Sunday, March 01, 2015

Amazing thing: a left-of-center party does what its base wants and people like it!

Someday this could be true of the Democratic Party in the United States. I mean, we can dream, can't we?

Keep Talking Greece reports, Survey: SYRIZA 42.1%, ND 18.3%; 7:10 Greeks agree with Eurogroup agreement 03/01/2015: "At least two in three Greeks are satisfied with the way Greek government negotiated with the EU partners and seven in ten agree with the Eurogroup agreement."

Wow, imagine that! The Very Serious People of the EU must be shaking their heads over how the Greek public fails to understand the virtue of austerity without end.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Is "the left" soft on Islamism?

Michael Walzer, a well-known theorist of just war, writes in the Winter 2015 Dissent, where Walzer is emeritus editor, on Islamism and the Left. The Dissent website features additional material, including endnotes to the article and this exchange, Andrew March and Michael Walzer, Islamism and the Left: An Exchange (Online Only) Winter 2015.

Walzer is a thoughtful guy and his article is a serious one. But processing it involves navigating the difference between the longer-term questions involved in evaluating Islamist governments and movements from a left-democratic perspective, and the short-term reality of this moment in which warmongers of both the neocon and liberal-interventionist variety are using the threat of Islamic fanaticism in groups like ISIS to promote reckless foreign and military policies.

When I read the print article, my first reaction was that his argument is too general to throw much light on the first question and therefore reads like it's encouraging the purveyors of reckless Middle Eastern foreign policy. Because the article is carefully but clearly scolding "the left" in the US and Europe for not being critical enough of Islamist fundamentalism in the world and especially not of the political variety.

Walzer argues that "the left" tends to naively view Islamist radicalism in the Middle East as opponents to Western imperialism. This produces a "reluctance to condemn Islamist crimes, and that is the great eagerness to condemn the crimes of the West"

He also argues that "the left" is somehow dogmatically unwilling to look at the significance of religion in jihadist ideology because "the left" just doesn't want to think about religion. "The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion." In the view of "the left," he argues, "Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base."

What struck me on the first reading of Walzer's piece is that what he described as that of "the left" didn't sound familiar to me from the considerable amount of reading, listening, researching and talking about such issues with people I consider progressives, mostly but not exclusively Americans.

To take one example, some of the best-informed and serious analysis of American foreign policy toward militant Islam in the last 12 years has come from Juan Cole, an expert on Shi'a Islam, the form dominant in Iran and Iraq. He opposed the Iraq War and has cautioned about new interventions in Iraq ans Syria over ISIS. He supported the US-NATO role in Libya, whose results also seem to have been largely disastrous.

I don't known whether Walzer would consider him a "leftist" of the kind he talks about in his article. Certainly, Cole has been very critical of the actions and effects of Western imperialism in the Muslim world. And he has also been a careful analyst and critic of the various forms of political Islam in the world today.

We see both of those factors in this recent post of his, 5 Surprising Ways Iran is better than Israel Informed Comment 02/27/2015. On Iran's government, he writes:

Iran's government is not one I agree with on almost anything, and it is dictatorial and puritanical. I wish Iranians would get past it and join the world’s democracies. Israel is better than Iran in most regards – for Israeli citizens it has more of a rule of law and more personal liberties. But just to be fair, there are some ways Iran's policies are better than Israel’s.
And in this paragraph, he explains how Iran's historical experience with European imperial powers shaped the Islamist movement there, including political Islam, ending with some comments about the evolution of the political movement of Zionism in Israel:

Iran and European Jewry were both treated horribly in the 19th and 20th centuries by the major European imperial countries. Obviously, proportionally Jews suffered much more than Iranians did; about a third of Jews were murdered in the Nazi genocide. But Iran also suffered significant loss of human life and property. Tsarist Russia fought two wars with it in the early nineteenth century, and annexed from it substantial territory. Britain and Russia forbade Iran from constructing a railroad in the late 19th century, robbing it of a key tool of economic advance; that probably killed a lot of Iranians if you think about its implications. The British and the Russians opposed the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and helped make sure Iranians did not get liberty and a rule of law. Britain backed the rise of the Pahlevi dictatorship in the 1920s, if it did not in fact simply impose it. The US overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 because it had nationalized the oil industry and imposed the megalomaniacal Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on that country. Ultimately Iranians, outraged at constant interference in their domestic affairs, overthrew the shah and instituted a revolutionary regime based on indigenous Iranian culture, especially religious culture. Although the Jewish response to the European genocide against Jews was not immediately religious (most Zionists were secular), over time religion has come to play a bigger and bigger part in Israeli life. In a sense, Israel and Iran are both reactions against European nationalism and imperialism, though Israel has now allied with the West, whereas Iran continues to oppose many Western policies.
Juan Cole has never struck me as afflicted by any problem of not being able to walk and talk at the same time when it comes to political Islam.

And that tends to be true of the writers, analysts and activists with which I have some experience. Of course, people who consider themselves in some way "left" can and do criticize aspects of Islamist politics and of Islamic religious practices. And most of those people seem to also be able to look at international conflicts and conflicts within countries involving religious-political parties and make some kind of realistic, practical distinction among them. I can't remember when if ever I've seen someone I identified as part of "the left" may the argument: "Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base."

Walzer's article struck me as trying to say that anyone on "the left" who is critical of militarist foreign policy on the Middle East or terrorism more generally should spend a lot of their time and energy echoing the anti-Islam rhetoric of those who advocate such policies.

Andrew March frames his discussion of Walzer's essay this way:

We can hear in Walzer himself the voice of the anguished and disappointed critic. He is not speaking to the demagogues of Fox News or to the even more belligerent purveyors of anti-Muslim racism. He is speaking to the tribe he still claims as his own—the global left. But his alienation from that tribe is much more palpable than his connection. Walzer is addressing the left, but neither sharing in its anxieties nor moving with its moral and emotional rhythms.
He also argues that Walzer's approach itself criticizes Islamism in an essentially ideological, non-empirical manner. "Is it really helpful to speak about 'the left's' attitude toward Islamism in such general terms, without looking at specific left debates about Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, or Iran?"

March also thinks, as I did, that Walzer sounds like he's making a demand of "the left" that can never actually be satisfied:

Worse, the charge that one does not denounce enough is notoriously slippery. Like demands for Muslims to—finally!—speak out and condemn terrorism, for American Jews to condemn Israeli settlements, or for black leaders to condemn inner city rage, Walzer’s essay suffers from both confirmation and selection bias. ... The problem is that no amount of contradictory evidence is ever good enough. The one who has moved first can always reply, “Well, yes, there are these exceptions, of course, but I still don’t have enough comrades declaring Islamist zealots our primary enemies.” This response is as slippery as it is disappointingly parochial.
Walzer's rejoinder to March's criticism is not without a touch of bitterness.

Interestingly enough, it's Walzer rather than March who relates this controversy to the endless Cold War game of non-Communist left activists and writers demanding that anyone protesting against misdeeds of their own government in the United States that they fall all over themselves also screeching about every real and imagined misdeed of the Soviet Union. It was kind of hard for anyone then to point out how official anti-Communist ideology was used to inflate threats foreign and domestic, if they themselves were simultaneously howling, "The Commies are everywhere and they're out to get us!! Aieee-eeee!!!"

Here's a tip. Anyone who goes on, say, a news program to caution about getting involved in an unnecessary war based on bad assumptions and unrealistic optimism about outcomes is not going to make their point very credible if in the same appearance if they do a Lindsay Graham imitation and hyperventilate about how the ISIS super-terrorists will be killing us all in our beds any moment now. Lindsay Graham on ISIS: "This President needs to rise to the occasion before we all git killed back here at home."

Sam Seder reported on Sen. Chicken Little's careful analysis in this 09/15/2014 YouTube video:

Anyone who claims to be a liberal or progressive or part of the "the left" is not going to make any successful antiwar argument if they couple it by echoing Graham's pants-wetting hysteria. All they will do is make themselves part of the prowar argument in the form of "Even the liberal so-and-so says that ISIS could murder us all tomorrow."

Walzer near the end of rejoinder makes it clear that he basically favors the necon/liberal-interventionist argument of the moment. He isn't just interested in the larger critique. He likes Lindsay Graham's position, though he doesn't quite reach the Senator's level of squawking fear in these pieces. Walzer writes:

For the America he excoriates is right now the only force effectively opposing or, at least, containing, the power of ISIS and therefore the beheadings and the mass executions and the enslavement of Yazidi girls. ... They require more than disgust; they require a political response. And the left should be actively engaged in advocating such a response and in talking about its agents, its methods, and its limits.
But there also was no ISIS before 2003, when the Cheney-Bush Administration invaded Iraq justifying their invasion with both fear-mongering hysteria and high-sounding moral and political justifications.

After all, since the Second World War, America only goes to war against Hitler, again and again. Our motives are always the best. And our enemies are always the worst. And anyone who opposes those wars is always accused by some of the war's supporters, not all of them as literate as Michael Walzer, and being "apologists" for the Evil Ones.

Bush family values

With Jeb Bush running for the Presidency, this is worth remembering: "Bush-style conservatism isn’t only about upholding the plutocracy. It’s about money as a lubricator of “free enterprise” in the varied forms Bushes themselves have pursued through the generations: banking, oil, real estate, baseball team owning." (Sam Tanenhaus, The Bush Restoration 02/23/2015 The National Interest Mar-Apr 2015 issue)

Cenk Uygur looks at Jeb's current campaign in Jeb Bush Rejects His Brother By Doing More Of The Same The Young Turks 02/22/2015:

And if you have trouble remembering what government under the last Bush Presidency, aka, the Cheney-Bush Administration, was like, Tanenhaus has this reminder: "George W. Bush slipped through to a second term, but he needed help from Supreme Court conservatives to get there in 2000; Gore received roughly 540,000 votes more than he did. And he returned to private life trailing more bad feeling than any departing president since Richard Nixon." (my italics)

Shrub Bush's famous moderation and "compassionate conservatism" were on prominent display in the invasion of Iraq:

The trouble was “a series of faulty assumptions” that Bush’s war cabinet aggressively promulgated. One was that regime change in Iraq would bring stability to the region; another, that Iraq had a direct connection to the 9/11 attacks. Bush administration hawks ignored all warnings that the Iraq invasion would inflame an already-volatile region, summoning forth fresh waves of jihadists. The martial dogma they embraced struck many as new. In fact, it was an offshoot of the rollback or “liberationist” doctrine espoused by militant anti-Communists in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, this approach was rejected as irresponsible by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. But it flourished on the right. Its first major political spokesman was Barry Goldwater. “In addition to keeping the free world free, we must try to make the Communist world free,” he declared in The Conscience of a Conservative. “To these ends, we must always try to engage the enemy at times and places, and with weapons, of our own choosing.” This crusading foreign policy was later taken up by neoconservatives in Bush 43’s administration and at outposts like the Defense Policy Board and the Weekly Standard. Together, they created the Bush Doctrine, which was Goldwaterism revived. [my emphasis in bold]
Tannenhaus quote from Shrub's biography of his father: "When I was considering options for my vice presidential nominee, I called to ask [Bush Sr.’s] advice about his former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Without hesitating, he said, 'Dick would be a great choice. He would give you candid and solid advice. And you’d never have to worry about him going behind your back.'”

Old Man Bush is supposed to be moderate, too. Like Shrub. And Jeb.

Old Man Bush's moderation was on view early on: "In his first campaign, for the Senate in 1964, Bush denounced the Civil Rights Act, just as Barry Goldwater did. Bush lost—to the Democratic incumbent, Ralph Yarborough, who had supported the legislation—but he was now an early favorite of National Review." Or, as Charlie Pierce likes to call it, the long-time white supremacist journal National Review.

But he gets Bipartisan admiration: "Today the elder Bush’s presidency has profited from revisionism. (Barack Obama is an admirer.)"

Tannenhaus does point out that Old Man Bush did handle the collapse of the Soviet empire with less cinematic cowboy belligerence than St. Reagan's fans like to imagine Ronnie did: "Bush’s confident stewardship contrasts strikingly with the crusading of his son and discredits the claim that the two presidencies [Bush 41 and Shrub's] were ideologically of a piece."

And if Jeb manages to get the nomination, he is likely to try the same compassionate-conservative trick that both Old Man Bush and Shrub used: "if the economy continues to improve, Obama could leave office as a relatively popular president, as Clinton did in 2000, despite having been impeached. George W. Bush, grasping this, 'cunningly presented himself as Bill Clinton’s heir,' as David Frum wrote in 2008. Jeb is better positioned than most other Republicans to do the same in 2016."

And we need to remember the Bush family's elevated concept of public service: "for the Bushes, loyalty comes first. And like all dynastic families, they equate what is best for themselves with what is best for the country. This is the meaning of 'public service.'"

If you want a major dose of Jeb's foreign policy rhetoric, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs presents a video of his recent major foreign policy address, Jeb Bush addresses The Chicago Council on Global Affairs YouTube date 02/18/2015:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Krugman on Greece's interim deal with Germany

Paul Krugman is more a New Keynesian economist while Jamie Galbraith is more a Keynesian-institutionalist. The way things have gone recently, we may see a "Varoufakisian" economic school named after the current rock-star Greek Finance Minister. But Krugman and Galbraith are agreed that Greece has come out ahead on the interim deal they made last week with the Eurogroup Angela Merkel.

Jan Böhmermann has done an awesome video of the impression Varoufakis made in his first weeks in office, V for Varoufakis | NEO MAGAZIN ROYALE mit Jan Böhmermann - ZDFneo 25.02.2015:

Jens-Christian Rabe reports on it in Böhmermann-Video über Varoufakis: Halb Gott, halb Fleischspießchen Süddeutsche Zeitung 27.02.2015

Galbraith writes in Reading The Greek Deal Correctly Social Europe 02/23/2015, "in the end, Chancellor Merkel preferred not to be the leader responsible for the fragmentation of Europe." He talks about the possible political reverberations of the success so far of the new Greek government in standing up to Angela Merkel:

Alexis Tsipras stated it correctly. Greece won a battle – perhaps a skirmish – and the war continues. But the political sea-change that SYRIZA’s victory has sparked goes on. From a psychological standpoint, Greece has already changed; there is a spirit and dignity in Athens that was not there six months ago. Soon enough, new fronts will open in Spain, then perhaps Ireland, and later Portugal, all of which have elections coming. It is not likely that the government in Greece will collapse, or yield, in the talks ahead, and over time the scope of maneuver gained in this first skirmish will become more clear. In a year the political landscape of Europe may be quite different from what it appears to be today.
Krugman argues in What Greece Won 02/27/2015:

To make sense of what happened, you need to understand that the main issue of contention involves just one number: the size of the Greek primary surplus, the difference between government revenues and government expenditures not counting interest on the debt. The primary surplus measures the resources that Greece is actually transferring to its creditors. Everything else, including the notional size of the debt — which is a more or less arbitrary number at this point, with little bearing on the amount anyone expects Greece to pay — matters only to the extent that it affects the primary surplus Greece is forced to run.

For Greece to run any surplus at all — given the depression-level slump that it’s in and the effect of that depression on revenues — is a remarkable achievement, the result of incredible sacrifices. Nonetheless, Syriza has always been clear that it intends to keep running a modest primary surplus. If you are angry that the negotiations didn’t make room for a full reversal of austerity, a turn toward Keynesian fiscal stimulus, you weren’t paying attention. ...

So did the current Greek government back down and agree to aim for those economy-busting surpluses? No, it didn’t. In fact, Greece won new flexibility for this year, and the language about future surpluses was obscure. It could mean anything or nothing.

And the creditors did not pull the plug. Instead, they made financing available to carry Greece through the next few months. That is, if you like, putting Greece on a short leash, and it means that the big fight over the future is yet to come. But the Greek government didn’t succumb to the bum’s rush, and that in itself is a kind of victory. ...

Meanwhile, the first real debtor revolt against austerity is off to a decent start, even if nobody believes it. What’s the Greek for “Keep calm and carry on”? [my emphasis]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Greece's reform commitments on the way to approval

Greece's responses to the requirement that they specify their "reform" commitments for the four months of the financial assistance from the Eurogroup formerly known as the Troika indicate that they intend to focus on a couple of the "good government" initiatives that are a standard part of the neoliberal "reform" package, but are of little real interest to the One Percenters and their lobbyists. Those would be fighting corruption and pushing for more efficient tax collection, i.e., prevent the wealthy from evading taxes.

The proposals have to be approved by the German Bundestag. And Merkel's government is supporting them. It's interesting to see that the dissenting votes against it are likely to come from Merkel's own CDU/CSU party, while the SPD, the Greens and apparently much of the Left Party in the Bundestag will support them. (Union warnt vor drittem Kreditprogramm 25.02.2015) The Left Party has cast dissenting votes against the Greek aid because of the draconian conditions attached to them.

Christiane Schlötzer notes in Reform-Brief aus Athen: Liste der Vernunft 24.02.2015, Greece intends to continue with its anti-austerity course and notes how anti-corruption and better tax collection are the items being prioritized by Alexis Tsipras' SYRIZA government. She notes that the biggest tax dodge in Greece seems to be from oil smuggling, or at least the dodge "of the biggest style."

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ukraine, Germany and Russia

Anne Applebaum writes about The risks of putting Germany front and center in Europe’s crises Washington Post 02/20/2015.

Her piece is better argued than a lot of neocon-oriented foreign policy writing, which tends to be bluster dressed up with highbrow slogan and bad historical analogies.

I'm actually willing to defend Angie on this one. A little bit. It's nice to see that after a month of Greece challenging Merkel's economic policies and another brush with death for the euro, a leading commentator like Applebaum is starting to acknowledge that Merkel's euro policy has been a high-risk gamble.

But it seems to me the main argument she's trying to make is in the paragraph where she writes, "Merkel has put her personal stamp on a cease-fire agreement she cannot enforce — and if it fails, there is no Plan B."

Please. Europe and Russia have a lot of mutual dependencies, which means real influence on policy flows both ways. If Germany ever made the claim that they would militarily enforce the ceasefire, I missed that part entirely. It hard to lose credibility by not doing something you never promised to do.

In the same paragraph, she gives us a glimpse of her preferred policy: "Ukraine could give up its eastern provinces, build a 'Berlin Wall' around them in the form of a demilitarized zone, tighten its borders and gain time to rebuild its state. But for that plan to work in the longer term, the West would have to treat the rest of Ukraine like it once treated West Germany, reinforcing it economically, politically and militarily, in order to deter Russia."

In other words, she suggests that the only solution for her is yet another neocon fever dream: re-enact the Cold War and incorporate Ukraine de facto or formally into NATO.

It's worth everyone remembering in this context that the neocon doctrine of preventive war was a direct outgrowth of advocacy for a Preemptive nuclear strike strategy by the US against the USSR. Russia and Putin have committed all kinds of bad deeds in the Ukraine crisis. But neither Germany nor the US nor NATO has a mutual defense treaty with Ukraine. If NATO wants more military sabre-rattling against Russia without trying to re-enact the Berlin Airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis, a more sensible place to do it would be a major reinforcement of military defenses in the Baltic countries which *are* members of NATO.

Fred Kaplan takes a "realist" look at How to Defeat Putin in Ukraine Slate 02/12/2015. He puts an important part of his analysis near the end:

The sidebar story to the Ukrainian cease-fire on Thursday was the International Monetary Fund’s bailout of Ukraine’s economy to the tune of $17.5 billion. If President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the others want to get serious about helping Ukraine, they would immerse themselves in that intervention, and they’d see that it’s woefully inadequate. As the Economist notes, the actual disbursement amounts to about $5 billion, it’s the follow-up to an old promise, and it’s laced with the usual IMF austerity requirements. Ukraine needs a massive infusion of aid and, even more, investment, along with expansive political ties with the West. [my emphasis in bold]
Here is how he frames the practical situation:

The eastern sliver of Ukraine seems destined to come under some sort of Russian control, but what sort: as a breakaway republic, like South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, which might at least clarify the country’s politics; as one district in a federated Ukraine, which would weaken the central government in Ukraine and impede it from leaning further westward; or, as some fear, will Vladimir Putin use his territorial gains as a springboard to move in still deeper?
He opposes US arms shipments to Ukraine, because it would only encourage escalation and Russia has the ability to match US moves with their own escalation. If an American President wants to go that route, he writes, "he (or she) should do so in full awareness that war with Russia would be a real possibility."

And he makes the important point that Ukraine is much more important in Russia's view of its interests that it is to the US, putting it this way:

Besides (and I know this sounds cold), the fate of eastern Ukraine doesn’t make the list of vital U.S. security interests — that is to say, interests worth going to war for. This is one reason President Bill Clinton didn’t include Ukraine in his NATO “enlargement” campaign, which did bring Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltics into the fold, nor did President George W. Bush amend the list after mulling the pros and cons. ...

Ukraine has been integral to Russia for 1,000 years, a vital trade partner, agricultural supplier, and security buffer. Neither Putin nor any other Russian leader would sit passive while Ukraine slipped away to the Western camp."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Nisman/AMIA case: Justice and Intelligence

Sonia Budassi y Andrés Fidanza have an investigative article looking the close and dubious relationship between the Argentine justice system and the intelligence services in connection with the death of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor who had been in charge of the investigation of the 1994 AMIA terrorist attack: El rompecabezas Nisman Anfibia (accessed 02/21/2015).

Fidanza talks about the article in this interview, Visión 7 - Luces y sombras en la causa Nisman TV Pública argentina 20.02.2015:

They write:

Cuando lo policial y lo político se mezclan, los casos se convierten en una cuestión de fe: la realidad llega al extremo de lo subjetivo; en el barro mediático, quizá triunfe la operación mejor orquestada. Es la batalla por el verosímil. En el caso Nisman, la trama jurídica se enreda con traiciones íntimas y lealtades corporativas. El rompecabezas de la muerte del fiscal reúne al terrorismo internacional y a la omnipresencia de la CIA, al gobierno, a la oposición culpando del crimen a la presidenta Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; a las lecturas sobre el trabajo de Nisman, su obsesión y su vanidad personal. Los conflictos históricos se vuelven estridentes: la autonomía de algunos sectores de la Secretaría de Inteligencia (SI); las relaciones entre la justicia y los servicios. Mientras la evidencia lo permita, se exaltará o disimulará la importancia de cada pieza. Más allá de que la fiscal Viviana Fein descubra qué pasó el domingo 18 de enero dentro del baño del departamento de Le Parc, la “zona opaca” transitada por juristas e Inteligencia está quedando expuesta.

[When police business and politics mix together, cases convert themselves into a question of faith: reality arrives at the extreme of the subjective; in the media mud, the better orchestrated operation may triumph. It is the battle for the plausible. In the Nisman case, the judicial trauma become entangled with intimate betrayals and collective loyalties. The jigsaw puzzle of Nisman's death reunites international terrorism and the CIA's omnipresence, the government, and the opposition from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of the crime; the interpretations of the work of Nisman, his obsession and his personal vanity. Historical conflicts return stridently: the autonomy of some sectors of the Secretary of Intelligence (SI); the relations between the justice {authorities} and the {intelligence} services. When the evidence permits, the importance of every piece is amplified or concealed. Beyond what prosecutor Viviana Fein discovered what happened on Sunday, January 18, inside the bathroom of the apartment of Le Parc {where Nisman's presumed suicide occurred}, the "opaque zone" transited by justice officials and Intelligence remains on display.

Greece, Germany and the struggle to save the euro

Paul Krugman thinks that Greece came out better in the Eurogroup agreement last Friday (Greece Did OK 02/22/2015): "Now that the dust has settled a bit, we can look calmly at the deal — if it really is a deal that survives through tomorrow, which some people doubt. And it’s increasingly clear that Greece came out in significantly better shape, at least for now."

He stresses that Greece's primary surplus as a percent of GDP is the key issue in the ongoing negotiations:

The next step will come four months from now, when Greece makes its serious pitch for lower surpluses in future years. We don’t know how that will go. But nothing that just happened weakens the Greek position in that future round. Suppose that the Germans claim that some ambiguously worded clause should be interpreted to mean that Greece must achieve a 4.5 percent of GDP surplus, after all. Greece will say no, it doesn’t — and then what? A couple of years ago, when all the VSPs [Very Serious People] of Europe believed utterly in austerity, Greece might have faced retaliation thanks to wording issues; not now.

So Greece has won relaxed conditions for this year, and breathing room in the run-up to the bigger fight ahead. [my emphasis]

The print edition of Bloomberg Businessweek 02/23-03/01/2015 has a good explanation of the primary surplus issue in Greece's case in :

A measure of austerity, it's what a government earns in taxes each year, minus what it spends on everything else except interest payments on its own debt. It's usually expressed as a share of gross domestic product [GDP].

Under its four-year-old bailout program, Greece has dragged itself from a primary deficit of 10 percent to a 3 percent surplus, at great cost in jobs lost. The terms of the bailout demand that Greece reach a surplus of 4.5 percent and hold it for the length of the program. There's little reason to believe that's possible. ...

And 4.5 percent is not all that Greece's lenders are asking. In theory, the country will pay off its debt through thrift and economic growth until it can reduce its debt to the euro zone standard of 60 percent of GDP. To do that, says the International Monetary Fund, Greece must sustain a primary surplus of 7.2 percent from 2020 to 2030. Only Norway has maintained a surplus that high for that long.
And Norway is in the unusual position of being a petrostate with substantial income to the national government from oil.

This is another way of saying that Greece's debt load - and the repayment schedule that Germany/the EU has been demanding - are clearly unsustainable.

Krugman also links to this analysis by Norbert Häring of Friday's agreement, Was it worth it? Concessions to Greece relative to the rejected draft of 16 February Geld und mehr 21.02.2015.

Rudolf Burger did an interview with German economist Heiner Flassbeck, «Deutschland hat quantitativ mehr gesündigt als Griechenland» Der Bund 21.02.2015, in which Flassbeck explains how Germany's trade surpluses have been irresponsible in the context of the euro currency zone.

Clive Crook asks of this situation Who Made Germany Europe's Boss? Bloomberg Businessweek 02/22/2015:

Whatever the outcome, Germany's role in the stand-off [with Greece] has been striking. The struggle between Greece and the euro-zone finance ministers has been reported as though it were a battle between Greece and Germany, with the rest looking on. This was an impression that German officials went out of their way to reinforce. ...

When I thought I couldn't be any more perplexed or disappointed, I saw Schaeuble's response to the agreement on Friday. Bear in mind, he's a co-author of the final document, which obliges the Greek leaders to walk back many of the promises that won them the election. Rather than commending the compromise, he said:

The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters.
How helpful.

On the merits, I think Germany's wrong, because the current program has failed and Greece's economic plight isn't entirely its own fault. But set this aside. A different and even more important question arises: Who put Germany in command?
This is a significant political question. I think the arrogance in the German government approach to the euro crisis has to do in significant part with Merkel's nationalistic perspective developed in her East German past. German unity is one thing. The kind of broader European perspective of previous German leaders is something else.

As Crook puts it, "Europe needs stronger leadership -- but Germany, at the moment, looks poorly qualified. Its policy makers are unenlightened on the macroeconomics of debt and deflation, and its officials seem unable to exercise influence with restraint or respect for all EU citizens."

The editors of Bloomberg View chime in on the same note as Crook (Europe's Crisis Averted (Until Monday) 02/20/2015): "the European Union needs to study the shambles of the past few weeks and resolve never to repeat it."

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Friday Greece-Germany agreement

The Greek negotiations with Germany will likely go in waves for the next few months.

The form of the negotiations involves EU governments and institutions. But in the current state of the eurozone, Angela Merkel's Germany is clearly calling the shots. So here I refer to Germany as shorthand for the multifaceted group of parties supporting Germany's austerity policies that are led by Merkel.

It appears to me that the compromise agreement that Germany made with Greece on Friday is an important milestone. Angela Merkel has not faced this kind of active resistance from other eurozone governments since the economic crisis began in Europe in 2008.

The agreement as it's being reported is that Germany has consented to extend the "bailout" payments to Greece for another four months. To be clear, the main purpose of those payments is to make payments on debt so that Germany and other eurozone countries and the ECB won't face imminent default on their Greek debt holdings.

Greece will submit a detailed list of reforms next week to which it pledges to abide during the four months' extension.

The four months will give Greece time to negotiate a debt haircut or other arrangements having an equivalent effect. The key issue to get their national primary surplus - income less expenses before debt service - available to use for domestic economic stimulus. The primary surplus is current running around 1.5% of GDP and the agreements Merkel imposed on Greece via the Troika would require that primary surplus to rise to 4.5%, all of which would be used to support debt service.

Friday's agreement appears to give the breathing room that Paul Krugman today said that was urgently needed. He writes in Europe Needs To Stop the Clock 02/20/2015:

I’ve been in correspondence with various people trying to track the current Greece/euro crisis, and everyone seems to have reached the same conclusion I’ve reached — namely, that what’s needed above all right now is some way to stop the clock, call a time-out, whatever. We’re talking about weeks, maybe a month or two — but that pause is desperately needed, because otherwise it will be all too easy to stumble into a preventable disaster. ...

Now, maybe after 60 or 90 days it would become clear that there is no possible deal, and Grexit {Greece leaving the eurozone} it is. But we don’t know that.

What we do know is that what appears to be the demand of hardliners — that the new Greek government agree in the next few days to abandon everything it campaigned on, that it lock in draconian fiscal targets, privatization, and other things it hasn’t had time to assess — is impossible. I don’t know whether the hard-liners believe that this bum’s rush will work, or are just pushing Greece out the door. But this is not how it should go. Everyone needs some time to think.
We'll have to see what happens next week in the discussion of the "reforms."

But I think Greece showed something very important already. Merkel put on a heavy push with an deadline set for Friday essentially by German ultimatum. But in the end, Greece got a substantive concession, the extension of the "bailout" program. And Germany got its demands that Greece stick with "reforms" only in a vague way, details to be determined later.

But there are "reforms" and there are reforms. Some on the standard list are things that the priests and priestesses of austerity actually care about: anti-labor legislation; lower wages, salaries and pensions; cutting back public services, privatizing them and selling off public property; deregulation of businesses and banks. Others are on the standard list but are things which the free-market zealots don't actually care about: fighting corruption and more efficient tax collection.

But those last two are real reforms that any democratic government can and should care about. Alexis Tsipras' government can concentrate for the next four months, and hopefully long thereafter. While the "reforms" can, uh, take lower priority.

More details of the negotiations will come to light in time. The most significant things at the moment seems to me to be the fact that, facing with the actual possibility of a rapid disintegration of the euro currency over the following two weeks, Merkel caved. She agreed - at least in principle - to the time-buying extension of aid without getting the neoliberal "reforms" signed in blood.

In further posts, Waiting for Eurogodot and Delphic Demarche, both from today, Krugman discussed the Greek situation further. in the latter, he explains that on balance this looks to him like a time-buying measure that is good for Greece:

Greece seemingly gave a lot of ground on the language: the stuff about fiscal adjustment in line with the November 2012 Eurogroup is back in, which Germany will presumably claim represents a commitment to stay with the 4.5 percent primary surplus target. But Greece apparently is claiming that the agreement offers new flexibility, which means that it will assert that it has agreed to no such thing.

So we’re in a weird place: this looks like a defeat for Greece, but since nothing substantive was resolved, it’s only a defeat if the Greeks accept it as one; which means that nothing at all is clearly resolved. And that’s arguably a good outcome — time for Greece to get its act together. [my emphasis]
John Psarapoulos, who in the past has been sympathetic toward the neoliberal reforms forced onto Greece, has a generally similar take (Greeks reach compromise with Eurogroup The New Athenian 02/21/2015):

Greece’s newly installed leftwing government is declaring a new era for national sovereignty, the economy and relations with Europe.

"Today Greece has turned a page," a triumphant government statement declared. "Negotiations could have happened all these years. Greece is neither isolated, nor is it sailing for the rocks, nor is it continuing with memoranda [of austerity]."

The Greeks staved off new austerity terms and won time to renegotiate the existing ones. Crucially, they get to discuss the debt repayment schedule, which Greece cannot meet.

But they didn’t get a reprieve with no strings attached. The Germans ultimately forced them to pick up the reform programme where the previous government left off. Which means they still have to meet certain austerity and reform targets.
Though again, I'm guessing at this point that the austerity part will take a low priority for the Greek government.

Caracas Mayor arrested on charge of promoting a coup against the Venezuela government

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

That quote comes from almost exactly a year ago, as months of protests driven by the hard-right faction of the conservative opposition in Venezuela were ramping up.

The Obama Administration instituted formal Sanctions against Venezuela late in 2014, making Venezuela the only other country in the Western Hemisphere besides Cuba subject to US sanctions.

Caracas Metropolitan District Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a leader in the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro and his ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), was arrested on charges of planning a coup against Maduro's government. The US State Department was quick to vocally criticize the government for Ledezma's arrest. (Roberta Jacobson: EE UU "profundamente" preocupado por "intimidación" a opositores Panorama 20.02.2015)

Ledezma is a member of the small Alianza Bravo Pueblo party. In a post last April I noted, "One major opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, is not explicitly supporting the far-right group led by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado. But he paints the situation in hysterical terms to which the far right would be unlikely to object."

The Independent reports (Lamiat Sabin, Mayor Antonio Ledezma arrested and dragged out of office 'like a dog' by police in Venezuela 02/20/2015):

Last week, Mr Maduro named Mr Ledezma – who was elected as mayor in 2008 after beating a socialist candidate – among critics and Western powers he believes are enemies to his government.

The US state department called his accusations of coup-plotting “baseless and false”, and said they are to distract from Venezuela’s severe economic problems such as widespread shortages and inflation that reached 68% last year.
And the State Department knows hours after the arrest that the coup planning charges are “baseless and false” ... how? Because the NSA is monitoring every word and movement Ledezma has been making? Because the US is careful to coordinate carefully with all coup plotting in Venezuela?

Gladys Gutiérrez, President of the Venezuelan Supreme Constitutional Court, made a public statement telling the United States to stay out of Venezuelan politics, "Exigimos el cese a las agresiones contra el gobierno democráticamente electo, el Estado y el pueblo venezolano" ("We demand the cessation of the aggressions against the democratically elected government, the state and Venezuelan people"). (TSJ expresó “rechazo categórico” al injerencismo de Estados Unidos Panorama 20.02.2015)

The dragged-like-a-dog reference in The Independent's headline Ismael García comes from a tweet by National Assembly (Parliament) member Ismael García of the opposition parties Avanzada Progresista and Primero Justicia (PJ). The article does not report whether Ledezma was placed in a collar with a chain attached to it.

Bill Clinton also got into the act, tweeting:

Why is Bill Clinton stepping in on behalf of one of the main leaders of the far-right opposition (Leopoldo López) that was and is explicitly seeking the immediate, extra-constitutional removal of the government of Venezuela that had been elected in a tightly competitive election in 2013? Good question!

Rachel Boothroyd reports for Venezuela Analysis on the charges against Ledezma, presumably basing her description of the offical justification for the arrest. (Venezuelan Opposition Mayor, Alias “The Vampire,” Arrested for Role in Blue Coup Plot 02/20/2015) She also recounts how Ledezma had more recently identified himself with the more-or-less explicit coup plan promoted by Leopoldo López and María Machado:

The planned coup was uncovered last week by security forces, just hours before several US backed Air Force officials had planned to partake in a bombing spree of strategic targets in the capital. They had hoped this would lead to the assassination of the country’s president and bring about regime change in the South American country.

“Antonio Ledezma who, today, by order of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, was captured and is going to be prosecuted by the Venezuelan justice system, to make him answer to all of the crimes committed against the peace and security of the country and the Constitution ... We’ve had enough of conspiracies, we want to work in peace!” announced Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, amidst a chorus of cheers from onlookers.

Last week, Ledezma, who is current Mayor of the Metropolitan Capital District of Caracas, signed a statement calling for a “National Transition Agreement” alongside opposition politicians, Maria Corina Machado and currently detained leader of the Popular Will party, Leopoldo Lopez.

The document calls on Venezuelans to unite behind a plan to remove elected President Nicolas Maduro and sets out an action programme for the would be provisional government. This includes facilitating the return of “exiled” Venezuelans, prosecuting current members of government and reaching out to international financial lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund. [my emphasis]
He hasn't exactly been entirely faithful to constitutional scruples in the recent past:

It is not the first time that Ledezma has been implicated in a plan to violently overthrow the government. In 2002, he participated in an attempted coup which saw socialist president of the time, Hugo Chavez, ousted for a period of 47 hours. Last year, he was also named several times as a “principal ally” by currently detained terror plotter, Lorent Saleh. Saleh was one of the main underground activists fuelling the armed barricades known as guarimbas which last year claimed the lives of at least 43 Venezuelans. He had planned to go on a killing spree with the help of Colombian paramilitaries but was arrested before the plan could take place.

Popularly known as “the vampire”, Ledezma began his political career in 1973 as a member of the “Democratic Action” Party. In 1989, he infamously became Governor of the Federal District of Caracas, when he oversaw one of the most violent periods in the history of the Caracas Metropolitan Police.
Boothroyd also thinks reports of his being dragged out like a dog are not supported by the available facts:

Although international press has widely reported that the Mayor was manhandled when SEBIN officers entered his office, a video of the detention has emerged appearing to show a reticent but unharmed Ledezma being escorted from his office by several armed guards. Photos published of glass on the floor in Ledezma's office by news agency, Ultimas Noticias, appear to show that SEBIN forcibly entered the building.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


The conflict in and around Ukraine is one of the two major issues that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is dealing with now. And it has necessary connections to the other, the euro crisis. At the moment, both seem to be going pretty poorly.

This recent article by Paul Schäfer from the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik is useful in looking at the multi-faceted nature of what being "pro-Russian" (really or allegedly) means in the present political moment. Ressentiment vs. Aufklärung: Die »neue Friedensbewegung«. He is specifically addressing the current German political scene, in which some far-right political actors really are pro-Russian and anti-American and in which people with esoteric beliefs and/or a fondness for conspiracy theories are in momentary agreement with self-consciously left activists on the undesirability of a Western policy of military escalation in Ukraine.

The specifics don't translate smoothly into the American political scene, in particular because the overt admiration of Putin's authoritarian model has few explicit adherent among the American far right. I've read that there are some fundamentalist US Christians who overtly admire Putin's posturing as a defender of Christianity and enemy of gays and lesbians. But both Republican Party conservatism and factional far-right politics in the US are very heavily influenced by fundamentalist Christian doctrines and apocalyptic beliefs, and that tradition has seen Russia as an End-Of-Times bogeyman since even before the Bolshevik Revolution.

There has been some fairly comical posturing among Republicans praising Putin's manly manliness as a virile contrast to President Obama's lack of sufficient warmongering.

But it's also true for anyone who wants to criticize the dominant narrative, or question the image created by media reports informed by that narrative, when an influential body of thought like that of the neoconservatives pushing the war narrative, critics have to have a thick skin. The neoconservative tradition today has long since left behind its Troskyist intellectual heritage from the 1930s. But it comes out very clearly in their polemical style. During the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002-3, they constantly accused anyone who argued that the war was stupid, misguided, criminal or just plain unnecessary of being "objectively pro-Saddam." If there was even some tiny sect in the United States that actually viewed Saddam's Iraq as some kind of desirable political model, I never heard of them. But it didn't stop the accusations.

Bottom line: an article like Paul Schäfer's is a good place to look at important nuances and contradictory political considerations. If you're trying to organize a peace march, or attempting to get across an anti-escalation message in 15 or 30 seconds in a media advertisement or news appearance, you don't have time for squeezing in 10 or 20 nuances. You have to focus on a clear message like, "Encouraging a protracted civil war in Ukraine is crazy." And, yeah, war advocates will call you "pro-Russian" no matter what. Like most areas of politics, peace activists need to develop a thick skin for hostile criticism.

Economist Jamie Galbraith, who is on the same page with Yanis Varoufakis about Merkel's economic policies, describes Merkel as "the most successful and dominant political personality in modern Europe." ('The Prospects and Consequences of a Possible Syriza Government' Economist's View 01/23/2015) I'm not sure if he's counting "modern" there from 1945 or from 1492. Still, there's no denying she's been an incredibly successful politician. But Galbraith's praise can't be suspected of journalistic "beat-sweetning" deference.

But, as Galbraith and Varoufakis both recognize, the economic policies on which she's built her current position are as demonstrably disproved, both in Heinrich Brüning's time and in Merkel's. So I view her current position as very much a high-wire act. The euro crisis was always going to play out on something like the route it's currently taking. But the Ukraine conflict also highlights the high-risk nature of Merkel's policies. Germany and the EU have important business relationships with Russia which aren't benefiting from sanctions and increased tensions with Russia. And not only is the eurozone economy in depression conditions that are being prolonged indefinitely by austerity policies. The IMF is imposing similar crippling austerity policies on Ukraine. Not exactly the optimum approach if Europe is trying to win the proverbial "hearts and minds" of Ukrainians.

Merkel has had a good run as a politician, thanks also to the SPD deciding to embrace Heinrich Brüning economics as thorougly as the CDU. But I doubt that the results of her leadership are going to be remembered well by most people. Even though, like Margaret Thatcher, she will be recognized as a major figure who showed that a woman can be as competent as a man as a political leader. She certainly has outplayed the current male leaders of the SPD!

Also, from Robert Alexander, Angela Merkels Spiel ist nun ausgereizt Die Welt 14.02.15: "Obama lies Merkel die Spielräume gegenüber Russland nutzten, die er nicht hat." ("Obama allows Merkel to use the latitude toward Russia that he doesn't have.") I have no doubt that there was considerable coordination between the US and Germany on their public positions in the negotiations, though the differences were real enough. But the idea that Obama has no room to manuever politically on Ukraine is incorrect. In the US, the less able people are to located Ukraine on a map, the more likely they are to be in favor of an aggressive policy there. Obama let the neoconservatives, including Victoria "F**k the EU" Nuland, run point on his Ukraine policy. It would actually be politically beneficial for his Democratic Party if he took a clear position opposing the neocon policy of escalation in Ukraine.

James Meek also has a useful look at Russia's outlook under Putin in What does Russia want? LRB Blog
James Meek 12 February 2015:

The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine cannot admit this publicly; he would find it hard to admit it privately. But Ukraine lost the war to keep the far east of the country last summer, in a little reported series of battles on the frontier. Ukrainian border guards, and troops trying to enforce control of the border, came under massive artillery barrages from the Russian side of the border. They couldn’t fire back into Russian territory without inciting a full-scale Russian military assault. Accordingly they were massacred, or they surrendered, or they ran away.

Ever since, a large section of the border has been under Russian-separatist control. As long as Ukraine can’t lob shells into Russia, and Russia is prepared to lob shells into Ukraine, that is how it will stay. [my emphasis]
Having "the West to pay for it," Meek argues, would come in the way of establishing a government in Kiev that would be a de facto Russian puppet regime but nominally independent and Western-oriented. "And since Ukraine is, financially, dependent on the West, it is the West that would pay."

This sounds a little hinky to me. The West via the IMF is applying Hoover/Brüning austerity policies to Ukraine, which is a fairly perverse way to provide financial support. Ask Greece how that works.

He hopes for freezing the conflict more-or-less along the present lines held by the opposing sides:

But to stop the war permanently will be much, much harder. It demands a recognition that for all the Kremlin’s lies, there is a genuine separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. It demands an acceptance that a frozen conflict is likely to be more amenable to Ukrainians on both sides of the ceasefire line than an attempt to shoehorn the rebel enclave back into a country nominally under Kiev’s control. It demands a Ukrainian culture that finds a way to combine the dissonant histories of its nationalist and neo-Soviet nostalgists, its Ukrainophones and Russophones, its Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox believers. It demands Ukrainian will and Western help for reform. And it demands a wiser, less frightened leader in the Kremlin. In that sense, Angela Merkel’s instinct is right. Putin’s unnecessary war is unjust. Freezing the conflict might be seen to reward aggression. But if it buys time for independent Ukraine to thrive, and Putinism to wither, it will have been worth it, for Russians as much as for Ukrainians. [my emphasis]
It's important to remember in these discussions right now that in Europe, "reform" has become a buzzword for anti-labor, deflationary, deregulatory policies. The current Greek government seems to be trying to redefine "reform" to emphasize two features that are part of the standard neoliberal litany but are very low priorities for neoliberal advocates: fighting corruption and improving the efficiency of tax collection. You'll know the last two are beginning to bite when we start seeing articles in the business press and hearing whining on CNBC about how "the radical government in Athens is discouraging investment by punitive tax-collection policies and arbitrary regulations nominally aimed at controlling corruption."

Monday, February 16, 2015

Nisman's witch-hunt against Cristina Fernández goes forward

An Argentine prosecutor is proceeding with the ludicrous charges against President Cristina Fernández brought originally against her by the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman: Prosecutor to question Argentine president in alleged bomb plot cover-up Aljazeera America 02/13/2015

Elias Groll also reports on this story in Prosecutor Forwards Case Against Kirchner in Probe of Bombing Cover-Up Foreign Policy 02/13/2015:

The Argentine government reacted angrily to the development Friday. It denied that leaders colluded with Iran to sabotage an investigation into who carried out an attack that left 85 people dead, and ranks as the worst act of terrorism in Argentina’s history.

“This is an active judicial coup,” said cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, according to the Guardian. “There is no proof at all. The people have to know that this is a vulgar lie, an enormous press operation.”

Presidential spokesman Anibal Fernández called Friday’s developments a “clear maneuver to destabilize democracy.”
Those descriptions are correct. In this article, they appear as the last three paragraphs. "This side says, the other side says" just doesn't do it for a story like this.

Economics Minister Axel Kicillof, who is kind of the Yanis Varoufakis of Argentina, publicly rejected one of the key claims in Nisman's charge (Kicillof blasts Nisman’s ‘economic’ complaint Buenos Aires Herald 02/16/2015):

One of Nisman’s key accusations against the Fernández de Kirchner administration was that the president and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had agreed to lift Interpol’s arrest warrants against the Iranian officials accused of organizing the AMIA bombing in exchange for access to Iranian oil — which in turn would be traded for locally produced grains.

“The complaint suggests that all the alleged diplomatic manoeuvres the government adopted were made so they could exchange something that we don’t have — grains, since they aren’t owned by the state — for something we don’t need — crude oil,” Kicillof said. “It’s ridiculous.”

The Economy minister stressed that for this reason the complaint by the late prosecutor, filed some days before he was found dead in his Puerto Madero apartment building, was “economic nonsense.”

“It isn’t possible for Argentina to purchase oil from Iran because its crude oil has a high sulphur content, a type of oil which can’t be refined by the country’s oil refineries,” Kicillof said.

As for the grain argument, he said suggesting such a move by the national government was ridiculous because grains are owned by exporters and farm owners.

“The case doesn’t appear to have any merit, in anything that’s said,” Kicillof stressed, pointing out that after the 2013 signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, commercial relations with the Asian country deteriorated — so if that was the objective, it was a complete failure.

Greece-EU (aka, Greece-Germany) negotiations

The EuroGroup negotiation aimed at a new agreement with Greece that had set itself a deadline of today, Monday, failed to reach an agreement. (Stephanie Bodon and Radoslav Tomek, Greek Talks With Euro-Area Finance Ministers Break Up Bloomberg News 02/16/2015)

I had seen articles in the German press presenting Monday as Doomsday on the Greece-EU negotiations. Now this Süddeutsche Zeitung commentary from Cerstin Gammelin says that was just standard scare talk in negotiations over the euro crisis: Sie drohen doch nur 16.02.2015.

Handelsblatt is saying after Monday's failure to reach agreement that now Doomsday is a week away: Schuldengipfel mit Griechenland ist gescheitert 16.02.2015.

In any case, the new Greek government has changed the game in the euro crisis. And we will likely soon enough see if saving the eurozone and the EU is more important to Angela Merkel than imposing Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning austerity policies on the eurozone.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis as Dr. Spock

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis writes in a New York Times op-ed, No Time for Games in Europe 02/16/2015. He presents his position this way:

As finance minister of a small, fiscally stressed nation lacking its own central bank and seen by many of our partners as a problem debtor, I am convinced that we have one option only: to shun any temptation to treat this pivotal moment as an experiment in strategizing and, instead, to present honestly the facts concerning Greece’s social economy, table our proposals for regrowing Greece, explain why these are in Europe’s interest, and reveal the red lines beyond which logic and duty prevent us from going.

The great difference between this government and previous Greek governments is twofold: We are determined to clash with mighty vested interests in order to reboot Greece and gain our partners’ trust. We are also determined not to be treated as a debt colony that should suffer what it must. The principle of the greatest austerity for the most depressed economy would be quaint if it did not cause so much unnecessary suffering.

I am often asked: What if the only way you can secure funding is to cross your red lines and accept measures that you consider to be part of the problem, rather than of its solution? Faithful to the principle that I have no right to bluff, my answer is: The lines that we have presented as red will not be crossed. Otherwise, they would not be truly red, but merely a bluff.
Is he bluffing about not bluffing? That's actually the point of his article. People have expected because of his background in game theory he has some sophisticated negotiating strategy going. Which I also assume he does. Here he's saying, hey, I'm not bluffing. So am I ready to go the brink, or am I bluffing about not bluffing?

Taking this kind of hard line is necessary if Greece wants to produce a substantial change in Merkel's policies which dominate the eurozone. He's utilizing the strength of Greece's weakness. If Greece is forced out of the eurozone, Spain, Portugal and possibly Italy are likely to soon follow, as Wolfgang Münchau discusses in Finanzkrise in Europa: Das passiert, wenn Griechenland aus dem Euro austritt Spiegel Online 16.02.2015.

Varoufakis cites Kant to justify the following declaration:

We shall desist, whatever the consequences, from deals that are wrong for Greece and wrong for Europe. The “extend and pretend” game that began after Greece’s public debt became unserviceable in 2010 will end. No more loans — not until we have a credible plan for growing the economy in order to repay those loans, help the middle class get back on its feet and address the hideous humanitarian crisis. No more “reform” programs that target poor pensioners and family-owned pharmacies while leaving large-scale corruption untouched.

Our government is not asking our partners for a way out of repaying our debts. We are asking for a few months of financial stability that will allow us to embark upon the task of reforms that the broad Greek population can own and support, so we can bring back growth and end our inability to pay our dues.
Keep Talking Greece also notes an intriguing moment in the negotiations. Varoufakis claims that he received a "draft handed out to Varoufakis by the EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici [which] was drafted by the EU Commission and it was an initiative by President Jean-Claude Juncker." (emphasis in original) But the EuroGroup later insisted on additional conditions not acceptable to Greece. (Varoufakis reveals: “Moscovici gave me a draft I could have signed” 02/16/2015)

Does this represent a difference in approach by Juncker and Merkel? Or was it what I believe negotiators call the Russian Gambit, in which one side agrees on some terms and then suddenly insists on tougher ones when the deal is almost concluded.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Western policy toward Ukraine: support via ... Herbert Hoover economics?

The Real News has been having embedding disabled on its YouTube site lately. But this one has embedding available as of this writing. It's a useful discussion of the Herbert Hoover austerity policies being imposed on Ukraine by the West via the IMF, Has the IMF Annexed Ukraine? 02/13/2015 (also at the main Real News website):

The Real News has been carrying a number of reports on Ukraine, including Why are the U.S. and EU Split on Providing Lethal Aid to Ukraine? 02/11/2015.

The US and Europe do have diverging interests in Ukraine policy. But that doesn't exclude the possibility of coordinated diplomatic kabuki in the public positions. (See Albrecht Müller, Woher wissen wir eigentlich, dass der Streit zwischen Merkel & Cie. und Obama & Co. kein abgekartetes Spiel ist? Nachdenkseiten 10.02.2015)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Robert Fisk thinks Russia's Putin and Egypt's Al-Sisi can have a beautiful relationship

Robert Fisk reports on the growing cooperating between Vladimir Putin's Russia and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's Egypt in A meeting of minds in Cairo: Billion-dollar arms deal on table as Putin and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seek closer trade links and alliance against 'terror' The Independent 02/09/2015:

After crushing Muslim fighters in Chechnya, Mr Putin supports Bashar al-Assad’s ferocious war against the "Islamic State" in Syria and will be more than happy to put his arm around the chubby Egyptian whose courts have been sentencing Muslim Brotherhood members to the scaffold by the hundred. Mr Sisi has met Mr Putin before, in Moscow, and a Russian leader known for his cynicism can only enjoy meeting a military autocrat who was elected president after staging a successful coup d’etat against a previously elected president. Even the old Soviet Union could never quite achieve this. ...

The beauty of it all is that both leaders want the same thing – to emerge with a new ally after suffering the slings and arrows of Western criticism for their bloody behaviour. The Egyptian president oversaw the shooting massacre of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters in 2013. The Russian president oversaw the bloody occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine a year later. They will have much to talk about.
This is one of many cynical but pragmatic alliances Russia has made and is making. It's a nuclear power that can thrown its weight around in various places.

The United States and Russia are unofficial but de facto allies in Syria at the moment, with the US discreetly cooperating with Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad in fighting common enemies, ISIS and "Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate." (Patrick Cockburn, War with Isis: Syria's President Assad is overplaying a weak hand – he needs the West to keep militants from Damascus The Independent 02/10/2015)

Fisk notes in closing:

Russia and America have always suffered an addiction to obedient military rulers; and Mr Putin, who only retired from the KGB with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel – against Mr Sisi’s Field Marshal status – understands all too well how a “deep state” works. Patriotism, nationalism and corruption are a potent blood group for autocratic survival in the Arab world.

The Greeks hang tough, the Germans stick with Herbert Hoover economics

Stephen Hebel has an article on the Greek-German negotiations, Das Signal von Athen Franfurter Rundschau 14.02.2015. He is going on the assumption that reaching some interim agreement by this Monday is critical. But he's not optimistic:

Wir dürfen erwarten, dass es bis Montag zu einem Kompromiss kommen wird, der Griechenland das Gesicht wahren lässt, ohne das Gesamtgebäude der gefährlichen Austeritätspolitik à la Merkel zu gefährden. Das würde den Griechen hoffentlich etwas mehr Luft zum Atmen geben. Aber eine wirklich an Werten wie Solidarität und an dauerhafter Stabilität orientierte Politik hätte viel mehr zu tun. Sie hätte das ganze Gebäude zu sanieren, und zwar durch eine gemeinsame Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik, die auf konjunkturelle Impulse, gemeinsames Tragen von Schuldenrisiken und Verbesserung der Staatseinnahmen durch eine gerechtere Steuerpolitik in ganz Europa setzt. Nichts deutet darauf hin, dass Merkels Deutschland daran Interesse hat.

[We should expect that by Monday, a compromise will be reached that will allow Greece to save face without endagering the whole structure of the dangerous austerity policy à la Merkel. That would hopefully gives the Greeks more breathing room. But a policy is genuinely oriented toward solidarity and long-run stability has a lot more to do. It would have to clean the entire structure, and do so by a common economic and social policy that rests on responses to economic cycles, a common burden for debt risks and improvement of state income by a more just tax policy in all of Europe. But nothing indicates that Merkel's Germany has an interest in that.]
Hebel thinks that Angela Merkel is so completely committed to her Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics that she may not be willing to make substantive concessions to Greece.

Hebel mocks the German press for paying so much interest to Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis' clothing style choices. He expresses particular scorn for this article from Jurek Skrobala in which he suggests that Varoufakis' preference for black clothes may indicate that he's an anarchist, Griechischer Finanzminister: Dreister Geist Spiegel Online 06.02.2015.

The German press coverage of the euro crisis I'm seeing comes close to quality of that of the mainstream American press leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And that's really, really bad.

Hebel recognizes how "reforms" as a synonym for has come to be a buzzword that all the Very Serious People and the respectable press repeat as a mantra not to be questioned.

And he describes the general situation well:

Der Wert des Wahlsiegs von Alexis Tsipras liegt nicht darin, dass er mit allem richtig läge. Er liegt in der Tatsache, dass zum ersten Mal seit Einführung des Euro die Frage nach Alternativen überhaupt auf der Tagesordnung steht. Genau das erklärt die Wutausbrüche der Neoliberalen.

[The value of the election victory of Alexis Tsipras does not lie in the fact that he is right about everything. It lies in the fact that for the first time since the introduction of the euro, the question of alternative is on the agenda at all. Exactly that explains the rages of the neoliberals.]

Friday, February 13, 2015

Nuclear weapons are still a huge danger

Ward Wilson writes about what factors encourage anti-nuclear-weapons popular movements, which have been on the wane in recent years, in Why are there no big nuke protests? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (n/d; accessed 02/13/2015).

At the conclusion, he includes this reminder:

Just because ordinary citizens have decided to put the problem of nuclear weapons out of their minds doesn't mean that the danger no longer exists. Nuclear weapons remain the gravest threat of sudden catastrophe that we face. Warlike emotions are growing, not fading. Sudden foreign policy crises seem to come with increasing frequency. The danger of the use of nuclear weapons, in such an emotionally unstable time, is perhaps greater than it has ever been. [my emphasis]

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Neocons, Ukraine and neoliberalism

Patrick Smith has quite an interesting piece in Salon considering the issues of Ukraine and the Greek depression together in the context of neoliberalism, Neoliberalism is our Frankenstein: Greece and Ukraine are the hot spots of a new war for supremacy 02/12/2015.

One of the striking things about current Western policy is that while NATO countries are supposedly backing Ukraine in a military confrontation with Russia and Russian proxies, the IMF is also requiring neoliberal austerity policies in Ukraine, the same sort that have proven so effective in wrecking Greece and other eurozone periphery countries.

The neocons are hot for escalation in Ukraine. Neocon publicist James Kirchick advocates for just that in What Germany Owes Ukraine Foreign Policy 02/05/2015.

Kirchick is a staunch neoconservative and that viewpoint (and sneering style) comes across in this article. The neocons have a well-established record of accomplishment: pretty much 100% of what they've accomplished when their policies were enacted has been disastrous. And with Victoria "F**k the EU!" Nuland heading the US diplomacy on Ukraine as Asst Secy of State for Europe, Obama has at least nominally put the neocons in charge of US policy there. Of course Kirchick sneers at the Germans for being suckers for "Russian propaganda" - or as Nuland has taken to calling it in her signature diplomatic manner "Moscow b******t" - because they're dubious about going to war over Ukraine. In the neocon world, it's always 1938, Chamberlain is always on the verge of making a deal with Hitler over Czechoslovakia, and anyone who opposes rushing to war is a coward or fool.

This from Kirchick is priceless: "Simply put, most Germans, already averse to violence in the first place [those pussies!!], cannot countenance the idea of German weapons being used to kill Russians." Because nobody in Germany remembers a time when Russia looked like an enemy, right? This kind of make-it-up-on-the-fly history is at least a contributing factor to the outcomes neocon foreign policy produces. And his sneering attitude toward authoritarianism in Hungary is icing on the cake. Neocons love to talk about the moral value of democracy - when they're trying to gin up a war. Wwhich is 24/7. But actual democracy, they don't give a flying flip about that.

The Very Serious People are counting on compliant Greeks

Spiegel Online's reporting, with the notable exception of the columns of Wolfgang Münchau and Jacob Augstein, has been stuck in the broad but shallow conventional wisdom on the euro crisis shared by Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU and her junior coalition partners, the SPD.

The tradition continues with this arrogantly complacent piece by Gregor Peter Schmitz, Harte Landung für die Populisten 11.02.2015.

It seems to be a twin sibling of this column from Anatole Kaletsky, who is tripping if he expects the Greek government to step down in favor of EU "technocrats": Greece is Playing to Lose Project Syndicate 02/09/2015. Oddly, the link address says it's by Anatole Kaletsky but his name at this writing doesn't appear on the webpage itself. But I'm assuming it's by Kaletsky. Apparently, so does Schmtiz, since he quotes the article and says it's Kaletsky.

Both articles appeared before the agreement on Thursday to begin talks between Greece and the EuroGroup.


Giannis Varoufakis, neuer griechischer Finanzminister, gilt als eine Koryphäe auf dem Gebiet der Spieltheorie. Darin geht es etwa um die Frage, wie man bessere Verhandlungsergebnisse erzielt, indem man die Reaktionen seines Gegenübers mitdenkt.

Professor Varoufakis mag die Theorie beherrschen, in der Praxis ist davon aber wenig zu spüren. Seine ausgedehnte Europatournee nach dem Syriza-Wahlsieg war im Rückblick ein Lehrbuchbeispiel, wie man besser nicht verhandelt.

[Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek Finance Minister, is considered an eminent authority in the field of game theory. In which it has somewhat to do with question of how one obtains better outcomes in negotiations if one takes into account the reactions of one's opposite number.

Professor Varoufakis may be a master of the theory, but in practice there is little of it in evidence. His extensive European tour after SYRIZA's election victory was in hindsight a textbook example, of how one does not negotiate better.]

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister, is a professor of mathematical economics who specializes in game theory. But his negotiating technique – unpredictable oscillations between aggressiveness and weakness – is the opposite of what game theory would dictate. Varoufakis’s idea of strategy is to hold a gun to his own head, then demand a ransom for not pulling the trigger.

German and European Union policymakers are calling his bluff. As a result, the two sides have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible.
This starts to sound like a German Finance Ministry position parceled out to Very Serious Columnists and basically says, "Ha! These leftwing pipsqueak Greeks think they're going to tell us how to run their country? Ve vill crush zheir puny zelves!"

Of course, Schmitz expects Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Varoufakis to cave and do what they're told by their betters, and the EU can issue a joint statement with them saying, oh, we'll crack down on corruption and do a better job collecting taxes. And the EU will promise to be more respectful to Greece (snicker, snort!). And then Greece will obediently go back to further economic self-destruction via austericide.

Kaletsky thinks so, too, though he seems to be hoping the annoying Greek Keynesians will just step down and let Merkel run the place without bothering with all this here democracy nonsense:

Greece’s idealistic new leaders seem to believe that they can overpower bureaucratic opposition without the usual compromises and obfuscations, simply by brandishing their democratic mandate. But the primacy of bureaucracy over democracy is a core principle that EU institutions will never compromise. [?!?]

The upshot is that Greece is back where it started in the poker contest with Germany and Europe. The new government has shown its best cards too early and has no credibility left if it wants to try bluffing.

So what will happen next? The most likely outcome is that Syriza will soon admit defeat, like every other eurozone government supposedly elected on a reform mandate, and revert to a troika-style program, sweetened only by dropping the name “troika.” [my emphasis]
Good luck with that plan, fellows.

This kind of reaction is what is leading Paul Krugman to worry that the "Davos set" of Very Serious People running the EU may be dumb enough to crash the eurozone over Greece's anti-austerity demands. (Greece: The Tie That Doesn’t Bind 02/09/2015)

Greek-German negotations move forward

The EU had a summit on Thursday to talk about Ukraine. But the Greek depression was also a theme very much on the minds of the gathered heads of state. Those included Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in his first meeting with Angela Merkel since his election.

There is a lot of jockeying and posturing going on in public. Merkel played "good cop" on Thursday, making nice sounds about compromise.

But so far, there is no real compromise from Germany on the table. From various comments and news reports, it looks like Merkel is so far suggesting more of the same - austerity, no debt relief, neoliberal anti-labor "reforms" - with some cosmetic concessions like small amounts of infrastructure spending or replacing the "troika" (ECB, EU, IMF) as the formal administrator of austerity with just the EU itself, or maybe some other "front" arrangement.

There also seems to be an assumption among the European version of the Very Serious People that Greece will soon capitulate to some such phony compromise.

If the Greeks want substantive concessions on debt and austerity, they are going to have to be willing to run the risk that Merkel will force them out of the eurozone.

As long as Greece sticks to its position, Merkel faces a clear decision: makes big concessions, or push Greece out of the eurozone. Then we'll see which she values more: Germany nationalist power or the "European project" (the EU).

But we can expect a lot of flaps in the press between now and whenever that resolution of the situation may be over an eminent "Grexit," or Greek exit from the eurozone.

Spiegel Online provides a set of capsule summaries of the major players in this standoff, Florian Diekmann und Chris Kurt, Verhandler in der Euro-Krise: Sie entscheiden über Griechenlands Zukunft 12.02.2015.

Renee Maltezou and Ingrid Melander report for Reuters, Greece agrees to talk to creditors in EU debt progress 02/12/2015:

Chancellor Angela Merkel, vilified by the Greek left as Europe's "austerity queen", said Germany was prepared for a compromise and finance ministers had a few more days to consider Greece's proposals before next Monday's meeting.

"Europe always aims to find a compromise, and that is the success of Europe," she said on arrival in Brussels. "Germany is ready for that. However, it must also be said that Europe's credibility naturally depends on us respecting rules and being reliable with each other."

The two leaders came face-to-face for the first time in the EU Council chamber. According to Greek aides, a smiling Merkel congratulated Tsipras on his election and said: "I hope we will have good cooperation despite the difficulties." Tsipras smiled back and replied: "I hope so."

Greek officials said no private meeting was planned between the two during the one-day EU summit. They insisted to Greek reporters that Tsipras had not agreed to deal with the "troika" but with a body called the Eurogroup Working Group.
Although they will be dealing with all three members of the Troika. But it's more than symbolic that Greece refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Troika as such in managing Greece's economy.

Dirk Kurbjuweit is a Spiegel journalist. But his admiration for Merkel is so obvious in his writing that I tend to assume that his perspectives are at least broadly reflective of Merkel's. In It's Time To Compromise on Greece Spiegel International 02/02/2015, he describes a version of what a Merkel-backed cosmetic pseudo-compromise might look like:

This means that Germany must display forbearance. Germans have been forgiven for so much in their own history that they should also be capable of forgiving others. Despite mistakes made by the Greeks, solidarity remains the correct course. That's not to suggest that the Tsipras administration can ignore the treaties Greece has with the EU. Nor should there be a debt haircut, because Spain and Portugal would demand equal treatment and that would place an unbearable strain on the euro zone. However, deferments and interest rate discounts are possible. No one should be too proud to talk about the possibility of concessions.

If Tsipras has an ounce of political understanding, then he knows that he can't demand too much from Merkel because she's obviously still accountable to German voters. And because the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is waiting in the wings. Nothing would be worse than increasing the power of populists. If that is what Tsipras wants, then Europe has no chance.

Exactly 200 years ago, Europe's rulers succeeded at the Vienna Congress in balancing their interests, creating a halfway stable situation that lasted for decades, even though the temptation was great at the time to solve problems with weapons. The situation is much easier for European democrats today. Now they must show that they understand the concepts of diplomacy and compromise.
But there's nothing in Kurbjuweit's piece that suggests getting rid of the neoliberal "reforms" that are condemning Greece to depression without end would be part of the sweet European compromise he's describing.

Keep Talking Greece reports of the Greece/EuroGroup negotiations coming up Bridge-Program? Tsipras – Dijsselbloem agree to work out “common ground for solution” 02/12/215):

The Greek technical team will stay in Brussels over the weekend where the two sides will work out the details. The talks start tomorrow, Friday.

“It is a positive step,” the Greek government commented, adding “The transition from the loan agreement to the new Greek program is now the object of negotiations as well as of the next Eurogroup. Greece has clear positions, it defends them and persuade the others. It does not blackmail and does not get blackmailed,”

The news has been hailed by the Greek media with titles like “Greece – Eurogroup agreed on a ‘bridge program’,” and “A sudden turn for a bridge – program after Wednesday’s impasse”.

Some also note that the International Monetary Fund “will exit the program.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Quick takes on the Greece-Germany confrontation

Jamie Galbraith from a week ago, The great Greek hope Deutsche Welle 02/04/2015:

So far, Chancellor Merkel has made some of the mildest comments of any German politician. She has for instance said that she does not contemplate a debt write-down, but not that she will never consider debt relief. One may assume these words are chosen with care. Possibly she wishes to maintain enough flexibility so as to be able to strike a deal. Surely she understands that the choices she makes - very soon - will determine Europe's future.

Greece rejects Germany’s demands to “cancel anti-austerity promises” Keep Talking Greece 02/04/2015

European Parliament President Schulz: 'Greek Voters Should Be Realistic'; Interview by Nikolaus Blome and Christoph Schult Spiegel International 02/03/2015

Stefan Kaiser takes a superficial, if half-correct, looks at ECB head Mario Draghi's play against Greece last week in EZB-Entscheidung: Griechenland auf Crashkurs Spiegel Online 05.02.2015

George Georgiopoulos and Michelle Martin, Greek, German ministers clash as ECB snub hits Athens' banks Spiegel Online 02/05/2015

Tsipras dice que "Grecia ya no aceptará órdenes, y menos por e-mail" Reuter/E.P./Público 05.02.2015

Hollande califica de "legítima" la presión del BCE sobre Grecia EFE/Público 05.02.2015

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is a hit at home. (Alberto Sicilia, Miles de griegos salen a la calle… y corean a su Ministro de Finanzas
Publicado el 5 de febrero de 2015 Principia Marsupia/Público 05.02.2015

That kind of celebration for Varoufakis remeinds me of this:

Andrew Lainton, Varoufakis’s Jane Austen Solution to Escaping Austerity and Achieving Growth Decisions, Decisions, Decisions 02/04/2015

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Greece's rock-star finance minister Yanis Varoufakis defies ECB's drachma threats 02/03/2015

John Cassidy, Why Greece and Europe Can Still Reach a Deal New Yorker 02/05/2015

Martin Wolf, Greek debt and a default of statesmanship Financial Times 01/27/2015