Opinion

The Great Debate

Putin’s already paying dearly for Ukraine – and looks willing to sacrifice much more

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a “go it alone” approach throughout the Ukraine crisis and regularly describes his country as “independent” and nonaligned. But Moscow is not as isolated as Putin makes out. The fact that he cannot see this reality — or chooses to ignore it — has produced a series of decisions that has seriously undermined Russia’s global role.

For the past two decades, Moscow has viewed its foray into global institutions as a major success. It has increasingly integrated into the global economy.  Those achievements, however, now present Putin with a major dilemma.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia signed multiple treaties and joined numerous international organizations, including the Council of Europe, the G7 (which became the G8) and the World Trade Organization.

G8 countries leaders attend a working session at the Lough Erne golf resort where the G8 summit is taking place in EnniskillenWhether Russia understood the underlying obligations that accompanied its memberships is unclear. The ink was not yet dry on Russia’s accession to the WTO, for example, when Putin demanded that member countries be allowed to introduce protectionist measures during times of global insecurity.

Yet the consensus in Russia was that membership bought Russia a vital seat at the table and increased its influence in world affairs. In addition, the United States and the European Union generally believed that it was better to have Russia inside — as opposed to outside — the international system of global governance even if Russia did not meet all the prerequisites for full membership.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The price of a life and George W. Bush post-White House

A spectator smokes a cigarette as she waits for the start of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai

1. How government accountants value life:

Last week, the New York Times reported: “Buried deep in the federal government’s voluminous new tobacco regulations is a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking -- fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart -- have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

I hope editors at the New Yorker or Sixty Minutes noticed.

Did you know that a federal agency -- the Office of Management and Budget, which did the cost-benefit analysis described by the Times -- actually employs people who calculate how many lives will be saved by government regulations; then calculates the dollar value of the lives saved, and then weighs that value against the “cost” of the regulation?  Apparently in this case, part of the cost to be calculated was the cost of the lost pleasure from quitting smoking.

According to this report to Congress, OMB must make a cost-benefit analysis for every rule where the projected cost of compliance is more than $100 million. The agency with the most rules falling into that category has been the Environmental Protection Agency, and OMB has consistently found that the value of the lives saved exceeds the cost of compliance.

Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza are falling apart and John Kerry’s not helping

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is pictured aboard a replica of Captain Cook's ship 'Endeavour' during his visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney

In what is almost certainly his last job in public service, Secretary of State John Kerry is bumbling his way around the world, ricocheting from crisis to crisis. The idea of the last chapter of his biography portraying him as a punch line can’t sit well. But is it Kerry’s fault, or is he simply being swept up in an American foreign policy in historic disarray?

America lashed out after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a decade later has substituted strategic incoherence for idiotic decisiveness. A common meme is that Kerry is at worst a bad actor stuck in an even worse movie, contributing little to lift it up but at the same time not baring any real responsibility for the flick’s failure.

There’s truth in that, but it misses Kerry’s genuine capacity for haplessness. Over decades, this kind of serial failure just did not happen to previous secretaries of state. Not Schultz, not Baker, not Powell, not Albright, not Clinton.

What should we eat to stay healthy? Why experts actually have no idea.

To match FOOD-GLUTENFREE/Have you ever wondered why nutrition experts so often change their minds about what constitutes a healthy diet? In the last six months, a variety of experts and nutrition organizations have issued at least as many major dietary guidelines proclaiming the next set of instructions on what to eat to prevent cancer, whether processed foods are really food, whether the type of fat you eat has any effect on developing heart disease, and how to control diabetes with diet. And the next set of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) dietary guidelines, due out next year, are already creating a buzz.

These new guidelines have, like most dietary guidelines in the past, done little to solidify our understanding of the cause and effect relationship between diet and disease. Even worse, they’re likely to discredit nutritional science. Moreover, guidelines like these tend to suggest, without proper research as proof, that people have control over whether or not they develop certain diseases, and it is therefore their fault if they become ill.

A large part of the issue comes down to funding, and a lack of resources to do the kinds of studies that would help answer some of our most pressing questions. Our insistence on making recommendations — without having the proper research to back them up — has unintended, harmful effects.

Liberia’s poverty, skepticism of experts makes treating Ebola harder

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun

The media is focused on the horrors of Ebola, a disease with no known cure that is jumping across borders in West Africa, leaving more than 900 dead in its wake. Fears of the disease’s spread even traveled to the United States, where two Ebola patients are being treated at Emory University hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

The virus first appeared in West Africa in March, but suddenly gained momentum in the past few weeks, making it the worst outbreak ever. The vast majority of cases and deaths have been in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, but Nigeria now confirms the presence of the disease.

The virus is spread through bodily fluids and has a relatively long incubation period of up to 21 days. At this point, roughly 40 percent to 90 percent who become infected eventually die.

Iraq airstrikes: You read the news, now get the context

Relatives mourn the death of a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter, killed during clashes with Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city of Rabia on the Iraqi-Syrian border, during his funeral in Ras al-Ain

Once you read the latest news about the U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian drops in Iraq, turn to commentary for the context you need to fully understand what is happening and how we got here. Here is a quick tour:

You can start with incisive background from Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at the Guardian. He provides additional framework for the Obama administration’s decision to use air power. It’s about far more than protecting U.S. advisers in Irbil, Ackerman says. He lays out why the White House felt compelled to protect the pro-U.S. Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Ackerman then looks at the possible military hardware involved. His reporting continues today with Dan Roberts here.

While you’re on the Guardian site, read the explainer about the Yazidis, the Iraqi religious minority sect besieged atop Mount Sinjar.

Nixon’s showbiz legacy

nixon in limo

The 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation comes just as politicians of both parties increasingly say the words “President Barack Obama” and “impeachment” in the same sentence. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has filed a lawsuit against the president, has also been quick to draw comparisons between the Nixon administration’s abuses of executive power and Obama’s use of executive orders.

Yet the critiques of Obama, which The Economist and CNN have dubbed “political theater,” recall another aspect of Nixon’s lasting legacy: the rise of an entertainment-driven politics that now defines the modern media landscape and the U.S. presidency.

nixon-&-elvis -- bestIt was Nixon who embraced “showbiz politics” in his efforts to salvage his political career, expand the electorate and rebuild the Republican Party. By capitalizing on a political tradition rooted in California politics and the Hollywood studio system, Nixon’s electoral successes convinced politicians across the ideological spectrum to deploy entertainment strategies from the Nixon media playbook.

Why energy exploration in North America has its own political risks

RTXZ5IT.jpg

Leading non-integrated oil and gas producer Apache Corporation found itself in the spotlight in recent weeks, as the latest company to grapple with the question of how big a commitment to make to North America’s shale gas and tight oil revolution. Jana Partners LLC, a leading investor in Apache, published a letter to investors July 21 urging the company to exit its international investments and focus on exploring US shale formations such as the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. Just last Friday, Apache announced plans reflecting this advice, as they intend to divest completely from two liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in Western Australia and Canada in an effort to reduce international assets.

Jana’s letter highlights a recent trend — driven by the technological innovations that have reversed decades-long declines in U.S. oil and gas production – in which traditionally globally-oriented oil and gas producers are “onshoring” back to their roots in North America.

Investors should be cautious of this trend, which trades one form of political risk for another. Instead of fears of sanctions, armed conflicts, or forced nationalization of the oil and gas industry, oil and gas producers may face opposition from local communities and others on environmental grounds. They’ll also have to contend with a growing risk of saturated domestic markets for light oil and natural gas, and the need to receive politically-sensitive regulatory approval in order to export overseas. While North America is safer for workers, and companies can launch public policy campaigns to address these challenges, investors should not underestimate the complexity of doing business in the region.

Why Nixon matters

mahurin 4watergate

Forty years ago, on August 8, Richard M. Nixon made unprecedented constitutional history when he resigned the presidency amid the disgrace and scandal of Watergate. He cannot escape that legacy — for he left an indelible record of his deeds in a treasure trove of tapes and papers that continue to fascinate us with revelations.

Alas! Watergate is Nixon’s spot that will not out. The break-in, the ensuing revelation of what Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, called the “White House Horrors,” the congressional and prosecutorial investigations that considered those travesties and Nixon’s eventual resignation laid bare unprecedented instances of presidential abuses of power and yes, criminality.

Watergate was a major constitutional crisis; the promiscuous use of the suffix “gate” only trivializes it. Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the existence of the White House taping system, described Nixon as a man always conscious, if not obsessed, with history and his role in it. How ironic then that he left rich historical documentation, a self-inflicted wound as it were, that has so sullied his record and reputation.

from John Lloyd:

The less well Muslims and Jews actually know each other, the more hatred grows

RTR40YPE.jpg

In the small town of San Dona di Piave near Venice last Friday, an imam, Raoudi Albdelbar, asked Allah to, "Kill them all (the Jews), down to the last one; make poison of their food; transform the air that they breath into flames, and put terror in their hearts.” The imam was so proud of his sermon that he made a video of it and posted it on his Facebook page -- from where it went viral. Earlier this week, Italian antiterrorist police showed up and arrested the imam on charges of inciting violence, and began the process of expelling him to his native Morocco.

There's a doleful, five-century-old parallel to the iman’s prayer. In his “Trials of the Diaspora,” Antony Julius, a polymath British lawyer, has taken Shylock’s trial in the Merchant of Venice as the ur-trial of diaspora Jews, seeing in it a subtle re-imagining of the old blood libel. In Shylock's pitiless pursuit of a pound of flesh cut from the merchant Antonio's body, Julius detects another instance of Jews seeking Christian blood.

Shakespeare gave Shylock a speech that seemed to challenge the dehumanization at the heart of anti-Semitism – “Hath not a Jew eyes. ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?” -- even as the play drove inexorably to the ghastly humiliation of the Jew. But Shakespeare did not know any Jews; they had been expelled from England in 1290 after centuries of oppression and were not readmitted till the 1650s. Shylock was a composite, born of the normal anti-Semitism of a Christian Englishman but softened by the sympathetic insight of one who recognised common humanity even as he assumed uncommon Jewish malignancy.

  •