Thursday, April 23, 2015

A year of living dangerously.

Hillary Clinton is in, and with her announcement the rest of the Democrats considering running for president in 2016 are out. In a manner reminiscent of the Republican Party of old, Democrats have ceded the nomination to Hillary Clinton. It is not exactly clear why this is the case. She clearly has a large following in the party and has a huge fundraising base, but that was true eight years ago as well. Perhaps it is because she lost a close race for the nomination last time that she is being handed the baton this time. Or perhaps the theory is that as the scorned candidate and cuckolded spouse she has suffered enough, that it is her turn. Whatever the reason, Hillary is off to a rocky start, and it could be a long year.

It used to be that the Republican nomination outcome was pre-ordained. Sure, the GOP went through a primary process, and every so often--1964 comes to mind--the clash between the conservative and establishment wings of the party could be titanic. But the era of the GOP as a tightly controlled cabal where candidates waited their turn and tenure and experience were rewarded is over. This year, the imprint of Barack Obama is evident as well. Tenure and experience are passé. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are first-term Senators, and each mock rather than defer to the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush. John McCain, Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush must look on and shake their heads.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, will be the candidate of experience. She only announced her candidacy two weeks ago, but already Clinton fatigue has begun to settle in. Hillary has been in the public eye for a quarter of a century, yet she began her campaign with a strategy to remake her image. Her campaign--we knew this already--will be a meta-campaign. It will not be about what she believes in or promises to do, instead everything she says and everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of strategy. What she says will not be the focus, but rather why she is saying it. Little or nothing will be taken at face value.

This is because strategy rather than commitment and values are central to the Clinton brand. Bill Clinton emerged from the back woods of Arkansas and won the White House as a "New Democrat". A New Democrat was a phenomenon not of principle but of strategic positioning. In accordance with game theory, in a two party race a candidate should seek to position him or herself as close to the opposing candidate as possible in an effort to capture the "median voter" in the center, and then take by default everyone else on their side of the ideological spectrum. Bill Clinton embraced this strategy and moved as close as he could to the moderate Republican position with the expectation that he could then take all of the votes to the left of that position. Thus it was that voters on the left who voted for Bill Clinton for President in 1992 described the experience as being at a shotgun wedding. Bill Clinton said it best early on in his first term when he pronounced to his cabinet "We're all Eisenhower Republicans now."

Hillary's coronation has not been eagerly embraced by the Democratic left. She has been unable to convince those who have urged Elizabeth Warren to run that she shares the Massachusetts Senator's outrage at the pandering to Wall Street, or those who admire Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that she is animated by passion for traditional Democrat values, including support for labor and distrust of free trade, charter schools and other hallmarks of now-entrenched New Democrats. In Hillary's remarks declaring her candidacy, she took the obligatory swipes at Wall Street and growing income inequality. But her claims that she would work to repeal of the carried interest exemption that blesses hedge fund and other investment managers with a lower tax rate than Warren Buffet's secretary or perhaps champion campaign finance reform rang hollow, and were quickly dismissed even by Wall Street supporters as a necessary strategy would never be manifest in policy down the road. Hillary's claims that she would take on Wall Street and campaign finance--issues that animate both the right and the left against the entrenched center--only served as a reminder that the Clintons have been the recipients--through campaign contributions, speaking fees and donations to the Clinton Foundation--of literally billions of dollars in largesse from the richest people, corporations and countries in the world.

The issue of money is likely to haunt the Clinton campaign in the months to come. Any hope that Democrats might have had of making hay of the corrosive effects of money on our democracy--whether targeting Citizen's United, SuperPACs, or the $900,000,000 David and Charles Koch have committed to raise for this campaign cycle--will be neutralized by the many manifestations of the ways that the Clintons have enriched themselves and their world.

This week, the New York Times published a story suggesting linkages between the activities of the Clinton Foundation, Hillary's actions as Secretary of State, and Bill Clinton's receipt of a $500,000 speaking fee from a Russian Bank, surrounding the sale of uranium assets by a Canadian company to a Russian company. The story is a product of an agreement reached by the Times, together with the Washington Post and Fox News, with Peter Schweizer, author of the forthcoming book "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich" to research the information he has compiled regarding connections between political contributions and speaking fees paid to the Clintons, contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and Hillary Clinton's actions as a public official.

A decade ago, Philadelphians saw up close the mixing of philanthropy and politics erupt into a corruption scandal. Vince Fumo was a powerful Democratic State Senator in Pennsylvania who created a charitable organization called Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. In 2004, Philadelphia Electric Company made a $17 million contribution to Fumo's charity. Federal prosecutors began an investigation into whether the PECO contribution had been given in exchange for Fumo agreeing to support utility deregulation in Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the corruption case could not be proven, but Fumo and two members of his Senate staff were indicted on charges of obstruction of justice for destroying electronic evidence, including e-mail related to the federal investigation.

The parallels with the Clinton foundation are ominous: A charitable organization created by powerful political figures, staffed by political associates, taking philanthropic contributions from people and organizations who can benefit from the actions of the sponsors of the charitable organization, and, of course, the destruction of electronic communications that in the worst light could be seen as bearing on those interrelationships.

While the Times was quick to deny that they had documented any quid pro quo or illegal actions in their scrutiny of the uranium deal, the Clinton campaign asserted in the article that no one "has ever produced a shred of evidence supporting the theory that Hillary Clinton ever took action as secretary of state to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation." That may well be true, but it is not necessarily is the point either. For Americans who are distressed by seeing Republican presidential candidates catering their stances on Israel and Iran to curry favor with casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, or who cannot imagine that the $5 billion of Wall Street money given to Congressional campaigns over the past decade is not linked to the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the finance industry, the magnitude of the Clinton empire is troubling in and of itself.

It is just two weeks into the 2016 Presidential campaign and Democrats have ceded their nomination to Hillary Clinton. They better hope that she and Bill have good answers to the questions that are going to be coming their way. We could be in for a long year.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A trick question.

It's a trick question: Who should be driving GOP foreign policy, James Baker or Sheldon Adelson?

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the state of affairs in the Republican Party today more than the estrangement of James Baker from the Republican establishment. Nothing, because for what seems like decades James Baker was the Republican establishment. White House Chief of Staff to Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, Secretary of the Treasury to the former and Secretary of State to the latter, Baker was the quintessential political insider, negotiator and diplomat, mover and shaker.

Baker's fall from grace began on a gentle slope in 2002 when he and Bush 41 National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft demurred on the wisdom of launching the second Iraq War. Baker and Scowcroft had opposed toppling Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War for fear that a civil war would ensue, and they saw the same risks in the plans of the ascendant neoconservatives who had grabbed the reigns of American foreign policy under Bush 43. As the promised dream of a brief war leading to a grateful new democratic nation deteriorated into the beginnings of a national nightmare, Baker had one last moment in the sun. In 2006, as the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, Baker stood as a reminder of what internationalism in foreign policy was supposed to look like.

That moment, of course, was short lived. Baker endorsed bringing Syria and Iran into negotiations on regional issues to settle the hemorrhaging Iraq conflict. But realism in foreign policy had been replaced by the "revolutionary utopianism" of the neoconservative movement, as Scowcroft described it in 2005: “How do the neocons bring democracy to Iraq? You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize... This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism.” Democracy, freedom and liberty were on the march, and the tip of the American spear would not be negotiation among adversaries, it would be regime change. Baker's worldview was outdated. It smacked of compromise, at best, of appeasement, at worst.

After a decade when he receded from public view, Baker's slide went into free fall last month when he addressed the liberal, pro-peace Jewish organization J Street. In one fell swoop, Baker ran afoul of the mainstream Jewish establishment--with whom he has had tendentious relations over the years--when he lent credibility to the anti-establishmentarian, anti-AIPAC, J Street organization, and of the leadership of the Republican Party when he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has become a god among men in Republican circles, and enjoys the personal protection of casino magnate and Republican Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

It is all about Iran, of course, and about the searing hatred in Republican circles of President Obama. Netanyahu, Adelson, and at least forty-nine Republican Senators are on record opposing any deal that might emanate from the current negotiations. In the wake of Baker's J Street criticism of Netanyahu's judgment on Iran and commitment to peace in the region--comments that placed him closer to the views of the President than Congressional Republicans--Presidential aspirant Jeb Bush moved to distance himself from his father's consigliere--and the man who orchestrated his brother's victory in the Florida recount of 2000--further deepening Baker's estrangement from the party that he once owned.

This week, the National Journal reported on a GOP poll that suggests that the 2016 election could revolve as much around national security and foreign policy as the economy. In the wake of two long wars, metastasizing conflicts within the Muslim world, growing hostility between Russia and the west, and the national embarrassment of the President and forty-seven Republican Senators competing for the attention of the Ayatollahs in Tehran, a full throated debate over foreign policy is certainly long overdue. But the enthusiasm of GOP operatives for the poll and the conviction that American anxiety over national security necessarily bodes well for one party in particular may be misplaced. It may be that the estrangement of James Baker from the center of gravity of the Republican Party mirrors the widespread disillusionment of Americans with our nation's war policies, where less than 40% of Republicans and Democrats alike believe that we have achieved our objectives in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

American foreign policy has shifted profoundly since the Reagan-Bush years when Baker was at the apex of his career. The neoconservative embrace of regime change during the Bush 41 years has become central to our relationship with others in the world with whom we have disagreements. We eschew negotiations with our enemies or outcomes that reflect a balance of interests--that is to say all of those things that remain central to James Baker's worldview--in favor of overt demands for regime change. It has become central to our relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Syria's Bashir al Assad, as it is with Iran. In each case, we work assiduously to seek the downfall of a regime in power, and in each case, we presume to know that what would come next would be better should we succeed.

Yet the events of the past decade suggest that things are not that simple. There is scant evidence that what would come next in any country whose system we are determined to overthrow would necessarily be better. In Russia, as much as we disdain the naked aggression and hubris of Vladimir Putin, the chance that his downfall in the wake of steadily increasing western pressures would lead to a liberal, democratic alternative seems far less likely than the ascendency of a more chauvinistic, right wing successor, allied with the intelligence services, the military and the Russian Orthodox Church. In Syria, the rise of Sunni radicalism in the forms of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have given credence to warnings from Russia and others--to say nothing of Syrian Christian and other minority communities that support Assad--that continuing American pressure for Assad to resign could lead to a situation that would be worse, not better.

The regional sectarian war that James Baker and Brent Scowcroft feared as an outgrowth of the first Iraq war in 1991 is now coming to be, drawing in Saudi Arabia and Iran as they foresaw. In the upcoming presidential campaign, the candidates are likely to tell us how tough they are and how they will take the fight to our adversaries. But after years of war and vitriol, Americans may wonder how it is that Richard Nixon could bring the cold war to an end and normalize relations with the Soviet Union and China, and how Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin could ink a peace treaty with Egypt, and ask why those who aspire to lead our nation seem to have lost the capacity to imagine any path to peace with our adversaries today other than through war.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The heart of darkness.

This week, the White House held a Summit on Combating Violent Extremism. Walking through the Albuquerque airport on the day of the Summit, I was surprised to see a TV headline ask the question, "Is ISIS a religious group?" It is an absurd question, and one that, despite his comments at the Summit, President Obama cannot be taking seriously.

Of course it is a religious group. ISIS adherents are very clear that their motivations are grounded in faith, and their actions are directly tied to religious scripture. Week after week, they publish the specific Koranic justification for their most gruesome acts, whether it is the beheading of apostates and Christians, throwing gays off of high buildings, stoning to death women accused of adultery, or the enslaving of women and children. One cannot read the article "The Revival of Slavery" in the ISIS magazine Dabiq, with its debate over how Shari'ah law dictates the appropriate punishment of Yazidi women--enslavement as pagans or execution as apostates--and not see its fundamentalist zeal.

ISIS is the very definition of a fundamentalist religious group. Religious fundamentalism is nothing new in the modern era, and not unique to Islam. Christians and Jews, to say nothing of Hindus, each have their groups that seek to live in accordance with laws and scripture that date back thousands of years. Each has had their zealots who have committed terrible crimes. Each embraces practices that many view to be medieval. Christianity has a strong millennialist tradition, mirrored or even rooted in Judaism, that suggests that a return to the fundamentals of faith will presage the end of days and the second coming, a stance that is widely embraced in Iran, notably by former President Ahmadinejad. ISIS is not unique in its fundamentalism or its apocalyptic vision, but rather in its dictates to conquest that the Prophet--himself a general--set forth in his foundational work.

The White House and President Obama continued to bend over backward this week at a White House summit on combating violent extremism to avoid language that might suggest the broader Islamic world is culpable for the conduct of its most violent and fundamentalist adherents. "No religion is responsible for terrorism," the President declared. "We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." Yet his first statement and his last are not credible. Few would argue that religion over the millennia has been the rationale for countless episodes of terrorism, and all major religions have their own history of war and violence that we would now would label as terrorist. The President's comment that "No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism" echoes the old NRA trope Guns don't kill people, people kill people, and, while true, ignores the role of religion and faith as defining human motivations. The sectarian nature of religious faith revolves around each community's search for truth, often complicated by a fervent commitment to their own interpretations of ancient scripture. Thus, one community's essential truth might inevitably be viewed as another community's "perversion."

ISIS is not a group that has perverted Islam, as the President would have us believe, but rather has interpreted and embraced it with its own fundamentalist ardor. Like Protestantism and Judaism, Sunni Islam does not have an ecclesiastic structure that can discipline the extremists in its midst. While the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, viewed as seminal religious authorities in the Sunni and Wahhabi Sunni traditions, respectively, have each condemned ISIS, there in fact is no central religious authority, no Pope with the authority to tell ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi where he is wrong and how he must align his interpretation of the words of the Prophet to conform to the larger Sunni world. Indeed, like Al Qaeda before it, ISIS's appeal to young Muslims is in part rooted in its defiance of the leaders of the established order.

It is notable that when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished ISIS for the beheading of Egyptian Coptic Christians, he did not suggest that they were wrong in their reading of the Koran, but rather essentially said that you just can't do that anymore. Perhaps unwittingly, Ali Khamenei was making the case for modernism. He set aside an ecclesiastic debate about the literal words of the Koran in favor of the mores of the modern world. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was more explicit last month when he made a televised appeal to Sunnis and Shi'a alike that ISIS puritanical utopianism posed the biggest threat to Islam in history and called on the entire Muslim world to “work to isolate them, surround them and end it.

Despite something close to a consensus about the threat posed by ISIS, several of the countries most directly threatened remain consumed by their own politics and rivalries. Turkey, a NATO member state that has military capabilities that dwarf ISIS, should be playing a leading and decisive role in the fight against ISIS. ISIS rhetoric has increasingly focused on attacking the armies of "Rome." While this has raised alarm flags in Italy, particularly with ISIS forces in Libya poised directly to the south of Italy, Graeme Wood has made the argument in his recent piece in the The Atlantic that Rome in Islamic prophecy is a reference to the Turkish capital Constantinople (today's Istanbul), the former seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the state that destroyed the last caliphate. Thus, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to regard ISIS as an instrument in his feud with Syria's Bashir al-Assad--a man Erdoğan long supported until Assad insulted him--Wood suggests that Turkey itself, along with Saudi Arabia, may well be ISIS's ultimate target. For their part, the Sunni Saudis and their Gulf state partners continue to view Shi'a Iran as their greater sectarian and regional threat and are loath to participate in any anti-ISIS coalition that includes cooperation with the apostate Shi'a.

It is against this backdrop of regional rivalries and hostility that President Obama is working to build a coalition against a common enemy. While the fight against ISIS clearly should be led by the Muslim nations that stand immediately in harm's way--Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia--those nations appear incapable of developing and executing a coordinated military response on the ground. With the American public steadfast against a new ground war in the Middle East, the President is left to struggle to bring together a coalition of Turks, Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shi'a, that by and large dislike and distrust each other as much as they might fear ISIS.

Like President Bush before him, President Obama has sought to moderate the language used by the United States to describe ISIS and the threat of radical Islamists in deference to the Muslim partners in the erstwhile anti-ISIS coalition. Each of those partners is sensitive to any language that might suggest that they are siding with America in a war between the Islam and the West. Under similar circumstances, the Bush administration settled on the term Global War on Terror, eschewing direct references to Islamic terrorism or the term preferred early on, Islamofascism.

It is not difficult to understand the strategic importance of the language used by our leaders to America's ability to build and sustain a coalition with Muslim partners. Perhaps the American public might be puzzled by the President's strained parsing of language and his reluctance to call Islamic terrorism by its name, but members of Congress (or former Mayors of New York City) have no such excuse. They understand full well what is at stake and the reasoning behind the Presidents use of words.

In the early days of the Cold War, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg articulated an ethos, adhered to in Washington, DC for decades, that partisan politics must stop at the water's edge. This meant that American politicians of all parties should stand together on matters of foreign policy, whatever their political disagreements at home, so that they would not by their partisan actions and words weaken the nation in the eyes of the world. Today, of course, our partisanship knows no limits and few hesitated to attack and ridicule the President this week. Even in a case like the fight against ISIS, a complex and troubling challenge for which few, if any, of the President's adversaries have any significant alternative strategies to offer, any notion that political adversaries might stand together for the larger interest of the nation has long been rendered quaint.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tom Brady's charmed life is over.

Here is all we know. During the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriot and the Indianapolis Colts, NFL officials measured the game balls used by the Patriots and found that they were below the 12.5 to 13.5 psi range that is required under League rules. That is about it.

From that single factual stipulation, all hell has broken loose. It has been a media field day and a frenzy of opinions and accusations about cheating that have largely narrowed down to focus on one individual, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. To put it lightly, Brady has been accused of arranging to have the balls deflated in defiance of the rules to gain a competitive advantage. Past players, including most notably members of the elite fraternity of NFL quarterbacks, have roundly dismissed Brady as a liar and a cheater.

All of the yelling and screaming, the character assassination and suggestions of what draconian penalties should be imposed, have come in the face of almost no factual information. Stories on the issue ultimately trace back to a single ESPN report from unnamed sources indicating that the Patriots footballs measured at halftime were 2 psi below the League requirement. From that report have come conclusions that the Patriots, and specifically Brady, arranged to have the balls deflated after they were officially checked by NFL officials prior to the game.

It used to be that the League oversaw the supply of footballs used by teams during NFL games, but after a request by quarterbacks to allow them to prepare their own balls for each game, the NFL changed its procedures to let each team provide the balls that they would use when they were on offense. New footballs are shiny and slippery, and the quarterbacks preferred to beat the balls up a bit to make them less shiny and easier to grip. As we have learned from reporting since this story broke, teams do all sorts of things to make the balls feel used, ranging from scuffing them to tossing them in a clothes dryer to rubbing them down in a sauna.

The current NFL rules set forth the following:

Section 1: The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case... The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.

Section 2: Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements.  

That is about it. The rules stipulate the air pressure at a time certain prior to the game. There is no provision for retesting the balls during the game, and there is no consideration as to how air pressure might change under different game circumstances.

Even as the storm in the media continued, the NFL offered little factual information  beyond acknowledging that game officials inspected the balls prior to the game and found them to be in compliance with the rules and confirming that the NFL began an investigation "based on information that suggested that [as measured at halftime] the game balls used by the New England Patriots were not properly inflated to levels required by the playing rules."

Numerous physicists consulted on the matter have observed that on a cold day footballs measured before a game in a warm room will necessarily lose some amount of pressure when subsequently taken outside. On the day in question, balls inflated to the permitted League minimum of 12.5 psi indoors and approved by the referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the game would necessarily have lost air pressure and dropped below the 12.5 psi threshold once they were taken outside. The extent to which this would explain a 2 psi loss in pressure is questionable, as estimates suggested a likely loss in pressure of 1.0 to 1.5 psi, but all of the numbers involved here are in question.

The media frenzy has a familiar tone to it. The analysis has been shallow, and the conclusions built on little factual evidence. We have a long history of rushing to conclusions and assigning blame on stories where we have few fact in hand--and getting it wrong. We convicted Gary Condit of killing Chandra Levy. We knew that Richard Jewell was the Atlanta Olympic Park Bomber. Many were certain that Sunil Tripathi was one of the Boston Marathon Bombers before he committed suicide. It is one of the worst attributes of our modern media culture.

It may be that Tom Brady paid to have the Patriots equipment manager go through the bag of game balls on the sideline during the AFC Championship Game and take a bit of air out of each ball. If so, he will become the Barry Bonds of football, forever vilified despite being one of the best players in the history of the game. But I suspect that once again we may have rushed ahead of the evidence. It may turn out that the extent of the decrease in the ball pressure attributed to an anonymous source by ESPN was an estimate. It may turn out that the different gauges were used. It may be largely explainable by the process of ball preparation and changes in temperature or other factors. And it may turn out that the entire story was a lot of hot air, when the NFL acknowledges that they actually were sloppy in their measurements, because, frankly, no one ever gave it that much thought.

Brady being guilty as charged would actually be the easiest conclusion to deal with. Then the League can move on to the sentencing phase, and the media and pundits and fraternity of former NFL quarterbacks can argue about what the appropriate punishment should be, for Brady and for the Patriots. But if that turns out not to be the answer, if the forensic investigation firm hired by the League concludes that there was no tampering or wrong doing, there should be a lot of egg on a lot of faces. If the past is any measure, however, few will acknowledge their own culpability for the media circus, or the defamation of character that endued. Most reporters and sports pundits will simply move on to the next story, while many will shake their heads and suggest that the investigation was phony and the NFL covered up evidence to protect its own. We are not prone to introspection, after all. We do not like to look in the mirror and consider our own role in how things got this bad.

As for Tom Brady, his world is never going to be the same. Even if he is vindicated on all counts, the damage has been done and he will be left to ask, in famous words of Reagan Administration Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who was found innocent of corruption charges for which he had been widely vilified, "Where do I go to get my reputation back."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Transparency is for suckers.

Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist and Obamacare guru, apologized last week for his "mean and insulting comments." Set aside the irony of having to apologize for mean and insulting comments to Congressman Darrell Issa, for whom mean and insulting comments are standard fare, Gruber beseeched Issa's committee to accept his apology for suggesting that "lack of transparency is a huge political advantage" made possible only by "the stupidity of the American voter" just days before Congress maneuvered behind closed doors to give a huge Christmas present to the nation's largest banks and political parties buried in its last minute budget bill.

The sound of jingling coins that could be heard as members of Congress skipped off to National and Dulles airports was payment for a job well done. Tucked away in the budget bill was a provision that loosens the rules on derivatives trading by commercial banks, and specifically allows trading by bank units that benefit from federal deposit insurance. The provision, originally drafted by lobbyists for Citibank, was vigorously opposed by members on the right and the left, who each object to the growing financial concentration of the banking system and the vulnerability of the economy and taxpayers to increasing systemic risk in the banking system.

A similar dynamic transpired over a campaign finance rider that was also attached to the budget bill. That rider allows for significant increases in the amounts that individuals can give to political parties, from $97,200 to $777,600 in some cases. Like the derivatives deregulation provision, that rider was opposed by both the right and the left as a power grab that would boost the influence of the political parties over the nomination process at the expense of the grass-roots of the parties.

For all the feigned outrage by Darrell Issa and his colleagues, there was nothing new in Gruber's observation that "lack of transparency is a huge political advantage." Certainly, the banking industry understands this well. The industry tried to get a straight up or down vote on the Citibank legislation, to no avail, so attaching it as a rider to the budget bill--the non-transparent route--was clearly preferable. Passing riders in the dark of night is nothing new to the banking industry. Back in the 1980s, Rhode Island Congressman and Banking Committee Chairman Fernand St. Germain famously snuck in a rider that more than doubled federal deposit insurance for the savings and loan industry. St. Germain's rider laid the groundwork for the ensuing real estate investment fandango that ended in the collapse of the savings and loan industry, foreshadowing the real estate-driven banking industry collapse twenty years later.

Four years ago, JP Morgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who led the lobbying effort for the bank rider, sought to dismiss concern over banking crises when he observed that the nation should expect to have a financial crisis every five, seven or ten years. Perhaps a corollary to Dimon's Rule is that the seeds of banking crises are planted in federal legislation that precedes them. And as John McCain--a member of the Keating Five influence peddling scandal that was the seminal event of the S&L crisis--reminds us, political contributions that to an untrained eye might seem to be provided in exchange for legislative favors were part of the political playbook back then as they are today. As Charles Koch famously observed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, there is no investment made by American corporations that offers a higher prospective return on investment than lobbying in Washington, DC.

Neither of the two budget bill riders that threatened to crash the budget deal last week enjoyed popular support. While the bank bonanza may have only raised the ire of members on the left and the right, distrust of the banking industry is widespread across the general population, perhaps matching only the nation's lack of faith in our political institutions. But whatever the view of the American voter, the riders did enjoy broad support within the establishment center on both sides of the aisle. If bi-partisanship is supposed to be the Holy Grail of our politics, this was a genuine moment of coming together. And for good reason: both bills were about money, and, more specifically, money in the pockets of the members themselves.

For incumbent members of Congress, the value of raising the contributions limits is self-evident, as that money will be used by the party committees first and foremost to defend incumbents that might be at risk against challenges from their respective political flanks. The value of pandering to the banks is equally evident when one considers the $6.2 billion spent by the financial services industry lobbying Congress over the past 15 years--or over $750,000 per year per member. Not to put too fine point on it, in the Senate, the two respective leaders that got the bill through, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, received $1.3 million and $2.2 million, respectively, in campaign contributions from the securities and investment industry over the past five years, well more than they were paid by the American voters. Given these realities, it should be no surprise that as members of Congress faced the prospect of a collapse of the budget bill and missing their plane flights home for Christmas recess, proponents of the budget deal were able to suppress dissent and get the budget bill passed.

Any time the left and the right find themselves allied against the center on legislative fights, Americans should sit up and take notice. Lack of transparency was indeed the key enabling factor, the 'huge political advantage' in Jonathan Gruber's words. But it was just the means to the end. The end was money and power. Each of the riders that were approved last week will have the effect of concentrating wealth and political power in the big banks and the political parties. Jonathan Gruber was pilloried in front of a Congressional committee for his "mean and insulting comments" because he uttered a simple truth and then wondered in passing why Americans put up with it, whether it was "stupidity of the American voter or whatever." Then the members of that committee made a mockery of their own outrage, as they joined their brethren in a bi-partisan vote that only demonstrated the truth of Gruber's words.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Eyes wide shut.

Rand Paul and John McCain are at odds over whether the Senate needs to declare war on ISIS. Paul insists that the Senate has no choice, as under the War Powers Clause of the US Constitution only Congress is empowered to take the country to war. McCain is derisive of Paul and his proposed war resolution, and has the support of his Senate colleagues, who have shown no interest in voting on the war. For some, this dispute may seem to be a technical matter--after all we have fought wars for decades without actually following the Constitutional rules. For others, Rand Paul among them, fealty to the Constitution demands that any decision to go to war be put to a vote. This may seem to many observers to be an intra-party skirmish that is of little import, but it is actually a rare opportunity for the country to consider whether and why we should go to war.

We are not good at having national debates about important issues. When issues of importance come up, we run to our corners--Red vs. Blue. Fox vs. MSNBC. It is rare that we have substantive, thoughtful exchanges of ideas and views. On matters of war and peace, there are particular ironies. Despite having led the nation into two long wars that are now widely viewed as mistakes, the public continues to trust Republicans more than Democrats on matters of war and national security. Since the Vietnam War, Democrats have been viewed as the anti-war party, and for decades now they have struggled to change this image to little avail. The difference between the parties was most clearly on display in the vote to go to war in Iraq. Republicans wanted to vote yes, Democrats were afraid of voting no. Given this reality, the fight between Rand Paul and John McCain is the best chance we are likely to have for a real and substantive debate over US war policy.

Rand Paul and John McCain start from very different positions. John McCain's moral authority as a hawk on matters of national security is rooted in his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He is a decorated veteran at a time when the percentage of Congress that has served in the military has declined to 20% from around 75% several decades ago. Rand Paul's credibility is largely rooted in his commitment to constitutional principles and his libertarian skepticism of governmental that is deeply rooted in the American ethos.

If Vietnam is the source of McCain's moral high ground, it is also the source of his vulnerability in this debate. McCain has been an unmatched advocate of military intervention in recent years. At the same time, he fails to see that the Vietnam experience that took years of his life remains pivotal to American skepticism when our leaders sound the trumpets for a new war. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution that launched that decade-long war turned out to be predicated on a lie, and the communist regime that we feared is now our trading partner and ally. The Vietnam experience was followed by other wars and missteps that further demonstrated the unpredictable consequences of our war policies. In the 1980s, we partnered with Saudi Arabia to build an Islamist force to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, only to watch those Islamists morph into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ultimately ISIS. In the 2000s, we went to war in Iraq on false pretenses to--in the minds of the Neocons--to lay the foundation for a democratic transformation of the Arab world, only to wake up to the realization that we had delivered Iraq into Iran's sphere of influence.

We have learned through painful experience that power on the battlefield is not enough to win a war. During the Vietnam War, Charles Colson, a senior aid to President Richard Nixon, had a plaque on his wall that said "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." That slogan summed up what was mistaken about our war policies. It turns out that it simply is not true. Hearts and minds do not follow, they generally go in the opposite direction. And people have long memories.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has proven to be a skillful manipulator of the American psyche. He has used public beheadings and threats to whip up our emotions to draw us into a ground war, and for good reason. Fighting America mano-a-mano would elevate ISIS's prestige as the front line of Islam's battle against the West. It would be a powerful recruiting tool and build support within Muslim communities across the world that harbor resentments against America and the west. And Baghdadi's efforts have been successful. While a few months ago, the consensus across the political spectrum was that we would never send ground troops to this new war, now Speaker of the House John Boehner has suggested that it is inevitable, that we have "no choice."

Rand Paul and John McCain should debate why, given our history in recent wars and our history in the region, going to war with ISIS is the best approach for achieving our goals.

ISIS has many enemies in the region, and most of them have armies with far greater capability than ISIS. According to Wikipedia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have between them over 1.25 million active duty military personnel, or just 150,000 fewer than the active personnel of the United States armed forces. Add to that the quarter million Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga force and the quarter million Syrian army and one can safely assert that the frontline states that are most immediately threatened by ISIS have the military capacity to deal with the threat that ISIS poses to the region.

But each of these countries has other agendas, and as long as we are prepared to fight ISIS in their stead, they will not come together to address the threat that they each face. And certainly, each of them understands the threat that an American presence on the ground would create a galvanizing force for ISIS. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of Sunni Islam, in the region and worldwide. It is a fight that Muslims must lead, that Muslims must win.

If we expand our fight with ISIS, the outcome will not be what we expect. Despite all of our experience over the years, we still seem to ignore the fact that our presence on the ground changes things. Baghdadi understands this well. Every fighter killed by an American will win him three new recruits. Every photograph of a maimed Muslim mother holding a dead Muslim baby will amplify resentments toward America and increase the sympathy for and support of ISIS in Muslim communities across the world. How can he lose that fight?

Rand Paul and John McCain must debate this war. This is not a Republican squabble, it is about whether we are going to go to war, what we hope to achieve and what we have learned from the past. We cannot let Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi force us into a war of his choosing. If we are to go, it must be our choice, with our eyes wide open, with our leaders explaining to us what we hope to achieve, and why we expect those results to be achievable. We should have this debate, and we should have it now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The enemy of my enemy.

The war on ISIS continues to escalate, yet for many Americans it is no clearer exactly why we are there or what we are doing.

ISIS is a frightening phenomenon. As Secretary of State John Kerry commented this week, "ISIL doesn’t hide its crimes. ISIL is defined by its crimes because the terrorists have nothing positive to offer anyone. Their strategy is based entirely on fear, and many of their captives are executed, some beheaded, some buried alive, some crucified. Others are given a choice to pledge allegiance or die. Children are tortured, killed, or forced to take up arms. Cultural and religious shrines have been desecrated, including the graves of prophets honored by all the children of Abraham." While we may not be intimidated by the beheadings, as John Kerry suggested, they struck a deep cord in our belief in right and wrong, and have galvanized the urge to find an American response.

But if one is not inclined to heed Kerry's perspective, reading the ISIS English language online magazine, Dabiq, is eye-opening. It reports on the life and conquests of the Islamic State, with articles ranging from the Koranic justification for the re-institution of slavery, to details of military actions, prophecies of the conquests of the west to come, and screeds against Obama and Bush and apostate Persia and Russia. It combines the hyperbolic language of a LaRouche publication, with a messianic evangelical intensity, backed up by, as is illustrated in glossy detail, an army with modern weaponry. It is disturbing reading, to say the least.

Yet many of the front line states in the region that we are calling upon to be our partners in the war against ISIS have distinctly ambivalent attitudes towards ISIS, and that ambivalence only heightens our questions about our own role. Today, ISIS occupies a large swath of Syria and Iraq, with every intention to expand its footprint within the region, and beyond. To the north is Turkey, to the east is Iran and to the south are Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Many of those countries, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, actively funded the creation of ISIS as a Sunni fighting force against Syria's Bashir al-Assad, when the civil war in Syria quickly morphed into a regional Sunni-Shi'a conflict. Now, they are being asked to participate in its destruction.

Turkey, for its part, has been notably cool toward joining the anti-ISIS ranks, as its highest priority for years has been to undermine Kurdish aspirations in the region. Turkey has hosted training facilities for ISIS fighters--at a site close to the U.S. Incirlik Air Base that Turkey refused to let the U.S. use for operations against ISIS. It has provided a transit route for international volunteers recruited to join the ISIS ranks, while blocking transit for Kurdish forces participating in the anti-ISIS fight. And it has allowed ISIS to sell its oil on the black market to support its efforts. Most recently, Turkey was quite content to sit by and watch ISIS destroy the Kurdish town of Kobani right across its border. If Turkey has joined the American coalition, it has apparently done so reluctantly, and certainly not out of any fundamental disdain for ISIS methods or objectives.

As the singular Shi'a power in the region, Iran's opposition to ISIS is absolute. While the Iranians have become our tacit partners in our efforts to sustain a viable Iraqi state, we are on opposite sides in Syria, where Iran is the primary sponsor, along with Russia, of the Assad regime. Accordingly, although we may be on the same side in the war against ISIS, we are barely on speaking terms. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has openly mocked the alliance that the United States has been struggling to assemble against ISIS, from which Iran is excluded, as a “coalition of repenters,” comprising the very states that were instrumental in the creation of the group it now seeks to bring down.

Out of all the front line states, the Saudi's are in a particular bind. This week, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called upon sympathizers in the Kingdom to attack and "dismember" the Saudi royal family. ISIS forces are arrayed across Iraq, and only--in one of many ironies in the situation--the Shi'ite Arabs of southern Iraq, stand between ISIS and the Saudi border.  Earlier this year, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the head of its Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, pronounced that "ISIS is enemy No. 1 of Islam." But Sheikh al-Sheikh's words belie the deeper Saudi dilemma. The Islam of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not new, and no one knows this better than the Grand Mufti himself. The Islam of ISIS is the Islam of the fundamentalist Wahhabi tradition--of which the Sheikh is the senior religious and legal authority--born in the desert of Saudi Arabia and inextricably linked to the al-Saud family. So it should come as no surprise that, Sheikh al-Sheikh's injunction notwithstanding, public opinion polling suggests that over 90% of Saudis believe that "Islamic State conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law."

For decades, in exchange for Saudi commitments to stability in oil markets, the United States Central Command has served as the Praetorian Guard of the Kingdom. Under our protection, the Saudis financed the global expansion of the Wahhabi network of Islamic religious schools that spread the fundamentalist faith and sowed hostility toward the west. We partnered with them to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, a war that spawned the creation of the Taliban and al Qaeda. While we mock the Iranians over their conspiracy theories that the United States created ISIS, the history suggests that we have greater culpability than we care to admit.

Americans continue to be baffled by ISIS, but we talk about it as if it just appeared out of the blue. This is not true. It is the product of the long and deliberate cultivation of radical jihadism by the nation that we present to the world as our close ally. As surprising as it might be that more than 90% of Saudis admire the values that ISIS represents, it is perhaps more revealing that that 69% of French Muslims support ISIS in similar polling. And what are we to think of Turkey, our NATO ally, which has seen few citizens joining jihadist groups over the years, but from which volunteers are now flowing across the border to join the ISIS cause from all walks of Turkish life.

In his words this week, John Kerry suggested that success in ending the ISIS threat "depends on the ability of respected figures from every branch of Islam to help potential recruits understand that ISIL is against everything that faith teaches and in favor of everything that it abhors." But the evidence suggests this is not true. As one Muslim scholar observed: "It is true that the teachings of the sheikhs in Saudi-funded schools in Pakistan gave rise to the radicalism of the Taliban [and all that has followed], but it is equally true that Wahhabi sheikhs in Saudi Arabia have unequivocally stated that suicide bombings are un-Islamic." Suicide bombings, perhaps, but not other ISIS practices, such as the beheadings to have shocked Americans. Saudi Arabia practices public beheadings as a matter of course, including 59 executions for crimes including political dissent this year alone.

Wahhabism has been and remains, oil aside, Saudi Arabia's seminal contribution to the world, but with the rise of first of al Qaeda and now of ISIS, they have learned that they cannot control the forces they have unleashed. What is unclear is whether now, faced with the barbarians at the gates, the Saudis have turned to us for protection, or whether we have turned to them to play a leadership role in building a coalition to oppose ISIS. It is curious why we have to work so hard convince those who lie in ISIS's path to come to their own defense. Why, if the front line nations most under threat are reluctant to rise to their own defense, should we be struggling to do it for them.

But if the front line states are ambivalent, the intention of ISIS leaders is clear, they would like to draw America into a millennial struggle within Islam, and between Islam and the west. Perhaps before we move forward, we should at least consider how we got to where we are, and if we have any idea where we are headed, and why.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Beyond shock and awe.

A colleague called me during the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003. It is going to be unlike anything the world has ever seen. Shock and Awe. The war will be over before it starts. An inside player in the Bush administration, he was in a position to know what was in store.

Shock and Awe is a the military doctrine that “focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight rather than the physical destruction of its military forces.” To the Bush administration, Shock and Awe was the name for the onslaught of missiles and bombing that was to initiate the U.S. invasion and would intimidate Saddam, quickly bringing his regime into submission.

Little did we know that the opening days of the second Iraq war marked the end of the era of America as the world's dominant military power. It is not that America's military power declined, but rather the salience of that power. Since the invention of the atomic bomb, the United States has had to choose in any given military or proto-military engagement which weapons were appropriate to use and which were deemed inappropriate or disproportionate to a given conflict. While some envisioned the invention of the atomic bomb as a weapon that would make war itself unimaginable, the invention of increasingly powerful weapons has only complicated the nature of warfare for the dominant power.

In the first days of the Iraq war, the massive missile strikes were delayed in favor of a decapitation strike that failed due to faulty intelligence. Shock and awe never unfolded as the tour de force of the administration's imagination and the war that was to spark an Arab spring, with Iraqis seizing the opportunity to embrace their Jeffersonian future, was an abject failure. It plodded on for a decade until the American public had had enough. Looking back, it is apparent that the opening days of the Iraq war marked a seminal moment in American military power and foreign policy reality, but one that we have yet to discuss, to debate and to learn from as a nation.

This became vividly apparent when ISIS beheaded its first victim, an act to which many had the same immediate and visceral reaction: We should nuke them. A decade earlier, I watched the utterly barbaric video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading Nicholas Berg, and now, as then, a video of a beheading garners a response unlike any other form of intentional brutality.

Nuke them. Using nuclear weapons would of course be inconceivable. But the visceral response to the ISIS acts encapsulated the larger problem that we now face: We are unwilling to use the military capabilities that we have, and our adversaries understand this. And worse, in not using the capability at our command, we are rendered impotent, unable to respond with means at our command to those who show no such restraint.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been challenged by what it means to be the dominant superpower in the world. We have deployed military assets around the world, with a specific focus on key regions. We have surrounded the Russian landmass with military assets and a coordinated defense alliance through NATO. We have built a network of bases along China's coastline from the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea. We have a network of military assets surrounding Iran. We have a network of bases in place to defend our interests in the Middle East. And we have aircraft carrier battle groups deployable across the world.

The doctrine of shock and awe--a metaphor for our ability to subdue conflicts through intimidation before they turn into full fledged wars that has been essential to our notion of military power in the world--died in Iraq. Perhaps the limits to what we were willing to do in war were first manifest in Vietnam. And perhaps it was what Ronald Reagan realized when he considered his choices in the aftermath of the bombing of the military barracks in Beirut in 1983 and chose to pull out. But in the wake of Iraq, Americans now know instinctively that, whether for moral, financial or practical reasons, we are not willing to use the military capability that we have so carefully built for so many years. We are no longer interested in pursuing military action as a solution to each new conflict that the world turns to us to solve, but having built our credibility around our military power, we have neither the capability nor the respect for alternative paths to conflict resolution. While for domestic political reasons we have been unable to have a serious national discussion about this new underlying reality, our increasing disinclination to use the military capability that constitutes so much of our identity in the world has become inherently destabilizing.

Vladimir Putin understands this. He understands that he has great latitude to pursue Russia's strategic interests in Ukraine before he will risk seeing any American military response. Xi Jingping understands this as well. He understands that China has great latitude to impose its will and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea before America will consider any serious military response.

And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's protege, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, understands that if the world is going to wait for a committed American response to the ISIS threat in the Middle East, the world is going to have to wait a while. Baghdadi, like Putin and Xi, understands that shock and awe is only a meaningful doctrine if it is backed up by the commitment to use military force--real force, even disproportionate force, the force that makes one a superpower--on the ground.

If war is politics by other means, and we have effectively taken the use of our full military capacity off the table, it is time that we have a real discussion about the implications of this for our foreign policy and how we engage in the world. So far, Congress has been unwilling to seriously engage the question of where we go from here, which the Senate made clear when it refused to hold a debate on launching military strikes against ISIS.

The cornerstone of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has been the deployment and implicit threat of disproportionate military capacity. But now the veil has been lifted and the world knows that the days of shock and awe are behind us. In our political discourse we continue to posture as though nothing has changed. But we are only fooling ourselves, our adversaries have already figured it out.


Friday, August 01, 2014

The futile pleas of John Kerry.

"We have urged them, implored them to use their influence to do whatever they can to get that soldier returned. Absent that, the risk of this continuing to escalate, leading to further loss of life is very high.”

So spoke a State Department official regarding John Kerry's calls to Turkish and Qatari leaders. But one has to wonder to what end. The Qataris, in particular--who never met a radical Islamist group they did not like--fully understand the value of the abduction of a soldier to Hamas, and will do little or nothing, regardless of Kerry's pleas.

Nor would a return of the soldier have the effect that Kerry imagines. If anything, the abduction itself will only steel the resolve of Israeli leaders, and the vast majority of Israelis themselves who now support the determination of their government to destroy the Hamas tunnel network. It is the abduction itself that emphasizes the risk to individual Israelis of the Hamas tunnels that are exactly designed to create a new threat of abduction and attacks within Israel proper. The return of the soldier will not mitigate the psychological impact of the abduction itself.

Like John Kerry, many American observers seem to bend over backward to not acknowledge the central premise of Hamas strategy. Media reports describing Israeli attacks on a school or a hospital leave a listener wondering at its abject cruelty. Democrat Hillary Clinton suggested that Hamas puts missiles in schools because Gaza is so small, suggesting there is not enough room for them elsewhere. Republican Joe Scarborough raged against Israel attacking a school, never questioning whether there was a reason for targeting the school other than to unleash carnage on the local population seeking shelter there. There is a better way, he states bluntly, but he does not suggest what that might be.

Like the abduction of the soldier, which Hamas hopes will draw Israel deeper into a land war on its soil, each Hamas tactic is designed primarily around the Israeli response it will engender. Hamas places missiles in schools precisely because when Israel strikes to destroy the missiles, it will produce images of death and devastation that will be broadcast worldwide. Hamas places the entrance to tunnels into Israel beneath hospitals and mosques for the same reason. It may be a general principle of the laws of war that using civilian populations as shields against attack is a war crime, and that civilian deaths that result from attacks on military assets placed deliberately within civilian areas are the responsibility of the party that put the civilians at risk. Yet this is central to Hamas strategy, and the resulting outrage across the world is evidence that legal principles have little salience in the battle for the hearts and minds of the world audience.

And the Hamas strategy is working. At a time when Nouri al Maliki and Basher al Assad are dropping barrel bombs on civilian villages, at a time ISIS has expelled the entire Christian population of Mosel under threat of beheading--and in some areas reportedly implemented a policy of forced clitorectomies--it is the actions of Israel in Gaza that draws protesters into the street in cities across Europe. While the Shi'a and Sunni are massacring each other in far greater numbers, can it really be that the outrage of the world is only peaked when it is Jews who are killing Arabs? How can it be that in a Middle East that has erupted in turmoil, it is only Israel's war with Hamas that the United Nations Human Rights Council has decided should be subject to a war crimes inquiry for “indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”

Last week, the United Nations made a mockery of itself and that decision. When a UN agency found that two of its schools were being used as missile bunkers by Hamas--schools adjacent to facilities for displaced Palestinians--the UN agency did not demand that the missiles be destroyed, or perhaps taken away by an international agency, but rather that they be removed from the school by Hamas. Thus, within the same week, the UN delivered back to Hamas missiles whose only conceivable use is for firing at civilian populations in Israel, thereby becoming an active co-conspirator in exactly the type of war crime it announced that it is seeking to investigate. 

It is a terrible and ugly libel to suggest that Hamas' actions are somehow evidence that Palestinian mothers and fathers love their children less than do any other parents. This point was argued vehemently by an Al Jazeera op-ed in the wake of an earlier Hamas war, and indeed to make such an argument is to deny the basic humanity of the victims of missile strikes in Gaza. The author scoffed at the words of Golda Meir to Anwar El Sadat as they moved toward a peace accord--"We can forgive you for killing our sons, but we will never forgive you for making us kill yours"--as a thinly veiled attempt to wrap the devastation Israel inflicts in a veil of moral piety.

But for all the author's moral outrage--outrage that is mirrored now across the world--he declined to address the central charge that has been heard repeatedly over the years: How can Palestinian parents continue to support leaders within their community who would deliberately use their children as human shields? The fact that this Hamas war was provoked more to elevate Hamas' own standing than to achieve any concrete results--beyond lifting an economic isolation that Hamas itself provoked--makes the question of Palestinian passivity in this regard all the more troubling. There is nothing new about Hamas' tactics, and its leaders have been upfront about their willingness to sacrifice Palestinian children--along with the rest of the civilian population--in pursuit of their own strategic goals. Even as we watch image after image of stricken Palestinians mourning their dead children, we hear the corresponding words of a Hamas official: "What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?" Indeed, according to a paper in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Hamas--the elected government of Palestinians in Gaza--willfully sacrificed more that 160 Gazan children before any fighting in the digging of the tunnels themselves.

Within the progressive Jewish world--where the anguish expressed in Golda Meir's words is deeply felt--there is always an outcry when Israeli bombs kill Palestinian civilians, both out of moral outrage for the death and destruction and because of the ultimate bankruptcy of an Israeli strategy for which there is no endgame. But with each successive conflict, as Hamas missiles reach deeper into the country and the tunnels are deeper and longer, those voices become less vocal. While for some the broader conflicts in the region have emphasized the importance of pressuring Israel to remove settlements from confiscated Palestinian lands and live within its internationally accepted borders, for others the emergence of ISIS has only emphasized the long history of conflicts in the region and made the Hamas commitment to the destruction of Israel the sine qua non of the conflict. It is neither a metaphor nor a bargaining chip. 

It is hard for many to accept the implications of that stance, but with each war Hamas aids our understanding and acceptance of their commitment. Indeed, Hamas has achieved what Bibi Netanyahu could not: it has forced progressive Jews to understand, if not accept, the logic of Israeli policies that they have long fought. Progressive Jews might have objected to Israel blocking the shipments of building materials and concrete into Gaza, but in this war the world has seen the complex network of tunnels built with an estimated six hundred thousand tons of concrete that we were told was urgently needed for schools and hospitals that were never built. Progressive Jews might have objected that Israeli was needlessly undermining Gaza economic development by preventing the development of a Gaza port, but the vast store of missiles is evidence that the boarded ships found to be filled with armaments intended to be used to kill Israelis were but the tip of the iceberg. Thus, the voices on the Jewish left have become muted.

John Kerry hopes that the growing destruction might have brought a moment of greater clarity where each side would be looking for a reason to stand down. But instead, the cunning of Hamas strategy is evident as more of its constituents are killed or maimed, even as it claims victory over the forces of the occupation. With each such claim--and now with the apparent abduction of a soldier--Hamas only confirms the belief on the part of Israeli leaders--and Hamas antagonists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well--that the war has not yet reached is necessary political conclusion. While Kerry pleas for Hamas to undo its latest provocation, it is apparent that neither side is listening, nor willing to stand down. Israel and Hamas are engaged in a battle that each believes can only end with Hamas forcing Israel and Egypt to yield to its terms, or being destroyed as a political force. Unless, of course, the Palestinians of Gaza themselves finally stand up and demand an end to Hamas' leadership, which has done so much to destroy their community.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The return of the Sith Lord.

"We stand at a critical moment in the life of our nation. The policies of the last six years have left America diminished and weakened. Our enemies no longer fear us. Our allies no longer trust us... Threats to America’s security are on the rise."

Dick Cheney is back. He is not running for anything, he assured Charlie Rose, so he is free to speak his mind. After six years of the Obama presidency, Cheney sees America's power and prestige declining across the globe, and he wants to do something about it. He has created the Alliance for a Strong America.

This is not new for Cheney. Last time a Democrat was in his second term, Cheney was a signatory in the founding of the Project for the New American Century, the seminal organization created to promote the neoconservative agenda in foreign policy. Both organizations were created in the second term of Democrat Presidents. Both organizations sought to spearhead the promotion of American power and leadership in the world. Both sought to build support for rebuilding American military power.

But Cheney is no longer mincing words and has cast aside the "Neo" label that connoted a commitment to the promotion of economic and political liberty. Cheney never really put his heart and soul into the neoconservative ideology. Spreading "political liberty" and bringing democracy to the Middle East might have been important in the minds of Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol, but never for Cheney. For him, the democracy rhetoric was always a red herring. It may have been useful as a rationale for removing Saddam Hussein from power, but social and political reform was never the point. Cheney was always more Neo-Maoist than Neo-Conservative: forget ideology, power is about power.

Dick Cheney shares the concerns of our "friends" that America is turning away from its historic relationships in the region. Cheney's friends--our guys, to use his jocular rhetoric--are the Gulf monarchies. "Our guys" are the Saudis, whose Wahhabi partners have long been proselytizers of the most extremist branch of Sunni Islam and the lead funders of modern terrorist movements. 

But Americans are no longer so sure who our friends are, as it was our guys who funded the Saudi terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In time, we have come to grasp the complexity of the region, the depth of the animosity for the west--and for America in particular--and the duplicity of the Saudi game.

What we do know is that Cheney took America to war once before. He blithely assured us of the dangers we faced and who was behind them, all the while assuring us that we had friends in the region that would rally to our side. Over the decade of war that ensued, we learned the hard way that there are deep historical roots to the conflicts there, and we have to think long and hard when we take sides. Friendship in the Middle East is transactional, and it not as simple as the aphorism "the enemy of our enemy is our friend" might suggest.

No doubt many Americans would agree with Cheney that our policies seems to lack coherence. In Iraq, the US and Iran are now effectively allied in opposition to the Sunni ISIS insurgency. While in Syria, where the Iranians are fighting alongside the Shi'a allied Assad regime, the US is determinedly on the other side, allied with the Syrian opposition and tacitly with their Sunni jihadist allies. Yet even as he decries that incoherence, Cheney suggested to Charlie Rose that although Iran is our mortal enemy, perhaps it is time to switch sides in Syria and consider that Assad may not be the worst threat after all. 

In his broadside against President Obama, Dick Cheney fails to grasp the central irony of his situation. Cheney wants us to respond to his cries of "fire," but does not understand that all we see when he speaks is the arsonist. Speaking to Charlie Rose, Cheney admonished those fixated on how we got into Iraq and, despite repeated prodding, he refuses to amend or apologize for a single word of an historical record on his watch that has been so deeply contradicted. Even as he scorns the President in a manner never seen before by one administration toward a successor, Cheney is a man with no sense of accountability for his own actions and his impact on the world around him.

The debate that led up to the Senate war resolution, like the campaign to build public support for war, was built on a deliberate campaign of misinformation. That debate laid the groundwork for a deepening mistrust across the political spectrum of the use of intelligence that sowed the seeds for the Snowden affair and the elevation of Snowden to heroic status on the right and the left. The residue of the lies and dissembling in the run-up to the Iraq war is the hallmark legacy of Cheney's Vice Presidency. The poisoning of the public square and the political climate change it helped to engender has contributed to declining faith in the ability of our government to honestly deal with problems that we face at home and undermined the credibility of our efforts to promote democracy abroad.

Cheney demands that we heed his warnings, but evinces no awareness of why his credibility is suspect, or why Americans might feel burned for having trusted his words and followed his lead before. He is the poster child for the lies and duplicity of an era, the effects of which continue to ripple forward. Republicans and Democrats alike would rather Cheney just go away. He has become a parody of himself, and if America is at risk, the last way to get Americans to hear that is for Dick Cheney to tell them.  He simply fails to recognize that the man he scorns in the White House came to office not because of that hope and change thing, but because Americans had been lied to by their leaders who took the nation to war, and they wanted out. Dick Cheney may have nothing but contempt for Barack Obama, but the irony is that Cheney is one of the reasons Obama was elected.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously observed that our politics stop at the waters’ edge, that foreign policy was the realm of national consensus. If America was to go to war, the nation had to be of one voice and to understand and believe in the cause. Perhaps Vietnam marked the end of that national consensus, but the manipulation of information in the promotion of war in Iraq, in order to steep public opinion and stifle democratic debate, is a legacy for which Cheney bears responsibility. All of Cheney’s words now are colored by that poisoned discourse, which contributed so much to what now remains a deeply damaged nation.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The sanctity of borders.

Watching Nigeria play Bosnia and Herzegovina in the World Cup last week provided a context for thinking about the Iraq civil war. Over the course of the 20th century, both countries struggled with issues of national sovereignty, governance and inter-ethnic strife. Like Syria and Iraq, Nigeria's modern borders were established by colonial powers in a manner that divided ethnic groups in to multiple nations, and similarly combined myriad groups into a single polity and declared them a nation. Like Syria and Iraq, both Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts in which hundreds of thousands died. And like Syria and Iraq, Bosnia existed within the Ottoman Empire -- the Sunni Islamic caliphate that lasted over 600 years -- before becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then finally Yugoslavia.

Noted Syria expert Joshua Landis suggested recently that President Obama stay out of an Iraq conflict that he sees as rooted in the breakup of the Ottoman empire and the imposition artificial borders by colonial powers that have been under stress for "more than a century." Implied in Landis's comments is the notion that any ultimate resolution to the conflict will lie in a redrawing of national borders -- and even a reconsideration of the concept of nationhood -- in the Middle East.

Debates over the proper acronym for the Iraq insurgent group ISIS reflect the question of borders and national identity. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, should probably be referred to as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as the use of the term Levant better reflects the group's ambitions. The Levant generally describes the area of the Middle East within the Ottoman Empire stretching down from southern Turkey to northern Egypt, and from the Mediterranean east through Iraq. To be Levantine is to have a regional identity rather than a national one, and that definition is consistent with the regional aspirations of ISIS that extend to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, along with Iraq.

The question of national identity has long been a challenge in Iraq. From the beginning of the Iraq War, dividing Iraq into three states -- Shi'a in the south, Sunni in the center and Kurdish in the north -- was advocated by those including then-Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chair Joe Biden as a solution to the inherently unstable nature of an Iraq state that was the fictional creation of the French and British colonial offices. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was arguably the strongest proponent of a secular Iraqi national identity, the continuing jockeying for power among the three ethnic groups has been a centrifugal force pulling the nation apart. Today, the Iraq civil war is increasingly becoming a conflict between those who believe that there is --or must be -- a nation called Iraq, and those who view Iraq as a transient historical phenomenon with no inherent identity or purpose.

The civil war in Iraq has brought the ironies and tensions of the Syrian civil war into full view. Last week, President Obama announced that the US would send 300 military advisors back into Iraq in support of the Iraqi regime, while he continues to consider airstrikes against ISIS to forestall its advances on the ground. At the same time, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would send ground forces into Iraq to defend the al-Maliki regime. This confluence of events led to the unlikely notion of American air power being sent into Iraq in support of an Iranian ground offensive.

While US and Iran are each supporting a political resolution that would maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state, the ISIS perspective is fundamentally different. ISIS aspirations are not to redress grievances toward the al-Maliki regime, but rather are rooted in the dreams of Osama bin Laden and Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qtub to redress the humiliations and perfidy at the hands of the imperial powers and create a new Sunni Islamist caliphate within borders that they alone determine. But unlike Bin Laden's al Qaeda, hidden in the caves of North Waziristan, ISIS now controls an area spanning 360 miles across Syria and Iraq, and is on the brink of reaching into Jordan. With oil fields in Syria and a refinery in Iraq under its control, and a reported $429 million stolen from banks in Mosel, ISIS has territory, assets and gold.

The emerging alliance of the US and Iran reflects a common commitment to maintaining the integrity of the Iraq state. For Iran, the prospect of a victorious ISIS in Iraq would leave it effectively sandwiched between two hostile Sunni regimes, with ISIS to the west, and the nuclear-armed Pakistan to the east. The recognition of this threat, and Iran's memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war led by the Baathists now within the ISIS camp, have led Iran to eschew its traditional hostility toward an American presence in the region in favor of advocating for American reengagement.

For Americans, it is hard for many to remember the days post-9/11 when Iranian intelligence worked in concert with the Americans in pursuit of their common Sunni jihadist enemies. In the context of faltering talks on the nuclear issue it is hard to imagine that even a tacit alliance would be conceivable. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that America's paramount national security interest in the Iraq conflict is no longer about its neoconservative democratization project, or even about oil. Rather it is about the maintenance of international order, the effectiveness of international institutions regulating and moderating disputes between nations, and the sanctity of borders.

Over the past two weeks, one has increasingly heard the argument that the endgame will be the breakup of Iraq into three states along the lines that Biden and Gelb imagined a decade ago. While this approach may have an appeal for those seeking an answer to a seemingly intractable problem, it is problematic as a regional solution. For its part, Iran would still find itself with a new, hostile ISIS controlled state along its western border. For Turkey, the regional power and NATO member state bordering Syria and Iraq, the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has always been a red line, as the Turks anticipate that it would inevitably lead to demands by Turkey's minority Kurdish populations to secede and join the Kurdish homeland. And breaking up Iraq into sectarian regions would implicitly sanction the notion of a similar break up of Syria into ethic enclaves, and the merging of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni regions as ISIS claims it has already done.

A partition of Iraq may seem like a logical solution, but sanctioning the redrawing of borders is a slippery slope and a remapping of Iraq could have cascading effects on Syria, Jordan, Iran and Turkey. And once the door is opened to the rewriting of borders, there may be unintended consequences beyond the Middle East. Before the ISIS insurgency captured the headlines, international attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine, where, like Iraq, a disgruntled minority was fighting to secede through armed revolt. One has to imagine that separatists in other regions are paying close attention to the outcome in Iraq, and to any American actions that would lending legitimacy to their own efforts to undermine the sanctity of borders.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Wag the dog.

Nothing garners presidential approval like a good war. For Vladimir Putin, the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea have been excellent politics. In the most recent Pew Global Attitudes polling, Russian confidence in their President's performance hit 83%, up 14% from when Pew last checked. Dating back a half century, only two American presidents have reached 80% job approval: George H.W. Bush in the wake of the first Gulf War in February 1991, and his son W. a decade later when he stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center in September 2001.

Chinese President Xi Jingping has similarly used aggressive moves against China's neighbors to amp up nationalist fervor. China has antagonized Vietnam and the Philippines as it has broadened its resource claims over the South China Sea, and, most notably, Xi has used international diplomatic settings to play the Japan card--admonishing the Japanese in numerous settings for lack of remorse for inflicting 35 million casualties on the Chinese during the years leading up to WWII.

Xi and Putin share basic tenets. Putin's migration of Russia to a "controlled" democracy mirrors the principles of the Chinese Communist Party in his opposition to multi-party democracy, independent media and civil liberties. Now both men are taking a turn toward nationalism as they confront internal threats to their leadership. Both countries are facing a slowdown in economic growth that has been the cornerstone of popular support over the past decade, and both are seeing increasing public anger over corruption at the highest levels of government.

The risk Xi and Putin face is not simply about the prospect of public outrage over corruption--after all, corruption in both countries must be a long-accepted reality--but rather the prospect that slowing economic growth together with increasing visibility about the depth of corruption will magnify popular discontent--as was the case in Ukraine. After all, it was not venality that brought down Ukrainian President Yanukovych, but the toxic combination of being viewed as venal and ineffectual.

Kleptocracy--rule by thieves and crooks--has at long last emerged as a threat to the regimes in Russia and China. According to a State Department cable leaked on Wikileaks, Xi has long believed that systemic corruption within the leading families of the Communist elite is the Achilles heel that could lead to the demise of the regime. Since his installation as President, Xi's has mounted a public anti-corruption campaign, targeting increasingly senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party.

And the numbers are not small. Two years ago, a New York Times series on China's princelings--the children of the leaders of China's revolution--laid out the $2.7 billion accumulated by former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his family, and Bloomberg News provided details on billions of dollars accumulated the families of Party leaders, including hundreds of millions of dollars of assets accumulated by Xi Jingping's own family. Then, earlier this year, leaked documents provided details of billions of dollars of funds held by close relatives of China's ruling elite in offshore accounts, along with suggestions that as much as $1 trillion to $4 trillion have left China since 2000. Clearly, with that much money at stake, there has been opposition within the Party to Xi's campaign, and in recent weeks, Xi's two immediate predecessors in the top job--each of whom have been implicated in the scandal--demanded a halt to the anti-corruption campaign.

Like Xi, Vladimir Putin makes a show of approving new anti-corruption and transparency initiatives. Putin has long walked a fine line with respect to the massive corruption in Russian society and the unmatched theft of state assets that occurred at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union that led to the rise of the Oligarchs. When he succeeded Boris Yeltsin, Putin made a show of cracking down on oligarchs and returning stolen assets to the state. But his has been a carefully managed process--jailing his enemies and carefully laying down the rules of permitted behavior of his friends--and speculation persists about the magnitude of the fortune Putin himself has amassed during his years in power.

Since the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy toward our erstwhile adversaries has been built around a military policy of encirclement and containment, coupled with economic policies promoting free trade and economic integration. The military policy was straightforward. NATO expansion into all of the former Warsaw Pact nations, coupled with partnerships with the former Soviet republics to the south, created a military cordon around Russia from the Baltic Sea to Afghanistan. At the other end of Asia, the US military has maintained airfields and naval facilities from Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan at northern end of China's Pacific coast down to Singapore and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

But the military policy of containment was secondary in many respects to the economic policy of integration. The opening up of the Russian and Chinese economies brought with it enthusiasm that free trade and the mutual economic dependency that it engenders would be the key to preventing future conflicts. This notion was popularized by Tom Friedman in The World is Flat as the "Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention," which suggests that "No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain."

Today, that premise being tested.

Putin's and Xi's actions have undermined critical global relationships and trust, and threaten trading relationships critical to each country's future. In the case of Russia, Vladimir Putin's saber rattling may have worked to great effect to build his domestic popularity, but it has accelerated capital flight, damaged the ruble, and raised real questions about the economic sustainability of the Russian economy. In particular, Putin's demonstrated willingness to use Russia's control over energy supplies as a political weapon will necessarily lead Russia's trading partners in Europe to seek alternative sources of energy supplies and ultimately undermine the competitive position and stability of Russian energy economy.

For its part, Xi's rhetoric has already driven Japanese investment out of China. While some might dismiss disinvestment as of little import to a country with China's currency reserves, the Chinese economy produces little innovation and has relied on Japanese investment as a critical source of innovation and management expertise. But of perhaps even greater significance was China's effort to embargo sales of Chinese strategic minerals to Japan. China's politicization of trade was struck down by the World Trade Organization, and has now left China to grapple with the choice between honoring its own political rhetoric or respecting international trade regimes.

Putin's land grab in Ukraine and China's saber rattling in the Sea of Japan and South China Sea have demonstrated two fundamental flaws in the US post-Cold War strategy combining military containment and free trade. First, the intimidation value of military assets is clearly limited if there are questions--on our part or in the minds of our adversaries--about our willingness to use them. Second, the Dell Theory that was supposed to be the "carrot" that went along with the military "stick" turns out to be a two-edged sword. During the Ukraine crisis, Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas quickly emerged as a limiting factor on the tools available to the West to seek to temper Putin's aggressiveness, and similarly the dependence of the leading industrial economies on Chinese rare earths demonstrates the vulnerability of western economies to what in essence would be Chinese blackmail should the Chinese Communist Party determine--as it has already demonstrated through its dealings with Japan--that the domestic politics trumps the country's larger economic interest.

Despite the appearance that each now seems to hold the upper hand in the local disputes, Russia and China are each in a position of great risk. Both depend enormously on free trade for their economic well-being. Russia now derives 70% of its foreign currency earnings from commodity sales and depends on its energy sector for 50% of its budget, while China's export-driven growth strategy is legendary. While they trumpet their trade agreements with each other, neither offers the other what they now derive through trade with and investment from the rest of the world. On the other hand, many in Europe would welcome greater economic and security incentives to accelerate the migration away from dependence on Russian energy supplies, and China's neighbors have much to gain from redirected Japanese and western investment that is already leaving China.

Interestingly, Pew's data also suggests that the nationalist strategies embraced by Xi and Putin decline in effectiveness with progressively younger age groups. Specifically, Putin's appeal to the Soviet past resonates strongly with older Russians, while alignment with Putin declines with each age cohort. The younger Chinese and Russians are, the more they participate in social media, the more they are likely to be disdainful of the corruption of their leaders, and the more they have at stake in the economic trajectory of their country. This is not unique to those two countries, but is simply the local manifestation of a phase transition that is affecting politics globally.

Right now, it seems unlikely that Xi or Putin will depart from the path they are on out of concern for the longer term impact on their national economies. After all, they have found a formula that is working for them. But the lesson of Ukraine--and the Arab Spring before it--is that leaders can no longer afford to be venal and ineffectual. For his part, Vladimir Putin can do what he chooses and has little to lose. After all, he represents no political party and his only enduring interests are his own. But Xi Jingping is walking a much finer line, and if he chooses his Party over his country as he is appears inclined to do, he may well end up with neither.