Global Thoughts — 7 February 2008

Jeremy, our little peacenik 6 months old today, says Give Peas a Chance.

After Super Tuesday, the prospects are that either Clinton, Obama or McCain will be the next president. Bloomberg is presumably staying put since he and McCain would be fighting for the same independent voters and the two are considered friends. For the past half year, Bloomberg had little reason to believe McCain’s candidacy would be going anywhere. One thing this exercise has taught is that there is no end-running the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Giuliani tried and failed with his strategy to bank on later-voting states. Yesterday’s voting showed that many white people will vote for a black man if not a woman and that people did turn out to vote for one of them instead of many staying home and leaving only some to actually vote. I personally am surprised that Democrats did vote as much as they did. 

I will go out on a limb here and predict that if Obama winds up being the nominee and goes against McCain, Obama could actually beat McCain. Obama polls better against McCain than Clinton does. The Republican establishment doesn’t go for him; the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like him and Rupert Murdoch just switched from Clinton to Obama. Interestingly, a lot of the Washington Democratic establishment who were involved in the Clinton Administration are also going for Obama. William Kristol has an interesting column in the New York Times discussing this recently. When I predicted that Obama would be flavor of the month, I underestimated how much the Democratic establishment would split off and start backing Obama, a man who really isn’t qualified to be president. Consider though that John F. Kennedy probably had not much more going for him either at that point in his life beyond a fabulously wealthy father and a charismatic appeal to voters, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Half the amount of Republicans versus Democrats voted this week which demonstrates a lack of interest in McCain among the masses. Given that this is the first time in a generation that Americans have a choice between something other than a Clinton or a Bush, it is going to be mighty attractive not to vote for Clinton. Clinton is a problem because hardly anyone believes that she believes what she says. They want to vote for someone that believes in something; McCain and Obama qualify in this respect but McCain wants to stay in Iraq and Obama wants out, the economy is hurting, the Iraq war is a good reason why we are in recession, and I think people will vote for Obama for a real change. Right now, Iraq doesn’t seem so bad but I think that the American policy is not as much succeeding as the Sunnis have been letting up on the violence as a change in tactics and alliances was tried; the fractures within Iraq are so great that this might end and we will back to the level of violence we saw last year later on this year and McCain will again be in the doghouse as Iraq goes. So far, Obama seems like a disciplined candidate and he debates well. Hillary Clinton is having trouble raising money in the last month (she raised $13 million) and right now had to borrow $5 million of her own money to fund the campaign which is a big problem considering Obama raised $32 million last month. Also, she has mainly maxed out people who have made their maximum contribution; Obama has many smaller contributions meaning he can still hit the same people up for more donations without running afoul of federal limits. McCain is subject to self-destruct over an 8 month campaign and a lot can happen. Obama could of course trip up; Clinton could technically beat Obama on delegates. Obama could be assassinated. Al Qaeda is gearing up to try and strike inside the US in the hopes of influencing the November election — presumably they want to see a Republican president elected who will keep chasing terrorists in the Middle East which is great for their business and a terrorist attack in October will make people think twice about electing Obama or Clinton. Lots of things could happen. At least we all will get to see a real race for the presidency this year.

Olmert in Israel is basically sitting pretty after the Winograd Commission report cast so much blame around on everybody that nobody in particular got blamed. Shortly after the military campaign  I remarked that the danger in the fact that the whole system had been corrupted was that nobody in particular would feel the need to change. I believe that the military has internalized its failures and is working to change and that Ehud Barak as defense minister is a good thing and that it would be silly for him to leave the government and have an election that would put Bibi Netanyahu in as prime minister. Nobody is really expecting him to leave under such circumstances. If you join me in believing that ultimately the Israeli military runs the show and that politicians basically choose from a list of options handed to them by the military who ultimately set the stage that the conflict plays on, then you have to believe that the military made the ultimate failure in the war for not having a game plan and knowing how to execute it; it wasn’t helped that the chief of staff was from the air force and knew little about how to run a ground operation which was ultimately necessary. The chief of staff was put in because he was a yes-man to Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal — this was the consequence of having him in his position. 

The Israelis have a lot on their plate — they have to decide if and when to invade Gaza and how to deal with Iran and to probably do so in the next 4-6 months. First up with Iran will be to see how their domestic elections go next month. Even the Russians are worried with the Iranian missile launches this past week. In the longer range, the Israelis will set about building a wall to border Gaza, and Egypt will be perfectly happy to let the Israelis box the Gazans in. They didn’t like what happened last month — it upset the order, but they couldn’t be seen to be against the Palestinians and they don’t want to have Gaza dumped on Egypt so the box-in is where it’s going. They also realize that Hamas is interested in using Gaza as a base to take on the Egyptian government; they were trying to kidnap Egyptian soldiers just last week. Hamas won the battle last month but will lose the war as Gaza gets boxed. Interestingly, even though Gazans found things they wanted in Egypt, the infrastructure in Gaza is much better than Egypt and they were intrigued to realize how good they still have it.

Lebanon and Iran — Lebanon is in a poor state; the parties can’t agree among themselves and the country has no future as long as it carries on as it is. The nation is destined to be in a civil war as long as Syria and Iran keep stirring the pot for their own purposes. In Iran, the upcoming elections are being rigged so much by the mullahs that it might behoove the reformists to simply boycott the elections. Less than 10% of the seats up for grabs are allowing them to participate anyway.

An essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine on January 27 by Parag Khanna called Who Shrunk the Superpower is worth a read and is one of the better holistic views of the world today and where it’s going that I have read in a while. The author writes that America is being bypassed by third world countries in terms of setting foreign policies and that it is more than China that is doing so. A combination of Europe, Russia, China and other countries such as Turkey and Iran will be setting the agenda in the decades ahead and the US needs to get a better grip on figuring out how it will navigate the various parties in pursuit of its interests. In short, it recommends that the US move toward building a consensus of interests instead of simply trying to pursue its own interests because it doesn’t have the weight to convince people that they have to be with the US or against the US. It is rather the US that will have to be with others in order to get its way. He calls for massive investments in infrastructure and foreign aid with companies aligning themselves with government much as is the case in Europe and China so that the US could get more influence around the world given that the other powers of the world are doing these things. Turkey is building roads in the region beyond its borders; Europe is building pipelines; China is building infrastructure in Africa, while the US sends an army to Iraq to get bogged down in an expensive campaign that has made it unwelcome throughout the Middle East, cuts down its foreign service and sees its own infrastructure crumbling. It’s not a pretty picture.

An essay in Stratfor out this week also minimizes the foreign policy impact caused by the election of any one of the American presidential candidates. Fred Burton essentially posits that presidents react to world events rather than shape them and that it is less important what presidents intend to do than how gracefully they submit to the realities that rise up around them.

Although I believe that personal diplomacy cannot trump true national interests and that in today’s world a bunch of thugs can at least for a time hold nations hostage (ie: 9/11) and drive an agenda, there is room for initiative and personality. Peace in the Middle East may not come about because the American President drives the parties to make it, but nothing will happen if a president is not involved, if for no reason other than to supply a party to the negotiation with plausible deniability in making a compromise (ie: don’t look at me, it was HIS idea).  It is like advertising — you don’t know what will happen if you do advertise, but you do know what will happen if you don’t. George Bush didn’t get up every morning trying to figure out what he could do as president; he probably gets up every day being told what he has to do as president, and there is a difference. Frankly, I don’t think that Clinton will do differently; I think she will stay the safe route. McCain will have ideas but he has trouble getting people on his side and will probably use the bully pulpit to become irrelevant after a year and in any event is not likely to be more than a one-term president due to his age which makes him a lame duck before he starts. Obama is likely to try and do things, and could succeed if he knows enough to get good advisors and play the clubhouse. Obama’s history as a legislator is to propose things and then compromise with the various interests if he knows he has no choice and lobbyists from industries he has worked with have contributed mightily to his campaign. So I guess he knows how to play the game when he has to.
US Economy — Finally, rents in some parts of Manhattan decreased by 7% last month over last year and a major developer is going bankrupt. The runny nose is finally catching up to our little island. Perhaps later this year a cold will break out. As I have said, there is a recession and the markets will get worse before they get better. The new Fed chairman is not getting high marks so far from the business community. An interesting thing is the buying up of corporate stock by officers and directors; they feel the market has undervalued their companies so this is a good long-term sign. Interesting to note how Microsoft is increasingly being viewed as a has-been company that is not in the top leagues for the future. This perception is running into their recruiting and acquisition efforts. Microsoft has to do something big to keep themselves at the forefront of people’s imaginations if they are to recruit and stay on top. Google on the other hand is considered an exciting place to be. The Yahoo folk don’t really want to be bought by Microsoft.

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