Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Jim Baker's last dance

Has there been a commission that has risen to rock star status before? Certainly there have been some legendary commissions, and no doubt Arlen Specter can point to his deft presentation of the Single Bullet Theory as staff counsel to the Warren Commission as the launching point for his rise to the United States Senate. But in this era of the 24-hour news cycle, James Baker and the Iraq Study Group are riding high.

And riding for a fall.

Baker did well to time the release of his memoir––whose title touts the virtue of staying out of politics––with the President’s thumping in the mid-term elections and the imminent presentation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations to the President and Congress. Baker’s reputation has never been higher, as the wiley partisan who served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush ’41, and who led Bush ’43 to the White House through the swamp that was the 2000 election, is now seen by Democrats and Republicans alike as the Man on the White Horse who might yet bring the White House to heel and chart a new direction for America’s policy in Iraq.

While on his book tour in the weeks preceding the election, Baker offered an early glimpse into the direction that the Iraq Study Group was taking. Specifically, he suggested that the United States should bring both Syria and Iran into direct negotiations over the future of Iraq and the region, and described at length the successes he achieved as Secretary of State through determined negotiations with Syria. It is, he submitted, more important to negotiate with one’s enemies than with one’s friends.

Since the election, events have proceeded at a furious pace. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld––viewed as a key roadblock to any recommendations that the Iraq Study Group might present––was jettisoned by the President, and former Baker aid and Study Group member Robert Gates was nominated to be his successor. Rumsfeld’s departure was immediately heralded as a victory for Jim Baker and his circle of foreign policy Realists over the Vulcans––the coterie of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Neocons––who have held Bush ’43 in thrall and led the nation into Iraq.

Then, over the past several days, Iraq Study Group members met with the President and Congressional leaders to discuss the Group’s work and to solicit ideas. The meetings and the press conferences that followed could not have been staged to provide a more deliberate contrast to the administration’s own conduct of foreign policy, as leaders from both parties praised the commission for its openness to new ideas.

Lost in all of this excitement, however, was the President’s own notable lack of enthusiasm. Speaking before the cameras, the President would only offer that he was impressed with the membership of the Iraq Study Group––which incidentally he had approved in advance––and that they asked good questions. Perhaps a stronger statement that he was growing weary with being bullied in public by his father’s team came later, when during a meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the President called for greater international isolation of Iran.

Unless Jim Baker has lost the political instincts that have served him so well over the years, he must know that he is at risk of having overplayed his hand. Coming on the heels of a massive public rebuke at the polls, the performance of the Iraq Study Group prancing before the cameras and Baker’s own public admonishments on matters of diplomatic strategy have publicly embarrassed the President. Since the election and the dismissal of Rumsfeld, President Bush has been stripped bare by the media and presented as an errant child turning to his father to be bailed out of a terrible mess, and Jim Baker has been the lead agent of the President’s humiliation.

Baker’s challenge is to clean up the mess that he himself has made. President Bush ’41, who has remained silent throughout his son’s presidency, must by now have taken Baker to the woodshed. After all, it is not just the public humiliation that Baker has visited on his son, but the damage that Baker and his group have done to the nation’s interests. After all, success in foreign policy and diplomacy are rooted in credibility and leverage, and the events of the past two weeks have weakened the President’s hand considerably. Now, the President is being pushed into negotiations that he has demurred at the moment when his position is weakest, and the perception of weakness has been exacerbated by every action Baker has taken.

No one has provided more explicit testimony to the damage Baker has done to the President, to the nation and to his best friend’s son than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader who has gained the most through the course of the Bush’s presidency. Seizing on his adversary’s weakness, Ahmadinejad announced this week that his nation is prepared to enter negotiations with the United States––as Baker has proffered––but only after the Bush administration corrects its bad attitude.

Since the outset of the Iraq war, the damage to the United States has been severe. Our military has been weakened, our treasury spent, and our credibility and moral standing in the world undermined. With the creation of the Iraq Study Group, Baker took on the challenge of fixing the mess that Iraq had become. Baker is no doubt correct in his stance on negotiations and building bi-partisanship, but he should have remembered that his job was to garner results, not accolades, and that at the end of the day his group had an audience of one. For two more years, President Bush will continue to be the arbiter of American foreign policy, and if Baker’s work does not convince him, it will be for naught.

The least Jim Baker and his Iraq Study Group could do is do no harm. But apparently, that moment is past. Unless he can pull a rabbit out of the hat––or perhaps produce the long-sought grand bargain that the Iranians proposed just three short years ago––Baker will only have book sales to show for his last foray into the public square.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

When the election is over

The evangelical Christian community has been down this road before.

As Kevin Phillips writes in American Theocracy, at several moments in our history the nation’s large evangelical Christian community has been drawn into the political arena by politicians seeking to harness their numbers for their own political ends. Each time it has ended badly, and, with their spiritual mission compromised and their leaders seduced by power, they have withdrawn from the public square.

Once again, it is ending badly.

With only hours remaining before voting begins, President Bush is winging across the American heartland, touching down in districts that have no business requiring his attention. Long gone is the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism at home and humility abroad that he rode to the White House six years ago. Now he is the American Nativist reborn, railing against gay marriage, illegal immigration and the Democratic Threat to America’s Future.

Just weeks ago, in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary, the Republican message of Fear––Fear of Terrorism, Fear of Tax Increases, Fear of Nancy Pelosi with a Gavel and Henry Waxman with a Subpoena––seemed destined to deliver an electoral victory. In that optimistic moment, Party strategists even envisioned the war in Iraq as an issue that would play to Republican advantage.

The political ad that had been prepared––entitled The Stakes––loomed to be a centerpiece of the tri-part Fear campaign. A post-modern inversion of the famous Daisy ad that suggested to voters that the world risked nuclear war if Barry Goldwater elected without ever mentioning him by name, The Stakes showed only the face of Osama bin Laden, while in silence his words of hatred for America scrolled down the screen, followed by the words These are the Stakes. The Stakes was intended to remind voters that war is upon us and that Democrats lack the stomach to take on the threats that we face.

But few people have ever seen The Stakes. Perhaps that is because Republican strategists realized that it is hard to watch The Stakes and not question why our focus has been on Iraq all this time rather than on bin Laden, and why after all the hyperbole, the man who attacked us on 9/11 has drifted from our radar screen. Or perhaps that is because the Republican campaign came unglued in the wake of the relentless cascade of events––from Iraq to North Korea to Iraq to Mark Foley to Iraq––that left it playing defense for weeks, until John Kerry stepped in to draw the media fire.

In these last days, the President has turned his back on the political center and has focused his message at the right wing of his party. Instead of the campaign of Fear that was designed to move the votes of Americans of all stripes, he has returned to the social issues that he hopes once again will energize the evangelical Christian community that has twice supported his election and that remains his sole source of positive approval ratings.

And as the prospects for victory deteriorated, the President’s rhetoric escalated. He had no choice. From that bright morning back in Texas, when Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd charted a political strategy that eschewed the political center in favor of a strategy built around motivating the evangelical Christian community, the President was committed.

But as the President comes to them again for their support, for the evangelical Christian community the President’s words must ring hollow. For six years, the President has had total control over the levers of power, and yet his stump speech is largely about what needs to be done rather than about what he has accomplished. Like his recent strategy of quoting Osama bin Laden to engender support for the war in Iraq, his stump speech has in an odd ways become less a testament to his principles than to what he has failed to accomplish.

But worse than the lack of results has been the corruption of the movement itself, as Phllips suggested. Beginning with the Shiavo tragedy, the deeply-rooted sentiments of the evangelical community have been manipulated for personal and political gain. The wave of scandals, including Enron and Abramoff and Foley and Haggard, have each involved personalities who moved easily from piety to power to wealth to disgrace. And in the wake of each scandal, the moral clarity of the leaders of the evangelical Christian community has been further undermined, as they rose to the defense of people who did not deserve defending.

Finally, the corrupting influence of politics on the evangelical leadership was laid bare in the Foley scandal. Faced with evidence that Republican leaders had failed in their duty to protect House pages from a predatory member, evangelical leaders cast away any remaining claim to moral clarity as they blamed gay Republican staffers rather than call the House leadership to account for their failure to protect the children in their care.

If Karl Rove is wrong, and the polls and pundits have it right this time, tomorrow the President’s base will hold him accountable. He has used them and he has failed them, and he has failed the nation. At a time when unemployment has hit historic lows and the stock market has hit historic highs, the President has a better case to make than the demonization of gays, Mexicans, judges and Democrats. But instead he will go to the well one last time. And when it is over, the evangelical community will, as Phillips suggests, retreat back to their spiritual mission of conversion and personal salvation.

When George Bush embraced the strategy that Rove and Dowd suggested could build a permanent Republican majority, he fell prey to hubris. Rove provided a strategy for winning elections that was fundamentally flawed as a strategy for governance. The use of demonization as an electoral strategy undermined the President’s ability to build governing coalitions, and the paradigm of good vs. evil that suits the President so well quickly migrated from electoral strategy to the halls of Congress to civil society.

Today, Dowd’s new book Applebee's America suggests that the strategy Bush embraced may have run its course. Fully half of those in each political party are voicing disgust with the tenor of political dialogue as it has evolved and are looking for a politics of compromise and conciliation. If Karl Rove and Ken Melman are not successful in generating the turnout from their base that is the core of their strategy, the political implications will be significant for 2008 and beyond.

For the Republican Party, which has alienated New England moderates, old-school fiscal and small government conservatives, gay and pro-choice party members, changing course to tack back to the political center is unlikely. The Party is now firmly in the hands of the right wing, as there are few moderates left in the Senate or the House, and after tomorrow, Maine’s women Senators and Arlen Specter may be all that is left of the Republican Party along the long moderate arc that once stretched from Ohio through New England.

The challenge for Democrats will be to resist a move to the left just at the moment when the political center has been abandoned by the Republicans. As anti-war sentiment has taken center stage, the Democratic left is feeling its oats, and can fairly argue that it was the centrist Democrats who folded under Republican pressure. For those on the left who for years have lusted for a Rovian move to the left and argued that such a strategy would mobilize voters who now stay home, the thought of moving toward the center is anathema. At the same time, the new voices in the party may include the staunch centrists recruited to run this year by Rahm Emmanuel, people like Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Heath Shuler and Bob Casey will likely push back against a move to the left.

Such is the illogic of the moment, and the political forces that may be put into play as the polls close tomorrow. The activists in each parties will likely lay claim that the future of their party, leaving a void in the political center. Ironically, the President who embraced a strategy for victory that proved toxic for governance may have produced a political landscape where neither party is eager to embrace the large core of voters who are ready for a breather from the partisanship that has racked the nation.

And then, of course, there is the prospect that the pundits are wrong and that Rove is right. If the evangelical community that he and the President have cultivated come out tomorrow and deliver the goods for the Party, and the House and Senate stay in Republican hands, the long-term outcome is even more certain. The Republican move to the right will be vindicated, and a Democratic move to the left will be inevitable. And the paradigm of blue vs. red, and good vs. evil that have riven the nation will likely continue.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Curt Weldon's truth

Curt Weldon (R-PA) wants his race to be run on the merits of his service to his constituents and to the country. The Congressman from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, is being railroaded from the seat he has held for almost twenty years. The problem is that he cannot tell who is leading the charge, or if it is just a bipartisan gang-bang.

Weldon is an old-school politician. Weaned as a pup from his days as the Mayor of Marcus Hook in John McNichol’s Delaware County Republican machine, Weldon built a political base beginning with the support of volunteer firefighters to win a seat on County Council. When Bob Edgar––the Democratic minister-turned-politician who won the historically Republican 7th Congressional seat as part of the 1974 post-Watergate deluge and held it for six terms––decided to leave Congress, Weldon stepped in and won the seat with McNichol’s blessing. That was twenty years ago.

Like Weldon, Delaware County is old school. For more than a century, the County has been a Republican stronghold. But shifting demographics have led to changes in Pennsylvania politics, and its traditional urban vs. rural tensions have given way to divisions between the Democratic east and the Republican west. These changes are reflected in the governor’s race where the incumbent Democratic Governor and former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell is facing the Republican and Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann. For Weldon, Rendell’s enormous popularity in the Philadelphia suburbs––he won Delaware County 2-1 in his first race for Governor––illustrate the ebbing of Republican control in its long-time bastion and the erosion of Weldon's traditional base.

As Weldon faced the media this week, he was struggling to grasp what led to the FBI investigation coming to light just three weeks before Election Day. His public response was to lash out at his Democratic challenger, Joe Sestak, a well-spoken Admiral with thirty years of service in the Navy. The race is a dead heat, but even so, attacking Sestak directly is not easy for Weldon, who if reelected is in line to become the Chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee. He is not vitriolic by nature and holds those who serve in the armed forces in high esteem.

But inside, Weldon must suspect that the FBI investigation and the timing of the leak come from a different source. Despite his prominence on the Armed Services Committee, Weldon has been a vocal critic of the Defense Intelligence establishment, and led investigations into the controversy surrounding the classified Able Danger military intelligence program. Able Danger, Weldon argues, proved the complicity of the government in enabling the 9/11 attacks by hiding evidence of the plot as it was unfolding. He was bi-partisan in his attacks, and unrelenting in his accusations.

Weldon believes that the public never grasped the significance of Able Danger. He followed the facts where they led and refused to give the Bush administration a pass. The administration responded to his assault by working the media to spread the notion that Weldon was a “whack job” and successfully undermined the credibility of the story. As a result, Able Danger became just became one more 9/11 conspiracy theory.

For Weldon, the pay-back for his disloyalty to the administration came this week. Somewhere, deep in Republican Washington, whether in the offices of Karl Rove at the White House, Ken Mehlman at the RNC or Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, calls were made. Even if his defeat means the loss of the House, for Rove et al Weldon had gone rogue and they would make him pay. Kim Jong Il may get away with embarrassing the administration, but not some out-of-control, volunteer firefighter from a working class family in Marcus Hook.

So here Weldon is, with three weeks left until Election Day, fighting for his political life. He is forced to stand outside in a strip mall and defend himself against the charges leveled by the FBI that He used his influence to help his daughter.

He used his influence to help his daughter? He stands in front of Kinkos and declares his innocence. There is no truth to the charge. He pleads. Funny isn’t it, these charges coming out three weeks before an election?

He has to attack the Sestak campaign, because it is what he is expected to say. He has to decry his innocence because in this new world of political correctness, faced with reporters who see taking him down as their own ticket to the big time, it is what he is expected to say.

He can’t stand there and tell the truth––that he is being railroaded by his own party because he is an honest man from Marcus Hook whose only crime is that he has been telling the truth. He can’t stand there and tell the truth because in this caustic political age and faced with the shifting politics of suburban Philadelphia, he cannot win without the voter profile database in Ken Mehlman’s computer, and Karl Rove’s micro-targeted, get-out-the-vote effort that is the key to Republican hopes on November 7th.

But as a politician of the old school, and as a father, what Curt Weldon most regrets is that he can’t stand in front of the cameras, and all those reporters with their pads and self-righteous questions, and say what he really wants to say: Did I use my influence to help my daughter? Hell yes. Hell yes I did. And I’d do it again. What father worth his salt wouldn’t?

Curt Weldon would stand there and say, in the words of Chicago Mayor Daley when accused during an election campaign of steering an insurance contract to his son If a father can’t help his son, what is America coming to?

That is what he wanted to say to the voters of Delaware County, to his friends and neighbors who have known him all his life, to the people of Marcus Hook who gave him his start, to families across the County who elected him to Council to bring jobs to their row-house neighborhoods and who then sent him to Washington to be their voice in a city corrupted by the Bushes from Yale and the Rumsfelds from Princeton––none of whom would be where they are today without the influence of their fathers. He would stand proudly before them and say, Damn right. I did what I could to help Karen. And for twenty years I have done everything I could to help each of you. That is what he wanted to say. It was the truth. And for those from the old school in Delaware County, those are they words they would want to hear.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Doctrine undone

Five years and twenty-seven days. From birth to death, the life span of a Doctrine.

The Bush Doctrine was born on September 11, 2001 and died on October 8, 2006. Rest in Peace.

History will judge the damage that was done to our nation in the intervening years through our determined unilateralism, our righteous castigation of any nation not heeling to our lead, and our arrogation unto ourselves of the right to interpret international law.

Perhaps, as Dick Cheney suggests, history will judge he and the President as visionaries, who unique among the leaders of the western nations understood the threats of our time and stood their ground. Or perhaps this will be judged as an era when America’s most cherished principles were not lived out in our politics, and when the American people failed the American purpose.

The irony of the Bush Doctrine, however, is not that it sidestepped democratic principles even as it claimed to build democracy in the world, but rather that for all of its unapologetic assertion of military power––of the using America’s might to rid the world of the terrorist scourge––it was a strategic failure. If the televised images New Orleans after Katrina pulled back the curtain and exposed the domestic failures and indifference of the administration, North Korea’s dramatic entry into the elite club of nuclear nations gave the lie to all of the muscular rhetoric that has characterized the Administration’s foreign policy.

Since its designation as a Charter Member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea has sat in the cross-hairs of American strategic rhetoric. The President, commander-in-chief of a massive military machine and possessed of a proven willingness to pull the trigger, set forth his strategic doctrine in no uncertain terms: It was unacceptable for North Korea to continue with its nuclear program and it would be intolerable for North Korea to become a nuclear power.

For his part, faced with the prospect of becoming the next Axis power to be crushed in the name of the Bush Doctrine, Kim Jong Il pushed his nuclear program forward. Then, last week––undoubtedly emboldened the President’s diminished political support and seeing the American military straining at the combined demands of the wars already on its plate––Kim pushed all of his chips into the center of the table and called the President’s bluff.

Surely, it was a moment for which the administration had prepared. Surely, after years of beating the drums of regime change, they understood that developing a nuclear capacity was the sole deterrent to American power for regimes under threat. Surely, after years of forswearing direct negotiations with North Korea as a high-stakes strategy to force concessions, the Bush administration had a Plan B in mind in the event that Kim declined to blink.

Surely not, as it turned out. Within one week of the nuclear detonation, the Bush Doctrine unraveled before the world. Faced with a real weapon of mass destruction, held by an unstable regime starved for cash and with a proven willingness to proliferate, there were no calls for a new coalition of the willing. The Secretary of State did not travel to the capitals of power in Paris, London, Berlin or Moscow, or to the front-line capitals in Seoul, Tokyo or Peking as Plan B was put in place. There was no Plan B. Instead, President Bush stood before the world and did what those Democratic leaders his supporters so despise might do: he took the military option off the table and hailed United Nations sanctions as the appropriate response to North Korea’s formal arrival as a nuclear power.

Within one week, the unacceptable was accepted, and the intolerable became tolerated. Within one week the Bush Doctrine of forward defense, preemptive war and aggressive unilateralism was replaced with what can at best be described as a new commitment to Containment, the oldest of doctrines of the nuclear world. One week and one bomb later, the President’s once-strident Neoconservatism gave way. Now, the President praised the United Nations and the value of collective action. He lauded the importance of tough diplomacy. He eschewed suggestions of a military response. And he embraced sanctions.

After all of the threats, after all of the posturing, after all of the swaggering cowboy rhetoric, the question was called, and the American response was…. Sanctions.

The rhetorical urges that were part and parcel of the Bush Doctrine die hard, however. Two days after the North Korean test, Condi Rice was at it again. Visibly angry as she stood before the gathered media, Rice conceded that the United States did not intend to attack North Korea, but insisted that they now faced “international condemnation and international sanctions unlike anything that they have faced before.” She then turned her verbal rapier toward Russia and China, insisting on what they must now do in the face of North Korea’s intransigence.

But Rice was flailing. The days of unilateralism are over, but her rhetoric has not yet adjusted to the new reality. The reality is what it has always been. Russian and China, like North Korea––and every other state for that matter––will pursue the path that they believe serves their own self-interest. The sooner she stops talking and starts listening, the sooner a new strategic doctrine can emerge that might enable American leadership to once again have meaning in the world.

What we are left with is worse than just a failed strategic doctrine, for today the world is a far more dangerous place. Just as the credibility and capacity of America’s military as a deterrent force in the world has been degraded by the war in Iraq, America’s credibility and capacity to lead in the world has been diminished by five years of hectoring and self-righteous leadership. Iran, on the one hand, looms as a far greater threat than North Korea to our strategic interests, and they well understand that the bankruptcy of the Bush Doctrine leaves them with far greater latitude to pursue their own nuclear and regional ambitions. Al Qaeda and the Sunni Jihadists, on the other, continue to benefit from the images televised across the Islamic world of American troops at war in a Muslim land.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world, beginning with our allies and extending to those such as Russia and China, whose support is critical to our political and economic future, must be waiting with great interest and anticipation to see how our national leadership responds in what may be an historic opportunity. Will we embrace the opportunity to reach out and rebuild our alliances? Will we show some of the humility in the world that Candidate George Bush suggested six long years ago? Will we return to our isolationist tendencies and withdraw from the world? Or will our President push ahead, his rhetoric intact, his spirit undaunted, but as an emperor unclothed before the world?

Unfortunately, this President has not proven to have great insight into when things are not going well, and deplores admissions of failure. But there is hope. Jim Baker has begun to assert himself into the national scene, and in the weeks following the November election we may yet see the elders of the Bush clan finally wake up, before the New World Order that the President’s father proclaimed not so very long ago is completely undone by the messianic and misguided ambitions of his son.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Take a bow for the new revolution

It will be no surprise if the current era of Republican dominance in Washington, D.C. falls on the predations of Mark Foley and the failures of Republican leaders to respond appropriately or in time. After all, nothing falls the righteous like hypocrisy, nothing hits the news cycle like sex and nothing deepens the wound like a good cover-up.

In a moment when the President has become the very embodiment of steadfastness, House Republicans have shown no such spine. With the warrior caste of Gingrich and DeLay banished for lesser crimes, the current leaders sprinted for the exit even as the House burned around them, stopping only to implore Speaker Hastert to sacrifice himself that they might be saved.

The Foley fiasco––the first Instant Messenger-enabled political scandal––has achieved the White House objective of changing the subject, but in an unforeseen direction and with unimaginable force. For an electorate riven between anger over an unpopular war and the liminal anxieties of living in a Jihadist’s world, the turmoil in the House can tip the scales.

And for good reason.

The political turmoil and rancor that defines this political season has reached a fever pitch in part because the problems lack definition, much less simple solutions: The war in Iraq, the Jihadist threat, inter-religious tensions, the decline of American economic and political leadership, declining real incomes, growing debt, a declining dollar, volatile energy markets, a nuclear North Korea, an emboldened Iran, looming war between Russia and her near-abroad nascent-states…

But the Foley fiasco is different. People understand sex and power. Not sex in the prurient sense, but sex as a human motivation and power as the brass ring of the political class.

And that is the essence of the Republican denouement. The current cycle of Republican dominance began with a Contract with America that promised fiscal responsibility and political accountability, solidified its base through the assertion of family values in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, and achieved complete control over the government with the inauguration of George W. Bush, who had campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism and tax cuts at home, and humility in the world. In short, Republicans promised a government more limited in scope, a political class more limited in ambition, and a national interest defined by values, at home and abroad.

Twelve years since the contract with America, and six years since the consolidation of power in Republican hands, these central arguments are a distant memory. Our fiscal house lies as burnt embers at our feet, notions of humility in the world have been replaced with a muscular unilateralism, and fear has become the tool of maintaining the power of the new, dominant political order.

The Foley fiasco has provided the electorate with a means for understanding their fundamental discontent. Across the electorate, people are disgusted by the conduct and by the hypocrisy. They have long experience with cover-ups, they fiercely defend their children, and most of all they deplore politicians who value keeping power over proper conduct and decency.

Even as the usual array of partisans––from Sean Hannity to Katherine Harris to the Family Research Council––have sought to deflect blame for the affair to Democrats, homosexuals or George Soros, the public reaction has deepened. The Foley fiasco has now entered the realm of metaphor, reminding the electorate that democracy demands the vigilance of the governed, and that any party, whatever they promise, whether in fire-side chats or contracts on the Capitol steps, ultimately becomes corrupted by power and tenure alone.

Ultimately, as the Who suggested in their anthem from a prior era, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” each new revolution comes to its moment of reckoning, as people look at their leaders and cry in disgust:

“Meet the new Boss,
Same as the old Boss.”

As George Bush and Karl Rove look down the road at the train wreck that looms, more than ever they need to change the subject. “If the election were held today…” they would be facing the worst possible outcome. Republican control of Congress would be rejected not through a referendum on the war in Iraq, not through the conduct of the war on terror, and not even as a referendum on the handling of Mark Foley’s reprehensible contact, but rather as a fundamental statement that it is time for a change.

However, even in the face of this possible outcome, they must pause and smile, if only for a moment. For on the Democratic side, there is no Gingrich, no Robespierre, and apparently not even a Clinton, prepared to feel the pain of the electorate, and become the face and the voice of a new political order.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Time to stop

At the inception of the Lebanon crisis, American intelligence analyst George Friedman observed:

“From an international standpoint, the Israelis expect to be condemned. These international condemnations, however, are now having the opposite effect of what is intended. The Israeli view is that they will be condemned regardless of what they do. The differential between the condemnation of reprisal attacks and condemnation of a full invasion is not enough to deter more extreme action. If Israel is going to be attacked anyway, it might as well achieve its goals.”

Then a funning thing happened on the way to the front: international condemnation did not fall on Israel as it had in the past. Across the international community, Israel’s right to defend itself was affirmed and blame instead was heaped upon the Hezbollah for its instigation of the crisis. Sunni Arab leaders across the region attacked the needless provocations.

Even from the beating heart of the Axis of Evil, comment was muted. Iran, whose interests were being directly served by the Hezbollah action, only cautioned Israel not to attack Syria. Meanwhile, junior Axis partner Syria was quiet, as Syrian President Assad shared with Israel the desire to keep his regime in power and not see it replaced by Islamists were Israel to attack his country and topple his regime.

Iran’s ability to manipulate events on the ground in the Middle East through its proxy forces is impressive. In Iraq, it was an Iranian “agent of influence,” Ahmad Chalabi, whose manipulation of intelligence, Neocon fantasies and Dick Cheney’s oil lust helped instigate an American invasion that is well on the way to securing Iranian control over the largest remaining oil reserves in the world. In Lebanon, another Iranian agent, Hassan Nasrallah, led Hezbollah––itself a creation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps––to attack on Israel on the same day Iran was due to report back to European negotiators on its nuclear program.

In one fell swoop, Iran was off the front pages and its proxy forces had displaced Hamas and Fatah as the vanguard of the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

In Lebanon, the United States is once again playing patsy to Iranian manipulations. From the beginning of the current crisis, the United States gave Israel the green light to pursue its goal of inflicting maximum damage on Hezbollah. From the Right in the United States came cries of glee that someone was taking the fight to a real terrorist organization, while from the Far Right dreams that the launching of the Hezbollah missiles might have been the first shot in the Battle of Armageddon.

Even as the casualties mounted, President Bush proclaimed the righteousness of the Israeli cause and failed to utter even a word of sympathy to those dying on the ground. On the same day that he vetoed funding of embryonic stem cell research––taking a firm moral stance against the taking of potential life––he failed to offer a word of concern for the loss of actual life in the ongoing battle.

Israel must take note of the evolving situation and not fall prey to following for too long the encouragement of its American ally. Despite its self-proclaimed leadership in the Global War on Terror and of the Greatest Military Force in History, the Bush Administration never seems to have grasped the central lesson of asymmetric warfare, which has been born out in the GWOT, but that dates back to Vietnam, the American Revolution and Scipio Africanus’ pursuit of Hannibal: the dominant force loses if it fails to win, while the overmatched force wins as long as it continues to fight.

Israel’s challenge is not to destroy Hezbollah. Despite Israeli hubris, it cannot achieve that goal. Instead, Israel’s objective must be to achieve the optimal leverage for a ceasefire that includes international commitments to change the conditions on its border with Lebanon in as enforceable a manner as possible.

Over the past week, the international consensus reflected the need to achieve just such an outcome. However, the United States was pushing to delay an end to the fighting. Condi Rice postponed a trip to the region, while U.N. Ambassador John Bolton offered the specious rationale that in a fight with a terrorist organization there is no one to negotiate with, no “head of state.” The Bush Administration, supported vocally by Pat Robertson and his 700 Club minions, continued to cheer Israel along, singing in one voice an odd rendition of “Onward Hebrew Soldiers.”

But Israel is overplaying her hand. The longer the fight ensues, the stronger Hezbollah becomes simply by surviving the confrontation with the larger Israeli force. The longer the fight ensues, the more it will undermine the willingness of Arab states in the region to support the realignment of power within Lebanon that Israel truly seeks. And the longer the fight ensues, the more international public opinion will weigh the loss of human life and Lebanese sovereignty against the initial wave of support for Israel.

As the ground war begins, Israel should pause and reconsider. At this moment, Israel should perhaps give more heed to Iran’s 3,000 years of experience in navigating Middle East conflicts, and a little less to the hubris and encouragements of its far less experienced American ally.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

L'Enfant President

Generals criticize Donald Rumsfeld and he doesn’t blink. People take shots at Dick Cheney, he shoots back. Why then do Republican Wise Men continue to treat the President as if he is a china doll?

With his popularity at its lowest point and turmoil in the ranks of Republicans who fear the loss of Congress in the fall elections, George W. Bush has agreed to bring in his father’s long-time consigliere, former Secretary of State James Baker, to embark on a fact-finding mission and advise the President on Iraq. Apparently, the decision to bring in Baker––the ultimate fixer whose last and only role in the Bush 43 presidency was to lead the successful Florida recount war in 2000––was a touchy one agreed to collectively by the father, the son and Condaleeza Rice. According to the New York Times, Baker accepted the charge reluctantly, as he was concerned that any criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy could be seen as second-guessing the President. Accordingly, his recommendations will focus solely on how to move forward, and not touch on the past.

How did we come to this? President Bush is now well into his second term––an accomplishment that eluded his father––and yet his father’s advisors continue to view him as the son whose independence needs to be nurtured along. Worse yet, these advisors––truly some of the political wise men on the American scene––feel more duty bound to protect the son’s ego than the nation’s future.

George W. Bush continues to struggle to escape from the shadow of his father. There is some irony in this, as George H. W. Bush himself struggled with the shadow of his own powerful father, Republican heavyweight and Senator Prescott Bush. President Bush 41, who had served in Congress, had run the CIA, and served two terms as Vice President––and by most measures had little left to prove––reportedly thought to himself upon taking the Presidential oath of office, “I wonder what the old man would think of his boy now?”

Like the protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy, George W. Bush has defined his political persona in direct contrast to his father. He eschewed the family’s core political values of fiscal discipline, internationalism and quiet religious faith as he embraced the evangelical constituency new to the Republican Party, threw fiscal caution to the wind, promulgated a doctrine of unilateral war, and pronounced his direct and personal relationship with a God who he suggested put him in the White House to lead the millennial struggle with the evil forces besetting America.

For his own part, Bush 41 has made every effort to stay in the background. Even as Bush 43 publicly embraced his father’s rival and predecessor, Ronald Reagan, evinced barely concealed contempt for his father’s politics and presidency and wielded his religion as a rapier in political debate, the elder Bush bent over backward to be supportive of his son.

The tension between the two Bush camps only briefly came into public view during the run up to the Iraq war, as the elders of the former Bush administration opposed the direction of the new administration’s foreign policy and march to war in Iraq. Within the new Bush administration, only Bush 41 holdover Colin Powell argued the internationalist stance in opposition to the rising tide of unilateralism, until he finally played the good soldier and made his ill-fated presentation to the United Nations Security Council––a presentation that drew down the last reserves of his hard-earned credibility and effectively marked the end of his public life.

The final effort of the Bush 41 inner circle to forestall the Iraq invasion came as Bush 41 alter ego––and Condi Rice mentor––Brent Scowcroft published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued against the looming war and the notion that Saddam was an imminent threat or linked to the 9/11 attacks. Immediately following the publication of that piece, however, Scowcroft and the Bush 41 posse went silent, as the word came down that the former President was concerned that they had overstepped and would be seen as undermining his son’s presidency.

By all accounts, Bush 43 gave little heed to his father’s views. Asked later by Bob Woodward if he had consulted with his father––a man of experience and wisdom––as he contemplated an invasion of Iraq, the President demurred and suggested that he had looked instead to “a higher father.”

What is James Baker to make of this? In defiance of the better judgment of his father’s inner circle, George W. took the nation to war, and the outcome that they foresaw came to pass. But there are no judgments to be made on the decision itself, as that might undermine the President’s credibility and damage his presidency.

Undermine the President’s credibility? Damage his presidency?

The President is at 33% in the polls. He took the nation into an unnecessary war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and cost thousands of lives. His administration is scorned internationally and has destroyed America’s credibility in the world. The Iranians are effectively calling his bluff as they seek to become a nuclear power. Gasoline is heading over $3.00. He has lost control of the Republican Congress, foresaken his second-term agenda, bankrupted the nation’s treasury and destroyed the last vestige of fidelity of the Republican Party to its own core principles. Somewhere in a dark cave in Waziristan, Osama is laughing, and James Baker is concerned that he might undermine the credibility and stature of his friend’s son?

The President made a mockery of himself this week when he went before the cameras and claimed, “I am the decider, and I decide what is best.” Like a parent scolding a child, he asserted his authority. But that authority ultimately rests on the consent––and the respect––of the governed, and that assertion quickly became fodder for late-night comics.

James Baker’s challenge is a tough one. Presidents can recover from bad decisions and from political hostility, but ridicule and contempt are tougher. The President's problem is not that he has failed to win the respect of his father, but that he has lost the respect of the nation. James Baker is a tough and smart man, and there are three long years left in this presidency. It is time to take off the kid gloves, stop thinking about protecting the son and worry instead as Brent Scowcroft did four years ago about the interests of the nation.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Odd man out in a three-hand game

In the Jihadist world, once you declare war on Israel, everyone wants to get in on the action.

Hamas’ tightrope walk just got dicier, and soon they will be looking for a net. In his new tape broadcast today on Al Jazeera, Osama Bin Laden embraced Hamas as a rallying cry for his Sunni Muslim Jihadist movement. By framing the freezing of aid to the Palestinian Authority by the west as proof of a “crusader war” against Islam, Bin Laden sought to reassert himself and his Al Qaeda movement onto the international scene.

Can it be a coincidence that Bin Laden felt compelled to go public just one week after Iran convened a conference on Palestine and committed funds to Hamas? Bin Laden, after all, is struggling to maintain the supremacy of his Al Qaeda movement as the vanguard of the Jihadist struggle in the face of Iran’s successful efforts to encroach on Al Qaeda’s––and Bin Ladin’s––turf.

In the Jihadist universe, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad brings strong credentials and troops to the Jihadist cause. After all, he is a product of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps––the Pasdaran––that was founded by Ayatollah Khomenei in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and that has grown to rival the Iranian military in size and counts the home-grown international terrorist groups Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad among its assets.

The battle for Jihadist hegemony between Iran and Al Qaeda is just the latest chapter in the thousand-year struggle between the Shi’a and Sunni for the mantle of the Prophet. Since their rejection of the Caliphate in the formative years of Islam, the Shi’a have struggled under the thumb of Sunni rule, and any temporal alliance between the Shi’a and the Sunni––such as their apparent alliance in opposition to the west––is only a tactical detour from their doctrinal wars. The Shi’a hold fast to their opposition to the Sunni ecclesiastic and legal order, while Sunni fundamentalists, including Al Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors, view the Shi’a as apostates to be beheaded in traditional fashion.

Since his election just nine months ago, Ahmadinejad has swiftly displaced Bin Laden as the poster boy for the Global War on Terror as he has pushed Iran’s nuclear program forward. Faced with international consternation over the prospects of a nuclear Iran, Bin Laden has found himself struggling for airtime.

Bin Laden’s audio tapes seem almost quaint in a world where the GWOT has been escalated to the nuclear stage. Trapped in the mountains of Waziristan, Bin Laden has become a bystander in the continuing international drama that is 21st century Islam. Faced with the prospect of withering into irrelevance, he did the only thing struggling Arab leaders seem to be able to do in such circumstances––he played the Palestinian card.

But a sign of how things have changed in the miasma of Middle East politics can be seen in the Hamas reaction to Bin Laden’s tape. In the wake of the first airing of Bin Laden’s latest recording on Al Jazeera, Hamas leaders took no time in distancing them from the former top dog in the Jihadist struggle. Appealing directly to the western audience, Hamas spokesmen Sami Abu Zuhri declared Hamas’ philosophy to be "totally different" from Bin Laden’s and that Hamas was "very keen to have good relations with the West."

Hamas is trying to avoid becoming a pawn in a game that it surely wants no part of. They might share Shi’a Iran’s dream that Israel be wiped off the face of the earth, as they also share Al Qaeda’s Sunni Islamist orientation. But Iran and Al Qaeda’s antipathy is deeply rooted, and their interest in Hamas is purely tactical and self-interested. Hamas will only lose if it becomes embroiled in the tug of war between Iran and Al Qaeda, particularly at a time when it is trying to shed its Jihadist mantle for a cloak of statesmanship in hope of finding a middle ground that wins it western acceptance without totally neutering its Islamist politics.

In decades past, the Palestinian leadership––a term whose oxymoronic essence Hamas is struggling to shed––bartered its services between competing patrons. But in the wake of tactical missteps at Taba and Wye River, support for the wrong side in the Gulf War, and images of cheering masses on 9/11, the Palestinians may finally have seen the folly of hooking their star to patrons seeking to rally the Muslim world on the aching Palestinian backs. In a matter of minutes following the Al Jazeera broadcast, Hamas spoke out and declined Bin Laden’s advances, and the audience whose approval they sought were Bin Laden’s western adversaries in the Battle of Civilizations.

There remains for Hamas to address the matter of Israel. The future of the Palestinian people lies in partnership with Israel, the single economic engine of a region bereft of economic life. Perhaps their evident fear of Bin Laden’s embrace will open Hamas’ eyes before they continue their march down a road that leads nowhere.

Solving social security

One tall red-eye* and a scone. That will be $4.13.

Can it be that simple? The retirement security of the average American coffee drinker has been undermined by Seattle’s greatest export, the Starbucks Culture. Not to take anything away from Boeing––Seattle’s other export engine––but even as it flies below the radar screen of the average American’s budget, the cost of coffee in the morning has become significant.

Do the math. $4.13 per day. Assume cost inflation at 3% per year––modest for coffee, but let’s be conservative––put that together with stock market returns that have averaged 12% per year over the past 30 years. What do we get?

Retirement security. Or lack thereof.

Here is the choice. Coffee and a scone each morning beginning at age 25, or take the same amount each day and invest it in an index fund a retirement fund until age 65. 40 years later, the Starbucks Investment Program––“Your retirement security is just a SIP away”––produces a nest egg of just under $2 million, or a monthly annuity approaching $10,000 for life.

That amount, it is worth noting, is anywhere from one and one-half to two times the monthly benefit that the Social Security Administration projects for a worker who enters the workforce at age 25 with a salary of $40,000 to $60,000 and retires 40 years later.**

So, drink up America. That coffee is more expensive than you can imagine.

* The drink of a real coffee drinker. A cup of coffee with a shot of espresso.
** For a $40,000/year beginning salary, the projected monthly benefit at age 65 is $5,160. For a $60,000/year beginning salary, the projected monthly benefit at age 65 is $6,569. (

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Failure of imagination

In politics––as in most other areas of life for that matter––credibility is everything. Why is President Bush in such trouble? Loss of credibility. Why are the Democrats unable to do much about it? Lack of credibility.

In their first week in office, the newly elected Hamas government blundered mightily. Faced with international demands that they accept Israel and recognize prior agreements––demands that are anathema to all that Hamas stands for––newly installed Foreign Minister Mahmound Zahar a wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan with a sentence suggesting the possibility of recognizing Israel.

A furor arose when it became apparent that the letter sent to Annan differed substantially from the copy of the letter made public in Gaza. Specifically, the letter made available for local consumption omitted the offending sentence.

Caught in an act of duplicity, a Hamas spokesman insisted that they had sent an early draft of the letter to Annan by accident, and that the Gaza draft was the final draft.

Funny how that happens.

Zahar, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and some others get together. Someone writes a draft letter to Kofi Annan with a sentence that essentially reverses the central position of Hamas. Then they argue back and forth. Ismail says no. Mahmoud says we have to. Ismail finally says no way. OK, they agree, let’s remove that sentence. So, who is going past the post office?

Oops, they sent the wrong letter.

In the meantime, Annan’s office insists that they have not received a revised letter, or any communication from Zahar suggesting an error was made.

But none of that really matters. The notion that Palestinian leadership would say one thing for world consumption and another to the Palestinian street is not news. Dog bites man, so to speak.

The election of Hamas upset the status quo in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Faced with the prospect of an unraveling of the peace process, the quartet of nations overseeing the “roadmap” moved quickly to demand that Hamas come into the tent. Demands were made that Hamas must recognize Israel. Threats were made that aid would be cut off. In the early, panicked moments, no thought seemed to be given to the fact that recognition under duress was meaningless.

In one sense the election of Hamas was a breath of fresh air. At least they were honest and said what they believed at home and to the world at large. At first blush, they appeared to bring a sense of integrity and credibility to the process.

But with the duplicity surrounding the U.N. letter, it appears that not much has changed. The fact is that there has not been a peace process and cannot be one in a situation where one letter is sent to the international community, while another version is circulated at home––an apt metaphor for the long-time practice of the Palestinian leadership of saying the right things in diplomatic circles while stoking the fires of hatred at home.

Even as there has been a sea change with the Palestinian election of Hamas, the politics of peace in Israel have been transformed. According to Yoram Peri, Director of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, Arik Sharon’s great insight in forming Kadima was his early recognition that the Israeli landscape has fundamentally evolved with respect to the peace process.

As Peri describes it, Sharon recognized that even as 70% of Israelis indicate that they are prepared to make significant sacrifices for peace, they have also come to accept the likelihood that peace will not be achieved in their lifetime. An Israeli electorate that was long defined by the division between the “Land for Peace” camp on the left and the “Peace for Peace” camp on the right was ready to move on to other issues. The success of Kadima reflects a fundamental redefinition of the nation’s politics around issues of wealth, poverty and national prosperity. The withdrawal from Gaza and construction of the separation barrier on the West Bank are the physical manifestations of a politics and psychology of separation, of a people who are reconciled to move on.

Hamas has stepped to the fore just as Israeli is walking away. It is ironic that even as Hamas is steadfast in their commitment to the destruction of the State of Israel and rejection of the Oslo accords, they continue to assert their demands for what Israel and others must do for them. From the Israelis whom they are sworn to destroy, they demand continued services as provided under accords they now reject. From the international community, they demand continued aid that was agreed in the wake of these same accords. From the Arab League they demand aid to insulate the Palestinians from the consequences of their own decisions.

One week in office and the Hamas that promised new leadership has become just more of the same. Unfortunately, the failure of Hamas goes beyond a loss of credibility, but reflects a failure of imagination, an inability to imagine a future different from the past.

The peace process is over, for no Palestinian leadership will now be able to accept what the Israelis might be prepared to offer. But in fact, the Palestinians and Israelis do not need a peace agreement, a long-term truce in the model of Korea will do just fine.

But what the Palestinians desperately need, and what Hamas has been unable to offer, is a vision of the future. And for this the Asian model of note is Singapore. Founded as an independent nation forty years ago––one year after the creation of the PLO––Singapore was a tiny, crowded, impoverished nation with no resources. In the ensuing decades, based on a national strategy centered on foreign investment and education, they have built one of the most successful economies in the world.

Singapore has become the model for national development, as other nations are learning. Earlier this year, Intel announced plans to build a major chip plant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam as part of a network of seven plants including ones in Malasyia, Costa Rica and China. Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Zahar should have greater things on their mind than wordsmithing letters to Kofi Annan. Instead, they should be asking “Why not Gaza City?” The Palestinians, whose population is educated and a stone’s throw from Intel’s operations in Israel, should be ready to embrace a vision of the future that is different from the past. But that would require two new things from the Palestinian leadership: imagination and an end of the politics of dependency.

Now that would be news. Man bites dog, as they say.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A day for the ages

On one day, three stories.

First, a story of truly Biblical proportions. The Gospel of Judas Iscariot has emerged. The papyrus manuscript was discovered in the Egyptian desert and today the National Geographic Society announced the publication of the first translation of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Judas.

And what a story it tells. Judas, it seems, was not a Judas at all. Rather, in betraying Joshua ben Joseph to the Romans, Judas was literally doing the Lord’s work. The section of the gospel beginning "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover" relates how Jesus asked Judas to betray him and turn him over to the Roman authorities.

Jesus understood what he was asking of Judas, who he said would “be cursed by other generations” for his actions, and explained to Judas that he was asking of him an act of devotion over and above the other disciples. “You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

What does it mean that the story that has been passed down for 2,000 years appears to have gotten it wrong? Judas did not sell out Jesus for a fistful of dollars? Jesus’ prophesy that one of his disciples would betray him was not prophetic at all? How then does one view Jesus’ condemnation of the friend who was actually doing his bidding?

How do our stories change when the facts that first supported them grow less certain in the face of new information? Do we reconsider Judas now?

Second, a more mundane story. Scooter Libby––unlike Judas as we may now have to understand him––is not inclined to take one for the team and keep his conversations with his boss quiet for 2,000 years.

Libby’s testimony to the Grand Jury investigating the leaks of classified C.I.A. information involving Valerie Plame and pre-war intelligence appears to indicate that both Dick Cheney and President Bush explicitly authorized Libby to leak classified information to New York Times reporter Judy Miller, in order to counter charges made by Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, that undermined the credibility of the Administration’s rationale for war with Iraq.

The President, who has publicly excoriated leaks from his Administration, was provided with a legal opinion from Cheney adjutant David Addington that a Presidential action to disclose classified information ”amounted to declassification of the document.” The ultimate defense, it would seem, though one observe replied caustically to that theory. “There is no process for declassification? The President can declassify documents on a whim, even if the only purpose is to smear a political opponent?”

It all goes back to the rationale for the war. That elusive story that twists and turns. The one rationale that just never seems to be there is that Iraq was an imminent threat, that traditional casus belli that would squeeze the round peg that is the Iraq War into the square hole that is International Law.

Finally, the third story. The Senate has reached its compromise on immigration reform with a bill that at least grants a nod to the realities on the ground, the 12 million illegal immigrants who are increasingly dug into American society and who really are not going anywhere. 12 million people, 7.5 million of them employed. Five percent of the United States work force.

The Senate is about to come face to face with their counterparts in the House, who led by James Sensenbrenner and Tom Tancredo passed their own measure for the defense of the U.S. border and the imposition of harsh criminal penalties on the aliens in our midst.

Defense of the border is a good and necessary thing. The U.S. border should be guarded as well as any in the world, but as any good economist will tell you, building a ten-foot wall dividing the United States economy from the Mexican economy, dividing a world of opportunity and hope from a world that offers a bleak future will only spark a run on eleven-foot ladders.

The House may have good intentions, but their hearts are punitive and unforgiving. The House leaders, who are leading the right wing of the Republican Party, imbued with evangelical fervor and arrogating unto themselves the mantle of God's wisdom, are forgetting the central wisdom of Joshua ben Joseph. They shall be judged for how they treat the least among us. All the rest is rhetoric.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Our critical infrastructure

Even as we labor to build a workable national legislature in Iraq, perhaps we should pay attention to the mess we have made of things here in the Homeland.

With the abomination of the Dubai World Ports episode behind us, 160 members of the House of Representatives have jumped on to sponsor legislation that would curtail foreign investment in United States airlines. Our airlines––which drift with the price of diesel fuel between various stages of bankruptcy and insolvency––have been designated by the legislation as part of our “critical infrastructure.”

For many years, the Senate and the House were also part of our critical infrastructure, but that time appears to be passing. Three years ago, few members of the Senate demurred at voting for the Iraq war resolution in the face of threats to their patriotism. Few members––six to be exact––even visited the room set aside for members to view the classified intelligence material that purported to justify our “little bit of unilateralism.”

Over the past few weeks, the Senate and the House proved to have learned nothing from the Iraq war vote as members fell over each other––and trampled the sober few who objected––as they ran to the front of the train that would railroad in one moment the Dubai port deal, America’s leadership position in the international economy, the dignity of Arab and Muslim populations, common sense and national dignity.

Now, just as Duncan Hunter and Hillary Clinton, Chuck Shumer and Dennis Hastert are dusting themselves off from their thrilling experience of bi-partisanship, a new train is building up steam and soon will be taking on new members. The buzzword of this new movement is critical infrastructure, and we should all be afraid, we should be very afraid.

The bleating of our national leaders aside, our critical infrastructure is not our ports and airports––little of whose security it should be noted lies in the hands of the private companies that operation ships, terminals, airlines or airport gates––but rather our intellectual property, our legal system and our network of relationships in the world. This reality has been slow to dawn upon the Bush Administration, but they are coming around. Gone are the full-throated cowboy cries for unilateralism as senior Administration figures from the Pentagon to Langley to Foggy Bottom have begun to embrace a new doctrine that suggests that our success in the world rests in the quality of our partnerships in the world––with other nations, with intelligence services and with trading partners––and that these relationships are rooted in the goodwill of the people of those nations toward America.

To be leaders in the new world order, it appears that we must, in fact, lead. And one measure of leadership seems to be whether anyone is following. Now, as the Administration has begun to herald the relationships that only a few short wars ago it encouraged us to deride, only the Vice President clings to the notion of Battleship America.

But the fear the Administration helped foment has become entrenched in the American psyche. As Osama retreated into his cave, we retreated into ours, and as the Dubai travesty showed the climate of fear is with us. Now, however, the leadership mantle has passed from the President to the Congress, and sensing opportunities for political advantage in the fear game, Hunter and Clinton, Shumer and Hastert are leading their minions forward.

However, for the American public the true source of fear has changed. Terrorism is a threat, but it is one that must be combated through intelligence networks and dedicated efforts with our partners away from the front pages of the daily newspapers. But the fear now felt among the electorate does not arise from Osama’s visage, but stems from deeper uncertainties about the future that we face. The future of our families and of our children. And against this threat, Congress is not rushing forward with solutions.

In the world today, Americans have cause for concern. For 80% of the population or so, real incomes are stagnating. For those who lose their jobs, the next career offers lower pay and fewer benefits. For working and middle class parents, two incomes must replace one for living standards to be maintained––taking time away from children and each other––and for visions of the American dream of living better than one’s parents to be achieved. For 80% of the population, the world that we have created in the wake of our victory in the Cold War is a forbidding place.

The critical infrastructure of our nation has been weakened significantly, and Congressional leaders are doing nothing. The critical infrastructure for Americans––those real Americans that matter in Washington every four years or so––are pensions and healthcare and higher education. With pension security, healthcare and access to higher education, American families can tackle the future. Without these three in place, fear can overwhelm families, forcing longer hours, greater stress and deepened anxiety.

Fear has captured the national psyche, and the fear has deep roots. But it is the fear of what the future holds at most personal level that should be the center of national attention. The critical infrastructure is closer to home than the nearest port or airport, it is the safety net. And the holes in the net can be seen from the kitchen table.

But where are Hunter and Clinton, Shumer and Hastert on these matters? One party holds all of the power and yet does nothing. The other party holds no power yet offers nothing as an alternative. In the current climate is Muslim-baiting and fear mongering the best we can do? Has the pursuit of political advantage sapped Congress of any larger vision of what ails the people it serves?

Just not like them, the Iraqi people must think. Please, not like them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bipartisan gang-bang

Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton, Chuck Shumer and George Pataki, Republicans and Democrats, bonding together.

What could bring about such unity of spirit, such solidarity of purpose?


While the world was distracted by the biennial celebration of spirit that is the Olympics, Congress has jumped en masse into that greatest of all games in international politics: jingoism. And no red state vs. blue state politics here. This is a free-for-all.

All this because a port management firm that operates several U.S. ports is being sold by its British owners to a Dubai company owned by the United Arab Emirates. It is not a question of foreign operations, as Senator Clinton has tried to suggest. After all, the current owner is British. It is not a question of security operations, as Senator Boxer has opined, as the operator manages loading operations and is not responsible for security.

It is not even a question of knowing what they are talking about, as Majority Leader Frist appeared to concede, suggesting that he wants to delay the sale until he can learn why the Bush Administration approved the transaction to begin with. Minority Leader Harry Reid, never to be out done on issues of national security, announced that he wants to block the sale too.

Just at the moment when some subtlety appeared to be in order, and a bit of sensitivity toward the handling of relations with the Muslim world, Congress goes off on a bender. This is not to suggest that the proposed change in ownership of a port operating company should not be scrutinized, but this smacks more of Senators trying to outdo each other to demonstrate their zeal to defend the homeland, to demonstrate their vigilance to the voters.

A bit of decorum would be in order.

Perhaps instead of rushing for the nearest microphone, a disquieted Senator might place a quiet phone call to Steven Hadley, the National Security Advisor, requesting a briefing on the national security considerations surrounding the change in ownership. Perhaps some thought might be given to a Coast Guard budget––where the security operations for ports are housed––that inspects no more than 5% of the containers arriving at our nation’s ports.

Perhaps some thought might be given to the hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world who want to know that they and their brethren are not being arbitrarily ostracized for their faith. Perhaps, just perhaps.

How is it that the same group of Senators that voted en masse to go to war in Iraq after only seven of them bothered to read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the CIA––a document that, as it turned out, cast doubt on the central premise for the war––now are going nuclear about the sale of a port operating company from one foreign owner to another.

Ah, yes. The new owner is Arab.

Congress ought to get a grip. They are becoming an embarrassment.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Vox umma, vox Allah

Even as the Bush Administration asserts that Osama Bin Laden is trapped and that Al Qaeda is on the run, a key Jihadist victory has been achieved to little fanfare.

The umma has awakened.

The response to the Muslim cartoons, as unsettling as it has been to observers in the west, has marked a key milestone in Bin Laden’s campaign to rebuild the Caliphate and challenge western democracies. The umma, the Muslim nation, a transnational community sharing a single faith, responded to the call of the ulama, the clerical community and rose at once, seemingly with one voice. The voice of the umma––to borrow from the Latinate expression vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God––rose as if the voice of Allah.

It was not the rallies and riots in the Arab nations that were notable, as those, particularly in Iran and Syria, had the trappings of officially instigated events, but rather those within the western democracies themselves. Protesters across Europe, fully armed with banners chanting the likes of “Down with freedom, God is Great”––and the eternal cry of those in need of an outlet for their discontent, “Death to America”––took to the streets to protests the publication of cartoons that to the non-believer seemed benign, second rate parody.

While the rise of the umma and the demand that non-Muslim states and peoples adhere to certain Koranic proscriptions marks a fundamental challenge the western notions of pluralism, it should first and foremost be understood for what it is, a profound victory for Bin Laden in a strategically complex battle for the hearts and minds of Islam. The rise of the umma, the emergence of a self-identified Islamic nation that is transnational and inter-sectional does not necessarily imply the radicalization of that same community, but it is certainly a precondition to the radicalization that Bin Laden seeks. He has, through the 9/11 attacks and the responses that it engendered, achieved a significant milestone in pursuit of his longer-term goal.

As little as five years ago, it was easy to dismiss as absurd the Jihadist dreams of reestablishing the Caliphate, the great transnational Muslim nation established in the wake of the death of the Prophet Muhammad that continued in various forms until its final dissolution 85 years ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire. By the end of the 20th century, with the help of national borders drawn by colonial powers, Islam had become a dispersed faith, decentralized into a world of regional and sectoral potentates more often at war with each other than not. Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Persian vs. Turk vs. Kurd. Pastun vs. Tagik. On and on.

Bin Laden’s strategies were artful and indirect. His goal in attacking America was not first and foremost to kill Americans, but rather to engender an American military response. And in George Bush, Bin Laden had the foe that would serve his purposes. Imbued with a messianic zeal to lead Freedom’s March into the heart of Islam, Bush has played the role of the Crusader to Bin Laden’s Saladin, and through a chain of missteps and abuses––from Abu Graib to Guantanomo to the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis in a unilateral war that bore no credible link to the attacks on America––undermined America’s moral authority with the very population whose support he sought to win, and steadily elevated Muslim disquiet and ultimately religious identity.

The Global War on Terror is entering a new phase. The Bush Administration is quietly dismantling the Bush Doctrine, as the Neoconservative experiment has fallen out of favor and the March of Freedom is being set aside in the face of adverse electoral outcomes in the Middle East, the looming prospect of electoral defeats at home, and the emerging realization of how badly the war in Iraq and the doctrine of unilateralism has damaged America in the world. It is an open question if in this new phase an Administration with a penchant for boots on the ground and aggressive rhetoric can reverse course and learn new subtleties, and even humility. In this new phase, however, the broader community of nations has a great stake and will not sit idly by and let America lead alone. If the Danes have done nothing else, they have woken people up.

The GWOT cannot survive the radicalization of the umma that Bin Laden envisions. The battle for the soul of Islam is a battle for the viability of religious pluralism in the west. Bin Laden understands this, and he also knows that the Caliphate is unlikely to emerge during his lifetime. Like Moses, he does not expect to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, but he has seen the emergence of the umma and believes that the battle he has longed for has been joined.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Harry took one for the team

If it is a strategy, it is brilliant.

Imagine this for a moment. A few months down the road, Vice President Dick Cheney, faced with a recurring heart condition and the aftermath of the controversy surrounding his hunting accident, succumbs to his family’s concern for his health and well-being and steps aside as Vice President. For Cheney, it would be a natural decision. After all, he has accomplished what he came to accomplish, and by stepping down he can assure that the policies he put in place will continue when Condi Rice is inaugurated as President in 2008.

Is it so far fetched? Rice is a protégé of Brent Scowcroft and a foreign policy realist deeply committed to Cheney’s plan to reassert American power in the world. Weaned on the intricacies of Cold War diplomacy, she was never part of the Neocon cabal, and she has proven her capacity to stand her ground in the face of diplomatic fury. That she is Pro-Choice is no problem for Cheney, as social issues are inconsequential in the scheme of things from his vantage point.

For Cheney, the 2008 presidential election is wide open and there is little chance that the winner, Democrat or Republican, understands the world as he does. Of the Republicans, McCain is a self-righteous demagogue, Giuliani is a preening lightweight, and don’t even get him started on the smart-money front-runner George Allen. Of the Democrats, Hillary has more balls than the rest of them combined and understands Realpolitik, but will be hamstrung by MoveOn and the rest, and if Warner makes it as the anti-Hillary, the first four years will be learning on the job.

But Cheney would step aside for Condi. She is tough and she gets it. The only problem is that she won’t run. Not the normal way, in any event. But if Cheney steps down, she could step in and––despite the squealing from across the political spectrum––no one could mount a challenge to her confirmation. Cheney’s last act on the public stage would be to assure a Republican victory in 2008, and put in place a presidency committed to continuing his legacy.

Meanwhile, in the midst of CheneyShotHarryGate, MoveOn circulated an email to its members asking the question ”Should we take on right wing Democrats?” The MoveOn email suggested that it was time “to hold Democrats to their Party’s highest values on issues like foreign policy, economic prosperity and good government.” The idea of going after Democrats that don’t heel to MoveOn’s views was offered in a strategic context, suggesting that it would help the Democratic Party present a clear choice to the nation in coming elections.

Perhaps, but the MoveOn question reeks of the party-line purification stage of life in the minority, and is a strategic distraction. After all, while Democrats are seeking out ways to better define themselves, the Republican Party is gleefully jumping in to help out. Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally launced the 2008 race against Hillary Clinton by floating the notion that she is “too angry to be President.” So as the 2006 races approach, the Republicans are running hard against the Democrats, while the Democrats are considering taking a run against themselves.

Strategy is all-important in politics and it is where the Republicans have had it all over the Democrats of late. Perhaps a lesson from Fatah is in order. Hamas won their electoral landslide with only 44% of the popular vote. Facing internal strife between the old guard and younger leaders, Fatah ran multiple candidates in some districts and none in others. Fatah voters outnumbered Hamas voters handsomely as it turned out, but Hamas won nonetheless.

The Democrats are now facing several challenges. Hillary Clinton has the presence, the organization and the war chest to win the 2008 nomination in a walk. This even as many in the Party question both whether she can win a general election and whether they want her to––“I just don’t know, she seems so angry… At the same time, the lack of clear leadership and a message is leaving groups like MoveOn empowered to undertake their own ill-conceived efforts to define the Party in their own image. For Democrats, Bill Clinton aside, strategy is an elusive thing. One week the strategy will be the Culture of Corruption, the next week it will be the Crisis of Competence, and next week it might be Force Cheney Out.

While the Democrats try to figure out their next strategy, the Republicans already have one, and Dick Cheney may even have his own. So when the calls begin, as they have, for Cheney to step down, an old adage is apt. Be careful what you wish for, because he might just do it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dick Cheney's view of the world

For all we know, Dick Cheney shot the guy in the face just so people would have something else to focus on.

Because Dick Cheney has bigger fish to fry than worrying about jokes about his aim on the Daily Show or musings by the left that if a heart attack doesn’t get him, maybe a manslaughter charge will. Cheney remains steadfast in his focus on the big picture and for five years now has used the platform of the Bush presidency to address what he views as the singular problem facing America and the world.

The problem is simple and the numbers do not lie. The world today consumes around 80 million barrels of oil per day. By 2025 demand for oil is expected to grow by 50% to around 120 million barrels per day. While the President may bemoan U.S. oil addiction in his State of the Union speech, the truth is that the growth in demand is not a product of our profligacy, but rather is a direct result of our victory in the Cold War.

Over the past twenty years, as national economies have opened up and nuclear weapons have stood down, an estimated 1.4 billion people have entered the world labor markets. As those nations––including India, China and the former Soviet Republics––continue to develop, and as their people strive to better their lives and achieve a middle class lifestyle, the demand for oil will continue to climb.

Hummers or no Hummers, with or without hybrid cars, however one constructs the scenario, world energy demand is going to rise. Faced with low approval ratings, the President bought some applause with his crowd-pleasing but reality-distracting line, but the fact is that our oil addiction is beside the point. World demand in the future will drive prices and will drive scarcity. Our national economy is inextricably tied to the fate of our trading partners and reducing our dependency on Middle East oil, and even achieving so-called “energy independence,” is a chimera, an illusion and a false goal.

If Cheney was President, he would have stated bluntly that we will live or die with the rest of the world, and therefore we have no choice but to lead. America is the dominant nation in the world today and it is our singular responsibility is to take the steps necessary to assure long-term stability in the future. Stability in markets, stability in resource availability, stability in trade, stability in energy flows. Even China, the last remaining antagonist of the Cold War era, clearly understands that her growth demands world stability, and that world stability demands effective American leadership. American failure in this regard over the next two decades will surely lead to a world of scarcity, economic isolationism, political turmoil and, ultimately, war.

Understanding this imperative, Cheney had two goals for a Bush presidency six years ago. First, after almost 30 years, it was essential to reverse the whittling away of the powers of the presidency that he witnessed beginning in the aftermath of Watergate when he served as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff. Second, it was imperative to reestablish the credibility of United States military power on the ground––particularly in the Middle East, the key source of both geopolitical instability and oil.

As he saw it, these two goals were inextricably linked. The erosion in presidential authority and executive power had dangerously undermined our credibility in the world. From Arabia to Korea to the Straits of Taiwan, America was seen as a paper tiger. As Bin Laden was quick to point out, people follow the strong horse, and as America became weaker others were quick to seize the advantage.

This could not continue. And for Dick Cheney, the war in Iraq was the essential first step to pulling the world back from the precipice.

That war was not about WMD. They didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now. For the Neocons, WMD was the argument for going to war, but it was never the reason to go to war. As Paul Wolfowitz laid out the history in Vanity Fair magazine, the Neocons in the Administration had four reasons to take out Saddam, (i) his support for terrorism in the region, (ii) his criminal treatment of the Iraqi people, (iii) his history of instigating wars with his neighbors, and (iv) the WMD threat. They settled on the WMD argument simply because it would sell.

Cheney went along, but he is not now and never was a Neocon. He is an old school Cold Warrior and Realist. While the Neocons held out theories of the power of democracy, Cheney remained focused on the direction of the world economy and the looming train wreck he saw two decades down the road.

For Dick Cheney, the invasion of Iraq addressed the fundamental problem facing the United State and the world: the decline of American power and credibility in the Middle East. By the time the tanks rolled into Iraq in 2003, Jihadists were a concrete threat to stability in the Middle East. Fearing Al Qaeda’s wrath, Saudi Arabia had already asked the United States to remove its forces from the kingdom. Iran was emerging as a threat. By failing to respond America was validating Jihadists claims about American weakness.

American power in the Gulf was in freefall, and in the Middle East power is the ultimate currency. As Cheney saw it, the democratic ambitions of the Neocons may smell sweet in Washington, but in Damascus, in Cairo and in Baghdad, and deep in the caves of Tora Bora, power was the only emollient for what ailed the United States.

For Dick Cheney, the Iraq war was about reestablishing the bona fides of the United States in a region in which power is the only currency that matters. A show of force in Iraq would communicate to the region and the world what needed to be communicated. To the Saudis, it would let them know that we were there for the duration, that their fate was our fate and that we were not to be trifled with or kicked out. To Iran it was a reminder that we were there in force, with boots on the ground on their western and eastern borders. To China, India and the other growing oil importing nations, it established that America was not receding behind its oceans, and would lead the world into the 21st century.

The success in five short years has been as Cheney envisioned it would be. The Bush Administration has reestablished the Presidency as the focus of power in the country. Notions of co-equal branches of government have been firmly set aside. The courts have been reconstituted with greater deference to executive power and Congress has been effectively put in its place.

The debate over the terrorist surveillance program provides clear evidence of this success. The Administration is yielding no ground in its assertion of executive power, and will only offer that it is always willing to listen to what the Congress has to say or offer on the subject. But no more than that. The power of the White House has been restored.

And from Cheney's vantage point, the war in Iraq has achieved its main goal: the United States has boots on the ground in the Middle East and the powers that be in the region understand that the United States is not to be trifled with. While the election results in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian Authority spell the end of the Administration’s infatuation with the Neocon agenda, Cheney’s deeper strategy is firmly in place and he sees ample evidence of its success:

First, three years after demanding that the U.S. leave the Kingdom, Saudi Ambassador Turki Al-Faisal this week declared that Saudi relations with the United States were as strong as they have ever been. The Saudis have committed billions to building oil refineries in the Kingdom, as well as in China, in Russia and in Korea, to do their part to meet future growth in worldwide demand.

Second, in Pakistan, Musharraf is no longer on the fence, and is building a new intelligence service to undermine the power of the ISI, one of our long-time antagonists.

Third, Egypt and its intelligence services are cooperating with us with no public equivocation. When Hamas came to Cairo seeking support after their electoral victory, the Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman laid down the law: they must recognize Israel and renounce their terrorist ambitions.

Finally, Iran is increasingly isolated and the world is acting in concert with little equivocation. Europe is no longer waffling, and both China and Russia have agreed to a common strategy to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As Cheney looks at the world, the success of his plan is unarguable, if not yet recognized. While the media storm around him continues, and regardless of what comes next, he is resting easy knowing that in five years he has achieved what he set out to do.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Death to Denmark!

Death to Denmark!

Alliteration aside, it is an unlikely political rallying cry. Harkens back to “Down with Canada!” from the Northwest Salmon Wars of a few years back.

It is an odd political moment. The Muslim outrage at the work of Danish political cartoonists has stiffened the European spine like few events in the simmering cross-cultural imbroglio that seems to be defining the new century. Newspapers across the continent quickly rose to the defense of the Danes as threats to the principle of free speech have galvanized European opinion in ways that other recent events have failed to do. Bombings in London and Madrid, and riots in France all engendered public reaction, but still much of it was soul searching questions of “Why here, why us?”

For those who watched the video of the murder of Nicholas Berg, no moment has ever so graphically defined cruelty. Kneeling on the ground facing the camera with hooded men standing behind him, one man, presumably Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, brandished a long knife, pushed Berg over to the side, pressed his head to the floor and as Berg screamed sawed his head off in several swift strokes. He then held the head up to the camera.

All in the name of Allah and the Prophet (Peace Be Unto Him). Can one imagine a greater act of blasphemy? Of pure disgrace to a religion or to a people?

Yes, there was shock and some outrage. But barely a word beyond the usual perfunctory protests from the leadership of the Muslim community. Zarqawi had defined and defiled the faith in an act of pure and barbaric cruelty. Still, no crowds gathered, no Imams called the faithful to protest this defilement of the words the Prophet or spirit of Allah, the compassionate.

But a cartoon. A cartoon that by any measure lacked the viciousness of so many political cartoons over the years. Political cartoons that have caricatured Christians and Jews, religious leaders and gods. Just take a peak at the mainstream Arab press and one can catch a glimpse of vile political cartoons speaking out the editorial voice of those communities. A Jewish Pope labeled with a swastika drinking the blood of a Palestinian baby. Gentle stuff. But not to pick on them, political cartooning has a long and biting history.

Some demonstrators have suggest that the images––such as the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb––labeled a whole people as violent extremists, and the Bush administration endorsed this theme when it called the cartoons offensive and criticized the decision to publish them. But––with all due respect to the Jewish Pope noted above––caricature is not the issue at hand and the problem here is not one of tolerance per se. The Koranic injunction is not about caricature or character assassination, but rather it is the very representation of the Prophet, the image itself rather than the subject. The defilement was the act of making a representation, whatever the context, whatever the parody. The violation of Koranic law was the act of drawing.

It is for the drawing itself that the demands for retribution are made. For the act of drawing came the demands to cut off the hands of or murder the artists.

Set aside for a moment why Islamic law should govern the cartoonist in Denmark. Set aside for the moment the question of insult to a Hindu traditionalist of world-wide consumption of beef. Just this question: What of Zarqawi? Is there no Koranic proscription against the raw and cruel murder of one man in the name of the faith, in the name of the Prophet? Thirteen hundred years later cannot the clerics see that debasement of the faith as a more fundamental indictment that a political cartoon. Is Al-Jazeera, who broadcast that video not more complicit in the debasement of Islam than France-Soir.

Each faith is debased by the actions of its adherents and by the voices or silence of its community. The Judeo Christian tradition. The prophetic tradition. Abraham, Issac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Josiah ben Joseph, Muhammad. Jehovah, Yaweh, G-d, Allah. Were they not all defiled when Nicholas Berg’s head was raised up off that floor?

Death to Denmark! The principle of free speech does matter, and if that is what it takes for Europe to find its voice, to feel some outrage, so be it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Saturday, January 28, 2006

For better or for worse

Hamas trounced Fatah, an outcome no one expected. Why was that?

Fatah was notoriously corrupt. Its founder, Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat died leaving a fortune––estimates range from $300 million to $1.3 billion––in Swiss bank accounts. Patronage and graft defined economic life under the Palestinian Authority. The central mission of government––to improve the lives of its people––was utterly unfulfilled. Like Chicago in the old days, the reason to vote for Fatah was so your cousin would not lose his or her job.

Since the return of Arafat and the old guard of the PLO from their Tunisian exile in 1994, they have been propped up by the Americans and the Europeans, and presented to the world as the leaders of a people whose interests have never been served by all who claimed to speak for them. Nasser. The Russians. The Arab League. The Saudis. Saddam. Assad. Khomenei and the Pasdaran. The United Nations.

Arafat and Fatah were accorded the mantle of leadership of a small nation of highly educated people, and those people embraced them. Arafat, who described himself as married to the cause of the Palestinian people, stole millions from them and offered no vision of the future for the children of those who followed him.

What could one do, after all, with a small nation of highly educated people, not sitting on oil wealth? Create Singapore perhaps.

The victory of Hamas was a victory over entrenched, cynical corruption and a vote of hope that the future can be better than the past. In the first national elections since Arafat’s death, his party and his cronies were thrown out. Why was it so hard to imagine? One wonders.

What happens next? The easy answer is that this will be a setback for peace in the Middle East. After all, Hamas is an organization unremittingly committed to the destruction of Israel and to the Islamist goals of the Muslim Brotherhood from which it sprang

But what will happen next? One thing is clear, the Peace Process of Oslo and Wye River is dead as we know it. But this is perhaps a good thing, as it was dead before the vote. Now, Hamas must govern and the weapons that Hamas wields will be the weapons of a government. The struggle with Israel will no longer be asymmetric, it will be state-to-state, and the rules of plausible deniability will no longer govern.

When a Palestinian blows up a bus in Haifa, leaving the bodies of dead women and children in the street, one need no longer listen to denunciations and expressions of regret by the Palestinian Authority. Such an attack can now simply be viewed as an act of war, launched by a state against a state that it is sworn to destroy.

This is the future that people fear, but there can be a cleansing aspect to the clarity of roles that will ensue. With this clarity, and with the accountability of Hamas to the people of Palestine––to the people of the State of Palestine that yet might be––there may come a transformation. The responsibility to lead, and to lead toward a better future for the Palestinian people, may draw Hamas to realism and away from terrorism.

This may not happen. In Iran, the victory over the Shah over twenty-five years ago has not led to moderation. The Council of Guardians has built its own repressive institutions and seen in its oil wealth and the nuclear program begun by the Shah an opportunity to realize age-old dreams of regional power and newer aspirations to lead the Islamist struggle. Hamas may choose to broaden its struggle into alliances with others, like Iran, who remain committed to the destruction of Israel.

Central to the question of “whither Palestine” is how deeply entrenched democracy has become. If Hamas becomes captive of and committed to leading a democratic Palestine, then the needs of the people there for governance, for peace and for hope will overwhelm Hamas’ narrower mission and Charter. If on the other hand, an Islamist Palestine migrates down the Algerian path of “one man, one vote, one time” then the turmoil within Palestine and among Hamas, Fatah, Al Aksa, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad has just begun. If that is the direction Hamas chooses, Israel will build her wall and the world will lose interest in another nation at war with itself that possesses no oil to draw the world’s concern. The Palestinian people will have made their choice, and they will be the worse off for it.

Ironically, the greatest challenge that Hamas faces may not come from the Israelis, or even from the recalcitrant Fatah and the defeated secularists, as Hamas has the ability to reach out to both and find accommodation. The greatest challenge may come from Islamic Jihad, Hesbollah and Iran. Iran, whose Pasdaran created and controls Hezbollah and elements of Islamic Jihad, has no interest in accommodation with Israel and can undermine Hamas if it chooses the path toward peace.

Hamas has a choice to make. War with Israel in its role as the head of the Palestinian nation offers little prospect of success. The suicide bomber, the perfect weapon of an insurgency with no visible face, will not serve the purposes of an elected government that seeks international support and legitimacy. On the other hand, the Hamas that garnered the votes and hopes of the Palestinian people for a future free of stifling corruption and the prospect of an economic future has a window of opportunity to lead a people and a nation badly in need of leadership.