Friday, October 30, 2009

THE FAILING OBAMA PRESIDENCY

I can admit mistakes and misjudgments. Obama is one of them. But I do not suffer from buyer’s remorse. When I imagine a McCain/Palin presidency and administration, I envision one of two scenarios: pandemonium or apocalypse, each attended by moral and political meltdown.

My support of Obama during the presidential campaign praised his “unflappable demeanor, sound judgment, informed intellect, and articulate speech.” I added that “Obama exerts influence like a leader with common-sense policies.” I interpreted these characteristics as indicators of leadership. I was wrong. They are necessary features of a leader but are not sufficient to make a leader. A leader is not someone having a position of leadership or the characteristics of a leader, but behaving like one by making, explaining, executing, and enforcing decisions based on sound reasoning and pursued with steady determination.

I assumed that what a highly educated, legally trained, but street-smart candidate would do in office would reflect his experience at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum and bear some relationship to his “common-sense policies.” I know that many candidates, once elected to office, cannot do everything which they promised to do on the campaign trail. No number of campaign briefings can prepare them for the realities of their positions, with its many limits on their power. Even so, Obama is disappointing.

Obama’s first and biggest mistake has been to lose touch with those who elected him, the members of the middle and lower classes, regardless of their party identification, because they thought that he understood them. An omen: he and his family vacationed with the elites in Martha’s Vineyard, not average citizens in Disney World. No longer does he concern himself with those whom he addressed during his campaign, and they know it. Winning back their trust and support is not likely.

Once a social organizer in the streets, Obama has shown the out-of-touch perspective and adopted the trickle-down approach of the moneyed class which bankrolls American politics. Not only did he save the too-big-too-fail banks before he served the people, but he also saved the wrong banks. His trillion-dollar stimulus package rewarded the very financial institutions which got us into this mess by shuffling paper in Ponzi schemes but which do not invest in businesses providing products and services. He touts a recovery because the financial markets are bullish although the economy remains bearish for just about everyone else, regardless of their employment status.

If Obama had had a citizen’s eye view of the economy, he would have urged a smarter socio-economical stimulus to distribute the same trillion dollars to every taxpayer and dependent. People could have put that $3500 per person to use for necessities, health care, education, mortgages, credit cards—in a word, put money into circulation and help ordinary citizens. The too-big-too-fail banks would have gotten money eventually; more importantly, the smaller banks which make local and regional loans in support of local and regional economies would have gotten money almost immediately.

Obama’s second biggest mistake has been to substitute process for results. There is some, but not all, merit in bipartisanship and in tolerance of people with differences of opinion. But his unwavering commitment to them, in denial of the fact that they are not working, suggests a compulsive desire to operate by committee, avoid controversy, and duck responsibility for decisive action. Thus, this commitment covers his outsider’s desire for approval and popularity at the expense of principle and accomplishment; it also camouflages his weakness because of these vulnerabilities. Everyone now knows that he can be pushed around or rolled; that he lacks the temperament, the executive grit, which accepts the ned to make decisions, however occasionally or reluctantly, which make enemies in order to get something accomplished in Washington.

Obama’s third biggest mistake has been adulterating or abandoning the positions which appealed to many people during his campaign. Not everyone agrees with all of his positions, even those who voted for him, but he probably has majorities or near majorities on most of them: health reform, education reform, global warming, campaign and government reform, reduction of forces in Iraq, renewed commitment to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, shutting Guantanamo, cleaning up executive branch agencies for misconduct, among others. But he is doing little enough on any of these issues.

Most new presidents commit to action, get results, and build political capital by their early accomplishments. Not Obama; he has squandered his opportunities and has almost nothing to show for his presidency after nine months. The first “Hundred Days” metric is not fair, but a 270-days metric is. Now, with less support and diminished respect, Obama is going to find that the going is going to get tougher. He has impressed no one because of large but largely symbolic cuts in over-sized bank executive compensation. He has impressed no one with his attacks on talk-radio hosts; indeed, he has shown himself to be petty and insecure. He has impressed no one, least of all members of his party who find him detached from the debate, on health care reform, perhaps his most ballyhooed cause. If Congress passes any such legislation, however flawed or ineffectual, Obama will sign it, make a speech, and take credit at a photo op. But he will fool no one.

Obama is making himself toast. Faced with little done and much to do, Obama has talked with arrogant self-confidence about what he must defer in his first term but will get accomplished in his second term. But with little or nothing to show for his speechifying and spectatorizing presidency, the chances of his credible campaign and re-election are small. Fortunately, many Democrats can competently challenge their failed president in 2012, and do better against any Republican, who would prefer to run against Obama. No-drama Obama indeed; his one-term presidency will end, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Friday, October 16, 2009

REFLECTIONS ON THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

That Colin Powell is one smart general, and I entirely subscribe to his doctrine for military engagement: clear purposes (goals, objectives, whatever you want to call them), sufficient and continued commitment of resources, and the strong and continuing support of the American people. Who can disagree with this much good sense?

But my man left something out. I am pretty sure that, if you want to fight a war, you had better have an enemy. Try as hard as I can, I cannot identify one—not the Taliban, not Al Qaida—not in Afghanistan, not yesterday, but today and tomorrow.

Now I do not think highly of the Taliban for a lot of reasons. But I have to say that bad as that party of politico-religio fanatics is, the US abides many worse parties without waging war on them. I am quite sure that I prefer the Taliban to Iranian mullahs, North Korean dictators, Myramar generals, and assorted sub-Saharan despots. But I am also quite sure that I do not prefer them to no-account Cuban cigar-smokers.

Oh, yes, I hear shrill cries about 9/11. Although the Taliban government gave Al Qaida sanctuary before that date and refused US requests or demands that it expel or extradite Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaida leaders, it had no role in the 9/11 attacks. My guess is that, if it had known such attacks were being planned and implemented by its guests, and if it had known that such attacks would lead to an American invasion ousting it from power, it would have rescinded its invitation. With this history better known to it than to us, the Taliban, if it returns to official power, would be highly unlikely to repeat it.

Currently, the Taliban effectively control about four-fifths of Afghanistan, with little help from or involvement of Al Qaida. The latest numbers bandied about indicate about 100 known Al Qaida members are in the country. The Taliban currently operates as an effective but elusive insurgency in its country. If the US were to withdraw its troops and left the Taliban to reassert control of the country, it would no longer be elusive; it would be the government. It would not occupy and, as necessary, abandon make-shift camps, or retreat into and be absorbed by a supportive populace; it would occupy the buildings and facilities of government. It could become a target again, as it was in 2002. Anyone who thinks that the Taliban in Afghanistan would support Al Qaida again and risk losing control again has a lot of explaining to do.

Meanwhile, for all practical purposes, Al Qaida constitutes a trivial political and military presence in Afghanistan. It knows this 9/11 pre-history, it understands the realities of past and the illusions of future support in Afghanistan, so it realizes that it has more to fear from the Taliban, which does not want it, than from Pakistan, which presently appears unable to control it and limit its operations. For Al Qaida, better Pakistan than Afghanistan.

So, in today’s Afghanistan, we have the Taliban, which had little or nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks; which cannot be imagined to want to repeat its expulsion from power by harboring a terrorist group and thereby inviting another US military campaign against it; and which otherwise has no nefarious designs on the United States except to continue supplying it with heroin. And, in today’s Afghanistan, we have an Al Qaida presence of about 100 widely dispersed members of no influence or importance to the Taliban and its local interests. In the end, the Taliban is not a threat and does not want a fight, and Al Qaida is not a threat and cannot fight—not from Afghanistan. Here, their interests are different: the Taliban wants to rule a country, Al Qaida wants to ruin ours. So who is the enemy there whom we should stay to fight? And, as Powell might ask, what are our purposes justifying the commitment of resources and earning the support of the American people?

We do not need a policy on Afghanistan which continues a war against no real enemy in that country, one with no tradition of a central government, not to mention a legitimate one, in a “fourth-world” society of illiteracy, poverty, and disease. Afghans seem to like it that way; they certainly want neither the Russians nor the Americans to dictate or develop new ways of life. They hate foreigners more than they want freedom, favors, or fortunes. Who are we to say different?

Of course, Taliban and Al Qaida might join forces in Afghanistan, as they are doing in Pakistan. Perhaps, their union is one of mutual convenience in an insurgency against the Pakistani government. If successful, it remains to be seen whether the union can survive its success. I worry that it can. Whereas the two groups have different purposes in Afghanistan, they seem to have similar purposes in Pakistan, the acquisition of nuclear weapons which would empower both enormously beyond their current capabilities. Much depends on who controls these capabilities and whether they share them. So the issue of Afghanistan morphs into the issue of Pakistan, a situation which may require, not negotiations with those who have proven resistant to negotiations, but military action of a dramatic nature. The Pakistan government seems to be aware, albeit belatedly, of the extreme threat to its survival and that of its country.

We know how to fight that kind of war. What we need is a policy for combating terrorism which will likely rarely involve war. We need to be able to wage highly specific campaigns tailored to defeat identifiable enemies in various and shifting locales as they move from one to another. We need a way to wage such campaigns in accordance with civilian control of the military, our obligations under national and international law, and a regard for the importance of moral as well as material means to counter terrorism and its wellsprings in the frustrated longings of most people for a better life in this life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

OBAMA’S NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

There is so much not to say about Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize—unfortunately, many have nevertheless said it—that I shall confine myself to the few things to say about it. First of all, whatever Obama has or has not done to promote world peace, he did not give himself the award. If we have any clarity about moral agency, we have to acknowledge that he is not responsible for an award which others have given him according to their lights. Second, however, he is responsible for accepting it, and accept it he did. But he himself acknowledged that he had no record of accomplishment, that the award signified little more than a shift in approach which might encourage peaceful approaches to the world’s problems. He seems fully responsible for becoming modesty. And it would be rude, not to say churlish, to refuse it. Third, nevertheless, changing for the better the atmospherics in which international diplomacy is conducted is not a negligible feat. Inspiring others worldwide, though it has yet to yield results, is a significant precursor to the hope of results. Certainly, no one is going to give some previous presidents kudos for their approaches to international relations. Fourth, I am enough of a team player to like it when my country wins a prize. Finally, I do not think that there is anything unworthy about peace, being a peacemaker, or even being called a peacemaker. Has it not been said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God”? Obama has his work cut out for him, but he cannot be blamed for a recognition that he is off to a good start.