Biden’s Squandered Opportunity

Winston Churchill is said to have remarked that one should never miss the opportunity lurking behind a disaster. Perhaps, hopefully, we are missing something… but Saturday night’s Iranian attack on Israel could have been a golden opportunity for the US alliance to hit back at Iran strongly and at a minimum dial back Iran’s nuclear program for several years, or ideally, eventually provoke a regime change.

Different from say the Gazans, who overwhelmingly supported Hamas, at least until their cities became scorched earth, the Iranian people by and large do not support Teheran’s regime. Over the last decade, many grassroot Iranian groups have tried to challenge their bloodthirsty government and have pleaded for the United States to support them. A strong combined attack on Iran’s infrastructure and nuclear weapons program could have provided the ideal catalyst for a popular movement that wants to overthrow the Mullas’ regime. But instead of grabbing the opportunity that Iran served on a silver plate, Biden and his administration didn’t waste time to ask Israel not to respond. “Take a Win” is what Biden reportedly told Netanyahu.

True, the coalition that worked so effectively alongside the IDF to thwart Iran’s aggression is a win. But wars are not won only by defending well. At the right time, the opportunity must be grabbed to inflict serious damage on Iran and decapitate the octopus that is sowing terror, and war in the entire middle east. Biden is a key friend of Ukraine, doesn’t he know that Iran is supplying the drones that Russia is using against Ukraine? Doesn’t he know that Iran is a key player in the axis of evil that includes Russia, China, North Korea?

Does he really want to wait until Iran tests a nuclear weapon, thereby making it a lot more difficult to deal with? Didn’t he learn the lessons of history, that tyrants won’t get appeased?

What a colossal failure of judgment.

Mario Draghi: The silver lining in his departure

Most reasonable international observers were mystified by the circumstances that led to the end of the Draghi government. Having achieved so much in only eighteen months, and with only 9 months to the natural end of the legislature, one cannot help but wonder why the Italian parties and parliament have decided to vote against the will of the majority of Italians, not to mention Western leaders, to cut short this incredible government. During the last 552 days, Mario Draghi, Italy’s thirtieth Prime Minister since World War II has achieved targets that have eluded most of his predecessors:

– He was instrumental in the implementation for Italy of the European Recovery plan, which awarded Italy one of the largest allocations in Europe, in return for a package of reforms;

– All the required reforms were delivered on time until now;

– These actions have initiated a virtuous circle of investment and increases in productivity that will last a generation;

– He presided over a 6.6% rise in GDP, among the best results in Europe after the Covid recession;

– This helped to reduce the widely watched Debt/GDP ratio by 4.5%;

– He was easily the most respected Italian leader of the last forty years, responsible for coordinating the West’s response to Russia’s aggression, and visibly part of Europe’s top leadership together with France and Germany;

– He quickly acted to replace Italy’s dependence on Russian gas by striking deals with north African and middle eastern countries.

But the list of necessary reforms is not finished. Draghi wanted to complete his tenure by also achieving long lasting changes to increase competition, restructure the Tax Code, and make welfare payments more efficient. Had Draghi not resigned, most of these reforms would have been part of the 2023 Budget, but achieving them on the eve of the national election campaign would not have been easy.

The decision is now going to go back, democratically, to the voters. If the ‘Draghi effect’ continues, his Agenda will be adopted by a government that will have the votes in parliament to back a decisive 2023 budget without having to worry about elections on the horizon. With the populist left in shambles, the risk is now that the populist right will win the elections and seek to undo Draghi’s work. But the fact that most of the parties that caused the fall of his government have already splintered into groups that have committed to back the Draghi agenda, gives cause for cautious optimism that the foundations he laid in the last 18 months will constitute a structural change in the Italian economy that will last for decades to come.

Long Vaccine…

Nearly 18 months later, we are beginning to see some  patterns in Covid-19 which should help health and policy planners to manage what is becoming an Endemic disease, in the words of the Economist.

One of the interesting patterns is that the Vaccines work on a FIFO basis, in accounting jargon—ie First in, First out.

The most virtuous countries who vaccinated super early such as for example, Israel and the UK have seen a deterioration of the number of daily cases in the last few months, going back nearly to all time highs. Israel which was the global lab for Pfizer went from 10,000 daily cases in February to below 100 in May and then back to 10,000 in the summer. At that point, the country trailblazed again with the quick adoption of the booster, and numbers are now back down to several hundred per day.

In the UK a similar but not identical phenomenon is taking place. As an early adopter, most UK residents are beginning to count six months from the second dose, and daily case numbers are spiralling. But there is a big difference, whereas in the spring 40,000 daily cases meant nearly 1500 deaths, today the same amount of cases amount to ‘only’ 150 daily deaths.

Perhaps we can learn as follows: firstly, vaccines seem to give a medium to long -term protection from serious illness and death; however, protection from catching the disease only lasts up to six months. Israel is going for eradication of daily cases via the booster, the green passport, and the usual distancing rules, which keep on being prevalent. The UK seems to have decided that the booster is enough to manage the epidemic, without resorting back to any restriction. The one issue it has is that in order to make people take the booster, there has to be some ‘get out of jail’ incentive and the one that has worked better in most countries (eg France) is the vaccine/green passport. For ideological reasons (UK citizens don’t even need to have an ID card…) Boris Johnson is resisting this and therefore he has to cope with slow booster take-up and high daily cases, which it can stomach until the NHS copes and daily deaths are ‘acceptably’ low.

The coming winter months will test both these conclusions.

Toxic Cocktails

The combination of Covid-19 and Brexit have turned back the clock on the traveling smoothly by 70 years.

Until 2019, frequent and not so frequent travellers used to take for granted that they could whisk in and out of their countries without ever speaking again to a border agent. E-gates had become the norm, at least in European countries.

Travelling now in 2021 is more akin to dodging landmines. Every week states come out with new and more complex regulations, including paper based and digital forms, first pioneered by the UK and now imitated by EU states. The PLF (Passenger Locator Form) has become a dPLF in the EU; however, not all European countries demand it, yet, and there doesn’t appear to be a site that informs passengers which countries do or don’t ask for it.

Travelling on the Eurostar between Paris and London and vice versa has the added complication of Brexit. Travellers going from Paris to London will have to have their travel documents checked four or even five times before they get on the train. They will have to come up with a good reason to leave France, and a better one to go back to the UK. Once they reach the UK, they will see a barrage of customs/border police officers looking for….? Given that all passengers are already checked at the Paris UK Border Police booth, what is the need for the extra scrutiny in London?

The same is true for the opposite direction of travel. Travellers landing at la Gare du Nord will see a dozen French customs agents scrutinising their faces and luggage looking for…?

If all of this is not enough, the French authorities have just announced that they will require travellers from the UK to isolate for a week; however, they are also told that nobody will bother to come and check. The UK of course does the same thing (but there they do check with ‘volunteers’ that look like Uber drivers that visit your house at random) as France is of course, an Amber country.

I have a simple question. Why does a traveller from France need to be checked five times when a traveller from Colombia will get away with one or two? What incredible extra danger do these Eurostar travellers present that they should be scrutinised to such an infuriating degree?

It is possible that a lot of these extra doses of attention are actually needed to prevent Claret coming back into the UK or the Indian variant to contaminate Europe…. but this degree of zeal smacks a lot like a political tit for tat. The French and the English have had periods of tolerance and periods of mutual antipathy, you can guess what is today’s direction of travel…

When Too Much Thrift is No Good

What is the most common sin of elected officials? You guessed it. Taking advantage of their position to gain private benefits. The London political scene has been up in arms with two ‘scandals’ in the past months, both of them probably more political than legal. The first was David Cameron’s lobbying for a failed financial group, long after his full exit from public life, but ostensibly using connections he gained while he was prime minister. The latest stems from Boris Johnson’s spending a very modest amount of money to upgrade his living quarters at 10 Downing Street. The allegation is not that he used taxpayer money improperly, but rather that the refurbishment was paid by friends, in contravention of election rules. Where is the honour of the office, for the man responsible for the security and health of 60m Britons? Ah, that is only for the Royals, whose closest life and death decisions are whether to kill or spare the next goose at Balmoral…

This case is similar, if simpler, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal travails in several criminal cases opened against him. The cases range from receiving cigars from businessmen, to asking for Champagne, to requesting good (fair?) media treatment in a country where, much like the US, the media is in the hands of the left-wing liberals.

It seems that there is a much cheaper, more efficient, and fair way to deal with these ‘mini-sleaze’ issues: afford prime ministers compensation and benefits that reflect the importance and honour of their office, not because they should gain a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the taxpayers, but much more pragmatically because if they can afford to pay for furniture and cigars, they won’t have to ask favours, which have a tendency to be called at some point.

Countries like the United States, but even revolutionary France, and of course Putin’s Russia, treat their senior leaders much more lavishly. They don’t need to spend their pocket money in doing up their living quarters, as this is done at the expense of the State. Just like the queen, the President has attendants that take care of his every need, including helping him to dress in the morning! Contrast this to the British prime minister who has to cook his own dinner, or to the Israeli prime minister who has to rent an El Al plane to travel for State trips (a new plane has finally been ordered), and has to sit on a public beach if he wants to go on vacation (unless he has his own funds of course).

And when things go wrong and these leaders face legal action? They have to spend their own money and time to defend them while in office.  Mr. Netanyahu is responsible for the safety of nearly 10m Israelis who live under the shadow of missiles, terrorism, cyber threats, nuclear bombs, and more recently, Covid of course, but he has to spend incredible time, concentration, and resources in defending himself in court. Contrast this with the United States, where the president can only be indicted for high crimes and treason, and even that is a political exercise which takes a couple of months, not many years, as we have recently witnessed. Or consider the French system, where sitting presidents cannot be indicted for crimes until their term is up, as it happened recently with Chirac and Sarkozy.

Our leaders’ time and attention are priceless. One hour flight time of an F-15 can pay for a lifetime of cigars, champagne and sofas. Let’s pay our leaders fairly and generously and then expect full attention and no conflicts of interest.