Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thank you Dick Cheney.

It's a good thing we have Dick Cheney around to remind us that we are at war.  Here are his comments on the arrest of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, accused of attempting to set off a bomb in an airplane landing in Detroit on Christmas day:

As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war.
Echoing the comments of other Republican critics who complain that we are coddling the Christmas bomber by refraining from torturing him, and planning to try him in an American court, Dick Cheney reminds us that of course the Bush administration would never have handled such a problem in that way.

Except, wait a minute . . ., what about Richard Reid, the shoe bomber?  Just like this year's underwear bomber, Richard Reid, also known as  Tariq Raja, was arrested in December 2001 for attempting to set off an explosive device on a flight from Paris to Miami.  He was a convert to an extreme sect of Islam, he was not an American citizen, and he also claimed he was affiliated with Al Qaeda.  So how was this terrorist treated by the Bush administration?  He was prosecuted in federal district court, and sentenced to prison after pleading guilty. Richard Reid was given the rights of an American accused of a crime.  He was allowed to lawyer up.  He is serving his sentence in an American prison like a common criminal.  Aside from causing new restrictions on handling shoes and liquids in airport screenings, the incident was handled in a low key way.

Just as with Cheney's inconsistent criticism of the Obama administration's handling of its generals' requests for additional troops in Afghanistan, Cheney's real problem seems not so much about the substance of the Obama administration's policies, but about the rhetoric.  What he appears most upset about is President Obama's refusal to whip up war hysteria, his low key demeanor, his failure to succumb to fear and hate.  What Cheney seems to feel is lacking is the will to keep the country on a war footing to deal with the continuing problem of Islamic extremist terrorists, and to use the excuse of war to reduce the constitutional rights of criminals, and the privacy rights of American citizens.  Instead President Obama has committed the outrageous sins of trusting in the American judicial system, admitting an apparent intelligence failure, and reassuring Americans that they should not be unduly alarmed.  What Dick Cheney does not understand is the strength represented by that kind of response, as opposed to the fear and weakness that he continues to demonstrate.

Here is part of the White House response to Cheney's ridiculous criticisms:
To put it simply: this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President.
Off-key is putting it mildly.  But I guess putting it mildly is all that Cheney was complaining about.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thank you Peggy Noonan.

The President must be taking so much heat from the left that he is getting some support from an unexpected source. In Peggy Noonan's column a couple of days ago in the Wall Street Journal, she went to the trouble of interviewing some Obama staffers who are sticking by the boss, and know he is doing his best. She also talked to some former Reagan administration officials who were given a private tour of the White House by Michelle Obama. They were impressed that the Lincoln bedroom is no longer available for guests.

Peggy Noonan may not agree with the President all that much, but she seems at least to appreciate his incorruptibility, and his human qualities, and she seems to sympathize with the difficulties of his political position. It would be nice if more critics on both the left and the right could give the guy some benefit of the doubt.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Two Year Anniversary

A few days ago marked two years that I have been writing this political blog. I've had a blog for my law firm for five years, but I didn't get addicted to blogging until I started blogging on politics. I started doing that on the Obama campaign website, in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. My first very short post, on December 20, 2007, was on global warming. My second post was about health care, specifically about whether Barack Obama was more likely to get it done than Hillary Clinton. It is interesting that we are still talking about the same issues that we were talking about two years ago. It seems likely that we will still be talking about these issues a couple of years from now.

What started as sort of a diary or commentary on the campaign, became a way of communicating with other people interested in the campaign, then a partisan political tool, and later, when I moved the blog to my own site shortly before last year's election, became a celebration of the spirit of hope and change that seemed to have seized the nation.

Right now my main purpose, aside from writing about whatever comes into my head, is simple: support the president. This is still a somewhat strange persona for me to adopt, since I think of myself as something of an iconoclast, and since there has not been a president since JFK that I have spared from relentless criticism. But there seems to be plenty of criticism to go around right now from both left and right. I feel no desire to add to it, and I feel that the administration needs support more than ever. So I just try to keep the tone positive, without verging into foolish optimism or becoming a knee jerk apologist for the administration. If I feel the urge to be critical of the administration, I try to restrain that urge, or I do it in the kindest, most constructive way possible. I wonder if maintaining that point of view makes me an unreliable source, but I don't think so, since I retain my critical faculties and my legal training in precision and accuracy. I welcome dialogue with people of all political persuasions. I am excited to see readership gradually increasing. And so I plan to keep at it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Quiet Man

Harry Reid's soft voice and unassuming manner make it hard to understand how he got to be the leader. Progressives don't expect him to act as their champion. Conservatives make fun of him. A lot of people see him as weak and ineffectual. But Harry Reid, according to this story in the LA Times this morning, deserves the major credit for delivering 60 votes for health care reform. (Not just 60 votes to break the GOP filibuster, but 60 votes for the bill itself.) Somehow, through several moments when deals fell apart and all hope seemed lost, Harry Reid kept pushing to get this bill passed.

People will second guess forever whether different tactics by the White House or by Congressional leaders could have gotten a better bill passed. I don't think that can be proved. Right now it is time to celebrate that the U.S. Congress has achieved something that has never been achieved before, with both houses passing major health insurance reform legislation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movies are Still Black and White.

Would it not help improve the level of political discourse in this country if people had a greater appreciation of the complexities of the policy issues we are debating?  Would we not expect to tone down nasty and hateful rhetoric if people made a greater effort to understand opposing points of view?  Of course.  Unfortunately, sometimes our popular culture encourages people to view issues in black and white, us vs. them, terms, rather than to understand the ironies and nuances of the problems we need to address.  When we are encouraged to view the world as composed of good guys vs. bad guys, without many shades of gray, we are in danger of losing the capacity to empathize with people of different political viewpoints or nationality. We are in danger of seeing only a warlike solution to problems.

A case in point: the new movie Avatar. Basically it is a science fiction re-telling of the Pocahontas story.  That story offers a lot of possibilities for shedding light on current problems including terrorism, imperialism, and the need for sustainable development.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to frame these issues in rather simplistic terms.  For example, the military commander is portrayed as a cartoonish, bull-headed, racist killer.  But what if he were a smart and sophisticated general, like a David Petraeus?  If such a commander genuinely made an effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population, but was still somehow "forced" into military action that causes death and destruction, the war would be much more tragic and multi-dimensional, instead of just asking us to root for the innocent forest people being attacked without provocation by an evil, rapacious army.

The movie also tells us that the indigenous Na'vi have no interest in any of the technology or culture brought by the humans to their planet.  Their life is meant to be perfect as it is.  But from history we know that most such populations are attracted to at least some of the offerings of their invaders, whether ships or guns or tools or medicine or refrigerators or television.  If the humans had something to trade, that would have made the story more realistic.

Then there is the cause of the war, a mineral called unobtanium (funny).  We have to assume that it must be valuable for some purpose, but the only thing the characters in the movie tells us is that it will bring the evil corporation funding the mission gigantic profits. But what if unobtanium were able to cure cancer, or save life on earth from global warming?  Then the refusal of the Na'vi to relocate their camp to allow the earthlings to mine for a material that might save their own planet would look a bit selfish.

The Na'vi are shown as spiritually pure, innocent, and living in harmony with nature.  They never fight except to defend themselves or to hunt for what they need to live.  But what if they were shown committing a few tiny acts of selfishness or barbarism?  Couldn't the audience be trusted to sympathize with these people even if they were not quite as wonderful as they are shown to be in the movie? 

I am not saying that James Cameron was wrong to make the artistic choices he did.  He certainly has a better sense of the commercial prospects of his movie than I do.  The movie I might have preferred to see could have been a box office bomb, which no one could afford to make on this kind of budget.  And even looking at the script as a series of purely artistic or moral choices, I am not saying that it was wrong to portray our civilization as the bad guys and an indigenous "primitive" civilization as the good guys.  All I'm saying is that I would have preferred to see a few more shades of gray.  But maybe we should not expect more from a mass audience movie than to shake up conventional expectations a bit, and maybe James Cameron should not be expected to water down his message that nature is good and war is bad.  (Of course in Hollywood nowadays, it is already fairly conventional to show corporations, the military and our materialistic society as evil. A truly unconventional movie nowadays would show pharmaceutical companies healing the sick or Wall Street tycoons helping the poor.) But wouldn't it would be even more interesting if none of the characters in a story could be neatly classified as either a good guy or a bad guy?

Perhaps this movie was cast in such unambiguous terms because it was aimed at children.  But children have some capacity to appreciate ambiguity.  It seems a shame to have developed such incredibly novel and ingenious movie-making techniques, in the service of a story that does not rise to the same level of originality and sophistication.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!

A year ago, who would have predicted that by this time the new administration would have saved the financial system from collapse, saved the US auto industry from liquidation, brought the economy back from the brink of disaster, got the stock market up 50%, stabilized the housing market, committed to close Guantanamo, appointed a progressive judge to the Supreme Court, passed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill, ended torture, got the UN Security Council to agree unanimously to reduce nuclear weapons, reached out to the Muslim world and helped empower a counter-revolution in Iran, started bringing the troops home from Iraq and committed more US and NATO forces to Afghanistan, passed health care reform legislation in the House and defeated a filibuster in the Senate, introduced energy legislation, took the US in a different direction in climate change talks, made the United States the most admired country in the world once again, and won the Nobel Peace Prize? Yet President Obama has done all of that and more.

Granted that there is still much to be done, and no one should be expected to support every single one of these accomplishments, but shouldn't we still be thrilled at this tremendous record?  Instead, on the left, the loudest voices are crying out with betrayal and anger:  Wall Street is making lots of money again.  Horrors!  Many compromises have to be made in health care legislation to get it through a corrupt and conservative Congress.  Shocking!  We are sending more troops to Afghanistan.  Shades of Vietnam!

On the right, even more anger, fear and hate.  The deficit is rising.  Disastrous!  The government is spending money.  Socialism!  The president is going around the world making friends with all kinds of governments.  Appeasement!

Wasn't the reason we elected Barack Obama last year to reduce all of this hysteria and divisiveness and bitterness and hate?  Have people forgotten that it was his message of reconciliation and inclusiveness that people of diverse political views responded to so forcefully last year?  The most disappointing failure--perhaps the only failure--of the Obama administration so far, is its failure to achieve any reduction in partisanship and rancor.  But is it the president's fault that we are still bitter and hateful?  I don't think so. I think we don't have much cause to be disappointed in the new administration, but they might have cause to be disappointed in us. Remember, WE were supposed to be the change we were waiting for.  All of us were supposed to try to reduce the level of recriminations and partisanship and corruption in our politics.  Instead of looking at politics as blood sport, we were supposed to look at it as a series of problems to be solved by listening respectfully to one another, and trying to accommodate a range of reasonable views.  That doesn't mean we have to give up any strongly-held opinions.  That doesn't mean we have to agree with one another about everything.  It just means we are supposed to try to employ a different spirit to our politics.   Sadly, I see little evidence that we have absorbed our own message. So in the spirit of whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating this season, I'd like to propose a toast to good old-fashioned peace on earth and good will toward men. We could use more of that next year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

5 Votes for Forestalling Climate Change

No wide-ranging agreement came out of the Copenhagen talks this week, but our president managed to come home with an understanding among China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States that would commit these countries to emissions reductions and commit the more developed nations to significant financial support for making these changes.  This represents the first time that at least some of these nations--the fastest-growing new polluters in the world-- have agreed to start implementing emissions reductions.  It represents a tangible commitment from the developed countries.  And it seems to represent a big change in direction from the United States since the Kyoto conference.  That time the rest of the world reached some comprehensive agreements, but the United States would not commit to the process.  This time the rest of the world seemed unable to reach agreement on much of anything, but the United States took the lead in salvaging some noticeable progress from an otherwise inconclusive meeting. 

60 Votes for Health Care Reform

While I have issues with the constant carping criticisms, second guessing and negativity of the Arianna Huffingtons, Robert Reiches, the Howard Deans, and many others on the left, I suppose progressives can be forgiven for being disheartened that they have had to give up or compromise on just about everything they fought to obtain in this legislation in order to gain the 60 votes necessary to pass a health insurance reform bill in the Senate. For some people, the last straw could be the agreement to include new restrictions on people's ability to obtain insurance coverage for abortion services, in order to obtain Senator Nelson's vote. So is the bill still worth supporting?

I say yes, and this is why. When Congress passes health insurance reform, it will represent the first time in American history that we will have enshrined into law the principle that every single American has the right to decent and affordable health insurance. Previously, unless you were eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, or were a veteran, you did not have that right. Now, however poorly people may think the bill still working its way through Congress protects that right, the idea itself has finally been recognized. It will still take work over many years to make the reality live up to that promise, but it is vitally important that the basic principle finally be recognized. Everyone should be able to get health insurance, whether you are unemployed, or suffer from a pre-existing condition, or whether you have limited means. Right now, health insurance is unavailable for many people in those categories, but after this bill is implemented, it should be available. Once we are agreed on that, then the only thing left to argue about is how to protect and improve that right. In other words, people will be in a much better position to raise hell if they still are not able to find decent and affordable coverage, once they have a right to it in the first place.

I also believe that anyone who thinks it would be better to let this bill go down to defeat and hope that an opportunity will come up in the foreseeable future to pass a better bill, is just dreaming. It took 16 years from the last time health insurance reform went down to defeat for another opportunity to come up to implement reform. The next opportunity could take just as long or longer. And I think that people who want to second guess about strategy, or lick their wounds from feeling betrayed or sold out, are also wasting their time. Congress is corrupt. What else is new? Strategies can be second guessed forever. I would rather concentrate on the fact that a lot of people are doing their best to make a very important change happen.  I would rather celebrate the fact that this compromise still represents, as President Obama stated, "a major step forward for the American people."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reciprocity in Negotiations

An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning, by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, argues that the United States should not agree to reduce its carbon emissions, unless and until developing countries such as China and India and Brazil agree to do the same. They make the valid point that US reductions would do little to reduce the overall problem as long as these rapidly-industrializing nations continue to increase their carbon output as dramatically as they have in recent years. They also argue, using the analogies of trade negotiations and arms reduction negotiations, that unilateralism is a bad negotiating strategy, because unilateral concessions lessen a negotiating party's leverage to obtain similar concessions from others. This latter point seems more debatable, at least as applied to the problem of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere.

First, the developing nations have long argued that it is unfair to demand dramatic concessions from them while the United States continues to emit far more greenhouse gases per capita than other nations.  So our refusal to agree to restrictions actually discourages other nations from agreeing to reduce own their emissions.  These developing countries also have the valid argument that all they are doing is catching up to the countries that industrialized earlier, and that it is unfair to restrict their ability to reduce poverty and modernize their economies while the United States and Europe continue to enjoy the benefits of their earlier industrialization.  Rather than giving us leverage, the US failure to recognize the problem and do something about it has actually impeded efforts to get other nations to do their fair share.

Second, unlike unilaterally reducing trade barriers, which can harm domestic industries by making it easier for imported goods to compete, efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually make our domestic industries more competitive.  Although there are short term costs to improving the energy-efficiency of buildings, to increasing our reliance on solar, wind and nuclear power, and to improving vehicle mileage, in the long run all of these investments actually save money, while they reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  So there is no disadvantage to making unilateral carbon reductions that will improve our country's economic performance.

Far from making it easier to negotiate global reductions in carbon emissions, the obstructionism that Rivkin and Casey advocate would only serve as an excuse for others to do nothing.  Instead of creating leverage for an agreement, we would be playing a game of chicken with our negotiating partners.  With global climate possibly heading off a cliff, we should not be arguing about how much others have to apply the brakes before we assist them.  We need to be applying some brake pressure ourselves while we ask others to do the same.

(beach photo from Redoubt Reporter)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is Inappropriate for Children?

Of all the stories I read to my kids when they were pre-schoolers, Thomas the Tank Engine stories were probably my least favorite. I have been saying for years that they promoted subservience to authority figures, right or wrong. The typical story had one of the engines getting punished for challenging the better judgment of the bosses, or for agitating for better working conditions for an individual or the group. The moral of the story was generally to do what you're told, don't complain, and don't make trouble. It was not the message that someone with a rebellious streak like me wanted to encourage in my children. But my kids liked these stories, and we had this giant 400 page book containing all of them, so I dutifully read them all, just biding my time until I could get to something I enjoyed more, especially the wildly imaginative and far better written books of Roald Dahl.

Now Shauna Wilton, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, has done a study of the tv versions of a number of Thomas the Tank Engine stories, concluding that they promote a conservative ideology and a sometimes sexist viewpoint. I have already written her a fan letter. The reactions to this story which has been reported in a number of outlets, reveal some of the fault lines of the culture wars in our society. Many simply cannot see what the professor is talking about. To them, the fact that a political science professor would waste her time criticizing harmless children's stories merely demonstrates the decadence of liberal academia. Others of a culturally conservative bent might concede her point but still argue that the values taught by such stories are exactly the ones we should want to teach our children. And then there are a few people like me who always found Thomas the Tank Engine absolutely appalling.

Of course, nowadays with liberals in power, and conservatives forced to march in the street to try to get their message across, perhaps conservatives might be less supportive of conformist messages, and more encouraging of those who want to raise hell with the establishment. Perhaps we should all try to agree that it might be a good idea to teach our children to question authority at least once in a while, and not necessarily always strive to be obedient little engines.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

War and Peace

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Obama was compelled to reconcile that award with his pursuit of a military solution in Afghanistan:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions - not just treaties and declarations - that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Paradoxical? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe. Did he have a choice? It seems to me he either had to turn down the prize or try to explain the paradox. The prize still seems justifiable to me because of the change in direction of this country that the Obama campaign brought about, and because of President Obama's efforts against nuclear proliferation and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. The fact that we are conducting a military campaign to keep other military organizations (the Taliban and Al Qaeda) out of power should not disqualify the President from receiving the prize. These are illegitimate actors who do not respond to diplomatic efforts, and who have rejected the option of participating in the political process. Sometimes you do have to make war to keep the peace, and you do not have to be a pacifist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Misunderstanding Science

As described in this post on Desmogblog, someone who actually took the trouble to read the entire set of e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia, assures us that there is nothing in these messages to cast any doubt on the fundamental science supporting the theory that human activities are causing an increase in carbon dioxide levels, which contributes to global warming. This reader also saw ample evidence that the authors of these messages are generally conscientious, careful and dedicated researchers. Have any of the journalists who have reported on this story read all of the stolen e-mails? If not, it seems doubtful that they are providing the needed context.

The thing that everyone who went to high school should understand about science is that scientific claims can only be proved or disproved by scientific experiments.  If someone's experiment is invalid, it will be debunked when others are unable to duplicate the results, or when new data support a different result.  In other words, you can't really fake the data or the results, because if you try to do that, your results will be disproven eventually.  So if the East Anglia e-mail messages have raised any questions about the work done by any climate scientists, that still would need to be demonstrated by showing that some of their experiments are invalid, or by doing a new experiment that disproves some result.

None of that seems to matter, of course, to the climate change skeptics, supported by the fossil fuel industry, who are only too happy to pounce on a few statements in the leaked e-mails suggesting that they can't explain all of the data they were seeing, or that they wanted to present their data in a way that is favorable to the global warming theory. None of these skeptics bothers to explain how such statements could possibly impugn the work of thousands of dedicated scientists who have studied this issue, and whose published research is there for all to see, and to challenge by scientific methods. I suppose the idea is that if a few of these scientists made some over-zealous or careless remarks, that is supposed to cast doubt on all of the research ever done by every climate scientist who supports the theory of global warming.  But if we are going to throw out all of this science because we question the statements or methods of a few of their number, then we ought to treat the "science" of the climate change deniers exactly the same way. If we can find a few climate change deniers who have left out some data they can't explain, or who have distorted the work of other scientists, or whose efforts are funded by energy companies, then wouldn't we have to throw out the entire "science" of the climate change deniers as well?


I guess we would then just have to throw out science altogether, and put the issue of climate change up for popular vote.  As for the polar bears, they will just have to learn to tread water.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Peace in Afghanistan

Politically speaking, it is not a viable position simply to suggest that we pull US and NATO forces out of Afghanistan, because that implies that we don't care whether the Taliban returns to power and makes Afghanistan into a haven for Al Qaeda once again. Anyone who wants to talk about Afghanistan in a way that might be listened to has the obligation to show that a different strategy has at least as good a chance of fulfilling the objective of keeping the Taliban out of power as our current strategy. One organization that seems to be addressing this issue in those terms is CommonDreams.org, which suggests six alternatives to a troop build-up: (1) protecting civilians, (2) upholding women's rights, (3) prioritizing development, (4) addressing underlying problems (unemployment), (5) supporting civil society, and (6) advancing diplomacy.

These are constructive suggestions. It seems to me, however, that they are not necessarily inconsistent with increasing military forces. In other words, NATO and the US can increase troop levels and use those forces to drive insurgents from populated areas, and at the same time use the military and other personnel in Afghanistan to protect human rights, assist in re-development, and promote civil society and the rule of law. I understand that there is an argument that an increased presence of foreign troops may sometimes be counter-productive to peacemaking efforts, and the military needs to be conscious that their presence is often resented. And to the extent that is true, it is all the more reason why attention should also be paid to re-building and creating a stable economic and political society in Afghanistan, at the same time as the military is working with the Afghan army to improve security.

(Photo from a story about the use of units of female soldiers to interact with women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, from LA Times blog)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Tiger Woods Revelations!!!

Right now the U.S. Senate is debating perhaps the most important piece of legislation in a generation, a health care reform bill that will affect almost every American.  Of course one would assume that people would be following this news very closely, and would want to participate in an informed and intelligent debate on the issues.  One would expect that the media would be devoting a lot of time to a careful explanation of the nuances of various proposed amendments to the bill, so that people can inform their Senators of their preferences.

At the same time the President has announced a major change in Afghanistan strategy, one that may very well affect the security of the United States, and that will cost us billions of dollars.  One would expect that people would want to take a serious look at the options for solving this difficult problem, and debate them in a rational manner so that we can arrive at a result that is in the nation's best interest.

Instead, however, we find that when the media covers these issues at all, they spend most of their time talking about the cheap shots that politicians and interest groups take at each other, and the procedural maneuvering either in support of or in opposition to the administration's agenda. When people talk about the substance of these issues at all, they generally don't seem to feel the need to address the concerns of those opposing their positions, but instead keep repeating their own talking points.  For example, you would think that anyone opposing escalation in Afghanistan would have the burden of proposing an alternative strategy that would have just as good a chance of keeping the Taliban out of power.  Instead, these opponents seem to think that the president could have seriously proposed telling the world that we don't care if the Taliban takes over again.  On health care, one would think that those opposing the reform legislation would have the burden of proposing an alternative that would solve the problems that everyone recognizes exist in our health care system, e.g., the gross disparities in charges for the insured vs. the uninsured, the problems of obtaining coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, the administrative inefficiencies and other high costs of our systems, etc.  But people seem to feel qualified to express an opinion without explaining how they would solve these problems at all. In general, people don't seem to feel that they need to know what they are talking about before they begin talking.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are unable to carry on an intelligent conversation about these weighty issues is that we are preoccupied with gossip and trivia.  Are we more interested in an inconsequential marital spat involving a famous golfer because the media have flooded us with salacious stories about it, or are the media just pandering to our unhealthy preoccupation with that kind of material? And did anyone who read down this far actually think I was going to talk about that? (If you did, you may have that same feeling you get after sitting through an entire news broadcast to wait for the juicy story they have been building up with a bunch of teaser promos, only to find out that the story is a great big nothing.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No Easy Answers in Afghanistan

It's easy to second guess. It's easy to criticize. But maybe it's better just to listen and think about the best way to solve a difficult problem.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

90+ Accomplishments of the Obama Administration so far

Here is a list compiled by Robert Watson of Lynn University of a few of the Obama administration's accomplishments so far:

1. Ordered all federal agencies to undertake a study and make recommendations for ways to cut spending

2. Ordered a review of all federal operations to identify and cut wasteful spending and practices

3. Instituted enforcement for equal pay for women

4. Beginning the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq

5. Families of fallen soldiers have expenses covered to be on hand when the body arrives at Dover AFB

6. Ended media blackout on war casualties; reporting full information

7. Ended media blackout on covering the return of fallen soldiers to Dover AFB; the media is now permitted to do so pending adherence to respectful rules and approval of fallen soldier's family

8. The White House and federal government are respecting the Freedom of Information Act

9. Instructed all federal agencies to promote openness and transparency as much as possible

10. Limits on lobbyist's access to the White House

11. Limits on White House aides working for lobbyists after their tenure in the administration

12. Ended the previous stop-loss policy that kept soldiers in Iraq/Afghanistan longer than their enlistment date

13. Phasing out the expensive F-22 war plane and other outdated weapons systems, which weren't even used or needed in Iraq/Afghanistan

14. Removed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research

15. Federal support for stem-cell and new biomedical research

16. New federal funding for science and research labs

17. States are permitted to enact federal fuel efficiency standards above federal standards

18. Increased infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, power plants) after years of neglect

19. Funds for high-speed, broadband Internet access to K-12 schools

20. New funds for school construction

21. The prison at Guantanamo Bay is being phased out

22. US Auto industry rescue plan

23. Housing rescue plan

24. $789 billion economic stimulus plan

25. The public can meet with federal housing insurers to refinance (the new plan can be completed in one day) a mortgage if they are having trouble paying

26. US financial and banking rescue plan

27. The secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are being closed

28. Ended the previous policy; the US now has a no torture policy and is in compliance with the Geneva Convention standards

29. Better body armor is now being provided to our troops

30. The missile defense program is being cut by $1.4 billion in 2010

31. Restarted the nuclear nonproliferation talks and building back up the nuclear inspection infrastructure/protocols

32. Reengaged in the treaties/agreements to protect the Antarctic

33. Reengaged in the agreements/talks on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions

34. Visited more countries and met with more world leaders than any president in his first six months in office

35. Successful release of US captain held by Somali pirates; authorized the SEALS to do their job

36. US Navy increasing patrols off Somali coast

37. Attractive tax write-offs for those who buy hybrid automobiles

38. Cash for clunkers program offers vouchers to trade in fuel inefficient, polluting old cars for new cars; stimulated auto sales

39. Announced plans to purchase fuel efficient American-made fleet for the federal government

40. Expanded the SCHIP program to cover health care for 4 million more children

41. Signed national service legislation; expanded national youth service program

42. Instituted a new policy on Cuba, allowing Cuban families to return home to visit loved ones

43. Ended the previous policy of not regulating and labeling carbon dioxide emissions

44. Expanding vaccination programs

45. Immediate and efficient response to the floods in North Dakota and other natural disasters

46. Closed offshore tax safe havens

47. Negotiated deal with Swiss banks to permit US government to gain access to records of tax evaders and criminals

48. Ended the previous policy of offering tax benefits to corporations who outsource American jobs; the new policy is to promote in-sourcing to bring jobs back

49. Ended the previous practice of protecting credit card companies; in place of it are new consumer protections from credit card industry's predatory practices

50. Energy producing plants must begin preparing to produce 15% of their energy from renewable sources

51. Lower drug costs for seniors

52. Ended the previous practice of forbidding Medicare from negotiating with drug manufacturers for cheaper drugs; the federal government is now realizing hundreds of millions in savings

53. Increasing pay and benefits for military personnel

54. Improved housing for military personnel

55. Initiating a new policy to promote federal hiring of military spouses

56. Improved conditions at Walter Reed Military Hospital and other military hospitals

57. Increasing student loans

58. Increasing opportunities in AmeriCorps program

59. Sent envoys to Middle East and other parts of the world that had been neglected for years; reengaging in multilateral and bilateral talks and diplomacy

60. Established a new cyber security office

61. Beginning the process of reforming and restructuring the military 20 years after the Cold War to a more modern fighting force; this includes new procurement policies, increasing size of military, new technology and cyber units and operations, etc.

62. Ended previous policy of awarding no-bid defense contracts

63. Ordered a review of hurricane and natural disaster preparedness

64. Established a National Performance Officer charged with saving the federal government money and making federal operations more efficient

65. Students struggling to make college loan payments can have their loans refinanced

66. Improving benefits for veterans

67. Many more press conferences and town halls and much more media access than previous administration

68. Instituted a new focus on mortgage fraud

69. The FDA is now regulating tobacco

70. Ended previous policy of cutting the FDA and circumventing FDA rules

71. Ended previous practice of having White House aides rewrite scientific and environmental rules, regulations, and reports

72. Authorized discussions with North Korea and private mission by Pres. Bill Clinton to secure the release of two Americans held in prisons

73. Authorized discussions with Myanmar and mission by Sen. Jim Web to secure the release of an American held captive

74. Making more loans available to small businesses

75. Established independent commission to make recommendations on slowing the costs of Medicare

76. Appointment of first Latina to the Supreme Court

77. Authorized construction/opening of additional health centers to care for veterans

78. Limited salaries of senior White House aides; cut to $100,000

79. Renewed loan guarantees for Israel

80. Changed the failing/status quo military command in Afghanistan

81. Deployed additional troops to Afghanistan

82. New Afghan War policy that limits aerial bombing and prioritizes aid, development of infrastructure, diplomacy, and good government practices by Afghans

83. Announced the long-term development of a national energy grid with renewable sources and cleaner, efficient energy production

84. Returned money authorized for refurbishment of White House offices and private living quarters

85. Paid for redecoration of White House living quarters out of his own pocket

86. Held first Seder in White House

87. Attempting to reform the nation's healthcare system which is the most expensive in the world yet leaves almost 50 million without health insurance and millions more under insured

88. Has put the ball in play for comprehensive immigration reform

89. Has announced his intention to push for energy reform

90. Has announced his intention to push for education reform

Oh, and he built a swing set for the girls outside the Oval Office!

And this list does not even mention that the Obama administration has put the US financial system, which was still near collapse when Obama took office, on much firmer footing. That the administration put GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy in record time. That the housing market has started to rebound. That the stock market is up about 50% from its low point about a month after Obama took office. That the US is now once again the most admired country in the world. That the President has reached out in a major way to the Muslim world through his speech in Cairo and other efforts. That he achieved a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council for nuclear non-proliferation. And that the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Do We Need to Complain EVERY day?

As reported in the LA Times this morning, Representative Emanuel Cleaver's modest and seemingly innocuous proposal to declare a national "complaint-free" day the day before Thanksgiving has been greeted by a small storm of protest and ridicule.  Evidently, people are outraged by the suggestion that they should be encouraged to stop whining for even one day a year.  Of course, the negative reaction to this harmless idea merely proves Representative Cleaver's point that there is too much polarization and pointless arguing in our society.  But I'm pretty sure this irony is lost on those who have attacked his suggestion. 

Of course, some of the negative reaction must be chalked up to partisan politics.  Because it was a Democratic Congressman who made this suggestion to give whining a rest for a day, Republicans are probably suspicious of his motives.  In addition, given that they are the opposition, they may believe they are threatened by the idea of encouraging too much good feeling.  Had a Republican Congressman introduced the same resolution during the Bush administration, I have no doubt that many liberals would have denounced it for the same reasons. 

But let's ask ourselves the larger questions.  Why is it so important for us to preserve our right to attack and complain, every single day?  Why is the idea of giving complaining a brief rest so threatening?  Why do we need instinctively to greet every proposal with criticism, rather than to welcome new ideas and discuss them in an open way?  If we really believe in our own principles and ideas, we should not feel so threatened by the ideas of others, that we need to attack them reflexively. At a mediation seminar I attended a couple of years ago, the instructor suggested the technique of responding to every proposal made by the other side with the comment, "That's an option."  Even, or perhaps especially, if the idea is anathema to the other side, the first response by the mediator should still be "That's an option."  That way all proposals can at least be put on the table for debate without undue rancor, permitting an open discussion of the merits and problems with each proposal.  This technique actually works, and can be put in practice for even the most trivial of disputes.  Let's say our family is trying to decide where to go out to dinner.  If one member suggests Chinese food and is immediately greeted with attacks:  "We just had Chinese food last week," "I'm tired of Chinese food," etc., etc., the response to all subsequent suggestions becomes predictably negative.  The one who shot down the Chinese food idea might suggest going out for pizza instead, and will be immediately met with cries of  "I don't feel like pizza;" "you chose the restaurant last time," etc., etc.  If instead each suggestion is greeted with the response, "that's an option," then we can at least get all the ideas on the table in a constructive and non-threatening way before the debate starts.

Could our politicians learn to do this?  Numerous examples exist of good ideas that have died in Congress because of partisan bickering.  When President Nixon proposed a fairly liberal welfare plan, it was shot down by suspicious Democrats looking to score political points.  President Clinton's fairly moderate health care plan was attacked viciously and made almost no progress in Congress.  President Bush proposed immigration reform and Social Security reform.  Although almost everyone agrees that we need both immigration reform and Social Security reform, all of Bush's proposals were greeted by storms of protest from left and right and needed reform was postponed.  Similarly, President Obama is being attacked from all sides for his health care proposals, his economic reform proposals, and his foreign policy proposals.  As a candidate, Obama ran on the idea of reducing this kind of partisan rancor.  His nature is to bring all interested parties together and try to work out a consensus on every issue.  Unfortunately, our nature instead seems to be to attack and criticize every suggestion, instead of welcoming new ideas as contributions to a valuable debate.

If we cannot even be open to the idea of putting aside the complaining for even one day, it will be difficult to tone down this debate. 

(T-shirt design from nonoodling)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why We Need to Support the President

As a follow-up to my post below, here is a scary video about the rise of Christian fundamentalist threats to the President veiled in the prophetic language of the Bible.



I agree with Frank Schaffer that the proper response to the sizable proportion of the population that seems to view the President as the Anti-Christ, is to make clear that the majority of the population rejects this view, supports the President, and wishes him well. People who are criticizing the Obama administration from the left also need to think carefully about how they frame these criticisms.  Everyone must be free to express their policy differences, but ad hominem attacks from the left or the right all have the potential of feeding hate. The hate is the thing that we need to defuse. I would echo Mr. Schaffer's call for moderate Christian church leaders to reject calls to violence, and to offer prayers for the President's well-being and safety. I would also like to see even the people who disagree with everything the Obama administration proposes on a policy level make clear that do not wish the President ill on a personal level.

If we do not stand up and make clear that we reject violence and that we support democracy and the rule of law above all else, then we would be betraying this country's most basic principles. We would be encouraging different factions to resort to violence to achieve their divergent aims.  That type of thinking must be confined to a fringe element. It cannot be allowed into the mainstream.  We need to call it what it is, which is treason.

Eschatology

In an interview with Barbara Walters yesterday, Sarah Palin was asked whether she agreed with the Obama administration's position that Israel should curtail Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Her response:

I disagree with the Obama administration on that. I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

I have seen comment about how this position flies in the face of international treaties, as well as the political problems that Palin's position would cause. But what about this idea that "more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead . . . ." What is she talking about? Here is a clue, showing Max Blumenthal's intrepid reporting, which exposes Christian evangelical support for Israel as being motivated by a belief in End Times theology, a subject that even the organizers of such groups as Christians United for Israel do not want known:


Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour from huffpost on Vimeo.

Sarah Palin's church has been actively associated with some of the most radical movements in Christian theology, those believing that the end of days is near, and that the resurgence of the State of Israel represents the fulfillment of prophecy and the imminent battle of Armageddon. It was interesting during last year's campaign that there was so much talk about Obama's Reverend Wright, and relatively little about Sarah Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God, in which she was an active member for many years. When Sarah Palin starts talking about Jews "flocking" to Israel, she may be letting slip that she really believes all this stuff about the imminent end of the world, and that is why she so wishes to encourage the provocative building of Jewish settlements in the ancient land of Israel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New York is not afraid of terrorists.

Here is part of Congressman Jerry Nadler's statement on the Justice Department's decision finally to try some of the alleged 9/11 plotters in New York courts:
New York is not afraid of terrorists, we want to confront them, we want to bring them to justice, and we want to hold them accountable for their despicable actions.
For too long we have treated the Guantanamo detainees as though they are so dangerous they cannot be allowed on the US mainland.  As may be recalled, this was originally done only because the Bush Justice Department mistakenly believed that they would have fewer rights if they were not imprisoned on US soil.  Meanwhile many of the Guantanamo prisoners were quietly released by the Bush adminstration because they were found to pose no substantial threat.  And we may have difficulty trying many who remain because they were tortured by the prior administration.  But the lengthy imprisonment of these detainees has given rise to a common view that the remaining detainees as so dangerous that they must be kept out of the United States forever. 

We are already starting to hear the voices of fear and distrust, questioning the Obama administration's decision to treat these characters as ordinary criminals.  They would rather have the American people believe that these detainees are super-powerful evil masterminds capable of causing mass destruction as soon as they set foot on US soil.  These critics seem to need an all-powerful enemy to justify a continued war-like and vigilant state.  They take offense at the suggestion that suicide bombers are weak, pathetic cowards.  The best way to counter this kind of fear-mongering is for people to understand that even if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his associates are found to have plotted the worst villainy ever committed against America, they are still merely ordinary human beings who can be held in ordinary prisons and tried in ordinary courts.  It is time to diminish them, not to increase their stature.  They should be taken where they belong, to the federal courts of  New York City.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Too much information?

Disclosures that Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood killings, may have had contact with a militant cleric in Yemen, and that he had posted inflammatory material on the Internet, have led many to wonder whether more could have been done to prevent such an incident.  (see LA Times story)  Once again, as with, for example, the Virginia Tech shooter, the problem seems to be that the appropriate authorities actually had information in their possession that could have been used to intervene, but did not feel they had enough information, or did not feel intervention was warranted.  Think also of the huge amount of information the CIA had about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the Kennedy assassination, or the clues we had about the 9/11 hijackers who were enrolled in flight training classes here in the United States.

I do not want to jump to conclusions about this investigation, since we still have a lot to learn.  I also do not like to engage in too much second-guessing in these situations, since for every Fort Hood shooter, there must be thousands of innocent people buying guns, or writing inflammatory posts on the web; and 99% of these people do not pose a threat to anyone.  I do wonder sometimes, though, whether we do enough to engage with all the people with whom we are in contact, and to make them feel engaged, so that some of these kinds of incidents might not occur as often.  I also wonder if we are wasting our time collecting so much information about every possible threat in the world, when we don't seem to have the sense or ability to use that information very well.  There was an article in the New York Review this month about the yottabytes (that's 10 to the 24th power, the biggest number that has a name) of data that the NSA is collecting and storing in gigantic archives that cost billions of dollars and must be built in remote locations otherwise they would exceed the capacity of the power plants that more populated areas rely upon for their electricity.  We keep collecting more and more information, but we have a poor track record in making intelligent decisions about how to use it.  What we need to figure out is how to make smarter decisions about how to use the information that is already right in front of our faces.

(Photo of NSA headquarters from NSA website.  Click on the photo and you'll be downloading a lot of bytes of useless photo information yourself.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall

There was an interesting op-ed piece by James Mann in the LA Times on Friday arguing that President Reagan's behind-the-scenes courting of President Gorbachev was much more important in causing the Berlin Wall to fall, than was Reagan's famous speech in June of 1987, in which Reagan called out, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Prior to that speech, Reagan had already shifted his emphasis from his "evil empire" rhetoric toward building a constructive relationship with a by-now trusted reformer in the Soviet Union.  And it was Gorbachev's parallel trust in building a different relationship with the United States, Mann argues, that led Gorbachev to decide not to intervene when the East German authorities asked what they should do about the crowds of people streaming across the wall twenty years ago. 

The purpose of the speech, according to Mann, was not so much to intimidate the Soviet Union or the East German government, as it was to satisfy Reagan's supporters in the United States.  And even now, conservatives love to talk about how Reagan's arms build-up and tough talk against the evil empire caused the United States to win the Cold War, but they downplay the quiet diplomacy that was going on behind the scenes.  They sometimes forget that President Reagan often took such a pro-Gorbachev line while he was president that he alarmed hard-liners both inside and outside his administration at the time.  In fact, talking tough while making quiet compromises behind the scenes was entirely characteristic of Reagan, who also made pragmatic compromises on domestic policy, while engaging in tough anti-government rhetoric to placate his supporters.

President Obama has talked about President Reagan's effectiveness in making change.  Obama also displays an ability to use soaring rhetoric to try to keep his supporters happy, while making the compromises necessary to govern.  Getting health care reform through the Congress requires just that kind of balancing act.  Similarly, in dealing with a continuing economic crisis, President Obama needs to placate Americans' anger at Wall Street bailouts, while at the same time reassuring Wall Street that this country's financial system will remain profitable, so that the economy will grow its way out of this recession. The job requires the same kind of finesse that Reagan displayed twenty years ago. 

(photo from Europske Mesto)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

By the People

I was a little disappointed with the documentary "By the People" which premiered on HBO last night. Although the film did manage to capture some of the behind the scenes flavor of the Obama campaign, it did not show much going on behind the scenes that those of us who followed the campaign closely were not already aware of. Anyone who listened to David Plouffe's numerous videos last year already got an inside view of the campaign's strategies while the campaign was going on. There really wasn't much that was hidden from public view. Another problem with the film, and this is not the filmmakers' fault, was that as characters in a drama, David Plouffe and David Axelrod come across as so low key that they almost drain away the campaign's inherent excitement every time they appear on screen. These are brilliant guys, of course, but they don't exactly light up the room when they walk in. The documentary "The War Room," about the 1992 Clinton campaign, did a better job keeping the excitement going, mainly because the characters of James Carville and George Stephanopolous are a lot more dynamic to watch. Barack Obama, as a behind the scenes character, also comes across as somewhat cool and aloof, and of course more tired than he appears in public. The biggest revelation came from the speech just before election day in which he announced his grandmother's death, where we can now see that a big tear was streaming down his cheek. But in general the candidate's calm manner makes it harder to understand what it was about his campaign that inspired so many people. To do that, the film probably would have needed to include longer excerpts from Obama's speeches, and would also have had to convey a better sense of how refreshing and new his message of hope and inclusiveness sounded, and how strongly it contrasted with the more old-fashioned styles of the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

The main value of the film was its focus on some of the middle-level campaign workers. These are of course the unsung heroes of the campaign, and their commitment and passion shone through. They are the living proof of the Obama campaign's power.

(photo from US News)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fox makes it up as they go along.

From TPM, a fairly hilarious compilation proving that sometimes the news is just wishful thinking on the reporters' part:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Radicalizing the GOP

The surprising news this weekend that moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava not only dropped out of the Congressional race in upstate New York but endorsed her Democratic rival Bill Owens instead of her conservative challenger Douglas Hoffman, is but the latest manifestation of the Republican Party's radicalization.   As I noted in an earlier post, these days the Republican Party seems more interested in maintaining ideological purity on core issues dear to the hearts of its base supporters, than in expanding its reach to moderate voters.  Some Democratic strategists such as David Plouffe seem sanguine about this phenomenon, as it may further marginalize the Republican Party, and help elect more Democrats, but I'm not sure it is healthy for the Republican Party, or for our democracy in general, for Republicans to continue to serve such a narrow constituency.

I just finished reading Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal, a truly scary look at the backgrounds and interconnections of the right wing evangelicals who now make up the core of the Republican Party's supporters.  Blumenthal makes these people sound like members of a sado-masochistic cult, rooted in violence against children, obsessed with pornography, vigilant against their own repressed homosexuality, and believing in imminent Armegeddon.  The hysteria we see being launched against the Democrats' agenda can be explained in part by these fearful beliefs.  Republican Party leaders seem hesitant to renounce the base's most fevered rantings (for example, the widespread belief among the Republican base that Barack Obama is not qualified to be president).  Anyone who does not follow the right wing or evangelical party line on abortion, gay rights, or anti-government ideology risks becoming the next Dede Scozzafava, targeted by zealots within her own party. 

For the two party system to work, the Democrats need a healthy and a reasonable Republican Party that can contribute to the debate.   I'm not saying that the entire Republican Party should be composed of Arlen Specters and Olympia Snowes.  What I am saying is that it would probably be better for both the Democrats and the Republicans if the Republican Party were more accepting of its Olympia Snowes and Dede Scozzafavas, instead of viewing them as traitors.  The more that such voices are shut out of the Republican Party, the more the Party is taken over by a core cadre of fear-mongers and hate-mongers.  The danger is that Democrats will never take such an opposition seriously, and the opposition, being shut out of the debate, will only become more extreme and more violent.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fair and balanced

In the interest of fairness, since I posted a clip a couple of weeks ago in which Jon Stewart took apart CNN, here is Jon Stewart viciously dissecting Fox News. He also gets in a little dig at MSNBC (and Valerie Jarrett) at the end, which might make conservative readers of my blog feel a little better. Enjoy:

For Fox Sake!
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leadership

The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim are reporting that President Obama is now actively opposing the idea of a public option with an "opt-out" provision, favoring instead the idea of a public option with a "trigger," because the latter would more likely attract the support of at least one Republican in the Senate, as well as provide political cover for more conservative Democrats. Because the story relies on anonymous sources, it is hard to assess its accuracy. Perhaps it reflects the fears of some administration insiders; perhaps it reflects actual administration strategy. Who can say for sure at this point?

More than this kind of rumor-mongering, however, what I object to is the tone of Stein and Grim's piece, which follows the Huffington Post's sometimes alarmist portrayal of the Obama administration. The idea that the White House is "leaderless" because its position may at the moment appear more centrist than the evolving position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is said to favor a stronger version of the public option, seems to reflect more dismay that the President may not be advocating the version of the bill that the Huffington Post writers support, rather than a fair assessment of whether the President is acting as a leader.

More charitable interpretations should be considered. If the White House has arrived at a different calculation of the possibility of passing a health insurance bill with a strong public option in it than has the Senate leadership, that does not make the White House leaderless. That could merely mean that different people are counting the votes differently. Or it could mean, as suggested in the article itself, that the White House is concerned about protecting the seats of certain Democratic Senators in future elections That strikes me as a legitimate concern. Harry Reid right now only has to worry about passing this bill, and getting himself re-elected. The White House has a longer time horizon than the passage of this particular bill, important as it is. Preservation of a working majority in Congress is certainly important to future administration initiatives. Even if the White House were favoring a slightly more conservative version of health care reform for substantive as opposed to merely political reasons, that still would not make it "leaderless." The president is supposed to consider a much broader constituency than any individual Senator or Congressman, namely the entire country. So if the President positions himself to the right of Harry Reid on this particular issue at this particular time, that might be not only politically smart, it might also serve his broader constituency as well as Harry Reid is serving his.

Stein and Grim's statement that the President's current position "runs counter to the letter and the spirit of Obama's presidential campaign" is just flat-out false. During the campaign, the debate was about individual mandates and about health insurance affordability. The idea of a public option was barely mentioned. People should remember that the public option, which I happen to think is a good idea for a lot of reasons, and which the President has repeatedly supported, was never intended to be the centerpiece of health insurance reform, and only makes sense in the context of other necessary reforms: cost controls, subsidies, and regulation to attain near-universal coverage, to take just a few examples. So while supporters of the public option should be cheered that the debate has moved as far as it has toward the embrace of that position, they should not view the public option as a litmus test. Many other important pieces of the puzzle need to be put into place. There are also a few more steps in the legislative process to go before a final bill is enacted.

So as usual, my pitch to critics on the left is to give the President a break, and stop being so quick to cry betrayal. I believe his team is already looking ahead to the end game and beyond, while critics may be unduly worried about an interim step in a long process.

Sunday night update: According to the White House, the rumors reported in the Huffington Post article and elsewhere are "absolutely false." (White House blog) So the White House at least officially says that they and the Senate leadership are all on the same page.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dick Cheney should shut up.

It has been my goal in writing this blog to try to keep the tone always civil, respectful and positive. Feeling that there are already plenty of critics out there, I decided back when I set up this site just before last year's election, to offer only support for the new administration. I also try to echo President Obama's post-partisan, inclusive tone. Sometimes, however, a bit of rudeness may be called for. At least that is my reaction to the comments of former vice-president Cheney as reported in this morning's paper. Where does Dick Cheney get off complaining that President Obama is "dithering" in Afghanistan, and insinuating that he is putting troops in danger by undertaking a careful study of our aims and strategy in that country? There are so many ways in which this statement is inappropriate I don't have time to list them all.

First, wasn't it the Bush administration, while supporting the initial invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taliban in a very expeditious manner, that then became distracted by Iraq, and dithered itself in Afghanistan for more than six years? Isn't it the Obama administration that has already committed substantially more resources to Afghanistan than did Bush and Cheney? So who was dithering? Who was putting an inadequate number of troops in harm's way? Who was not trying to "win"? Who took their eyes off the ball, allowing Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts to escape to the mountains, probably in Pakistan, while they launched a poorly-planned invasion of Iraq?

Second, let's remember Dick Cheney's response when critics of the Bush administration's war policies questioned his strategy. He either told people outright to shut up because they did not have access to the information he had, or he questioned their patriotism or resolve. So perhaps Dick Cheney ought to take his own advice and allow the new administration to have a chance to implement a new strategy.

Third, what is wrong with taking the time to get this problem right? Not only are there domestic political considerations that must be taken into account in deciding whether to risk substantial American resources and lives in a protracted struggle in Afghanistan, there are also real military and political considerations in Afghanistan itself that must also be addressed. For one thing, we want to make sure we are supporting a legitimate government in Afghanistan, not one that appears to have rigged an election and engaged in other forms of corruption. We have seen what happens when an outside power tries to prop up a government that lacks popular support. Such efforts are doomed to failure regardless of the resources committed. We have also seen what happens, as Bush and Cheney so beautifully demonstrated in the poorly-implemented occupation of Iraq, when we try to meddle in the affairs of another country in too heavy-handed a manner. We end up fomenting an insurgency, instead of creating a stable government, and creating more problems for ourselves than the ones we tried to solve.

Fourth, it is downright unpatriotic and subversive to suggest that undertaking a careful study of our objectives in Afghanistan could be dangerous to the troops. What purpose can someone have in making such reckless comments other than to encourage those who lose relatives or friends to this struggle to blame the new administration's policies for such deaths? Dick Cheney should know better than that. He knows that the foremost objective of our military has for years been what they call force protection. Whether we have 1000 or 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, Dick Cheney knows that our commanders' first goal is to try to keep casualties to a minimum. Dick Cheney also knows that increasing the commitment of troops is not likely to reduce the number of casualties.

I am not one of those who advocates simply pulling the troops out of Afghanistan. I think it could be disastrous if the Taliban were to return to power, and I think we are right to try to prevent that from happening. But I also think the Obama administration is absolutely right to take the time necessary to re-assess our strategy carefully, and make sure we are not engaging in an unproductive mission. For critics like Dick Cheney to argue that what we need to do is to commit blindly to massive increases in war-fighting capability in Afghanistan without taking the time to explore alternatives, and find out whether such an effort would be feasible or effective, just reveals his own failure to learn from his own mistakes, as well as his own insecurities about being questioned about those mistakes. Dick Cheney kept himself insulated from most questioning during the years he exercised a great deal of power running the government. He has no business trying to create the kind of dissension and trouble for the new administration that he would never have tolerated when he was in power.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hope in Sudan

Yesterday, the State Department announced a new U.S. strategy toward Sudan, the culmination of months of review. The idea seems to be something of a carrot and stick approach, perhaps less punitive than might have been suggested during the presidential campaign, but still containing elements of coercion and rewards. The idea of some form of engagement with the government in Sudan actually sounds more in line with President Obama's general foreign policy approach of willingness to talk to unfriendly regimes, than does the idea of escalating sanctions.

The participants in this policy review seem to have discarded as unworkable the alternative of more draconian sanctions without engagement. As long as China and other countries support the government in Sudan, sanctions seem to be relatively ineffective. Instead, the prospect of rewarding the government of Sudan for cooperating with the peace process may hold greater promise toward attaining the goal, as Secretary of State Clinton stated, of either "a united and peaceful Sudan after 2011, or an orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other." The 2011 referendum process no doubt needs to be supervised closely. Creating and maintaining peace in Darfur will also obviously require continued vigilance by the world community. The administration's announcement yesterday may offer some hope that the United States is paying attention and will play a constructive part in achieving these goals.



I feel as though I've been living in Sudan recently, as I just finished reading Dave Eggers's book What is the What, an amazing and heartbreaking story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, as told by one of the survivors, Valentino Achak Deng. So it comes as a relief, and a surprising coincidence, to read the news that the State Department has also been busy studying the problems of Sudan, and has announced new efforts to improve the situation there. We probably needed to have a healthy debate in the State Department about the best strategy for the region, but it may be more important simply to decide to pay more attention to the problems of this troubled country. When the world shines a spotlight on the parties involved in ongoing conflict, genocide and other human rights abuses are probably less likely to take place.