February 10, 2008

White House Wizard Nails It Again

“That these people were ready to go into action as terrorists in Spain — that came as a surprise,” said Judge Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s highest antiterrorism magistrate. “In my opinion, the jihadi threat from Pakistan is the biggest emerging threat we are facing in Europe. Pakistan is an ideological and training hotbed for jihadists, and they are being exported here.” New York Times, Sunday, February 10, 2008.
"Appearing today on Fox News Sunday, President Bush laid into Sen. Barack Obama, claiming he would 'attack Pakistan' and 'embrace' Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." Associated Press, Sunday, February 10, 2008.

Occasionally, here and there, I read accounts claiming that George W. Bush is "a lot smarter" than people think he is, and that The Decider deliberately cultivates a stumblebum persona so that his political opponents will misunderestimate his true depth and canny comprehension of the issues. David Brooks, for example, who routinely prostrates himself before the Bush Throne, epitomizes this approach. I find all of this irritating in the extreme not because I have a vested interest in thinking Bush is a moron (I don't), but because it completely misses the point: Bush is an intellectual mediocrity who exacerbates his limitations by being lazy as hell.

Do you ever wonder what Bush actually does as President? We know, from countless stories, that he gets up very early and goes to bed at around 9 p.m. It seems that he front-loads all his "briefings" from the CIA, NSA and other initialed spooks first thing up, that is, when he's in town. Then he probably holds a conference in the Oval Office with Cheney and the rest of the gang. Then he usually meets with some bewildered out-of-towner like the President of Peru or the King of the Maldives for a half hour, followed by a few irrelevant questions from the domesticated White House press. Time for lunch. In the afternoon he works out. He dislikes White House dinners and all socializing, a characteristic he shares with many reformed drunks. In the evening he reads his books about Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill. (I find it interesting, to use 50% of Bush's adjectival vocabulary, that Bush thinks because historians write contemporary books about George Washington, it must mean the "jury's still out" on whether Washington "succeeded" or not. By a parity of reasoning, muses Bush, he need not worry yet whether he's done anything wrong. Could it be that historians repeatedly write about Washington (and Lincoln) because they were unquestionably great?)

He's apparently very good at delegating...everything. There is not a scrap of paper on his desk -- no calendar, no memos, no notes, no blotter, nothing. It looks like nothing goes on there. Jimmy Carter was such a micromanager that he scheduled playing times on the White House tennis courts. Bush is so hands-off that he couldn't be bothered to react to a memo like "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within U.S." in August, 2001. He stayed on vacation in Crawford, even though he'd only been on the "job" about 7 months before taking off for 5 weeks.

About a month before he left to clear brush, Richard Clarke, Bush's counterterrorism chief, summoned a meeting on July 5, 2001, to inform the reps from the FBI, INS, and the Secret Service that "something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon." The CIA was aware that two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Midhar, had left an al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur and flown directly to Los Angeles. Reports were coming in from the Phoenix and Minneapolis FBI field offices that Arab men were taking lessons in flying commercial jets under suspicious circumstances indicating an inappropriate curiosity about flight patterns around New York City (Moussaoui, in Minnesota) and an inappropriate lack of curiosity about how to do anything but fly the plane and make turns, leaving out the business of taking off and landing. All of this is laid out in detail in Lawrence Wright's 2006 book, The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11. The book builds upon the 9-11 Commission report and the Joint Congressional Inquiry, and it's difficult to read all this material (as I have) without coming away with the distinct impression (as I have) that the 9-11 plot could have been thwarted if Bush had convened the counterterrorism meeting Richard Clarke had been urging since Bush's first inauguration. In other words (another of Bush's favorite phrases), if Bush had ever gotten serious about terrorism before it became a political football. The intelligence agencies actually were closing in on the plot. What was missing was not the alphabet soup of new agencies that have since been invented with Teutonic labels like "Homeland Security," or the Patriot Act, or a Director of National Intelligence, or any of that costly, redundant, unwieldy bureaucratic superstructure. Someone just needed to pay attention during the summer of 2001 when the lights were "blinking red." The existing intelligence agencies and the crime-fighting G-men just about cracked the case. What was missing was leadership; what we got instead was the routine incompetence and cronyism of the Bush Administration.

And yep: Pakistan was a huge problem back then, and it's a huge problem now. "Taliban" is a Pashtun word meaning "students," and the students in question were those educated in Muslim madrassas in Pakistan funded largely by the Saudis. But this is way too much detail for Bush, who wasn't aware of the Shiite and Sunni sects until the eve of his invasion of Iraq. Obama doesn't want to invade Pakistan, but of all the people to castigate someone else for invading the wrong country! Pervez Musharraf is our buddy because we need a reliable tyrant to ride herd on those A-bombs. It's not heresy to point that out; it's just that Bush has become so inured to his own confused hypocrisy that he doesn't realize when he's saying something unintentionally hysterical. Just ask Baltasar Garzón. Es la pregunta, no?

Sure, I Voted for Obama

It is my considered opinion that this nation has moved past the point where carrying on with business as usual will succeed. I tend to agree with an erstwhile professor of mine, Chalmers Johnson, that the nemesis awaiting America is the combination of consequences stemming from imperial overstretch, environmental degradation and international competition. If we continue doing things as we have done them for the last 35 years, our standard of living, which has been on a downward trajectory since 1973, will fall to Third World standards, we'll continue as greenhouse-gas outlaws, and our financial system will unravel completely due to federal deficits, national debt and trade imbalance.

We call ourselves a "service economy," which is the current euphemism now that "information age" has lost its cachet. We didn't arrive at an economy based on consumerism through deliberate choice; it's what was left to us after our industrial base was hollowed out by foreign competition and and offshoring of American jobs. Asian countries in particular have succeeded to those mainstay jobs of our former middle class, replaced by the "crap jobs" of the service economy. However, it seems to me that the world, which is currently in a state of 40% overshoot in resource utilization (which is breaking down the Earth's capacity to sustain human life), cannot long continue with the nonrenewable energy paradigm. Things have to shift fundamentally. The United States, under the right leadership, could again lead the way.

Since that's where I think we are, I look at the available list of viable candidates and conclude that only Obama makes any sense. "Experience" is not the key factor; indeed, it may be a huge liability to the extent that it indicates a candidate, such as John McCain, will tend to think in antiquated ways about meeting modern challenges. The same can be said about Hillary Clinton; I have no doubt she understands all the issues (when she discusses global warming, for example, she's a model of clarity and comprehension), but I think ultimately she won't change anything because her style is to make whatever compromise is necessary for the sake of political expedience. Obama may turn out to be the same, but at least he's demonstrated some independence of mind, most notably about the Iraq war. Clinton and Obama are both very smart, but Obama's younger, and that's a plus in my book. His generation will have to live longer in the America he begins to create, and he's less tied into the old (as in fossilized) approach to doing things.

In general, I think there's a huge problem with senescence in American politics, an artifact of the near-impossibility of voting out incumbents. The Senate, for example, is by and large a club of ancient white men. Their frame of reference for the United States is about forty years out of date. The Republican Party is infested with "social issues" parasites like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich, and amoral apparatchiks like Karl Rove, whose only interest is in maintaining power for one party as a sort of political game. These aren't people who can lead the United States effectively anymore. If the United States attempts to continue its Eisenhower-era economy, we're not going to have the dubious luxury of worrying about gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, because the middle class will be destroyed, the entitlements programs will go bankrupt, and we'll lose our competitive place in the world.

I think Bill Clinton was a good president, whose personal style (not the sex, but his political cowardice and his disorganization) kept him from being great. I don't see how that has anything to do with Hillary Clinton. She does not strike me as anyone unique or charismatic, which is really all Bill had going on, but, like Bill, her administration would mostly stir the pot because of a kind of obsession with compromise. Small, incremental changes, slight decreases in defense spending, tinkering with the tax code, some "middle ground" on Iraq and Afghanistan, such as phased withdrawals over a four-year period, and a nod of acquiescence toward alternative energy and transportation, such as increased tax credits. Healthcare will wobble along toward complete breakdown. All of this follows from the perception that the stodgy members of Congress will recognize that Hillary is someone "they can do business with," meaning, continue to do the business of lobbyists.

As I say, Obama may find the political culture of Washington, D.C. an immovable object, and will slump down into feckless compromise. If I were a betting man, that's the way I think it will turn out; but it's guaranteed if Hillary is elected. So what the hell? My hunch is that Obama holds more promise than he can put on display within the dreadful limitations of Big Media politics. A candidate has to reserve the big ideas until after election; remember that in 1999, George W. Bush scoffed at the notion of nation-building. By the time of his second inaugural, he had decided on the messianic goal of rebuilding the entire world. Maybe Obama can use the amped-up power of the unitary executive forged by Cheney & Co. to do something really useful and transformative, as opposed to merely insane and delusional. You never know until you give a guy a chance to try.