Archive for category Barack Obama

Obama: the Jackie Robinson of Politics

potus44

“But no president in our nation’s history has ever been castigated, condemned, mocked, insulted, derided, and degraded on a scale even close to the constantly ugly attacks on President Obama. From the day he assumed office — indeed, even before he assumed office — he was subjected to unprecedented insults in often the most hateful terms.

He has been accused of being born in Kenya, of being a “secret Muslim,” of being complicit with the Muslim Brotherhood, of wearing a ring bearing a secret verse from the Koran, of having once been a Black Panther, of refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance, of seeking to confiscate all guns, of lying about just about everything he has ever said, ranging from Benghazi to the Affordable Care Act to immigration, of faking bin Laden’s death, and of funding his campaigns with drug money. It goes on and on and on. Even the President’s family is treated by his political enemies with disrespect and disdain.”Geoffrey Stone, in the Huffington Post

President Obama has been a successful President by almost every measure.  The economy has moved from the deepest point in the recession to sustained job growth.  He has legislative triumphs, foreign policy success, and a relatively scandal-free Presidency.  He was elected twice by relatively large margins.   Yes, his party lost the midterms twice, but this last time had voting turn out at only 36%, meaning probably about 19% voted for the Republicans, hardly enough to counter his victories with a much larger turnout.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to criticize him.  The right certainly disagrees with him on many issues, and the left has been frustrated by his centrism unwillingness to really push on liberal causes.   That goes with the territory of being a pragmatic centrist.

But given the clear racial divide still existing in the US, evidenced by the reaction to numerous cases of unarmed blacks being killed by police with no legal consequence, I believe the response to Obama is motivated in part by enduring racism.

Although nothing in reality supports it, the far right has created a caricature of Obama to ridicule and demean him.

Although nothing in reality supports it, the far right has created a caricature of Obama to ridicule and demean him.

That charge generates yelps of indignant “how dare you call me a racist” from Obama foes.   No.  You aren’t a racist if you oppose Obama.   People left and right will oppose the “other side” all the time – that isn’t racism.  What is racist is the way in which some critics of Obama attack his person, trying to denigrate the man, making it seem like he is unfit for the position he holds.

The causes of this are complex.   To some it’s not overtly race, at least consciously.  They see Obama as “different.”  He’s not the kind of person we usually see as President.  Not the wood splitting cowboy Ronald Reagan, or even the good old boy Bill Clinton.  He’s urbane, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and doesn’t seem the type who would split wood or go to the corner bar to scream at the screen while watching football on a Sunday afternoon.

He’s also not a wealthy, respected businessman like Mitt Romney, nor is he even the southern moralist former Navy submarine commander like Jimmy Carter.  He’s different.  He’s black – but that isn’t all of it.

It is, however, part of it.

Obama symbolizes the changing nature of US politics and demographics.  The future will have more Obamas and less Reagans.  White males no longer determine who leads the country, or who sets its values.  And just as many whites fear the rage from inner city youth and who thus try to blame the media and so-called ‘race baiters’ for the protests, they also fear the America that Obama symbolizes.

Robinson had to endure massive abuse, but baseball was never the same afterwards.

Robinson had to endure massive abuse, but baseball was never the same afterwards.

In many ways, Obama is like Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball.  He is doing a good job, but subject to unprecedented hate, vitriol and ridicule.  He cannot respond in kind – that would be to play into the low level gutter politics of his opponents.  He just has to do his job and let history make the call.   And he is doing it very well.

2 Comments

Benghazi: Another Faux Scandal Falls

mccaingraham

There are two realities.  In one, President Obama has had a relatively scandal free Presidency.   No major investigations or revelations have dogged him like they did his predecessors.  No Whitewater, Monica, Iran-Contra, Iraq, etc.   In another, Obama has been awash with scandals involving the IRS, Benghazi, where Obama was really born, gun running, etc.  That second reality, however, is built on a house of cards.  There is no real evidence, just suspicions drummed up by Obama’s opponents trying to do what they can to undercut the President.

For awhile the biggest and most threatening to Obama was the aftermath of the terror attack on Benghazi on September 11, 2012.  Led by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republicans claimed that the US muffed the reaction, covered it up, didn’t do what could have been done to prevent or respond to the attack, and as late as March this year Graham claimed that Obama’s response to Benghazi was the reason Russia took Crimea.

Graham was adamant on Benghazi.   It was symbolic of Obama’s “inability to lead,” “lies the administration told,” and ultimately “proof Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State at the time) is unqualified to be President.”   He called the people at the White House “scumbags” who were “telling lies,” full of venomous accusations that we now all know were utterly baseless.

Saturday a Congressional report from a Republican led committee finally give the last word on Benghazi and guess what: the Obama Administration did nothing wrong.   There was no evidence of anything close to a scandal, or that there is some trove of evidence that isn’t being released.  In short, Graham was always just grandstanding.

A tragedy like the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in 2012 should have brought us together to counter terror; instead petty politicians tried to turn it into a scandal to serve their personal needs.

A tragedy like the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in 2012 should have brought us together to counter terror; instead petty politicians tried to turn it into a scandal to serve their personal needs.

That has caused me to lose all respect for Lindsey Graham and John McCain.  To use a national tragedy like that not to unify the country but to try to undermine the President and manipulate the media is sick.   When the US was attacked on 9-11, the US rallied behind President Bush.  Even though the 9-11 Commission found plenty to fault the Bush Administration on in the run up to 9-11, it was deemed wrong to try to use that to politically attack the President.  In crises things are fast moving and hindsight has 2020 vision.  Alas, Graham and McCain were guided by neither ethics nor honesty.

The report drew no fanfare.  Certainly the two did not apologize or admit defeat.  Graham used attacks on Obama over Benghazi to shore up his conservative bona fides before his re-election, and has tried to use it to attack Obama’s foreign policy — one that is much more successful than the Bush foreign policy Graham supported.

In a just world Graham and McCain would stand on the Senate floor as rotten eggs were hurled at them, humiliated and ashamed.  But they’ll move on.  They are politicians.  They’ll be shameless in attacking the President, and will probably wink and dance to avoid having to admit being wrong about Benghazi.  I find it disgusting.

1 Comment

Obama, the Republicans and Immigration

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

The politics behind President Obama’s executive order on immigration are fascinating, so I’ll quickly dispense with the policy stuff.  Yes, what he did is legal.  It probably should have been earlier, and it comes after he tried to work with Congress for six years to get a legislative solution.  No, this doesn’t go as far as comprehensive immigration reform – we’ll still need Congress to do that (and I suspect they will – but only in 2017) – but it definitely gives the US a more humane, compassionate and reasonable approach to immigration.

And the politics, well…as Spock would say, fascinating.

One theory is Obama is purposefully “trolling the Republican party.”  Not so much by the policy – Obama was going to do this anyway – but by not waiting until a bill was passed in December to continue government spending.   The logic goes like this:  the Republicans do not benefit politically when they try to shut down the government.   Most Republicans do not want a government shut down.   Already 2016 looks difficult for them, wounding themselves politically is something they want to avoid.

Moreover, the GOP remains divided.  They want to create the impression they are united and can be responsible, but the divisions are intense.   If those divisions can be brought into the open and be shown to bring chaos into Republican ranks, then the Democrats not only have a better shot to perhaps win back both houses in 2016, but Obama will benefit politically, giving him more leeway.  Already talk radio hosts, tea party activists and many in the House and Senate are calling for a government shut down.

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

This would, however, be a major shift of tone from a President who has been criticized for being too nice with Republicans, too unwilling to take unilateral action.  He is by nature a consensus builder and he has tried to use pressure and persuasion with Republican leaders who make ultimatums and refuse to compromise.   It’s not that they don’t want to compromise, but they don’t have their House caucus under control.  To make significant compromises would be to face a rebellion, and Speaker Boehner would prefer to lead a “do-nothing” Congress with at least the illusion of party unity than one gets things done, but further divides and weakens the GOP.

So the White House may believe: a) there is nothing to gain by trying to work with this Congress – it’ll be no different than the last one; b) it’s now or never, we have two years to continue our agenda; and c) if we act now and inspire anger in the GOP base, then the  party will be divided, play with the fire of a government shut down, and ultimately be weakened going into 2016.

On top of that, Latinos will be thankful, will see and get angry at the rhetoric coming from the right, and turn out in record numbers to vote in Democrats in 2016.   The Republicans will claim the Democrats are “bribing Hispanics,” but that will be even more insulting.  The result: a weakened GOP and a revived Democratic party, already recovering from the 2014 election and realizing that overall the direction of the country still favors the Democrats.

To be sure, Obama wouldn’t have done this if he thought it was bad policy.  This could be another aspect of his legacy that one day shines brightly, despite the controversy now.  It could also make it easier for the GOP to actually decide to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy that has more of what they want, realizing they get nothing if they just complain.  If the Republicans did that, they might find it easier to win over Latino voters in the future.

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

To Boehner and McConnell, they have to somehow satisfy their right wing (Boehner calling Obama ‘the most lawless President in history’ shows at least he’ll use their rhetoric) but chart a path that shows the country that the Republicans aren’t a bunch of angry whackos who can’t be trusted with the steering wheel.  This is a real test of whether or not the GOP can actually use their new majority effectively.

Clearly Obama is still very relevant and willing to use his power.   Senator McConnell said the President is ignoring the will of the voters (the relatively small number of voters who voted in the midterm), but the Majority Leader should be reminded that Obama won elections with significant majorities twice.   That means he has been entrusted to follow his best judgment.

It’s also interesting how fickle politics can be.  Just over two weeks ago Republicans were overjoyed and Democrats demoralized by the 2014 Midterm elections.   Between the defeat of the Keystone pipeline, the China-US climate deal and now bold leadership from the President on immigration, it’s the Republicans feeling angry and upset, and liberals light on their feet.   But that could change just as quickly.

12 Comments

Obama’s China Breakthrough

chinaobama

Today the United States and China reached a landmark agreement on battling climate change.   This is a major breakthrough and reflects in part the fact China’s scientists are alarmed about global warming and what it could do to China’s coastal cities.

China and the US are the top two polluters in the world.  Together they produce almost 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide.  With the EU having met the Kyoto targets (without harming their economy in the process – quite the contrary!), the battle against climate change depends on these two states being able to cooperate.  Until now it’s appeared almost impossible.

Unfortunately, the onus will be on the US to resist political opposition.  Global warming deniers are disappearing as the science becomes overwhelming.  In fact, outside the US it’s accepted as settled that climate change is happening, with CO2 emissions the driving force.  Only in the US, where a well funded lobby churns out disinformation and uses ideological fervor to distort the science, is there powerful opposition.  The good news is young people overwhelmingly agree something needs to be done (it’s their future after all) and climate change deniers will die out.  The bad news is that we don’t have the luxury to wait that long.

Climate change denial is irrational - doing nothing means a lot more death and economic damage

Climate change denial is irrational – doing nothing means a lot more death and economic damage

China now sees itself as a major economic power, a force behind the emerging global economic system.   As such, it recognizes that its citizens deserve clean air and water, and decent wages.   China’s leaders can no longer justify ignoring the potential devastating impact on China that climate change could have.

The deal says that the US will emit 26-28% less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005.  China will peak at about 2030.  China has a much more difficult time altering its economy, which is growing much faster than the US.  The key point in this agreement is a signal to the world that a new Climate change treaty is do-able in 2015.

The US Senate will not ratify it at first.  But if in 2016 the Democrats take back the Senate (likely, given that the GOP will be defending 24 seats and the Democrats only 10) and a Democrat is elected President, I would bet that such a treaty including China could be ratified.  Many GOP moderates only tolerate the deniers in their party, most of them realize the science is overwhelming.

A Canadian expresses the shock many of us have that Obama gets so much criticism - when he's been doing a solid job!

A Canadian expresses the shock many of us have that Obama gets so much criticism – when he’s been doing a solid job!

This is also another reason why I’m convinced Obama will be remembered as a great President – one that oversaw a recovery from the horrific recession he inherited and who managed to end two wars.   Now it looks like his plan to weaken ISIS is working better than most expected, without using US combat troops and instead increasing local cooperation.

If this US-Chinese agreement can jump start climate change negotiations and lead to global unity to address the greatest threat facing the world — far more dangerous than ISIS or Ebola — it might be the most important act of Obama’s presidency.    It also shows that the stories of his political irrelevancy are premature.

11 Comments

Liberals – Chillax!

McConnell and Boehner, the leaders of the Senate and House

McConnell and Boehner will lead the Senate and House in the next Congress

Although I held out hope, the result of the election was not a surprise.  The Republicans had a good night – the map was on their side, it’s the six year curse on the President’s party, and the Democrats ran a strategically bad campaign.  Rather than arguing for policy and supporting the President, they ran scared.  The result?  Moderates figured they didn’t stand for anything, and the base was repulsed.  Especially Black and Latino voters stayed home.   Even then so many states stayed very close until the end, it clearly wasn’t a massive GOP wave.

Yet to hear people on the left talk, the election was a disaster.   The Republicans hold the House and Senate!  Scott, Walker and LePage were re-elected as tea party governors!   The country is going the wrong way, people are ignorant, big money is warping our system, and the media is shilling for the right, etc.

My response to that?  Chill people!  The sky isn’t falling, and there are a lot of reasons for optimism.  Don’t make yesterday’s Republican victory out to be more than it is.  Here’s why:

1.  The House has always led Republican obstructionism, with Senate Republicans able to say that they can’t do more because the Democrats were in control.  Now the Senate has no excuse – if they are willing to compromise, real progress can be made.

2.  Obama has no incentive to capitulate.  He’s not running again.  Especially the first year, look for him to be aggressive with the use of executive orders and other unilateral actions.   Obama may do more to make liberals happy this coming year than the last six put together – in part because if he doesn’t do it now, he’ll never have the chance, and in part to pressure the GOP: If you don’t compromise, I’ll act!

3.  In 2016 the Democrats will have the map on their side, unlike this year.   In many ways, the surprise of the election was that the Democrats were able to keep so many states so close.   Of the 34 Senate seats up in 2016, 24 will be Republican, only 10 Democratic.  Of the ten Democratic seats, only Nevada and Colorado are likely to be in danger, and those are both states that voted for Obama in 2012.   Of the Republican seats, nine are in states won by Obama in 2012, and many others could be in play.  In other words, 2016 might be a mirror image of 2014.  Remember: Democrats do much better in Presidential election years.

4.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Democrats could retake the House in 2014.  They’d need to win forty seats, something difficult to do – but if the GOP doesn’t compromise and gets seen as obstructionist, it’ll be possible.

obamaveto

5.  The President has veto power.  He’s a firewall against a Republican agenda.   With the Republicans in control – the onus is on them to prove they can provide a productive legislative branch.  If they don’t, they’ll be that much more likely to have a devastating year in 2016.

6.  The Republicans are moving away from the tea party.  If you look at the candidates they choose, the effort to control the message, and the anger about, say Thad Cochran, it looks like the GOP recognizes that the tea party has no staying power.   I don’t think the GOP is there yet, but they’re in the process of moving away from ideological dogma towards true conservatism.

7.   The country’s culture and demographics still point to a progressive future.  It was virtually a non-story yesterday that a Federal Judge ruled Missouri’s ban on same sex marriages illegal.  The culture has changed that much.   In the grand scheme of things, the trajectory of the country has not changed.

Not convinced?

Try this:  there is nothing you can do to change the election result anyway!   Unless you invent a time machine and can go back and tell Democrats that their timid strategy of ignoring Obama rather than embracing him hurt more than helped, what’s done is done.  Why waste energy by feeling depressed and angry?   It not only doesn’t help, but that energy could better be directed in a positive way.  Practice pragmatism:  Accept what you can’t change, change what you can.  And there is a lot we can do!

3 Comments

Obama the Republican?

obamagop

The American Conservative, an often refreshing publication espousing classical conservatism, has a rather provocative article out suggesting that President Obama is really a Republican, heir to Richard Nixon rather than Saul Alinsky (photo above is from their article).  I had to google Alinsky, he was an mid-20th Century radical.

The piece goes issue by issue, noting that Obama has undertaken essentially conservative policies, ones much in line with traditional conservative thought.  He has been hawkish on national security, yet skeptical of jumping into wars.   His economic policies have dramatically brought down the deficit, and he has been fiscally conservative, much to the consternation of his own party.   He still enforces tough drug laws, even as states decriminalize.  It took him a long time to voice support for gay marriage, even as his party was leading the way.

Corporate profits have risen, he hasn’t done much to address the imbalance of wealth between blacks and whites, he’s been hawkish about security leaks, and even his health care reform was based on Romney’s plan in Massachusetts (and is less bold than Nixon’s proposal back in the 70s).

Obama has probably decreased deficits more than a Republican President would have.

Obama has probably decreased deficits more than a Republican President would have.

So why does the right have such outlandish personal attacks on Obama?  By any objective standard he’s been a competent, centrist President.  Yet he gets called a radical.  He gets labeled “incompetent,” and his successes are swept under the carpet.  He gets blamed for things like ISIS – an absurd claim, but one those on the right fall over themselves to make.  Though the Center for Disease Control is one of the most respected health organizations in the world,the cautious and successful approach they’re taking to ebola gets criticized.  In fact anything wrong in government (and left and right can agree there are always some problems in government) is laid at his feet.

Up until now I thought the reason for this antipathy was because some on the right think Obama is different.  Not just racially, but he’s urbane, cosmopolitan, has a strange name, and doesn’t seem to be the kind of good old boy Americans were used to.   He symbolizes a transformation of the country that many fear but are powerless to stop.

However, there are two other factors.  One, given the treatment of Bush by the left, it might be that any President these days will be vilified by the other side, especially given the prevalence of inbred media (blogs, media, and other sources populated by only one part of the political spectrum). But more importantly, if someone is a competent centrist, all you really have are personal attacks.

The President surrounds himself with Wall Street insiders who would be just as comfortable in a Republican administration.

The President surrounds himself with Wall Street insiders who would be just as comfortable in a Republican administration.

To true partisans of the left, the news that Obama governs from the center isn’t new.   Much of his disapproval rating comes from the left side of the political spectrum.   The biggest criticism of his Presidency is that he’s too cautious, too willing to work with Republicans and concerned more about finding solutions that appeal broadly, rather than fighting for a cause.    From fracking to the trans-pacific partnership and the Canadian oil pipeline, Obama has been slow to act.   A liberal activist would govern much differently.

Partisans of the right might grumble that it’s only because of Republican opposition that Obama could not get more done.  They may take credit for forcing him to govern from the center.  Yet that doesn’t explain his style – even during his first two years with a Democratic Congress he showed a penchant for pragmatism.

So is this a good thing?  With all due respect to my liberal activist friends, I still believe Obama will be remembered as one of the great Presidents in large part because of his pragmatism.   It’s not that I agree with him on everything – I don’t.  Yet agreement with me isn’t the measure of a President!

The country is in the midst of a radical transformation.  The economy is deep in debt, and the financial meltdown Obama inherited shows deep structural flaws in our economic system.  Transformation in the Mideast, the source of our cheap energy for last half of the 20th Century, creates real security threats.   Environmental problems are real, even if people want to close their eyes to them or embrace some wild theories to deny global warming.

obamatweet

The only way we’ll get through the next decades without paralyzing political gridlock is if we find a way to work together.   Not just here at home, but internationally (and Obama retains very high respect abroad).   That means compromising even on important issues- that’s how the world works.  While Republican hyperbole and obstructionism may tempt Democrats to use executive power to its fullest extent, Obama has been moderate in its use.  He believes in being President to all Americans, even those who call him names.

We are undergoing a profound cultural and demographic transformation.  As the tea party fades and Republicans finally start to work against extremists in their party, the stage is set for compromise in the future.  No matter who wins the midterms, the conversation has shifted away from the radical rhetoric of 2010.   Obamacare is entrenched – it may be changed, perhaps improved, but not gutted.  The power of Grover Norquist, while still real, has declined.  Tax increases are thinkable as part of a budgetary compromise.  Even climate change denial is shifting as the weather patterns make clear something real and potentially dangerous is happening.

So the left may be dissatisfied by Obama’s centrism while the right finds all sorts of absurd reasons to try to cut him down.  But quietly and effectively, he’s been a steady force in a country under going a fundamental transformation – a fact that will become much more evident in hindsight.

3 Comments

Defeating ISIS

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining.   To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast.   However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS.  Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.

When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world.   President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy.  So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.

Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path.   President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012.  President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force - concerted action can defeat them.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force – concerted action can defeat them.

When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely.   It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control.  The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government.  Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning.  Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force.   Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.

Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad.  But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.

The US cannot defeat ISIS alone.   The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power.   But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem.  The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court.   The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.

NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around.   Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki.   Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court - the court was created to deal with cases like this.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court – the court was created to deal with cases like this, and can now prove its value.

The rest of the world needs to step up too.   Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS.  This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe.   Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense.  This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.

With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization.  Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism.   ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.

So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West.   That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered.   But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

1 Comment

What Next in Ukraine

crash

The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.

4 Comments

Manufacturing Scandals

Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

If anyone epitomizes the toxic partisan atmosphere of the US Congress these days, it’s Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.   Whether it’s allegations about Benghazi, the IRS, or most recently the Hatch Act, Issa has searched for anything he could use to manufacture a scandal in order to tarnish the Obama Administration.   He has issued 99 subpoenas, most of them unilateral and political.

Recently, trying to argue that the White House was violating the Hatch Act prohibiting senior officials from engaging in political activity while doing their duties, Issa subpoenaed David Simas, a top White House advisor.  The White House balked, saying there is no reason to him to testify and as a top advisor he was immune from such a subpoena.   Issa had called two other witnesses, but after seeing that their testimony would contradict his claims of clear violations of the Hatch Act, he quickly ended the session without giving them a chance to testify.

Issa's actions have infuriated ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings who correctly notes that Issa's actions has destroyed the committee's credibility

Issa’s actions have infuriated ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings who correctly notes that Issa’s actions has destroyed the committee’s credibility

 

The subpoena abuse and abrupt cutting off of testimony that would weaken his claim angered ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, who said Issa was using the committee as “center stage for political theater.”   Indeed, Issa’s activities go far beyond the norm for that committee.   His subpoenas are mostly “unilateral,” meaning they don’t have the approval of the ranking Democrat nor has the committee voted.  In essence he’s casting his net wide hoping he’ll find something.

This is unprecedented – in the past (except for a brief time when the GOP pursued Clinton) the committee has been very careful with subpoenas – almost always they had bipartisan support. That in a microcosm is what’s wrong with Washington.  Rather than trying to figure out how to run the country better and solve problems, the goal is to find some way to politically embarrass the other side.

fauxscandals

But there is also reason not to trust Issa. Issa has been accused of car theft, insurance fraud (he settled out of court for $20,000 with an insurance company rather than collecting hundreds of thousands he was insured for because the fire was so suspicious) and there is no evidence of how he was able to purchase his business anyway.  In short, the guy is at best shady.  (Read more: here)

The desire on the far right for some kind of scandal to use to impeach Obama has failed, yet they have created a fantasy land where they think Obama’s been acting like a tyrant.  They claim he’s trying to run the country with executive orders when the number he’s made is small by historical standards, and minuscule compared to his predecessor.    Of course, when Dick Cheney, architect of an Iraq war that has damaged US foreign policy more than any other policy in history, says Obama’s the worst President – well, it’s clear he can’t handle reality.

The GOP has to watch it.   While inbred blogs and talk radio can get them to bolster their own fantasies and think it’s clear that Obama is an idiot and the scandals are real, that’s not reality.  It’s a political fantasy shared with an almost cult-like set of memes and false beliefs.

scandalcookies

They correctly see how the culture of the US and our role in the world is shifting due to globalization, changing demographics, and economic reality.   They don’t like the way the country is changing, and a black President Barack Hussein Obama personifies the new emerging America.  Rather than dealing with reality, they hope they can make it go away by finding some sexy scandal that could destroy Obama and thus the America he represents.

That prevents them from playing a constructive role in dealing with the real issues (rather than improve Obamacare they try in vain to eliminate it).  Ultimately, reality bites.  The world is changing, and there is no super scandal that will turn back time.  We need a constructive conservative voice, not a delusional one.

Leave a comment

Yes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership

wtocritique

In 2005 Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore formed the  Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement with the idea of integrating the economies of countries on both sides of the Pacific.  The US joined in 2011, and now negotiations are underway to expand the zone to include Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam (as well as the original four and the US).  Other countries, such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Columbia, Thailand and China have expressed interest in joining.

Many on the left oppose expanding this agreement, arguing that it would harm the US economy by exposing us to competition from third world countries that pay their workers less and have laxer environmental regulations.  The argument is that this further empowers global corporations to evade democratic oversight and prosper at a cost to American workers.

Maine Congressman Mike Michaud also urged President Obama to bring up alleged currency manipulation by Japan in negotiations with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.   Japan’s currency has been deflating despite economic growth, and it appears that this is intentional.  Yet given the near 25 year stagnation of the Japanese economy, I’m not sure turning this into an economic conflict does anyone any good.

Michaud's argument is sound, but it's not clear his recommended course of action is best

Michaud’s argument is sound, but it’s not clear his recommended course of action is best

Joseph Stiglitz, one of the top economists on the planet, has warned that this agreement benefits the very wealthy, and will contribute to the increasing concentration of wealth in the world.   By trying to push this through on a “fast track” trade agreement (meaning a bill written by the White House could be sent to Congress with no possibility of amendments or alterations), President Obama is likely to anger the left wing of his party.   Indeed, anything sent to Congress will likely be after the 2014 elections so as not to arouse controversy during the mid term campaigns.

So is Obama becoming a tool for big money, showing that once in power Democrats like Republicans serve the rich and powerful, or is the trade agreement good for the economy and US national interest?

Alas, the answer is not easy, nor can it be reached with the usual ideological arguments.  Yes, this is good for big corporations, and in my opinion we are in dire need of a global regulatory scheme to put big money under some form of accountability other than “the market.”   Markets aren’t magic, and in fact can be easily manipulated by the very powerful.   Yes, this could create difficulties for workers facing new competition.

Yet globalization is real.  The greater the connections between countries, the better the world economy will become.  The production possibilities frontier will expand, third world states will use first world markets to grow their own markets, and global economic growth will pull us out of the current recession/crisis.   The risks of not expanding global markets in a time where we face high debt and stagnant growth are greater than the threat to American workers.

Despite the faults, expanding global trade and cooperation is necessary

Despite the faults, expanding global trade and cooperation is necessary

The way to insure a “fair” globalization is not to try to stop cooperation between states, but to use NGOs and social media to expose ways in which the system is rigged and create a movement for change.   That won’t come easily because the system is still stuck in the mode of the old sovereign state schema.   The system is obsolete, in a state of transition, and change won’t come fast enough for idealists who see the problems.   The answer isn’t to try to stop change, but to work to guide it.

So I favor the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership.  I favor expanding trade and global cooperation.   Yet that is not enough; we must also build stronger international institutions to protect workers and the environment, and expand democratic accountability.  To be sure, I’m keeping my mind open and will listen to alternative arguments.  This is not an easy issue.

3 Comments