The Speech Obama Hasn’t Given

What are we doing in Libya? Americans deserve an explanation.

It all seems rather mad, doesn’t it? The decision to become involved militarily in the Libyan civil war couldn’t take place within a less hospitable context. The U.S. is reeling from spending and deficits, we’re already in two wars, our military has been stretched to the limit, we’re restive at home, and no one, really, sees President Obama as the kind of leader you’d follow over the top. “This way, men!” “No, I think I’ll stay in my trench.” People didn’t hire him to start battles but to end them. They didn’t expect him to open new fronts. Did he not know this?

He has no happy experience as a rallier of public opinion and a leader of great endeavors; the central initiative of his presidency, the one that gave shape to his leadership, health care, is still unpopular and the cause of continued agitation. When he devoted his entire first year to it, he seemed off point and out of touch. This was followed by the BP oil spill, which made him look snakebit. Now he seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs. He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart. So it’s funny he’d feel free to launch and lead a war, which is what this confused and uncertain military action may become.

What was he thinking? What is he thinking?

Which gets me to Mr. Obama’s speech, the one he hasn’t given. I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest. He referred to his aims in parts of speeches and appearances when he was in South America, but now he’s home. More is needed, more is warranted, and more is deserved. He has to sit at that big desk and explain his thinking, put forward the facts as he sees them, and try to garner public support. He has to make a case for his own actions. It’s what presidents do! And this is particularly important now, because there are reasons to fear the current involvement will either escalate and produce a lengthy conflict or collapse and produce humiliation.

Without a formal and extended statement, the air of weirdness, uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this endeavor will only deepen.

The questions that must be answered actually start with the essentials. What, exactly, are we doing? Why are we doing it? At what point, or after what arguments, did the president decide U.S. military involvement was warranted? Is our objective practical and doable? What is America’s overriding strategic interest? In what way are the actions taken, and to be taken, seeing to those interests?

From those questions flow many others. We know who we’re against—Moammar Gadhafi, a bad man who’s done very wicked things. But do we know who we’re for? That is, what does the U.S. government know or think it knows about the composition and motives of the rebel forces we’re attempting to assist? For 42 years, Gadhafi controlled his nation’s tribes, sects and groups through brute force, bribes and blandishments. What will happen when they are no longer kept down? What will happen when they are no longer oppressed? What will they become, and what role will they play in the coming drama? Will their rebellion against Gadhafi degenerate into a dozen separate battles over oil, power and local dominance?

What happens if Gadhafi hangs on? The president has said he wants U.S. involvement to be brief. But what if Gadhafi is fighting on three months from now?

On the other hand, what happens if Gadhafi falls, if he’s deposed in a palace coup or military coup, or is killed, or flees? What exactly do we imagine will take his place?

Supporters of U.S. intervention have argued that if we mean to protect Libya’s civilians, as we have declared, then we must force regime change. But in order to remove Gadhafi, they add, we will need to do many other things. We will need to provide close-in air power. We will probably have to put in special forces teams to work with the rebels, who are largely untrained and ragtag. The Libyan army has tanks and brigades and heavy weapons. The U.S. and the allies will have to provide the rebels training and give them support. They will need antitank missiles and help in coordinating air strikes.

Once Gadhafi is gone, will there be a need for an international peacekeeping force to stabilize the country, to provide a peaceful transition, and to help the post-Gadhafi government restore its infrastructure? Will there be a partition? Will Libyan territory be altered?

None of this sounds like limited and discrete action.

In fact, this may turn out to be true: If Gadhafi survives, the crisis will go on and on. If Gadhafi falls, the crisis will go on and on.

Everyone who supports the Libyan endeavor says they don’t want an occupation. One said the other day, “We’re not looking for a protracted occupation.”

Protracted?

Mr. Obama has apparently set great store in the fact that he was not acting alone, that Britain, France and Italy were eager to move. That’s good—better to work with friends and act in concert. But it doesn’t guarantee anything. A multilateral mistake is still a mistake. So far the allied effort has not been marked by good coordination and communication. If the conflict in Libya drags on, won’t there tend to be more fissures, more tension, less commitment and more confusion as to objectives and command structures? Could the unanticipated results of the Libya action include new strains, even a new estrangement, among the allies?

How might Gadhafi hit out, in revenge, in his presumed last days, against America and the West?

And what, finally, about Congress? Putting aside the past half-century’s argument about declarations of war, doesn’t Congress, as representative of the people, have the obvious authority and responsibility to support the Libyan endeavor, or not, and to authorize funds, or not?

These are all big questions, and there are many other obvious ones. If the Libya endeavor is motivated solely by humanitarian concerns, then why haven’t we acted on those concerns recently in other suffering nations? It’s a rough old world out there, and there’s a lot of suffering. What is our thinking going forward? What are the new rules of the road, if there are new rules? Were we, in Libya, making a preemptive strike against extraordinary suffering—suffering beyond what is inevitable in a civil war?

America has been though a difficult 10 years, and the burden of proof on the need for U.S. action would be with those who supported intervention. Chief among them, of course, is the president, who made the decision as commander in chief. He needs to sit down and tell the American people how this thing can possibly turn out well. He needs to tell them why it isn’t mad.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704604704576221142167651286.html

Crude reality

Will a Middle Eastern oil disruption crush the economy? New research suggests the answer is no — and that a major tenet of American foreign policy may be fundamentally wrong.

For more than a month, the world has been riveted by scenes of protest in the Middle East, with demonstrators flooding streets from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. As the unrest has spread, people in the West have also been keeping a wary eye on something closer to home: the gyrating stock market and the rising price of gas. Fear that the upheaval will start to affect major oil producers like Saudi Arabia has led speculators to bid up oil prices — and led some economic analysts to predict that higher energy costs could derail America’s nascent economic recovery.

The idea that a sudden spike in oil prices spells economic doom has influenced America’s foreign policy since at least 1973, when Arab states, upset with Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, drastically cut production and halted exports to the United States. The result was a sudden quadrupling in crude prices and a deep global recession. Many Americans still have vivid memories of gas lines stretching for blocks, and of the unemployment, inflation, and general sense of insecurity and panic that followed. Even harder hit were our allies in Europe and Japan, as well as many developing nations.

Economists have a term for this disruption: an oil shock. The idea that such oil shocks will inevitably wreak havoc on the US economy has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in turn the United States has made ensuring the smooth flow of crude from the Middle East a central tenet of its foreign policy. Oil security is one of the primary reasons America has a long-term military presence in the region. Even aside from the Iraq and Afghan wars, we have equipment and forces positioned in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in Bahrain.

But a growing body of economic research suggests that this conventional view of oil shocks is wrong. The US economy is far less susceptible to interruptions in the oil supply than previously assumed, according to these studies. Scholars examining the recent history of oil disruptions have found the worldwide oil market to be remarkably adaptable and surprisingly quick at compensating for shortfalls. Economists have found that much of the damage once attributed to oil shocks can more persuasively be laid at the feet of bad government policies. The US economy, meanwhile, has become less dependent on Persian Gulf oil and less sensitive to changes in crude prices overall than it was in 1973.

These findings have led a few bold political scientists and foreign policy experts to start asking an uncomfortable question: If the United States could withstand a disruption in Persian Gulf oil supplies, why does it need a permanent military presence in the region at all? There’s a lot riding on that question: America’s presence in the Middle East exacts a heavy toll in political capital, financial resources, and lives. Washington’s support for Middle East autocrats makes America appear hypocritical on issues of human rights and democracy. The United States spends billions of dollars every year to maintain troops in the Middle East, and the troops risk their lives simply by being there, since they make tempting targets for the region’s Islamic extremists. And arguably, because the presence of these forces inflames radicals and delegitimizes local rulers, they may actually be undermining the very stability they are ostensibly there to ensure.

Among those asking this tough question are two young professors, Eugene Gholz, at the University of Texas, and Daryl Press, at Dartmouth College. To find out what actually happens when the world’s petroleum supply is interrupted, the duo analyzed every major oil disruption since 1973. The results, published in a recent issue of the journal Strategic Studies, showed that in almost all cases, the ensuing rise in prices, while sometimes steep, was short-lived and had little lasting economic impact. When there have been prolonged price rises, they found the cause to be panic on the part of oil purchasers rather than a supply shortage. When oil runs short, in other words, the market is usually adept at filling the gap.

One striking example was the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If anything was likely to produce an oil shock, it was this: two major Persian Gulf producers directly targeting each other’s oil facilities. And indeed, prices surged 25 percent in the first months of the conflict. But within 18 months of the war’s start they had fallen back to their prewar levels, and they stayed there even though the fighting continued to rage for six more years. Surprisingly, during the 1984 “Tanker War” phase of that conflict — when Iraq tried to sink oil tankers carrying Iranian crude and Iran retaliated by targeting ships carrying oil from Iraq and its Persian Gulf allies — the price of oil continued to drop steadily. Gholz and Press found just one case after 1973 in which the market mechanisms failed: the 1979-1980 Iranian oil strike which followed the overthrow of the Shah, during which Saudi Arabia, perhaps hoping to appease Islamists within the country, also led OPEC to cut production, exacerbating the supply shortage.

In their paper, Gholz and Press ultimately conclude that the market’s adaptive mechanisms function independently of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that they largely protect the American economy from being damaged by oil shocks. “To the extent that the United States faces a national security challenge related to Persian Gulf oil, it is not ‘how to protect the oil we need’ but ‘how to assure consumers that there is nothing to fear,’ ” the two write. “That is a thorny policy problem, but it does not require large military deployments and costly military operations.”

There’s no denying the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the US economy. Although only 15 percent of imported US oil comes directly from the Persian Gulf, the region is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s production and the majority of its known reserves. But the oil market is also elastic: Many key producing countries have spare capacity, so if oil is cut off from one country, others tend to increase their output rapidly to compensate. Today, regions outside the Middle East, such as the west coast of Africa, make up an increasingly important share of worldwide production. Private companies also hold large stockpiles of oil to smooth over shortages — amounting to a few billion barrels in the United States alone — as does the US government, with 700 million barrels in its strategic petroleum reserve. And the market can largely work around shipping disruptions by using alternative routes; though they are more expensive, transportation costs account for only tiny fraction of the price of oil.

Compared to the 1970s, too, the structure of the US economy offers better insulation from oil price shocks. Today, the country uses half as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as it did in 1973, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Remarkably, the economy consumed less total energy in 2009 than in 1997, even though its GDP rose and the population grew. When it comes time to fill up at the pump, the average US consumer today spends less than 4 percent of his or her disposable income on gasoline, compared with more than 6 percent in 1980. Oil, though crucial, is simply a smaller part of the economy than it once was.

There is no denying that the 1973 oil shock was bad — the stock market crashed in response to the sudden spike in oil prices, inflation jumped, and unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1979 oil shock also had deep and lasting economic effects. Economists now argue, however, that the economic damage was more directly attributable to bad government policy than to the actual supply shortage. Among those who have studied past oil shocks is Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1997, Bernanke analyzed the effects of a sharp rise in fuel prices during three different oil shocks — 1973-75, 1980-82, and 1990-91. He concluded that the major economic damage was caused not by the oil price increases but by the Federal Reserve overreacting and sharply increasing interest rates to head off what it wrongly feared would be a wave of inflation. Today, his view is accepted by most mainstream economists.

Gholz and Press are hardly the only researchers who have concluded that we are far too worried about oil shocks. The economy also faced a large increase in prices in the mid-2000s, largely as the result of surging demand from emerging markets, with no ill effects. “If you take any economics textbook written before 2000, it would talk about what a calamitous effect a doubling in oil prices would have,” said Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who has written about oil shocks and their implications for US foreign policy. “Well, we had a price quadrupling from 2003 and 2007 and nothing bad happened.” (The recession of 2008-9 was triggered by factors unrelated to oil prices.)

Auerswald also points out that when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, it did tremendous damage to offshore oil rigs, refineries, and pipelines, as well as the rail lines and roads that transport petroleum to the rest of the country. The United States gets about 12 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico region, and, more significantly, 40 percent of its refining capacity is located there. “Al Qaeda times 1,000 could not deliver this sort of blow to the oil industry’s physical infrastructure,” Auerswald said. And yet the only impact was about five days of gas lines in Georgia, and unusually high prices at the pump for a few weeks.

While there is an increasing consensus that oil shocks caused by disruptions in supply are not particularly harmful — and, somewhat surprisingly, have little impact on oil prices — a debate still rages among economists about whether the same can be said of oil shocks caused by increases in demand or those caused by speculators bidding prices up in anticipation of a supply disruption (such as before the first Persian Gulf War). The relation of these sorts of shocks to economic recessions is not well understood. But what’s clear is that the relationship has more to do with human perceptions than any actual change in the oil supply.

So how much should we be sacrificing to protect our oil supply? The question goes to the heart of American policy in the Middle East.

In 1997, Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, two political analysts at the Rand Corporation with long records of US government service, estimated that the United States spent “$60 billion a year to protect the import of $30 billion worth of oil that would flow anyway.” A 2006 study by James Murphy, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Mark Delucchi, at the University of California Davis, similarly found that when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken into account, the expenditures ranged anywhere between $47 billion and $98 billion per year. But the amount of oil coming to the United States from the region was worth less than $35 billion per year.

“Why is it that American consumers are bearing a disproportionate cost of having oil flowing to the international marketplace?” said Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

In their Security Studies paper, Gholz and Press argue that there are indeed a few threats in the Persian Gulf that might overwhelm the oil market and threaten US energy security. One of these would be an attempt by a single power to conquer the majority of the region. Another is Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the only irreplaceable sea channel. The third is revolution in Saudi Arabia. The first two scenarios are highly unlikely, Press and Gholz argue, and could be countered by moving in US forces stationed elsewhere in the world, such as the neighboring Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. (There is debate among security analysts about whether Iran has the military capability to close the strait, or could itself economically survive such a move.) A revolt in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking increasingly possible given the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — but it could not be prevented by the US military deployed in the Gulf. Our presence could even make such unrest more likely, if soldiers became flashpoints for revolutionary anger.

Gholz’s and Press’s argument has gained some currency in academic circles. “I have believed for a long time that the US presence in the Gulf has been ‘under argued’ strategically,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where both Gholz and Press received their PhDs, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about this topic. “Press and Gholz undermine the usual ‘simple’ arguments for being there. That leaves us looking for other arguments that may be the ‘true’ ones, or suspecting that there is no strong argument.”

But it has gained little traction so far either on Capitol Hill or in the corridors of the Pentagon. “Did it immediately change people’s minds? Not really,” Gholz said of his paper.

Auerswald, who has grown frustrated by the lack of response to his own research on this topic, said that the problem is that the fear of Middle Eastern oil shocks is now politically useful to a whole spectrum of powerful interest groups. “This argument is like the familiar old jeans of American politics,” he said. “They are nice and cozy and comfortable and everyone can wear them. Because of ethanol, the farm lobby loves it; for coal, well it’s their core argument; for the offshore drilling folks, they love it.” Even the environmental movement relies on it, he said, because they use it as bogeyman to scare Americans into taking renewable energy and energy conservation more seriously. As for the US military, “The US Navy is not interested in hearing that one of their two main theaters of operation has no justification for being,” Auerswald said.

The costs to US foreign policy, of course, cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, although certainly the cost here has been very high. But it looks even higher when one considers the lost opportunities and squandered chances — what we could be achieving if we weren’t so concerned about a threat that looks increasingly like an illusion.

“If we are going to commit our troops to prevent something from happening, it should be something that would be an existential threat to the United States,” said Auerswald. “Having people wait in line for five days for gas in one part of the US is not an existential threat.”

Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Dehli.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/crude_reality/

The Way Forward in Egypt

The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.

Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?

The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.

The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.

So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:

1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.

The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.

2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”

This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.

3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.

Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.

Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.

4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.

5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.

“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.

6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.

The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.

Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.

Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576129921076718648.html

An end or a beginning?

The upheaval in Egypt

As Hosni Mubarak fights back, where Egypt’s revolt will go, and how far it will spread, are still unanswered questions

IT IS the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests have challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. As yet, the denouement remains unwritten. Will it match Tunisia, where a popular uprising sent another strongman president into exile, toppled his ruling party and opened the way to real democracy? Or will it look like Iran in 2009, where a hardline regime crushed a popular protest movement with iron-fisted resolve?

The protests have left hundreds dead, frozen Egypt’s economy, forced a cabinet to resign, brought the army onto the streets and prompted Mr Mubarak to promise reforms. Egypt’s tough 82-year-old president, in charge for the past three decades, now says he will go—but only at the end of his term in September, with dignity and with a subtle threat that if he does not get his way, things could turn uglier still. While offering a bare minimum of concessions, he has driven a wedge between millions of protesters who demand change and millions of others who fear chaos and want a return to normal. By February 2nd the two sides were battling each other.

Mr Mubarak has been slow to respond throughout the crisis, but his few appearances have been cleverly pitched. When he finally spoke, after midnight on January 28th, a day when hundreds of thousands across the breadth of Egypt had battled furiously with his police, it was with a husky voice and the petulance of a master betrayed by bungling servants. He said he understood his people’s concerns, and as a concession fired his cabinet. But he blamed the unrest on miscreants and agitators, declaring that protests had grown so loud only because he himself had magnanimously granted rights to free expression.

There was something in this. During his rule Egyptians have changed, as has the world they live in. They do speak more freely now, but not only because Mr Mubarak’s regime has belatedly allowed the airing of more critical views. New technologies have also made it impossible for states such as Egypt’s to retain the information monopolies they once enjoyed.

Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.

This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.

But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.

The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.

The bellwether country

Egypt is bigger and poorer than most other Arab states, and not necessarily a model. But it is a more of a bellwether than Tunisia was. It was Egypt’s 1952 revolution, ushering in the military-backed authoritarianism of Gamal Abdel Nasser that Mr Mubarak inherited, which inspired similar regimes to emerge, from Algeria to Iraq to Yemen. The direction Egypt chooses now could have a similar influence.

Egyptians of all classes and persuasions have joined today’s protests. But in their vanguard, except perhaps in the thickest combat, have been thousands of urban professionals, or university students who hope to be professionals one day. Such people have typically shunned politics, seeing Egypt’s stage-managed version as a waste of time. In private they have often complained that they do not feel they own their country, as if it is someone else’s private estate.

In the past—for example, in the riots that erupted in 1977 when Sadat’s government doubled the price of subsidised bread—it was the poor who forced simple demands on Egypt’s government. To prevent another climbdown, Mr Mubarak’s regime built its riot squad into a daunting force of perhaps 150,000 well-trained and well-equipped men. It also kept the economy burdened with subsidies, with bread, cooking fuel and public transport priced at fractions of their real cost.

Some 40% of Egyptians still live on less than $2 a day. In recent years, even as Egypt’s overall economy has grown apace and more consumer goods have filled even lower-income households, the poor have won little relief from relentlessly rising food prices and sharper competition for secure jobs. Such anxieties have found expression in a growing number of strikes and local protests across the country. Yet in a sense, persistent poverty has helped prop up the regime. “People survive on a day-to-day basis,” says a young Cairo lawyer. “They can’t go for long without a daily wage and daily bread, so they can’t afford to make trouble.”

Economic strains have squeezed better-off Egyptians, too, but other factors raised their anger with Mr Mubarak’s government to boiling point. Even to a people inured to politics as a farcical pageant, the blatant fakery of parliamentary elections held in November and December, which virtually shut out any opposition players, seemed a lurid insult, added to the injury of Mr Mubarak’s apparent plan to foist upon them his son Gamal as their next ruler. Equally lurid are the tales of corruption involving not just rich businessmen but also institutions of Mr Mubarak’s state. Dismay over police cruelty has also risen, especially after an incident in June when plainclothes agents in Alexandria beat to death a young internet aficionado, Khaled Said, spawning a Facebook campaign that prompted silent vigils across the country.

That such overlapping concerns seemed unlikely ever to coalesce into political action testifies to the effectiveness of Egypt’s police state. This relies less on repression than on co-opting, dividing and, perhaps most important, demoralising potential challengers. Its other prop has been a political shell-game, whereby Mr Mubarak and his inner circle simply blame any shortcomings on his ministers, and explain repression as a needed defence against menacing Islamists. Despite rising calls for change, bitter quarrels—between Islamists and secularists, conservatives and leftists—have dissipated the energies of Egypt’s opposition.

Two new factors seem to have tipped the balance. One was the emergence of loosely related groups pressing for reform, run via the internet by youths of generally secular outlook but no particular ideology. Some coalesced around labour rights. Some promoted human rights or academic freedom. Others were inspired by the appearance on the scene of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. For such a respected figure to demand an end to dictatorship seemed a breath of fresh air to educated Egyptians. Some of these groups studied other people-power movements, such as Serbia’s, and began quietly organising for a similar campaign.

The second factor was Tunisia. It was not only the speed and success of its revolt that convinced many Egyptians that their regime might prove equally flimsy. The most obvious outcome of Tunisia’s unrest was the exit of its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of rule. His flight to exile in Saudi Arabia concentrated Egypt’s dissident minds on the one thing they could all agree on: the demand that Mr Mubarak should go.

Revolution’s trigger

The Facebook page for solidarity with Mr Said, the victim of police brutality, was what drew the widest audience for the idea of a “day of rage” to be held on January 25th. Yet few among the page’s 375,000 followers anticipated the impact this would have. The peaceful crowds that turned out that day were not huge: they numbered in the tens of thousands only in Cairo and Alexandria. By the end of the day, police recaptured Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of Cairo, in a brutal charge.

But the eruption of protests in nearly all Egypt’s main cities at once had proved a stunning shock. As in Tunisia, the regime appeared paralysed at first. It responded solely through security measures, such as cutting off mobile telephones, text-messaging services and the internet. By the time Mr Mubarak decided to speak, three days later, it seemed too late to turn the tide.

Demonstrations on Friday January 28th prompted him at last to break his silence. Protesters were numbered not in tens but in hundreds of thousands, including people from all walks of Egyptian life. In Cairo itself pitched battles between protesters and riot police raged in more than a dozen places, leaving scores dead and thousands wounded. Flames roared through the halls of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, where youths danced amid the lingering fumes of tear-gas around the smouldering wrecks of overturned police vehicles. When night fell it was not only the riot police who retreated, beaten and exhausted. The entire uniformed manpower of Egypt’s mammoth Ministry of Interior, amounting to perhaps a million policemen, vanished from the country’s streets.

Exactly as in Tunisia, their suspiciously complete exit sparked a wave of looting, vandalism and banditry. Rioters breached the walls of several of Egypt’s main prisons, freeing more than 20,000 convicts, including several hundred on death row. In the strategic north-east corner of Sinai, along the border with Gaza, local Bedouin blew up police stations and grabbed their arsenals. Reports from Alexandria claimed that some 20,000 police guns had gone missing. The city of Suez, where the toll of casualties was particularly high, fell entirely into the hands of protesters.

The evacuation of police also fanned rumours, backed by reports of security agents engaging in arson and thievery, that the chaos was planned. If so, it had its effect. Despite the hasty organisation of citizen militias, reports of roving bands of thugs terrified many, especially in poorer districts. This kept people at home, away from the demonstrations. As bread became scarce in the shops and salaries went unpaid, many also began blaming the protesters for provoking chaos.

The regime hangs on

With his police in disgrace, Mr Mubarak sent in his army and decreed what only weeks before would have been seen as a radical change. He appointed as vice-president his dour, dapper 74-year-old intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman. Since Mr Mubarak had never anointed a deputy, this was widely seen as a first step to his own graceful retirement. He also picked a new prime minister, a former air-force commander, Ahmed Shafik.

The army’s intervention has been broadly greeted with relief, particularly since its command declared it would not use force. But Mr Mubarak’s other moves did not assuage protesters, now joined by the enraged families of those injured by police in previous clashes, as well as by the full might of previously hesitant Islamist groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The cabinet soon sworn in by Mr Shafik retained half the ministers of the previous government, a sign, perhaps, of the difficulty of manning what many perceived as a sinking ship and a signal, to some, that Mr Mubarak was up to his old trick of blaming failings on subordinates, in this case the outgoing ministers. The new vice-president failed to impress with a brief statement, his only public appearance so far. Mr Suleiman said he was open to talks with opposition forces, and would respect court verdicts over challenges to December’s election results. This could prove a big concession, since many jurists say the whole vote was fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, protests mounted to a new pitch. Despite the continued suspension of the internet and text-messaging, and the blockage of rail and road links into Cairo, a crowd of nearly half a million crammed into Cairo’s centre on February 1st, overspilling Tahrir Square onto adjacent streets and bridges. As many as 100,000 also marched in Alexandria.

Citizens find a voice

Knocked back, Mr Mubarak replied with the skill of a seasoned general. In a masterful speech that night, he declared that he had never intended to run for a sixth term this September, without explaining why he had never revealed this before. He also said he would revise articles in the constitution, inserted by himself, that narrowly restricted the field of presidential challengers. He restated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition, and reasserted his paternal concern for the people. “I am a military man and it is not my nature to abandon my duties,” he said gravely. “I have defended the soil of Egypt and will die on it, and be judged by history.”

To protesters camped in Tahrir Square, who had spent days screaming for his departure, this was again far too little, too late. But many other Egyptians, particularly the elderly and the poor, saw it as a dignified way out of the impasse. Amid a backlash of pro-Mubarak sentiment the next day, foreign newsmen were attacked by Egyptians accusing them of plotting to undermine stability. In Alexandria and Cairo large pro-Mubarak mobs of youths, some reportedly fortified by plainclothes thugs and paid criminal stooges, tried to storm the protesters’ camps, leading to mêlées in which dozens were injured.

Such dirty tactics, accompanied by calls from the army, which has remained scrupulously neutral, for the protests to end, suggest that Mr Mubarak’s regime believes it can complete what appears to be a well-devised script. Middle-class protesters will be frightened back to their homes, and most ordinary Egyptians relieved to see the unrest end. The president’s opponents will be able to declare that they have won key reforms. But the regime will remain in charge, controlling the pace of change.

Whether this will succeed in restoring stability remains to be seen. Egypt has now become starkly polarised. The fury against Mr Mubarak felt by many has only increased. Despite numbers thinned by the defection of those fearful of getting hurt, the anti-Mubarak protesters may still be able to mount mass protests, perhaps after Friday prayers. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not negotiate with the government until Mr Mubarak steps down. Mr ElBaradei has described pro-Mubarak demonstrations as criminal acts by a criminal regime.

From pharaohism to democracy

As Egypt’s powerful state regroups its forces and continues to capitalise on fears of insecurity, Mr Mubarak’s men may have their way. Still, even within his army, which has so far remained loyal to the president, many may believe that only Mr Mubarak’s departure can calm Egypt’s streets. The president could possibly announce an early retirement on health grounds. But if there is one quality Mr Mubarak has shown during his three decades of rule, it is stubbornness.

Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Egyptian society as a whole has evolved. Despite the ugly clashes of recent days, the change has mostly been peaceful. Egyptians have graphically demonstrated that they will no longer accept the old rules. They are moving, in the words of Fahmi Huweidi, a popular columnist sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, from pharaohism to democracy.

Even if protests fizzle for the time being, a certain pride of reclaiming possession was vividly in evidence. Protesters in the notoriously trash-strewn megalopolis of Cairo swept and tidied the squares they occupied, and ordinary Egyptians cheerfully and quite efficiently directed traffic or joined neighbourhood patrols in the absence of police.

In the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteer manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displayed a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving licence of a police officer whose car they had stopped. In such ways, Egyptians have begun to establish themselves as citizens of their own country.

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Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/node/18063746

Being Hosni Mubarak

Egypt’s leader has gambled that he can ride out the protests and hold on. It’s a pretty good gamble.

Imagine yourself as Hosni Mubarak, master of Egypt for nearly 30 years. You’re old, unwell, detested and addicted to power. You could have orchestrated a graceful exit by promising to preside over free and fair presidential elections later this year—elections in which the Mubarak name would not be on the ballot. Instead, you gambled that you could ride out the protests and hold on.

It’s a pretty good gamble.

Like everyone else, you’ve been “listening” to Egyptians marching through the streets and telling you it’s time to go. That’s an opinion they’ll likely revise after a few more neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria are ransacked, looted and torched by gangs of hooligans.

But you haven’t just been listening to the demonstrators. You’ve also been watching them—the way they dress, the way they shave. On Sunday, in Tahrir Square, you could tell right away that most were from the Muslim Brotherhood, though they were taking care not to chant the usual Islamic slogans. And Western liberals want you to relinquish power to them?

Then there are the usual “democracy activists,” minuscule in number, better known to Western journalists than to average Egyptians, most of them subsisting on some kind of grant from a Western NGO. They think they’re lucky to have Mohamed ElBaradei as their champion, with his Nobel Peace Prize and his lifetime in New York, Vienna—everywhere, that is, except Egypt itself. They think he gives them respectability. They’re wrong.

Finally, there are the middle-class demonstrators, the secular professionals and minor businessmen. In theory they’re your biggest threat. In practice they’re your ace in the hole.

What unites the protesters is anger. But anger is an emotion, not a strategy, much less a political agenda. What, really, does “Down With Mubarak” offer the average Egyptian?

If the Brotherhood has its way, Egypt will become a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran. If the democracy activists have theirs, it’ll be a weak parliamentary system, incapable of exercising authority over the army and a cat’s paw for a Brotherhood that knows its revolutionary history well enough to remember the name of Alexander Kerensky.

Luckily for you, this analysis is becoming plainer by the day to many Egyptians, especially since Mr. ElBaradei, imagining he has the upper hand, stumbled into a political alliance with the Brotherhood. Also increasingly plain is that it’s in your hands to blur the “fine line between freedom and chaos,” as you aptly put it last week, and to give Egyptians a long, hard look at the latter. No, it wasn’t by your cunning design that thousands of violent prisoners made a jailbreak last week. And the decision to take police off the streets was done in the interests of avoiding bloody scenes with protesters.

Yet all the same, the anarchy unleashed on Egyptian streets has played straight into your hands. The demonstrators want a freedom that looks like London or Washington. Your task is to remind them that it’s more likely to look like Baghdad, circa 2006.

No wonder the mood among Cairo’s shopkeepers, many of whom supported the initial demonstrations, is turning sharply in your favor. Those shopkeepers will soon be joined by housewives who want to feel safe in the streets; and tourism workers who want Egypt to remain a safe destination, and everyone else with a stake in a stable environment. You may be 81, but time is still on your side. And patience is rarely a virtue of the young, who now crowd the streets.

So you’re right to order the army not to fire: The last thing you need is to furnish the protesters with a galvanizing event, or the officers with an embittering one. But the analysts who suppose this decision is a sign of weakness fail to appreciate how neatly it serves your purposes. Nearly all Egyptians are agreed that the army is the one “good” institution in the country—competent, mighty and incorruptible.

But just who do they think the army is? You are its commander in chief and the keeper of its interests. Through you, the army controls an estimated 40% of the economy. Through you, retired officers are guaranteed lucrative careers running state-owned companies or getting senior political appointments. Will your officers hazard their perquisites for a hazy notion of popular freedom? Unlikely.

Today will be the moment of truth. Millions are expected to come out into the streets. But what will they do, other than chant slogans? And who will they fight, if the army won’t fight them? And what other buildings will they put to the torch, without further alienating everyone who isn’t in the march?

You’ve thought these questions through, hence your offer to negotiate with the demonstrators—preferably interminably. In the meantime, passions will cool, cosmetic adjustments will be made and you’ll plot your course to this summer’s elections.

It may be that you won’t run; you’d die in office anyway. But you’re determined to leave in the time and manner of your choosing. Judging by the way you’ve played your cards so far, you will.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703439504576115872315945988.html

An Unserious Speech Misses the Mark

The audience found it tiresome. Here’s why it was irksome as well.

It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.

***

The central elements of the missed opportunity:

An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”

Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?

Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”

Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.

***

As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”

Yes, well, all we’ve done is think about it.

“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704268104576108423310124538.html

A Presidency to Nowhere

High-speed rail and solar shingles are not the answer to America’s “Sputnik moment.”

No president before Barack Obama has been so right and so wrong.

When in his State of the Union speech Mr. Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” citing the emergence of global competition from the likes of China and India, he was right.

Minutes later he proposed to cover the country with high-speed rail and companies making solar shingles.

High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.

About halfway into the speech, I began to wonder: What is John Boehner thinking? Let’s first welcome back the tradition of House Speakers who bring nothing but a poker face to the State of the Union. (The vice president re-tightening his tie in the middle of the speech was a minor Biden classic.)

I’m guessing that about the time the president was calling investments in clean energy “the Apollo projects of our time,” the new Speaker was thinking: “This is bunk,” or some word to that effect.

That probably wasn’t Mr. Boehner’s first thought. Before the bunk arrived, his first thought was: “We’re in trouble.”

If Barack Obama had come even close to matching policies with the sentiments he spun across the House chamber in the first sections of that speech, the Republicans would have been dealing with a formidable new centrist president.

The speech’s prelude could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan or written by the conservative entrepreneurial Utopian George Gilder.

In a single generation, “the rules have changed,” he said, propelled by technology. “The naysayers predicting our decline” are wrong. When moments later Mr. Obama said, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea,” one felt the ghost of the Gipper hovering nearby. The president called forth more of those spirits, praising “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”

And: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Yes!

And: “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Oh, yes!

Even an Obama naysayer was thinking, Go for it, Mr. President. Unleash our nation of pioneer entrepreneurs with incentives to work, save and invest. (But why the weird slap at the all-American competitiveness of the Super Bowl?)

For a while Tuesday night, it appeared Mr. Obama would replicate Bill Clinton’s almost sci-fi ability to absorb his opposition’s best ideas, such as welfare reform, and re-infuse them into the body politic as his own. But no. We got high-speed rail and solar shingles.

Barack Obama believes what he believes. The ideas he came in with are the ideas he will go out with, and nowhere in that speech was there a fully formed policy idea reflecting authentic belief in the private economy.

The recently promised and much-needed regulatory review was offset with a paean to regulation. “It’s why we have speed limits.” He somehow felt compelled to tell productive suburban families that he’ll try to rescind the tax cut for them, the $250,000 “millionaires.”

Once past the Reagan moment, the Obama policy menu had three entrees: clean energy, education and infrastructure. This was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Obama budget message two months into his presidency: “Our budget will make long overdue investments in priorities—like clean energy, education, health care, and new infrastructure.” He extolled “new jobs that pay well” such as “installing solar energy panels and wind turbines.”

This isn’t a vision. It’s an obsession.

Sending the completed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification should have been a lay-up for a president seeking the center. That’s not happening.

What’s ahead? Mainly one thing: November 2012.

If the State of the Union disappointed policy wonks, it’s because the Obama presidency has entered full campaign mode. His State of the Union was a road map to a second term. Draw the Republican Congress toward the post-November spirit of reform on spending, entitlements and taxes, let these ideas twist in the wind of endless negotiation, pocket the “bipartisan” effort, and run out the clock to a three-point November victory.

Then what?

After ObamaCare and financial re-regulation, the remaining Obama years are looking like a presidency to nowhere. Even if you believe in green jobs, that’s an industry off in the future. Beyond the Keynesian liniment oil of public spending, he’s offering almost nothing for the here-and-now economy.

Rep. Paul Ryan, in his response, was right that “our nation is approaching a tipping point.” Either the government leads the economy, as proposed in the last two-thirds of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union, or it will be driven into the 21st century by the nation’s pioneer legacy of individual innovation, as he seemed to say in the first third of the speech.

If you belief it’s the latter, six more years of chasing Mr. Obama’s idea of investments will be a waste of precious time. The Super Bowl of global competition is well into the first quarter. The future is now.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703293204576106234062909502.html

Obama and the Democratic Revolt

The White House must convince Dems—50 in the House and about 15 in the Senate.

For agreeing to a temporary extension of all the Bush tax cuts, President Obama is now facing a full-fledged revolt within his party. The responses from congressional Democrats have ranged from chilly to angry to threatening.

One asked, “Could we have a little fight before we cave? Why go right to surrender?” Another accused Mr. Obama of saying, “let ’em eat cake.” Another called the compromise “an absolute disaster” and “an insult.” Another complained, “we got screwed.”

Liberals outside Congress are even more bitter. MoveOn.org demanded Democrats not “capitulate to the GOP on this terrible deal.” Some have talked of primary challenges to Mr. Obama.

It won’t be easy for Mr. Obama to push the compromise through Congress. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t see where the votes will come in the House. Harry Reid’s spokesman says simply that the majority leader “plans on discussing it with his caucus.”

Despite all this, Mr. Obama should actually find a sizable constituency for his plan among Democrats. By my count, roughly 50 House Democrats have already signaled that they may sign on to a compromise like the one announced this week.

In a man-bites-dog moment in September, 31 Democrats signed a letter telling Ms. Pelosi that now was not the time to raise any American’s taxes. It was smart politics. As a new poll from American Crossroads (a group with which I’m associated) has found, Americans believe—by a 4-to-1 margin—that raising taxes in a recession will hurt growth, and that tax rates should stay where they are so employers start hiring again.

On Dec. 2, another 12 House Democrats broke from their leadership by opposing the rule under which Ms. Pelosi’s tax measure—which would have let the cuts lapse for Americans in the top brackets—was going to be taken up. Doing so suggested that they wanted the House to consider a GOP substitute measure extending all the Bush tax cuts.

There was also a ragtag group of seven House Democrats who didn’t sign the letter or oppose the rule but did vote “no” on the final Democratic bill. Some in this group are liberals who probably object to keeping any of the tax cuts, but others may support the compromise.

Combined, these three groups contain 50 House Democrats who either (a) publicly endorsed keeping all the tax cuts, (b) broke with Democratic leaders on a key procedural vote, or (c) voted against a bill that extended only some current rates. Added to the GOP’s near-unanimous support for extending all the Bush tax cuts, their numbers could produce a House majority for the president.

But convincing them won’t be easy: Last month 22 of the 31 Democratic letter-writers broke their word and voted to let the cuts lapse for the top brackets, and last week only four of the 12 Democrats who bucked Ms. Pelosi on the procedural vote joined Republicans in opposing her bill.

Still, these are the House members who could hand Mr. Obama the compromise he now seeks. So the White House’s lobbying priorities in the coming days will be members of the president’s own party.

In the Senate, with its 60-vote requirement, two of the 42 Republicans have come out against the compromise and eight Democrats are on record favoring extending all the Bush tax cuts. That would leave the Senate with 48 in favor of this week’s compromise and 52 opposed or up for grabs. A strong vote out of the House might swing more Senate Democrats toward “yes,” but winning will require Mr. Obama’s engagement and a deft White House lobbying effort. That’s especially true since some Democrats are now threatening a filibuster.

So far the White House hasn’t inspired confidence. Mr. Obama’s Tuesday press conference, in which he compared Republicans to “hostage-takers” and accused liberal Democrats of being “sanctimonious,” offended everyone. He has a huge amount riding on this compromise, so he has to do better.

Mr. Obama’s advisers are reportedly warning Democrats that allowing taxes to rise may cause a double-dip recession. The president can also warn them that it’ll be worse to settle this issue after Republicans take over the House in January.

If he fails, taxes will go up for every American on Jan. 1. If that happens, the new Congress would likely rectify the situation within days after being sworn in. The political damage to Mr. Obama would not be undone nearly as quickly. Failure to pass the tax compromise would make the president appear impotent. Confidence among Democrats would collapse. And there would be more challenges to Mr. Obama’s leadership from within his own party, perhaps even in the 2012 primaries.

Most importantly, failure would imperil $400 billion in tax cuts that would be a more effective economic boost than Mr. Obama’s justifiably ridiculed stimulus. Without much healthier economic growth and far more robust job creation, Mr. Obama has little chance of wooing back the independents who elected him in 2008 yet abandoned Democrats in 2010.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703493504576007462890735264.html

From Audacity to Animosity

No president has alienated his base the way Obama has.

We have not in our lifetimes seen a president in this position. He spent his first year losing the center, which elected him, and his second losing his base, which is supposed to provide his troops. There isn’t much left to lose! Which may explain Tuesday’s press conference.

President Obama was supposed to be announcing an important compromise, as he put it, on tax policy. Normally a president, having agreed with the opposition on something big, would go through certain expected motions. He would laud the specific virtues of the plan, show graciousness toward the negotiators on the other side—graciousness implies that you won—and refer respectfully to potential critics as people who’ll surely come around once they are fully exposed to the deep merits of the plan.

Instead Mr. Obama said, essentially, that he hates the deal he just agreed to, hates the people he made the deal with, and hates even more the people who’ll criticize it. His statement was startling in the breadth of its animosity. Republicans are “hostage takers” who worship a “holy grail” of “tax cuts for the wealthy.” “That seems to be their central economic doctrine.”

As for the left, they ignore his accomplishments and are always looking for “weakness and compromise.” They are “sanctimonious,” “purist,” and just want to “feel good about” themselves. In a difficult world, they cling to their “ideal positions” and constant charges of “betrayals.”

Those not of the left might view all this as straight talk, and much needed. But if you were of the left it would only deepen your anger and sharpen your response. Which it did. “Gettysburg,” “sellout,” “disaster.”

The president must have thought that distancing himself from left and right would make him more attractive to the center. But you get credit for going to the center only if you say the centrist position you’ve just embraced is right. If you suggest, as the president did, that the seemingly moderate plan you agreed to is awful and you’ll try to rescind it in two years, you won’t leave the center thinking, “He’s our guy!” You’ll leave them thinking, “Note to self: Remove Obama in two years.”

In politics, the angry person is generally understood to be the loser, which is why politicians on TV always try not to seem angry. And politics is always, at the end of the day, a game of addition, not subtraction.

Mr. Obama’s problem is not only with the left of his party. Democratic professionals, people who do the work of politics day by day, don’t see him as a bad man or a sellout, but they scratch their heads over him and privately grouse. They don’t understand a Democratic president who, in the midst of a great recession, in our modern welfare state, doesn’t know how to win support! The other night Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, was on “Hardball” sounding reasonable on the subject of Mr. Obama, but I thought his eyes, his visage, his professionally pleasant face were screaming: Those crazy birthers are wrong, he’s not from another country—he’s from another galaxy! He doesn’t do politics like any normal person!

The left has been honestly disappointed in Mr. Obama. He did not come through as they think he should have in myriad ways—the public option, closing Guantanamo, war, now the tax plan. But—and this makes it all more complicated and fascinating—the left does not say Mr. Obama has been revealed to be at heart a conservative, or a Republican. Most of them know he is one of them—his worldview is more of less theirs, his assumptions are theirs. Does anyone doubt he would have included a public option in health care if he thought he could have? He judged that he couldn’t. He didn’t have the numbers in the Senate. It isn’t an argument about philosophy or ideology. It’s only an argument about what’s practical and possible.

Some on the left argue that if only the president had talked more, and more passionately, if he’d worked it harder, he could have brought the country to support leftist programs. But why do they think this? The general public has seen the president out there for two years talking and promoting a generally leftist direction. Voters demonstrated in elections through 2009 and ’10 that a generally leftist direction is not what they want.

All of this—the disenchantment of the left, the confusion of the party’s professionals—has led to increased talk of a primary challenger to Mr. Obama in 2012.

And here too the president’s position would be without parallel.

When Pat Buchanan challenged an incumbent president in his party’s presidential primary in 1992, he was going at George H.W. Bush from the right. Mr. Bush’s base wasn’t the right, it was the party’s center. His support came from people who said not “I am a conservative,” but “I am a Republican.” Mr. Bush wasn’t challenged from his base.

When Ted Kennedy challenged a sitting president of his party in 1980, he was going at Jimmy Carter from the left. But Mr. Carter’s base wasn’t the left, it was more or less in the party’s center.

When Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president of his party in 1976, he was going at Gerald Ford from the right. Like Mr. Bush, Ford’s base wasn’t the right, it was the party’s establishment. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 the same—he challenged Lyndon Johnson from the left, while Johnson’s base within the party was the establishment.

Modern presidents are never challenged from their base, always by the people who didn’t love them going in. You’re not supposed to get a serious primary challenge from the people who loved you. But that’s the talk of what may happen with Mr. Obama.

The Democratic Party is stuck. Their problem is not, as some have said, that they don’t have anyone of sufficient stature to challenge the president. Russ Feingold and Howard Dean have said they aren’t interested, but a challenger can always be found, or can emerge. If anything marks this political age, it’s that anyone can emerge.

The Democrats’ problem is that most of them know that the person who would emerge, who would challenge Mr. Obama from the left, would never, could never, win the 2012 general election. He’d lose badly and take the party with him. Democratic professionals know the mood of the country. Challenging Mr. Obama from the left would mean definitely losing the presidency, as opposed to probably losing the presidency.

There is only one Democrat who could possibly challenge Mr. Obama for the nomination successfully and win the general election, and that is Hillary Clinton. Who insists she doesn’t want to.

What are the Democrats to do? If you are stuck with a president, you try to survive either with him or, individually, in spite of him. Some Democrats will try to bring him back. How? Who knows. But that will be a great Democratic drama of 2011: Saving Obama.

The White House itself still probably thinks the Republicans can save him, by overstepping, by alienating moderates. But so far, on domestic matters, they’re looking pretty calm and sober. They didn’t crow at the tax compromise, for instance, even though they knew the left is correct: It wasn’t a compromise, it was a bow. To reality, but a bow nonetheless.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703766704576009943102291486.html

Throw the WikiBook at them

It is understandable for the administration to underplay the significance of the WikiLeaks State Department cables. But while it is wise not to go into a public panic, it is delusional to think that this is merely embarrassing gossip and indiscretion. The leaks have done major damage.

First, quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity. Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they’re letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government’s doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the Sanaa government’s tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.

Second, we’ve suffered a major blow to our ability to collect information. Talking candidly to a U.S. diplomat can now earn you headlines around the world, reprisals at home, or worse. Success in the war on terror depends on being trusted with other countries’ secrets. Who’s going to trust us now?

Third, this makes us look bad, very bad. But not in the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied in her cringe-inducing apology speech in which she scolded these awful leakers for having done a disservice to “the international community,” and plaintively deplored how this hampers U.S. attempts to bring about a better world.

She sounded like a cross between an exasperated school principal and a Miss America contestant professing world peace to be her fondest wish. The problem is not that the purloined cables exposed U.S. hypocrisy or double-dealing. Good God, that’s the essence of diplomacy. That’s what we do; that’s what everyone does. Hence the famous aphorism that a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.

Nothing new here. What is notable, indeed shocking, is the administration’s torpid and passive response to the leaks. What’s appalling is the helplessness of a superpower that not only cannot protect its own secrets but shows the world that if you violate its secrets – massively, wantonly and maliciously – there are no consequences.

The cat is out of the bag. The cables are public. Deploring them or trying to explain them away, a la Clinton, is merely pathetic. It’s time to show a little steel. To show that such miscreants don’t get to walk away.

At a Monday news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder assured the nation that his people are diligently looking into possible legal action against WikiLeaks. Where has Holder been? The WikiLeaks exposure of Afghan war documents occurred five months ago. Holder is looking now at possible indictments? This is a country where a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Months after the first leak, Justice’s thousands of lawyers have yet to prepare charges against Julian Assange and his confederates?

Throw the Espionage Act of 1917 at them. And if that is not adequate, if that law has been too constrained and watered down by subsequent Supreme Court rulings, then why hasn’t the administration prepared new legislation adapted to these kinds of Internet-age violations of U.S. security? It’s not as if we didn’t know more leaks were coming. And that more leaks are coming still.

Think creatively. The WikiLeaks document dump is sabotage, however quaint that term may seem. We are at war – a hot war in Afghanistan where six Americans were killed just this past Monday, and a shadowy world war where enemies from Yemen to Portland, Ore., are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and executed. Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage – and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department?

And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? Assange has gone missing. Well, he’s no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.

Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can’t sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I’m not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/02/AR2010120204561.html

On Mrs. Kennedy’s Detail

IT was with great trepidation that I approached 3704 N Street in Washington on Nov. 10, 1960. I had just been given the assignment of providing protection for the wife of the newly elected president of the United States, and I was about to meet her for the first time.

I soon realized I had little to worry about. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, just 31 years old at the time, was a gracious woman who put me immediately at ease. She was the first lady, but she was also a caring mother; her daughter, Caroline, was nearly 3 years old, and she was pregnant with her second child. Three weeks later, she went into early labor with John Jr., and I followed her through the entire process. It would be the first of many experiences we would have together.

Being on the first lady’s detail was a lot different from being on the president’s. It was just the two of us, traveling the world together. Mrs. Kennedy was active and energetic — she loved to play tennis, water-ski and ride horses. She had a great sense of humor, and we grew to trust and confide in each other, as close friends do.

In early 1963, Mrs. Kennedy shared with me the happy news that she was pregnant again. She had curtailed her physical activities and had settled into a routine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., for the last few months of her pregnancy. I was on a rare day off when I got the call that she had gone into early labor. I raced to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, arriving shortly after she did.

The president, who had been in Washington, arrived soon after she delivered their new baby boy, whom they named Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.

When Patrick died two days later, Mrs. Kennedy was devastated. I felt as if my own son had died, and we grieved together.

The following weeks were difficult as I watched her fall into a deep depression. Eventually, it was suggested that she needed to get away. In October 1963 I traveled with her to the Mediterranean, where we stayed aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the Christina. The trip to Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, along with a short stop in Morocco, seemed to be good therapy, and by the time we returned to Washington the light had returned to her eyes.

I was surprised, however, when not long after our return Mrs. Kennedy decided to join her husband on his trip to Texas. It was so soon after the loss of her son, and she hadn’t accompanied the president on any domestic political trips since his election.

Nevertheless, when we left the White House on Thursday, Nov. 21, I could tell that Mrs. Kennedy was truly excited. I remember thinking this would be a real test of her recovery, and that if she enjoyed the campaigning it would probably be a regular occurrence as soon as the 1964 race got into full swing.

The first day of the trip was exhausting. We had motorcades in San Antonio, Houston and finally Fort Worth, where we arrived around midnight. It had been a long day for everyone, and Mrs. Kennedy was drained.

On the morning of Nov. 22, I went to her room at the Hotel Texas to bring her down to the breakfast where President John F. Kennedy was speaking. She was refreshed and eager to head to Dallas. She had chosen a pink suit with a matching hat to wear at their many appearances that day, and she looked exquisite.

The motorcade began like any of the many that I had been a part of as an agent — with the adrenaline flowing, the members of the detail on alert. I was riding on the running board of the car just behind the president’s.

We were traveling through Dallas en route to the Trade Mart, where the president was to give a lunchtime speech, when I heard an explosive noise from my right rear. As I turned toward the sound, I scanned the presidential limousine and saw the president grab at his throat and lurch to the left.

I jumped off the running board and ran toward his car. I was so focused on getting to the president and Mrs. Kennedy to provide them cover that I didn’t hear the second shot.

I was just feet away when I heard and felt the effects of a third shot. It hit the president in the upper right rear of his head, and blood was everywhere. Once in the back seat, I threw myself on top of the president and first lady so that if another shot came, it would hit me instead.

The detail went into action. We didn’t stop to think about what happened; our every move and thought went into rushing the president and Mrs. Kennedy to the nearest hospital.

I stayed by Mrs. Kennedy’s side for the next four days. The woman who just a few days before had been so happy and exuberant about this trip to Texas was in deep shock. Her eyes reflected the sorrow of the nation and the world — a sorrow we still feel today.

Clint Hill, a former assistant director of the Secret Service, served under five presidents.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22hill.html

Who Cares About Haiti?

Extortionists drain the country’s economic lifeblood while the U.N. stands by idly.

Ten months after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed an already decrepit infrastructure, some 1.3 million impoverished souls are still barely surviving in tent cities around the country. Living conditions are deplorable and after nearly a year, optimism about a way out of what were once dubbed “temporary” camps has dimmed.

Now more than 1,100 people have died in a cholera epidemic, and riots that began in the northern city of Cap-Haitien spread to the capital of Port au Prince last week. Protestors allege that the United Nations peace-keeping mission brought the disease to Haiti. The jury is still out on the source of the cholera, but the unrest has taken a further toll.

And so it goes. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, more poverty, violence and sorrow conspire to increase the sense of helplessness in what is the ultimate economic basket case in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of people the world over watch from afar and wonder why something can’t be done.

Here’s the $64 million question: Is Haiti’s seemingly intractable misery the result of a society and culture that is incapable of organizing itself to create civil order and a viable economy? Or is it the consequence of ruling kleptocrats—abetted or at least tolerated by influential foreigners—treating every economic transaction in the country as an opportunity for personal enrichment?

Evidence abounds that it is the latter. So why have the U.S. and the U.N. refused to take even small steps toward shutting down an official corruption racket that pushes millions of helpless people into lives of desperation? Instead they’ve put Bill Clinton—whose political family famously went into business with the notoriously corrupt former President Jean Bertrand Aristide—in charge of rebuilding the country with billions in foreign aid.

A cholera victim in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center near the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Nov. 19.

Development takes generations, and nation building by outsiders is a fool’s game. But often there is a simple change that can yield fast returns. One no-brainer target in Haiti is the port at Port-au-Prince, where the bulk of imports must enter the country, but where Haiti’s legendary mafia will only release containers after sizable bribes are collected.

A report this year by the Rand Corporation describes the port’s importance this way: “The costs of shipping through Haiti’s ports have imposed a major burden on Haitian consumers and businesses. Because imports play such an important role in consumption, investment, and business operations, the cost of imports is a key determinant of living standards and economic growth.” And yet, Rand says, “importing a container of goods is 35 percent more expensive in Haiti than the average for developed OECD countries.”

Haitian officials like to blame inefficiency at the capital’s port on a lack of modern infrastructure. But Haitians know that’s only part of the story. Writing for the online magazine The Root in October, Haitian-born business consultant Yves Savain explained that pulling a container out of the port in the capital “takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an unspecified number of signatures.” The full cost, which he said includes “legitimate and illicit duties,” constitutes “a substantial and arbitrary financial drain on all sectors of the national economy.”

Mr. Savain was being diplomatic. On a visit to the Journal offices last week, former Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph—who resigned in August—was more direct. “The corruption situation in the ports was one of the major reasons I decided I could no longer defend this government,” he says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mr. Joseph says, “I had so many [nongovernmental organizations] calling me and saying ‘ambassador, could you help me get our things out of the port?’ They kept telling me [port officials] want so many thousands of dollars to get the things out.” Mr. Joseph says that by calling the minister of finance he could sometimes get the goods out but that he wasn’t always successful.

Another example: A Nov. 14 CBS “60 Minutes” report featured the case of six containers destined for an NGO housing project that had been “stuck” in the port for months. No one could figure out why the goods couldn’t be released, but the NGO was still forced to pay $6,000 to the Haitian government for an “imposed storage fee.”

Haiti holds elections on Nov. 28 for parliament and president, and enemies of representative government want to disrupt that process. This partly explains the recent violence. Yet it would be foolish to write it off as solely the work of the nefarious underworld.

Haitians are fed up with the squalor that seems to promise an end only in death. They are angry not only with their own crooked politicians but with the way in which outsiders turn a blind eye to their tormentors. The fact that Washington and the U.N. have refused to rein in the extortionists running the port demonstrates the lack of international political will to alter the status quo.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704496104575627061101867870.html

The Uproar Over Pat-Downs

Americans understand the need for security screenings at airports and are remarkably patient. So there is no excuse for the bumbling, arrogant way the Transportation Security Administration has handled questions and complaints about its new body-scanning machines and more aggressive pat-downs.

The Times reported on Friday that civil liberties groups have collected more than 400 complaints since the new pat-downs began three weeks ago. That is a minuscule number compared with all the people who flew. But there are far too many reports of T.S.A. agents groping passengers, using male agents to search female passengers, mocking passengers and disdaining complaints.

Lawsuits have been filed asserting that new, more powerful body-scanning machines violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches. In general, it seems to us that the scanners are not unconstitutional, but the lawsuits are a healthy process that will require the government to prove that the scanners are reliable and more effective than other devices.

The Fourth Amendment would certainly protect Americans from unnecessary, overly intimate security checks. And nothing in the Constitution permits power-happy or just downright creepy people from abusing their uniforms and the real need for security. The government could start by making their screening guidelines clear. And they should respond to the concerns of people like the woman who told The Times that she is patted down every time because of an insulin pump.

Some passenger groups are planning demonstrations during the Thanksgiving rush. That’s their right, although if they interfere with air travel, or with security measures, they have to assume the risk that applies to any civil disobedience: they might be arrested.

The federal authorities need to take customers’ complaints seriously. And while they’re at it, they should be hard at work filling in the really huge hole in the security of air travel: the inadequate screening of cargo.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/opinion/20sat3.html

Ireland’s Paradise Lost

For an American tourist weaned on Gaelic kitsch and screenings of “The Quiet Man,” the landscape of contemporary Ireland comes as something of a shock. Drive from Dublin to the western coast and back, as I did two months ago, and you’ll still find all the thatched-roof farmhouses, winding stone walls and placid sheep that the postcards would lead you to expect. But round every green hill, there’s a swath of miniature McMansions. Past every tumble-down castle, a cascade of condominiums. In sleepy fishing villages that date to the days of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen (she was the Sarah Palin of the 16th century), half the houses look the part — but the rest could have been thrown up by the Toll brothers.

It’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.

This actually isn’t a bad way of thinking about Ireland’s 20th century. The island spent decade after decade isolated, premodern and rural — and then in just a few short years, boom, modernity! The Irish sometimes say that their 1960s didn’t happen until the 1990s, when secularization and the sexual revolution finally began in earnest in what had been one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world. But Ireland caught up fast: the kind of social and economic change that took 50 years or more in many places was compressed into a single revolutionary burst.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when everyone wanted to take credit for this transformation. Free-market conservatives hailed Ireland’s rapid growth as an example of the miracles that free trade, tax cuts and deregulation can accomplish. (In 1990, Ireland ranked near the bottom of European Union nations in G.D.P. per capita. In 2005, it ranked second.)

Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.) The European elite regarded Ireland as a case study in the benefits of E.U. integration, since the more tightly the Irish bound themselves to Continental institutions, the faster their gross domestic product rose.

Nobody tells those kinds of stories anymore. The Celtic housing bubble was more inflated than America’s (a lot of those McMansions are half-finished and abandoned), the Celtic banking industry was more reckless in its bets, and Ireland’s debts, private and public, make our budget woes look manageable by comparison. The Irish economy is on everybody’s mind again these days, but that’s because the government has just been forced to apply for a bailout from the E.U., lest Ireland become the green thread that unravels the European quilt.

If the bailout does its work and the Irish situation stabilizes, the world’s attention will move on to the next E.U. country on the brink, whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Greece (again). But when the story of the Great Recession is remembered, Ireland will offer the most potent cautionary tale. Nowhere did the imaginations of utopians run so rampant, and nowhere did they receive a more stinging rebuke.

To the utopians of capitalism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth. To the utopians of secularism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation. (“Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture,” Christopher Caldwell noted, but now “we may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.”)

But it’s the utopians of European integration who should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story. The continent-wide ripples from Ireland’s banking crisis have vindicated the Euroskeptics who argued that the E.U. was expanded too hastily, and that a single currency couldn’t accommodate such a wide diversity of nations. And the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.

As for the Irish themselves, their idyllic initiation into global capitalism is over, and now they probably understand the nature of modernity a little better. At times, it can seem to deliver everything you ever wanted, and wealth beyond your dreams. But you always have to pay for it.

Ross Douthat, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22douthat.html

Russia’s Dictatorship of Law

Russia’s newly outrageous legal treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the country’s largest oil company, is a reminder that Russia has yet to grasp the idea of equal justice under law — especially when the Kremlin decides someone is in the way.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 on trumped-up charges of fraud and disobeying a court order and lost his company to Kremlin loyalists. Russians call his sort of case “telephone law,” imposed by the politically powerful through a call to the courthouse. With his sentence almost up, he was just tried again on suspect charges of embezzling and money-laundering. The judge is expected to reach a decision in December.

Two decades ago, the United States State Department urged the new Russia to resurrect the jury system, as The Times described this week, to put the law in the hands of the Russian people. Juries had been abolished after the Soviet revolution, along with anything recognizable as courts and lawyers. They were reborn in 1993.

Defendants have a right to a jury trial in a small fraction of crimes like murder and kidnapping. Compared with non-jury trials in the Soviet era, when the acquittal rate was likely less than 1 percent, the rate with juries has climbed to between 15 and 20 percent. Because of this apparent success, it is tempting to look for the growth of a familiar sense of justice. That search ends in disillusionment.

The Soviet system relied on prosecutors to find what passed for the truth in criminal cases, so the foundation for reform is at odds with the new system that juries are part of, with truth supposedly emerging from the competing accounts of the prosecution and the defense.

More to the point, the old system is not dead. Russia, the scholar Jeffrey Kahn said, has “a lot of bad legal habits.” One is the prosecutor’s “case file,” which sealed the guilt of countless Soviet citizens and retains its terrifying force. Of the 791,802 criminal cases disposed of this year through September, only 465 were decided by a jury. Mr. Khodorkovsky wasn’t allowed a jury in either of his trials. Deliberately, the prosecution charged him only with crimes that didn’t give that right. A jury couldn’t be trusted, apparently, to look out for the state’s interests.

When Vladimir Putin heralded the start of the era of law and democracy, he repeatedly described it as “the dictatorship of law.” As the Khodorkovsky case dramatizes, that is a chillingly accurate description.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21sun2.html

Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha

“THE perception I had, anyway, was that we were on top of the world,” Sarah Palin said at the climax of last Sunday’s premiere of her new television series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” At that point our fearless heroine had just completed a perilous rock climb, and if she looked as if she’d just stepped out of a spa instead, don’t expect her fans to question the reality. For them, Palin’s perception is the only reality that counts.

Palin is on the top of her worlds — both the Republican Party and the media universe. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” set a ratings record for a premiere on TLC, attracting nearly five million viewers — twice the audience of last month’s season finale of the blue-state cable favorite, “Mad Men.” The next night Palin and her husband Todd were enshrined as proud parents in touchy-feely interviews on “Dancing With the Stars,” the network sensation (21 million viewers) where their daughter Bristol has miraculously escaped elimination all season despite being neither a star nor a dancer. This week Sarah Palin will most likely vanquish George W. Bush and Keith Richards on the best-seller list with her new book.

If logic applied to Palin’s career trajectory, this month might have been judged dreadful for her. In an otherwise great year for Republicans she endorsed a “Star Wars” bar gaggle of anomalous and wacky losers — the former witch, Christine O’Donnell; the raging nativist, Tom Tancredo; and at least two candidates who called for armed insurrection against the government, Sharron Angle and a would-be Texas congressman, Stephen Broden, who lost by over 50 percentage points. Last week voters in Palin’s home state humiliatingly “refudiated” her protégé, Joe Miller, overturning his victory in the G.O.P. Senate primary with a write-in campaign.

But logic doesn’t apply to Palin. What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. In an angry time when America’s experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor. She has turned fallibility into a formula for success.

Republican leaders who want to stop her, and they are legion, are utterly baffled about how to do so. Democrats, who gloat that she’s the Republicans’ problem, may be humoring themselves. When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off.

Of course Palin hasn’t decided to run yet. Why rush? In the post-midterms Gallup poll she hit her all-time high unfavorable rating (52 percent), but in the G.O.P. her favorable rating is an awesome 80 percent, virtually unchanged from her standing at the end of 2008 (83 percent). She can keep floating above the pack indefinitely as the celebrity star of a full-time reality show where she gets to call all the shots. The Perils of Palin maintains its soap-operatic drive not just because of the tabloid antics of Bristol, Levi, et al., but because you are kept guessing about where the pop culture ends and the politics begins.

The producer of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” Mark Burnett (whose past hits appropriately include both “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”), has declared that the series is “completely nonpolitical.” It is in fact completely political — an eight-week infomercial that, miraculously enough, is paying the personality it promotes (a reported $250,000 a week) rather than charging her. The show’s sole political mission is to maintain the fervor and loyalty of the G.O.P. base, not to win over Palin’s detractors. In the debut episode, the breathtaking Alaskan landscapes were cannily intermixed with vignettes showcasing the star’s ostensibly model kids and husband, her charming dad, the villainous lamestream media (represented by Palin’s unwanted neighbor, the journalist Joe McGinniss), and the heroic Rupert Murdoch media (represented by an off-screen Bill O’Reilly).

Palin fires a couple of Annie Oakley-style shots before we’re even out of the opening credits. The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara. With a showbiz-fueled net worth widely estimated in the double-digit millions, Palin is as Hollywood in her way as Reagan was, but you won’t see any bling or factotums in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” She tells the audience that she doesn’t have “much of a staff” to tend to her sprawling family and career. “We do most everything ourselves,” she says, and not with a wink.

Thanks to the in-kind contribution of this “nonpolitical” series, Palin needn’t join standard-issue rivals like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty in groveling before donors and primary-state operatives to dutifully check all the boxes of a traditional Republican campaign. Palin not only has TLC in her camp but, better still, Murdoch. Other potential 2012 candidates are also on the Fox News payroll, but Palin is the only one, as Alessandra Stanley wrote in The Times, whose every appearance is “announced with the kind of advance teasing and clip montages that talk shows use to introduce major movie stars.” Pity poor Mike Huckabee, relegated to a graveyard time slot, with the ratings to match.

The Fox spotlight is only part of Murdoch’s largess. As her publisher, he will foot the bill for the coming “book tour” whose itinerary disproportionately dotes on the primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. The editorial page of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is also on board, recently praising Palin for her transparently ghost-written critique of the Federal Reserve’s use of quantitative easing. “Mrs. Palin is way ahead of her potential presidential competitors on this policy point,” The Journal wrote, and “shows a talent for putting a technical subject in language that average Americans can understand.”

With Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on her side, Palin hardly needs the grandees of the so-called Republican establishment. They know it and flail at her constantly. Politico reported just before Election Day that unnamed “party elders” were nearly united in wanting to stop her, out of fear that she’d win the nomination and then be crushed by Obama. Their complaints are seconded daily by Bush White House alumni like Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and Mark McKinnon, who said recently that Palin’s “stock is falling and pretty rapidly now” and that “if she’s smart, she does not run.”

This is either denial or wishful thinking. The same criticisms that the Bushies fling at Palin were those once aimed at Bush: a slender résumé, a lack of intellectual curiosity and foreign travel, a lazy inclination to favor from-the-gut improvisation over cracking the briefing books. These spitballs are no more likely to derail Palin within the G.O.P. than they did him.

As Palin has refused to heed these patrician Republicans, some of them have gotten so testy they sound like Democrats. Peggy Noonan called her a “nincompoop” last month, and Susan Collins, the senator from Maine, dismissed her as a “celebrity commentator.” Rove tut-tutted Palin’s TLC show for undermining her aspirations to “gravitas.” These insults just play into Palin’s hands, burnishing her image as an exemplar of the “real America” battling the snooty powers-that-be. To serve as an Andrew Jackson or perhaps George Wallace for the 21st century, the last thing she wants or needs is gravitas.

It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy. The Bushies and Noonans and dwindling retro-moderate Republicans are no less loathed by Palinistas and their Tea Party fellow travelers than is Obama’s Ivy League White House. When Palin mocks her G.O.P. establishment critics as tortured, paranoid, sleazy and a “good-old-boys club,” she pays no penalty for doing so. The more condescending the attacks on her, the more she thrives. This same dynamic is also working for her daughter Bristol, who week after week has received low scores and patronizing dismissals from the professional judges on “Dancing with the Stars” only to be rescued by populist masses voting at home.

Revealingly, Sarah Palin’s potential rivals for the 2012 nomination have not joined the party establishment in publicly criticizing her. They are afraid of crossing Palin and the 80 percent of the party that admires her. So how do they stop her? Not by feeding their contempt in blind quotes to the press — as a Romney aide did by telling Time’s Mark Halperin she isn’t “a serious human being.” Not by hoping against hope that Murdoch might turn off the media oxygen that feeds both Palin’s viability and News Corporation’s bottom line. Sooner or later Palin’s opponents will instead have to man up — as Palin might say — and actually summon the courage to take her on mano-a-maverick in broad daylight.

Short of that, there’s little reason to believe now that she cannot dance to the top of the Republican ticket when and if she wants to.

Frank Rich, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21rich.html

The Backdating Embarrassment

How did a meaningless violation of accounting rules become the crime the of century?

An array of influential friends urged leniency for Bruce Karatz in his stock-option backdating sentencing last week, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad. But these personages weren’t the reason Judge Otis D. Wright II rejected prosecutors’ request for a six-year prison sentence and instead gave Mr. Karatz probation. Judge Wright said he couldn’t see putting the former CEO away for a crime that did no harm to his company, KB Home, or its shareholders.

So endeth another episode in the annals of backdating, in which a fairly meaningless violation of accounting rules (though violation it was) became trumpeted from the media pulpits as the business crime of the century.

We suppose it’s humanly understandable that, finding themselves compelled to bring these cases, federal prosecutors stretched and kneaded the evidence to fulfill the media’s stereotype of backdating as theft and fraud against shareholders. Let this be a lesson to the children in how not to respond constructively to cognitive dissonance.

Such prosecutorial misconduct led to the dismissal of the backdating case last year against Broadcom founder Henry Nicholas. A judge also threw out the guilty plea of his partner, Henry Samueli, saying he didn’t think Mr. Samueli committed any crime. The first conviction of former Brocade Communications CEO Greg Reyes was similarly overturned on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct (though Mr. Reyes was retried and convicted by a new jury, and now is appealing).

A further irony is that backdating was abetted by a nonsensical accounting rule at the time that treated one kind of option as having value and another kind as having no value (though both have value). This split-the-baby rule itself arguably evolved out of the media’s perennial insistence on portraying stock options as emblems of greed rather than as business tools.

By the estimate of the University of Iowa’s Erik Lie, some 2,000 public companies must have engaged in backdating at some point, as testified by otherwise inexplicable patterns of options pricing. Some 150 companies eventually restated their past results to conform to the proper rule for expensing such options. Yet only a few executives were singled out for criminal prosecution, in a manner that left an observer scratching his head as to why the justice roulette wheel chose some but not others.

Further reason for pause: The handful of subsequent convictions seemed to turn less on the act of backdating than on the self-preserving prevarications executives uttered once the posse arrived at their doorstep.

The ultimate statement in this vein, of course, was the decision by Kobi Alexander, former CEO of Comverse Technology, to decamp to Namibia. We can think of two reasons somebody might flee the law—because he fears he will get justice, or fears he won’t. Presumably Mr. Alexander will one day appear in a U.S. court. It will be interesting to see what countenance he puts on his decision to become a fugitive—perhaps he will cite as a precedent the behavior of the legal system in Salem, Mass., circa 1692.

Meanwhile, the larger lessons of the backdating furor were drawn in an epic piece in May in the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal. By freelance reporter Anna Stolley Persky, the piece connected the dots between (among other things) the backdating witch-hunt, the tainted prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, and the government’s use of the vague “honest services” statute to criminalize various kinds of behavior post hoc (a practice the Supreme Court finally curbed earlier this year).

One critique can be found in the title of a book by Boston defense attorney Harvey Silverglate: “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” Mr. Silverglate believes that only a mobilization of “civil society” can stop what he calls rampant abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

In contrast, former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova puts the onus on DOJ overseers: “If anyone thinks it’s anything other than prosecute at any cost, then they are wrong. . . . The department has been AWOL in supervising the ethics of its prosecutors,” he told ABA Journal.

But it’s also hard not to see the self-interested ethics of the plaintiff’s bar spilling across the entire legal profession. In their official roles, prosecutors invent Kafkaesque new ways to ensnare the unpopular wealthy in legal trouble, then jump to private law firms and make seven-figure livings protecting the wealthy from the monster they themselves unleashed.

Shakespeare had a solution, but, alas, this would also be illegal. Thus it must fall to bloggers, the media and judges like Judge Wright to protect Americans from overzealous prosecutors.

Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618612636493250.html

Acquittal in terror case shows justice system’s strength

THE STUNNING verdict in the first civilian trial of a Guantanamo detainee is an embarrassment for the Obama administration, but it should not deter officials from considering federal court prosecutions for others being held at the U.S. naval base.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was acquitted of 284 of the 285 charges lodged against him for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Mr. Ghailani, who was indicted in federal court months after the attack and then captured in 2004, was convicted only of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property and buildings. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, Mr. Ghailani purchased the truck and the tanks of oxygen and acetylene gas used in the suicide bombing of the embassy in Tanzania. Prosecutors also presented evidence that the day before the bombings, Mr. Ghailani used a fake passport and an assumed name to depart Africa on a flight with two al-Qaeda operatives also implicated in the attacks. The presiding judge prohibited the government from calling a witness who claims he sold Mr. Ghailani TNT because the government learned of the witness only after subjecting Mr. Ghailani to what his lawyers say was torture at an overseas CIA prison.

Administration critics say the multiple acquittals prove that a federal court is the wrong venue for such trials. They are right that a trial by its nature is a risky proposition, notwithstanding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s brave assertion in 2009 that “failure is not an option.” Defense lawyers in this case effectively painted Mr. Ghailani as an unwitting accomplice.

But Mr. Ghailani did not escape responsibility. His conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and the judge may impose a life sentence. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a military commission, the preferred alternative of many critics, would have produced a tougher result. Such commissions are not apt to admit statements coerced through torture, so the star witness rejected by a federal judge probably would have been excluded by the military court as well. And in 2008, a military jury rejected the Bush administration’s argument that Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was a hardened al-Qaeda operative, acquitted him of the most serious charges and sentenced him to a mere five months on top of time served.

The fact that a jury sitting in a terrorism case just blocks from Ground Zero declined to rubber-stamp the government’s assertions shows not the weakness of the federal court system but one of its principal strengths: independence.

Military commissions are a legitimate option to try accused terrorists, and in rare cases – if the administration would have the courage to seek a legal framework, with judicial oversight – indefinite detention is as well. But the Ghailani verdict provides no sound argument to remove federal courts from the mix.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/18/AR2010111805834.html

Don’t touch my junk

Ah, the airport, where modern folk heroes are made. The airport, where that inspired flight attendant did what everyone who’s ever been in the spam-in-a-can crush of a flying aluminum tube – where we collectively pretend that a clutch of peanuts is a meal and a seat cushion is a “flotation device” – has always dreamed of doing: pull the lever, blow the door, explode the chute, grab a beer, slide to the tarmac and walk through the gates to the sanity that lies beyond. Not since Rick and Louis disappeared into the Casablanca fog headed for the Free French garrison in Brazzaville has a stroll on the tarmac thrilled so many.

Who cares that the crazed steward got arrested, pleaded guilty to sundry charges, and probably was a rude, unpleasant SOB to begin with? Bonnie and Clyde were psychopaths, yet what child of the ’60s did not fall in love with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty?

And now three months later, the newest airport hero arrives. His genius was not innovation in getting out, but deconstructing the entire process of getting in. John Tyner, cleverly armed with an iPhone to give YouTube immortality to the encounter, took exception to the TSA guard about to give him the benefit of Homeland Security’s newest brainstorm – the upgraded, full-palm, up the groin, all-body pat-down. In a stroke, the young man ascended to myth, or at least the next edition of Bartlett’s, warning the agent not to “touch my junk.”

Not quite the 18th-century elegance of “Don’t Tread on Me,” but the age of Twitter has a different cadence from the age of the musket. What the modern battle cry lacks in archaic charm, it makes up for in full-body syllabic punch.

Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man, the Tea Party patriot, the late-life libertarian, the midterm election voter. Don’t touch my junk, Obamacare – get out of my doctor’s examining room, I’m wearing a paper-thin gown slit down the back. Don’t touch my junk, Google – Street View is cool, but get off my street. Don’t touch my junk, you airport security goon – my package belongs to no one but me, and do you really think I’m a Nigerian nut job preparing for my 72-virgin orgy by blowing my johnson to kingdom come?

In “Up in the Air,” that ironic take on the cramped freneticism of airport life, George Clooney explains why he always follows Asians in the security line:

“They pack light, travel efficiently, and they got a thing for slip-on shoes, God love ’em.”

“That’s racist!”

“I’m like my mother. I stereotype. It’s faster.”

That riff is a crowd-pleaser because everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. Nowhere do more people meekly acquiesce to more useless inconvenience and needless indignity for less purpose. Wizened seniors strain to untie their shoes; beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants; 3-year-olds scream while being searched insanely for explosives – when everyone, everyone, knows that none of these people is a threat to anyone.

The ultimate idiocy is the full-body screening of the pilot. The pilot doesn’t need a bomb or box cutter to bring down a plane. All he has to do is drive it into the water, like the EgyptAir pilot who crashed his plane off Nantucket while intoning “I rely on God,” killing all on board.

But we must not bring that up. We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

The junk man’s revolt marks the point at which a docile public declares that it will tolerate only so much idiocy. Metal detector? Back-of-the-hand pat? Okay. We will swallow hard and pretend airline attackers are randomly distributed in the population.

But now you insist on a full-body scan, a fairly accurate representation of my naked image to be viewed by a total stranger? Or alternatively, the full-body pat-down, which, as the junk man correctly noted, would be sexual assault if performed by anyone else?

This time you have gone too far, Big Bro’. The sleeping giant awakes. Take my shoes, remove my belt, waste my time and try my patience. But don’t touch my junk.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/18/AR2010111804494.html

To Run or Not to Run, That Is the Question

It’s only Thanksgiving 2010, but some GOP politicians must decide if they want a shot at the presidency.

All eyes have been on Capitol Hill, but let’s take a look at the early stages of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

This week the papers have been full of sightings—Newt and Huckabee are in Iowa, Pawlenty’s in New Hampshire. But maybe the more interesting story is that a lot of potential candidates will decide if they are definitely going to run between now and New Year’s—and some of them will be deciding over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s all happening now, they’re deciding in long walks, at the dinner table, and while watching the football game on the couch. They’ll be talking it through, sometimes for the first time and sometimes the tenth. “Can we do this?” “Are we in this together?” “How do you feel?”

In some cases those will be hard conversations. A largely unremarked fact of modern presidential politics is the increased and wholly understandable reluctance of candidates’ families to agree to a run. Looking at it through a purely personal prism, and that’s where most people start, they see it not as a sacrifice, which it is, but a burden, a life-distorter, and it is those things too. But they have to agree to enter Big History, or a candidate can’t go. And a lot of them don’t want the job, if victory follows candidacy, of “the president’s family.” The stakes are too high, the era too dramatic, the life too intense. They don’t want the intrusion, the end of all privacy, the fact that you’re always on, always representing.

A president’s spouse gets mass adulation one week and mass derision the next. But if you’re a normal person you probably never wanted mass adulation or mass derision.

So what’s happening now in the homes of some political figures is big and in some cases will be decisive. Potential candidates already have been approached by and met with campaign consultants, gurus looking for a gig telling them “Don’t worry about all the travel, you can have a Facebook campaign, we’ll make you the first I-pad candidate! You can keep your day job. You can even work your day job!” And then there are the potential contributors, the hedge fund libertarian in Greenwich, and the conservative millionaire in a Dallas suburb, who are raring to go. Candidates have to decide by at least New Year’s in order to be able to tell them to stay close and keep their powder dry, and in order to plan an announcement in the spring, in time for the first big GOP debate, at the Reagan Library.

Some candidates and their families are not wrestling with the idea of running, of course. Mitt Romney, for instance, surely knows he’s running. But not every potential candidate is serious about it. Some look like they’re letting the possibility they’ll run dangle out there because it keeps them relevant, keeps the cameras nearby, keeps their speech fees and book advances up. The one thing political journalists know and have learned the past few decades is that anyone can become president. So if you say you may run you are immediately going to get richer and more well known and treated with more respect by journalists. Another reason unlikely candidates act like they’re running is that who knows, they may. It’s hard to decide not to. It excites them to think they might. It helps them get up that morning and go to the 7 a.m. breakfast. “I’m not doing this for nothing, I may actually run. The people at the breakfast may hug me at my inauguration; I may modestly whisper, ‘Remember that breakfast in Iowa when nobody showed? But you did. You’re the reason I’m here.'” They’re not horrible, they’re just human. But history is serious right now, and it seems abusive to fake it. If you know in your heart you’re not going to run you probably shouldn’t jerk people around. This is history, after all.

All this decision making takes place within the context of a new mood in the party. We are at the beginning of what looks like a conservative renaissance, free of the past and back to basics. It is a revived conservatism restored to a sense of mission.

The broader context is this: Every four years we say, ‘This is a crucial election,’ and every four years it’s more or less true. But 2012 will seem truer than most. I suspect it will be, like 1980, a year that feels like a question: Will America turn itself around or not? Will it go in a dramatically new direction, or not.

And if there are new directions to be taken, it’s probably true that only a president, in the end, can definitively lead in that new direction. On spending, for instance, which is just one issue, it’s probably true that the new Congress will wrestle with cuts and limits and new approaches, and plenty of progress is possible, and big issues faced. But at the end of the day it will likely take a president to summon and gather the faith and trust of the people, and harness the national will. It’s probably true that only a president can ask everyone to act together, to trust each other, even, and to accept limits together in pursuit of a larger good.

Right now, at this moment, it looks like the next Republican nominee for president will probably be elected president. Everyone knows a rising tide when they see one. But everything changes, and nothing is sure. President Obama’s poll numbers seem to be inching up, and there’s reason to guess or argue that he hit bottom the week after the election and has nowhere to go but up.

Most of my life we’ve lived in a pretty much fifty-fifty nation, with each cycle decided by where the center goes. Mr. Obama won only two years ago by 9.5 million votes. That’s a lot of votes. His supporters may be disheartened and depressed, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ll show up for a presidential race, especially if the Republicans do not learn one of the great lessons of 2010: The center has to embrace the conservative; if it doesn’t, the conservative loses. Add to that the fact that the White House is actually full of talented people, and though they haven’t proved good at governing they did prove good not long ago at campaigning. It’s their gift. It’s ignored at the GOP’s peril.

All of this means that for Republicans, the choice of presidential nominee will demand an unusual level of sobriety and due diligence from everyone in the party, from primary voters in Iowa to county chairmen in South Carolina, and from party hacks in Washington to tea party powers in the Rust Belt. They are going to have to approach 2012 with more than the usual seriousness. They’ll have to think big, and not indulge resentments or anger or petty grievances. They’ll have to be cool eyed. They’ll have to watch and observe the dozen candidates expected to emerge, and ask big questions. Who can lead? Who can persuade the center? Who can summon the best from people? Who will seem credible (as a person who leads must)? Whose philosophy is both sound and discernible? Who has the intellectual heft? Who has the experience? Who seems capable of wisdom? These are serious questions, but 2012 is going to be a serious race.

Good luck to those families having their meetings and deliberations on Thanksgiving weekend.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704104104575622800962372246.html

Obama’s Air Guitar

The danger of America’s will to weakness.

Lately in the news:

Beijing provokes clashes with the navies of both Indonesia and Japan as part of a bid to claim the South China Sea. Tokyo is in a serious diplomatic row with Russia over the South Kuril islands, a leftover dispute from 1945. There are credible fears that Tehran and Damascus will use the anticipated indictment of Hezbollah figures by a U.N. tribunal to overthrow the elected Lebanese government. Managua is attempting to annex a sliver of Costa Rica, a nation much too virtuous to have an army of its own. And speaking of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is setting himself up as another Hugo Chávez by running, unconstitutionally, for another term. Both men are friends and allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

About all of this, the Obama administration has basically done nothing. As Sarah Palin might say: How’s that multi-poley stuff workin’ out for ya?

Throughout the Bush years, “multipolarity” was held up as the intelligent and necessary alternative to the supposedly go-it-alone approach to the world of the incumbent administration. French President Jacques Chirac was for it: “I have no doubt,” he said in 2003, “that the multipolar vision of the world that I have defended for some time is certainly supported by a large majority of countries throughout the world.” So were such doyens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.

In this view, multipolarity wasn’t merely a description of the world as it is, or of the world soon to come. It was also a prescription, a belief that a globe containing multiple centers of influence and power was preferable to one in which American dominance led, inevitably, to American excess. The war in Iraq was supposed to be Exhibit A.

Barack Obama was also a subscriber to this view. In the fall of 2008, a high-ranking foreign diplomat paid a visit to the offices of The Wall Street Journal and told a story of a meeting he and his colleagues had had with the Illinois senator. Mr. Obama, the diplomat recounted, had gone out of his way to arrange the chairs in a circle, not just as a courtesy but also as an effort to suggest that there was no pecking order to the meeting, that they all sat as equals. Wasn’t that nice? Didn’t it set a better tone?

Maybe it did. And maybe, given the thrust of some of President Obama’s ideas on trade, currency and monetary policy, it’s just as well. But whether an American president ought to get his way on a matter of policy is one thing. That a president can’t get his way is another. That’s a recipe for the global disorder we are beginning to see encroaching from Central America to the Middle and Far East.

Last week, Mr. Obama was so resoundingly rebuffed by other leaders at the G-20 summit in Seoul that even the New York Times noticed: Mr. Obama, the paper wrote, faced “stiff challenges . . . from the leaders of China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.” His administration has now been chastised or belittled by everyone from the Supreme Leader of Iran to the finance minister of Germany to the president of France to the dictator of Syria. What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who’s willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side.

But it would mean other things, too. The small and distant abuses of power, would grow bolder and more frequent. America’s exhortations for restraint or decency would seem cheaper. Multipolarity is a theory that, inevitably, leads to old-fashioned spheres of influence. It has little regard for small states: Taiwan, Mongolia, Israel, Georgia, Latvia, Costa Rica. The romance of the balance of power might have made sense when one empire was, more or less, as despotic as the next. It is less morally compelling when the choice is between democracy and Putinism, as it is today for Ukraine.

We are now at risk of entering a period—perhaps a decade, perhaps a half-century—of global disorder, brought about by a combination of weaker U.S. might and even weaker U.S. will. The last time we saw something like it was exactly a century ago. Winston Churchill wrote a book about it: “The World Crisis, 1911-1918.” Available in paperback. Worth reading today.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575616343421570982.html

Obama=Bush?

President Obama isn’t the new Carter, but he just might be the new (first) Bush

Months before Election Day, the name of Jimmy Carter had assumed an incantatory power among observers of politics. President Obama’s supporters began to fret that his presidency was declining as Carter’s did, while his opponents salivated at the prospect, as though the more the 39th president was mentioned, the worse the chances of the 44th. In addition to columnists and bloggers, historians Walter Russell Mead and Sean Wilentz have written on the comparison, while Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, has worried over it. Carter himself recently discussed it with Larry King.

Is Obama the next Carter? Leaving aside for the moment the facility and myopia of this analogy — we’ve had 17 one-term presidents — its details are off. Obama and Carter are both Democrats, true, both are intellectuals who came into office on a wave of discontent, and both promised new approaches to government and the world. What candidates don’t? Obama seems to like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even less than Carter liked Menachim Begin, and Carter faced a crisis in Iran, a new eruption of terrorist threats, and economic woes, though all of very different sorts than those facing Obama.

But where Carter, a notorious micromanager and hand-wringer, appeared to bog down in the carpet fibers of the presidency, a common complaint about Obama is that he’s in the clouds. Where Carter was said to have a morose and pedantic outlook, Obama is accused of being, rather, cerebral and aloof — related charges, maybe, but not the same. Recounting Carter’s fumbling Mideast statecraft in his book “A World of Trouble,” Patrick Tyler described an “obsessive technocrat who wore his idealism like a crucifix and his pragmatism like a slide rule clipped to his waistband.” That’s not Obama.

Yet there is a recent one-term president he resembles. George H.W. Bush doesn’t often come up in discussions of Obama, but two years into Obama’s term, the two presidents’ tenures bear a striking resemblance. So too do their governing styles and temperaments, and even, unlikely though it may seem, their speech. Here are two leaders “buffeted by circumstance,” as the presidential historian Bert Rockman characterized Bush, whose same signal qualities in repulsing buffets and discussing them with the public — sobriety, patience, and, yes, prudence, to use Bush-impersonator Dana Carvey’s favorite Bushism — are often enough their least appreciated.

But why attempt the comparison at all? Isn’t analyzing the doings of one White House frustrating enough? Were we able to travel back in time and stand behind each of the 44 presidents as they went about a day in office, we’d no doubt find the diversity of problems they faced and the ways they faced them makes drawing parallels laughable. Despite working in the Oval Office, each successive occupant of it is a nonpareil.

Still, the practice feels necessary. Why? Most simply, because comparison is how we learn, how we judge. Comparing Obama to Carter, even if it’s to express disfavor, is a way of fitting him into a group, of trying to understand him and the challenges of his job. It’s a way of familiarizing him. That Obama is the first African-American president makes this impulse all the stronger. Similarly, while presidents have been compared since John Adams succeeded George Washington, when we’re talking about a young president with scant public record prior to his election, past presidential performances are one of the few available yardsticks.

So let’s compare, first, those historical buffets. In the first year of Bush’s term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis. Facilitated by deregulation and a mortgage bubble, the S&L crisis threatened the country’s banking system by the time of Bush’s inaugural. Unpopular though he knew the move would be, Bush and Congress put together a massive tax-funded rescue. The public didn’t understand the disastrous alternative scenario, and the move was assailed as a bailout of reckless bankers.

Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world. He cut off diplomatic ties to China after Tiananmen, but, a committed internationalist, he believed engagement was eventually the right strategy. He was roundly criticized for not doing enough to support the protestors.

That didn’t turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Since “everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything,” as the presidential historian Richard Neustadt observed in his study “Presidential Power,” Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.

Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.

George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits. Though Bush would have liked to do more in domestic policy, he was constrained not just by money, but by a widespread public conviction, inflamed by Reagan, that government “is the problem.” Bush pollster Robert Teeter recognized this early on, seeing that while Americans were revolted by the “private interest” excesses of the Reagan era — as Bush himself was — they were also unwilling to embrace the “public purpose” alternative.

Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan’s had. And Obama faced the same conundrum: He campaigned on the promise of a renewed sense of public purpose, and perhaps the most fundamental misreading of the public he made was thinking that what even many conservatives wanted, after George W. Bush, was not smaller government but rather more competent big government. Long before they’d occurred, the 2010 elections were deemed a rejection of that notion.

It’s little remembered now that a renewed sense of public purpose was also Bush’s hope. We recall with amused pity the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler America,” but those ideas meant something to Bush. He’d studied at the feet of the policy mandarins who surrounded his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, conservative men who nonetheless believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, a proposition Reagan made his name maligning. Though he first ran as a Goldwater conservative, as a young congressman — like Obama but unlike Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W., he came out of the Legislature — Bush proved his mettle by bravely voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fair housing bill, after Johnson had announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, and over the objections of Bush’s incensed white Houston constituents.

In 1988, Bush could not run openly on reversing his predecessor’s policies, as Obama would later run against his son, but he did so tacitly. He was troubled by the rampant deregulation and decline in social services funding of the 1980s. Indeed, one slogan of his campaign, since forgotten, was “We Are The Change!” (add “we seek” to the end of that, and you have an oft-repeated slogan of the Obama campaign).

As president, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He put the full weight of the White House behind renewing the Clean Air and Water Acts (a coup Obama would be lucky to equal). He effected the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Most gallingly for his friends on Wall Street, in the wake of the S&L crisis he approved the most significant package of financial regulation reforms until 2010’s Consumer Financial Protection Act.

In his inaugural address, in which he studiously eschewed the folksy populism of Carter, Obama pledged that Americans were “ready to lead once more.” Similarly Bush predicted a “new world order” led by America, a phrase that would come to haunt him in the 1992 primaries. “Is George Bush merely an idealist or are there now plans underway to merge the interests of the US and the Soviet Union in the United Nations,” Pat Robertson drooled in his campaign book, “and install a socialist ‘world order’ in place of a free market system?” If that rings a bell, it may be because you’ve been watching clips of Glenn Beck.

There is also a rhetorical similarity between the two presidents. Obama is better spoken and more inspiring than was Bush, but, like Obama, Bush’s central rhetorical fault — how he eventually lost the public — was that he was always cool, always rational. He knew what he wanted, and what he’d done, but, like Obama, he was almost bashful about explaining as much to Americans, going so far as to cross many of the I’s out of his addresses. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater lamented that his boss’s approach to message politics was “If I am doing the right thing, I can take any punishment.” Bush himself admitted, “I’m not good at expressing the concerns of a nation — I’m just not very good at it.”

Like Obama, Bush had a cerebral, deliberative, occasionally paradoxical way of speaking. In a fascinating study, “Personality Profiles of the 1992 Presidential Candidates as Derived from their Speech Patterns,” a pair of speech pathologists found that Bush’s most hobbling tendency as a speaker was not his well-known gaffes, which many people actually found endearing, but his Obama-esque fondness for retractors — “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” and other such words that suggest active thought but also reversals of course.

The presidential historian Richard Hofstadter, who perfected the art of comparing chief executives, pointed out that the activity was a cultural necessity. “A longing to recapture the past, in fact, has itself been such a basic ingredient of the recent American past that no history of political thinking is complete which does not attempt to explain it,” Hofstadter wrote in “The American Political Tradition.” In other words, as Americans, we ply a kind of hyper-nostalgia. Hence every officeholder runs on the promise of restoring tradition, acknowledging as little as possible that America has many governmental traditions, not just one, a fact writ large in the presidency. It is said that nothing can prepare a candidate for the highest office. Maybe then we must compare presidents precisely because they are nonpareils? The presidency is an embodiment of so many traditions, a job of such power, of such complexity and thanklessness, there is no standard of measurement for it except itself.

This winter, Obama will face what promises to be a bitter debate over the deficit and taxes. Commentators will no doubt compare it to the budget battle of 1995-96, when Washington shut down. A better parallel, however, would be the fiscal debate Bush faced in 1990. More than anything, it proved the undoing of his presidency. Bush wrote in his diary at the time that he knew a decision to raise taxes might cost him reelection. He also knew that the cavalier spirit behind his “read my lips!” campaign pledge, while popular, was unwise — which is to say unlike George H.W. Bush. So he agreed to raise taxes.

Never mind that the deficit reduction bill he signed paved the way for the surpluses of the 1990s, or that his tax increase was actually smaller than an earlier one forced upon Reagan in percentage of gross domestic product: Republican legislators abandoned Bush over the decision. Their treacherous logic was voiced by Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber: “What is good for the president may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans. We need wedge issues to beat incumbent Democrats.”

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because you encountered it a few weeks ago — but not from Republicans. It summed up the playbook of Democrats running for their lives, away from Obama’s policies. It resulted in the loss of the House of Representatives.

James Verini is a journalist in New York.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/14/obamabush/

Bush Agonistes? Not Quite

In an interview, the former president makes the case for his ‘freedom agenda’ and defends his record on the economy and spending.

The former leader of the free world sits in a comfy chair wearing Crocs. As twilight sets in, George W. Bush keeps one eye on a muted World Series game. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he tells the TV in his home library after one impressive Rangers play.

The 43rd president of the United States looks healthy, rested and confident. That last is especially notable, considering he’s not yet two years out of what can only be called a controversial presidency.

Mr. Bush ran as a uniter, but the hung 2000 election bequeathed him a divided nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought brief national cohesion, but it was soon shattered by recriminations over the Iraq war. A difficult second term—overshadowed by war turmoil and capped by a financial crisis—saw him leave office with anemic approval ratings. But as readers of “Decision Points,” his memoir set to hit stands today, will discover, this is not a president agonizing over the big decisions he made or wringing his hands about history’s judgment.

The book is not the usual chronological fare; Mr. Bush wrote thematically, with 14 chapters chronicling decisions he made in life and office, and it is very much in his own voice. We get his insights on his decision to quit drinking, on stem cell research, Hurricane Katrina and enhanced interrogations. Six chapters deal with the momentous foreign and domestic policy decisions that followed from 9/11.

[bushinterview]George W. Bush
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The president does write about his regrets and his desire to have done some things differently. But both in his memoir and in an interview he granted me 10 days ago, Mr. Bush sounds entirely secure about the major decisions of his presidency. The last lines of the book perhaps put it best: “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.”
The president—thoughtful, spirited, and at times making fun of my clumsiness with a tape recorder—gamely answered everything I threw at him.
If his book has an overriding theme, it is Mr. Bush’s case for his “freedom agenda.” He defines it broadly: from Afghanistan and Iraq, to his African AIDS work, to tax cuts. One major criticism of his Iraq policy is that the turmoil in that country has empowered Iran, which continues to move toward a bomb.
“The notion that we went into Iraq and therefore the Iranians became emboldened—it was the opposite,” Mr. Bush says. “The Iranians, it turns out, suspended their program,” he continues, referring to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003. He says that it wasn’t until mid-2005 that Iranian elections brought to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the process of nuclear enrichment would accelerate.
As for those who feel Mr. Bush wasn’t aggressive enough, the president disputes the notion that Iran can be compared to Iraq. “Diplomacy was just beginning in Iran, the world was just beginning to focus,” he says. Mr. Bush takes credit for “helping focus” that attention.
One revelation in the book is the degree to which Mr. Bush’s Iran strategy hinged on internal political revolt. His goal, on the one hand, was to “slow down” the Iranian “capacity to develop a weapon,” which he chose to do with sanctions. On the other hand, his administration tried to “speed up” the ability of reformers to institute change. He writes of his belief that the success of the surge and a free Iraq would “help catalyze that change,” and he points to last year’s massive street protests following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
What about the critique that Afghanistan was left to fester while the president dealt with Iraq, setting up a return of the Taliban and the need for President Obama to send more troops? “What I say is, we had a large coalition of troops in Afghanistan and it looked like we were making progress.” He notes that “when it became apparent that the NATO coalition was not able to cohesively deal with the Taliban,” he ordered a 2006 “silent surge” in Afghanistan—a 50% troop increase. “We were plenty capable of doing two things at the same time.”
Mr. Bush writes that one of two major “setbacks in Iraq” was not finding WMD. He writes it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” I ask why, given the myriad reasons he lays out for removing Saddam. The problem, he says, was what the lack of WMD meant for the public’s perception of the war.
“The world is better off and more secure without Saddam Hussein in power. But so much of the case—and so much of the focus—was on WMD, that the failure to find it made the task of convincing the American people to hang in there harder.” The Bush doctrine rested on “going on offense.” And in Mr. Bush’s mind, this failure risked a “wave of isolationism that would effect U.S. security” by putting Americans off future pre-emptive action.
Should he have fought back harder against those who accused him of lying about WMD, as Karl Rove argued in his memoir? “His point is that I should have gotten in their face about the lying, and I chose not to do that because I thought it would diminish the presidency. . . . You start calling names, it makes it even harder to hold the support of the American people.
President Bush has studiously refrained from commenting on Mr. Obama—and doesn’t here. Though when I ask him what is the most devastating thing that could happen to Iraq now, he shoots out unequivocally: “No U.S. presence. We need to work with the Iraqi government and respond to any requests they may have about a presence.
Given Mr. Bush’s reputation as an international cowboy, readers will be intrigued by his descriptions of his relationships with world leaders—including frank appraisals of those he did and didn’t like. The latter category would come to include Vladimir Putin, despite the president’s 2001 comment that he’d seen into the Russian leader’s “soul.
I ask the president when exactly he became aware of Mr. Putin’s true political character. “When they started suspending rights,” he responds. Mr. Bush’s theory is that the mid-decade rise in oil prices emboldened Mr. Putin, giving him “an opportunity to spread economic hegemony” to a Europe reliant on Russia’s natural gas. Why wasn’t there more pushback from the White House? Russia was a “disappointment,” Mr. Bush admits, but he adds that “it’s hard to know if we could have done anything differently. Russia is a sovereign nation, they elected their leaders, and they entrenched themselves.”
Then there are the anecdotes about Jacques Chirac, who at several points lectures the U.S. on the folly of morality or idealism. When I ask the president if he wants to expand, he starts, stops, and gives that Bush chuckle. “Let’s just say he wasn’t a freedom-agenda guy.”
Mr. Bush devotes his final chapter to the financial meltdown: The White House anxiety he describes nearly equals his narration of 9/11. He heaps most of the blame on Wall Street. As for too-loose Federal Reserve policy, which many see as the groundwork for the housing bubble, Mr. Bush refers to “easy money” only once among a list of contributing factors.
I ask if anybody ever specifically warned him about the Fed’s feeding of the mortgage beast. “No, not really. I think that the only place, the main place, where we get credit for having seen a potential crisis is Fannie and Freddie.” (The administration’s proposed reforms were blocked by Congress.) “The crisis blindsided us.”
While a Democratic Congress this year passed a slew of financial regulations, Mr. Bush argues this wasn’t “a lack-of-regulation crisis, except for the extent to which Fannie and Freddie were allowed to run wild. . . . This was a regulated house of cards—regulators were watching it all. . . . This was a crisis that was caused in large part by bad business decisions.”
If that was the case, why weren’t more banks left to fail? Did the administration discuss what particular institutions were too big to fail? “No,” Mr. Bush answers, adding that he believes in letting the market punish bad decisions but in this case the economy was in the balance. “We didn’t want any of them to fail because we were really worried that there would be a domino effect.”
Unprompted, he adds that this fear is why the administration bailed out General Motors. Did he genuinely believe that a GM bankruptcy would cause an economic freefall? “That’s what I was told. I think at that point in time it would have been still pretty risky.” I must still look skeptical because he adds: “I hope I conveyed in the book this sense, that we were,” he throws his hands in the air, as if to summon the anxiety of those weeks. “We were pretty risk-averse at this point. We really were.”
Why did the administration inject TARP money directly into banks—a move that tarred healthy banks along with sick ones—rather than proceed with the original idea to buy up toxic assets? “Because it was too cumbersome. It was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t going to work quickly enough. Whose assets? How do you buy them? . . . We didn’t have a lot of time.” With capital injections, the money went “boom, right into the system.”
Will the fact that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression happened on his watch overshadow his accomplishments on the war on terror? Again, that confidence. “Naaaaah. I think history will eventually say that the Bush administration dealt with this in a way that saved the economy. . . We didn’t have a depression—and I thought one was coming. I did.”
One perception the president is determined to shift is that of his spending record. “Decision Points” contains one graphic: a table comparing, among other things, President Bush’s average spending-to-GDP (19.6%) to that of Bill Clinton (19.8%), Bush 41 (21.9%), and Reagan (22.4%). It also shows that his deficit-to-GDP was 2%—half that of Bush 41 and Reagan.

I come armed with a slew of spending questions. Why didn’t he veto more GOP spending bills? Why didn’t he use the war as a reason to cut back on domestic spending? But he shuts me down by referring to the chart. I point out that, chart or no, there is a perception he oversaw fiscal profligacy.

“Yes, there is,” he concedes. “I think the Medicare reform caused certain conservative writers to say ‘Bush has been fiscally irresponsible.’ And they did not look at the facts. And the facts are that we have a very solid fiscal record”—despite spending “a lot of money” on war, homeland security, and Hurricane Katrina.

But what about 2003 Medicare reform, which saw Republicans add a major new prescription drug entitlement? He rejects the premise of the question. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare. And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” The prescription-drug program is about allowing Medicare to give seniors a “$15 drug in order to prevent a $30,000 operation that your taxpayer money would be committed to paying.”

Congress will soon be debating the fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign and have been an unadulterated supply-side victory. As the memoir notes, what followed the 2003 legislation—which included important cuts in top marginal rates, capital gains and dividend taxes—was 46 consecutive months of growth.

Isn’t the point here that not all tax cuts are created equal, and that there’s more value in the 2003 supply-side winners, than in, say, Mr. Bush’s 2008 one-time tax “rebates” that caused only a temporary GDP blip? “I don’t want to differentiate,” he responds, though he does a bit. “I do know this, 70% of new jobs in America are created by small businesses . . . and the rates matter to small business. And capital gains matter to investment.” His bigger point is that all the cuts come down to a “philosophy” that’s pretty simple to follow: “We’d rather you spend your money than the government spend your money.”

There’s a lot of emotion in Mr. Bush’s memoir—much of it for the families of troops who died protecting the country. But when it comes to the policy decisions we discuss during the interview, this does not seem like a man going to bed tortured by what-ifs or what-will-comes.

What will future historians say? “I’d hope they’d say he had certain principles that were the foundation of his presidency, and on which he was unwilling to compromise.”

And what about those who believe he wasn’t really a conservative—that he’s to blame for setting the stage for the Obama ascendancy? He smiles. “I say read the book.”

Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805704575594343435477562.html

Too Good to Check

On Nov. 4, Anderson Cooper did the country a favor. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip to Asia would cost $200 million a day. This was an important “story.” It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism.

In case you missed it, a story circulated around the Web on the eve of President Obama’s trip that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $200 million a day — about $2 billion for the entire trip. Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before he had had Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, on his show and had asked her where exactly Republicans will cut the budget.

Instead of giving specifics, Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream. She answered: “I think we know that just within a day or so the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He’ll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.”

The next night, Cooper explained that he felt compelled to trace that story back to its source, since someone had used his show to circulate it. His research, he said, found that it had originated from a quote by “an alleged Indian provincial official,” from the Indian state of Maharashtra, “reported by India’s Press Trust, their equivalent of our A.P. or Reuters. I say ‘alleged,’ provincial official,” Cooper added, “because we have no idea who this person is, no name was given.”

It is hard to get any more flimsy than a senior unnamed Indian official from Maharashtra talking about the cost of an Asian trip by the American president.

“It was an anonymous quote,” said Cooper. “Some reporter in India wrote this article with this figure in it. No proof was given; no follow-up reporting was done. Now you’d think if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? But there hasn’t been any follow-up reporting on this Indian story. The Indian article was picked up by The Drudge Report and other sites online, and it quickly made its way into conservative talk radio.”

Cooper then showed the following snippets: Rush Limbaugh talking about Obama’s trip: “In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.” Then Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became “a vacation” accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy. Ditto the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage. He said, “$200 million? $200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents.”

Cooper then added: “Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts. For security reasons, the White House doesn’t comment on logistics of presidential trips, but they have made an exception this time. He then quoted Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, as saying, “I am not going to go into how much it costs to protect the president, [but this trip] is comparable to when President Clinton and when President Bush traveled abroad. This trip doesn’t cost $200 million a day.” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: “I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd, this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy and some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier in support of the president’s trip to Asia. That’s just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.”

Cooper also pointed out that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the entire war effort in Afghanistan was costing about $190 million a day and that President Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to Africa — with 1,300 people and of roughly similar duration, cost, according to the Government Accountability Office and adjusted for inflation, “about $5.2 million a day.”

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/opinion/17friedman.html

Accountability for Torture (in Britain)

The contrast could not be more distressing.

The British government has decided to pay former detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tens of millions of dollars in compensation and conduct an independent investigation into its role in the mistreatment of prisoners.

The United States still operates the Guantánamo camp, with no end in sight. None of the truly dangerous terrorists there have been brought to justice, while many prisoners are still held who never should have been. The government not only refuses to come clean on this ignoble history, but it is covering up the Bush administration’s abuses by denying victims a day in court.

In July, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that there would be an independent investigation into Britain’s role in the mistreatment of detainees. On Tuesday, the government announced that it was compensating British citizens who were held at Guantánamo, six of whom filed a lawsuit accusing government agencies of complicity in their detention, torture and incarceration.

Three years ago, Canada apologized and paid compensation to Maher Arar, a Canadian torture victim, following an investigation into how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police mistakenly identified him as a terrorist. American authorities acted on that false information to arrest Mr. Arar and “render” him overseas. Even after the mistake was revealed, they continued to hold him.

The United States has neither compensated victims of illegal detention and abuse nor taken steps to hold the architects of the human rights abuses accountable. Indeed, some of the Obama administration’s biggest legal victories have come in shielding Bush-era officials by getting lawsuits brought by victims with credible claims of kidnapping and torture thrown out of court on specious secrecy grounds, without any testimony being heard.

Among the former detainees whom Britain has agreed to compensate is Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born former detainee with a British right of residency who said that he was tortured after American authorities sent him to Morocco. In September, a federal appeals court dismissed his case on unconvincing security grounds presented by Obama administration lawyers.

It will do no good for this nation’s tarnished human rights reputation that at the same time Britain took responsibility for its comparatively minor role in the ill treatment of terrorism suspects, former President George W. Bush was bragging in a new book that he had personally authorized the repeated use of a form of simulated drowning called waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of Sept. 11.

At least someone is owning up to the awful legacy of Mr. Bush’s illegal detention policies.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/opinion/17wed2.html

Don’t Get Cocky, GOP

Obama is weak, but it is always difficult to defeat a sitting president.

It has been a brutal month for President Obama. The historic electoral rebuke delivered to his party was followed at the G-20 meeting by a public rebuff of the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program and the administration’s handling of the China currency issue.

The president arrived home to find House Democrats intent on keeping Nancy Pelosi as leader, New York Congressman Charles Rangel judged guilty by a House ethics panel of 11 violations, and a lame duck session of Congress fraught with battles over taxes, the New Start treaty and more. This has Republicans feeling cocky about 2012.

Opinion surveys give some support for GOP optimism. This month’s Associated Press-GfK poll shows only 39% of Americans believe Mr. Obama deserves re-election, while 54% believe he deserves to be voted out of office. In a late October CNN poll, Mr. Obama trailed both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee nationally. And in polls taken in battleground states by Public Policy Polling, Mr. Obama lost to a generic unnamed Republican in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado.

Mr. Obama can’t count on a strong economy to improve his fortunes. President Ronald Reagan’s policies produced 4.5% and 7.2% growth in the two years before his 1984 re-election. But the University of Michigan Economic Forecast projects only 2.3% and 3.2% growth in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and 9% unemployment at the next election.

Still, Republicans should sober up. It is always difficult to defeat a sitting president. Since World War II, three have been defeated for re-election and two decided not to run again. But five have sought and won second terms.

Moreover, the GOP lacks a clear frontrunner. Gallup found this week that no potential Republican candidate draws more than 19% support for nomination: Four contenders are essentially tied.

This shows how unusual the GOP presidential contest will be. Historically, the Republican faithful have displayed an almost genetic predisposition to settle early on a favorite who, by dint of previous service or campaigning, has a claim on their hearts and minds. Not this time. The dozen or so potential Republican candidates will all come out of the blocks from essentially the same starting line, ensuring a wide-open and unpredictable contest.

The contest will gel late in 2011, with the stronger candidates being those who do better at three essential tasks. The first is to create a compelling narrative for why Mr. Obama deserves to be replaced, why voters should pick him or her as the replacement, and where he or she seeks to lead the country.

Passion and authenticity will matter a great deal. Republicans spent 2010 focused on this year’s contests—and while they are now pondering who should be their party’s standard-bearer in 2012, I sense a desire to wait and observe before committing.

The second task for each candidate is to demonstrate the strength, values, decision-making capacity and leadership to take on the responsibilities of the world’s most powerful and important job. Voters need to be able to visualize someone in the Oval Office before they will give them their support.

For the most part, this task cannot be achieved directly. Confidence is built by handling the unanticipated question or the unannounced test.

Finally, the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination is likely to be the one who shows the greatest ability to unite the party and draw others into the GOP fold. This was one of Ronald Reagan’s great strengths. No candidate in the GOP field possesses Reagan’s political gifts. But they should seek to emulate his appeal to both committed Republicans and to disaffected Democrats and independents in a principled and optimistic manner.

It will be a long, hard slog. Both parties have wisely pushed back the Iowa caucuses to the first week of February. (In 2008, they were on Jan. 3. Some caucus-goers still suffered from New Year’s hangovers.) The Internet’s power for fund-raising and organization could mean even more frequent twists and turns in the race than we’re used to.

But done right, a long and competitive primary season could be very healthy for the GOP, drawing the country’s interest, boosting Republican registrations, recruiting volunteers, and sharpening its message.

Mr. Obama is extremely weak right now. It’s an open question whether he possesses the political skills that allowed other presidents (like Bill Clinton) to recover. The results of his policies may prevent his recovery, not enable it, as with Reagan. Republicans should not count on Mr. Obama imploding but assume the race ahead will be difficult. If history is any guide, it will be.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704648604575620653438957226.html

Kevin Rubs It In

My Mom used to say, “When you’re blue, wear red.” America took that advice on Election Day, and you can color Kevin happy. My conservative brother celebrated by doing his year-end political letter early. Here is his tour d’horizon:

As a semichastened Barack Obama appeared at the press conference following the election, he conjured up the image of the curtain opening in “The Wizard of Oz,” revealing a little old man working the controls, not the great and powerful Oz.

The president had to wonder how this could happen in two short years. He must long for the days when the media routinely referred to him as “cerebral and brainy” (savvy was never mentioned) and salivated over “Michelle’s amazing arms.”

The voters left no doubt about their feeling for his super-nanny state where the government controls all aspects of their lives and freedoms. Warning signs were up in the three elections held in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey and with the noisy birth of the Tea Party. But the president, swathed in the protective cocoon of adulation and affirmation from the media and his own sycophants, soldiered on in his determination to turn our country into just another member of the failed European union — France without the food.

No one should be surprised by this. The president is a devoted disciple of the teachings of Saul Alinsky and a true believer in a redistribution of wealth controlled by big government. We can see how well that is working in Greece, Portugal, Spain and France. Instead of focusing on jobs and turning the private sector loose to provide them, he insisted on giving the American people things they did not want: expensive health care, more regulation and higher taxes. He clumsily interjected himself on behalf of the mass-murdering Muslim Army major, the ground zero mosque, the civil trials of enemy combatants and the lawsuit against Arizona. His theme song could have been “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On Nov. 2, voters across every spectrum loudly stated their preference for a return to American exceptionalism, self-reliance, limited government and personal freedoms. They delivered a message that they would demand that their representatives start reflecting their wishes. They showed their muscle to shocked elitists who had dismissed their dissent as ignorance, bigotry or racism. It is probably a product of the revisionist history we now teach in our schools that the Tea Party, a replica of the beginnings of the American Revolution, was marginalized and mocked as a lunatic fringe group by a dismissive news media.

That same media is becoming increasingly aware that its creation is in over his head. He seems unaware of, or ambivalent about, the results of his actions. The last three weeks of the campaign were particularly unseemly. The vision of the President of the United States, one who spoke of civility and hope and change, exposed as just another Chicago pol, viciously and personally attacking his opponents, was undignified.

When my children were small, I used to take them to visit my mother. One of her favorite lines if they complained was, “Do you want some cheese with that whine?” We may have to call Switzerland to get enough cheese for the presidential whines.

I once had a Jesuit English teacher who asked for an example of irony. A classmate raised his hand and wondered if Othello mistakenly killing Desdemona qualified. The old priest shook his head, noting, “That is not irony, bud, that is tragic irony.” So it is with the idea being floated that Hillary might join Obama on a dream ticket as V.P. to save his presidency. Hillary, the only member of the cabinet with any political savvy, saving the guy that jumped line on her. I don’t think so.

Here are my random thoughts for 2010:

To Sarah Palin: Mirror, mirror on the wall, you’re the fairest of them all. You don’t need to run for the presidency.

To Nancy Pelosi: It’s hard to watch a noble ideal ravaged by facts. We’re going to need that military jet back.

To Keith Olbermann: A welcome, but all too brief, respite. Thank God you’re not handicapping horses.

To Chris Matthews: Is that tingle now a spasm?

To Jon Stewart: Good work and great rally! You tower above your critics.

To Alan Grayson: Good riddance.

To Eric Holder: Try suing the bad guys.

To Chris Van Hollen: Pickett was not promoted after Gettysburg.

To Jimmy Carter: You make my hair hurt.

To Vivian Schiller: Too bad the truth didn’t set you free — as in fired.

To President Bush : A 50-to-42 winner over Obama in a mock presidential poll in Ohio after doing absolutely nothing. A Nobel Prize is on the way.

To John Boehner: You are on double secret probation. Be grateful for a second chance. Vaya con Dios!

Maureen Dowd, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/opinion/10dowd.html

The Two Cultures

Many of the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know are liberal, so it seems strange that American liberalism should adopt an economic philosophy that excludes psychology, emotion and morality.

Yet that is what has happened. The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

These models can be used to make highly specific projections. If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity. If the government spends $800 billion on a stimulus package, that will produce 3.5 million in new jobs.

Everything is rigorous. Everything is science.

Conservatives, who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types, have gone all Oprah-esque in trying to argue against these liberals. If the government borrows trillions of dollars, this will increase public anxiety and uncertainty, the conservatives worry. The liberal technicians brush aside this soft-headed mush. These psychological concerns are mythological, they say. That’s gaseous blathering from those who lack quantitative rigor.

Other people get moralistic. This country is already too profligate, they cry. It already shops too much and borrows too much. How can we solve our problems by borrowing and spending more? The liberal technicians brush this away, too. Economics is a rational activity detached from morality. Hardheaded policy makers have to have the courage to flout conventional morality — to borrow even when the country is sick of borrowing.

The liberal technicians have an impressive certainty about them. They have amputated those things that can’t be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships. As a result, everything is explainable and predictable. They can stand on the platform of science and dismiss the poor souls down below.

Yet over the past 21 months, it has been harder to groove to their certainty. To start with, the economy has not responded as the modelers projected, either in the months after the stimulus was passed or this summer, when it was supposed to be producing hundreds of thousands of jobs. It has become harder to define how much good the stimulus package is doing. An $800 billion measure must leave a large footprint, but it is hard to find in a $70 trillion global economy.

Moreover, it has been harder to accept that psychological factors like uncertainty and anxiety really are a mirage. The first time a business leader tells you she is holding off on investing because she is scared about the future, you dismiss it as anecdote. But over the past few years, I’ve had hundreds of such conversations.

It’s been harder to dismiss morality as a phantom concern, too. Maybe in a nation of robots the government can run a policy that offends the morality of the citizenry, but not in a nation of human beings, as the recent elections showed.

Nor has the world come to look simpler and easier to manipulate since the stimulus passed. It now looks more complicated. It’s one thing to hatch an ideal policy in an academic lab, but in the real world, context is everything.

Ethan Ilzetzki of the London School of Economics and Enrique G. Mendoza and Carlos A. Vegh of the University of Maryland examined stimulus efforts in 44 countries. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, they argued that fiscal stimulus can be quite effective in low-debt countries with fixed exchange rates and closed economies.

Stimulus measures are generally not as effective, on the other hand, in countries like the U.S. with high debt and floating exchange rates. The authors of the paper pointed to a series of specific circumstances that complicate, to say the least, the effectiveness of increasing public spending: How much stimulus money ends up flowing abroad? What is the relationship between fiscal policy and monetary policy? How do investors respond to fear of future interest rate increases?

One could go on. It’s become harder to have confidence that legislators can successfully enact the brilliant policies that liberal technicians come up with. Far from entering the age of macroeconomic mastery and social science triumph, we seem to be entering an age in which statecraft is, once again, an art, not a science. When you look around the world at the countries that have come through the recession best, it’s not the countries with the brilliant and aggressive stimulus models. It’s the ones like Germany that had the best economic fundamentals beforehand.

It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that.

David Brooks, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/opinion/16brooks.html

Why President Obama is right about India

Much grousing about the expense of President Obama’s India trip. This is silly and vindictive. The one thing this country owes its leader is to spare no expense in protecting him. Especially when his first stop is Mumbai, scene of one of the most savage and sustained terror attacks in modern times.

It is protested that Britain’s prime minister took a British Air flight when he traveled here in July. So what? To be blunt about it: A once-imperial middle power flies commercial; America flies colossal. Why do you think we built that 747 flying palace emblazoned with the presidential insignia – if not to land to awestruck crowds wherever it goes?

There was grumbling about the White House taking over every room at Mumbai’s five-star Taj Mahal Palace hotel. What is the Secret Service to do? Allow suites to be let to, say, groups of Pakistani madrassa instructors?

I will admit that Indian authorities went somewhat overboard when they cut down the coconuts surrounding the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. I am no expert on this, having never been subject to a coconut attack, but it seems to me that a freefalling coconut is no match for an armored car built to withstand anything short of a small nuclear device. Now perhaps the enemy, always racing one step ahead of us, is working on the dreaded RPC – the rocket-propelled coconut. I’m not privy to all the intelligence here, and, try as I may, I could get nothing out of the Coconut Desk at CIA. Nonetheless, to this outsider, the anti-coconut measures seemed a bit excessive.

But I digress. The only alternative to drawing down the Treasury to move the president around safely is for him not to go at all. And that’s not an alternative. Presidential visits are the highest form of diplomacy, and the symbolism alone carries enormous weight. No one remembers what Nixon did in China; what changed the world is that Nixon went to China.

The India visit was particularly necessary in light of Obama’s bumbling overenthusiasm in his 2009 trip to China in which he lavished much time, energy and praise upon his hosts and then oddly tried to elevate Beijing to a G-2 partnership, a kind of two-nation world condominium. Worse, however, was Obama suggesting a Chinese role in South Asia – an affront to India’s autonomy and regional dominance, and a signal of U.S. acquiescence to Chinese hegemony.

This hegemony is the growing source of tension in Asia today. Modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun. The story of the first half of the 20th century was Europe’s attempt to manage Germany’s rise. We know how that turned out. The story of the next half-century will be how Asia accommodates and/or contains China’s expansion.

Nor is this some far-off concern. China’s aggressive territorial claims on resource-rich waters claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan are already roiling the neighborhood. Traditionally, Japan has been the major regional counterbalance. But an aging, shrinking Japan can no longer sustain that role. Symbolic of the dramatic shift in power balance between once-poor China and once-dominant Japan was the resolution of their recent maritime crisis. Japan had detained a Chinese captain in a territorial-waters dispute. China imposed a rare-earth mineral embargo. Japan capitulated.

That makes the traditional U.S. role as offshore balancer all the more important. China’s neighbors from South Korea all the way around to India are in need of U.S. support of their own efforts at resisting Chinese dominion.

And of all these countries, India, which has fought a border war with China, is the most natural anchor for such a U.S. partnership. It’s not just our inherent affinities – being democratic, English-speaking, free-market and dedicated to the rule of law. It is also the coincidence of our strategic imperatives: We both face the common threat of radical Islam and the more long-term challenge of a rising China.

Which is why Obama’s dramatic call for India to be elevated to permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council was so important. However useless and obsolete the United Nations, a Security Council seat carries totemic significance. It elevates India, while helping bind it to us as our most strategic and organic Third World ally.

China is no enemy, but it remains troublingly adversarial. Which is why India must be the center of our Asian diplomacy. And why Obama’s trip – coconuts and all – was worth every penny.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/11/AR2010111106072.html

Obama’s Gifts to the GOP

Republicans own the political center for now. Not because they deserve it.

Democrats are down, and sniping at each other. That’s the way it goes when parties lose. What’s interesting is the mood this week among Republicans on the ground. It’s not triumphal. They all seem to have in the back of their minds a question: Is this election the beginning of the big turnaround? Is this when the GOP comes to the fore as its best self and soberly, shrewdly pursues policies that will help dig our country out of the mess? Or will the great sweep of 2010 come to be seen, in retrospect, as just another lurch and shift in a nation whose political tectonic plates have been unstable since 2006?

They’re not sure, but there’s a high degree of hope for the former. And that’s news, because Republicans haven’t been hopeful in a long time.

They continue to be blessed by luck. Whatever word means the opposite of snakebit, that is what the Republican Party is right now. One reason they are feeling hope is that they have received two big and unexpected gifts from President Obama. The first, of course, was his political implosion—his quick descent and speedy fall into unpopularity, which shaped the outcome of the 2010 elections. At the heart of that descent was the president’s inability to understand how the majority of Americans were thinking. From the day he was sworn in he seemed to have had no practical or intuitive sense of what was on the American mind. By early 2009 they had one deep and central worry, the economy. But his central preoccupation was reforming health care. He devoted his first 18 months to it and got what he wanted, but at the price of seeming wholly out of touch with the thoughts and concerns of the American people.

This week the president gave Republicans a second unexpected gift. He reacted to the election’s outcome in a way that suggested he’s still in his own world, still seeing a reality no one else is seeing. The problem wasn’t his policies, but that he didn’t explain them well. It wasn’t health-care reform, it was his failed attempt to popularize it. His problem was that he was not political enough. He was too substantive, too serious. Americans have been under stress, and people under stress don’t think clearly, and so they couldn’t see the size of his achievements.

He sounded like a man who couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else, and once again made his political adversaries seem, in comparison, more realistic, more clear-sighted and responsive to public opinion. And he did this while everyone was watching. Again, what a gift.

Two areas seem to me key for Republican leaders in Washington. One is a long-term concern, the other an immediate one.

The first has to do with the art of political persuasion. A month ago, in conversation with a veteran Democrat, I mentioned that the old cliché is now truer than ever, that everything happens in the center. The path to victory is through the center, that’s where things are won. The Democrat nodded vigorously. “Compromise,” she said, “it’s so important.”

But compromise was not my point. Persuasion was my point. Compromise is a tool you use to get the best legislation possible, but you have to persuade the big center that your way is the better way. We’re in an age where politicians assert, insist and leave. It’s all quick, blunt and dumb. But to win and hold the center you have to make your case, you have to show you’re philosophically serious, you have to show your logic, and connect it to a philosophy. You don’t sit around saying, “I like centrists so I compromise,” you say, “Here’s what we believe, here’s how we think and why.”

The establishment of the GOP hasn’t been good at this. Some of them aren’t philosophically serious. Some don’t know that persuasion is at the heart of things. Some know but aren’t good at it. Some think they’re never given quite the right venue to expand on their views, or questioned in the right way. They should create venues.

A lot of this will fall to the newly elected congressmen and senators, and the philosophically inclined incumbents who’ve been quiet and let the leadership dominate the stage the past few years.

Right now the center is with the Republicans. They voted like Democrats in 2008 and like Republicans in 2010. But there’s going to be lots of drama in Washington the next few months, and things could turn on a dime. To hold the center you have to respect your own case enough to argue for it, and respect the people enough to explain it.

The second area has to do with the media environment that will exist in January, when the new Congress is sworn in. The mainstream media already has a story line in its head, and it is that a lot of these new Congress critters are a little radical, a little nutty.

Media bias is what we all know it is, largely political but also having to do with the needs of editors and producers. The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn’t bland, that has a certain edge. We saw this throughout the past year as they covered big tea party rallies.

A reporter would be walking along with a cameraman. At one picnic blanket she sees a sober fellow and his handsome family. He looks like an orthodontist or a midlevel manager. His family looks happy, normal, pleasant. Right next to them, on a foldout lawn chair, is a scowling woman in a big straw bonnet with a dozen tea bags hanging from the brim. She’s holding a sign, a picture of Obama in a Hitler mustache. Who does the reporter choose to interview? I think we know. A better question might be who would you pick if you were that reporter and had a producer back in the newsroom who wanted interesting copy, colorful characters and vivid pictures.

The mainstream media this January will be looking for the nuts.

I saw this in 1994, when the new Republican Congress came in. The media had a storyline in their head then, too: These wild and crazy righties who just got elected are . . . wild and crazy. They focused their cameras on people who could be portrayed as nutty, and found them. The spirited Helen Chenoweth, freshman from Idaho, talked a little too much about “black helicopters.” She was portrayed as paranoid and eccentric. Bob Livingston, from New Orleans, went to his first meeting of the Appropriations Committee wielding a machete. The new speaker, Newt Gingrich, was full of pronouncements and provocations; he was a one-man drama machine.

It was a high spirited group, and one operating without a conservative media infrastructure to defend them. They and others were caught and tagged like big wild birds, then released into the air, damaged.

The point is when they want to paint you as nuts and yahoos, don’t help them paint you as nuts and yahoos. It’s good to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said, speaking in a different context, that she didn’t really care what people did as long as they didn’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.

That would be the advice for incoming Republicans: Stand tall, speak clear, and don’t frighten the horses.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703848204575608453836688106.html