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: Huffington Post (Blog) (1-30-09)
"To what extent Mrs. Coolidge has influenced her husband's judgment only two persons many testify. One is too silent to say...and the other too smart!" -Editor William Allen White on the wife of taciturn President Calvin Coolidge
As memories of Inauguration Day 2009 begin to fade in and the new administration ensues, speculation will only increase about how politically influential Michelle Obama will be as First Lady. She has stated unequivocally that she won't be a "senior advisor" but Barack Obama has far more frequently termed her his "rock." As time goes on, it's likely there'll be little difference. A First Lady testifying before Congress on policy related to her "project," or convening experts at a conference to offer recommendations for programs that address problems which concerns her, or taping public service announcements are usually the extent of what the media and public see and read about in making an assessment of how a spouse influences a president. That "show biz," as Barbara Bush used to call it, is entirely intended for public consumption, but it represents the tip of the iceberg.
To glimpse the depth and magnitude of how a marital relationship in the White House assumes enormous power, one has to sink below the surface and route around in the dark somewhat. It will require written evidence by husband or wife from some period in the marriage to be eventually released by an archive, or the memoirs, diary or interview disclosures of an aide or insider to go beyond mere speculation of the balance of that power.
Examples of this include Jackie Kennedy's 1956 drafting of JFK's endorsement of Stevenson for president, Edith Wilson's scribbled version of her paralyzed husband's instructions to Cabinet members, Chief of Staff Don Regan's book which unintentionally shows Nancy Reagan's wisdom on presidential appearances and statements and military aide Benjamin Montgomery's attesting that Ida McKinley successfully urged her husband to retain the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Until that type of documentary proof turns up, it all remains a series of educated suppositions. Those suppositions will soon begin about Barack and Michelle Obama, but a fact-based review of how her personal strengths and professional experience might dovetail with him as president is a reliable start.
President Obama's political career has been confined to the collegial endeavors of the legislature. Predominant in Michelle Obama's resume are executive roles. She was an assistant commissioner of Planning and Development for the city of Chicago, and headed a transit authority advisory board. As the first head of the Chicago branch of Public Allies, the non-profit which enlists young people as community leaders, she built the organization from the ground up, hiring and managing staff, seeking candidates with widely diverse educational and practical experiences for the program, aggressively and successfully fundraising, planning budgets.
In her initial job at the University of Chicago, she worked in student services, forging alliances between university students and neighborhood residents and achieving her intentions of getting each group to volunteer in the other's arena. Michelle also served on a committee to help arbitrate sexual harassment cases. In her subsequent university position, she built the Medical Center's new community outreach division, assessing hospital services and how they could be more effectively distributed to the dependent local population, getting doctors to also work in local clinics and reviewing how the predominating health problems of area residents could be matched to new research sponsored by the medical center
Such executive sensibilities - and her well-documented certitude in her jobs, could come to bear on her husband's thinking process as he weighs options before making final decisions. In interviews with, and profiles of Mrs. Obama over the last year, there's ample suggestion it's already a role she's played at crucial moments in the campaign.
On the trail, she was called "the closer," because she made a convincing case to those undecided about Obama. She was also believed to give him advice on his most important speeches, imploring him to amp his emotions as a speaker. And there's no more evidence necessary that she never refrains from calling him out if she feels its justified than her famous tales of tartly reminding him to do his part around the house. "Her role is whatever she thinks she can make the biggest difference [in]," Obama predicted in December 2007 of his wife as First Lady, "Which isn't to say she won't be telling me what to do..."
As Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod recalled recently in a television interview, it was Michelle Obama who pointedly put to Barack a pithy and pivotal query before blessing his candidacy: "What do you think you can provide that the other candidates can't?"
That forthrightness, combined with her executive experience could prove particularly vital in the necessity of continually assessing key personnel; having effective advisors in the right place at the right time can be the crucial factor in crafting and passing policy. There's an especially long history of even those First Ladies not interested in policy who took a pro-active role when they heard or suspected a chink in the chain of command: Edith Wilson helped oust Secretary of State Robert Lansing by making her case for his insubordination; Florence Harding learned of Veterans' Bureau Director Charlie Forbes' malfeasance and pushed for his dismissal before the president did; Nancy Reagan was the single most important voice urging her husband to fire Chief of Staff Don Regan after his botched handling of the Iran-Contra scandal.
If First Ladies don't always get bad apples fired, most presidents have depended on their assessments and observations. Lincoln took his wife's scalding reports on Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and Secretary of State William Seward cautiously, yet encouraged her judgments, telling her, "I give you credit for sagacity." Jackie Kennedy's dim view of mad bomber Air Force General Curtis LeMay didn't result in his dismissal but further deepened JFK's mistrust of him.
It also doesn't mean Obama lacks judgment of his advisors, but a president does become absorbed in the stream of daily decisions - let alone the unexpected crises that arise. A First Lady hears more unvarnished talk, whether channeled to her own East Wing from the West Wing or directly from aides there hesitant to tell him. Much as Nancy Reagan had a West Wing liaison in her old and trusted friend Mike Deaver, Michelle Obama already has a long and deep personal bond with a woman who was first her boss at the Chicago mayor's office, Valerie Jarrett, now White House Senior Advisor. Jarrett was also on the board of the university and its medical center when her protégé went to work, successively, at both places. No doubt it would be Jarrett who'd keep the First Lady in the loop on how conflicting staff and advisors opinions might be proceeding at those times when the president is either travelling or too loaded with larger matters to raise them with his wife.
First Ladies also have more frequent and easier contact with the outside world. They can linger and listen longer to citizens on the rope line and have the little notes and pleas written to them scooped up by staff along the way. This is the "eyes and ears" role Eleanor Roosevelt perfected. Initially, it compensated for FDR's immobility due to polio, which prevented his going around New York State as governor to spot-inspect institutions that provided social services, and then around the nation when he was president to tour areas devastated by the Great Depression. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who began appearing unannounced in the most unlikely of places, striking up direct rapport with people to learn the depth of their problems and how well New Deal programs were meeting them.
One of the most damaging results of shoddy reporting and, in turn, public false alarm now seems likely to prevent Michelle Obama from doing what Rosalynn Carter did when she attended Cabinet meetings (she was but one of two or so dozen aides and secretaries who sat quietly on the perimeter listening). Mrs. Carter did this only to learn directly about issues and problems, take her own notes and transmit it all directly to the American people when she went out among them. Michelle Obama has stated that she especially enjoyed campaigning because it brought her into direct contact with the people and a chance to speak with them without filters - and her wish to continue this direct dialogue.
While it's unlikely she'll show up in coal mines as Eleanor Roosevelt did, she'll surely make day trips around the country to various programs that address the issues she takes on, giving her that access to the citizenry who tend to share whatever problem is on their mind. Her continuing dialogue with everyday folks can serve another purpose beyond translating his actions as a spokesperson to them and a reporter to him - but she can convey the way they are reacting to and perceive his decisions. Eisenhower famously told some economists that before he signed onto some policy he wanted to run it by "my Mamie" because she understood how average citizens would see it. When Michelle Obama began hearing dire problems of military families, she decided she would find a way to address them herself. If she hears larger problems across a wider cross-section of the population, there's no reason to imagine her not raising them with Barack.
Or a Cabinet or senior staff member, for that matter - or a member of Congress or the Senate; another subtle but important aspect of a First Lady's more covert influence - an alliance, friendship or shared area of legislative concern with an influential presidential advisor or legislative leader. Often, if a First Lady is making a case for particular action with the president, she'll learn more about an issue from, and find a valuable mentor and ally in a federal expert.
There's no instance of a First Lady getting a president to approve some initiative just because she wanted it: she has to make as much an air-tight case for it as would any Cabinet member.
History, however, is rife with examples of their alliances with powerful federal figures. Eleanor Roosevelt teamed with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins to get more women into the administration, Rosalynn Carter with HHS Secretary Joseph Califano to pass mental health legislation, Jackie Kennedy with Congressman Clint Anderson to get a preservation bill passed. Mary Lincoln found a partner in Senator Charles Sumner in their shared view that the president must come to see abolition less as a political and more as a human issue. Viewing it as her genuine duty to intercede for worthy individuals lost in the system, Florence Harding worked through personal contact with the Attorney General, Interior Secretary, War Secretary, Navy Secretary, and Director of Prohibition. Approving the Federal Prison Superintendant's plan for the first all-women's reformatory facility, she then developed a friendship with, and lobbied House Republican Leader Frank Mondell, leading to eventual passage.
Along these lines, it would seem logical that if Michelle Obama sees potential relief for working mothers in any legislation, she may form a working alliance with HHS Secretary Tom Daschle, in his capacity as director of the newly-created White House Office of Health Care Reform. Daschle was an Obama supporter as early as February of 2007 and remained a reliable adviser through Election Day. With her intentions to provide greater support for military families, the new First Lady may build a bridge to and gain insight from the Veterans Affairs Secretary, retired general Eric Shinseki, native Hawaiian like her husband and, as a Japanese-American, only the second Cabinet member of that minority group (or third if one counts the simultaneous Obama appointment of Energy Secretary Steven Chu).
In yet one other subtle way, the First Lady will likely influence the president's perspective. She's been adept at creating advisory boards and committees for the organizations she's headed, gathering disparate but collectively important voices. The president is already genius at this himself but as the cocoon will inevitably tightens around him, Michelle Obama might well continue to widen their private sector network - especially at times he may be consumed with crises. Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for bringing in differing voices to FDR, though it frequently exasperated him. Nancy Reagan's introducing her husband to former Democratic National Chairman Bob Strauss during Iran-Contra was a turning point in opening Reagan's thinking at the time.
All of this can be vaguely couched as the role of "sounding board." Betty Ford called it "pillow talk." Pat Nixon said it was being a "helpmeet." Nancy Reagan simply shrugged off questions of her power by saying she was just doing what any committed and concerned spouse would do - helping her partner. Yet while she's most identified in the public imagination with her drug-abuse awareness project, Nancy Reagan's impact was greater in the intangible realm of being a loving spouse.
Likewise, Michelle Obama may prove to have a greatest impact on the presidency. The benefit of this sort of influence is that, unless she or Obama disclose their behind-closed-doors conversations, the degree of it will always, by its nature, remain intangible, noticeable to perhaps only their closest intimates. Whether it's about replacing a sofa or a Secretary of Commerce, such conferring falls within what Hillary Clinton called a "zone of privacy," and can keep a First Lady above reproach, leaving no fingerprints, stirring no public controversy. Operating more covertly may be as much a reflection of her own brief work experience in the Chicago Mayor's office as it is a desire to avoid criticism - she has little patience for the grind and games of politics. "If politics were my passion," she told a Chicago Tribune reporter five years ago, "I'd find out how to do it and make it work."
Beyond their love and children, if it's not politics that binds the Obamas, there is a fluid mutual influence in their hearkening a call to community service. It's already legendary how she first recognized Obama as different and gifted when she first witnessed his passion at a community meeting he asked her to join him in attending. But it was a similar impulse which drove her from Harvard back to her community and from a Chicago law firm to Public Allies.
If, as fellow actors, the Reagans were bound by that profession's training to help a fellow cast member if they lose focus while performing, and as law students the Clintons relished the intellectual process of arguing a case, and the Stanford geology students Herbert and Lou Hoover together translated an ancient mineralogy text, then community service is the core commitment which binds the Obamas. It was the impulse, which led them to jointly volunteer in Washington the day before the Inaugural on a "National Day of Service" instead of approving the traditional, official event honoring the new First Lady.
In all likelihood, the First Lady will continue the "Renew America Together" initiative, having listed her leadership of a national voluntary effort as one of her goals and emphasizing the January 19th call for volunteers wasn't just for that day but rather "an ongoing commitment to improving our communities and our country." It would be one of those rare First Lady projects that isn't just a component of the president's agenda but one of his personal and serious intentions as well.
The most powerful of all the delineated ways Michelle Obama can politically impact the administration and influence the president, however, is the simple but mysterious alchemy of love and support. It seems almost trite to address it - after all, the whole concept of First Lady is derivative, based solely on the fact that these women happened to be married to men who are president.
The rest of that reality, however, is one rarely comprehended in full: most of these men would never have been elected president had they not been married to these particular women). Many know the tangible facts of how First Ladies helped make their husbands presidents: Martha Washington provided enormous wealth that let George enter and remain in public service. Mary Todd's powerful Whig Party family connections gave social and political entrée to Abe. Taft never would have run for and won the presidency without the career management of his savvy and organized wife Nellie. But it is less the practical and more the emotional where the ultimate sacrifice is made, however much the riches might pour in.
Even though the majority of First Ladies before Hillary Clinton didn't have professional careers to give up so they could help their husbands pursue their ambitions, they sacrificed all claims to privacy and routine, often even better mental and physical health. All of them realized they might even sacrifice the idea of retiring with a husband. The only known remark attributed to Peggy Taylor, one of the most obscure First Ladies, was her protesting the nomination of her husband: "It is a plot to deprive me of his society and shorten his life." She was, of course, overruled - but she was right: he did after just sixteen months.
Sure, getting to the White House means they make history, live in luxury and secure greater advantages for themselves and their family's future - but it can deaden any enjoyment of living in the moment. "I've given up everything I ever cared about," Pat Nixon poignantly observed of the toll her husband's political career took. Even more wrought were those First Ladies who survived the especially stressful periods by fleeing into spheres estranged from their husbands, whether it was a place or state of mind - Louisa Adams, Jane Pierce, Ellen Wilson, Bess Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy. At the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio, among the collection of First Ladies' stylish gowns worn in their public moments of glory - far superior to the famous Smithsonian assortment - is a sad, little faded pair of wool slippers. They were knit by Ida McKinley, one among thousands of pairs she made for needy strangers who reached out to her for help. While her husband worked often late into the night down the hall, she sat for hours each day in her room, alone.
By now, the tens of thousands of still and moving images of Barack and Michelle Obama holding hands, touching foreheads, kissing, hugging, beaming at one another - along with the frequently quoted excerpts from his book about the strains that politics created in their marriage, evidence a solid union that has survived with open communication and commitment. They will need it.
Just after his ceremonial oath as Senator in 2005, as the press buzzed around him like a rock star, Michelle Obama raised a quizzical brow: shouldn't they wait and see what he does before lavishing so much attention on him? Beyond the value of keeping expectations realistic by reminding the people that he's only human, Michelle Obama's earlier habit of teasing his shortcomings in her speeches might also have helped him. Before taking the stage of the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama turned to his wife and admitted he was nervous. She looked him dead in the eye, he later wrote, quipped "Just don't screw it up, Buddy!" and hugged him. There was no turning back. Unspoken, perhaps, but both knew it.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama is almost preternaturally calm, seemingly cool under all pressure. Perhaps - but he did confess, post-election, that his promise to Michelle that he would break his dependency on cigarette smoking forever hasn't gone well. It was all his wife has asked for, personally, when he sought her support in making the run for the presidency.
However different the personalities and circumstances, at a certain primal level, the same chords sound through all these presidential marriages and most share a certain truth: First Ladies have been the emotional concrete for the presidents - even when promises to the wives are broken and it takes awhile for the depth of their strength and sacrifices to be appreciated by their husbands. Nixon wouldn't have won in 1968 had he not broken a pledge to his wife that he was done with politics, following his 1962 defeat in the California governor's race. It was not until after his wife's death that he fully disclosed his utter reliance on the woman who is today largely dismissed as inconsequential to politics:
"Just before going on T.V. for the fund broadcast in 1952, I turned to her and said, "I don't think I can do this one." She grasped my hand firmly and said, "Yes you can," and I did. In 1974, when I went into shock after an almost fatal operation, the first person I saw when I finally opened my eyes was Pat. She had been sitting by the bed for hours. I was profoundly depressed. I said, "I don't think I'm going to make it." As she had twenty-two years before, she took my hand and said, "yes you can," and I did. Had it not been for Pat, I would not have made it politically or physically.
In later years, Nixon was asked how he could have stood in the East Room and go on about his mother as a saint, express gratitude to his doggedly loyal aides and shower praise on the services of the domestic staff in the moments before he left the White House in disgrace, the only president to resign, and yet never once acknowledge - even with a glance, or turn or nod - his wife standing behind him. The depth to which he would have to go emotionally to fairly credit her, to do her justice, Nixon suggested, was so overwhelming - live cameras and eyes of the world upon him - that he would have truly broken down right there.
Nineteen years later, in 1993, as she was buried, Richard Nixon finally did just that: be broke down, sobbing openly, a starkly haunting image of a man now truly alone.
Fifteen years later, in 2008, it was about six minutes into his election victory speech that Barack Obama acknowledged the "unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life." It is progress.
Posted on: Saturday, January 31, 2009 - 21:16
SOURCE: HumanExperience (Stanford University) (1-30-09)
Barack Obama’s inauguration was for so many an awe-inspiring, historic and transnational event: It was full of grand pageantry and a good-humored pomp and circumstance that made D.C. the place to be. People were called together in many ways, and one of the more important ways they were asked to unite was over the contentious matter of race.
But it is worthwhile noting that this unlikely racial consensus was achieved through a strategic kind of absenting: Gone from the inaugural coverage were all the hand-wringing equivocations preceding the Democratic nomination about whether Obama’s person and politics went “beyond race” (and if that was a good thing or not), whether he even met the minimum standards for blackness (it was never clear who got to wield this racial measuring stick), or whether he was capitalizing on what novelist Danzy Senna calls the “mulatto millennium” of mixed-race celebrities.
Remember back when Barack was not yet vetted as black? Journalist Jonathan Weisman commented that Obama “is much more white than black.” Conservative radio show host Glenn Beck called Obama “colorless,” saying that he “might as well be white.” Rush Limbaugh daily replayed “Barack the Magic Negro,” a ditty set to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” written and performed by a white man mimicking the Rev. Al Sharpton complaining that Obama was not “authentically black.” Perhaps most humorously, African American commentator Debra Dickerson, appointing herself the gatekeeper of blackness, told a skeptical Stephen Colbert that Obama was not black at all according to her criteria. (To which Colbert responded that he was terribly disappointed; he had been so looking forward to voting for a black person).
So it is all the more striking that Obama was brought so firmly back into the racial fold—symbolically blessed first with Congressman John Lewis’ placement of Obama within the arc of the civil rights struggle in his Democratic National Convention speech, then anointed by the divine concordance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on the eve of his inauguration, and finally given a benediction by the civil rights icon Pastor Joseph Lowery that opened with lines from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem.”
When Obama became president, Barack became black again.
How did this happen? What does it mean?
This consensus about just who Obama is serves its purposes—America unites over the idea of “the first black president.” The ritual and spectacle of the music, the mega-screens, the invocations, the prayers and the poems, played and replayed around the world, formed the powerful collective representation of Obama as both president and black. At least for the moment, his political and racial statuses are unimpeachable. The inauguration was the climax of his transformation from a black suspect, to a suspect black, to mixed-race cosmopolitan, to MLK’s heir to, finally, America’s Native Son.
It is a story that both includes and excludes; as Toni Morrison advises in her essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” it is always important to consider what is “not there” in a narrative, for “certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned they call attention to themselves … like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them.”
Obama may well be figured as the main character in a shared national vision of unity, but it is important to see when and where that empowering image of communion might sometimes be enabled through the suppression of competing voices, whether they be disagreements over race, gay civil rights or anything else perceived as a challenge to the hope and the dream. Indeed, the tableaux of togetherness on the National Mall threw into greater relief HBO’s drop of the live broadcast of gay Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s pre-inauguration invocation.
These representations of Obama are all, to some degree, revelatory of our contemporary national neuroses, fantasies and investments in race. The welter of conflicting and competing images of him in text, on screen, on stage, online and in his own memoirs reflects the imaginative processes and narratives by which social realities are made and unmade. They both point to and produce changing commitments to particular ideas of race, to the sway of some racial stories over others.
Often when we talk about race, scholars reference—and rightly—the sobering health, economic and incarceration statistics associated with African American life and death. The potent images of Obama’s inauguration also suggest that overcoming racism is not simply a matter of recognizing and righting structural inequities but also, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued repeatedly, of exploring how profoundly representation shapes the national psyche.
Posted on: Saturday, January 31, 2009 - 14:34
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (1-30-09)
Everyone who has followed the Gaza war should read M.J.'s brave and necessary post, just below this one. I'm less hopeful than he that American news media are focusing on the suffering in Gaza, which requires and delivers little more political enlightenment than does their coverage of any other disaster. Still, Israel's long, incoherent, destructive strategy for Palestinians comes into some focus with the images of 1.5 million people in a holding pen, as I noted here on January 4. So where does Israel go from here?
True, history cuts both ways. Soon we may learn that Hamas has tortured, maimed, or killed hundreds of Palestinians since Israelis left on Jan. 20. Slowly, American bleeding hearts will stop bleeding. The tragedy is that Israel's parliamentary democracy -- in which even the briefly-banned Arab parties will participate on Feb. 10 thanks to a Supreme Court unlike any other in the Middle East -- doesn't seem able to short-circuit the country's own part in this destructive spiral.
Israeli voters seem traumatized, paranoid. They can't blame only Hamas' and Hezbollah' obvious totalitarian and nihilistic streak, including the loathsome suicide bombings of 2002 and 2003, which some of Israel's critics oddly never mention. These nihilists have done much to push matters beyond the point of no return.
But not they alone. A lot must be blamed on Israel's excessive courting of big-power gamesmanship, against which Hannah Arendt warned so presciently; its rapacious market priorities (including arms markets); and its bone-headed citizenship, religious, and settlement policies, which have ratcheted up racism even (sometimes especially) among the 40% of Israeli Jews whose parents or grandparents grew up speaking Arabic in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
The cold bottom line is that for 40 years Israelis have tried to reduce Palestinians in the territories to the condition of American Indians, a defeated people surviving on smaller and smaller reservations or, at best, Bantustans. Where was the Marshall Plan or the confederative economic, EU-style effort backed by Israel (and the US)? I see only gestures and bromides along those lines from the three leading candidates in the Feb. 10 elections.
As the Gaza War raged this month, Michael Walzer, a political philosopher who edits a small journal called Dissent, lectured its readers on the proper use of the term"proportionality" in assessing the calculated relation of means to ends in Israel's venture. Walzer might now turn his talents to elucidate the proportionality of means to ends in Israel's policies toward Palestinians since 1967.
If Walzer would have us sideline the conflict's emotional and moral dimensions in order to think strategically, can he do it to help us see, factually and strategically, what Israel's intentions and conduct toward the Palestinians have been since 1967? Can he show us the tough choices and hopeful efforts that Israel made and that he supported, only to see them thwarted by unbending Arab rage?
Can Walzer recount how leaders of Labor, if not Likud, tried to nudge Israelis toward an understanding that Israel could survive only if Palestinians were enabled to build something better than Bantustans and Indian reservations? If he can't do that, could he please stop urging we understand proportionality as a calculated relation of means to ends?
The ineradicable difference between American Indians and Palestinians, of course, is that demographically and politically the tide is on the side of the latter. Israel can survive as a Jewish fortress state if it becomes like Singapore-- as an increasingly authoritarian, racist society garrisoned against surrounding threats and desperation. Otherwise it will have to consider possibilities like those suggested by Seyla Benhabib in a recent essay,"What is Israel's End Game?", that is getting the attention it deserves.
Every step Israel takes in the direction of Singapore is killing off its beautiful, even unprecedented, social-democratic experiment with a rich confluence of cultures, including those of its Palestinian citizens and the Arabic strains in much of Israel's Jewish life. I have little patience with critics of Israel who know nothing about this and want to know less. If they knew more, their hearts would be bleeding out of both sides.
But I do hope that the shift in American public opinion which M.J. describes will strengthen President Obama's ability to send strong signals in the next few days that re-open Israeli political debate, and leadership, between now and the Feb. 10 elections. Otherwise, Israel will become a society that is harder to defend, and even to love.
Posted on: Friday, January 30, 2009 - 18:41
SOURCE: National Review Online (1-28-09)
1) It is never wise to contrast negatively American efforts in the region ("dictating") with those of a Saudi monarch ("courageous")—one could in theory draw the conclusion that the unelected head of a theocratic autocracy was portrayed more favorably than the U.S. State Department ("the United States").
2) There is no reason to be apologetic about past U.S. policy or to question recent generic bipartisan initiatives. Worse still, Obama offers little mention that the U.S. in fact has a far better record toward Muslims than does a Europe, China, Russia, etc. (cf. freeing Kuwait, giving help to the Somalis, bombing European Christians to save Balkan Muslims, billions in aid to the Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians, fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, tsunami relief, liberal immigration policy, lectures to Russia about its horrific treatment of Chechnya, helping to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, etc). The problem with the Muslim Middle East transcends what we do, and its pathologies—statism, autocracy, religious intolerance, gender apartheid, tribalism, lack of human rights, and constitutional government—are mostly self-inflicted, rather than the result of American insensitivity. If there is no need for a president to mention all of these obvious and embarrasing problems, then in the same manner there is no need to apologize for U.S. policy.
3) We are now confused about the rules of evocation of Obama's multicultural identities: during the campaign many learned it was quite illiberal to mention his middle name, his Muslim father, his exotic Indonesian connection, etc. To do so was to suggest that he was perhaps somehow less genuine or properly traditional than the typical square American (although those rules were adjudicated by Obama himself who often drew on "difference" when politically advantageous). But now he seems to be telling the Arab world that they can relate to him, by virtue of his unique identity, in ways they have not with a more stereotyped American president. (Do we wish to go there—as if an Asian president might better connect with Japan or a Swedish-American with Sweden?)...
Posted on: Thursday, January 29, 2009 - 22:05
SOURCE: NYT (1-24-09)
GOVERNMENT and markets both have their place in a decent society, President Obama suggested in his Inaugural Address, but can become a force for ill if they are without restraint. Missing from Mr. Obama’s address was only the proper name of the political philosophy, coded into the constitutional DNA of the United States, that proposes this and other balances: liberalism.
Like many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary political discourse in the United States understands why.
Just over 20 years ago, a group of leading American intellectuals, gathered by the historian Fritz Stern, placed an advertisement in this very paper trying to defend the word “liberalism” against its abuse by Ronald Reagan and others on the American right. It was in vain. Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting — to put the matter a tad frivolously — some unholy marriage of big government and fornication.
This weird usage leads, at the extreme, to book titles like “Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism.” But it infects the mainstream too. Asked during a primary debate to define “liberal,” and say if she was one, Hillary Clinton replied that a word originally associated with a belief in freedom had unfortunately come to mean favoring big government. So, she concluded, “I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning.” This implies that the meaning of “liberal” must be unreal, un-American, or possibly both.
The United States is not the only place where “liberalism” is fiercely contested. In a recent conference at Oxford, with speakers from the Americas, Europe, India, Japan and China, we explored what we deliberately called “Liberalisms.” Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as “liberalism” in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or “fiscal conservative” strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce “liberalism,” they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)...
John McWhorter: Lib and Let Die
Posted on: Thursday, January 29, 2009 - 21:38
SOURCE: Sandbox, a blog run by Martin Kramer (1-29-09)
[The cease-fire] required both parties to refrain from violent action against the other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad... and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted assassinations and military incursions.Correct. But only a couple of paragraphs earlier, he set up the cease-fire as an entirely differently deal—and accused Israel of violating it:
Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the truce, it tightened it further.Therefore according to Siegman, Israel violated the cease-fire before Hamas fired a single rocket, by reneging on its supposed commitment to ease sanctions. Rashid Khalidi, writing in the New York Times, went even further: "Lifting the blockade," he wrote, "along with a cessation of rocket fire, was one of the key terms of the June cease-fire between Israel and Hamas." (My emphasis.)
None of this is true.
First of all, contra Khalidi, Israel did not agree to "lifting" of the "blockade," only to easing it. At the time, the Economistreported the cease-fire thus (my emphasis):
The two sides agreed to start with three days of calm. If that holds, Israel will allow some construction materials and merchandise into Gaza, slightly easing an economic blockade that it has imposed since Hamas wrested control of the strip.And Israel did just that: it slightly eased the sanctions on some construction materials and merchandise. Siegman falsely claims that Israel "tightened" its "throttlehold" on Gaza after the cease-fire, and that this is confirmed by "every neutral international observer and NGO." Untrue. The numbers refuting him appear in the last PalTrade (Palestine Trade Center) report on the Gaza terminals, published on November 19, as part of its "Cargo Movement and Access Monitoring and Reporting Project." The report says the following (my emphasis):
Following the announcement of the truce 'hudna' on June 19, 2008 and took effect on June 22, a slight improvement occurred in terms of terminals operation times, types of goods, and truckloads volume that [Israel] allowed to enter Gaza Strip.
This is exactly what Israel had agreed to permit. Here is the table from the PalTrade report, comparing average monthly imports before the Hamas coup (June 12, 2007), between the coup and the "truce," and then after (i.e., during) the "truce" (through October 31). (If you can't see the table below, click here).
As is obvious from this table, Israel did ease sanctions during the cease-fire. The average number of truckloads per month entering Gaza during the cease-fire rose by 50 percent over the period before the cease-fire, and Israel also allowed the import of some aggregates and cement, formerly prohibited. (No metal allowed, of course—it's used to make rockets.) Israel did not allow more fuel, but the PalTrade report notes that fuel brought from Egypt through the tunnels "somewhat made up the deficit of fuel that entered through Nahal Oz entry point." (For Israel's own day-by-day, crossing-by-crossing account of what went into Gaza during the cease-fire, go here. This account also puts the increase of merchandise entering Gaza at 50 percent.)
Why do the Khalidi and Siegman errors (or lies, if made knowingly) matter now? If you believe Khalidi's claim that the last cease-fire included "lifting the blockade," you might say: why shouldn't Israel agree to lift it in this one? Or if you believe Siegman's claim that Israel tightened the sanctions at the crossings during the cease-fire, you might say: Israel shortchanged the Palestinians once, so the next deal on the crossings has to have international guarantees. But in both cases, you'd be relying on entirely bogus claims.
Israel has a compelling strategic reason to keep the sanctions in place. (I say sanctions and not blockade, because Israel doesn't control the Egyptian-Gazan border, and so cannot impose a true blockade.) Israel's sanctions are meant to squeeze the "resistance" out of the Hamas regime—and, if possible, to break its monopoly on power in Gaza. Unless these goals are met, at least in part, it's lights-out for any peace process. And as long as sanctions don't create extreme humanitarian crises—as opposed to hardships—they're a perfectly legitimate tool. It was sanctions that ended apartheid in South Africa, kept Saddam from reconsituting his WMD programs, got Qadhafi to give up his WMD, and might (hope against hope) stop Iran's nuclear program.
Hamas owes everything not to its feeble "resistance," but to the tendency of the weak of will or mind to throw it lifelines. It's now demanding that the sanctions be lifted, and the usual chorus is echoing the cynical claims of a tyrannical and terrorist regime that shows no mercy toward its opponents, Israeli or Palestinian. Supporters of peace shouldn't acquiesce in another bailout of its worst enemy. It's time to break the cycle, and make it clear beyond doubt that the Hamas bubble has burst. The way to do that is to keep the sanctions in place.
Posted on: Thursday, January 29, 2009 - 17:46
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (1-28-09)
Why did this happen?
For years, reproductive justice activists have argued that the religious right's real agenda is not just to eliminate abortion, but to end the historic rupture between sex and reproduction that took place in the 20th century.
I understand why that rupture is unsettling. Ironically, I was on my way to lecture about Margaret Sanger in my history course at U.C. Berkeley when I heard the news. Sanger was vilified for wanting to give women the choice of when or whether to bear children. In short, she challenged all of human history by proposing an historic rupture between sexuality and the goal of reproduction. Iif reproduction ceased to be the goal, sexuality might become yoked to pleasure and that is quite unsettling to many Americans.
That is the legacy the religious right has fought against, and it's that agenda that cut funding for family planning.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said,"How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?"
Well, here's the answer. First, the package is filled with health care services, many of which will help uninsured citizens, but not stimulate the economy. Family planning services for poor women and girls is also health care. So those who argue it's no big deal should realize that the package is filled with health care services, with the exception of family planning.
Secondly, family planning actually does save the government money. The Congressional Budget Office reported that by the third year of implementation, the measure would actually save $100 billion per year by preventing unwanted pregnancies and avoiding the Medicaid cost of delivering and then caring for these babies. The same CBO report found the House version of the stimulus would have a"noticeable impact on economic growth and employment in the next few years, with much of the mandatory spending for Medicaid and other programs likely to occur in the next 19 to 20 months." During the first three years, the CBO report said, the cost and savings are negligible.
Finally, think about the women and girls we are discussing. Consider the teenage girl who's sexually active. What happens to the economy when she bears a child without the means to support it? Conversely, what happens when she finishes her education, enters the labor force, earns a salary, and pays taxes? Do we want an unemployed poor woman to have more children than she can already feed, or do we want her to have access to contraception, get her life back on track, and hopefully find work,instead of raising another child she cannot afford at this time?
This decision was an unnecessary political capitulation to Republicans. According to the AP and the Austin American-Statesman, the president was" courting Republican critics of the legislation" who had argued that contraception is not about stimulus or growth. Unfortunately, too many people have uncritically accepted that argument. But many others have noted that the package is filled with provisions for health care, which certainly includes family planning. Many other provisions, moreover, are also not growth-oriented, and yet it was poor women's bodies that Democrats bartered for the approval and votes from Republicans that they don't need and will seldom get.
That same morning, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asked"Why anyone listens to [Republicans]?" Why, indeed. They want the Democrats to fail. They want the new president to fail. And so they described women's bodies as"pork" and asked that the funding be cut for contraception.
Women's groups are legitimately outraged at what has happened. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America called the measure a"victim of misleading attacks and partisan politics." Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, said:"Family planners are devastated that President Obama and Congress have decided to take funding for critical family planning services out of the stimulus. Their willingness to abandon the millions of families across the country who are in need is devastating."
"The Medicaid Family Planning State Option fully belonged in the economic recovery package," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center."The Republican leadership opposition to the provision shows how out of touch they are with what it takes to ensure the economic survival of working women and their families."
While Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) defended the measure as recently as last Sunday, President Barack Obama and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, bowed to Republican pressure and agreed to drop the measure. And although the Senate has not yet voted, it's unlikely that funding for expanded family planning will be approved. In short, the Democrats decided it just wasn't worth fighting about. According to the Washington Wire, one House Democratic aide said,"It ended up being a distraction and it will be removed."
So, poor women who want reproductive health care and contraception are both"pork" and a"distraction." Is this the change we have dreamed about?
President Obama certainly believes in contraception for poor women and girls on Medicaid. He won the election, as he recently pointed out. He doesn't have to cave in to Republican demands to restrict women's choices and health care.
The best way he and Democrats can handle this terribly misguided decision is to pass legislation to fund expanded family planning as soon as possible, before half the population wakes up and realizes that once again, women have been treated as expendable, and that their bodies have been bartered for political expediency.
This article first appeared on Religious Dispatches. www.religiousdispatches.org
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 21:04
SOURCE: OPen Democracy (1-21-09)
I Russia's rulers behave like a government of occupation. So why do the people support them uncritically?
In recent months we have witnessed a series of actions from the Russian government that seem at first glance paradoxical. I will list some of the most important:
- for the first time since the withdrawal
of the Soviet army from Afghanistan, Russian armed forces began and ended a
"real" (not "cold") war" outside
Russia (in Georgia);
- for the first time since the collapse
of the USSR, strategic bombers and ships of the Russian armed forces and navy
have been sent to Latin America.
- the return to "cold war" rhetoric has
reached the point where the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs used obscene
expressions when talking with a foreign (British) colleague
- Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol
fought in the Black Sea against Georgia, in defiance of the Ukrainian
president's ban on deploying them without informing Ukraine;
- Prime Minister Putin played the atomic
blackmail card against the Czech Republic and Poland, using that "special" KGB way
of his, loaded and enigmatic.
- with the blatant and increasing polarisation
in the material wealth of the Russian population, the military budget has been
increased by almost 30%;
- the President of Russia welcomed the election of the new US President with a promise that he would station rockets in the Kaliningrad Oblast which would threaten America's European allies.
These things seem paradoxical. After all, we're living in a nuclear age.
None of these events fit into the contemporary picture. Yet they can all be explained unparadoxically. However, in my opinion, this explanation will be even gloomier and more alarming than the "apparent paradoxes", the reality which is, as it were, shrouded in mist.
Take a look at what is happening before our very eyes. Take a good, hard look at it - realistically, rationally, in its historical context. If you do that, you start thinking you've gone mad, or at least that you're well on the way to it.
If these thoughts seem altogether too terrifying or strange, if you're so confident of your mental state that you can dismiss them, then what you what you are feeling will be no less terrible. For you will be feeling the void enveloping you.
A government of occupation
It is not an absolute void, of course. Here and there, however rarely, you can still find people who see things more or less as you do. For me, they are like shining lights. I try to take a steer from them in the darkness.
But even then the feeling of emptiness remains. For it has more than one cause. The problem is not just the government. If this were the case, then the darkness could at least partly be dispelled by understanding - even the grimmest actions of the authorities can at least be understood. However, even once you've done that you can't dispel that feeling of emptiness, because you don't know what to do with your understanding.
If you think things through properly, if you interpret them rigorously, the government's behaviour can only really be explained as alienated from its people. It is a government of occupation, a "Golden Horde" that is illegitimate and criminal as well.
Even when you are quite sure, even when your ideas are well-founded and supported by the facts, where do you turn to with this understanding? Obvious, you would think: you turn not to the government, but to the people.
II Understanding the terrible enthusiasm of the masses
But turning to the people only makes the emptiness worse. For the emptiness is coming from there too, from those "masses" at whom the grim actions of the authorities are directed. Those "masses" are not just putting up with the actions of the authorities in silence. They have started supporting them enthusiastically, as they did in the 1930s.
What makes matters worse is that it has happened before, this enthusiastic response of the masses to being manipulated and ridden roughshod over: it happened before the First World War and immediately after it. Then, the people and the Bolsheviks were so close that it is still not clear who gave whom more support and who was directing whom. But we do more or less know what the result of this coming together was. We know that it was lasting and fatal for both sides - vis the year 1991.
At the same time, we also know that the Russian people has never regarded the state as "a friend", and the normal response to state coercion has always been cunning, wiles, and finding ways around the law. While appearing to toe the line and be submissive, the people have always kept a clenched fist in their pockets. These outward signs of submissiveness and obedience were regarded (and still are) as a predisposition for patient endurance, and this habit can, if we wish, be interpreted as the people's support for the government.
At the moment Putin and his president appear to enjoy universal support. As the slogan, doggedly and regrettably repeated in Russia goes: "The people and the government are one". What this means is that neither the government nor the people have a modern, rational understanding of what either one or the other. It is not just the government that is questionable in this respect, but the people too. They have not yet started playing an active role in their own history. They remain a mass, a crowd. It's only in the last 18-20 years that the amorphous, atomized Russian-Soviet mass has started to become structured. But alas, the result is not the development of a civil society, but of something more like criminal clans.
Some may find this concept upsetting. They'll be inclined to conclude that "with your ideas about the people, you're never going to get through to them". I understand this. That's why I say that we're facing the void here too.
Over many centuries, our people have endured sufferings which, as Karamzin put it, "you have to be villainous to endure". Hence the cunning, wiles and dual morality. But at the end of the 18th century, Karamzin was not to know that for the Russian people the greatest sufferings and the most morally corrupting consequences were yet to come.
From time to time we rose up against intolerable sufferings and the government. Once a century, with Razin, Pugachev or Lenin we celebrated our "wild freedom". Then we put our clenched fist back in our pockets and returned to our customary brutish existence.
Some people regarded these uprisings, joyfully or cynically, as an awakening. But in their sufferings, reckless protests, and savage anger, our people remained and remain a mass. A crowd that is worthy of sympathy and quiet sorrow, a crowd that is sometimes terrifying and loathsome. This is why the only people who have been able to get through to them in their usual state of unconsciousness, their permanent readiness for rebellion have been Lenin and Stalin, then Yeltsin and Putin. Who knows,perhaps in the near future someone like Zhirinovsky and Limonov may be able to do so too?
III The intelligentsia, as unfree today as in the past
The feeling of emptiness only gets worse when you try and get to grips with the views held by our creative and other intelligentsia, when you try and make out its voice and civic position.
This permits of many variations, and here and there, rarely, a few shining lights. For me, for example, one of them today is the film director Alexei German. But they are like lights in the darkness, in the biblical sense: the light either breaks through the darkness, or the darkness swallows it. This is what has happened in our history, alas, and in our time. The emptiness became even worse after the murders of Dmitry Kholodov, LarisaYudina, Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya and Magomed Evloev, after Andrei Piontkovsky was charged with "extremism" and Mikhail Beketov was brutally beaten up.
The emptiness gets even worse if you try and listen to our contemporary intellectuals not so much as individuals, but collectively, as the distinct voice of a particular "ethnos", or ethnic group. In short, our intellectuals today (except for a handful of outstanding people) are on the side of the government, not of the wider population. In my view this is the main reason why the population are still merely "the population", and have not become a "people".
If anything, the feeling of emptiness emanating from our intelligentsia gets worse when you consider the tradition of the last hundred years or more. This is something which it is not done to discuss out loud or to write about it as something that really exists and is understood down to the last detail. Thus the very problem of "the tradition of the Russian intelligentsia", vanishes into the void, enveloped in darkness.
This is not accident. This too can be explained....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 20:13
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (1-28-09)
The inauguration of Barack Obama had barely begun before Americans across the political spectrum started talking about the historic nature and meaning of the event. Indeed, the election of Obama represents, for the thronging millions in Washington at the very least, a seismic shift in American politics. 2008 will surely go down in history as the year of what the noted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called a critical presidential election that should result in a lasting political realignment. In this sense, the Age of Obama, a moniker Gwen Ifill has used to describe the increasingly interracial appeal of African American politicians, can also be understood in the manner American historians use the terms the Age of Jackson or the Age of Lincoln. If the former was the fulfillment of white men's democracy, the latter portended the interracial democracy we celebrate today. Like Jeffersonian democracy, Jacksonian democracy or the Age of FDR, this latest version of American democracy will forever bear the imprimatur of Barack Obama.
However, while others look to historical precedents for Obama's presidency, what struck me the most was the break he represents from the past. Jefferson may have said"We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans" in his inaugural speech, but he and James Madison nearly drove New England Federalists to secession from the Union. Similarly, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren unleashed a ruthless"spoils system," which rewarded only the party faithful. Abraham Lincoln's presidency started with a nation even more severely divided over the issue of slavery. With only a plurality of the popular vote, Lincoln presided over a broken Union facing the deep rooted opposition of most southern slaveholders and Northern Democratic copperheads. Closer to our times, John F. Kennedy barely won the Presidency in 1961. And Republicans would never forgive Franklin Delano Roosevelt for creating a Democratic majority that consigned their ideology and politics to a permanent minority status for decades.
The Civil Rights movement and its aftermath only exacerbated matters. Ronald Reagan, who ironically was a Roosevelt Democrat before turning into a conservative warrior, was nothing if not the revenge Republicans extracted for years in political oblivion. The Age of Reagan then led to the unraveling of modern liberalism and the political eclipse of its vehicle, the Democratic party. Interestingly enough while the words of Lincoln and Jefferson earned sustained applause from the massive audience at Obama's inaugural concert, the rather bland quote from Reagan which hardly described the Gipper's political beliefs earned barely a clap. The silence in that huge open air arena was deafening. Similarly, the boos that greeted former President George W. Bush at the inauguration marred the otherwise courteous and orderly nature of the ceremony.
The contrast to Obama could not be starker. In an unprecedented show of affection, his countrymen, those who voted for and against him, have launched his presidency with an over eighty per cent approval rating. In the meantime, Obama has assiduously courted his opponents, renouncing partisanship but not principle, calling on the patriotism of all Americans to face the challenges before us. His personal interactions with the former President have been unfailingly cordial, even as he resolutely distanced his policies and ideas from that of his predecessor in his inaugural speech. It is not -- as David Brooks would have us believe -- the end of ideology, but rather the end of a kind of partisan politics that has divided this country for most of its history. It is the start of a new political civility but also the revival of a very old American ideology, republicanism.
Obama in fact harked back to the founding generation's, especially George Washington's, fears of the divisive nature of political parties and factions epitomized in his farewell address to the nation. His inaugural speech, with its evocation of"old" virtues and the founding ideas of American republicanism ironically reinforced the new political style the Forty Fourth President hopes to bring to Washington. Nearly all American Presidents have appealed to American freedom and the country's founding ideals. But in Obama's case that seemingly sappy, patriotic appeal is the basis of a new politics. Pragmatic politically, his speech revealed a true believer in the republican insistence on putting the common good before one's individual self-interest. It was a very effective repudiation of laissez-faire individualism, the basis of modern conservatism in America. And that is why his call to responsible citizenship resonated among a broad majority of Americans regardless of political and religious affiliation or ethnic origin. Obama emphatically repudiated Reaganomics and the politics of racial and social division, whose bankruptcy, literally and figuratively, is now apparent for all except Congressional Republicans to see. As he pithily put it,"I won."
In short, this inauguration was like no other in American history. No memorable sound bites,"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" or"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," emerged from it. Instead like Lincoln's speeches, there were several themes drawn out to meet the challenges of the day and like his favorite American President, Obama argued that the founding values of American republicanism should be the only bedrock over which to base the shifting sands of politics and the compromise-ridden world of policy. It was not just Lincoln's Bible but his political and moral sensibility that Obama has self-consciously and deliberately adopted.
Obama's inauguration speech looked backward to history as a guide to the future. Even more than the Declaration that he cited briefly, he gave us a new and updated version of Thomas Paine's appeal to universal humanity and citizenship that characterized The Crisis essays, Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the revolutionary founding documents of American and western republicanism. Unlike most of his predecessors, who remained bound within the national confines of American political discourse even when they appealed to internationalism like Woodrow Wilson, our first transnational President conveyed an inclusive and global meaning to American democracy. Like the leftist popular culture of the 1930s, Obama insisted that our so-called racial, national and religious diversity is a source of strength rather than weakness. Just as he argued that racial reconciliation was seared in his genetic make-up, this son of an African immigrant, step son of an Indonesian father, brother in law to an Asian Canadian, whose cabinet picks reflect the multi-racial and multi-national composition of the American republic today, called on Americans and those outside America to be citizens of the world. It was not a superficial announcement that"America was back" or even merely the"leader of the free world" but a fundamentally new approach to global citizenship where poverty, hunger, disease, and sustainability shall be our common tasks. That he said was the answer to fratricide and violence, the destructive enemy of not just the United States of America but all humanity. To the billions who watched him around the globe, President Obama had a special message and they heard him. We are all Americans in the Age of Obama.
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 18:17
SOURCE: Far Eastern Economic Review (1-28-09)
In this look back at some of the best accessible China books of 2008, just think of me as your personal Amazon.com, a bundler of titles that go well together. For my approach here will not be the usual one of focusing on single works, but rather that of creating thematic pairs of books that are particularly effective when read together.
My pairs will be a bit more adventuresome than those often found on the real Amazon sites. For example, I won't suggest, as Amazon's UK site does, that purchasers of former journalist Catherine Sampson’s latest whodunit, "The Slaughter Pavilion" (Macmillan), should also order the same author's 2007 "Pool of Unease" (Macmillan), her first novel to include action set in the PRC, where she now lives. Nor will I encourage, as Amazon.com does, purchasers of Michael Meyer’s "The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed" (Walker Books), an excellent book of reportage, should also pick up Leslie T. Chang’s "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" (Spiegel and Grau), about which the same thing can be said.
I've no quarrel with people going from one Sampson mystery to another, or buying Meyer and Chang's books, each of which I reviewed very positively in Newsweek last year. But sometimes there's more to be gained by crossing lines between genres or reading side-by-side authors who seem at first to have little in common. I'll illustrate this by suggesting off-beat companions for these three very fine recent China books: Philip P. Pan’s "Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul a New China" (Simon and Schuster), Rana Mitter’s "Modern China: A Very Short Introduction" (Oxford), and Lynn Pan’s "Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars" (Long River). The result will be a set of book pairs that might be called: “China Noir,” “China Past and Present” and “China Cosmopolitan."
China Noir. Philip Pan’s "Out of Mao’s Shadow" grew out of the stories he filed while covering China for the Washington Post (he’s since moved on to the Moscow bureau), and it is a carefully researched work of political journalism. The obvious thing to pair with it would be another nonfiction study of Chinese politics. I’ll suggest here, though, that it goes very nicely with the British-born and now Beijing-based Catherine Sampson's "Slaughter Pavilion," a crime novel, albeit one whose author used to cover China for the BBC. There is much that differentiates the books from one another, beyond genre. Philip Pan offers up set of only loosely connected tales, for example, while Sampson’s narrative threads end up tied together.
Still, there are important intersections between the books. Each draws on a deep familiarity with the PRC. Corruption and repression figure in both. And though Philip Pan insists that he remains hopeful about China’s future (due to the faith he has that brave individuals, like several he profiles, can make a difference even when the odds are stacked against them), each author stresses the dark side of recent trends. Read together, they make a powerful brief for a bleak view of the PRC.
China Past and Present. Several worthy 2008 books provide a more upbeat assessment of the present and "Modern China: A Very Short Introduction" can be placed in this category. Its author, Oxford historian Rana Mitter, does not view contemporary China through rose-colored glasses, but after finishing his latest book, readers will likely feel more positive about the PRC’s prospects than will those who have just put down "Out of Mao’s Shadow" or "Slaughter Pavilion." One of the book’s most interesting features is the emphasis that Mitter puts on continuities between the Republican era (1912-1949), especially the part when Chiang Kai-shek was in power (1928-1949), and the Communist period. While noting breaks and ruptures, he emphasizes enduring goals (modernization), strategies (nationalistic rhetoric) and flaws (authoritarian tendencies) that connect Chiang to the Communist Party leaders who’ve run China since 1949.
This makes Modern China particularly interesting to read beside Frank Dikotter’s "The Age of Openness: China before Mao" (University of California). Dikotter also links the Republican era to the Communist one. But his thesis is that much was basically right about the country during the decades immediately preceding 1949 (China was far more open to currents from the West then, he insists, and far less tightly controlled), and has been basically wrong ever since (especially but not only when Mao ruled).
Each book is short and lively. In addition, each makes effective use of intriguing examples—even though these sometimes are used to buttress arguments that specialists may feel, as I did occasionally with "Age of Openness" in particular, are made a bit too starkly, pushed a bit too far, or overstate the novelty of the author’s position.
Chinese Cosmopolitanism. Lynn Pan’s "Shanghai Style" has all of the strengths of the author’s previous publications, several of which have also focused on the city in which she was born (before it was under Communist Party control) and now again calls home (after a long period spent based in other places, including London and Hong Kong). The prose is lovely: especially the opening conjuring up Old Shanghai effect on first-time visitors. And the claims are backed up by meticulous research: even though, as in most of her others book (some published under the name of “Pan Ling”), she eschews the standard trappings of academic publications. Her main theme in "Shanghai Style" is that architects, painter, cartoonists, and other artistically minded Chinese residents of the city, during the heyday of its era as an international treaty-port, embraced and developed a very special aesthetic that was both locally and nationally rooted and robustly cosmopolitan.
A particularly good book to pair with it is literary critic Xiaobing Tang’s "Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement" (University of California). This is because woodcuts are the most important visual form that flourished in China between the wars that Shanghai Style ignores. She does so intentionally, noting in her last chapter that they are a special case: though the woodcuts were often produced in Shanghai and were influenced by international currents, they were not shaped by the same distinctive local aesthetic that influenced the other genres of visual culture that concern her.
Pan and Tang's books fall at very different points on the popular-to-academic spectrum of serious publications, with the footnote-free Shanghai Style standing at one end, the theoretically minded "Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde" near the other. Still, both have much to offer specialist and non-specialist readers alike, in part because each has been beautifully produced and comes with many evocative illustrations, showcasing the works of internationally minded Chinese creative figures of the first half of the 20th century.
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 18:01
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (1-28-09)
The transcript of President Obama's interview on al-Arabiya Television (Dubai)is at the latter's site and I will mirror it here, below.
Just a few quick observations. Obama emphasized respect for the Muslim world, affirmed that the United States is not its enemy, and that, on the contrary, Washington has a stake in the well-being and prosperity of the Muslim world. He underlined that he has Muslim relatives and had lived in the largest Muslim country, Indonesia, as a child. So he established some strong connections.
He also implicitly condemned the rhetoric of"Islamic fascism" used by the Bush administration and Republican politicians more generally from September of 2006. He made a firm distinction between violent groups like al-Qaeda, which he said existed in every religion, and other movements. (I take it he was saying not all fundamentalists are terrorists.) He reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing from Iraq and to closing the prison camp at Guantanamo and ending the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding.
Obama said he thought al-Qaeda is pretty nervous about his having become president, and condemned them as a group that just destroys things without building anything or making anyone's life better. The implication is that Obama is not a polarizing figure in the Muslim world, and since al-Qaeda is all about polarization and sowing massive conflict, its task just got a lot harder-- helping explain the organization's vehement attacks on Obama.
Cont'd (click below or on" comments")
Obama praised the 2002 peace plan offered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which proposed a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab League states based on an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders. He affirmed that a Palestinian state is still feasible that is" contiguous." He meant that it would be contiguous in the West Bank. The only way you get a contiguous state in the West Bank is frankly by moving Israeli settlements, which I think is highly unlikely, especially if Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party becomes prime minister. You would also have to undo the division of the West Bank into cantons by Israeli superhighways and checkpoints. You'd have to get the Israelis to give up control of the water, land and borders of the West Bank.
Obama still has said very little about the Gaza War or the issue of the Israeli government's callous disregard for civilian life in that operation, an omission that rankles in the Muslim world and which contrasts even to Israeli politicians such as Meretz figure Shulamit Aloni.
I fear I think 60 Minutes was more realistic in concluding that the 2-state solution is dead. Netanyahu has vowed to expand Israeli colonies on the West Bank if he gets in.
Obama seemed well informed about some of the realities of the Middle East. But he for some odd reason just has a blind spot when it comes to Iran. He said:
"Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past."
So, Iran has not threatened to do anything practical to Israel. Its leaders have prayed for it to collapse the way the Soviet Union did, and generally talk insultingly about it, but that is different from threatening to invade with tanks or something. Iran's leaders consistently deny that they are seeking a nuclear weapon, maintaining they only want peaceful nuclear power plants. (They may be lying, but you have to acknowledge what they say, at least). When Bush said that Iran had vowed to get a nuclear bomb, we laughed at him. And the main thing American politicians seem to mean when they accuse Iran of supporting terrorism is that it backs the Lebanese Hizbullah Party, which hasn't done anything that qualifies as international terrorism for a decade at least. (Being a national liberation movement and working against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory was not terrorism in international law.) At least, Obama put the 'support of terrorism' clause in the past tense (was he thinking of the 1980s and early 1990s?) and avoided the odd rhetoric of Condi Rice, who branded Iran the biggest supporter of terrorism in the world; wouldn't that be al-Qaeda?
At least Obama reaffirmed his willingness to talk to Iran, in contrast to Bush.
The video is at YouTube-- Part I:
and Part II:
Here is the full transcript:
Q: Mr. President, thank you for this opportunity, we really appreciate it.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much.
Q: Sir, you just met with your personal envoy to the Middle East, Senator Mitchell. Obviously, his first task is to consolidate the cease-fire. But beyond that you've been saying that you want to pursue actively and aggressively peacemaking between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Tell us a little bit about how do you see your personal role, because, you know, if the President of the United States is not involved, nothing happens – as the history of peace making shows. Will you be proposing ideas, pitching proposals, parameters, as one of your predecessors did? Or just urging the parties to come up with their own resolutions, as your immediate predecessor did?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.
And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the
United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues --and we don't always know all the factors that are involved. So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.
Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what's best for them. They're going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table.
And it's going to be difficult, it's going to take time. I don't want to prejudge many of these issues, and I want to make sure that expectations are not raised so that we think that this is going to be resolved in a few months. But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States -- working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region -- I'm absolutely certain that we can make significant progress.
Q: You've been saying essentially that we should not look at these issues -- like the Palestinian-Israeli track and separation from the border region -- you've been talking about a kind of holistic approach to the region. Are we expecting a different paradigm in the sense that in the past one of the critiques -- at least from the Arab side, the Muslim side -- is that everything the Americans always tested with the Israelis, if it works. Now there is an Arab peace plan, there is a regional aspect to it. And you've indicated that. Would there be any shift, a paradigm shift?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here's what I think is important. Look at the proposal that was put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia --
THE PRESIDENT: I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage --
THE PRESIDENT: -- to put forward something that is as significant as that.
I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.
I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These things are interrelated. And what I've said, and I think Hillary Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.
Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.
And so what we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs.
Q: I want to ask you about the broader Muslim world, but let me – one final thing about the Palestinian-Israeli theater. There are many Palestinians and Israelis who are very frustrated now with the current conditions and they are losing hope, they are disillusioned, and they believe that time is running out on the two-state solution because – mainly because of the settlement activities in Palestinian-occupied territories.
Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state -- and you know the contours of it -- within the first Obama administration?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.
And, look, I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves? And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security? And if we can keep our focus on making their lives better and look forward, and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past, then I think that we have an opportunity to make real progress.
Obama praised Saudi King Abdullah for his Middle East peace plan
But it is not going to be easy, and that's why we've got George Mitchell going there. This is somebody with extraordinary patience as well as extraordinary skill, and that's what's going to be necessary.
Q: Absolutely. Let me take a broader look at the whole region. You are planning to address the Muslim world in your first 100 days from a Muslim capital. And everybody is speculating about the capital. (Laughter) If you have anything further, that would be great. How concerned are you -- because, let me tell you, honestly, when I see certain things about America -- in some parts, I don't want to exaggerate -- there is a demonization of America.
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
Q: It's become like a new religion, and like a new religion it has new converts -- like a new religion has its own high priests.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q: It's only a religious text.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q: And in the last -- since 9/11 and because of Iraq, that alienation is wider between the Americans and -- and in generations past, the United States was held high. It was the only Western power with no colonial legacy.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q: How concerned are you and -- because people sense that you have a different political discourse. And I think, judging by (inaudible) and
Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and all these, you know -- a chorus --
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous.
Q: They seem very nervous, exactly. Now, tell me why they should be more nervous?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they've been using against me before I even took office --
Q: I know, I know.
THE PRESIDENT: -- what that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt. There's no actions that they've taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them.
In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.
Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.
Q: The largest one.
THE PRESIDENT: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.
And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. Andthat I think is going to be an important task.
But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well.
Q: Tell me, time is running out, any decision on from where you will be visiting the Muslim world?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm not going to break the news right here.
THE PRESIDENT: But maybe next time. But it is something that is going to be important. I want people to recognize, though, that we are going to be making a series of initiatives. Sending George Mitchell to the Middle East is fulfilling my campaign promise that we're not going to wait until the end of my administration to deal with Palestinian and Israeli peace, we're going to start now. It may take a long time to do, but we're going to do it now.
We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world.
And you're going to see me following through with dealing with a drawdown of troops in Iraq, so that Iraqis can start taking more responsibility. And finally, I think you've already seen a commitment, in terms of closing Guantanamo, and making clear that even as we are decisive in going after terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians, that we're going to do so on our terms, and we're going to do so respecting the rule of law that I think makes America great.
Q: President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad,"war on terror," and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of --
THE PRESIDENT: I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.
And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in
distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.
But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.
Q: Can I end with a question on Iran and Iraq then quickly?
THE PRESIDENT: It's up to the team --
MR. GIBBS: You have 30 seconds. (Laughter)
Q: Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.
Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful.
But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.
Q: Shall we leave Iraq next interview, or just --
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let's -- we're past, and I got to get him back to dinner with his wife.
Q: Sir, I really appreciate it.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much.
Q: Thanks a lot.
THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate it.
Q: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 - 16:58
SOURCE: NYT blog (1-27-09)
That president is Ronald Reagan, whose long-term goals were different from Mr. Obama’s but who was also willing to put pet projects on the back burner in the cause of economic recovery. In 1980, Reagan campaigned against President Jimmy Carter on a mix of issues, while giving priority, as Mr. Obama did in 2008, to a sagging national economy. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked over and over again.
The campaign was conducted against the backdrop of Americans held hostage by Iranians in the American Embassy in Tehran; they were released on Reagan’s inauguration day after being held for 444 days. One Reagan adviser, Edwin Meese, said later that the release of the hostages was a stroke of good fortune for the incoming administration, since this issue would have been a distraction and a priority had they remained in captivity.
As it was, economic recovery became the exclusive early Reagan agenda. The president was further encouraged by a detailed private memo from Richard Nixon, then too much of a pariah to appear in public with Republican office holders. Reagan valued the former president’s experience, particularly on foreign policy, but the memo instead urged him to focus on economic policy for at least the first six months. “Unless you are able to shape up our home base it will be almost impossible to conduct an effective foreign policy,” Nixon wrote. Reagan was so impressed that he quoted the opening portion of Nixon’s memo to a friend and added: “If we get the economy in shape, we’re going to be able to a lot of things. If we don’t, we’re not going to be able to do anything.”
Reagan didn’t face a walk in the park. The unemployment rate in 1980 was 7.1 percent, almost exactly the same as now. Inflation, averaging 12.5 percent for the year, and the prime interest rate, averaging over 15 percent, were much higher. Public confidence was low. Speaking to the nation on behalf of his economic program on Feb. 5, Reagan said the nation was in “the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.” On Feb. 12, he called for an audit of the nation’s economy. On Feb. 18, 1981, Reagan addressed a joint session of Congress on his program for economic recovery.
Unlike Barack Obama, Reagan did not enjoy solid Congressional majorities. Reagan had a narrow majority in the Senate, partly because of his own campaign coattails, but the Democrats under Speaker Tip O’Neill controlled the House. To get his budget and tax bills through the House, Reagan needed support from conservative Democrats, many of them from Texas, known as “Boll Weevils.” Reagan and his White House chief of staff James A. Baker relentlessly wooed them. At Mr. Baker’s suggestion, Reagan even promised he would not campaign in 1982 against any Democrat who voted for his economic program. This did not set well with Republican officials in Texas, but Reagan got the votes and kept his word.
Social conservatives who had backed Reagan soon became restless. On March 26, the Senate Majority leader, Howard Baker, said that he had agreed to keep social issues like abortion off the floor for a year so that senators could concentrate on Reagan’s economic program. Baker was promptly assailed by the favorite son of the right, Senator Jesse Helms. Asked about this deal in an interview with The Washington Post, Reagan sided with Baker. It was the last interview that Reagan would give for months, for he was shot by a would-be assassin on March 30, the bullet narrowly missing his heart. During his recovery, the White House trio of Ed Meese, James Baker and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, kept the administration focused tightly on economic recovery.
President Obama, in contrast to many Democrats, understands the nature of Reagan’s appeal. During the 2008 campaign he drew fire from the Clintons for calling Reagan a “transformative” president. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he wrote that Reagan’s appeal went beyond his skills as a communicator. “Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order,” Mr. Obama wrote, “our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith.” And he seems to have channeled more than Reagan’s oratory — President Obama’s decision to pull the family-planning provision out of the stimulus package nicely mirrors Reagan’s decision to hold off on abortion and other social issues.
Reagan’s plan for economic recovery traveled a rocky road. The budget and tax bills were enacted, but the nation endured a grim downturn in 1981 and ’82 before the back of the recession was broken by the fiscal policies of the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker, a Wall Street banker and Carter appointee who nonetheless got Reagan’s full backing and, in a wonderful twist of history, is now a key member of the Obama economic team.
“Stay the course,” became Reagan’s mantra during the economic low point of his presidency. It could well become President Obama’s rallying cry in the months ahead.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 23:58
SOURCE: NYT blog (1-23-09)
Mr. Obama’s use of history, however, defies G.K. Chesterton’s astute observation that “people who make history know nothing about history. You can see that in the sort of history they make.” There are dangers in relying on past remedies to meet current problems: Generals too often fighting the last war is just one case in point.
Still, as he looks to the past, is there anything that Barack Obama might want to recall from Lyndon B. Johnson’s first 100 days as president? No and Yes.
Both Johnson and President Obama entered office during times of crisis: Diminished confidence in the country’s institutions was palpable in November 1963 and is evident again in January 2009.
But the immediate circumstances are, of course, vastly different: John F. Kennedy’s assassination shook the country’s faith in its tradition of nonviolent political action, of the belief that, unlike people in so many other countries, Americans did not murder their political opponents and that access to high office was strictly through the ballot box.
By contrast with Mr. Obama, Johnson had no mandate to govern except for being vice president. No one expected a Southern politician to suddenly replace the youngest man ever elected to the White House. Although Johnson had been a Washington presence in the House since 1937 and the Senate since 1949, most Americans knew little about him and were uncomfortable with someone whose regional identity had stood as a bar to the presidency since the Civil War.
Johnson took some comfort in the memory of Harry Truman’s succession in April 1945, after F.D.R. died: despite replacing the largest White House figure since Lincoln, Truman, a less imposing figure at the start of his presidency than even Johnson, won the election of 1948 and made a memorable record as chief executive. But the Truman analogy gave Johnson only so much comfort. “I always felt sorry for Harry Truman and the way he got the presidency,” Johnson told an aide two day after Kennedy’s death, “but at least his man wasn’t murdered.”
Like Truman, Johnson understood that his greatest initial challenge was to provide reassurance — to convince not just Americans but people around the world, who looked to the United States for leadership in the cold war, that he could measure up to the standard J.F.K. had set as an effective president at home and abroad.
Johnson’s initial vehicle for restoring confidence was a speech before a joint Congressional session on Nov. 27, five days after Kennedy’s assassination. Speaking from the rostrum of the House, where he could remind everyone that he was a seasoned elected official with 32 years of experience on Capitol Hill, Johnson’s manner and rhetoric struck exactly the right tone. His dark suit and tie mirrored the country’s somber mood but his words were a call to action: the country needed “to do away with uncertainty and doubt … From the brutal loss of our leader we will derive not weakness, but strength; that we can and will act and act now.” Invoking Kennedy’s injunction, “Let us begin,” Johnson said, “Let us continue.”
Repeated bursts of prolonged applause punctuated Johnson’s relatively brief speech, and reflected the country’s enthusiasm for what he asked.
Although Barack Obama has given not the slightest nod to Johnson’s memory — nothing commemorating his 100th birthday during the Democratic Party’s convention in August, nor even a bow in his direction as the architect of the civil rights and voting rights laws of 1964 and 1965 that helped make Mr. Obama’s rise to the presidency possible — he has shown the same sensitivity to public mood that Johnson displayed in his first White House days.
Like Johnson, President Obama has understood the need to speak and act in ways that restore faith in the country’s institutions and hope for more prosperous and tranquil times. Even before Johnson began trying to enact a host of legislative measures that could reduce poverty and build a Great Society, he used the Bully Pulpit, the president’s White House trumpet, to rally the nation to confront and resolve its problems.
Similarly, even before his Inauguration, Barack Obama used his command of the spoken word not only to win the election but to generate expectations of better days ahead. And his speech on Tuesday, we saw a flash of L.B.J.: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward …”
Mr. Obama, like a handful of his predecessors, including Johnson, understands that he must be more than a leader and an executive, he must also serve as a kind of master therapist who can brighten peoples’ lives with rational proposals promising solutions to their personal suffering.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 23:26
SOURCE: NYT blog (1-16-09)
That was not always the case. Until the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, presidents were not inaugurated until March 4. Congress often did not convene until the following December, and a president’s first message to Congress was usually delivered at that time. Even then a president was not expected to take the lead. His constitutional responsibility was to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and the public assumed that the legislative initiative rested with Congress.
There were two exceptions. Abraham Lincoln called the newly elected 37th Congress into special session in July 1861 to deal with the rebellion in the South. And in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the 73rd Congress to meet Thursday, March 9 — five days after he had taken the oath of office — to deal with the nation’s banking crisis. Roosevelt’s mythical 100 days, the gold standard by which all subsequent presidents have been measured, date not from the time he was sworn in but from the date Congress convened. Congress eventually adjourned in the early morning hours of July 16, 1933, exactly 100 days later.
While many Americans think Roosevelt had the entire New Deal in mind for the special session, he in fact initially assumed that Congress would deal only with the banking crisis and then adjourn. The president had closed the nation’s banks by executive order and, like Lincoln in the Civil War, needed legislative authority to confirm his action and reorganize the financial system.
When Congress met on March 9, F.D.R.’s Emergency Banking Act was introduced in the House with the ink still wet. There were no committee hearings, no debate, no amendments. The measure was whooped through with bipartisan support and no roll call. Most members had not read the bill, and took on faith what the leadership presented. Three hours later the bill passed the Senate (73-7), and an hour later Roosevelt added his signature. The entire legislative process, from the bill’s introduction in the House to the president’s signature, took less than six hours.
Now, with the legislative tide running so strongly in his favor, Roosevelt decided to hold Congress in Washington until the bulk of the New Deal could be enacted. And consummate politician that he was, Roosevelt feinted right before turning left.
The second measure he sent to Congress was an economy bill to reduce Federal expenditures across the board. Government salaries were slashed 15 percent, and veterans’ benefits scaled back. This was scarcely the financial stimulus the economy required, but it won the hearts of conservative legislators. “I’m for giving the president whatever he wants,” said Senator Arthur Capper, a Kansas Republican.
After consolidating his position, F.D.R. opened the New Deal floodgates. There was no preconceived order in which legislation was sent to Capitol Hill. As soon as a measure was ready, Roosevelt sent it forward — carefully preparing the ground beforehand with the Congressional leaders who would be responsible.
Roosevelt was not without a sense of humor. The third measure to go forward was a request to amend the Volstead Act to permit the sale of beer and wine. “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” the president told his aide Louis Howe. The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was not adopted until December 5, 1933, but Roosevelt’s proposal provided interim relief.
Bills to reorder the nation’s agriculture, housing and mortgage markets followed in short order. Acreage allotments, price supports and crop set-asides reshaped the face of American agriculture. Farm mortgages were refinanced and the Farm Credit Act provided operating funds at low interest rates. The urban housing market was rescued with the establishment of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which purchased the mortgages of distressed home owners, provided money for taxes and repairs, and set repayment schedules over 30-year terms at 5 percent interest. The loan corporation assumed one-sixth of all home mortgages in the United States, and soon made home ownership a goal to which most Americans could aspire.
On March 21, Roosevelt asked Congress for $500 million for unemployment relief. Congress complied and the president appointed Harry Hopkins to administer the program, the first ever by the federal government.
Roosevelt was personally interested in preserving the environment and providing temporary employment for the nation’s youth. Legislation to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps was also introduced March 21, and shepherded by the president himself through both houses. It was signed into law 10 days later. Over the next six years 3 million young men were put to work reclaiming the country’s natural resources. The men lived in government camps, food and clothing were provided, the Army supervised the camps, and the men were required to send 80 percent of their pay back to their families.
Legislation to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority, providing cheap electric power to one of the most poverty stricken regions of the country, was introduced April 10 and became law five weeks later.
The excesses of Wall Street, blamed by many for the Depression, were reined in with the passage of the Truth in Securities Act on May 27. “If the country is to flourish,” said Roosevelt, “capital must be invested in enterprise. But those who seek to draw upon other people’s money must be wholly candid regarding the facts on which the investor’s judgment is asked.”
To make American farm products more affordable on the world market, F.D.R. took the United States off the gold standard, and Congress passed follow-up legislation nullifying the clauses in private contracts that required payment in gold.
The Glass-Steagall Act, one of the most far-reaching economic measures ever enacted, required banks to divest themselves of securities operations; gave the Federal Reserve Board the authority to set interest rates; and established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to guarantee individual bank deposits, assuring the average citizen that his money would be protected by the government.
The capstone of the 100 days was the passage by Congress of the National Industrial Recovery Act — an omnibus proposal governing the whole range of industrial recovery. The act authorized business to establish production codes controlling prices and output, guaranteed labor’s right to bargain collectively, and stipulated that industry codes should set minimum wages and maximum hours. It also provided $3.3 billion for public works (roughly $50 billion currently) as a fiscal stimulant.
The 100 days that Congress was in session in 1933 shattered all records for legislative activity. Roosevelt had sent 15 messages to Capitol Hill requesting action, and Congress had responded with 15 historic pieces of legislation.
More significantly, perhaps, the president had become the principal player in the legislative process, and the federal government had become the primary guarantor of the nation’s economy.
No president since has faced so desperate a financial situation, and none have enjoyed such mastery of the legislative process. President-elect Obama confronts a national crisis of significant proportions. The question is, can he can replicate the leadership style and the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt?
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 23:26
SOURCE: NYT blog (1-19-09)
Now, this day, the youngest man and the first Catholic ever elected, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was to be inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States.
Kennedy had defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in one of the closest of national elections, but the country was united — by fear. For the first time since early in the 19th century, the United States mainland seemed vulnerable to foreign invasion. Nearly 20 new countries, most of the former colonies in Asia and Africa, joined the United Nations in 1960 and most of them were looking for guidance not to the Americans but to the Soviets.
“We’ve got to get this country moving again!” was the line Kennedy had used most often during his campaign.
So, it was not surprising that the new President would give an inaugural speech that was essentially a cold war battle cry. Only two words in Kennedy’s speech even touched on domestic affairs. Those words were “at home,” and they were added by Kennedy and his gifted speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, at the very last minute.
The new president’s civil rights adviser, a young man named Harris Wofford, complained to Kennedy, pointing out that 24 hours before the inauguration, 23 Negro students had begun a sit-in at segregated lunch counters in Richmond, Va., the old capital of thre Confederacy, 100 miles south of the Capitol of the United States.
“Okay,” said Kennedy, who added the words so that one sentence declared that Americans were: “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed to at home and around the world.”
The ceremony was in a city sparkling like a diamond. Eight inches of snow had fallen during the night and and the sky was perfect cold wintry blue. The temperature was 10 degrees below freezing. The young President made his first statement by not wearing an overcoat as he sat next to his 70-year old predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenower, who was bundled in a great coat, scarf and top hat.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,support any friend,oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
The words rang, still do in television excerpts and classrooms. Kennedy was a man who knew that in his new job, words were often more important than deeds. Few people would remember whether he balanced the budget. Almost all Americans would remember his lines, particularly, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
The speech was bellicose and conciliatory at the same time:
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not a call to battle,though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out …”
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate …”
Paradoxically, one of Kennedy’s worries that day was that he would be overshadowed by another speaker, the poet Robert Frost. When Frost, who was 86, asked to speak, Kennedy’s first reaction was: “He’s a master of words I have to be sure he doesn’t upstage me …” The President-elect suggested he recite an old poem, but Frost insisted on writing a new one. The day’s sun and the wind made it impossible for the old man to handle his papers and, in the end, he did recite from memory an older poem titled “The Gift Outright.”
So, it was Kennedy’s day and Kennedy’s words that are remembered. Like the 44th president, Barack Obama, the 35th read and re-read the inaugural adresses of the 16th, Abraham Lincoln, who had said exactly 100 years before: “In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
Kennedy concluded: “Let us begin. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 23:25
SOURCE: Independent Institute website (1-15-09)
The last time a young politician oozing with charm and charisma assumed the presidency was 1961. The American public was enthralled with John F. Kennedy and continues to rank him one of the best presidents in history.
Historians have not been as kind, deeming JFK one of America’s most overrated presidents. They give him credit—probably too much—for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, but poor marks for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and his scant legislative record. But even such historical judgments may overrate Kennedy, who almost triggered a nuclear war for no strategic reason, largely so he would not appear weak before the important 1962 midterm election.
Ronald Reagan also was popular and charismatic and is overrated by the public and experts alike. During his presidency, public opinion polls regularly found Reagan more popular than his policies.
After leaving office, he attained almost mythical status among conservatives and even won praise from liberal historians and journalists, despite selling arms to sponsors of terrorism to ransom hostages and his secret undermining of the major remaining constitutional power of Congress—the power to fund federal activities—during the Iran-Contra affair.
Reagan also cut and ran from Lebanon after a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. service personnel. And he doubled the size of the federal government, most of it—contrary to popular belief—with increased domestic spending.
Yet Reagan’s carefully cultivated conservative image—a western cowboy on horseback, funny for a man from Illinois—has endured, mostly because, as luck would have it, the overextended and economically dysfunctional Soviet Union collapsed soon after Reagan left office.
Theodore Roosevelt, another colorful macho president, also has been overrated by historians and the public. A manly outdoorsman who was a war hero, big game hunter, and real-life cowboy, Roosevelt captured the fancy of the nation and has been a favorite of historians ever since.
Historians have called Roosevelt the first modern president—a euphemism for a presidency stronger than the nation’s founders intended—attributing a significance to him he doesn’t deserve.
In fact, Roosevelt was much less important to the presidency than his bland predecessor, William McKinley, who used the Spanish-American War to subsume policy-making power from its historical repository in Congress and pioneered the use of presidential speeches around the country—that is, inventing the “bully pulpit” to pressure Congress to do his bidding.
The fact is, journalists and historians love colorful and charismatic presidents, churning out bucket loads of books on such presidents, while shortchanging many others.
Barack Obama has all the qualities these writers and analysts love.
His charisma and “cool” will help him remain popular longer, and give him an edge in his inevitable confrontations with Congress. They should also enhance his historical legacy since even supposedly analytical historians are people too and get swept up in the passions of the time.
But charisma and cool and other characteristics that typically impress journalists and historians—such as the handling of crises, public speaking abilities, and a take-charge “presidential” management style—don’t make a great president.
Presidents should be judged only on outcomes—that is, presidential policies—that affect the country and set precedents for subsequent chief executives. And those policies should be judged by whether, and to what degree, they promote peace, prosperity and liberty.
Barack Obama has all the qualities the public and historians love. Only time will tell, however, if his policies meet the test of a great presidency.
Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 19:17
SOURCE: TheCuttingEdge (1-26-09)
Among Barack Obama’s many historic achievements is the ultimate triumph over American eugenics. No one in America should forget that about 100 years ago, the American intellectual and academic elite created the race science known as eugenics. This genocidal pseudoscience claimed that humanity was destined to be comprised solely of blonde, blue-eyed Nordic Americans. Anyone who did not conform to this racial stereotype was not worthy of existence on Earth. The list of undesirables included Southern Italians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, brown-haired hillbillies, Jews, American Indians and of course African Americans. Above all, all race-mixing was taboo, a concept eugenicists called “race suicide.”
This bizarre pseudoscience arose in the early 1900s, following the rediscovery of Mendel’s principles of heredity as applied to peas and horses combined with the corrupted views of Francis Galton, the quirky British scientist who originated the idea of eugenics at the end of the 19th Century. Galton almost whimsically hoped that if rich, talented people married other rich talented people, then rich, talented offspring would result. In the hands of early 20th Century American racists, Galton’s and Mendel’s ideas were transmogrified into a racist ideology: American Eugenics.
According to eugenic thought, blacks and other “undesirables” were lazy, shiftless, disease prone, and genetically predisposed to a criminal life, including prostitution and thievery. You were not born into poverty. Poverty was born into you. Racist intelligence tests, known as the Alpha and Beta Test, were concocted to prove that some 70 percent of tested Negroes were Morons. Indeed, the word “moron” was a scientific term invented by the academics to help damn the destiny of those who did not resemble themselves.
The solution to the existence of these racial and social inferiors or misfits was set out in a 1911 manifesto by a coalition of national eugenics organizations. Among the solutions were public gas chambers designed to march whole neighborhoods en masse into utopian euthanasia programs. In fact, several states, such as Ohio in 1908, actually considered formal legislation to enable this mass murder. With government sanctioned euthanasia seemingly an impossible goal, the eugenics community instead settled upon forced sterilization, marriage prohibition and concentration colonies.
By the time they were done, some 27 states had adopted eugenic legislation which resulted in the coerced sterilization of some 27,000 Americans, mostly women, and most without their knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of marriages were prohibited and, following the “one drop rule” of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, thousands were actually unmarried through state action. Indeed, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was not overruled until the 1960s in the famous Loving v. Virginia case.
The complex network of coast-to-coast local racial laws based on a fake biology became the law of the land in 1927 after Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in favor of eugenics with his famous Buck v. Bell decision which ratified the forced sterilization of a mother, her mother and daughter, the Carrie Buck case. Holmes enshrined the sentiment: “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes." Holmes concluded with the infamous phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Who was behind this awful science? It was the best minds, the wealthiest Americans and the most elite academicians from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Indiana and Stanford University, among many others. It would have been no more than bizarre parlor talk without the enormous financial backing of racist corporate philanthropic support of the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation.
The darkest corner of this national social nightmare, which culminated in the 20s and 30s, was that the United States extended its race science into Nazi Germany, where the ideas were faithfully acknowledged, praised and duplicated by Adolf Hitler with profound ferocity and velocity. It was, in fact, American eugenics that was mimicked by the Third Reich into the concept of “the master race.” The niceties of due process proposed by the Americans in order to send people to the gas chambers were not needed by Hitler. Millions died as everywhere the eugenic-minded Nazis put into force American policies. As Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess insisted, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”
Barack Obama is the son of a Black African father from Kenya and a White Irish-English mother from Kansas. Under American eugenic principles, which prevailed during the first six decades of the 20th Century, Barack Obama would have never been born. Had his family settled in Virginia, as opposed to Hawaii, the marriage would have been invalidated. Had his family lived in California, where about half of all coerced sterilizations occurred, he or his mother would have been either incarcerated and/or sterilized. Had he lived in the South, he would have been barred from the best schools on the basis of the one-drop rule that defined him as Negro even though he was half-white and half-African.
Now, for all the well-financed academic fraud that claimed that Blacks were inferior and incapable of ethical conduct—while overlooking how the wealthy scarred and exploited this nation with robber barons and pedigreed thieves—Barack Obama has proven that he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, most accomplished analysts, and a champion of ethics. In his first moments in office as the 44th President of the United States, President Obama signed executive orders dramatically overhauling the ethical duties of the White House and government in general.
American eugenicists would have been as shocked at Barack Obama's election as President of the United States as Hitler was when Jesse Owens beat his athletes at the 1936 Olympics. The fact that Barack Obama has achieved his greatness in spite of a nation that enslaved its blacks, made them second-class citizens, and then banished them to biological doom is perhaps his greatest triumph. Greater than his political victory, greater than his victory for integration, is his victory over the discredited theories that have caused so much death and misery to so many millions throughout the world—his triumph over the false science of eugenics that dared to define America.
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 19:40
SOURCE: Frontpagemag.com (1-26-09)
These credentials help gauge the import of the remarkable op-ed Turki published on Jan. 23 in London's Financial Times,"Saudi Arabia's patience is running out." He begins it by recalling his own efforts over the decades to promote Arab-Israeli peace and especially the Abdullah Plan of 2002."But after Israel launched its bloody attack on Gaza," he writes,"these pleas for optimism and co-operation now seem a distant memory." Then comes a threat:"Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk."
He goes on to whack George W. Bush in a way not exactly usual for a former Saudi ambassador:"Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region, but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents." Then comes the threat again, restated more directly:"If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact - especially its ‘special relationship' with Saudi Arabia - it will have to revise drastically its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine."
Turki goes on to instruct in detail the new administration what to do:
condemn Israel's atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America's intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab‘ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity. Mr Obama should strongly promote the Abdullah peace initiative.
Finally Turki notes that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called on"Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel [that] would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed." He soothingly notes that,"So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls," but then reiterates his threat a third time:"every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain. … Eventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel."
Comments: What to make of this extraordinary threat? Not much.
(1) As a Financial Times article on Turki's op-ed notes,"The prince's article recalls the letters that King Abdullah, as crown prince, sent to George W. Bush in 2001, warning that the kingdom would review relations with the US unless the administration adopted a forceful push for Middle East peace. The letters rang alarm bells in Washington but were soon overshadowed by the September 11 attacks, which involved a group of Saudis. It was only after Riyadh launched its own campaign against terrorism two years later and started addressing the root causes of radicalism that ties with the US improved again." In other words, we've experienced such a threat before, to little effect.
(2) For all his years at the apex of the Saudi establishment, Turki left his final position ignominiously in 2006. Here is a contemporary account of his exit, from the Washington Post:
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job, according to U.S. officials and foreign envoys. … Turki, a long-serving former intelligence chief, told his staff yesterday afternoon that he wanted to spend more time with his family, according to Arab diplomats. Colleagues said they were shocked at the decision. The exit [occurred] without the fanfare, parties and tributes that normally accompany a leading envoy's departure, much less a public statement.
(3) Turki has a history of Islamist radicalism and hot-headedness vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a speech earlier this month at a forum on relations between the Persian Gulf region and the United States, he addressed Obama:
The Bush administration has left you [with] a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza. Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine, following those who died in Gaza.
"Seek martyrdom"? Sounds like the revolutionary Iranian regime, not the staid Saudi monarchy.
(4) Turki's threats could conceivably sway the Obama administration, but the new president's comments about the recent Gaza hostilities suggest he is going in a decidedly different direction, having laid down three markers that Hamas must fulfill before it can be accepted as a diplomatic partner ("recognize Israel's right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements"). In the words of a Washington Post analysis, thus far,"Obama appears to have hewed closely to the line held by the Bush administration."
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 16:42
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (1-24-09)
There is a lot of talk about the idea that Bush, Cheney, and members of their administration should be prosecuted for violations of American criminal and international law. The arguments in favor of prosecution are straightforward: laws were broken, and the rule of law requires that lawbreakers be held accountable. Conversely, some of the arguments against prosecutions are singularly unpersuasive: I have recently heard arguments to the effect that "prosecutions would make us look weak," "we should focus on the economy and jobs," or "they didn't do anything different from what every other administration has done." These are terrible arguments. Having principles is not a sign of weakness, especially when your main international project is to persuade the world that you have rediscovered the principle of having principles. As for the economy - I am not of the belief that the combined resources of the national government are insufficient to do two things at once. And the allegations against the Bush administration and its leaders go well beyond the usual recriminations or questions.
And yet my own conclusion is that prosecutions are a very bad idea. There are two reasons why, one that has to do with the nature of the alleged crimes and the other that has to do with the consequences for the country of conducting prosecutions.
On the first score, it is critical to distinguish between the exercise of legitimate political authority in ways that lead to violations of law from conspiracies formed for the specific purpose of violating American or international law for the sake of the illegal action itself. Let's take two sets of cases. The first category would include Rwandan government officials coordinating genocidal violence, Serbian commanders ordering ethnic cleansing or mass killings in Srebrenica, and Sudanese officials arranging the arming of Janjaweed gangs. It would include government officials who tortured dissidents and political opponents, or used torture routinely. And it would also include cases of officials whose crimes had nothing to do with governing, those who loot their country's treasuries or engage in straightforward corruption.
But the key element here is not the severity of the conduct, it is the nature of the intent that is involved. Cases that deserve prosecution are cases in which government officials set out to engage in a pattern of illegal conduct for the sake of that illegal conduct. It would also include officials in the Reagan administration who conspired to violate the Boland Amendment, and obviously this category of cases includes the various criminal conspiracies involved in Watergate. Those were not conspiracies to commit acts in the belief that under the particular circumstances of the specific cases involved they were not crimes, nor did they involve actions that were judged to be necessary in the context of the legitimate exercise of political authority. Iran-Contra and Watergate were simple conspiracies to commit crimes because the participants wanted to see those crimes committed. These were and remain appropriate and proper cases for prosecution.
The second category comprises cases that are not appropriate subjects for prosecution. These are cases that involve government officials who pursue legitimate goals through means that others consider criminal. In international law this category includes the decision to bomb German and Japanese cities during World War II, and the Clinton administration's targeting of Yugoslavia's power grid. By extension of the logic, the decisions by Israeli officials and military commanders to target civilian infrastructure in Lebanon 2006 and Gaza this year also fall into this second category. For examples involving domestic law, this would be the category in which to place Lincoln's imposition of an embargo prior to a congressional declaration of war. In principle, this second category of cases include those of every government official who has ever enforced a law that was later to be found to be unconstitutional; unless these officials enforced these laws in order to undermine the Constitution -- which is not an unknown occurrence -- their actions should not result in criminal penalties. Lawyers talk about these questions in terms of categories of a mental state that is specified as an elements of a crime, or the technical requirements of conspiracy. Those arguments are relevant in all cases, but I am proposing that they take on special salience when the targets of a prosecution are elected officials.
I would argue that the actions of Bush, Cheney, and others fall into the second category. Bush and Cheney sought legal counsel. Okay, they sought legal cover, but they got it from legal professionals (whether those professionals should be allowed to retain their professional status is another question.) The goal of their efforts was the pursuit of legitimate governmental purposes, and there is at least room for honest and serious people to disagree about whether and to what extent their actions were in violation of the law. These characterizations are debatable, to be sure, and if someone wants to argue that the actions of Bush and Cheney properly fall into the first rather than the second category, I am open to persuasion. But the claim that any and all actions by government officials that are in violation of laws warrant criminal prosecutions by subsequent administrations distorts the meaning and purpose of those laws.
The first argument for opposing the prosecution of Bush administration officials, then, is a legal one. Not a technical legal argument, perhaps, but an argument about the nature and purpose of the law. The second reason for opposing prosecution is political. I am not worried about the nation might appear weak if prosecutions were to go forward, I am worried about the possibility that the nation truly has been profoundly weakened by the divisive and viciously punitive form of political partisanship that the GOP introduced in the 1990s and brought to a sick apotheosis with the impeachment of President Clinton. In some meaningful and important sense, I'm not sure the nation as we understand it would survive the experience. Certainly the idea of an orderly transition of power would be put at risk if the assumption were that incoming administrations should be expected to examine the record of their predecessors with an eye toward prosecution. At a minimum, the likely enormous expansion in the use of the President's power of granting power would denigrate that process. Alternatively, the effective transformation of criminal and international law into weapons to be employed against political opponents would threaten to deprive those sanctions of all meaning. And the hope of dissolving the lines of tribe is hard to maintain if one is faced by the prospect that if the other side wins an election the leaders whom you supported will be sent to prison.
I do not say any of this in any particular spirit of bipartisanship. For all the myriad faults of past and present Democratic leaderships, the Republican Party has a great deal to answer for with respect to the degradation of the American democratic system that it unleashed over the past fifteen years. The GOP model of politics as total war, the search for permanent majorities, "pay to play" and the K Street Project, and all the rest were not merely unseemly, they were strategies that called the basic premises of democratic governance into question. Nor are these attitudes unrelated to the actions by Bush, Cheney, et. al., that would be subject to prosecution. The mentality of "with us or against us" absolutism and the belief in the absolute moral necessity of victory that were so evident in domestic politics had everything to do with what was done elsewhere. But prosecutions of past administration members does not lead us out of that mire, it only reinforces the validity of the mindset among those whose candidate and party lost the most recent electoral contest.
The basic principle of a democracy is that even if we lost today, we might win tomorrow, and those who are our political opponents do not thereby become our enemies. It has not always been clear to me that the Bush administration and its supporters understand that distinction. President Obama seems to get it, and he seems to understand that prosecutions would be a step in the wrong direction. The use of criminal prosecutions against members of prior administration for actions committed in the course of governing is a step in the wrong direction. I respect and admire many people who are calling for prosecutions. But I respectfully disagree.
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 15:59
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (1-26-09)
His point was echoed in a Jan. 21 column by New York Times‘ David Leonhardt, who argued, as the headline put it, “the economy is bad, but 1982 was worse.” Looking at broad Labor Department measures of the unemployed, underemployed and discouraged workers, 1982 toted up 16.31 percent broad unemployment vs. today’s more than 13 percent. He reminded readers too young to recall how in the late 1970s and early 1980s housing sales plummeted, interest rates and inflation skyrocketed and oil prices jumped.
We should be cautious about overstating the current crisis and heed the copy editor’s reluctance to let the word “unprecedented” creep into stories. Leonhardt writes, “The biggest risk is that these problems will feed on themselves and make the situation even worse than now seems likely.”
All good points.
Yet having lived through the 1980-82 recession(s) as an adult, it’s also important that we understand how today’s economic disruption is different and dangerous. It’s not all in our heads, as some critics of the media might have it.
As Leonhardt concedes, we have yet to see how badly the unemployment and housing sales rates go this time. We have yet to hit bottom. I’ll add some other ways our situation is different from 1982, and even from 1932. This takes us beyond “worse” or “better” arguments, to focus on the distinct nature of this recession.
1. China was barely a blip on the world economy in 1982. Today it is in many ways a controlling force for better or worse. For example, the United States owes China some $1 trillion in debt, largely Treasury securities, sold to finance our trade deficit and multiple wars. China and America are locked in an unsustainable and reckless “debt-for-stuff” relationship. Were it to deflate suddenly, it could make the popping of the housing bubble look small by comparison. In addition, China has become the world’s factory and is feeling the sharp slowdown, closing plants, laying off workers and losing the rapid growth that allowed it to absorb large numbers of rural poor and provide upward mobility for the better off, particularly in the prosperous coastal crescent. Now unrest is growing and could prove destabilizing.
2. Peak oil. The United States was only a few years past its peak in oil production in 1982, and world production remained ahead of demand — India, China and the communist block had yet to enter the world economy as big energy guzzlers. That’s all changed now. World peak is happening or near and the nations of this petroleum-addicted world are far from making the necessary adjustments to make the transition to a future of much more expensive energy. This is another recipe not only for economic disruption but also for geopolitical conflict.
3. Global warming. In 1982, it was a rarefied theory. Now it’s a clear and present danger. Pundits and policymakers can bicker about whether the current recession makes it more difficult to address climate change, but the reality is that it’s happening, and at a faster rate than scientists had expected. It will impose huge economic and social costs in the decades ahead. Also, more than 2 billion people have been added to the world population since 1982, severely stressing the planet’s carrying capacity.
4. The housing bubble. The housing crash of 1982 was part of a broad, cyclical downturn, made worse by the 1979 oil shock and the Federal Reserve’s war on inflation. Today’s housing crash is the result of a speculative bubble the size of which has few precedents. It will take years for this sector to come back and, for a variety of factors, the old suburban sprawl model is dying or dead. So it’s pointless to hope for a return to the 2005 go-go era. The housing crash this time has made Americans poorer, decapitated several major job sectors and helped bring on…
5. The banking crisis. Nearly every recession has an accompanying banking crisis. It could be contained in 1982 for several reasons, especially better regulation and smaller banks. There were more large money center banks than today, yet they were smaller than their counterparts today (a fact much fretted upon in the 1980s as Japanese banks swelled — until they were taken down by the Japanese real-estate collapse). The result of a less concentrated, better regulated banking industry was to contain the damage (although it was substantial). Today’s banking system is a highly concentrated creature whose innards have metabolized far beyond traditional banking. This is exemplified by the derivatives that are essentially worthless if not outright swindles. All this feeds on itself in a viral nature, leaving Washington to prop up sick institutions that are “too big to fail” but otherwise would be considered insolvent.
6. Manufacturing and trade. In 1982, the Rust Belt was synonymous with a nation in trouble. But on the ground, American manufacturers were going through a wrenching restructuring that would again make them the most productive and innovative in the world. One slice of this story is told in Richard Preston’s thrilling book American Steel. When I arrived in Dayton, Ohio, in 1986, I found a city that was filled with factories making things for the world, and the high-paid jobs that went with it. Dayton had gone through hell as companies such as NCR and GM had remade themselves. But it had come through. Today’s America is far, far different — as the hollowed out Ohio economy attests. Poorly crafted trade agreements and the rise of new competitors has badly damages the productive heart of the economy. In many cases, there’s little left to retool for the next upswing — it’s gone to China or Mexico. No wonder the last “factory jobs” seeing growth were in producing the tract houses that now stand foreclosed throughout the Sunbelt, and Americans who once made productive things were working in “financial services” hawking fraudulent mortgages.
7. Human capital. Americans have seen their earnings stagnate for years — their only consolation the housing bubble which has now exploded. Their 401(k) nest eggs have lost as much as half their pre-crash value. Income inequality is at a high not seen since the eve of the Depression, stifling, among other things, economic mobility. Perhaps a million or more illegal immigrants are consigned to the shadow economy, kept out of mainstream advancement and creating a costly underclass. In 1982, the middle class was still strong, with relatively secure jobs, benefits and pensions. The health insurance system still worked. It was a very different country, whatever the temporary pain. In addition, today the skill gap has grown substantially. A tech-savvy “creative class,” as Richard Florida calls it, will create value in the future. Yet millions are left out, without the ladder up once provided by skilled, union, blue-collar jobs.
8. Monetary policy. Much of the early 1980s pain involved the Federal Reserve’s successful battle to wring inflation out of the economy. It was a textbook case that the Fed could indeed, with the right leadership of Paul Volcker, defeat inflation and bring price stability — something considered nearly impossible by conventional wisdom in the 1970s. Today’s recession is part of a larger set of disruptions and discontinuities. So far, it’s showing the limits of Fed monetary policy. As Alan Greenspan once said, “You can’t push a string.”
None of these factors preclude an American renaissance. But they are real. We ignore them at our peril.
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 15:53