World

The Pacific Pivot

America needs to try something new when it comes to international trade.

(Flickr/James O'Sullivan)
On November 12, 2011, I listened as President Barack Obama told business leaders attending the Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Honolulu that “we’ve turned our attention back to the Asia Pacific region” and announced two vehicles for that return. These were the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement, now under negotiation and to be concluded by the end of this year, and the Pivot to Asia, meaning a redeployment of American priorities and military forces away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The president said that Asia will be central to America’s future prosperity and that it was imperative to correct unsustainable trade and financial imbalances while continuing to expand economic ties. This would require that all countries play by the same rules appropriate to the current global economy. The TPP, he said, would be a template for a “21st-century agreement” that would eventually be open to all the countries of the region. He emphasized...

Not a Great Deal for Asia

The Trans-Pacific Partnership could end up hurting the broader economic interests of both the U.S. and smaller Asian nations.

(Flickr/images_of_money)
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is best understood as President Barack Obama’s extension of the Bush-era doctrine of “competitive liberalization.” Frustrated with pushback at the World Trade Organization by nations like China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, the United States seeks a coalition of the willing to import a commercial framework that rewards private firms at the expense of the common good. That policy regime is ailing in the U.S. and gets worse when exported. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) certainly isn’t about raising standards of living. The most ambitious estimates of the gains from the TPP suggest that participating nations will gain a mere one-tenth of 1 percent of the gross domestic product. Sixty percent of the projected gains go to Vietnam and the United States, and the other 20 percent goes to Malaysia—largely because the U.S. already has trade pacts with the other proposed big players in the TPP. However, the proposed deal is far from popular in Asia. In...

The Myth of the Level Playing Field

The boast that American workers are naturally superior to other workers and would therefore “win” in any fair competition is problematic at best and at worst, a pander to our national delusion of exceptionalism.

(Flickr/twintermute)
" Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you: America will always win.” —Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 24, 2012 The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the latest act in the tragic farce of American trade policy. Earlier versions included the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S.–designed World Trade Organization, the opening of the U.S. market to China, and the signing of more than a dozen additional bilateral free-trade deals, including last year’s agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. The script does not change. The president, congressional committee chairs, and lobbyists representing U.S. importers and foreign exporters announce that the proposed trade deal will create millions of new high-paying jobs for Americans. They assure the public that American workers will be protected from unfair competition from countries that exploit labor and/or subsidize exports. Editorials...

Hold Off on the Obama Victory Dance

The president's re-election chances have improved, but Obama faces severe tests on energy and national security.

(Flickr/Tyler Driscoll/Obama for America)
Things have been breaking well for President Obama. Economically, job growth has outperformed expectations. The unemployment rate could be below 8 percent by Election Day. Politically, Republicans are engaged in the sort of demolition derby once reserved for Democrats. The protracted Hillary-Barack duel of 2008 seems like a love feast compared to the Mitt and Rick slugfest. All this is reflected in the president’s rising approval ratings. However, Obama faces a daunting two-part challenge related to Iran’s nuclear assertions, with implications for both national security and sustainable energy. A misstep could cost him the presidency and cause the country to take a disastrously wrong turn in these two critical areas. Iran’s threat to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s crude oil passes, is roiling oil markets. Five--dollar gas this summer will help neither the economy nor the president’s re-election. Obama has used the gathering Iranian crisis to redouble...

What's Up With All the MEK Ads?

If you’ve been watching cable news lately, there’s a good chance that you’ve noticed some out-of-the-ordinary adverts. Namely, a 30-second spot done in the grainy style of a spy-thriller flashback calling for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident group, to be taken off the official U.S. terrorist watch list. It’s a conspicuous outsider in the typical ad roster filled with car commercials and cholesterol meds, which might have led some viewers to wonder, “What’s up with that?” Ask and ye shall receive. What does the MEK purport to be? As tabloid editors who traffic in celebrity divorces and teen-idol feuds well know, there are two sides to every juicy story. In the words of the commercial mentioned above, the “MEK is Iran’s democratic opposition working for a nuclear-free Iran founded on human rights.” The ad employs cinematically ominous music and a narrator whose vocal stylings are more stress-inducing than a pelvic exam, all to great effect. It closes with pictures of U...

When Bibi Met Barack

Netanyahu's evaluation of Iran is based on mythology. Can Obama hold him back?

(AP Photo/Ron Sax)
We mortals are not privy to a transcript of the meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. If we had one, it would not show whether the Israeli prime minister relaxed enough to smile at one of the president's jokes, or how long Netanyahu paused before answering if and when Obama said, "Do not start a war with Iran. Period." There was no joint statement afterward, reportedly because the American side knew in advance that the leaders did not agree on enough to fill a respectable press release. According to the leak from Netanyahu's team to every Israeli news organization, the prime minister told Obama that Israel had not yet decided whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The leak did not say whether to read this as a concession ("We understand your concerns") or as a threat ("We will do what we want.") For lack of inside information, we mortals can only parse the speeches that Obama and Netanyahu made to the roiling convention of the American Israel Public Affairs...

Tinderbox in Israel

Discrimination against Palestinians in the country is reaching frightening levels. 

(Flickr/tamar_levine)
This is the second in a two-part series on Israel's policies toward its Palestinian minority . To read the first part, click here . A few weeks ago an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset was interrupted repeatedly by a female member of a far right party. He finally told her to “shut up,” whereupon she stood up and poured a cup of water over his head. The video went viral, and the joke was: “The only good Arab is a wet Arab.” Relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel are worsening. According to Shalom Dichter, executive director of Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, “a harsh stream of ugly racism seems to dominate public debate.” One phrase I heard over and over on a recent trip to Israel was, “It’s a tinderbox.” Under the current government—the most right-wing in Israel’s history—a flood of new legislation has targeted Palestinian citizens. The ban on family unification— making it virtually impossible for Israeli Arabs to marry non-Israelis—is just...

How to Contain a Nuclear Iran

Regime change is a pipe dream. Is there a way to keep peace in Tehran without it?

(AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File) In this April 9, 2007 file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers 186 (miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran. Major Asian importers of Iranian oil are thumbing their noses at American attempts to get them to rein in their purchases, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to force the Middle Eastern country to curtail its nuclear program. F our years ago, when then-Senator Barack Obama was locked in a tough battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he did something candidates for national office in the United States almost never do: He offered sense rather than sensationalism on Iran. Proclaiming in a primary debate his willingness to meet with Iran’s reviled president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not as radical as it seemed; indeed, every U.S. president since Iran’s 1979 revolution has sought negotiations with Tehran. But in the context of a country...

Love in a Troubled Land

For Palestinians in Israel, having a family and being a citizen can be mutually exclusive.

This is the first in a two-part series on Israel's policies toward its Palestinian minority . It’s hard to fall in love and have a family in Israel if you're one of the country's 1.5 million Palestinians. Last month, the Israeli Supreme Count upheld the constitutionality of the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law, which strips Israeli Arab citizens—one-fifth of the population—of citizenship rights if they move to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip to live with a spouse; Jewish settlers, on the other hand, retain their citizenship. It also prevents spouses from the Occupied Territories (or the “enemy states” of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) from living in Israel without going through a Kafkesque process of applying and reapplying for temporary residency. From the beginning, the law has been challenged by human rights-groups on the grounds that it is discriminatory. By a narrow 6 to 5 majority, the Israeli Supreme Court waved that concern aside. “Human rights do not prescribe national suicide...

Thursday Miscellany

Let's start with the Eeyore. Yesterday I wrote that women don't count —at least, not to the news media. Right after I posted that, I learned that Katha Pollitt wrote about the same recurring problem last year, brilliantly, of course. One of her key points: if you want more women writers, you need more women editors. Do read her piece. It's depressingly relevant and, of course, funny: I've written so often about the dearth of women in high-end magazines, including my own home base, The Nation , over so many years, and to so little effect, that sometimes I see myself, sitting at the kitchen table in some year like 2050, enjoying a nice bowl of reconfigurated vitamin-infused plastic bags, and over my phlogistatron will come the headline "Study Shows Men Write 85 Percent of Articles in Interplanetary Media. Martian Weekly Editor in Chief: Where Are the Women?" Who's winning the economy—men or women? Bryce Covert wrote an important piece for The Nation about the myth of "the mancession"...

A German History Lesson

Yesterday, the German Parliament relented and agreed to let the Greek debt restructuring go forward, but only the price of crushing austerity for the Greek economy. This is a widespread attitude in Germany, where aid to the Greeks is unpopular. The other day, Jörg Krämer, chief economist for Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said of the Greeks, “If you live beyond your means, then you can repair your balance sheet only if your consumption goes down.” But the Germans might take a moment and reflect on their own history. In the aftermath of World War II, the Allies, remembering the disastrous consequences of German reparations after the First World War, did not insist on their pound of flesh. The entire Nazi public debt, amounting to over 600 percent of German GDP, was written off. The pre-existing unpaid debt from the Weimar period was written down to a fraction of its original cost. Claims on old debt were strictly segregated from German reconstruction funds. The German Federal Republic...

All the Scary Ladies

An effort to silence women in the military is meant to empower the radically conservative clergy in Israel.

(AP Photos/Oded Ballilty)
The Israeli military has to face a lot of threats. Iran. Hezbollah. Rockets from Gaza. Women soldiers singing. If that last item seems out of place, it's because you're reading this in America (where, it's true, presidential candidates can portray contraception as a danger to civilization) instead of reading it in Israel. Here in Israel, the threat posed by female vocalists to religious liberty has been a regular topic in debate of military policy in recent months. As framed by one side in the dispute, the question is whether Orthodox Jewish soldiers must attend army ceremonies at which they'll hear women sing, even if they believe that such a performance is an utterly unkosher act of public indecency. Framed by the other side, what's at stake are basic military values of discipline and unity. The army's insistence on men hearing women sing is such a serious attack on religious freedom, according to one prominent far-right rabbi, that "we're close to a situation in which we will have...

Are You Eating Fish Caught By Slaves?

(Flickr/sarahalaskaphotographs)
According to sociologist Kevin Bales, who founded and directs the new abolition group Free the Slaves , an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today—more than were ever enslaved at any single time in history. The United Nation's International Labour Organization estimates are a more modest 12.3 million —which is still a shocking number of people forced to labor against their will, unable to walk away, for no compensation. Much of the reporting on this phenomenon has been on women forced to work in the sex trades. But the U.S. State Department reports that many more people are enslaved in far more ordinary endeavors: mining coltrane, growing cotton, domestic servitude, and fishing in the south Pacific. Ben Skinner , whom I'm honored to call my colleague at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the foremost reporter on the particulars of this horror. His book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Slavery , offered an in-depth look at both...

Don't Sterilize Trans Folks

(Flickr/PhotoComiX)
We've talked at length, here, about the fact that for some minority of folks, sex and gender don't line up. Some girls have a boyish swagger and a killer pitching arm. Some boys adore nail polish and glittery princesses. Sometimes—not always—those butch girls and pink boys grow up to be lesbians or gay men. Sometimes—less often, although no one knows the real rate—they insist that the only way they can be comfortable and happy is to change their sex entirely. No one knows why, any more than we know why some people are math whizzes and others can't do arithmetic, but the phenomenon has long been noted in a wide variety of cultures, from the Hawaiian mahu to South Asia's hijra . (Check out PBS's map of transgender identities. I don't know their sources, but I do recognize a number of references I've found previously in the anthropological literature.) So I was shocked when Joseph Huff-Hannon of AllOut told me that 29 European countries—including some Scandinavian countries we generally...

Greece's Pieces

The country's eurozone partners finally come to an agreement on a new loan, but it comes at a high cost.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
After nearly four months of negotiations, near misses, bouts of despair, and growing acrimony, the eurozone finally gave its blessing to Greece’s second bailout. It is a huge 130 billion euro package, accompanied by a debt writedown and strict austerity requirements. In a 13-hour-long meeting yesterday, under intense pressure from Germany and the Netherlands, Greece’s private bondholders were forced to take a larger haircut than originally planned—53.5 percent rather than 50 percent. This, according to the International Monetary Fund, will bring Greece’s debt down to 120.5 percent of GDP by 2020. A confidential debt analysis distributed to officials last week found that with a 50 percent haircut, Greek debt would only fall to 129 per cent by 2020, and the package would cost official creditors 136 billion euros—hence the further arm-twisting of banks to take deeper losses. A great deal remains to be done before March 20, the deadline for a 14.5 billion euro Greek bond. National...

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