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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

Original article:

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.

And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.

Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

Awakening–an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something. Awakening is the word used to describe the coming together of disparate Sunni tribes and U.S. coalition forces to fight and defeat al Qeada in Iraq–the “Sunni Awakening”.

But there was another “awakening” for these factions–a rude awakening. After doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, these Sunni factions were largely shut-out of the political reunification of Iraq. This was not only unjust, it contributed to the government ineptitude and subsequent power-vacuum that has helped fuel ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq.

There is a parallel in the fights against ISIS and Assad. This time, the YPG and PKK Kurdish forces are playing the front-line role. Furthermore, the Kurds are far more ideologically aligned with “Western values” than the Sunni Awakening tribes ever were.

My first thought when I heard Turkey was stepping up its fight against ISIS was “about time”. But my enthusiasm was quickly tempered as it became clear that Turkey’s plan is more about fighting the PKK and Turkish politics than the fights against ISIS and Assad. Turkey has the capacity to play a very important role in the fights against Assad and ISIL–this plan does not fulfill that role, and will likely be a net-negative.

The Kurdish pesh merga is a capable military with boots on the ground. Kurdish political leadership is stable and able to balance security and human rights better than any Middle-Eastern government aside from Turkey, Israel, and Tunisia. For a fraction of the financial and moral support sunk into failed ME regimes, Kurdistan could probably now be a fully functioning democratic state by now–I reiterate my support for an independent Kurdistan (although not on Turkish land, but in parts of Syria and Iraq).

For its part, Kurdish political leadership must denounce terrorist attacks against the Turkish government, and distance itself from any radical elements of their parties. Such terrorist attacks are counter productive–they cost the Kurdish statehood movement public support (which is a necessary element for ever becoming an internationally recognized state) and provide Turkey with legitimate reasons to attack Kurdish positions.

The Kurds should also expand their security mandate from solidifying their borders, to actively engaging and degrading ISIL. Backed by coalition airstrikes, boots on the ground are exactly what the fight against ISIL is most lacking. Despite war at it’s front door, Turkey will still not provide ground troops. The Kurds can use this cowardly position to their advantage, juxtaposing the importance of its ground troops against moderately useful Turkish air bases (yes they allow coalition airstrikes to get to positions faster, but without boots on the ground acting in concert with these airstrikes, they are largely ineffective in the fight against ISIL).

If the Turks want to stay out of the fight against ISIL and Assad, that is its prerogative as a sovereign nation. But the U.S. government and NATO should not sanction Turkey using this fight as a cover to degrade the one capable force on the ground fighting both ISIL and Assad. There is no longer a moderate Syrian opposition without the pesh merga. We should heed the lessons of abandoning our front-line allies after they have done “the dirty work” of war. The Kurds will not remain our allies if we abandon them at the first hint of Turkish intervention in the fight against ISIL.

(Update: In a further blow to the moderate Syrian rebels who figure so prominently in Turkey’s plan to fight ISIS and Assad, the leader of the only U.S. vetted force, Nadeem Hassan, was kidnapped along with 6 other rebels. This puts the number of vetted moderate Syrian rebels somewhere between 53 and 47, a reasonably large college lecture class, but not an army capable of fighting ISIS or Assad, regardless of the level of aerial support.)

Assad and ISIL cannot last indefinitely. The question is what morning-after do we want the Kurdish people to awaken to? The one where we stood by them as partners? Or the one where we gave the thumbs up for Turkey to bomb them after months of doing the world’s dirty work fighting ISIL? 

The Obama administration misplayed its hands in Syria and Egypt. Over time, what began as legitimate democratic movements became exactly what the Assad and Sisi wanted–a fight between “strong men” and radical extremists. We cannot let Kurdistan, a budding “Island of Decency” (in the words of Thomas Friedman), become another example of a failed democratic movement in the Middle East.

Some countries are truly not ripe for democratic modernization–it is a process. Failure to realize this can lead to costly wars and greater instability than before said interventions started. This is not to say the international community cannot or should not use it’s intelligence and resources to identify and support the civil elements within a country that are laying the socioeconomic and ideological groundwork for future democratic movements–we should. But we must be realistic when considering our willingness to dedicate resources and our partners capacities when determining whether direct intervention is a pragmatic decision; moving too fast is as bad as not moving at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, failure to support movements that have the capacity to solidify universal aspirations of freedom into sustainable political infrastructure and government administration–such as Kurdish leadership–should not be an option either. Not only does this go against “Western values”, it is geopolitically short-sighted. Furthermore, continuing to make this mistake makes the “democracy cannot exist in the middle east” narrative self-fulfilling.

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The Greek Bailout Deal Is A Failure of Leadership in Both Greece and Germany

Kick-The-Can2

The terms of the 3rd bailout deal between Greece and its creditors brought a lot of issues to the forefront.

Silly me for thinking negotiations had to with economics–modernizing the Greek economy by enacting needed structural reforms, while providing the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to promote growth and address it’s pressing humanitarian crisis (which said structural reforms would only exacerbate in the short run). Instead, the defining elements of the deal were related to personality and politics.

The Germans were mad at the Greeks, so much so that German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said perhaps Greece might be better off leaving the Euro–this short-sighted self interest is not suitable behavior for Europe’s de facto leader. Tsipras’s government, for it’s part, apparently did not have a backup plan in case it’s creditors failed to offer a reasonable deal. I know Syriza is new to politics, but you don’t have to be a master negotiator to know that going into negotiations without a backup plan is a flawed strategy.

I was a fan of Tsipras’s government because of the interim agreement it secured in February–the potential for trading structural reforms for fiscal space. But since that point it terribly misplayed its hand. It went into negotiations without a backup plan. It held a referendum at least a month too late–the overwhelming “no” vote would have been a strong bargaining chip had Greece been able to take it back to the negotiating table while still covered under the terms of its prior bailout.

But once those terms expired, and Greek banks closed, the only choices for Greece were Grexit or capitulation. Since there was no plan in place for a Grexit, Greece ended up with the terrible deal it got. That deal–as it currently stands–fails in all regards: financial sustainability, growth prospects, and short term humanitarian concerns.

Not Financially Viable:

The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

A new rescue program for Greece “would have to meet our criteria,” a senior I.M.F. official told reporters on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “One of those criteria is debt sustainability.”

The I.M.F. is now firmly siding with Greece on the issue. In a reportreleased publicly on Tuesday, the fund proposed that creditors let Athens write off part of its huge eurozone debt or at least make no payments for 30 years.

The I.M.F. said in its report that a write-down could be avoided, but only if creditors extended the schedule for Greece to repay its debt. The only other alternative to a haircut would be for the eurozone countries to give Greece the money it needs to repay them.

“The choice between the various options is for Greece and its European partners to decide,” the I.M.F. report said.

Greece would need to spend a sum equal to more than 15 percent of G.D.P. annually to pay interest and principal on its debt, according to the latest I.M.F. report.

Does Not Fulfill Greek’s Human Rights:

The implementation of new austerity measures in Greece amid the country’s deteriorating economic crisis must not come at a cost to human rights, a United Nations expert warned today as he urged international institutions and the Greek Government to make “fully informed decisions” before adopting additional reforms.

“I am seriously concerned about voices saying that Greece is in a humanitarian crisis with shortages in medicines and food,” Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, stressed in a press statement today. “Priority should be to ensure that everybody in Greece has access to core minimum levels of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health care, food and social security.”

“A debt service burden that may be sustainable from a narrow financial perspective may not be viable at all if one considers the comprehensive concept of sustainable development, which includes the protection of the environment, human rights and social development,” he added.

And of course, as the IMF report highlights, the deal is not even “sustainable from a narrow financial perspective”.

Kicking the Can or Letting Heads Cool?

If Greece’s creditors, led by Germany, ultimately want to see Greece stay in the Eurozone (for the long run), a friendlier deal is needed. If a “Grexit”, with its short term pain but long term possibilities to return Greece to economic health, is indeed in Greece’s best option given what it’s creditors are willing to offer, why not take that tough medicine and let the healing start? The current deal represents the worst of both worlds–economic pain now and a likely Grexit in the future.

The one positive of this deal is that it did buy time, which should not be undervalued as “Grexit” would be permanent and have terrible geopolitical consequences. But  without stimulus (there are talks of a 35 billion euro stimulus fund by 2020 if reforms are fully implemented, but this may be too little too late) and debt restructuring (which cannot be ruled out, but also cannot be counted on), the deal is little more than kicking the can down the road–all while the Greek people continue to suffer.

Greece’s creditors cannot keep dangling future carrots while imposing fiscal restraints which hurt Greece’s already beleaguered citizenry in the here and now. Aid must be synced with structural reforms, or else the Greeks will see their situation go from terrible to worse and reject the terms of this 3rd bailout. 

Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Greece has tried to implement reforms in order to unlock future aid before, and we see where that got it--a severely contracted economy, depression level unemployment rates, and costly political instability. 

This is not the time for more business as usual; this is the time for bold action and trust between Greece and it’s creditors. Unfortunately nothing about the past few months of negotiations suggest this is outcome will be realized.

 


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Economic Outlook: The “Neighborhood Effect” on Social Mobility

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The 2014 Education Choice and Competition Index Map

The “Neighborhood Effect” on Personal Development:

In a recent blog, we examined Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s study on the “Neighborhood Effect” on social mobility–how where a child grows up impacts the life he or she comes to live. The neighborhood one grows up in affects ones prospects later in life primarily in two ways:

1) Experiences: The people one meets and interacts with outside of family (friends, role-models, mentors, etc.). I would like to highlight President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative–which matches underprivileged minority youths with positive role-models–as a powerful tool in promoting social mobility.

2) Quality of schools and other public services: These institutions enable children to pursue interests that keep them “off the streets”, and if cultivated can lead to very marketable skills. Good public schooling and extracurricular programs are important for everyone, but even more so for lower-income children, whose families otherwise likely could not provide such opportunities.

The neighborhood one grows up in can either mitigate or exacerbate the affect a person’s family has on their personal development; a “good” neighborhood will benefit a child, while a “bad” neighborhood (we will use median income as a proxy) can hinder them. The combination of “bad” parenting and a “bad” neighborhood can create a nearly inescapable poverty trap; just because there are one-in-a-million stories of rags-to-riches with no help doesn’t mean we should accept leaving the vast majority of poor minority youths behind.   

Unfortunately, the data shows that–even holding income constant–minority families tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than their white and Asian-American counterparts. The findings are especially notable because they come shortly after a separate research project, by two Harvard economists, that we’ve covered in detail at The Upshot. That project has tracked several million children since the 1980s to analyze how the area where they grew up affected their lives. Children who grew up in better neighborhoods — which tended to have less poverty, less crime, more two-parent families and schools with higher test scores — fared much better as adults than otherwise similar children from worse neighborhoods.

The new paper, being published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, suggests that these neighborhood effects are helping to widen racial disparities, including disparities in upward mobility.

Consider these numbers: A typical black child living in a household with $100,000 in annual income lives in a neighborhood with a median income of $54,400. And a black child in a household making $50,000 typically lives in a neighborhood with a median income of $42,200.

White and Asian children are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where median income is similar to — or higher than — that of their own family. Latino children fall in the middle, less likely than white and Asian children to live in middle-class or affluent neighborhoods but more likely than black children to do so.

Of course, the neighborhood gap arises in part from voluntary choices. Many Americans, of all races, prefer to live among people who are similar to them, note Mr. Reardon and his colleagues Lindsay Fox and Joseph Townsend. For African-Americans, such a choice often means living in lower-income areas, given the racial disparity in incomes.

Taken together, the research shows that neighborhoods matter enormously to a child’s life chances — and play a big role in the nation’s racial inequalities. Some of the gaps will persist as long as the white-black income gap does. But some of the problems are more easily addressed through housing policy.

Housing developments that allow low-income families to move into higher-income neighborhoods appear to be a cost-effective antipoverty strategy. Vouchers that help lower-income families move into better neighborhoods may be even more so.

The fact that the neighborhood gap arises partially from choice cannot be ignored. And as the article points out, incomes are not the only consideration when choosing where to live. Wealth also matters–in America White people’s median wealth is much greater than their Latino and Black counterparts.

Whatever the reason, financial or social, minority families tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, perpetuating racial economic disparities across generations.

Desegregating America: Rethinking The Fair Housing Act and Promoting School Choice

Lost in the mix of two landmark Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage and healthcare subsidies, the Supreme Court recently made an important ruling with regards to federal housing policy that could help chip away at racial isolation:

The Supreme Court on Thursday endorsed a broad interpretation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, allowing suits under a legal theory that civil rights groups say is a crucial tool to fight housing discrimination. “Much progress remains to be made in our nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling. “The court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the nation toward a more integrated society.” The question in the case was whether plaintiffs suing under the housing law must prove intentional discrimination or merely that the challenged practice had produced a “disparate impact.” Drawing on decisions concerning other kinds of discrimination, Justice Kennedy said the housing law allowed suits relying on both kinds of evidence.

The first kind of proof can be hard to come by, as agencies and businesses seldom announce that they are engaging in purposeful discrimination. “Disparate impact,” on the other hand, can be proved using statistics.

The latest case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, No. 13-1371, was brought by a Texas group that favors integrated housing. The group helps its clients, who are mostly lower-income black families, find housing in the Dallas suburbs, which are mostly white.

The families use housing vouchers, but not all landlords accept them. Landlords receiving federal low-income tax credits, however, are required to accept the vouchers.

The fair housing group argued that state officials had violated the Fair Housing Act by giving a disproportionate share of the tax credits to landlords in minority neighborhoods.

The Supreme Court returned the case to the lower court for further proceedings, cautioning that allowing disparate-impact suits did not mean that they should always succeed. Indeed, Justice Kennedy expressed concern about “abusive disparate-impact claims” and suggested that the case before the court would face headwinds.

Not surprisingly, racially segregated neighborhoods have led to racially segregated schools, an issue brought up by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. While a broad interpretation of the Fair Housing Act enables communities to chip away at the neighborhood gap, all levels of government should also promote efforts to desegregate schools through policies that enable greater choice in schooling:

School districts across America are transitioning from the traditional model of assigning students to a school based on their residential address to a system that allows families a choice of schools. Depending on the district, families can choose public charter schools, affordable private schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, and regular public schools in which enrollment is based on parental preference rather than zip code.  Districts differ in which of these options is available, the ease with which parents can exercise the choices available to them, and the degree to which the choice system results in greater access to quality schools.

Like a child’s parents, the neighborhood he or she grows up in is outside his or her control. The purpose of social mobility policies should be to ensure that children that “lose” the “parenting / neighborhood lotteries” still realize some developmental floor, enabling them to realize their full potential.

Making children pay for the questionable choices of their parents is not only socially unjust, it is economically shortsighted. 

The First Step Towards Recovery is Admitting There is a Problem:

In the wake of the recent massacre at the Charleston S.C. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, there has been a lot of soul-searching amongst Americans. The question on many peoples minds’ being “is America a post-racial country?”–it would appear not. Taking down Confederate flags, while itself a positive step, can have at best a marginal impact on race relations.

The best way to overcome racial divisions is to have people of different races interact with one another. This puts a human face to stereotypes, and exposes the false anecdotes on which they are based (SPOILER: every culture and race has industrious, innovative, good people, as well as lazy, stupid, evil people–it is not a racial thing).

Integration efforts have their greatest impact at a young age, when people’s world views are being formed, another reason why primary school integration is such an important avenue for overcoming racial divides. I know this from first hand experience–attending public schools K-12 with classmates from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds undoubtedly impacted my personal beliefs. This highlights another important point–desegregating neighborhoods and schools is not only beneficial to low income people, it benefits the children of current wealthier residents as well.

The ability to interact with people of diverse backgrounds will only become more important as globalization continues to make the world “smaller”. Children who are not exposed to different types of people will find themselves shut out of many opportunities in the global economy.

The SCOTUS Fair Housing Act decision and expanding school choice are important policy tools in the fight to promote equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility, while also addressing the very real remnants of America’s lingering racially charged history.

This multi-pronged approach, utilizing both affordable housing policy and school choice policies, are also the cornerstones of Raj Chetty’s policy mix for addressing social mobility–I fully support this prescribed policy mix as an important piece of the social mobility puzzle. “My Brother’s Keeper” type mentor programs are another important tool.

Of course there are other “poverty traps” (which tend to disproportionately affect racial minorities), many of which I have discussed in past blogs, such as the America’s current criminal justice system and predatory payday loans. Addressing each of these poverty traps requires its own nuanced policy mix.

Update (7/9): The Obama administration today announced stricter plans for holding localities accountable for how they dispense federal low income housing credits:

The Obama administration announced an aggressive effort on Wednesday to reduce the racial segregation of residential neighborhoods. It unveiled a new requirement that cities and localities account for how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities, or face penalties if they fail.

“This rule makes it clear that the fair housing obligation isn’t just being able to say, ‘I didn’t discriminate,’ ” Mr. Breymaier said. “It’s also saying, ‘I’m doing something proactively to promote an integrated or inclusive community.’ ”

Ed Gramlich, a senior adviser at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, cautioned that change was likely to come slowly. Local governments that receive federal funding are required to draw up plans once every five years. For some jurisdictions, the new rules may not need to be addressed until 2020.

Still, he described the new requirement as “tremendous.” Until now, he said, local governments have basically had the freedom to decide for themselves whether they were complying with the 1968 law.

“Jurisdictions would say, ‘We put up a fair housing poster during Fair Housing Month,’ and that was it,” he said. “The whole concept was unenforceable and therefore meaningless.”