Normative Narratives


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Bizarro Egypt

Egypt has actually turned into Bizarro World–the country is literally upside down. I swear you can’t write this stuff, or maybe you can… either way, I can’t. But I can analyze whats going on with some clarity and insight:

  • The first democratically elected President in Egyptian history is in jail for crimes against the regime of popularly toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
  • At the same time, it appears said toppled autocrat is said to soon be released from jail (cases are heard by a judiciary that is largely still intact from Mubarak’s days in power)
  • The Egyptian government has shut down all national media outlets sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, while stepping up anti-Brotherhood rhetoric and propoganda.
  • At the same time, General Sisi lashed out at foreign media outlets for not evenly portraying both sides of the story; essentially for not recognizing the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Does Sisi actually thinks he can control what independent international media outlets report?
  • Sisi also insists he has a “mandate from the people” to provide security from “terrorists”. No mandate can give the authority to kill innocent people with impunity. Democracy is about indiscriminately upholding and protecting the rights of everyone, not only certain groups.
  • Far from trying to justify the killings, and offer any sort of olive branch or iota of accountability, the Egyptian government has commended itself for using “a huge amount of self-restraint and self-control.” Who exactly are they trying to convince, the international community, Egyptian civil society, or themselves?
  • The United States decides not to suspend aid to the Egyptian military, despite the insurmountable evidence that what has transpired in Egypt since July 3rd was a coup. The official U.S. ruling on whether or not the Morsi ouster was a coup: “it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Way to really lead by example there America!
  • It now appears that the U.S. and the E.U. are finally going to review their ties with the current Egyptian government–a little bit late but still good news. The first official move against the Egyptian government, the U.S cancelled joint military exercises–also a good move.
  • The next move makes no sense; the U.S. plans to pull the plug on $250 million in government aid, while leaving $1.3 billion in military aid in tact. In other words, aid that could give the U.S. some leverage in the Egyptian political arena, or for economic development projects that would benefit all Egyptians, is being cut. At the same time, we will continue to supply the Egyptian military with hundreds of millions of dollars in firepower, because you know killing all those “terrorists” won’t be easy…

Egypt and the Middle East in general are at a crossroads. Both the U.S. and the E.U. are currently reviewing their relationship with the Egyptian government, so it is likely we will have a clearer picture of their respective stances soon. Should Egypt deteriorate into civil war, it will be interesting to see if there is another U.N.S.C. showdown between “Western Powers” and China and Russia along the lines of the current Syria impasse.

I have read articles saying this is not the time for Democracy in Egypt or the Middle-East, that we should set our sights lower and hope for stable governments. While these articles make goods points and tend to be well written, I refuse the believe this is true. I am of the belief that the majority of all parties and factions in Egypt want the same thing; security, health, family, an opportunity to realize their full potential and a better future for their children. 

Not to get to abstract or philosophical, but the future is yet unwritten; if we set our sights low, then we will never know if we could have done better. Much of the groundwork for realizing the normative goals of the Arab Spring is still as ripe as it will be for some time. Old autocracies have been broken (although the inability for democracy to fill the power void has created opportunities for a return to autocratic rule that vested interests–who tend to be opportunistic by nature–will fight for tooth and nail, bullet and rocket). People have never been as empowered as they are today, thanks to innovations in ICT, social media, and the unprecedented recognition of human rights as the key to sustainable human development by the international community.

The international community can no longer turn a blind eye or claim ignorance, not in 2013. The world is getting smaller, and global action or inaction affects all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. By turning a blind eye to Sisi’s gross human rights violations and abandoning the goal of pluralistic democracy in the ME, we would essentially be putting a band-aid on a festering infected gash. Surely the international community can help the Egyptian people come up with a better and more sustainable solution than that.

We cannot let determined spoilers derail this goal, or “put it off for a few decades”; this is not an acceptable solution and will lead only to another round of autocracies in the Middle-East. This would only serve to further cement the ideas that only autocracies can survive in the ME / democracy cannot exist in the ME, that Political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that Jihad is the way for young Muslims).

The goals of the Arab spring have not been fully met–anybody who thought establishing effective democracies in the ME could be achieved quickly, linearly, or peacefully was fooling themselves. But we cannot abandon those goals; if we do because the global champions of human rights / democracy think they cannot afford to help, or that the time is not right due to regional security concerns, the opportunity may not arise again for decades.

On a personal note, as a progressive Jew from NY, I never would have thought that I would be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood…a coup, a series of massacres, and gross human rights violations make for strange bed-fellows no?

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Conflict Watch: Austerity v. Human Rights

Original article:

“Austerity cuts in Spain could lead to the effective dismantling of large parts of its healthcare system and significantly damage the health of the population, according to a study published on Thursday.”

“The study published in the British medical Journal (BMJ) found that Spain’s national budget cuts of almost 14 percent and regional budget cuts of up to 10 percent in health and social services in 2012 have coincided with increased demands for care, particularly from the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

The researchers also noted increases in depression, alcohol-related disorders and suicides in Spain since the financial crisis hit and unemployment increased.”

“The findings in Spain chime with other studies in Europe and North America which found budget cuts had a devastating effect on health, driving up suicides, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care.”

“‘If no corrective measures are implemented, this could worsen with the risk of increases in HIV and tuberculosis — as we have seen in Greece where healthcare services have had severe cuts — as well as the risk of a rise in drug resistance and spread of disease,’ said Helena Legido-Quigley, a lecturer in Global Health at LSHTM who worked with McKee.”

“In a book published in April, researchers said around 10,000 suicides and a million cases of depression had been diagnosed during what they called the “Great Recession” and the austerity measures that have come with it across Europe and North America.”

This is Spain we are talking about here–a high income, EU country. Perhaps incomes are too high, as unemployment remains above 27.2% (and 57 % for people under 25). Since Spain is a Euro country, it cannot devalue it’s currency to bring its wages back to a competitive level, it must pursue painful “internal devaluation”–a mixture of austerity and structural reform that has a contractionary effect on the economy in the short-run (especially when the fiscal-multiplier is >1, as evidence suggests it currently is).

This is of course unacceptable. Fiscal constraints did not stop large scale financial sector bailouts or military expenditure, but when it comes to financing social programs needed for governments to fulfill their basic human rights obligations there is suddenly no money available. Clearly governments around the world have their priorities out of order.

Unemployment, especially long term unemployment and youth unemployment, has a corrosive effect on society. In America, people are outraged over 8% unemployment, can you imagine a rate 300% higher? 700% higher!? There is literally Great Depression level unemployment in Spain and Greece, now 5 years after the Great Recession began.

The corrosive impact of unemployment creates a vicious cycle of human suffering. A lack of demand leads companies to lay workers off. Lower output leads to less tax revenue for the government, and global economic factors made resources scarcer, driving up borrowing costs. Governments, unable to borrow  money at reasonable rates, must slash social programs and government employment.

The unemployed, increasingly pessimistic, turn to risky behavior, including prostitution and drug use. This in turn leads to greater unfulfilled health needs, including untreated mental disorders. Long term unemployment, drug use, physical and mental illness all deteriorate worker skills, making them increasingly dependent on shrinking government resources. Stigmatization, the idea that the unemployed and homeless are that way because they are lazy or bad, becomes self-fulfilling.

Anti-social behavior becomes the norm, and before long even those who were not directly affected by the economic downturn begin to experience the realities of general societal degradation–increased crime and reduced personal security. Taken to it’s extreme, austerity in the face of a depressed economy lays the groundwork for protracted social conflict (PSC).   

The problem here is that social programs are being cut precisely when people need them the most. Fiscal policy should be counter-cyclical. When times are good, a prudent nation will save money for a rainy day. This is what President Clinton was attempting, and had President Bush’s “starve the beast” tax and military policies not bankrupted America, our national debt would be much lower today.

But America is seen as a safe haven, allowing debt to be rolled-over sustainably despite a high debt/GDP ration. If anything, Obamacare is evidence that the U.S. government is moving in the direction of greater public service expenditure.

This is not the case in Europe. Due to a lack of fiscal integration, peripheral EU countries (the GIPSI countries) suffered from higher interest rates (nobody wanted to lend to them as them scrambled to rescue a failing banking sector) leading to a “sovereign debt crisis”. The European Central Bank eventually decided to play the “lender of last resort” role, but on the condition that economically crippling austerity measures are passed.

It has always been clear that austerity programs have adverse human rights implications. The programs that are cut go predominantly to the most vulnerable people–human rights violations tend to compound one another.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Europe is not heading for anarchy and regular unchecked violence in the streets. However, in some areas protests have already become the norm, and such a future is not impossible to foresee especially if the combination of depression-level unemployment rates, anti-social behavior, and crippling austerity persists.

Recently, the IMF admitted it was wrong about its the impact it believed austerity would have in Greece. This lesson will be painfully learned in many other countries unless something is done to fix this mistake (ending austerity conditions in order to unlock bailout loans). Admitting you made a mistake is the first step towards redress and accountability–it is past time governments were held accountable for their human rights obligations, in both the developing and developed world.

Only when human rights obligations are fulfilled can we achieve sustainable human development and economic growth, predominantly through the real and creative economies (as opposed to unsustainable economic development based on “financialization“).

However, this is only the first step, now international economic institutions have to “put their money where their mouths are” and make up for the needless suffering caused by general incompetence.

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The (Real Beginning of the) End of Team America World Police Part 3(? 4? 5?, I’ve Lost Count…)

I started my narrative on this topic with a two-part political and economic analysis of current U.S. Defense Policy. I then wrote a piece on the true cost of the war on terror, and more recently a piece on how Europe’s shrinking military expenditure is hurting it’s credibility as a meaningful security partner to the United States. Current U.S. military policy has long been an issue affecting America’s fiscal space, constraining resources for social programs which compromise our future growth prospects and social mobility, thereby perpetuating rising inequality in America. At the heart of the matter is the uneven proportion of Global Security expenditure that America pays. Today, President Obama signaled he is of similar mind on the subject.

“Taken together, the president’s words and deeds added up to an effort to move the country away from the perpetual war on terrorism envisioned by his predecessor, George W. Bush, toward a more limited campaign against particular groups that would eventually be curtailed even if the threat of terrorism could never be eliminated.

‘Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.’

Mr. Obama rejected the notion of an expansive war on terrorism and instead articulated a narrower understanding of the mission for the United States. ‘Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,’ he said.

‘Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,’ Mr. Obama added. ‘We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.’”

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Mr. Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

“The changes reflect a conclusion by the White House that the core of Al Qaeda has been decimated by years of strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in the speech, the president said that the threat had evolved in a complicated mosaic of dangers from affiliated groups and homegrown terrorists, like the bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon.”

As is to be expected, Republicans were critical of Obama’s realistic, transparent, straightforward and even-handed speech:

“Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, issued 10 questions to the president in reaction to previews of his speech. “Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat? Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, was sharper in reaction. ‘The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,’ he said. ‘Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.'”

First to address Senator Chambliss, are you sir a moron? how could the winding down of the war on terror have “no clear operational benefit”? Does making a military mission less costly both in dollar terms and American lives have no effect on the operational benefit of The War on Terror? Not to mention the impact on public opinion of the U.S. abroad (which is directly related to terrorism). Or do you not consider the costs of an operation unless the money is going to those lazy “takers”? (i.e. any social program the G.O.P. will fight tooth and nail). If anything, we should have much sooner reconsidered the operational benefit of the War on Terror in the first place (which has been marginal at best, as highlighted by recent sectarian violence in Iraq).

Speaker Boehner’s questions are more substantive; I have actually grown to like Senator Boehner, I almost pity him for the impossible job he has of trying to legitimize the current cluster-fuck of ridiculous soundbites and indefensible policy advocacy that has come to define the G.O.P. I’m sure Mr. Boehner did not imagine his constituents would be so unrealistic and uncompromising that his time as House Speaker would be marked as a period of historically low congressional approval ratings.

But back to Congressman Boehner’s Questions. Questions 1 and 2 (“Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat?”) were already addressed by President Obama in his speech:

“But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”  

Obviously Al-Qaeda would be considered a “network that poses a direct danger to us”, probably the primary of such networks. One has to question whether John was not sleeping through the President’s speech with questions like those. And to expect a President to openly discuss his defense strategies, probably our most important national security secret, is not exactly proposing a reasonable question.

President Obama also alluded to the answer to Speaker Boehner’s 3rd question in that very same breath. Mr. Boehner asked, “Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

The answer to that is, of course not. The President stated he planned to “make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold”, but what exactly does that mean? It could only mean putting more resources into preventative peace-building and diplomacy efforts, as I have advocated for here at NN.

Conflict resolution theory tells us that the majority of todays armed conflicts are “Protracted Social Conflicts”. This means that their roots are in human rights violations, which almost always involve inadequate service delivery and security being provided by a country’s government. In situations like this, conflict is likely to break out. When conflicts break out, there is no military to keep terrorist activities at bay (assuming the regime in power is not allied with extremist groups to begin with).

Terrorist groups seize onto this absence of government human rights “duty bearers” and begin to provide services and security themselves. People on the ground, having no other option other than living in extreme poverty and extreme discomfort, welcome these terrorists in with open arms. Terrorists are able to buy goodwill, gain footholds for their operations, and attract a new generation of young Jihadists.

The only way the President can prevent new terrorist groups from forming is to scale up the capacity of strong, democratic governments in developing countries around the world (or factions within countries that do not have democratic governments). If America undertakes this much more noble pursuit, we can build sustainable relationships that foster greater economic and security alliances, rather than destroying nations and then attempting to build them back up from scratch, which is costly in money, time, and lives.

We must remember that building these relationships is not easy. Transitions to democracy and a higher standard of living take time, and the process is not always linear. Vested interests will never give up easily, as they have so much to lose as society reaps the benefits of modernization, and more resources are invested into basic infrastructure as well as physical and human capital.

Though we face an uphill battle, we must never falter in our fight to promote peace, security, and mutually beneficial and environmentally sustainable economic relationships. Only through cooperation and coordination can the global community confront and overcome the issues we collectively face in the 21st century and beyond.

And we must always remember we are not alone in this fight. Our Allies around the world remain committed to the same vision as us. Institutions such as the UN, NATO, WB, IMF, WHO and countless other international, national, and regoinal institutions, alongside non-governmental organizations, charities, and civil society organizations join our ranks. The day when extreme poverty and human rights violations are no longer a threat is just beyond the horizon, and I look forward doing whatever I can to work towards that future.


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Conflict Watch: Arm the “Good Guys”, Disarm the “Bad Guys”

On April second, the U.N. passed a historic Arms Trade Treaty:

“The U.N. assembly voted 154 in favor of the treaty, three against and 23 abstentions (U.N. officials said the actual vote should have been 155-3-22; Angola was recorded as having abstained, though it had attempted to vote yes.) Iran, Syria and North Korea cast the sole votes against the treaty.

Major arms producers China and Russia joined Bolivia, Nicaragua and India — the world’s largest importer of arms — in abstaining. Significantly, the United States reversed its decades-long policy of opposition to such measures and voted in favor of the treaty.”

There are questions as to whether the vote will pass the senate, as the gun lobby in America is expected to fight it tooth and nail (even though a direct stipulation of Obama’s support was that the treaty would not undermine second amendment rights, but the gun lobby in this country has proven itself to be amazingly resilient to facts and policy wording).

The treaty centers on human rights abuses. It requires arms deals to be reviewed based on the recipient of the weapons. If the recipient has a questionable human rights background, or there is any evidence the weapons may be used to perpetuate human rights violations, the deal will be deemed in violation of the treaty.

Regardless of U.S. passage, the treaty is a good thing. The U.S. has proven to be quite reserved with its weapons sales to questionable recipients, evidenced by the fact that we still will not provide arms to the Syrian opposition. “’We [the U.S.] license all imports and all exports of weapons, and we monitor where they’re coming from and who they’re going to when we’re in the business of exporting them externally.’

In a sense, the treaty attempts to bring the rest of the world up to this “gold standard” of trade control.”

While it would certainly strengthen the treaty to have the world’s largest arms exporter on board, it is not a make or break vote. If the NRA and gun lobby in America really want to throw their support behind Iran, Syria, and North Korea, so be it—it would truly highlight how backwards and irrational such organizations are.    

Syria is in a civil war, and North Korea has regularly threatened nuclear strikes on America and its allies. Iran is a suspected hub for destabilizing arms trade throughout the African continent. The fact that these 3 countries are the only ones who voted no to the treaty should tell you something about the level of support the treaty has globally.

This effort to take weapons out of the hands of “bad guys” has been bolstered by America’s decision to sell weapons to the “good guys”:

“The Defense Department is expected to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates next week that will provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help them counter any future threat from Iran.”

“The objective, one senior administration official said, was “not just to boost Israel’s capabilities, but also to boost the capabilities of our Persian Gulf partners so they, too, would be able to address the Iranian threat — and also provide a greater network of coordinated assets around the region to handle a range of contingencies.”

Those other security risks, officials said, include the roiling civil war in Syria — a country with chemical weapons that could be used by the Assad government or seized by rebels — and militant violence in the Sinai Peninsula.”

The U.S. has bolstered its military capacity in Asia and put pressure on China to counter the North Korean threat. It has signed the UN ATT in an attempt to help keep arms out of the hands of human rights violators and terrorists. It has doubled down on its strategic presence in the Middle-East by further arming its allies in the region.

The U.S. arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may also be an attempt to show how the treaty works, based on its timing. Weapons manufacturers need not fear that their sales will drop due to the treaty—as long as weapons are going to responsible recipients, the treaty has been in no way violated.  

I like this two sided approach to helping ensure global security. The shortcomings of overt military action have been highlighted by “the war on terror”. America must rely on its strategic allies, as well as Europe, in order to ensure global security in a financially sustainable way—the U.S. simply cannot afford to continue playing “Team America, World Police”.

Obama has continued to impress with his foreign affairs record. He is following Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words “speak softly, and carry a big stick”, with the added provision that he will also supply big sticks to America’s allies and do his best to take big sticks away from our enemies.

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