Photos of the Week: 8/22-8/28

Hikers on a moonlit night in Mexico, Homer Simpson calls for calm at a protest in Chile, Kumbh Mela in India, a massive ball pit in Washington, D.C., Usain Bolt taken down by a Segway in China, a squirrel monkey riding a capybara in Japan, a conference of Furry enthusiasts in Germany, and much more.

Thinking About Iran, Thinking About Israel, Thinking About America

Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.

Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes:

I’ve found the opposition to the deal rather peculiar, especially with regard to anger that the deal doesn’t end support for Hezbollah immediately. If anything, deal opponents seem to be making the conversation on Middle Eastern issues in the US increasingly toxic.

1) The focus on Iran’s terrorism: I find it perpetually odd that this deal is criticized for not ending Iran’s support for Hezbollah right away. These ongoing talks have been the first real major, high-level dialogue the US and Iran have held since the Iranian hostage crisis. We are only creating a working relationship now after being estranged for decades. Without a working relationship, you have nothing to build off of. Would critics of this deal have once been criticizing Nixon for failing to convince Mao to agree to end Communism when they first met in 1971? I don’t know, but deal critics follow that same basic logic.

This deal shows the US and Iran can actually reach agreements. In the future, that means the US will be able to engage Iran to stop supporting groups like Hezbollah that threaten Israel. We weren’t going to get everything we want right away. P5+1 partners like Russia and China simply don’t care enough about issues like that to sign onto what we would want. It’s like how annoyed the US team got at Japan for derailing [negotiations with North Korea] by bringing up the kidnapping issue constantly instead of focusing on nuclear issues.

Killing this deal would tell Iran that the US doesn’t care about making deals with it, which would destroy any working relationship that would provide greater opportunities for the US to advocate on Israel’s behalf.

It also bears repeating that it’s a bit nonsensical that Israel is angry at the US for not delivering the deal Israel itself wanted. Israel could have found a way to have been a productive member of the negotiations, either directly or indirectly. The Israeli government has agency in the world. For instance, reducing (but not eliminating) Israeli nuclear stockpiles could have been a bargaining chip for ending Iranian support for Hezbollah. However, that would require discussing its own nuclear program and its history of cooperating with nations like apartheid-era South Africa on their own nuclear programs, which is a form of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Israel would likely face costs for admitting it has nuclear weapons, but if the Israeli government truly believed that Iran is an existential threat determined to commit suicide and genocide by nuking Israel, then the Israeli government would be willing to face the costs of admitting to having nukes to prevent its own annihilation. This suggests Netanyahu knows his rhetoric is just rhetoric.


2) Making the conversation increasingly toxic: When I was in graduate school a couple of years ago, a professor taught a course on East Asian policy towards the Muslim world. The week that his class covered the Israel-Palestine dispute, his students were gathered in our [not their] common area because they didn’t want to have to deal with the weird dynamics of discussing the issue. These students hadn’t learned languages like Chinese and Korean so they could spend their time discussing what has become increasingly seen as an unimportant and provincial issue.

The prominence of this issue in American foreign policy just sucks the air out of the room on all other topics. International relations scholars, students and practitioners know that the history of the 21st century is going to be written according to the American relationships with countries like China and India, but then the GOP debate only focuses on the Israel-Palestine dispute, Iran and ISIS. The discussion of Middle Eastern issues in the US has become so toxic that it pushes away people with diverse interests.

At least part of this has to do with Netanyahu’s rather toxic attitude towards Americans who disagree with him. The Israeli-American relationship won’t be healthy if among younger generations, the best foreign policy thinkers actively don’t want to deal with Israeli issues.

It really seems like the Israeli political establishment has no idea how to engage an increasingly diverse American populace. Netanyahu has helped make support for the Israeli Prime Minister a partisan issue in the US Congress, which would have been unheard of under Rabin or Sharon. Netanyahu has tied the future of the US-Israel relationship to the future of an American political party whose frontrunner sounds more like a member of UKIP or Golden Dawn than a sane person. Smart people usually tie their future to the parties and groups that are ascendant, but not Netanyahu. The failure of his foresight is just outstanding.

I am a generation older than this reader (whose real identity I know, as I do for virtually everyone whose messages I quote). But I understand just what he means about the long-term effect of the “toxic” tone of American debate on Middle Easter issues.

I have dug into the debate over the Iran deal because it involves issues I’ve cared about or worked on for decades. These include the why, when, and how of U.S. military engagement, and the challenges of nuclear deterrence and proliferation. I actually wrote a cover story about the Iranian nuclear issue 11 years ago, and was working for President Carter while the Iranian revolution was underway.

But on Middle Eastern policy and politics more generally, I understand the reader’s point. The parts of the world where I’ve spent most time—mainly Asia, but also Europe and parts of Africa—can engender very heated disagreements. If you’ve written about China in the past decade, you know about the passions that can arise among readers there (completely apart from the challenges of dealing with an increasingly press-hostile government). That becomes truer every year, as worldwide discussion about China (or other topics), mostly in English, is immediately available to a non-native-speaker audience whose command of English varies tremendously. Some of those readers understand the English-language nuances perfectly — and may even write back to correct your grammar mistakes. Others understand English just well enough to miss your point and take offense.

So: there’s controversy everywhere. But I agree with this reader that in America the Middle Eastern debate has become uniquely embattled and polarized. One result is for people like this reader to think: On the whole, I’d rather become a specialist in India — or Indonesia or Mozambique or Brazil or Mexico. Or for people like me to think that too.


On a related theme, an American reader who describes himself as a “culturally Jewish atheist” writes:

Perhaps it’s time for some commentary on how virtually all the discussion in the media regarding the treaty is focused on Israel’s viewpoint and interests.

What passes for “nuanced” reporting are stories that make clear that not all Israelis oppose the treaty. What’s missing from the coverage is whether the treaty is good for the United States. There is some coverage in that vein, but it’s dwarfed by the stories focused on Israel, pro-Israel voting blocks, and the like. It seems like it’s easier to find poll results for Israeli support than support among American voters.

Certainly we have to take into account impacts of our decisions on our allies, but our own interests should come first.  Virtually every Republican candidate is basing his/her opposition to the treaty on Israel’s interests, without even mentioning US interests. When liberals take an international view they are lambasted as traitors. How can Americans make an informed decision about the treaty when most of the coverage is of the horse-race variety?

My version of this reader’s point: the Iran agreement is of first-order national and international importance, and it deserves coverage on those terms. Its effects on Israel are an important part, but not the entirety, of its larger significance, and we in the media should do a better job of presenting that broader picture.

[PS: Why do I put quotes around “debate” when I refer to deliberations about the deal? It’s because so many of the deal’s opponents were denouncing it even before its terms were known. For instance, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a Tweet last May: “We oppose this deal and we aren’t the only ones. A better deal is necessary and possible.” This was long before any deal had been struck or announced. In June, still before the announcement of terms, he Tweeted that it would mean “a certain path to nukes.” Senator Tom Cotton said it was a “grievous, historic mistake” within minutes of the first news of an agreement in July.

As discussed here and here, this opposition may be fully rational on Netanyahu’s part. Wholly apart from the nuclear-threat issue, a modernized Iran that is re-integrated into the world of commerce and diplomacy is inevitably a regional rival for Israel. But that’s 20 levels deeper in nuance and realism than most public “debate” about the deal has gone.]


This past week the Atlantic has kicked off its new Notes section, which is meant to recapture some of the informality, incremental argument, and “thinking in public” nature of Golden Age of the Blog. You can read more about the rationale and ambition here, with dispatches from Notes editor Chris Bodenner, the head editor of the J.J. Gould, and others.  I’ve done two Notes entries so far: one about the weird English-speaker temptation to pronounce every foreign language as if it were French, and the other about the famed Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd and his concept of the OODA Loop. Please check out Notes.

The Black Route of Death From Syria

On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thought to be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”

“You have to understand,” the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire once wrote in relation to refugees, “that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Embedded in this week’s horrific news is a harrowing reality: The 71 migrants who perished en route to Austria were escaping a hell they must have considered far worse than the forbidding truck they crowded into.

Almost Half of Syria’s Population Has Been Uprooted

In June, Anthony Faiola at The Washington Post masterfully profiled a family that made just such a calculation—and whose journey may have been quite similar to those taken by the migrants found in Austria. Faiola and photographer Charles Ommanney traveled with the family along parts of the “Black Route” stretching from the shores of Greece through the Balkans to the European Union.

The main subject of the reporting is Ahmed Jinaid, a 42-year-old former deliveryman who makes his way from Aleppo, Syria to Gmünd, Austria with his brother-in-law, niece, and nephew; a few thousand euros; and a $275 Samsung Galaxy phone. He’d left his six kids behind in Syria, along with his wife, who was recovering from a bullet wound, and his younger brother, who was in a wheelchair after being hit in the spine by a bullet. For Ahmed, the distance between Aleppo and Gmünd is measured not just in miles (an arduous 2,000), but in conniving smugglers, extortionist gang members, an untreated goiter and slipped disk, and 15 days in a Hungarian jail.

“We would only die once in Syria,” Ahmed says at one point, after his brother-in-law is nearly hit by a car in Belgrade, Serbia. “Here we are dying 5,000 times.”

An Austrian police officer by the truck where more than 70 migrants lost their lives (Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters)

According to Faiola, the Jinaid family’s journey embodies not only the “desperation of war,” but also the “dysfunction of the European Union” in the face of the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II:

That’s because many of the Syrians and Iraqis landing in Greece stand a good chance of qualifying for legal asylum. But there is little work and few prospects for aid in this bankrupt country. Farther north, in promised lands such as Austria, France, Germany and Sweden, asylum means shelter, a generous stipend and the prospect of a good job. The European Union, however, offers no safe passage there. Hence the Black Route.

Ahmed Jinaid’s is just one story. Seventy-one others were abruptly cut short this week, somewhere on the road between Hungary and Austria.

Greece’s Ex-Finance Minister Takes Questions From 9 Leading Academics

When Yanis Varoufakis was elected to parliament and then named as Greek finance minister in January, he embarked on an extraordinary seven months of negotiations with the country’s creditors and its European partners.

Greece’s Agreed-Upon Plan Looks a Whole Lot Like the One It Just Rejected

On July 6, Greek voters backed his hardline stance in a referendum, with a resounding 62 percent voting No to the European Union’s ultimatum. On that night, he resigned, after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, fearful of an ugly exit from the euro zone, decided to go against the popular verdict. Since then, the governing party, Syriza, has splintered and a snap election has been called. Varoufakis remains a member of parliament and a prominent voice in Greek and European politics.

When asked about Tsipras’s decision to trigger a snap election, inviting the Greek public to issue their judgement on his time in office, Varoufakis said:

If only that were so! Voters are being asked to endorse Alexis Tsipras’s decision, on the night of their majestic referendum verdict, to overturn it; to turn their courageous No into a capitulation, on the grounds that honoring that verdict would trigger a Grexit. This is not the same as calling on the people to pass judgment on a record of steadfast opposition to a failed economic program doing untold damage to Greece’s social economy. It is rather a plea to voters to endorse him, and his choice to surrender, as a lesser evil.

Nine leading academics asked questions to a man who describes himself as an “accidental economist.” His answers reveal regrets about his own approach during a dramatic 2015, a withering assessment of France’s power in Europe, fears for the future of Syriza, a view that the party is now finished, and doubts over how effective the socialist politician Jeremy Corbyn could be if he wins leadership of Britain’s Labour party.

Anton Muscattelli, University of Glasgow: Why was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras persuaded to accept the EU’s pre-conditions around the third bailout discussions despite a decisive referendum victory for the No campaign; and is this the end of the road for the anti-austerity wing of Syriza in Greece?

Yanis Varoufakis: Tsipras’s answer is that he was taken aback by official Europe’s determination to punish Greek voters by putting into action German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s plan to push Greece out of the euro zone, re-denominate Greek bank deposits in a currency that was not even ready, and even ban the use of euros in Greece. These threats, independently of whether they were credible or not, did untold damage to the European Union’s image as a community of nations and drove a wedge through the axiom of the euro zone’s indivisibility.

As you probably have heard, on the night of the referendum, I disagreed with Tsipras on his assessment of the credibility of these threats and resigned as finance minister. But even if I was wrong on the issue of the credibility of the troika’s threats, my great fear was, and remains, that our party, Syriza, would be torn apart by the decision to implement another self-defeating austerity program of the type that we were elected to challenge. It is now clear that my fears were justified.

in a New York Times op-ed, game theory was never relevant. It applies to interactions where motives are exogenous and the point is to work out the optimal bluffing strategies and credible threats, given available information. Our task was different: It was to persuade the “other” side to change their motivation vis-à-vis Greece.

I represented a small, suffering nation in its sixth straight year of deep recession. Bluffing with our people’s fate would be irresponsible. So I did not. Instead, we outlined that which we thought was a reasonable position, consistent with our creditors’ own interests. And then we stood our ground. When the troika pushed us into a corner, presenting me with an ultimatum on June 25 just before closing Greece’s banking system down, we looked at it carefully and concluded that we had neither a mandate to accept it (given that it was economically non-viable) nor to decline it (and clash with official Europe). Instead we decided to do something terribly radical: to put it to the Greek people to decide.

Lastly, on a theoretical point, the “threat point” in your question refers to John Nash’s bargaining solution, which is based on the axiom of non-conflict between the parties. Tragically, we did not have the luxury to make that assumption.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya, University of Aberdeen: The dealings between Greece and the EU seemed more like a contest between democracy and the banks than a negotiation between the EU and a member state. Given the outcome, are there any lessons that you would take from this for other European parties resisting the imperatives of austerity politics?

Varoufakis: Allow me to phrase this differently. It was a contest between the right of creditors to govern a debtor nation and the democratic right of the said nation’s citizens to be self-governed. You are quite right that there was never a negotiation between the EU and Greece as a member state of the EU. We were negotiating with the troika of lenders—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, a wholly weakened European Commission—in the context of an informal grouping, the Eurogroup, lacking specific rules, without minutes of the proceedings, and completely under the thumb of one finance minister and the troika of lenders.

Moreover, the troika was terribly fragmented, with many contradictory agendas in play, the result being that the “terms of surrender” they imposed upon us were, to say the least, curious: a deal imposed by creditors determined to attach conditions which guarantee that we, the debtor, cannot repay them. So, the main lesson to be learned from the last few months is that European politics is not even about austerity. Or that, as Nicholas Kaldor wrote in The New Statesman in 1971, any attempt to construct a monetary union before a political union ends up with a terrible monetary system that makes political union much, much harder. Austerity and a hideous democratic deficit are mere symptoms.

deficit is persistently within the territory of the so-called excessive deficit procedure of the European Commission, which puts Pierre Moscovici, the European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, and France’s previous finance minister, in the difficult position of having to act tough on Paris under the watchful eye of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister.

It is also true, as you say, that the Eurogroup is completely “stitched up” by Schäuble. Nevertheless, France had an opportunity to use the Greek crisis in order to change the rules of a game that France will never win. The French government has, thus, missed a major opportunity to render itself sustainable within the single currency. The result, I fear, is that Paris will soon be facing a harsher regime, possibly a situation where the president of the Eurogroup is vested with draconian veto powers over the French government’s national budget. How long, once this happens, can the European Union survive the resurgence of nasty nationalism in places like France?

Kamal Munir, University of Cambridge: You often implied that what went on in your meetings with the troika was economics only on the surface. Deep down, it was a political game being played. Don’t you think we are doing a disservice to our students by teaching them a brand of economics that is so clearly detached from this reality?

Varoufakis: If only some economics were to surface in our meetings with the troika, I would be happy! None did.

Even when economic variables were discussed, there was never any economic analysis. The discussions were exhausted at the level of rules and agreed targets. I found myself talking at cross-purposes with my interlocutors. They would say things like: “The rules on the primary surplus specify that yours should be at least 3.5 percent of GDP in the medium term.” I would try to have an economic discussion suggesting that this rule ought to be amended because, for example, the 3.5 percent primary target for 2018 would depress growth today, boost the debt-to-GDP ratio immediately and make it impossible to achieve the said target by 2018.

Such basic economic arguments were treated like insults. Once I was accused of “lecturing” them on macroeconomics. On your pedagogical question: While it is true that we teach students a brand of economics that is designed to be blind to really-existing capitalism, the fact remains that no type of sophisticated economic thinking, not even neoclassical economics, can reach the parts of the Eurogroup which make momentous decisions behind closed doors.

Mariana Mazzucato, University of Sussex: How has the crisis in Greece (its cause and its effects) revealed failings of neoclassical economic theory at both the micro and the macro level?

Varoufakis: The uninitiated may be startled to hear that the macroeconomic models taught at the best universities feature no accumulated debt, no involuntary unemployment and, indeed, no money (with relative prices reflecting a form of barter). Save perhaps for a few random shocks that demand and supply are assumed to quickly iron out, the snazziest models taught to the brightest of students assume that savings automatically turn into productive investment, leaving no room for crises.

It makes it hard when these graduates come face-to-face with reality. They are at a loss, for example, when they see German savings that permanently outweigh German investment while Greek investment outweighs savings during the “good times” (before 2008) but collapses to zero during the crisis.

Moving to the micro level, the observation that, in the case of Greece, real wages fell by 40 percent but employment dropped precipitously, while exports remained flat, illustrates in Technicolor how useless a microeconomics approach bereft of macro foundations truly is.

first-past-the-post system?

Varoufakis: The similarity that I feel at liberty to mention is that Corbyn and I, probably, coincided at many demonstrations against the Tory government while I lived in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, and share many views regarding the calamity that befell working Britons as power shifted from manufacturing to finance. However, all other comparisons must be kept in check.

Syriza was a radical party of the Left that scored a little more than 4 percent of the vote in 2009. Our incredible rise was due to the collapse of the political “center” caused by popular discontent at a Great Depression due to a single currency that was never designed to sustain a global crisis, and by the denial of the powers-that-be that this was so.

The much greater flexibility that the Bank of England afforded to Gordon Brown’s and David Cameron’s British governments prevented the type of socio-economic implosion that led Syriza to power and, in this sense, a similarly buoyant radical-left party is most unlikely in Britain. Indeed, the Labour Party’s own history, and internal dynamic, will, I am sure, constrain a victorious Jeremy Corbyn in a manner alien to Syriza.

Turning to the first-past-the-post system, had it applied here in Greece, it would have given our party a crushing majority in parliament. It is, therefore, untrue that Labour’s electoral failures are due to this system.

Lastly, allow me to urge caution with the word “populist.” Syriza did not put to Greek voters a populist agenda. “Populists” try to be all things to all people. Our promised benefits extended only to those earning less than £500 per month. If it wants to be popular, Labour cannot afford to be populist either.

Mark Taylor, University of Warwick: Would you agree that Greece does not fulfill the criteria for successful membership of a currency union with the rest of Europe? Wouldn’t it be better if they left now rather than simply papering over the cracks and waiting for another Greek economic crisis to occur in a few years’ time?

Varoufakis: The euro zone’s design was such that even France and Italy could not thrive within it. Under the current institutional design only a currency union east of the Rhine and north of the Alps would be sustainable. Alas, it would constitute a union useless to Germany, as it would fail to protect it from constant revaluation in response to its trade surpluses.

Now, if by “criteria” you meant the Maastricht limits, it is of course clear that Greece did not fulfill them. But then again nor did Italy or Belgium. Conversely, Spain and Ireland did meet the criteria and, indeed, by 2007 the Madrid and Dublin governments were registering deficit, debt, and inflation numbers that, according to the official criteria, were better than Germany’s. And yet when the crisis hit, Spain and Ireland sank into the mire. In short, the euro zone was badly designed for everyone. Not just for Greece.

So should we cut our losses and get out? To answer properly we need to grasp the difference between saying that Greece, and other countries, should not have entered the euro zone, and saying now that we should now exit. Put technically, we have a case of hysteresis: Once a nation has taken the path into the euro zone, that path disappeared after the euro’s creation and any attempt to reverse along that, now nonexistent, path could lead to a great fall off a tall cliff.

This post appears courtesy of The Conversation.

What Will U.S. Stocks Do Next?

Updated on August 26 at 4:05 p.m. ET

U.S. stocks snapped this week’s losing streak Wednesday, closing sharply higher. The Dow and Nasdaq posted triple-digit gains. The S&P also rose, ending out of correction.

The three major indexes all rose more than 3.5 percent.  The Dow Jones industrial average closed up more than 600 points, the S&P 500 was up more than 70, and the Nasdaq closed up more than 190 points.

Stocks had performed well on Tuesday, too. At one point, the Dow was up more than 400 points. But a late-afternoon fade saw all three major indexes close in negative territory. Those fears persisted Wednesday—bolstered by fears about China’s economy.

Chinese stocks continued their losing streak, and European markets closed lower amid lingering uncertainty about the health of the world’s second-largest economy.

The Shanghai composite index closed down 1.3 percent. It was a relatively better performance than Monday, when it declined 8.5 percent, and Tuesday, when it fell a further 7.6 percent. It is now firmly in negative territory for the year. Stocks in Hong Kong also finished lower, down 1.52 percent. But Japan’s Nikkei shrugged off a losing streak to close up 3.2 percent.

U.S. stocks came off two straight days of losses this week. They were buoyed Wednesday by a solid durable-goods report.

Still, stocks worldwide are struggling to move past the uncertainty caused by China’s slowing economy—though some experts say the problem is a Chinese one, and not broader. The Chinese central bank is under pressure to show it will step in when needed. On Tuesday, China cut interest rates by 0.25 percentage points to 4.6 percent, and also increased liquidity by lowering banks’ reserve-ratio requirements. The central bank has also devalued the yuan.

In the U.S., speculation over whether the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next month is adding to the uncertainty. The Wall Street Journal adds:

Some investors think China’s economic slowdown could delay the Federal Reserve’s plans to lift interest rates from near zero later this year. Many had previously expected a September rate increase.