Monday, November 30, 2015

Obama is Incoherent; the Rest are Insane

OK, so I have made the case that Obama's critics are more hawkish than he is.  But why does that prove that they are any more incoherent?  Because of the way that they are hawkish.  Their approach to the Middle East is one of omni-directional belligerence.

Syria is the most obvious example of complete incoherence in our foreign policy establishment, even more incoherent than our current policy under Obama.  Taking the most simple, dumbed-down (though somewhat outdated) map of what is going on in Syria's civil war, in March, 2014 it looked something like the picture on the right.  Pink represents the Assad government; green represents the non-ISIS rebels, and gray represents ISIS.  (Yellow is the Kurds).  We are on the side of the green forces. It should be obvious that our friends are facing the classic two-front war problem.  They are trying to defeat the pink guys and the gray guys simultaneously. One might think that this is a bad situation to be in.

It gets worse.  The map on the left (updated to December, 2014) distinguishes between rebels we might actually support (light green) and mixed our guys and jihadis (dark green).  Yes, that is right, we are hoping for the light green guys to take over the entire country.  This map also makes clear why Putin, though nominally fighting ISIS, is actually supporting Assad mostly against our guys.  The government-held areas do not border on the ISIS-held areas, so there is no direct war between then.  It is our guys getting it from both sides.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn't gone so well for our side.  The map on the right shows that ISIS has been growing, largely at the expense of mixed rebel territory, but also at the expense of government.  (See also this article with a map showing the change in control over time).  Not good!  But then again, let us not forget that the Syrian rebels aren't exactly nice guys either. They are rife with foreign jihadis, Al-Qaeda offshoots, and the like.  All right, you may say, granted Syria is a mess and our policy is incoherent, but after all Obama has been the one in charge, so why is anyone else to blame for the mess.  I would answer two reasons.  One is that his intervention was (to all appearances) against his better judgment, in response to pressure by our larger foreign policy establishment.

And if Obama's response has been inept, his rivals' have been just plain nuts.  Consider Hillary Clinton.  What is her response to the growing power of ISIS?  Why, to step up the war against Assad, of course, and to be more confrontational with Iran.  As this critic caustically put it:
[N]ot six days after ISIS slaughtered 130 people in Paris; a few more after it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt and blew up a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher measures against… wait for it… ISIS’s enemies in the Mideast. . . . . Does it need to be spelled out? For Hillary, the ISIS terror may be a sort of pretext to take the war to those whom Bibi Netanyahu considers his primary enemy, Iran, and Iran’s Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah.
Still, at least Hillary is not proposing to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Republicans are all for scrapping that and doing all they can to ramp up tensions with Iran.  Can we face facts?  Iran is a major enemy of ISIS.  By contrast, our dear friend Saudi Arabia is funding the madrassahs where Islamic militants are trained, backing fellow travelers even as they oppose ISIS, and enabling al-Qaeda in Yemen.  And we consider Iran and enemy and Saudi Arabia an ally why?  Maybe because because Iran has a nuclear program that could lead to an atomic bomb and Saudi Arabia does not? That makes some sense, but then why are so many people dead said against any sort of curb on Iran's nuclear program?

Look, I am the first to agree that there are no good guys in the Middle East, only bad guys and other bad guys.  When confronted with such a situation, there are two reasonable, coherent responses:

  1. Stay the hell out.  If bad guys fight other bad guys, why should we make it our problem?  OR
  2. Choose the lesser evil as a reluctant and limited ally.
Our foreign policy establishment, including Obama, but with others denouncing him for not being aggressive enough at it, has chosen exactly the opposite approach:
  1. Fight everyone at once and try to conquer all Mideastern actors on behalf of a handful of "good guys" who exist mostly in our imagination.  OR
  2. Choose the greater evil (Saudi Arabia and its cohorts) and back it for no apparent reason.
Obama basically seems to know that these latter two are not great ideas, but cannot resist the pressure to act on them.  The others are denouncing him for being "weak" in not carrying one of these policies even farther.  

So those are our apparent options in the Middle East -- incoherence, or insanity.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Incoherence in the Middle East: Blame Obama and the Whole Foreign Policy Establishment

To state the obvious, our Mideastern policy is completely incoherent.  Should I blame Obama?  Well, he is the President and is setting foreign policy, so obviously he is largely to blame.  But I would be more inclined to blame him exclusively or even primarily if his critics had coherent alternatives.  But their usual response is to be even less coherent.  All agree that the problem is that he his "weak" and we need someone to be "tougher" and provide more "leadership."  Unfortunately, their ideas of "toughness" and "leadership" make no sense whatever.

Complaints by his less sophisticated critics are easily dispensed with.  I outsource the job to this article:
Struck again by how cons approach foreign policy almost *entirely* based on what feels emotionally satisfactory. Not only do they neglect empirical analysis of what has happened & what might happen, but they condemn such analysis as weakness. hey condemn the effort to understand the parties & forces at play - the effort to understand *in & of iteself* - as weakness. They condemn Obama’s aversion to force even though O been bombing ISIS for months. Why? Because he’s not making them *feel* it. It’s not the actual bombing they want, it’s the martial rhetoric, the flag-filled chyrons, the Bush-with-a-megaphone feeling. They want him to say the right words, to call enemies the right names, to beat his chest, to show that America es mas macho. Whether war - the last one, the next one - "works" is neither hear nor there. It’s working if it’s making them *feel* the right way.
Yeah, basically.  Obama's political rivals or critics in the foreign policy establishment are to some degree just more sophisticated versions of the same.  Consider this LA Times Article on Putin's intervention and Kevin Drum's comments on it.  The article comments on Putin's boldness in intervening, the degree to which it has put Obama on the defensive, and how difficult it will be for Obama to respond, since every action he takes will look like a simple reaction to Putin.  Yet it admits that Putin (at the time) had launched 112 airstrikes, as opposed to 7,200 by the US and its allies.  Yet in the second-to-last paragraph, it adds, as a sort of afterthought:
But many analysts believe that neither Putin nor anyone else can wrest military victory from the bitter cauldron in Syria. And many expect Obama, who has made that argument since the conflict began in 2011, to continue to move cautiously.
So, Putin is extremely shrewd to walk into a military conflict that he has no actual prospect of winning, and we look like weaklings for holding back, so naturally we should plunge in as well.  Appearance is everything; outcome is nothing!  Of course, it is really hard to prevent a bad outcome from looking bad if it continues long enough.  I agree with Drum, "Maybe we should have started with that? Putin is essentially engaged in a PR campaign. Obama isn't taking the bait because he knows perfectly well it's a fool's errand."

But politicians and pundits are forced to be more coherent than low information voters in as least one detail; they are forced to come up with concrete and specific proposals.  So here, courtesy of NPR, is a table of what the candidates are proposing.

Well, there is a clear partisan difference here.  The Democrats want to admit Syrian refugees and oppose the phrase "radical Islam" while Republicans (except Bush and Cruz) want to exclude them and all want to use the phrase "radical Islam."  More depressingly, only Sanders and Cruz are willing to exclude the use of ground forces in Syria.  Not even Rand Paul is prepared to rule it out, although he appears to lean against it.  The other Democrats and Rubio want to limit ground forces to special ops (who are probably already there), while Fiorina is not prepared to send in ground troops "yet."  The other Republicans either endorse ground troops or lean toward them, except for Gilmore (who?).  Only Rand Paul, O'Malley and Sanders clearly reject a no-fly zone (which would greatly increase our risk of a direct confrontation with Russia), while Clinton, Rubio, Kasich, Fiorina, and Bush all endorse it.  Cruz is unclear but appears, once again, a voice of relative sanity.  Ted Cruz as the voice of sanity, now there is a disturbing thought!

One question not even asked is how the candidates stand on the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Most Republicans have vowed to reject it, although the current focus on ISIS makes it less likely that any will go so far as to start a war with Iran.

But these questions, while interesting and worthwhile, do not address a lot of fine points at stake, particularly the matter of alliances, who we should work with and against. It is on that topic in particular that Obama's critics are a whole lot less coherent than he is, and that topic that I mean to address next.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Bit of Insane Optimism

Any chance that the alarm surrounding Turkey shooting down a Russian plane might make our leaders think twice about a no-fly zone?  That raises our chances of shooting down a Russian plane? No?  Well, I can always dream.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hitler and Guns

All right, I may be a little late to the game commenting on Ben Carson's notorious remarks that Hitler came to power because Germans lacked the guns to stop them, or that the Holocaust succeeded because the Nazis took away the Jews' guns.  The action usually cited was a 1938 law requiring guns to be registered.  It is alleged that the Nazis, having a list of who owned guns, then confiscated them and proceeds to subjugate the now-helpless population and exterminate the now-helpless Jews. Many refutations have rained in, but a lot of them miss important underlying assumptions and simply reinforce the gun culture's conviction that firearms are necessary to resist tyranny.  Others comments, however, are significant, as are some that the refuters have missed altogether.

In particular, it is not useful to point out that strict gun control began under Weimar, with a ban on all private guns in 1919 as part of the disarmament under the Treaty of Versailles, or that firearms registration began under Weimar in 1928 when the complete ban on guns was relaxed.*  Gun advocates would simply see this as supporting their point.  They see a democratically elected government as simply the Nazis waiting to happen.  Many incorporate this into their narrative.  The innocent and well-meaning Weimar government registered all firearms.  Then the Nazis were elected and confiscated the guns, as a prelude to imposing a total dictatorship.  We must therefore keep guns legal and free from registration, because you never know when the Nazis might be elected here, seize them, and institute dictatorship, if no genocide.

Gun advocates may also point out, with some justification, that Weimar's anti-gun laws were not very effective.  The Weimar ban on guns did not prevent Freikorps (private paramilitaries) from flourishing, or Freikorps from doing battle with Communist revolutionaries, attempting a coup, or from terrorizing their opponents in Bavaria.  Clearly there is some truth to statement that when guns are outlawed, only outlaws carry guns.

But there are other ways in which events in Germany clearly go against the NRA's preferred narrative.  These should be stressed.  First of all, the alleged confiscation of guns did not happen -- except for Jews.  The 1938 statute relaxed firearms restrictions for others, but barred Jews from owning guns.  This is significant, but I will get to it later.

In the NRA outlook, it is assumed not only that democratically elective government is simply tyranny waiting to happen (Hitler came to power by election!), but that private paramilitaries outside the control of government are the natural defenders of liberty.  The whole history of Weimar calls this assumption into doubt.  Because if there was one problem the Weimar Republic did not have, it was a shortage of private paramilitaries.  There were paramilitaries everywhere, the Freikorps, the Communists, and other extremists.  But they were not champions of liberty against an oppressive government.  They were the threats to liberty, terrorizing and killing whoever opposed them.  I suppose today's militia types might acknowledge that not all private paramilitaries are necessarily good guys but that simply shows that good guys need guns so they can defend themselves against the bad guys.

That runs into a definite problem.  The good guys in Weimar did, in fact, form their own paramilitary in an attempt to counter the bad guys.  The "Weimar coalition" of parties that supported the Republic formed the Reichsbanner following the Beer Hall Putsch in an attempt to counter the paramilitaries that were attacking the Republic.  Its initial years were ones of relative quiet, but with the onset of the Great Depression and the growing power of the Nazis, its role in fighting their violence and intimidation grew.  More hard line members broke off and formed the Iron Front to fight the Nazis. But these groups ultimately did not prove and effective counter-force, and when the Nazis came to power, the "good guy" paramilitaries were easily suppressed.

And no, this is not because Weimar gun control measures disarmed the good guy militias while leaving the bad guys untouched.  It was for two main reasons, both rather embarrassing to hardcore Second Amendment fans.

First off, people who genuinely respect democratic norms and the rights of others don't want to contest power through paramilitaries.  They want to contest power through the orderly democratic process.  Militias shooting it out on the streets are an immistakable rejection of the democratic process.  (And it is a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse that anyone even needs to point out this obvious fact).  Well, so what, NRA types may say.  When the bad guys have guns and start shooting, do good guys want to be helpless before them?  Bad guy paramilitaries can't be wished away, after all; they must be confronted by force.  But this misses the point.  When the state of a country's politics reach the point of good guy paramilitaries and bad guy paramilitaries shooting it out in the streets, liberty is already lost.  What is left is not liberty at all, but the law of the jungle, which is freedom only for people at the top of the food chain.

And second in a direct confrontation between paramilitary and regular military, the paramilitary doesn't have a chance.  Because this didn't just apply to "good guy" paramilitaries.  It applied to bad guy paramilitaries as well.  Most famously, consider the Beer Hall Putsch.  Hitler's paramilitary marched.  The army fired.  The paramilitary scattered, and the revolt was over.  A crackdown ensued. It persuaded Hitler not to attempt violent revolution again, but to seek power through the electoral process.  And, as with the Ku Klux Klan, the only successful paramilitary revolt in our own history, the point is not moral, but tactical.  Our own militia movement need not have anything morally in common with the Nazis to learn some tactical lessons from them.  Or consider Hitler's Stormtroopers or SA.  They were his paramilitary that terrorized opponents.  They numbered three million, versus the small 100,000 man army.  They were armed.  Many were WWI veterans.  Yet when Hitler allowed the army to crack down on the SA, they went down without a fight.  Others have commented that many people in occupied countries did offer armed resistance, to little avail.  As for Jews, they made up about 1% of the German population.  Armed resistance would certainly have been easily defeated.  The much-admired Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not even slow down the Holocaust.

And all of this raises yet a third point.  The Jews were so few as to make armed resistance hopeless. Some people move this question to the German people in general and say that the German people were not able to resist the Nazis because they were disarmed.  But the real reason the Nazis did not meet with resistance was that they were generally popular.  Insurrectionist types tend to assume that their fantasied armed rebellion will the by The People (good guys) against The Government (bad guys), and that the people will all agree when the time for revolution is ripe and be able to act with unity.  But the simple fact is that no domestic government can endure without the support of at least a significant minority of the population.  The glorious uprising will invariably take the form, not of the People against the Government, but of the people against each other.

And this means some uncomfortable things.  Given that (1) paramilitaries are no match for regular militaries and (2) a significant sub-section of the population will support the government, this means that armed rebellion by a private paramilitary will have to start out hitting soft targets, i.e. terrorizing government supporters.  That is precisely what Hitler's paramilitary did, and quite successfully.  It was only when they took on the armed forces directly (and prematurely) that they were crushed.  This is the pattern any revolt by irregular forces will have to take.  It ain't pretty.

Note that I qualify this statement by saying that it refers to domestic governments.  A foreign occupation is a different matter.**  A foreign occupation may very well rest on brute force alone and not have the support of even a significant minority of the population.  But even the worst occupation will have collaborators, and an irregular resistance will have to start out by targeting them. Furthermore, there is the tendency of revolutions to devour their children.  People who fully agree in hating the government in power my bitterly disagree on what is to replace it.  And once people get in the habit of resolving disputes by violence, it can be hard to break.  The same applies even to resistance movements fighting a foreign occupier.  Certainly in WWII, resistance movements were severely divided between pro- and anti-Communist forces.  In Yugoslavia and Greece, where resistance forces managed an effective guerrilla warfare, the forces of the resistance fought each other as much as they fought the Germans, and civil war co-existed with resistance.  The opposite side won in these respective countries, but neither were nice guys or champions of liberty.

All of which is a way of saying that the theory that private paramilitaries are the natural champions of justice and the final defense against oppressive government falls apart as soon as one learns anything about actual, real-world paramilitaries.  So it often is when beautiful theories are brought face-to-face with ugly facts.

*The 1938 registration law actually relaxed firearms restrictions for non-Jews even further.
**A government of collaborators installed and supported by an occupying force is an intermediate category.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Another Comment on Health Insurance

Besides the dropout of an important insurer, one huge complaint about Obamacare is that the policies it offers are not very good.  The deductibles are so high that they offer nothing for ordinary healthcare but only serious illness.  Certainly that has been my experience with my own policy.  Although somewhat overlooked, this has been a common complaint about health insurance policies even before Obamacare, but the general trend does seem to be toward higher deductibles.

Nonetheless, even with the deductibles I think insurance policies have advantages for the simple reason that it is expensive to be uninsured.  Insurance companies are able to use their monopsony power to get providers to accept lower payments from them than they do from the uninsured.  Even if your insurance does not cover a service, people who have it benefit from the lower reduction offered insurance companies.  Sometimes the amounts are quite large.  The other reason being uninsured is expensive is that many providers require the uninsured to pay the full price up front before seeing them.  If you have insurance, they require only a copay up front.  Granted, if the service later turns out to be within the deductible, you get billed for it later on.  But, besides the reduced price providers offer to insurance companies, you have at least the option of paying in installments instead of all at once.

Of course, all this will probably be less than the premium price.  Indeed, insurance companies make their money by collecting more in premiums than they pay out to claimants.  Specifically, health insurers make more by collecting more premiums from the well than they pay out on behalf of the sick.  And that basic model will apply, Obamacare or no Obamacare.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bad News for Obamacare

Uh-oh.  This latest is not from Republicans eager to see Obamacare fail, but from Sarah Kliff, a serious healthcare wonk who wants to see it succeed.  Apparently UnitedHealth may withdraw from the exchanges next year, saying they are not profitable.  In most states, it is not that big a deal, but in New York and Nevada, UnitedHealth is a major player and its withdrawal would be disastrous.

But the issue is bigger than UnitedHealth. The question is whether it is simply the first of many to withdraw from the exchanges.  Certainly I know that in my own state of New Mexico, Blue Cross Blue Shield is withdrawing from the exchanges when the regulators would not allow it to make the large rate increases it wanted.  This is not a good sign.  It may herald the "death spiral" that Democrats fear and Republicans eagerly hope for.

Of course, if the exchanges do start to fail, that will pose a problem for Republicans as well.  If the exchanges begin to seriously malfunction, the pressure will be on to do something about them. Responding to serious problems on the exchanges where many people buy their health insurance by shutting them down altogether and replacing them with nothing will not be a popular action.

The rubber may hit the road for repeal and replace.

Some Hills are Not Worth Dying On

So, it would appear that Republicans have found a new issue to threaten a government shutdown -- Syria refugees.  Not cutting them off altogether, not even changing the substance of the vetting process, just making it slower and more cumbersome.

This shows something significant, I think.  It shows that really the issue triggering the government shutdown is secondary.  What the Republicans really want is to have such a showdown, and to win it.

And on this one they probably will.  The author of the article stresses that Republicans could win this one because this time Republicans are united Democrats are not, but ignores the underlying reason why that is so.  The reason that in other shutdowns Democrats stayed united and Republicans split was that the issue leading to the shutdown was unpopular on the substance.  Shutting down the government to voucherize Medicare or cut Social Security or shut down Obamacare after people use it to get health insurance is going to be unpopular.  The public sides with the President and blames Congress for the showdown/shutdown not just because these things are structured in the President's favor, but because they agree with him on the underlying issue.  On other issues, Obama could say, "The Republicans are shutting down the government because they want to cut Social Security/take away people's health insurance."  The Republicans had a hard time blaming Obama because most people did not support what they wanted to achieve.

This time, Republicans can say, "Obama is shutting down the government to force us to take in a bunch of Arab refugees without properly vetting them."  Obama will have a hard time blaming the Republicans because most people will not agree with him on this.

Furthermore, Obama will do his brand serious harm if he goes to the mats on this.  The author of the article says that Democrats voting against this bill risk being labeled as "soft on terror" in the next election.  But if there is one thing the Obama Administration has proved, it is that how a Democrat votes does not matter.  If the President proposed something unpopular (nationally or locally) and a member of his party votes against, they will not get any credit for that vote.  As members of the President's party they will be tarred with whatever the President favors.

In the meantime, the Republican demands are fairly modest.  They will clog the admission process but not stop it.  The harm to refugee admissions is not that great.  The harm to the Democratic brand is immense.  My advice to Obama is to cave and agree to sign the bill.

Of course, once Obama agrees to something, it automatically becomes poison to Republicans.  What they want is not any particular concession.  They want to win a loud public showdown and make clear to the base that the concessions were forced over on Obama against his maximal resistance. Concede on this and they will simply ask for more.  My answer to that is fine, let them.  Keep conceding and conceding and conceding until the Republicans are forced to make unpopular demands.  Then hold the line and force the showdown.  Why, if you are lucky, you may force the Republicans to overreach all the way into conceding on the refugees as well.