Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Remarks before the Conference on Oil & Money in London on October 29 (10-29-08)
We Americans have a tendency to offer solutions before we know what we are trying to solve; so with your permission I want to set out quickly what I see to be the problems we face and then offer my take on what we can do about them. To do this, I have to discuss politics, strategy and money on the one hand and on the other what might be termed the mind-set of America, Europe and the westernized elites we have spawned since the Second World War.
So consider first politics, strategy and money.
Already in the administration of President Harry Truman, the American government made a fundamental decision with which we have lived ever since and which today constitutes our greatest problem: under the threat of the Cold War, we moved to militarize our economy. As he was leaving office, President Dwight Eisenhower categorized the emerging result as the “military-industrial complex.” Under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, this process was carried forward in the Vietnam war and a new dimension was added with the space program.
The things America built to sell –- consumer goods -- decreased while those we gave away -- military items – increased.
By the early 1960s, American industry was no longer competitive in many civilian goods. I saw why when as a guest of the Japanese government I visited such Japanese factories as Toshiba and Canon. What I had expected to see was that the Japanese were able to out-produce America in cameras, electrical equipment and other consumer goods by using cheap Asian labor. What I saw was quite different: the Japanese did have cheaper labor but they were benefitting even more from skilled management, aggressive salesmanship and intelligence.
Meanwhile, since American industry was increasingly selling to the government, often with no-bid and cost-plus contracts, management and salesmanship were of declining importance. Many major corporations had become almost adjuncts of the defense establishment.
Soon well-known American consumer products were little more than American packages wrapped around Asian components.
This skewing of the American economy had both a domestic effect -- there was less secondary and tertiary economic benefit to what we were doing -and an international effect -- we were importing more and exporting less so we got accustomed to an adverse balance of payments.
Perhaps even more important, we allowed our infrastructure to run down. The American Society of Civil Engineers reported (and I quote) “America’s infrastructure over all is close to ‘failing’ [and]…that an investment of $1.6 trillion will be needed to bring it up to working order. According to the report, nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 590,750 bridges are ‘structurally deficient or functionally obsolete [and] The number of unsafe dams has risen by 33 percent to more than 3,500 [while]…aging wastewater management system discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into US surface waters each year.’” Year by year, the American government has spent less on these basic things.
At least as important, the private sector, aiming for relatively short term profits and increasingly dependent on military sales, allowed industrial plants to degrade. No one has yet guessed what making Ford or General Motors again competitive would cost. Those companies now want the Federal Government to bail them out.
Apart of these trends, government policy also had a fiscal dimension: President Ronald Regan decided that America should so challenge the Soviet Union that we would force it into bankruptcy. What he set out to do, the Russians also did to themselves in their disastrous war in Afghanistan – their Vietnam. But the cost to America was also large. Americans like to think that we “won” the cold war, but actually, by any rational calculation, both America and Russia lost the cold war.
In the 1990s, a powerful new element in this pattern was brought forward by the neoconservative movement. They pushed the idea that America uniquely had a role to play everywhere in the world. We would remake it to fit our image. And the men and women in this movement became the principal guides to President George W. Bush. The Iraqi war was the product of their new ideology. And it spawned a series of other moves and military actions – what they called “the Long War” -- with which we live today. It is conveniently laid out in the 2005, 2006 and 2008 “National Defense Strategy of the United States of America” which proclaim (and I quote) that “We are a nation at war” and that we intend to secure “access to key regions, lines of communication, and the global commons” by defeating “adversaries at the time, place, and in the manner of our choosing ...” The policy has resulted in the creation of nearly one thousand American military bases worldwide and large scale American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan and the prospect of an attack on and perhaps invasion of Iran. In addition we now have teams of semi-clandestine special operations forces active in perhaps twenty other countries.
Let me just focus on the monetary aspects of this movement. Today, we have a military budget larger than all the other countries of the world combined. The published figure is nearly 700 billion dollars but the real figure will be higher. The Iraq campaign will have cost, by the end of this fiscal year, about one trillion dollars in direct, Congressionally approved, expenditures -- even that figure does not include equipment; so by the accounting of the Defense Department to Congress, American troops must be fighting bare-fisted and on foot. Much more significant are other figures. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have estimated that the overall costs to the American economy are probably three trillion dollars. Some economists believe the true figure may be double that. I think they are right. Consider the just the cost of caring for the wounded – the government admits to 25,000 but just in this year alone some 300 thousand are in treatment and the overall figure is probably more than half a million. Just caring for them over their lifetimes will cost one trillion dollars. And this does not take into account the “opportunity costs” of the loss of their productivity.
Keeping one soldier – or one mercenary -- in Iraq or Afghanistan, not including his equipment, costs half a million dollars a year.
The bottom line of this half century of growing militarism of America is that today we are spending 58 percent of all discretionary revenues of the federal government on the military. That is to say that the American military budget is larger than that of all the other countries of the world combined and larger than all other domestic expenditures.
Now, on top of these expenses has come the financial crisis. It has been so much in the news that I do not need to dwell on it except to point out that it has two dimensions – first, the cost of the bailout, say three quarters of a trillion dollars and, second, the decline in the ability to pay for it by lower productivity, unemployment and the psychology of depression.
So, at a time in which we needed to be able to pump money into the economy, we were very short of money. You know the figures. Our national debt, even before the financial crisis had gone up to 10.6 trillion dollars and the Treasury had borrowed about three trillion dollars abroad. The government borrowed twice as much in 2008 as in 2007, up from 550 billion to about one trillion. Now, of course, those figures are much worse. And while we do not yet have firm figures, the gross national product, adjusted for inflation, must have increased only slightly. This, very briefly, is what I see as the monetary challenge.
There is a second aspect of the challenge that is harder to quantify: it is the way in which Americans have approached issues and the make-up of the forces with whom we deal.
From the German army, America in particular inherited “war gaming.” As modified by mathematicians, mainly at MIT, the so-called politico-military gaming rested on the notion that all issues were ultimately governed by “rationality.” That is to say, all governments would see the world in essentially the same terms regardless of their cultures, religions, mores, pride or historical memories and riches or poverty. So we did not need to understand the world in all its complexity.
We were encouraged in this view by two things: the first was the Cuban Missile Crisis when we assumed that the Russians saw the issue in the same or similar terms to us. We thought they did and that is the lesson we drew from the crisis. Now we know that what really happened was more complex. I had been a member of the Crisis Management Committee and later had four meeting with my Russian counterparts at the Soviet Academy of Sciences; so I had some perspective on how shallow had been our understanding of how and why the Russians reacted as they did. But the events seemed to justify a disembodied and “rational” approach to the world. In my writings on the current crisis with Iran, I have shown how dangerous this approach can be.
The second factor that skews our approach to world affairs – and this may be of direct consequence to each of you – is that most of the governments the American government deals with are staffed by men and women who are graduates of our system, speak our language and think in the same or similar terms to us. We did not need to listen because we all speak the same language and think the same things we learned in the same schools.
Both of these experiences -- our dealings with the Europeans and our dealings with the so-called Third World -- have misled us: we are now learning that many of our assumptions were built on sand. Some countries, notably Iran now, do not share our view of the world predicament and therefore are unlikely to respond in the terms we expect. Some other governments that do respond in the ways we expect may have lost contact with their own people and so are increasing fragile. This was true of Iran. There despite the world’s highest rate of economic growth and a huge military and security apparatus, the relatively small westernized governing elite lost contact with the people and was overthrown. A similar disconnection is becoming an issue in a number of other countries such as Egypt and India where the quest for statistical growth favors small westernized minorities while shunting aside the mass of the people. Trying to get the maximum growth out of limited resources means that the traditional parts of the societies are allotted just enough to dampen revolutionary danger. Figuring out how to do this has proven very difficult for quasi-denationalized governments which are under pressure to modernize and increase their financial growth. Doing so is likely to lead to a turbulent period ahead of us.
So, what would I urge upon the incoming president?
In summary, it is to scale back to a sustainable and much more modest role for America. Few empires have been destroyed on the battlefield and America is in no danger of that. But many have been destroyed by going bankrupt and America is certainly in danger of that.
Let me now tick off the major headings:
First, let us be realistic. There are no quick fixes. The incoming president cannot just flick a switch and repair the damage that has been done. He must prioritize and he must move fast on the really essential. He has only a few months of relative freedom before bureaucratic inertia sets in and he has limited resources. His first priority must be where the money is.
The Department of Defense which has metastasized across the whole spectrum of the federal government and, as I say, is now channeling 58 percent of all disposable revenue and is planning to ask for an additional 3 to 5 percent. The president must resist this move and, insofar as is feasible, bring America back from the binge we have been on. We need to be more modest. In American politics today, it is the military to whom most Americans listen – you saw that in General Colin Powell’s intervention last week. So listen to another: One of the best Marine Corps officers put it simply: “It used to be said that the side with the most guns won; today, the side with the most guns goes bankrupt.” That is roughly where Americans are today. We must realign our actions to fit our real needs and our actual means. As one of our most sober military analysts, Colonel Andrew Bacevich, put it, “America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller – that is, more modest – foreign policy…Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War gave rise.” Public opinion polls indicate that 8 in 10 Americans agree.
Specifically and as a first step, the incoming president should begin by repudiating the neoconservative-inspired “National Defense Strategy of the United States of America.”
This direction of march implies that we should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. These are complex moves. I won’t try to lay them out here as I would need several hours to do so, but, from my experience of planning American policy for the Middle East, I have produced a costed-out and mutually-reinforcing series of steps in a carefully articulated plan in a book called Out of Iraq. One aspect of the plan is the financial savings – between 350 and 500 billion dollars.
What to do about Iran? It is the most discussed issue in America after the state of the economy.
Our policy there has been a failure. We have not been able to resolve the Iranian crisis by threats and cannot hope to do so. In one of his many parables the great Greek political commentator, Æsop, told us why: the harder the storm buffets a person, the tighter he draws his cloak around himself. Under threat of our storm, Iranians, no matter how they feel about their government, will rally around their “cloak,” their flag. This comes into focus on the nuclear issue.
On the nuclear issue which, from my personal involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, I particularly worry about, we missed the opportunity to get a moratorium on nuclear weapons; instead we multiplied what we had to fantastic numbers, 30-40 thousand when a dozen would have blown up most of the world. The result was that China followed, then Israel plus South Africa, then India and Pakistan against one another, then North Korea. . But we are selective. Those powers that have managed to acquire weapons are now accepted members of the “club” but we do not want new members.
Now we are on the brink of a new “surge.” We are again building bombs and upgrading those we already have. And we are urging India, for example, to forge ahead down this dangerous path.
This is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. Since nuclear weapons anywhere are a danger to people everywhere, the incoming president should begin the process to curtail and ultimately abolish these weapons.
To convince other nuclear powers to follow this path toward real security. we must begin with ourselves, agreeing with the other major nuclear power, Russia, on the program we originally set out in the 1960s or something similar to it, thus setting an example. Such a program will call for a high level of diplomacy and will not be easy. But if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a reasonably secure and peaceful world, they are necessary. Moreover, we know how to accomplish it. Incentives already exist and we can create others.
Iran has our attention now so we could move positively in the Middle East. There, instead of convincing the Iranians by our statements and our actions that they need to acquire weapons to deter us, we need to push for a regional nuclear ban.
At the present time, Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Would it block such a move? Perhaps, but there are reasons why it might be willing to follow our lead. The first reason is that Israel does not need nuclear bombs. Their value to Israel is psychological rather than strategic. They were not used in the 1967 or 1973 wars or in the Lebanese war of last year. Israel already has the most powerful army and air force in its neighborhood. The second reason is that it has a de facto American security guarantee. But the most compelling reason, the third, why Israel should move toward a nuclear free zone is its own security. Its possession of nuclear weapons ensures that some of its neighbors will get them; so nuclear weapons, far from being a source of security, are a source of insecurity. In a decade or so, no matter what happens in Iran, other Middle Eastern countries will acquire them. So it would be smart for the Israelis to take the leadership in removing them from the Middle East. We can help in various ways and the incoming American president should do so.
We must get serious about the environment. What we have done so far is little more than a PR happening. But if we do on the environment what we did on space travel in the Apollo program or with the Manhattan Project on the nuclear bomb in World War II, we could save our planet. It is, after all, the only one we have. The incoming president will have little money at least initially to move on this issue but he can work with the states, many of which do have the beginnings of effective policies, and the president can reallocate some already committed funds and offer new tax incentives. He should. The program will be popular because among other things, if it is sensibly designed, it will create new jobs whereas now we are losing about 100 thousand a month.
Here, perhaps, is the time to introduce the energy issue. We built America into the world’s largest user of energy -- about 25% of the total. Our cities were designed around the automobile powered with cheap fuel. We probably cannot remake our cities, but the incoming American president will be under great public pressure to cut down on imported energy. However, Americans will not support moves to cut back on consumption. Balancing these two imperatives will require almost the wisdom of Solomon. I think his only three hopes are shifting the emphasis toward public transportation, better means of saving energy and pushing hard toward alternative sources. These moves will not be easy and may impact in detrimental ways in your industry, but they are certainly going to happen for better or for worse. We all – the incoming president and you -- should try to make them as beneficial and as least disruptive as possible.
Posted on: Friday, October 31, 2008 - 21:39
SOURCE: WSJ (10-31-08)
One problem with this emotion is that it ignores the sequel to the Great Depression -- the rise of militaristic Japan marked by the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, both of which resulted in part from economic dislocations spreading outward from the U.S. The inward-focus of the U.S. and the leading Western powers (Great Britain and France) throughout the 1930s allowed these problems to metastasize, ultimately leading to World War II.
Is it possible that American inattention to the world in the coming years could lead to a similarly devastating result? You betcha.
When Franklin Roosevelt replaced Herbert Hoover in the White House, the country's economy was in shambles but its security was not threatened. No American forces were engaged in significant military conflict; America faced no threats. The U.S. was largely disarmed militarily and disengaged internationally.
Yet within a decade, American territory had been attacked for the first time in 130 years, a massive rearmament program was underway, and the U.S. was fighting a desperate struggle that spanned the globe and ultimately cost the lives of nearly half a million American service members. The seeds of that global conflict, unimaginable in 1933 given the relative weakness of Germany and Japan, were planted in the first years of the Roosevelt administration as FDR focused on the American economy.
Hoover had the distinction of being the last American president who did not command American troops in important conflicts. After FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower led the war in Korea that ended up shaping East Asia and the global economy profoundly....
Posted on: Friday, October 31, 2008 - 21:36
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-30-08)
A week ago, I had a long conversation with a four-star U.S. military officer who, until his recent retirement, had played a central role in directing the global war on terror. I asked him: what exactly is the strategy that guides the Bush administration's conduct of this war? His dismaying, if not exactly surprising, answer: there is none.
President Bush will bequeath to his successor the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone. To defense contractors, lobbyists, think-tankers, ambitious military officers, the hosts of Sunday morning talk shows, and the Douglas Feith-like creatures who maneuver to become players in the ultimate power game, the Global War on Terror is a boon, an enterprise redolent with opportunity and promising to extend decades into the future.
Yet, to a considerable extent, that very enterprise has become a fiction, a gimmicky phrase employed to lend an appearance of cohesion to a panoply of activities that, in reality, are contradictory, counterproductive, or at the very least beside the point. In this sense, the global war on terror relates to terrorism precisely as the war on drugs relates to drug abuse and dependence: declaring a state of permanent"war" sustains the pretense of actually dealing with a serious problem, even as policymakers pay lip-service to the problem's actual sources. The war on drugs is a very expensive fraud. So, too, is the Global War on Terror.
Anyone intent on identifying some unifying idea that explains U.S. actions, military and otherwise, across the Greater Middle East is in for a disappointment. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid down"Germany first" and then"unconditional surrender" as core principles. Early in the Cold War, the Truman administration devised the concept of containment, which for decades thereafter provided a conceptual framework to which policymakers adhered. Yet seven years into its Global War on Terror, the Bush administration is without a compass, wandering in the arid wilderness. To the extent that any inkling of a strategy once existed -- the preposterous neoconservative vision of employing American power to"transform" the Islamic world -- events have long since demolished the assumptions on which it was based.
Rather than one single war, the United States is presently engaged in several.
Ranking first in importance is the war for Bush's legacy, better known as Iraq. The President himself will never back away from his insistence that here lies the" central front" of the conflict he initiated after 9/11. Hunkered down in their bunker, Bush and his few remaining supporters would have us believe that the"surge" has, at long last, brought victory in sight and with it some prospect of redeeming this otherwise misbegotten and mismanaged endeavor. If the President can leave office spouting assurances that light is finally visible somewhere at the far end of a very long, very dark Mesopotamian tunnel, he will claim at least partial vindication. And if actual developments subsequent to January 20 don't turn out well, he can always blame the outcome on his successor.
Next comes the orphan war. This is Afghanistan, a conflict now in its eighth year with no signs of ending anytime soon. Given the attention lavished on Iraq, developments in Afghanistan have until recently attracted only intermittent notice. Lately, however, U.S. officials have awakened to the fact that things are going poorly, both politically and militarily. Al Qaeda persists. The Taliban is reasserting itself. Expectations that NATO might ride to the rescue have proven illusory. Apart from enabling Afghanistan to reclaim its status as the world's number one producer of opium, U.S. efforts to pacify that nation and nudge it toward modernity have produced little.
The Pentagon calls its intervention in Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom. The emphasis was supposed to be on the noun. Unfortunately, the adjective conveys the campaign's defining characteristic: enduring as in endless. Barring a radical re-definition of purpose, this is an enterprise which promises to continue, consuming lives and treasure, for a long, long time.
In neighboring Pakistan, meanwhile, there is the war-hidden-in-plain-sight. Reports of U.S. military action in Pakistan have now become everyday fare. Air strikes, typically launched from missile-carrying drones, are commonplace, and U.S. ground forces have also conducted at least one cross-border raid from inside Afghanistan. Although the White House doesn't call this a war, it is -- a gradually escalating war of attrition in which we are killing both terrorists and noncombatants. Unfortunately, we are killing too few of the former to make a difference and more than enough of the latter to facilitate the recruitment of new terrorists to replace those we eliminate.
Finally -- skipping past the wars-in-waiting, which are Syria and Iran -- there is Condi's war. This clash, which does not directly involve U.S. forces, may actually be the most important of all. The war that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made her own is the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Having for years dismissed the insistence of Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, that the plight of the Palestinians constitutes a problem of paramount importance, Rice now embraces that view. With the fervor of a convert, she has vowed to broker an end to that conflict prior to leaving office in January 2009.
Given that Rice brings little -- perhaps nothing -- to the effort in the way of fresh ideas, her prospects of making good as a peacemaker appear slight. Yet, as with Bush and Iraq, so too with Rice and the Palestinian problem: she has a lot riding on the effort. If she flops, history will remember her as America's least effective secretary of state since Cordell Hull spent World War II being ignored, bypassed, and humiliated by Franklin Roosevelt. She will depart Foggy Bottom having accomplished nothing.
There's nothing inherently wrong in fighting simultaneously on several fronts, as long as actions on front A are compatible with those on front B, and together contribute to overall success. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Global War on Terror. We have instead an illustration of what Winston Churchill once referred to as a pudding without a theme: a war devoid of strategic purpose.
This absence of cohesion -- by now a hallmark of the Bush administration -- is both a disaster and an opportunity. It is a disaster in the sense that we have, over the past seven years, expended enormous resources, while gaining precious little in return.
Bush's supporters beg to differ, of course. They credit the president with having averted a recurrence of 9/11, doubtless a commendable achievement but one primarily attributable to the fact that the United States no longer neglects airport security. To argue that, say, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have prevented terrorist attacks against the United States is the equivalent of contending that Israel's occupation of the West Bank since in 1967 has prevented terrorist attacks against the state of Israel.
Yet the existing strategic vacuum is also an opportunity. When it comes to national security at least, the agenda of the next administration all but sets itself. There is no need to waste time arguing about which issues demand priority action.
First-order questions are begging for attention. How should we gauge the threat? What are the principles that should inform our response? What forms of power are most relevant to implementing that response? Are the means at hand adequate to the task? If not, how should national priorities be adjusted to provide the means required? Given the challenges ahead, how should the government organize itself? Who -- both agencies and individuals -- will lead?
To each and every one of these questions, the Bush administration devised answers that turned out to be dead wrong. The next administration needs to do better. The place to begin is with the candid recognition that the Global War on Terror has effectively ceased to exist. When it comes to national security strategy, we need to start over from scratch.
Posted on: Thursday, October 30, 2008 - 18:16
We should not be so quick to dismiss what Obama is doing. We must first remember that Obama's tactic is nothing new. There is precedent for candidates to purchase national television airtime at some point in the election cycle.
There are some famous examples. During the Republican primaries in 1976, Ronald Reagan, who had gone on the national airwaves in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater (as had Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 with their own campaigns), purchased time so that he could rail against the foreign policies of President Gerald Ford. Reagan's 1976 commercial was crucial to persuading some Republican voters in key primary states that Reagan, and the conservative movement, offered a superior vision of America's role in the world. Independent candidate Ross Perot used this tactic as well in the 1992 election, relying on television to counteract the power of the two-party establishment and to give himself the time to make arguments about the threats from deficits and free trade.
Though the show will be slickly packaged and carefully staged, there are benefits to this kind of program in the modern age. Most important, it offers candidates the opportunity to make their case directly to the voters and with a substantial block of time. Rather than hearing about the candidates through reporters and pundits, or relying on shallow thirty second spots, the half-hour show offers the opportunity for more substance.
Even with the countless hours of television coverage, we hear less from the candidates themselves. Some will remember how during this year's political conventions, most of what viewers saw were reporters talking about the convention rather than the convention itself. At one point, James Carville was lamenting the quality of the speeches by Democrats. Yet they had to trust his analysis since they saw more of him than the speakers. The average sound bite for political candidates has steadily diminished since the 1960s, falling from 43 seconds in 1968, to 9.8 seconds in 1988 to 7.8 seconds by 2000. Reporters took up more and more airtime. Newspapers devote less and less time to the actual words of the politicians.
We should recognize that tonight's commercial is part of a tradition, and is a potentially healthy antidote to today's media environment. Indeed, we might use this as the basis for bringing campaign finance reform back onto the agenda and thinking about whether the federal government should fund air time for both candidates--or require the networks to give them time for free--so that they can spend some time directly with the voters, letting Americans decide, on their own, what they think.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.
Posted on: Thursday, October 30, 2008 - 00:43
SOURCE: Slate (10-21-08)
Nouri al-MalikiPresident Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have reached an agreement governing American military forces in Iraq. But under the Iraqi Constitution, parliament has to approve the deal, and major political parties are already demanding changes. With the threat of an Iraqi parliamentary veto monopolizing the headlines, it is easy to forget that Bush is proposing to shut Congress entirely out of the process. He is claiming the unilateral right to commit the country to his agreement.
This claim has no constitutional merit, as we've explained previously. It is particularly problematic when Americans will soon be choosing between two presidential candidates who have taken positions that are at odds with the Bush agreement. In claiming unilateral authority, a discredited administration is trying to secure its legacy by striking at the very heart of the democratic process—and, ironically, making the Iraqi government look more democratic than our own.
President Bush defends his action by pointing to "status of forces" agreements that a long line of American presidents have unilaterally negotiated with close to 100 countries around the world. These involve a host of day-to-day matters like delivery of supplies to the troops, which are well within the president's exclusive power as commander in chief. But the present initiative goes far beyond anything in these previous agreements.
For starters, the Bush proposal undermines the constitutional powers of the next president as commander in chief. It subjects American military operations to "the approval of the Iraqi government," giving operational control to "joint mobile operations command centers" supervised by a joint American-Iraqi committee. American commanders in the field will retain their power to act without advance Iraqi approval only in cases of self-defense. While American troops have been placed under foreign control in peacekeeping operations, this has occurred only under treaties approved by the Senate. No American president has ever before claimed the unilateral power to bargain away the military power of his successors.
The proposed agreement also submits thousands of private military contractors to Iraqi courts in the event that they are charged with a crime. This provision points to a serious problem. Many of these contractors are now beyond the jurisdiction of both American and Iraqi courts. Operating within a no-law zone, they can victimize Iraqi civilians with impunity. We should definitely bring this abuse to an end, but Congress should be involved in devising an appropriate solution. These contractors have no direct relationship to the military. They are working for the State Department and other federal agencies. It is up to Congress, not the president, to decide whether the embryonic Iraqi court system is up to the task of holding the contractors to account or whether American laws should instead be given extraterritorial force....
Posted on: Thursday, October 30, 2008 - 00:04
"Is it happening again?" That is the very disturbing question that many Americans are nervously asking on this, the seventy-ninth anniversary of "Black Tuesday," the date of the Stock Market Crash, in October 1929.
We are beyond discussions of whether we are in a recession; the antecedent of "it" in the above question is "Depression," and there are enough parallels between then and now to induce sleeplessness in many of us.
In the popular imagination, the Stock Market Crash nearly eight decades ago caused, or at least started, the Great Depression.
In fact, though, the downward spiral of the Depression was already underway a few months before "Black Tuesday." The market crash reflected the economic problems; it did not cause them. The same is true today. Contrary to what Herbert Hoover said then, the economy was not "fundamentally sound"; contrary to what John McCain said at the beginning of the current crisis, the economy is not "fundamentally strong."
While people focus on a couple of terrible days in 1929, in fact the market collapse leading into the Depression was a long downward slide, punctuated by days of drastic drops and occasional gains--much like what has been going on for the last six weeks, including yesterday's huge gain.
As the Crash on this date in 1929 was a lagging indicator for a severe economic downturn that was already underway, the current Grizzly Bear Market is a lagging indicator for an economy that was already in serious decline before Wall Street noticed.
Some saw the Depression that began in 1929 as an "Act of God." In truth, it was the result of acts by worshippers of a false god. The same is the case with the current crisis. In the 1920s and the 2000s, those in power placed blind faith in the Market as God.
The economic collapse of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression discredited that faith in an Omnipotent and Beneficent Market God for several decades, but since about 1980, true believers in that false belief have been born again, and economic fundamentalists have been singing "Give Me That Old-Time Economic Religion."
Such evangelists as Amity Shlaes, in her 2007 social Darwinist / economic fundamentalist tract reinterpreting the Depression, The Forgotten Man, argued that Calvin Coolidge was right and Franklin Roosevelt was somehow responsible for the Depression. These evangelists found people on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue who were eager to be "saved."
Last week, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted that he was among those who had placed too much faith in the self-correcting power of the free market. In the terms used by Tennessee Williams, Greenspan and so many others failed their eyes. Now their fingers are being "pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy."
So, unfortunately, are the fingers of us all.
The causes of the collapses of 1929 and 2008 parallel each other to a remarkable degree. In the 1920s and the 2000s. There was little regulation of markets or business practices; taxes on the very rich were slashed; labor unions were weak. As a result, income was concentrated at the very top.
Concentration of income at the top in both periods contributed to the economic debacle in two ways: so much money in the hands of a few simultaneously fueled speculation and denied fuel to the consumption needed to keep the economy going.
Republicans then continued to promote tax and other policies that concentrate wealth and income, as John McCain now calls for making the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent and attacks Barack Obama for wanting to increase taxes on the highest income brackets. In fact, "spreading the wealth around" is a major part of the solution now, as it was in the Depression.
In both the 20s and the 00s, the economic effects of the maldistribution of income were masked and postponed by the extension of credit where credit wasn't due, although the credit bubble on the current decade was far larger than that of eight decades ago.
While in both cases the market collapsed after the economy was already sinking, the massive impact on the economy was yet to come at the time of the Crash. The slowdown in buying and rise in unemployment came in the months and years after October 1929, and the worst is yet to come for the economy as a whole today.
The market collapse in 1929 accelerated the downward spiral of the economy because it signaled to consumers that they needed to cut back on spending and to lenders that they needed to be much more cautious in extending credit. The current collapse is having similar effects.
But perhaps the most important point is that this date in 1929 can be seen in retrospect as the dividing line not only between economic eras, but also between two political eras, and 2008 is likely to be another such political dividing line. Realignments always begin with a negative impetus. People turn against a party that has held power when that party presides over a major failure:
Republican dominance lasted from a depression that began under the Democrats, the Panic of 1893, until the Republican Panic of 1929 discredited the party. Democratic dominance lasted from the Great Depression that began in 1929 until 1968, when a disastrous, unnecessary war discredited the party.
The Republican dominance that began in 1968 (with an interruption resulting from Watergate) appears likely to end next Tuesday because both a disastrous, unnecessary war and the Panic of 2008 have discredited the party.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - 09:48
Stevens' future biographer will only look with awe and amazement at the unbridled, unchecked power the man enjoyed and exercised. Stevens should be the poster boy for the mob that Newt Gingrich led to power in 1994.
But give the man his due. Inadvertently, in at once the best and worst of his moments, he exposed the sham, hypocrisy, and yes, even audaciousness, of that rule. The impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton offered Stevens his special moment. Clinton deserves our scorn in many ways; we can point to his policy and governing failures - q.v., Iraq, health-care, etc. Too often, we saw the"Slick Willie" his detractors deplored. What he did not deserve was his impeachment and trial in 1998. The blatant partisan vote for impeachment was a foregone conclusion in the House - and doomed it to failure.
Whatever the inevitable outcome, the Republican majority laid bare the ugly rancor of partisan politics. Tom DeLay's (R-TX) muscling of Peter King (R-NY) and a few other"moderate," eastern Republicans who fully anticipated the folly of the majority's madness, marked the measure of his pernicious and abusive powers. The Senate Democrats' calculated decision to defend Clinton insured that the Republicans would not reach the requisite 2/3rds vote. Many Democrats no doubt were aroused more by the Republicans' vindictiveness than any respect for Clinton. Many Senators treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the House Managers' dismay and scorn. Who can forget Henry Hyde's (R-IL) pitiful whining and self-righteous posturing? The Republicans ultimately failed to gain even a majority in favor of either article of impeachment.
Senator Stevens, no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds and the prevailing nonsense. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the charge of perjury, but voted guilty on the obstruction of justice count. That bifurcated oddity merely was a" courtesy" to the Managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he readily admitted he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would decisively affect the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had"not brought that level of danger to the nation which, in my judgment, is necessary to justify such an action." He clearly acknowledged that his guilty vote on the second count only was a gesture, saying he would not have done so if"such action would remove the President from office."
Stevens's action exposed the Republicans' capacity for mischief. Perhaps he correctly gauged the national mood; his statement, however, more reflects a man who did not want blood on his hands. The Republicans' mindless personal hatred for the President drove the whole affair, and it was not a serious constitutional matter. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 rejected impeachment for Richard Nixon as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects, Phil Gramm (R-TX), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Rick Santorum (R-PA), et al, followed in lockstep. But Republican defections such as Stevens's diminished any semblance of respectability for the charges.
Our media loves to titillate us with scandals, bridges to nowhere, and sexual peccadilloes, among other relatively inconsequential events. moments. Stevens's gesture went unnoticed. Nevertheless, he laid bare the partisan ugliness and its hypocrisy, as well, and his own actions underlined that reality. Every scoundrel has his moment.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 - 09:43
SOURCE: Hudson Institute (10-28-08)
Yasir Arafat may have shook Yitzhak Rabin's hand in 1993 and signed solemn declarations about ending the war to eliminate Israel, but late last month, in a New York City courtroom, the Palestine Liberation Organization formally confirmed that it still sees terrorism against Israelis as legitimate acts of war.
The lawsuit, Sokolow v The Palestine Liberation Organization, brought by the intrepid David Strachman, alleges that the PLO carried out two machine-gun and five bombing attacks in the Jerusalem area between January 2001 and February 2004. The plaintiffs allege, in the words of U.S. District Judge George Daniels, that the PLO did so"intending to terrorize, intimidate, and coerce the civilian population of Israel into acquiescing to defendants' political goals and demands, and to influence the policy of the United States and Israeli governments in favor of accepting defendants' political goals and demands." The attacks killed 33 and wounded many more, some of them U.S. citizens; the victims and their families are seeking up to US$3 billion in damages from the PLO.
To this, the PLO, represented in part by none other than the appalling Ramsey Clark (who in a distant age, 1967-69, was attorney general of the United States), replied that the attacks were acts of war rather than terrorism. As Daniels summarizes the PLO argument:"defendants argue that subject matter jurisdiction is lacking because this action is premised on acts of war, which is barred under the ATA [Antiterrorism Act of 1991], and further is based on conduct which does not meet the statutory definition of ‘international terrorism'."
This response is noteworthy for two reasons: (1) Fifteen years after Oslo supposedly ended the state of war, four years after Mahmoud Abbas took over and supposedly improved on Arafat's abysmal record, the PLO publicly maintains it remains at war with Israel. (2) The PLO argues, even in the context of an American law court, that blatant, cruel, inhumane, and atrocious acts of murder constitute legitimate acts of warfare.
Judge Daniels rightly slammed the PLO's argument:"the Court finds that the attacks, as alleged to have occurred in the amended complaint, do not constitute acts of war nor do they, as a matter of law, fall outside the statutory definition of ‘international terrorism'." He went on to point out that civilians, not soldiers were the intended victims of these assaults:
There has been no showing that the situs of the attacks were in any combat or militarized zone, or were otherwise targeted at military or governmental personnel or interests. Rather, plaintiffs allege that the attacks were intentionally targeted at the civilian population. They were purportedly carried out at locations where non-combatants citizens would be known to congregate, such as in the cafeteria on the Hebrew University campus and on a commercial passenger bus.
Daniels went on, rising to an eloquence not frequently heard in district court decisions:
Additionally, the use of bombs, under such circumstances, is indicative of an intent to cause far-reaching devastation upon the masses. The"benefit" of such weaponry is its merciless capability of indiscriminately killing and maiming untold numbers in heavily populated civilian areas. Such claimed violent attacks upon non-combatant civilians, who were allegedly simply going about their everyday lives, do not constitute acts of war.
That the PLO justifies"merciless capability of indiscriminately killing and maiming untold numbers" suggests it remains the terrorist organization it has always been since its founding in 1964.
When will the diplomatic bright lights in Jerusalem and Washington figure this out?
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 17:39
SOURCE: Time Mag. (10-27-08)
Are we witnessing the birth pangs of another Great Depression? Karl Marx once observed that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, second as farce." But the record of the past emphatically suggests that we are not suffering through a play-by-play recapitulation of the catastrophe of the 1930s. To be sure, we may be brewing our very own 21st century economic calamity. But if so, it will be altogether different in its sources, scale, severity and duration from the last century's ghastly, decade-long, globe-girdling ordeal. It is only the consequences that may be similar....
The Great Depression may have been triggered by a financial crisis, but its lasting story is written in the miseries of massive unemployment. Some 25% of the labor force stood idle in 1933--a rate that never went below 14% for the remainder of the decade. No unemployment insurance backstopped laid-off workers or kept communities going when paychecks disappeared. Given the demography of a workforce in which scarcely any married women toiled for wages, a 25% unemployment rate effectively meant that nearly 1 in 4 households had no income in 1933.
A similar unemployment rate today, when a majority of women, both married and single, are in the workforce, is fearful to contemplate. But it would be unlikely to translate into equivalent hardship for individual families. And thanks to Social Security, a solid floor of support exists for elderly Americans--which guarantees a minimum level of consuming power for the economy as a whole.
These material and structural differences between the Depression era and the crisis we face today are significant. But the most important and consequential differences lie in the realms of ideas and attitudes, especially regarding the role of government. Consider what might be called "the tale of two Secretaries." Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (along with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who presides over an immeasurably more potent Federal Reserve system than existed in 1929) has acted with vigor to bring the full powers of the Federal Government to bear in the current crisis. In dramatic contrast, when Herbert Hoover asked his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, for advice on how to cope with the financial implosion of 1929, Mellon replied, "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system." Echoes of that old-time sentiment can still be heard today, but they are mere vestiges of the stifling tyranny of laissez-faire thinking that paralyzed so many governments in an earlier era.
Franklin Roosevelt wondered frequently during the 1932 electoral campaign at what he saw as the surprising docility of the American people in the face of the Depression. "Repeatedly he spoke of this," his aide Rexford Tugwell recalled, "saying that it was enormously puzzling to him that the ordeal of the past three years had been endured so peaceably." That odd passivity has intrigued historians, who have noted that it forced Roosevelt to simultaneously invent the tools to combat the Depression and establish their very legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Today the debate about the legitimacy of government's role is largely ended. What argument remains focuses on the efficacy and fairness of various policy choices, not on the idea of intervention itself. Public opinion is far from unanimous about what should be done, but it is virtually unanimous that something must be done. That represents a seismic shift in popular attitudes....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 17:27
SOURCE: http://www.womensmediacenter.com (10-28-08)
As we approach the end of an astonishing campaign season, one thing grows clear: John McCain’s campaign has suffered a string of disastrous decisions. These mistakes have overwhelmed even the campaign’s trump card—its image of John McCain as war hero. And not just an ordinary war hero but one who was captured by enemies, imprisoned near death, and “resurrected” to return home with visible wounds that marked his sacrifice.
Aside from the patriotic fervor and powerful religious themes this tale evokes in American Christians who believe that redemptive violence lies at the core of their faith, McCain’s campaign correctly counted on the media treating the image of war hero as if it stood outside history, beyond journalistic scrutiny. The “swift boating” of John Kerry four years ago left the media reluctant to engage in legitimate examination of John McCain’s claims.
As a historian who has studied Vietnam War documents, I read McCain’s Faith of My Fathers with growing concern over the troubling inconsistencies and internal contradictions that I found there. When I sought out official reports, news accounts, film footage and other reliable sources to help resolve these contradictions, I consistently found questionable assertions in McCain’s claims. All memoirs are constrained by the limitations of our memory, but McCain’s accounts are unusually problematic, with many stories grossly exaggerated or simply made up.
Given the media scrutiny heaped upon Cindy McCain’s life during this campaign, one might expect the candidate himself would face equal investigation. That has not been true. When I wrote a piece documenting McCain’s less-than-heroic actions following the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal, mainstream print newspapers and magazines turned it down, including those that printed investigative pieces on his wife and relentlessly dredged up every scrap of information to expose her vulnerabilities. Ask yourself—have you seen investigative reports of McCain’s claims about his military record that match the level of scrutiny given his wife?
McCain’s war record is a legitimate topic of investigation precisely because he cites it as evidence that he should be president, as proof that he is tested and ready to lead from day one. As such, it ought to be more thoroughly examined than anything else. The few investigations that have been carried out are not reassuring.
On the single issue of his plane crashes, for example, the Los Angeles Times has concluded that “though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain’s record stands out.” A pilot whose performance included two plane crashes and a collision with power lines usually underwent official review to determine his fitness to fly. McCain refuses to allow his military records to be released so that the voting public can see whether his record matches his claims.
Much of the mainstream media frequently repeat without question McCain’s assertions about his war record, including his recent claim that he was on track to be promoted to admiral when he left the Navy. It is due to the diligence of writers on the Internet that claims like this have been investigated.
A recent column by John Dean at Findlaw.com, which includes a Q & A with me, looks at other areas in which McCain has made claims at stark odds with official documents or news reports. Dean concludes that the dwindling importance of the mainstream media is related to its reluctance to “sort fact from fiction” in the wake of the Swift Boaters. The result is that the media gives McCain a pass “rather than risk irritating him by digging out the truth of his military background.”
The irony of McCain’s free pass is that newspapers like the New York Times need look no further than their own pages to check his claims. For example, McCain says that when he was shot down on October 26, 1967, the Vietnamese beat him over and over and refused to provide medical treatment for days until, in desperation, he told them that his father was an important military officer. In contrast, the New York Times, on October 28, 1967, quoted Hanoi radio reporting the day before that, “the son of the commander of the United States Naval Forces in Europe was captured in North Vietnam.” At the time, the New York Times reported that the Vietnamese knew about McCain’s family connections as soon as he was captured, not days later. Which story is true?
Likewise, as a Rolling Stone piece recently pointed out, the New York Times reported on November 11, 1967, less than two weeks after McCain was captured, that he had said that Vietnam appeared to be winning the war and the United States appeared isolated. There is a significant conflict between this and McCain’s memoirs, one that has gone unexamined in the Times.
I have found enough compelling discrepancies between McCain’s claims of his treatment in Hanoi and other sources, including his fellow POWs, to cast serious doubt on his overall account of mistreatment and torture there. McCain’s account of his meeting with French journalist Francois Chalais four days after he was captured asserts that he was combative with guards in the room and refused to talk about the care he was receiving. His account is significantly undercut by recently released filmed footage of that meeting and by Chalais’ printed report at the time.
Many newspapers that recently endorsed Barack Obama also paid homage to McCain’s record as a war hero and former prisoner of war and have lamented that, as the St. Petersburg Times put it, “his campaign in recent months has been unworthy of his record.” If the media had examined his war record as it should have, rather than taking his self-serving memoir at face value, it would be less surprised today that McCain the candidate has been prone to poor judgment, erratic behavior under pressure, and risky decision-making. The similarities between John McCain’s campaign record and his war record outweigh their differences.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 16:52
SOURCE: CNN (10-28-08)
When presidents enter the White House, they have approximately 100 days to show what they are made of.
The notion of a "hundred days" is an artificial creation of Franklin Roosevelt after he became president in 1932 in the Great Depression. But it has become a benchmark for evaluating the early success of a president.
The term is more than symbolic. Some presidents have been able to do a lot with those hundred days. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt was the most successful we have seen. His hundred days lasted from March 9 to June 16, 1933, and Congress passed 15 major bills.
Roosevelt, in a period of experimental genius, found support from Congress for a series of programs to help stabilize an economy where 25 percent of the work force was unemployed and banks were imploding as panicked citizens pulled out their money.
The humorist Will Rogers joked that "Congress doesn't pass legislation any more, they just wave at the bills as they go by," though in reality Democratic leaders were instrumental in initiating many of the ideas that came from the White House and making sure that they passed by sound margins.
Roosevelt understood that he had a limited window of opportunity after his election, and he moved fast. "I do not see how any living soul can last physically going the pace that he is going," said Hiram Johnson, "and mentally any one of us would be a psychopathic case if we undertook to do what he is doing."
Over the hundred days, Democrats remade the face of the federal government. Programs were created to regulate Wall Street and banking, support agriculture and labor, provide public works employment, regulate production and more.
Through the legislation, as well as his historic fireside chats, Roosevelt restored confidence in the government itself, as Americans sensed that Washington could save American capitalism. He also used the first months to overcome the many divisions that existed within the Democratic Party.
Lyndon Johnson had a very different kind of hundred days when he took over after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson used his hundred days to define his presidency in relation to his predecessor....
The new president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, can learn a lesson from all of these presidents about how to break out of the gridlock that has bogged down Washington. They will have to use their hundred days to build confidence in the government and its ability to stabilize the economic system, taking advantage of the narrow window they will have to get legislation through.
The new president will have to define himself in relation to his predecessor, but in this case by demonstrating clearly to the public what he will do differently, rather than the same, as President Bush. And, finally, the new president will need to find legislation that attracts some support from the opposition to diminish the power of polarization on Capitol Hill and establish the groundwork for future compromise.
The one thing that Obama or McCain must realize is that those hundred days will disappear quickly. Once they are gone, as Bill Clinton learned after delaying his push for health care reform, the political capital is hard to get back.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 16:08
SOURCE: frontpagemag.com (10-28-08)
Barack Obama appears to have personally benefited from funds originating in Saddam Hussein's regime. It's a complicated connection, but one that deserves the consideration of Americans voters.
Two similar figures, Nadhmi Auchi and Antoin S. "Tony" Rezko, served as the intermediaries. Both are Middle Eastern males of Catholic Christian heritage who left Baathist dictatorships for Western cities (Auchi from Iraq to London, Rezko from Syria to Chicago). Both became successful businessmen who hobnobbed with politicians and promoted Arab interests. Both have been convicted of taking kickbacks and both stand accused of other shady dealings.
Auchi, born in 1937, is the more successful. When young, he joined Saddam in the Baath Party. He founded his main financial instrument, the General Mediterranean Holding SA in 1979 – revealingly, while still in Iraq. A year later, he emigrated to the United Kingdom. GMHSA now describes itself as a diverse group of 120 companies with consolidated assets of over US$4.2 billion. The Sunday Times (London) recently estimated Auchi's personal wealth at £2.15 billion, making him the 27th richest person in Britain. He garnered many honors along the way.
On the dark side, a French court in 2003 convicted Auchi of taking kickbacks in the Elf Affair and handed down a suspended jail sentence and fine. One analyst, Hector Igbikiowubo, calls this "probably the biggest political and corporate sleaze scandal to hit a western democracy since World War II." Also in 2003, one of Auchi's firms was accused of taking part in a price-fixing cartel of prescription medicines. In 2004, a report by the Pentagon's International Armament and Technology Trade Directorate found "significant and credible evidence" that Auchi organized a conspiracy to offer bribes to win mobile telephone licenses in Iraq. He was barred from entering the United States in 2005.
Rezko, born in 1955, arrived in the United States in 1974 to study civil engineering. After some work on road construction projects, he went into the fast-food business, then into real estate, with help from Auchi. His political involvement began in 1983 with a mayoral campaign, after which he acquired a taste for cultivating up-and-coming politicians, notably Obama and the current governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.
Rezko too has extensive legal problems, starting with a June 2008 conviction on sixteen counts of taking kickbacks from companies wanting to do business with the State of Illinois. He also stands accused of evading Las Vegas gambling debts and using false information in the sale of his pizza businesses. In contrast to Auchi's wealth, Rezko is said to be over $50 million in debt.
In three steps, these corrupt businessmen tie the Democratic Party presidential candidate to the executed Iraqi tyrant:
Saddam Hussein made use of Auchi: Auchi's fortune largely grew through his Iraq government connection, much of it sub rosa. In the 1980s, he procured Italian military ships. By 1993, the Italian banker Pierfrancesco Pacini Battaglia testified about Auchi bribing Iraqi officials for an Italian engineering company and called Auchi "one of the most important intermediaries in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries." Auchi is also a major shareholder in BNP Paribas, the French bank deeply implicated in the U.N.'s corrupt Iraq oil-for-food program.
Auchi made use of Rezko: Rezko lobbied for Auchi to be allowed into the United States. A wholly-owned GMHSA subsidiary, Fintrade Services Inc., transferred a loan of $3.5 million on May 23, 2005 to Rezko.
Rezko cultivated Obama: Rezko offered Barack Obama a job in 1990, which Obama declined. Still, Rezko persisted, hiring him for legal work and hosting in 2003 an early fundraiser that, writes David Mendell in Obama: From Promise to Power, proved "instrumental in providing Obama with seed money" for his nascent U.S. Senate campaign. Then, on June 15, 2005, just twenty-three days after receiving Auchi's $3.5 million, Rezko partnered with Obama in a real estate deal: while Rezko's wife paid the full asking price, $625,000, for an empty adjoining lot which they then improved, subdivided, and partially sold to Obama, Obama acquired a mansion for $1.65 million, $300,000 under the asking price.
Summing up: Barack Obama's house purchase depended on favors from Rezko, flush with a "loan" from Auchi, whose fortune derived in part from Saddam Hussein's favor.
When seen in the context of Obama's other dubious connections (Ayers, Davidson, Wright, Khalidi, et al.), this network is all the more alarming.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 13:28
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (10-27-08)
Some people are still wondering whether Barack Obama will be flummoxed on Nov. 4 by the so-called "Bradley Effect." Maybe, maybe not, but that we're even debating it shows that much has changed for the better, as I note in a short commentary just posted at "Things No One Talks About," in Dissent magazine.
What I don't talk about even there is that some of us were heralding this change even before we'd heard of Obama, way back when some of his biggest current backers were claiming that prospects like his could never materialize, and even that they shouldn't, because who needs a deracinated neo-liberal? The struggles behind his struggle can be quickly sketched, but they were hard-won, and worth knowing about.
So let's glance back 15 or 20 years, to when contests involving even only white candidates were shadowed by Willie Horton, Sister Souljah, Tawana Brawley, and O.J. Simpson. Only a few black scholars, such as William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson, and white writers, such as yours truly, suggested that the significance of race was declining - and that it should.
Conservatives such as Ward Connerly and Abigail Thernstrom were saying so, too, of course, assuring us that, with free-market prosperity, the only color to count would be dollar green. Leftists such as Thomas Sugrue and George Shulman retorted that racism and American capitalism are inextricable and that only militant anti-racism can dislodge capitalist exploitation.
But it wasn't conservative or leftist thinking that prompted Wilson, Patterson, me, and others to question the color-coded "identity politics" of racists and anti-racists alike. We even questioned variants of the "diversity" speak of the Ford Foundation, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke, all of whom presumed that having a color means having a culture.
We insisted, instead, that the best way to dissolve racism's blighting effects (including some equally blighting non-white racialist responses) is to invest more deeply in a common civic-republican culture that sustains trans-racial heavy lifting in economic stimuli, early education, and, yes, family values.
For saying so we were accused rather bitterly of denying white racism and of chilling black pride and of being Uncle Toms or racists ourselves. Now, though, Obama is saying virtually everything we did. And he is winning.
No wonder that some conservatives dread him and some leftists reject him, as a dissimulating neo-liberal. That's how they process what he has done - whether they fear that he is undermining Sarah Palin's America or really only shoring it up.
Others have come around, though, to a more balanced view. I had to smile on Sunday as New York Times columnist Frank Rich inveighed against a mainstream press whose "default setting," he claims, "has been to ominously intone that 'in the privacy of the voting booth' ignorant, backward whites will never vote for a black man.'" In my book Liberal Racism ten years ago, I faulted Rich for using that default setting himself, discerning racism and reactionary politics in white proletarian gatherings like a Christian men's "Promise Keepers'" rally, whose composition he didn't notice was 25 percent black and Hispanic!
Times change - as has the Times. Twenty years ago, too few black leaders endorsed or embodied our hopeful consensus. Now, Obama has put that consensus to the clearest, cleanest test any of us could have envisioned. He can do it because he has put himself through the personal struggles I mention in Dissent and that I ruminated about here the day after the New Hampshire primary.
No one talks much about his early struggles these days, but from them he has enriched a civic-republican idiom worthy of Lincoln and more, tapping the deepest American currents in African-American identity and the indelibly black elements in American national identity.
He hasn't done it alone. The change he represents has come quietly to many others since the late 1990s: George W. Bush's elevation of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to positions of influence and authority was part of a sea-change in the perceptions of many whites and of young blacks orienting themselves to broadening horizons.
Give a little credit even to John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, for refusing to tie Obama to the histrionic anti-racism of Jeremiah Wright.
But will Obama's trans-racial politics really prevail on November 4th, or will the "Bradley effect" be back on our lips?
Racist robo-calls and radio demagogues are stirring up racist diehards and dissimulators, whose fears may be driving state boards of elections to look for ways to stop new and non-white registrants from voting.
Fortunately the Supreme Court, perhaps recalling its own fall from public grace in the election of 2000, has sent a strong signal against sweeping suspensions of new registrants. The Justices know that many Americans who deferred to them in 2000 won't tolerate a similar gambit on their part this year. And that's because national thinking about race has changed, fitfully and painfully, for the better.
Obama has done everything a black candidate could to show that this country's redemption has not and will not come through making race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics. Decent Republicans and conservatives have stepped forward to show it, too.
Now it's up to those who claim, as Palin does, that Obama is different from other Americans to admit that he's different enough from inner-city black youths, too -- though similar enough in ways racism has made important -- to have turned their heads, raised their hopes, and denied them any cheap racial excuses.
If Obama loses, despite an economic crisis that ought to doom supply-siders like McCain, it will be a body blow to all of us who've looked and reached beyond race in American politics. But if he wins by more than a bitter squeaker, I won't just feel vindicated; I'll fantasize another possibility, one I haven't heard any great mentioners mention:
If Obama would consent to be sworn in as "Barack Hussein Obama," millions of young Muslims' heads would turn, too. I'd love to watch his American detractors absorbing the gain that would bring to America's best civic-republican ideals world-wide, as well as in Harlem, the Southside and Watts.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 00:38
SOURCE: Dissent (10-27-08)
AS PUNDITS dithered late last week over “the Bradley effect” and other racial clouds on Obama’s horizon, the candidate was making a difficult, possibly final, visit to the white mother of his white mother. Few commented on the implications of the fact that while racial identity runs deep in America, maternal bonding runs deeper. But maybe our Hollywood-besotted political culture requires the drama and sentiment in Obama’s farewell visit to “Toot” (the Hawaiian name for “grandma” is “Tutu“) to drive those implications home.
Even so, Sarah Palin claims that Obama doesn’t know or represent the real America. That both Obama’s color and his childhood exposure to Muslims are assets to America’s image abroad apparently doesn’t matter much to Americans who are still offended or frightened by racial and religious difference. Image is one thing; intimate fears another. In a small former steel town in Pennsylvania this weekend a 71-year old woman, a Democrat who considers McCain a grouchy old man and Sarah Palin a joke, paused when a New York Times reporter asked her about Obama. “He scares me,” she said finally. “The coloreds are excited, but my friends and I plan to write in Hillary’s name.”
No one mentions that Obama’s biracial provenance and childhood brush with Islam launched him on struggles that have prepared him unusually well to address one of his country’s most daunting challenges: youthful alienation in inner cities where, at least until 9/11, the Nation of Islam held a certain appeal.
Nor have I heard anyone tell Palin that there is no more “real” America than the one Obama embodied last week off the campaign trail in his grandmother’s apartment. John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, does understand this, and he hasn’t let Palin make an issue of race—or even to use the outcries of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Obama’s unsought endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Everybody knows that Obama embraced Wright as a young man while immersing himself indelibly in an inner-city, African-American community. But no one talks about what a daunting and unusual choice this was for a son of transracial Hawaii: Southside Chicago was Obama’s community only by color, not by virtue of his upbringing or childhood culture and the post-racial prospects it had opened. Inner-city blackness was something he felt he had to come to terms with because he understood that the African-American experience runs as deeply within American identity as American identity does within inner-city blackness.
The unintended irony in Palin’s charge that Obama is different from “real Americans” is that he’s also different enough from many black inner-city youths—yet also similar enough—to have turned their heads, big-time, even more than his supporter Colin Powell has done.
Some of us envision an America where this delicate balancing of differences and similarities won’t always be as necessary as it is now. “The old strategies of accusation, isolation, and containment have broken down,” wrote the late black historian C. Eric Lincoln hopefully in 1995. “If transracial marriage is here, and biracial children are here, can transracial adoptions be far behind?....It is time now to reach for the hand that is reaching for tomorrow, whatever color that hand may be. The evening of today is already far spent.”
Lincoln wasn’t thinking of McCain’s transracial adoption, although he could have been. He was addressing black nationalists as well as white racists and even white liberals. He understood, he told me, that to watch blacks running political and military machines, municipalities, media organizations, and even money markets is to watch the angels of a romanticized blackness withdraw along with the demons of something feared and loathed. It is also to surrender an exotic white condescension along with contempt.
For all of us, it is to acknowledge that this country’s redemption has not—and will not—come through keeping race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics.
America’s image abroad has been helped, too, by Obama’s readiness to take us a step closer to Eric Lincoln’s promised transracial land. But the most important gain for this country would be some Americans’ acknowledgment that color is not disqualifying and other Americans’ acknowledgment that the most effective solvents of racism don’t always march under banners that are marked “anti-racism” or that are colored black or blue.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 - 00:36
I called the theme "Religion and the Presidential Campaign: We Can't Live Without It/We Can't Live With It." "It" has been an irritant in the campaigns of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and especially the current incumbent, though it also led to some chafing in every campaign which I observed and sometimes covered since 1948. Why is the temperature hottest, or worst, this year? Among many reasons has been the step-up in 24/7 TV and radio coverage and the explosion in the blogosphere, which attracts the noisiest firebrands. All must compete to hold audiences and readership for tomorrow, so they have to blow up differences today. Race, incidentally, also is huge, but usually under-toned; religion gets treated more openly.
Why can't "we" live without religion in the campaign? Here thoughtful observers and partisans on all sides during the primary and on both sides since, knowing their history and the cultural climate, acknowledge that millions do make up their minds about politics on the basis of religious teaching, affiliation, and habit. Religion can't be legally suppressed, and is psychologically repressed only among the few. Good things have sometimes happened when religion showed up in politics and the religious worked for peace, justice, mercy, welfare, and more. Bad things also often happen, as we observe this year.
Why can't "we" live with religion in this campaign? Two main reasons: First, the religious can be exploited or can exploit religious teachings, allegiances, fears and promises; second, religion gets exhibited in ways that are criticized in the texts of Judaism, Christianity, and most other faiths. Candidates and their backers lunge at or are lured to use the opportunities to make a display of their piety and virtue in an "I'm better than you are, and God blesses me and mine" mode. Exploited and exhibited religion is bad for politics, a zone where give-and-take should be built into the process, but is not in evidence among absolutists and the obsessed during the campaigns.
Are the exploitation and exhibiting of religion also bad for religion? I like to hedge bets when commenting on politics, with all its built-in ambiguity. But here I am unambiguous: it's bad. Bad for the name of religion itself, for religious institutions, for a fair reading of sacred texts, for sundered religious communities, for swaggering religious communities which are too sure of themselves, for the pursuit of virtue, for extending the reach of religion too far. Devote one's years to the public dimensions of religious life and to the religious dimensions of public life, as my kind and I try to do, and one can only be saddened to see the distortions and selling-outs that blight the seasons. The broadly-defined religious forces and texts teach waiting and hope. Soon the waiting will be over. One hopes consciences, and not only emotions, will be stirred again.
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008 - 22:04
SOURCE: NYT (10-27-08)
THE former president, born 150 years ago today, was interviewed in his childhood home at 28 East 20th Street. He has long been a ghostly presence there. The house is now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Due to Roosevelt’s great age, it is difficult to tell how well he hears contemporary questions. But he is as forceful as ever in expressing himself. His statements below are drawn from the historic record and are uncut except when interrupted by his interviewer.
... Q. He doesn’t have Mr. McCain’s foreign policy experience. As president, how would he personify us around the world?
A. It always pays for a nation to be a gentleman.
Q. There’ll be Joe Biden to counsel him, of course. Assuming Mr. Obama can keep track of what he’s saying.
A. (laughing) You can’t nail marmalade against a wall.
Q. Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain’s choice of a female running mate?
A. Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue.
Q. How will you feel if Sarah Palin is elected?
A. I shall feel exactly the way a very small frog looks when it swallows a beetle the size of itself, with extremely stiff legs.
Q. What’s your impression of President Bush these days?
A. (suddenly serious) He looks like Judas, but unlike that gentleman has no capacity for remorse.
Q. Is that the best you can say of him?
A. I wish him well, but I wish him well at a good distance from me.
Q. One last question, Colonel. If you were campaigning now, would you still call yourself a Republican?
A. (after a long pause) No.
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008 - 21:18
SOURCE: Deborah Lipstadt blog (10-27-08)
A leading German economist said the criticism of bankers about the world financial crisis is similar to Germany's anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Munich-based Ifo economic research institute, told the newspaper Tagesspiegel:
In every crisis, people look for someone to blame, for scapegoats" .... Even in the global economic crisis of 1929, no one wanted to believe in an anonymous system failure. Then it hit Jews in Germany, today it is managers."Sinn was trying to defend the bankers -- whom I believe actually deserve a big chunk of the responsibility -- by using the Holocaust as a defense. [See my previous post for a different example of trying to get a"free ride" on the back of the Holocaust. This is just as distasteful.]
As the central organization of German Jews pointed out, last time it checked the bankers were not being beaten in the street, placed in camps, or anything else like that. In fact, some of them were getting nice parachutes as they left their firms in shambles.
Ironically, his comments evoked something else in me. Seems to me that for some people"the bankers" is a shorthand for"the Jews" as is use of the term"Wall Street."
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008 - 20:48
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (10-27-08)
Although both candidates tie the resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan to US domestic security, I personally have difficulty understanding exactly how that works. The September 11, 2001, attacks on the US were planned by Arab expatriates in Hamburg, Germany, and Pushtun tribespeople had almost nothing to do with them (did the Taliban even know what Bin Laden was planning?)
Both McCain and Obama have adopted Bushspeak on this issue, allowing W. and Cheney to frame the national debate into the next four years. Bushspeak works by contiguity, by things being next to one another, rather than by causality. Al-Qaeda was in Khost, which was controlled by the Taliban, so ipso facto the Taliban are related to 9/11, and since the Taliban were largely Pushtuns, the Pushtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan are, whenever they rebel against their local government, a dire threat to the US mainland. There are roughly 28 million Pushtuns in northwest Pakistan, and 12 million in Afghanistan. The ones in Pakistan recently rejected the fundamentalist parties for the most part in favor of a secular-leaning Pushtun nationalist party. Many of the ones in Afghanistan are part of, or back, the Karzai government. In my view, tying US national security to Pushtun local politics is magical thinking. The stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan are important, but framing that stability in the terms of a"war on terror[ism]" ignores the dynamics of secular and religious forms of Pushtun national self-assertion.
Although the US media gives us glib references to the resurgence of the Taliban, I see little or nothing on US television news explaining the fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, which is presumably what the US politicians are talking about.
The Pakistani military has asserted control of some important towns in the northern tribal agency of Bajaur, a stronghold of the Tehrik-i Taliban or"Pakistani Taliban" led in that area by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad. Some reports suggested that another local leader, Maulvi Omar, may have been killed. The Tehrik-i Taliban of Bajaur had offered refuge to Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri if they wanted it, last spring, and had attempted to coopt local tribal leaders. The Pushtun Mamund tribe of Bajaur has been backing the Taliban.
In recent weeks, tribal levies from the Pushtun Salarzai sept of the Tarkani tribe have been fighting the Tehrik-i Taliban guerrillas. Some of the Pakistani forces battling the Taliban in this region are said to have been given secret training by the United States.
The Pakistani military has adopted a scorched earth policy toward the Taliban in Bajaur, tearing down houses and using them as bunkers, and displacing an estimated 200,000 civilians from the region (some have become refugees in nearby Afghanistan).
Pakistan says it has killed about 1500 Taliban and captured 500"foreigners" ( from Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan--not, apparently, from the Arab world), and that 500 local militants are still holding out. Over 70 Pakistani troops have been killed in the fighting since August.
Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and his Tehrik-i Taliban frontally attacked Pakistani military checkpoints and started a feud with the Pakistani army. The Tehrik-i Taliban has been blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December, and it is said that as her widower, Asaf Ali Zardari, rose to the presidency, he pressured the military to destroy the movement, with which he now has a family feud.
Aljazeera English has video:
This is what a Pakistani general said about the Tehrik-i Taliban creeping coup in Bajaur Agency since January of 2008:
'The ISPR spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas, who also accompanied the media team, said before the start of the operation by security forces, Bajaur Agency was in a state of lawlessness. Militants were constantly attacking security forces’ checkposts and had closed all roads for movement of Government/FC convoys.
“All Levies pickets in the Agency had been demolished by the militants and a parallel system of administration in Tehsil Mamund, Charmang and Salarzai had been established. Militants had taken control of schools in the Agency and had converted them into their centers. They had also established courts in which they use to award severe and capital punishments of beheading and killing of personnel in public,” he said.
The spokesperson said the militants in these areas were granting licenses for business and imposing taxes on people and transport.
He said during first eight months in 2008, they had killed as many as twelve Maliks, dozens of security personnel and also kidnapped many for ransom.
In this backdrop, he said, the security forces started operation codenamed “Sherdil” [Lion-Heart] in Bajaur Agency to clear the area of the miscreants.
He said during last one and a half month, the security forces faced heavy resistance primarily as militants had support from across the border and due to involvement of foreign elements.
“The area was being used as a safe haven by foreign fighters, the militants had developed a strong trench and tunnel system of defence in populated areas like Loesam which also became a stronghold of resistance,” said the spokesman. '
It is confusing that, while the Pakistani military is engaged in hard fighting against the Bajaur branch of the Pakistani Taliban, it has been accused of using the organization, and tribes allied with it, to hit Afghanistan and to assert Pakistani influence in southern Afghanistan.
The Bush administration has therefore begun launching unilateral air strikes on Pakistani territory, as with the attack on Monday that left 20 dead in South Waziristan. The attack targeted members of the Jalaluddin Haqqani group within the Pakistani Taliban.
Farther north and west, the Afghan Taliban who have become so influential in Ghazni, 2 hours south of the Afghan capital of Kabul that they have ordered a cut-off of cell phone service there, are suspected of receiving help from the Pakistani side of the border.
The US attempt to deal with the Afghan Taliban in Ghazni with air strikes may have gone awry on Sunday, as local Afghan officials claimed that 20 government security guards were killed along with Taliban insurgents who had attacked a NATO convoy.
Poland is in charge of Ghazni now.
I come back to my original question. How is the fighting in Bajaur Tribal Agency a threat to domestic US security?
It is a question the next president will have to answer in a practical way. I wish the candidates were at least sometimes pressed on it now.
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008 - 20:09
SOURCE: Common Dreams (10-21-08)
They hate us. They say so in public. Bill O'Reilly hates us. Ann Coulter hates us. Sarah Palin thinks we're not "pro-American." And now an obscure Republican named Bachmann suggests that our senators and representatives be investigated.
It's like a bad relationship in which all you do together is argue. We got married too young. We didn't know each other well enough. And things have changed since 1789.
They're always calling us names: elitist, godless, defeatist, unpatriotic. They're paranoid control freaks, listening in on our phone calls and reading our e-mail. They think our friends are weird. We think theirs are scary.
They like country music. We like all the other kinds. They hate big cities, modern art, and research universities. We consider them essentials of civilization. They want to make war. We want to spend our tax dollars on domestic infrastructure, public education, and universal health care.
They believe that Jesus is coming back any minute, that global warming is a myth, and that evolution should not be taught in schools. We disagree.
Let's face it. This relationship has never been smooth. There was that huge fight we had back in the 1860s.
Here's the good part: if we split up, they're the ones who would have to move out.
What if Coulter, O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, and all their friends had to leave the big cities they revile? What if they had to live full-time in those glorious Red States, with their small towns, empty prairies, meth labs, and itinerant serial killers?
What if they had to hunker down in Juneau or Pierre for the winter? They could attend high-school football games and go to quilting bees. They could learn to square dance. As jets fly over on their way from the Atlantic seaboard to California, they could gaze up with outward shows of contempt and secret pangs of regret.
Because no more nights out on the town in Manhattan and Georgetown. No more of those risible libations, Chardonnay and café lattes. No more brie or arugula. Bring on the meatloaf, jello, and Sanka!
Much as they hate us, they won't like it if we leave. Without us the RSA (Red States of America) will be a second-rate power. They'll have no clout in international affairs. But they can console themselves by abolishing all taxes, massacring spotted owls, and engraving the Ten Commandments on their empty library buildings.
They'll tell us we'll be lonely without them. But we've always kind of liked the looks of our rugged next-door neighbor. You know. Canada.
Since they don't love us, we should leave them. What was that old slogan they used to like so much? "Better dead than Red."
Posted on: Sunday, October 26, 2008 - 23:42
SOURCE: Slate (Click here to read a version of this article with hot links) (10-24-08)
President Bush's vacillating response to the financial crisis has occasioned fond memories of the last president to face a banking catastrophe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The comparisons are bound to be invidious. FDR's response to the panic of 1933 represented his finest hour—one of them, at any rate—while Bush's moves exhibit all the surefootedness of a dying animal. Yet FDR's early years should be revisited, not as an exercise in nostalgia or an excuse to bash Bush but as a chance to understand how FDR earned the reputation for sterling leadership that he retains today.
Though Roosevelt's charisma went a long way, his success in solving the banking crisis of his day can't be attributed only to his "first-class temperament." Unlike Bush, he had political winds at his back. Bush has been unable to win favor with anything close to a majority of Americans for more than three years, and he is now the lamest of lame ducks. Even self-described conservatives struggle to explain how he no longer represents their movement to the point where his party's presidential nominee shuns him. Contrast that with Roosevelt, who entered office in a historic landslide. The vanquished incumbent, Herbert Hoover, even received a telegram urging him to "vote for Roosevelt, and make it unanimous." New presidents usually anticipate a honeymoon of sorts. Roosevelt—whose Democratic party gained 11 Senate and 97 House seats in the 1932 elections—enjoyed the equivalent of an extended holiday in the Greek Isles.
But another key to Roosevelt's success lay in his mastery of a relatively new medium—radio—for speaking to the public. A few of his predecessors, notably Calvin Coolidge, had deployed the airwaves for political benefit. But where Coolidge skillfully delivered his inaugural and nomination acceptance addresses over the networks, FDR had his speeches drafted purposefully for broadcast—keeping them brief, simple, colloquial, and confidently comforting. (Listen for yourself here.)
Taking office when roughly 62 percent of all households owned radios, FDR decided at the start of his administration to avail himself of the medium, making special use of what soon became known as his "Fireside Chats"—an ingenious name (coined by a CBS executive) for an ingenious form of communication. The marvel of the hearthside box remained novel enough in the early 1930s that some listeners still confessed to asking the machine to repeat a sentence or to believing that little people lived inside it. And while most listeners didn't believe the radio to be magical, they did think it transformed their relationship to the man in the White House, as the late, great cultural historian Lawrence Levine and his wife Cornelia noted in their wonderful 2002 book The People and the President: America's Conversation With FDR.
Americans, the Levines noted, responded to Roosevelt's chats with an unprecedented stream of mail. "Listening to you, I could feel the presence of your honest sincerity in the room. I found myself answering you, nodding to you, chatting to you, and agreeing with you," wrote one citizen. "With only the lighted dial of our radio for illumination," wrote another, "a feeling of deep gratitude came over me. With no lites to disclose my surroundings, I might imagine myself in the same room—at the same fireside as our great President Roosevelt, listening to his stirring words."
These and other heartfelt letters disclose not only a reserve of love for the new president that Bush can only envy but a palpable sense that FDR's ethereal words would somehow deliver them from what yet another citizen correspondent called her "long nightmare." While Bush's perfunctorily delivered midday broadcasts have failed to pierce through the cacophony of endlessly breaking bad news, Roosevelt's well-chosen words—spoken slowly and with a friendly laugh, usually at prime time in the East, when anyone could tune in—would bid the country to sit rapt and hold on tight.
Roosevelt also chose his words very carefully. Though he used speechwriters, like all modern presidents, he edited the drafts himself. Sam Rosenman, one of the president's hired pens, insisted that "[t]he speeches were always Roosevelt's. He had gone over every point, every word … studied, reviewed, and read aloud each draft, and had changed it again and again." This personal investment showed. Whereas Bush's remarks feel as if they went straight from a White House word factory into the teleprompter, Roosevelt's came across as inspired—and thus inspiring.
FDR had cynical reasons for embracing radio. With most newspaper editorialists opposed to him, he wanted a direct pipeline to a supportive citizenry. But his recourse to public speeches also rested on a view of government in which executive activism took its license and drew its strength from public opinion. "I can't go any faster than the people will let me," he said, and so he took care to educate the people about his goals in order to bring them along.
Nowhere was this method more in evidence than in his response to the banking crisis. Inaugurated in March, he wasted no time in addressing a catastrophe that had come to a head just before he took office. Two days into his presidency, he declared a "bank holiday"—a coy euphemism for temporarily shuttering the nation's chief lending institutions. A few days later, Congress—acting "promptly and patriotically," FDR said—gave him the authority to oversee the banks. Finally, and most critically as far as the public was concerned, Roosevelt went on the air the next week with his first Fireside Chat, opening with the simple words: "My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking …"
The speech that followed picked up on FDR's confident assertion, made in his inaugural, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Like a friendly teacher, he spelled out with clarity how banks work. ("When you deposit money in a bank, the bank … invests your money in many different forms of credit. …") He went on to explain the crisis and his decision to intervene, stressing that most banks hadn't engaged in "incompetent or unwise" behavior but that the actions of a few had triggered widespread insecurity, which, in turn, had sparked the run on the banks.
Roosevelt laid out his plan to right the system, with special attention to the concerns of the average depositor—a person he literally imagined, recalling in his mind the builders, farmers, and clerks he knew from New York's Dutchess County. He even anticipated their questions. ("Another question you will ask is this: Why are all the banks not to be reopened at the same time?") He exuded none of the condescension that has long been Bush's trademark—that unearned confidence of the small-time operator who doesn't realize that in the big leagues, not everyone will be charmed by his patter. Instead of salesmanship, Roosevelt confidently insisted that his plan deserved the public's trust. "Please let me make it clear to you that if your bank does not open the first day you are by no means justified in believing that it will not open," he patiently explained. "A bank that opens on one of the subsequent days is in exactly the same status as the bank that opens tomorrow. I know that many people are worrying about State banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System. There is no occasion for that worry."
The reviews were gushing. "Our president took such a dry subject as banking," said Will Rogers, "and made everybody understand it, even the bankers." Years later Raymond Moley, a member of Roosevelt's "Brains Trust," concluded: "Capitalism was saved in eight days." And when the first of the banks reopened, people indeed kept their deposits in—and began putting their mattress money back in as well. The bank holiday was over, but Roosevelt's honeymoon was just beginning. By April 12, 13,000 once-destitute banks were operating again.
Of course, FDR did more than talk. Without policies to back up his rhetoric, the New Deal would have failed. (Despite a current of thought that insists that Roosevelt's economic policies did nothing, they in fact helped the economy and improved the lives of millions of needy Americans in both the short and long terms.) Similarly, without prudent management of the banking crisis, he might never have turned his 100 days into a whirlwind of legislation—legislation that included the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which itself further helped persuade citizens not to hide their money anymore.
FDR believed his rhetoric about fearing fear. He grasped the psychological dynamics of the panic and treated them as legitimate. And so he directed his speechmaking at the goal of fortifying the public's morale. In so doing, he managed to replace a downward vortex of panic with an upward spiral of hope.
Posted on: Sunday, October 26, 2008 - 16:49