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December 29, 2006

The 0% Solution

Regular readers of this blog know I am not one of those who view Joe Lieberman as some sort of demonic figure, or as a key factor in the Iraq mess, or as the incarnation of the DC Establishment. Lots of the attacks on him for allegedly stabbing Bill Clinton or Al Gore in the back are demonstrably misguided. Generally speaking, Lieberman has been a solid if occasionally heretical Democrat with one anachronistic flaw--his belief that George W. Bush or his party have done anything to merit "bipartisanship"--and one very large blind spot--Iraq.After reading his Washington Post op-ed today calling for an escalation of troop deployments in Iraq, it's clear that blind spot isn't clearing up; if anything, it's getting larger. At best, it reads like the call for a tactic that might have theoretically made sense a couple of years ago. At worst, it represents a prescription for making the disastrous course of U.S. post-invasion policy in Iraq an even bigger disaster.Lieberman's assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq is wildly counter-intuitive and counter-factual. He would have us believe that al Qaeda and Iran are actively cooperating to thwart an emerging "moderate consensus" in Iraq that supports the current Maliki government. Iran, he suggests, is fully backing the Mahdi Army "extremists," who must be excluded, along with al Qaeda-backed Sunni "extremists," from a government based on "Sunni and Shiite moderates." An additional U.S. troop deployment--not a temporary "surge," it appears, but an expansion of the U.S. military presence until such time as "security" is assured, will do the trick. Otherwise, Iraq will descend into civil war.Lord a'mighty, even the White House seems more realistic than Joe at this point. There aren't enough "Sunni moderates" left in Iraq to amount to anything. Maliki depends very explicitly on support from the Mahdi Army, and indirectly on support from Tehran. Iran's main client in Iraq is SCIRI and its Badr Corps militia, presumably a main factor in the "Shiite moderate" forces Lieberman is counting on. And by any definition--certainly the key one of whether the government has a monopoly on the use of force, or even on the use of force by its own employees in the police or the military--Iraq is already in a state of civil war.At least those in the administration who favor the so-called "80% solution"--openly backing the Shia in an effort to crush the Sunni insurgency once and for all--are honest in admitting we have to choose between two threats at present, and favor an expansion of Iranian influence as less damaging to our long-term interests. Lieberman's approach--committing more U.S. troops to a new two-front war against the Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi Army, in support of a shaky pro-Iranian and pro-Sadr government--is a 0% solution, likely to do nothing more than increase the near-universal conviction of Iraqis that our presence is a plague that must be ended, preferably at the precise moment when their preferred faction is in ascendancy.Having spent much of the last year investing as much rhetoric in attacking Tehran as in attacking al Qaeda, Joe Lieberman apparently can't bring himself to admit that there is no course of action, other than beginning troop withdrawals, that can maintain U.S. neutrality between the two threats. But no one else need follow Lieberman into the prison of his own logic about Iraq, or willfully accept his blind spot.It's time for Joe to re-focus on global climate change, or health care, or tax reform, or oversight hearings into the Katrina disaster. Anything but Iraq.
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December 28, 2006

Latter-Day Religious Tests

In the pre-Christmas frenzy, I missed Damon Linker's very interesting take on the religio-political implications of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, which will appear in the next print edition of The New Republic. Like everyone else, Linker noted polls showing hostility to the prospect of a Mormon president, especially among evangelical Christians. But like me, Linker suspects that the recent ecumenical movement towards a Christian Right united front could ultimately lead the most politically radicalized conservative Gentiles (to use the Mormon term for non-Mormons) to deem Romney kosher.After all, the Mormons have built a righteous commonwealth in Utah that undoubtedly inspires admiration and envy among conservative Christians generally, not only in terms of godly personal morality, but as reflected in the large and generous LDS social welfare system. And at a time when the Christian Right appears far more interested in the wordly implications of theology than in its other-wordly claims, do qualms about eccentric Mormon doctrines really matter any more?The polls say yes, but time will tell if Romney's candidacy does for Mormons what JFK's candidacy did for Catholics--detoxifying his faith even as he benefits from strong and avid support from his co-religionists.Much of Linker's article actually focuses on a very different issue: should those of us who aren't members of the Christian Right worry about Romney's faith? Linker thinks we should, primarily because of peculiar LDS beliefs about American-based prophecy that could place pressure on a Mormon president to erect a theocracy. I'm not completely convinced by his arguments, but he does make an excellent case that Romney, like JFK, has to make up his mind whether he wants Americans to vote for him because, or in spite of, his religion.
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December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford RIP

The passing of the 38th president of the United States has not received the kind of attention often paid to such events, in part because of its timing in the midst of the holiday season, and in part because of the brevity of his tenure in office. In addition, he was very much a transitional president. His administration marked the liquidation of the Watergate and Vietnam disasters; the advent of a period of economic stagflation and perceived national decline; and the death throes of the old (relatively) non-ideological party system. Ford's own political career was appropriately bifurcated. Up until 1974 (when he was already over 60), he was the most conventional of Republican politicians, climbing the ranks in the House by virtue of stolid hard work, exceptional loyalty, and the abundant good nature that made him the best possible successor to the eternally saturnine Richard Nixon. Then in short order he became the first appointed vice president in U.S. history, and then the first non-elected president. He survived the first serious nomination challenge to an incumbent Republican president since William Howard Taft, and then fell just short of winning re-election in what would have been a comeback rivaling Harry Truman's. Few people remember the odd denouement of Ford's political career, when he very nearly became Ronald Reagan's running-mate in 1980, which would have almost certainly stopped the Bush Dynasty before it began. It's not easy to identify a an enduring Ford legacy in American politics or government, precisely because of the transitional character of his presidency. But there is one item of contemporary importance: his one Supreme Court appointment, John Paul Stevens, who may well be the one Justice standing in the way of a conservative reshapement of U.S. constitutional law, particularly when it comes to privacy and abortion rights. Ford's post-presidential life was relatively quiet, most notable perhaps for the close friendship he developed with the man who denied him re-election, Jimmy Carter. Indeed, their friendship became something of a totem to those of my generation who long for a return to bipartisanship.Maybe that kind of bipartisanship could indeed return if Republicans could find themselves more leaders like Gerald Ford. May he rest in peace.
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December 21, 2006

Wooden Ships

This is a good week for the New Republic Online. Yesterday they posted the excellent Andrew Sullivan piece about the conservative crisis over homosexuality. And today, Michael Currie Schaffer of the Philly Inquirer posts a tart and pertinent article about the anti-American strain in conservatism, as revealed most recently by the defection of conservative Episcopal parishes in Virginia, who seek instead pastoral guidance from Nigeria.
Schaeffer has lots of fun with the we-hate-America implications of the Virginia Episcopal schism. Commenting on the particularly abrasive comments of Falls Church rector John Yates, Schaeffer notes:
On an ordinary news day, the flag-in-the-lapel commentariat would know just what to call unhappy campers like Yates, who led his disaffected flock out of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. on Saturday and into the Nigerian Anglican church: Cosmopolitan elitists, fuzzy-headed dreamers, and whiny losers who, if they love Nigeria so much, should just move there (never mind that Nigerians would kill for American visas!). Particularly outspoken figures--such as the Reverend Martyn Minns, a fellow dissident who spoke of "an equal partnership with our friends in the Global South"--might be invited onto Bill O'Reilly's show to be smacked around for failing to line up behind our universal Western values. As any number of disaffected idealists could tell you, it's only a short hop from singing Kumbaya with the Global South to coddling Castro or lionizing Mugabe.

But, apparently, it's a different story when the dissidents come from the far right and their quarrel isn't with capitalism or imperialism or other bugbears of touchy-feely idealists. Thus, the absence of any reaction from the love-it-or-leave-it set to the odd spectacle of several Virginia Episcopal congregations, including Minns's, declaring that the Anglican church's American branch isn't good enough for them: No O'Reilly smackdown, no dismissal by Joe Scarborough, no thundering Wall Street Journal editorial.

Indeed. My favorite quote from the Schaeffer piece was supplied by the previously mentioned right-wing and suddenly Afrocentric Yates.

All the signs are around. Take, for instance, the hyperbolic language: "We're climbing over the rails down to various little lifeboats," the Reverend John Yates, rector of The Falls Church in Virginia, declared over the weekend. "There's a lifeboat from Bolivia, one from Rwanda, another from Nigeria. Their desire is to help us build a new ship in North America, and design it and get it sailing."

Boy, does this bring back memories! Yates sounds exactly like the lefty composers of the Woodstock-era Jefferson Airplane/Crosby, Stills and Nash classic Wooden Ships.
Remember this?
Go and take a sister by her hand
Lead her far from this foreign land
Somewhere where we might laugh again
We are leaving
You don't need us
Wooden ships on the water very free and easy
You know the way it's supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline leave us be
Very free and gone
It's real tempting to say to the Virginia schismatics: "Love it or leave it, folks!"
But I won't, out of Christian charity.
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December 20, 2006

Opening On the Right?

On Monday I wrote about Mitt Romney's problems in his effort to become the True Conservative Alternative in 2008 to John McCain and Rudy Guiliani, and suggested there may be a bit of a vacuum on the Right. Since politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, I suspect there will be a lot of trial balloons getting hoisted in the months ahead for dark horse candidates who could theoretically seize the mantle of the Conservative Movement. Indeed, it's already happening.The latest name to emerge is Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, who has been quietly working as head of--and presumably a lobbyist for--the national Life Insurance association since leaving office in 2003. Keating's a Catholic and certified Right-to-Lifer with big-time law enforcement credentials, having been an FBI agent back in the day, and Associate Attorney General under Reagan. Interestingly enough, his resume boasts of service in an FBI anti-terrorism effort in the early 1970s. It's hard to have gotten onto the anti-terrorism bus much earlier than that.Keating achieved some national notice during the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, and was briefly on George W. Bush's vice-presidential short list in 2000. He's not exactly Mr. Charisma (he apparently has a bit of a problem with uncontrolled rage), but again, we're talking about a conservative movement that's exploring the bottom of the barrel looking for that unspoiled apple.Speaking of the bottom of the barrel, conservatives could always resort to Newt Gingrich, who is already more or less into the race. His main calling card is his claim to be the man who launched the very Republican Revolution in Congress that his successors allegedly betrayed, which nicely echoes the rationalization that so many conservatives are making in dismissing the ideological implications of the 2006 elections. To burnish his national security credentials, ol' Newt has become a cheerful and outspoken advocate of the idea of morphing the Global War On Terrorism into a rootin', tootin', shootin' World War III, with potential invasions of Iran and North Korea to ease the pain of Bush's Iraqi fiasco. (Way back in the early '80s, Gingrich spent some time urging state legislatures to adopt Lessons of Granada resolutions to celebrate that famous victory as an antidote to the Vietnam Syndrome; this is a guy who knows the value of starting wars to cheer people up after military defeats).On the down side, the Newtster has a few problems, including his serial marriages, his really bad Civil War novel, and his record as Bill Clinton's punching bag during the last half of the 1990s. But hey, you can't blame the guy for trying.Indeed, Newt makes a lot of sense as compared to yet another retread who's talking about running in 2008: former Virginia governor and RNC chief Jim Gilmore. In case you've forgotten him, Gilmore's the man who got himself elected as governor in 1997 on a completely irresponsible tax-cut proposal, and then created such a fiscal mess in Richmond that Republicans split and Democrats won two straight gubernatorial elections. The first Democratic win, by Mark Warner in 2001, occured when Gilmore was running the national Republican Party. Gilmore was unceremoniously dumped as party chair after GOPers lost both of the 2001 gubernatorial races.So why is this guy maybe running for President? Here's Adam Nagourney's report in today's New York Times: "'A void exists,' Mr. Gilmore said in an interview. 'There is just no conservative right now who can mount a national campaign.'"That's what I've been telling you.
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Blogless Down Under

Given as how I'm sporadically writing about my recent trip to Australia here on this blog, I guess it is incumbent upon me to report that blogs don't seem to be terribly central to progressive politics in Australia or New Zealand. It's not that they don't exist; one site I've run across that provides a database of blogs around the world (though it's not clear how many are political) lists 3,701 in Australia and 569 in New Zealand (as compared with 69,167 in the U.S.). And it's certainly not the case that Aussies and Kiwis are not "wired;" their internet penetration levels are actually higher than ours; New Zealand ranks second only to Iceland in that respect, and Australia ranks fifth.Still, no one I talked to in Sydney thought of political blogs--much less any sort of broader web-based "netroots" movement, as something to think seriously about. And despite a very high awareness level of U.S. politics, they seemed surprised and skeptical when I mentioned the significance and self-consciousness of the "netroots" as a major faction in the Democratic Party.It's possible that there's just a lag-time factor here, but I doubt it. In no small part because money is not so ever-present in their politics, political organizing Down Under is very old-school and labor-intensive. "People-powered politics" is pretty much a given, even though, or perhaps even because, there's less dependence on technology. New Zealand's Labour Party recently conducted a very successful voter mobilization effort at a cost that would represent a rounding error in the monthly billing of any U.S. political consultant. Australia's compulsory voting system obviously makes voter mobilization a less pressing concern altogether.But perhaps an even more important factor is the strong and grassroots-oriented party system. For all the talk among progressive bloggers about the oppressive D.C. Democratic Establishment, the truth is that our parties are far weaker and more decentralized than those in the rest of the English-speaking world. The "netroots" are scratching an itch for organization and bottom-up influence that isn't that strong in places like Australia and New Zealand, where parties devote a lot of time to grassroots and interest-group constituencies, and where party discipline is high once decisions are made.I heard nothing in Sydney that would indicate that blogging and other internet-based political organizing and communications vehicles are about to sweep the world Down Under. Given how rapidly the "netroots" blossomed here, it could still happen there, but I wouldn't bet my modem on it.
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Conservatives and Gays: Hypocrisy or Bigotry?

Andrew Sullivan has a fine article up on the New Republic site explaning how Mary Cheney's pregnancy is exposing the basic choice conservatives have to face on gay and lesbian relationships. Here's how he frames the choice:

What are Republicans going to do about homosexuals? The fact that this question has been asked repeatedly does not mean that anyone has yet given it a serious answer. There are, broadly speaking, two rival conservative factions on the subject: religious fundamentalists, who want to outlaw or deter homosexual love and sex on biblical or natural law grounds; and old-school conservatives, who want to treat the entire issue as a private matter--supporting public policy hostile to gay people and gay relationships while privately treating gay individuals with tact and respect.
Conservative reaction to the Cheney news has, Sullivan explains, fallen into exactly these two categories. And of particular interest is the tendency of non-fundamentalist conservatives to deal with the whole issue by lapsing into embarassed silence. Andrew's recitation of the discussion of the Cheney pregnancy over at The Corner is very enlightening.While Sullivan mentions the contrived nature of the conservative case for denying gays and lesbians their rights, I do think he understates the psychological importance of a delusional treatment of the "gay threat" to conservatives who would allegedly prefer not to deal with the topic. Fatally tempted by the political power of gay-bashing, these supposedly enlightened conservatives have to convince themselves and others that it's gays and lesbians themselves, with their allies in the judiciary, the clergy, and the Democratic Party, who are violating a don't-ask-don't-tell consensus. Thus you get all the talk about "activist judges" and gay rights advocates and so forth, with the underlying suggestion that conservatives and Republicans would be happy to leave gays and lesbians in peace if they'd just be quiet about it.It's becoming increasingly impossible to distinguish such "arguments" from those made by many "enlightened" conservatives during the civil rights era. Jim Crow, they often said, would eventually die a natural death, but African-Americans needed to be patient and eschew "outside agitators" who prematurely forced the issue and unleashed race as a political issue.Then as now, those who acknowledge fundamental injustice while supporting its continuation are hard to respect; at least racist and homophobic bigots are acting out of some sort of conviction.But even in the fundamentalist camp that Sullivan identifies as the source of honest conservative homophobia, there's a whole lot of delusional thinking about the "gay threat." It's one thing to quietly say that in obedience to the innerrant Word of God (or, for Catholics, Church Tradition), you are opposed to legitimizing gay and lesbian relationships, as one of a thousand viewpoints that separate you from the fashions of secular society. It's another thing altogether to place this at the center of public discourse, as a litmus test of religious fidelity. But that's what so many fundamentalists have done, subordinating every other political, moral, and theological concern to the "threat," and tearing centuries-old denominations apart.It's not as though heterosexuality is falling out of style. And while the institution of marriage has had better days, you'd have to be smoking a lot of crack to believe gay relationships have much to do with that. Some fundamentalist Protestants argue that accepting gay and lesbian relationships will destroy the authority of Holy Scripture. It's interesting that they believe scriptural authority depends on deifying a handful of random negative references to homosexual behavior, mostly in Pauline epistles whose authorship is unclear. Yet most Protestants seem to find it easy to rationalize a variety of exceptions to the direct and unambiguous statement of Jesus Christ about the indissolubility of marriage. So why the hysteria about gays?Again, the analogy of racial equality may be instructive here. In my native South, completely sincere white folks devoted an enormous amount of attention for many generations to the religious sanctification of racial inequality, from slavery to segregation, splitting previously national denominations and essentially making injustice a sort of pious obligation. Confusing the past with the Divine Order (like my distant rural relatives who refused to accept Daylight Savings Time because Standard Time was "God's Time"), and confusing obedience to secular norms with obedience to God, they became the ultimate secularists even as they claimed they were fighting secularism. That may what's going on with some fundamentalist Christians and the issue of gay rights (and arguably, what's going on with Salafists who act as though subordination of women is the essence of Islam).Eventually, we will see the time when all varieties of conservatives look back on their homophobic period with embarassment. Until then, it remains useful to expose their delusions for exactly what they are.
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December 18, 2006

Romney's Conservative Problem

I'll get back to more about my trip to Australia directly, but wanted to draw attention to a significant article by National Review's Byron York about likely 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's growing credibility gap with his main political target: true-believer conservatives.York reports from South Carolina that Republicans in that key conservative primary state are getting emails (from whom, it is not clear, though you could make a few guesses) recounting past statements by the Mittster, particularly during his 1994 campaign against Ted Kennedy, that professed him to be pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, and most shocking of all, disrespectful of Ronald Reagan.None of this is exactly breaking news. But given Romney's surprisingly successful efforts in recent months to market himself to conservative opinion-leaders as the True Conservative Alternative to John McCain and Rudy Guiliani, the possible impact of greater publicity about his "changes of heart" on cultural issues in a place like South Cackalacki is a big challenge for Romney. And York, a reliable old-school reporter, seems to think revelations about the very recent vintage of Mitt's conversion to the Right-to-Life and Anti-Gay causes are causing more heartburn in the Palmetto State than a big plate of fried food at Lizard Thicket (Columbia's fine southern cuisine chain).

For some, the concern stems not from any single, disqualifying position, but rather a combination of statements from Romney’s political career. “When it becomes a pattern, that’s what causes people to be fearful,” says Oran Smith, head of the pro-life Palmetto Family Council, who has not committed to any candidate in the race. “The Reagan thing, the abortion thing, the gay thing — if you mix all of that together, is there a pattern?”
The most interesting tale being circulated is Romney's own account of achieving satori on abortion after a briefing on stem cell research about two years ago. Aside from the late-life nature of this conversion, it just seems wrong. Most people opposing stem cell research do so because they are already convinced full-fledged human life begins at conception. It doesn't usually work the other way around.If Romney is indeed running into trouble with cultural conservatives on his record, it will compound another problem he has with the same group: his own Mormon faith. Despite the LDS church's own exceptional congruence with the political and cultural views of conservative evangelical Christians, deep suspicions remain. A Rasmussen survey taken in November shows that 43 percent of Americans, and 53 percent of evangelical Christians, say they would not even consider voting for a Mormon candidate for president. That's a big hurdle for Romney to overcome.If Romney does succumb early to these various handicaps, it's not clear who, if anyone, could replace him as the Great Right Hope to continue the Bush legacy, tarnished as it is. Sure, McCain might succeed in consolidating his repositioning as a True Conservative, but it would come at a considerable price in terms of his broader Maverick reputation. Maybe conservatives would forgive Guiliani for heretical views if he "flipped" somewhat on abortion or gay rights, even later in the game than Romney. And perhaps someone like Brownback or Huckabee will emerge as a credible candidate.But at present, it ain't looking good for the culture warriors who thought they had permanently conquered the GOP when George W. Bush beat John McCain in 2000--in South Carolina.
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Schism in Virginia

On Sunday seven conservative northern Virginia Episcopal congregations decided to split from the national church and align themselves with a "mission" established by the violently homophobic Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola.While a significant if relatively small percentage of Episcopal parishes, and 7 of the 111 Episcopal dioceses, have expressed strong opposition to the ordination of openly gay priests and bishops, and/or rejected the leadership of new Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (who supports gay and lesbian clergy), these are the first churches to formally secede.And these parishes are very aware of their symbolic position, as well as the material issues at hand, as the Washington Post explains:

Two of the congregations are among the state's largest and most historic: Truro Church in Fairfax City and The Falls Church in Falls Church, which have roots in the 1700s. Their leaders have been in the vanguard of a national effort to establish a conservative alternative to the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.The result of the week-long vote, announced yesterday, sets up the possibility of a lengthy ecclesiastical and legal battle for property worth tens of millions of dollars. Buildings and land at Truro and The Falls Church are valued at about $25 million, according to Fairfax County
.In other words, these churches aren't willing to just leave the Anglican Communion, as conservative scriptural literalists have done time and time again, because they want to keep their money, and think their support in Africa and Asia will give them the whip hand in any protracted dispute.It will be interesting to see how well the conservatives' decision to accept Akinola as their new spiritual shepherd will go over in the long run.
Truro and The Falls Church, with a combined membership of more than 3,000, will form the core of what is envisioned as a new Fairfax-based mission of the conservative Episcopal Church of Nigeria. The head of the Nigerian church, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has voiced support for a pending law in that country that includes prison sentences for gay sexual activity.

The Rev. Martyn Minns of Truro Church, who is missionary bishop of the splinter group known as CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America), said that although the dissident Virginia churches believe that homosexuality is banned by Scripture, they do not support criminalization of gay sex.

Akinola's spokesman and his advocates have said he does not advocate aggressively pursuing the jailing of homosexuals. His advocates say he is trying to navigate an explosive cultural situation in Nigeria and appease Muslim leaders.

So, these right-wing Virginians (viz. Truro's history as the stomping grounds of conservative political figures like Ollie North) are letting themselves become pawns in a Christian-Muslim competition for homophobic honors in Nigeria. Hard to see how this will work out well. But for the time being, the schism is on.


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December 17, 2006

The Strange Case of the Exclusive Brethren

One of the oddest and most interesting recent aspects of politics in Australia and New Zeland I learned about in my trip Down Under was an incident in the last New Zealand election of 2005, wherein a small and secretive religious sect called the Exclusive Brethren was implicated in push-polling, negative leafletting and phone calls, and other controversial activities on behalf of the conservative National Party.The Exclusive Brethren are not connected with the better-known German pietist family of denominations using the name "Brethren;" their antecedents were the British Plymouth Brethren, who left the Church of England in the early nineteenth century in reaction to the Anglican abandonment of scriptural literalism. There are about 40,000 of them world-wide, but they are especially active in Australia (where their current leader resides) and New Zealand. And in the latter country, where it doesn't take much money or manpower to have a big political impact, they got caught in an implicit, and allegedly even explicit, arrangement with National Party Leader Don Brash to go crazy negative on the governing Labour Party along with the Greens. The political motivations of the EBs are much like those of American Christian Right movements, with opposition to gay marriage being an especially big issue. But whereas the sect spent about as much money here trying to help George W. Bush in 2004 as it spent in New Zealand, it was pretty much a drop in the bucket in the U.S. (They have also been exposed as playing a hand in support of John Howard's conservative coalition in Australia as well). Conversely, their exposure in New Zealand created a sensation, contributing heavily to a narrow Labour win, and to the subsequent disgrace and resignation of National Leader Brash, whereas Christian Right negative campaigning here has been going on for eons. You don't have to spend much time Down Under to recognize a general fear that divisive conservative cultural tactics are gradually migrating from the U.S. southward and westward. Thus, one of the main tokens of cheer I was able to offer my hosts during this trip was the growing evidence that the Christian Right in my own country seems to be going through a general crisis of confidence and faith.
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December 15, 2006

Back In the USA

Sorry for the lack of posts this week, but it turned out to be a bit more difficult to blog from Australia than I anticipated, mainly because the international power adapter I brought didn't work. I was also pretty busy getting a crash course on center-left politics in Australia and New Zealand. Australia's heading for a general election this year (probably in the mid-fall), and the opposition Labor Party is cautiously optimistic about its chances (particularly under new leader Kevin Rudd) to finally end Prime Minister John Howard's winning streak.The Aussies were quite interested in hearing more about the U.S. midterms (along with such related political topics as Obama-o-mania), and I was able to encourage them with one direct parallel: Bush and the GOP tried to make good macroeconomic statistics a campaign issue (and that's been Howard's most potent issue all along), and failed, with U.S. voters not only considering Iraq and corruption bigger concerns, but also expressing unhappiness with economic conditions. Like Americans, Australians are beginning to worry quite a bit about economic insecurity and inequality, and like Bush and the GOP, Howard and his conservative coalition are widely perceived as indifferent to both.I'll have a lot more to say about my trip Down Under this weekend.
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December 11, 2006

G'Day

I'm posting this from Sydney, Australia, where I'm speaking and moderating a panel at an Australian Labor Party International Progressive Summit. I'm too jet-lagged at the moment to say much of anything intelligent, other than to note the little-known but continuing dialogue among center-left political parties around the world. This particular conference is focused on learning both positive and negative lessons from recent elections, in the run-up to the next Australian national contest. It occurs in the wake of the election of a very new ALP leadership, led by Kevin Rudd, who has very good ties to a variety of U.S. Democrats. In my own remarks, I'll try to be very honest and inclusive about the varying interpretations of what happened in the U.S. on November 7. I do think we are mostly united in thinking Democrats did as well as they did by becoming the "change" party, and that's what they are looking for in Australia.
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December 7, 2006

Sabotage

In case you missed it, the ever-so-lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled Congress is about to ride out of town after dumping roughly a half-trillion dollars in appropriations decisions on their Democratic successors. To put it another way, having once again failed to pass appropriations bills during the regular session (often because of internal GOP wrangling), they got another bite at the apple and decided to make these decisions a toxic little Christmas present for Democratic legislators. And as Kevin Drum at Political Animal notes, it's clear this is a deliberate tear-up-the-tracks gesture for Republican solons still petulantly angry about their loss of power.After suggesting, accurately, that this ultimate abandonment of responsbility isn't getting much attention, Kevin also reminds us of the big media furor that surrounded alleged (and ultimately unsubstantiated and/or small potatoes) "sabotage" by outgoing Clinton White House staff back in 2001. Yeah, I'd say deliberately leaving the federal government in fiscal limbo, and in a continuing budget crisis, is a bit more egregious than removing the "W" key from a couple of White House computers. But this stroll down memory lane did get some old synapses firing, and I suddenly remembered an example of real intraoffice sabotage.Many years ago, I met a guy who had been the first landing craft to hit the State Capitol on Inaugural Day in a southern state where one party was supplanting another in the governorship, after an especially bitter campaign. First off, he discovered the locks had been changed in the Governor's Office. So he had to track down a building supervisor to let him in. Then he found that the light bulbs had all been removed from the overhead lights and lamps. So he had to deal with that. The phones were totally screwed up; he couldn't get a dial tone. And when he tried to boot up a computer, it became apparent the operating systems had been deleted.Now that's sabotage, friends. But it was nothing more than a minor nuisance compared to the current batch of bitter congressional Republicans, who want to make sure the fruits of their long reign of fiscal irresponsibility create a ripe, rotting smell around the Capitol when Democrats take over in January.It would have been far, far better if the GOPers had screwed up the phones and computers after doing their jobs and deciding how to fund the federal government.
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December 6, 2006

Work-Family Balance in Congress

Today's most ha-larious political news (in the Washington Post, via Ezra Klein at TAPPED) involves the Republican reaction to incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's announcement that the House would eschew the previous late-Tuesday to mid-Thursday work week, and actually require Members to show up five days a week, much like the rest of the American work force.A Republican House Member from my home state of Georgia supplied the Post with the richest comment: "'Keeping us up here eats away at families,' said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who typically flies home on Thursdays and returns to Washington on Tuesdays. 'Marriages suffer. The Democrats could care less about families -- that's what this says.'"At the risk of taking this fatuous comment too seriously, I would note that the abbreviated work week might have worked fine for a Republican Congress that did very little, and where Members who weren't committee chairs or in the leadership had no particular role. But if Democrats truly want to ramp up the productivity of Congress, asking Members to spend at least half their time on the job doesn't seem terribly unreasonable.More broadly, this idea that making Congress spend a fair amount of its time in the Capitol is "anti-marriage" or "anti-family," is, well, a bit counter-historical. Before the era of easy commercial air travel, most Members went to Washington for each session and stayed there, typically without their families, often living in boarding houses that served as extraordinarily important unofficial venues for bipartisan comity, legislative deal-cutting, and (at the frequent drink-fests) legendary debates and oratory. We are often told by conservatives that marriage and family were safe and supreme in those long-gone days; wonder how they survived those months of nuclear family meltdown?As a lot of the Republican carping about Steny's announcement indicates, I suspect the real beef here isn't about denying Members family time, but denying them officially-paid campaign time. Here's a revolutionary thought: how's about making your and your party's actual accomplishments in Congress your key campaign talking points, instead of demanding that you get to go home for four days each week to Bigfoot it around your district?Just wondering.
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December 4, 2006

Bush and Hakim: Mission Accomplished

It got blown off the front pages by the entirely predictable John Bolton resignation, and seems to have been largely ignored in the blogosphere. But today's White House meeting between George Bush and scary SCIRI honcho Abdul Aziz Hakim cleared up a few things about the motivation for this meeting.Hakim obviously got the imprimator of respectability from Bush, despite his pro-Iranian background and his probable responsibility for death squad killings of Iraqi Sunnis during the recent escalation of violence.But what did Bush get? A real, live, authentic looking Iraqi who said (a) he violently opposes any international intervention to settle the Iraqi civil war, and (b) wanted the U.S. military to hang around for the foreseeable future.Maybe there's some Grand Strategy involved with the Bush administration's sudden enthusiasm for SCIRI. But given its snails-eye view of Iraq since, well, the beginning, you'd have to guess the White House just wanted that photo op and those Hakim quotes, and will postpone thinking through the implications of embracing Hakim until somewhere down the road.
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December 3, 2006

On Civility

One of the oddest and most interesting post-election kerfuffles has been the well-reported encounter between George W. Bush and Senator-elect from Virginia Jim Webb last week. In case you missed it, Bush asked Webb how his son, currently serving in Iraq, was doing, and Webb promptly responded, echoing a major theme of his campaign, that he'd like to get him and his comrades home soon. Bush bristled and said, "That's not what I asked you," and apparently Webb bristeled in response.According to the New York Times column linked to above, presidential scholar Stephen Hess thought Webb had violated protocol by answering Bush's question honestly. A phalanx of lefty bloggers not only defended Webb, but suggested anything other than plenary disrespect for Bush would have violated their own sense of protocol.For what it's worth, here's where I come down on the general subject of civility towards political enemies. I do think us political compatants tend to forget that Americans generally agree on a whole lot of things that are violently controversial in many parts of the world: democratic elections, a regulated capitalist economy, a system of protections of basic liberties, and an international regime that aims at liberal democracy, just to name a few. You can argue, as I have myself, that Republicans don't fully respect these communal values, but that's not the same as suggesting they aren't communal values to begin with.That's why, despite my own deep antipathy for Bush and his party, I don't like attacks on them that rely on analogies to the Nazis, the fascists, or other enemies of the American system, or suggest that every single administration policy, and everyone who agrees with it, are inherently corrupt or evil.But in the case of the Webb encounter, Bush raised a particular subject, and Webb responded appropriately. Residual respect for the underlying American Consensus does not require specific respect for particular policies of the Ruling Party. When those policies enganger your own son, no father can be faulted for telling the simple truth, even, or perhaps especially, in the presence of the Commander in Chief.
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December 1, 2006

Scary SCIRI

The events of the last few days have cast a much-needed spotlight on what may really be going on within the administration on Iraq, aside from the usual "victory" talk from the president.As many people have noted, the long-awaited Baker-Hamilton commission report took a cautious position, but one that in many respects reflected the Democratic consensus of the last year or so that some sort of phased withdrawal needs to begin right away.But a more interesting revelation came from the leaked NSC Hadley memo. And over at The American Prospect Online, Laura Rozen has a fascinating and somewhat alarming report about the actual intra-administration debate that memo reflected.Two of the options under consideration, according to Rozen, are familiar: the "status quo plus" approach of redeploying troops from within Iraq to Baghdad to stabilize that area; and the "hunker down" approach of confining U.S. troops to bases, intensifying training operations, and gradually reducing our presence.But the third option, which some commentators are calling "the 80% solution" (reflecting the percentage of the Iraqi population that is either Shi'a or Kurdish), is to "tilt to the Shi'a" and essentially abandon the Sunni minority to a bloody fate.Here's how Rozen describes that option:

The "unleash the Shia" option would have the United States back a Shiite coalition that would include SCIRI leader Hakim and his Badr Brigades as the core of an Iraqi Army under the direct control of Prime Minister Maliki. Even as the United States sided with the Shia, Hadley's memo makes clear that the United States would at the same time press Maliki to distance himself from Sadr and his Mahdi army.
The idea, apparently, is to make U.S. support for letting the Shi'a settle scores with the Sunnis contingent on marginalizing Moqtada al-Sadr, presumably because he is so violently anti-American.Maybe tilting to the "winning side" makes sense, if stabilization of Iraq, at any cost, is the best we can hope for. And Lord knows removing Sadr's paws from the levers of power would be a good thing, assuming he could truly be marginalized.But let's not have any illusions about the alternative military-power base suggested by this option: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr Corps militia. For one thing, the Badr Corps appears to have deployed its own "death squads" separate from Sadr's in the indiscriminate reprisals against Sunnis sparked by insurgent atrocities against Shi'a. But more importantly, SCIRI (which was actually created in Iran as an anti-Saddam exile group) is widely assumed to be honeycombed with Iranian intelligence operatives, and has done little or nothing to reduce the perception that it is Tehran's closest ally in Iraq.Maybe this is the best we can do to create the impression that we are reaching out to "responsible" Shi'a Islamists. Still, deliberately empowering a pro-Iranian armed faction in the context of "unleashing" the Shi'a against the Sunnis would represent a remarkable devolution from all the talk of peace and national unity--much less making Iraq a role model for the Middle East--that the administration has repeated so very many times.UPDATE: So guess who's coming to dinner at the White House next week? According to Saturday's New York Times, it's none other than Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI. Sounds like the 80% solution is indeed in play.
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