Jacob Heilbrunn

The Mendacity of Tony Blair

Jacob Heilbrunn

There are things to admire about Tony Blair. He refurbished the Labor Party, proving a deft steward who stripped it of the left-wing shibboleths that had become encrusted upon it like barnacles upon a rotting ship. None of his successors have matched his political successes. But then there are the things that are not so admirable, like the troublesome fact that he increasingly looks like one of the most mendacious prime ministers in British history.

The latest blot on Blair’s reputation is directly linked to his well-deserved reputation as a devious master of spin. A newly released email about him by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, suggests a degree of callousness and cold contempt for the truth that even the Borgias might have marveled at. But this virago was laid low by her role, among other things, in the phone hacking revelations that swept the British press. As editor of the tabloid News of the World, she oversaw a staff that did things like hacking into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a young murder victim. The ensuing scandal did further damage to Rupert Murdoch’s already questionable reputation. The predatory practices he had refined to an art almost ended up demolishing his own newspaper empire.

Blair was unmoved. Some saw tragedy. He didn't. Instead, he saw a situation to be managed. He paused from overseeing his seven homes and incessant globe-trotting to counsel Brooks. What was Blair’s advice to Brooks, who is defending herself from a number of charges, including conspiracy to tap cell phones and bribe public officials? Duck and cover. In the email that Brooks sent and that has now been made public, she, Brooks, said that Blair had told her how to weather the unpleasantness. The Guardian reports:

 

Brooks's email, which was sent the day after the News of the World's final issue was published, says that Blair advised her to set up a "Hutton style" inquiry into phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid, and that he had offered to act as an unofficial adviser on a "between us" basis.

 

This intrusion into a criminal affair by a former prime minister seems remarkable on the face of it. Blair had no business offering Brooks any advice. But his reference to a “Hutton style" inquiry is also telling. Blair is a master of evasion who never acknowledged that the Iraq War was a disaster, never took responsibility for fudging the evidence that led to it. Instead, when David Kelly, a prominent weapons expert who told the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan that the Blair cabinet had willfully exaggerated—or, as it came to be known, "sexed up"—its claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was found dead on July 18, 2003 in the woods of Oxfordshire, Blair appointed Lord Hutton to conduct an investigation. The Hutton report concluded that he had committed suicide. But it is seen by a number of Britons as a white-wash. The suspicion that Kelly was murdered lingers on. Either way, it was a sordid episode that tarnished Blair’s reputation. That he would refer so cynically to the Hutton report—a white-wash, at a minimum, of Blair's culpability for misleading the British public about Iraqi WMD efforts—will cast further doubt upon the reliability of its findings.

Blair may have left Downing Street years ago, but he continues to cast a baleful shadow over the United Kingdom. The lies of the Iraq War have seeped into everything he does. If anyone still has doubts about his fundamental meretriciousness—his zeal to subordinate truth to convenience, his readiness to mislead, his talent for subterfuge and obfuscation—the latest revelations about his peculiar approach to justice should amply put them to rest. Meanwhile, the trial of the woman whom Blair offered to serve as a "secret advisor" continues on Thursday.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Joan Magi. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsUnited Kingdom

Victoria Nuland's Plan For Ukraine

Jacob Heilbrunn

It is good to know that Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, is not shy about venting her frustrations with the European Union. Like not a few British conservatives or French farmers or Italian cheesemakers, she seems to have a healthy appreciation for the vexations associated with Brussels. "Fuck the EU," she pithily declares in a new YouTube video that is causing a diplomatic brouhaha. The video, which may have been edited and which appears to disclose a conversation between Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, suggests that Nuland and the Obama administration have been machinating to create a new and improved Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, tempers are running hotter than ever in Moscow, where Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev is saying that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych should just get it over with and crush the "putschists."

Rather than focus on the contents of the video, the Obama administration is complaining about dirty tricks in Moscow. While Edward Snowden could hardly have been the culprit, the video more than likely came from Russia without love. Nuland is in Kiev this Thursday meeting with Yanukovych to discuss matters like the future of his country, which is alternately being wooed and threatened by both Moscow and Washington. Which way should he turn? As he heads toward the winter Olympics, one of the perks of being president, Yanukovych adopted a lofty tone, saying that the crisis can only be solved by "dialogue and compromise."

But the implications of the phone call for America are not to be underestimated. For one thing, it reveals the extent to which the Obama administration is determined not simply to bring the crisis to an end, but also to install a government that it regards as appropriate. White House press spokesman Jay Carney says,

It's certainly no secret that our ambassador and assistant secretary have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and political and economic reform. Ultimately, it's up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future.

This is piffle. Nuland's comments show why. Should Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko become part of a new government? No, says Nuland. He wouldn't get along with another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Nuland announces, "I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's a good idea." But it's also not a good idea when the U.S. government gets down into the weeds to determine the composition of a new government, especially when the stakes include ousting, or altering, a democratically elected one. Given that Washington has been accusing Moscow of meddling in internal Ukrainian affairs, it's more than a little ironic that it is doing just that. Senator John McCain, for example, said recently:

In recent months, President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe. This pattern of behavior amounts to a Russian bid for a kind of quasi-imperial dominance over its neighbors, a newfound assertiveness that has only grown in the void left by the administration’s absence of leadership in other parts of the world, especially Syria.

But aren't Ukrainians supposed to determine their own destiny? Isn't that what this is supposed to be all about? Or is it the job of the American ambassador to act as a local potentate, choosing who does, and does not, get to serve in a coalition government?

Not a chance.

What's more, the fact that the Russians were apparently able to monitor the private conversations of American officials with ease should cause more than a little heartburn in the Obama administration. Maybe Nuland and Pyatt were talking on an unsecured line, but that too would raise a host of questions. For his part, President Obama has resisted any reforms, as far as possible, of the National Security Agency. But the more we learn, the more incompetent American intelligence looks. It can neither process the vast volumes of information that it is collecting nor protect official conversations from scrutiny. America has constructed an intelligence Maginot line.

The kerfuffle over Nuland's remarks will go away. But they do provide a glimpse into the conduct of American foreign policy. The louder the Obama administration declares that it isn't meddling in the affairs of the Ukraine, the more certain you can be that it is.

TopicsEuropean Union RegionsUnited States

The State of Barack Obama's Presidency

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, but it wasn't really about the union's state. Instead, it was about the state of his presidency, which was not good going into last night and isn't really much better coming out of it. The aloof, austere Obama was gone, at least for the moment. He spoke with passion and authority, but the discrepancy between his rhetoric and actual aspirations was patent. He isn't in danger of a shrinking presidency. It's already shrunk.

What little Obama had to say about foreign affairs was sensible. Obama wants to engage in withdrawal--withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as Congress. It was good to hear Obama say that he wants to get America off of a "permanent war footing" and that he would veto a foolhardy congressional attempt to up sanctions on Iran. Not that this deterred a reliable source of nonsense, Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, a champion of new sanctions, responded that Obama got it all wrong: the world is "literally about to blow up" and that "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing." (Seeing Graham go down in his next election attempt would be a good thing too. Let's hope that the people of South Carolina get on their feet and vote this dud out of office.)

The focus of Obama's speech was, of course, the economy. Some Republicans are acting as though Obama's pledge to carry out actions by executive fiat constitutes a constitutional coup. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, complains about the "imperial presidency of Barack Obama" in the Wall Street Journal. This line of argument would be more convincing if Obama were actually embarked on some grand initiatives. But he isn't. Stymied by Congress, he has retreated to a bunch of small proposals.

No doubt Obama declared that he is offering a "set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class." As Dana Milbank observes, "that sounded ambitious. But the first item he cited after that was the first lady's anti-obesity initiative." The only kind of ladder Obama offered, in other words, was a stepladder. Another piddling proposal was raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10--a promise so vague that the White  House apparently won't specify how many workers would even be affected by it in future contracts. This is the Obama that surfaced in his lengthy interview with David Remnick, where he mused abstractly about whether his star power had dwindled. He sounded like someone who was checking out of his own presidency before it had even ended--three years early. Far from being an imperialist, Obama is downsizing the presidency.

At the same time, Republicans began roadtesting their own messages for 2016. Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the official response, one filled with bromides. Tougher ones came from Senator Mike Lee and, not least, Senator Rand Paul. Paul, who visited Detroit in December, offered a Reaganesque message of lower taxes.

But it's hard not to wonder if the responses were pointless. As the New York Times pointed out, much of the real action was taking place on Twitter--"Democrats and Republicans," we are told, "competed to make their views the majority, often with little regard to what the president actually said." To pay attention to what a political leader is saying, in other words, is so yesterday.

So the State of the Union, like America's credit rating, has become downgraded. Perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference if Obama truly had delivered a substantive speech. Would anyone be able to tell the difference?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Michelle Obama's Imperial Trip

Jacob Heilbrunn

Michelle Obama visited the National Interest today. Well, not exactly. But she did show up at the local Subway sandwich shop around the corner, disrupting traffic and blocking access to the building that houses this magazine. (Joe Biden just whizzes up and down Connecticut Avenue to the vice-presidential mansion with an immense convoy with blaring sirens mornings and nights most days, but never seems to stop in between.) The result was that drivers began engaging in dangerous maneuvers to extricate themselves from the havoc created by her trip.

No doubt some amount of disruption is going to accompany any visit of a president or First Lady, but the Obamas, for all their talk about helping common folk, seem to display a striking insouciance when it comes to their travel arrangements, whether it’s in Washington, where they could go a few blocks on foot rather than increase their carbon footprint, or Los Angeles, where they pretty much shut down the entire city. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the complacency with which Americans accept the mounting intrusions of the government, whether it’s motorcades or the TSA. Other countries are different. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, might show up with a bodyguard or two when she attends a concert and does not use any special seating.

The reason for Michelle Obama’s visit was to promote her cause—all First Ladies in the modern era have to espouse a cause, and she has chosen a safe and uncontroversial one—of fighting childhood obesity. So she showed up with her cavalcade at a DC joint just a few blocks from the White House, where, according to her press office, she “joined the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and SUBWAY® along with SUBWAY® Famous Fans Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, and Justin Tuck at a local Washington, DC, SUBWAY® Restaurant, to announce a three-year commitment by the chain in support of her Let’s Move! initiative to promote healthier choices to kids, including launching its largest targeted marketing effort to date. In addition to strengthening its already nutritious menu offerings to kids, SUBWAY® will launch a new series of campaigns for kids aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and will set new standards for marketing products to families.”

Well, whoop-de-do. Subway isn’t doing this out of altruism. It’s reaping good publicity for itself and, potentially, drawing more customers in the door who will get a chance to purchase the unhealthful but tasty wares that the company will continue to sell—potato chips, soft drinks, and so on. It’s an exercise, at bottom, in corporate branding.

At the same time, if Obama is so devoted to good health—and she clearly does spend a lot of time in the gym toning her abs and triceps—then she might have considered a different route toward L Street—namely, walking. Burning a few calories on the way to Subway wouldn’t be the end of the world and it would avoid the traffic snafus that inevitably accompany the movements of top officials. In our celebrity-crazed era, however, it seems to have become unthinkable for the president or his spouse to take a stroll outside the White House. Harry S. Truman used to take an early, brisk walk every day. Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration. Of course there are threats to the president, dire ones. But a sense of proportion has been lost. Today, as part of America’s transformation from a republic to an empire, presidents and their near and dear are surrounded by a praetorian guard of security that renders it all but impossible for them to speak to common folk. One can only wonder what Theodore Roosevelt, who took a bullet at a speech, and kept on talking until he finished before he sought medical attention, would make of it all. Or Andrew Jackson, who in 1835 beat a would-be assassin with his cane after his gun misfired. What’s more, in 1992 the redoubtable Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan even went so far as to call the Secret Service a “disgrace and danger” to the republic for its constant attempts to aggrandize its power and sway.

In his lengthy interview in this week’s New Yorker, President Obama laments that he may never be able to walk into a store with a degree of anonymity and strike up a conversation. Fair enough. But we also learn that Obama’s memoirs are expected to fetch a record $20 million and that Michelle is already working on hers. The Obamas, or at least Barack, can’t have it both ways, which is to rake in the bucks on the basis of his celebrity and complain about it. But that does seem to be the consistent and odd pattern with President Obama. His New Yorker interview, you could say, showcases his predilection for seeing both sides without really taking a stand. An admirable stance for a professor. But a president?

His entire presidency, in some ways, appears to consist of Obama viewing himself as an observer rather than the principal actor. Maybe it really is Michelle who is running the show. She was certainly the star at Subway, where her performance stopped part of the city in its tracks. What it says about American democracy that our elected officials are now treated like royalty is another matter.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Dennis the Menace: Rodman Visits North Korea

Jacob Heilbrunn

God Bless Dennis Rodman. At last America has someone who is willing to take the fight for freedom to North Korea. President Obama and his administration barely say anything about a country that has taunted America for decades. They'd prefer for the problem to just go away, which it won't. The most White House spokesman Jay Carney would say is that he wasn't saying anything about Rodman's "outburst."

Rodman was indeed in the highest dudgeon. It was a mesmerizing performance, surpassing anything he performed on the hardwood court. Chomping on a cigar, wearing a pair of shades, and surrounded by a phalanx of former NBA players, who had made great sacrifices, as Rodman emphasized during an interview on CNN, he was treated in an opprobrious manner by the host Chris Cuomo. His motives were impeached, his statements aspersed.

When all Rodman wanted to do was to bring a little lovin' to the Hermit Kingdom. He apparently first bonded with Kim when he and the Harlem Globetrotters visited the North. Now Rodman has become a true globetrotter, consorting with a world leader that almost no one has met. Rodman declared his "love" for newly minted leader Kim Jong-un, who is fresh from polishing off his uncle Jang Song Thaek, and proclaimed that his visit was a "great idea for the world." A slam dunk, in other words.

Might Rodman persuade his new buddy to ease tensions with America?

Kim, like Rodman, is clearly a mercurial fellow, which may be one of the reasons they get along so well. Kim's family members may be quaking, wondering if they are next on the execution list. Meanwhile, American missionary Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, is stuck in North Korea, presumably in the sprawling Gulag that the regime uses to enforce obedience even as it constructs new ski resorts and hosts basketball games between issuing threats to obliterate South Korea and its patron the United States. For his part, Rodman played his role to perfection, wigging out when Cuomo asked him if he would try to put in a word for Bae: "If you understand what Kenneth Bae did .... Do you understand what he did in this country? Why is he held captive in this country?"

Good question. Only Rodman himself didn't seem to have a clue. Instead, he is suffused with his own importance. He and Kim have a lot to offer each other. Kim gets some free propaganda. And Rodman gets to boost his visibility. He must regret that Basher al-Assad has not evinced any interest in basketball. Right now, Rodman has more access than almost any world leader to the baby-faced Kim.

Rodman's position isn't completely unusual. The history of political pilgrims to foreign lands is a long one. The aspiration to find a country that is better than America seized the fellow travelers who visited the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and other communist countries. But Rodman doesn't seem intent on running down America. Instead, he depicts Kim and himself as victims of an uncomprehending media and American government. He wants to perform layups in Pyongyang; the White House wants him to layoff. Dennis remains a menace.

Image: Flickr/OPEN Sports.

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Why Ariel Sharon Could Have Saved Israel

Jacob Heilbrunn

Secretary of State John Kerry is on a peace offensive, or at least he is acting as though he is on one. He has just embarked on his 10th visit to the Middle East, but the frequency of his visits doesn't appear to be producing anything other than frequent flyer miles. The most he seems to have been able to accomplish is to persuade the Israelis to delay the bids for new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until he departs on Sunday. If this constitutes progress, then it is hard to see where it is progressing other than towards a prolonged exercise in futility between the Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry is in danger of becoming the Dan Snyder of the State Department, promising a revival, only to watch continual meltdowns.

So what else is new? What's new is that former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who is 85 and has been in a coma for eight years, is apparently about to die. His demise provides the melancholy backdrop to Israel's current predicament. Sharon, whom I met once at Blair House, where he came across as genial and earthy, humorous and shrewd, was a great man. Not greatness in the sense that he had an impeccable record. Far from it. But he was a realist--tough, forceful, a visionary who could chuckle to himself about the peculiarities and fascinating qualities of the land he represented.

A wise man, you could even say, whose wisdom Israel desperately misses. It was the older generation of leaders such as Sharon and Yithzak Rabin, both military men, who understood that Israel had to alter its course to ensure its survival. Which is why Sharon, who had once been a proponent of new settlements, didn't hesitate to withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon repudiated the idea that Israel's greatness could rest in a Greater Israel. Loyalty to the idea of a Jewish state meant that it was imperative to betray the settlers he had once championed. If anyone could have delivered the further territorial concessions that are necessary for an accommodation with the Palestinians, it was Sharon. He knew that the West Bank had become an albatross for Israel, not its salvation. A new exit loomed. But his collapse in January 2006 was an unmitigated disaster for Israel, opening the path for Benjamin Netanyahu's comeback.

Since then Israel has become increasingly isolated. It is harder to make the case for Israel, or, to put it another way, for its defenders to mount a persuasive defense. A small but telling instance is the spate of letters in Thursday's New York Times about the the Hillel organization's attempt to ban exchanges between its Jewish members on college campuses and those it deems anti-Zionist. Eric Fingerhut, president and Chief Executive of Hillel, writes that "we will not, consistent with our guidelines, welcome anti-Zionist speakers or partner with anti-Zionist organziations." This does not sound unreasonable on the face of it. But a number of Jewish students at Swarthmore College who have repudiated these sentiments clearly believe that it is not and that it is, in fact, a smokescreen for censorship of views of the Arab-Israeli conflict that do not comport with those of the leadership of Hillel. It would have been wiser for Hillel to assess these matters on a case-by-case basis rather than trying to issue an ukase that raises more questions than it answers. It goes without saying that a college campus in particular is a place for debate, not the stifling of views. In wading into these treacherous waters, Hillel is doing neither Israel nor itself any favors.

Indeed, the situation on American campuses may not be as dire as Hillel's actions suggest. As Inside Higher Ed reports, a "backlash" is developing against the American Studies Association repugnant resolution calling for a boycott of Israel. Brandeis Unviersity, Kenyon College, Indiana Unviersity and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg have stated that they will exit the association. And a number of university presidents are condemning the attempt to politicize academic freedom. Not usually noted for their courageousness, they know that this is an easy one. Let's hope that the real boycott that ensues is of the American Studies Association.

But ultimately, these developments are a sideshow when contrasted with the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians. New Israeli settlements will simply confirm that Kerry's efforts were doomed before they even began. It looks increasingly as though Sharon, and Sharon alone, would have been able to extricate Israel from its current political and strategic morass. It would be a bitter irony if the last chance for peace disappeared with the leader known in Israel as "the bulldozer."

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Japan and the Rebirth of Nationalism

Jacob Heilbrunn

The surprising thing is not that Japan is trying to revive patriotism. It is that it did not happen sooner. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine last Thursday, a place of worship that also pays respect to World War II war criminals, or at least those dubbed criminals once the war ended. For nationalists in Japan have never really conceded that Tokyo did anything wrong before or during the war. 

Quite the contrary. Visit Hiroshima or just about any Japanese museum and you will be hard-pressed to find much, if any, mention of Japan's wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The nationalists, a number of whom are professors, cannot bring themselves to admit that their intellectual ancestors embarked upon a ruinous path in the attempt to create a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. Instead, Japan emerges as a power that was simply trying to defend its own interests. The atomic bombs, it seems, were dropped out of nowhere on a defenseless Japan. The one thing both the Japanese left and right can agree upon is that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was a bad thing. 

But the nationalists also bridle at the moral guilt that outsiders have tried to affix to Japan, whether it is the 1937 invasion of Nanking, which they argue has been falsely turned into a genocidal act, or the use of so-called "comfort women" in Korea. Japan, they suggest, was acting like any ordinary power. There was nothing unusuall about its behavior, whatever victor's justice might suggest. And even if untoward things did occur, was Japan really so different from any other world power in the midst of battle?

In the Sunday New York Times Martin Fackler notes that nationalism seems to be on the upsurge in Japan. He reports that a government-appointed committee suggested "putting mayors in charge of their local school districts, a move that opponents say would increase political interference in textbook screening. And just days ago, an advisory committee to the Education Ministry suggested hardening the proposed new standards by requiring that textbooks that do not nurture patriotism be rejected."

The contrast with Germany, as has often been noted, is striking. There genuine contrition and repentance have been absorbed into the DNA of German democracy. Japan is different.

But the difference is not solely attributable to the presence of retrograde nationalists who do not want to acknowledge that their country did shameful things in the past. It is also the case that Japan's geographic situation is different from Germany's. The borders in Europe are settled. Not so in Asia. China is flexing its nascent naval muscles. Japan is figuring out how to respond. North Korea remains a bellicose foe, both for Japan and South Korea. 

The rise of a patriotism would actually be in America's interest if it prompted Japan to take a more assertive role in trying to balance Chinese military power. But the route that nationalists in Japan are following is a losing one. To remain in denial over Japanese crimes is not likely to induce Japan's neighbors to cooperate with it in confronting China. Rather, Japan simply continues to antagonize South Korea. And its neighbors have become expert at using Japan's periodic, half-hearted apologies to portray it in the worst light possible. After all, China, which murdered tens of millions of its own citizens, while leaping forward under Mao, does not exactly have great moral standing, either.

To what degree Japan's flirtation with nationalism is also simply an act of romantic vanity is another question. Can anyone seriously expect a society of pensioners, which is what Japan is rapidly becoming, to embark upon a new quest for Weltmacht, or world power? Tokyo would do better to focus on how it can counter China's growing might. Indulging in nationalism is a frivolous luxury that will not accomplish that goal.

TopicsCongress

Peter King's Ridiculous Assault On Rand Paul

Jacob Heilbrunn

Ronald Reagan said that the GOP's 11th commandment was, "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican." If so, it's an injunction that's being increasingly violated. The Gipper would be astonished to see that Republicans seem to be devoting more energy to attacking each other than the opposition.

Few Republicans are attracting more ire from within the GOP's ranks than Sen. Rand Paul who appears to possess a special ability for getting under the skin of his Republican colleagues. First it was Senator John McCain referring to him and Ted Cruz as "wacko birds." Now Rep. Peter King, a vulgar demagogue who has held McCarthyite hearings on alleged Muslim radicalization in America and is starting a new political action committee called "American Leadership," has joined the fray. He announced on CNN that Paul's statement that top NSA official James Clapper did more damage to national security than Edward Snowden has was nothing less than "disgraceful."

Paul's statement was hyperbolic. But King's assault on Paul is not simply excessive. It is an attempt to silence debate. He declared,

For Sen. Paul to compare that patriot, Gen. Clapper, with someone like Snowden, who is a traitor, who has put American lives at risk, Sen. Paul should be ashamed of himself. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s a disgrace to me, he disgraced his office and he owes Gen. Clapper an apology immediately.

Actually, he doesn't. Clapper essentially admitted he lied to Congress when he came up with the baroque explanation that he gave the "least untruthful" response to questions in earlier testimony. And King flatters himself when he says it is a disgrace to him personally. Anyway, Paul is scarcely alone in his (justified) skepticism about Clapper. Seven House Republicans are asking for a Justice Department investigation into Clapper's remarks. The Hill reports,

GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.), James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Raúl Labrador (Idaho) and Ted Poe (Texas) said Clapper's `willful lie under oath' fuels distrust in the government and undermines the ability of Congress to do its job. "There are differences of opinion about the propriety of the NSA’s data collection programs," they wrote. `There can be no disagreement, however, on the basic premise that congressional witnesses must answer truthfully.'

They would seem to have a point. Government officials don't get to pick and choose about answering questions veraciously. In fact, they can be prosecuted for lying to Congress. Remember John Poindexter? Scooter Libby? Or have we now entered a new relativistic era in which even basic notions of right and wrong don't apply to officials from the executive branch?

What's really behind King's outrage are his ambitions to run for president and his desire to present the emerging realist wing of the GOP as isolationists. He wants to isolate it. In fact, King is quite explicit about this. He told CNN that the letter about Clapper is redolent of the worst traditions of the late 1930s, when isolationist sentiments percolated in America, preventing Franklin Roosevelt from taking an even firmer stand against the Third Reich. King said,

That comes from the isolationist wing of the party. These are people who are apologizing for America. To me, that is not the Republican tradition. That is not the tradition of Ronald Reagan. It’s the tradition of Charles Lindbergh and the radical, left-wing democrats of the 1960s.

Not exactly. At this point, there are really several Republican traditions, each of which is now vying for dominance. There is the rollback wing of the party, led by John Foster Dulles, which emerged in the 1950s. It fused with neoconservatism in the 1980s, which claimed credit for the collapse of communism. Then that triumphalist spirit led directly to Iraq. In response, a more realist wing has started to reemerge in the GOP that traces its roots to Dwight Eisenhower. No doubt Senator Paul has not offered a full-fledged view of his foreign policy stands. And there is no doubting that his father Ron is indeed an isolationist. But Rand has been careful to distinguish his own stands and views from his father's, explicitly stating that he is not an isolationist. Still, in the political debate that looms ahead of the GOP, these niceties, as Peter King's remarks indicate, are hardly likely to be observed. A brouhaha over foreign affairs is becoming an internal matter of dispute inside the GOP. Clapper is unlikely to be prosecuted, but King's remarks could prove to be the Fort Sumter of the Republican foreign policy debate.

TopicsThe Presidency

Is the American Dream Dying?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The great economic debate of the past couple years has been the Federal Reserve's attempts to prop up the economy as Congress has gone AWOL. Now, after priming the pump as much as possible, the Fed is offering a cautious vote of confidence in a recovering economy, declaring that the era of quantitive easing will begin to come to an end. Tapering is in. Tampering is out.

The markets are not swooning. Stocks were up on Wednesday as the Dow jumped nearly three hundred points. Instead, they have probably already priced in the move. Bonds remain strong. The dollar is relatively robust, though it has been dropping against the British pound.

But larger and more fundamental questions continue to loom over the country: Is the American dream coming to a close? Who's getting the benefits of the recovery? Can the political system recover from the polarization it's been experiencing?

In the Wall Street Journal, William Galston, who has been writing a column for the paper in recent months, offers a highly insightful look at the problems America faces. Galson notes that America really faces a crisis of confidence. Americans are not confident about many things. A recent Bloomberg survey, he notes, indicated that "individuals do not have an equal chance of getting ahead." His own organization, No Labels, has conducted a poll that indicates that only 38 percent of Americans think the country's best days are ahead of it: "Only 26% believe that the next generation of Americans will be better off than this generation and fully 62% believe the coming generation will be worse off."

These are not sentiments or numbers that can be easily dismissed. President Obama's response has been to focus on inequality without offering a satisfactory plan for how to ameliorate it. Simply further taxing the wealthy is not going to restore prosperity. It will inhibit it. At the same time, the congressional sequester is crimping growth. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that growth would be 1.5 percent higher this year absent the tax hikes demanded by Obama and the budget cuts insisted upon by the GOP.

What's more, warnings of the Federal Reserve's monetary easing policy (which is intended to counter the fiscal drag created by budget cuts) leading to higher inflation have proven false, at least so far. As the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, the major worry for the world's central banks is the threat, not of inflation, but its opposite—deflation. Neither America nor Europe wants to end up in the position of Japan, which has battled for over a decade to stymie falling prices and a listless economy.

It is Japan, not Greece, that may be the model that everyone should really fear. Both America and Europe, confronted with aging populations and increasingly onerous entitlement programs (Germany's Angela Merkel has backtracked, or at least wavered, on economic reforms, including lowering the retirement age from 65 to 63 for employees who have paid into social security programs for 45 years), face political choices in coming decades that no politician is even eager to think about facing. For now, a form of intergenerational theft is taking place, in which the elderly displace the young economically. Small wonder that confidence about the economic prospects of future generations is low.

Galston notes that a sense of malaise also prevails when it comes to America's status abroad. Polls, he says, depict a "worried, risk-averse people." This should hardly come as a surprise after the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Washington expended great efforts to upend those societies, only to see both remain mired in tribal warfare.

Still, there are several reasons to suspect that even if America's best days are behind it—which is always subject to debate—better ones do loom. Galston himself says that we need leaders who "are able not just to artuclate a vision of a better future, but also to offer a credible strategy for reaching it in this ear of polarized politics." But perhaps the inherent strengths of the American economy will also play as big, if not even a bigger, role than any individual. The prospect of energy independence is one sign of a reviving economy. Technological advances could also play a key role. The biggest boost, however, would be if both political parties began to think harder about stimulating economic growth. Perhaps the very pessimism about America's future will stimulate the country to embark upon a new era of prosperity. There's no reason, after all, not to start dreaming about it.

Image: Flickr/Ivan McClellan. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsEconomicsIdeology RegionsUnited States

The Democratic Party's Civil War

Jacob Heilbrunn

Don't look now, but the GOP isn't the only party to be assailed by internal divisions. Democrats are facing a similar divide even if it isn't quite as heated as in the GOP. The division is between mainstream, establishment Democrats, who are close to Wall Street (Charles Schumer, the Clintons) and populist ones who are not (Elizabeth Warren).

The most telling evidence of a split among the ranks of Democrats comes in the form of a battle between members of the centrist Washington think-tank Third Way and progressive groups. Third Way has ignited what the Washington Post is calling an "ugly feud" by publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that attacked the new avatar of the left, Elizabeth Warren, and the idea of embracing economic populism. "Nothing," wrote Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler," would be more disastrous for Democrats." Their point is simple: the notion that Social Security and other entitlement programs can be expanded without harming the economy or exacerbating the national debt problem is bunkum.

They conclude,

On the same day that Bill de Blasio won in New York City, a referendum to raise taxes on high-income Coloradans to fund public education and universal pre-K failed in a landslide. This is the type of state that Democrats captured in 2008 to realign the national electoral map, and they did so through offering a vision of pragmatic progressive government, not fantasy-based blue-state populism. Before Democrats follow Sen. Warren and Mayor-elect de Blasio over the populist cliff, they should consider Colorado as the true 2013 Election Day harbinger of American liberalism.

Essentially, what the Thrid Way types represent is a continuation of the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) program, which reinvented the Democratic Party in the 1980s and helped to promote the careers of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Now there is clearly strong sentiment in the ranks of the Democratic party to return toward a more traditional conception of liberalism, based on the conviction that Barack Obama has been much too tepid and timorous in taking on the political right. Politically, this battle is playing out as a potential showdown between Hillary Clinton and Warren. Warren has issued a letter demanding that big financial institutions reveal their contributions to Third Way, the Post reports.

But are these ructions necessarily bad news for the Democrats? Not really. These disputations are part and parcel of a democracy. It can be healthy for parties to reexamine their principles and stands even if the process can be rather messy, analogous to Bismarck's remark about the process of producing legislation being akin to making sausages. It does reveal that the powerful discontent among Americans on either the left and right, whether it comes from Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, against corporations and Wall Street is not going away any time soon.

But the notion that discontent is a basis for governing is another matter. Just because these sentiments are passionately and genuinely held does not mean that they are practical or even beneficial economically or politically. The fact is that Third Way has performed a valuable service by calling out the Democratic left. Its criticisms of proposals to expand Social Security and Medicare benefits as half-baked are eminently sensible. There is no cogent reason that the Democratic party should allow itself to be dragged back into the morass it floundered around in during the 1980s before the DLC helped to resuscitate it. To their credit, Third Way's leaders show no sign of being cowed by the campaign of intimidation being waged against them by their detractors. Still, given the levels of hostility being displayed toward business, it won't be easy to overcome them. But if Cowan and Kessler succeed in mobilizing centrist Democrats, they can show that where there is a will there's a way.

Image: Flickr - Mdfriendofhillary.

TopicsThe Presidency

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