Thursday, December 31, 2009

But What Do You Really Think Of Cheney?

Steve Benen quotes James Fallows as he eviscerates Dick Cheney, contrasting how the Democrats reacted after the failed shoe bomber to the latest binge and purge from the former Veep.
Democrats, at the time, didn't launch an assault against the Bush administration, and we didn't see Al Gore condemning the White House. It simply didn't occur to Democrats in 2001 to use the attempted mass murder of hundreds of Americans to undermine the presidency.
Eight years later, Dick Cheney believes his principal responsibility is to destroy President Obama -- the man Americans chose to clean up the messes Cheney left as a parting gift after eight years of abject failure.

This recent piece from James Fallows continues to ring true: "The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of a case of a former President or Vice President behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power.... Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest."

Dick Cheney is a coward and a disgrace.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Modern Conservatism

Kevin Drum summarizes the basic arguments of conservatives over the past several weeks.
Conservative response to a guy setting his underwear on fire on an airplane: It's Obama's fault! We should declare war on Yemen! We should stop allowing Muslims on our airplanes! We need to connect the dots! We're all going to die!

Conservative response to providing healthcare to 30 million Americans: It's socialism! It's going to bankrupt America! It's Chicago thug politics! It's going to kill grandma! It's going to turn our healthcare system into an abattoir!

Conservative response to regulating the financial industry that almost destroyed America's banking system: It's Marxism! It's going to cause hyperinflation! It's Uncle Sam's jackboot on the commerce of the country! It's the end of innovation! Buy gold!
Conservative response to catastrophic climate change: It's a hoax from the liberal media. Pay no attention to it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Air Attack Reactions

Heather Hurlburt on Democracy Arsenal posts a couple of wonderful quotes picked up from the Detroit Free Press coverage of the failed Christmas airline bombing.
But you might want to check out the Detroit Free Press/News' coverage -- on Christmas Day, by a newspaper that's so hard up it only delivers three days a week -- for these gems:
the child of a passenger who said hearing about how other passengers foiled the attacker made him "proud to be an American." Typically for Detroit, he was a Muslim whose dad was returning from visiting family in the Middle East.
Within hours of the attack, a metro Detroit Muslim leader had taken time out of his day -- a joint Muslim-Jewish Christmas Day service project in needy parts of the city -- to make a statement:
 We want to do everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen," said Victor Begg, of Bloomfield Hills, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan. "We want to be on the front lines to help law enforcement."

Begg added that the Muslim community should partner with law enforcement "to stop these maniacs -- who in the name of religion -- pursue these political goals."

Begg said that he and family members have taken Northwest flights from Amsterdam to Detroit.  "We could have been on that flight," Begg said. "These guys kill indiscriminately."
I think this is a great statement.  I wish it neither seemed necessary for him to take time on a national holiday to make it, nor useful for me to take time on a national holiday to blog about it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Obama's First Year

Sully reviews Obama's first year in office and likes what he sees.
The substantive record is clear enough. Torture is ended, if Gitmo remains enormously difficult to close and rendition extremely hard to police. The unitary executive, claiming vast, dictatorial powers over American citizens, has been unwound. The legal inquiries that may well convict former Bush officials for war crimes are underway, and the trial of KSM will reveal the lawless sadism of the Cheney regime that did so much to sabotage our war on Jihadism. Military force against al Qaeda in Pakistan has been ratcheted up considerably, even at a civilian cost that remains morally troubling. The US has given notice that it intends to leave Afghanistan with a bang - a big surge, a shift in tactics, and a heavy batch of new troops. Iraq remains dodgy in the extreme, but at least March elections have been finally nailed down.
Domestically, the new president has rescued the banks in a bail-out that has come in at $200 billion under budget; the economy has shifted from a tailspin to stablilization and some prospect of job growth next year; the Dow is at 10,500 a level no one would have predicted this time last year. A stimulus package has helped undergird infrastructure and probably did more to advance non-carbon energy than anything that might have emerged from Copenhagen. Universal health insurance (with promised deficit reduction!) is imminent - a goal sought by Democrats (and Nixon) for decades, impossible under the centrist Clinton, but won finally by a black liberal president. More progress has been made in unraveling the war on drugs this past year than in living memory. The transformation of California into a state where pot is now more available than in Amsterdam is as remarkable as the fact that such new sanity has spread across the country and is at historic highs, so to speak, in the opinion polls. On civil rights, civil marriage came to the nation's capital city, which has a 60 percent black population. If that doesn't help reverse some of the gloom from Prop 8 and Maine, what would? And, yes, the unspeakable ban on HIV-positive foreigners was finally lifted, bringing the US back to the center of the global effort to fight AIDS as it should be.

Relations with Russia have improved immensely and may yield real gains in non-proliferation; Netanyahu has moved, however insincerely, toward a two-state solution; Iran's coup regime remains far more vulnerable than a year ago, paralyzed in its diplomacy, terrified of its own people and constantly shaken by the ongoing revolution; Pakistan launched a major offensive against al Qaeda and the Taliban in its border area; global opinion of the US has been transformed; the Cairo speech and the Nobel acceptance speech helped explain exactly what Obama's blend of ruthless realism for conflict-management truly means.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Insider's Account of Copenhagen

Mark Lynas in The Guardian has an insider's view of what actually happened at the Copenhagen climate summit and why it failed.
Copenhagen was a disaster. That much is agreed. But the truth about what actually happened is in danger of being lost amid the spin and inevitable mutual recriminations. The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.
After reviewing a particularly difficult meeting that the Chinese prime minister failed to attend even though Obama was present (a deliberate insult to the US), Lynas goes on to explain the reasons for China's unwillingness to allow any real progress to take place.
All this raises the question: what is China's game? Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, "not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?" The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now "in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years' time".

This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China's growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China's century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower's freedom of action. I left Copenhagen more despondent than I have felt in a long time. After all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back, and drained away.

Who Benefits

Courtesy of Sully, from the Wonkroom, a handy chart showing some of the benefits of HCR.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Still More on HCR

Ezra voices his support to the HCR compromise
The core of this legislation is as it always was: $900 billion, give or take, so people who can't afford health-care insurance suddenly can. Insurance regulations paired with the individual mandate, so insurers can't discriminate against the sick and the healthy can't make insurance unaffordable by hanging back until the moment they need medical care. The construction of health insurance exchanges so the people currently left out of the employer-based market are better served, and the many who will join them as the employer system continues to erode will have somewhere to go.

That's all policy. And as I spent yesterday arguing, it has a tendency to overshadow the lives in the balance. You can choose your estimate. The Institute of Medicine's methodology says 22,000 people died in 2006 because they didn't have health-care coverage. A recent Harvard study found the number nearer to 45,000. Since we talk about the costs of health-care reform over a 10-year period, may as well talk about the lives saved that way, too. And we're looking, easily, at more than a hundred thousand lives, to say nothing of the people who will be spared bankruptcy, chronic pain, unnecessary impairment, unnecessary caretaking, bereavement, loss of wages, painful surgeries, and so on.

A lot of progressives woke up this morning feeling like they lost. They didn't. The public option and its compromised iterations were a battle that came to seem like a war. But they weren't the war. The bill itself was. When liberals talked about the dream of universal health-care insurance 10, 20 and 30 years ago, they talked about the plight of the uninsured, not the necessity of a limited public option in competition with private insurers.

More on HCR

Kevin Drum also supports the Health Care Reform compromise.
If healthcare reform dies this year, it dies for a good long time. Say what you will about the Democratic leadership, but Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer all know this perfectly well. So do John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. (Boy do they know it.) But if it passes, here's what we get:
  • Insurers have to take all comers. They can't turn you down for a preexisting condition or cut you off after you get sick.
  • Community rating. Within a few broad classes, everyone gets charged the same amount for insurance.
  • Individual mandate. I know a lot of liberals hate this, but how is it different from a tax? And its purpose is sound: it keeps the insurance pool broad and insurance rates down.
  • A significant expansion of Medicaid.
  • Subsidies for low and middle income workers that keeps premium costs under 10% of income.
  • Limits on ER charges to low-income uninsured emergency patients.
  • Caps on out-of-pocket expenses.
  • A broad range of cost-containment measures.
  • A dedicated revenue stream to support all this.
What's more, for the first time we get a national commitment to providing healthcare coverage for everyone. It won't be universal to start, unfortunately, but it's going to be a lot easier to get there once the marker is laid down. That's how every other country has done it, and that's how we did it with Social Security and Medicare, both of which had big gaps in coverage when they were first passed.

But if we don't pass it, we don't get any of this. Not now, and not for a long time. Instead of being actual liberals, we'll just be playing ones on TV.

Compromising on Health Care Reform

Steve Benen's take on the value of passing HCR in its weakened form.
As far as I'm concerned, the question is whether the reform framework in the Senate is a step backward or an incremental step forward. Does it make the status quo worse, or does it make improvements with the promise of additional progress? If it's killed now, are reform proponents more or less likely to have success in the years to come?

Given what we think we know about the state of the legislation, I think the effort is clearly a step  forward. It's not the bill I'd write if I were dictator, but it advances the cause of reform, and create
is a foundation that can be built on in the future. If this bill were to fail, I suspect it would be decades before anyone even tried to improve the broken status quo. In the meantime, the effects on those suffering under the current system would get worse.

 As we've talked about recently, progressives have faced this situation before. When Medicaid passed, it did very little for low-income adults. When Medicare passed, it all but ignored people with disabilities. When Social Security passed, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases.

These are, of course, some of the bedrock domestic policies of the 20th century, and some of the towering achievements of progressive lawmaking. But when they passed, they were wholly inadequate. There were likely liberal champions of the day who perceived the New Deal, the Great Society, FDR, LBJ, and their congressional Democratic majorities as disappointing and incompetent sell-outs who failed to take advantage of the opportunity before them.

But the programs passed, and once they were in place, they improved, expanded, and became integral to the American experience. It took years and perseverance, but progress happened after the initial programs became law.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Looking at Obama's Agenda

Steve Benen points out the essential disconnect between the views of conservative and liberal activists on Obama and his agedna.
Over the last several months, the right has come to believe that the president is a fascist/communist, intent on destroying the country, while at the same time, many on the left have come to believe the president is a conservative sell-out. The enraged right can't wait to vote and push the progressive agenda out of reach. The dejected left is feeling inclined to stay home, which as it turns out, also pushes the progressive agenda out of reach.
There's something wrong with this picture.

It'd be great to see the governing majority give Democratic voters a reason to feel excited. It's not like there's a secret agenda needed to make the base happy: finish health care; pass a jobs bill; finish the climate bill; bring some accountability to the financial industry; finish the education bill; pick up immigration reform; repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Demonstrate that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president have the wherewithal to tackle the issues that matter and know how to get things done.

But Matt's call for a shift in focus is important here. Remember: nothing becomes law in this Congress unless Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman approve. Literally, nothing. That's not an encouraging legislative dynamic, and it's not within the power of the White House to change it.

It is within the power of voters to change it.
The result of this divergent perception is that righties may channel their discontent into high turnout in 2010, while the lefties become discouraged and do not vote.  If this does not change, the midterms could be trouble.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Obama's Nobel Prize

Sully on Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
It was written and spoken in such a way to reach anyone of any faith or none. It translated a deeply Augustinian grasp of history into a secular and universal language. It was an expression of tragic hope.

And that's one aspect of Obama's now-famous-phrase, the "audacity of hope", that is often overlooked. Why is hope audacious? Because the world is inherently tragic. Because, in Camus' words, men die and they are not happy. Because in Obama's words,
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... 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 may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
When I have been asked why I, as a conservative, support this man the way I do, I can only answer: listen to him. What is the philosophy that most affirms "the imperfections of man and the limits of reason"? What philosophy sadly demurs when told that peace is possible on earth, that history is leading to utopia, that war is over, that "freedom is on the march"? And this is the critical distinction between Bush and Obama: Obama is far more conservative than his predecessor. He sees that the profound flaws in human nature affect us as well as them; that we "face the world as it is," not as we would like it to be; that the decision to go to war is a moral and a pragmatic one; that ends have to be balanced by a shrewd and sometimes cold-eyed assessment of means.

For peace to exist, there must sometimes be war. A statesman will sometimes have to bargain with evil men. A statesman will also sometimes have to let evil flourish because he simply does not have the proportionate means to counter it. Human nature is alloyed between good and evil, and evil often wins.

Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice. As much a choice as faith and love.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's A New Day....Maybe

Sully reviews the situation the day after Obama's Afghanistan speech.
I think this strategy is doomed. But then I think any strategy that does not pledge to colonize Afghanistan, pour trillions of dollars into it and stay for a century is doomed. So why do I end up this morning feeling rather similar to my colleague, Jim Fallows, who simply sighs: 'Well, I hope he's right"?

Here's why. The sanest option - leave now - would leave allies high and dry, prompt domestic cries of surrender, demoralize the military, break a clear campaign pledge, and signal to Pakistan that the Taliban is their problem now. Everything but the latter are worth avoiding.

The neocon answer - stay until there are no Qaeda elements, no Taliban and a functioning democracy not financed by opium - is simply unhinged. It means an empire in the Muslim world for the rest of our lives. And the idea that permanent Western occupation of Muslim lands will decrease Jihadist terror is so insane only Dick Cheney could still believe it.

This war is already eight years' old and will soon have lasted longer than Vietnam. Its rationale today is very different than what it was in 2001 - 2002. Al Qaeda is based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The US, thanks to Bush and the recession, is bankrupt and facing a long and brutal period of high unemployment and soon huge cuts in entitlements or big tax hikes.
And then points to the unspoken second prong of the policy.
The final piece of the puzzle strikes me as this: the big ramp up in CIA activity in Pakistan. This is the second channel, the one Obama barely mentioned last night. It may be the more important one. My sense is that Obama wants to get bin Laden. Well, of course he does. Which president wouldn't? But the international and domestic impact of such a coup is hard to overstate and Obama's sense of how it would transform him and the entire dynamic of the terror war is typically cunning. I see the Afghan effort as one last chance to get al Qaeda's leadership, to bring justice to the 9/11 perpetrators, while hoping, in the medium term, to tamp down the raw civilizational conflict that empowers them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What Price Security?

Sully watches some Fox coverage of the Obama speech on Afghanistan and poses a question.
I'm now watching Karl Rove use McChrystal against Obama and accusing the president of isolationism. Yes: he used the term "isolationist" to describe the addition of 30,000 more troops. If they're going to call you isolationist anyway, why bother intervening?
Obama's answer is that we cannot tolerate another terror attack. But at what cost? Is there any limit to the cost?
The way our politics of fear is now constructed, there is no limit to the costs involved in nation-building in every conceivable failed state that could be a safe harbor for Jihadists. We cannot have the adult conversation about how much terrorist damage the US should tolerate compared with the costs of trying to control this phenomenon at its source. We are not mature enough as a country to have that conversation. And Obama has decided it isn't worth confronting that question now.

I just don't believe that Afghanistan will be in much better shape in 2011 than it is now, or that withdrawal in 2012 will have any greater a chance of avoiding subsequent implosion than withdrawal now or withdrawal from Iraq in 2010.

So I am left with this deep ambivalence and concern. But we are at war and he is the president and he has committed the troops. I'll do with this what I did with the 2007 surge: support the troops once the decision is made, even though I disagree with the decision. And I fervently hope and pray this strategy succeeds in ways that the Iraq surge has not yet succeeded. And I just as fervently pray that the uncertainties and risks of those two countries do not destroy this president as they destroyed the last. And that they do not take this country with him.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Purity of the Lonely

Steve Benen quotes conservative columnist Kathleen Parker on the new Republican "purity test," a proposal whereby prospective GOP candidates must support at least 8 of the 10 points to garner support from Republican committees
But that was before the "purity test" for the Republican National Committee came up. Parker sees it as a "suicide pact" to help "weed out undesirables from their ever-shrinking party."
In fact, the 10-point checklist proffered by Bopp and others is the antithesis of conservatism. As Kirk wrote in his own "Ten Conservative Principles," conservatism "possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata . . . conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order."

Each of Bopp's bullets is so overly broad and general that no thoughtful person could endorse it in good conscience. Some are so simplistic as to be meaningless. As just one example: "We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges." What does that mean? Do we support all troop surges no matter what other considerations might be taken into account? Do we take nothing else into account? Does disagreement mean one doesn't support victory?

Whatever the intent of the authors, the message is clear: Thinking people need not apply. The formerly elite party of nuanced conservatism might do well to revisit its nonideological roots.
Noting what a departure the proposed litmus test is from intellectual seriousness, Parker added, "When did thinking go out of style?"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Map of the World

From The Big Picture, credited to Prieur!
world accordign to USA

Fed Up?

Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture takes on the Fed, Hank Paulson, and a few other juicy targets.
Here’s a candidate for the understatement of the year: The Federal Reserve is concerned that their free-wheeling, money-printing, dollar-destroying, quantitative-easing, zero-percent interest rate policy might be “fueling undue financial-market speculation.”
Do ya think?

The Fed is a serial bubble blower worse yet, they have refused to hold the most aggressive and damaging speculators accountable for their own losses. Instead, they have participated in a massive socialization of risk, where profits remain private but losses are the taxpayers’ burden.

Is this anyway to run a Central Bank? (and I am not calling for the Fed to be dismanttled or hobbled like others are).

There has been little or no clawback of the ill gotten gains from the people who caused the problem, but escaped with 100s of millions of dollars; there has been endless subsidies for the banks, but little hard-to-swallow medicine for the banking system.
My pet theory is that all of the anger about Health Care Reform is misdirected rage at the corrupt Bailouts. I don’t want to get too Continental on you, but the conversation in Europe I encountered repeatedly was the sheer perplexity at why people are protesting health care coverage for all. One fund manager said to me in Berlin, “You give trillions to rogue bankers, yet you have 40 million uninsured American. Why is that?”

My answer: I haven’t the foggiest idea why.

Meanwhile, the banks are (rationally) hording capital, thus they have not increased lending, all the while they garner huge state subsidized profits.
We have not yet sufficiently called out Hank Paulson for his role in this mess. Tim Geithner is starting to capture flack for his participation in the massive wealth transfer/taxpayer giveaway, but he was junior to what we now think of as the Hank & Ben show.

Let me be brutally frank: With George W. Bush AWOL during the crisis in 2008, it was Bernanke and Paulson who stepped into the void. But make no mistake about it — the chief architect of the massive bailouts was none other than former Goldman Sachs CEO and then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sully Goes Rogue

Sully on Palin's tome:
It is a religious book, full of myths and parables. And yet it is also crafted politically, with every single "detail" of the narrative honed carefully for specific constituencies. It is also some kind of manifesto - but not in the usual sense of a collection of policy proposals. It is a manifesto for the imagined life of an imagined Sarah Palin as a leader for all those who identify with the image and background she relentlessly claims to represent.

In this, the book is emblematic of late degenerate Republicanism, which is based not on actual policies, but on slogans now so exhausted by over-use they retain no real meaning: free enterprise is great, God loves us all, America is fabulous, foreigners are suspect, we need to be tough, we can't dither, we must always cut taxes, government is bad, liberals are socialists, the media hates you, etc etc.

I tried to write a fair account of Palin's various stories of her incredible fifth pregnancy, labor and delivery and to reconcile all the various facts we know and the various versions of the story she has told. Just for the record and because we have aired the public record on this before. I honestly however cannot make total sense of them in a way that I'm completely convinced by and so simply do not feel comfortable making any judgment on them in any way at this point. That's fair to her, my readers, my colleagues, and the innocent private people caught up in this circus.

I thought there might be some new facts in here that would illuminate my confusion and dispel the whole thing.

There is, rather, more barely-credible myth-making and descriptions of actions taken that really make no sense even on their own terms. But since we now know that Palin tells odd lies all the time even when she doesn't have to, we cannot hold her to common sense readings. The story she tells is largely incredible if you assume a rational actor at the center of it. But we do not have a rational actor in the center of it; we have an unbalanced, delusional, ambitious fanatic whose relationship to reality is entirely instrumental and can change from minute to minute. And so we cannot even say: that doesn't make sense so it probably isn't true. With Palin, anything is possible her world is so imaginary and magical. Much that makes sense with others may not make sense with her. And without external evidence, how can we tell which is which?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Troops, We Ain't Got No Stinkin' Troops

Tim Fernholz on TAPPED cites Spencer Ackerman as he muses about whether the US has enough available manpower to provide the additional troops that General McChrystal wants in Afghanistan.
Spencer Ackerman reminds us that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Can the U.S. deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan without violating soldiers' rotation policies or becoming dangerously underprepared for a crisis?
If President Obama orders an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will be deploying practically every available U.S. Army brigade to war, leaving few units in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency and further stressing a force that has seen repeated combat deployments since 2002.

According to information compiled by the U.S. Army for The Washington Independent about the deployment status of active-duty and National Guard Army brigades, as of December 2009, there will be about 50,600 active-duty soldiers, serving in 14 combat brigades, and as many as 24,000 National Guard soldiers available for deployment. All other soldiers and National Guardsmen will either be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan already or ineligible to deploy while they rest from a previous deployment.

The shortage of available combat brigades means that an escalation of between 30,000 and 40,000 troops is “not realistic,” said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who now studies defense issues for the liberal Center for American Progress. To send practically all available soldiers into one of the two wars would leave the U.S. with “no reserve in case you had a problem in Korea.”
That's the real talk. There are other variables in the mix -- how much of the force is made up of Marines, how smoothly drawdown goes in Iraq -- but getting troop levels up to where Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants them won't be easy. When McChrystal made his original requests at the end of the summer, his strategic review described a 12-month window for changing the dynamic of the war, a window that is rapidly shrinking -- even if the first deployments began in January, it's not clear that overall levels could rise until the spring, nearly eight months after his deadline, and I'm curious what effect that would have on the conflict.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Make a Decision, Any Decision

Steve Benen calls out David Broder for this nonsense in his Sunday column:
The more President Obama examines our options in Afghanistan, the less he likes the choices he sees. But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose -- and he has stretched the internal debate to the breaking point.

It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right.
"Whether or not it is right." The Commander in Chief, in other words, should put expediency over merit. Speed is preferable to accuracy. It's only the longest military conflict in American history, with the future of U.S. foreign policy on the line -- the president should worry less about due diligence and thoughtful analysis, and worry more about picking a course, even if it's wrong. Other than the loss of American servicemen and women, untold billions of dollars, and undermining U.S. interests in a critical region, what's the worst that can happen?
What a crock.

I realize there's been a painful decline in the quality of Broder's analysis in recent years, but this column is a mess. He's effectively calling for President Obama to act and think more like President Bush -- make decisions first, and think through the consequences and implications second.

Palin Palate Cleanser

Sully on Palin:
As this blog persistently demonstrated in last year's campaign, Palin is a delusional fantasist, existing in a world of her own imagination, asserting fact after fact that are demonstrably untrue, and unable to adjust to the actual reality after it has been demonstrated beyond any empirical doubt. The campaign's media strategy of making sure she was never in a position to be asked anything in an uncontrolled setting, and of never holding an open press conference (unprecedented in the history of presidential campaigns) were a response to this. The only interview that dared stray even a little from this fawning celebrity-deference, Katie Couric's, revealed Palin to be an astonishingly inept know-nothing, camouflaged by incessant victimology.

She is a deeply disturbed individual whose grip on reality is very weak, and whose self-awareness is close to nil. This much is not a leap, let alone unfair. It is simply unavoidable if one examines her surreal invention of reality - even when she must surely know that the evidence exists out there to contradict her.

As I have long noted, this is not the usual political mendacity and spin. It is far weirder and more disturbing than that. She creates her own reality. And the fact-indifferent, editor-free marketing company, HarperCollins, is only too willing to make some money off it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What the Bankers Learned

Felix Salmon picks up a quote from Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times and reaches the logical and unsettling conclusion on the lessons the bankers have learned from the Crash of 2008.
One of the frustrating parts of researching my book came when I finally got to ask the question of Wall Street chief executives and board members that you just raised: Do you have any remorse? Are you sorry? The answer, almost unequivocally, was no. (Or they just didn’t answer.) They see themselves as just one part of a larger problem, with many constituencies to blame.

Many of the most senior members of management on Wall Street now consider themselves “survivors,” as if they were cancer survivors or something. That’s the word they use. While many of them are self-aware enough to politely nod at the notion that they received help and were part of the problem, they seem reluctant to acknowledge they were “rescued” or “saved.”
One of the key drivers of the crisis was the hubris and general lack of humility of senior bank executives. This is connected to the issue of executive pay: almost everybody thinks he deserves what he’s earning. But the only way you can deserve an eight-figure pay package is if you’re really on top of what’s going on in your bank. Ergo, everybody thought they were on top of what was going on in their banks, even when they weren’t; lower pay and more humility would have helped enormously in curtailing some of the most egregious excesses.
If bank executives (with the notable exception of John Reed) see no need to apologize for destroying the global financial system, they are still part of the problem and are very unlikely to be part of the solution. Which bodes ill for the future.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Decision-Making on Afghanistan

Sully on the process that Obama is pursuing as he reviews options on Afghanistan and nears a decision.
What we are seeing here, I suspect, is what we see everywhere with Obama: a relentless empiricism in pursuit of a particular objective and a willingness to let the process take its time. The very process itself can reveal - not just to Obama, but to everyone - what exactly the precise options are. Instead of engaging in adolescent tests of whether a president is "tough" or "weak", we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored. He is, moreover, not taking the decision process outside the public arena. He is allowing it to unfold within the public arena. Others, moreover, are allowed to take the lead: McChrystal, or Netanyahu, or Pelosi, in the case of Af-Pak, Israel-Palestine and health insurance, respectively. Obama encourages the process but hangs back, broadly - and persistently - pursuing certain objectives without tipping his hand on specifics or timing.

So the troop question is rather like the public option question.

Obama's position - almost a year into his presidency - is yet to be revealed. The president waits, prods, allows the parties to reveal their hands, and keeps his final detailed position to himself. By allowing the debate to continue in public, he also tries to get the public more, rather than less, involved. So we too get to show our hand as the debate continues. And the polls show Americans pretty evenly - and understandably - divided on the excruciating and ultimately prudential question of what to do next.

What strikes me about this is the enormous self-confidence this reveals. Here is a young president, prepared to allow himself to be portrayed as "weak" or "dithering" in the slow and meticulous arrival at public policy. He is trusting the reality to help expose what we need to do. He is allowing the debate - however messy and confusing and emotional - to take its time and reveal the real choices in front of us. This is politically risky, of course. Those who treat politics as a contact-sport, whose insistence is on the "game" of who wins which news cycle, or who can spin each moment in a political storm as a harbinger of whatever, will pounce and shriek and try to bounce the president into a decision. And those who believe that what matters in war is charging ahead regardless at all times will also grandstand against the president's insistence on prudence.

But he won't be bounced and his concern seems to be genuinely to do the right and the most sustainable thing. Which is a kind of strength we haven't seen in a president since Reagan.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Truth About Republicans

John Cole on Balloon Juice waxes poetic about Repblicans.
The funny thing about all of this is that no matter how bad all their ideas are, no matter how disastrous their governance has been, no matter how many horrible things they have done to the economy and this country, what really is killing the Republican party is that deep down, they are just complete assholes. You see it in the way they treat women, you see it in the way they treat minorities, you see it in the way they treat homosexuals, you see it in the way they treat anyone who is not a white Christian, and you see it in the way they treat anyone who disagrees with them slightly about anything. They just have no respect for anyone, and it shows. People don’t like to be treated like crap, and grown-ups don’t want to be associated with people who yell “You lie” or scream “socialism” or “Hitler” or accuse you of being a terrorist whenever they don’t get their way.
If you read the Corner or the Weekly Standard, or listen to any talk radio or any of the mouth breathers on Fox, or read any right-wing blogs, you will instantly know what I am talking about. You can’t help but notice that they are just loudmouthed jerks, stubborn bully boys, and insensitive and insecure cads. James Wolcott once wrote that Eric Cantor looked like the “pricky proprietor of the Jerk Store,” and that could be applied to the majority of the prominent Republicans out there. I guess that should be suspected from a movement in which the only thoughts are “Fuck you, I got mine.”

Health Care Reform Through the Ages

Ezra reviews the history of health care reform efforts and concludes that passing a bill is the first step toward real reform, even if the bill is deficient in significant ways.
Failure does not bring with it a better chance for future success. It brings a trimming of future ambitions.

Truman sought single payer. His failure led to Kennedy and Johnson, who confined their ambitions to poor families and the elderly. Then came Nixon, whose reform plan was entirely based around private insurers and government regulation. He was followed by Carter, who favored an incremental, and private, approach, and Clinton, who again sought to reform the system by putting private insurers into a market that would be structured and regulated by the government. His failure birthed Obama's much less ambitious proposal, which attempts to reform not the health-care system, but the small group and nongroup portions of the health-care system by putting a small minority of private insurance plans into a market that's structured and regulated by the government, and closed off to most Americans.

Failure does not breed success. Obama's defeat will not mean that more ambitious reforms have "a better chance of trying again." It will mean that less ambitious reformers have a better chance of trying next time.

Conversely, success does breed success. Medicare and Medicaid began as fairly limited programs. Medicaid was pretty much limited to extremely poor children and their caregivers. Medicare didn't cover prescription drugs, or individuals with disabilities, or home health services.

But once the programs were passed into law, they were slowly and continually improved. They became more expansive, with Medicaid growing to cover not only poor families but also poor adults, and the federal government giving states the option, and matching dollars, to include more people under the program's umbrella. Medicare was charged with covering people with long-term disabilities, and it was eventually strengthened with a drug benefit, more preventive coverage, the option of supplementary plans and much more.

Monday, November 9, 2009

That Syrian Nuclear Plant

Kevin Drum picks up on a fascinating report in Der Spiegel concerning the Syrian nuclear plant that was destroyed by Israel in 2007.
In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon.

....In late 2006...a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out....The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development....One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

....February 2007....An Iranian general [] decided to switch sides....Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran's deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s....According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans.

....On an overcast night in August 2007 [] Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples "provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program."
A month later, Israeli jets destroyed the Al Kibar facility. The Israeli prime minister sent a message to the Syrians via Turkey that no further attacks were planned, and if they'd clam up about it, so would he. They did.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health Care Reform On Its Way

Josh Marshall views the House passage of Health Care Reform as a seminal event that will inevitably lead to its final passage.
There are many events in life that, while more or less predictable in themselves (House passage of the health care bill), turn out to have an impact and significance that is only truly apparent after they occur. The passage of the House health care reform bill last night strikes me as one of them.

The precise contours of the post-conference legislation remains uncertain in a number of key respects, especially in regards to the public option. But having watched the events leading up to the House vote and the politicking in the senate, I have little doubt that a broadly similar bill will pass the senate, be reconciled with the House bill in a conference report and bill that will be signed by the president in relatively short order.

The reason these sorts of events happen so infrequently is that they are like colossal ships or vast armies, very difficult to build or assemble and get on their way but also extremely difficult to stop or turn once they are under way.

As Bill Kristol noted in his famous 1993 GOP strategy memo on the Clinton health care reform initiative, the key danger Republicans face from health care reform is precisely that the public will like it. And I suspect that the more forward thinking and perspicacious of his partisan colleagues today see it the same way.

If a health care reform bill passes, it's greatest point of vulnerability will be in the 2010 election. That's not only because of the on-going fall-out of the 2008 financial crisis, which sets the Democrats up for a tough midterm election. It's also because a lot of the key reforms in the legislation don't kick in for a few years. But even if you assume the worst possible outcome for the Democrats in 2010, loss of both houses of Congress, Republican majorities still wouldn't be able to overturn the law because President Obama would veto their repeal.

Last night's vote makes me think this will happen and it will be a genuinely historic development.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees Win World Series

Thereby restoring the natural order of the universe.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is the Public Option a Distraction?

Ezra analyzes the politics of the public option debate.
Most health-care wonks agree that the immense controversy generated by the public option has deflected attention from other important elements of the bill. You can draw only so many lines in the sand before a couple begin getting washed away. But there's a split on whether that distraction has been a good or bad thing.
The case against goes something like this: The success of the plan is going to depend much more on adequate subsidies than any of the public option compromises on the table, and letting all the energy go into the public option has left fairly little organizing capacity for things like tax credits for people making between 300 and 400 percent of poverty. The liberal obsession with the public option -- and not even a very strong public option! -- has distracted them from these more important policies, making it more likely that they'll fall a bit short of where they otherwise could be.

The case for goes something like this: The success of the plan is going to depend much more on adequate subsidies and the individual mandate than on any of the public option compromises on the table, and diverting all of the conservative base's energy into fighting around the margins of the public option has left them with fairly little organizing capacity to go after the revenues or the mandate or the total cost of the bill. The conservative obsession with the public option -- and not even a very strong public option! -- has distracted them from these more important issues, making it more likely that health-care reform survives with its basic structure intact.
I'm in the second camp. That's not to say this was the plan, or that the public option isn't worth achieving in its own right. But insofar as it's drawn fire away from the potentially unpopular elements that can't be sacrificed -- elements like the revenues and the mandate -- and toward a popular element that can be compromised, it's been a boon for the bill.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hillary in Pakistan

Scott Horton discusses Hillary Clinton's visit to Pakistan and notes how the Obama Administration is trying to shift policy from the dead-end Bush approach.
When a critical assessment of the Bush-era “War on Terror” is undertaken, a vital chapter will focus on U.S. relations with Pakistan. President Bush labeled the nation “a major non-NATO ally” in order to qualify it for military programs. He then lavished Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship with billions in aid designed to beef up its ability to engage the Taliban and Al Qaeda, only to see most of this money diverted into secret military programs designed to address Pakistani security qualms about India. Future historians may well conclude that the Bush team were played for patsies by Pakistan’s military, with Interservice Intelligence (ISI) in the lead. There is increasingly solid evidence that the ISI consciously thwarted the United States–facilitating the escape of key Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership figures from Afghanistan and sheltering them in Pakistan’s rugged Northwest Frontier Province. In their place, Pakistani authorities streamed hundreds of perfectly innocent people into American hands, filling the special detention center that Bush built at Guantánamo with chaff rather than the leadership figures the Americans were seeking.

Hillary Clinton is now on a visit to Pakistan. Her comments there reflect a new U.S. relationship with Islamabad, built on a far more serious understanding of Pakistan’s internal problems and a more aggressive view about dealing with them. But they also reflect a fundamentally different take on civilian-military relations in this nuclear power of 181 million. Reuters reports:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wound up a bridge-building visit to Pakistan on Friday leaving a pointed question ringing in her hosts’ ears: Where are the al Qaeda leaders operating in your country? While no Pakistani officials were immediately prepared to answer, ordinary citizens told Washington’s top diplomat the country was living on a daily basis with the consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks engineered by the militant Islamist group…

On Thursday Clinton expressed disbelief no-one in authority knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out — a remark that may fuel much reaction once she leaves the country. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she told a group of newspaper editors during a meeting in Lahore.
While these remarks were portrayed by the clueless U.S. media as a gaffe, in fact they provide a deep glimpse into the Obama Administration’s agenda for Pakistan. To start with, they’re remarkably mild. She’s presenting as a question something that U.S. intelligence knows for a fact: the ISI has been coddling Taliban leaders and their Al Qaeda allies, just as the ISI has systematically enabled the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. While American commentators view this as something shocking or potentially offensive to an ally, in fact it regularly figures in Pakistan’s domestic political discourse, in which the mainstream political parties view the Pakistani military’s support for militant Islam as a threat. Thus, Secretary Clinton is speaking an obvious truth, and at the same time ratcheting up pressure on the Pakistani military to change its erring ways and fully embrace the crackdown.
Horton also points to a second track to US diplomacy in the region, which is to encourage negotiations between Pakistan and India...a difficult path certainly, but well worth the effort.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Political Genius of the Opt-Out

With the unveiling of the opt-out provision for the public option in the Senate health-care reform bill, Harry Reid may have sprung an ingenious trap. Sully begins the analysis:
Well, there has to be a debate in every state in which Republicans, where they hold a majority or the governorship, will presumably decide to deny their own voters the option to get a cheaper health insurance plan. When others in other states can get such a plan, will there not be pressure on the GOP to help their own base? Won't Bill O'Reilly's gaffe - when he said what he believed rather than what Roger Ailes wants him to say - be salient? Won't many people - many Republican voters - actually ask: why can't I have what they're having?

This is why this is lethal. The argument against new entitlements requires a macro-level perspective. You have to argue that although a measure may help an individual get something she wouldn't otherwise have - like adequate and reliable, if barebones, health insurance - its consequences will come back to haunt us all. You have to remind people that money doesn't grow on trees, that in the long run, more government involvement might hurt healthcare excellence, that you just need to rely on the wonderful private sector to deliver the goods in a more market-friendly way. This is always a tough sell because it requires voters to put abstract concerns over practical short-term gains. It's why conservatism always has a tough time in welfare state democracies.

But with health insurance companies, the GOP may not only have to make this argument, they may be onto a defining alliance they really, really don't want or need.

Imagine Republicans in state legislatures having to argue and posture against an affordable health insurance plan for the folks, as O'Reilly calls them, while evil liberals provide it elsewhere. Now, of course, if the public option is a disaster in some states, this argument could work in the long run. But in the short run? It's political nightmare for the right as it is currently constituted. In fact, I can see a public option becoming the equivalent of Medicare in the public psyche if it works as it should. Try running against Medicare.
Kevin Drum adds:
If it passes, then for the next four years Republican state legislators all over the country will be teaming up with the universally loathed insurance industry to try and deny their citizens access to a program that, to most of them, sounds like a pretty good deal. I don't know if Harry Reid was deviously thinking exactly that thought when he decided on this, but I'll bet someone was. It's hard to think of something that could force the GOP to make itself even more unpopular than it already is, but this might be it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bring in the Drones

Scott Horton has a fascinating discussion about the appropriate use of dronesto remotely attack enemies of the US in the context of human rights, collateral damage and the rules of war. He raises questions on the degree of oversight of these operations, but concludes that such attacks in war zones are legitimate. However, as the targets become less significant and the innocent losses increase, the issues of accountablity becomes more difficult to analyze. His post was triggered by an article in the current New Yorker by Jane Mayer, and Horton includes a fascinating and chilling description of a recent successful operation.
On August 5th, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; the remarkably crisp images showed the uncle administering an intravenous drip to Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik, told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back. Malik, using his hands to make a picture frame, explained that the Predator’s targeters could see Mehsud’s entire body, not just the top of his head. “It was a perfect picture,” Malik, who watched the videotape later, said. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!” The image remained just as stable when the C.I.A. remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

The Origins of the Deficit

Bruce Bartlett looks at actual budget numbers and pins the budget deficit in the year that ended Sept 30s to Bush Administration policies.  Bartlett continues his epochal rejection of Republican orthodoxy as he returns to the reality-based universe.
According to the Congressional Budget Office’s January 2009 estimate for fiscal year 2009, outlays were projected to be $3,543 billion and revenues were projected to be $2,357 billion, leaving a deficit of $1,186 billion. Keep in mind that these estimates were made before Obama took office, based on existing law and policy, and did not take into account any actions that Obama might implement.

Therefore, unless one thinks that McCain would have somehow or other raised taxes and cut spending (with a Democratic Congress), rather than enacting a stimulus of his own, then a deficit of $1.2 trillion was baked in the cake the day Obama took office. Any suggestion that McCain would have brought in a lower deficit is simply fanciful.

Now let’s fast forward to the end of fiscal year 2009, which ended on September 30. According to CBO, it ended with spending at $3,515 billion and revenues of $2,106 billion for a deficit of $1,409 billion.

To recap, the deficit came in $223 billion higher than projected, but spending was $28 billion and revenues were $251 billion less than expected. Thus we can conclude that more than 100 percent of the increase in the deficit since January is accounted for by lower revenues. Not one penny is due to higher spending.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Death of the New Right

A neat summary of the rise and fall of the New Right movement from its birth after World War II to its collapse with the election of Obama from a review of Sam Tanenhaus's new book, The Death of Conservatism by Carl Bogus of The American Prospect.
First, as the New Right sees it, the Establishment is truly untrustworthy. Some liberal leaders are naive; but others might be disloyal. This was what Joseph McCarthy preached. It was the theme of None Dare Call it Treason, a 1964 book by little-known author John A. Stormer that became a cult classic of the New Right, selling 7 million copies. And it was also the raison d'être of the John Birch Society, whose leader, Robert Welch, declared that "the chances are very strong that Milton Eisenhower [the president's brother and a college president] is actually Dwight Eisenhower's superior and boss within the Communist Party." William F. Buckley Jr. deftly gave the conservative movement a patina of respectability by repudiating Welch and the Birchers, whom he labeled as kooks, and by drawing a distinction between McCarthy, whose personal flaws he acknowledged, and McCarthyism, which Buckley claimed was necessary to save the republic. The theme of untrustworthy leaders endangering the nation persists despite the end of the Cold War. It is why some fret that President Obama is a secret Muslim who pals around with terrorists.

Second, distrust of the Establishment is connected to questions of class. McCarthy said that the traitors had "the finest homes, the finest college education and finest jobs in government." New Rightists saw Alger Hiss as the quintessential example of the privileged traitor whom the Establishment refused to condemn, despite damning evidence. The modern conservative movement has always seen itself as a populist insurgency, and liberals misapprehend it when they see the movement as an unswerving ally of big business.

Third, and most important, because the Establishment was ensconced at the highest levels of government, New Rightists came to see government itself as an enemy. This is what lies at the heart of modern conservatism's hostility to government. In line with an older tradition in the GOP, the modern Republican presidents not connected to the conservative movement -- Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush -- respected constitutional processes and governmental structure, implementing laws enacted by Congress even when they disagreed with them. But Tanenhaus argues that each of three modern Republican presidents with close relationships to the modern conservative movement -- Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush -- felt no such obligation and indeed carried out plans (in the Watergate affair, Iran-Contra, and secret surveillance and torture policies) that they deemed "too urgent to be trusted to the traditional channels of government."

Because the modern conservative movement has always seen the republic in peril and itself as the only reliable savior, it came to place allegiance to the movement and its ideology above all else.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Glenn Beck to the Rescue...of the Democrats

Dave Weigel in the Washington Independent comments on the role Glenn Beck is actually playing in the efforts of the Republicans to provide a viable alternative to Obama and the Democrats (h/t Sully),
I think the story misses something about the party’s Glenn Beck problem. It’s not just that conservative pundits like Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et al., are unpopular and controversial. It’s that they drive the GOP into very strange places.

The Democrats are in worse political shape than they were a year ago because unemployment is at 9.8 percent, the war in Afghanistan has grown less popular, and the bailouts of struggling banks are seen as wastes of money that haven’t worked. Republicans benefit when they talk about this stuff. But Beck and the others don’t let them talk about this stuff. For the past few months, they have moved the discussion onto fantasy terrain, accusing the president of reaching for dictatorial powers and surrounding himself with “radicals” who want to destroy capitalism.

In retrospect, the successful campaign against Van Jones, the former green jobs czar who resigned in September, was the turning point in the relationship between commentators and Republicans. Elected Republicans were not really talking about Jones until after Beck, with material from WorldNetDaily and conservative groups, had spent weeks pounding Jones for old, on-the-record quotes about how he’d once considered himself a “communist” and how Republicans were “a-holes.” When Beck discovered, via conservative blogger Jim Hoft, that Jones had signed a “9/11 truth” petition, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) became the first Republican to demand his resignation. And when Jones quit, Beck and the conservative commentary class gained clout. Since then, Republicans have obsessively gone after the president’s “czars” (a nonsense issue I’ve dealt with in the past) and after specific members of the administration, like “safe schools czar” Kevin Jennings and White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, whom conservative commentators were attacking for their past statements and associations.

This isn’t to say Republicans have been distracted or unsuccessful in Congress. They’ve certainly scored victories during this period. And by paying attention to these conservative witch hunts, they’ve definitely kept their base revved up. But in the current political context, it seems like they’re missing the forest for some shrubs. It’s as if Democrats tried to press their advantages in 2005 not by going after the Iraq War or the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, but by spending weeks attacking mid-ranking members of his administration and claiming that President George W. Bush was driving the nation toward fascism. And remember, one of the huge political mistakes of 2005 was the Republican decision to do a full-court press on an issue that had come from conservative activists and pundits: the fate of Terri Schiavo.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Counterterrorism, the Constitution, and Human Rights

Adam Serwer on Tapped discusses a conference he attended on counterterrorism and a speech given by Marine General Doug Stone, who headed the detention, deradicalization, and reintegration effort in Iraq, in which Stone points to the US Constitution as the basis for our winning the fight.
Stone's basic argument was this: The fight against terrorism is as much an ideological "debate" as a physical battle, and it's a battle that is increasingly taking place in spaces of detention--Bagram, Pol-e-Charki, Guantanamo Bay. Stone says the goal should be to "empower moderates and isolate extremists" so the United States' detention policy--it's humaneness or lack thereof, its adherence to the rule of law--is essential, as is engaging the assistance of local religious leaders in offering an alternative ideology.

"I took an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States ... what is the Constitution?" Stone asked. "It is a rule of law [document], it is, with the Declaration [of Independence], perhaps the most profound human-rights statement in the history of civilization that we know. ... The debate we're engaged in is about the rule of law and human rights."

The conditions in Afghan prisons have long been the focus of human-rights groups -- but recently Gen. Stanley McChrystal cited them as a key factor in the growth of Islamic radicalism. Among his recommendations for reforming the system in Afghanistan, Stone suggested streamlining the process so that detainees are dealt with in a timely manner, and giving them meaningful opportunities to challenge their detention -- not necessarily in U.S. courts, however. I'll get more into his specific recommendations later, when I'm done transcribing the entire speech.

But I was struck by how forcefully Stone emphasized respect for human rights as an essential part of fighting terrorism, as well as the reality that many of the people detained aren't necessarily terrorists -- the exact opposite of the Bush claim that everyone they captured was necessarily among "the worst of the worst."

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Obama Process

Sully on Obama and his decision-making process:
There is a strange quality to Barack Obama’s pragmatism. It can look like dilly-dallying, weakness, indecisiveness. But although he may seem weak at times, one of the words most applicable to him is something else entirely: ruthless. Beneath the crisp suit and easy smile there is a core of strategic steel. In this respect, Obama’s domestic strategy is rather like his foreign one — not so much weakness but the occasional appearance of weakness as a kind of strategy.
The pattern is now almost trademarked. He carefully lays out the structural message he is trying to convey. At home, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. Abroad, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. And then ... not much.
The agenda may be clear. He wants an engaged Iran without nuclear weapons. He wants to be the first American president to enact universal health insurance coverage. He wants a sane two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. He wants to leave Iraq without having it blow up on him. He wants to find a way to solve the AfPak Rubik’s Cube. He wants to allow gays to serve openly in the military. But on all these things, it’s mid-October and still ... nothing substantive. So obviously, he’s a total fraud and failure, right?


He sets out a goal and then he waits. He waits for the other players to show their hand. He starts a process that itself reveals that certain options are unfeasible, until he is revealed by events to have no other choice but ... well, the least worst practical way forward. He always knows that things can change, and waits for the optimal moment to seize the initiative.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Obama and the Race Speech

Robert Draper writes in GQ about Obama and the race speech (h/t Sully):
This was especially true last March 13, when the incendiary sermons of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, blew up all over the cable networks. On that Thursday, Obama had spent the entire day and evening in the Senate. That Friday, after enduring a series of tough interviews, Obama informed Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe, “I want to do a speech on race.” And he added, “I want to make this speech no later than next Tuesday. I don’t think it can wait.” Axelrod and Plouffe tried to talk him into delaying it: He had a full day of campaigning on Saturday, a film shoot on Sunday, and then another hectic day campaigning in Pennsylvania on Monday. Obama was insistent. On the Saturday-morning campaign conference call, Favreau was told to get to work on a draft immediately. Favreau replied, “I’m not writing this until I talk to him.”

That evening, Saint Patrick’s Day, less than seventy-two hours before the speech would be delivered to a live audience, Favreau was sitting alone in an unfurnished group house in Chicago when the boss called. “I’m going to give you some stream of consciousness,” Obama told him. Then he spoke for about forty-five minutes, laying out his speech’s argumentative construction. Favreau thanked him, hung up, considered the enormity of the task and the looming deadline, and then decided he was “too freaked out by the whole thing” to write and went out with friends instead. On Sunday morning at seven, the speechwriter took his laptop to a coffee shop and worked there for thirteen hours. Obama received Favreau’s draft at eight that evening and wrote until three in the morning.

He hadn’t finished by Monday at 8 a.m., when he set the draft aside to spend the day barnstorming across Pennsylvania. At nine thirty that night, a little more than twelve hours before the speech was to be delivered, Obama returned to his hotel room to do more writing. At two in the morning, the various BlackBerrys of Axelrod, Favreau, Plouffe, and Jarrett sounded with a message from the candidate: Here it is. Favs, feel free to tweak the words. Everyone else, the content here is what I want to say. Axelrod stood in the dark reading the text: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.… But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

He e-mailed Obama: This is why you should be president.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keep America Safe?

Scott Horton on the new Liz Cheney-Bill Kristol public policy creation:
If you enjoy fear-mongering, here’s a not-for-profit organization for you: Keep America Safe. William Kristol and Liz Cheney are the dynamic duo behind it. Cheney is just off a Sunday talk show appearance in which she explained that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of the United States—a decision that coincides with new polls showing America suddenly resurgent as the most admired nation in the world—actually reflects the loss of American leadership and a disdain for America. That was just a taste of the Bizarro World that also appears in a video issued by Keep America Safe. It appears to be stitched together from segments broadcast by Fox News, few of which stand up to fact-checking. (For instance, it suggests that Obama has stripped the defense budget, when in fact this year’s budget is $40 billion larger than last year’s. Charles Krauthammer tells us Obama hasn’t decided what to do about Afghanistan. In fact, Obama has already rejected the idea of a draw-down, so the only question that his team is deliberating is how large the new contingent of troops will be. That contrasts with the Bush-Cheney team, which received a comparable appeal for more troops from its Afghanistan commanders in April 2008, and decided to ignore it.) So, considering that the major departures Obama has made from Bush strategy actually involve more robust use of the military—especially in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani border region—what is it that Obama has done that makes America unsafe?

I’d reduce the real purpose of Keep America Safe to this: “Please don’t prosecute my father!” It’s increasingly clear that Dick Cheney was the author of the Bush-era torture policies, and my hunch is that when the Justice Department releases the OPR report on the torture memos, we’re going to find more evidence of the invisible hand of Dick Cheney behind the whole project. Any fair-minded federal prosecutor looking into the matter would shortly be preparing to do what Patrick Fitzgerald probably wishes now he had done: indict Dick Cheney.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Burying the Supply Side

Bruce Bartlett is an economist who worked with Jack Kemp in creating the original supply-side tax cuts that were embraced by the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan beginning in 1980. He has since rejected that approach and become an outspoken critic of Republican tax policies. In his new book, The New American Economy, and on his blog, he discusses why his economic philosophy has changed.
During the George W. Bush years, however, I think SSE (supply-side economics) became distorted into something that is, frankly, nuts--the ideas that there is no economic problem that cannot be cured with more and bigger tax cuts, that all tax cuts are equally beneficial, and that all tax cuts raise revenue.

These incorrect ideas led to the enactment of many tax cuts that had no meaningful effect on economic performance. Many were just give-aways to favored Republican constituencies, little different, substantively, from government spending. What, after all, is the difference between a direct spending program and a refundable tax credit? Nothing, really, except that Republicans oppose the first because it represents Big Government while they support the latter because it is a "tax cut."

I think these sorts of semantic differences cloud economic decisionmaking rather than contributing to it. As a consequence, we now have a tax code riddled with tax credits and other tax schemes of dubious merit, expiring provisions that never expire, and an income tax that fully exempts almost on half of tax filers from paying even a penny to support the general operations of the federal government.

The supply-siders are to a large extent responsible for this mess, myself included. We opened Pandora's Box when we got the Republican Party to abandon the balanced budget as its signature economic policy and adopt tax cuts as its raison d'être. In particular, the idea that tax cuts will "starve the beast" and automatically shrink the size of government is extremely pernicious.

Indeed, by destroying the balanced budget constraint, starve-the-beast theory actually opened the flood gates of spending. As I explained in a recent column, a key reason why deficits restrained spending in the past is because they led to politically unpopular tax increases. But if, as Republicans now maintain, taxes must never be increased at any time for any reason then there is never any political cost to raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, as the Bush 43 administration and a Republican Congress did year after year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pre-Existing Insanity

As if the concept of pre-existing condition could not be more bizarre, Steve Benen picks up on the story of an overweight infant denied coverage in Colorado.
  • Imagine having a perfectly healthy two month old baby and having your insurance company tell you they won't cover him. One [Grand Junction, Colo.] family says that's what's happened to them.
  • Baby Alex is a happy, adorable, big baby. And now at three months old, the family's insurance company says he's not eligible for coverage.
  • Alex eats well, is growing fast and has no pre-existing conditions. But his mom Kelli says their insurance company says he's just too big. "Insurance standards say if he's above 95 percent he's uninsurable."
  • Because of his size, Alex was turned down for health insurance, his height and weight put him in the 99th percentile according to CDC guidelines.
The baby is healthy, but is nevertheless considered "obese." The insurance company said "a number has to be used as a cutoff," so Alex was out of luck, through no fault of his own

The baby's father added, "I could understand if we could control what he's eating. But he's 4 months old. He's breast-feeding. We can't put him on the Atkins diet or on a treadmill. There is just something absurd about denying an infant."
After the story went public, the insurance company backed down. But, still....

RNC Web Fail

Steve Benen notes some of the highlights of the new website rolled out today by the Republican National Committee. In addition to struggling with intermittent crashes, RNC head Michael Steele has produced some real gems:
* The site includes a new two-page section on Republican "heroes." It features quite a few historic African Americans -- note to the RNC: you're trying way too hard -- including legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, who wasn't actually a Republican.

* Steele has a blog on the site. It's called "What Up." The first sentence reads, "The Internet has been around a while, now." Seriously, that's exactly what it says.

* The site features a timeline of Republican Party "accomplishments," dating back to 1860. The last entry is from 2004, and refers to directing federal funds to private religious schools in D.C., in a voucher program that's failed in a variety of ways. The previous "accomplishment" was the launch of the Iraq war in 2003 (the piece also spells "Iraq" incorrectly). According to the RNC's own new website, the Republican Party hasn't had any accomplishments in the last five years.

* The RNC created a page for "future leaders" of the party. It's literally blank.

* Steele's first blog post asks readers, "Why are you are Republican? Think about that for a minute."
Sure beats me!!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You Won the Nobel Peace Prize, Now What?

Kevin Drum comments on Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal's op-ed in Friday's WaPo.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, obviously didn't know that Barack Obama was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when he wrote his op-ed about Afghanistan in this morning's Washington Post, but he sure sets out some Nobel-worthy goals in his piece.  Here are two of his six bullets:
  • Fix the Durand Line. As long as this border drawn by the British is not fixed, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be at loggerheads and always suspicious of one another. A joint development project for the border area, announced by both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and supported by the United States and the world community, will direct people's eyes to the future rather than the past.
  • Push India and Pakistan to fix Kashmir. That is doable, once both countries see a determined effort by the United States in that direction. Both countries are beholden to the United States -- Pakistan for the military and financial support it receives and India for the nuclear energy agreement it has signed with Washington.
OK then!  Just fix two problems that are among the oldest, most intractable border disputes on the planet.  And then in his second term Obama will be freed up to negotiate that long-awaited peace treaty with Mars.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Health Care Reform Turns the Corner

Paul Krugman notes that it is beginning to look likehealth care reform is going to pass,
What’s actually happening, though, is that the backlash crested mid-summer, and that there is now at least a modest backlash against the backlash. At the same time, the Obama administration has made it clear that they will push something through, using reconciliation if necessary, and in effect put Democrats who don’t go along on the spot.
And all this in turn means that Democrats who probably don’t really want reform have lost what they had in 1993: safety in numbers. It’s one thing to let health care die quietly; it’s another to be one of the, say, two Democratic senators responsible for denying cloture and blocking the party’s most important domestic policy initiative since Medicare, and then to be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for big losses in the midterms.
So the odds now are that the thing hangs together, and reform is indeed enacted this year. It will be a highly flawed product; we’ll probably spend much of the next decade trying to fix it.
But it does look as if it’s going to happen. And that will be a huge victory for progressives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pirate Fail

Oops...from the BBC:
A group of Somali pirates has been captured after attacking a French navy ship by mistake, apparently thinking it was a harmless cargo vessel.

French military spokesman Admiral Christophe Prazuck said the pirates attacked in skiffs late at night some 500km (310 miles) off the Somali coast.

But the command and supply ship, the Somme, repelled the attack and chased the pirates, capturing five of them.
Probably not how they were taught to do it in pirate school....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Afghan Muddling

Marc Lynch, who writes the Abu Aardvark blog for Foreign Policy, poses a fundamental question on the options facing the Obama Administration as it struggles with the decision as to what to do in Afghanistan (h/t Ezra).
I've been hearing two things a lot about the President's choices on Afghanistan strategy: first, that it's time to either "go all in or get out", the second that he is "dithering" in the face of an urgent decision. Both seem to me profoundly unhelpful, driven more by political positioning than by serious analysis. Sending more troops may in fact be the right call -- I'm open-minded on that question -- but the attempts to bull-rush the process are problematic on their face.

"All in or get out" is a typical false choice offered by advocates of any position who support the "all in" option in question, since it's so much easier to argue the risks of "getting out" than it is to argue against intermediate options. And as for the rush, why make such a momentous choice precisely at a moment of total political chaos in Afghanistan and the near complete absence of a legitimate partner on which to build due to the rampant fraud which eviscerated the Afghan election?
He goes on to dispute the argument that since we need to have a debate at some point, why not have it now and get it over with and also notes his skepticism on several key points.
I'm skeptical about the ambitious goals on offer because the odds of it succeeding on those terms are exceedingly low. If the goal is the creation of a functioning, effective, legitimate Afghan state then I would say the prospects are close to zero. Not with 40,000 troops, not with 400,000 troops, not in twelve months and not in twelve years. Afghanistan has gone through nearly thirty years of non-stop war and is as close to a functional anarchy as most anyplace on Earth. I am unmoved by arguments that there was once a decent state fifty or a hundred years ago. Thirty years of continuous war and anarchy are not so easily overcome – with or without the Afghan election fiasco. If the goal is lower than that – local level security, keeping the Taliban on the ropes, etc – then maybe this can be done for a while. More troops would help do it in more places, but I doubt it would add up to the national level.

Which brings me to a serious question: what’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.