Returning Home

by Dave Schuler on September 14, 2014

The picture above is of The Raven, a pub not far from the hotel in which I lodged for the first two weeks of my sojourn in Bath. The Raven is known for its pie. The one time I went there it was packed. I created a space for myself at the bar by grabbing a chair that was sitting against the wall, placing the chair between two other chairs at the bar, and planting myself in the chair. I ordered a pint of their ale and a pie.

“Pie” in England isn’t quite the same as it is here. Generally, English pie has a raised crust, i.e. it’s a cylinder rather than a disk, and it’s usually made with hot water pastry rather than with our pie crust which in England is called “flaky pastry”. Pies are usually savory—beef, pork, chicken—and served with mashed potatoes and gravy.

The last time I was in Bath was nearly twenty years ago. Since then the town has been tidied up quite a bit, it’s more cosmopolitan, and it’s bustling with visitors. Twenty years ago it had a somewhat dilapidated, rundown look and most of the restaurants and tourists in it were English. Now there are Thai, Italian, Turkish, even American restaurants and in addition to the English and American visitors there are European, East Asian, and South Asian visitors as well as many, many East and South Asian residents.

That’s consistent with the trend we saw in London when we visited there 20 years ago, a trend that has apparently spread to the rest of the country.

I think it was Chesterton who said that the great advantage of foreign travel is the gift of returning to your native land as though it were a foreign country. This was the first time I had been abroad in 15 years. Customs was, if anything, more onerous than it had been fifteen years ago. The lines were vastly longer, the security was not appreciably greater but it was tremendously more officious and harsher.


The Scottish Play

by Dave Schuler on September 11, 2014

I haven’t mentioned the vote on Scottish independence yet. It’s big news here—scarcely an hourly newscast passes without at least five minutes and sometimes much more being devoted to the subject.

As is my practice I don’t want to intrude in other countries’ political affairs. IMO Scottish independence is an issue to be worked out between the Scots and the English.

I would note parenthetically that I have heard no commentary whatever on the implications of not being a monetary sovereign. It’s pretty obvious that the large nominally Scottish banks are aware of the issue:

Scotland’s Yes campaign has been dealt a significant blow after Lloyds and RBS threatened to move headquarters operations to London if the country quits the Union.

The banks, which employ a total of 27,500 in Scotland, confirmed they would register themselves in England if voters opt for independence next week.

And the department store giant John Lewis warned that shoppers in Scotland could expect higher prices if it votes for independence because retailers would no longer be willing to absorb the higher cost of trading there across the UK.

It moves the referendum battleground to matters of the “head” and the country’s crucial financial services sector, which generates around £7-9bn each year and employs 100,000.

It’s difficult to ferret out the statistics to get a decent handle on the character of Scotland’s trade. I know that the U. S. is its largest single foreign trading partner, if taken as a whole the EU is its largest single foreign trading partner, and that because of present free trade between Scotland and the balance of the United Kingdom it’s a bit difficult to nail down the volume of that trade.

The prevailing wind seems to be blowing in the direction of retaining the pound if the independence vote passes. Is that the right move?

Emotions are running very high on this subject on both sides and I strongly suspect that the ultimate decisions will be made emotionally. That doesn’t negate the many practical considerations that should be taken into account.

From the U. S. point of view I think that Scottish independence would be a bad development. Not only would it weaken the United Kingdom, one of only two NATO members other than the U. S. at the highest level of military force readiness, should it elect to join NATO it would be yet another free rider that was not pulling its weight in the alliance.


The President’s Speech

by Dave Schuler on September 11, 2014

The president’s speech last night was given at 2:00am local time so I was in troubled slumber. How did it go? My work schedule won’t provide me the time to listen to it streaming or even read the transcription.

My guess is that he said he was going to do something but we’re not sure what or why but, gosh darn it, it will take care of ISIL. Does that about cover it?


Col. Pat Lang, a man with substantial area expertise, writes this about the president’s plan:

In the end, if a decisive outcome is desired, there will be no alternative to substantial US ground forces. That will mean reconstruction of the US logistical and command and control base in Iraq as well as the use of several air bases. Is Obama going to demand legal extra-territoriality for our forces as a precondition? He should, but, will he?

He also offers important insights on the Turks, Kurds, Saudis, Qataris, and Iranians. His conclusion: too many moving parts.


A Low Trust Environment

by Dave Schuler on September 10, 2014

Sheesh. What have you guys been doing while I’ve been away? The Gallup Organization has found that Americans’ faith in the ability of the federal government to handle either foreign or domestic affairs is at an all-time low:

PRINCETON, NJ — Americans’ trust in the federal government to handle international problems has fallen to a record-low 43% as President Barack Obama prepares to address the nation on Wednesday to outline his plan to deal with ISIS. Separately, 40% of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems, also the lowest Gallup has measured to date.


Gallup has never measured lower levels of trust in the federal government to handle pressing issues than now. That includes the Watergate era in 1974, when 51% of Americans trusted the government’s ability to handle domestic problems and 73% trusted its ability to deal with international problems, and also at the tail end of the Bush administration when his job approval ratings were consistently below 40% and frequently below 30%.

The key question going forward is whether Americans’ trust in the federal government can be restored. Although there have been short-lived increases in recent years, including in Obama’s first year in office and in his re-election year, these were not maintained. The general trend since the post-9/11 surge has been toward declining trust. Simply voting new people into office may not be sufficient to restore trust in government. Rather, given the public’s frustration with the way the government is working, it may be necessary to elect federal officials who are more willing to work together with the other party to find solutions to the nation’s top problems.

I don’t believe that the federal government is less able to handle domestic or international affairs than it was six years ago. President Obama, however, seems to have succeeded in convincing Americans that is is.

Why? Is this related to expectations? Or President Obama’s bad habit of musing out loud?


Saving the Undefinable

by Dave Schuler on September 10, 2014

I learned a number of things reading this article by David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy, subtitled “Can Obama’s foreign policy be saved?”. For example, I learned that the Obama Administration has aggravated our allies, enemies, and the State Department (into which category the latter belongs I will leave to the reader to decide). I learned that Susan Rice is for reasons of temperament unsuited to be a diplomat. And I had confirmed something I have been claiming for a long time, that the administration’s foreign policy objectives are largely defined by domestic electoral politics.

Is it possible to save something that cannot be defined? Can the Obama foreign policy be defined (other than in terms of domestic electoral politics, in which case it has already accomplished its objectives)?

I don’t believe the Obama foreign policy is in need of saving. I think it’s in need of definition.


Restoring Cabin Pressure

by Dave Schuler on September 10, 2014

I want to draw your attention to what I think is a simply brilliant post at Minyanville from Peter Atwater. In the post Mr. Atwater exploits a clever central metaphor for the banking crisis of the Great Recession:

In December 2010, I wrote that the policymakers’ approach to resolving the crisis was akin to the procedure recommended by flight attendants in case of a sudden in cabin pressure. Masks should go first on the adults and then on the children.

In response to the banking crisis policymakers took deliberate monetary and fiscal action targeted to helping the biggest banks and corporations along with the wealthiest in America, with the hope that once safe, they in turn would quickly breathe life into middle market and small businesses, as well as middle- and lower-class Americans.

We have now confused ends with means. We should be attempting to restore cabin pressure. Our efforts are mostly dedicated to keeping the so-called adults breathing.


Concession Speech

by Dave Schuler on September 10, 2014

Will President Obama’s speech tonight be a concession speech?

Mr. Obama can blame this rising tide of disorder on George W. Bush, but the polls show the American public doesn’t believe it. They know from experience that it takes time for bad policy to reveal itself in new global turmoil. They saw how the early mistakes in Iraq led to chaos until the 2007 surge saved the day and left Mr. Obama with an opportunity he squandered. And they can see now that Mr. Obama’s strategy has produced terrorist victories and more danger for America.

Mr. Obama’s intellectual and media defenders were complicit in all of this, cheering on his flight from world leadership as prudent management of U.S. decline. Even now some of his most devoted acolytes write that Mr. Obama’s “caution” has Islamic State’s jihadists right where he wants them. It is hard to admit that your worldview has been exposed as out-of-this-world.

We hope tonight’s speech shows a more realistic President determined to defeat Islamic State, but whatever he says will have to overcome the doubts about American resolve that he has spread around the world for nearly six years. One way to start undoing the damage would be to concede that Dick Cheney was right all along.

I think that’s far-fetched in the extreme. Presidents simply don’t do that and expecting this president to do so is expecting too much.

However, I would go farther than that. It is true that “Dick Cheney was right all along”? Or are we looking in the wrong places for ways to make us more secure?


Put to the Question

by Dave Schuler on September 10, 2014

David Ignatius asks a series of pointed questions:

● What’s the exit strategy? As Obama begins his effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, his aides told the New York Times the campaign could take three years. How will the United States and its allies know when they have “won”? Or will this be more like the Cold War, a decades-long ideological battle punctuated by periods of intense local combat? If so, are the American people ready for such a long and patient struggle?

● If Obama is serious about using U.S. military power against the Islamic State, why has he initially been so tentative? Militarily, a sudden, sharp attack makes more sense than a drizzle of airstrikes. There may be sound political reasons for the cautious U.S. approach, to force countries in the region to step up and make commitments themselves, but this goes against military logic.

● The United States may begin with the limited goal of helping allies fight the Islamic State, but what if the campaign goes badly, or it spreads more widely to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or the U.S. homeland is hit in retaliation? We may plan a restrained campaign, but the enemy gets a vote. Won’t the United States inevitably have to escalate if it seems to be losing?

And, finally, the hardest question: Is the United States walking into a trap that has been constructed by the Islamic State — launching attacks that will rally jihadists around the world? From everything the jihadists proclaim in their propaganda, we can sense that they have been dreaming of this showdown. This is why the United States needs to make sure that, with every step it takes, it is surrounded by Muslim friends and allies.

That’s more than I’m usually comfortable with quoting and I apologize to Mr. Ignatius for it but there’s really no other way of getting the point across.

I think I would begin at a different point than Mr. Ignatius does. What is the U. S. interest? If it’s avenging the deaths of two young Americans who put themselves in harm’s way with foreseeable consequences, it returns to the point I made a couple of weeks ago about the War of Jenkins Ear. Is that really a reason to go to war?

If it’s to remove threats to our security, our security will remain threatened as long as the factors that produce and enable the threat are in place. Those factors are both at home and abroad. As long as those factors remain going after Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda or Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein or IS are just disconnected actions without strategic unity.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t object to not going to war. I do object to lurching uncontrollably into war without articulating our interests or objectives. It’s up to President Obama to articulate those interests, lay out the objectives, and produce a plan to achieve them.

One thing of which we shouldn’t lose sight. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are much more in the crosshairs than we are. Does a more, er, kinetic role for the U. S. encourage or discourage their own involvement? I think the more we commit the less they will.


My First Reaction

September 9, 2014

My first reaction when I read this opening sentence fragment: President Obama is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East… was “We’re doomed!”

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The Wavelet

September 9, 2014

Nate Silver’s latest numbers find the Senate increasingly coming within Republicans’ grasp: The FiveThirtyEight forecast model gives Republicans a 65.1 percent chance of winning the Senate with the new polling added, similar to the 63.5 percent chance that our previous forecast gave them on Friday. But the path to a Republican majority is becoming a […]

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