Monday, June 20, 2005

It's Time To Throe Down

It was as if Vice President Cheney's latest prevarication, that the insurgency in Iraq was in its "last throes," inadvertently triggered a conversation, in earnest, regarding the timing, means, justifications and costs and benefits for beginning the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. I'm not serious about the causality, but the peculiar juxtaposition of storylines is hard to miss. This bi-partisan forum is not based on the increasingly detached sanguinity of Cheney, but rather a realization that the current trajectory in Iraq is untenable given the realities that the costs to US taxpayers, the strains on military capacity, the death toll for Iraqi, Coalition and US personnel, and several other related problems are not going away in the near future - at least not with the strategy currently being employed.

This mid-course reality check on the Cheney-esque fantasies of some on the Right has actually braoched the political divide for politician and pundit alike. The voices of discontent have ranged from a bi-partisan
Congressional resolution authored by such strange bedfellows as liberal Dennis Kucinich and staunch conservative Walter "Freedom Fries" Jones, which calls on Bush to announce by year's end a plan for a withdrawal from Iraq that would begin by October 1, 2006, to Tom Friedman's own ode to wishful thinking.

Neither of these highlighted cases is particularly earth-shattering in their revelation, but as Eleanor Clift pointed out on the McLaughlin Group this Sunday, think of Kucinich and Jones as the Congressional canaries in the coal mine. A sign of the brewing storm of public opinion that is slowly but surely turning against the President and the campaign in Iraq.

Frank Rich summarized the perceptible shift, and Cheney's waning efficacy as a misinformer:

The administration can keep boasting of the Iraqi military's progress in taking over for Americans and keep maintaining that, as Dick Cheney put it, the insurgency is in its "last throes." But when even the conservative Republican congressman who pushed the House cafeteria to rename French fries "freedom fries" (Walter B. Jones of North Carolina) argues for withdrawal, it's fruitless. Once a story line becomes incredible, it's hard to get the audience to fall for it again.
Tom Friedman, on the other hand, issued a pundit's plea to re-tool the occupation and improve on some of its failures in the hopes of salvaging the mission - whatever that might entail. Friedman offers something in the way of good advice but then drowns out the better part by latching on to the curiously illogical suggestion that we "double the American boots on the ground" from the current total of approximately 130,000 to something in the neighborhood of 260,000. Juan Cole, who I imagine is no more well versed in military affairs than Friedman, nevertheless makes easy work of Friedman's docile fish bobbing in the barrel - relying on facts and figures published by Friedman's own journalistic home, the New York Times.

I'm not sure why Tom doesn't know this, but we don't have the troops to do that. There are only 10 fighting divisions in the Army, and standing up more would take 5 years. (A division is typically between 20,000 and 25,000 troops). You can't put all ten into Iraq (remember Afghanistan and South Korea?), and couldn't keep them all there permanently if you could. Friedman's suggestion literally cannot be implemented.[...]

It is an index of how desperate the US political class is that impractical ideas are put forward by major journalists in newspapers of record that have already reported on their impracticality.
Now adding a temporary surge in the number of forces in the Iraq theater might accomplish something in terms of tamping the insurgencies, and such a short-lived increase in size would be more plausible than a long term "doubling," I'm still not convinced of the long term effectiveness of this move given the underlying realities. Before that, though, Friedman preempted his vacuous advice with an even emptier statement of dubious merit.

Conservatives don't want to talk about [Iraq] because, with a few exceptions, they think their job is just to applaud whatever the Bush team does. Liberals don't want to talk about Iraq because, with a few exceptions, they thought the war was wrong and deep down don't want the Bush team to succeed.
This sparked a good deal of justified indignation on the Left (Silber via Atrios is well worth the read). Matt Yglesias suggested Friedman put up or shut up:

Friedman's a pretty important guy and surely knows a lot of liberals, so he probably knows some liberals worth naming. This is a pretty serious allegation -- who's he talking about? If he would tell us, then maybe people would have a chance to defend themselves against this smear.
Though a bit late to the game, I would like to direct Mr. Friedman's attention to this liberal's archives, a simple perusing of which will indicate an obsessive willingness to discuss Iraq from the perspective of someone who wants to make it work, is willing to stay long term and has repeatedly offered humble suggestions for achieving those ends. While you're at it Tom, you might want to drop by a site called Liberals Against Terrorism - the entire premise of which is to concoct winning strategies in Iraq and elsewhere from a...get this...liberal perspective (this is true of the site in general, as well as the individual members' own blogs - including the most recent addition - the highly recommended Stygius). Ditto Democracy Arsenal, Laura Rozen, and too many others to list really. As a matter of fact, it's hard to think of many liberal blogs that haven't taken this position (ie the entire left leaning constituency of my blogroll). Commenters are by and large in agreement to varying degrees and nuance. That being said, I'm sure the politically spiteful are out there, but as the exception rather than the norm.

So, no to
Greg Djerejian's snide innuendos and no to Tom Friedman: it is not the truth that hurts, nor this preposterous yet trite "enemy within" drivel, it is the ignorance and willingness to embrace it (seriously, shame on you Greg, you should know better - Tom may be ignorant, but you have LAT and TIA blogrolled).

While I'm on the subject, I should point to a number of recent efforts (as in last couple of weeks) by liberals on the related topics of helping the Iraq mission to succeed, defining success and informing the eventual decision to commence withdrawing troops (Tom, are you paying attention?).
Praktike offers a novel approach for garnering regional cooperation through a mosaic of diplomatic levers to be applied in tandem - though admittedly not the strong suit nor preferred route of the more hawkish in the Bush administration, Prak at least stakes out a fresh position. The Armchair Generalist weighs in with military options, providing links to a number of intelligent pieces (some even from the liberals and left of center types that presumably don't exist in the Friedman-verse - see for example, the Democracy Arsenal post linked to by reader JC in the comments). Brad Plumer links to a thought provoking report from Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute who makes the all too reasonable point that we must define what "success" really looks like and then fix policy around those goals. That being said, Byman's version of Iraq is far from the lofty ideals of some of Bush's more quixotic supporters. Plumer, accurately enough, calls Byman's plan the "Afghanization of Iraq." There are many many more examples from just the last handful of days.

All of these suggestions are worth considering, discussing, refuting, refining and implementing. The question remains however: will the Bush administration react to the facts on the ground? Will it alter policy and its course of action in the face of reality's obstinate opposition?

One such area demanding a new approach is the fiscal crisis in our nation.
Praktike said something that rings true no matter what approach is taken in Iraq, whether it be something different or more of the same:

One thing we do need to do regardless of what happens in Iraq is raise taxes, which, I suppose, is when we find out just how much Americans really support this kind of project. [emphasis in original]
So here's Bush's Catch-22: with domestic support for the war in Iraq dwindling, and the midterm elections in 2006 on the not-so-distant horizon, Bush has to try to re-sell the American people on this war during his tour-de-stay the course launching soon, while at the same time finally asking some of them to put their money where their mouth is by repealing portions of the multi-trillion dollar tax cuts that inured to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans while bankrupting the treasury during a time of war. Not exactly an easy sell, even by Bush's standards and that would assume the political will to actually put the fiscal house in order via this means rather than continued embrace of Laffer nonsense and the like. But it's well past due for America's super wealthy to "throe down" if these people believe in the mission as passionately as they proclaim.

A triumvirate of articles in this month's Atlantic sketch the reality and parameters of the problem, as well as a possible future should this recipe for disaster continue to brew unaltered.
Jonathan Rauch describes "one of the largest fiscal dislocations in modern American history" ($6 trillion surplus, to $3 trillion deficit), and the fact that the attempts by the GOP to fix the situation have only made it worse:

If you are worried about the federal deficit (and you should be), ask yourself which would do more to improve the country's finances - President Bush's latest budget or a pastrami sandwich. The administration made much of the fact that the budget Bush proposed in February was his tightest yet and was projected to reduce the deficit by half, to $207 billion, in 2010. What the administration did not make much of - you had to look deep in the fine print - is that the deficit would actually decline a bit more between now and 2010 if the Bush plan were not enacted and existing laws were just left alone.

In other words, go with the pastrami. It is fiscally sounder, plus it's good with mustard and a dill pickle.
Kenneth Friedman warns of the impact a severe economic downturn could have on American values, political life and liberal traditions - a possibility made more likely by the reckless fiscal policies currently being pursued by the GOP leadership in Washington.

Would it really be so bad if living standards in the United States stagnated - or even declined somewhat - for a decade or two? It might well be worse than most people imagine. History suggests that the quality of our democracy - more fundamentally, the moral character of American society - would be at risk if we experienced a many-year downturn. As the distinguished economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron once observed, even a country with a long democratic history can become a "democracy without democrats." Merely being rich is no bar to a society's retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens sense that they are no longer getting ahead.[...]

The reason is not hard to understand. When their living standards are rising, people do not view themselves, their fellow citizens, and their society as a whole the way they do when those standards are stagnant or falling. They are more trusting, more inclusive, and more open to change when they view their future prospects and their children's with confidence rather than anxiety or fear. Economic growth is not merely the enabler of higher consumption; it is in many ways the wellspring from which democracy and civil society flow. We should be fully cognizant of the risks to our values and liberties if that nourishing source runs dry.
James Fallows offers a nightmarish, but not as outlandish as I would prefer, future scenario told from the perspective of the 2016 presidential election - which was preceded by an extreme economic "meltdown" in America triggered in large part by policies that "cocked the gun" under the Bush administration.

Everything changed in 2001. But it didn't all change on September 11.[...]

Yes, the ramifications of 9/11 will be with us for decades, much as the aftereffects of Pearl Harbor explain the presence of thousands of U.S. troops in Asia seventy-five years later.[...]

Before there was 9/11, however, there was June 7, 2001. For our purposes modern economic history began that day.

On June 7 President George W. Bush celebrated his first big legislative victory. Only two weeks earlier his new administration had suffered a terrible political blow, when a Republican senator left the party and gave Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate. But the administration was nevertheless able to persuade a dozen Democratic senators to vote its way and authorize a tax cut that would decrease federal tax revenues by some $1.35 trillion between then and 2010.

This was presented at the time as a way to avoid the "problem" of paying down the federal debt too fast. According to the administration's forecasts, the government was on the way to running up $5.6 trillion in surpluses over the coming decade. The entire federal debt accumulated between the nation's founding and 2001 totaled only about $3.2 trillion - and for technical reasons at most $2 trillion of that total could be paid off within the next decade. Therefore some $3.6 trillion in "unusable" surplus - or about $12,000 for every American - was likely to pile up in the Treasury. The administration proposed to give slightly less than half of that back through tax cuts, saving the rest for Social Security and other obligations.[...]

If the president or anyone else...had had perfect foresight, he would have seen that no surpluses of any sort would materialize, either for the government to hoard or for taxpayers to get back. (A year later the budget would show a deficit of $158 billion; a year after that $378 billion.) By the end of Bush's second term the federal debt, rather than having nearly disappeared, as he expected, had tripled. If those in the crowd had had that kind of foresight, they would have called their brokers the next day to unload all their stock holdings. A few hours after Bush signed the tax-cut bill, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 11,090, a level it has never reached again.

In a way it doesn't matter what the national government intended, or why all forecasts proved so wrong. Through the rest of his presidency Bush contended that the reason was 9/11 - that it had changed the budget as it changed everything else. It forced the government to spend more, for war and for homeland security, even as the economic dislocation it caused meant the government could collect less. Most people outside the administration considered this explanation misleading, or at least incomplete. For instance, as Bush began his second term the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the biggest reason for growing deficits was the tax cuts.

But here is what really mattered about that June day in 2001: from that point on the U.S. government had less money to work with than it had under the previous eight presidents. Through four decades and through administrations as diverse as Lyndon Johnson's and Ronald Reagan's, federal tax revenue had stayed within a fairly narrow band. The tax cuts of 2001 pushed it out of that safety zone, reducing it to its lowest level as a share of the economy in the modern era. And as we will see, these cuts - the first of three rounds - did so just when the country's commitments and obligations had begun to grow.

Although more abstract and less identifiable in easy to understand formats, this nation's economic health is a national security issue. We cannot succeed in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter, under almost any reasonable metric of success unless we have the means to pay for our efforts. But instead of a serious approach to foreign policy and national security, the "Vulcans" have neglected this nation's fiscal well being - adopting policies and tax cutting schemes that finish second to a pastrami sandwhich in usefulness.

So while so many pundits, politicians, bloggers and citizens are busying themselves discussing strategies for succeeding in Iraq, making heartfelt appeals to the American people to "stay the course," or making recommendations like imposing a draft or otherwise increasing the size of our military, we must first take the time to insure that we will have the ability to pay the check for all of our grand strategies and neo-visions. Without tax revenue, without a strong economic base, policy discussions will become de facto moot, and our decisions will be governed more by fiscal demands than strategic concerns. Without the money to fund it, nothing is possible. Unfortunately, this call to arms is falling on deaf ears. So many supporters of our efforts talk a good game, but when it's time to "throe down," the chorus goes silent. Again, Jonathan Rauch:
Bush's first-term deficits were defensible as responses to emergencies, but the emergencies are over; and the strategy of avoiding the extreme downside and picking up the pieces later works only if you do pick up the pieces later. That would involve cutting spending more deeply than Bush has yet proposed, revoking some of his tax cuts or reforming the tax system in ways that generate new revenues, and, at the very least, paying for his initiatives. So far he has shown little inclination to do any of those things; in fact, he wants to make the tax cuts permanent. [emphasis added]
Katz's anyone?

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