Is the CIA really suffering a post-9/11 brain drain? The Washington Post is acting as though it has uncovered a big problem. It showcases the departure of some top officials from the CIA in the past decade. But the story misses the real angle, which is buried halfway through the piece. The problem isn't that the CIA is losing officials to outside consulting agencies. It's that their exodus is another sign of how counter-intelligence has become part of the big business of American foreign policy. Lobbying to land big government contracts is the name of the game. And it's clearly a highly lucrative one.
The blunt fact is that for a brain-drain to have occurred there would have had to have been brainy types at the CIA in the first place, which is something that is subject to debate. The record of the agency in recent decades has, more often than not, been dotted by failures rather than successes, with 9/11 the most prominent example. Certainly the CIA has also been misused by presidents who want plausible deniabilty, though in the case of the Bush administration, which ran an entire secret prison system around the world and sanctioned torture, it became increasingly implausible.
What former CIA officials do possess, as the Post observes, is the ability to guide defense contractors through the thicket of congressional committees. What's more, the CIA also now relies upon its former employees. Richard "Hollis" Helms, a veteran former CIA employee, is apparently the pioneer of working for the CIA itself as a contractor:
“Hollis is brilliant; he realized there was a huge market out there to exploit. He printed money for a while — hired tons of CIA staffers and doubled their salary. He was the first agency guy to figure it all out,” said one former chief of station, the term for the top CIA officer at a U.S. embassy. “You would see people leave the CIA on a Friday and come back on Monday in the same job but working for Abraxas.”
Once upon a time the CIA recruited mostly at Yale University, a tale told by Robin Winks in Cloak and Gown. Now the old ethos of service to the nation for its own sake has changed. The CIA appears to have become a much more mercenary outfit. It hasn't corrupted Washington, but been corrupted by it.
So it's not that the CIA's managers are doing something unusual or reprehensible. Essentially, it's a sign of how corrosive America's approach to foreign affairs has become. The government has turned into a giant welfare agency for its former officials. The problem isn't the CIA. It's that a sprawling intelligence empire, so vast that no one can truly oversee it, has become a piggy bank for its employees.
Washington, DC mayor Vincent Gray and various other officials were arrested yesterday by the U.S. Capitol Police for protesting congressional curbs on using federal money to pay for abortions. "We needed to make a statement," Gray said. Given the way Gray has been running the city, residents of Washington, DC might be better off if he and his corrupt cronies were locked away for the rest of the year. They could issue all the statements they want from the hoosegow. At least they couldn't do any more harm to the city.
Of course Gray seized upon the budget resolution as a smokescreen to deflect attention away from his own misdeeds. The argument of Gray and others is that that Washington, DC is a political football and that representatives impose restrictions on the District that they they wouldn't on their own constituents. So we end up with the spectacle of Washington's mayor acting as though he were a dissident in the Middle East, protesting against an onerous Mubarak.
Gray's protest might carry more weight if the city had shown that it was actually capable of running itself effectively. But each day seems to bring new revelations of fraud and corruption. The only thing that Washington seems to do effectively is hand out parking tickets. But where's all the money going. According to numerous reports in the Washington Post, it's feathering the nests of city officials, who are riding around in SUVs that contravene the city's own regulations or hiring their own offspring to work in government. This is machine-style politics, suggesting that Washington is living in the past.
It briefly looked as though Washington was getting its act together. Under Adrian Fenty schools began to improve. So did the services provided by the city. But the backsliding has begun already. It took Gray only a few weeks to be exposed as corrupt and feckless. Perhaps there is a solution to the nonsense, or at least a partial one: abolish the District of Columbia and incorporate it into Maryland, as the New Republic suggested years ago. End it, don't mend it. Obviously, this wouldn't terminate the potential for big city corruption. After all, New York and Chicago have their own track records of fiscal malfeasance. But it would end the anomalous situation of the District, where city officials don't operate under sufficient scrutiny. The reason they're chafing at any congressional scrutiny is because they want to operate the city as their own private fiefdom, which, to some extent, they already do.
Congress can't really pick up the slack. It's a cumbersome instrument. Though it will be interesting to see if congressional Republicans float the idea of Congress returning to run the city. It would be hard to imagine they could do a worse job than the current crew.
Ross Douthat's column opposite Paul Krugman's in the New York Times today provides a nice example of contrasting viewpoints, to put it mildly, when it comes to the American economy and the national debt. Krugman lambastes President Obama for being a namby-pamby when it comes to facing down the GOP. "Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn't seem to stand for anything in particular?" he asked. It's a question that many Democrats are pondering, or have pondered, about Obama. The inspirational figure they saw seems to have disappeared and been replaced by someone who seeks to play the transcendental leader rather than a feisty fighter for traditional liberal values.
Meanwhile, Douthat argues that House Republican Paul Ryan's proposed budget does a good job of striking "a plausible balance between the dual imperatives of growth and fiscal discipline." But he notes that simply trying to jettison Obama's health care plan without having some kind of substitute won't pass muster. And he notes that the Ryan plans "central economic premise—that lowering marginal tax rates guarantees widely shared prosperity—was tested and found wanting during the Bush era." What Douthat is aiming for is a conservatism that isn't simply a Grinchy version of Herbert Hoover-style economics, but one that also offers opportunity for Americans to ascend the economic ladder rather than be permanently stuck on the lower rungs—or unable to get on at all.
One thing that neither he nor Krugman mentions, however, is the bloated state of the military budget. There can be no doubting that Medicare and Medicaid are due for reform. But so is the military. The budget for 2011 is set to exceed $700 billion. According to Time, America spends about 35% of the total military outlays on the planet. These sums are astronomical. They pose a dire threat to the health of the economy. Not only are these exorbitant outlays, but they also encourage other democratic countries to allow America to shoulder burdens they should be assuming—the well-known free-rider syndrome.
Germany's budget deficit, for example, will be about 2.5% this year and is slated to fall to 0.5% by 2014. This means that, barring a total collapse of the European Union, the Euro will be a very healthy and strong currency. Meanwhile, the value of the dollar may decrease further. American leaders will increasingly face the temptation to inflate their way out of the deficit, thereby debauching the dollar. Once inflation begins expectations of further price hikes set in. It's very difficult to curb it.
There are no signs that inflation is about to begin roaring. But it could take off in the next few years. When Obama releases his budget plan this week, it will be a further move in the high-stakes dickering that is currently taking place in Washington over the scale of the national debt. It's about time that Obama gave an indication of what he does, or does not, intend to try and accomplish. The solution is in plain sight: curbs on entitlements, higher taxes on the truly wealthy, and reducing military spending. If Obama wants to go down as a great president, he could do worse than to tackle the debt problem and reach a compromise with the GOP.
Europe has long been famed for seemingly high intractable unemployment rates and sluggish growth rates. Then it added a new feather in its cap with the debt crises assailing Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Protesters got to march on the streets and, once again, denounce das Kapital. Meanwhile, Americans are fretting that they're about to go down the same road, as the Republicans and Democrats haggle over cutting the budget.
Now Europe may be imposing a self-inflicted wound upon itself. The European Central Bank raised interest rates on Thursday. The move maintains the banks anti-inflation bona fides. But it may be a symbolic rather than a practical victory. Raising rates is likely to have several effects: it will ensure that Euro remains a hard currency; it will make it more difficult for Europeans to export goods; and, above all, it will impose a punishing blow upon Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which need to keep raising funds so that they don't go belly-up. In short, the move is likely to backfire. Inflation remains tepid. There is no reason to raise rates.
If Europe faces economic difficulties, it is also regressing from unification in practical ways. The Wall Street Journal notes that France is resurrecting its border with Italy. It's desperate to stop any North African migrants from entering France. The result is that France and Italy are at war again. According to the Journal,
The crackdown is sowing tensions between the two neighboring countries. "There's a hostile attitude coming from Paris," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told the Italian Senate on Thursday. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant lashed back, saying France "is completely within its rights to send these people back to Italy."
The upheaval in Northern Africa is unlikely to end. The prospect of a united Europe seems further away than ever. If the European Central Bank continues to raise interest rates, which suits Germany just fine, it will raise the prospect of further direct bailouts of the southern states—or of a formal two-tiered Europe, in which Germany and France form their own core. Would even Italy be able to make the cut? Or will Germany end up saying Auf Wiedersehen to everyone else?
When President Obama entered office, he had little foreign policy experience. Like George W. Bush, he surrounded himself with an experienced team. His two best appointments were Robert Gates as Defense Secretary and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Now, as the New York Times, among others notes, his team is splitting up.
Gates is set to retire. Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg is stepping down. Adm. Mike Mullen is leaving as well. So what will the new team look like? And will it be able to protect Obama's in Congress?
The role that Gates played was pretty much indispensable for Obama. He provided enormous cover on national security issues. Republicans refrained, by and large, from attacking Obama's actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's possible that the unity that the GOP has displayed may begin to fray and that some in Congress will be emboldened to attack Obama, not for failing to prosecute the fight, but for doing too much. Haley Barbour, out on the hustings, has already adopted this line of attack. Others might as well.
Obama could try and duplicate the Gates decision by tapping a Republican to become defense secretary or by choosing Sen. Joe Lieberman, who isn't running again. Lieberman would still the voices of the neocons, but he seems an improbable choice. Obama values team unity and Lieberman might act as a bit of a free agent. What about Colin L. Powell? He would be the boldest choice Obama could make. Powell may be tired of government service, but his reputation has severely tarnished by his service in the Bush administration. Obama could offer a chance for redemption and a measure of revenge at his neocon tormentors and Dick Cheney.
The most like choice appears to be CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has largely remained out of the news, which is what Obama likes. This is an administration run from the top down. Obama values loyalty. Panetta supplies it. In addition, he has excellent connections with Congress, another plus for Obama. The boldest choice might be to appoint Gen. David H. Petraeus as defense secretary. That would also take him out of the loop as a potential presidential rival, though the chances of Petraeus running in 2012 seem awfully slender.
As so often happens, foreign policy has consumed a far greater part of Obama's portfolio than he would have liked. The intervention in Libya, which isn't going well, is the latest adventure to take away Obama's focus from domestic affairs. Who he does and does not choose for the next two years will have a decisive effect on how he handles looming crises.
To hear the howls of indignation about House Republican Paul Ryan's plan to cut the deficit, you would think he was proposing big budget cuts for the elderly. Oh, right, he is proposing that. Ryan's plan, if it deserves that name, is really a machete aimed at favorite Democratic entitlement programs, coupled with some tax cuts. Neither Democrats nor Republican presidential candidates want to go near it. You don't win elections by antagonizing one of the few segments that turns up at the polls.
But even if a lot of people regard Ryan as on what some are calling a "kamikaze mission," I give my points for tackling the deficit. No, his proposal isn't going to fly. It's a wish list rather than a practical proposal. A top rate of 25% for both individuals and corporations is most unlikely. But it helps point America in the right direction--toward cutting a national debt that is unsustainable. Ryan tackles, for example, grotesquely swollen farm subsidies as well as defense spending, which is supposed to be cut by $78 billion during the next five years. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is quoted in the Wall Street Journal, "These are the right kinds of ideas at the wrong moment." She is afraid that the Ryan plan would impede the "Gang of Six" in the Senate that's trying to come up with a bipartisan plan to curb the deficit.
That's not necessarily the case. The mood in Washington has changed, though it's not clear that it has in the rest of the country. Ryan's outre plan, which lops some six trillion off the deficit (at least in theory--it claims among other things that it will radically lower unemployment, which is doubtful), will make other proposals, which include more of a mix of tax hikes and cuts seem more reasonable.
Dana Milbank lambastes the Ryan plan in the Washington Post, observing
Had he been serious about reaching a budget agreement, Ryan would have offered something along the lines of the proposal of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, on which he served. Using a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, commissioners devised a formula that would reduce deficits by $4 trillion through 2020, stabilize the debt by 2014, and keep Social Security solvent for 75 years. A bipartisan group in the Senate is now working to draft a similar compromise.
But Ryan has added some more stimulus to the budget debate. The ire he's stirring among liberals may distract some attention away from the Senate. And Obama will certainly welcome any divisions among Republicans, who appear intent on shutting down the government. In other words, the 2012 campaign isn't about to begin. It's already begun. And Paul Ryan is the one who fired the starting pistol.
Oh, the French. So cool, so suave, so comme ci comme ca. A country that decided it was better to capitulate than fight during World War II in what the historian Marc Bloch called "a strange defeat," that lords its assumed cultural superiority over the rest of the world.
Now it has produced a new Danton in the form of Bernard-Henri Levy. "B.H.L.," or Levy, as the New York Times' Stephen Erlanger, among others, reported, is almost single-handedly responsible for prompting French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to send in French forces (which are also battling in another civil war in the Ivory Coast under United Nations auspices, firing on Laurent Gbagbo). It seems that Levy brought the members of the Libyan opposition, a motley crew if there ever was one, to Paris to meet with Sarkozy on March 10. He told Sarkozy "there will be a massacre in Benghazi, a bloodbath, and the blood of the
people of Benghazi will stain the flag of France.” Sarkozy, eager for some military action to boost his poll ratings, bit. He is largely responsible for the attacks on Libya.
The question is this: should American policy, let alone French, be determined by an open-shirt, Charvet-wearing French philosophe? George Orwell once observed about James Burnham that intellectuals like to have the whip-hand--they relish the idea of exercising power, of seeing their ideals implemented. The results are usually bloody. See the French revolution.
The wonder of it all is that President Obama got dragged into the war as well. American policy, it seems, is being determined by a claque of intellectuals thirsting for combat, at least vicariously. Levy even rode into Benghazi a few weeks ago--the intellectual and man of action. Sarkozy apparently acceded to Levy's adjurations and, overnight, recognized the rebels as a legitimate opposition force, the true government of Libya. Much of Europe is baffled by Sarkozy's actions, or at least rubbing its eyes in disbelief.
Of course French interventions abroad have not usually gone well. Napoleon came to grief in Egypt. Now Sarkozy, his diminutive successor, is following in his path. He seems to be going bonkers. What will follow the intervention in the Ivory Coast? Is France trying to reconstitute its former empire?
These are heady times for Sarkozy and, by extensions, Levy. But the consequences of their revolutionary ardor will soon become clear. Perhaps Sarkozy can compose his memoirs with the help of Levy. But by then Levy may be trying to meddle in the next foreign crisis.
Richard Goldstone's mea culpa in the Washington Post has many conservatives chortling. The Wall Street Journal announces, "As our friends at the New York Sun note, Mr. Goldstone should now have the decency to retire from public life."
The controversy surrounds Goldstone's report for the United Nations Human Right's Council on "Operation Lead Cast," the Israeli military operation against Hamas in 2008-09. As usually happens with Israeli military operations, the critics piled on Israel. Goldstone's report alleged a "deliberately disproportionate" response by the Israelis to "humiliate and terrorize" a civilian population. It also called for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers.
The response was swift. Some Israeli advocates declared that Goldstone was engaging in traitorous conduct. More reasoned assessments took issue with his conclusions. Having met Goldstone in Washington, I have to say he cuts an impressive figure. The charge that he is somehow anti-Israel is patent nonsense. Instead, his conclusions were motivated by a belief in international law.
He makes two points that are getting missed in the discussion, if that's the appropriate term, of his Post piece. First, he reiterates that Israel did not cooperate with his inquiry, which hampered his ability to reach the correct conclusions:
Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants. The Israeli military’s numbers have turned out to be similar to those recently furnished by Hamas (although Hamas may have reason to inflate the number of its combatants).
Goldstone also makes it clear that he remains an ardent proponent of international law:
I continue to believe in the cause of establishing and applying international law to protracted and deadly conflicts. Our report has led to numerous “lessons learned” and policy changes, including the adoption of new Israel Defense Forces procedures for protecting civilians in cases of urban warfare and limiting the use of white phosphorus in civilian areas.
My view is that Goldstone was naive. He reposed so much faith in international law—supposedly a neutral and impartial instrument for regulating and assessing conflicts—that he failed to consider the political context. One side is a democratic state. The other side is a terrorist organization. The likelihood that Israel would deliberately perpetrate civilian casualties, in a fit of rage, is improbable. And disproportionate force? That is largely in the eye of the beholder.
Is Goldstone's report cause for shame? No. If anything, Goldstone is demonstrating that he has the decency and honesty to fess up to the errors contained in his report. It would indeed have been in Israel's interest to cooperate with him originally, which might well have avoided the ensuing brouhaha that resulted from Goldstone's flawed report. Goldstone may be guilty of naivete, but nothing worse.
Nor does Goldstone's recantation really have much practical influence on the standoff between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It looks increasingly as though the Palestinians are going to abandon any peace process and simply declare their own state. Meanwhile, the Israelis are stuck with occupying the West Bank and a growing Arab population inside Israel's own borders. The Goldstone report is merely a distraction from the larger issues of peace and war between Israelis and Palestinians. Goldstone's U-turn offers scant cause for comfort.
Charles Krauthammer is in many ways the most interesting of the neoconservative columnists. He combines hardnosed realism with a dose of idealism. But today's column by Krauthammer illustrates another aspect of neoconservatism, namely, its use of hypertrophied language.
I'm just going to list some of the phrases that Krauthammer uses today to describe the Obama administration's policy toward Syria. The administration's approach toward Syria is indeed in trouble. But I think Krauthammer undermines his case by the, to use a beloved Krauthammer term, virulence of the language he himself employs. He can't rest with disputing the arguments or policies of the administration. He has to cast his opponents as nefarious, immoral, reprobate.
Note the heavy reliance on adverbs and adjectives, used for disdain or praise, to substitute for arguments. Lenin had nothing on Krauthammer in the objurgation department. My guess is that if you employed the kind of computer programs that Shakespeare scholars use to study the Bard's use of language, you would end up with Krauthammer repeating ad nauseam many of the words used in this column.
Here are the some of the terms he uses:
1) "moral bankruptcy and strategic imcomprehensibility"
2) "morally obtuse"
3) "insanely courageous people"
4) "strategically incomprehensible"
5) "monstrous police state"
6) "dripping with Lebanese blood"
8) "dismayingly reminiscent"
9) "scandalously reluctant"
10) "Another abject failure."
11) " If Kerry wants to make a fool of himself"
In recent decades, we've had the Carter doctrine (Persian Gulf), the Reagan doctrine (arming rebels to rollback communism), and the Bush doctrine (democracy promotion, or depending on your viewpoint, crusade). Now comes the Obama doctrine. Though the progenitor of it is disavowing any intention of creating a doctrine, claiming that Libya is "unique."
No, it isn't. As Rory Stewart points out in the March 31 London Review of Books, Libya doesn't meet the criteria of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The West intervened not because it had to but because it could. And Obama, confronted with advisers who remembered Rwanda (Hillary Clinton) and Bosnia (Samantha Power), decided that he wasn't going to go down in history as the president who fiddled while Benghazi burned. So he sent in the Air Force, created a multilateral coalition, and then gave a speech justifying it all.
The speech earned the praise of Robert Kagan as "Kennedy-esque." In this view, Obama has shouldered the responsbilities that come with being president. Grown in office. Ready to make the big decisions. Understands the importance of American leadership. Moral values. And so forth.
It's not entirely clear that Obama himself sees it that way. He's being coy. Or trying to avoid arousing great expectations of American aid to other insurgent forces. "It's important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we're going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board," he said on Thursday. But as Doyle McManus observes in an astute column, Obama is definitely flirting with a doctrine, even if he doesn't want to admit it. According to McManus,
the president and his aides also see the revolution in the Arab world as the most important event of Obama's time in office — as important, perhaps, as the end of the Cold War in 1989. They are already working on a larger policy to help it come out right, including a big international aid program — one they hope will be funded partly by Arab oil states — to help Egypt, Tunisia and other new democracies succeed. They won't call it a "doctrine," but it will almost certainly look like one. From here on out, they say, this will be the centerpiece; this will be what Obama's foreign policy is about.
There is a problem. It sounds as though the administration believes that its promotion of liberty in the Middle East can be predicated on the assumption that events will develop peacefully. But what if they don't? What if the Arab revolutions have the effect of prompting an internal crackdown in Syria as well as an even more hostile stance toward Israel? Or what if upheaval inside Israel results in an aggressor state, intent on war with Israel?
The administration also appears to be assuming that Col. Qaddafi is a spent force. But the rebels do not cut an impressive figure. Nor can anyone figure out who they are, if Hillary Clinton's statements are anything to go by. Obama is assuming an unlimited commitment in Libya without really acknowledging it. That appears to be the true Obama doctrine--mission creep.
The Libyan venture is unlikely to end well. Perhaps American air power will carry the day. But the more probable result is a partition of the country with an indefinite no fly zone. The Obama doctrine may well collapse before it ever gets off the ground.