Monthly Archives: November 2013

Good Reads and Listens

Dan Smith from International Alert on the Syrian spillover in Lebanon.

Does early exposure to violence make us more prone towards violence later in life? Are some of us more violent than others? New research suggests yes (sorta). Read the full piece here.  


Making a Deal with Iran Part 1: Coercive Diplomacy

imagesThe U.S. has two tools when dealing with a possible nuclear Iran: threats and promises. Political scientist Alexander George would label the combination of these “coercive diplomacy.” This extremely difficult task of combing these two goes beyond a carrot and stick approach as the U.S. must not alternate between carrot and stick but use them simultaneously with credible threats and real promises.  This dance is even harder to pull off given; the long history of mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, U.S.’s backing of Israel and inherent challenges of navigating Iranian decision-making.  

The U.S. recent attempt’s at coercive diplomacy leaves something to be desired.  A confluence of inspections, sanctions and threats led Saddam Hussein to freeze his weapons program after the Gulf War, but he refused any long-term agreement.  The reasons had to do with his motives and perceptions…both of the U.S. and of Iran. Saddam was suspicious of any long-term goals of the U.S. and couldn’t appear weak to his regional rival Iran.  This was made irrelevant by the threats issued by George W. Bush during the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Again all threat and no credible promise.

The Iraq case may be an outlier however and it should not be assumed that coercive diplomacy doesn’t work.  Former Libyan leader al-Qaddafi stopped developing weapons of mass destruction partly due to pressure and reassurances from the United States.  More often than not however the U.S. has relied on overwhelming force and has missed the mark on the second pillar of coercive diplomacy…promises.  Even much weaker enemies have refused to bend to the sole application of the use of force including Panama (1989), Iraq (2003), Serbia (1998), and Taliban in Afghanistan (2001).  All of these failed attempts at pressure lead the U.S. to fall back on the pillar of threat and military action.  Furthermore, Iran is far from alone in its defiance of U.S. pressure as North Korea has refused to give up its nuclear arsenal.

Threats can prove problematic since if they fail they force the threatening party on a path they may not want to travel.  Obama’s red line on Syria’s chemical weapons back fired as soon as the weapons were used.  Now, to remain credible the threat must be made good often with military force. JFK learned this lesson as well during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy famously joked about warheads in Cuba, “Last month I said we weren’t going to allow warheads. Last month I should have said we don’t care.” Both threats put the ball in the court of the other country.  If the other party (in this case Russia or Assad) bend to the treat, they appear weak however if they cross the “red-line” whatever it may be they may or may not face consequences.  Causing pain on one party and making threats can also raise the question of whether or not the party inflicting pain is serious about a deal at all.

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba

This isn’t to say that pressure is always counterproductive. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Iranians temporarily stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It appears that what a U.S. diplomat said of North Korea is also true of Iran: “The North Koreans do not respond to pressure. But without pressure they do not respond.”

D is for Debt Part II: US Debt and Generational Justice

us-debt-sinkingship2Policy makers in the U.S. love to talk about the burden of debts that they will leave behind for future generations.  One example often cited by debt hawks a family that has borrowed too large a mortgage and will have a hard time making the payments.  While it certainly paints strong visual, its wrong in two ways.

First, families have to pay back their debt–governments do not.  They need to make sure that the debt grows slower than their tax base.  The U.S. never repaid the debt from World War II, the debt just became irrelevant as the economy continued to grow and grow.  What policy makers need to focus on is not the debt, but strengthening the tax base and that includes getting people back to work…more likely by government driven Keynesian policies.

Second, an over borrowed family owes money to someone else, however the US debt is largely owed to the U.S.  This was clearly true of the debt incurred by winning WWII, which was much larger as a percentage of GDP, but that debt was owned by taxpayers in the form of war bonds.  That debt didn’t make the U.S. poorer in fact the post war generation experienced the greatest economic boom in wages and living standards in the nation’s history.

In the wake of the debt debates austerity is now in vogue and at stake is the U.S. economic future.  A part of the austerity fashion wave is the idea of generational justice.  It is said that the U.S. is passing on its children and grandchildren and as the debts become payable, future generations will be burdened by rising interest rates and lower living standards.

The economics of this are misleading.  The well-being of children and grandchildren in 2023 and 2033 is not a function of debt reduction but instead about putting economic growth back on track. If The U.S. reduces debt by cutting social spending and “tightening its belt” the economy will fall stagnate and lower wages.  The debt will out pace growth and there will be little money to invest in education, research and job-training.

Real generational justice would entail making sure that wages are adjusted for inflation, college loans rates are reduced and investment in growing markets needs to be maintained.  The next generation can and will produce for the U.S., they just want the same opportunities their parents enjoyed.