Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Summer Vacation

Hi folks:

Unshred will be on vacation for a few days... see you next week.

Brexit Row – How Soft the Landing?

Most of what riled those who supported Brexit was the open and free movement of people throughout a borderless Europe, exacerbated by an additional Schengen vote that further emphasized unrestricted movement. It was a reaction against migrants moving up and out of a very violent Middle East and white workers from Eastern Europe (especially Poland) entering the UK in search of jobs. Others railed at the litany of laws emanating from the European Commission and lower administrative bodies that seemed to usurp Britain’s rule over itself.
Whatever the reason, a referendum on June 23, 2016 pushed the UK to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union and announce its withdrawal from the EU, effective March 29, 2019. A deer-in-the-headlights Britain stood stunned at the result. Nobody knew what leaving the EU would really mean. The UK owed billions in unpaid contributions to the EU. Britain had stopped rule-making on economic issues, since these were now directed out of Brussels, even though the UK was a powerful voting member. Without EU rules, there was about to be a massive British void without laws or regulations. Parliament began to struggle on how to move over regulations that would soon disappear into the British legal system. Which rules? Which laws? Who was to decide?
Companies that relied on UK-residency to satisfy European licensing requirements (particularly relevant in the financial world) or to receive the benefits of being a UK manufacturer began to open new offices and plants in other European cities, vacating vast office space holdings in and around London. Europeans who has relocated to Britain, and Brits who had relocated to continental Europe realized that their residency status would no longer be automatically affirmed. Confusion reigned supreme.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May presides over the very Conservative Party that led the charge to support Brexit. As time as progressed, May seems to have reached the conclusion that a hard Brexit, a true and full British separation from the EU, would result in an economically perilous path with unknown consequences. Economists have predicted that such a go-it-alone Trumpian strategy would effectively kill UK growth rates for the near and middle term.
But the right-wing faction of the Conservative Party looks at a continuation of the economic bridge between the UK and Europe as precisely what they wanted to end. Britain would still find its economic issues mired in the EU financial and legal system, even if such a coordinated effort would create far less displacement than a clean and radical break. By early July the internal schism within the Conservatives, moderate soft-Brexit supporters versus right-wing hard-Brexit advocates, came to a head.
“Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was plunged into disarray Monday [July 9th] with the resignation of her flamboyant foreign secretary, Boris Johnson [pictured above before the June 2016 referendum], who quit in protest of May’s plans for a so-called soft Brexit, which would maintain close trade ties with Europe… Such a scenario, Johnson wrote in his resignation letter, could result in Britain being relegated to ‘the status of a colony’ of the European Union… The rebellion within her Conservative Party illustrated May’s dire political weakness less than nine months before the split is to take effect in March.
“Johnson’s departure came less than 24 hours after that of another key Cabinet member, David Davis, who was tasked with overseeing Brexit… May says it is crucial to avoid a ‘hard’ Brexit — a departure from the EU without a deal in place. Such a scenario could wreak havoc on Britain’s financial sector and the wider economy… ‘This is the Brexit that is in our national interest,’ she told a raucous session of Parliament shortly after Johnson’s departure was announced by Downing Street.
“Under the prime minister’s plan, to which her Cabinet had agreed last week, Britain would keep close trade ties to the EU and remain subject to some of its regulatory mechanisms. That prospect set off a wave of anger from those who considered Brexit a ringing declaration of independence from the bureaucracy in Brussels… British news reports speculated that the ambitious Johnson might be readying a challenge to May for the leadership of the party, potentially setting himself up to become prime minister.
“Backers of Brexit say May’s plan would hobble Britain’s ability to make trade deals of its own and leave it subject to the very EU regulations it sought to leave behind in the referendum vote two years ago… Under the timetable, Britain is to formally leave the bloc on March 29, 2019. But the negotiations have bogged down repeatedly as the clock has been running down.
“May’s party could stage a no-confidence vote if 48 Conservative lawmakers ask for one. That could become more likely if she loses the backing of more senior ministers… Before leaving May’s government, Johnson had likened her Brexit proposal to excrement, using a more vulgar term.
“But the prime minister may be playing hardball as well. Johnson was still crafting a resignation statement when May’s office announced he was leaving… The political blowup [came] just three days before a visit by Trump, who is highly unpopular in Britain.” Los Angeles Times, July 10th.
Oddly, Theresa May’s greatest arguments are enhanced by that anti-Trump sentiment that is rampant all over Europe, especially in the UK. Trump’s isolationism and confrontational style have seriously alienated many of the same Brits who once believed in him. While split within the Conservative Party will result in a battle royal, as only the Brits can mount, the more May links Johnson and his ilk to Donald Trump, the stronger the likelihood of a soft landing for Brexit.
I’m Peter Dekom, and will a backlash against hard-Brexit populism prevail in the UK… and will there be a parallel movement in the United States?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Courtship and a Powerful Lurch to the Right

The United States Supreme Court is “judgment proof.” There is no reversing it on constitutional issues, and the U.S. Constitution is the least amendable such foundational document in the democratic world. While the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in 1972, might someday generate the necessary statewide approval (one more state needs to ratify), the last amendment to the constitution, the 27th which necessitates an intervening election for Congress to give itself a raise), passed in 1992 but was introduced in 1789. Wow!
In the 20th century, several major Republican appointees to the bench have gravitated slightly or even greatly towards the left. No one evidenced that trend like Eisenhower-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren (former Republican governor of California), an activist jurist who became a major civil rights activist. Republican Ronald Reagan appointed now-retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice, Anthony Kennedy, in 1987. He became known as the “swing judge” who actually moved the court to support gay marriage by his vote.
With Kennedy gone, it is clear that the President’s advisors did not want to pick a judge who was likely to leave those most conservative leanings over time. Trump selected 53-year-old Brett Kavanaugh, a respected jurist whose staunch conservative leanings are solidly documented during his tenure as a justice on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, often considered to be the second most important court in the land. And while the confirmation fight is expected to be vituperative, it is very interesting to note that since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Supreme Court has already handed conservatives a litany of decisions while virtually blanking out liberal issues where it really matters. Justice Kennedy swayed back towards his conservative roots in his final year on the bench.
Writing for the ABA Journal (July 6th), UC Berkeley School of Law Dean, Edwin Chemerinsky explains that pattern of post-Trump election decisions by that court: “Conservatives won virtually every major U.S. Supreme Court case decided during the 2017 October term. Kennedy leaving the court and likely being replaced by someone even more conservative, makes this term the harbinger of what is likely to come for a long time.
“I cannot think of another term since October 1935 in which conservatives prevailed in so many important cases during a single term. One reflection of this is found by looking at the 5-4 decisions. There were 19 5-4 rulings out of 63 decisions this most recent term. Kennedy voted with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito and Neil M. Gorsuch in 14 of them. He voted with the liberal justices–Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan–zero times. A year ago, in the ideologically divided cases, Kennedy was with the liberals 57 percent of the time. Two years ago, Kennedy was the key vote to uphold the University of Texas’s affirmative action program and to strike down key provisions of Texas’s restrictive abortion law… Sometimes the court ruled broadly; at other times narrowly. But almost always, it was in the directions that conservatives preferred.”
Indeed, cases supported Christian cake-makers who refused to provide a cake for the celebration of a gay marriage, upheld the President’s travel ban, ruled that public service employees could not be forced to pay union dues even if they benefited from the collective bargaining agreement, decided against a California law requiring family planning clinics to provide information involving contraception and abortion and found technical reasons not to consider the Constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. The only concession to liberal values was a requirement that, before accessing GPS location tracking information in a criminal investigation, police must first secure a warrant.
Given the age of the liberal justices, if Donald Trump is able to appoint more replacements to the court, the court will swing severely right for decades, no matter who is elected to every other federal office. Even without having that benefit, given the age of most of the conservative justices on that bench, the United States is in for a very long period of pro-business, anti-environmental and financial regulatory positions and severe limits to civil rights. These court appointments are the most “successful” results – if you lean severe right – of any Republican president in recent memory.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I am afraid that the United States is finished taking three steps forward for a very long time; this is the time where it is taking four steps back.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why No Thank You Note from Iran?

It really started when George W. Bush, ignoring his own father’s (former President George H.W. Bush’s) dire admonitions to the contrary, deposed Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s dictator. Adhering to Vice President Dick Cheney’s philosophical commitment to a powerful “unitary executive” in times of accelerating change and major upheaval, W agreed that only a major threat, a necessary war to save our nation, could reverse a post-Vietnam War congressional mandate to hem in a president from taking serious military steps without their approval. Fabricating non-existent threat of “weapons of mass destruction,” Bush-the-younger justified a war against Hussein just to get Congress to take off those post-Vietnam shackles. He succeeded. And we further destabilized the Middle East, and empowered modern Iran to take us on, for the foreseeable future.
You see, Hussein spoke for the 20% minority of Sunni Muslims in Iraq, containing the then-60% of Iraqis who were Shiites. Since the 1979 Revolution that installed a Shiite theocracy in neighboring Iran, Iran’s leaders assumed the role of religious authority (very import in Shiite doctrine where only religious leaders can interpret the Koran) for the entire Shiite faith. Effectively, with Hussein and his Sunni cronies gone, Iran used that sympathetic 60% Shiite Iraqi majority to take effective political control of Iraq through its puppet politicians. Al Qaeda and ISIS became the new spokesmen for the now disenfranchised Sunni minority in Iraq, noting that the new Shiite government in Baghdad was hell-bent on retaliating against Sunnis.
Iran’s power exploded in the region. Empowered by regional expansion, gloating over the clear stupidity of the U.S. hand-over of Iraq to their control, Iran determined to press further. Stinging from major losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, interminable combat, the United States seemed to withdraw from further regional military confrontation. Iran’s leadership was delighted. The only positive force that countered Iran’s aggressive movements and its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, was the six nation Iran nuclear accord (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA)… from which Donald Trump withdrew the United States back in May of this year.
Writing for the July 6th The Cipher Brief, Kenneth M. Pollack, a Resident Scholar of the American Enterprise Institute (where he specializes in Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing particularly on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries) explains: “Over the past decade, Iran has made tremendous gains across the Middle East by taking advantage of America’s disengagement and the instability of the Arab state system.  As a result, Iran today dominates the northern tier of the Arab world and plays a damaging role in Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf.
“The hard part is figuring how to do so, especially given that the American people are unlikely to want to pony up massive resources for such an effort and the United States is vulnerable to an Iranian counterattack in a variety of places.
“The Trump Administration has fully embraced the idea of pushing back on Iran, but it has focused almost exclusively on economic sanctions as the means of pushing back, and primarily on Iran’s nuclear program as the goal.  The problem with this approach is that Iran’s nuclear program is largely an enabler of the primary threat, which is Iran’s aggressive expansion into and destabilization of the Middle East.  The United States could remove the Iranian nuclear program from the Middle Eastern chessboard altogether and it would not eliminate the threat of Iran’s regional behavior or even slow it down, as we have seen since the passage of the JCPOA, which did effectively, that.  Sanctions on Iran could do tremendous damage to the already fragile Iranian economy, but even if those sanctions are largely respected by the rest of the international community, it is just not clear that Tehran’s hardliners will give in, or be overthrown.  Finally, pursuing a strategy in a way that the rest of the world finds odious, makes it far harder to get international support for halting or reversing Iran’s steady march across the Middle East…
I remain conscious of the limitations on American power and the ability of Iran to retaliate in various ways and places.  Consequently, my proposed approach would shy away from confronting Iran in areas where it is stronger than we are, Lebanon first among them.  I advocate remaining in (or rejoining) the JCPOA because doing so would bolster our alliances with European and East Asian states whose help would be useful, if not necessary, in dealing with Iran’s inevitable responses.  Finally, I think it useful for the United States and its allies to begin to develop the capability to pursue regime change in Tehran by covert and cyber means.  However, I would hold it in check as a deterrent against an overreaction by Iran.  I would not try it out in the short-term or make regime change an immediate goal of the policy.  But as long as Tehran knows that the United States has been building a capacity to destabilize or even overturn the Islamic regime, it will likely moderate its own responses.”
The obvious difficulty with this approach, however reasonable it may sound, is that the United States really does not have many allies left to support its policy decisions. Trump has gone out of his way to antagonize, insult and even punish economically nations that have been our staunch supporters for decades, if not even a century or more. We are alone, a rogue state with much of the rest of the world circling their wagons against us. We have applied our “America First” doctrine to “ignore the rest.” What we should do, what we may want to do about Iran, just may have left the building.
Iran’s economy may be reeling. Its adventurous extra-territorial military efforts may be sapping their resources. But they can thank Donald J Trump for keeping Iran’s enemies confused, America’s allies seeking realignment against U.S. policies and his rhetoric so arrogant and alienating that America’s waning influence over the entire Middle East (except for Israel) is all but gone.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the list of countries that have been emboldened and more globally aggressive due to U.S. policies is growing long, most preeminently, China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.