Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 23, 2009

Conventional Wisdom Wipeout

It is not just conservatives who have observed the remarkable turn of political fortunes on the Guantanamo issue.

Marty Peretz writes:

During the presidential race, Obama treated Guantanamo not as totem but as taboo. It was to be done away with. That is still the president’s position, as he reminded us in a much-publicized speech on Thursday. But the Senate had, with virtually unanimous Democratic support, already rejected his request for an $80 million appropriation to close down the detention center.  (Yes, it costs a fortune to close down a penal institution.) There are, it is true, no settled plans as to where the remaining prisoners will be detained. In America? With various allies? Send them home to detention centers in Yemen or whatever Muslim country wants them, which most don’t.  They do not want any of the incarcerated brought to the country. And neither do their elected representatives, Republicans or Democrats.  Except that the Democrats made a campaign fetish of  emptying Guantanamo–as you can see without thinking for a moment as to what would replace it.

Well that’s the nub of the problem — speech or no speech and no matter how badly Dick Cheney “trails” the president in popularity polls (there’s no race between the two so “trails” is a silly media creation) —  Obama faces. And by doubling down with a Cheney face-off  he has only highlighted his dilemma.

But if you prefer to play the “who’s winning?” game on a superficial political level the president isn’t faring much better. Even an MSM standard bearer like Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer lets on:

 [T]he fact that the President of the United States had to make this speech, the fact that Congress had turned him down in giving him the money to close Guantanamo, I have to say that on points, I give it to — to the Vice President on this. Just the fact that the debate took place, the fact that Congress, you know, turned the President down. President Obama’s been in the driver’s seat with the Congress up until now. But, Congress pretty much pulled him over to the side of the road on this issue. And until he comes up with a plan on how to close Guantanamo down, I think they’re going to continue to deny him the funds to do just that. Right now I think the Vice President has made his case. And at this point I’d have to say he’s winning.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but sneering at Dick Cheney’s ability to rebut the president ranks up there as some of the most misguided punditry in recent memory. This episode serves to remind us that politics is still about facts and how effectively the facts are marshaled. It is not purely a contest of personalities (although that counts for more than pundits on both sides would like to admit). Until Obama can come up with new facts ( sorry, “Guantanamo makes more terrorists” isn’t going to cut it) or figures out how to convince Americans that moving terrorists out of Guantanamo is safe and smart, I suspect he won’t be able to turn the issue to his advantage. But if we’ve learned anything, we should watch and wait. You never know how it will all turn out.

It is not just conservatives who have observed the remarkable turn of political fortunes on the Guantanamo issue.

Marty Peretz writes:

During the presidential race, Obama treated Guantanamo not as totem but as taboo. It was to be done away with. That is still the president’s position, as he reminded us in a much-publicized speech on Thursday. But the Senate had, with virtually unanimous Democratic support, already rejected his request for an $80 million appropriation to close down the detention center.  (Yes, it costs a fortune to close down a penal institution.) There are, it is true, no settled plans as to where the remaining prisoners will be detained. In America? With various allies? Send them home to detention centers in Yemen or whatever Muslim country wants them, which most don’t.  They do not want any of the incarcerated brought to the country. And neither do their elected representatives, Republicans or Democrats.  Except that the Democrats made a campaign fetish of  emptying Guantanamo–as you can see without thinking for a moment as to what would replace it.

Well that’s the nub of the problem — speech or no speech and no matter how badly Dick Cheney “trails” the president in popularity polls (there’s no race between the two so “trails” is a silly media creation) —  Obama faces. And by doubling down with a Cheney face-off  he has only highlighted his dilemma.

But if you prefer to play the “who’s winning?” game on a superficial political level the president isn’t faring much better. Even an MSM standard bearer like Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer lets on:

 [T]he fact that the President of the United States had to make this speech, the fact that Congress had turned him down in giving him the money to close Guantanamo, I have to say that on points, I give it to — to the Vice President on this. Just the fact that the debate took place, the fact that Congress, you know, turned the President down. President Obama’s been in the driver’s seat with the Congress up until now. But, Congress pretty much pulled him over to the side of the road on this issue. And until he comes up with a plan on how to close Guantanamo down, I think they’re going to continue to deny him the funds to do just that. Right now I think the Vice President has made his case. And at this point I’d have to say he’s winning.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but sneering at Dick Cheney’s ability to rebut the president ranks up there as some of the most misguided punditry in recent memory. This episode serves to remind us that politics is still about facts and how effectively the facts are marshaled. It is not purely a contest of personalities (although that counts for more than pundits on both sides would like to admit). Until Obama can come up with new facts ( sorry, “Guantanamo makes more terrorists” isn’t going to cut it) or figures out how to convince Americans that moving terrorists out of Guantanamo is safe and smart, I suspect he won’t be able to turn the issue to his advantage. But if we’ve learned anything, we should watch and wait. You never know how it will all turn out.

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When You Print Tons of Dollars, They Are Worth Less

The New York Times reports:

The dollar was on a roll just a few months ago, bounding higher against foreign currencies as investors sought a safe hiding place for their money amid a global downturn. But now, many are rethinking their decision to buy American.

The dollar skidded to its lowest point in five months this week, battered by creeping fears that Washington’s costly efforts to stimulate the economy are growing harder to finance and may set off an unwelcome bout of inflation. Analysts are increasingly concerned that a rise in prices could hurt consumer spending, deepening the recession.

It is no mystery how this happened. As the Times notes, the Fed “is printing money from thin air, and the government is issuing trillions of dollars in new debt as it tries to spend its way out of the recession with a huge stimulus package, new lending programs, health care overhauls and automotive rescues.” The immediate impact is already seen in higher oil and other commodity prices and higher interest rates. In the longer term economists now worry about the loss of the U.S. AAA bond rating. All this is occurring as unemployment is climbing into double digits.

And so those (Republicans in Congress and even those supposed rubes who were out at Tea Parties on April 15) who warned of stagflation don’t seem so alarmist after all. Remember the “misery index”? If we see the debilitating combination of high unemployment and rising inflation it will be hard to miss the analogy to Jimmy Carter. And given the president’s spending and bailout spree and “Helicopter Ben’s” monetary policy, it will be even harder to shift the blame elsewhere. What we are seeing is the predictable result of  Obama’s policies, which most conservatives and libertarians — to their credit — warned against. On this one, not even George W. Bush can be blamed.

The New York Times reports:

The dollar was on a roll just a few months ago, bounding higher against foreign currencies as investors sought a safe hiding place for their money amid a global downturn. But now, many are rethinking their decision to buy American.

The dollar skidded to its lowest point in five months this week, battered by creeping fears that Washington’s costly efforts to stimulate the economy are growing harder to finance and may set off an unwelcome bout of inflation. Analysts are increasingly concerned that a rise in prices could hurt consumer spending, deepening the recession.

It is no mystery how this happened. As the Times notes, the Fed “is printing money from thin air, and the government is issuing trillions of dollars in new debt as it tries to spend its way out of the recession with a huge stimulus package, new lending programs, health care overhauls and automotive rescues.” The immediate impact is already seen in higher oil and other commodity prices and higher interest rates. In the longer term economists now worry about the loss of the U.S. AAA bond rating. All this is occurring as unemployment is climbing into double digits.

And so those (Republicans in Congress and even those supposed rubes who were out at Tea Parties on April 15) who warned of stagflation don’t seem so alarmist after all. Remember the “misery index”? If we see the debilitating combination of high unemployment and rising inflation it will be hard to miss the analogy to Jimmy Carter. And given the president’s spending and bailout spree and “Helicopter Ben’s” monetary policy, it will be even harder to shift the blame elsewhere. What we are seeing is the predictable result of  Obama’s policies, which most conservatives and libertarians — to their credit — warned against. On this one, not even George W. Bush can be blamed.

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Facing a Nuclear Taliban Regime

When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007, we were appalled but not exactly shocked. In fact, a sort of unspoken consensus about the likelihood of her being taken down had been in the air since she announced her campaign for opposition leadership months earlier. Pakistan tends to deliver in this way.

The buzz now, and it’s palpable, is that the civilian government of Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari will fall to Taliban/al Qaeda forces. Counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen predicts the collapse in “one to six months.” In 2007, there were reassurances from Pakistan that threats to Bhutto were being handled by Islamabad; today, important Pakistanis boast of having the situation under control. Former diplomat Mustafa Malik writes in the Daily Star:

Pakistan is used to “extremism.” The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis can live on $2 a day and weather the economic crisis. And I’ve learned reliably that Pakistan’s nukes are very secure under the vigil of its 600,000-strong armed forces.

There is very little to be “learned reliably” about Pakistan’s security or its nuclear arsenal. An American official who spoke with Zardari on his recent trip to the U.S. accused Pakistan’s president of “outright lies about security now established in every district in the country.”  Things are radicalizing in areas outside of the high-profile Swat valley. There is new, unprecedented popular support for jihad throughout the country, no matter what various groups call themselves. This comes from one supporter: “You can’t use the name al-Qaeda anymore . . . If you say even one good thing about al-Qaeda, you will be arrested. So groups now give themselves different names-Jaish-so-and-so, Lashkar-this-and-that. But it’s all the same. They are all working toward what al-Qaeda is working toward: to destroy America.”

And what is America working toward? For all Barack Obama’s insistence that the U.S. has spent too much time dictating (and not enough time listening) to the Muslim world, Pakistan stands as a tragic testament to the contrary. There is no other Muslim country whose successive regimes have been less deserving of the American respect they’ve received. George W. Bush repeatedly referred to Pervez Musharraf’s government as an ally in the War on Terror, while wanted al Qaeda members lived openly in Pakistan until being offered to the U.S. as bargaining chips. For too long we respected Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and shied away from hitting high value targets in the ungoverned tribal areas. Both Bush and Obama have continually pledged more aid to Pakistan under both Musharaff and Zardari. Both American administrations have heaped praise upon Pakistan’s abilities to bring the fight to terrorists. Both have worked to obscure Islamabad’s responsibility for terrorist acts and both have worked to prevent India from responding to repeated Pakistani provocations. Years of respect, praise, aid, and protection – and now we’re looking at a probable nuclear Islamist state emerging in a shorter period of time than it will take for Iran to finish developing its bomb.

Before we are faced with both Shia and Sunni extremist nuclear regimes, we’d better make some quick corrections. We are now told, of course, that ratcheting up American aggression inside Pakistan will only create more anti-American sentiment and further embolden the extremists. But how much more emboldened can they be? They are on the verge of seizing the country. We can no longer be held hostage by this concern.

The lesson to follow here is the one learned in Iraq. The U.S. must let the Pakistanis know which is the winning side (if, indeed, that’s to be our side). That means overwhelming military force in the areas we know extremists now control. A total rollback of the organized terror groups could then be followed with the kind of largess only America can provide. And that largess should be tied to benchmarks gauging progress on corruption and reform in Islamabad. Or we would just continue praising the efforts of our ally.

If this seems extreme now, re-read it in one to six months.

When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007, we were appalled but not exactly shocked. In fact, a sort of unspoken consensus about the likelihood of her being taken down had been in the air since she announced her campaign for opposition leadership months earlier. Pakistan tends to deliver in this way.

The buzz now, and it’s palpable, is that the civilian government of Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari will fall to Taliban/al Qaeda forces. Counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen predicts the collapse in “one to six months.” In 2007, there were reassurances from Pakistan that threats to Bhutto were being handled by Islamabad; today, important Pakistanis boast of having the situation under control. Former diplomat Mustafa Malik writes in the Daily Star:

Pakistan is used to “extremism.” The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis can live on $2 a day and weather the economic crisis. And I’ve learned reliably that Pakistan’s nukes are very secure under the vigil of its 600,000-strong armed forces.

There is very little to be “learned reliably” about Pakistan’s security or its nuclear arsenal. An American official who spoke with Zardari on his recent trip to the U.S. accused Pakistan’s president of “outright lies about security now established in every district in the country.”  Things are radicalizing in areas outside of the high-profile Swat valley. There is new, unprecedented popular support for jihad throughout the country, no matter what various groups call themselves. This comes from one supporter: “You can’t use the name al-Qaeda anymore . . . If you say even one good thing about al-Qaeda, you will be arrested. So groups now give themselves different names-Jaish-so-and-so, Lashkar-this-and-that. But it’s all the same. They are all working toward what al-Qaeda is working toward: to destroy America.”

And what is America working toward? For all Barack Obama’s insistence that the U.S. has spent too much time dictating (and not enough time listening) to the Muslim world, Pakistan stands as a tragic testament to the contrary. There is no other Muslim country whose successive regimes have been less deserving of the American respect they’ve received. George W. Bush repeatedly referred to Pervez Musharraf’s government as an ally in the War on Terror, while wanted al Qaeda members lived openly in Pakistan until being offered to the U.S. as bargaining chips. For too long we respected Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and shied away from hitting high value targets in the ungoverned tribal areas. Both Bush and Obama have continually pledged more aid to Pakistan under both Musharaff and Zardari. Both American administrations have heaped praise upon Pakistan’s abilities to bring the fight to terrorists. Both have worked to obscure Islamabad’s responsibility for terrorist acts and both have worked to prevent India from responding to repeated Pakistani provocations. Years of respect, praise, aid, and protection – and now we’re looking at a probable nuclear Islamist state emerging in a shorter period of time than it will take for Iran to finish developing its bomb.

Before we are faced with both Shia and Sunni extremist nuclear regimes, we’d better make some quick corrections. We are now told, of course, that ratcheting up American aggression inside Pakistan will only create more anti-American sentiment and further embolden the extremists. But how much more emboldened can they be? They are on the verge of seizing the country. We can no longer be held hostage by this concern.

The lesson to follow here is the one learned in Iraq. The U.S. must let the Pakistanis know which is the winning side (if, indeed, that’s to be our side). That means overwhelming military force in the areas we know extremists now control. A total rollback of the organized terror groups could then be followed with the kind of largess only America can provide. And that largess should be tied to benchmarks gauging progress on corruption and reform in Islamabad. Or we would just continue praising the efforts of our ally.

If this seems extreme now, re-read it in one to six months.

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Talk About Buried Ledes

The Washington Post runs a “recollections differ” sort of story on the CIA interrogation briefings. But eighteen graphs down is this nugget:

Two officials present during the briefings in 2002 said the talks were overshadowed by fears of more terrorist attacks. “It was wartime crisis mode, and all the chatter at the time was about a ‘second wave,’ ” said one congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the briefings were classified. “The next attack was supposed to be even bigger, and everyone was taking it very seriously.”

Against that backdrop, lawmakers from both parties pressed the CIA for details about what it was learning from a high-value captive: Abu Zubaida, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein. There was little, if any, questioning about how the information was obtained, according to the two participants.

“No one in either party was questioning interrogation tactics,” said the congressional official. “People from [both] parties were saying, ‘Do what it takes.’ Their questions were, ‘Do you have the authorities you need?’ and ‘Are you doing enough?'”

Well, that seems awful important, doesn’t it? We have not just one but two witnesses saying that of course no one thought to question the techniques being employed because they were under siege, afraid for their lives and the lives of our citizens. And there’s that comment again — “Are you doing enough?” Sure does sound like the version which Porter Goss has been relaying.

But if one wanted to be excessively charitable to the Speaker one could acknowledge that since little time was spent on the techniques and the focus was on how to prevent future attacks the Speaker just doesn’t recall any description of CIA interrogation methods. It wasn’t important at the time, and hence would not have stuck in her memory. Because, after all, what difference did it make, really, if they had rough techniques when hundreds if not thousands of lives were at stake.

But there, you see, is the nub of the matter. At the time no one in their right mind would have thought to (in fact, no one did) quibble with harsh measures. It would have been absurd for a country still reeling from attack and fearful of another to second guess good faith efforts to extract vital information from the worst-of-the-worst terrorists. No, that sort of second guessing is saved for 2009 when the moral preening and sneering at others’ “fear” is quite in fashion. Only now is it acceptable in some circles to vilify and indeed prosecute those who kept us safe.

So allow me to re-write the Post’s lead: “While Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi denies she was briefed on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods and has accused the CIA of lying to her, two witnesses now confirm she received an extensive briefing on efforts to extract information from a high-value al Qaeda captive — an effort that Pelosi enthusiastically supported and for which she offered any needed assistance.” Not the pithiest, but what it lacks in brevity it makes up for in exactitude.

The Washington Post runs a “recollections differ” sort of story on the CIA interrogation briefings. But eighteen graphs down is this nugget:

Two officials present during the briefings in 2002 said the talks were overshadowed by fears of more terrorist attacks. “It was wartime crisis mode, and all the chatter at the time was about a ‘second wave,’ ” said one congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the briefings were classified. “The next attack was supposed to be even bigger, and everyone was taking it very seriously.”

Against that backdrop, lawmakers from both parties pressed the CIA for details about what it was learning from a high-value captive: Abu Zubaida, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein. There was little, if any, questioning about how the information was obtained, according to the two participants.

“No one in either party was questioning interrogation tactics,” said the congressional official. “People from [both] parties were saying, ‘Do what it takes.’ Their questions were, ‘Do you have the authorities you need?’ and ‘Are you doing enough?'”

Well, that seems awful important, doesn’t it? We have not just one but two witnesses saying that of course no one thought to question the techniques being employed because they were under siege, afraid for their lives and the lives of our citizens. And there’s that comment again — “Are you doing enough?” Sure does sound like the version which Porter Goss has been relaying.

But if one wanted to be excessively charitable to the Speaker one could acknowledge that since little time was spent on the techniques and the focus was on how to prevent future attacks the Speaker just doesn’t recall any description of CIA interrogation methods. It wasn’t important at the time, and hence would not have stuck in her memory. Because, after all, what difference did it make, really, if they had rough techniques when hundreds if not thousands of lives were at stake.

But there, you see, is the nub of the matter. At the time no one in their right mind would have thought to (in fact, no one did) quibble with harsh measures. It would have been absurd for a country still reeling from attack and fearful of another to second guess good faith efforts to extract vital information from the worst-of-the-worst terrorists. No, that sort of second guessing is saved for 2009 when the moral preening and sneering at others’ “fear” is quite in fashion. Only now is it acceptable in some circles to vilify and indeed prosecute those who kept us safe.

So allow me to re-write the Post’s lead: “While Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi denies she was briefed on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods and has accused the CIA of lying to her, two witnesses now confirm she received an extensive briefing on efforts to extract information from a high-value al Qaeda captive — an effort that Pelosi enthusiastically supported and for which she offered any needed assistance.” Not the pithiest, but what it lacks in brevity it makes up for in exactitude.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

From the not-news file: Joe Biden’s big mouth annoys the president.

Perspective comes sooner than you think: poll numbers for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are on the rise. Not all that surprising since for weeks people have been reminded of all the measures the Bush-Cheney administration employed to keep the country safe from attack after 9-11.

How things change: “Republicans have been able to drive the Washington agenda for the first time in months, and dent the top two Democrats’ armor, by hammering away on antiterror policy and keeping the debate squarely in the GOP comfort zone of national security. Some Republicans see in events of the past two weeks — the culmination of a carefully developed GOP strategy and missteps by Democrats — the beginning of a political comeback, and they plan to keep pressing the issue.” I don’t suppose we’ll hear too many more anonymous GOP consultants griping about Dick Cheney for awhile.

Sen. Diane Feinstein seems to beg off a run for governor. I had a sense that was coming when she started pushing the idea of bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. Not the sort of the thing you would say if you’re getting ready to face the voters.

Like Richard Nixon, Nancy Pelosi’s only option now is to “stonewall.”

Charles Krauthammer makes an interesting argument: isn’t it more productive to pressure the Obama administartion to release the memos showing the results of enhanced interrogations than to call for Pelosi’s resignation? Whatever you think of the merits of the latter, it just isn’t happening.

The AP grudgingly concedes that Cheney has got the best of the public debate with the president.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t “get” Obama’s rhetorical splendor.

Andy McCarthy contends that “this business about Gitmo being a blight on our reputation in the world and a driver of terror recruitment is the most uninformed gust of high-minded, reality-defying blather ever blown across a debate.  But even if we concede this dreck for argument’s sake, shouldn’t the problem be an easy one for a messiah of Obama’s stature?  Obviously, nothing will satisfy the ACLU until the combatants are roaming America’s streets while Pelosi waterboards Cheney, but if Obama says Gitmo is now fine, shouldn’t that be enough for the Europeans?” After all they could change the dinner menu from orange-glazed chicken to rack of lamb and call it a day, right?

Did the White House slip and let on that reducing the number of abortions is not in fact its goal? Well, there will be no doubt when the administration decides if abortion services are required in government sponsored or subsidized healthcare insurance.

Congress is nervous :”Lawmakers appealed to the Obama administration on Friday to slow down the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, wary of shuttered car dealerships, job losses and the big unknown of a GM bankruptcy.” Good luck with that.

From the not-news file: Joe Biden’s big mouth annoys the president.

Perspective comes sooner than you think: poll numbers for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are on the rise. Not all that surprising since for weeks people have been reminded of all the measures the Bush-Cheney administration employed to keep the country safe from attack after 9-11.

How things change: “Republicans have been able to drive the Washington agenda for the first time in months, and dent the top two Democrats’ armor, by hammering away on antiterror policy and keeping the debate squarely in the GOP comfort zone of national security. Some Republicans see in events of the past two weeks — the culmination of a carefully developed GOP strategy and missteps by Democrats — the beginning of a political comeback, and they plan to keep pressing the issue.” I don’t suppose we’ll hear too many more anonymous GOP consultants griping about Dick Cheney for awhile.

Sen. Diane Feinstein seems to beg off a run for governor. I had a sense that was coming when she started pushing the idea of bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. Not the sort of the thing you would say if you’re getting ready to face the voters.

Like Richard Nixon, Nancy Pelosi’s only option now is to “stonewall.”

Charles Krauthammer makes an interesting argument: isn’t it more productive to pressure the Obama administartion to release the memos showing the results of enhanced interrogations than to call for Pelosi’s resignation? Whatever you think of the merits of the latter, it just isn’t happening.

The AP grudgingly concedes that Cheney has got the best of the public debate with the president.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t “get” Obama’s rhetorical splendor.

Andy McCarthy contends that “this business about Gitmo being a blight on our reputation in the world and a driver of terror recruitment is the most uninformed gust of high-minded, reality-defying blather ever blown across a debate.  But even if we concede this dreck for argument’s sake, shouldn’t the problem be an easy one for a messiah of Obama’s stature?  Obviously, nothing will satisfy the ACLU until the combatants are roaming America’s streets while Pelosi waterboards Cheney, but if Obama says Gitmo is now fine, shouldn’t that be enough for the Europeans?” After all they could change the dinner menu from orange-glazed chicken to rack of lamb and call it a day, right?

Did the White House slip and let on that reducing the number of abortions is not in fact its goal? Well, there will be no doubt when the administration decides if abortion services are required in government sponsored or subsidized healthcare insurance.

Congress is nervous :”Lawmakers appealed to the Obama administration on Friday to slow down the restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler, wary of shuttered car dealerships, job losses and the big unknown of a GM bankruptcy.” Good luck with that.

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