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Posts For: April 29, 2012

Wisconsin Recall Shows Citizens United Bolstered Democracy

Ironies abounded in the Sunday New York Times’ front-page feature about union efforts to force the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The newspaper is right about the fact that the recall may turn out to be a warm up for the presidential election this fall, but it speaks volumes about both the bias of the piece that nowhere in it does the Times mention the fact that all the recent polls of the contest show him ahead and gaining ground. Flawed though the piece was, it also served to skewer one of the main political narratives that the Times has worked so hard to promote in the last year: that the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision was undermining democracy.

As the article illustrates, far from the court’s defense of freedom of speech harming the political process, what it has done is to allow the free flow of ideas — and the cash that helps bring those ideas into the public square — to flourish as the public is presented with a clear choice between Walker’s attempt to reform public expenditures and the union movement’s effort to defend the status quo.

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Ironies abounded in the Sunday New York Times’ front-page feature about union efforts to force the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The newspaper is right about the fact that the recall may turn out to be a warm up for the presidential election this fall, but it speaks volumes about both the bias of the piece that nowhere in it does the Times mention the fact that all the recent polls of the contest show him ahead and gaining ground. Flawed though the piece was, it also served to skewer one of the main political narratives that the Times has worked so hard to promote in the last year: that the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision was undermining democracy.

As the article illustrates, far from the court’s defense of freedom of speech harming the political process, what it has done is to allow the free flow of ideas — and the cash that helps bring those ideas into the public square — to flourish as the public is presented with a clear choice between Walker’s attempt to reform public expenditures and the union movement’s effort to defend the status quo.

The Times makes clear that the unions, just like their conservative opponents, have been allowed by the law to put forward their positions unfettered by the attempt of liberal campaign finance laws to restrict expenditures. And while the paper does its best to bolster the contrived story line that this is a battle between working people and the billionaire Koch brothers, the political showdown in Wisconsin is one in which the voters will be allowed to decide whether state employees will be entitled to force the state into bankruptcy. The result is a political free-for-all in which both sides are having their say. Had the Times and other supporters of campaign finance laws had their way, the unions and the conservatives opposing them would have been largely silenced.

The Times does deserve credit for puncturing part of the left’s propaganda campaign against Charles and David Koch, the industrialists who have been falsely smeared as the plutocrats funding a vast right-wing plot to destroy democracy. It turns out liberals attempting to promote boycotts against companies owned by the brothers, including Georgia Pacific, have been criticized by the unions that represent the firm’s workers because the brothers’ companies treat their employees well and have negotiated fair contracts with them.

The attempt to demonize the brothers because of their support for conservative think tanks has flopped. So, too, may the recall, in large measure because Wisconsin voters, who elected Walker and a Republican legislature in 2010 when they campaigned on the measures that they have since passed, understand what is at stake in the election. The recall is nothing less than an all-out power play by unions who realize that their grip on power and the public purse is slipping. Reformers like Walker are determined to put in place a process that will prevent Wisconsin from being pushed to insolvency by public worker contracts that are negotiated with a figurative gun to the state’s head in the form of strikes.

That the Times can write more than 1,200 words about this without mentioning the fact that Walker is leading in the polls says something interesting about the paper’s bias. But it is even more interesting that the thrust of the piece proves that the editorial position of the paper about Citizens United trashing democracy is utterly without basis.

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Obama Hardly a Hawkish Warrior-in-Chief

In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.

Here is how Bergen makes his case:

Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

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In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.

Here is how Bergen makes his case:

Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The first thing that jumps out at me from this litany is that there is a lot of double-counting involved. There are seven discrete claims in this paragraph. Of these all but two–overthrowing Qaddafi and increasing American troop numbers in Afghanistan–relate to pinpoint CIA and/or Special Operations strikes against al-Qaeda leaders. No question, Obama has stepped up the program of covert drone strikes he inherited from Bush. And, also, no question, he authorized a risky raid to kill bin Laden. He deserves full credit for these steps, but it is also worth noting that they are not terribly difficult steps for an American president to take in the post-9/11 climate. Who, aside from some extreme ACLU types, actually opposes doing whatever we can to kill the leaders of a terrorist network responsible for the worst terrorist attack in history? There have been debates about the wisdom of particular operations–many senior officials opposed sending SEALs after bin Laden, favoring instead dropping a bomb on his head–but on the overall rightness of the campaign there is little dissension in the mainstream of American politics.

Much riskier would be to expand the drone strikes to groups, such as the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network, which have not targeted the American homeland and are openly supported by our supposed ally Pakistan. This Obama has largely not done, which helps to explain why Islamist terrorist organizations such as the Haqqanis (responsible for killing lots of Americans in Afghanistan) continue to get stronger, even as al-Qaeda’s central core shrinks.

What of Bergen’s other claims? Yes, Obama deserves credit for more than tripling the number of American forces in Afghanistan. But he has also sharply time-limited their involvement, and he has begun withdrawing them faster than militarily prudent, which undercuts the effectiveness of his initial policies and suggests a deep-seated ambivalence on the part of this brainy former law professor. However steely in the battle against al-Qaeda, he has not been an unwavering war leader in the battle against the Taliban and Haqqani network; he has hardly even bothered to speak to the public to rally support for this war effort.

Obama also deserves credit for intervening to topple Qaddafi although his desire to “lead from behind” made the campaign more costly (for Libyans) and more protracted than it need have been, and our lack of follow through may yet doom Libya to years of chaos and in-fighting. Bergen contrasts Obama’s quick action in Libya with President Clinton’s two-year delay before acting in Bosnia. But what of Obama’s year-long delay in Syria where the killing goes on–and we are in serious danger of missing a major opportunity to shift the strategic balance in the Levant in our favor? There Obama’s actions are sadly reminiscent of Clinton’s–he, too, is marrying strong words (Bashar Assad must go, he has said) with weak actions that rely on ineffectual UN monitors.

And what of Obama’s pull-out from Iraq after he did not try terribly hard to negotiate an agreement that would allow our troops to stay? That jeopardizes a war effort that made impressive gains, but it goes unmentioned in Bergen’s op-ed.

There is also little or no mention in Bergen’s article of North Korea, where Obama just tried and failed to conclude the latest ill-advised attempt to bribe the regime into stopping its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs; of Iran, where Obama opposed strong sanctions on the Central Bank that were ultimately passed by Congress, and where he has tried to pressure Israel not to strike while all but ruling out the use of American force against this dangerous nuclear program; of Israel, whose leaders Obama has pressured into halts to West Bank settlements while not exerting comparable pressure on the Palestinians to make peace; or of Eastern European nations which have felt abandoned by Obama’s “reset” with Russia and his cancellation of missile interceptors that were to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Finally, Bergen ignores Obama’s support for crippling cuts in our defense budget–nearly $500 billion in cuts was legislated last summer with Obama’s support and another $600 billion or so of cuts could start to hit in January if sequestration, which Obama supports, takes place. Obama’s own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned that those cuts could have “catastrophic” consequences for the armed forces yet Obama has done nothing so far to head them off.

These are hardly the actions of a hawkish commander-in-chief. (At least in my view as a Romney defense adviser.) Yet the reality of Obama’s foreign and defense policy, which especially because the death of bin Laden has turned notably more dovish, has been obscured by the president’s attempt to focus most of the public’s attention on his drone strikes and commando raids on al-Qaeda.

 

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Will Obama’s “Cool Kid” Strategy Backfire?

Rather than seeking to challenge President Obama for the title of the “cool kid” in the race, the Mitt Romney campaign will seek to win the adult vote. That’s the spin from Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, whom Politico quotes as telling a Washington gathering yesterday that his candidate won’t seek to top the president when it comes to “slow jamming the news,” as Obama did this past week on the “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” show. That’s a good idea, because although Obama may not be as cool as he or his idolaters think he is, the incredibly square Romney isn’t likely to convince anyone that he is hip. The real question is whether coolness will matter as much in 2012 as it did in 2008.

As Politico notes, the John McCain campaign also found itself facing a coolness deficit vis-à-vis Obama and sought to brand the Democrat as a mere “celebrity” that wasn’t fit for the White House. But in a year in which an extraordinary turnout of young and minority voters besotted with the “hope and change” mantra were a key factor in the outcome, the attempt to make the election a contest between a war hero and a celebrity backfired, as the latter won easily. Writing the day after the White House Correspondents Dinner, an event whose purpose seems to be to link politics with celebrity, the notion that sober policy may trump coolness may seem heretical. Yet after four years of an ineffectual administration with few achievements to its credit, coolness may not be as important as the fact that the economy has stalled again.

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Rather than seeking to challenge President Obama for the title of the “cool kid” in the race, the Mitt Romney campaign will seek to win the adult vote. That’s the spin from Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, whom Politico quotes as telling a Washington gathering yesterday that his candidate won’t seek to top the president when it comes to “slow jamming the news,” as Obama did this past week on the “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” show. That’s a good idea, because although Obama may not be as cool as he or his idolaters think he is, the incredibly square Romney isn’t likely to convince anyone that he is hip. The real question is whether coolness will matter as much in 2012 as it did in 2008.

As Politico notes, the John McCain campaign also found itself facing a coolness deficit vis-à-vis Obama and sought to brand the Democrat as a mere “celebrity” that wasn’t fit for the White House. But in a year in which an extraordinary turnout of young and minority voters besotted with the “hope and change” mantra were a key factor in the outcome, the attempt to make the election a contest between a war hero and a celebrity backfired, as the latter won easily. Writing the day after the White House Correspondents Dinner, an event whose purpose seems to be to link politics with celebrity, the notion that sober policy may trump coolness may seem heretical. Yet after four years of an ineffectual administration with few achievements to its credit, coolness may not be as important as the fact that the economy has stalled again.

Critics of Fehrnstrom’s strategy rightly note that it may be easier for Democrats to demonize the wealthy GOP nominee than it will be for the Republicans to make Americans think ill of Obama. Yet that challenge cuts both ways. By attempting to revisit his 2008 style, the president may learn that the “cool kid” trick doesn’t play as well the second time around.

The coolness factor isn’t so much a presidential qualification as it is may be a prerequisite for a high turnout of the liberal voters who form the Democrats’ base. President Obama has always been better at campaigning than governing, so the return to the late night comedy shows is a natural for him. Given the liberal bias of these venues, they are also a safe haven for a president who can’t run on his record.

Though Fehrnstrom is hoping that the grown ups rather than the cool kids will predominate in 2012, what the GOP is counting on is an electorate that is more fed up with the country’s fiscal illness than the president’s celebrity quotient. Given the general dissatisfaction with Obama’s job performance and the prospect of continued slow growth in everything except gas prices, this is not an unreasonable expectation.

While Republicans are right that few outside of the chattering classes care what Obama said last night at the “nerd prom” or even what the actresses who were recruited to show up at the event wore, the president won’t lose in November because of a backlash against his faux hipster persona. If Romney is to prevail it will be because Obama will be seen as a failed president. The outcome in November will be decided strictly on the basis of perceptions of the economy, not which of the two candidates is the coolest.

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Standing Up for Human Rights in China

The Obama administration has talked a great deal about a “pivot to Asia,” meaning, presumably a policy of getting tough with China. Now it faces an unexpected but significant test of just how tough it will get. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer, has put the administration on the spot with his unlikely and daring escape from home arrest and his flight of more than 300 miles, apparently culminating in safety at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese security services have large helpings of egg on their face after having  let a blind man beat their tight surveillance, and in a society that values “face”–to say nothing of societal control–as much as China does, they will presumably stop at little to get him back. That could make for some uncomfortable meetings in Beijing, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials are about to arrive. But both American honor and American interests mean that Chen must be allowed to shelter on American territory as long as he wants.

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The Obama administration has talked a great deal about a “pivot to Asia,” meaning, presumably a policy of getting tough with China. Now it faces an unexpected but significant test of just how tough it will get. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer, has put the administration on the spot with his unlikely and daring escape from home arrest and his flight of more than 300 miles, apparently culminating in safety at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese security services have large helpings of egg on their face after having  let a blind man beat their tight surveillance, and in a society that values “face”–to say nothing of societal control–as much as China does, they will presumably stop at little to get him back. That could make for some uncomfortable meetings in Beijing, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials are about to arrive. But both American honor and American interests mean that Chen must be allowed to shelter on American territory as long as he wants.

The U.S, is after all, the greatest champion of human rights in the world. We would have little credibility to advocate on human rights if we were to throw such a brave and prominent exponent of human rights in China–a man who has challenged the forced sterilization and abortion policies of the Communist regime–to the wolves. Just as bad, we would have little strategic credibility with China’s neighbors, who look to American leadership to stand up to Chinese adventurism–if we were to cave in and supinely allow China to get its way with someone who has sought–and deserves–our protection. However much the administration may not be happy about it, it must offer long-term protection to Chen.

 

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Israeli Spook Revolt is Politics as Usual

The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

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The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

It’s important to reiterate that the disagreements in Israel about Iran policy are not about the nature of the threat or even whether anything should be done about it as is often claimed by those seeking to downplay the issue. The question is about the timing of an attack, with Netanyahu’s critics claiming he is wrong to push for one now.

But this is an entirely false issue. It is highly unlikely that Israel would attack Iran while the U.S. is negotiating with it even if Netanyahu rightly suspects the current P5+1 talks are an Iranian ruse. The attacks on Netanyahu are merely a way for disgruntled former employees to vent their spleen at the prime minister’s political success and to try and hurt his standing abroad.

The animus against Netanyahu and his center-right government from the defense establishment and the government bureaucracy as well as most of the country’s traditional media outlets is well-known. Their frustration about his survival in power is compounded by the fact that he appears to be set for a cakewalk in the next elections which, incredibly, some opposition parties are pushing to be advanced from their scheduled date next year. As journalist Amir Mizroch writes, Dagan and Diskin — two men with axes to grind against the prime minister – may be “smelling elections in the air.”

Although the Dagan and Diskin affairs are in a sense unprecedented, because until now Israeli defense and security officials have not misbehaved in this manner, what is going on is just Israeli politics as usual. If these men and those Israeli and foreign journalists who are trying to make this into a major story are frustrated and angry now, just imagine how they’ll feel after Netanyahu is re-elected.

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