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.