Valentine’s day in all its over-commercialized glory should have been the biggest news story of this past weekend, but human reality has a way of intervening, and gave us two significant events that are going to have alarming consequences in the next few weeks and months.
The first was the death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away at the age of 79 while on a short vacation in Texas. The second was a sudden escalation of the conflict in Syria, with Turkey carrying out air and artillery strikes against Syrian government forces and the Turks’ most hated enemy, Kurdish rebels.
US history is one of the things I consider a worthwhile investment of some of my extremely limited free time, so within the next few days I am sure I will get around to discussing the political implications of Scalia’s passing at length in a more appropriate space for that sort of thing.
Suffice to say for now that it makes a mess of American politics; because of the importance of Supreme Court seats to the liberal-conservative power balance in Washington, there are several important measures that are either going to be held up as bargaining chips or bypassed entirely while Congress and the White House are preoccupied—in an election year, which is traditionally a bad time to try to get anything done even under the best of circumstances.
Specifically, President Obama may have to choose whether he wants the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement ratified, or wants to pick a new Supreme Court justice. The TPP was already in trouble in the Republican-controlled Senate, although it still might have passed; the odds that it will, at least in the 11 months Obama has left office, have grown very long with the sudden vacancy on the Supreme Court.
In terms of actual cases before the court, there are only a handful of significant ones that will be affected by Scalia’s death, mostly dealing with strictly domestic issues, except one: A ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court striking down Obama’s order to defer deportation processing for about 6.5 million illegal immigrants. The general consensus is that the lower court ruling would have been overturned by an intact Supreme Court, but a vacant seat on the court means the court’s vote on this issue—as well as others—will now be a 4-4 tie; by law, a lower court ruling stands unless the Supreme Court explicitly overrules it.
The distraction of a vacant Supreme Court seat and its immediate implications is going to compromise the Obama Administration’s ability to exercise leadership in the Syrian conflict at a most inopportune time.
Efforts by the US and Russia last week to craft a ceasefire plan were almost immediately undercut by what appears to be the beginning of a Turkish offensive against the Assad regime and the strongest opposition, the Kurds, and the Turks are not doing much to disguise the fact that they are actually taking the fight to their ancient enemy, the Russians. Saudi Arabia, already in a heated proxy war with its rival Iran in Yemen, is taking the opportunity to expand that conflict by backing Turkey; Saudi air assets are already in Turkey, and both countries have as much as said that a ground campaign is inevitable.
Even if everyone involved can somehow avoid setting off a wider conflict that will set everything from the Caspian to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus to the Arabian Sea on fire, one immediate effect of what’s happened in just the past few days will be volatility in oil prices on a scale we can scarcely imagine now. Three of the four principals in this mess—Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia—need to move oil to pay for it, and are likely to maximize production, world supply glut be damned.
Even though low oil prices should not really be alarming, actual experience over the past half a year or so has demonstrated that they are not doing the broader global economy any good at all, and are going to be even less helpful once an expanded Syrian conflict increases the refugee problem—which is killing Europe—by a couple of orders of magnitude.
It all looks like a perfect storm: A new East-West war about to explode (Russian prime minister Medvedev’s comments about a “new cold war” the other day were probably optimistic), with the one party with enough influence over everyone concerned to have a chance—although by no means a certain one—of moderating the conflict su ddenly sidelined with its own political issues. We can hope that everyone steps back from the brink, and we can hope that we’re being excessively pessimistic that the already tenuous global economy is going to suffer a mortal blow.
Hope in one hand, spit in the other—see which one fills up first. This is going to be a wild year.