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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Britney for President

My response to McCain's now-infamous Celebrity ad:
Britney for President!


As old white males'
authority pales,
I view the change with tranquility.
Celebrities rule
and that's totally cool--
long live the nation's
nubility.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Over the Rainbow in Buffalo

Welcome to Oz, AKA Buffalo, NY during its annual Garden Walk (July 25-26, 2008).

































No prizes, no entry barriers, no admission fees -- just a beleaguered city gone mad with gardening.

Pictures from 2007 Walk here.

Professor Obama unsettles liberal students

Thanks to a long article w/ online document dump in the New York Times, I'm eager to explore Obama's teaching career through syllabi, exams etc. For starters, this byte in the article jumped out:
For one thing, Mr. Obama’s courses chronicled the failure of liberal policies and court-led efforts at social change: the Reconstruction-era amendments that were rendered meaningless by a century of resistance, the way the triumph of Brown gave way to fights over busing, the voting rights laws that crowded blacks into as few districts as possible. He was wary of noble theories, students say; instead, they call Mr. Obama a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.
Herein lie some of the roots of Obama's qualified praise of Reagan, not only in the primary campaign but in The Audacity of Hope:
That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined.
This intellectual openness, more than the policies Obama has pursued, explains the respect he's won from conservative colleagues throughout his career. When he says he's willing to consider cutting the corporate tax rate if/after lobbyist-written corporate tax loopholes are closed, or that he's not against all wars, just dumb wars, or not against free trade but in favor of fair trade, or that working class white resentments have some just cause, he's not trying to split a difference but to incorporate insights he regards as legitimate.

When Obama said during the primary that the Republican Party was "the party of ideas" for many years, he meant it -- and he fudged when Hillary attacked, in part because he'd screwed up the time frame when he said that Republicans had been the party of ideas "for the last ten or fifteen years." Clearly he thinks that Republican creativity came sooner, in the 70s and 80s, and had some legitimacy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama in Berlin: American Confession

Obama's Berlin speech has been characterized as light on substance and derided as Utopian treacle. Nonsense.

On a practical level, the speech reformulated in sweeping historical and philosphical terms an appeal that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made directly to the European public this past February. Asking Europeans not to lump the war in Afghanistan together with the war in Iraq as an American misadventure, Gates said, according to the AP (sorry - link expired):
I think they combine the two. Many of them I think have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan and don't understand the very different — for them — very different kind of threat' posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as opposed to the militant group in Iraq that goes by the same name and is thought to be led by foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

Compare Obama in Berlin:
This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope.

This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan, and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets. No one welcomes war. I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO's first mission beyond Europe's borders is a success. For the people of Afghanistan, and for our shared security, the work must be done. America cannot do this alone. The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now.
Beyond that appeal, it's true that the speech was more about shared goals than contestable policies. But why would a prospective American president give a detailed policy address to 200,000 Berliners? Obama's speech had a different kind of substance. It was a direct appeal to revitalize the strained Atlantic alliance. It was a confession (and assertion) of sins on both sides of a rift. It was a bulletin that a chastened United States is ready again to lead, on humbler terms, "the greatest alliance ever formed to defend our common security." And it was an eloquent restatement of common values - values that Obama characterizes as shared with Europe, and capable of being spread by force of reason and example worldwide.

Echoing Lincoln, Obama used a moment of past heroism, the Berlin airlift, to 'rededicate' the alliance to living up to its own often-violated ideals:
[Pilots of the airlift] won hearts and minds; love and loyalty and trust - not just from the people in this city, but from all those who heard the story of what they did here.

Now the world will watch and remember what we do here - what we do with this moment. Will we extend our hand to the people in the forgotten corners of this world who yearn for lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and justice? Will we lift the child in Bangladesh from poverty, shelter the refugee in Chad, and banish the scourge of AIDS in our time?

Will we stand for the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, or the voter in Zimbabwe? Will we give meaning to the words "never again" in Darfur?

Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world? Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law? Will we welcome immigrants from different lands, and shun discrimination against those who don't look like us or worship like we do, and keep the promise of equality and opportunity for all of our people?

Also like Lincoln, Obama predicates his faith in American ideals -- and an appeal to their universality -- on acknowledgement of our failure to live up to them. It's the confession of failure that makes the assertion of universality palatable:

I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.

But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived - at great cost and great sacrifice - to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world. Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom - indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. What has always united us - what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America's shores - is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.

These are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. These aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart. It is because of these aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of these aspirations that all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation - our generation - must make our mark on the world.

As is usually the case with Obama, this speech was partly about timing (one of its refrains was 'this is the moment'). Europeans prefer Obama over McCain by margins exceding 3-to-1. Simply by electing Obama, Americans will take a long step toward restoring good will in Europe. It was therefore Obama's task at this moment to remind Europeans of our common values and common interests, to confess to American missteps, and to appeal for concerted action on multiple fronts, with Nato's task at hand in Afghanistan front and center. All of this he did.

Related posts:
Obama and the vision thing
We've been here before: How Obama frames U.S. history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation

Saturday, July 26, 2008

McCain's signature: attack opponent's integrity

I remember George Bush Sr., while building a campaign on impugning Michael Dukakis' patriotism, protesting (paraphrasing here), "I'm not questioning his patriotism, just his judgment." Hypocrisy is the debt that vice pays to virtue. Bush at least recognized that openly questioning his opponent's patriotism was scurrilous.

McCain, on the other hand, has made a conscious choice to explictly base his campaign on the absurd allegation that Obama "would rather lose a war than lose a campaign." That's worse than a direct assault on patriotism - it's a denial of the Obama's integrity. Here's the latest:

I said, I will repeat my statement again, that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign. Because anyone who fails to acknowledge that the surge has worked, who has consistently opposed it, consistently never sat down and had a briefing with General Petraeus, our commander there, would rather lose a war than a political campaign.
Obama has acknowledged that the surge reduced violence in Iraq. He's questioned whether the cost was worth the benefit, and whether the gains of the past year could not have been achieved without a troop buildup. His determination to remove U.S. troops from Iraq is part of a coherent, long-articulated strategy to concentrate more effort in Afghanistan/Pakistan. He may well be wrong about the surge, but to insist that his position is a motivated primarily by political calculation is despicable.

It's also a distraction. McCain is right to hammer home his difference with Obama on the surge. But the effective attack would be on Obama's judgment, not his motives, for opposing the surge and continuing to insist that troops be removed quickly from Iraq. He's handing Obama the opportunity to again decry the politics of personal destruction, a tack he used very effectively against the Clintons.

For McCain, though, the success of the surge, on which he did stake his political career, has devolved to monomania. No disagreement in good faith is possible:

It's clear to me that anyone who fails to acknowledge the success of the surge would clearly have a political consideration.

The irony is that the more McCain digs in on this charge, the more ground he yields to Obama on policy. First he followed suit by calling for additional brigades to be sent to Aghanistan (never mind that, in contrast to Obama, he did not bother to specify where they would come from). Now, pushed by the Iraqi government, he's admitted that sixteen months is a pretty good timetable for withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq.

It should be noted, too, that accusing his opponent of putting personal political gain ahead of the national interest is not a counsel of desperation for McCain, but a longstanding political habit. McCain repeatedly made the same accusation against Bill Clinton. Here he comments on Clinton's liberal licensing policies for sale of technology to China:



Far more distressing is the charge that they [lapses in judgement re technology transfer] are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

McCain has a reputation for integrity, decency, honor. He's won kudos for renouncing attacks that play one way or another on Obama's background, religion, race. But the direct attack on integrity is worse than Rovian (though probably less effective than Rovian insinuation). It bespeaks a kind of lumbering, maladoit aggression in McCain's fundamental approach to political combat, visible also in his wilful distortion of Romney's position vis-a-vis the surge earlier this year. McCain may speak unctiously of respect for his opponent. But he has none.

Update, Sun. July 27: Chuck Hagel warned McCain to back off the patriotism charge on Meet the Press today, echoing Obama's theme that the attack is "unworthy" of McCain:
Hagel was asked about McCain’s recent campaign line that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a campaign. “They’re better off to focus on policy differences. I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into, “You’re less patriotic than me. I’m more patriotic.” I admire and respect John McCain very much. I have a good relationship. To this day we do. We talk often. I talked to him right before I went to Iraq, as a matter of fact. John’s better than that.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama's "unsecret plan" to end the war

Flashback: Obama touts a familiar strategy to draw down the U.S. engagement in Iraq (on CBS News):
Couric: ... Prime Minister Maliki on the same page when it comes to a troop withdrawal by 2010. Why do you believe that the Iraqi security forces, which have taken so long to get up to speed, will be equipped to protect the country at that point?

Obama: Well, keep in mind that, and I can't speak for Prime Minister Maliki now, but under my proposal, you'd still have U.S. forces with a capable counterterrorism operation in the region. You would still be training Iraqi security forces. We'd still be providing logistical support. We would still provide protection for our diplomatic corps and other civilians as well as our forces on the ground.

So we would still have the capacity to help promote effective actions by the Iraqi security forces. And, in fact, we're already starting to see more and more of those forces take the lead in actions where we're playing more of an advisory role. The key is for us to not inhibit the Iraqis from taking that kind of responsibility on.
This is Vietnamization, Richard Nixon's 'secret plan' to end the Vietnam War. AKA, 'as they stand up, we'll stand down.' In a sense, this has been happening in Iraq since late 2006 - at which point Mario Loyola noted that Iraqi military capacity and engagement were increasing.

It's a meme among old Nixon hands that Vietnamization worked in Vietnam, that the South Vietnamese government and military were viable after the U.S. pulled its troops out, that the regime in the South could have survived if the U.S. did not pull the plug on military aid and air support. That storyline was effectively debunked by Nixon himself, who confessed privately as early as 1969 that the U.S. could not win. So why might the process work in Iraq?

The South Vietnamese government was facing a sovereign, organized, relentless enemy that had been fighting as a unit for more than thirty years and that was backed by Soviet military might. The North Vietnamese regime and its antecedents had defeated the Japanese, defeated the French, and sustained its effort to control the entire partitioned country for more than 20 years. The Iraqi forces opposing or competing with the Maliki government are fragmented, nonsovereign and at best only sporadically and equivocally backed by Iran (some of the Shiite groups, that is). So, as Petraeus has revamped and executed counterinsurgency strategy, Bush-Obama could make Vietnamization work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"No bomb-bomb Obama"

Back in April, David Brooks predicted that Obama was getting himself into "read my lips" trouble by sticking to his pledge to withdraw most American troops from Iraq within 16 months:
If Obama is elected, he will either go back on this pledge — in which case he would destroy his credibility — or he will risk genocide in the region and a viciously polarizing political war at home.
Three months later, with progress in Iraq seeming to solidify, it seems that luck may be giving Obama enough wiggle room to both adjust and essentially stick to his pledge. He now has Iraqi government endorsement for his timeframe, with eight extra months thrown in as if by design to fit the "tactical adjustments" and "refinements" he's allowed himself (after a couple of zigzags, Maliki's spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh set the end of 2010 as a target for withdrawal).

At the same time, Gideon Rachman (in a dispassionately logical column that reminds me why I love the FT) points out that Obama has withstood considerable pressure to allow himself crucial flexibility on what may be an even more important front. Honing in on what he casts as the most fateful decision the next President is likely to make in the short term, Rachman points out that unlike McCain (and, Rachman might have added, every other serious Presidential candidate),
Mr Obama, by contrast, carefully avoided an absolute commitment that Iran would never go nuclear on his watch. He has stressed again and again how seriously he takes the threat but he has never crossed the line into in effect promising military action. To reverse the McCain position, it seems that the only thing worse for Mr Obama than a nuclear Iran would be a war with Iran.
Like Fareed Zakaria, Rachman recognizes Obama as the true realist in this campaign:

The US has already had to learn to live with nuclear weapons in the hands of countries that are far more oppressive and irrational than Iran: North Korea, Mao's China, the Soviet Union.

One of the great lessons of international relations since 1945 is that nuclear deterrence has worked. Mr Obama respects that lesson. Mr McCain does not. For that reason alone, Mr Obama would make the better commander-in-chief.

Obama has been widely accused of serial flip-flopping of late. But it has required considerable political courage to stick to commitments to draw down troops in Iraq, ramp up efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and negotiate with Iran. Those are central pillars in a coherent middle east strategy, spelled out in a series of speeches and a recent op-ed, that is as noteworthy for stipulating what we can't do (spend $10 billion per month and pin down 100,000+ troops in Iraq) as what we must do (develop a more multidimensional counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Monday, July 21, 2008

No Ordinary Time: Eleanor's tourist lesson for Obama

Noam Scheiber, dismissing the inevitable Potemkin Village quality of Obama's foreign tour, cites Obama's own world-weary account of VIP fact-finding and good will tours:
Obama, as is his wont, actually lodged a version of this complaint during the primaries, when the topic was the knowledge Hillary had supposedly gleaned from her own globe-trotting: "You get picked up at the airport by a state convoy and a security detail. They drive you over to the ambassador's house and you get lunch. Then you go take a tour of some factory or some school. Children do a native dance." Replace "ambassador" with "chancellor" or "prime minister" and you have a reasonable summary of this week's itinerary. A term as National Security Advisor it is not.
Sounds worldly, but it's a half-truth. Compare Eleanor Roosevelt's approach to this process (albeit in less-hyped and less-watched settings) as recounted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's magnificent No Ordinary Time:
...it was Franklin who had encouraged her to become his "eyes and ears," to gather the grass-roots knowledge he needed to understand the people he governed. Unable to travel easily on his own because of his paralysis, he had started by teaching Eleanor how to inspect state institutions in 1929, during his first term as governor.

Her first inspection was of an insane asylum. "All right," Franklin told her. "Go in and look around and let me know what's going on there. Tell me how the inmates are being treated." When Eleanor returned, she brought with her a printed copy of the day's menu. "Did you look to see whether they were actually getting this food?" Franklin asked. "Did you lift a pot cover on the stove to see whether the contents corresponded with this menu?"...

In time, Eleanor became so thorough in her inspections, observing the attitudes of patients towards the staff, judging facial expressions as well as the words, looking in closets and behind doors, that Franklin set great value on her reports. "She saw so many things the President could never see," Labor Secretary Frances Perkins said. "Much of what she learned and what she understood about the life of the people of this country rubbed off onto FDR. It could not have helped to do so [sic] because she had a poignant understanding" (pp 27-28).
Obama's candor is generally refreshing. He often comes off as knowing, wise to process without being corrosively cynical. By many accounts he's skilled at probing deeply into people's thinking and needs. And his dismissal of Hillary's globe-trotting had an obvious political purpose. So...eat the donut, Senator. There are things to be learned on this trip.

Score one for McCain

Fair is fair: a very effective formulation on McCain's part here, reacting to Obama's plan to withdraw most troops from Irq in sixteen months while adding combat brigades in Afghanistan:
But he cautioned that the improved conditions in Iraq could be “reversed very easily” and he warned against shifting resources too dramatically from Iraq to Afghanistan. “You can’t choose to lose a war in Iraq, in my view, in order to win in Afghanistan,” he said.
The runup is also well-done:

“I’m glad that Senator Obama is going to get a chance for the first time to sit down with Gen. David Petraeus and understand what the surge was all about,” Mr. McCain said on NBC, referring to the troop-increase plan last year that he strongly supported even as Mr. Obama was calling for withdrawal.

“I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation, and he was wrong when he said that the surge wouldn’t work,” Mr. McCain continued. “It has succeeded and we’re winning the war.”

Beats his tired and ill-founded charge that Obama's Iraq/Afghanistan policy is motivated by political expediency.

Dear John, please fact-check: footnote to the NYT's McCain op-ed rejection

Footnote to the NYT's rejection of a McCain op-ed on grounds that it contains no new information and fails to articulate "how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq" (per Drudge Report): McCain's piece also contains an obvious distortion of an alleged distortion. It's here:
[Obama] makes it sound as if Prime Minister Maliki has endorsed the Obama timetable, when all he has said is that he would like a plan for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops at some unspecified point in the future.
"All he has said" indeed. In his interview with Spiegel, notwithstanding after-the-fact protestation, Maliki did indeed endorse "the Obama timetable." Here's what he said, according to Spiegel:
US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.
After Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, cried "mistranslation," The New York Times obtained an audio recording and reported:
The following is a direct translatioPublish Postn from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”
That sound rather like what Obama has said. A little "refinement," anyone?

Arguably, the Times' op-ed editor David Shipley did McCain a favor by rejecting the draft. Odd choice, to self-publish it as a reject rather than take the challenge to define victory -- and do a bit of fact-checking.

McCain casts Obama as Bill Clinton

McCain has found a line of attack against Obama with which he's very comfortable: he used it repeatedly against Bill Clinton. Here it is, as expressed on Jul. 20 by advisor Randy Scheunemann:
Barack Obama says he wants a 'safe and responsible' withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people.
In his foreign policy pronouncements, McCain has always struck a Churchillian pose, casting various opponents as Neville Chamberlain against a succession of dictators (Milosevic, Kim Jong II, Saddam) in the role of Hitler. When Clinton starred (as he did repeatedly) in this Kabuki play, McCain liked to add a particularly nasty twist: the unfit commander-in-chief was not only weak and vacillating, but corrupt in the most fundamental sense -- placing his personal political fortunes ahead of the national interest.

Elsewhere, I've reviewed several instances in which McCain impugned Clinton's core motives in this fashion. Here, let one example suffice: in a lengthy foreign policy address delivered at Kansas State in March 1999 -- doubtless an early effort to establish his own c-in-c chops as he geared up for a presidential run in 2000 -- McCain devoted the bulk of his speech to excoriating Clinton's "strategic incoherence" and "self-doubt." He saved his harshest accusation to explain Clinton's conduct in a now-forgotten 'crisis,' U.S. transfer of technology to China:

In addition to their strangely relaxed attitude toward what looks to be an extraordinarily damaging espionage incident, they have tolerated, indeed, insisted upon extremely liberal licensing practices for transferring dual use technology to China. It is a sad sign of the times, that the best face that can be put on these lapses in judgment is that they were mistakenly committed for the sake of a stable bilateral relationship,

Far more distressing is the charge that they are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

Back in February '07, Joe Klein shed an interesting light on McCain's fondness for casting opponents of all-out military effort as self-interested. Noting that unnamed active duty officers of his acquaintance shared McCain's belief that opposition to the surge was politically motivated, Klein wrote:
Mission is a sacred word in the military. When you are given a mission, you are trained to complete it, to keep on trying new tactics until the objective is achieved. It is a matter of duty and honor. And so, when politicians criticize a mission, the reflexive military reaction is to assume they are acting dishonorably, putting politics above duty.
Klein, to his credit, added the necessary corollary:
...politicians have sacred missions too. Their duty is threefold: to be judicious about sending the troops off to war, to give the military everything it needs to complete the mission and, if it appears the mission is futile or compromised, to change it or end it.

It is doubtless emotionally satisfying as well as politically, er, expedient, for McCain to cast opponents' attempts to "change or end" a military course of action as cynical calculations against the national interest. And charges of political expedience are not outside the pale in our politics: Obama leveled that charge against Hillary Clinton. But for McCain, it's plainly a one-size-fits-all political strategy.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wizard McCain to deploy troops two places at once

John McCain famously confessed that economics was not his strong suit. Perhaps that's why he continues to propse offsetting $400 billion per year in new tax cuts with cuts in earmarks, on which total spending is $18 billion per year according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Military strategy on the other hand is a professed McCain strong suit. But Fred Kaplan makes it clear that McCain is no better at adding up (or subtracting) troop deployments than he is adding up budget numbers.

Kaplan points out that McCain and Obama have both proposed sending more troops to Afghanistan. Obama has proposed adding at least two brigades; McCain, following suit, now proposes adding at least three. Kaplan:
That does sound the same—except for one thing. Obama also calls for substantial withdrawals of troops from Iraq; some of them would be redeployed to Afghanistan. McCain does not advocate troop reductions from Iraq beyond the five surge brigades that left this month because their 15-month tours of duty were complete.

Here's the problem: The U.S. Army is stretched so thin that, according to its own calculations, no extra combat units can be sent to Afghanistan unless the same number of units is pulled out of Iraq. There is no flexibility here. So if McCain wants to put three more brigades in Afghanistan, where is he going to get them?
Kaplan rather gently dubs McCain's analysis of current U.S. military needs "a bit of a fantasy." That's nothing new in the Land of McCain.

McCain is a 'maverick' in the sense that he idiosyncratically picks out isolated issues for sustained passionate engagement. What he can't or won't do is stitch individual proposals together in a coherent overarching policy in which the pieces add up. As not only does he flip-flop, he holds contradictory positions at the same time. He's perfectly comfortable with telling us -- and maybe himself -- that 2 + 2 = 5 (or in this case, that 3 - 3 = 3). Haven't we seen this movie before?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Goldman Sachs bulletin: these are the good old days

Every now and then, the facts get in the way of near-universal pessimism about humanity's prospects for world peace and prosperity. Preoccupied with the admittedly very real specters of nuclear terror and proliferation, global warming, the rising power of police states, etc. etc., we tend not to notice that fewer and fewer people are dying of war, hunger or disease.

In today's Financial Times, courtesy of Goldman Sachs' chief economist Jim O'Neill comes a reminder, in the midst of rich-world economic turmoil (alarmingly surveyed on the same page by Martin Wolf), of the continued rapid spread of middle-class prosperity worldwide - and the continued reduction of poverty. Citing Goldman research, O'Neill writes that 70 million people year are joining the "world middle class"; allowing for a global slowdown, Goldman still forecasts acceleration to 90 million per year by 2030. Even more encouraging:
It is also evident that poverty is dropping dramatically around the world. According to our calculations, the number of people living on incomes of less than $1,000 dollars a year ($2.75 a day) has already dropped significantly from about 50 per cent of the world's population in the 1970s to 17 per cent by 2000. According to our numbers, it could be as low as 6 per cent by 2015. On the more familiar World Bank definition of one dollar a day, the same dramatic shift is evident. Probably no more than 5 per cent of the world's population now suffers this indignity. Of course, this is too much, but as long as the forces of globalisation continue we expect it to drop further.
Now, O'Neill is pushing Goldman research, and Goldman is pushing Bric and other emerging market economies, and these forecasts do raise as many questions as they answer. (For one thing, is 2 billion more people joining the world middle class by 2030 such a wonderful performance? How much will world population rise by then? A quick check on Google turns up forecasts of increases in the 1-2 billion range, e.g. an increase of 1.7 billion forecast by the Free World Academy). But the broad current trend of rapidly rising global wealth and "significantly declining" global inequality seems clear.

I've long felt that in that notwithstanding the horrific setbacks of the twentieth century, Hegelians (and more recently, Fukuyamans, if there's more than one) are essentially right: humanity is trending toward universal liberal democracy, peace, prosperity, and shared scientific enhancement of body, mind and conditions of life. The threats outlined above, or yet-unimagined horrors, could obviously derail this rosy scenario. But belief in human progress is not naive. It's where the evidence points.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New kind of politics: Obama names his price

Ryan Lizza's reality-principled Obama bio in next week's New Yorker reveals Obama as the Garry Kasparov of American politics (Kasparov the chess player, that is, not the politician) -- always able to plot several moves ahead to advance his own ascent (and sometimes get things done).

Exhibit A in this preternatural skill set is how the candidate understood and mastered the transition from ward politics -- in which one's operatives target, incent, pressure and physically move voters - to media politics - "TV, radio, direct mail, phone-banking, robocalls." In fact, Obama is shown to be master of both - GOTV and TV.

By the time he ran for the Senate in 2002, Obama had the new politics down to the point where he could put a price tag on the office (barring the entry of Carol Moseley Braun, whom he knew he couldn't beat). According to his best friend Marty Nesbitt:

“He didn’t start telling people he was interested in running for Senate until he figured out what the road map was,” Nesbitt said. “He had a good sense of the odds, and he knew there were certain things that had to happen. . . .

“Then he just laid out an economic analysis. It becomes about money, because he knew that if people knew his story they would view him as a better candidate than anybody else he thought might be in the field. And so he said, ‘Therefore, if you raise five million dollars, I have a fifty-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise seven million dollars, I have a seventy-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise ten million dollars, I guarantee victory” (emphasis added).

Multiply that by about fifty, and I'd bet my blog Obama's told his backers the same thing this time around. Give him the money, and it's a lock. Funny thing is, over a million and a half backers have bought the pitch.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama grabs Maliki's gift

Breaking: Obama has called for withdrawing removing U.S. combat brigades from Iraq within sixteen months of Jan 2009.

No seriously -- writing in today's New York Times, he has seized on Maliki's call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal to double down -- to declare victory and get out. That's a double victory cry -- Iraq's government is asserting control, and my call for troop withdrawal is/was the right strategy. Never mind that I was wrong about the surge's prospects for success. He's going to seize on that success; McCain won't. McCain's sword is knocked out of his hand.

It's a brilliant move. A day after the Times reports that the Bush Administration is considering more rapid redeployment of troops out of Iraq, and acknowledging that the U.S. needs to concentrate more forces in Afghanistan (which Obama has emphasized for over a year), Obama in one fell swoop quiets cries that he's shifting strategy on Iraq and cites Administration and U.S. military authorities to support his strategy:
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, estimates that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for security in 2009.

As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.
He then firmly rejects McCain's call for a "presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea" (avoiding the inflammatory "100 years" language while nailing McCain on its substance), covers his 16 months pledge by reiterating his age-old pledge to "make tactical adjustments," and details how he'd be "careful getting out" with a series of steps that look a lot more likely to succeed in maintaining stability now than they did even a few weeks ago (though I still doubt he'll be able to withdraw as fast as he claims). Finally, he serves notice that he'll not be swiftboated, repeating what's become a new mantra (emphasis added below):
But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.

It’s not going to work this time. It’s time to end this war.



Related post:
NYT seconds Obama's "Central front in the war on terror"

Friday, July 11, 2008

Was Iraq cohering before the surge?

Andrew Sullivan links to a "prescient" Sept 2006 piece by Mario Loyola in NRO titled "The Center Holding: Strength in the Iraqi Government"(free reprint with signup here). At a time when violence in Iraq was at its peak, Loyola argued that the central government was gaining power and cohesion; he forecast that the Sunni insurgency would peter out, that the militias would gradually be coopted or integrated in the central government, that Iran's influence would remain limited and fragmented, and that the Kurds would settle for autonomy without seeking independence.

Yes, this argument was prescient. What it wasn't was an argument in favor of the surge, which hadn't even been conceived. Indeed, the article's very prescience suggests that many of the positive developments that took place contiguously with the surge -- increased Iraqi army assertiveness, Sunni disillusionment with al Qaeda in Iraq, gradual subordination of Shiite militias to the central government -- might have happened in any case.

Loyola's primary arguments were that the Sunnis had no program or means of attracting wider support, that the militias were not directing their fury at the central government, that Iraqis were as wary of Iranian dominance as of American, and that Iraqi army casualties were rising in as U.S. casualties were leveling off, i.e. that the Iraqis were increasingly taking control of their own defense.

If taken as a guideline, the article would have militated against a quick drawdown of U.S. troops. But it wouldn't have pointed toward a troop buildup. Indeed, by asserting in his conclusion that the Iraqi army was standing up, Loyola implicitly suggested the Bush corollary, that the U.S. army might begin to stand down:
As the months pass, the struggle for Iraqi democracy is rapidly becoming Iraq's fight. Nearly all military operations in Iraq today are either joint or Iraqi-led. Coalition casualties have evened out, while those of the Iraqi security forces have increased dramatically. These are grim but telling statistics. Iraq's government of national unity is not out of danger yet. But given its broad representation of Iraq's communities--and the absence of any real competition--it is getting harder to see how it can fail. And victory by default is victory all the same.
We'll never know what might have happened had the U.S. chosen a course other than the surge (and of course, we don't know what will happen next in Iraq). Nor can an article that spotted nascent trends two years ago tell us what would have happened had we followed a different course. But Loyola's accurate reading of the situation at that time does highlight that the U.S. in Iraq is handmaiden, not prime mover, of Iraq's fate.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eleven Accomplishments of George W. Bush

Like most Americans, I think of George W. Bush as a failed President. Worse than that, I think him not simply as a President who chose unwise policies but as one who assaulted the foundations of American democracy and federalism -- by institutionalizing torture, suspending habeas, violating FISA, corrupting intelligence, and politicizing the Justice Department, the CIA, the EPA and probably every other federal agency.

Nonetheless: our institutions are strong, though weaker when he took office; good people have served during his tenure; and not all of his own impulses and goals were warped. After seven and a half years, the Bush Administration has some accomplishments under its belt. Arrayed together, they look like the pillars of an impressive presidency -- if you discount the incoming missiles of multiple disaster. Here's an equivocal list:

1. Disarmament deal with North Korea - five years and maybe 10 bombs late, but there would seem to be at least a reasonable chance that this rogue will be effectively disarmed. After poking the polecat Kim Jong II and stimulating North Korea's successful weaponization, the Bush Administration has patiently tread a multilateral path that's yielded at least the potential of a good outcome.

2. Bringing Gaddafi in from the cold: a long process with an array of carrots and sticks, but the invasion of Iraq may have concentrated this dictator's mind.

3. Massive increase in AIDS aid: perhaps thanks to Christianist prodding, Bush has showed admirable focus and follow-through on one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.

4. Prescription drug benefit: too expensive, the donut hole is inefficient, private insurers have too great a role, and the drug companies got a giveaway. But seniors do have substantial help in paying their drug bills.

5. No Child Left Behind: the mandate's unfunded and the loopholes in assessment are ridiculous. But we have the halting beginnings of assessing where we're at, state-by-state and district-by-district, in educational achievement.

6. No terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11: no one will ever know all the reasons why, and many of Bush's "antiterror" measures have come at a dreadful price. But preventing another attack was probably Bush's top priority -- quite a heartfelt one. And there has not been another attack -- here -- on his watch.

7. The FISA bill he wanted: Bush has to know that he's gone all out on this front probably to hand expanded capabilities to a Democratic President. He's probably been motivated partly by the need to obtain cover for his own crimes in breaking FISA. But again, he's doubtless convinced that the intelligence agencies need the powers he's obtained for them. And they probably do need most of them.

8. Decent stewardship of the China relationship: China-bashing on the economic front is mostly demagoguery; it's in everyone's interest that China continue on a peaceful path to first-world economic stature and attendant global influence. The Bush crew has maintained trust and cooperation; it's doubtful whether more pressure could have shaped Chinese economic or geopolitical decisions more to our liking.

9. Deposing the Taliban: yes, the caveats outweigh the accomplishment: we let bin Ladin escape, we took our eye off the ball, we allowed al Qaeda to regroup and left a foundling government in a shattered country to its own devices. But who's to say the initial campaign couldn't have been botched? The Taliban went swiftly, with a minimum of blood.

10. Deposing Saddam: again, the price paid and the terms chosen were catastrophic. This was not a job to be undertaken on false pretenses, without winning our chief allies' assent or the world's acceptance; it was the wrong war at the wrong time, and it gave new life to our worst enemies. But Saddam was a threat to stability in the middle east and therefore in the world. Iraqis would have had to cope with his end at some point, and who's to say the transition would have been better without the heavy hand of the hegemon? There is now at least a reasonable hope that a non-monstrous national government will assert control over Iraq. Which suggests another accomplishment:

11. The Surge: if a hedge fund manager loses $700 million out of a $1 billion, do we credit him with decisions that bring the balance back up to a half billion? A poor analogy. Money is easily accounted; lives can't be, and actual historical outcomes can't be compared with might-have-beens. Nonetheless, whatever you think of the decision to go to war or of the first four years of its execution, the surge was an extraordinarily difficult decision that's worked better than basically anyone expected. It was also something of a reversal for Bush, who had lived and died by the Rumsfeld doctrine to that point. I don't think anyone can deny that the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq is far greater now than in fall 2006; to deny the surge's centrality in the turnaround is deep denial. Yes, those who designed and executed it got lucky - but they made their own luck. The surge enabled the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr rope-a-dope, and the long-delayed beginnings of legislative progress.

So there you have it. I have not convinced myself that Bush was a good President, or even not a monstrous President -- I consider the institutionalization of torture as established U.S. policy a truly monstrous legacy. So what exactly is the point of this exercise? Perhaps its this: in a long-established democracy, there's almost an institutional inertia toward some constructive action. After a Rumsfeld, institutional pressures and norms will push up a Gates. While stalwart nonpolitical appointees like Richard Clarke may get pushed out, others, like Christopher Hill will remain. Even a bad crew remains accountable to a large degree to voters. As long as people don't vote away their civil liberties or other Constitutional protections, the system self-regulates and self-corrects.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hillary threads her own FISA needle

The FISA battle is over, for now. Bush and Rockefeller have their telecom immunity, basket warrants, weakened FISA oversight. Perhaps Obama opened the floodgates with his about-face. Stand in the breach he didn't.

Hillary Clinton voted against the bill today. Not only the political calculation but also the merits of the case may look different to one who may be President in a few months (though Hillary doubtless still hopes/intends to be President in a few years). Nonetheless, if you ask which of the two rivals showed the greater political courage, consistency, commitment to civil liberties on this defining issue, I must say the answer is not what I would have expected -- or, once I'd made my primary choice, wished.

Back in the primaries, Obama hammered Clinton's Iraq vote as essentially a political calculation; she was in his sights on March 19, when he charged, "there were too many politicians in Washington who spent too little time reading the intelligence reports, and too much time reading public opinion." If the nomination fight were still on, imagine what Clinton might say about Obama's FISA choice. Instead, to her credit, she soft-pedaled the split within the party:
I applaud the efforts of my colleagues who negotiated this legislation, and I respect my colleagues who reached a different conclusion on today’s vote.
Perhaps in keeping with that gesture towards those supporting the bill, Hillary emphasized the relative knowledge void in which the Congress was forced to act as one reason to vote against the bill:
What is more, even as we considered this legislation, the administration refused to allow the overwhelming majority of Senators to examine the warrantless wiretapping program. This made it exceedingly difficult for those Senators who are not on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to assess the need for the operational details of the legislation, and whether greater protections are necessary. The same can be said for an assessment of the telecom immunity provisions. On an issue of such tremendous importance to our citizens – and in particular to New Yorkers – all Senators should have been entitled to receive briefings that would have enabled them to make an informed decision about the merits of this legislation. I cannot support this legislation when we know neither the nature of the surveillance activities authorized nor the role played by telecommunications companies granted immunity.
Hillary also cited telecom immunity and the limited power accorded the FISA court to review the government’s targeting and minimization procedures as reasons to reject the bill. But in keeping with her moderate tone, she allowed that the bill "does strengthen oversight of the administration’s surveillance activities over previous drafts," affording Obama and others some cover for supporting it.

I still believe that Obama and other senators may have voted on the merits as they see them -- if, indeed, you can separate the fear of being painted soft on terror from the fear of actually enabling terror (even if you suspect that a contemplated course is unlikely to crimp antiterror efforts, you might still fear that it might). If the calculation was not mainly political, it would seem that proximity to the Presidency changed (concentrated?) Obama's mind, because change he did.

He's still got a lot of explaining to do. His blog statement to supporters was barely a beginning.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bulletin: Big donors spread their bets

The Wall Street Journal, reporting that Obama is having trouble winning over some big donors to Hillary Clinton's campaign, cites this seemingly troubling info:
Meanwhile, an analysis of campaign-finance records conducted for The Wall Street Journal by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows that in May, when Sen. Obama was widely believed to have clinched the Democratic nomination, only one Hillraiser had switched allegiance to the Obama campaign. And while 115 individuals who had donated at least $1,000 to Sen. Clinton made their first donations to Sen. Obama, another 115 former Clinton backers made their first big donations to Sen. McCain (my emphasis).
Is this really so surprising? Hillary had the early support of many wealthy donors who like to back a winner; many were Wall Street moguls who more often give to Republicans, or in any case give more to Republicans. Such donors often give to both parties. When it became clear that Hillary was not going to become President this time around, a significant number of big donors spread their bets.

Note also that an unspecified number of those $1000 Hillary donors had already given some money to McCain prior to Hillary's dropping out. And in the claim that "115 former Clinton backers made their first big donations to Sen. McCain" in May, "big" is not defined.

Questions: how many of the 115 Obama and 115 McCain donors cited above gave money to both in May? How many of them were registered Democrats, or in the past gave exclusively or predominately to Democrats? And how many big Hillary donors gave to Obama and/or McCain in June, after Hillary dropped out?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Clinton on Mandela: Old story, new context?

Jeffrey Goldberg's hears a "shot" at John McCain in Bill Clinton's remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

Bill Clinton is speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he said just now, apropos of almost nothing (actually, during a long peroration on Nelson Mandela): “Every living soul on this planet has some highly-justified anger. Everyone. If you know anybody who was a P.O.W. for any time, they can be going on for years and all of a sudden something will happen that will trigger all those bad memories.”

Not too subtle. Astonishingly, his interviewer, former Clinton Administration official Jane Wales, didn't follow-up. One subject Clinton didn't talk about at all: Barack Obama. He seemed to go out of his way, in fact, not to mention Obama's name. Which, when you think about, calls into question whether the P.O.W. shot was actually an intentional shot at all. On the other hand, I believe that Bill Clinton doesn't say things by accident.
Goldberg left out some important context here. Clinton was telling a story about Mandela that he's told repeatedly over the years; the upshot is that Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, managed to overcome his own hatred and anger in extraordinary fashion. ABC's Jake Tapper recounts how he told the tale at Aspen:
In a conversation about former South African president Nelson Mandela, Clinton talked about Mandela's ability to forgive his captors.

"Didn't you hate them?" Clinton recalled asking Mandela privately, referring to Mandela's final steps as a prisoner walking to freedom.

"'Sure I did,'" Mandela said, per Clinton. "'I felt anger and hatred and fear. And I realized if I kept hating them, once I got in that car and got through the gate I would still be in prison. So I let it go because I wanted to be free.'"

Continued Clinton: "Every living soul on the planet has some often highly justified anger. Everybody… If you know anybody who was a P.O.W. for any length of time, you will see, you go along for months or maybe even years and then something will happen and it will trigger all those bad dreams, and it will come back, it may not last 30 seconds…"

But Mandela has avoided that, Clinton said, because he has "disciplined himself and his mind and his heart and his spirit."

Again, this is a favorite Clinton story. He uses it to exhort individuals and various groups -- Kosovars, African Americans, Columbine students -- to get past their anger at injustice or violence. Three instances -- from 2000, 1999 and 1998 -- are pasted below.

Needless to say, when telling the story Clinton never mentioned rage-filled POWs before. And of course, Mandela wasn't a POW; he was a political prisoner (though his treatment was comparable to that of many abused POWs). Also, McCain has made a career of impugning Bill Clinton's performance as commander-in-chief, so Bill may have a bit anger of his own to get past here.

In short, the POW reference -- like Hillary's reference to Bobby Kennedy's assassination when her ostensible meaning was that his campaign was just getting started in June -- does seem overloaded. Was it a deliberate allusion? An association that bubbled up semiconsciously? An innocent embellishment of a much-told tale?

Judge for yourself whether Clinton's past tellings of the Mandela parable shed any light on his Aspen embellishment:

1. Clinton's remarks at a reception for Representative James E. Clyburn in Columbia, South Carolina, April 3, 2000 (drawing lessons for the Kosovar Albanians and Serbs):
I'll tell you, one of the most meaningful conversations I ever had in my life was with Nelson Mandela, who has been a wonderful friend to me and to Hillary and especially to our daughter. And I remember one time, you know, after I got to know him, I said, "You know, Mr. President, you're a very great man with a great spirit and all that, but you're also a shrewd politician," kind of like what I was saying about Jim. You know, he is a good guy, but the stuff he does makes sense, too. And I said, "That was pretty smart of you to have your jailers come to the Inauguration and all of that, but let me ask you something." I said, "Didn't you really hate them for what they did?" He said, "Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time." He said, "I stayed alive on hate for 12 years. I broke rocks every day, and I stayed alive on hate." And he said, "They took a lot away from me. They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage. They took me away from seeing my children grow up. They abused me mentally and physically. And one day," he said, "I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart." He said, "Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away."

And so---so I said to him, I said, "Well, what about when you were getting out of prison?" I said, "The day you got out of prison in 1990, it was Sunday morning, and I got my daughter up early in the morning, and I took her down to the kitchen, and I turned on the television, and she was just a little girl then, and I sat her up on the kitchen counter. And I said, `Chelsea, I want you to watch this. This is one of the most important things you'll ever see in your life.' "

And I said, "I watched you walk down that dirt road to freedom." I said, "Now, when you were walking down there, and you realized how long you had been in their prison, didn't you hate them then? Didn't you feel some hatred?" He said, "Yes, I did a little bit." He said, "I felt that." And he said, "Frankly, I was kind of afraid, too, because I hadn't been free in so long."

But he said, "As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, `They have already had you for 27 years. And if you keep hating them, they'll have you again.' And I said, `I want to be free. And so I let it go. I let it go."
2. Speaking to the students at Columbine High School, looking back at the student massacre there (Denver Post, May 21, 1999):
I close here with this story. My wife and I and our daughter have been blessed to know many magnificent people because the American people gave us a chance to serve in the White House. But I think the person who's had the biggest influence on me is the man who is about to retire as the president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

He is 80 years old, he served 27 years in prison. For 14 years, he never had a bed to sleep on. He spent most of his years breaking rocks every day.

And he told me once about his experience. And I asked him, "How did you let go of your hatred? How did you learn to influence other people? How did you embrace all the differences in, literally, the centuries of oppression and discord in your country and let a lot of it go away? How did you get over that in prison? Didn't you really hate them?'

And he said: "I did hate them for quite a long while. After all, look what they took from me - 27 years of my life. I was abused physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually destroyed my marriage. They took me away from my children, and I could not even see them grow up. And I was full of hatred and anger.'

And he said, "One day, I was breaking rocks and I realized they had taken so much. And they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give away. I decided not to give them away.'
3. August 28, 1998, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (NYT):
And the last thing I learned from them on which all these other things depend, without which we cannot build a world of peace or one America in an increasingly peaceful world bound together in this web of mutuality, is that you can't get there unless you're willing to forgive your enemies. I never will forget one of the most -- I don't think I have ever spoken about this in public before -- but one of the most meaningful personal moments I have had as President was a conversation I had with Nelson Mandela.

And I said to him -- I said: "You know, I have read your book, and I have heard you speak. And you spent time with my wife and daughter, and you have talked about inviting your jailers to your inauguration." And I said, "It's very moving." And I said: "You're a shrewd as well as a great man. But come on now, how did you really do that? You can't make me believe you didn't hate those people who did that to you for 27 years?"

He said, "I did hate them for quite a long time. After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually broke my family up. They kept me from seeing my children grow up." He said, "For quite a long time, I hated them."

And then he said: "I realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me, everything, but my mind and heart. Now, those things I would have to give away, and I simply decided I would not give them away."


Obama, you can do better

Obama, you can do better.

I'm not referring to your position on the pending FISA bill, though I don't believe it should be allowed to pass in its current form. I'm talking about your explanation of your shift in position.

There may be good reasons for your support of a FISA "compromise" that you characterize as imperfect and in need of correction. However you have not yet adequately explained to your supporters why, having opposed the Protect America Act last summer and the surveillance orders it authorized, you now feel that there is danger in letting those orders expire, and that this danger creates enough urgency to make you support a bill granting telco immunity and "basket" surveillance warrants without strong oversight outside the executive branch.

Your posting to the Obama-please-vote-no-on-FISA group on MyBarackObama.com was a nice gesture, but lacked any explanation as to what new information led you to conclude that U.S. intelligence agencies need the major reductions in FISA oversight provided by "compromise" legislation that is by most accounts weaker than the "compromise" you opposed in February.

Disillusioned supporters have assumed that your shift was prompted either by political calculation or by fear of crossing the telcos. I don't entirely buy that. Back in February, Democrats opposed to gutting FISA had no rhetorical difficulty countering the fear-mongering of a President with approval ratings in the twenties. Opposing this bill would not be a political loser for you. And while telecommunications is an enormously powerful industry, you will have no problem outraising McCain with or without their support.

My own best guess is that you, like other Democrats supporting telco immunity and basket warrants, are swayed less at this point by fear of Bush than by deference to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and his claims that intelligence efforts will be crippled if FISA's individual warrant provisions are preserved. But that assumption still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The individual warrant requirement for communications that include a U.S. participant or that are monitored from the U.S. could have been eased with more stringent oversight preserved.

As a prospective President, you may feel that you should first secure these powers and then worry about how to refine Constitutional protections. In fact, that's more or less what you've said. It's the shift that remains unexplained. Was it new information that swayed you? Constitutional protections in this bill that were lacking in February's? Or simply the impending likelihood that you will become President and will therefore be responsible for preventing the next terror attack?

You have raised high expectations, not only for your performance should you become President, but for your willingness to treat the American people as adults and explain your thinking on complex issues. Supporters troubled by your FISA reversal await the next round.

Related Posts
A Senator's sum of all fears
Heretical thought of the day

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Senator's sum of all fears

Back in February, I began to wonder why House and Senate Democrats who did not like the idea of weakening FISA would continue to be cowed by a President with approval ratings in the twenties. Those who opposed the FISA bill passed by the Senate, which pretty much gave the Bush Administration everything it wanted (telecom immunity and "basket"warrants), seemed to have no rhetorical trouble countering the President's charges that they were putting lives at risk by allowing the warrants granted by last summer's Protect America Act (PAA) to expire. Here, for example, is Ted Kennedy:
Think about what we’ve been hearing from the White House in this debate. The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no new FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he is willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.
So why, four months later, is a new bill on the brink of passage that grants telecom immunity and guts pre-PAA FISA requirements? And why is Barack Obama among those who have dropped resistance?

A tentative hypothesis: it's not Bush or the remaining Rovian Republican operatives that Democrats are afraid of. It's Mike McConnell. A critical mass of Senators and Congressmen may believe that the Director of National Intelligence is telling the truth when he insists, repeatedly and categorically, that the intelligence agencies' ability to track and foil terrorist plots will be crippled if the spies are forced to seek individual warrants for suspects abroad whose calls and emails they want to track.

I don't know how credible McConnell is. Some of his specific talking points -- e.g, that each FISA warrant requires 200 man-hours (El Paso Times, 8/22/07), or that a German plot allegedly foiled last September could not have been cracked without the powers granted by the PAA (New York Times, 9/11/07)-- have been contradicted or forcefully debunked. His more sweeping claims -- for example, that without the PAA warrants the country would lose “50 percent of our ability to track, understand and know about these terrorists, what they’re doing to train, what they’re doing to recruit and what they’re doing to try to get into this country” (NYT, prior link) -- are impossible to verify; if there's any evidence in support, it's classified. Let's say that the man does not seem immune to overstatement.

On the other hand, McConnell was for years head of the NSA, the country's main electronic intelligence dragnet. He is by all accounts highly competent. He claims to be nonpartisan, says he's voted for people in both parties (though he doesn't say for what offices or in what proportions). He also says that he has spoken to over 260 Senators and House reps in his advocacy for the FISA bill he wants (El Paso Times, link above). Presumably, the information he gives at least the top echelon is more specific than what he tells the public. And he certainly doesn't equivocate.

The gist of what he's told those 260 lawmakers-- in groups, one-on-one, at whatever level of classification -- is surely exactly what he's told all of us: that intelligence capability will be crippled if we weaken the orders granted by last summer's PAA; that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself and is working flat out to attack us as destructively as possible; and that those who don't give him what he wants will be enabling the next attack.

My guess is that a Senator might imagine only one thing worse than having been painted "soft on terror" after the next attack. And that's to have been soft on terror before the next attack. ("Soft on terror" may be a stupid phrase for having preferred preserving civil liberties to allowing effective if perhaps unconstitutional antiterror activities. But whatever you call it, the fear of enabling the next attack must be powerful.)

Is it credible to think that by insisting that our intelligence personnel seek individual warrants to listen in on foreign-to-U.S. phone calls, Congress might enable plotting terrorists to evade detection? I don't know. But even a suspicion that such might be the case might be enough to convince many senators and congressional reps to give the intelligence chiefs what they want. Including a presumptive President.

Of course, whether McConnell is right or wrong has no bearing on whether the kind of non-particularized warrants he wants are Constitutional. What if he's right, and they're not?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A knowing tribute to Lincoln

Obama is understood to have a bit of a fascination with that prior state legislator from Illinois, Lincoln. Allusions and the occasional fleeting impersonation are peppered through Obama's speeches and stagings. Perhaps that's why, while reading through Obama's June 30 speech on patriotism, I was struck by a little cold-eyed, split-second qualification to a paragraph's paean to Lincoln. Here it is:
Abraham Lincoln did not simply win a war or hold the Union together. In his unwillingness to demonize those against whom he fought; in his refusal to succumb to either the hatred or self-righteousness that war can unleash; in his ultimate insistence that in the aftermath of war the nation would no longer remain half slave and half free; and his trust in the better angels of our nature - he displayed the wisdom and courage that sets a standard for patriotism (my emphasis).
Lincoln's ultimate insistence was long in coming. At the outset of his term, he insisted he was not out to take away anyone's slaves; he famously said that if he could preserve the union by preserving slavery, he would do it; he took the nation through two years of war before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. To me, that adjectival toss-in suggests that nuance is reflex to Obama.

In that nuance I hear Frederick Douglass, who took Lincoln's full measure, catalogued all his betrayals (from one point of view) of black people, and somehow, in his Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln , folded a clear-eyed and pained recitation of those betrayals into one of the most moving orations ever spoken in tribute to a fellow human being:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
As a way to celebrate the 4th, no one could do better than read this speech of Douglass's, delivered at the unveiling of The Freedman's Monument in memory of Lincoln in Washington, D. C. in April 1876. His pain in acknowledging that Lincoln "was preeminently the white man's Pesident, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men" is palpable, but it's only prelude to his appreciation of the man's transcendence of his own prejudices and smaller concerns. Douglass eulogizes Lincoln in words as purged of anger as those of Lincoln himself, in his second inaugural address:
Though high in position, the humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided and pronounce in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who differed from him, and patient under reproaches. Even those who only knew him through his public utterance obtained a tolerably clear idea of his character and personality. The image of the man went out with his words, and those who read them knew him.
To give way for a moment to Obama's own conceit: is it too much to hope that we can look back some day and say something similar about him?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Faith-based initiative is absolut Obama

Obama's recent call to expand and renew George W. Bush's government outreach to faith-based charities has been widely denounced as one of several expedient quick-steps to the center.

Unlike his stark reversal on FISA legislation, Obama's faith initiative is consistent with longstanding tenets of Obama's thinking -- or, if you want to be cynical about it, of his positioning. His speech in Zanesville Ohio introducing this plan touched several interlocking core Obama themes.

Let me say at the outset that the conceptual coherence outlined below does not by any means prove that religious organizations can effectively abide by the ground rules Obama sketches out in this speech, or that government money can be effectively deployed by funding religious charity. My point is simply that the thinking behind the initiative is absolut Obama, not some sudden departure. Here are the Obamaist elements:

1. unity and universalism
: Obama burst on the national scene at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with a lyrical assertion that what unites Americans is stronger than what divides them. He said then: "It is that fundamental belief -- that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family." The claim to unity is cast in religious terms -- but religious on his terms, which in their ethical dimension are universal. While Obama professes and encourages personal and particular religious belief and expression, in the public square he insists on a kind of ethical Unitarianism. Here's how he put it in the Audacity of Hope (p. 219):
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.
In Zanesville, Obama called for this universalism to play itself out in social action:
I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Obama would have us believe that the differences between religious groups can be subsumed in their work toward goals on which all can agree. Whether they can do so without imposing their particular beliefs on those they serve -- or on those whom they pay to serve -- depends on the design and execution of government ground rules.

2. Pragmatism: In a discussion of economic policy, Obama recently told The Wall Street Journal:
I tend to be eclectic. I do think we're in a different time in 2008 than we were in 1992. The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I'm going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense. I'm a big believer in evidence. I'm a big believer in fact. You know, if somebody shows me we can do something better through a market mechanism, I'm happy to do it. I have no vested interest in expanding government or setting up a program just for the sake of setting one up. It's too much work.
In Zanesville he cast the faith-based initiative in similar terms -- as something to be embraced because it's a practical way to marshall resources toward shared goals.
The fact is, the challenges we face today – from saving our planet to ending poverty – are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.
3. Liberalism (which in Obama's book is pragmatism): After losing the Democratic majority in Congress, and as prelude to a long series of modest initiatives in social policy, Bill Clinton famously announced, "The era of big government is over." George Bush Sr., announcing the nation had "more will than wallet," touted American volunteerism as "a thousand points of light" -- i.e., as a substitute, or rather an ideologically preferable alternative, to government action to help the poor and needy. Obama, in contrast to both, casts faith- and community-based initiatives as a means to leverage government's power to address social ills. In a sense this is bigger government and in a sense it's smaller.

4. Fairness: Obama habitually casts his liberalism as a return, in the wake of a generation of government favoring the wealthy and powerful, to basic fairness. He presents fairness in turn as the deepest pragmatism, because only shared prosperity is sustainable. In Zanesville, he complained that political favoritism in the faith-based initiative led the Bush Administration to waste resources:
... the Office never fulfilled its promise. Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded. Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed.
Obama by way of contrast envisions marshalling every program large and small that proves itself effective:
Too often, faith-based groups – especially smaller congregations and those that aren't well connected – don't know how to apply for federal dollars, or how to navigate a government website to see what grants are available, or how to comply with federal laws and regulations... what's stopping many faith-based groups from helping struggling families is simply a lack of knowledge about how the system works.

Well, that will change when I'm President. I will empower the nonprofit religious and community groups that do understand how this process works to train the thousands of groups that don't. We'll "train the trainers" by giving larger faith-based partners like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services and secular nonprofits like Public/Private Ventures the support they need to help other groups build and run effective programs. Every house of worship that wants to run an effective program and that's willing to abide by our constitution – from the largest mega-churches and synagogues to the smallest store-front churches and mosques – can and will have access to the information and support they need to run that program.
Again, this is leveraging -- government empowering large religious groups to empower small religious groups, which he sees as embodying creativity and responsiveness to local need.

5.
Bottom-up social action: Obama begins this speech by pointing out that his public career began with a church-funded effort "to help lift up neighborhoods that were devasted by the closure of a local steel plant." He might have added that his years an organizer consisted mainly of attempts to marshall church groups to support attainable proejcts conceived by the people they were designed to serve. He is speaking directly from his own experience when he asserts:
You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who've come together around a common faith, they're usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they're particularly well-placed to offer help. As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.
Obama's whole career is based on faith in bottom-up action. His first experience of such action was through church groups. His faith-based initiative is a return to the roots of his public career.

Related posts:
Obama and the vision thing
We've been here before: How Obama frames U.S. history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Noonan forecasts instant replay

Peggy Noonan's election prediction gives me deja vu:

Everyone in New York is saying, "What will happen?" "How do you see it?" "Who will win?" In this year of all years, who knows? My sense of it:

The campaign will grind along until a series of sharp moments. Maybe they will come in the debates. Things will move along, Mr. Obama in the lead. And then, just a few weeks out from the election, something will happen: America will look up and see the inevitability of Mr. Obama, that Mr. Obama has already been "elected," in a way, and America will say, Hey, wait a second, are we sure we want that? And it will tighten indeed.

The race has a subtext, a historic encounter between the Old America and the New, and suddenly the Old America—those who are literally old, who married a guy who fought at the Chosin Reservoir, and those not so old who yet remember, and cherish, the special glories of the Old—will rise, and join in, and make themselves heard. They will not leave without a fight.

And on that day John McCain will suddenly make it a race, as if moved by them and wanting to come through for them one last time. And then on down to the wire. And then . . .

And then. What a year, what an election. It continues to confound and to bedazzle.

Noonan could be right: Obama builds a big lead, seems ready to break through to landslide, then faces a backlash. But we've seen this movie before. She's describing the primary battle.

If the general election does follow this trajectory, angst-ridden Obama supporters would do well to channel the man himself. Here's what he told Fox's Chris Wallace on April 27:

WALLACE: What mistakes have you made? What have you learned about running for president? What have you learned about yourself?

OBAMA: I’ve learned that I have what I believe is the right temperament for the presidency. Which is, I don’t get too high when I’m high and I don’t get too low when I’m low. And we’ve gone through all kinds of ups and downs.

People forget now that I had been written off last summer. People were writing many of the anguished articles that they’re not writing after our loss in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, after Iowa, when everybody was sure this was over, I think I was more measured and more cautious.

That I think is a temperamental strength.

One thing I'll say for Obama: he is not fortune's fool.