Why don’t Americans trust their Government? I

“Enemy of the State” (1998, dir. Tony Scott[1]). The NSA has been pressing for legislation that will allow it to slip the leash, but a Congressman is in the way. A top NSA official organizes his killing—meant to look like a suicide—only to discover that a remote camera dedicated to another, innocuous purpose, recorded the killing. HA! The hunt for the video record is on. The wildlife observer who had set up the remote camera—this is hilarious: he is astonished to find that government officials in a democracy are just as savage as wolves in the wild—ends up dead in an “accident.”   He had passed a CD of the scene to an unwitting acquaintance (played by Denzel Washington). So the full weight of the government’s information apparatus—all the CCTV cameras, phone taps, internet intercepts–falls on the acquaintance. It turns out that the government not only can listen to what you say and watch what you do, it can also plant information in the computer records of your life. Soon, the guy played by Denzel has been fired from his job, had his bank account frozen, and been tossed out of the house by his outraged wife. Eventually, a former government tech surveillance guy turned outlaw (played by Gene Hackman) saves the day by using the techniques of the NSA against the bad guys.

“Shooter” (2007, dir. Antoine Fuqua). Government agents get former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger (played by Mark Wahlberg) to come out of retirement to consult on a supposed plot to kill an important figure in Philadelphia. Turns out that they are setting up Swagger as the fall guy for a government-sponsored assassination done at the behest of big corporations—which own the US government. (See: “Citizens United” in the mythology of Democrats.) Swagger turns out to be hard to kill and hard to catch—Semper Fi—and he hunts answers. A newbie FBI agent (played by Michael Pena) gets staked out as sacrificial goat because he didn’t believe the stuff the bosses were saying, but Swagger turns him into an ally and they find the truth. After much shooting, the Truth comes out—within a restricted circle in the know. The rest of us are left in the dark, although it is implied that Survivalism isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

“The Bourne Legacy (2012, dir. Tony Gilroy). As anyone who has seen the earlier installments in the series knows, the US government created a bunch of psychologically-enhanced assassins to put a sharp edge on American action in the world. In this installment, a new generation of agents has also been chemically-enhanced into near-Marvel Comics characters. Scandal forces the government to burn down the program, but one of the agents, Aaron Cross, escapes and goes in search of answers. In pursuit of him, the US commandeers all sorts of surveillance systems from weather satellites to toll-booth cameras to CCTV security cameras in airports to credit card records to airline seating charts. In the end Cross (played by Jeremy Renner) and a rogue scientist from the program (played by Rachel Weisz), sail away, sail away, sail away on a fishing boat bound for the southern islands of the Philippines. Still, they’re careful to stay under an awning all the time, just in case of, you know, drones.

The conventions of these paranoid fantasies require a renegade product of evil covert government actions, a basically decent participant in those actions who is appalled to discover what s/he has been doing, and government officials who have been carried away in their pursuit of their duty to protect the dough-headed citizens of a fat, lazy America. (See: “Margin Call”; see: Edward Snowden—I mean “Edward Scissorhands”!)

[1] He purportedly committed suicide in 2012.

Putinium.

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. He had impeccable Communist credentials; his father was a manual laborer, his mother was a school teacher. He studied law in university (like Mikhail Gorbachev), then took a job with the KGB. (See: irony.) Here he was an intelligence officer, operating in East Germany. When the USSR began to withdraw its forces from its East European empire Putin came home to Leningrad. Here he worked for a number of politicians in the new democracy. One of these was Boris Yeltsin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had not thrilled the Russians. Street crime and white-collar crime exploded, while the economy decayed, and Russia fell from the status of a superpower. People around Yeltsin piled up immense fortunes by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources, banking, and media. Mikhail Khodorkovsky got control of the Yukos oil company, which established a virtual monopoly on Russian oil production and exports. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky created media empires. Generally, nobody paid taxes. A few people got rich while most suffered.

In 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin to run the FSB, heir to the KGB. Two years later in 2000, when the ailing Yeltsin left government, Putin ran for President of Russia. During the campaign someone bombed an apartment building in Moscow, killing 200 people. The suspected bombers were Chechen separatists. Putin promised to wipe them out. He won the presidency.

In power, Putin turned on the “oligarchs” who had risen up during the Yeltsin era. Khodorkovsky went to jail and Yukos Oil was nationalized, Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled abroad. Taxes got collected. Street crime got squashed. Putin’s nationalization of Yukos Oil coincided with a sharp increase in demand for oil around the world. By 2007, Russia was earning about $170 billion a year from oil exports. Prosperity returned to Russia. Putin has distributed favors on a far more prudent basis than Yeltsin ever did. He uses them to build support for himself without harming the interests of the Russian people. At the same time, Putin has been ruthless in dealing with critics: he has used control of the media to prevent opposition candidates from getting out their message; and he is suspected of having prompted the assassination of dissidents Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the December 2007 elections voters had to mark the ballots in public view—of soldiers. This is a lot like mid-19th Century elections. Not exactly the Australian ballot. Still, it seemed to work. Public opinion polls showed Putin enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating among ordinary Russians. In December 2007 Putin’s United Russia party won 400 of 450 seats in the Russian parliament (the Duma).

Where is he headed? He appears to be aiming at a restoration of Russian power. He has begun a $200 billion rearmament program. He has tried to block the extension of an American anti-missile system into Eastern Europe. He has challenged the idea of America as the sole super-power. He is still fighting the Chechen war. He turns off the flow of oil to the Ukraine whenever it seems too independent. Then there’s the Crimea.

The question is not whether Russia could have been held down permanently after the collapse of Communism. It could not. But could Russia have become a Western-style democracy? Is a collision inevitable between a reviving Russia and the West?

“Why Russia Loves Putin,” The Week, 21 December 2007, p. 11.

The Weight of the Past in Iraq

The Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. The Sunni minority, which had traditionally dominated Iraq, didn’t like the invasion or the empowerment of the Shi’a majority, so they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans. Then Al Qaeda in Iraq joined in as allies of the Sunni. Then, Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to foster a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in order to a) make the American position in Iraq unsustainable, and b) punish the Shi’ites for being “in error” about religious truth. Death squads and suicide bombings and car bombings and deaths-by-power-drills abounded.

Then Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to force their Sunni allies to submit to “sharia” (Islamic religious law). The Sunni Iraqis living in Anbar Province didn’t much like this. In 2006 many tribal leaders began to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq, forming “Awakening Councils.” They sought a truce with and help from the Americans. The Americans responded positively, then General David Petraeus made this a central part of his “surge” strategy in 2007. Awakening Councils spread from Anbar Province into the other areas with large numbers of Sunnis. With the US paying $300 a month and providing equipment to each “volunteer,” there were soon about 80,000 Sunni militia men fighting against Al Qaeda rather than against the Americans. Al Qaeda in Iraq took a savage pounding, while the Sunni component of the insurgency all but disappeared.

American politicians and even many in the media are prone to down-play the role of the “Awakening Councils” in the ending of the insurgency. Instead, they laud “the Surge” of American troops into Iraq. As is so often the case with American political discourse, the reality was different. In 2009 there were about 30 million Iraqis. About 20 million were Shi’ite Arabs; about 5-6 million were Sunni Kurds; and about 5 million were Sunni Arabs. US Army counter-insurgency doctrine held that 20 soldiers per 1,000 people were needed to defeat an insurgency. The US would need 100,000 troops, just to deal with the Sunni Arab part of the country, with many more troops required to garrison the Shi’ite parts. Thus, the “Awakening Councils” and their fighters made possible a radical shift in the balance of forces.

What did the future hold for the “Awakening Councils”? One problem is that the Sunnis have multiple hostilities. Al Qaeda had risen to the top of the list in 2007-2008, but next on the list were the Shi’ites and then the US itself. To take one example, the leader of a Baghdad neighborhood “Awakening Council” was a former officer of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. In 2008, he saw the Iraqi government as a pawn of Iran. Another problem was that the Americans hoped to see the councils and their militias integrated into the police and military of the new Iraq. The Shi’ites always opposed this and wanted the militias disbanded as soon as possible. They foresaw a civil war following the American withdrawal. Finally, in the absence of a single strong leader among the Sunnis, the various Awakening Councils fell fall into conflict with one another as they struggled for turf, weapons, American aid, and control of the local economy.

Thus, by early 2008 it was possible to foresee ugly developments. It all depended upon what the Shi’ites did with power once the Americans departed. Now we know.

Putting the pieces back together again isn’t going to be easy. Islam allows “taqiyya” (dissembling) to avoid persecution. Long oppressed by the Sunni minority, the Shi’ites are regarded as habitual dissemblers. How to build trust once again?

“The Sunni Awakening,” The Week, 1 February 2008, p. 9.

Obama versus Putin.

Russian-American relations broke down during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama hoped that there might be a chance for improved relations with Russia. His national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, and his chief adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, both believed that the opportunity existed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were doubtful. However the latter two took the view that it was worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen?

In April 2009 President Obama met Dimitri Medvedev for the first time at the London G20 conference. The two hit it off, or at least Mr. Obama saw a sympathetic figure in Mr. Medvedev. Both were young lawyers who saw themselves as pragmatists rather than ideologues. According to Peter Baker, “Mr. Obama resolved to do what he could to build up Mr. Medvedev in hopes that he would eventually emerge as the real power.” The Americans pitched the Russians the idea of a new nuclear weapons reduction agreement. The two sides made progress on this topic during the following weeks. The two countries agreed that Russia would allow America to air-lift men and supplies to Afghanistan through Russian airspace. The United States also won Russian agreement for tougher sanctions against Iran, while the Americans facilitated Russian entry into the World Trade Organization.

In March 2011 the United States wanted to join in the air campaign against Libya. This would require a vote by the UN Security Council. Medvedev agreed not to block the vote. Very soon, it became apparent that President Obama had expanded the humanitarian mandate from the UN into a regime-change mission directed at bombing Colonel Ghadaffi out of power. According to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “The Russians felt that they had been played for suckers on Libya. They felt that there had been a bait and switch.” Putin became incensed. Putin himself saw the Libyan intervention as the latest instance of a strand in American foreign policy that ran from Kosovo in the Clinton administration to Iraq in the Bush administration. Not the least of his concerns sprang from the evidence that overturning regimes in Muslim countries led to the triumph of Islamic radicals like the ones Russia has been fighting in Chechnya. Moreover, the Russians have not interfered with the airlift to Afghanistan nor have the reneged on the nuclear arms agreements. Apparently, they feel that a promise is a promise.

By September 2011 it had become apparent that Putin would be returning to the presidency in Spring 2012. American officials speculated on what impact this would have on Russo-American relations. The State Department was not optimistic.

In May 2012, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency of Russia. President Obama sent his national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, to explore relations with the Russian strong-man. Obama may have hoped for a cordial relationship, but Putin did not welcome the initiative. For one thing, Putin blamed Secretary of State Clinton for encouraging the mass street demonstrations that attended his re-election. For another thing, “In Mr. Putin’s view, the United States wanted only to meddle in places where it had no business, fomenting revolutions to install governments friendly to Washington.” An American diplomat recalled that “Putin was very dug in on this idea that we will never have another Libya.” “When are you going to start bombing Syria?” Putin demanded.

Putin took up the matter with President Obama himself at another meeting in Mexico in June 2012. Obama argued that the two countries should co-operate to achieve a negotiated settlement in Syria. [NB: Implicit in this was the idea that Assad would have to go.] Putin refused to agree. A bunch of tit-for-tat harassment followed. The White House came up with a plan for a second “reset”: they would take up a number of suggestions made by the Russians earlier on as the agenda for trying to improve the relationship. The list of things to be addressed were further cuts in nuclear forces, a data-sharing plan to relieve some of the Russian anxiety over American missile defense, and expanded American trade and investment.

After Obama won re-election in November 2012, he sent Donilon to see Putin once again. In June 2013 Obama and Putin met at another G8 conference in Northern Ireland. Putin declined to take up any of the American proposals for a new “reset.” Putin did agree to meet separately with Obama during a conference in St. Petersburg. However, when Obama made a speech in Berlin suggesting a new round of Russo-American nuclear cuts, the Russians did not respond. Soon afterward, they agreed to shelter Edward Snowden, the NSA “leaker” then in flight from American law. Already wondering if the meeting with Putin would be worth having, Obama reacted to the asylum decision by cancelling the meeting. Obama publically belittled Putin as the “bored kid in the back of the classroom.”[1] Later on, during the Ukraine crisis of early 2014, Obama would describe Russia as “just a regional power.”

There are several questions worth considering. First, Vladimir Putin is as Josef Joffe has said, “a nasty son-of-a-bitch.” However, is he just a megalomaniac? Or does Putin have real reasons for obstructing American action in Syria and Ukraine? Looking at the results of President Obama’s foreign policy in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, is it possible that there are many other powerful people at the head of unpopular governments who think that Putin may have a point?

Second, is international relations the same thing as a Chicago Parks and Recreation basketball court? Is trash-talking an opponent a useful way of resolving a conflict or gaining an advantage?

[1] Peter Baker, “U.S. Feels Chill in Its Relations with Russians,” NYT, 3 September 2013, pp. A1, A8.

 

Buyer’s Remorse: Russia and Ukraine.

Russian is a big exporter of natural gas to Western and Central Europe. During the life of the Soviet Union, the USSR had supplied natural gas to both the Ukraine region within the USSR and to Western Europe. The price charged Western European purchasers was below world market rate. Two of the USSR’s natural gas pipelines to Western Europe ran through Ukraine and carry 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports. After the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine voted to secede, the Russians negotiated a natural gas agreement with Ukraine. The agreement provided that Ukraine would receive 17 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year as a fee for the pipelines that crossed Ukraine. This agreement also sold 8 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Ukraine at the prevailing world market price.

During the 1990s the Russians claimed that the Ukrainians had not paid for much of the gas that they received. They stopped deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine until they were paid, while continuing to ship gas through the pipelines across Ukraine. The Ukrainians then diverted some of the gas bound for Western Europe to make up for the suspended gas deliveries. (The government of Ukraine later admitted that they had done this.) The two countries finally settled this dispute in an agreement in October 2001.

Negotiations for a new agreement began in 2005. In the process, it was revealed that the Ukrainians had “misplaced” almost 8 billion cubic metres of gas that the Russian energy company Gazprom had stored in Ukrainian facilities in 2004-2005. When Ukraine balked at some of the Russian terms, the Russians cut down on gas deliveries in January 2006. Ukraine soon gave in. However, the Russians repeatedly claimed that the Ukraine of the “Orange Revolution” failed to pay for natural gas deliveries. Growing weary of Ukraine’s repeated “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” approach, in early 2008 the Russkies said Ukraine had to pay the whole 2008 bill up-front or no more gas starting immediately. Ukraine’s government, headed by Yulia Timoshenko, rejected that deal.

In late 2008 Ukraine caved-in and paid what they owed the Russians. Negotiations for a 2009 agreement immediately broke down. The Ukrainians wanted a subsidized price, the Russians wanted the market rate; the Russians insisted on payment up front. The Russians turned off the tap in gas supplies to Ukraine, so Ukraine resorted to a number of under-handed practices in response: the pressure dropped in the pipelines to Western Europe (indicating siphoning by Ukraine); the government called on the EU to involve itself; and the Ukrainian court voided Ukraine’s agreement to trans-ship Russian gas to Western Europe. The Stockholm Tribunal of Arbitration soon smashed Ukraine’s pretensions. Moreover, this was costing everyone a lot of money. Eventually, in late January 2009, the two countries negotiated an agreement to cover the period to 2019.

Later in 2009 the Russians agreed to revise the contract in light of the recession in Ukraine. Then in 2010, they agreed to cut the price of gas to Ukraine by thirty percent in exchange for an extension of the lease on the naval base at Sebastopol to 2042.

In late 2013, Russia offered Ukraine a further big cut in price if it would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU. The overthrow of the Yanukovych government put an end to this discount. The Russian seizure of Crimea put an end to the discount for an extended lease on the Russian naval base there. Why pay rent for what you now own?

So, the stuff in the news about an “80 percent price increase” isn’t fully accurate.

Also, Ukraine tends to cheat. The Russians already know this. The US soon will.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia%E2%80%93Ukraine_gas_disputes

The Kurdish Serbia.

Arab historians like Ibn Khaldun noted the tension between the simple, tough, and often war-like people of the mountains and deserts, on the one hand, and the refined, soft, and often feckless people of the towns and plains, on the other hand.[1] It’s not bad as an organizing principle, but in fact the silk slipper was often on the other foot. The Kurds offer a good example of this truth. Their hopes for a nation of their own were frustrated by the nationalism of other peoples. After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni Muslim, non-Arab Kurds found themselves divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. All of these governments repressed the Kurds. Iraq draws most of the attention for this, but all the governments did it.

Saddam Hussein found the Iraqi Kurds disloyal during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), so he used poison gas to slaughter some and then had many of the male survivors shot. The Americans encouraged and then betrayed a Kurdish revolt at the time of the First Iraq War (1990-1991). To show remorse, the Americans then fostered a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq through a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid. This potential nation cooked along better than the rest of Iraq for a dozen years.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 greatly stimulated Kurdish separatism. Elections in 2005 made the Kurds the second largest group in Iraq’s parliament. More adept at bargaining than their Arab compatriots, the Kurds wrestled-away ever greater degrees of autonomy from Baghdad. The American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed the Shi’ite government to run amok at the expense of the Sunni Arabs. Again, the Kurds were better able to defend themselves. They built an oil pipeline to Turkey to gain a greater degree of economic freedom from the central government. The crISIS of 2014 then provided the Kurds with yet another opportunity to loosen the bonds between themselves and the failing Iraq state. Kurdish troops took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north to expand their territory to include the city of Kirkuk. Similarly, the Kurds of Syria have looked to their fellow Kurds in Iraq and Turkey for aid against ISIS. Regardless of how the crISIS ends, it will be hard for Baghdad to corral the Kurds. The shattering of Syria and Iraq could lead to an enlarged Kurdistan on its way to statehood.

This will have long-term consequences. For one thing, it will be harder to hold Iraq together if it is merely a federation of mutually-hostile Shi’ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs. Kurdistan’s wresting-away of much of Iraq’s oil will leave Baghdad with fewer resources with which to buy-off opponents. For another thing, the majority of Kurds live inside Turkey. The Turks have fought a long struggle to repress separatism among the Kurds. For the moment, they seem willing to have the Iraqi Kurds serve as a bulwark against ISIS. However, an independent Kurdistan will again come to be a magnet for Turkish Kurds. This will threaten Turkish territorial integrity. The Turks might be well-advised to concede this demand ahead of time. They’re not likely to do so. The artist formerly known as Yugoslavia grew out of the Serbian desire to gather all the South Slavs in one state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been well advised to concede this demand ahead of time.   Vienna preferred war.

“The other Iraq,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 9.

[1] European Orientalist art of the 19th Century adopted the same perspective as a way of introducing some adventure and soft-core pornography into the lives of highly inhibited European bourgeois gentlemen. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Orientalist+art&client=firefox-a&hs=i1a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=sb&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=Hg0oVPhByoHKBKe4gKAL&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1150&bih=657

College costs: the old eat the young.

It is always worth asking whether a consumer is getting value for money. Is a college education today worth the higher price than that paid by earlier generations?

Everyone knows that inflation-adjusted college tuition has more than doubled since 1992. Except that it hasn’t. Everyone knows that it can cost $60,000 a year for college. Except that it hardly ever does.

The real price of college has to include the financial aid (other than loans) supplied to the student. This gives the net price. Since 1992, the net price for community college has fallen; the net price at a private four-year college has risen 22 percent; and the net price for a four-year public college has risen 60 percent. The average of the two falls into a range between a 40 percent and 50 percent increase in net tuition. This puts college tuition in the same ball-park as medical costs (35 percent) or day care (44 percent).

The “sticker shock” tuitions beloved of the media and the politicians only apply to people from affluent families who are not eligible for financial aid attending elite schools that can charge what the market will bear for a prestigious degree.

Taking lower costs and higher aid into account, the average price for a student attending a four-year public college was $3,120 a year in 2013; the average price for a student attending a four-year private college was $12,460.[1]

Why has the net cost of a four-year public college risen so much more than the cost of a four-year private college? In the United States, about eighty percent of college students attend public colleges. Between 1988 and 2013, nominal tuition at these institutions more than doubled. This has created a terrible problem of debt for parents and students when most incomes have been stagnant. However, the revenue earned by these colleges stayed flat. In 1988 colleges earned an average of $11,300 per student; in 2013 they earned an average of $11,500 per student. If colleges aren’t getting rich, then where did the additional tuition go? To tax-payers, that’s where.

Traditionally, public colleges were subsidized by state legislatures. In 1988, each student at a public college received an average of $8,600 a year to subsidize his/her studies. The student and his/her family kicked in the additional $2,700 a year. In 2013, each student at a public college received an average of $6,100 a year to subsidize his/her studies. The student and his/her family now have to kick in $5,400 a year. A four year BA went from costing the state $34,600 to costing $24,400. That same four year BA went from costing students and parents $10,800 to costing $20,800. People who got a cheap BA paid for by others, now want to pay lower taxes.

The Obama administration has the idea that introducing ratings for colleges will help “education consumers.” They want to consider factors like affordability, drop-out rates, and the earnings of graduates. Federal subsidies—“Jump, boy, jump” versus “Bad dog, no biscuit”—would reward colleges which score well on the standardized test.[2]   People push back, saying that there is too much difference among students to make a single standard meaningful. The economist Susan Dynarski has suggested that the “risk adjusted” rating system used for hospitals might offer a useful means of adapting any rating system.[3] Better still, restore the state aid.

[1] David Leonhardt, “How Government Exaggerates College’s Cost,” New York Times, 29 July 2014.

[2] I can foresee the criticism that this will lead colleges to “admit to the test” just as schools “teach to the test.”

[3] Susan Dynarski, “Where College Ratings Hit the Wall,” New York Times, 21 September 2014.