Commentary Magazine


Topic: Greece

The Economic and Budget Issue Brief: Read It and Weep

The CBO’s July 27 Economic and Budget Issue Brief, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis,” is short (8 pages), accessible, and worth reading. It covers past and projected federal debt held by the public, some of the consequences of growing debt, the increased chance of a fiscal crisis (including a brief review of fiscal crises in Argentina, Ireland, and Greece), and how a fiscal crisis might affect the United States. Among the many interesting data points, you’ll find is this:

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) projections, federal debt held by the public will stand at 62 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2010, having risen from 36 percent at the end of fiscal year 2007, just before the recession began. In only one other period in U.S. history—during and shortly after World War II—has that figure exceeded 50 percent.

Read the whole thing — and weep. (h/t: Yuval Levin/NRO)

The CBO’s July 27 Economic and Budget Issue Brief, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis,” is short (8 pages), accessible, and worth reading. It covers past and projected federal debt held by the public, some of the consequences of growing debt, the increased chance of a fiscal crisis (including a brief review of fiscal crises in Argentina, Ireland, and Greece), and how a fiscal crisis might affect the United States. Among the many interesting data points, you’ll find is this:

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) projections, federal debt held by the public will stand at 62 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2010, having risen from 36 percent at the end of fiscal year 2007, just before the recession began. In only one other period in U.S. history—during and shortly after World War II—has that figure exceeded 50 percent.

Read the whole thing — and weep. (h/t: Yuval Levin/NRO)

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A Time for Choosing

In a June 18 piece, Caroline Glick outlines nicely the threat Israel faces in the coming days, as Iran, Hezbollah, and Turkey ramp up their flotilla assault. She points out that the purpose of the flotillas is to force Israel to use its military against them, and thus incur greater disapproval from the global community with each incident. What she doesn’t go on to say — at least not in so many words — is that Hamas, Hezbollah, and their backers have a very specific interim objective in mind: they want to dilute the integrity of Israel’s national security by institutionalizing multilateral vetoes over it.

Ms. Glick undoubtedly knows this. It’s worth emphasizing, however, because there is great danger in assuming that the asymmetric methods of guerrilla terrorism are evidence of random, incoherent anger. The West is particularly prone to this analytical failure. But in this situation we have special reason to recognize that a geopolitical strategy is at work: the governments of Turkey and Iran are overtly involved. Their campaign method is unconventional, but what they seek is very much a boundable, state-oriented goal. By inducing the Western nations to accept today’s circumstances as unsustainable, they want to make it the default solution to create an international “buffer,” in some minimal but expandable form, between Israel and Gaza.

Efforts to reach just this kind of solution are already underway, as the Economist outlined a week ago. Hamas is actively lobbying for such proposals, which include having a European body inspect Gaza-bound cargo in Greece, as well as Hamas operating the Gaza port “under European inspection” (see here and here). The process of internationalizing the Gaza blockade is in motion; it will gain momentum, at least in diplomatic circles, with each fresh flotilla confrontation.

As a bureaucratic solution, endowed with ostensible neutrality and the official promise of engagement, this will be attractive to many. But it’s an unacceptable outcome for Israel — not least because of the terrible record of multinational peacekeeping forces, in Lebanon and around the world, in safeguarding the interests of populations under siege. No amount of European oversight at the docks will keep arms shipments from reaching Hamas if the naval blockade is lifted. But the presence of Europeans on an international mission would constrain Israel’s options, effectively putting the EU at the table with Israel’s Ministry of Defense and giving it a vote.

These concerns, however, as significant as they are, amount to tactical considerations. The strategic danger is philosophical, striking directly at the heart of the Western concept of nationhood and national prerogative. If a sustained asymmetric assault can induce the Western powers to withdraw their support of one nation’s integrity, that approach can work against others. Internationalizing the blockade of Gaza would unquestionably amount to such a withdrawal.

There is a little time left to craft a strategy for dealing with the “flotilla Intifada,” but we are at the point of decision right now regarding what America’s objective is to be. If we don’t hew to one of our own, we will find ourselves funneled, along with Europe, into the objective sought by Israel’s enemies. Our objective ought to be relieving these flotilla confrontations of their political significance by affirming Israel’s sovereign national right to defend itself and negotiate its borders on its own terms.

There is considerably more latitude to do that than the mainstream media narrative suggests. MEMRI has an excellent summary of regional opinion this week, in which the opportunities to leverage Arab concerns about Turkish and Iranian activism stand out in neon. Egypt, particularly leery of both nations’ intentions, is also Israel’s erstwhile partner in keeping Gaza demilitarized; a reassuring approach to Cairo is where we should start.

President Obama may well have prejudiced the outcome already by telling Mahmoud Abbas that the Gaza situation is “unsustainable.” That word works expressly to the advantage of Israel’s enemies: it tells them that Obama is in their corner and singing off their sheet music. Israel’s enemies can also take heart from the American reaction to Turkey’s major military incursion into northern Iraq this week. The dispatch of hundreds of troops into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels was met with the officious explanation from the U.S. State Department that “Turkey, like any country, has the right to defend itself against terrorist organizations.” There has apparently been no call for an international investigation into the deaths of the four Kurds killed so far by Turkish forces.

There is a truth being revealed this summer about what is unsustainable, and it turns out that it’s the West’s fashionable ambivalence about Israel. The terrorists and their national backers are putting pressure directly on that weak spot in our collective posture. For all our sakes, we had better choose to affirm Israel’s rights as a sovereign nation. The one thing that is certain is that we cannot postpone that choice any longer.

In a June 18 piece, Caroline Glick outlines nicely the threat Israel faces in the coming days, as Iran, Hezbollah, and Turkey ramp up their flotilla assault. She points out that the purpose of the flotillas is to force Israel to use its military against them, and thus incur greater disapproval from the global community with each incident. What she doesn’t go on to say — at least not in so many words — is that Hamas, Hezbollah, and their backers have a very specific interim objective in mind: they want to dilute the integrity of Israel’s national security by institutionalizing multilateral vetoes over it.

Ms. Glick undoubtedly knows this. It’s worth emphasizing, however, because there is great danger in assuming that the asymmetric methods of guerrilla terrorism are evidence of random, incoherent anger. The West is particularly prone to this analytical failure. But in this situation we have special reason to recognize that a geopolitical strategy is at work: the governments of Turkey and Iran are overtly involved. Their campaign method is unconventional, but what they seek is very much a boundable, state-oriented goal. By inducing the Western nations to accept today’s circumstances as unsustainable, they want to make it the default solution to create an international “buffer,” in some minimal but expandable form, between Israel and Gaza.

Efforts to reach just this kind of solution are already underway, as the Economist outlined a week ago. Hamas is actively lobbying for such proposals, which include having a European body inspect Gaza-bound cargo in Greece, as well as Hamas operating the Gaza port “under European inspection” (see here and here). The process of internationalizing the Gaza blockade is in motion; it will gain momentum, at least in diplomatic circles, with each fresh flotilla confrontation.

As a bureaucratic solution, endowed with ostensible neutrality and the official promise of engagement, this will be attractive to many. But it’s an unacceptable outcome for Israel — not least because of the terrible record of multinational peacekeeping forces, in Lebanon and around the world, in safeguarding the interests of populations under siege. No amount of European oversight at the docks will keep arms shipments from reaching Hamas if the naval blockade is lifted. But the presence of Europeans on an international mission would constrain Israel’s options, effectively putting the EU at the table with Israel’s Ministry of Defense and giving it a vote.

These concerns, however, as significant as they are, amount to tactical considerations. The strategic danger is philosophical, striking directly at the heart of the Western concept of nationhood and national prerogative. If a sustained asymmetric assault can induce the Western powers to withdraw their support of one nation’s integrity, that approach can work against others. Internationalizing the blockade of Gaza would unquestionably amount to such a withdrawal.

There is a little time left to craft a strategy for dealing with the “flotilla Intifada,” but we are at the point of decision right now regarding what America’s objective is to be. If we don’t hew to one of our own, we will find ourselves funneled, along with Europe, into the objective sought by Israel’s enemies. Our objective ought to be relieving these flotilla confrontations of their political significance by affirming Israel’s sovereign national right to defend itself and negotiate its borders on its own terms.

There is considerably more latitude to do that than the mainstream media narrative suggests. MEMRI has an excellent summary of regional opinion this week, in which the opportunities to leverage Arab concerns about Turkish and Iranian activism stand out in neon. Egypt, particularly leery of both nations’ intentions, is also Israel’s erstwhile partner in keeping Gaza demilitarized; a reassuring approach to Cairo is where we should start.

President Obama may well have prejudiced the outcome already by telling Mahmoud Abbas that the Gaza situation is “unsustainable.” That word works expressly to the advantage of Israel’s enemies: it tells them that Obama is in their corner and singing off their sheet music. Israel’s enemies can also take heart from the American reaction to Turkey’s major military incursion into northern Iraq this week. The dispatch of hundreds of troops into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels was met with the officious explanation from the U.S. State Department that “Turkey, like any country, has the right to defend itself against terrorist organizations.” There has apparently been no call for an international investigation into the deaths of the four Kurds killed so far by Turkish forces.

There is a truth being revealed this summer about what is unsustainable, and it turns out that it’s the West’s fashionable ambivalence about Israel. The terrorists and their national backers are putting pressure directly on that weak spot in our collective posture. For all our sakes, we had better choose to affirm Israel’s rights as a sovereign nation. The one thing that is certain is that we cannot postpone that choice any longer.

Read Less

What Those Primary Results Mean

Blanche Lincoln narrowly beat her Democratic challenger Bill Halter. She is among the walking wounded stumbling into the November election and is unlikely to keep her seat. Ben Smith got the quote of the night: “A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkanas. ‘Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,’ the official said. ‘If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.’” I’m sure the labor bosses — like President Karzai — will adore being dissed in public. Lesson: Mushy moderates who’ve boasted about their backroom deals have a hard road ahead.

Nikki Haley overcame an adultery smear campaign and won big but fell barely short of a majority. She will have a runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett. If she couldn’t be knocked out by rumors of a sex scandal now, she has a good chance to prevail in the runoff and become the state’s first woman governor. Lesson: Voters have become skeptical if not hostile to nasty smears; those who think that’s a winning tactic risk an equally nasty backlash. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Sarah Palin at your side to stir up the base.

In Nevada, voters dumped the incumbent, the scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons, in favor of  Brian Sandoval, who would be the state’s first Hispanic governor (and who would confuse pundits who are certain Republicans have permanently offended Hispanics). In the Senate race, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle beat the former state chairwoman and other candidates. Lesson: Throw the bums out. And the Tea Party movement still matters.

In California, both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina (also Palin-endorsed) won big. In the Senate race, the lesson from Tom Campbell’s thumping is four-fold. First, anti-Israel votes and statements are losers with the GOP base (but can earn you a J Street endorsement, kudos from Peter Beinart, or a column in the Nation). Washington politicians are out of favor — honest. And the GOP has zero interest in mushy moderates with a mixed record on taxes (i.e., Charlie Crist isn’t the only one who missed the populist revolt). Finally, it matters how strong and creative a campaign you run — better ads, a more-engaging candidate, and sharper debating beat worse ads, a less-engaging candidate, and worse debating most of the time. And from the gubernatorial primary, we can only ponder why in the world Meg Whitman wants the job of governor of a state that most resembles Greece.

The overarching picture is a familiar one: Republicans want candidates who aren’t Democratic-lite, and incumbents are guilty until proven innocent in the minds of voters. Republican women — Haley, Fiorina, Angle, and Whitman — had a good night, so Democrats will have to find an insult other than “sexist” to hurl at the GOP.

Blanche Lincoln narrowly beat her Democratic challenger Bill Halter. She is among the walking wounded stumbling into the November election and is unlikely to keep her seat. Ben Smith got the quote of the night: “A senior White House official just called me with a very pointed message for the administration’s sometime allies in organized labor, who invested heavily in beating Blanche Lincoln, Obama’s candidate, in Arkanas. ‘Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,’ the official said. ‘If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.’” I’m sure the labor bosses — like President Karzai — will adore being dissed in public. Lesson: Mushy moderates who’ve boasted about their backroom deals have a hard road ahead.

Nikki Haley overcame an adultery smear campaign and won big but fell barely short of a majority. She will have a runoff against Rep. Gresham Barrett. If she couldn’t be knocked out by rumors of a sex scandal now, she has a good chance to prevail in the runoff and become the state’s first woman governor. Lesson: Voters have become skeptical if not hostile to nasty smears; those who think that’s a winning tactic risk an equally nasty backlash. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Sarah Palin at your side to stir up the base.

In Nevada, voters dumped the incumbent, the scandal-plagued Jim Gibbons, in favor of  Brian Sandoval, who would be the state’s first Hispanic governor (and who would confuse pundits who are certain Republicans have permanently offended Hispanics). In the Senate race, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle beat the former state chairwoman and other candidates. Lesson: Throw the bums out. And the Tea Party movement still matters.

In California, both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina (also Palin-endorsed) won big. In the Senate race, the lesson from Tom Campbell’s thumping is four-fold. First, anti-Israel votes and statements are losers with the GOP base (but can earn you a J Street endorsement, kudos from Peter Beinart, or a column in the Nation). Washington politicians are out of favor — honest. And the GOP has zero interest in mushy moderates with a mixed record on taxes (i.e., Charlie Crist isn’t the only one who missed the populist revolt). Finally, it matters how strong and creative a campaign you run — better ads, a more-engaging candidate, and sharper debating beat worse ads, a less-engaging candidate, and worse debating most of the time. And from the gubernatorial primary, we can only ponder why in the world Meg Whitman wants the job of governor of a state that most resembles Greece.

The overarching picture is a familiar one: Republicans want candidates who aren’t Democratic-lite, and incumbents are guilty until proven innocent in the minds of voters. Republican women — Haley, Fiorina, Angle, and Whitman — had a good night, so Democrats will have to find an insult other than “sexist” to hurl at the GOP.

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The Limits of Anti-Israel Activists’ Compassion

For those who wish to end the continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean, there is only one cause worth caring about: breaking the limited blockade that both Israel and Egypt have placed on Hamas-ruled Gaza. No one in Gaza is starving. All are fed by a United Nations Agency — UNRWA — specifically set up to ensure the continued existence of a Palestinian refugee problem. Gaza is poor, but the region, which Israel evacuated in 2005, is now an independent entity ruled by the Hamas terrorist group. For years, it served as a launching pad for missile attacks on Israeli civilians in southern Israel. But after Israel’s counteroffensive in December 2008, the Islamists who run Gaza have mostly held their fire. This is done partly out of fear of more Israeli counterterror operations and partly because the blockade imposed on the area — a blockade that allows in food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies but not construction materials that could aid Hamas’s homegrown weapons industry — has made it difficult for them to replenish their arsenal.

Thus, efforts to break this blockade and the international isolation imposed on this Hamasistan, created to force Gaza’s rulers to renounce their allegiance to a program pledged to the violent destruction of Israel, have little to do with sympathy for Gazans and everything to do with fueling anti-Israel propaganda. Though European sympathy for the “plight” of besieged Gaza is commonplace, support for breaking the blockade means freedom for Hamas, not the people who must live under the rule of Islamist tyrants.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-Israel activists from attempting to stage propaganda incidents highlighting their opposition to the blockade against Hamas. The latest is a so-called Freedom Flotilla of eight ships that left Istanbul, Turkey, this week. Al Jazeera, whose peppered a “news” report about the launch editorialized about how the “issue of Gaza moves Turks more than any other single issue,” noted that the convoy “is from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Turkey, and is comprised of 800 people from 50 nationalities.” Though the rhetoric from the organizers centered on the supposed lack of food and medicine in Gaza, the report also noted that the ships are carrying 500 tons of construction equipment. Omitted from the Al Jazeera article was the fact that high-ranking members of the Hamas leadership also attended the festive launch of the ships. It is no surprise that Israel has said its Navy will prevent the ships from landing at Gaza and delivering their cargo. If they persist in trying to land, they will be diverted to Israel, where the passengers will be sent home, and any actual humanitarian supplies (as opposed to construction material) will be sent on to Gaza.

But though they claim they are trying to help people in need, there are limits to even the boundless compassion for humanity exhibited by those taking part in the Freedom Flotilla.

A lawyer representing the family of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, approached the organizers of the Free Gaza flotilla. The Shalit family asked the pro-Palestinian group to bring letters and food packages to the kidnapped soldier, who has been denied Red Cross visits by his Hamas captors. In exchange, the family, which has the sympathy of all Israel and the ear of the Israeli government, offered to lobby to give the flotilla docking rights in Gaza. The response from these humanitarians: no!

Had they agreed to pass on the letters and packages from Shalit’s family, the pro-Palestinian group could have bolstered their shaky credibility as humanitarians. But by refusing, they have revealed themselves as nothing more than people bent on aiding and abetting an international terrorist group.

For those who wish to end the continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state on the shores of the Mediterranean, there is only one cause worth caring about: breaking the limited blockade that both Israel and Egypt have placed on Hamas-ruled Gaza. No one in Gaza is starving. All are fed by a United Nations Agency — UNRWA — specifically set up to ensure the continued existence of a Palestinian refugee problem. Gaza is poor, but the region, which Israel evacuated in 2005, is now an independent entity ruled by the Hamas terrorist group. For years, it served as a launching pad for missile attacks on Israeli civilians in southern Israel. But after Israel’s counteroffensive in December 2008, the Islamists who run Gaza have mostly held their fire. This is done partly out of fear of more Israeli counterterror operations and partly because the blockade imposed on the area — a blockade that allows in food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies but not construction materials that could aid Hamas’s homegrown weapons industry — has made it difficult for them to replenish their arsenal.

Thus, efforts to break this blockade and the international isolation imposed on this Hamasistan, created to force Gaza’s rulers to renounce their allegiance to a program pledged to the violent destruction of Israel, have little to do with sympathy for Gazans and everything to do with fueling anti-Israel propaganda. Though European sympathy for the “plight” of besieged Gaza is commonplace, support for breaking the blockade means freedom for Hamas, not the people who must live under the rule of Islamist tyrants.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-Israel activists from attempting to stage propaganda incidents highlighting their opposition to the blockade against Hamas. The latest is a so-called Freedom Flotilla of eight ships that left Istanbul, Turkey, this week. Al Jazeera, whose peppered a “news” report about the launch editorialized about how the “issue of Gaza moves Turks more than any other single issue,” noted that the convoy “is from the UK, Ireland, Algeria, Kuwait, Greece and Turkey, and is comprised of 800 people from 50 nationalities.” Though the rhetoric from the organizers centered on the supposed lack of food and medicine in Gaza, the report also noted that the ships are carrying 500 tons of construction equipment. Omitted from the Al Jazeera article was the fact that high-ranking members of the Hamas leadership also attended the festive launch of the ships. It is no surprise that Israel has said its Navy will prevent the ships from landing at Gaza and delivering their cargo. If they persist in trying to land, they will be diverted to Israel, where the passengers will be sent home, and any actual humanitarian supplies (as opposed to construction material) will be sent on to Gaza.

But though they claim they are trying to help people in need, there are limits to even the boundless compassion for humanity exhibited by those taking part in the Freedom Flotilla.

A lawyer representing the family of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, approached the organizers of the Free Gaza flotilla. The Shalit family asked the pro-Palestinian group to bring letters and food packages to the kidnapped soldier, who has been denied Red Cross visits by his Hamas captors. In exchange, the family, which has the sympathy of all Israel and the ear of the Israeli government, offered to lobby to give the flotilla docking rights in Gaza. The response from these humanitarians: no!

Had they agreed to pass on the letters and packages from Shalit’s family, the pro-Palestinian group could have bolstered their shaky credibility as humanitarians. But by refusing, they have revealed themselves as nothing more than people bent on aiding and abetting an international terrorist group.

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Two Articles Worth Reading

The indispensable Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest has a perceptive essay on the changing politics of climate change.

I’d suggest pairing it with an article in the Telegraph about a new report by the International Monetary Fund called “Navigating the Fiscal Challenges Ahead” (h/t Powerline). If you’re marooned on a desert island this weekend with time on your hands, here’s the complete report.

Both the ordinary people and the markets have woken up to the fact that many of the world’s biggest economies have, courtesy of their politicians, dug themselves into a deep hole and the next few years will have to be spent on climbing out of it or face fiscal disaster. That means no money for saving the planet from a global-warming catastrophe that fewer and fewer people believe in anyway. Al Gore will just have to cry his eyes out in his new 10,000-square-foot house (with nine bathrooms) overlooking the Pacific.

As Edmund Conway, the economics editor of the Telegraph, explains,

the idea behind the [IMF] document is to set out how much different countries around the world need to cut their deficits by in the next few years, and the bottom line is it’s going to be big and hard (ie 8.7pc of GDP in deficit cuts around the world, which works out at, gulp, about $4 trillion).

But the really interesting stuff is the detail, and what leaps out again and again is how much of a hill the U.S. has to climb. Exhibit A is the fact that under the Obama administration’s current fiscal plans, the national debt in the U.S. (on a gross basis) will climb to above 100 percent of GDP by 2015 — a far steeper increase than almost any other country.

Not the least of the problems for the United States is that the average maturity of federal securities is only 4.4 years. In Britain it’s 12.8 years and in Greece, 7.4 years. That means that half of all federal securities will need to be rolled over by mid-2014. If the market begins to lose faith in the U.S., the interest rates demanded by the market will soar and debt service will begin to crowd out other federal expenses. The IMF calculates that the United States will have to cut its structural debt by 12 percent of GDP over the next ten years to get back on track. That’s higher than any other country (Greece: 9 percent) except Japan.

No wonder the voters are in an unforgiving mood.

The indispensable Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest has a perceptive essay on the changing politics of climate change.

I’d suggest pairing it with an article in the Telegraph about a new report by the International Monetary Fund called “Navigating the Fiscal Challenges Ahead” (h/t Powerline). If you’re marooned on a desert island this weekend with time on your hands, here’s the complete report.

Both the ordinary people and the markets have woken up to the fact that many of the world’s biggest economies have, courtesy of their politicians, dug themselves into a deep hole and the next few years will have to be spent on climbing out of it or face fiscal disaster. That means no money for saving the planet from a global-warming catastrophe that fewer and fewer people believe in anyway. Al Gore will just have to cry his eyes out in his new 10,000-square-foot house (with nine bathrooms) overlooking the Pacific.

As Edmund Conway, the economics editor of the Telegraph, explains,

the idea behind the [IMF] document is to set out how much different countries around the world need to cut their deficits by in the next few years, and the bottom line is it’s going to be big and hard (ie 8.7pc of GDP in deficit cuts around the world, which works out at, gulp, about $4 trillion).

But the really interesting stuff is the detail, and what leaps out again and again is how much of a hill the U.S. has to climb. Exhibit A is the fact that under the Obama administration’s current fiscal plans, the national debt in the U.S. (on a gross basis) will climb to above 100 percent of GDP by 2015 — a far steeper increase than almost any other country.

Not the least of the problems for the United States is that the average maturity of federal securities is only 4.4 years. In Britain it’s 12.8 years and in Greece, 7.4 years. That means that half of all federal securities will need to be rolled over by mid-2014. If the market begins to lose faith in the U.S., the interest rates demanded by the market will soar and debt service will begin to crowd out other federal expenses. The IMF calculates that the United States will have to cut its structural debt by 12 percent of GDP over the next ten years to get back on track. That’s higher than any other country (Greece: 9 percent) except Japan.

No wonder the voters are in an unforgiving mood.

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RE: The Middle East Vacuum

The Michael Young piece cited by Emanuele Ottolenghi in his insightful post echoes the concerns a number of us have had for some time. Russia’s inroads in the Middle East have been expanding for several years; in 2010, we are seeing an acceleration of moves that Moscow would once have been more tentative and covert in undertaking.

The civil-nuclear deals with Syria and Turkey continue a trend that has been underway since 2006-2007. It’s more efficient today to list which countries in the region do not have civil-nuclear agreements with Russia. Since 2007, the Russians have concluded civil-nuclear cooperation deals with Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Algeria, along with Syria and Turkey. Russia is training nuclear engineers, bidding on reactor contracts, and mining uranium.

Nuclear cooperation takes a back seat only to oil and gas deals and arms sales. Turkey’s geographic position has long made it an object of Russian gas strategy. As the Wall Street Journal points out today, the deals signed this week represent the culmination of a years-long Russian effort to co-opt Turkey as a pipeline partner, potentially compromising Ankara’s commitment to European pipeline sponsors. Russia’s intensive cultivation of natural gas giants Libya and Algeria gives Moscow leverage over nearly 100 percent of the natural gas supply to much of central and southern Europe. The sale of big-ticket weapon systems to Algeria, Libya, and Syria serves to isolate Israel – and to complicate any U.S. effort to provide military support to Israel if it becomes necessary.

Now Russia is negotiating a huge arms sale – including the S-300 air-defense system, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and assault helicopters – with U.S. partner and long-time client Saudi Arabia. This development and others are disquieting harbingers of a Russia unconstrained by worry about either offending or alarming the U.S. Two recent events highlight this loss of diffidence. One is the announcement in March 2010 that Russia and Greece would conduct joint naval exercises in the Aegean Sea this year. Turkey is not the only NATO ally being aggressively courted by Moscow.

The other event is Dmitry Medvedev’s May 12 meeting in Damascus with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. There could hardly be a more overt declaration of Russia’s posture and interests in the Middle East. The Russia of Medvedev and Putin intends to join forces with the regional actors who want to disrupt the status quo; their targets are Israel and the U.S. network of partnerships and influence in the region.

We will see Russia engaged in more unabashed maneuvering in the coming days. The pace of events is quickening. One thing we must understand is that Russia’s influence over Iran’s nuclear program is no longer being exercised primarily as a dynamic in Russia’s relations with the U.S. The Arab nations that fear a nuclear Iran are Moscow’s audience now. The implication is that Russia is the great power that can keep Iran in check. Obama’s America is sitting on the sidelines.

The Michael Young piece cited by Emanuele Ottolenghi in his insightful post echoes the concerns a number of us have had for some time. Russia’s inroads in the Middle East have been expanding for several years; in 2010, we are seeing an acceleration of moves that Moscow would once have been more tentative and covert in undertaking.

The civil-nuclear deals with Syria and Turkey continue a trend that has been underway since 2006-2007. It’s more efficient today to list which countries in the region do not have civil-nuclear agreements with Russia. Since 2007, the Russians have concluded civil-nuclear cooperation deals with Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Algeria, along with Syria and Turkey. Russia is training nuclear engineers, bidding on reactor contracts, and mining uranium.

Nuclear cooperation takes a back seat only to oil and gas deals and arms sales. Turkey’s geographic position has long made it an object of Russian gas strategy. As the Wall Street Journal points out today, the deals signed this week represent the culmination of a years-long Russian effort to co-opt Turkey as a pipeline partner, potentially compromising Ankara’s commitment to European pipeline sponsors. Russia’s intensive cultivation of natural gas giants Libya and Algeria gives Moscow leverage over nearly 100 percent of the natural gas supply to much of central and southern Europe. The sale of big-ticket weapon systems to Algeria, Libya, and Syria serves to isolate Israel – and to complicate any U.S. effort to provide military support to Israel if it becomes necessary.

Now Russia is negotiating a huge arms sale – including the S-300 air-defense system, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and assault helicopters – with U.S. partner and long-time client Saudi Arabia. This development and others are disquieting harbingers of a Russia unconstrained by worry about either offending or alarming the U.S. Two recent events highlight this loss of diffidence. One is the announcement in March 2010 that Russia and Greece would conduct joint naval exercises in the Aegean Sea this year. Turkey is not the only NATO ally being aggressively courted by Moscow.

The other event is Dmitry Medvedev’s May 12 meeting in Damascus with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. There could hardly be a more overt declaration of Russia’s posture and interests in the Middle East. The Russia of Medvedev and Putin intends to join forces with the regional actors who want to disrupt the status quo; their targets are Israel and the U.S. network of partnerships and influence in the region.

We will see Russia engaged in more unabashed maneuvering in the coming days. The pace of events is quickening. One thing we must understand is that Russia’s influence over Iran’s nuclear program is no longer being exercised primarily as a dynamic in Russia’s relations with the U.S. The Arab nations that fear a nuclear Iran are Moscow’s audience now. The implication is that Russia is the great power that can keep Iran in check. Obama’s America is sitting on the sidelines.

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The Dangers of the Peace-Prosperity Fallacy

Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz isn’t one to cry uncle. “There will be no economic prosperity without peace,” it defiantly titled today’s editorial — published two days after Israel was admitted, by unanimous vote, to the club of the world’s wealthiest nations: the OECD.

“The link between the economic and political is clear,” the editorial asserted, serenely untroubled by the facts. “There can be no sustained economic growth without a substantive compromise with the Palestinians and Syria.”

The facts, of course, are that if sustained economic growth required peace, Israel could never have earned OECD entree: the country has been at war since its establishment in 1948, when it was attacked by five Arab armies. It fought conventional wars again in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. It was bombarded by Iraqi missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. It fought asymmetric wars against terrorist organizations in the West Bank in 2002, Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza in 2009. And in between all the wars, it suffered nonstop terror attacks.

Some of these wars indeed produced temporary recessions. Yet the overall pattern has been one of, yes, sustained growth. Had it not, Israel would not today be the only one, out of dozens of countries established in the post-colonial upheavals that followed World War II, invited to join the OECD. It certainly wasn’t because its fellow OECD members love it so much: many routinely vote against it in other international forums.

But if Haaretz were merely spouting harmless nonsense, nobody would care. The problem is that this particular nonsense is deadly dangerous, because the editorial is right about one thing: “Israel’s economic status is conditional.” Wise choices by Israel’s leaders can facilitate continued growth; bad choices can reduce or even destroy it: look at Greece.

Yet for much of the past two decades, Israel’s leadership has been consumed with either pursuing an unobtainable peace or trying to contain the terrorist onslaughts that every such effort has spawned. The crucial domestic issues on which economic success in fact depends have consequently been neglected. Israel’s schools and universities are in free fall, which bodes ill for a country whose only natural resource is brainpower. And bureaucratic obstacles to doing business remain a fact of life.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually does care about domestic issues. As finance minister in 2003, he implemented economic reforms that produced five straight years of rapid growth, and his campaign for prime minister included detailed proposals for additional domestic reforms. But since taking office, he, too, has been consumed by the “peace process” — or rather, the crisis with Washington it has generated. Domestic reforms have fallen by the wayside.

And that is why the Haaretz fallacy is so dangerous. Roughly every other Israeli prime minister has, like Haaretz, viewed peace as essential to Israel’s survival and therefore devoted himself to fruitlessly pursuing it. Each of their successors has then had to devote himself to containing the fallout. And as long as this pattern continues, vital domestic issues will continue to be neglected.

Peace would certainly benefit Israel’s economy. But continued pursuit of a peace that is unobtainable could destroy it.

Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz isn’t one to cry uncle. “There will be no economic prosperity without peace,” it defiantly titled today’s editorial — published two days after Israel was admitted, by unanimous vote, to the club of the world’s wealthiest nations: the OECD.

“The link between the economic and political is clear,” the editorial asserted, serenely untroubled by the facts. “There can be no sustained economic growth without a substantive compromise with the Palestinians and Syria.”

The facts, of course, are that if sustained economic growth required peace, Israel could never have earned OECD entree: the country has been at war since its establishment in 1948, when it was attacked by five Arab armies. It fought conventional wars again in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. It was bombarded by Iraqi missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. It fought asymmetric wars against terrorist organizations in the West Bank in 2002, Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza in 2009. And in between all the wars, it suffered nonstop terror attacks.

Some of these wars indeed produced temporary recessions. Yet the overall pattern has been one of, yes, sustained growth. Had it not, Israel would not today be the only one, out of dozens of countries established in the post-colonial upheavals that followed World War II, invited to join the OECD. It certainly wasn’t because its fellow OECD members love it so much: many routinely vote against it in other international forums.

But if Haaretz were merely spouting harmless nonsense, nobody would care. The problem is that this particular nonsense is deadly dangerous, because the editorial is right about one thing: “Israel’s economic status is conditional.” Wise choices by Israel’s leaders can facilitate continued growth; bad choices can reduce or even destroy it: look at Greece.

Yet for much of the past two decades, Israel’s leadership has been consumed with either pursuing an unobtainable peace or trying to contain the terrorist onslaughts that every such effort has spawned. The crucial domestic issues on which economic success in fact depends have consequently been neglected. Israel’s schools and universities are in free fall, which bodes ill for a country whose only natural resource is brainpower. And bureaucratic obstacles to doing business remain a fact of life.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually does care about domestic issues. As finance minister in 2003, he implemented economic reforms that produced five straight years of rapid growth, and his campaign for prime minister included detailed proposals for additional domestic reforms. But since taking office, he, too, has been consumed by the “peace process” — or rather, the crisis with Washington it has generated. Domestic reforms have fallen by the wayside.

And that is why the Haaretz fallacy is so dangerous. Roughly every other Israeli prime minister has, like Haaretz, viewed peace as essential to Israel’s survival and therefore devoted himself to fruitlessly pursuing it. Each of their successors has then had to devote himself to containing the fallout. And as long as this pattern continues, vital domestic issues will continue to be neglected.

Peace would certainly benefit Israel’s economy. But continued pursuit of a peace that is unobtainable could destroy it.

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The End of the Welfare-State Model?

Stuart Varney of Fox Business News said Thursday on Fox News Special Report that what we are witnessing with the debt crisis in Greece and the swoon of the markets over the last week and a half is the end of the welfare-state model of governance. I think he’s right.

Markets are notorious for sometimes being oblivious to developments in the economy that, in retrospect, seem obvious — and then, suddenly, waking up and acting. The American economy began to slow down in the spring of 1929, for instance, but Wall Street — usually ahead of the economy — paid no attention and soared over the summer to heights unseen before. Then, on the day after Labor Day, for a trivial reason, the market panicked in the last hour of trading, and the mood turned instantly from “the sky’s the limit” to “every man for himself.” Six weeks later, the great crash of 1929 happened.

For years, democratic governments have been promising citizens ever-increasing benefits in the future to win votes in the present. What they haven’t been doing is arranging to pay for them. Instead, they have used phony bookkeeping to make things look under control. New York City did this in the 60s and 70s until one day the banks said they weren’t rolling over the city’s paper anymore. Now, Greece has suffered the same fate. It lied to the EU to get in and has been cooking the books to hide the gathering fiscal disaster ever since. The market has now made it clear that it thinks Greek bonds are for wallpaper, not investing. With more than 10 billion euros in bonds coming due on May 19, Greece had no choice but to accept draconian cuts in its benefits and strict accountability in the future to be bailed out by its euro-zone partners. They, of course, fear the collapse of the euro as a currency and a spreading contagion to larger countries that have also been doing what Greece has done for so long.

Europe would need $60 trillion in the bank, earning government-borrowing-rate interest, to fund its future welfare benefits. Needless to say, no country has four times its GDP in the bank.

In short, the market has suddenly become aware that the emperor known as the welfare state is, financially speaking, buck naked. The cost of insuring against bank default in Europe, according to Bloomberg, is now more than it was when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Other rates are nowhere near those levels, but it would not take much to set off a global panic. Markets have been down all week, and the Dow was down today by 1.34 percent, down 7 percent since Monday.

Great Britain and the United States, insulated from the crisis in Europe because they do not use the euro, have big financial promises they can’t pay for, either. President Obama, of course, wants to make more promises.

If Greece stands up to its unions and its outraged bureaucrats and reforms its ways, I suspect the current crisis will pass. But unless the rest of the democratic world reforms its ways — and soon — then, as Bette Davis famously said in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Stuart Varney of Fox Business News said Thursday on Fox News Special Report that what we are witnessing with the debt crisis in Greece and the swoon of the markets over the last week and a half is the end of the welfare-state model of governance. I think he’s right.

Markets are notorious for sometimes being oblivious to developments in the economy that, in retrospect, seem obvious — and then, suddenly, waking up and acting. The American economy began to slow down in the spring of 1929, for instance, but Wall Street — usually ahead of the economy — paid no attention and soared over the summer to heights unseen before. Then, on the day after Labor Day, for a trivial reason, the market panicked in the last hour of trading, and the mood turned instantly from “the sky’s the limit” to “every man for himself.” Six weeks later, the great crash of 1929 happened.

For years, democratic governments have been promising citizens ever-increasing benefits in the future to win votes in the present. What they haven’t been doing is arranging to pay for them. Instead, they have used phony bookkeeping to make things look under control. New York City did this in the 60s and 70s until one day the banks said they weren’t rolling over the city’s paper anymore. Now, Greece has suffered the same fate. It lied to the EU to get in and has been cooking the books to hide the gathering fiscal disaster ever since. The market has now made it clear that it thinks Greek bonds are for wallpaper, not investing. With more than 10 billion euros in bonds coming due on May 19, Greece had no choice but to accept draconian cuts in its benefits and strict accountability in the future to be bailed out by its euro-zone partners. They, of course, fear the collapse of the euro as a currency and a spreading contagion to larger countries that have also been doing what Greece has done for so long.

Europe would need $60 trillion in the bank, earning government-borrowing-rate interest, to fund its future welfare benefits. Needless to say, no country has four times its GDP in the bank.

In short, the market has suddenly become aware that the emperor known as the welfare state is, financially speaking, buck naked. The cost of insuring against bank default in Europe, according to Bloomberg, is now more than it was when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Other rates are nowhere near those levels, but it would not take much to set off a global panic. Markets have been down all week, and the Dow was down today by 1.34 percent, down 7 percent since Monday.

Great Britain and the United States, insulated from the crisis in Europe because they do not use the euro, have big financial promises they can’t pay for, either. President Obama, of course, wants to make more promises.

If Greece stands up to its unions and its outraged bureaucrats and reforms its ways, I suspect the current crisis will pass. But unless the rest of the democratic world reforms its ways — and soon — then, as Bette Davis famously said in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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RE: Newsweek Squeak

John, I wanted to follow up on your post on Newsweek by linking to this interview between Jon Meacham and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show [it can be found here and here]. During it, Meacham says this:

I do not believe that Newsweek is the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance, but I think we’re one of them. And I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.

Ah, no.

For years I had subscribed to Newsweek, though I dropped the subscription last year, when I thought the magazine took a dive for the worst. I found the “new” Newsweek to be horrible in layout and in many (though certainly not all) of the writers it regularly featured. Jacob Weisberg and Jonathan Alter are not vital to the success of the American Republic. Trust me.

Regardless of your views about the quality of Newsweek, though, the notion that it is one of the “few catchers in the rye between democracy and ignorance” is risible. It was a liberal-leaning newsmagazine that mirrored almost perfectly the conventional wisdom of the political class. It was not, and never has been, indispensible, close to indispensible, or marginally indispensible. In fact, American democracy and American public discourse will not be one bit worse off when it disappears from the scene.

My three children will do fine growing up in a world without Newsweek.

Meacham also insisted that Newsweek has been “one of the very few common denominators in a fragmented world.” It actually has not been that.

Newsweek represented a point of view that was philosophically liberal. In some years it did that better than in other years. But it was not a “common denominator” for us, as much as Meacham wishes it were. And I, for one, believe the “fragmented” media world we live in is far superior to the one that came before it. The consensus that existed among journalists when their profession was dominated by Time and Newsweek, by ABC, NBC, and CBS, by the New York Times and the Washington Post, was stupefying. The narratives were virtually all the same because the worldviews of reporters were almost all the same. What we had were a “herd of independent minds” trying to tell us how to think, which stories were worthy of our attention, and how to process those stories.

Today we live in a far more interesting, variegated, and informed world. There are now genuine clashes of ideas — and facts can now be checked in a way they never were in the past. (See Dan Rather’s and CBS’s reliance on bogus documents for a “60 Minutes” report charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, something that two decades ago could have cost Bush the presidency instead of Rather his job.)

It isn’t a perfect world by any means. And I’m not in favor of a world in which there are only commentators, only bloggers, only opinion-makers. We still need newspapers and news organizations that report and break news. For example, the New York Times, whatever its drawbacks, still provides excellent coverage of international affairs. During the Iraq war reporters like John Burns, Dexter Filkins, and Michael Gordon provided outstanding coverage.

We still need journalists reporting on oil wells that explode and leak, British elections being held, wars being fought, genocide unfolding, riots occurring in Greece, and all the rest. The good news is that we live in a world that features both “hard news” and informed commentary, to a degree we have never had before.

In that respect, what we have today is a vast improvement over the past. It also means that the truth and reality of the world in which we live has a better chance of being apprehended by the American citizenry.

I can understand on a personal and a professional level why Jon Meacham is shattered by what has happened to his magazine. But it is a tragedy for Newsweek, not for America — and not for American journalism.

John, I wanted to follow up on your post on Newsweek by linking to this interview between Jon Meacham and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show [it can be found here and here]. During it, Meacham says this:

I do not believe that Newsweek is the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance, but I think we’re one of them. And I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.

Ah, no.

For years I had subscribed to Newsweek, though I dropped the subscription last year, when I thought the magazine took a dive for the worst. I found the “new” Newsweek to be horrible in layout and in many (though certainly not all) of the writers it regularly featured. Jacob Weisberg and Jonathan Alter are not vital to the success of the American Republic. Trust me.

Regardless of your views about the quality of Newsweek, though, the notion that it is one of the “few catchers in the rye between democracy and ignorance” is risible. It was a liberal-leaning newsmagazine that mirrored almost perfectly the conventional wisdom of the political class. It was not, and never has been, indispensible, close to indispensible, or marginally indispensible. In fact, American democracy and American public discourse will not be one bit worse off when it disappears from the scene.

My three children will do fine growing up in a world without Newsweek.

Meacham also insisted that Newsweek has been “one of the very few common denominators in a fragmented world.” It actually has not been that.

Newsweek represented a point of view that was philosophically liberal. In some years it did that better than in other years. But it was not a “common denominator” for us, as much as Meacham wishes it were. And I, for one, believe the “fragmented” media world we live in is far superior to the one that came before it. The consensus that existed among journalists when their profession was dominated by Time and Newsweek, by ABC, NBC, and CBS, by the New York Times and the Washington Post, was stupefying. The narratives were virtually all the same because the worldviews of reporters were almost all the same. What we had were a “herd of independent minds” trying to tell us how to think, which stories were worthy of our attention, and how to process those stories.

Today we live in a far more interesting, variegated, and informed world. There are now genuine clashes of ideas — and facts can now be checked in a way they never were in the past. (See Dan Rather’s and CBS’s reliance on bogus documents for a “60 Minutes” report charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, something that two decades ago could have cost Bush the presidency instead of Rather his job.)

It isn’t a perfect world by any means. And I’m not in favor of a world in which there are only commentators, only bloggers, only opinion-makers. We still need newspapers and news organizations that report and break news. For example, the New York Times, whatever its drawbacks, still provides excellent coverage of international affairs. During the Iraq war reporters like John Burns, Dexter Filkins, and Michael Gordon provided outstanding coverage.

We still need journalists reporting on oil wells that explode and leak, British elections being held, wars being fought, genocide unfolding, riots occurring in Greece, and all the rest. The good news is that we live in a world that features both “hard news” and informed commentary, to a degree we have never had before.

In that respect, what we have today is a vast improvement over the past. It also means that the truth and reality of the world in which we live has a better chance of being apprehended by the American citizenry.

I can understand on a personal and a professional level why Jon Meacham is shattered by what has happened to his magazine. But it is a tragedy for Newsweek, not for America — and not for American journalism.

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What Is the Size of the Debt?

With the national debt shaping up as a major issue in this year’s election, its size should be clear.

As of February 4th, the national debt amounted to $12,346,427,470,024.01, roughly 87 percent of GDP. This is a higher percentage than it has been since 1950, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Bureau of the Public Debt, however, makes a distinction between “debt held by the public,” which is $7,840,400,752,727.59 (55 percent of GDP) and “intragovernmental debt” ($4,506,026,717,296.42 — 32 percent of GDP), which is held by various branches of the federal government, principally the Social Security Trust Fund.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday, in an otherwise spot-on editorial, dismisses the intragovernmental debt as not really debt at all. “We use the debt-held-by-the-public figure because that is the amount the U.S. government has borrowed from others. The total debt is larger, but that includes Social Security IOUs that are promises that politicians have made to taxpayers and can repudiate. You can’t repudiate public debt except at great cost, as Greece is discovering.”

I disagree. The bonds that constitute the assets of the Social Security Trust Fund and other trust funds are federal bonds, just like those held by the public, except they cannot be sold in the bond market. Instead they must be redeemed by the Treasury on demand. Social Security has been running large surpluses for almost thirty years in order to build up funds to meet the demands of the baby-boomers’ generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). As the boomers begin to retire, the surplus will disappear. It is currently estimated that Social Security will cease to be in surplus in 2017 or sooner if the economy doesn’t recover quickly.

When Social Security begins operating in deficit, the Social Security Administrationwill begin taking those bonds to the Treasury and asking for the money. To be sure, at that point Congress could slash the size of Social Security checks to keep Social Security in surplus, thus obviating the need to redeem the bonds. The sun will rise in the west before that happens, however. So Congress will either have to cut spending elsewhere, raise taxes, or borrow the money with which to redeem the Social Security bonds.

Unless Congress mends it profligate ways very soon, the last option is the one they will choose. Thus over the next thirty years or so, the intragovernmental debt will be slowly transformed into public debt as the trust fund is depleted.

So the intragovernmental debt is just as real as the public debt and the country is just as burdened by it.

With the national debt shaping up as a major issue in this year’s election, its size should be clear.

As of February 4th, the national debt amounted to $12,346,427,470,024.01, roughly 87 percent of GDP. This is a higher percentage than it has been since 1950, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Bureau of the Public Debt, however, makes a distinction between “debt held by the public,” which is $7,840,400,752,727.59 (55 percent of GDP) and “intragovernmental debt” ($4,506,026,717,296.42 — 32 percent of GDP), which is held by various branches of the federal government, principally the Social Security Trust Fund.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday, in an otherwise spot-on editorial, dismisses the intragovernmental debt as not really debt at all. “We use the debt-held-by-the-public figure because that is the amount the U.S. government has borrowed from others. The total debt is larger, but that includes Social Security IOUs that are promises that politicians have made to taxpayers and can repudiate. You can’t repudiate public debt except at great cost, as Greece is discovering.”

I disagree. The bonds that constitute the assets of the Social Security Trust Fund and other trust funds are federal bonds, just like those held by the public, except they cannot be sold in the bond market. Instead they must be redeemed by the Treasury on demand. Social Security has been running large surpluses for almost thirty years in order to build up funds to meet the demands of the baby-boomers’ generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). As the boomers begin to retire, the surplus will disappear. It is currently estimated that Social Security will cease to be in surplus in 2017 or sooner if the economy doesn’t recover quickly.

When Social Security begins operating in deficit, the Social Security Administrationwill begin taking those bonds to the Treasury and asking for the money. To be sure, at that point Congress could slash the size of Social Security checks to keep Social Security in surplus, thus obviating the need to redeem the bonds. The sun will rise in the west before that happens, however. So Congress will either have to cut spending elsewhere, raise taxes, or borrow the money with which to redeem the Social Security bonds.

Unless Congress mends it profligate ways very soon, the last option is the one they will choose. Thus over the next thirty years or so, the intragovernmental debt will be slowly transformed into public debt as the trust fund is depleted.

So the intragovernmental debt is just as real as the public debt and the country is just as burdened by it.

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IOC: Stop Bothering China

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is asking the world to stop bothering China on issues such as human rights. “You don’t obtain anything in China with a loud voice,” he said in an interview appearing Friday on the website of the Financial Times. “That is the big mistake of people in the west wanting to add their views. To keep face is of paramount importance. All the Chinese specialists will tell you that only one thing works-respectful, quiet but firm discussion.”

Really? Rogge, echoing the view of China’s Communist Party as carried in People’s Daily, was speaking in the context of protests that for more than a month have dogged the Olympic torch relay, starting with the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece. He raises the broader issue: How should the world deal with China today?

It is true that China will change on its own. The Chinese people are in the midst of the process of both shedding their self-image as outsiders and ending their traditional role as adversaries of the existing global order. There is unimaginable societal change at unheard of speed thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of China’s 1.5 billion or so restless souls. They are making a “kinetic dash into the future” without so much as a roadmap or compass. If there is any cause for optimism in the world today, it is that the Chinese people are aware, assertive, and confident.

But they are not yet in charge. Unfortunately for them, nine men in blue suits and red ties sit at the apex of political power on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. These modern autocrats, more than anyone else, are standing in the way of transformation of the Chinese nation.

They have been able to do so and stay in power because they have been ruthlessly pragmatic. They, like all successful leaders, can be flexible when they must. In other words, they react to pressure. As Arthur Waldron has been pointing out recently, they just bowed to global sentiment by agreeing to talk to representatives of the Dalai Lama. And almost universal African defiance of Beijing’s wishes has forced China’s leaders to give up their attempt to deliver arms to the repugnant Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

So if we want China to change now–and not years from now when it will be too late–the world has no choice but to convince the country’s leaders that the price of resistance is too high. Rogge is right insofar as he notes that the Chinese are concerned about world opinion. When the international community has been united in the past, Beijing has almost invariably modified its behavior. So if we want those nine Chinese autocrats to change their abhorrent policies and practices of today, we must give them no choice at this moment but to do the right thing.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge is asking the world to stop bothering China on issues such as human rights. “You don’t obtain anything in China with a loud voice,” he said in an interview appearing Friday on the website of the Financial Times. “That is the big mistake of people in the west wanting to add their views. To keep face is of paramount importance. All the Chinese specialists will tell you that only one thing works-respectful, quiet but firm discussion.”

Really? Rogge, echoing the view of China’s Communist Party as carried in People’s Daily, was speaking in the context of protests that for more than a month have dogged the Olympic torch relay, starting with the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece. He raises the broader issue: How should the world deal with China today?

It is true that China will change on its own. The Chinese people are in the midst of the process of both shedding their self-image as outsiders and ending their traditional role as adversaries of the existing global order. There is unimaginable societal change at unheard of speed thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of China’s 1.5 billion or so restless souls. They are making a “kinetic dash into the future” without so much as a roadmap or compass. If there is any cause for optimism in the world today, it is that the Chinese people are aware, assertive, and confident.

But they are not yet in charge. Unfortunately for them, nine men in blue suits and red ties sit at the apex of political power on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. These modern autocrats, more than anyone else, are standing in the way of transformation of the Chinese nation.

They have been able to do so and stay in power because they have been ruthlessly pragmatic. They, like all successful leaders, can be flexible when they must. In other words, they react to pressure. As Arthur Waldron has been pointing out recently, they just bowed to global sentiment by agreeing to talk to representatives of the Dalai Lama. And almost universal African defiance of Beijing’s wishes has forced China’s leaders to give up their attempt to deliver arms to the repugnant Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

So if we want China to change now–and not years from now when it will be too late–the world has no choice but to convince the country’s leaders that the price of resistance is too high. Rogge is right insofar as he notes that the Chinese are concerned about world opinion. When the international community has been united in the past, Beijing has almost invariably modified its behavior. So if we want those nine Chinese autocrats to change their abhorrent policies and practices of today, we must give them no choice at this moment but to do the right thing.

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Italy’s Iran Reversal

Italy, reversing its previous policy of putting commercial interests before strategic ones, has decided to endorse a series of additional EU sanctions against Iran–which include embargoing Bank Melli, Iran’s main commercial bank and a conveyor belt for terror financing. The motives for Italy’s government to have reversed its policy are less than noble, though. The outgoing left-of-center government, according to news reports, does not want to give the incoming new right-of-center executive the opportunity to portray Romano Prodi’s outgoing government as one that stood against “the whole European Union.”

Had Prodi’s policies–to say nothing of his foreign minister’s regular outbursts–not been so embarrassing, he would not have to worry about looking bad on his way out. Regardless, the portrayal of Italy’s outgoing government as “standing alone against the whole European Union” gives too much credit to Italy’s now-reversed stance on Iran. After all, the Italians are not alone in giving Iran a free pass–Spain, Greece, Austria, Cyprus, and some Scandinavian countries are likely to regret Italy’s change of heart. And with the EU still deadlocked on further measures to implement UN Security council Resolution 1803, the swing in favor of further sanctions is not as dramatic as it first appears.

Italy, reversing its previous policy of putting commercial interests before strategic ones, has decided to endorse a series of additional EU sanctions against Iran–which include embargoing Bank Melli, Iran’s main commercial bank and a conveyor belt for terror financing. The motives for Italy’s government to have reversed its policy are less than noble, though. The outgoing left-of-center government, according to news reports, does not want to give the incoming new right-of-center executive the opportunity to portray Romano Prodi’s outgoing government as one that stood against “the whole European Union.”

Had Prodi’s policies–to say nothing of his foreign minister’s regular outbursts–not been so embarrassing, he would not have to worry about looking bad on his way out. Regardless, the portrayal of Italy’s outgoing government as “standing alone against the whole European Union” gives too much credit to Italy’s now-reversed stance on Iran. After all, the Italians are not alone in giving Iran a free pass–Spain, Greece, Austria, Cyprus, and some Scandinavian countries are likely to regret Italy’s change of heart. And with the EU still deadlocked on further measures to implement UN Security council Resolution 1803, the swing in favor of further sanctions is not as dramatic as it first appears.

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NATO Disappoints

Last week’s NATO summit was disappointing on many levels. The member states refused to endorse a membership action plan for Ukraine or Georgia, thus seeming to give in to hysterical Russian objections—something that will only encourage more Russian truculence in the future. They did admit Croatia and Albania to the alliance, but they did not let Macedonia through the door because of overwrought Greek objections to that state using the same name as a province of Greece.

The members did not agree to a major increase in troop strength in Afghanistan, which is badly needed. The French did come through with another battalion (1,000 troops) for eastern Afghanistan, but that was about it. That means, as usual, the U.S. will have to send the bulk of the needed troops, even though we are already far more committed in Iraq than any other NATO member. The NATO members did agree to set up a trust fund to help Afghanistan, thereby giving states unwilling to send troops a way to contribute to the success of a key NATO mission. But it remains to be seen how much will be pledged and (more importantly) how many of those pledges will actually be delivered.

On another issue relating to Afghanistan, and one that did not get nearly as much attention as it deserved, the NATO members agreed in principle to increase the size of the Afghan National Army from an authorized level of 86,000 to 120,000. But as pointed out in this Guardian article, the actual increase was put off until 2010 at the earliest. That is worrisome because the Afghan army, while growing in competence, is far too small for the task of pacifying a country with a larger land area and population than Iraq.

While Iraq has around 200,000 soldiers, Afghanistan has only 55,000. As noted in this Christian Science Monitor article, Afghan and American experts think that Afghanistan needs at least 200,000 soldiers, but asked for NATO’s help to equip and train only 120,000 because that is the most they thought they could get. Even that lesser level has produced more rhetorical than actual support from NATO. Unless NATO members step up, there is a real danger that the alliance’s most critical “out of area” mission will fail and drag down the alliance with it.

Last week’s NATO summit was disappointing on many levels. The member states refused to endorse a membership action plan for Ukraine or Georgia, thus seeming to give in to hysterical Russian objections—something that will only encourage more Russian truculence in the future. They did admit Croatia and Albania to the alliance, but they did not let Macedonia through the door because of overwrought Greek objections to that state using the same name as a province of Greece.

The members did not agree to a major increase in troop strength in Afghanistan, which is badly needed. The French did come through with another battalion (1,000 troops) for eastern Afghanistan, but that was about it. That means, as usual, the U.S. will have to send the bulk of the needed troops, even though we are already far more committed in Iraq than any other NATO member. The NATO members did agree to set up a trust fund to help Afghanistan, thereby giving states unwilling to send troops a way to contribute to the success of a key NATO mission. But it remains to be seen how much will be pledged and (more importantly) how many of those pledges will actually be delivered.

On another issue relating to Afghanistan, and one that did not get nearly as much attention as it deserved, the NATO members agreed in principle to increase the size of the Afghan National Army from an authorized level of 86,000 to 120,000. But as pointed out in this Guardian article, the actual increase was put off until 2010 at the earliest. That is worrisome because the Afghan army, while growing in competence, is far too small for the task of pacifying a country with a larger land area and population than Iraq.

While Iraq has around 200,000 soldiers, Afghanistan has only 55,000. As noted in this Christian Science Monitor article, Afghan and American experts think that Afghanistan needs at least 200,000 soldiers, but asked for NATO’s help to equip and train only 120,000 because that is the most they thought they could get. Even that lesser level has produced more rhetorical than actual support from NATO. Unless NATO members step up, there is a real danger that the alliance’s most critical “out of area” mission will fail and drag down the alliance with it.

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Is the New York Times Being Wiretapped?

The New York Times has been howling about “warrantless wiretapping” conducted in the United States by the National Security Agency and directed against al-Qaeda operatives who might be wandering around our country carrying carrying knitting needles or other household implements that are still allowed on planes. 

But even as the newspaper worries about the privacy rights of suspected terrorists, why has it not said a word about the possibility that it itself is a target of warrantless surveillance, and not by the U.S. government but by far less friendly forces? Is the newspaper unaware of the problem, or does it find it inconvenient to acknowledge it, or does it simply have its head in the sand?

Without subjecting Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to enhanced interrogation methods, we cannot say. But Jennifer Dyer, formerly a Commander in U.S. Naval Intelligence, offers her analysis of the issue in another Connecting the Dots exclusive. Her short answer is yes, such eavesdropping is probably happening. Her long answer is right here:

Russia, in particular, has an extensive history of using its diplomatic and civilian facilities abroad as bases for intelligence collection — and for collecting against civilian targets as well as government agencies. But Russia is not the only suspect; and technological advances have changed the collection targets and methods somewhat, since the public last had occasion to think very hard about this topic.

The dimensions of the problem are key factors. A Department of Defense publication from 1989 [p. 16] provides a useful overview of former-Soviet attempts and capabilities to monitor foreign communications abroad, pointing out, notably, the suitability of the Soviet consular compound in New York City for intercepting several types of voice communications in most of Manhattan. Although phone communications were overwhelmingly transmitted via landline at that time, the DOD security study observed that in more than half of all phone connections, calls were switched randomly over interim links to optimize circuit loading [p. 159], and that it was impossible to ensure that every potential connection path was secure against monitoring.

This warning was cutting-edge in the 1980′s, when physical tapping, of the phone lines associated with specific individuals or organizations, was still what the average person thought of in this regard. If there were no men in trench coats crouched in leased office spaces next door, could we not assume we were tap-free?

Foreign intelligence agencies, however, study our civil-communications infrastructure far more closely than we do, and for the specific purpose of identifying vulnerabilities. It has been quite some time since the surveillance of a phone call had to be undertaken next door, or even near a switching room in a phone company building. In the wireless microwave age, with routine satellite connections and high-data-rate transmission, 90 percent of the surveillance approach need not even involve collectors physically on the same continent. Soviet collectors in the 1980′s might seek to exploit phone junction facilities; in the 199’0s their Russian successors in New York posted vans near microwave towers. Actual exploitation of the data collected might occur within 24 hours, as linguists labored over replayed recordings.

Today, it is fairly simple not only to monitor microwave relay facilities, but to simply monitor cell-phone chatter through the airwaves. In fact, any phone call may be connected in a variety of ways, regardless of how it was placed by the originator; calling from a fixed, landline phone might once have increased the difficulty of intercept, but today it serves rather to make the originator easier to identify, as links in the transmission path are exploited. Moreover, it takes very little in the way of interception and transmission equipment to instantaneously relay anything collected to the other side of the world, where linguists — whose presence at a consulate, in a big bunker, might seem odd — can quickly interpret and report, unremarked, at home.

Such electronic surveillance produces some of the cheapest and highest-payoff intelligence there is, and we may apply a good rule of thumb from the intelligence world here: if it can be done, someone is trying to do it. It is reasonable to assume that Russia, as she has in the past, performs such monitoring from her consulate on Central Park East, and that Russian surveillance can intercept much of Manhattan via the airwaves, from its roof. Knowing the recent history of Russian attempts to exploit communications relay points with mobile collection, we may equally assume that that is an ongoing effort.

Russia, again, is not our only suspect. While there is less direct evidence available to the public on Chinese efforts at electronic surveillance, we know that espionage against the U.S. is a very high priority for China, and the rule of thumb suggests Beijing will try this method, as well as the human contact espionage China is best known for. China’s New York consulate on East 61 Street provides a useful vantage point for electronic collection. However, a nation need not have a diplomatic facility in New York to have a collection base there. The Iranian Alavi Foundation, a putative charitable foundation that has fallen under suspicion by U.S. federal agencies as a base for espionage and the support of terror cells, owns the 32-story building it occupies at 52nd and Fifth — a position with advantages for electronic collection in Manhattan.

Physical intercept of signals is, of course, only a primitive method of electronic surveillance in today’s technological environment. Because it remains cheap and high-payoff, it will continue for some time. But recent successes in information technology (IT) based espionage highlight the real feasibility of obtaining large amounts of intelligence by intercepting communications digitally. As phone and personal computer capabilities merge, it will be increasingly irrelevant to separate attacks against one from attacks against the other.

Probably the most celebrated monitoring attack to date against a phone network was the “Athens Affair” in 2004-05, when still-unidentified cyber-attackers hacked into switching computers in Greece’s Vodafone network and monitored more than 100 phones used by government officials and private civilians. (A full technical explanation of the hackers’ approach can be found here.)

Although these attackers have not been identified, China was directly implicated in the hacking of German government computers in 2007, when German authorities discovered that data was being “siphoned off” daily from computers in the German Chancellery and other government agencies, by hackers in Lanzhou, Canton Province, and Beijing. The years 2006-07 were busy ones for China’s hackers, who were fingered in network intrusions in the British government  and the U. S. Departments of Defense and Commerce. Russia demonstrated some network intrusion prowess of her own in a broad scale cyber attack on Estonia’s government, public facilities, and private organizations – including news media computers — in April-May of 2007.

While only one of these data network intrusions (the Chinese attack on German systems) was characterized by officials as an attempt at extended monitoring, per se, they underscore the easy availability of the technology to manipulate computer networks, and the aptitude of, at a minimum, China and Russia for exploiting it. The applicability of such capabilities to monitoring the journalists at the New York Times is reinforced by the success of eccentric American hacker Adrian Lamo in penetrating the New York Times computer network in 2004. Lamo confessed that while online with the New York Times network, he was able to view not only employment and other personal records of the New York Times staff, but was able to obtain the private phone numbers of journalists and contributors, such as former President Jimmy Carter.

Of course, if the intelligence collector is China, “Trojan” hardware sold to IT providers may be the placement method. The U.S. government decided not to even install 16,000 computers manufactured by the Chinese firm Lenovo, in the wake of Chinese intrusions on U.S. government networks in 2006. Russia’s history of introducing Trojan hardware into U.S. embassies and consulates was certainly a historical factor in this security decision [p. 17]. However, private news organizations do not routinely consider the possibility that IT hardware — phones or computers — that they purchase from commercial vendors may contain manufacturer-embedded code or devices for long-term exploitation.

If it can be done, someone is trying to do it.

The New York Times has been howling about “warrantless wiretapping” conducted in the United States by the National Security Agency and directed against al-Qaeda operatives who might be wandering around our country carrying carrying knitting needles or other household implements that are still allowed on planes. 

But even as the newspaper worries about the privacy rights of suspected terrorists, why has it not said a word about the possibility that it itself is a target of warrantless surveillance, and not by the U.S. government but by far less friendly forces? Is the newspaper unaware of the problem, or does it find it inconvenient to acknowledge it, or does it simply have its head in the sand?

Without subjecting Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to enhanced interrogation methods, we cannot say. But Jennifer Dyer, formerly a Commander in U.S. Naval Intelligence, offers her analysis of the issue in another Connecting the Dots exclusive. Her short answer is yes, such eavesdropping is probably happening. Her long answer is right here:

Russia, in particular, has an extensive history of using its diplomatic and civilian facilities abroad as bases for intelligence collection — and for collecting against civilian targets as well as government agencies. But Russia is not the only suspect; and technological advances have changed the collection targets and methods somewhat, since the public last had occasion to think very hard about this topic.

The dimensions of the problem are key factors. A Department of Defense publication from 1989 [p. 16] provides a useful overview of former-Soviet attempts and capabilities to monitor foreign communications abroad, pointing out, notably, the suitability of the Soviet consular compound in New York City for intercepting several types of voice communications in most of Manhattan. Although phone communications were overwhelmingly transmitted via landline at that time, the DOD security study observed that in more than half of all phone connections, calls were switched randomly over interim links to optimize circuit loading [p. 159], and that it was impossible to ensure that every potential connection path was secure against monitoring.

This warning was cutting-edge in the 1980′s, when physical tapping, of the phone lines associated with specific individuals or organizations, was still what the average person thought of in this regard. If there were no men in trench coats crouched in leased office spaces next door, could we not assume we were tap-free?

Foreign intelligence agencies, however, study our civil-communications infrastructure far more closely than we do, and for the specific purpose of identifying vulnerabilities. It has been quite some time since the surveillance of a phone call had to be undertaken next door, or even near a switching room in a phone company building. In the wireless microwave age, with routine satellite connections and high-data-rate transmission, 90 percent of the surveillance approach need not even involve collectors physically on the same continent. Soviet collectors in the 1980′s might seek to exploit phone junction facilities; in the 199’0s their Russian successors in New York posted vans near microwave towers. Actual exploitation of the data collected might occur within 24 hours, as linguists labored over replayed recordings.

Today, it is fairly simple not only to monitor microwave relay facilities, but to simply monitor cell-phone chatter through the airwaves. In fact, any phone call may be connected in a variety of ways, regardless of how it was placed by the originator; calling from a fixed, landline phone might once have increased the difficulty of intercept, but today it serves rather to make the originator easier to identify, as links in the transmission path are exploited. Moreover, it takes very little in the way of interception and transmission equipment to instantaneously relay anything collected to the other side of the world, where linguists — whose presence at a consulate, in a big bunker, might seem odd — can quickly interpret and report, unremarked, at home.

Such electronic surveillance produces some of the cheapest and highest-payoff intelligence there is, and we may apply a good rule of thumb from the intelligence world here: if it can be done, someone is trying to do it. It is reasonable to assume that Russia, as she has in the past, performs such monitoring from her consulate on Central Park East, and that Russian surveillance can intercept much of Manhattan via the airwaves, from its roof. Knowing the recent history of Russian attempts to exploit communications relay points with mobile collection, we may equally assume that that is an ongoing effort.

Russia, again, is not our only suspect. While there is less direct evidence available to the public on Chinese efforts at electronic surveillance, we know that espionage against the U.S. is a very high priority for China, and the rule of thumb suggests Beijing will try this method, as well as the human contact espionage China is best known for. China’s New York consulate on East 61 Street provides a useful vantage point for electronic collection. However, a nation need not have a diplomatic facility in New York to have a collection base there. The Iranian Alavi Foundation, a putative charitable foundation that has fallen under suspicion by U.S. federal agencies as a base for espionage and the support of terror cells, owns the 32-story building it occupies at 52nd and Fifth — a position with advantages for electronic collection in Manhattan.

Physical intercept of signals is, of course, only a primitive method of electronic surveillance in today’s technological environment. Because it remains cheap and high-payoff, it will continue for some time. But recent successes in information technology (IT) based espionage highlight the real feasibility of obtaining large amounts of intelligence by intercepting communications digitally. As phone and personal computer capabilities merge, it will be increasingly irrelevant to separate attacks against one from attacks against the other.

Probably the most celebrated monitoring attack to date against a phone network was the “Athens Affair” in 2004-05, when still-unidentified cyber-attackers hacked into switching computers in Greece’s Vodafone network and monitored more than 100 phones used by government officials and private civilians. (A full technical explanation of the hackers’ approach can be found here.)

Although these attackers have not been identified, China was directly implicated in the hacking of German government computers in 2007, when German authorities discovered that data was being “siphoned off” daily from computers in the German Chancellery and other government agencies, by hackers in Lanzhou, Canton Province, and Beijing. The years 2006-07 were busy ones for China’s hackers, who were fingered in network intrusions in the British government  and the U. S. Departments of Defense and Commerce. Russia demonstrated some network intrusion prowess of her own in a broad scale cyber attack on Estonia’s government, public facilities, and private organizations – including news media computers — in April-May of 2007.

While only one of these data network intrusions (the Chinese attack on German systems) was characterized by officials as an attempt at extended monitoring, per se, they underscore the easy availability of the technology to manipulate computer networks, and the aptitude of, at a minimum, China and Russia for exploiting it. The applicability of such capabilities to monitoring the journalists at the New York Times is reinforced by the success of eccentric American hacker Adrian Lamo in penetrating the New York Times computer network in 2004. Lamo confessed that while online with the New York Times network, he was able to view not only employment and other personal records of the New York Times staff, but was able to obtain the private phone numbers of journalists and contributors, such as former President Jimmy Carter.

Of course, if the intelligence collector is China, “Trojan” hardware sold to IT providers may be the placement method. The U.S. government decided not to even install 16,000 computers manufactured by the Chinese firm Lenovo, in the wake of Chinese intrusions on U.S. government networks in 2006. Russia’s history of introducing Trojan hardware into U.S. embassies and consulates was certainly a historical factor in this security decision [p. 17]. However, private news organizations do not routinely consider the possibility that IT hardware — phones or computers — that they purchase from commercial vendors may contain manufacturer-embedded code or devices for long-term exploitation.

If it can be done, someone is trying to do it.

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Bookshelf

• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


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Athens, Jerusalem, and Auschwitz

Last week, on my way from New York to Jerusalem, I had a few hours to spare in Athens; so I paid a visit to the city’s Jewish Museum, a modest and little-known facility in the touristy Plaka district.

The experience was stunning, depressing, enraging. Most of us have had an ample Holocaust education, yet few of us are fully aware of the fate of Greece’s Jewish community during World War II. Before the war, this community, dating back over two millennia, boasted 77,000 mostly Sephardic Jews, who prospered in both wealth and scholarship. During the war, fully 87 percent were shipped off and murdered—the highest proportion in all of Europe.

Yet unlike Germany, France, and Poland, which have made an effort to teach their own populations about the Nazi genocide, in Greece there is virtually no awareness that the liquidation of their Jewish community ever took place. A friend of mine, while serving in the Israeli army, was charged with taking foreign military officials on tours of Israel, which inevitably included a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. She told me of the horror that dawned on the faces of stern Greek generals as they came to understand, many for the first time, the extent of Greek cooperation with the Holocaust and the starkness of the numbers.

While at the museum, I kept thinking that at least in this country, the most extreme goals of the Nazi regime were carried out in full. Today, Athens, a city of 3 million people, has but two small synagogues; in all of Greece, there are no more than 5,000 Jews. A vibrant community, in the city known as the birthplace of enlightenment, was extinguished and erased from memory—save for a small museum on Nikis Street, in the shadow of the Parthenon.

Last week, on my way from New York to Jerusalem, I had a few hours to spare in Athens; so I paid a visit to the city’s Jewish Museum, a modest and little-known facility in the touristy Plaka district.

The experience was stunning, depressing, enraging. Most of us have had an ample Holocaust education, yet few of us are fully aware of the fate of Greece’s Jewish community during World War II. Before the war, this community, dating back over two millennia, boasted 77,000 mostly Sephardic Jews, who prospered in both wealth and scholarship. During the war, fully 87 percent were shipped off and murdered—the highest proportion in all of Europe.

Yet unlike Germany, France, and Poland, which have made an effort to teach their own populations about the Nazi genocide, in Greece there is virtually no awareness that the liquidation of their Jewish community ever took place. A friend of mine, while serving in the Israeli army, was charged with taking foreign military officials on tours of Israel, which inevitably included a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. She told me of the horror that dawned on the faces of stern Greek generals as they came to understand, many for the first time, the extent of Greek cooperation with the Holocaust and the starkness of the numbers.

While at the museum, I kept thinking that at least in this country, the most extreme goals of the Nazi regime were carried out in full. Today, Athens, a city of 3 million people, has but two small synagogues; in all of Greece, there are no more than 5,000 Jews. A vibrant community, in the city known as the birthplace of enlightenment, was extinguished and erased from memory—save for a small museum on Nikis Street, in the shadow of the Parthenon.

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Should We Be Patient With al Qaeda?

I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

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I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

I won’t summarize the argument so far. Interested readers can click on the relevant links above. But it beggars the imagination that in the war-ravaged year of 1947, when the danger of Soviet expansionism loomed so large, Kennan had in mind, as Thompson asserts, only a non-military means of checking it.

Yes, Kennan wrote a letter to Walter Lippmann saying that we should not intervene militarily in Greece, Turkey, and Iran, where an East-West contest for power was on-going. But he never mailed that letter. Perhaps this was at the request of his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall, as Thompson suggests. Or perhaps, after reflection, it was not his considered opinion: after all, as I noted yesterday, he did speak in his X article in Foreign Affairs of a “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Either way, this one letter cannot be taken to mean that in those years Kennan stood opposed to the use of military force to contain the USSR in all instances.

And yes, Kennan was an advocate of “patience,” as Thompson accurately states. But patience at what? Back in those years, it seems fairly clear that he meant the U.S. should be patient in resisting Soviet expansionism, including by military means, until Communist rule changed or collapsed. He did not mean patiently going to church Sunday after Sunday to pray for a miracle.

Finally, if Kennan (the later Kennan, that is, the one who had disowned the writings of the earlier one) turned out to be wrong about the cold war—as Thompson acknowledges he was both in his Times op-ed and in his comment on contentions—why should we now accept his faulty approach in dealing with al Qaeda? I called this illogical yesterday, and I call it illogical again today.

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Israel’s War for Public Opinion

Well, in case you weren’t absolutely certain, it’s now official: Israel is the least-liked country in the world. A new BBC poll of the attitudes of 28,000 people in 27 countries shows Israel at the bottom of the list, with 17 percent viewing it positively and 56 percent negatively—slightly below Iran (18 and 54 percent) and North Korea (19 and 48 percent).

The only four countries in the world in which more people are favorably rather than unfavorably inclined toward Israel are the United States, India, Nigeria, and Kenya—and not by big margins in any of them. Forty-one percent of Americans, for example, thought well of Israel while 33 percent didn’t, a serious drop-off from previous polls.

At the other end of the spectrum, apart from Muslim countries, Israel did worst in Europe. In Italy the vote was 58-to-18 against it. In England, 65-to-17. In France, 66-to-17. In Greece, 68-to-11. In Germany (Germany!), 77-to-10. These are frightening—I would almost say terrifying—figures. They show that the international campaign against Israel has succeeded incredibly well.

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Well, in case you weren’t absolutely certain, it’s now official: Israel is the least-liked country in the world. A new BBC poll of the attitudes of 28,000 people in 27 countries shows Israel at the bottom of the list, with 17 percent viewing it positively and 56 percent negatively—slightly below Iran (18 and 54 percent) and North Korea (19 and 48 percent).

The only four countries in the world in which more people are favorably rather than unfavorably inclined toward Israel are the United States, India, Nigeria, and Kenya—and not by big margins in any of them. Forty-one percent of Americans, for example, thought well of Israel while 33 percent didn’t, a serious drop-off from previous polls.

At the other end of the spectrum, apart from Muslim countries, Israel did worst in Europe. In Italy the vote was 58-to-18 against it. In England, 65-to-17. In France, 66-to-17. In Greece, 68-to-11. In Germany (Germany!), 77-to-10. These are frightening—I would almost say terrifying—figures. They show that the international campaign against Israel has succeeded incredibly well.

Nor is it much comfort that the United States did badly too, with 51 percent of the BBC’s respondents viewing it negatively and 30 percent positively, or that America and Israel appear to be linked in the eyes of world public opinion. For one thing, America’s position will start to rebound as soon as the Bush administration steps down, while Israel’s almost certainly will not. And secondly, the world’s greatest power need not feel endangered by such unpopularity, but it must be viewed differently by a small and beleaguered country toward whom the world’s attitudes can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

Although public opinion has less influence on foreign policy than on domestic policy, governments are not ultimately immune to it there either. So far the European Union, whose good will is crucial to Israel, has behaved toward it, if not always supportively, at least with a reasonable measure of sympathy and fairness. How long can this be expected to go on? How much longer will the government of Germany, which over and over has led the pro-Israel forces in Europe, continue to do so when its citizens, by a ratio of nearly 8-to-1, disapprove of the country it has been defending?

When one debates what “legitimate” criticism of Israel does and does not consist of, such figures need to be kept constantly in mind. No criticism of Israel that further distorts the wildly inaccurate picture of it that prevails in most of the world can possibly be legitimate. Israel is fighting a war for public opinion that is, in the long run, part of the war it is fighting for its survival—and it is being routed. Those who care for it, no matter how much they disagree with its current policies, should think not twice but ten times before they say or do anything that can only make this rout worse.

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Boot and Hanson, Final Round: Fixing Our Mistakes

Dear Max,

I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.

Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.

Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.

As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.

And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.

Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.

I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.

All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.

Best,
Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IV

Dear Max,

I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.

Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.

Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.

As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.

And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.

Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.

I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.

All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.

Best,
Victor

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IV

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