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: Tomdispatch.com (10-12-09)
Despite the seeming specificity of the speech, it gave little sense of just how big and how expensive this surge will be. In fact, what is being portrayed in the media as the surge of November 2009 is but a modest part of an ongoing expansion of the U.S. war effort in many areas. Looked at another way, the media's focus on the president’s speech as the crucial moment of decision, and on those 30,000 new troops as the crucial piece of information, has distorted what’s actually underway.
In reality, the U.S. military, along with its civilian and intelligence counterparts, has been in an almost constant state of surge since the last days of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, while information on this is available, and often well reported, it’s scattered in innumerable news stories on specific aspects of the war. You have to be a media jockey to catch it all, no less put it together.
What follows, then, is my own attempt to make sense of the nine fronts on which the U.S. has been surging, and continues to do so, as 2009 ends. Think of this as an effort to widen our view of Obama’s widening war.
Obama’s Nine Surges
1. The Troop Surge: Let’s start with those “30,000” new troops the president announced. First of all, they represent Obama’s surge, phase 2. As the president pointed out in his speech, there were “just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan” when he took office in January 2009. In March, Obama announced that he was ordering in 21,000 additional troops. Last week, when he spoke, there were already approximately 68,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If you add the 32,000 already there in January and the 21,700 actually dispatched after the March announcement, however, you only get 53,700, leaving another 15,000 or so to be accounted for. According to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, 11,000 of those were “authorized in the waning days of the Bush administration and deployed this year,” bringing the figure to between 64,000 and 65,000. In other words, the earliest stage of the present Afghan “surge” was already underway when Obama arrived.
It also looks like at least a few thousand more troops managed to slip through the door in recent months without notice or comment. Similarly, with the 30,000 figure announced a week ago, DeYoung reports that the president quietly granted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the right to “increase the number by 10 percent, or 3,000 troops, without additional White House approval or announcement.” That already potentially brings the most recent surge numbers to 33,000, and an unnamed “senior military official” told De Young “that the final number could go as high as 35,000 to allow for additional support personnel such as engineers, medevac units and route-clearance teams, which comb roads for bombs.”
Now, add in the 7,500 troops and trainers that administration officials reportedly strong-armed various European countries into offering. More than 1,500 of these are already in Afghanistan and simply not being withdrawn as previously announced. The cost of sending some of the others, like the 900-plus troops Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has promised, will undoubtedly be absorbed by Washington. Nonetheless, add most of them in and, miraculously, you’ve surged up to, or beyond, Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s basic request for at least 40,000 troops to pursue a counterinsurgency war in that country.
2. The Contractor Surge: Given our heavily corporatized and privatized military, it makes no sense simply to talk about troop numbers in Afghanistan as if they were increasing in a void. You also need to know about the private contractors who have taken over so many former military duties, from KP and driving supply convoys to providing security on large bases. There’s no way of even knowing who is responsible for the surge of (largely Pentagon-funded) private contractors in Afghanistan. Did their numbers play any part in the president’s three months of deliberations? Does he have any control over how many contractors are put on the U.S. government payroll there? We don’t know.
Private contractors certainly went unmentioned in his speech and, amid the flurry of headlines about troops going to Afghanistan, they remain almost unmentioned in the mainstream media. In major pieces on the president’s tortuous “deliberations” with his key military and civilian advisors at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, all produced from copious officially inspired leaks, there wasn't a single mention of private contractors, and yet their numbers have been surging for months.
A modest-sized article by August Cole in the Wall Street Journal the day after the president’s speech gave us the basics, but you had to be looking. Headlined “U.S. Adding Contractors at Fast Pace,” the piece barely peeked above the fold on page 7 of the paper. According to Cole: “The Defense Department's latest census shows that the number of contractors increased about 40% between the end of June and the end of September, for a total of 104,101. That compares with 113,731 in Iraq, down 5% in the same period... Most of the contractors in Afghanistan are locals, accounting for 78,430 of the total...” In other words, there are already more private contractors on the payroll in Afghanistan than there will be U.S. troops when the latest surge is complete.
Though many of these contractors are local Afghans hired by outfits like DynCorp International and Fluor Corp., TPM Muckracker managed to get a further breakdown of these figures from the Pentagon and found that there were 16,400 “third country nationals” among the contractors, and 9,300 Americans. This is a formidable crew, and its numbers are evidently still surging, as are the Pentagon contracts doled out to private outfits that go with them. Cole, for instance, writes of the contract that Dyncorp and Fluor share to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan “which could be worth as much as $7.5 billion to each company in the coming years.”
3. The Militia Surge: U.S. Special Forces are now carrying out pilot programs for a mini-surge in support of local Afghan militias that are, at least theoretically, anti-Taliban. The idea is evidently to create a movement along the lines of Iraq's Sunni Awakening Movement that, many believe, ensured the"success" of George W. Bush's 2007 surge in that country. For now, as far as we know, U.S. support takes the form of offers of ammunition, food, and possibly some Kalashnikov rifles, but in the future we'll be ponying up more arms and, undoubtedly, significant amounts of money.
This is, after all, to be a national program, the Community Defense initiative, which, according to Jim Michaels of USA Today, will “funnel millions of dollars in foreign aid to villages that organize ‘neighborhood watch’-like programs to help with security.” Think of this as a “bribe” surge. Such programs are bound to turn out to be essentially money-based and designed to buy “friendship.”
4. The Civilian Surge: Yes, Virginia, there is a “civilian surge” underway in Afghanistan, involving increases in the number of “diplomats and experts in agriculture, education, health and rule of law sent to Kabul and to provincial reconstruction teams across the country.” The State Department now claims to be “on track” to triple the U.S. civilian component in Afghanistan from 320 officials in January 2009 to 974 by “the early weeks of next year.” (Of course, that, in turn, means another mini-surge in private contractors: more security guards to protect civilian employees of the U.S. government.) A similar civilian surge is evidently underway in neighboring Pakistan, just the thing to go with a surge of civilian aid and a plan for a humongous new, nearly billion-dollar embassy compound to be built in Islamabad.
5. The CIA and Special Forces Surge: And speaking of Pakistan, Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room blog had it right recently when, considering the CIA’s “covert” (but openly discussed) drone war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, he wrote: “The most important escalation of the war might be the one the President didn’t mention at West Point.” In fact, the CIA’s drone attacks there have been escalating in numbers since the Obama administration came into office. Now, it seems, paralleling the civilian surge in the Af/Pak theater of operations, there is to be a CIA one as well. While little information on this is available, David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt of the New York Timesreport that in recent months the CIA has delivered a plan to the White House“for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.”
In addition, Scott Shane of the Timesreports:
“The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said..., to parallel the president’s decision… to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time -- a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas -- because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”
The Pakistani southern border province of Baluchistan is a hornet’s nest with its own sets of separatists and religious extremists, as well as a (possibly U.S.-funded) rebel movement aimed at the Baluchi minority areas of Iran. The Pakistani government is powerfully opposed to drone strikes in the area of the heavily populated provincial capital of Quetta where, Washington insists, the Afghan Taliban leadership largely resides. If such strikes do begin, they could prove the most destabilizing aspect of the widening of the war that the present surge represents.
In addition, thanks to the Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill, we now know that, from a secret base in Karachi, Pakistan, the U.S. Army’s Joint Special Operations Command, in conjunction with the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), operates “a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.” Since so many U.S. activities in Pakistan involve secretive, undoubtedly black-budget operations, we may only have the faintest outlines of what the “surge” there means.
6. The Base-Building Surge: Like the surge in contractors and in drone attacks, the surge in base-building in Afghanistan significantly preceded Obama's latest troop-surge announcement. A recent NBC Nightly News report on the ever-expanding U.S. base at Kandahar Airfield, which it aptly termed a “boom town,” shows just how ongoing this part of the overall surge is, and at what a staggering level. As in Iraq from 2003 on, billions of dollars are being sunk into bases, the largest of which -- especially the old Soviet site, Bagram Air Base, with more than $200 million in construction projects and upgrades underway at the moment -- are beginning to look like ever more permanent fixtures on the landscape.
In addition, as Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com has reported, forward observation bases and smaller combat outposts have been sprouting all over southern Afghanistan. “Forget for a moment the ‘debates’ in Washington over Afghan War policy,” he wrote in early November, “and, if you just focus on the construction activity and the flow of money into Afghanistan, what you see is a war that, from the point of view of the Pentagon, isn't going to end any time soon. In fact, the U.S. military's building boom in that country suggests that, in the ninth year of the Afghan War, the Pentagon has plans for a far longer-term, if not near-permanent, garrisoning of the country, no matter what course Washington may decide upon.”
7. The Training Surge: In some ways, the greatest prospective surge may prove to be in the training of the Afghan national army and police. Despite years of American and NATO “mentoring,” both are in notoriously poor shape. The Afghan army is riddled with desertions -- 25% of those trained in the last year are now gone -- and the Afghan police are reportedly a hapless, ill-paid, corrupt, drug-addicted lot. Nonetheless, Washington (with the help of NATO reinforcements) is planning to bring an army whose numbers officially stand at approximately 94,000 (but may actually be as low as 40-odd thousand) to 134,000 reasonably well-trained troops by next fall and 240,000 a year later. Similarly, the Obama administration hopes to take the police numbers from an official 93,000 to 160,000.
8. The Cost Surge: This is a difficult subject to pin down in part because the Pentagon is, in cost-accounting terms, one of the least transparent organizations around. What can be said for certain is that Obama’s $30 billion figure won’t faintly hold when it comes to the real surge. There is no way that figure will cover anything like all the troops, bases, contractors, and the rest. Just take the plan to train an Afghan security force of approximately 400,000 in the coming years. We’ve already spent more than $15 billion on the training of the Afghan Army and more than $10 billion has gone into police training -- staggering figures for a far smaller combined force with poor results. Imagine, then, what a massive bulking up of the country's security forces will actually cost. In congressional testimony, Centcom commander General David Petraeus suggested a possible price tag of $10 billion a year. And if such a program works (which seems unlikely), try to imagine how one of the poorest countries on the planet will support a 400,000-man force. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just suggested that it will take at least 15-20 years before the country can actually pay for such a force itself. In translation, what we have here is undoubtedly a version of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule (“You break it, you own it”); in this case, you build it, you own it. If we create such security forces, they will be, financially speaking, ours into the foreseeable future. (And this is even without adding in those local militias we’re planning to invest “millions” in.)
9. The Anti-Withdrawal Surge: Think of this as a surge in time. By all accounts, the president tried to put some kind of limit on his most recent Afghan surge, not wanting “an open-ended commitment.” With that in mind, he evidently insisted on a plan, emphasized in his speech, in which some of the surge troops would start to come home in July 2011, about 18 months from now. This was presented in the media as a case of giving something to everyone (the Republican opposition, his field commanders, and his own antiwar Democratic Party base). In fact, he gave his commanders and the Republican opposition a very real surge in numbers. In this regard, a Washington Post headline says it all: “McChrystal’s Afghanistan Plan Stays Mainly Intact.” On the other hand, what he gave his base was only the vaguest of promises (“…and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011”). Moreover, within hours of the speech, even that commitment was being watered down by the first top officials to speak on the subject. Soon enough, as the right-wing began to blaze away on the mistake of announcing a withdrawal date “to the enemy,” there was little short of a stampede of high officials eager to make that promise ever less meaningful.
In what Mark Mazzetti of the Timescalled a “flurry of coordinated television interviews,” the top civilian and military officials of the administration marched onto the Sunday morning talk shows “in lockstep” to reassure the right (and they werereassured) by playing “down the significance of the July 2011 target date.” The United States was, Secretary of Defense Gates and others indicated, going to be in the region in strength for years to come. (“...July 2011 was just the beginning, not the end, of a lengthy process. That date, [National Security Advisor] General [James] Jones said, is a ‘ramp’ rather than a ‘cliff.’”)
How Wide the Widening War?
When it came to the spreading Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the president in his speech spoke of his surge goal this way: “We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” This seems a modest enough target, even if the means of reaching it are proving immodest indeed. After all, we’re talking about a minority Pashtun insurgency -- Pashtuns make up only about 42% of Afghanistan’s population -- and the insurgents are a relatively lightly armed, rag-tag force. Against them and a miniscule number of al-Qaeda operatives, the Pentagon has launched a remarkable, unbelievably costly build-up of forces over vast distances, along fragile, extended supply lines, and in a country poorer than almost any other on the planet. The State Department has, to the best of its abilities, followed suit, as has the CIA across the border in Pakistan.
All of this has been underway for close to a year, with at least another six months to go. This is the reality that the president and his top officials didn’t bother to explain to the American people in that speech last week, or on those Sunday talk shows, or in congressional testimony, and yet it’s a reality we should grasp as we consider our future and the Afghan War we, after all, are paying for.
And yet, confoundingly, as the U.S. has bulked up in Afghanistan, the war has only grown fiercer both within the country and in parts of Pakistan. Sometimes bulking-up can mean not reversing but increasing the other side’s momentum. We face what looks to be a widening war in the region. Already, the Obama administration has been issuing ever stronger warnings to the Pakistani government and military to shape up in the fight against the Taliban, otherwise threatening not only drone strikes in Baluchistan, but cross-border raids by Special Operations types, and even possibly “hot pursuit” by U.S. forces into Pakistan. This is a dangerous game indeed.
As Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power, wrote recently, “Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.” Whatever the Obama administration does in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the American ability to mount a sustained operation of this size in one of the most difficult places on the planet, when it can’t even mount a reasonable jobs program at home, remains a strange wonder of the world.
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 12:22
SOURCE: Daily Beast (12-9-09)
When President Obama accepts the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo on December 10, he will step into the shadow of the last sitting president to receive that prize, Woodrow Wilson. This is not just a coincidence: All presidents who have proclaimed lofty values and ideals and wanted to see them extended in the world have been labeled “Wilsonian.” Obama, like Wilson, has drawn both praise and condemnation for his soaring rhetoric, but, like Wilson, he looks for practical, down-to-earth measures to advance his ideals. Just as Marx once said, “I am no Marxist, just Karl Marx,” Wilson’s ghost could say, “I am no Wilsonian, just Woodrow Wilson.”
Ironically—because Wilson oversaw a racist administration and failed to deal with racial injustice—no president since has resembled him more than Barack Obama. Their public images are strikingly similar, cool, deliberative, thoughtful, and each was a professor before entering politics. Soaring eloquence is something else they have in common. Presidents no longer write all their own speeches the way Wilson did, but Obama’s two books show that he likewise owes his eloquence to himself, not his staff.
Unlike Wilson, Obama has faced major foreign policy challenges from the outset of his presidency. Except in Mexico—where civil war and terrorism raged and spawned an attack on the United States—Wilson did not have to make truly big diplomatic decisions until two years into his administration, after the outbreak of World War I. He made those decisions in much the same careful, thoughtful manner as Obama has approached American involvement in Afghanistan. In contrast to some presidents, Wilson did not take the United States into war (in his case, World War I) because he thought God was telling him to do it. When someone implored him to declare war in the name of God, he retorted, “War isn’t declared in the name of God; it is a human affair entirely.” Like Obama he faced accusations of dithering and cowardice, particularly from his great rival Theodore Roosevelt. He did not cloak American intervention in the garb of holy war but saw it as a choice of evils and followed Martin Luther’s injunction to “sin boldly.”
The parallel runs further. Just as Obama is trying to limit American objectives in Afghanistan, Wilson was at pains not to make intervention in World War I a crusade to spread democracy. He said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He used the passive voice intentionally; he did not believe this country could make the world safe for democracy but could only play a part in striving to reach that goal. As for trying to impose democracy on other people, he later explained, “There isn’t any one kind of government which we have the right to impose upon any nation. So that I am not fighting for democracy except for the peoples that want democracy.”
Wilson carried his circumspection further during and after the war. In his Fourteen Points, laid down in January 1918, he never used the word democracy or the term “self-determination.” That term was coined by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George; Wilson later used it, but sparingly and never as a general principle to be applied to all peoples and all places. Lloyd George also uttered the words “war to end all wars”; Wilson never said them. After the war, he promoted his new organization, the League of Nations, as something that could afford only partial insurance against war but was still well worth embarking on to try to prevent another world war. The League was a breathtaking venture to remake world affairs, yet Wilson saw it as a practical, evolving arrangement for the maintenance of peace and order.
The Obama-Wilson parallel extends to domestic affairs as well...
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 10:58
SOURCE: Progressive Historian (12-9-09)
Palin as Populist
Over the past few years I have tried to correct the misapprehensions of Bryan that still circulate among large numbers of Americans. Now the Times really messes things up with one of the most absurd paragraphs they have ever written.
Whatever else it said about America, her return brought into focus a big question for Republicans as they watched the intense reactions she generated: To what extent should they try to energize their electoral prospects by hitching themselves to the powerful but volatile strain of populism — characterized by anti-elitism and deep skepticism of government — that Ms. Palin has come to embody?
The Times goes on to provide a bizarre list of "populists" ranging from Bryan to Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace to--get this--Richard Nixon.
Sam Tanenhaus comes up with an equally bizarre list in this week's New Yorker.
Populists, from William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long through Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, have always been divisive and polarizing. Their job is not to win national elections but to carry the torch and inspire the faithful, and this Palin seems poised to do.
Tanenhaus calls Palin "the first woman to generate populist fervor on such a scale" and thus a figure of "historic consequence."
Real (as opposed to reel) Populism
Somehow in their inevitable watering down and distorting of American history, the mass media have come to endow the term "populism" with such broad meaning that it has become meaningless, in consequence rendering an important chapter in our nation's past equally meaningless and muddled. In the media's terms a populist seems to be anyone with a popular following who is not from the East Coast.
In fact, as any high school history student knows, Populism with a capital "P" was a nineteenth century political movement that advocated a very specific platform and ideology--one far from the fans of Sarah Palin. In fact, to endow Palin with a term like populist is to raise her to a level where she does not belong and belittles the accomplishments of the real Populists.
The original Populists said little about big government, but had a lot to say about their main enemy--- big business. Anyone seeking to define Populism should start with the party's 1892 platform. The preamble to the People's Party of America (the official title of the Populist party--populist was the name given to members) platform has an uncanny contemporary ring to it.
The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders; a vast public debt payable in legal-tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.
The 1892 platform also contained planks Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Richard Nixon and others on the New Yorker and New York Times lists of so-called populists would find hard to stand on. These included a graduated income tax, government ownership of railroads and the telephone and telegraph systems, and the demand that “all land now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs be reclaimed by the government and held for actual settlers only.” The platform also called for a constitutional amendment to limit the President and Vice President to one term and demanded the abolition of “a large standing army of mercenaries, known as the Pinkerton system.”
As you can see, there is little in the Populist platform that Sarah Palin could support and quite a bit she would find positively socialistic.
Opposition to big government that the New Yorker and the New York Times equate with populism came with what I termed in The Strange Death of Liberal America the Counterrevolution, a Republican movement which adopted much of the anti-federal stance that was articulated in the Southern Manifesto authored by Strom Thurmond and other Dixie Congressman in opposition to Brown v Board. With Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and later the election of Ronald Reagan, Thurmond's anti-government views became the ruling philosophy of the Republican Party.
Reagan’s genius lay in taking Thurmond’s states’ rights philosophy and dressing it in respectable clothes, turning it into opposition to “big government.” What some saw as unsophisticated prejudice received a makeover worthy of one of those television shows that turns a wallflower into a magazine cover. Employing anti-government rhetoric that mirrored Thurmond, the GOP reversed the country’s perceptions about government as a force for equity and turned it into the enemy of the people. (The Strange Death of Liberal America)
Palin and Bryan
If Sarah Palin is not a Populist, is she the heir of William Jennings Bryan as both the Times and the New Yorker imply? In word, no. Actually, this comparison is even more ridiculous and dangerous than the Populist one. In their defense the two mass media giants could fall back on the muddled and watered-down contemporary understanding of populism, but in the case of comparing Palin to Bryan, the historical record allows no such leeway.
Much as the press was using a loose contemporary definition of populism, its comparison of Palin to Bryan seems to rely more on Stanley Kramer's melodramatic Inherit the Wind than it does on the real Bryan. Originally a theatrical representation of the Scopes Trial that sometimes heavy-handedly preached its underlying theme of opposition to McCarthyism, Inherit the Wind portrayed Bryan as an egotistical, narrow-minded rube.
The film's characterization of Bryan is still held by many Americans. Even those who do not see Bryan in such extreme terms might know that he ran for President three times, but few are aware that Bryan proposed and advocated principles and programs that essentially laid a foundation for the American Century.
These included three constitutional amendments: voting rights for women, the income tax, and direct election of senators. Bryan opposed our intervention in the Philippines as “imperialism,” defended collective bargaining and fought for a minimum wage, demanded that candidates reveal the source of their campaign contributions, proposed a cabinet position for labor, championed the idea of insured bank deposits and banking system like the Federal Reserve, attempted to implement a foreign policy based on arbitration which anticipated the League of Nations and the United Nations, and spoke out for the public financing of campaigns, government subsidizing of farm prices, an end to the gold standard, limiting Presidential terms, and the perils of a large military establishment.
There is not much in this menu that Sarah Palin would find palatable.
The Brain Factor
Like it or not, one of the implied factors in the media comparison of Palin and Bryan has to do with the perception both are/were not exactly the brightest people to run for higher office. Do a search for "Palin" and "clueless" to get some idea of what many feel about Palin's grasp of the issues. On the other hand nobody attached the label "clueless" to William Jennings Bryan.
To imply Bryan lacked intelligence is to show a total lack of knowledge of his career. To understand this, forget that he delivered all his speeches from memory or extemporaneously or that he was one of the most feared debaters of his era (contrary to the image in Inherit the Wind), and go back to Bryan's first Congressional speech, which ranks as one of the most auspicious debuts in Congressional history.
It is a far cry from Sarah Palin's stumbling press interviews, her scripted speeches, and her lack of knowledge of domestic and world affairs. Even more than “Cross of Gold,” this speech remains Bryan’s most spectacular, for it has few parallels in American history. In three hours, the New York Times proclaimed, Bryan “Jumped at once to the front rank among speakers of the House.” (“Mr. Bryan at Washington,” New York Times, July 20, 1896)
The rules allotted Bryan only an hour, but Michigan Republican Representative Julius Burrow, whom Bryan biographer Michael Kazin describes as “bedazzled,” moved to give him more time. Several times Bryan attempted to conclude only to have the crowd shout, “Go on! Go on!”
When her husband took the floor Mary Bryan anxiously looked upon a half-empty chamber, because most representatives had left the floor during one of those arcane discussions—this one on how much to spend on copies of speeches-- that still has people muttering about Congress. Perhaps Hollywood best captured the spirit of Bryan’s debut in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for like Jimmy Stewart’s famous filibuster, Bryan’s speech began as a seemingly minor matter only to strike sparks that would flame across America, with Mary Bryan playing the Jean Arthur role of gallery support, prompting him, and, if the transcript is any indication, may have even sent him information as he spoke.
Bryan’s subject was the tariff, which at that time had all the flammability as an issue that taxes do today. The Democratic Party under Grover Cleveland supported the Republican concept of taxing imports to protect business much as contemporary Democrats have shown little inclination to oppose the GOP’s call for cutting taxes. A few choice passages from Bryan’s speech illustrate how he totally reframed the tariff issue, a break with the past that helped to lay the foundation for the American Century. Instead of arguing over tariffs on particular goods, which had been the main Democratic strategy, Bryan became one of the first Democrats of his era to condemn ALL protective tariffs:
This system is sustained simply by the cooperation of the beneficiaries of a tariff, and that they are held together by “the cohesive power of plunder.”…You can impose no tax for the benefit of the producer of raw material which does not find its way, through the various forms of manufactured product, and at last press with accumulated weight upon the person who uses the finished product. ( William Jennings Bryan and Mary Bryan, Speeches of William Jennings Bryan, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1913. pp. 3-78.)
Later in his speech hBryan articulated what would become a guiding principle for Democrats from Woodrow Wilson to John Kennedy:
Why are we right? Because, Mr. Chairman. We are demanding for this people equal and exact justice to every man, woman and child. We desire that the laws of this country shall not be made, as they have been, to enable some to get rich while many get poor.
After three hours of speaking (imagine Sarah Palin being able to talk without notes for even half an hour) Bryan did not disappoint with a conclusion that anticipates “Cross of Gold:”
The day will come, Mr. Chairman—the day will come when those who annually gather about this Congress seeking to use the taxing power for private purposes will find their occupation gone, and the members of Congress will meet here to pass laws for the benefit of all the people. That day will come and in that day, to use the language of another, “Democracy will be king! Long live the king!”
As Mary Bryan remembered it, the speech began uncertainly, but it did not take long for her husband to find his voice. As Bryan continued to speak, those in the chamber began streaming down the halls of the Capitol to summon their colleagues, their excitement testifying that something extraordinary was taking place. The New York Times, which at that time was not favorable to progressives, wrote:
The speech was like a beam of sunlight. It abounded in apt illustration. It was full of quotations, showing that the author of it had read, and occasionally there were passages that were so stirring that they quite betrayed the usually well-behaved audience in the galleries into storms of applause.
To those who had not heard him before, he was indeed a prodigy. Few men so young ever had held the House so long and so intent. His illustrations, humorous and sentimental, including quotations of poetry, were apt and they were well-delivered.
Maybe the Times should have checked their archives before they made their ridiculous comparison of Bryan and Palin. Unlike Palin, who does not seem to have much data in her head, Bryan packed his speech with enough statistics that even today these data provide an important portrait of our nation in 1892. Bryan cleverly alternated these with punchy anecdotes:
The number of sheep has continually decreased, until now if every woman in the State [of Nebraska] named Mary insisted upon having a pet lamb at the same time, we would have to go out of the state to get enough lambs to go around.
The 1892 speech is even more remarkable than “Cross of Gold” because most of the second half of it is a prolonged and spirited debate with his Republican rivals, the likes of which no one has ever seen on CSPAN, in which Bryan speaking without notes recites long passages of poetry and the Bible, quotes at length from documents such as Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures and weaves in a wide variety of primary sources including census data and economic reports.
In this speech Bryan also showed he could think on his feet with barbed come-backs to those who sought to discredit him. One exchange with New York Representative John Raines captures the spirit of that memorable afternoon. Raines was well-known for his ability to skew his opponents with rapier-like slashes that sometimes left them visibly wounded.
RAINES: I want to say to the gentleman that no trade paper was ever printed that could contain a list of all the tinplate liars of the United States.
BRYAN: I suppose that paper, then, has no biographical sketch of my friend from New York. I asked my friend from new York if we had any tin industries in this country—I have here a statement that the average price of tin plate for 1888 was $4.45 a box…The average price for 1891 was $5.68 a box…And I will place this on record as my authority that no article could be mentioned upon which the price had been increased.
For those who would disrespect Bryan by daring to compare him to Palin, that single exchange should show how absurd it is to place the two of them on an equal plane. First, note how Bryan parried Raines' thrust--and this after speaking for over an hour--with one of his own. But the real gem in this exchange is Bryan's ability to cite the relevant data with no prompting. There is no way Palin could pull this off.
The Advocacy Factor
The speech also highlights yet another important contrast between Bryan and Palin--their values and vision. If anyone out there can tell me what Palin's vision is for America please feel free to comment--and please when you do so cite something she has said, not a paragraph from a ghost-written book.
One example of the inability of Palin's supporters to focus on her vision for America comes in another Times piece, this a December 7 online commentary by Stanley Fish that favorably reviews Palin's book. In his entire essay, Fish says nothing about Palin's policies or what she believes in, but gives it a thumbs up because her book does a good job of suggesting the kind of person she is.
For many politicians, family life is sandwiched in between long hours in public service. Palin wants us to know that for her it is the reverse. Political success is an accident that says nothing about you. Success as a wife, mother and citizen says everything.
In other words, Palin's main asset is that she is s good mother. This may be commendable, but it hardly qualifies her to be President since it is a trait she shares with millions of other American women.
Plain's supporters appear to share Fish's view. The infamous video clip of MSNBC correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviewing Palin supporters at a Michigan book signing has been circulating all over the Internet and in emails.
If Palin's supporters seem to go tongue-tied when asked to name specific policies she advocates, few people at the turn of the nineteenth century did not know what William Jennings Bryan supported. A major reason for this is Bryan's tireless advocacy for those issues. The 1896 Presidential campaign is notable not because of the "Cross of Gold" speech but because it was the first time a candidate actively campaigned for the White House.
Bryan knew that the only way he could beat William McKinley was to take his case directly to the people. While McKinley ran what became known as the "Front Porch Campaign," Bryan embarked on a whistle-stop tour across the country. The sheer statistics of the 1896 campaign dwarf those of Harry Truman’s all-out 1948 effort: he traveled 18,000 miles, stopping in 26 states, averaged 80,000 words a day, and spoke to at least five million people.
Contrast this even with Palin's book tour, which is now laboring under the revelation that Palin does not travel from signing to signing in a bus painted especially for the occasion, but in a private jet.
Clothes Make the Man and Woman
Nothing says more about the difference between William Jennings Bryan and Sarah Palin and their underlying political philosophies than their choice of clothing.
There is little doubt that Sarah Palin loves clothes and loves to be seen in them. She wants to be a cover girl, her picture peeking out from all those supermarket magazine racks. Despite her attempts to finesse the much-discussed 2008 campaign clothing expenses controversy in her new book, MSNBC asked the question puzzling many Americans in this observation about Palin during the 2008 campaign:
Can a candidate who portrays herself as a woman of the people spend this much on clothes and remain credible?
Even during the book tour, the Palin clothing controversy will not go away. Writing of Palin's wardrobe, Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman observed:
Her mouth may be saying no to Palin for President in 2012, but her clothes are saying maybe.
Bryan, on the other hand, deliberately dressed unfashionably. His "uniform" became an alpaca coat and a bow tie.
There is one final and important contrast between Bryan and Palin that is especially germane to today's Era of Bad Feelings. During Bryan's lifetime, America experienced some of its most divisive economic, social and political conflicts and Bryan was at the frontlines of many of these. Yet despite the rancor of the times, Bryan had few genuine enemies.
The Times would acknowledge about Bryan:
He would have no enemies on the floor of the House. Search The Record during the two sessions of Congress he was entitled to occupy its pages, and not an instance can be found where he made a reply to an antagonist that would prevent him from meeting his opponent face to face in a moment after the debate.
Contrast this with Sarah Palin's famous nickname "The Barracuda." Pollster Dave Dittman, who worked for her gubernatorial campaign, told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine in 2007:
The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who crossed Sarah.
The "Sarah Barracuda" nickname perfectly captures Palin’s contradictions. Sarah is your next-door neighbor become a celebrity, a person millions of Americans believe is just like them. The Barracuda nickname embodies the anger felt by those same millions who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.
This is a growing and disturbing contemporary American trend, heard in the hard edged rants on talk radio and in blogs of all political persuasions. The angry rant, complete with four-letter words has become the discourse of choice for many to argue about politics. If you want to characterize this group with any of those catchy titles cluster analysts love to use, you could call them the Antis.
In interviews with Palin supporters it comes through in no uncertain terms that the Antis on the right believe Palin finally gives them a voice. But the question is how long can Palin ride that tiger?
She found out that the Antis can quickly turn ugly when she walked away from a book signing in Noblesville, Indiana (something BTW Bryan would have never done) setting off a wave of anger that had an angry crowd gathered outside her bus, some of them loudly booing her. Palin hunkered down inside the bus, refusing to come out and address the crowd. In Palin's defense her staff may have felt it was unsafe for her to confront the crowd, but the scene still leaves an uneasy feeling.
If Sarah Palin can stir up such mob-like emotions and then prove unable to control them, what will happen if her supporters turn their anger on someone else or become a real mob?
A Final Word
Perhaps the most damning aspect of the portrait Stanley Kramer painted of William Jennings Bryan was to imply he was the instigator of a mob. Inherit the Wind wanted to show what can happen when zealotry gets out of control, trying to draw a warning about the excesses of McCarthyism, but in doing so it cast Bryan in a role he never played.
As the most electrifying speaker of his time--and perhaps in all of American history--it would have been very easy for Bryan to become the head of a mob. That certainly was at the root of the fear he inspired in the tycoons of the Gilded Age who worried that Bryan would lead a crusade against them that would turn violent.
Given the tone of an era characterized by two Presidential assassinations, pitched battles during the Homestead, Pullman and other strikes, the incendiary rhetoric of various radicals, and a sensationalistic and partisan press that makes Faux News look tame, such fears are understandable. Yet the irony is that for all the plutocrats' worries about the mob, Bryan disdained mob politics as much as they did.
Bryan was well aware of his ability to move a crowd. After the "Cross of Gold" Bryan would write in his memoirs, “The audience acted like a trained choir.” Yet he never incited a crowd in the fashion of prairie firebrands such as "Sockless Jerry" Simpson or Mary "Yellin" Lease.
The question is whether Sarah Palin will show the same restraint. If not, we may learn what happens when millions of people go rogue and America turns rouge.
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 01:55
SOURCE: New York Review of Books (12-2-09)
I did not think he would lose me so soon—sooner than Bill Clinton did. Like many people, I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president. I had written op-ed pieces and articles to support him in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. My wife and I had maxed out in donations for him. Our children had been ardent for his cause.
Others I respect have given up on him before now. I can see why. His backtracking on the treatment of torture (and photographs of torture), his hesitations to give up on rendition, on detentions, on military commissions, and on signing statements, are disheartening continuations of George W. Bush’s heritage. But I kept hoping that he was using these concessions to buy leeway for his most important position, for the ground on which his presidential bid was predicated.
There was only one thing that brought him to the attention of the nation as a future president. It was opposition to the Iraq war. None of his serious rivals for the Democratic nomination had that credential—not Hillary Clinton, not Joseph Biden, not John Edwards. It set him apart. He put in clarion terms the truth about that war—that it was a dumb war, that it went after an enemy where he was not hiding, that it had no indigenous base of support, that it had no sensible goal and no foreseeable cutoff point.
He said that he would not oppose war in general, but dumb wars. On that basis, we went for him. And now he betrays us. Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement. This war too is a dumb one. It has even less indigenous props than Iraq did.
Iraq at least had a functioning government (though a tyrannical one). The Afghanistan government that replaced the Taliban is not only corrupt but ineffectual. The country is riven by tribal war, Islamic militancy, and warlordism, and fueled by a drug economy —interrupting the drug industry will destabilize what order there is and increase hostility to us.
We have been in Afghanistan for eight years, earning hatred as occupiers, and after this record for longevity in American wars we will be there for still more years earning even more hatred. It gives us not another Iraq but another Vietnam, with wobbly rulers and an alien culture.
Although Obama says he plans to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011, he will meanwhile be sending there not only soldiers but the contract employees that cling about us now like camp followers, corrupt adjuncts in perpetuity. Obama did not mention these plagues that now equal the number of military personnel we dispatch. We are sending off thousands of people to take and give bribes to drug dealers in Afghanistan.
If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do. The Republicans are given a great boon by this new war. They can use its cost to say that domestic needs are too expensive to be met—health care, education, infrastructure. They can say that military recruitments from the poor make job creation unnecessary. They can call it Obama’s war when it is really theirs. They can attack it and support it at the same time, with equal advantage.
I cannot vote for any Republican. But Obama will not get another penny from me, or another word of praise, after this betrayal. And in all this I know that my disappointment does not matter. What really matters are the lives of the young men and women he is sending off to senseless deaths.
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 01:41
SOURCE: Foreign Affairs (12-8-09)
In 1945, the United States faced a dire threat. The rising power of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in Eastern Europe -- and, soon enough, worldwide -- represented a new enemy that imperiled postwar hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world. The United States was poorly equipped to comprehend, let alone respond to, this emerging global danger. The federal government had few experts who spoke Russian or had a deep knowledge of Russian history and culture; universities were barely better off. The field of Soviet studies emerged as a response and became the catalyst for a network of area studies programs that would soon follow.
Today, the United States faces a similar challenge in understanding the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Much like the Soviet Union, militant Islam represents not just an army but an idea -- and one that fights in novel and highly unorthodox ways.
Despite the existence of a successful historical model, the U.S. government does not seem to have absorbed the useful lessons from the creation of Soviet studies programs in its efforts to study this new threat. Sovietology was -- especially in its first decade -- a vibrant intellectual enterprise that contributed to scholarly disciplines, public debate, and top-secret government discussions. A look at this field's success is essential to shaping how the U.S. government defines and studies the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
The most important step is to build infrastructure. Money is critical, of course, but so are institutions and information sources. In its early years, the Joint Committee on Slavic Studies, comprised of scholars who represented the field to foundations and government agencies, acted as the discipline's Politburo. It quickly established a peer-reviewed academic journal, now called Slavic Review, which remains a leading outlet for new research.
But the committee's most important and time-consuming task was hunting for sources about the Soviet Union, a country that was off-limits to U.S. scholars for almost a decade after World War II. In 1954, as members of the Soviet Politburo battled to succeed Stalin, the committee fought with the U.S. Postal Service to keep copies of Pravda from being confiscated by overeager mail inspectors. Throughout the 1950s, the committee -- with the help of the CIA -- sponsored The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, which translated and compiled Soviet newspaper and magazine articles. The closed nature of Soviet society made such basic sources indispensable for both research and teaching. Today, although communication and access have greatly improved, the Current Digest model of sifting through and translating a large and often obtuse body of material would be a great benefit to those who study Islamic fundamentalism.
Original sources were important because the founders of Slavic studies were not content to just find a handful of established policy advisers, but rather hoped to create a new field of scholarship essentially from scratch. In other words, Slavic studies would not just serve the immediate interests of government but would gain respect from its academic peers by making serious scholarly contributions. As a result, the field won acceptance within the academy, trained experts for government service, and educated hundreds of scholars, some of whom shared their expertise with the government. (In fact, U.S. government agencies -- most especially the CIA -- called on these new university experts so often that Harvard professors once complained that they had no time to write their own books.)
So far, however, U.S. efforts to study global threats have been focused on answering the narrow and immediate needs of current defense planners. In December 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unveiled the Pentagon's Minerva Initiative to provide research grants to a select group of established scholars -- most of whom had already worked with government agencies. The Pentagon specified five narrow areas of "strategic importance," which encompassed such topics as the Chinese military and the archives of the Iraqi Baath Party...
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 01:18
SOURCE: USA Today (12-9-09)
As President Obama moves ahead with his expansion of the war in Afghanistan, history suggests that he has a better chance of being wrong than right.
Judging from the experience of Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, miscalculations about war and peace are all too common. Despite receiving counsel from the best and the brightest in each of their generations, these presidents received poor advice that each should have resisted.
Wilson's Fourteen Points of January 1918, which were an amalgam of high-minded progressive thinking, described a postwar world that was beyond reach: a peace without victors, disarmament, self-determination for nationalities, a world safe for democracy, and an end to war through collective security provided by a league of nations. It was a mirage that did nothing to prevent the rise of Nazism and the onset of another world war.
A costly mistake in Korea
Truman's miscalculation followed a series of wise steps between 1945 and 1950 in the emerging Cold War. The fact that realistic good sense — containment as played out in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan — characterized his initial Cold War decisions was no assurance that he would get things right in the Korean conflict. His decision to beat back North Korea's attack on South Korea in June 1950 now enjoys almost universal approval as a sensible extension of the containment response to communist aggression.
Yet the decision to cross the 38th parallel in order to unify Korea under a representative government was a blunder that cost the United States, Koreans and Chinese considerable blood and treasure. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's advice that the Chinese would not enter the fighting if we crossed the parallel and that they would suffer a great defeat if they did, with American troops returning home in a matter of weeks, was the greatest miscalculation of his military career. Moreover, it destroyed Truman's presidency: Unable to end the war or put across the domestic reforms promised in his 1948 election campaign, his approval rating fell to 23%.
Kennedy's decision to accept the judgment of CIA and military advisers that Cuban exiles could topple Fidel Castro's Cuban government was a failure he could never forget. "How could I have been so stupid?" Kennedy repeatedly asked himself later.
No president stands out more for poor judgment in fighting a war than Johnson. His beliefs that he could defeat a communist insurgency in South Vietnam, that this could be done quickly and that it was vital to the national security in the larger Cold War struggle all proved to be wrong. Two of the principal architects of the war — Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy later acknowledged how unwise they had been in pressing the case for a war they retrospectively saw as unwinnable. Their views reinforced Johnson's mistaken assumptions and made it easier for him to push ahead on a policy that was a disaster, costing more than 50,000 American lives and even greater Vietnamese losses.
Nixon, who was burdened with ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, mistakenly drew out American withdrawal over four years on the conviction that Vietnamization — the training of South Vietnamese forces to replace U.S. troops — was a viable option suggested by his military chiefs that would produce "peace with honor." Nixon would have done well to recall the Herculean efforts to supply and train Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies, who never performed effectively against either the Japanese or the communists during and after World War II. Vietnamization was another miscalculation in the miserable history of American involvement in Vietnam.
Recent missteps in Iraq
Bush's misadventures in Iraq are a familiar tale that is so fresh in American minds, it hardly needs repeating...
Posted on: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 11:18
SOURCE: Frontpage (12-8-09)
What importance has the recent Swiss referendum to ban the building of minarets (spires next to mosques from which the call to prayer is issued)?
Some may see the 57.5 to 42.5 percent decision endorsing a constitutional amendment as nearly meaningless. The political establishment being overwhelmingly opposed to the amendment, the ban will probably never go into effect. Only 53.4 percent of the electorate voted, so a mere 31 percent of the whole population endorses the ban. The ban does not address Islamist aspirations, much less Muslim terrorism. It has no impact on the practice of Islam. It prevents neither the building of new mosques nor requires that Switzerland’s four existing minarets be demolished.
It’s also possible to dismiss the vote as the quirky result of Switzerland’s unique direct democracy, a tradition that goes back to 1291 and exists nowhere else in Europe. Josef Joffe, the distinguished German analyst, sees the vote as a populist backlash against the series of humiliations the Swiss have endured in recent years culminating in the seizure of two businessmen in Libya and the Swiss president’s mortifying apology to win their release.
However, I see the referendum as consequential, and well so beyond Swiss borders.
First, it raises delicate issues of reciprocity in Muslim-Christian relations. A few examples: When Our Lady of the Rosary, Qatar’s first-ever church opened in 2008, it did so minus cross, bell, dome, steeple, or signboard. Rosary’s priest, Father Tom Veneracion, explained their absence: “The idea is to be discreet because we don’t want to inflame any sensitivities.” And when the Christians of a town in Upper Egypt, Nazlet al-Badraman, finally after four years of “laborious negotiation, pleading, and grappling with the authorities,” won permission in October to restore a tottering tower at the Mar-Girgis Church, a mob of about 200 Muslims attacked them, throwing stones and shouting Islamic and sectarian slogans. The situation for Copts is so bad, they have reverted to building secret churches.
Why, the Catholic Church and others are asking, should Christian suffer such indignities while Muslims enjoy full rights in historically Christian countries? The Swiss vote fits into this new spirit. Islamists, of course, reject this premise of equality; Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned his Swiss counterpart of unspecified “consequences” of what he called anti-Islamic acts, implicitly threatening to make the minaret ban an international issue comparable to the Danish cartoon fracas of 2006.
Second, Europe stands at a crossroads with respect to its Muslim population. Of the three main future prospects – everyone getting along, Muslims dominating, or Muslims rejected – the first is highly improbable but the second and third seem equally possible. In this context, the Swiss vote represents a potentially important legitimation of anti-Islamic views. The vote inspired support across Europe, as signaled by online polling sponsored by the mainstream media and by statements from leading figures. Here follows a small sampling:
* France: 49,000 readers at Le Figaro, by a 73-27 percent margin, would vote to ban new minarets in their country. 24,000 readers at L’Express agreed by an 86-12 percent margin, with 2 percent undecided. A leading columnist, Ivan Rioufol of Le Figaro, wrote an article titled “Homage to the Resistance of the Swiss People.” President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as saying that “the people, in Switzerland as in France, don’t want their country to change, that it be denatured. They want to keep their identity.”
* Germany: 29.000 readers at Der Spiegel voted 76-21 percent, with 2 percent undecided, to ban minarets in Germany. 17,000 readers of Die Welt voted 82-16 in favor of “Yes, I feel cramped by minarets” over “No, freedom of religion is constrained.”
* Spain: 14,000 readers of 20 Minutos voted 93-6 percent in favor of the statement “Good, we must curb Islamization’s growing presence” and against “Bad, it is an obstacle to the integration of immigrants.” 35,000 readers of El Mondo replied 80-20 percent that they support a Swiss-like banning of minarets.
Although not scientific, the lop-sidedness of these (and other) polls, ranging from 73 to 93 percent majorities endorsing the Swiss referendum, signal that Swiss voters represent growing anti-Islamic sentiments throughout Europe. The new amendment also validates and potentially encourages resistance to Islamization throughout the continent.
For these reasons, the Swiss vote represents a possible turning point for European Islam.
Posted on: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 01:23
SOURCE: Truthdig (12-8-09)
Even if President Barack Obama doesn’t deliver the change he promised, at least he could restore basic oversight in key financial areas.
The need was highlighted by a story out of Cleveland last week. On Friday, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. regulators seized the AmTrust Bank, the fourth-largest U.S. bank or savings institution to fail in 2009. The AmTrust debacle—the FDIC had dutifully guaranteed the bank’s deposits at a cost of more than $2 billion—vividly reflects the Obama administration’s steadfast commitment to the status quo.
Founded in 1889 as the Ohio Savings Bank, the company eventually morphed into a prominent player in northeastern Ohio, along with the National City Bank, which was seized by the FDIC a few months before the action against AmTrust.
During the wild speculative days of the late 1980s and the 1990s, and as banking regulations were overthrown, AmTrust expanded beyond its Ohio settings into southeastern Florida and Arizona, which proved fertile grounds for selling dubious mortgages and other investments.
Regulators periodically questioned some AmTrust practices, but apparently the bank had enough political influence during the Bush administration to keep the overseers at bay. On Dec. 5 The Wall Street Journal reported that the FDIC had been poised to seize the bank week earlier. After the FDIC finally acted, the New York Community Bancorp bought AmTrust at a much lower price than it would have fetched a year earlier, when the feds already recognized the bank’s precarious status.
AmTrust joins the legions of banks that abandoned any notion of prudence, once the financial community’s First Commandment. The bank’s troubles stemmed from ill-considered gambles in the housing market. It ventured into new geographic markets, offered aggressive mortgage and construction lending and racked up mind-numbing losses in derivatives that dominated its unbalanced sheets.
AmTrust did not receive funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in 2008 or 2009. Without assistance such as its larger rivals received, AmTrust could not extricate itself from a mountain of bad debts. It apparently was not too big to fail.
President Obama and his advisers now have had more than a year since the election to devise programs needed to prevent another financial meltdown. The buccaneers of the financial community simply remain free to restore the disaster from which they were rescued with taxpayers’ money.
We have a “regulation czar,” but so far we have no new regulations. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the White House’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, have proposed some new laws, but we can expect little from those with a track record of enabling the bad policies and actions of the past three decades.
Senate and House bills offer a modicum of new regulation, but the legislative measures are floundering, damned for proposing too much or not proposing enough. Restoring the government regulation that both enabled and watched over the nation’s prosperity since 1945 appears as remote as gaining meaningful health care reform.
How do you achieve regulation when the leading players are the recipients of campaign backing from those they are supposed to regulate? Sens. Max Baucus, Christopher Dodd, Charles Grassley and Richard Shelby, the chairs and ranking committee members charged with effecting such reforms, rank among the top recipients of campaign contributions from those they are supposed to regulate. Surely, some bad joke is being played on us.
President Harry Truman, in his famous 1948 campaign, never hesitated to strike a partisan chord; appeasing opponents was not his style. He lit into the 80th Congress, his favorite adversary, saying that “the biggest lobby in the history of the country was at work [in that Congress] and they accomplished their purpose, they did.” You could not, he continued, expect Republicans to “come out in the open” and acknowledge their masters. “You’d take them out and hang them if they did.”
Today’s Democrats, as well as Republicans, openly serve their campaign paymasters, whether in the financial industry or the health industry, and Obama is no Harry Truman when it comes to taking on Congress and special interests. Change has left the room.
Posted on: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 00:03
SOURCE: Private Papers (website of Victor Davis Hanson) (12-7-09)
…is what America has done since 1941. Obama wants to get off. Fine. Many of our countrymen are tired of the ride. But what makes him think that on the ground with the gnashing beast is any safer than on his back?
What Causes Wars?
I do not mean here the existential reasons for strife, brought about through pride, status, envy, honor — or even the supposed desire for riches and natural resources. But rather, less grandly, what allows those aggressions to devolve into legalize murder on a vast scale?
I ask that question, because I am not sure our President or his advisors have ever raised it. But in almost every case in the past, wars were not caused by Bush-like ‘smoke-‘em-out’ rhetoric — no more than they were prevented by “reset” button outreach or bowing to thugs or the League of Nations or the United Nations or things like the Wilsonian Cairo speech.
Usually aggression, bullying, and nationalist agendas evolve into wars — when the aggressive party is convinced it has more to gain through war than lose. And such perceptions, wrong or not, emerge when a Xerxes, a Napoleon or a Hitler are assured that their targets either cannot or will not stop them. Or, if they belatedly try to roll the dice, the resulting losses will be small in terms of what might be perceived as gain.
I am not discounting error and miscalculation. Hitler, after all, got more natural resources through purchase from the Soviet Union (a willing ally) for the Reich between late summer 1939 and June 1941 than he ever did by looting Russia between mid 1941 and 1945.
Hitler also would learn that only post facto. By June 1941 he was convinced that given Stalin’s poor performance in the recent Finnish War, the Red Army’s so-so record in splitting up Poland in 1939, and the well known past purges of the Soviet officer corps — all collated with Stalin’s mysterious efforts to placate Hitler, and denials of the impending threat — the Soviet Union would be impotent, like Norway or France. He deemed its finish a 4-5 week cakewalk.
(Remember, Hitler was also using WWI (faulty) analogies: 4 years /defeat in France vs. 2 years /victory in Russia meant 23 years later, a 6 weeks /victory in France would mean 3 weeks / triumph in Russia...
...1979 On the Horizon
So I think we are going to see soon some regional flare-ups, minor in themselves, but terribly important as the world pauses to gauge the U.S. reaction. Syria and Iran feel liberated and think they can act with impunity. Turkey is an emerging regional hegemon. I would not want to be a former Soviet republic — at least if I were consensually governed, pro-Western, and democratic.
If I were in Manila, I’d start learning Chinese; if in Tokyo, I’d think about massive rearmament. I would not wish to be in NATO if east of Berlin — “allies” in the West would (cf. 1939) stay theoretic and distant, enemies would be concrete and proximate.
The survival of Israel now depends on its pilots and missiles, not on any guarantees from the U.S. In today’s currency, what we guarantee is worth about as much as U.S treasury bills, or promises of missile defense for Eastern Europe. If I were an Israeli, I’d either pray for the skill and audacity of the nation’s Air Force pilots, or begin cultivating India, Russia, and China, or that and more...
Posted on: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - 23:16
SOURCE: The End is Coming (History Blog) (12-7-09)
Vladimir Putin, currently serving as Prime Minister of Russia and former President (2000-2008), has said he is considering a run to regain his presidential title. The Russian constitution restricts a person to two terms yet the amount of time for each of these terms has recently been increased to six years rather than four. As such, Putin could run to serve four more years. The Russian electorate, not to mention international observers, may be uneasy with the dynastic power Putin seems to want but he has one clear-cut advantage that his opponents may not have. He is bald.
Indeed, there exists a conspicuous alternation between full-haired and bald rulers of the northern empire/Soviet state/republic, a superstition which is taken very seriously by electing citizens. It would be the first time that a leader actually hand-picks his successor and then returns to power himself but the important thing is that he was bald(ing), his chosen successor President Medvedev has a nice head of hair and he will be back balder than ever.
Two Revolutions, a Cold War and some “Heads”
1. Georgy L’vov (Bald) – March 1917-July 1917 – 1st President of the Russian provisional government between the two revolutions of 1917.
2. Alexander Kerensky (Hair) – July 1917-November 1917 – 2nd President of the Russian provisional government that lasted until the Bolshevik coup.
3. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov Lenin (Bald) – 1917-1924 – First chairman of the council of people’s commissars. Along with adjutant Trotsky and disciples such as Stalin, his Marxist vision of things to come for Soviet Russia was a more economic and philosophical one than what would be enacted by his sucessors.
4. Joseph Vissarionovitch Dzhugashvili Stalin (Hair) – 1924-1953 – General Secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union, he gained power by pushing aside Trotsky and his supporters. Stalin was a major antagonist to his people as well as to the Western World, in part provoking the Cold War.
5. Nikita Khrushchev (Bald) – 1953-1964 – He was the eastern counterpart to John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. His “loss” of this conflict led to his ultimate humiliation and forced resignation.
6. Leonid Brezhnev (Hair) – 1964-1982 – He directed the ruin of the Russian economy by excessive military build-up at the height of the Cold War. Outlasting many of his international counterparts, archives of his “presidency” remain highly classified and thus all analysis remains circumstantial.
7. Yuri Andropov (Bald) – 1982-1984 – He oversaw an uneventful administration that ended with his death. He worked for peace but was shunned by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
8. Konstantin Chernenko (Hair) – 1984-1985 – His was another short, 13-month period that announced a pacification of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
9. Mikhail Gorbatchev (Bald) – 1985-1991 – He ended the Cold War by encouraging independence in Easter Europe with his Perestroïka (openness) program and through reconciliation with the West through his glastnost (transparency) policy.
10. Boris Yeltsin (Hair) – 1991-1999: First President of the Russian Republic and father to the economic collapse of the country.
11. Vladimir Putin (Bald) – 1999-2008: He stabilised the economic situation but has also acquired the surname “butcher of Grozny” for his violent reactions towards Chechen separatists. He will consider a third term in the future, a prospect that will not be hindered by his hair (or lack of).
12. Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (Hair) – 2008-…: Putin’s hand-picked successor must live in the former President/new Prime Minister’s shadow and with very tense relations with the Western World. For now, Russia is working to solve its antagonistic relations with the United States, with Europe and especially with its former Soviet satellite states.
In the end, Putin is an extravagant character that likes to shock and have worldwide media talk about him. This is why he stipulated on a third term during a self-initiated public forum called “A Conversation with Vladimir Putin: The Sequel”. One would be tempted to not take the statement too seriously but that would be ignoring the limitless ambition of the one they call “The Butcher of Grozny”.
Posted on: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 23:56
SOURCE: Private Papers (website of Victor Davis Hanson) (12-6-09)
These Guys Are Really Sensitive, Aren’t They?
I thought that former Vice President Al Gore’s vein-bulging attacks on Bush & Co. marked a new “no rules in the arena” era of politics. Fine — if the Left wished to write novels, make films, and write op-eds about doing in Bush, and if Nazi/brownshirt was to be on everyone’s lips, from Al Gore’s to Garrison Keillor’s, then I thought surely they would be immune to criticism when their turn to return to power came.
But no. Instead we are getting this hysteria about the evil Cheney criticizing Obama, or furor that “bipartisanship” has ended, or mania about the archaic filibuster. It is sort of like the retiarius throwing his net every which way while stabbing with trident — only to cry foul and “how dare you!” when nicked back by the sica of the Thracian.
I am delighted as anyone that the latest unemployment figures show a slight drop in joblessness to 10%. Much of the media is upbeat as well — which raises the question: in 2004, John Kerry ran on the theme of a “jobless recovery,” a charge resonating through the major media outlets. Yet unemployment in the last quarter of 2004, when these accusations were most frequent, was 5.4% — and soon dipped to average 5% for 2005. If 5.4% is termed “jobless”, what is 10% — job-full?
Reset Button/’They Did It’ Diplomacy
Barack Obama, nearly a year into his term, is still talking about Bush culpability for everything from unemployment to Afghanistan. At what year will it ever stop?
Bush inherited a nuclear Pakistan, a firewall between the CIA and FBI in matters of counter-terrorism, an appeased and ascendant Osama bin Laden, unsustainable no-fly zones over Iraq (the French had already bailed), al Qaeda with a safe zone in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and an intifada-prone Mideast — in other words, no more than the regular stuff. But I don’t remember Bush talking of the creepy Clinton pardons — Eric Holder being at their epicenter — after a year in office.
When Clinton arrived in January 1993, the Balkans were a mess, and no one knew what to do about Milosevic. Eastern Europe and the former republics had been promised varying degrees of NATO membership. And we were running staggering trade deficits, and in a recession. But even Clinton got over blaming Bush soon enough.
Bush I had to deal with an invigorated Saddam Hussein, the Kuwait mess, a Noriega who was out of control, easing the Soviets out of eastern Europe, a divided Berlin reuniting — and, again, the usual stuff.
Reagan inherited a demoralized military, an insane regime in Khomeini’s Iran, a bellicose and appeased Soviet Union, and communist expansion in Central America.
In other words, nothing Obama has seen overseas is, by past standards, all that unusual. Iraq was mostly quiet when he assumed office. We had not been hit again since 9/11. The Patriot Act and anti-terrorism protocols were in play and working. The fact that he has not yet closed Guantanamo and kept Predators, tribunals, renditions, etc. apparently means he finds them useful — despite the reset rhetoric...
Posted on: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 23:00
SOURCE: Jules Crittenden (12-4-09)
Miller classes it a “Midst of Battle” speech, and rates it a not particularly good one. In fact, pretty bad. ”In general, a battle speech, or call to action is not the place to recite one’s limitations.” Ouch.
Here’s the full scorching, as Miller wields his analytical historian’s flamethrower:
For my companion volume to Words and Deeds (MS due in three weeks) I’m actually analyzing a few of Obama’s speeches as commander in chief. I’ll probably include the West Point address in the book’s epilogue. Regarding West Point, I would say this:
The form of battle speech is that of Midst-of-Battle Speech, probably the most common and diverse of the battle speech genres. The most relevant — and obvious — comparisons would be to Bush’s announcement of the Surge (Jan. ‘07) and Petraeus’s Assumption of Command Speech (Feb. ‘07).
The most important convention these sorts of speeches is first, simplicity of message (e.g., attack, retreat, hold) and next, consistency of message. The latter is key — time and attention spans are short. When a civilian commander, versus a NCO, gives such a speech, multiple audiences have to be accounted for — friends, allies, enemies, fence sitters, etc. This actually puts nuance at a severe discount — clarity is key. Battle speeches are not diplomacy. The same message must be received by all constituencies.
Given the foregoing, but not addressing the policy merits, Obama’s speech was a failure. It transgressed both simplicity and consistency with its call for a July 2011 terminus (since walked backwards and forwards by a variety of administration shills).
The speech was too long, and its length was spent badly. Where he might have outlined some basic tactics (a key according to SLA Marshall) he was silent about details — the numbers matter less than what one does with the troops. (Here both Bush and Petraeus excelled in defining broadly where and how new force would be applied.) Consistency also fell short because he reproached his predecessor, an gratuitous distraction from his message.
Consistency was also violated by the other boundaries that Obama set. For example, in emphasizing, unnecessarily, in my view, that America’s war-making capacity was subject to economic limitations, should the Taliban to assume that American can be compelled to withdraw by, Heaven forbid, dynamiting the New York Stock Exchange? In general, a battle speech, or call to action is not the place to recite one’s limitations. One can imagine FDR calling for “the inevitable triumph” but “subject to the success of next war bond drive.”
Moreover, civilian commanders-in-chief have a special responsibility in their battle speeches from which their military counterparts are exempt — rallying the civilian population. Here, Obama failed miserably, save for the only segment of the civil population that seemed to matter to him — the Democrats’ left wing. Unfortunately, in democracies, wars are not waged by placating special constituencies. They must enjoy broad based support. That begins with the “visible presence,” to use Patton’s phrase, of the president. The only resolution I observed during the speech were the stony faces in the audience.
One final and related observation. Staging and props matter a good deal in these situations. Talking to a roomful of cadets was a mistake and another distraction. There are certain kinds of speeches, just like there are certain kinds of orders, lover’s messages, job terminations, and awful medical diagnoses, that one gives face to face, period. The only way for a president to do that is alone, behind his desk, in the Oval Office. There is no more awesome responsibility than ordering youngsters to what will be a certain death for some. And that can only be done by looking directly into the camera and thus into the hearts of his fellow Americans. The presence of a visible audience during the speech acts like an automobile bumper, absorbing the shock of the speech.
But for some speeches, the shock should not be absorbed. The awesome, solemn, terrible business of ordering troops into battle is one of these.
Posted on: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 22:50
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (12-7-09)
Around the world, the decade of terror has generated different anniversaries, the latest being the 12 months separating Indians from the Mumbai gun and grenade atrocities. The announcement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 atrocity, and four accomplices are to be tried in New York, also makes this an apt moment to assess the deeper impact of terrorism.
Al-Qaeda's leadership has been either captured or killed, whether during the B-52 strikes on Tora Bora, or by the CIA's Predator drone assassinations along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Although it is claimed that a voice on audio cassettes is that of Osama bin Laden, it is strange that a movement so reliant on the charismatic Saudi has not released any filmic evidence that he is still among the living. Nor, despite Bali, Atocha station, and the July 7 London bombings, has there been another al-Qaeda "spectacular'', the mass casualty attacks which commenced in Africa in 1998, and which any terrorist movement needs to sustain its brand for reasons of recruitment.
Intelligence experts reckon there are probably 120 core al-Qaeda operatives, their overriding concern being to get through each night still in one piece by day break. Most
al-Qaeda members come from north Africa or the Gulf states, with a few Indonesians and Uzbeks tacked on. Since their chief animus is against the rulers of those states, by their own lights they have failed, for not a single authoritarian republic or reactionary monarchy has fallen as a result of terrorist activity. The one thing the Bouteflikas, Gaddafis, Mubaraks and Sauds are very, very good at, is remaining in power. Further east, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore seems to have crushed jihadism – notably by the killing of Noordin Top, al-Qaeda's chief operative in the tri-state region. According to MI5, the real danger comes from such
al-Qaeda affiliates as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based organisation responsible for the Mumbai murders.
Some things have been irrevocably changed by international terrorism. The use of commercial aircraft as flying bombs, and conspiracies to down them with passenger-assembled explosives, has made international travel a trial. Mumbai was an example of a mass casualty gun attack, of the sort hitherto used to murder unwitting tourists, as happened in 1997 at Luxor in Egypt. Although attempts to gun down soldiers have been foiled at barracks in Australia and Fort Dix in the US, one succeeded at Fort Hood last month.
Many government buildings are now ringed with security barriers, and most senior politicians have got used to having bodyguards or armed policemen outside their homes. The threat of terrorism has also justified the proliferation of CCTV cameras and the storage of credit card transactions, mobile phone records and email, all of which have been produced in court whenever there is a major terrorist trial.
Of course there have been changes of a more complex kind: September 11 enabled international Islamism to impose itself on our collective consciousness, which was surely one of its major objectives. While only policemen and intelligence officers rushed to purchase the Koran and the more radical texts of such ideologues as the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb, most of us have become depressing familiar with a range of alien terms, such as jihad, mujahadeen, and sharia. Our knowledge has expanded to encompass remote provinces in Afghanistan, not to mention Xinjiang in China, where there is a problem with Muslim Uighurs...
Posted on: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 09:31
SOURCE: NixonTapes.org (website run by Prof. Nichter) (12-4-09)
Whether Vietnam, Iraq, or now Afghanistan, wars come and go, but the real battle is a philosophic one between two sects of conservatives. In The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon to Obama, authors Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman challenge readers to examine the role of a little-known Pentagon figure named Fritz G.A. Kraemer. Colodny and Shachtman argue that Kraemer was the leading intellectual behind what became known as the neo-conservative movement, witnessed by the fact that Kraemer influenced so many high-ranking conservative figures over the course of six decades.
What we see in The Forty Years War is that Vietnam split conservatives into two groups: those who sought reconciliation with America's adversaries (including not only North Vietnam, but also the Soviet Union and China), and those who thought weak-kneed political leaders were giving away too much to America's adversaries, including restricting military solutions in Vietnam and more generally pursuing policies of détente. Following Vietnam, Henry Kissinger emerged as the best example of a member of the former group, while Fritz Kraemer continued to lead the latter group.
The split occurred during the fall of 1972, at the moment the Nixon administration was closest to reaching a peace agreement with North and South Vietnam. Most importantly, the split was captured on the Nixon taping system. Before publication of The Forty Years War, no attention had been paid to a meeting that took place on October 24, 1972, yet it has all the makings of pure intrigue. At 11:15 am, Henry Kissinger and his long-time mentor, Fritz Kraemer, entered the Oval Office for a private meeting with President Nixon.
To interested observers and professional historians alike, the meeting raises far more questions than it answers. Management guru Peter Drucker referred to Kraemer as"the man who discovered Kissinger." Donald Rumsfeld referred to Kraemer as"the keeper of the flame", and during a speech upon his departure from the Pentagon in 2006, he cited Kraemer's controversial philosophy of"provocative weakness." Kissinger himself referred to Kraemer in an emotional eulogy as"the greatest single influence of my formative years." In 2000, Alexander Haig told James Rosen, author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, that Fritz Kraemer"detests Henry today, even though he was Henry's father in the United States." National Security Council Staff Member Roger Morris stated that it was"probably Kraemer in the Pentagon" who was responsible for Haig's appointment as Kissinger's deputy. After all, neither Nixon nor Kissinger knew Haig previously; however, Kraemer naturally had the ear of Kissinger.
The role of Fritz Kraemer on Henry Kissinger's formative years
The obvious question, then, is why don't we know more about this shadowy Pentagon figure who seemingly influenced nearly every conservative foreign policy thinker from the Nixon administration forward? Even his death, in 2003, has been no impediment to his influence. Former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent criticism of President's Obama's Afghanistan policy could have come from Kraemer himself.
Start with what we do know. On September 18, 1971, in an Oval Office conversation between Henry Kissinger and President Nixon, Kissinger reminded Nixon that Kraemer had been sending a series of papers related to his theory of"provocative weakness" to the White House, to Henry Kissinger's attention. Kraemer's"provocative weakness" applied to Nixon's foreign policy in the broadest possible sense, including subjects such as Vietnam, China, and detente with the Soviet Union. In the excerpt below, Nixon clearly recalls Kraemer, and asks Kissinger to set up a meeting so that Nixon could meet with Kraemer himself.
Fritz Kraemer's theory of provocative weakness, greatly simplified, goes like this: displaying too much force, such as engaging in an arms race or using excessive force during wartime, are provocative but necessary actions in the face of an irrational adversary. Such displays of strength are preferable to appearing too weak in the eyes of your adversary, which is also provocative since such weakness may incite an adversary to take unnecessarily risky actions that they would otherwise not take. Colodny and Shachtman argue that this philosophy has been an overriding principle of the neo-conservative movement, which has been applied to a variety of international conflicts over the past 40 years.
Fritz Kraemer was placed on President Nixon's schedule, on October 24, 1972, at 11:15 am. Kissinger's deputy, General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., who remained loyal to Kraemer after the Kraemer-Kissinger split, was not permitted to attend. At the start of the meeting, White House Photographer Ollie Atkins captured numerous images, which appear below. They depict Nixon and Kissinger in a jocular mood, clearly enjoying themselves, while Kraemer looked grave, perhaps annoyed that the start of his meeting had been reduced to humor and grandstanding.
During the meeting, Kraemer made it increasingly clear that he was not happy with Nixon's foreign policy, specifically with respect to Vietnam. Kraemer believed that the forthcoming peace agreement had been negotiated according to political timing, as opposed to sound negotiating principles.
|OVAL 806-009||10/24/1972||11:15 - 11:45 am||P, HAK, FGAK||pdf (23k)||mp3 (28.2m)|
Nixon began the meeting by flattering Kraemer."There are so few people with intellectual capabilities who aren't hopelessly unrealistic. We call them doves, for lack of a better name for it. That's too good of a name for it. They're actually worse. To have an intelligent appraisal by someone who really understands great forces at work in the world...with the Soviets, China, etc., to have that kind of analysis...I appreciate it. It's been very helpful."
Kraemer soon began to lay into Nixon's and Kissinger's strategy in Vietnam, including that crucial concessions had been made—such as not insisting on a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South Vietnam—in order to obtain a flawed peace in time for the 1972 presidential election. Kissinger and Nixon defended themselves.
This meeting was probably the only one to have occurred during the Nixon presidency in which Nixon and Kissinger permitted a rigorous debate, in the Oval Office no less, over the merits of not just Vietnam policy, but Nixon foreign policy more generally. Kraemer knew the issues well enough that both Nixon and Kissinger were forced to defend themselves to someone who represented an increasingly disenchanted sect of conservatives. Kraemer believed, as other conservatives did, that the conduct of Nixon foreign policy had became tainted by short-term political considerations, and that politicians had acted as a restraining influence on military leaders who believed they were capable of achieving a military victory..
The tone of the conversation was not adversarial, but it was clearly elevated. Nixon admitted that Kraemer touched on far more than simply American policy towards Vietnam."The whole foreign policy of the United States is on the line here," Nixon noted. The half-hour meeting was too brief for what Kraemer had in mind. He made his disagreement known to the president, which ultimately resulted in a split with Henry Kissinger. The estrangement that resulted between the two men, who had met a quarter century earlier after each enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, continued stubbornly even beyond Kraemer's death in 2003.
It is because these two conservative sects split—one led by Henry Kissinger and the pragmatists, and the other led by Fritz Kraemer and later figures such as Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—as well as the fact that they never resolved their differences before Kraemer's death, that this split continues today. Since Vietnam, wars and have come and gone, but this philosophic battle has never been overcome. Former Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism of President Obama's policy with respect to Afghanistan could have come from Fritz Kraemer himself. While many in the media have interpreted Cheney's comments on purely political, they miss the greater struggle taking place within the conservative camp. The debate over future American policy towards Afghanistan is merely the vehicle for the latest chapter in the epic struggle.
The Forty Years War should serve as a call to researchers to learn much more about Fritz Kraemer. Perhaps the outcome of this future research will confirm Colodny and Shachtman's view that Kraemer was a sort of ideological godfather to the neo-conservatives. After all, a split in the conservative camp indeed took place, and was never resolved. On the other hand, others may conclude that the emphasis on Kraemer is overdone. Either way, the first step is to learn more about the mysterious figure who was indeed influential to so many American diplomatic and military figures since Vietnam. For that, The Forty Years War indeed deserves credit.
Posted on: Saturday, December 5, 2009 - 15:11
SOURCE: New Yorker (12-7-09)
Health care has been on the docket longer than most Americans can expect to live, with or without it. “Let’s take a quick trip back in time,” Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said on the Senate floor this past July, whereupon he proceeded to page through back issues of the Times, quoting headlines about the astronomical cost of health care in 1992, 1988, and 1979, all the way to 1955 (the year he was born), to read this timeless line: “As it does each year without fail, the government declared again this week that it is time to do something about the rising cost of medical care.” Health-care reform isn’t premature, Whitehouse insisted. It’s “55 years late.” (Or ninety-three. But who’s counting?) Last month, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, echoed the point that it was funny to call health-care reform “rushed”: “America has been working on providing access to health care for all Americans since the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-forties, the nineteen-fifties, the nineteen-sixties, nineteen-seventies, nineteen-eighties, and the nineteen-nineties.”
True enough, but don’t forget the nineteen-tens. In 1912, the year after Parliament passed a National Insurance Act, the American Association for Labor Legislation (which Glenn Beck would surely call Bolshevik but was, in fact, a group of economists whose officers included Louis Brandeis, Jane Addams, and Woodrow Wilson) formed the Committee on Social Insurance, the brainchild of Isaac M. Rubinow, a Russian-born doctor turned policy wonk and the author of the landmark study “Social Insurance.” Rubinow hoped that “sickness insurance” would help eradicate poverty. It was also the next logical step after workers’ compensation, which the association had got passed in more than a dozen states. By 1915, Rubinow’s committee had drafted a bill providing for universal medical coverage. “No other social movement in modern economic development is so pregnant with benefit to the public,” the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote. The next year, Congress began debating Rubinow’s bill, which was also put forward in sixteen states. That’s why Irving Fisher was so optimistic. It looked like this thing was good to go.
Posted on: Friday, December 4, 2009 - 01:18
SOURCE: Race Talk (12-3-09)
“Don’t take the swine flu vaccine. Remember the Tuskegee Experiment Syphilis Vaccine,” a recent post on Twitter warns. The message is simple: “Tuskegee,” America’s notorious medical research study, is still considered as our own equivalent to Nazi experimentation that links state power to scientific fervor. Nearly forty years after the study ended, the name “Tuskegee” evokes fears of the dangers of government involvement in medical care. But as Congress debates how to provide health coverage for everyone and fear of the swine flu vaccine runs rampant, there is a different critical lesson to take from the infamous medical research project which targeted poor rural African American men and ran unabated for decades.
From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted a study on “untreated syphilis in the male Negro” in Macon County, Alabama in and around the city of Tuskegee. 439 African American men with late stage syphilis were selected as research subjects, and 185 without the disease became the study’s control group. A mostly sexually transmitted disease, syphilis left untreated can cause fatal heart and neurological problems. The men thought of themselves as patients obtaining needed medical care for what was known as “bad blood” from the government’s doctors. The PHS physicians never told these men they were actually research subjects being followed in a “no treatment” study.
Instead, the researchers explained that the aspirins, tonics, and diagnostic spinal taps given were “free treatment.” In a county with only 16 doctors whose prices the men could rarely afford, a government program of free care enticed them. The study’s nurse kept visiting the men’s homes and helping them to get medical care for other ills. The study’s subjects and controls were also promised money for decent burials in exchange for the use of their bodies for autopsy after their deaths.
The study was not kept secret. Medical articles charting its progress appeared over the decades, while several health professionals questioned the study’s ethics. In 1972 the research experiment came to an end in a storm of media coverage that brought in federal investigators, a Senate hearing, and a subsequent lawsuit against the PHS, the state of Alabama, and many of the doctors involved.
In “Tuskegee’s” wake, major changes in federal rules governing medical research were established, including written informed consent and the creation of institutional review boards to oversee human subject research. The study also created another legacy—it became the metaphor for the distrust of scientific research, the risks of government provision of medical care, and the exploitation of poor patients.
Rumors and myths about what happened continue to circulate in whispers, blogs and media coverage. Most egregious in the face of the need for H1N1 vaccine is the erroneous claim that the government’s doctors intentionally infected the men with syphilis. But no “Tuskegee experiment syphilis vaccine” was ever created; no shots of the bacteria that cause syphilis were put into the men’s veins.
As the Obama administration takes on the huge task of reforming how we organize and pay for health care for all Americans and we line up for our shots, “Tuskegee” can offer another perhaps less obvious, if ironic, lesson. These men living in rural Alabama came forward for treatment not because they were uneducated and easily duped by their government, but because they needed health care for themselves and their families. They, as with increasing numbers of Americans, had no real access to the medical care they required, could not pay for what was available, and had to find it where possible.
Perhaps as the debate over health care reform winds its way through the Congress, a new post on Twitter should read: “Don’t forget the ‘Tuskegee’ syphilis study. Everyone deserves the right to affordable health care and this is what our government should and must provide.”
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 22:02
SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor (12-3-09)
Do you know Tiger Woods? Of course you don't. But you think that you do.
That's why you care so very much about Mr. Woods' apparent extramarital affairs, which have swirled around the golf star ever since his November 27 car crash near his Florida home.
And that's also why Woods' plea for privacy – posted on his website yesterday – sounds so poignant, and also so preposterous. Modern celebrities are defined by their public personas, which give us an imagined entryway into their private lives. Once we're inside, they can't expect us to leave.
Nobody knows that better than Woods, whose very request for privacy revealed just how public he has become. If this is really just a private matter between Woods and his family, why did he even release a statement about it?
And why, most of all, does the statement start with Woods' confessions about – you guessed it – his private indiscretions? "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart," the statement begins. Privacy, indeed!
Remember, too, that our generation didn't invent celebrity. It dates to the early 20th century, when the first mass-marketed Hollywood blockbusters made us believe that we really "knew" Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino. Not just as images, mind you; as real people, just like you and me. Only better.
And sexier. Tabloids and gossip columnists chronicled – or simply invented – the love lives of movie stars, with a glee and intensity that rivals any modern-day celebrity website. Like Greek gods, the film stars coupled with each other and then exploded in rashes of rage and jealousy. But they were beautiful, and literally larger than life, so we relished every new detail about them.
The difference today is that almost anybody can be a star, thanks to the magic of the Net and 24-hour cable television. Just three days before Woods' car crash, let's recall, a Virginia couple became instant celebrities by "crashing" the White House state dinner – with the apparent goal of scoring parts on a reality TV show.
And was anyone surprised to read that one of Woods' alleged mistresses, Jaimee Grubbs, has also appeared on a reality show? Woods reportedly used to call her on the set, to the annoyance of her boyfriend--who was a contestant on the same show.
Now they're all famous for being infamous, a kind of celebrity in drag. Unlike Woods, who earned his fame with a unique talent, the whole new cast that now surrounds him hasn't done anything remarkable – except get on TV. We'll watch them for a while, and then they'll fade into obscurity.
But Tiger Woods never will. He's Tiger, after all! You thought you already knew him well, but now you're going to get to know him even better – and for the worse.
And there's nothing Woods can do about it, his plaintive Web post notwithstanding. Back in 2004, Woods and his wife, Elin, purchased a 155-foot yacht for a reported $20 million. And they called it, yes, Privacy.
"As its name implies, 'Privacy' was intended to be a private respite for our family to relax and escape the rigors of my husband's celebrity," Elin said.
No such luck. Her statement was directed at the builders of the yacht, who violated a confidentiality agreement by revealing its owner. The Woodses sued, and the builder agreed to pay them $1.6 million in damages – and to issue an apology.
A public apology. And that's the whole point here. Sadly, for Woods and his family, there is no private respite from the public rigors of celebrity. It raises mere mortals into demigods, who tower above us in their all-too-human frailty. And that gives them more room to fall.
So if you feel sorry for Woods, as I do, here's a modest suggestion: Try to ignore him. Turn off the TV when it starts to blare about Woods, and navigate away from all the Web hype around him. Remember, you only think that you know Tiger Woods. But you don't.
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 21:58
SOURCE: TomDispatch (Website of Tom Engelhardt) (12-3-09)
Let others deal with the details of President Obama’s Afghan speech, with the on-ramps and off-ramps, those 30,000 U.S. troops going in and just where they will be deployed, the benchmarks for what’s called “good governance” in Afghanistan, the corruption of the Karzai regime, the viability of counterinsurgency warfare, the reliability of NATO allies, and so on. Let’s just skip to the most essential point which, in a nutshell, is this: Victory at Last!
It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy. They have shocked-and-awed their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success, triumphant at last.
And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not about devolving Afghanistan. I’m talking about what’s happening in Washington.
A Symbolic Surrender of Civilian Authority
You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered. It may not have looked like that: there were no surrender documents; he wasn’t on the deck of the USS Missouri; he never bowed his head. Still, from today on, think of him not as the commander-in-chief, but as the commanded-in-chief.
And give credit to the victors. Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant. Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot. The campaign began in late September with a strategic leak of Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s grim review of the situation in that country, including demands for sizeable troop escalations and a commitment to a counterinsurgency war. It came to include rumors of potential retirements in protest if the president didn’t deliver, as well as clearly insubordinate policy remarks by General McChrystal, not to speak of an impressive citizen-mobilization of inside-the-Beltway former neocon or fighting liberal think-tank experts, and a helping hand from an admiring media. In the process, the U.S. military succeeded in boxing in a president who had already locked himself into a conflict he had termed both “the right war” and a “necessary” one. After more than two months of painfully over-reported deliberations, President Obama has now ended up essentially where General McChrystal began.
Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine was dusted off from the moldy Vietnam archives and made spanking new by General David Petraeus in 2006, applied in Iraq (and Washington) in 2007, and put forward for Afghanistan in late 2008. It has now been largely endorsed, and a major escalation of the war -- a new kind of military-led nation building (or, as they like to say, “good governance”) is to be cranked up and set in motion. COIN is being billed as a “population-centric,” not “enemy-centric” approach in which U.S. troops are distinctly to be"nation-builders as well as warriors."
And as for those 30,000 troops, most expected to arrive in the Afghan combat zone within the next six months, the numbers are even more impressive when you realize that, as late as the summer of 2008, the U.S. only had about 28,000 troops in Afghanistan. In other words, in less than two years, U.S. troop strength in that country will have more than tripled to approximately 100,000 troops. So we’re talking near-Vietnam-level escalation rates. If you include the 38,000 NATO forces also there (and a possible 5,000 more to come), total allied troop strength will be significantly above what the Soviets deployed during their devastating Afghan War of the 1980s in which they fought some of the same insurgents now arrayed against us.
Think of this as Barack Obama’s anti-MacArthur moment. In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces. He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to “limit” the war after the Chinese intervened.
Obama, too, has faced what Robert Dreyfuss in Rolling Stone calls a “generals’ revolt” -- amid fears that his Republican opposition would line up behind the insubordinate field commanders and make hay in the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns. Obama, too, has faced a general, Petraeus, who might well have presidential ambitions, and who has played a far subtler game than MacArthur ever did. After more than two months of what right-wing critics termed “dithering” and supporters called “thorough deliberations,” Obama dealt with the problem quite differently. He essentially agreed to subordinate himself to the publicly stated wishes of his field commanders. (Not that his Republican critics will give him much credit for doing so, of course.) This is called “politics” in our country and, for a Democratic president in our era, Tuesday night’s end result was remarkably predictable.
When Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor on his recent Asian tour, there was a media uproar in this country. Even though the speech Tuesday night should be thought of as bowing to the American military, there is likely to be little complaint on that score. Similarly, despite the significance of symbolism in Washington, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the president’s decision to address the American people not from the Oval Office, but from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
It was there that, in 2002, George W. Bush gave a speech before the assembled cadets in which he laid out his aggressive strategy of preventive war, which would become the cornerstone of “the Bush Doctrine.” (“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long -- Our security will require transforming the military you will lead -- a military that must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”) But keep in mind that this was still a graduation speech and presidents have traditionally addressed one of the military academies at graduation time.
Obama is not a man who appears in prop military jackets with “commander-in-chief” hand-stitched across his heart before hoo-aahing crowds of soldiers, as our last president loved to do, and yet in his first months in office he has increasingly appeared at military events and associated himself with things military. This speech represents another step in that direction. Has a president ever, in fact, given a non-graduation speech at West Point, no less a major address to the American people? Certainly, the choice of venue, and so the decision to address a military audience first and other Americans second, not only emphasized the escalatory military path chosen in Afghanistan, but represented a kind of symbolic surrender of civilian authority.
For his American audience, and undoubtedly his skittish NATO allies as well, the president did put a significant emphasis on an exit strategy from the war. That off-ramp strategy was, however, placed in the context of the training of the woeful Afghan security forces to take control of the struggle themselves and the woeful government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to turn over a new nation-building leaf. Like the choice of West Point, this, too, seemed to resonate with eerie echoes of the years in which George W. Bush regularly intoned the mantra: “As Iraqis stand-up, we will stand down.”
In his address, Obama offered July 2011 as the date to begin a withdrawing the first U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (“After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”) However, according to the Washington-insider Nelson Report, a White House “on background” press briefing Tuesday afternoon made it far clearer that the president was talking about a “conditions based withdrawal.” It would, in other words, depend “on objective conditions on the ground,” on whether the Afghans had met the necessary “benchmarks.” When asked about the “scaling back” of the American war effort, General McChrystal recently suggested a more conservative timeline -- “sometime before 2013” -- seconded hazily by Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to Washington. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates refers to this as a"thinning out" of U.S. forces.
In fact, there’s no reason to put faith in any of these hazy deadlines. After all, this is the administration that came into office announcing a firm one-year closing date for the U.S. prison in Guantanamo (now officially missed), a firm sunshine policy for an end-of-2009 release of millions of pages of historical documents from the archives of the CIA and other intelligence and military services (now officially delayed, possibly for years), and of course a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, followed by all U.S. forces from Iraq (now possibly slipping).
Finish the job in Afghanistan? Based on the plans of the field commanders to whom the president has bowed, on the administration’s record of escalation in the war so far, and on the quiet reassurances to the Pakistanis that we aren’t leaving Afghanistan in any imaginable future, this war looks to be all job and no finish. Whatever the flourishes, that was the essence of Tuesday night’s surrender speech.
Monty Python in Afghanistan
Honestly, if it weren’t so grim, despite all the upbeat benchmarks and encouraging words in the president’s speech, this would certainly qualify as Monty Python in Afghanistan. After all, three cabinet ministers and 12 former ministers are under investigation in Afghanistan itself on corruption charges. And that barely scratches the surface of the problems in a country that one Russian expert recently referred to as an “international drug firm,” where at least one-third of the gross national product comes from the drug trade. In addition, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment blog:
“Months after the controversial presidential election that many Afghans consider stolen, there is no cabinet, and parliament is threatening to go on recess before confirming a new one because the president is unconstitutionally late in presenting the names. There are grave suspicions that some past and present cabinet members have engaged in the embezzlement of substantial sums of money. There is little parliamentary oversight. Almost no one bothers to attend the parliamentary sessions. The cabinet ministries are unable to spend the money allocated to them on things like education and rural development, and actually spent less in absolute terms last year than they did in the previous two years.”
In addition, the Taliban now reportedly take a cut of the billions of dollars in U.S. development aid flowing into the country, much of which is otherwise squandered, and of the American money that goes into “protecting” the convoys that bring supplies to U.S. troops throughout the country. One out of every four Afghan soldiers has quit or deserted the Afghan National Army in the last year, while the ill-paid, largely illiterate, hapless Afghan police with their “well-deserved reputation for stealing and extorting bribes,” not to speak of a drug abuse rate estimated at 15%, are, as its politely put, “years away from functioning independently”; and the insurgency is spreading to new areas of the country and reviving in others.
Good governance? Good grief!
Not that Washington, which obviously feels that it has much to impart to the Afghan people about good governance and how to deal with corruption, has particularly firm ground to stand on. After all, the United States has just completed its first billion-dollar presidential election in a $5 billion election season, and two administrations just propped up some of the worst financial scofflaws in the history of the world and got nothing back in return.
Meanwhile, the money flowing into Washington political coffers from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care industries, real estate, legal firms, and the like might be thought of as a kind of drug in itself. At the same time, according to USA Today, at least 158 retired generals and admirals, many already pulling in military pensions in the range of $100,000-$200,000, have been hired as “senior mentors” by the Pentagon “to offer advice under an unusual arrangement”: they also work for companies seeking Defense Department contracts.
In Congress, a Senate maneuver which only a few years ago was so rare that the response to it was nicknamed “the nuclear option” -- needing a 60-vote majority to pass anything of significance -- has, almost without comment, become a commonplace for the passage of just about anything. This means Congress is eternally in a state of gridlock. And that’s just for starters when it comes to ways in which the U.S. government, so ready to surge its military and its civilian employees into Afghanistan in the name of good governance, is in need of repair, if not nation-building itself.
Airless in Washington
It’s nonetheless the wisdom of this Washington and of this military that Obama has not found wanting, at least when it comes to Afghanistan.
So here’s a question: Why did he listen to them? And under such circumstances, why should we take the results seriously?
Stop for a moment and consider the cast of characters who offered the president the full range of advice available in Washington -- all of which, as far as we can tell, from Joe Biden’s “counterterrorism-plus” strategy to McChrystal’s COIN and beyond, was escalatory in nature. These are, of course, the wise men (and woman) of our era. But just a cursory glance at their collective record should at least make you wonder:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now said to be the official with the best ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and so the one in charge of “coaxing” him into a round of reasonable nation-building, of making “a new compact" with the Afghan people by “improving governance and cracking down on corruption”; and yet, in the early 1990s, in her single significant nation-building experience at home, she botched the possibility of getting a universal health-care bill through Congress. She also had the “wisdom” to vote in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reputedly deeply trusted by the president and in charge of planning out our military future in Afghanistan, was in the 1980s a supposed expert on the Soviet Union as well as deputy CIA director and later deputy to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Yet, in those years, he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Soviets were done for even as that empire was disappearing from the face of the Earth. In the words of former National Security Council official Roger Morris, Gates “waged a final battle against the Soviets, denying at every turn that the old enemy was actually dying.” As former CIA official Melvin Goodman has put the matter: “Gates was wrong about every key intelligence question of the 1980s... A Kremlinologist by training, Gates was one of the last American hardliners to comprehend the changes taking place in the Soviet Union. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev, wrong about the importance of reform, wrong about Moscow's pursuit of arms control and détente with the United States. He was wrong about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan...”
Vice-President Joe Biden, recently described as potentially “the second-most-powerful vice president in history” as well as “the president’s all-purpose adviser and sage” on foreign policy, was during the Bush years a believer in nation-building in Afghanistan, voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and later promoted the idea -- like Caesar re: Gaul -- of dividing that country into three parts (without, of course, bothering to ask the Iraqis), while leaving 25,000-30,000 American troops based there in perpetuity, while “these regions build up their state police forces.”
General Stanley McChrystal, our war commander in Afghanistan and now the poster boy for counterinsurgency warfare, had his skills honed purely in the field of counterterrorism. He was a Special Ops guy. The man who is now to “protect” the Afghan people previously won his spurs as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan. He ran the “manhunters” – essentially, that is, he was the leader of a team of assassins and evidently part of what reporter Seymour Hersh has termed an"executive assassination wing" of that command, possibly taking orders directly from Vice President Dick Cheney. His skills involved guns to the head, not protective boots on the ground.
General David Petraeus, the general leading everything, who has been practically deified in the U.S. media, is perhaps the savviest and most accomplished of this crew. He surged into Iraq in 2007 and, with the help of fortuitous indigenous developments, staunched the worst of the bleeding, leaving behind a big question mark. His greatest skill, however, has been in fostering the career of David Petraeus. He is undoubtedly an advisor with an agenda and in his wake come a whole crew of military and think-tank experts, with almost unblemished records of being wrong in the Bush years, whom the surge in Iraq recredentialized.
Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador to Kabul, in his previous career in the U.S. military served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and as the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan was the general responsible for building up the Afghan army and “reforming” that country’s police force. On both counts, we know how effective that attempt proved.
And when it comes to key figures with well-padded Washington CVs like Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or James Jones, present national security advisor and former commandant of the Marine Corps, as well as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, a close friend of Senator John McCain, and a former revolving-door board member of Chevron and Boeing, remind me just what sticks in your mind about their accomplishments?
So, when you think about Barack Obama’s Afghan decisions, imagine first that the man considered the smartest, most thoughtful president of our era chose to surround himself with these people. He chose, that is, not fresh air, or fresh thought in the field of foreign and war policy, but the airless precincts where the combined wisdom of Washington and the Pentagon now exists, and the remarkable lack of accomplishment that goes with it. In short, these are people whose credentials largely consist of not having been right about much over the years.
Admittedly, this administration has called in practically every Afghan expert in sight. Everyone involved could now undoubtedly expound on relatively abstruse questions of Afghan tribal politics, locate Paktia Province on a map in a flash, and tell you just which of Hamid Karzai’s ministers are under investigation for corruption.
Unfortunately, the most essential problem isn’t in Afghanistan; it’s here in the United States, in Washington, where knowledge is slim, egos large, and national security wisdom is deeply imprinted on a system bleeding money and breaking down. The president campaigned on the slogan, “Change we can believe in.” He then chose as advisors -- in the economic sphere as well, where a similar record of gross error, narrow and unimaginative thinking, and over-identification with the powerful could easily be compiled -- a crew who had never seen a significant change, or an out-of-the-ordinary thought it could live with -- and still can’t.
As a result, the Iraq War has yet to begin to go away, the Afghan War is being escalated in a major way, the Middle East is in some turmoil, Guantanamo remains open, black sites are still operating in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s budget has grown yet larger, and supplemental demands on Congress for yet more money to pay for George W. Bush’s wars will, despite promises otherwise, soon enough be made.
A stale crew breathing stale air has ensured that Afghanistan, the first of Bush’s disastrous wars, is now truly Obama’s War; and the news came directly from West Point where the president surrendered to his militarized fate.
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 21:47
SOURCE: LA Times (12-3-09)
Which is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway?
In the wake of 9/11, American statecraft emphasized the first approach: President George W. Bush embarked on a "global war" to eliminate violent jihadism. President Obama now seems intent on pursuing the second approach: Through military escalation in Afghanistan, he seeks to "finish the job" that Bush began there, then all but abandoned.
Through war, Bush set out to transform the greater Middle East. Despite immense expenditures of blood and treasure, that effort failed. In choosing Obama rather than John McCain to succeed Bush, the American people acknowledged that failure as definitive. Obama's election was to mark a new beginning, an opportunity to "reset" America's approach to the world.
The president's chosen course of action for Afghanistan suggests he may well squander that opportunity. Rather than renouncing Bush's legacy, Obama apparently aims to salvage something of value. In Afghanistan, he will expend yet more blood and more treasure hoping to attenuate or at least paper over the wreckage left over from the Bush era.
However improbable, Obama thereby finds himself following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon. Running for president in 1968, Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War. Once elected, he balked at doing so. Obsessed with projecting an image of toughness and resolve -- U.S. credibility was supposedly on the line -- Nixon chose to extend and even to expand that war. Apart from driving up the costs that Americans were called on to pay, this accomplished nothing.
If knowing when to cut your losses qualifies as a hallmark of statesmanship, Nixon flunked. Vietnam proved irredeemable.
Obama's prospects of redeeming Afghanistan appear hardly more promising. Achieving even a semblance of success, however modestly defined, will require an Afghan government that gets its act together, larger and more competent Afghan security forces, thousands of additional reinforcements from allies already heading toward the exits, patience from economically distressed Americans as the administration shovels hundreds of billions of dollars toward Central Asia, and even greater patience from U.S. troops shouldering the burdens of seemingly perpetual war. Above all, success will require convincing Afghans that the tens of thousands of heavily armed strangers in their midst represent Western beneficence rather than foreign occupation.
The president seems to appreciate the odds. The reluctance with which he contemplates the transformation of Afghanistan into "Obama's war" is palpable. Gone are the days of White House gunslingers barking "Bring 'em on" and of officials in tailored suits and bright ties vowing to do whatever it takes. The president has made clear his interest in "offramps" and "exit strategies."
So if the most powerful man in the world wants out, why doesn't he simply get out? For someone who vows to change the way Washington works, Afghanistan seemingly offers a made-to-order opportunity to make good on that promise. Why is Obama muffing the chance?..
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 12:39
SOURCE: The Nation (12-1-09)
When Barack Obama gave his victory speech on election night last November, he picked Chicago's Grant Park – the legendary site of the battle between anti-war demonstrators and Chicago cops during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. According to campaign manager David Axelrod, Obama chose Grant Park to "symbolically overcome the damage done to American idealism forty years before."
In 1968, Grant Park had dramatized the fratricidal split between Democrats over Vietnam. On the night of Nov. 4, 2008, Obama was suggesting all that had come to an end. The party was united and victorious.
But Obama's speech tonight at West Point, announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanistan, raised anew the specter of Grant Park in 1968. Once again a Democratic president is making a deeper commitment to an unwinnable war.
Tonight's speech announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanstan is "the defining moment of the Obama presidency," Bob Schieffer declared afterwards on CBS.
We all remember how LBJ came to be defined by the Vietnam War, and how Democrats' opposition to that war forced him out of his own reelection campaign in 1968, and how the two sides coverged in Chicago in 1968, and how that led to the election of Richard Nixon.
Of course the question now is whether Afghanistan will be Obama's Vietnam.
Obama is a smart guy, and knows we are asking that question. He addressed it explicitly at West Point, declaring that the comparison with Vietnam "depends upon a false reading of history." He said that unlike Vietnam, the U.S. has been joined by a coalition of 43 nations in Afghanistan; that in Afghanistan the US is not facing a broad-based popular insurgency; and – most important, he said -- "the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target" for al-Qaida extremists.
Those who remember Grant Park in 1968 might reply that we had "allies" fighting with us in Vietnam--Australians, Koreans, Filipinos--while our "coalition" in Afghanistan is at best reluctant. They might reply that the Viet Cong were indeed stronger in their country than the Taliban are today in theirs--but that the Karzai government is more corrupt and weaker than the Saigon governments ever were.
And they might reply that Obama's own experts have told him that only 100 al-Qaida fighters remain in Afghanistan – the rest have relocated to Somalia, Yemen and other destinations.
His arguments tonight failed. Obama is pushing us back toward Grant Park – not the Grant Park of November 2008, but the Grant Park of August 1968.
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 00:11