Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thrilla in Wasilla: Palin wrestles with city offiicals

See also: Palin learns quick: torture is American

Below, a few newsbytes from Sarah Palin's two terms (1997-2002) as Mayor of Wasilla AK (pop.9780, up 66% since 2000). A small town outside Anchorage is such alien territory that I would not presume to interpret/judge the facts retailed below. A bit of context though: 1) the local outlook is strongly libertarian, which means not only pro-gun but hostile to pesky regulations such as designated bar closing times); and 2) Palin ran as an insurgent on a tax-cutting platform and had to deal at the outset with city officials loyal to her opponent. Plainly she's not afraid of conflict or decisive action, and she seems to have an authoritarian streak; she reminds me a little of Rudy Giuliani. I'd like (okay, fear) to hear what she has to say about torture, suspension of habeas, and FISA.

Of course, Palin was running a town with less than 1/1000 the population of Giuliani's New York (and later moved up to run a state with less the 1/10 of NYC's population).

The source for all the information below is the Anchorage Daily News (ADN).

1. In her first run for Mayor of Wasilla , Palin won by a 616-413 margin, beating an eight-year incumbent (ADN, 10/3/96). She said that she knocked on the door of every registered voter, except a few with vicious dogs, and sent a handwritten letter to every “supervoter,” those who had voted consistently in prior elections. She won reelection in 1999 by a 826 to 255 margin
. Her approval rating as governor was in the high sixties at the time of her selection as McCain’s running mate. It would seem that Alaska voters have consistently seen her as an able executive.

2. Having run an insurgent campaign against a longtime incumbent, Palin began her tenure by asking all four of the city’s top managers, all presumed loyalists to the outgoing mayor,to resign and re-apply for their jobs “in order to test their loyalty to her administration” (one had already resigned upon her election). She also issued a gag order, requiring them to obtain her approval before talking to reporters (ADN 10/26/96)

3. Shortly thereafter, she fired the police chief and the head of the library, asserting that they did not support her goals for the city. Both claimed that they had previously hashed out differences with her and thought they had established willingness to work with her. The police chief, Irl Stambaugh, sued for wrongful termination, claiming that he was fired at the behest of bar owners and the NRA, the former because he favored earlier bar closings as a way to combat alcohol-related traffic accidents,"and the later because he opposed a concealed gun law (ADN 2/22/97). The suit was dismissed on grounds that city officials serve at the Mayor's pleasure.

4. Palin was elected on a platform of cutting taxes and eliminating wasteful spending. In her first year in office, she took aim at the local museum, which three women had been running for more than 15 years on a total budget of $200,000, or about $25 per town resident. Palin cut the budget by $32,000, which meant that the staff of three would have to choose one who would lose her job. All three quit in protest. One of three “gray-haired matrons” Ann Meyers, 65, said, “If the city were broke, it would be different,” but the city was flush with $4 million in reserves at the time. Palin countered that the museum could be run more efficiently and that voters wanted their tax dollars spent on road repair and extending sewer lines. The museum showcases mining material, homestead memorabilia and early Wasilla history (ADN, 8/6/97).

5. Palin is not indiscriminately anti-tax. She began her career on the Wasilla city council by supporting a sales tax to create a police department. As mayor, she upped the sales tax to pay for a new hockey rink and sports complex.

6. A radio clip has been circulating online in which Palin, during her tenure as governor, titters in response to a radio shock jock’s assertion that her political rival, state senate president Lyda Green, a cancer survivor, is “a cancer on the progress of the State of Alaska" and "a bitch." Apparently, Palin’s fondness for far-right broadcast demagoguery goes way back. In 1998, the owner of a local TV station discontinued an independently produced, shoestring-budget local news show notorious for slanted coverage of local politics, because she feared that continuing to air the show would expose her to liability. According to the ADN (10/14/98), "[Station owner] Schatz said she has received complaints that the election coverage is one-sided and has had concerns of her own about particular shows. She cited a New Year's Day spoof newscast that included a skit with a white man dressed up as a pimp pretending to speak like a black man." Palin reacted to the closing of Valley News with disappointment. "She said it presented a conservative view that balanced out more liberal coverage elsewhere."

Win or lose, I suspect that Palin will always have Fox.

Related posts:
Palin learns quick: torture is American
Barracuda Watch
Sarah Palin: No Dan Quayle

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Killing McCain with kindness

Perhaps the most effective riff in Obama's convention speech was his attack on McCain's policies anchored by the refrain, "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

A lot of Democrats have been wringing their hands because they feel Obama isn't Rovian enough. But Obama's counterattack is double-edged: full frontal attack on McCain's "failed policies of the past," and a pointed contrast between his own policy-based criticism of McCain and McCain's character-based assault on him.

The policy attack is straightforward: McCain is offering to continue the failed policies of the Bush Administration. The character issue is a bank-shot: contrast the way my opponent speaks about me with the way I speak about him.

The convention made plain that Obama has put his stamp on the party. The Democrats all attacked his way. Bill Clinton, Kerry, Biden, and then Obama himself killed McCain with kindness. Their tributes went far beyond the obligatory attack preface: "John McCain is a great war hero, but..." They emphasized personal friendship, paid tribute to McCain's love of country, noted past stands he's taken that Democrats could admire. Then each pivoted to McCain's recent flip-flops (on taxes, immigration, climate change), fervent early support for invading Iraq, descent into Rovian attack politics, and 90-95% support of Bush.

First, Bill Clinton:

The choice is clear. The Republicans will nominate a good man who served our country heroically and suffered terribly in Vietnam. He loves our country every bit as much as we all do. As a Senator, he has shown his independence on several issues. But on the two great questions of this election, how to rebuild the American Dream and how to restore America’s leadership in the world, he still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years, a philosophy we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented.

They took us from record surpluses to an exploding national debt; from over 22 million new jobs down to 5 million; from an increase in working family incomes of $7,500 to a decline of more than $2,000; from almost 8 million Americans moving out of poverty to more than 5 and a half million falling into poverty - and millions more losing their health insurance.

Now, in spite of all the evidence, their candidate is promising more of the same: More tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that will swell the deficit, increase inequality, and weaken the economy. More band-aids for health care that will enrich insurance companies, impoverish families and increase the number of uninsured. More going it alone in the world, instead of building the shared responsibilities and shared opportunities necessary to advance our
security and restore our influence.


I have known and been friends with John McCain for almost 22 years. But every day now I learn something new about candidate McCain. To those who still believe in the myth of a maverick instead of the reality of a politician, I say, let's compare Senator McCain to candidate McCain. Candidate McCain now supports the wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once denounced as immoral. Candidate McCain criticizes Senator McCain's own climate change bill. Candidate McCain says he would now vote against theimmigration bill that Senator McCain wrote. Are you kidding? Talk about being for it before you're against it.

Let me tell you, before he ever debates Barack Obama, John McCain should finish the debate with himself. And what's more, Senator McCain, who once railed against the smears of Karl Rove when he was the target, has morphed into candidate McCain who is using the same "Rove" tactics and the same "Rove" staff to repeat the same old politics of fear and smear. Well, not this year, not this time. The Rove-McCain tactics are old and outworn, and America will reject them in 2008.


John McCain is my friend. We’ve known each other for three decades. We’ve traveled the world together. It’s a friendship that goes beyond politics. And the personal courage and heroism John demonstrated still amaze me.

But I profoundly disagree with the direction that John wants to take the country. For example, John thinks that during the Bush years “we’ve made great progress economically.” I think it’s been abysmal.

And in the Senate, John sided with President Bush 95 percent of the time. Give me a break. When John McCain proposes $200 billion in new tax breaks for corporate America, $1 billion alone for just eight of the largest companies, but no relief for 100 million American families, that’s not change; that’s more of the same.

Even today, as oil companies post the biggest profits in history — a half trillion dollars in the last five years — he wants to give them another $4 billion in tax breaks. But he voted time and again against incentives for renewable energy: solar, wind, biofuels. That’s not change; that’s more of the same.

Millions of jobs have left our shores, yet John continues to support tax breaks for corporations that send them there. That’s not change; that’s more of the same.

He voted 19 times against raising the minimum wage. For people who are struggling just to get to the next day, that’s not change; that’s more of the same.

And when he says he will continue to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq when Iraq is sitting on a surplus of nearly $80 billion, that’s not change; that’s more of the same.

The choice in this election is clear. These times require more than a good soldier; they require a wise leader, a leader who can deliver change the change everybody knows we need.

And finally, Obama:

Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than one hundred million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.

Lest the contrast between these clean-cutting attacks and McCain's middle school taunts be lost on anyone, Obama took it upon himself to spell it out. As in his fight with the Clintons, he positioned himself as the adult in the campaign:
what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.

So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

Back in March, as Hillary was ratcheting up her attacks on Obama's readiness to be commander in chief, David Brooks mocked the Obama campaign's purported belief that "they can go on the attack, but in the right way. They can be tough and keep their virginity, too. " But that's more or less what Obama did. Successfully.

When the Clintons went fiercely negative, Obama said they were mired in the same old "say-anything, do-anything" politics that Americans were tired of. While Hillary renewed and ratcheted up her attacks at intervals, Obama managed to shame her into shutting them off for long stretches, during one of which -- from late January to the end of February -- he essentially wrapped up the nomination.

It was hard for Obama to go on the offensive against Hillary because there was so little policy difference. Against McCain, he and his party have got a literally clean shot -- as the four-barrelled assault showcased above makes clear.

At the same time, eschewing character attacks, Obama style, constitutes the most devastating character attack. That's what happened in the primary: the long fight evoked the candidates' characters, and in Hillary's case it wasn't pretty. As she threw everything she could get her hands on at Obama, he was pointedly magnanimous at strategic intervals: praising Hillary as a "fierce and formidable competitor," asserting that she should stay in the race as long as she wanted, dismissing her bizarre allusion to RFK's assassination as a product of campaign fatigue.

At Denver, Obama started sculpting a similar character contrast between himelf and McCain. This time, he had the whole party carving with him.

Related posts:
Obama does it with Integrity
Changing "The Rules" on Clinton
Truth and Transformation

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Biden and Kerry: hail to the chief

John Kerry and Joe Biden packed quite a one-two punch tonight. Both of them did a superb job hammering the Hillary Clinton-originated nonsense that McCain is more qualified than Obama to be Commander-in-Chief. Both got specific contrasting Obama's foreign policy judgment with McCain's. Kerry's refrain was, who can we trust to keep America safe? Biden's: John McCain was wrong, Barack Obama was right. Both emphasized that on multiple fronts even the Bush Administration and McCain himself are coming round to adopt Obama's policies: agree to a timeline in Iraq, shift troops to Afghanistan, talk to Iran. Both recited the same catalog of Obama's good judgment vs. McCain's bad judgment: Iraq would be a cakewalk/invading Iraq would fan the flames of the Middle East; we should stay in Iraq for decades/we should shift responsibility to the Iraqis; Afghanistan is taken care of (McCain three years ago)/we should shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Obama's major foreign policy speeches have shown wide-ranging strategic acumen. But he hasn't gotten much credit for it. Biden and Kerry placed his record of good judgment in sharp relief tonight.

That support also of course buttressed Bill Clinton's more general but monumental affirmation: he is ready to be President. Clinton stated the proposition; Kerry and Biden provided supporting evidence in spades.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hillary in Denver: It's Still About Her

Hillary Clinton spoke for maybe 22 minutes tonight. She started focusing on Barack Obama at about minute 14. Before then, it was all about her. Not to mention that rockstar ode-to-the-nominee video that preceded the speech...about her.

The pronoun sequence shows her priorities. She began with a long sequence of "I ran for President so that...Then came "We want to fight for...Then, finally, "Barack Obama will...

She spoke as powerfully as she ever has; she has bought into/grown into her "I'm a fighter" identity and to a degree transferred it to the party: Democrats fight for those who have been forgotten. She expertly tied McCain to Bush (great line: fitting they'll be together in the Twin Cities, since these days they're awfully hard to tell apart). She effectively cataloged key Democratic priorities.

But her support for Obama was almost generic: elect a Democrat. About the only personal tribute was to his early-life work as an organizer. The rest was he'll do what any Dem ought to do -- pass universal healthcare, bring troops home with honor, repair our diplomatic relations. She did assert that he can do these things - that was as warm as it got. Her pitch directly to her own "bitter" supporters was explicitly: it's impossible to accomplish your goals if we don't put "a Democrat" in the White House.

Hillary is trying to thread a needle--appear in good faith to offer full support to Obama, and leave the impression that the Democrats nominated the wrong candidate.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

We are all Fukuyamans - except W. and McCain

Because "The End of History" has been so widely mischaracterized by critics, I was pleased to see Fukuyama assess the new authoritarianism in today's Washington Post.

In the common caricature, Fukuyama essentially proclaimed "game over" when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. That's true in a sense - but only in an ideological sense. Fukuyama never suggested that the path to worldwide liberal democracy would be smooth or swift. His point was that with the collapse of communism, the world had no viable ideological alternative to liberal democracy that could attract widespread lasting support. Today he asserts that that remains true:
Today's autocrats can also prove surprisingly weak when it comes to ideas and ideologies. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Mao's China were particularly dangerous because they were built on powerful ideas with potentially universal appeal, which is why we found Soviet arms and advisers showing up in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. But this sort of ideological tyrant no longer bestrides the world stage. Despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there. Most autocrats, including Putin and Chávez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance. Even China's Hu Jintao felt compelled to talk about democracy in the run-up to Beijing's Olympic Games. And Musharraf proved enough of a democrat to let himself be driven from office by the threat of impeachment.

If today's autocrats are willing to bow to democracy, they are eager to grovel to capitalism. It's hard to see how we can be entering a new cold war when China and Russia have both happily accepted the capitalist half of the partnership between capitalism and democracy. (Mao and Stalin, by contrast, pursued self-defeating, autarkic economic policies.) The Chinese Communist Party's leadership recognizes that its legitimacy depends on continued breakneck growth. In Russia, the economic motivation for embracing capitalism is much more personal: Putin and much of the Russian elite have benefited enormously from their control of natural resources and other assets.

Democracy's only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world's most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shiite mullahs. But as Peter Bergen pointed out in these pages last week, Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters. Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the appeal of this kind of medieval Islamism is strictly limited.
Obama is essentially a Fukuyaman, as any American president should be. According to Fukuyama, sheer competitive pressure pushes countries first toward a market economy and then toward democracy, as a rising middle class demands an accountable government that can't take away property or personal autonomy by fiat. In Obama's telling, a government promoting human rights, free markets and democracy is swimming with the tide; it can lead primarily by example and by positive reinforcement of liberalizing trends and groups within authoritarian states. Here's how he put it in an interview last week with Time's Karen Tumulty:
When you think about our greatest victories — reintegrating Japan, Western Europe after World War II into the free world — there were enormous sacrifices, a lot of resources, but what was really powerful was how we could hold up ourselves and say, "Individuals are able to live a better life under this system." And I don't think that we should be ashamed of asserting that rule of law is better than no rule of law, that democracy is better than authoritarianism, that a free press is better than a closed press. Yet how we achieve or how we approach this, I think, has to take into account that not everybody is going to be at the same place right away, and that if we think we can simply impose our institutions through military means, that we'll probably fall short, because the world may be smaller, but it's not that small.
There's nothing startling about this approach. Every president from Roosevelt through Clinton subscribed to it in theory if not always in practice. A Fukuyaman faith underpinned the doctrine of containment, which held that if the U.S. could contain Soviet expansion while avoiding all-out military confrontation, the Soviet Union would eventually collapse because communism could not compete with democratic capitalism economically. Again, it's the pressure to keep up or catch up, to capture a share of the world's wealth, that pushes governments toward capitalism.

Whether authoritarian capitalist or quasi-capitalist states will eventually be subject to and yield to internal pressure for democracy and human rights is now widely regarded as an open question. Perhaps the rage of Chinese parents whose children's poorly-built schools collapsed in the recent earthquake, or escalating unrest from Chinese uprooted and barely compensated by government-driven development or disinherited by rampant pollution, point toward an answer.

Bush and Cheney abrogated the postwar U.S. foreign policy consensus - through their doctrine and practice of pre-emption, their messianic determination to spread democracy by fire and sword, their sustained violation of the Geneva conventions and implementation of a torture regime. McCain would extend the Bush-Cheney abrogation -- by seeking quixoticaly to cut the emerging Asian powers out of world governance with his phantasmagoric League of Democracies; by advocating sutained military action everywhere American interests or security may be threatened, e.g., Iraq, Iran, Georgia, North Korea; and by preserving the CIA's freedom to torture terror suspects or anyone else deemed a threat to American security.

Related Post:
Breaking the Commander-in-Chief Chokehold: Obama Maps a Strategy

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Strong Obama, Weak Obama: The Time Interview

Obama's interview with Time's Karen Tumulty shows much of Obama at his best: defining the theoretical framework in which he crafts politics and policy. It also highlights a weak point, which may grow out of his attempt to deflect the superstar/celebrity tagging: a reluctance to meet attacks on his character and readiness head-on, to say I have what it takes.

The good stuff first: while it may sound out of step with American politics, Obama's greatest strengths are philosophical. He has thought through and defined clearly what's useful and valid in liberal and conservative thinking, and how those elements should be balanced; appropriate and inappropriate ways in which politicians can let religious faith inform their policy decisions; and ways in which the U.S. should and should not seek to promote its national values abroad. On the latter question, in this interview, he strikes an impressive balance between universalism -- a willingness to affirm that human rights and democracy are good for all peoples -- and recognition of cultural difference:
Tumulty: The question lingered with me as I finished reading 'Dreams,' one of the many things you're wrestling with is the issue of African history, is globalism — used to be colonialism — is it, on balance, net good or net bad for the world's people? Does it even make sense to talk in those terms?

Obama: I'm not sure it makes sense to talk in those terms. I think it's inevitable, partly because of technology, partly because of travel, migration patterns. I do believe that America has a special role to play in trying to lift up a set of ideas, a set of rules of conduct for countries, that aren't imposed by force, but by example. I think our economy has helped to provide a template for other countries, our judicial system has helped to inspire other countries.

When you think about our greatest victories—reintegrating Japan, Western Europe after World War II into the free world—there were enormous sacrifices, a lot of resources, but what was really powerful was how we could hold up ourselves and say, 'Individuals are able to live a better life under this system.' And I don't think that we should be ashamed of asserting that rule of law is better than no rule of law, that democracy is better than authoritarianism, that a free press is better than a closed press. Yet how we achieve, or how we approach this, I think, has to take into account that not everybody is going to be at the same place right away, and that if we think we can simply impose our institutions through military means, that we'll probably fall short, because the world may be smaller, but it's not that small.
Obama unabashedly asserts American exceptionalism, and universalism, while carefully defining the right and wrong ways to promote the truths we hold to be self-evident.

On the other hand, I find his response to a question about his "toughness" -- that is, how he should respond to attacks on his character -- fundamentally unsatisfying:

There are Democrats who are nervous that you are not tough enough for the general election.

I don't think that's just about me. I think they are congenitally nervous because we lost a bunch of presidential elections where people felt that we should have won, but keep in mind that whatever concerns people have about me, my campaign in particular, we heard those all during through the primaries, and the reason—as I said in this town hall meeting—that I think we're going to be successful is it's not about me. It's about the American people, it's about the fact that their wages and incomes have flatlined, their costs have gone up, they are losing their homes. They are losing their health care. They are worried about the future.

The Republicans are going to want to try to focus this election on me, what I want to do is focus this election on the American people and who can actually deliver for them. There's nothing new about this approach that they are taking. This is the same approach that they took against John Kerry and Al Gore and tried to take against Clinton. And so, as I said, what I think makes the difference this time is people understand this is a big election. We can't afford to keep on doing the same things we've been doing—the same policies or the same politics.
There's something false -- or rather, dangerously half-true -- in saying the election is not about him. Yes, at this point in history, Americans strongly favor Democratic policies. That's why the election is about him. The policy debates are almost pre-won; if he loses, it will be because of judgments about his character. Yes, those judgments may be false, and Republicans will stop at nothing to promote false ideas about his character and readiness to lead. His fundamental job is to convince Americans that he has the strength, and the judgment (compensating for lack of experience), and the integrity to get his domestic policies enacted and to safeguard and promote American interests and security abroad.

In fact this is literally nonsense: The Republicans are going to want to try to focus this election on me, what I want to do is focus this election on the American people and who can actually deliver for them. Who can actually deliver? You can! It's time to convert "yes we can" to "yes I can...deliver for you." Too many Americans are not convinced of that.

It's particularly unhelpful to base his response to attacks on the premise that Republicans used the same character-attactics against Kerry and Gore and Clinton and Dukakis (as he did in Chester, Virginia today). In the period Obama referenced, they batted .750 with those tactics. In the cases of Kerry and Dukakis at least, Americans bought the character arguments. Obama likes to say not this time. Why? It's not enough to lump himself in a class of should-have-wons, implying that the electorate was fooled in every case. Why are the attacks about him false? Why is he more fit to govern than McCain?

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Caucasus Belli: Russia's Rhetorical Blitzkrieg

Not only has the Russian military overrun Georgia's. Now a Russian media blitzkrieg is rolling over Western handwringing. Op-eds by Russia's minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov in the Financial Times (Aug. 13) and Wall Street Journal (Aug. 20) and by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in the New York Times (Aug. 20) mount a point-by-point assault on the Western narrative of Soviet-style aggression against"a beautiful little country" and its "wonderful people," to quote Saakashvili's enabler-in-chief, John McCain.

Since that idiot Saakashvili attacked first, bombarding and invading a province where the overwhelming majority no more wants to be part of Georgia than the Georgians want to be part of Russia, it's been easy for Russian leaders to turn the Western tale of "Soviet-style aggression" that "has no place in the twenty-first century" on its head -- and to do the same with Western threats to cut the Russians out of various forms of membership, collaboration and consultation with the West.

This is not to suggest that Russia's response to Georgia's rash grab was "proportionate," or restrained, or benign. As Putin's probably-murderous meddling in Ukranian politics made plain, he and his proxies do not want functioning democracies in Russia's near abroad to offset his bogus "managed democracy." That's what makes Saakashvili's miscalculation so catastrophic. He handed the Russians a sword, not only to gore him, but to terrorize the entire neighborhood. And the opening was not only military but rhetorical, legal, moral -- a causus belli you could driving a tank through.

Here's a sampling of how Lavrov and Gorbachev have rolled over Western talking points, one by one, in their three-pronged attack through the FT, NYT and WSJ (links above).

Spoiling for war?
Gorbachev: Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president,Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.
Lavrov, FT: Let me be absolutely clear. This is not a conflict of Russia’s making; this is not a conflict of Russia’s choosing. There are no winners from this conflict. Hours before the Georgian invasion, Russia had been working to secure a United Nations Security Council statement calling for a renunciation of force by both Georgia and South Ossetians. The statement that could have averted bloodshed was blocked by western countries.
Lavrov, WSJ: Another real issue is U.S. military involvement with the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Did Washington purposely encourage an irresponsible and unpredictable regime in this misadventure? If the U.S. couldn't control Tbilisi's behavior before, why do some in the U.S. seek to rush to rearm the Georgian military now?
Russian tanks rolling over small, peaceful, neighbor?

Lavrov, WSJ: Meticulously avoided in those [Western] statements: The decision of Tbilisi to use crude military force against South Ossetia in the early hours of Aug. 8. The Georgian army used multiple rocket launchers, artillery and air force to attack the sleeping city of Tskhinvali.

Some honest independent observers acknowledge that a surprised Russia didn't respond immediately. We started moving our troops in support of peacekeepers only on the second day of Georgia's ruthless military assault. Yes, our military struck sites outside of South Ossetia. When the positions of your peacekeepers and the civilian population they have been mandated to protect are shelled, the sources of such attacks are legitimate targets.
Gorbachev: The acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the nighttime rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?...

The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.
Democrat good, autocrat bad?
Lavrov, WSJ: When the mantra of the "Georgian democratic government" is repeated time and time again, does it mean that by U.S. standards, a democratic government is allowed to act in brutal fashion against a civilian population it claims to be its own, simply because it is "democratic"?
Gorbachev: Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.
Gorbachev: Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.
Lavrov, FT: Last Friday, after the world’s leaders had arrived at the Beijing Olympics, Georgian troops launched an all-out assault on the region of South Ossetia, which has enjoyed de facto independence for more than 16 years. The majority of the region’s population are Russian citizens. Under the terms of the 1992 agreement to which Georgia is a party, they are afforded protection by a small number of Russian peacekeeping soldiers....

No country in the world would idly stand by as its citizens are killed and driven from their homes. Russia repeatedly warned Tbilisi that it would protect its citizens by force if necessary, and its actions are entirely consistent with international law, including article 51 of the UN charter on the right of self-defence.
Destroying trust and partnership?

Lavrov, WSJ: Russia is committed to the ongoing positive development of relations with the U.S...However, it must be remembered that, as between any other major world powers, our bilateral relationship can only advance upon the basis of reciprocity. And that is exactly what has been missing over the past 16 years. I meant precisely that when I said that the U.S. will have to choose between its virtual Georgia project and its much broader partnership with Russia.

The signs are ominous. Several joint military exercises have been cancelled by the Americans. Now Washington suggests our Navy ships are no longer welcome to take part in the Active Endeavour counterterrorism and counterproliferation operation in the Mediterranean. Washington also threatens to freeze our bilateral strategic stability dialogue.

Likely to be punished?
Lavrov, WSJ: Of course, that strategic dialogue has not led us too far since last fall, including on the issue of U.S. missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the future of the strategic arms reduction regime. But the threat itself to drop these issues from our bilateral agenda is very indicative of the cost of the choice being made in Washington in favor of the discredited regime in Tbilisi. The U.S. seems to be eager to punish Russia to save the face of a failed "democratic" leader at the expense of solving the problems that are much more important to the entire world.

It is up to the American side to decide whether it wants a relationship with Russia that our two peoples deserve. The geopolitical reality we'll have to deal with at the end of the day will inevitably force us to cooperate.

Lavrov in particular has been methodical, thorough and subtle in offering the Russian counter-narrative. Whatever the merits of the case -- and the Russian briefs are full of exaggerations, elisions and distortions -- one has to acknowledge that Lavrov is a rhetorical master. There's a mind there. The substance is above. The deeper framing, the construction of counter-narrative, is equally impressive. Relatively early on in the media campaign, in his Aug. 13 FT piece, he led off by going head-on after the West's broadest archetype before dissecting it:
For some of those witnessing the fighting in the Caucasus over the past few days, the narrative is straightforward and easy. The plucky republic of Georgia, with just a few million citizens, was attacked by its giant eastern neighbour, Russia. Add to this all the stereotypes of the cold war era, and you are presented with a truly David and Goliath interpretation – with all its accompanying connotations of good and evil. While this version of events is being written in much of the western media, the facts present a different picture.
That opening gambit is nicely balanced by Lavrov's conclusion in today's WSJ piece -- challenging the West to accept his inversion of that tale:
Just admit for a moment that the course of history must not depend entirely on what the Georgian president is saying. Just admit that a democratically elected leader can lie. Just admit that you have other sources of information—and other objectives—that shape your foreign policy.
Is Lavrov oversimplifying Western response to the crisis? Consider this bit of mythmaking from John McCain at the Aug. 16 Saddleback Forum:
I am very saddened here to be with you and talk about Russian re-emergence in the centuries-old ambition of the Russian Empire to dominate that part of the world — killings, murder, villages are being burned, people are being wantonly ejected from their homes, the latest figures from human rights organizations 118,000 people in that small country. It was one of the earliest Christian nations. The king of then-Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the 4th and 5th century.

My friends, the president — the present, Saakashvili, is a man who is educated in the United States of America on a scholarship. He went back to Georgia, and with other young people who had also received an education, they achieved a revolution. They had democracy, prosperity and a great little nation, and now the Russians are coming in there in an act of aggression, and we have to not only bring about ceasefire, but we have to have honored one of the most fundamental rights of any nation, and that is territorial integrity.

We must respect the entire territory of Russia - excuse me - the Russians must respect the entire territorial integrity of Georgia — and there’s only 4 million people in Georgia, my friends. I’ve been there. It is a beautiful little country. They are wonderful people.

Envision the author of this disjointed, pandering ramble going head-to-head with the Russian leadership. Looks like a Russia-Georgia scale mismatch.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Obama's clean contrast

Obama's speech today before the Veterans of Foreign Wars makes my heart sing.

Not just because, as Josh Marshall and others are highlighting, he's called McCain out forcefully for impugning his patriotism: "I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same."

What I love is the pivot: given that we both love this country, contrast our policy proposals, past and present. The policy contrast is all the more withering for having itself been contrasted with McCain's character attacks -- a clean attack set off against a scurrilous one ("he'd rather lose a war than lose an election"). Here's the heart of it:
If we think that we can use the same partisan playbook where we just challenge our opponent's patriotism to win an election, then the American people will lose. The times are too serious for this kind of politics. The calamity left behind by the last eight years is too great. So let me begin by offering my judgment about what we've done, where we are, and where we need to go.

Six years ago, I stood up at a time when it was politically difficult to oppose going to war in Iraq, and argued that our first priority had to be finishing the fight against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Senator McCain was already turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, and he became a leading supporter of an invasion and occupation of a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and that - as despicable as Saddam Hussein was - posed no imminent threat to the American people. Two of the biggest beneficiaries of that decision were al Qaeda's leadership, which no longer faced the pressure of America's focused attention; and Iran, which has advanced its nuclear program, continued its support for terror, and increased its influence in Iraq and the region.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I warned that war would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East, create new centers of terrorism, and tie us down in a costly and open-ended occupation. Senator McCain predicted that we'd be greeted as liberators, and that the Iraqis would bear the cost of rebuilding through their bountiful oil revenues. For the good of our country, I wish he had been right, and I had been wrong. But that's not what history shows.

Senator McCain now argues that despite these costly strategic errors, his judgment has been vindicated due to the results of the surge. Let me once again praise General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker - they are outstanding Americans. In Iraq, gains have been made in lowering the level of violence thanks to the outstanding efforts of our military, the increasing capability of Iraq's Security Forces, the ceasefire of Shiite militias, and the decision taken by Sunni tribes to take the fight to al Qaeda. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them.

But understand what the essential argument was about. Before the surge, I argued that the long-term solution in Iraq is political - the Iraqi government must reconcile its differences and take responsibility for its future. That holds true today. We have lost over a thousand American lives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars since the surge began, but Iraq's leaders still haven't made hard compromises or substantial investments in rebuilding their country. Our military is badly overstretched - a fact that has surely been noted in capitals around the world. And while we pay a heavy price in Iraq - and Americans pay record prices at the pump - Iraq's government is sitting on a $79 billion dollar budget surplus from windfall oil profits.

Let's be clear: our troops have completed every mission they've been given. They have created the space for political reconciliation. Now it must be filled by an Iraqi government that reconciles its differences and spends its oil profits to meet the needs of its people. Iraqi inaction threatens the progress we've made and creates an opening for Iran and the "special groups" it supports. It's time to press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future. The best way to do that is a responsible redeployment of our combat brigades, carried out in close consultation with commanders on the ground. We can safely redeploy at a pace that removes our combat brigades in 16 months. That would be well into 2010 - seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, we'll keep a residual force to target remnants of al Qaeda; to protect our service members and diplomats; and to train Iraq's Security Forces if the Iraqis make political progress.

Iraq's democratically-elected Prime Minister has embraced this timeframe. Now it's time to succeed in Iraq by turning Iraq over to its sovereign government. We should not keep sending our troops to fight tour after tour of duty while our military is overstretched. We should not keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while Americans struggle in a sluggish economy. Ending the war will allow us to invest in America, to strengthen our military, and to finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan.

This is the central front in the war on terrorism. This is where the Taliban is gaining strength and launching new attacks, including one that just took the life of ten French soldiers. This is where Osama bin Laden and the same terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans on our own soil are hiding and plotting seven years after 9/11. This is a war that we have to win. And as Commander-in-Chief, I will have no greater priority than taking out these terrorists who threaten America, and finishing the job against the Taliban.

For years, I have called for more resources and more troops to finish the fight in Afghanistan. With his overwhelming focus on Iraq, Senator McCain argued that we could just "muddle through" in Afghanistan, and only came around to supporting my call for more troops last month. Now, we need a policy of "more for more" - more from America and our NATO allies, and more from the Afghan government. That's why I've called for at least two additional U.S. combat brigades and an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance for Afghanistan, with a demand for more action from the Afghan government to take on corruption and counternarcotics, and to improve the lives of the Afghan people.

We must also recognize that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan or secure America as long as there is a terrorist safe-haven in northwest Pakistan. A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot or will not act. Senator McCain criticized me and claimed that I was for "bombing our ally." So for all of his talk about following Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call to take out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.

I argued for years that we need to move from a "Musharraf policy" to a "Pakistan policy." We must move beyond an alliance built on mere convenience or a relationship with one man. Now, with President Musharraf's resignation, we have the opportunity to do just that. That's why I've cosponsored a bill to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

There is no one like Obama for putting individual policy proposals and judgments in the context of a coherent strategy. Frankly, I think that this matchless contextualizing here allows him to elide the fact (okay - my own perception) that McCain was right about the surge, and Obama was wrong. Everything Obama says here about the surge is true. It's prolonged U.S. bleeding in Iraq, and it worked in concert with other factors trending toward reduced violence -- the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr ceasefire, etc. But was the surge not stimulus, catalyst, force multiplier? Is Obama not far better positioned for his proposed troop removal than he would have been without the surge?

We should be able to accept that events to some extent split decisions between contenders -- and still make our judgments as to who has greater strategic acumen. To my mind, McCain is as reckless and feckless in his willingness to extend U.S. military commitments in response to every perceived threat as he is in his new-found zeal for every tax cut he can conceive. In both cases, there's no accountability because there's no accounting. McCain is in fact a fabulist. Obama is a realist -- at least relatively, and allowing for the overpromising that American politics elicits from all serious contenders. His proposed deployments of resources, military and financial, are based on cost-benefit analysis.

Sadly, in this speech Obama cannot call McCain out on his foolishly overextended support of Georgia's idiot president Saakashvili, because Obama is pushing the same policies -- unconditional support for Georgia's "territorial integrity," notwithstanding that huge majorities in the breakaway provinces want no part of it, and admission to NATO, notwithstanding that resolving border disputes is a condition of entry. Perhaps here, the pressure not to appear "soft"
is overwhelming.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Cross in the Dirt": Salter's jog to McCain's memory??

Following McCain's latest embellishment of his "cross in the dirt" story at the Saddleback Forum, Daily Kos bloggers (anticipated, it now turns out, by FreeRepublic bloggers in 2005) have noted that this by-now-well-worn story is absent from McCain's first long account of his captivity in 1973; bears a close resemblance to a story recounted by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archepelago; and seems to have made its first appearance in McCain's Faith of My Fathers, published in 1999 as McCain prepared for his first Presidential run. In a Lexis search, the first news-source reference I could find to the story was indeed in a September 1999 review of the book.

In the story McCain recalls one of his Vietnamese captors first secretly loosening his bonds when he was tied in a stress position, and months later, on Christmas, furtively scratching a "cross in the dirt" in a moment of silent communion.

A footnote: Faith of My Fathers was the first of several books co-authored Mark Salter, McCain's speechwriter and close aide. Whatever McCain's alleged reticence about his POW experiences, co-author Salter has never been shy about mining their political value. A May '08 WSJ profile of Salter by Monica Langley recounts:
When ad maker Mark McKinnon wanted to use newly discovered footage taken when Sen. McCain was captured during the Vietnam War, the candidate refused, saying it was exploitative, and that his visible injuries made him look vulnerable. Mr. Salter "was my ace in the hole," Mr. McKinnon says. "He persuaded John -- and he's the only one who could have."
That's not to say that Salter, who according to McCain "writes the way I think," could not have elicited new memories from McCain, or convinced him to recall publicly stories he may have previously kept private. Make of it what you may, the story's public life appears to date from the beginning of McCain's career as a presidential candidate.

Dissing the electorate III: Sullivan boosts Bacevich

Andrew Sullivan is endorsing a new diss-the-electorate meme: Andrew Bacevich's thesis in his new book, The Limits of Power:
The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.
My bullshit detector beeps when I read phrases like "the chief desire of the American people." I still believe that ultimately the electorate proves itself smarter than all of us - that 'the wisdom of crowds' yields its best dividends in the electoral setting.

"Ultimately" doesn't mean "in every election." I think Lincoln got it right: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. When we're fooled, events eventually make the damage plain. And democracy, if corrupt rulers don't sabotage its machinery, allows for self-correction -- that's its saving grace.

Americans are no more corrupted by their material interests than they've ever been. I shouldn't dismiss Bacevich's ideas without reading the book, and I don't mean to. But I do disagree with the statement above.

Bush's two terms are a major challenge to my faith in the electorate. But here's how I see that tragic course. A series of unfortunate events from Monica Lewinsky through Gore's wretched campaign through an ill-timed periodic malfunction of our creaky electoral machinery allowed Bush to squeak through in 2000. Then 9/11 (and the swift apparent success in Afghanistan that followed) granted him a huge reservoir of trust, which was almost-but-not-quite drained by Nov. 2004.

The electoral eureka came in 2006, in the wake of Katrina, Bush's ill-conceived attempt to radically alter social security, and escalating violence in Iraq. It came later than many of us would have liked, but it came. That's how democracy works.

Now Americans are ready for more change. In response, the Democrats have taken a huge gamble by electing a black man -- who, like Lincoln, has captured a major-party nomination by sheer force of eloquence -- and, I believe, by sheer force of intellectual power underpinning that eloquence. It is an earth-shaking gamble: no one knows how deep racial prejudice still runs. It's compounded by Obama's relative lack of experience in elective office.

But to my mind, in this year there have been multiple hopeful signs that the electorate has developed new resistance to the bacteria of smear politics. Chief among them is Obama beating back a wave of Rovian attacks from Clinton; another is the success not only of McCain but of Huckabee against opponents running far more demagogic and asinine campaigns.

One of Obama's mantras is not this time. He has been saying for more than a year that Americans are too smart to fall for the familiar lies, the familiar smears, the familiar attacks on manliness and patriotism. And he's got very far with that message.

I'm admit I'm scared. McCain has revealed his intellectual bankruptcy over time He won't even bother to try to balance his proposed budget; he has no idea beyond asserting a vanished (and to a large degree always illusory) hegemony of how to advance American interests while fostering prosperity and incremental increase in freedom in the emerging autocracies; his idea of a health plan is more privatization, more control to the insurance companies, more limits to coverage and exclusionary mineshafts for individuals. "Bush's third term" is as good a tagline as any in our sound byte politics to describe what McCain offers -- and "will make Cheney look like Gandhi" may also be not far off. We can't afford that. And there is a real danger that we may get it.

But I think Obama understands the dynamics. He's as much a master of our political process as anyone alive. I think he's going to get there. Get us there.

Related Posts:
Dissing the Electorate II
Dissing the Electorate
Obama's metapolitics
Obama's metapolitics

McCain finds a Christian Crusade in Georgia's misfortune

Among the great disgusting moments in U.S. presidential campaign history, ring up John McCain recasting the Russian invasion of Georgia as a religious war in last night's Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, hosted by megapastor Pastor Rick Warren. In a great pandering mush, McCain managed to fuse democratic evangelicalism with Christian evangelicalism in a fairy tale version of the current catastrophe (excuse the caps; that's how the available transcript is formatted):
Never mind that Georgia's current nominal territory was cobbled together by none other but Stalin, and so its "territorial integrity" supports about as much social cohesion as that Yugoslavia or Iraq. Never mind that vast majorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia no more want to be part of Georgia than Georgia wants to be part of Greater Russia. (Yes, the situation is complicated; Georgians were ethnnically cleansed from Abkhazia in the early '90s, and Russian proxies largely run both provinces. But McCain doesn't do nuance.) Never mind that that young western-educated paragon Saakashvili - who held up McCain as a political model for himself shortly after his election* -- recklessly started the current war with an invasion and bombardment of South Ossetia.

What is the relevance of Georgia's status as "one of the earliest Christian nations"? Is that a simple pander to an Evangelical audience - we have to take care of one of our own? Pander yes, simple no. In McCain's comic-book historical narrative, there's a straight line from Christianity to democracy; arrayed on the other side are the Godless communists and autocratic Muslims. Unfortunately he can't tie Russia to radical Islam (though maybe Russia is less Christian than Georgia, since Christianity didn't come to Russia till around 1000?), but in his universe the Russians are still Godless communists. And the U.S. can return to the simple imagined moral clarity of Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" stance early in his presidency:
Never mind that the revered Reagan negotiated over many years with Gorbachev, establishing trust over time, supporting his reforms within the Soviet Union, and proceeding with caution and tact as communism unraveled in Eastern Europe. In the aureate glow of McCain's nostalgia, Reagan simply shouted ant the Wall came tumbling down.

My friends (as McCain loves to say), this is dangerous stuff. McCain for years has advocated kicking Russia out of the G-8. He continues to promote the fantasy of a League of Democracies (Judeo-Christian democracies?) as a way to undercut the global influence of Russia and China. For years, he's championed Georgia's admiission into NATO and egged Saakashvili on in his quest to restore "terrotorial integrity" to Georgia; indeed, he's as responsible as anyone other than Saakashvili himself for the current debacle. A few days ago he even suggested, in a somewhat muted way, that NATO should consider sending troops to Georgia.

McCain is by this point a more extreme historical fabulist than George W. Bush himself. He is indeed likely, as Patrick Buchanan warned us with a laugh, to "make Cheney look like Gandhi."

* Saakashvili, Nov. 30, 2003, quoted by Peter Baker in The Washington Post: "I was really raised on American democracy, not only my studies but much more," he said. "JFK is my political idol." In modern terms, he patterns himself after another American politician. "For me, the closest thing in terms of political orientation is John McCain," the renegade Republican senator from Arizona.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bush's August Surprise

I have to admit that for once I admire Bush's sang froid as he airlifts aid to Georgia. The move seems appropriate in that Bush waited until Russia had plainly violated the ceasefire and seemed to be moving toward occupying the country - or at least debilitating it enough to force the regime change it's openly called for. That is, until the Russians had blown their elaborately constructed moral cover by continuing to advance after achieving their stated ends.

It's been widely assumed that the West has basically no leverage in Russia's back yard. This move honors the U.S.'s commitment to Georgia -- foolishly bloated though that commitment was -- and may in some measure inhibit total impunity on Russia's part. I don't think it seriously risks a military confrontation, but it does put U.S. troops in rather breathtaking proximity to the Russians (and their South Ossetian Janjaweed) in the midst of their power grab.

Of course, this 11th-hour gesture is literally a band-aid covering a policy that has managed to simultaneously empower and enrage Russia while ignoring the tangled reality of the South Caucasus. But that's what you get with the Bushies - the occasional inspired grab to recover a portion of what their strategic cluelessness has squandered.

P.S. What kind of an idiot is Saakashvilli? With his help, maybe this intervention really could turn into a conflagration:

The first US air force transport aircraft arrived last night, and the navy was heading to the Black Sea – which is controlled by Russian warships – to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies direct to Georgian ports. “We expect Russia to honour its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance,” Mr Bush said.

President Saakashvili of Georgia seized on the announcement to say that Tbilisi airport and Poti port would be placed under US military control, a claim the Pentagon swiftly denied.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Moral Equivalency Exam

Andrew Sullivan has essayed some moral equivalency testing between Russian conduct in Georgia and the U.S.'s in Iraq and in the "War on Terror." For myself, reading in the Times this evening that "Russian authorities make no secret of their desire to see Mr. Saakashvili tried for war crimes in The Hague," I thought not of current Russian actions but of Chechnya, and how the Russians simply flattened the place, and how easy it was years ago to condemn that indiscriminate violence. Yes, Putin & Co.'s hypocrisy is rife, but now there's that beam in the U.S.'s eye too.

The U.S. in Iraq did not fight like the Russians in Chechnya; the country prided itself on smart bombs and pinpoint strikes and minimized collateral damage. But having gone in on false pretences and unleashed a civil war that killed probably hundreds of thousands, while meanwhile instituting a reign of torture against suspected enemies worldwide, how does the death and suffering and damage to international norms and standards we caused stack up against that of other malefactors?

These equivalences are impossible to score and ultimately false. In fact the U.S. may have still done the Iraqis a service. Saddam had to go sometime, and we'll never know what would have followed his death or deposing (as we don't know, by way of loose analogy, what will follow the collapse of the regime in North Korea). And U.S. forces have done heroic work trying to help put Iraq back together. But in Colin Powell's well-worn formula, we broke it, and we own the damage done -- to our own civil liberties and rule of law as well as to the lives and property of the Iraqis.

Monday, August 11, 2008

World War III, anyone?

True to form, McCain is calling for NATO to deploy peacekeeping troops to Georgia:
NATO's North Atlantic Council should convene in emergency session to demand a ceasefire and begin discussions on both the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia and the implications for NATO's future relationship with Russia, a Partnership for Peace nation. NATO's decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision.
Now, McCain may be calling, like Obama, for deployment of a peacekeeping force after the Russians have somehow been induced to withdraw. If so, it's unclear how either candidate envisions getting the Russians to withdraw - via a Security Council resolution they're sure to veto? But McCain, by calling on NATO to begin discussions on deployment of such a force, seems to suggest that NATO might send troops to impose peace.

If that's the case, then McCain, ever ready to risk war in Korea, Iraq and Iran, has distinguished himself as the first western leader since World War II to intimate that it might be a good idea to start a ground war with Russia.

More likely, placing discussion of a peacekeeping force in the NATO context is a bit of shadow bluster, of a piece with proposing that the G7 meet without Russia -- suggesting that the antecedents of McCain's fantasy League of Democracies might somehow craft a solution without engaging Russia, by sheer force of will.

Of course, McCain is not wasting the opportunity to paint Obama as soft on...everything. Perhaps he'd rather threaten war than lose an election. And as President, much evidence suggests that when faced with crisis, McCain would rather start a war than be cast by any critic in the Neville Chamberlain role he habitually hangs on his opponents.

P.S. It's rather creative of McCain to suggest that Russia may have been encouraged to act by NATO's hesitance to fast-track Georgian NATO membership, rather than provoked to act because NATO is considering inviting Georgia to join.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Depends what your definition of "disproportionate" is

A tale of two invasions....

1. Russian Foreign Ministry statement in response to breakout of war between Hezbollah and Israel, July 13, 2006 (Interfax):

The spiral of violence in the region is being wound tighter and tighter. Israel's retaliatory steps, including sending of troops to invade Lebanese territory, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the blockade of Lebanese territory from the sea and from air have led to major casualties and sufferings among the civilian population. Hezbollah has started missile attacks of Israeli cities, including Haifa, from which innocent people are also suffering....

All this is happening parallel with the Israeli army's operation in the Palestinian territories, where civilians get killed every day...

The Russian Foreign Ministry resolutely condemns the servicemen's abduction and the firing upon Israeli territory. At the same time, we view the military actions launched by Israel as the disproportionate and inadequate use of force endangering Lebanon's sovereignty and territorial integrity and threatening peace and security in the entire region.

2. U.S. response to Russian invasion of separatist Georgian regions:

Reuters, Aug. 9 - Russia has used "disproportionate" force in the South Ossetia conflict with Georgia and must immediately agree to a cease-fire with Tbilisi, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday.

Russia and Georgia came into direct conflict over South Ossetia this week after Tbilisi launched an offensive to regain control over the breakaway separatist region.

"The response has been far disproportionate from whatever threat Russia was citing," the senior American official told reporters in a conference call. "We are calling for an immediate cease-fire and a stand down of all troops."

Washington Post, Aug. 9 -- Russian strategic bombers and jet fighter planes pounded targets in many parts of Georgia on Saturday, hitting apartment buildings and economic installations, as well as military targets in an escalating war that is killing more and more civilians and confounding international efforts to secure a cease-fire....

Saakashvili said Russian planes struck the Black Sea port of Poti, attempted to hit but missed a pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil to Turkey, and bombed railway stations, among other nonmilitary targets. Doctors working in Gori said that Russian planes had struck two military field hospitals....

"There is panic in Tbilisi," said a senior U.S. official, briefing reporters in Washington. He said Russia is using TU-22 supersonic strategic bombers that can carry as much as 54,000 pounds of bombs and cruise missiles. He also said that Russia has launched ballistic missiles against targets in Georgia.

So...Russia openly regrets its loss of empire, and will work methodically over coming decades to reconstitute as much of it as possible. That's universally recognized: surely no one in the world outside of Russia accords a shred of moral authority to Russia when it condemns other countries' actions. But as this crisis will doubtless highlight, the Bush Administration has spent down U.S. moral capital worldwide practically to the level of Russia's (see, e.g., green light to Israel, July '06).

Friday, August 08, 2008

From Emancipation Proclamation to Achievement Gap

Reading Doris Kearns' Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I was struck by a stray moment of insight from a slaveholding unionist during the deliberations of Lincoln's cabinet over the likely fallout from the Emancipation Proclamation. Members recognized fully that they were likely unleashing, in Gideon Welles' words, "a revolution of the social, civil and industrial habits and condition of society in the slave states." Most did not want integration and equality; Lincoln himself still clung to the dream of colonizing freed slaves in another country.

Attorney General Edward Bates, a Missouri slaveholder, favored forced resettlement; he believed that "amalgamation" would bring "degradation and demoralization of the white race." There was an absurdist loop in his thinking: he thought that whites would be degraded by contact with blacks because they had degraded blacks. But he recognized the the full force of his society's assault on their slaves' humanity. There's a rather extraordinary sociological insight (or was it common amongst slaveholders?) at the core of his Catch-22:

Although he conceded that 'among our colored people who have been long free, there are many who are intelligent and well advanced in arts and knowledge,' he could not imagine former slaves, 'fresh from the plantations of the South, where they have been long degraded by the total abolition of the family relation, shrouded in artificial darkness, and studiously kept in ignorance,' living on an equal footing with whites (p. 466; my emphasis).

Exacerbated by 100 further years of brutal discrimination, that "total abolition of the family relation" still takes its toll. What Stanton and his ilk did not foresee was the remarkable extent to which African Americans would embrace core American ideals and repeatedly hold the country to its founding promises (Lincoln, a fact-driven leader if there ever was one, did later get some inkling through his encounters with Fredrick Douglas and other black leaders). To revel for a moment in the obvious, here's the thread of that black buy-in/black indictment from Frederick Douglass through Martin Luther King and Barack Obama:

Frederick Douglass, Rochester New York, July 4, 1852:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?....

I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?

Martin Luther King, Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.

Barack Obama, Philadelphia, March 18, 2008:

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution - a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

Lincoln, as Garry Wills shows in Lincoln at Gettysburg, was a leader in casting the Declaration of Independence's "We hold these truths..." credo as a blueprint for a work in progress, an ideal always to be aspired to and progressively fulfilled. He didn't invent this conception --indeed, it's there in Douglass' 1852 speech above -- but he framed it memorably, and repeatedly, and committed the nation to it in blood, and so recast the country's self-conception. And so the threads still run parallel: black leaders continue to hold us to that ideal, and black families struggle with the brutal sabotage of it acknowledged by Stanton.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The shaming strategy

For those who say that Obama needs to hit back at McCain more strongly, i.e. start a negative ad blitz to answer McCain's attacks, recall: the same was said in Obama's campaign against Hillary. He left a lot of attack fodder on the table: the Bosnian sniper lie, the RFK assassination cite, the Clinton Library and Foundation funding. While the Clintons went negative at intervals, Obama repeatedly shamed them into restraint. And he won.

The Washington Post reports much Democratic hand-wringing as Obama keeps back the attack dogs. And frankly, it's hard not flash back to summer '04, when Kerry let the Republicans take him apart with the Swiftboat attacks and the flip-flop charges. But three things to keep in mind: 1) Obama is hitting back effectively, with ridicule; 2) the high road worked in the primaries; Obama repeatedly came off as the adult in the Clinton sandbox; and 3) while McCain takes his shallow swipes, Obama is building the biggest GOTV operation in a generation.

Greenspan in denial

You don't have to be an economist to recognize that Alan Greenspan is disingenuous in his continued insistence, most recently in the Financial Times on Aug. 5, that the housing bubble and ensuing credit crunch were the product of impersonal and inevitable market forces, and that weak regulation played no role.

Note Greenspan's sleight-of-hand here:
When the current crisis emerged, it was assumed that the weak links would be unregulated hedge and private funds. The losses, however, have been predominately in the most heavily regulated institutions – banks.
Passing the banks off as "heavily regulated" ignores a pair of inconvenient truths: 1) the Fed on Greenspan's watch declined to regulate the out-of-control mortgage lending practices of both banks and non-bank lenders, despite having the authority to do so, and 2) investment banks were not subject to the same capital requirements as commercial banks .

Whether or not they were "heavily regulated" during the Greenspan era, banks were not effectively regulated. And non-bank mortgage lenders were effectively not regulated at all.