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Archive for June 23rd, 2015

US in decline? Take a trip abroad

Foreign travel is broadening, but not always in a positive way.

For Americans it has an increasingly painful edge. Too often it leaves us with a disconcerting sense that our country is falling behind.

In a world where competition comes increasingly from other countries, this bodes ill for our national future.

Last month I visited 4 countries that might seem to have little in common: Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands.

All four are intently focused on global competition. Countries like these will be eating America’s lunch in the future if we proceed as we are today.

 Stephen Kinzer,   June 21, 2015

Germany and the Netherlands have highly successful, innovation-based economies that live from exports.

Turkey is laser-focused on its goal of becoming one of the world’s 10 richest countries within a decade.

Iran has suffered under decades of economic sanctions but is a young and vibrant society, poised to join the world market with a vengeance if sanctions are eased — which may soon happen.

For Americans, traveling in these countries is sobering because it forces us to confront an unpleasant truth: An increasing number of nations do things better than we do.

In an earlier age that might not have mattered because the United States commands such a huge land mass with such lavish resources, and because our political primacy was all but unchallenged. It matters now.

After the end of the Cold War, the US entered into a period of relative geopolitical decline. This was inevitable.

Never again will we be as dominant in as many ways as we were during our most powerful days.

Globalization has liberated the energies of people around the world. The global economy is more competitive than it has been at any time in living memory.

This is clear to any American who travels. (Rare are the US citizens who cared to apply for a passport)

Our history of power and prosperity has made us complacent while other countries plan more carefully for the future. Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands are among countries that smell our blood in the water.

One of the most striking differences between those countries and the US is in physical infrastructure. Highways, bridges, electric grids, and transit systems are modern and carefully maintained.

Public art enlivens neighborhoods. It is difficult to find clusters of poverty and deprivation like those in many American cities.

The other huge difference, less visible but even more important over the long run, is primary and secondary education.

One of America’s chronic problems, steadily becoming more acute, is the emergence of a large class of poorly educated, low-skilled citizens unequipped to compete in the modern economy.

Our society does not provide equal access to good education. Students in other countries now regularly outperform Americans on standardized tests. This is a waste of our human resources — and a bad omen for our future.

In infrastructure and precollege education, just as in energy policy, environmental protection, and other areas, the United States no longer leads the world.

One reason is that many Americans seem unable to grasp the connection between taxes and services. We want a country that is “number one,” but rebel at the idea of paying for it. Financing a country is no different from financing any other enterprise: You get what you pay for.

All four of the countries I happened to visit follow the high-tax/high-service model of government.

Americans are deeply divided over whether this model is right for us. Perhaps the individualist strain in our collective DNA makes some other approach more appropriate.

No society, however, survives long when great private wealth thrives alongside public squalor. While Americans argue about how to deal with our national challenges, other countries are surging forward. To see this happening, travel abroad and look around.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

Note: The huge military budget, larger than the collective next 10 highest countries budgets, is a terrible drag on the US financial sustainability. And the unaudited military behemoth cannot  account for the loss of $10 trillion in the last two decades.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Americans “want a country that is “number one,” but rebel at the idea of paying for it.”

Countries like Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands — all intently focused on global competition — will be eating America’s lunch in the future if we proceed as…
bostonglobe.com

 Saudis’ Checkbook Diplomacy: known this from ages and just Revealed by  WikiLeaks

Before becoming the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi wanted visas to take his family on a religious pilgrimage.

A Lebanese politician begged for cash to pay his bodyguards. Even the state news agency of Guinea, in West Africa, asked for $2,000 “to solve many of the problems the agency is facing.”

They all had good reason to ask, as the kingdom has long wielded its oil wealth and religious influence to try to shape regional events and support figures sympathetic to its worldview.

These and other revelations appear in a trove of documents said to have come from inside the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and released on Friday by the group WikiLeaks.

Photo

Saudi leaders, whose portraits are displayed at the stock exchange in Riyadh, have not confirmed the leak’s authenticity. Credit Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It seems that everyone wants something from Saudi Arabia..

While the documents appear to contain no shocking revelations about Saudi Arabia, say, eavesdropping on the United States or shipping bags of cash to militant groups, they contain enough detail to shed light on the diplomacy of a deeply private country and to embarrass Saudi officials and those who lobby them for financial aid.

And they allow the curious to get a glimpse of the often complex interactions between a kingdom seen by many as the rich uncle of Middle East and its clients, from Africa to Australia.

In a statement carried by the Saudi state news agency on Saturday, a foreign ministry spokesman, Osama Nugali, acknowledged that the documents were related to a recent electronic attack on the ministry.

He warned Saudis not to “help the enemies of the homeland” by sharing the documents, adding that many were “clearly fabricated.” Those who distribute the documents will be punished under the country’s cybercrimes law, he said.

Mr. Nugali also struck a defiant tone, saying the documents were essentially in line with the “state’s transparent policies” and its public statements on “numerous regional and international issues.”

More than 60,000 documents have been released so far, with WikiLeaks promising more to come.

They include identification cards, visa requests and summaries of news media coverage of the kingdom.

The most informative are diplomatic cables from Saudi embassies around the world to the foreign ministry, many of which are then passed along to the office of the king for final decisions

Many of the cables are incomplete, making it hard to determine their date and context, and very few indicate which requests were approved by the king and ultimately carried out. Most documents focus on a turbulent period in the Middle East, beginning after the popular uprisings that toppled Arab leaders in 2011 and continuing through early this year.

Clear in many of the documents are efforts by Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, to combat the influence of Shiite Iran, its regional rival, as well as Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party.

Cables about Iraq suggest efforts to support politicians who opposed Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, then the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, who was close to Iran. One said the kingdom had given 2,000 pilgrimage visas to Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi, to distribute as he saw fit.

Another cable from the Saudi Embassy in Beirut relayed a request by a Christian militia warlord politician, Samir Geagea, for cash to relieve his party’s financial problems. The cable noted that Mr. Geagea had stood up for the kingdom in news media interviews, opposed the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and had shown “his preparedness to do whatever the kingdom asks of him.”

A spokesman for Mr. Geagea did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

“Are there just more Lebanese begging Saudis for money or does my timeline skew toward Lebanon?” wrote one Twitter user, Laleh Khalili, noting the frequency of such requests from Beirut.

Other cables show Saudi Arabia working to maintain its regional influence.

One accused Qatar, another Persian Gulf state known for oil wealth and cash-based diplomacy, of stirring up trouble in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, by backing a rich politician to the tune of $250 million.

And a few cables implied that Saudi leaders had negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally. One document said a leader in the Brotherhood had said the group could ensure that Mr. Mubarak would not go to prison in exchange for $10 billion.

But a handwritten note on the document said paying “ransom” for Mr. Mubarak was “not a good idea” because the Brotherhood could not prevent his incarceration.

The documents also indicate concerted Saudi efforts to shape news media coverage, both inside and outside the kingdom.

One cable suggested that the government pressure an Arab satellite provider to take an Iranian television station off the air. In another cable, the foreign minister suggests that the provider use “technical means to lessen the Iranian broadcast strength.”

Other documents suggest intervention at the highest levels to shape domestic media coverage in a way that suits the rulers.

In an early 2012 cable marked “top secret and urgent,” King Abdullah told top ministers about new talks between the kingdom and Russia over the crisis in Syria and asked them to “direct the media not to expose Russian personalities and to avoid offending them so as not to harm the kingdom’s interests.”

Missing from the documents is any evidence of direct Saudi support for militant groups in Syria or elsewhere.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at the Brookings Institution, said that while considerable evidence of such programs exists, they are handled by the kingdom’s intelligence services, and the foreign ministry is often “not in the loop.”

“That allows the Saudis to have plausible deniability and to liaison with other intelligence services aiding the rebels,” he said.

Some found the documents underwhelming, noting that similar activities are carried out by many countries, including the United States.

“There is not really something shocking that compromises Saudi security,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates, who had read about 100 cables.

Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia practices checkbook diplomacy, he said, adding that it now had to compete for clients with other rich states, like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

One surprise in the documents, he said, is that the former Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had to seek the permission of the king before proceeding with even minor matters.

“It seems that the king is the king in Saudi Arabia, no matter how princely you are,” Dr. Abdulla said.

Other surprising finds showed up in the WikiLeaks’ net.

The Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, known for shocking conservative Muslims with her sexy music videos, received a visa and visited a Saudi prince inside the kingdom despite instructions that all visas for artists and singers be preapproved by the Interior Ministry, according to the documents.

The foreign ministry branch in Mecca responded that Ms. Ajram had received the visa to travel with her husband and had come on a personal visit, not in her capacity as an artist.

Also in the cache was an email to a foreign ministry official from a technology company called StarLink, whose website says it is a “trusted security adviser.”

Reached by phone, the company’s business development manager, Mahmoud Odeh, confirmed that StarLink had provided computer security services to the Saudi government.

When asked what he thought of the leaks, Mr. Odeh hung up.


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