Opinion

The Great Debate

from Ian Bremmer:

Who loses most in Ukraine?

 

As we march toward Sunday’s Crimean referendum, the result is predetermined. Crimea will vote Russia, and tensions will only escalate. At this juncture, it’s important to take a step back and ask who “lost” here. What could the United States have done differently? What about Russia? Was the outbreak of violence and explosive geopolitical confrontation inevitable? Where does it go from here?

If the United States’ primary goal has been to keep violence in Ukraine and tensions between outside powers to a minimum, it has made a series of significant missteps. The United States failed to offer real economic support to the Ukrainian government before events reached a crescendo. Former President Viktor Yanukovich didn't want to just work with the Russians; he was looking to strike a balance between Russia and the EU while skirting economic collapse. Europe pushed too hard, and the IMF wasn't going to step in in time. The lack of support from the West helped push Yanukovich far enough towards Russia that protests in Kiev reached a point of no return.

On February 21st, key Ukrainian opposition figures and President Yanukovich signed a deal along with a group of European foreign ministers, only for it to soon break down and Yanukovich to flee. The United States eagerly jumped ship with the new pro-West Kiev government. This was a mistake. Washington could have expressed its reservations and urged that the signed deal at least be respected as a factor in determining political processes moving forward. Showing public support for that position would have been an important acknowledgment to Russia that the United States respects Russia’s interests. In Syria six months ago, the United States was perfectly happy to pretend (as were the Russians) that the chemical weapons deal was a breakthrough that would address the underlying conflict, even though it was just a smokescreen for relieving Obama of his obligation to intervene militarily. The Americans could have offered the Russians a similar face-saving gesture here, but they chose not to.

The United States could also have strongly urged Ukraine’s new government to respect legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine, including the adequate inclusion and representation of ethnic Russians in government, and respect for the sanctity of Russia’s lease on its Crimean military base. Instead, the United States offered eager, blanket support for the new West-leaning government.

When it was clear that the Russians were about to go into Crimea, the Obama administration issued a host of largely empty threats, warning that there would be “costs for any military intervention in Ukraine” and that there was a “huge price to pay” if Russia pushed into Crimea. Of course, the United States has the military capacity to contest Russia’s move into Crimea, but Washington was never going to retaliate on such a level -- the only response that could realistically stop Russian incursion. These kinds of unenforceable threats only serve to undermine U.S. credibility abroad. And like a red flag to a bull, these comments goaded Putin on; there was no credible “or else” from Washington that could come close to matching Putin’s resolve in Ukraine. Beyond his country’s borders, Putin’s single biggest priority is retaining influence in Ukraine.

Can Congress control the CIA?

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

Malaysia: Crisis management on a need-to-know basis

At a press conference on March 12, General Rodzali Daud, chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, faced a confused and angry audience. What exactly happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished last Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing? Fury mounted in this case, not because the general did not know enough — but because he may have known much more than he or his colleagues were willing to share.

In contrast to the initial reports of the aircraft’s sudden disappearance, Wednesday’s coverage suggests several “last sightings” with a possibility that the plane turned back to Malaysia. The previously undisclosed military radar data, it turns out, captured an unidentified airplane 200 miles into the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. A Malaysian air force staffer claims that the plane showed up on the military’s radar for over an hour following the communication failure. Yet on Thursday, Malaysia’s senior officials still denied these claims. Not surprisingly, they have come under fire for misreporting, obstructing the multinational search mission, and prolonging the agony for family and friends of the 239 passengers and crew.

The Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis raises legitimate questions about how a historically closed society communicates with the public after a disaster. Malaysia is ranked 145 out of 179 countries in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index — better off than its vocal critic China (173) but uncomfortably close to Russia (148).

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

‘Rentiers’ are at root of 1 percent

The American public is catching on that almost all the benefits from the still-fragile U.S. recovery have gone to the top 1 percent of earners. One sign is that “inequality” has suddenly become a fighting word. Legendary venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently denounced the “demonization” of the rich — and was quickly forced to apologize for comparing it to Kristallnacht.

Perkins is too sensitive. He is one of the creators of the U.S. venture capital industry, and played a big role in nurturing the hardware and software revolutions that made the United States so dominant in high technology. Americans admire people like Perkins, who earned their wealth — whether they are financiers like Warren Buffett or George Soros, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or superstars like Michael Jordan.

But Americans abhor “rentiers” — unproductive citizens who make good incomes by collecting tolls on other people’s production. In the early days of economics, rentiers were the owners of stagnating estates who partied in London on the earnings of their peasants and tenant farmers.

Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

The Republican war cuts through CPAC

The 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference has ended but the harsh debate between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party goes on. Though nothing remains static indefinitely. Things do change.

The venerated conference, for example, begun years ago in a room at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, has more of a corporate, insider feel than in the Reagan days. During the 70s and 80s, this meeting possessed a revolutionary “up the establishment” flair.

Some in the Tea Party complained that this year’s conference favored establishment incumbents, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.), rather than offering a platform to their conservative challengers.

Why regulation — on yogurt and more — is blocking Greece’s recovery

The news that Greek-style yogurt maker Chobani is looking to sell a minority stake that would value the company at around $2.5 billion should in theory be a big boost for Greece’s beleaguered dairy industry.

But instead, the main beneficiary will be Chobani’s Turkish founder, who operates the company in upstate New York, and who has proved to be innovative in a way that Greek dairy farmers are not. In fact, they are so stuck in their traditional ways that it’s actually illegal in Greece to call low-fat yogurt “yogurt.” Any variant that contains additives of any sort must be labeled “dessert of yogurt,” which is akin to waving a warning flag at consumers.

That sort of rigid regulation is the norm in Greece, and not just in agriculture. Examples abound. There’s a rule dating back to the 1970s that prohibits producers of apple vinegar from packaging it in anything other than one liter bottles. Another set of regulations, this time from the 1980s, outlaws bulk sales of mayonnaise and the import of some types of cloves. Supermarkets are prohibited from selling aspirin. Fresh milk is required by law to have a shelf life of just five days. As for olive oil, one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet and an important source of revenue for the Greek economy, producers are strictly forbidden from blending it with vegetable oil for domestic consumption. The rationale: olive oil is at the core of the Greek diet, and the health of the population is at stake.

Plutocrat manipulates stock? Old news!

On Monday, the New York Times detailed William A. Ackman’s “extraordinary attempt to leverage the corridors of power” in order to to drive down Herbalife stock prices. Ackman, who runs the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has gone short on Herbalife.

He stands to make a great deal of money if the stock price declines — and he is not about to leave its decline to chance. So, the Times reports, Ackman has enlisted congressional representatives to solicit an investigation. He has organized news conferences and letter-writing campaigns. He is trying to make his attack on Herbalife’s stock seem a grassroots, civil rights issue.

The only thing extraordinary about all of this, however, is that the New York Times finds it extraordinary. These are some of the hoariest practices in American capitalism. Indeed, in 1886, Isaac Bromley, who was both a journalist and a lobbyist, accused the Times of being a tool of Wall Street bears in driving down Union Pacific stock. Bulls were using two other papers, the Indicator and the Graphic, to boost the stock.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

European leaders show their weakness

 

The European Union, at the forefront of the hostilities between Russia and the West, is in a bind.

It has belatedly adopted Ukraine as one of its own. Yet the EU economy is so frail,  thanks to its beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, that it is reluctant to use financial and trade sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea and threatening to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine.

Even if the EU appeases Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial expansionism and allows Crimea to be annexed, it is going to pay a heavy political and economic price. Had German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drives the European enlargement project, and the International Monetary Fund been more clear about wanting Ukraine to eventually join the European Union, and more generous in their dealings with the nascent democracy there, they would have saved the Ukrainian people a lot of suffering, the world a deal of agony -- and the EU a lot of money.

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