A Response To Obama’s Critics On Ukraine

There’s nothing like a crisis to show how intellectually bankrupt the right wing has become. I won’t waste more time with the nutty right wing, such as those who think the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that Palin had some actual insights into foreign policy when she mentioned Ukraine or Russia during the 2008 campaign. The supposedly more sensible portion of the right wing over at The Washington Post does some classic right wing projection in claiming that President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy. The gist is that Obama should do something, but they don’t actually say what he can or should do. This looks like more of the same lack of understanding of the real world seen with Fred Hyatt’s previous support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Among the best commentary I’ve seen (to add to that I linked to yesterday from David Remnick) came from Michael Cohen at The Guardian. He began with pointing out several more instances of absurd commentary from the right and then wrote:

As in practically every international crisis, the pundit class seems able to view events solely through the prism of US actions, which best explains Edward Luce in the Financial Times writing that Obama needs to convince Putin “he will not be outfoxed”, or Scott Wilson at the Washington Post intimating that this is all a result of America pulling back from military adventurism. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes countries take actions based on how they view their interests, irrespective of who the US did or did not bomb.

Missing from this “analysis” about how Obama should respond is why Obama should respond. After all, the US has few strategic interests in the former Soviet Union and little ability to affect Russian decision-making.

Our interests lie in a stable Europe, and that’s why the US and its European allies created a containment structure that will ensure Russia’s territorial ambitions will remain quite limited. (It’s called Nato.) Even if the Russian military wasn’t a hollow shell of the once formidable Red Army, it’s not about to mess with a Nato country.

The US concerns vis-à-vis Russia are the concerns that affect actual US interests. Concerns like nuclear non-proliferation, or containing the Syrian civil war, or stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are all areas where Moscow has played an occasionally useful role.

So while Obama may utilize political capital to ratify the Start treaty with Russia, he’s not going to extend it so save the Crimea. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is not nothing, but it’s hardly in the top tier of US policy concerns.

What is America’s problem is ensuring that Russia pays a price for violating international law and the global norm against inter-state war. The formal suspension of a G8 summit in Sochi is a good first step. If Putin’s recalcitrance grows – and if he further escalates the crisis – then that pressure can be ratcheted up.

But this crisis is Putin’s Waterloo, not ours.

Which brings us to perhaps the most bizarre element of watching the Crimean situation unfold through a US-centric lens: the iron-clad certainty of the pundit class that Putin is winning and Obama is losing. The exact opposite is true.

Putin has initiated a conflict that will, quite obviously, result in greater diplomatic and political isolation as well as the potential for economic sanction. He’s compounded his loss of a key ally in Kiev by further enflaming Ukrainian nationalism, and his provocations could have a cascading effect in Europe by pushing countries that rely on Russia’s natural gas exports to look elsewhere for their energy needs. Putin is the leader of a country with a weak military, an under-performing economy and a host of social, environmental and health-related challenges. Seizing the Crimea will only make the problems facing Russia that much greater.

For Obama and the US, sure, there might be less Russian help on Syria going forward – not that there was much to begin with – and it could perhaps affect negotiations on Iran. But those issues are manageable. Meanwhile, Twitter and the opinion pages and the Sunday shows and too many blog posts that could be informative have been filled with an over-the-top notion: that failure to respond to Russia’s action will weaken America’s credibility with its key allies. To which I would ask: where are they gonna go? If anything, America’s key European allies are likely to fold the quickest, because, you know, gas. And why would any US ally in the Far East want Obama wasting his time on the Crimea anyway?

You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.

The funny thing is, these are often the same people who bemoan the lack of public support for a more muscular American foreign policy. Gee, I wonder why.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Putin Goes To War

As is often the case, David Remnick provides excellent coverage of the events of the last few days in Ukraine. He shows not only what is going on in the Ukraine, but what good journalism should be. On Putin:

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and autocrat, had a plan for the winter of 2014: to reassert his country’s power a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He thought that he would achieve this by building an Olympic wonderland on the Black Sea for fifty-one billion dollars and putting on a dazzling television show. It turns out that he will finish the season in a more ruthless fashion, by invading a peninsula on the Black Sea and putting on quite a different show—a demonstration war that could splinter a sovereign country and turn very bloody, very quickly.

There’s more background information than is found in the typical article which concentrates more on up to the minute news than analysis, and then a return to Putin’s motives:

In a recent Letter from Sochi, I tried to describe Putin’s motivations: his resentment of Western triumphalism and American power, after 1991; his paranoia that Washington is somehow behind every event in the world that he finds threatening, including the recent events in Kiev; his confidence that the U.S. and Europe are nonetheless weak, unlikely to respond to his swagger because they need his help in Syria and Iran; his increasingly vivid nationalist-conservative ideology, which relies, not least, on the elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been so brutally suppressed during most of the Soviet period, as a quasi-state religion supplying the government with its moral force.

And this is how the war is likely to go:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

In conclusion (but read Remnick’s full article first):

Putin’s reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable. It faces the burden of legitimacy. Yanukovych was spectacularly corrupt, and he opened fire on his own people. He was also elected to his office and brought low by an uprising, not the ballot; he made that point on Friday, in a press conference in Rostov on Don, in Russia, saying that he had never really been deposed. Ukraine has already experienced revolutionary disappointment. The Orange Revolution, in 2004, failed to establish stable democratic institutions and economic justice. This is one reason that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister, newly released from prison, is not likely the future of Ukraine. How can Ukraine possibly move quickly to national elections, as it must to resolve the issue of legitimacy, while another country has troops on its territory?

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian politician who no longer holds office, said that the events were not only dangerous for Ukraine but ominous for Russia and the man behind them. “It’s quite likely that this will be fatal for the regime and catastrophic for Russia,” he told Slon.ru. “It just looks as if they have taken leave of their senses.”

There are, of course, other views worth reading.  Peter Baker explains why it will not be easy to make Russia pay, despite the rants from Republican politicians such as Marco Rubio who seek to find political advantage in the current international crisis.

Mr. Putin has already demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he must have realized he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr. Putin may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Moscow still has a major military base, but instead justify a long-term troop presence by saying the troops are there to defend the local population from the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Following a tested Russian playbook, he could create a de facto enclave loyal to Moscow much like the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that broke away from Georgia. On the other hand, the White House worries that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.

Finding powerful levers to influence Mr. Putin’s decision-making will be a challenge for Mr. Obama and the European allies. Mr. Obama has seen repeatedly that warnings often do not discourage autocratic rulers from taking violent action, as when Syria crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in its civil war.

Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.

The longer-term options might be more painful, but they require trade-offs as well. The administration could impose the same sort of banking sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy. And yet Europe, with its more substantial economic ties, could be reluctant to go along, and Mr. Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent financial weapon, especially when he needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran.

“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was the government’s top intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war when Mr. Putin deflected Western agitation. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”

Baker also compared Obama’s options to those which George Bush had when Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008. Bush eventually learned that he was wrong about his initial sense of Putin’s soul from looking into his eyes. If anyone still has any doubts, it is clear that Putin’s soul is that of an autocrat and KGB killer.

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Sarah Palin Saw A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine From Her House

I really wouldn’t mind if Sarah Palin just made her amusing quip about the Ukraine crisis saying “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska” on her Facebook page. It is understandable that she would react this way, both in response to criticism for giving a foreign crisis example of Russia invading Ukraine in 2008 and for the impression of her by Tina Fey. Palin and other conservatives just should be happy with a quick quip such as this an not overplay their hand and pretend that Sarah Palin really had the slightest idea as to what she was talking about.

Steve M. reviewed this in far more detail than is probably needed considering that nobody really needs an explanation as to why Palin is not really an expert on Russian policy, or anything else. Steve pointed out that Palin, or actually her speech writer as this was in a prepared speech, raised the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine during the first six months of his presidency to test Obama. That would be the first six months of his first term. In the same speech Palin criticized Obama for his statement during the campaign that he might go into Pakistan to go after known terrorist targets without their permission. In other words, she attacked Obama for doing what he did to kill Osama bin Laden.

With the full context, Sarah Palin doesn’t look all that bright on foreign policy but thanks for helping us recall Tina Fey’s spot-on impressions. The video and transcript of her routine in which she had Palin say “And I can see Russia from my house” can be found here.

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Why Do Republicans Hate Veterans?

Senate Republicans have blocked a Democratic proposal to increase veteran’s benefits. The Hill reports:

Senate Republicans stopped Democrats from advancing a bill that would have expanded healthcare and education programs for veterans.

In a 56-41 vote Thursday, the motion to waive a budget point of order against the bill failed, as Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the Republican roadblock.

GOP Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) voted with Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to allow a GOP substitute amendment to get an up-or-down vote because it included Iran sanctions, which he said were unrelated to veterans’ issues.

“I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill,” Reid said Thursday. “Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans.”

Why do I have a sense of deja vu in reading this story? Maybe because it has become quite common for Republicans to pretend to support the vets while opposing benefits backed by Democrats. A quick Google search for Republicans oppose veterans benefits brought up plenty of hits from previous examples.

Veterans–one of many groups who vote against their self-interest when they vote for Republicans.

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The State Of The Democratic Party Today

I found Dan Balz’s article on Democrats in the post-Obama era to be interesting not for any predictions of the future but for the information on the Democratic Party today. I wouldn’t take this as an exact measurement of any views, but a good general approximation.

Balz presented data that the Democratic Party has become more liberal, but with liberals representing a plurality and not a majority. The Democrats remain a big tent party of the left, middle, and center-right while the Republicans have become a predominantly conservative party:

By many measures, the party is certainly seen as more liberal than it once was. For the past 40 years, the American National Election Studies surveys have asked people for their perceptions of the two major parties. The 2012 survey found, for the first time, that a majority of Americans describe the Democratic Party as liberal, with 57 percent using that label. Four years earlier, only 48 percent described the Democrats as liberal.

(In the same survey, 59 percent said they saw the Republicans as conservative, up from 52 percent four years earlier.)

Gallup reported last month that 43 percent of surveyed Democrats identified themselves as liberal, the high water mark for the party on that measurement. In Gallup’s 2000 measures, just 29 percent of Democrats labeled themselves as liberals.

Still, liberals are a plurality of the Democratic Party, not a majority, which is strikingly different from the Republican Party, where Gallup found that 70 percent identified themselves as conservative.

Democrats hold a variety of views, but tend to be more liberal on social issues:

Democrats are most united on cultural and social issues, and it is here where the party has most obviously moved to the left, particularly on same-sex marriage and even the legalization of marijuana. But the party’s shift reflects overall changes in public attitudes that have kept the Democrats within a new political mainstream on these issues.

Women’s issues have provided even more cohesiveness within the party’s coalition.

There is less unity on national security and foreign policy, as much of the party is to the left of Clinton and even of Obama:

On issues of national security and foreign policy, divisions remain. Obama may be president because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton voted as senator to give then-president George W. Bush the authority to take the country to war. Obama has ended the war in Iraq and is ending the war in Afghanistan, but some progressives are at odds with him over other aspects of his national security policies.

There is also division on economic issues:

On economic issues, the party is torn between two key parts of its coalition.

“One of the biggest failings of the Democratic Party,” Stern said, “is that its funders come from its traditional side of the economic spectrum and its voters come from a more populist, distributive side of the economic agenda.”

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer said, “I think the party increasingly is responding to the special interests they need to get elected — the military-industrial complex, big energy, pharmaceutical companies, banks.”

Yet in both policies and tone, there are indications that Democrats have moved to the left. Democratic candidates from all regions — including two potential rising stars running for the Senate in conservative states, Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky — have embraced raising the minimum wage. This is a centerpiece of Obama’s agenda heading into this fall’s midterm campaigns…

Hostility to free-trade agreements is still deep among part of the Democratic coalition, but that tension has existed for decades. While many better-educated, upscale voters do not fear the impact of free trade, others, led by organized labor, look at stagnant wages and the difficult job market and attribute those hardships to trade.

Income inequality has received more attention from Democrats but it is based more upon pragmatic economic principles than hostility towards the rich or the egalitarianism falsely attributed to Democrats by many Republicans such as Chris Christie:

Perhaps more than any other economic issue, income inequality has animated progressive activists and voters. Party strategists say this energy is being fueled by lingering fury at Wall Street tycoons, whom they blame for the financial collapse, and deep unease about the nation’s eroding middle class.

“There’s a consciousness developing that’s related to this issue of inequality and the unfairness of our system and the wealth gap that has the potential to really grow and develop into a strong movement that will be reflected in coming elections,” former Ohio governor Ted Strickland said.

William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution said, “It’s not just a case of the very rich getting richer. If that were the only thing going on I think we’d be having a very different conversation. It’s also a case of the people in the middle at best treading water and in fact doing a little bit worse than that.”

Balz’s description of the Democratic Party is consistent with how I have described it in posts here–a big tent with the left more typically liberal on social issues and highly influenced by opposition to the war in Iraq. Democrats have tended to be more pragmatic than ideological on economic issues, with the current economic stagnation exacerbated by the right’s use of government to redistribute wealth to the ultra-wealthy and extreme opposition to government activity even when needed, leading to forces driving both pragmatism and a more populist agenda coinciding.

Looking ahead it is impossible to predict anything at this time other than a victory for Hillary Clinton, but this is based upon her historical position in the party, not whether she is currently representative of where most Democrats stand. If Clinton were to decide not to run, whoever wins the nomination is likely to be quite different from Clinton on the issues.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Democratic Strategy For 2014: Get Out The Vote But Don’t Ignore The Message

This should be a bad year for Democrats if we go by historical trends. The party holding the presidency typically loses Congressional seats in their sixth year. It makes matters worse when their are economic problems, even if many people do realize that they are primarily due to a combination of problems created by the Bush administration and problems perpetuated by Republican actions to hinder economic recovery in Congress.

Making matters worse, the Democrats have to defend Senate seats in red states, including states where incumbent Democrats are not running for reelection. Democrats do worse in off year elections, when young voters and minorities are less likely to vote compared to presidential elections. Republicans also have a huge advantage in a system where small Republican states receive as many Senators as far larger Democratic states. Their advantage extends to the house. Between gerrymandering and the higher concentration of Democrats in cities. Republican will still control Congress unless Democrats receive about seven percent more votes.

On top of this, Republicans see voter suppression as a valid electoral strategy.

Democrats did much better in 2008 and 2012 than in 2010. They also expect to do much better in 2016, including picking up several Senate seats due to the playing field being reversed with Republicans being forced to defend Senate seats in blue states. The Democrats see the solution as making 2014 more like 2012. Their strategy:

The Democrats’ plan to hold on to their narrow Senate majority goes by the name “Bannock Street project.” It runs through 10 states, includes a $60 million investment and requires more than 4,000 paid staff members. And the effort will need all of that — and perhaps more — to achieve its goal, which is nothing short of changing the character of the electorate in a midterm cycle.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is preparing its largest and most data-driven ground game yet, relying on an aggressive combination of voter registration, get-out-the-vote and persuasion efforts.

They hope to make the 2014 midterm election more closely resemble a presidential election year, when more traditional Democratic constituencies — single women, minorities and young voters — turn out to vote in higher numbers, said Guy Cecil, the committee’s executive director.

A campaign based upon getting out the vote isn’t terribly exciting, but it is a realization that this is how elections are won in this polarized era. There aren’t very many swing voters, but there can be huge differences between which party does better in getting their supporters out to vote.

Besides, a high tech get out the vote campaign and an old fashioned campaign to try to sway voters are not mutually exclusive. I do hope that the Democrats also think about better ways to get out their message as the Republicans often win by doing a better job here. Sure the Republican message is pure lies, claiming to be the party of small government while supporting increased government intrusion in the lives of individuals, and primarily using big government to redistribute wealth to the top one tenth of one percent.

Democrats need a coherent message, but they often fail because they are afraid of alienating some voters by saying what they believe in. I suspect that this cowardice turns off even more voters, along with reducing the motivation of their supporters to turn out. Once again, a campaign based upon promoting ideas and one based upon voter turnout are not mutually exclusive. They can be complimentary.

Rather than shying away from social issues, Democrats need to campaign as the party which supports keeping government out of our personal lives and out of the bedroom.

Rather than running away from the Affordable Car e Act, Democrats need to stress its benefits. Beyond all the millions who are assisted by the ability to obtain affordable health coverage, there are the two million people who are freed from the “insurance trap” which forces them to work in jobs they do not otherwise want or need in order to obtain health insurance. As the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has shown, the Affordable Care Act will help reduce unemployment, decease the deficit, and strengthen the economy. Besides, we saw what happened to the Democrats when they tried running away from Obamacare in 2010.

In recent years Democrats have taken national security away from Republicans as an issue. If the Republicans want to run on their debunked conspiracy theories about Benghazi, it might be time for Democrats to remind voters of the very real failings of Republicans on 9/11, from ignoring warnings before the attack to invading the wrong country in retaliation. We saw how that turned out. It is also time for Democrats to take additional issues from the Republicans.

Challenge voters who support Republicans based upon misinformation. If they are concerned about the deficit, point out how much the deficit has dropped under Obama (as it previously dropped under Bill Clinton). Repeatedly we see polls in which voters support liberal positions but identify themselves as conservatives. They say the oppose Obamacare but also support most of the individual components of the Affordable Care Act. The only way to fight the misinformation spread by Fox is for Democrats to clearly say what they believe in and defend their positions.

Democrats are planning to run on income inequality. That is fine, but they better make sure that they make it clear that the reason is that the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one tenth of one percent is a major cause of crippling the economy and keeping down the middle class. Failure to make this connection just plays into Republican memes.

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Obama Takes First Step In Reforming NSA Surveillance

In a speech today, President Obama called for an overhaul of the NSA’s phone data collection program. The full text is here and the proposals are summarized here. There are meaningful improvements, including requiring a court order to obtain phone data, which will be held by a third party, and proceedings before the FISA court will become more adversarial with arguments made counter to the government’s arguments by a panel of public advocates.

Glenn Greenwald has some valid criticism and deserves credit for his work in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations to the public. As has often been the case regarding Obama, I believe he is also underestimating the value of these reforms. It must be kept in mind that this issue is about what the NSA has done wrong, not about one’s opinion of Glenn Greenwald. I am finding that Greenwald’s sometimes overzealous attacks on Obama have led many liberals to automatically reject whatever he has to say, and I fear that this is contributing to the attitude of some liberals to fail to take the NSA revelations with the seriousness they deserve.

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued this statement, also arguing that Obama has not gone far enough:

President Obama today announced changes to some aspects of the NSA’s surveillance programs and left others in place. Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:

“The president’s speech outlined several developments which we welcome. Increased transparency for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, improved checks and balances at the FISA court through the creation of a panel of advocates, and increased privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens abroad – the first such assertion by a U.S. president – are all necessary and welcome reforms.

“However, the president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling. The president outlined a process to study the issue further and appears open to alternatives. But the president should end – not mend – the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution. The president’s own review panel recommended that bulk data collection be ended, and the president should accept that recommendation in its entirety.”

A new chart comparing the ACLU’s proposals, President Obama’s announcement, and the USA FREEDOM Act (a bipartisan bill currently pending in Congress) is at:
aclu.org/national-security/where-does-president-stand-nsa-reform

ACLU Action is demanding an end to dragnet surveillance at:
aclu.org/endsurveillance

I do think that Glenn Greenwald could learn from the manner in which the ACLU both acknowledged the favorable aspects of Obama’s proposals while calling for greater reforms. This has been the general attitude which I have seen so far among liberal critics of NSA surveillance. Such an attitude is also more likely to bring about greater unity on the left for reform as opposed to his attacks which are causing some liberals to discount the entire issue.

The fact that Obama made this speech is further evidence of the value of Edward Snowden’s work, and I feel provides further vindication for his actions. Needless to say, many in the intelligence community do not agree, some having fantasies of dealing with Snowden as would be done in a third rate spy thriller:

One Army intelligence officer even offered BuzzFeed a chillingly detailed fantasy.

“I think if we had the chance, we would end it very quickly,” he said. “Just casually walking on the streets of Moscow, coming back from buying his groceries. Going back to his flat and he is casually poked by a passerby. He thinks nothing of it at the time starts to feel a little woozy and thinks it’s a parasite from the local water. He goes home very innocently and next thing you know he dies in the shower.”

There is no indication that the United States has sought to take vengeance on Snowden, who is living in an undisclosed location in Russia without visible security measures, according to a recent Washington Post interview. And the intelligence operators who spoke to BuzzFeed on the condition of anonymity did not say they expected anyone to act on their desire for revenge. But their mood is widespread, people who regularly work with the intelligence community said.

Granted this is just anonymous talk and no action has been taken, but this attitude does reinforce the need to keep the intelligence community under control, and could even be argued to represent further evidence that Snowden was right in his actions.

This all occurs a day after the latest revelations released by Edward Snowden that the NSA collects millions of text messages.

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Dreams Of Stopping Clinton In 2016

We have a long time go to until the 2016 presidential election, but political reporting in this country is obsessed with presidential elections and we are going to continue to see a lot of stories centered around the media’s pick as front runners. As I discussed yesterday, Hillary Clinton is a stronger front runner for her party’s nomination than Chris Christie, especially following the recent scandal.It is notable that early front runners rarely win the Democratic nomination, excluding sitting presidents and sometimes the last vice president. While Hillary Clinton is currently in a strong position to overcome the obstacles faced by front runners, she faces problems including the desire of the media to run “man bites dog” stories and highlight any potential political liability. The media will concentrate on a variety of ABC stories (Anyone But Christie and Anyone But Clinton.

There are two stories along these lines today. Michael Crowley has written about Clinton’s hawkish views, which many Democratic voters are likely to disagree with:

As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues—Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid—Clinton took a more aggressive line than Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.

Former administration officials also tell TIME that Clinton was an advocate for maintaining a residual troop force after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq—an issue of renewed interest given al Qaeda’s resurgence there. They also describe her as skeptical of diplomacy with Iran, and firmly opposed to talk of a “containment” policy that would be an alternative to military action should negotiations with Tehran fail.

Recent comparisons of Secretary of State John Kerry’s frenetic globe-trotting to Clinton’s arguably modest diplomatic achievements have tended to overlook this less visible aspect of her tenure. But no assessment of her time in Obama’s administration would be complete without noting the way Clinton hewed to the liberal hawk philosophy she adopted during her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, and which contributed, less happily, to her 2002 vote to authorize force against Iraq. “The Democratic party has two wings—a pacifist wing and a Scoop Jackson wing. And I think she is clearly in the Scoop Jackson wing,” says former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, now director of the Wilson Center. (Jackson, a Cold War-era Democratic Senator from Washington state, mixed progressive domestic politics with staunch anti-communism, support for a strong military, and backing for the Vietnam War.)

Crowley gave further details on Clinton’s hawkish record and then concluded:
But at a time when fewer Americans support an active U.S. role in foreign affairs, Clinton’s comfort with the harder side of American power could be a vulnerability. A liberal primary challenger might well reprise Barack Obama’s 2007 line that Hillary’s record amounts to “Bush-Cheney lite.” One potential contender, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, has already been zinging her over her 2002 Iraq vote. “When George Bush got a bunch of [Democrats] to vote for that war, I was just shaking my head in Montana,” he said recently. Whether such attacks will hold even a fraction of the valence they did at the Iraq war’s peak remains to be seen.
I fear that changes are not good for a liberal primary challenger to accomplish what Obama did in 2008 in terms of winning the nomination, but Clinton just might be defeated in the Iowa caucuses. CNN looked at the problems Clinton faces in Iowa, despite lack of a credible challenger at this time:

Yet despite having the Democratic establishment at her back, there remains a palpable sense of unease with Clinton in grass-roots corners of the party, even as those very same activists promise to support her if no one else runs.

Part of that restraint is ideological. Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers remain as dovish as they were in 2008, when Clinton’s support for the Iraq war badly damaged her standing on the left. Clinton helped wind down that same war as Obama’s secretary of state, but she is now linked to his national security apparatus, which has expanded drone attacks overseas and broadened intelligence gathering with controversial surveillance and data collection techniques.

And at a time when progressives feel emboldened to confront issues like income inequality and wage stagnation, Clinton, who delivered paid speeches last year to two prominent private equity firms as well as a group that actively lobbied against the Affordable Care Act, is perceived by some as too close to the deficit-obsessed worlds of Wall Street and official Washington…

Clinton is also susceptible to some of the same whimsical Democratic impulses that propelled Obama to his stunning Iowa victory in 2008. “Democrats love an underdog and we love a story,” is how Meyer put it. With a gleaming resume and the potential to make history as the country’s first female president, Clinton has a powerful story to tell. But she is hardly an underdog.

Some party leaders warned Clinton against reprising the same kind of heavy-handed front-running behavior that rankled so many Iowa activists — not to mention the media — during her 2008 effort.

“I don’t know if she has learned that lesson,” said Jean Pardee, the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2nd District vice chair. “The problem with so much of her staff was that they were all sort of higher class than the mere peasants that they had to campaign with. Everyone was kept at arm’s length by the staff, although a couple of key ones were pretty good. That’s a lesson that should be hopefully learned. But when it comes to human nature, maybe that’s not possible.”

Clinton must also confront the who’s-on-deck inclinations of the Democratic caucus-goer. Unlike Republicans, who have a habit of nominating loyal soldiers who have waited for their turn, Iowa Democrats have a tendency to search for someone new. The last time the party nominated an obvious heir-apparent was 2000, but Al Gore first had to beat back an unexpectedly fierce primary challenge from Bill Bradley on the left.

George Appleby, an attorney and lobbyist in Des Moines who supported Bradley and copped to a “pristine record of picking the wrong guy” in every caucus since 1976 until he backed Obama in 2008, described Clinton as “strong” and “brilliant.”

But he said liberals are suffering from an acute case of “Clinton fatigue.” He named O’Malley, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2004 Iowa caucus winner, as Democrats he’s keeping an eye on.

“Hillary would make a great president,” Appleby said. “She is the odds-on-favorite. But I don’t think she is necessarily going to be the nominee, or going to win Iowa. Sometimes people have been around forever, and there is time for some new blood.”

I’ve previously expressed my preference for current Secretary of State John Kerry over his predecessor and found it interesting to actually see his name come up as a possibility. Unfortunately I find it unlikely he can repeat what Richard Nixon did in the Republican Party, and  in a different era, and win the Democratic nomination after once losing the presidency. He loses out on the “tendency to search for someone new.”

In addition, it is difficulty to run while being Secretary of State. He cannot campaign for other members of his party as Nixon did to obtain support. Nor can he participate in the current “invisible primary” to raise money and develop the framework of a campaign. I can only see two possible ways that Kerry can win the Democratic nomination. One would be if he does something major of historical proportions, such as succeeding in his attempts to broker a peace agreement in the middle east. This would also have to occur early enough for Kerry to then step down and actually run. The other would be if Clinton either decides not to run, or her campaign is seriously derailed, and nobody is able to win enough support to make a credible front runner. The chances of stopping Clinton would be better if another liberal candidate could obtain sufficient support to make a serious run, and at this point I don’t see anyone doing this. Any chance Al Gore is still interested? There is a long way to go and perhaps we will see some new blood.

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Gates Describes Obama’s Approach Towards The Military As “Pitch Perfect” On Book Tour

When I cited the negative headline and mixed quotations in Bob Woodward’s account of the memoir recently written by Robert Gates, I suspected that the negative tone was largely due to Woodward’s strong anti-Obama bias. Now that Gates has started giving television interviews and has seen the media account, he is not being as critical of Obama as suggested by Woodward. This account is of his appearance on the Today Show:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified claims he supposedly made about President Obama’s commitment to the military surge in Afghanistan, saying Monday he “absolutely believed” the commander-in-chief supported the mission at the time.

Gates told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that the president fully supported the November 2009 surge but began to have reservations by the following spring.

“But as late as December 2010, he was still saying we were on the right track in Afghanistan,” he said. “So it was in our private conversations that he would express these reservations about whether it was working. But the decisions were right, and I believe that he believed it would work. “

Gates has been under fire for statements made in his new memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” that suggested Obama lacked commitment to decisions he made about his strategy in Afghanistan.

In his memoir, Gates had also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions” when discussing Afghanistan. He described Obama’s approach towards the military as “pitch perfect” in an interview with NPR which also described Obama’s suspicion of the military’s desire to increase troops in Afghanistan:

INSKEEP: I sense, in listening to you talk, Mr. Secretary, and having read this book, that you’re trying very hard to give a nuanced portrait of the president and others around him. So I want to stipulate here you do speak highly of his decision-making ability. You actually compare his decision-making process to that of Abraham Lincoln. You say that he was very kind to you personally, that he made many very strong decisions. But at the same time, even on occasions when he agrees with you, when you recount stories in the book of inside meetings you seem to be bothered by his attitude, the way that he phrases things when it comes to the United States military. What was the problem that you saw between this president and the military?

GATES: Well, I think that — first of all, I think that the president’s approach towards the military, particularly right after he was elected and initially, was pitch perfect. He — and I will say also Mrs. Obama’s interactions with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with troops and so on, was exactly right, and there was never any question of their support, their affection, their respect for the troops.

I think that — I think that what got things a little bit — well, what started to get things off track was the military leadership pressing for a substantial increase in the number of troops literally days within — after the inauguration. And the feeling on the part of the vice president and others that the military was trying to box the president in and, as they would put it, jam him into making a big decision in terms of an increase of nearly — of some 20,000 troops —

INSKEEP: In Afghanistan.

GATES: — in Afghanistan within days, if not weeks, of becoming president. And I think that that attitude of suspicion of what the military was trying to do had its roots in that — in that discussion in February and March of 2009. And when it came to Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter but mainly Afghanistan, fed a suspicion that the military was always trying to box the president in and force him into significant troop increases and so on.

And so there was this feeling — and because of various public comments made by senior military officials, by the chairman, by General Petraeus later, by General McChrystal and others, the feeling that they were trying publicly to put the president in a position where he had no alternative but to approve what they wanted. And as I write in the book, looking back I always tried at the time to persuade the president that this was no plot, that the military didn’t have a plan, if you will, to try and box him in. And, frankly, I don’t think I was ever able to persuade him that that was not the case, again primarily when it came to Afghanistan.

A president who both makes the right decisions and has some skepticism as to military recommendations for increasing troops is exactly what we want, and one reason why we have civilian leadership of the military.

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Ron Fournier Defends Obama From Reports Of Criticism By Robert Gates

Yesterday I questioned whether all readers would see the memoirs of Robert Gates the same way as Bob Woodward, who has a long-standing anti-Obama bias.  Ron Fournier had the same impression as I had yesterday. While Woodward’s story reports negative comments from Gates about Barack Obama’s skepticism about the war in Afghanistan, Gates also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.” If Obama made the right decisions after questioning Gates and showing skepticism towards military recommendations, it sounds like he was doing the right thing. Fournier wrote:

In what Bob Woodward called a “harsh” judgment of President Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes of the commander-in-chief adding troops to Afghanistan over the objections of his political team, second-guessing that decision, and never quite trusting his generals. “For him,” Gates writes in his memoir, “it’s all about getting out.”

To that I say, bravo. While excerpts of Gates’s books are being interpreted as embarrassing for Obama, I’m looking forward to reading the memoir in full—and expect to come away more impressed with the president than his Defense chief.

Consider first what the memoir says about Gates himself. Criticism of a sitting president from a former Cabinet member is rare and should be taken with a grain of salt. In a breach of propriety that raises questions about his integrity, the excerpts reveal Gates to be surprisingly petty at times, such as when he complains about spending cuts at the Pentagon and the lack of notice about Obama’s decision to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays serving in the military.

Then remember why Obama was elected in 2008. He reflected the nation’s ambivalence toward war, promising to pull out of Iraq and wean Afghanistan from U.S. dependence. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, waged war on Iraq under false pretenses and with a lack of skepticism toward neoconservatives in his war Cabinet, led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Initially, anyway, he deferred to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals. Famously calling himself “The Decider,” Bush rarely revisited a decision, and earned a reputation for stubbornness…

If military commanders were shown disrespect or given obstacles to fighting war, that would be one thing. But if they were questioned and challenged and kept in check, it is another. Isn’t that the president’s job?

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