation of hostilities and the prospect of continued significant costly military aid to Ukrainian forces. While some of the criticism is surely stimulated automatically by partisan political opposition, Biden opens the door with the grandiosity of his justification for the America's role in the conflict, describing it in terms of America's moral duty and responsibility for a kind of permanent post-cold war Pax Americana based on America's special "values" and enforced by world wide military superiority. This sounds more like proselytizing than policy and is the concept which underlaid the prolonged and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their failed democracy building efforts. Applying it now in relation to the Ukraine war deemphasizes the more basic political/security threats to the region which justify intervention. 

The criticisms, as described above while worthy of debate, ignore or reject the broader and more long-lasting consequences of an abandonment and collapse of Ukraine's independence and Russia's, under Putin's leadership, ability to upset the Post Cold War international security framework, especially as it relates to the entirety of Europe. America's vital security interests are tied to those of Europe, specifically by joint membership in NATO and indirectly by its' economic interdependence with the 27 members of the European Union, 21 of whom are also NATO members.

Critics of continued efforts to defeat Putin's expansionist and revanchist policies should first contemplate what the results would have been, and now would be, if the U.S. and its' European allies stood aside a year ago when the Russian invasion began.  What would be the threat level and political future of other of the former Soviet Republics, similarly at a significant military disadvantage with Russia?  The tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, former Soviet Republics like Ukraine and with borders on both Russia and Byelorussia, an authoritarian client state of Russia, would be indefensible without a full credible commitment by NATO, to which they belong but which would suffer from a lack of credibility if even non-NATO member Ukraine were allowed to fall to Russian aggression.  The threat and political instability would include larger Eastern European states like Poland, a NATO member, and Finland, long a Cold War neutral with a Russian border but now an EU member and NATO applicant along with Sweden who now see the new Russian expansionism as a genuine threat.

A new Cold War emphasized by the memories of the Soviet intrusion and suppression of the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the similar intervention into Hungary's effort to democratize in 1956 would be the probable result.

The impact on other potential aggressors by a failure of U.S./European reaction to blatant aggression is difficult to predict with certainty, but China has clearly stated its' intention to force democratic/capitalist Taiwan into its' control and Iran, currently pursuing nuclear weapons state status, has pursued regional power aspirations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and remains a fundamentally hostile adversary to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

Of course, the U.S. is not operating as a solitary actor, although it is by far the largest contributor of both military and humanitarian aid.  Nonetheless, from a political point of view, it is important that there is near total support among European nations for the transfer of weapons to Ukraine.  The principal nations with the largest militaries and economies, UK, France, and Germany are all NATO members and contributors. This is an extraordinary level of unanimity in support of a major military intervention even without introduction of combat units and reliance on U.S. leadership is clearly a priority.

Nonetheless, from the security/strategy side, realistic expectations should be recognized. There is no realistic expectation that Ukraine can "win" this war in the conventional meaning of the term. Putin cannot accept defeat in military terms as that would erode his political support and end his status as leader of Russia.  The disparity in size of population and related military forces are simply too much in Putin's favor to provide a clear-cut military victory for Ukraine. The population of Russia is over 144 million and the current ground forces available to Putin number around 360,000 with another 300,000 in reserves; this, compared to Ukraine's population of 44.5 million and @ 242,000 active duty and reserve ground forces.  Putin also can, and has, utilized the military draft to replace and enhance his ground troops as needed.  Even though the Russian military so far in the conflict has demonstrated a lack of professionalism and effective leadership as well as poor tactical decision making, the sheer weight of numbers and Putin's willingness to callously sacrifice large numbers of undertrained troops, will deny a classic "defeat" and expulsion from all of Ukraine's territory.

The situation now is essentially predictable stalemate. Tactical victories and retreats swing back and forth.  Unable to secure large portions of Ukraine's territory, Putin seems to be planning a large-scale offensive sometime this Spring.  In the meantime, he has turned to what might be described as a "war of attrition" which focuses on destruction of domestic targets and infrastructure in hopes of demoralizing the populace and Ukraine's' government to the point of their seeking a negotiated settlement in Russia's favor.  Since there is yet no sign of that happening and if Ukraine successfully resists any major Spring offensive, the prospect of at least another year of conflict seems probable.  The question then remains as to how much pain either side is willing to accept before the willingness to negotiate a ceasefire and end the war seems like the only course left. Ukrainian President Zelensky remains defiant and is willing to fight on as long as he continues to receive the necessary military aid from the U.S and European nations.  

Thus, the final outcome whenever it comes, looks like an eventual series of difficult negotiations sponsored by a neutral party such as India.  Compromises will have to be made by both parties.  Zelensky's demand that Russia return control of all occupied territory is unrealistic and is intended to bolster his citizen's resolve to keep fighting.  He may as well be looking ahead and establishing a negotiating position from which he can make concessions to the inevitable without giving up anything beforehand.  It is almost a certainty the Putin will not return control of Crimea to Ukraine, a territory home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was taken with little resistance from Ukraine in 2014.  The future of territories in southeast Ukraine currently under control or contested by Russian backed militias and falsely declared a self-governing territory by Putin are probably also likely to be candidates for permanent loss to Ukraine. Putin will have to be given enough to "declare victory" and withdraw to preserve his political status. Zelensky will have to be assured that the geographical and political integrity of most of Ukraine is guaranteed for the future.  Putin is also likely to demand that international economic sanctions imposed on Russia be eliminated.  Sanctioning countries led by the U.S. will have to require that sanctions be lifted in stages as Russia complies with all the negotiated terms of the peace agreement.

All of this scenario could fall apart with significant Russian military victories or significant reductions in aid to Ukraine's armed forces. Also, it is impossible to know what is in Putin's head; how many risks he is willing to take with escalation of the conflict, or with unexpected Russian domestic opposition to the war by influential civilians or alienated senior military officers.  He is the great unknown quantity in any resolution of the war.



     

Saturday, February 18, 2023

POLITICS, REALITY AND POLICY

 The new balance of power in the U.S. Congress brought about by the 2022 mid-term elections giving the Republican Party a small majority, changes the previous framework for the numerous challenges facing the nation in the next two years of the Biden administration .   

Inflation and related supply chain shortages, the lingering and possible resurgence of the Covid pandemic, the debate and implementation of environmental policies, the continued need worldwide for fossil fuels while alternatives continue their projected decades long development and replacement strategies, the profound economic disruptions and international security concerns over the Russia/Ukraine war, Middle East conflict related to Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, NATO expansion, the progression of a Cold War like relationship with China and it's expansionist policies in the  South China Sea and towards Taiwan are just some of the serious international challenges that impact the domestic welfare of the U.S.  

All of these issues will demand Presidential and Congressional scrutiny, and funding for some purposes.  With the nation and the Congress divided, the next two years will demand focus, hard work, cooperation, and leadership by both the President and congressional leaders of both parties.

Unfortunately, the difference between "politics" and "policy" influences the agendas and adds intensity to the existing partisan and ideological chasms that block progress on the vital issues.  While all "policies" are inherently political, not all "politics" reflect the acceptance of current political reality with respect to the creation of policy.  Thus, these issues, which are driven and exploited by media, many of which are identified as "social" or battles in the "culture war", have become distractions and conflicts on a personal level that punish political cooperation by legislators on the important policy requirements that can't be ignored.

A reality check is important on the political agenda and the more important issues currently in dispute. 

Perhaps the most divisive issue on a national level is access to abortion.  While settled law for fifty years under the protection of the 1973 Supreme Court's "Roe vs. Wade" decision.  The current Supreme Court's 6-3 majority overturned Roe and found that no Constitutional protection for the right to an abortion existed and that the issue should be decided by law on a state level. That is the new reality with respect to the issue.

 However, one non-state level remedy remains.  Since the Supreme Court found no constitutional protection, nor prohibition, of abortion, a federal protection for abortion could be passed as law by the Congress and signed by the President.  A federal prohibition of abortion could also be passed by Congress and the President.  However, once again political reality overcomes potential policy as the Republican controlled House of Representatives will never pass such protective legislation and a Democrat controlled Senate and White House will never pass prohibition. 

No amount of marches, protests, opinion pieces, or political grandstanding by politicians or activist groups on either side will change this. Thus the battle will be fought out in all fifty state legislatures and courts. Some states have already moved on this issue. The total result so far is a mix of standards, limitations and for some, all or no restrictions at all.  Ironically, what is essentially an irreconcilable conflict between religion and ideology on a personal level, has achieved a type of compromise on a national level as different state's,  when considered together, offer the whole range of abortion legislation. Until the political make up of the Congress and Presidency reflects a more unified position enabling federal law to decide the issue, the U.S. Congress and the President should move on and not let this single issue further obstruct the need for bipartisan federal policy cooperation on other major issues. 

Gun control:

Mass shootings across the country have heightened an existing sense of despair and insecurity making the issues of gun control a prominent political/policy debate.  This is not a new development as the debate rages after each deadly event, especially in the more heinous cases of school shootings, and then seems to retreat into the political background as the familiar pros and cons of possible responses are repeated.  

The reality of the situation is daunting but often ignored in the debates which have a prominent place on social media and various commentary venues.  First, gun "control" to some means significant reduction of numbers. However, most estimates of the number of guns in private hands exceed the entire three hundred and thirty-five million persons in the entire nation. Then there is the problem of not knowing who all these possessors of firearms are. Then of course there is the issue of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which Supreme Court majorities, past, and especially present, have interpreted, not without controversy, to deny most restrictions on ownership or transport i.e. "carry", of guns of most types. 

The best answer is to change the debate from what other smaller population nations with significantly different gun cultures have done with respect to confiscation, "buy backs", severe restrictions on ownership and severe restrictions on acquisition, and do what is possible through compromise no matter how imperfect in the views of either side. Criminal gun use comes in many forms and a "one size fits all" response is inappropriate. Federal law currently prohibits hand gun sales to anyone under twenty-one years of age. Since mass shootings at schools have been exclusively committed by young men who were students, former students or troubled  young individuals living in or near the school's community, and these shooters have seemed to favor the use of semi-automatic, large magazine "assault style" rifles, it would be a common sense policy to impose the same age restriction on the purchase of those types of weapons as hand guns.  There should be no expectation however, that such a restriction would have a significant impact on the number of other incidents in which these types of weapons are used. 

Banning the manufacture or sale of these types of rifles is a political challenge but not necessarily a political impossibility, as such a ban was passed before and lasted ten years before dying from a "sunset" provision.  The effects of the ban are a subject of partisan dispute.  But again, the reality facing current advocates is that there are an estimated eight hundred thousand to over a million such weapons already in private hands which would provide a legal secondary market or an illegal "black market" as the value of the weapons rose.

 Other tools such as "red flag" laws which seek to intervene in the possibility of a shooting by an unstable individual have proven to be inconsistently applied or effective.  A national standard for use by local law enforcement and judicial agencies should be both politically possible although since such procedures are preventive in nature their success is hard to verify. 

Most gun crime is carried out with handguns because they are less expensive and easier to transport unseen than rifles.  Most gun owners are not criminals making broad based gun restrictions politically difficult. Most violent crimes, but certainly not all, are carried out by individuals who have criminal records.  While possession of a gun by a former felon is illegal in most state jurisdictions, the penalties for violation are often "soft" or involve bond vs. incarceration. This apparently was the case in the recent mass shooting at Michigan State University. Sine there is a strong correlation between gun crimes and perpetrators of previous crimes with use of guns, heavy penalties involving incarceration for gun possession by former felons would have a positive impact on future gun crimes although anti-incarceration and "racial justice" activists would surely raise political opposition. There is no easy solution given the massive availability of guns throughout society. The problem will have to be addressed eventually by efforts of cultural change starting with America's youth, while finding compromise on policies on the edges of the problem. Simply making guns more expensive is not likely to deter mass shooters who in almost all cases are mentally challenged, suicidal, or expect to be apprehended and face life in prison. Making new gun sales more expensive at the gun store level will not make the criminal possession of weapons less likely since the vast numbers of guns already in private hands creates a permanent market. The principle of "Don't sacrifice the possible in pursuit of the perfect." applies.

Environmental policy:

The problem of global warming has largely become a debate between "deniers" and "end of world" extremists. Science based organizations see the problem as genuine in terms of human activity being a major contributor to global warming through fossil fuel emissions which will require technological changes over time, prominently including alternative energy sources.  The Paris climate accords of 2015 set a prescribed level for each of the signatories to make progress which combined had a goal of reducing global warming by 2 degrees Celsius "in this century".  The mechanisms for achieving progress are voluntary. Biden administration policies with regard to the process have largely involved limiting oil and gas exploration on federal lands, withdrawing approval for new pipelines and providing financial incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles and insulation remodeling for buildings.

These policies have gotten far out ahead of the level of alternative energy available to replace the needs of fossil fuels which are used in the manufacture of numerous non-energy related products but most notably have contributed to rapid inflation in the costs of gasoline and utility bills.  The Biden administration reacting to the political effects of these issues has backtracked some with regard to the leasing of fossil fuel exploration sites and even attempting to urge the government of Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the OPEC oil cartel, to increase oil production.

Unfortunately, Biden in an early campaign exercise at "virtue signaling" had promised to wipe out the oil industry and had labeled Saudi Arabia an international "pariah state" while personally implicating that nation's de facto head of government Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination of a dissident Saudi opinion writer.  Needless to say Biden's subsequent "hat in hand" request was summarily dismissed.  Gasoline prices have currently rebounded from earlier declines to levels above $4.00 per gallon. Natural gas prices which are necessary for large regions of the nation for domestic heating and electricity production are still high.

Reality check:

The fact that the Paris climate agreement is couched in terms of improvements in global temperature increases "in this century" should make it obvious that the effort is both long term and "global" in nature.  Just by way of example of the immensity of the problem consider just the two largest population states, China and India. The combined populations of the two nations is over 2.8 billion or @ 35% of the total world's population now near 8 billion.

By the latest available statistics, China's "energy mix" is 60% coal based, 20% oil and 8% natural gas.     India's total energy needs, despite it's commitment to accept the goals of the Paris Agreement, are 44% coal, 25% oil, and 6% natural gas. India's electricity production alone, is 70% generated by coal.

Global figures for the year 2019 for electricity production were 63% fossil fuels, nuclear 10.4% and just 26.3% based on "renewables" with Europe and the U.S. contributing the most in the latter. Clearly, such efforts as banning natural gas stoves in California over minor leaks of methane gas or handwringing by adolescent  Green activists over tens of millions of cattle "burping" methane  is a pointless waste of time and attention to the broader and much more complex world wide issue.  A specific but multi-faceted, science based, organized strategy with international participation including a common sense long term transition plan from most fossil fuel energy sources and including the newest nuclear technology is imperative.

Meanwhile the attention of the "media" and the political demagoguery infused issues of transgender "rights", "social justice" versus academic instruction in public schools, police "reform", affirmative action and permissive crime control, dominate the political agendas of the federal and states legislative bodies. In the Congress time is being taken up investigating Hunter Biden's laptop, and trying to impeach the Secretary of Homeland Security for his failure even to acknowledge the illegal immigration crisis at the southern border.  Such and effort, no matter how much deserved,  is pure politics since a finding for removal in the Senate by the Democrat majority is an impossibility.    Similarly the effort to convince Biden to negotiate reductions in federal spending for cooperation in raising the federal debt limit is fraught with political grandstanding. Both of those goals deserve serious attention. Raising the national debt limit to avoid default on the government debt for money already appropriated is basic and unavoidable to maintain the value of the U.S. dollar and its use as the world's reserve currency. Over seven trillion dollars in U.S. government debt is held by foreign nations. Reducing future federal spending in the face of an annual deficit of close to 1.5 trillion dollars and the accumulated national debt of 31.563 trillion dollars or 120.37 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not only reasonable but critical.  The prospects for the first are good because a U.S. monetary default is unthinkable.  The prospects for the latter are low since "spending" was the basic 2022 election strategy of the Biden administration and is likely to be the similar strategy for Biden's 2024 campaign. 

Thus in a world of divided government, extreme ideological polarization, "politics over policy" would seem to be the inevitable and unfortunate future. Only the threat by the electorate of a major personnel change in the legislatures at the state and federal level will have a chance at turning attention to policy and away from political posturing and divisiveness but with the media's preference for conflict and extremism for "news", the prospects are not good.