Archive for category Barack Obama
Why beat a dead issue that most voters don’t care about?
The weirdest thing about the GOP’s on going obsession with Benghazi is that it plays into the Democrats hands going into the Midterms. The Democrats will mock Republicans about their obsession with an event from two years ago, trying to manufacture a scandal in defiance of the actual evidence.
The Democrats will talk about jobs, health care, inequality, immigration, education, the economy and issues that actually matter to the public. Think back – Bill Clinton did give the Republicans a scandal over Monica Lewinsky. Yet as they obsessed on it and thought that self-evidently this would help them, Clinton’s job approval ratings went up — while Lewinsky investigator Kenneth Starr’s went way down. In this case, there isn’t even a real scandal!
So why do some on the right fixate on Benghazi in such a self-destructive manner? There is no evidence of a cover up, nothing remotely suggesting a scandal. There is evidence of poor decisions being made, and a State Department slow to understand what motivated the events. Therein lies the real reason – the State Department. The Secretary of State at the time was Hillary Clinton. She is now the leading contender for the Presidency in 2016. Most Republicans privately concede that it will be very, very, difficult to defeat her.
As Secretary of State, Clinton was taken aback by the way in which Congressional Republicans quickly politicized the Benghazi tragedy. On September 11, 2012, the US embassy in Benghazi was attacked by 125 to 150 armed insurgents, who were able to kill US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and one other person. Protests were taking place against an anti-Islamic video that had been released, and initially the CIA thought the two events were linked. As more information came out, it became clear that it was a planned terrorist raid. The US has made some arrests, and investigations continue.
So what’s the scandal? At first Republicans said that Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, had lied in linking the video to the attacks in an interview shortly after the raid. They claimed she wanted to mislead the public about the true nature of the attacks in order to help President Obama’s re-election. That claim has been completely debunked, and in fact was absurd on its face.
Not only had President Obama called it terrorism, but Susan Rice was acting with the data at the time in a fluid situation, and indeed alluded to the possibility of terrorism. Much like after 9-11, there was a lot of false information early on, though after a week a clearer picture occurred. As documents were released, it was clear that various agencies were confused on exactly what happened and why, but that as soon as they put the pieces together, the information was made public. Not only is there no evidence to support a cover up, but massive evidence to the contrary.
So then they tried to shift the scandal to saying the US didn’t reinforce the mission, or send help fast enough. Quickly these were debunked. The critics are left to imagine scandal by fantasy, hoping there is some new information out there.
So why suddenly jump on an innocuous e-mail uncovered, which doesn’t contradict any existing evidence, to bring the scandal back up? Surely the GOP insiders know that this isn’t a winner for them with the voters – and they have to be smart enough to know that no scandal exists. They are hoping that Clinton decides not to run for the Presidency, perhaps fearing that questions on Benghazi will haunt her.
In that, it is morphing from a GOP effort to find a scandal against Obama to an attack on Clinton’s competence. Any hearings that are held will focus on picking apart what the State Department did and finding anything to criticise. Even the fact she was not consulted on security before the attack is used against her – “in such a dangerous situation why weren’t you more engaged?” But it would be odd for the Secretary of State to be consulted on specific security details.
It won’t work. The GOP will not convince Clinton to eschew running in 2016. If anything this will get her more enthused; she’s not the kind of person to back down. She’s also smart enough to know that if the GOP use this against her in 2016, it gives her openings to fire back in ways that would help, rather than hurt her campaign.
She’s also not afraid to confront scandal head on. In the early years of her husband’s administration the far right tried to drum up a scandal about development deal called “Whitewater.” They failed. When she suffered personal loss when her attorney Vince Foster committed suicide, they said she had him killed. When US Treasury Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia, many said she was behind it. Hillary’s dealt with the crazies before, and came out on top.
But that’s what this Benghazi side show is about – trying to pressure Hillary not to run. When she does run, they’ll use it try to tear her down. It won’t work – she’ll win or lose based on the larger campaign.
Yet it is sad that so many are willing to politicize the attack. To me the correct response is to try to learn what went wrong and how to prevent a future attack than to use 20/20 hindsight for political gang. Even more disgusting is the effort to try to turn this into a scandal. That shows just how dysfunctional the political culture in Washington has become.
A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy. FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq. In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.
In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history. That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President. That is misguided and hypocritical.
The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:
1. Obama is not actively using American power. Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act. Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it. This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.
2. Obama is siding with the wrong people. In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition. Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism. Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions. They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.
3. Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness. Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration. While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region. Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault. The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.
The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will. That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values. The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly. Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.
Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd. Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych. Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine. He knows the US and EU have no interest in war. Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed. Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.
It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak. When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators. That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.
So the critics have a very weak case against the President. They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling. Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power. Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics. The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making. The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism. The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.
If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.
Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound. Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working. The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War. Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.
So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.” *shrug*
Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration. Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th. The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons. If the process stays on track sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.
This is a success for the Obama Administration. The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy. An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences. The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.
Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism. Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem. There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy. They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.
There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading. Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.
The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation. Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence. Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence. More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.
Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case. Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia. Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate. If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.
No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia. That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best. But Putin is not stupid. He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.
Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts. That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be. But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west. They won’t be tied to Russia.
The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary. They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east. Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.
Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd. Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states. That day is long gone. Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.
For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying. Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion! But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy. In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat. That’s why patient diplomacy can work.
The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama. But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong. The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.
My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest. The reasons full into four categories: 1) Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.
Domestic Policy: The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year. It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis. There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad. But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.
Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century. He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009. He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs. Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008. Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.
He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift. He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive. Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.
Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more. Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.
Foreign Policy. The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations. He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence. Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008. Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.
Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War. President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws. That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation. Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.
Economic success. When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control. Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.
Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs. That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
Personal/cultural factors: Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency. He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy. He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse. Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.
The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change. They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies. He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift. The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes. He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path. He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.
Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory. Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.
President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast. While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied: The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that. The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.
One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran. The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons. The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.
Both states straddle the Persian Gulf. Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows. With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them. In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government. Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!
In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government. As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain. And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia. Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole. Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda. The reality is quite different. Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam. Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present. They can’t even shop in stores which have men! Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia! The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.
In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men. In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them. We do business with them because they have oil. Lots of oil.
Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be. The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades. Last year, the US took their place. Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened. We can afford to have them a bit upset.
Beyond that, they have no real alternative. Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies. That affects everyone, especially the Saudis! They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat. They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population. When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades. The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune. Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have. It will not last deep into the 21st Century.
Therein lies the dilemma for the US. Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American. That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79. Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis. So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.
Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world. The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest. Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.
So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously. He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye. If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe. But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.
As I’ve talked to people, read more, and really looked at Russia today, I realize that I was completely wrong in the last post in thinking we should consider allowing Ukraine to be divided. Eastern Ukrainians, especially the youth, do not want to join Russia and see themselves as Ukrainian, even if they are ethnic Russians. They want to look westward, not towards being part of a Russian dominated region likely doomed for authoritarianism and poor economic growth.
Putin became President at midnight on January 1, 2000. He has been in office long enough to get used to power and the perks that come with it. He has no intention of giving that up. That was evident in 2008 when he hand picked diminutive Dmitry Medvedev to become President when the Constitution did not allow him to serve three consecutive terms. Medvedev dutifully named Putin Prime Minister, and Putin continued to dominate.
However, comparisons of Putin to Hitler, or even old Soviet bureaucratic leaders like Brezhnev don’t hit the mark. Putin is more ambiguous. He quit the KGB on the second day of the KGB sponsored 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he sided with Yeltsin, not the old guard. He has sought to integrate Russia into the global economy and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era. He may even still see a democratic modern Russia as his ultimate goal – though a Russian democracy, not one imposed by or reflecting the culture of the West.
Yeltsin and Putin represent a sad cycle of post-Cold War Russian policy. Yeltsin went all out for reform and democracy, but didn’t realize that Russia was not prepared for that. Instead a class of oligarchs arose that acted the way the Communists said capitalists act: conspicuous consumption, massive wealth, and a disregard for the poor. As a small class got exceedingly wealthy, many more become impoverished or suffered under hyperinflation followed by stagnation. Add to that low oil prices in the 90s, and Yeltsin’s Russia fell into crisis and turmoil.
Putin, a surprise pick for Prime Minister in 1999, had been in politics only a decade. He worked his way up in rather minor roles until joining the Presidential staff in 1997. His responsibilities increased, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister. He was part of a group of advisers that pressured an increasingly out of touch, drunk and unhealthy Yeltsin to sacrifice power to those who wanted to end the experiment in out of control wild west capitalism.
In his first two terms he was immensely popular. He took on the oligarchs and re-established the dominance of the state. Higher oil prices helped, and Russian incomes rose for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Cities like Moscow started to glisten, and it appeared that Russia was finally on the right path. Growth was 10% in Putin’s first year, and hovered at near 7% until 2008. Putin seemed to want to finally connect Russia with the global economy.
By 2014, however, Russia’s economy is stagnating despite high oil prices. The 2008 global economic crisis made clear that Russian growth had not been due to the construction of a sustainable economy, but primarily to high oil prices and speculation. Putin’s intentions may have been good, but since he didn’t see things through to real, stable reform, Russia is drifting towards weakness and internal dissent.
In that light, the loss of Ukraine put Putin and his inner circle in a position they found intolerable. Rather than keeping Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly broadening it, the Ukraine uprising meant Russian influence was suddenly drastically limited. The Customs Union connecting Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan was meant to be a beginning of rebuilding a Russian led zone outside the EU.
The Soviet Union had consisted of 15 Republics, with Russia the largest. On January 1, 1992 all fifteen became independent countries (light green and blue represents former Soviet Republics, the yellow and light yellow were independent states in the Soviet bloc):
A look at this map shows why Russia intervened in Ukraine. If the Ukraine moved toward the EU, the Russian “zone” in the West would be simply Belarus. Moreover, with new fracking technology, the Ukraine threatens to develop its own natural gas industry, competing with Russia. If Putin had succeeded in connecting Ukraine with the Customs Union, the Russian zone becomes much more formidable.
Taking Crimea may have been a step towards at least trying to divide Ukraine, but all the evidence I’m finding, including talks with Ukrainians, suggest that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine aren’t keen to join Russia or be independent from Kiev. Indeed, the biggest pro-Russia demographic are the older folks – the ones whose thinking reflects Cold War experiences. The youth are looking West – that might be the only way for Ukraine to get out of deep economic difficulties.
I strongly doubt Putin will give up Crimea. It is of strategic importance on the Black Sea, and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954. After the USSR collapsed there were conflicts about the future of Crimea, and it joined Ukraine as an autonomous Republic with considerable rights of self-governance.
The Crimean referendum scheduled for March 16th is bizarre – there is no option to stay in Ukraine, just to join Russia immediately, or be autonomous from Ukraine (though worded trickily). Clearly the powers in Crimea and Russia want to be sure that the days of Crimea being Ukrainian are over.
So what should the US and EU do? Keep the pressure on Russia over Crimea, but recognize that it’s probably a lost cause. An autonomous Crimea is a better outcome than Russian annexation because the possibility would remain that it could someday rejoin Ukraine. The key is to prevent any other parts of Ukraine from leaving, and nip Russia incited nationalist protests in the bud. Then the US and EU need to do whatever they can to help the Ukrainians rebuild their economy and show eastern hold outs that life in Ukraine holds more promise than in Putin’s Russia.
Putin is no Stalin, perhaps a moment of weakness will convince him that true strength comes when one embraces the flow of history. He can try to cling to power in an ever weakening position, or he can become a true leader that guides his country to real reform.
The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh. The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down. However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.
Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late. The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office. Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.
Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position. While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time. When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow. Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin. That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.
Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive, shallow and objectively wrong. The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right. Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”
Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached. That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country. We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one. Consider:
1. What options does the US have? In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea. Neither are the Europeans. Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.” This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action. This cannot be unilateral. Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced. That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.
2. Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory? Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core. The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state. Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled? Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia? Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?
3. If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out? The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power. Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.
The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability. Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered. If isolated, domestic oppression would grow. The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed. Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.
Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.
I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine. Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case. But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable. Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say. That kind of thinking is obsolete.
John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there. Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building. Kerry said: “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ”
Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President. Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%. In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.
Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles. He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair. He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war. Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.
On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry. The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy. He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.
This has generated criticism. His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel. His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive. But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work. Many people have a very black and white view of reality. Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.
Such a view is absurd. Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony. His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild. Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China. That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government. He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house. Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West. Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.
The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.
John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries. His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him. Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance. One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran. Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.
President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles. Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues. If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed. If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory. That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.
Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam. Who knows? In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.
And if so that would be fitting closure to his career. His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority. Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering. At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.
It is dangerous to play with tradition. The Senate and House function on a set of time honored traditions and unwritten rules of the game. The filibuster is one of those traditions. However, the poisonous partisanship in Washington, unprecedented obstruction by Republicans in the Senate, and the danger of creating eternal gridlock means its time for a change.
Senate rules adopted in 1806 created the potential for a filibuster by eliminating the ability to move the previous question. The idea was that Senators should have as long to speak as needed before a vote. The idea this would be used for obstruction was not considered. In 1837 the first filibuster was used, but it remained rare until into the 20th Century.
After 12 Senators used their capacity to stop the Senate from voting on a bill by continuing debate (in 1917, to allow President Wilson to arm merchant ships), the Senate created a cloture rule, allowing 2/3 of those voting to end debate. This still meant that a group could stop consideration of a bill, but it would have to have a broader base of support.
More importantly, a filibuster meant that a Senator or group of Senators had to keep talking; debate literally had to continue. Once Senators stopped speaking on the floor, debate was over and a vote could be taken. Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Usually filibusters ended on their own without invoking cloture. When Senators filibustered the 1964 Voting Rights Act a cloture vote was held for only the second time since 1927. Simply, the tradition of the filibuster is that it was rare and required Senators be present and continue talking.
By 1979 the rules had changed to allow 60 Senators to invoke cloture, but not requiring speakers to remain continuously on the Senate floor. Unfortunately, both parties found this an easier to way to try to obstruct votes they didn’t like and the use of filibuster increased dramatically. Mitch McConnell once infamously said it is the “rule of the Senate” that you need 60 votes to make a law.
Both parties abused the filibuster. In a battle over judicial nominees Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened the “nuclear option” of simply making cloture a majority vote and ending the filibuster. Vice President Cheney was ready to sit in as President of the Senate (a role the VP officially has) and rule that the filibuster cannot be used for judicial nominees. Senators wary of changing rules and traditions avoided that via compromise.
In that case, the Democrats were abusing the filibuster and turning it into a tool to obstruct. But the use of obstruction has grown to unprecedented proportions with McConnell (R-KY) as Senate minority leader. It no longer is a rare and dramatic way to try to prevent a vote on something very emotional or controversial (a method that in the past usually failed) but has become a defacto rule that says without 60 votes nothing at all controversial can pass.
More importantly, it is being used to block the President from undertaking his constitutional authority to make appointments, including again to the judiciary.
Patricia Miller is one of three appointments to the DC Court of Appeals to fill vacancies. Right now there are 8 Judges on the Court, four chosen by each party. The Republicans fear that if President Obama names all three, the Court might rule in a more liberal fashion. But that’s life – the President gets to choose the nominees and the Senate approves. It’s directly from the Constitution.
Looking for a rationale for their clearly political motive to obstruct, they claim the Court does not have enough work for 11, or even 9 Justices. But the court was just as “under worked” when they argued passionately to put President Bush’s nominees on the court. Simply, the filibuster and current cloture rules have to go.
If the Republicans are allowed to abuse the filibuster in this way, to make it require 60 votes for anything to pass, and to use it to block Presidential appointments, the Democrats will do likewise. They have in the past. The current rule is a cause of dysfunction.
The only solution: end the filibuster by making cloture a majority vote in the Senate. That way everything gets voted on and a minority can’t cause gridlock to appease their base or stop the majority from passing controversial bills. That way a President can execute his authority to make appointments without having well qualified choices denied due to politics. Patricia Millett is very well qualified with strong bipartisan credentials.
The country right now needs to have a functional Washington. The abuse of the filibuster in recent years by both parties has morphed it into something that is new and dangerous, not part of the Senate traditions. So either go back to forcing Senators to keep talking until they run out of energy or desire, or adopt a new cloture rule requiring a simply majority vote.
Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds. Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.” It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences. Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed. They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system. The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.
I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions. I agree with her on some things, disagree on others. But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.
As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC. As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House. But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything. Confusion reigns! Now it sounds like no vote will occur.
Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War. They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.
Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House. He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is. It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!
Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown: “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.” Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.
Consider Collins: “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on. I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.” You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”
But Collins is right about what it takes. The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester. If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking. The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!
From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan. It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement. It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.
Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE! They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them. Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.
So tonight meetings continue. Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force. McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem. Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe? How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?
Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best: “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done? After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”
I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow. More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions. Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.