Monthly Archives: January 2011

This Is The Dawning Of The Age Of Huntsmania

Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in Politico:

The White House expects Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, to resign his post this spring to explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, top Democrats said.

GOP allies of Huntsman have already begun laying plans for a quick-start campaign should the former Utah governor decide to enter the ill-defined Republican field.

While Huntsman has no direct involvement in it, a group of operatives that could eventually comprise his strategy team has set up an entity called “Horizon PAC” to serve as a placeholder for his political apparatus.

Jake Tapper at ABC:

President Obama was asked about rumors of Huntsman’s departure earlier this month at a joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao, where Huntsman sat front row, center.

“I couldn’t be happier with the ambassador’s service, and I’m sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future,” the president said.

With a mischievious smile, the president added: ““And I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

At the Gridiron dinner Saturday night, White House Chief of Staff William Daley joked that President Obama “has no hard feelings,” a White House source noted. “He just did an interview with the Tea Party Express about how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

Brandon Kiser at The Right Sphere:

Politico reports that the White House is bracing itself for a potential breaking in the ranks should US Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman resign and decide to take on the President in 2012.

But could they just be saving face? It could be that the optics of a member of the Obama team leaving to challenge him looks just too damaging – so they’re playing it off as if they expect. Who knows.

Okay, let’s look back at the news reports from 2009, when Huntsman was appointed ambassador: 

For Mr. Obama, whose advisers already have their eyes set on his re-election in 2012, the selection of Mr. Huntsman is something of a political coup. He has emerged as one of the nation’s most visible Republican governors and was expected to at least consider seeking his party’s presidential nomination to run against Mr. Obama….

It was far from certain whether Mr. Huntsman would have actually sought the Republican presidential nomination – his centrist views could have created a challenge in early-voting states – but if he is confirmed by the Senate for the ambassadorship to China, he is part of the Obama team at a time when China is of critical importance. And he is out of the mix in the 2012 presidential race.

“When the president of the United States asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that to me is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge,” said Mr. Huntsman, who was joined by his wife Mary Kaye, and the couple’s seven children, one of whom was adopted from China….

“Governor Huntsman has respect for China’s proud traditions,” Mr. Obama said Saturday. “He understands what it will take to make America more competitive in the 21st century and will be an unstinting advocate for America’s interests and ideals…. I hope the good people of Utah will forgive me and understand how proud they should be of their governor for his willingness to serve… He always puts country ahead of himself. That’s what Jon has always done.”

So everyone knew what was going on. It was hailed as a savvy plan. What now? The savviest people are the one who can outfox somebody else’s savvy plan.

The White House strategists may have been too clever by half.  Few people had heard of Huntsman outside of Utah in 2009.  While Huntsman had a good center-right record in the state, he had not done much to build himself into a national brand.  Since then, the political winds have blown far more favorably to conservatives within the GOP, which may have left Huntsman on the outside in any case.  Now Hunstman has a much higher profile than he may otherwise have attained.

In fact, they may have done themselves more damage than good.  Putting Huntsman in China would give him more credibility in foreign policy than just about any of the other presumed candidates in the GOP race except for John Bolton.  Even if Huntsman doesn’t win the nomination, criticism of Obama’s “smart diplomacy” from within the fold — especially from the man who managed the key relationship with the nation that holds a large chunk of our debt — will do significant damage to Obama in a general election.

This looks like an effort to push Huntsman into resigning as soon as possible.  The sooner Huntsman leaves, the sooner the White House can blame him for the failures in the US-China relationship over the last two years.

When the reports first came up, I laughed them off. But it’s striking now that Huntsman has failed to do the same. What I’d like to see — for the nation’s interest, and (in my view, but what do I know?) for Huntsman’s — is for him clearly to put them to rest. Says that of course he’s a Republican, and of course he’ll support the GOP ticket in 2012. But he’s doing the nation’s business now in Beijing, and doesn’t want to complicate that with all this political gossip. To me as armchair strategist, staying out of the 2012 fray would seem to save him a lot of heartache. Avoiding a primary fight in this bitter season, when he’s fresh off Team Obama; and, if he survived that, avoiding a general election battle when  — one assumes — the economic cycle should be improving. If that economic assumption is wrong, everything else changes. But if that were the case and Obama seemed gravely weakened, I am not sure that makes a moderate, rather than a red-meat conservative, the most likely Republican candidate. 

If Huntsman can’t say that, how can he stay? How is the Administration supposed to view the cables they get from him these “next few months”? Or the talks they have with him about Chinese policy on North Korea, the RMB, trade? It would be nice to hear Huntsman himself say, “This is all very flattering, and at the right time, but for now, we have important business here in China….”   Just a thought.

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Stop! Panel Time!

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Explaining something as tangled, technical, and multi-dimensional as the 2008 financial crisis is fraught with difficulty. Some have tried comparing toxic assets to supermodels, while others have given musical theater a shot.

This morning we have another answer–in the form of a 576-page book–from the congressionally appointed panel charged with investigating the roots of the meltdown. Were it not for corporate incompetence, inadequate government regulation, and excessive risk-taking by Wall Street banks in the housing market, the commission concludes, the country could have avoided financial calamity.

Keith Hennessey:

At long last, here is the dissent filed by Vice Chairman Bill Thomas, Dr. Doug Holtz-Eakin, and me to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report.  (I know, you’ve been holding your breath waiting for this.)  This dissent will be transmitted to the President and the Congress later today (Thursday, January 27th) along with the majority’s document and Peter Wallison’s separate dissent.

Our dissent is 27 pages long as a PDF.  The majority’s document is 20 times longer.  Their endnotes are 98 pages.  I am not making this up.  The full report will be available on FCIC.gov tomorrow around 10 AM EST.  Peter Wallison’s dissent is available now.

Since I know that 27 pages is too long for the overwhelming majority of readers on the web, I’ll try to suck you in by telling you that our core argument is in the first seven pages.  The last twenty flesh out in more detail each of our “ten essential causes of the crisis.”  You could stop after seven pages (I hope you won’t) and have our basic argument.

If you have followed any of the press coverage of the FCIC over the past six weeks, you may think you know what we’re going to say.  This dissent, however, makes a fundamentally different argument than the four-man document I signed onto in December.  For me this document supersedes that December document, which I looked on as a temporary placeholder.

Mark Thoma on the dissent:

Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin have a dissenting statement in response to the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission:

What Caused the Financial Crisis, by Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Commentary, WSJ: Today, six members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission … are releasing their final report. Although the three of us served on the commission, we were unable to support the majority’s conclusions and have issued a dissenting statement. …

We recognize that … other … narratives have popular appeal:… Had the government not supported housing subsidies (the first narrative) or had policy makers implemented more restrictive financial regulations (the second) there would have been no calamity.

Both of these views are incomplete and misleading. … We believe the crisis was the product of 10 factors. Only when taken together can they offer a sufficient explanation of what happened:

Starting in the late 1990s, there was a broad credit bubble in the U.S. and Europe and a sustained housing bubble in the U.S. (factors 1 and 2). Excess liquidity, combined with rising house prices and an ineffectively regulated primary mortgage market, led to an increase in nontraditional mortgages (factor 3) that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to pay.

However, the credit bubble, housing bubble, and the explosion of nontraditional mortgage products are not by themselves responsible for the crisis. Our country has experienced larger bubbles—the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, for example—that were not nearly as devastating… Losses from the housing downturn were concentrated in highly leveraged financial institutions. Which raises the essential question: Why were these firms so exposed? Failures in credit-rating and securitization transformed bad mortgages into toxic financial assets (factor 4). Securitizers lowered the credit quality of the mortgages they securitized, credit-rating agencies erroneously rated these securities as safe investments, and buyers failed to look behind the ratings and do their own due diligence. Managers of many large and midsize financial institutions amassed enormous concentrations of highly correlated housing risk (factor 5), and they amplified this risk by holding too little capital relative to the risks and funded these exposures with short-term debt (factor 6). They assumed such funds would always be available. Both turned out to be bad bets.

These risks within highly leveraged, short-funded financial firms with concentrated exposure to a collapsing asset class led to a cascade of firm failures. … We call this the risk of contagion (factor 7). In other cases, the problem was a common shock (factor 8). A number of firms had made similar bad bets on housing…

A rapid succession of 10 firm failures, mergers and restructurings in September 2008 caused a financial shock and panic (factor 9). Confidence and trust in the financial system evaporated, as the health of almost every large and midsize financial institution in the U.S. and Europe was questioned. The financial shock and panic caused a severe contraction in the real economy (factor 10). …

[I]t is dangerous to conclude that the crisis would have been avoided if only we had regulated everything a lot more, had fewer housing subsidies, and had more responsible bankers. Simple narratives like these ignore the global nature of this crisis, and promote a simplistic explanation of a complex problem. Though tempting politically, they will ultimately lead to mistaken policies.

I don’t think the conclusion that better regulation would not have stopped the crisis follows from the factors they list.

By their own admission, the reason that factors 1 and 2 led to factor 3 was “an ineffectively regulated primary mortgage market.” So right away better regulation could have stopped the chain of events the led to the crisis.

Factor 3 was “nontraditional mortgages that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to pay.” Sure seems like regulation might help to prevent deception and confusion (through, among other things, a financial protection agency). One thing is clear in any case. The market didn’t prevent these things on its own.

On to factor 4: Securitizers lowering credit standards, a failure of credit agencies, and buyers failing to do their own due diligence. Once again, regulation can help where the private market failed. The ratings agencies exist because they help to solve an asymmetric information problem. The typical purchaser of financial assets does not have the resources needed to assess the risk of complex financial assets (which is why saying that they should have performed their own due diligence misses the mark). Instead, they rely upon ratings agencies to do the assessment for them. Unfortunately, the ratings agencies didn’t do their jobs — perhaps due to bad incentives arising from to how they were paid — and this is where regulation has a role to play.

Factor 5 is the accumulation of correlated risk — again something a regulator can stop once the accumulation or risk is evident. This seems like an easy one — when regulators see this type of risk building up, they should do something about it. The question, however, is how to give regulators better tools for assessing these risks. Backing off on regulation, as implied above, won’t help with this.

M.V. at Newsbook at The Economist:

IT IS not the most promising script for a whodunit. Ten experts are brought together to solve a mystery, but they can’t get along and ultimately reach three different conclusions. That, sadly, is the story of America’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, whose book-length report was released on January 27th.

When the six Democratic and four Republican appointees began their work, there was hope that they could clarify the causes of the financial crisis in the same way as the authors of the 9/11 commission’s report had shed light on the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

It was, though, evident well before they had finished 19 days of public hearings and over 700 interviews that ideological spats would get in the way. By November Republican members were moaning that the Democrats were more interested in crafting a document  that would bolster their party’s attacks on the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives than in revealing the truth. When a majority of the panel voted to push the report’s release beyond the December 15th deadline, the four Republicans produced their own preliminary report. Then they began to fracture too.

The result is an unfortunate loss of credibility and, confusingly, three competing narratives. The main report, endorsed by the Democrats only, points to a broad swathe of failures but pins much of the blame on the financial industry, be it greed and sloppy risk management at banks, the predations of mortgage brokers, the spinelessness of ratings agencies or the explosive growth of securitisation and credit-default swaps.

The report takes swipes at politicians, too, for overseeing a long period of deregulation that allowed Wall Street to run riot; and at regulators for not using the powers they had to curb risk-taking and for blithely assuming that markets could police themselves. It points to the Federal Reserve’s “pivotal failure” to rein in reckless mortgage lending, and to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s lax supervision of investment banks. It also fingers an over-reliance on short-term debt. These, however, are hardly novel conclusions.

Rick Moran:

You may recall the Democrats telling us that the FinReg bill would make it impossible for banks to be “too big to fail” ever again. Nobody believed it then and this inquiry apparently proves it a lie.

Despite a slowly improving economy, it could all fall apart again with another shock to the system. If that happens, the taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

Richard Eskow at Huffington Post:

his report has had a long and sometimes challenging history. But to paraphrase an old gospel song, it “may not be here when you want it, but it’s right on time.”Useful Utopians

Over three decades, our government was captured by a libertarian-inspired economic philosophy that had previously been considered radical and impractical — correctly so, as it turns out. That philosophy’s most prominent spokesman, former Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, was celebrated as a “maestro,” until the house of cards he came to symbolize finally collapsed.

The prevailing economic myth, of an impossibly wise and genuinely free market, was as useful as it was Utopian. It provided ideological cover for the deregulation that both parties embraced. Government leaders were compromised by the lure of huge campaign contributions, and by a revolving door that ensured future wealth for cooperative politicians and regulators from both parties. The result enriched Wall Street and the Washington elite and left the rest of the country wounded.

The deregulation of the 90s allowed banks to take risks they couldn’t possibly survive. But they had been rescued in previous crises, and the cozy relationship between government and bankers assured them they’d be bailed out again. Freed from the consequences of their own actions, they gambled… and we lost.

Money for Nothing

The most surprising thing about the FCIC hearings for me personally was the lack of competence shown by so many top bankers. The Wall Street executives I worked for were smart, demanding, and driven, but bankers like Citi’s Robert Rubin and Chuck Prince… not so much. Their FCIC testimony displayed a shaky grasp of their business and a lack of concern about the risks facing their own organizations. Many of them seemed to lack even the most basic level of intellectual curiosity. A big bank is a fascinating, complex entity, but one executive after another seemed to shrug off the details of their own banks’ operations with bored indifference.

Sure, their testimony may have been especially vague because of their understandable desire to avoid self-incrimination. But even allowing for that, the low level of managerial skill they displayed was disconcerting. Today’s generation of financial executives may be enjoying the greatest disparity between income and executive performance since indolent princes inherited vast kingdoms through the divine right of kings.

Yet despite this embarrassing record, these executives want to be pampered and flattered by Washington again — and they’re getting their wish. The president and his party took some steps toward genuine financial reform with last year’s bill, but a great deal of work is still needed and their recent appointments aren’t encouraging. Meanwhile, the Washington consensus is pressuring the administration to assuage the “hurt feelings” of CEOs with some success, despite record profits that should provide more than adequate compensation for any injuries to their pride.

Unfinished Business

The president only mentioned financial reform in passing, in his comments about regulations:

When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s … why last year we put in place consumer protections against hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies, and new rules to prevent another financial crisis…

Last year’s bill was a start, but more reform is urgently needed — to break up “too big to fail” banks, end runaway speculation, protect consumers, and end the incestuous relationship between banks and government. Prosecutions are needed, too. They’re the only way to ensure that bankers can’t violate laws with impunity, knowing that even if they’re caught their shareholders will pay the fines.

Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture:

It appears we got hit with another 10-12 inches of snow overnight. Schools are cancelled, and my trains are not running into the city yet.

I need to go blow the snow off the driveway, then figure out what I am gong to do today. I was hoping to read the FCIC report, but it does not look like I will get to the store today.

And speaking of Snow Jobs, the dissenters in the FCIC continue their embarrassing foolishness.

The NYT devotes two paragraphs to Peter Wallison — they mention he was “chief lawyer for the Treasury Department and then the White House during the Reagan administration” and that he is “now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.”

But nowhere do they mention that he was co-director of the AEI’s Financial Deregulation Project.  This is a serious omission by a major publication.

The New York Times should be much better than this . .

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Us And Egypt, Egypt And Us

Bruce Riedel at The Daily Beast:

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia has sent a shock wave through the Arab world. Never before has the street toppled a dictator. Now Egypt is shaking, Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime faces its most serious threat ever. The prospect of change in Egypt inevitably raises questions about the oldest and strongest opposition movement in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood , also known as Ikhwan. Can America work with an Egypt where the Ikhwan is part of a transition or even a new government?

The short answer is it is not our decision to make. Egyptians will decide the outcome, not Washington. We should not try to pick Egyptians’ rulers. Every time we have done so, from Vietnam’s generals to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, we have had buyer’s remorse. But our interests are very much involved so we have a great stake in the outcome. Understanding the Brotherhood is vital to understanding our options.

The Muslim Brethren was founded in 1928 by Shaykh Hassan al Banna as an Islamic alternative to weak secular nationalist parties that failed to secure Egypt’s freedom from British colonialism after World War I. Banna preached a fundamentalist Islamism and advocated the creation of an Islamic Egypt, but he was also open to importing techniques of political organization and propaganda from Europe that rapidly made the Brotherhood a fixture in Egyptian politics. Branches of the Brotherhood grew across the Arab world. By World War 2, it became more violent in its opposition to the British and the British-dominated monarchy, sponsoring assassinations and mass violence. After the army seized power in 1952, it briefly flirted with supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government but then moved into opposition. Nasser ruthlessly suppressed it.

Andrew McCarthy at National Review on Riedel:

One might wonder how an organization can be thought to have renounced violence when it has inspired more jihadists than any other, and when its Palestinian branch, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is probably more familiar to you by the name Hamas — a terrorist organization committed by charter to the violent destruction of Israel. Indeed, in recent years, the Brotherhood (a.k.a., the Ikhwan) has enthusiastically praised jihad and even applauded — albeit in more muted tones — Osama bin Laden. None of that, though, is an obstacle for Mr. Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a Brookings scholar and Obama administration national-security adviser. Following the template the progressive (and bipartisan) foreign-policy establishment has been sculpting for years, his “no worries” conclusion is woven from a laughably incomplete history of the Ikhwan.

By his account, Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna “preached a fundamentalist Islamism and advocated the creation of an Islamic Egypt, but he was also open to importing techniques of political organization and propaganda from Europe that rapidly made the Brotherhood a fixture in Egyptian politics.” What this omits, as I recount in The Grand Jihad, is that terrorism and paramilitary training were core parts of Banna’s program. It is by leveraging the resulting atmosphere of intimidation that the Brotherhood’s “politics” have achieved success. The Ikhwan’s activist organizations follow the same program in the United States, where they enjoy outsize political influence because of the terrorist onslaught.

Banna was a practical revolutionary. On the one hand, he instructed his votaries to prepare for violence. They had to understand that, in the end — when the time was right, when the Brotherhood was finally strong enough that violent attacks would more likely achieve Ikhwan objectives than provoke crippling blowback — violence would surely be necessary to complete the revolution (meaning, to institute sharia, Islam’s legal-political framework). Meanwhile, on the other hand, he taught that the Brothers should take whatever they could get from the regime, the political system, the legal system, and the culture. He shrewdly realized that, if the Brothers did not overplay their hand, if they duped the media, the intelligentsia, and the public into seeing them as fighters for social justice, these institutions would be apt to make substantial concessions. Appeasement, he knew, is often a society’s first response to a threat it does not wish to believe is existential.

Ron Radosh:

As bad as Mubarak is, and the Egyptian people have good reason to despise him, he is a lot better than other dictators who have led regimes in the Middle East. Remember Saddam Hussein, and also recall the forces that took power in Iran after the populace ousted the shah in 1979. I vividly remember all those student protesters on U.S. campuses bearing photos of the victims tortured by the shah’s secret police, and demanding the Shah’s ouster and his replacement by the great democratic revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That was a popular theme as well in precincts of the always wise American left, symbolized by the arguments of Princeton University political scientist Richard Falk, or the comment of Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young that Khomeini was a “saint.”

It is most instructive to look back at Falk’s arguments, made a scant two weeks after the shah’s government fell and he fled Iran, and the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country. Khomeini, Falk wrote in The New York Times (Feb.16, 1979), “has been depicted in a manner calculated to frighten,” and President Jimmy Carter had “associated him with religious fanaticism.” He was also “defamed” by the news media, some of whose pundits dared to call Khomeini an advocate of “theocratic fascism.”

Rather than being a religious leader who fit any of those dire characteristics made by his enemies, the movement had “a nonviolent record.” In addition, the would-be radical Islamist was a man who pleaded with Iran’s Jews to stay in the country. Certainly, even Falk had to acknowledge that the coming leader was against Israel. But that “of course” was due to the fact that Israel “supported the shah” and had not “resolved the Palestinian question.”

Khomeini was not dissembling, Falk assured his readers, since he expressed “his real views defiantly and without apology.” Moreover, his closest advisers were “uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals” and those he sought to lead a new government, all of whom “share a notable record of concern for human rights and see eager to achieve economic development that results in a modern society.” The reason the entire opposition deferred to Khomeini was not due to coercion, but because they knew that he and the Shiite “tradition is flexible in its approach to the Koran and evolves interpretations that correspond to the changing needs and experience of the people.” Its main desire and “religious orientation” was concern “with resisting oppression and promoting social justice.”

He knew that Khomeini sought “not to govern,” but instead simply to “inspire.” That is why he would live in the holy city of Qum, a place removed “from the daily exercise of power.” He would simply be a “guide or, if necessary, …a critic of the republic.” He would thus be able to show the world what “a genuine Islamic government can do on behalf of its people.” Falk assured readers that Khomeini scorned “so-called Islamic Governments in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Pakistan.” Thus one could talk of “Islam’s finest hour,” in which Khomeini had created “a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics.” Iran, he knew, would” provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”

And you wonder why those of us who have become conservatives no longer trust the great spokesmen of the American left/liberal intelligentsia.

Ross Douthat in NYT:

The memory of Nasser is a reminder that even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction. The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.

Justin Logan at Cato on Douthat:

The fact that theories are imperfect does not make them any less necessary.  We take refuge in foreign policy theories because there is no alternative.  As Ben Friedman pointed out in responding to Douthat previously, it is impossible to have foreign policies without foreign-policy theories.  The same goes for economics, domestic politics, and a whole range of human behavior.  People take (or oppose) various actions based on their expectations about what outcomes the actions will (or will not) produce.  Whether people are conscious of it or not, our expectations are products of our theories.  People disagree about which theories are good and which are bad, but we all have them.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

Just got late word that Dunne, Kagan and others from their group including former Bush NSC Middle East hand Elliott Abrams, as well as George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, and the National Security Network’s Joel Rubin, formerly a U.S. Egypt desk officer, have been invited to the White House Monday.

“We do think-tank sessions on an almost weekly basis,” a senior administration official told POLITICO’s Playbook. “The goal is to bring in some of the top opinion leaders and thinkers on a given subject and have a candid conversion. We’ve done it with China, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Today’s topic is Egypt.”

 

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The Murder Of Brisenia Flores

Will Bunch at Media Matters:

All of America continues to mourn the unbelievably tragic loss of Christina Green, the 9-year-old granddaughter of former Phillies’ manager Dallas Green who was killed, along with five adults, by a murderous madman trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. The sight of Christina’s parents and brother in the gallery at the State of the Union address last night is more proof that the killing of such an innocent continues to resonate with the American people.

You’ve heard all about Christina Green, but do you know about Brisenia Flores? Like Christina, Brisenia was 9 years old, and she also lived in Pima County, Arizona, not far from Tucson. Like Christina, she was gunned down in cold blood by killers with strange ideas about society and politics.

But there are also important differences. While the seriously warped mind of Christina’s Tucson murderer, Jared Lee Loughner, is a muddled mess, the motives of one of Brisenia’s alleged killers– a woman named Shawna Forde — are pretty clear: She saw herself as the leader of an armed movement against undocumented immigrants, an idea that was energized by her exposure to the then-brand-new Tea Party Movement. But unlike the horrific spree that took Christina’s life, the political murder of Brisenia and her dad (while Brisenia’s mom survived only by pretending to be dead) has only received very sporadic coverage in the national media. That’s a shame, because it’s an important story that illustrates the potential for senseless violence when hateful rhetoric on the right — in this case about undocumented immigrants — falls on the ears of the unhinged.

This week, Forde is on trial on Tucson, and the details are horrific:

As her mother tells it, 9-year-old Brisenia Flores had begged the border vigilantes who had just broken into her house, “Please don’t shoot me.”

But they did — in the face at point-blank range, prosecutors allege, as Brisenia’s father sat dead on the couch and her mother lay on the floor, pretending that she too had been killed in the gunfire.

Why did Forde, said to be the “mastermind,” and the other alleged killer, Jason Bush, carry out this heinous crime? Prosecutors allege that Forde cooked up a scheme to rob and murder drug dealers, all to raise money for the fledgling, anti-immigrant border patrolling group called Minutemen American Defense, or MAD.

Terry Greene Sterling at Daily Beast:

The murders in Arivaca, a tiny community about 11 miles north of the Mexican border, were followed nearly a year later by the still unsolved killing of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, which was widely blamed on a faceless Mexican narco in the country illegally. But whereas the Flores murders received brief press attention and then were largely forgotten, Krentz’s killing set off a national cry for beefed-up border security and fueled the passage of Arizona’s notorious immigration law, which makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot there and requires all Arizona cops to enforce immigration law, a task normally delegated to the feds.

Latinos are still waiting for similar outrage over the deaths of Brisenia Flores and her dad. “A prevalent impression by those in the Hispanic community concerned with the Shawna Forde case is that, despite the fact that an innocent child was murdered, public condemnation of this senseless act has not been forthcoming,” Salvador Ongaro, a Phoenix lawyer and member of Los Abogados, Arizona’s Hispanic bar association, said in an email to The Daily Beast.

Phoenix-based radio talk-show host Carlos Galindo says he has reminded his listeners of Brisenia Flores “on a regular basis at least two or three times a week” since the murders occurred. He criticizes Latino leaders for failing to voice sufficient outrage. “This was a horrible, tragic, and absolutely race-based coldblooded murder,” he says, “and we allowed the far right to muddy it up and say her dad was a drug dealer and Brisenia was collateral damage. When we don’t counter that, we allow continued violence against all Arizonans.”

Joe Coscarelli at The Village Voice:

For more details on the trial, read At the Courthouse. Meanwhile, a search of the New York Times website for “Brisenia Flores” yields zero results; CNN.com last covered the story in June of 2009.

Maya at Feministing:

Maybe it’s because the victims of this crime were Latino. Or because the story doesn’t square with the conservative narrative that Minutemen are just like a “neighborhood watch.” Or because right-wing rhetoric–in this case anti-immigration rhetoric–played such a clear and unequivocal role in this instance of violence.

PJ Tatler on Bunch:

This morning, Will Bunch cries at the senseless death of Brisenia Flores… since they found a way to spin her death as being something they could blame on the Tea Party as well.

It seems rather odd, but somehow, MMFA seems to have missed a much larger story of the arrest of Kermit Gosnell and his staff of ghouls. Gosnell, will be placed on trial for drug dealing and at least eight murders. He is thought to have taken the lives of hundreds of newborn babies, and will go down as one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.

Perhaps they have a blind spot for mass murderers that share their politics.

Mao and Che would be proud.

E.D. Kain:

People like Forde and Bush are life-long losers, criminals, racists. Forde has an erratic past and was described as unstable. Bush has ties to the Aryan Nation. These are scummy people, and they’d be scummy people without Glenn Beck or the Tea Party. But having a cause based on fear and hatred and bigotry just fuels these sorts of bigots. It gives them a moral edifice, however bizarre, to justify their actions. Murder and theft aren’t crimes – they’re part of the revolution! Gunning down a nine-year-old girl is part of the resistance, it’s patriotic! And Beck and others, including members of the Arizona government, who are fomenting fear and paranoia over immigration are at least partly to blame.

Maybe this is what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was talking about in the wake of the Giffords shootings. Maybe he was so quick to denounce heated rhetoric because he’d seen what it had already led to in his county, in his state and his country. It’s not just rhetoric, after all. It’s rallies and talk of revolution. It’s people up in arms, passing laws to get the Mexicans out, and when that fails, arming themselves and taking the vigilante route. And if Brisenia’s story doesn’t break your heart, nothing will.

Doug J.:

I hadn’t hear much about about the murder of Brisenia Flores and her father until ED’s and mistermix’s posts. That’s no accident, it hasn’t received a lot of media coverage. Neither is the news about the attempted bombing in Spokane.

Over the past few years, we’ve had one major dust-up over two black guys in Philadelphia dressing in “traditional Black Panther garb” and another about the fact Obama has a met a guy who used to be in the Weathermen. I guess the idea is that the political violence of the 60s, often associated with the left (rightly or wrongly) was so awful that we can never forget it, which is strange given that we are ignoring similar levels of political violence, generally associated with the right, today (see Digby).

I realize times have changed, that national media is more diffuse, that nothing as cinematic as the Patty Hearst kidnapping has taken place yet. But it’s still amazing that so many journalists (Joe Klein, for example) is looking for black panthers under his bed, while cheerfully shrugging off today’s political violence as isolated incidents.

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Damn, We At Around The Sphere Had $200 On Joe Klein Again

Mark Halperin at Time:

McCain wordsmith revealed as “anonymous” author of “O” the novel.

Confirmed by sources, but there were lots of in-plain-sight clues that led to Salter’s Maine door.

(Flashback: Page Six touted Salter.)

–Simon and Schuster topper Jonathan Karp was Salter’s editor on books he did with Senator McCain.

–Salter has been holed up in Maine since leaving his job in the Senate.

–The descriptions that Karp has given of the author matched Salter.

–Salter’s non-denial denial was the closest to a confession of any suspect who was publicly asked.

–There is a story early in the book based on a real-life tale that would have been known only to a McCain campaign insider such as Salter.

Garance Franke-Ruta at The Atlantic:
It was obvious from skimming ‘O: A Presidential Novel,’ written by “Anonymous” and published Tuesday after an intense publicity campaign, that its author was male, on the political center-right, and not a professional writer. The writing lacked the finesse of a pro, described women in vivid physical terms, and imagined for the president a disdain for liberal Democrats that echoed the way conservatives talk about liberals, rather than the way reporters or mainstream Democrats do

Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner:

A little D.C. parlor game at the moment is guessing who the author of the Anonymous novel O: A Presidential Novel, is. The New York Post’s Page Six pointed to former longtime John McCain adviser Mark Salter. Mark Halperin today says he has it “Confirmed by sources” that Salter is Mr. Anonymous. This morning, for what it’s worth, this is what Salter had to say to me: “I can’t confirm I’m the author. Been asked by the publisher, as have many others, not to comment on it.”

All I really know is if Salter wrote it, it’s a good read.

UPDATE: I should make clear: I haven’t read O yet. Assessment is a gamble, being familiar with Salter’s past writing.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Well that didn’t take too long: Mark Salter has been “officially” fingered as the author of O, the fictionalized, non-sadomasochistic work of fiction about the president, written by someone described by the publisher as someone who “has been in the room with Barack Obama.” You remember Mark Salter as the man who writes everything for John McCain. Oh I see. Political ops. The book has been in print for two days. “Trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny,” says the New York Times!

Truth in advertising first. I haven’t read the novel, though I really like the graphics of the “O” and the “ears” as well as the brilliant blue of the cover.

Recently, I ventured into a cluster of leading conservatives with whom I had a great social encounter and saw the book in my friend’s living room.

Not having read it, I asked the host and others if they enjoyed it — and the response was “I just couldn’t get past the first few dozen pages. I tried twice.”

This person also said that Joe Klein’s brilliance in Primary Colors is that Klein really had an sympathy and understanding for the tough and miserable life politicians had to lead, an empathy for them. My friend said that he didn’t feel that O‘s author had that same respect for the profession.

I then mentioned that I had been hearing rumors that former McCain chief of staff and co-author of nearly all of McCain’s books, Mark Salter, might be the author.

My friend said, “But Mark Salter can write!!”

Just shows that you never know — until you know.

David Weigel:

Was Jonathan Karp on the level when he promoted this? Sort of. The author, we were told, was someone who’d been “in the room” with Barack Obama. That was a loose enough classification to apply to Sarah Palin or to Markos Moulitsas. But the book was also promoted as an insider account of how Obama thinks, which wouldn’t have been possible if it was marketed honestly as “what a confidant of the man Obama defeated in 2008 thinks about Obama.”

The Salter authorship (unconfirmed! barely!) does allow us to revisit a few interesting items in the novel. Is the contempt that “O” feels for Sarah Palin supposed to be in the president’s voice or Salter’s? The president’s, although Palin’s dizzy quotes and decision not to run don’t come from nowhere. Also, the six page section in which the war hero senator’s speechwriter screams “Whhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyy?” makes more sense now.*

*I am kidding about this but it’s worth a disclaimer when you’re discussing a stunt.

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Egypt On January 28th

Again, Andrew Sullivan

Allah Pundit:

Things are happening fast so let’s get a thread up. A 6 p.m. curfew has been imposed and, thus far, widely ignored. Tanks are starting to roll as I write this and there are reports on Twitter of “loud explosions” and live ammo being used in downtown Cairo. The Telegraph has a screencap from Al Jazeera showing Mubarak’s party headquarters in the city on fire; other party headquarters have been ransacked in Mansoura and Suez. The State Department says it’s deeply concerned and is calling on Mubarak to enact reforms and allow peaceful protests — although I think we’re past that point by now. Mubarak was supposed to speak at around 11 a.m. but nothing from him yet.

Sad to say, your best bet at the moment is by clicking the image below and watching the live stream from Al Jazeera English. Its agenda is no secret — Hezbollah and Hamas are particular favorites — but they’re on the top of the minute-by-minute news here like no one else. So much so, in fact, that their feed may go down at any moment: Word earlier was that Egyptian police were banging on the door of their Cairo bureau headquarters.

Stand by for updates, needless to say.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

Protesters have flooded the streets of Alexandria and Suez. In Cairo, they’re publicly praying in the thoroughfare. And the Egyptian government can’t seem to stop them, despite the crackdown on internet access and cellular communications.

The past four days’ worth of protests in Egypt, spurred by those that dethroned the Tunisian government on Jan. 14, have been accelerated by social media. The #Jan25 hashtag gave the leaderless revolt an internal organizing tool and global communications reach. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mubarak regime responded by ordering the withdrawal of over 3,500 Border Gateway Protocol routes by Egyptian service providers, shutting down approximately 88 percent of the country’s Internet access, according to networking firm BGPMon.

But the so-called “Day of Wrath” is uninterrupted. On al-Jazeera a few minutes ago, a functionary from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party called the uprising “unprecedented” and conceded that the government needs a “non-traditional way of dealing with this,” including “action against corruption, against poverty… [giving] more freedoms.” He said all this while police and the Army are firing tear gas at the demonstrators.

Sepoy:

It isn’t a domino effect.1 What happened in Tunisia, isn’t what is happening in Egypt and what is happening in Yemen and what is happening in Lebanon and what will happen in Oman. The internet or twitter or facebook is not behind this.2 Neither is al-Jazeera.3 Each of these states have their very particular histories, very particular teleologies which are more decisive – whether politically or symbolically – than anything in the social media netscape bullcrap. Yes, there are striking similarities: the dis-enfrachised populations, the dictators or prime-ministers propped up by Europe or America (those chaste defenders of freedom everywhere), the young and the connected. Yes, no one wants this to happen – America and Europe would rather eat crow than actually admit to a democratic program in Middle East or Africa (teh Mooslims!) and there are powerful and entrenched forces within these states who will not tolerate any challenge to their hegemony.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

You know what is the worst possible thing the Egyptian government could have done? Detaining just-returned possible opposition candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. That won’t inflame protests at all! Not that they need inflaming in the slightest; Cairo is apparently choking with tear gas. The good news? People arrested may not stay in jail for long: Al Jazeera reports that in Suez, “the police station in the port city has been taken over by protesters who have freed detainees.” Meanwhile, French journalists have been arrested and CNN’s cameras have been seized by police, as the country believes it can silence news about the brewing revolution.

Abe Greenwald at Commentary:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest statement in response to the protests in Egypt should be immortalized as a classic articulation of the absurd, approaching the level of “Let them eat cake.” As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians defy a state-imposed curfew, set fire to Hosni Mubarak’s party headquarters, overturn cars, and set off explosions nationwide while demanding that Mubarak leave the country, Clinton took a moment out of her day to note the following:

We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protestors. We call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain security forces. At the same time, protesters should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully. We urge Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and reverse unprecedented steps it has taken to cut down means of communications.

That is, to be sure, the best, most admirable line for the administration to take – if today were January 20. On January 28, it is not merely late; it is surreal. The protests are not peaceful and the regime is not so much cracking down as it is fighting for its survival. The time to urge a dictator to grant his people freedoms is before he’s flitting between burning buildings. But back when that was the case, the Obama administration was too busy being pragmatic and humble to raise the issue of human rights in Egypt.

Justin Elliott at Salon:

As protests rage on in Egypt, the close relationship between the U.S. government and the regime of Hosni Mubarak has already garnered a lot of attention. But it’s also worth taking a moment to examine the lobbying muscle that Egypt employs to secure its interests in Washington, including a mammoth $1.3 billion annual military aid package.

Seven firms are currently registered foreign agents for Egypt, including one, the Podesta Group, that has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.

Founded by brothers Tony and John Podesta in the late 1980s, the Podesta Group has been retained by some of the biggest corporations in the country, including Wal-Mart, BP and Lockheed Martin. Tony Podesta’s bio boasts that “if you want something done in Washington, DC, you go to Tony Podesta.” After starting the firm, John Podesta went on to serve as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and, more recently, to found the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely associated with the Obama administration.

The Podesta Group counsels Egypt “on U.S. policies of concern, activities in Congress and the Executive branch, and developments on the U.S. political scene generally,” according to forms filed with the Justice Department in 2009.

Records also show Tony Podesta himself meeting with members of Congress, governors and generals in recent years to discuss U.S.-Egypt relations and the military aid package and to introduce Egyptian officials to American power brokers.

Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy:

Mubarak’s regime has been wounded at its core, and even if he survives in the short run the regime will have to make major internal changes to regain any semblance of normality. An Egyptian regime which spends the next years in a state of military lockdown will hardly be a useful ally. It’s not like there’s an active peace process to compromise. The Islamist scarecrow shouldn’t work, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s limited role in events (despite the efforts of the Egyptian regime to claim otherwise).

More broadly the costs to the Obama administration with Arab public opinion of being on the wrong side of this issue will be enormous. This isn’t about the “magical democracy words” of the past few years — it’s about a moment of flux when real change is possible, whether or not the United States wants it. Accepting Mubarak’s fierce gambit now would put an end to any claim the United States has of promoting democracy and reform for a generation, and alienating the rising youth generation on which the administration has placed so much emphasis. It would also make Cairo the graveyard of Obama’s Cairo speech and efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world. The United States will be better positioned to push such changes in the right direction if it maintains a strong and principled position today — regardless of whether Mubarak or someone else ends up in control. The cautious strategy right now is the same as the principled one, whether Mubarak falls or if he survives.

The Obama administration has handled developments in the Arab world skillfully over the last month. It has done a good job of siding with the universal demands for freedom and political rights, without taking overt sides. It has wisely avoided trying to stamp the events as “made in America.” Now conditions are changing rapidly, and now is the time for the administration to move to a new level. I’m hoping that we’ll soon hear some strong words from administration officials about Egypt.

UPDATE, 11:40am:   Secretary Clinton is now scheduled to give a statement on Egypt in about 10 minutes.   Good.  I know that a lot of Arabs are disappointed with Obama’s perceived silence on Egypt over the last few days (and furious over Biden’s comment) but there’s a long way to go.    The Obama administration is going to have to play a key role in talking Mubarak down if it comes to that, and the right intervention there would be at least as important, probably more important, than public statements.  There is a longer game here than posturing for the cameras — getting this right is the point.

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The “Where’s The Beef?” Lady Is Probably Dead By Now

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic:

Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef” appears to be a clever mirage. That’s what an Alabama law firm is alleging when it slapped the chain with a “false advertising” suit for misleading customers about the actual content of its Taco fillings. Surprise! The “meat” is only 36 percent actual beef.

Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo:

Taco Bell “beef” pseudo-Mexican delicacies are really made of a gross mixture called “Taco Meat Filling” as shown on their big container’s labels, like the one pictured here. The list of ingredients is gruesome. Updated.

Beef, water, isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin (a polysaccharide that is absorbed as glucose), soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color, cocoa powder, silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2% of beef broth, potassium phosphate, and potassium lactate.

It looks bad but passable… until you learn that—according to the Alabama law firm suing Taco Bell—only 36% of that is beef. Thirty-six percent. The other 64% is mostly tasteless fibers, various industrial additives and some flavoring and coloring. Everything is processed into a mass that actually looks like beef, and packed into big containers labeled as “taco meat filling.” These containers get shipped to Taco Bell’s outlets and cooked into something that looks like beef, is called beef and is advertised as beef by the fast food chain.

Can you call beef something that looks like ground beef but it’s 64% lots-of-other-stuff? Taco Bell thinks they can.

Jonathan Turley:

Taco Bell Corporation spokesman Rob Poetsch responded by saying that “Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We’re happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree. We deny our advertising is misleading in any way and we intend to vigorously defend the suit.” That is an interesting statement. It does not appear to deny that it is serving marginal beef products but that the company never really promised anything more than it serves. Presumably, if the company issued a statement that it was in fact serving “beef” in response to this lawsuit, it could be cited as part of the alleged effort to deceive in advertising (assuming they are not serving “beef” as defined by federal law).

The class action alleges the company is serving what is referred to as “taco meat filling, which is comprised mainly of “extenders” and other non-meat substances, including wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate as well as beef and seasonings. Of course, the company could claim that it is the anti-dusting agents and maltrodrexin that gives it that “high quality Mexican inspired food” taste but it would not actually have most Americans “running to the border.”

MB Quirk at The Consumerist:

Hey, at least they’re making the distinction of “Mexican inspired food,” although that might be stretching it, too.

Robert Sietsema at The Village Voice:

Five Reasons You Should Hate Taco Bell, Besides the Lack of Real Meat

1. Meat, schmeat – are you ever certain of the meat supply at any fast food outlet? A few years ago, there was a website that claimed the average McDonald’s hamburger had been lodged in permafrost for around three years before it was thawed and served at an outlet. The rancid meat explains the odd smell you associate with stepping into a McDonalds.

2. When you order something made with ground meat (we used to call it “mystery meat” in school), you get exactly what you deserve. I’m much more annoyed by the other ingredients at Taco Bell – the gummy flour tortillas that turn into glue in your mouth, or the weird micro-“cheese” curls that seem to be poking out of every orifice: The white ones look exactly like pinworms.

3. The astonishing lack of spice in nearly everything you get at TB (that’s Taco Bell, not tuberculosis – though maybe you’ll get that, too, if you linger long enough). And the little plastic packets containing what tastes like Tabasco — when there are zillions of authentic Mexican hot sauces available — don’t help at all.

4. What Taco Bell has done to Mexican food, which – with its dependence on minimally refined corn products, beans, and fresh vegetables – must be one of the healthiest cuisines on earth, is criminal! The chiles, cumin, oregano, scallions, and other herbs and spices seem to be entirely missing, and in their place, bad mayo.

5. Have you ever seen a Mexican eating in Taco Bell?

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