Wendi Murdoch slugged the wrong guy. While she has won worldwide admiration in the press for leaping to her feet without hesitation to defend her husband from a humiliating shaving cream pie attack, clearly the attacker was not the one doing the most to humiliate Murdoch. That, of course, would be Murdoch himself, who, in the course of his halting, uneven performance before a British parliamentary committee yesterday, only succeeded in demonstrating that a management change is long overdue at News International, possibly the most influential media company in the world.
Sure, it's tempting to say it was more humiliating for the anointed heir to the kingmaking top spot at News Corp., Murdoch's son, James, to be caught on camera leaning away from the attack while his flyweight stepmom connected with her roundhouse. And it would be even more correct to say that James's convoluted answers to questions about how the company handled the phone hacking scandal as it became revealed almost certainly disqualify him from further nepotism-assisted ascendancy within the company his father built.
But the hearing succeeded in clearly revealing that the company's deep cultural flaws flowed directly from Rupert himself. His response that he was not ultimately responsible for the apparently widespread criminality and absence of ethics within the company said it all. What happened to the old notion that the buck stopped with the man at the top? Murdoch was willing to mouth words of apology and feigned humility but then moments later reveal his view that the public reaction to the phone hacking scandal was overwrought, a media feeding frenzy of the type he made a career both fostering and profiting from.
Son James's responses to questions about who approved pay-offs to injured parties were also telling, of course. He noted that, because the amounts were comparatively low given the great size of the media conglomerate, they would never have come to the attention of top management like himself or his father. The fact that settlements concerning clear evidence of the worst kind of breaches of journalistic ethics wouldn't have come to the attention of people at the top is evidence of either a tacit or explicit acceptance of bad behavior, a failure of checks, or gross incompetence. (Not that all of the above is not also possible.)
After the big show of the hearings a more damning development emerged Wednesday morning with the release of the findings of the Parliament's all-party Home Affairs Committee which concluded -- in one of the least shocking findings in recent memory -- that News International "deliberately" tried to impede British police investigations into the phone hacking scandal. And that in turn was soon over-taken by the spectacle of British Prime Minister David Cameron defending himself in front of a special session of Parliament for having hired as his principal spokesperson one of the central actors in this sleazy affair while hobnobbing with others from the News Corp. hierarchy.
Cameron will likely survive this embarrassment. He is guilty only of seeking to advance his career by the same means of his predecessors, hitching his wagon to one of the most powerful media empires in the world. Murdoch should not be as fortunate. During yesterday's testimony he made it even clearer that he had failed to protect the interests of the shareholders (not to mention the customers) of his company through some failing of either his character or that of his management approach or of his company writ large.
It is time for the old man to go -- and that is a reality that even the nimble and courageous Wendi will not be able to swat away.
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When the United Kingdom's prime minister stands up in front of an elite audience and slams an old friend alongside of whom Britain is fighting the war on terror for its government waste and because too many of that country's richest are getting away without paying much tax at all, it's got to sting. But fortunately for Jeff Immelt and the rest of us here in the United States, David Cameron was in Islamabad and the broken, favoritism-ridden, inefficient system he was excoriating was not the one in Washington but the one that, at least nominally, is responsible for Pakistan.
That said, Cameron is among a rapidly shrinking number of folks who have yet to pile on to the revelations of GE's protracted tax holiday and, by extension, President Obama's appointment of Immelt to be his competitiveness advisor. In fact, my guess is Immelt will not be able to survive indefinitely in his capacity as an informal consultant to the president. When I spoke to two different senior economic officials in the administration about him this morning, they both rolled their eyes and wondered aloud what the White House was thinking when he was picked.
America has produced few better respected senior executives than Immelt. And for an administration that needed better ties with the business community in a hurry, he seemed like an excellent choice. But as one of the officials observed to me, he was a disaster waiting to happen even before the tax hubbub and GE's ties to the Fukushima nuclear calamity became hot topics. Why? Because with so much of GE's revenue coming from outside the United States, it was only a matter of time before the company made a decision to invest in an overseas project that would be seen as sapping American jobs or at least failing to create them.
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The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
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FIFA, not content to be tainted with just its current trifecta of on-going scandals -- including its cash for selection site votes scandal, "Ticketgate," and the ISL secret payments scandal -- inched closer to claiming the International Olympic Committee's crown as the most odious organizing body in international sports with its absolutely ridiculous choice today of Qatar over the United States to host the 2022 World Cup.
To compound the indefensible nature of the choice -- which in the end came down to petrodollars over the integrity of the sport and the interests of the fans (see Grant Wahl's "Inside Soccer" column at si.com) -- Russia, home to infrastructure that is as compromised by neglect as is its democracy, was chosen as site of the 2018 games. But at least Russia is a country of enough size to produce plenty of fans and it has a substantial soccer tradition. And it's not a desert location for a summer sporting event.
But Qatar? With something under 500,000 native born residents and just over 1.6 million people overall? No soccer tradition to speak of? No stadiums? 120 degree summer heat? All those unpleasant WikiLeaks stories? Located at a huge distance from most of the fans who might want to go?
Qatar over Australia, which did beautifully with the Olympics not so long ago? Qatar over the United States? With Bill Clinton and Morgan Freeman presenting on America's behalf? Do they understand who Morgan Freeman is? He's the guy God would get to play Himself in the biopic. He's Nelson Mandela. He's "Red" Redding from Shawshank for goodness sakes! He's a higher power than almost all mortals … but not higher than Sepp Blatter, the man with the ugliest name in sports, the Peron of the Pitch, the Mussolini of the Midfield, the Genghis Khan of the Goooooooooooooal!
Blatter let it be known that even if FIFA's technical evaluations of Qatar were not so great that he would like to see the games go to the country which has promised $50 billion and something like 9 new stadiums to host.
On Fox Sports Channel U.S. Soccer great Eric Wynalda asked, "Is this about soccer or about natural gas and oil? That's what has just won… they have just bought the World Cup."
Now some of you might ask, is this sour grapes? Is this just one more jingoistic American whining when the ball doesn't bounce our way?
Yes, yes it is. But, I wouldn't be complaining like this if there was one compelling (wholesome) rationale to explain the decision, one explanation that might suggest that the interests of soccer fans anywhere outside downtown Doha were taken into consideration.
But after all this the decision came from the same guys who argued that all those bad calls during this summer's Cup in South Africa were good for the game because they provoked conversations. Perhaps they're using the same rationale now. Because this is the worst FIFA call all year, and that's saying something.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
As promised -- trumpet fanfare -- "The Winners and Losers of the Decade." Or, as I like to think of it, "The Winners and Losers of the Oughts," in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade's numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that we did not do.
George W. Bush: It almost seems too easy. But upon reflection, it's not even close. Bush wasn't just born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- he inherited America, the world's sole superpower, with a budget surplus and clear skies ahead. When we were attacked on 9/11, the immediate consequence was unprecedented support for him and for the country. And yet, almost immediately thereafter, he started on a catastrophic set of missteps and bad decisions that had alienated the world by the end of his term. George W. Bush was not just the biggest loser produced by the American political system in the past decade, he was in all likelihood one of the worst presidents in American history and he presided over what was almost certainly the worst international relations calamity since, I don't know, maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts.
How did he get there? What was the worst of all the bad choices he made? Was it invading Iraq or picking Dick Cheney to be his vice president in the first place -- or more properly, letting Dick Cheney choose himself? In the literary biz, we call that foreshadowing ... but in the history biz they will almost certainly call it the beginning of the end for a president who undercut American stature like no other, compromised our historic values and at times, seemed like he could barely speak English.
Not only does he get my nod for loser of the decade in the United States, he takes the international crown as well. All hail George W. Bush. Thanks to his bumbling in the highest office in the land, he also achieved the rarest form of comic apotheosis: He became the punch line that didn't even need a joke. Sadly, for us all, it will always hurt when we laugh.
Al Gore and the American People: There are losers and then there are those who lost. For the remainder of our lives we will always wonder what might have been. Seldom have there been forks in the road of history as clear as the 2000 U.S. presidential elections. The difference between the two candidates was as thin as the sheet of paper on which the politically stacked Supreme Court reached its compromised decision. In retrospect, it is ever more clear that the election was stolen and America, and countless victims worldwide, were sent hurtling toward a destiny that we and they did not deserve. Gore later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work battling climate change and has handled the defeat and its aftermath with a grace that would warrant the prize had he done nothing at all. But we cannot help but think how much more we would have done by now to combat climate change had he been in office, how much stronger our relations would be with the world, how many innocents killed by our wars in the Middle East would still be alive. It is the decade's defining political defeat.
It's the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists ... who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)
Let's start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that's not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn't it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That's reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it's about them.)
And the Big Winners?
"Wait a minute..."
Those were allegedly the final words of Pope Alexander VI back in August of 1503. I was thinking of fat, old, syphilitic, corrupt, murdering, adulterous Alexander just this morning. This particular Pope, known before his papacy as Rodrigo Borgia, who had so many mistresses he makes modern America's politicians and talk show hosts look chaste by comparison, is also distinguished by the fact that he was the father of, among many others, Cesare and the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. (To give you a taste for the man, upon becoming Pope he annulled his daughter's previous marriage so he could marry her off in a lavish Vatican ceremony to a relative of one of the cardinals who supported his papacy even as rumors circled of her incestuous relationship with one of her brothers. And the Heene family thought they had what it takes to make a good reality show...)
I thought of old Rodrigo as I flipped through a pile of clippings that I had set aside during the past couple of days. I started collecting the stories last week. The first were clippings about the record round of financial community bonuses in the U.S. and in the U.K. Then, as all this was happening, was Goldman Sachs' CEO Lloyd Blankfein's FT op-ed calling for financial reform. As I mentioned before I found the juxtaposition uncomfortably calculated.
A couple days later, there was the story announcing that former Goldman Sachs' VP Adam Storch was being named Chief Operating Officer of the "new and improved" SEC enforcement division. I have no doubt that Mr. Storch is an excellent fellow and a perfect choice ... other than the fact that he worked at Goldman. Does anyone think about the optics of these things? Or more than the optics, do they ever consider just how genuinely inappropriate such a hiring might be?
Of course, that's a rhetorical question. Some people do think about it. Just not people doing the hiring in the administration. Hence the articles in my pile of clips about the big bonuses that senior advisors to Tim Geithner got from big Wall Street houses prior to signing up to help devise the plans to "fix" Wall Street. I know some of these guys very well, consider them friends, consider them eminently qualified to be doing their jobs ... and yet, something gnaws at me about all this, an insensitivity on the part of the people who were putting together the administration team about what was really at stake in the financial crisis. It seems they felt the issue was more fixing the immediate problem than it was fixing the enduring problems in a system that once again has Wall Street executives lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills while unemployment hits record levels (see Mort Zuckerman's strong piece on this in today's FT) and home foreclosure are forcing former homeowners to live on the streets as never before. In any event it seems like they were really stopping to ask whether something big had changed ... or needed to.
Paul Krugman gets it, has all along and has written about it again in today's Times. Frank Rich, in yesterday's Times wrote a column capturing some of the anger that people feel about the power of Goldman and the other big banks and the utter unwillingness of Washington to do anything other than offer the occasional talk show tsk-tsk in response to the current return to profligacy (or the return of big lenders like Citi and Bank of America to losses after a momentary, bailout induced spate of profits).
Meanwhile, John Harwood in the Times writes about Larry Summers' wise silence on sensitive economic questions while failing to go further and ask why it was that this week's tsk-tsking assignments went to Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett -- successors in function to the troika that once ran Ronald Reagan's White House (James Baker, Michael Deaver and Ed Meese). On the one hand the question is interesting because it leads one to other questions, like why the folks from the president's morning economic briefing who are being most prominently rolled out are not actually the ones who are the economic professionals? Could it be that the administration political brain trust feels the economic team has lost too much credibility by their minimalist, go-slow approach to reform? I think that would be a miscalculation because the future effectiveness of Geithner and Summers will depend on their being seen as the architects of substantially (and accelerating) reforms.
(Of course another question raised by the appearance of the Big Three on the Sunday shows is whether or not the administration really is being some so Office-of-the-President centric that it is all head and no arms and legs, kind of like one of those big-brained creatures from outer space or our future that we were led to believe would evolve from societies that didn't require physical exercise. The critique, provided to me this weekend by a prominent diplomat who has lived in Washington a long time, is that the administration has no trouble coming up with ideas or giving speeches but it has yet to put an effective implementation apparatus in place. It is kind of the Marvin the Martian model of governance.)
That particular aside aside, the pile of clippings grew this morning with the Wall Street Journal noting in its particularly "fair and balanced" way that the criticism of Wall Street from Emanuel and Axelrod was more tempered than in the recent past, suggesting that at least as far as the newspaper of record of the financial community was concerned, the White House wasn't too het up about all these fat pay checks. Apparently swine flu worries us but an epidemic of swinishness does not. At least the Journal seems to hope so.
And so, reflecting on all these clips, I started thinking to myself, is it capitalism? Could Michael Moore be right? (That seems so unlikely...) It's troubling to me, a dyed-in-the-wool practicing capitalist. And I'll have to admit I am still a long way from coming to a good answer about just how we have gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix a system that is producing greater inequality than ever and that is so apparently corrupt that even those from whom you expect big reform have either been co-opted or, alternatively, are simply reluctant to toss these particular money changers out of our particular temple (the small "d" democratic one).
But my first instincts are what brought me back to good old Pope Rodrigo the Base and Repulsive. Because it strikes me that the issue isn't capitalism per se. Because 21st Century Wall Street is to capitalism as Pope Alexander VI was to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a connection but it was remote and observed more in the breach than in the honoring of the essentially good underlying ideas.
And that's where I take some comfort. It's not that we need a new economic ideology. We're just in dire need of a Reformation. (Although I for one could do without some of the wars, inquisitions, and public executions of the last one.)
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
While we here at FP don't recommend eating disorders as an effective weight control technique, sometimes it's hard to pass up the canapés at those fancy Washington parties -- like GQ's "50 Most Powerful People in DC" cocktail blast at 701 last night.
Of course, GQ's party had its own built-in trigger of the gag reflex for most Washingtonians: their names weren't on the list. (I talked with one of GQ's writers as she was working on the list, a conversation I enjoyed right up until the moment it was clear they didn't think I was list-worthy. As for the final product's, um, curiosities see FP's earlier take. But, Leon Panetta ahead of Hillary Clinton? Tom Donilon on the list, but his boss Jim Jones off it? Various worthy but random journalists and bloggers and not Tom Friedman or David Sanger? The Sidwell admissions director ahead of the GDS admissions director? Insiders know the truth ... even as they all hungrily pour over the list looking for their own names and those of their allies, enemies and worst of all, their friends.)
But when a glossy, man-perfume scented equivalent of a long hairy finger down your throat isn't readily available, then knowledgeable Washingtonians know there is always another place they can turn, the Capital's naturally produced form of Serum of Ipecac. Just follow the news until you develop the acute reaction to hypocrisy that is certain to launch away your own indiscretions in one or two turbulent but satisfying moments.
For example, here's a recipe for Capitulimia drawn from just what's going on around town today:
Take just one dose of insurance companies trying to suggest in print and broadcast advertisements that after years of making indefensible profits from literally killing people and destroying families with their policies (the one's they didn't actually deny to those who needed them), it is they who are actually looking out for the interests of Americans in need of health care.
Add one 30 second American Petroleum Institute commercial in which they actually argue that the pending climate bill might hurt consumers by producing more highly priced gasoline? After their record? While they should actually all be hovering in their basements waiting for the class action suit from the planet for selling a product they have known for years was destroying it?
Then sit down and take a listen to say, Rush Limbaugh complaining the media is making spurious, emotional, and uninformed attacks against him ... and that "the media" has too much power. The media? Who is he? Where does his power and obscene wealth come from? Appearances to the contrary, he is not a manatee sunning on a rock.
If that hasn't done it, listen to one-time supporters of the havoc wreaked by the Great Decider's impulsive and catastrophic policies in Iraq or his ineffective blundering in Afghanistan as they criticize President Obama for actually taking some time to work out a sensible adjustment to tackling the mind-boggling challenges posed in the AfPak region ... challenges that were altered by the recent elections embarrassment in Afghanistan.
Or listen to Republican legislators responsible for the biggest deficits in American history and the collapse of the American economy, attack President Obama for doing what had to be done to clean up their mess.
Not there yet, go to Amazon.com and pre-order not only the Sarah Palin book but the upcoming books from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Hank Paulson, and Karl Rove. Then think about the millions that will be generated by these books. (In New York State, I seem to recall once upon a time in the days of "The Son of Sam" they passed a law blocking criminals from writing books allowing them to profit from retelling the tales of their wrong-doing. These aren't criminals, of course ... well, not all of them ... but what are we to make of millionaires who gutted the American economy making millions from telling us all how they did it?)
Still on the verge of relief but not quite cleansed? Well, pick up a paper and read about the fact that roughly $140 billion in compensation will be paid out on Wall Street this year, a record beating out the last peak year of 2007. (And while you're at it, flip back to the FT from a day or two ago and read Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein's call for more industry reform and ask yourself: was placing this oped at the time the bonuses were going to be announced just a little cynical? Do they really think we're going to fall for that kind of grade-school spinning -- even if he did make a number of good points.)
There, that ought to do it. Feeling better now? Lighter on your feet? Angry but empty? No need to thank me. Just another public service from your virtual friends here on the Internet who will always do what we can to ensure our Washington readers are ready for another day of making the rounds from the Four Seasons to the Palm to the usual receptions sponsored by the likes of the American Foot Odor Institute and the National Alliance for Getting Children to Make Their Beds. And for the rest of you outside the beltway, with America's health care system unlikely to be high functioning any time soon, it's probably a good idea to drop a few pounds and get into better shape.
And here's our hint for turning what could be an eating disorder into a sustainable diet: just keep watching those headlines -- they're the world's most effective non-addictive appetite suppressant. If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you're not paying attention.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Foreign policy is a fast-paced business. Despite the fact that at least someone in the Obama Administration is actually celebrating the art of indecision, you can save the world with snap judgments if you know what you're doing. I know what I'm doing.
To demonstrate I will now solve some of the biggest foreign policy problems confronting some of the world's most important newsmakers in a matter of just a few seconds each. (I will also solve a few lower-grade domestic problems as well.) If you are an important figure on the international stage, just look for your name below. Next to it will be the advice you need in a couple of quick sentences. If you are not a world leader but know one, please feel free to forward this to them.
To Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistani Muslim League: If you don't like the provisions of the U.S. aid package, keep it to yourself. Your complaints are precisely how we know the deal has been constructed properly. (Hint: Turn back the Americans who are offering aid and you'll end up with those who want to make all future deliveries by drone.)
To President Barack Obama: If you think that George's war (that'd be Iraq) is likely to look better than yours (Afghanistan) in five years -- and that'd be my bet right now -- then you really do need to listen to the people calling for a change in strategy.
To Manuel Zelaya: Fair or not, your five minutes are just about up...unless you choose to start dating Kate Gosselin. (And if that is Plan B, I have to say, I'd stay locked in the basement of the Brazilian Embassy, too.)
To Kim Jong-Il: You tell Wen Jiabao you want one-on-one talks with the United States to establish peaceful ties as a prelude to returning to the nuclear arms negotiating table? No problem. Two steps: First, ask for them. Second, realize Michael Jackson wrote "The Man(iac) in the Mirror" for you. As in the "how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke, the punchline is that it's you who've really got to want to change.
To Silvio Berlusconi: Are you the one that's tanned now or is that just a red face? The ruling by the Italian Supreme Court stripping you of immunity from prosecution just because you are Prime Minister certainly seems likely to put a hitch in your mambo Italiano. With three trials going on that involve you or your holdings, you might want to start planning your post government career. (I know your wife has some interesting ideas for what to do with you ... or parts of you.)
To Donald Tusk: As Poland's Prime Minister dealing with a corruption scandal, you have learned some important truths: gambling always produces losers (in your case, the three ministers who have been forced out of your government for corruption) and you can't beat the house (even if you try by suggesting you'll fire the anti-corruption official who blew the whistle on your cabinet) ... especially if the house is run by the two who stole that stole the moon and you don't fit in with their plans.
To Robert Mugabe: You say you want better ties with the U.S.? Well, you're going to need a long rope... Kim Jong-Il has a better shot at restored relations with the United States ... by a lot. Frankly, so does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Frankly, so too does Rufus T. Firefly. Dictator, purge thyself.
To David Letterman: Ok, so far there's no rumors of foreign affairs in this story. But my advice to you is: continue doing just what you're doing. The openness is working...on the ratings...and on what's left of your image. Silvio, you randy slimebag you, pay attention. Old men apparently can screw around with younger women if they are charmingly self-deprecating about it, not political leaders and not you.
To Mazen Abdul Jawad: You may have been condemned to 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for discussing your (kinda gross) sex life on a tv talk show. Here in America (see above), the same thing would actually get you your own talk show. Time to consider relocating...almost anyplace else. And speaking of Saudi outrages...
To Mohammed S. Al Sabban: If, as head of the Saudi delegation to the global climate talks, you are actually as reported going around saying if measures are taken to reduce world dependency on oil that the planet should offer aid to Saudi Arabia ... then get used to the idea that you are going to replace the woman who buried her husband in a rented suit as the living embodiment of laughable chutzpah.
To David Axelrod: Stay out of camera shot in photos about major foreign policy decisions. You're the president's right hand guy. He needs you: You have the "mind-meld" thing going, offer invaluable advice and by all reports are actually a good guy. Which is why what neither the president nor you need are the uncharitable whispers that you are out-Roving Rove in terms of day-to-day influence over administration operations. (Oh and to Karl Rove, re: your WSJ article that the GOP is winning the health care debate: There's a reason you guys are out. Wrong again. See the CBO report. The Obama-Baucus bill is getting closer and closer to being a done deal.)
I am beginning to think that John Edwards, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Octomom, and Jon Gosselin have joined together to form their own public relations firm ... and that their first client is the Vatican. I have come to this conclusion because it is impossible for me to imagine any other group of people giving the Holy See the kind of P.R. advice they seem to be getting.
The evidence came in yesterday's extraordinary statement from the Vatican "defending" themselves against attacks that they have not done enough to combat sexual abuse by priests. Rather than contritely focusing on all they have done to address this cancer on their credibility, they offered a response that will be studied in schools for years to come, whether in classes seeking to offer a lesson in how not to handle a crisis or in those offering an advanced degree in miscalculated chutzpah.
Following a meeting with the U.N. Human Rights Council meant to address concerns that the Church was failing to respond appropriately to a long history of members of the clergy abusing their flocks, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi read a statement that was undoubtedly considered by some spin doctor-equivalent somewhere to advance their case but which actually probably amounted to more convincing proof that the Vatican doesn't get it on this issue than anything discussed behind closed doors with the United Nations.Among their points:
The statement said that rather than paedophilia, it would "be more correct" to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.
Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17."
Aha. Well, I don't know about you, but now I feel much better about things. Most of the 6,000-20,000 priests who are abusing children at a rate somewhat lower than that of other religious groups are doing it with somewhat older kids. That puts things in a whole different light! I'm sure the whole ephebophilia defense will have altar boy enrollments skyrocketing in no time at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vatican's response neither satisfied the man accusing it of covering up sex abuse within the Church nor did it sit very well with representatives of other religions. Keith Porteous Wood, of the NGO that charged the Catholic Church with violating several provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, said not enough had been done by the Church to address its internal problems or to open its records to permit civil prosecution of wrong-doers.
Protestant and Jewish representatives were quick to respond condemning the Church's attempt to spread around the blame and defending their own approaches to the problem.
Had these other religious groups asked my advice, I might have told them to simply remain silent and let the Archbishop Tomasi have the limelight and the microphone all to himself. It is hard to imagine what the Church could possibly do to look worse than it already did in the face of a global scandal that has cost it $2 billion in settlements in the United States alone. Hard to imagine ... and yet somehow, that's precisely what it did.
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
World Bank President Bob Zoellick has done an important service with remarks he delivered Monday in which he said, "The United States would be mistaken to take for granted the dollar's place as the world's predominant reserve currency. Looking forward, there will increasingly be other options." In fact, the only issue I take with his statement, delivered at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is that it does not go far enough.
It has thus far been easy for most Americans to shrug off discussions of coming competition for the dollar as a reserve currency. First, of course, most Americans aren't even aware that the discussion is taking place and of those that are aware, most haven't the slightest clue how the international monetary system works -- which at least gives them something in common with most members of Congress and central bankers everywhere. (Zoellick is rightly pretty tough on the central banking community in his remarks, as well.)
Also, when Europeans or Russians starting talking about needing another currency so there is an alternative to the greenback, Americans tend to shrug it off as dollar-envy. It was not, of course, so easy to dismiss such suggestions when it came from the Chinese given their role as our principal creditor and the fact that they had more reserves than any other country in the history of mankind. But we put our hands over our ears and made "la, la" noises to drown out the discussion anyway.
Thus, whenever the issue arose, as it did again in discussions last week at the G-20 meeting, it has not had much resonance even among most members of the policy community in Washington. Many view the dollar as an immutable, unchanging fixture of the financial world ... even though recent experience has demonstrated that other than greed, there are few immutable, unchanging features of the financial world. This made it easy for the U.S. Treasury to simply mouth reassurances -- as Tim Geithner did last week -- that the dollar should remain the reserve currency without getting much questioning here at home.
But Bob Zoellick is not a whacky, Gitane-smoking, eurocommunist with an anti-American agenda.
He is a Republican, a Bush appointee, one of only a couple of dozen senior current or former U.S. government officials who can say they worked at Goldman Sachs, the true power center of international finance. So when he says don't take the dollar's place for granted, perhaps others in Washington will listen and start to focus more on the increasing likelihood that the growing chorus of those seeking change may well gain traction and as may the alternative currencies themselves -- be they Special Drawing Rights, the simulated money produced by the IMF for use with its members, or Chinese yuan.
Of course, Zoellick, whose remarks (which I read in "prepared for delivery" form) are typically thoughtful and also address the importance of the ascension of the G-20 and how this newly central group should take into consideration the broader rise of emerging economies, stops short of actually joining those calling for an alternative currency. It's easy to understand why, given his position.
But since none of the rest of us are president of the World Bank, we should not feel so constrained. There are plenty of good reasons why there should be one or more better alternatives to the dollar as a reserve currency than currently exist. Further, by not taking the discussion seriously we are less likely to play an effective role in the discussion about the future architecture of the system, consigning ourselves to a more reactive, sideline role.
First, there is no reason why one country should be given the responsibility or the right to play such a central role in determining international economic policies and outcomes. This is unlikely to be very persuasive here at home where most Americans first reaction is going to be, "Why the heck not? If not us, who? Don't we deserve it as the world's number one economy?"
Given that the call for equity is not likely to be persuasive, what about basic American values like our belief in the benefits of competition. Look what has happened during this era in which we have not believed there was a real alternative to the dollar: We have behaved extraordinarily recklessly, piling on debt and practically taunting the world to find other options. It is clear, we don't have the discipline to manage the dollar properly as it is. We need the competition as much as anyone else.
Would a rapid selloff of dollars be potentially disastrous for America? Absolutely. But, we are deluding ourselves if we don't think such alternatives already exist. Why is gold at such absurd heights and going higher? Further, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that oil and other commodities are regularly used as alternatives to currencies in what amount to forex trading strategies. In other words, markets demand such alternatives already. And any movement toward acceptance of new alternatives is likely to take a long time as investors cautiously adjust. So, we have to ask ourselves is the greater downside in embracing change or in clinging to a viewpoint that is both out of touch with emerging realities and promoting bad behaviors on our own part?
The international economic system will evolve with our cooperation or without it. Currently the biggest threat to the dollar is not those who seek alternatives but the U.S. policies that are pushing them in that direction. It's time we engaged in this debate in a serious way, and Zoellick's remarks are a very constructive first step in that direction.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
This week is a three ring circus for the international community. The U.N. The G20. The Clinton Global Initiative ... and a host of other side shows for good measure. But with most of the activities featuring little more than the foreign policy equivalent of jazz hands ... eye-catching moves amounting to much ado about nothing ... it may ultimately be remembered for a reason no one saw coming. Because I think it is pretty likely that in the future we will look at this week as the beginning of the end of America's presence in Afghanistan and by extension, George W. Bush's 8-year involvement in the Middle East.
It will take some time to wind things down. I also think history may come up with some better name to describe the Bush war in the context of related wars that took place before it, during his father's time in office, and will almost certainly take place after it. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Gulf War in a series of several. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Oil War. But we can leave the lasting labels to historians.
The reality is that the reaction to the leak of the McChrystal Report is indicative that there are really only two options in Afghanistan open to the administration. One is that they do not provide McChrystal with the additional resources he requests and they further narrow his mission as a justification for their decision and we begin an inevitable process of winding down. The second is that Obama does grant McChrystal's request but due to the growing doubts about the entire endeavor that the leak of the report has both revealed and exacerbated, that he sets much more specific goals and timelines that in turn pre-sage an ultimate winding down.
The Vietnam analogy is sticking -- the quagmire paradigm -- and no one near the President wants making that mistake again to be his legacy. The fact that Karzai's regime is turning out to be just as corrupt and feckless as our partners in South Vietnam were doesn't help. Further, as we approach the 10 year point at which Russia ended its occupation (which we'll hit in less than two years), comparisons with yet another futile military effort will become too strong for many to bear. Finally, of course, there is the small fact that we're playing whack-a-mole with the insurgents, we can't close the backdoor to Pakistan and if we could, they would go someplace else in the world. In fact, they already are whether to Yemen or Somalia or, apparently, to Colorado.
The seemingly serious threat posed by an Afghan-led terror group associated with al Qaeda that wanted to use explosives to attack U.S. transport hubs underscores two other important points. One is that as we squeeze Afghanistan we may crush some opponents but we do create new ones. Further, it is also clear that we really need to do some new thinking about how one actually does reduce the risk of terror attacks ... and accept that effective homeland security enforcement as apparently has taken place this week, may be the best front line on which we can prosecute this effort.
Meanwhile, of course, in New York and later in Pittsburgh, the headlines that were hoped for from the three-ring circus are unlikely to be materializing ... and the ones that do emerge are likely to be rather disheartening or, at best, underwhelming.
The United States is likely to frustrate the world by providing it with just what it has been asking for. On climate, on the business of the U.N., at the G20 meeting, America will be the key player but it will not dominate or direct or make the tough calls. It will be a better partner than at any time in the recent past. But the result is a three ring circus without a ringmaster. And paradoxically, the United States will be (is being) fiercely criticized for not being strong enough. We can call the world hypocrites all we want but the reality is that everyone wants the same thing: a leader who will take the heat and always lead in the direction they want to go. Any deviation from this ideal will produce howls ... and reading the news this week should produce plenty of corroboration for this observation.
For the Obama administration, the problem is not being an America we can never be. Every girl sooner or later (it always happens around her 29th birthday if the girl's still single), realize that Prince Charming is a myth and must settle for a real man. But when they do, they then want that man to have some demonstrable qualities and being better than the last jerk you dated only gets you so far. For Obama though, the world is looking for proof that he can actually deliver on one or more of his international priorities: make engagement work with Iran, embrace a new approach to Israel and Palestine that actually produces results, refocus to AfPak and make that work, get our leadership on with regard to climate, be a better neighbor in the hemisphere, jettison tired old artifacts of policies (see: Cuba), help foster real reform and new levels of cooperation and transparency in international markets, and reduce the threat of WMD proliferation.
One by one these issues will play in one or another of the three rings that makes this week's foreign policy circus so compelling. The Obama team is hoping there will be signs of progress ... but that seems unlikely. Taken together, the United States may end up being seen as the absent ringmaster not because we have chosen a different style of leadership but simply because we can't deliver. Sometimes this will be because circumstances truly are beyond our control and America doesn't have the influence or options that others ascribe to us. Sometimes it may be because we ourselves promised more than we could deliver. Obama's credibility is at stake ... and given the way most of the issues listed above are trending, regaining it is going to be a challenge that could take a long, long time to address.
As with Afghanistan, here's the secret: resetting expectations. Identify some goals you can actually achieve. Achieve them. That should have been the approach to domestic policy. Go slower. Build up a head of steam. And it needs to be the approach to international policy. Ringmaster or not, in the three ring circus of international affairs, the last place Obama wants to be is with his predecessor and many of his critics in a clown car full of people the world no longer takes seriously.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
There was for a long time been a widespread belief that the guys who were cashing in on Wall Street were the best and the brightest. Now, as we mark the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers we have yet another form of proof it just ain't so.
But the deus ex machina arrival of new U.S. ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy really is in a class by itself -- stupid, thoughtless and arrogant on so many levels it deserves some kind of an award.
Perhaps State ought to consider some kinds of guidelines for the fat cats who are being plunked down in important embassies around the world. Like: "Don't be a pig with your money." Or: "Try to remember you represent the United States of America and not the sovereign principality of Goldman Sachs anymore."
But you do have to give the White House credit. Getting someone from Goldman to serve in the government is a real coup. Who thought of that? They also deserve a medal.
The revelations of out of control behavior among the guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul no doubt brought to mind the images of out of control behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib. But there is an important distinction. The guards at Abu Ghraib were U.S. military personnel. The embassy guards were hired guns, part of the outsourcing explosion that is transforming the way the United States conducts its foreign policy.
The embassy guards were not employees of the U.S. government, did not report up a chain of command to senior U.S. military officers who could make career-ending decisions for them, were not subject to the same rules as U.S. military personnel and, perhaps most importantly, blurred important lines about the nature and role of government.
As most people now know, they also allegedly engaged in "lewd and deviant behavior" featuring nudity, drunkenness, hookers, and other behavior more suited for the cast of a Joe Francis video than U.S. embassy security forces, particularly those in a dangerous environment or a country in which strict Islamic values played such a central role. Why it took a report from the Project on Government Oversight to call out these Guards-Gone-Wild and their employers at ArmorGroup, a subsidiary of Miami-based Wackenhut Services, Inc. is a question worth asking.
But the bigger question in the wake of this behavior and other examples of out of control contractors, most notably the cowboys from Blackwater, who allegedly killed as many as 17 Iraqi civilians while providing an escort for State Department personnel in Baghdad's Nissour Square, is about the centrality of outsourcing in the conduct of sensitive U.S. operations worldwide.
The Congressional Research Service reported that well over half of America's manpower in Afghanistan, for example, is comprised of contractors -- almost 70,000 of them. They cited it as the "highest recorded percentage of DoD contractors in any conflict in the history of the United States."
How did we get here? Well, some of it was clearly expediency ... beneath which investigation will reveal another level of expediency. The first level is the one cited by government officials hiring the contractors: they provide skill sets needed by the government and the ability to deploy human resources quickly in difficult circumstances. The second level is that by using contractors, the Bush Administration was able to field twice as many people in Afghanistan with half the political exposure. Headlines report troop deployments. They ignore the ArmorGroups and Blackwaters until they screw up, misbehave or start making obscene amounts of money ... all of which are part of the story of the Bush War on Terror.
But at another level, not only do they put America's goals at risk, they also raise important questions about fairly fundamental questions like "who has the right to legitimately use force?" Traditionally that's a prerogative reserved for states, notes Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics and director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, and author of the much anticipated One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy, to be published by Yale University Press next month. But by handing over a license to kill to big American companies, that line is blurred observes Stanger, which plays directly into the hands of America's enemies.
Stanger is not, it should be noted, an adversary of using outsourcing to leverage American government resources. Indeed, her much-needed upcoming book considers how broadly outsourcing has transformed the way government works in a wide range of issues including areas such as development where NGOs and other private sector players add a great deal of value. But she is a sharp critic of what she sees as outsourcing approaches that undercut America's foreign policy interests either by compromising values or raising risks. (See her recent U.S. News column "How the CIA Became Dangerously Dependent on Foreign Contractors" which addresses similar problems associated with the agency's use of contractors in covert programs to hunt down and kill al Qaeda members.)
Her point is simply that while it makes sense to leverage government resources with private sector capabilities in many instances, we need clearer rules and guidelines about how and when to do it. Her book could not be coming at a more auspicious time and one hopes that her work will get a close reading at State, the Pentagon, and from the leaders of the Intelligence Community.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
As a general rule, I'm not so keen on the way Americans go about elections. My two biggest problems are that election campaigns go on for ever-longer periods and that our campaign finance rules are simply a way to dress up rampant corruption in volumes of complex code. I'm also not so keen on the electoral college, which ought to show up on Antiques Roadshow any day now were it not for the fact that I suspect it wouldn't fetch much of a valuation.
That said, one thing America does pretty well is debate. I say this despite the tenor of recent debates and the debating skills of recent candidates. Airing differences between candidates in a televised forum is an important innovation in democracy. And it is one that has yet to come to the United Kingdom.
That seems to be changing though with reports that Tory Leader David Cameron and the LDP's Nick Clegg have now agreed to take part in a televised debate in the run up to the next election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has thus far declined to join the fray and frankly, I don't blame him. First of all, while television is good for those with "cool" personalities, it is not so good for people with none whatsoever. Secondly, as it becomes increasingly clear that Brown's government gave a well-thought out wink and a nod to the Scottish Authorities release of Libyan bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, it is clear his team has manufactured yet another issue that can't work to their boss's advantage no matter how he addresses it.
That said, yesterday's statement that Brown "respected" the Scot decision to release the ailing terrorist certainly wasn't the way to calm the uproar over a mishandled mess that combines elements of placing compassion for a murderer over justice for his victims, alienating the U.K.'s principal ally and, no matter how many denials are made, currying favor with Libya's crackpot leader in exchange for better relations. On some level, for all the mouthwash about Megraghi's family's needs to see their dying relative (despite the unspeakable way he deprived hundreds of others of the same privilege), this is a situation in which it is clear that the Brown government has chosen to dance to the ka-ching of the cash register.
Given Brown's other bumbles (screwing up the British economy comes to mind) and the fact that David Cameron is a twit who will be an international embarrassment to the U.K. should he win the premiership, if you had to be someone on that stage you'd definitely want to be Clegg. But whatever the outcome of the exchange, it is a necessary exercise that ought to be part of the British electoral process ... and one which Brown should not be permitted to hide from.
Brown's associates argue he goes through the process of debate on the floor of the parliament every week. But for all its value "Question Time" has its own rules and its own ritual theater that invalidate it as the kind of debate to which British voters are entitled. And as the list of questions the average citizen or thinking journalist would want to ask these characters grows, the need for the debate grows more urgent and the prospect for a valuable exchange grows more compelling.
Let's see Brown defend playing footsie at a distance with Qaddafi. Let's see Cameron defend backing a racist right wing leader of the right in European parliament. This is one of those occasions where television is the best medium for providing both heat and light.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
In today's installment of the annals of going too far, we find the following stories:
Hugo Chavez may have finally crossed the line. Gutting Venezuela's constitution was not enough. Fostering leftist uprisings across the Americas was not enough. Getting into bed with anyone who hated America was not enough. Arms deals and military exercises with the Russians were not enough. Providing arms to the FARC, a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of a neighboring government was not enough. But yesterday's report that Chavez is now taking on golf may ultimately do him in.
Reportedly, Chavez sees golf as the leisure pursuit of the elite and is therefore taking steps to shut down two of Venezuela's top golf clubs, one in Maracay and one in Caraballeda. Previously he took off after the sport in one of his televised rants. As reported in the New York Times:
Let's leave this clear," Mr. Chavez said during a live broadcast of his Sunday television program. "Golf is a bourgeois sport," he said, repeating the word "bourgeois" as if he were swallowing castor oil. Then he went on mocking the use of golf carts as a practice illustrating the sport's laziness.
Doesn't he realize that he has finally stirred up a bees nest of trouble he may not be able to control. Golf is not bourgeois sport. (Actually, it started as a pastime of humble shepherds in Scotland.) It is a religion of the rich and powerful. Why just yesterday one of Washington's most notable journalists was commenting to me about the avidity with which President Obama made his way to the links by Andrews Air Force Base, going whenever he could find weekend time. In fact, this reporter wondered aloud how the President found time to be with his family given all his weekend golf. But Obama has the bug. It's not curable. It has historically infected presidents and others who might finally start giving Chavez a hard time now that he has decided to go after them where they live. (My pal New York Times columnist Tom Friedman even writes a golf column, he is so devoted to the game. Personally I am a tennis guy ... because tennis is actually a sport ... I agree with Chavez that nothing involving riding around in a little electric cart can actually be called a sport ... but I bear no malice to golfers. I don't dare.)
Eviscerate democracy in your own country and all you do is anger millions of Venezuelans and right minded people everywhere. That's survivable. But does anyone really want to go head to head with Tiger Woods?
This week the media went too far (for a change) in its attacks on Hillary Clinton when she took umbrage at a question about what her husband thought about a particular issue. While the question was misquoted, she had every right to push back on the idea that somehow her views were secondary to his. The attacks on her, focusing on her pique, her mood, her level of exhaustion, the challenges of being married to a powerful man, were almost uniformly sexist. She was delivering through her honesty an important message on a continent where the message needs to be heard. (On a planet where the message needs to be heard.) She is Secretary of State. She is one of the most important political leaders in the United States. She is vastly more relevant to contemporary American politics and policies than is her husband.
That said, I wonder if she then went too far in her response to a question about political corruption when she answered that we had our own problems with our "evolving" democracy in the United States and then offered as an example the implication that the 2000 election was compromised by the fact that Republican candidate for president's brother was governor of the state whose contested election decided the race. Personally, I think the 2000 election is a stain on America's political history, that almost certainly the results in Florida were not fairly reflected in the result and that the intervention of the Supreme Court along party lines was particularly ugly. But the implication that Jeb Bush rigged the results without proof was probably a step too far especially overseas. That said, I am not of the opinion that speaking of our warts overseas is such a bad thing. Honesty is the only path we've got to restoring credibility. It also looked to me like she was a.) joking and b.) exhausted (which is understandable toward the end of an historic 11 day trip across Africa).
Finally, I find myself wondering if Senator Jim Webb's upcoming trip to Myanmar is a trip too far. He will be engaging the leaders of that country's regime concurrently to their latest outrage against the rights of Aung San Suu Kyi -- an 18 month extension on her house arrest which was handed down this week. Further, I highly doubt that anyone sees Webb's trip as that of an independent official. He is not only a prominent Democratic Senator, he is also known to be close to many at senior levels in the Obama administration and almost certainly would not have undertaken this trip without their okay.
The trip tests the core idea of engagement. There are few more odious regimes on the planet and this one is being interacted with precisely at one of the moments when that odiousness is most clearly on display. If Webb's message is tough or produces some relief for Suu Kyi (or at least makes a legitimate attempt to do so), then the risks such a visit will be spun by some to the advantage of the Burmese regime are worth taking. But it's a delicate business and engagement will almost certainly produce instances in which we are played.
All that said, if Webb's trip involves the kind of direct talk of which he is especially capable and is a real effort to advance U.S. interests there (which begin with fairer treatment of Suu Kyi and movement toward restoration of basic rights within Burmese society) then it is not only not going too far ... it will remind the world of how far Burma's neighbors in Asia really ought to be going (and have not gone) to address this blight in their back yard.
UPDATE: After posting I received a note containing an open letter to Webb from three major dissident groups in Burma: the All Burma Monks' Alliance, the 88 Generation Students, and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. "We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," it reads.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images,STR/AFP/Getty Images,ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images,THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
Every so often a straight, reported story comes across the wires that is news, analysis, and commentary all at once. The best such stories are also metaphors and provide their own punch lines. The truly transcendent ones take big issues and reveal truths about them beyond the collective abilities of the billion monkeys at a billion keyboards that is the blogosphere.
An AP story released late Monday afternoon achieves all these things. As such, although it is only the 11th, it is already my nominee for story of the month. The headline says it all: "Drug cartels smuggle oil into the U.S."
It's not a long story. The facts are pretty straightforward. Mexican drug gangs have been stealing Mexican oil and selling it to U.S. distributors. The U.S. government has caught on to the scam and one oil exec in the U.S. has pleaded guilty. The Mexican government says it is part of a new wave of stealing the country's oil patrimony.
What the Mexican government doesn't say is that the drug cartels that are smuggling tankers full of oil into the United States are probably operating more efficiently than Pemex, the country's calcified national oil company.
What the story doesn't have to say is that it was only natural for drug lords to branch out from feeding one U.S. addiction to feeding another.
Quick, somebody explain to the president that a deal and an accomplishment are two different things. The future of his presidency depends on it.
"Health reform at any cost" inevitably will produce an outcome we can ill-afford. The same is true for "a climate bill at any cost" or "engagement at any cost" or "withdrawal from Iraq at any cost." The mentality that you can spin the dross of a lousy deal into political gold or at least the currency of reelection is the single greatest risk facing the Obama administration at this point.
To observers from around the world, this is one among many reasons why the current health care debate in the United States is so vitally important to watch. Other reasons are:
On this last point, let me add two things.
First, I am in Las Vegas at the moment. (More on that tomorrow. Seriously, I can explain everything.) On the TV periodically are ads for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's reelection. The notion that the majority leader of the Senate of the United States happens to represent a state dominated by the one of the sleaziest and most corrupt cities in the history of the planet really speaks volumes. That the Senate has picked as a leader a "nice guy" whose actual mastery of the Senate is roughly akin to a munchkin riding bareback on a brontosaurus explains loads about why Obama was wrong to punt to depend on his former Hill colleagues to shape a bill that still ... this far into the debate ... lacks any intellectual core, any principles around which it is to be built. (Reminder: the bill needs to be seen by the American people as improving the quality of our health care system, cutting costs and ensuring universal coverage. Those are the basics.)
Second, it's hard not to be in Las Vegas and think about corruption and moral decay. That's what the city sells (and why we should hope to the heavens that what happens in Vegas actually stays in Vegas). It is such a repulsive monument to tasteless venality that I visit it every so often as a kind of public service -- so you don't have to go yourselves. Ok. I'm not such a saint. I also go here because it is the only place in the world I feel not only comparatively virtuous but also elegant and thin. In fact, last night walking out of a show (the truly lousy "Jersey Boys" ... a subject about which I know something) I felt like I was trapped in some nightmarish Francisco Botero painting of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Costumes by Old Navy.
Anyway, the point is that as bad as Las Vegas is, it is only the second most corrupt city in America. Read Robert Reich's Salon piece on Obama's deal with the drug companies to understand just the latest outrage in this respect. Or read Frank Rich's excellent piece in the NY Times, "Is Obama Punking Us?" (Note to observers from outside the United States: note that these are critiques from Obama's base, the left.) The fact is that there will be no good deals in Washington, no meaningful reform, until there is real campaign finance reform in America. Barack Obama talked tough about lobbyists and punished a few by keeping them out of his administration. But he has done absolutely nothing to limit the real forces that are corrupting the U.S. system ... the flow of cash from Big Pharma or insurance companies or on other matters from Wall Street or unions.
So the combination of unclear marching orders from the White House, weak leadership from Dems on the Hill, shrill negativism from Republicans and a corrupt political system has produced a muddled health reform bill when we need a strong one. While we are right to be frustrated and appalled we should not be surprised. The same will almost inevitably follow with climate. The same will almost inevitably follow with every bill until we fix what is really broken in Washington.
But on another level, if the administration continues to send the message that it is so eager to check the boxes on some check list of deliverables that it will buy into the illusion of progress rather than fighting for the real thing we are likely to see engagement for the sake of engagement (watch Hillary Clinton try to talk herself around this issue with Fareed Zakaria from his show this weekend...you could tell it was tough for her) or withdrawals from warzones that mask heightening risks in those places (Iraq) and new ones (AfPak). Or rather, we're already seeing these things.
From health care to climate to Iran to half a dozen other policies in the Middle East we are seeing dangerous compromises and worrisome caveats and complications. And since some of these have nothing to do with the money politics of Washington we have to conclude that they are linked to and revealing of the still evolving character of the administration.
This should be a warning sign for them as well as for us. It carries an important message: The most important achievements of this administration may come from the deals it is willing to walk away from. Only through these can it send a message that it actually has principles and the integrity that is a prerequisite of real leadership.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Take it from me, there is only one certain method for determining whether someone is from New Jersey or not: They will refer to a trip to the beach as going "down the shore." However, the handcuffs are another dead giveaway.
Once again, my home state has been thrust into the limelight in a massive corruption case that involves a failed philanthropist named Solomon Dwek who lived, appropriately enough in a town called Deal (which is, as any Jerseyite knows, "down the shore"), a guy from Brooklyn named Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum who could get you a slightly used pancreas for a good price, a bunch of rabbis who laundered money through charities they controlled, cash from Israel, bankers in Switzerland, the mayors of Hoboken and Jersey City (where it is fair to say this case is not the first to offer a whiff of scandal), a member of Governor Jon Corzine's cabinet and a host of other bit players who you might find milling around catching a smoke outside the Vince Lombardi Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Dwek, (pronounced in much the same way Barbara Walters would pronounce "dreck" which is the Yiddish word for shit), is now somewhere in the witness protection system (hopefully for his sake in the custody of Marshall Mary Shannon as played in "In Plain Sight" by the irresistible Mary McCormack.) Seeking to save his own skin after getting caught floating a bad check for $25 million, our guy Solomon-the-wise...er...guy, started helping the Feds round up corrupt pols.
One big-time Fed anti-corruption prosecutor called New Jersey the most corrupt state in the nation. (Which is probably true since technically, the District of Columbia is not a state.) Jon Corzine, who has a tough election race later this year that just got tougher, said "Any corruption is unacceptable-anywhere, anytime, by anybody. The scale of corruption we're seeing as this unfolds is simply outrageous and cannot be tolerated."
Noble words. But has Mr. Corzine so quickly forgotten his roots either in Washington or at Goldman Sachs? While the colorful cast of slimeballs arrested yesterday has restored pride of place to my home state in the corruption league tables, let's face it, what was really shocking about the reported payoffs was that the prices were so low. This was penny ante stuff. Ten grand for a building permit. That kind of thing. It can't hold a candle to the millions that are pumped into the campaigns of federal politicians who guide laws subtly this way and that or turn bills into Christmas trees of goodies for key constituents or who simply look the other way when oversight is concerned...for example, in the case of the financial community. Just for example, Governor.
There are cultural and definitional hurdles we need to get over with regard to the corrosive effects of buying and selling influence in our society. Corruption is offensive when it involves $97,000 stuffed in a box of Apple Jacks cereal as in this latest New Jersey case...but dress it up in the finery of federal campaign finance laws designed to institutionalize the power of the few and its suitable for high society senatorial or presidential fundraisers in Hollywood, Houston, or the Hamptons.
I call this later phenomenon "corruption within the law." And it as many times more pernicious than payoffs in diners in Bergen County as it is more expensive ... even if it doesn't quite invoke the backroom at Bada Bing or Satriale's quite as evocatively. That's because the effects are so much more widely felt in society ... as in the case of Wall Street selling the view that it didn't need much regulation or that it needed cheap money bailouts or in the case of the oil and auto industries rental of the levers of U.S. energy policy for the past several decades.
But I guarantee you that tonight America's most trusted newsman (which according to a new TIME Magazine poll is Jon Stewart...who is neither a newsman nor does he actually represent himself as being trustworthy, quite the contrary) will devote time on his show to tape or pictures of the perp walk of the five dirty rabbis or the car loads of mayors and assemblyman as if they were the face of corruption in America. Which may be appropriate because they are as much about comedy and as far from the real story as is "The Daily Show."
Nonetheless, the real uncovered corruption aside, as a Jersey boy, there is something irresistible about this particularly tale. It's the bastard short story of Mario Puzo and Philip Roth (with a hint of Damon Runyon by way of Sholom Aleichem) and who can object to that. Further, we take pride in our scumbags in New Jersey.
In fact, that reminds me ... earlier this week I was having lunch with FP supremo Moises Naim at the Palm Restaurant in Washington.
While we lunched on rare tuna salads while Lord knows what kind of nasty deals were being cut in the booths nearby, we got into a discussion of just this subject of corruption. Moises, author of the book Illicit -- recently turned into an Emmy-nominated documentary -- and thus an expert on all things sleazoid and able to say the word "bagman" in 80 languages, argued that whatever flavor our corruption took in the U.S., the Venezuelas and Russias had us beat hands down. I muttered a few words about my theories about our sanitized versions of buying and selling politicos but he scoffed. He's from Caracas and he likes his violation of the public trust big and loud and ideally involving low-life political thugs of the type who rule his home country.
Well, look at the scoreboard, my friend! We are from New Jersey and we are loud and we are proud! We've got it all. The baby-faced golden boy of Hoboken politics, the new mayor, heading to the slammer practically before he is old enough to shave. An 87 year-old Syrian rabbi. A special lingo in which payments were "invitations" and approvals were "opportunities." We're slicing people open and selling freaking body parts for chrissakes (although due to Kashrut laws you couldn't get, say, a kidney and a pound of cheese from the same guy).
So Mr. Glamorous expert on the underbelly of globalization, who's corrupt now? Boo-ya, my friend! Fuggedaboutit.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Sometime next year, probably a few months after the unemployment rate in the United States passes 10 percent, Goldman Sachs may well generate the $10 billionth dollar of profit that it has made since the American taxpayer helped bail it out at the nadir of the financial crisis. At least it will if keeps making $3 billion a quarter in profit as it did last quarter.
With 2010 being an election year, the Republican Party will be vigorously hammering the Obama administration on record unemployment (it's quite possible real unemployment...including those who don't report, etc...will be approaching 20 percent, it's already 16.5 percent now). They will say the stimulus was wasteful and that new taxes on the wealthy are just the tip of the iceberg. And, if midterm elections hold true to form, the Obama administration will lose the big advantages the Democratic Party currently has in the Senate and the House. (Watch for Mitt Romney selling his business and management credentials to lead this charge and position himself successfully to be the Republican candidate in 2012.)
The Republicans won't actually win a majority in either house. But they won't have to. As we have already seen with health care and climate reform, even with current advantages the Obama team barely can force their own initiatives through given divisions within the Democratic Party.
And those Democratic divisions should grow. Because in all likelihood...if the left has any hint of a spine left...they will be furious that Obama not only fumbled his lead but that he is copping out on health care and climate, seeking to be the Henry Clay of the modern era (and let's remember, the fates of the compromises engineered by "the Great Compromiser" were not so great.) Meanwhile, Obama will also be seen by many as the guy who Wall Street had dancing on a string. Because nothing says "you been played, suckah!" like reading stories such as those in today's Wall Street Journal or the FT of Goldman's bounties. The taxpayer couldn't get played in this instance without the willing shnookery of the Obama administration (and the historically clueless shnookery of the U.S. Congress not to mention that of the Bush administration...let's be fair, the nation's capital is shnook central).
In other words...if things play out as described....2009 could be the legislative high water mark of the Obama administration with the election paralyzing action next year and progress on the Hill much more difficult thereafter.
As for Goldman's record payday, I've asked this before and I will ask it again: Where is the outrage? I'm a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I love free markets. I hope a free market marries one of my daughters some day. But if some people have too many advantages and others simply can never catch up, the markets aren't free, regardless of law or intent. Even if the advantages are in part derived from talent and hard work, fairness can remain an issue if other components of the success are linked to access, influence, history and other intangibles.
Few companies in American history...perhaps Standard Oil, perhaps J.P. Morgan's bank, but probably not G.M. in its prime...have had more high-level influence on public policy than Goldman Sachs. This may have seemed fairly benign when markets appeared to be operating as they should and Goldman merely seemed a source of talent for the government.
But now we have a different perspective. In a story from the front page of today's Wall Street Journal: "With competitors such as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Bear Sterns Cos. Gone and others like Citigroup Inc. flailing, Goldman appears to be pulling off one of the biggest market grabs in Wall Street history." And so we must ask, how did we get here? Is it purely a coincidence that former Goldman CEO Hank Paulson oversaw the management of a financial crisis that allowed several of Goldman's biggest competitors to be destroyed but included goodies like the $12 billion passed through AIG to its prime counterparty Goldman, why aren't there more questions?
Goldman over-leveraged. Goldman advocated for the system that produced the crash...self-regulation by banks, proliferation of risky vehicles, a trading culture that passed risk along and left tidy profits for the traders. When the system blew up, Goldman, its advocate (including a busload of former execs who helped write the rules in the USG), and one of its prime beneficiaries, went to the government and asked for help. It got it. It used it. And then, apparently not as badly off as it once had seemed, it paid off the government cash when it seemed there would be too many strings attached.
Now it is using the new-found freedom and vitality to gain an edge on its remaining competitors, many of them still struggling. (In fact another banking crunch is possible due to margin issues, consumer credit issues and commercial real estate issues among others.) Throughout, it was a Goldman guy at Treasury in the Bush administration, a Goldman guy at White House chief of staff at the end of the Bush administration, a Goldman guy in charge of TARP, and when Tim Geithner left the NY Fed to replace Hank Paulson, it was a Goldman guy who replaced him.
And now, when the rest of the economy is in ruins, who is it that is striding about announcing record profits and record bonuses? And why is there no talk of any commensurate return on investment to the taxpayers who, they argued at one point, were needed to save their hides? (If you ever wanted proof of the premise behind my book Superclass, look no further. These guys operate as ultra-citizens in our society, virtually able to tell the government to heel and fetch in ways the rest of us can only fantasize about.)
Some will surely argue this is the American way, that Goldman has earned every penny. No. While Goldman has legitimately earned much of it, and there are many great and good folks working hard at Goldman who have made important contributions through government service. (In particular I applaud the pending appointment of the vice chairman of Goldman International Bob Hormats as Under Secretary of State for Economics, a great and talented guy.) Fair-minded individuals must also conclude they played the system, their huge profits came at the expense of others who could have used the government bailout money who had no access to it, no clout, no Treasury Secretaries hailing from their failing auto parts dealership or struggling stationery store. Further, Goldman's profits are simply not the broad-based benefit for America, they are a benefit for Goldman employees and shareholders.
Goldman is the most influential financial institution in a community of banks that sucked the system within an inch of its life with greed and to whom the U.S. government seemed to feel a prime responsibility was to rescue them..."to mitigate systemic risk." Crap. What about the risk to the system caused by the inequities created here? These ultra-citizens -- Goldman is one, think of Exxon registering record profits while the country squirmed in the midst of an energy crisis...and then demanded tax breaks along the way -- are operating apart from and above our system, using it for their benefit, putting people at risk, exacerbating inequality. While they may help America in some respects...we need to wise up and recognize when we are being used and abused.
And sooner or later, with deficits mounting (Happy Trillion Dollar Deficit Day everyone!) and the government in need of revenue in some form other than loans from abroad, there will be more tax hikes. And companies that operate with sense of entitlement and moral blankness that distinguishes their counterparts in modern fiction...in the Twilight movies say, or "True Blood"...will be the ones who will find that they are increasingly the targets. And what's more, I think they should be.
My sense is that it is going to take the next wave of crisis...the growing unemployment...the very very slow growth of the recovery whenever it happens...perhaps the next downspike...to mobilize the left and to paralyze the traditional defenders of these folks. (Admittedly a big shift to the right in next year's elections could protect the ultra-citizens in our society, the organizations that have trumped the people in American democracy. And thus watch who supports that shift.)
Obama can still avoid these outcomes...a shrunken edge in Congress, an even more fragmented party, this year's watered-down programs being the high point of a one term administration...but not if he doesn't realize that at the moment his "let's get Wall Street back to the way it was" approach could be the death knell for his popularity with much of his base, much as it was for his Republican opponents last fall. It's time to recognize something not working as planned with this recovery in which the top enjoys record rebounds while the bottom still plummets.
In the old time TV and radio series "The Life of Riley," William Bendix's character would regularly say what I thought this morning while reading about the Goldman bonanza: "What a revoltin' development this is." The question on my mind is: When does the revoltin' in response begin?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The U.S. Congress has their knickers in a twist because apparently the C.I.A. kept from them plans associated with a program designed to kill off al Qaeda leaders. While I think the Congress is right to be disturbed by this apparent cover-up -- and they should go after whomever may have violated the law by keeping the program from them -- it seems to me we're missing the point here.
Shouldn't we be at least equally concerned that in the eight years since the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. couldn't get its act together sufficiently to actually deploy the program to kill the al Qaeda leaders we intended to target? If there was ever an instance where the covert use of force was utterly justified it was in hunting down and killing this enemy.
In today's New York Times story "C.I.A. Had Plan to Assassinate Al Qaeda Leaders," the reasons the program got bogged down are laid out. Bureaucratic debates about whether it would be legal to employ such methods are perhaps inevitable and frankly, I'm all for having checks in our system that actually indicate a respect for the rule of law. But let's be serious, we find it is ok to violate national sovereignty with unmanned aircraft but not with people? It's ok to use those unmanned aircraft to fire missiles at bad guys that may or may not blow up dozens of innocent by-standers but it is not ok to undertake an approach where such collateral damage is even less likely? This is through-the-looking-glass legalism, so twisted and absurd that it must be about something else.
One hopes it is not about another reason the plan was difficult which is offered in the article -- the difficulty of figuring out where to base such operations. It is easy for anyone who has been in the U.S. government to imagine such a discussion ... but I wouldn't advise it. Because it makes your head want to explode.
Which brings us to the real problem. It's reflected in the quote: "It sounds great in the movies but when you do it, it's not that easy." Clearly, the concern was that the operation would fail and in failing it would be an embarrassment. But, who said these things were supposed to be easy? They are clearly as difficult as any operations the government can undertake. But when you are confronted by an enemy who uses foreign sovereignty and the presence of innocents for cover, such initiatives are essential.
Yes, it's hard, risky and will put U.S. lives and our national reputation on the line. So too is winning a land war in Afghanistan. So too is working with a divided, complex, unreliable ally like Pakistan. So too is trying to achieve anything on the shifting sands of the Middle East.
Also very difficult and very risky is coordinating an attack on the other side of the world that involves multiple hijackings and airborne attacks on major U.S. targets. So too will be the WMD attack that will inevitably change the nature of the war on terror. In other words, this is a different kind of enemy. It doesn't help matters that the Bush administration overstated the risks from this enemy, bungled the war against them and sought to use national panic over this real risk to justify extraneous and calamitous missions. But as President Obama has been clear, that doesn't mean the threat from al Qaeda and similar groups has abated. Drones have an important role to play, especially in areas in which the risks of collateral damage are more limited. More densely populated areas provide a different kind of cover that requires a different kind of solution.
The CIA needs to report as the law requires to the Congress. But the U.S. intelligence community needs the ability to do what this program reportedly intended to do. Killing the program wasn't the right response. Redoubling efforts to make it work would have been.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Millions of you turn to this blog site every day because you feel I will offer you insights that will help you make sense of the world. I know this. It's a humbling responsibility. And frankly, the enormity of it forces me to offer a confession. Today I reviewed the morning papers as I usually do (online, sans paper) and watched the early broadcasts of TV news organizations and I have got to admit it, I find everything pretty confusing.
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Whereas during the early stages of the upheaval in Iran, the United States seemed to be practicing a new form of tantric foreign policy, come Honduras what we saw from the Obama administration was more a page out of the Kama Sutra for Teenage Boys. It was emphatic, fast, and we bent over backwards to demonstrate that neither were we involved nor were we still caught up in the reflexive left vs. right tug-of-war of the Cold War days. It won Obama big points with regional leaders reaffirming his status as the most innovative new yanqui leader since Joe Torre.
Of course, another reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one ... regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today. No wonder the State Department's official mascot is the pushmi-pullyu.
And while it may well be that someday U.S. actions with regard to the situations in Iran and Honduras will someday be viewed as absolutely appropriate, questions remain. Does the fact that Iran conducted an election legitimize their government, whether or not that election was fair or other fundamental rights of the Iranian people were denied? Will we treat them as though nothing has happened, as though Neda were still alive, the next time we sit down to negotiate with them? And in the case of Honduras, we now must wonder what we should do if the missteps of President Zelaya's opponents (well described in an op-ed by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in today's New York Times) will empower him on his almost inevitable return to that country, making it easier still for him to follow through on his ambition to rewrite the constitution so he can serve beyond current limits. This may look and feel fair and even democratic, but using the power of the majority (or of office) to lock into place the power of a single individual or political group is actually neither.
You don't have to look too far way, of course, to see the potential damage such an approach can cause. In fact, it is clear that Zelaya, a charter member of the Hugo Chávez fan club, was contemplating the kind of political sleight of hand that rewrote the rules in Venezuela.
Immediate policy responses aside, what the juxtaposition of the Iranian and Honduran examples clearly illustrates is the ongoing set of problems associated with a too simplistic view of democracy and its role as a key metric in determining U.S. policy.
Our embrace of such a view over the past few years has sent the message that the mere act of publicly conducting a vote is seen as a shield behind which all manner of misdeeds can be undertaken with impunity. In Iran's case the illusion of democracy is used to excuse, forgive and enable fraud and repression. For Hugo and those seeking to emulate him, it is used to cloak the undermining of important elements of the rule of law.
The technique has been used with ever-growing chutzpah from Moscow to Zimbabwe. It is the blending of hypocrisy and democracy into a cocktail that could be known as "democrisy." And that cocktail is a particular weakness of U.S. foreign policy at the moment. This is in part our own doing. We're the ones who elevated the unidimensional, ballot-box-centric definition of democracy to a near-theological concept. But as we have seen again in recent weeks, a society that votes but has no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of religion, no free press, no provisions to protect minorities from tyranny of the majority, and/or a disregard for the rule of law is no more a democracy than a dog that walks on his hind legs is a principal ballerina for the Bolshoi.
We knew it all along, of course. But we were so eager to salute the spread of democracy as an American triumph that we started taking credit for a bunch of lowest common denominator democratic revolutions and the rise of tinpot Jeffersons when we should have been more circumspect and demanding. Voting without the intent to honor basic rights is no more a sure step on the road to real democracy than making out in the back seat of your car is a step on the road to marriage.
Ten years after Fareed Zakaria's introduction of the idea of "illiberal democracy" and 220 years after the Federalist Papers, we ought to know better. Of course, a cynic might argue that we do. It often suits us to use a minimalist definition of democracy and we do so as manipulatively as any of the populists or authoritarians we decry. We use it to justify inaction against regimes when we simply don't want to get involved for one reason or another -- because in Iran we have other fish to fry, because we want to feel like things are going better than they are in Afghanistan or, similarly, because we want to feel ok about getting the heck out of Dodge (Baghdad and Fallujah) in an Iraq where the government can hardly be said to be sufficiently transparent or effectively representative of the views of the Iraqi people.
Such an approach is convenient for us. But we can hope it will evolve. Just as it is reasonable to decry the coup in Honduras as a throwback to the days when Woody Allen's Bananas looked like a documentary, so too might we hope for a time when the hemisphere and the world might move beyond acceptance of the edition of "Democracy for Dummies" that has become the standard textbook for demagogues and start embracing and demanding higher standards from its elected leaders.
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
What is it about this hemisphere? As Mark Sanford has once again demonstrated...and as Latins themselves have long known...the only thing worse than not having U.S.-Latin relations is actually having them. Perhaps that's why so few U.S. politicians care to get deeply involved in the region. Sanford, of course, is among the very few recent exceptions. The last American politician to care as deeply about our neighbors to the south was former D.C. mayor, Marion Barry, and that's only because that's where his coke came from.
Maybe that's it. Maybe it's just that Norte Americanos tend to get in trouble down in that part of the world. Think how many U.S. political careers have been damaged south of the border. (I'm speaking geographically here.) Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs. Kissinger will not be visiting Chile any time soon. You don't hear many people thumping their chests about all the support they gave to one-time U.S. favorites like Carlos Salinas or Carlos Menem or Fernando Collor de Mello. (It's a long list.) Other than NAFTA, which Bill Clinton doesn't offer high on his resume any more, the last big Latin achievement that helped a political career was Teddy Roosevelt's ride up San Juan Hill.
But of course, the fall of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, top Republican presidential prospect until he disappeared five days on the long stroll during which he became the first man ever to walk the Appalachian Trail all the way to Buenos Aires, is about more than his apparent weakness for tango music and alfajores. It's even about more than the romance novel prose of his email communications with his Porteno girlfriend. ("I could digress," he wrote, "and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...")
No the story of Sanford is also about that special something, that yearning, that searching for love...that dark, standard-issue pol pathology...that makes the stories of fallen glad handers the Old Faithful of Washington press coverage, erupting regularly, offering a brief messy spectacle and then slithering back into a dark crack in the earth pending the next outburst. John Ensign last week. His fellow senators David Vitter and Larry Craig. Clinton himself. Eliot Spitzer. John Edwards. Time lists others like Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Mark Foley, Barney Frank, Gary Hart, and, of course, former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer. Springer, of course, earns a special place in this parade of libido casualties for his memorably stupid decision to actually pay off a hooker with a check. But there are more...so many more...Gary Condit, Vito Fossella, Tim Mahoney, Schwarzenegger's groping, Gavin Newsome's affair, Antonio Villaraigosa's affair, Jim McGreevey's dalliance with his homeland security advisor, and on into history...Bob Packwood, Newt Gingrich, Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, George Bush, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt...back to James Buchanan and William Rufus King and then on to our founding philanderers Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and goodness knows who else. Could it be that Demosthenes had more than pebbles in his mouth?
Which leads us to the real question behind the Sanford story: Why is it even a story? It is as surprising as a hangover after Tequila Night at your local bar. Yes, the guy was stunningly hypocritical. Yes, he ran on family values and seems, in retrospect, somewhat conflicted on the subject. But shouldn't there come a time in the history of civilization where we realize this painfully predictable stuff has precious little to do with on-the-job performance? Some of our greatest political leaders have been hopelessly flawed as husbands. In fact, history argues that no matter what we do, we're going to elect people who will screw up on a personal level. Sure, it's fun to joke about how finally Sanford found a stimulus package he was willing to accept...but can't we get over it?
The E! Network yesterday announced that they would no longer be covering the exploits of Speidi --Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag-Pratt of "The Hills" -- because their stories were so contrived and superficial as to be beneath the high journalistic standards of Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic. The Book of Revelations speaks of this moment. When the time comes that entertainment reporters no longer cover contrived superficiality in Hollywood, Washington newshounds should it see it as a sign they should throw down their notepads and give up covering politicians who -- not satisfied with the high volume work they are doing in their day jobs -- start trying to screw their constituencies one by one.
I therefore take the oath: This blog will lead the way. I will never again write about a D.C. sex scandal. (Because it's a non-story distraction from real issues. Because American politicians have the unique ability to make love seem so dirty. And because this is, after all, FP...and if I ever feel the rest of you really do need a sleaze fix...or just some low comic relief...we still do have all the rest of the world to work with. Buon giorno, Silvio!!!)
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Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that's the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. It's also the problem with many of the democracy promotion programs that have been offered up by the United States and the international community during the recent past. It's the formula for what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed "illiberal democracy" and for what citizens in ill-served countries know is sham.
From Russia to China to Venezuela, you have voting and claims that some form of democracy is operating. But in each case, as in Iran, such claims are undercut by the reality that free speech is being quashed. In just the past few days alone we have seen stories of the Chinese government's regulations requiring that computers sold in that country contain software enabling the government to censor Internet access. The alleged target is pornography but the software also enables the government to block access to sites they deem politically objectionable. Also, today's Wall Street Journal contained a story talking about the sophistication of the Iranian government when it comes to the tools it uses to control Internet access in that country. And we have seen that they are equally comfortable with the blunt instruments of press suppression from expelling journalists to floating bogus stories to beating the opposition to death.
The U.S. State Department made a demarche to the Chinese protesting the censorship. That's an encouraging and important step. But we need to go further. Not only do governments need to ratchet up their emphasis on the centrality of a free press to any democracy -- and take a stronger stand against those who pretend at representative government -- they also need to find a better way to collaborate with and if necessary regulate or impede those companies who provide Internet and other media censors with the technologies and tools they need to do their jobs. It is absolutely appalling that supposedly "enlightened" companies like Google trumpet their saintly behavior on the environment and other PC issues and then work behind the scenes to enable censorship and thus the evisceration of the fundamental human right to access to the truth about their lives.
Outreach and achieving common standards and an agreement to adhere to them would be a good first step. But because ultimately, some businesses will need stronger disincentives not to do business with government censors, we should reflect the centrality of a free press in programs that deny U.S. government contracts to technology, software or consulting companies that enable such suppression. In fact, better still would be an agreement among all democracies to do so. We can start with Europe and NATO and work out from there. Perhaps other forms of international agreements may also be possible. Certainly, we should attempt to advance the idea of the Internet as a free global commons. For those with concerns about pornography, let families rather than governments wield the tools to make those value judgments about content.
What is clear is that while modern technologies make it much harder for authoritarian regimes control access to information as they once did, they also provide new tools which can corrode and choke off important avenues of expression and information flows. With its diplomatic challenge to China, the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to grapple with this problem. But they and all governments who are supposedly committed to free societies can go much further.
For over two centuries we have believed that the legitimacy of governments derived from the consent of the governed. But, of course, that famous concept does not go far enough. The legitimacy can only be derived from informed consent. Anything less is less than true democracy.
It's June, which means it's time for FP's 50th annual International sleazestakes, the definitive ranking of the most odious cases of political corruption and scandals worldwide....and the most entertaining ones. This ranking is the one used by prosecutors, tabloid editors and the crooks themselves to know who is up (to no good usually) and who is down (to their last appeal). In fact in some places (Equatorial Guinea, Illinois) it is used as a kind of handbook for public officials.
Ok. That's not true. We've never done this before. But when you write about the lying cheating dirt bags who have made politics even less respectable than investment banking and the priesthood, it rubs off on you. Nonetheless, every word that follows is based on absolutely unimpeachable allegations even if the same cannot be said of the politicians in question.
So here goes, 10 world class sleazebags in 10 categories of sleaziness.
From the country that gave us Caligula comes a scandal that makes us wish that there was a way to pull an Oedipus and gouge out our mind's eye. (What, you think I meant the other oedipal stuff? Gross. There are standards of taste, even in this blog.) Please don't make us imagine the 72 year old media-baron-turned-Godfather-of-Italian-politics (which is quite a distinction when you think about it) with the 18 year old lingerie model that Berlusconi's wife alleges he had a dalliance with. Fortunately, recently Berlusconi got his country's privacy commission to bloc the release of pictures of him at a party in Sardinia with the girl, then age, 17. And, to get back at his wife for calling him out on his alleged cradle-robbing, friends of the PM are now circulating stories that Berlusconi's wife had taken a special interest in her security detail. Ah, Italia...the dolce vita never ends.
Even the Italians couldn't come up with a scandal as delicious as this one in tiny Paraguay, known for its mountains and its unusually large number of schnitzel restaurants and goose stepping senior citizens. Here we have the President of the country, a former bishop, now being the subject of not one, not two, but three separate paternity claims. Lugo is clearly a man who may not have been true to his vows, but who is making up with it by literally trying to become the father of his country.
This weekend our favorite black hole of charisma, Gordon Brown, proposed constitutional reforms to help bring an end to one of Britain's biggest and yet most piddling political scandals in years. No sex here. No diddling young boys. No Profumo spy scandal. No, this case...which has already got 12 members of parliament from three political parties already announcing they will not seek reelection...is about padding their official expense accounts with claims running from the costs of a home swimming people to an eight dollar donation to a church. Still, the scandal has accelerated the speed with which Gordo's career is circling the drain and it has claimed the Speaker of the House of Commons. Still, I'm not sure if Brown's suggestion that the country's constitution be altered is the answer...given the British history of political scandals, perhaps he ought to be focused more on the constitution of British politicos.
We've written about him before thanks to the fact that the scandal surrounding a murdered lawyer's video accusation from the grave has threatened the stability of Colom's government. But the scandal only gets more politically fraught even without much more clarity on whether the lawyer's claims were true. While Colom spent yesterday touring Mayan ruins with Taiwan's president, labor unions backing the leftist leader have started to push their case that the whole scandal was cooked up by Guatemala's business elites to undermine the leftwing president. Bad as the scandal is, I can't quite get my brain past the oxymoronic notion of Guatemalan business elites.
A scandal without a cover up would be like an aging Hollywood star without plastic surgery...its often the effort to put a better face on things ends up doing the really upsetting disfiguring. So in this category we salute incoming South African President Jacob Zuma who nobody argues is a model citizen but who nonetheless managed to shrug off accusations of every manner of crime and buzz about his polygamy to rise to that nation's highest office where, Wednesday, he will deliver its state of the nation address. But because you can't do a good scandal without the cooperation of the press, we also want to tip our hats to the Japanese media who were cited in an article in the New York Times last week for their complete willingness to be the tools of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in funneling accusations against opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa...thus reminding us that the best friend of any scandal monger are the tools in the press who will print first and ask questions later.
It's gotta make George Bush proud. In a page right out of American democracy (New Jersey, Louisiana or Illinois-style), yesterday, the former Iraqi Trade Minister tried to slip out of the country as an investigation centering on the disappearance of $39 million dollars, massive shipments of food and that old favorite, obstruction of justice, closed in on him. He was foiled when the Iraqi police got the plane to Dubai he was on to turn around and return to Baghdad where Al-Sudani was taken directly to the slammer. It's working, people, it's working! We can make the Middle East look like us.
Buying votes is the meat and potatoes of political corruption (as we shall soon see.) And so we have to honor those who have shown the most creativity in this regard. In Thailand, the brother of the Deputy Prime Minister and a colleague are accused of handing out towels printed with slogans as an inducement to elderly voters to cast their ballots for them. That's a novel twist. But the prize in this category goes to our old friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been attacked by his opponents for trying to buy votes through the use of shipments of potatoes to districts he wants to carry. This in turn has produced the best political chant of the year, crowds of anti-Mahmoud Iranians rolling out that old national trope, the little black dress of Iranian politics, with their call for "Death to Potatoes, Death to Potatoes!"
It is no small thing to even have the possibility of becoming the least distinguished U.S. Senator ever. But only months into his tenure (which will almost certainly only be measurable in months), Illinois Senator Roland Burris has managed to achieve nothing for the people of Illinois but further embarrassment. His streak of misstatements on his interaction with Governor Rod Blagoevich prior to his selection for the Senate rivals any of the acts of truth-twisting every achieved in that upper chamber of the U.S. Congress. And almost certainly when Burris is gone...which will be soon either through resignation or when he loses election when his temporary term is up (he is as electable as Dick Cheney in Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco)...it is for these dubious achievements that he will be rightfully remember.
You gotta love it when a political leader becomes the victim of a scam. It's a small victory for everyone. But it is especially sweet when one of the world's richest men, known for his own history of beauty-queen-sex-slave scandals, is suckered out of 20 billion rupiahs by a team of Indonesian crooks who had the sand to call up the Sultan's adjutant and persuade him to send the money to fake bank accounts in order to help allegedly support political campaigns in Indonesia. On one such call, one of them even pretended he was the President of Indonesia calling. The embarrassed sultan followed up the announcement with a trip to the current ASEAN Summit which is being held in Korea, a country where political scandal is a national tradition. (See final story below.)
Maybe Roh Moo-hyun took a bribe. In fact, it looks like he did. Why else, in the midst of an investigation, would he go out behind his house and jump off a cliff, killing himself? Still, the popular ex-president, was not an anomaly in a country that may be the next lifetime honoree for the International Sleazestakes Hall of Fame given the fact that two of its military presidents ended up in jail and two of the sons of its first elected presidents joined them there. In fact, as noted in a good LA Times retrospective about Roh, Koreans like to joke that when North and South are reunified, the South will handle the economy but given the South's record on political matters, those will be left to their brother and sisters from north of the demilitarized zone.
Additional nominees welcome...and being created by entrepreneurially minded political leaders worldwide every day.
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
What with this being Memorial Day weekend and all the talk turning to grilling...and what with the fact that when talk in DC turns to grilling we mean "enhanced interrogation techniques"...I thought it might be entertaining to put together a list of the 10 people we would most like to see this weekend (or sometime soon) on the grill, the waterboard, under the hot lights answering the questions we need answers to. And by answering, I don't mean the kind of answers you get on "Meet the Press." I mean the truth.
So here they are, 10 people who I'd like to leave alone in a room with Dick Cheney, a car battery, and jumper cables:
10. Alvaro Colom...
My question for the president of Guatemala would be "How did you feel the first time you saw the video-taped murder accusation leveled at you by (now deceased) attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano?" Of course, given the web of accusations, counter-accusations, and dubious assertions surrounding this murder, another question that comes to mind is: "Did you do it?" And another is: "How much longer do you think you have in office if Guatemala descends into the kind of civil discord that has marked much of its modern history?"
9. Robert Mugabe...
Frankly, I don't really feel the need to have a good question, here. This is a guy who seriously could use a date with a Delco just because he's one of the vilest, most corrupt leaders on the planet. That said, because we like our enhanced interrogations to be productive around here, how about, just as an appetizer: "How could you possibly continue to support the appointment of Gideon Gono as Reserve Bank Governor given that he has single handedly achieved the impossible and made the Zimbabwean currency famous worldwide...as a laughingstock...while making hyperinflation a national tragedy for your country?"
8. Nancy Pelosi...
Ah sweet irony. The questions are easy here: "The truth now, what did you know, when did you know it...and most importantly, why didn't you do anything about it once you knew?" But just to add to the fun, maybe we could let Pelosi nemesis, erstwhile CIA Director-candidate Jane Harman, oversee the questioning.
7. Joe Biden...
This entry was suggested by an anonymous email from the address email@example.com. The reason it was picked was that in an inventive twist, it was suggested by this mysterious Mr. O that Biden only feel the heat from the alligator clips attached to his nipples if he actually attempted to answer the questions posed to him. Or speak. Or pretty much make any sound at all.
6. Brad Grey...
Mr. Grey is the CEO of Paramount Pictures. And my question for him is perhaps the simplest of all those posed here. Why, why, why would you ever greenlight a picture featuring the Wayans Brothers like this weekend's Dance Flick?" As amusing as a slideshow from Abu Ghraib, the last time these guys were funny...any of them...was in utero.
The list goes on here at number 5. This is a category where the question is the same and you can use it with any of a large number of people who need to provide us with an answer to that age old query: "What do you see in him?" The question can be modified, of course. So it can be, "Carla, what do you see in that little megalomaniac?" Or it can be, "Kate, what do you see in that preening steroidal late-season-choke-machine? Are you actually trying to kill Owen Wilson by dating this lug?" (And please be wary, Kate. When October comes, those big strong arms of A-Rod's turn to spaghetti. But who knows, the steroids may have produced the same effect elsewhere long before then.)
4. Hank Paulson...
What I want to ask is, "Hank, I know you are a sensitive, self-aware guy. You're even a bird-watcher for goodness, sake. So tell me, in your heart of hearts, what were you really thinking when you decided to pull the plug on Lehman? Did it make you feel good even a teensy-weensy bit? No, really, not even a little bit?
3. Bibi Netanyahu...
The question is "when?" You don't have to tell Barack, no matter what he says. But I want to know. Just in case things backfire. You know, so I can buy up what might become a few choice oceanfront lots in say, Amman, Jordan.
2. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad...
You didn't think I would make Bibi sweat under the hot lights and not you, did you? But here's the question: "How stupid do you think we are?" No, I know how stupid you think the officials of the international community are and frankly, I hardly blame you. If I were you and I could keep stalling for more time to advance my nuclear programs, all the while making belligerent noises and testing missiles, I'd do it too. But the question is: "Do you really think everyone is stupid enough to trust you with nukes? Everyone?"
1. Dick Cheney...
It wouldn't be Memorial Day without an All-American Hero at number one. And what a hero you are, Dick. You didn't flinch expending American blood to advance your far-fetched fantasies. And for that reason and hundreds of thousands of others, no one is a more appropriate main entrée on our grilling menu. Of course, you can't fry yourself...so we'll have to find volunteers. (That shouldn't be too hard.) The bad news is that the questions we'd like to ask may be a little uncomfortable. Like: "Did you or the president specifically ok individual instances of torture?" and "Did you knowingly lie to Congress or the American people to justify the invasion of Iraq?" But there's good news too, because as we understand it, you've never met a defibrillator you didn't like.
So that's 10. Eleven actually. And I resisted throwing in the American Idol judges because I realized I didn't want to interrogate them. I just wanted to torture them...just as they have tortured us with that show's bland caterwauling for the past eight years. But feel free to nominate your own victims...er, honorees...or to pose additional questions for the wonderful folks above. And have a great Memorial Day.
Evan Agostini/Getty Images
David Broder today writes of Barack Obama's coming into his own as commander in chief. Obama has been helped immeasurably in this respect by his simultaneous emergence as the country's lawyer in chief. Never have those skills been so well displayed as during today's speech delivered at the National Archives in defense of his decision to close Guantanamo.
Obama's arguments today were methodical, rigorous, substantiated by facts and guided both by logic and principle. They stand in stark contrast to those of the one man who doesn't seem to realize the Bush administration is over, the modern equivalent of one of those Japanese soldiers wandering an atol in the Pacific long after the end of World War II, continuing to fight for ideas and goals that have long since been discredited and defeated. That would be, of course, Dick Cheney, who at best is merely shrill, bitter, and hysterical and at worst is the unrepentant architect of policies and programs that willfully violated and offended the spirit of the constitution of the United States. (More on this last point shortly.)
Obama may be the best lawyer to occupy the U.S. presidency since William Howard Taft went from the White House to being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, he is likely better than the affable and ginormous Taft and, who knows, may someday follow in the (deep) footsteps of the man who was also famous for having gotten stuck in the nation's First Bathtub. Standing in front of the documents that serve as the legal and moral foundations of American society, Obama offered a plain-spoken but powerful argument: Rather than "strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."
He effectively made his case that due process and a respect for our system of law would do more to protect us than would the Bush approach which might be characterized, to paraphrase Clare Boothe Luce, as cutting the constitution to suit the fashions of the times. Laying out category after category of detainee and explaining how they should be treated consistent with both our national interests and the prevailing views of the U.S. judiciary, he described an approach so logical and consistent with American concepts of fairness, that it not only makes the fringe-dwelling Cheney sound out of touch, it makes the entire U.S. Senate (or the 90 who voted yesterday against appropriating funds to shut down Guantanamo) seem to be petty, political panderers. How ludicrous they seem fearing to locate terrorists from Guantanamo alongside the hundreds of terrorists already in America's network of impregnable Supermax and similar facilities. How responsible and constructive comments from Dianne Feinstein and Lindsay Graham have therefore been in noting the absurdity of the self-interested NIMBYism of their colleagues.
Cheney, who offered a set of counter-point remarks, was legally, morally, and intellectually out-gunned by the president. Nowhere was this clearer than in the description of his speech by an aide in which he described it as arguing ""our values are not abrogated by prioritizing security for innocents over rights for terrorists." It is a powerful statement that captures everything that is wrong with their view. It is precisely the idea that we can suspend the rights of suspected wrong-doers in order to "protect" the rest of society that undercuts our entire system of law. That system specifically enshrines rights for the worst of criminals to ensure that it is not fear nor political sentiment nor the view of any individual or even the majority that drives the legal process but that instead all of us are equal under the law.
Or as Cheney said during his speech, "There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance." Exactly. It is precisely at such moments that our convictions and values are tested and we reveal the character of our leadership and our country.
Which gets us to the one thing that Obama asserted today that I questioned while hearing his remarks...in part because the rest of his statement was so compelling. He remarked that he did not want to dwell on rearguing the debates of the Bush years but would rather move forward to focus on the challenges of today. Fair enough. But, I wonder if he does not misread the historical significance of the missteps of the Bush era, particularly those associated with Guantanamo, torture, and Abu Ghraib. More than the bungling in Iraq, more even than the lies associated with getting into that war, it was these moral failures that damaged the United States and the Bush administration, did more damage by far than any the terrorists could inflict. In fact, what we did played directly into the plans of the terrorists themselves, casting us in a light that served their objectives.
Which is why I am starting to think that this is not like Watergate, a domestic political wound Gerald Ford was right to cauterize with his pardon. Domestic and international laws were broken by the last administration beginning with president and vice president's deliberate decision not to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. I am not for prosecuting lawyers who interpreted the law to meet the requirements of their bosses. But I do think that leaders in any nation need to be held accountable for any crimes they may have committed or ordered. If the United States does not choose to identify and prosecute even those in high positions who violate the law we set a dangerous precedent...regardless of whether or not the incidents in question are so distasteful we want to move past them.
Further, if we don't, I feel it's a pretty fair bet that sometime soon a prosecutor beyond our borders will seek to prosecute Bush or Cheney for what they did. (Compare their actions to others whose prosecutions we have supported...in terms of values, casualties, costs, laws broken.) It may not be an outcome Obama seeks...but it may be the one called for by the values and laws he so eloquently defended today.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.