Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 11, 2010

Intelligence Policy

John Bolton has an excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal discussing intelligence community (IC) organization. He ultimately recommends doing away with the director of National Intelligence and resubordinating the IC to the National Security Council (NSC), a proposal with some merit. He also makes the exceptional point that one of our biggest issues with intelligence is not so much collecting or analyzing it as assessing its implications.

I confess to being something of a hobby-horsewoman on the latter topic, and I am energized to see Bolton bring it up. He correctly implies that it is squarely within the purview of the president and his advisers to assess the implications of intelligence. Everyone on earth may agree that Iran has a nuclear program that could be readily adapted to the production of nuclear weapons, but only the president of the United States has been elected to decide the implications of that for the policy of his nation. Assessing these implications is inherently a political process, and that means the IC should not be performing it at all, except under policy guidance from the executive.

Intelligence cannot answer the question “Should we strike Iran now?” That is a policy question, but too often a great confusion arises on that head, abetted by the handling of intelligence itself. The “Iraqi WMD” controversy is a superb example of such confusion. No form of intelligence could have ensured that we struck Iraq at precisely the right moment to guarantee a smoking gun. The president made a policy decision; his critics, however, have argued ever since that he made an intelligence decision. Their unspoken premise is that intelligence can naturally appear in a form that obviates policy assessments and eliminates risk, and that Bush truncated some accepted process by not waiting for it to do so.

Intelligence doesn’t do that, however. Bolton is right to raise the issue of assessing policy implications, because it’s in this area that the controversy and vulnerability of the process are concentrated. Every celebrated instance of public dissatisfaction with intelligence is predicated on assumptions about the policy implications of that intelligence. Those assumptions are rarely examined in any systematic way, and presidents almost never address them or seek to shape them in the public mind.

Keeping open the national-security option of preemption, which is peculiarly reliant on intelligence, means that the question of policy implications from intelligence will recur for us in the future. The organizational correctives we apply should honor the executive’s constitutional responsibility for assessing policy implications. Bolton may be right about having the IC report to the NSC; that arrangement would in some ways mimic how the military plugs intelligence into planning and execution. At some point, however, we will have to come to grips with the persistent and legitimate possibility that, in any given situation, what we are seeing among our politicians is a disagreement on policy implications rather than on the intelligence itself. The IC is not responsible for the management or the outcomes of such disputes, and it should not be organized in a way that encourages it to participate in them.

John Bolton has an excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal discussing intelligence community (IC) organization. He ultimately recommends doing away with the director of National Intelligence and resubordinating the IC to the National Security Council (NSC), a proposal with some merit. He also makes the exceptional point that one of our biggest issues with intelligence is not so much collecting or analyzing it as assessing its implications.

I confess to being something of a hobby-horsewoman on the latter topic, and I am energized to see Bolton bring it up. He correctly implies that it is squarely within the purview of the president and his advisers to assess the implications of intelligence. Everyone on earth may agree that Iran has a nuclear program that could be readily adapted to the production of nuclear weapons, but only the president of the United States has been elected to decide the implications of that for the policy of his nation. Assessing these implications is inherently a political process, and that means the IC should not be performing it at all, except under policy guidance from the executive.

Intelligence cannot answer the question “Should we strike Iran now?” That is a policy question, but too often a great confusion arises on that head, abetted by the handling of intelligence itself. The “Iraqi WMD” controversy is a superb example of such confusion. No form of intelligence could have ensured that we struck Iraq at precisely the right moment to guarantee a smoking gun. The president made a policy decision; his critics, however, have argued ever since that he made an intelligence decision. Their unspoken premise is that intelligence can naturally appear in a form that obviates policy assessments and eliminates risk, and that Bush truncated some accepted process by not waiting for it to do so.

Intelligence doesn’t do that, however. Bolton is right to raise the issue of assessing policy implications, because it’s in this area that the controversy and vulnerability of the process are concentrated. Every celebrated instance of public dissatisfaction with intelligence is predicated on assumptions about the policy implications of that intelligence. Those assumptions are rarely examined in any systematic way, and presidents almost never address them or seek to shape them in the public mind.

Keeping open the national-security option of preemption, which is peculiarly reliant on intelligence, means that the question of policy implications from intelligence will recur for us in the future. The organizational correctives we apply should honor the executive’s constitutional responsibility for assessing policy implications. Bolton may be right about having the IC report to the NSC; that arrangement would in some ways mimic how the military plugs intelligence into planning and execution. At some point, however, we will have to come to grips with the persistent and legitimate possibility that, in any given situation, what we are seeing among our politicians is a disagreement on policy implications rather than on the intelligence itself. The IC is not responsible for the management or the outcomes of such disputes, and it should not be organized in a way that encourages it to participate in them.

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It Was Not a Deadline, It Was a Point on a Calendar

Jonathan, even before Obama’s December 31 deadline got thrown down the memory hole, the administration signaled that it was not a deadline. At the December 22 daily press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley had this colloquy with reporters:

QUESTION: … Come the beginning of the year, are you going to move towards imposing new sanctions against Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t put a particular date or deadline on this. This is an ongoing process. … I would think at some point, we would be in a position to take some action with our partners through the various fora that are available to us.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, could you just — can you just kind of specify or put a finer point on “at some point?” … I understand that on January 1st you’re not going to have sanctions to impose, but you keep saying at some point down the road, at some point down the road. …

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, this is where it’s always been, which is we have a two-track strategy. One track is engagement, one track is pressure. And these have never been mutually exclusive. …

QUESTION: Given that this deadline seems to be a little bit soft, do you think in the future you’ll —

MR. CROWLEY: Let me just — Andy, sorry to interrupt you, but what we have always said throughout the year was that at the end of the year we would assess where we are. But that’s not a deadline; it’s a point in a calendar at which the President said, okay, where are we and what are the steps that are available to us.

The nature of a deadline is that if action is not taken by that point in a calendar, something happens or something is lost: an offer previously made is taken off the table, or a consequence established for inaction takes effect as promised. Deadlines are, as Obama memorably said in another context, the only way to get things done.

For the Obama administration, however, neither aspect of a deadline applies when it comes to Iran. Even though December 31 has passed, Iran is still free to accept the administration’s offer at any time. It thus can, if it chooses (and why would it not choose?), simply wait and watch to see if the administration can get its threatened sanctions formulated; or if formulated, agreed upon by allies; or if agreed upon by allies, agreed upon by both Russia and China; or if agreed upon by everyone “in principle,” actually enacted in practice; or if actually enacted, actually enforced; or if actually enforced, actually be effective — all before Iran passes the nuclear threshold. With no real deadline, Iran has no real reason to decide.

Nor will the second aspect of a deadline apply: there will be no significant consequences for Iran’s failure to act over a period now approaching a year. Iran will not even receive a new “deadline.” The president will just say, “Okay, where are we?” And it is not even clear how serious he is about that — he has not yet even scheduled any seminars.

Iran can see that one hand will remain outstretched indefinitely, whether its fist remains clenched or not, and that in Obama’s other hand is . . . nothing. His deadline was only a point on a calendar.

Jonathan, even before Obama’s December 31 deadline got thrown down the memory hole, the administration signaled that it was not a deadline. At the December 22 daily press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley had this colloquy with reporters:

QUESTION: … Come the beginning of the year, are you going to move towards imposing new sanctions against Iran?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t put a particular date or deadline on this. This is an ongoing process. … I would think at some point, we would be in a position to take some action with our partners through the various fora that are available to us.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, could you just — can you just kind of specify or put a finer point on “at some point?” … I understand that on January 1st you’re not going to have sanctions to impose, but you keep saying at some point down the road, at some point down the road. …

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, this is where it’s always been, which is we have a two-track strategy. One track is engagement, one track is pressure. And these have never been mutually exclusive. …

QUESTION: Given that this deadline seems to be a little bit soft, do you think in the future you’ll —

MR. CROWLEY: Let me just — Andy, sorry to interrupt you, but what we have always said throughout the year was that at the end of the year we would assess where we are. But that’s not a deadline; it’s a point in a calendar at which the President said, okay, where are we and what are the steps that are available to us.

The nature of a deadline is that if action is not taken by that point in a calendar, something happens or something is lost: an offer previously made is taken off the table, or a consequence established for inaction takes effect as promised. Deadlines are, as Obama memorably said in another context, the only way to get things done.

For the Obama administration, however, neither aspect of a deadline applies when it comes to Iran. Even though December 31 has passed, Iran is still free to accept the administration’s offer at any time. It thus can, if it chooses (and why would it not choose?), simply wait and watch to see if the administration can get its threatened sanctions formulated; or if formulated, agreed upon by allies; or if agreed upon by allies, agreed upon by both Russia and China; or if agreed upon by everyone “in principle,” actually enacted in practice; or if actually enacted, actually enforced; or if actually enforced, actually be effective — all before Iran passes the nuclear threshold. With no real deadline, Iran has no real reason to decide.

Nor will the second aspect of a deadline apply: there will be no significant consequences for Iran’s failure to act over a period now approaching a year. Iran will not even receive a new “deadline.” The president will just say, “Okay, where are we?” And it is not even clear how serious he is about that — he has not yet even scheduled any seminars.

Iran can see that one hand will remain outstretched indefinitely, whether its fist remains clenched or not, and that in Obama’s other hand is . . . nothing. His deadline was only a point on a calendar.

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The Five Habits of Highly Ineffective Economies

Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard offers five “strategies of yesteryear” that won’t work in the face of the extraordinary fiscal crisis we now face. “We need to break out of our old patterns of thinking and break some old habits,” Goldsmith writes on the economic website E21. It’s an intelligent and informed piece — and makes one eager to read his future columns on what needs to be done. (h/t: my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin at NRO)

Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard offers five “strategies of yesteryear” that won’t work in the face of the extraordinary fiscal crisis we now face. “We need to break out of our old patterns of thinking and break some old habits,” Goldsmith writes on the economic website E21. It’s an intelligent and informed piece — and makes one eager to read his future columns on what needs to be done. (h/t: my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin at NRO)

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Digging Deeper into Those Afghanistan Poll Numbers

The latest poll of Afghan opinion by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD of Germany — their fifth since 2005 — contains both good news and bad. Naturally the BBC account accentuates the negative: “People in Afghanistan have far less confidence in the direction their country is taking than four years ago, a new BBC/ABC opinion poll suggests.” But dig a little deeper in the full poll results and you find that, while more Afghans than ever before think their country is headed in the “wrong direction” (38 percent, up from 24 percent in 2007), due primarily to lack of security, only 4 percent would like to be ruled by the Taliban; 82 percent prefer the current government. Hamid Karzai’s popularity rating has slipped; today he is rated as “excellent” by only 16 percent, down from 26 percent in 2007 and a whopping 45 percent in 2005. But if you combine the number who still rate him as an “excellent,” “good,” or “fair” leader, you still get to 81 percent of the population; only 18 percent describe him as a “poor” president.

Moreover, while support for the U.S. has fallen, largely, I suspect, because U.S. troops haven’t delivered security for most people, 63 percent still support the presence of U.S. troops (36 percent oppose), and 69 percent think the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was a good thing. By contrast, Taliban fighters are supported by just 8 percent of the population and opposed by 90 percent. Moreover, when asked who is to blame for the violence occurring in their country, only 18 percent blame the U.S.; 49 percent blame the Taliban or foreign jihadists.

In short, this polls suggests that, though the U.S. has its work cut out for it in Afghanistan, there is a considerable base of public support that our troops can tap into — and more important, public revulsion against the enemy they are fighting, the Taliban. The Russians in the 1980s had nowhere near this level of support. If NATO forces do a better job of beating back the Taliban, expect their support to go from merely high, which it is today, back to the stellar levels recorded in 2005, when 68 percent gave the U.S. forces good or excellent marks for their job performance (now down to 32 percent).

The latest poll of Afghan opinion by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD of Germany — their fifth since 2005 — contains both good news and bad. Naturally the BBC account accentuates the negative: “People in Afghanistan have far less confidence in the direction their country is taking than four years ago, a new BBC/ABC opinion poll suggests.” But dig a little deeper in the full poll results and you find that, while more Afghans than ever before think their country is headed in the “wrong direction” (38 percent, up from 24 percent in 2007), due primarily to lack of security, only 4 percent would like to be ruled by the Taliban; 82 percent prefer the current government. Hamid Karzai’s popularity rating has slipped; today he is rated as “excellent” by only 16 percent, down from 26 percent in 2007 and a whopping 45 percent in 2005. But if you combine the number who still rate him as an “excellent,” “good,” or “fair” leader, you still get to 81 percent of the population; only 18 percent describe him as a “poor” president.

Moreover, while support for the U.S. has fallen, largely, I suspect, because U.S. troops haven’t delivered security for most people, 63 percent still support the presence of U.S. troops (36 percent oppose), and 69 percent think the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was a good thing. By contrast, Taliban fighters are supported by just 8 percent of the population and opposed by 90 percent. Moreover, when asked who is to blame for the violence occurring in their country, only 18 percent blame the U.S.; 49 percent blame the Taliban or foreign jihadists.

In short, this polls suggests that, though the U.S. has its work cut out for it in Afghanistan, there is a considerable base of public support that our troops can tap into — and more important, public revulsion against the enemy they are fighting, the Taliban. The Russians in the 1980s had nowhere near this level of support. If NATO forces do a better job of beating back the Taliban, expect their support to go from merely high, which it is today, back to the stellar levels recorded in 2005, when 68 percent gave the U.S. forces good or excellent marks for their job performance (now down to 32 percent).

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Obama’s Foreign-Policy Fade Ignores Oil Weapon

It’s nice to know that Contentions isn’t the only place that noticed the Obama administration’s Dec. 31 deadline before serious action on Iran would begin. In tomorrow’s International Herald Tribune (available online now at the New York Times site), John Vinocur calls attention to Obama’s feckless drift to inaction on the issue. Vinocur writes:

Serious was supposed to have started Jan. 1. That was when the Americans said time would run out for Iran to respond positively to an international plan that would have effectively slowed the Iranian nuclear program. But over the past weeks it has become clear that the sanctions on gasoline aren’t going to happen — either at the United Nations because the Chinese and Russians don’t want them, or in an ad hoc alliance that would include the European Union.

The veteran Times reporter hones in on the role that oil has planned in the history of the Islamist regime. It was, he says, strikes and Islamic terrorism in the oil fields that cut the country’s supply of home heating oil and made rationing of gas necessary that really signaled the end of the Shah in 1979. Today tough international sanctions on fuel supplies and cutting off exports could play the same role in toppling an unpopular and despotic Islamist Iranian government. But as Vinocur rightly says, the United States has been jawboned into inaction by cowardly allies and Obama’s inability to sweet-talk either Russia or China into imposing sanctions on its Iranian business partners.

Vinocur quotes Thérèse Delpech, director of strategic affairs for the French Atomic Energy Commission, as saying that sanctions are a feasible strategy for crippling the Iranian government and bringing it to heel. But, like the Americans, the French aren’t taking a stand either. Oil and gas sanctions are the only route to a plan that has a chance of success in getting Iran to stop its nuclear program. The only alternative to it is, as we all know, Western acceptance of an Iranian bomb or a military response that no one wants to try. Vinocur asks why, given the danger that a nuclear Iran poses to Middle East peace (and existentially to Israel) and the West, as well as the strengthening of Iran’s Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist allies that would result from their attaining a bomb, the West would give up without using the tough sanctions that are available to them? Since it is impossible to imagine this administration taking military action on Iran (and to be fair, its predecessor demonstrated its own lack of interest in the military option during George W. Bush’s last year in office), we are heading inevitably to a point where Obama is going to have to tell us that we must learn to live with an Iranian bomb. Which means that the attempt to downplay the expiration of yet another American deadline on Iran is just the beginning of the president’s prevarications on the threat from Iran in 2010.

It’s nice to know that Contentions isn’t the only place that noticed the Obama administration’s Dec. 31 deadline before serious action on Iran would begin. In tomorrow’s International Herald Tribune (available online now at the New York Times site), John Vinocur calls attention to Obama’s feckless drift to inaction on the issue. Vinocur writes:

Serious was supposed to have started Jan. 1. That was when the Americans said time would run out for Iran to respond positively to an international plan that would have effectively slowed the Iranian nuclear program. But over the past weeks it has become clear that the sanctions on gasoline aren’t going to happen — either at the United Nations because the Chinese and Russians don’t want them, or in an ad hoc alliance that would include the European Union.

The veteran Times reporter hones in on the role that oil has planned in the history of the Islamist regime. It was, he says, strikes and Islamic terrorism in the oil fields that cut the country’s supply of home heating oil and made rationing of gas necessary that really signaled the end of the Shah in 1979. Today tough international sanctions on fuel supplies and cutting off exports could play the same role in toppling an unpopular and despotic Islamist Iranian government. But as Vinocur rightly says, the United States has been jawboned into inaction by cowardly allies and Obama’s inability to sweet-talk either Russia or China into imposing sanctions on its Iranian business partners.

Vinocur quotes Thérèse Delpech, director of strategic affairs for the French Atomic Energy Commission, as saying that sanctions are a feasible strategy for crippling the Iranian government and bringing it to heel. But, like the Americans, the French aren’t taking a stand either. Oil and gas sanctions are the only route to a plan that has a chance of success in getting Iran to stop its nuclear program. The only alternative to it is, as we all know, Western acceptance of an Iranian bomb or a military response that no one wants to try. Vinocur asks why, given the danger that a nuclear Iran poses to Middle East peace (and existentially to Israel) and the West, as well as the strengthening of Iran’s Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist allies that would result from their attaining a bomb, the West would give up without using the tough sanctions that are available to them? Since it is impossible to imagine this administration taking military action on Iran (and to be fair, its predecessor demonstrated its own lack of interest in the military option during George W. Bush’s last year in office), we are heading inevitably to a point where Obama is going to have to tell us that we must learn to live with an Iranian bomb. Which means that the attempt to downplay the expiration of yet another American deadline on Iran is just the beginning of the president’s prevarications on the threat from Iran in 2010.

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From Exporting Democracy to Exporting Terrorism

David Frum and Michael Weiss have important pieces on the decline — really, the suicide — of Great Britain.

David Frum and Michael Weiss have important pieces on the decline — really, the suicide — of Great Britain.

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AP: Stimulus Is a Bust

The stimulus money to be spent on infrastructure really did nothing to save or create jobs. That’s not a conservative talking point; that’s the AP:

Ten months into President Barack Obama’s first economic stimulus plan, a surge in spending on roads and bridges has had no effect on local unemployment and only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Spend a lot or spend nothing at all, it didn’t matter, the AP analysis showed: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless of how much stimulus money Washington poured out for transportation, raising questions about Obama’s argument that more road money would address an “urgent need to accelerate job growth.”

Obama wants a second stimulus, but what would be the point? (“AP’s analysis, which was reviewed by independent economists at five universities, showed that strategy hasn’t affected unemployment rates so far. And there’s concern it won’t work the second time.”) The reaction of economists is instructive:

“My bottom line is, I’d be skeptical about putting too much more money into a second stimulus until we’ve seen broader effects from the first stimulus,” said Aaron Jackson, a Bentley University economist who reviewed AP’s analysis.

Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP’s analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.

Nor are business people impressed. (“‘The stimulus has not benefited the working-class people of Marshall County at all,’ said Isaac Zimmerle, a local contractor who has seen his construction business slowly dry up since 2008. That year, he built 30 homes. But prospects this year look grim.”) But politicians love this stuff. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, they continue to parrot the same rhetoric. Economic adviser Jared Bernstein insists, “When you invest in this kind of infrastructure, you’re creating good jobs for people who need them.” But not really.

What did we get for all this? Maybe some temporary jobs, especially in the public sector. But that’s a far cry from “creating” jobs. And we know by the unemployment figures that the Obami have been spectacularly unsuccessful in keeping unemployment to 8 percent, which they promised would be the result if Congress passed the stimulus plan. Maybe it’s time to stop repeating the same failed Keynesian policies and try something different. Lower taxes and fewer mandates on employers might be good for starters. But I think that’s not in the cards anytime soon. Well, not until the Democrats get really, really scared about the 2010 elections.

The stimulus money to be spent on infrastructure really did nothing to save or create jobs. That’s not a conservative talking point; that’s the AP:

Ten months into President Barack Obama’s first economic stimulus plan, a surge in spending on roads and bridges has had no effect on local unemployment and only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Spend a lot or spend nothing at all, it didn’t matter, the AP analysis showed: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless of how much stimulus money Washington poured out for transportation, raising questions about Obama’s argument that more road money would address an “urgent need to accelerate job growth.”

Obama wants a second stimulus, but what would be the point? (“AP’s analysis, which was reviewed by independent economists at five universities, showed that strategy hasn’t affected unemployment rates so far. And there’s concern it won’t work the second time.”) The reaction of economists is instructive:

“My bottom line is, I’d be skeptical about putting too much more money into a second stimulus until we’ve seen broader effects from the first stimulus,” said Aaron Jackson, a Bentley University economist who reviewed AP’s analysis.

Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP’s analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.

Nor are business people impressed. (“‘The stimulus has not benefited the working-class people of Marshall County at all,’ said Isaac Zimmerle, a local contractor who has seen his construction business slowly dry up since 2008. That year, he built 30 homes. But prospects this year look grim.”) But politicians love this stuff. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, they continue to parrot the same rhetoric. Economic adviser Jared Bernstein insists, “When you invest in this kind of infrastructure, you’re creating good jobs for people who need them.” But not really.

What did we get for all this? Maybe some temporary jobs, especially in the public sector. But that’s a far cry from “creating” jobs. And we know by the unemployment figures that the Obami have been spectacularly unsuccessful in keeping unemployment to 8 percent, which they promised would be the result if Congress passed the stimulus plan. Maybe it’s time to stop repeating the same failed Keynesian policies and try something different. Lower taxes and fewer mandates on employers might be good for starters. But I think that’s not in the cards anytime soon. Well, not until the Democrats get really, really scared about the 2010 elections.

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Zero Military Contractors = 100,000 More Troops

The New York Times today continues a long tradition of moral preening in its editorials without spelling out the practical consequences of the actions it advocates. I refer to the editorial calling on President Obama “to get rid of the thousands of private gunmen still deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” It concludes: “There are many reasons to oppose the privatization of war. Reliance on contractors allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny. And freewheeling contractors can be at cross purposes with the armed forces.”

I join with the Times editors in bemoaning contractor abuses and calling for more accountability — a point I laid out at greater length in this American Interest article. But I do not believe we can simply dispense with all contractors, or even all armed contractors, unless we are willing to radically increase the size of the U.S. armed forces or radically decrease the number of missions they are told to carry out.

Today the U.S. armed forces have 1.4 million active-duty personnel. In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, the figure was more than 1.9 million. The rise in the use of contractors is a direct result of the post–Cold War downsizing that was undertaken by Bush the Senior and Clinton and that has not been truly undone by either Bush the Junior or Obama. If we want to use fewer contractors, then we need more soldiers — a lot more soldiers. But that costs a lot of money, and at a time when Obama is holding the line on defense spending (seemingly the only department of government being fiscally constrained), it seems highly unlikely that he will cough up the extra billions necessary to enlarge our armed forces.

Failing that, we have to rely on contractors to carry out missions, especially for the State Department, the CIA, AID, and other civilian agencies that have few in-house security personnel. In Afghanistan and Iraq, there are roughly as many contractors as there are soldiers. Since we will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, if we were to dispense with contractors, we would need an additional 100,000 troops — a figure that cannot possibly be raised from our current force strength. Even if we kept all the contractors who cook food, clean bases, service aircraft, and undertake myriad other functions while only getting rid of armed security guards, we would still have to see a major increase in force strength — otherwise those tasks will suck up troops that are badly needed to perform combat functions.

In other words carrying out the current mission in Afghanistan is impossible without substantial reliance on contractors. So perhaps we shouldn’t be there at all? Some might say so, but not the Times editorial board, which has endorsed the strategy laid out in President Obama’s West Point address. Perhaps in a future editorial, the editorial writers can explain how we can reverse President Bush’s mistaken “strategy of fighting on the cheap” without employing a lot of contractors.

The New York Times today continues a long tradition of moral preening in its editorials without spelling out the practical consequences of the actions it advocates. I refer to the editorial calling on President Obama “to get rid of the thousands of private gunmen still deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” It concludes: “There are many reasons to oppose the privatization of war. Reliance on contractors allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny. And freewheeling contractors can be at cross purposes with the armed forces.”

I join with the Times editors in bemoaning contractor abuses and calling for more accountability — a point I laid out at greater length in this American Interest article. But I do not believe we can simply dispense with all contractors, or even all armed contractors, unless we are willing to radically increase the size of the U.S. armed forces or radically decrease the number of missions they are told to carry out.

Today the U.S. armed forces have 1.4 million active-duty personnel. In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, the figure was more than 1.9 million. The rise in the use of contractors is a direct result of the post–Cold War downsizing that was undertaken by Bush the Senior and Clinton and that has not been truly undone by either Bush the Junior or Obama. If we want to use fewer contractors, then we need more soldiers — a lot more soldiers. But that costs a lot of money, and at a time when Obama is holding the line on defense spending (seemingly the only department of government being fiscally constrained), it seems highly unlikely that he will cough up the extra billions necessary to enlarge our armed forces.

Failing that, we have to rely on contractors to carry out missions, especially for the State Department, the CIA, AID, and other civilian agencies that have few in-house security personnel. In Afghanistan and Iraq, there are roughly as many contractors as there are soldiers. Since we will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, if we were to dispense with contractors, we would need an additional 100,000 troops — a figure that cannot possibly be raised from our current force strength. Even if we kept all the contractors who cook food, clean bases, service aircraft, and undertake myriad other functions while only getting rid of armed security guards, we would still have to see a major increase in force strength — otherwise those tasks will suck up troops that are badly needed to perform combat functions.

In other words carrying out the current mission in Afghanistan is impossible without substantial reliance on contractors. So perhaps we shouldn’t be there at all? Some might say so, but not the Times editorial board, which has endorsed the strategy laid out in President Obama’s West Point address. Perhaps in a future editorial, the editorial writers can explain how we can reverse President Bush’s mistaken “strategy of fighting on the cheap” without employing a lot of contractors.

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Promises? What Promises?

Union bosses are having a get-together with the president today to discuss his broken promise not to tax those families who make less than $250,000. They will meet behind closed doors, violating the promise to C-SPAN that we’d watch them all sit around a big table to work out the details. But for tough guys, these Big Labor fellas seem awfully wimpy, as this report explains:

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Hill on Friday that the final bill would likely include some form of the excise tax.“When you have a president who says he wants to incorporate it and a Senate that says it wants to incorporate it and some in the House who say they want to incorporate it, it’s hard to look that in the face and say we can just win this outright,” Stern said.

I wonder how their members feel about that. Millions and millions of dollars were taken from union members’ pockets to be spent in direct contributions and soft-money expenditures to elect Democrats to Congress and Obama to the White House. And what they get for that is nothing — worse than nothing. Union members already have health care. What they’re now going to get are tax increases. Or perhaps they’ll instead see those generous health-care benefits slashed to avoid the excise tax (so much for “guaranteeing” to keep the health plan you have). Meanwhile, unemployment is in double digits and employers aren’t anxious to hire anyone — union or nonunion. What exactly have union members gotten from Washington and from their own leaders?

And if union leaders succeed in trimming the tax, if not eliminating it, what then? Well, other Americans are going to get smacked because the money has to come from somewhere:

The Senate bill would raise about $150 billion from 2013 to 2019 by taxing employer-provided health plans costing more than $8,500 for individuals and $23,000 for families. Labor officials, citing an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation, claim this would hit nearly 31 million households by 2019. But limiting the excise tax would require Senate and House negotiators to find alternative sources of revenue to fund healthcare reform.

Who’s the likely victim? Well, it seems that “labor leaders may push for a bigger increase in the Medicare Hospital Insurance tax.” Because we haven’t stuck it to health-care providers or endangered the fiscal viability of Medicare enough, I suppose.

Well, Democrats are bound and determined to push something through. Now the only question, it seems, is determining which groups will hate the bill more: union members, seniors, young people (forced to buy insurance), the Left, the Right, good-government types, independents, or tax-hike opponents. So many groups, so many grievances.

Union bosses are having a get-together with the president today to discuss his broken promise not to tax those families who make less than $250,000. They will meet behind closed doors, violating the promise to C-SPAN that we’d watch them all sit around a big table to work out the details. But for tough guys, these Big Labor fellas seem awfully wimpy, as this report explains:

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Hill on Friday that the final bill would likely include some form of the excise tax.“When you have a president who says he wants to incorporate it and a Senate that says it wants to incorporate it and some in the House who say they want to incorporate it, it’s hard to look that in the face and say we can just win this outright,” Stern said.

I wonder how their members feel about that. Millions and millions of dollars were taken from union members’ pockets to be spent in direct contributions and soft-money expenditures to elect Democrats to Congress and Obama to the White House. And what they get for that is nothing — worse than nothing. Union members already have health care. What they’re now going to get are tax increases. Or perhaps they’ll instead see those generous health-care benefits slashed to avoid the excise tax (so much for “guaranteeing” to keep the health plan you have). Meanwhile, unemployment is in double digits and employers aren’t anxious to hire anyone — union or nonunion. What exactly have union members gotten from Washington and from their own leaders?

And if union leaders succeed in trimming the tax, if not eliminating it, what then? Well, other Americans are going to get smacked because the money has to come from somewhere:

The Senate bill would raise about $150 billion from 2013 to 2019 by taxing employer-provided health plans costing more than $8,500 for individuals and $23,000 for families. Labor officials, citing an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation, claim this would hit nearly 31 million households by 2019. But limiting the excise tax would require Senate and House negotiators to find alternative sources of revenue to fund healthcare reform.

Who’s the likely victim? Well, it seems that “labor leaders may push for a bigger increase in the Medicare Hospital Insurance tax.” Because we haven’t stuck it to health-care providers or endangered the fiscal viability of Medicare enough, I suppose.

Well, Democrats are bound and determined to push something through. Now the only question, it seems, is determining which groups will hate the bill more: union members, seniors, young people (forced to buy insurance), the Left, the Right, good-government types, independents, or tax-hike opponents. So many groups, so many grievances.

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The Stupak Example

Many Democrats in the House and Senate are playing a dangerous game. They hail from districts and states considerably less liberal than the Democratic congressional leadership and than the president. They’ve decided to throw their lot in with the national Democratic Party on issues ranging from the budget to health care to cap-and-trade. Their constituents? Well, they will deal with them later. As E.J. Dionne let on, the important thing is to get the darn health care bill done and off the front pages and then get around to the real job, which is “to sell the contents of their reform to a skeptical public and move to the economic issues that will dominate this election year.” That explains why so many Democrats — including Harry Reid, Blanche Lincoln and dozens of House members — are facing an electoral comeuppance.

The exception to that rule is Rep. Bart Stupak, who may be the only man in Congress standing between his party leadership and ObamaCare’s passage. This report explains:

Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak’s push for restrictions on abortion funding in the health-care overhaul is anathema to many liberal supporters of the bill. But Mr. Stupak sees them as a natural mix of the economic liberalism and social conservatism that defines his home district, Michigan’s economically depressed Upper Peninsula.

Bucking his party leadership, Mr. Stupak led the charge for an amendment bearing his name that prevents women with government-subsidized coverage from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion. . . “It has to be pretty close to Stupak language or it’s not going to fly,” Mr. Stupak said Tuesday night after a town-hall meeting during which the mention of his amendment twice drew applause.

Well, can’t he pull a Ben Nelson — come up with some phony compromise language, get the bill passed, and tell his constituents he tried?

“I can go back to my district [on some issues] and say I did the best I could, I tried,” he said. “But on abortion you can’t go back and say, I used to be right to life; now I’m pro choice. That doesn’t work; it’s either or.”

It is almost as if he takes his obligation to his constituents seriously, understands they can’t be flim-flammed, and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to sell out his own values for the sake of rescuing his party from embarrassment. It’s a bit of a novelty these days. Stupak says he has 10-12 votes. We’ll see if he does and if Nancy Pelosi can come up with enough votes to replace those who refuse to accept the Reid-Nelson abortion language.

Those Democrats who have chosen, be it on abortion or taxes or spending, to give their constituents the brush-off and vote with their ultraliberal leadership may get a rude awakening in November. Voters aren’t as dumb as politicians think they are. And these days, they are a lot madder, as well.

Many Democrats in the House and Senate are playing a dangerous game. They hail from districts and states considerably less liberal than the Democratic congressional leadership and than the president. They’ve decided to throw their lot in with the national Democratic Party on issues ranging from the budget to health care to cap-and-trade. Their constituents? Well, they will deal with them later. As E.J. Dionne let on, the important thing is to get the darn health care bill done and off the front pages and then get around to the real job, which is “to sell the contents of their reform to a skeptical public and move to the economic issues that will dominate this election year.” That explains why so many Democrats — including Harry Reid, Blanche Lincoln and dozens of House members — are facing an electoral comeuppance.

The exception to that rule is Rep. Bart Stupak, who may be the only man in Congress standing between his party leadership and ObamaCare’s passage. This report explains:

Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak’s push for restrictions on abortion funding in the health-care overhaul is anathema to many liberal supporters of the bill. But Mr. Stupak sees them as a natural mix of the economic liberalism and social conservatism that defines his home district, Michigan’s economically depressed Upper Peninsula.

Bucking his party leadership, Mr. Stupak led the charge for an amendment bearing his name that prevents women with government-subsidized coverage from enrolling in a plan that covers abortion. . . “It has to be pretty close to Stupak language or it’s not going to fly,” Mr. Stupak said Tuesday night after a town-hall meeting during which the mention of his amendment twice drew applause.

Well, can’t he pull a Ben Nelson — come up with some phony compromise language, get the bill passed, and tell his constituents he tried?

“I can go back to my district [on some issues] and say I did the best I could, I tried,” he said. “But on abortion you can’t go back and say, I used to be right to life; now I’m pro choice. That doesn’t work; it’s either or.”

It is almost as if he takes his obligation to his constituents seriously, understands they can’t be flim-flammed, and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to sell out his own values for the sake of rescuing his party from embarrassment. It’s a bit of a novelty these days. Stupak says he has 10-12 votes. We’ll see if he does and if Nancy Pelosi can come up with enough votes to replace those who refuse to accept the Reid-Nelson abortion language.

Those Democrats who have chosen, be it on abortion or taxes or spending, to give their constituents the brush-off and vote with their ultraliberal leadership may get a rude awakening in November. Voters aren’t as dumb as politicians think they are. And these days, they are a lot madder, as well.

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The Massachusetts Polls and the November Election

The most startling news since Barack Obama’s colossal victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa was the Democratic poll in Massachusetts the other day showing the little-known Republican Scott Brown beating the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, in the special contest for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat by a  point. A subsequent poll by the Boston Globe had the Democrat winning by 15. Somebody is very wrong here, obviously, and we won’t know until next Tuesday’s election which poll got the Massachusetts electorate right. But if the Democratic poll is closer to the truth, and if Coakley can’t come up with something to pull Brown’s numbers down over the next week, she is going to lose and a Republican is going to win an ineffable symbolic victory against Barack Obama and especially against health care.

And yet Republican politicians shouldn’t celebrate just yet—and not because of the talking-point excuses that are being handed out by Democrats and their spin doctors about how Democratic retirements and losses don’t mean anything. They mean an enormous amount. But a Brown victory in Massachusetts would suggest something rather more complicated than a simple Republican wave in 2010. It suggests that disgust with the political system has reached a level never before seen in the modern era, a disgust so profound that a little-known Republican can come to inhabit the Liberal Lion’s office.

There have been hints and whispers of this kind of trend before; the Ross Perot phenomenon in 1991-2, for example. Ever since, we’ve been hearing about the possibility of a political conflagration that would originate in the most stable part of any electorate, its center, as the two parties increasingly find themselves in the thrall of their extremes and find it impossible to appeal to the broad middle.

That notion seemed overblown, and was proved to be overblown; since 2000, the electorate has seemed uncommonly engaged with the two parties, with turnout rising enormously in each national election. Al Gore received the most votes in American history in 2000, only to be eclipsed by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004; Bush was eclipsed by Barack Obama in 2008.

But it doesn’t seem overblown any longer. The Bush administration’s inability to prosecute the war in Iraq effectively in its first three-and-a-half years combined with Republican corruption and the incompetence on display in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to bring the Republican “brand” low in 2006 and 2008. Now the Obama administration’s wild overreach on health care, coupled with its response to the Christmas Day airline-bombing attempt, has brought it similar difficulties. And both parties have lost the confidence of the American people when it comes to explanations for the financial meltdown of 2008 and the responses to it.

And so you have a damaged Republican Party and a damaged Democratic Party, and the elected politicians who represent them. The election coming up will be the first mass test of the effect of this mass bipartisan antipathy. Anti-incumbent fervor will, naturally, hurt Democrats far more than Republicans because there are more Democratic incumbents. But Republican incumbents have every reason to beware as well, just so long as the Democrats trying to unseat them don’t run dogmatically to the Left.

The most startling news since Barack Obama’s colossal victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa was the Democratic poll in Massachusetts the other day showing the little-known Republican Scott Brown beating the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, in the special contest for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat by a  point. A subsequent poll by the Boston Globe had the Democrat winning by 15. Somebody is very wrong here, obviously, and we won’t know until next Tuesday’s election which poll got the Massachusetts electorate right. But if the Democratic poll is closer to the truth, and if Coakley can’t come up with something to pull Brown’s numbers down over the next week, she is going to lose and a Republican is going to win an ineffable symbolic victory against Barack Obama and especially against health care.

And yet Republican politicians shouldn’t celebrate just yet—and not because of the talking-point excuses that are being handed out by Democrats and their spin doctors about how Democratic retirements and losses don’t mean anything. They mean an enormous amount. But a Brown victory in Massachusetts would suggest something rather more complicated than a simple Republican wave in 2010. It suggests that disgust with the political system has reached a level never before seen in the modern era, a disgust so profound that a little-known Republican can come to inhabit the Liberal Lion’s office.

There have been hints and whispers of this kind of trend before; the Ross Perot phenomenon in 1991-2, for example. Ever since, we’ve been hearing about the possibility of a political conflagration that would originate in the most stable part of any electorate, its center, as the two parties increasingly find themselves in the thrall of their extremes and find it impossible to appeal to the broad middle.

That notion seemed overblown, and was proved to be overblown; since 2000, the electorate has seemed uncommonly engaged with the two parties, with turnout rising enormously in each national election. Al Gore received the most votes in American history in 2000, only to be eclipsed by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004; Bush was eclipsed by Barack Obama in 2008.

But it doesn’t seem overblown any longer. The Bush administration’s inability to prosecute the war in Iraq effectively in its first three-and-a-half years combined with Republican corruption and the incompetence on display in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to bring the Republican “brand” low in 2006 and 2008. Now the Obama administration’s wild overreach on health care, coupled with its response to the Christmas Day airline-bombing attempt, has brought it similar difficulties. And both parties have lost the confidence of the American people when it comes to explanations for the financial meltdown of 2008 and the responses to it.

And so you have a damaged Republican Party and a damaged Democratic Party, and the elected politicians who represent them. The election coming up will be the first mass test of the effect of this mass bipartisan antipathy. Anti-incumbent fervor will, naturally, hurt Democrats far more than Republicans because there are more Democratic incumbents. But Republican incumbents have every reason to beware as well, just so long as the Democrats trying to unseat them don’t run dogmatically to the Left.

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The Tax Lie

You wonder how government officials do it. Self-respecting professionals who enjoyed a good reputation and seem like decent types come to Washington, go to work for an administration, and are required, as part of their job, to propound nonsense. More than nonsense, really — lies. A case in point is Christina Romer’s appearance on State of the Union. John King played for her a tape of then candidate Barack Obama, declaring: “I can make a firm pledge: Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase, not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.” King and Romer then had this exchange:

KING: Does that stand as we head into year two of the Obama administration and you try to make the difficult choices to start to bring the deficit under control? Does that promise still stand, not any of your taxes if you’re under $250,000?

ROMER: I mean, yes. And let me talk, though, about the — the bigger issue, which is, you know, even — to the degree that we, of course, care deeply about the deficit, and you’re right. In 2010, that is going to be something very much that the president is focusing on and talking about.

Say what? No taxes on those making less than $250,000. The Senate bill, which Obama seems to support, has plenty of them. The Cadillac tax on those with generous health-care plans is only one of them. (Here’s a handy list of all the proposed taxes on families making less than $250,000.)

Romer seems like a nice lady, and her research before coming to the Obama administration is well regarded by conservatives and liberals alike. She does herself — and the administration she serves — a disservice to mislead the public. One wonders, given Romer’s comments, just how Obama and the rest of his minions are going to respond to the tax issue. Perhaps like the C-SPAN flip-flop, they’ll just refuse to talk about it.

You wonder how government officials do it. Self-respecting professionals who enjoyed a good reputation and seem like decent types come to Washington, go to work for an administration, and are required, as part of their job, to propound nonsense. More than nonsense, really — lies. A case in point is Christina Romer’s appearance on State of the Union. John King played for her a tape of then candidate Barack Obama, declaring: “I can make a firm pledge: Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase, not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.” King and Romer then had this exchange:

KING: Does that stand as we head into year two of the Obama administration and you try to make the difficult choices to start to bring the deficit under control? Does that promise still stand, not any of your taxes if you’re under $250,000?

ROMER: I mean, yes. And let me talk, though, about the — the bigger issue, which is, you know, even — to the degree that we, of course, care deeply about the deficit, and you’re right. In 2010, that is going to be something very much that the president is focusing on and talking about.

Say what? No taxes on those making less than $250,000. The Senate bill, which Obama seems to support, has plenty of them. The Cadillac tax on those with generous health-care plans is only one of them. (Here’s a handy list of all the proposed taxes on families making less than $250,000.)

Romer seems like a nice lady, and her research before coming to the Obama administration is well regarded by conservatives and liberals alike. She does herself — and the administration she serves — a disservice to mislead the public. One wonders, given Romer’s comments, just how Obama and the rest of his minions are going to respond to the tax issue. Perhaps like the C-SPAN flip-flop, they’ll just refuse to talk about it.

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Is Reid the Best They Can Do?

Pundits are divided: is Harry Reid a racist or just a buffoon? I tend to agree with Mark Steyn and Matt Yglesias (hard to believe there would ever be an occasion to write those words):

It’s good that Reid apologized, but at the same time you can’t really apologize for being the sort of person who’d be inclined to use the phrase “negro dialect” and it’s more the idea of Reid being that kind of person that’s creepy here than anything else.

Ruth Marcus put it this way:

For anyone in public life to use the word “Negro” in 2008 is beyond stupid. What was once polite has become demeaning. (Although, interestingly enough, the U.S. Census chose to retain the word on the 2010 census form because so many respondents wrote it in 10 years ago.) The lame explanation offered by an aide — that the remarks were not intended for use in the book — is about as convincing as Jesse Jackson’s assertion that he did not consider his “Hymietown” comments to the Washington Post’s Milton Coleman on the record. (“Let’s talk black talk,” Jackson had said to Coleman.)

Nor is this the only time Harry Reid showed an odd obsession with the manner in which prominent African Americans express themselves. It was Reid who declared of Justice Clarence Thomas: “I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written.” (He nevertheless had kind words for Justice Scalia, the other sharp-penned conservative on the court.) And then there was his remark that Republicans who opposed ObamaCare were comparable to those who opposed the repeal of slavery. It is hard to think of another figure in public life who is so tone-deaf on matters of race.

There is something, well, just not right about Reid’s propensity to toss around incendiary racial analogies and observations. Goodness knows what’s in his heart, but this simply isn’t what we expect of public leaders, who, if they can’t think of something helpful or enlightening to say on race relations, should at the very least keep quiet. Honestly, is he the best that the Democrats can do for a majority leader, or the best the people of Nevada can do for a senator? I suppose we’ll find out in November. But the Democrats’ insistence that there’s nothing wrong with Reid aside from a slip of the tongue (well, lots and lots of them) or nothing wrong enough to be disqualifying rings hollow. You’d think they’d at least prefer someone who doesn’t absorb days of media attention in apology mode.

You might expect the Democratic establishment to quietly encourage him to follow Chris Dodd’s example. In circling the wagons around their wounded and increasingly embarrassing leader, the Democrats in D.C. are passing the buck to Nevada voters, who, I suspect, will be more anxious than ever to elect someone more in line with their views and less offensive in his public rhetoric.

Pundits are divided: is Harry Reid a racist or just a buffoon? I tend to agree with Mark Steyn and Matt Yglesias (hard to believe there would ever be an occasion to write those words):

It’s good that Reid apologized, but at the same time you can’t really apologize for being the sort of person who’d be inclined to use the phrase “negro dialect” and it’s more the idea of Reid being that kind of person that’s creepy here than anything else.

Ruth Marcus put it this way:

For anyone in public life to use the word “Negro” in 2008 is beyond stupid. What was once polite has become demeaning. (Although, interestingly enough, the U.S. Census chose to retain the word on the 2010 census form because so many respondents wrote it in 10 years ago.) The lame explanation offered by an aide — that the remarks were not intended for use in the book — is about as convincing as Jesse Jackson’s assertion that he did not consider his “Hymietown” comments to the Washington Post’s Milton Coleman on the record. (“Let’s talk black talk,” Jackson had said to Coleman.)

Nor is this the only time Harry Reid showed an odd obsession with the manner in which prominent African Americans express themselves. It was Reid who declared of Justice Clarence Thomas: “I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written.” (He nevertheless had kind words for Justice Scalia, the other sharp-penned conservative on the court.) And then there was his remark that Republicans who opposed ObamaCare were comparable to those who opposed the repeal of slavery. It is hard to think of another figure in public life who is so tone-deaf on matters of race.

There is something, well, just not right about Reid’s propensity to toss around incendiary racial analogies and observations. Goodness knows what’s in his heart, but this simply isn’t what we expect of public leaders, who, if they can’t think of something helpful or enlightening to say on race relations, should at the very least keep quiet. Honestly, is he the best that the Democrats can do for a majority leader, or the best the people of Nevada can do for a senator? I suppose we’ll find out in November. But the Democrats’ insistence that there’s nothing wrong with Reid aside from a slip of the tongue (well, lots and lots of them) or nothing wrong enough to be disqualifying rings hollow. You’d think they’d at least prefer someone who doesn’t absorb days of media attention in apology mode.

You might expect the Democratic establishment to quietly encourage him to follow Chris Dodd’s example. In circling the wagons around their wounded and increasingly embarrassing leader, the Democrats in D.C. are passing the buck to Nevada voters, who, I suspect, will be more anxious than ever to elect someone more in line with their views and less offensive in his public rhetoric.

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A Real Race in Massachusetts

One poll has Scott Brown up by 1 point in the Massachusetts Senate race, another has him down by 15, and yet another down by 9. Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com explains:

The big spread in results among the polls, and differences apparent within two of them, are all consistent in supporting one finding: The lower the turnout, the better the odds for Scott Brown. These differences indicate that the voters most interested and most likely to vote are Republican, while Democrats are more blase.

This was the same conclusion another pollster expressed to me, with the additional caveat that the Boston Globe poll, which had Martha Coakley up by 15, was taken a bit earlier (January 2-6) than the Public Policy Polling survey, which showed Brown up by 1.

But we really don’t know exactly where the race stands — a rarity in politics these days, when everyone is quite certain where races stand, except when they aren’t. (The 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary in which Barack Obama surprised all the gurus is a case in point.) What is clear is that in one of the most liberal states in the country, a Republican, running against ObamaCare and on a national-security message akin to Liz Cheney’s, is in a dogfight to replace Ted Kennedy. It doesn’t help that the Democrats are threatening to ram through ObamaCare even if Brown wins, for that’s sure to further motivate those already angry Republicans and annoyed independents. If the name of the game is turnout, then themes that aggravate the anti-Obama and anti-Beltway Democrat voters are going to play well for Brown.

The race is a reminder for the pundit class: politics is a game played in the context of specific candidates (in this case a mediocre Democrat in this case trying to hide behind an independent candidate in debates), significant national developments (the rise of angry populists and the fading fortunes of D.C. Democrats), and the relative motivation of competing parties. To the extent that Democrats are losing quality candidates (or can’t recruit them), refuse to adjust their ultra-liberal agenda, and continue to ignore the public, the travails of Martha Coakley are going to be repeated again and again — and in locales with voters much more amenable than Bay Staters to the prospect of throwing out Democrats.

One poll has Scott Brown up by 1 point in the Massachusetts Senate race, another has him down by 15, and yet another down by 9. Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com explains:

The big spread in results among the polls, and differences apparent within two of them, are all consistent in supporting one finding: The lower the turnout, the better the odds for Scott Brown. These differences indicate that the voters most interested and most likely to vote are Republican, while Democrats are more blase.

This was the same conclusion another pollster expressed to me, with the additional caveat that the Boston Globe poll, which had Martha Coakley up by 15, was taken a bit earlier (January 2-6) than the Public Policy Polling survey, which showed Brown up by 1.

But we really don’t know exactly where the race stands — a rarity in politics these days, when everyone is quite certain where races stand, except when they aren’t. (The 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary in which Barack Obama surprised all the gurus is a case in point.) What is clear is that in one of the most liberal states in the country, a Republican, running against ObamaCare and on a national-security message akin to Liz Cheney’s, is in a dogfight to replace Ted Kennedy. It doesn’t help that the Democrats are threatening to ram through ObamaCare even if Brown wins, for that’s sure to further motivate those already angry Republicans and annoyed independents. If the name of the game is turnout, then themes that aggravate the anti-Obama and anti-Beltway Democrat voters are going to play well for Brown.

The race is a reminder for the pundit class: politics is a game played in the context of specific candidates (in this case a mediocre Democrat in this case trying to hide behind an independent candidate in debates), significant national developments (the rise of angry populists and the fading fortunes of D.C. Democrats), and the relative motivation of competing parties. To the extent that Democrats are losing quality candidates (or can’t recruit them), refuse to adjust their ultra-liberal agenda, and continue to ignore the public, the travails of Martha Coakley are going to be repeated again and again — and in locales with voters much more amenable than Bay Staters to the prospect of throwing out Democrats.

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Words, Words, Words — Obama’s Foreign-Policy Obsession

Eliot Cohen gives Obama’s foreign policy the Dickensian title of “Bumble, Stumble, and Skid.” His review of the 2009 low-lights is, alas, not so funny:

It began with apologies to the Muslim world that went nowhere, a doomed attempt to beat Israel into line, utopian pleas to abolish nuclear weapons, unreciprocated concessions to Russia, and a curt note to the British to take back the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. It continued with principled offers of serious negotiation to an Iranian regime too busy torturing, raping and killing demonstrators, and building new underground nuclear facilities, to take them up. Subsequently Beijing smothered domestic coverage of a presidential visit but did give the world the spectacle of the American commander in chief getting a talking-to about fiscal responsibility from a Communist chieftain.

As Cohen observes, some of this is traceable to novice foreign-policy practitioners, but much of it seems to flow directly from Obama’s worldview and own hubris. He came to office convinced that George W. Bush had been the biggest obstacle to more productive relations with the rest of the world, that differences between nations could be papered over in a blizzard of words, and that “smart diplomacy” required that we sublimate traditional American values and support for human rights and democracy. It is a view not uncommon in liberal-elite circles (which eschew hard power or even the threat of hard power). And it seems to flow directly from Obama’s historic illiteracy (e.g., FDR met with our enemies rather than defeating them in WWII, the Emperor of Japan surrendered on the USS Missouri, and the Cold War was won seemingly without a massive defense buildup by the U.S.), and his narcissistic personality. Cohen explains:

It was nonetheless a year of international displays of presidential ego, sometimes disguised as cosmic modesty (“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war”), but mainly of one slip after another. The decision to reinforce our military in Afghanistan came after an excruciating dither that undermined the confidence of our allies. Mr. Obama’s loose talk of withdrawal beginning in 18 months then undid much of the good in his decision to send troops.

One senses that Obama uses speeches to get the critics off his back (as at Oslo and with his belated “the buck stops here” Christmas Day response, for example), while he never takes the substance of his critics’ objections very seriously. He is infatuated with words, generally his own. He assumes that they will persuade foes and hush critics. But both tend to look at what the president does. And when it comes to words, critics look to see whether those words (on human rights, for example) are addressed to adversaries when it matters or to rally allies to action when it is needed. Why didn’t Obama use his eloquence to explain to the world that Guantanamo is, as he concedes privately, a humane and professionally run facility? Why didn’t Obama use the revelation of the Qom site to rally eager allies and pivot away from a failing Iran engagement strategy?

Obama will have to do better than reactive addresses and empty platitudes if 2010 is to be a less harrowing year for his foreign-policy team. A dramatic change in perception and some deep soul-searching are always possible. They just aren’t likely, especially with a president as convinced of his own intellectual prowess as this one.

Eliot Cohen gives Obama’s foreign policy the Dickensian title of “Bumble, Stumble, and Skid.” His review of the 2009 low-lights is, alas, not so funny:

It began with apologies to the Muslim world that went nowhere, a doomed attempt to beat Israel into line, utopian pleas to abolish nuclear weapons, unreciprocated concessions to Russia, and a curt note to the British to take back the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. It continued with principled offers of serious negotiation to an Iranian regime too busy torturing, raping and killing demonstrators, and building new underground nuclear facilities, to take them up. Subsequently Beijing smothered domestic coverage of a presidential visit but did give the world the spectacle of the American commander in chief getting a talking-to about fiscal responsibility from a Communist chieftain.

As Cohen observes, some of this is traceable to novice foreign-policy practitioners, but much of it seems to flow directly from Obama’s worldview and own hubris. He came to office convinced that George W. Bush had been the biggest obstacle to more productive relations with the rest of the world, that differences between nations could be papered over in a blizzard of words, and that “smart diplomacy” required that we sublimate traditional American values and support for human rights and democracy. It is a view not uncommon in liberal-elite circles (which eschew hard power or even the threat of hard power). And it seems to flow directly from Obama’s historic illiteracy (e.g., FDR met with our enemies rather than defeating them in WWII, the Emperor of Japan surrendered on the USS Missouri, and the Cold War was won seemingly without a massive defense buildup by the U.S.), and his narcissistic personality. Cohen explains:

It was nonetheless a year of international displays of presidential ego, sometimes disguised as cosmic modesty (“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war”), but mainly of one slip after another. The decision to reinforce our military in Afghanistan came after an excruciating dither that undermined the confidence of our allies. Mr. Obama’s loose talk of withdrawal beginning in 18 months then undid much of the good in his decision to send troops.

One senses that Obama uses speeches to get the critics off his back (as at Oslo and with his belated “the buck stops here” Christmas Day response, for example), while he never takes the substance of his critics’ objections very seriously. He is infatuated with words, generally his own. He assumes that they will persuade foes and hush critics. But both tend to look at what the president does. And when it comes to words, critics look to see whether those words (on human rights, for example) are addressed to adversaries when it matters or to rally allies to action when it is needed. Why didn’t Obama use his eloquence to explain to the world that Guantanamo is, as he concedes privately, a humane and professionally run facility? Why didn’t Obama use the revelation of the Qom site to rally eager allies and pivot away from a failing Iran engagement strategy?

Obama will have to do better than reactive addresses and empty platitudes if 2010 is to be a less harrowing year for his foreign-policy team. A dramatic change in perception and some deep soul-searching are always possible. They just aren’t likely, especially with a president as convinced of his own intellectual prowess as this one.

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Obama Blew His First Important Decision

The juicy Game Change book, which landed Harry Reid in political quicksand, is even more damaging to Joe Biden and, by extension, to the president’s own image as chief executive. As Politico recounts:

The relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden grew so strained during the 2008 campaign, according to a new book, that the two rarely spoke and aides not only kept Biden off internal conference calls but refused to even tell him they existed. Instead, a separate campaign call was regularly scheduled between the then-Delaware senator and two of Obama’s top campaign aides — “so that they could keep a tight rein on him,” write journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. … The tensions began in September of 2008 [when] word got back to Obama’s campaign headquarters that Biden had told reporters on his campaign plane that he was more qualified than his running mate to be president.

“A chill set in between Chicago and the Biden plane,” Halperin and Heilemann write in the book, to be released Monday. “Joe and Obama barely spoke by phone, rarely campaigned together.”

And when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was asked about having Biden dial into the nightly campaign conference call, he responded: “Nah.” Instead, Biden had his own call with Plouffe and senior campaign adviser David Axelrod.

Obama himself was growing increasingly frustrated with his running mate after Biden let loose with a string of gaffes, including a statement that paying higher taxes amounted to patriotism and criticism of one of the campaign’s own ads poking fun at John McCain.

But when Biden, at an October fund-raiser in Seattle, famously predicted that Obama would be tested with an international crisis, the then-Illinois senator had had enough.

“How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?” he demanded of his advisers on a conference call, a moment at which most people on the call said the candidate was as angry as they had ever heard him.

Well, we knew Joe Biden was a loudmouthed buffoon. Indeed, most people knew that before he was selected as Obama’s VP. His gaffes were well known, his penchant for cringe-inducing boasts was no secret, and he was, after all, bounced from one presidential campaign for appropriating Neil Kinnock’s life account as his own. But here’s the thing: Obama selected him anyway. So what is the real message here — that Biden was a goofball, or that Obama showed atrocious judgment in making the most important personnel call, one that cannot be reversed until 2012?

If Obama was furious at his VP, he should perhaps have thought back to the vetting process. Surely, Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy didn’t let him down by failing to take their candidate through Biden’s shortcomings chapter and verse, right? Obama nevertheless made the decision to hire someone for whom he had contempt. Nice work.

Moreover, in office Biden has not only lived up to his reputation for gaffes; his judgment, most especially on Afghanistan, has been (as it has been for 30 years) faulty. To Obama’s credit, Biden’s advice was rejected on the surge, although one suspects the process would have been less excruciating and prolonged had it not been for Biden’s efforts to override the advice of all our military commanders.

Obama hasn’t distinguished himself as an executive. His Afghanistan policy-making process was tortured, and he has outsourced much of that policy making to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — who proceeded to junk up the stimulus and come up with the worst-of-all-worlds health-care bill. He flunked the 3 a.m. telephone-call test on the Christmas Day bombing. But it’s in his personnel selection — from the hapless and ethically challenged Tim Geithner to the decidedly unwise Sonia Sotomayor to the goofy James Jones — where he has demonstrated his utter lack of executive competence. And the prime example is the man who sits the proverbial one heartbeat away from the presidency.

The juicy Game Change book, which landed Harry Reid in political quicksand, is even more damaging to Joe Biden and, by extension, to the president’s own image as chief executive. As Politico recounts:

The relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden grew so strained during the 2008 campaign, according to a new book, that the two rarely spoke and aides not only kept Biden off internal conference calls but refused to even tell him they existed. Instead, a separate campaign call was regularly scheduled between the then-Delaware senator and two of Obama’s top campaign aides — “so that they could keep a tight rein on him,” write journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. … The tensions began in September of 2008 [when] word got back to Obama’s campaign headquarters that Biden had told reporters on his campaign plane that he was more qualified than his running mate to be president.

“A chill set in between Chicago and the Biden plane,” Halperin and Heilemann write in the book, to be released Monday. “Joe and Obama barely spoke by phone, rarely campaigned together.”

And when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was asked about having Biden dial into the nightly campaign conference call, he responded: “Nah.” Instead, Biden had his own call with Plouffe and senior campaign adviser David Axelrod.

Obama himself was growing increasingly frustrated with his running mate after Biden let loose with a string of gaffes, including a statement that paying higher taxes amounted to patriotism and criticism of one of the campaign’s own ads poking fun at John McCain.

But when Biden, at an October fund-raiser in Seattle, famously predicted that Obama would be tested with an international crisis, the then-Illinois senator had had enough.

“How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?” he demanded of his advisers on a conference call, a moment at which most people on the call said the candidate was as angry as they had ever heard him.

Well, we knew Joe Biden was a loudmouthed buffoon. Indeed, most people knew that before he was selected as Obama’s VP. His gaffes were well known, his penchant for cringe-inducing boasts was no secret, and he was, after all, bounced from one presidential campaign for appropriating Neil Kinnock’s life account as his own. But here’s the thing: Obama selected him anyway. So what is the real message here — that Biden was a goofball, or that Obama showed atrocious judgment in making the most important personnel call, one that cannot be reversed until 2012?

If Obama was furious at his VP, he should perhaps have thought back to the vetting process. Surely, Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy didn’t let him down by failing to take their candidate through Biden’s shortcomings chapter and verse, right? Obama nevertheless made the decision to hire someone for whom he had contempt. Nice work.

Moreover, in office Biden has not only lived up to his reputation for gaffes; his judgment, most especially on Afghanistan, has been (as it has been for 30 years) faulty. To Obama’s credit, Biden’s advice was rejected on the surge, although one suspects the process would have been less excruciating and prolonged had it not been for Biden’s efforts to override the advice of all our military commanders.

Obama hasn’t distinguished himself as an executive. His Afghanistan policy-making process was tortured, and he has outsourced much of that policy making to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — who proceeded to junk up the stimulus and come up with the worst-of-all-worlds health-care bill. He flunked the 3 a.m. telephone-call test on the Christmas Day bombing. But it’s in his personnel selection — from the hapless and ethically challenged Tim Geithner to the decidedly unwise Sonia Sotomayor to the goofy James Jones — where he has demonstrated his utter lack of executive competence. And the prime example is the man who sits the proverbial one heartbeat away from the presidency.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

I think most Americans expect consequences for incompetence: “Two senators said Sunday that despite President Barack Obama saying the buck stops with him on the Christmas Day bombing attempt, disciplinary action should be taken against those who let Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slip through the cracks and get on the Detroit-bound flight. ‘People should be held responsible for what happened’ Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. ‘And we can’t go back to the old Washington kind of routine, we are all responsible so therefore nobody is responsible. Somebody has got to be held responsible.'” Sen. Joe Lieberman agrees.

The mainstream media have figured it out: good campaigner, not so good president. “In winning the White House, Barack Obama’s team earned a reputation for skill and discipline in dominating the communications wars with opponents. In office, virtually the same team has struggled, spending much of the past year defending the administration’s actions on the two biggest domestic issues — the economy and health care.”

The Boston Globe poll has Martha Coakley up 15 points in Massachusetts. But here’s the interesting part: “Brown matches Coakley — both were at 47 percent — among the roughly 1 in 4 respondents who said they were ‘extremely interested’ in the race.”

Phil Klein notes that the Globe didn’t poll many independents.

The Nation or National Review? “The new unemployment numbers are devastating, and they should send up red flares in Washington, a city where officials have so far has been absurdly neglectful of the most serious social, economic and political crisis facing the country. …  President Obama and the Democrats in Congress face the prospect of serious setbacks in 2010 congressional and state races if they do not recognize that there is a disconnect between their focus and that of the American people who will decide the political direction of the country in November.”

Democrats probably didn’t need this: “Republican leaders called on Harry Reid to step down as Senate majority leader, Sunday, after the Nevada senator apologized for calling Barack Obama as a ‘light-skinned’ African-American who lacked a ‘Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’ … Forgiveness from Obama and other black political leaders is unlikely to bring an end to the controversy. While it does not appear that Reid will be forced out of his leadership post for his racially insensitive comments, Democratic strategists describe the incident as a serious blow to his already difficult re-election campaign.”

But Democrats generally have faith that they can say anything and get away with it: “[Sen. Diane] Feinstein said she ‘saw no Democrats jumping out there and condemning Senator Lott. I know Senator Lott. I happen to be very fond of him. And he made a mistake.” Huh? Al Gore sure did. Obama did.

This sounds right: “The nation’s first elected African-American governor said on Sunday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should apologize to the entire country for his comments about President Barack Obama’s skin color. ‘The Reid apology should be to the totality of the American people,’ said Doug Wilder, former Virginia governor.”

Liz Cheney thinks we should stop making it worse: “It was actually a year ago today that the president announced the stimulus, because he said that we needed to put this in place in order to prevent — prevent unemployment from nearing double digits. So here we are, a year later, with unemployment, you know, over double digits, over 10 percent, having gone deeper into debt, and — and I think that the uncertainty in the economy isn’t because people are worried the stimulus won’t continue. I think the uncertainty is because people are watching things like the debate over the health care bill here, which has gone on and on and on, the actions by the administration, which I think are actually creating a drag on this recovery.”

I think most Americans expect consequences for incompetence: “Two senators said Sunday that despite President Barack Obama saying the buck stops with him on the Christmas Day bombing attempt, disciplinary action should be taken against those who let Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slip through the cracks and get on the Detroit-bound flight. ‘People should be held responsible for what happened’ Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. ‘And we can’t go back to the old Washington kind of routine, we are all responsible so therefore nobody is responsible. Somebody has got to be held responsible.'” Sen. Joe Lieberman agrees.

The mainstream media have figured it out: good campaigner, not so good president. “In winning the White House, Barack Obama’s team earned a reputation for skill and discipline in dominating the communications wars with opponents. In office, virtually the same team has struggled, spending much of the past year defending the administration’s actions on the two biggest domestic issues — the economy and health care.”

The Boston Globe poll has Martha Coakley up 15 points in Massachusetts. But here’s the interesting part: “Brown matches Coakley — both were at 47 percent — among the roughly 1 in 4 respondents who said they were ‘extremely interested’ in the race.”

Phil Klein notes that the Globe didn’t poll many independents.

The Nation or National Review? “The new unemployment numbers are devastating, and they should send up red flares in Washington, a city where officials have so far has been absurdly neglectful of the most serious social, economic and political crisis facing the country. …  President Obama and the Democrats in Congress face the prospect of serious setbacks in 2010 congressional and state races if they do not recognize that there is a disconnect between their focus and that of the American people who will decide the political direction of the country in November.”

Democrats probably didn’t need this: “Republican leaders called on Harry Reid to step down as Senate majority leader, Sunday, after the Nevada senator apologized for calling Barack Obama as a ‘light-skinned’ African-American who lacked a ‘Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’ … Forgiveness from Obama and other black political leaders is unlikely to bring an end to the controversy. While it does not appear that Reid will be forced out of his leadership post for his racially insensitive comments, Democratic strategists describe the incident as a serious blow to his already difficult re-election campaign.”

But Democrats generally have faith that they can say anything and get away with it: “[Sen. Diane] Feinstein said she ‘saw no Democrats jumping out there and condemning Senator Lott. I know Senator Lott. I happen to be very fond of him. And he made a mistake.” Huh? Al Gore sure did. Obama did.

This sounds right: “The nation’s first elected African-American governor said on Sunday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should apologize to the entire country for his comments about President Barack Obama’s skin color. ‘The Reid apology should be to the totality of the American people,’ said Doug Wilder, former Virginia governor.”

Liz Cheney thinks we should stop making it worse: “It was actually a year ago today that the president announced the stimulus, because he said that we needed to put this in place in order to prevent — prevent unemployment from nearing double digits. So here we are, a year later, with unemployment, you know, over double digits, over 10 percent, having gone deeper into debt, and — and I think that the uncertainty in the economy isn’t because people are worried the stimulus won’t continue. I think the uncertainty is because people are watching things like the debate over the health care bill here, which has gone on and on and on, the actions by the administration, which I think are actually creating a drag on this recovery.”

Read Less




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