Cut the Messiah Crap

During the campaign opponents of Barack Obama tried to dismiss the support for him as a cult following a Messiah figure. After Obama won the nomination and then the election I had hoped this nonsense had come to an end but Dana Milbank revives it in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Obama received millions of votes. Undoubtedly different people had different reasons for voting for him and saw him differently. To dismiss his support as a cult was absurd back then, and it is equally ridiculous to repeat the claims that his supporters saw him as some sort of Messiah.

During the primary campaign it became clear that Barack Obama was the only candidate I found acceptable who I thought had a reasonable chance to both beat Hillary Clinton and beat whoever would win the Republican nomination. Milbank believes Obama supporters did not see him as another politician. I never had any illusion that someone who could get to that stage was not a politician. The point is not that he was not a politician but that his type of politics was preferable to that practiced by both Hillary Clinton and the current Republican Party.

Milbank misunderstands the response to Obama’s decision to remain in Afghanistan. Yes, of the millions who voted for him I am sure that some were surprised and felt betrayed. Many more of us were fully aware that the current plan is totally consistent with the plans Obama discussed as a candidate. The fact that Obama had said he planned to remain in Afghanistan as a candidate does not mean we cannot criticize the policy. Campaigning on a policy does not give a candidate some sort of immunity to being criticized for the policy–even by those who supported the candidate. We knew that he was not a Messiah who would always be right.

I bet that many Obama supporters predicted, as I had, that Obama would do many things we would disagree with. Back in December 2007 I wrote my annual list of Festivus grievances, that year airing my grievances with the major presidential candidates. On Obama I wrote:

My suspicion is that in a couple of years I will be writing a number of blog posts disagreeing with some of your actions as president, but things will be far better than if any of your major opponents were to win.

Milbank concluded with reaction to Obama’s decision on Afghanistan, describing some of the opposition and writing:

His Afghanistan policy, likewise, is above all a pragmatic, nonideological strategy. He stayed true to his campaign promise to take the fight to the Taliban, but he also tried to build a consensus. You’d think his supporters might applaud this sort of thoughtful, methodical leadership as a repudiation of the Bush style of government by political theory.

Yes, it is true as Milbank also wrote, that some on the left have gone overboard in attacking Obama over this and other areas where they disagreed with him. Some have even unfairly compared Obama to George Bush. Just earlier today I wrote that “I Might Not Agree With Obama On Afghanistan But At Least He Seriously Considered The Issues.” The post praises Obama for at least seriously considering the ramifications of his policy and attempting to avoid past mistakes, along with contrasting Obama’s decision making style to that of George Bush.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I listened to a large portion of the audio book of David Plouffe’s book on the Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win, while driving or while following around family members as they went shopping. Obviously David Plouffe’s portrayal of Obama must be taken with a grain of salt but while listening I was thinking about why the Messiah line never really hurt Obama. Even while Plouffe was obviously building up Obama, it wasn’t as any sort of Messiah but as an intelligent man (repeat: man) who seriously considered the issues and who did represent a change from the politics of the Clintons and the Republicans (which over time had become virtually identical).

Obama will continue to make mistakes, or at least make decisions I do not agree with. What is important is that we have a president who seriously looks at the facts and asks questions before making deciding. That is not being a Messiah, but it is being vastly superior to his predecessor. I might disagree with some of Obama’s decisions, and certainly never saw him as any type of Messiah, but I still believe, as I did back in 2007, that we are better off than we would be if any of the other candidates had won.

Update: Public Policy Polling puts liberal dissatisfaction with Obama in perspective. While many do disagree with him on specific issues such as Afghanistan, overall only three percent of liberal Democrats disapprove of him.

I Might Not Agree With Obama On Afghanistan But At Least He Seriously Considered The Issues

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I might have my doubts about the strategy in Afghanistan, but I do appreciate the fact that Obama actually did think about the decision, in contrast to how decisions were made during the previous administration. The New York Times has an article on how the decision was reached:

The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents.

This account of how the president reached his decision is based on dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama’s 10 meetings with his national security team. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but their accounts have been matched against those of other participants wherever possible.

Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue — nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone — that he joked, “I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.” He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. Even David Axelrod, arguably his closest adviser, did not know where Mr. Obama would come out until just before Thanksgiving.

Obama “peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information.” In contrast, George Bush was known for rarely asking questions and having no intellectual curiosity. The article further shows how Obama’s approach differed from Bush’s:

The episode underscored the uneasy relationship between the military and a new president who, aides said, was determined not to be as deferential as he believed his predecessor, George W. Bush, was for years in Iraq. And the military needed to adjust to a less experienced but more skeptical commander in chief. “We’d been chugging along for eight years under an administration that had become very adept at managing war in a certain way,” said another military official.

Besides trying to avoid the mistakes that George Bush made, Obama considered previous U.S.  mistakes:

Moreover, Mr. Obama had read “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War. The book had become a must read in the West Wing after Mr. Emanuel had dinner over the summer at the house of another deputy national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and wandered into his library to ask what he should be reading.

Among the conclusions that Mr. Donilon and the White House team drew from the book was that both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory — clearly driving the Obama advisers to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Fighting The Terrorists in Afghanistan

Listening to Obama’s reasons for staying in Afghanistan I remained skeptical as to whether it was worthwhile. I have very little confidence that we can achieve a stable and clean democratic government there in this time frame. If there is any reason to stay it would be to actually do what we set out to do in the first place–fight al Qaeda.While George Bush’s argument to fight the terrorists in Iraq so we didn’t have to fight them here made no sense, there would be some logic to fighting them in Afghanistan if al Qaeda was still based there.

Trying to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, I found it difficult to judge if this is really worthwhile. After all, we do not have the same intelligence regarding al Qaeda in the region, and we did not spend the amount of time Obama did considering the Afghanistan strategy. Another question I had was how much of al Qaeda has remained in Afghanistan as opposed to slipping across into Pakistan, or perhaps moving elsewhere.

ABC News has reviewed some of the intelligence on this matter and it doesn’t resolve my skepticism as to current policy. From various sources they estimate the number of members of al Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan at around one hundred.

Somehow it sounds like an excessive cost, both in terms of American lives and dollars, to remain in Afghanistan to try to kill one hundred members of al Qaeda.This means using 1,000 troops and $300 million a year for every member of al Qaeda left there.

Of course this isn’t the entire story.

“A hundred ‘no foolin’ al Qaeda operatives operating in a safe haven can do a hell of a lot of damage,” said one former intelligence official with significant past experience in the region.

Maybe, but I remain skeptical as to whether this is worthwhile.

Obama’s Inner Spock

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Is there anywhere else in the world where people worry about whether their president is too intelligent and logical? After eight years of George Bush, and the threat of Sarah Palin being the next Republican candidate, we should not underestimate the importance of intelligence. Instead Obama has been compared possibly negatively to Spock–twice this week alone.

On  November 30, John Harris of Politco had a silly column on 7 stories Obama doesn’t want told. This included:

Too much Leonard Nimoy

People used to make fun of Bill Clinton’s misty-eyed, raspy-voiced claims that, “I feel your pain.”

The reality, however, is that Clinton’s dozen years as governor before becoming president really did leave him with a vivid sense of the concrete human dimensions of policy. He did not view programs as abstractions — he viewed them in terms of actual people he knew by name.

Obama, a legislator and law professor, is fluent in describing the nuances of problems. But his intellectuality has contributed to a growing critique that decisions are detached from rock-bottom principles.

Both Maureen Dowd in The New York Times and Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post have likened him to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

The Spock imagery has been especially strong during the extended review Obama has undertaken of Afghanistan policy. He’ll announce the results on Tuesday. The speech’s success will be judged not only on the logic of the presentation but on whether Obama communicates in a more visceral way what progress looks like and why it is worth achieving. No soldier wants to take a bullet in the name of nuance.

The article is a prefect example of how non-serious the work by Harris and many others at Politico often is. Obama staffers responded with a leaked email which sums up many of the problems with Politico. Marc Ambinder posted the list:

7 narratives politico is fighting in their efforts to get an interview with the President

1.       They are more interested in readers than accuracy

2.       Its okay to be wrong everyonce in a while, if your are the first to break the news

3.       More interested in gossip than news

4.       A spouter of the worst sort of insider conventional wisdom

5.       Their analysis about obama has been wrong more than any one

6.       Click … period

7.       More obsessed with personality than policy

This should not be seen as the more outright type of battle going on between the White House and Fox. Ambinder puts this in perspective:

It’s fairly caustic — and, truth be told, the White House maintains good relationships with Politico reporters and has been known to try to agenda-set by dishing out a few tips to the publication. But make no mistake: many on the White House senior staff dislike Politico’s brand of journalism, and they do not like the effect that Politico’s metabolism has on the rest of the press corps, including this (i.e., my own) corner of it. Still, don’t read too much into this. There’s been plenty of back-and-forth between the White and the Politico, and the White House accepts the role — which is often substantial — that Politico plays in the newsgathering process.

Perhaps Politco was leading the news here as yesterday AP again raised the comparison between Obama and Spock:

He shows a fascination with science, an all-too deliberate decision-making demeanor, an adherence to logic and some pretty, ahem, prominent ears.

They all add up to a quite logical conclusion, at least for “Star Trek” fans: Barack Obama is Washington’s Mr. Spock, the chief science officer for the ship of state.

“I guess it’s somewhat unusual for a politician to be so precise, logical, in his thought process,” actor Leonard Nimoy, who has portrayed Spock for more than 40 years, told The Associated Press in an e-mail interview. “The comparison to Spock is, in my opinion, a compliment to him and to the character.”

Until now.

From there the article questioned if this is a negative. Imagine, a president who actually thought about war plans, upsetting Dick Cheney who took the opposite approach. While I have my doubts about the ultimate policy on Afghanistan, I prefer Obama’s Spock-like thoughtfulness to Cheney’s act as a Klingon who lacks honor.

Even the writer and producer of the last Star Trek movie sees Spock in Obama:

Roberto Orci, the screenwriter and producer behind the latest “Star Trek” movie, said Obama “has a Spock-like aura about him: calm in the face of great adversity and looking for a logical middle ground.” Obama, himself a big “Star Trek” fan, screened the movie at the White House during its opening weekend.

“We knew he was a Trekkie,” Orci said in a telephone interview. He said he watches the White House regularly for insight on the Spock character.

“To have a case study like that on the news every night makes my job a lot easier,” he said.

Orci said James T. Kirk, the “Star Trek” captain, was “based on a young new president,, John F. Kennedy, and that the Obama administration is part of a 1960s-type revival. Except this time, Kirk isn’t in charge. Spock is.

Report Released on Bush’s Failure To Capture Bin Laden At Tora Bora

I’ve mentioned the failure of the Bush administration to capture bin Laden when they had an excellent chance  at Tora Bora multiple times in the past.  The New York Daily News reports on a Senate report on this failure. John Kerry, who criticized Bush for his mistakes at Tora Bora when running against him in 2004, requested this report:

Osama Bin Laden was within military reach when the Bush administration allowed him to disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan rather than pursue him with a massive military force, a new Senate report says.

The report asserts that the failure to get the terrorist leader when he was at his most vulnerable in December 2001 – three months after the 9/11 attacks – led to today’s reinvigorated insurgency in Afghanistan.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, requested the report, which came as President Obama prepares to send as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Kerry has long argued the Bush administration botched an opportunity to capture the Al Qaeda leader and his top deputies when they were holed up in the forbidding mountainous area of Tora Bora.

The report calls then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, the top military commander at the time, to the carpet and asserts the U.S. had the means to mount a rapid assault on Bin Laden with several thousand troops.

Instead, fewer than 100 commandoes, working with Afghan militias, tried to capitalize on air strikes and track down the ragged band of terrorists.

That “Kerry was Right” file sure is getting big.

Carl Levin Calls Calls For Tax on Upper-Income Earners to Pay for War

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan has suggested a tax on upper-income earners to pay for more troops for the war in Afghanistan. I suspect he did not note how the Democrats lost many independent voters in this year’s elections. Certainly there are many reasons why the elections are not predictive of future results, but taking a stereotypical Democratic stand of soaking the rich for everything will not help matters.

There’s no doubt that under Bush the rich were given especially favorable treatment which should be corrected. That does not mean that taxing the rich should be the answer for everything. If the government should be doing something, the cost should be spread out among all the citizens (obviously with continuation of limitations on taxes for the poor who cannot afford them).

Whether we should remain in Afghanistan is certainly debatable. If we stay, the cost should be spread among everyone. Similarly I’ve argued that health care reform is something which is beneficial for the entire country and should also be financed with a broad-based tax. Sooner or later Americans must consider government spending like adults and consider whether a program is worth spending money on. The knee-jerk opposition to any government spending by conservatives (unless it involves invading another country or torture) is a nonsensical viewpoint which Democrats should not continue to reinforce.

There would be some satisfaction if, as Ron Beasley suggests, the cost for such wars could be shifted to their rich neoconservative supporters like Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. On the other hand increased taxes on those making $200,000 a year as Levin suggests will also affect many people who have recently begun voting Democratic.

Obama Rejects Bad Choices on Afghanistan

When presented with various options for Afghanistan but none were satisfactory, Barack Obama had the guts to do the right thing and demand more choices. This shows a tremendous difference for his predecessor, who was so spineless and lacking in intellectual curiosity that he allowed the neoconservatives to call the shots after 9/11, regardless of how much harm their policies were doing to our country. No matter how badly things were going, Bush would never think of questioning what we were doing. Andrew Sullivan comments:

What we are seeing here, I suspect, is what we see everywhere with Obama: a relentless empiricism in pursuit of a particular objective and a willingness to let the process take its time. The very process itself can reveal – not just to Obama, but to everyone – what exactly the precise options are. Instead of engaging in adolescent tests of whether a president is “tough” or “weak”, we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored. He is, moreover, not taking the decision process outside the public arena. He is allowing it to unfold within the public arena…

What strikes me about this is the enormous self-confidence this reveals. Here is a young president, prepared to allow himself to be portrayed as “weak” or “dithering” in the slow and meticulous arrival at public policy. He is trusting the reality to help expose what we need to do. He is allowing the debate – however messy and confusing and emotional – to take its time and reveal the real choices in front of us. This is politically risky, of course. Those who treat politics as a contact-sport, whose insistence is on the “game” of who wins which news cycle, or who can spin each moment in a political storm as a harbinger of whatever, will pounce and shriek and try to bounce the president into a decision. And those who believe that what matters in war is charging ahead regardless at all times will also grandstand against the president’s insistence on prudence.

But he won’t be bounced and his concern seems to be genuinely to do the right and the most sustainable thing. Which is a kind of strength we haven’t seen in a president since Reagan.

Considering the mess Obama inherited both at home and in foreign policy, it is good to have a president who can think outside of the box and not just continue along the same path. This doesn’t guarantee he will always make the right choice, but the chances for actually solving problems and avoiding quagmires is much greater.

Kerry Places Conditions on Troop Surge in Afghanistan, Blasts Cheney For Partisan Attacks

John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the person responsible for brokering the deal to have a run-off election in Afghanistan, questions General  Stanley McChrystal’s request for a surge in Afghanistan:

“I am convinced from my conversations with Gen. Stanley McChrystal that he understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area,” Kerry said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But I believe his current plan reaches too far, too fast.”

Kerry has not ruled out supporting a surge in the future if  three conditions are met:

“First, are there enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops—and eventually to take over responsibility for security? The quickest way out of Afghanistan for our troops is to speed up the training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army and police so that they can defend their own country.”

“The second question to ask is, are there local leaders we can partner with? We must be able to identify and cooperate with tribal, district and provincial leaders who command the authority to help deliver services and restore Afghans’ faith in their own government.”

“Third, is the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population? When they support our troops, Afghans need to see their lives improve.”

Kerry’s conditions should be considered seriously. After all, it was Kerry who insisted that we should not go to war in Iraq unless it could be demonstrated that we were truly threatened by weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately George Bush did not listen to several pre-war speeches by Kerry advising against his course of action. Barack Obama is more likely to consider Kerry’s views on Afghanistan.

Kerry also criticized Dick Cheney for accusing President Barack Obama of “dithering” on the troop decisions.

“After eight years of neglecting Afghanistan as vice president, Dick Cheney has now come out of retirement to criticize President Obama for taking time to examine assumptions before sending troops into war,” Kerry said.

“Make no mistake,” he continued:

“Because of the gross mishandling of this war by past civilian leadership, there are no great options for its handling today. One American officer captured well our lack of a strategy when he said, ‘We haven’t been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years. We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for one year eight times in a row.’ That is our inheritance.”

John Kerry, Man of the Hour

John Kerry is not only “de facto Secretary of State” per an earlier post. He is also Politico’s Man of the Hour” for resolving the dispute over Afghanistan’s election.

Bloomberg compares Kerry’s diplomatic efforts to other high-profile diplomatic efforts:

Kerry’s involvement is the latest high-profile diplomatic effort by an unofficial envoy that has benefited the Obama administration. In August, former President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists and held discussions with regime leader Kim Jong Il that started a thaw in relations with the U.S.

The Obama administration is now willing to hold direct talks to persuade North Korea to return to multinational negotiations aimed at eliminating its nuclear weapons program.

Also in August, Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, flew to Myanmar, where the U.S. has had limited contact, and won the release of an American imprisoned there. The Obama administration has since announced a new policy of direct talks with the military rulers of the Southeast Asian nation in an effort to promote democratic changes.

In another example, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, visited Cuba as a de facto envoy and recommended upon his return that the administration engage in broader talks with the communist government.

Marc Ambinder asks, “Has Sen. John Kerry ever had as good a press cycle?” Probably not since he won the Iowa caucuses in 2004, leading to victory for the Democratic nomination. This widespread praise for Kerry is well-deserved, but the heads must be exploding on a few of the Swift Boat Liars.

John Kerry: “De Facto Secretary of State”

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John Kerry was the obvious choice to become Secretary of State when Barack Obama became president, but Obama found it politically advantageous to get Hillary Clinton out of the Senate, and prevent her from establishing an opposing power base, by offering the job to her. While Clinton officially has the title, when there are international problems, increasingly Obama has called upon John Kerry.

Joe Biden’s move to the executive branch (without Chenyesque confusion as to the role of the VP), opened the way for John Kerry to become Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and have a greater role in foreign affairs. There has always been a close relationship between Kerry and Barack Obama. Kerry gave Obama one of his earliest opportunities at national prominence in choosing him to give the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Kerry endorsed Obama for the 2008 nomination in early January, as opposed to supporting either John Edwards, his 2004 running mate, or Hillary Clinton, who at that time had the support of the party establishment.

The Note‘s daily email writes “Sen. John Kerry serves as de facto secretary of state” and this is demonstrated in their on-line version:

Take a look at some of John Kerry recent accomplishments: saves climate bill, becomes the administration’s go-to guy on Karzai in Afghanistan. It took him nearly four years to find his rhythm following his 2004 loss, but Kerry is a player again. On two different fronts, he has stepped up and become a game-saver for his party. On climate/energy, he took a bill that was languishing in the Senate and recruited Lindsey Graham to breathe new life into it. The bill still has a long way to go, but there’s a path to passage and that’s in no small part thanks to Kerry. On Karzai, there are a few tick-tocks about the role he played (one here in the Wall Street Journal), including how the Obama administration used him to, well, super-cede Holbrooke and others. As one Dem strategist commented to us today, “Kerry finally got to show what kind of president he could have been.”

The Wall Street Journal explains why Obama called upon Kerry:

According to one Western diplomat, the Afghan president was more comfortable dealing with Sen. Kerry than with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or the administration’s special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke. Mr. Holbrooke angered Mr. Karzai when he suggested shortly after the Aug. 20 election that a runoff might be needed…

U.S. and Western officials said the Obama administration latched on to Sen. Kerry as a key broker. In June, he played a similar role in the Obama administration’s efforts to build bridges to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Syrian and U.S. officials.

Sen. Kerry was first drawn into the vote fraud crisis Friday when, at a dinner with U.S. troops from Massachusetts, Mr. Eikenberry pulled him aside and told him of fears Mr. Karzai would denounce findings by U.N.-led election investigators of widespread fraud.

That night, Sen. Kerry went to the presidential palace, where the two men, sometimes accompanied by Mr. Eikenberry and sometimes alone, hashed out Mr. Karzai’s concerns. “We had lot of hours together and talked about a lot of things, including the American experience in elections, and going back to 1864, Al Gore in 2000,” Sen. Kerry said. “I think it helped to put it into a certain framework.”

The Boston Globe notes the importance of Kerry’s diplomatic triumph:

Kerry’s successful talks, which ranged from broad issues of legitimacy to discussions of the statistical analysis used to disqualify ballots, appeared to be his most significant accomplishment since taking over the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this year, replacing Joe Biden.

“We may have just averted a crisis of government in Afghanistan. This may be the biggest thing that Kerry has done, other than run for president,’’ said Ralph G. Carter a professor at Texas Christian University who co-authored a book on the history of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.