Last Build Date: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 00:40:00 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2009
Fri, 10 Apr 2009 00:40:00 -0600The obligatory emergency Security Council session produced nothing. No sanctions. No resolution. Not even a statement. China and Russia professed to find no violation whatsoever. They would not even permit a U.N. statement that dared express "concern," let alone condemnation. Having thus bravely rallied the international community and summoned the U.N. -- a fiction and a farce, respectively -- what was Obama's further response? The very next day, his defense secretary announced drastic cuts in missile defense, including halting further deployment of Alaska-based interceptors designed precisely to shoot down North Korean ICBMs. Such is the "realism" Obama promised to restore to U.S. foreign policy. He certainly has a vision. Rather than relying on America's unique technological edge in missile defenses to provide a measure of nuclear safety, Obama will instead boldly deploy the force of example. How? By committing his country to disarmament gestures -- such as, he promised his cheering acolytes in Prague, ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Really, now. How does U.S. ratification of that treaty -- which America has, in any case, voluntarily abided by for 17 years -- cause North Korea to cease and desist, and cause Iran to turn nukes into plowshares? Obama's other great enthusiasm is renewing disarmament talks with Russia. Good grief. Of all the useless sideshows. Cut each of our arsenals in half and both countries could still, in Churchill's immortal phrase, "make the rubble bounce." There's little harm in engaging in talks about redundant nukes because there is nothing of consequence at stake. But Obama seems not even to understand that these talks are a gift to the Russians for whom a return to anachronistic Reagan-era START talks is a return to the glory of U.S.-Soviet summitry. I'm not against gift-giving in international relations. But it would be nice to see some reciprocity. Obama was in a giving mood throughout Europe. While Gordon Brown was trying to make his American DVDs work and the queen was rocking to her new iPod, the rest of Europe was enjoying a more fulsome Obama gift. Our president came bearing a basketful of mea culpas. With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own people for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness, for genocide, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantanamo and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world. And what did he get for this obsessive denigration of his own country? He wanted more NATO combat troops in Afghanistan to match the surge of 17,000 Americans. He was rudely rebuffed. He wanted more stimulus spending from Europe. He got nothing. From Russia, he got no help on Iran. From China, he got the blocking of any action on North Korea. And what did he get for Guantanamo? France, pop. 64 million, will take one prisoner. One! (Sadly, he'll have to leave his swim buddy behind.) The Austrians said they would take none. As Interior Minister Maria Fekter explained with impeccable Germanic logic, if they're not dangerous, why not just keep them in America? When Austria is mocking you, you're having a bad week. Yet who can blame Frau Fekter, considering the disdain Obama showed his own country while on foreign soil, acting the philosopher-king who hovers above the fray mediating between his renegade homeland and an otherwise warm and welcoming world? After all, it was Obama, not some envious anti-American leader, who noted with satisfaction that a new financial order is being created today by 20 countries, rather than by "just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy." And then added: "But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in." It is passing strange for a world leader to celebrate his own country's decline. A few more such overseas tours, and Obama will have a lot more decline to celebrate.[...]
Fri, 03 Apr 2009 00:50:00 -0600
Despite these astonishments, I remain more amused than alarmed. First, the notion of presidential car warranties strikes me as simply too bizarre, too comical, to mark the beginning of Yankee Peronism.
Second, there is every political incentive to make these interventions in the banks and autos temporary and circumscribed. For President Obama, autos and banks are sideshows. Enormous sideshows, to be sure, but had the financial meltdown and the looming auto bankruptcies not been handed to him, he would hardly have gone seeking to be the nation's car and credit czar.
Obama has far different ambitions. His goal is to rewrite the American social compact, to recast the relationship between government and citizen. He wants government to narrow the nation's income and anxiety gaps. Soak the rich for reasons of revenue and justice. Nationalize health care and federalize education to grant all citizens of all classes the freedom from anxiety about health care and college that the rich enjoy. And fund this vast new social safety net through the cash cow of a disguised carbon tax.
Obama is a leveler. He has come to narrow the divide between rich and poor. For him the ultimate social value is fairness. Imposing it upon the American social order is his mission.
Fairness through leveling is the essence of Obamaism. (Asked by Charlie Gibson during a campaign debate about his support for raising capital gains taxes -- even if they caused a net revenue loss to the government -- Obama stuck to the tax hike "for purposes of fairness.") The elements are highly progressive taxation, federalized health care and higher education, and revenue-producing energy controls. But first he must deal with the sideshows. They could sink the economy and poison his public support before he gets to enact his real agenda.
The big sideshows, of course, are the credit crisis, which Obama has contracted out to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and the collapse of the U.S. automakers, which Obama seems to have taken on for himself.
That was a tactical mistake. Better to have let the car companies go directly to Chapter 11 and have a judge mete out the bitter medicine to the workers and bondholders.
By sacking GM's CEO, packing the new board, and giving direction as to which brands to drop and what kind of cars to make, Obama takes ownership of General Motors. He may soon come to regret it. He has now gotten himself so entangled in the car business that he is personally guaranteeing your muffler. (Upon reflection, a job best left to the congenitally unmuffled Joe Biden.)
Some find in this descent into large-scale industrial policy a whiff of 1930s-style fascist corporatism. I have my doubts. These interventions are rather targeted. They involve global financial institutions that even the Bush administration decided had to be nationalized, and auto companies that themselves came begging to the government for money.
Bizarre and constitutionally suspect as these interventions may be, the transformation of the American system will come from elsewhere. The credit crisis will pass and the auto overcapacity will sort itself out one way or the other. The reordering of the American system will come not from these temporary interventions, into which Obama has reluctantly waded. It will come from Obama's real agenda: his holy trinity of health care, education and energy. Out of these will come a radical extension of the welfare state, social and economic leveling in the name of fairness, and a massive increase in the size, scope and reach of government.
If Obama has his way, the change that is coming is a new America: "fair," leveled and social democratic. Obama didn't get elected to warranty your muffler. He's here to warranty your life.
Fri, 20 Mar 2009 00:20:00 -0600
For this we are going to poison the well for any further financial rescues, face the prospect of letting AIG go under (which would make the Lehman Brothers collapse look trivial) and risk a run on the entire world financial system?
And there is such a thing as law. The way to break a contract legally is Chapter 11. Short of that, a contract is a contract. The AIG bonuses were agreed to before the government takeover and are perfectly legal. Is the rule now that when public anger is kindled, Congress summarily cancels contracts?
Even worse are the clever schemes now being cooked up in Congress to retrieve the money by means of some retroactive confiscatory tax. The common law is pretty clear about the impermissibility of ex post facto legislation and bills of attainder. They also happen to be specifically prohibited by the Constitution. We're going to overturn that for $165 million?
Nor has the president behaved much better. He too has been out there trying to lead the mob. But it's a losing game. His own congressional Democrats will out-demagogue him and heap the blame on the hapless Timothy Geithner.
Geithner has been particularly maladroit in handling this issue. But the reason he didn't give the bonuses much attention is because he's got far better things to do -- namely, work out a rescue plan for a dysfunctional credit system that is holding back any chance of recovery
It is time for the president to state the obvious: This recession is not caused by excessive executive compensation in government-controlled companies. The economy has been sinking because of a lack of credit, stemming from a general lack of confidence, stemming from the lack of a plan to detoxify the major lending institutions, mainly the banks, which, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, is where the money used to be.
Obama has been strangely passive about this single greatest threat to the country. In his address to Congress and his budget, he's been far more interested in his grand program for reshaping the American social contract in health care, energy and education.
Obama delegates to Geithner plans for a bailout -- and Geithner (thus far) delivers nothing. Obama delegates to Nancy Pelosi and her congressional grandees the writing of all things fiscal -- and gets a $787 billion stimulus package that is a wish list of liberal social spending, followed by a $410 billion omnibus spending bill festooned with pork and political paybacks.
That bill, we now discover, contains, among other depth charges, a Teamster-supported provision inserted by Sen. Byron Dorgan that terminates a Bush-era demonstration project to allow some Mexican trucks onto American highways, as required under NAFTA.
If you thought the AIG hysteria was a display of populist cynicism directed at a relative triviality, consider this: There are more than 6.5 million trucks in the United States. The program Congress terminated allowed 97 Mexican trucks to roam among them. Ninety-seven! Shutting them out not only undermines NAFTA. It caused Mexico to retaliate with tariffs on 90 goods affecting $2.4 billion in U.S. trade coming out of 40 states.
The very last thing we need now is American protectionism. It is guaranteed to start a world trade war. A deeply wounded world economy needs two things to recover: (1) vigorous U.S. government action to loosen credit by detoxifying the zombie banks and insolvent insurers, and (2) avoidance of a trade war.
Free trade is the one area where the world indisputably turns to Washington for leadership. What does it see? Grandstanding, parochialism, petty payoffs to truckers and a rush to mindless populism. Over what? Over 97 Mexican trucks -- and bonus money that comes to what the Yankees are paying for CC Sabathia's left arm.
Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:40:00 -0600
I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science, and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research -- a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.
On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.
That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part -- the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" -- would have made me walk out.
Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.
What an outrage. George Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.
Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values." Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."
Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.
Is he so obtuse not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike President Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.
This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.
Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand -- this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."
Dr. James Thomson, the discoverer of embryonic stem cells, said "if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough." Obama clearly has not.
Fri, 06 Mar 2009 00:40:00 -0600All presidents do that. But few undertake the kind of brazen deception at the heart of Obama's radically transformative economic plan, a rhetorical sleight of hand so smoothly offered that few noticed. The logic of Obama's address to Congress went like this: "Our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he averred. Indeed, it all began before the housing crisis. What did we do wrong? We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care, and education -- importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?), not reforming health care, and tolerating too many bad schools. The "day of reckoning" has now arrived. And because "it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament," Obama has come to redeem us with his far-seeing program of universal, heavily nationalized health care; a cap-and-trade tax on energy; and a major federalization of education with universal access to college as the goal. Amazing. As an explanation of our current economic difficulties, this is total fantasy. As a cure for rapidly growing joblessness, a massive destruction of wealth, a deepening worldwide recession, this is perhaps the greatest non sequitur ever foisted upon the American people. At the very center of our economic near-depression is a credit bubble, a housing collapse and a systemic failure of the entire banking system. One can come up with a host of causes: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pushed by Washington (and greed) into improvident loans, corrupted bond-ratings agencies, insufficient regulation of new and exotic debt instruments, the easy money policy of Alan Greenspan's Fed, irresponsible bankers pushing (and then unloading in packaged loan instruments) highly dubious mortgages, greedy house-flippers, deceitful homebuyers. The list is long. But the list of causes of the collapse of the financial system does not include the absence of universal health care, let alone of computerized medical records. Nor the absence of an industry-killing cap-and-trade carbon levy. Nor the lack of college graduates. Indeed, one could perversely make the case that, if anything, the proliferation of overeducated, Gucci-wearing, smart-ass MBAs inventing ever more sophisticated and opaque mathematical models and debt instruments helped get us into this credit catastrophe in the first place. And yet with our financial house on fire, Obama makes clear both in his speech and his budget that the essence of his presidency will be the transformation of health care, education and energy. Four months after winning the election, six weeks after his swearing in, Obama has yet to unveil a plan to deal with the banking crisis. What's going on? "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," said Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before." Things. Now we know what they are. The markets' recent precipitous decline is a reaction not just to the absence of any plausible bank rescue plan, but also to the suspicion that Obama sees the continuing financial crisis as usefully creating the psychological conditions -- the sense of crisis bordering on fear-itself panic -- for enacting his "Big Bang" agenda to federalize and/or socialize health care, education and energy, the commanding heights of post-industrial society. Clever politics, but intellectually dishonest to the core. Health, education and energy -- worthy and weighty as they may be -- are not the cause of our financial collapse. And they are not the cure. The fraudulent claim that they are both cause and cure is the rhetorical device by which an ambitious president intends to enact the most radical agenda of social transformation seen in our lifetime. [...]
Fri, 27 Feb 2009 00:40:00 -0600Reagan came to office to do something: shrink government, lower taxes, rebuild American defenses. Obama made clear Tuesday night that he intends to be equally transformative. His three goals: universal health care, universal education, and a new green energy economy highly funded and regulated by government. (1) Obama wants to be to universal health care what Lyndon Johnson was to Medicare. Obama has publicly abandoned his once-stated preference for a single-payer system as in Canada and Britain. But that is for practical reasons. In America, you can't get there from here directly. Instead, Obama will create the middle step that will lead ultimately and inevitably to single-payer. The way to do it is to establish a reformed system that retains a private health-insurance sector but offers a new government-run plan (based on benefits open to members of Congress) so relatively attractive that people voluntarily move out of the private sector, thereby starving it. The ultimate result is a system of fully socialized medicine. This will likely not happen until long after Obama leaves office. But he will be rightly recognized as its father. (2) Beyond cradle-to-grave health care, Obama wants cradle-to-cubicle education. He wants far more government grants, tax credits and other financial guarantees for college education -- another way station to another universal federal entitlement. He lauded the country for establishing free high school education during the Industrial Revolution; he wants to put us on the road to doing the same for college during the Information Age. (3) Obama wants to be to green energy what John Kennedy was to the moon shot, its visionary and creator. It starts with the establishment of a government-guided, government-funded green energy sector into which the administration will pour billions of dollars from the stimulus package and billions more from budgets to come. But just picking winners and losers is hardly sufficient for a president who sees himself as world-historical. Hence the carbon cap-and-trade system he proposed Tuesday night that will massively restructure American industry and create a highly regulated energy sector. These revolutions in health care, education and energy are not just abstract hopes. They have already taken life in Obama's massive $787 billion stimulus package, a huge expansion of social spending constituting a down payment on Obama's plan for remaking the American social contract. Obama sees the current economic crisis as an opportunity. He has said so openly. And now we know what opportunity he wants to seize. Just as the Depression created the political and psychological conditions for Franklin Roosevelt's transformation of America from laissez-faireism to the beginnings of the welfare state, the current crisis gives Obama the political space to move the still (relatively) modest American welfare state toward European-style social democracy. In the European Union, government spending has declined slightly, from 48 percent to 47 percent of GDP during the last 10 years. In the U.S., it has shot up from 34 percent to 40 percent. Part of this explosive growth in U.S. government spending reflects the emergency private-sector interventions of a Republican administration. But the clear intent was to make the massive intrusion into the private sector temporary and to retreat as quickly as possible. Obama has radically different ambitions. The spread between Europe and America in government-controlled GDP has already shrunk from 14 percent to 7 percent. Two terms of Obamaism and the difference will be zero. Conservatives take a dim view of the regulation-bound, economically sclerotic, socially stagnant, nanny state that is the European Union. Nonetheless, Obama is ascendant and has the personal mandate to take the country where he wishes. He has laid out boldly the Brussels-bound pat[...]
Fri, 20 Feb 2009 00:20:00 -0600(a) Pressuring Kyrgyzstan to shut down the U.S. air base in Manas, an absolutely crucial NATO conduit into Afghanistan. (b) Announcing the formation of a "rapid reaction force" with six former Soviet republics, a regional Russian-led strike force meant to reassert Russian hegemony in the Muslim belt north of Afghanistan. (c) Planning to establish a Black Sea naval base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, conquered by Moscow last summer. (d) Declaring Russia's intention to deploy offensive Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Poland and the Czech Republic go ahead with plans to station an American (anti-Iranian) missile defense system. President Bush's response to the Kaliningrad deployment -- the threat was issued the day after Obama's election -- was firm. He refused to back down because giving in to Russian threats would leave Poles and Czechs exposed and show the world that, contrary to post-Cold War assumptions, the U.S. could not be trusted to protect Eastern Europe from Russian bullying. The Obama response? "Biden Signals U.S. Is Open to Russia Missile Deal," as The New York Times headlined Biden's Feb. 7 Munich speech to a major international gathering. This followed strong messages from the Obama transition team even before the inauguration that Obama was not committed to the missile shield. And just to make sure everyone understood that the Bush policy no longer held, Biden in Munich said the U.S. wanted to "press the reset button" on NATO-Russian relations. Not surprisingly, the Obama wobble elicited a favorable reaction from Russia. (There are conflicting reports that Russia might suspend the Kaliningrad blackmail deployment.) The Kremlin must have been equally impressed that the other provocations -- Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, the rapid reaction force -- elicited barely a peep from Washington. Iran has been similarly charmed by Obama's overtures. A week after the new president went about sending sweet peace signals via al-Arabiya, Iran launched its first homemade Earth satellite. The message is clear. If you can put a satellite into orbit, you can hit any continent with a missile, North America included. And for emphasis, after the roundhouse hook, came the poke in the eye. A U.S. women's badminton team had been invited to Iran. Here was a chance for "ping-pong diplomacy" with the accommodating new president, a sporting venture meant to suggest the possibility of warmer relations. On Feb. 4, Tehran denied the team entry into Iran. Then, just in case Obama failed to get the message, Iran's parliament speaker rose in Munich to offer his response to Obama's olive branch. Executive summary: Thank you very much. After you acknowledge 60 years of crimes against us, change not just your tone but your policies, and abandon the Zionist criminal entity, we might deign to talk to you. With a grinning Goliath staggering about sporting a "kick me" sign on his back, even reputed allies joined the fun. Pakistan freed from house arrest A.Q. Khan, the notorious proliferator who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran. Ten days later, Islamabad capitulated to the Taliban, turning over to its tender mercies the Swat Valley, 100 miles from the capital. Not only will sharia law now reign there, but the democratically elected secular party will be hunted down as the Pakistani army stands down. These Pakistani capitulations may account for Obama's hastily announced 17,000 troop increase in Afghanistan even before his various heralded reviews of the mission have been completed. Hasty, unexplained, but at least something. Other than that, a month of pummeling has been met with utter passivity. I would like to think the supine posture is attributable to a rookie leader otherwise preoccupied (i.e. domestically), leading a foreign policy team as yet unorganized if not disoriente[...]
Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:50:00 -0600Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went from leader of a small Islamic party to leader of the "State of the Law Party," campaigning on security and secular nationalism. He won a smashing victory. His chief rival, a more sectarian and pro-Iranian Shiite religious party, was devastated. Another major Islamic party, the pro-Iranian Sadr faction, went from 11 percent of the vote to 3 percent, losing badly in its stronghold of Baghdad. The Islamic Fadhila party that had dominated Basra was almost wiped out. The once-dominant Sunni party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the erstwhile insurgency was badly set back. New grass-roots tribal ("Awakening") and secular Sunni leaders emerged. All this barely pierced the consciousness of official Washington. After all, it fundamentally contradicts the general establishment/media narrative of Iraq as "fiasco." One leading conservative thinker had concluded as early as 2004 that democracy in Iraq was "a childish fantasy." Another sneered that the 2005 election that brought Maliki to power was "not an election but a census" -- meaning people voted robotically according to their ethnicity and religious identity. The implication being that these primitives have no conception of democracy, and that trying to build one there is a fool's errand. What was lacking in all this condescension is what the critics so pride themselves in having -- namely, context. What did they expect in the first elections after 30 years of totalitarian rule that destroyed civil society and systematically annihilated any independent or indigenous leadership? The only communal or social ties remaining after Saddam Hussein were those of ethnicity and sect. But in the intervening years, while the critics washed their hands of Iraq, it began developing the sinews of civil society: a vibrant free press, a plethora of parties, the habits of negotiation and coalition-building. Reflecting these new realities, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani this time purposely and publicly backed no party, strongly signaling a return -- contra Iran -- to the Iraqi tradition of secular governance. The big strategic winner here is the United States. The big loser is Iran. The parties Tehran backed are in retreat. The prime minister who staked his career on a strategic cooperation agreement with the United States emerged victorious. Moreover, this realignment from enemy state to emerging democratic ally, unlike Egypt's flip from Soviet to U.S. ally in the 1970s, is not the work of a single autocrat (like Anwar Sadat), but a reflection of national opinion expressed in a democratic election. This is not to say that these astonishing gains are irreversible. There loom three possible threats: (a) a coup from a rising and relatively clean military disgusted with the corruption of civilian politicians -- the familiar post-colonial pattern of the past half-century; (b) a strongman emerging from a democratic system (Maliki?) and then subverting it, following the Russian and Venezuelan models; or (c) the collapse of the current system because of a premature U.S. withdrawal that leads to a collapse of security. Averting the first two is the job of Iraqis. Averting the third is the job of the U.S. Which is why President Obama's reaction to these remarkable elections, a perfunctory statement noting that they "should continue the process of Iraqis taking responsibility for their future," was shockingly detached and ungenerous. When you become president of the United States you inherit its history, even the parts you would have done differently. Obama might argue that American sacrifices in Iraq were not worth what we achieved. But for the purposes of current and future policy, that is entirely moot. Despite Obama's opposition, America went on to create a small miracle in the heart of the Arab Middle East.[...]
Fri, 06 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600
The Daschle affair was more serious because his offense involved more than taxes. As Michael Kinsley once observed, in Washington the real scandal isn't what's illegal, but what's legal. Not paying taxes is one thing. But what made this case intolerable was the perfectly legal dealings that amassed Daschle $5.2 million in just two years.
He'd been getting $1 million per year from a law firm. But he's not a lawyer, nor a registered lobbyist. You don't get paid this kind of money to instruct partners on the Senate markup process. You get it for picking up the phone and peddling influence.
At least Tim Geithner, the tax-challenged Treasury secretary, had been working for years as a humble international civil servant earning non-stratospheric wages. Daschle, who had made another cool million a year (plus chauffeur and Caddy) for unspecified services to a pal's private equity firm, represented everything Obama said he'd come to Washington to upend.
And yet more damaging to Obama's image than all the hypocrisies in the appointment process is his signature bill: the stimulus package. He inexplicably delegated the writing to Nancy Pelosi and the barons of the House. The product, which inevitably carries Obama's name, was not just bad, not just flawed, but a legislative abomination.
It's not just pages and pages of special-interest tax breaks, giveaways and protections, one of which would set off a ruinous Smoot-Hawley trade war. It's not just the waste, such as the $88.6 million for new construction for Milwaukee Public Schools, which, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have shrinking enrollment, 15 vacant schools and, quite logically, no plans for new construction.
It's the essential fraud of rushing through a bill in which the normal rules (committee hearings, finding revenue to pay for the programs) are suspended on the grounds that a national emergency requires an immediate job-creating stimulus -- and then throwing into it hundreds of billions that have nothing to do with stimulus, that Congress' own budget office says won't be spent until 2011 and beyond, and that are little more than the back-scratching, special-interest, lobby-driven parochialism that Obama came to Washington to abolish. He said.
Not just to abolish but to create something new -- a new politics where the moneyed pork-barreling and corrupt logrolling of the past would give way to a bottom-up, grass-roots participatory democracy. That is what made Obama so dazzling and new. Turns out the "fierce urgency of now" includes $150 million for livestock insurance.
The Age of Obama begins with perhaps the greatest frenzy of old-politics influence peddling ever seen in Washington. By the time the stimulus bill reached the Senate, reports The Wall Street Journal, pharmaceutical and high-tech companies were lobbying furiously for a new plan to repatriate overseas profits that would yield major tax savings. California wine growers and Florida citrus producers were fighting to change a single phrase in one provision. Substituting "planted" for "ready to market" would mean a windfall garnered from a new "bonus depreciation" incentive.
After Obama's miraculous 2008 presidential campaign, it was clear that at some point the magical mystery tour would have to end. The nation would rub its eyes and begin to emerge from its reverie. The hallucinatory Obama would give way to the mere mortal. The great ethical transformations promised would be seen as a fairy tale that all presidents tell -- and that this president told better than anyone.
I thought the awakening would take six months. It took two and a half weeks.
Fri, 30 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600Astonishing. In these most recent 20 years -- the alleged winter of our disrespect of the Islamic world -- America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved -- and resulted in -- the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq. The two Balkan interventions -- as well as the failed 1992-93 Somali intervention to feed starving African Muslims (43 Americans were killed) -- were humanitarian exercises of the highest order, there being no significant U.S. strategic interest at stake. In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on earth. Why are we apologizing? And what of that happy U.S.-Muslim relationship that Obama imagines existed "as recently as 20 or 30 years ago" that he has now come to restore? Thirty years ago, 1979, saw the greatest U.S.-Muslim rupture in our 233-year history: Iran's radical Islamic revolution, the seizure of the U.S. embassy, the 14 months of America held hostage. Which came just a few years after the Arab oil embargo that sent the United States into a long and punishing recession. Which, in turn, was preceded by the kidnapping and cold-blooded execution by Arab terrorists of the U.S. ambassador in Sudan and his charge d'affaires. This is to say nothing of the Marine barracks massacre of 1983, and the innumerable attacks on U.S. embassies and installations around the world during what Obama now characterizes as the halcyon days of U.S.-Islamic relations. Look. If Barack Obama wants to say, as he said to al-Arabiya, I have Muslim roots, Muslim family members, have lived in a Muslim country -- implying a special affinity that uniquely positions him to establish good relations -- that's fine. But it is both false and deeply injurious to this country to draw a historical line dividing America under Obama from a benighted past when Islam was supposedly disrespected and demonized. As in Obama's grand admonition: "We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name." Have "we" been doing that, smearing Islam because of a small minority? George Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington six days after 9/11, when the fires of Ground Zero were still smoldering, to declare "Islam is peace," to extend fellowship and friendship to Muslims, to insist that Americans treat them with respect and generosity of spirit. And America listened. In these seven years since 9/11 -- seven years during which thousands of Muslims rioted all over the world (resulting in the death of more than 100) to avenge a bunch of cartoons -- there's not been a single anti-Muslim riot in the United States to avenge the greatest massacre in U.S. history. On the contrary. In its aftermath, we elected our first Muslim member of Congress and our first president of Muslim parentage. "My job," says Obama, "is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives." That's his job? Do the American people think otherwise? Does he think he is bravely breaking new ground? George Bush, Condoleezza Rice and countless other leaders offered myriad expressions of that same universalist sentiment. Every president has the right to portray himself as ushering in a new era of this or that. Obama wants to pursue new ties with Muslim nations, drawing on his own identity and associations. Good. But when his self-inflation as redeemer of U.S.-Muslim relations leads him to suggest that pre-Obama America was disrespectful or insensitive or uncaring of Muslims, he is engaging not just in fiction but in [...]
Fri, 23 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600Which seems to me the only way to understand the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln's second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush's second inaugural. This is odd because Obama is so clearly capable of more. But he decisively left behind the candidate who made audiences swoon and the impressionable faint. And that left the million-plus on the Mall, while unshakably euphoric about the moment, let down and puzzled by the speech. He'd given them nothing to cheer or chant, nothing to sing. Candidate Obama had promised the moon. In soaring cadences, he described a world laid waste by Bush, a world that President Obama would redeem -- bringing boundless hope and universal health, receding oceans and a healing planet. But now that Obama was president, the redeemer was withholding, the tone newly sober, even dour. The world was still in Bushian ruin, marked by "fear ... conflict ... discord ... petty grievances and false promises ... recriminations and worn-out dogmas." But now no more the prospect of magical restoration. In a stunning exercise in lowered expectations, Obama offered not quite blood, sweat and tears, but responsibility, work, sacrifice and service. When candidate Obama said "it's not about me, it's about you," that was sheer chicanery. But now he means it, because he really cannot part the waters. Hence his admonition to rely not on the "skill or vision of those in high office," but on "We the People." On the issue of race, he was even more withholding, and admirably so. He understood that his very presence was enough to mark the monumentality of the moment. Words would be superfluous -- as introducer Dianne Feinstein was apparently unaware -- and he gave it very few. This was surprising, given that the announced theme of the inaugural -- "a new birth of freedom" -- invited grandiose comparison to Lincoln. Yet in the inaugural address, Obama abandoned the conceit. He allowed that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." When he followed that with "So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled," you were sure he would trace the journey back to Lincoln and the Second (post-Gettysburg) Republic or to King and the civil rights revolution. But Obama didn't. Remarkably, he instead reached back -- over King and Lincoln -- to George Washington. He rooted the values he cherishes most (and wants us to renew) in the Founders, in the First Republic, the slave-tainted one (as our schoolchildren are incessantly reminded) that had to await Lincoln for its cleansing. Obama's unapologetic celebration of Washington and the founders of the original imperfect union was a declaration of his own emancipation from -- or better, transcendence of -- the civil rights movement. The old warrior Joseph Lowery prayed for the day when "white will embrace what is right." Not Obama. By connecting himself in this historic address to Washington rather than Lincoln the liberator, Obama was legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation or mental reservation. If we ever have a post-racial future, this moment will mark its beginning. Obama did this in prose, not his usual poetry. And he buried it in an otherwise undistinguished speech marred by a foreign-policy section featuring the mushy internationalism of his still-bizarre Berlin adventure. Perhaps that was just a bone to appease the faithful he had otherwise left hungry. We have no way of knowing. A complicated man, this new president. Opaque,[...]
Fri, 16 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600It is the repeated pledge to conduct a withdrawal from Iraq that does not destabilize its new democracy and that, as Vice President-elect Joe Biden said just this week in Baghdad, adheres to the Bush-negotiated status of forces agreement that envisions a U.S. withdrawal over three years, not the 16-month timetable on which Obama campaigned. It is the great care Obama is taking in not pre-emptively abandoning the anti-terror infrastructure that the Bush administration leaves behind. While still a candidate, Obama voted for the expanded presidential wiretapping (FISA) powers that Bush had fervently pursued. And while Obama opposes waterboarding (already banned, by the way, by Bush's CIA in 2006), he declined George Stephanopoulos' invitation (on ABC's "This Week") to outlaw all interrogation not permitted by the Army Field Manual. Explained Obama: "Dick Cheney's advice was good, which is let's make sure we know everything that's being done," i.e., before throwing out methods simply because Obama campaigned against them. Obama still disagrees with Cheney's view of the acceptability of some of these techniques. But citing as sage the advice offered by "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history" (according to Joe Biden) -- advice paraphrased by Obama as "we shouldn't be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric" -- is a startlingly early sign of a newly respectful consideration of the Bush-Cheney legacy. Not from any change of heart. But from simple reality. The beauty of democratic rotations of power is that when the opposition takes office, cheap criticism and calumny will no longer do. The Democrats now own Iraq. They own the war on al-Qaeda. And they own the panoply of anti-terror measures with which the Bush administration kept us safe these last seven years. Which is why Obama is consciously creating a gulf between what he now dismissively calls "campaign rhetoric" and the policy choices he must now make as president. Accordingly, Newsweek -- Obama acolyte and scourge of everything Bush/Cheney -- has on the eve of the Democratic restoration miraculously discovered the arguments for warrantless wiretaps, enhanced interrogation and detention without trial. Indeed, Newsweek's neck-snapping cover declares, "Why Obama May Soon Find Virtue in Cheney's Vision of Power." Obama will be loath to throw away the tools that have kept the homeland safe. Just as he will be loath to jeopardize the remarkable turnaround in American fortunes in Iraq. Obama opposed the war. But the war is all but over. What remains is an Iraq turned from aggressive, hostile power in the heart of the Middle East to an emerging democracy openly allied with the United States. No president would want to be responsible for undoing that success. In Iraq, Bush rightly took criticism for all that went wrong -- the WMD fiasco, Abu Ghraib, the descent into bloody chaos in 2005-06. Then Bush goes to Baghdad to ratify the ultimate post-surge success of that troubled campaign -- the signing of a strategic partnership between the U.S. and Iraq -- and ends up dodging two size-10 shoes for his pains. Absorbing that insult was Bush's final service on Iraq. Whatever venom the war generated is concentrated on Bush himself. By having personalized the responsibility for the awfulness of the war, Bush has done his successor a favor. Obama enters office with a strategic success on his hands -- while Bush leaves the scene taking a shoe for his country. Which is why I suspect Bush showed such equanimity during a private farewell interview at the White House a few weeks ago. He leaves behind the sinews of war, for the creation of which he has been so vilifie[...]
Fri, 09 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600That would be a terrible mistake. It would fail on its own terms. It would have the same elements as the phony peace in Lebanon: an international force that abjures any meaningful use of force, an arms embargo under which arms will most assuredly flood in, and a cessation of hostilities until the terrorist side is rearmed and ready to initiate the next round of hostilities. The U.N.-mandated disarmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon is a well-known farce. Not only have foreign forces not stopped Hezbollah's massive rearmament. Their very presence makes it impossible for Israel to take any preventive military action, lest it accidentally hit a blue-helmeted Belgian crossing guard. The "international community" is now pushing very hard for a replay in Gaza of that charade. Does anyone imagine that international monitors will risk their lives to prevent weapons smuggling? To arrest terrorists? To engage in shootouts with rocket-launching teams attacking Israeli civilians across the Gaza border? Of course not. Weapons will continue to be smuggled. Deeper and more secure fortifications will be built for the next round. Mosques, schools and hospitals will again be used for weapons storage and terrorist safe havens. Do you think French "peacekeepers" are going to raid them? Which is why the only acceptable outcome of this war, both for Israel and for the civilized world, is Endgame B: the disintegration of Hamas rule. It is already under way. This is not about killing every last Hamas gunman. Not possible, not necessary. Regimes rule not by physically overpowering every person in their domain, but by getting the majority to accept their authority. That is what sustains Hamas, and that is what is now under massive assault. Hamas' leadership is not only seriously degraded but openly humiliated. The great warriors urging others to martyrdom are cowering underground almost entirely incommunicado. Demonstrably unable to protect their own people, they beg for outside help, receiving in return nothing but words from their Arab and Iranian brothers. And who in fact is providing the corridors for humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians? Israel. In the first four minutes of this war, the Israel Air Force destroyed 50 targets, taking down practically every instrument and symbol of Hamas rule. Gaza's Potemkin leaders were marginalized and rendered helpless, leaving their people to fend for themselves. At such moments, regimes are extremely vulnerable to forfeiting what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven, the sense of legitimacy that undergirds all forms of governance. The fall of Hamas rule in Gaza is within reach, but only if Israel does not cave in to pressure to stop now. Overthrowing Hamas would not require a permanent Israeli reoccupation. A transitional international force would be brought in to immediately make way for the return of the Palestinian Authority, the legitimate government whose forces will be far less squeamish than the Europeans in establishing order in Gaza. The disintegration of Hamas rule in Gaza would be a devastating blow to Palestinian rejectionists, who since the Hamas takeover of Gaza have been the ascendant "strong horse" in Palestinian politics. It would be a devastating blow to Iran as patron of radical Islamist movements throughout the region, particularly after the defeat and marginalization of Iran's Sadrist client in Iraq. It would encourage the moderate Arab states to continue their U.S.-allied confrontation of Iran and its proxies. And it would demonstrate Israel's irreplaceable strategic value to the U.S. in curbing and containing Iran's regional ambitions. Olmert had such an opportunity in Leban[...]
Fri, 02 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600Israel is so scrupulous about civilian life that, risking the element of surprise, it contacts enemy noncombatants in advance to warn them of approaching danger. Hamas, which started this conflict with unrelenting rocket and mortar attacks on unarmed Israelis -- 6,464 launched from Gaza in the last three years -- deliberately places its weapons in and near the homes of its own people. This has two purposes. First, counting on the moral scrupulousness of Israel, Hamas figures civilian proximity might help protect at least part of its arsenal. Second, knowing that Israelis have new precision weapons that may allow them to attack nonetheless, Hamas hopes that inevitable collateral damage -- or, if it is really fortunate, an errant Israeli bomb -- will kill large numbers of its own people for which, of course, the world will blame Israel. For Hamas the only thing more prized than dead Jews are dead Palestinians. The religion of Jew-murder and self-martyrdom is ubiquitous. And deeply perverse, such as the Hamas TV children's program in which an adorable live-action Palestinian Mickey Mouse is beaten to death by an Israeli (then replaced by his more militant cousin, Nahoul the Bee, who vows to continue on Mickey's path to martyrdom). At war today in Gaza, one combatant is committed to causing the most civilian pain and suffering on both sides. The other combatant is committed to saving as many lives as possible -- also on both sides. It's a recurring theme. Israel gave similar warnings to Southern Lebanese villagers before attacking Hezbollah in the Lebanon war of 2006. The Israelis did this knowing it would lose for them the element of surprise and cost the lives of their own soldiers. That is the asymmetry of means between Hamas and Israel. But there is equal clarity regarding the asymmetry of ends. Israel has but a single objective in Gaza -- peace: the calm, open, normal relations it offered Gaza when it withdrew in 2005. Doing something never done by the Turkish, British, Egyptian and Jordanian rulers of Palestine, the Israelis gave the Palestinians their first sovereign territory ever in Gaza. What ensued? This is not ancient history. Did the Palestinians begin building the state that is supposedly their great national aim? No. No roads, no industry, no courts, no civil society at all. The flourishing greenhouses that Israel left behind for the Palestinians were destroyed and abandoned. Instead, Gaza's Iranian-sponsored rulers have devoted all their resources to turning it into a terror base -- importing weapons, training terrorists, building tunnels with which to kidnap Israelis on the other side. And of course firing rockets unceasingly. The grievance? It cannot be occupation, military control or settlers. They were all removed in September 2005. There's only one grievance and Hamas is open about it. Israel's very existence. Nor does Hamas conceal its strategy. Provoke conflict. Wait for the inevitable civilian casualties. Bring down the world's opprobrium on Israel. Force it into an untenable cease-fire -- exactly as happened in Lebanon. Then, as in Lebanon, rearm, rebuild and mobilize for the next round. Perpetual war. Since its raison d'etre is the eradication of Israel, there are only two possible outcomes: the defeat of Hamas or the extinction of Israel. Israel's only response is to try to do what it failed to do after the Gaza withdrawal. The unpardonable strategic error of its architect, Ariel Sharon, was not the withdrawal itself but the failure to immediately establish a deterrence regime under which no violence would be tolerated after the removal of any and all Israeli presence -- the ostensible justif[...]
Fri, 19 Dec 2008 00:40:00 -0600I hate to be a good government scold, but wasn't the American experiment a rather firm renunciation of government by pedigree? Yes, the Founders were not democrats. They believed in aristocracy. But their idea was government by natural -- not inherited -- aristocracy, an aristocracy of "virtue and talents," as Jefferson put it. And yes, of course, we have our own history of dynastic succession: Adamses and Harrisons, and in the last century, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes. Recently, we've even branched out into Argentine-style marital transmission, as in the Doles and the Clintons. It's not the end of the world, but it is an accelerating trend that need not be encouraged. After all, we have already created another huge distortion in our politics: a plethora of plutocrats in the U.S. Senate, courtesy of our crazed campaign finance laws. If you're very very rich, you can buy your Senate seat by spending as much of your money as you want. Meanwhile, your poor plebeian opponent is running around groveling for the small contributions allowed by law. Hence the Corzines and the Kohls, who parachute into Congress seemingly out of nowhere. Having given this additional leg up to the rich, we should resist packing our legislatures with yet more privileged parachutists, the well-born. True, the Brits did it that way for centuries, but with characteristic honesty. They established a house of Parliament exclusively for highborn twits and ensconced them there for life. There they chatter away in supreme irrelevance deep into their dotage. Problem is that the U.S. Senate retains House of Commons powers even as it develops a House of Lords membership. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Caroline Kennedy. She seems a fine person. She certainly has led the life of a worthy socialite helping all the right causes. But when the mayor of New York endorses her candidacy by offering, among other reasons, that "her uncle has been one of the best senators that we have had in an awful long time," we've reached the point of embarrassment. Nor is Ms. Kennedy alone in her sense of entitlement. Vice President-elect Biden's Senate seat will now be filled by Edward Kaufman, a family retainer whom no one ever heard of before yesterday. And no one will hear from after two years, at which time Kaufman will dutifully retire. He understands his responsibility: Keep the Delaware Senate seat warm for two years until Joe's son returns from Iraq to assume his father's mantle. This, of course, is the Kennedy way. In 1960, John Kennedy's Senate seat was given to his Harvard roommate, one Ben Smith II (priceless name). He stayed on for two years -- until Teddy reached the constitutional age of 30 required to succeed his brother. In light of the pending dynastic disposition of the New York and Delaware Senate seats, the Illinois way is almost refreshing. At least Gov. Rod Blagojevich (allegedly) made Barack Obama's seat democratically open to all. Just register the highest bid, eBay style. Sadly, however, even this auction was not free of aristo-creep. On the evidence of the U.S. attorney's criminal complaint, a full one-third of those under consideration were pedigreed: Candidate No. 2 turns out to be the daughter of the speaker of the Illinois House; Candidate No. 5, the first-born son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Caroline Kennedy, Beau Biden and Jesse Jackson Jr. could some day become great senators. But in a country where advantages of education, upbringing and wealth already make the playing field extraordinarily uneven, we should resist encouraging the one form of advantage the American Republic strove to [...]