October 08, 2009

The (anti) Obama Chronicles

BARACK OBAMA ran an impressively disciplined presidential campaign. He has presided over a notably cohesive White House. But in the past fortnight things have started to go wrong. His latest review of strategy in the Afghan war has prompted charges that this president dithers while American soldiers die, and has provoked a rare public quarrel between the politicians and the military men. The timetable for reforming health care slips and slips, as does the effort to get a climate-change bill through Congress. And in the middle of all this Mr Obama and his wife Michelle found time last week to make a quixotic overnight dash to Copenhagen in the hope of winning the 2016 Olympics for his adopted city of Chicago.

What was intended to be another display of star power on a world stage ended in a flop. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) eliminated Chicago in the first round, for some reason rating the delights of Rio over those of the Windy City. Tall and athletic he may be, but in Copenhagen America’s president won nothing and the Olympic gold went to the portlier president of Brazil, Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva.

The Olympics, admittedly, are just games; the point, said the White House (afterwards), is that Mr Obama took the time to give Chicago’s bid his best shot. That has not stopped gleeful critics from depicting the failure as a symptom of bigger defects, notably Mr Obama’s overweening self-belief, and the naive trust they say he invests in unreliable foreigners, be they the bureaucrats of the IOC or the nuclear-arming ayatollahs of Iran. Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio broadcaster, gloated that Mr Obama’s bad day in Copenhagen was the worst of his presidency, at least so far. “So much for improving America’s standing in the world, Barry O” sneered Erick Erickson, a blogger who runs the Red State website.

This debacle may not inflict lasting damage on Mr Obama. The delight some Republicans have shown in a setback for an American city could hurt them more than him. But the dash to Copenhagen was plainly under-prepared. It has bashed his reputation for a sure touch in public relations and added to the suspicion that he expects to achieve too much merely by deploying his celebrity power. Valerie Jarrett, a family friend from Chicago and one of the president’s very closest advisers in the White House, gushed before the Copenhagen trip that the Obamas would be a “dynamic duo” in Denmark. David Axelrod, another, complained afterwards of the IOC’s decision that there were “politics inside that room”. Isn’t the president of the United States supposed to know a thing or two about politics?

Nobody, however, can accuse Mr Obama of under-preparing for the far weightier decision he is pondering in Afghanistan. The administration has now spent several weeks conducting a methodical new review of its strategy, prompted by two deeply unwelcome developments: the crude rigging in favour of President Hamid Karzai in August’s flawed election and the leaked report from General Stanley McChrystal, concluding that the West faces certain defeat unless it adopts an ambitious new strategy, backed by a greater commitment of men (said to be 40,000, though the number has not yet been confirmed) and resources.

That General McChrystal’s report has divided the administration is no surprise: the war is now very unpopular among Democrats who have been encouraged by their success in imposing a rigid timetable for a full withdrawal from Iraq. The surprise is that it has prompted an unusually public quarrel. Vice-President Joe Biden rejects the call for an enlarged counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban. His is said to be one of several voices inside the White House arguing for a smaller war directed mainly against al-Qaeda. But the merits of the case have now become ensnared in a debate about whether General McChrystal was insubordinate when he appeared to disparage the Biden idea in public. “You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be,” the general told a questioner at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London. “A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.”

The charge of insubordination sizzled rapidly through the media and up the chain of command. Writing in the Washington Post, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law at Yale University, went so far as to invoke the spectre of Douglas MacArthur facing off against Harry Truman over the Korean war. He accused General McChrystal of “a plain violation of the principle of civilian control”. Jim Jones, the National Security Adviser (and a former general), said a president should be given a range of options, not a fait accompli. Robert Gates, the defence secretary, expressed continuing confidence in General McChrystal, but added that everyone involved in the review of strategy should provide their advice “candidly but privately”.

Mr Obama acted this week to fend off Republican claims that fear of his own wavering allies on Capitol Hill is weakening his commitment to a fight that he has always called vital to America’s security, both during the election campaign and since assuming office. On October 6th he invited 30 congressional leaders from both parties to the White House and told them that although he had not decided whether to send extra troops he was contemplating no “dramatic” reduction. The next day his security team convened again to continue their review, focusing this time on conditions in Pakistan. A final decision, says Harry Reid, the Senate’s majority leader, would probably come in “weeks, not months”.

Whether the right description of this timetable is “leisurely” (Senator John McCain) or “thorough” (the administration), the process has certainly been messy. The spat with General McChrystal, Mr Obama’s own recent choice to command in Afghanistan, invites the charge that he is not giving his generals the resources they need. If he does not send the general his extra troops, senior Republicans who have so far restrained their criticism will charge that the president is appeasing his party by endangering America’s fighting men overseas. Mr McCain has already called on Mr Obama to give “great weight” to his commanders’ views. But wading deeper into a war that this week entered its ninth miserable year will stoke the fears of the Democratic leadership in Congress that Mr Obama is sinking into a new Vietnam.

It is a fateful choice, and history is likelier to remember the decision itself, not the circumstances in which it was made. But Mr Obama’s failure to keep General McChrystal in line has made the politics of it very much harder. From Kandahar and Copenhagen (where Mr Obama faces a second ordeal in December at the climate-change summit) a cold wind is blowing through the White House.
-The Economist 10/8/09

Weak Himself, Obama Draws Strength From Bush
By Michael Barone
In trying to understand what is happening in the nation and world, we all employ narratives -- story lines that indicate where things are going and what is likely to happen next. We can check the validity of these narratives by observing whether events move in the indicated direction. If so, the narrative is confirmed. But if things seem to be moving in an entirely different direction, it's time to discard the narrative and look for another.

When Barack Obama took office, most Americans and certainly most of the press had a narrative in mind. Call it Narrative A. The financial crisis and the ensuing deep recession had removed the blinkers from voters' eyes and moved Americans away from reliance on markets and toward reliance on government.

The new president's call for hope and change would be followed by enactment of big government policies -- a big-spending stimulus package, government-led health care reform, restrictions on carbon emissions and the effective abolition of the secret ballot in unionization elections. The new president's powers of persuasion would sweep Republicans along and make for bipartisan change.

It certainly seemed plausible. New Deal historians had taught us that economic collapse increases support for big government. Opponents of the Obama program seemed incoherent and demoralized.

But Narrative A looks increasingly shaky. The unions' anti-secret ballot bill is going nowhere, and neither, it seems, is carbon emissions legislation. The stimulus package is widely regarded as a failure, and the Democrats' various health care bills are not winning majorities in polls. If anything, Americans are more leery of big government than they were a few years ago.

Moreover, the balance of enthusiasm has shifted. The tea parties and town halls have shown that millions of Americans are strongly opposed to big government measures. The Obama e-mail lists that brought in so much money and so many volunteers in 2008 now seem unable to get a few dozen people to a rally, and Democratic fundraising is alarmingly low for a party in power.

So it may be time to advance a Narrative B. It goes something like this. George W. Bush's inability to produce progress in Baghdad and New Orleans, along with floundering by congressional Republicans, led voters to give Democrats majorities in Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. But the huge flow of dollars designed to staunch the financial crisis (TARP), finance bailouts and fund the stimulus package raised fears that government would crowd out private-sector growth.

In this narrative, Democrats' big congressional majorities owe more to perceived Republican incompetence and to the $400 million that labor unions poured into Democratic campaigns than to any change in fundamental attitudes toward the balance between markets and government.

Narrative B does a better job than Narrative A of explaining the unpopularity of the Democrats' big-government programs and the unwillingness of many Democratic officeholders, especially those facing voters in 2010, to support them. It does a better job of explaining the shift in the balance of enthusiasm from 2008 to 2009.

It still may be possible for Democrats to jam through some of their health care proposals, and tax rates are scheduled to go up when the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010. The Democrats may be able to make basic policy changes because of accidental advantages. In the framework of Narrative B, government-directed health insurance and vastly enhanced union power would be reactions to George W. Bush's inept handling of Iraq before the surge and his hapless response to Hurricane Katrina.

Narrative B doesn't explain all current developments satisfactorily. Voters still have a lingering distaste for Republican politicians and give higher (or less low) ratings to the Democratic than the Republican Party. Republican policy proposals, while not nonexistent as the Democrats charge, have not caught the public's attention and may prove no more popular than the Democrats' health insurance and cap-and-trade proposals. And Democratic proposals may turn out to be more popular than they are today.

But overall Narrative B has done a better job so far of explaining 2009 than Narrative A. Which suggests that it's time that fans of Narrative A who don't like Narrative B to come up with Narrative C.

Obama's Foreign Policy Suspends Disbelief
By George Will
WASHINGTON -- Last Thursday, the president's "engagement" with Iran began. This Wednesday, the U.S. war in Afghanistan will enter its ninth year. And U.S. foreign policy is entering a White Queen phase.

In "Through the Looking Glass," Alice says she is unable to believe the White Queen's claim to be 101. The Queen responds, "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes." Alice: "There's no use trying, one can't believe impossible things." Queen: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Regarding Afghanistan, the president might believe he can effect a Houdini-like escape, uninjured, from the box his words have built. Regarding Iran, he seems to believe its leaders can be talked or coerced (by economic sanctions) out of their long, costly pursuit of nuclear weapons by convincing them that such weapons do not serve Iran's "security."

On March 27, the president announced "a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." He said his "clear and focused goal" was to prevent the Taliban from toppling Afghanistan's government, and to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan or Pakistan. U.S. forces "will take the fight to the Taliban" in Afghanistan's "south" and "east" but "at the same time, we will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces."

On Aug. 17, the president reiterated his belief that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is "not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." This was two months after he replaced the U.S. commander there with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, directing him to assess the resources required for the strategy. The general has done that. But the president does not yet want to discuss troop numbers. Why not?

The president's national security adviser, Jim Jones, a former four-star Marine general, told The Washington Post that before deciding on troop levels, the focus must be on strategy: "The bumper sticker here is strategy before resources." So, is the president reassessing his March 27 strategy? If so, why?

Perhaps because fraud devalued Afghanistan's election. But it was not a sunburst of new information that President Hamid Karzai is corrupt. Or did the president believe, as only the White Queen could, that Karzai had reformed?

Granted, counterinsurgency -- especially when it includes the nation-building implicit in McChrystal's assessment -- requires a reliable partner. But, again, Karzai was a known commodity on March 27. Besides, a presidential strategy is half-baked if its author decides it is dubious after its first collision with difficulty.

Regarding Iran, what did we learn when we learned about the secret nuclear facility in the tunnel? That Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons? We knew that. That Iran lies? We knew that, too. We did, however, learn something when the president, at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, went public with his knowledge of the facility.

On one side of the president stood France's president. On the other side stood Britain's prime minister, who said Iran's behavior would "shock and anger the whole international community." Not quite. The leaders of Russia and China were not standing with the president.

China has contracted to provide Iran with gasoline, a commodity that could be central to what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls "severe" sanctions that he thinks might cause Iran to change course. Russia's real leader, Vladimir Putin, was not even in Pittsburgh. Russia's Potemkin president, Dmitry Medvedev, did say something that only the White Queen could believe means that Russia will participate in serious pressure on Iran: Sanctions are not "the best means of obtaining results" but "if all possibilities" are exhausted, "we could consider international sanctions." Over to you, Queen.

Gates says "the only way" to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran "is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened." But to accept that formulation requires accepting two propositions that would tax the White Queen's powers of belief.

One is that possession of nuclear weapons would make Iran less secure. Question: If Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons in March 2003, would the United States have invaded Iraq? Iran's leaders probably think they know the answer.

The other proposition is that Iran's regime seeks nuclear weapons merely to enhance the nation's security and not also for regional hegemony or the enjoyment of the enlarged status that comes from being a nuclear power. To believe that, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.

1 comment:

Kent said...

I strongly agree with everything Barone says here, except for the part about Bush mishandling New Orleans after Katrina.

What was the President supposed to do, push a sitting Governor out of the way and take charge of a state? What would the outcry been had he done that?

He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

The correct way to describe Katrina is to say that the Lousiaina Democratic Governor and the Democratic Mayor of New Orleans were ill prepared for a big storm.

The local and state government of Louisiana failed their citizens. And as usual with a biased press operation, the steps did take (or tried to take) go completely unreported.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina the good people of Louisiana (my former home state) replaced their inept state government with the brilliantly capable conservative Bobby Jindal.

I see some possible parallels in 2010 on the national level, how about you, Buddy?