Power, of one sort or another

October 3rd, 2015

The power of words:

Well, first and foremost, let’s understand what’s happening in Syria and how we got here. What started off as peaceful protests against Assad, the president, evolved into a civil war because Assad met those protests with unimaginable brutality. And so this is not a conflict between the United States and any party in Syria; this is a conflict between the Syrian people and a brutal, ruthless dictator.

Point number two is that the reason Assad is still in power is because Russia and Iran have supported him throughout this process. And in that sense, what Russia is doing now is not particularly different from what they had been doing in the past — they’re just more overt about it. They’ve been propping up a regime that is rejected by an overwhelming majority of the Syrian population because they’ve seen that he has been willing to drop barrel bombs on children and on villages indiscriminately, and has been more concerned about clinging to power than the state of his country.

So in my discussions with President Putin, I was very clear that the only way to solve the problem in Syria is to have a political transition that is inclusive — that keeps the state intact, that keeps the military intact, that maintains cohesion, but that is inclusive — and the only way to accomplish that is for Mr. Assad to transition, because you cannot rehabilitate him in the eyes of Syrians. This is not a judgment I’m making; it is a judgment that the overwhelming majority of Syrians make.

And I said to Mr. Putin that I’d be prepared to work with him if he is willing to broker with his partners, Mr. Assad and Iran, a political transition — we can bring the rest of the world community to a brokered solution — but that a military solution alone, an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire. And it won’t work. And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.

I also said to him that it is true that the United States and Russia and the entire world have a common interest in destroying ISIL. But what was very clear — and regardless of what Mr. Putin said — was that he doesn’t distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go. From their perspective, they’re all terrorists. And that’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s one that I reject.

So where we are now is that we are having technical conversations about de-confliction so that we’re not seeing U.S. and American firefights in the air. But beyond that, we’re very clear in sticking to our belief and our policy that the problem here is Assad and the brutality that he has inflicted on the Syrian people, and that it has to stop. And in order for it to stop, we’re prepared to work with all the parties concerned. But we are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad’s behavior.

Keep in mind also, from a practical perspective, the moderate opposition in Syria is one that if we’re ever going to have to have a political transition, we need. And the Russian policy is driving those folks underground or creating a situation in which they are de-capacitated, and it’s only strengthening ISIL. And that’s not good for anybody.

In terms of our support of opposition groups inside of Syria, I made very clear early on that the United States couldn’t impose a military solution on Syria either, but that it was in our interest to make sure that we were engaged with moderate opposition inside of Syria because eventually Syria will fall, the Assad regime will fall, and we have to have somebody who we’re working with that we can help pick up the pieces and stitch back together a cohesive, coherent country. And so we will continue to support them.

The training-and-equip program was a specific initiative by the Defense Department to see if we could get some of that moderate opposition to focus attention on ISIL in the eastern portion of the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to, Julie. And I think that the Department of Defense would say the same thing. And part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL, the response we’d get back is, how can we focus on ISIL when every single day we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the regime? And so it’s been hard to get them to reprioritize, looking east, when they’ve got bombs coming at them from the west.

So what we’re doing with the train-and-equip is looking at where we have had success — for example, working with some of the Kurdish community in the east that pushed ISIL out — seeing if we can build on that. But what we’re also going to continue to do is to have contacts with and work with opposition that, rightly, believes that in the absence of some change of government inside of Syria we’re going to continue to see civil war, and that is going to turbocharge ISIL recruitment and jihadist recruitment, and we’re going to continue to have problems.

Now, last point I just want to make about this — because sometimes the conversation here in the Beltway differs from the conversation internationally. Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling. And it was insufficient for him simply to send them arms and money; now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots. And the notion that he put forward a plan and that somehow the international community sees that as viable because there is a vacuum there — I didn’t see, after he made that speech in the United Nations, suddenly the 60-nation coalition that we have start lining up behind him.

Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours. So I don’t think people are fooled by the current strategy. It does not mean that we could not see Mr. Putin begin to recognize that it is in their interest to broker a political settlement. And as I said in New York, we’re prepared to work with the Russians and the Iranians, as well as our partners who are part of the anti-ISIL coalition to come up with that political transition. And nobody pretends that it’s going to be easy, but I think it is still possible. And so we will maintain lines of communication.

But we are not going to be able to get those negotiations going if there is not a recognition that there’s got to be a change in government. We’re not going to go back to the status quo ante. And the kinds of airstrikes against moderate opposition that Russia is engaging in is going to be counterproductive.

More: the power of twitter and deep concern. On the other hand, there’s a fellow who is very popular in Tartus. Oops! Wait! The guy above hasn’t finished his rambling yet:

throughout this process, I think people have constantly looked for an easy, low-cost answer — whether it’s we should have sent more rifles in early and somehow then everything would have been okay; or if I had taken that shot even after Assad offered to give up his chemical weapons, then immediately things would have folded, or the Assad regime would have folded, and we would have suddenly seen a peaceful Syria.

This is a hugely, difficult, complex problem. And I would have hoped that we would have learned that from Afghanistan and Iraq, where we have devoted enormous time and effort and resources with the very best people and have given the Afghan people and the Iraqi people an opportunity for democracy. But it’s still hard, as we saw this week in Afghanistan. That’s not by virtue of a lack of effort on our part, or a lack of commitment. We’ve still got 10,000 folks in Afghanistan. We’re still spending billions of dollar supporting that government, and it’s still tough.

So when I make a decision about the level of military involvement that we’re prepared to engage in, in Syria, I have to make a judgment based on, once we start something we’ve got to finish it, and we’ve got to do it well. And do we, in fact, have the resources and the capacity to make a serious impact — understanding that we’ve still got to go after ISIL in Iraq; we still have to support the training of an Iraqi military that is weaker than any of us perceived; that we still have business to do in Afghanistan. And so I push — and have consistently over the last four, five years sought out a wide range of opinions about steps that we can take potentially to move Syria in a better direction.

I am under no illusions about what an incredible humanitarian catastrophe this is, and the hardships that we’re seeing, and the refugees that are traveling in very dangerous circumstances and now creating real political problems among our allies in Europe, and the heartbreaking images of children drowned trying to escape war, and the potential impact of such a destabilized country on our allies in the region. But what we have learned over the last 10, 12, 13 years is that unless we can get the parties on the ground to agree to live together in some fashion, then no amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem. And we will find ourselves either doing just a little bit and not making a difference, and losing credibility that way, or finding ourselves drawn in deeper and deeper into a situation that we can’t sustain.

And when I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation — what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do, and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

So these are hard challenges. They are ones that we are going to continue to pursue. The topline message that I want everybody to understand is we are going to continue to go after ISIL. We are going to continue to reach out to a moderate opposition. We reject Russia’s theory that everybody opposed to Assad is a terrorist. We think that is self-defeating. It will get them into a quagmire.

Wretchard has more on this bizarre performance.

Super fun update: if you’ve given a lot of serious thought to the differences between Kirk and Picard, you might be too weird to win the presidency. On the other hand, reading all of the above somehow reminds us of Mr. Spock.


October 3rd, 2015

Clock. Another clock?

Women and children first

October 3rd, 2015

What women and children? What’s the better word, migrants or invaders?


October 3rd, 2015


Time to issue about $10 trillion in 30 year bonds?

October 2nd, 2015

The jobs report was disappointing. The labor participation is the lowest since 1977. Few think the Fed is going to raise rates any time soon. There is about $18 trillion in Treasury debt outstanding, $13 trillion of which is held by the public. Very little of outstanding Treasury debt is 30 year bonds; only $16 billion in 30 years was sold in May, for example. Out-of-control government borrowing and spending is a bad joke being played on the next couple of generations. One of the few good things that could be done is to take advantage of record low interest rates to sell as many 30 year bonds as the market will bear over the next few years. This could reduce sticker shock somewhat. So why isn’t it being done? We’re not expert in that department, but 30 years would still cost more than shorter maturities. Selling more long bonds would add to the current deficit, by a teeny-weeny bit compared to what the future holds, but still…

History lesson

October 1st, 2015


The constitution of the Roman Republic was designed as a corrective to democracy. Specifically, it was hoping to protect against the excesses of Athenian-style direct democracy. About twice a month in Athens, citizens voted into law almost anything they wished. About six to seven thousand citizens would squeeze into a hillside amphitheater known as the Pnyx and were swayed by demagogues (“people leaders”) into voting for or against whatever the cause de jour was. Our term “democracy” comes from the Greek dêmos-kratos, which means “people-power.”

In furor at a rebellion, for example, Athenians once voted to kill all of the adult male subjects of the island of Lesbos—only to repent the next day and vote again to execute just some, hoping that their second messenger ship rowed fast enough across the Aegean to catch the first bearing the original death sentence. In a fit of pique, the popular court voted to execute the philosopher Socrates, fine the statesman Pericles, and ostracize the general Aristides. Being successful, popular, rich, or controversial always proved to be a career liability in a democracy like the one that ruled Athens.

The Romans knew enough about mercurial ancient Athens to appreciate that they did not want a radical democracy. Instead, they sought to take away absolute power from the people and redistribute it within a “mixed” government. In Rome, power was divided constitutionally between executives (two consuls), legislators (the Senate and assemblies), and judges (Roman magistrates).

The half-millennia success of the stable Roman republican system inspired later French and British Enlightenment thinkers. Their abstract tripartite system of constitutional government stirred the Founding Fathers to concrete action. Americans originally were terrified of what 51 percent of the people in an unchecked democracy might do on any given day—and knew that ancient democracies had always become more not less radical and thus more unstable. For all the squabbles between Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they agreed that a republic, not a direct democracy, was a far safer and stable choice of governance.

And here’s a little more evidence that parts of the country have gone insane.

King to Pawn 4

October 1st, 2015

Garry Kasparov (we use old school notation):

No matter how well-intentioned and popular the U.S. exit from Iraq was, or how well the White House spun its concessions to Mr. Assad in 2013, the results clearly have been disastrous. A look at a map of Iraq and Syria shows that the rise of ISIS was a logical response to American abandonment of the region’s Sunnis. A group like ISIS cannot thrive without support from locals, in this case Sunnis who see no other way to defend against the Shiite forces of Iran and Syria that are slaughtering them by the hundreds of thousands.

In world affairs, as in chess, you have to play the position that’s on the board when you sit down. Criticizing George W. Bush for starting the Iraq war in 2003 does not change the fact that in 2008 there was no mass refugee crisis or massive ISIS army on the march. Support for al Qaeda had been undercut by negotiations with Sunni groups in Anbar province, a game-changing policy that was as responsible for reduced violence as the surge of new American forces.

The American exit and the refusal to deter Mr. Assad ended any possibility of security. The people had to fight, flee or die, and they are doing all three in horrific numbers. It’s important to remember that the waves of refugees reaching Europe are not running from ISIS. They are fleeing Mr. Assad—who counts on active support from Iran and now Russia.

No deal is going to change that. Iran and Russia have their own agendas in the region, and peace is not on either of them. Iran is the world’s leading state supporter of terrorism. Mr. Putin’s method of fighting the war on terror in Chechnya was carpet bombing. When that didn’t succeed, he bought off the region’s most brutal warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The continued slaughter of Sunnis in the region will draw in more support from the Saudis and more foreign fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia. The situation will metastasize like a cancer, which suits Mr. Putin fine. War and chaos create more enemies and more opportunities for him to look like a tough guy on Russian state TV. Iran’s regime needs conflict for similar reasons, which is why it can never give up “Death to America.” A growing war will also drive up the price of oil, a benefit that isn’t lost on Tehran or Moscow.

Mockery: “It turns out that just 60 were properly trained, only four or five with weapons are fighting, while the rest of them simply took the American weapons and ran over to join ISIS.” Hey, how about a no-fly zone?

Russia and Syria

September 30th, 2015

There’s the ha-ha approach. Then there’s this serious piece. As was trivially predictable, Russia has escalated. Max Boot has more. Let’s see what China does next.

Super fun flashback: he’s a reformer.

Folly, to be followed by consequences

September 29th, 2015

Numbers from Willis L. Krumholz:

The Mckinsey Global Institute estimates the debt-to-GDP ratio in China rose from 158 percent in 2007 to 282 percent in 2014. In nominal terms, debt increased by over $20 trillion during this period, from $7 trillion to $28 trillion. This amounts to a quadrupling of Chinese debt in seven years, and a growth rate for debt that was twice the growth rate of nominal GDP.

Much of this debt financed infrastructure and property development, as local governments felt pressure to meet arbitrary growth targets, and Chinese consumers continually parked their savings in real estate. Most is private-sector debt, or quasi-private debt issued by SOEs. As such, China’s corporate debt as a share of GDP is now over 160 percent, the highest in the world. Sitting at over $16 trillion, it is projected to reach $28 trillion by 2019, where it will make up 40 percent of corporate debt worldwide.

Because property contributes to 25% of economic output (at the height of America’s housing bubble, property’s contribution to U.S. GDP was at most 5%), and because its “value underpins the banking system,” a slowing property sector began substantially weighing on China’s economy in 2014. Indebted local governments saw revenues dry up, to which new property development made a two-thirds contribution.

The property market is now the only conduit for the savings of China’s politically important upper- and middle-class. In this light, the ridiculous efforts on the part of Beijing to prop up the stock market, spending some $1 trillion, or a staggering 10 percent of GDP, become oddly rational. Beijing’s plunge protection attempts were a test run of the anticipated all-out war against the real-estate market.

Numbers from Charles Hugh Smith:

About 15% of China’s GDP is housing-related. This is extraordinarily high. In the 2003-08 housing bubble, housing’s share of U.S. GDP barely cracked 5%. Of even greater concern, local governments in China depend on land development sales for 67% of their revenue. (These are not fee simple sales of land, but the sale of leasehold rights, as all land in China is owned by the state.)

flats in Beijing now cost 22x annual household income — roughly 6x the income-price ratio that is sustainable. Far too many observers use housing prices and sales in Beijing and Shanghai — a mere 3.5% of China’s population and housing stock — as the basis for evaluating the entire nation’s housing market. While sales are soaring in Beijing, they’re falling 26% in the second-, third-, and fourth-tier cities.

Many people claim the estimated 65 million empty flats held as investments by the middle and upper classes in China will be sold to new buyers in due time. But these complacent analysts overlook the grim reality that the vast majority of urban workers make around $6,000 to $10,000 annually, and a $200,000 flat is permanently out of reach. They also overlook the extreme concentration of wealth that goes into every purchase of a small flat by households that really can’t afford the cost: the entire extended family’s wealth is often poured into the flat

Some of the numbers in the two pieces don’t seem to agree, but the general picture is the same in both. The particular folly that turned the recession of 1930 into the Great Depression was the NY Fed’s letting Bank of United States fail, which led to cascading bank failures nationwide. Who knows what will happen in China, but the fundamentals look quite nasty.

More numbers

September 28th, 2015


The Economist estimated median home price to median income of nearly 20x in Shenzhen, 17x in Hong Kong, and more than 15x in Beijing, between 50-100% higher than ultra-expensive places like San Francisco, Vancouver, or Sydney. As a highpoint in social engineering, a whole new dense city (Kangbashi) has been constructed by the Ordos, Inner Mongolia city government, in the middle of nowhere, growing, but still apparently mainly vacant.

No people, no cars. Best not to be long industrial commodities for a while.

Summing it up

September 27th, 2015

The world is burning and the US is spinning. Hold on tight for the next 16 months.


September 27th, 2015

Good piece:

While regretting to have to do so, I must renew my repeated appeals regarding the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement. These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs. Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict, as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region, real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be.

And now we understand why.

Addendum from Steyn: “There is something shallow and decadent about a pontiff who prioritizes “climate change” even as every last Christian is driven from the Archeparchy of Mosul. What will they say of such a pope? That he fiddled with the thermostat while Rome burned?”

We’re in the best of hands

September 27th, 2015

What do these things have in common: Venezuela, the Church, the UK, some in the US, etc. etc. Meanwhile the Right inside the Beltway seems to have taken an odd turn: here and here, and a response to the second. Take a xanax guys!

Compare and contrast

September 26th, 2015

We saw J2P2 in Boston in 1979. He said nice things and we don’t remember much security. Here are some pictures. Now we learn not nice things, like that an ecological crisis and large-scale destruction of biodiversity “threaten the very existence of the human species”. What’s up with that? And that we must correct the “baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy”, which is guided only by ambition for wealth and power. We also don’t like a lot of big businesses that use governments to create artificial barriers to entry, but puh-leeze! Final point: all that security. Are the Protestants really that angry?

Related: Venus and her friends better learn to cover up, or one of these days they’re likely to Go Boom.

Corporate governance

September 25th, 2015

This is pretty funny when you think about it. Ah utopians! We wrote about them 10 years ago and it’s incredible how much worse things have gotten since then.

This and that

September 24th, 2015

Nice piece on Yogi Berra. “Caterpillar is heading for its first four-year decline in sales in its 90-year history.” The skim and the scam, again and again. Ignorance or worse? A very long piece on China’s navy that needs reading a number of times in order to understand. Finally, hard to sink much lower, but just stay tuned.

What’s going on in Jersey City?

September 23rd, 2015

This and this. Have a nice day!

As the man said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

What the heck is this guy talking about?

September 23rd, 2015

Some guy in DC:

I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home”, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about “a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (Laudato Si’, 13). Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them. Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.

Here’s another book this fellow should read. BTW, we distinctly remember at age 10 thinking that Catholicism mandated the economic views of this fellow.

A question

September 23rd, 2015

What would Rodney Dangerfield having dinner with George Will be like?

A serious man, for a change

September 22nd, 2015

Definitely not a politician:

“I do not believe Sharia is consistent with the Constitution of this country,” Carson said. “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution.” Carson said that the only exception he’d make would be if the Muslim running for office “publicly rejected all the tenets of Sharia and lived a life consistent with that. Then I wouldn’t have any problem.”

However, on several occasions Carson mentioned “Taqiyya,” a practice in the Shia Islam denomination in which a Muslim can mislead nonbelievers about the nature of their faith to avoid religious persecution. “Taqiyya is a component of Shia that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals,” Carson said.

“We are a different kind of nation,” Carson said. “Part of why we rose so quickly is because we wouldn’t allow our values or principles to be supplanted because we were going to be politically correct. … Part of the problem today is that we’re so busy trying to be politically correct, that we lose all perspective.”

Carson told The Hill that the question of a Muslim president is largely “irrelevant” because no Muslims are running in 2016. He said the question, which Todd is posing to all of the Republican presidential hopefuls who go on his show, “may well have been” gotcha journalism meant to trip the candidates up.

However, he acknowledged the question “served a useful purpose by providing the opportunity to talk about what Sharia is and what their goals are.” “So often we get into these irrelevant things, because obviously if a Muslim was running for president, there would be a lot more education about Sharia, about Taqiyya,” Carson said.

Our first mention of Taqiyya was a decade ago. In all the time since then, we do not recall any mention of it by anyone running for office. Carson’s observations are not trivial, given polling numbers. HT: AT