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August 31, 2008

“Not as Bad as Katrina”
Posted by Moira Whelan

Current reports indicate that the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas have evacuated over a million people. Kudos to them: this is a tremendous effort and an excellent result. It looks to be roughly 90% at this point which is tremendous. In many respects, the impact on human life will hopefully be better than we saw three years ago.

However, we need to remember that by using Katrina as a measure for how this country handles disasters, we’re setting the bar far too low. The goal needs to be—at all levels of government—to do things as well as we can do them. That means resources where they need to be and preparedness, response and recovery happening the way it should.

If the media wishes to serve the interest of the people in the case of a natural disaster, they should stop using the worst example we have seen of government in years as the benchmark. Surely, the Bush Administration likes the frame because they’d have to work hard to get it worse than they did in 2005, but in reality, this is not political. People have a right to expect their government to help them when they cannot help themselves in situations like these. If that is the perspective we use, then “not sucking that bad” is not an acceptable frame from a public leader.

Think about it this way: if a terrorist attack happened, it would be reprehensible to measure it as “not as bad” if not as many people died as did on September 11. We simply would not accept that as an answer, and we can’t accept it as an answer regarding Gustav. By pushing leaders at national, state and local levels to answer to a standard of excellence, we’re simply pushing them as hard as I believe they’re pushing themselves right now. The end result is that they’ll make people safer, and that’s really the priority here.

Begging for an Attack Ad
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Buried in today's NY Times piece on how Joe Lieberman, not Sarah Palin, was really John McCain's first choice for VP, is this nugget:

The selection was the culmination of a five-month process, described by Mr. McCain's inner circle and outside advisers in interviews this past weekend, and offers a glimpse into how Mr. McCain might make high-stakes decisions as president.

At the very least, the process reflects Mr. McCain's history of making fast, instinctive and sometimes risky decisions. "I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," Mr. McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For." "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

Ah, quick draw McCain. Nothing says putting country first and effective, experienced leadership than bragging about being brash, quick, first but wrong. Just what we need after 8 years of Bush, another leader who crows about being a good decider, regardless of the final outcome. To his credit, at least McCain admits he's usually wrong. And while he can live with the consequences, the American people, let alone the rest of the world, simply cannot.

The Importance of the Office of VP in a Globalized World
Posted by Max Bergmann

With the pick of Sarah Palin as Vice President, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of the Vice President's office. Many pundits and conservatives have claimed it isn't that important. McCain after the 2000 primary campaign made his thoughts clear on the office when he said the main job of the VP was to check every day on the health of the president and attend funerals for dead dictators. And even Sarah Palin asked out loud in an interview "what does a vice president even do?" Well, they do foreign policy.

The notion that the Vice President's office is irrelevant represents a highly outdated view of the world that fails to recognize both the increasing complexity of global affairs since the end of Cold War and the high demand for U.S. involvement in crisis after crisis. In fact,  the Vice President's office is most relevant, not on domestic policy, but on foreign policy - where a Vice President can effectively represent the administration and the country.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has had a role in almost every international issue and crisis, which has placed heavy demands on the American foreign policy appartus. Additionally, the rise of an increasingly interconnected world after the Cold War has led to a dramatic proliferation in high-level international meetings and forums that require high-level U.S. participation and attention. There are currently so many high-level foreign policy issues to tackle that any single one could completely dominate a President's time. From Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Kashmir-India, Iraq, Iran, energy, climtate, North Korea, disease and development in Africa, and Russia and reinvigorating the NATO alliance.

There is little doubt that Joe Biden as Vice President will have a key role in addressing these issues and will perhaps take the lead on any one of them, while the Secretary of State addresses another. For instance, instead of Obama spending from day 1 almost all of his time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps Obama puts Biden in charge, so he can focus on domestic issues and Iraq, etc. Gore and Cheney both did this - Gore most notably on the environment, and Cheney was critical to Bush administration (albeit crazy) foreign policy, especially during the first term - when he traveled extensively meeting with with leaders in the Middle East and with President Musharraf in Pakistan.

But there is almost no possibility - and I have not heard any conservative suggest - that Palin could be used in a similar way. If a foreign policy crisis erupts no one expects Palin to be involved in the decision-making or the implementation of U.S. policy. Is McCain really going to ask her for advice when she has presicely zero foreign policy experience? As Michael wrote below, this pick is not about putting the country first, it is about doing anything possible to become president. 

McCain’s Disastrous Politics of Gustav
Posted by Moira Whelan

Today, Obama stated that he would stay out of the way as Hurricane Gustav once again threatens the Gulf Coast. Even Bush, who three years ago celebrated Katrina’s landfall at John McCain’s birthday party, is staying away.

What does McCain do? Just like he did when he traveled to a market place in Baghdad, he puts the lives of Americans in danger, and diverts the mission for his own personal political gain. He will travel to the Gulf Coast to give a speech while emergency professionals are urging people to leave.  Not only is it political grandstanding, it’s a disgusting display of the type of bad leadership we would see if John McCain became President.

Preparedness for hurricanes is serious business. When it’s done right, emergency managers control the airwaves, the message, and urge political leaders to stay out of the way so they can make sure people and property are safe. Senators and Congressmen are briefed, but told to stay out of the way and wait until they find out what resources are needed, and then make it happen. The governor takes cues from the Emergency Management director of the state: brief people to get out, show leadership, be honest, and make the calls for resources that need to be made. The President turns the keys to government over to the FEMA director to make sure resources flow properly and stands by to twist arms if needed. The business of disasters is left to disaster professionals with politicians playing a supporting role.

Now admittedly, we haven’t seen that in recent years, but when government works for people, this is how it happens.

But not in 2008, and not when John McCain is sucking wind on a political campaign.

Now, some Americans will see McCain’s trip as “leadership” but just as John McCain’s visit to a marketplace in Baghdad resulted in three Blackhawk helicopters and hundreds of soldiers being ordered to protect his photo op stroll through the market, this could be deadly.

It’s a complete disregard for the mission and the government professionals at all levels attempting to keep people safe.

John McCain’s mere suggestion that he should go there shows his horrific and dangerous judgment. If it actually happens, which hopefully it does not, then he will actually be doing harm. Because he is a presidential candidate, air traffic stops when he lands, roads are closed, and press follow him. Secret service and law enforcement personnel have to make sure everything is secure. That means all of these things STOP WORKING to make the area safer for the people getting out and protecting their homes. The only thing working in the favor of emergency management professionals are the noticeably small crowds at McCain events…so perhaps people will not be motivated to stay around.

These are the very reasons Obama and Biden dismissed the suggestion of travel immediately when asked. He’s talked to Jindal—a man on McCain’s short list for veep—and has expressed help. Trips of politicians often happen after major storms, but when doing these, the main goal is to highlight the devastation in order to secure the resources needed to fix it. It appears these gentlemen get it, and McCain is out of touch in a truly dangerous way.

McCain’s suggestion of a visit will waste precious hours in getting resources in at a time when hours and minutes make all the difference. It will impact news coverage which should otherwise be used to urge people to get out through the proper channels, not political parties.

The Republican suggestion that they may postpone their convention is understandable in some ways. This is, after all, a major emergency. I do think there are many who see this as a political opportunity to not have an embarrassing show that follows one that was amazing the Democrats had this week. They’ve floated the idea of a telethon to raise money. Political grandstanding? Sure, but at least it could do some good and you’re not in the way.

But a visit? Senator McCain, that would be a disaster for the country. Your truly reckless act would show once and for all that you actually would be worse than President Bush.

August 30, 2008

McCain's Puts Country Second
Posted by Michael Cohen

John McCain has been spending quite a bit of the summer telling voters that he puts "country first" while his opponent Barack Obama puts his own political aggrandizement first.

I wonder how John McCain can make that argument with a straight face after the selection of Sarah Palin as the GOP Vice Presidential nominee. There are many things that can be said about Mrs. Palin, but qualified to be President of the United States is not one of them. This is a woman, who has been Governor of Alaska for less than two years and before that she was mayor of a town of 6,000 people - this is not what anyone would consider a presidential resume. Her foreign policy experience is simply non-existent. 

But putting Mrs. Palin aside for a second, this pick says far more about John McCain and where he ranks country vs. his own political advancement. John McCain is 72-years old with a history of cancer. The question of his mortality has to be front and center in his selection of a running mate. In many respects, this is the single most important and consequential Vice Presidential selection since FDR chose a running mate in 1944.

The person who McCain selects has to be 'ready to lead' on day one; they have to be knowledgeable about foreign policy and national security affairs in order to take over a country that is waging two foreign wars.  It is simply impossible to say this about Sarah Palin. No one can reasonably argue that she has the necessary experience and background to serve as Commander in Chief.

So why did John McCain select her? Well Sarah Palin is a woman and the thought process seems to be that she will appeal to female voters, particularly disgruntled Hillary supporters.  As Ramesh Ponnuru noted over at National Review; "Can anyone say with a straight face that Palin would have gotten picked if she were a man?" Of course, there are plenty of women that John McCain could have chosen, like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison or Meg Whitman, but they are pro-choice and thus not acceptable to social conservatives. Mrs. Palin, who is adamantly pro-life, however fits the conservative bill.

Clearly politics plays a role in every Vice Presidential selection, but has there ever been a more blatant example than this? There was a political consideration in picking Joe Biden, but no one questions that he is ready for the job. I have yet to hear a serious argument that Sarah Palin IS ready for the job of President. Indeed she is dangerously unqualified.

John McCain has made a Vice Presidential selection that from a foreign policy perspective couldn't be more irresponsible and reckless. Quite simply, when the stakes were highest, John McCain has put his own political advancement first and the interests of his country second.

What's wrong with this Hurricane?
Posted by Moira Whelan

Gustov I just noticed that the daily brief customarily done in advance of a hurricane is happening because Gustov is bearing down on the Gulf Coast…but a big shift here: the briefing is being given by NORTHCOM. So what does this tell us and why does it matter? It tells us that things are as broken as they were before Katrina.

The military, like EPA, Commerce, or anyone else, is only involved in emergency management to the point that they are requested to do so by the governor or the FEMA director (who acts on behalf of the President).

When it comes to disasters, the governor is always in charge. At any point, he or she can call in their state’s National Guard, and/or ask other governors for their help in augmenting response efforts with their national guard or other resources. If a governor is worried things are getting out of control, they ask the President to provide help through FEMA at any point before or after the incident. FEMA is then in charge of coordinating the resources of the federal government to support the governor and the state. In a sense, when FEMA is working properly—as it did under Clinton—when the FEMA director tells another Federal agency to do something, it’s as if the President is calling. The government agency is expected to deliver and cut through red tape to make things happen and happen fast. 

There is no allowance or legal authority for the Department of Defense to take any sort of control or command in this scenario. In a hurricane, DoD, like Human Services, Transportation, etc, all work for FEMA and the governor of the impacted state.

This is done for a very specific and important reason: here in America, we believe that governors should have control over their own states. The federal government needs to be there to help, but they absolutely do not move in and take over. We also do not believe that the military should ever forcibly operate inside the United States unless they are under civilian control.

With NORTHCOM taking the lead on briefing the public, it’s clear the Bush Administration wants to send the message that everything is under control. Instead, to those that do this for a living, the message is clear that everything is absolutely and completely broken.

Perhaps the state governments need help. Perhaps FEMA is not up to the job. Perhaps the Bush Administration simply wants a uniform on camera, and this way of doing things is preferable to things happening the way that they should (a process, by the way, that WORKED before Bush screwed it up).

NORTHCOM taking the lead in public relations is a clear indication that nothing has been fixed in DHS and FEMA since Katrina. As a result, there is no confidence in FEMA’s ability to respond to this hurricane. With NORTHCOM at the helm, the Bush Administration either doesn’t care if, or doesn’t want, the systems to work. This Administration has issued a lot of reports since Katrina (none of which suggest the military should take control, incidentially), but no one has been held accountable and the lessons have not been learned. The priority is still on preventing embarrassment, not keeping people safe.

The other thing to remember here is that this is not a mission the military wants. Sure, they can ride in on a white horse and do what they can, but their job is to fight wars, not deal with disasters. Governors need their national guards to make this a priority (but most are in Iraq) but DoD needs to worry about the rest of the world. By dumping this on them, the Bush Administration is reinforcing the idea that the military is the only government agency that people can trust and continues to burden them with missions for which they are not trained.

The bottom line is that things will not work the way they should with NORTHCOM in charge.  Governors don’t take orders from Generals. No one else in government takes orders from DoD. No one in emergency management even knows what NORTHCOM does, except come in and issue “orders” to a bunch of civilians who don't work for them.

I hope for the sake of the people on the Gulf Coast that the hundreds of civilians who want to do right by them prevail over the system that the Bush Administration has failed to fix.

H/T to Jason McNamara for this one.

Continue reading "What's wrong with this Hurricane?" »

August 29, 2008

Does Sarah Palin know what a Sunni is?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Wow, Sarah Palin? Really? We just got a big break. If the Democrats respond to this the right way, McCain is in deep trouble. Just picture it for a second now: in the VP debate, the moderator asks Biden about Iraq policy (maybe some curveball about provincial elections), then asks Palin to respond. It doesn't even seem fair. What is Palin going to say?

It's not really an issue of Palin's zero foreign policy experience (my little brother has no foreign policy experience either but at least he got the most major foreign policy decision of the last __ years right, when 80% of Washington got it wrong... I think it might of went something like this: "Shadi, wtf are we in Iraq?"). The real question is if Palin, before today, has ever spoke at length publicly about any major foreign policy issue. I imagine the answer is no. When the Iraq war started, and when Obama had the courage to oppose it, Palin was the mayor of some random city that has, like, um, 9000 people. In Egypt, a 50-ft. radius practically has more than that.

An award should go to the first person who asks Palin the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite. Has Palin actually ever said the word "Sunni" before? I'm not sure, and I'm too lazy to find out, but I suspect I know the answer. Perhaps more importantly, does she know what happened in Iran in 1953? She should know this because she spent a whole sentence today trying to sound hawkish on Iran. I don't want anyone in the oval office or any other office making Iran policy if they don't understand the importance of 1953

Or how about an easier one - who's Morocco's head of state? Even if she doesn't know the answer, she could probably guess. The nice thing about the Arab world is that if you forget someone's name, you can always recover by asking the person, Ahmad/ Mohammad/ Mahmoud/ Mustafa, and then add the word sahh (right) + question mark? This because literally 1 out of every 2 Arabs has one of these four names. Your best bet, however, is Mohammad, which just this past year became the number of one baby name in Britain (oh dear, the Muslims are invading!).

Enough suspense - the King of Morocco (yes, this is the part of the world that still has kings who actually rule, reign, govern, and just about everything else) is named Mohammad. There you go, King Mohammad. Was that too hard?

Palin as VP
Posted by Moira Whelan

"But as for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell ya, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me, what is it exactly that the VP does every day?" - Sarah Palin, 8/1/08, CNBC, Kudlow and Company

August 28, 2008

How Much Does the Middle East Matter?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The rise of "declinist" literature (that’s not really a word, is it?) has been well-documented by others - these efforts aimed at recording (or perhaps inviting) the end of the American era. The gist is of the thesis is that America will remain strong, but will increasingly find itself challenged by rising powers, among them China, Russia, and India. America's declining influence under Bush is, it seems, often used a pretext to advocate correcting our seeming obsession with the Middle East and shifting our focus to "broader" global threats. I got a weird feeling the other day when I saw the following comment from Ezra Klein:

The Middle East has sort of overwhelmed all other foreign policy issues over the past few years, but with the Iraqi government now demanding we pull out by 2011 and Bush basically agreeing to that, that state of affairs will quickly ease and other issues will take preeminence.

I find this to be a troubling line of argument, because it presumes that the Middle East wasn't that much of a problem before Iraq (or even 9/11), when in fact it was. The problems we face in the region today - whether it be religious extremism, sectarianism, terrorism, or general economic stagnation - are products of the pre-9/11 era, when Republicans and Democrats alike supported misguided, sometimes destructive, policies toward the region. To think that once Iraq is "solved," we'll be able to, in some sense, wash at least one of our hands of the Middle East overlooks the fact that the region was, is, and will continue to be dangerous, independent of the Iraq war.

The reasons for the Middle East failings are deep-seated, with a long history. Iraq is very small part of this history. A bigger part of that history has to do with the continued failure of ostensibly secular "pro-Western" regimes to provide basic services or basic freedoms to their own citizens. It also has to do with the fact that the U.S. has supported Arab autocrats at the expense of Arab publics for decades. While we have ignored hundreds of millions of Arabs, they, it seems, have not ignored us. We failed to realize that the internal character of states is not only an internal matter. What goes on inside Middle Eastern countries - the ongoing political and ideological battles between secularists, leftists, moderate Islamists, radical Islamists, Salafis - affects us, our allies, and our interests. If anything, this should be a prime lesson of the last 8 years.

Let's go back now to the issue of how much U.S. policymakers should be focusing on the Middle East. The problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that it was overly focused on the Middle East; it was that it was overly focused on the Middle East, and managed, at the same time, and somewhat amazingly, to make it even more screwed up than it already was. The latter part – rather than the former – is where we went wrong. The correct corrective, therefore, is not to decrease “meddling” but rather to address the region’s myriad problems not by engaging less, but by engaging better.

Continue reading "How Much Does the Middle East Matter? " »

BREAKING: McCain Said He Will Pick Cheney For VP
Posted by Max Bergmann

John McCain said he would pick Cheney to be his Vice President - okay that was in 2001. But it says something about his judgment doesn't it?

Asked on Larry King about whether he would have named Mr. Rumsfeld and Colin L. Powell to a McCain cabinet. "Oh, yes, and Cheney," Mr. McCain added that he, too, "would have offered Mr. Cheney the vice presidency.” [CNN Larry King, 11/28/01]

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