Archive for the ‘The Bush Legacy’ Category

Must-Reads of the Week: Google/China, Liberal American Exceptionalism, The Failed War on Drugs, Defending the Individual Mandate, Counter Counter-Insurgency, Idiocrats, and Men Did It!

Friday, March 26th, 2010

1. Google v. China. I’ve refrained from posting on the Google v. China battle going on until now. So much of the praise for Google’s decision seemed overblown and I wasn’t sure what insight I had to offer, even as I read everything on the matter I could. But now, the wave of criticism of the company is pissing me off. I get the source of the criticism – that Google is so quickly criticizing other companies for staying in China after it left, and that Google’s partial exit may have made business as well as moral sense.  But motives are new pure – we’re human. Those who the critics accuse the company of merely using as a pretext for a business decision see the matter in other terms – according to Emily Parker of the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese twitterverse is alight with words like ‘justice’ and ‘courageous’ and ‘milestone’ “ and condolence flowers and cups being sent to Google’s offices in China.

What the Google/China conflict highlights though is the strategic incompatibility of a tech company like Google and an authoritarian state like China. One of James Fallows’ readers explains why Google and China could never get along:

Internet search and analytics companies today have more access to high quality, real-time information about people, places and events, and more ability to filter, aggregate, and analyze it than any government agency, anywhere ever.  Maybe the NSA can encrypt it better and process it faster but it lacks ability to collect the high value data – the stuff that satellites can’t see.  The things people think but don’t say.  The things people do but don’t say.  All documented in excruciating detail, each event tagged with location, precise time.  Every word you type, every click you make (how many sites do you visit have google ads, or analytics?), Google is watching you – and learning.  It’s their business to.  This fact has yet to sink in on the general public in the US, but it has not gone un-noticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government wants unfettered access to all of that information.  Google, defending its long-term brand equity, cannot give its data to the Chinese government.  Baidu, on the other hand, would and does…

The reader goes on to explain how China would slow down and otherwise disrupt Google services in China enough to ensure that Baidu would keep it’s dominant position. This, he explains is:

…just another example of the PRC’s brilliant take on authoritarian government: you don’t need total control, you just need effective control. [my emphasis]

Which is why it is so important that a country like China have constant access to search engine data. In a passage deleted at some point in the editing process from a New York Times story (which an internal Times search reveals to be this one), it was reported that:

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

2. Liberal American Exceptionalism. Damon Linker of The New Republic responds to critics:

[T]he most distinctive and admirable of all [America’s] qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.

3. The War on Drugs Is Doomed. Mary Anastacia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal echoes me saying: The War on Drugs is Doomed. (My previous posts on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

4. Defending the Individual Mandate. Ezra Klein explains why the individual mandate is actually a really good deal for American citizens:

The irony of the mandate is that it’s been presented as a terribly onerous tax on decent, hardworking people who don’t want to purchase insurance. In reality, it’s the best deal in the bill: A cynical consumer would be smart to pay the modest penalty rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for insurance. In the current system, that’s a bad idea because insurers won’t let them buy insurance if they get sick later. In the reformed system, there’s no consequence for that behavior. You could pay the penalty for five years and then buy insurance the day you felt a lump.

Klein also had this near-perfect post on our unhinged debate on health care reform and added his take to the projections of Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen on how health care law will evolve in the aftermath of this legislation.

5. Counter-Counter-Insurgency. Marc Lynch describes a document he recently unearthed which he calls AQ-Iraq’s Counter Counter-insurgency plan. Lynch describes the document as “pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad’s way forward.”

6. Idiocrats Won’t Change. Brendan Nyhan counters a point I (along with many other supporters of the health care bill) have been making (here and here for example) – that once the bill passes, the misperceptions about it will be corrected by reality. I fear he may be right, but I believe it will change opinions on the margins soon and more so over time.

7. Theories of the Financial Crisis: Men Did It. Sheelah Kolhatkar looks at one theory of the financial crisis some experts have been pushing: testosterone and men.

Another study Dreber has in the works will look at the effects of the hormones in the birth-control pill on women, because women having their periods have been shown to act more like men in terms of risk-taking behavior. “When I present that in seminars, I say men are like women menstruating,” she says, laughing…

Positioning himself as a sort of endocrine whisperer of the financial system, Coates argues that if women made up 50 percent of the financial world, “I don’t think you’d see the volatile swings that we’re seeing.” Bubbles, he believes, may be “a male phenomenon.”

His colleague, neuroscientist Joe Herbert, agrees. “The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way,” he says. “Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster.”

A very interesting thesis. And one that strikes me as broadly true. I previously explored other theories of what caused the financial crisis:

[Image by me.]

Must-Reads of the Week: A history lesson, Reconciling Chart, Theism, Starbucks, the New Global Middle Class, the Beijing Consensus, and the Traitorous Supreme Court

Friday, March 12th, 2010

A history lesson in ramming through one piece of legislation. Ezra Klein gives a short history lesson describing the tactics used by Republicans to “ram through” the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

Reconciling chart. The New York Times provides a chart of all the times reconciliation has been used.

Theism. Andrew Sullivan provides a beautiful quote from David Foster Wallace making what may be the best case for theism generally that I’ve seen.

Starbucks. Greg Beato for Reason has an interesting if annoying skewed take on Starbucks and its attempts to stay hip. His history and overall point is interesting, but the point of view he injects, his contempt for his less capitalist brethren, is irritating.

The New Global Middle Class. Rana Foroohar and Marc Margolis in Newsweek describe the new “global middle class” which “is more unstable and less liberal than we thought.” The examples they give are rather frustrating though. Brazil’s middle class is described as “more unstable and less liberal” because they applaud “more state control of the oil industry to keep out greedy foreign firms” and that “they don’t need outside advice on how to structure their societies, thank you.” The Russian middle class’s support for Putin and the Chinese support of the Beijing consensus are also cited and are much better examples proving their point. An interesting article, that touches on some gradually evolving issues in a way that most articles do not – but it seems to harness facts to reach their end rather than allow the facts to dictate the result.

The Beijing Consensus. Yang Yao in Foreign Affairs speculates that the Beijing Consensus – “a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention” – may be eroding. And as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense,” and “has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead, by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens,” the end of this consensus would lead to “greater democratization.”

The Traitorous Supreme Court. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy takes on the Andrew McCarthy/Liz Cheney line of attack calling those attorneys currently in the Justice Department who represented some of those branded terrorists by the Bush administration asking this question:

Does McCarthy think the Justices of the Supreme Court are guilty of aiding the enemy, and that (if we treat them like everybody else) they should be “indicted for coming to the enemy’s aid during wartime”?

[Image by me.]

Must-Reads During This Week: Perfect Storm for Health Reform, Making Controversy, Cyberwar, Limiting Government, Liz Cheney’s Al Qaeda Connection, George Will, and the Coffee Party

Monday, March 8th, 2010

In lieu of a substantial post today (as I’m having trouble getting back into the blog-writing habit), here’s a few links to worthwhile articles.

1. Perfect Storm. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic explains that a “Perfect Storm Nearly Killed Health Reform; Another Storm May Save It.” However, what Ambinder describes as the “perfect storm” that might save health reform seems to be more properly called Obama’s willingness to wait out bad news cycles.

2. Controversy. Ezra Klein opines usefully on “how to make something controversial“:

The media is giving blanket coverage to this “controversial” procedure being used by the Democrats. But using reconciliation for a few fixes and tweaks isn’t controversial historically, and it’s not controversial procedurally. It’s only controversial because Republicans are saying it is. Which is good enough, as it turns out. In our political system, if Democrats and Republicans are yelling at each other over something, then for the media, that is, by definition, controversy.

3. Cyberwar? Ryan Singel of Wired‘s Threat Level reported some of the back-and-forth among the U.S. intelligence community, explaining why Republicans want to undermine and destroy the internet for national security as well as for commercial reasons. The Obama administration’s web security chief maintains in an interview with Threat Level that, “There is no cyberwar.”

4. Limiting government. Jacob Weisberg of Slate always seems to be looking for the zeitgeist. His piece this week is on how Obama can embrace the vision of limited government.  While all the pieces are there, he doesn’t quite make the connection I want to make: that government is absolutely needed even as it must be limited and its power checked. A post on this line has been percolating in my mind for some time, and now that Weisberg has written his piece, I feel its just about time for me to write mine.

5. Liz Cheney, Al Qaeda Sympathizer? Dahlia Lithwick slams Liz Cheney for her recent ad calling the Justice Department the “Department of Jihad” and labeling some attorneys there the “Al-Qaeda 7”:

Given that the Bill of Rights pretty much evaporates once you’ve been deemed a jihadi lover of Bin Laden, you might think Liz Cheney would be super-careful tossing around such words They have very serious legal implications…Having worked for years to ensure that the word jihadist is legally synonymous with guilty, Cheney cannot be allowed to use it casually to describe anyone she simply doesn’t like.

6. George Will: More Partisan Than Independent? Ezra Klein catches George Will out in a rather telling fit of procedural outrage over the Democrats’ use of reconciliation in the Senate. Plus, Klein uses this nifty chart to illustrate that dramatic change that George Will doesn’t happen to comment upon:

7. Coffee Party. I’m intrigued by this idea, though I don’t know how workable it is.

[Image taken by me over the weekend.]

“To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature.”

Monday, February 8th, 2010

On Saturday night, Sarah Palin addressed the Tea Party Convention in Tennessee. Her performance recalled her national debut as McCain’s vice presidential nominee – feisty-ness, outrageous accusations leveled with a winning smile, sharper digs at Obama’s character than her muddled criticisms of his policies. But there was a new political confidence – a confidence in her ability to position herself to best catch the prevailing political winds. One of her main lines of attack against Obama was to re-try the Rovian strategy of calling him weak on terrorism:

The events surrounding the Christmas Day plot reflect the kind of thinking that led to September 11th. That…the…threat then, as the USS Cole was attacked,our Embassies were attacked, it was treated like an international crime spree, not like an act of war. We’re seeing that mindset again settle into Washington. That scares me for my children and for your children. Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at grave risk. Because that’s not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this. They know we’re at war. And to win that war, we need a Commander-in-Chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.

Sarah Palin though isn’t really attacking Barack Obama’s positions on national security directly. He has been rather cautious in moving in the direction she’s attacking him for moving. The person Sarah Palin should be attacking is Judge William Young, who oversaw the trial of shoe bomber Richard Reid. (Republicans across America have recently taken to condemning George W. Bush’s handling of Reid because it was so similar to how Barack Obama handled Abdulmutallab.)  Judge Young confronted Reid –  as well as the government’s prosecutors of Reid. In Court, he eloquently defended the very position Sarah Palin is attempting to paint as “soft” on terrorism: a respect for the Rule of Law, a view of these terrorists as scum unworthy of being honored as warriors. He looked into the face of this terrorist and diminished him and all of his comrades. Young’s remarks are well worth reading (or re-reading.) I’d seem them referenced before and seen quotations – but today I finally read the transcript. (H/t Andrew Sullivan.)

We are not afraid of any of your terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have been through the fire before. There is all too much war talk here. And I say that to everyone with the utmost respect.

Here in this court where we deal with individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as individuals, as human beings we reach out for justice.

You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist.

And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not treat with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists.

We hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice.

So war talk is way out of line in this court. You’re a big fellow. But you’re not that big. You’re no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.

In a very real sense Trooper Santiago had it right when first you were taken off that plane and into custody and you wondered where the press and where the TV crews were and you said you’re no big deal. You’re no big deal.

What your counsel, what your able counsel and what the equally able United States attorneys have grappled with and what I have as honestly as I know how tried to grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it that led you here to this courtroom today? I have listened respectfully to what you have to say. And I ask you to search your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led you to do what you are guilty and admit you are guilty of doing.

And I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you. But as I search this entire record it comes as close to understanding as I know.

It seems to me you hate the one thing that to us is most precious. You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not believe as we individually choose.

Here, in this society, the very winds carry freedom. They carry it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom. So that everyone can see, truly see that justice is administered fairly, individually, and discretely.

It is for freedom’s seek that your lawyers are striving so vigorously on your behalf and have filed appeals, will go on in their, their representation of you before other judges. We care about it. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties.

Make no mistake though. It is yet true that we will bear any burden; pay any price, to preserve our freedoms.

Look around this courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember what you or I say here. Day after tomorrow it will be forgotten. But this, however, will long endure. Here, in this courtroom, and courtrooms all across America, the American people will gather to see that justice, individual justice, justice, not war, individual justice is in fact being done.

The very President of the United States through his officers will have to come into courtrooms and lay out evidence on which specific matters can be judged, and juries of citizens will gather to sit and judge that evidence democratically, to mold and shape and refine our sense of justice.

See that flag, Mr. Reid? That’s the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom. You know it always will. Custody, Mr. Officer. Stand him down.

Young’s obvious strategic confidence in America, in our strength and in the resiliency of our way of life, demonstrates how weak-kneed the preemptive surrender advocated by Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney is in comparison.

[Image by Kamal H. licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Ezra Klein, Sleeper Issue of 2010, Success, Virtual Insanity, Abdulmutallab, Obstruction, and Madden

Friday, February 5th, 2010

1. Ezra Klein on Rep. Paul Ryan, Health Care, and the Deficit. If you want a serious, policy-oriented daily take on health care and fiscal issues, turn to Ezra Klein. This week, he began the opinionosphere’s discussion of Rep. Paul Ryan’s serious attempt to balance the budget (which has no chance of being embraced even by the Republicans or Democrats.) Later, he interviewed Rep. Ryan – though it read more like a discussion between two serious people about fiscal policy and health care reform. Klein later attempted to see where along the political spectrum the Senate health care reform bill fell:

Take Rep. Paul Ryan’s health-care plan…as the conservative pole on this issue. Then take single-payer and place it on the other side of the spectrum. Where does the Senate bill fall?

It’s closer to Ryan’s plan than to single-payer. A lot closer, in fact.

Yet this basic fact – that Obama has taken a rather conservative approach to health care substantively similar to the 1994 plan Republicans counter-proposed to Bill Clinton – has been obscured by a Republican Party intent on obstructing Obama’s agenda to gain partisan advantage. As Klein explains, the problem is that the incentives for each party don’t line up:

[T]hat’s the underlying reality of health-care reform. Substantive compromise is easy. In fact, the bill is a substantive compromise. It’s a deficit-neutral, universal-coverage scheme that relies on the private insurance market and looks like one of the Republican alternatives from 1994. What’s hard is political compromise. Because there, the two positions are that Democrats are helped if a bill passes and Republicans make gains if a bill fails. There’s no way to split the difference between those positions.

At the same time, however, Klein castigates Democrats as well as Republicans for failing to put the national good over their own political situations:

The distinguishing feature of the budget conversation, however, is that it happens at a very abstract level. This red line needs to come down to meet this black line, and this huge number needs to eventually become this slightly-smaller number. That’s all fine for a floor speech, but when you start trying to muscle the red line into position or subtract from the very big number, things get real specific, real quick. Suddenly, you’re telling seniors that there are treatments they just can’t get and you’re telling workers that the insurance system is going to have to change. And just as Conrad doesn’t have much appetite for doing that to his constituents on the small things that most of them don’t notice, very few legislators have demonstrated much appetite for doing this to the country on the big things that pretty much everyone notices.

2. I do not accept second place for the United States of America. Edward Alden and E. J. Dionne comment on what is brewing to become the big issue of the 2010 elections, not coincidentally countering the main narrative put forth by the right wing.

3. A successful first year. Norm Ornstein and John P. Judis explain some of the significant accomplishments of Obama’s first year in office.

4. Virtual insanity. Andrew Sullivan’s main theme this week has been the virtual insanity of the Republican Party. He writes: “On every single major issue of the day, they are incoherent.” He quotes Daniel Larison:

Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning.

Then of course are the highlights from that Daily Kos poll in which – for example – 59% of Republicans believe Obama should be impeached for something-or-other.

5. Reid v. Abdulmutallab. Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly gets some hard hits in on the ridiculousness of the Republican response to Obama’s handling of the panty-bomber. And Benen doesn’t even get into the fact that Abdulmutallab is now cooperating.

6. Obstruction. I examined some of the theories of why the Republicans are so uniformly obstructionist.

7. Madden vs. Real Life. As a football-related article for this Super Bowl weekend, Chris Suellentrop for Wired explored how the video game Madden is affecting the real game of football.

[Image by Doug Kim, used with permission of the creator, and in anticipation of the snowstorm that might rock Manhattan today as I’m commuting home.]

Not even the Bush administration argued that the Constitution applies only to American citizens

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Glenn Greenwald:

This notion that the protections of the Bill of Rights specifically and the Constitution generally apply only to the Government’s treatment of American citizens is blatantly, undeniably false — for multiple reasons — yet this myth is growing, as a result of being centrally featured in “War on Terror” propaganda.

[T]he U.S. Supreme Court, in 2008, issued a highly publicized opinion, in Boumediene v. Bush, which, by itself, makes clear how false is the claim that the Constitution applies only to Americans.  The Boumediene Court held that it was unconstitutional for the Military Commissions Act to deny habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees,none of whom was an American citizen (indeed, the detainees were all foreign nationals outside of the U.S.).  If the Constitution applied only to U.S. citizens, that decision would obviously be impossible.  What’s more, although the decision was 5-4, none of the 9 Justices — and, indeed, not even the Bush administration — argued that the Constitution applies only to American citizens. That is such an inane, false, discredited proposition that no responsible person would ever make that claim.

Americans Want a Second Bush-Cheney Administration?

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Sometimes, I’m not sure when Andrew Sullivan means something literally and when he means something as a politically challenging debating point. I say this with the knowledge that the same can be said of me at times. When I tweeted the following, I was challenged to back up this “assertion”:

The Scott Brown Effect? DOW down almost 200 points since election of 41st Republican makes it harder for US to tackle fiscal matters.

I retreated eventually:

In all honesty, this Scott Brown thing was a reaction to the near-constant harping of people on the right about the “Obama effect” on the stock market. It was a way to gain a cheap political point in the short-term while planting the seed of doubt in the mind of those who actually thought Obama was the cause of the stock market drops last fall or today.

In other words, I was trying to win a debate point against those who decried Obama’s effect on the stock market. I wonder if Sullivan is doing something similar himself here:

From Day One, the GOP has had one strategy, utterly unrelated to the country’s interests, and utterly divorced from any responsibility for their own past: the destruction of any alternative to Bush-Cheney conservatism.

They believe that the policies of 2000 – 2008 are the right ones for the future…

It is the second sentence which seems more of a debate point meant to box your opponents in than a legitimate one – because as Sullivan has acknowledged before – the Bush administration’s views changed dramatically around 2004/2005. Which is why its not quite clear to me what one might describe as “the policies of 2000 – 2008.” With regards to national security and terrorism specifically – Bush took office nonchalant about terrorism, panicked after September 11, and then backed away from those panicked positions substantially while defending them as correct rhetorically.

This has been one of Sullivan’s main theses, and one which has profoundly shaped my views of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration in terms of national security policy. For while the Bush administration gradually scaled back the worst abuses, often due to court or rarely, Congressional, intervention, it never repudiated the precedents it set in the panic, precedents that if invoked would create an authoritarian executive. This is what bothered most of the liberals, what they feared. They saw in Bush’s immediate response an understandable panic, but in the precedents he set by refusing to repudiate the measures he took, the seeds of the destruction of our republic.

This is part of the reason Obama’s response has been significant – as he has attempted to gradually move the country to deal with terrorism rationally, in a nonpartisan fashion, and as a matter of law – to deal with it from a coherent strategic-legal framework rather than as the panicked, emergency, tough-seeming Bush policies. Obama has grasped the essential truth: What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism.

While Cheney, et al. attack Obama for abandoning the framework they created for the War on Terror (as they attempt to preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack), it is important to keep pointing out that Bush himself stopped using much of the Cheney framework by the time he left office. What we desperately need is for national security policy to become less polarized, less partisan. Mario Cuomo in the winter of 2007 foreshadowed this moment in history, as he called on Americans fed up with George W. Bush to seek:

Something wiser than our own quick personal impulses. Something sweeter than the taste of a political victory…

He called on Americans to instead turn to:

“Our Lady of the Law,” as she comes to us in our Constitution ─ the nation’s bedrock.

Because this is what many right wingers today reject as they defend – not the Bush administration as a whole – but this hard core Cheneyite view that Bush himself turned away from by the end of his time in office. They defend the panicked policies and fearful abandonment of American values as “tough” – asserting that it was this panicked response that “kept us safe” because they cannot quite bring themselves to acknowledge that no president can keep them safe.

What we so desperately need as a nation – if we are to maintain our power and not fritter away the rule of law and other strengths overreacting to terrorism – is to come to a national, bipartisan consensus on how to deal with terrorism. (We also need to come to a similar consensus on how to deal with our impending fiscal catastrophe – but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Andrew Sullivan sees the stakes – it is he who so often pushes me to confront them – to see that what we face is at its core “a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems.” To resolve this crisis, the ideologues and Cheneyites must be defeated; and they can only be defeated if we are able to take back control of the political conversation from the idiocrats.

Andrew Sullivan convinced me in his moving op-ed last year that the single individual most able to create this consensus is the man who so disgraced himself while in office: George W. Bush. Which is why I think it is a mistake to paint his administration’s policies with such a broad brush. We should condemn the Bush policies of 2001 – 2004, and embrace his gradual evolution to more nuanced positions. We must split those who supported Bush from those who supported Cheney in order to form a broader consensus; even if that distinction barely exists now – we must create it. From that barest of cracks is the beginning of a national consensus and the final marginalization of the Cheneyite view of executive power.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

John Yoo’s Scandalous Affair With George W. Bush!

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Is it okay to laugh at a clever remark by a man who instituted torture in America with his infamous and incompetent “torture memos”? Well, when the line is this – I’d have to say sure. John Yoo as interviewed by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, as she tries to press him for how close he was to George W. Bush – and he demurs, explaining that he was low-ranking rather than really answering the question:

Q: So you’re saying you were just one notch above an intern, you and Monica Lewinsky?
A: She was much closer to the president than I ever was.

Stay tuned for Jon Stewart’s interview of Yoo tonight. Given how Stewart has taken on the architects of the Iraq war when they appeared on the show, there seems little doubt he will go after Yoo regarding his extraordinary legal justifications for the expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and most specifically, for the torture memos. Yoo, for his part, seems as if he will try to dodge the questions with cute one-liners as he did in this interview – which he does rather well I would say.

[Image by sixes and sevens licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Obvious Truths Neglected in Responses to the Christmas Bomber

Monday, January 4th, 2010

As I mentioned today, David Brooks has been writing some damn good columns in recent weeks – and in his most recent, he reiterated a point I had made earlier. As I wrote:

Few seem willing to admit the obvious truth: No centralized power can keep us safe. No intelligence system will be perfect. No watch list will be all-inclusive. No screening procedures are foolproof. We can make it harder for a terrorist to succeed, but in order to win, we need to prevent every attack; while they only need to slip through the cracks once. And there will always be cracks. Even in a totalitarian regime, there are cracks. Part of the price we pay for a free society is vulnerability.

Brooks compared how the Greatest Generation – which greatly expanded government during the Great Depression and World War II – viewed government to how people presently seem to view government:

During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in their own institutions. It was not because these institutions always worked well. The Congress and the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression. The military made horrific mistakes during World War II, which led to American planes bombing American troops and American torpedoes sinking ships with American prisoners of war.

But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. History is not knowable or controllable. People should be grateful for whatever assistance that government can provide and had better do what they can to be responsible for their own fates.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved…

Brooks got a minor point wrong here – as he claims we “expect perfection from government.” My impression is that we demand perfection from the government and expect incompetence, which I would suggest has something to do with government clusterfuck that the 1970s represented along with the demonization of government bureaucracies by the Republican Party starting with Ronald Reagan coupled with the constant invocations of an all-powerful and competent government national security apparatus in mainstream thrillers and right-wing politics. Brooks continues:

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

Greenwald is able to overcome his ressentiment for once (“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column…”) Greenwald continues to develop the idea:

The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety.  Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment.  That’s because certain values — privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power — were more important than mere survival and safety.  A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death.  And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.

I have yet to see any right winger continue to histronically attack Obama while acknowledging either of these two (essentially undisputed) points. Instead, they are forgotten or shunted aside as Obama is accused of all sorts of malfeasance and naïveté.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

The Best Proven Defense Against Terrorism

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The attempted terrorist attack of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day reiterates the lesson America should have learned, but did not learn, on that day:

The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people, is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Bruce Schneir makes a similar limited point about the impotence of so many national security measures:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

It is shocking that this lesson still remains unlearned. And not only does it remain unlearned, but the opposite lesson has been taken. Rather than learning from the events of that day, many have taken their lessons from the television show 24 where an all-powerful, centralized government bureaucracy aiding a rogue agent is able to prevent or mitigate one disaster after another. If one Big Brother-type agency can protect us, then torture, wars in the Middle East, and unlimited executive powers could be the answer. But this requires one to believe that government bureaucracies are incredibly competent – and never fail, even once. As the national security maxim goes: We need to stop them every time to claim success. They only need to succeed once.

Yet, right wingers have lined up to promote this idea that everyone must expect a super-competent government, even as they dismiss government’s ability to effectively do anything else – as for example Henry Paine in the National Review complained of the “federal takeover of the U.S. health system” while blaming the Obama administration for the fact that Abdulmutallab was on this plane, calling the two stories together “A Tale of Failed Washington Priorities.” James Joy Carafano explained that in stopping this attack, we “just got lucky” – which is true – but he couples this with the suggestion that centralized government action would fix this if only Obama cared about stopping terrorism and didn’t want  “Department of Homeland Security push for a mass amnesty bill [rather] than fight terrorists…”

Victor Davis Hanson almost perfectly captures the missed lesson with this:

I think the year-long mantra of “Bush destroyed the Constitution” is now almost over, and we will begin again worrying about our collective safety rather than scoring partisan points by citing supposed excesses in our anti-terrorism efforts… [Yet] As we learned on 9/11, it is often the unsung heroes among us that come out of the shadows to aid us, and not necessarily large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety. Individuals acting on their own so often make the difference between salvation and mass murder.

Let me rephrase: We must worry about “collective safety” and stop trying to protect the Constitution because….”large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety” fail and instead “Individuals acting on their own…make the difference between salvation and mass murder.”

Either that, or perhaps we should realize that no matter what our centralized bureaucratic institutions may do to try to protect us, they will never achieve the competence imagined on 24. Rather, even as they should do what they can, we must realize the lesson learned from these thwarted attacks is that we cannot trust the federal government to protect us. We must protect ourselves. George W. Bush did not have the power to keep us safe after September 11. We did that. Barack Obama likewise does not have the power.

Motivated, vigilant, informed citizens are not a “thin line of defense.” There is no perfect defense to motivated people willing to kill themselves. We should do everything we can to create responsible national security measures to prevent any terrorist attacks – but we must remember that no defense is perfect, and that the best defense, the only proven defense, as events have proven time and again, is a motivated, vigilant, informed citizenry.

[Image by bfraz licensed under Creative Commons.]