President Obama is taking a pounding from various quarters for supposedly being too slow to respond to Libya's plight. To read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, he should have sent in the Marines a long time ago. Col. Gaddafi must himself be feeling a little peeved. Is this the kind of loyalty he receives in exchange for handing over his nuclear and chemical weapons programs to the Bush administration?
Now the poor chap is staging his own personal Twlight of the Gods. The bizarre interview with Christiane Amanpour, the huffing and puffing about the love he experiences from the Libyan people--all suggest that he resembles the classic megalomaniac dictator. During World War II, Harvard historian William Langer, who was working for the OSS, accurately predicted that Hitler would commit suicide rather than allow himself to be captured. Hitler figured that he would be stuck in a cage by the Russian and exhibited like a captive bear.
It's hard to see Gadaffi allowing himself to be captured, either. All signs and portents are that he wants the grand finale, the big fireworks, as he exits the global stage. Perhaps he not so secretly enjoys the massive dose of attention he's receiving. Not everyone gets to exit with such fanfare. For decades he has managed to strut about, his oil wealth allowing him to engage in the most bizarre behavior, while the West looked on haplessly. He even got the man behind the Lockerbie bombing extricated because England wanted to tap into his oil.
So John Bolton's complaints about Obama engaging in "buckpassing" by handing over the prosecution of Gadaffi to the International Criminal Court don't really add up. According to Bolton,
a new Libyan government should be responsible for dealing with Gadhafi's atrocities. Every crime he is responsible for, from the terrorist bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, to his current street massacres, has been done in the name of the Libyan people. They are the ones who should judge Gadhafi, as Iraqis did with Saddam Hussein.
Of course, this assumes two things. The first is that Gadaffi will be taken alive, which is doubtful. Summary justice is more likely. The second is that there will be a viable Libyan government. In Iraq, after all, American boots on the ground propped up a shaky Iraqi regime. That's not likely to be the case in Libya.
The real problem with sending Gadaffi to the ICC is that he could point to the hypocrisy of western regimes, which have only turned on him now that his country is in revolt. Any trial might disclose embarrassing revelations about the eagerness of Europe and America to treat with him. The butcher of Lockerbie, one of the most odious rulers of the past century, flaunted his power with impunity. A trial might reveal more about America and Europe than the Libyan despot.
Is Al Qaeda on the ropes? Do the revolts in the Arab world mean that it has essentially been marginalized? That's the question raised by the New York Times. Paul Pillar is quoted as saying that "so far" the scorecard looks very bad for the organization.
He's right. Which is why it's even odder that Rep. Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is planning hearings on March 9 to investigate the domestic Muslim threat. It looks as though his hearing would actually increase the threat by demonizing Muslims--at the very moment that the Arab world is embracing, or trying to embrace, democracy.
You know that something is wrong when Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, is cited by the Washington Post as declaring,
"The U.S. government should investigate domestic Islamist radicalization,"Daniel Pipes, the Middle East Forum director who has written extensively on the threat posed by radical Islamists, said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, Rep. Peter King has proven himself unsuited for this important task, as shown by the gratuitous controversy he has generated over the mere selection of witnesses."
It seems that King has put together a panel whose only non-lawmaker is a controversial medical doctor named Zuhdi Jasser. Jasser has a history of making strident statements about his own faith. Critics worry that he'll be the star of the show. Then there's King himself: he apparently believes that 85 percent of American mosques are run by "radicals" who constitute "an enemy amongst us."
If King's aim is to attract publicity for himself, he's doing a good job. But he isn't combatting the radicalization of Muslims--which, by the way, doesn't seem to be going very well, at least in America. Or does King plan to investigate President Obama's supposed Muslim roots as well? Why rest content with the small fry?
To my eye, these hearings look like a fishing expedition on a par with the noxious statements made by Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy about Suhail Khan, a member of the board the American Conservative Union. There is a bizarre compulsion on a part of the right to act as though Muslim traitors are ubiquitous, subverting American liberties every chance they can get.
The hearings should never take place, but if they do, the real promoter of anti-Americanism at home and abroad will be Rep. King.
Libya is a failed state whose oil wealth has provided its leader, Colonel Khadafi, with a layer of immunity for decades. America and Great Britain both have coddled the Libyan dictator in recent years--almost as much as the Ukrainian nurse that he has apparently been traipsing about with in Libya and elsewhere. The deal that the Bush administration sealed with Khadaffi, much trumpeted as a successful act of promoting nuclear nonproliferation, has some critics wondering whether Washington should have pursued a harsher policy.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Elliot Abrams observes that the Bush administration made the right choice. Had the administration chosen not to cut a deal with Libya, it might now possess nuclear weapons:
Seen from this bloody February of 2011, the agreement with Libya was
still the right policy. Gadhafi in his bunker with control over
missiles, chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear program is a
terrifying thought. So is a Libya after regime collapse with those
materials available to the highest bidder.
It could be argued that LIbya would never have developed nuclear weapons. Had America maintained more pressure on LIbya, it might have fallen sooner. But this is dubious. Abrams essentially makes the case that a form of constructive engagement was the best policy.
Elsewhere on this website, Paul Pillar notes that the LIbyan case, if I understand him correctly, shows that it's too simplistic to argue for complete isolation or engagement. He's right.
But the decision to engage is usually the right one. The example of Nazi Germany is one where engagement was futile. But when it came to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, the detente that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger promoted was an essential ingredient in the ultimate collapse of communism.
There is no cause for shame in the approach that America pursued toward Libya. Now that Libyans have taken matters in their own hands, America and Europe need to offer what assistance they can. But it is up to Libyans themselves to try and construct a new country out of the wasteland left behind by Khadaffi and his clan.
James Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, has a column in the Wall Street Journal that comes close to a mea culpa for predicting in his 1999 book of the same title that the Dow would hit 36,000. "I was wrong," Glassman announces. Glassman points to a number of factors that account for why he was offbase.
For one thing, he observes that the "relative economic standing of the U.S. is declining." The country has compiled massive debt. Foreign competitors, China and Brazil and India, are experiencing growth. America's, by contrast, has slowed. The Congressional Budget Office, Glassman observes, believes that growth in America will average about 2 percent a year compared to the past century's 3.5 percent. Glassman calls that drop a "stunning decline."
Then there is the risk problem. As Glassman sees it, a new kind of risk has emerged with globalization. "Discontinuous risks"--a terrorist attack, a tsunami--can cause a flash crash in America.
How persuasive is Glassman's analysis?
On the question of American decline, he correctly notes that it isn't inevitable. The biggest hurdle facing the economy is the national debt. Treasury Secretary Geithner is walking a fine line on the question of cutting entitlement programs. The Obama administration, in a rhetorical feint, is talking about "overhauling" them. If Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise on cutting the debt, it would be a huge deal. It would signify to the markets that the government isn't stymied when it comes to debt, or going to continue trying to ignore the problem. The amount in interest payments alone on the national debt is set to reach $2,500 per man, woman, and child in America by the end of the decade.
Glassman's second point is about risk. This seems less convincing. Risk has always been a problem. Terrorist attacks and environmental catastrophes are not new. Perhaps it could be argued that their severity has increased, but that's questionable. World War I, after all, was triggered, in its most proximate cause, by the Serbian Black Hand, which murdered Archduke Ferdinand.
But it's also possible that American inventiveness will save the day. Unpredictability cuts both ways. Risk can have positive as well as negative outcomes. Perhaps the Dow will hit 36,000, sooner than anyone, including its original prognosticator, thinks.
William Kristol argues in the Washington Post that President Obama is blowing his chance to promote democracy in the Middle East. He invokes his standard phrase--"honor and duty"--to explain why Obama should be doing more, much more, to encourage protesters. According to Kristol,
What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.
The problem with his op-ed, apart from the numerous cliches ("inflection point," "business as usual," "challenge these times present") is two-fold. First, what is strikingly lacking in Kristol's admonitions is a practical course of counsel for what, exactly, Obama should do. Though a safe guess would be that he wants Obama to bomb Libya, a move that would doubtless boomerang. The second is that Kristol says that Obama should be helping the "liberals" in the Middle East. Where are they? In Libya?
Obama, like George H.W. Bush during the 1989 revolutions, is probably doing the right thing, which is to try and stay out of the way. This is an Arab revolution, not an American one. No one knows where it will end, though Israel is quaking over the upheaval.
The real loser in these revolutions, at least financially, is probably going to be the industrialized countries. The price of oil is soaring. And it will probably never return to its previous levels. The Middle East is going to be wracked by instability for years. Thomas Friedman is probably right when he says this is "the mother of all wake-up calls."
The good, old days of propping up authoritarian leaders and enjoying fairly cheap oil has come to an end. Welcome to the era of petroleum pain.
President Obama lied during his press conference last week. He called Raymond A. Davis "our diplomat." He isn't a diplomat, though he was posted to Pakistan under diplomatic cover in January 2010. He's a CIA agent who is being held in a Pakistani jail for killing--Muslim radicals say murdering--two Pakistan men who allegedly tried to rob him.
The case is murky. It's possible that the Pakistan's intelligence services set Davis up. It's also possible that Davis was deliberately pursuing the two men. And it's possible that Davis' explanation is true. They tried to rob him and he responded by blowing them away with his Glock pistol. Meanwhile, an unmarked car belonging to the American embassy that was rushing to Davis' aid ran over an innocent Pakistani riding a bicyle. And one of the widows of the two men has committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.
As the Washington Post reports, Davis, along with five other CIA contractors, has been monitoring "militant groups in large cities, including Lahore." Davis may have also been looking at the ISI's pet terrorist organization Lashkar-i-Taiba. America is claiming diplomatic immunity for Davis. But widespread anger in Pakistan has militants demanding a trial of Davis and his subsequent hanging.
Davis' cover is now blown. But so is America's. Each time a case like Davis' goes public, it feeds conspiracy theories about America, some of which happen to be true. The ISI was surely aware of Davis' true identity, but now that it has been revealed, the regime has to pretend as though it's outraged.
What the Davis epsiode explains, in miniature, is why much of the Muslim world hates America. Washington has been propping up dictatorships across the region. It has invested hundreds of billions in regimes that are collapsing overnight. It's hardly surprising that the local populations despise America for preaching democracy, on the one hand, and maintaining close relations with authoritarian rulers, on the other. The idea that an American diplomat, let alone a CIA agent, can operate with impunity on Pakistani soil, executing whomever he pleases is not exactly calculated to endear America to Pakistanis, either.
Presumably, Davis will, in a few months, be smuggled out of Pakistan. The car driver who was trying to reach Davis is apparently no longer in Pakistan. But the epsiode is further testimony to the acrimonious relations between Islamabad and Washington on the terror front. If Pakistan really wanted to confront terrorism, it would end up confronting a good chunk of its own population.
Image by André Koehne
The possibility of a government shutdown is being treated as equivalent to a fiscal Armageddon. In reality it's more likely to resemble the Y2K problem—it won't be that big a deal. Republicans and Democrats will huff and puff about how terrible each side is because Americans can't use the national parks for a few weeks.
But the shutdown could be an opportune moment to figure out how to prune government. In a way, President Obama will be given that opportunity since he will have to choose between what is being called "essential" and "nonessential services." The prudent thing would be to reopen the government slowly. In fact, Obama could set up a special commission that would have the responsibility of figuring out what to shutter permanently.
In my view, Congress itself should do the same. The Republicans in the House have gone after the budget, but have they looked at the size of their own staffs? It's no secret that staff sizes have become grossly corpulent since the 1970s. My own pet peeve is that congressmen and Senators now boast a praetorian guard of staff and advisers. They should be slashed. The limit could be five staff members for a Congressman and fifteen for a Senator. House Speaker John Boehner's staff has grown to 75—the staff's slogan is apparently "Once you've been to Boehnerland, you never leave." Is Boehner running a lifetime employment program? It would be interesting to see how much could be saved on salaries simply by limiting the size of congressional staff.
Once the government shutdown is lifted, no backpay should be doled out to government employees. The shutdown could even be permanently instituted on a yearly basis for one month. Among other pluses, congestion in the DC metro area would be considerably reduced. And citizens would be able to measure what they really miss when the government shuts down—and what they don't.
When government reopened, perhaps Democrats and Republicans could talk about real cuts to the budget rather than the bogus ones that are being floated. In other words, entitlement programs and Defense, which make up the real budget busters, not the puny programs currently being targeted by House Republicans. But it may take a government shutdown to concentrate minds on the fiscal crash that faces America—namely $2,500 in debt per person simply on the interest being paid on the debt by the end of this decade.
America can survive a government shutdown. But not that kind of debt. It needs, in other words, to go into survival mode.
Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman isn't just a thug. He's also a moron. Lieberman is huffing and puffing about two Iranian warships that are headed toward the Suez Canal. To him it's a national emergency.
In reality the Iranians are simply trying to distract attention from their own internal woes. Their ally, Hezbollah, is issuing dire threats about storming Galilee in the event of a new war with Israel. But this, too, is bluff and bombast.
It's clear that the mullahs would love to stage a provocation that would allow them to depict Iran as the victim of hostile foreign powers. It's obvious that the Iranian leadership, in Brechtian fashion, would love to vote in a new population. Instead, the regime's legitimacy is almost completely spent.
But Lieberman told American Jewish leaders in a closed meeting that Iran's move is a serious cause for concern. According to the Wall Street Journal,
He said the plan "proves that the self-confidence and chutzpah of the Iranians are growing from day to day," according to a text issued later by his office.
"To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations," he added. "The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, has been steering a more cautious course. The best thing Israel can do is to let Iran implode, or, failing that, grapple with a roiling insurgency that refuses to go away. It's becoming increasingly clear that Iran is not a totalitarian power about to take over the Middle East, creating some kind of Shiite crescent of power. That notion is as fantastical as the idea that the Soviet Union was about to encircle America in the 1970s.
Iran, plagued with a demographic youth bulge, faces enormous turmoil in coming years. The last thing Israeli leaders should do is to step into the traps that the Iranian leadership is trying to set for it. How much longer will Netanyahu remain in a coalition with Lieberman before this lunatic triggers an unnecessary war?
Bernie Madoff is talking. That's a big deal. Madoff fell off the charts as various crises erupted around the world. Back in the USA, the economy seems to be perking up, which has also relegated Madoff to obscurity, at least where the television cable channels are concerned.
But now Madoff is making his move. In an interview with the New York Times, he announces "they had to know." The "they" requires no explanation. JP Morgan is already howling that the court-appointed trustee Irving Picard (who himself is earning millions off the investigation--hunting down Madoff's misdeeds has become its own industry) is going beyond his mandate. As Frank Rich recently observed, Madoff was a "second-tier player." But he could lead to bigger fry. The Wilpons, who own the New York Mets, are already in big financial trouble for their extensive dealings with Madoff--Donald Trump is angling to buy a majority stake in the team. Then there are the hedge funds and banks that were linked to, or in cahoots with, Madoff.
At this point Madoff has little to lose. President Obama shows little appetite for curbing the excesses that led to the last financial crash. Madoff cannot achieve redemption. His historical role as the biggest Ponizi schemer (so far) in history is set. He became the type-cast bad guy. For awhile Madoff took all the credit, if that's the right phrase, for the malversation he oversaw. That's changed. Now he seems to be interested in ensuring that his collaborators, witting or unwitting, also take the fall (though he is notably exempting his own family members from any knowledge of his transgressions).
Madoff's own crediblity is shot. But if the information that he's apparently providing to Picard pans out, then he may get his own measure of revenge for the humiliations he has suffered, and is suffering. Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a crime. Madoff now seems intent on demonstrating the truth of that axiom. One thing seems clear: Madoff is not going to go down quietly. The aftershocks from his exposure may well continue to roil the financial world.
If Obama had some gumption, he might consider pardoning Madoff and putting him in charge of financial regulation. After all, Franklin Roosevelt made the former bootlegger Joseph P. Kennedy head of the SEC on the theory that he knew full well where and who the criminals were. Kennedy did a spectacular job. Madoff probably would as well. He would have everything to prove. For now, however, the specter of Madoff talking is probably scary enough for the banks that were involved with him.
President Obama was at his most conciliatory at his press conference. To listen to him, you might think that the budget differences between Democrats and Republicans are about as divisive as figuring out which brand of yoghurt to purchase. Obama is a master of sanding down differences, at least rhetorically, emitting a blur of words to disguise conflict. He returned to his familiar evocation of "folks" several times. What "folks," specifically? He never said.
Obama was similarly vague when he said that "somebody" had visited him as part of writing a book about the 10 letters he receives each day. That "somebody" visited him yesterday. Surely Obama knew his or her name. But he never said. As David Bromwich has observed, Obama likes to keep things vague and to talk down to much of his audience, at least when he isn't addressing his fellow elites. Then he talks about people clinging to their guns.
But even Obama couldn't disguise that he feels a little embarrassed about his budget cuts. He made a wincing expression about lopping off Pell grants for the summer, claiming that it would allow him to maintain the viability of the program for the rest of the year. Ditto for heating costs. Somehow helping people to insulate their homes becomes less important when energy costs are down. In any case, the cuts are mostly trivial, at least in relation to the deficit. Social Security and Medicare are not on the table, at least not yet. The GOP, it appears, is talking more seriously about curbing entitlement programs. Now that could get interesting, especially if it wields Obama's own deficit commission against him. For his part, Obama says he is ready to negotiate a deal with Republicans. They should take him up on the offer.
Obama was clearly more at home in discussing Egypt, which turned out OK. At least it seems to have gone well in the sense that a virulently anti-American regime does not appear in the offing. Obama claimed that at every "juncture" history will show he was on the side of the angels. Still, he took a pounding from conservatives and neoconservatives who said he was too slow to embrace the Egyptian revolution. If Obama gets really lucky, then the upheaval will jeopardize the regime in Iran. But that seems about as likely as serious deficit reduction.
It seems clear that in everything he does over the next two years, Obama is fervently going to cast himself as the moderate. That means he's going to leave as little room between himself and the GOP as possible. Obama is showing that he is a master of self-preservation.