Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jeb's dilemma.

Jeb Bush finally got his answer right. Bowing to the political correctness of the moment, the aspiring President Bush III fell into line and spoke the magic words. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have launched an invasion of Iraq. 

It did not come easily. Bush readily admitted that he has a hard time disagreeing with his family and he was loath to say anything about the Iraq War that might cast his older brother in a bad light. Even as he said the magic words, he was walking it back:

“That’s not to say that the world [isn’t] safer because Saddam Hussein is gone. It is significantly safer. That’s not to say that there [wasn’t] a courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq. All of that is true. And that’s not to say that the men and women who’ve served uniform and many others who went to Iraq to serve, they did so, certainly, honorably. But, we’ve answered the question now.”

Bush's grudging response made it clear that candidates are being asked the wrong question. Across the board, from the dozen or so Republicans through Hillary Clinton, the candidates to succeed Barack Obama have embraced the "If I knew then what I know now" consensus, blaming the decision to invade Iraq, in Bush's words, on "mistakes as it related to faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the war."

But intelligence regarding WMD was not what led George W. Bush and his administration to take the country to war. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in his 2003 interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair just weeks after the U.S. invasion, succinctly set forth the administration's rationale for war against Saddam: "There have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there's a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two..." The subsequent 911 Commission Report documented the administration's extensive focus on Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 9/11 attack, including the determination to use the attack as a pretext to bring down the Iraqi dictator.

Immediately after the publication of the Wolfowitz interview, the Pentagon and Conservative commentators objected to emphasis in the Vanity Fair article that the administration had settled on WMD as the sole or primary rationale for the invasion. A Pentagon official asserted, correctly, that in the Vanity Fair interview Wolfowitz "made clear that there were multiple reasons for the use of military forces against Iraq." Writing a few weeks later, Bill Kristol, conservative doyen and editor of The Weekly Standard, disputed the notion that the war had been sold to the American public on false pretenses, explicitly focusing on the conflation of chemical and nuclear weapons under the single acronym WMD. "No one doubts that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction, used weapons of mass destruction, and had an ongoing program to develop more such weapons." Kristol's first two assertions were unarguably true. We knew that Saddam had had chemical weapons--which he used against both Iran and his own people--because we sold them to him. And the Bush administration intelligence on that matter was flawless because Wolfowitz's boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had arranged the sale of those weapons to Saddam as the envoy of President Reagan 19 years earlier. Only the latter assertion about an ongoing program was in doubt.

The WMD intelligence-failure narrative gained favor, particularly among Democrats who had voted for the war but had come to regret their vote--and now has been embraced by nearly all of the presidential contenders--but it was not a deciding factor for President Bush or his team at the time. Their determination to bring down the Iraq regime rested on firmly held convictions about both Saddam Hussein in particular and their broader foreign policy theory of regime change as the preferred path to best effect change in the Middle East. WMD or no, Saddam was who they thought he was, and one only needs to look at the viciousness of his former generals who are now leading the ISIS campaign of terror if one doubts what Saddam's regime was capable of.

At the end of his 2003 article, Kristol raised the central issue: "People of good will are entitled to disagree, even in retrospect, about the wisdom and probable effects of Saddam's forcible removal." This week, Scott Walker commented that "Any president would have likely taken the same action [President George W.] Bush did with the information he had." But this is not true. Most likely not even George W.'s father. This was exactly the issue that James Baker and Brent Scowcroft raised in 1991 when they advised President Bush I not to send troops to Baghdad in the closing days of the first Gulf War and not to depose Saddam Hussein because of the chaos they believed would ensue. And it was exactly the issue raised again by Scowcroft in 2002 when he advised President Bush II through a Wall Street Journal op-ed Don't Attack Saddam, mirroring those same concerns--and widely interpreted at the time as reflective of the view of the President's father. And it is apparent from the 9/11 Commission Report that just "any president" would likely not have even have considered invading Iraq--given the lack of evidence linking Saddam to 9/11--unless, like Bush II, that president's administration came into office looking for an opportunity to take Saddam out.

So far, of the candidates running for president, only Rand Paul has focused explicitly on the issue Kristol raised. Just a few days before the Jeb Bush story broke, Paul asserted that toppling Saddam Hussein--as well as our broader policy of regime change in the Middle East-- was a mistake: “Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos and radical Islam seems to rise.” Paul was roundly dismissed as an isolationist, despite articulating views that mirrored the Republican Party mainstream prior to the ascendancy of the neoconservatives under the second Bush administration.

As documented in the 9/11 Commission Report, the determination to invade Iraq in 2003 was a decision in search of supporting intelligence, not the other way around. The lessons of the Iraq war are about the limitations of regime change and preventive war as foreign policy doctrines. Today, as we hear literally the same rationales for war coming from Iran hawks that Wolfowitz expressed to Sam Tanenhaus regarding Iraq over a decade ago, it is important to know what each candidate sees as the lessons of our recent history. The question for Jeb Bush is not about spurious faulty intelligence, but whether as President Bush III he would choose to walk the foreign policy path of his father or that of his brother, or whether his loyalty to his family would render him incapable of choosing between the two.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The shaming of the American worker.

President Obama is fed up. At long last, he has found an issue where he can move forward in common cause with Republicans in Congress and his own Democrat compatriots won't stand for it. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren first set the President off by comments claiming that the proposed trade deal would exacerbate income inequality and erode national regulatory sovereignty. "The idea that we can shut down globalization, reduce trade … is wrong-headed," the President responded. "That horse has left the barn." And then it got personal. Warren and her allies were being dishonest, spreading lies about the deal, he suggested. They are, the President inferred, behaving like Republicans.

It is hard for the rest of us to debate the merits of the TPP because the actual terms have not yet been disclosed to the public. And this was the essence of Warren's response. The President is trying to have it both ways: he criticizes opponents for misrepresenting the deal--even as he deliberately mischaracterizes their stance as being anti-trade--but won't allow the public a peak at the text or engage in a direct public debate of the issues that Warren and others have raised. Speaking this week, he amped up the rhetoric as he derided his erstwhile Democrat allies for wanting to “pull up the drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves.”

It is good to see robust opposition forming to the TPP. The alliance of Tea Party critics on the right with the Warren Democrat camp on the left is heartwarming, and in another era or in another political system might have constituted a political force in defense of the broader public interest. The American middle class has not been treated well by our political system over the past several decades--in terms of incomes and job security, and the sharing of growing economic wealth--and both the substance and politics of the TPP tell the story why.

Globalization and technology have combined to turn the American economy into part of a globalized system of production and consumption. International trade theory, as famously set forth by British economist David Ricardo two hundred years ago, suggests that the world as a whole benefits through systems of free trade that lead each nation to produce those goods and services where they have a comparative advantage. Combine our modern capitalist world and the World Wide Web with Ricardo's theory, and the world effectively shrinks, accelerating the migration of investment and jobs.

We all know the story that has unfolded over the post-World War II era, when first Japan, then the Asian Tigers, and finally China became the beneficiaries of increasingly free trade. And Ricardo's theory has been proven right. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world out of destitute poverty, as the share of the world population living in extreme poverty declined by fifty percent--from 43% in 1990 to 21% in 2010.

The American middle class paid the price of opening our markets and shipping millions of jobs overseas to the benefit of other nations. During the past forty-five years--going back to 1969--median U.S. income has been flat in real terms, after having increased by 50% over the prior fifteen years. Since 1973, wages and salaries have declined steadily as a share of U.S. GDP, from 54% to 45%, even as corporate profits have reached record highs. Globalization has created an economy in which the economic benefits of growing productivity and global wage competition have inured to the benefit of corporate management and investors even as it has depressed family incomes. As a result--the President's snarky riposte notwithstanding--from the perspective of the average American family that may not appreciate the nuances of David Riccardo's economic theory, building a moat around ourselves might seem like a good idea.

No doubt, the American middle class should be applauded for the sacrifices that it has made for the rest of the world. But our politics are not about sacrificing for the greater good. Political money spent to buy the support of members of Congress or occupants of the White House has grown dramatically, and those who spend that money rarely do it for charitable purposes. And so it is with trade agreements. One purpose of the TPP no doubt is to align the world in the manner envisioned by David Ricardo, to boost aggregate global incomes to the ultimate benefit of all nations. But the TPP is also about private interests, and as such it addresses both traditional issues such as intellectual property and patent rights, but also apparently adds new corporate protections such as the right to seek damages for lost profits deriving from a participating nation's sovereign action, such as raising the minimum wage, implementing environmental regulations or putting warning labels on cigarettes. Apparently, Americans can parse the difference between the public and private benefits of free trade agreements. In a Pew Research Center poll in 2010, Americans indicated overwhelming support for free trade while showing significant skepticism for free trade agreements.

Supporters of free trade agreements have consistently suggested two strategies to protect workers from the impact of opening up domestic markets to global competition. The first is trade adjustment assistance and job retraining programs, which may be useful for those who lose their jobs but does little or nothing for those who keep their jobs but whose incomes are undermined by global wage competition. The second is education, claimed by many to be the silver bullet that will prepare American workers for new careers in the new economy of the future.

Educational attainment is directly linked to family income and employment security. In the wake of the Great Recession this linkage has become increasingly stark. Three years after the 2008 collapse--when the recession was officially over--the unemployment rate for those with a college degree was half the rate for those with a high school degree, while the unemployment rate for those with a professional degree was half again the rate for those with a college degree. In a free trade world, higher education has become as essential for Americans as a high school degree was a half-century ago.

But even significant increases in the educational attainment of U.S. workers have failed to offset the impacts of globalization on middle class incomes. From 1980 to 2009, college participation rates--the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in two and four year colleges--rose steadily from 49.3% to 70.1%, yet over that same thirty-year period median per capita income remained stagnant in real terms. That is to say, increasing educational attainment may have led to increased job security for Americans that pursued higher education but it did not translate into real growth in median incomes, as global wage competition allowed companies to retain the economic benefits of significant increases in labor productivity.

Since 2009, faced with cuts in federal Pell grants, significant tuition increases at state colleges and universities, and Congressionally-mandated increases in student loan costs, fewer high school graduates continued on to college. By 2013, the national college participation rate declined to 65.9%, with the decline most pronounced among low-income students, from a peak of 58.4% in 2007 to 45.5% in 2013. With the trend of reduced public funding of higher education unlikely to be reversed, it is reasonable to expect that the struggles of the middle class will only be exacerbated by the new proposed trade deal.

Against that backdrop, the idea of building a moat around the country might look like an attractive path forward to many Americans . Considering a half-century of flat real wages that are at least in part attributable to the impacts of globalization, why should anyone be mocked by the President for advocating a position that might benefit those individual U.S. workers whose jobs will be put at risk? With armies of paid lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to have the interests of their corporate clients addressed in the TPP, why should workers and their families in Indiana or Ohio be asked to quietly accept the inevitability of one more trade deal so that others might prosper?

President Obama's stance on TPP is that Americans should trust him. But even for those who fundamentally support free trade, the experience of the last half-century is hard to square with the President's conviction. The President can talk about the benefits of global trade to middle income Americans--they have heard it all before--but he ignores the fact that supporters of free trade have consistently declined to support measures that might assure that all Americans have affordable access to the higher education that is essential to their ability to prosper in a free trade world or to provide for a sharing of the economic benefits of globalization and productivity growth beyond senior management and investors.

Mr. Spock's utopian mantra on Star Trek that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" does not apply to our politics, where increasingly the loudest voices heard are those of the few. President Obama must know that this is not a debate about free trade--which Americans overwhelmingly support--but part of a larger, continuing debate about how we make the rules and who benefits in our economy and society. With corporate America and the Republican Party lined up four square behind the President, it seems unlikely that in this proposed trade deal the interests of the few are going to be set aside for the interests of the many, and it is understandable why the President's erstwhile allies are having a hard time taking him at his word.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A failed model of government.

In his piece this week, "Baltimore, a Great Society Failure," National Review editor Rich Lowry presents events in Baltimore as demonstrative of the failure of social programs dating back fifty years to the War on Poverty. "The city hasn’t been 'neglected.'" Lowry asserts, "It has been misgoverned into the ground. It is a Great Society city that bought into the big-government vision of the 1960s more than most, and the bitter fruit has been corruption, violence and despair." Lowry's piece walks through all of the evils that plague urban America. Hostility to business, high taxes, crime, patronage, single parent families and teachers unions. All in a state, he points out, with among the most generous welfare systems in the country.

Lowry's focus may have been Baltimore, but his larger purpose was to take advantage of the public's momentary focus on the plight of urban America to suggest that more of the same is unlikely to cure what ails that or other cities. Conditions in Baltimore mirror the state of affairs across urban America. Lowry's is an indictment of social policies dating back a half century to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. "This is a failure exclusively of Democrats..." Lowry stated, just in case his point was lost on anyone. "It is an indictment of a failed model of government." 

In the normal course of events, a presidential campaign should be the platform for a public debate on issues such as those raised by Lowry. This debate is nothing new, as the ink on the Great Society legislation was barely dry before Daniel Patrick Moynihan--a Democrat in Richard Nixon's administration--raised questions that mirror those suggested by Lowry forty-five years later. Whether the Democrat nominee is Hillary Clinton--or by some outside chance former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley--Lowry has provided the broad strokes of the conservative critique of Democrat domestic policy. For her part, Hillary will be torn between the law and order centrism of her husband in her effort to retain white male voters, and the progressive stance of the Democratic left that Lowry suggests "has a soft spot for rioters." It is a trap, as Lowry understands well, from which she will have no easy escape.

Lowry's piece was not directly prescriptive of what should be done for what ails Baltimore, but his prescription was implicit: end federal programs and investments that have failed to work, and focus instead on tax, regulatory, education and other institutional reforms at the local level. If we are to engage the debate that Lowry suggests on the effectiveness of federal spending in alleviating problems of poverty and economic development, perhaps we could broaden our horizons beyond just the past fifty years. This April marked the 150th anniversary of the Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. Since the end of the Civil War, the federal government has made huge investments in the south--through the location of military bases, investments in waterways, hospitals and rural electrification, and in myriad other ways.

What began as an effort to control the south during reconstruction continued as an effort to lift the south up from poverty and spur economic development. It continues today in large measure due to our constitutional bi-cameral framework that gives smaller states a disproportionate number of representatives and power in Congress relative to larger states. Year in and year out, smaller states get more back from the federal government than they pay in.  For example, in 2013 alone the eleven former states of the confederacy received $287.7 billion more back from the federal government than they paid in.

Of course, that $287.7 billion of federal money had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is the rest of us. My state, California, which is significantly disadvantaged due to its size, pays in almost $100 billion more each year than it receives back from the federal government. Our money flows through Washington, DC, to benefit residents of the former states of the confederacy and other small states, who benefit to the tune of an annual subsidy on the order of 20% of their personal income.

For 150 years, the federal government has poured money into the south, but to little avail. Perhaps the simple proof of Lowry's argument of the failure of social program spending is less in Baltimore than in the former confederate states. After a century and a half of throwing federal money at the problems of poverty and underdevelopment in the south, a brief review of socio-economic indicators--infant mortality, educational attainment, life expectancy--show that cohort of states firmly ensconced in the bottom quintile of states. In Lowry's words, it is an indictment of a failed model of government.

If we are going to discuss the effectiveness of federal policies in our cities--and we should--it is time to discuss as well why some states continue to benefit systemically to the disadvantage of others, with little or no benefit to show for it in terms of relative progress as measured by socio-economic indicators. Californians are often ridiculed for our high income tax rates relative to other states. If only we could manage our affairs like Tennessee--47th, 44th and 41st in infant mortality, life expectancy and educational attainment, respectively--a friend of mine often suggests, our tax rates would be lower and our economy would expand faster.

My friend has a point. Perhaps it is time for some accountability, as Lowry suggests, and to put an end to this failed experiment that has flooded federal money into a cohort of smaller states, to no demonstrable effect. A simple solution would be a constitutional amendment that provides that no state shall have to pay in to the federal government more than 110% of what it gets back.

Last year, California contributed $334.4 billion to the federal government and received $238.7 billion, for a net outflow of $95.7 billion. If California's contribution to other states that for so long have fed disproportionately at the federal trough were limited to 10%, as suggested above, the savings to Californians would roughly equal the $75.2 billion we now pay in our very high income taxes.

Today, Californians are being taxed $238.7 billion to fund our fair share of federal spending, and an additional $95.7 billion to pay for transportation, education, healthcare and water projects in states across the south and elsewhere. $95.7 billion is almost equal to the entire California General Fund budget and we sure could use that money back here at home. In one fell swoop, we would have the capacity to rebuild our own transportation, education and water systems. Or we could completely eliminate the state income tax and restore California's role as an economic engine for the nation and the world.

The proposed constitutional amendment--the Howard Jarvis Restoration of Freedom and Accountability Act--should appeal to Lowry and the conservative, federalist sensibilities of the Republican caucus. We can start from the principle that it is our money, and there should be limits on the extent to which we should be required to dole it out to Washington and the rest of the country. Call it a taxpayer revolt. In Rich Lowry's words, we are dealing with a failed model of government and it is time to change. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Glass houses.

Sitting with Sean Hannity last week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul expressed his outrage at money received by Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years and actions that they may have taken as public officials to benefit those who contributed funds. In various guises, the Clintons have been the beneficiaries of billions of dollars of funds given over the course of their decades in public life, whether paid as political campaign contributions when they were in or running for public office, for speeches during their years as private citizens, or as contributions to support the activities of the Clinton Foundation, including the Clinton Global Initiative.

As we have watched over the years, Paul and Hannity rained down accusations on the Clintons, suggesting nefarious interconnections between the activities of the Clinton Foundation and ultimately Hillary's actions as Secretary of State. There was no allegation of a specific illegal act--after all, unlike many of his colleagues in Congress, Paul is an ophthalmologist by training not a prosecutor--but instead suggestions of a broad conspiracy of money exchanged for political favors.

"How could this happen in America?" Paul railed on.

How indeed? As the foremost libertarian in Congress, a believer in free markets, and a principled opponent of government regulation, he should appreciate that in American politics, political influence is just one more marketplace. Republicans accusing the Clintons of illegal conduct from corruption to murder is nothing new. Bill Clinton was impeached after all. Voters returned him to office after waves of accusations and allegations, and today, after all that we have lived through--the screeds published by Regnery press, the grist that launched Fox to the top of the network rankings, to say nothing of Bill's sordid womanizing--Bill Clinton remains among the most admired figures in American life and Hillary is the presumptive presidential nominee of her party. Therefore, if one embraces libertarian theory and that markets incorporate all known information, then one must conclude that voters in political marketplace have long since rendered their judgment in favor of the Clintons.

The new wave of accusations against the Clinton's is nothing new. The commingling of money and politics has a long tradition in our democracy.  I am sure that Paul would contend the growth of government spending over the course of the republic from 3% of GDP to 30% was driven by the simple fact that government spending benefits people and companies and that those beneficiaries fund political campaigns to protect their interests. Government regulation has grown because it protects private interests as well as protecting the common good, and those whose interests are protected regularly fund political campaigns to gain or secure such regulatory protection.

Even if these exchanges of political money for political favors are not illegal under our laws, Americans understand that money paid to gain political influence is a corrupting fact in our democracy. The Center for Responsive Politics tracks the flow of political contributions to members of Congress and for each two year election cycle. For example, according to CRP data Rand Paul raised $5.7 million in the run-up to his recent reelection to the Senate during the 2014 campaign cycle. Of that money, $834,000, or just under 15% came from the finance sector. I am just using Paul as an example, of course. Based upon CRP data, the financial services sector is the largest funder of political campaigns and lobbying at the Congressional level. Over the past ten years, that sector has spent over $3.8 billion on campaign contributions and lobbying, an amount that totals almost $1 million per member of Congress per year. The financial services industries have strategic interests in Washington, DC, where their lobbyists work to promote and protect their interests, and call on those members whose campaigns they have funded to secure their support when needed.

Charles Koch, a libertarian like Senator Paul, has been outspoken in protesting the selling of corporate interests in the nation's capital. In his Wall Street Journal editorial in March 2011, he attacked crony capitalism and corporate purchasing of special favors in Washington that he suggests erode our overall standard of living. Today, businesses--including Koch Industries Charles Koch concedes--spend money in Washington because it works. There are few investments a company can make that offer a higher potential return on investment than government contracts or regulatory protection procured through campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington, DC.

The average American shares the perspective that their government is for sale. It strains credibility to assert that political money of the magnitude reported by the Center for Responsive Politics is not provided for the purpose of influencing public policy and gaining a financial return. Charles Keating, the CEO of Lincoln Savings and Loan said it best a quarter century ago in the wake of an earlier financial crisis. Keating famously contributed $1.3 million--a pittance by today's standards--to the campaigns of five senators, seeking their help working with bank regulators. When asked during a congressional hearing in the wake of what became known as the Keating Five scandal if he intended to get something in return for his money, Charles Keating responded simply "I certainly hope so." And so it is today.

From the founding of the republic, the intermingling of money and political power have been central to the nation's politics. Today, Americans on the right and on the left, members of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, are animated by their deep distrust of the workings of the nation's capital. Americans know instinctively that the financial collapse, the stagnation of the middle class, the increasing share of the economy dominated by the non-productive financial sector, and influence of political money are interrelated.

Of course, Charles and David Koch are major actors in the world of political money. They have famously committed to raise $900 million for the 2016 campaign cycle. They recently hosted a well-publicized retreat of potential Republican presidential candidates to vet their commitment to the Koch agenda. Charles Koch's principled opposition to the corruption of Washington, DC, was not enough to keep him and his brother from being willing buyers in the political marketplace at the highest levels, and the slate of potential Republican presidential nominees that attended the Koch fandango in hope of winning a share of the Koch money--which included Senator Paul--showed that there were willing sellers as well.

As a general matter there is no stated quid pro quo in these matters, no smoking guns that link the payment of money to a specific vote by a member of Congress. Congress is comprised largely of lawyers who understand that under law a quid pro quo is the essence of a corrupt relationship. But the perception of corruption, as it is seen by the average American is not about the explicit quid pro quo, it is about the nature of the enterprise seen in its totality.

Rand Paul is not a lawyer, so perhaps his outrage stems from his perception of the totality of the Clinton enterprise, not whether any particular law was broken. "It reminds me of people using the system to enrich themselves, I think it looks unseemly," Paul concluded. And indeed it does.

But "How could this happen in America?" Clearly Rand Paul has not been paying attention. He should know well how this happens in America. He is a U.S. Senator, after all.

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.