Monthly Archives: March 2011

I don’t know how much credibility Alan Greenspan still has when it comes to financial regulation, but the comments he makes in this FT column about the inadequacies of Dodd-Frank seem mostly right to me. It is true, and very important, that the act…

fails to capture the degree of global interconnectedness of recent decades which has not been substantially altered by the crisis of 2008.

The ridiculous complexity of the new regime–the US now has more regulators, not fewer–compounds this problem by making co-operation among regulators in different countries much more difficult. Unfortunately, though, the piece has little to say about remedies, beyond musing about a return to the “simpler banking practices of a half-century ago”. (Simpler banks aren’t going to help much if financial activity just shifts to shadow banks. They aren’t going to reduce the apparently excessive share of financial activity in GDP either, for the same reason.)

In the end Barack Obama’s speech on Libya will not matter very much. If things go well, Gaddafi leaves or is made to leave, and the aftermath isn’t too bloody, the operation will be deemed a success, and Obama will get much of the credit. Most of the issues now exercising Washington–lack of consultation with Congress, the initial hesitation, the subsequent lack of clarity about goals, the cost, the question of consistency (if Libya, why not Syria?)–all of this will evaporate. If it goes wrong, Obama will get much of the blame, and the complaints will suddenly be potent. The speech was just all right. It wasn’t commanding or inspiring enough to move public opinion and have any bearing on the outcome.

Understanding better than anyone that results are all that count, Obama audaciously tried to say that the US part of the intervention is already mostly over and should be deemed a success.

[T]onight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance…

In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners…

[W]e’ve accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations…

So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do.

The threatened humanitarian crisis has been averted, America’s work is largely done, and the allies can probably handle the rest. Massacre prevented. Mission accomplished (though one must never use that phrase).

Worth a try, but nobody is buying it yet.

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, chose an interesting moment to announce, as he did last week, that the Fed will depart from tradition and start holding quarterly news conferences. The first is scheduled to follow the next meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on April 27. The Fed chief will not be short of things to discuss.

On Obama, multilateralism and dithering, a (European) reader writes:

You argue that Europeans were very critical of George Bush and his unreflective but decisive foreign policy and now they seem equally critical of a president who is more reflective and thinks through issues carefully and regard him as a “ditherer”, implying that Europeans are never satisfied and the President is doomed whatever way he decides on an issue.

I think the issue is not so much that Bush was an instinctive President and that Obama is an intellectual, weighing up all sides of the argument, but that Obama is just indecisive. Yes, it is quite right that he should take his time on such an important issue as imposing a no fly zone on Libya with all its potential consequences but having weighed them up he has to make a choice and that seems to be what he is unprepared to do.  Following the disastrous consequences of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American public’s lack of appetite for any more war in the Middle East it is understandable, and to my mind right, that Obama would not want America to get involved but to the outside world it looks as if other countries, namely France and the UK, have made the decision and that America has reluctantly joined in. It looks as if the tail is wagging the dog.

Gordon Brown had the same problem as Obama.  He is an intellectual who studied issues very carefully but he shared the same indecisiveness.  A leader has to make very difficult choices but after much reflection he has to appear to be confident and decisive in his choice.  Obama is not giving that impression and leaving the country at such a critical time looks as if he is running away from scrutiny when the country needs his leadership.

Actually, I agree with this. Multilateralism and especially international legalism, I argued, are institutionally inclined to dithering, but it’s true that Obama has added another layer of indecision all his own, and this goes beyond what was implied by careful weighing of the options. Having made up his mind that a forceful UN-backed intervention was correct, he should have made the case for it to the US public and the world, and pressed hard to get it done right. He hasn’t made the case at home or abroad–his absence when the intervention began only underlines this. What little he has said is muddled. And he has indeed given the impression of being reluctantly dragged along.

I don’t think it is possible for Obama to be as decisive a multilateralist as Europe wants him to be, or as strong a leader while remaining an equal partner, which Europe also wants (sometimes). So I do think that Obama’s European critics are trying to have it both ways. That said, Obama could certainly have done better on both counts than he has.

Roger Pielke Jr draws my attention to this chart on relative radiation doses. Well worth a look.

A year ago this week Congress passed and President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute organized a conference on Monday to take stock. As a libertarian, Cannon opposes the reform, but the meeting brought supporters as well as sceptics together. It was a good event and you might want to watch it on the think-tank’s website. It seems to be in two pieces, here and here.

The future of the reform, as you know, is uncertain.

With the restoration of power to the crippled reactors at Fukushima, and with the passage of time (allowing the nuclear materials to cool of their own accord), it may be that the worst is over. Let us hope so. Making sense of what has happened will take longer.

David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge, highlights our confusion over radiation risk in this excellent article for the BBC. The main thing we have to fear, he says, is fear itself.

It has been estimated that 17 million were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.

This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.

The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.

By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major.

Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging. You can pay £800 ($1000) and get a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up, but it can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.

Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

Meanwhile, in Taipei, a high-end restaurant is giving diners a geiger counter to scan their sashimi.

President Barack Obama was not in Washington when the first missiles struck targets in Libya. As the US went to war at the weekend – the third on his watch – he left for Brazil to discuss trade. The trip could have been cancelled but the White House made a virtue of it. The president’s absence affirmed the administration’s stance. The US is supporting the strikes against Col Muammer Gaddafi, but it did not take the lead in insisting on them and is not in command.

My first reaction to the UNSC resolution on Libya was surprise. I hadn’t expected that a vote to authorise action would succeed, still less one that authorised action (”all necessary measures”) far beyond merely enforcing a no-fly zone. That extra step seemed to come out of nowhere. It was vital. It may be what persuaded Libya to declare a ceasefire, and it gives Gaddafi reason to think about actually honouring it. The resolution, by the way, also allows troops on the ground, if it should come to that. It forbids an occupation force, a different thing.

To put it mildly, this is quite a moment for the UN, and for US relations with that institution. America has not led this drive to protect Libyan civilians. Britain and France can fairly claim to have done that. Read David Cameron’s statement after the resolution passed. Impressive, I thought. There were three conditions for intervention, he explains: demonstrable need, regional support, and a clear legal basis–all now met.

So far, the US is just one partner. Could it remain as that–perhaps, as the Pentagon might prefer, even a junior partner–if the allies have to start shooting? That would be a very strange posture for the US: engaged in a military intervention that Washington is not directing. I wonder what the US public would make of it. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come: the difference that Obama makes; a US that goes along to get along; the kind of America the world thinks it wants, sometimes. Alternatively, it might be a formula for disaster. In any event, it’s new.

For now, there’s another problem. The resolution does not quite marry with the tone of British, French, and US officials talking as though they have taken sides with the rebels in their struggle against Gaddafi–a just cause, needless to say, if there ever was one. The resolution did not put the international community on the rebels’ side in Libya’s civil war. Emphasising the protection of civilians, it called for a ceasefire, and the Libyan government has announced its compliance. Suppose this is genuine. Do we now police a partition that leaves Gaddafi in charge of most of the country? Or suppose it is a feint, the allies strike against the regime, and the struggle turns the rebels’ way. What does protecting civilians require then? A rebel in a tank advancing on Tripoli is not a civilian.

I recommend this interview with Larry Summers in The International Economy.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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