Thursday, November 25, 2010


I'll be spending Thanksgiving day at my sister's house up north.  One of the interesting paradoxes of Thanksgiving that must be kept in mind is that despite the chill of the weather, with all the cooking and people and fireplaces and such, the gathering itself, along with the concomitant dinner will be HOT.  One must be careful to dress for the reality, and not the season, or one will be uncomfortable, damp and limp before even the climax of the festivities.

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday of all.  A big part of that, I suppose, is it's simple and attractive premise.  It is not predicated on some weird mythological event, or anything that might require one to believe up to six impossible things before breakfast.  It doesn't have a lot of ritual requirements or expectations.  Instead, it is an abidingly secular day, situated consistently in mid-week, resulting in a four day holiday, premised on nothing more than getting together with friends and loved ones to cook and eat a massive meal of specifically prescribed but for the most part delicious foodstuffs.

One Thanksgiving 'tradition' I could do without is the whole dumb hoopla around the White House turkey and the annual Presidential pardon.  Sure, it was funny and kind of cute when Bush 41 issued the first 'pardon' to the Turkey that was presented to the White House by the Poultry Association.  But by now it's just become this silly, redundant hackneyed ritual without either meaning or honesty.  On Thanksgiving, Mr. President, we cook and eat turkeys, we don't send them to zoos.  Just stop it, ok?

For some reason the song of the day this bright, sparkling Thanksgiving morn is Smashing Pumpkins '1979'.  I don't know why, exactly, but it's in my head while I'm making a couple of good old fashioned Kentucky Pecan Pies to bring to the feast.  I ordinarily prefer to do something a bit off kilter for Thanksgiving, something unexpected and truly non-traditional (last year I did a Thai Roasted Butternut Squash Soup that was so good it made you weep), but this year the holiday is permeated by fear and uncertainty and an all too real awareness of the state of my declining resources, so it was hard to think in those terms.  But on the upside, my sister makes really good Pumpkin and Apple pies for Thanksgiving, so there will be guests that welcome the old southern Pecan variety.

One of the reasons I enjoy watching pro football is that there can be interesting, exciting, captivating matchups even when they don't include the team or teams one regularly roots for.  However, unfortunately, today has three games, all of which are ugly mis-matches that should between them, have no interesting or exciting moments whatsoever.  Patriots at Detroit?  Well, that ought to be good for Brady's stats anyway.  Cincinnati in New York to play the Jets?  Maybe Terrell Owens will do something weird.  One can always hope.  And the Saints in Dallas?  Hey, it's never totally boring to watch the Cowboys get humiliated.  In fact, that will brighten the day even more!

Obligatory Gratitude List:

• I'm grateful to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for trying to make the world see crimes for what they are.  America can't seem to live up to her own values anymore, so a little nudge now and then isn't such a bad thing.

• I'm grateful to Turkey, particularly Prime Minister Recep Erdogan for his unusually honest and principled stand against Israel's crimes.  Again, a nation that has lost its way needs help getting back to its own founding principles, and despite the risks and costs, Turkey will provide that help.

• I'm grateful for the US Federal extensions to Unemployment Insurance.  I can't even imagine where I'd be today if not for those funds.  Oh sure, they'll come for their taxes, and when I can I'll pay them gladly.

• I'm grateful to the people who have helped me stay sane and upbeat through this foul, lost year.  As above, I fear I DO know where I'd be without you, and that scares me.  There are not many of you, and a good percentage I have never met in person, so I'll not embarrass anyone but know this - if you think you might be one of those people, you most certainly are.  Thank you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stopping START

It's a valid argument.  They're the opposition.  It's their role in the political process to oppose the party in power.  The question that necessarily arises at this point is opposition in favor of what?  Is the opposition principled, espousing a different philosophy, a different direction, a different set of priorities?  Or is it really just mindless opposition, where it doesn't matter how productive or effective the President's agenda might be, it will be opposed en bloc merely for the sake of political gain and regardless of the cost to the country and it's citizens?

It certainly seems that we find ourselves washed up on those shores of mindlessness.  There are pieces of legislation that are not inherently partisan, that serve to move the republic in a positive direction, to support economic advancement and international stability.  Examples of that sort of legislation abound, but we'll focus on only two - the Unemployment Insurance extensions and the START treaty.   Now I'm not sure why federal unemployment insurance benefits are repeatedly set to expire, but their economic and compassionate value is impossible to dispute, and to deny American citizens this kind of support in the midst of an economic downturn even as we provide similar services to millions of foreign citizens in some wildly misguided attempt to establish American hegemony over poor, benighted, landlocked villages fifteen thousand miles away seems not only unfair, but offensive on its very face.

And the START treaty?  I suppose it is possible to negotiate a bad strategic arms reduction treaty, but it's hard to imagine how mutual, verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles could be bad enough to go unratified.  And in the case of this treaty, the arms control community AND the military are unanimously on board.  It significantly reduces the number of warheads and missiles the US and Russia will have on hand while increasing the effectiveness of the on-site inspection and verification regime.

Not to mention the tattered and ill-treated remains of that other treaty, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, has lost credibility around the globe in part because the nuclear powers have failed to live up to their obligations of nuclear disarmament.  The failure of the US Senate to ratify the new START treaty would be another nail in NPT's coffin, as other nations wonder why they are repeatedly expected to honor their treaty obligations while the US seems to consider them all optional.  In short, the New START treaty is good for the US, good for our allies and good for the world.  There is no risk or loss of power or prestige anywhere in the agreement, and after the warheads and missiles have been destroyed, it will even reduce spending on strategic arms, thereby reducing the deficit.  It's hard to find a logical or principled reason to oppose ratification.

Which brings us to the Republican party, as it's currently constituted, their legislators committed to lockstep opposition to anything the administration wants to put forward.  And what is the basis of this blind, thoughtless across the board obstruction of not just the Democratic agenda, but of even the most basic governance?  Here's a hint:  It's not because they have a different agenda, or would like to see different priorities or implement different policies.  No, if this treaty came up for ratification under President McCain, it would be passed quickly and  very likely unanimously.  This is a political tactic, plain and simple - an attempt to deny the Obama administration anything it might present as a policy success.   It is what would have previously been an unthinkable decision to place the political power of their party ahead of their country's security interests.

But ultimately, a policy of blanket opposition and obstruction must lead the Republicans to confront a key question:  Are there issues where the political advantage of obstruction is more than offset by the negative impact on popularity that obstruction generates?  That is to say, are there issues the public wants, or even demands that they pass?  It may be that START ratification, being as it's supported by virtually everyone in the diplomatic, military and arms control communities and opposition to ratification is premised entirely on willful misinterpretations and outright lies about it's provisions might very well be one of those issues.  Just as it will be difficult for them to hold fast against unemployment insurance extensions for their fellow citizens, it is not difficult to imagine enough Republican Senators choosing the less confrontational path for the treaty to pass.

Unlike the debt ceiling vote, where Republican intransigence would be extremely unpopular due to it's widespread destructiveness, but the leadership feels they can shift some if not most of that blame for the resultant government shutdown over to the Obama administration, blame for the failure of START or UI Extensions would fall entirely on the shoulders of the Republican legislators who either vote as a bloc to defeat the measure or simply use arcane and dysfunctional Senate procedures to prevent a vote altogether.  In the case of START, that will come down to whether or not the public cares about another arms control treaty with Russia in 2010.  And like so many other issues, the President has been ineffective in explaining to his constituency why they should care.  And without any real public interest, the media will ignore the issue or cover it in their usual, dysfunctional "Earth - Flat or Round?  Experts Disagree" fashion that will emphasize the political horse race over the actual policy at hand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does Bipartisanship Matter?

Making public policy is like making anything else.  Above all, quality matters.  In legislation, it's really not important who voted for it, or against it, how many pages it fills or how long it took to produce.  The only thing that really matters is that it perform it's intended function without introducing a new set of inefficiencies, and that it do so in a cost effective and timely fashion.  So why is it considered so important that public policy be made in a 'bipartisan' manner?

It's important to view this question in the current context.  Over the preceding years and decades, the idea behind legislation and public policy was much like the idea behind an adversarial legal system.  You would bring in voices from both sides of an issue, and have them work out a solution that was acceptable to all.  This made certain you wouldn't end up with something extreme or unfair to a fault.  And as long as the politicians and legislators shared the same goal of governing well, this system did work.  It tended to move slowly, but it prevented wild swings in political, economic or social direction.  This process in no way guaranteed good policy, but it functioned fairly well in preventing exceedingly bad policy.

Today, all discussions of politics and public policy in America must be viewed through a cracked lens:  Our system has broken down under the strain of an increasingly polarized debate and the willingness of the participants to operate as desperate players in a zero-sum game of survival rather than statesmen seeking to improve the lives and well being of their constituents.  Indeed, the very goal has shifted, from a desire to govern well to a desire to have the power to govern.  The goal is no longer to improve the lives and well being of the governed, but rather increase the power and wealth of the party.  When the rhetoric went from a staid "my opponent is wrong" to an apocalyptic "my opponent is an America - hating socialist trying to destroy the America we know and love" the opportunities for reasonable discussion are at an end.

Interestingly, you'll notice no outcry for bipartisanship in Parliamentary governments.  That's because whoever wins the election gets to implement their agenda, and the other side is seldom even asked for input.  One may agree or disagree with the function or general tone of any particular policy, but it is rarely heard that Parliamentary democracies by their very nature produce bad or wildly extreme legislation.  When you stop and think about it, any belief that legislation must have bipartisan support in order to have political legitimacy is completely unfounded, and indeed, in the context of the twentyfirst century American political system merely gives an unprincipled opposition another tool with which to obstruct real attempts at governance.

While some of these demands for bipartisanship in the the media may well reflect an honest, if misguided desire to return to serious and effective governance, many of them seem merely intended to delegitimize a Democratic legislative agenda they deem too liberal.  But any serious effort to improve the legislative product coming from Capitol Hill must address the various procedural impediments to good policy.  In fact, at this point we should be demanding less bipartisan activity, not more.  At this point, it only seems to slow down the process, water down the legislation and create gaps and loopholes that greatly reduce the effectiveness of the finished bill.  If some of the arbitrary and nonsensical procedural veto points were eliminated, a smaller group of public servants genuinely interested in governing might well produce better, more effective and less costly public policy that accomplishes important goals.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb...Iraq?

In the latest formulation in the ongoing argument from the US Military that the occupation of Iraq must never, ever come to an end, Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan expressed his deep concern that if America was to actually honor her treaty obligations and withdraw completely from Iraq, it would be bad because then Iraq would be vulnerable to air attacks.  It's interesting.  If you look at the last twenty years of history, the only nation that has shown any interest in attacking Iraq from the air has been the United States.  But General Buchanan doesn't seem to be indicating that in the event of US air strikes against Iraq the US Air Force would be there to prevent them, so it's not at all clear what exactly is the basis for his concern.

Before Iraq under Saddam Hussein ran afoul of the US political leadership, the vaunted Iraqi Army, particularly the Armored Divisions of the Revolutionary Guards, were seen by Washington as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and hegemony in the region.  In order to understand this construct, one must be careful to forget that there never was any actual evidence of Iranian expansionism, and indeed, it was Iraq, along with that other peaceful democracy, Israel, that tended to start wars and squabbles in the mid east.  Iraq did come under air attack from Iran after Saddam invaded Iran to start an eight year marathon of bloodletting in 1980, and of course, after launching ballistic missiles at Israel in 1991, Israel threatened air strikes of their own.  But the lesson here is that first, Iraq is now closely allied with their former enemy Iran and is under no risk of attack from the east, and second, history demonstrates that Iraq is unlikely to come under further air attacks as long as they refrain from starting wars in the first place.

It's also more than a little unclear that the US would even act in the case of a third nation's air strikes on Iraqi territory.  Turkey regularly bombs Iraq with impunity, and the only nation that might realistically develop significant tensions with the new Iraqi leadership, Saudi Arabia, is a major US ally and trade partner, and if events led the Saudis to the conclusion they needed to attack Iraq, it's a little difficult to see the US deciding to intervene militarily.

Honestly, this desperate desire on the part of the US military leadership to keep significant forces deployed in Iraq essentially forever is very difficult to understand.  It might be one thing if by accepting withdrawal the armed forces would lose some amount of funding for personnel or procurement, but the only budgetary reductions they would see from withdrawal are those funds being spent to sustain the forces in the first place.  They can't keep enough troops on the ground in Iraq to represent a powerful presence on the oil fields, and yet they have enough troops still in country to represent a major impact on the operational tempo.  As things have evolved politically and diplomatically in Iraq, the US military would lose nothing by willingly ending their involvement there as quickly as possible, and they would recognize significant gains.

Still, it seems as if much of the military command structure spends much of their time trying to come up with a compelling reason to stay in Iraq beyond the end of next year, despite there being no rational reason for them to do so.  Certainly, one of the things the world has learned about the US since the Bush/Cheney administration is that we don't take international treaties and agreements seriously, and will violate or abrogate them on a whim.  But their real problem, the thing that makes these transparent attempts at some level of permanent occupation appear silly, is that there really IS no good reason for the US to continue to keep military forces in Iraq.  So we get these kind of nonsensical concerns like General Buchanan's newfound desire to protect Iraqis from air attack.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Burnin' Down the House

Follow the logic here.  It's all about Government spending.  Why is it all spending, all the time?  Because you're not allowed to talk about raising taxes, only lowering them.  But why is it an issue at all?  The answer, we are repeatedly and shrilly informed, it the Deficit.  Now if you talk to someone who is expert in these sorts of fiscal matters, and they aren't shrieking and spewing spittle over ideological received wisdom, they will tell you that deficit spending is not a problem today, and is an easily managed problem in the longer term.  And polling consistently shows that the American people A.) don't care about the deficit and B.) don't want their taxes to increase or spending to decrease.  Except for foreign aid - everybody's uniformly against foreign aid.  But if deficit spending is not a near term problem, not like unemployment and economic growth and home foreclosures and the like, then why are we hearing nothing but endless screaming about the deficit in general, and an immediate need to cut spending right NOW?

To understand the underlying dynamic driving this misappropriation of political and economic concern, you have to see it for what it actually is - an ideologically driven political tactic.  There are certain primary goals of the American Political Right, and to a large extent they can be summed up as A.) transferring as much wealth as possible from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans and B.) preventing the downward distributional transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor.  Every position they take and every issue they involve themselves in can only be understood when viewed through this lens.  By coordinating a unified message that deficit spending is the greatest threat to the union in recent memory, they can convince the electorate that they must, in the name of the very survival of the nation, accept significant pain as the government is force to cut programs they depend on, from education and Pell grants to state and local aid to unemployment benefits and access to health care.  Of course, their utter incoherence on tax policy, the theory that even as clear and present a threat as the deficit represents, taxes can never be raised in any form and indeed must be reduced for corporations and top earners should expose the entire argument for the fraudulent political tactic it is.  But alas, it never does.

So they come, like a flock of Valkyries in green eyeshades, this 112th Congress will descend on Washington with but a single, overarching mandate: Cut government spending to decrease the deficit.  No tax increases and no increases in the deficit will be allowed.  And so we arrive at the crux of the matter.   Back in February of this year the congress raised the statutory debt ceiling to 14.3 trillion dollars.  In their very first month in session, the new Congress will have to raise it again, or the government will be unable to continue to function.  Now understand, there is no reason why they couldn't raise the debt ceiling to allow government to continue to operate while they craft their supposed debt reduction legislative agenda.  But since it's not really about the deficit at all, and no one in congress really has any intention of actually doing anything that significantly decreases the US debt, symbolic gestures become important.  Things like a moratorium on earmarks, which has been at the forefront of conservative deficit foment for years, and which does precisely nothing to reduce the deficit.  And things like the debt ceiling.  By refusing to increase the debt ceiling, they accomplish several things.  They show their spending cutting bona fides without really cutting spending.  They throw yet more sand into the gears of "big government" in general and the much loathed Obama administration in particular.  And of course, they shut down the government.

Newt Gingrich, never much of a team player, has already gone ahead and spilled the beans on their game plan.  They will give Obama a budget full of such draconian cuts, one that so reduces the government's ability to provide services and meet existing demands that he will be unable to sign it.  Hence, the cry will go up, it is Obama who is preventing the operation of government.  With a single stroke of the pen he could end the dispute and get back to the business of governance.  But remember, it is as it has always been with the teabaggers.   It is their own crass, ham fisted stupidity that is their own worst enemy.  We've seen for the last two years how quick the President is to capitulate, how willing he is to bargain away core progressive positions for a pittance, or even, frequently, for nothing at all.  A classic pol, he seems to have no central guiding principles, but rather a willingness to sacrifice whatever is necessary on the altar of political expediency in order to take what he can get.  I feel certain that if Boehner were to send Obama a budget filled with radical right wing economic ideology, with no sop to the progressive caucus and deep, painful cuts to social programs and safety nets, but one which preserved JUST enough of the status quo that signing it would not lead to outright chaos, Obama would back down in short order.  It is only the fact that they can be reliably counted on to overstep, reach for too much on their opening gambit, that will prevent the predictable Democratic surrender and lead us into the most dangerous game of political chicken we've ever seen.

The path to a full government shutdown is clear.  The path to it's resolution may not exist.  Nothing good will flow from it, and to add offensive insult to sickening injury, the best hope we have is that American business, particularly the financial sector and the Chamber of Commerce step in and reign in their attack dogs in order to preserve their profits.  And when we're reduced to hoping that the same greedy plutocrats who put us in this horrific position and nearly destroyed America in the process will come to our rescue, even if only as an unintended consequence of them saving themselves, that's when we realize how badly it's all gotten away from us.  The new year does not bode well for us.

Cantor Intuitive

Eric Cantor, one of the most powerful American political leaders, wants to make sure you know where his loyalties lie.  In a private meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last week, Cantor assured the Israeli Prime Minister that he and his fellow congressional Republicans would "serve as a check" on the Obama administration's mid-east foreign policy.  But in addition to being very powerful, Eric Cantor, like many of the other right-wing extremists in Washington, is both stupid and deeply egotistical.  So while it's a reasonable assumption that assurances like this have been offered before, Cantor's office immediately and proudly issued a press release describing his conversation with Netanyahu honestly and in detail.

It's hard to even find a way to express how radical and un American this is.  For years now, we have watched Joe Lieberman endorse a series of actions and policies that are unequivocally in Israel's national interest, or at least in those interests as perceived and advocated by Likud and AIPAC, even when those policies and actions would function to the detriment of the United States, ostensibly Lieberman's home nation and one to which he swore an oath of office.  But while Lieberman's actions clearly favored Israel's interest and well being over America, he was always careful never to actually SAY that his primary loyalty was to Israel, and whenever those two national commitments found themselves in tension, he would choose to side with the foreign power over his own.  You could SEE this was true, but his words of denial and claims to American patriotism served as a kind of a bulwark against any accusations of disloyalty.

But Cantor has crossed even that faint, grey line.  He has promised privately, and touted the promise publicly, that he would support the policy agenda of a foreign head of state against the policies of his own nation and without consideration to how it might harm US interests.  As if there are not substantial risks to US National Security in the mid east, and as if Israel, as America's largest foreign aid beneficiary had no responsibility for considering America's interests even as she accepted the billions in American largess.

So, what is to be done with a member of the Congressional leadership who promises support and fealty to another nation in defiance of his own?  Well, to put it succinctly, nothing.  This is a new era, where soaring American rhetoric of the rule of law, particularly the inspiring part where no one is above it, is a quaint reminder of an earlier, simpler time, and to rise to a certain level of political power and influence is to be afforded a kind of across the board immunity.  When torture, indefinite detention and illegal surveillance no longer have any consequences, what are we to do with mere treason, a simple political decision to put the interests of another nation ahead of your own as long as your own is headed by a member of the other political party?  It's all fair game now, dismissed with a rueful smile and a "politics ain't beanbag" sort of truism so that we might get on to the more important matters of denying Unemployment benefits to desperate American citizens and making certain that bank foreclosure efforts continue to run smoothly despite any minor paperwork "irregularities".

At some point, the collective problems, crises, inefficiencies and dysfunctions of American governance will have to be confronted, honestly and effectively.  The pandering, the lying, the pretending will all have to end, at least for a while, in order to forestall disaster for the cherished business and political classes themselves.  The real costs to real lives will have been immense, but when the time comes they will work together with surprising efficiency and capability to save the system that so richly benefits them and their peers, so that they might return, with a wink, to the lovely gentleman's club of life that is theirs by birthright.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Ahmed Ghailani lost in Federal court. And, of course, the media dashes to the exits to pronounce him a winner.  Even as I grow more disgusted with the dregs celebrating the collapse of the American experiment in justice, democracy and the rule of law, I wonder.  Do these cretins honestly not get it?  Or are they just so subsumed with hatred, and so captivated by the concept of 'the other' that they honestly cannot see the course they have chosen.  

How many times does it have to be said?  How hard, really, is it to grasp?  Ghailani is not a soldier.  He is a criminal.  There IS no war.  There is no army, no capitol to take, no government to depose, no identifiable enemy, just a few hundred trans-national criminals to be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced.  All within the simple day-to-day process of a functioning democracy.  But when it all goes off the rails, when we violate our own laws and adopt the very methods of those we are fighting, when we choose to fight criminality not with the rule of law, but with more, and more vicious criminality, we find ourselves caught in a bind of our own making.

We must realize that it would have been a simple matter to convict Ahmed Ghailani on all these charges if we had followed our own time-proven rules.  He was NOT acquitted because the prosecutor failed, or the Federal Courts somehow were unable to deal with the magnitude or character of his crimes.  Pay attention now, this is important.  He was acquitted of most of the charges because WE TORTURED HIM.  Those statements are NOT admissible in a trial.  We, as Americans, used to be very clear on why that is important, and why coerced testimony cannot be allowed.  Now, frothing at the mouth, we wonder why this criminal defendant was acquitted of the murder and terrorism charges against him, ignoring the fact that he WAS convicted of conspiracy for which he will spend decades, if not the rest of his natural life, in prison.  We demand Military Tribunals, a system of justice that has a poor track record for convicting terrorist defendants and little global respect, over a system that somehow managed to render a harsh verdict and maximally punish a mid-level terrorist operator for crimes committed DESPITE the fact that the American government found it expedient to torture him and hold him illegally for years in detention without charge or due process.  I'd have to say that's an amazing and somewhat disconcerting accomplishment all on it's own.

And yet the politically motivated outrage comes screaming in from every speaker, from every screen, from every paper.  It's not good enough that we captured him.  It's not near enough that we held  him, and tortured him, and interrogated him and in the end prosecuted him and convicted him.  Oh no.  That the courts that acquitted him on the terrorism charges did not have the capacity to accept coerced evidence proves they are simply not up to the job.  We need to try terror suspects in a venue that will ensure their conviction, no matter what has been done to them in our names.  What if Ghailani had been found not guilty of all charges?

And that is, ultimately, the key question.  I submit that we have become cowards, too afraid of the wrath of one man to live up to our own values, and we would have been seen by the world for what we are.  It is one thing to hold people in detention without trial or due process for years, but it is another thing altogether to put one of those detainees on trial, have him found not guilty and still refuse to release him. What do you suppose we have learned about the future of the Guantanamo detainees, and our belief in our system of justice?  We know our justice system works, not because of Ghailani's conviction, but because of the hundreds of not guilty verdicts.  And sadly, disgustingly, it is precisely because the system is so good at rendering justice that it is clearly too politically risky to allow it to be used going forward.  But even the Military tribunals have rules against coerced evidence, and they all will have to operate under the minimum mandates in the Constitution.  And so, in the dawn of a new era, call it the "Sovietization" of America, we now have our own set of political prisoners we can't try and we won't release.  And I miss living in a country that I was proud of.

The President is Revolting!

Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, came out forcefully against unfettered US and NATO combat operations in the country he nominally leads.   Recently, under the leadership of General Petraeus, special forces nighttime raids have more than tripled - with the attendant increase in Afghan civilian deaths and detentions.  The people are, unsurprisingly, fed up and frightened, and it is the Afghan political leadership, not the foreign military leadership, that must answer for the death, destruction and intimidation.

In another glaring example of the hubris and lack of self-awareness that has come to characterize the US Government, General Petraeus was said to be furious that the President of Afghanistan would have the temerity to suggest he might have some oversight or control over military operations in Afghanistan.  In a particularly American view of the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied, Petraeus not only expects obedience and fealty from the Afghan political leadership, he expects them to be grateful for his willingness to help them by killing and detaining whoever he wants to, whenever he feels the need.  You'll likely remember the prototypical example of this behavior, when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stood on a giant US airbase just outside of Baghdad and vehemently criticized what she termed Iranian "Interference" in Iraqi affairs.  She kept a straight face, too.

Now it's bad enough that no one in the US government can provide a simple and plausible answer to what American national security imperative requires the massive deployment of military power in a small, poor, mountainous, landlocked nation with no resources thousands of miles from US shores.  It's bad enough that Obama claims to be working to deny al Quaeda access to 'safe havens' in Afghanistan when he knows that their real safe haven is in Pakistan and there isn't anything he can do about that.  It's bad enough that we are told we must defeat a small, local insurgency in Afghanistan no matter what expenditure of lives and resources it requires, but we seem to be much more sanguine about similar or larger insurgencies in places like Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Nigeria.  But when that military presence demands we pretend to partner with a corrupt thug like Karzai, accepting all the diplomatic and credibility costs that come with it, and then undermine it all by making it clear that, even as President, he has less power in his own country than a 34 year old SpecOps Major from Kentucky.

Afghanistan is a bleeding wound on the American nation, but as often happens with wounds, it provides an opportunity to see more clearly the underlying condition.  It is in Afghanistan that we learn that Barack Obama is driven not by ideals or philosophy, but by naked political calculation.  The American presence in Afghanistan is indefensible, and surely Obama knows that.  Not even with his vaunted oratorical skills can he provide a coherent explanation for the Afghan war that doesn't fall apart even as it's uttered.  But the political costs and risks of ending the American involvement in Afghanistan are undoubtedly much higher than those associated with a few hundred billion dollars and a few hundred young American lives lost every year.  It would take substantial political courage to end the American involvement in Afghanistan, certainly, but we can now rest assured that whatever else he might have, Barack Obama does not have that courage.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Carrying Their Water

The path from memoirs to justice is long and convoluted, and the US government has made a decision to "look forward instead of backward", but none other than GW Bush himself may offer us, if not justice, some kind of closure.  Stalin never admitted to authorizing torture as a policy of state.  Neither did, at risk of finding myself in some distasteful company for the reference, Hitler.  Heads of state tend to try to separate themselves from the more unpleasant aspects of empire, both for reasons of historical legacy and simple legalistic pragmatism, even without considering the effect on international diplomacy.

Now to be fair, Bush and Cheney have consistently denied that waterboarding is torture.  This position is supported by a compliant DoJ Office of Legal Council, which was prepared to offer legal cover to the devouring of newborns on the White House lawn at midnight if it was requested.  But there is no doubt.  Waterboarding, the practice of using water to drown a subject within seconds of his life, only to allow a bit of breath before drowning the hapless victim once again, has been denounced, criminalized and prosecuted as torture, an inhuman brutality that produces not information, but desperate, hopeful confessions to any crime the dying subject might think will improve his objectively slim chances at survival not just in recent times, but for centuries.

By now we're all too familiar with the history.  Often used during the Spanish inquisition, the 'water torture' was used steadily down through the ages because of it's combination of effectiveness at securing a confession and it's unusual (in the realm of torture) capacity for leaving an unmarked and (physically) undamaged subject.  After World War II, Japanese troops were tried for war crimes that included waterboarding prisoners.  During the Vietnam war, at least one American soldier was court martialed for waterboarding NVA prisoners.  In short, pathetic attempts by the Bush administration to re-brand waterboarding as a method of interrogation that falls somewhat short of torture in some technical sense will never be able to overcome hundreds of years of common sense and legal decisions.

All of which brings us to the pre-release hype for "Decision Points", the memoir from George W. Bush. In it, he readily offers that when the CIA asked him if they could waterboard Khalid Sheik Mohammed, his response was an enthusiastic "Damn right!"

The first interesting question is why would he do that?  You know his lawyers vetted the book, and there can be no doubt that they strongly encouraged him to describe these events more ambiguously.  It's what lawyers do, and it is not difficult to come up with a way to tell the same story without explicitly admitting ordering an act of torture in violation of US and International law.  So one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that he was completely confident, likely to the point of having received personal assurances from Federal prosecutors, that he would enjoy de facto immunity from prosecution in the US for the extent of his lifetime.  And so, it seems, he will.

But George Bush is, at 64, a relatively young man.  A former President, wealthy and powerful, with a large circle of wealthy, powerful, pampered friends.  He's without doubt an arrogant man, thoughtless and impulsive, with an expectation that he will get what he wants.  And now, as a result of the admission, much of the world is closed off to him today.  It is the richest of ironies that this President, who made such self-serving noise about the benefits of democracy will now be unable to travel to any real democracy in the world out of fear of prosecution under international treaties covering war crimes and torture.  Sure and he will be able to travel freely and without concern to any of the authoritarian dictatorships he counts among his friends and allies, from Saudi Arabia to China.  But any thoughts of travel to the democratic nations of Europe, South America and South Asia will give him pause.  One can easily imagine a judicial prosecutor in France or England or India taking him into custody, at least for questioning.

But despite the small sense of justice one might feel knowing his monstrous actions will cost him a few of the perks of office and wealth, and even some marginal bit of prestige, it's important to recognize what he has once again done to us all, collectively, the (hopefully) final insult of a foul era.  As Americans, we are frequently surprised by the hate and anger expressed by people around the world at our actions, but even more surprising might be how ultimately limited the hate and anger actually are.  Even as we murder Pakistani citizens with impunity, and bribe the corrupt Pakistani government for their complicity, even as our troops operate in other nations without a thought to their sovereignty, even as our intelligence services spy, murder and bribe in nations on every continent for ill-defined but certainly self-serving purposes, much of the world sees the tremendous wealth, the dynamic energy, and even the shining promise of our founding documents, and their anger and outrage at our brutal, destructive actions is muted.  To a large extent, that is because of who we are as a people.  Or, more accurately perhaps, who they've come to believe we are as a people.

But who are we really, if our elected leadership freely admits to horrific criminal acts and is not only not prosecuted for it, but is rewarded?   What does it say about us, finally, when a man elected to the position they call "leader of the free world" not once, but twice, can arrogantly stand up before the world and announce proudly that he is a torturer?  How can we continue to call out the likes of Omar al-Bashir or Kim Jong-il for their savage mistreatment of their people when our leader admits to the same actions with a smile?  This man, this smug, repulsive man-child has single handedly made America a rogue state, and he has done it in all our names.  While much fiction has been produced exploring what might happen if America elected a sociopath with no values, no compassion, no humanity, here it is, played out before out eyes.  And while the real-world outcomes of that very scenario might have been more prosaic, they are ultimately even worse than many of those envisioned.  For we are left tarnished, devalued and exposed for what HE is, a venal, greedy thug for whom power is the only measure of value, and human suffering is merely a coin to be spent in pursuit of other goals.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I am Outraged by Your Outrage!

Kieth Olbermann made a few political contributions and was suspended indefinitely by the powers that be at MSNBC.  From Facebook to Twitter to a million liberal blogs the outrage is as palpable as it was predictable.  Spittle seems to spew off the pages as they shout their hoarse cries of offense and rage, shaking with anger at the unfairness and bias they see behind this action.  And so it may be.

But I want to make one thing as clear as I possibly can.  I don't care about Kieth Olbermann.  I don't care about Cable TV news shows.  They simply do not matter.  They are closed systems, preaching the gospel of high dudgeon to an audience that already believed all the same things and is absolutely unwilling to listen to anything they might disagree with.  That would make them uncomfortable.  One of the clearest signs of a closed-minded ideologue is that they never seek information - only reinforcement.  There is a risk to learning - everything you learn changes the way you see the world.  Learn enough things and the next thing you know you'll be reexamining your entire worldview.  Of course, this tendency to cling to a set of beliefs runs counter to the instincts of empirical secularists, which certainly explains why Olbermann was losing the ratings fight.

But therein lies the point.  This sort of spittle-flecked ranting over prosaic events of little significance is classically a wingnut trait.  I do not have to see the people I disagree with as horrific monsters, as Hitlers and Stalins and Guevaras and killers of innocents.  I can see them as misinformed, I can call them out when they are disingenuous, and I can argue in favor of affirmative public policy actions I believe will improve the lives of citizens in my community.  Certainly, every now and then someone will actually do something so offensive, so beyond the boundaries of legitimate political discourse that outrage is a natural result, and in those cases it is not only justified, but necessary.  But by allowing ourselves to become outraged daily by small events of little consequence, we end up in a place where it's hard to react differently to rape than to an illegal left turn.  In all our repeated fury, we lose an important part of our humanity when we lose all sense of degree.

The outrage du jour is a mindless, silly game played at the confluence of the 24 hour news cycle and ideological demonization.  My political opponent is so evil, so completely monstrous that there is nothing he or she cannot do that doesn't inflame my anger, offend my sensibilities and generate gigabytes of demands that it all stop now.  I recognize there is no hope of recalibrating our sense of outrage, but like so many things, I do not have to participate.

A rich, famous television star losing his job does not cause me outrage.  Politically, we lost nothing - he was not converting people to see the world the way I do, he was not exposing criminality and wrongdoing, he was simply telling a few million people what they want to hear, night in and night out.  Poor, sick, unemployed, homeless Americans is an outrage.  Murdering Pakistani villagers is an outrage. Providing cover for people to take the ancestral homes of Palestinians at the point of a gun is an outrage. Threatening to attack other sovereign nations that do not threaten the US or her interests is an outrage.  But we don't want to talk about these things.  We don't want to talk about economic solutions, or the proper role of government in society, or the most appropriate way to raise the revenues necessary for government to deliver those services.

We scream and rant about a fired TV host, or shout nonsensical lies about a routine Presidential trip abroad.  We worry endlessly that a doomed candidate might be a witch, or whether another is really a Christian.  And all the while, with every tick of the clock, the real problems become greater and that much harder to solve.  We'll need to talk about them at some point.  Maybe after tomorrows' outrage?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Stupidity

What IS it with us?  How can it be true that while the twentyfirst century didn't give us robot housekeepers or flying cars, it gave us alone in the world a political leadership whose defining characteristic is their ignorance?  I don't mean the kind of metaphorical, out-of-touch kind of ignorance most nation's elites acquire from the tiny bubble they live and work in they entire lives, I mean a more crass, destructive, willful ignorance that brings them to espouse beliefs that are, in a word, false.  Not just discredited or formerly believed but proved false, but blatantly textbook F-on-the-test wrong.  Beliefs that transparently support their ideological agendas but are simply known to be incorrect descriptions of how the world works.

Certainly one must consider Climate science.  No other group, no matter how conservative, how right wing, how pro-business they might be denies the established science - only the American Political Right.  Making them not only a global laughingstock, but making the rest of the world that much less willing to curb their greenhouse gas emissions if the largest polluter on the planet not only has no intention of taking action, but one of their two political parties utterly refuses to acknowledge that a problem exists.  How frustrating it must be for political and economic leaders around the globe to try and work with an American government that seems willing to delude itself in order to protect short term corporate profits.

And, of course, in America we have a 'Christian Problem'.  As our politics move to the right, our politicians are increasingly activist, dominionist, theocratic fundamentalist Christians, with all the tribal, sectarian, anti-science and anti-woman dogma that goes with it.  We have reached a point, as demonstrated by the just-concluded Rand Paul campaign where even an otherwise ideologically pure atheist candidate must credibly claim to be a "Pro Life Christian", and must maintain the illusion for their entire political career.  In order to qualify to hold public office, an American "conservative" must at a minimum deny climate science, claim to believe that the bible is the literal word of god and refuse to acknowledge belief in evolution.  In other words, they must proclaim a level of understanding of our world commensurate with their counterparts from the sixteenth century.

But by far the most destructive manifestation of the increasing demand for willful stupidity in our political leadership today is economic.  Now, there are some legitimate debates one might have over macroeconomic policy.  But there are also established facts, ground truths that cannot be  disputed in good faith.  The entire edifice of modern economics is predicated on a set of basic facts, and when the people who make the economic decisions can't or won't understand those facts, they are going to make policy decisions that not only do not improve economic conditions, but actively make them worse.  As usual, we have arrived at this collective delusion out of party dogma run amok.  The American Political Right and their Republican political leadership have long used 'the deficit' as a cudgel to convince ordinary Americans to transfer some of their wealth to the wealthy, which is against their personal interests.  Most ordinary Americans don't really know what the deficit is, how big it is, what makes it grow or contract - they only know that it's bad, because they've been repeatedly told so.  In their collective minds it gets conflated with economic conditions, income growth, taxes and unemployment.  Now to be sure, the conservatives don't care about the deficit - historically it always rises under Republican leadership and shrinks under the Democrats - for them it is nothing but a marketing term, used to sell an otherwise unpalatable agenda on the basis of fear and doubt.

But it brings us to this very dangerous crossroad.  In America, we have a multi-trillion dollar output gap. Spending and demand are down as people don't have jobs and struggle to stay in their homes.  Incomes are flat, and businesses are desperate for sales revenues.  Nothing can change until somebody starts to spend real money on goods and services, so demand increases and companies need to hire, expand, buy inventory and equipment and raw materials.  The well known macroeconomic solution is called "expansionary fiscal policy" or by the more common, if badly tarnished "economic stimulus".  An argument about whether or not stimulus "works" is stupid.  If you own a business selling screws, and nobody's buying screws, you lose money, you lay off workers, you have trouble paying your mortgage.  If the government then steps in and buys ten million screws from you, you need to hire workers, expand your building and buy more inventory which means your supplier has to expand too.  And all those new workers take their paychecks out in the community and spend money that would never have gotten there without the stimulus purchase of those screws.  To deny that government spending can increase economic activity is, well, once again, ignorant.

As a side note, one cannot help but wonder why President Obama is playing along in the willful idiocy game.  He keeps talking about reducing spending and lowering the deficit, which is a long-term concern.  The unemployment rate is a crisis right now.  You KNOW he's a very smart man, and he knows that austerity will hurt the American economy, and yet he pretends he believes the collective delusion.  He could easily be saying that we need more stimulus but congress won't appropriate the funds instead of helping to perpetuate a false, delusional worldview.  I cannot begin to imagine what he thinks he is accomplishing by pretending to be a stupid as his opposition.

But this is what we've come to.  The most powerful, wealthiest nation in the world now not only embraces stupidity, but demands it.  How can we ever solve our problems when we no longer are even willing to accept the basic facts that underlie them?  We've become a spoiled child, not only unwilling to do the hard things, but not even willing to believe there might be consequences.  When all paths to the future are effectively foreclosed, there is only the past.  And I fear we are entering our dark ages.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Magic Number

Eleven wins.  That's what it takes to win baseball's postseason and become the champion.  Eight teams start the playoffs, and the first one to win eleven games is the big winner.  Eleven wins is really a small thing.  The regular season is 162 games long, stretching from April to October.  No eleven of those 162 can be deemed to be critical, although the difference between going to the playoffs and going home can often be just a win or two.  But when they start the postseason, it's a sprint, a race to eleven.  It's amusing how baseball analysts will decide this playoff game or that one is a 'must win' game.  Eight teams.  Eleven wins.  They're ALL must win games.  Lose just one too many and the dream ends for another year.

After the Padres imploded (interestingly dooming their season by losing ten in a row), you could begin to see the playoffs take shape.  The Giants were better than the Braves - the only real uncertainty in the NLDS was the best of five format.  In such a short series, too much depends on luck - a single good or bad break, a missed call, a bad hop can determine the outcome.  In a five game series, the best team doesn't always win - but you had to like the Giants chances.

The real obstacle, the hill that would likely prove insurmountable was the Phillies.  They were the 800 pound gorilla of the National League, with the killer pitching staff, the superstar lineup, the World Series experience.  No, sadly, the plucky Giants had little hope to win the NLCS.  The Phillies knew it.  The analysts knew it.  Hell, if I was to be honest, I knew it.  The conversation had already begun to drift to who the Phillies would play in the World Series.  Unfortunately for the Phillies and their fans, nobody told the Giants.

One of Dusty Baker's greatest failings as a pro baseball manager was his unwillingness to take his veterans out of the lineup.  He'd stick with his guys, no matter how awful they were playing, no matter what options he had available.  This is where Bruce Bochy stood tall.  Renteria made all the difference in the world, but Bochy should be MVP.  He was ruthless, dispassionately leaving Zito behind, leaving fan favorite Sandoval on the bench, moving his pieces every day without regard to feelings or seniority, but only to give his team their best chance to win.  And they were a team.  There was no bruised egos (well, one - but Bengie gets a ring anyway), no public whining, no thoughts of who deserved to be there, only of who was the best available option on any given day.  So Cain pitched at home.  Renteria and Uribe anchored the left side of the infield.  When Burrell HAD to sit, Huff was DH'd and Ishikawa got a rare start at first.

And the Giants played as advertised.  First and foremost, they PITCHED.  Two shutouts, and Game 5 was one mistake from being a third.  It's hard to remember now, but before the season started there was grave concern over the ability of this team to play defense.  Huff would be a disaster at first, Sanchez didn't have enough range at second, Renteria couldn't make the play in the hole anymore.  But the defense in the World Series was stellar.  From Torres and Ross in the outfield to Sanchez and Uribe to Buster Posey gunning down baserunners with nothing short of alacrity, the pitchers were unafraid to challenge the strike zone and put the ball in play.

In the end, it wasn't ever close.  The Rangers depended on their tremendous hitters to win games, and the Giants pitching just shut them down.  Hamilton, Guerrero, Young, great hitters made merely human by even greater pitchers.

On July 6th, one week before the All Star Game, the Giants went to Milwaukee for a three game set.  They were one game over .500, in fourth place in the Division, 7½ games out of first place.  They had just lost a 15 inning heartbreaker in Colorado.  No one was surprised, and when talk turned to potential postseason matchups, the Giants were never mentioned.  A .500 team in the middle of the pack, they had put together a terrific pitching staff and were squandering it with a limp, pathetic offense.  On April 20th, Jonathan Sanchez pitched a one hitter against San Diego and lost.  In May, after a particularly frustrating game in which the Giants lost the lead twice, broadcaster Duane Kuiper deadpanned "Giants Baseball: Torture".  And so it was.

When you hear people speak of "intangibles" and "chemistry" in sports teams, there is no longer any room for argument or debate.  Talent, grit, focus and a little bit of luck make good teams.  What makes them great is a little harder to describe.  The 2002 Giants were the most talented team they had ever put on the field, and they went to the World Series, but they lost.  Those last bits, those final pieces of the puzzle that made the Giants not just better than the Phillies but World Series Champions don't show up in box scores or lineup cards.  But without them, greatness is out of reach.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dead Dogs

Conventional wisdom is that it's better to have legislators who vote with your caucus occasionally than it is to have legislators who will NEVER vote with your caucus.  And like much of the most conventional of conventional wisdom, this is unarguably true in theory.  The problems arise when you try to translate it into practice.  And in the case of the so-called 'Blue Dogs',  those problems are legion.

The political theory is that the Democrats are a "Big Tent" party, and for Democrats to be elected to Congress in states and districts with less liberal populations, you will naturally end up with less liberal Democrats.  And that not only makes sense, it should allow you to build a larger, more diverse caucus.   But here's the thing.  That -D at the end of your name has to still mean something in the end.  If a representative is so conservative that he or she is effectively part of the opposition, then you are no better off than if he or she has a -R after their name.

A working majority is a valuable opportunity for legislators to implement their agenda, and the agenda of their party (which should be very close to the same).  And all things being equal, a larger majority is better.  But, in the case of the Blue Dog Democrats, all things are most certainly NOT equal.  It's not even that they often vote against their caucus.  One of the advantages of a larger majority is that it can absorb a more significant number of defections.  It is a longstanding political tactic to whip enough votes to pass a bill, and then select those lawmakers for whom the vote would be politically problematic and let them know they can vote no and the bill will still pass.

No, the problem with Blue Dogs is not when they don't support a bill, but rather when they actively undermine the caucus and it's agenda.  When they form alliances with the opposition to water down important legislation, or stand on the Capitol steps in front of the microphones and repeat Republican lies and talking points.  When they siphon off Democratic money and support and then act in ways destructive to the goals and aspirations of their fellows and their leadership.

According to Nate Silver's Projections, the expected House Democratic minority of 203 seats will include just 27 Blue Dogs, representing 13% of the caucus, down from the current 21%.  Now a Republican Majority in a time when bigotry, fear and ignorance is ascendant is by no means to be welcomed, but in general, a smaller but more cohesive and disciplined Democratic caucus would be more desirable than the chaotic and unfocused group we saw in the 111th Congress.

We probably will never be completely rid of the Blue Dogs, but as the American political process evolves towards a more parliamentary system where the parties are unified around both an ideology and an agenda, they will lose their bite and will find it less beneficial to bark.  The goal isn't personal aggrandizement nor is it necessarily even deal making.  The goal is to accomplish something, to define an agenda and find a way to implement it.  And the time for dissension within the ranks of the party is quickly becoming a thing of the past.