Stage Two of the Egyptian Revolution

The second stage of a revolution often turns out to be the most important. The first stage breaks the hold of whatever regime came before, but what comes next is apt to have the greater lasting impact. In the Russian Revolution it was not the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky but instead the Bolsheviks who overthrew him who would shape much of twentieth century history. In the Iranian Revolution it was not Mehdi Bazargan, the first post-shah head of government, but rather those coming later who created the regime that would become the preoccupation that it is today. Neither of those transitions worked out well from the West's point of view, but revolutionary transitions don't always have to be for the worse. In the French Revolution, the Thermidorian Reaction and the Directory were a whole lot better than the Reign of Terror. The point is that the toppling of whoever sat atop the ancien regime is not a culmination but only a beginning.


Ross Douthat's column opposite Paul Krugman's in the New York Times today provides a nice example of contrasting viewpoints, to put it mildly, when it comes to the American economy and the national debt. Krugman lambastes President Obama for being a namby-pamby when it comes to facing down the GOP. "Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn't seem to stand for anything in particular?" he asked. It's a question that many Democrats are pondering, or have pondered, about Obama. The inspirational figure they saw seems to have disappeared and been replaced by someone who seeks to play the transcendental leader rather than a feisty fighter for traditional liberal values.

Meanwhile, Douthat argues that House Republican Paul Ryan's proposed budget does a good job of striking "a plausible balance between the dual imperatives of growth and fiscal discipline." But he notes that simply trying to jettison Obama's health care plan without having some kind of substitute won't pass muster. And he notes that the Ryan plans "central economic premise—that lowering marginal tax rates guarantees widely shared prosperity—was tested and found wanting during the Bush era." What Douthat is aiming for is a conservatism that isn't simply a Grinchy version of Herbert Hoover-style economics, but one that also offers opportunity for Americans to ascend the economic ladder rather than be permanently stuck on the lower rungs—or unable to get on at all.

How Close Did the United States Come to Launching a War against Iran?

 As early as 2005, Israel determined that it could not deliver a knockout blow against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ha’aretz reported over the weekend. Documents obtained through Wikileaks reveal that Israeli officials informed U.S. diplomats in December 2005 “that there is no chance of a military attack being carried out on Iran.” The story continues, based on a telegram sent in January 2006:

"[Dr. Ariel Levite, then-deputy chief of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission] said that most Israeli officials do not believe a military solution is possible,"…"They believe Iran has learned from Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor, and has dispersed the components of its nuclear program throughout Iran, with some elements in places that Israel does not know about."


Levite told the Americans that Iran could obtain nuclear weapons within two to three years, but admitted the estimate could be inaccurate as "Israel does not have a clear or precise understanding of Iran's clandestine program."

The Human Rights Card

China’s gloves are certainly off. On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a State Department report on human rights that criticized Beijing for harshly cracking down on people expressing antigovernment sentiment. Clinton said that State was “deeply concerned” about the many critics who have been “arbitrarily detained and arrested.” She called on China “to release all of those who have been detained for exercising their internationally recognized right to free expression.” China shot back with its own report. In it, Beijing accused Washington of turning “a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation,” including violent crime, poverty and discrimination.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is leaving today for a three-day trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a visit that comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s meetings in Riyadh last week. Donilon will sit down with Saudi King Abdullah as well as the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. According to a press release, the visit “underscores the importance of our relationship with these two key partners.”

In Defense of Israel

This week Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system scored its first successes against live enemy fire. Somewhat akin to the U.S. Patriot air defense system, Iron Dome uses radars and high-speed intercept missiles to knock incoming rockets out of the air. Amid the recent escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Iron Dome was deployed to defend southern Israel against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. According to some reports, by early Saturday the system had shot down six rockets that had been directed at cities such as Beersheba and Ashkelon. This development is significant and deserves to be welcomed by many people, notwithstanding the views they may have about whatever else Israel does.

Pay for the Wars

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) Wednesday introduced his Pay for War Resolution, which would require this Senate to offset war spending with spending cuts or tax increases unless 60 senators vote to override the requirement. As I discussed in a recent post, we know from markets that subsidized products will outsell alternatives of higher quality. Deficits essentially use future wealth to subsidize war spending, screwing up our evaluation of its costs and benefits.

Of course, that is true of all present spending, not just wars. So why focus only on them? One answer is that you don’t have too—you can be for this bill and efforts to make deficit spending extraordinary. The other answer is that, absent a draft, wars belong to the category of policies with especially distributed costs and thus no natural opponents. They are different in this sense from environmental regulations, for example, which provoke complaints from businesses that bear much of their cost. Professional norms prevent the volunteers that fight our wars from complaining too publicly about them. The cost to the rest of us is marginally higher taxes, now subsidized by deficits. The result is that few care enough to organize for change. We need more skin in the game for productive debate.

Still, I have two problems with Franken’s resolution.

Europe's In Trouble Again

Europe has long been famed for seemingly high intractable unemployment rates and sluggish growth rates. Then it added a new feather in its cap with the debt crises assailing Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Protesters got to march on the streets and, once again, denounce das Kapital. Meanwhile, Americans are fretting that they're about to go down the same road, as the Republicans and Democrats haggle over cutting the budget.

Now Europe may be imposing a self-inflicted wound upon itself. The European Central Bank raised interest rates on Thursday. The move maintains the banks anti-inflation bona fides. But it may be a symbolic rather than a practical victory. Raising rates is likely to have several effects: it will ensure that Euro remains a hard currency; it will make it more difficult for Europeans to export goods; and, above all, it will impose a punishing blow upon Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which need to keep raising funds so that they don't go belly-up. In short, the move is likely to backfire. Inflation remains tepid. There is no reason to raise rates.

If Europe faces economic difficulties, it is also regressing from unification in practical ways. The Wall Street Journal notes that France is resurrecting its border with Italy. It's desperate to stop any North African migrants from entering France. The result is that France and Italy are at war again. According to the Journal,

Time is Running Out

In his meetings with Iraqi’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and head of the regional government in Kurdistan, Massoud Barzai, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pressed the leaders to finally finish forming a government and make a decision about whether they want the help of U.S. troops beyond the scheduled December 31, 2011 withdrawal date. “Time is running out in Washington,” he added. Gates made clear that any force that remained would be significantly smaller: “it obviously would be a presence that is a fraction of the size we have here now. It is truly up to the Iraqis at this point.”

On Libya, Gates maintained that U.S. participation in the military intervention did not set a precedent. As uprisings continue to shake states across the Middle East, he said that the convergence of events surrounding the intervention, including the fact that the Arab League requested military action, was unprecedented, and that “it's hard for [him] to imagine those kinds of circumstances being replicated any place else.”

How Does a Ruler Stay in Power?

The popular upheaval in the Middle East, and the reactions of regimes in the region to that upheaval, constitute a laboratory for studying the effectiveness of different strategies for retaining political power. A variety of strategies have been tried. Libya's Qaddafi, for example, has followed one of the harder lines, while other regimes have emphasized carrots for the populace more than sticks. Several regimes are mixing the hard and the soft, although in varying proportions and in different sequences. The variation does not simply track the character of the regimes; it is not just a matter, say, of Qaddafi following a tough line because he is a harder edged tyrant and the previous regime in Egypt following a different course because gentler souls live there. The different strategies reflect calculations by rulers about which approach is most likely to keep them in power.  The results in most countries in the region have yet to be determined. They can't all have the best strategy. Who's right?

NATO’s Neglected Mission

As NATO begins to focus on its new mission in Libya, its main mission in Afghanistan remains an unresolved debacle.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently announced that his central government will be taking over seven areas of the country from the international coalition. But the Afghan government remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted, and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The 150,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing sub-national interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy, and, among Afghans, rapaciousness.

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April 18, 2014