Categories
Barack Obama Criticism

The Intoxicating Effect of Fatigue

Michael D. Shear wrote in the Washington Post last week about the extreme hours the Obama administration was putting in – given the magnitude of the tasks they were facing and taking on. He added this word of warning:

One study conducted for the British Parliament found that “mental fatigue affects cognitive performance, leading to errors of judgement, microsleeps (lasting for seconds or minutes), mood swings and poor motivation.” The effect, it found, is equal to a blood alcohol level of .10 percent – above the legal limit to drive in the United States.

Tom Ricks ridiculed what he characterized as the “whining” of the Obama staffers in the piece – and I can see why he is annoyed. But I think fatigue can be a serious issue – especially when people are responsible for doing so much.

[Image by me. It’s supposed to demonstrate the intoxicating effect of fatigue.]

Categories
Barack Obama Health care Politics

The Option of Doing Nothing on Health Care

[digg-reddit-me]Steven Pearlstein began his muchremarked column yesterday morning with a basic observation that most deficit-hawk opponents of Obama’s “experiment” with health care reform don’t seem to acknowledge:

Among the range of options for health-care reform, there’s one that is sure to raise your taxes, increase your out-of-pocket medical expenses, swell the federal deficit, leave more Americans without insurance and guarantee that wages will remain stagnant.

That’s the option of doing nothing…

I have yet to see any opponent of health care reform acknowledge that our current health care system is unsustainable and getting worse, or to acknowledge that the situation has reached a point where it undermines the very legitimacy of America’s model of the state.

Opponents of any of the Democratic health care reform proposals often argue that they are actually in favor of reform – just not this “fast” and not any of the plans being considered at the moment. They don’t have much of a response as to why they showed no concern for this issue when those more inclined to accept their ideas were in power. There have been some attempts to come up with an alternative health care reform, but it doesn’t seem like any actual plan will be offered. For example, Representative Roy Blunt, head of the GOP’s Health Care Solutions Group, is suggesting that no plan will be offered by the Republicans as he asks rhetorically:

[W]hy start diverting attention from this really bad piece of work they’ve got to whatever we’re offering right now?

This is good politics – as long as you’re not serious about reform. As long as your goal is to “break” Obama rather than to fix health care and our growing deficit problem.

I try to take things that people I disagree with politically seriously, assuming their good faith on the issue. But if opponents of the reforms on the table now don’t offer an alternative, talk about “breaking” the Democrats, and refuse to acknowledge the basic fact that the status quo which their opponents are trying to reform is leading to a disaster – all while simultaneously blaming Obama for this looming disaster – what other explanation is there for this behavior than “bad faith”?

Categories
Iran The Opinionsphere

A few disjointed thoughts on Iran

Thomas Erdbrink in the Washington Post:

When asked about protests and complaints, Ahmadinejad said that it was important to ask the opinions of “ true Iranians” on the election. “Like the people you meet at my rallies,” he said. He described the protesters as soccer hooligans who were disappointed that their team lost the match. “This is not important,” he said. “We have full freedom in Iran.” [my emphasis]

I’ve already heard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described as the Sarah Palin of Iran – and this invocation of the “true Iranians” only seems to make the analogy more apt – reminding me at least of Sarah Palin’s invocation of the “pro-American” parts of America.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this – Ahmadinejad’s joke about whether or not Mousavi was under house arrest:

“He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad quipped when asked about his rival.

The moment I heard that Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner, my mind flashed to an Andrew Sullivan post about a texted joke making the rounds in Tehran:

The Election Commission has announced in its last statement regarding the election that writing names such as monkey, traitor, fascist, silly, and [expletive] on the ballots will be considered a vote for Ahmadinejad.

Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times points out a rather odd statistical nugget about the election results for the other reformer in the race:

Karroubi not only didn’t win in his home province of Lorestan, he had less votes than volunteers helping in his campaign.

Escobar also explains the odd sequence of events that led to the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s “election”:

The polls closed at 10pm on Friday, Tehran time. Most main streets then were fully decked out in green. In an absolutely crucial development, the great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Radio Farda how Mousavi’s main campaign office in Tehran received a phone call on Saturday at 1am; the Interior Ministry was saying “Don’t announce Mr Mousavi’s victory yet … We will gradually prepare the public and then you can proceed.” Iranian bloggers broke down the vote at the time as 19.7 million for Mousavi, between 7 and 8 million for Ahmadinejad, 7 million for Karroubi, and 3 million for Rezai.

Then all hell seemed to break loose. Phones, SMS, text messaging, YouTube, political blogs, opposition websites, foreign media websites, all communication networks, in a cascade, were shutting down fast. Military and police forces started to take over Tehran’s streets. The Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of Interior – doubling as election headquarters – was isolated by concrete barriers. Iranian TV switched to old Iron Curtain-style “messages of national unity”. And the mind-boggling semi-final numbers of Ahmadinejad’s landslide were announced (Ahmadinejad 64%, Mousavi 32%, Rezai 2% and Karroubi less than 1%).

The fact that the electoral commission had less than three hours to hand-count 81% of 39 million votes is positively a “divine assessment”.

Pre-election, Robert F. Worth had a few prescient words in his Times piece:

Some Iranians believe that the unruly democratic energies unleashed over the past few weeks could affect this country’s politics no matter who wins…But hope has often outpaced reality in Iran…

Categories
Law Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Name, Rank and Serial Number

[digg-reddit-me]Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask.

Porter Goss, former director of the CIA, in the Washington Post.

Right-wingers from the National Review to Rush Limbaugh to Porter Goss has repeated this line ad infinitum – this constant suggestion or occasionally accusation that opponents of torture only want to ask members of al Qaeda for their “name, rank and serial number.” This is a distortion of the position many opponents of torture take – that the Geneva Conventions do apply even to terrorists. A commenter called salubrius provides a decent breakdown:

There are two standards for interrogation in the Geneva Convention. One standard applies to POWs or prisoners of war. These prisoners have a preferred status in that they may not be coerced to provide information other than their name, rank and serial number. The other standard applies to those who do not qualify as POWs. These are also referred to as unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court in 1942 referred to this classification of lawful and unlawful combatants. 

Terrorists and suspected terrorists are still protected under the Geneva Conventions – though not to the extent of prisoners of war or civilians. Geneva provides certain mininimal protections for “those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Namely, Geneva provides that such persons “shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” and “shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention.” This is the position held by most if not all of those who insist that Geneva still applies to terrorists.

Proponents of torture try to mislead those not following the political conversation closely by disingenously claiming that their opponents consider asking anything more than “name, rank, and serial number” to be torture. In fact, the most successful interrogators of terrorists so far have also been opponents of torture – from Ali Soufan of the FBI to Matthew Alexander of military intelligence.

Categories
Barack Obama Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

When Obama Should Torture Osama

[digg-reddit-me]I feel compelled to respond to Michael Scheuer’s op-ed in the Washington Post. A friend of mine who is in military intelligence brought the story to my attention with an approving comment.

Scheuer is a interesting thinker who have lived and breathed the world of Al Qaeda since before anyone else knew its name. His analysis is always interesting – but his opinions are usually marred by his constant imputation of base motives to anyone with whom he disagrees on policy grounds. This often makes him sound like a political hack rather than an intelligence analyst. In his most recent op-ed, he claims that Barack Obama is “a genuine American Jacobin” placing ideology above reality. (Scheuer doesn’t acknowledge that one of the worse abuses of the real-life Jacobins was their torturing of opponents.) Scheuer goes on:

[T]he president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

Scheuer believes that by ending American torture, the administration is “enthroning Obama’s personal morality as U.S. defense policy.” He argues that the bases for getting rid of torture are simply lies – that torture did not inflame Muslim anger and that it is effective. Scheuer fails to make either point convincingly.

His proof that torture did not inflame the Muslim world is that other things make them madder. (“[T]hey do not even make the Islamists’ hit parade of anti-U.S. recruiting tools”.) Certainly, American torture was not one of the core objections of Al Qaeda – but it did apparently inflame the insurgency in Iraq – as any student of history could have predicted, as torture has served a similar purpose in Algeria under French occupation and in Ireland under British occupation.

On torture’s effectiveness, Scheuer simply expresses outrage that Obama would implicity question the integrity of those who authorized torture. (“[T]he president used his personal popularity and the stature of his office to implicitly identify as liars those former senior U.S. officials who know…that the interrogation techniques have yielded intelligence essential to the nation’s defense.”) Scheuer point should be complicated by the fact that these officials now are seen to be liars because came forward to publicly castigate President Obama, at least in part on false premises – not because the president went out of his way to paint them as liars

Most inanely, Scheuer seems to think that it is merely Obama’s “personal morality” rather than a concern for Rule of Law and our national character that motivates him. This assumption of Scheuer’s part makes him look like a political hack – as Obama has always expressed his opposition to torture as a matter of law and national morality – rather than his own human queasiness. It’s hard to understand how Scheuer can get into the mind of an Al Qaeda operative and convincingly describe the motives of a terrorist but is unwilling or unable to convincingly describe the thought-processes of his opponents closer to home, such as the president.

But the most interesting point Scheuer makes is in his opening hypothetical situation- which he abruptly drops in favor of his piss-poor political analysis. 

The scenario Scheuer describes is this: we have captured Osama Bin Laden. He declares that he knows where and when a devastating nuclear attack will hit America, but he refuses to give any further information. Scheuer presumes torture is an efficient method of getting information, a kind of magical truth serum. This is the type of ticking-time-bomb scenario that theorists often discuss but has never yet happened in recorded history.

Under these circumstances, Scheuer explains, Obama must order Bin Laden be tortured.

Given this hypothetical example – and if torture was believed to be effective – even Obama would have to agree based on his public statements and liberal positions. This is what Scheuer does not understand. 

Liberals do not oppose torture merely because they think it makes us look bad in the eyes of the world or because it violates their individual ethical principles or because they do not believe America has ruthless enemies or because they instinctually take the side of America’s enemies – all of whcih either Scheuer or various other right-wingers have suggsted. Liberals oppose torture because they know history – and they know that even the great and good can be corrupted by power. That means, even America can be corrupted.

America was founded on a certain conception of the individual as having inalienable right that cannot be abrogated by the state. Because of this, America has always been able to differentiate itself from it’s enemies by the fact that it did not torture. While the British tortured Americans during the Revolution, our fledgling nation survived; as the American and Soviet armies marched across Germany our reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners led the highest value Germans to flee towards American lines to surrender to us. To highlight this fundamental difference with our enemies, Ronald Reagan championed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Liberals believe in the idea that is America – and refuse to preemptively surrender it out of fear. Liberals know that once a government is allowed to torture, it is a very slippery slope to tyranny. Which is why this torture debate has never been about the terrorists – it is about us.

Which is why I am sure that Obama would, and if not he should, order that Bin Laden be tortured in the hypothetical example above. But to preserve the Rule of Law and “the idea that is America,” he would not try to hide behind talk of “bad apples” and legalistic memos. He would have to take personal responsibility for this extraordinary and illegal use of authority – and once the crisis has passed he would have to appoint a special prosecutor to examine his actions and put them before the public in an open and transparent matter.

To preserve the Rule of Law, any one who ordered torture or who tortured would have to place himself or herself at the mercy of the public and law enforcement. 

Postscript: Antother thing that Scheuer fails to acknowledge is that George W. Bush’s torture regime was nothing like the hypothetical he offered. Torture did not work quickly – and indeed lasted for months in the publicly acknowledged cases. Interrogators had no ticking time bombs forcing their hand. And in fact, we also know that some false information gleaned from torture was used to justify the Iraq war. This is what torture has always been good for – not as a truth serum, but for extracting politically necessary confessions.

Categories
Barack Obama Morality National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Framing the Torture Debate

[digg-reddit-me]This isn’t a definitive timeline of the debate over torture in America. These are merely some highlights.

On September 11, 2001 we were attacked by militant islamists as they took advantage of the openness of our society and our technology and committed one of the most foul atrocities in history.

By September 12, 2001, everything had changed for those in power – and for many of us – “The sense of danger in the White House was urgent, palpable.” An associate of Condi Rice explained:

We really thought we were going to be attacked – possibly chemical, biological, even nuclear, the potential that they could blow up entire American cities…And then CIA came and said, ‘You know, this is the only way to question these people. Our experts say this is the only program that will work.’ And Justice said that the [Geneva Conventions] didn’t apply…and that the agency program did comply with the torture statute.

Others in the White House described a feeling of panic imbuing all their actions.

On September 16, 2001Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press:

I think the important thing here, Tim, is for people to understand that, you know, things have changed since last Tuesday…We…have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

On August 1, 2002, what becomes known as the Bybee torture memo, written apparently by his deputy John Yoo, re-defines torture as physical pain:

equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.

It is not known if all of the techniques justified using this legal shield have been made public – but a partial list includes:

  • Suffocation by water (waterboarding, or traditionally, the water torture);
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head…
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees’ neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall…
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face…
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement…
  • Prolonged nudity…this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months…
  • Sleep deprivation…through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music…
  • Exposure to cold temperature…especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and…use of cold water poured over the body or…held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet…
  • Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family…
  • Forced shaving of the head and beard…
  • Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest…

Sometime in 2002John Ashcroft exclaims during a meeting of the cabinet-level officials going over the details of how detainees are being interrogated:

History will not judge this kindly.

Donald Rumsfeld writes on 2002 memo describing interrogation techniques:

I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?

Rumsfeld presumably stood at a desk, using it for support and moved around – a very different experience than “forced standing,” a former Communist torture technique which can result in physical effects which Red Cross reports described in detainees:

After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent edema is produced by the extravasation of fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum….

Beginning in 2004, photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal surface:

Christopher Hitchens – after publicaly calling waterboarding and the other interrogation methods used merely “extreme interrogation” and not “outright torture” – accepts a challenge to undergo it himself. He comes away a changed man:

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict…

[I]f waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Deroy Murdok writes in the National Review:

Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud.

 

Former CIA operative Barry Eisler:

[T]orture is also an excellent way to get the subject to confess to anything at all, which is why it was a wonderful tool for the Spanish Inquisition and for the secret police of assorted totalitarian regimes. But if the goal is to produce accurate, actionable intelligence, torture is madness… To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, torture is worse than immoral: it’s tactically stupid. It produces false confessions, which can be used to confirm mistaken suspicions and even outright policy fantasies; it instills an insatiable thirst for vengeance in most people who are subjected to it, and so creates new, dedicated enemies; it permanently brutalizes its practitioners; and it cuts us off from intelligence from the local populace because so many people will refuse to inform on someone if they fear he’ll be tortured.

On October 15, 2004, Justice John Stevens wrote:

For if this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

On June 14, 2005, Senator Dick Durbin gave a controversial speech in which he read from an FBI report of detainee interrogations:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners

Malcolm Nance, a former SERE interrogator explained that Senator Dick Durbin was right:

Now, at long last, six years of denials can now be swept aside, and we can say definitively: America engaged in torture and legalized it through paperwork.

Despite all the gyrations – the ducking, dodging and hiding from the facts – there is no way to say that these people were not authorizing torture. Worse yet, they seem to have not cared a wit that these techniques came from the actual manuals of communist, fascist and totalitarian torturers.

On September 28, 2005, Captain Ian Fishback wrote a letter to Senator John McCain:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.

On November 4, 2005, Senator John McCain explained his opposition to torture:

I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

On January 19, 2009Dick Cheney explained to the Weekly Standard

I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured…

On January 14, 2009, Bob Woodward interviewed the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the Washington Post:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

On January 22, 2009, a day after taking office, Barack Obama said:

I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

In April 2009, Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

[T]he political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

On April 20, 2009, Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity:

I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

In spring 2008, Eric Holder explained:

We owe the American people a reckoning.

On March 18, 2008 Dawn Johnsen, who has been appointed to head Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel which was responsible for the legal opinions cited above wrote in in Slate:

We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

On April 19, 2009, Peggy Noonan on This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

Some things in life need to be mysterious … Sometimes you need to just keep walking.

(All emphases within quotations are my own.)

This is where we stand today – thanks to the courage of heroes within the Bush administration and the military who stood for American values in a time of crisis and against preemptive surrender of our way of life and thanks to the courage of journalists from Mark Danner to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to Dana Priest to Jane Mayer who exposed these secret actions.

Categories
Barack Obama Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

A Typically Wrong-headed Krauthammer Column

[digg-reddit-me]Charles Krauthammer in a typically insightful yet wrong-headed article carries out an intriguing thought experiment:

Five minutes of explanation to James Madison, and he’ll have a pretty good idea what a motorcar is (basically a steamboat on wheels; the internal combustion engine might take a few minutes more). Then try to explain to Madison how the Constitution he fathered allows the president to unilaterally guarantee the repair or replacement of every component of millions of such contraptions sold in the several states, and you will leave him slack-jawed.

I’m somewhat surprised that Krauthammer knows who James Madison is – given his reluctance to acknowledge the Constitution places any limits on executive power in the realm of national security in direct contravention of Madison’s understanding of his Constitution. But I suppose Krauthammer rationalizes that away by explaining that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact” and thus in times of physical danger can be safely stored away – but in an economic emergency, it must constrict the president as much as possible to preserve the status quo. But by exclaiming how shocked Madison would be at power politics, Krauthammer manages to make Madison out to be a naif – rather than the student of human nature and power that he was.

Still, one can rightly imagine Madison questioning how we got here. So, I will answer Madison’s hypothetical question, namely – “How is it that the limited government he constructed in his Constitution can allow the president to unilaterally guarantee the repair or replacement of every component of millions of such contraptions sold in the several states?”

Because, Mr. Madison, in 1929, with a small percentage of Americans gaining control of a large chunk of the nation’s economy, the market broke down and the government was forced to assume some partial responsibility for the well-being of it’s its citizens and to curb the excesses of the markets.

Then, in 1980, the government began reducing it’s its responsibility for the well-being of its citizens and removing the safeguards put in place to prevent another disasterous market breakdown. This led to another thoroughly undemocratic concentation of power – which the public accepted in return for the assurance that their standard of living would constantly improve. And so it was under Ronald Reagan that the government became responsible for assuring constant economic growth that would benefit all classes of society, at least a bit.

And now, that arrangement has come to a screeching halt. 

Obama is proposing a new social bargain – a fact which Krauthammer recognizes. But Krauthammer sees this bargain in terms that were relevant in the 1980s – as a resurgence of the Great Society liberalism he grew to hate. But instead, Obama proposes a new market-state liberalism – in which the government accepts a responsibility to referee and more actively maintain the markets and to provide investments that are too capital-intensive and long term for corporations with their limited time horizons to finance. Obama also believes it is the government’s role to reduce the disruption and instability that the creative destruction of capitalism wreaks. The end goal is to create a more level playing field and mainly through soft government pressure prevent destabilizing concentrations of power.

Krauthammer though only sees Lyndon Johnson reborn intent on “leveling” society and reducing the inequities between the rich and the rest of us. Krauthammer explains that for Obama the “ultimate social value is fairness” – and Krauthammer means this as a bad thing. The subtlety that Krauthammer sidesteps is that Obama is in favor of fair processes rather than enforcing some pre-determined fair ends. This was the traditional position of the conservative – but it is position that conservatives have long since abdicated. Presumably when he criticizes fairness, Krauthammer believes that markets should strive for efficiency rather than fairness – but he neglects to make any case that our current market structure is efficient. 

Michael Osinski described in New York magazine the logic of how money is awarded on Wall Street:

I was very good at programming a computer. And that computer, with my software, touched billions of dollars of the firm’s money. Every week. That justified it. When you’re close to the money, you get the first cut. Oyster farmers eat lots of oysters, don’t they?

This describes neither a fair nor an efficient way of distributing resources. What “conservatives” such as Krauthammer do not realize is that capitalism, like democracy, is merely the least-worst system of managing the market – and that just as democracy’s excesses must be managed, so must capitalism’s. Krauthammer does not seem to accept that the structure of governance is changing with globalization – as the nations of the world are evolving into market-states. It was the beginning of this shift that led to Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s success. Although some conservatives saw these successes as a return to a pre-Great Society or a pre-New Deal America, they represented instead a shift forward, an evolution from nation to market-state. Liberals lost elections because their solutions no longer spoke to this evolved America – and they could not see the sand shifting beneath themselves. They were stuck in the past.

But now – as Niall Ferguson has admitted – it is only the liberals who are providing a coherent answer to the challenges we face.

Krauthammer – like far too many conservatives today – is stuck pretending we face the challenges of the 1980s all over again. Until conservatives like him notice the sand shifting beneath them, they will have little to offer. As a well-functioning democracy requires at least two functioning political parties, I hope they get their heads our of the sand sooner rather than later.

Categories
Barack Obama Political Philosophy Politics The Opinionsphere

The Real Obama Enigma

[digg-reddit-me]A thought-provoking essay by Liam Julian in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review explores the relationship between Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr. The essay unsurprisingly concludes that Obama failed to learn the essential lesson of Niebuhr (unsurprising because it appears in the far-right Policy Review) – namely that: 

[M]an must act forcefully but humbly and free from naïve expectations.

Julian explains the appeal of this Niebuhrianism as a kind of balancing act:

[Obama] is a liberal, as was Niebuhr, and idealism smolders within even the most sensible liberals. The point is not to suffocate the idealism but to control its flames…

The conservative Julian sees Obama flaming idealistically in his first few months in office because any liberalism is too much for him. But E. J. Dionne – like most liberals – sees Obama as constantly balancing opposites, attempting to control the risks associated with progress while not yielding to a reactionary politics:

That’s the Obama enigma: boldness wrapped in caution rooted in an ambivalent relationship to the status quo. This is why Obama will, by turns, challenge not only his entrenched adversaries but also his natural allies.

The Obama enigma is about balancing opposites. It is an idealistic pragmatism, a conservative liberalism. This constant balancing is inherent in every aspect of the Obama administration. As James Surowiecki observes in the New Yorker with regards to the banking crisis for example:

[T]he Administration is trying to do two things at once. In solving the current crisis, it’s partnering with Wall Street, using the existing system to try to stabilize the economy. But in thinking about the future it’s trying to use hostility to Wall Street to bring about serious changes in the system. This is quite a balancing act: let’s hope the Administration can pull it off.

Categories
Law Mexico National Security Pakistan Political Philosophy

The Soft Underbelly of the Modern State

[digg-reddit-me]In other periods of history, opponents of a state would assassinate leaders to force changes in policy. The leader was invested with such power that removing him or her from his position would create an opportunity to change a government’s policies and overall posture towards the world. Today, although assassination is still a tool, the focus of opponents of the state – who are mainly identified as terrorists today – is to attack the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law – the primacy of laws over all individuals, including those in power, a principle which prevents authoritarianism, the arbitrary use of power, and anarchy – is perhaps the most valuable and vulnerable asset a state can have. Without it, there can be no democratic discourse or free elections and no free market. Yet the Rule of Law is especially vulnerable as it relies upon a wide range of institutions and conditions – all of are required to achieve the public trust needed: an independent judiciary; a professional police corps; a relative peace; the transparency of laws and law-making; the right of every individual to be given a fair hearing if they are being held by the state; a sense of basic justice within the society. A single rogue cop, a corrupt judge, or an unjust law undermines the Rule of Law – and if it is not well-established, can destroy it.

Reading about Mexico and Pakistan – the two major nations the U.S. Joint Forces Command listed as major nations that could suddenly collapse in the next year – one is confronted again and again with what each has in common: the Rule of Law is being deliberately subverted by major groups within these nations. If either nation is not able to maintain some semblance of the Rule fo Law within it’s borders, they will have effectively collapsed.

In Mexico, the Rule of Law has been undermined for years but is perhaps now finally reaching a tipping point. As Marc Lacey reported in the New York Times:

The cartels bring in billions of dollars more than the Mexican government spends to defeat them, and they spend their wealth to bolster their ranks with an untold number of politicians, judges, prison guards and police officers — so many police officers, in fact, that entire forces in cities across Mexico have been disbanded and rebuilt from scratch.

Steve Fainaru and William Booth reported in the Washington Post that:

The government is attempting to vet and retrain 450,000 officers, most at the state and municipal levels, employing lie detectors, drug tests, psychological profiling and financial reviews to weed out corruption and incompetence. Nearly half of the 56,000 officers vetted so far have failed.

Police corruption is clearly endemic in Mexico. It is for this reason that President Felipe Calderón has tasked the military with taking on the drug cartels – and it is also for this reason that many local police forces are now run by former military officers. But as the Lacey article makes clear, even the military is compromised – both from within by informants paid off by the cartels – and by the army-sized force of former soldiers that works for the cartels:

Although Mexico’s military is regarded as significantly less corrupt than the country’s police forces, defense officials estimate that 100,000 soldiers have quit to join the cartels over the past seven years.

As evidence that Mexico is even more compromised, Lacey reports that:

The reach of the drug kingpins has even the army fearful. Many soldiers cover their faces while on patrol to avoid being identified and singled out by the drug cartels. The army also recently began allowing soldiers to grow their hair longer, because military-style crew cuts were believed to be putting off-duty soldiers at risk.

Sam Quinones writing for Foreign Policy described how thoroughly Mexico had changed in the past decade, recounting anecdotes about the flagrancy of the cartels’ violation of laws.  Mayor José Reyes Ferriz of Ciudad Juárez lives across the border in Texas because he is not safe in the town he was elected to govern. The cartels have brought Mexico almost to a breaking point because they have undermined the Rule of Law through large portions of the country. The law is obviously a barrier to their illegal activities. Fainaru and Booth reported a senior advisor to President Calderón explained the motivation behind the desire to use the military to attempt to combat the cartels:

The executions, the decapitations, the confrontations between the drug gangs. There was a perception in society of lawlessness, that there was no state.

This perception is enough to destroy a nation – which is why the Mexican government has taken such drastic measures to combat it. At the same time, the steps taken by President Calderón – using the military – have themselves undermined the Rule of Law. As Monte Alejandro Rubido, a senior public security official explained the tradeoff:

It can be traumatic to have the army in control of public security, but I am convinced that we don’t have a better alternative, even with all the risks that it implies.

It is good that Calderón realizes that there is a tradeoff. His judgment remains that this is the least worst option – and his goal is one that we in America must share – the restoration of the Rule of Law in our neighbor. 

Similarly, in Pakistan, the Rule of Law has been undermined by the central government – as former President Musharaff disbanded the Supreme Court, as President Zardari refused to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry for a time and seemed to use the Court for partisan purposes – while at the same time, the Rule of Law is being directly attacked by the religious extremists who have now taken to attacking police academies.

The Rule of Law is a nation’s most valuable asset – and unfortunately it is also most vulnerable. It faces threats from government overreaction, from rogue forces within the government, from unjust laws, from corruption, and from extremists who violently oppose the state itself. Mexico and Pakistan are becoming destabilized because large groups are attacking the Rule of Law – and each government’s own reaction to these groups additionally undermines the Rule of Law.

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Barack Obama Domestic issues Economics Financial Crisis Health care The Opinionsphere

The Master Plan Always Has Flaws

Daniel Drezner at Foreign Policy summarizes my feelings about Krugman in almost as complete a way as Evan Thomas did:

The fundamental question is whether Krugman is a brilliant hedgehog, an insecure pain in the ass, or – as frequently is the case – both at the same time. 

One suspects that Krugman is at least part right – and that Obama and his team realize this. Obama’s response to the financial crisis has been significant – and more than any government response in history – but it is dwarfed by the scale of the crisis, as Krugman is fond of pointing out. Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker tries to explain why Obama seems to be ignoring Krugman’s advice so far:

[Obama] has to address the crisis, and he is trying to add enough new controls to the system to prevent a repeat of it, but it looks as if his heart is with the big new programs in his budget and with his foreign-policy initiatives. Bank nationalization would drive the stock market down and increase theagita of people with 401(k) plans. Moderate Democrats in Congress would further soften in their support for the Administration’s legislation. The price of bank nationalization might be Obama’s super-ambitious plans in other realms, which, if history is a guide, are likely to pass only in this first year of his Presidency. If they do pass, he will have generated tax revenues from affluent people for social purposes far beyond those of the House’s tax on A.I.G. bonuses, and he will have significantly eased the distress of people who can’t get good health care or education. That is a lot to put at risk.

At the same time, Obama’s team seems to think that, to quote my post of yesterday:

[I]n the short term, the Geithner plans will work to restart the “old” economy. In this moment before that happens though, pressure from Europe and internal critics as well as a desire to avoid a repeat of this fiasco will enable enough forward-looking, gradualist regulation and legislation to correct the long-term problems with high finance.

E. J. Dionne Jr. in the Washington Post explains where the administration’s focus is:

Obama’s top budget officials seem confident that they can deal with this immediate difficulty. His larger challenge is to take on the politics of evasion promoted by those who would indefinitely delay health-care reform, energy conservation and the expansion of educational opportunities. Already, his lieutenants are signaling how he will cast the choice: between “taking on the country’s long-term challenges” or just “lowering our sights and muddling through,” as one senior aide put it.

If Geithner is responsible for fixing the current crisis, Peter Orszag is responsible for the long-term outlook – of balancing Obama’s plans to expand government’s role and stabilizing our deficit spending. As Jodi Kantor in the New York Times explained:

Mr. Orszag embodies the administration’s awkward fiscal policy positioning: big spending now, with a promise to scrub the budget of waste and a bet that economic recovery and changes to health care will gradually reduce the deficit.

A lot of pieces need to fall together for this to work. I have confidence in each piece of this plan – but together, the venture seems a bit bolder than is wise.

Perhaps this is a perfect moment in history for Obama’s plan – and Obama has the insight to see this; perhaps Obama is a master of politics who is able to get all of these items through; but it’s hard for me not to be discomfited by the manner in which everything is coming together.