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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A LONG HOT SUMMER

As the 2011 Memorial Day weekend winds down, expectations are that national politicians and their leaders will find their way back to Washington D.C. and get down to work. As an adjunct to "real" political activity in the form of public policy, the 2012 presidential campaigns are expected to get serious as potential candidates make formal announcements of their candidacies and the GOP nomination battle takes off in expectation of the first test, the Iowa caucuses next February. This more entertaining side show will inevitably occur but the more important legislative program in the nation's capital shows signs of continued stalemate and lethargy.

In recent weeks, there has been the emission of much heat but little light from Congress. The one noteworthy exception was the extension of the Patriot Act for four years. This legislation, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks enables more comprehensive and vital intelligence gathering on the part of federal authorities charged with counter terrorism duties. There should be no opposition to affording these tools to appropriate law enforcement agencies but of course the usual "civil liberties" handwringers offered up their theoretical scenarios of hypothetical abuse of "privacy rights" but also as usual, with no applicable real world examples. In spite of the expected opposition from the ACLU and an unlikely duo of liberal Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the extension was passed in the Senate (72-23) and the House (250-153) and remotely signed into law by President Obama while he was France at the Group of Eight meeting.

The Group of Eight (of the largest economies in the industrialized world) meets annually to try and develop broad strategies of cooperation generally with respect to the world's economy. This year the meeting was dominated by the so called "Arab Spring" uprisings and an agreement to provide up to $20 billion in economic aid to Tunisia and Egypt was produced but with few details. President Obama did get Russian President Medvedev to agree to try and persuade Libyan dictator Ghadaffi to step down. This was a reversal of Russian policy but hardly a major breakthrough since "persuasion" has met with stiff resistance so far as has NATO military support for the rebels in Libya.

The most significant problem facing the European nations now apparently was not on the Group of Eight agenda. That is the fiscal and monetary crisis in Greece which is close to default on its sovereign debt and is politically unable to meet the harsh spending and tax reforms required by the IMF to obtain another multi-billion dollar bailout. A default by Greece, a member of the Eurozone of seventeen nations, would have a significant negative impact on all the euro based economies and would have a ripple effect that would reach the U.S. If the U.S., Japan, and Russia had any input into the crisis during this meeting of heads of government it was not part of the public discussion.

Back in Washington, and still unresolved, are significant issues, some more pressing than others but all important to the national welfare. The first issue will be the increase in the federal debt limit which will allow the government to keep borrowing through the sale of government securities, and thus continue to pay the interest on accumulated debt, now approaching 14.4 trillion dollars, and of course to finance the as yet to be legislated 2012 federal budget which is forecast to have a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit. House Tea Partiers and doctrinaire liberals seemed to have formed a circular firing squad on this issue with each side making contradictory and seemingly non-negotiable demands which if unresolved will, at some point, result in the first ever U.S. government default on its financial obligations. Unlike Greece, the U.S., as the possessor of the world's primary reserve currency, can print money, which we have been doing for some time, but the impasse in Congress is political as the Republicans in the House want to use increasing the debt limit as leverage to force significant cuts in spending, something which the mere thought of among liberal Democrats causes hypertension and arrested cognition.

Domestic economic conditions demand immediate attention also. The unemployment rate has risen back to 9%; economic growth (Gross Domestic Product) is being forecast at a meager 3% for the year; commodity prices (food and gas) are soaring and the Federal Reserve's policy of extremely low interest rates has not deflated the housing bubble while it has devastated savings for retirees.
Nonetheless, national media attention is focused on the Republican primary battles still unfolding and on Obama's efforts to rebuild his 2018 victory coalition. Could the Republican presidential and congressional campaigns actually presage a new direction for the country in 2012? It’s possible, but the optimistic glow created by the 2010 mid-year Republican sweep has undeniably faded. The lack of progress in resolving the nation's economic problems and the Democrat's culpability in that failure has been overshadowed by the proliferation of Republican candidates, many of whom though invited to the prom, simply teased the conservative faithful for weeks before turning down the invitation and leaving before the first dance. It hasn't been a pretty sight.

The mercifully brief Trump sit-com was a major distraction and created an aura of inanity which more serious Republicans could not escape. Speculation about the candidacies of "the governors", Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, New Jersey's Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and their subsequent decisions not to run, gave the impression that the party was desperately seeking other candidates than the assumed participants, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. The perceived enthusiasm gap is attempting to be filled by relative unknowns, Representative Michelle Bachmann, former Pizza Hut CEO Herman Cain and former Utah Governor John Huntsman. The impression that almost anyone no matter how light their resume' might be, can be a viable Republican candidate for the presidency is a political liability that the Party can't afford in an effort to unseat an incumbent president, even one with a resume' of his own that would fit on a business card. The advantages of incumbency are huge as indicated by Obama's jump in the polls after the elimination of Osama bin-Laden.

The Republican road show is made even more ridiculous in appearance by the Sara Palin traveling circus. She is literally living off speculation about her presidential intentions which keep her in the news, attract readers to her pronouncements on high via Twitter and Facebook and makes her paid speeches popular among the angry political right. "Is she or isn't she?" we and she are constantly asked. Should we care? Probably not since 60% of voters say they would "never" vote for her and thus she will never be president. But despite respected conservative pundit David Brook's warning to her that presidential campaigns "are not American Idol", she persists in her substance challenged "positions" and paparazzi inspiring behavior. Riding into the annual Washington D.C. "Rolling Thunder” motorcycle rally on the back of a Harley, this would be president, whose resume’ is even shorter than Obama’s, used the event, which is organized to honor veterans, former POWs and MIAs, to kick off her transparently self promoting “One Nation” bus tour.

 Standing amidst the rumbling of thousands of motorcycles she excitedly claimed that “I love that smell of the emissions!", a fact that if true may explain her earlier campaign related claim on Fox News that “I have the fire in my belly”.  Exhaust induced indigestion notwithstanding, the bus tour is grandly claimed to be to “Discover the ties that bind Americans, our history, our traditions, and the exceptional nature of our country.” These “discoveries” are of course available in high school and college courses which she evidently didn’t take, and apparently the “ties” and “traditions” she now seeks reside in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which are on the itinerary.

There is still a large contingent of Republican insiders who believe Palin is just promoting her fading brand for financial gain and that she will not run. This is a credible assertion given her disdain for organization and traditional one on one campaigning. She might also be fantasizing about effortlessly parachuting in to the campaign after the nominee has been selected and being gifted with the Vice Presidential nomination once again. In the event she does enter the competition, hopefully Republican primary voters will realize that it is not enough to wrap yourself in the flag and attack your opponent. A credible candidate should have intellectual assets, knowledge, ideas and leadership qualities, unfortunately none of which John McCain required in his 2008 vice presidential selection process.

Thus the coming months should be interesting and temperatures in Washington are bound to rise no matter what the weather.

Monday, May 23, 2011

OBAMA'S "NEW MIDDLE EAST POLICY"

President Obama's speech on May 19th, focused on the Middle East and has been portrayed by himself and by some others, as a significant change in U.S. foreign policies towards that region. But essentially it signifies a continuation of very broad American policies but for a significantly changed region. How could an American president not support popular movements claiming to seek democracy? In fact that has been a theme in American foreign policy sine the Truman Doctrine in 1947, up to and including the Bush doctrine and the war in Iraq.

Obama summarized the changed political and social environments as: " . . .people have risen up to demand their basic human rights." This is undeniably true, but what he described is an ongoing process the true nature of which in each of the nations involved, remains to be seen. Although the President proclaimed that ". . .strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore" these are the very "strategies" which are still playing out in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran. However, Obama may well be correct that at least in some of these states, the die is cast and ultimately the current authoritarian governments will fall, ostensibly to more populist regimes.
Thus a problem arises with overly optimistic predictions and early promises of political and economic support for as yet undefined new political forces. The populist revolution which overthrew the harshly repressive and U.S. supported regime in Iran in 1979 did not produce an even modestly liberal or democratic government. In the current environment, Obama specifically cited Egypt as the key example of the "new" Middle East. Egypt's importance can't be overestimated. It is the largest Arab nation, controls the vital Suez Canal, and made another general Arab-Israeli war impossible by signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

The protestors in Tahrir Square demanding political freedom and economic opportunity stimulated a sympathetic response across the world. But democracy is not part of the political culture of Egypt and a considerable amount of "hope" in Israel and the West accompanies the "change" that is occurring. The Egyptian army remains in control, viable political parties still need to be organized, a new constitution needs to be written and approved, elections need to be held, and the true character of the most organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood has still not been determined. In spite of Obama's assertion that ". . . sectarian divides need not lead to conflict", the new populist movement in Egypt includes Muslim attacks on Coptic Christian churches and early reports of the reception Obama's speech received in Egypt described a significant lack of enthusiasm in spite of the President's promise to provide one billion dollars in debt relief and another one billion in loan guarantees.
While it is appropriate for the U.S. to express its support for fundamental human and civil rights in a rapidly changing political environment, going beyond that and promising "partnerships" with governments that have yet to be established could create serious problems in the near future if those governments, when established, adopt policies that are inimical to U.S. interests. Offering significant financial rewards to such governments now, also gives up leverage or incentives that could be applied to influence important policies, both domestic and international, that are important to the region such as reaffirming the peace treaty with Israel and cooperation in efforts to defeat terrorism.

Obama has also used "broad brush" rhetoric which places himself in a contradictory position with our "other" allies, the authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan. "It is the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region" and "support transitions to democracy”, he says. This is very close to a stated position in favor of regime change, if applied to these states.
However, in an apparent unspoken acknowledgement of the real world contradictions between "values" and "interests" he seems to have applied a sliding scale of rejection of the most prominently repressive regional governments. The harshest reaction has been the U.S. participation in NATO's military operations against the Ghaddafi government in Libya. Then there is the recent policy of economic sanctions against the leadership in Syria. Apparently willing to abandon the government of Yemen which appears to have passed the point of no return in terms of the populist uprising, he has simply said President Saleh must go. Obama adopted a somewhat softer his approach towards Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, saying only that "Bahrain must create the conditions for dialogue." and that "Sectarian (Sunni-Shi'ite) divides need not lead to conflict." Saudi Arabia, which is an important regional counterweight to Iran and which controls the largest single portion of the world's oil reserves, was conspicuously missing from Obama's list of "musts" and "shoulds" but the King and his extended family which runs that country and controls its oil wealth, must have taken note of Obama's seemingly new and idealistic foreign policy agenda for the Middle East, and be concerned about the strength of the U.S. relationship.

The President could not ignore the important events in the Arab world and has given the impression of confusion and hesitancy to acknowledge them. Now Obama is reacting to events not leading them in terms of the context of U.S. policy. The U.S. has no choice but to “support” quests for democratic governance as new regimes develop but not before. That is, working to "reform" from the outside, existing sovereign governments with whom we share mutual interests would be folly unless those governments were teetering on the edge of dissolution, as in the case of Egypt, Libya and Syria.
In his speech, Obama essentially read the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to the world:

"The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -- whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran."

Such "support" is not a major change in the world view of American presidents. George Bush based his invasion of Iraq on these same principles and has been attacked by political liberals and right wing libertarians ever since. It is the application of these principles and the configuration of the "support" along a reality based spectrum from rhetoric, to diplomatic pressure, economic assistance or the denial of that assistance, political or economic assistance to resistance groups to the overt use of military resources, as in the case of Libya, that is important. A "one size fits all", "values vs. interests", vs. political reality, based foreign policy should not be implied or imposed. The lessons of Iraq loom large in this respect.

Much controversy has been generated by Obama's specific inclusion of the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in his speech. The President has been accused of derailing that process by asserting that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories. A reality check in this respect is appropriate.

First, there is currently no Israeli/Palestinian peace process underway. The history of the current Israeli occupation is instructive with respect to Israel's position on the geographical conditions for a settlement.

After two general wars (1948 &1956) against a coalition of Arab countries, the Israel government in 1967 reacted to massive military buildups by Egypt and other Arab nations along its borders by a highly successful pre-emptive attack which became known as the Six Day War. The outcome included the occupation of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, Syria's Golan Heights, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem which were controlled by Jordan. All of these territories were occupied for strategic/ defensive purposes to provide geographical buffers in the event of future hostilities. The Sinai Peninsula was later returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty. The Golan Heights was retained in the face of ongoing political hostilities with Syria. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2009. However, since 1967 Israel has remained in control of the West Bank and has since made all of Jerusalem its capital.

As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in response to President Obama’s assertion, the 1967 borders are not defensible. A look at a map of the region confirms Netanyahu’s claim that Israeli territory opposite the territory of the West Bank is only “nine miles wide”.

Obama's stated position regarding 1967 borders reflects that of many supporters of the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership itself at times during the negotiating process since the Six Day War. Palestinian supporters cite UN Security Resolution 242 (1967) as the governing authority which they interpret as requiring full Israeli withdrawal. However, the Resolution also requires security for the Israeli state and the withdrawal provision has been subject to interpretation. During the Clinton Administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.N. Security Council:

"We simply do not support the description of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 as 'Occupied Palestinian Territory'. In the view of my Government, this language could be taken to indicate sovereignty, a matter which both Israel and the PLO have agreed must be decided in negotiations on the final status of the territories. Had this language appeared in the operative paragraphs of the resolution, let me be clear: we would have exercised our veto. In fact, we are today voting against a resolution in the Commission on the Status of Women precisely because it implies that Jerusalem is "occupied Palestinian territory".

So it is hard to understand why President Obama would choose to adopt such a position. He has essentially made it U.S. policy to establish an unacceptable pre-condition to negotiations which Netanyahu's Likud Party will never accept. He seems to once again be motivated by his fixation on extending the hand of friendship to Arab/Muslim nations without any kind of mutuality.

Obama said there is a "deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world" that needs to be reversed.” That may be true but not at the expense of relationships with valuable allies.
Legalistic debates aside, Netanyahu has pointed out that the real world situation on the ground has changed significantly since 1967. As part of their efforts to expand defensible borders, Israel has built large numbers of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. There are now approximately 300,000 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank and another 200,000 living in East Jerusalem. This presents a physical and political fact of life that makes it obvious that the 1967 borders are obsolete.

Obama mentioned land swaps to accommodate these existing settlements, but if adopted as a strategy it will be a tortuous process requiring demonstrable good faith on the part of both parties to achieve a final settlement. This now has been made almost impossible since the two Palestinian factions, Fatah which controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas which controls Gaza, have announced a "unity government". Hamas is considered a "terrorist organization" by the United States and the European Union and still refuses to accept Israel's right to exist, making them an unacceptable negotiating partner in the effort to establish a Palestinian state on Israel's borders.

Obama has made a serious diplomatic error which will make his decision on the Palestinian Authority's upcoming attempt to get the United Nations to declare Palestine a state potentially contradictory. The Obama Administration is expected to veto that effort in the Security Council but that position will negate any support he may have thought to gain in the Arab world by adopting the impossible goal of pre-1967 political borders for any new Palestinian state.



Sunday, May 15, 2011

GOD, SEALS, ALLIGATORS AND BIN LADEN

After announcing that he was praying to find guidance on whether or not to run for the Republican presidential nomination, former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee apparently got a "no go" from the deity and announced Saturday that he would stick with his television and radio career. Meanwhile, the 2012 presidential campaign seems to have begun in earnest. Temporarily drowned out by Osama bin Laden's feet first dive from the deck of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson into the Arabian Sea, the political dance has picked up in tempo. Representative Michelle Bachmann, the current Tea Party queen was in New Hampshire, then in Iowa, then, well who knows but it's sure to be an early primary state. Mitt Romney was recently in Michigan. Donald Trump's rocket has fizzled and though he failed to achieve orbit, he landed in New Hampshire on May 11 and has since taken himself out of the race. Newt Gingrich is on You Tube and Twitter and President Obama was recently in south Texas.

Bachmann is trying to explain why letting the U.S. default on its debt is a good idea. Romney is trying to explain the difference between the Massachusetts health care plan which he signed as governor and ObamaCare which he says should be repealed. Gingrich, finally getting some press after Trump's hard landing, is trying to make the case that in spite of his ethical failures and marriage hopping he has the experience and knowledge to beat Obama, and Obama is singing "Buenos dias; Yo soy tu amigo" to Hispanic voters who aren't so sure anymore.

Bachmann, Romney, and Gingrich have their work cut out for them just to win the Republican nomination, and if God is a Republican, as many in the religious Right think, Huckabee might actually had have the inside track had he gotten a divine “thumbs up”. Perhaps he should have tried Bachmann’s formula for decision making, prayer and fasting. That way even if you don’t get the answer you want you still lose weight. But Obama, who is spared the trials of a primary challenge is traveling the country to shore up the fading support from his 2008 electoral victory. While Hispanic voters, who we are constantly reminded, are the nation's fasted growing minority, aren't likely to vote in large numbers for any Republican candidate, the effort is directed at getting them to vote at all. Obama enjoyed 67% of the Hispanic vote in 2008, based significantly on his promise to enact "comprehensive immigration reform" in his first year in office. In spite of the fact that for his first "two" years he had Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress he failed in that promise. Comprehensive immigration reform today, as actual legislation, has about the same chance as putting New York City's bed bugs on the endangered species list. Of course that doesn't matter when it comes to political campaigning and his approval rating among Hispanics is down to 54% so more visits to "Margaritaville" seem to be a strategy.

There is no question that immigration policies need to be changed. The problem with putting it on the legislative agenda is that the priorities of Obama and the Democrats and that of the Republicans are so far apart. Republicans want the border enforced as the starting point. That is, reduce illegal entry to a trickle and then deal with the eleven to fourteen million illegals presently in the country. Obama claims he has significantly improved border security and thus it is time to move on and create a path to citizenship for the resident illegal aliens. But in fiscal 2010 almost 195,000 illegals were deported which means that a very large number had successfully made it through the "enhanced" security, including almost half who were criminals. Creating a "path to citizenship", which the Republicans describe as "amnesty", without shutting down the border simply creates an unending flow of citizenship seeking immigrants. Thus Obama's plan would make the situation worse not better.

He has suggested that the Republicans will never be satisfied with the state of border security unless the government digs a moat along the southern border and fills it with alligators, presumably only conservative alligators. Of course if the moat followed the same development path as the border fence which after five years and tens of millions of dollars is only partially completed, it would take a gator’s lifetime for them to test out the deterrent value of a toothy grin.

Meanwhile, Obama is enjoying a “bounce” in his job approval over the successful termination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals. Even Republicans have grudgingly given him credit for making the tough political decision to carry out the mission. Some of his political advisors must certainly have reminded him of Jimmy Carter’s failed Iranian hostage rescue in 1980 and its negative effect on his reelection. A failed mission in Pakistan against bin Laden would have had a similar serious affect on Obama’s reelection chances. On the other hand, had the mission been denied and word gotten out that Obama passed up the chance to get bin Laden for political reasons, the effect might have been more disastrous. Still, he took the chance and showed a rare instance of presidential leadership. However, such job approval “bounces” based on single events rarely are sustained and the public will soon refocus on its main concerns which remain jobs, federal deficits and debt.

The effects of bin Laden’s death are hard to compute. Certainly bin Laden had achieved mythological status among the world’s Islamist extremists and his demise will be a significant blow to their morale and hopefully to their dedication to mayhem. It was also fundamentally important to the collective American psyche as he was the face of an attack not only on our economic and defense centers but a blow to the American sense of preeminent power and invulnerability. As such bin Laden was essentially a demon that needed to be exorcised for the American spirit to be revived. In practical terms, the information gathered at the scene may lead to significant further operational damage to the Al Qaeda network, especially in the Middle East. However, since it is widely believed that the terrorist network associated with Al Qaeda had been largely “franchised” into quasi- independent groups, it is highly probable that terrorist attacks in various forms will continue into the future against both Western nations and Middle Eastern governments associated in some way with the United States.
Al Qaeda’ssecond in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri will attempt to reinvigorate the terrorist effort as the new elusive mastermind and this also could mean a new series of international terrorist incidents. In a sense, history has overtaken the Al Qaeda quest to establish a modern day caliphate or theocratic Islamic empire across the Middle East. The popular uprisings in the Arab nations of the region are motivated not by intolerance for individual freedom, as is fundamentalist Islam, but by social and political liberalization, if not identical to, then similar to Western norms, perhaps using Turkey as a model.

The Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have their own political and ideological agendas which do center on fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, remain the far greater threat to regional stability. Pakistan remains the “tiger’s tail” which the U.S. can’t let go of despite the Pakistan military’s policy of playing both sides and the resulting deterioration of relations with the U.S. A failure of Pakistan’s government in conjunction with a Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan would put that nuclear weapons state in the hands of Islamic extremists. Escalating tensions with nuclear armed India would result making a disastrous conflict with Pakistan a real concern. The U.S. has significant leverage with the Pakistan military and government because of the annual three billion plus aid dollars they receive. Despite the temptation of terminating that aid, the result would eliminate that leverage and would weaken the ability of the Pakistani government to resist the Taliban led insurgency. However, a threat to diminish the levels of aid or the actual gradual reduction in aid could encourage the Pakistani government to step up their efforts to confront the extremists and create a more cooperative relationship with the U.S.

Whether the situation in Afghanistan improves or deteriorates, the Taliban insurgency will continue. The Karzai government is corrupt and the tribal culture will make the creation of any but the most superficial democratic system impossible. The volatile situations in both countries as well as in Iraq and the Arab countries currently experiencing revolts will almost certainly have an impact on the 2012 presidential election. Thus, the ability of Republican candidates to offer some thoughtful analysis and U.S. policies to address these issues will become important. That should at some point eliminate Bachmann and Palin, if she should run, whose names and rhetoric are not commonly associated with “thoughtful analysis”. A meltdown in any of these areas will also hurt Obama since he has the current responsibility for American foreign policy.

At least we are fortunate that we have the Seals; the alligators, well we’ll have to wait and see.