Springtime in Paris

An aerial picture taken aboard an helicopter on July 20, 2010 shows a smoggy view of the Eiffel tower (L) and the Tour Maine-Montparnasse in Paris. (BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)

An aerial picture taken aboard an helicopter on July 20, 2010 shows a smoggy view of the Eiffel tower (L) and the Tour Maine-Montparnasse in Paris. (BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 17th, for the first time in 17 years, the government enforced new rules allowing only motorists driving cars with odd-numbered registration plates to enter the French capital and use the roads in the surrounding departments.  The Economist

The spike in Paris, in which the air quality index rose to 185, would constitute a fairly humdrum day in Beijing and many other Chinese cities. Last month, pollution levels in the Chinese capital were close to the scale’s maximum of 500.

The Parisian smog sparked a debate about the tax breaks for diesel, which have so dramatically influenced the profile of the French car industry. Cheap diesel has been a reality in France for 30 years. This will be a real problem for the French because diesel has now been shown to be seriously carcinogenic. The Guardian

Ultra Nationalism Up From the Underground

It’s hard not to notice the growth and reappearance on the world stage of long submerged human emotions, foundational in nature.  It’s as if the world economic crisis, the long running catastrophes of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — to name just the big ones– have created a drought,  The reservoirs of energy and hope have drawn down revealing the old emotions of belligerence, admiration for strong men, resentment of others for ones own conditions, raising cries of betrayal, weakness and treason.  We see it in the American right, in the resurgence of Nazi parties in Greece, Austria and France (for example) and in the rise of Russian hyper nationalism — turning Putin into a matinee idol of admiration, not only for many Russians longing for a new cold war, but for Americans such as Rudy Giuliani and most of the Fox comentariat.  Manly in-your-face power is the measure of righteous national behavior. Unless your tanks are rumbling, you are a ‘sissy.’

Ellen Barry in the New York Times this week-end had two very interesting articles on the rise of the Russian super nationalists.

As Russia and the United States drift toward a rupture over Crimea, the Stalinist writer Aleksandr A. Prokhanov feels that his moment has finally arrived.

“I am afraid that I am interested in a cold war with the West,” said Mr. Prokhanov, 76, in a lull between interviews on state-controlled television and radio. “I was very patient. I waited for 20 years. I did everything I could so that this war would begin. I worked day and night.”

Mr. Prokhanov is an attack dog whose career has risen, fallen and risen again with the fortunes of hard-liners in the Kremlin. And it is a measure of the conservative pivot that has taken place in Moscow in Vladimir V. Putin’s third presidential term that Mr. Prokhanov and a cadre of like-minded thinkers — a kind of “who’s who of conspiratorial anti-Americanism,” as one scholar put it — have found themselves thrust into the mainstream.

… If Mr. Putin himself decided to make an ideological change, Mr. Prokhanov said, it was in December 2011, when tens of thousands of urban liberals, angry over ballot-stuffing and falsification in parliamentary elections, massed on a city square, Bolotnaya, chanting, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia Without Putin.”

“During the time of Bolotnaya, he experienced fear,” Mr. Prokhanov said. “He felt that the whole class which he had created had betrayed him, cheated him, and he had a desire to replace one class with another. From the moment you got back from that march, we started a change of the Russian elite.”

NY Times: Barry

The heartening news is that there is opposition within Russia to Putin’s plunge into assertive policies and actions.  In the face of one rally celebrating the recent army actions in the Crimea and cheering Putin’s ‘defense of the motherland”  another brought thousands calling for peace. In a country where people have been jailed, radio and news sites closed down, this is pretty brave behavior.  Nevertheless, Putin’s personality echoes strongly in the population.

Last week, in the midst of the Crimean crisis and on the heels of the Sochi Olympics, Mr. Putin’s approval rating had increased to 71.6 percent, the highest point since he returned to the presidency in 2012, according to a poll released by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion last week.

NY Times: Barry

On Those “Lazy” Greeks….

From Paul Krugman, the day after the squeaker election on Sunday:

  …many things you hear about Greece just aren’t true. The Greeks aren’t lazy — on the contrary, they work longer hours than almost anyone else in Europe, and much longer hours than the Germans in particular. Nor does Greece have a runaway welfare state, as conservatives like to claim; social expenditure as a percentage of G.D.P., the standard measure of the size of the welfare state, is substantially lower in Greece than in, say, Sweden or Germany, countries that have so far weathered the European crisis pretty well.

So how did Greece get into so much trouble? Blame the euro.

And, as he says at the end, the election “ended up settling nothing.”  Or, it kicked the can further down the road.  Baring a miracle far greater than multiplying loaves for a few thousand, a reckoning will come due, well within our life-times.

Markets rejoicing short lived.

Kicking the Can.

for more Krugman, here’s some couched praise by Economist writer, Matthew Bishop of Krugman’s new book: End This Depression Now!

Longtime readers of Krugman will know there are at least two of him. One is the gifted winner of the Nobel in economic science, respected throughout the academy for his mastery of the dismal science; the other, the populist polemicist and baiter of the right who writes columns in The New York Times. “End This Depression Now!” is a collaborative effort by the two Krugmen. Professor Krugman usefully contributes plenty of mainstream economics in support of his stimulus plan and in order to debunk the idea that austerity policies in today’s circumstances can boost an economy by increasing confidence. (As he points out, Britain, the leading country to embrace austerity voluntarily, is hardly setting the world on fire.) Yet no opportunity to preach to the choir is missed by the populist Mr. Krugman, nor any chance to mock those he calls the “Very Serious People” who disagree with him.

Focus on French Economy Fuels Gains by Far Right

“This small city in northern France has few immigrants and little crime. But in the last local elections here, the candidate of the far-right National Front eliminated the standard-bearer of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party in the first round of voting and then won 30.2 percent of the vote in the runoff, losing to a Socialist.

With the presidential election less than three months away, Mr. Sarkozy’s party fears the same results on a national scale. The president is facing strong competition on the right from the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, and his party is worried that she may eliminate the sitting president in the first round of voting on April 22.

What is most striking is how well she and the party are doing not only in the south of France, where immigration and radical Islam are traditional issues, but here in the post-industrial north, where the issues are more economic: unemployment, factory closings, competition from inside the enlarged European Union, from Poland and Slovakia, and from outside, particularly China.”


NY Times

Brits Back: Mystery Remains

Friday morning cable news was saturated with scenes of the British sailors and marines, their embrace-filled return, a uniformed press conference, long and fact filled interviews — “How does it feel being back!?” The interviewers, to a person, larded their rising and falling tones with indicators of “bad Iranians,” “good Brits.” It was really quite a show.

Alongside it, especially in the British tabloids, and here, but on certain chauvinistically pumped US cable shows, and bloggers, snarling innuendo’s were raised about the capitulation of the British troops to the Revolutionary Guard, the too-quick apologies for being in Iranian waters. There was pooh-poohing about the “stress” of being blindfolded and hearing guns being cocked. There were claims that Americans would never have been captured without a fight.

Few of the commentators I have heard brought up the obvious: how did this happen? How were these youngsters left so alone?

Where was the captain of the HMS Cornwall, Jeremy Woods, or the Coalition task force commander Commodore Nick Lambert during the capture? Where was the Cornwall itself? Why didn’t its radar pick up the 6 Revolutionary Guard speed boats approaching from nearby land? Why didn’t the helicopter hovering overhead with the conveniently displayed GPS device see the boats approaching? Why was the whole boarding party searching the vessel with no one scanning the area for possible change of situation? Was no one left in the boats themselves, highly mobile and heavily armed, while the boarders were searching?

It would seem odd in almost any case, but this one, Iraqi waters or not, was highly charged. Three or four enormous aircraft carriers were in the area. A shooting war is going on not too far away. The closest land mass belongs to a country with a recent history of contention with the country to which the HMS Cornwall belongs. And a boarding part of 15 youngsters is sent over without a plan, without backup, without lookouts?

Watch for a Board of Investigation. Or, if not, suspect a plot the deviousness of which we can only begin to guess.

We can be glad that cooler heads prevailed (it seems,) and that no further escalation occurred. But if the narrative is as it has been presented, the British Navy has a lot of questions to answer.

Those in charge of the over-all strategy –e.g. the Americans– ought to be asking themselves a few questions as well.

For a purely military analysis of the board and capture see David Eshel at Defense Update.

Sara Lyall in the NY Times, syndicated widely, has an early summary of the questions raised about the captives’ behavior.

Iran: Brits To Go Home

Iran president says to free British sailors [More at NY Times]

Iran’s official news agency said British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adviser Nigel Sheinwald had spoken directly to Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, on Tuesday night, breaking high-level diplomatic ice.

Larijani is one of those characterized as a “pragmatist” in the Iranian ruling elite, which has been contesting for power with President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard. This theme of a fault zone, noted yesterday in a Debka article was carried forward by Michael Slackman in the NY Times.

There was of course a whole lot going on behind the scenes, some of it calculated, some opportunistically siezed.

Daoud Kattub
, a Palestinian journalist, thinks it was a many-for-one swap of Brits for an Iranian diplomat released yesterday in Iraq. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says there was no exchange, no relation. From published statements it is not clear at all who kidnapped Jalal Sharafi, Second Secretary of Iran’s mission in Baghdad, though Iraq’s Intelligence Service, affiliated with the US CIA, is among the suspects. The other five Iranians picked up by US forces in Iraq several weeks ago appear still to be in custody though it wouldn’t be surprising to see them released in a matter of days.

It will be interesting to see what the Brits say when they return home, and/or what the Government has them say. If the push-pull being reported in Iran is true we ought to see more manifestations of it in the aftermath of this mini crisis: which side will be thought to have gained, which lost, in stature and leadership. Not least it will be interesting to see how the rules of engagement in the Persian Gulf, and particularly in the contested waters of the Straits of Hormuz get tightened or slackened, how far or how close Western naval vessels come to the area. More directly than in diplomatic circles the navies can take on alpha dog behavior when uncertainty rules – showing their fearlessness, stating their positions, not yielding to the “other.” There are scary games of “chicken” possible, ships maneuvering to get the nautical right-of-way and forcing the other to back down. With three carrier task forces in the area there is plenty of opportunity for manly display….

Meanwhile we can be glad the media contest between Iran and the UK did not escalate into more.