International Affairs

September 06, 2011

Taking Note is Now: Blog of the Century

The Century Foundation

We've changed our name and address. However we are leaving our content accessable here at Taking Note.  As of Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 All new content is at our re-named, newly addressed:

Blog of the Century and can be found at

August 29, 2011

Suicide attacks on U.N. -- in Abuja and in Washington

Jeffrey Laurenti

Preoccupied as they were over the weekend by the looming threat of Hurricane Irene, Americans were scarcely aware of the deadly suicide bomber attack that leveled the United Nations offices in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja on Friday.  A group with deepening ties to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Islamist extremists’ hostility to the United Nations is well known.  Osama bin Laden famously reviled it as “nothing but a tool of crime” that “surrendered the land of Muslims [Palestine] to the Jews” and works hand-in-glove with the United States in places like Afghanistan.

But the United Nations is now at risk from an even more destructive assault – from conservative fundamentalists now in power in the U.S. Congress. 

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August 22, 2011

Graph of the Day: In Defense of Warren Buffett

Benjamin Landy

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett became a controversial figure last week when his provocative op-ed, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” landed prominently on the New York Times editorial page. “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress,” Buffett wrote. “It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.” His suggestion, that the government immediately raise taxes on Americans making more than $1 million—and even more so on those making in excess of $10 million—set off a firestorm of criticism from conservatives.  

Among the more misguided attacks was a opinion piece by Jeffrey Miron, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, who outright dismissed the significance of increased government revenues. “The first problem with Buffett’s view,” Miron writes, “is that the number of super-rich is too small for higher rates to make much difference to our budget problems. . . . Imposing a 10% surcharge on this income would generate at most $73 billion in new revenue—only about 2% of federal spending.”

Miron is right that $73 billion won’t solve our “budget problems,” which I take to mean our $14.4 trillion national debt. Nobody is arguing that. But that hardly means $73 billion is inconsequential. In order to illustrate just how much money $73 billion is, I did some research to discover some of the things you could buy with that kind of money. The graphic below shows just a few examples.

73 billion final

If you were more militarily inclined, $73 billion could also buy you sixteen Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers—the largest and most powerful capital ship in the world—or 1,327 brand new F/A-18 Super Hornets from Boeing. And $73 billion could quintuple NASA’s operating budget, providing enough funds to develop and maintain an international lunar base for the next five years, according to CSIS cost analysis. Less than half that amount would provide safe drinking water for the entire planet, helping save the nearly 6,000 children who die every day from diseases associated with contaminated water supplies.

No matter how you choose to look at it, $73 billion is a lot of money. With all of the problems our country is facing today, can we afford to turn it down?


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August 18, 2011

Israel's Settlement Enterprise

Sarah Aoun

With a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood looming in September, international pressure has been building on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent weeks however, a new and internal threat has emerged to challenge the Israeli PM. Since July, thousands of Israelis have been protesting against the rising cost of housing in Tel Aviv and its outskirts, putting an unaccustomed domestic spotlight on the settlement enterprise in occupied territories that has so drained Israeli resources.

While protestors -- in what has been considered Israel’s largest demonstrations on any issue in over a decade -- criticize what they consider to be the government’s indifference to the incredibly high cost of living, this does not seem to be the case in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There, government subsidies of Israeli settlements offer economic incentives difficult to refuse.

Indeed, over the past several decades, the Israeli government has adopted an encouraging policy towards population shift and settlement building – globally considered to be a violation of international law. This investment across the Green Line has been intended to, and undoubtedly succeeded in, leading to an exponential settlement growth.


Settlements have been one of the most urgent and worrying elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967.  Over the past 35 years, more than 500,000 Israelis have made their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with leaders of the settler movement aiming to dash hopes of making these territories the core of a future Palestinian state.

The continuing building of these homes has also spurred a number of violent clashes over the years between Israeli settlers and the Palestinians living in these areas for centuries. According to statistics collected by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory (OCHAoPt), the majority of these attacks have been undertaken by the settlers.  They have left mostly Palestinian children, women, and elderly severely injured, and some even dead.


According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Israeli government is supposed to provide protection to the people whose land it is occupying. However, it is evident that no serious measures have been taken by the government to address this issue, as is shown by the stagnant and even at times increasing number of attacks against Palestinian civilians.

The never-ending settlement growth has repeatedly exacerbated the Palestinians, and has reaffirmed their determination to take their plea to the UN and request a compliance with the pre-1967 borders. On the other side, it keeps fueling protestors’ dissatisfaction with the policies East of the Green Line, where the government spends twice as much on a settler as on another Israeli according to a recent study by the Adva Center.

It does not come as surprise then that over 15 percent of the public construction budget is used to expanding West Bank settlement, which are home to only 4 percent of Israeli citizens, according to a report published by the activist group Peace Now.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the settlement enterprise undertaken by the Israeli government has become a fundamental driver of both the Palestinian’s UN call for statehood and the recent protests in Israel. This has not, however, deterred Netanyahu from recently approving the construction of an additional 4,300 homes in East Jerusalem.

However, as seen by the internal and external pressure he faces, it is not only the Israeli PM, but Israel itself, that will continue to deal the repercussions of decades-long policies that have favored maintaining the occupation and developing settlements over the interests of the broader population – until the demands of the protestors are met and priorities are re-evaluated.

August 11, 2011

Where's that G-20 when we need it?

Jeffrey Laurenti

Barely two years after pulling the world economy out of the steep nosedive triggered by the 2008 financial meltdown, President Obama and other nations’ leaders are staring like deer in the headlights of another onrushing Mack truck.

Having surrendered to the fiscal suicide bombers in his conservative-controlled Congress, Obama is bound and blindfolded, unable to work the tools of fiscal policy to re-start a jobs recovery and to re-ignite demand.  Instead he can only mouth his captors’ script of budget-cutting and austerity.

The problem, though, is not just Washington’s self-quarantine from economic reality.  The virus has gone global.  Surely now is the time to convene the Group of 20 leading world economies, in urgent meetings at working and ministerial levels, to chart an emergency route back from the precipice.

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August 05, 2011

Libya Flickers on the Radar Screen

Jeffrey Laurenti

“When was the last time anybody said anything about Libya?” asked Georgia congressman Phil Gingrey this week, after Washington’s all-consuming wrangle over the federal debt ceiling.

That may be just as well, because talking about NATO’s air war to drive Muammar Qaddafi from power in Tripoli is becoming increasingly embarrassing.

Not only did a befuddled Congress surrender to a willful president’s trampling on its authority over war-making, but the war is well into its fifth month with no sign of Qaddafi’s collapse.  To talk about Libya means acknowledging the failure of Western overreach.

Britain and France, old partners from Suez days, had led the drive for a Security Council resolution authorizing armed intervention and then the hijacking of the “civilian protection” authorization for an air war to help Libyan rebels bring down the regime.  There can be no ceasefire until all the Qaddafis go, they insisted: leave Libya or die.   But after months of stalemate, London and Paris are backtracking.  Maybe Qaddafi can stay in Libya after all –- he just has to give up power.  

Italy, the front-line NATO state with the deepest interest in Libya and which serves as launching pad for the air war, had done the most remarkable flip in March in abruptly abandoning Qaddafi, whom it had warmly welcomed to Rome last fall as a global celebrity.  Yet, after having enthusiastically joined in the military campaign to aid Libya’s rebels, already in June the Italians called for cutting our losses and making a deal:  Cease fire now, worry about Qaddafi’s leaving later.  They offer the model answer to John Kerry’s famous Vietnam-era question—when you see a war is a mistake, get quickly out of it. 

Even the United States, which was proud to “lead from behind” on Libya, now has some egg on its face.  In mid-July secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced U.S. recognition of the Libyan rebels’ Transitional National Council as the country’s legitimate government, hoping the step could reinvigorate the flagging rebel drive to overthrow Qaddafi.  Two weeks later, rebels murdered their own commanding general, one of the most prized defectors from the Qaddafi regime, and no one can say who did it. 

So it may be just as well that Washington was fixated so long on the debt-ceiling donnybrook.  In New York, where U.N. debates drone on oblivious to Washington’s news cycle, Libya has stayed a bit more on the radar screen.  At a lively public discussion last week, the passionate Libyan ambassador who defected early from the Qaddafi camp, and who persuaded reluctant Security Council members to authorize intervention, parried challenges on the endgame for the conflict.

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August 03, 2011

Palestine Statehood and Debt-Ceiling Solutions

Jeffrey Laurenti

Last week’s Security Council debate left no doubt that President Obama will veto Palestine’s application for U.N. membership when it comes before the council in September.  It also made clear the Palestinians, uncharacteristically, have a next step in mind—which the United States can parry only with a creative new strategy. 

The veto will be a bitter acknowledgment of Obama’s failure to achieve one of his top foreign policy priorities on taking office--an Israeli-Palestinian peace.  What makes it especially galling is that last fall the president himself had voiced the hope of achieving “an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine,” with this September as the deadline—another audacious hope unrealized.

The Palestinian fallback goal is U.N. recognition of a “state” of Palestine, through a General Assembly resolution that Obama’s diplomats deride as a merely “symbolic” statement.   In doubt is how much American diplomatic capital Obama is prepared to expend on behalf of a recalcitrant Israeli prime minister who openly conspires with his Republican foes.

Palestinian leaders know that a U.N. resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood would not remove a single Israeli soldier or checkpoint from the West Bank, or prevent Israeli confiscation of even one acre of Palestinian-owned land, or block a single Israeli house being built in settlers’ colonies on occupied territory. 

They understand that U.N. resolutions without Security Council enforcement are just words, and Palestinians cannot live by U.N. words alone.  They realize they will never be free of the occupation, or in genuine control of their own state, except in a comprehensive agreement with Israel. 

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July 28, 2011

Graph of the Day: Tax Cuts and Deficits

Benjamin Landy

As the debate over the debt ceiling slogs along in Washington, it's instructive to step back and look at how the federal balance sheet has evolved since the end of World War II. Until the 1970s, tax revenues and spending levels were fairly closely aligned. Significant deficits began to arise in the aftermath of the OPEC oil shocks, which sent the economy into a period of high inflation and low growth. But deficits became much larger during the Reagan administration, caused mainly by his huge tax cuts and escalation of defense spending. Even though he was subsequently forced to raise taxes eleven times, Reagan was still unable to make a dent in the staggering $2.3 trillion debt that the United States accrued during his tenure.

Taxes and spending 1948-2016 gray projected area Source: Office of Management and Budget, Historic tables              

Large deficits persisted through the George H.W. Bush administration, despite the tax increases he  approved. But after the budget deal that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993 without a single Republican vote in Congress, which included tax increases and spending reductions, deficits began to decline. Aided by a vibrant economy in the second half of the decade, deficits actually transformed into surpluses. Contrary to what supply-side ideology predicted, real GDP growth averaged 4 percent for the rest of the 1990s.

The sizable budget surplus of the Clinton years was intentionally erased by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, reducing revenue by at least $2.9 trillion over the last decade, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report; another $3.5 trillion in lost revenues is attributable to slowed economic growth. The additional cost of two wars and an unfunded Medicare drug benefit combined to create shortfalls that were even wider then during the Reagan era. According to conservative economist Bruce Bartlett,  the interest cost on the deficits created by the Bush tax cuts are responsible for increasing the national debt by $3.2 trillion, or "27 percent of the fiscal deterioration since 2001." With the Great Recession, government revenues have crashed further even as spending on social safety net programs has risen, leading to even deeper deficits.

Still, the GOP continues to hammer away at the same, disproved talking-points. "There's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue," Mitch McConnell (R- Kentucky) said last year. "They increased revenue because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy." Former Minnesota Governor and Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlently recently echoed the sentiment: "Keep in mind, whether it be the Bush tax cuts, the Reagan tax cuts, or other tax cuts, they always produce an increase in revenue." But if that were true, you would expect tax revenues to be on the rise. Just the opposite: this year, in spite of some of the lowest tax rates in the nation's history, the CBO estimates that revenues will be just 14.4 percent of GDP, the lowest percentage since 1950.


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July 22, 2011

The Hard-Pressed and the Privileged

Jeffrey Laurenti

Polling wizard Ruy Teixeira gloomily assessed in The New Republic last month the deepening alienation from Barack Obama and the Democratic Party of the half of the electorate he calls the "white working class," which Obama lost by 18 percentage points to John McCain in 2008 and which congressional Democrats lost to Republican opponents by a "catastrophic" 30 percentage points in 2010.  (There's a reason why McCain mortgaged his campaign and the future of the Republican Party to "Joe the Plumber" in 2008.)

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Graph of the Day: Taliban Killings of Civilians Soar

Jeffrey Laurenti

co-authored by Sarah Aoun

Good news is hard to find in the latest United Nations report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan's intensifying conflict, but let's squint to see some silver linings.

The first six months of this year were the deadliest such period for Afghan civilians in nearly ten years of war, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).  By the U.N.'s count, 1,462 Afghan noncombatants were killed by June 30 -- a number 15 percent higher than during the same six-month period last year.

Still, we might take some solace that it's not the Afghan government's Western allies who are responsible for most of the civilian death toll. 



Afghans killed by semester

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