June 19, 2009

Don't be a shankapottamus, Barack

It occurred to me the other day, as I remarked to a contemporary of mine, that this is the first time in my life that I am older than the President. Came close a couple of times - Bill and George - but they had me by a couple of years. A bunch of you reading this, I know, can say the same. Feels a little weird, doesn't it? It might be more important than it appears at first glance, too.

I'm beginning to think that Barack's basic problem is a lack of experience. While all those jaded solons over at Congress give him his props as a talented wunderkind, they're not in the least afraid of him. The stuff they're pulling is really outrageous now, on both sides of the aisle. Completely out of control. 75% of the American people want a public option as part of an overall health insurance reform act. The outline coming out of the Senate committees working on the matter simply omits the public option, in favor of a lot of health-industry-written nonsense about "savings" through things like standardization of claim forms. Yeah, that'll do it.

They're telling him what to do on defense, too. The defense budget is increasing again. How many times can we recite the same statistics that, for one example, the U.S. defense budget is ten times larger than the country in second place, China, or that American spending accounts for over half of all defense spending in the world? Are we afraid of a superior military force attacking us from another solar system?

The regulatory reform Geithner is proposing is a sick joke. When banks, investment banks, hedge funds, your Uncle Carl decide to go into the mortgage securitization business and create a bunch of Triple A bonds out of tranched and smooshed garbage loans, and then sell them to the Norwegian Teachers Pension Fund or something, they now have to hold on to 5% of the loans. They can only sell 95% of the derivatives into the secondary market. Yep, that 5% equity stake will keep 'em honest!

And Barry, your Justice Department is still carrying all that Bush Administration water. Why are you and Eric Holder so committed to the coverup of Bush & Cheney's crimes and misprisions of office? Huh? The latest is your opposition to the release of the FBI's notes of the Cheney interview regarding Valerie Plame, the 67 pages which CREW (the Washington watchdog agency) is seeking through a FOIA action. (And why must every disclosure be the result of a long, painful, expensive FOIA action where your administration fights tooth and nail to prevent the public from seeing public documents paid for by public money? Where's this frigging transparency you were talking about?)

Dude, you gotta do what the E-Trade Baby would tell you to do. Rise up! Grab the reins! They're rolling you, I really believe it. Unless, of course, despite my seniority it is I who is being naive. It is very easy to see what is going on in the Senate. The corruption is so patent, so palpable, so self-admitted (Durbin: "The banks frankly own the place.") that it's no longer possible to give them any benefit of any doubt about their motives. It is now so obvious that it is becoming ridiculous. Tom Daschle, a healthcare industry mouthpiece that you tried to install as your Health & Human Services Secretary (but couldn't because his corruption was too brazen even for Senate confirmation), comes out and urges you to "drop" the public option because it's "unworkable." It's unworkable for his clients, is what he means.

So whose side are you on? Was that stuff during the campaign about working for the people a bunch of happy horseshit? Now that you're in Washington, D.C., it's just more fun to ride in the Gulfstream and be with the other big players and not mess the game up that serves the insiders so well?

We're going to find out over the next couple of months. If you roll over for this neutered healthcare bill, written and purchased by the health insurance industry, and you don't raise ever lovin' Hell on behalf of the 75% of Americans who are demanding a real change in the most basic of human needs, health, you're done. Even if you don't necessarily win this battle, you better try really hard to do the people's work. Can you get angry? Can you read the riot act to these crooks, then leave the room slamming the door behind you so they start to realize you mean it? You think they're going to give up the millions contributed to their campaign funds because you call them up and sweetly ask for their "help?"

Your acquiescence in a sell-out will deprive you of your real constituency, average American citizens. And from then on, you'll be utterly powerless.

June 17, 2009

What would Niccolo say about Obama?

It's been a lot of years since I read Il Principe, Machiavelli's masterwork on political science (incorrectly translated as "The Prince"). Nick's basic thesis is that wielding power is not for the faint of heart; if you go about it timidly, you're certain to be deposed. Thus, an effective and durable leader must be ruthless from the beginning. Especially at the beginning, in fact, because that's when the leader is most vulnerable to overthrow. Machiavelli espoused a lot of actions which don't really fly in modern democracies with functioning judicial systems; he advocated, for example, that the New Prince, if he's interested in fundamental change, should act immediately to neutralize not only his political opponents but also his political allies who might rise up as rivals. And when he said "neutralize," you know, he didn't mean reduce their salaries. Stalin was said to be a great student of Machiavelli's work, which is why his inner circle came to appreciate that it was only a matter of time before Joe turned on them too.

Well, we don't do things that way anymore. Still, the underlying idea is still sound. A new leader needs to move decisively and boldly at the outset before his political opponents have a chance to organize their resistance. You can't actually kill them anymore, but you can still neutralize them in legal and institutional ways. Obama did campaign on promises of Big Change, so he does not have the argument that his adherence to Bushian policies, for example, or his Full Employment Act for Clintonista Wall Street gorgons like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, are what he said he was going to do. In fact, a lot of what he has done is exactly what he said he was not going to do; a prime example is his principle of "preventive detention" for Guanatanamo inmates (and elsewhere) who can't be tried and can't be released (according to him), or his denial of habeas corpus for prisoners in places like Bagram in Afghanistan on the specious theory that the Supreme Court's ruling in Boumeddiene didn't specifically say it applied to inmates in places other than Guantanamo. Even if the circumstances of their capture and detention were exactly the same. Even if they wound up in Bagram because they were transferred from Guantanamo. Well, Boumeddiene didn't say specifically that it applied to inmates born on Wednesday, either.

The positions Obama's Administration has taken on state secrets, illegal wiretapping, telecom immunity and investigations of war crimes have been godawful. His Justice Department keeps shocking even conservative federal trial and appellate judges. Obama promised transparency but he never, ever delivers. Where the hell did all that money go that Congress doled out under the TARP? Well, it's better if you don't know, he says. There are just a lot of things the American people shouldn't be told, and it's for their own good.

On more substantive, crucial issues, like global warming and healthcare reform, his positions have been tepid, seemingly more designed to placate the "Left" than to lead. Bill Maher, who's a pretty good weathervane for moderate, liberal sentiment, took Obama to task last Friday night on "Real Time," and I thought rightfully so. Obama's defense spending is the same as Bush's (and Reagan's, in constant dollars). He's talking Social Security "reform" instead of blowing the whistle on the thievery from the "trust fund" which put us in this mess.

Look, the economy's not going anywhere anyway. The last 30 years were built on the unsustainable accumulation of debt. There are no bubbles left to inflate. As Nouriel Roubini says, the economy might stop bottoming out by the end of the year, but it's not going to grow because there are no engines to drive it. It's going to wallow in dangerous high seas, while the international community (such as those Brats at BRIC), start organizing an alternative currency system to replace the fiat dollar. Man, Barry, you think you got problems now...

Reading The Fifties by David Halberstam (and to repeat: what a shame this great man is gone), I was struck by this historical fact. Before 1949, the United States derived 2/3 of its energy from coal. Between 1949 and 1972 a basic shift occurred in which the U.S. derived 2/3 of its energy from petroleum. What made the United States great, along with its creativity and huge advantage in being the only intact manufacturing country to emerge from World War II, was that its economy became dominant during the Age of Oil, a resource which the USA had in abundance for a long time and which was amazingly cheap. Cars, freeways, suburbia, chain motels, fast food, the "Green Revolution" in food production-- all either invented here or brought to their highest expression, and all related to cheap oil. The energy regime built on oil has become a massive liability, both in terms of carbon emissions and balance of payments. Without a fundamental shift in energy paradigms, we're toast, literally and figuratively.

So, Barack -- stop screwing around with Gulfstream flights to New York and trips to the burger joints. This is not a public relations job you were hired to fill. The technology for a new energy regime, solar, wind, geothermal, is here. Read Harvey Wasserman's Solartopia - by 2030, zero emissions. It's doable and it's the only way out. You can't run an economy without energy or without jobs, and jobs depend on energy. Focus here. Tell Afghanistan and Iraq to go to hell. Stop promising aid every time Air Force One touches down in some foreign airport. Stop talking about how you're going to fix every country's problems but our own.

Niccolo would tell you that you've only got a brief window to establish your dominance. After that, your main constituency, the People, will begin to lose interest in you, and then your political opponents at Fox News and in the Republican Party will realize you can be rolled and contained. And then you're going to become like Clinton, looking for other things to do to pass the days in the Oval Office.

June 16, 2009

My lonely quest to revisit the rationale for the Afghan invasion

So now Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has stated in a "court" document (in a kangaroo forum, no doubt delivered by diplomatic "pouch") that he lied while under torture about a lot of things, including his knowledge as to the exact whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. This one should probably go in the "Duh" file, but while we're thinking about it: didn't we just find out that the Bush Administration was waterboarding detainees in order to establish a link between 9-11 and Iraq? Thus, how major a leap of deduction is it to wonder whether the Bush Administration, having already invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, was looking for additional support for its contention that Afghanistan was essential to the planning and training of the 9-11 hijackers, and tortured KSM and others to get it?

Probably no leap at all. Someone, someday is going to sift through the Report of the 9-11 Commission and note again all that evidence that was derived from KSM, the Gurgling Confessor, about bin Laden's role in the plot, such as those riveting passages where the "muscle hijackers" (the 15 non-pilots who were almost all from Saudi Arabia) trained on the high-tech jungle gyms of Kandahar and were personally selected by Osama bin Laden as he watched them go hand-over-hand on the bars and dive cunningly through the barrels. Osama sounds a little like Rosa Klebb from "From Russia With Love." Can't you just see her (to help, that's her up above) walking up to a hijacker, slipping on her brass knuckles and giving the ol' abs a wallop? KSM could picture it, even while the water filled his lungs, and he told the interrogators so. Yep, all that Kandahar training was certainly critical to overpowering unarmed female flight attendants on commercial aircraft and opening an unlocked cockpit door.

So KSM now says he's not sure where Osama was at the time he was "testifying." It's a little unclear, because the Obama Administration is being very difficult (as is becoming always the case) about releasing documents, and when they do release them, they've had the hell redacted out of them. But suppose that Dore Gold, in writing "Hatred's Kingdom" (about the essential role of Saudi Arabia in international Wahhabist terrorism), was right when he claimed that no credible evidence existed that any of the 19 hijackers had ever been to Afghanistan. If this is actually the case, then the argument for invading Afghanistan is reduced to the presence of Osama bin Laden in that country on or about 9-11, and the "harboring" of OBL by the Taliban. Yet if OBL's role was essentially logistical and financial, and the training camps were not involved in the plot, what is the actual rationale for the military invasion of this specific country? Couldn't these planning/paymaster roles be conducted from any country with enough caves?

I kinda wonder what's in the redacted parts of the KSM affidavit - how far he went in recanting his testimony, how much he claimed to know that he didn't, how much he said just to please the guys with the towels and hoses. And I wonder why the Obama Administration, which has become so zealous about focusing us now on this war as the war of "necessity," is being so secretive about the redactions. KSM's original testimony was cited at great length in the 9-11 Report. Why would his recantation suddenly become a matter of national security?

June 15, 2009

It takes two parties to tango

Having become semi-addicted to reading David Halberstam's histories of the recent American past, I'm now deep into his fascinating The Fifties, which just happens to be the decade that my consciousness was formed. It's still early in the decade, as far as my bookmark is concerned, because those years between 1950 and 1954 were chockablock with tidal changes in the American political landscape as the United States assumed its role as the only real economic superpower in the world, and, for a while at least, the only nation with the H-Bomb. The Republicans were able at last to throw off about 20 years or so of complete electoral frustration, the two decades between the first election of FDR in 1932 and Ike's election in 1952.

What's striking are the historical parallels between our present time and the early Fifties. I think the French do have it right when they say the more things change, the more they remain the same. The early Fifties, between 1950 and 1954, were marked by McCarthyism, a symptom of the extreme anti-Communist feelings of the era. Anyone and everyone could be labeled a traitor, even native American scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer who ran what was probably the single-most successful technological enterprise in American history, the Manhattan Project. He was sold out by the rabid anti-Communist Edward Teller, a Hungarian refugee with personal axes to grind against the Soviets, because of Oppenheimer's misgivings about building the "Super," or hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer's attitude was shared by many scientists and politicians, most of whom could hardly be called "fellow travelers." But it made no difference in those hopped-up times of loyalty oaths, blacklisting and paranoia. Richard Nixon made his reputation by his tireless work in persecuting Alger Hiss and his smear campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, all on the basis of alleged Communist ties.

McCarthy was an irresponsible alcoholic whose ideas were championed by the owner of the Chicago Tribune; in much the same way, Rush Limbaugh, a confessed prescription narcotic addict who probably long ago burned out his synaptic wiring, is the current voice of the Far Right, combining both mouthpiece and media sponsor. The players have changed but the basic tactics have not. In the Fifties we had the Commies, and the invective of the Right against the Democrats was directed at their "appeasement" of the Soviets, or of themselves adopting "socialist" policies from the New Deal. In our time, the Right attacks the Democrats because they are "soft" on terrorism or Muslim nuclear proliferation, and are imposing a "Socialist" order of public medicine and government ownership. In both historical epochs, the reaction of the Democrats has been the same: to move to the right into their own brand of anti-Communism and latter-day anti-terrorism to avoid the charge of being soft on defense.

The net effect is to homogenize the two parties when it comes to national defense issues and national defense spending. Truman had no choice but to react to the North Korean invasion of the South in the summer of 1950 (which many American isolationists, including Republicans, opposed) because any other approach would have played into the hands of his Congressional political foes. The monolithic view of Communism and the Soviet Union, in which the Cold War was seen as a battle for dominance over the Third World, was applied indiscriminately to every situation by both parties, so that no distinction was made between actual Soviet aggression (as in Hungary in 1956) and regional, nationalistic revolutions as in Vietnam and Yugoslavia. It was all just "Communism."

Thinkers who took a more particularist, nuanced view, such as the great Kremlinologist George Kennan, were of course shouted down in the general frenzy. The question always remained whether the Soviets ever had any intention of extending their hegemony beyond the Eastern bloc of satellite countries which they conquered at the end of World War II. They "earned" these countries by dint of their staggering losses in opposing the full brunt of the Wehrmacht, over 20 million dead, which dwarf the casualties sustained by the United States. Josef Stalin could not be dislodged without yet another global war, and no one wanted that in 1945.

Islamic terrorism has picked up where Communism left off. The important thing is always to have an enemy which poses an existential threat so the American populace is held in a constant state of dread. As a kid in the Fifties, we periodically crawled under our desks and clasped our hands behind our necks. As long as we weren't too near the windows, I guess that would do the trick for a 10-megaton H-bomb exploding over San Francisco 18 miles away. Or probably not.

I think it's realistic to worry about Islamic terrorists acquiring an operable nuclear bomb. I guess in that sense I agree with Dick Cheney. (Write a blog, amaze yourself with what you say.) I don't see how fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in any sense lessen the odds of such a thing happening. International protocols on the security and protection of all fissile material and nuclear bombs, rigorously enforced, are probably the only real defense. No matter how long we go on fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact remains that we will never reach the point where we can say that every single terrorist capable of wreaking destruction on the U.S. with a weapon of mass destruction has been killed, captured or neutralized. Such common sense, however, runs counter to the natural inclination to use our huge military resources to deal with any situation which arises, because (a) those are what we have, and (b) nothing looks tougher than aircraft carriers and smart bombs, no matter how inappropriate to the problem at hand.

I guess that's why the Obama Administration's approach to the Great War on Terror seems roughly comparable to the Bush/Cheney years. You simply can't afford to make too much sense in the American political arena, not with the other party always ready to leap onto any show of "rationality" as a fatal sign of weakness in the face of the Enemy. So Obama fires up the war in Afghanistan, decelerates in Iraq, and the band plays on.