Venezuela: the Agony and the…Well, More Agony

As I try to assemble some reasonable thoughts on the topic of Venezuela, here and now, we may be about to see a modern, prosperous, beautiful country breathe its last.  This is not an exaggeration, and not said for shock value.  One of Latin America’s more prosperous, modern countries is in the throes of dissolution.  It may well be that in a year or two, we will all look back on this week as either the fuse that lit a civil war or as the moment that Venezuela began its final act on the world stage, and pulled inward to start a quick decline into an ungovernable failed state, remembered by many but known to few.

As I finished that first paragraph, I could picture large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere thinking only in clichés, nodding, and saying with a “knowing” nod, “Well, that’s what happens when you choose socialism.  It never works.”  As is the case with all clichés, this has an element of truth, but only an element.  I would agree that the economy of Venezuela was largely doomed to fail, but other economies and other countries, faced with similar problems, have faced and even solved them, avoiding in the process, the human and material catastrophe that looms over Venezuela.  But nobody took the crucial, necessary steps to avoid the current situation and its likely outcome.

Too many look at Venezuela and assume that it is  “just like Cuba was” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a country that had choked off social revolt for years, only to embrace some revolutionary figure and later watch as that revolutionary figure revealed his true colors and began a despotic multi-decade rule over the people who had elevated him.  No.  NO.  It’s not that way.  Cuba, though it always had had its high society, shoeless rural population, and deep class divisions, was not a country with a well-developed economy.  Its economy was all too typical of Latin America at the time,  typifying what a Latin American economist called “economias de postre,” i.e., dessert economies.  Their fortunes rose and fell with the success of export crops such as sugar, bananas, and other tropical fruits.

20th and 21st century Venezuela, on the other hand, has had its share of military government and (at least) two-party democracy, until the late 1980’s and the rise of Hugo Chavez.  Its economy was based, not in dessert, but in oil.  Yeah, the black, oozing gold.  Oil rigs sprout from the surface of Lake Maracaibo and here and there throughout the country.  Its agricultural sector was less robust than one might expect, given the climate and the fertile soils.  If neighbors Colombia and Brazil could earn export millions from coffee, why could not Venezuela?  A strong agricultural sector, together with an investor class, and untold oil millions, should have produced a vibrant economy that young Venezuelans should never have abandoned.  No such economy ever became strong enough for that outcome, though.

Anyone who has read this far is probably entitled to ask why.  Venezuela is not utterly unique in its economic development, but the order in which things unfolded there is unusual and at least partly to blame.  The agricultural sector as a source of exports, and thus income, was small in the early part of the 20th century, when oil was discovered.  Subsequently production of oil became profitable for investors, a source of employment for laborers, and a national asset.  World War II meant that both the Allied powers and the Axis became, shall we say, intensely interested in the country’s oil reserves.  Because American oil companies had bought more than half of known exploitable reserves, the Venezuelan government of the time both moved to increase its control of the nation’s oil, and to take a somewhat larger share of the profits from it.

By 1947, oil profits had grown sixfold as compared to the 1941 figures.  The country was largely able to fund its own economic development in the post WWII environment.  There was simply little reason to work in agriculture or other labor-intensive and less rewarding pursuits.  Oil had become the country’s only real export commodity, and the country did not diversify; by the 1980’s, it was a food importer.  All the foregoing led to a crash in the national economy in the late 1980’s, when a world glut in the oil market depressed prices, and Venezuela’s economy dived.

As always, economic disruption produced political turbulence.  A lot of it.  By 1992, an obscure Army colonel named Hugo Chavez had led two unsuccessful coups against the civilian government, and then had been granted a full pardon by President Rafael Caldera in 1994.  By 1998, Chavez was himself running for president at the head of a so-called Bolivarian Revolution; this movement was said to have incorporated the political philosophy of Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator of South America, through a “socialist” lens.  Chavez won.  He quickly obtained a rewrite of the Venezuelan Constitution, granting him increased power to implement his version of the socialist vision.  This is the key to the unceasing hatred shown by US politicians toward Chavez, given the American tendency to assume that the terms “socialism,” “communism,” and “totalitarianism” are all basically versions of the same thing.

In practice, Chavez was, until his death, popular with his natural constituency, the poor.  He accumulated vast personal wealth through the misappropriation of oil revenues (which are still 96% of the nation’s export earnings).  Contrary to much popular belief in the USA, he did not nationalize the nation’s oil.  PDVSA, the national oil monopoly, had been legally constituted in 1976, so as president with large power of distribution, he found it a ready source of cash, both for himself and the other Chavez constituency–the military.

In stark contrast to the love shown to Chavez, a larger than life figure with a natural charisma, by those two groups, was the lasting enmity shown to him by the country’s middle class and its hereditary landed class.  After a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 (and the Bush administration’s clumsy handling of it) he returned to power on the strength of support from the poor and the military.  But by Chavez’s death in 2013, things were already unraveling.

Oil prices have never returned to their boom levels, and Venezuela’s external debt and oil subsidies given (for political reasons) to Cuba and even China have all added to the crisis which Chavez’ hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has been manifestly unable to cope with.  He has no charisma to rely on, and he has dealt with every setback to him personally with massive repression.  His ruling party lost the parliamentary elections last year, and he has resorted to heavy-handed packing of the courts to frustrate opposition efforts to bring him to heel.  Only the military remains as his support system.  About 20 Venezuelans have died in recent political demonstrations.

This is all at a critical stage.  In practical terms, Mao’s ancient political adage that “political power comes from the end of a gun” appears to be Maduro’s  governing philosophy.  He recently called for (and rigged) an election to a new “Constituent Assembly” whose job it will be to rewrite the Constitution again, putting more power in the hands of guess who.  Sadly, the only real hope for a brake on Maduro is if the military turns on him.  He has avoided that by turning a blind eye to corruption in the military.

I have friends in Venezuela.  It is a beautiful country, wealthy in terms of resources.  It doesn’t have to go into political eclipse.  I really hope it doesn’t.

Assange and Snowden: Whose Heroes Are They?

Sorry, I’ve been away from the old keyboard a while.  The holidays can take up pretty big chunks of time for everybody, and in truth, need no preparation time or spell checks, so they can be pretty pleasant.  Since all good things must come to an end, though, here is my first new post of the year.

I have been puzzled for some time as I observe the continuing sagas of Messrs. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.  If you have been in a subterranean cave for the last few years, cut off from all sources of light or news, you could look the two of them up.  If that seems too much work or too unrewarding, then here is the short version.  Assange is the head of WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to unearthing government secrets and then splashing them all over the internet for anyone at all to read and interpret as he/she pleases.  His principal “contributor” in this enterprise (so far) has been Bradley/Chelsea Manning, the former US Army Intelligence Analyst, who passed hundreds of thousands of classified or “sensitive” documents to Assange’s organization.  Snowden is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency who then became a contract employee of a firm (Booz Allen Hamilton) which had access to highly-classified US government proprietary information.   Snowden, claiming he did not want to live in a society that conducted mass surveillance on its citizens, gave foreign journalists classified documents while in flight from the US.

The paragraph above contains, in essence, all of the information on these two that is generally conceded to be accurate by all parties.  Almost anything else said or written about them is subject to claims by supporters or detractors that one is trying to influence the discussion on them, whether for good or for ill.   On the occasions I have spoken with other people about the pair, I have heard them both described as “whistleblowers” by those with positive opinions of the pair.  Those who do not share that inclination often use terms such as “guilty of espionage” or “thieves of government property.”  Although it is difficult to categorize these responses precisely, it has struck me (and remember, you may feel free to dispute it–this is only presented as my point of view) that the more idealistic the observer, the more likely he/she is to view Assange and Snowden as having altruistic, positive motives.

I am neither young nor particularly altruistic anymore, so, as you might surmise, I am not very sympathetic to either Assange or Snowden.  Objectively speaking, each knowingly disseminated into the public domain information he knew to be property of the US government.  Equally, they disseminated that information with the knowledge that there were legal penalties for doing so.  (Manning, meanwhile, was caught several years ago and identified as the source of some of Assange’s revelations, and indeed, is serving a 35-year sentence for various acts of espionage and theft of government property–which may give you some idea of the degree of sympathy Assange enjoys from US law enforcement.)

As a former US government employee who handled classified information from time to time, the need for care and nondisclosure is imprinted on me–and I never was in a position to have to work with much such material.  Revelation of information protected by a US government classification was something that every official knew, every day, was something to be avoided.  Meetings of embassy officials were often held in secure areas to guard against the accidental case of revealing such information.  Thus I start from the premise that guarding such information from unauthorized persons is inimical to the cause of good security.  A purposeful disclosure can only be from bad intent.

But wait, the idealists protest: Assange and Snowden (Snowden particularly) were serving the greater good by informing people of the evil actions performed under the cover of secrecy by their government.  This argument, I will concede, has a sliver of appeal.  At times, they are compared to Daniel Ellsberg, who, during the Viet Nam war, found and leaked documents to US newspapers, showing, in summary, that the war in Viet Nam had been evaluated by the Pentagon at an earlier date as unwinnable; the rage of the Nixon administration at the time was that this was embarrassing to the US government–and not only the Nixon administration, but the Johnson and Kennedy administrations that had gone before it.

Not usually mentioned is the fact that anyone who might be sent off by his government to fight in a war that that government already knew was unwinnable might well try to avoid such service.

The Snowden-as-Ellsberg or Assange-as-Ellsberg comparisons, though, seem weak to me for several reasons.  For one, Ellsberg’s revelations pointed only to a general conclusion, the unwinnability of the war.   And for a second, Ellsberg did not flee the jurisdiction of his own government.  He surrendered to federal authorities and stood trial for his violations (demonstrating the courage of his convictions), categorized as theft and conspiracy.  He was eventually acquitted.

Assange has revealed many details from classified reports, cables, and memos. some of which are harmless enough in the objective sense (a profile of Icelandic politicians, for example), if momentarily embarrassing to the government.  On the other hand, some of the documents may have revealed sources for intelligence, which could have exposed those sources to harm or even death.  Some also revealed to Al-Qaeda some of the methods used to gather the intelligence; like a mutating disease microbe, that organization adapted and changed their modes of operation, setting back the efforts of US intelligence operations until new methods of penetration could be devised.  These are concrete, malignant effects of public disclosure of guarded information.

Snowden, for his revealing of mass surveillance of US citizens (and permanent residents) is revered in some circles.  I can understand how this is regarded as meritorious, since it may involve illegal activity by the government itself.  (This is by no means an open-and-shut argument, by the way.)  But I believe Snowden himself forfeited any “high ground” by stealing the documents (said to be more than a million of them) and fleeing to first China and later Russia,  rather than attempting to find a sympathetic ear within the government\.  Snowden claims his intention was to go to Venezuela or Ecuador, both Latin American countries in the throes of leftist governance which would have been happy to give shelter to an American fleeing from his own government.  He lives today in Russia, seemingly unbothered by the amount of surveillance of its own citizens that country does.

Assange may or may not have cooperated with recent Russian hacking activities connected to the recent US presidential election.  I can discern no higher motive in his conduct than narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

React as you will.  Disagree if you are so inclined.  I think the final chapter of these two’s story has yet to be written, and it probably will not be a happy ending.

The Middle East Needs Some Time Alone

My mind says not to try to do this in less than book-length form, but I don’t want to spend more of your time or mine rehashing tired old arguments, or reinterpreting old quarrels.  This contentious part of the world and its intractable disagreements are beyond dysfunctional in myriad ways, so why is the US still hopeful of being the magical peacemaker from the other side of the world?  What really can be done?

Disclosure: I am a retired US Foreign Service officer, but with no real expertise in this part of the world.  My wife is Lebanese-American, but she is not my “muse” on this topic.  We met outside the Middle East; we  may agree on some portions of US policy in the region, and disagree on others.  I have visited (briefly) both Israel and Lebanon, but never served in either.  Everything you will read here is my own opinion, formed over decades of listening to and reading dismal news from there and looking at it all with a critical eye.  Similarly, all conclusions are my own.  Whew!  In other words, this is all coming from me and only me.

An anecdote: In 1984, when I was being screened for State Department employment, two interviewers told me the ground rules of the interview: that one would pose a question and I would have up to seven and a half minutes to respond, whereupon the other would be free to cross-examine me.  I said I understood, and they gave me a glass of water.  Then the first one asked what I thought US policy should be in the Middle East.  I came back a few seconds later with what I thought was a good icebreaker of an answer:  “If I give a good enough answer to this one, are you going to recommend that I be nominated as Secretary of State?”  One smiled.  One didn’t.  You just can’t please them all when it comes to that part of the world.

So how does one summarize centuries of strife and circumstances that constantly threaten to draw the US (or for that matter, Britain, France, the EU, Russia and others) into regional conflicts, cold or hot, and thus, make them larger than regional?  Many believe that the region became troubled only with the appearance of modern Israel.  That’s an oversimplified view, since it seems to define one event as the genesis of everything troublesome that has happened since then.  So it would follow that if somehow Israel were to disappear, all would be well; thus the appeal to some.  Of course, several million Israelis have no intention to disappear.  Neither do several million  displaced Arabs.  The US tends to see all the Middle East through an Arab-Israeli lens, so I’ll stick mostly to that, for the sake of brevity.

It is true that Israel was an imposed “solution” to a primarily European problem: the surviving remnant of European Jews had just been through the Holocaust, and they wanted a homeland of their own.  This was nothing new.  There was already a Zionist movement that advocated a gathering of small Jewish populations into a homeland in the region known as Palestine, recently part of the Ottoman Empire.  That empire had supported the losing side in World War I, which resulted in its dismemberment.  Modern Turkey, the Ottoman core, was established in the early 1920’s.  Other, less central parts of the empire became the list of countries of today’s Middle East, with borders drawn largely by European powers.  Palestine, however, remained a British “protectorate” under a League of Nations mandate until its division (in 1948) into Israel and Arab territories.

At the time of that division, there was some discussion at high levels of the US government as to whether the new state should even be recognized; those in favor cited the establishment of a homeland for a population that had been decimated in the recent war.  Those opposed warned that recognition would harm relations with the Arab nations in the area.  Both positions had some merit, at least from a “realpolitik” standpoint; President Truman came down on the “recognition” side.

The next 25 years or so saw a continuation of the slow-motion struggle among three principal actors: exterior powers (the US, Russia, Britain, France, and sometimes the United Nations) the Israelis, and the Arab populations both inside Israel and throughout the Middle East.  Oddly enough, the impetus for continuing struggle on all sides seems to be based on assumptions regarding the eventual outcome.  These assumptions (which I will detail below) are nebulous and unproven, but fervently believed and acted upon by all parties.

A large part of the Jewish population of Israel appears to believe that the longer the situation remains status quo on the ground, it becomes more resistant to any large-scale change.  There are also currents of religious justification (“God gave us this land…”) probably the most unshakeable conviction, since it can never be proven or disproven.

Arabs who live in Israel are persuaded that their population will eventually overwhelm the Jewish one, and the power of numbers will overturn the “Jewish state” now situated on what they refer to as “Occupied Palestine.”

Arabs throughout the Middle East piously offer support to displaced Palestinians, including arms.  Conspicuously missing: offers to admit any of these people to official residency and eventual citizenship.

Some exterior actors (the US included) seem to work on a two-assumption track: 1) That if only everyone in the region gets past their own assumptions about what is “right” and learns to see what is possible and feasible, this can all be overcome, and 2) All that is really necessary for assumption 1) to happen is for a key Arab actor to get behind it.  “Key Arab actor” in this case might mean Saudi Arabia, or conceivably Egypt.  US efforts, then, always seem aimed at moderation in Arab action and reaction to transient stimuli, and at Israeli patience and moderation to what Israelis see as provocations by the Palestinian population both within and just outside Israel.

The Soviet Union in the old days, and Russia today, aim mainly at preserving influence (and a Mediterranean military presence) in the area.  Today’s Russian machinations in the region must be financed by a much smaller oil export income than was the case even three years ago; Putin made a noisy but not very effective intervention in Syria to prop up Assad’s government, but it has largely ended with Assad still in the presidency, but only as long as the Syrian military feels secure in the flow of Russian support (material, advisory, and intelligence) for the core of privileged military officers and their civilian facilitators.  Should Russia find it expedient to cut Assad loose and support someone else, it will happen, with what many would find surprising speed and ease.

So the game goes on year after year, with US effort and money going to try to create a climate of moderation and goodwill, while current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu nods his head, all the while authorizing more settlements in Palestinian areas, the better to consolidate eventual Israeli control in case he is ever forced to any real negotiations.  Palestinian leaders don’t even nod any more as their part of a “two-state solution” grows ever smaller.  Hezbollah controls the southern half of Lebanon with the tacit support of the local populace, since they have seen Hezbollah stand up to Israeli might–more than they have seen other Arab forces do.

Meanwhile, two trends among Palestinians work against any permanent settlement: the belief that History is on their side, and they eventually will conclusively win the conflict, and an increasing radicalization of Palestinian thought–an acceptance of the perceived need for more or less permanent struggle against what they see as illegal occupation of their land.

So where are we–meaning the US–in today’s Middle East?  We are not often seen as an honest broker by anyone, since there are fluctuations in US policy with each presidential administration, and 4 or 8 years is a blink of the eye to those whose views are shaped by ancient ideologies and religions that celebrate heroes such as Suleiman or David.  And the idea that we have “leverage” in the area is overplayed.  We export billions in military equipment to Israel yearly and also to its natural foes (though the exports to one always outweigh the other).  This buys us little favor or influence with any of the parties.

We receive mainly hostile reaction from the Arab actors on the one side, and this has grown stronger with the addition of so many stories of death and destruction in Iraq since the ill-conceived war there began in 2003, with a US-led invasion.  The infamous photos from Abu Ghraib, the looting of museums, etc., would have gotten plenty of ill will, but the subsequent revelations that there was no real plan for a postwar recovery in Iraq, and that the architects of said war, notably Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc., appeared to have no idea of the nature of Iraqi internal conflicts made it worse on an exponential scale.

Iraq has become more satellite-like in its relations with Iran, for years the bête noire of the region in US policy.  Can anyone detect any clear, intelligent policy aims in any of this?

Are there bright spots on a map littered with fiascos such as Libya, where there is no longer any functioning government?  It seems Tunisia may have continued incremental progress since the Arab Spring; Egypt, on the other hand, seems more a nest of vipers than ever before, uncertain of whether to go mostly fundamentalist Islamic or full-throated 7th century.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room of this group of (primarily) Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia, has succeeded in spending the last century avoiding any sort of sociological or political reform.  It remains a sort of family theocracy, where women have almost no political or educational  rights; the House of Saud (which now numbers in the hundreds) shares little power with the people; there is little governmental accountability; and most work other than the traditional professions is done by foreigners–who have even fewer rights than the citizens and can be deported if they do anything to upset this “order.”

Saudi Arabia has exported militants all over the region and beyond to espouse the Wahhabi version of Islam, an extremely strict and equally intolerant strain which has animated many enthusiastic acts of terror and destruction.  It is financed by the income gained by the kingdom from the sale of oil, of which, of course, Saudi Arabia has huge reserves.  This sets up a dynamic whereby the oil is bought by Western nations to feed their industries and cars, and the money can be put to any use the King (and the powerful clergy) decides is fit.  The influence of Wahhabism has grown more powerful and more intolerant over the last three decades as oil income has peaked.

Where does the US come in?  As one of the foremost enablers of the hellish Saudi regime, not only for the US money that flows for the Saudi oil empire, but also for the fact that US troops were used with the active encouragement of that regime during the two Gulf Wars–largely to protect Saudi Arabia from the threat of Iraqi attack a la Kuwait,1991.  Successive US administrations have turned a blind eye to indefensible Saudi practices, up to and including beheading people for adultery, all so the oil would keep flowing, and American companies would continue to profit.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu openly attempts to meddle in internal US politics, as in the recent kerfuffle which saw him wrangle an invitation to speak before Congress on direct invitation behind the back of the President, the Constitutional head of foreign policy.  Both political parties try to look like the bigger “friend of Israel” during all this, but the Republicans, in their current frenzy of Obama derangement, were only too glad to encourage and abet this propaganda stunt.

Israel is not a US ally.   There is no treaty of mutual defense.  Their efforts to spy on Western nations play on the loyalty of Jewish citizens of those nations, but are not limited to that method, and do not exclude the United States.  The case of Jonathan Pollard is illustrative, but there have been many others.

Why then is US policy so favorably inclined toward Israel?  Simply put, Israel knows how to play the game.  They have really good lobbyists and PR people.  Even that, though, does not account for all of the favoritism.  Once again, religion plays a role.  Though the US has no established religion, various Protestant denominations and splinter groups believe and teach that Israel is special to God Almighty, and therefore must be protected and shielded from harm.  Laugh, if you like, but as long as some Congressman in some backwoods district can appeal to his constituents that he is doing the Lord’s work by helping protect His chosen people (never mind that it may be in preparation for the Apocalypse) he’ll do it.

I wish our Congress would find some other way to encourage the development of peace and understanding in the Middle East that didn’t involve sending troops or money.  It couldn’t do much less good than we’ve already accomplished.

President Obama’s somewhat standoffish attitude toward Netanyahu and the lukewarm reception he got in a recent visit to Saudi Arabia tell me something–that these two countries, so accustomed to silent US assent to almost anything they decide to do, may see that era grinding to an end.  If that is the case, I look forward to a new era with a more even-handed US policy.


Obama: a very consequential president, like him or not

We have entered the twilight of the Obama era in US politics, and, it seems to me, it may be time to take stock of two lists: the events of his time in office, along with his performance relative  to those events, and the list of those who are panting to take his place.  Either would be enough material for a thoughtful book, but I’m not doing that, so this will be a quick, blog-sized look at the events and reactions theme; a look at the (shrinking) list of pretenders will be next.

November, 2008: Mitch McConnell announced about five minutes after he learned that he had been re-elected to his US Senate seat but Barack Obama had been elected President, his intention to do everything possible to make Obama a one-term president.  The Republican donor class, meaning big Pharma, military contractors, the Koch brothers, hedge fund managers, etc., had been afraid of Obama’s potential to damage their high-flying ways, and now this upstart, mixed-race young character had actually been elected!  (I don’t say big Oil and Big Banks because they happily buy politicians from both parties.)  One can only imagine the meetings, the conferences, and the marching orders over the course of the campaign and in its aftermath.  This undying hostility by McConnell’s party has marked the entire Obama tenure; as soon as he says he has an idea or tries to act on anything, they react as if the fall of the Republic is imminent, so major changes or innovations have been all but impossible.  Some incremental changes, though, have been important.

Domestic  Innovations

Let’s not beat around the bush: the signature enactment of the past several years is the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  It aimed to stop or at least slow the increase in health care spending by Americans in general, as well as their financial vulnerability to catastrophic illness.  Is this the be-all and end-all of health care insurance regulation?  Hardly.  Is it a success?  I really don’t know, and neither do most people, frankly.  Economists point to a decrease in cost inflation, and that’s good.  The federal government points at increased numbers of insured persons, and that’s good.  A true (and impartial) evaluation is not practical until years of statistics are available.

The disastrous scenarios put forth by such as John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, who referred to the ACA as the “job-killing Obama health plan” at every conceivable turn, have not come to pass, at least not yet.  Those who used to insist that the United States had the “world’s best health care system” always failed to add the kicker “…if you can afford it.”  Many could not, and some still can’t.  But needed health care, and the attendant means to pay for it, are more widely available now than ever before.  Based on a Republican plan first implemented in Massachusetts (under Mitt Romney–you remember him, right?), many, myself included, think it doesn’t go far enough.  But it’s worth some credit!

In a baton pass from the Bush administration, Obama opted in favor of a costly “bailout” both for the US automotive industry and Wall Street and the big banks.  The current health of GM and Chrysler speaks volumes.  The automotive sector is a huge part of the US economy.  Former Bushie David Frum once pronounced GM  “a company that needs to go out of business.” The truth is that mismanagement had contributed to its ills, and under bankruptcy and with federal help, it did emerge better than it was, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were salvaged.  And the government resold the portion of the companies that it had held; taxpayers came out of the auto deal with a net investment of zero.

The bank bailout was less successful.  Today, as at the time, bankers themselves are held by many to be responsible for the near-crash of 2008-09, and bailing them out is still not popular.  Nor did it save a lot of jobs–only the fortunes of a lot of Wall Streeters.  Economic policy: still some credit due, but lessened by the stain of cronyism with banking and finance interests.

Civil Rights for gays, lesbians, and others: this one isn’t even debatable.  This issue is so improved compared to previous administrations that we have to acknowledge Obama’s contribution, even as we admit he did not “lead the parade.”  But he didn’t block it either.  Thumbs up here.  And the public is gradually coming to the realization that civil marriage is the province of Caesar–whatever churches choose to teach is separate.  (great idea: separation of church and state…)

Economic and energy policy: Yes and yes.  Curbing carbon emissions should be a priority and it has been.  (To all climate change deniers: it’s a fact.  The only debate is how much humans are responsible for.  If it’s possible to mitigate the effects of this change, regardless of whether you are convinced of human agency, and human agency can contribute, why not?)  Fossil fuel use must decline, and it is declining.  Partly as a result, we are no longer as dependent on foreign oil, and not as beholden to far-off sheiks, either.  I don’t see a downside here.

And permitting the expiration of Bush-era “temporary” tax breaks for the top of the economic heap was a way of returning to sustainable tax and budget policies and closing part of a massive shortfall–i.e., deficits, which Republicans claim to hate.

Foreign policy

A mixed bag here, though primarily positive.  Large plus: re-establishing full diplomatic ties with Cuba.  If you don’t know much about diplomacy, a good deal of what diplomatic missions do is to watch, listen, and report on what is going on in Lower Slobovia.  Would the US be well-served by having diplomatic ties with North Korea?   While the Kim dynasty would be no less an irritant, we would be much more informed.  And the commercial advantages are well worth the expense.  Cuba will become, if not a democracy in the next decade, at least a more reasonable actor as a result.  (Remember all the time “Red” China just didn’t exist?)  And anyway, a few thousand Cuban exiles in Florida don’t wag this dog forever.

Iran is a harder case.  It is more intransigent. and it has a more viable economy and an educated populace that make it a more significant irritant than Cuba.  While nobody can guarantee the Iranians won’t cheat on the agreement to stop enriching uranium to bomb-grade levels, the fact that Britain, France, the EU, Germany, and Russia are poised to open the door a crack to trust (and verify) their compliance means the Iranians would not really need US approval to come back onto the world stage.  Failing to participate in  this reappearance would mean losing influence on the outcome, whatever it may be.  And sanctions, sanctions (yes, Senator Tom Cotton, we know you didn’t like the deal…) can easily be slapped on at any time they might be required.

Less happy consequences?  Yes, there are some.  Libya and Syria, to name the two most prominent.  Also Iraq and Afghanistan, perennially.  On the other hand, I doubt any of the current critics could have done much better in the years in question.  Contrary to the thinking of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the world cannot be bombed into submission and made to offer sweets to the conquering Americans.  Obama’s quiet handling of his foreign policy problems and the calm hand of Secretary of State John Kerry at the tiller (e. g., Cuba and Iran) hint at positive trends in the near future, but no one can be sure.  ISIS is being dealt with on a long-term basis by starving it of its assets.

The 21st century in American Middle East policy will have to include less wink and nod toward Israel, a concession to Russia that only that country has any real leverage over Syria, and a firm “suggestion” that Saudi Arabia pull its weight in regional affairs.  We can not shake our fists halfway around the world and say that’s leadership.  We must set an example, and I think Obama has done that–but unlike in the movies, it can’t have a happy ending in two hours.  Patience is a virtue.  It is not a weakness.

ADDENDUM: January 17, 2016

After I published this post but within a few hours of it, multiple sources reported that several (dual citizen) Iranian-Americans were being released from Iranian custody.  Most or all had been held on charges of “espionage.”  On the face of things, this might seem not to be important to the contents of this post, but…

In the world of foreign relations, anything can and may be linked to anything else.  It is almost humorous to observe the volume of criticism from the domestic right wing (including virtually the entire field of Republican presidential hopefuls) as to how the Obama administration should NEVER have negotiated any agreement with the Iranian government as long as these Americans were in Iranian prisons.  Ralph Reed, that perennial Cheshire cat of the sanctimonious Christian evangelical know-nothing right, God-is-on-our-side. wing of American politics, spent several minutes of air time as a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time enthusiastically flogging this point of view on Friday, January 15.  I get some satisfaction out of picturing Reed’s toothy face growing less so on Saturday morning as he read that a prisoner exchange had been agreed upon and was taking place.

Ralph and everyone else of his ilk should remember that, just as the general public (of which he is a member, despite his seeming belief that he is really “in the know”) found out about the death of Osama bin Laden after the fact. There is more going on behind the scenes than most people know.  “Obama is doing nothing,” they yell incessantly, when they should be saying “I don’t know what if anything Obama is doing,” just to be more factual.  Of course, when you are trying to create the impression of being all-knowing and privy to the observations of the Almighty, confessions of ignorance, or, at best , partial knowledge, do not serve your cause.


In the last post, I talked about some of the things that have had a profound effect both on our society and on me personally during the first 30-odd years of my life.  With that as background, any reader should keep in mind that when I speak of the effects on me, what you read is the unvarnished truth.  What you read about society in general is subject to one’s point of view, to a degree, so you’re  reading my opinion, willingly labeled as such.  You may disagree.

The 80’s

By the advent of the 1980’s I was a full-fledged adult, with all the attendant ambitions, obstacles, and cares that afflict all of us.  The decade’s civic scene began to unfurl with the 1980 elections, pitting President Carter against the former governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan.  Carter had not had a “good” term as president.  The shadow of the Iranian hostage crisis, 444 days of American diplomats being paraded in front of TV cameras as props to Iranian “revolutionary” talk.  Carter at one point ordered a military rescue attempt, which failed.  Reagan railed all through the months of campaigning about how this should never have happened and wouldn’t, under Reagan’s leadership.

In the end, Reagan, with some help from Carter himself, succeeded in persuading many voters that Carter was simply not up to the job of running the country.  Stumbles over the Iran situation and the failed rescue attempt stacked the deck in Reagan’s favor.  Reagan also struck many as a very affable, though tough-minded, sort–one who would not let the United States be pushed around on the world stage.  He was seen as a strong backer of the US military forces arrayed around the world.  This appeal was aided by the impression that the US economy, which by the 80’s had begun losing jobs to cheap foreign labor markets, would thrive under his stewardship.  Millions of blue-collar voters who had formerly been staunchly Democratic flocked to this “feel-good” message.  Perhaps emblematic of Reagan’s overall philosophy was his enthusiastic peddling of something called the “Laffer Curve,” an economic theory that speculated that government revenues would rise if taxes were lowered.  Seemingly self-contradictory on its face, nonetheless, it received serious discussion.  David Stockman, the (then) young economic Svengali of Reagan troops, endorsed it, though he later was caught calling it “voodoo economics.”

The Reagan years were a mix of intervention abroad, a diminished economy at home, and an immune-to-blame president who smiled through it all.  Notable missteps during Reagan’s years included putting ashore several hundred Marines in Beirut, Lebanon,  at the time the scene of hot conflict among Israel, the stateless Palestinians, and shifting allies of both; almost 300 US servicemen died in a terrorist truck bombing of their quarters.  Also, his administration cooked up a complex three-cornered deal under which Iran (the same country which had seized US diplomats as hostages and was proclaiming everlasting hostility to US policy) would receive US weaponry in exchange for funds that would be funneled to the contras from Nicaragua (a group of Nicaraguans supposedly dedicated to the overthrow of the “socialist” Sandinista government of that country; their leadership lived principally in Miami, from where they gave rousing speeches to their adherents and collected aid from the US).  At the center of this quagmire was the bumbling Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who gained belated and unwelcome fame some time after the fact when it became known that he had traveled secretly to Iran as Reagan’s personal representative, bearing a cake shaped like a key.

The country passed through the Reagan years and his vice-president, George Bush, became the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1988.  Bush won in the reflected glow of Reagan, who was somehow now in the early stages of canonization by Republicans, and by Bush’s aggressive smears of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who, as governor of Massachusetts, had permitted the early release of a criminal named Willie Horton, who then killed someone.  Thus Dukakis was never able to escape the label of “soft on crime,” and as in the Nixon campaign of 1968, it became a drag on the entire national Democratic slate.

Good things of the 80’s: little that I can remember.  The Soviet Union imploded, largely because its economy was too small for the arms race it was in with the US.  Republicans to this day and probably into the distant future claim that Ronald Reagan was solely responsible, but that seems to me to be a lot like saying a rooster is responsible for the sunrise.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is not always good logic.  Successive administrations since Truman’s had authorized and spent the huge amounts of money for the arms race that eventually bankrupted the USSR.

Bad things: an aggressive, poorly thought-out and poorly executed foreign policy on the part of the USA.  The rise of an economic school of thought that held that there were no proper constraints on acquisition of wealth, and that those left behind in this quest on the part of some were left behind strictly because they lacked ambition or the intention to work hard.  Oh, and taxation of profit was inherently evil.

Personal: I left teaching to enter the US State Department’s Foreign Service, to the consternation of many family members.  I can still recall my beloved grandmother asking me sternly, “Why in hell would anyone want to go and live in those damned foreign countries?”  I didn’t try to change her mind.  I took my own skill set (passable knowledge of two foreign languages; a lot of curiosity) off to Washington and became an FSO (Foreign Service Officer).

The 90’s

I was outside the country for the entire decade except for short visits to the US for vacation or training, so I will concede that I am not the best person to evaluate what was happening in the United States, but it seems evident that the 90’s were the decade of Clinton, for good or ill, love him or hate him.  He defeated President George H. W. Bush in 1992, and a substantial part of the US public lost its connection to reality.  Polarization not only continued but deepened as talk radio saw the advent of Rush Limbaugh and several like-minded talkers who labored incessantly to convince John Q. Public that Clinton was evil incarnate and guilty of basically anything they could think of.  The Republicans went so far as to impeach President Clinton on flimsy, unserious charges.  The impeachment effort failed, having wasted countless legislative hours and millions of dollars.

I did, however, see firsthand  how other countries see us.  It  is practically an article of faith in the Dominican Republic that in one of the several interventions there by US Marines in the early 20th century, the Marines found large deposits of oil, and capped them to wait for a US takeover when necessary.  The Democrats’ loss of their Congressional majorities in 1994 was reported in Zaire (now Congo again) as the result of Clinton’s Zaire policy.  I personally think that roughly 75% of the American public would be hard-pressed to find Zaire/Congo on a map.  There are more, but…some other time.

Bad things from the 90’s: the appearance of Fox “news,” which loves to proclaim “We report, you decide.”  Translation “We editorialize, you repeat.”

Good things: Not all that much, but Wall Street largely slipped its leash and started playing games with the nation’s money.  The boom was good while it lasted.

Good things and bad things: widespread use of computers and cellphones.  Too much exposition for  a brief blog post.

Personal: I advanced in my career and my kids grew up.  Pretty boring stuff for the reader.

The 21st century

You know, I can’t go on with this; it’s too much for a blog, I’m tired, and I’m sure the reader is bored. We’ve seen two presidential administrations this century, one glaringly incompetent, the other unable to gain any support from the opposition party for any action, because, you know, the President is a Muslim or a foreigner or a socialist.  Or something.  You could look it up.  On Breitbart.  Or somewhere.  Or tune in to Fox News.  Yeah, that’s it, Fox News.

Bad things: too many to list, but Dick Cheney is enough for a lifetime of nightmares.  The internet, where suddenly millions of people with nothing intelligent to say spend all day saying it.

Personal: I’m now retired and I have time to write a blog!  I promise I’m not one of those with nothing intelligent to say.