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Richard Fernandez

Richard Fernandez’s portal is at Wretchard.com.

When Tuesday Comes

Two countries made the economic news recently.  The first was Venezuela, which began food rationing.  You need a biometric measurement, your fingerprint, to buy food, making it the first but perhaps not the last, country in the world to require more ID to purchase beans than is required to vote in the US.

Caracas has announced “it had taken over warehouses around Venezuela crammed with medical goods and food that ‘bourgeois criminals’ were hoarding for speculation and contraband.”  Things are only going to get worse, as oil prices plummet, sending Caracas (as well as Tehran and Riyadh) into a blue funk. “The slump in oil prices comes as Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff warned this week that Venezuela is almost certain to default on its foreign-currency bonds. Deepening concern the South American country will renege on its debt payments triggered a selloff in its $4 billion benchmark bonds due 2027.”

The second country in the economic headlines was Britain. The UK has been told by the EU to pay an extra 1.7 billion pounds into the superstate’s coffers because ‘the economy has performed better than expected in recent years’.  France on the other hand, will be awarded 790 million pounds because its economy is struggling.  What message does this send to those who succeed?  EU president Jose Manuel Barroso put it succinctly: the UK still has friends in EU. But ‘please keep them’”.

Welcome to the world of ‘shared prosperity’.  Recently Labor Secretary Thomas Perez explained what that means. “Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said President Barack Obama will take ‘aggressive executive action’ on immigration, which Perez said will bring about more ‘shared prosperity.’”

Contrary to what you may think, shared prosperity doesn’t mean ‘pass around the joint’, but apparently conveys the sense that if you spread around money, more money will come to you. “The pie is getting bigger. American workers helped bake it, but they’re not getting a bigger slice … in private-sector job growth,” Perez said. “Shared prosperity is not a fringe concept. … and it’s a lynchpin of a thriving middle class.”

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Posted at 2:59 pm on October 24th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Strong Hearse

Lee Smith tries to explain why teenage girls in Western Europe are joining ISIS. “Because they want the same things that teenage boys want: a strong sense of meaning and purpose.” It’s happening even in Tunisia, the poster country for the Arab Spring. The NYT writes:

Nearly four years after the Arab Spring revolt, Tunisia remains its lone success as chaos engulfs much of the region. But that is not its only distinction: Tunisia has sent more foreign fighters than any other country to Iraq and Syria to join the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State. Although Tunisia’s steps toward democracy have enabled young people to express their dissident views, impatience and skepticism have evidently led a disgruntled minority to embrace the Islamic State’s radically theocratic alternative. Tunisian officials say that at least 2,400 Tunisians have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the group — other studies say as many as 3,000 — while thousands more have been blocked in the attempt.

The Washington Post thinks there’s a new strong horse in town: Military success has bred popular support for the Islamic State. People like a winner. A talker and a promiser, not so much. Islam now has an “aura”.

Even more disturbing are signs that the Islamic State has the sympathy of many noncombatants in the region. In the Lebanese port of Tripoli, a longtime stronghold of radical Sunni groups, murals of the group’s black flags are painted on buildings in the center of the city, according to the Wall Street Journal. In Turkey, pro-Islamic State students at Istanbul University have triggered a series of fights on campus, according to the Associated Press. In Jordan, a recent poll showed that only 62 percent of respondents considered the Islamic State terrorist, according to David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Such popular sentiment explains why leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been reluctant participants in the anti-Islamic State coalition.

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Posted at 3:04 pm on October 23rd, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Canadian Parliament Attack

Armed persons have attacked Ottawa, shooting a soldier at the Canadian War Memorial and attempting to enter Parliament.  The attack in parliament was apparently stopped by the quick action of the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers, formerly of the RCMP.  Vickers shot the assailant in front of a room where MPs where sheltering.

Some vowed in gratitude that “he will never pay for a drink again.”

Canadian authorities had intelligence of “ISIS style” attacks for weeks and had raised the threat level before the shooting.  But apparently there was not sufficient detail in that intelligence to prevent the current attack.  Parliament Hill is locked down as police and CT forces clear it.

Prime Minister Harper was attending a meeting in the building when the incident occurred. Here are some scenes taken from inside the Canadian parliament building.  President Obama has spoken to Harper and expressed his outrage during the phone call, according to ABC news.

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Posted at 12:04 pm on October 22nd, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

In Memory of Beautiful Women

It’s hard reading about someone who’s dead, or gone from the scene, especially when that  person was a beautiful woman.  But it sometimes happens that you discover the secret side belatedly through the memorials site or books or recollections of friends, relatives and strangers who stayed.  The words in the memorial jump out at you: ‘she cried herself to sleep afraid to die alone’. ‘It was her sister (or cousin, friend, grandmother) who was her rock in the final days’.  You realize that underneath the memory there was someone you never knew or never could know, that beneath the gloss lay someone who didn’t understand the cynical game of life; and improbably never appreciated the power of their beauty, intelligence and position; who foolishly wanted to be loved for none of these, but only for themselves.

Edgar Allen Poe once said “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  It’s true even if she’s not so beautiful, for in every man worth the name lurks a hidden compulsion to ride to the rescue of a damsel in distress.  It’s present even in hobbits: for what did Merry feel in his bones when Eowyn faced the Nazgul? “She should not die, so fair, so desperate. At least she should not die alone, unaided.” Doubtless feminism would disapprove, but the instinct is there all the same.

Not that every man responds when he should.  The deepest sources of shame in men are memories of the women they wronged;  left in the lurch, or to whom they did things that they should not.  Of all the reproaches one can feel in later life, the memory of moral cowardice may be the deepest.  Which is why what the Atlantic calls Monica Lewinsky’s Second Act is so hard to watch.

According to a write-up on the magazine’s website, Lewinsky described the public humiliation she suffered during the endless coverage and investigations of her affair with President Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment more than 15 years ago. She talked about her “love” for Clinton at the time and reportedly teared up in recalling the shame of being, for a time, one of the most infamous young women in the world.

Lewinsky, now 41, said she was “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”

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Posted at 6:26 pm on October 21st, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Nameless

Spengler (David Goldman) observes that the Muslim world is experiencing a “social unraveling on a scale not seen in the region since the Mongol invasion”. It’s at 18 million refugees and counting. “There are millions of young men in the Muslim world sitting in refugee camps with nothing to do, nowhere to go back to, and nothing to look forward to. And there are tens of millions more watching their misery with outrage. Never has an extremist movement had so many frustrated and footloose young men in its prospective recruitment pool.”

Actually it’s worse than that. Spengler’s table omits Mali, Nigeria and Africa in general. Most of the fighting is Green on Green, as the saying goes.

To get a daily overview of this as yet unnamed war the best source is the Long War Journal. In the LWJ universe the players are not Chelsea Clinton and Lena Dunham. They are the Haqqanis, the Basij, al Nusrah, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Badr, AQAP, the Houthis, AQIS, Hezbollah, Hamas and many, many more.  It’s like a parallel reality that has everything but a name.  What will it be?

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Posted at 2:44 pm on October 20th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Return of the Face

A few days ago Peggy Noonan demanded of the political class in the Wall Street Journal to answer the question “who do they think we are?”   Our leaders she said, were treating the public like moronic children on the subject of Ebola.

It is my impression that everyone who speaks for the government on this issue has been instructed to imagine his audience as anxious children. It feels like how the pediatrician talks to the child, not the parents. It’s as if they’ve been told: “Talk, talk, talk, but don’t say anything. Clarity is the enemy.”

And why not? For altogether too long the political elites have thrived on the strategy of treating the public like “low information voters” and being rewarded for it. But that act is seemingly losing its appeal. Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times writes that the “Black Vote Seen as Last Hope for Democrats to Hold Senate.”

WASHINGTON — The confidential memo from a former pollster for President Obama contained a blunt warning for Democrats. Written this month with an eye toward Election Day, it predicted “crushing Democratic losses across the country” if the party did not do more to get black voters to the polls….

Yet the one politician guaranteed to generate enthusiasm among African Americans is the same man many Democratic candidates want to avoid: Mr. Obama.

Not even the Clinton show can put gas in the old tank any more. Peter Sullivan and Bernie Becker of the Hill write “self-proclaimed Clinton Democrats are struggling this election cycle, and not even their powerful namesakes may be enough to save them.”

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have tried to turn on their charms to help centrist Democrats in Kentucky and Arkansas. But as candidates in both states are slipping, help from the party’s preeminent power couple is falling short. … In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes has clung tightly to both Bill and Hillary Clinton as she tries to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(R).

The former president has already campaigned with the Democratic hopeful twice and will head to the Bluegrass State again next week. The former secretary of state held a rally with Grimes on Wednesday, coming as Grimes kept emphasizing she was a “Clinton Democrat through and through” after flatly refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama.

The former president — a master of the retail politics central to places like Arkansas — is the featured guest in his native state this weekend. There, Democrats are trying to save vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and push former Rep. Mike Ross (D) into the governor’s mansion. Pryor even took a selfie on stage with Clinton this month, in an attempt to illustrate how close he is to his state’s favorite son.

Hillary stumps. Bill blusters. But it’s not working so far. Senator Elizabeth Warren is reported in the Washington Post as preparing the Base for hard and heavy tidings. “The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” Warren said to loud cheers.

At least there were cheers for Warren. The president would have welcomed some in Maryland, where he was stumping for Anthony Brown. Reuters said the crowd walked out on Obama. “A steady stream of people walked out of the auditorium while he spoke, however, and a heckler interrupted his remarks.” And this was friendly territory.

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Posted at 9:05 pm on October 19th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Hollywood And Tanks

The promotional material for the Brad Pitt movie Fury dramatizes an encounter between a platoon of Shermans and a Tiger 1 in where the Shermans get the worst of it.  It exemplifies the by now well known line that it took five or six Shermans to take out a single Tiger.

I was somewhat surprised in later life to learn that this might not be true, which was shocking.  While there is no doubt that a Tiger or a Panther was much better armored and gunned vehicle than the average Sherman, some scholars have argued that as a weapons system the Sherman was the superior of either armored fighting vehicle.  Steven Zaloga is probably the most well known advocate of this point of view.

In his book Panther vs Sherman Zaloga looked at the record and found that on average  the Shermans killed more than their number of Panthers or Tigers.  Now how could that be?  Given the Sherman’s automotive inferiority the question was why this should even be possible. Examining 98 engagements in the Ardennes, Army researchers discovered something rather interesting.

The study concluded that the single most important factor in tank-versus-tank fighting was which side spotted the enemy first, engaged first and hit first. This gave the defender a distinct advantage, since the defending tanks were typically stationary in a well-chosen ambush position. …

The side that saw first and hit first usually had the advantage in the first critical minute … the overall record suggests that the Sherman was 3.6 times more effective than the Panther … popular myths that that Panthers enjoyed a 5-to-1 kill ratio against Shermans or that it took five Shermans to knock out a Panther have no basis in historical records. The outcome of tank-versus-tank fighting was more often determined by the tactical situation than the technical situation.

Since the Shermans were more numerous and mechanically reliable, they typically got to the key terrain first. They kept going whereas the Panthers and Tigers could only road march short distances from their transporters and railheads. Thus, in most engagements the Shermans could get set up because there were so many of them and they tended to run reliably.

If there was a hill to be grabbed, a road to be blocked, the Shermans would get there first. By contrast, the German tanks were mechanically fragile.  For all their power they were on average, late to the party. Therefore, on a fluid battlefield the Shermans would almost always arrive first on the key terrain and bushwhack the panzers.  Zaloga’s conclusion was astounding. And yet it may be true.

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Posted at 3:02 am on October 19th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Dual Control

The selection of political Ron Klain as ‘Ebola czar’ has been criticized on the grounds that he has no medical or public health qualification.  But relatively little attention has been focused on the word ‘czar’ itself.  The term ‘czar’ in the American sense, begins with FDR. It loosely described a type of inter-agency coordinator with the authority “to go outside of formal channels and find creative solutions for ad hoc problems, the ability to involve a lot of government players in big issue decision-making, and the ability to get a huge bureaucracy moving in the right direction … managing competing power centers.”

The term also meant something else: an official operating outside the regular offices of government who hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.  The Liberty Law site describes their history in the following way, even before they were called by the name: “czars began as emergency responses to the extraordinary demands of World Wars I and II, and then took hold during normal times.”

But even these emergency measures were legally suspect. Woodrow Wilson used the Overman Act of 1918 to create new position for Bernard Baruch over a new agency over increasing the production of raw materials, even though “nowhere in the law did Congress provide Wilson with the power to create a government structure, excepting an agency to manage the production of aircraft”. Similarly, FDR used the First War Powers Act of 1941 to create multiple czars, even though “nothing” in that act “authorized the president to create new agencies or offices”. These emergency measures were “consolidated” into routine governance under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: “By the 1960’s, presidents had become accustomed to the idea and practice of centralizing power and moving away from a reliance on department heads and the traditional cabinet governing system”.

 

President’s name Party In office Number of
czar titles
Number of
appointees
Appointees not
confirmed by Senate
Franklin Roosevelt D 1933–1945 11 19 17
Harry Truman D 1945–1953 6 6 5
Dwight Eisenhower R 1953–1961 1 1 0
Lyndon Johnson D 1963–1969 3 3 1
Richard Nixon R 1969–1974 3 5 5
Gerald Ford R 1974–1977 2 2 2
Jimmy Carter D 1977–1981 2 3 2
Ronald Reagan R 1981–1989 1 1 1
George H. W. Bush R 1989–1993 2 3 0
Bill Clinton D 1993–2001 8 11 7
George W. Bush R 2001–2009 33 49 28
Barack Obama D 2009– 38 44 35

Katheryn Schultz argues that ‘czar’ is just a catchy name. “It is the press, not the executive office, that insists on calling them czars. That is largely about expedience: “WMD Czar” is a lot more manageable in a headline than ‘Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.’ Executives, in fact, generally dislike, discourage, and avoid the use of czar … we just love the way that it sounds.”

But there is in fact, a substantive difference. They are a parallel system of command. As suggested by this article in Western Journalism, their chief qualification is political adherence to the president’s ideology and personal loyalty to him.  In fact it may be argued that they are not ‘czars’ in the  sense of inter-agency enablers.  It will probably be the role of Klain — like  Cass Sunstein, Todd Stern, John Holdren, Mark Lloyd, Eric Holder, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, etc — to make sure the bureaucracy knows who they are working for and for what ends.  They’re not just ‘coordinators’ any more. They are a kind of enforcer. They work is better described by another Russian word: zampolit or political officer.

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Posted at 12:40 am on October 18th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Flying Dutchman

Which of us in childhood was not captivated by a print, or perhaps a portrait of the Flying Dutchman, ”a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. … If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.”  Which of us thought such a thing could actually happen … in the Caribbean?

If the public thought that allowing a nurse with Ebola symptoms to fly commercial air was the worst possible blunder the administration could make, think again. ABC News reports that “a Dallas health care worker who handled clinical specimens from an Ebola-infected man from Liberia who later died is on a Caribbean cruise ship – where the worker has self-quarantined and is being monitored for any signs of infection, the State Department said in a statement.”

“The worker has voluntarily remained in the cabin and the State Department and Cruise line are working to bring the worker back to the U.S. out of an abundance of caution,” the Department of State said in the release.

An Ebola suspect on a cruise ship, that’s worse than letting the nurse fly by air.  At least the government is trying to get him back.

But wait. There’s more. According to the Washington Post, the cruise ship has been denied entry into Belize. “News reports out of Belize said the Carnival Cruise ship “Magic” was being kept offshore because of a health worker who had contact with an Ebola patient and that passengers were not being permitted into the country.” They won’t even let the Dallas health care worker transfer to shore so he can be flown back to the U.S.

The reports quoted a statement from the government of Belize: The Government of Belize was contacted today by officers of the U.S. Government and made aware of a cruise ship passenger considered of very low risk for Ebola. The passenger had voluntarily entered quarantine on board the ship and remains free of any fever or other symptoms of illness. The Ebola virus may only be spread by patients who are experiencing fever and symptoms of illness and so the US Government had emphasized the very low risk category in this case. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, the Government of Belize decided not to facilitate a U.S. request for assistance in evacuating the passenger through the Phillip Goldson International Airport.

The party ship is now unwelcome. In a manner of speaking the Flying Dutchman sails the seas again. It won’t be long before pundits ask: ‘hey, if Belize can close  its borders to a whole cruise ship, then why could not president Obama close the US borders to West Africa?’

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Posted at 2:15 am on October 17th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Game Over

Roger Simon asks “Could It Possibly Get Any Worse?” for president Obama and then proceeds to enumerate a long list of the catastrophes besetting the administration.  They’re of such severity and the list is of such length that one may be forgiven for thinking, ‘no it cannot possibly get worse’.  Yet not only can it get it worse, but it probably will.  In order to clearly understand why you have to go back to a video game developed in Japan called Space Invaders. In this old video game a row of apparently slow moving and vulnerable alien critters advance upon a player equipped with a blaster and able to shelter behind concrete fortifications.  It looks easy to pick off the Space Invaders but that is illusory.

As the Space Invaders get closer the defender must deal with more of them per unit time.  Each one you miss in time (t) becomes one more Invader who you must hit in time (t+1).  As you run out of time there are eventually more critters than you could possibly hit.  The defender is overrun and it is Game Over.

The Obama administration’s fundamental mistake was believing that “kicking the can down the road” was an intelligent strategy.  It sure looked like it, given  the vast design margin that America appeared to provide.  Yet in so doing they made the error,  common among innumerates, of mistaking the large for the infinite.  They thought they would never run out of room to “kick the can down the road”, little realizing that every unengaged Space Invaders in time (t+1)  got carried over to time (t+2) etc.

But the clock runs out for everyone and now there’s a whole avalanche of problems coming at the Obama administration.  They are saturated.  By kicking the can down the road, Obama committed the single most fatal mistake in the Space Invaders Game.  He let the critters get a jump on him. Now they’re ahead of his shot cycle and threaten to overrun his position.

Readers will recall my prediction that fake strategies like those used by the administration go through 3 phases: 1) the denial of the problem; 2) over-confident half measures; 3) blind panic. President Obama is officially at number 3 and has canceled fundraisers in New Jersey and Connecticut “to convene his Cabinet at the White House instead, as U.S. officials grappled with the widening Ebola crisis.”

The panic phase comes very fast because it is actually the moment when a leader realizes he’s running out of the most precious resource a manager can have, which is time.  And the administration, for the past six years, has been all about wasting time; about kicking the can down the road.  They thought it was clever, a big joke they could play on their Republican successor. But most of the president’s opponents on the world stage, familiar with the idea that strategy is largely the story of time, saw it for the amateur mistake that it was.  They saw the president for what he was and took him to the cleaners.

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Posted at 3:41 am on October 16th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez