Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Archive for August 12th, 2008

Olympic lip-synching in Beijing: A microcosm of totalitarianism

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

I have been avoiding writing about the Olympics because I really don’t want to give the Chinese regime any more press than they are already getting. But this story is too good to pass up. Apparently, the cute-as-a-button little girl who sang during the opening cermonies was, in fact, lip-synching to the voice of another little girl who isn’t quite so photogenic.

Of course the Chinese are hardly the first to pull a “Milli Vanilli” at a major event. But what I find striking about this lies more in the comments of the Chinese once the deception was revealed. The incident is a perfect illustration of the totalitarian state in miniature: What matters is not what is best or fair for either of the two little girls (or any other tykes who could have performed in their stead), but only the need of the State for an impressive ceremony that will bring glory to the Motherland. If that sounds like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, it should.

Because of the considerable success the Chinese regime has had in raising standards of living, many, perhaps most Chinese have been willing to submit themselves to the greater good of the State. But we increasingly see rumblings of discontent when local authorities abuse and run roughshod over the people, and the State’s response usually comes too late. And even the strict press controls in China cannot prevent the Chinese people from seeing the contrast between their polluted, tightly controlled world and what lies outside their borders. Some in the West may be fooled by a brilliantly contrived display of pageantry (masterminded by genius film director Zhang Yimou, the Chinese Peter Jackson), but the Chinese people themselves are on the opposite side of the Potemkin village, and their eyes are slowly being opened.


Posted in Current Events, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Oil, gold and the US dollar

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

This is an excellent piece by economist John Tamny explaining the relationship between the price of oil, the price of gold, and the US dollar. Tamny explains that you can predict changes in the price of oil by looking at the price of gold, since the two commodities have had a historically consistent price ratio to each other, and both are affected similarly by the relative strength or weakness of the US dollar. He points out that the oil crises of the past 40 years have mostly been dollar crises, and that the turnaround for the US dollar and the current low oil/gold ratio suggest a continued fall in the price of oil.

I must admit that until this year, I was publicly on record as a weak-dollar man. When the US dollar is weak, American exports are more competitive and foreign capital pours into our economy. However, I’ve come to realize that a weak dollar is poison when combined with increased demand for oil. I’ve learned, I think, that just like other aspects of financial policy, monetary policy has to be based on an assessment of the global economic environment. When things are going well, there is no need to prop up the dollar, but when energy concerns start to impact the economy, policy decisions that support the dollar start to make sense.

Posted in Domestic News, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Offshore drilling – Fact over fiction

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

The WashPost has a superb op-ed up today on the offshore drilling issue. In typical fashion for the Post (and almost unheard of at most other major papers), the column sets aside partisanship and demagoguery and looks directly at the facts about oil, drilling, economics and energy inependence:

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Georgia, Part II: The NATO expansion issue

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

This deserves its own separate discussion. The question is whether or not Georgia should become a NATO member. Up until now, the US has been generally supportive of the idea, although taking a go-slow approach given the obvious potential for pissing off the Russians. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have recently called for putting Georgia on the path to NATO membership. Opposition has largely come from our European allies.

Up until 1999, NATO membership had remained relatively static for four decades (Spain abandoned its neutrality in 1982 and joined the alliance.) A major enlargement then took place as NATO added Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. All three were relatively prosperous democracies, adjacent to NATO through Germany, and all three could contribute a reasonable military expenditure toward the common defense. None bordered directly on Russia. Despite Russian objections, there was a general consensus in the West that this expansion made sense.

The next expansion came in 2004 with the addition of Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Romania and Bulgaria, like the earlier additions, were strong enough to make a military contribution. Tiny Slovenia is a peaceful country with no enemies that could be defended easily. Likewise, Slovakia is nestled between three other members and its inclusion drastically simplifies a military border. The Baltic states, however, were a different story. They border directly on Russia and have had troubled relations. It was felt that NATO membership might be necessary to preserve the independence of these states. While Russia could cut them off by land, NATO’s naval strength in the Baltic made it feasible to defend these states. Their accession, however, was a major provocation to Russia.

Since then, invitations have been offered to Albania and Croatia – again, easily defended states bordering on NATO territory and not considered controversial. The controversy has been over discussions with Ukraine and Georgia. Ukraine, with its large territory and economy, would be a major addition to the alliance and would improve the security of its neighbors Romania and Slovakia. It is not clear whether public opinion there fully supports NATO membership as there is a strong pro-Russian faction, but it seems clear that NATO will take Ukraine if Ukraine wants in.

Georgia, on the other hand, is far-flung from NATO territory, bordering only Turkey. It needs NATO much more than NATO needs it, and its troop contributions to Iraq were an effort to demonstrate the contrary. Georgian membership in NATO in no way benefits US or European security, as our allies have recognized, and carries the potential to embroil the alliance in local conflicts such as the Armenian-Azerbaijani mess as well as the ominous spectre of a direct war with Russia in an area where NATO’s ability to project its ower is minimal.

I am going to have to disagree with the prevailing wisdom and suggest that Georgia should not be put on the track to NATO membership. The current war illustrates the reasons fairly well. However, I think we should do our best to support our ally to the extent that is feasible.

Posted in Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Political Quote of the month

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

From former “Saturday Night Live” star and talk-show host Dennis Miller:

“I’m for the war, but I’m also for gay marriage. I don’t care if two folks with the same genitalia want to get hitched, I just don’t want some a—hole from another country coming over here and blowing up their wedding to make a political statement.”

Full interview with the always entertaining Miller is here:

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

“Dr. No” threatens to deliver a baby

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

This is a bizarre little story involving one of the more colorful members of the US Senate, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Coburn is what you’d call a “true believer”. He’s a right-wing Republican who irritates Republicans and Democrats alike by stubbornly sticking to his convictions on both economic and social issues. In doing so, he’s thrown many a monkey wrench into other Senators’ pet projects, including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” boondoggle of his GOP colleague, the now-disgraced Ted Stevens of Alaska. The Senate has learned that love him or hate him, Tom Coburn does not back down easily.

This issue, however, has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the fact that Coburn, like many Senators, had a real job before he ran for office. Coburn is an obstetrician (which, combined with his opposition to pork-barrel spending projects and his habit of putting a hold on other Senators’ bills, earned him the nickname of “Dr. No”.) When he was first elected as a Congressman, the concern arose that continuing to practice medicine might create a conflict of interest for Coburn when he had to vote on issues concerning the health care industry. However, Coburn was devoted to his work with low-income and high-risk patients. So he worked out an agreement with the House Ethics Committee that he could continue to deliver babies as long as his fees only covered his costs and no more.

When Coburn came to the Senate, however, he faced a new set of rules on outside income. Coburn pointed out that he needed to continue his work in order to be able to stay practiced and be able to resume working as a full time physician when he eventually leaves the Senate. So he decided that he would only deliver babies for free, and pay all his insurance and administrative fees out of his own pocket.

However, the Senate Ethics Committee has ruled that because the hospital where Coburn works is a for-profit entity, there is a conflict of interest even if Coburn himself is not making money. Uniquely, this is not a partisan issue as both Democrat and Republican leaders have admonished Coburn. The Ethics Committee warns that if Coburn delivers any more babies he will be in violation of Senate rules and subject to reprimand. However, Coburn has no intention of giving in. He’s betting that the Ethics Committee and the Senate have more important things to worry about at the moment, and that if the Ethics Committee were to bring a motion to the full Senate to reprimand him for delivering babies for free, he would probably win the vote. Coburn has said he is continuing his practice and could deliver a baby at any time.

Technically, the Ethics Committee is correct and Coburn is out of line.  But in practical terms, Coburn probably has the upper hand.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Understanding the war in Georgia

Posted by sanityinjection on August 12, 2008

As of this writing, there are signs that the war which broke out in Georgia a few days ago is starting to wind down, with Russian President Medvedev suggesting that the Russian Army is not going to push further into Georgian territory. But though the crisis point may be passing, it is important to understand what this war means for the future of international relations in general and US-Russian relations in particular.

First, a quick review: Georgia is a former part of the Soviet Union located in the southern Caucasus region near the Black Sea. When Georgia became independent with the fall of the USSR, two areas of the country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, felt they had more in common with Russia than with Georgia. Amid the chaos of the early 90s, they were able to wrest de facto autonomy from the weak Georgian state. Both areas are far too small and poor to be viable as independent states, so their real goal is to become part of Russia. Needless to say, Georgia doesn’t like that idea very much. Referendums have been held in these areas but under questionable circumstances – Russian “peacekeepers” have been stationed in the breakway territories at the invitation of the separatist governments there.

The current conflict started when the current President of Georgia, a pro-Western nationalist, decided it was time to try to retake the rebel areas by force. This turned out to be a stupendously bad idea because of the aforesaid Russian “peacekeepers” – though it is now emerging that the Georgians may have been deliberately provoked by the Russian-backed separatists. The Russians easily repelled the assault and inflicted some additional punishment on Georgian territory, threatening to cut the country in half with a tank column. Georgia immediately began begging for a cease-fire.

The conflict has posed a thorny dilemma for the United States. Georgia is a US ally, sent 2,000 troops to Iraq and wants to join NATO. There is no question where US sympathies lie. On the other hand, nobody wants to see US troops in the field against Russian troops – we spent over 40 years trying to avoid that. The US response, backed by other Western countries,  was to tell the Russians to get out of Georgia’s sovereign territory and everybody to agree to a cease-fire. This call was ignored by the Russians because they correctly sensed that we had little to back it up with. Georgia then requested that the US assist them in ferrying their troops out of Iraq and back to Georgia to defend their country. The Bush Administration had little choice but to agree since this was part of the original agreement at the time of the Georgian deployment. The Russians weren’t too happy to see their enemy’s troops showing up in American planes, but it did help to reassure the Georgians that the US was not going to stand idly by and watch them get annihilated.

The calculus seems to be that as long as the Russians limited themselves to kicking the Georgians out of the rebel areas, they could act with impunity, but once they began to push into Georgia proper, the Western powers began to speak more sharply. It is a classic game of geopolitical “chicken”, with each side trying to assess how far they can push the other. Russia seems to have decided that trying to occupy Georgia would bring too much of the world into line against them. They are hoping that the military disaster they have inflicted on the small country will force the Georgian President out of power and see him replaced by a government that will be more submissive toward Moscow’s demands.

What does all this mean for the US? The Russians have flexed their muscles and demonstrated that they will not hesitate to use their military to support pro-Russian elements in what they consider to be their sphere of influence – the areas of the old Soviet Empire. We should not be surprised to see similar “peacekeeping” actions in Moldova or to force Ukraine to extend the Russian naval privileges in the Crimea. Given that the US probably would have had to send troops to Georgia if it were a NATO member, I would expect that this war will eliminate any chance that Georgia had of joining NATO, and drastically slow talks with Ukraine, achieving another foreign policy goal of Russia. The US is going to have to demonstrate that our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan will not prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies, while at the same time avoiding an outright conflict with Russia. How well we succeed will be shown in the choices of Eastern European countries like Poland, Czech Republic, and Ukraine – Will they respond to a more agressive Russia by huddling under the US missile shield, or will they perceive the US as weak and unreliable and start trying to appease the eastern giant?

The whole situation seems more like 1968 that 2008. In that year, Russia took advantage of the US engagement in Vietnam to use military force to crush the “Prague Spring” uprising in Czechoslovakia. While the ideological conflict of the Cold War is gone, Russian geopolitical concerns are the same as they have always been. Russia’s economy is powered by oil, and as long as the price of oil remains high they should be able to pay for future military adventures.

Here’s one take on how the US should proceed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t enlighten much as to how we are supposed to pressure the Russians without the credible threat of military force:

Posted in Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , | 6 Comments »