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: The End is Coming (History Blog (11-30-09)
The people of Switzerland have voted and passed a law banning the construction of new minaret towers or the domed tower above mosques from which Muslims call for prayer. By a majority of 57%, the law has been deplored internationally as stemming from a reactionary fear towards Islamic fundamentalism. Supporters of the measure however claim that it is a first step in curbing Muslim tendencies towards “an ideology and legal system – Sharia law – which are incompatible with Swiss democracy.” One thing is for certain, this law, passed in Switzerland of all places, has gained worldwide attention for its novelty and fringe-racist motivations. Harmless, pacifist and neutral have all been used to describe the isolated nation atop the Alps but increasingly right-wing governments have been voted in as extremism takes a greater hold of the misunderstood and “most democratic nation on earth”.
Since the adoption of a new constitution in 1848, Switzerland has been one of the most stable nation-states of recent memory. One might think that it largely operates as does its European neighbours but Swiss governance is quite unique. A direct or semi-direct democracy is what it has been called and indeed the Swiss sovereign is the people. For any change whatsoever to their constitution, a full referendum is mandatory. Furthermore, anyone and everyone of Swiss citizenship has the right to gather 50,000 signatures to appeal a current law or 100,000 to propose a new one. With the amount of signatures satisfied, as with the case of the minarets, a referendum is organised and a simple majority decides if and how the Swiss rewrite their own constitution.
At the head of the country exists a parliament of representatives yet the “presidency” as we know the concept is not a single man but a federal council of 7. Split amongst the 4 greatest parties in the cantons (Swiss states), these seven positions effectively give them certain executive power but definitely not much more than every citizen in the country possess. At first, it seems that it is the most perfect and democratic system ever thought up of. In practise however, indecision, reactionary voting and a certain dictatorship of the people have made Switzerland’s path through the 20th century a curious and worrisome one.
A harmless reputation
With a touch of irony and sarcasm, Douglas Adams described humanity as “mostly harmless” in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Switzerland’s ideological leaning have accordingly been misleadingly simple when seen from the outside.
Through the World Wars, the Swiss people were directly responsible for sending their men to war. As such, the people rather voted to not go die in war... The United States had privileged isolationism all the way to 1917 but finally admitted that a World War could disrupt life as we know it in an increasingly international system of trade and relations. The Swiss Federal council on the other hand could certainly propose long-term courses of action but the direct-democracy mostly functioned out of passion, fear, love and hatred; it functioned of extremes. As such, WW2 also saw the rise of Swiss fascism and supporters of Hitler and Mussolini. In a country with seemingly no ultimate rules or morality, Switzerland could have conceivably turned pro-Nazi and believed it was right for them. Thankfully, the discovery of concentration camps made a fascist option unpopular (not wrong) to the Swiss and the fascist ideology retreated for a while.
By the 1970s and 80s, several right-wing extremist and moderate groups began to coalesce into a more organised and goal-oriented mass. The fascists, skinheads, Christian ultraconservatives and neo-Nazis, among others, joined into the SVP or Swiss people’s party. It had largely been a conservative worker’s party from 1919 until then but slowly began to gain popularity through right-wing fear-mongering and a rhetoric that greatly appealed to the reactionary votes of the Swiss people.
By the 1990s, the SVP was amongst the four top parties in the country and held a stable seat on the council of 7. They intelligently never encouraged direct violence against their ideological opponents but nevertheless pushed for more strict anti-immigration policy. They also proposed successful legislation to restrict all health care to immigrants, rejected international law on all matters, successfully pushed for non-involvement in international organizations and conflicts that do not concern Swiss interests (which includes joining NATO or the European Union) and continue to speak out against imposed environmentalism and anti-racism laws, both of which infringe on freedom of speech.
As has been described above, Switzerland is a direct democracy and if this fringe group was as extreme and undesirable as other countries might see it, they would simply be phased out of government by citizen-initiated referendum. Instead, through the 1990s and 2000s, the SVP has come to hold 30% of the electorate and parliamentary seats as well as a second seat on the council of 7. The right-wing racist* party that is little spoken of outside the country has effectively represented the Swiss people for over a decade.
*Certain high-ranking members of the SVP have actually been convicted under the above-mentioned anti-racist laws.
Neutrality or Stagnation?
As a result, incidents of racism and racially-motivated violence have greatly increased in Switzerland. Furthermore, there has been a ten-fold increase in active membership in neo-Nazi groups around the country (although the total amount remains well under 1% of the population). This recent referendum on the ban of new Islamic structures (initiated by the leader of the SVP) also caused a dramatic increase in violence towards the 400,000 Muslims of Switzerland.
I suggest we be wary of the Swiss and their direct democracy. With a lack of long-term vision, with stubborn isolationist policies preventing international relations and with a constitution that could eventually be made to include anything no matter how repugnant to the rest of us, Switzerland may not be the the nexus of peace and prosperity they pretend to be for very long. What can be seen as a long history of neutrality in favour of self-preservation has actually been a century-and-a-half of stagnating policy never allowed to collectively push the Swiss people in a single direction.
Although it may not be the most appropriate example for the context at hand, I conclude with a quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on the merits of fascist dictatorship over democracy: “It is not because a majority of people agree on something that it is necessarily right.”
Posted on: Monday, November 30, 2009 - 11:33
SOURCE: Newsweek (11-28-09)
Call it the fractal geometry of fiscal crisis. If you fly across the Atlantic on a clear day, you can look down and see the same phenomenon but on four entirely different scales. At one extreme there is tiny Iceland. Then there is little Ireland, followed by medium-size Britain. They're all a good deal smaller than the mighty United States. But in each case the economic crisis has taken the same form: a massive banking crisis, followed by an equally massive fiscal crisis as the government stepped in to bail out the private financial system.
Size matters, of course. For the smaller countries, the financial losses arising from this crisis are a great deal larger in relation to their gross domestic product than they are for the United States. Yet the stakes are higher in the American case. In the great scheme of things—let's be frank—it does not matter much if Iceland teeters on the brink of fiscal collapse, or Ireland, for that matter. The locals suffer, but the world goes on much as usual.
But if the United States succumbs to a fiscal crisis, as an increasing number of economic experts fear it may, then the entire balance of global economic power could shift. Military experts talk as if the president's decision about whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan is a make-or-break moment. In reality, his indecision about the deficit could matter much more for the country's long-term national security. Call the United States what you like—superpower, hegemon, or empire—but its ability to manage its finances is closely tied to its ability to remain the predominant global military power. Here's why.
The disciples of John Maynard Keynes argue that increasing the federal debt by roughly a third was necessary to avoid Depression 2.0. Well, maybe, though some would say the benefits of fiscal stimulus have been oversold and that the magic multiplier (which is supposed to transform $1 of government spending into a lot more than $1 of aggregate demand) is trivially small.
Credit where it's due. The positive number for third-quarter growth in the United States would have been a lot lower without government spending. Between half and two thirds of the real increase in gross domestic product was attributable to government programs, especially the Cash for Clunkers scheme and the subsidy to first-time home buyers. But we are still a very long way from a self--sustaining recovery. The third-quarter growth number has just been revised downward from 3.5 percent to 2.8 percent. And that's not wholly surprising. Remember, what makes a stimulus actually work is the change in borrowing by the whole public sector. Since the federal government was already running deficits, and since the states are actually raising taxes and cutting spending, the actual size of the stimulus is closer to 4 percent of GDP spread over the years 2007 to 2010—a lot less than that headline 11.2 percent deficit.
Meanwhile, let's consider the cost of this muted stimulus. The deficit for the fiscal year 2009 came in at more than $1.4 trillion—about 11.2 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That's a bigger deficit than any seen in the past 60 years—only slightly larger in relative terms than the deficit in 1942. We are, it seems, having the fiscal policy of a world war, without the war. Yes, I know, the United States is at war in Afghanistan and still has a significant contingent of troops in Iraq. But these are trivial conflicts compared with the world wars, and their contribution to the gathering fiscal storm has in fact been quite modest (little more than 1.8 percent of GDP, even if you accept the estimated cumulative cost of $3.2 trillion published by Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz in February
And that $1.4 trillion is just for starters. According to the CBO's most recent projections, the federal deficit will decline from 11.2 percent of GDP this year to 9.6 percent in 2010, 6.1 percent in 2011, and 3.7 percent in 2012. After that it will stay above 3 percent for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in dollar terms, the total debt held by the public (excluding government agencies, but including foreigners) rises from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $14.3 trillion in 2019—from 41 percent of GDP to 68 percent.
In other words, there is no end in sight to the borrowing binge. Unless entitlements are cut or taxes are raised, there will never be another balanced budget. Let's assume I live another 30 years and follow my grandfathers to the grave at about 75. By 2039, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the federal debt held by the public will have reached 91 percent of GDP, according to the CBO's extended baseline projections. Nothing to worry about, retort -deficit-loving economists like Paul Krugman. In 1945, the figure was 113 percent.
Well, let's leave aside the likely huge differences between the United States in 1945 and in 2039. Consider the simple fact that under the CBO's alternative (i.e., more pessimistic) fiscal scenario, the debt could hit 215 percent by 2039. That's right: more than double the annual output of the entire U.S. economy.
Forecasting anything that far ahead is not about predicting the future. Everything hinges on the assumptions you make about demographics, Medicare costs, and a bunch of other variables. For example, the CBO assumes an average annual real GDP growth rate of 2.3 percent over the next 30 years. The point is to show the implications of the current chronic imbalance between federal spending and federal revenue. And the implication is clear. Under no plausible scenario does the debt burden decline. Under one of two plausible scenarios it explodes by a factor of nearly five in relation to economic output.
Another way of doing this kind of exercise is to calculate the net present value of the unfunded liabilities of the Social Security and Medicare systems. One recent estimate puts them at about $104 trillion, 10 times the stated federal debt.
No sweat, reply the Keynesians. We can easily finance $1 trillion a year of new government debt. Just look at the way Japan's households and financial institutions funded the explosion of Japanese public debt (up to 200 percent of GDP) during the two "lost decades" of near-zero growth that began in 1990.
Unfortunately for this argument, the evidence to support it is lacking. American households were, in fact, net sellers of Treasuries in the second quarter of 2009, and on a massive scale. Purchases by mutual funds were modest ($142 billion), while purchases by pension funds and insurance companies were trivial ($12 billion and $10 billion, respectively). The key, therefore, becomes the banks. Currently, according to the Bridgewater hedge fund, U.S. banks' asset allocation to government bonds is about 13 percent, which is relatively low by historical standards. If they raised that proportion back to where it was in the early 1990s, it's conceivable they could absorb "about $250 billion a year of government bond purchases." But that's a big "if." Data for October showed commercial banks selling Treasuries.
That just leaves two potential buyers: the Federal Reserve, which bought the bulk of Treasuries issued in the second quarter; and foreigners, who bought $380 billion. Morgan Stanley's analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that, in the year ending June 2010, there could be a shortfall in demand on the order of $598 billion—about a third of projected new issuance.
Of course, our friends in Beijing could ride to the rescue by increasing their already vast holdings of U.S. government debt. For the past five years or so, they have been amassing dollar--denominated international reserves in a wholly unprecedented way, mainly as a result of their interventions to prevent the Chinese currency from appreciating against the dollar.
Right now, the People's Republic of China holds about 13 percent of U.S. government bonds and notes in public hands. At the peak of this process of reserve accumulation, back in 2007, it was absorbing as much as 75 percent of monthly Treasury issuance.
But there's no such thing as a free lunch in the realm of international finance. According to Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, if this trend were to continue, the U.S. -current-account deficit could rise to 15 percent of GDP by 2030, and its net debt to the rest of the world could hit 140 percent of GDP. In such a scenario, the U.S. would have to pay as much as 7 percent of GDP every year to foreigners to service its external borrowings.
Could that happen? I doubt it. For one thing, the Chinese keep grumbling that they have far too many Treasuries already. For another, a significant dollar depreciation seems more probable, since the United States is in the lucky position of being able to borrow in its own currency, which it reserves the right to print in any quantity the Federal Reserve chooses.
Now, who said the following? "My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar."
Seems pretty reasonable to me. The surprising thing is that this was none other than Paul Krugman, the high priest of Keynesianism, writing back in March 2003. A year and a half later he was comparing the U.S. deficit with Argentina's (at a time when it was 4.5 percent of GDP). Has the economic situation really changed so drastically that now the same Krugman believes it was "deficits that saved us," and wants to see an even larger deficit next year? Perhaps. But it might just be that the party in power has changed.
History strongly supports the proposition that major financial crises are followed by major fiscal crises. "On average," write Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their new book, This Time Is Different, "government debt rises by 86 percent during the three years following a banking crisis." In the wake of these debt explosions, one of two things can happen: either a default, usually when the debt is in a foreign currency, or a bout of high inflation that catches the creditors out. The history of all the great European empires is replete with such episodes. Indeed, serial default and high inflation have tended to be the surest symptoms of imperial decline...
Posted on: Monday, November 30, 2009 - 10:46
SOURCE: Informed Comment (website of Juan Cole) (11-28-09)
The board of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday condemned Iran for secretly building a new nuclear enrichment facility at Fordo near Qom, and called on it to mothball the new site. The resolution was backed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, as well as Germany.
Fully 25 of the 35 nations on the nuclear board voted for the resolution, India joined the consensus condemning Iran, though New Delhi issued a statement saying its vote did not signal openness to the imposition of further sanctions on Iran. Only Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia voted against the text, with 6 others abstaining and one absent. Brazil was among those abstaining. And its abstention spells future trouble for US policy toward Iran, since President Lula da Silva appears to fear that if Iran's right to enrich is withdrawn, it could have implications for countries such as Brazil. Iran has been wooing Brazil and other Latin American countries, with some success, on anti-imperialist grounds, as WaPo rightly says.
The text (see below) affirmed Iran's right to enrich uranium for fuel under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but nevertheless insisted that it cease its enrichment activities. The position of the IAEA and the UN Security Council that Iran's secret experiments before early 2003 and its refusal to be bound by the safeguards provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty have the effect of making its enrichment activities illicit. The UNSC demands that they cease until Iran allows full and completely transparent inspections. The document also said that the secret nature of the Fordo plant raised questions about whether there were other concealed sites. (In fact, outgoing IAEA head Mohammed Elbaradei confirmed that all inspectors found at Fordo was 'a hole in the ground,' not a real facility.)
Iran replies that its preference for working in secrecy was the result of military threats against its right to enrich, as enshrined in the NPT. It has allowed UN inspections, and these have never found a weapons program. Moreover, the text of the NPT (Article IV, Para. 1) explicitly says, "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty."
Even the safeguards system, the more recent and robust version of which Iran's parliament declined to ratify, specifies inspections of fissile material, whereas Iran does not appear even to have any of the latter or to be capable of producing it for a decade or more.
Iranian leaders say that nuclear weapons are contrary to the Islamic law of war, that they do not want them and could not legally deploy them. They hold that the enrichment facilities are intended to produce fuel for a string of nuclear reactors that will keep Iran from having to use its precious petroleum, a key earner of foreign exchange and guarantor of national independence, for domestic power generation. Russia is building nuclear plants for Iran at Bushehr.
My own position is that, in addition, Iran's leadership is seeking whatis sometimes called the "Japan option" or a "rapid breakout capability." Unlike North Korea, India and Pakistan, I think Tehran genuinely does not want to actually construct and detonate a nuclear device. India and Pakistan are such large and important countries that they defied the First World nuclear club successfully and so joined it. North Korea, much smaller, weaker and poorer, has made itself an international pariah in this way, and is suffering more and more severe UN sanctions. I think most senior Iranian leaders wish to avoid those heavy sanctions, having seen what they did to Iraq.
But having a rapid breakout capability-- being able to make a bomb in short order if it is felt absolutely necessary to forestall a foreign attack-- has a deterrent effect. So Iran would have the advantages of deterrence without the disadvantages of a bomb if it could get to the rapid breakout stage.
My theory has the advantage of explaining everything about Iran's behavior-- its condemnation of the Bomb as incompatible with Islamic law, its willingness to offer fair cooperation with UN inspectors, the repeated inability of US intelligence and of the IAEA to find any trace of a weapons program, and yet Iran's frustrating lack of complete transparency and its penchant for building secret enrichment sites. You can't retain a credible rapid breakout capability, or "nuclear latency," if your enrichment facility can be destroyed by air strikes. Repeated Cheneyite and Israeli threats to attack the enrichment plant at Natanz near Isfahan are what I believe drove Iran to construct the Fordo site inside a mountain, in hopes that this step would make it impossible for an outside power to use military might to wipe out Iran's nuclear latency.
The US and Western Europe and Israel interpret Iran's secrecy as a sign that nefarious secret weapons programs are being pursued. But this conclusion is riddled with difficulties. A weapons program uses enormous amounts of water and electricity and would be very difficult to conceal nowadays from US satellite and electronic surveillance. The US knew about Fordo as soon as work began on it.
A desire on the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commanders to retain the soft deterrence of a rapid breakout capability probably explains Iran's waffling on the deal tentatively adopted at Geneva on October 1. That agreement would have had Iran send 2600 pounds of its 3200 pounds of low enriched uranium (enriched to less than 5 percent) to Russia for processing, so that it could be used in Iran's small medical research reactor, and used to produce medical isotopes. In this way, the LEU, the seed stock for any potential bomb, would get used up. It would have taken Iran a couple of years to replace that LEU, reassuring Western hawks in the meantime that Iran's weapons-making capability had been temporarily blunted. But when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative brought this deal back to Tehran, I believe that the IRGC commanders vetoed it because they want to retain a rapid break out potential and did not want the LEU seed stock to be lost.
That the hawks were able to veto the representative of Supreme Leader Khamenei lends credence to Gary Sick's argument that the Revolutionary Guards have carried out a soft coup behind the scenes and Iran looks more and more like a military junta.
I personally suspect that most Western officials involved in this matter know perfectly well that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and does not want an actual bomb. I think the Western leaders do not want Iran to have nuclear latency, either, because it would change the balance of power in the Middle East and would take forcible regime change off the table as an option for the West.
Although some observers are wondering if Friday's vote is a prelude to stricter UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, Howard LeFrachi at CSM rightly points out that China does not want more sanctions. China was essentially blackmailed into voting for Friday's resolution, according to the Washington Post, by an Israeli threat to start a war, conveyed by Dennis Ross, a prominent member of the US Israel lobbies who also has a position in the Obama administration. But voting for an IAEA text is different from actually imposing sanctions that might hurt the Chinese economy.
Moreover, Russian Prime Minister and eminence grise Vladimir Putin is against a tightening of sanctions. India announced its opposition to a tougher economic boycott even as it voted to condemn Iran.
The reason for the reluctance of the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to push Iran harder economically is that they have an interest in Iran's resources not being closed off to their exploitation. Reuters just reported that: "Indian state explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC.BO) is seeking a 20-25 percent stake in a $7.5 billion phase-12 project of Iran's South Pars gas field, media reports said on Friday." India is growing 7 and 9% a year and has relatively little energy of its own, and so is very hungry for Iranian natural gas.
So far the US has managed to strongarm India into backing off, by threatening Treasury Department third-party sanctions. But it is entirely possible that Indian energy hunger will cause its firms to write off the $14 trillion US market and to partner with Iran. After all, the world economy is now about $60 trillion, and united Europe's economy is as big as that of the US. If India has a choice of seeing its growth strangled for lack of electricity to run its factories and being excluded from 23% of the world economy, it may decide that the 77% is enough of a market. The importance of the US economy as a proportion of the global whole will likely rapidly decline over the next four decades.
The same considerations affect China. Russia is different because it is an energy producer. But in a world where demand for hydrocarbons is rapidly growing, there is enough demand to go around, and Russia's economy is sufficiently diversified that it views Iran as a market and an investment opportunity. Harsher UNSC sanctions on Iran would backfire on BRIC, and therefore short of egregiously bad behavior on Iran's part (discovery of an actual, dedicated weapons plant, e.g.), the BRIC countries will likely seek to block them.
Bottom line: Friday's vote was likely symbolic and a signal to Iran from the international community that there is discomfort with its secretiveness and lack of transparency, and that many are suspicious of its motives. In China's case, it may have been a warning against actions that could harm the Middle Kingdom's burgeoning economy.
What it likely was not was a harbinger of tougher international sanctions against Tehran or a sign that BRIC is softening on that issue.
Posted on: Monday, November 30, 2009 - 04:14
SOURCE: Conservativenet (run by Richard Jensen) (11-27-09)
In general, I think, democratic publics recoil from sacrifice and tire of it over a prolonged period. (We must remember that, for us, World War II was a three and a half year episode. And Tom's point about the overwhelming drumbeat of propaganda [or public persuasion if one prefers], abetted by a cooperative media, is very important here.)
Still, I think something has changed in the last 50 years, not only in the United States but throughout the liberal-democratic West. Publics today recoil from war in a way unknown in the past. Casualty lists that would have seemed piddling by former standards now evoke horror. (Yes, I know that all lives are precious, but the generalization is accurate all the same.) The Obama administration's receptivity to the idea that demonstrable acts of war can be handled by a civilian criminal justice system is a particularly bizarre manifestation of this attitude.
The present climate is doubtless encouraged by Bush's invasion of Iraq on mistaken premises. All the same, it is interesting, even disturbing, that the same mood is carrying over to Afghanistan, the source of the 9/11 attack, and, among other things, creating all sorts of wishful thinking about negotiation with "moderate Taliban." And it seems to me that there is a lot of wishful thinking about "nation building" by advocates of carrying on in Afghanistan.
War is hell. But nations have to respond to attacks. It was in this regard particularly dismaying to see a New York Times op-ed column by an outside contributor a week or two ago that described 9/11 as a small event in the larger scheme of things. Sure. And Pearl Harbor was a pin prick. Is this where we are headed?
Posted on: Sunday, November 29, 2009 - 22:40
Posted on: Thursday, November 26, 2009 - 17:41
SOURCE: Private Papers (11-26-09)
Barack Obama promised us not only transparency, but also a new respect for science. In soothing tones, he asserted that his administration was “restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.”
In our new Enlightenment of Ivy League Guardians, we were to return to the rule of reason and logic. Obama would lead us away from the superstitious world of Bush’s evangelical Christianity, “intelligent design,” and Neanderthal moral opposition to human-embryo stem-cell research.
Instead, we are seeing an unprecedented distortion of science — indeed, an attack on the inductive method itself. Facts and reason are trumped by Chicago-style politics, politically correct dogma, and postmodern relativism.
For decades, the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has maintained a rational, scientifically based, and nonpartisan system of reporting the nation’s “seasonally adjusted unemployment rate.” Presidents of both parties respected its metrics. Their own popularity sunk or soared on the basis of officially released jobless numbers, as tabulated and computed by the nonpartisan Bureau. The public trusted in a common standard of assessing presidential job performance.
The BLS is still releasing its monthly report, but alongside it the Obama administration has created a new postmodern barometer called jobs “created or saved.”
Over the last nine months, the official government website Recovery.gov has informed us how the stimulus has saved jobs — even as hard data reflected the unpleasant truth of massive and spiraling job losses.
In other words, not the real number of jobs lost, but rather the supposed number of jobs saved by Barack Obama’s vast dispersion of borrowed money, was to be the correct indicator of employment.
The message? In superstitious fashion, the public is to ignore what statistics say, and trust instead in the Obama administration’s hypotheses.
And if pesky doubters still want “facts,” and if there are not enough supporting data for such speculation, then why not simply fabricate them out of thin air? Thus mythical congressional districts were posted on an official government website with more fanciful data of “jobs saved.” Just as creationists insist that the world was made 6,000 years ago, so too the Obamians believe that joblessness must show a decline because their messianic leader says it’s so — bothersome facts be damned. In this current Orwellian climate, a scientific document listing the latest unemployment figures is the equivalent of a stegosaurus footprint — an inconvenient truth for the upbeat employment gospel according to St. Barack...
Posted on: Thursday, November 26, 2009 - 16:36
SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (11-20-09)
Should doctors make health care policy?
At first glance, the answer would seem obvious: of course they should. They’ve fought in the trenches, bearing personal witness to every fault of our medical system: uninsured patients, stingy HMOs and runaway costs. To reform the system, then, we should all pay special attention to what doctors think.
Think again. Personal experiences can skew our vision, blinding us to other ways of looking at the world. And seeing a problem up close doesn’t give us any particular insight into its solution.
Consider the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest and most influential physicians’ organization, which recently endorsed President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide universal health coverage.
Obama says the AMA is supporting his reform because doctors “have seen firsthand what’s broken about our health care.”
But so have the 14 physicians who serve in the U.S. House. And nine of them are Republicans, who will most likely vote against Obama’s health care package. Earlier this year, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a Marietta obstetrician who has delivered more than 5,000 babies, called the Obama plan “a move towards socialism.”
Ditto for the two doctors in the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who host a twice-a-week Webcast — “The Senate Doctors Show” — about the dangers of Obama’s proposal. Their firsthand understanding of medicine lets them serve as “a kind of truth squad” on health care reform, as Barrasso recently bragged.
Nonsense. By pretending that personal experience gives doctors special authority over the reform, we ignore the crucial difference between technical and political knowledge. Just because you know how to deliver a baby doesn’t mean you know how health care is delivered.
Indeed, most doctors don’t. A recent University of Michigan survey of 58,000 medical students from 2003 to 2007 revealed that less than half of them believe they received adequate training about America’s health care system. By contrast, nine of 10 respondents felt well-prepared to make clinical decisions.
It’s been that way for a very long time. Like most professional training institutions, medical schools teach people to render service to an individual client. And most other things — including the social and political dimensions of professional life — fall by the wayside.
As early as 1921, the Association of American Medical Colleges recommended that medical schools devote 170 hours — that is, between 3 percent and 4 percent of total curriculum time — to “preventive medicine and hygiene.” But surveys soon showed that most medical schools fell far short of this target. Students learned how to make individual patients better, not how to improve medical care for everyone.
Listen to an AAMC report from 1942, which could have been written yesterday: “Deans and faculties of medical schools, though in general professing to consider it essential to provide sound instruction in preventive medicine and public health, do not actually regard this subject as important.”
Since then, to be fair, medical schools have revised their curricula to add more social and political topics. At George Washington University’s medical school, for example, classes have visited Capitol Hill to observe debates over health care. The school is also offering a policy track for students, who will study health economics and craft their own proposed reforms.
But fewer than 10 percent of GW medical students choose this program, which tells you something important about their priorities. And it also tells you that we should be wary of trusting doctors on health reform, unless they have made a special study of its complexities.
The same goes for other professionals, of course. What do lawyers know about the economics of tort reform, really, or engineers about the politics of public infrastructure? Not much, I’d guess, because they generally don’t have to learn it as part of their preparation.
My field, education, used to be an exception. From the 1900s into the 1980s, future teachers were required to take so-called “foundations” courses in the history, philosophy and politics of education. But at most schools of education, including mine, these classes have been scaled back in favor of more “practical” courses on skills and methods.
That’s fine, if all we want to do is prepare practitioners. But if we also want our teachers — or our doctors — to participate knowledgeably in public debates about their practice, we’ll have to give them the training to do so.
“If we don’t expect doctors to understand the health care system, who is going to?” asked one author of the University of Michigan study of medical students. It’s a fair point. And until our doctors answer it, they shouldn’t get any more authority over health care questions than you. Or than me.
Posted on: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 - 05:12
SOURCE: Truthdig (11-24-09)
Party discipline soon weakened, and legislators again comfortably crossed party lines. Even at the New Deal’s high point, the Republican minority, after opposing many of the details, often supported major reforms, such as Social Security. More recently, in the mid-1960s, conservative Midwestern Republicans helped break filibusters and the obstructionist tactics of conservative Southern Democrats (many still mired in “lost cause” nostalgia).
We have now regressed. Rarely in our history has partisanship been more narrow and rigid. The Republican Party is frozen in an obstructionist, anti-Obama posture, while offering no counterproposals. Our vaunted democratic process is dysfunctional. Party comity and bipartisanship are at an ebb. As a result, the process of nominating and confirming federal judges has broken down.
The opposition’s decision to stall and oppose President Barack Obama’s judicial nominations smacks of hypocrisy, and further draws into question the majority’s ability to govern.
Political majorities throughout our history have regarded the judiciary as a desirable prize. Thomas Jefferson had little opportunity to pack the Supreme Court, but he and his successors reshaped the judicial branch rather significantly from its Federalist origins in 1789.
Abraham Lincoln in 1862 told Congress he would not make any Supreme Court nominations until Congress readjusted the boundaries of the circuits—in those days a nominee had to be from the area for which he was chosen. Five of the then nine circuits consisted of slave states. Once the boundaries were redrawn and new judges appointed by 1869, the South found itself with only one circuit, exclusively consisting of old Confederate states. The Republican Party had its prize, and its nominees dominated the federal judiciary for decades. And so it was for the Democrats when Franklin D. Roosevelt named eight Supreme Court justices.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency began a concerted Republican campaign to capture the judiciary. Since the parties commonly regarded the judiciary as a prize, Democrats passively accepted most Reagan choices until he selected the ultraconservative Robert Bork, who stirred strong emotions across the political spectrum. Bork’s views offered a rallying cry for those who blamed the judiciary for progressive advances on race, women’s rights, civil rights and federalism, progress they ardently opposed. Bork’s equally committed opponents viewed his judicial philosophy as mere scholarly veneer, masking his commitment to reverse prevailing ideas.
Today’s arena for judicial nominations is the Bork battleground writ large. Words and phrases are twisted to become terribly distorted slogans of “judicial activism,” “originalism” and “judicial restraint.” The nominee’s life is parsed and affiliations are scrutinized in a desperate effort to find links to the ACLU, the Ku Klux Klan or Planned Parenthood. The opposition is loath to cede anything.
Nomination hearings are thinly disguised burlesque. Most questions involve nominees’ stands on the abortion precedents. The nominees find myriad ways to avoid answering such questions. Has anybody ever considered asking the nominees what they think of John Marshall’s great rulings, which remain basic to American law today? In the famous prep session for nominees, such material probably is not reviewed. During John Roberts’ confirmation hearing, some reference was made to his clerkship with William Rehnquist, but no one asked about his clerkship with Henry Friendly, an important, influential U.S. circuit justice. The confirmation hearings are carnival shows. Attempts to probe a nominee’s judicial philosophy are nothing but sham. This is not unique to high-profile Supreme Court nominees.
The recent political salvos and maneuvers to thwart Obama’s nomination of district Judge David Hamilton to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals offer a preview of coming attractions for judicial nominations. Hamilton probably is representative of most judges, who work on a day-to-day basis with often unspectacular cases and decisions. The American Bar Association endorsed Hamilton as “well-qualified,” and the Indianan has won bipartisan praise from his state’s senators, Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Richard Lugar.
“I’m at a loss to think that we could have someone of a greater ideological nature than Judge Hamilton,” retorted the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama, who likes to be called Jeff when he is on the national stage. He attacked Hamilton’s views on abortion, hurling the charge of “activism,” and he zeroed in on Hamilton’s 2005 ruling that the Indiana Legislature had breached First Amendment requirements for separation of church and state. Sessions found a spark for a filibuster and the predictable ideological firestorm.
Hamilton had ruled against the Legislature’s lopsided use of Christian clergy members, who delivered invocations 41 times, while one was by a rabbi and another by a Muslim cleric. Hamilton carefully ruled that “all are free to pray as they wish in their own houses of worship or in other settings,” but he added that “official prayers [must] be inclusive and non-sectarian, and not advance one particular religion.” The Court of Appeals’ overturning of the decision was on procedural grounds, a point unnoticed by Sessions.
Interestingly, the circuit justices overturned a Hamilton opinion that the First Amendment did not prohibit Indianapolis’ attempt to require parental consent for children’s access to video games of sexual content or extreme violence. The appellate court in effect supported First Amendment rights of children. Sessions has been strangely quiet on this case.
On Nov. 17, the Senate ended the stall and voted 70-29 to end the filibuster. Ten Republicans voted for cloture, including Lugar. Two days later, the full Senate voted 59-39, with Lugar casting the sole Republican aye vote. For all the fuss, the confirmation will probably have little political effect. The 7th Circuit appellate court, which serves Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, has seven judges nominated by Republican presidents and will have four, including Hamilton, chosen by a Democrat.
Sen. Sessions, the Republican-designated point man on judicial nominations, has a pertinent history. In 1986, Reagan nominated then-U.S. Attorney Sessions for a federal judgeship. The Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee held a prompt hearing, but Democrats unearthed a sorry record. Thanks to Sessions’ dubious past of offensive racial remarks and notions, the committee rejected his nomination, 10-8. Sessions now is a man on a mission, supported by outside lobbying groups, to thwart Obama’s nominations. Former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese secured a letter signed by 24 leading conservatives, urging a filibuster against Hamilton, calling him “precisely the kind of liberal judicial activist who would use our federal courts as his own superlegislature.” Nine of the 24 signatories opposed judicial filibusters during the George W. Bush administration, yet they now urged GOP senators to filibuster against the Hamilton nomination. We need a scorecard to keep track of these players in their ever-changing positions.
Obama has barely attempted to secure judges of his liking. There are 98 vacancies for district and appellate courts, and only 19 pending nominees. A majority of federal judges were appointed by Reagan and the two Bushes.
The David Hamilton saga in the Senate is a foretaste of what we can expect. George W. Bush, in his first year as president, made 64 nominations to federal courts; Obama has made 26 in the 10 months since his inauguration, according to the Alliance for Justice. Bush had 18 confirmed choices in his first year; Obama has had seven so far, including Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
For the president, time is getting short. Presidential power often can be seen as the story of a steady erosion of support in Congress. Obama should not lose sight of his moment and his opportunity to shape (and reshape) the judiciary in his own image—just as his predecessors have done throughout history.
Posted on: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 - 05:06
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (11-25-09)
To borrow a computer term, if Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden, and Nidal Hasan represent Islamism 1.0, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the prime minister of Turkey), Tariq Ramadan (a Swiss intellectual), and Keith Ellison (a U.S. congressman) represent Islamism 2.0. The former kill more people but the latter pose a greater threat to Western civilization.
The 1.0 version attacks those perceived as obstructing its goal of a society ruled by a global caliphate and totally regulated by the Shari'a (Islamic law). Islamism's original tactics, from totalitarian rule to mega-terrorism, encompass unlimited brutality. Three thousand dead in one attack? Bin Laden's search for atomic weaponry suggests the murderous toll could be a hundred or even a thousand times larger.
However, a review of the past three decades, since Islamism became a significant political force, finds that violence alone rarely works. Survivors of terrorism rarely capitulate to radical Islam – not after the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat in Egypt in 1981, nor the 9/11 attacks, the Bali bombings of 2002, the Madrid bombing of 2004, the Amman bombing of 2005, or the terrorist campaigns in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Terrorism does physical damage and kills and intimidates but it rarely overturns the existing order. Imagine Islamists had caused the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 tsunami – what could these have lastingly achieved?
Non-terrorist violence aimed at applying the Shari'a does hardly better. Revolution (meaning, a wide-scale social revolt) took Islamists to power in just one place at one time - Iran in 1978–79. Likewise, coup d'état (a military overthrow) carried them to power just once – Sudan in 1989. Same for civil war – Afghanistan in 1996.
If the violence of Islamism 1.0 rarely succeeds in forwarding the Shari'a, the Islamism 2.0 strategy of working through the system does better. Islamists, adept at winning public opinion, represent the main opposition force in Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Islamists have enjoyed electoral success in Algeria in 1992, Bangladesh in 2001, Turkey in 2002, and Iraq in 2005.
Once in power, they can move the country toward Shari'a. As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces the wrath of Iranian street demonstrators and bin Laden cowers in a cave, Erdoğan basks in public approval, remakes the Republic of Turkey, and offers an enticing model for Islamists worldwide.
Recognizing this pattern, Al-Qaeda's once-leading theorist has publicly repudiated terrorism and adopted political means. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (b. 1950, also known by the nom de guerre Dr. Fadl) was accused of helping assassinate Sadat. In 1988 he published a book that argued for perpetual, violent jihad against the West. With time, however, Sharif observed the inutility of violent attacks and instead advocated a strategy of infiltrating the state and influencing society.
In a recent book, he condemned the use of force against Muslims ("Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers") and even against non-Muslims (9/11 was counterproductive, for "what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy's buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours?").
Sharif's evolution from theorist of terrorism to advocate of lawful transformation echoes a much broader shift; accordingly, as author Lawrence Wright notes, his defection poses a "terrible threat" to Al-Qaeda. Other once-violent Islamist organizations in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria have recognized the potential of lawful Islamism and largely renounced violence. One also sees a parallel shift in Western countries; Ramadan and Ellison represent a burgeoning trend.
(What one might call Islamism 1.5 – a combination of hard and soft means, of external and internal approaches – also works. It involves lawful Islamists softening up the enemy, then violent elements seizing power. The Hamas takeover of Gaza proved that such a combination can work: win elections in 2006, then stage a violent insurrection in 2007. Similar processes are possibly underway in Pakistan. The United Kingdom might be undergoing the opposite process, whereby violence creates a political opening.)
In conclusion, only Islamists, not fascists or communists, have gone well beyond crude force to win public support and develop a 2.0 version. Because this aspect of Islamism undermines traditional values and destroys freedoms, it may threaten civilized life even more than does 1.0's brutality.
Posted on: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 - 04:22
SOURCE: Jeffrey Wasserstrom (11-23-09)
Debate continues over whether Barack Obama’s trip to China was a success, but there has been consensus on one thing: it's best understood in light of the visits to Beijing that other American presidents have made since the seventies. We agree. But we do not just mean the 1970s, which is as far back as other commentators, often most concerned with strategies on human rights, have tended to go. We think that a look back to the 1870s has at least as much to tell us.
When it comes to approaches to some political issues, recent history may be the only place one needs to turn. For a sense of what U.S.-Chinese interactions can reveal about the way global hierarchies change over time, however, it is crucial to move between the present moment (near the end of the first decade of what some insist will be"The Chinese Century") and the late 1800s (when the period often dubbed"The American Century" was about to begin).
The relevance of the 1970s is obvious. When Nixon went to China near the start of that decade, he was the first sitting American President to do so, and the decade ended with the full"normalization" of ties between Washington and Beijing.
The significance of the 1870s lies in the fact that Ulysses S. Grant was on a world tour that included a stop in China as that decade came to a close. And although by the time Grant did his globetrotting, he was a former occupant of the White House, he did many of the same things in China that ex-President that Nixon, Obama, and all recent Commanders-in-Chief in between have done while in office.
Grant met with some of China's leaders to discuss U.S.-China relations. He expressed the hope for a future in which closer ties would develop between our “young” country and the “ancient” one across the Pacific. And he even went to see the Great Wall and reflected on its meaning. In his case, inspired by a comment about the landmark made by William H. Seward (a member of Abraham Lincoln's storied"team of rivals" who made it to China earlier in the 1870s), Grant mused on the fact that as much labor was probably required to construct it as had been expended on building all of America's railroads, which at the time were considered marvels of state-of-the-art engineering.
Continuities of this sort are interesting--to us and perhaps also to our President, given his oft-noted fascination with nineteenth-century history. But the biggest pay-off to looking back to the 1870s lies in alerting us to a series of reversals, in each of which one can see parallels between today’s China and Grant’s America.
One such striking parallel relates to large-scale global events. The most important of these in Grant’s day were World’s Fairs, and just three years before his trip to China, he had presided over the first of these ever held outside of Europe. That spectacle, the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, signaled America’s entry into the charmed circle of thoroughly modern lands. It was a wake-up call to established powers such as France and Great Britain that the ground was shifting under their feet--though the impressive showing American industry had made the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the very first World's Fair, had made some European leaders take notice even earlier.
The Olympics are now as important as World’s Fairs once were. And when Obama went to China, it was his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, who was fresh from presiding over a grand spectacle, the 2008 Beijing Games, which was the first event of its kind held on Chinese soil. Like the Philadelphia World's Fair, it was viewed by many as an impressively produced gala. And like that International Exhibition, it was interpreted as symbolizing that a familiar geopolitical landscape had been altered, and would soon perhaps be transformed further.
Another reversal of positions between Grant’s day and Obama’s relates to education. In 1879, as in 2009, student exchanges were hailed as a promising method for increasing mutual understanding between the United States and China. But Grant emphasized the value of more Chinese students coming here to learn our modern ways, while Obama stressed the need for more American youths to study in China.
Still another reversal relates to debt. Grant, no doubt with his personal money woes in mind, warned his counterparts in China of the dangers of letting their country go into debt to any foreign power. We don't know what Obama and Hu said to one another about debts, but surely if the subject came up, the focus would have been on the American treasury bonds that are held by China.
These kinds of switches should not surprise us for, the great contrasts relating to political systems aside, China is now much like the U.S. was then. This is a point that others have made before us, including American historian Stephen Mihm, whose essay"A Nation of Outlaws" (Boston Globe, August 26, 2007) traces parallels between the way an era of"exuberant capitalism" played out on our side of the Pacific over a century ago and is now unfolding in China.
It is now China, not the United States, that is a rapidly industrializing nation whose rise is generating wonder and concern. It is now China that is a land of impressive engineering feats, with the recently completed high-altitude railway to Tibet a 21st century counterpart to the transcontinental railroad that was celebrated as a modern wonder in Grant's day. And it is now China whose growing economic clout, combined with a sense that its rise may have only begun, is sending the same kinds of shockwaves through the geopolitical landscape that the surge of the United States generated back when the global order was dominated solely by Western European powers.
Keeping the 1970s in mind when thinking about Obama’s trip is useful, as it helps us appreciate some important issues. For example, the degree to which economic and environmental challenges have replaced Cold War ones in pushing China and the United States together, while also making it difficult for the two countries to form an effective partnership, an international counterpart to the"team of rivals" so admired by Obama.
It is at least as important, though, to go back to the 1870s. To a time, long before ping-pong diplomacy, when the United States was the energetic, continent-sized Pacific power whose upward trajectory was a source of fascination and concern.
Posted on: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 - 03:45
SOURCE: Talking Points Memo (11-23-09)
The meteoric ascent of Sarah Palin as a celebrity puzzles many Americans. Why, her detractors ask, did a presidential candidate choose an inexperienced and inarticulate former beauty queen who had governed the state of Alaska for two years as his vice-presidential running mate? Why were right-wing Americans not disillusioned when Palin simply decided to quit her position as Governor after only two years of service? Why is Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek in the United States this week, in short shorts, and athletic gear, holding several Blackberry phones, as she prepares to exercise her rather amazing body in a gym? Is this the image she intends to use as she pursues her ambition to run for president?
If the rest of the world finds this bizarre celebrity puzzling, so do many Americans who know there is little beneath her alluring exterior. This week, Sarah Palin is everywhere, on dozens of talk shows, flogging her new book, Going Rogue, and quite frankly, she's a huge embarrassment to many people in this country. And yet, her new book is already a best seller in the states.
Sarah Palin knows almost nothing about domestic or foreign policy. During the presidential campaign, Katie Couric, a news anchor, asked her what magazines she routinely read. Palin hedged, became evasive and, in the end, could not describe any journal at all. More recently, on the right-wing cable network Fox News, Sean Hannity, one of the well-known conservative blowhards, asked Palin what can be done to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Palin's answer revealed her confusion between Iraq and Iran:
:Cutting off the imports into Iraq, of their refined petroleum products. They're reliant -- 40 to 45 percent of their energy supply is reliant on those imports. We have some control over there. And some of the beneficial international monetary deals that Iraq benefits from -- we can start implementing some sanctions there and start really shaking things up, and telling Ahmadinejad, nobody is going to stand for this."
This is the same person who argued she was well-equipped to deal with foreign policy because she could see Russia from her home.
To really understand the rise of Sarah Palin, you have to know something about gender politics, as well as American political culture. Sarah Palin projects a paradoxical image to the American public which many religious conservatives nevertheless find comforting. On the one hand, she appears on the cover of Newsweek as a sexy siren who, as the mother of five, is still a rather stunning and glamorous former beauty queen. At the same time, she tells listeners that she is a simple, ordinary hockey mom , married to a wonderful man, and the mother of five, including a child with Down syndrome. Complicating that image, however, is that fact that she has spent much of the last year away from her family, pursuing her ambition to run as president in 2012. And somehow these contradictions work and don't unravel the careful image she had chosen to embody--the sexy siren who's greatest strength is that she's just an ordinary housewife.
Why has she been so successful? Because right-wing populism is a strong strain in American political history. Politicians pretend to be just ordinary folk, raising hell about intellectual elites. Sometimes they have also attacked economic elites, but that has certainly not been the case since 1980. Instead, their current mantra is lowering taxes, fighting against health care reform, using the government only for wars, and embracing "traditional values," which includes opposing abortion, Darwinian evolution, and gay marriage. Their attacks are not against the wealthy, but against government spending for the ordinary people and cultural and intellectual elites.
If Palin knew any American history, she'd know that right-wing populism invites great anger and sensationalism, but has not yet resulted in electoral success. For a conservative to win the presidency in the United States, he or she must have the warm genial quality that made Ronald Reagan so popular. Even George W. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative," a friendly frat boy who would buy you a beer, not someone who would try to incite the fury of angry mobs.
Palin, on the other hand, does try to stir up anger among her admirers. She is snarky and sarcastic. She lies and tells the public that health care reform would create "death panels" that would decide which elders could receive medical treatment. With great authority, she accuses President Obama of hanging out with terrorists. Part of her appeal is that she is a maverick who can seemingly "go rogue" without suffering any consequences. This image appeals to those who see themselves as outside of modern society, alienated by the cultural life and tastes of the East and West Coasts, left behind by history, wedded to her belief that the "end days" are coming within our lifetimes. Faith, she says, is what keeps her going.
Rumors are flying that the Associated Press is currently fact checking her book, which will undoubtedly reveal some whoppers. But that won't matter to her admirers. She speaks for those who love to look at her, who don't mind that her knowledge is thin, that her sentences are mangled, and that her ordinary mother routine is a ruse, or that she simply quit her job as Governor because she was bored.
Does she have a chance to run for president? I don't think so, but the Republican Party has become the home for ideological purists like Sarah Palin. They are market and religious fundamentalists. "Moderate" Republicans have become political oxymorons. They are targeted by right -wing purists and then replaced by more conservative candidates. While it is true that America is a centrist-right society, ideological purists have never won national office. Still, in primaries, where the conservative base is very strong, it is conceivable that that Republic party would self-destruct by annointing someone for their ideological purity. Sarah Palin fits that bill.
But President Obama would have to do everything wrong to lose to Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, there is a great deal that can go wrong in four years--two disastrous wars and a broken economy, for starters. What she does possess is celebrity and name recognition. She's famous for being famous. My best guess is that she will become a talk show host on the conservative cable network Fox News. But, eventually, she would lose that gig because even those ideological right-wing talk show hosts are quick on their feet and speak in semi-coherent sentences.
Right-wing populism is strongest in American when there is social anxiety, economic panic, and a sense of personal desperation. As the dollar weakens, and America ebbs as the world's greatest superpower, there is plenty of this alienation among people whose jobs have been outsourced, who have been laid off and lost their homes, and blame intellectual and cultural elites, rather than the extraordinary greed of the financial industry and the government's lack of strong regulation.
I don't think Sarah Palin has any chance to become a serious presidential candidate. But, I could be wrong. In 1970, I predicted that the first female president in the U.S. would be a right-wing conservative. I really hope I was wrong.
Posted on: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 - 03:38
SOURCE: City Journal (11-22-09)
Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism. The progressives, led by President Woodrow Wilson, placed their faith in reason and the better nature of the American people. Expanded government would serve as an engine of popular goodwill to soften the harsh rigors of industrial capitalism. Describing the condition of his fellow intellectuals prior to World War I, Lewis Mumford exclaimed that “there was scarcely one who did not assume that mankind either was permanently good or might sooner or later reach such a state of universal beatitude.” After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.
But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.
One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”
Making a decisive break with Wilson and their optimism about America, the disenchanted progressives renamed themselves “liberals.” The progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics; the new liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom both at home and abroad.
Wilson, a devout Presbyterian and former college professor, was the first and probably the only president to have studied socialism systematically. In 1887, as a young man, he responded to the growth of vast industrial monopolies that threatened individual freedom by arguing that “in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals.” In the 1912 presidential race, he said that “when you do socialism justice, it is hardly different from the heart of Christianity itself.” Four years later, he brushed aside intense opposition to appoint two pro-labor-union justices to the Supreme Court and backed railroad workers in their fight for an eight-hour day. The president imposed a surtax on the wealthy and won the support of such prominent socialists as Upton Sinclair and Helen Keller.
For many on the left, Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” opened the way for the emergence of a more vibrant American culture. The war in Europe seemed far away, and progressives were for the moment imbued with an impregnable optimism. The administration’s critique of European power politics and talk of the need for international law gave pacifist Jane Addams “unlimited faith in the president.” When Meyer London, the antiwar socialist congressman from New York’s Lower East Side, and Socialist Party leader Morris Hilquit visited the White House to talk about the prospects for peace in Europe, they came away concluding that Wilson’s “sympathies are entirely with us.” Similarly, as Thomas Knock recounts in his book To End All Wars, after visiting the White House, the leaders of the American Union Against Militarism felt that “the President had taken us into his bosom.” Wilson, they noted, “always referred to the Union Against Militarism as though he were a member of it” and talked about the need to create “a family of nations.”
The courtship between Wilson and the leftists was nurtured by the hard fought 1916 presidential election. Wilson faced a Republican Party that had recovered from a 1912 split between Teddy Roosevelt’s breakaway Bull Moose progressives and anti-reform regulars to coalesce around Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes. As war raged in Europe, the incumbent narrowly won by bringing sizable numbers of Bull Moosers (who admired Germany’s proto-welfare state) and Eugene Debs’s Socialists into his “peace camp.”
Even after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, pushed by Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare and the public revelation of the Kaiser’s plans for an alliance with Mexico to reconquer the Southwest, Wilson maintained his strong ties with the largely antiwar Left. The very speech in which he asked for a congressional declaration of war also welcomed the Russian revolution that had overthrown the czar and put the socialist Alexander Kerensky (temporarily) in power. Wilson effusively, if inaccurately, described the revolution as the fulfillment of the Russian people’s long struggle for democracy, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing declared that it “had removed the one objection to affirming that the European War was a war between Democracy and Absolutism.” Some progressives even backed America’s entry. The progressive animus toward corrupt and overmighty party bosses and autocratic monarchists was “readily transferred to an overbearing Kaiser and a hegemonic war machine,” notes historian Morton Keller.
Wilson insisted on referring to the United States not as an ally of England and France but as an “associated power,” and he made a point of keeping U.S. forces strictly under American command, rankling the British and French, whom he regarded as imperialists. Eight months later, shortly after Lenin had taken power in Russia, Wilson expressed ambivalence about Bolshevism: “My heart is with them, but my mind has a contempt for them.” Yet Wilson’s “Fourteen Points, his message of good luck to the ‘republic of labor unions’ in Russia . . . his warning to the Allied powers that their treatment of Bolshevik Russia would be the ‘acid test’ of their ‘good will . . . intelligence and unselfish sympathy’: these moves were immensely impressive to us,” explained magazine editor Max Eastman, speaking for many leftists and progressives. Indeed, when Russian War Commissar Leon Trotsky coined the now famous concept of the “fellow traveler,” he was referring to Wilson. Trotsky sensed that the American president shared the Bolsheviks’ hatred of European imperialism, and he thought that Soviet Russia and a reformed America would travel on parallel tracks into a brighter future.
While Wilson increasingly spoke of international comity, relations between ethnic groups within the United States were breaking down. The Kaiser’s aggression in Eastern Europe prompted pitched battles between Germans and Slavs in the streets of Chicago. At the same time, nearly half a million Germans in America returned home to fight for the fatherland. Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
The government responded with repression, as journalist Ann Hagedorn chronicles in Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America. Under the Sedition Act of 1918, people were sentenced to 10 years in prison for saying that they preferred the Kaiser to Wilson; others were jailed for mocking salesmen of Liberty Bonds, which supported the war effort. Most famously, socialist leader Debs was jailed for criticizing conscription.
Wilson placed George Creel, a journalist, socialist, and strong supporter of child labor laws and women’s suffrage, in charge of ensuring home-front morale through the Committee for Public Information. But the Committee, which Creel described as “the world’s greatest adventure in advertising,” wildly overshot its mark, encouraging the banning of everything German, from Beethoven to sauerkraut to teaching the German language. The Justice Department and the attorney general, Thomas Gregory, encouraged local vigilantism against Germans, giving the American Protective League, a quarter-of-a-million-strong nativist organization, semi-official status to spy on those suspected of disloyalty. The League went out of its way to break up labor strikes as well, while branding its critics Reds.
Responding to the League’s excesses, Wilson declared that he’d “rather the blamed place should be blown up than persecute innocent people.” But in the next breath he said, “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way.” Despite his misgivings, Wilson deferred to Gregory’s judgment and refrained from taking action against extremists. Only after the armistice ended the war in November 1918 did Wilson, heeding the advice of incoming attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, move to end government cooperation with the League. But by now, the disparity between Wilson’s call for extending liberty abroad and the suppression of liberty at home had become a running sore for disenchanted progressives.
The armistice largely ended the fighting in Europe, but it opened a new chapter in hostilities at home: the Red Scare. Back in March, the Bolsheviks’ effectively unconditional surrender to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk had created a cat’s cradle of anticommunist fear intertwined with hostility to the Huns. Germany got control of the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine, with their attendant coal and oil resources—freeing the Kaiser’s army to focus on the Western front, to deadly effect. Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917 by way of a sealed railroad car supplied by Berlin was now seen as proof, and not only by conspiratorialists, that the Bolshevik leader was a German agent.
Progressives and leftists, counseled by Raymond Robbins, who had worked for Wilson in 1912 and served as an unofficial ambassador to the Bolsheviks, adopted a counter-conspiracy ethos that persists even today. Smitten by Bolshevism, Robbins wrote to Lenin that “it has been my eager desire . . . to be of some use in interpreting this new democracy to the people of America.” Robbins also mistakenly blamed the U.S. for forcing Lenin to agree to Germany’s harsh terms at Brest-Litovsk. Over the next several years, explains historian Peter Filene, Robbins’s efforts helped shape the views of many American progressives. They became enraged when Wilson gave in to pressure from France and England, both suffering enormous casualties on the western front, and provided half-hearted American military support to a campaign that tried to force the Bolsheviks back into the war. Filene points out that for progressives, the “betrayal” of which most Americans accused the Bolsheviks was actually an American perfidy.
Here too, Wilson, juggling principle and practicality, proved strikingly inconstant. In the words of German scholar George Schild, “the Wilson who agreed to the Allied intervention [against the Soviets] in the summer of 1918” and the Wilson who just one year later in Paris helped save the Soviet Union by insisting that the Germans relinquish their conquests on the eastern front “almost seem like two different people.” Faced with the Soviet challenge and bearing the new ideology of universal democracy, Wilson floated the idea that the Bolsheviks should be invited to the peace conference. (Churchill blocked the suggestion.) Wilson the progressive argued that “war won’t defeat Bolshevism, food will.” Capitalism, Wilson argued, had to reform itself to stave off Bolshevik barbarism.
Wilson’s efforts to reconstruct Europe would largely fail, not only because the U.S. refused to join the League of Nations, but because the task at hand was undoable; what the war had sundered could not be put back together. Many former Wilson supporters were angry and disillusioned with the meager fruits of a war that had failed to make the world safe for democracy. But those feelings were shared widely across the political spectrum. Those who were soon to call themselves liberals were particularly provoked by wartime conscription, the repression of civil liberties, and the wildly overwrought fears of Bolshevism at home.
Already in 1918, when the war was still raging, labor unions, emboldened by a surge in membership and squeezed by an inflation-triggered decline in living standards, had engaged in a wave of strikes, some of them repressed by the American Protective League, local police forces, and agents of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Walkouts led by the Industrial Workers of the World, known for work sabotage, seemed particularly ominous. IWW members, known as Wobblies, sometimes described themselves as Lenin’s advance guard. At the end of the year, in the wake of the armistice, New York mayor John Hylan banned the socialist red flag at public gatherings, and shortly thereafter a socialist rally at Madison Square Garden was broken up by 500 soldiers and sailors. The bad blood endured. On the first anniversary of the war’s end, American Legionnaires and Wobblies clashed in Centralia, Washington. Six Wobblies were killed.
Every strike, confrontation, and racial incident was taken, on both left and right, as a manifestation of Bolshevism. Every challenge to the existing social order, no matter how justified, wound up attributed to the red menace. African-Americans’ so-called “uppityness”—insufficient deference to whites—was blamed on homegrown Bolshevism and met with lynchings and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. White attacks on blacks set off black riots in Chicago and Washington that federal troops were called in to suppress.
The Red Scare intensified in June 1919, when Attorney General Palmer was nearly killed by a terrorist bomb planted in his Georgetown home. Bombs went off in seven other cities the same night. The bombers were probably from the Galleanisti group of Italian anarchists, which included the as-yet unknown Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, notes Beverley Gage in The Day Wall Street Exploded. But the Russian Bolsheviki were seen as responsible, reigniting the intense, hysterical nationalism of the war years. Palmer, who subsequently claimed to have a list of 60,000 subversives, engaged in a series of warrantless raids aimed at capturing the mostly immigrant red radicals, some of whom were jailed or shipped back to Russia. With no reproach from Wilson, Palmer trampled on civil liberties and harassed the innocent as well as the likely guilty. Then came the famed Wall Street bombing of September 1920, which claimed the lives of 38 New Yorkers and injured 400; like the Palmer attack, it was probably perpetrated by the Galleanisti anarchists, but the Bolsheviks again took the blame.
An aggressive nationalism and an accelerated Americanization became political twins. Both demanded something that, with the partial exception of the Civil War North, had never before existed in America—a coherent, irrefragable governmental power. In Europe, war had become bound up with revolution; in the U.S., the war, together with the Bolshevik challenge, called up the seemingly un-American concept of a General Will—a 100 percent Americanism that brooked no opposition. Progressives’ disenchantment with America intensified.
Even Prohibition contributed to progressives’ growing sense of estrangement from the country. Before the war, progressives had broadly supported Prohibition as a means to protect working-class families from the economic depredations of drink. But after the war, the emerging liberals were disturbed by what they saw as cultural continuation of wartime repression. “Like most sensible people,” shouted liberal Harold Stearns, “I regard prohibition as an outrage and a direct invitation to revolution.”
The silver lining of the wartime-spawned repression was that it laid the groundwork for the modern interpretation of the First Amendment that would eventually extend free-speech rights to individuals harassed not only by the federal government but by states and localities as well. The strongest section of Hagedorn’s Savage Peace deals with the key case in advancing this new understanding. Jacob Abrams, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a bookbinder, had printed anarchist leaflets in English and Yiddish and dropped them from buildings on New York’s Lower East Side. The pamphlets bitterly denounced Wilson’s cooperating with England and France in trying to force Russia’s government back into the war against Germany. Zealous prosecutors saw the leaflets as violations of the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to undermine American wartime policy. Abrams, sentenced to 20 years in jail, would eventually be deported.
In 1919, the Supreme Court upheld Abrams’s conviction. But in his dissent, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, while agreeing that “speech that produces or is intended to produce a clear and imminent danger” can be prosecuted, maintained that he saw no such danger in Abrams’s leaflets, which he described as “silly” writings by an “unknown man.” Holmes’s underlying reasoning would prove extraordinarily influential. Like John Stuart Mill, Holmes found that a maximum of free speech was essential for a successful society. America, he argued, had an interest in discovering truth available only through “the marketplace of ideas,” where competing viewpoints are compelled to make their best case.
Palmer had hoped to ride the Red Scare into the White House. But within a year the amiable, if ineffectual, Warren G. Harding of Ohio was ensconced in Washington, along with his card-playing cronies. The crusade that had ended abroad was brought to a close at home. Harding released Debs from prison and returned America to what he dubbed “normalcy.”
For intellectuals and writers who had anticipated utopia in 1916, however, the postwar years brought anger and intensified alienation. The war, said writer Floyd Dell, had produced a generation of young minds “trained in disillusion.” They felt betrayed by Wilson, who had not only suppressed civil liberties but had tried to force Russia back into the war and made compromises with European imperialism at Versailles. They disdained a society that had supported both the Red Scare and Prohibition. In the words of an influential young liberal, “we crushed German militarism only to find that we ourselves had adopted many of its worst features.”
Literary critic Malcolm Cowley spoke for many intellectuals in the wake of the war: “We believed that we had fought for an empty cause, that the Germans were no worse than the Allies, no better, that the world consisted of fools and scoundrels.” Critic Harold Stearns, in his seminal 1919 book Liberalism in America, asserted bitterly that “in Soviet countries there is no fact of freedom of the press and no pretense that there is. In America today there is in fact no freedom of the press and we only make the matter worse by pretending that there is.” The state, said the soured progressive Frederick Howe, “seemed to want to hurt people; it showed no concern for innocence. . . . It was not my America, it was something else.”
What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.
The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.
The underside of this new sensibility was an inverted moralism and a quasi-aristocratic hauteur that has dogged political liberalism down to the present day. “Something oppressed” the liberals, wrote Cowley in 1934; “some force was preventing them from doing their best work.” At the time, that “something” was “the stupidity of the crowd, it was hurry and haste, it was Mass Production, Babbittry, Our Business Civilization; or perhaps it was the Machine.” As this current carried into the 1950s, what oppressed the liberals became affluence, suburbia, two-car garages, and backyard barbecues.
Most recently, the liberal plaint has been taken up by the aging but affluent “68ers,” who supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign because they saw themselves as victims of American society. If they had lived to see it, their progenitors of 1919 would have smiled in recognition.
Posted on: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 - 03:24
SOURCE: TomDispatch (website of Tom Engelhardt ) (11-22-09)
Despite recent large-scale insurgent suicide bombings that have killed scores of civilians and the fact that well over 100,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in that country, coverage of the U.S. war in Iraq has been largely replaced in the mainstream press by the (previously) "forgotten war" in Afghanistan. A major reason for this is the plan, developed at the end of the Bush years and confirmed by President Obama, to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq to 50,000 by August 2010 and withdraw most of the remaining forces by December 2011.
Getting out of Iraq, however, doesn't mean getting out of the Middle East. For one thing, it's likely that a sizeable contingent of U.S. forces will remain garrisoned on several large and remotely situated U.S. bases in Iraq well past December 2011. Still others will be stationed close by -- on bases throughout the region where, with little media attention since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, construction to harden, expand, and upgrade U.S. and allied facilities has gone on to this day.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee early this year, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), stated: "The Arabian Peninsula commands significant U.S. attention and focus because of its importance to our interests and the potential for insecurity." He continued:
"[T]he countries of the Arabian Peninsula are key partners... CENTCOM ground, air, maritime, and special operations forces participate in numerous operations and training events, bilateral and multilateral, with our partners from the Peninsula. We help develop indigenous capabilities for counter terrorism; border, maritime, and critical infrastructure security; and deterring Iranian aggression. As a part of all this, our FMS [Foreign Military Sales] and FMF [Foreign Military Financing] programs are helping to improve the capabilities and interoperability of our partners' forces. We are also working toward an integrated air and missile defense network for the Gulf. All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE [United Arab Emirates], and others provide for US forces."
In fact, since 2001 the Pentagon has been pouring significant sums of money into the "critical base and port facilities" mentioned by the general -- both U.S. sites and those of its key regional partners. These are often ignored facts-on-the-ground, which signal just how enduring the U.S. military presence in the region is likely to be, no matter what happens in Iraq. Press coverage of this long-term infrastructural build-up has been remarkably minimal, given the implications for future conflicts in the oil heartlands of the planet. After all, Washington is sending tremendous amounts of military materiel into autocratic Middle Eastern nations and building-up bases in countries whose governments, due to domestic public opinion, often prefer that no publicity be given to the growing American military "footprint."
Given that the current conflict with al-Qaeda stemmed, in no small part, from the U.S. military presence in the region, the issue is obviously of importance. Nonetheless, coverage has been so poor that much about U.S. military efforts there remains unknown. A review of U.S. government documents, financial data, and other open-source material by TomDispatch, however, reveals that an American military building boom yet to be seriously scrutinized, analyzed, or assessed is underway in the Middle East.
Consider, then, what we can at present know now about this Pentagon build-up, country by country from Qatar to Jordan, and while you're reading, think about what we don't know -- and why Washington has chosen this path.
Qatar: The Pentagon's Persian Gulf Pentagon
In 1996, although it had no air force of its own, the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar built Al Udeid Air Base at a cost of more than $1 billion. The goal: attracting the U.S. military. In September 2001, U.S. aircraft began to operate out of the facility. By 2002, tanks, armored vehicles, dozens of warehouses, communications and computing equipment, and thousands of troops were based at and around Al Udeid. In 2005, the Qatari government spent almost $400 million to build a cutting-edge regional air operations center.
Today, Qatar is all but indispensable to the U.S. military. Just recently, for example, Central Command redeployed 750 personnel from its Tampa, Florida headquarters to its new forward headquarters at Al Udeid to test its "staff's ability to seamlessly transition command and control of operations… in the event of a crisis in the CENTCOM area of responsibility or a natural disaster in Florida."
Qatar has not, however, picked up the whole tab for the expanding U.S. military infrastructure in the country. The Pentagon has also been investing large amounts of money in upgrading facilities there for the last decade. From 2001-2009, the U.S. Army, for example, awarded $209 million in contracts for construction in the energy-rich emirate. In August, Rizzani de Eccher, an Italian engineering and construction giant, signed a $44 million deal with the Pentagon to replace an unspecified facility at Al Udeid. In September, the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded Florida-based IAP Worldwide Services a $6 million contract for "construction of a pre-engineered warehouse building... warehouse bay and related site work and utilities" at the base.
Later in the month, American International Contractors, a global construction firm that specializes in "US-funded Middle East and African infrastructure projects," inked a deal for nearly $10 million to build a Special Operations Forces Training Range, complete with "a two-story shooting house, an indoor range, breach and storage facilities[,] a test fire bunker and bunker road" in Qatar. Just days after that, the Pentagon awarded a $52 million contract to Cosmopolitan–EMTA JV to upgrade the capacity of Al Udeid's airfield by building additional aircraft parking ramps and fuel storage facilities.
Bahrain Base's and Kuwait's Subways
In nearby Bahrain -- a tiny kingdom of 750,000 people -- the U.S. stations up to 3,000 personnel, in addition to regular visits by the crews of Navy ships that spend time there. Between 2001-2009, the Navy awarded $203 million in construction contracts for military projects in the country. One big winner over that span has been the engineering and construction firm Contrack International. It received more than $50 million in U.S. government funds for such projects as building two "multi-story facilities for the U.S. Navy" complete with state-of-the-art communication interfaces and exterior landscaping.
In September 2009, the company was awarded a new $27 million deal "for the design/bid/build construction of the waterfront development program, US Naval Support Activity, Bahrain." This facility will join the Navy's undisputed crown jewel in Bahrain -- a 188,000 square-foot mega-facility known as "the Freedom Souq" that houses a PX or Navy Exchange (NEX). The NEX, in turn, offers "an ice cream shop, bicycle shop, cell phone shop, tailor shop, barber and beauty shops, self-serve laundry, dry cleaning service, rug Souq, nutrition shop, video rental, and a 24/7 mini-mart," while selling everything from cosmetics and cameras to beer and wine.
Work is also going on in nearby Oman where, in the 1930s, the British Royal Air Force utilized an airfield on Masirah Island for its ventures in the Middle East. Today, the U.S. Air Force and members of other service branches do much the same, operating out of the island's Camp Justice. From 2001-2009, the Army and Air Force each spent about $13 million on construction projects in the sultanate. Contractor Cosmopolitan-EMTA JV is now set to begin work there, too, after recently signing a $5 million contract with the Pentagon for an "Expeditionary Tent Beddown" (presumably an area meant to accommodate a potential future influx of forces). Meanwhile, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, the U.S. Army alone spent $46 million between 2001-2009 on construction projects.
In 1991, the U.S. military helped to push Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. After that, however, the country's leader, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, refused to return home "until crystal chandeliers and gold-plated bathroom fixtures could be reinstalled in Kuwait City's Bayan Palace." Today, about 30 miles south of the plush palace sits another pricey complex. Camp Arifjan grew exponentially as the Iraq War ramped up, gaining notoriety along the way as the epicenter of a massive graft and corruption scandal. Today, the base houses about 15,000 U.S. troops and features such fast-food favorites as Pizza Hut, Hardees, Subway, and Burger King.
Another facility in Kuwait that has become a major stopover point on the road to and from Baghdad is Camp Buehring. Located north of Kuwait City, near the town of Udairi, the installation is chock-a-block full of amenities, including three PXs, telephone centers, two internet cafes, Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers, a movie theater, chapel, gym, volley-ball court, basketball court, concert stage, gift shop, barber shop, jewelry store, and a number of popular eateries including Burger King, Subway, Baskin Robbins, and Starbucks.
Writing about the base recently, Captain Charles Barrett of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team remarked, "There's a USO with computers and a Café. You know the café is good because it has that little mark over the letter 'e.' Soldiers are gaming on XBOX, Play Station and Wii. There are phone banks and board games and a place where parents can read to their kids and have the DVD mailed home."
The price tag for living the big-box-base lifestyle in Kuwait has, however, been steep. From 2003 to 2009, the U.S. Army spent in excess of $502 million on contracts for construction projects in the small, oil-rich nation, while the Air Force added almost $55 million and the Navy another $7 million. Total military spending there has been more massive still. Over the same span, according to U.S. government data, the Pentagon has spent nearly $20 billion in Kuwait, buying huge quantities of Kuwaiti oil and purchasing logistical support from various contractors for its facilities there (and elsewhere), among other expenditures.
In 2006, for example, the international construction firm Archirodon was awarded $10 million to upgrade airfield lighting at Al-Salem and Al-Jaber, two Kuwaiti air bases used by American forces. Recently, there has also been a major scaling up of work at Camp Arifjan. In September, for example, the Pentagon awarded CH2M Hill Contractors a nearly $26 million deal to build a new communications facility on the base. Just days later, defense contractor ITT received an almost $87 million contract for maintenance and support services there.
Saudi Base Building and Jordan's U.S. Army Training Complex
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, "From 1950 through 2006, Saudi Arabia purchased and received from the United States weapons, military equipment, and related services through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) worth over $62.7 billion and foreign military construction services (FMCS) worth over $17.1 billion." Between 1946 and 2007, the Saudis also benefited from almost $295 million in foreign assistance funding from the U.S. military.
From the lead up to the First Gulf War in 1990 through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military stationed thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. The American presence in the kingdom -- the location of some of the holiest sites in Islam -- was a major factor in touching off al-Qaeda's current war with the United States. In 2003, in response to fundamentalist pressure on the Saudi government, the U.S. military announced it was pulling all but a small number of trainers out of the country. Yet while many U.S. troops have left, Pentagon contracts haven't -- a significant portion of them for construction projects for the Saudi Arabian military, which the U.S. trains and advises from sites like Eskan Village, a compound 20 kilometers south of Riyadh, where 800 U.S. personnel (500 of them advisors) are based.
Between 2003-2009, the U.S. Army awarded $559 million in contracts for Saudi construction projects. In 2009, for example, it gave a $160 million deal to construction firm Saudi Oger Limited for the construction of facilities for a Saudi mechanized brigade based at Al Hasa, a $127 million contract to Saudi Lebanese Modern Construction Co. to erect structures for the Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Battalion, and an $82 million agreement to top Saudi construction firm Al-Latifia Trading and Contracting Company to build ammunition storage bunkers, possibly at the Saudi Arabian National Guard's Khashm Al An Training Area.
Additionally, military weaponry has continued to flow into Saudi Arabia by way of the Pentagon and so, too, have contracts to provide support services for that materiel. For example, earlier this year, under a U.S. Air Force contract extension, Cubic Corporation was awarded a $9.5 million deal "to continue to operate and maintain the air combat training system used to support F-15 fighter pilot training for the Royal Saudi Air Force."
Like the Saudis, Jordan's leader, King Abdullah II, has long had a complex relationship with the U.S. shaped by domestic concerns over U.S. military action in the region and support for Israel. As with Saudi Arabia, none of that has stopped the U.S. military from forging ever closer ties with the kingdom.
Recently, after testing and evaluating various training systems at multiple U.S. Army bases, the Jordanian Armed Forces selected Cubic's combat training center system and under the auspices of the U.S. Army, the company was "awarded an $18 million contract to supply mobile combat training center instrumentation and training services to the Kingdom of Jordan."
The Pentagon has also invested in Jordanian military infrastructure. Between 2001-2009, the Army awarded $86 million in contracts for Jordanian construction projects. One major beneficiary was again Archirodon which, between 2006-2008, worked on the construction of the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) -- a state-of-the-art military and counter-terrorism training facility owned and operated by the Jordanian government but built, in part, under a $70 million U.S. Army contract. In 2009, Archirodon was awarded two additional contracts for $729,000 and $400,000, by the Air Force, for unspecified work in Jordan.
When that 1,235-acre $200 million Jordanian training center was unveiled earlier this year, King Abdullah II himself gave the inaugural address, speaking "of his vision for KASOTC as a world-class special forces training center." Not surprisingly, General Petraeus was also on hand to give a speech in which he lauded Jordan as "a key partner... [which] has placed itself at the forefront of police and military training for regional security forces."
Garrisoning the Gulf
Even as it lurches toward a quasi-withdrawal from Iraq, the U.S. military has been hunkering down and hardening its presence elsewhere in the Middle East with little fanfare or press coverage. There has been almost no discussion in this country of a host of possible repercussions that might come from this, ranging from local opposition to the U.S. military's presence to the arming of undemocratic and repressive regimes in the region. With the sole exception of Iran, the U.S. military has fully garrisoned the nations of the Persian Gulf with air bases, naval bases, desert posts, training centers, and a whole host of other facilities, while also building up the military capacity of nearby Jordan.
The CIA efforts to topple Iran's government in the 1950s, Washington's support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s, the Pentagon's troop presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s -- all were considered canny geopolitical moves in their time; all had unforeseen and devastating consequences. The money the Pentagon has recently been pouring into the nations of the Persian Gulf to bulk up base infrastructure has only tied the U.S. ever more tightly to the region's autocratic, often unpopular regimes, while further arming and militarizing an area traditionally considered unstable. The Pentagon's Persian Gulf base build-up has already cost Americans billions in tax dollars. What the costs in "blowback" will be remains the unknown part of the equation.
Posted on: Sunday, November 22, 2009 - 22:30
Forty-seven years ago, on November 20, 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 11063, prohibiting federally-funded housing agencies from denying mortgages to any person based on their race, color, creed or national origin. Kennedy was fulfilling a campaign promise to make"one stroke of the pen" that would allow millions of black American children"to grow up in decency."
Many strokes of many other presidents' pens followed, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. Yet for more than 30 years after Kennedy's order, whites were much more likely to receive home mortgage loans than blacks with the same qualifications. As late as 1996, the Federal Reserve Board of Boston found that even when two mortgage applicants were financially identical, a minority applicant was 60 percent more likely to be rejected than a comparable white applicant.
Starting around 1995, however, there were dramatic signs of change. Home ownership rates for minorities started rising rapidly enough to close some of the historic gap between minorities and whites. By 2005, 56.2 percent of Hispanics and 49.4 percent of blacks owned their own homes -- still lower than the 76.1 percent home ownership rates of non-Hispanic whites, but an all time high for these historically disadvantaged groups.
Much of this growth was due to heightened use of the Community Reinvestment Act, which encouraged depository institutions to meet the needs of borrowers in all segments of their communities consistent with safe and sound banking practices. In the 1990s, citizen groups and governmental entities increasingly used the CRA to pressure lenders to reach out to qualified borrowers who had been underserved in the past. As a result, some traditional lenders expanded their outreach efforts to minority markets, sometimes offering not only loans but home ownership programs that helped borrowers improve and manage their credit.
Today, however, there are some who argue that government efforts to promote minority home ownership caused our current economic crisis, forcing banks to lend to unqualified buyers and eventually pulling all homebuyers down. This is a misconception that could hamper future efforts to help families find secure, affordable housing.
The CRA has never required that lenders make unsound loans. Indeed, studies by the Federal Reserve Board show that the CRA has promoted safe and profitable lending to low-income markets that were underserved in the past. These studies also show that CRA-related loans to low-income borrowers have had significantly lower foreclosure rates than loans made by independent mortgage companies not covered by the act.
It was not government regulation that paved the way for the current crisis in housing but government deregulation, which increased the range of products and services that banks and other financial institutions could offer, eliminated interest rate ceilings, and greatly expanded the geographical areas in which individual companies could operate. As a result, the banking industry became far more competitive, attracting new investors, speculators, and financial institutions. There were some positive results of such competition, of course, but there were also some very negative ones. The proportion of loans that were subject to the requirements of the CRA and other regulatory safeguards decreased.
Historically, there had been more or less only one mortgage rate for all borrowers. A borrower was either granted a loan at that rate, or the loan was denied. Starting in the 1990s however, as new lenders proliferated, borrowers who feared they could not get a conventional loan often found that subprime lenders would give them home loans, though at less favorable terms than traditional banks and with higher interest rates. Partly because of neglect by traditional lenders and partly because of the intense marketing efforts subprime lenders made in low income and minority neighborhoods, minorities were especially likely to end up with higher priced loans - even though as many as half of subprime borrowers had credit scores that would have qualified them for lower-cost conventional loans.
Meanwhile, the climate encouraged by deregulation and speculation led to the development of several other new and risky practices targeted toward both higher-income and lower-income borrowers alike. These included no-doc loans, where borrowers were not required to provide proof of income, and interest-only loans, where the principal was not paid down. Further encouraging irresponsible behavior by lenders was the fact that the maker of a loan often did not have to bear the consequences if that loan defaulted. By selling and reselling loans, lenders could collect fees and then pass the risks posed by questionable lending off to others.
Many of these practices were based on the assurances of financial"experts" and speculators that housing prices would continue to rise. When these assurances proved wrong, and when unemployment rates more than doubled, the current economic crisis developed.
That crisis is a major threat to the American dream, not just for minorities but for everyone.
* By the fourth quarter of 2008, real home equity was 41 percent lower than it had been at its peak a few years earlier, according to estimates by The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
* Between July 2007 and August 2009, 1.8 million homes were lost to foreclosure while another 5.2 million homes began the foreclosure process. One in eight mortgages is currently in foreclosure or default.
* Between 2004 and 2008, African American home ownership fell from 49.4 percent to 47.5 percent, a 1.9 percentage point decline. The Latino home ownership rate fell even more, from 56.2 percent to 53.6 percent, a decline of 2.6 percentage points. Non-Hispanic whites also suffered, as home ownership rates fell from 76.1 percent to 74.9 percent, a 1.2 percentage point drop.
It would be tragic if the economic problems caused by irresponsible lending practices caused us to abandon efforts to end discrimination against minorities and to increase residential security for all Americans. New home ownership can still be encouraged by fair interest rates and by programs designed to help people manage their finances. For those who cannot or should not become homeowners, the provision of quality affordable rental housing should be a top priority. Children, families, and communities all fare better when neighborhoods have a stable core of residents who take pride in their homes and have hope for their future.
For further information, contact Richard Williams, University of Notre Dame Dept of Sociology
OFFICE: (574)631-6668, (574)631-6463
HOME: (574)289-5227; CELL: (574) 360-1017
For information on how the physical and mental health of low-income parents and their children are further compromised by the current economic crisis and on the impact of the housing crisis on families, contact Linda Burton, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, Duke University.email@example.com; (919) 660-5609.
For the social-psychological effects of income loss, unemployment, and housing insecurity on marriage and children, contact Dr. Joshua Coleman, psychologist and Co-Chair, Council on Contemporary Families.firstname.lastname@example.org; (510) 547-6500.
On the risks associated with home and school relocation for families, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College; email@example.com; 360 352-8117.
About CCF: The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Council's mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
To learn more about other briefing papers and about our April 17-19 Conference on Recent Research and Best Practice Findings, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF's Director of Research and Public Education: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on: Friday, November 20, 2009 - 22:10
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (11-20-09)
As the Pentagon and Senate launch what one analyst dubs"dueling Fort Hood investigations," will they confront the hard truth of the Islamic angle?
Despite encouraging references to"violent Islamists" by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Independent of Connecticut), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, there is reason to worry about a whitewash of the massacre that took place on Nov. 5; that is just so much easier than facing the implications of a hostile ideology nearly exclusive to Muslims.
Indeed, initial responses from the U.S. Army, law enforcement, politicians, and journalists broadly agreed that Maj. Nidal Hasan's murderous rampage had nothing to do with Islam. Barack Obama declared"We cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing" and Evan Thomas of Newsweek dismissed Hasan as"a nut case."
But evidence keeps accumulating that confirms Hasan's Islamist outlook, his jihadi temperament, and his bitter hatred of kafirs (infidels). I reviewed the initial facts about his record in an article that appeared on Nov. 9 but much more information subsequently appeared; here follows a summary. The evidence divides into three parts, starting with Hasan's stint at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center:
He delivered an hour-long formal medical presentation to his supervisors and some 25 mental health staff members in June 2007, the culminating exercise of his residency program at Walter Reed. What was supposed to be on a medical topic of his choosing instead turned into a 50-slide PowerPoint talk on"The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military" that offered such commentary as"It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims" and the"Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as 'Conscientious objectors' to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events." One person present at the presentation recalls how, by the time of its conclusion,"The senior doctors looked really upset."
Hasan informed at least one patient at Walter Reed that"Islam can save your soul."
So apparent were Hasan's Islamist proclivities, reports National Public Radio, that key psychiatry authorities at Walter Reed met to discuss if he was psychotic. One official told colleagues of his worries"that if Hasan deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, he might leak secret military information to Islamic extremists. Another official reportedly wondered aloud to colleagues whether Hasan might be capable of committing fratricide," recalling Sergeant Hasan Akbar's 2003 rampage.
Then followed Hasan's record at Ft. Hood:
His supervisor, Captain Naomi Surman, recalled his telling her that as an infidel she who would be"ripped to shreds" and"burn in hell." Another person reports his declaring that infidels should be beheaded and have boiling oil poured down their throats.
In his psychiatric counseling sessions with soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Hasan heard information he considered tantamount to war crimes. As late as Nov. 2, three days before his murderous spree, he tried to convince at least two of his superior officers, Surman and Colonel Anthony Febbo, about the need legally to prosecute the soldiers.
Hasan routinely signed his e-mails with"Praise Be to Allah."
He listed his first name as Abduwalli, rather than Nidal, in the e-mail address in his official Army personnel record. 'Abd al-Wali is an Arabic name meaning"Slave of the Patron," where Patron is one of God's 99 names. It is not clear why Hasan did this, but Abduwalli could have been a nom de guerre, this being a common practice among Palestinians (Yasir Arafat even had two them - Yasir Arafat and Abu Ammar).
Finally, Hasan's extracurricular activities revealed his outlook:
He designed green and white personal business cards that made no mention of his military affiliation. Instead, they included his name, then"Behavior Heatlh [sic] Mental Health and Life Skills," a Maryland mobile phone number, an AOL e-mail address, and"SoA (SWT)." SoA is the jihadi abbreviation for Soldier of Allah and SWT stands for Subhanahu wa-Ta'ala, or"Glory to Him, the Exalted."
Hasan contacted jihadi web sites via multiple e-mail addresses and screen names.
He traded 18 e-mails between Dec. 2008 and June 2009 with Anwar al-Awlaki, Al-Qaeda recruiter, inspiration for at least two other North American terror plots, and fugitive from U.S. justice. Awlaki had been Hasan's spiritual leader at two mosques, Masjid Al-Ribat Al-Islami in San Diego and the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center outside Washington, D.C., and he acknowledges becoming Hasan's confidant. Awlaki speculates that he may have influenced Hasan's evolution and praises Hasan for the massacre, calling him a"hero" who"did the right thing" by killing U.S. soldiers before they could attack Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In those e-mails, Hasan asked Awlaki when jihad is appropriate and about killing innocents in a suicide attack."I can't wait to join you" in the afterlife for discussions over non-alcoholic wine, Hasan wrote him. One Yemeni analyst calls Hasan"almost a member of Al-Qaeda."
That Hasan, of Palestinian extraction, wore Pakistani clothing on the morning of his rampage points to his jihadi mentality.
Hasan had"more unexplained connections to people being tracked by the FBI," other than Awlaki, including some in Europe. One official characterized these as"Islamic extremists if not necessarily al Qaeda."
Duane Reasoner Jr., the 18-year-old Muslim convert whom Hasan mentored in Islam, calls himself a"extremist, fundamentalist, mujhadeen, Muslim" who outspokenly supports Awlaki, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Omar Abdur Rahman (the blind sheikh) and Adam Gadahn (Al-Qaeda's top American figure).
These symptoms in the aggregate leave little doubt about Hasan's jihadi mentality. But will the investigations allow themselves to see his motivation? Doing so means changing it from a war on"overseas contingency operations" and"man-caused disasters" to a war on radical Islam. Are Americans ready for that?
Posted on: Friday, November 20, 2009 - 21:53
SOURCE: The End is Coming (History Blog) (11-19-09)
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently announced at a conference that his country had too many time zones. From their current 11, Medvedev would like to standardize them all into 4 accessible time zones for the benefit of the Russian people, businesses and regional politics. Subsequent uproar, locally and internationally, has centered around one crucial question: would this change be truly a useful shift for the people and the economy of the country or is it simply a political whim aimed to strengthen the power and standing of the Kremlin?
Firstly, there are several difficulties of implementation and practicality that would be immediately obvious with such a change. There of course would be the problem that the sun wouldn’t necessarily obey the edicts of Moscow and may simply rise around 3:45 in the morning in some places and at 9:30 in others. The other immediate difficulty is that of acceptance. Medvedev can announce the change, have it diffused through television and newspaper but it is not until everybody has been informed that this change can take place. Consequently, it will be no easy task to reach everyone from the Ural mountains to inner Siberia and over to the very last eastern city of Magadan bordering Alaska (and Sarah Palin’s house presumably*).
Despite these difficulties and assuming everyone would be on board, perhaps the proposed change would be as beneficial as the president has claimed. Medvedev affirms that business with Europe would be greatly improved and that business hours in Russia would now coincide whereas the business day in the east used to close hours before the business day of the west would open. President Medvedev also cites a stronger rapport with local governments, keeping in mind that Russia is governed in a highly centralized manner but that many provinces have to operate while Moscow sleeps. “It could explain why Russia has so many problems with governance” Medvedev says about the current 11 hour difference, surely corruption and organized crime have a part to play in it too but Medvedev affirms the time shift will change everything for the better. That being said, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for the majority of Russia’s rural population. Business and governance are certainly important but it is the poorest and least-involved of farmers that will have to start cultivating fields for hours in the dark.
Indeed, Mr. Medvedev may be thinking that the people were the prime factor when we devised our time zones in the first place. He would be wrong to think so; the time zones were motivated by, like in the Russian case, a speculation in favour of business and governance. Before 1929, sundials mostly indicated the “correct time” based on solar position for each city and village. This meant that everyone on earth got up at precisely 7 AM with the sun but it also meant that neighbouring cities were minutes apart in time. The invention of the locomotive, railway system and advanced telecommunications made the whole endeavour obsolete and a standardized measure needed to be adopted. Thus, following 1929 most nations adopted the system based on Greenwich Mean Time that delimited time zones based on Longitude and which made international communications and business possible. It came with the concept of Daylight Savings time introduced formerly in 1916. This was actually a wartime measure to conserve coal but it stuck nonetheless and many of us contend with it twice a year thinking that productivity or comfortable living may have been the point of it. With tweaks here and there, we now have 40 time zones around the world, very few of which have the people, much less solar position, in mind.
Why 40? Well, 24 would make more sense but over the years, many governments have used the intangible concept for political legitimacy and power. Afghanistan runs 30 minutes ahead of its neighbours and Nepal even runs 15 minutes faster than the actual time zone it was given. 15 minutes don’t help anyone, it may very well help business and governance in some small way I can’t see but no Nepalese goat farmer is better off this way.
Political whim was our second option for this proposed change in Russia and there are indeed a few examples of this in History. In 1949 for example, to legitimize the communist leadership of China and to prove the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party over time itself, the nation’s five time zones were unified into one. This single hour is of course the one that is correct on a solar level only with Beijing in the far eastern part of the country. The sun rises four hours late in Tibet but at least everyone knows Beijing and the Communist Party are the important ones.
More recently in 2005, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela moved his country’s time 30 minutes ahead claiming that it would make his population more productive. This makes no sense once we realise that he didn’t create 30 more minutes of time during the 24-hour day, he simply shifted around the time of sunrise and sunset. With this he showed that he had supreme power over the governance of Venezuela, this, despite the opposition of the United-States to his socialist leanings.
Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England summarises the political motivation of time zone tampering as such: “It is an ultimate statement of power to show your people that you have control over nature in this way.”
Other analysts even claim that President Medvedev just threw this crazy notion into a conference where he had to announce some very unpopular measures. He only wanted to distract people and has no intention of even proposing this measure in government that would eventually cost millions in implementation. Touché Mr. Medvedev, touché.
Posted on: Friday, November 20, 2009 - 01:10
SOURCE: NYT (11-18-09)
While no breakthroughs came out of the Barack Obama-Hu Jintao summit meeting, the U.S. president’s maiden trip to China will go down in history as a pivotal event in the relations between the two most powerful countries of the 21st century.
For the first time, the leaders of the United States and China talked as equals. And the rough parity between an apparently declining superpower and a fast-rising quasi-superpower has major global implications for issues including regional security, nuclear proliferation, trade, climate change and human rights.
The problem is that while its new-found power has emboldened Beijing to assume a much higher profile in world affairs, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has a radically different interpretation from the United States of what China’s international role or responsibility should be...
... These positive aspects aside, the summit has reinforced the fact that China will use its clout to advance its agenda — not America’s. It is clearer than ever that for Beijing, strategic and business ties with its major allies come first.
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, this means that when it comes to cooperating to halt nuclear proliferation, the U.S. and its allies should not assume that Beijing will ever play hardball with either Pyongyang or Tehran.
A key reason why Mr. Obama has adopted a conciliatory stance toward Beijing — for example, snubbing the Dalai Lama last month — is that Washington hopes China will use its vast influence with North Korea and Iran to prod the two pariah states toward denuclearization...
Posted on: Friday, November 20, 2009 - 00:13
SOURCE: TomDispatch (Website of Tom Engelhardt) (11-19-09)
The Afghan Speech Obama Should Give
Sure, the quote in the over-title is only my fantasy. No one in Washington -- no less President Obama -- ever said,"This administration ended, rather than extended, two wars," and right now, it looks as if no one in an official capacity is likely to do so any time soon. It's common knowledge that a president -- but above all a Democratic president -- who tried to de-escalate a war like the one now expanding in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and withdraw American troops, would be so much domestic political dead meat.
This everyday bit of engrained Washington wisdom is, in fact, based on not a shred of evidence in the historical record. We do, however, know something about what could happen to a president who escalated a counterinsurgency war: Lyndon Johnson comes to mind for expanding his inherited war in Vietnam out of fear that he would be labeled the president who"lost" that country to the communists (as Harry Truman had supposedly"lost" China). And then there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who -- incapable of rejecting Johnson's war policy -- lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, a candidate pushing a fraudulent"peace with honor" formula for downsizing the war.
Still, we have no evidence about how American voters would deal with a president who didn't take the Johnson approach to a losing war. The only example might be John F. Kennedy, who reputedly pushed back against escalatory advice over Vietnam, and certainly did so against his military high command during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In both cases, however, he acted in private, offering quite a different face to the world.
We know that there would be those on the right, and quite a few war-fightin' liberals as well, who would go nuclear over any presidential minus option in Afghanistan. Many of them will, in fact, do so over anything less than the McChrystal plan anyway. And we know that a media storm would certainly follow. But when it comes to how voters would react, especially at a moment when unhappiness with the Afghan War (as well as the president's handling of it) is on the rise, there is no historical evidence.
Sometime in the reasonably near future, President Obama will undoubtedly address the American people on whatever decision he makes about the war in Afghanistan. Every sign indicates that he will hew to Washington's political wisdom about what a war president can do in this country.
Ever since late September when someone leaked Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal's report to the president on the disastrous situation in Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency war he wants to wage there, we've been all but living inside Obama's endless comprehensive review of war strategy. After all, we get daily reports from"the front," largely in the form of a flood of leaks to the media, on just what's being considered -- from General McChrystal's estimated troop escalation numbers, to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's private cables to the president suggesting no more troops be sent, to recent outbursts by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the president decrying all the leaks and rumors.
This, of course, is what happens when your deliberations drag out over months while the key players, military and civilian, jostle, jockey, and elbow each other for advantage. In these last weeks, we've grown accustomed to previously esoteric terms like the"hybrid option" and" counterterrorism-plus." While we don't know what exactly is going through Obama's mind, or just when or in what form he will address us, we do know something about what his conclusions are likely to be.
While there may be"off-ramps" and an"end game" for the Afghan War lurking somewhere in the distance in his plan, we know, as a start, that he's not going to recommend a minus option. We have long been assured that any proposals for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan were never"on the table." And despite Ambassador Eikenberry's near zero-option position, we also know that the president is likely to choose some form of military escalation (even if these days, unlike in the Vietnam era, the word used is usually"surge"). We don't know how many U.S. troops will be involved or whether they will be weighted toward trainers and advisors or combat forces, but it seems clear that some will be sent. It's not for nothing that the Pentagon is ramping up new Afghan bases and reinforcing old ones.
Undoubtedly, the President's speechwriters are already preparing the text for his Afghan... well, we don't really know whether it will be"remarks," an announcement as part of a press conference, or a more formal address to the American people. In any case, we -- the rest of us -- have had all the disadvantages of essentially being in on the president's councils, and none of the advantages of offering our own advice. But I don't see why we shouldn't weigh in. Personally, I prefer not to leave the process to his speechwriters and advisors.
What follows, then, is my version of the president's Afghan announcement. I've imagined it as a challenging prime-time address to the American people. Certainly, the subject is important enough for such an address, even if the last time Obama did this, in March, it was via an unannounced appearance on a Friday morning. So here's my President Obama -- in, I hope, something like his voice -- doing what no American president has yet done. Sit down, turn on your TV, and see what you think. Tom
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
A New Way Forward:
The President's Address to the American People on Afghan Strategy
For Immediate Release
8:01 P.M. EDT
My fellow Americans,
On March 28th, I outlined what I called a" comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." It was ambitious. It was also an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise that was heartfelt. I believed -- and still believe -- that, in invading Iraq, a war this administration is now ending, we took our eye off Afghanistan. Our well-being and safety, as well as that of the Afghan people, suffered for it.
I suggested then that the situation in Afghanistan was already"perilous." I announced that we would be sending 17,000 more American soldiers into that war zone, as well as 4,000 trainers and advisors whose job would be to increase the size of the Afghan security forces so that they could someday take the lead in securing their own country. There could be no more serious decision for an American president.
Eight months have passed since that day. This evening, after a comprehensive policy review of our options in that region that has involved commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor James Jones, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, top intelligence and State Department officials and key ambassadors, special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, and experts from inside and outside this administration, I have a very different kind of announcement to make.
I plan to speak to you tonight with the frankness Americans deserve from their president. I've recently noted a number of pundits who suggest that my task here should be to reassure you about Afghanistan. I don't agree. What you need is the unvarnished truth just as it's been given to me. We all need to face a tough situation, as Americans have done so many times in the past, with our eyes wide open. It doesn't pay for a president or a people to fake it or, for that matter, to kick the can of a difficult decision down the road, especially when the lives of American troops are at stake.
During the presidential campaign I called Afghanistan"the right war." Let me say this: with the full information resources of the American presidency at my fingertips, I no longer believe that to be the case. I know a president isn't supposed to say such things, but he, too, should have the flexibility to change his mind. In fact, more than most people, it's important that he do so based on the best information available. No false pride or political calculation should keep him from that.
And the best information available to me on the situation in Afghanistan is sobering. It doesn't matter whether you are listening to our war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who, as press reports have indicated, believes that with approximately 80,000 more troops -- which we essentially don't have available -- there would be a reasonable chance of conducting a successful counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, or our ambassador to that country, Karl Eikenberry, a former general with significant experience there, who believes we shouldn't send another soldier at present. All agree on the following seven points:
1. We have no partner in Afghanistan. The control of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hardly extends beyond the embattled capital of Kabul. He himself has just been returned to office in a presidential election in which voting fraud on an almost unimaginably large scale was the order of the day. His administration is believed to have lost all credibility with the Afghan people.
2. Afghanistan floats in a culture of corruption. This includes President Karzai's administration up to its highest levels and also the warlords who control various areas and, like the Taliban insurgency, are to some degree dependent for their financing on opium, which the country produces in staggering quantities. Afghanistan, in fact, is not only a narco-state, but the leading narco-state on the planet.
3. Despite billions of dollars of American money poured into training the Afghan security forces, the army is notoriously understrength and largely ineffective; the police forces are riddled with corruption and held in contempt by most of the populace.
4. The Taliban insurgency is spreading and gaining support largely because the Karzai regime has been so thoroughly discredited, the Afghan police and courts are so ineffective and corrupt, and reconstruction funds so badly misspent. Under these circumstances, American and NATO forces increasingly look like an army of occupation, and more of them are only likely to solidify this impression.
5. Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant factor in Afghanistan. The best intelligence available to me indicates -- and again, whatever their disagreements, all my advisors agree on this -- that there may be perhaps 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and another 300 in neighboring Pakistan. As I said in March, our goal has been to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on this we have, especially recently, been successful. Osama bin Laden, of course, remains at large, and his terrorist organization is still a danger to us, but not a $100 billion-plus danger.
6. Our war in Afghanistan has become the military equivalent of a massive bail-out of a firm determined to fail. Simply to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan would, my advisors estimate, cost $40-$54 billion extra dollars; eighty thousand troops, more than $80 billion. Sending more trainers and advisors in an effort to double the size of the Afghan security forces, as many have suggested, would cost another estimated $10 billion a year. These figures are over and above the present projected annual costs of the war -- $65 billion -- and would ensure that the American people will be spending $100 billion a year or more on this war, probably for years to come. Simply put, this is not money we can afford to squander on a failing war thousands of miles from home.
7. Our all-volunteer military has for years now shouldered the burden of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we were capable of sending 40,000-80,000 more troops to Afghanistan, they would without question be servicepeople on their second, third, fourth, or even fifth tours of duty. A military, even the best in the world, wears down under this sort of stress and pressure.
These seven points have been weighing on my mind over the last weeks as we've deliberated on the right course to take. Tonight, in response to the realities of Afghanistan as I've just described them to you, I've put aside all the subjects that ordinarily obsess Washington, especially whether an American president can reverse the direction of a war and still have an electoral future. That's for the American people, and them alone, to decide.
Given that, let me say as bluntly as I can that I have decided to send no more troops to Afghanistan. Beyond that, I believe it is in the national interest of the American people that this war, like the Iraq War, be drawn down. Over time, our troops and resources will be brought home in an orderly fashion, while we ensure that we provide adequate security for the men and women of our Armed Forces. Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.
This will, of course, take time. But I have already instructed Ambassador Eikenberry and Special Representative Holbrooke to begin discussions, however indirectly, with the Taliban insurgents for a truce in place. Before year's end, I plan to call an international conference of interested countries, including key regional partners, to help work out a way to settle this conflict. I will, in addition, soon announce a schedule for the withdrawal of the first American troops from Afghanistan.
For the counterinsurgency war that we now will not fight, there is already a path laid out. We walked down that well-mined path once in recent American memory and we know where it leads. For ending the war in another way, there is no precedent in our recent history and so no path -- only the unknown. But there is hope. Let me try to explain.
Recently, comparisons between the Vietnam War and our current conflict in Afghanistan have been legion. Let me, however, suggest a major difference between the two. When Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson faced their crises involving sending more troops into Vietnam, they and their advisors had little to rely on in the American record. They, in a sense, faced the darkness of the unknown as they made their choices. The same is not true of us.
In the White House, for instance, a number of us have been reading a book on how the U.S. got itself ever more disastrously involved in the Vietnam War. We have history to guide us here. We know what happens in counterinsurgency campaigns. We have the experience of Vietnam as a landmark on the trail behind us. And if that weren't enough, of course, we have the path to defeat already well cleared by the Russians in their Afghan fiasco of the 1980s, when they had just as many troops in the field as we would have if I had chosen to send those extra 40,000 Americans. That is the known.
On the other hand, peering down the path of de-escalation, all we can see is darkness. Nothing like this has been tried before in Washington. But I firmly believe that this, too, is deeply in the American grain. American immigrants, as well as slaves, traveled to this country as if into the darkness of the unknown. Americans have long braved the unknown in all sorts of ways.
To present this more formulaically, if we sent the troops and trainers to Afghanistan, if we increased air strikes and tried to strengthen the Afghan Army, we basically know how things are likely to work out: not well. The war is likely to spread. The insurgents, despite many losses, are likely to grow in strength. Hatred of Americans is likely to increase. Pakistan is likely to become more destabilized.
If, however, we don't take such steps and proceed down that other path, we do not know how things will work out in Afghanistan, or how well.
We do not know how things will work out in Pakistan, or how well.
That is hardly surprising, since we do not know what it means to end such a war now.
But we must not be scared. America will not -- of this, as your president, I am convinced -- be a safer nation if it spends many hundreds of billions of dollars over many years, essentially bankrupting itself and exhausting its military on what looks increasingly like an unwinnable war. This is not the way to safety, but to national penury -- and I am unwilling to preside over an America heading in that direction.
Let me say again that the unknown path, the path into the wilderness, couldn't be more American. We have always been willing to strike out for ourselves where others would not go. That, too, is in the best American tradition.
It is, of course, a perilous thing to predict the future, but in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, war has visibly only spread war. The beginning of a negotiated peace may have a similarly powerful effect, but in the opposite direction. It may actually take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. It may actually encourage forces in both countries with which we might be more comfortable to step to the fore.
Certainly, we will do our best to lead the way with any aid or advice we can offer toward a future peaceful Afghanistan and a future peaceful Pakistan. In the meantime, I plan to ask Congress to take some of the savings from our two wars winding down and put them into a genuine jobs program for the American people.
The way to safety in our world is, I believe, to secure our borders against those who would harm us, and to put Americans back to work. With this in mind, next month I've called for a White House Jobs Summit, which I plan to chair. And there I will suggest that, as a start, and only as a start, we look at two programs that were not only popular across the political spectrum in the desperate years of the Great Depression, but were remembered fondly long after by those who took part in them -- the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. These basic programs put millions of Americans back to work on public projects that mattered to this nation and saved families, lives, and souls.
We cannot afford a failing war in Afghanistan and a 10.2% official unemployment rate at home. We cannot live with two Americas, one for Wall Street and one for everyone else. This is not the path to American safety.
As president, I retain the right to strike at al-Qaeda or other terrorists who mean us imminent harm, no matter where they may be, including Afghanistan. I would never deny that there are dangers in the approach I suggest today, but when have Americans ever been averse to danger, or to a challenge either? I cannot believe we will be now.
It's time for change. I know that not all Americans will agree with me and that some will be upset by the approach I am now determined to follow. I expect anger and debate. I take full responsibility for whatever may result from this policy departure. Believe me, the buck stops here, but I am convinced that this is the way forward for our country in war and peace, at home and abroad.
I thank you for your time and attention. Goodnight and God bless America.
END 8:35 P.M. EDT
Posted on: Thursday, November 19, 2009 - 22:24
SOURCE: The Daily Beast (11-17-09)
In Sarah Palin’s blockbuster new memoir, Going Rogue, the former Alaska governor quotes from Thomas Paine, but she’s not the first conservative to embrace one of America’s original radicals.
For 200 years, conservatives despised Paine and scorned his memory. And we can understand why. Through his revolutionary pamphlets Common Sense and The Crisis—and words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and “These are the times that try men’s souls”—he turned Americans into radicals.
And yet, ever since liberal-turned-conservative Ronald Reagan quoted Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” at the 1980 Republican National Convention, conservatives have become Paine’s greatest champions. Just this year came Bob Basso’s YouTube videos “The Second American Revolution” and “We the People,” Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, Newt Gingrich’s novel of the American Revolution, To Try Men’s Souls, and now Palin’s Going Rogue.
Eager to appeal not just to reactionaries but also to anxious middle-class Americans, today’s conservatives enthusiastically harness Paine’s scathing assaults on royal and aristocratic tyranny and privilege and his grand projections of America’s prospects and possibilities if liberated from the British state’s imposts and controls. Conservatives committed to cutting taxes, limiting regulation, and blocking new public initiatives like national health care and the Employee Free Choice Act, if not actually reversing the progressive advances of the 1930s and 1960s, especially love to recite his attack on existing governments: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
Of course Basso, Beck, Gingrich, and Palin do differ in their efforts. Purporting to channel Paine’s patriotism and anti-British revolutionary rage, Basso rails against the past generation’s celebration of American diversity, arguing for, among other things, English-only laws and immigration controls. Claiming Paine’s anti-statist inspiration, Beck vehemently warns against the new cadres of progressives who would raise taxes, grow government, and redistribute wealth. And in his—admittedly successful—retelling of the “miracle” at the Christmas night 1776 Battle of Trenton, Gingrich essentially puts into story form the poetic line of Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow: “Without the pen of Paine, Washington’s sword would have been wielded in vain.”
Conservatives seem to adore Paine, but have they really embraced him? Hardly. Basso, Beck, Gingrich, and Palin do no more than their hero Reagan did. Instead of trying to bury Paine’s life and labors, they now are trying to appropriate and render a version of them that they can use to counter his persistent radical-democratic memory and legacy, a task made all the more urgent by the 2008 elections. Conservatives have changed their tune about Paine, but their ambitions remain what they have always been—to constrain or control, and ultimately discharge, the democratic impulse that Paine inscribed in American life in 1776, an impulse that, contrary to the best efforts of powerful and propertied conservatives and reactionaries, has propelled generations of progressive movements and campaigns to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy.
Struck by America’s magnificent possibilities, and moved by the spirit and determination of its people to resist British authority, the English immigrant Paine not only emboldened Americans to turn their colonial rebellion into a war for independence. He also defined the nation-to-be in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion—which included a celebration of American diversity and a vigorous call to both separate church and state and make the country “an asylum for mankind.” All of this was just the beginning: Envisioning an Atlantic democratic revolution, he went on to apply his pen to European struggles. In Rights of Man he defended the French Revolution, challenged Britain’s monarchical order, and outlined a social security system to address the economic inequalities that made life oppressive for working people. In The Age of Reason, he lambasted the claims of Scripture and the power of churches. And in Agrarian Justice, he proposed taxing the landed rich to provide grants to young people and pensions to the elderly.
Fearing the popular appeal of Paine’s works, the powerful, propertied, and pious naturally sought to suppress his memory and limit the influence of his ideas. But they could not. His contributions were too fundamental and his progressive vision too firmly imbued in the American spirit. Moreover, there were those who would not allow Paine’s life and labors to be forgotten. Refusing to accept that history had come to an end, freethinkers, abolitionists, suffragists, anarchists, populists, socialists, labor organizers, and community, civil-rights, and anti-war activists drew inspiration and ideas from Paine’s works, renewed his presence in American life, and served as the prophetic memory of his radical-democratic vision.
Of course, the right-wingers’ “Paine” just doesn’t make historical sense. Paine was a freedom-loving radical and social democrat whose writings clearly attest to his progressive commitments and aspirations. He would never have supported policies and programs that place corporations and the rich before working people and the public good, undermine the wall separating church and state, seek to homogenize Americans and punish immigrants, and give the state an unlimited license to spy on its own citizens.
Nevertheless, as much as we can debunk the conservatives’ use and abuse of America’s Painite revolutionary heritage, it is not enough. The problem is not simply that the right is poaching and twisting Paine for its own ends. That is to be expected. Far more so, it’s that they apparently continue to appreciate what liberals and leftists, of all people, seem to have lost sight of: Americans remain radicals at heart.
Barack Obama quoted Paine in his inaugural address last January: “Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].” But while conservatives have been trotting out and promoting their eviscerated renditions of Paine and the American spirit, Obama didn’t even mention Paine’s name when he spoke his words from The Crisis.. .and so far it seems that it represented more than a simple omission.
Posted on: Thursday, November 19, 2009 - 22:11
SOURCE: The China Beat (11-19-09)
Barack Obama spent fewer than three days in China, but his first trip there has been a week-long story in the news world, as countless journalists, academics, and pundits have shared their thoughts about what this visit could do for U.S.-China relations. Now that the president has left the PRC, how did it all go? Obama Administration officials are speaking highly of it, claiming that Obama was forceful in private meetings with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese leadership. And perhaps the devil is in the details, as political scientist David Shambaugh says, speaking favorably of the joint statement of cooperation that Obama and Hu issued on Tuesday, which he thinks sets a positive tone for future Sino-U.S. relations.
However, most of us weren’t privy to the Obama-Hu conversations, and my reading of the joint statement is somewhat more pessimistic than Shambaugh’s. On the whole, I’d say that Obama’s trip was anti-climactic, and even a bit disappointing. While most commentators didn’t really expect that Obama would accomplish all that much during his time in China, a survey of what happened on the trip, and what’s been written about it, reinforces the general sense among China watchers that very little got done. Below, a review of Obama-in-China, both the trip itself and the discussion surrounding it:
1. The town hall meeting in Shanghai took place on Monday as planned. At one point last week, we were hearing stories that both American and Chinese officials had reservations about the event, and there were rumors that it might be canceled due to conflicts over who could attend and whether or not the meeting would be broadcast in China. Thanks to what I assume was a weekend full of closed-door negotiations, the town hall went ahead as scheduled. If it hadn’t, Obama’s trip would have been even less interesting — and both sides would have appeared unwilling to cooperate with the other. As for Obama’s performance in the town hall meeting itself . . . well, see below for more, under “The Bad.”
2. My Google Reader has been full of great writing this week. A trip like Obama’s generates a lot of press, and those of us in the China field have been feasting on it. A few of the pieces I like the most are Isabel Hilton, on internet censorship in China (hat tip to China Digital Times); Paul French, comparing Obama’s arrival in Shanghai to that of Ulysses S. Grant when he visited China in the late 1870s; and all of the short takes that Evan Osnos has posted at his New Yorker blog. Yale Global Online has two thoughtful pieces about Obama in Asia, and there are some interesting essays at The Daily Beast — one by Peter Beinart on the shifting U.S.-China dynamics that few people seem to have noticed, and another by Richard Wolffe summing up “Obama’s Bad Trip.”
3. While nothing spectacular happened, at least the trip went smoothly. Sometimes, that’s enough — we shouldn’t discount the importance of maintaining the status quo, which I think is more or less what Obama managed to do on his first visit to China. Ian Johnson speaks in a video at the Wall Street Journal’s site about the somewhat ambiguous nature of Obama’s relationship with the Chinese leadership, but also points to the fact that the two sides have agreed on a “framework” for future cooperation on some of the world’s biggest issues. Obama has either three or seven more years to move the U.S.-China relationship forward, and the uneventful nature of his visit means that’s still a possibility.
The town hall meeting itself (video of the full event available at the White House website). My feelings about the town hall were initially somewhat mixed, but I’ve come down on the side of being less than impressed. Although I knew before the meeting that it was going to be a carefully scripted affair, and therefore didn’t expect anything terribly interesting to occur, I still think it could have gone better. I cringed when Obama quoted a “Chinese proverb” in his opening remarks — really, isn’t there a way to ban this tired speechwriting standby? — and groaned when he called on Ambassador Jon Huntsman to ask a painfully pointed question about internet censorship. Given that the “should we be able to use Twitter freely?” query was pre-planned, Obama showed a surprising inability to answer it in a coherent manner. “I’m a big supporter of non-censorship” probably wasn’t the sound bite that Obama wanted to stand out from the hour-long town hall, but it’s representative of the stilted manner in which he tiptoed around issues. It was clear, I thought, that Obama wanted to talk about topics like Tibet and human rights, but held himself back from taking a hard stance on anything that could cause a confrontation with his Chinese counterparts.
Pretty much everything else. The most potentially dramatic event, the town hall meeting, occurred on Day 1 of Obama’s trip; the rest of his time in China was divided between meetings with state leaders and sightseeing at the standard can’t-miss spots, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
In the absence of interesting stories, the trivial took over. A few examples: The students who attended the town hall were hand-picked by Communist Party officials — maybe I’m a cynic, but I never expected otherwise. Obama sped through his tour of the Forbidden City — well, he’s a busy man. And Jon Huntsman called those of us who aspire to be China experts “morons.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that joke sounded funnier in his head.
As Obama wraps up his Asian tour and heads back to the U.S., what will be remembered about this first China trip? Most likely, the answer is “nothing.” There weren’t any standout moments — good or bad — and Obama missed several opportunities to send a clear message to activists in China that he supports their work (check out this “Room for Debate” blog at the New York Times for more on that issue). Instead, he seemed to drift genially from one staged event to the next, politely toured a few famous national landmarks, and met with his half-brother for five minutes.
Few know what was discussed in private meetings with Chinese leaders, but no impressive public announcements emerged to indicate that the U.S. and China will be collaborating on anything major in the coming years. Perhaps, however, this was the Obama Administration’s goal all along: to pull off a short, polite visit that didn’t make any waves but didn’t raise any problems in the Sino-U.S. relationship, either. If that’s the case, mission accomplished.
Posted on: Thursday, November 19, 2009 - 21:58