Tuesday, September 30, 2008

21 Years in Captivity

Julian Sanchez methodically obliterates the "Free Sarah Palin" meme that is all the rage in conservative circles these days (via Teh Henley). For those unaware with the tenets of the Free Sarrah movement, the theory is that she has been over-coached and over-prepared, and as a result, she stumbles through interviews sounding uncertain and spouting talking points without segue. Sanchez is having none of it:

It’s a nice enough theory, but where exactly is the evidence for it? Sure, we can look back and find instances where she’s handled herself more competently, but her gaffes have not been, as some of her apologists seem to want to imply, a matter of getting flustered by her failure to recall the name of the Brazilian finance minister. Her problem is not mastery of the details: It’s fundamental cluelessness about how the economy works, and a demonstrable inability to conceive of foreign policy in anything but the crudest terms.

Put it this way, one thing I learned from college debate is that a reasonably bright person can generally manage to sound at least competent talking about issues they don’t really understand. I recall one case my partner and I debated where the other team argued against dollarizing the Ecuadorian sucre. We didn’t know a damn thing about the economic or political situation in Ecuador, or a whole lot about monetary policy. I doubt I could have told you the name of Ecuador’s president, let alone the finance minister. But we had some basic econ and game theory down, and I knew a bit about the Mexican peso crisis of the mid-90s, and so we were able to bluff our way through and win the round. The kind of mess we’ve seen in Palin’s interviews, then, can’t really be ascribed to an ignorance of details that could be remedied with a few more flash-card sessions. As Jeff Goldberg puts it, the problem isn’t so much that she doesn’t have the right answers, it’s that she doesn’t seem to have enough of a grasp on the questions to bluff her way through with something vague but halfway cogent sounding. This suggests that she’s either profoundly ignorant on economic and foreign policy questions, in a deep and architectonic way unlikely to be remedied by a few briefings geared toward filling in the lacunae, or that she’s just not terribly bright.

Sure, Palin is probably personable and appealing when she can just ad-lib to her fans, provided the subject is her disdain for coastal latte-sippers or her fictional rejection of government largesse. The truly strange thing about this whole narrative, though, is that the high point of Palin-love, the moment the hacks are all wistfully recalling now, is the governor’s appalling alpha-Heather schtick from the RNC. In other words, the time we saw her at her most scripted, and with a script penned by one of those very Bush holdovers who are purportedly keeping True Sarah under wraps.

The simplest inference from the available data points, it would seem, is exactly the opposite of the theory behind the calls to “Free Sarah”: At the end of the day, Palin is still basically a local TV news personality. Give her a prompter loaded with punchy zingers, and she’ll deliver it smoothly and with verve. It’s when she’s forced to get interactive that she runs into trouble.

This is, of course, more or less the line conservative have long been pushing about Obama: He’s great with a prepared text, much more uneven in debates. Obama’s problem in that context, though, seems to be a lingering professorial tendency to want to think through his answer in realtime, covering all the angles as though the exchange were some sort of Socratic inquiry, when a well-packaged talking point would better fit the bill. This, to put it as mildly and kindly as possible, would not appear to be Palin’s problem.

Do read the rest.

In the immediate aftermath of McCain's selection of Palin, the press attention given to the choice was overwhelming. The media (and the country) was caught off guard, and in the scramble to vet the candidate and get to know her, there was a deluge of coverage - some negative, though more positive. Right out of the gate, her political star shot through the glass ceiling roof. Her rise was aided by a well-delivered speech on a big stage at a time when she was commanding the eyeballs of the nation.

Political blogs (this one included) were certainly swept up in the maelstrom - dedicating significant bandwith to Palin-related posts. At the time, many a concerned blogger and commenter warned that there was too much focus on Palin, and that by dwelling on Palin the commentariat was shielding McCain and ultimately helping the GOP cause by talking up the more popular half of the ticket. "Stop writing about Palin," went the plaintive cry.

My guess is that those concerns have subsided and, in retrospect, most people would agree that keeping the heat on Palin wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Monday, September 29, 2008

But Sir, It's Wafer Thin!

I realize that others have pointed out that McCain's obsession with earmarks, and his quest to "make them famous," doesn't make sense when you consider earmark spending in proportion to the federal budget as a whole. But after watching the debate on Friday, it has become increasingly clear that despite the dubious math, the main thrust of John McCain's economic policy seems to be that he will eliminate earmarks (other than ones that cover aid to Israel and other important programs) in order to "rein in spending" and fund his $300 billion tax cuts (aimed primarily at the wealthiest Americans).

Thus, it bears repeating that McCain's claims about the money to be saved by cutting earmark spending are either gallingly ignorant or deeply dishonest. Put simply: earmark spending ($18 billion) is a sliver of a tiny piece of a fraction of the federal budget - and McCain doesn't even want to eliminate them all. Taken at his word, his cuts to earmark spending would likely end up in the $10 billion range.

Blake Hounshell puts these numbers in context:

McCain seems not to understand that earmarks are just a tiny piece of the fiscal picture. As Barack Obama pointed out during the debate, earmarks represent just $18 billion out of a much larger pie. Compare that to the projected 2009 deficit (not counting the bailout) of roughly $500 billion. Or compare it to the total federal budget of about $3 trillion.

This pie chart provides a useful visual:


For a truer sense of the impact on the federal budget that McCain's bold new earmark cutting plan will have, you would have cut the red slice in the pie chart in half. Barely a blip on the fiscal radar.

So which is it: Is McCain simply clueless about budgetary matters? Or is he trying to deceive the public about the real impact of his fiscal policies - themselves a near carbon copy of Bush administration deficit-busting tax cuts for the wealthy while ignoring crucial priorities such as health care, repairing a crumbling infrastructure, funding the development of alternative energies and other global warming initiatives?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

You'll Never Fail Like Common People

Lisa Schiffren on how Bush is free to do the right thing and make sure that none but the wealthiest see a piece of the bailout largesse:

My objection to having either McCain or Obama playing a big role in this bailout is this: because they both need votes now, they have too great an incentive to pander to the lower middle classes, those with foreclosed homes, or late student loans or car loans — or any of the undesirable economic problems that people have already tried to incorporate into this finance-sector bailout. It isn't really so easy to make the argument that the financial sector needs to be rescued to preserve capitalism and the economy — while real, suffering people do not. There are good arguments, of course. But they will ring a little hollow to many of the real people, with suffering neighbors and friends, whose votes both candidates want. So, with the money box open, it may be that we, the taxpayers are better off having George Bush, who is free to stand on principle, take the lead in setting limits on the bailout. [emphasis added]

Because when Bush still cared about getting votes he tended to craft policies that greatly benefited the lower middle classes at the expense of the obscenely wealthy. But now he's free to abandon his class warrior pretense and just...do the right thing?

Right thing = Doing nothing to benefit the real people suffering under Bush's previous magnanimous economic policies.

(via TBogg)

Faster Scaredycat, Swill, Swill, Swill and Stunts are a Man's Best Friend

Quotes of the day which are, I'm fairly certain, connected. First Daniel Larison* (via Henley) on the "ZOMG!!! PANIC!!! must act now on the bailout" canard:

Haste is the state’s greatest ally, and delay is the shield of the people. As I said yesterday:

A useful thing to remember in the days to come: whenever someone yells about an impending catastrophe, he is probably either trying to sell you something or trying to steal something from you.

And this, from a commenter at the Poor Man Institute, on McCain's debate stunt:

Every semester during finals week someone pulls the fire alarm just before an exam.

Just sayin’...

If that doesn't work, maybe McCain can just say that he'd love to debate Barack Obama, but the dog ate his cue cards.

(*Daniel Larison is fast becoming my favorite conservative blogger - due in part to Greg Djerejian's absence, but due also to Larison's insight. In fact, most of the TAC crew is pretty solid.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Amir Moment: Just Long Enough for a Joke

Last week, Amir Taheri, a columnist for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post (with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts), made a rather shocking claim as noted by Marc Lynch:

Amir Taheri is getting some attention today with a remarkable piece in the New York Post alleging that Barack Obama "tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence. According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July." Ordinarily I'd ignore such silliness, but with the McCain campaign recklessly jumping all over it, and the usual suspects hopping on board, it's worth pointing out that how shoddy a piece of work it really is.

How shoddy you ask? Well, it was based on one source, the source's statements do not actually corroborate the charges leveled against Obama by Taheri, the chronology and geography that Taheri associates with Obama's alleged statements defy the space-time continuum and, oh yeah, members from both parties that were in attendance at the meeting in question, as well as the Bush administration, back Obama and contradict Taheri:

Attendees of the meeting back Obama's account, including not just Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, but Hagel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers from both parties. Officials of the Bush administration who were briefed on the meeting by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also support Obama's account and dispute the Post story and McCain attack. The Post story is "absolutely not true," Hagel spokesman Mike Buttry told ABC News.

That's pretty bad.

But it actually gets worse (you knew that was coming): Not only did Obama not ask to delay the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and not only did the McCain campaign flog a dubious article appearing in a partisan venue from a notoriously truth-challenged columnist claiming that Obama did, but Prime Minister Maliki asserts that Bush actually requested just such a delay in order to help the political fortunes of none other than...John McCain! Matt Duss, recounting a September 17 interview of Maliki:

MALIKI: Actually, the final date was really the end of 2010 and the period between the end of 2010 and the end of 2011 was for withdrawing the remaining troops from all of Iraq, but they [the Bush administration] asked for a change [in date] due to political circumstances related to the domestic situation [in the US] so it will not be said to the end of 2010 followed by one year for withdrawal but the end of 2011 as a final date. Agreement has been reached on this issue. They are willing to respond positively because they, too, are facing a critical situation.

So much for letting military commanders on the ground dictate withdrawal policy. Duss asks a couple of questions that deserve answers:

Two questions: What did McCain know about this, and when did he know it?

But since neither McCain nor Palin has submitted to a press conference since she was selected (that's 24 days and counting), I wouldn't advise holding your breath waiting for an answer.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Despise the Sound of Shaking Paper

Matt Duss highlights some salient aspects of the recent attack on the US embassy in Yemen:

The use of two vehicle bombs — one to breach the perimeter of a compound, a second to drive inside and explode — is a tactic used by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. […]

He said a new, less-compromising generation of al-Qaeda leaders emerged, many of them moving into action after escaping from a Yemeni prison that year, he said.[…]

The new leaders have found followers among al-Qaeda fighters returning from Iraq
. “The quieter it is in Iraq, the more inflamed it is here,” as Yemeni fighters travel back and forth, said Nabil al-Sofee, a former spokesman for a Yemeni Islamist political party who is now an analyst. [emphasis Duss's]

Looks like that trillion dollar flypaper lacked the proper adhesive:

Those who have been following the Iraq debate might remember “flypaper theory,” which was one of the earliest exponents of the “incoherent post hoc justifications for the Iraq war” genre. The idea was that there was some limited number of terrorists in the Middle East, and the presence of an occupying U.S. army would lure them to Iraq, whereupon they could all be conveniently killed, presumably as soon as they stepped off the bus.

This plan was prevented from working only by the fact that it was staggeringly dumb. The U.S. occupation radicalized scores of young Muslims, many of whom traveled to Iraq, where they learned terror warfare and were galvanized in the global jihad. And now they’ve begun returning home, to share the tactics and technology developed in a laboratory we provided for them by invading Iraq. The violence in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in May 2007 was one instance of this. Yesterday’s attack in Yemen is another.

There have also been instances of such blowback in Morocco, Jordan, Somalia and Afghanistan - to name a few. Unfortunately, more will come.

The flypaper theory was always easy to debunk, even if it had a certain gut-level, intuitive appeal. As Duss notes, the number of terrorists in the world is not fixed. That is, the number can increase or decrease depending on various radicalizing stimuli. The invasion of Iraq increased the number of radicalized individuals willing to take up the cause of perverted jihadism. While many such radicals were killed in Iraq, their overall numbers swelled to such size that we were never really making a dent in the totals at any given time.

In addition, even some members of the larger Muslim world that were not motivated to become "terrorists" per se did adopt more sympathetic attitudes toward such causes which makes it easier for radicals to operate. This more generalized radicalization occurs, in part, as a result of the dissemanation of images of civilian carnage (something that American audiences have largely been shielded from, which only adds to our inability to grasp the source of anti-American attitudes). As Bill Maher noted wryly, "They don't hate us for our freedoms, they hate us for our airstrikes."

The good, if grim, news is that the terrorists themselves have caused something of a backlash by their own penchant for brutality. Not that this should provide any comfort to the Iraqis, whose thousands of corpses were the evidence necessary to make the case against al-Qaeda. Regardless, the boon provided to al-Qaeda through the invasion, and the blowback that we will encounter in the years ahead, is still highly problematic.

Not only have we radicalized more individuals, but the invasion provided an ideal training ground for tactics, weapons and strategies - not to mention a networking hub and source for indoctrination (many that traveled to Iraq were inspired by a general desire to expel a foreign invader but have since become seduced by the larger al-Qaeda mission/ideology). That is no way to weaken your opponent.

Besides, we've seen this movie before and we know how it ends. The last great effort at annihilation by flypaper occurred in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In that conflict, fighters from around the Muslim world streamed into Afghanistan to fight an invading super power. Predictably, after that war ended there were plenty of radicals left over - only now they were battle hardened, well-connected with each other and indoctrinated with a potent radicalism.

Some of those remnants went on to form al-Qaeda, and the rest is a history that we risk repeating in our ignorance. And to think, some people actually tried to sell the invasion of Iraq as a way to strike a blow against al-Qaeda. Seriously.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Miami's Vice

Matt Yglesias, commenting on some of the warped logic surrounding our Cuban policies:

One obstacle to the adoption of a more humane and sensible Cuba policy is that the country has found itself on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s pretty clear to anyone who thinks about it that this is a politically motivated move, designed to bolster status quo policies rather than an actual reason for adopting them. But it’s good to have Richard Clarke on record about this — he’s spent his career dealing with international terrorism and says Cuba has nothing to do with that problem, it’s all just domestic politics.

It's actually worse than that in some ways. The US itself has a long and shameful history of supporting anti-Cuban terrorists. Using an equally applied standard, we should be on Cuba's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Tim Weiner goes into detail about some of the US-backed anti-Cuban terrorism in his book Legacy of Ashes (assembled largely from declassified official documents). While some of the names and incidents examined by Weiner have been popping up in the news over the past few years, many more remain much less publicized.

This is not to suggest that Castro is saintly, or that his regime has been above brutality. Far from it. But when it comes to sponsoring terrorism, the US has its own past to reckon with (and not just vis-a-vis Cuba), as well as its hypocrisy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We've Got the Hills of Beverly, Let's Burn the Hills of Beverly!!

Like Matt Yglesias, I can't help but tear my hair out scratch my head at the suggestion by Lynn Forester de Rothschild (what a name!) that Barack Obama is too elitist for her liking, but John "Too Many Houses to Count" McCain is just regular folk. Then again, looking at Forester de Rothschild's bio, it's easy to see how McCain can strike her as an everyman:

Forester is the CEO of EL Rothschild, a holding company with businesses around the world. She is married to international banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. Forester...splits her time living in London and New York.

Who doesn't? This is just one more example of the elitism bamboozlement perpetrated by the GOP, and perpetuated by a mainstream media that is all-too-willing to confuse brush clearing gimmicks for authenticity. This inverted logic has created a bizarre dynamic whereby Democrats (including a presidential candidate raised by a single mother, brushing up against poverty at times) are made to worry if they can connect with "normal" and "average" Americans, while GOP candidates that live in a lifestyle of wealth that all but a miniscule fraction can even fathom are described as accessible and down to earth.

The pervasiveness of this up-is-down narrative is rarely threatened by the reality that the Democrats actually support a raft of policies targeted to help middle class and working Americans, while the GOP pushes for massive wealth redistribution upwards. The GOP has been so shameless in its efforts to fill cups that are already overflowing, that we are treated to the bizarre spectacle of wealthy Americans such as Warren Buffett, Donald Trump and Bill Gates (to name a few) arguing that they don't need all the tax breaks that Republicans are pushing on them.

Those notable capitalists argue that their taxes should be higher, and spending should be directed at other priorities. Yet when the Democrats utter this fairly uncontroversial view, they are accused of engaging in class warfare. Yglesias is right about this:

On an unrelated note, the stakes have rarely been higher in an election for extremely rich people than they are in this one. Barack Obama’s tax proposals don’t raise a ton of new net revenue and, as a consequence, have tended to be viewed as pretty moderate. But one reason they don’t raise all that much net revenue is that he’s offering large tax cuts to the majority of people and those offset the substantial tax hike he’s proposing on the rich.

But he's the elitist. Along those lines, this piece appearing in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post is notable for its attempt to strike fear in the hearts of wealthy New Yorkers:

Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes would pile a staggering $16 billion in additional taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, according to a new report.

The study, from the conservative-oriented Manhattan Institute, examined the impact in 2009-2010 of Obama's proposals. The Democratic candidate wants to repeal President Bush's reduction in the top two tax brackets, while also imposing higher capital-gains and dividend taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year.

The report...noted that New York has just 6.4 percent of the nation's tax filers. But the state's share in paying for Obama's tax hikes would come to nearly 11 percent - the highest extracted from any state except California.

The study said Obama's plan to retain Bush's tax cuts for people earning low to middle incomes, as well as providing them with new or expanded tax credits, should provide $13 billion in added benefits to New Yorkers over two years. [emphasis added]

So let me see if I have this straight: the latte-sipping elitists who only care about their wealthy friends populating leftist coastal enclaves in California and New York are going to stick it to...their wealthy friends in California and New York in order to benefit the vast majority of hard working, average Americans.

It doesn't get any more elitist than that.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

20 Million: Give or Take?

Like Paul Krugman who has been beating this drum for some time, I firmly believe that Obama should make accessible health insurance the centerpiece of his domestic platform. Loud and clear. The contrasts between the Obama plan and the McCain plan could not be more stark. Kevin Drum is right on the money riffing off a Bob Herbert column:

A study coming out Tuesday from scholars at Columbia, Harvard, Purdue and Michigan projects that 20 million Americans who have employment-based health insurance would lose it under the McCain plan.

....According to the study: “The McCain plan will force millions of Americans into the weakest segment of the private insurance system — the nongroup market — where cost-sharing is high, covered services are limited and people will lose access to benefits they have now.”

The net effect of the plan, the study said, “almost certainly will be to increase family costs for medical care.”

Remember: this is a feature, not a bug. Republicans think Americans use too much healthcare, and they figure that the best way to fix this is to make it more expensive. So that's what McCain's plan does. It's a pretty typical specimen of the "more skin in the game" plan beloved of conservative think tanks.

McCain's plan removes the tax exemption currently enjoyed by employees receiving employer-provided health insurance. So if your employer provides you and your family with health insurance at a cost of, say, $10,000 a year, under McCain, you will have to pay taxes on that $10,000 "income." McCain seeks to offset this tax increase with a tax credit, but the credit is too small and it's not indexed, so each year the credit will buy less and less health care on the open market. Further, by design, it will create a death spiral spelling an end to widely available employer-provided health insurance. From Herbert:

When younger, healthier workers start seeing additional taxes taken out of their paychecks, some (perhaps many) will opt out of the employer-based plans — either to buy cheaper insurance on their own or to go without coverage.

That will leave employers with a pool of older, less healthy workers to cover. That coverage will necessarily be more expensive, which will encourage more and more employers to give up on the idea of providing coverage at all.

The upshot is that many more Americans — millions more — will find themselves on their own in the bewildering and often treacherous health insurance marketplace.

That would be a marketplace whose insurance providers, quite logically, dedicate tremendous amounts of resources to winnowing out high risk applicants and denying benefits to already enrolled customers who get sick (private insurers are for-profit organizations after all, and paying for health care is a loss taken out of the bottom line). So the older, less healthy workers will be left to the mercy of insureres whose primary mission is to avoid providing them with insurance (unless they can charge such exorbitant rates that the rather sizable risk of paying out large sums to this class of customers is covered). Ezra Klein, as one would expect, provides more information. Klein on the upshot:

But this is the main fact worth knowing, and repeating, about John McCain's health care plan: Its first-order effect would be to take employer health insurance away from 20 million Americans who currently have it. And this estimate is on the low-end. [bold added]

Just what America needs. More than 20 million Americans losing health care coverage at a time when 45 million are already without. On the other hand, non-partisan groups estimate that Obama's health care plan will leave fewer than 20 million Americans without health insurance. In other words, Obama's plan would cover the entire country, less 15-20 million (and even then, that 15-20 million will have access to coverage under the Obama plan, even if they opt not to obtain it).

Put bluntly, the respective health care plans will make the difference in health care coverage for 50 million Americans. That's 1/6 of the entire population. Men and women who have worked their entire lives to contribute to the greatness of this country only to be left without health care during the years that they need it most. Millions of children, left more vulnerable by a Republican Party that for some perverse reason is able to claim the mantle of family values.

[UPDATE: Matt Y's got some useful links as well (assuming he fixes the last one).]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Miner at the Dial-a-View

You know you're setting a new standard for shameless dishonesty when even Fox News and Karl Rove call you out. Karl Freakin Rove! The man who took the baton from Lee Atwater and [deleted] it up a rat's [deleted]. I apologize for the vulgar imagery, but John McCain refused to do a series of town hall appearances with me, so I had no choice.

It is now patently obvious that the McCain camp is committed to a strategy of lying big and small from now until November (here's one of the latest, a rerun of one of their greatest hits and a foolish attempt to count to infinity). What is perhaps more significant is the reason for McCain's mendacity: running on the issues is a losing play. He's scared of a straight-up contest.

With good reason in a purely cynical sense. McCain/Palin are offering the same disastrous foreign policy approach as Bush, a deeper commitment to Bush's hapless, deficit busting economic plan (which greatly benefits the wealthiest Americans while depleting the middle class), a continuation of denial in the face of global warming, the same preference for hiring unqualified cronies to key offices in government (again, favoring loyalty over expertise - heckuva job legion of Brownies!), closeness with lobbyists/industry insiders that will (again) assume positions regulating the industries for which they work for, hostility toward Social Security and other entitlements, etc.

But then, it's not that McCain is in any way unique in promising four more years of Bush. It's just that McCain is a Republican, and even so-called Republican "mavericks" are committed to essentially the same Republican platform. The true story of the last eight years is not of Bush the aberration - a Republican gone off the rails that can be redeemed by McCain/Palin's vague promise of "reform." Quite the opposite.

Bush, with the aid of a Republican-dominated House and Senate, implemented the modern day Republican agenda to a tee. That this program was a resounding failure across the board doesn't seem to have deterred many Republicans or caused them to reassess the tenets of that agenda. In fact, McCain is doubling down in many respects. Palin endorsed the Bush Doctrine without even knowing that one existed.

It's encouraging that, given this record, Bush is hovering at historically low approval ratings and the American people are increasingly disenchanted with the Republican brand. They recognize that the country is on the wrong track, and that Bush and the GOP had a lot to with it. Yet, confoundingly, many voters so disenthralled with the Bush administration and the Republican Party aren't making the logical connection between the GOP/Bush and the McCain/Palin ticket. So while it's promising that the media is finally pushing back against the barrage of lies issued by McCain and his surrogates, it would be far better if the Obama campaign could effectively remind the voters just why McCain is afraid to speak a word of truth.

In this case, the crime may be more important than the cover-up.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Guest Post: VP Choices, Foreign Policy, and Leadership

[It is my pleasure to present a guest post from Benjamin Orbach, whose book was reviewed on this site - with a follow up interview.]

Jerusalem – I was in the U.S. the week that included the VP selections, the DNC convention, and the Sarah Palin media mushroom cloud. Courtesy of Delta, I had two full days to think about it all on my way back to Jerusalem and concluded that the respective VP choices spoke volumes about each candidate’s foreign policy approach and leadership style. I found Barack Obama’s pick of Joe Biden confidence inspiring and John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin troubling.

Until Obama chose Biden, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his foreign policy credentials. Obama is intellectually curious, he understands the threat of Islamist terrorism, and his personal story combined with his communication skills could return America to a pre-Abu Ghraib standing in the world. Still, I wasn’t sold on how he would do in a Camp David negotiating session with Middle Eastern brinksmen or an 11th hour showdown with Iran on nuclear issues. But with the selection of Biden, my doubts have been alleviated on two levels. First, Obama added a foreign policy heavyweight to the team; Biden has decades of experience with dictators, crises, and conflict (lucky him). He also has original ideas about what to do with Iraq, Russia, and Afghanistan. Even better, he listens to other people who have ideas too. Listening to others – I like that as a concept.

Second, Obama demonstrated that he is someone who understands his own limits and takes steps to address them. A leader who recognizes his own deficits and works to fill those gaps is a leader who is accountable and who makes thought-out decisions. With the choice of Biden as an example, it isn’t a leap of faith to think that Obama would listen to differing viewpoints and then make a decision on what is best for the country. I like that he isn’t threatened by Biden’s experience – it reflects humility, confidence, and strength. Given Biden’s comments about Obama (“clean, articulate”) at the start of his campaign, I’m sure that there are others that Obama would have preferred, but Biden will advise him on the substance of foreign policy and help him govern.

On the other side, it is easy to see how Palin will help the McCain campaign, but I’m not sure what she would do for a McCain administration. She’s a choice to help him get elected. Social conservatives may love Palin, but if Hizballah baits Israel into another war in Lebanon, or Russia rolls into Georgia again, do you think McCain would ask her what she thinks we should do? In the same way that Palin has next-door neighbor appeal, she has next-door neighbor expertise. With the selection of Palin, McCain is sending a clear message: I don’t need help, I have the answers; just put me into the White House.

On Talk of the Nation earlier this week, Ted Koppel asked Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s main foreign policy guy to explain how McCain’s foreign policy staff was set up. Koppel prefaced the question by explaining that Obama has a core team of five or six advisors and then a couple hundred other experts who can be called upon as needed. Scheunemann answered that McCain, doesn’t have the same needs as Obama because he has 40 years in the military and Senate and is already “intimately familiar” with foreign policy issues. He actually said that “John McCain needs foreign policy advisors like Tiger Woods needs a golf coach.”

Confidence is an important quality in a leader, but conceit and smugness lead to disaster. The record of the decisions cooked up by the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal, who also didn’t think they needed golf coaches, speaks for itself. Trading the Cheney-Rumsfeld group for some combination that includes Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and others from the McCain fraternity has no appeal. After eight years of insular thinking and presidential decision making within a narrow scope of options, we need more information and more internal discussion than ever before.

The Bush White House should not become a model in standard operating procedures. I’m thrilled that Obama has that many substantive experts. Calling on experts and specialists with differing and credible viewpoints who debate their positions and the consequences of potential policies is not just a sign of personal strength but these are practices that should lead to the most informed decision making and hopefully better outcomes. Dissent is one of the finest forms of advice.

I wasn’t exactly on the fence before, but the Palin choice is a deal-clincher for me. It may have energized the conservative base and made a huge media splash – steps that could get McCain elected – but it leads me to believe that a McCain presidency would be characterized by unvetted, gut decisions by McCain, perhaps in consultation with a clique of like-minded thinkers. The Biden pick, on the other hand, tells me that Obama is going to take the extra steps to make well-considered decisions. It is true that McCain has more foreign policy experience than Obama, but Dick Cheney had a lot of foreign policy experience, too. Sometimes the process of making decisions is more important than the experience of the actual decision-maker. I’ll take Obama as “the decider” with his consultative approach over what appears to be a recasting of the status quo leadership.

Benjamin Orbach

Thursday, September 11, 2008

John McCain Thinks You're Stupid. Will You Prove Him Right?

When Steve Doocy of Fox News first suggested that Sarah Palin had foreign policy experience because, crikey, Alaska borders Russia, he was roundly ridiculed. Rightfully so. The notion is beyond risible - I mean, do the governors of states that border Canada or Mexico have foreign policy expertise by dint of that juxtaposition?

Nevertheless, Cindy McCain made the same laughable argument just days after Doocy's embarrassing gaffe. I thought, at the time, that someone had forgotten to get Cindy McCain back on message. Boy was I wrong. Days later, John McCain himself was pushing this farcical storyline. Then, to dispel any doubts, campaign surrogates continued making this bizarre assertion last week.

But they're not done yet. The McCain campaign is actually going to run on this. They're actually going to try to convince the American people that Alaska's proximity to Russia gives Palin foreign policy credentials. I wish this was a joke. Actually, it is a joke - but some people don't realize it's on them:

Asked what specific national security credentials Palin had, McCain cited her experience dealing with energy issues and went so far as to say she was the country's foremost expert in the field.

"She knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America," McCain said.

McCain also pointed out that Palin governed a state that neighbors Russia.

Added bonus insult to your intelligence: Palin knows more about energy issues than any other American? More than experts in the field? I mean, does she have a PHD? Masters? Has she written books? Papers? Conducted research? On the other hand, she does live in Alaska.

Wow. Just. Wow.

(h/t publius)

[UPDATE: This is madness. Sarah Palin herself perpetuating this transparent canard:

Pressed about what insights into recent Russian actions she gained by living in Alaska, Palin told Gibson, "They're our next-door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska."

Did I say "wow" already?]

Monday, September 08, 2008

Which Animals Would Jesus Pay You to Shoot from Airplanes? And How Much?

One of the selling points trotted out to make Sarah Palin appealing to moderates is her supposed environmentalist bona fides (relative to other Republicans at least - an admittedly low bar). However, in addition to her denial of humanity's contribution to global warming, and reluctance to countenance the polar bear receiving protected-species status, policies such as these don't exactly serve to bolster her green credentials:

Wildlife activists thought they had seen the worst in 2003 when Frank Murkowski, then the Republican governor of Alaska, signed a bill ramping up state programs to gun down wild wolves from airplanes, inviting average citizens to participate. Wolves, Murkowski believed, were clearly better than humans at killing elk and moose, and humans needed to even the playing field.

But that was before Sarah Palin took Murkowski's job at the end of 2006. She went one step, or paw, further. Palin didn't think Alaskans should be allowed to chase wolves from aircraft and shoot them -- they should be encouraged to do so. Palin's administration put a bounty on wolves' heads, or to be more precise, on their mitts.

In early 2007, Palin's administration approved an initiative to pay a $150 bounty to hunters who killed a wolf from an airplane in certain areas, hacked off the left foreleg, and brought in the appendage. Ruling that the Palin administration didn't have the authority to offer payments, a state judge quickly put a halt to them but not to the shooting of wolves from aircraft.

Detractors consider the airborne shootings a savage business, conducted under the euphemism "predator control." The airplanes appear in the winter, so the wolves show up like targets in a video game, sprinting across the white canvas below. Critics believe the practice violates the ethics of hunting, while supporters say the process is not hunting at all, but a deliberate cull.

Her respect for the science behind such policies is, sadly, all-too typical of the modern day GOP (in which denial of evolution and global warming have become litmus test issues):

The controversy over Palin's promotion of predator control goes beyond animal rights activists recoiling at the thought of picking off wolves from airplanes. A raft of scientists has argued that Palin has provided little evidence that the current program of systematically killing wolves, estimated at a population of 7,000 to 11,000, will result in more moose for hunters. State estimates of moose populations have come under scrutiny. Some wildlife biologists say predator control advocates don't even understand what wolves eat.

Gordon Haber is a wildlife scientist who has studied wolves in Alaska for 43 years. "On wildlife-related issues, whether it is polar bears or predator controls, she has shown no inclination to be objective," he says of Palin. "I cannot find credible scientific data to support their arguments," he adds about the state's rational for gunning down wolves. "In most cases, there is evidence to the contrary."

Last year, 172 scientists signed a letter to Palin, expressing concern about the lack of science behind the state's wolf-killing operation. According to the scientists, state officials set population objectives for moose and caribou based on "unattainable, unsustainable historically high populations." As a result, the "inadequately designed predator control programs" threatened the long-term health of both the ungulate and wolf populations. The scientists concluded with a plea to Palin to consider the conservation of wolves and bears "on an equal basis with the goal of producing more ungulates for hunters."

Apparently Palin wasn't fazed. Earlier this year she introduced state legislation that would further divorce the predator-control program from science. The legislation would transfer authority over the program from the state Department of Fish and Game to Alaska's Board of Game, whose members are appointed by, well, Palin. Even some hunters were astounded by her power play.

The legislation would give Palin's board "more leeway without any scientific input to do whatever the hell they basically wanted," Mark Richards, co-chair of Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, wrote in an e-mail. The legislation is currently stalled in the Alaska state Senate.

Sound familiar? Is there any doubt that a McCain/Palin administration would be an extension of the Republican war on science? Can the country afford such recklessness?

Tbogg has video for those not easily disturbed by such images.

[UPDATE: To make it clear, I am neither condemning hunting, nor passing judgment on hunters that respect nature and the ethos of hunting. On the other hand, slaughtering animals from airplanes is a sadistic practice that should not be confused with actual hunting. Ditto taking pot-shots at crippled birds.]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A War that Must Be Won in the Name of Truth

Gregory Gause (a professor at the exceedingly awesome University of Vermont), has a guest post up at Marc Lynch's place that is, as they say, well worth the read. Gause describes some of the recent actions undertaken by Prime Minister Maliki and suggests that they form part of a larger strategy to consolidate power, solidifying Maliki's role as some new military strong man (like Saddam, only Shiitier!). In this respect, Gause's post provides some additional evidence to bolster an argument that I have been making for the better part of the past four months (most recently here and here).

Marc Lynch penned a follow up piece in which he offers some mild criticisms of Gause's post (some valid, some perhaps a bit unfair). On the unfair side of the ledger, Lynch claims that Gause focuses more on Maliki's intentions while neglecting to discuss Maliki's capacity to actually execute the plan. But, contra Lynch's critique, Gause's piece is punctuated with the recurring question of whether or not Maliki is overreaching. In other words, Gause remains more agnostic about Maliki's abilities than Lynch gives him credit for.

That being said, Lynch is right to note that:

[Gause] could go further in considering the American role in empowering Maliki's assertiveness, even when that goes against avowed U.S. preferences. [...]

What's hardly been discussed is whether it would serve U.S. interests if [Gause] turns out to be right.

True. In my previous two posts on the subject, I tried to raise some of those issues. First, I pointed out that one of the publicly stated rationales for the invasion of Iraq was the need to change the image of the United States as the patron of despotic regimes in the region. While there is definitely truth to the notion that our continued support for anti-democratic, and often brutal, regimes has tarnished our image, and that al-Qaeda and other radicals draw inspiration from these policies (and utilze them via propaganda), there was a certain disconnect between that reality and the argument that we could remedy the situation by forcefully changing the regime of one of the few dictators that we didn't support. Invading Egypt or Saudi Arabia made more sense if that was the concern.

The bridge that was supposed to broach this gap in logic was the revamped domino theory: that if we could turn Iraq into a model democracy, democratic change would spread throughout the region like some form of highly infectious contagion (with the resulting elected governments having friendly relations with the US and Israel, naturally). Belief in this re-tread of the Vietnam era formulation was so prevalent that in 2005, after a few minor election-related rumblings, many war boosters were quick to proclaim the arrival of an "Arab Spring" of democratic upheaval. Hindsight reveals this enthusiasm to be as premature as it was naive.

Which brings us back to whether US interests will be served by Maliki's emergence as an anti-democratic strongman who uses the military (and police forces) to violently crush dissent. Certainly not if there is any legitimate hope that Iraq the Model could provide a catalyst for democratic reform in the region. In addition, our active role in the process will set us back even further in terms of providing succor to al-Qaeda and other radicalizing agents. My conclusion from a prior post stands:

Perhaps more troubling, though, is the additional propaganda boon given to al-Qaeda and other anti-American elements seeking to radicalize the region. In short, the US will be portrayed (accurately in many respects) as assisting a Shiite-led, anti-democratic government in a bloody crackdown on Sunni factions - and other [non-Sunni] Iraqi factions that pose a threat to that government through the democratic process. All for the promise of beneficial access to oil and permanent military bases.

They will continue to hate us for our freedom.

The more cynical - or realistic depending on the level of jaundice in your eye - might argue that a relatively stable Iraq governed by a strongman who is on more-or-less friendly terms with the US (and open to some level of US troop presence and exploitation of the Iraqi oil industry) would be a decent outcome all things considered. Besides, the cynics might argue, all that purple fingered democracy ballyhoo was more about marketing than actual, hard-nosed foreign policy objectives.

Perhaps that is so, but there will be real costs in terms of the radicalization of a new wave of terrorists. To the extent that we take the "war on terror" seriously, our dubious role in Iraq should not be underestimated. And someone should probably tell Sarah Palin that God doesn't root for such callousness.

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