Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mexican drug war coming to your city? It might already be there.

National Drug Intelligence Center: U.S. cities reporting presence of Mexican drug gangs -- Click on image to enlarge

In the past few days, colleges across American have warned students not to travel to Mexico over spring break, due to this travel alert issued by the U.S. State Department, which describes the dangers stemming from Mexico's rapidly escalating drug related violence, much of it along the U.S. border. According to an extensive, detailed report by the Los Angeles Times, 7,337 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars just since January 2007. The Mexican government has committed 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police to this open warfare with heavily armed drug gangs.

These gangs are engaged in highly lucrative drug trafficking into the U.S., so the violence may spill over into American territory -- not only in the communities along the U.S. side of the southwest border.

The above map shows the American towns and cities where authorities have reported the presence of Mexican drug gangs. These gangs are active almost everywhere -- even in Idaho Falls and Pocatello, Idaho (lots of druggies up there in the mountains, I guess). Only three states -- Maine, Vermont and North Dakota -- reported no activity, so far.

You can see an even more interesting interactive map of affected towns and cities by clicking here.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as American demand for cocaine skyrocketed, the Colombian drug cartels dominated trafficking of that drug into the U.S. One result was an epidemic of competitive gang violence that plagued American cities from Miami to New York. Given the comparative ease of travel between the U.S. and Mexico, the "Miami Vice" of two decades ago may wind up looking like kindergarten stuff.

What should be done? Got an opinion? Post a comment.

Allegation: White House Counsel Gregory Craig's wife may have avoided D.C. taxes

Craig: "Honey, I'm home. Did the tax man call?"

Gawker has a story up that I really hope doesn't pan out, because it's really getting tiresome to find out how many folks among the Washington elite really don't think rules apply to them.

Gawker reports that Derry Noyes, the wife of long-time big-shot Washington lawyer and now White House Counsel, "runs Noyes Graphics, a design business, out of the couple's home in northwest Washington."

So?? Well...

Operating a business out of one's home in D.C. requires a home occupation permit and registration with the city's division of corporations. Additionally, the government has instituted a new requirement for business license permits.

A spokesman at the Washington D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told Gawker that no one has ever sought any kind of permit or registration for a business under the name of Noyes Graphics or at the Craigs' home address. By not registering Craig may have avoided local business taxes.

Noyes Graphics is the real deal, with a number of public listings, including this one, and Derry Noyes is fairly well known for her graphic design work.

Among his myriad important responsibilities at the White House, Craig became the Administration's chief vetter of Obama's nominees after the earlier tax-related embarrassments.

Let's hope that Craig hasn't been so busy at the office that he didn't find time to put his and his wife's business and tax affairs into good order.

If you started a home-based business, isn't the first question you would ask be, with what local laws and regulations do you have to comply -- even without a spouse who is a high-powered lawyer?

What do you think? Post a comment.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jack McBrayer (Kenneth the Page) does send up of Bobby Jindal on "Late Night"

Actually, McBrayer isn't much like Jindal at all, but it is funny.

At least I think so. What do you think? Post a comment.

Burris's tax- and mortgage-deliquent son got $75K job from Blago to help the poor avoid foreclosure

"Roland, no. Give me the envelope later!"

OK, I give up. We've gone totally off the deep end here. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Roland Burris's son, Roland II, a not very successful lawyer, got a $75,000-a-year job "as a senior counsel for the state's housing authority Sept. 10 -- about six weeks after the Internal Revenue Service slapped a $34,163 tax lien on Burris II and three weeks after a mortgage company filed a foreclosure suit on his South Side house." The state agency's "mission includes overseeing mortgage programs for low-income home buyers and anti-foreclosure initiatives." Who better but a politically wired guy who didn't pay his taxes or make his mortgage payments to advise the poor about their finances?

Of course, this adds to the suspicion that there was some Chicago-style pay to play around Blago's choice of Burris to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat:

Burris II's hiring, however, raises more questions about Sen. Burris' interactions with Blagojevich and his inner circle at a time when the governor was soliciting Sen. Burris for campaign contributions and Burris was angling to have Blagojevich appoint him to the Senate seat once held by President Obama.

There's also this about Burris the Younger's stellar credit history:

Since Burris II and his wife got the $372,000 mortgage on July 18, 2006, they've paid less than $3,000 on it, the [foreclosure] suit alleges. The balance due is $406,685, including interest and penalties.

That's $372,000 for Roland the Younger's dream home, even thought he only paid one dollar for the land:

Burris II built his home in the booming Bronzeville neighborhood on land he bought from the City of Chicago in 2000. City records show he paid $1 for the lot as part of an effort to clean up his once-blighted block.

What a tragedy this is. Who could be expected to pay more than $3,000 back on a $372,000 loan? I have an idea. Let's all kick in to help Little Roland and his wife avoid losing their home and the American Dream with it.

Oh wait...that's already being taken care of through the federal mortgage bailout.

I feel relieved. What about you? Post a comment.

Calvin and Hobbes' take on bailouts

Click on image to enlarge

(Hat tips: Centerfield and Instapundit)

Bill Waterson's strip stopped running in 1995, but the message from this one is plenty applicable today. Strikes me as especially relevant to the auto bailout.

Thoughts anyone? Post a comment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Will the real Bobby Jindal please stand up!

(Hat tip: Instapundit)

After I slammed Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal's dreadful reply to President Obama's address to Congress and the nation in an earlier post, it's only fair note that in interviews -- like this one which took place this morning -- the guy is far more focused, interesting and persuasive.

Maybe there are two Bobby Jindal's -- this one is real and the one on national TV last night was his evil twin.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Obama girls to get their puppy: a Portuguese water dog

It's official. The Obama girls are finally getting their puppy. The new First Dog will be a medium-sized, hypoallergenic Portuguese water dog like the little guy pictured here.

According to CNN, "Sen. Ted Kennedy, who owns two Portuguese water dogs, had lobbied the first family to choose the breed." So the doggie torch is being passed, too?

The White House pup has not yet been chosen, so of course, he or she has no name. Michelle Obama told People Magazine that "Frank" and "Moose" are among the names the kids have been throwing around. Just as long as they don't call it "Joe."

Was Bobby Jindal's "reply" to Obama lousy, awful or terrible?

Sorry to be so blunt, Governor, but those are the choices I see.

Jindal looked and sounded totally out of his depth. Plus, he said nothing memorable except "Americans can do anything." He struck me as a bit like Mr. Rogers, but even more dorky. Hey, maybe he should have worn a cardigan!

OK, Jindal is young, a new face and the son of immigrants from India. I get it. I suspect all of those virtues did the GOP absolutely no good last night.

Am I off base? What do you think? Post a comment.

A solid majority of Americans oppose ALL the bailouts

A month into his Presidency, Barack Obama has honeymoon-level support of the American people, as the latest polls demonstrates. In last night's address to Congress and the nation, he certainly firmed up that support.

He's going to need it. A new Rasmussen survey reports that a solid majority of Americans opposed to all the proposed bailouts.

"Given the choice between federal bailouts for the auto companies, the finance industry and financially trouble homeowners or no bailouts for any of them, 54% say no bailouts period." Only 26% support all three bailouts.

On the plus side for Obama, the GOP response to his speech before Congress by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was simply awful. Obama should have little difficulty running over an opposition like that.

What's your view of the bailouts? Post a comment.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Now, Durbin wants Roland Burris to resign. That was fast!

Auld Lang Syne: Durbin, Burris and Reid make friends way back on January 7th

You've got to hand it to former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The guy really knew how to cause trouble. Hot Rod is gone from office and perhaps spending his time contemplating his plea bargain, but his one, big post-arrest official act lives on to haunt Democrats in Illinois and Washington.

After venting spleen against Blago's appointment of Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, blustering about not seating him, and turning Burris away from the Capitol in the rain, Senate Democratic Leaders Harry Reid and Dick Durbin abruptly reversed themselves, made nice with Burris (see picture above), and embraced him. Burris was sworn into the Senate on January 15th, and now, a whole month later, Durbin has reversed himself again and wants Burris to resign. It seems that Burris left a lot out of his sworn accounts of contacts with Blago and his staff over the Senate vacancy. Who ever would have thought such a thing possible of a Chicago pol?

Illinois' new Governor, Pat Quinn, also wants Burris to step down, as do many of the other party leaders in the state who have gone through their own series of flip-flops about Burris in less than two months.

None of these guys was willing to do the one thing that would have cut off Blago's appointment power and avoided this entire, embarrassing fiasco: change the Illinois law to fill the Senate vacancy via a special election. Why? Because they weren't sure they could control the outcome of such an election. After all, there are all those voters!

So they're stuck with the results of Blago's corrupt politics and hoisted on their own petard. Serves them right.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rick Santelli fires back at White House

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went out of his way to slap Rick Santelli down, but Santelli looks like he loves it.

This is going to get interesting.

Meanwhile, writing in Newsweek, economist Robert Samuelson points out why the approved stimulus package still lacks stimulus.

What's your opinion? Post a comment.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today marks the 277th birthday of George Washington. In recent decades, Washington's prominence among our top Presidents has declined in favor or Lincoln. Of course, both men had a decisive influence on the Union as we know it. But as Lincoln himself believed, no one was more indispensable than Washington in shaping the American nation.

Through the harrowing years of Revolution, Washington alone embodied the nation that had, as yet, no constitution or permanent government. Washington created, maintained and led the army without which the Revolution would most certainly have failed. Without Washington's support, there would have been no Constitutional Convention and no Constitution. Without his steady leadership and keen foresight as the first President, the infant nation might have quickly disintegrated. Without his determination to quit that leadership and pass it along, there might easily have been either a benign dictatorship or renewed internal struggle.

It's a shame that we no longer celebrate him or Lincoln but merely mark a President's Day that is mainly an excuse for a school holiday and car dealer "salathons." At least, though, we can remember him.

Any thoughts? Post a comment.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some Republican Governors grandstand about rejecting federal stimulus dough

Bobby Jindal: "I'll have the cheese cake but hold the cream in my coffee"

A half dozen Republican Governors say they are thinking about rejecting some of the tens of billions of stimulus dough the feds are ready to hand out to the states.

Oh, please, give me a break!

Most of the group (can we call the the Rejectionists?) appears suspiciously similar to the list of GOPers touted as likely national candidates in 2012 -- Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Rick Perry of Texas, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and of course, Alaska's Sarah Palin.

So far, only Jindal has formerly rejected any of the gigantic boodle. In his case, he's not taking $98.4 million in federal incentives to expand unemployment coverage, because the new program would eventually cost the state additional money. Fair enough, but the money he's rejecting is a mere 2.5% of Louisiana's $3.8 billion share in the stimulus sweepstakes.

Sorry, such a piddling part of the package doesn't add up to a principled stand. What Jindal is doing is giving himself a talking point with more fiscally conservative voters (who may grow in number by 2012!). I'd be surprised if any of the other Rejectionsists reject much more than this.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rick Santelli's rant: The mortgage bailout backlash begins

On the Chicago trading floor this morning, CNBC's Rick Santelli lashed out at President Obama's economic revival programs, in particular the just-announced plan to spend $75 billion to bail out people who bought houses and took mortgages they can no longer afford. Other traders applauded him, as he called for a "Tea Party" to protest having to pony up taxes to pay other people's mortgages.

I support the mortgage bailout, because it seems necessary to help revive the economy. But Santelli's protest reflects a widespread feeling, and President Obama and Congress should be careful not to rub people the wrong way with flowery rhetoric about helping people achieve the "American Dream" of owning their own homes. It's a rescue of people from a fix they got themselves into. We may have to do it -- just as we have to bail out Wall Street -- but we don't have to like it.

What's your opinion? Post a comment.

How bad is the recession, really? Part IV

The Federal Reserve building

(See my earlier posts about the recession here, here and here.)

On the same day President Obama signed the stimulus plan into law, the Federal Reserve issued a new economic forecast for 2009 and beyond. The new outlook revised expectations for the economy downward since the Fed's last forecast in October.

The key expectations of the Fed's Open Market Committee, composed of the presidents of the Fed's district banks and the members of its Board of Governors, now look like this:

With the weaker than expected data offsetting an upward revision to the assumption of the amount of forthcoming fiscal stimulus, the Fed now expects real gross domestic product to decline 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent in 2009.

In October, the Fed had predicted real GDP for 2009 in a range between 1.1 percent growth and a 0.2 percent decline.

That may not seem to be much of a difference but as real growth approaches zero, much less disappears into negative territory, the effects can be tough. The Fed expects that drop in GDP to translate into unemployment reaching 8.5-8.8% in 2009 and continuing to rise in through the beginning of 2010 before edging down over the remainder of that year. In its October forecast, the Fed still expected unemployment to top out at 7.1-7.6% in 2009.

The Fed also revealed a longer-term forecast for the economy that looks quite a bit better than it did the last time, in part due to the stimulus plan:

At the same time, estimates for real GDP growth in 2010 were upwardly revised, reflecting greater monetary and fiscal stimulus as well as the effects of more moderate oil prices and long-term interest rates.

The forecast for real GDP growth in 2010 was revised up to 2.5-3.3% from the previous forecast for growth of 2.3-3.2%.

Of course, the Fed's forecast could be overly optimistic or just flat wrong. Assuming that it's generally in the right ballpark, though, what do the numbers tells us about the severity of this recession? Are we experiencing the worst economy since the Great Depression, as some folks are saying every day, or something else?

Let's look at the data and make some comparisons:

-- GDP will shrink in 2009 by no more than 1.3% -- maybe as little as 0.5%. GDP increased in 2008 by 1.3% (after a rise of 2% in 2007), with the drop almost entirely attributable to a sharp plunge (3.8% on an annual basis) in the fourth quarter on the heels of the financial meltdown.

-- If these predictions for GDP prove correct, it would be the worst decline in output since the 1.9% drop in the recession of 1981-82.

-- Unemployment will rise to at least 8.5% during 2009 and could go above 9% in 2010 (remember, unemployment tends to lag other economic trends so it can still be increasing when activity begins to pick up). Some analysts (but not the Fed) think it will break 10%.

-- This level of unemployment and the long period of growing unemployment is similar to what occurred in the 1981-82 recession, when the jobless rate was high by historical standards already in mid-1981 and rose to 10.8% at the end of 1982, the highest post-war level up to that time.

-- The economy should bottom out sometime in 2009 (most other analysts believe that will occur around mid-year) and resume moderate growth during 2010.

-- Since the recession began in December 2007, that will make the duration of this one at least 18 months -- longer than the 1981-82 recession, which lasted 16 months.

In terms of GDP performance, unemployment and length of the downturn, we are in a severe, prolonged recession much like that of 1981-82 (although that one came right after a milder 1980 recession and a decade of "stagflation" so that the impact in the early 80s may have been worse).

But this is no Great Depression revisited. During the Depression, GDP nosedived month after month and year after year for a total decline of 27% during the harshest years, 1929-1933. Unemployment was 15-25% for many years (and even higher in some years). And the Depression lasted, depending on definitions, 7-8 years or even as many as 12-13 years.

We're in a very bad spot -- the worst in a generation and terrible if you're one of the millions who has lost your job. But we've been here before and recovered very nicely.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama policy continuity: The "War on Terror" goes on

New "War on Terror" team: CIA Director Leon Panetta and
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair with President Obama

The Obama team may retire the belligerent phrase, "War on Terror" from its approved lexicon, but the war, er, whatever will continue, with Obama hanging tightly onto a good part of the Bush era counter-terrorism tools and weapons that anti-Bushies have so long denounced as illegal, immoral and downright un-American.

This was, of course, inevitable. Obama is changing the "tone" in foreign and national security affairs and making some modifications in anti-terror policies that may turn out to be minor or even largely cosmetic. No President will willingly give up the means on which he may need to rely to protect the nation and its people from attack. Today, The New York Times does a wrap-up that makes clear that whether the issue is detention, rendition, interrogation, communications interception or necessary secrecy surrounding intelligence sources and methods, there is going to be a lot more continuity than change. As the Times puts it, Obama's war on terror may resemble Bush's.

What are your thoughts about this? Post a comment.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New poll: Support for New York Governor David Paterson dropping like a rock

Attorney General Cuomo (left) has a big edge over Governor Paterson in latest poll

If a Democratic primary for Governor of New York were held today, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo would defeat accidental Governor David Paterson by a whopping 55% to 33%, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

And while Paterson would tie with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani 43-43, Cuomo would trounce Rudy 51-37. Paterson's approval rating among voters is at a miserable 45-41 percent, the lowest level in his 11 months as Governor and down from 50-30 percent January 26.

One clear factor in that decline is voter disapproval by 52 to 35 percent of his handling of the appointment to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. Even though most New Yorkers wound up negative about Caroline Kennedy, they didn't like Paterson's apparent disrespect toward the Camelot Princess and his bumbling approach to the whole affair. Another big factor, however, is Paterson's staunch backing of an austerity budget in response to the recession and plunging state revenues. This has unleashed a massive TV and other advertising and lobbying campaign that tagets him personally by public employee unions and others who don't want any cuts.

By contrast, approval of Cuomo's job as AG is an overwhelming 76 to 11. Giuliani's favorable rating is a solid Giuliani 56 to 35, which means he is still a formidable contender, especially against the wounded Paterson.

Paterson's Senate choice of upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand has received a generally favorable reception from voters, although some of her past "Blue Dog" Democrat stands as a representative of a conservative GOP district still could provoke a primary from a more liberal down stater. Gillibrand's big problem is that most New Yorkers don't know enough about her to offer an opinion, but the same can be said of her most likely primary and general election challengers.

A possible scenario that makes a lot of sense for 2010 is that Cuomo challenges Paterson, and if it still seems likely he would prevail, Rudy will instead run against Gillibrand for Senate, a race he's entirely capable of winning, delivering a rare northeastern Senate seat to the GOP.

In any case, unless he makes up a huge amount of ground in the next 10 months, Paterson will be battling for his political career.

Any thoughts? Post a comment.

Still more on Blagojemess: Is Roland Burris a liar or what?

"How much money did you say, Governor?"

The Chicago Tribune reports:

U.S. Sen. Roland Burris has changed his story again about what happened before ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed him to the Senate, and state Republican leaders said Saturday they want an investigation into whether he perjured himself.

Another day, another, different story from Burris. It certainly looks as if he perjured himself before the Illinois legislative committee, although the legislators did not distinguish themselves in asking tough, detailed questions. The guy should resign. Enough is enough.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Blagojemess update: Roland Burris under an ethical cloud

"I, Roland Burris, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth..."

To no one's surprise, Illinois' Blagojemess continues into its umpteenth chapter after the revelation that Roland Burris had several conversations with Governor Rod Blagojevich's brother, Robert, in which Robert Blagojevich asked him for contributions to Hot Rod's campaign coffers -- exactly the kind of solicitations that figured prominently in the charges on which Blago was arrested by the Feds. While Burris says he never forked over any dough, it's clear that he was less than forthcoming when being asked about the nature of his contact with Blago by the press, Senate leaders, the Illinois Legislature, and just about everyone else in the country.

A special problem is that he failed to mention it on January 5th when he testified under oath before the committee of the Illinois House of Representatives considering the Governor's impeachment. Burris could be accused of perjury. His explanation? They didn't ask him!!

Burris disclosed the dealings with brother Robert a month after his testimony. In an affidavit on February 5th, he claimed that he was asked about contact with an aide to the Governor and answered it but "then was asked another question and did not mention anyone else." Asked by a reporter why he didn't take pains to clarify the record, he said, "“Because I was answering other questions.”

Of course, this is ludicrous, because the one thing everyone wanted to know from him was whether he had been a party to any of Blago's machinations to get something in return for the Senate appointment. That's why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made his testifying under oath about that very subject the one condition for seating him in the Senate.

Republicans are calling on Burris to resign. State Democrats are mulling a primary challenge. Reid and company haven't yet figured out what to do, but one possibility is a Senate ethics probe that could result in his expulsion.

Blago is not even the Governor anymore, but the Blagojemess lives on.

Have a thought? Post a comment.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Obama policy continuity: More Predator strikes on Qaeda, Taliban targets in Pakistan

An unmanned Predator fires a Hellfire missile

No sooner did President Obama's Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan complete his first visit to the region as part of a policy review than C.I.A.-operated Predator drone aircraft again fired missiles at al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan. This time, the targets were two compounds in the South Waziristan tribal area, one linked to Pakistani Taliban kingpin Baitullah Mehsud. Among other things, the Pakistani government has charged Mehsud with being responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Taliban said that most of the 25 people killed in the strikes were "Uzbek mujahideen," according to Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper. Uzbek nationals have often been among al Qaeda fighters in the region.

This was the third Predator strike inside Pakistani territory since Obama became President. Pakistani politicians have vocally objected to the attacks as violations of Pakistani sovereignty that risked killing civilians. Holbrooke heard these complaints again when he visited Pakistan a week ago. Yet, the U.S. launched another attack.

Interestingly, the attacks also came on the heels of the apparent revelation by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, that Predator drones operate out of a base in Pakistan. Feinstein said so during testimony by the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Blair did not confirm her statement, and Pakistan's Defense Minister denied it.

Nonetheless, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the U.S. and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari are on the same page about this -- perhaps after discussions involving Holbrooke -- even though Pakistan wants to pretend otherwise. Feinstein's very public, but unconfirmed revelation, may have been a way for the U.S. to hint at the cooperation while leaving Pakistan room to deny it. In any case, it is clear that American policy has not changed. The U.S. will continue to seek out and attack al Qaeda and its allies inside Pakistan.

Have any thoughts about this? Post a comment.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Obama's foreign policy: tone changes but policies continue

Obama announces his foreign policy continuity team in December
From left: Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano, Bob Gates, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones and Susan Rice

The much-hyped bipartisanship in Washington seemed to end almost before it began with sharp party lines being drawn around the economic stimulus program this week. In foreign affairs, however, the odds are that President Obama's Administration -- led by a team of mostly pragmatic national security professionals and tough-minded politicians, including Jim Jones, Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton -- will be marked more by continuity with the previous Administration's policies than by radical change.

To be sure, Obama has adopted a new "tone" that conveys a sense of a willingness to consider significant changes in direction (his metaphor of reaching out to adversaries with "an unclenched hand" typifies that new tone). If nothing else, Obama is artfully exploiting other nations' eagerness for for a kinder, gentler America to gain some initial advantage in tackling tough problems, or at least some breathing room. But a close look at the substance of what the Obama team has said about U.S. policies -- so far anyway -- does not point to any sudden or sharp reversals.

Stratfor, the private intelligence service, sees continuity in what Vice President Biden had to say about two key areas at last week's Munich Security Conference of senior leaders from many countries. This on Iran:

The Obama administration’s position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions...Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such talks are identical to the terms under the Bush administration.

And this on Russia:

Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the “reset button” [Biden's widely quoted conciliatory words] on U.S.-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in Central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, “It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administration’s commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed.

Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to end the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing U.S. interest in it, or even any indication of the terms under which it might end.

Stratfor goes on to note that Europeans generally and the French and Germans in particular have been very keen to see the back of George W. Bush and welcome Obama. Yet, as Biden renewed the U.S. call for more NATO involvement in Afghanistan, where Obama intends to expand and refocus the war effort, Europeans were no more inclined to help out than they were when Bush was President. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went out of her way to made it clear that Germany will not send more troops.

Then. of course, there is these facts: Obama has already backed away from his campaign promise to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq more quickly; he has reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Israel; and he appears to be following through actively on his pledge to give higher priority to prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

There will be changes, as there are in every Administration. Some will happen because a new President brings a fresh perspective. Others because Democrats have different domestic political needs than Republicans. More often, changes will occur because the circumstances are altered or because other nations and non-state actors act differently. But the parameters of American foreign policy are set by American interests. Tone and emphasis may differ, but the broad thrusts of policies will be consistent. That is proving to be the case under President Obama.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Congressional Democrats may pay a price for pushing big-ticket stimulus bill

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are all smiles -- now

The $789-billion dollar stimulus bill is headed for final passage by the House and Senate. Whatever the merits of the bill's specific provisions, this is an important victory for President Obama and for Congressional Democrats.

The honeymoon-level public approval of Obama seems to be holding up, as the RCP average of polls shows, although he did take a few hits over the past couple of weeks as Republican critics assailed his economic plan. In contrast, it's clear that the Democrats in Congress have lost a lot of public support. Unlike the President, all House members and many Senators face election contests next year.

According to the latest Rasmussen poll of voters' generic Congressional preference, Republicans are running neck and neck with Democrats, with 40% of voters saying they would vote for a Democratic Congressional candidate and 39% choosing a Republican. Just last week, the Democrats held a four point lead (42-38), and two weeks ago, they were ahead by seven points. Forty percent is the lowest support for the Democrats over the past year, down from a high of 50%. Republican support sank to a low of 34% at one point in the past year.

Writing in U.S. News, conservative Michael Barone notes that the generic ballot slippage is potentially a big deal:

Given that this generic ballot question over the years has tended to understate Republicans' performances in actual elections, one gathers that if the 2010 election for House seats were held today, Republicans would win or come close to winning a majority of seats—which is to say, they would gain about 40 seats. By way of comparison, they gained 52 seats when they won their majority in 1994. This result may just be a momentary blip, which will pass away as quickly as it appeared, and we are a long, long, long way from the November 2010 elections.

The mid-term elections are a long way off, but the poll numbers point to a constant in American politics that Obama and the Democrats should remember lest it trip them up, as it has Republicans and Democrats alike in recent decades: those who occupy the political center win, and those who drift too far to the left or right will lose, even if it takes a cycle or two.

Since Obama's election, there has been a great deal of silly -- no, wishful -- talk about sea changes, permanent realignments, the withering away of the Republican Party and a Democratic ascendancy far into the future. Maybe so. But as these poll numbers signify, less than one month into this new era of Democratic control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, the fundamentally centrist nature of the American electorate is already asserting itself, warning Democrats not to get carried away with their power.

Voters on the whole like Obama, want to give him a chance, and hope he'll succeed, especially in re-energizing the economy. On the other hand, after weeks in which they have heard Congressional Democrats call for more spending and Republicans call for less spending and more tax cuts, centrist voters -- independents and moderate Republicans and Democrats -- are casting their straws for the Republican side of that argument.

Even if the economy is charging ahead again in 2010, the huge overhang of massive spending and burgeoning deficits will largely define the mid-term elections. If they don't watch carefully, the Democrats may be setting themselves up for another 1994-style defeat.

Got any thoughts about this? Post a comment.

Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday

(Above) Lincoln on February 5, 1865, two months before his murder.
(Right) Lincoln with Gen. McClellan and his officers at Antietam, October 3, 1862.

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809, at Sinking Spring Farm near the town of Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

GOP prank mocks AFSCME in profane video

After the public employees' union, AFSCME, aired commercials in House GOP Whip Eric Cantor's Virginia district attacking him for opposing President Obama's stimulus program, some GOP wise guys put together this send-up of an old AFSCME spot. A tough-sounding guy lays out in obscenity-laced language why public employees are so indispensable to a world of suits.

Cantor apologized (even though he didn't make or distribute the video), but AFSCME doesn't think it's funny. Speaking as a former public employee, the union ought to chill. It is really pretty funny. Plus, it actually does tell AFSCME's story in a way most of its real commercials have never managed to do.

Opinions? Post a comment.

Who's responsible for the economic crisis?

Chart from New York Times -- Click on image to enlarge

Who's fault is it? Well, there's Wall Street, particularly banks and other financial institutions. Then there's Washington's failure to regulate adequately under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, not to mention Congress.

But it's also your fault. Yes, you. As the graph above demonstrates clearly, Americans have steadily saved less -- and consumed more -- year by year until the savings rate has approached zero in the 2000s. Since the graph represents aggregate savings, and some people have been saving something, there are a lot of folks who have bought houses they could not afford and consumed their way into an impossible level of debt. Alongside that, of course, many businesses have done the same, and banks and other lenders have passed out money with little regard for the risk.

The credit bubble has burst, finally, as inevitably it would. With that, the savings rate has begin to go up slightly, as you can see on the right hand side of the graph.

Any thoughts? Post a comment.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chuck Schumer on video: "American people don't care about pork"

Senator Schumer: "And let me say this, to all of the chattering class, that so much focuses on those little, tiny — yes, porky — amendments: The American people really don’t care."

Say what?

Chuck Schumer is my Senator and, all things considered in his 30-year career as a public official, a good guy and an effective representative of our state.

But give us a break Chuck! Of course we folks care about whether there is unnecessary, non-stimulative pork in the bill. Even the "little, tiny" items add up quickly, perhaps to tens of billions of dollars. Just because in these tough days, we're counting expenditures in the trillions doesn't mean we shouldn't or don't care about tens of billions (or even just plain billions) anymore.

My favorite targets to remove "porky" spending from the final two-house bill are these:

A $2-billion earmark for FutureGen near zero emissions powerplant in Mattoon, Illinois (championed by disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich.

$650 million for the DTV transition coupon program. It can wait.

$850 million for Amtrak, which has already sucked up billions in taxpayer subsidies while continuing to deliver unbelievably crappy service to "little, tiny" groups of train riders in such states as Arlen Specter's Pennsylvania.

That's $3.5 billion right there.

I'm support the need for a stimulus program and accept that spending or tax cuts amounting to more than $800 billion is prudent. But that $3.5 billion could be spent in more economically productive ways.

Chuck will sing a different tune in a year or so when many of these pork items have turned into embarassments and Republican candidates for Congress are beating up on Democrats for pushing through their pet projects.

Now is the time to strip out the pork. We care, and it's the right thing to do.

Congressman describes September's massive "electronic bank run"

Rep. Paul Kanjorski describes what exactly prompted the Wall Street bailout last September. These guys should be more forthcoming with the details. Here's the most riveting part of what he said:

On Thursday at 11:00 a.m. the Federal Reserve noticed a tremendous draw-down of money market accounts in the U.S., to the tune of $550 billion was being drawn out in the matter of an hour or two. The Treasury opened up its window to help and pumped a $105 billion in the system and quickly realized that they could not stem the tide. We were having an electronic run on the banks. They decided to close the operation, close down the money accounts and announce a guarantee of $250,000 per account so there wouldn't be further panic out there.

If they had not done that, their estimation is that by 2:00 p.m. that afternoon, $5.5trillion would have been drawn out of the money market system of the U.S., would have collapsed the entire economy of the U.S., and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed. It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.

I think the Congressman goes too far with the last line about our political system, which has survived a lot worse over 200 years. But this account give us a window into to scale and speed of the financial crisis that was defused by the aggressive steps taken by the Federal Reserve, Congress and the Treasury. And that should moderate some of the ex post facto complaining about the mistakes made in trying to manage a serious emergency.

How bad is the recession, really? Part III

(h/t for graph: Marginal Revolution via Donklephant) -- Click on image to enlarge

President Obama called Monday for quick action on the fiscal stimulus bill before Congress, saying that any further delay “could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

Strong words, particularly since most Americans are already convinced that the recession is a tough one and that some action is needed. For months, we've heard a steady drumbeat of gloom and doom and countless references to the "worst crisis since the Great Depression" of the 1930s. So how bad is this recession, really?

In previous posts, I took a look at the actual performance of Gross Domestic Product (or national income), to date, compared to other recessions since World War II and at some projections of GDP for the near future. In both cases, it seemed to me that what the numbers show is a recession that most likely will be as long and deep as the double-dip recessions of 1980-82.

The graph shown above offers another way to view the recession and compare it to the 11 other post-war recessions. It tracks the total percentage decline in employment over time (not increasing unemployment) from the start of each recession as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (which is regarded as the official source for such data).

The heavy green line toward the center represents the current recession. Note that all the other lines except the green one reach a low point and then travel upwards again. The trough of each line reflects the bottoming out before economic growth kicks in again (although employment tends to lag behind actual growth in GDP).

The current recession has not yet bottomed out, although it is already into its 13th month. In almost all the other recessions, the trough had been passed before the 13th month -- some long before it. That means the current recession is already longer than most. But the decline in employment was not particularly steep until the past several months, coinciding with the sharp drop of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Now, enlarge the graph and look closely at the slope of the lines. Until a few months ago, the slope of the green line is fairly shallow, like those of the relatively mild recessions of 1969, 1990 and 2001. Then rather suddenly -- right where the September start of the financial crisis would be on the graph --the slope steepens. Since then, it very closely tracks the line for the 1981 downturn. (A reminder: we had a shorter, milder recession in 1980, and then a deeper, longer one that began in 1981, which are often viewed together as the "double dip" decline of a relatively long, severe recession of 1980-82.)

If the green line continued along that slope out to the 16th month and then bottomed out where the 1981 line hits its trough, we would indeed have seen the longest, deepest recession since 1982. That is pretty much the track that most analysts currently foresee -- without any stimulus bill such as the one now working its way through Congress. Forecasters expect the economy to continue to contract during the first half of 2009, resume slow growth in the second half, and then pick up speed gradually in 2010.

Of course, it may turn out to be a lot worse than that, and the green line may plunge further and keep going down for a good deal longer than another four months. Weighed against that possibility is the fact that there will be an $800-billion-plus stimulus program, on top of the other huge flows of new money being injected into the banking system by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve.

All in all, it's a good bet that the worst this year will be on a par with 1981-82. It will be a bad time -- certainly a severe personal trial for anyone who has lost a job, a house or a major investment -- but it's a long way from another Great Depression or an economic catastrophe.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

General Jones takes charge

National Security Advisor Jim Jones in his Marine Corps days

General Jones is in charge. At least he thinks so, which probably means that's the way President Obama wants it. That's my reading of this story in today's Washington Post:

President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues.

The result will be a "dramatically different" NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. "The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful," he said.

Jones, a retired Marine general, made it clear that he will run the process and be the primary conduit of national security advice to Obama, eliminating the "back channels" that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president's office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.

"We're not always going to agree on everything," Jones said, and "so it's my job to make sure that minority opinion is represented" to the president. "But if at the end of the day he turns to me and says, 'Well, what do you think, Jones?,' I'm going to tell him what I think."

The new structure, to be outlined in a presidential directive and a detailed implementation document by Jones, will expand the NSC's reach far beyond the range of traditional foreign policy issues and turn it into a much more elastic body, with Cabinet and departmental seats at the table -- historically occupied only by the secretaries of defense and state -- determined on an issue-by-issue basis. Jones said the directive will probably be completed this week.

"The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community -- which, historically has been, let's face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things -- especially in the moment we're currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership," he said.

Jones' new, improved NSC will be better able to contend with such "department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure." Interestingly, after a "review" now being conducted by Jones' deputy, the once-likely CIA director, John Brennan, the NSC will fold in some functions of the Homeland Security Council, established after 9/11 mainly to coordinate counter-terrorism activities. Jones also plans to re-jigger the organizational charts of Defense, State and other agencies so that everyone dealing with, say, Pakistan, will be in the same box -- the better for NSC to coordinate.

The Post goes on to note that other new presidents have juggled the NSC set-up, mode of operation, and participation beyond the limited statutory members "to fit his own needs and style," and that "the role and power of the president's national security adviser, and the size of his staff, have grown larger or smaller depending on the president's wishes."

It would seem that President Obama wishes General Jones to have a conspicuously big role and power to ride herd on "powerful figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates" and a "national security pyramid" that is "heavy with military officials" like retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as Director of National Intelligence" and big shot "special envoys to trouble spots" including Richard C. Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan and former senator George J. Mitchell to the Middle East.

I suspect that the chair rearranging to meet "department-spanning 21st-century issues" is at least in part a bit of sugar-coating of an effort to keep a tight rein in Jones' hands on Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Participation in NSC deliberations as needed by Treasury, Justice, Energy, etc. will be nothing new, as can be seen from this description of the Council.

Lest anyone be slow enough to miss the point that Jones is in charge, the General spelled it out:

"I believe in collegiality . . . in sounding out people and getting them to participate," Jones said. "I notice the president is very good at that." But he made clear he plans to apply military-like discipline to the NSC. "The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you're the guy around which the meetings occur. When we chair a principals meeting, I'm the chairman." One of the first of many internal Bush administration clashes occurred when Cheney proposed that he, rather than Rice, chair NSC meetings.

In his initial conversations with Obama before taking the job, Jones confirmed, he insisted on being "in charge" and having open and final access to the president on all national security matters. "We engaged in about an hour-long discussion about what I was already thinking about the NSC; it happened, I think, to mesh pretty well with what his instincts were. He was clear about the role of the national security adviser," Jones said of Obama.

All of which makes a lot of sense. Now, if only Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Denny Blair, the Joint Chiefs, Richard Holbrooke, et al. would all agree!

Got any thoughts about this? Post a comment.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Stimulus plan still not very stimulating

President Obama at Democratic retreat: "No more Mr. Nice Guy"

As increasingly partisan battle lines were drawn today over the stimulus program and President Obama called further delays in passing the huge package “inexcusable,” Harry Reid scrambled to line up a solid Democratic phalanx and woo a few Republicans. As I write this, it seems that Reid has struck a deal with some of the GOP moderates on a $780-billion bill that would cut some of the long-term spending programs supported by Democrats, while adding some GOP-preferred ideas. We’ll see whether it passes tonight or tomorrow.

I’m sure it will be the best that can be got in the present atmosphere, taking unto account the political dynamics in play. But having watched this process almost hour by hour for weeks, I’m still far from convinced that whatever passes the Senate and makes it through conference to the President’s desk will be all that stimulating.

After Obama mistakenly allowed the House Democrats to frame the contours of the package, we’ve seen a debate over it emerge in which reasonable, substantive arguments about what would have the most salutary impact on the faltering economy have yielded to typical partisan squabbling. Over the past several days, the issue has been posed, falsely, as a binary choice between action and inaction or between “the failed policies that got us here” and the mish mosh of off-the-shelf favorite Democratic nostrums that House Democratic staffers stuffed into the original bill.

I have consistently supported a massive fiscal stimulus program (as I did here) — but a smart one that would maximize the boost to the economy that we badly need now. I’ve taken seriously these guidelines for effective fiscal policy suggested last year by Larry Summers: first, the stimulus should be timely and money should go out “almost immediately;” second, it should be targeted mainly to help low- and middle-income people; and third, it should be temporary, meaning measures should not raise deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

There is no question that many Republicans have been aiming to score political points with their conservative constituents and with a bit of luck, cut Obama down to size with a perceived ”defeat.” But some Republican criticisms and alternative proposals have been sound and well worth examining, with Summers’ guidelines in mind.

Which brings me to tax cuts vs. spending. The argument has been made ad nauseam that tax cuts just don’t stimulate because people will save the money, and that federal spending for infrastructure, education, etc. will produce more bang for the buck. There is, of course, a kernal of truth in this but it’s also misleading if you make too much of it.

Fiscal policy is stimulative when the government runs at a deficit, expanding the money supply. Further stimulus can be had by directing this newly created money to areas where it will generate added economic activity indirectly. As to the the first, it matters not at all whether the government runs a dollar’s more deficit by cutting taxes or by giving away printed money. A deficit is a deficit, and the stimulative effect is the same. As to the second, spending in an area where more than a dollar of secondary activity will be produced — a multiplier effect — is obviously better.

So far, so good, but we need to look at Summers’ guidelines. A big chunk of the initial stimulus bill in the Senate consisted of spending that might well have a higher multiplier effect but won’t be spent for a long time. Indeed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, $142 billion, or 22%,would not be spent until after September 30, 2010, more than 19 months from now! Considering the continued downward slide of the economy, even the far larger sum that would not be spent more than 12 months from today is not particularly “timely.”

In contrast, if a final bill slashed the payroll tax in half, every worker in the country would see more money in his/her paycheck before the end of February. Likewise, an across-the-board tax credit, retroactive for 2007, would enable most people to get that extra money before April 15th. These and other tax cuts, credits and incentives could put those newly created federal dollars into play “almost immediately,” and also target it mainly to low- and middle-income people who will spend it. What’s more, such tax cuts could be legislated for a year (or less) at a time, renewed or extended as necessary, and retired when the economy revives so as not to raise deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

The question is — or should be — this: is a $1.00 of stimulus this year, even this month, really worth less than $1.25 or $1.50 delivered in two or three years when the recession may be over and inflation the tougher challenge?

The ideal stimulus plan, in my view, would include all the proposed relief — i.e., extended unemployment and health care coverage, food stamps, etc. — the truly “shovel ready” infrastructure projects, plus a trimmed down version of some of the more job-producing public investments, about half of what the House proprosed for states and cities (to help meet their current year budget gaps, not next year’s), and a whopping set of temporary but renewable income and payroll taxes targeted to the broad middle class, along with some smartly targeted tax incentives for business and homeowners.

It looks as if the Senate will vote soon on the compromise $780-billion plan, the product of work by Senators Nelson, Collins, Specter and other moderates. Everyone can be grateful that there are some people in the Senate who think for themselves and have not given up on reaching across the aisle.

What's your opinion of the plan before the Senate? Post a comment.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Will the Democratic "base" turn against "Obama's war in Afghanistan"

A.N.S.W.E.R radicals already marching against Obama's war

Throughout his successful campaign last year, even as he staunchly maintained his opposition to the Iraq war, President Obama said repeatedly that he would double down on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, a fight that he and most other Democrats said was important to win.

Even before his Inauguration, Obama sent Vice President-elect Biden to Kabul, where he met with Hamid Karzai, General David McKiernan and other top commanders and U.S., NATO and U.N. officials. His message: help is on the way, both in terms of U.S. troop reinforcements in the coming months and long-term American support. Back home, Biden reported to Obama that “things are going to get tougher before they’re going to get better." And he warned that casualties, already sharply rising, would increase more.

So Obama meant what he said. While there may be significant changes coming soon in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war goes on, and as Biden said, is going to get worse.

Where does the American Left and, more importantly, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party -- the "base" as it's come to be called -- stand on the Afghan war, and will that base continue to back the President it helped to elect.

Of course, the radicals are already on Obama's case. The old-time communist/anarchist bunch at the A.N.S.W.E.R Coalition are organizing a March 21st "March on the Pentagon" under the slogan, "“Bring All the Troops Home Now Not Later!” Meanwhile the ladies over at Code Pink, are somewhat more restrained but are still slamming Obama for having "authorized unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan [i.e., CIA Predator strikes on al Qaeda hideouts], in direct contravention of international law, and an attack in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of many civilians. " And in January, leading up to Inauguration Day, an assemblage of various left-leaning "bloggers, writers and activists" launched "Get Afghanistan Right Week," with its own website, which they proclaimed "the start of an ongoing campaign to oppose military escalation in Afghanistan."

All that is pretty routine stuff, to be sure, but it could get dicier if some hearty band of crusaders starts disrupting Obama speeches or throwing fake blood on the White House lawn.

Moving up the food chain of prospective anti-warriors, the legions of the so-called "netroots" are likely to wield some influence, as well as attract attention. Already, some regular Daily Kos contributors are speaking truth to Obama power, like this one, who who is down with the "Get Afghanistan Right" program, as is this blogger on Firedoglake. If you scroll through recent reader comments on many of the netroots sites, since Obama took ownership of the Afghan war, the attacks on U.S. policies in Afghanistan have been every bit as scathing and ill-tempered as those targeting the Iraq war, although for the moment, commenters tend to blast Robert Gates, the generals and the CIA, while saying a hopeful thing or two about Obama coming around to their view. But then, it's still only the third week of his Presidency.

The most ominous sign of growing opposition to the Afghan war is coming from those in the media who typically reflect - and often influence - opinion among more mainstream liberal Democratic politicians and constituencies. The current Newsweek (which has taken to downsizing itself more or less into a liberal journal of opinion) has an exceedingly long article headlined provocatively, "Obama's Vietnam." Yes, that's without a question mark at the end. To be fair, the authors plumb the difficult issues in Afghanistan deeply and pay attention to U.S. interests, military views, and possible good, or not-so-bad, outcomes. Still, they make frequent use of terms like "quagmire," and thrust of the piece is accurately signaled by its title and the subtitle, "The analogy [to Vietnam] isn't exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly familiar."

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert went a big step further a few weeks ago in a column called, “The Afghan Quagmire.” Herbert told Obama that "the time to go all out in Afghanistan" was right after 9/11 and "that time has passed." In what surely is an insult to the new President's ability to make critical decisions clearly and responsibly, Herbert warned that Obama should steer clear of the temptation to make up for his lack of military service and "reputation as a liberal" by feeling that "he has to demonstrate his toughness, and that Afghanistan is the place to do it."

Herbert preached to Obama about the unworthiness of the Karzai government )"a fetid hothouse of corruption, a government of gangsters and weasels"). He concluded by declaring that if Obama does send more troops to Afghanistan, he'd better be prepared to defend himself: "He will owe that to the public because he will own the conflict at that point. It will be Barack Obama’s war."

President Obama shows every sign of accepting it as "his war" and prosecuting it effectively to advance American interests, protect allies, destroy al Qaeda, and help establish peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. That's a tough job -- one that may be get tougher, as Biden indicated. The President will need strong support from the American people and both parties. It would be unfortunate if his efforts were undermined by a segment of his own party for whom the default position on virtually all uses of U.S. military power is to oppose it.

What do you think? Post a comment.

U.S. Airways Flight 1549 cockpit recording: "We're going to be in the Hudson"

Amazing calm in the cockpit. I'd be screaming, "Help!"

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama's new Afghan policy: more war, less development? Part II

U.S. troops in action in Afghanistan

In an earlier post, I spotlighted a New York Times story to the effect that President Obama was planning a revised Afghan policy that would "put more emphasis on waging war than on development." Under the new policy, the wide-ranging American efforts in Afghanistan to support the Karzai government and promote democratic reform and economic development throughout the country would give way to a sharper focus on meeting the military challenge from the Taliban, establishing security, and seeking out al Qaeda across the border with Pakistan.

Now, a widely leaked "secret report" to the new President from the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommends "that he shift U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — to focus on ensuring regional stability and eliminating Taliban and Al Qaida safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy and a thriving Afghan economy."

The report will go to Obama in connection with the policy review he's conducting and his pending decision on military commanders' request for the rapid addition of 10,000 to 12,000 troops.

As he weighs his options, Obama will have to balance his calls during the campaign for intensified effort in Afghanistan against recent warnings by some of his senior advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of the dangers of getting deeply engaged in a place that has a long and bloody history of resisting foreign occupations.
Obama has indicated in recent weeks that he favors the idea of setting limited objectives, including ensuring that Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." He cited the need for "more effective military action" while warning of Afghan hostility to foreign troops. His "No. 1 goal" is to stop Al Qaida, he said.


In their report, the Chiefs concluded that the existing American goals in Afghanistan, established by the Bush administration, are overly broad and ambitious. The report does not call for abandoning U.S. hopes of turning Afghanistan into a moderate Western-style democracy, or for halting counternarcotics efforts, but it does suggest making those steps part of a long-term vision, rather than a goal.

The two stories are consistent. In both, Gates and military officers are portrayed as seeking to narrow the U.S. military mission to the business of fighting, isolating and destroying al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, while avoiding deeper involvement in the country's political affairs and economic development. It may seem counter intuitive that this amounts to "more war, less development," but that's exactly what it means in the short run. For a period of time, U.S. forces, significantly reinforced, would go on the offensive to establish a reasonable level of security. Over the long haul, however, the Afghans would be on their own. Gates and the Joint Chiefs believe that no achievable number of U.S. troops -- even hundreds of thousands -- would be enough to pacify Afghanistan and establish a durable Western-style government.

Presumably, Obama has not officially signed off on this change of strategy, but it's a good bet that he's on board or the Pentagon wouldn't be leaking these stories.

What to you think of the shift? Post a comment below.

Danny Pearl, R.I.P.

Seven years ago this week, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan, in a cruel crime at the hand of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al Qaeda thug now held at Guantanamo.

To mark the anniversary, Danny's father, Judea Pearl, has written a compelling op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Pearl delivers searing criticism of many leaders, governments and institutions around the world -- including former President Jimmy Carter -- that have soft-pedaled the threat posed by jihadist terror groups and even made excuses for terrorist violence. I don't agree with everything Pearl has to say, but strongly recommend reading it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obama: "I screwed up"

Not long after Tom Daschle withdrew as President Obama's choice to head up HHS and health care reform, the President took responsibility for this latest snafu on himself and told NBC's Brian Williams, "I screwed up."

Obama has been getting widespread praise in the media for taking the hit personally, and many are drawing contrasts with George W. Bush's reluctance to express regret or apologize for mistakes and setbacks of far greater consequence.

I have a contrarian view about this. It's generally a bad idea for Presidents to admit error, at least not until they are out of office and writing their memoirs. Here's why.

A President has many roles. He (or she) is a mere mortal, a politician, the leader of a political party, and the head of an administration. But the President is also the head of state and as such, embodies the American nation. As of January 20th, this unique responsibility descended on Barack Obama. He may feel as if he's the same guy he was on January 19th and wish to speak and act the same way, but he can't.

As President, his words and actions on all matters, great and small, are the words and actions of the United States of America, particularly to foreign governments and people around the world. If Barack Obama is believed -- even mistakenly believed -- to be hesitant, uncertain, inexperienced, error-prone, irresolute or above all not fully in command of his government, friends and enemies abroad will adjust their own attitudes, policies and actions accordingly. It's not just a matter of appearing strong to potential adversaries. Indeed, close allies and friendly nations generally are far more likely (and better able) than enemies to seek ways to take advantage of a moment when the President seems not to be in charge of his own Administration.

This may seem to be a relatively minor incident -- and in some ways it is. But Obama has been President for only two weeks, and the signal he's sending to the world is not only that his Administration is capable of a "screw up," but also that the President himself is at fault and happy to tell the world that he is. What happens when, as is inevitable, there is another screw up? Won't people expect him to take the blame again? And what if it's a mistake of great consequence?

In any case, the truth is that this incident was not Obama's fault personally. It was first and foremost Tom Daschle's fault for not paying his taxes and then not telling the Obama team about his tax problem until after his appointment was announced. It's also the fault of the Obama transition staff people who vetted Daschle and those who supervised the vetting. And it's the fault of the President's political and communications advisors who didn't grasp the impossibility of Daschle's position and give the President smart advice. Frankly, it would have been better for Obama to have leaked that the vetting was inadequate and Obama was furious with some of his staff.

Obama may think that he scores political points for honesty (even if he was not in fact to blame for the screw up), and he has in the very short run. But with his whole Presidency still ahead of him, he should quickly learn that it is really more important for the nation that the President is always master of the ship of state.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Daschle withdraws

It's done.

It is really too bad in some ways. Tom Daschle served his state and the nation well for many years. And he had a lot to offer to the new Administration. But he should have paid all his taxes. It's just that simple.

Designee for "Chief Performance Officer" withdraws over unpaid taxes

Nancy Killefer: She owed only 950 bucks

Nancy Killefer, designated by President Obama to become Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Chief Performance Officer, has withdrawn from both posts, saying she has "come to realize" that "my personal tax issue" could become a "distraction."

I suppose she's right, but as far as we know, Killefer's problem was that she failed to make a number of quarterly payments for the District of Columbia's unemployment compensation tax for a household employee, and the municipal government slapped a lien on her house for $946.69.

Perhaps she had other "tax issues" too, but honestly, how can you make Killefer "withdraw" without asking the same of Tom Daschle who evaded $128,000 in income taxes?

What do you think? Post a comment.