Friday, September 30, 2005

Lili's story

Lili and her husband Hajat live in Meulabot, Indonesia. Located on the west coast of the island of Sumatra, in Aceh province, Meulabot was devastated by the tsunami last December. They lived on a peninsula that jutted out into the Indian Ocean in a community of open, two story homes built with the angular tiled roofs characteristic of Achenese architecture.

The village in which they lived was totally destroyed by the waves of the tsunami that followed the massive undersea earthquake that Sunday morning. Two thousand of the three thousand residents in their community were killed. As we walked through the debris, Hajat pointed out where his house had been, and then where they found the bodies of his parents.

Lili and Hajat live in temporary housing with their daughter Liasya Putri. Putri’s life is a gift. In the tsunami, she was trapped in their home beneath a fallen timber, and they thought that she was dead when they finally pulled her out of the water. She has some damage to her lungs, and still has a fear of water, which they hope she will get over in time.

I stayed in their home for three nights, sleeping on a mat on the floor and waking early each morning as the call to prayer rang out from the mosque next door. They shared their lives with me, telling me their stories and showing me their pictures of the tsunami and the aftermath.

Lili described the bookstore that she had started a few years earlier, the only bookstore in Meulabot. It was a children’s bookstore, where she lent books to the 800 children who were members of her store. As Lili described her bookstore, it occurred to me that what she had actually created for the children of her town was a lending library. The store had more than 5,000 books, most of which Hajat bought at a used bookstore in Jakarta from time to time. The store lay in the path of the tsunami and they had only three books left from the collection.

I asked Lili if she would start the store over if money could be found. Yes, she said softly, but the problem was not so much that they had lost the books, but that they had lost the children.

The tsunami was an event of biblical proportions, evident particularly in the descriptions that residents give of that morning: The ground shook. The ocean disappeared. The fish lay on the sand. The children ran out to collect the fish. The wave came and took the children.

Across the province of Aceh, people still hope to find their children who were lost that day. Across the province of four million people, 200,000 or so are listed as dead, and another 40,000 as missing, many of them children. Months later, people still cling to the hope that their children have been found and taken in elsewhere.

Hope is the currency of the survivors. The newspaper carries stories periodically of children that have been found. One story in the Jakarta Post told of a crippled girl left alone as the waves hit who rose from her wheelchair, survived, and has recovered the use of her legs. Iqbal, a man that I worked closely with, continues to publish notices in a newspaper in search of the child of a friend. He is from Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) and working on a relief project for the year in Aceh. He hopes that they will find the child before he returns home.

We will raise the money and Lili will start her store again. The parents of the 200 or so surviving children keep calling her. Their children want to read. New habits die hard. Hajat plans to begin to rebuild their collection the next time he travels to Jakarta.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Tom DeLay bows out

Who is happier here, Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats whose aspirations were thwarted at every turn by an adversary who defined the term Hardball or a broad swath of House Republicans whose saw their own reputations and careers being sucked into the vortex of controversy surrounding their Leader?

Or perhaps Jack Danforth, the former Missouri Senator, patrician and scion of the Ralston Purina fortune who has railed on op-ed pages against the rightward march of the Republican Party and who along with a whole wing of the Party longs for the days of a softer, less partisan polity.

Or perhaps Jim Baker, the Bush family consigliere and wily Republican partisan who oversaw the Republican strategy during the Florida 2000 recount, but who despises DeLay’s street fighting style, his utter lack of class and his aspirations to top-dog status in Texas. Jim Baker’s status, that is.

Or perhaps Newt Gingrich––the visionary architect of the Republican Party as the party of ideas who saw power as a means to implement change––whose demise as Speaker was crafted by his long-time rival DeLay, a man of no civic virtue whose aspirations for power were in the interest of no vision other than the spoils of victory.

Or perhaps President Bush who emerged from his summer vacation reeling from a public backlash that is gaining strength on all fronts. Whether it be what we are doing in Iraq, what we are failing to do in Afghanistan, what we have been unable to do with Osama, what we did not do after Katrina, what the prosecutors are suggesting Jack Abramoff did, what the right wing of his party is demanding he do with the seat of Sandra Day O’Connor, what the left wing of his party is demanding he do with the seat of Sandra Day O’Connor, and now, the pesky problem of how to pay for war, peace, reconstruction and prescription drugs all at once, President Bush needs Tom DeLay and his relentless partisanship like another confrontation with a nuclear state. Oh, that’s right, there is Iran.

The irony is that the crime for which Tom DeLay has been indicted would appear to be fairly common in the world of political fundraising: He directed corporate contributions that could not under Texas law be given to a local political race to the Republican National Committee. He then worked to have the RNC fund targeted local political races. The net effect, the indictment suggests, was to circumvent the State laws prohibiting corporate contributions to local political races.

That is the essence of the DeLay indictment. From a practical standpoint, it is all a form of money laundering to avoid local fundraising limitations. However, in concept it is a common practice. Local fundraisers will often steer contributions that are not legal locally to a national party where they are permitted. And in turn, local political races often receive money from the national party committees.

Now, it may be that DeLay and his friends crossed the line into illegal territory by linking the two sides of the transaction too closely, and it may be that this will turn out to be just the beginning of a crackdown on wider abuses, but as one political consultant mused, “If people are going to go down for this, they better get a fleet of 747s and get ready to fly the lawyers out to a lot of state capitols and begin handing out the indictments.”

And this may just be the beginning for DeLay. The pending FBI investigation of DeLay’s links to the influence peddler Jack Abramoff may well be one that takes him down.

But whether DeLay is convicted in Texas, in DC or nowhere, his days in the House leadership are over. At his news conference, DeLay announced that once this mess is cleared up, he will reassume his position as Majority Leader, but he is mistaken. As Newt Gingrich can attest, people have short memories and little loyalty to the person that brought them to the promised land. For all of the success that DeLay brought to the Republicans over the past several years, he made a lot of enemies and stepped on a lot of toes. The seat of power that was once his has been passed on, and once it is gone, it is very hard to get back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Michael Bilandic moment

Michael Brown came back to town this week, in the hope of rescuing his good name from the dustbin of history. Just weeks after his resignation in disgrace as Director of FEMA, Brownie appeared before a congressional panel to defend his record and his honor: "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional… I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it." He proceeded to trample on the Governor, the Mayor and a gaggle of other local officials in his game pursuit of higher ground.

But Brown, and to a great extent the members of the largely Republican panel, missed the point. Brown’s failure was not about whether food and water was or was not delivered to the Superdome or the Convention Center, it was about whether he recognized that the problem existed. Michael Brown sat on television and denied that he was aware that people were trapped without food or water.

It was a moment of Michael Bilandic proportions, and will not be erased by throwing local officials under the bus.

Michael who, you ask?

Every politician knows the story of Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, Richard Daley’s successor whose career in the Windy City came to an ignominious end when he failed to meet the challenges of a snowstorm. When Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis donned a sweatshirt and grabbed a shovel for the cameras a few storms hence, it was Michael Bilandic whose image haunted him. Every mayor and governor since has made a point of rolling up their sleeves, throwing on the sweatshirt and getting to work––preferably in front of the cameras––when nature strikes. One can even argue that when Rudy Guiliani rose from the ashes of his own dying mayoral career to walk the streets of lower Manhattan in the days following 9/11, his inspirations were both heroic and Bilandic.

Michael Bilandic’s failure, however, was not that he failed to plow the streets, it was that he went on television and told the people that the streets were plowed when everyone knew that they were not. He denied what everyone else knew to be true. Michael Bilandic, presumed to be the Mayor who would hold down the fort for years between the reigns of Richard Daley the father and Richard Daley the son could have survived if either he had made sure the streets were plowed the streets, or if he had not insulted the public by saying they were plowed when they were not. His sins were both of omission and commission. He omitted plowing and he committed insult.

Bilandic’s career died that day, leading to the long years when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, David Orr and Gene Sawyer all got their shot at running Massa Daley’s Plantation before the current Mayor Richard Daley arrived to bring Chicago back from the political wilderness.

Michael Brown seems to think that he is being blamed for leaving thousands of (mostly poor and mostly black) American citizens without food or water for four days. But he is not. It has become quite clear that there is a lot of blame to go around there. The State and the City both failed to plan and failed to execute. And any hurricane watcher from Hugo to Andrew, from St. Croix to Homestead, knows that FEMA dropping the ball is not a firing offense. Rather, Brownie’s offense was Bilandic. He sat on television with Brian Williams––who was on location in the Superdome––and expressed surprise that there were people in the Superdome or in the Convention Center at all. It was not that he failed deliver the goods, but rather that he failed to take note of what viewers around the world already knew––that there was a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Prime Time.

But Michael Bilandic is sleeping easier these days. The curriculum for Politics 101 is being rewritten, and his story may finally take a back seat. Michael Brown’s story will now be passed down from generation to generation as the archetype of obtuse disengagement. Michael Brown’s problem is that even if he was doing his job––hold on there, I did say if––it is his performance on the public stage, like that of Michael Bilandic before him, that will be preserved for posterity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Parsing blame

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, President Bush took responsibility for the failure of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Kind of.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

I don’t mean to quibble, but do we have to parse words here? Is it all really going to come down to what the meaning of the word "its" is?

Over the past week, administration officials have taken great pains to explain how our Constitution delegates power to the states, and how federal intervention required a request in writing. While cable networks broadcasted images to the world of people without food or water in downtown New Orleans, federal troops lay idly by at military bases a helicopter flight away. All this, it would seem, because federalist rules requiring a written request had not been followed properly.

The problem for President Bush is that the singular message of his presidency has been that the world has changed since 9/11 and we have to change the ways that we do things, at home as well as in the world. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The passage of the Patriot Act. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. All of these suggested the imperative of changing our preparedness for emergency situations. Central to improving our preparedness has been addressing the coordination of local, state and federal resources.

We may have done OK in the much ballyhooed emergency preparedness exercises that have been held around the country over the past year, such as the simulated dirty nuclear bomb attacks in Seattle and Chicago which purported to demonstrate a seamless coordination of resources through secure video lines. However, when Hurricane Katrina arrived––even with several days of advanced warning––we learned that four years of working to improve our emergency response systems has produced nothing.

Tomorrow, President Bush is scheduled to deliver a major address in Louisiana on all of this. By then, it may have occurred to his advisors that parsing the meaning of the word "its" will not constitute an adequate response. The fact is that from the day he stood on the pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center and spoke to the world through a megaphone, President Bush took on the challenge of improving our nation's preparedness for the next emergency situation. And five years later, we are not prepared.

Leading the Global War on Terrorism is not all about talking tough and invoking patriotic slogans, it is about intelligence and preparation. The President’s supporters are quick to cite the fact that the United States has not been attacked over the past four years as evidence of success. So too, then, the President must be prepared to recognize the quality of governmental response in the wake of Katrina as evidence of failure. It is that simple. The federal government did not do its job right, and in the realm of emergency preparedness since 9/11, "its" job is to make sure that the entire system is working. "Its" job is leadership.

Which also happens to be the President’s job, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

America’s dangerous game

The Iranians are playing a dangerous game. But they have taken a long look at the playing field and come to the accurate conclusion that there is no time like the present to seize the advantage.

The United States military is stretched thin. The war in Afghanistan continues on as the Taliban forces have regrouped. In Iraq, more than two years after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, the hostilities continue unabated. With an active duty Army of only 500,000 soldiers, we have begun to rely heavily on the 700,000 or so in National Guard and Reserves to play an active operational role––certainly not what many of those serving anticipated when they signed up.

At home, the President’s credibility has been shaken by the fail response to Hurricane Katrina, and the public's realization that their compatriots abandoned to their fate in the Superdome and the Convention Center paid the price for the continuing political wars and the politicization of the federal bureaucracy. For an American public consumed with the hurricane aftermath, the war in Iraq, the John Roberts confirmation hearings, the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame saga, and the removal of Martha Stewart’s electronic bracelet can barely compete for cable time.

In the midst of all of this, Iran has accurately perceived that the time is right to push its agenda forward. The clerics that sit on the Council of Guardians have pushed back the moderate challenge with the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative former mayor of Teheran, in recent elections. Now Ahmadinejad, who will speak at the United Nations this week, is leading the Iranian challenge to the international community with its determination to move its nuclear program forward.

The United States holds few cards in the confrontation with Iran. The Bush administration has been bold in brandishing the sword against countries who defy its dictates, and much was made of “Iran or Syria next” in the early days following the end of major combat operations in Iraq. But Iran is not Iraq. It is a large, mountainous country that would be hard to march through in short order. Furthermore, while the Iranian street has large pro-American sentiments, it is also a proud nation whose nationalist sentiments are galvanized by attacks on its nuclear program, and certainly would be even more so by an American invasion.

The simple fact is that in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Katrina, our resources are stretched and our guard is down. With Bush’s popularity at its nadir, he would be hard pressed to call the American people once more into the breech––or “once more into the Jeep” as a Canadian colleague mocked. Our call for Europe and Russia to take the lead in confronting Iran––a difficult charge in the best of times––has been undermined by the continuing resentments over our treatment of European opinion and the United Nations in the run up to Iraq.

But Iran alone is not the problem. Under the auspices of the “muscular” foreign policy doctrine of the Bush administration, we have disdained traditional alliances and multi-polar leadership in the world, and assumed unto ourselves the role of enforcer of international norms of conduct. With righteous conviction and faith in our military, we have sought to dictate terms to regimes around the world. We will be at great risk if we are shown by Iran to be––even momentarily––a paper tiger.

It is the what-ifs that loom large. Yes, Iran may be on its way to developing nuclear weapons. As a regional power surrounded by nuclear states––Pakistan, Israel, India, Russia, Ukraine––it would be unrealistic to give much credence to its denials. But the end game in Iran will be left to Europe and Russia, as continued admonishments by Condi Rice only seem to make matters worse, particularly as everyone knows the military option is now off the table.

The what-ifs are Asian. What if North Korea decides that our moment of weakness is offering a final chance to finish the war with the South? What if China decides that we are in no condition to defend Taiwan?

China aspirations on Taiwan and North Korea’s hostility to South Korea are historic and doctrinal, and have largely been held in abeyance by our presence and our commitment to the joint defense of Taiwan and South Korea. Would we fulfill our commitments? Perhaps, but the Taiwan Strait is barely over 100 miles across, and Seoul is less than 50 miles from North Korea. It all could be over quickly, and there just might not be much we could do about it.

One cannot help but imagine, on the eve of President Ahmadinejad’s speech in New York, that the distractions of West Asia, our diminished military numbers––if not capacity––and Bush’s domestic weakness might call out to Beijing and Pyongyang that There Is No Time Like the Present.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A word about gasoline prices

Gasoline prices are high, and have remained high since the spike upward in the futures market price for unleaded gas that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Faced with the prospect that Gulf of Mexico refineries would go off line, the anticipated pricing of refined gas products jumped. For unleaded gasoline, the price for deliveries of gasoline jumped by almost $1.00 from the $1.90 range to $2.80 in intraday trading.

In the wake of this increase, prices at the pump increased, within a day or two, to by almost the same amount to their current levels.

Then, a funny thing happened. As is often the case, the brief panic ended, traders calmed down, and the futures price receded to its current level of approximately $2.00, just a bit higher than the pre-Katrina levels. However, prices at the pump have not budged, so the question is why?

It is not really surprising, and it does not reflect a conspiracy on the part of the oil companies, though they could fix it if they wanted to. It is a function of normal retail pricing behavior.

As long as the underlying cost of gasoline at the wholesale level is stable, prices at the pump fall to a level where retailers are making a reasonable profit. There is no incentive for one station owner to drop prices to steal market share from others, as their profit margin would drop below acceptable levels. There is also no incentive to increase prices, as station owners fear the loss of market share to others.

When the cost jumped, all owners pushed their price up to sustain their level of profitability relative to the new anticipated wholesale price. They did not keep their price steady, as they had no way of knowing how long the price spike would last. In this case, even as prices rose, demand increased rather than declining, as drivers kept their tanks topped off going into the Labor Day weekend, fearing being caught without being able to find gas if shortages occurred.

As things settled down, the futures market price receded, demand moderated, but prices remained high. Why?

Retail pricing for gasoline is not that different than for other products, except that vendors tend to only sell one product, and therefore their pricing actions are highly cost sensitive. As costs rise, prices are pushed up to cover the cost and sustain profit margins. As costs fall, however, and profit margins increase, prices will remain high until competitive pressures force each retailer to reduce prices to protect their market share.

Simply stated, costs drive prices up, competition drives them down. No different from airline tickets, or cars for that matter.

What are the policy implications of all of this? Several governors are considering cutting state gas taxes to reduce the burden on consumers, however this is unlikely to achieve the desired result of lower retail prices. Gas taxes are just one part of the price at the pump, and if lower wholesale prices won't bring down prices, neither will lower gas taxes. In fact, a reduced gas tax will likely just increase the retailer profit.

No, if you want to bring down prices, help stimulate competition: start a price war. Prices will come down as retailers feel the need to reduce prices to protect their market share and their revenues. Convince one company to reduce prices and the rest will follow suit. How? Sue them for price gouging. Shame them through public disclosure. Appeal to their sense of patriotism and shared sacrifice.

In the absence of any action, prices will come back down. Sooner or later. Markets will work. They almost always do.

For further reading, the General Accounting Office prepared a report on California Gasoline Pricing at the request of Diane Feinstein in April, 2000.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Everett Dirkson's memory

Why is it that Alan Greenspan has been continuing to push short-term interest rates upward? Last June, the Federal Funds rate was 1.00%. In the intervening fourteen months the Fed has increased rates ten times to the current level of 3.50% on the way to an apparent target of 4.00%.

Why, faced with little evidence of inflation on the horizon, modest economic growth and anemic job creation, has the Fed Chairman and the most powerful central banker in the world felt the need to apply the monetary screws.

The reason is quite simple, and quite instructive. Monetary policy––the manipulation of interest rates and the money supply in order to balance the rate of economic growth and inflation––requires that the Fed have the latitude to raise interest rates when the economy is overheating and inflation is increasing, and to lower rates when recession threatens.

Over the course of 2001, with a recession looming, the Fed reduced the Fed Funds rate from 6.50% to 1.75%. Three years later, with the economy stable but shaky, Greenspan feared that if the economy were to head south, the Fed would have no tools at its disposal if it did not raise rates. That is to say, the Fed embarked on a steady program of rate increases not to head off inflation, not to cool the economy, but to have the ability to lower rates again if need be.

Discipline matters, Greenspan is telling us, because you need to plan for the worst.

Why is this instructive? Well, today, President Bush asked Congress for $51.8 billion for hurricane recovery, on top of $10.5 billion requested last week. Estimates of the ultimate federal cost range as high as $150 billion.

Back in the day, an appropriation of $50 billion would have required that some choices be made. Taxes would be raised. Spending would be cut elsewhere. Bonds would be issued for the specified purpose. There would be explicit choices and explicit tradeoffs.

And there would be political repercussions. Republicans would rail against deficit spending or borrowing. Democrats would appeal to the public weal and the justification of tax increases for an urgent need, for shared sacrifice.

Where is the Katrina money going to come from? No one asks anymore because we know where it is going to come from. We have no reserves. We have no flexibility. We are going to borrow it. Like the money to pay for our war in Iraq, it is going to come from the Chinese central bank, and when my children, and their children, are in their peak earning years, perhaps they will pay the Chinese back with their hard earned dollars.

Hurricane Katrina is a reminder of why fiscal discipline matters. Today, our combined federal deficit and trade deficits are massive. These deficits are pushing down the value of the dollar, and ultimately will depress the standard of living of Americans in the future as funds are siphoned out of the US economy to repay that borrowing. Our lack of discipline, our unwillingness to make choices simply puts the burden on our children.

There was a time, just a few years ago, when the budget was balanced and the national debt was stable. Everett Dirksen––the Republican Senator from Illinois who coined the famous aphorism “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money”––would have been pleased. But in five short years, a federal government in the firm control of the GOP has thrown away the rulebook and dispensed with any pretense of fiscal discipline. Wars have been declared and no funds raised to pay for them. Taxes have been cut with no offsetting cuts in expenditures. The unholy marriage of tax-cutting suppy-siders and big spenders within the Republican party that Pete Peterson decried in Running on Empty has been revealed in its full glory.

Now, in the face of a national disaster that demands funding outside of the normal budget process, we have no latitude. We have no savings. We have no contingency funds.

But thank God we still have the Chinese.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Inflection point

Will the political waters come to a head, even as the hurricane waters subside?

The Sunday headline in the Washington Post White House Shifts Blame frames the problem. President Bush had almost weathered a rough August respite of fundraising, clearing debris and cycling with Lance Armstrong, while Camp Casey remained front and center in the news.

Now, just as Labor Day arrives, the promised return to normalcy is nowhere in site. Now, as the waters and turmoil in New Orleans subside, a real storm is gathering over the nation’s capital.

The fall loomed as a time of acquiescence to the Roberts nomination and the inevitability of a continued struggle in Iraq. There would be no filibuster of a nominee whose conservatism is clear but not egregious. There would be no clamoring for withdrawal in the Senate chambers filled with erstwhile leaders who know that having conspired in getting us into war, there is no easy exit now.

Oh, how a week has changed things. The breach of the levees in New Orleans has pierced the veil and laid before the nation a failure of government, a failure of execution and a failure of leadership. The urge to shift the blame will not help salve the political wounds because people died, at home, on TV. Ethel Freeman died for no reason other than the failure of the government to send in the troops.

The troops arrived halfway around the world in Aceh in three days and saved lives. In New Orleans, a few hundred miles from Maxwell Air Force Base, Fort Hood, Barksdale Air Force Base, Meridian Naval Air Station and Pensacola Naval Air Station––to name a few––anarchy reigned for the better part of a week, people suffered, and people died. How our response could have been quicker when we had to traverse the Indian Ocean by ship than a few hundred miles by chopper will raise fundamental demands for accountability for which there will not be a good answer.

As a weakened President arrives home to lead an administration in turmoil, Chief Justice William Rehnquist succumbed to cancer. Pat Robertson had publicly prayed to God for another vacancy on the Supreme Court, and God, it would appear, has nothing if not a sense of timing. The creation of a second vacancy before the Roberts confirmation hearings have been gaveled to order will change the tenor of those hearings, and place great pressure on the President to name his second nominee prior to the vote on the first, such that the conservative credentials of Judge Roberts can be considered in the broader context of the President’s larger strategy for the direction of the court, the name and judicial profile of the proposed second justice, and the nomination of a new Chief Justice.

New Orleans, the Court. Oh, yes, Iraq. The story that has been off the front pages for a week now will reemerge, as that country moves closer to a non-constitutional crisis. The success of the Kurds in carving out their own nation within a nation will leave Arab Iraq facing the fundamental question that has lingered for a millennia: how can the Sunni and the Shia coexist when each views the other as the source of the greatest sin in Islam––Apostacy. For the first time in Iraq’s history, the underclass Shia have pulled a fast one on their traditional Sunni overlords. Working within a democratic framework of our making, they have seized the reigns of the constitutional process, and the question is whether they will respond to the––quite ironic––pleas of the Bush administration that they operate in a bipartisan manner, notwithstanding having the votes to ram it to the Sunnis.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the money. A $2 increase in the price of gas for a typical car owner costs $1,200 per year. For a two-car family, that is $2,400, or over $3,000 pre-tax. Sure, less than a week in Nantucket, but from another perspective almost 8% of the median family income. Even the scions of the dismal science have begun to admit that economic growth is going to slow.

At the same time, the reconstruction demands will necessitate further federal borrowing. A Republican administration that has insisted on borrowing first to finance tax cuts and then to fund a $200 billion war will have to add additional billions to rebuild a city that is a national icon and that will be perceived to have suffered at the failed federal response. If Pat Robertson is still in a praying kind of mood, I would suggest that he ask God’s intervention to make sure that the godless Chinese keep buying our bonds, because nothing will upset the current applecart more than the long-awaited upward move in long-term interest rates, and concurrent piercing of the real estate bubble that has been forestalled by the Chinese central bank.

So there it is. The peace and quiet of Crawford is in the past and the confluence of events is about to shatter the dominance of Karl Rove’s superior strategic vision. The events that are on the agenda now are real, not symbolic, and the Bush team has lost the upper hand. The rubber is about to meet the road, and at the end of a long summer the road is very hot and the driving will be more difficult than in recent memory.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina's wake

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, offers of aid have come in from other countries. Europe. Japan. Venezuela. Sri Lanka.

Someone in the State Department responded, essentially, thanks but no thanks. We can take care of ourselves. Then, the official response was more equivocating. The administration is considering the offers.

Venezuela and Sri Lanka?

In July, as I finished lunch in a food stall in Banda Aceh, I went to pay. Rice, dried fish, curry. A Coke. 10,000 rupiah. One dollar. Half for the lunch, half for the Coke.

The young man takes my money and asks me with his few words of English, Where from? IOM, I respond, giving the name of the relief organization I am working with. No, he tries to clarify, where from? The United States. He looks at me quizzically. America.

The young man smiles and extends his hand. My name Hassan. Abraham Lincoln. Thank you.

Banda Aceh was devastated by a tsunami last December. Approximately 40% of the 325,000 residents were killed, and like the residents of New Orleans, the survivors were left isolated without food or water.

Then, on the third day, the Americans arrived. First came the helicopters, arriving low over the horizon like Robert Duvall’s cavalry in Apocalypse Now. Then came the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Navy hospital ship Mercy and thousands of Marines and Navy seaman. Thousands of lives were saved. More important, however, there was hope.

The province of Aceh is governed under Islamic law. Under the Sharia’ rules, women wear veils in public, and the call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day. Abraham Lincoln. Mercy. These two names are the blessing given to Americans by Moslem strangers on the street. The Abraham Lincoln, the carrier where George Bush landed a year earlier to declare the end of the war in Iraq. But there is no irony in the voices of the Achenese. The Abraham Lincoln left the Persian Gulf and steamed across the Indian Ocean under full throttle to bring food and water and hope to a desperate people in their time of greatest need.

America today is the world’s hyperpower, to borrow the phrase from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In the wake of the tsunami, only the U.S. military had the logistical capacity to respond to the needs of tsunami victims from Sri Lanka to Indonesia in those critical first days. But our actions there was not the reason why Hassan responded to the word America, they were a confirmation of what he already knew.

America exists on many levels in the world. America is how we conduct ourselves as a nation within the community of nations. America is how we act as individuals. But most important is what America means, and has meant for a century or more in the minds eye of individuals across the world. For Hassan in the food stall or for Evi, a veiled woman in my office whose eyes glowed as she lingered through a picture book of Philadelphia and murmured gently ‘oh, I wish I were there,’ America remains the City on the Hill, the vision less of what is than of what might be.

For Venezuela, the political rift between the Bush administration and Hugo Chavez is a transient matter––important perhaps, but transient––compared with the deep meaning of America to the generations of Venezuelans and others across Latin America who have sent their children here to school, who have migrated here and whose hopes for their own future will be measured against the notions of justice, freedom and opportunity that are America. For Venezuela Katrina is an occasion to say thank you.

For Sri Lanka, a small nation on the other side of the globe with few resources that can make a material impact on the reconstruction of New Orleans or the gulf coast, this is an opportunity to say thank you, in whatever small way they can, for what America has done for them in their time of tragedy. More important, it is a gesture of thanks for what America means. Hope, and the belief that the future can be better than the present.

Katrina has presented a rare moment of vulnerability in the face of nature’s wrath when others can reach out. And we must accept what they offer. It is not a matter of what we need, or what we can do without them. It is because we know, as demonstrated by the outpouring of private donations this week, as in the wake of the tsunami, that the power is in the giving.