Archive for February, 2010

Freedom

In blog discussions and usenet debates going back decades, one issue of intense debate is freedom and politics.  I believe much of that debate is misplaced.    The result is a debate built on over-simplified slogans and inadequate acceptance of the complexity of social reality.   First, what is freedom?

We are all completely free to act as we choose, limited by our circumstances. Circumstances  include our physical capacity, the physical laws of nature, and the choices of others acting in similar freedom.   Those other choices create tthe cultural, social and political worlds around us.   Our freedom is constrained by the weight of past choices made by people.    We are also not free to choose the consequences of our choices, that gets determined by reality.

Note that this means that outside of purely physical factors (what our body can do, how the planet operates, the laws of nature, etc.)  the consequences of the free choices of others are the only things  that constrain us.   If we are constrained by circumstances, it’s only because people in the past made choices whose consequences have created the world we have now.   The social world is a human construct.

Politics,  then, is an effort to reflect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves, recognize that they are a result of past choices made (often with unintended consequences), and determine if we should try to change them.     This means that saying “government is the problem” is a misguided approach to politics.

The reason governments can and should nonetheless be critiqued is that they are the natural result of the weight of past choices.   Peoples’ choices inevitably, over time, empower some and constrain others.   Those with power make choices to try to hold on to it, and  keep their advantage.   That is rational.   The result is that they need some kind of social order to rationalize and justify their position.

Those without power can make choices too, and they often want to find a way to wrest power and wealth from those who have it.   Since they usually have numbers on their side, they ultimately can overcome the powerful.   Traditional societies recognized this conflict of interest, and created “‘grand compromises” in the form of traditions and customs.   The powerful have leadership positions, but they have to adhere to certain norms.   In some cases the masses have been coopted to support the elite by creating a smaller subclass (slaves, etc.) to exploit.

Governments emerge when polities become sophisticated enough to need administration and divisions of power.    Again, they are the result of peoples’ choices and consequences, not some kind of external agency thrust into human affairs.   They reflect the constraints and power differentials at their inception, and moving forward they can transform them.

Looked at this way, if one ‘got rid’ of government, humans would still be constrained by whatever circumstances in which they found themselves, including differences of wealth and power.   Most likely, they would reconstruct government.    Yet libertarians are right that governments are dangerous.

What governments can do is give those in power the capacity to make choices that create more constraints and protect elite privilege more than any other social institutions.   This is because they have larger scope (can rule more people) and bureaucratic efficiency (can project power very effectively).   Second to government in these capacities are private corporations.   Instead of being competing ends of the spectrum as the socialist-capitalist dichotomy would have it, they are the two most potentially dangerous social institutions.   Yet they can do great good as well, and are probably inevitable.

They key is to hold the power of leaders accountable to the people in a way that avoids populist backlash or instability.  Simply, in modern democracies the goal is to do what traditional societies did — create a ‘grand compromise’ whereby the power of the elite is constrained and the power of the masses protected or, if need be, enhanced.   This doesn’t eliminate the power differential — as long as humans make choices, the circumstances will have a level of individual unfairness — but manages it.

In traditional societies the main goal was stability — if the traditions and cultural norms functioned to keep people from revolting against the elites, or to keep the elites from amassing more power, then the society was functionally successful.  In modern western polities there is a philosophical goal on top of the desire for stability — to protect individual rights.    There is also inherent recognition that human rights are not protected in the ‘state of nature’ due to power differentials.   The state thus emerges as both the main threat to freedom, and one of the main instruments for expanding and protecting freedom and individual rights.   Democracy is an attempt to give relatively equal weight to the choices of all citizens in order to move the system forward, ideally to solve problems, reflect on circumstances, and make changes if people believe it necessary.

So debating “freedom” alone is misguided.   Some see it as being simply a limit by government (if only we didn’t pay taxes or have laws, we’d all be free), others see it as a limit by the wealthy (big corporations and money want to control the world, governments hold them in check).    The reality is that both government and corporations, among other things, create the circumstances in which we exercise freedom.   We exercise complete freedom within those circumstances, so the issue is not freedom, but the nature of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.   Are they just?   Can we posit a better world?

Ideally politics should be a reflection and debate about those issues; in our modern western democratic polities, the goal is human liberation — liberation from circumstances which are unfair and unjust.  The real issue is how to judge and assess the nature of these circumstances.   Nearly everyone has freedom.   But not everyone has the circumstances in which they can exercise it adequately.    Looked at that way we have to reject the simplistic left vs. right or “socialism vs. capitalism” set of dichotomies we’ve endured, and embrace a more wide ranging multidimensional set of questions, with no clear easy answer.

And perhaps that’s the most important point.   Looking at freedom alone lends itself to simple, easy slogan-like political programs.   That simplicity is an illusion.   The complexity of the way choices of the past have created circumstances of the present, and how to judge those circumstances defies simple ideological solutions.   That’s why political theory can yield no easy, objective, clear answer to how we should organize our political system.   There probably is no one right answer (it depends on culture — or the circumstances and choices made in various polities), the answer probably changes over time (what works today may seem backwards in 300 years), and if you change what you value a little, the answer will change.   Since values are at some level subjective, questions concerning the fairness of circumstances are inherently contestable, different people will always have different answers.

So where does that leave us?    I’d say that rather than focusing on abstract ideological debate, to think about the circumstances of our world and whether or not we consider them the best we can hope for.   And if not, reflect on how to change them, listening to warnings about unintended consequences, keeping in mind the danger of centralized power, and recognizing that there is no clear answer key — we’re creating our social world through our choices.

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Rumors of War

As the United States public settles into debates on the economy and health care, foreign policy and the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq fade from public consciousness.    Yet there are still soldiers over there, civilians are still being killed in the conflicts, and the future is uncertain.   Ultimately, solving these problems will be necessary to assure that the 21st century is stable and relatively peaceful.

Israel and Palestine: If only this could be settled, things would be a lot easier.  It appears on the surface that settlement should be easy.   The Israelis cannot push the Arabs into the desert, and the Arabs cannot push the Jews into the sea.   An secure viable Israel must exist alongside a secure viable Palestine.  Just as the Arabs can no longer claim Jews there are mostly “European colonists” trying to steal their land, the Israelis cannot deny Palestinian identity and say they are just Arabs who could live elsewhere.   The two peoples have linked destinies.

Yet the kind of commonsensical solution that seems so obvious to a neutral observer has proven virtually impossible to achieve.  Israel correctly fears that extremist elements could use a Palestinian state to continue a war against Israel, and the Palestinians correctly resent and want to end decades of humiliation and mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis.   Both sides see clearly their side of the issue and feel righteous; neither side has been able to adequately empathize with the other.  I think some top politicians understand, but publics are fickle and easily manipulated, especially when their emotions are played.

Iranian regional ambitions. Iran, buoyed by the fact the US military has proven relatively weak in the region, and that the American public does not want any more war, has set its sights on becoming a regional central Asian power.   Iran fancies itself as a major player between China and Russia in the region, with global import due to the world addiction to oil.   To secure its position, however, Iran must confront numerous threats.   First, there is American and EU opposition to Iran’s regime and its effort to expand its military might and potentially develop nuclear missiles.   Second there is the geopolitical rivalry against more powerful states, Russia and China.   Third, Iran’s regime is feared by Sunni Arab states who see the Shi’ite Persian Iran as a threat.   Finally, Iran’s influence will be limited by the rule Pakistan can play in the region, and however the Afghan situation develops.   Iran is the natural regional power, but faces intense rivalries and threats.

Iraq:  The failure of the US to turn Iraq into a pro-American ally has been key to Iran’s power play.  Once it became obvious the US could not pay the price it would take to dominate Iraq and subdue it, Iran slowly infiltrated all levels of Iraqi government and is very close to the current government of PM Maliki.   The Saudis and their allies would have no problem giving some support to al qaeda elements and Sunni Bathists to try to undermine the pro-Iranian Iraqi government and shift it to one more neutral.   Whatever one thinks of the old Hussein Bathist regime in Iraq, it was part of a stable regional balance of power.   Shifting Iraq to the Shi’ites and making it a defacto Iranian ally has been destabilizing.

Oil: Of course, all of this might be easy to ignore if not for oil.   China and Russia each see it in their interest to woe rather than work against Iran.   China wants access to Iranian oil, Russia fears a Chinese-Iranian alliance.   They also do not want American or western military action to expand in the region, because of the threat that might pose to their oil interests.  This gives Iran some cover as it pursues its goals.   As the planet runs shorter on oil, the price and regional geopolitical stakes will rise.  Iran knows that if it is to be a true regional power, a real player in future global battles over oil reserves, it has to position itself now.   That brings us back to Israel and Palestine.

Terrorism: One way Iran can counter the Sunni Arab efforts to limit its power is to emerge as a dominant force supporting the Palestinians against Israel.   That has emotional appeal in Arab lands, and could create chaos in the region which Iran might ultimately see in its favor.   Iran has supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite organization ironically created in the early eighties in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.   Iran has tried to make inroads with the Sunni Hamas organization, and is on good terms with the Syrian government.   Syria’s leadership is Shi’ite, though the public is overwhelmingly Sunni.   Syria is not a loyal ally of Iran, and even Hezbollah has shown it refuses to be simply an Iranian proxy, but Iran has positioned itself to benefit from on going tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the Hezbollah-Israeli war in the summer of 2006, the prospect of a joint Hamas and Hezbollah uprising against Israel, funded and supported by Iran and Syria, has been the nightmare of Israeli officials.  The power of these organizations has also helped marginalize Palestinian moderates who truly want to find a path to peaceful co-existence.  Fear, of course, inspires nationalists, and the right wing in Israel has used this to drum up support for anti-Arab sentiment.   This creates a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Right now, no state benefits from war.  Israel realizes that its ability to truly ‘defang’ Iran is limited, and worries that if they start a war, Hezbollah and Hamas will be able to respond effectively.   The US simply wants to leave Iraq, and the Obama Administration hopes to be leaving Afghanistan by 2012 — they know the American people are sick of war.  Iran wants to be a regional power, but knows its vulnerabilities.   A real war could mean the end of the Iranian regime, and they understand that.   The Sunni Arab states essentially want stability with the oil states hoping to milk their oil reserves for all they’re worth.

The wild cards are the terror organizations and oil.  Lacking a geographical center, terror groups have less to lose if things get out of control, and they often are motivated by emotional extremism rather than rational self-interest.   But that can be overstated.  Many terror leaders are very comfortable running something that is akin to an organized criminal organization — they do not want to risk their power for a quixotic cause.

If peak oil theory is correct and oil resources start running low once the world economy starts growing again, there will be an increased threat of oil wars.   States like the US, Russia and China could be involved directly, or through proxies.   Such a situation could escalate quickly.   Word is that Vice President Cheney wanted to attack Russian forces during the 2008 Georgian war.   That was rejected because it could have expanded into a broader war whose limits could not be predicted.  The same could happen if larger states, driven by the need for oil, are willing to risk military action.

The failure of the US operation in Iraq has shown the world how difficult it is to use military power to try to shape the region.   It should make it less likely that larger states will think it easy to achieve interests int he region through war.  The success of Hezbollah in 2006 makes an Israeli offensive less likely, especially against Iran.   The cost to Hezbollah of that success, however, makes Hezbollah less willing to risk all out conflict.  Given the loses they suffered, their ‘success’ was in some ways pyrrhic.

Still, however much we shift focus to domestic affairs, and however likely it appears that Obama will successfully end the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2012, the Mideast is still a dangerous place, and an even minor event could unleash a chain of  reactions that lead to major war.

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Obama on Offense

Back before the shot clock was put in place, college basketball teams would often institute a “four corners offense,” a stalling tactic used when the other team was behind.  They would try to simply control the ball and slow down the game.   Teams could keep the ball for huge chunks of time, essentially running out the clock, or vastly limiting the ability of an opponent to score enough to come back. 

Right now in Washington the GOP is using the equivalent of the “four corners offense” to try to stop the Obama Administration from passing anything of value.   They believe that lack of production from a President who was elected on the promise of change will be far more damaging to the Democrats than charges of obstructionism against Republicans.   Moreover, with Democratic majorities, they can always say “hey, they have the votes, why don’t they pass something?”

Recent Republican victories and trends nation wide that suggest strong GOP gains in November convince them that their strategy is working.  Obama seems unable to deliver, Democrats are getting scared of the next election, and the public still wants change.   If they can’t get it from Obama, they’ll turn to someone else.   Moreover, this is a strategy that is likely to bring the GOP real gains.  Obama will look weak, and they’ll say he lacks leadership or competence.  The Democrats will appear divided and fight with each other, often due to geography and ideology.   The Republicans simply have to say “no,” use the filibuster all the time, and then hope for gains in 2010, and perhaps to defeat Obama in 2012.

The best way to break up a four corners offense is aggressive ball play — go for steals, quick baskets, and getting the other side off guard.   That now seems to be Obama’s best strategy.   So, I’ll now don the hat of a political strategist and point out what I think Obama must do to turn around his political fortunes and assure re-election in 2012 and fewer losses in 2010. 

First, Obama should not tack to the center.   The thing about off year elections is it depends on how motivated the voters are.  Obama’s real threat is not that he’ll lose the center, but that Democratic activists and the people whose energy and effort got Obama to the White House will sit this one out.   Yes a lot of swing voters will go GOP this time.  They probably will do so regardless of what Obama does.   But if the Democrats loss their core supporters, their November loses will intensify.  They’ll feel like their hopes were dashed, Obama didn’t live up to the promise, and it’s not worth donating or being active in this election cycle.  Obama has to show that not only is he still a force for change, but he needs results.   This means Obama has to push through as much as he can, despite claims from pundits and others that the country is sending a different message.

Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the American public is actually far more forgiving of a politician who stands on principle despite political risks than one who appears weak and vacillating.   By September we could hear Democrats starting to say “this is turning around,” and the Republicans will appear to have been weak, unable to stop Obama’s changes.   He still may lose some from the center, at least in 2010, and a lot will depend on job creation.  But if Obama can regain the enthusastic suport of the core supporters who brought him to the White House, he’ll set himself up for a much better 2012.   How?

1.   Pass health care reform through reconciliation.  At this point it simply matters that they pass something significant.   They need a victory.   That will play better in November than caving in and appearing weak (people vote less on issue substance than personality image), and they may bet that by 2012 people will have accepted the new system.  In any event, if nothing passes on health care, Obama will have a major defeat and failure under his belt, and it will be hard to recover from it.   Then he’ll simply have to hope for job growth to be swift.

2.  Obama must spend a lot of time with Democrats explaining the need for action, and how they and the party need Obama to succeed if they’re going to avoid another 1994.   He needs face time with liberals, conservatives, moderates, all in the party who can work together and form a kind of pragmatic coalition that can push through measures either through reconiciliation in the Senate or by finding a few moderate Republicans who aren’t so committed to pure stall.  I don’t like to see the filibuster or reconciliation abused.  But in terms of strategy, if the Republicans are going to abuse the former, the Democrats need to abuse the latter if they are going to turn things around.

3.   He must be assertive.   Whether it’s jobs, “don’t ask don’t tell” (which must disappear quickly to really energize his base), health care, or nuclear energy, he must be out front, selling the policy and casting it in ways that can’t easily be cast as just ‘big government.’   He needs to own the message.

By nature Obama is a pragmatist and cautious.  In Illinois he rarely pushed or bluffed if he didn’t have a battle already won.   But a cautious, conservative team can’t break a four corners offense without taking risks and becoming aggressive.   He still needs Republican support on a lot of issues in the Senate, and he has to build a coalition within his own party that can agree enough to pass major change.   He also can aggressively use the powers of the executive branch to do things like enforce new financial regulations and in essence circumvent Congress. 

Moreover, this strategy will be more effective now then if he had done this from the start.  He has a reputation now as cautious and non-ideological.   Many in the center will respect him for moving quickly and blame the GOP for lack of cooperation now; they may not have done that if he pushed too quickly without giving bipartisanism a chance.

Not, these are not policy recommendations, I’m thinking purely in terms of political strategy.  The Republicans decided to stall and use the filibuster to make it so Obama can accomplish little.  That strategy has proven very successful for the Republicans.   By now, Obama and the Democrats have to realize that their current approach has hurt them politically and they need to change gears.   So after this week’s health summit, if there are no breakthrough agreements from moderate Republicans, expect an active, aggressive White House.  

And, should Obama be successful in his efforts, the Republicans may decide they’re better off trying to influence legislation than just stalling it.    Ultimately, I’d rather see tough compromises than politics as war.  Right now the Republicans have no incentive to change their strategy because they believe it’s working.  Obama’s task now is to turn that perception around.

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Nearing 50…

Tonight I did a workout, and am on day eight of a new diet.  I have spent my life fluctuating from a very in shape and healthy 185 pounds to a pudgy and out of shape 215.  I don’t worry too much when I gain weight because I know I will lose it again.   Depending on where I am in my weight cycle, different jeans are in the closest or in storage.    When my second son Dana was born in late 2005, I was near my “prime” weight.  I thought nothing of the fact that suddenly two kids meant I had less time to exercise and was more likely to overeat.   So slowly over the last four plus years, I drifted from about 190 to a hefty 219 last Thursday.   Efforts to eat less and exercise more failed for various reasons.  Only one pair of pants really fit comfortably.

For a brief moment I thought about giving in.   I am healthy, a few extra pounds isn’t that bad.  I can live wearing size 38 rather than 36.   Should I try to stay at 215 or so…?   Then I looked at the calendar.   Not the month, date or day, but the year.  2010.   I was born in 1960.  On March 1 I turn fifty.   I then thought about skiing last weekend, how my body ached and my back went into spasms as I forced my ski boots locked, how picking up the polls on the ground seemed a chore, and going up the T-bar with my six year old son made my back and legs feel like they were under extreme pressure.  In short, my body is feeling my age, and every pound adds to inflexibility.

Then I did some math.   When my youngest turns 21, I’ll be 66 years old.   By the time he hits 40, I’ll be 85.  I’ll be in my 70s at least when I become a Grandfather.   The choices I make now determine what kind of life I’ll have down the line.  So with a renewed sense of commitment I am now one week and a day into a diet that keeps me under 2000 calories a day and exercising.

Alas, at 50 I can’t diet like I did in my thirties.  I hit 210 for the first time when I was 35.   A year later I was 185 and lean.  I exercised and cut calories by eating only what I liked.  That was generally pasta, pizza, bread, and sweets, only in smaller quantities than before.   My veggie intake was limited to tomato sauce on my pizza/pasta, and a salad now and then.   I was doing weights so I’d also dine on steaks rather frequently — low fat cuts, but nice juicy medium rare slabs of red meat.   Not as good as the steak I was used to in South Dakota, but when you’re down to 2000 calories  a day (or less), any steak is delicious.

Nope.  My body can’t handle that now.  I need nutrition, for some reason.  I was feeling lethargic by day four, even light headed.  I still will probably have mostly carbs and empty calories, but I’ll have to integrate veggies in there somehow.   This morning I was 215.  That means “officially” I lost four pounds this week.  At that pace, I’ll do great!  Of course, I have learned over the years that week one is almost always a huge loss because my body gets rid of a lot of excess water.   Two pounds a week is more realistic.  A nice start does keep me motivated.

I’ve never really been too bothered about getting older.  For one thing, I have young children so I feel a bit younger than I would if I had kids at the ‘normal’ time and they were bringing me grandchildren now.   Heck, my Grandma was 38 when I was born!   I also really like having lived through the era I was lucky to be born into, remembering Vietnam (vaguely), Watergate, the Cold War, and my dad working at a Computer firm (Data, Inc) in the sixties when computers with much less power than this laptop on which I type occupied whole rooms.  I have watched the technology and information revolution from a time when we got four TV stations through an antenna to Dishnet with DVR.

Still, there is something about turning fifty that causes me to change my self-image.   There is a point in life where the future seems to be unlimited opportunity, with a sense of magic.  That sense of magic is still there, but the opportunities are now bounded.   And that’s OK.   At a teaching school I accept that I will never become a prolific scholar or well known expert on German and European policy.   But I am free to choose to explore different questions of interest to me, and take chances with an unconventional conventional approach.   It could still turn out to be really successful, but if not it’s OK.

With a family and all the responsibilities that come with that, my dreams of travel and living abroad are truncated.  But this year I’m part of my 7th travel course in just over a decade, bringing students to Europe, and I look forward to showing as much of the world as possible to my kids as they grow.   Being more life experienced, I find myself much calmer and able to take things with a sense of perspective than I could twenty years ago.   Very little bothers me.  Yet I see my sons just coming into the age where their passions will cause them to take chances, lose their temper, or be overcome with emotions, I hope to help them deal with those challenges.

Now that we’re financially sound I realize that I’ll never be rich, but probably won’t end up poor.  I also am amused that whether it’s making two decent incomes as we do now, or meager teaching assistant pay in grad school, it’s always the same: barely enough money to get by, yet satisfied with what I have.    Yet even as I feel life is going well, I worry about the future of my kids — what about oil crises, climate change, the decline in the US economy, etc,?   In short, I no longer worry about my own future or fantasize some great success story; I’m happy and content with the life I have.  Yet now my childrens’ future is my main concern, and I daresay I worry more about them than I ever worried about myself!

So it’s about time I not only lose weight again, but this time embrace ways to stay healthy so I can minimize the aches and pains that inevitably go with getting older, stay as active as possible with my very active and energetic sons, and find ways to make the second fifty years as good as the first.   Optimistic?   Perhaps.   But I really want to see at least one of my grandchildren graduate from college.   Since my oldest child is six, I think I have to shoot for 100 to see that happen.   And looked at that way — I’ve got as far to travel as I already have traveled — turning fifty has a romantic and exciting flair to it.   Which is good, since I’m not going to get that from food any time soon.

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Bayh-partisanship?

Senator Evan Bayh announced his retirement this week, denouncing the fierce partisanship in Washington.    Instead of solving problems, the politicians on both sides of the aisle play political games, and Senator Bayh simply didn’t feel it worth his efforts to remain.   And while the Democrats are arguably the most visibly hurt by his decision, Bayh’s condemned the “ideologues” on each side of the aisle.

It’s easy to say there needs to be bi-partisanship, but it’s harder to figure out how it should look.  It certainly should not be the two parties coming together in some kind of grand coalition to embrace a common reform package and pat each other on the back.   The parties represent different perspectives on politics and society (with sometimes intense internal divisions), and that is a good thing.   Artificial unanimity would be at least as bad as bitter partisanship.   The problem is not partisanship, but the role of “ideologues.”

An ideologue is someone whose world view is shaped by a particular theory of how the world works.   Ideologues interpret reality through their ideology.   The more unwilling they are to consider the possibility that their interpretation might be wrong (or incomplete) because of real world evidence, the more ideological they are.

This happens across the political spectrum.   For instance, a believer in free markets might dismiss all problems that currently exist in market systems as being there because the market is not “completely free.”   All real world evidence, all counter arguments, everything can be dismissed as irrelevant because the lack of a truly free market means that they can blame everything on whatever level of governmental regulation exists.   Such a view is not rational, but it does serve to protect ones’ belief from having to deal with real world evidence.   It is theory protected from reality.

Socialists similarly dismiss problems with bureaucracy and the dangers of big government by citing the existence of capitalism.  Much like the free market ideologue, the socialist ideologue defends his or her world view by positing the existence of capitalism as the real cause for corruption and abuse of power.  Their views are also articles of faith, protected from real world evidence.

Having an ideology is NOT the same as being an ideologue.   For instance, a believer in free markets who looks at real world evidence and concludes ‘I believe free markets function best, but in certain cases regulation is necessary’ shows a level of pragmatism.  Pragmatism here means the ability to take real world evidence seriously in critiquing ideology and solving problems.  In essence it is recognition that ideologies are simplified ‘rules of thumb’ that cannot be universally applied without risk of error.   So if there are two types of politicians — ideologues and pragmatists — they themselves form a spectrum.    The point where a ‘weak ideologue’ becomes a ‘weak pragmatist’ is fuzzy.  Politics could not function well with pure ideologues or pure pragmatists running the show.  Pure ideologues cannot compromise and would end up fighting ideological jihads over policy goals.  Pure pragmatists would compromise quickly and consider too narrow a variety of potential actions or policies.

I recently compared bi-partisanship to diplomacy.   The nationalist (ideologue) wants to put his or her country first, and reject diplomacy and compromise.   When this happens, you get catastrophic foreign policies, something the US learned in the Iraq war.   The alternative of simply ‘getting along’ with everyone and giving in quickly would lead a country to hurt itself on the world stage and be played the patsy.  In the world of foreign affairs, the proper balance is often called “realism” — you fight for the best deal for your state, and compromise based on a realistic assessment of power, interest, and the consequences of choices made.

Good bi-partisanship would approach issues that way.   As with diplomacy, it would be important to define the issues specifically and, instead of ‘national interest,’ look at different ideological perspectives as the areas in which disputes can arise.   All sides will want to maximize their ability to achieve what is in line with their perspective, but recognize that they won’t get all they want.    They would search for agreement on problems that need to be solved (e.g., the need to reign in health care costs, help cover those who can’t find insurance, the need to cut debt, etc.), and forge possible compromise solutions.   Just as compromises between states reflect power differentials in international affairs, bi-partisan compromises would reflect similar real world conditions.   The Democrats have majorities, which they will try to use to get the best deal they can; the Republicans will point out divisions amongst Democrats and the likelihood of GOP gains in the fall elections.  Ultimately, the two sides would have to realistically assess how far to push.

Most importantly, however, they need to remember that the key is not to win elections, but to govern.  Ideologues have the fantasy that if only they stick to principle, they’ll sometime win it all and be able to implement their pure program.  Yet from Bush’s majorities a decade ago to the Democrats dominance now, no party has been able to achieve that — and when they become too ideological, the other party bounces back.   The public does not like ideology, the public prefers problem solvers.   Second, democracy is premised on the idea that compromise and pragmatism is the best path towards policy making.   It requires real listening, not just scoring political points.  Therein rests Bayh’s real complaint — politicians now seem more concerned about politics than governance.   The serious business of solving very deep problems that threaten to severely weaken this country gets trumped by political posturing for the next election.   In that atmosphere ideologues are rewarded for being “principled,” even if those so-called principles really reflect unreflective ideological conviction.   Those who would compromise are derided as “RINOs” or “traitors,” even if they are trying to figure out how to do at least something to work on the problems facing the country.

At base bi-partisanship does not mean anti-partisan.  It literally means two partisan groups figuring out how to come to some agreement on how to solve problems, recognizing neither side will be completely happy with the action.  It means that even as laws are passed, the debate and discussion continue — no one ever truly wins, no compromise is ever final.   It also means that each side recognizes that they do not hold a monopoly on truth, both sides operate on good faith.   It means rejecting the kind of personal attacks and venom that too often percolate within the political discourse.    It’s only possible when political disagreement is not a cause for personal dislike or disgust.  Bayh’s departure indicates that he does not think the politicians in Washington are capable of that kind of productive partisan cooperation.  He may be right.

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Credit and Blame on Iraq

In a rather surreal debate, Vice President Biden and former Vice President Cheney seemed to disagree about who gets “credit” for improving the situation in Iraq.   Cheney and those standing with him think that Biden and Obama, by opposing the war in Iraq should get no credit for helping bring stability.   Biden and those standing with him think that by engaging in such a disastrous undertaking and making so many mistakes in Iraq, Bush should get no credit for helping improve the situation.   Both are wrong.

Iraq was one of the most costly foreign policy errors in the history of US foreign policy. I am absolutely convinced that when we look at costs and impact of that war on the country and its place on the global stage historians will judge President Bush harshly for making a major mistake in the aftermath of 9-11.   By focusing on military victories in the Mideast as an effort to reshape the region and likely secure oil supplies for the distant future, Bush made visible the military vulnerabilities of the US, and helped array an anti-American coalition that undercut US status in the world.

Yet President Bush adjusted.   By late 2005 it was becoming clear that the neo-conservative dream for a “model Iraq” that would lead the region out of authoritarianism and towards market democracy.   In 2006 Iraq drifted into actual civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni forces.   US casualties increased, and the cost of the war in human and economic terms led to policies at home that fed a bubble economy.   The government wanted war on the cheap, so to avoid demanding sacrifice a period of hyper-consumption hid the cost.

President Bush faced one of the hardest challenges a leader can face.   He had to recognize his policy failed, make adjustments, and yet do so without appearing to vacillate and be weak.    His rhetoric retained a lot of the old bravado, but absent were insults to other countries and the “with us or against us” slogans that pushed allies away.   Instead he quietly patched up relations with the states Donald Rumsfeld called “old Europe,” improved ties with Russia and China, even though they clearly were positioning themselves as rivals to the US.   And in Iraq he totally altered the goals and strategies.

First, the neo-conservative dream of a close Iraqi ally to the US to pressure Syria and Iran, and thereby help Israel, was dumped.  In fact, even the idea that companies from US and US allies would control Iraq’s oil future got pushed aside.  All the dreams of reshaping the region were traded in for one goal: stabilize the country so we can get out.

No longer needing to have in place a pro-American regime willing to follow our desires (it had been thought that an easy US victory in Iraq would make the US a dominant power and the Iraqis would want our favor), the Bush Administration worked with pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties, made peace with Sunni insurgents, and focused only on putting down al qaeda forces that had gone into Iraq after the US invasion to de-stabilize the country.   By co-opting most of the enemy, this meant that only the most radical forces in Iraq remained committed to fighting the US.   The rest, seeing that the US would leave without demanding to have a strong say in the future of the country, suddenly saw it in their interest to work with the US.

Americans focused on the “surge” of forces to help create stability while pulling off this political change, but the change in strategy was far more important than the increased force levels.   What President Bush did was essentially recognize the failure of his policy, and then adjust to try to out of the situation with the least damage to the US and Iraq.   It isn’t easy for a President to admit failure by changing policy so dramatically.   Lyndon Johnson could not do that in Vietnam, and hence gave up his re-election bid.   George W. Bush did make that move — forced by circumstances, to be sure, but in a manner that showed resolve and good decision making.   For that, he deserves credit.

President Obama came in and has essentially continued and in some cases hastened the Bush policy change, but has not fundamentally altered the strategies that President Bush put in place in 2007.    He deserves credit for sticking with a policy that seems to be working, and avoiding the temptation to make changes for the sake of showing that he isn’t President Bush.   In short, Biden is right to blame Bush and Cheney for huge mistakes in 2002-03, costly mistakes which may ultimately be looked at as the key force that pushed the US into an era of decline.   That decline isn’t inevitable, but the politicians have to start working together if they’re going to make tough decisions to turn things around.   Cheney is right to say that the Bush Administration should get credit for the policies that started to stabilize Iraq.   And Biden is right that Obama should get some credit, but wrong to the extent that he wants to give the Obama-Biden Administration complete credit.

Afghanistan is a different story.   President Bush never got that conflict figured out, he was understandably more focused on the disaster in Iraq.  President Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan will be judged by history.   the Bush-Cheney Administration is to blame for much of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan; the Obama Administration will get credit for blame for whether or not their policies can improve things.

But that’s a different war.   For Iraq it seems clear:  The Bush Administration made a monumental mistake in starting a war that has hurt the US immensely.   For that they should be blamed.   They deserve credit for altering the policy goals, objectives and strategies to try to figure out a way to achieve some kind of stable exit from the country.   The Obama Administration deserves credit for continuing that policy and in general handling Iraq well.   If the US can leave in a timely manner and Iraq avoids stability, much of that will be due to actions by the Obama Administration.

But in the beltway world credit and blame cannot be shared, so the politicians will keep fighting.

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Near the End in Iran?

Authoritarian regimes govern relatively effectively if they can convince the public that there is more to lose in opposing them than to gain.   This usually involves a carrot and stick approach.   Support the regime and you get perks, recognition, maybe your children can get into a good university, or perhaps your village will get a new school.   Oppose the regime and you’ll be imprisoned, perhaps tortured, maybe killed.

Concurrently, authoritarian regimes need effective propaganda.  They need to convince the public that the government is acting in the interests of the people, that the enemies of the state are powerful, and that the regime has legitimacy.  Following Max Weber legitimacy can be charismatic (support for a leader), traditional (this is the way things have always been done), and rational/legal (the system functions according to clear legal guidelines in a rational manner.)

In Iran, the situation is increasingly one where the authoritarian government has to rely on “sticks” (including political executions yesterday) to hold on to power, as the public no longer believes the government can give them what they want.   As the people rise up, this kind of brazen use of power to kill opponents can backfire.  At some point citizens say “we can’t live like this, I would prefer to die making a better society for the future.”    In such cases, authoritarian governments usually fall.

Consider for a moment authoritarian regimes with staying power: the USSR during Stalin’s era, China during Mao’s reign, and Zimbabwe under Mugabe.   In the first two propaganda provided a kind of legitimacy through charismatic leadership (Stalin and Mao were revered), plus ideology to rationalize the need for strong action.    When Stalin died, the Soviets developed a rational-legal form of legitimacy based on a compromise: you don’t rock the boat, and we assure total security, including health care, shelter, employment, and retirement.   For most people, those benefits were worth not rising up in opposition to the regime (risking punishment to self and family), and thus the system persisted.   After Mao’s death China took a radical turn towards markets and reform, improving the lives of millions, thus buying legitimacy for their government.   In Zimbabwe the lack of effective government meant that the state was run more like an organized criminal enterprise than a true state.   Mugabe could buy favors and use the country’s poverty in his favor.

Iran is different on all fronts.   To be sure, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he and the new regime had charismatic legitimacy.   He was a religious leader, a symbol of opposition against the hated Shah, and promised Iran a new level of independence and respect on the world stage.  No longer would Iran be pushed around by the British, Americans or even Soviets.   No longer would the Muslim world seem secondary to the Christian West, or the Shi’ite world irrelevant compared to the Sunni populations across Arabia and beyond.   Manufactured crises, like the hostage drama at the US Embassy, helped the regime gain popularity.   When Saddam attacked in 1980, Iranians came together to defeat their secular Arab foe.

At the same time, Iran boasted a real, if incomplete democracy.   The Majles (parliament) had some real authority.   The President was often fighting against the will of the hardliners, and until 2004 the moderates won pretty much every major election.   This is important in that it created both the semblance and even the reality of progress.   Even though the clerics making up the Guardian Council could stymie efforts at change, people felt that life was getting better, that the regime was opening up, that over time power would shift towards more moderate clerics, and perhaps ultimately become tolerant of secular perspectives.

There was cynicism, but as long as there seemed to be real political debate, and as long as the hardliners were backing down on issues such as dress code, public conduct, and other originally very conservative rules, the people felt that their voice was having an impact.   The Iraq war, however, changed the game completely.   First the Iranian hardliners used anti-Americanism and nationalism to for the first time win elections.  They parlayed that into increasing power and a turning back of some of the earlier liberalization, and since then have proven unwilling to go back to the kind of slow change that seemed to define the eighties and nineties.

In some ways, I think the leadership is getting misled by Geopolitics.   Just as the USSR’s role as a superpower caused it to simply assume the domestic situation was stable, the Iranians became smitten with the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are giving them a chance to claim regional power status.  They have bolstered their efforts to get nuclear weapons, made deals with China and Russia, have a very strong presence in the Iraqi governing parties, and continue to support a powerful Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.   There is a real shift of regional power away from the US and Israel towards Iran.   There’s nothing like foreign policy to take a leader’s eye off the domestic ball, and to some extent I believe that’s happened in Iran.

To those who say the hardliners will “never give up power,” well, it’s not that easy.   That’s what was said about the Shah, Pinochet, and numerous other fallen authoritarians.   At some point, subtly and quietly behind the scenes, loyalties switch as the bureaucracies, police forces, and even the military are no longer loyal to the state.  When that happens the edifice collapses, and the clerics will find they have no more power to choose not to give up.    From reports out of Iran, unclear and uncertain, there seems to be a sense that could be happening.  The regime may be imploding.   They may have already crossed the point of no return.   They lack any kind of legitimacy, their propaganda has failed, the people no longer exhibit so much fear of the stick, and any carrots being offered are brushed away.    This is what happened to the Shah in 1979; it could be happening to the Islamic Republic in 2010.

To those who say that we should nudge the regime aside through military strikes, that would be a huge mistake.   Authoritarian regimes love playing the nationalism card, and anger at American or Israeli bombing raids that kill civilians could give the hardliners the staying power to survive this crisis.    The fate of Iran is in the hands of the Iranians.  Stay tuned, this could end up being the most important story of the year.

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