March 2012

Jagdish Bhagwati, a Professor at Columbia University and a leading development economist,  wrote the following letter in yesterday’s Financial Times about President Obama’s designation of Jim Yong Kim to succeed Robert Zoellick as President of the World Bank. He is absolutely right. Dr. Kim is not the right person to lead the Bank, especially in a time of global economic transition, and especially when such an eminently qualified candidate as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, currently Nigeria’s Finance Minister and a former World Bank Managing Director, is available. Professor Bhagwati writes:

“Sir, In your editorial “The right leader for the World Bank” (March 28) you say that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a hugely preferable candidate to succeed Robert Zoellick, but you nonetheless surrender to Barack Obama’s faux pas in choosing Jim Yong Kim, a healthcare expert, as “inevitable”. Whatever happened to the notion that this time around, we would opt for the “best” candidate? But more can be said.

“First, Dr Kim is no more an American than many of us: he was born abroad and is reported to have come here at the age of five. Besides, Americans do not entertain discrimination against foreign-born “intellectual guestworkers”. Dr Okonjo-Iweala has studied with great distinction at Harvard and MIT in economics, has lived in the US for many years, and (I speak from personal experience) she can outwit and outsmart almost any policy economist I know.

“Second, how can President Obama bypass an independent-minded African in favour of yet another agreeable Korean – Ban Ki-moon is another one – and keep a straight face?

“Third, an administration that prides itself on promoting women is sidelining the most gifted woman candidate for this important job. It makes a mockery of the claims that Mr Obama cares for women whereas Mitt Romney will not.

“Finally, and most important of all, the Obama administration mistakenly believes that “development” consists of healthcare, microfinance and other such projects, and not the big high-pay-off “macro-level” policies such as trade. The insidious notion that the former constitutes “development economics” and the latter does not is both wrong and glorifies the less important at the expense of the more important.

“The US government has already put an administrator with a background in health in charge of the United States Agency for International Development: Rajiv Shah. At the same time, it has destroyed Doha and encouraged the manufactures fetish and protectionism, which will cost developing countries far more than USAID’s micro projects will benefit them. Dr Okonjo-Iweala will do both “macro” and “micro” projects. But Dr Kim’s healthcare expertise comes with an uncritical embrace of the charges against “neoliberalism”, betraying susceptibility to the anti-reform, anti-growth rhetoric of the 1990s. Caveat emptor.”

No further comment needed.

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If existing parallels between the U.S. experience in Indochina and our current entanglement in Afghanistan weren’t already enough, the Afghanistan war (Operation Enduring Freedom) now has its own version of the My Lai massacre. The only surprise is that nothing like the Sunday murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant had previously occurred in 10 years of fighting.

For all his campaign promises to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and end our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama has pursued a course almost indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. But of late, he has started to sound more like Richard Nixon. In a speech he gave yesterday in the Rose Garden, the President said, “So make no mistake, we have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war.  We’re steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead, and that’s going to allow us to bring our troops home…And meanwhile, we will continue the work of devastating Al Qaeda’s leadership and denying them a safe haven…I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.” This sounds eerily like Nixon’s “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization of the war.”

It can’t be long before we are treated to images of American diplomats being helicoptered out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban move into the city. In 1972 we brought our troops home from Vietnam, under the pretext that the Vietnamese – and the Cambodians as well – could now shoulder the responsibility for their own defense. It took another three years before the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese Army seized Phnom Penh and Saigon, respectively during which corrupt governments in both countries, rather than trying to defend their people, engaged in an unseemly scramble to amass as much loot as they could before the party ended.

The Karzai government is easily the equal of Lon Nol’s Cambodian regime when it comes to incompetence and corruption, while the Afghan Army is, if anything, less capable than its historic Southeast Asian counterparts, and also infested with Taliban sympathizers. Once NATO forces withdraw, I suspect it will take far less than three years for the Taliban to take over. Tragically, that might be the best possible outcome, the worst being a return to all-out civil war between north and south.

It is time for us to leave. Now.

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In spite of our recent and ongoing misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States seems to be stumbling towards war with Iran. President Obama has stated that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and that he is prepared to use force to prevent it. In part to prevent Israel from launching an immediate attack on Iran, he has offered assurances that we will act, if necessary, once all other options are exhausted. It would be hard for the President to back down from such pronouncements once it becomes clear that Iran is moving forward with its nuclear program, since it would reveal his strong language as so much empty bluster. [click to continue…]

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