Jan 3rd 2019

Looking Backward (2018) and Forward (2019)

by James J.Zogby

 

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride. First, it looks backward in fear of what it was running from, and then it turns its glance forward - also in fear - toward the unknown that is its destination. It was this image that came to mind as 2018 came to an end and I sat down to write about the year that was and what we expect might unfold in the new year. 

By any measure, 2018 was a tumultuous year, in no small way owing to President Trump's unpredictable behavior. He has been, in a word, exhausting. 

We began and ended 2018 with a short government shutdown owing to Trump's insistence that Congress agree to fund the wall on the Mexican border, despite opposition from Democrats and some leaders in his own party. When Democrats offered the White House partial funding of the wall in an effort to secure a compromise on immigration reform, Trump balked and upped the ante demanding, in addition to his wall, an end to the diversity lottery and family unification - making disparaging remarks about immigrants from the African continent in the process. He also dramatically reduced the number of refugees admitted to the US and imposed new hardships on those seeking asylum. Added to this has been the Administration's "family separation" policy which produced the nightmarish result of thousands of little children being taken from their parents at the border and sent to far-away locations. At year's end, we once again have a government shutdown, no wall, and no indication that the White House is willing to compromise. 

In 2018, Trump also repeatedly upset international relations alienating allies both East and West. He frustrated Europe by unilaterally walking away from the Iran nuclear deal; outraged Arabs by moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; imposed stiff new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum; once again acted unilaterally with a bizarre "love fests" with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin causing unease with NATO and South Korea and Japan; and then, at year's end, surprised everyone by announcing that he was pulling all US forces out of Syria and drawing down US forces in Afghanistan.

2018 also witnessed upheaval within the Administration, itself. Trump lost or fired his Secretaries of State, Defense, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Interior, the Attorney General, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Security Advisor, the United Nations Ambassador, the White House Chief of Staff, Legal Counsel, and Director of Communications, and a dozen other senior White House officials.     

During all this time, Trump spent the year besieged by the growing threat to his presidency posed by the investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Mueller probe and ancillary investigations have thus far taken a hefty toll. Five individuals who worked with the Trump campaign have been found guilty of crimes ranging from conspiracy to making false statements under oath. Add to this, Trump's long-time personal attorney pleaded guilty to a number of financial crimes in which he implicated Trump. And the investigation is still underway. 

If this were not enough, the President has compounded the exhaustion with his incessant tweeting. Each morning a wary public awakens to see what outrageous charges, defamatory rants or insults Trump has to offer. The news networks have unfortunately been accommodating since they spend the better part of each day amplifying his tweets discussing them as if they were "Breaking News."   

In the midst of this chaos, Trump has been successful in pursuing his agenda of undoing much of President Obama's accomplishments. There was: a tax cut that resulted in a massive upward redistribution of wealth; a dismantling of regulations that protected consumers, the environment, natural resources, air and water, health and safety; an end to Obama-era education-related policies; and the gutting of Obama's signature legislation reforming health insurance - which is now in danger of completely unraveling. 

Not everything has been bad news. Trump did lend his support to a significant criminal justice reform bill that passed with bipartisan support. And he did renegotiate a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. 

Despite these accomplishments, some good, mostly bad, it is the chaos that has dominated the news - and for this, the President can only blame himself. I am reminded of a line in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" where he describes the faces of passengers on the London Underground being "distracted from distractions, by distractions." This has been our fate in 2018. We are almost unable to focus on one crisis before our attention is diverted by yet another: a mass shooting (once again in 2018, there has been almost one a day); upheaval in the White House; new Mueller indictments; or an incendiary Trump tweet. The result has been a near perpetual state of nervous anxiety.

So much for looking backward at the year we are leaving behind. The problem, of course, is that, like that camel in the poem, we can only feel apprehension as we now run head-long into the year that awaits us - 2019. 

I learned a long time ago, that the true test we face in life is not how we accomplish the goals we set for ourselves, but how we confront the unexpected challenges that lay before us. We can only predict some of what 2019 will bring. 

Democrats will be in control of the House of Representatives and they will not give Trump an easy time. They will begin the year with an inherited government shutdown and a president still insisting that they find $5 billion in the budget to build his wall (the one he had insisted would be paid for by Mexico). Any compromise they may reach with the White House will still need to be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The New Year will also bring forward the results of Mueller's investigation into Trump campaign collusion with the Russians during the 2016 election and whether or not Trump attempted to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation. Whether or not Democrats want to hold hearings on White House activities related to these or other matters, the Congress will, of necessity, have to react to the Mueller findings or to the Administration's reactions to it (for example, by firing Mueller or attempting to bury his report).   

The immigration crisis on our southern border will not let up, nor will the challenges to health care reform resulting from a number of court decisions which have put the stability of the current system in limbo. 

Then there are crises in the world with which we'll have contend. These we can't predict. Will Turkey take advantage of the US departure to attack Kurdish forces in Syria? Will Israel attack Lebanon? Will the unconscionable behavior of the Iranian-backed militias in recently "liberated" areas of Iraq provoke a resurgence of Daesh2.0? Will the Taliban see the US draw-down as an opportunity and launch a Spring offensive? Will Netanyahu win again, will he be indicted, and will Palestinians react to the unbearable pressure they face at the hands of the Israeli occupation?  Will the "Deal of the Century" ever see the light of day? And will Congress, as expected, continue to apply pressure Saudi Arabia, and what impact will that have on the continuing devastating war in Yemen? And then there's China's expansionist moves, Iran's regional meddling, Russia's continuing aggression in Ukraine, and what about Brexit?

The list of challenges is by no means complete, but it's enough to cause us to know that we are hurtling into an uncertain future with good reason to be filled with apprehension.  

Along the way, there will be distractions aplently. We'll have the expected announcements of what may as many as three dozen Democratic presidential aspirants - each announcement will provide "Breaking News" for the networks. And, yes, there will be the endless stream of Trumpian tweets. 

I understand the camel and I'm nervous and not a little exhausted. 

 

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More Current Affairs

Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."