Obama Inherited The Iraq Mess, But He Made It Worse

WASHINGTON – So, “Did Obama lose Iraq”? Is it Obama’s fault that a country once at the center of US foreign and security policies is now falling apart? Well, yes and no.

Plenty of blame

There is plenty of blame for lots of US policy-makers. Of course, it is easy to say that “it is all George Bush’s fault”. He believed (or made up, according to partisan critics) the intelligence whereby Iraq’s stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMDs, (that were not there, as it turned out), represented an immediate security threat for the United States. And so he ordered the invasion of Iraq that started in March 2003.

Well, the rosy scenarios of a quick war followed by an easy transition to pluralism and democracy –all funded by abundant Iraqi oil– turned to be disastrously wrong. Soon after the successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq became a nightmare.

Incompetent occupation

Thanks to a spectacularly incompetent occupation policy, US forces watched as Iraq started falling apart. It took years of heavy losses, destruction, Sunni-Shia sectarian fighting, not to mention extreme suffering for Iraqi civilians, to pacify this sorry country.

That said, when George W. Bush left office, Iraq was reasonably at peace, while a legitimate civilian government was in charge.

Obama: we are done with Iraq

But after Obama took over in Washington, the general feeling was that America was done with Iraq. And it would appear that US negotiators did not press the Iraqi government too much when they created difficulties regarding the conditions under which a residual US force would be allowed to stay in Iraq after the formal end of the occupation. Because these negotiations failed, all American soldiers left Iraq.

ISIL: from Syria to Iraq

Then the Arab Spring came along, and with that the beginning of the upheaval in Syria against President Assad. As we know, America did nothing to support the relatively moderate Syrian opposition. As a result, the anti-Assad insurgency became a magnet for all sorts of Arab factions and movements. Little by little, Islamic radicals became a dominant component of the anti-Assad resistance.

However, this really bad and worrisome development gave the Obama administration a perfect excuse not to intervene. Indeed: “Assad, bad guy. Opposition, also bad guys. Sadly, nobody reliable America can support. End of story”.

Fair enough. But then the really bad guys (ISIL) took over a chunk of Syria and they used it as a base of operations to conquer Northern Iraq. This happened rather suddenly.

Still, the US had the opportunity to react to this major military and political shift. But Washington did nothing. And so the radical ISIL (or ISIS) forces established themselves and even announced the formation of a brand new Islamic Caliphate, (no, this is not a joke), encompassing all the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.

ISIL occupying Iraq? Blame al Maliki

As this was getting really serious, what did Obama do? Essentially nothing, except for blaming the sectarian Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki. With cause, Washington argued that al Maliki discriminated against the Iraqi Sunnis, this way opening the door for the Sunni ISIL forces to come into the country, essentially unopposed. Again, while this is largely true, what about actions aimed at stopping ISIL? Nothing.

In the meantime, ISIL forces consolidated their power and started  advancing towards the Kurdish region in the North East of Iraq. Again, Obama did nothing. It took a new humanitarian crisis in the shape of a religious minority chased out by the deranged ISIL forces to trigger –at last– an American reaction.

Finally, some US action

Finally America started bombing from the air ISIL forces, while it seems that America is now sending weapons and ammunitions to the peshmerga, the Kurdish armed militia.

Now, will this truly belated American response to a crisis that had already morphed into a disaster turn things around? Who knows really. Much depends on the intensity of the US air campaign and the perception that America really means business this time.

Of course, the political crisis in Baghdad does not help. Indeed, following in part US advice, the Iraqis are trying to get rid of divisive al Maliki. But, so far at least, he does not want to go. And so, what does this mean? Are we talking civil war in Iraq, on top of everything else? Hopefully not; but it is too early to tell.

Blame Bush?

Still, be that as it may, it is a bit simplistic to say that all this is  George W. Bush’s fault, because after all he started this mess with the ill-advised 2003 invasion. After ll, in 2009 Obama inherited the Iraq problem created by Bush. All this is true.

Obama made it worse

However, Obama has been president for 6 years now. And it is rather obvious that he managed the deteriorating Iraq situation very poorly. While he did not create the problem, his negligence made it a lot worse.




US Air Power Hits Just A Few Small ISIL Targets In Iraq

WASHINGTON – I recently argued that Obama’s military intervention in Iraq, (through air strikes, no ground troops), lacks conviction, and a clear “war winning” strategy. Looking at the headlines, I notice (with dismay) that I was right. 

A few small targets

Indeed, the mighty US Air Force and US Naval Aviation, probably the best in the world when it comes to air power, managed to hit ISIL forces in Northern Iraq, currently threatening Iraqi Kurdistan, in the following way: 1 enemy mortar position destroyed, 3 vehicles destroyed, and a few more damaged.

Pin pricks

Well, what can I say. I do hope that this was just a warming up round of air attacks. Because if this (ridiculous?) use of US air power defines the level of the US military engagement in this really dangerous Iraq conflict, then we have a new low to define what a “pin prick” military action is.

US power should be used sparingly and advisedly. But when we have decided to engage a truly dangerous enemy like ISIL (or ISIS) that feels invincible simply because so far it has encountered no real resistance, then we should hit their forces massively.

Inflict maximum damage

The point is to inflict maximum damage to ISIL forces, fuel depots, command, control and communications systems, and supply lines. With a devastating attack we would also deliver a real blow to the moral of ISIL fighters. The forcefulness of the US air campaign must be such that it will convince them that from now it is all downhill for them.

What is the plan

This is rather elementary stuff. It is obvious to all military planners that a few strikes here and there that destroy a few enemy trucks will not do any of this. This being the case, then what kind of orders from the Commander in Chief is the Pentagon excuting? Assuming that President Obama has been informed by his national security team as to what it takes to have an effective air campaign, then I wonder what his Iraq game plan is.

Or, should we conclude that may be there is no plan?

 




Obama’s Intervention In Iraq Lacks Conviction

WASHINGTON – What I read in President Obama’s choice of words and demeanor in announcing this new US military engagement in Iraq is that he is doing this reluctantly and perhaps against his better judgement.

I do not want to do this

Whatever the President said, this is how I read it:

“Hey, I thought we were done with Iraq, that terrible place. I thought that the government in Baghdad, bad as it is, was more or less in charge, and that they would be able to handle their own security. Our troops are gone, as I promised. Now you are telling me that we have to go back? I do not want to go back into Iraq.”

“Are you telling me that there is no way out of this mess?  OK, if we really have to go back, let me make it clear that we will do only what seems indispensable. And, mark my words, no more US boots on the ground. We shall do as little as possible, and get out of there as soon as we can”.

This is how I read the President, and his palpable reluctance sends a terrible signal to both friends and enemies.

Use of force only if there is a clear intention to win

Of course, any time a President authorizes the use of force he has to consider the risks involved. But this is done privately, in debates with his national security team. Once the decision to take action has been made, the President must look and sound totally convinced of what he just ordered.

And, more than anything else, the President must convey to the world that America gets into a fight with the clear intention of winning, whatever it takes. This is not about showing the flag, or about token actions in order to placate domestic critics who argue for intervention.

Destroy the Caliphate

Whatever the specific circumstances of any use of force, the purpose has to be the achievement of a clear political goal. In this case, America’s goal has to be the destruction of this brand new, frankly grotesque, Islamic Caliphate. This de facto new state, now encompassing Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq, is an abomination that belongs to a preposterous Hollywood plot. But unfortunately it is quite real. It has already had a tragic impact on the lives of the poor Iraqis now subjected to deranged rulers whose barbaric models are in the Middle Ages.

No conviction

I really hope to be wrong. But the way Obama handled this new chapter in Iraq’s ongoing crisis is really pitiful. ISIL came along as a remarkably strong and disruptive military force at the beginning of the year. It was clearly a major threat to Iraq. Washington’s reaction? Well, as ISIL easily took over most of Northern Iraq, the USA did absolutely nothing to push them back.

Words, but no action

At the time, Washington argued in public that ISIL’s conquest of the Sunni areas of Iraq was all about divisive Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. He is a sectarian Shiite who has purposely alienated the Sunni minority. Time for the smart Iraqis to pick a better, more inclusive leader.

This analysis is correct, in principle. But assigning blame is not a policy when a large chunk of Iraq has been taken over by Islamic terrorists.

Finally, there is engagement

After that, months went by without a hint of any US action. We had to wait for the situation on the ground to get much worse, with additional gains for ISIL, now threatening the Kurds in the North East of Iraq.

In other words, with his inaction President Obama allowed a bad situation to become really terrible. Only now, when things are looking desperate, he decided to do something.

And, so far, the impression is that he is doing this reluctantly, without any conviction; and stressing that, whatever America will be doing in Iraq, this is not a military re-engagement in a war that technically ended years ago.

Is this leadership?

Leadership is about timely, effective action; but it is also about the ability to communicate real conviction. This action in Iraq announced by President Obama is not timely, and so far it lacks conviction.

As to its effectiveness, I pray that sustained US air strikes will be able at least to degrade the forces of this ISIL Caliphate-monstrosity. This new Islamic quasi-state is a calamity for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world. It should be destroyed. And the sooner, the better.




Palestinians Have Been Granted The Status Of Perpetual Refugees

WASHINGTON – Trying to do good, we may often make a bad situation a lot worse. Back in 1950 the United Nations, in its wisdom, created a special agency to assist Palestinian refugees –in perpetuity, as it turned out– called UNRWA, (United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in The Near East). It is reasonably well-funded and essentially unsupervised.

Permanent refugees

And here is the perversity. A temporary relief agency became a permanent aid body funded by the international community. At the beginning it recognized 750,000 refugees. Now this number has grown to 5.3 million. Essentially, for most Palestinians refugee status is a permanent entitlement. UNRWA is staffed by Palestinians and its employees in Gaza work with Hamas.

And here we get the picture. As the UN body provides basic aid and services that allow the poor Palestinians to survive in Gaza, Hamas is free to focus on its war plans against Israel.

In the meantime, nothing is done “to solve” the refugee problem, And so the poor Palestinians are in the unhappy condition of permanent refugees.

It is Israel fault

And this means two things. First of all, the international community is led to believe that it is all Israel’s fault because it created the refugee problem. And, secondly, all Palestinians get an international endorsement for their permanent grievances.

Refugees problems should be solved

Taking care of refugees is good. But the ultimate goal should be to find a permanent solution to a crisis. Refugees should be relocated, and not kept in camps and/or other (supposedly) short-term locations, essentially for ever.

Whatever its actual mission and intentions, UNRWA made a bad humanitarian situation a lot worse.

 




The War Against The East Has Ruined An Already Weak Ukrainian Economy

WASHINGTON – A few weeks ago I wrote that Ukraine should cut its losses by letting its Eastern provinces go. Let them become independent. Let them join Russia. But let them go.

Let the East go

I wrote this advisedly. I recognized then as now that this would have been an unprecedented, truly drastic action, with major repercussions, domestic and global. Giving in to Russia’s political and military pressures, disguised as a spontaneous local rebellion, would have had consequences, none of them positive. It would have meant that the Russian bully wins.

Ukraine is fighting all alone

All true. However, this choice would have allowed the Kiev government to cut its losses and truly focus on the urgent need to fix a horrible economy.

But Ukraine decided instead to fight the rebels, whatever the level of Russian direct or indirect support, even though Ukraine is in an extremely difficult situation, because it has to engage Moscow and its proxies all by itself.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, therefore no direct support from the West. And, as it turned out, little or zero appetite in Washington and in Brussels for any military support whatsoever, (the US offered meals ready to eat and socks to the Ukrainian army), in order to minimize the chances of an open confrontation with Moscow. Therefore, a few nice words to the Kiev government, some gestures, but that’s about it. The sanctions against Moscow, even if a bit more serious now, still fail to hit the Russian economy really hard.

Ukraine is broke

In the meantime, let’s keep in mind that the Kiev government now fully engaged in this war is essentially broke, while it desperately needs natural gas supplies from Russia, its enemy.

But newly elected president Petro Poroshenko, following God knows what kind of game plan, decided to step up the military effort against the Moscow backed rebels. And it looks as if the situation on the ground has improved. The Ukrainian army is squeezing the rebels.

A deteriorating economy

But these military successes, while relevant, come at a huge cost. As I said, Ukraine is essentially insolvent. It relies for its survival on loans and lines of credit from the IMF, the EU and the US.

An already poor performing economy is in a recession: -4.7% in the second quarter. The official forecast is for a GDP decline of 6 to 7% for 2014. At least 3 percentage points of this steep decline can be ascribed to the cost of the war. Manufacturing output is down 5%. construction is minus 9%. Unemployment is up to 9.3%.

The war is costing too much

From the above it is easy to see how this war in the East, whatever the military successes on the ground, is simply hastening Ukraine’s economic demise. And, even assuming the ability to finally crush the rebellion in the East, (this would also assume that Putin would stop aiding the secessionists), then what?

How would Kiev deal with millions of unhappy and still restless ethnic Russians? Where is the money to rebuild destroyed cities and shattered economies in the East?

I have no idea if anybody even attempted to add all this up. But I suspect, even assuming a quick and favorable end of the hostilities, that we are talking about spending tens of billions of dollars before Ukraine can become a quasi-normal country again.

Tens of billions needed to fix Ukraine

Indeed, if you put together money needed to revitalize the semi-comatose (and sadly very corrupt) overall economy, money needed to rebuild the virtually destroyed East, money to pay old energy bills with Russia and additional funds for future gas supplies, and whatever will be needed to resupply the armed forces, we are talking about billions and billions of dollars, money that Ukraine does not have.

Beyond all this, forget about any campaign to attract new foreign investors. No one will seriously consider a country at war as a good place to set up shop.

To sum it all up, whatever the future of this military campaign, from an economic standpoint Kiev’s all out effort to crush the rebellion has been a major disaster. And the longer the fighting, the worse the economic impact.

Give up the East, focus on the economy  

As I said above, to unilaterally give up the Eastern provinces would have been a terrible loss for Ukraine; but a loss that would have allowed the central government to end this political crisis and redirect all its energies on the economy. Fighting this war, even if in the end there is military success, has made an already bad economic situation a lot worse.

Expect Ukraine to be a basket case supported by Europe and by the IMF for years to come.

 

 




America Needs A New Interpreter Of The Old Values

WASHINGTON – Intentionally or by default, Barack Obama has become the champion of the dispossessed and of the downtrodden. Against all odds, (considering a weak economy and high unemployment), he won the 2012 re-election with a simple message: Mitt Romney and runnig mate Paul Ryan are “bad people”.

Evil conservatives

Their (evil?) goal, according to the well orchestrated Obama campaign narrative, was and is, (if they get another chance), to destroy the social safety nets that guarantee a semi-decent life for those who work hard but get little from a system that is stacked against them.

If you vote for me –promised Obama– I guarantee that you’ll keep your Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Disability Insurance, and the rest of it. And I promise that I shall keep fighting for greater equality. Therefore, and mark my words, don’t be stupid. If you vote for the Republican ticket you are doomed, because they’ll take the little you have away from you.

Well, thanks in part to Romney’s unforced errors that seemed to confirm the artfully created image (by the Obama campaign) of the heartless “vulture capitalist”, Obama got re-elected.

“Sweet Populism” has no standard-bearer

But the moderate right that had placed its hope on Mitt Romney right now is a political orphan. As Pepperdine University Professor Ted McAllister points out in an extremely insightful and elegantly written WSJ op-ed piece, (“Sweet Populism” Awaits Its Leader, August 6, 2014), now within Middle America (traditionally centrist but leaning conservative) there is a palpable yearning for a new, inspired leader (a new Ronald Reagan) who will be able to forge a message of hope based on the reaffirmation of the “Good American Myth”, that McAllister calls “Sweet Populism”.

This is about a set of old (but still vibrant)  principles that explain how “everybody can make it in America” if we would only refocus on self-reliance and industry in this rich and generous land of opportunity that always rewards personal effort, ingenuity and enterprise.

Here is the creed and the program: Let’s unleash the creativity of all hard-working Americans. Let’s tear down the barriers (taxation, hyper regulation, and what not) that stifle individual efforts. Let’s make this country great again.

Conservative and revolutionary ideas

And so, (I would add), we can be both conservatives and revolutionaries, reaffirming the eternal validity of old principles that will allow us to dream about and reach greater heights. And, while engaged in this endeavor, we shall also reaffirm this country’s greatness, a greatness founded on the fundamental goodness of the American people.

“Sweet Populism”: America’s secret sauce

As Ted McAllister puts in his essay:

Sweet populism is a peculiarly American species, organized around a version of the country’s history that is positive and incomplete; stresses the importance of self-reliance; seeks to remove obstacles to individual empowerment when they emerge; and aims any anger it produces at those who deny the essential goodness of the American idea”.

Tea Party got it half right

I fully agree. And I also agree with McAllister that the Tea Party Movement failed to capture the essence of this Good Myth. It could only articulate an emotional anti-government message. “Cut taxes and cut government”. But this is not enough. Ronald Reagan’s brilliance was in his ability to make himself into the prophet of a New Era of Hope, strongly grounded on the reaffirmation of old values.

The Tea Party focused on theoretically correct but in the end abstract and impractical ideas of fiscal purity. In the end, its members have been unable to produce a compelling message that would convincingly combine good ideas that will promote growth, while restraining spending. The Tea Party seems to be “anti-this, and anti-that”. But it is unable to provide a warm, inspiring message that will sway Middle America.

Left: focus on injustice

As McAllister points out, the left has its myth too. But it is not in sync with the narrative of America as a Blessed Land of Opportunity. Its focus is on injustice. The rich rigged the system in their favor. As a result they get all the goodies while the rest of us, hard-working Americans, get the crumbs.

Therefore, the thrust of any progressive public policy has to be the promotion of social and economic equality. And, in order to get there, those who gamed the system now have to pay up.

As the 2012 elections have demonstrated, this “social justice” message, (combined with a weak Republican candidate), worked rather well.

America is on the wrong track

But now we are stuck. While we got out of the Great Recession, there is a general sense of unhappiness. The economy now grows, but only a little, (about 2% a year). Unemployment is down; but it is still very high, (around 6%), while millions of people who are lucky enough to be employed struggle with the meager income provided by their low paying part-time jobs, the only ones they can get.

Indeed, by coincidence the WSJ today also published the results of a national poll that shows how 71% of Americans believe that the  country is “on the wrong track“. This high percentage of really unhappy Americans includes people who voted for Obama in 2012.

Who will lead?

As McAllister writes, the yearning for a new interpreter of the American idea of freedom, and of the promising horizons it can open up today, is there. However, the millions of American moderate conservatives need a convincing standard-bearer.

 




Elon Musk’s SpaceX About To Expand With Major Texas Launch Facility

WASHINGTON – Until not too long ago any American project that had to do with space exploration had to have the NASA logo on it. NASA was space. Therefore, it was inconceivable to think of any meaningful space project that could be successfully hatched without NASA’s direct involvement.

No need for NASA

Well, that era is over. While NASA looks for a new identity and mission in a much more fiscally constrained environment, (translation: there is no more money), here comes SpaceX, a private venture created years ago by South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk is known primarily as the creator of Tesla Motors, the first maker of all-electric vehicles in the USA. Tesla has the ambition to redefine the auto business. At the moment it makes only super expensive high performance electric cars in California. But it is planning to make cheaper models that will appeal to the average consumers.

Tesla and SpaceX

Well, just as Tesla Motors may soon transform the US (and global) automotive industry, SpaceX may soon displace all our assumptions about what it takes to have a serious and robust space program.

We used to believe that space was too risky, too complicated and  too expensive for the private sector. Hence the essential role of NASA. Therefore, many prognostications now indicate that an underfunded, diminished NASA also means the end of American leadership in space exploration.

Space is also a business

Well, not necessarily. SpaceX is the result of Musk’s realization that, while space is still about adventure and open-ended exploration, it is also a money-making business. All sorts of companies around the world need to launch satellites into space, (think telecoms, weather services, and more). And so they need to rely on the services of those who have the rockets and the related launch capabilities. Well, SpaceX has already demonstrated that it can provide state of the art launch services in a cost-effective manner.

Launching rockets from Brownsville

And now Musk is looking at the next phase. SpaceX is planning to set a major new launch facility in Brownsville, a rather poor, mostly Hispanic Texas town sitting right at the border with Mexico. Needless to say, for Brownsville the coming of SpaceX is a golden opportunity to transform the local economy.

Now a backwater with the stigma of being a transit point for Mexican drugs into the USA, Brownsville can soon become a high-tech enclave. Assuming final approval for the construction of this SpaceX launch facility, beyond the new jobs directly tied to it, one can expect all sorts of subcontractors, vendors and suppliers to set up shop in the vicinity. Not to mention the tourism draw that such a brand new high-tech facility would create.

Others will follow

Sure enough, NASA was the US space program. But now it seems that daring entrepreneurs can take a lead role, even without US government backing. Elon Musk is clearly a trail blazer. But there is no doubt that if SpaceX does well by launching more and more satellites from its new Brownsville facility, many other private sector groups will follow.




Power Africa? Great Idea, Poor Execution

WASHINGTON – The same Obama administration that produced the messy Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare), and the totally mismanaged Department of Veterans Affairs declared in 2013 that it would try to do something even more complicated in Africa.

Power generation is a great force multiplier

At the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of spreading US development assistance to Africa among too many small impact programs, let’s concentrate our focus on one big initiative that can work as a real “force multiplier”. Indeed, let’s concentrate on electric power generation and distribution, Africa’s true Achilles heel.

Not enough electricity

Great idea. Yes, we know that Sub Saharan Africa is finally on the move. There are impressive rates of growth (up to 7%) in many countries. Still, there is only so much you can do without adequate electric power and related distribution systems. How bad is it? Bad enough: 80% of rural Africa has no electricity!

And so the Obama administration in 2013 launched “Power Africa”, a mega power generation investment plan that would lead to  dramatic improvements in a few targeted African countries. In principle, this is a great idea. And I could not think of a better sector to focus on. Electricity is indispensable.

Bad design

The problem here is poor program design. For Power Africa to work as planned, the Obama administration assumed effective, close coordination among several US Government agencies, including USAID, (foreign aid), The Overseas Private Investment Corporation , (assistance to the private sector investing abroad), The Millennium Challenge Corporation, (another form of foreign assistance) and the US Trade and Development Agency, (another channel for development assistance).

All these Washington-based government agencies would work with the US private sector and pertinent African institutions, (heads of government, line ministries, local jurisdictions, utilities, local companies and more), in order to facilitate and expedite major US investments in power generation in selected countries.

Coordination?

Well, good luck with that. I do not know who had the idea to design a multi-billion, multi-year project, in such a fashion. This is a recipe for failure.

Simply stated: far too many cooks in this kitchen. Who is in charge? Are there real milestones? How do you coordinate any project with so many different actors with different agendas?

I know from direct experience that obtaining any type of real coordination among so many different institutions involving governments, local jurisdictions, donors and the private sector is very difficult even on relatively small, manageable development projects.

Not much will be accomplished

With a program this size it is virtually impossible. And, in fact, it turned out to be impossible. One year after the launching of Power Africa there is very little action on the ground. And I do not expect much more to follow. Sure, in the end “something” will be done. But nothing comparable with the ambitious goals originally envisaged.

We do not hear much about this

The difference between the Power Africa dud and Obamacare is that Obamacare inconvenienced directly millions of American voters. And so we hear a lot about implementation malfunctions and related complaints.

Power Africa is yet another development idea for Africa that is not working as planned. But the Africans do not vote in US elections, and so we do not hear much about this failure.




Yes, There Are Young American Innovators

WASHINGTON – While the marvelous “American Innovation Machine” is not moving ahead as fast as it used to, luckily for us it is still alive. Reading Forbes magazine, the chronicler of American capitalism and enterprise, I recently saw a very interesting piece.

Self-made billionaire

It is a short but compelling profile of the youngest female self-made billionaire. (Bloody Amazing, July 21, 2014). Elizabeth Holmes is only 30; but her company, Theranos, has been valued at $ 9 billion, and she own 50% of the stock.

So, there you go: 30 years old and worth $ 4.5 billion. “Only in America”, as we used to say.

New blood testing technology

And what did Elizabeth Holmes come up with? Something really remarkable. She developed a disruptive technology that allows medical facilities to easily conduct blood tests using only drops of blood drawn from patients. Theranos blood testing technologies are now available at 21 Walgreen’s clinics.

What this means is that tests that normally require relatively large amounts of blood, plus complex machinery and facilities with lots of personnel, now can be conducted by drawing minimal amounts of blood from patients. The whole non invasive procedure can be completed at easy to reach facilities located within drug stores.

This means lower costs and less complexity for all: patients, lab technicians and doctors who ultimately use the test results to have a diagnosis on the patient’s conditions.

Innovation and its reward

There you go: Elizabeth Holmes conceived and developed a novel way to deliver at a lower cost, with minimal disruption, routine medical services used by millions, every day. Great idea.

And this is good news for America. It would appear that the US economic eco-system, notwithstanding its shortness of breath, and in spite of all the stupid, cumbersome regulations and our byzantine tax system, can still provide enough encouragement for people like Elizabeth Holmes to think something new and try to make it happen.

Her newly created substantial personal wealth is the reward for her creativity, and for her courage in pursuing her goals.

More like her

I really hope that there are many others out there, just like her. Undaunted young entrepreneurs, men and women, willing to think outside the box, and with enough guts to develop and bring to market their amazing new technologies.

It is because of people like Elizabeth Holmes and her peers that America managed to become prosperous, while generating new devices that benefit our quality of life.

Attracting talented people

Despite the current stagnation, let’s hope that we can keep the “American Innovation Machine” running. This is by far the best thing we have got. And it is the main reason why talented people from all over the world still want to come to America.

 




There Is No Such Thing As An “Illiberal Democracy”

WASHINGTON“Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di bellezza, nel fascismo e’ la salvezza della nostra liberta'”. “Youth, youth, springtime of beauty, in fascism is the safeguard of our freedom”. This is the refrain of “Giovinezza”, “Youth”, the hymn of the Italian Fascist Party. In many ways, a beautiful and inspiring song. It is all about youth, national unity, shared purpose, fighting the good fight.

Fascism and liberty?

Of course, in hindsight, we notice a huge dissonance. How could  “fascism” become the safeguard of “freedom“? Fascism is the denial of freedom. It is totalitarian, it is about a faction that took power in Italy in 1922 outside of democratic methods. It is about the abolition of most individual freedoms, first and foremost the freedom to criticize the government and to organize any political opposition.

Of course, fascism and any other authoritarian look-alike offshoot amounts, among many other things, to the denial of freedom. But for more than 20 years “(Il “Ventennio”) the Italians were happily going to Fascist rallies, proudly singing “Giovinezza”. And many of them for sure really believed that Fascism was protecting their freedom.

What is democracy?

But how is this possible? How can we commingle freedom and autocracy as if they had anything in common? Well, this is possible when liberal democracy fails to reaffirm in a peaceful but authoritative fashion what real democracy is about.

Mussolini: The Man of Providence

And quite often this is not done. While Mussolini was ruling over Italy, many European conservatives admired him. They saw messy Italy finally organized. And, let’s not forget that under Mussolini “trains run on time”. Which is to say that for the perennially anarchical Italians a good dose of authoritarian government was a God send, right what the doctor ordered. (In fact the Catholic Church, a powerful moral authority, called Mussolini “The Man of Providence”. Think of that).

(Mussolini ruined his chances by getting into WWII along Hitler. Had he stayed on the sidelines, just like fellow dictator Francisco Franco did in Spain, he might have died of old age, as opposed to being executed by the Italian Resistance in the last days of the war.)

We still fail to make distinctions

But my point here is that this dangerous commingling of opposite concepts that belong to true liberal democratic principles and authoritarian government is not confined to the inter war period. No, it still goes on today. And, just as many decades ago, it is essentially unchallenged.

Autocracy disguised as democracy

Hugo Chavez run Venezuela, nominally a democracy, like a de facto autocrat. Under his rule, the state controlled oil production, the major source of economic wealth. He silenced the media and he persecuted his political opponents. All, of course, in the name of the greater good. You see, he was on the side of the historically dispossessed. Therefore, his strong-arm tactics against his opponents, (the old exploiters), were politically and morally justified, according to his many sincere followers. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is continuing the same course of action.

Non democracies in Europe and at its periphery

And there is more. Look at Putin’s Russia. Or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Of the two, contrary to what you may think, the most dangerous is the case of Hungary. In Hungary, now there is a Prime Minister who openly advocates “illiberal democracy” as a better alternative. But Hungary, unlike Russia, is a member of two “clubs of democracies”, the European Union and NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance.

Now, you may argue that we shouldn’t worry too much about what goes on in Hungary, a smallish, economically irrelevant country at the periphery of Europe.

Well, I strongly disagree. Hungary is a member (supposedly in good standing) of both the European Union and NATO, the security pact led by the United States. The European Union is a Union of real democracies. Likewise, NATO is an alliance that was created to protect the values of western democracies.

Democracy, not so good

And now we have this curious situation whereby the head of government of one of the members of both the EU and NATO advocates principles that are completely at odds with those ostensibly chosen and observed by all the others.

And yet, I haven’t heard of any serious initiative aimed at kicking Hungary out of the EU or out of NATO. And this negligence tells me that we have a much bigger problem is our hands.

Democracies, unsure of themselves

Simply stated, liberal democracy is unsure of itself. And for this reason it does not put up a fight against those –like Orban– who treat it as a flawed and ineffective model.

The fundamentals

The fact is that we have forgotten that liberal democracy is a lot more than just holding elections every few years. It rests on a set of great but complex ideas. The central idea is that the individual is sovereign and that his fundamental rights and prerogatives should be protected by a government that can claim legitimacy only if it acts with the consent of the governed.

Of course, individuals come together within an organized society. Through an orderly, agreeed upon process they decide the boundaries between the individual and the state, always keeping in mind that the “common good” is defined by the members of society and not by those who hold executive power.

No autocrats, please

In other words, in a liberal democracy we cannot have a Vladimir Putin or a Hugo Chavez coming along and saying: “I have been elected. I know what needs to be done, and I’ll do it. In order to make sure that I can advance national and social goals (as I see them), I shall get rid of all or most opponents”.

In a real democracy, the task of government is first of all to secure all the basic liberties of all citizens. And there is more. America’s Founding Fathers strongly believed that the condition of liberty was and is the essential ingredient for unleashing the full potential of all citizens. Through their ingenuity, their inventiveness and their creativity, free people would be able to build a prosperous society.

Delicate principles

Having said all that, it should become a little clearer that democracy rests upon critical but extremely delicate principles that can be easily distorted.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of shared maturity to establish reasonable and equitable boundaries between personal and societal interests. And the way we set these boundaries up will influence how we draw laws regulating property rights, contracts, taxation, corporations and a lot more.

Doing it right

Doing all this “right” is extremely difficult. But doing it right is the only way to prove the validity of the connection between a well-functioning liberal democracy and a prosperous economy.

A dysfunctional democracy rarely creates prosperity. And this allows many people to conclude that “traditional democracy does not deliver”. So we may as well look at variations on the basic model in order to improve efficiency. And here is how we get to Orban in Hungary, or Putin in Russia.

So, what do you prefer? An inefficient democracy (India), or an efficient autocracy, (China)?

Do we have what it takes?

It is not easy to answer this question. Ideally we want both: democracy and efficiency. But, in order to get there, we need to ascertain that we do indeed have the necessary preconditions within our society to structure a well-functioning liberal democracy.

My suggestion is to look at ourselves and what we really believe in. Liberal democracy is a complex, sophisticated and fragile instrument. In the hands of people who have not truly understood and embraced its principles, it becomes a mockery, or worse an abomination.

No such thing as “illiberal democracy”

Still, whatever else can be said, at least one thing should be clear. Those who claim to follow genuine liberal democratic principles should at least be able to say that “illiberal democracy” does not exist. There is no such thing. Period.

If the Hungarians really like Mr. Orban’s authoritarian ideas, so be it. But Hungary at that point would have to exit the EU and NATO, groupings of nations that welcome in their midst only genuine democracies.

All the others are not, repeat are not, welcome.