Democracy Arsenal

« February 10, 2008 - February 16, 2008 | Main | February 24, 2008 - March 1, 2008 »

February 23, 2008

See If You Can Spot the Arrogance
Posted by David Shorr

This one's been nagging at me for a while. An early November Bloggingheads diavlog between Heather and David Frum really stuck with me -- well, at least a few minutes of it. There was a passage in their discussion of the relative merits of NATO and the UN that really captured the arrogance of certain strains of conservative thinking about other countries ('infantilizing' was Heather's no-less-apt word).

According to Frum, UN debates force representatives from other nations to take positions on issues toward which they would otherwise remain blissfully detached. As an example, Frum took the case of Chile's membership on the Security Council as the Iraq invasion was being debated. (You can find this at 6:30 of the NATO section of the diavlog.) According to Frum, the debate placed a burden on the hapless Chileans, who had no interest of their own in the matter. I don't know whether David Frum actually knows Chile's Ambassador in New York, Heraldo Munoz, but I do. Two problems. First, if you scan Amb. Munoz's bio, the idea that he would have trouble navigating any foreign policy challenge is ridiculous. In fact, Chile's opposition to the war despite its important trade negotiations at the time (which Frum mentions) made it all the more courageous. Second, please explain what it is about the Iraq War that wouldn't have been of interest to Chile or any other nation. We're talking about the validity of invading another sovereign country!! I'm not sure international issues come more consequential than that. And as it happens, Munoz has published a memoir, A Solitary War, detailing the diplomacy in the run-up to the war, when he was a top adviser to then-President Ricardo Lagos. [Note: this post has been edited to clear up my own confusion about which of my Chilean ambassador friends I really meant here.]

Which brings me to my other qualm with Frum's position. He makes a passing reference to Syria in a critique of the UN's universal membership (it's at 10:40 of that section). Frum is essentially arguing that undemocratic governments represent no legitimacy at all, and can therefore be ignored. As to Syria: "Who is Syria; it's a family." I carry no brief for the Assad regime and consider the Syrian pull-out of Lebanon as a UN success story. But in terms of an American view of whom we should have to deal with, this is a big problem. I don't know how close an identification Syrians feel with the Assads, but I suspect its closer than they feel with us. Graham Fuller dealt with this issue at length in a 2006 Stanley Foundation brief that begins:

The United States has a big problem with nationalism: it’s uncomfortable with everybody else’s. Yet there’s a great irony here: the United States seems quite unaware of the fact that it is one of the most enthusiastically flag-waving, nationalistic countries of the world. More remarkably, it regularly miscalculates the force of nationalism abroad. Today nationalism is probably the single most widespread ideology in politics across the globe. That the United States should be tone-deaf to this phenomenon in its dealings with others represents a serious vulnerability in the formulation of its foreign policies.

February 22, 2008

The War Against the Times
Posted by Michael Cohen

Now I understand that many conservatives hate the New York Times, but this quote from John McCain, when asked about a conversation that his former top aide John Weaver had with McCain's alleged paramour Vicki Iseman, was shall we say, a bit stunning:

“I don’t know anything about it,” Mr. McCain said. “Since it was in The New York Times, I don’t take it at face value.”

Let's be clear, John McCain is not simply disputing the story, he's basically saying the Times made it up out of whole cloth. (And to be clear, the Times has Weaver on the record saying that this meeting occurred). The New York Times is not exactly some fly by night operation. Not only does it happen to be the foremost newspaper in America, but it's probably the single most influential paper in the country. And yet here you have the GOP nominee for President basically saying that you can't accept what's written there at face value.

Now conservatives have attacked the Times before, particularly after revelations in the paper about the President's warrantless wiretapping program. Now I could be wrong here, but those on the right didn't say that the Times had their facts wrong; they said they shouldn't be published. But McCain's attack takes the right's obsession with the Times to a new whole level by basically arguing that yesterday's story about his links to a female lobbyist is a fabulist creation. That's pretty astounding.

But it appears that McCain's negative view of the Times is a bit selective. Back in September, the paper ran a piece titled "Dispatches from the 'No Surrender' Bus" and the McCain press people were nice enough to issue a helpful press release about the story, "in case you missed it."

I guess the Times was telling the truth back then.

Mind Meld
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Michael and I do not share an office.  We are friends and we talk on a somewhat regular basis.  But this is twice in a week now that we've both blogged the exact same thing within minutes of each other.

Just think of me as the Barack to Michael's Deval.

The War and the Damage Done
Posted by Michael Cohen

Last night in the Democratic debate in Texas, Barack Obama told a telling story about how the war in Iraq has negatively affected the military and in particular our efforts in Afghanistan:

You know, I've heard from an Army captain who was the head of a rifle platoon -- supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon," he said. "Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24 because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq.  And as a consequence, they didn't have enough ammunition, they didn't have enough humvees.  They were actually capturing Taliban weapons, because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief."

Well it turns out the conservative blogosphere was up in arms about this attack on the brave men and women of our armed forces. Here are just a few of their reactions:

And this guy wants to be Commander-in-Chief?? Didn’t we reject a guy last time with a tendency to make up stories about the military (who at least served in it)?

The U.S. Army is not under-supplied nor would a U.S. soldier EVER use a substandard Taliban weapon. Prove it, Obama

Well Jake Tapper took up the charge, speaking to the Army captain in question. Guess what, Obama was correct and Tapper went on to make an important point:

I find that Obama's anecdote checks out.

Some are quibbling about whether or not the "commander in chief" can be held responsible for how well our soldiers are being equipped, since Congress provides the funding for the military, but the Pentagon (and ultimately President Bush) are in charge of the funding mechanism.

I might suggest those on the blogosphere upset about this story would be better suited directing their ire at those responsible for this problem, which is certainly not new.  That is, if they actually care about the men and women bravely serving our country at home and abroad.

Yup, that sums it up well. Over the past five years, we have heard legions of stories about the equipment shortages faced by the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This recent story about the number of Marines killed due to an inability to properly supply them with blast resistant vehicles is another depressing example.

Yet, to paraphrase Bob Dole, where is the outrage on the right? Perversely these stories are often presented as somehow at attack on the troops themselves or mined for even the smallest error so as to impugn the person making the charge - as opposed to say raising blue, bloody hell that are troops have been sent into a war zone without the proper equipment to complete their mission. Today my old friend Charles Krauthammer quoted Joe Lieberman arguing that "Democrats have remained emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq." Right, because Democrats hate America.

Yet, at the same time, why is it so hard for folks like Krauthammer to even acknowledge the veracity of stories like the one Obama put forward last night? Indeed there were more than a half dozen conservative bloggers trying to take down Obama's argument today. Not one bemoaned the fact that so many of these types of stories have turned out to be true.

I guess this is what Bill Kristol had in mind when he talked about "responsible" Republican leadership the other day.

Obama's Army Captain
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

It appears that conservatives have gone a little nutty over Senator Obama's story from last night's debate regarding an Army Captain who was serving in Afghanistan and described having to capture Taliban weapons.  Well, Jake Tapper has got the goods and this story checks out.

I called the Obama campaign this morning to chat about this story, and was put in touch with the Army captain in question.

He told me his story, which I found quite credible, though for obvious reasons he asked that I not mention his name or certain identifying information.

Short answer: He backs up Obama's story.

The longer answer is worth telling, though.

The Army captain, a West Point graduate, did a tour in a hot area of eastern Afghanistan from the Summer of 2003 through Spring 2004.

Prior to deployment the Captain -- then a Lieutenant -- took command of a rifle platoon at Fort Drum. When he took command, the platoon had 39 members, but -- in ones and twos -- 15 members of the platoon were re-assigned to other units. He knows of 10 of those 15 for sure who went to Iraq, and he suspects the other five did as well.

The platoon was sent to Afghanistan with 24 men.

"We should have deployed with 39," he told me, "we should have gotten replacements. But we didn't. And that was pretty consistent across the battalion."

He adds that maybe a half-dozen of the 15 were replaced by the Fall of 2003, months after they arrived in Afghanistan, but never all 15.

As for the weapons and humvees, there are two distinct periods in this, as he explains -- before deployment, and afterwards.

At Fort Drum, in training, "we didn't have access to heavy weapons or the ammunition for the weapons, or humvees to train before we deployed."

What ammunition?

40 mm automatic grenade launcher ammunition for the MK-19, and ammunition for the .50 caliber M-2 machine gun ("50 cal.")

"We weren't able to train in the way we needed to train," he says. When the platoon got to Afghanistan they had three days to learn.

They also didn't have the humvees they were supposed to have both before deployment and once they were in Afghanistan, the Captain says.

"We should have had 4 up-armored humvees," he said. "We were supposed to. But at most we had three operable humvees, and it was usually just two."

So what did they do? "To get the rest of the platoon to the fight," he says, "we would use Toyota Hilux pickup trucks or unarmored flatbed humvees." Sometimes with sandbags, sometimes without.

Also in Afghanistan they had issues getting parts for their MK-19s and their 50-cals. Getting parts or ammunition for their standard rifles was not a problem.

"It was very difficult to get any parts in theater," he says, "because parts are prioritized to the theater where they were needed most -- so they were going to Iraq not Afghanistan."

"The purpose of going after the Taliban was not to get their weapons," he said, but on occasion they used Taliban weapons. Sometimes AK-47s, and they also mounted a Soviet-model DShK (or "Dishka") on one of their humvees instead of their 50 cal.

The Captain has spoken to Sen. Obama, he says, but this anecdote was relayed to Obama through an Obama staffer.

I find that Obama's anecdote checks out.

Anyone who thinks that the war in Iraq hasn't done severe damage to our interests in Afghanistan and our ability to deal with terrorism is really just deluding themselves.

February 21, 2008

Two points about Kosovo
Posted by Max Bergmann

First, the situation in Kosovo is more of an EU problem than a US problem now.

One thing I am struck by is that many progressive foreign policy experts, who cut their teeth in the 1990s when the EU was just getting started, just seem to completely ignore the EU’s importance now. Richard Holbrooke in a Washington Post op-ed, while correctly warning of the dangers to the region stemming from Kosovo’s declaration of independence, simply ignores the role of the EU in the region. In fact, Holbrooke even dismisses the EU forces in Bosnia,

the State Department did not prevent Rumsfeld from prematurely turning the NATO command in Bosnia over to a weak E.U. Force, a terrible mistake.

But how was it a terrible mistake? In fact, Europeans seem so pleased with the security situation in Bosnia that they have cut the size of the security force from 6,000 to 2,500 and are preparing Bosnia for EU membership recently providing it 440 million euros in pre-ascension funding.

The fact is that this is not 1999.  A lot has changed and the EU is large enough and mature enough to deal with many of the problems posed by the Balkans. Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungry, Romania are all now in the EU and Croatia and Macedonia are on track for membership. In fact, the EU will shortly be taking over for the UN mission in Kosovo, turning Kosovo from a UN protectorate to an EU one just as it did in Bosnia. If things progress, the security responsibility will be handed off to the EU as well. This is an anecdotal point, but one I found interesting, in this lengthy Economist article on the situation in Kosovo it never mentions the U.S. – not once. To put it simply, the EU does not need the U.S. to tell it how to deal with the Balkans anymore.

Second, where we have really dropped the ball over Kosovo are in our dealings with Russia. The EU is capable of stabilizing and integrating the Balkans now. But where it is running into problems is that the Russians are actively working to undermine the EU’s efforts to integrate Serbia and Bosnia. Russia has offered Serbs an alternative to EU membership and has used Kosovo as a wedge issue to separate Serbia from the EU.

The recent Serb elections - which saw the pro-EU Boris Tadic, the sitting President, narrowly defeated the pro-Russian nationalist challenger - was a victory for the EU. But the issue of Kosovo has been deeply problematic for Tadic. While he is completely opposed to Kosovo's independence, he is not willing to tank EU membership for it. This has left him vulnerable not just from the large nationalist right, but from the sitting Prime Minister Kostunica, who has threatened to bolt, if Tadic were to sign a membership agreement with the EU. With Russia offering incentives for Serbia to turn the backs on the EU, the U.S. has been absent.

The fact is that we have not had a Russia policy under this administration and that is now causing problems for us and Europe on almost every major foreign policy challenge from climate change to Kosovo to Iran. But ultimately Russia is fighting a losing battle against the EU in the Balkans… geography still matters. And as you can see Serbia is soon to be surrounded...


Right For the Wrong Reasons
Posted by Michael Cohen

In today's Washington Post, Michael Kinsley makes the correct argument (and one that has been noticeably absent from the op-ed page of the Post) that the surge in Iraq has not been successful. Much praise is due for getting that one right, but as to why . . . there Kinsley is way off.

As faithful readers of DA are well aware, the surge in Iraq was based on a simple idea: that improving security (particularly in Baghdad) would provide breathing room for Iraq's leaders to move forward with political reform. Of course, this has not happened. But according to Kinsley, the surge's success or failure should be judged by a different criteria, "Has it allowed us to reduce troop levels to below where they were when it started? And the answer is no."

But this is an imperfect judge of success. If a year after the announcement of the surge Iraqis had put in place a new oil law, or passed a real de-Baathification bill, or showed any inclination to move forward with constitutional reform, the surge would be considered a success . . . and I would imagine that many surge opponents would accept a continued troop presence, as long as we felt that progress was being achieved. Speaking as one supporter of the surge, I know I would. Indeed, critics of the Iraq war effort have consistently lambasted the Bush Administration for its failure to adapt to changing facts on the ground in Iraq. These critics would be no better if they adopted the same pig-headed approach.

But of course the steps I outlined above have not happened and that's why so many surge opponents continue to believe that present troop levels must be reduced.

Focusing on security issues and the size of our troop presence in Iraq has always been the absolute wrong metric to judge success and failure in Iraq. It's wrong when the Bush Administration does it and it's wrong when surge opponents do it. Quite simply, there is no military solution to the challenges we are facing in Iraq.

The only metric that truly matters is political progress. And on that count the surge has been a failure.

Bush cuts funding for UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa
Posted by Max Bergmann

The President has rightly received credit on his trip to Africa for his administration’s efforts combating HIV/AIDS and Malaria in Africa. This clearly is a lone bright spot in an overall dismal foreign policy record. It also clearly undercuts Republican (and some Democratic) members of Congress that argue foreign assistance programs are useless and wasteful. The generally warm reception the President has received on the continent reflects the power of assistance programs to both do good and to enhance our national interests by gaining allies, improving our international image, and by helping to facilitate stability.

But at the same time the President is getting credit for these initiatives, he has totally dropped the ball on the security side of the equation.

Most shockingly, the President, at a time when U.S. forces are stretched thin, when conflicts in Africa are in danger of spreading instability, and when it has become almost universally agreed that it is in our clear national interests to prevent the emergence of new failed states and instability, his administration has decided to cut funding for UN peacekeeping efforts.

On the eve of President Bush's trip to Africa, his administration has decided to drastically cut money for United Nations peacekeeping missions in war-torn countries there. According to White House figures quietly released this week, more than $193 million for U.N. troops would be cut for missions in Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and elsewhere.

This is happening despite the fact that the UN is currently engaged in armed clashes in the Congo.

Most people don’t realize that the UN has the highest number of troops deployed abroad than anyone else besides the U.S. The UN has 90,000 peacekeeping troops deployed around the world in 17 different missions in some of the most dangerous hot spots, including Kosovo, Congo, East Timor, Haiti, and Lebanon. While the favorite conservative talking point is that UN missions are ineffective, because of the failure 15 years ago in Bosnia when the Dutch were held hostage by Serbian forces and unable to stop genocide. This argument is still made, despite RAND having shown that UN peacekeeping has been highly effective compared to U.S. efforts (pdf). UN forces however do fail, but this is often the result of either too few troops or too little money. And sometimes the peacekeeping forces are placed in a security environment where little could reasonably be expected. However, the fact is that, while our forces - since end of the Cold War - were constantly reinventing the wheel each time they engaged in peacekeeping operations, the UN instead, learned from each of its missions and in the process developed a high degree of knowledge and expertise.

Because our military is bogged down in Iraq and stretched to its limits in Afghanistan we face so many challenges around the world, our reliance on the United Nations to address trouble spots and to prevent them from worsening has only increased. Shorting the UN on peacekeeping funding is therefore akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.

And just as an aside, when John McCain had the opportunity to vote to approve a small increase in UN peacekeeping funding in 2005, he took the Bush line and opposed it.

Bombing Good - Embarrassing Bad
Posted by Michael Cohen

So a couple of days ago, Ilan and I both commented on the contradiction of John McCain criticizing Obama for calling on the US to "bomb Pakistan" the same day it was revealed that the Bush Administration had done just that.

Well yesterday McCain tried to clarify the point . . . but only seemed to muddy the waters. When asked about the Predator attack against a top Al Qaeda operative last month, McCain said he wouldn't comment because he didn't know the facts. But then he added this about Obama's statement:

"The one thing you want to do is not embarrass them (Pakistan)," he said. "I've known these people and I have known them for many years. I know I can work with them for the good of the security of the United States. I would not broadcast to the world that I am going to bomb a sovereign nation in order to accomplish my goal."

So let me see if I have this straight. It's not okay to say you are going to bomb a sovereign country, but actually bombing said country, apparently, that's not so bad. I suppose there would be some logic to McCain's argument if he actually condemned the attack of last month, but near I can tell he has not done that. I wonder if an enterprising reporter might want to follow up with Senator McCain when he gets his facts straight and see if he does.

February 20, 2008

Look out for Sadr
Posted by Patrick Barry

When it first looked as if the situation in Iraq was improving, people found themselves generally attributing the security gains to one of two developments: the sudden influx of US troops or the ascension of various ‘awakening’ groups who allied themselves with the United States.  The implications entailed by each position are clear to anyone spending more than 10 minutes a day on this blog.

What tends to get lost in this Surge-vs-Awakening debate is the impact that Moqtada    al-Sadr’s 6-month truce has had on Iraq’s security.  His decision to clamp down on militant activities back in August has translated into significant security gains.  Unfortunately, that window of stability may close on Saturday.

Anxieties are growing that Sadr will shirk calls to stay passive and US forces are pleading with him to keep his militias at bay.  And who can blame them? Violence levels, especially in Sadr’s strongholds around Baghdad, have declined steeply since he demanded that his followers temporarily lay down arms.  The prospect of a reinvigorated Sadrist militia roaming the streets looms fearfully in the minds of US commanders.

The United States is coming to realize what Iraqis themselves have long understood: Moqtada al-Sadr will play a pivotal role in the future of the country.  Before, administration officials viewed him as a rogue, presiding over a rag-tag group of Shi’a militants. But now, Sadr is in a position so advantageous that it renders such claims untenable. He has consolidated authority over rogue elements within his militia and he has taken the first steps towards attaining Ayatollah status – a title that would dramatically increase his influence. 

Anxiousness over Sadr’s next move reflects broader concerns about integrating him and his cohorts into the political mainstream and functions as an acknowledgement that he has become an immovable feature of the Iraqi landscape.  With this in mind, we should be watching Saturday’s events carefully. 

Four More Years of Bush's Foreign Policy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

McCain’s ill-advised comments about Obama’s Pakistan policy have really picked up some steam today, and rightfully so.  But, thinking about this in a larger context, this is essentially the first direct salvo in a general election campaign that McCain is launching at Obama (Assuming Obama does in fact hold on and gets the nomination, which is obviously still unclear).  All the criticism of the hope stuff is more abstract.  I think this is the first substantive and specific policy shot either side has taken.  So, it's an important moment. 

And what does McCain do with that moment?  He basically signals that he will continue George Bush’s horrible foreign policy.  End stop.  The McCain policy will be the Bush policy.  It will be a policy that prioritizes Iraq and discounts Pakistan and Afghanistan.  How else do you explain the fact that John McCain is committed to an open-ended commitment to Iraq, but is criticizing Obama for suggesting we go after terrorists in more aggressive ways in Pakistan?  (Too bad our intelligence agencies disagree with McCain and feel that the direct threat to the homeland is in Pakistan.) 

Supposedly, John McCain's great strength is foreign policy and national security.  But if this is going to be his line of attack, then in the words of the great George W. Bush I say "bring it on!"

Also, the Obama campaign has put together a pretty impressive research piece that breaks it down pretty well.  And below the fold a transcript of an introduction that Susan Rice, one of Obama's foreign policy advisors, gave on a conference call this morning.

Continue reading "Four More Years of Bush's Foreign Policy" »

Pakistan Experts Discuss Election Results
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Today, the National Security Network hosted a conference call with two former Ambassadors,  former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, and former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs State Amb. Karl "Rick" Inderfurth. The conversation was fascinating, touching upon various aspects of the election, what it means for the future of the country as well as counter-terrorism operations in the region. An mp3 of the call can be heard below:

Download pakistan_election_2.20.2008.mp3

The Democracy Arsenal Stat of the Day
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's stat is 19 - as in according to an American Research Group poll only 19% of Americans approve of President Bush's job performance. By the way, these are the lowest ever approval marks in the survey's history.

Now ARG has not exactly acquitted itself well in recent polling, but does anyone really think this number is that far off?  In all the attention we've been paying to the nomination fights we tend to forget that the man currently sitting in the White House is pretty much the most unpopular person to ever hold the office.

I Wonder If Dick Cheney Wears This...
Posted by Adam Blickstein


Obama and the Politics of Meaning
Posted by Shadi Hamid

What is driving the adulation over Obama? David Brooks, Joe Klein, and others have sensed a hint of messianism among his raucous supporters. It is, of course, worrying when people project so much of their hopes on one person, particularly when that person happens (we think) to be human. This is a recipe for disappointment. And they are right to notice something messianic about the Obama campaign. However, this "messianism" isn’t necessarily a bad thing, assuming that it is harnessed effectively and takes on a non-ideological, inclusive character. 

Obama is offering what I would describe as a “transcendent politics.” It is of a fundamentally different kind than politics as it is currently practiced (and perhaps that is why Paul Krugman is hyperventilating and embarrassing himself on a regular basis). There’s politics as usual, and then there’s politics as unusual. There is no doubt that Obama represents the latter. There is politics for the sake of politics (prescriptive, specific solutions to problems that are generally considered within the scope of government’s prerogatives). Then there is politics as a means to nonpolitical ends. Call it, if you like, a politics of meaning. It is interventionist in nature – again a pejorative word which need not be. A politics of meaning is meant to reconfigure the boundaries of political and even social-moral discourse. It is meant to inject greater meaning into what we do and how we do it. Perhaps, then, it shares some common traits with “national greatness” conservatism, except “national greatness” liberalism recognizes that what makes our nation great is our capacity for self-doubt and self-criticism, our willingness to acknowledge that, in the words of Peter Beinart, "we are not angels."

Again, for some, this kind of thing is frightening, and why shouldn’t it be? Grand projects have tended to fail in the past (i.e. the 1960s). However, grand projects have also led to great, towering successes (i.e. the 1960s). Here’s another way of looking at it. Foreign policy has tended to be about preserving the national interest. That’s the way most states practice it. It is also how we practice it, but U.S. foreign policy has aspired to something greater. This aspiration - even though it only occasionally becomes anything more than that - is about a recognition that we are different, that the normal limitations of policy are not things to be bound by, but, rather, to be freed from. We may have failed to meet our own lofty expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should stop believing that the conduct of foreign policy is about more than just the traditional maneuverings of a nation-state in search of its interests; it is also about “meaning.” It is about knowing who we are, knowing what we believe in, and employing that knowledge toward larger, transformative goals. At it's best, politics is about a shared sense of mission, again a pejorative word, but why should it be?

If, in our politics abroad, we aspire to transcend cultural and religious specificities in the service of ideals we hold to be both universal and timeless, then why shouldn’t we aspire to something similar at home – a re-imagination of what it means to be American that takes our founding ideals as a starting point and begins to bridge the vast gulf between what we do and what believe we should do, between what is and what should be.

Wisconsin Primary Musings
Posted by Michael Cohen

A couple of post-primary thoughts.

Here is the most striking statistic of the night - John McCain beat Mike Huckabee in Wisconsin by practically the same margin that Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton. Now, does anyone think that Mike Huckabee still has a chance of winning the GOP nomination?

Even more to the point, since Super Tuesday, Mike Huckabee has actually won a few caucuses and primaries. Hillary Clinton has lost 9 straight primaries and caucuses and tonight was Obama's smallest margin of victory since Super Tuesday - 17% at last count. That's a shellacking.

I'm really starting to wonder if Obama is the Ronald Reagan of the 2008 race for the White House. In tonight's exit poll, 54% of voters said they thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly. The silly plagiarism hiccup, notwithstanding, Hillary's most significant attacks were on the issue of debates and Obama's health care plan. Those hits hardly qualified as "unfair." Maybe these types of broadsides just don't stick to Obama. But here's the bigger question, if people thought these attacks were unfair imagine what would happen if Hillary started talking about Rezko with more fervor. If you can figure out how she reverses this tidal wave I'm all ears.

I watched a bit of John McCain's speech and I had two thoughts. Clearly the GOP is going to spend the next few months trying to define Barack Obama as an empty suit and McCain gave a preview of that attack line tonight. Now it's probably a smart approach because inexperience does seem to be Obama's greatest liability, but someone should ask the Clinton campaign how playing the experience card worked for them.

But here's the other thing on McCain - he is an awful speechgiver. He's not just bad, he's terrible. Honestly, there is no enthusiasm or excitement in his remarks. It sort of reminds me of seeing a high school commencement speech. It just leaves you incredibly flat. I know I'm a former speechwriter so I'm a little biased, but this is going to be a problem down the road.

It's not just that his speeches are badly delivered - they're also bad speeches. They're uninspiring; they sound cut and paste together; instead of using short, compact language they are full of run-on sentences and non sequiters; they lack a coherent narrative thread, they are inscrutable and most of all they are real downers. There is just no lift here - in McCain's world there are bad guys around every corner. It's so 2004! And for a guy who complains about Obama not being specific enough, they are stunningly platitudinous. He talks about health care, education and the economy but doesn't offer a single insight into how he would fix it.

There was an actually line in McCain's speech tonight where he said "we live in a world of change." Ugh!

In one of their exit poll questions, CNN asked voters if they'd be satisfied if the other candidate was the party nominee. Nine percent of Democratic voters said they would be somewhat dissatisfied if Obama was the nominee - of those voters, 7% voted for Obama. Eight percent said they would be very dissatisfied and 5% of them voted for Obama anyway. Does that make any sense at all?

Great Minds Thinking Alike
Posted by Michael Cohen

Apparently Ilan and I are a little too much on the same page!

McCain's Pakistan Confusion
Posted by Michael Cohen

In John McCain's victory speech this evening he made a rather startling attack on Barack Obama accusing him of "confused leadership" and "inexperience" because he "once suggested bombing our ally Pakistan."

What's really stunning about this rhetorical broadside is that the Washington Post revealed today this is precisely what the Bush Administration did last month. In a predawn attack on January 29th a Predator aircraft killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda lieutenant - and it did so without the cooperation and permission of the Pakistani government.

Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Is John McCain going to criticize the Bush Administration for "bombing Pakistan?" Something tells me that ain't going to happen. In fact, this type of limited attack, based on actionable intelligence is exactly what Obama suggested in a speech last Fall.

Do you think maybe McCain and his staff should read the FRONT PAGE of the Washington Post before they launch an attack like this?

February 19, 2008

Is McCain Against Taking Out Al-Libi?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

McCain just accused Obama of threatening to bomb our ally Pakistan, and saying that this somehow shows his inexpreience.  Actually, what Obama suggested last spring was that if you have actionable intelligence, sometimes unilateral action and targeted strikes are necessary to take out terrorist targets.  This seems like an odd attack for McCain, especially since the front page of the Washington Post this morning tells me this:

In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone's operator, relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.

The missiles killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda commander and a man who had repeatedly eluded the CIA's dragnet. It was the first successful strike against al-Qaeda's core leadership in two years, and it involved, U.S. officials say, an unusual degree of autonomy by the CIA inside Pakistan.

Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Officials say the incident was a model of how Washington often scores its rare victories these days in the fight against al-Qaeda inside Pakistan's national borders: It acts with assistance from well-paid sympathizers inside the country, but without getting the government's formal permission beforehand.

So is McCain against taking out a top Al Qaeda operative Al Qaeda's no. 3?  Is that what he defines as inexperienced?

Obama's Silly Idea
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the central criticisms of Barack Obama has been a lack of substantive policy ideas.  Yesterday, in an obvious effort to rebut this criticism, he unveiled his "Patriot Employers" plan, which would "lower the corporate tax rate for companies that met criteria including maintaining their headquarters in the US, maintaining or increasing their US workforce relative to their overseas workforce, holding a neutral position in union drives among their employees and providing decent healthcare."

Maybe he should have stuck to the nice speeches.

Now I understand that globalization has taken a significant toll on manufacturing jobs in Ohio (where the plan was coincidentally unveiled) but this is an incredibly silly way to keep those jobs in America (and just to show that I'm equal opportunity, it's about as silly as calling Obama a plagiarizer over the fact that he used a line from a friend's speech).

Besides the fact that this plan seems a bit unwieldy to implement, I'm not sure that any company in America should be rewarded for taking a neutral position on union drives? (Wouldn't it be better to empower the Department of Labor to help workers organize and punish companies that interfere in union organizing drives?) And last time I checked Obama's plan already provides incentives for companies to provide health care - are we going to let them double dip?

Moreover, as the FT posits: "companies could “game the system” by spinning off overseas subsidiaries in order to reduce the offshore-onshore workforce ratio." But above all, this strikes me as a horribly inefficient idea - basically it would be encouraging companies to act against their best interests, namely diminishing their labor costs in order to attract tax breaks from the government. I don't pray at the altar of Milton Friedman, but I'm not sure the government should be intervening that directly in the workings of the economy.

This plan is all backwards; if Obama wants companies to stay in America then he should be focused on making it more attractive for them to remain, by, for example, improving the skill sets of workers and making education, job retraining and even broadband adoption national priorities. Giving manufacturing companies tax breaks to keep their dying industries in America may get a few votes on election day, but it's hardly a long-term plan for economic success.

Democracy Arsenal Stat of the Day
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's stat of the day is 88% - as in according to a poll taken by Center for a New American Security and Foreign Policy magazine, 88% of active and retired military officers think the military is stretched "dangerously thin."

I've long wondered why the issue of military preparedness has not gotten more play on the campaign trail - this should really be one of the central critiques of the Bush Administration; they're doing enormous damage to our armed forces.  All this talk about staying in Iraq for 100 years or new adventures in Iran seems to fly in the face of the fact that our military isn't really up to the job right now. Whether Obama or Hillary are the party nominee it seems like military preparedness should be front and center - what better way to neutralize Democratic liabilities on security affairs then to make reviving the armed forces a cornerstone of their campaign

It's sort of amazing to think that in 2000 George Bush made a big deal out of the fact that two army divisions were not ready for duty.

Posted by Michael Cohen

David Brooks does his best Maureen Dowd imitation in the New York Times today, snarkily predicting that Obamamaniacs will soon fall victim to Obama Comedown Syndrome.

It appears to be the new media narrative about Obama - when will Americans get a glimpse of the "real" Barack Obama and begin to question the hype.

Here's the always even-keeled Paul Krugman:

One thing I worry about a lot if Obama is the Dem nominee — and he's surely the frontrunner now — is that there will be a backlash against Obamamania. Actually, it's already starting — probably too late to have much effect on the nomination fight, but in plenty of time to affect the general election.

Even Kevin Drum, who usually takes a gimlet-eyed view of the conventional wisdom weighs in:

Bubbles always burst, and Obama has been riding a major league bubble for months now. Before too much longer his supporters are going to come down to earth. . . This backlash meme is already widespread, and you can almost feel in the air that it's about to explode into a feeding frenzy.   

No real surprise here I suppose. Reporters and pundits love to tear the bark off the latest flavor of the month. You can almost expect the soon to be published New Republic takedown. (Although clearly not if Christopher Orr and Michael Crowley have anything to say about it).

Now I know I'm a bit in the tank for Obama, but it does seem to me that the real story here is not the Obama "fairy tale" but the extent to which so many millions of Americans seem to honestly believe he is Prince Charming coming in on the white horse to save the day.  This isn't some media driven narrative; whether he wins or loses, those epically long lines in Boise, Minneapolis, Denver, Madison and Washington D.C. represent a genuine political movement in America.

We have a relatively unknown Senator coming out of nowhere and threatening to unseat the former First Lady in a Democratic primary all the while sparking an affirmative, populist movement that could change the very way we think about and discuss politics in this country. (Oh and did I mention he's a black man). I've just spent the past year reading and writing way too much about American presidential campaigns and with the exception of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and maybe Bobby Kennedy in 1968 or Ross Perot in 1992 there really is no precedent for the political fervor surrounding Obama. These types of things happen in movies, not reality.

American have flirted with populist outsiders before, but we rarely take them home to meet the parents. But now a whole host of Democrats and independent are saving two seats at Thanksgiving dinner.

Whether you think this is good or bad; whether you support Hillary or McCain, it doesn't really matter. Forget Obama for just a second: what does this movement say about the state of American politics today?  What does it say about the current mood of the American electorate?  Are we on the cusp of a genuine political realignment?

Now that would make for a interesting op-ed.

The Things We Don't Talk About on Foreign Policy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It’s really quite amazing when you think about it how little foreign policy has figured into this Democratic primary. Yes, there is the standard talk about multilateralism, the importance of diplomacy, getting out of Iraq, and generally not launching random wars – in other words, lowest common-denominator liberal internationalism. But Democrats, as a collective, have failed to provide anything resembling a vision or narrative on foreign policy. It is one thing to have solid policy prescriptions (and we usually do), but the more important question is do we, as liberals, have a foreign policy orientation that is distinctly different in both means and ends from conservatives? 

Considering how messed up the Middle East is, there is a disconnect between the extent of our problems in the region, and the boldness needed to confront them. To be bold, though, you have to be willing to question the assumptions of our national security discourse. Here is a short list of things we aren't talking about that we need be talking about:

1. The war on terrorism (lowercase): What are the root causes of terrorism? How do terrorists come to be? Once we understand that, are there, then, actions that policymakers can take to address these causal factors?

Republicans would like us to believe that extremists/terrorists hate us for who we are, as if they stumbled upon the bill of rights one morning and went berserk. Of course, anyone with even the least bit of knowledge knows this is absolute rubbish. But there is a public perception that we’re at war with crazed lunatics and there’s nothing we can hope to do but destroy them through sheer military might. This results in a smugness where we underestimate our enemies and the force that their narrative holds with mass publics in the Arab world and beyond. The fact of the matter is that while the vast majority of Muslims deplore the methods of Bin Laden, they tend to agree with his basic narrative that America is out to weaken and divide the Middle East and destroy Islam. Now, we can be smug and self-righteous and think that these are irrational sentiments, but if large majorities believe them, then we should at least make the effort to understand how and why they came to hold these perceptions about America and American power.

2. The role of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy

Democracy is a dirty word. Democracy promotion is not particularly popular. The Bush administration – through its cynical, and ultimately insincere use of our country’s greatest weapon, our ideals – has tarnished “democracy” and made it synonymous with militarism and hypocrisy. This may very well prove to be one of the greatest and lasting tragedies of the Iraq war. It will take Democrats to change this (don't hold your breath).

Democracy promotion must be revived and reinvigorated. This is not just a luxury for those of us who still insist on our idealism. No, it is national security imperative of the highest order. The only way to defeat terrorism and religious extremism in the long run is to support democratic development in the Middle East. As long as millions of frustrated young Muslims lack peaceful, democratic means with which to express their grievances, they will be more likely to resort to violence. For all its faults, the Bush administration once appeared to realize this, that the Middle East would have to be transformed from what it currently is to what it still has the potential to become. Liberating Arabs from the destructive grip of their dictators who have sucked the life out of their people would need to be part of the equation and the U.S. would have to do its part.

Unfortunately, the Bushies chose to do this by force, when there were easier, less costly ways to begin this process, namely by using the leverage of economic aid to put pressure on autocrats to reform. No need to start invading countries with long histories of sectarian division.

3. Islamic thought and practice needs to reformed/ engaging with moderate Islamists

This is connected with 1 and 2. It’s more sensitive for non-Muslims to talk about this for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. Still, it needs to be talked about, especially in light what's happening in Europe now. America, with its uniquely integrated and patriotic Muslim population, is in a good place to talk about how Islam is compatible with democratic pluralism.

In the Middle East, the U.S. has a role to play in encouraging moderates while marginalizing extremists. Before doing this, though, we have to first figure out who the moderates are. American policymakers are holding out hope for a secular third-force in the Middle East that is pro-American and thoroughly liberal. Here as elsewhere, we tend to view things through our distorted lens. There are facts on the ground. Secularism, at least for the time being, is dead in the Middle East. Instead of aligning ourselves with tiny Westernized, secularized elites who have little influence with their broader publics, let’s get smart about it and build bridges with those groups and organizations that command mass constituencies. Mainstream Islamist groups - such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan - have the potential to move in more moderate directions, and they have already committed themselves to many of the foundational components of democratic governance. This is something positive and instead of shunning them, we should find ways to encourage this process of reconciliation between Islamists and modern secular nation-state. This has happened in Turkey and it has the potential to happen throughout the Middle East.

February 18, 2008

Is it Kosovo or Kosova in Ohio?
Posted by Moira Whelan

I was looking at the statements released by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama regarding the announcement of Kosovo’s independence. (In full text after the jump)

Both speak to the need for protection of minorities, the need for peaceful actions going forward and the need to work within the European context. That said, there are some interesting differences between the two statements that I’m sure will not be lost on a number of voters concerned with this issue who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania, let alone leaders in the rest of the world.

First and most notable is the Clinton reference to “Kosova” and the Obama reference to “Kosovo.” Arguments differ, but suffice to say “Kosova” is considered the pro-Albanian reference while “Kosovo” is the historical name of the region dating back centuries. This may seem subtle to some, but speaks volumes to those who follow the issue.

Obama goes further on two fronts---he says point blank that he believes Serbia should be part of the European Union. Clinton does not. He also stresses that Kosovo’s vote for independence is in no way a precedent for anyone else in the region or around the world.

Now, be warned, I’m just comparing the statements, not overall policies, so it is possible I’m missing something here.

Beyond that, Hillary stresses that Bush didn’t do enough and Obama honors the service of Americans who served and still serve in the Balkans. (Again just statements…I doubt that either campaign would take issue with either of these things)

Read for yourself and decide what you think, but don’t underestimate the importance of both of these statements in terms of campaigns looking at major ethnic groups in important states in the coming days.

Continue reading "Is it Kosovo or Kosova in Ohio?" »

That Wacky, Wacky Kristol
Posted by Michael Cohen

It has almost reached a point where it is simply too painful to continue reading the weekly musings of Bill Kristol that pollute the Monday morning New York Times. But alas, I am a masochist.

In today's piece de resistance, Kristol argues that Democrats are not serious about governing, because a) they opposed the surge and argue that it is not working (it isn't) and b) they opposed retroactive immunity for telecom companies. Of course, Democrats have not taken the latter position on any sort of substantive grounds, such as believing the rule of law is important. Instead, "for the House Democrats, sticking it to the phone companies — and to the Bush administration — seemed to outweigh erring on the side of safety in defending the country."

So when President Bush made the statement below he was acting in the responsible manner that we've come to expect from our 43rd President.

There is a big part of the Democrat (sic) Party that is against giving our intelligence officers the tools necessary to protect America.

Thank god, responsible truth-tellers like George Bush are running this country.

There really is something precious about watching a man who has so breathlessly defended the Bush Administration preach about "responsibility" in government. After all this is the same Administration that brought us the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and of course the Iraq War, which is now running into its fifth year of ever so competent and responsible management.

But thanks to Jonathan Chait over at TNR's Plank we have an even more resonant example of Bill Kristol's mendacity.

Does Kristol not remember his role in defeating health care reform in 1994, in which he told Republicans:

"At bottom this debate is now a political one," he wrote in a strategy memo on July 26. "Sight unseen, Republicans should oppose [the new Democratic bills]."

and in which he warned that successful passage of reform would "revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests"? Please, Mr. Kristol, tell us more about how liberals should make highbrow intellectual arguments and take responsibility for responsible governance in opposition.

It's bad enough that the Times gave a weekly column to a partisan operator and thoroughly mediocre writer instead of the many competent conservative writers who would have jumped at the role. But does this hack also have to lecture the rest of us on our responsibilities as intellectuals? Were no members of the Gambino family available to write the ethics column?

Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

February 17, 2008

Details, I Want Details! (Not)
Posted by David Shorr

The New York Times editorial board lays out a thorough and well articulated foreign policy agenda for the election. But in doing so, they also succumb to the wonk's blindspot. One of my stock lines for about two years has been: "I'm a progressive, stop me before I put out another ten-point plan!" In other words, we're prone to lose sight of the difference between an election and governing.

In a word, the difference is details. They matter in settting policy, not so much in the election campaign. It's the wonk's blindspot because we wonks live and breathe details. For the broder voting public, they're the next best thing to Ambien. For me, the issue is not a capacity problem. I know that tens of millions of Americans are well able to understand all of these issues in impressive detail. But I do see a supply and demand issue; demand is limited, and we're prone to overproduce.

Here's what the Times editorialists said:

Before Americans choose a president they will need to know how he or she plans to rebuild America’s military strength and its moral standing and address a host of difficult challenges around the world.

I agree with most of that sentence, until they get to the part about addressing a host of challenges. Wonks want to hear prescriptions for all the challenges -- both we full-time specialists as well as our avocational wonk friends. Most voters, though, are merely looking for a clear sense of the direction a candidate wants to take the country, including on top issues like Iraq, Iran, use of force, and our international image (it was interesting that the Times wrote about China, but not growing fears that it's the place where 'all of our money is going.') But there is a point of diminishing, indeed negative, returns from presenting a lot of details. Which is a different, but no less real, electoral hazard.

International Goodwill and Investment
Posted by David Shorr

The other day I warned against viewing foreign aid as a panacea for what ails our foreign policy. Regaining legitimacy isn't going to be a simple aid-for-goodwill transaction. One of our commenters, Lyn, in return warned that seeking international regard is a fool's errand.

I could take issue with a number of Lyn's points, but mostly I want to pick up on some very constructive ideas. We could debate how much goodwill the United States has had or could have, but I think we both see a problem with seeking goodwill simply for its own sake. I think there is a trap for progressives if we seem to want American global popularity to make us feel better. There has to be more to it, and there is.

Whether we like it or not, popular sentiment toward the superpower is effectively a continuous referendum on the state of the world. As the pollsters say, "Is the world headed in the right/wrong direction?" It's true that we can't make everyone happy, but I think we really need to watch out for the extent of unhappiness. We need some degree of a global social contract in place, some sense of all being in it together. (That goes domestically too, by the way.) This is the broader context for needing to tend to our goodwill accounts, because a lack of faith in "legitimate" powers gives an opening to warlords, criminal gangs, extremists, and terrorists.

Let me say that I agree with Lyn on preferring to make investments rather than gestures. In fact, I think we should (and can) portray a good portion of the progressive foreign policy agenda in terms of an investment in the international outcomes we seek. I don't know whether we'll be able to convince Lyn in particular, but I'm confident it will broaden the appeal of our argument.

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.

www Democracy Arsenal
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use