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Friday, April 29, 2011

ISSUES AND DIVERSIONS: THE NERO MODEL

It is said that "history repeats itself". Unfortunately that seems to be the case today. While Washington D. C. is not Seventh Century Rome one is reminded of that quaint vignette in which the emperor Nero supposedly "fiddled while Rome burned". No individual contemporary emperor exists in the U.S., but that characterization seems to be appropriate to a sort of collective Nero made up of our political "leadership" in Washington and the guides of our political agenda and attention, the media.

Here is the current "fire" i.e. just five of the important issues which need to be seriously addressed but which are leaders are "fiddling":
1. the 2012 fiscal year federal budget 2. the political chaos in the Middle East which will redefine vital economic and security issues for the future 3. rapidly rising gasoline and food prices in the U.S. and abroad 4. escalating violence in Mexico which threatens border towns in the U.S. and reinforces the need for immigration reform 5. the constant revisions of assessments of "progress" and withdrawal dates in Afghanistan.


The most important member of this Nero like "musical group" is of course President Obama. Currently engaged in campaign mode, Obama seems strangely disconnected from the host of important problems. He has become a spectator to important international events as his response to the various crises in the Middle East is limited to occasional "condemnations" of violence inflicted upon protestors. He is a reluctant and limited participant in the NATO intervention in Libya since employing the initial use of attack aircraft and cruise missiles to destroy Ghaddafi's air defenses in support of the "no fly zone". He "condemns" the violence of Ghaddafi's military response to the armed insurgency in the Northern cities but took two months to authorize the use of a few U.S. drones to attack the government's military. Since, turning over the operation with it's lack of specific goals, to NATO and the Canadian general who is in operational command, Obama has carefully withdrawn the U.S. from any kind of leadership, political or military. The situation is rapidly deteriorating into a stalemate and Obama needs to offer a rationale for U.S. participation and state an achievable goal or withdraw. He has "condemned" the harsher violence inflicted by Syrian president Assad on the protestors in that country but then turned to more important issues; releasing his birth certificate and denouncing Republican efforts to make serious cuts in the 2012 budget.

He "fiddles" and is largely silent about the spike in retail gasoline prices except to simply resorting to tired cliché's about "our addiction to oil" and "green alternatives". Some plan to further develop U.S. oil reserves and facilitate an increase in refining capacity would be a start. For years Democrats in the Congress who apparently discovered their inner caribou, have blocked oil exploration in just 10% of the Alaskan National Wildlife Reservation (ANWAR) and as leader of the nation Obama has made that do nothing position and a Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium his energy policy.

The chaos in Mexico where the drug gang violence exceeds the current sectarian violence in Iraq and is creeping across the southern U.S. border, is not on the presidential agenda. Despite the Roman like "fire" in the region, it appears that immigration reform and border security are "too hot" politically to address in a campaign year. Republicans are equally at fault in deferring this issue in the simple hope that they will take control of the White House and both houses of Congress in 2012. The fear of the 2012 Hispanic vote (less than 7% of the 2010 vote) has apparently immobilized both parties.

The critical budget process is an exercise in rhetorical excess and lack of political realism on the part of both sides. Obama has offered a 2012 budget which projects cuts from 2011 levels of 2.4%. But the 2011 budget deficit is now projected to be 1.65 trillion dollars so a 2.4% reduction is not cause for celebration. His budget also projects federal debt to grow to 16.7 trillion dollars by September, 2012, up from 14.3 trillion currently. He claims this budget will cut 1.1. trillion dollars over 10 years but that is just 110 billion per year or 2.94% of his 2012 budget and just 6.66 percent of the projected 2011 budget deficit. Obama has ignored all the recommendations of his own bi-partisan Deficit Commission and offered a political budget designed to avoid all painful but necessary spending reductions to accommodate his reelection campaign.

The Republican budget designed by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan includes significant spending cuts but is itself a political statement in that it will be “dead on arrival” in the Democrat controlled Senate and has already stimulated a veto threat by Obama. If both sides wanted to put down their “fiddles” and work to get something accomplished before the 2012 election, they would both have to accept some political risks. Obama needs to address the financial crisis in meaningful ways with real cuts and numbers not based on intangibles like a "recovering economy" and “belt tightening” efficiencies to control “waste and inefficiency”. Republican leaders need to start with a budget proposal that has room for compromise and some hope of enactment. This will require ignoring or convincing the ideologically brain locked members in the far right that some tax increases or closing of some “tax expenditures” (loopholes and deductions) is necessary given the enormity of the problem.

Meanwhile the watchdogs of our democracy, the national media, have been focused on: the Trump political sideshow, the royal wedding (now thankfully completed), and Obama's release of his birth certificate. There’s definitely smoke in the air but that fiddle music we hear isn’t the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Friday, April 22, 2011

HOPE AND CHANGE: FOR REPUBLICANS IN 2012

With the 2012 unofficial election primary campaigning already starting for the Republican nomination the speculation has begun about President Obama's prospects for reelection. Without a Republican nominee or clear leader head to head polls are meaningless. Most of the possible Republican nominees suffer from a lack of name identification among the general public and it is way to early for most potential voters to pay much attention to the early speculation, political posturing or overly general policy statements of the potential candidates. In the final analysis of course, the outcome will be decided by who the Republican nominee is and how well he or she is able to convince the voters that they can do a better job than the incumbent. However, some analysis, sprinkled with a few objective facts is always interesting.

Some political commentators have concluded that because of what has been described as a "weak field" of Republican candidates, the powers of incumbency, and the 2008 coalition of Obama voters (minorities, women, youth, unions), Obama will prevail once again. This is entirely possible but certainly not at this stage inevitable. The political landscape has dramatically changed since Obama offered "hope and change" to a Bush weary, war weary, economically distressed nation.

The economy is still the number one issue. Despite the "official" end of the recession, and the recovery of the stock market, unemployment remains close to 9% and the housing market shows few signs of recovery. While overall inflation remains low, gas and food prices are rising rapidly. A recent poll (Wash. Post/ABC News) found that only 42% of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy while 57% disapproved. Meanwhile the U.S. military is still deployed in Iraq which is suffering from daily sectarian violence and the war in Afghanistan drags on while U.S. casualties mount. After two and a half years, Obama "owns" both the wars and the economy. "It's Bush's fault", while still the preferred response of the Administration and the Democrat Party, no longer resonates with the public at large. This is reflected in three important non-candidate specific poll numbers (Gallup 4/11) which are important for Obama's reelection prospects.

Fully 66.5% of the poll respondents think that the "direction of the country is on the wrong track". Without a dramatic improvement before the Fall of 2012, a reincarnation of then candidate Reagan's question to the voters during his debate with incumbent president Jimmy Carter could be powerful: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

The diminished effectiveness of the "I inherited these problems from Bush." claim is further shown by Obama's job approval rating which is just 41.0% approving (Gallup: 4/11) and 50.%% disapproving (WaPo/ABC News: 47% -50%). Evan approval among the fast growing Hispanic minority, thought to be a Democrat stronghold, was 65% in January, 2010 but now is down to 54%. Approval among non-Hispanic whites is just 39%. Perhaps even more troublesome for Obama is the fact that both major parties are minority parties making the "independent vote" crucial. In the WaPo/ABC News poll, 41% of respondents self identified as "independents" (32% Democrat: 22% Republican). The Gallup poll found Obama's job approval among independents is down to 35%.

Finally, in spite of the "weak Republican field", no Republican front runner, and no formal campaigning, in a poll against an "unnamed" Republican candidate, Obama only leads by 2.8% with far less than a majority (43.6% to 40.8%).

Another important change in the political landscape occurred in the 2010 elections. Republicans made numerous gains in governorships, state legislatures and of course the Congress. The change in the states does not bode well for Obama to the extent that it reflects a shift in the policy preferences of the voters and also leaves Republican campaign organizations up and running for 2012. Now twenty-six state legislatures are under the control (both houses) of Republicans. In twenty-one of those states the governors are Republicans essentially giving Republicans control of their state governments. These twenty-one states will have a total of 242 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election. Democrats control the governments (governor plus legislatures) in just eleven states with 136 electoral votes. Although Oregon, New York and Rhode Island have legislatures split between Republican and Democrat control, these states have been reliably Democrat states in presidential elections but with their electoral votes included as well as the automatic Democrat Washington D.C.,, the electoral vote total of the group is just 179. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. This is not to say that control of state governments is an absolute predictor of voting patterns in presidential elections but it is a fact which provides certain advantages and shows a trend in ideological orientation which is no doubt worrisome to the recently reorganized Obama campaign.

Thus Obama has some significant problems to overcome. Besides the wars, oil and food prices, and the epidemic of lost equity in the nation's homes, there is the general unpopularity of Obama's signature legislative proposal, the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, "ObamaCare". Then there is the uncertainty of future governments in the Middle East currently faced with, or already overthrown by, popular uprisings. The evolution of anti-American or Islamist governments would cause more instability in oil markets and the impression of increased American vulnerability.

So in the face of all these issues, is a Republican victory in 2012 a high probability? Not really. Events, especially an improving economy, over the next eighteen months can have tremendous influence and Obama has a number of things going for him. Besides the "weak Republican field", a concerted effort could reenergize the essential elements of the victorious 2008 Democrat coalition, women, young voters, blacks, Hispanics and organized labor. Also, the recently passed Republican budget authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is politically risky in that it proposes major changes in the Medicare system which the Democrats have claimed will make health care for millions of seniors unaffordable. Even though this provision and much of the rest of the Republican budget will not pass the Democrat controlled Senate, this will be used by Democrats as a threat to seniors if the Republicans were to take control of the Senate and win the White house.

Thus, barring major unforeseen events, the door to the White House is ajar for the Republicans. The election outcome will probably depend on the identity and credibility of the Republican candidate, the efficiency of that candidate's campaign and its ability to attract independent voters with alternative policies, not just simple condemnations.

The campaign/nominating process is unfolding slowly. Preference polls among Republican voters are not definitive because of the large number of possible candidates who are included and the early date. However, in most polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads but with only about 16% of voter support. As the number of candidates is reduced a clearer picture of the front runners will appear. Current runner-ups include Mike Huckabee who doesn't appear to be running, Sarah Palin who also doesn't appear to be running, and Tim Pawlenty who is running but hasn't generated much support. Other candidates are now still in the "dark horse" category.

The current media speculation is now dominated by the announced "possible/probable" candidacy of billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump who in early polls has entered the contest as an initial choice of 8% of the Republican poll respondents. Eight percent is not usually a cause for celebration but it is newsworthy by the fact that Trump jumped over other commonly mentioned candidates like Huckabee and Sarah Palin (6% and 5% respectively).

The early "support" for Trump is shaking heads in both the Democrat and Republican establishments but it is difficult to take his candidacy seriously. Trump is the "anti-candidate"; his lack of political experience, flamboyant lifestyle, and reckless outspokenness defy the conventionally accepted need for political “gravitas” in presidential candidates. However his current popularity is likely based on these same characteristics. A non-politician who is unabashed in his criticism of the political status quo has definite appeal to frustrated voters. It is a fan based phenomena in which people are attracted to style over substance; where unconventional, especially combative, behavior becomes entertainment. It's the Palin model and with a "Lady Gaga Light" hair style, a third wife twenty-four years his junior, a billionaire's history of financial success mixed with intermittent real estate venture bankruptcies, Trump certainly adds color to an otherwise conventionally drab slate of possible candidates.

But as the leader of the nation and the industrialized world Trump would be the proverbial "loose cannon". Compromise and shared decision making in a system of divided government would be a foreign concept to him, and relations with Congress would be almost impossible. Dealing with foreign nations like China and Russia would not be possible based on bluster and threats. A sample of his "shoot from the lip" thinking is his assertion that as President he would put "a 25% tax (tariff) on all Chinese imports. Setting aside the facts that Congress would need to authorize this, and it would be a violation of World Trade Organization agreements to which both the U.S. and China are obligated, a 25% increase in the cost of billions of dollars worth of Chinese made goods in American stores would put a real dent in "The Donald's" popularity. Also, imposing high tariffs against exporting countries always brings about retaliation and in spite of the huge imbalance in U.S. trade with China, in 2010 the U.S. exported $91.9 billion worth of manufactured goods to China, exports which would be rendered non-competitive by a retaliatory increase in tariffs on China's part and overtime would result in significant job losses in the U.S. Simply put, Trump could not "fire" Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao or Russian President Medvedev if they didn't cooperate in whatever simplistic vision he has for restoring America's image in the world.

Trump clearly needs expert advice in foreign policy and international economics. His equally bizarre claim that he would "take" Iraq's oil reveals the same preference for bluster over political and military realities. After an initial burst of support from entertained voters who like his "finger in the eye" approach to their ideological opponents and wishy-washy members of their own party, these "fans" will likely come to see that what works in the private and publicly unaccountable realm of extreme wealth and high finance is not applicable to the slow moving, give and take of domestic politics, relations with sovereign nations and the responsibilities of governance. At best, if he runs, Trump will fade quickly after early primaries. At worst he will disrupt and distract the more serious discussions and debates important to the selection of credible Republican candidate.

The political landscape at this early stage is beneficial to a credible Republican challenge. Republican primary voters will have to keep the general election and independent voters in mind when picking a candidate. In the 1964 presidential election, "Mr. Conservative" and Republican candidate Barry Goldwater famously said: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."  Goldwater won 6 six states with 52 electoral votes.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

LIBYA: WAR BY COMMITTEE

 
 
The popular uprisings against authoritarian governments that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East found their harshest resistance in Libya where the government of dictator Moammar Gaddafi set out to suppress the uprising with the full might of the country's military. Faced with Ghaddafi's threat of "no mercy" and the probability of a human catastrophe, the Arab League, the U.S. and several European nations sought a UN Security Council Resolution to respond to the crisis. While this is a common response to international crises it is a very slow moving and the involvement of numerous competing interests makes it a highly political process often producing vague or overly generalized results in the attempt to gain approval.

The United Nations Security Council has 15 members. A majority of 9, which must include the 5 Permanent Members (China, Russia, Great Britain, France, United States) either by assent or abstention, is required to pass any resolution. The 10 non-permanent members serve on a rotating basis for 2 year terms. Thus UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed on a vote of 10-0 with 5 abstentions (China, Russia, Brazil, Germany, India) the purpose of which was to authorize UN member states to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack" from the forces of Libya's leader, Moammar Ghaddafi.

This initial lack of unanimity in the "world's forum" has unfortunately been repeated as the process to implement a response has unfolded. Leading the way rhetorically have been French President Nickolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Also an early supporter of a UN sanctioned international response was the Arab League. But the language, and thus the intention, of the UN resolution was predictably vague: "all necessary measures" could mean anything but it was followed by language specifically citing authorization for implementing a "no fly zone" which was intended to deny Ghaddfi the ability to use helicopter gunships and strike aircraft against the rebels. To some governments this implied that the "necessary measures" would be limited to combat air patrols by volunteer nations to keep Ghaddafi's aircraft grounded.

The initial response was carried out by France, Britain and the United States which as usual, provided the majority of the military assets. This response was an enormous barrage of ship and submarine launched cruise missiles and bombing attacks whose purpose was to destroy the air defense capabilities of the Libyan military thus making "no fly" patrols by coalition aircraft possible. But this first action revealed the problem of widely disparate interests in the conduct of military actions.
Fearing what might be perceived as an endorsement of yet another major military intervention in an Arab/Muslim nation by Western governments, the Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, expressed anger at the severe level of the initial air assault and threatened to call another meeting of the League to reconsider its original endorsement.

The apparently rudderless Obama Administration ship of state was beset by similar fears. Not wanting to appear in the forefront of another attack on an Arab/Muslim country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said publicly and almost apologetically:

"We did not lead this."

A few hours later Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, made the confusion in the administration apparent when he described the U.S. role quite differently:

“We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation.”

Nonetheless, President Obama continued to make an effort to minimize the U.S. role by constantly saying that after the initial air assault the U.S. would "hand-off" the enforcement of the UN resolution to NATO. Again, this is somewhat misleading. While the operational commander is a Canadian general, the NATO supreme commander is always an American, in this case an American admiral, and the whole effort would be impossible without U.S. intelligence, communications, logistics and air refueling capabilities.

Now ostensibly in NATO hands with respect to mission control, the weaknesses of warfare by committee are becoming apparent even beyond the differences within the Security Council and the Arab League. The French especially, and to a lesser extent the British, interpret the "all necessary measures" language of the resolution to include air attacks on Ghadaffi's ground forces which are currently besieging two rebel held cities with tanks, artillery, and infantry. Some attacks of this nature have been carried out but there is opposition to escalating these tactics among the NATO members themselves.
NATO is made up of 28 nations, most of whom contribute very little in military capability. However, NATO operates by "consensus" which means unanimous assent. Even though only 14 of the member nations are involved in the Libyan operation (most in the naval blockade off Libya's coast), and only 6 of these are involved in the "no fly" operation, and within these 6, most flights are being carried out by the French and the British, the attacks on Libyan forces have divided the alliance. Italy's Foreign Minister has quite bluntly stated that Italy will" "refuse to fire over Libya" and their is little enthusiasm among the remaining 11 participants to intensify the intervention.

The overly generalized and thus vague Security Council resolution, the tactically narrow interpretation of it by the Arab League, the lack of a defined mission and dissent within NATO, and a lack of leadership by the United States, have created a conflict without a strategy. President Obama has repeatedly said that the purpose of the limited U.S. participation, and thus by implication, that of the entire operation, is not "regime change". This is another apparent effort to avoid being seen in the Muslim world as a reincarnation of the Bush Administration and is also a concession to the limited objective voices on the Security Council and in NATO . But the goal of the armed insurgents is very much to remove Ghaddafi, so any support by outside powers is contributing to that goal. In a ridiculous effort to have it both ways, Obama has said that the political, if not the military goal is that "Ghaddafi must go."

Currently the rebels are on the defensive. They are untrained, ill-equipped and poorly led. Without a military effort on the part of NATO to defeat Ghaddafi’s superior forces or kill Ghaddafi himself, the two most likely outcomes are the defeat of the insurgency or a long term stand-off with the rebels in control of a few population centers on the eastern Mediterranean coast. This would require a long term presence by NATO to prevent their defeat, which is politically and economically unsustainable, given the general lack of popular support for the operation in U.S. and other NATO countries. This means that Obama’s political goal of a Ghaddafi free Libya depends on Ghaddafi leaving voluntarily. There is no hint that he is inclined to do so and on the contrary he remains publicly defiant and appears to have significant domestic support. Thus the attempt to “organize the international political community” to carry out a mission with ill defined military and contradictory political goals has created another foreign policy swamp for the U.S.

NATO cannot operate without major U.S. participation. The European members have even depleted their inventories of bombs in less than a month long campaign. UN Resolution 1973 allows individual nations to act in accordance with its provisions. Thus the U.S., Britain and France may have to make the tough decision to form a “coalition of the willing” outside of the bogged down NATO framework and make one of three choices:

1. supply the rebels with the weaponry and supplies to give them a chance against Ghaddafi’s army:
2. remove Ghaddafi with a vigorous air strategy and special operations
3. stand down and let the struggle play out on its own.

Unlike other populist uprisings in the region, the Libyan situation is essentially a civil war. Intervening in such events is highly risky and requires a level of unanimity among the regional and international participants, a clear strategy and a definition of success that is not present in Libya.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

BUDGET CUTS, POLITICS AND REALITY

At the "witching hour" on Friday night, the "Great Government Shutdown" bogeyman was put to rest. After weeks of rhetorical excess and personal hostility, the leaders of the Republican controlled House of Representatives and the Democrat controlled Senate, came to an agreement with President Obama to create a budget for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which is just six months since the federal government's fiscal year runs from October to October. While this "accomplishment" was undoubtedly a big relief to the government’s 2.15 million employees, in the grand scheme of things just how big a deal was it?

In politics, everything is relative but in substance, the negotiated budget which represents a 38.5 billion dollar cut from 2010 levels of spending, is only 2.75% of the predicted 1.4 trillion dollar spending deficit for fiscal 2011 and a miniscule 2.7 tenths of one percent of the rapidly growing 14.26 trillion dollar federal debt.

Politically however, the budget compromise is more significant. It is 78.5 billion dollars less than President Obama's proposed 2011 budget which was 40 billion dollars higher than 2010 levels but fortunately, never passed by the Congress. This is because Obama was never committed to actually reducing federal expenditures. His fiscal "plan" was to "reduce the rate of growth" of federal spending which has been in deficit territory for many years. Although Obama and the Democrat's resistance to these and larger cuts proposed by the Republican House leadership produced the last minute negotiating marathon, they are now trying to make the most of an ideological and legislative defeat by sounding like supporters of the fiscal responsibility that they have so long opposed.

On Saturday morning, Obama proclaimed that the budget compromise was "good news for the American people" and "the biggest annual spending cut in history". Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his appreciation to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner for his efforts in reaching a deal.  Not all Democrats are happy with the result. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration and now professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley claims that the government was held "hostage" by the Republicans and Obama "gave away too much in the bargaining."
Democrat politicians will try to further gloss over the result by citing their negotiating "victories" which include the omission of proposed Republican cuts to federal support of Planned Parenthood and cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as defunding of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), all of which are favorite targets of social conservatives.

 Much was made of the proposed transfer of funds from Planned Parenthood funding to block grants to the states to spend as they wished. Harry Reid, kept talking about the attack on “womens health” but the real issue with Planned Parenthood was abortion. Although federal funds currently cannot be spent for abortion services, the reputation of Planned Parenthood as the nation’s preeminent abortion provider makes them a perennial target for conservative abortion foes. But Speaker Boehner was able to use these items, which represented relatively small federal expenditures but are symbolically important to the Democrat Left, as bargaining chips to achieve overall spending reductions important to the Republicans in the Congress. Public opinion made this a safe tactic. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, when asked to “name the most important problem facing the country”, the economy came out on top and less than 1% of respondents cited abortion. In another poll last December, only 20% of respondents said abortion should not be permitted. Thus 38.5 billion of the Republican’s starting negotiating position of 60 billion dollars in cuts was achieved, an impressive 64%.

In truth, the negotiating process was probably driven by current political realities, in which a nation wide, and indeed international, shut down of government services would have incited the wrath of the American people against the President, who is suppose to lead us through these crises, and both political parties. Currently President Obama’s job approval stands at 46.8% with 47.3% disapproving (RCP Average). The Congress is held in even less repute. It’s current approval rating is a miserable 23.2% with 70.4% disapproving. A general poll question about the “direction of the country” finds that 64% believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction. The inability of the leaders of the government to pass an annual budget  thus bringing government operations to a halt would have been like the ladies of the Middle East trading their burquas in for bikinis and just hoping for the best. No one in the Congress would have been safe. The nation was split on who to blame if a shut down occurred, with 37% saying the Republicans and 37% saying Democrats and 15% saying “both”.

This negotiation sets the stage for two major political fights of even more importance which will come up soon. The debate over raising the legal national debt limit will probably come first. The debt limit is currently 14.3 trillion dollars and represents the amount of government securities sold by the Treasury to finance the accumulated annual federal deficits. Most of this debt is held by domestic institutions but large portions are held by foreign countries, notably China ($1.154 trillion) and Japan ($885.9 billion) as well as the United Kingdom and various oil exporting countries. The securities are attractive to investors and foreign countries in spite of historically low yields because of their supposed complete safety. A failure to raise the legal debt limit will make future sales highly problematic because of the implied risk of default. It would also make interest payments on currently held securities suspect. Such an outcome is unthinkable for the world’s largest economy. Dedicated fiscal hawks, mostly identified with the Tea Party movement, however will use the budget victories just passed as an incentive to again hold raising the debt limit “hostage” to more dramatic spending cuts. The stakes will be considerably higher however.

Then there are the upcoming negotiations for the 2012 federal budget which is supposed to be complete before October 1, 2011. It is the President’s responsibility to produce a budget and send it to Congress. However, the Republicans in the House have already produced a pro forma budget which will reduce federal spending by 5-6 trillion dollars over the next decade. This proposal is already under attack by Democrats who fall back on their usual tactic of identifying all spending cuts as mean spirited attacks on the “poor”, the “elderly”, “innocent children” and “minorities”. Cuts of this magnitude will inevitably impact some or all of these groups but the simple truth is that there are few government programs for the middle class or the “rich” so any effort to substantially reduce out of control federal spending must include these programs.

Hopefully, the final product will achieve some balance by reducing or eliminating spending in agricultural supports, wasteful bureaucracies and the defense budget. An effort at tax reform with a goal of increasing revenue and fairness by eliminating loopholes and deductions would offset some of the pain of large cuts but that isn’t on the legislative agenda so the coming battle will be enormous. All of this will be carried out in the context of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. How each party reads the electoral tea leaves will guide their positions. It should be interesting.


ADDENDUM:

Facing their own budget cuts and resulting loss of important learning programs in their school district
 in Colorado Springs, a group of ambitious 4th, 5th and 6th graders have created a web site to ask for help.   Hoping to emulate the web based fund raising success of President Obama and his nemesis Sarah Palin, the students are asking for small donations from large numbers of people. Visit their website: "http://www.dollars-4-scholars.com" to get a glimpse of tomorrow's leaders and if so inclined make an on-line donation of one dollar of more.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

FRINGE POLITICS AND THE LEADERSHIP VACUUM

A recent article in the Colorado Springs, CO Gazette described a number of people in the state who are busily stockpiling assault rifles, and food and building rural compounds complete with solar panels for power. These "survivalists" are planning for some kind of catastrophe the nature of which they can‘t identify. They just want to be "ready". Perhaps given the onslaught of "catastrophic" news deluging the nation this is an understandable, although not a reasonable, reaction. Economic meltdown, unending wars, Middle Eastern uprisings and a nuclear disaster in Japan, certainly give the impression that events that impact our lives are unmanageable and out of control. Survivalists are nothing new and for decades have been regarded as an anti-government "fringe" not to be take seriously. There is no reason to reevaluate this group but a brief survey of national and world events seems to indicate that other "fringe" individuals and groups are impacting public discourse and public policy in unmanageable and serious ways.

Essentially, the "fringe" seems to becoming more than the just the extreme borders of the political "rug". In the nation's capital, the budget debate has exposed recalcitrant minorities on both the "right" and "left" edges of the rug, whose simplistic ideological commitments to massive all at once budget cuts or to a belief that all cuts to government programs are mean spirited and will unfairly harm "children", "the poor", "working Americans" and "the middle class". The resulting impasse may well cause a failure to pass another “continuing resolution” to fund government operations thus resulting in a "government shutdown". Those politicians willing to accept such an outcome apparently believe that the failure to provide government services will only affect those on the opposite side of the ideological chasm which separates the Left and Right fringes.  Until one unified political party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, compromise is an essential and fundamental responsibility of those in charge of public policy. Ideological purity is not an option.

Things are not much better on the international scene. After a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the original goal of regime change has been transformed into attempts at "nation building" within democratic structures, the extremist fringes are still very much dictating the outcomes. In Iraq, almost daily suicide bombings claim the lives of scores of people, government officials, members of the Iraqi military and civilians alike. When large numbers of individuals are willing to blow themselves up to punish those who don't share their religious beliefs, the prospect for a political order based on the rule of secular i.e. non-discriminatory, law are greatly diminished.

But what can only be described as a "psycho war" is now occurring between a clearly intellectually challenged minister in Gainesville, Florida and mobs of religious extremists in Afghanistan. The cause of the conflict? The good reverend Terry Jones thinks that the religion of Islam is an affront to the Christian world and thus he felt compelled to carry out the symbolic act of burning a copy of the source of that religion, the Koran. In the real world of common sense, a self important crank in a Florida city has burned a book; not an act of great importance and in itself utterly devoid of consequences. But in the world of the "peaceful religion" ( just ask Obama) of Middle Eastern Islam the Koran in all its manifestations requires special treatment not only from the believers but from the entire rest of the world. So outrageous in the eyes of the mullahs and their lemming like followers was this individual act of stupidity eight thousand miles away, that violent revenge had to be taken out against someone. Since the kooky American minister wasn't available, the murder of scores of Afghans associated with their own government and United Nations workers seemed appropriate. As of this date, the rioting is in its third day and the casualties are mounting.

While hopefully, this will become an isolated incident, it sends a stark message about the viability of the "hearts and minds" strategy currently employed by the U.S. military and diplomatic corps as an adjunct to the "search and destroy" tactics currently underway in the Spring offensive against the Taliban forces. The Obama Administration seems committed to perpetuating the politically correct myth that the Afghan and Iraqi versions of Islam are compatible with the fundamental precepts of democratic governance. Fundamentalist Islam, which is the dominate strain in these countries, cannot be separated from politics and the law. It governs the daily lives of its adherents in all things. It is harshly intolerant of all non-conformity and thus by definition makes political opposition based on individual human rights impossible.

The only possible remedy to the extremist agendas both in national and international policy is clear headed and vigorous leadership. Political leaders starting with President Obama must make hard choices based on realistic goals and American interests and then lead in the face of the inevitable strident opposition from the Left and Right fringe. Political correctness, electioneering, ever changing and fickle world opinion and domestic public opinion polls should no longer drive public policy in these critical areas. The American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to be significantly reduced in the short to medium term whether or not democratic governments have been created. The domestic American financial situation cannot be deferred as the debt crisis continues to grow but a common sense federal budget must be passed and the government of the American people must be kept functioning. Pain free remedies are simply not available in either area. President Obama is watching, not leading. That has to change.