Friday, December 12, 2008

Daily Sources 12/12

1. The Wall Street Journal has an interview of Secretary Condeleeza Rice by Kimberley A. Strassel today. Rice argues that team Obama might lament the situation the world is in as he takes office, but that she doesn't accept that it is a worse situation than when George W. Bush took office. In particular, she argues that Syria is now out of Lebanon, that Iraq has a fledgling democracy and Saddam--a chronic threat to international order--is gone, that the Taliban is not in control in Afghanistan, that Israel and Palestine are no longer in open warfare, that China is more open, and that Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela are more or less contained.

She argues that the Bush Administration inherited a terrorism situation that had been "ignored for years" and allowed to metastasize. That the Administration had to retool a law enforcement structure designed to punish misbehavior as opposed to anticipate and suppress it. That the Camp David Accords had failed and that the Second Intifada was well under way when Bush took office. That Lebanon had been effectively occupied by Syria--and to some extent by proxies for Iran--for the last 30 years in 2000. That the Taliban had been allowed to take root in Afghanistan. That Saddam Hussein was freely pursuing murderous policies in Iraq. And that the framework agreements between the US and North Korea were regularly being ignored by Pyongyang as they pursued nuclear weapons.
"Bottom line: 'The world is tough, but it's no tougher now than when we came, and some pockets of it are a lot, lot better,' [Rice] says."
I have a lot of problems with Rice's take on things here, but let me just address a couple.

One: The section on the taming of the "Bear," meaning Russia, pretty plainly reveals that Rice never regarded Russia as a potential ally to the US. This is a tremendous opportunity which is being squandered. (The notion that the government in Moscow need be as transparent and democratic as ours to be viewed as friendly is poppycock plain and simple, as many of our other commitments in the region more than adequately demonstrate.) When she says that the Russians have done what she could never do, in terms of making Shakashvili a darling of the international press, she implies that this is a goal the US would regard as worth having. And I have to ask, what US interest would be met by such a policy goal? I cannot think of any that would trump better, more integrated, relations with Russia.

Russia is unlikely to join OPEC, but the very fact that it would openly consider coordinating a production cut with the cartel reverses over 35 years of policy--policy which even predates the fall of the Soviet Union. What the Bush Administration has done--with its uneven application of American principles untempered by clear considerations of long-term national interests--is make the Kremlin consider whether its interests are closer to those of its developed neighbors or to those of resource exporting autocracies in the Middle East. By adopting a consistently hostile stance to the Kremlin--all the while making preposterous claims about the ends of various military programs--the Bush Administration appears to have had as a policy goal the reversal of the most significant geopolitical change in the national interest in the last 60 years. And to think at one point we had so famously peered into each others' souls. This is one of America's most important relationships, and it has been made much worse by this Administration, though the advice of economic ideologues--and support for non-Communist leadership, even if plainly undemocratic and corrupt--under the Clinton Administration is the source of much of our trouble with Moscow.

Two: It is true that the Bush Administration inherited a probable cause policing policy. Perhaps it is inconsistent with contemporary anti-terror techniques. But, to suggest that overturning it is a policy success is insidious blather. 9/11 gave the Administration the political will domestically and internationally to do pretty much anything it needed or wanted to do. To suggest that the erosion of American legal traditions prohibiting arbitrary arrest or detention, torture, and the denial of access to legal representation is to have put the country in a better position ethically, legally, politically, domestically or internationally, than the previous Administration is such an upside-down portrayal of the new American situation that it is hard to believe it was even mooted. A more proactive approach was practicable without such concessions to tyranny, concessions which only blackened our name in the world at large, eliminating--for a time--American credibility and persuasiveness internationally. Rice has used the "beacon on the hill" trope before, she was not oblivious to the consequences.

That said, I am not, nor will I ever be, Secretary of State of the United States of America. Secretary Rice is a professional diplomat, and I am not. Her thoughts are well worth reading in full.

2. Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes write that a bipartisan Senate report released yesterday concludes that the Bush Administration authorized and encouraged detainee abuses at the highest levels. "Sleep management" was at one point authorized, a popular form of torture utilized by the Iranians in the infamous Evin Prison, for example. A must read.

3. Dmitry Zhdannikov at Reuters reports that Russia may decide to announce a cut in tandem with OPEC next week which would coincide with production declines that are expected in any case. "'Cutting production is not difficult. It is falling anyway,' said a government source, who asked not to be named." Although such behavior is not beyond the Kremlin, it would be unlikely to sway the markets, as those output cuts have already been factored into price predictions. If Moscow decides to do just so, then the international policy stance will not have changed all that much, though their strengthening ties to OPEC are worrisome. Given the steep fall in crude prices--and the Kremlin's reliance on oil revenues--I suspect they will do more.

4. Jim Bai at Reuters reports that a decline in oil consumption may continue throughout the year in China, even if economic growth continues at 8%.
"'The bottom line: China's demand growth is expected to be rather dormant for the coming quarters as it battles both global and domestic economic slowdowns,' said independent analyst Paul Ting, who estimates demand fell 1.2 percent year-on-year last month."
Several sources told Bai that nearly 7% of the country's imports in November were sent straight to its strategic petroleum reserve. A key reason for the demand prediction is that fuel costs have not been cut by the government since June, when they were adjusted upwards to account for record high international crude prices. That means that
"now [Chinese] drivers are paying 60% more than US motorists and refiners can buy crude at $45.42/b and sell it on the local market at the equivalent of $83.50, according to government estimates."
The government has indicated it will more or less allow fuel prices to fluctuate with market prices come January, but they will institute a consumption tax which seemingly will keep local prices near current levels.

5. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board compares a recent democracy manifesto in China, known as Charter 08, to Charter 77, the democratic document signed by Vaclav Havel and other Czech dissidents in 1977 and which eventually led to the Velvet Revolution. Beijing will not be pleased.

6. Martin Fackler at the New York Times reports that Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso today announced a new stimulus plan worth 23 trillion yen, or around $250 billion. "It was unclear how much of that figure was new spending and how much was included in earlier stimulus packages, like the $50 billion proposal announced in October."

7. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post reports that Pyongyang yesterday refused to sign a written pact with a plan for verifying its claims about its nuclear program.

8. Kartik Goyal at Bloomberg reports that industrial production fell in India by 0.4%. This is the first decline seen in 15 years.

9. Juan Cole in Slate gives a good breakdown of the political environment in Pakistan President-elect Obama's foreign policy team will have to navigate in order to secure US interests. Worth reading.

10. The Wall Street Journal has a very unusual opinion piece by former Presidents of Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay and El Salvador, which more or less argues that the United States should focus on ways to support like-minded democracies in South America. José Maria Aznar, Vicente Fox, Andrés Pastrana, Julio Maria Sanguinetti and Franciso Flores note that the combined GDP of Latin America is larger than China's and suggests that the cultural similarities argue for further integration:
"Today, there are over 40 million people with strong links to Latin America who live in the U.S. and, through their dynamism, contribute to its greatness. The tradition of freedom embraced by the U.S. is in accord with Hispanic traditions and culture. The peaceful coexistence of the American and Hispanic traditions reinforces the idea of Latin America being part of the Western world."
The piece mentions new ties between anti-democratic forces--such as Islam and Socialism--and asks for US support in the face of these new threat combinations. (I imagine this is a reference to cooperative agreements between Iran or China in the energy sectors of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, and potentially Guatemala.) Part of the way the US could do so is to support free trade arrangements:
"Latin America has much to gain from free trade. Successfully negotiating free-trade agreements will help bring progress and prosperity to Latin American countries, as well as around the globe."
All of these former Presidents came from the right side of the political spectrum in their respective countries, and I suppose that none are really subject to the political constraints of being in office, which would probably preclude what many in their countries would likely regard as a call for American interference in their internal affairs. Either way, it is an odd grouping, and I can't help wonder whether it is truly sui generis. I suspect not. But, that aside, further free trade arrangements with Latin America would probably go some way toward stabilizing democracies in the region. Financing the economic stabilization of Latin America at the cost of economic stability here in the US--given additional job competition from low cost labor--is a tricky sell just now. Worth reading in full.

11. Platts reports that Venezuela yesterday approved a budget for 2009 of $77.86 billion based on a price of $60/b. The budget assumes an exchange rate for the bolivar of 2.15 to the dollar and an inflation rate of 15%. More than $5 billion of the budget is expected to be secured via loans.

12. In a surprising story, the AFP reports that the leaders of the European Union unanimously agreed to an ambitious climate change program, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 20% in 2020, "make 20 percent energy savings and bring renewable energy sources up to 20 percent of total energy use." It is known as the 20-20-20 deal.

13. Eurointelligence reports that the Ifo Economics Institute yesterday predicted that the German economy would shrink by 2.2% in 2009, and likely continue to contract in 2010. It also reported that Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero rejected the structural reforms suggested by the IMF.

14. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the UK Telegraph reports that the Swiss National Bank now wants an inflationary policy,
"David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC, said the shift in policy was breathtaking. 'The SNB are the hard men of central banking; they are even harder than European Central Bank. What they are saying is that inflation is no longer a problem, it's the solution. They want stimulus any way they can get it.'"
Worth reading.

15. Rachel Graham at Bloomberg reports that Goldman Sachs analysts Jeffrey Currie and Allison Nathan cut their price forecast for the first quarter by $30/b to average $62/b. They expect oil demand to fall by 1.7 million barrels in 2009. They expect oil futures to average $45/b in 2009. Heh. In May Goldman predicted average price of crude in 2009 to be $148/b.

16. Samantha Young at the Associated Press reports that the California Air Resources Board is expected to adopt new regulations which would require old diesel operated vehicles to be outfitted with pollution filters, new engines, or be replaced altogether.

17. The Federal Highway Commission at the Department of Transportation reports that vehicle miles traveled fell by 100 billion in the year ended October 2008 than they did in the year ended October 2007. Americans drove 3.5% fewer miles--8.9 billion miles--in October 2008 than they did in the month of October 2007.

18. Shobhana Chandra at Bloomberg reports that producer prices fell 2.2% in November according to Labor Department data.

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