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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Mort Kondracke

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Mort Kondracke

Last Build Date: Thu, 09 Apr 2009 00:30:15 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

The World Loves Obama, but Does He Get Respect?

Thu, 09 Apr 2009 00:30:15 -0600

Even though every slight and slap at Bush was interpreted by some conservative commentators as Obama's denigrating the United States itself, some of it was legitimate. And some of it was not. At his town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, Obama said that "in America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role. ... There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." Well, he was puffing Europe's "leading role," but it's true that, during Bush's first term, arrogance, even derisiveness, was a common theme. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others gibed at "old Europe" and acted as though the United States -- "the world's only superpower" -- could handle all the world's problems alone and preferred to do so. Obama did not give Bush credit for changing his tone in his second term, but that change was never noted by European publics, even though it was by a new generation of European leaders like France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel. Obama was even-handed in his chiding. He said, "In Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad." Where Obama was needlessly (if only implicitly) negative toward Bush was in Istanbul, Turkey, where he said that "the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam." The truth is that it never was, as Bush said again and again. Conservative critics have tried to brand the Obama administration's dropping the term "global war on terror" as an abandonment of the war on terror itself, but that's not fair, either. Obama clearly has dedicated himself to fighting terrorists -- and he calls them that -- with a huge new commitment of money, troops and civilian aid workers to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's also committed American prestige and has taken political risk to do so. In the CBS poll, only 39 percent of respondents -- 33 percent of Democrats -- said they favor the increased troop commitment, and 33 percent opposed it. To merit the world's respect, Obama's effort to neutralize al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has to show progress. He's doing the right thing in pledging $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan and trying to get other nations to provide more. But it's not a good sign that NATO allies did not answer his call for more troops for Afghanistan. They will provide 5,000 trainers, but no more combat forces. Nor did Europeans -- especially Merkel and Sarkozy -- go along with Obama's request to pump up economic stimulus to fight the global recession. The G-20 summit did agree to an increase in funding for the International Monetary Fund to help emerging economies, including Eastern Europe, but that was not a contested issue. In fact, it relieved the European Union from the burden. Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreed to re-start strategic arms reduction talks -- more a Russian priority than an American one -- but Obama got nowhere in persuading the Russians to join in stopping Iran's nuclear program. Russia's price for such an effort will be Obama's cessation of plans to deploy anti-missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama seems prepared to pay that first, after which he will have to hope that Russia plays its part in the bargain. It will be a major test for Obama whether he can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If he can, without Israel taking military action first, then Obama truly will deserve and get respect. He is starting out simultaneously playing good and bad cop with Iran -- saying it will not be allowed to develop nukes and also promising direct diplomacy. The Iranians have shown no sign that they will ever stop their nuclear program, so it's likely Obama will have to impose stiffer sanctions, possibly cutting off Iran's gasoline imports. Can he persuade other countries to go along? While he was overseas, North Korea fired off an intercont[...]

A Three-Way Fix For Health Reform That Saves Money

Fri, 03 Apr 2009 00:30:00 -0600

But, second, "quality of life" treatment should be means-tested, with richer people paying more than poorer people for services such as joint replacements, plastic surgery, some drugs and in vitro fertilization. And third, he said, the country needs to move toward more humane and less expensive "end of life" care, making greater use of hospices instead of "heroic" hospital treatment. Cigarran, who retired as CEO but still is chairman of Nashville, Tenn.-based Healthways, a company that serves 30 million patients worldwide, told me that "the country owes a basic level of care to its citizens, but not everything-for-everyone Cadillac coverage." Democrats and the Obama administration are contemplating extending Medicare-style or federal employee-level coverage to the nation's 45 million uninsured. They estimate it will cost $150 billion a year, but Cigarran thinks it will end up costing much more - and said it's more than the country can or should provide. And, when the government discovers it can't afford full coverage for everyone, it will ration care, he said. Cigarran has traveled extensively, inspecting various countries' health systems. He said all of them ration in some way - including the United States, though we don't like to admit it. It's well-known that the United States spends vastly more of its gross domestic product on health care than any other country - 17 percent last year - while we rank 50th in life expectancy, according to the latest CIA World Factbook. In 2004, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan and France spent 10.4 percent and 8 percent of their GDP on health, respectively, while the U.S. spent 15.2 percent. Japan and France rank third and ninth in life expectancy. "What makes a successful health care system anywhere," Cigarran said, "is that it provides universal coverage - especially good quality, convenient and affordable primary care - and the people like the system. "But they all compromise somewhere to contain costs. They ration. There are waiting times for specialty treatment or, in some cases, they don't provide it. And most people don't have access to the very latest in technology." The United States rations, too, he said, by income. Around 45 million people don't have health insurance - mostly, because they can't afford it - and as a result, they don't get regular health exams and they see a doctor or go to an emergency room only when they get sick. According to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, among working-age uninsured people, 40 percent have chronic illnesses and are two to four times more likely than insured people to have received no medical attention in the past year. Politicians considering health reform, Cigarran said, are indulging Americans' "unrealistic expectations" that they can have it all - the highest quality medical care and the latest technology, all conveniently supplied and delivered perfectly. And, paid for by someone else. "Our politicians have never had the guts to say, 'you can't have it all' - or, 'shut up and pay for it,'" he said. Cigarran agrees with key parts of the Obama agenda: electronic medical records, pay-for-performance medicine and emphasis on disease prevention and chronic disease management. But he doesn't think the government can or should afford to guarantee that everyone will have automatic access to the latest technology or specialty services. Of course, some entity will have to decide where the line is drawn between "basic" health services and "quality of life" and how means-testing will work. As an example, he said, "if you shatter your knee in an accident, a knee replacement is basic. But if your knee hurts, maybe a poor person should pay 10 percent for the replacement, but a wealthy person, 90 percent." In the meantime, there should be no question that government and insurance companies should encourage better - cheaper - "end of life" services. "The way we treat most people is not just expensive. [...]

Will Obama Match Bush for Fiscal Irresponsibility?

Thu, 26 Mar 2009 00:40:01 -0600

Walker said he trusts the Congressional Budget Office's just-issued estimates of deficits and debt more than those from Obama's Office of Management and Budget. The CBO shows the nation's public debt -- not counting borrowing from Social Security and other trust funds -- rising from $5.8 trillion to $10.2 trillion by 2014 and $15.1 trillion by 2019. During the Bush years, it grew from $3.3 trillion in 2001 to $5.8 trillion this year -- from 24 percent of gross domestic product to 40.8 percent last year and 56.8 percent this year. The CBO estimates that Obama will preside over an increase to 71.4 percent during his first term and 82.4 percent by 2019. And Walker says those numbers understate the true burden of debt on future generations. When borrowing from trust funds is included, gross federal debt went from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to $12.6 trillion this year. The CBO did not calculate the gross debt, but Obama's budget shows it rising to $17.1 trillion in 2013 and $23.1 trillion in 2019. The 2019 figure will be more than 100 percent of the estimated gross domestic product -- the largest percentage since just after World War II. "And in those days," Walker said, "we owed that debt to ourselves. Now we owe it to foreigners, mainly the Chinese, who are firing shots across our bow that they may not keep acquiring our debt." Already, the Federal Reserve is buying U.S. Treasury bills to keep interest rates down. If foreigners refused to buy -- as occurred with British debt on Wednesday -- interest rates would surge, damaging prospects for economic growth and investment. Republicans have been charging -- almost chanting -- that Obama's budget "spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much," but they shamelessly ignore Bush's irresponsibility and their own, when they were in control of Congress. On the other hand, contrary to Obama's assertion in his press conference Tuesday, House Republicans will present an alternative budget, but it hasn't been made public yet. Meanwhile, moderate Democrats led by Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) plan to cut $600 billion from Obama's five-year budget, reducing the borrowing requirement from $4.4 trillion to $3.8 trillion. To Walker, the key cost not addressed in any budget is the growth of entitlement programs, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Obama has held an "entitlement summit," has promised not to "kick the can down the road" and has pledged to "kill government programs that don't work," but even he admitted in his press conference that he has not supplied details. Moreover, Walker said, health care reform needs to be a major part of controlling entitlements, "but it has to have a positive effect on our fiscal position." He said, "Obama needs to demonstrate how he'll control health care costs." Obama's budget contains a $685 billion "reserve fund" for health care paid for with taxes on higher-income filers, but the cost of insuring 50 million people likely will be at least double that, Walker said. "When [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel said that a crisis shouldn't go to waste, he could have meant that it's an opportunity to put our fiscal house in order," Walker said. "Or it could mean that, once the deficit hits $1.85 trillion, as it does this year, you can keep spending and put it on a credit card. That's what it looks like to me." Both the OMB and the CBO show Obama producing significant deficit reductions in his first term -- more than fulfilling his promise to cut the deficit in half. But this year's $1.85 trillion deficit -- an astounding 13 percent of GDP -- gives him lots of room. Obama's budget shows the deficit dropping to $300 billion by 2013 and the CBO shows it at $658 billion. After that, however, it grows again -- to $423 billion in Obama's estimate, to more than $1 trillion in 2018, according to the CBO. Walker is one of many budget experts urging creation of a bipartisan "fiscal future commission" to recommend ways to bring entitlement spending under contr[...]

'Post-Partisanship' Isn't Dead Yet -- but It's Very Close

Thu, 19 Mar 2009 00:23:04 -0600

And he isn't alone. The Senate's No. 3 GOP leader, moderate Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), told me in an interview that, after being one of a handful of Republicans voting twice to release bank bailout funds, he likely won't do it a third time. "I think if President Obama had said, 'I'm going to fix the banks and get credit flowing and I'm going to concentrate on that as a first priority,' he'd have gotten whatever Republican support he needed," Alexander said. "I think it would be very difficult now," he said, after Obama put priority instead on stimulus and omnibus spending bills requiring $1 trillion in new borrowing. The fact is that while Republicans have next to no power in the House and are close to lacking filibuster power in the Senate, they can seize on popular moods and thwart Obama's agenda -- another bank rescue being the prime example. It's time for Obama to remember all those "post-partisan" campaign promises of his and find ways to listen to Republicans and accommodate some of their ideas. Obama ought to take up an idea that I heard former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) put forward the other day: quietly hold some bipartisan skull sessions on selected topics to hash out ideas and create a problem- solving atmosphere. In the case of the bank crisis -- and other areas of economic policy, too -- Obama and his top advisers ought to mix it up regularly with conservative Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who, they would discover, has some constructive ideas that Obama might adopt. Such as: Instead of injecting vast new cash into the banks, institute a system of government insurance guarantees to protect asset-holders against losses. Also, triage the banks and commence a Resolution Trust Corporation-style liquidation of those that can't be saved. Ryan also has long advocated partly suspending the mark-to-market rule for valuing bank assets. The current accounting rule pegs securities at zero if no one will buy them, even though, since most people pay their mortgages on time, the assets actually have value. Super-investor Warren Buffet advocates the same change. And Ryan also has been urging that the Securities and Exchange Commission enforce the "uptick rule," so that hedge funds can't sell short and drive stock values into the cellar unless a stock price has first had an "uptick." Clearly, Obama and Ryan aren't going to agree on such policies as a 25 percent top tax rate or zero capital gains taxes, but the intellectual exchange between two smart people would be enlightening for both. An Obama Cabinet member told me that Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel felt "slapped in the face" when, after personal visits, only three Congressional Republicans voted for his stimulus package. Since then, the mantra from the White House has been: Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the GOP, Republicans are "the party of No" and anyone who opposes Obama is the tool of special interests. The message is: We tried post-partisanship, but Republicans won't play. Asked about the "party of no" charge, Alexander told me: "Partly true. If President Obama suggests taking away the secret ballot in union elections or borrowing $1 trillion for things that don't stimulate, our answer is no. ... Part of our job is to hold the administration accountable. "But another part of our job is to offer better ideas, and we're working hard to do that," he said, citing energy policy where "instead of higher taxes and more subsidies for windmills, our plan would be 100 new nuclear plants, more natural gas, clean coal and increase research on alternatives." As Alexander noted, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in January made a broad offer to work with Obama on Social Security and other entitlement reform. And Alexander said Senate Republicans are ready to help with education, health care and Afghanistan policy, as well. The problem is that Bush-style mutual suspicion is taking hold. Alexander said that the White House is good about visits and cordi[...]

Pakistan Must Be Obama's Leading Foreign Priority

Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:25:00 -0600

Protecting Afghanistan from Taliban advances is important - and U.S. troop commitments there will be a major domestic concern - but preventing chaos in Pakistan is vital to U.S. security. It's a daunting and complex goal that will require all the formidable diplomatic skills of the administration's "AfPak" czar, Richard Holbrooke. President Barack Obama has to play a personal role by declaring that the United States is decisively dedicated to securing democracy and fostering social and economic development in Pakistan. Congress has to play its part by passing legislation sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) providing $1.5 billion a year in economic aid over the next five years and promising renewal after that. The United States has to convey to the Pakistani population that our country is not only interested in Pakistan's role in the war on terrorism, but also will help it modernize its schools, health system and economy. For more than 20 years, U.S. aid has been almost entirely military - and even that was not used to establish a counterinsurgency capability, but to buy conventional weaponry that Pakistan's military wanted to counter India. That's changing, but so far Pakistan is losing the war against terrorism and the credibility of democratic government is also cratering. The military failed to defeat Islamic extremists in the scenic Swat Valley, located less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the government was forced into a deal allowing Islamists to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in the region. This was represented as a strategy to divide "moderate" Islamists from "extremists," but it was widely seen as capitulation. Swat is only one of several regions in the country where the government is losing out to insurgents, notably the misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters heading into Afghanistan. Meantime, the country's seven-month-old democratic government, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, is rapidly losing public support, threatening the whole idea of democratic rule. The latest and worst blow was the brazen March 3 terrorist attack on a motorcade carrying a visiting cricket team from Sri Lanka that killed six policemen and a driver in Lahore, capital of Punjab province. Sri Lanka had been assured of "presidential style" security for the team's visit. In fact, terrorists fired rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s at the team's bus and escaped with not a single attacker killed or captured. Cricket is Pakistan's national sport and the incident ensures that no international team will play there in the future. Moreover, Zardari is being blamed for incompetence because he had recently replaced Punjab's police commanders after rioting provoked by his arch-political rival, Nawaz Sharif, when the Supreme Court ruled that Sharif could not hold office because of prior criminal convictions. In fact, Zardari opposed the ruling in court filings, but Sharif has accused him of plotting his ouster. Sharif, who as prime minister in the 1990s dismantled courts that ruled against him, now is aligning himself with lawyers planning mass sit-ins and marches on Monday to restore a Supreme Court chief justice ousted by former President Pervez Musharraf. Sharif, often identified as a "religious nationalist," was a protŽgŽ of Islamist military dictator Zia Ul Haq. He accused former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of being a "Zionist-Hindu traitor" and, as prime minister, pushed a law to establish Sharia. Zardari and Sharif's fight is sapping faith that democratic politicians can rule successfully. Matters are made worse by high unemployment and inflation that's worsened in the worldwide economic meltdown. Zardari, husband of the assassinated Bhutto, has declared himself America's ally in the war on terror and has permitted the CIA to use Pakistani territory to stage missile strikes on al-Qaida targets.[...]

Can Congress Pass All Obama Wants -- and Should It?

Fri, 06 Mar 2009 00:33:21 -0600

He wants Congress to give him -- this year -- a new financial regulatory system so that collapses like the current one don't happen again. It's not remotely clear that Congress or the administration know how to construct such a system without over-regulating and stifling innovation. And regulation, if it's going to be effective, has to be done in coordination with other industrialized nations because modern credit markets are global. And, on top of all that, Obama proposes to invest massively in health care and education -- oh yes, and transform a carbon-based economy to one relying on alternative fuels. "The only way to fully restore America's economic strength," he said to Congress, "is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world. "The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care, the schools that aren't preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit." He went on to note, correctly enough, that America has done great things in past times of crisis -- build railroads in the Civil War, go to the moon during the Cold War, etc. -- but he is calling for all these massive transformations to be done at the same time. More bailouts, a big budget, new tax cuts and tax breaks, health care down payments and energy changes all will jam Congress at the same time, with each a possible bargaining hostage for another. And think about this problem: Amid a deep recession, Obama's environmental czar has served notice that carbon dioxide will be regulated as a pollutant, requiring less use of fossil fuels. Moreover, Obama plans to impose heavy taxes on carbon -- the essence of a cap-and-trade system -- both to help pay for health care expansion and to encourage alternatives that have yet to prove themselves economically viable. But such taxes and regulation will have a depressive effect on a wobbly economy -- and also violate his principle that only the rich will pay more taxes. Everyone who drives or heats a home will pay more. Which is fine in the long run. For too long, as Obama noted, America has been an over-consuming, over-borrowing, under-saving and under-investing country. But, in the short run, we are going to become even more leveraged, borrowing $1.75 trillion (at least) this year, $1.2 trillion the next year and $900 billion the year after that. And then, according to Obama's plans, we will become a fiscally frugal country, cutting the deficit in half by 2012 by raising taxes on the rich, taxing carbon and cutting wasteful spending. It will be wonderful if it happens. But there are some big reasons to doubt that it will. One, again, is Congress. Obama declared with some pride that there were no earmarks in the stimulus package and implied there will be none in next year's budget. But the House's 2009 omnibus funding bill contains some 9,000 earmarks and Obama has not -- so far -- used his influence to get them out as a down payment on fiscal responsibility. Another problem lies with his economic assumptions, which are rosier than what most experts expect -- meaning that he's counting on more revenue and less expenditure than may actually be possible. For instance, he's anticipating just a minus 1.2 percent economic growth rate this year, whereas the Blue Chip survey has it at 1.9 percent. And next year, he's forecasting a rebound to 3.2 percent growth, vs. 2.1 percent by professional forecasters. And probably the biggest question of all is: How is he going to get spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- the long-term threats to the nation's economic health -- under control? Obama told Congress that he knows this has to be done, but doesn't say how. Universal health care and indexed Pell Grants for college promise new entitlement obligations bef[...]

Obama Has Good Idea: a Bipartisan Health Summit

Fri, 27 Feb 2009 00:09:05 -0600

To prevent scare tactics and suspicion from torpedoing health care reform before it gets launched, it's a good idea for President Barack Obama to convene a broad-spectrum "health care summit" to begin a public bipartisan dialogue. A "secret" dialogue has been under way on Capitol Hill, according to the New York Times, between the staff of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and lobbyists for big and small business, the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, AARP and unions. But that's not a substitute for public airing of options to help educate voters and build support for any plan that the Obama administration finally backs. There's no way a Democratic Congress and administration are going to opt for traditional Republican health initiatives -- private health savings accounts and such -- but the dialogue could ensure that other market-based solutions get considered. And two people who should surely be invited are former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Progressive Policy Institute's David Kendall, both advocates of making the U.S. health care system as efficient as the best private health centers such as the Mayo Clinic. Kendall argues in PPI's idea-rich book, "Memos to the New President," that Mayo-like reforms in the government's Medicare and Medicaid programs could save enough money to fund health insurance for America's nearly 50 million uninsured, and then some. "The total U.S. health budget is $2 trillion," Kendall told me. "Fifty percent of it is government. There are studies showing you can save 30 percent of health care costs by becoming more efficient. "That's $600 billion a year -- or $300 billion for government. Covering all of the uninsured will be $100 billion, which leaves a lot left over for the rest of the economy." It's not that simple, of course -- by a long shot. But it's a glimpse at how the United States could begin to get out of its status of the developed nation with the highest per capita health outlays and far less than the best health outcomes. Gingrich calls his reform concept "health-based health care," which rewards providers for keeping people healthy instead of performing procedures or charging for office visits, and using health information technology to judge and spread the word about best practices. Gingrich associate David Merritt, author of the book "Paper Kills," helped knock down the right-wing paranoia about health IT and comparative effectiveness -- while arguing that private-sector actors had to have a role. "Modernizing our healthcare system through information technology and robust comparative research will push our health system into the 21st Century," he said in an analysis of the stimulus package. "Getting the latest technology into the hands of doctors, providers and patients is essential to transforming health," he said. "While fears are justified that this kind of research could be a slippery slope to rationing care, that argument is not currently justifiable in the specific language of the bill." Kendall recommends that the federal government set an overall budget for public health programs, including tax breaks for employer-provided insurance, and set targets for controlling costs. He'd set up a "Health Fed," modeled on the Federal Reserve, to analyze data and recommend methods of keeping to the budget -- such as cutting payments to Medicare providers or asking holders of expensive insurance policies to pay more in taxes. The Health Fed is an idea also advanced by ex-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Obama's former nominee for Health and Human Services secretary. In Kendall's model, Congress would vote on its recommendations. Kendall also recommends an idea that ought to appeal to Republicans: establishment of specialized "health courts" to hear medical malpractice claims, a step to reduce frivolous lawsuits and expensive "defensive medicine" and keep malpractice insurance costs from driving doctors o[...]

Obama Shouldn't Stick to 16-Month Iraq Pullout Plan

Fri, 20 Feb 2009 00:36:39 -0600

Fred Kagan, the American Enterprise Institute scholar who advocated and helped design the surge, told me that, of 140,000 troops in Iraq now, "as few as possible" should be removed before Iraq's parliamentary elections late this year and the formation of a new national government around March 2010. Thereafter, he said, "there can be a fairly rapid withdrawal" on the 23-month schedule agreed to in the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement reached last year. That agreement calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, but it allows for mutually agreed extensions. Obama's promised 16-month withdrawal schedule, Kagan said, "would mean significant withdrawals before the elections, creating tremendous risk. It would only be done to keep a campaign promise and would require renegotiating [the SOFA] with the Iraqis." Significantly, surge supporters like Kaplan do not declare -- as some pro-Bush columnists and TV commentators do -- that the U.S. has "won" the war in Iraq or "is winning." They concur that Iraq's recent provincial elections achieved significant success: They were overwhelmingly peaceful. They were won by secular, nonsectarian parties, chiefly the alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. And they represented a defeat for Iran, Moktada al-Sadr and pro-Iran Shiite parties. "The elections proved the naysayers dead wrong -- those who said that the surge might succeed militarily, but fail politically," says Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution. But dangers remain, among which is that Maliki may turn out to be no democrat, but a "strongman" on the model of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Maliki's own base political party, Dawa, was modeled on Leninism, one expert told me, and he has routinely resorted to "extra-constitutional" institutions -- including his personal paramilitary force -- to stifle opposition. Maliki also tried to rid Iraq's interior ministry of Sunnis and has ordered the arrest of opponents on trumped up charges. According to Kagan and Pollack, it's necessary for U.S. forces to remain as "peacekeepers" -- a favored U.S. military role among Democrats -- partly to ensure that Maliki doesn't over-reach. A U.S. presence also is necessary to ensure that sectarian violence doesn't break out again, which might happen in the aftermath of a too-hasty withdrawal, and to maintain robust provincial reconstruction teams to help inexperienced, newly elected provincial governments. Another expert, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and an original opponent of the war, said during a Washington Post-sponsored blog exchange with Ricks that he, too, favors a slow drawdown. "U.S. strategic attention is definitely refocusing on Afghanistan," he said. "There will clearly be a shift of resources. [But] my own preference is for a slower shift than a faster one. "We need to keep the strategic interests of these two countries in context. Failure in Iraq is still possible and threatens profound U.S. interests in the stability of the Persian Gulf. "Afghanistan is important, too, but its importance is less direct than sometimes supposed in the U.S. debate and does not necessarily dominate the scale of our continuing interest in Iraq." Obama has not declared what his troop withdrawal plan is, but his reaction to the Iraqi elections was that "we are in a position to start putting more responsibility on the Iraqis and that's good news not only for the troops on the ground, but for the families who are carrying an enormous burden." While Odierno is arguing for a slow pace of withdrawal, the high command at the Pentagon, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Army Chief of Staff George Casey reportedly favor speeding it up to give troops longer "dwell time" in the United States before possible deployment in Afghanistan. The Iraq endgame bears on both Bush's and Obama's places in history[...]

Believe It or Not, Rush Limbaugh Was Right on Stimulus

Thu, 12 Feb 2009 00:33:54 -0600

Which was: President Barack Obama won 53 percent of the two-party vote last year and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 46 percent, so Obama would dictate the contents of 53 percent of the stimulus and Republicans -- Limbaugh said, "me" -- would dictate 46 percent. Well, it was never going to happen exactly that way, since the election handed control of both political branches of government to the Democrats. But, if Obama truly wanted to establish a post-partisan atmosphere in Washington, he would have not only met and had cocktails with Republicans, but would have given them a real say in drafting the stimulus. Limbaugh shouldn't be dictating the form of tax cuts, of course, but Republicans had some ideas that Obama could have accepted, such as a payroll tax holiday and cut in the capital gains tax for small business. Such deal-making would have put Republicans to the test. Are they willing to compromise for the common good, or are they simply set on obstructing Obama and playing to their base? As it is, cut out of any role in drafting the stimulus package beyond offering amendments that were promptly voted down, Republicans voted en masse against it. So Obama is launching this supposed new era just as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did -- on a virtual party-line basis. At one point, House Republicans seemed gratified that tax cuts were going to make up 40 percent of the stimulus. Then, that number fell to 33 percent. In the Senate version, it arguably went up to 44 percent, but that included an expensive "fix" for the alternative minimum tax that no one regards as stimulative and that should have been swapped out for other tax cuts. Meanwhile, tax credits for car and home buying were cut, bringing the tax-cut percentage down to 35 percent. The reasons for adopting a Limbaugh-like idea go beyond post-partisan atmospherics. The fact is that, in spite of the certitude expressed by politicians and op-ed writers, no one can be certain if the best way out of this Great Recession is Keynesian government spending or supply-side tax cutting. So why not, as Limbaugh suggested, try both? The Keynesian case, as expressed by Obama and liberal economists such as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, is that, with businesses unable to sell their products to private buyers, government has to step in -- big time -- to create demand and jobs by building and buying things and putting money into the hands of people who will spend it. The supply-side case is that the way to boost an economy is to cut taxes, preferably permanently, for investors and producers, who will hire workers and buy plants and equipment, producing growth. Both Republicans and Democrats are citing work by Obama's chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer. She wrote in a 2007 paper that tax cuts "have very large and persistent output effects" and Republicans assert her model shows that $1 of tax cuts produces $3 of growth. However, in a paper on the White House Web site, she asserts that $1 of spending produces $1.50 in output, whereas tax cuts produce $1. Who knows which is right? Then there's history. Republicans claim that Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1930s spending did not end the Great Depression, but World War II did. Of course, World War II was the greatest explosion of government spending in history -- and the top income tax rate was an astronomical 94 percent. Conservatives also cite supply-side Reaganomics as a model, but a case can be made that Reagan's Keynesian defense spending and deficit financing -- the national debt doubled during his presidency, as a percent of GDP -- ended a recession and produced a boom. So, some intellectual humility is in order. If we want a short-term boost to the economy, let's try spending and tax cuts. Or, as that momentary exponent of bipartisanship, Limbaugh, wrote in the Wall Stree[...]

There's Room for Compromise on Both Sides

Thu, 29 Jan 2009 00:32:16 -0600

Claiming the moral high ground as he visited with Republicans for three hours on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, he called for them to "put politics aside," implying that sustained opposition could be attacked as merely partisan. And, I think -- along with presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith on PBS Tuesday -- that it was no offhand remark that Obama urged Republicans to just not listen to conservative talk-show extremist Rush Limbaugh, who has declared about Obama: "I hope he fails." House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, "We want this president to succeed," but sustained opposition could be characterized as slavishness to Limbaugh -- and determination to let the country fail as well as the Obama presidency. As Smith said, Obama "knows the Republican Party has been reduced to a rump, ideologically and geographically, and he's going to give them a choice of being, in effect, the Rush Limbaugh Republican Party or the Ronald Reagan Republican Party." When House Republicans objected to the idea of giving refundable tax credits to people who don't pay income taxes (but do pay payroll taxes), Obama reminded them that it was Ronald Reagan who established the modern earned income tax credit in 1986, a major reach across ideological lines. Besides listening to Republicans, Obama has taken some steps to accommodate their ideas, eliminating such "porky," non- stimulative items as funds for family planning and refurbishment of the National Mall. After Republicans complained that the House stimulus bill contains cuts amounting to only 33 percent of the $825 billion package -- down from 40 percent earlier -- he also agreed to a "fix" for the alternative minimum tax that will raise the percentage of tax cuts in the Senate stimulus bill to 38.5 percent. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hinted Wednesday that there could be further concessions -- and there ought to be. The House bill still contains non- stimulative spending that could be eliminated, such as $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and $335 million to fight sexually-transmitted diseases. And Obama ought to seriously consider additional GOP-suggested tax cuts, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (Ky.) proposed payroll tax "holiday" of one or two years, which would help both employees and employers, and cancellation of taxes on unemployment benefits. He also should consider GOP proposals to refocus some of the stimulus on the nation's housing crisis, possibly by having the government guarantee 4 percent mortgages for one or two years and/or provide a 15 percent tax credit for new home purchases. And, especially, Obama ought to clear up the nagging ambiguity over whether he will try to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 by ruling it out as long as the economy is in recession. Obama's own top economic adviser, Christina Romer, wrote in a 2007 academic paper, "tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained and highly negative impact on output." She also added -- in a line now widely quoted by conservatives -- that "tax cuts have very large and persistent output effects." Romer now argues that government spending produces $1.50 in stimulus for every $1 spent, while cuts produce just $1 for every $1 in tax reductions. The more Obama leans toward the GOP, of course, the more some of his fellow Democrats are likely to squawk -- as some of them already are doing. According to Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a moderate Blue Dog, liberals in the Democrats' caucus meeting on Tuesday indulged in "a lot of carping and moaning -- 'Why isn't it bigger?' 'Why aren't we spending more money?' 'Why are there any tax cuts here?' It's the New Deal revisited." Cooper thinks that "Barack has achieved a great, bipartisan, post-partisan victory" with the basic d[...]

In Obama Era, National Service's Time Has Come

Thu, 22 Jan 2009 00:34:00 -0600

The centerpiece of the process will be passage -- its advocates hope, in Obama's first 100 days -- of the Serve America Act, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), to expand Americorps, the nation's civilian service force, from 75,000 personnel to 250,000 per year over five years. Earning $12,500 a year, plus a $4,700 scholarship, Americorps volunteers do direct service at low-income schools, clinics, boys and girls clubs, environmental projects and disaster sites, and help organize the work of around 60 million unpaid volunteers. Service Nation, a coalition of 120 mainly nonprofit organizations, hopes that by 2020, the government will give stipends to a million volunteers, whose efforts can leverage unpaid work by 100 million people. Whether such an ambitious goal ever gets realized, it's clear that Obama is moving the idea of national service -- in fact, of citizenship -- to a whole new level. Partly, it's the result of a coming-to-pass of the poignant challenge issued by President George H.W. Bush in 1989: "From now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include serving others." That's an attitude that caught on among young people even before Obama appeared on the scene, as exemplified by Teach for America, the nongovernmental corps of lowly paid volunteer teachers that now has 37,000 applicants for 5,000 positions each year. Another group, City Year, which puts recent high school and college graduates to work in poor neighborhoods, has experienced growth of 180 percent. Dozens of other such nonprofits have grown up in recent years, and there's an added overlay of "social entrepreneurship," the idea that charities should use business techniques to measure their effectiveness and leverage their effect. The Obama presidential campaign was powered, in part, by this combination of idealism and practicality. Instead of volunteering in inner cities, tens of thousands of citizens went to work ringing doorbells and manning phone banks. And shrewd organizers assembled a gigantic database of e-mail addresses and textable phone numbers that served as a potent political tool in the campaign. As a result, the Obama campaign became a citizens' movement of millions. In advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, those in the database got messages from Obama, Michelle Obama and inaugural co-chairman Colin Powell urging them to sign up through a Web site,, for volunteer work on Jan. 19. More than a million people did so -- double those who signed up last year -- and they worked on 12,100 official projects, compared with 5,000 last year. Obama set an example by working at a shelter for homeless teens and visiting wounded soldiers while his wife helped assemble gift packages for troops overseas. In perhaps the most eloquent portion of his inaugural address, Obama cited military service as the model for citizen service at home. "As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains," he said. "They have something to tell us today ... because they embody the spirit of service, a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves." It's a spirit, he said, "that must inhabit us all." And he added that "a new era of responsibility" refers not only to personal conduct, but to "duties that we have ... to our nation and the world," and that this "is the price and the promise of citizenship." Some Republicans worry -- as well they might -- that Obama is conflating service and civic duty with support for him and his program and that his mailing list can be turned into a powerful pressure group as well as a volunteer force. That's the way it is with movements -- they have[...]

Obama Should Spray the Taliban's Poppies, Rep. Kirk Asserts

Sat, 17 Jan 2009 00:25:46 -0600

In December, Kirk became the second Member of Congress -- and first House Member -- since 1943 to serve on active duty in a combat zone, witnessing parts of a major allied victory at Nad Ali in Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, the source of nearly half the world's heroin. The Pentagon has barred Congressional reservists from active-duty service in combat zones since World War II, but Sen. (and Army Col.) Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) broke the ban in 2006 and Kirk followed. A Naval reserve officer, Kirk served for three weeks developing counter-narcotics plans in NATO's southern regional command and said he flew in a helicopter with the top U.S. general in the region, watching as British and Taliban forces exchanged artillery and small-arms fire. Because U.S. troops were not directly involved, the battle of Nad Ali got little media coverage in America, but its result was that "for the first time in history, [NATO] is directly in control of a major drug-producing area. So, a new policy is very much needed," Kirk told me. This is especially true, he said, because the Helmand River valley -- rather than the Pakistan border region -- is the destination of most of the 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops scheduled to be sent to Afghanistan this year. "Assuming the plan goes as NATO expects, by September, President Obama's troops will control the major heroin-producing area on the planet for the first time in U.S. history," Kirk said. Afghanistan accounts for 93 percent of the world's opium production, according to the United Nations, and half of it originates in the Helmand River valley. "So then, the big question is going to be, what's our plan for 2010?" Kirk said. The opportunity exists, he said, to slash the Taliban's $500 million in drug profits per year, now used to buy "the latest weapons, satellite communications and good uniforms." Kirk said that Obama's policy should be similar to that pursued by the U.S. and the government of Colombia, culminating in aerial spraying of the poppy fields of die-hard top-level opium growers. He said that after the military drives out the Taliban, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development should move in with offers of seed and fertilizer for farmers willing to plant alternative crops. "The military should support Afghan police to eradicate crops when people don't take the offer and support the DEA to take down drug kingpins," he said, policies that worked in Pakistan as well as Colombia. In Colombia, authorities chopped down drug crops grown by low-level producers, but sprayed farms owned by drug bosses. "At that point," Kirk said, "most of the valley will flip." Aerial spraying was barred as a U.S. tactic because the Bush administration feared arousing images of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he said. Kirk said he's heard from Obama transition officials that Obama strongly opposes spraying, but Kirk said that spraying just the land of kingpins would do less environmental damage than drug production already does in the Helmand and adjoining provinces near Kandahar. Graham, just back from a Congressional trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, says he agrees with Kirk on the need for an "aggressive" anti-drug policy, but he favors employing jobless Afghans to uproot the crops instead of spraying. "Most Afghans consider the drug trade un-Islamic," Graham told me, "and we should help them show it." He does favor "all-out war" on drug labs and prosecution of drug lords. Graham said he also told Obama on Wednesday to push for $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over 10 years to bolster its anti-extremist campaign. And, [...]

Reform Is Coming On Immigration, But Problems Remain

Fri, 09 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

President-elect Barack Obama denounced the raids during the campaign, but canceling George W. Bush's policies could open the new administration to charges that it's "soft" on enforcement - especially at a time of high unemployment among American workers. Immediate decisions for Obama and Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano are whether to maintain decrees that all federal contractors use the otherwise-voluntary "e-verify" system to check the immigration status of their workers and push private employers to fire workers subject to "no match" letters from the Social Security system. Immigration rights advocates, unions and employer groups complain that the databases used for e-verify and no match are faulty and that, between them, up to 5 million illegal workers - and some legal ones - could be forced out of their jobs. Already, the recession has caused large-scale dislocations, business closings and housing foreclosures in Hispanic communities, giving some immigrants-rights advocates hope that economic arguments - if not only humanitarian ones - will convince the Obama administration to cancel Bush's policies. The best solution - as even Bush officials acknowledge - is to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would control the U.S. borders; allow in a regular flow of immigrant workers, especially for agricultural jobs; and identify and legalize the status of otherwise law-abiding illegal residents and give them a chance to become citizens. Bush acknowledged in an interview published Tuesday that, in retrospect, he erred in not pushing for immigration reform after his re-election and in trying for Social Security reform instead. His Social Security initiative failed and, by the time Congress got around to considering immigration reform, anti-immigrant groups and right-wing radio talk-show hosts had whipped the Republican base - and GOP Members of Congress - into a frenzy of opposition to "amnesty" and insecure borders, killing that initiative, too. Bush's Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said in a speech in December that he and Bush were disappointed at the failure. "But given that Congress has not passed it, the most important thing we can do is enforce the law the way it has been written, and therefore we've arrested record numbers of illegal aliens ... and we've deported almost 350,000 in the past year. That is a record." Chertoff also reported that he'd doubled the size of the Border Patrol, built nearly 500 miles of fencing along the Mexican border and increased "worksite enforcement actions" by 27 percent - all to reduce illegal immigration and restore lost credibility for the federal government. Longtime immigration reform advocate Frank Sharry, now director of America's Voice, said that "Chertoff worked admirably" for reform, "but after it failed, what he did was disgraceful. "He let the enforcement cowboys loose on residential neighborhoods, conducted those employment raids that mainly targeted helpless workers, not the employers, and terrorized the immigrant community," Sharry charged. He said, "the administration was heavily responsible" for the fact that Latino turnout jumped 40 percent in 2008 over 2004, and went from 56 percent Democratic to 66 percent. In 22 Congressional races where an "enforcement hawk" was running against an advocate of comprehensive reform, the reformer won in 20, according to America's Voice. The election results have encouraged reform advocates to expect that Obama will push for comprehensive reform this fall. He's declared it a "top priority" of his administration and it was the focus of one of his transition task forces. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and various immigration groups ar[...]

Obama Should Say 'No' to 'War Crimes' Probes of Bush Team

Fri, 26 Dec 2008 00:33:10 -0600

But now Bush haters are calling for the Obama administration to investigate Bush officials for alleged war crimes and other misdeeds connected with the war on terror. Obama should make it clear right now that he opposes such action -- and also that he opposes the "compromise" idea of a "truth commission" to investigate alleged Bush-era wrongdoing. The main reason has less to do with "turning the page," uniting the country and letting bygones be bygones -- all good Obama impulses -- than with preserving the morale of intelligence professionals in wartime. If a special prosecutor were to be appointed to investigate possible criminality involved in detainee interrogations, "extraordinary renditions" or terrorist surveillance, it's not only Bush-era top officials who'd have to hire lawyers to defend themselves, but lower-down intelligence operatives as well. The same would be true if Congress created a "truth commission" with subpoena power to report on Bush-era policies. The operatives wouldn't have to fear prosecution, but they'd still have to worry about their reputations. And, when President Obama calls on the CIA to undertake a dangerous mission -- perhaps a terrorist "snatch" in the tribal areas of Pakistan or the assassination of Osama bin Laden -- any agent directed to undertake it would justifiably demand a legal opinion first. And CIA lawyers, too, would err on the side of caution to avoid future second-guessing. The latest call for a punitive action came from the New York Times editorial page on Dec. 18, but it's previously been by left-wing bloggers, liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and commentators on MSNBC. The take-off point for the Times was a Senate Armed Services Committee's bipartisan finding that high-level authorization of "aggressive" interrogation of terrorist detainees led to abuses such as those perpetrated at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The report, the Times wrote, "amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff." I'm surprised that the newspaper did not call -- as others have -- for prosecution of Cheney himself, and possibly Bush as well. After all, among the committee's conclusions was that "On Feb. 7, 2002, Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for human treatment, did not apply to al-Qaida or Taliban detainees. "Following the president's determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity and stress positions, used in (U.S.) training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody." But there's no need to investigate whether Bush -- or Cheney -- authorized the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques or warrantless terrorist wiretapping or renditions ("snatching") of terrorist suspects. They've admitted it and defended it as being necessary to defend the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- and justified it by pointing out that the homeland has not been attacked since. In an interview with the Washington Times on Dec. 17, Cheney said "there were a total of about 33 (persons) who were subjected to enhanced interrogation. Only three of those who were subjected to waterboarding," including 9/11's top planner, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad. Intelligence officials claim that his subjection to simulated drowning produced important information about the al-Qaida organization and[...]

Best Auto Plan: Bankruptcy Terms Minus Bankruptcy

Thu, 18 Dec 2008 00:40:00 -0600

But neither the incoming nor outgoing administration thinks that -- mainly because bankruptcy for General Motors could also result in the failure of companies that supply parts for all auto companies, including foreign transplants, causing a collapse of the entire industry. And the stigma of a Chapter 11 filing by U.S. auto companies -- putting them into position for reorganization by courts -- might discourage any buyers from purchasing American, causing a cascade into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, that is, liquidation. All that could add several million people to the unemployment rolls at a time when joblessness is already surging. Another Washington Post poll found that 43 percent of U.S. households has already suffered from job loss or reduced hours of work and 66 percent are worried that they won't be able to maintain their standard of living. Sixty-five percent support the idea of up to $700 billion in infrastructure spending to prop up the economy. That suggests that the 55 percent who oppose an auto bailout don't understand the potential consequences of bankruptcy. As Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told Fox News's Bret Baier on Tuesday, President George W. Bush "made a decision that he didn't want to see a failure of an auto company, so we're right now exploring the options." Asked about most Congressional Republicans' favored process -- Chapter 11 reorganization -- Paulson said "the economy is fragile. A failure would not be good at this time." And Vice President Dick Cheney told radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, "if the automobile industry goes belly up, there's a deep concern that that would be a major shock to the system." President-elect Barack Obama endorsed the White House-Congressional Democratic $14 billion bailout package that passed the House last week but failed to survive a GOP filibuster. The hero of the moment in that exercise -- though he ultimately failed to win a victory -- was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who sought to fashion a bankruptcy-like reorganization package for GM without bringing on the consequences of bankruptcy. Corker, a freshman Senator, tried to save everyone involved -- the auto companies, their employees, suppliers, the economy and his fellow Republicans -- but he came up short because the United Auto Workers and their Democratic allies would not go along with his compromise proposal. His idea was to force GM's management, the UAW and company creditors to make guaranteed concessions by a definite date -- March 31 -- using the threat of certain bankruptcy as a stick to prevent backsliding. The administration-Democratic plan was similar in outline -- and was defended by administration officials as "tough" -- but contained no certain terms for keeping the auto companies viable. Under that plan, Bush would appoint an "auto czar" assigned to work out concessions by March 31 or April 30 or demand that the companies return their bailout loans, resulting in bankruptcy. Corker determined that the administration terms weren't definite enough and that his fellow Republicans wouldn't support it. So he called for a two-thirds "haircut" by GM's bond-holders -- that is, they'd write down GM's debt to one-third of its original value -- along with requirements that GM's pension funds convert the company's obligations into GM stock and that the UAW reduce its pay and benefits package to match Toyota and the other transplants' average. Corker, even though he's a junior member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, spent hours negotiating with GM, the bond holders and the UAW. But the UAW wouldn't agree to the deal, mainly because it figured that it would get an easier deal from the admin[...]