Sunday, December 28, 2008

Palestine peace not likely under Obama

Israel continued bombing Gaza into a second day. Over 215 are reported dead, including children and other civilians. Photo: BBC

How Can Anyone Believe There is 'Progress' in The Middle East?

By Robert Fisk

Saturday, 27 December 2008 "The Independent" -- If reporting is, as I suspect, a record of mankind's folly, then the end of 2008 is proving my point.

Let's kick off with the man who is not going to change the Middle East, Barack Obama, who last week, with infinite predictability, became Time's "person of the year". But buried in a long and immensely tedious interview inside the magazine, Obama devotes just one sentence to the Arab-Israeli conflict: "And seeing if we can build on some of the progress, at least in conversation, that's been made around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a priority."

What is this man talking about? "Building on progress?" What progress? On the verge of another civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, with Benjamin Netanyahu a contender for Israeli prime minister, with Israel's monstrous wall and its Jewish colonies still taking more Arab land, and Palestinians still firing rockets at Sderot, and Obama thinks there's "progress" to build on?

I suspect this nonsensical language comes from the mental mists of his future Secretary of State. "At least in conversation" is pure Hillary Clinton – its meaning totally eludes me – and the giveaway phrase about progress being made "around" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even weirder. Of course if Obama had talked about an end to Jewish settlement building on Arab land – the only actual "building" that is going on in the conflict – relations with Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, justice for both sides in the conflict, along with security for Palestinians as well as Israelis, then he might actually effect a little change.

An interesting test of Obama's gumption is going to come scarcely three months after his inauguration when he will have a little promise to honour. Yup, it's that dratted 24 April commemoration of the Armenian genocide when Armenians remember the 1.5 million of their countrymen – citizens of the Ottoman empire slaughtered by the Turks – on the anniversary of the day in 1915 when the first Armenian professors, artists and others were taken off to execution by the Ottoman authorities.

Bill Clinton promised Armenians he'd call it a "genocide" if they helped to elect him to office. George Bush did the same. So did Obama. The first two broke their word and resorted to "tragedy" rather than "genocide" once they'd got the votes, because they were frightened of all those bellowing Turkish generals, not to mention – in Bush's case – the US military supply routes through Turkey, the "roads and so on" as Robert Gates called them in one of history's more gripping ironies, these being the same "roads and so on" upon which the Armenians were sent on their death marches in 1915. And Mr Gates will be there to remind Obama of this. So I bet you – I absolutely bet on the family cat – that Obama is going to find that "genocide" is "tragedy" by 24 April.

By chance, I browsed through Turkish Airlines' in-flight magazine while cruising into Istanbul earlier this month and found an article on the historical Turkish region of Harput. "Asia's natural garden", "a popular holiday resort", the article calls Harput, "where churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary rise next to tombs of the ancestors of Mehmet the Conqueror".

Odd, all those churches, isn't it? And you have to shake your head to remember that Harput was the centre of the Christian Armenian genocide, the city from which Leslie Davis, the brave American consul in Harput, sent back his devastating eyewitness dispatches of the thousands of butchered Armenian men and women whose corpses he saw with his own eyes. But I guess that all would spoil the "natural garden" effect. It's a bit like inviting tourists to the Polish town of Oswiecim – without mentioning that its German name is Auschwitz.

But these days, we can all rewrite history. Take Nicolas Sarkozy, France's cuddliest ever president, who not only toadies up to Bashar al-Assad of Syria but is now buttering up the sick and awful Algerian head of state Abdelaziz Bouteflika who's just been "modifying" the Algerian constitution to give himself a third term in office.

There was no parliamentary debate, just a show of hands – 500 out of 529 – and what was Sarko's response? "Better Bouteflika than the Taliban!" I always thought the Taliban operated a bit more to the east – in Afghanistan, where Sarko's lads are busy fighting them – but you never can tell. Not least when exiled former Algerian army officers revealed that undercover soldiers as well as the Algerian Islamists (Sarko's "Taliban") were involved in the brutal village massacres of the 1990s.

Talking of "undercover", I was amazed to learn of the training system adopted by the Met lads who put Jean Charles de Menezes to death on the Tube. According to former police commander Brian Paddick, the Met's secret rules for "dealing" with suicide bombers were drawn up "with the help of Israeli experts". What? Who were these so-called "experts" advising British policemen how to shoot civilians on the streets of London? The same men who assassinate wanted Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and brazenly kill Palestinian civilians at the same time? The same people who outrageously talk about "targeted killings" when they murder their opponents? Were these the thugs who were advising Lady Cressida Dick and her boys?

Not that our brave peace envoy, Lord Blair, would have much to say about it. He's the man, remember, whose only proposed trip to Gaza was called off when yet more "Israeli experts" advised him that his life might be in danger. Anyway, he'd still rather be president of Europe, something Sarko wants to award him. That, I suppose, is why Blair wrote such a fawning article in the same issue of Time which made Obama "person" of the year. "There are times when Nicolas Sarkozy resembles a force of nature," Blair grovels. It's all first names, of course. "Nicolas has the hallmark of any true leader"; "Nicolas has adopted..."; "Nicolas recognises"; "Nicolas reaching out...". In all, 15 "Nicolases". Is that the price of the Euro presidency? Or will Blair now tell us he's going to be involved in those "conversations" with Obama to "build on some of the progress" in the Middle East?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Death of Deep Throat

Hal Holbrook, as seen in this still from the 1976 motion picture "All the President's Men," portrayed Mark Felt ("Deep Throat") in a cinematic retelling of the Watergate affair, based on the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

For [Deep throat] to have been able to guide and control the young reporters’ investigation, he needed to know a great deal of what the White House had done, going back quite far. He could not possibly have known all this simply through his personal investigations. His knowledge covered too many people, too many operations, and too much money in too many places simply to have been the product of one of his side hobbies. The only way [Deep Throat] could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate.

By George Friedman

Mark Felt died last week at the age of 95. For those who don’t recognize that name, Felt was the “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame. It was Felt who provided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post with a flow of leaks about what had happened, how it happened and where to look for further corroboration on the break-in, the cover-up, and the financing of wrongdoing in the Nixon administration. Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé of Watergate has been seen as a high point of journalism, and their unwillingness to reveal Felt’s identity until he revealed it himself three years ago has been seen as symbolic of the moral rectitude demanded of journalists.
In reality, the revelation of who Felt was raised serious questions about the accomplishments of Woodward and Bernstein, the actual price we all pay for journalistic ethics, and how for many years we did not know a critical dimension of the Watergate crisis. At a time when newspapers are in financial crisis and journalism is facing serious existential issues, Watergate always has been held up as a symbol of what journalism means for a democracy, revealing truths that others were unwilling to uncover and grapple with. There is truth to this vision of journalism, but there is also a deep ambiguity, all built around Felt’s role. This is therefore not an excursion into ancient history, but a consideration of two things. The first is how journalists become tools of various factions in political disputes. The second is the relationship between security and intelligence organizations and governments in a Democratic society.

Watergate was about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. The break-in was carried out by a group of former CIA operatives controlled by individuals leading back to the White House. It was never proven that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon knew of the break-in, but we find it difficult to imagine that he didn’t. In any case, the issue went beyond the break-in. It went to the cover-up of the break-in and, more importantly, to the uses of money that financed the break-in and other activities. Numerous aides, including the attorney general of the United States, went to prison. Woodward and Bernstein, and their newspaper, The Washington Post, aggressively pursued the story from the summer of 1972 until Nixon’s resignation. The episode has been seen as one of journalism’s finest moments. It may have been, but that cannot be concluded until we consider Deep Throat more carefully.

Deep Throat Reconsidered

Mark Felt was deputy associate director of the FBI (No. 3 in bureau hierarchy) in May 1972, when longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died. Upon Hoover’s death, Felt was second to Clyde Tolson, the longtime deputy and close friend to Hoover who by then was in failing health himself. Days after Hoover’s death, Tolson left the bureau.

Felt expected to be named Hoover’s successor, but Nixon passed him over, appointing L. Patrick Gray instead. In selecting Gray, Nixon was reaching outside the FBI for the first time in the 48 years since Hoover had taken over. But while Gray was formally acting director, the Senate never confirmed him, and as an outsider, he never really took effective control of the FBI. In a practical sense, Felt was in operational control of the FBI from the break-in at the Watergate in August 1972 until June 1973.

Nixon’s motives in appointing Gray certainly involved increasing his control of the FBI, but several presidents before him had wanted this, too, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Both of these presidents wanted Hoover gone for the same reason they were afraid to remove him: He knew too much. In Washington, as in every capital, knowing the weaknesses of powerful people is itself power — and Hoover made it a point to know the weaknesses of everyone. He also made it a point to be useful to the powerful, increasing his overall value and his knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the powerful.

Hoover’s death achieved what Kennedy and Johnson couldn’t do. Nixon had no intention of allowing the FBI to continue as a self-enclosed organization outside the control of the presidency and everyone else. Thus, the idea that Mark Felt, a man completely loyal to Hoover and his legacy, would be selected to succeed Hoover is in retrospect the most unlikely outcome imaginable.
Felt saw Gray’s selection as an unwelcome politicization of the FBI (by placing it under direct presidential control), an assault on the traditions created by Hoover and an insult to his memory, and a massive personal disappointment. Felt was thus a disgruntled employee at the highest level. He was also a senior official in an organization that traditionally had protected its interests in predictable ways. (By then formally the No. 2 figure in FBI, Felt effectively controlled the agency given Gray’s inexperience and outsider status.) The FBI identified its enemies, then used its vast knowledge of its enemies’ wrongdoings in press leaks designed to be as devastating as possible. While carefully hiding the source of the information, it then watched the victim — who was usually guilty as sin — crumble. Felt, who himself was later convicted and pardoned for illegal wiretaps and break-ins, was not nearly as appalled by Nixon’s crimes as by Ni xon’s decision to pass him over as head of the FBI. He merely set Hoover’s playbook in motion.

Woodward and Bernstein were on the city desk of The Washington Post at the time. They were young (29 and 28), inexperienced and hungry. We do not know why Felt decided to use them as his conduit for leaks, but we would guess he sought these three characteristics — as well as a newspaper with sufficient gravitas to gain notice. Felt obviously knew the two had been assigned to a local burglary, and he decided to leak what he knew to lead them where he wanted them to go. He used his knowledge to guide, and therefore control, their investigation.

Systematic Spying on the President

And now we come to the major point. For Felt to have been able to guide and control the young reporters’ investigation, he needed to know a great deal of what the White House had done, going back quite far. He could not possibly have known all this simply through his personal investigations. His knowledge covered too many people, too many operations, and too much money in too many places simply to have been the product of one of his side hobbies. The only way Felt could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate. Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post’s coverage.

Instead of passing what he knew to professional prosecutors at the Justice Department — or if he did not trust them, to the House Judiciary Committee charged with investigating presidential wrongdoing — Felt chose to leak the information to The Washington Post. He bet, or knew, that Post editor Ben Bradlee would allow Woodward and Bernstein to play the role Felt had selected for them. Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee all knew who Deep Throat was. They worked with the operational head of the FBI to destroy Nixon, and then protected Felt and the FBI until Felt came forward.
In our view, Nixon was as guilty as sin of more things than were ever proven. Nevertheless, there is another side to this story. The FBI was carrying out espionage against the president of the United States, not for any later prosecution of Nixon for a specific crime (the spying had to have been going on well before the break-in), but to increase the FBI’s control over Nixon. Woodward, Bernstein and above all, Bradlee, knew what was going on. Woodward and Bernstein might have been young and naive, but Bradlee was an old Washington hand who knew exactly who Felt was, knew the FBI playbook and understood that Felt could not have played the role he did without a focused FBI operation against the president. Bradlee knew perfectly well that Woodward and Bernstein were not breaking the story, but were having it spoon-fed to them by a master. He knew that the president of the United States, guilty or not, was being destroyed by Hoover’s jilted heir.

This was enormously important news. The Washington Post decided not to report it. The story of Deep Throat was well-known, but what lurked behind the identity of Deep Throat was not. This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon.

Again, Nixon’s guilt is not in question. And the argument can be made that given John Mitchell’s control of the Justice Department, Felt thought that going through channels was impossible (although the FBI was more intimidating to Mitchell than the other way around). But the fact remains that Deep Throat was the heir apparent to Hoover — a man not averse to breaking the law in covert operations — and Deep Throat clearly was drawing on broader resources in the FBI, resources that had to have

been in place before Hoover’s death and continued operating afterward.

Burying a Story to Get a Story

Until Felt came forward in 2005, not only were these things unknown, but The Washington Post was protecting them. Admittedly, the Post was in a difficult position. Without Felt’s help, it would not have gotten the story. But the terms Felt set required that a huge piece of the story not be told. The Washington Post created a morality play about an out-of-control government brought to heel by two young, enterprising journalists and a courageous newspaper. That simply wasn’t what happened. Instead, it was about the FBI using The Washington Post to leak information to destroy the president, and The Washington Post willingly serving as the conduit for that information while withholding an essential dimension of the story by concealing Deep Throat’s identity.

Journalists have celebrated the Post’s role in bringing down the president for a generation. Even after the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity in 2005, there was no serious soul-searching on the omission from the historical record. Without understanding the role played by Felt and the FBI in bringing Nixon down, Watergate cannot be understood completely. Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee were willingly used by Felt to destroy Nixon. The three acknowledged a secret source, but they did not reveal that the secret source was in operational control of the FBI. They did not reveal that the FBI was passing on the fruits of surveillance of the White House. They did not reveal the genesis of the fall of Nixon. They accepted the accolades while withholding an extraordinarily important fact, elevating their own role in the episode while distorting the actual dynamic of Nixon’s fall.

Absent any widespread reconsideration of the Post’s actions during Watergate in the three years since Felt’s identity became known, the press in Washington continues to serve as a conduit for leaks of secret information. They publish this information while protecting the leakers, and therefore the leakers’ motives. Rather than being a venue for the neutral reporting of events, journalism thus becomes the arena in which political power plays are executed. What appears to be enterprising journalism is in fact a symbiotic relationship between journalists and government factions. It may be the best path journalists have for acquiring secrets, but it creates a very partial record of events — especially since the origin of a leak frequently is much more important to the public than the leak itself.

The Felt experience is part of an ongoing story in which journalists’ guarantees of anonymity to sources allow leakers to control the news process. Protecting Deep Throat’s identity kept us from understanding the full dynamic of Watergate. We did not know that Deep Throat was running the FBI, we did not know the FBI was conducting surveillance on the White House, and we did not know that the Watergate scandal emerged not by dint of enterprising journalism, but because Felt had selected Woodward and Bernstein as his vehicle to bring Nixon down. And we did not know that the editor of The Washington Post allowed this to happen. We had a profoundly defective picture of the situation, as defective as the idea that Bob Woodward looks like Robert Redford.

Finding the truth of events containing secrets is always difficult, as we know all too well. There is no simple solution to this quandary. In intelligence, we dream of the well-placed source who will reveal important things to us. But we also are aware that the information provided is only the beginning of the story. The rest of the story involves the source’s motivation, and frequently that motivation is more important than the information provided. Understanding a source’s motivation is essential both to good intelligence and to journalism. In this case, keeping secret the source kept an entire — and critical — dimension of Watergate hidden for a generation. Whatever crimes Nixon committed, the FBI had spied on the president and leaked what it knew to The Washington Post in order to destroy him. The editor of The Washington Post knew that, as did Woodward and Bernstein. We do not begrudge them their prizes and accolades, but it would have been useful to know who handed them the story. In many ways, that story is as interesting as the one about all the president’s men.

Reprinted with permission from

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What Was Mumbai About?

A policeman walks with an elderly man after shootings by unidentified assailants
at a railway station in Mumbai November 26, 2008. Photo: Reuters/India

The United States might well want to limit New Delhi’s response [to the Mumbai attack]. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to India to discuss just this... It is possible that New Delhi will make a radical proposal to Rice, however. Given that the Pakistani government is incapable of exercising control in its own country, and given that Pakistan now represents a threat to both U.S. and Indian national security, the Indians might suggest a joint operation with the Americans against Pakistan.

Strategic Motivations for the Mumbai Attack
By George Friedman

Last Wednesday evening, a group of Islamist operatives carried out a complex terror operation in the Indian city of Mumbai. The attack was not complex because of the weapons used or its size, but in the apparent training, multiple methods of approaching the city and excellent operational security and discipline in the final phases of the operation, when the last remaining attackers held out in the Taj Mahal hotel for several days. The operational goal of the attack clearly was to cause as many casualties as possible, particularly among Jews and well-to-do guests of five-star hotels. But attacks on various other targets, from railroad stations to hospitals, indicate that the more general purpose was to spread terror in a major Indian city.

While it is not clear precisely who carried out the Mumbai attack, two separate units apparently were involved. One group, possibly consisting of Indian Muslims, was established in Mumbai ahead of the attacks. The second group appears to have just arrived. It traveled via ship from Karachi, Pakistan, later hijacked a small Indian vessel to get past Indian coastal patrols, and ultimately landed near Mumbai.

Extensive preparations apparently had been made, including surveillance of the targets. So while the precise number of attackers remains unclear, the attack clearly was well-planned and well-executed.

Evidence and logic suggest that radical Pakistani Islamists carried out the attack. These groups have a highly complex and deliberately amorphous structure. Rather than being centrally controlled, ad hoc teams are created with links to one or more groups. Conceivably, they might have lacked links to any group, but this is hard to believe. Too much planning and training were involved in this attack for it to have been conceived by a bunch of guys in a garage. While precisely which radical Pakistani Islamist group or groups were involved is unknown, the Mumbai attack appears to have originated in Pakistan. It could have been linked to al Qaeda prime or its various franchises and/or to Kashmiri insurgents.

More important than the question of the exact group that carried out the attack, however, is the attackers’ strategic end. There is a tendency to regard terror attacks as ends in themselves, carried out simply for the sake of spreading terror. In the highly politicized atmosphere of Pakistan’s radical Islamist factions, however, terror frequently has a more sophisticated and strategic purpose. Whoever invested the time and took the risk in organizing this attack had a reason to do so. Let’s work backward to that reason by examining the logical outcomes following this attack.

An End to New Delhi’s Restraint

The most striking aspect of the Mumbai attack is the challenge it presents to the Indian government — a challenge almost impossible for New Delhi to ignore. A December 2001 Islamist attack on the Indian parliament triggered an intense confrontation between India and Pakistan. Since then, New Delhi has not responded in a dramatic fashion to numerous Islamist attacks against India that were traceable to Pakistan. The Mumbai attack, by contrast, aimed to force a response from New Delhi by being so grievous that any Indian government showing only a muted reaction to it would fall.

India’s restrained response to Islamist attacks (even those originating in Pakistan) in recent years has come about because New Delhi has understood that, for a host of reasons, Islamabad has been unable to control radical Pakistani Islamist groups. India did not want war with Pakistan; it felt it had more important issues to deal with. New Delhi therefore accepted Islamabad’s assurances that Pakistan would do its best to curb terror attacks, and after suitable posturing, allowed tensions originating from Islamist attacks to pass.

This time, however, the attackers struck in such a way that New Delhi couldn’t allow the incident to pass. As one might expect, public opinion in India is shifting from stunned to furious. India’s Congress party-led government is politically weak and nearing the end of its life span. It lacks the political power to ignore the attack, even if it were inclined to do so. If it ignored the attack, it would fall, and a more intensely nationalist government would take its place. It is therefore very difficult to imagine circumstances under which the Indians could respond to this attack in the same manner they have to recent Islamist attacks.

What the Indians actually will do is not clear. In 2001-2002, New Delhi responded to the attack on the Indian parliament by moving forces close to the Pakistani border and the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, engaging in artillery duels along the front, and bringing its nuclear forces to a high level of alert. The Pakistanis made a similar response. Whether India ever actually intended to attack Pakistan remains unclear, but either way, New Delhi created an intense crisis in Pakistan.

The U.S. and the Indo-Pakistani Crisis

The United States used this crisis for its own ends. Having just completed the first phase of its campaign in Afghanistan, Washington was intensely pressuring Pakistan’s then-Musharraf government to expand cooperation with the United States; purge its intelligence organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of radical Islamists; and crack down on al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had been reluctant to cooperate with Washington, as doing so inevitably would spark a massive domestic backlash against his government.

The crisis with India produced an opening for the United States. Eager to get India to stand down from the crisis, the Pakistanis looked to the Americans to mediate. And the price for U.S. mediation was increased cooperation from Pakistan with the United States. The Indians, not eager for war, backed down from the crisis after guarantees that Islamabad would impose stronger controls on Islamist groups in Kashmir.

In 2001-2002, the Indo-Pakistani crisis played into American hands. In 2008, the new Indo-Pakistani crisis might play differently. The United States recently has demanded increased Pakistani cooperation along the Afghan border. Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama has stated his intention to focus on Afghanistan and pressure the Pakistanis.

Therefore, one of Islamabad’s first responses to the new Indo-Pakistani crisis was to announce that if the Indians increased their forces along Pakistan’s eastern border, Pakistan would be forced to withdraw 100,000 troops from its western border with Afghanistan. In other words, threats from India would cause Pakistan to dramatically reduce its cooperation with the United States in the Afghan war. The Indian foreign minister is flying to the United States to meet with Obama; obviously, this matter will be discussed among others.

We expect the United States to pressure India not to create a crisis, in order to avoid this outcome. As we have said, the problem is that it is unclear whether politically the Indians can afford restraint. At the very least, New Delhi must demand that the Pakistani government take steps to make the ISI and Pakistan’s other internal security apparatus more effective. Even if the Indians concede that there was no ISI involvement in the attack, they will argue that the ISI is incapable of stopping such attacks. They will demand a purge and reform of the ISI as a sign of Pakistani commitment. Barring that, New Delhi will move troops to the Indo-Pakistani frontier to intimidate Pakistan and placate Indian public opinion.

Dilemmas for Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington

At that point, Islamabad will have a serious problem. The Pakistani government is even weaker than the Indian government. Pakistan’s civilian regime does not control the Pakistani military, and therefore does not control the ISI. The civilians can’t decide to transform Pakistani security, and the military is not inclined to make this transformation. (Pakistan’s military has had ample opportunity to do so if it wished.)

Pakistan faces the challenge, just one among many, that its civilian and even military leadership lack the ability to reach deep into the ISI and security services to transform them. In some ways, these agencies operate under their own rules. Add to this the reality that the ISI and security forces — even if they are acting more assertively, as Islamabad claims — are demonstrably incapable of controlling radical Islamists in Pakistan. If they were capable, the attack on Mumbai would have been thwarted in Pakistan. The simple reality is that in Pakistan’s case, the will to make this transformation does not seem to be present, and even if it were, the ability to suppress terror attacks isn’t there.

The United States might well want to limit New Delhi’s response. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to India to discuss just this. But the politics of India’s situation make it unlikely that the Indians can do anything more than listen. It is more than simply a political issue for New Delhi; the Indians have no reason to believe that the Mumbai operation was one of a kind. Further operations like the Mumbai attack might well be planned. Unless the Pakistanis shift their posture inside Pakistan, India has no way of knowing whether other such attacks can be stymied. The Indians will be sympathetic to Washington’s plight in Afghanistan and the need to keep Pakistani troops at the Afghan border. But New Delhi will need something that the Americans — and in fact the Pakistanis — can’t deliver: a guarantee that there will be no more attacks like this one.

The Indian government cannot chance inaction. It probably would fall if it did. Moreover, in the event of inactivity and another attack, Indian public opinion probably will swing to an uncontrollable extreme. If an attack takes place but India has moved toward crisis posture with Pakistan, at least no one can argue that the Indian government remained passive in the face of threats to national security. Therefore, India is likely to refuse American requests for restraint.

It is possible that New Delhi will make a radical proposal to Rice, however. Given that the Pakistani government is incapable of exercising control in its own country, and given that Pakistan now represents a threat to both U.S. and Indian national security, the Indians might suggest a joint operation with the Americans against Pakistan.

What that joint operation might entail is uncertain, but regardless, this is something that Rice would reject out of hand and that Obama would reject in January 2009. Pakistan has a huge population and nuclear weapons, and the last thing Bush or Obama wants is to practice nation-building in Pakistan. The Indians, of course, will anticipate this response. The truth is that New Delhi itself does not want to engage deep in Pakistan to strike at militant training camps and other Islamist sites. That would be a nightmare. But if Rice shows up with a request for Indian restraint and no concrete proposal — or willingness to entertain a proposal — for solving the Pakistani problem, India will be able to refuse on the grounds that the Americans are asking India to absorb a risk (more Mumbai-style attacks) without the United States’ willingness to share in the risk.

Setting the Stage for a New Indo-Pakistani Confrontation

That will set the stage for another Indo-Pakistani confrontation. India will push forces forward all along the Indo-Pakistani frontier, move its nuclear forces to an alert level, begin shelling Pakistan, and perhaps — given the seriousness of the situation — attack short distances into Pakistan and even carry out airstrikes deep in Pakistan. India will demand greater transparency for New Delhi in Pakistani intelligence operations. The Indians will not want to occupy Pakistan; they will want to occupy Pakistan’s security apparatus.

Naturally, the Pakistanis will refuse that. There is no way they can give India, their main adversary, insight into Pakistani intelligence operations. But without that access, India has no reason to trust Pakistan. This will leave the Indians in an odd position: They will be in a near-war posture, but will have made no demands of Pakistan that Islamabad can reasonably deliver and that would benefit India. In one sense, India will be gesturing. In another sense, India will be trapped by making a gesture on which Pakistan cannot deliver. The situation thus could get out of hand.

In the meantime, the Pakistanis certainly will withdraw forces from western Pakistan and deploy them in eastern Pakistan. That will mean that one leg of the Petraeus and Obama plans would collapse. Washington’s expectation of greater Pakistani cooperation along the Afghan border will disappear along with the troops. This will free the Taliban from whatever limits the Pakistani army had placed on it. The Taliban’s ability to fight would increase, while the motivation for any of the Taliban to enter talks — as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested — would decline. U.S. forces, already stretched to the limit, would face an increasingly difficult situation, while pressure on al Qaeda in the tribal areas would decrease.

Now, step back and consider the situation the Mumbai attackers have created. First, the Indian government faces an internal political crisis driving it toward a confrontation it didn’t plan on. Second, the minimum Pakistani response to a renewed Indo-Pakistani crisis will be withdrawing forces from western Pakistan, thereby strengthening the Taliban and securing al Qaeda. Third, sufficient pressure on Pakistan’s civilian government could cause it to collapse, opening the door to a military-Islamist government — or it could see Pakistan collapse into chaos, giving Islamists security in various regions and an opportunity to reshape Pakistan. Finally, the United States’ situation in Afghanistan has now become enormously more complex.

By staging an attack the Indian government can’t ignore, the Mumbai attackers have set in motion an existential crisis for Pakistan. The reality of Pakistan cannot be transformed, trapped as the country is between the United States and India. Almost every evolution from this point forward benefits Islamists. Strategically, the attack on Mumbai was a precise blow struck to achieve uncertain but favorable political outcomes for the Islamists.

Rice’s trip to India now becomes the crucial next step. She wants Indian restraint. She does not want the western Pakistani border to collapse. But she cannot guarantee what India must have: assurance of no further terror attacks on India originating in Pakistan. Without that, India must do something. No Indian government could survive without some kind of action. So it is up to Rice, in one of her last acts as secretary of state, to come up with a miraculous solution to head off a final, catastrophic crisis for the Bush administration — and a defining first crisis for the new Obama administration. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said that the enemy gets a vote. The Islamists cast their ballot in Mumbai.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama: First Moves

Everything Obama is doing with his appointments is signaling continuity in U.S. policy. As we have written previously, when Obama’s precise statements and position papers were examined with care, the distance between his policies and John McCain’s actually was minimal.

By George Friedman

Three weeks after the U.S. presidential election, we are getting the first signs of how President-elect Barack Obama will govern. That now goes well beyond the question of what is conventionally considered U.S. foreign policy — and thus beyond [my] domain. At this moment in history, however, in the face of the global financial crisis, U.S. domestic policy is intimately bound to foreign policy. How the United States deals with its own internal financial and economic problems will directly affect the rest of the world.

One thing the financial crisis has demonstrated is that the world is very much America-centric, in fact and not just in theory. When the United States runs into trouble, so does the rest of the globe. It follows then that the U.S. response to the problem affects the rest of the world as well. Therefore, Obama’s plans are in many ways more important to countries around the world than whatever their own governments might be planning.

Over the past two weeks, Obama has begun to reveal his appointments. It will be Hillary Clinton at State and Timothy Geithner at Treasury. According to persistent rumors, current Defense Secretary Robert Gates might be asked to stay on. The national security adviser has not been announced, but rumors have the post going to former Clinton administration appointees or to former military people. Interestingly and revealingly, it was made very public that Obama has met with Brent Scowcroft to discuss foreign policy. Scowcroft was national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, and while a critic of the younger Bush’s policies in Iraq from the beginning, he is very much part of the foreign policy establishment and on the non-neoconservative right. That Obama met with Scowcroft, and that this was deliberately publicized, is a signal — and Obama understands political signals — that he will be conducting foreign policy from the center.

Consider Clinton and Geithner. Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war — a major bone of contention between Obama and her during the primaries. She is also a committed free trade advocate, as was her husband, and strongly supports continuity in U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. Geithner comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where he participated in crafting the strategies currently being implemented by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Everything Obama is doing with his appointments is signaling continuity in U.S. policy.

This does not surprise us. As we have written previously, when Obama’s precise statements and position papers were examined with care, the distance between his policies and John McCain’s actually was minimal. McCain tacked with the Bush administration’s position on Iraq — which had shifted, by the summer of this year, to withdrawal at the earliest possible moment but without a public guarantee of the date. Obama’s position was a complete withdrawal by the summer of 2010, with the proviso that unexpected changes in the situation on the ground could make that date flexible.

Obama supporters believed that Obama’s position on Iraq was profoundly at odds with the Bush administration’s. We could never clearly locate the difference. The brilliance of Obama’s presidential campaign was that he convinced his hard-core supporters that he intended to make a radical shift in policies across the board, without ever specifying what policies he was planning to shift, and never locking out the possibility of a flexible interpretation of his commitments. His supporters heard what they wanted to hear while a careful reading of the language, written and spoken, gave Obama extensive room for maneuver. Obama’s campaign was a master class on mobilizing support in an election without locking oneself into specific policies.

As soon as the election results were in, Obama understood that he was in a difficult political situation. Institutionally, the Democrats had won substantial victories, both in Congress and the presidency. Personally, Obama had won two very narrow victories. He had won the Democratic nomination by a very thin margin, and then won the general election by a fairly thin margin in the popular vote, despite a wide victory in the electoral college.

Many people have pointed out that Obama won more decisively than any president since George H.W. Bush in 1988. That is certainly true. Bill Clinton always had more people voting against him than for him, because of the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush actually lost the popular vote by a tiny margin in 2000; he won it in 2004 with nearly 51 percent of the vote but had more than 49 percent of the electorate voting against him. Obama did a little better than that, with about 53 percent of voters supporting him and 47 percent opposing, but he did not change the basic architecture of American politics. He still had won the presidency with a deeply divided electorate, with almost as many people opposed to him as for him.

Presidents are not as powerful as they are often imagined to be. Apart from institutional constraints, presidents must constantly deal with public opinion. Congress is watching the polls, as all of the representatives and a third of the senators will be running for re-election in two years. No matter how many Democrats are in Congress, their first loyalty is to their own careers, and collapsing public opinion polls for a Democratic president can destroy them. Knowing this, they have a strong incentive to oppose an unpopular president — even one from their own party — or they might be replaced with others who will oppose him. If Obama wants to be powerful, he must keep Congress on his side, and that means he must keep his numbers up. He is undoubtedly getting the honeymoon bounce now. He needs to hold that.

Obama appears to understand this problem clearly. It would take a very small shift in public opinion polls after the election to put him on the defensive, and any substantial mistakes could sink his approval rating into the low 40s. George W. Bush’s basic political mistake in 2004 was not understanding how thin his margin was. He took his election as vindication of his Iraq policy, without understanding how rapidly his mandate could transform itself in a profound reversal of public opinion. Having very little margin in his public opinion polls, Bush doubled down on his Iraq policy. When that failed to pay off, he ended up with a failed presidency.

Bush was not expecting that to happen, and Obama does not expect it for himself. Obama, however, has drawn the obvious conclusion that what he expects and what might happen are two different things. Therefore, unlike Bush, he appears to be trying to expand his approval ratings as his first priority, in order to give himself room for maneuver later. Everything we see in his first two weeks of shaping his presidency seems to be designed two do two things: increase his standing in the Democratic Party, and try to bring some of those who voted against him into his coalition.

In looking at Obama’s supporters, we can divide them into two blocs. The first and largest comprises those who were won over by his persona; they supported Obama because of who he was, rather than because of any particular policy position or because of his ideology in anything more than a general sense. There was then a smaller group of supporters who backed Obama for ideological reasons, built around specific policies they believed he advocated. Obama seems to think, reasonably in our view, that the first group will remain faithful for an extended period of time so long as he maintains the aura he cultivated during his campaign, regardless of his early policy moves. The second group, as is usually the case with the ideological/policy faction in a party, will stay with Obama because they have nowhere else to go — or if they turn away, they will not be able to form a faction that threatens his position.

What Obama needs to do politically, then, is protect and strengthen the right wing of his coalition: independents and republicans who voted for him because they had come to oppose Bush and, by extension, McCain. Second, he needs to persuade at least 5 percent of the electorate who voted for McCain that their fears of an Obama presidency were misplaced. Obama needs to build a positive rating at least into the mid-to-high 50s to give him a firm base for governing, and leave himself room to make the mistakes that all presidents make in due course.

With the example of Bush’s failure before him, as well as Bill Clinton’s disastrous experience in the 1994 mid-term election, Obama is under significant constraints in shaping his presidency. His selection of Hillary Clinton is meant to nail down the rightward wing of his supporters in general, and Clinton supporters in particular. His appointment of Geithner at the Treasury and the rumored re-appointment of Gates as secretary of defense are designed to reassure the leftward wing of McCain supporters that he is not going off on a radical tear. Obama’s gamble is that (to select some arbitrary numbers), for every alienated ideological liberal, he will win over two lukewarm McCain supporters.

To those who celebrate Obama as a conciliator, these appointments will resonate. For those supporters who saw him as a fellow ideologue, he can point to position papers far more moderate and nuanced than what those supporters believed they were hearing (and were meant to hear). One of the political uses of rhetoric is to persuade followers that you believe what they do without locking yourself down.

His appointments match the evolving realities. On the financial bailout, Obama has not at all challenged the general strategy of Paulson and Bernanke, and therefore of the Bush administration. Obama’s position on Iraq has fairly well merged with the pending Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq. On Afghanistan, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus has suggested negotiations with the Taliban — while, in moves that would not have been made unless they were in accord with Bush administration policies, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has offered to talk with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the Saudis reportedly have offered him asylum. Tensions with Iran have declined, and the Israelis have even said they would not object to negotiations with Tehran. What were radical positions in the opening days of Obama’s campaign have become consensus positions. That means he is not entering the White House in a combat posture, facing a disciplined opposition waiting to bring him down. Rather, his most important positions have become, if not noncontroversial, then certainly not as controversial as they once were.

Instead, the most important issue facing Obama is one on which he really had no position during his campaign: how to deal with the economic crisis. His solution, which has begun to emerge over the last two weeks, is a massive stimulus package as an addition — not an alternative — to the financial bailout the Bush administration crafted. This new stimulus package is not intended to deal with the financial crisis but with the recession, and it is a classic Democratic strategy designed to generate economic activity through federal programs. What is not clear is where this leaves Obama’s tax policy. We suspect, some recent suggestions by his aides not withstanding, that he will have a tax cut for middle- and lower-income individuals while increasing tax rates on higher income brackets in order to try to limit deficits.

What is fascinating to see is how the policies Obama advocated during the campaign have become relatively unimportant, while the issues he will have to deal with as president really were not discussed in the campaign until September, and then without any clear insight as to his intentions. One point we have made repeatedly is that a presidential candidate’s positions during a campaign matter relatively little, because there is only a minimal connection between the issues a president thinks he will face in office and the ones that he actually has to deal with. George W. Bush thought he would be dealing primarily with domestic politics, but his presidency turned out to be all about the U.S.-jihadist war, something he never anticipated. Obama began his campaign by strongly opposing the Iraq war — something that has now be come far less important than the financial crisis, which he didn’t anticipate dealing with at all.

So, regardless of what Obama might have thought his presidency would look like, it is being shaped not by his wishes, but by his response to external factors. He must increase his political base — and he will do that by reassuring skeptical Democrats that he can work with Hillary Clinton, and by showing soft McCain supporters that he is not as radical as they thought. Each of Obama’s appointments is designed to increase his base of political support, because he has little choice if he wants to accomplish anything else.

As for policies, they come and go. As George W. Bush demonstrated, an inflexible president is a failed president. He can call it principle, but if his principles result in failure, he will be judged by his failure and not by his principles. Obama has clearly learned this lesson. He understands that a president can’t pursue his principles if he has lost the ability to govern. To keep that ability, he must build his coalition. Then he must deal with the unexpected. And later, if he is lucky, he can return to his principles, if there is time for it, and if those principles have any relevance to what is going on around him. History makes presidents. Presidents rarely make history.

This article is a repost - with permission - from

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Paulson is outsourcing the bailout

This is breathtakingly major bad news. From WaPo:

The Treasury Department this week plans to start outsourcing the management of up to $700 billion in troubled securities, using special contracting authorities that enable it to retain private portfolio managers, custodians and other financial services consultants without following standard acquisition procedures.

The department’s quick turn to the private sector will help it prepare for the massive task of overseeing mortgages and other financial assets to be acquired by the government as part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act that was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush last Friday.

But it means that the government has little time to assess the companies that will be partners in what could become one of the largest public sector funds in American history. Some of the same firms that have played roles in the rise and collapse of the mortgage-backed securities market may end up guiding the government as the bailout unfolds, department officials said.

The job of repairing the financial system is being outsourced (think "fees and commissions") to the very numbskulls who caused this mess in the first place.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Economics is Politics

Wall Street Panic of 1884

The Political Nature of the Economic Crisis
By George Friedman

Are the resources of the United States sufficient to redefine financial markets in such a way as to manage the outcome of this crisis, or has the crisis become so large that even the resources of a $14 trillion economy mobilized by the state can’t do the job?

Classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo referred to their discipline as “political economy.” Smith’s great work, “The Wealth of Nations,” was written by the man who held the chair in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. This did not seem odd at the time and is not odd now. Economics is not a freestanding discipline, regardless of how it is regarded today. It is a discipline that can only be understood when linked to politics, since the wealth of a nation rests on both these foundations, and it can best be understood by someone who approaches it from a moral standpoint, since economics makes significant assumptions about both human nature and proper behavior.

The modern penchant to regard economics as a discrete science parallels the belief that economics is a distinct sphere of existence — at its best when it is divorced from political and even moral considerations. Our view has always been that the economy can only be understood and forecast in the context of politics, and that the desire to separate the two derives from a moral teaching that Smith would not embrace. Smith understood that the word “economy” without the adjective “political” did not describe reality. We need to bear Smith in mind when we try to understand the current crisis.

Societies have two sorts of financial crises. The first sort is so large it overwhelms a society’s ability to overcome it, and the society sinks deeper into dysfunction and poverty. In the second sort, the society has the resources to manage the situation — albeit at a collective price. Societies that can manage the crisis have two broad strategies. The first strategy is to allow the market to solve the problem over time. The second strategy is to have the state organize the resources of society to speed up the resolution. The market solution is more efficient over time, producing better outcomes and disciplining financial decision-making in the long run. But the market solution can create massive collateral damage, such as high unemployment, on the way to the superior resolution. The state-organized resolution creates inequities by not sufficiently punishing poor economic decisions, and creates long-term inefficiencies that are costly. But it has the virtue of being quicker and mitigating collateral damage.

Three Views of the Financial Crisis

There is a first group that argues the current financial crisis already has outstripped available social resources, so that there is no market or state solution. This group asserts that the imbalances created in the financial markets are so vast that the market solution must consist of an extended period of depression. Any attempt by the state to appropriate social resources to solve the financial imbalance not only will be ineffective, it will prolong the crisis even further, although perhaps buying some minor alleviation up front. The thinking goes that the financial crisis has been building for years and the economy can no longer be protected from it, and that therefore an extended period of discipline and austerity — beginning with severe economic dislocations — is inevitable. This is not a majority view, but it is widespread; it opposes government action on the grounds that the government will make a terrible situation worse.

A second group argues that the financial crisis has not outstripped the ability of society — organized by the state — to manage, but that it has outstripped the market’s ability to manage it. The financial markets have been the problem, according to this view, and have created a massive liquidity crisis. The economy — as distinct from the financial markets — is relatively sound, but if the liquidity crisis is left unsolved, it will begin to affect the economy as a whole. Since the financial markets are unable to solve the problem in a time frame that will not dramatically affect the economy, the state must mobilize resources to impose a solution on the financial markets, introducing liquidity as the preface to any further solutions. This group believes, like the first group, that the financial crisis could have profound economic ramifications. But the second group also believes it is possible to contain the consequences. This is the view of th e Bush administration, the congressional leadership, the Federal Reserve Board and most economic leaders.

There is a third group that argues that the state mobilization of resources to save the financial system is in fact an attempt to save financial institutions, including many of those whose imprudence and avarice caused the current crisis. This group divides in two. The first subgroup agrees the current financial crisis could have profound economic consequences, but believes a solution exists that would bring liquidity to the financial markets without rescuing the culpable. The second subgroup argues that the threat to the economic system is overblown, and that the financial crisis will correct itself without major state intervention but with some limited implementation of new regulations.

The first group thus views the situation as beyond salvation, and certainly rejects any political solution as incapable of addressing the issues from the standpoint of magnitude or competence. This group is out of the political game by its own rules, since for it the situation is beyond the ability of politics to make a difference — except perhaps to make the situation worse.

The second group represents the establishment consensus, which is that the markets cannot solve the problem but the federal government can — provided it acts quickly and decisively enough.

The third group spoke Sept. 29, when a coalition of Democrats and Republicans defeated the establishment proposal. For a myriad of reasons, some contradictory, this group opposed the bailout. The reasons ranged from moral outrage at protecting the interests of the perpetrators of this crisis to distrust of a plan implemented by this presidential administration, from distrust of the amount of power ceded the Treasury Department of any administration to a feeling the problem could be managed. It was a diverse group that focused on one premise — namely, that delay would not lead to economic catastrophe.

From Economic to Political Problem

The problem ceased to be an economic problem months ago. More precisely, the economic problem has transformed into a political problem. Ever since the collapse of Bear Stearns, the primary actor in the drama has been the federal government and the Federal Reserve, with its powers increasing as the nature of potential market outcomes became more and more unsettling. At a certain point, the size of the problem outstripped the legislated resources of the Treasury and the Fed, so they went to Congress for more power and money. This time, they were blocked.

It is useful to reflect on the nature of the crisis. It is a tale that can be as complicated as you wish to make it, but it is in essence simple and elegant. As interest rates declined in recent years, investors — particularly conservative ones — sought to increase their return without giving up safety and liquidity. They wanted something for nothing, and the market obliged. They were given instruments ultimately based on mortgages on private homes. They therefore had a very real asset base — a house — and therefore had collateral. The value of homes historically had risen, and therefore the value of the assets appeared secured. Financial instruments of increasing complexity eventually were devised, which were bought by conservative investors. In due course, these instruments were bought by less conservative investors, who used them as collateral for borrowing money. They used this money to buy other instruments in a pyramiding scheme that rested on one premise: the existence of houses whose value remained stable or grew.

Unfortunately, housing prices declined. A period of uncertainty about the value of the paper based on home mortgages followed. People claimed to be confused as to what the real value of the paper was. In fact, they were not so much confused as deceptive. They didn’t want to reveal that the value of the paper had declined dramatically. At a certain point, the facts could no longer be hidden, and vast amounts of value evaporated — taking with them not only the vast pyramids of those who first created the instruments and then borrowed heavily against them, but also the more conservative investors trying to put their money in a secure space while squeezing out a few extra points of interest. The decline in housing prices triggered massive losses of money in the financial markets, as well as reluctance to lend based on uncertainty of values. The result was a liquidity crisis, which simply meant that a lot of people had gone broke and that those who still had money weren’t lending it — certainly not to financial institutions.

The S&L Precedent

Such financial meltdowns based on shifts in real estate prices are not new. In the 1970s, regulations on savings and loans (S&Ls) had changed. Previously, S&Ls had been limited to lending in the consumer market, primarily in mortgages for homes. But the regulations shifted, and they became allowed to invest more broadly. The assets of these small banks, of which there were thousands, were attractive in that they were a pool of cash available for investment. The S&Ls subsequently went into commercial real estate, sometimes with their old management, sometimes with new management who had bought them, as their depositors no longer held them.

The infusion of money from the S&Ls drove up the price of commercial real estate, which the institutions regarded as stable and conservative investments, not unlike private homes. They did not take into account that their presence in the market was driving up the price of commercial real estate irrationally, however, or that commercial real estate prices fluctuate dramatically. As commercial real estate values started to fall, the assets of the S&Ls contracted until most failed. An entire sector of the financial system simply imploded, crushing shareholders and threatening a massive liquidity crisis. By the late 1980s, the entire sector had melted down, and in 1989 the federal government intervened.

The federal government intervened in that crisis as it had in several crises large and small since 1929. Using the resources at its disposal, the federal government took over failed S&Ls and their real estate investments, creating the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC). The amount of assets acquired was about $394 billion dollars in 1989 — or 6.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — making it larger than the $700 billion dollars — or 5 percent of GDP — being discussed now. Rather than flooding the markets with foreclosed commercial property, creating havoc in the market and further destroying assets, the RTC held the commercial properties off the market, maintaining their price artificially. They then sold off the foreclosed properties in a multiyear sequence that recovered much of what had been spent acquiring the properties. More important, it prevented the decline in commercial real estate from accelerating and creating liquidity crises throughout the entire economy.

Many of those involved in S&Ls were ruined. Others managed to use the RTC system to recover real estate and to profit. Still others came in from the outside and used the RTC system to build fortunes. The RTC is not something to use as moral lesson for your children. But the RTC managed to prevent the transformation of a financial crisis into an economic meltdown. It disrupted market operations by introducing large amounts of federal money to bring liquidity to the system, then used the ability of the federal government — not shared by individuals — to hold on to properties. The disruption of the market’s normal operations was designed to avoid a market outcome. By holding on to the assets, the federal government was able to create an artificial market in real estate, one in which supply was constrained by the government to manage the value of commercial real estate. It did not work perfectly — far from it. But it managed to avoid the most feared outcome, which was a depression.

There have been many other federal interventions in the markets, such as the bailout of Chrysler in the 1970s or the intervention into failed Third World bonds in the 1980s. Political interventions in the American (or global) marketplace are hardly novel. They are used to control the consequences of bad decisions in the marketplace. Though they introduce inefficiencies and frequently reward foolish decisions, they achieve a single end: limiting the economic consequences of these decisions on the economy as a whole. Good idea or not, these interventions are institutionalized in American economic life and culture. The ability of Americans to be shocked at the thought of bailouts is interesting, since they are not all that rare, as judged historically.

The RTC showed the ability of federal resources — using taxpayer dollars — to control financial processes. In the end, the S&L story was simply one of bad decisions resulting in a shortage of dollars. On top of a vast economy, the U.S. government can mobilize large amounts of dollars as needed. It therefore can redefine the market for money. It did so in 1989 during the S&L crisis, and there was a general acceptance it would do so again Sept. 29.

The RTC Model and the Road Ahead

As discussed above, the first group argues the current crisis is so large that it is beyond the federal government’s ability to redefine. More precisely, it would argue that the attempt at intervention would unleash other consequences — such as weakening dollars and inflation — meaning the cure would be worse than the disease. That may be the case this time, but it is difficult to see why the consequences of this bailout would be profoundly different from the RTC bailout — namely, a normal recession that would probably happen anyway.

The debate between the political leadership and those opposing its plan is more interesting. The fundamental difference between the RTC and the current bailout was institutional. Congress created a semi-independent agency operating under guidelines to administer the S&L bailout. The proposal that was defeated Sept. 29 would have given the secretary of the Treasury extraordinary personal powers to dispense the money. Some also argued that the return on the federal investment was unclear, whereas in the RTC case it was fairly clear. In the end, all of this turned on the question of urgency. The establishment group argued that time was running out and the financial crisis was about to morph into an economic crisis. Those voting against the proposal argued there was enough time to have a more defined solution.

There was obviously a more direct political dimension to all this. Elections are just more than a month a way, and the seat of every U.S. representative is in contest. The public is deeply distrustful of the establishment, and particularly of the idea that the people who caused the crisis might benefit from the bailout. The congressional opponents of the plan needed to demonstrate sensitivity to public opinion. Having done so, if they force a redefinition of the bailout plan, an additional 13 votes can likely be found to pass the measure.

But the key issue is this: Are the resources of the United States sufficient to redefine financial markets in such a way as to manage the outcome of this crisis, or has the crisis become so large that even the resources of a $14 trillion economy mobilized by the state can’t do the job? If the latter is true, then all other discussions are irrelevant. Events will take their course, and nothing can be done. But if that is not true, that means that politics defines the crisis, as it has other crisis. In that case, the federal government can marshal the resources needed to redefine the markets and the key decision-makers are not on Wall Street, but in Washington. Thus, when the chips are down, the state trumps the markets.

All of this may not be desirable, efficient or wise, but as an empirical fact, it is the way American society works and has worked for a long time. We are seeing a case study in it — including the possibility the state will refuse to act, creating an interesting and profound situation. This would allow the market alone to define the outcome of the crisis. This has not been allowed in extreme crises in 75 years, and we suspect this tradition of intervention will not be broken now. The federal government will act in due course, and an institutional resolution taking power from the Treasury and placing it in the equivalent of the RTC will emerge. The question is how much time remains before massive damage is done to the economy.

Reprinted by permission of Stratfor

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paulson wants your money

You! Fork it over!

Well, the vote on that bogus bailout plan certainly was a squeeker, but apparently the citizens knew which side was up, even if Congress didn't. Reports from representatives' offices say that the incoming emails, phone calls and passenger pigeons was roughly 100-1 against a bailout, and this was without any community organizers rousing the citizenry.

Of special note are the several hundred professional economists around the country who think the holdup bailout - or at least the scam plan as originally proposed by Treas Sec Hank Paulson - was naked theft, and signed a petition to that effect. See here.

But what to do, what to do? This really is a mess, with worldwide ramifications - the queen of England had her allowance frozen, Gadzooks! - and stock markets globally are falling over the proverbial cliff. McCain was clueless, but the godlike Obama actually came up with a plan, which has been endorsed by George Soros, no less, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Soros wrote the plan himself and slipped it to Barry in the dark of the night. Anyhoo, from the Economist, here's George:

Mr Paulson’s record does not inspire the confidence necessary to give him discretion over $700bn. [No shit] His actions last week brought on the crisis that makes rescue necessary. On Monday he allowed Lehman Brothers to fail and refused to make government funds available to save AIG. By Tuesday he had to reverse himself and provide an $85bn loan to AIG on punitive terms. The demise of Lehman disrupted the commercial paper market. A large money market fund “broke the buck” and investment banks that relied on the commercial paper market had difficulty financing their operations. By Thursday a run on money market funds was in full swing and we came as close to a meltdown as at any time since the 1930s. Mr Paulson reversed again and proposed a systemic rescue.[Hank's wife is on the board of AIG, BTW]

Mr Paulson had got a blank cheque from Congress once before. That was to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His solution landed the housing market in the worst of all worlds: their managements knew that if the blank cheques were filled out they would lose their jobs, so they retrenched and made mortgages more expensive and less available. Within a few weeks the market forced Mr Paulson’s hand and he had to take them over.

Mr Paulson’s proposal to purchase distressed mortgage-related securities poses a classic problem of asymmetric information. The securities are hard to value but the sellers know more about them than the buyer: in any auction process the Treasury would end up with the dregs. The proposal is also rife with latent conflict of interest issues [You think?]. Unless the Treasury overpays for the securities, the scheme would not bring relief. But if the scheme is used to bail out insolvent banks, what will the taxpayers get in return? [Ooh, ooh - I know the answer to that one= zip, zero, and a lifetime of tax slavery!]

Barack Obama has outlined four conditions that ought to be imposed: an upside for the taxpayers as well as a downside; a bipartisan board to oversee the process; help for the homeowners as well as the holders of the mortgages; and some limits on the compensation of those who benefit from taxpayers’ money. These are the right principles. They could be applied more effectively by capitalising the institutions that are burdened by distressed securities directly rather than by relieving them of the distressed securities.

The injection of government funds would be much less problematic if it were applied to the equity rather than the balance sheet. $700bn in preferred stock with warrants may be sufficient to make up the hole created by the bursting of the housing bubble. By contrast, the addition of $700bn on the demand side of an $11,000bn market may not be sufficient to arrest the decline of housing prices.

Something also needs to be done on the supply side. To prevent housing prices from overshooting on the downside, the number of foreclosures has to be kept to a minimum. The terms of mortgages need to be adjusted to the homeowners’ ability to pay.

The rescue package leaves this task undone. Making the necessary modifications is a delicate task rendered more difficult by the fact that many mortgages have been sliced up and repackaged in the form of collateralised debt obligations. The holders of the various slices have conflicting interests. It would take too long to work out the conflicts to include a mortgage modification scheme in the rescue package. The package can, however, prepare the ground by modifying bankruptcy law as it relates to principal residences.

Bearing in mind that Joe Biden was a prime sponsor of the piece of shit Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 [sic, sic, sic & sic], that last bit is probably a non-starter, too.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

US Command Ship Docks in Georgia

USS Mt Whitney (LCC/JCC 20)

USS Mt Whitney has docked at Poti, Georgia, that country's main Black Sea port, and within shooting distance of Russian forces.

In August 2008, Mount Whitney was deployed to the Black Sea in support of Operation Assured Delivery to allegedly deliver humanitarian aid to those affected by the Russian-Georgian war and became the first NATO ship to "deliver aid" to the port of Poti, Georgia.(Source)

USS Mt Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) is not a hospital ship, a cargo ship or just any old rust bucket freighter: she is the flagship of the Sixth Fleet, and is the command ship for the Commander Joint Command Lisbon and the Commander Striking Force NATO. Considered by some to be "the most sophisticated Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and Intelligence (C4I) ship ever commissioned", Mount Whitney incorporates various elements of the most advanced C4I equipment and gives the embarked Joint Task Force Commander the capability to effectively command all units under the command of the Commander, Joint Task Force.(Source) She is staffed by regular Navy personnel, elements of the 2nd Marine Division and II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF), and NSA.

Now, what in the hell is the "most sophisticated Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and Intelligence ship ever commissioned" doing within "shooting distance" of Russian troops, rather than, say, a unit of the Military Sealift Command?

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Sept 12, 2008:

In accordance with the Montreux Convention, which governs passage through the Straits of the Dardenalles, all US Navy ships, including the Command and Control ship USS Mt Whitney, have departed the Black Sea.

Under the terms of the Convention, military ships may not remain in the Black Sea for more than 21 days.

"Meanwhile, NATO said on Wednesday it had ended a routine exercise by four naval ships in the Black Sea. Russia had denounced the exercise as part of a Western military buildup sparked by the Georgia conflict." Source.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Third Wave: The Coming Crash

Actual photo from the last Great Depression
Photo (c)1937 by Margaret Bourke-White

All signs are that the United States is headed straight into an economic meltdown and a second Great Depression, and inquiring minds everywhere are asking when this coming economic crash will hit and what it will be like.

As to the first question, the gold standard of economic gurus - Nouriel Roubini - has predicted the Third Wave (a surfer term meaning "the Big One") for August-September of this year (Source). As for the second question, we do in fact have a good model for the coming living conditions in the history of the last Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until 1940, and were eleven years of pure hell. See the Great Depression timeline at: Timeline.

The average unemployment rate during the whole period of the Great Depression was roughly 17% nationally, rising to 30+% in selected areas - the South, Appalachia, and the Midwest. Depending on where one lived, that was one person in five to one-in-three unemployed and unemployable. At the beginning of WWII, the rate was still 17%. The Great Depression was a world-wide event; with the possible exception of sub-Saharan Africa, no nation on earth was exempt. During those years, some 80% of the population dropped off the tax rolls! (Ibid)

The naked numbers are misleading, though, because in America the Midwest was also in the midst of a 100-year drought which combined with high winds and poor cultivation techniques to desertify hundreds of thousands of acres of the Midwest (creating the "black blizzards" of the Dust Bowl) and drove millions of farmers off their land, resulting in the great Okie migration to California. 50% of family farms failed during this time.

California then became the breadbasket for America, but at near-starvation wages for the laborers. My father (then a teenager) made $5 a day picking potatoes and other crops, which is backbreaking labor, and not for the old or infirm. That source of labor income is mostly gone now because of highly mechanized harvesting techniques, although stoop labor is still required for vegetables such as lettuce, berries, potatoes, etc. (The West coast is the source of beets, potatoes, apples, berries, leaf vegetables, carrots, strawberries, oranges, peas, etc from the Imperial Valley in Southern California up to the apple trees in Washington State and the potato fields of Idaho). Wheat and corn are Midwestern crops and almost entirely mechanized, but heavily dependent on fuel prices, so expect shortages of bread and maybe ration cards. Danger point: about half of today's American shopping cart is filled with products from overseas. Source.

Presently, harvesting in the West is principally done by Mexican migrant labor, with a smattering of low-rent whites, so one of the effects of the depression will be the instant roundup, incarceration and/or deportation of the present immigrant population in California and the Southwest, expanding to a national effort (that's what the "concentration camps" were built for; the roundup plans are already on the books). This will be a massive undertaking, so look for job opportunities in "law enforcement." Anyone caught in public speaking Spanish will probably be shot, beaten or hung on the spot by vigilante groups.

The coming depression may not be quite as severe as the last one, but it will still be bad. Most Americans will still have a job, but at reduced wages and benefits; they will pay more (sometimes a lot more) for critical items like food and gas, including heating and cooking fuels. Electricity prices will fluctuate wildly depending on what is generating your electric (hydro, gas or coal). The South will become almost unlivable as the air conditioners are turned off one by one. Most airlines will go the way of the dodo, and take Boeing and McDonald Douglas with them. This is not good, as Boeing is the largest exporter of American manufactured goods in the country.

Psychologically, almost everyone will suffer severe depression caused by job anxiety and constant worry brought on by the loss of cultural stability (Source). The mainstream media will be full of happy news that no one will believe. Well, the remaining sane people, anyway. As a happy side note, the Great Depression led directly to the explosion of the movie-making industry, as millions flocked to cheap movie houses ("Air Conditioned Inside!") as people sought escape from the reality-hell they were living in with the fantasy world of big screen Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers fantasy land. In the new depression, Hollywood will continued to provide fantasy escape entertainment, but "reality TV" will be a non-starter.

There will be inner-city riots that will not and cannot be put down, with acres and acres of burned business districts. The six o'clock news will cover these extensively, but in no particular depth, per usual. (History as such does not exist to the people who bring you the "news").

Local banks failed at a rate of about 600 per year during the Depression; expect the same this time, so, local bankers will be chased down and subjected to kangaroo trials by angry citizens, then hung or exiled. Large roving gangs of unemployed youth (black, white, brown and yellow) will cause untold mayhem. There will be curfews everywhere.

During the Great Depression the Constitution was still in effect and presidential and congressional elections were still held as scheduled. However, Bush will still be in office when the Crash hits, and since the Constitution has been nullified in its entirety under his regime, there is the strong possibility that he will declare war on Iran, suspend the November elections, declare martial law, and resume the draft. In that case - and barring a military coup - expect riots everywhere (Source).

Short of that, there will be actual martial law in selected places, although functioning military authority will be limited to large population centers - the rural countryside will be mainly pest-free - as our military is mostly overseas and will take ages to bring back en mass. Don't expect to see many tanks in the street in any case: they're all in Germany or Kuwait (Source).

On the personal level, if you're Joe Sixpack, you have zero savings (in fact, the average American savings rate is zero), so to pay your rent you will attempt to sell your plasma TV, your DVD players, your PlayStation, and your gun collection piecemeal (but keep the shot gun and the .45) and try to trade the XLT monster truck for a Jap import, and good luck on that. The waiting lines for bankruptcy court will be around the block, and you will probably have to pimp your daughters to pay the lawyer's fees anyway.

Hospitals will close, but individual doctors may treat your cancer in exchange for freshly-killed poultry. Expect an uptick in sales of The Idiot's Guide to Self-Dentistry.

The majority of the unemployed will spend their days in line at the state welfare office. Unemployment insurance is a state function, and, as most states are near broke right now, they will run out of money very fast. The more enterprising among us will then go out and stand on the sidewalk and sell pencils, if they can afford to buy any. Technically, a city or state cannot go "bankrupt" under present US law, but they can and do run out of cash. Then they "reorganize" (Source: Still, when you're broke, you're broke. Then it's boiled shoe leather time, although I know personally and for a fact that there are people right now eating road kill.

Optimistic estimates are that this period of "economic instability" will be short-lived, but that's probably the result of the same wildly optimistic dreamland pseudo-thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Realistically, I would guess that you can expect the same ten to eleven years of chaos and social disruption as the first Great Depression, which we really only got out of when we entered World War II. Think about that one, real hard.

The good news is that all the conditions are in place for a socialist revolution. You can expect heavily-armed resistance all over the place.

Life will not be easy after the crash, and you probably won't drop dead as a direct result of it, but you will definitely be living a vastly reduced lifestyle in economic, cultural and political terms. And if you think I'm kidding, you're an idiot and deserve everything you get. I sure as hell didn't make you hock your house or max out your credit line to buy a fucking $3,000 plasma digital High Definition TV set to watch "American Idol." You did.

Good night and good luck.

Related: Operation Garden Plot - The U.S. Military and Civil Disturbance Planning | Life During the Great Depression | Rex84