Tag Archives: James Fallows

So, What Happened Over The Weekend?

Ed Morrissey:

NBC has a fairly comprehensive report on the American attack on Libyan forces this morning, complete with totals thus far on cruise missiles (114 of them) and attacks by stealth bombers on air-defense systems, with 20 of those targeted. Military airstrips around the country have been bombed as well, up to 40 of them. Libya claims that 48 people have died as a result of those attacks, and Moammar Gaddafi gave the usual warning to the Muslim world that this was the start of a “crusader war” against an Arab nation. One piece of news might raise eyebrows — the US has sent fighter jets from Sicily to attack Gaddafi’s ground forces around Benghazi

That would seem to go beyond the UN mandate for a no-fly zone. The Pentagon tells NBC that their interpretation of the mandate is that they need to protect civilians, an interpretation that would leave practically no option off the table. Even without considering a ground invasion, it could mean that the US could attack Tripoli or practically any target they wish from the air or through off-shore cruise missiles. As Jim Miklaszewski reports, it looks as though the intent now is to utterly destroy Gaddafi’s army in an attempt to force him into retreat.

Not for nothing, but wasn’t that more or less our strategy in Iraq in 1990? We had a lot more firepower on target in that case, and it still took a ground invasion to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — and that wasn’t his own territory, either. Had we done this four weeks ago, we could have protected a status quo, de facto liberation of Benghazi and other areas of Libya. Now, the Libyan position is so advanced that Gaddafi can likely abandon his armor in the city and reduce the rebels to destruction. It will just take a little longer. The time to stop Gaddafi from seizing Benghazi and stomping out the rebellion was when Gaddafi was bottled up in Tripoli.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

President Obama’s decision to join an international military intervention in Libya has met with a largely negative response in the United States across the political spectrum. Critics correctly point to a wide range of problems with the intervention: the absence of any clear planning for what comes after Qaddafi or for what might happen if there is an extended stalemate, doubts about the opposition, the White House’s ignoring of Congress and limited explanations to the American public, the selectivity bias in going to war for Libya while ignoring Bahrain and Yemen, the distraction from other urgent issues.  I have laid out my own reservations about the intervention here and here.

This emerging consensus misses some extremely important context, however. Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world.  For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi’s bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution.  If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.

Libya’s degeneration from protest movement into civil war has been at the center of the Arab public sphere for the last month. It is not an invention of the Obama administration, David Cameron or Nikolas Sarkozy.  Al-Jazeera has been covering events in Libya extremely closely, even before it tragically lost one of its veteran cameramen to Qaddafi’s forces, and has placed it at the center of the evolving narrative of Arab uprisings.  Over the last month I have heard personally or read comments from an enormous number of Arab activists and protest organizers and intellectuals from across the region that events in Libya would directly affect their own willingness to challenge their regimes. The centrality of Libya to the Arab transformation undermines arguments  that Libya is not particularly important to the U.S. (it is, because it affects the entire region) or that Libya doesn’t matter more than, say, Cote D’Ivoire (which is also horrible but lacks the broader regional impact).

The centrality of Libya to the Arab public sphere and to al-Jazeera carries a less attractive underside, though.  The focus on Libya has gone hand in hand with al-Jazeera’s relative inattention to next-door Bahrain, where a GCC/Saudi  intervention has helped to brutally beat back a protest movement and tried to cast it as a sectarian, Iranian conspiracy rather than as part of the narrative of Arab popular uprisings.  It has also distracted attention from Yemen, where rolling protests and mass government defections might finally today be bringing down the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. The TV cameras have also largely moved on from the urgent issues surrounding the ongoing transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. Cynics might argue that the GCC and Arab League have been willing to support the intervention in Libya for precisely that reason, to keep the West distracted from their own depradations.

Finally, as I warned last week, Arab support for an intervention against Qaddafi to protect the Libyan people rapidly begins to fray when the action includes Western bombing of an Arab country. It should surprise nobody that the bombing campaign has triggered anger among a significant portion of the Arab public, which is still powerfully shaped by the Iraq war and aggrieved by perceived double standards (one of the most common lines in Arab debates right now is “where was the No Fly Zone over Gaza?”).  Amr Moussa’s flip-flopping on the Arab League’s stance towards the intervention should be seen as part of that tension between the desire to help the Libyan people and continuing suspicion of Western motives.  Skeptical voices matter too —  ignoring or ridiculing influential or representative voices simply because their message is unpalatable is a mistake too often made in this part of the world.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

What are we doing in Libya? “Helping” is not a sufficient answer. President Obama said that, if we didn’t act, “many thousands could die…. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered.” But that is a motive, a desire—not a plan. Obama also said that America wouldn’t be leading operation Odyssey Dawn, just helping: our allies, particularly the French and British, had this one, and the Arab League would help by cheering. By Sunday, though, there was division in the Arab League, and there was something iffy to start with about making Nicolas Sarkozy the point man on anything. (One of the many, many things I wish I understood was what role French elections played in all of this.) Could Congress and the American people have maybe helped the Obama Administration think this one through?

Members of the Administration, including Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, and Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, keep repeating the phrase “days, not weeks.” But what they are referring to is not the length of the operation but of America’s “leadership” of it. Who will take over? There is more clarity on that point than on the question of who will take over Libya if Qaddafi leaves, but that’s a pretty low bar: as Philip Gourevitch points out in his pointed summary of the questions attending this operation, we have no idea. Hillary Clinton talked about people around Qaddafi deciding to do something—the eternal desire for the convenient coup. Do we care who the plotters are?

Another thing that more people perhaps should have been clear about was the extent of Odyssey Dawn. The Times spoke of discomfort at how it had gone beyond a “simple ‘no-fly zone.’ ” But, despite the blank, pristine quality of the term, imposing a no-fly zone is not a simple, or clean and bloodless, thing, as if one simply turned a switch and the air cleared out. Pentagon spokesmen talked about hitting anti-aircraft installations, aviation centers, and “communication nodes.” Empty skies require rubble on the ground.

Lexington at The Economist:

For what it is worth, I welcome the fact that the world at last seems willing to exercise its so-called “duty to protect” people at risk from their own governments. The failures to do so in Rwanda and Darfur and so many other charnel houses is a blot on its conscience that will never be erased. But there is no escaping the fact that this new entanglement was decided upon behind closed doors at the UN and with very little public debate here in the United States. None of this will matter if the end comes quickly. But if things go wrong and America is drawn deeper in, the domestic consequences for the president could be far-reaching.

Tim Carney at The Washington Examiner:

At once presumptuous and flippant, President Obama used a Saturday audio recording from Brazil to inform Americans he had authorized a third war — a war in which America’s role is unclear and the stated objectives are muddled.

Setting aside the wisdom of the intervention, Obama’s entry into Libya’s civil war is troubling on at least five counts. First is the legal and constitutional question. Second is the manner of Obama’s announcement. Third is the complete disregard for public opinion and lack of debate. Fourth is the unclear role the United States will play in this coalition. Fifth is the lack of a clear endgame. Compounding all these problems is the lack of trust created by Obama’s record of deception.

“Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya,” the president said. For him it was self-evident he had such authority. He gave no hint he would seek even ex post facto congressional approval. In fact, he never once mentioned Congress.

Since World War II, the executive branch has steadily grabbed more war powers, and Congress has supinely acquiesced. Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all fought wars without a formal declaration, but at least Bush used force only after Congress authorized it.

And, once more, the president’s actions belie his words on the campaign trail. In late 2007, candidate Obama told the Boston Globe, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

There is no claim that Moammar Gadhafi poses a threat to the United States. But asking President Obama to explain his change of heart would be a fruitless exercise. This is a president who has repeatedly shredded the clear meaning of words in order to deny breaking promises he has clearly broken — consider his continued blatant falsehoods on tax increases and his hiring of lobbyists.

James Fallows:

Count me among those very skeptical of how this commitment was made and where it might lead.

How it was made: it cannot reassure anyone who cares about America’s viability as a republic that it is entering another war with essentially zero Congressional consultation or “buy-in,” and with very little serious debate outside the Executive Branch itself. And there the debate was, apparently, mostly about changing the President’s own mind. I recognize that there are times when national safety requires an Administration to respond quickly, without enduring the posturing and institutionalized dysfunction that is the modern Congress. Without going through all the arguments, I assert that this is not such a moment. To be more precise: the Administration has not made the public case that the humanitarian and strategic stakes in Libya are so unique as to compel intervention there (even as part of a coalition), versus the many other injustices and tragedies we deplore but do not go to war to prevent. I can think of several examples in my current part of the world.

I didn’t like the “shut up and leave it to us” mode of foreign policy when carried out by people I generally disagreed with, in the Bush-Cheney era. I don’t like it when it’s carried out by people I generally agree with, in this Administration.

Where it might lead: The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that “success” depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of “preventive” strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then?

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?  I usually do not agree with Peggy Noonan, but I think she is exactly right in her recent warning* about how much easier it is to get into a war than ever to get out. I agree more often with Andrew Sullivan, and I share his frequently expressed recent hopes that this goes well but cautions about why it might not. (Jeffrey Goldberg has asked a set of similar questions, here.)

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn’t even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of ‘The West versus lands of Islam’ drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.

I can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I’ve made. And listening to them I think I’d find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

As the United Nations-sanctioned war against Libya moves into its third day, no U.S., French or British aircraft have been shot down by Libyan air defenses. Part of the credit should go to the Navy’s new jammer, which is making its combat debut in Operation Odyssey Dawn. But the jammer isn’t just fritzing Moammar Gadhafi’s missiles, it’s going after his tanks.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told the media on Sunday that the EA-18G Growler, a Boeing production, provided electronic warfare support to the coalition’s attacks on Libya. That’s the first combat mission for the Growler, which will replace the Navy’s Prowler jamming fleet. Only Gortney added a twist: not only did the Growler go after Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, it helped the coalition conduct air strikes on loyalist ground forces going after rebel strongholds.

According to Gortney, coalition air strikes “halted” the march of pro-Gadhafi troops 10 miles south of Benghazi, thanks to French, British and U.S. planes — including the Marine Corps’ Harrier jump jet — thanks in part to Growler support. There’s no word yet on whether the Growler’s jamming functions disrupted any missiles that the pro-Gadhafi forces carried, or fried any communications the Libyan loyalists attempted to make back to their command. But Robert Wall of Aviation Week notes that the continued “risk from pop-up surface to air missile firings” prompts the need for Growlers above Libya.

And expect the Growler to keep up the pressure. The Pentagon plans to transfer control of Odyssey Dawn from Gen. Carter Ham and U.S. Africa Command to an as yet undetermined multinational command entity — at which point, the U.S. is expected to take a backseat in combat missions. But it’ll continue to contribute “unique capabilities” to the Libya mission. Namely, Gortney specified, “specialty electronic airplanes” such as the Growler. (And refueling tankers, spy planes, cargo haulers and command n’ control aircraft.) No wonder Defense Secretary Robert Gates hearts it so much.

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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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Tucson II

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of reacts.

David Frum at FrumForum:

What a terrible assignment, especially for a father of young daughters. The president did the job he needed to do, struck the appropriate notes in the appropriate way. He conspicuously forbore to make political points, quite the contrary: he urged against finger-pointing, in this sense agreeing with Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. “But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.  As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.”

The president’s challenge, as so often, was to make a human connection. In that, he succeeded tonight. He paid tribute to the individuality of the lost, honored the pain of the bereaved, and was crucial in bringing together the collective community acknowledgement of grief that is the only available comfort to those who mourn.
Rich Lowry at The Corner:

The pep-rally atmosphere was inappropriate and disconcerting, but President Obama turned in a magnificent performance. This was a non-accusatory, genuinely civil, case for civility, in stark contrast to what we’ve read and heard over the last few days. He subtly rebuked the Left’s finger-pointing, and rose above the rancor of both sides, exactly as a president should. Tonight, he re-captured some of the tone of his famous 2004 convention speech. Well done.

Michelle Malkin:

Bottom line:

Speeches and leadership are not the same thing.

Obama delivered one tonight, but failed at the other over the past three days as Pima County Sheriff Dupnik, Democrat Party leaders, and media abettors poisoned the public square with the very vitriol the president now condemns.

Right speech. Too late. Awful, awful venue.

Obama gets some goodreviews for hisspeech in the NY Times (and the sun rose in the east…).  Having read the speech, I am a bit of a non-believer – as with his condemnation of both Jeremiah Wright and his own grandmother or the criticism of left-winger Bill Ayers and offsetting righty Tom Coburn, Obama took his normal conciliatory tack of rebuking both sides and presenting himself as the calm man in the middle.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Barack Obama spoke to the city of Tucson, and to the United States of America, not so much as our President tonight, but as a member of our family. He spoke as a son–I couldn’t help but think of his personal regret over not being by his mother’s side when she passed as he said, “Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder.” You could see the devastation insinuate itself onto, and then be quietly willed away from, his face. He spoke as a brother to his fellow public servants, killed and wounded in the events–an eager brother bringing the glad tidings the Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes. He repeated it, joyously, three times. But most of all, he spoke as a father–rising to a glorious peak describing the departed 9-year-old, Christine Taylor Green, a girl near the age of his daughters, whose own deaths, perhaps in the line of fire, he had so clearly been thinking about. And he spoke, more broadly, as the head of our national family, comforting, uplifting, scolding a little, nudging us toward our better angels.

Some of my friends may criticize Obama for not defending Palin specifically, or for waiting until the memorial to have rebuked those attempting to exploit the deaths for political gain.  On the first point, though, this was a memorial service and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to name other names than the dead, the wounded, and the heros who helped save lives.  The second point may be germane criticism of the previous couple of days, but even if it came late, Obama stepped up and led last night.

So kudos to President Obama for what may be the finest moment of his presidency.  I disagree with his policies and many of his tactics, and I will have no problem getting back to work in opposing them after this post publishes.  But he deserves credit and gratitude for his leadership at a point in time where the nation needed it, and I’m happy to give him both.

James Fallows:

The standard comparisons of the past four days have been to Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster and Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City. Tonight’s speech matched those as a demonstration of “head of state” presence, and far exceeded them as oratory — while being completely different in tone and nature. They, in retrospect, were mainly — and effectively — designed to note tragic loss. Obama turned this into a celebration — of the people who were killed, of the values they lived by, and of the way their example could bring out the better in all of us and in our country.

That is to Obama’s imaginative credit. (Even as the event began, I was wondering how he would find a way to match to somber tone of Reagan and Clinton.) More later, but a performance to remember — this will be, along with his 2004 Convention speech and his March, 2008 “meaning of race” speech in Philadelphia, one of the speeches he is lastingly known for — and to add to the list of daunting political/oratorical challenges Obama has not merely met but mastered.

David Weigel:

Last night, there arose a chorus of mostly-conservatives on Twitter attacking the tone of the memorial service in Tucson. There was some coverage on Fox News — there’s some more today — of this, but it didn’t define coverage. Nonetheless, Glenn Thrush reports that Robert Gibbs was asked about it, and surmised that the 13,000-odd people in attendance were “celebrating the miracle of those who survived” when they cheered.

We have a point of reference for all of this. In 2002, conservatives and Republicans complained that the tone of a memorial for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) was too political, too cheery. Wellstone’s sons explicitly asked the crowd — which included Republicans like Trent Lott — to “win this election for Paul Wellstone.”

Is that going to happen to the Tucson memorial? It shouldn’t. There was no partisan political message, although I suppose you could say that the president’s criticism of “cynicism or vitriol” buttressed what Democrats had been saying recently. I’d also argue that the tone in Tucson was more like the tone at the impromptu rally in New York City on September 13, 2001 —  the “bullhorn moment.” Wellstone was killed in an airplane accident. The Tucson victims were killed by a gunman who is awaiting trial and whose creepy smiling face has been made famous since Saturday. Thousands of New Yorkers — people didn’t know how many at the time — were killed by terrorists who committed suicide, but were led by terrorists still on the loose. (“The people who did this,” in Bush’s phrase.)

It isn’t up to anyone else how somebody grieves a local tragedy. And the tone at Tucson was understandable if you understand what, exactly, they were grieving or angry about.

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Tucson

James Fallows:

After this horrible news from Tucson….

… let me amplify something I said half-coherently in a live conversation with Guy Raz on All Things Considered a little while ago. My intended point was:

Shootings of political figures are by definition “political.” That’s how the target came to public notice; it is why we say “assassination” rather than plain murder.

But it is striking how rarely the “politics” of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood. Some killings reflect “pure” politics: John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln, the German officers who tried to kill Hitler and derail his war plans. We don’t know exactly why James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but it must have had a lot to do with civil rights.

There is a longer list of odder or murkier motives:
– Leo Ryan, the first (and, we hope, still the only) Representative to be killed in the line of duty, was gunned down in Guyana in 1978 for an investigation of the Jim Jones/Jonestown cult, not any “normal” political issue.

– Sirhan Sirhan horribly transformed American politics by killing Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but Sirhan’s political causes had little or nothing to do with what RFK stood for to most Americans.

– So too with Arthur Bremer, who tried to kill George C. Wallace in 1972 and left him paralyzed.

– The only known reason for John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan involves Jodie Foster.

– It’s not often remembered now, but Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford, again for reasons that would mean nothing to most Americans of that time.

– When Harry Truman was shot at (and a policeman was killed) on the sidewalk outside the White Blair House, the attackers were concerned not about Cold War policies or Truman’s strategy in Korea but about Puerto Rican independence.

– The assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield were also “political” but not in a way that matched the main politics of that time. The list could go on.

So the train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an “assassination” is inherently political;
2) very often the “politics” are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than “normal” political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)

That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we’ll never “understand.” But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed — including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”

Jack Shafer at Slate:

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the killing of six innocents outside a Tucson Safeway has bolstered the ongoing argument that when speaking of things political, we should all avoid using inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery.

“Shooting Throws Spotlight on State of U.S. Political Rhetoric,” reports CNN. “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics,” states the New York Times. Keith Olbermann clocked overtime on Saturday to deliver a commentary subtitled “The political rhetoric of the country must be changed to prevent acts of domestic terrorism.” The home page of the Washington Post offered this headline to its story about the shooting: “Rampage Casts Grim Light on U.S. Political Discord.”

The lead spokesman for the anti-inflammatory movement, however, was Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose jurisdiction includes Tucson. Said Dupnik at a Jan. 8 press conference in answer to questions about the criminal investigation:

I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

Embedded in Sheriff Dupnik’s ad hoc wisdom were several assumptions. First, that strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial. Second, that those voicing strident political views are guilty of issuing Manchurian Candidate-style instructions to commit murder and mayhem to the “unbalanced.” Third, that the Tucson shooter was inspired to kill by political debate or by Sarah Palin’s “target” map or other inflammatory outbursts. Fourth, that we should calibrate our political speech in such a manner that we do not awaken the Manchurian candidates among us.

And, fifth, that it’s a cop’s role to set the proper dimensions of our political debate. Hey, Dupnik, if you’ve got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket.

Sheriff Dupnik’s political sermon came before any conclusive or even circumstantial proof had been offered that the shooter had been incited by anything except the gas music from Jupiter playing inside his head.

For as long as I’ve been alive, crosshairs and bull’s-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.

From what I can tell, I’m not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.

Alex Massie:

So apparently a pretty stupid Sarah Palin poster from last year in which gunsights were slapped over 20 districts carried by John McCain from which the Democratic incumbent had voted for Obamacare, is now to be considered the inspiration for this atrocity. Mrs Palin has some influence, but let’s not get carried away. For what it’s worth – and readers know that I’m hardly her greatest fan – I do not think she is very much more responsible for this abomination than Jodie Foster was for John Hinckley’s attempt to murder Ronald Reagan. In any case, Palin’s poster was only a souped-up version of a campaign trope that both parties have been happy to employ in the past. (That said, Palin Presidential Futures, already worth shorting, took another dive yesterday.)

But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there’s little sensible connection between Hollywood “violence” and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America’s Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there’s no connection at all between the tone of political discourse (“Second Amendment Solutions!”) and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.

Clearly, things are a little more complicated than that. While you cannot legislate for lunatics there’s also little need to give them any encouragement. But the more we learn about Jared Loughner the more it seems probable – at this stage – that he’s the kind of mentally unstable person who neither needed nor took any inspiration from Palin or the Tea Party or anything other than powerful fantasies that were his own creation.

And this too is normal. Political violence of this type is almost definitionally unhinged but it’s striking how rare it turns out to be the case that the perpetrators can be fitted into one neat political profile or another. And even when they can their targets are frequently so at odds with the meaning of their supposed “philosophy” that trying to “make sense” of such matters becomes an even more frustrating task.

Anyway, we may think these are unusually turbulent times, fanned by unusual quantities of cheap and phoney populism, scaremongering and hysteria but this is not in fact the case. ‘Twas ever thus and the 1960s offer a perspective that might be worth looking at if only, despite all the huffing and puffing, to appreciate how calm and at peace America is these days. Remember McKinley and Garfield too, if you want to go still further back. America ain’t tearing itself apart these days, no matter how much Paul Krugman tries to persuade you it must be. The paranoid style has rarely lacked followers and, just as significantly, the centre has also always had a healthy paranoia of its own. Sometimes, as is the case today or in the aftermath of any other act of grim violence, this will seem unusually plausible.

Most of the time, however, the scare stories about a new era of Militiamen or whatever are seriously over-cooked. The temper of these American  times – despite what you will read everywhere today and tomorrow – is not unusually rebarbative or even uncommonly obtuse. (What might be said, mind you, is that the level of rhetoric is out of proportion to the stakes involved in the political game these days.)

The fact of the matter is that a country of 300 million people cannot help but be generously larded with oddballs, freaks, paranoids and assorted other nutters. Couple that with the American genius for self-realization and you soon begin to wonder why there isn’t more politically-themed violence than is actually the case

Radley Balko:

We’re going to hear a lot of talk in the coming days about putting an end to anti-government rhetoric. I’ve been listening to it all morning on the Sunday talk shows. Let’s get the obvious out of the way, here: Initiating violence against government officials and politicians is wrongheaded, immoral, futile, and counterproductive to any anti-government cause. As is encouraging or praising others who do. I ban anyone who engages in that kind of talk here.

But it’s worth remembering that the government initiates violence against its own citizens every day in this country, citizens who pose no threat or harm to anyone else. The particular policy that leads to the sort of violence you see in these videos is supported by nearly all of the politicians and pundits decrying anti-government rhetoric on the news channels this morning. (It’s also supported by Sarah Palin, many Tea Party leaders, and other figures on the right that politicians and pundits are shaming this weekend.)

I hope Rep. Giffords—and everyone wounded yesterday—makes a full recovery. It’s particularly tragic that she was shot while doing exactly what we want elected officials to do—she was making herself available to the people she serves. And of course we should mourn the people senselessly murdered yesterday, government employees and otherwise: U.S. District Judge John Roll, Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard, nine-year-old Christina Green, Phyllis Scheck, and Gabe Zimmerman.

That said, I long for the day that our political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government—killed in fact, as a direct and foreseeable consequence of official government policy that nearly all of those leaders support—as they are about a government official who was targeted by a clearly sick and deranged young man. What happened this weekend is not, by any means, a reason to shunt anti-government protest, even angry anti-government protest, out of the sphere of acceptable debate. The government still engages in plenty of acts and policies—including one-sided violence against its own citizens—that are well worth our anger, protest, and condemnation.

Michelle Malkin

Jonathan Martin in Politico

Keach Hagey in Politico

Nick Gillespie at Reason:

There’s no question that the GOP and its proponents are more than ready to play a similar game. Any moral lapse by a Democrat, for instance, is an ethical rot that stems directly from the malefactor’s stance on the minimum wage or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, say, while hypocrites such as Sen. Larry Craig and Tom DeLay are ethical one-offs. The most-unbelievable response in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was longterm GOP activist Jerry Falwell’s announcement on Pat Robertson’s TV network that gays and women wearing pants etc. were responsible for radical Islamists killing 3,000 people (even more sadly, years after Falwell apologized for his self-evidently retarded statement, conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza blew out the thesis into a full-length book). I’m not trying to be “fair and balanced” here by bringing up GOP stupidity; I’m trying to point out that we’re in a decade of this sort craptastic instantaneous spin that latches on to everything in its path. I say this as someone who was fingered as broadly responsible for the culture that produced “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.

Readers of this site know I’m no Sarah Palin fan, but to accuse her of complicity in the murderous spree of a clearly insane person is one of the main reasons that partisan political parties are losing market share. I had myself tweeted that blaming Palin for Jared Loughner’s mass killing would be like blaming J.D. Salinger for Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon (and as Jesse Walker pointed out, in Chapman’s case, at least we could be sure Chapman had read Salinger). Given Loughner’s fixation on grammar and the supposed lack of literacy evinced by most Americans, maybe William Safire and S.I. Hayakawa should be held responsible.

Like Matt Welch and Jack Shafer, I don’t think that today’s political rhetoric is particularly overheated or vitriolic and, even if it were, I don’t think that would be a problem. I suspect that most people are like me in that they respond to folks who actually believe something and are willing to fight for it when it comes to a particular political issue. I don’t like bipartisanship, which usually means that all of us get screwed, but it’s easy enough to respect someone you virulently disagree with if you think they are arguing in good faith.

The problem isn’t with the current moment’s rhetoric, it’s with the goddamn politicization of every goddamn thing not even for a higher purpose or broader fight but for the cheapest moment-by-moment partisan advantage. Whether on the left or on the right, there’s a totalist mentality that everything can and should be explained first and foremost as to whether it helps or hurt the party of choice.

That sort of clearly calculated punditry helps explain one of last week’s other big stories, which is how both the Dems and the GOP have really bad brand loyalty these days. In its most recent survey of political self-identification, Gallup found that the Dems were at their lowest point in 22 years and that the GOP remains stuck below the one-third mark. The affiliation that has the highest marks for the past couple of decades on average and is growing now is independent. Faced with the way that the major parties and their partisans try to bend every news story, trend, box office hit or bomb, you name it, whether truly horrific (as Saturday’s shooting was) or totally banal, is it any wonder that fewer people want to be affiliated with the Dems and Reps? This is a long-term trend. Indeed, Harris Poll numbers that stretch back to the late ’60s show the same trend: Fewer and few folks want to view themselves as Democrats and the GOP has never been popular (even though far more people consider themselves “conservative” than “liberal”). And note what Gallup are Harris are talking about there is not party registration. It’s identification and self-affiliation; how you see yourself. It’s a cultural identity.

Paul Krugman at The New York Times

Ross Douthat at The New York Times

Tom Maguire on Krugman

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday—about eight hours before he allegedly killed six people and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), in Tucson—Jared Lee Loughner phoned an old and close friend with whom he had gone to high school and college. The friend, Bryce Tierney, was up late watching TV, but he didn’t answer the call. When he later checked his voice mail, he heard a simple message from Loughner: “Hey man, it’s Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later.”

That was it. But later in the day, when Tierney first heard about the Tucson massacre, he had a sickening feeling: “They hadn’t released the name, but I said, ‘Holy shit, I think it’s Jared that did it.'” Tierney tells Mother Jones in an exclusive interview that Loughner held a years-long grudge against Giffords and had repeatedly derided her as a “fake.” Loughner’s animus toward Giffords intensified after he attended one of her campaign events and she did not, in his view, sufficiently answer a question he had posed, Tierney says. He also describes Loughner as being obsessed with “lucid dreaming”—that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control—and says Loughner became “more interested in this world than our reality.” Tierney adds, “I saw his dream journal once. That’s the golden piece of evidence. You want to know what goes on in Jared Loughner’s mind, there’s a dream journal that will tell you everything.”

Peter Beinart at Daily Beast:

Liberals should stop acting like the Tea Party is guilty of inciting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting until proven innocent. That’s unfair. If someone finds evidence that violent anti-government, or anti-democratic, rhetoric helped trigger Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, then the people making those statements should pay with their political careers. But so far, at least, there is no such evidence. Of course, Sarah Palin should stop using hunting metaphors to discuss her political opponents. She should stop doing that, and a dozen other idiotic things. But just as Tea Partiers are wrong to promiscuously throw around terms like “communist” and “death panels,” liberals should avoid promiscuously accusing people of being accessories to attempted murder. That’s too serious a charge to throw around unless you have the goods. I want Barack Obama to derail the congressional Republicans as much as anyone. But not this way.

The Giffords shooting doesn’t prove that Sarah Palin has blood on her hands. What it does prove is that when it comes to terrorism, people like Sarah Palin have a serious blind spot. On the political right, and at times even the political center, there is a casual assumption—so taken for granted that it is rarely even spoken—that the only terrorist threat America faces is from jihadist Islam. There was a lot of talk a couple of weeks back, you’ll remember, about a terrorist attack during the holiday season. And there’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about the threat of homegrown terrorists. Well, we’ve just experienced a terrorist attack over the holiday season, and it was indeed homegrown. Had the shooters’ name been Abdul Mohammed, you’d be hearing the familiar drumbeat about the need for profiling and the pathologies of Islam. But since his name was Jared Lee Loughner, he gets called “mentally unstable”; the word “terrorist” rarely comes up. When are we going to acknowledge that good old-fashioned white Americans are every bit as capable of killing civilians for a political cause as people with brown skin who pray to Allah? There’s a tradition here. Historically, American elites, especially conservative American elites, have tended to reserve the term “terrorism” for political violence committed by foreigners. In the early 20th century, for instance, there was enormous fear, even hysteria, about the terrorist threat from anarchist and communist immigrants from Eastern or Southern Europe, people like Sacco and Vanzetti. In the aftermath of World War I, large numbers of immigrant radicals were arrested and deported. Nothing similar happened to members of the white, protestant Ku Klux Klan, even though its violence was more widespread.

Similarly today, the media spends the Christmas season worrying how another attack by radical Muslims might undermine President Obama’s national-security credentials. But when Jared Lee Loughner shoots 20 people at a Safeway, barely anyone even comments on what it says about the president’s anti-terror bona fides. And yet Loughner’s attack is, to a significant degree, what American terror looks like. Obviously, jihadists have committed their share of terrorism on American soil in the last couple of decades—from the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 to the 9/11 attacks to Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan’s murder of 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. But there have been at least as many attacks by white Americans angry at their own government or society. For almost two decades, culminating in 1995, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski sent mail bombs to people he considered complicit in industrial America’s assault on nature. (A surprising amount of recent American terrorism comes from militant environmentalists.) That same year, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the second-largest recent terrorist attack on U.S. soil after 9/11. In 1996, Eric Rudolph bombed the Atlanta Olympics to protest abortion and international socialism. According to the FBI, opposition to abortion also played a role in the 2001 anthrax attacks (you know, the ones Dick Cheney were sure had been masterminded by Saddam Hussein). In 2009, Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered. (He had already been shot once, and his clinic had been bombed.) That same year octogenarian neo-Nazi James Wenneker von Brunn shot a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last February, a man angry at the federal government flew a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas.

Instapundit at The Wall Street Journal

Ezra Klein:

None of this, of course, will ease the suffering of Giffords or her family, nor of any of the other individuals and families directly affected by this morning’s slaughter. For them, the process of grieving and recovering has barely begun. Loughner’s shooting might’ve been motivated by mental illness, but the people in that parking lot were motivated by democracy: It was a meeting between a congressional representative and those she represents. They were attacked for being good citizens, and nothing can ever put that right.

But one way that people might pay tribute is to follow their example and attend the next meeting held by their representative. It is so easy and safe to participate in the American political system that we sometimes take doing so for granted. Today was a horrifying look into a world in which that isn’t so, and it should leave us with renewed appreciation for, and determination to protect, the world we have. On this, Giffords was way ahead of us: When the 112th session of the House of Representatives convened to read the Constitution earlier this week, she chose to read the section guaranteeing Americans the right “peaceably to assemble.”

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John P. Wheeler: 1944-2010

Jon Bershad at Mediaite:

Tragic news out of Delaware as a body discovered in a Delaware landfill on New Years Eve has been confirmed as John P. Wheeler III, a decorated veteran who worked with three different Presidential administrations. His death has been ruled a homicide.

Wheeler served in the Vietnam War, served as an aide to both Bush administrations as well as the Reagan administration, and was the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund with whom he was instrumental in getting the Vietnam Memorial built. Recently, he had been working to get the ROTC brought back to Ivy League campuses. He was last seen on an Amtrak train last Tuesday.

Mark Thompson at Swampland at Time:

John Wheeler was one of those outer planets in the capital’s solar system, never drawing too close to the Sun but riding the country’s business in an elliptical orbit that would bring him closer to the heat every once in awhile. I can remember discussing the plight of Vietnam veterans with him — and their push for a memorial to commemorate their sacrifice — as well pondering the threat that cyber war posed to America. Sure, the topics were 180 degrees, and three decades, apart, but that’s the kind of Renaissance man Jack Wheeler was.
It came as a shock to all of us who knew him that Wheeler — West Point (1966), Harvard (1969) and Yale (1975) — ended up dead in a Delaware dump on Friday. There’s little publicly known about Wheeler’s final days, although he was believed to have been aboard an Amtrak train from the capital to Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. His body surfaced as a trash truck — after picking up debris from 10 bins on the east side of Newark, Del., dumped its load at a landfill. Police have not specified how he died. He lived in nearby New Castle, Del., with his wife, Katherine Klyce, owner of a New York-based Cambodian silk company.
Jennifer Epstein at Politico:

John P. Wheeler III, a defense contractor who had worked for presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, was last seen on Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. near the Hotel du Pont in downtown Wilmington – about two blocks from the office the lawyer handling his real estate case.

Information about the spotting was provided by a tipster and a police were able to confirm it, a spokesman said.

James Fallows:

I worked with Jack on a book called Touched With Fire, about the post-war experiences of people who were in uniform during Vietnam and people who (like me) were actively opposing the war. He was chairman of the committee that got the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built. That is now taken as a great, triumphant icon of commemorative architecture, but at the time the “black gash of shame” was bitterly controversial, and Jack Wheeler was in the middle of the controversy — raising money, getting approvals, collecting allies and placating critics until the wall was built. A few days before it opened he called to invite me to be one of the readers who would, over a long stretch of hours, take turns saying aloud the names of every person recorded on the wall.

He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes. His most recent crusade was to bring ROTC back to elite campuses, as noted here. That is what I was corresponding with him about  in recent months. To be within email range of Jack was to look forward to frequent, lengthy, often urgent-sounding and often overwrought dispatches on the state of the struggle. Late at night on Christmas Day, I was surprised to see this simple note from him:

>>Jim, Merry Christmas, Old Friend. Onward and upward.

Jack<<

I replied — thank goodness!, I now think — and assumed I would hear more from him soon on the ROTC struggle.

I have no idea what kind of trouble he may have encountered. As a lawyer quoted in the Delaware Online story said, “This is just not the kind of guy that gets murdered.” I feel terrible for his family and hope they will eventually find comfort in knowing how many important things he achieved.

Instapundit:

HMM: Body of Murdered Ex-GOP Official, a Yale Law Grad, is Found in Del. Landfill. “This is just not the kind of guy who gets murdered.”

Robert Stacy McCain:

No reason to speculate about this crime. Just let the police do their work. Nevertheless, we can expect that conspiracy theorists will offer all kinds of arcane explanations

Lady Liberty at Gateway Pundit

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Bloggers Contemplate A Door That Revolves

James Fallows:

Last night, on the “Virtually Speaking” discussion about the media with Jay Rosen of NYU, we talked about the phenomenon of things that everyone in the press corp “knows” but that don’t make their way into news stories or broadcasts. One such category involves things that everyone suspects but can’t quite prove — for instance, how involved Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were in the Valerie Plame case. Or, to make it bipartisan, about Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior over the years. But another category, which I think is even more important, involves things that everyone “knows” but has stopped noticing. This is very similar to what is called “Village” behavior in the big time media.

An item in this second category has just come up: the decision of Peter Orszag, until recently the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Barack Obama, to join Citibank in a senior position. Exactly how much it will pay is not clear, but informed guesses are several million dollars per year. Citibank, of course, was one of the institutions most notably dependent on federal help to survive in these past two years.

Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.

– Damaging, in that it epitomizes and personalizes a criticism both left and right have had of the Obama Administration’s “bailout” policy: that it’s been too protective of the financial system’s high-flying leaders, and too reluctant to hold any person or institution accountable. Of course there’s a strong counter argument to be made, in the spirit of Obama’s recent defense of his tax-cut compromise. (Roughly: that it would have been more satisfying to let Citi and others fail, but the results would have been much more damaging to the economy as a whole.) But it’s a harder argument to make when one of your senior officials has moved straight to the (very generous) Citi payroll. Any competent Republican ad-maker is already collecting clips of Orszag for use in the next campaign.

– Shocking, in the structural rather than personal corruption that it illustrates. I believe Orszag (whom I do not know at all) to be a faultlessly honest man, by the letter of the law. I am sorry for his judgment in taking this job,* but I am implying nothing whatsoever “unethical” in a technical sense. But in the grander scheme, his move illustrates something that is just wrong. The idea that someone would help plan, advocate, and carry out an economic policy that played such a crucial role in the survival of a financial institution — and then, less than two years after his Administration took office, would take a job that (a) exemplifies the growing disparities the Administration says it’s trying to correct and (b) unavoidably will call on knowledge and contacts Orszag developed while in recent public service — this says something bad about what is taken for granted in American public life.

More Fallows:

I made a mistake several days ago when lamenting Peter Orszag’s decision to take a senior job with Citibank, reportedly for several million dollars per year, so soon after leaving a senior Obama Administration post. Over the past two-plus years, Obama (and GW Bush) policies played a crucial role in saving Citi — and in not holding its executives (or other senior financial-world figures) accountable for polices that brought on the world financial crisis or reining in top-end pay as profitability has returned. Now a senior member of the Obama team — Orszag was budget director — was going straight to one of those top-end jobs, even as his former colleagues in the administration have their hands full fighting the social, economic, and political effects of the crisis on “ordinary” Americans who can’t find jobs or are losing their homes.

My mistake was not in pointing out this problem, nor in identifying it as the kind of thing that is notable precisely because no one even stops to remark on it any more. It was in the sentence that said, “Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.” That’s the difference between one-draft web postings and many-times-edited print articles. What I meant was, “Politically this is damaging and should be shocking.” Because the real point is that official Washington should notice this instance of structural corruption — but won’t.

If you’re wondering just how taken for granted such arrangements are in today’s Washington/ Versailles, here’s a data point. The Washington Post, still aspiring to be official journal of politics, has not published a single story about Orszag’s new job. Here is what its search function shows just now:
WaPo3.png

“Please try another search” indeed. How about “things that are depressing”? To their credit, the Post’s Ezra Klein and Ed O’Keefe each had one-line links on their sites, pointing to (respectively) the NYT “Dealbook” and Reuters stories on Orszag. (And those links come up if you search the Post’s site for “Orszag Citigroup.” Otherwise there appears to have been no “news” coverage by the Post. Klein also had this follow-up link to an item called “Our Peter Orszag Problem” on the Economist’s site.) The gap between the things the Post considers “scandals,” and a development like this, so taken for granted as not to merit mention, says too much about our politics.

More Fallows

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

Mr Fallows hits the nail on the head, but what this structural injustice means, politically and ideologically, remains unclear. In my opinion, the seeming inevitability of Orszag-like migrations points to a potentially fatal tension within the progressive strand of liberal thought. Progressives laudably seek to oppose injustice by deploying government power as a countervailing force against the imagined opressive and exploitative tendencies of market institutions. Yet it seems that time and again market institutions find ways to use the government’s regulatory and insurer-of-last-resort functions as countervailing forces against their competitors and, in the end, against the very public these functions were meant to protect.

We are constantly exploited by the tools meant to foil our exploitation. For a progressive to acknowledge as much is tantamount to abandoning progressivism. So it’s no surprise that progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power. But it really isn’t the Citizens United decision that’s about to make Peter Orszag a minor Midas. It’s the vast power of a handful of Washington players, with whom Mr Orszag has become relatively intimate, to make or destroy great fortunes more or less at whim. Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained. Washington is so unconstrained in no small part because progressives and New Dealers and Keynesians and neo-cons and neo-liberals for various good and bad reasons wanted it that way. So, what is to be done? Summon a self-bottling genie-bottling genie?

The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don’t believe that. Until more of us do, we’re not going far in that direction. And maybe that’s just as well. Maybe it’s true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it’s also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism’s injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue’s op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

So what is to be done about the structural injustice spotlighted by Peter Orszag’s passage through the revolving golden door? How exactly do we tweak the unjust structure? If the system is rigged, how exactly do we unrig it? In which direction can we muddle without making matters worse?

Ezra Klein:

But reading the coverage, I’ve been struck by a few things.

1. I’m not nearly so sure it’s about the money as other people seem to be. Orszag is fairly wealthy already (my understanding is he sold off an economic consulting firm when he became director of the Congressional Budget Office), and his lifetime of public service positions does not suggest a man particularly motivated by income. Rather, I think people are underestimating the lure of the job itself.

Orszag has gone as high as he’s likely to go in government, and he’s 41 years old. The guy isn’t done, but there’s not much more for him in Washington. So what is left for him?

Well, he could do academia or a think tank. But that’s a pretty sedate, low-stress existence compared with the tempo he’s kept up over the past few decades. Let’s say he doesn’t want to move into a wiseman or advisory role. New York Times columnist didn’t seem like a bad gig to me, but then, I’ve chosen to devote my life to similar pursuits. I’m not really sure why anyone would want to be a university president. You sometimes hear people say that he should’ve sat around and been fairly rich and respected, but I imagine that gets boring after the first decade or so.

Citigroup is a really big, really powerful institution. Orszag’s position in it is the sort of position that could one day lead to being president of Citigroup. If you’re him, and you’re trying to figure out an interesting and high-impact way to spend the next 40 years, I can see why it’s appealing. But it’s the power and the job and the opportunity, more than the money, that make it appealing.

2. The problem is less why Orszag wanted to go to Citigroup than why Citigroup wanted to hire Orszag. In Citigroup, you’re dealing with a bank that’s simply much more reliant than other banks are on connections with the American government, and other governments. Bank of America has similar needs, and so too do a couple of others, but it’s a short list.

Whether Orszag was a smart hire on these grounds is hard to say. It’s difficult to overstate how much bad will has developed between Orszag and the White House he used to serve. Some of that comes from perceived disloyalty in Orszag’s public statements — like his first New York Times column, which called for a short-term extension of all the tax cuts when the White House was arguing for the permanent extension of most of the cuts and the expiration of the cuts for the rich — but this move, which many in the administration consider politically problematic and personally distasteful, added considerably to the anger.

What Citigroup gets in Orszag is a brilliant policy mind and a deep understanding of government, not to mention a thick rolodex that certainly still has some friendly names on it. The reasons those things are valuable to Citigroup make most of us uncomfortable, and that goes double after the government bailed Citigroup out during the financial crisis. I highly doubt that the meetings between Orszag and Citigroup left him with the impression that he was getting hired to help with governmental affairs. His portfolio, in fact, is explicitly international. But I don’t know anyone who believes that it will stay that way.

Brad DeLong:

Look: Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that the most basic principles of good governance mandate that the American government have a long-term plan in place to match its long-term projected expenditures with its long-term projected revenues. Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that requiring that every policy initiative be paid-for in the long-term so that it does not increase the projected debt, say, ten years out into the future is the minimum low bar that policy should be able to clear.

Barack Obama has not taken Peter Orszag’s advice: he has not proposed only initiatives that are paid-for in the long-term. He has not pledged to veto bills that raise the projected debt ten years hence.

Peter Orszag is no longer in the government.

Does he now have a duty to tell those who read his New York Times columns the same things that he told Obama when he was in government?

Or does he have a duty to tell lies to his readers about what he thinks good policy is in order to advance the interests of an administration that he is no longer part of?

I would say he has the first duty.

Matthew Yglesias:

As I understand it, the concern is that the the job itself is a bribe. In a super-crass version of this, Firm A says to Regulator Z “you won’t be in this job forever, but if you make a lot of decisions favorable to Firm A then we’ll hire you after you quit.” In a more realistic version what happens is that Regulator Z observes that many of his predecessors have gone on to lucrative careers in Industry A and that they probably couldn’t have had if they’d pissed off all the Industry A CEOs. This biases his decision-making in a problematic way.

Sometimes I think this problem is more apparent than real. Any conceivable set of decisions that the FCC makes is going to be favorable to some set of large corporations. So being in the pocket of “big business” as such isn’t a big problem. But sometimes the problem is very real. The entire financial reform debate, for example, has featured a lot of ideas that put the interests of the financial sector as such at stake. Many observers, including Ezra Klein, have posited that shrinking the size of the financial sector overall should be a goal of reform. Obviously, though, people with an ambition to go get jobs in the financial sector are unlikely to espouse such goals.

Will at The League:

Peter Orszag’s new job at Citigroup is one of those under-discussed stories that makes me glad I read blogs. It also makes me depressed because I’m struggling to envision a plausible solution to the problems of regulatory capture and the revolving door between government and the financial services industry. You can imagine better policies arising in a lot of areas – farm subsidies, for example – if we magically removed certain political constraints, but even if you were given free reign to remake the United States’ political system, the problem of regulating an incredibly complicated financial sector would still be pretty tough to figure out.

If you’ll permit me to simplify things for the sake of brevity, the standard progressive view of the financial sector is that we need more and better regulators. This is complicated by the fact that regulation – particularly regulation that involves opaque financial practices – is complex and therefore vulnerable to companies gaming the system. Former high-level Administration officials accepting jobs at financial institutions that were just bailed out basically exemplifies these concerns.

The libertarian/conservative rejoinder is that less regulation equals less opportunities for politically-connected firms to hijack the system. As a safeguard against future financial meltdowns, I find this unsatisfying for a number of reasons: First, attempts to describe the roots of the financial crisis solely through the lens of government intervention sound pretty silly. And second, if the regulatory and administrative superstructure of government is fatally compromised by insiders and corporate lobbyists, are we sure we  can successfully deconstruct that system from within? I think this is part of what liberals are getting at when they suggest the conservative movement is basically a front group for rich people and big business: sure, you might make election year noises about limited government, but genuinely populist conservative impulses take a backseat to corporate interests in a political and regulatory environment dominated by insiders. In other words, the Tea Party will never beat Goldman Sachs at its own game.

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“You’ve Got To Stop This War In Afghanistan.” Richard Holbrooke: 1941-2010

Rajiv Chandrasekaran at WaPo:

Longtime U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, whose relentless prodding and deft maneuvering yielded the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia – a success he hoped to repeat as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – died Monday in Washington of complications from surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69.

A foreign policy adviser to four Democratic presidents, Mr. Holbrooke was a towering, one-of-a-kind presence who helped define American national security strategy over 40 years and three wars by connecting Washington politicians with New York elites and influential figures in capitals worldwide. He seemed to live on airplanes and move with equal confidence through Upper East Side cocktail parties, the halls of the White House and the slums of Pakistan.

Obama praised him as “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the United States “has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants.”

Michael Crowley at Swampland at Time:

Holbrooke’s Last Words

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Spoken to a Pakistani surgeon who was sedating him before surgery.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

Holbrooke’s untimely death comes as a particular shock to those of us at FP, who saw him only two weeks ago when he was honored at our Global Thinkers Gala and was at his pugnacious best. (Here’s a video of his speech at the event, in which he called his years at FP “among the most important in my life and my career.”

Holbrooke was a giant of American policy over the last half century, trouble-shooting in conflicts from Vietnam, to the Balkans, (about which he wrote his classic first-person account, To End a War) to Afghanistan. (He’s probably one of the few State Department figures to play a starring role in both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks documents.)

But while often seen as the consummate Foggy Bottom insider, Holbrooke was never sentimental about the business of American foreign policy. His first piece from the very first issue of Foreign Policy in 1970 takes on the bloated U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy, or has he called it, “the machine that fails.” In Holbrooke’s view, the proliferation of massively-staffed agencies accountable for different aspects of U.S. foreign policy had made the entirely apparatus dangerously unwieldy.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Diplomacy is a paradoxically insular world. And most of the nation’s foreign affairs get little treatment in the headlines. So I imagine that more than a few readers are wondering why we’re giving such major treatment to the death of Obama administration who many of you probably have never heard of or perhaps only in passing.

As the obituaries note, Holbrooke was key figure in US diplomacy for almost half a century. One fun fact: he authored a substantial portion of the Pentagon Papers. What may or may not come through as clearly was the size of the personality and the doggedness — a fact that likely kept him from the top job of Secretary of State in this and last Democratic administration.

Vice President Biden’s statement contains these two sentence: “Richard Holbrooke was a larger than life figure, who through his brilliance, determination and sheer force of will helped bend the curve of history in the direction of progress … He was a tireless negotiator, a relentless advocate for American interests, and the most talented diplomat we’ve had in a generation.”

His reputation rests on his role in ending the war in Yugoslavia, where he demonstrated a cold-eyed, unabashedly pragmatic mix of cajoling, bullying, threatening and negotiating mixed with bombing to achieve an eminently just and moral end, which makes him on several levels a hero to many of us.

Spencer Ackerman (entire post):

Out for a long-overdue drinks and dinner with foreign-policy-oriented friends tonight, all of a sudden our phones buzz. Richard Holbrooke, the most distinguished diplomat of his generation, has died. None of us know quite what to say. Our respect for Holbrooke has long been tempered with a certain exasperation with how his personality has overshadowed his talents and gotten in the way of his ambition.

And all of a sudden it dawned on me how trivial and thin that critique is. What other American diplomat can credibly say s/he ended a savage war? I read To End A War the year I came to Washington and decided I wanted to cover foreign policy — immediately, if I recall correctly, after I finished A Problem From Hell, partly because I didn’t want to stop exploring what that book mined — and still remember how superhuman a task Dayton seemed, even after factoring out Holbrooke’s interest in making it seem so arduous.

For 40 years, no other diplomat has played as impactful a role in as many of the nation’s crucibles. It’s him and Kissinger (and Kissinger’s been out of the arena for a long time). And whatever Holbrooke’s flaws were, his influence during these tests was ultimately wise and beneficial, quite unlike Kissinger’s. Think for a moment about how thin the line is in foreign affairs between principle and hubris; between the lessons of experience and the blinders they impose; between subtlety and miscalculation. Someone who manages to manage, as Holbrooke always did, is a precious resource.

We read our messages, and clinked our glasses in honor of a great man, thought briefly of his family, and drank. RIP.

Steve Clemons:

Richard Holbrooke is gone. This is not the time for cliches.

But I can’t imagine results-achieving American diplomacy without him. I will personally miss him so much — and am deeply saddened by his passing.

Condolences to Kati Marton, his amazing wife; and to all of his current team — and his many former staff who will carry on his ideas and work for years.

Steve Coll at New Yorker:

It was not easy to construct a quiet hour or two with Richard Holbrooke. I saw him regularly, as did other journalists and researchers who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a long sit-down took some effort. Holbrooke was an accessible, open, and attentive person, but he was also in perpetual motion. He moved from meeting to meeting, conversation to conversation, and if you managed to sequester him somewhere for fifteen minutes or more, his cell phone was sure to ring—Islamabad, Kabul, the Secretary of State, somebody.

Earlier this year, however, we managed to arrange a private lunch in Washington on a Saturday. He invited me to meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel, near his home in Georgetown. The dining room at the hotel is not quite the watering hole for the wealthy and famous that it is in Manhattan, but it is a Washington-limited facsimile. When the Ambassador arrived the maître d’ attended him lavishly, scolding the waiter who had initially greeted him for failing to assign him an appropriately expansive and exclusive table.

He was carrying that morning’s Financial Times. He marvelled over an article he was reading about I. M. Pei and he wanted to talk about architecture for a while. As I had gotten to know him a little, I had discovered that he would speak about subjects such as acting or trends in academic history with genuine passion. He sometimes preferred those topics to the repetitive nuances of South Asia’s dysfunctional politics. He had a reputation for creating drama around himself; he was genuinely a theatrical man, in the sense of being physical and full of emotion and gesture. I came to think that he lived the way he did in part to avoid boredom.

While we ate lunch, Jerry Seinfeld and some of his entourage entered the dining room; Seinfeld was a guest at the hotel. “Jerry!” Holbrooke shouted, warmly. They were neighbors, it turned out, in New York and Telluride. We stood for introductions and chit-chat. Holbrooke asked what Seinfeld was working on and the comedian talked about his new reality-television show. In mid-explanation, however, Holbrooke’s cell phone rang. It was Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so the Ambassador had to interrupt Seinfeld to take the call. Eventually we returned to our table and resumed our discussion about the Waziristans and the rest.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

I’m finding it mind-boggling (as is Jim Fallows) that Richard Holbrooke has died, because he was not the sort of person who dies, or at least dies before he’s finished with what he needed to finish. There was too much will inside him to achieve, and he had not yet achieved what he needed to achieve. The last time I spoke to him, a couple of months ago, I asked him if he would replace George Mitchell as the Middle East envoy when Mitchell inevitably stepped down. It always struck me that Holbrooke, with his titanic ego, his magnetism and his brute intelligence — and also his conniving, man-of-the-bazaar qualities so unusual in an American — would be the only American who could birth a Palestinian state and bring peace to the Middle East (Could you just imagine Bill Clinton as good cop and Holbrooke as bad? I could).  Holbrooke laughed off the question, but not really. There were challenges he needed to master before he mastered that one. He was not having great luck in Afghanistan, and he might very well have ultimately failed, but you have to ask yourself — who else? Who else could do what he did? Who else is there? Richard Holbrooke will be missed, even — especially — by the people he drove mad.

James Fallows:

I am thinking of a dozen stories now, starting in the early 1970s when he was editor of Foreign Policy magazine and I was a fledgling freelance writer for him. (Or when, a few years later, I had the odd experience of welcoming him to Plains, Georgia as part of the Carter campaign team.) I will store them up for another time. He was a tremendous force, overall for the betterment of American interests and the world’s. My sympathies to his wife Kati and the rest of his family.  It’s routine to say this, but in this case it’s really so: his absence will be felt.

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