The World Turned Upside Down


These days, I tend to read the rolling ticker tape of depressing global news like a dispassionate automaton. Inputs come in and update the ledger in my mind, and information is then stored away as bland factual data in the back shelves for whatever future use I might find. The world has been in a funk for quite some time. Between the financial crisis, the constant economic travails of the European Union – is Greece going to stay in or are they out? – the resurgence of a revanchist Russia, a defeatist Iranian nuclear deal, and the idealistic dreams of the Arab Spring crashing into a million broken pieces and spawning the rise of ISIS and millions of migrants pouring out across the globe. I could go on, but the long list is not the point of this post. The point is, geopolitics has given us plenty of reason for gloom in the last few years. Our existing leaders seem helpless, prostrate, and often hapless before such events. And yet, despite all of this, recent events and revelations seem to have finally shaken me from my desensitized slumber. Untypically, I find myself with emotions of angst and awe while learning about two world events this week: the Iranian release of American hostages and the bombshell revelation by a UK judge that based upon all of the evidence he had at his disposal, he believes it highly likely that President Putin ordered the murder of a former FSB officer residing in London.

When I first heard the news that five longtime American hostages were being released, I was elated and began to think, despite my long-held severe skepticism, that perhaps the Iranian nuclear deal might be causing a welcoming thaw in relations between America and Iran and that it just might begin to amend their insidious behaviors of the past. Alas, as the details of the hostage release started coming out, joy soon turned to anger at how the Obama administration with John Kerry as its clawless cat’s paw once again displayed shocking feats of feckless foreign policy. In return for obtaining five innocent victims of Iran’s churlish behavior, the U.S. agreed to drop charges against seven Iranians that were accused of flouting sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program. In addition, Iran is to receive from America $1.7B in an out of court settlement related to a 1970s weapons sale worth $400M in which the Shah of Iran apparently wired the money to America for a weapons transaction but in which the theocratic revolution of Iran disrupted the actual delivery of the weapons. The $1.7B settlement is intended to be principal plus foregone interest on cash. I guess we should be thankful that this administration isn’t actually sending weapons, but the real question is what kind of moral hazards for the future have we set up with such a pusillanimous approach to Iran?

As much as we must celebrate the positive and join in the elation that five innocent people are going home to be reunited with their loved ones, we must also cringe at the pyrrhic price that has been paid. Economists use the term “moral hazard” for something in which short-term expediency and gains creates an incentive to perform dangerous acts in the future.  Hostage taking is what the Iranians do. It is the foundational act of their theocratic regime (for more on this topic, I highly recommend reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah).  Thus, we have shown Iran that America will reward them for hostage taking in the future, so we should expect much more of these events to occur. Jumping back to the $1.7B,  the casual observer might be mistaken into thinking that this seems like appropriate justice. Iran paid for something that we never delivered. In addition,  the Obama administration has indicated that the timing of this is coincidental and not connected to the negotiated release of hostages. The counter argument is that one can’t add up the sum of money that could presumably be awarded out of justified lawsuits Americans have or could have pursued against Iran over the past thirty years as a result of highly justified complaints from the 60 Americans held for over 400 days at the outset of the regime, the Americans that have been held hostage in recent times plus those that are still being held (Robert Levinson and Siamak Namazi were not released in the swap), plus Americans that have been harmed or killed due to proxy terrorism funded by Iran, including the 1983 Beirut bombings and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings. In essence, we have ceded billions of taxpayer dollars in a suit that could easily have been justifiably been dismissed or withheld in light of all other lawsuits or atrocities that Iran has never paid up on. The real challenge is negotiating with a pariah state. How exactly does one negotiate with a nation that funds terrorism abroad, takes hostages as a regular course of action, and which advocates for the annihilation of Israel? The answer is simple: one can’t, unless of course one is willing to make terrible foreign policy decisions that ensure that those same acts will continue to pay off for Iran going forward. Echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu, if Iran wants to be treated as a normal nation, then first make it act as one.

Another event that drew up less of a well of anger and more of awe and wonder was the recent revelation that President Putin most likely ordered the murder of a Russian living abroad in London. The 1950s-esque cloak and dagger saga has been years in the making, as the Litvinenko murder occurred back in 2006. What is new is news emanating from an inquiry in the UK by a British judge in which a decade long gathering and review of evidence makes the connection between the murder and the top of the Russian oligopolistic kleptocracy led by Putin irrefutable. Add this act to the growing list of the growing Russian government menace that spreads its poison both internally and externally: the apartment bombing in Chechnya that brought Putin to power that was later connected to FSB agents as the individuals who actually planted the bombs, the murder of journalists who investigated the Chechnyan bombings, the blatant murder in broad daylight of opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, and the invasion of Ukraine, the critical aid being lent to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria. The depressing fact here is that America’s weakness and retreat from the global space has facilitated Russia’s rise and Cold War II. One can hope that this revelation wakes up Western powers to just who they are dealing with in Putin.

Finally and to add insult to injury, I read this morning a report that the American baseball National League is discussing in earnest a decision to implement the Designated Hitter as early as 2017. I guess the flip side of this is I will no longer have to bemoan my beloved Houston Astros recent move to the American League since both leagues will mirror one another. Still, I will go to my grave believing that baseball should be played on grass, in the open skies of daylight, and the pitcher should hit. The world has indeed been turned upside down this week.

As I wrote this, one bit of optimism peeped in when Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings 100 Days, 100 Nights came on my radio. It lifted the spirits after recounting these depressing global events. Give it a listen.