Wednesday, March 30, 2016

NATO and Russia Return to the Nuclear Precipice

The stakes of escalation are the highest they've been since the Cold War.

By Nick Ritchie and Peter Rutland
The National Interest
March 31, 2016

In one year’s time, it is possible that Donald Trump will be sitting in the White House. Across Europe, too, nationalist leaders are on the rise.

What are the security implications of these developments?

One of the most pressing threats to European security is a belligerent Russia, willing to use armed force and breach the sovereignty of other states in defense of its interests.

Despite encouraging signs of cooperation in Syria, both NATO and Russia now risk cementing a deeply hostile and overtly nuclearized confrontation over Ukraine and the “post-Soviet space.”

The most likely flashpoint for a confrontation with Russia is the Baltic. This was the assumption behind an alarming drama that the BBC aired in February, World War Three, in which former British officials conducted a simulation involving a Russian plot to support ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Latvia. The exercise ended with a full-scale nuclear conflict.

NATO has decided to beef up its presence in the Baltic states, to demonstrate that it has a “credible commitment” to defend member states under Article V of the NATO charter.

In 2014 the United States launched the European Reassurance Initiative, which involves rotating U.S. brigades to Poland and the Baltic states, forward positioning of military equipment, and military aid. Last month U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter proposed boosting the initiative’s funding from $789 million to $3.4 billion for FY 2017. (The increase is subject to congressional approval.)

In both Russia and the West, we see a re-nuclearization of defense planning, driven by worst case scenarios. This is stoked by all the loose talk of a “second Cold War,” which encourages each side to view the other as implacably hostile, duplicitous and dangerous. UK defense secretary Michael Fallon said last year that Moscow had “lowered the threshold” for nuclear use after Crimea, and that this validated the modernization of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. UK officials have urged NATO to reinstate Cold War planning exercises, to transition from conventional to nuclear warfare.

Such actions and statements raise the possibility of nuclear war in Europe as commensurate with the interests at stake.

Both sides use displays of military prowess to signal their resolve to the other side. In 2007, Russia resumed the Cold War practice of strategic bomber patrols along NATO borders. In 2009 and 2013, they ran exercises simulating a conventional invasion of Poland. Such actions could be misinterpreted as signs of intent to start a war—especially in a time of political crisis. Putin’s enthusiasm for macho posturing has resulted in what Alexander Golts described as “nuclear euphoria.”

NATO finds itself in a classic security dilemma, where defensive actions by one side are seen as a threat by the other, triggering an escalating cycle of action and response.

NATO seems to be underestimating Russia’s willingness to escalate. Whether it be assassinating opposition leaders abroad, shooting down civilian airliners or bombing Syrian hospitals, Putin appears indifferent to the collateral damage caused by his military assertiveness. The Iraq War and “color revolutions” that started in 2003 have fueled Russian insecurity, and apparently convinced Moscow that the United States is bent on “regime change” in Russia, if not the breakup of the Russian Federation itself. In the face of such an existential threat, any measures are justified.

In contrast to Putin’s resolution, NATO threats lack credibility. No one seriously believes that NATO would risk a nuclear attack on a Western city in order to defend Daugavpils. (If you don’t know where that is, that proves the point.) Russia’s own military doctrine states that if it found itself losing a conventional war, it may use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s security. NATO, too, has a nuclear doctrine that does not preclude first use in a conflict.

Just because nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War, we cannot complacently assume that “deterrence works.” There were several incidents where humanity came perilously close to the nuclear brink, from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to NATO’s Able Archer exercise in 1983, which Moscow thought was a prelude to war. Our reliance on nuclear deterrence to preserve peace was what economist Carl Lundgren called a “desperate gamble” given the risks involved.

Acknowledging an overriding common interest of avoiding nuclear war is not an exercise in appeasement, being an apologist for Moscow’s actions or downplaying the significance of Russia’s recent threats and actions. It is a recognition of the reality we find ourselves in. We must think seriously about what Moscow expects to achieve, how we understand European security in the long term, and how we might respond with both resolve and reassurance.

Reciprocating Russia’s nuclear messaging will only lead us further down the escalatory spiral. Both sides must take steps to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and reliance on nuclear threats as part of their defense strategies. There must be a follow-on to the 2010 New START agreement and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which expired in 2012, and resolution of mutual accusations of violating the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Perhaps we are wrong in our analysis, and Putin is much more risk-averse that we are suggesting. But the cost of making the wrong call on this issue is astronomically high. The primary threat here is not Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid” war, but the danger of conflict spiraling into nuclear violence.

At the time of the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, boasted on TV that Russia is the only country that can reduce American cities “to radioactive ash.” He forgot to mention that Russian cities would suffer the same fate.

Article Link to the National Interest:

The NFL, Big Tobacco and Slanted Science

By Kavitha A. Davidson
The Bloomberg View
March 29, 2016

The NFL and the New York Times have traded barbs in recent days over a bombshell report on the league's suspect brain injury research. Last Thursday, the Times published a sprawling article accusing the NFL of releasing incomplete study results and adopting the tobacco industry's notorious PR tactics for denying their product's health risks. But while the piece is largely centered around establishing direct links between the NFL and Big Tobacco, let's not lose sight of its most important takeaway: evidence of a systematically dishonest approach to minimizing football's concussion risks.

"Concussions can hardly be equated with smoking, which kills 1,300 people a day in the United States, and The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco," wrote the authors, Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams. "But records show a long relationship between two businesses with little in common beyond the health risks associated with their products." The Times notes that over the years, the NFL has hired "lobbyists, lawyers and consultants" previously employed by the tobacco industry.

The NFL fired back almost immediately, issuing a point-by-point statement refuting several key claims and accusing the Times of engaging in "innuendo and speculation" in linking the league with Big Tobacco. Five of the six points are intended to dismiss the tobacco connections as organic business or personal relationships.

The Times might have overplayed the tobacco angle -- an understandable pitfall given the natural comparisons between the dangers of football and cigarettes. Like football, smoking was once ubiquitous in America. It managed to maintain its popularity for far too long, thanks to a concerted public campaign to deny its health effects. Last year, I wrote about how the NFL seemed to mirror Big Tobacco's tactics in whitewashing years of reliable scientific research, eventually shifting its strategy from denial to doubt.

But focusing too closely on trying to establish a concrete link between the two businesses distracts from the real crux of the investigation: the multiple holes found in years of NFL-sponsored studies. The effort given to imply a football-tobacco conspiracy would have been better used to highlight the Times's finding that the NFL omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions from its data set. The manipulation of research to convey a favorable public message that carries some semblance of scientific authority is indeed a trick out of Big Tobacco's playbook; that the NFL allegedly used that strategy at all is the story here.

Starting in 1994, the NFL's newly formed concussion committee released several studies denying or downplaying the link between football and chronic brain damage. Some of these studies purported to have taken a full account of all concussions diagnosed by team doctors from 1996 to 2001. For more than a decade, the NFL has stood by this research, publishing 13 peer-reviewed articles in respected medical journals.

As the Times notes, many skeptics have long doubted the validity of so-called "independent research" funded by the league. The deeper you dig into these studies, the more conflicts of interest you find with researchers who receive NFL funding in the form of grants or employment as team doctors. The NFL recently pulled funding for a study headed by a vocal critic of the league's concussion policy.

But publishing a data set that leaves out more than 10 percent of diagnosed concussions is a whole new level of sketchy. Among those omitted were Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Wayne Chrebet -- whose team doctor with the New York Jets, Elliot Pellman, was once the head of the concussion committee and the lead author on every study.

In its statement Thursday, the NFL reiterated what it told the Times -- that the concussion committee had been clear that the data set had limitations: "The studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported or that occurred." The league acknowledged to the Times that it didn't mandate reporting by every team, and thus we get entire teams, like Troy Aikman's Dallas Cowboys, reporting no concussions in that five-year span. Yet the Times reports that "in confidential peer-review documents, the [concussion] committee wrote that 'all N.F.L. teams participated' and that 'all players were therefore part of this study.' "

It's infuriating that the NFL would tout such selective data as a comprehensive accounting of the prevalence of concussions in football. It's even more infuriating that its researchers long criticized other studies for supposedly not being comprehensive enough. In 2007, committee co-chair Ira Casson dismissed a survey of 2,500 retired players that suggested a strong correlation between multiple concussions and clinical depression. "Survey studies are the weakest type of research study -- they’re subject to all kinds of error and misinterpretation and miscalculation," Casson said.

In this way, the NFL cast doubt on legitimate research while holding up its peer-review process to legitimize its own findings. But in analyzing this confidential process, the Times found that the peer reviewers tried to stop publication of league-supported studies several times, with one writing that some conclusions "are inappropriate and not founded on facts."

Most on both sides agree that football-related brain injury needs more research, but the league's actions to this point inspire little confidence in the accuracy of future results.

Article Link to the Bloomberg View:

Wednesday, March 30, Night Wall Street Roundup: Wall Street plows higher as anxiety falls to seven-month low

By Noel Randewich
March 30, 2016

U.S. stocks plowed further into positive territory for 2016 on Wednesday, helped for a second session by comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen that eased anxiety about potential interest rate hikes.

MetLife and other financial stocks led the market higher with Apple and other technology stocks also gaining.

Yellen said on Tuesday the U.S. central bank should proceed cautiously as it looks to raise interest rates. On Wednesday, her comments were echoed by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, who said there was a high hurdle to raising rates in April, given low inflation.

That soothed investors who have been on edge for months about a slow global economy, a strong dollar, volatile oil prices and lackluster top-line growth at U.S. companies.

The CBOE Market Volatility Index .VIX, Wall Street's "fear gauge", ended down 1.9 percent at its lowest level since August, just before fears of a financial crisis in China sparked pandemonium in global markets.

"The market's best friend continues to be the Fed and central banks around the world," said Jeff Carbone, co-founder of Cornerstone Financial Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Investor appetite for risk has increased."

Higher interest rates are generally bad for stocks because they reduce lending and investment and make it harder for companies to expand. A sputtering global economy and strong dollar have already caused earnings of U.S. companies to shrink and many investors want the Fed to hold off raising rates until after its meetings in April and June.

The S&P 500 .SPX gained 0.44 percent to end at 2,063.95 points, bringing its gain for 2016 to about 1 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI added 0.47 percent at 17,716.66 points and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC also added 0.47 percent to 4,869.29.

MetLife's shares rose 5.34 percent after a court ruled that the life insurer was not systemically important to the country's financial system. The tag "too big to fail" requires more stringent regulations.

Fellow insurers Prudential Financial (PRU.N) and AIG (AIG.N), which was rescued by a $182 billion government bailout during the 2008 financial meltdown, added about 2 percent.

Apple (AAPL.O) rose 1.75 percent after Cowen & Co raised its rating on the stock to "outperform." The stock gave the biggest boost to the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,892 to 1,122. On the Nasdaq, 1,746 issues rose and 1,074 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 55 new 52-week highs and no new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 74 new highs and 23 new lows.

About 6.6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7.8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Article Link to Reuters:

Another Terrorist Strike, Another Obama Lecture

The president knows that the U.S. could defeat Islamic State outright, but he lacks the political will to lead the fight.

By Jason L. Riley
The Wall Street Journal
March 30, 2016

President Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday was his latest attempt to reassure the country that the U.S. is making significant progress in the fight against Islamic terrorism, notwithstanding the Brussels airport attack last week and the Paris massacre in November. Alas, it didn’t take long for reality to contradict the soothing rhetoric. The very next day, a Taliban splinter group inspired by Islamic State bombed a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan, killing more than 70 people, mostly women and children.

“Members of the Christian community who were celebrating Easter today were our prime target,” a Taliban spokesman told NBC News. And the women and children weren’t collateral damage, mind you, they were the targets, according to Lahore’s police chief. Americans argue over whether hardened jihadists should be waterboarded, while the terrorists prey on the softest of targets.

Pakistan is a country of 190 million people, and 97% identify as Muslim. Christians make up less than 2% of the population but are under constant attack from Islamic terrorists. More than a dozen people died in two church bombings in Lahore last April, and some 80 people were killed in a 2013 church bombing in the city of Peshawar. Yet Mr. Obama spent the second half of his radio address lecturing Americans on the importance of religious tolerance.

The administration rightly and understandably touts the military progress being made against Islamic State, or ISIS. Several high-ranking ISIS members have been killed in recent months, and territory in Iraq and Syria once held by the group has been taken back. But ISIS continues to win the propaganda battle that matters most to its recruitment efforts. Its ability to carry out or inspire terror attacks seemingly at will in major Western European cities and elsewhere in the world gives the impression that the group is ascendant. Earlier this month, terror attacks in the Ivory Coast and Turkey killed a total of 39 people. It was the fourth attack in Turkey since October.

Mr. Obama’s response to this mayhem is to the stay the course, even if it means enduring a terror attack—a Brussels or Paris or San Bernardino—now and then. He wants us to get used to this new normal. The president knows that the U.S. has the ability and wherewithal to defeat ISIS outright, but he lacks the political will to lead the fight. In his view, an enemy that can hurt America but not defeat her militarily is best dealt with through a policy of containment. Hence the U.S. fight against ISIS has consisted mainly of airstrikes and support for regional ground forces, without direct military intervention.

The New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon had presented the White House “with the most detailed set of military options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya,” where U.S. officials believe the group may be setting up a new base. The White House’s response? The “plan is not being actively considered, at least for now,” said the paper, “while the Obama administration presses ahead with a diplomatic initiative to form a unity government from rival factions inside Libya.”

Mr. Obama’s biggest foreign-policy blunder was drawing a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and then not enforcing it, which ultimately facilitated the spread of ISIS. The administration badly underestimated what would quickly become the world’s most ruthless terror group, and now it may be overestimating its ability to deal with Islamic State’s homicidal leaders diplomatically.

Graeme Wood, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, has noted that Islamic State “rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

Read Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Mr. Obama in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine, and you might come away thinking that the president’s concern for his own legacy plays a not-so-small role in his antiterror thinking. “The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear,” writes Mr. Goldberg. “He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term.”

Mr. Bush prioritized national security, not improving his personal popularity or burnishing his image for posterity. Apparently Mr. Obama sees that as a flaw.

Article Link to the Wall Street Journal:

Clinton stomps on her rivals as she makes appeal to New York voters

By Nolan D. McCaskill 
March 30, 2016

Hillary Clinton played up her ties to New York on Wednesday as she rhetorically stomped over her rivals and predicted a victory in the state’s primary, the Democratic primary and the general election.

“With your help we’re going to win the primary here on April 19, and then we’re gonna win the Democratic nomination and the election in November,” Clinton said during a rally at the Apollo Theater in New York.

Returning to the state she represented in the Senate for eight years, Clinton name-checked some of her local allies and shared a series of personal stories, such as the recovery following the 9/11 attack and working with Congress to get first responders health care.

The former secretary of state boasted about having received more votes than her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, and Republican front-runner Donald Trump. But she also maintained that, in this election especially, she isn’t taking anything for granted.

“When any candidate comes before you, that candidate owes it to you to be clear about how we’re actually going to deliver,” Clinton said, adding that she and Sanders share many goals. “But some of his ideas for how to get there won’t pass; others just won’t work because the numbers don’t add up. And that means people aren’t gonna get the help that they need and deserve, and that’s what this is supposed to be about.”

Sanders says leaders aren’t thinking big enough, Clinton said. “Well, this is New York. Nobody dreams bigger than we do,” she said. “But this is a city that likes to get things done, and that’s what we want from our president, too.”

The Vermont senator, who has won five of the last six voting contests, has staked his campaign on a message railing against wealth inequality. But, while Clinton has focused on a broader platform of breaking down barriers, she charged that on this subject “I take a backseat to no one.”

“I know how important it is to close that gap, to rebuild the middle class, but I’ll tell you this,” she added. “It’s also important to take on racial inequality and discrimination in all of its forms. And it’s important to stand up to the gun lobby and fight for common-sense gun safety.”

Clinton warned supporters that New York isn’t just voting for presidential nominees on April 19, they’re also voting for a commander-in-chief at time when national security should be a key focus.

“On the Republican side, what we’re hearing is truly scary,” Clinton said, citing Trump’s comments in favor of torture techniques as well as his statements on allowing other nations to obtain nuclear weapons. “That doesn’t make them sound strong. It makes them sound in over their heads. You know, loose cannons tend to misfire, and in a dangerous world that’s not a gamble we can afford.”

Clinton accused the Republican presidential candidates of running divisive campaigns but said New Yorkers know better. Diversity is a strength of the state, she said, and the state represents the best of America.

“We’re gonna stand up for the values that make New York and make America great,” Clinton said, altering Trump’s ubiquitous campaign slogan. “Don’t ever forget. This is the greatest country on earth, and we’re gonna fight for it, fight for our future.”

Article Link to Politico:

Clinton stomps on her rivals as she makes appeal to New York voters

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The Central Role of Cheap Energy in American Growth

By Eric Blank
Real Clear Markets
March 30, 2016

Are the best days of the American economy behind us?

Some politicians, both actual and aspiring, seem to think so. This view is also supported by economists such as Robert Gordon, who argues in his new book "The Rise and Fall of American Growth", that the extraordinary economic and productivity growth experienced for much of the 20th century was largely due to a unique set of one-time technological changes that are not repeatable.

Many others, particularly from the tech sector, challenge this pessimistic view, arguing that future innovation will continue to expand productivity and power economic growth. Bill Gates emphatically rejects Gordon's conclusions pointing to dramatic gains in agricultural, medical, and material science that he believes will be as transformative as any prior technological change. Other optimists, such as Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, question productivity measures, implying that the standard statistics don't adequately capture how new communication and other technologies actually improve people's lives.

This article argues that both sides in this debate may be missing the mark by failing to adequately consider how energy and energy pricing fundamentally drive productivity and economic growth. When energy prices are low and stable, key decision makers substitute energy for labor (and capital) in ways that significantly improve productivity growth. Conversely, at times when energy prices are high and volatile, businesses and homeowners are have an incentive to invest in approaches that use less energy and drive down productivity growth. From this perspective, both sides generally ignore the real technology changes - involving horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking - that have already led to dramatically lower energy prices and are likely to power both productivity and economic growth in the future.

The debate over productivity often seems to fall back on an economic concept called Total Factor Productivity (TFP) as a proxy to describe the underlying qualitative impact of innovation and technological change on productivity growth. For example, Gordon evaluates TFP in four separate time periods as follows: 1921-70 where average annual TPF growth was 1.9%; 1971-1993 where it fell sharply to .6%; 1994-2003 where it spiked back up to 1%; and 2004-2014 when it went down to .4%. Except for the brief period from 1994-2004, Gordon finds that productivity growth has not come close to matching the levels achieved from 1920-1970. Gordon argues that the spread of specific and unrepeatable innovations (such as electrification, cars, and sanitation) led to the rapid growth seen from 1920-70, but he projects that the current more narrow qualitative nature of technological change (involving computing, communication, and entertainment) will result in far slower future growth.

This article presents a very different perspective on the rise and fall of American growth, suggesting that changes in average TFP growth were driven primarily by substitution toward and away from energy in response to dramatic shifts in real energy prices and volatility, and not primarily due to qualitative differences in the type of technological change occurring in any one period. This linkage becomes clear by comparing average real oil prices (as a proxy for overall energy costs) in each time period and comparing them against average TFP growth.

For example, during the time period from 1920-1970, oil and energy prices were incredibly low and stable, averaging under $17/barrel over fifty years, and never rising above $20/barrel after 1926. This extraordinary low pricing and stability enabled businesses, homeowners, and other economic entities to substitute energy for capital and labor in profound ways that seem to have led to sustained TFP growth averaging 1.9%.

For the period 1971-1993, however, real oil prices roughly tripled averaging $53/BBL, with a high of $106/barrel in 1980. This sharp increase in real energy prices and volatility convinced businesses and others to substitute capital and labor for energy to manage energy bills in ways that likely help to significantly reduce average TFP growth (ultimately down to .6%). Government data also shows that oil consumption fell by 15% during the 1970s and into the early 1980s confirming this substitution effect.

Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991-92, real energy and oil prices declined significantly, averaging about $33/BBL from 1994-2003 with a peak of $39/BBL in 2000. Once again, lower and stable real energy prices led businesses, homeowners and other decision makers to start substituting energy for labor and capital through approaches that helped raise TFP growth to an average of 1%, with oil consumption increasing significantly after 1992 through 2003.

Rising energy demand from China and elsewhere after 2003 and through 2014, increased real energy and oil prices such that oil prices surged to an average of $104/BBL during this period. Energy decision makers again began substituting away from energy, reducing consumption by as much as 10%, and slowing down TFP growth to an average of .4%.

Academic work over the past ten years has tended to confirm the linkage between energy pricing, energy consumption, and economic growth. A 2010 book shows statistically that much of the past growth in the US economy has been driven by ever cheaper energy and not by technological progress in some general and undefined sense. The author argues that energy should be considered as a third factor of production (in addition to labor and capital) and that statistically US economic growth can be explained fairly well by these three factors, without resorting to largely undefined concepts like TFP that depend on qualitative analyses of technological change and innovation.

The energy-centric view of American economic and productivity growth allows for a more optimistic view of the future. It suggests that pessimists like Gordon have failed to grapple with one of the key technological changes of our time - the impacts on energy prices associated with the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking. These new drilling technologies have greatly expanded the domestic supply of both natural gas and oil and have helped lead to reductions of energy prices on world-wide markets, with oil now trading in the $30-40/barrel range.

Based on historical experience, this alternative view of American growth that explicitly considers energy pricing and innovation suggests that both productivity and economic growth may ultimately be more likely to replicate the experience of 1994-2004 rather than the lower levels from 1970-1994 and 2004-14. Recent technological innovations in the energy sector are now producing relatively low oil and energy prices, which should once again allow key economic actors to substitute energy for labor and capital in ways that increase productivity growth.

In summary, this analysis suggests that movements in productivity growth are likely to be driven more by shifts in real energy pricing than by qualitative differences in the nature of technological change, which seem to be at the heart of the debate between pessimists like Gordon and the optimists coming out of the tech sector. This finding, when combined with the recent advances in energy drilling and recovery technologies, suggests a reasonably optimistic view of future American productivity gains and overall economic growth, but for reasons somewhat different than those put forward by either Gordon or the tech optimists.

Article Link to Real Clear Markets:

#NeverHillary Won’t Clean Up Trump

By Jonathan S. Tobin
March 29, 2016

If there is any brand that is more identified with what we call the Republican establishment these days, it is the American Crossroads Super PAC run by former Bush political guru Karl Rove. Crossroads was established in 2010 with the express idea of helping to fund mainstream electable conservative candidates for the House and the Senate. As such, it played a not insignificant role in laying the foundation for the Republicans’ impressive 2010 and 2014 midterm landslides. While it was assumed that Crossroads’ efforts would ultimately be about helping Jeb Bush or some other moderate Republican in 2016, the group now finds itself marooned in a GOP environment that is increasingly dominated by Donald Trump, a candidate that Rove has criticized. But, like some other establishment figures, Rove is increasingly acting as if Trump’s nomination is inevitable. As such, he is already pivoting to the general election with a new series of digital ads titled “#NeverHillary” that attack the likely Democratic nominee.

Focusing on Clinton’s misdeeds and scandals is standard operating procedure for conservatives. But with the Republican race still going and with Trump’s popularity deep under water (the HuffPost average of polls shows him with a 31.6 positive rating and a staggering 63.3 negative number and other polls showing him disliked by 73 percent of female voters), discussing Hillary’s problems seems like either a pointless distraction or a case of another establishment figure going into the tank for the GOP frontrunner.

It is possible for conservatives, as Dennis Prager noted in a column published in National Review, to walk and chew gum at the same time. Which is to say, he believes it is possible for them to deplore Trump while still thinking that Hillary Clinton is worse. His assumption is that four more years of the Democrats in control of the White House will complete President Obama’s goal of transforming America. He argues that, between the Republican he doesn’t want — Trump — and the Democrat, he will always pick the former. A lot of Republicans probably feel the same way. Yet while he concedes that Trump is probably never going to learn how to behave “decently,” he’s hoping he will learn to be more intelligent and avoid more nasty messes such as his attacks on Heidi Cruz.

Lots of luck with that. If Trump hasn’t changed by now, he’s never going to alter his behavior. Moreover, with Trump embracing bizarre isolationist foreign policy stands such as downgrading NATO and encouraging nuclear proliferation, along with other positions that are closer to those of Obama than to most Republicans, the case for Trump as the lesser of two evils is starting to look a bit thinner even for those most alarmed at the prospect of another Clinton presidency.

The answer to the question of how many Republicans mean what they say when they embrace the #Never Trump hashtag is one we won’t know until November. But, on top of his outrageous incitement to violence and dog whistles about racism, the more Trump dumpster dives into character assassination against Ted Cruz and his wife, the higher that number might prove to be. Nor should anyone labor under the delusion that Trump’s trademark go-for-the-throat tactics will win the candidate a lot of friends when deployed against the first woman to be a major-party candidate for president.

Of course, for many, if not most Trump supporters, the anticipation that he will employ a no-holds-barred scorched earth campaign against Clinton is exactly why they think he should be the GOP nominee. For Republicans that have despised the corrupt former first couple for more than two decades, that #NeverHillary message resonates.

For Rove to start diverting GOP attention to Hillary before the GOP race is decided may seem like smart politics. After a year of the Republicans conducting a circular firing squad with relatively little attention on their ultimate opponent, the #NeverHillary campaign is a welcome respite from a civil war that is tearing the party apart.

But it is also beside the point. Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month offering Trump free advice as to how to “raise his game.” Among the bullet points was a plea for the GOP frontrunner to focus more on Clinton and Obama and less on his Republican opponents. Yet, as surely Rove knew he would, Trump ignored his counsel to go after swing voters, write a new stump speech, and to behave. Trump is no more capable of acting in a presidential manner than he could flap his arms and fly to the moon.

The instinct of some Republican establishment figures is always to jump on winning bandwagons and prize party loyalty above all. That’s why people like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani are now acting as Trump apologists. Their reasoning is very much in tune with the #NeverHillary campaign and for those, like Prager, who understandably worry about the disastrous impact of more liberal Supreme Court appointments, anything is better than a Democratic victory in the fall.

But, as Prager also noted, backing Trump probably isn’t going to make a Clinton presidency less likely. To the contrary, Trump’s nomination increasingly is looking like the guarantee of a win for the Democrats. A Trump takeover of the Republican Party is also not a neutral event. Transforming the GOP from a conservative party to one that is populist and isolationist — “America First” — means more than the nomination of one doomed presidential candidate. As I noted yesterday about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s inclination to think more about 2020 more than 2016, thinking long-term rather than short-term is actually shortsighted for Republicans since doing so may result in the end of the GOP as they know it.

All of which is to say that, if Rove is really interested in saving the conservative movement and promoting electable Republicans — the key to his successful efforts in 2014 – he might want to think about a different hashtag. #NeverHillary will be popular with many Republicans. But at this point, it is just a distraction from the effort to stop a Trump nomination that will make Clinton’s victory inevitable.

Article Link to Commentary:

Can ‘Judge Sarah’ Palin Be Tamed for TV?

Sarah Palin likes to pass judgment. But does she have the staying power, attention span, and mass audience to be a successful TV courtroom judge?

By Lloyd Grove
The Daily Beast
March 30, 2016

Right-wing populist luminary Sarah Palin—who, if all goes according to plan, will be the next Judge Judith Sheindlin—has settled into a long-established career pattern.

The 52-year-old former local TV sportscaster, who in 2008 caught lightning in a bottle, fame-wise, as the unlikely running mate to Republican standard-bearer John McCain, always begins whatever she’s doing with blindingly bright promise.

And then, more often than not, she tends to go rogue.

It’s a pattern that should give pause to Judge Judy veteran Larry Lyttle, former NBC Universal syndication chief Barry Wallach, and the other experienced players behind Palin’s latest venture, a syndicated daytime program in which she supposedly will use her “common sense” (since Palin has zero legal training) to preside over a television courtroom and rule on disputes between ordinary folk.

Judge Sarah, or whatever it will be called, could possibly launch in the fall of 2017, assuming TV station groups can be enticed to buy it in the next few months.

Whether or not Palin actively participates in selling the show—and station group executives ordinarily expect to schmoozed by the talent—most of the 2017 syndication deals will have to be locked in by the end of this summer.

What remains to be seen is whether advertisers would be willing to associate their brands with Palin, who despite a loyal following, is a polarizing figure who plays better in “the real America,” as she called the small towns in flyover country, than she does on the coasts.

The money-making potential for the former governor of Alaska and her latest business partners can’t be discounted. After two decades as Judge Judy, for instance, the acerbic Sheindlin makes a reported $47 million a year for her mega-hit show. “It’s not acting,” says TV Judge Tanya Acker, a practicing civil litigator who’s in the middle of her third season serving on the three-judge panel that decides small claims cases on Hot Bench, the CBS-syndicated show created and produced by Sheindlin.

Acker, who received her law degree from Yale, said that during the weeks they are not taping from nine to 11 different disputes in a single day—rulings that have the force of law, since they are actually made-for-television binding arbitration proceedings—she and her fellow TV judges on the show spend intensive time reading the pleadings from small claims litigants selected by the producers, and think hard about how the relevant statutes apply to each case.

“It’s not scripted. Not a dime. Not one bit. There is not one part of our show that is scripted,” Acker told The Daily Beast. “Even if I wanted to, you can’t script this stuff in advance… Nobody is telling us what to say. You’ve got to think on the fly and be able to react to information, and you may not be getting the information you thought you were going to get.”

Palin, however, is not known for her ad-libbing ability, nor for the discipline of steeping herself in memos and pleadings to prepare for a public appearance. Instead, she does best when working with a script, which she prefers to tweak to her liking and commit to memory.

Meanwhile, assuming she is not using the current blast of publicity for leverage in pressing Donald Trump to pick her as his running mate, the Palin Pattern is going to be a challenge for the producers of Judge Sarah.

Charming when she wants to be, she possesses undeniable street smarts and a magnetic, relatable way of presenting herself that is perfect for the small screen.

Whenever Palin has taken on a new project, be it a political campaign or a speaking tour, she excels at it for awhile—as she did as the mayor of Wasilla, as Alaska’s youngest governor in history, as a commentator for the Fox News Channel, as the protagonist of a reality television show, and the namesake of an online video channel, to say nothing of her star turn 8-and-a-half years ago as one of the planet’s most compelling political personalities.

And then, according to some who have worked with her and spoke on condition of anonymity, she starts to manifest a celebrity version of attention deficit disorder.

Or else, the many distractions of her complicated, frenzied life—the five children and their periodic brushes with the law, the youngest suffering from Down Syndrome, and the three grand children, plus, most recently, whatever commitment she’s made as the No. 1 Trump surrogate, and a husband recovering from grievous injuries sustained in a snowmobile accident—ultimately render her unable to focus on the task at hand.

Or else, she lapses into diva mode, exploding the best laid plans on a whim, and, when things go less than optimally, retreats into a psychic bubble, angry and sullen, unreachable—blaming everyone but herself.

Eventually Palin can succumb to a self-defeating and apparently uncontrollable streak of irrationality, suspecting her colleagues of working to undercut her, trying to make her look bad, and even toiling to kill her chances to run for president someday—basically driving everyone around her crazy.

Lyttle and company—who’ve had decades of experience handling difficult talent—know all this. They and their press spokesman, the media-savvy Howard Bragman, declined to comment for this article, seeing no reason to step on the already massive coverage Palin’s fledgling show received when it was announced in People magazine last week.

But I am reliably informed that they have screened Game Change, the HBO movie about Palin’s sudden appearance on the national scene during the 2008 campaign, or else have read the relevant portions of the best-selling book of the same name—in which some of the qualities enumerated above are documented.

But the Judge Sarah team has elected to take a calculated risk—and why not? The first test will not be whether Palin can produce a competent half-hour pilot for her show, but whether she can produce a decent “sizzle reel” of a few minutes in length in time for next month’s National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

Tanya Acker, for one, declined to give any pointers to the latest entrant into the TV judge business.

“I don’t have any advice for Sarah Palin,” she said. “I’m sure she’s got her own advisors.”

Judge Judy, meanwhile, was typically terse on a Beverly Hills sidewalk when ambushed over the weekend by TMZ.

“You have to use your common sense,” she said before fleeing the video paparazzo, “and know a little bit about the law.”

Article Link to the Daily Beast:

The Clean-Energy Deadline Is Sooner Than We Think

By Mark Buchanan
The Bloomberg View
March 29, 2016

Everyone knows that at some point, if we want to contain climate change, we'll have to stop building polluting power plants. New research suggests that moment may come much sooner than we realize.

In some areas, the world is making progress toward reducing harmful emissions. Earlier this year, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy reported that the use of coal-fired plants for electricity generation in the U.S. fell to the lowest level in 60 years. Some of the biggest U.S. coal mining outfits have filed for bankruptcy. Electricity from coal looks set to become increasingly rare in China as well. That's good news for anyone hoping that humanity might still manage to reduce carbon emissions enough to avoid warming the Earth's climate past the two degrees Celsius that scientists see as dangerous.

Even so, trends globally aren't so encouraging. Developing nations plan to build a lot more fossil-fuel generating stations, and global carbon emissions are still increasing. Electricity generation still contributes about one-fourth of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions. The crucial question, then, is whether we will manage the transition to zero carbon production in time -- and how much time we have.

A new study by researchers from Oxford University's Institute for New Economic Thinking offers an answer. In short, we have only a year or so to stop investing in new fossil-fuel power stations. After that, the expected emissions from those plants over their economic lifetime will commit us -- barring other exceptional changes -- to shoot past the 2 degree limit. This means we face crucial choices right now.

The trouble, as Alexander Pfeiffer and colleagues point out, is the amount of emissions already built into the system. Electricity infrastructure lasts a long time: Some thermal plants in the European Union are as much as 50 years old, and we should expect new plants to be used over a similar period of time. So the stock of existing plants, and any new construction, has repercussions for emissions decades into the future.

Climate dynamics add to the inertia. Once put into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide lasts for centuries, contributing to warming all the while. It's the total stock of carbon in the atmosphere, not what we happen to be emitting now, that matters most. Even if we reduce emissions quickly, the stock will decline much more slowly.

Taking these inertias into account, and using data from the IPCC on global carbon budgets and various scenarios for plausible future emissions and technology changes, Pfeiffer and colleagues analyzed how long we can go on building new fossil fuel power plants if we want to have a decent chance -- say, 50 percent -- of staying within the two degree limit. To that end, they introduced the concept of the “two degree capital stock" -- the total amount of electricity generating capital we can create before we've locked ourselves into dangerous warming.

By their estimate, if we don't shift all new electricity generation investment to zero-carbon technology by the end of 2017, we will face a number of unpalatable alternatives. They include accepting the likelihood of warming beyond the two degree limit, shutting down and writing off lots of the world’s energy assets or putting our hopes on carbon-capture technology that does not yet exist.

Pfeiffer and colleagues don't mean to be doomsayers. Their aim is to help policy makers get a more realistic view of the time available for making the shift to clean energy. National commitments to phase out fossil fuel power generation tend to focus on targets for emissions reductions. The EU, for example, aims to cut 40 percent by 2030. But emissions at any moment aren't directly linked to the atmospheric carbon stock that causes warming, nor do they reflect the future trajectory of carbon emissions implied by existing infrastructure.

Policy makers need to think a lot more about the repercussions of the fossil fuel power plants currently being planned, as well as associated coal mines and oil and gas fields. What we do today will affect the options available to us for decades to come.

Article Link to the Bloomberg View:

Russia, despite draw down, shipping more to Syria than removing


March 30, 2016

When Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of most of Russia's military contingent from Syria there was an expectation that the Yauza, a Russian naval icebreaker and one of the mission's main supply vessels, would return home to its Arctic Ocean port.

Instead, three days after Putin's March 14 declaration, the Yauza, part of the "Syrian Express", the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied, left the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for Tartous, Russia's naval facility in Syria.

Whatever it was carrying was heavy; it sat so low in the water that its load line was barely visible.

Its movements and those of other Russian ships in the two weeks since Putin's announcement of a partial withdrawal suggest Moscow has in fact shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period, a Reuters analysis shows.

It is not known what the ships were carrying or how much equipment has been flown out in giant cargo planes accompanying returning war planes.

But the movements - while only a partial snapshot - suggest Russia is working intensively to maintain its military infrastructure in Syria and to supply the Syrian army so that it can scale up again swiftly if need be.

Putin has not detailed what would prompt such a move, but any perceived threat to Russia's bases in Syria or any sign that President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's closest Middle East ally, was in peril would be likely to trigger a powerful return.

Russia operates an air base in Hmeymim and a naval facility at Tartous. Putin has said Russia will keep both and that they will need to be well protected.

"Since the main part of the force de facto stayed there, there is no reason to reduce the traffic," said Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based CAST military think tank. "Supplies for the Syrian army remain significant as well."

Moscow has not revealed the size of its force in Syria, nor has it given details of its partial withdrawal.

Reuters has calculated that around half of Russia's fixed-wing strike force based in Syria flew out of the country in the days after the partial draw down was made public. The precise number of planes Russia had was secret, but analysis suggested it had about 36 fixed-wing military jets there.

On Monday, state TV showed three heavy attack helicopters being flown out of Syria along with some support staff.


But an examination of shipping data, official information, tips from maritime security sources and photographs from bloggers of Russian ships passing the Bosphorus strait en route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, shows no signs that the "Syrian Express" is being wound down.

A Reuters analysis of the same data shows Russia is also likely to have reinforced its naval force in the Mediterranean and now appears to have more war ships near the Syrian coast than at the time of Putin’s declaration.

Their role is to protect cargo ships. Their presence also gives Moscow the option of firing cruise missiles from the sea.

Russia appears to have more than a dozen military vessels in the Mediterranean, including the Zeleniy Dol warship equipped with terrain-hugging Kalibr cruise missiles which are accurate to within three metres, according to Russian state media and the database of Bosphorus Naval News, a Turkish online project.

Moscow is likely to maintain that strength, said CAST's Barabanov.

"Russia doesn't have too many ships that it can keep in the Mediterranean. The role of the force was to ensure the activity of the 'Syrian Express' and to demonstrate it to the West and, later, to Turkey."

The Russian defense ministry did not reply to questions about what the Russian navy was doing in the Mediterranean or whether there were plans to reduce its presence.

Russia's military ships and most auxiliary vessels are not shown in publicly available databases. But most of its ships are seen and photographed when they pass the Bosphorus on their way from Russia to the Mediterranean or vice versa.

In most cases it is impossible to track military shipments to destination ports however, meaning data is only partial.


Since Moscow began to scale back in Syria, Russia has sent two landing ships, which are typically used to transport troops and armor - the Caesar Kunikov and the Saratov - to the Mediterranean along with the Yauza, an auxiliary cargo vessel.

The Saratov looked loaded when it passed the strait on Thursday going south toward Syria. Its load line was visibly lower than on March 14 when it was photographed going the other way, toward Russia.

At the same time, two warships - the Alexander Otrakovsky and the Minsk - and the Dvinitsa-50, an auxiliary vessel, were photographed by Turkish bloggers passing the Bosphorus en route back to Russia.

At least two of the returning ships, the Alexander Otrakovsky and the Dvinitsa-50, looked unloaded on their way back.

Photographs show that the Otrakovsky, a large landing ship, sat higher in the water on its return to Russia compared to March 2 when it crossed the strait in the other direction. It was not clear if it carried troops or equipment.

The load line of the Dvinitsa-50 was also high above the water when it was photographed in the Bosphorus on March 20 on its way back to Russia.

It seems unlikely that Russian troops or equipment were on board any of the returning ships. None of them looked like they had heavy cargo onboard.

The Minsk has already headed back toward Syria. On Tuesday, it was photographed passing the Bosphorus. Its bow sat deep in the water; its cargo could not be discerned.

Non-military cargo traffic between Russia and Syria also shows no signs of flagging.

Four cargo ships involved in the supply operation called at Syria in the two weeks before Putin announced the draw down.

A fifth, the Alexander Tkachenko, a Russian ferry, previously photographed with military trucks onboard, probably called there too.

Reuters shipping database showed it was approaching Syria, but then suddenly disappeared for a few days before re-appearing en route back to Russia, meaning its transponders were not switched on for that period.

Five cargo ships, including an oil tanker, arrived in Syria in the two weeks following Putin's announcement.

Article Link to Reuters:

Wednesday, March 30, Morning Global Market Roundup: Yellen comforts world stocks with cautious rate rise whispers


March 30, 2016

World stocks rose on Wednesday as markets pared back expectations for how fast and how far U.S. interest rates might rise this year, bruising the dollar and boosting sovereign bonds.

MSCI world equity index .MIWD00000PUS, which tracks shares in 45 countries, rose 0.8 percent near to 2016 highs after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen urged caution on further rate hikes despite calls from some policymakers for faster progress.

The dollar fell across the board, with the dollar index .DXY down at 94.945, adding further losses to its biggest one-day fall in nearly two weeks seen on Tuesday.

The move also pumped up the euro EUR= to its highest level in almost two weeks and pulled Germany's 10-year bond yields -- the European benchmark -- towards record lows, as investors waited for inflation data that was likely to confirm the need for ultra-easy monetary policy in the bloc.

"Having had such seemingly unambiguous guidance from the other FOMC speakers ... where the message seemed to be very clearly to markets: you've taken this too dovishly, Yellen seemed to send the opposite message," said RBC Capital Markets' head of currency strategy in London, Adam Cole.

Futures markets <0> dialed back their predictions of a rate hike to late 2016 from mid-year, in what some analysts warned might be a slight overreaction.

With the S&P 500 recording its highest close of the year, and Asian shares outside Japan reversing four sessions of losses to jump 2 percent, Europe followed the push higher.

The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index .FTEU3 advanced 1 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 .FTSE rose 1.2 percent, Germany's DAX .GDAXI gained 0.7 percent, while the euro zone's blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index .STOXX50E rose 0.8 percent.

Japan's Nikkei .N225 was a rare loser, nudged lower by a rise in the yen against the dollar.

"We see the (Yellen) comments as an effort to exert control over the message and, in doing so, tilt expectations for policy rate hikes in a decidedly dovish direction," said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.

Debt markets rallied hard in response to Yellen's speech, with yields on 10-year U.S. paper US10YT=RR dropping 7 basis points to a one-month low of 1.80 percent. German equivalents fell 2 bps to 0.13 percent, within a whisker of this year's low of 0.102 percent and an all-time low of 0.05 percent hit last year.

The drop in the U.S. dollar helped oil prices regain a little ground, as did a forecast that U.S. stockpiles may have grown by less than first thought.

U.S. crude CLc1 added 60 cents to $38.89 a barrel, after falling around 3 percent on Tuesday. Brent LCOc1 rose 40 cents to $39.60. [O/R]

Gold XAU= was up at $1,242.66 an ounce, after rising almost 2 percent overnight.

Article Link to Reuters:

Russia’s Secret Weapon of the ISIS War

In the battle with ISIS for storied Palmyra, Russian forces unleashed their flying tank.

By David Axe
The Daily Beast
March 30, 2016

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces battling to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra had a lot of help from above. At least one Russian Mi-28 attack helicopter—Moscow’s answer to the U.S. Army’s fearsome Apache gunship—flew top cover as Syrian tanks and infantry stormed the modern city adjacent to the U.N. World Heritage Site.

Video posted online by a pro-regime group clearly shows an Mi-28 firing a rocket from beneath one of its stubby wings. The battle for Palmyra, which ended this week as ISIS militants fled the city, apparently represented the two-seat, gun- and missile-armed Mi-28’s combat debut.

The Russian gunship’s appearance over Palmyra underscores Russia’s continuing support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. In a surprise move on March 14, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to withdraw from Syria, around six months after thousands of Moscow’s troops and scores of its best warplanes deployed to western Syria to help bolster Al Assad’s own embattled forces.

In fact, the Kremlin didn’t withdraw its troops—it merely switched up the mix of forces, swapping far-flying jet bombers for Mi-28s and other helicopters better suited for closely supporting Syrian troops on the ground as they fight to retake territory from ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels.

Putin “brought in different assets and returned things he had less use for,” a senior Israeli military officer told trade publication Defense News on condition of anonymity. “Now there’s more emphasis on air support by attack helicopters.”

The Mi-28 boasts infrared and daylight cameras, a nose-mounted 30-millimeter cannon and stub wings that can simultaneously carry as many as eight precision-guided anti-tank missiles and 10 unguided rockets, each of which packs the explosive power of an artillery shell. The Mi-28 can fly as fast as 200 miles per hour. Its cockpit armor is thick enough to deflect heavy machine gun fire. Able to spot and strike targets from miles away, the Mi-28 combines the qualities of an aerial spy and a flying tank.

In addition to Mi-28s, the Russian air wing based near Damascus includes huge, heavily-armed Mi-35s and high-tech Ka-52 copters, the latter specializing in flying close air support for Special Operations Forces. Kremlin-backed T.V. network Russia Today revealed the Mi-35s—which can transport squads of infantry in addition to firing guns and rockets—in a December report on Moscow’s contingent in western Syria.

Around the same time, Syrian media inadvertently revealed the Mi-28s and Ka-52s’ presence in the country in a T.V. report about the November incident in which Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber. Russia’s government-owned Sputnik News site soon followed with a piece celebrating the “finest Russian combat helicopters com[ing] to Syria.”

A Reuters T.V. spot broadcast on March 16—two days after Putin’s “withdrawal” order—also depicted an Mi-28 and a Ka-52 in western Syria. The Reuters piece showed the Ka-52 with its rotor blades removed—standard practice for shipping a helicopter inside a cargo plane. It’s unclear if that particular Ka-52 was just arriving in Syria or getting ready to depart. At least one Mi-28 definitely stuck around, as just a few days later it flew into action over Palmyra.

The Mi-28 isn’t alone. Low-flying gunship helicopters bristling with weaponry have played a central role in the two-year-old war on ISIS. Iraqi gunships helped to blunt the militants advance in western Iraq in mid-2014—and their crew paid a high price, as ISIS gunners shot up at least 60 of the Iraqi military’s roughly 100 copters, destroying some of them and killing several aviators.

The U.S. Army deployed Apache gunships to Baghdad in the summer of 2014 to help defend American advisors rushing back to the city to help train and advise Iraqi troops fighting a desperate rearguard action against the advancing militants. In October 2014, the Apaches blasted ISIS forces approaching Baghdad, halting the militants’ assault and buying time for the Iraqi army to regroup.

The Apaches have continued to back up Iraqi troops as Baghdad has launched multiple counteroffensives aimed at retaking key Iraqi cities from ISIS. Clearly, regime troops chipping away at the militant’s strongholds in Syria enjoy equally effective air support from Russia’s own gunships.

Article Link to the Daily Beast:

The Fall and Fall of German Social Democracy

The SPD has lost voters to the left and the right, and needs to get them back fast to avoid becoming irrelevant.

By Janosch Delcker
Politico EU
March 30, 2016

BERLIN — It’s not just Angela Merkel’s conservatives who are licking their wounds after a crushing defeat in German regional elections — the Social Democratic party is hurting too, and badly.

The major losses the SPD suffered in two of the three German states that held elections this month plunged a party that had been in steady decline for years into the worst crisis in its post-war history.

Nowhere illustrates the SPD’s woes as vividly as Mannheim I. For the first time in 64 years, the working-class electoral district on the outskirts of Mannheim, in the state of Baden-Württemberg, is no longer in SPD control.

Not only that, the SPD lost Mannheim I to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).

“This loss really hurts,” Ralf Stegner, deputy national leader of the SPD said in an interview.

Local SPD leaders believe voters punished the SPD for decisions taken in Berlin, where the party is the junior coalition partner of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

“We are the ones who take the hit because the national government in Berlin promises things and afterwards doesn’t deliver,” said Andrea Safferling, one of the SPD’s candidates in Mannheim I.

Aside from the charismatic Malu Dreyer in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Social Democrats suffered defeats across the board, finishing a humiliating fourth in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt. Nationally, the party’s support has slumped to 22 percent from 38 percent in 2002.

Looking its age

For 150 years the SPD, Germany’s oldest party, has promoted social justice and the rights of the working class. In recent years, it has been losing voters to parties on the far-right and the far-left — voters who feel the party has lost touch with its core values.

Safferling felt the disenchantment first-hand when campaigning before the recent election. The dissatisfaction, she believes, is mostly due to the SPD’s support for Merkel’s controversial migration policy.

"The SPD’s decline predates the AfD and the migration crisis by years."

“In a constituency like ours … I am being told ‘We don’t have a lot of money, but our government is spending all the money on refugees,’” Safferling said.

“They have heard about Austria capping the number of refugees and then they ask us, “Why is this working for the Austrians, and not for us?’” she added.

Daring to speak out in support of the “open doors” migration policy can have worrying consequences. Safferling said that after speaking out against the AfD, which campaigned with great success on an anti-migrant platform, a swastika was spray-painted onto her car.

The SPD’s decline predates the AfD and the migration crisis by years.

“This downward spiral began with [Gerhard] Schröder’s Agenda 2010,” Safferling said, referring to the reform program the former SPD chancellor launched in 2003. It targeted Germany’s welfare system and its labor market to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment in a country that was dubbed the “sick man of Europe” at the time.

Many SPD supporters said Schröder’s reform plan, which included cuts to pensions and unemployment benefits, trampled on the party’s core values.

“We have lost so many supporters because people don’t trust anymore that we are truly committed to social justice,” said Stegner, who is at the far-left of the party. “It’s difficult to reverse this, and it’s a slow process.”

Left behind

Many of those who have abandoned the SPD because of Agenda 2010 have gone to the Left party.

“Questions of fair distribution of money and resources are no longer at the forefront of social democratic politics,” said Matthias Micus, a political scientist at the University of Göttingen.

“Being ‘left’ the way the SPD understands it today is no longer primarily about economic questions, but much more about cultural issues like gender politics, the protection of minorities, or when it comes to cultural diversity or immigration,” Micus said.

However, he added, the traditional SPD electorate — the working class — does not really care about those topics.

“This has led to an estrangement of the SPD from its traditional electorate,” Micus said.

It’s about more than policy, there’s personality problems too.

While the party has a few rising stars on the state level — alongside Malu Dreyer there are the popular state premiers Hannelore Kraft in North Rhine-Westphalia and Olaf Scholz in Hamburg — it lacks popular figures on the national stage.

Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor, economy minister and SPD chief, is seen by many as a fickle provocateur and is deeply unpopular, even among the party faithful.

Only 14 percent of voters in Germany would like to see Gabriel as chancellor, compared to 50 percent who approve of Merkel. Even among SPD voters, only 36 percent would like to see Gabriel as chancellor versus 38 percent who favor Merkel, according to a recent Forsa poll.

Yet Gabriel’s position at the top of the SPD remains unchallenged. The main reason is that the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in 2017 has no chance of winning and is viewed as a kamikaze mission, party officials say privately.

That may well be the reason why the popular Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Labor Minister Andrea Naples are not exactly pushing hard to get their names on the ballot paper, leaving Gabriel alone at the forefront of the party.

In February, he annoyed Merkel by demanding greater social spending on Germans to balance out the costs of increased spending on refugees.

It was his attempt to distance the SPD from Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

“Of course we want to make sure people see the difference between us and the conservative parties,” said the SPD’s Stegner. “If Germany’s two large parties are being perceived as too similar, people tend to cast a protest vote for more extreme parties, or they don’t vote at all.”

“Over the last couple of months, people have begun to understand how important it is to distance ourselves more from the union parties,” Stegner added, “and days like [March 13] are yet another warning signal.”

Roughly 500 kilometres from Berlin, in northern Mannheim, Andrea Safferling sometimes thinks about withdrawing from local politics. But deep in her heart, she says, she is too much of a Social Democrat to throw away decades of unpaid party work.

Berlin needs to make sure more money is available for local communities, she says, so that she can go back to focusing on the core issues of Social Democratic politics, like expanding childcare facilities, providing affordable inner-city housing and fixing potholes in the streets of Mannheim.

The SPD needs to climb out of its own hole before it can start fixing others.

Article Link to Politico EU:

Donald Trump’s Mafia Foreign Policy

The Republican front-runner wants to give America's allies an offer they can't refuse.

By Jeet Heer
The New Republic
March 29, 2016

Speaking to an enormous crowd last August in Mobile, Alabama, Donald Trump expounded on a key part of his foreign-policy agenda: getting allies like South Korea, Japan, and Germany to pay America for defending them. Trump freely acknowledged that what he was proposing sounded to some like a mobster asking for protection money. “We defend the whole world,” Trump said. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s like the mafia defense.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, okay. The mafia is not so stupid, all right.’”

"For Trump, a successful president will have basically the same modus operandi as a mobster, using intimidation to maximize income."

American presidential candidates don’t normally praise organized crime, so it is tempting to write off this comment as a joke. Yet as we learn more about Trump’s foreign-policy views, thanks to extensive interviews such as the one conducted by Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger published over the weekend by The New York Times, the mafia comment seems less like a quip and more like a confession.

Of course, it is possible to give Trump’s weltanschauung an intellectual pedigree. In an earlier article I did that myself, arguing that Trump’s unilateralist tendencies could be linked to a shadow tradition in American foreign policy, while the dominant philosophy since Franklin Roosevelt has been the internationalist consensus. Certainly Trump’s invocation of the slogan “America First” calls to mind the notorious aviator Charles Lindbergh, who turned his isolationist arguments against fighting Nazism in Europe into a popular movement, while the mogul’s skepticism of NATO evokes the memory of that stalwart opponent of American Cold War interventionism, Robert Taft. And Trump’s call for America’s free-riding allies to pay more for their defense directly echoes the thinking of the most recent unilateralist of any prominence in American politics, Ross Perot.

Yet to put the emphasis on Trump’s unilateralism is to put too fine a sheen on what is actually a set of very primitive emotions. As the interview with Haberman and Sanger makes clear, Trump has no real foreign-policy doctrine—and very little grasp of even the elementary facts about global politics. What Trump does have, in spades, is a cluster of raw attitudes that allow him to confidently bluster about topics with which he’s utterly unfamiliar. Trump’s comment that “the mafia is not so stupid” can serve as a key for understanding these attitudes: For Trump, a successful president will have basically the same modus operandi as a mobster, using intimidation to maximize income. And, of course, as Ted Cruz likes to point out, the mafia might be more than just a handy metaphor when it comes to Trump, since one of his associates is a twice-convicted felon with mob ties.

Repeatedly, Trump displays breathtaking ignorance of the most basic details of foreign policy. In the Times interview, he lamented that despite the release of $150 billion in frozen funds to Iran as part of the Iran deal, “They’re buying planes, they’re buying everything, they’re buying from everybody but the United States.” Sanger, his interviewer, had to politely explain, “Our law prevents us from selling to them, sir.”

Trump went on to say that “Iran is the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea.” Again, Sanger had to very cordially interject: “Mr. Trump with all due respect, I think it’s China that’s the No. 1 trading partner with North Korea.” When Trump said he’d call on China to put pressure on North Korea, Sanger had to inform him that China “signed on to the most recent sanctions, more aggressive sanctions than we thought the Chinese would agree to.” This led to Trump pretending that he’d already known what Sanger had just informed him about: “Well that’s good, but, I mean I know they did, but I think that they have power beyond the sanctions.”

Normally, you might expect someone who’s way over their head, the way Trump is when talking about foreign policy, to be at least a little bit humble or deferential. But Trump is willing to take on the post of commander-in-chief despite his manifest dearth of knowledge because he feels that attitude is more important than a command of facts. He is blithely confident that his hoodlum behavior will allow him to solve any foreign-policy problem.

As it does in the mob, power in Trump’s world comes from displays of force. Hence the heroes Trump cites are autocratic military men (Douglas MacArthur and George Patton), and his paltry list of foreign-policy advisers is top-heavy with retired soldiers rather than diplomats. This admiration for displays of power can also be seen in his repeated praise of authoritarian leaders and dictators. For Trump, Putin is “a strong leader, a powerful leader,” Bashar al-Assad is a bulwark against ISIS, and Saddam Hussein “a bad guy but he was good at one thing: Killing terrorists.”

Trump’s mafia thinking is also evident in the way he connects foreign policy with making money. To be sure, foreign policy always has an economic aspect. As historians like William Appleman Williams have taught us, the goal of expanding capitalist markets has long undergirded America’s diplomatic and military agenda. And certainly since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, America’s overriding foreign-policy goal has been to secure global capitalism through a system of alliances and trade agreements. It’s a measure of the importance of this agenda that the United States has been willing to build up economic rivals like Germany and Japan because doing so was seen as necessary to the larger success of capitalism, even if it might hurt specific America industries (as with competition in auto-making).

But unlike presidents from Roosevelt to Obama, Trump doesn’t think in terms of global capitalism; he thinks more narrowly about making money. This is a hoodlum’s view of business: You collect your protection money and rule the roost, with no concern for long-term stability. “Our country’s a poor country,” Trump says, which is factually untrue but a necessary premise in order to justify a foreign policy that makes maximizing revenue, rather than protecting global capitalism, the main goal.

Like a racketeer, Trump thinks about wealth in very material terms: not as a process of wealth-generation, but as holding on to actual lucre. Hence his longstanding complaint that the United States didn’t “take the oil,” and his general advocacy of a policy of plunder. “To the victor belongs the spoils” is, in fact, a Trump foreign-policy maxim.

Trump’s clever way to fend off requests for specific policy positions is to praise the virtue of instability in conducting foreign policy. “We need unpredictability,” he explained to Haberman and Sanger. There’s an echo here of Richard Nixon’s infamous “madman strategy,” when he attempted to gain negotiating leverage over North Vietnam via rumors that he was a lunatic who would stop at nothing to win.

Aside from Nixon, Trump’s promise of “unpredictability” conjures up another criminal president who keeps other nations in line through the fear that they don’t know what he’s capable of. Think here of the 1990 movie Goodfellas, with the portrayal of Tommy DeVito by Joe Pesci: DeVito’s capricious outbursts of violence might seemed unhinged, but they kept people scared of him. Of course, this agenda of unpredictability is very much at odds with the goal of American foreign policy for most of the last century: promoting international stability and order.

In keeping with the whole idea of “unpredictability,” Trump has no real use for the traditional instruments of foreign policy, treaties and alliances. Instead he believes in making deals. Now, it is true that every treaty involves deal-making (or negotiation). But once a treaty or alliance is set, it creates a structure that has some value in and of itself, as a source of stability and a frame of reference. Trump doesn’t care for for such fixtures. He talks about every treaty and alliance as infinitely negotiable, as something he’d be happy to open up again as it suits him. (Hence his promise, echoed by other Republican candidates, to re-open the Iran nuclear agreement.)

Under President Trump, everything would be in flux: Every agreement would be fleeting and subject to change, depending on his whims. This would be similar to how a bandit leader operates, with ad-hoc verbal agreements being more important than fixed contracts. If America needed more cash, Trump would just turn to the leaders of South Korea or Germany and say, “This is a nice little alliance we have here. Pity if something happened to it.”

Trump is truly a radical figure on foreign policy. He promises a new style of international relations that has less in common with traditional diplomats like Dean Acheson and George Kennan than with the hooligan tactics of Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies. Although perhaps, on second thought, Michael Corleone might be a best-case scenario, since some of Trump’s bluster makes it possible that he more closely resembles Michael’s ill-fated brother, the unstable and violence-happy Sonny. Americans love movie gangsters, but it remains to be seen whether the country is ready to elect a mafia president.

Article Link to the New Republic:

The Obama Doctrine: Where Too Little Meets Too Late

We didn't need a law professor. We needed a commander-in-chief.

By Dakota Wood
The National Interest
March 30, 2016

Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy article in the latest issue of the Atlantic has generated a great deal of discussion about President Barack Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. Drawing from interviews with the president, some of his chief foreign policy and national security advisors, and contemporaneous reporting of crisis events as they unfolded, Goldberg pieces together a mosaic illustrating Obama’s personal philosophy regarding America’s interests, its role in the world, the rationale for getting involved (or refraining from such) and what it means to be “smart” in dealing with the world’s major actors.

The magazine also provides side commentaries interpreting Goldberg’s word-picture. Derek Chollet, for example, selects passages to make the case for Obama’s wisdom and effectiveness. In contrast, Niall Ferguson and Kori Schake are quite critical of Obama’s worldview and related policies, mining Goldberg’s report for evidence of Obama’s intellectual arrogance, his foreign policy’s strategic incoherence and his refusal to acknowledge the costs of his (in)decisions.

Count me among the Ferguson/Schake camp. Intentionally or not, Goldberg has documented a president convinced of his own intellectual superiority, and blind to the logical inconsistencies inherent in his views. The disconnect between the president’s interpretation of events and reality can only leave one wondering why the U.S. hasn’t fallen even further under his leadership.

Here are some key takeaways from Goldberg’s fascinating article:

• Though often unhappy and disillusioned by how things turn out, Obama doesn’t believe that the results arose from how he elected to handle situations. Frequently opting to remain aloof from the messiness of crises, he appears to miss the point that leadership requires active involvement, not just rhetoric.

• Obama doesn’t act until things get very bad. Then, when forced by circumstances to act, he acts hesitantly and minimally, later complaining about the lack of good options and outcomes. For example, the president complains that the Middle East is “consuming us,” without considering this might be because U.S. involvement has been tepid and half-hearted—just enough to complicate the situation further, but not enough to shape conditions to favor U.S. interests.

• He cites Libya as evidence that U.S. action seldom helps—because the situation was either hopeless to begin with or poorly handled by the locals. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that there was no follow-through. If one decides at the beginning not to commit the forces or effort needed to manage the post-conflict situation, one forswears the ability to shape events once the bombs stop falling.

• Obama believes “it was not his business to stop Russia from making what he thought was a terrible mistake [in Syria]. ‘They are overextended. They’re bleeding… And their economy has contracted for three years in a row, drastically.’” That’s an incredibly cold-blooded analysis—one that omits from the equation Syria’s half-million dead, two million wounded, five million refugees outside the country and over six million internally displaced.

• Obama says, “[We] have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we’re willing to go to war for.” That’s a given. But judging from the lack of meaningful commitment to change conditions relative to crises in much of Africa, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific and even Europe, apparently not much reaches that level in today’s world. However, “climate change worries [him] profoundly.”

• Another eyebrow-raiser: “[If] you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China.” Really? Their alleged surprise hasn’t caused Beijing to miss a beat in its island-building campaign of territorial expansion.

• Though frustrated that “nobody talks about me ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan,” Obama fails to note that the military commanders tasked to achieve his stated policy objectives requested twice that amount. Is it any wonder the country is falling back into chaos and America has minimal influence among any of the major players?

• Obama argues that history is “bending” in his direction, that the historical record shows that tyrants fade away while humanity generally treads an upward path. Consequently, he implies, there is little need to engage in costly wars since the bad guys will ultimately defeated… by time, if nothing else. But even though history will “bend” to the detriment of tyrants, they can cause massive death and destruction before the bending is done. While the U.S. cannot commit to righting every wrong, surely it has an interest in mitigating the damage in the worst of circumstances.

In foreign affairs, President Obama has been eager to “engage” America’s foes conversationally. But he has consistently refused to act early, when options are more plentiful and bad conditions can be dealt with at lesser cost.

Inaction, timidity, half-hearted gestures, and concessions to aggressive and destructive powers have created a more dangerous environment. Old friends have been betrayed; enemies have been emboldened and, at times, outright rewarded. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have needlessly died, and millions have had their world profoundly upended.

It’s possible, of course, that decades from now, historians will validate Chollet’s view of Obama’s time in office. But it’s far more likely that Ferguson and Schake will be substantiated.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Saving the South China Sea Without Starting World War III

Washington must boost Asian nations' reconnaissance.

By Van Jackson
The National Interest
March 30, 2016

Greater operational transparency in the South China Sea has become a strategic imperative, and the United States needs to treat it as such by investing greater resources and political capital toward increasing the shared maritime awareness of Southeast Asian states. It simply will not happen without U.S. leadership.

The opaque, low-information nature of the South China Sea creates a permissive environment for many sources of conflict. When national governments lack real-time awareness of who is doing what and where in the maritime domain, opportunistic actors like China have the ability to exploit it—through contentious land reclamation, illegal fishing and the bullying of commercial ships from other nations. But even among states that aren’t tempted to exploit information asymmetries, a lack of situational awareness increases the prospect of misunderstandings, miscalculations and accidents among nations with overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones.

This problem isn’t entirely lost on the Pentagon. Last year, it released the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, which outlined efforts to build the maritime surveillance capacity of Southeast Asian partners, and followed it up with the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI)—an authorization of more than $400 million to shore up security for nations surrounding the South China Sea. Maritime security is de rigueur in Washington.

Yet neither the announced Pentagon strategy nor MSI offers a roadmap for how the United States will go about making the South China Sea more transparent. There also seems to be little recognition that security cooperation in this vein is an immediate strategic issue every bit as crucial to U.S. interests as tracking Russian actions in Crimea or the atrocities within Syria; not all strategic imperatives are headline grabbers. Moreover, many of the timelines for realizing current U.S. maritime capacity-building efforts stretch more than a decade into the future, while the South China Sea’s opacity problem is incentivizing undesirable behavior today.

The time for transparency-inducing action is now, and it can’t be limited to U.S. arms transfers to allies or enhanced maritime patrols. These traditional moves are essential, of course, but they’re slow and expensive. That’s why in a new report with my colleagues from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), we outline the strategic case for maritime transparency and a road map for making it happen. Part of the solution is indeed to fill what we describe as Southeast Asia’s “ISR gap”—remedying a shortfall in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of Southeast Asian partners. But even faster, more innovative and more cost-effective solutions are within reach.

In parallel with long-term efforts to increase the independent ISR capacity of Southeast Asian partners, the United States needs to forge collaborative partnerships in three directions: with private Silicon Valley and defense technology firms; with external powers who have a shared stake in South China Sea stability; and with regional institutions in the maritime and information-sharing business.

Commercial Innovation

The most promising and most immediate payoffs for South China Sea transparency are likely to be realized through partnerships with the private sector. A number of Silicon Valley start-ups and nonprofits are at the forefront of not only visualizing the locations of ships and aircrafts on maps in near-real time, but in value-added analysis of the publicly available data that it tracks. Companies like Spire and Skybox, and nonprofit projects like the Seas Around Us and Global Fishing Watch, are able to deduce secure maritime routes and identify patterns of illegal fishing. Companies and projects like these respond to the profit motive and to purpose-driven missions; the South China Sea offers both. Until now, though, the private sector’s capabilities have not been focused on the problems of the South China Sea; the U.S. government can help change that.

The U.S. defense industry also has a major role to play, by leasing its unmanned ISR capabilities to Southeast Asian states in need of greater maritime awareness—which is virtually all of them. Owning and operating ISR collection assets is expensive and requires significant operator training, whereas contractor-run maritime collection missions on behalf of a local partner deliver immediate payoffs. Even in cases where the United States is willing to transfer UAVs with ISR collection payloads to others, there will inevitably be a multi-year “coverage gap” between the sale of ISR assets and the recipient’s ability to actually operate and maintain what it procures on its own. The win-win solution is for the Pentagon to solicit defense industry plans for ISR fee-for-service programs for the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, and use Maritime Security Initiative funding to subsidize leasing as necessary.

A Concert of External Stakeholders

At present, Australia, Japan, India and South Korea are all active in the Southeast Asian security environment, engaged in everything from arms sales to combined military training exercises and even nascent joint patrols. Yet the only coordination among them, or between them and the United States, occurs on an ad hoc and largely bilateral basis. These “Concert Nations” have the collective resources and local networks to make a real difference in the ISR and maritime law enforcement capacity of Southeast Asia’s smaller powers. But to do so, they’ll need to come together as a concert to deconflict overlapping initiatives, capitalize on their respective comparative advantages and jointly map out the region’s ISR requirements.

Expanding Information-Sharing Networks

No matter how advanced any individual state’s ability to see what’s happening in the maritime domain, it will never be enough to independently and persistently see across the entirety of the South China Sea. Fortunately, the seeds for multilateral information sharing have already been planted, if in limited and highly fragmented ways. The Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre and the Malacca Straits Patrol Network are among the patchwork of maritime information-sharing regimes in the region. As the United States and the “Concert Nations” work to build national maritime operations centers in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, they should also offer incentives and impose security assistance contingencies to encourage wider multilateral dissemination of the vessel and aircraft tracking information that such national maritime networks collect.

South China Sea transparency is not a quixotic goal; it just requires a coordinated agenda, efficient use of existing resources (and authorizations), and follow-through. Above all, it requires U.S. leadership, in the sense of resourcing and legitimating multidirectional partnerships. The time has come to render the region’s most volatile waterway into an open, transparent and stable one. Alternatives to doing so are both too bleak and too risky to allow without first trying a more transparent route.

Article Link to the National Interest: