x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A dangerous power vacuum in Washington

Barack Obama won't take office until January but many observers say strong presidential leadership is needed now in order to tackle the global economic crisis and help stem the increasing loss of confidence in financial markets. While piracy captures global attention, Somalia's desperate plight is largely ignored. As Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be heading towards becoming its next prime minister, Israel is seen as taking a step backward while the world moves forward.

"George W Bush was the US president at an economic summit here this weekend, but many foreign leaders were focused on President-elect Barack Obama instead," The Washington Post reported from Lima, Peru. "Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned Obama against plans to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it would worsen a global financial crisis. Chinese President Hu Jintao said he hoped Obama would recognise the importance of US-China ties while treading carefully on the thorny issue of Taiwan. "And Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in an impassioned speech to delegates at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Saturday, warned Obama that any tightening of trade restrictions would send a flood of illegal immigrants into the United States. " 'The next US administration must assume leadership in a very firm manner - not just for Americans but for the whole world,' Calderon said." Newsweek said: "In ordinary times, a leisurely transition and the fact that congress is full of lame ducks for nine weeks don't matter much. In ordinary times, the lack of civic-minded business leaders with credibility and a desire to exert forceful leadership doesn't matter much either. But as the president-elect has acknowledged, these are not ordinary times. A sense of drift has gripped the politico-economic nexus of New York and Washington, and the markets have begun to fear that what was already a major recession could turn worse. Panic sent the yield on the only known safe investment haven, US Treasury bonds, to record lows of less than 1 per cent in some cases. What that means is that people don't even expect to earn profits anymore; they just don't want their money to disappear entirely. Investors have been unwilling to commit capital to a wide range of stock sectors (financial, auto, insurance, housing) because they don't know the amount or scope of federal aid. "So pervasive has the panic become that some critics were starting to point fingers back at Chicago [where the president-elect's transition team is based]. To be sure, Obama doesn't have the power to do much of anything to right the economy during this transition period, but what he can do is reassure the markets by quickly making clear the course he plans to take, with a detailed map of his economic rescue plan - something the Obama team has been loath to do so far. Even some Obama advisers admitted to a sense of puzzlement over the president-elect's seeming slowness in fleshing out his stimulus and auto-bailout proposals. "As the markets continued to tank, Obama answered his critics in part on Nov 21, settling on Timothy Geithner as his likely new Treasury secretary.... "The Geithner appointment, and Obama's announcement Saturday that he is developing a two-year stimulus plan including new job-creating investments in infrastructure and alternative energy, are signs that he is beginning to grasp the economic rudder. Even so, many say more will be expected from Obama before he takes office. Rep Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, told Newsweek he has urged the president-elect to make a statement right away asking that Paulson's Troubled Asset Relief Program - or Tarp - be redirected for wide-scale mortgage relief. 'It has become important for him to speak out about that,' Frank told Newsweek. 'My sense is that Paulson is steering clear of any further use of the Tarp because he doesn't want to pre-empt the president-elect. But the danger is Obama will get blamed for Paulson's decision' to hold back the money. New Jersey Gov Jon Corzine, another Obama adviser, urged the president-elect to push for a stimulus 'north of $600 billion.' 'You have to pick a programme that is going to have overwhelming force,' Corzine told Newsweek. To reverse market psychology, Obama should 'get something together that could be proposed the moment he's sworn in.' " The New York Times reported: "In an inauguration year congress usually convenes in early January, a few weeks before the inauguration, then members leave again. This year, however, they intend to stay and work in anticipation of the president's inauguration and the heavy agenda he is expected to bring. With the economy likely to get worse before it gets better, Mr Axelrod [a senior adviser to the president-elect] said, 'We want to hit the ground running on Jan 20,' the day of Mr Obama's inauguration. He said a plan should be 'big enough to deal with the huge problem we face.' "Mr Obama said Saturday that he hoped to sign the stimulus package into law soon after taking office. He is already coordinating efforts with Democratic leaders in congress. "But some members of congress said Sunday that even that might not be soon enough - Senator Joseph I Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, said that President Bush and Mr Obama should work together now to put a stimulus package in place by early next year. Otherwise, he said, the Obama approach would probably take until the second quarter of next year, 'and that's too long.' " In looking for a creative fix for working around the delay in the transfer of power, Thomas Friedman wrote: "What we can do now, though, said the congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, co-author of The Broken Branch, is 'ask President Bush to appoint Tim Geithner, Barack Obama's proposed Treasury secretary, immediately.' Make him a Bush appointment and let him take over next week. This is not a knock on Hank Paulson. It's simply that we can't afford two months of transition where the markets don't know who is in charge or where we're going. At the same time, Congress should remain in permanent session to pass any needed legislation. "This is the real 'Code Red'. As one banker remarked to me: 'We finally found the WMD.' They were buried in our own backyard - subprime mortgages and all the derivatives attached to them. "Yet, it is obvious that President Bush can't mobilise the tools to defuse them - a massive stimulus program to improve infrastructure and create jobs, a broad-based homeowner initiative to limit foreclosures and stabilise housing prices, and therefore mortgage assets, more capital for bank balance sheets and, most importantly, a huge injection of optimism and confidence that we can and will pull out of this with a new economic team at the helm. "The last point is something only a new President Obama can inject. What ails us right now is as much a loss of confidence - in our financial system and our leadership - as anything else. I have no illusions that Obama's arrival on the scene will be a magic wand, but it would help. "Right now there is something deeply dysfunctional, bordering on scandalously irresponsible, in the fractious way our political elite are behaving - with business as usual in the most unusual economic moment of our lifetimes. They don't seem to understand: Our financial system is imperiled." The Los Angeles Times reported: "With a series of forceful actions in recent days, amid an almost unprecedented set of challenges, Barack Obama has taken an unusual step for a president-elect: attempting to alter the country's perilous course even before he takes office. "The most dramatic example came Saturday, when Obama announced a far more aggressive economic stimulus plan than previously promised - a two-year programme to add 2.5 million jobs that he said represented 'an early down payment on the type of reform my administration will bring to Washington.' "That announcement was the latest indication that the president-elect has decided to use the transition period to influence events at a time of crisis, when the current administration appears powerless to stop a slide. " 'There's no question that Bush is still president, but people are looking for signs to see what's going to happen going forward,' said an Obama aide who, like others, requested anonymity when discussing deliberations inside the transition. 'We're going to attempt to do that in this period.' "

While piracy captures global attention, Somalia's desperate plight is ignored

"While the world has focused on the rampant piracy problem afflicting the Gulf of Aden, which saw yet another tanker held for ransom last week, the seizing of ships is only a symptom of a much more terrifying malaise," wrote Peter Beaumont in The Observer. "What it points to is the wholesale failure of a state and the international community's abandonment of the Somalia problem except where it affects its interests - in terms of shipping trade and the 'war on terror' for the West and on a more local scale for the regional interests of Ethiopia and Eritrea. "Last week, however, the African Union Commission's chairman, Jean Ping, reiterated what many are convinced of: that the piracy problem is inseparable from Somalia's caustic political and security problems. 'Piracy is an extension on the sea of the problem you are facing on the land ... [it] is an important aspect of all the disorder you already have in Somali territory,' he said. "Somalia is not so much a failed state as one that is atomising. Forty-three per cent of the country is in dire need of humanitarian assistance, about 3.2 million people at the last count. There are 1.3 million internally displaced, 100,000 of them fleeing the fighting in Mogadishu alone since the beginning of September. Inflation is running at 1,600 per cent. One in six children in southern and central Somalia is acutely malnourished." In The Daily Star, Rami G Khouri wrote: "Somali piracy has suddenly captured international attention, because global sea-borne assets are now threatened, though the suffering and death of Somalis remain strangely invisible to the outside world. The global response has been a colossal failure in understanding what all this really means. Most comments I have heard focus on the need for greater security cooperation, a sort of 'surge-at-sea' strategy to defeat the pirates militarily. This is probably futile in the long run if it only focuses on defeating criminality without addressing the underlying causes of state collapse that gave birth to the piracy phenomenon in the first place. "The deeper symbolism and lessons in the Somali piracy phenomenon reflect the modern history of the two actors in this latest incident - Somalia and Saudi Arabia. They nicely capture three dominant trends that have defined the modern Arab world in the past 50 years or so. "First, that of wealthy oil-producing states and their Arab security-state allies that have spent trillions of dollars on state-building, without credibly achieving sustainable development, reliable security, or respect and influence around the world. "Second, the sad history of low-income Arab countries that were born distorted thanks to the European colonial enterprise, and then suffered decades of home-grown dictatorships and incompetent governance, leading to total state collapse, as in Somalia. "And third, the erratic performance of world powers in such cases, whether alternately supporting and attacking regimes in Somalia, willfully sending in foreign troops (including Ethiopian proxies most recently), or ignoring the consequences of such foreign intervention when the state collapses into chaos and criminality." Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reported: "The piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean took a dramatic new twist as gunmen from Somalia's hardline Islamist movement entered the fray in hope of spoils from the hijacked Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star. "The fighters from the Shabaab militia, a fundamentalist movement likened to an African Taliban, were reported to have turned up in the port of Haradheere in southern Somalia, close to where the tanker is currently anchored. "Some reports said the Islamists, who have tried to impose brutal law and order on Somalia's warring clans, had the pirates themselves in their sights. "Others in Haradheere, however, said it was thought that they had arrived in the hope of collecting a share of any ransom money."

'The world is moving forward, while Israel is taking a step backward'

Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan said: "Prepare for war. Last week I met the Boogie Man, the former head of the Israeli Defence Forces, General Moshe 'Boogie' Ya'alon, who is preparing the political groundwork for a military attack on Iran's key nuclear facilities. 'We have to confront the Iranian revolution immediately,' he told me. 'There is no way to stabilise the Middle East today without defeating the Iranian regime. The Iranian nuclear program must be stopped.' "Defeating the theocratic regime in Tehran could be economic or political or, as a last resort, military, he said. 'All tools, all options, should be considered.' He was speaking in the tranquillity of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, where he was, until last Thursday, one of Israel's plethora of warrior-scholars, though more influential than most. "Could 'all options' include decapitating the Iranian leadership by military strikes, including on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel's destruction? 'We have to consider killing him,' Ya'alon replied. 'All options must be considered.' " In Haaretz, the columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote: "The elections for the 17th Knesset have already been decided: Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next prime minister. Nothing will change the current trend, which was reflected in polls this weekend. At a time when the entire world, including Israel, is amazed and moved by the miracle election of Barack Obama, Israel is on the verge of electing George Bush. "Tzipi Livni will not become less feeble, and Ehud Barak will not fix his waywardness. And the new left-wing party in the works will not make a difference one way or the other - it is too little, too late. Israelis intend to vote for the conservative, right-wing, nationalist, bellicose candidate - the Israeli Bush. The world is moving forward, while Israel is taking a step backward. "Netanyahu may not be as awful as it would appear for the left, but the sweeping support he enjoys in the polls signals to us and to the world, including the Arab world, the true nature of Israeli society. Good riddance to the deceptive myth that most Israelis want peace; you can forget about all the deceitful polls that showed most of the public supports a two-state solution. No solution and no two states, but only the truth, which once again has been exposed: a nationalistic, belligerent society electing its spitting image as its leader."

pwoodward@thenational.ae