The President Punts

The Buzz

The Washington Post reports that President Obama is shifting his strategy for dealing with Congressional Republicans, aiming to “articulate for the American electorate his own feelings—an exasperation with an opposition party that backs even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.” The goal, reports the Post, is to win the seventeen House seats needed to restore Democratic control of Congress in 2014, and then to “push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office.” The night of his reelection, Obama called House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel to talk about “how focused he would be on winning a House majority for the Democrats.” Obama’s permanent-campaign organization, Organizing for Action, is already seeking donations to back Democrats running in the House in 2014.

This strategy turns conventional wisdom on its head—normally, a reelected president attempts to get as much done as possible before the midterms. There are two worries that motivate such an approach. First, as his final term approaches its end, Congress has fewer reasons to cooperate with him, as he won’t be around long enough to punish those who get in the way. Second, history suggests he’ll lose seats in Congress at the midterms. As the Post points out, only one president since FDR has managed to make gains in the House at his second midterm election—Bill Clinton in 1998. Clinton, however, had a 65 percent approval rating. Obama’s is fourteen points lower. Yet he appears to believe that the best way to secure his legacy is a big gamble that the copybook headings of American politics no longer apply, that the American people are so frustrated by Republican immobility that they will defy history and give the president’s party a big second-midterm boost.

Needless to say, this approach is morally questionable. The government faces severe problems that demand some form of action, problems that will only worsen if ignored for two years. The Post warns that Obama could even come to “be seen as the kind of partisan politician he once deplored” if he adopts a strategy of continually pinning blame on his opponents while doing little. Americans surely deserve better from their leaders.

It's undeniable that the president is in a tough spot. Quantitative measures of partisanship have shown polarization increasing for sixty yearsinitiated by a steady Democratic slide to the left that began in the 1940s and amplified by a sharp Republican turn to the right that began in the late 1970s. Yet Obama's shift in tactics still represents a failure of leadership. If his agenda were as popular with ordinary Americans as he seems to believe, he would be able to badger opponents into supporting it. He could, for example, visit the home districts of Congressional opponents to rally support for his programs and make his rivals fear they’ll lose reelection if they don’t play along. He could gain their support via logrolling or carefully selected government projects (i.e. pork). They'd find fighting on harder than giving in.

The fact that tactics like these aren’t working to his satisfaction means either that Obama is bad at the give-and-take of politics or that Obama's ideas don’t have as much support from the broader public as he thinks. In either case, the solution is for the president to scale back or redraw his agenda and do what can be done in the circumstances. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Suspension of Disbelief and the Two-State Solution

The Buzz

This weekend an op-ed by Dennis Ross in the New York Times encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to "suspend [their] disbelief" in the two-state solution in order to achieve peace in the Middle East. For Ross, the fact that neither side actually believes in the attainability of the two-state solution anymore is the root of the problem.

In his view while some factors, "make Israelis and Palestinians reluctant to take risks for peace, they do not represent the biggest hurdle for ending the conflict. The most fundamental problem between Israelis and Palestinians is the problem of disbelief. Most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don’t believe that peace is possible."

He then provides an infographic worthy of a quarterly presentation that outlines fourteen points of action to ensure all live happily ever after.

It is worth taking a moment to recall what a suspension of belief actually entails. The term was coined by Romantic poet Samuel T. Coleridge (of "Kubla Khan" fame) to suggest that if a poet could meld "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a tale then perhaps a reader might conveniently forget the implausibility of the narrative. In modern times, it's essentially come to mean that one can push aside the real limitations or complications of a situation to work/believe the impossible. One might enjoy a TV show where the hero leaps tall buildings in a single bound without having to worry about the fact that such things can't be done.

The problem here rears its ugly head when Ross applies the literary device to a policy prescription. He seems to present the Mideast peace equivalent of: the only reason we can't leap tall buildings in a single bound is because we believe we can't.

Reach for the stars, dear sir, but realize that you cannot literally touch them while standing on earth.

Ross implores, "Put simply, neither side believes that the other is committed to a two-state outcome. . . . Given this context of mutual disbelief, the idea that the two sides now will seize an initiative to end the conflict is an illusion. But that cannot be an argument for doing nothing." Sure, but it is also not an argument for pretending that if we just have a positive attitude and follow the diagram, all's well that ends well.

Theoretical solutions to Mideast peace are easy to conjure because they do not address the complications of the present quagmire. Losing faith may be unpleasant, but it may also be a reality that needs to be addressed. Instead, Ross threatens, "If the two-state solution is discredited as an outcome, something and someone will surely fill the void." Always possible, but this seems like a poor reason to blindly pursue an outcome both sides have abandoned.

While in a literary vein, perhaps we can remember H.L. Mencken who said, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is concise, clear, simple and wrong." Unfortunately, if you can sum up your strategy in sheer belief and an infographic then you may not have a formula for peace in the Middle East.

If an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be brought about by desire aloneno doubtAmerica already would have pulled that rabbit from its hat.

TopicsMediaPolitics RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

The Results of Threat Inflation

The Buzz

Gallup has a new poll out about U.S. public opinion on military issues. It reports that only half of Americans believe that the United States “is number one in the world militarily,” while a remarkable 47 percent think “it is only one of several leading military powers.” Needless to say, these 47 percent are mistaken, as the U.S. armed forces far exceed those of any other nation in terms of both spending and strength.

But while some commentators who have remarked on this poll have tied it to the ongoing debate over sequestration and the coming cuts in defense spending, the results seem to say something broader. After all, as Gallup has asked that question over the past twenty years, at least 34 percent in every survey have denied that America has the world’s strongest military. The number may have increased over the past three years, but the misperception it represents is not a new one.

So why do so many Americans believe this? One reason is the habitual tendency of U.S. policy makers to exaggerate threats and dangers around the world, as Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen chronicled in their Foreign Affairs essay “Clear and Present Safety” last year. With leaders constantly stressing how dangerous and threatening the world is, it’s no wonder that the U.S. public believes a number of mistaken things about global affairs—and that many of them involve either overstating threats or understating Washington’s own power. For example, a 2010 CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe that Iran currently has nuclear weapons. A separate CNN poll in 2012 indicated that Americans believe that the threat from Iran is on par with the danger presented by the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. These latest results from Gallup appear to be part of the same story.

TopicsDefensePublic OpinionSecurity RegionsUnited States

Nazism and the Vienna Philharmonic

Jacob Heilbrunn

After World War II Austria portrayed itself as the leading victim of Nazism. It had been conscripted into the Third Reich in 1938, so the story went. Forgotten were the jubilant crowds at the Heldenplatz in Vienna where the Fuhrer addressed his adoring countrymen after the Anschluss. After 1945 Austrians hastily said goodbye to all that even as Nazis were reincorporated wholesale into postwar society. Membership in the SS was no barrier to high political office, as the socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky demonstrated when in 1975 he contemplated a coalition with Friedrich Peter, a former member of the Waffen-SS and leader of the postwar Freedom Party. Then came the Waldheim affair in 1986, when the former Secretary-General of the United Nations decided to run for the Austrian presidency. He won, but his past as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi war crimes focused a spotlight on Austrian complicity with Nazism that Austrians deeply resented.

Now Austria is experiencing a new bout of controversy over the role of the Vienna Philharmonic and Nazism. 47 percent of the orchestra's members belonged to the Nazi party in 1939. Jews were expelled with seven members dying in death camps or during deportation. The orchestra, the New York Times reports, is investigating its past more closely, focusing on a ring of honor that was awarded to Baldur von Schirach, who was the Gauleiter of Vienna. Schirach, who deported tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps, escaped the noose at Nuremberg. He received twenty years of imprisonment. Upon release, it seems, a mysterious emissary from the orchestra presented him with a replacement ring. Three historians, led by the industrious University of Vienna professor Oliver Rathkolb, are probing into the archives of the orchestra at the fabled Musikverein. Until now access to them has been restricted. New records have been discovered.

The tale of the tortured relationship between art and totalitarianism is not a new one. For Hitler, who saw himself as an artistic genius, the arts were an essential part of his attempt to remake Germany into a new order. In both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, artists made their compromises. Thomas Mann, in Doctor Faustus, described the seductive temptations posed by Nazism for artists on the make. It was a bargain that not a few Germans, including the Wagner clan in Bayreuth, were eager to strike. But it was in Austria that anti-Semitism was perhaps most fervently embraced.

The Vienna Philharmonic did not remain aloof--a summary report discussed by the Times says that trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, for example, turns out to have been a member of the SS who spied on his colleagues. He became executive director of the orchestra in 1953 and, according to Wikipedia, received a high award for services to the Austrian Republic in 1967. The New Year's Concert was originally devised to celebrated the 1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the orchestra apparently disguises on its website. Today the orchestra remains a fairly homogenous unit with few women and fewer foreigners. It is, if you will, a politically incorrect ensemble. Proudly so. Bloomberg says that "Franz Welser-Most, music director of the State Opera and conductor of the 2013 New Year’s Day concert, voiced a widespread fear when, in a speech, he demanded: 'Are we faced with a phenomenon of ‘Asianization,’ much like the ‘Americanization’ of a century ago?'”

So far, the orchestra--indisputably one of the best--has resisted any real attempt at change in its personnel policy, which has remained largely unchanged since its founding in 1842. It is self-governing and does as it pleases. But when it comes to the history of the orchestra, it is clearly no longer able to cover up its past. That attempt to efface its history should come as no surprise. Austria has expertly avoided examining much of it as far as possible. Once in a while, though, a fresh scandal erupts. Now the country that exported Hitler to Bavaria is in for another reckoning with its tenebrous past.

Wikimedia Commons/Clemens PFEIFFER, A-1190 Wien. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsHistory RegionsAustria

AIPAC and Congress Sustain Iranian Nuclear Program

Paul Pillar

The biggest set of obstacles to achieving an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program involves each side's inclination to believe the worst regarding the other side's intentions. A major body of opinion in the United States holds that Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and that any indications to the contrary—including the Iranian denials of an intention to build a nuclear weapons, the fatwas by the supreme leader saying that such weapons are un-Islamic, the continued adherence to the nonproliferation treaty, the acceptance of international inspectors, and the Iranians' restraint in accumulating any stockpile of medium enriched uranium—constitute posturing, lying or stalling. A corresponding body of opinion in Iran, which may include the supreme leader, believes that the United States is determined to achieve regime change and intends to squeeze and punish Iran until such change is indeed achieved. The Iranians have been given plenty of reason to believe that, and so when they see or hear something about the United States instead wanting to reach agreements with the Islamic Republic, the Iranians suspect that this is just posturing, lying or stalling.

With such a deep hole of distrust out of which to dig, the results of the negotiations in Kazakhstan this week between Iran and the P5+1 were encouraging. The P5+1 had the good sense to make at least modest changes in its previous negotiating position, by putting a bit more sanctions relief on the table and reframing a key demand regarding one of the critical Iranian nuclear facilities. The parties still have a long way to go, especially regarding the sanctions side of things. But the Iranians strove to put a positive spin on the results. The movement in the P5+1 position may have been small, but it caught their attention. When the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, made his customary post-round appearance before the press, this was the first time he did so without displaying photographs of any of the assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists.

With this situation of discernible but reversible progress at the negotiating table, the worst thing that anyone—especially anyone who supposedly favors restricting Iran's nuclear program to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon—could do at this moment would be anything that stokes the Iranian suspicions about true U.S. intentions. But that is what is being done right now in Congress, with two draft measures in particular. One is a bill—a kind that members by now could write in their sleep—to pile still more sanctions on Iran. Probably even worse is a Senate resolution introduced by Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez that for most part is just another expression of Congressional love for Israel but that ends with a clause that gives a green light for Israel to launch a war against Iran.

That latter resolution would be extraordinarily inappropriate even if it came at a less promising and critical time—a “turning point,” according to Jalili—than now. The resolution condones what would be an act of aggression that, despite supposedly being taken in the name of nuclear nonproliferation, would be committed by a state that has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is totally outside any international control regime, against a state that has no such weapons and hasn't even decided it wants to build any. The resolution also means happily surrendering to a foreign state the decision to start a war that would have serious repercussions for the United States.

If Iran took comparably provocative steps in the wake of a negotiating round, many voices in the United States would be yelling about how this shows how hostile are Iranian intentions, how Iranians are not serious about negotiating an agreement, and how the United States must respond by making its own posture even more hard line and inflexible. We should not be surprised if when the provocation is in the other direction, Iranians might react similarly.

Bashing of Iran and coddling of aggressive Israeli action is now second nature to many members of Congress, who need no additional stimulus for that sort of thing any more. But AIPAC is giving them such a stimulus anyway. What better time than now, with AIPAC's annual policy conference coming up next week, for the organization to try to demonstrate anew that it hasn't been cowed by the Hagel nomination contest, in which it decided early to fold what it correctly determined was a losing hand.

Abba Eban famously observed that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Unfortunately we are getting to where we might be able to say the same thing about the United States with regard to Iran. The biggest past instance of missing an opportunity came in 2002, when a brief period of fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation was ended by George W. Bush's declaration of the axis of evil. With initiatives such as we are seeing today on Capitol Hill, there might be another big missed opportunity in the making.

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States