The horrendous result in the trial of the al-Qaeda participant in the 1998 embassy bombings is a revelation. What it reveals is just how feckless and irresponsible the policies of this administration have proved to be in the administration of the war on terror. The fact is that, over the course of the Bush administration, a legal regime was established to govern the treatment and handling of non-Americans captured outside the United States for the commission of terrorist acts. The regime came under withering assault from liberals, but it was consistent, predictable, and had underlying logic. Now, almost certainly, we’re spinning off into complete improvisation — Gitmo remaining open when the administration has declared its intention to close it, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad about to be detained indefinitely under war terms his detainers in this administration have rejected. What the Bush people did was far more considered than it was given credit for being at the time, and now the people who claimed it was acting lawlessly are on the verge of true lawlessness — which is what law is when it is inconsistently and improvisationally applied.
Posts For: November 17, 2010
The acquittal of Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani yesterday on all but one of 285 counts in connection with the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania has once again demonstrated that the leftist lawyers’ experiment in applying civilian trial rules to terrorists is gravely misguided and downright dangerous. The soon-to-be House chairman on homeland security, Peter King, issued a statement blasting the trial outcome and the nonchalant response from the Justice Department:
“I am disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice today in Manhattan’s federal civilian court. In a case where Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was facing 285 criminal counts, including hundreds of murder charges, and where Attorney General Eric Holder assured us that ‘failure is not an option,’ the jury found him guilty on only one count and acquitted him of all other counts including every murder charge. This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama Administration’s decision to try al-Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts”
The Congress can start by ending federal-court jurisdiction over detainees. Then they should demand Eric Holder’s resignation — preferably before his serially wrong advice causes any more damage to our national security.
Let’s review what went on here. First, this was a case of mass murder. As the New York Times explains:
[P]rosecutors built a circumstantial case to try to establish that Mr. Ghailani had played a key logistical role in the preparations for the Tanzania attack.
They said the evidence showed that he helped to buy the Nissan Atlas truck that was used to carry the bomb, and gas tanks that were placed inside the truck to intensify the blast. He also stored an explosive detonator in an armoire he used, and his cellphone became the “operational phone” for the plotters in the weeks leading up to the attacks, prosecutors contended.
The attacks, orchestrated by Al Qaeda, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded thousands of others.
But the case was ill-suited to civilian courts, and a key witness was excluded from testifying:
But because of the unusual circumstances of Mr. Ghailani’s case — after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, he was held for nearly five years in a so-called black site run by the Central Intelligence Agency and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — the prosecution faced significant legal hurdles getting his case to trial. And last month, the government lost a key ruling on the eve of trial that may have seriously damaged their chances of winning convictions.
In the ruling, the judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of Federal District Court, barred them from using an important witness against Mr. Ghailani because the government had learned about the man through Mr. Ghailani’s interrogation while he was in C.I.A. custody, where his lawyers say he was tortured.
The witness, Hussein Abebe, would have testified that he had sold Mr. Ghailani the large quantities of TNT used to blow up the embassy in Dar es Salaam, prosecutors told the judge, calling him “a giant witness for the government.”
The judge called it correctly, and explicitly warned the government of “the potential damage of excluding the witness when he said in his ruling that Mr. Ghailani’s status of ‘enemy combatant’ probably would permit his detention as something akin ‘to a prisoner of war until hostilities between the United States and Al Qaeda and the Taliban end, even if he were found not guilty.’”
In other words, what in the world was the bomber doing in an Article III courtroom? He was, quite bluntly, part of a stunt by the Obama administration, which had vilified Bush administration lawyers for failing to accord terrorists the full panoply of constitutional rights available to American citizens who are arrested by police officers and held pursuant to constitutional requirements.
Once again, the Obama team has revealed itself to be entirely incompetent and has proved, maybe even to themselves, the obvious: the Bush administration had it right. And in fact, maybe we should do away with both civilian trials and military tribunals and just hold these killers until hostilities end. You know, like they do in wars.
Nate Silver, the liberal political blogger, has built a reputation as a valuable writer who has successfully transferred to politics the research and analysis skills he learned in the field of baseball statistics. Among the many disciples of the seminal baseball stat genius Bill James, Silver now seeks to apply the same sort of rigorous dissecting of data to polls and voting results, albeit with the sort of liberal twist that readers of the New York Times, which now hosts his FiveThirty Eight blog, appreciate.
And just as Silver and his fellow SABRmetric geeks have gradually taught the baseball world to stop ignoring the obvious truth that on-base percentage is more important than batting average, he sometimes has the task of convincing his fellow liberals of equally obvious, if inconvenient, facts. It is in that spirit that his long post today proves statistically that Democratic members of Congress who voted for ObamaCare suffered at the polls. If such a thesis seems so obvious that it doesn’t even require statistical proof, the decision of House Democrats to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as their leader and the liberal push for Obama to double down on his hyper-liberal expansion of government power illustrates the left’s instinctual desire to prove that the verdict of the voters should on no account be seen as a rejection of liberalism. So as pedantic and painfully obvious as his essay on the subject may seem, it is not without educational value for those on the left who may be susceptible to reason.
Those who enjoyed Silver’s work on baseball could also appreciate his piece this past weekend on the presidential prospects of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Employing the SABRmetric term of art, “league average,” which references a theoretical player against whom a real athlete’s production may be judged as either above or below “replacement level,” Silver seems right on target when he characterizes the presentable but unremarkable Minnesotan as the sort of player who never amounts to anything special: “Mr. Pawlenty is in danger of becoming the Gregg Jefferies of politics: the perpetual prospect who never blossoms into more than a league-average politician. And — although there are a few exceptions (Mr. Kerry might be one) — league-average politicians do not usually become their party’s Presidential nominees.”
It struck me in observing the FPI conference yesterday and in reading Eli Lake’s piece on Russian democracy activist Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian deputy prime minister, that there is a a growing realization by those who are and should be friends of America that the U.S. is AWOL when it comes to leading the West and the values the West stands for.
At yesterday’s session, former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar reminded the audience that America is the “indispensable” nation and bemoaned the president’s decided lack of attention to Europe. (The U.S. is not looking at Europe,” he remarked.) When asked about his concerns regarding the Obama administration, he bluntly responded,
As you know, I am not a supporter of President Obama. … This is the first time the Europeans feel that for the American President, especially after the First and Second World War, Europe is not a priority. It is not an important part of the solution. … A lot of Europeans think Mr. Obama is not an American president. Now, he’s living in a moment of confusion, and disagrees in economic terms. … Politically, leadership is in my opinion weak. Economically, it is a very serious problem. I consider that the current economic American policy is a huge mistake, and in terms of security, it depends.
To send the message that the power, the force, in the sense of the United States, the presence of the United States is necessary to maintain. I hear every day organize and pull out the 19 troops, and another day, no. What is the policy of the United States. It is not possible if you want to maintain the capacity to be the leader in the world.
After his public remarks, I asked Aznar, who is a founder of the Friends of Israel Initiative, whether Israel delegitimizers have been inspired by Obama’s public animus to the Jewish state. He replied that when there is an opportunity, Israel’s delegitimizers grab it. (He also contends that things are better now between the U.S. and Israel, reflecting some observers’ misperception, I would argue, that the absence of public shouting matches denotes a more productive relationship.)
Eli’s piece provides more support for the unfortunate conclusion that Obama’s disinterest in human rights and yearning to remove conflicts with rivals and foes (even at the price of sacrificing our own interests) is leaving our friends bewildered. He explains with regard to Nemtsov :
“Russians do not know what Obama thinks about human rights and democracy,” he told a conference held by the Foreign Policy Initiative.
The criticism from Mr. Nemtsov highlights the Obama administration’s approach to improving relations with Russia that critics say has neglected past U.S. priorities for Russia, such as advancing democracy and the rule of law. Instead, the administration has sought to win Russian cooperation with U.S. goals at the United Nations, to sanction Iran and to win cooperation for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Here’s the stunner, conveyed by Eli:
In the meeting, Mr. Nemtsov presented Mr. Obama with a copy of a 2005 Senate resolution co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama condemning the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch who was detained in 2005 on charges widely considered to be political retaliation from Mr. Putin, who was then Russia’s president.
Mr. Nemtsov said the president’s face had no expression when presented with the old resolution. He only said, “I know.”
“I was disappointed,” Mr. Nemtsov said of the encounter with Mr. Obama over Mr. Khodorkovsky. “I talked with [White House Russia specialist] Michael McFaul about that. He had a clear position about this case; he agreed with me. I don’t think Obama had a clear position. If Obama had this position, I am sure he would have responded.”
Think about that. The leader of the Free World is presented with information about one of the most highly publicized Russian human-rights violations and expresses no emotion or even interest in it. Can you image any other U.S. president reacting in this way?
In sum, the concern that Aznar and Nemstov expresses is one that conservatives have raised for some time: Obama’s lack of resolve and reticence on human rights is leaving allies in the lurch and making the world a more dangerous place. Obama, who is quite enamored of European opinion, would do well to listen to what some of its best representatives are saying.
The conventional wisdom of liberal America is that the Tea Party backlash against the Obama administration and its health-care law was fueled by racism, hate, and a veiled hint of violence. The idea that a grassroots movement of citizens appalled by the aggrandizement of the federal government and the administration’s overreach might rise up in protest is simply something that many, if not most, liberals can’t understand. Even the Anti-Defamation League tried to link the wackiest violent extremists and mainstream Republican critics of Obama in a controversial report.
And yet, for all the huffing and puffing about conservative hate, there was little or no evidence behind such accusations. Liberal politicians were often brusquely scolded about the Constitution at town-hall meetings by Tea Partiers — an indignity that some considered somehow non-democratic — but none were harmed.
Yet today comes a reminder that far from violence being the preserve of the right, the left is just as likely to be guilty of such incitement. As the New York Times reported on its political blog:
A Philadelphia man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to threatening Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House, earlier this year. Prosecutors said that the man, Norman LeBoon, declared in a video put on YouTube that he would shoot Mr. Cantor in the head and called him and his children “Lucifer’s abominations.” … The video, prosecutors said, was put on YouTube in late March — around the time the health care overhaul became law and amid a spell of threats and acts of vandalism directed at lawmakers.
If anything, this case illustrates the not-so-tenuous connection between left-wing extremism and anti-Semitism; singling out Cantor— the only Jewish Republican in the House at the time — and referencing him in terms straight out of the traditional stereotypes of Jew-hatred is the sort of thing that ought to send alarm bells ringing among those who monitor such hatred.
The latest Quinnipiac poll shows the precarious situation in which Obama now finds himself. His approval is at 44 percent. The poll’s director explains the extent of Obama’s problem:
“President Barack Obama’s job approval is an ominous measure of his problems with American voters,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “He does poorly among whites, older voters, men, political independents and those who earn more than $50,000 a year.”
“We see similar results on whether the country is better off because of the president’s policies, and his handling of the economy. He has lost his majority support in the middle class and that’s why his numbers remain at an all-time low,” Brown added. … “Americans want both sides to compromise, but they want the president to make concessions more than they do congressional Republicans,” said Brown.
If it’s any consolation to Obama, he’s still a rock star with the voters compared to Nancy Pelosi, who is sporting a 25/55 percent approval-disapproval rating, or Harry Reid, who has the approval rating of only 17 percent of voters. Unfortunately, that’s little comfort to Democrats as a whole, who now are led by figures in whom the American people, at least for now, have lost confidence.
As I’ve noted over the past few days, the Obama team’s last-ditch effort to restart the non-peace talks has taken on a cringe-inducing quality. As the Washington Post editors remark, the smorgasbord of “incentives” appears to almost everyone, other than the Obami themselves, to be nothing more than “desperate improvisation.”
Let’s count the ways in which that is so. For starters, it’s not clear Bibi’s cabinet would accept it. Second, the Arab League and its Palestinian clients have already said there’s no deal without a freeze on building in East Jerusalem (a demand that even the Obama team has finally learned is a non-starter). Third, a 10-month settlement freeze didn’t do the trick, so what is the next 90-day freeze supposed to bring? And finally, as the rest of the players in the Middle East look on, they learn a lesson: the Obama team will pay a very high price to avoid humiliating the president. The mullahs, the Syrians, the Turks, and all the rest will learn from this as they calculate what they too might extract from the U.S.
And let’s not forget how we got here: Obama and his “smart” diplomats elevated this issue, forcing both Bibi and the PA into a no-win bargaining position — hence, the high price to extract himself from the collapse of an initiative that he made a top priority. That, too, was a mistake, for it has let other issues fester, unnerved the Arab states who wonder when we’re going to devote ourselves to de-fanging the Iranian regime, and damaged our relationship with the Jewish state with no appreciable gain in our standing with Israel’s neighbors.
With the perfervid push underway to get the New START treaty on the lame-duck Senate’s schedule, I would add this to the discussion between Jennifer, John, and Max: it’s not clear why the Obama administration is pushing for quick action. The Senate deliberations to date make it inadvisable.
The uneasy accord represented by the April 8 treaty signing is already falling apart. For the Russians, the opt-out clause in the preamble was of paramount concern. That clause makes their adherence to the treaty contingent on Russian approval of America’s plans for missile defense. The treaty stipulates that neither side will convert old ICBM silos for use in a strategic missile-defense system, but the preamble makes it clear that, for Moscow, U.S. missile-defense programs will actually be an open-ended source of conditions on the arms accord.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, in the official “understandings” included with its resolution on the treaty, has directly contradicted that Russian expectation. The three “understandings” were proposed by Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican, and adopted by the full committee in September. One of them articulates the committee’s belief that the treaty imposes no limitations on U.S. missile defenses other than the prohibition on the use of ICBM silos. The committee also “understands” that the treaty places no limits on American use of strategic weapon systems in a conventional (non-nuclear) role, and that if Russia resurrects its rail-mobile ICBM system, the treaty will apply to that as well as to the systems explicitly addressed in it.
Russia finds these understandings unpalatable. In late October, an Interfax report quoted the leader of the Duma’s international-affairs committee as planning “to suggest to committee members that they reconsider the ratification of the Russian-U.S. New START Treaty in view of new circumstances.” The new circumstances he cited were the three understandings adopted by the U.S. Senate committee.
Senator Lugar was an early advocate of the treaty; he didn’t propose these understandings with the intention of torpedoing it. Realistically, the treaty won’t be ratified without the understandings. The concerns reflected in them are predominant among Republicans, but a number of Democrats (and Independent Joe Lieberman) share them as well.
It’s not clear what Russia will do if New START is ratified with the U.S. Senate understandings. Medvedev and Putin might well consider it to their advantage to let a lengthy rejection process unfold in the Duma, rather than repudiating the Senate understandings immediately. But Obama’s abysmal record of obtaining difficult agreements makes it a virtual certainty that the treaty can’t be rescued for the purpose of actual arms limitation. The administration’s best option now is probably to accept the delay in Senate consideration and look for a way to revisit the treaty itself with Russia.
I am so pleased that Pete linked to the video of Dick Cheney’s remarks. If you read the mainstream news accounts, you would have the sense that all he did was take a gentle poke at Obama — declaring the presidential center to be the “only-shovel ready project” in the country. What is interesting is that most of the seven minutes of remarks focused on George W. Bush, the man — a self-effacing, decent, “stand-up guy,” as Cheney described him. It’s important and not incidental to his legacy for a few reasons.
It is, quite frankly, a model of presidential behavior that has become obscured — by Clinton’s personal scandals, by Nixon’s criminality, and by Obama’s stand-offish partisanship. We expect our presidents to rise above the fray and not return invective in kind. Bush did this, unlike his successor, and it is a standard by which we should evaluate candidates and presidents.
Moreover, it was a fundamental part of his presidency and the substantive decisions he made. Why did he make such an effort to distinguish Islamic terrorists from ordinary, loyal American Muslims? Why did he refuse to cut and run in Iraq? Why did he hold allies dear and stand up to despots? It all comes, I would suggest, from a inner decency based on his religious faith. This is not to say that nonreligious people can’t be just as honorable. That’s not the point. The issue here is to understand why Bush would, for example, refuse to give in to anti-immigration sentiment, would put so much stock in faith-based programs, and would make the freedom agenda central to his foreign policy. All of these are reflections of his core personality.
Why was he so misunderstood? It wasn’t simply that liberal critics despised his policies. It is that they never “got” or took seriously his inner motives. They preferred to concoct arm-chair-psychology fictions about his relationship with his father or to paint him as a know-nothing.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the media didn’t report on the central message of Cheney’s speech. Many of those reporters consider it a fluff or boilerplate message. But once again, they miss the most important point — the explanation for who Bush is and why he did what he did. The media has a remarkable ability to ignore the obvious.
Max, I’m agnostic on the agreement. But it is curious that the administration, only in an effort to secure a deal, would offer an $80 billion modernization program. If this is needed why is the administration waiting until now to propose it, and if it’s not why are we puffing up the Defense Department budget at the time Robert Gates is supposed to be slashing it? I suspect it is the former, and the treaty ratification process has confirmed what many conservatives have long argued: we need more spending on national security, not less.
Max, everything you say about the START treaty is sensible but one thing, and it’s the big thing. Treaties should not be entered into, or agreed to, or voted on, for reasons extraneous to the terms of the treaty itself. Which is to say: You don’t sign a binding treaty with a sovereign power governing your own conduct on military matters for decades to come because in doing so you might be able to get the other sovereign power to do something else you want. Getting the other sovereign power to do something you want is precisely what a treaty is for — if there’s a quid pro quo for signing the treaty, it needs to be in the treaty itself or it doesn’t count. (That includes a promise from the administration to Republican senators to agree to spend money on nuclear modernization. That might happen or might not happen; the signing of the treaty is immaterial. And this shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in any case. If money is needed for nuclear modernization, Obama would be acting directly against the national interest to fail to agree to it out of pique that his treaty wasn’t properly supported. And for acting out of pique, he would be handing his opponents an issue against him.)
You don’t support a treaty for goodwill reasons. You don’t do it for conceptual reasons. It is binding law, and its imposition extends too far into the future for such trivialities. It cannot be overturned by a simple vote of the next Congress.
Nor should Republicans in the Senate vote to support it because, as Bob Kagan says, they will be accused of obstructionism if they don’t. That’s a terrible reason to sign a treaty. They should do it if they are convinced it is in the national interest. Because they are so powerful, treaties require exactly this sort of high-minded approach. That it won’t necessarily do any harm and who the hell knows, it might do a little good isn’t a good enough reason to sign a treaty — any treaty.
The best thing that can be said about this treaty is that it is basically unnecessary. The worst thing is that we are creating a parallelism between American strength and Russian strength that is a very, very bad precedent in terms of how we ourselves think about American power.
A lot of foreign-policy experts I respect — including John Bolton, Eric Edelman, John Yoo, and Jim Woolsey — have come out against the ratification of the New START treaty, which would decrease American and Russian nuclear arsenals. For my part, I’m with Bob Kagan in wondering what the fuss is all about.
Arms-control treaties between Moscow and Washington were a big deal during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was bent on global expansionism and the U.S. had to stand on the frontlines of freedom. But the Soviet Union is gone. Today’s Russia may be a local threat to its smaller neighbors, the likes of Georgia or Estonia, but on a global scale it’s more of a nuisance — certainly not an existential threat to the United States. Thus the continuing quest for arms-control treaties seems like a bit of an anachronism.
Yet it is an anachronism that has been pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations. As this crib sheet from the Arms Control Association reminds us, George H.W. Bush signed START II in 1993, Bill Clinton followed with a START III framework (never completed) in 1997, and George W. Bush reached agreement on SORT (a.k.a. the Moscow Treaty) in 2002. Kagan sums up the results of all these treaties along with New START:
The START I agreement cut deployed strategic nuclear weapons on both sides roughly 50 percent, from between 10,000 and 12,000 down to 6,000. The never-ratified (but generally abided-by) START II Treaty cut forces by another 50 percent, down to between 3,000 and 3,500. The 2002 Moscow Treaty made further deep cuts, bringing each side down to between 1,700 and 2,200. And New START? It would bring the number on both sides down to 1,550.
The final figure of 1,550 warheads is plenty big enough to maintain America’s nuclear deterrence; actually, we will have more than that because for the purposes of the treaty B-2 and B-52, bombers are counted as one “warhead” even though they can carry dozens of nuclear warheads. Opponents of the treaty throw out all sorts of other objections, arguing that it would constrict the development of missile defenses or non-nuclear missiles; but no such prohibition is to be found in the language of the treaty.
Let me be clear. I do not buy the Obama administration’s rationales for the treaty. Administration officials cite the need to “reset” relations with Russian and to take a step toward the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. I very much doubt that this treaty will do anything substantial to achieve either goal. We are likely to continue clashing with Russia diplomatically as long as it remains an authoritarian state. As for the quixotic goal of eliminating nuclear weapons: Suffice it to say, reductions in the American arsenal are not going to encourage North Korea or Iran to give up their nuclear programs. But nor will relatively modest reductions in our nuclear forces prevent us from vaporizing Iran or North Korea, should they use nuclear weapons against us or our allies.
One of the important benefits of the treaty is that, in the course of negotiations over ratification, Senate Republicans have won assurances from the administration that it will spend $80 billion over 10 years to modernize our nuclear program. Yet this doesn’t seem to be enough. Sen. Jon Kyl, who has been the lead GOP negotiator, now says he doesn’t want to see a vote during the lame-duck session.
As Kagan suggests, this will allow the administration to blame Republican “obstructionism” if and when relations with Russia deteriorate. Therefore, Republican foot-dragging on ratification isn’t smart politics. It’s not necessary for the national defense either. Republicans should keep their powder dry to fight off attempts to slash the defense budget — an issue that really could imperil our security. That will be harder to do, however, because there are a number of Republicans who appear willing to go along with defense cuts, even as they’re taking pot shots at the (largely symbolic) New START treaty.
In the midst of the non-peace talk debacle, we shouldn’t lose track of another Obama blunder: his Syria policy. As this report explains:
Syria has bounced back from years of international isolation and is wielding its influence in crises around the Middle East, shrugging off US attempts to pull it away from its alliances with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.
Damascus played a role in helping Iraq’s fractious politicians agree this month to form a new government after eight months of deadlock. Now with Lebanon’s factions heading for a possible new violent collision, Arabs have had to turn to Syria in hopes of ensuring peace, even as Damascus backs Lebanon’s heaviest armed player, the Shi’ite terrorist group Hizbullah.
It seems all those John Kerry suck-uppery sessions, the attempt to send a new ambassador, the look-the-other way response to violations of the UN resolution prohibiting rearming of Hezbollah, the indifference to Syria’s human-rights record, and our more generic Muslim Outreach plan haven’t done the trick in separating Syria from Iran’s orbit or in curbing Syrian mischief-making. Quite the opposite.
This is yet one more area (others being our relations with Israel and Europe and Obama’s shoddy human-rights record) in which the U.S. is in a much worse position than when Obama assumed office:
Syria’s emergence as a regional heavyweight is a reversal from just a few years ago. Rafik Hariri’s assassination prompted a wave of anti-Syrian protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its military from Lebanon and end its long control there. In 2006, relations with some Arab states took a dive when Assad called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hizbullah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, which sparked a 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel.
At some point, you would think the Obama team would learn that prostrating ourselves before despots is a losing proposition.
Now that Mitch McConnell has reluctantly given in to Republican insurgents and agreed that earmarks must be banned in the new Congress, wiseacres on the left are having a big laugh about how ineffectual the whole exercise will be. The New York Times pooh-poohs the measure in an editorial that dismisses the furor over earmarks as a ruse because the amount spent on all earmarks accounts for only a fraction of federal spending. In the blogosphere, at TPM, Josh Marshall dismisses the issue as “basically a crock,” because it won’t have “any real effect on the national fisc [sic].”
Both are right, in the sense that it is true that the abolition of earmarks won’t balance the budget, although it is a good start. But the Times editorialists and the lefty bloggers are as clueless about the importance of this issue as they were about the rise of the Tea Party insurgency itself. The point about earmarks is not the amount of money spent on them. It is the way they are used by members of the House and Senate, who spend much of their time in their districts and states swooping down on local institutions accompanied by aides carrying huge cardboard checks for photo ops to remind voters just who it was who paid for the new parking lot at the community center or the local hospital’s new equipment.
While defenders of the practice claim that these measures give Congress control over spending that would otherwise merely revert to the executive, what earmarks really do is they allow individual senators and congressmen to use the federal purse as a patronage machine. Though a fraction of the federal budget, earmarks are important symbols of the way the system has been crafted to shift power away from the taxpayers and into the hands of the political class. Not every earmark is a boondoggle. Many bring help to their constituents. But this is not free money from Washington. Earmarks return only a fraction of our tax dollars to us, an amount doled out with an eyedropper. Even more to the point, they serve the senders more than the recipients. Earmarks may be sold as constituent service, but they are the instruments of raw political power that make every incumbent a formidable campaign-fundraising machine. Earmarks turn everyone into members of the special-interest groups that compete for the favors of politicians who hand back a small percentage of the money government took from us in the first place. These politicians then expect votes and campaign contributions in return. Despite the furor over the abuses of lobbyists in Washington, earmarks are the true mark of Congressional corruption; they are the currency with which politicians of both parties are allowed to legally buy votes and to purchase them at cut-rate prices.
Obama’s billion-dollar “stimulus” didn’t fix the economy, but it did focus public attention on the way this budget buster was used by Congress to play the earmark game. The blow-back from that and the rest of the administration’s hyper-liberal plans to increase the power of the federal government gave new impetus to taxpayer anger. Ending earmarks won’t balance the budget or put a dent in the deficit. But that was never the point. Rather, it was the attempt to put a check on the ability of politicians to buy support with money they siphoned from the federal budget. Doing so will not fix the system by itself. But it is a start.
Google continued its moral stand against censorship this week, releasing a white paper linking free speech and free exchange of information to free trade and economic growth. This isn’t the first time Google has challenged authoritarian dictates; it has been most vocal regarding Web access in China but also points out that “more than forty governments now engage in broad-scale restriction of online information.” Instead, this white paper is notable because it signals a smart shift in argumentative tactics, an attempt to reach even the most ruthlessly realpolitik foreign-policy advocates.
Google’s white paper is not addressed to authoritarian governments; it is addressed to lawmakers in the United States and Europe; it is also policy-prescriptive. Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, outlined the company’s argument in a blog post:
The premise [of this white paper] is simple. In addition to infringing human rights, governments that block the free flow of information on the Internet are also blocking trade and economic growth. …
Over the last two decades, the Internet has delivered tremendous economic and trade benefits. It has driven record increases in productivity, spurred innovation, created new economies, and fueled international trade. In part this is because the Internet makes geographically distant markets easy to reach.
But this engine of economic growth is increasingly coming under attack. … Governments are blocking online services, imposing non-transparent regulation, and seeking to incorporate surveillance tools into their Internet infrastructure. These are the trade barriers of the 21st century economy. …
We urge policymakers in the United States, European Union and elsewhere to take steps to break down barriers to free trade and Internet commerce. These issues present challenges, but also an opportunity for governments to align 21st century trade policy with the 21st century economy.
This argument is an effective reminder to Barack Obama’s administration. Especially regarding China, the administration has implied with its actions that human rights cannot be allowed to interfere with bigger priorities – economic priorities, most of all. But if human rights and economic development are as closely related as Google suggests – something for an intelligent reader to consider – then the Obama administration has little excuse for its reticence. Part of Google’s corporate philosophy is, you can make money without doing evil. This argument poses the question: will the United States lose money by not standing up to evil?
Moreover, Google’s argument is important because it challenges Beijing’s assertion that any statement about human rights is an encroachment into Chinese domestic affairs. If Chinese censorship obstructs the legal flow of world trade, then censorship becomes by default an international issue.
Google’s new argument suggests that, in addition to having a justification to speak out about human-rights violations, Western governments have an interest in doing so.
Back in September, Sarah Palin had this to say about a presidential run:
A reason to run is if nobody else were to step up with the solutions that are needed to get the economy back on the right track and to be so committed to our national security that they are going to do all that they can, including fighting those on the extreme left who seem to want to dismantle some of our national security tools that we have in place.
Now, in an upcoming New York Times Magazine piece, she let’s on that she is engaged in internal discussions about a run, and there really aren’t many policy differences among potential GOP candidates:
Palin went on to say that there weren’t meaningful differences in policy among the field of G.O.P. hopefuls “but that in fact there’s more to the presidency than that” and that her decision would involve evaluating whether she could bring unique qualities to the table. “Yes, the organization would have to change,” Palin said during an hourlong phone conversation.
“I’d have to bring in more people — more people who are trustworthy … I know that a hurdle I would have to cross, that some other potential candidates wouldn’t have to cross right out of the chute, is proving my record. That’s the most frustrating thing for me — the warped and perverted description of my record and what I’ve accomplished over the last two decades. It’s been much more perplexing to me than where the lamestream media has wanted to go about my personal life.”
This raises a few questions. First is a variation on the Roger Mudd to Ted Kennedy question: if the policy differences aren’t great, what is the rationale for her candidacy, which she acknowledges has hurdles that other candidates don’t have? There may be some good reasons for her to run anyway, but she will have to justify it. Second, why hasn’t she she brought on “more trustworthy” people already? Frankly, her pronouncements on foreign policy have been rock-solid and, to a large extent, ahead of the pack of Obama’s conservative critics, but where’s the same level of seriousness on domestic policy? And where’s the strategy to reach out to skeptics rather than simply forge an alliance with the base? Third, if she keeps using phrases like “lamestream media,” that suggests she is still in victim mode and feed-the-base mode, rather than expanding her reach and elevating her stature. To the faithful, that’s a phrase that warms the heart, but to others, it is an eye-roller. Finally, if she is fed up with obsession over her personal life, why is she doing a show about her life in Alaska that is all about her family, nature outings, etc.?
All of this points to the promise and the peril of her candidacy. She can command attention, she has a degree of self-awareness about the challenges, and yet she has trouble leaving her comfort zone. Fundamentally, the questions for her and for her party remain: can she bring something to the race that other candidates can’t, and do her assets outweigh her liabilities? Stay tuned.
City Journal, perhaps the country’s best and most interesting public-policy quarterly, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Today in the New York Post, I examine its role in the most heartening development in American governance of our time, the rebirth of New York City:
Changing New York’s trajectory required a new way of thinking about how to manage, govern and live in a gigantic, complex, aging city. That new way of thinking had to look back to the past — to what a functional New York was like and how to recapture that. It also had to look to the future, to ways in which the city could be more hospitable to new kinds of employers.
More than any other enterprise in New York, City Journal was the vehicle for this new way of thinking…What made City Journal revolutionary was the deep understanding informing every beautifully laid-out page of every quarterly issue (now edited by the estimable Brian Anderson) that the key problem was not political, not economic, but spiritual.
Happy birthday, City Journal.
This report makes the point that, unlike the federal government, state officials have had to make hard choices to balance their books. The impression one gets listening to the mainstream media and incumbent politicians is that budget balancing is nearly impossible. The states have shown otherwise:
In the past three years, 29 states have raised fees on, or cut services for, the elderly and people with disabilities, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research group. Fifteen states raised sales or income taxes in 2009 or 2010, according to the Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning Washington research outfit.
Let’s see if you notice the pattern:
One popular state tactic has obvious—and ironic—national implications. New Jersey, Indiana and Minnesota, among others, have trimmed state spending by sending less money to local governments. That pushes onto local officials politically tough decisions about raising taxes, cutting spending or finding major money-saving efficiencies. …
Now, in Illinois and California, “the political system has done little more than lurch to the end of the fiscal year.” While in Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana, governors pushed for real fiscal reform. A sample:
New Jersey’s Chris Christie has cut pensions for future state and local employees, vetoed a tax increase on income over $1 million and cut $1.26 billion in aid to schools and municipalities, which local officials said would drive up property taxes. …
In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a second-term Republican and the former White House budget director for President George W. Bush, moved the state from deficit to surplus by paring spending in good times. Indiana swung from a nearly $200 million deficit in 2004, the year Mr. Daniels was first elected, to a $1.3 billion surplus last year. It was not without controversy: On his second day in office, Mr. Daniels issued an executive order that ended collective-bargaining rights for state employees. …
In May, Minnesota lawmakers approved a budget widely seen as a victory for outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, because it ratified spending cuts he had made unilaterally and it didn’t raise taxes.
And, likewise, Bob McDonnell got elected in 2009 in Virginia on the promise to balance the budget without raising taxes. And he has done just that.
OK, you see point. These budget balancers and spending cutters are successful Republican governors, all of whom have been mentioned as 2012 presidential contenders. And in the 2010 midterms, their ranks expanded with Republicans elected in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. That’s a lot of GOP governors who have the opportunity to lead on fiscal discipline.
Not only does this dispel the liberal myths that we need massive taxes to balance our books or that the public won’t accept reduced services; but is provides Republicans with a wealth of talent for the 2012 and future presidential races. The country seems poised to get serious on tax and budget reform and has grown weary of a president whose not much into governance. That suggests a unique opportunity for these GOP governors — provided they stick to their sober approach to governance.
And on the other hand, we have the example of California which has yet to get its spending and public employee unions under control. It’s the beauty of federalism — 50 labratories in which we can see what works and what doesn’t. So far a lot of GOP governors are showing how to do it right.
Monday morning I was in a supermarket parking lot in my neighborhood in Northern Virginia. An older gentleman was putting grocery bags in his truck, festooned with “NO OBAMA” and “McCain-Palin” stickers. Another shopper approached him, commenting, “I like your McCain sticker but who we gonna get this time!”
That sums up what most Republicans are wondering these days. To say that the most widely discussed contenders (Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, etc.) haven’t filled the base and party activists with optimism would be putting it mildly. That, in part, accounts for the effort to change Chris Christie’s mind about a 2012 run or lure some other candidate(s) into the race. The media narrative that Palin would instantly be the “front runner” (I guess, in the way, Rudy Giuliani was the front runner before it meant anything) is belied by the determination by so many Republicans to find some other, not yet obvious, candidate.
This is more, I think, than the usual desire to find that mythical perfect candidate with oodles of experience, a fresh face, and no baggage. There is unease that those who are running are deeply flawed (either hobbled within the party or not viable in a general election) or unexciting, while those most attractive aren’t interested this time around (e.g., Christie, Marco Rubio).
To a large degree, the concern is premature. If 2008 showed us anything, it was that an early start, high name recognition, and gobs of organization don’t necessarily mean all that much two years before the first primary. Otherwise, Giuliani or Romney would have been the last nominee. But the concern among Republican activists is a healthy sign — a recognition that electability, personality, experience, and ideology must all be balanced and that this is a very critical election, too critical to roll the dice on a shaky candidate. Along with the sober House GOP leaders has come recognition in the GOP ranks that not any Republican on the ballot can win, no matter how badly the Obama administration performs.
There’s no rush for the Republicans to find the right candidate, but the GOP may have learned some lessons: get viable candidates into the race, choose wisely, and don’t sit around waiting for Obama to complete his meltdown.