Tag Archives: Obama

Damascus is Burning


Click here for more pictures of the Syrian Civil War. Warning: Graphic.

About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.

She responded, “Why?”

I answered, “It’s an election year.”

She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”

While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son,  threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.

This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:

“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a  case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

 The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.

The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.

A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.

Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.

So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.

In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.

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Why I Will Vote for Obama – A Capitalist Viewpoint

Conducting research is an interesting journey. It can even be an emotional rollercoaster at times. It is fun (at least for me) to see the hypotheses or worldviews I possess in regards to politics, society, etc. is supported by factual evidence. Although, sometimes doing research can completely discredit your beliefs as well. In the case of my last blog post, the journey of doing research uncovered an incorrectly held belief/opinion (once again).

What you saw in the last blog post still remains correct. Both Obama and Romney refuse to address or lower the exorbitant defense budget and they both do not address the giant subsidies the United States pays to special interests, which burns a hole in our national debt. However, my intention when I first wrote the blog was to add a third piece as well. I was going to write that both candidates have not put legislation (or proposed/supported legislation in the case of Romney) into place that addresses the economic fubar that got the entire country into the economic disaster we are currently in. Had I included that into the blog without doing the proper research, I would have been wrong.

The reality is that President Obama did address the horrific wall street practices that brought the United States economy to a near standstill (wiki of Dodd-Frank). In fact, he addressed it emphatically. And, if you’re a capitalist…excuse me…a smart capitalist, you will know how important the passing of this bill was and how important it was in stopping the bleeding of the American economy. If you don’t know, let me break it down:

  1. When Bill Clinton acquired the presidency, he wanted to prove that he was a pro-business Democrat. So his administration began unraveling various government regulation that oversees wall street in the name making it easier for business to do…well…business.
  2. The detrimental piece of legislation that allowed wall street to run wild was the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which allowed all derivatives to be unregulated and expressly forbade the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) from regulating it.
    1. What are derivatives? — Wiki here, but the way Lawrence Lessig explains it is easier to understand:
      “Derivatives are assets whose value is derived from something else, where ‘something’ could mean literally anything. I could have a derivative that pays me if the price of gold falls below $1,000 … A derivative is just a bet entered into by two or more parties. The terms of the bet are limited only by the imagination of the parties … Derivatives serve a valuable purpose. As with any contract, [the] aim is to shift risk within a market to someone better able to carry it.
  3. When derivatives became unregulated, there was no oversight to see if whether parties (bankers, investors, hedge funds, etc.) contracted/bound themselves to derivatives so risky that it became detrimental to the overall macroeconomic structure. This is precisely what happened with the mortgage bubble and collapse of 2008 (click the link!!), which subsequently caused financial firms to go under (Lehman Brothers) and caused General Motors to beg the government to bail them out because Wall St. would no longer let them borrow money for their bad business model.
  4. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve during the time financial deregulation was taking place, was flabbergasted that his life-long championing of deregulation and laissez-faire economics would cause such a detrimental financial collapse. In the end, he had to admit he was wrong at a congressional hearing and concede that regulation is a vital piece to an economy.
  5. Sources: Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost (unless I hyperlinked otherwise)

As a result of all this, President Obama championed an overhaul of the deregulated financial sector of the United States and pushed Congress to pass a financial reform bill, which it did with Dodd-Frank. The most important piece to that bill is the Volcker Rule, which keeps banks (or an institution that owns a bank) from amassing too much risk and participating in hedges or derivatives that could be deemed too risky without having adequate insurance or capital to support those risks. It also prevents banks from engaging in investments that are not deemed to be in the interest of its clients (conflict of interest).

Therefore, if you like capitalism…excuse me, intelligent capitalism…you will like the spirit and direction in which President Obama has taken the American economy. This is not to say that Dodd-Frank is adequate. In fact, it’s still far from it, but it does tighten the glaring loophole and puts the economy in the right direction. Candidate Romney on the other hand has threatened to “repeal and replace” Dodd-Frank, which has garnered the attention of financial institutions on Wall Street to pour millions of dollars of into Romney’s campaign. Even the conservative newspaper, The Economist (read: no friend to the Democrats and strongly dislikes Dodd-Frank), find Romney’s economic policies unpallatable. While, I do not agree with certain aspects of the article (which I could delve into in another blog), they seem to come to a similar conclusion as I do to vote for President Obama for a second term:

“As a result, this election offers American voters an unedifying choice. Many of The Economist’s readers, especially those who run businesses in America, may well conclude that nothing could be worse than another four years of Mr Obama. We beg to differ. For all his businesslike intentions, Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says. That is not a convincing pitch for a chief executive. And for all his shortcomings, Mr Obama has dragged America’s economy back from the brink of disaster, and has made a decent fist of foreign policy. So this newspaper would stick with the devil it knows, and re-elect him.”

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Of Deficits and Hurricanes

There’s nothing like a natural disaster to remind us of our (in)famous institutions that snap into action in providing disaster relief–especially in an election year. The blogosphere and web-pundits stormed in (pun intended) on each candidate’s record and positions on disaster relief and found the Romney/Ryan ticket having proposed 80% cuts in disaster relief funding. As online pundits argue over the pros and cons of such cuts, it touches upon one of the centerpieces of the election debate: Excessive spending and what to do about it.

The United States is in a deep hole, $1.1 trillion federal deficit and $16 trillion dollar national debt to be exact, and both president and nominee have different approaches as to how they will close that gap–supposedly (I will get to that later). During the debates President Obama talked about raising taxes for high income households and allowing certain business and household tax cuts to expire in order to close the gap. Mitt Romney’s plan is to cut taxes even further, adding $456 billion hole to the already enormous debt, but has claimed he will make up the lost revenue with “economic growth” and spending cuts. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t quite add up for Romney’s plan. As Bill Gale, from the independent Tax Policy Center, critiques Romney’s debt solution:

“Even if all the available tax expenditures were closed in the most progressive manner possible, it would not raise enough revenue among high-income households to offset the tax cuts they would receive. This was true even when we adjusted the revenue estimates to allow for the impact of potential economic growth, and even when we gave the campaign a trillion-dollar mulligan by ignoring the cost of the corporate tax cuts.

As a result, we concluded that if Romney did not impose new taxes on savings and investments, the only way to finance his tax cut proposals and reach revenue neutrality was to raise taxes on households with income below $200,000.”

This difference excites left-leaning pundits. Some so much so they’re calling it a “New”, New Deal. However, it may be a bit premature, if not totally off-base, to give Obama’s plan such a title. The fact remains, both are unwilling to cut the enormous defense budget and discussion of the bad American subsidy burden policy is non-existent (if you are to click on any one of my links, this is the one you should click on for sure). These two (especially the latter) causes a considerable amount of fiscal waste and only large corporations benefit from the industries these policies support. In fact, according to Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost, “10% of the recipients of farm subsidies collect 73% of the subsidies.” As a result, small-scale farmers can’t compete with large agriculture corporations because their bottom-line is leveraged far more than a competing small-scale farm. And yet, nobody talks about this.

I am not arguing that subsidies are all bad. Subsidies are an important tool for governments to support a nascent industrial sector so that it can grow and compete in the global market. For example, subsidies for green energy are an important piece of legislation that can help jumpstart a viable green industry sector. The problem becomes when to take the training wheels off. Subsidies artificially lower prices (as already noted in a previous link) and inhibits the free market to push-pull industrial sectors into other areas when they become less viable in one location and more viable in another. As a result, this creates a bubble and wastes an enormous amount of tax payer dollars, which increases the debt/deficit. It’s simply common sense that the oil/fossil fuel industry doesn’t really need subsidies to support their business because it’s already a proven commodity. Yet, we still pump $1 trillion in subsidies globally to get cheap gas and eliminate green energy competition.

At this point, it might seem clear that subsidies have to go, but here lies the conflict. Unfortunately, neither president nor nominee can simply slash subsidies completely tomorrow. There are many businesses, small to large, that are tied up in government subsidies and not allowing them time to transition their business models to seek revenue away from subsidies would cause a whole lot of people to lose their jobs and prices on food and fuel to skyrocket. In essence, it would be like implementing Iranian policies on the United States–not very smart.

The solution would be a long-term plan that must be designed to withstand successive presidents. It would have to be strategic in addressing concerns of rising costs that could be associated with subsidy cuts, which is usually addressed by lowering tariffs for cheaper imports. The money saved by subsidies can be reinvested in burgeoning sectors such as green technologies, high-tech services, and education to create a workforce that can support the demand for such positions.

Such a policy creates jobs, creates the workforce to perform those jobs, and saves the government a lot of money on waste. Cutting subsidy expenditures also allows proposals for tax cuts to actually be feasible by offseting the lost revenue caused by said tax cuts.

Unfortunately, that’s perhaps political suicide for both candidates as their campaigns rely on the contributions of those who benefit from subsidies. In other words, our tax dollars go to companies that pay candidates money to never address this problem. This hits on another issue of campaign finance reform, but that might be addressed in a different blog or you can read Lessig’s book (highly recommended).

In the meantime, we’re left with two politicians that blow harder than Sandy ever could.

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