Friday, July 25, 2014

'We're not quite yet to where we need to be'

The president of the United States, speaking at a fund-raiser (what else?) earlier this week:

"And yet, despite all this, people are anxious.  Now, some of that has to do with some big challenges overseas.  I am very proud that we have ended one war, and by the end of this year we will have ended both wars that I inherited before I came into office.  (Applause.)  But whether people see what’s happening in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors in the manner in which it’s financing and arming separatists; to what’s happened in Syria -- the devastation that Assad has wrought on his own people; to the failure in Iraq for Sunni and Shia and Kurd to compromise --although we’re trying to see if we can put together a government that actually can function; to ongoing terrorist threats; to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza -- part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

'For a long time I went to bed early'

One of my obsessions (I have many, but most of them are harmless) is A la recherche du temps perdu, the greatest novel of all time. I read the old Scott Moncrieff translations twice, the second time aloud to Sally. Then I read the "Penguin Proust" as translated by six authors in three countries. Then I read the Improved Scott Moncrieff from Modern Library. And now I see that I am in for another bout! Yale University Press has released Swann's Way, edited and annotated by the Proust scholar William Carter, and promises a volume to follow every year.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Gray Lady blinks

I love the New York Times online, because it covers the world in a single page--and also because of the occasional unintended hilarity of its editorials and op-eds. (I generally only read the front-page précis, to stay under the limit for freeloaders.) Today's lead editorial is priceless:

It is time to hold President Vladimir Putin to his words of support in getting to the bottom of the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
It's time? Really, it's time?

And who in this administration is going to get tough with Mr. Putin? John Kerry, I suppose, the man who was defeated when he ran for president but who now seems to be the only president we've got when it comes to dealing with the outside world.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What a world without a policeman looks like

"America is not the world's policeman," said Barack Obama last year, closing out a sixty-year run when America served just that role, from Harry Truman in Berlin to George Dubya in Baghdad. On Friday, we saw what a world without a policeman looks like, with Dutch and other bodies scattered across the soil of eastern Ukraine. The immediate cause was probably the so-called "separatists" who followed Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea by occupying government buildings and declaring a People's Republic.

But the necessary cause was their lawless inspiration in the Kremlin. If Vladimir Putin hadn't invaded Crimea, none of this would have happened. If Putin hadn't destabilized Ukraine by sending mercenaries, military equipment, and special operatives into the country, none of this would have happened. And this is true even if the surface-to-air missile that brought down the Malaysian airliner turns out to be a Soviet-era SAM captured from the Ukrainian army, as the separatists boasted last month but now deny.

And behind Putin sits the Nobel Prize winner who declared that the United States no longer carries a badge. The result was predictable: we live in the most dangerous world since the late 1970s, and arguably since August 1945.

'Why are we talking about Harry Truman?'

Peggy Noonan, who writes a "Declarations" blog / op-ed for the Wall Street Journal every Saturday, is always interesting and sometimes marvelous. This Saturday's essay (WSJ kindly posts them on Friday) is one of the marvelous ones:

After explaining that Mr Truman left office dead broke -- actually dead broke, except for an Army pension of $112 a month; he took out a bank loan to get himself home to Missouri -- Noonan sweetly says:

"Why are we talking about Harry Truman? You know."
Yes! We know!

American presidents in the 21st Century aren't humble, decent people. If they aren't rich to begin with, they become rich in the act of being president, like any self-enriching "president" of any third-world kleptocracy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

'Nice bank ya got there. Be a pity if anything should happen to it.'

No wonder American corporations are fleeing the country as fast as they can buy an Irish competitor. The Obama administration has just extorted $7 billion -- billion! -- from Citibank for some misfeasance that has never really been charged, let alone proven. Basically, Citi is just ponying up the money to make the Feds go away.

This Godfather style of financing the federal government began when Mr Obama announced that BP should put $10 billion -- billion! -- into a pot from which shrimp fisherman and brothel keepers could claim recompense for business lost the big blowout of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The US Constitution explicitly forbids the government from enacting a bill of attainder, or legislated punishment, but here was a bill that wasn't even legislated! It was just announced from the presidential podium.

Ever since, Mr Obama's Justice Department has been ginning up legal actions against American corporations, then settling for some figure between one and ten billion dollars -- billion! The victims pay up to avoid the cost of defending themselves in court, and also of course to avoid a hit to their reputations. This is, after all, a president who routinely uses the bully pulpit to demonize his opponents, from the justices of the US Supreme Court to the Koch Brothers. Not since the Nixon administration have we seen such nastiness from the White House -- and Mr Nixon usually left the character assassination to his vice president.

This is no longer a nation of laws, but a nation of Executive Department fiats. And we have two and one-half years to go before a saner administration can take its place.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Ukraine advances

No thanks to the United States, NATO, or western European heads of government, the Ukrainian army actually seems to be cleaning the clock of Putin's surrogates in eastern Ukraine. To be sure, some of this is being done by ad hoc militaries financed by "oligarchs," in a manner reminiscent of the messy wars of the 1920s in the same part of the world. But still! With no American help but a long-ago shipment of Meals Ready to Eat, the government in Kiev seems to have reconstituted an army in a matter of weeks, and that army is actually fighting. Kiev now claims to have gained control of its border with Russia, so as to stop or anyhow slow the influx of mercenaries, war materiel, and probably Russian special forces operatives.

Still, even the best outcome will have been a victory for Vladimir Putin in his attempt to recreate the Russian Empire that was lost in 1917 (and again in 1991!). Nobody in Washington, Brussels, or Berlin is now going to invest any of the west's much-diminished moral force in trying to get the Russians out of Crimea. That train has left the station, and probably even the government in Kiev will be willing to let Crimea go, rather than risk further confrontation with the bully in the Kremlin.

Then too, Putin has succeeded in destabilizing and radicalizing a good chunk of the country. Civil wars always radicalize the population. From now on, Kiev will live in fear of what the Russian bear can do, and the same is true of other countries (Estonia being a prime example) unfortunate enough to share a frontier with Russian, and to contain large numbers of people who not only claim Russian as their mother tongue, but hold Russian passports. The mere threat of proximity is what enabled the Soviet Union to control the foreign policy of Finland for the better part of half a century, 1940-1990.

And in a wider sense, Putin has the rest of Europe by the short hairs. NATO famously was formed to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." Well, the Germans are no longer down, and the Americans under Barack Obama are no longer in, so what's to keep the Russians out as long as they are the ones providing natural gas to western Europe?