Monthly Archives: August 2011

Israel — Normalcy and Denial

Separation Wall Visiting Israel last week, I found a very different feel of daily life compared with my last visit 20 years ago. Soldiers were walking around or riding buses without their weapons (used to carry them everywhere). People were not tuning in the news hourly, all day, to see if there had been an incident. The political protests were not about peace or security. In short, life in Israel is becoming normal.

Driving around the country, one finds a repeating theme about how this normalcy has been achieved. In the Golan Heights, I recalled visiting in 1968 and looking through Syrian gunsights down at the kibbutz settlements below. The Syrians used to drop shells down on the Israelis pretty regularly, but then in 1967 Israel captured the Heights and it’s been quiet ever since. In the north of the country, Palestinian guerrillas used to infiltrate from Lebanon and attack Jewish communities. But then in 1982 Israel sent the army into Lebanon and cleaned out the PLO; another problem solved. Only to be replaced with a new problem: Hezbollah, which emerged as a force in southern Lebanon in response to the Israeli occupation, began shooting rockets into northern Israel. To solve that problem, Israel sent the army in again in 2006 to pound Hezbollah. It was heavy-handed and disproportionate, killed a lot of civilians, but the rockets stopped.

In the interior of the country, suicide bombers used to cause constant anxiety as they targeted civilian crowds anywhere they could. Israel built the “separation barrier” between Israel and the occupied West Bank — a high wall (or in some places fence) that juts into Palestinian land, splits up communities, and is an ongoing source of humiliation for Palestinians. Again heavy-handed, but the suicide bombings pretty much stopped. In the south, rockets from Gaza were dealt with by a massive Israeli attack in 2008. There are a lot fewer rockets now. This is the narrative of the Israeli right, and the stage on which Israelis now enjoy a more normal life.

The trouble is, right underneath this new normal is a layer of denial and, below that, a volcano ready to erupt. The most fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not been resolved. They won’t just disappear. But they’re no longer in Israelis’ faces day-to-day. It reminds me of my childhood growing up on top of the San Andreas Fault. You lived with little shakes all the time, and you knew the Big One would come some day but didn’t think about it. And, in fact, most of us go about our daily lives and drive around in our cars while global warming proceeds; life goes on, right?

There isn’t much room between complacency and fear to make peace. When Israelis are being attacked, they are too afraid to take risks for peace. When they are not being attacked, they are too complacent to see the need to.

The once-magical city of Jerusalem seems to be turning into New York, with nonstop traffic jams. When UN mediator Ralph Bunche arrived there in 1948, the airport runway was unpaved and his plane had to make a first pass to drive off the goats before landing. The British-controlled city was a war zone, though, with barbed wire and sandbags everywhere. Now it’s the reverse. It’s secure but built up with masses of new housing blocs, especially on the east (i.e. Palestinian) side where Israeli governments have created “facts on the gound” by moving in large numbers of Jews to new neighborhoods. The beautiful old parts of Jerusalem are now almost hidden inside the rings of new apartment buildings. In its determination to hold Jerusalem tight and not share it, Israel has ruined it. My opinion.

One other change has swept the country. There are a lot more orthodox Jews than before, and the secular Jewish majority (including the many who spend Yom Kippur at the beach) seems more invisible. Religion is more salient. One strand among the many varieties of orthodox Judaism, the Chabad Lubavitch movement, has plastered the country with pictures of their leader, who died in 1994, declaring him the Messiah. I have some doubts about that claim, but one thing for sure is Israel needs help — be it from God, Messiah, Obama, whoever — in waking up from a false normalcy and solving the Palestinian problem before the Big One arrives.

Electric Cars – Closer Than They Appear

The most important and most intractable problem in international relations is not war or poverty, each of which are seeing rapid progress in recent years. It’s global warming, where a world-scale disaster is unfolding and the international community seems to lack fundamental tools to craft a solution. Individuals, cities, U.S. states, and some countries are trying to find answers, but the big international agreements like Kyoto and Copenhagen have been, essentially, a big bust. Carbon continues to accumulate in the atmosphere as fast as ever.

Last week I saw a fascinating presentation in a converted water tank, now a 100-person theater with seats repurposed from old car seats. It was the visitor’s center of the company, Better Place, near Tel Aviv. The presentation highlighted how much bad comes from something we all do every day – getting in a car and driving. Gas-powered cars are a major source of carbon dioxide worldwide, they prop up unsavory regimes in oil-exporting countries, they are a big contributor to the U.S. trade deficit. Also they make a lot of noise and they stink. The technology is a hundred years old, and Better Place wants to revolutionize it through a massive switchover from gas to electric cars.

Right now a lot of the electricity we use comes from coal, a dirty fuel (even after the industry rebranding it by fiat as “clean coal”). But over the time it will take to switch over from gas to electric cars, alternative ways of making electricity will become more economical, so the electric car offers a path forward, a possibility (the word we heard a lot at Better Place) for the cleaner future we need. Gas cars by contrast are a dead end.

Personally, I’ve been driving an electric car for about three years. It’s a Solectria Force, one of about 400 made by a Boston company in the 1990s. They quit after no major car company would pick it up, but quite a few of the old ones are still on the road. It uses 13 regular lead-acid car batteries. My car is fun to drive, economical (the equivalent of 100 mpg in fuel cost terms), and very practical for driving kids around town and the like.The range is about 40 miles — plenty for most trips — and then you plug it in right in your garage and never have to visit a gas station. We keep a gas car too, for longer trips.

The two big drawbacks of our electric car are (1) there is no service other than getting out your own wrenches and then relying on other Solectria owners who connect on the Internet; and (2) let’s face it, this thing was a Geo Metro before it got electric, so it’s pretty stripped-down and underpowered.

At the Better Place visitor’s center, I got to test-drive one of their new cars, made for them by Renault. They’ve solved my two problems completely. Customer service is available by phone 24/7 by pushing a button in the car, and the driving experience is decidedly un-Geo Metrolike. It’s a nice comfortable sedan with good acceleration and a fun driving experience. I want one! Not enough to move to Seattle — one of the areas where you’ll first see the car, along with Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Hawaii — but enough to be impatient.

The big innovation with Better Place, compared with the other electric cars everyone now seems to be selling, is their solution to “range anxiety.” This is the feeling drivers have that their electric car could strand them, even though most trips are in fact within the range of the car. (Lithium batteries now used give more like 100 miles compared with my car’s 40 miles.) The Chevy Volt solves it with an onboard gasoline-powered generator, and that’s fine but still gas-based. Better Place solves it with a network of charging spots to plug in, and of robotic battery-swapping stations that can give you a fully charged battery in less than five minutes while you sit in the car. The Better Place model is that you own the car but not the battery — you pay for fuel by the mile, not by the gallon. A NY Times Magazine article a couple of years ago nicely describes range anxiety and Better Place’s solution.

The car’s GPS system knows where you are and where all the charging spots and battery-swap stations are. When you tell it to go from Point A to Point B, it says, “great, but we’ll stop at Point C briefly for a battery swap.”  There’s more detail to their system but the essence is that in a gas car you’re on your own but in a Better Place car you’re embedded in an intelligent network that takes care of you.

Electric cars are fun to drive and to blog about, but the big point here is that someone has a big idea to transform one of the biggest stumbling blocks that’s kept us from solving global warming. When I heard about the Better Place plan a couple of years ago, I thought they were insanely ambitious. I was wondering how we get the first one percent of drivers to go electric (millions of people). They were thinking, how do we get everyone. Now that I’ve driven the car myself, I still think the plan is insanely ambitious, but holds great possibility. And being fun doesn’t hurt.

Israeli Arab Spring

The Arab Spring youth protest movement has done more than bring down two governments nonviolently (Tunisia, Egypt), removed one by force (Libya), and left others hanging in doubt (Yemen, Syria). It has also reverberated around the world, causing a fearful Chinese government to crack down on dissent, breathing life into African opposition movements, and strengthening youth protests in Spain.

In Israel, the Arab Spring has inspired a vigorous but ill-defined protest movement against high housing prices and more generally an unjust status quo. The protests are centered in Tel Aviv, the biggest city, where thousands of young people have pitched tents and occupied public space to make their demands heard, in the style of Egypt’s Tahrir Square earlier this year. A couple of weeks ago 300,000 protesters turned out, a huge number in such a small country. The protests have shown amazing staying power, lasting for months now with no end in sight.

Haifa protest Aug. 2011. Photo: Solomon Goldstein-Rose

At the same time, little tent protests have popped up all around the country.  I have been traveling around Israel this week, and I’m fascinated to see these protesters camped out in every town. In Jerusalem, a couple of dozen people have pitched their tents in a park. In Migdal HaEmek, they have installed themselves by the side of the road into town. In the religious town of Safed, there they are with a few tents and protest signs in an open area near the middle of town. In Haifa, two guys with a guitar were holding down an encampment of a half dozen tents in the median strip of a traffic circle.

What do the young protesters want? They want affordable housing. They want a more just society with more opportunity for young people. They are not affiliated with a political party or political point of view, they say. They include both Jews and Israeli Arabs. One part of the tent city in Tel Aviv has parents of children with disabilities, another part has students, and so on. Maybe what they want, in part, is just to be together, to be young, to pitch their tents in public across the country and feel part of a greater cause. I asked an Israeli friend, “What could the government do that would cause the protesters to say, OK, we’ve won.” She said, “You see, that’s the problem.”

So today the protesters actually issued a list of demands, none too specific but focused on increasing the government budget for social services, paid for by fairer tax policies. As veteran Israeli opposition figure Yossi Beilin explained on Monday, the protests are “non-political” but political. A major reason housing is not affordable is that for years the government has poured money into cheap housing in the occupied territories. Beilin writes:

“Endless tracts have been written in recent years about the Israeli public’s indifference, its submissiveness and complacency, its capacity to swallow its discontent and leave to the politicians — even if it has no faith in them — the decisions that determine its fate. The excuses the public made for itself were so persuasive that we are still surprised to witness masses of mostly young adults filling the streets of our cities and refusing to go home until they are assured of ‘social justice.’ …  People did not take to the streets because of extreme right-wing legislation, the cessation of the peace process, ongoing construction in settlements, or tense relations between the government of Israel and the US administration — but rather, here and now, because of the unjust distribution of resources in Israel.” Like in the Arab Spring, he writes, the protests build on themselves as people realize they have power. The Israeli protests are leaderless like their Arab counterparts, and similarly have vague demands, which can lead to frustration even if partial change ensues.

Beilin thinks the protests are in fact connected with the occupation: “It’s enough to observe the masses of demonstrators and tent dwellers to understand that they are mainly young, secular, living in the heart of Israel, bearing the primary burden of taxes and reserve duty… Whether they wish it or not, this is the most political demonstration Israel has ever witnessed.”

Libyan Capital Falling to Rebels

In recent months I’ve been too optimistic about the timing of regime collapse in Libya, but correct about the steady direction of progress, always toward the end of the Gaddafi regime. Today events are catching up with me, as rebels have entered the capital Tripoli, taken military bases, and captured two of Gaddafi’s sons including Saif who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. With luck the end may come without a bloodbath, as the regime is crumbling quickly.

On Saturday, Tripoli residents in several neighborhoods known for their anti-Gaddafi sentiment rose up in protests, even armed with a few light weapons. The government responded with force, as always, shooting demonstrators, armed men, and civilians alike from sniper posts on rooftops and with mortars.

The vice-chair of the Transitional National Council, in Benghazi, announced dramatically: “The zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up… There is co-ordination with the rebels in Tripoli. This was a pre-set plan. They’ve been preparing for a while. There’s co-ordination with the rebels approaching from the east, west and south.”

Although the rebels seem to have slipped some weapons into the city by sea, the real action was the rapid advance of rebel units – now better armed and organized than a few months ago – toward the capital from several directions. Most importantly, they captured the military base of the notorious Khamis Brigade, nicknamed after its commander, Gaddafi’s son Khamis. The Brigade is one of Gaddafi’s elite units, well armed and loyal, so the loss of its base was another huge setback for the regime, and of course the rebels picked up lots of good weapons and marched on toward Tripoli, just 16 miles from the base.

Sunday the rebels charged into Tripoli, arrested Gaddafi’s sons, and apparently took control of most neighborhoods. The rebel forces include units formed from former residents of Tripoli who know their way around the city and its people. CNN reports: “Just after midnight Sunday, scores of raucous rebel supporters packed Green Square — the same place where Gadhafi loyalists have congregated regularly — celebrating, waving the rebel flag and even flashing the “victory” sign.” Rebels declared Sunday “Day One” for free Libya.

Back when NATO extended its mandate for 90 days before it expired June 27, I predicted the war might end so quickly they would not need the extension. I wrote, “Could be longer, but not a whole lot longer.” Some readers have pushed back on that, but in the context of the history of wars and revolutions, two months is not a whole lot longer. As I’ve said repeatedly here, Libya was not a stalemate or quagmire. And this time, I’m pretty confident NATO will not need another extension September 27.

In mid-October, my article with Jon Western on the successes of humanitarian interventions will appear in the journal Foreign Affairs. We consider Libya a smart, successful intervention by a united international community, that stopped an imminent mass atrocity event as the regime prepared to flatten Benghazi.

Stand by for the final hours of Gaddafi, and then there is a great deal of work to do in putting the country back together and governing it. Starting from Day One.

Israel, Palestine, and the UN

UN Headquarters photoPalestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has affirmed the intent of the Palestinian Authority to go to the UN next month with its demand for statehood. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called it “a bad idea.” I think it could be a good idea, if handled well, and I find amusing the idea voiced by various U.S. and Israeli officials that going to the UN is a “unilateral” act. Say what you want about taking your problems to the UN, but it’s not unilateral!

The General Assembly is expected to start its parade of world leaders speaking in turn on Sept. 20 and Palestine will likely be on the agenda for those speeches. Israeli leader Benyamin Netanyahu isn’t sure if he’ll attend — he might send the ultra-ring-wing foreign minister instead. Apparently he’s been reading “how to NOT make friends and influence people.”

Speaking of bad ideas, Israel just approved construction of several hundred more houses in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The Quartet of outside powers — the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations — said they were “greatly concerned” about the new housing plans. And well they might be. Not only is new settlement in the occupied territories a key blockage for resuming peace talks, but Ariel is the key settlement in that blockage.

Back in February, the New York Times magazine ran a long description of peace talks in 2007 and 2008, recently “outed” by al Jazeera in detail, between Abbas and then-prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert. They were extremely close to a deal on almost all points when the talks broke off. The government of the United States changed and so did that in Israel, and the deal has been on ice, although Israeli President Shimon Peres has held talks recently with Abbas along the same lines. (The publication of details of the negotiations showed, to the detriment of Abbas’s standing among Palestinians, that he had given the Israelis almost everything they wanted.)

The deal was based on pre-1967 borders. Land swaps were to put most of the settlers back within Israel (most settlements are just over the old border), with land swaps giving Palestine an equivalent territory elsewhere. Some refugees would return to within Israel but most would get compensation and settle either in Palestine or elsewhere. Jerusalem would be a “holy basin” with a special status ensuring access to all religions, rather as the UN had envisioned in 1947 in its original partition plan. Here is the NY Times’s excellent map:

Map from NY TimesThese historic points of conflict — borders, refugees, Jerusalem — were not the sticking point. Rather, the biggest problem was the Ariel settlement. It is large (18,000 and set to grow), filled with passionate right-wing settlers, and located deep in the West Bank, wrecking the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.

So responding the Palestinian’s UN gambit with a decision to expand Ariel is sending a message. But really, guys, that’s the best you have? Even with tent cities of protesters popping up across Israel as hundreds of thousands of young people demand a more just, equitable society? The answer is more housing in Ariel?

So, here’s what I think would be a better approach for the United States and the Quartet — better than standing on the sidelines saying the Palestinians have a “bad idea” and we are “greatly concerned” about Israeli actions. I say take it to the UN! That’s what it’s there for. The UN is where it all started in 1947. The UN Security Council resolutions after the 1967 and 1973 wars are the blueprint for everything since.

But don’t bother with the powerless General Assembly (recently compared by U.S. ambassador Susan Rice to the Star Wars bar scene). Use the Security Council. It has never passed a resolution laying out the vision of a two-state solution. (The 1947 partition resolution was from the General Assembly.) Now is the time to do so. Not jump to the final details, but give the overall framework of a solution — the points about borders, refugees, Jerusalem just discussed. UN Security Council resolutions are the blueprints for how great powers plan to address international conflicts. We need one.

A new resolution would bypass the conflicts about General Assembly resolutions, statehood bid, and settlement-building. It would get the USA off the hook in terms of vetoing Palestinian statehood. It would send Israel a clear directive of how the endgame is going to shape up. (You can build houses in Ariel, but Palestinians are going to end up living in them.)  It would reinvigorate the two-state solution and deflate extremists on both sides who want it all for their side.

The United States created the UN, is its biggest single donor, and physically hosts it in New York. The UN is a tremendous tool for accomplishing American foreign policy goals. So use it!

Libyan Rebels Advance

Recent days have seen significant advances by Libyan rebels on several fronts. On Sunday they cut the coastal road to Tripoli — Gaddafi’s supply lifeline — taking most of the town of Zawiyah, a half hour drive from Tripoli itself. To the south, they were fighting in Gheryan, which controls the only other land route to Tripoli. In the east they have captured most of the oil town Brega along the coastal road, moving west from Benghazi.

Al Jazeera provided this video from the most important town, Zawiyah:

Meanwhile, the city of Benghazi, rebel headquarters, is recovering from war and improving, while Tripoli is under more and more stress. The Washington Post reports:

Life in Benghazi gets slightly better every day… “The city feels safe. Things work,” said Abed Dada of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who has spent the past few weeks in Benghazi.

The bakeries are turning out special pastries again. A tank of gas costs $4, less than before the revolution. Cellphone calls are free. … The price of a chicken in Tripoli is $12, whereas in Benghazi, a bird (imported from Egypt) will set you back $3.

The rebels have been underarmed and disorganized, with many civilians fighting despite little experience or training. They have also been set back by divisions in their ranks, notably the mysterious killing of their top military commander, a former Gaddafi officer who may have been hated by some rebel factions. Old tribal divisions threaten to undermine rebel unity as well. But none of that was on display in the past few days as their forces have advanced.

I have been too optimistic in the past about the pace of progress toward overthrowing Gaddafi, but my central point remains — each passing week brings advances for the rebels and setbacks for Gaddafi. NATO solidarity has held up fairly well, and pressures to end the campaign are minimal so far in the home countries of the participating forces. (Colum Lynch notes a slight shift in Ban Ki-Moon’s phrasing recently, but the UN has been fully supportive of the UN campaign and says it still is.) Really the only victory Gaddafi can point to is clinging to power longer than expected. In the big picture, lasting six month instead of three is not much of a victory.

“Made in America” on ABC News

I like ABC News. I really do. But in recent months they have aggravated me with a repeating segment called “Made in America.” It’s a red-white-and-blue crusade to solve our economic woes with economic nationalism. It’s bad economics and it’s offensively chauvinistic.

So, one little problem is that ABC News used to report the news and now they do mini-reality TV segments like this. The team goes into a house, a neighborhood, and takes out everything made outside the USA, leaving a shockingly empty scene for a patriotic family or block to “makeover” with American-made goods. They have viewers sending in videos about U.S.-made products and they roam around to get U.S. Senators to pressure the gift shops in Washington, DC to replace foreign-made objects. Personally, I don’t really mind the reality TV show aspect because I always record the BBC News to tell me what’s actually happening in the world, places that maybe ABC used to have reporters but can’t afford to send them anymore. (The BBC is awesome — that’s a different rant.)

But the unthinking nationalism — that bothers me. Like the global economy is a zero-sum game, Americans are more important and deserving than everyone else, and we should be getting ahead at their expense and not let them do so at our expense. Of course the economics are wrong because there is no such zero-sum game and, in fact, trade creates wealth big-time. Our last really big depression, in the 1930s, was made much worse by economic nationalism in the protectionist measures of the Smoot-Hawley Act. Trade crashed and so did our economy.

But what really bugs me is the parochial view of the United States versus the world. One of the world’s richest countries should circle the wagons and not let any of its wealth slip out to the poorest countries. It’s unseemly.  My unease peaked during a segment where the team provoked some U.S. kids to look inside their T-shirts and one teenager reported, “Bangladesh — Yuck!”

That teenager obviously has no idea what selling that T-shirt means to some dirt-poor family in Bangladesh, a family of human beings just like the American ones but unimaginably poorer. Textiles are one of the few, labor-intensive, industries where very poor countries can hope to export and begin to develop their economies. In 2002, textiles made up three-quarters of all exports from Bangladesh, according to the IMF. Not surprisingly, textiles have declined in the United States where wages are higher. ABC News puts up a whole web page bemoaning this with a “click here” to buy an American-made T-shirt. For many years the U.S. had steep tariffs on imports of textiles, to pander to domestic U.S. producers, but the industry kept shrinking anyway. Since 2005, under a World Trade Organization treaty that the United States signed and supported, all textile tariffs and quotas were eliminated worldwide. But the cotton that goes into clothing is still grown under government subsidies in the USA ($50 billion since 1991) and other rich countries, choking off cotton farmers in poor countries who want to export.

There is a problem with trade that hurts the U.S. economy, and that is the violation of trade rules by some of our trading partners, notably China. When we produce something like a movie and China allows it to be pirated widely, that’s wrong. Also if foreign countries sell us things made with slave labor or inadequate safety standards, that’s also wrong. But that’s not what ABC News is talking about in their “Bangladesh — Yuck” series.

Diane Sawyer keeps reminding us that if we all just sought out a few more made-in-America products, tens of thousands of U.S. jobs would be created. She never mentions that this would make no perceptible change in U.S. unemployment with 14 million unemployed in a labor force of 150 million.

ANY economist will tell you that the way out of this recession is more trade, not less. Americans need to produce more and better stuff that we are good at making, and it’s not T-shirts. It’s airplanes, movies, software, pharmaceuticals, soybeans, and more.  So we buy the T-shirt from Bangladesh, and they use the money to buy our soybeans or airplanes. It’s called “comparative advantage.” Do what do best, and trade for the rest. Too bad TV news is not one of the things we do best. I say, “Made in America” — yuck!

Wars, Debt, and Inflation

Edwin Marcus 1941 cartoonWhat way of paying for expensive wars is most reliable, hardest to evade, and easiest to collect? If you’re thinking taxes, think again. The answer is inflation.

Now that the U.S. Treasury’s credit rating has been cut by one of the three major rating agencies, and the stock markets are in turmoil, we should think about how we got into such a state and where it may lead long-term.

Conventional wisdom, partly true, is that war spending does not have much of a role because it’s small relative to GDP (compared with past cases like WWII and even Vietnam). But I think wars have bigger economic effects than generally realized.

At the start of the Iraq War, I wrote that George W. Bush’s plan to CUT taxes in wartime was historically unprecedented and would lead to terrible economic consequences (The Real Price of War). Wars are super expensive, and more than a trillion dollars have gone down the drain in Iraq and Afghanistan since that book appeared. Or maybe several trillion dollars, depending how you count. Bush’s tax cuts and war expenses were a big part of driving up the federal debt.

The New York Times had a nifty graphic recently illustrating that of our current $14 trillion debt, more than $6 trillion accumulated during the Bush years. Another $2.4 came during the Obama years, but most of that was paying for Bush’s wars and stimulus to counteract Bush’s recession. So I don’t see the latest crisis as a “Tea Party downgrade” so much as a Bush Downgrade. The Republicans say to stop whining about Bush, and the public has a short memory as usual, but it’s like someone steals everything you have and burns your house down, then tells you a few years later that that’s ancient history and it’s your own fault you’re poor.

So we have a big debt. Who holds it? China is indeed the largest foreign government creditor at $1.2 trillion, but almost three times that amount is held by other foreign governments, and even more by private individuals, companies, and banks ($3.6 trillion). The largest holder of U.S. government debt, at about $6 trillion, is the U.S. government, mostly Social Security and other trust funds.

How will the USA ever pay it back? Historically, there is a way that countries pay huge war debts. They print too much of their currency and cause its value to fall, thereby letting themselves pay off debts with funny money instead of valuable money. This is a huge simplification but explains the core of what happens. My 1988 book Long Cycles showed that over five centuries recurrent spikes of inflation followed major wars. In the past decade U.S. wars have been far from major in historical terms, and the current quasi-recession holds down inflation for now, but over the coming years I consider inflation likely.

The Chinese and other holders of Treasury debt should not be too worried about default (a failure to make payments on time). Rather, they should worry that the money they get paid back in will be worth a lot less than the money they paid in the first place. The U.S. government is in the admirable position of borrowing in a currency whose value it controls.

Admittedly I have been worrying about inflation for quite a while and it has not materialized. But those of you young enough not to remember the 1970s (the last time the United States had double-digit annual inflation) might not even know what the word means. It would be worth learning it.

What happens next? James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations makes a good case that the special bipartisan Congressional committee will fail to reach agreement this Fall. It seems likely that not much progress on governance will occur until the 2012 elections sort out what direction we’re going. Meanwhile the operative math is: 
Debt Deal of 2011 — $2.4 trillion.
Hearing the “socialist” Chinese leadership criticize the capitalist United States for its “bloated social welfare costs” — Priceless.

Al Shabab Driven from Mogadishu

AU peacekeeper in Somalia, July 2011

Amidst famine and despair in Somalia, a sudden turn of events has brought a spark of hope to the grim landscape. The Islamic militant group al Shabab, affiliated with al Qaeda, has pulled out of the capital Mogadishu which it had controlled for years.

This development has been brewing for months, as the 9,000 African Union troops supporting the government (mostly Ugandan troops) have strengthened their force and pushed to expand the government’s zone of control beyond the few blocks of territory it has held in recent years. The need to deliver famine aid to the refugees streaming into Mogadishu gave an extra reason to push out al Shabab. The militant group was also set back when a top leader was killed recently in a shootout after mistakenly driving into a government checkpoint. It has also been hit with U.S. drone attacks recently. Clan elders have turned against the group as it has blocked delivery of famine aid and has even held captive those families trying to flee the area. Shabab’s harsh methods of justice — it ruled by fear — were resented by the population.

The transitional government in Somalia is extremely weak and, at best, inept. But it is internationally recognized and has the support of the African Union, the United Nations, and all the major outside powers including the United States. With Shabab’s actions so reprehensible, this is one conflict in the world where the good guys and the bad guys are not hard to distinguish.

Somalia is extremely unstable and al Shabab has been beaten back before only to return. The country has been at war since 1991. Northern parts of it operate autonomously, including Puntland where the notorious pirates have their main bases, and Somaliland which has operated for years as an oasis of relative peace and democracy.

In the south, the famine continues to worsen and is quite desperate. Much more aid is needed. As before, I would urge everyone to donate to the major organizations working to help the affected population. Here again are links for Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam America.

There are always many reasons to be pessimistic about Somalia, but today we must agree with the Somali prime minister that the withdrawal of al Shabab from Mogadishu is a “tremendous step forward.”

Palestine – All or Nothing?

Palestine mapA lot of conflicts are in play at the moment around the world, but none more important than the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is the world’s longest-running major conflict at 60+ years, and it has symbolic importance far beyond those directly affected. With the UN General Assembly set to open next month, Palestine is rising to the top spot on the world agenda.

On the surface, the prospects for settlement look bleaker than ever. Israel has a right-wing government that seems uninterested in peace, a settler movement strong enough to shoot down any proposal to give up control of land, and a public that still loves peace but has grown wary. After all, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon (2000) and from Gaza (2005), those areas became staging grounds for rocket attacks on Israel by Islamist militants — Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively — and new wars followed in response (2006 in Lebanon; 2009 in Gaza).

Palestinians for their part have a weak governing authority with a moderate President elected in 2005 (whose term should have expired in 2009) controlling the West Bank and an armed faction, Hamas — also elected, in Parliamentary elections in 2006 — controlling Gaza. The Palestinian public is also peace-loving but extremely wary after generations of occupation.

But here’s the thing. The next steps will not be incremental. Israel will not withdraw from some bits of territory and close a few settlements. Palestinian radicals will not gradually diminish the rocket fire into Israel. None of that would make any sense. The only deal that can work is a big deal. And we know what that deal looks like, too. It is based on a return to the 1949 cease-fire lines that held before the 1967 Six Day War, with swaps of territory to put major settlement blocs within Israel and compensate Palestine with equivalent territory elsewhere along the line. This concept, recently articulated by President Obama, has been endorsed by past Israeli and Palestinian governments, and even the current Israeli government is coming back around to it.

The United Nations, which sets the blueprint for what the great powers can agree on in solving world problems, has never endorsed the concept, but Tom Friedman sensibly proposed in June that the Security Council do so. The outside powers all support it, and public opinion would back it overwhelmingly in the context of an overall peace deal.

In January 2001, following up on the failed Camp David II talks hosted by Bill Clinton, negotiators from Israel and Palestine met in the Egyptian town of Taba. They came within a hair of resolving all the major issues. OK, a thick hair, but nonetheless tantalizingly close to agreement. In the end, they ran out of time. Clinton left office and George W. Bush did not have the same drive to finish the work, and the left-leaning Israeli government lost elections to a right-leaning one.

The deal looks like this:  (1) Borders. Israel would get 5 percent of the West Bank containing 80 percent of the settlers, mostly in big settlements right over the old border. Palestine would get that 5 percent back in land swaps elsewhere. The other 20 percent of the settlers would move. (2) Refugees. Palestinians who have dreamt for generations of returning to homes within Israel, which they fled in 1948 or 1967, would wake up from that dream and get paid money instead. They would settle permanently in the West Bank, Gaza, or another country. (3) Jerusalem. The eastern part of the city with Arab neighborhoods and Islam’s third holiest site (the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques) would become the capital of Palestine. The rest, including the holy Jewish sites and the Jewish neighborhoods around the city, just over the old border, would be the capital of Israel. The U.S. Embassy, now in Tel Aviv, would finally move up the hill to Jerusalem. Peace talks taking place on-and-off recently, out of the public eye, are not focused on big issues, but details. The big parameters are known.

The tragedy of the past decade for Israel and Palestine — a decade marked by the Second Intifada and the wars in Lebanon and Gaza — is that nothing changed in those parameters for a final deal. Everyone knows what the deal looks like, and it looks the same now as it did in early 2000. In other words, a lot of people died for nothing. Someday, when both sides have the will, they’ll say OK and the deal will happen.

I once saw someone freeze up in fear at the top of a big zip-line, unwilling to take off his harness and climb back down the tower, but unable to move forward a few inches into the jump. Outside encouragement did not help, and he stayed there frozen for a long twenty minutes. And then, for no particular reason, he jumped.


Blog note:  In August, when I and my readers are in and out from vacations, I will not blog five days a week as I’ve been doing, but will try for 2-3 times a week. To subscribe to email notifications when I post a new blog, use the box in the right-hand column or at the bottom of this page.