‘Berlusconi Is a Joke, Behind Him Is a Void’

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may soon be history.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s promise to resign has failed to calm financial markets, with Italy’s borrowing costs hitting a record 7 percent on Wednesday. Still, German commentators are glad to see the back of Il Cavaliere.

Silvio Berlusconi’s demise had been forecast many times, but each time the wily Italian prime minister, nicknamed Il Cavaliere, managed to wiggle his way out of trouble. But now the end of the 17-year Berlusconi era appears to finally be in sight, after his pledge on Tuesda that he would step down once the Italian parliament pushes through a package of measures demanded by European Union leaders aimed at reducing Italy’s vast debt and restoring investor confidence in the country. The move came just hours after a humiliating budget vote in parliament during which it became clear that the prime minister no longer had a majority.

On Wednesday, Berlusconi, 75, announced that he would not run if early elections are held and said that he expected elections to be held in February. He told La Stampa newspaper that former Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, 41, would be the candidate of his party, People of Freedom. The opposition, however, prefers a national unity government to early elections.

Hopes that Berlusconi’s resignation promise would ease the pressure on the country proved unfounded on Wednesday, however, with the yield on 10-year Italian bonds hitting a record high of 7.36 percent despite the prime minister’s statement. Most analysts consider 7 percent to be the level at which borrowing becomes unsustainable. Greece, Ireland and Portugal have all been forced to seek emergency EU funding when their borrowing costs hit the 7 percent mark. Interest rates on Italian sovereign bonds had climbed to well over 6 percent earlier this week, reaching 6.74 percent on Tuesday, the previous record level.

Relief on European stock markets also proved short lived. On Wednesday morning the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares fell by 1.4 percent, reversing a 0.9 percent gain on Tuesday. Italy’s benchmark FTSE MIB index was also down by 3 percent, while Italian banks Mediobanca and Unicredit saw their shares fall by 4.6 percent and 5.4 percent respectively. “There is no guarantee (Berlusconi’s) successor will be able to do a better job,” fund manager Christian Jimenez told the news agency Reuters.

Increasing Pressure

Berlusconi had come under increasing pressure in recent weeks and months as a result of the euro zone’s worsening debt crisis. There are concerns that Italy could become the next candidate for a European Union bailout, but there are worries that the country is too big to rescue on the model of Ireland or Portugal. Italian debt stands at 120 percent of the country’s annual economic output.

Berlusconi has been a dominant fixture in Italian politics for 17 years and provided a degree of stability that the country had not enjoyed in the several decades between the end of World War II and Berlusconi’s first election to the premiership in 1994. Recent years have been overshadowed by numerous scandals, including accusations that he had paid for sex with an underage prostitute. Many have accused the media mogul of seeking to change laws to avoid prosecution.

Berlusconi fought hard to remain in power, saying that he wanted to look at the “traitors” in parliament “in the face.” His position became untenable on Tuesday when his closest parliamentary ally, Northern League head Umberto Bossi, urged the prime minister to step aside.

On Wednesday, German newspapers take a look at the implications of Berlusconi’s announcement.

In a Wednesday morning editorial published on its website, the Financial Times Deutschland writes:

“The skepticism of the markets is appropriate: Following Berlusconi’s announcement, it isn’t at all clear what the future looks like for Rome. All options are on the table … even Berlusconi’s return isn’t out of the question.”

“It has become apparent what everyone actually always knew: There is a lack of alternatives to Berlusconi in Italy. The left has spent years criticizing the prime minister, making fun of his dyed hair and of his philandering — but they forgot to present a political program of their own. The Berlusconi phenomenon, which has caused mystification outside of Italy, is the result of this weakness. Berlusconi is a joke. But behind him is a void.”

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Berlusconi promised Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Tuesday that he will step down when the promised austerity package is pushed through parliament. But because we are in Italy, some observers believe that even this is not Berlusconi’s last act. He might, they believe, try to use some trick to hang onto power in the end.”

“As such, it isn’t quite time yet to analyze what the long-term effects of the 17 Berlusconi years might be for this grandiose, crazy country — such as the shocking lack of gravitas, the egoism and the superficiality he introduced into Italian politics. At the moment, the fact that he allowed the country’s economy to erode stands in the foreground. Interest rates for Italian sovereign bonds climbed to a record high of 6.74 percent on Tuesday. If the European Central Bank doesn’t buy massive quantities of Italian bonds, then Rome will approach the territory which triggered bailout packages for Portugal and Ireland.”

“That, though, won’t be successful for long, given that in the next year, Italy must pay back a €300 billion tranche of its €1.9 trillion in debt. At the same time, Rome is losing €400 billion annually through tax evasion, corruption and the underground economy. A turn toward the utmost seriousness would be appropriate. It is clear what must be done and where reforms need to be made. Among the priorities should be injecting flexibility into the moribund labor market.”

“It is by no means certain that investors will cease betting against the country without Berlusconi at the helm. What is sure, however, is that they would have continued had Berlusconi remained. Il Cavaliere is not to be blamed for everything, but he was a heavy liability for Italy. He had to go. For once at least, at the very end, it seems that he thought about what is best for his country.”

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

“European partners are shaking their heads, and in Italy, too, no one can understand the pigheadedness of the prime minister, who remains glued to his chair. … Berlusconi’s predecessors, like Giulio Andreotti, immediately stepped down after such defeats in parliament. But Berlusconi remains stubborn, because he does not have to step down as long as he does not lose a confidence vote.”

“In addition to the political motivations, there are other reasons why Berlusconi has done nothing more than merely announce that he will step down in the future. Italian newspapers are widely reporting that Berlusconi wants to remain in office at all costs, even without a majority, so that he does not lose his immunity. His trials may have been eclipsed because of the current political turbulence, but four cases are still pending. Among them is the Milan court case in which he has been charged with abuse of power and prostitution involving a minor.”

“A date has not yet been set for presenting the stability proposal to parliament, but the timeframe of mid-November is being discussed. That is good for Berlusconi, but bad for Italy and the markets.”

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitungwrites:

“Silvio Berlusconi had presented himself as a savior for an Italy that was sinking into chaos. He said he had succeeded in making his company into one of the largest in Italy, and that he would likewise turn beautiful Italy into a thriving company.”

“None of it was true, and none of his promises have come true. Italy is now worse off than it was before Berlusconi. For years, he attacked that country’s democratic institutions using his parliamentary majority. For years, he was supported by the Vatican, which only distanced itself from him when the Holy See became aware of Berlusconi’s sex parties — or rather, when the sex parties became public knowledge. In the meantime, Berlusconi’s business model for Italy has fallen into such disrepute on the stock markets that his departure is greeted with shrieks of delight. … His business model for Italy has failed miserably, as could easily be predicted. The state is not a company.”



Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,796757,00.html

See also:  Photo Gallery – The scandals of Silvio


Crude reality

Will a Middle Eastern oil disruption crush the economy? New research suggests the answer is no — and that a major tenet of American foreign policy may be fundamentally wrong.

For more than a month, the world has been riveted by scenes of protest in the Middle East, with demonstrators flooding streets from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. As the unrest has spread, people in the West have also been keeping a wary eye on something closer to home: the gyrating stock market and the rising price of gas. Fear that the upheaval will start to affect major oil producers like Saudi Arabia has led speculators to bid up oil prices — and led some economic analysts to predict that higher energy costs could derail America’s nascent economic recovery.

The idea that a sudden spike in oil prices spells economic doom has influenced America’s foreign policy since at least 1973, when Arab states, upset with Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, drastically cut production and halted exports to the United States. The result was a sudden quadrupling in crude prices and a deep global recession. Many Americans still have vivid memories of gas lines stretching for blocks, and of the unemployment, inflation, and general sense of insecurity and panic that followed. Even harder hit were our allies in Europe and Japan, as well as many developing nations.

Economists have a term for this disruption: an oil shock. The idea that such oil shocks will inevitably wreak havoc on the US economy has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in turn the United States has made ensuring the smooth flow of crude from the Middle East a central tenet of its foreign policy. Oil security is one of the primary reasons America has a long-term military presence in the region. Even aside from the Iraq and Afghan wars, we have equipment and forces positioned in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in Bahrain.

But a growing body of economic research suggests that this conventional view of oil shocks is wrong. The US economy is far less susceptible to interruptions in the oil supply than previously assumed, according to these studies. Scholars examining the recent history of oil disruptions have found the worldwide oil market to be remarkably adaptable and surprisingly quick at compensating for shortfalls. Economists have found that much of the damage once attributed to oil shocks can more persuasively be laid at the feet of bad government policies. The US economy, meanwhile, has become less dependent on Persian Gulf oil and less sensitive to changes in crude prices overall than it was in 1973.

These findings have led a few bold political scientists and foreign policy experts to start asking an uncomfortable question: If the United States could withstand a disruption in Persian Gulf oil supplies, why does it need a permanent military presence in the region at all? There’s a lot riding on that question: America’s presence in the Middle East exacts a heavy toll in political capital, financial resources, and lives. Washington’s support for Middle East autocrats makes America appear hypocritical on issues of human rights and democracy. The United States spends billions of dollars every year to maintain troops in the Middle East, and the troops risk their lives simply by being there, since they make tempting targets for the region’s Islamic extremists. And arguably, because the presence of these forces inflames radicals and delegitimizes local rulers, they may actually be undermining the very stability they are ostensibly there to ensure.

Among those asking this tough question are two young professors, Eugene Gholz, at the University of Texas, and Daryl Press, at Dartmouth College. To find out what actually happens when the world’s petroleum supply is interrupted, the duo analyzed every major oil disruption since 1973. The results, published in a recent issue of the journal Strategic Studies, showed that in almost all cases, the ensuing rise in prices, while sometimes steep, was short-lived and had little lasting economic impact. When there have been prolonged price rises, they found the cause to be panic on the part of oil purchasers rather than a supply shortage. When oil runs short, in other words, the market is usually adept at filling the gap.

One striking example was the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If anything was likely to produce an oil shock, it was this: two major Persian Gulf producers directly targeting each other’s oil facilities. And indeed, prices surged 25 percent in the first months of the conflict. But within 18 months of the war’s start they had fallen back to their prewar levels, and they stayed there even though the fighting continued to rage for six more years. Surprisingly, during the 1984 “Tanker War” phase of that conflict — when Iraq tried to sink oil tankers carrying Iranian crude and Iran retaliated by targeting ships carrying oil from Iraq and its Persian Gulf allies — the price of oil continued to drop steadily. Gholz and Press found just one case after 1973 in which the market mechanisms failed: the 1979-1980 Iranian oil strike which followed the overthrow of the Shah, during which Saudi Arabia, perhaps hoping to appease Islamists within the country, also led OPEC to cut production, exacerbating the supply shortage.

In their paper, Gholz and Press ultimately conclude that the market’s adaptive mechanisms function independently of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that they largely protect the American economy from being damaged by oil shocks. “To the extent that the United States faces a national security challenge related to Persian Gulf oil, it is not ‘how to protect the oil we need’ but ‘how to assure consumers that there is nothing to fear,’ ” the two write. “That is a thorny policy problem, but it does not require large military deployments and costly military operations.”

There’s no denying the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the US economy. Although only 15 percent of imported US oil comes directly from the Persian Gulf, the region is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s production and the majority of its known reserves. But the oil market is also elastic: Many key producing countries have spare capacity, so if oil is cut off from one country, others tend to increase their output rapidly to compensate. Today, regions outside the Middle East, such as the west coast of Africa, make up an increasingly important share of worldwide production. Private companies also hold large stockpiles of oil to smooth over shortages — amounting to a few billion barrels in the United States alone — as does the US government, with 700 million barrels in its strategic petroleum reserve. And the market can largely work around shipping disruptions by using alternative routes; though they are more expensive, transportation costs account for only tiny fraction of the price of oil.

Compared to the 1970s, too, the structure of the US economy offers better insulation from oil price shocks. Today, the country uses half as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as it did in 1973, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Remarkably, the economy consumed less total energy in 2009 than in 1997, even though its GDP rose and the population grew. When it comes time to fill up at the pump, the average US consumer today spends less than 4 percent of his or her disposable income on gasoline, compared with more than 6 percent in 1980. Oil, though crucial, is simply a smaller part of the economy than it once was.

There is no denying that the 1973 oil shock was bad — the stock market crashed in response to the sudden spike in oil prices, inflation jumped, and unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1979 oil shock also had deep and lasting economic effects. Economists now argue, however, that the economic damage was more directly attributable to bad government policy than to the actual supply shortage. Among those who have studied past oil shocks is Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1997, Bernanke analyzed the effects of a sharp rise in fuel prices during three different oil shocks — 1973-75, 1980-82, and 1990-91. He concluded that the major economic damage was caused not by the oil price increases but by the Federal Reserve overreacting and sharply increasing interest rates to head off what it wrongly feared would be a wave of inflation. Today, his view is accepted by most mainstream economists.

Gholz and Press are hardly the only researchers who have concluded that we are far too worried about oil shocks. The economy also faced a large increase in prices in the mid-2000s, largely as the result of surging demand from emerging markets, with no ill effects. “If you take any economics textbook written before 2000, it would talk about what a calamitous effect a doubling in oil prices would have,” said Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who has written about oil shocks and their implications for US foreign policy. “Well, we had a price quadrupling from 2003 and 2007 and nothing bad happened.” (The recession of 2008-9 was triggered by factors unrelated to oil prices.)

Auerswald also points out that when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, it did tremendous damage to offshore oil rigs, refineries, and pipelines, as well as the rail lines and roads that transport petroleum to the rest of the country. The United States gets about 12 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico region, and, more significantly, 40 percent of its refining capacity is located there. “Al Qaeda times 1,000 could not deliver this sort of blow to the oil industry’s physical infrastructure,” Auerswald said. And yet the only impact was about five days of gas lines in Georgia, and unusually high prices at the pump for a few weeks.

While there is an increasing consensus that oil shocks caused by disruptions in supply are not particularly harmful — and, somewhat surprisingly, have little impact on oil prices — a debate still rages among economists about whether the same can be said of oil shocks caused by increases in demand or those caused by speculators bidding prices up in anticipation of a supply disruption (such as before the first Persian Gulf War). The relation of these sorts of shocks to economic recessions is not well understood. But what’s clear is that the relationship has more to do with human perceptions than any actual change in the oil supply.

So how much should we be sacrificing to protect our oil supply? The question goes to the heart of American policy in the Middle East.

In 1997, Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, two political analysts at the Rand Corporation with long records of US government service, estimated that the United States spent “$60 billion a year to protect the import of $30 billion worth of oil that would flow anyway.” A 2006 study by James Murphy, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Mark Delucchi, at the University of California Davis, similarly found that when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken into account, the expenditures ranged anywhere between $47 billion and $98 billion per year. But the amount of oil coming to the United States from the region was worth less than $35 billion per year.

“Why is it that American consumers are bearing a disproportionate cost of having oil flowing to the international marketplace?” said Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

In their Security Studies paper, Gholz and Press argue that there are indeed a few threats in the Persian Gulf that might overwhelm the oil market and threaten US energy security. One of these would be an attempt by a single power to conquer the majority of the region. Another is Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the only irreplaceable sea channel. The third is revolution in Saudi Arabia. The first two scenarios are highly unlikely, Press and Gholz argue, and could be countered by moving in US forces stationed elsewhere in the world, such as the neighboring Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. (There is debate among security analysts about whether Iran has the military capability to close the strait, or could itself economically survive such a move.) A revolt in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking increasingly possible given the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — but it could not be prevented by the US military deployed in the Gulf. Our presence could even make such unrest more likely, if soldiers became flashpoints for revolutionary anger.

Gholz’s and Press’s argument has gained some currency in academic circles. “I have believed for a long time that the US presence in the Gulf has been ‘under argued’ strategically,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where both Gholz and Press received their PhDs, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about this topic. “Press and Gholz undermine the usual ‘simple’ arguments for being there. That leaves us looking for other arguments that may be the ‘true’ ones, or suspecting that there is no strong argument.”

But it has gained little traction so far either on Capitol Hill or in the corridors of the Pentagon. “Did it immediately change people’s minds? Not really,” Gholz said of his paper.

Auerswald, who has grown frustrated by the lack of response to his own research on this topic, said that the problem is that the fear of Middle Eastern oil shocks is now politically useful to a whole spectrum of powerful interest groups. “This argument is like the familiar old jeans of American politics,” he said. “They are nice and cozy and comfortable and everyone can wear them. Because of ethanol, the farm lobby loves it; for coal, well it’s their core argument; for the offshore drilling folks, they love it.” Even the environmental movement relies on it, he said, because they use it as bogeyman to scare Americans into taking renewable energy and energy conservation more seriously. As for the US military, “The US Navy is not interested in hearing that one of their two main theaters of operation has no justification for being,” Auerswald said.

The costs to US foreign policy, of course, cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, although certainly the cost here has been very high. But it looks even higher when one considers the lost opportunities and squandered chances — what we could be achieving if we weren’t so concerned about a threat that looks increasingly like an illusion.

“If we are going to commit our troops to prevent something from happening, it should be something that would be an existential threat to the United States,” said Auerswald. “Having people wait in line for five days for gas in one part of the US is not an existential threat.”

Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Dehli.


Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/crude_reality/

The Way Forward in Egypt

The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.

Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?

The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.

The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.

So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:

1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.

The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.

2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”

This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.

3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.

Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.

Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.

4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.

5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.

“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.

6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.

The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.

Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.

Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576129921076718648.html

An end or a beginning?

The upheaval in Egypt

As Hosni Mubarak fights back, where Egypt’s revolt will go, and how far it will spread, are still unanswered questions

IT IS the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests have challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. As yet, the denouement remains unwritten. Will it match Tunisia, where a popular uprising sent another strongman president into exile, toppled his ruling party and opened the way to real democracy? Or will it look like Iran in 2009, where a hardline regime crushed a popular protest movement with iron-fisted resolve?

The protests have left hundreds dead, frozen Egypt’s economy, forced a cabinet to resign, brought the army onto the streets and prompted Mr Mubarak to promise reforms. Egypt’s tough 82-year-old president, in charge for the past three decades, now says he will go—but only at the end of his term in September, with dignity and with a subtle threat that if he does not get his way, things could turn uglier still. While offering a bare minimum of concessions, he has driven a wedge between millions of protesters who demand change and millions of others who fear chaos and want a return to normal. By February 2nd the two sides were battling each other.

Mr Mubarak has been slow to respond throughout the crisis, but his few appearances have been cleverly pitched. When he finally spoke, after midnight on January 28th, a day when hundreds of thousands across the breadth of Egypt had battled furiously with his police, it was with a husky voice and the petulance of a master betrayed by bungling servants. He said he understood his people’s concerns, and as a concession fired his cabinet. But he blamed the unrest on miscreants and agitators, declaring that protests had grown so loud only because he himself had magnanimously granted rights to free expression.

There was something in this. During his rule Egyptians have changed, as has the world they live in. They do speak more freely now, but not only because Mr Mubarak’s regime has belatedly allowed the airing of more critical views. New technologies have also made it impossible for states such as Egypt’s to retain the information monopolies they once enjoyed.

Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.

This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.

But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.

The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.

The bellwether country

Egypt is bigger and poorer than most other Arab states, and not necessarily a model. But it is a more of a bellwether than Tunisia was. It was Egypt’s 1952 revolution, ushering in the military-backed authoritarianism of Gamal Abdel Nasser that Mr Mubarak inherited, which inspired similar regimes to emerge, from Algeria to Iraq to Yemen. The direction Egypt chooses now could have a similar influence.

Egyptians of all classes and persuasions have joined today’s protests. But in their vanguard, except perhaps in the thickest combat, have been thousands of urban professionals, or university students who hope to be professionals one day. Such people have typically shunned politics, seeing Egypt’s stage-managed version as a waste of time. In private they have often complained that they do not feel they own their country, as if it is someone else’s private estate.

In the past—for example, in the riots that erupted in 1977 when Sadat’s government doubled the price of subsidised bread—it was the poor who forced simple demands on Egypt’s government. To prevent another climbdown, Mr Mubarak’s regime built its riot squad into a daunting force of perhaps 150,000 well-trained and well-equipped men. It also kept the economy burdened with subsidies, with bread, cooking fuel and public transport priced at fractions of their real cost.

Some 40% of Egyptians still live on less than $2 a day. In recent years, even as Egypt’s overall economy has grown apace and more consumer goods have filled even lower-income households, the poor have won little relief from relentlessly rising food prices and sharper competition for secure jobs. Such anxieties have found expression in a growing number of strikes and local protests across the country. Yet in a sense, persistent poverty has helped prop up the regime. “People survive on a day-to-day basis,” says a young Cairo lawyer. “They can’t go for long without a daily wage and daily bread, so they can’t afford to make trouble.”

Economic strains have squeezed better-off Egyptians, too, but other factors raised their anger with Mr Mubarak’s government to boiling point. Even to a people inured to politics as a farcical pageant, the blatant fakery of parliamentary elections held in November and December, which virtually shut out any opposition players, seemed a lurid insult, added to the injury of Mr Mubarak’s apparent plan to foist upon them his son Gamal as their next ruler. Equally lurid are the tales of corruption involving not just rich businessmen but also institutions of Mr Mubarak’s state. Dismay over police cruelty has also risen, especially after an incident in June when plainclothes agents in Alexandria beat to death a young internet aficionado, Khaled Said, spawning a Facebook campaign that prompted silent vigils across the country.

That such overlapping concerns seemed unlikely ever to coalesce into political action testifies to the effectiveness of Egypt’s police state. This relies less on repression than on co-opting, dividing and, perhaps most important, demoralising potential challengers. Its other prop has been a political shell-game, whereby Mr Mubarak and his inner circle simply blame any shortcomings on his ministers, and explain repression as a needed defence against menacing Islamists. Despite rising calls for change, bitter quarrels—between Islamists and secularists, conservatives and leftists—have dissipated the energies of Egypt’s opposition.

Two new factors seem to have tipped the balance. One was the emergence of loosely related groups pressing for reform, run via the internet by youths of generally secular outlook but no particular ideology. Some coalesced around labour rights. Some promoted human rights or academic freedom. Others were inspired by the appearance on the scene of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. For such a respected figure to demand an end to dictatorship seemed a breath of fresh air to educated Egyptians. Some of these groups studied other people-power movements, such as Serbia’s, and began quietly organising for a similar campaign.

The second factor was Tunisia. It was not only the speed and success of its revolt that convinced many Egyptians that their regime might prove equally flimsy. The most obvious outcome of Tunisia’s unrest was the exit of its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of rule. His flight to exile in Saudi Arabia concentrated Egypt’s dissident minds on the one thing they could all agree on: the demand that Mr Mubarak should go.

Revolution’s trigger

The Facebook page for solidarity with Mr Said, the victim of police brutality, was what drew the widest audience for the idea of a “day of rage” to be held on January 25th. Yet few among the page’s 375,000 followers anticipated the impact this would have. The peaceful crowds that turned out that day were not huge: they numbered in the tens of thousands only in Cairo and Alexandria. By the end of the day, police recaptured Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of Cairo, in a brutal charge.

But the eruption of protests in nearly all Egypt’s main cities at once had proved a stunning shock. As in Tunisia, the regime appeared paralysed at first. It responded solely through security measures, such as cutting off mobile telephones, text-messaging services and the internet. By the time Mr Mubarak decided to speak, three days later, it seemed too late to turn the tide.

Demonstrations on Friday January 28th prompted him at last to break his silence. Protesters were numbered not in tens but in hundreds of thousands, including people from all walks of Egyptian life. In Cairo itself pitched battles between protesters and riot police raged in more than a dozen places, leaving scores dead and thousands wounded. Flames roared through the halls of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, where youths danced amid the lingering fumes of tear-gas around the smouldering wrecks of overturned police vehicles. When night fell it was not only the riot police who retreated, beaten and exhausted. The entire uniformed manpower of Egypt’s mammoth Ministry of Interior, amounting to perhaps a million policemen, vanished from the country’s streets.

Exactly as in Tunisia, their suspiciously complete exit sparked a wave of looting, vandalism and banditry. Rioters breached the walls of several of Egypt’s main prisons, freeing more than 20,000 convicts, including several hundred on death row. In the strategic north-east corner of Sinai, along the border with Gaza, local Bedouin blew up police stations and grabbed their arsenals. Reports from Alexandria claimed that some 20,000 police guns had gone missing. The city of Suez, where the toll of casualties was particularly high, fell entirely into the hands of protesters.

The evacuation of police also fanned rumours, backed by reports of security agents engaging in arson and thievery, that the chaos was planned. If so, it had its effect. Despite the hasty organisation of citizen militias, reports of roving bands of thugs terrified many, especially in poorer districts. This kept people at home, away from the demonstrations. As bread became scarce in the shops and salaries went unpaid, many also began blaming the protesters for provoking chaos.

The regime hangs on

With his police in disgrace, Mr Mubarak sent in his army and decreed what only weeks before would have been seen as a radical change. He appointed as vice-president his dour, dapper 74-year-old intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman. Since Mr Mubarak had never anointed a deputy, this was widely seen as a first step to his own graceful retirement. He also picked a new prime minister, a former air-force commander, Ahmed Shafik.

The army’s intervention has been broadly greeted with relief, particularly since its command declared it would not use force. But Mr Mubarak’s other moves did not assuage protesters, now joined by the enraged families of those injured by police in previous clashes, as well as by the full might of previously hesitant Islamist groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The cabinet soon sworn in by Mr Shafik retained half the ministers of the previous government, a sign, perhaps, of the difficulty of manning what many perceived as a sinking ship and a signal, to some, that Mr Mubarak was up to his old trick of blaming failings on subordinates, in this case the outgoing ministers. The new vice-president failed to impress with a brief statement, his only public appearance so far. Mr Suleiman said he was open to talks with opposition forces, and would respect court verdicts over challenges to December’s election results. This could prove a big concession, since many jurists say the whole vote was fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, protests mounted to a new pitch. Despite the continued suspension of the internet and text-messaging, and the blockage of rail and road links into Cairo, a crowd of nearly half a million crammed into Cairo’s centre on February 1st, overspilling Tahrir Square onto adjacent streets and bridges. As many as 100,000 also marched in Alexandria.

Citizens find a voice

Knocked back, Mr Mubarak replied with the skill of a seasoned general. In a masterful speech that night, he declared that he had never intended to run for a sixth term this September, without explaining why he had never revealed this before. He also said he would revise articles in the constitution, inserted by himself, that narrowly restricted the field of presidential challengers. He restated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition, and reasserted his paternal concern for the people. “I am a military man and it is not my nature to abandon my duties,” he said gravely. “I have defended the soil of Egypt and will die on it, and be judged by history.”

To protesters camped in Tahrir Square, who had spent days screaming for his departure, this was again far too little, too late. But many other Egyptians, particularly the elderly and the poor, saw it as a dignified way out of the impasse. Amid a backlash of pro-Mubarak sentiment the next day, foreign newsmen were attacked by Egyptians accusing them of plotting to undermine stability. In Alexandria and Cairo large pro-Mubarak mobs of youths, some reportedly fortified by plainclothes thugs and paid criminal stooges, tried to storm the protesters’ camps, leading to mêlées in which dozens were injured.

Such dirty tactics, accompanied by calls from the army, which has remained scrupulously neutral, for the protests to end, suggest that Mr Mubarak’s regime believes it can complete what appears to be a well-devised script. Middle-class protesters will be frightened back to their homes, and most ordinary Egyptians relieved to see the unrest end. The president’s opponents will be able to declare that they have won key reforms. But the regime will remain in charge, controlling the pace of change.

Whether this will succeed in restoring stability remains to be seen. Egypt has now become starkly polarised. The fury against Mr Mubarak felt by many has only increased. Despite numbers thinned by the defection of those fearful of getting hurt, the anti-Mubarak protesters may still be able to mount mass protests, perhaps after Friday prayers. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not negotiate with the government until Mr Mubarak steps down. Mr ElBaradei has described pro-Mubarak demonstrations as criminal acts by a criminal regime.

From pharaohism to democracy

As Egypt’s powerful state regroups its forces and continues to capitalise on fears of insecurity, Mr Mubarak’s men may have their way. Still, even within his army, which has so far remained loyal to the president, many may believe that only Mr Mubarak’s departure can calm Egypt’s streets. The president could possibly announce an early retirement on health grounds. But if there is one quality Mr Mubarak has shown during his three decades of rule, it is stubbornness.

Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Egyptian society as a whole has evolved. Despite the ugly clashes of recent days, the change has mostly been peaceful. Egyptians have graphically demonstrated that they will no longer accept the old rules. They are moving, in the words of Fahmi Huweidi, a popular columnist sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, from pharaohism to democracy.

Even if protests fizzle for the time being, a certain pride of reclaiming possession was vividly in evidence. Protesters in the notoriously trash-strewn megalopolis of Cairo swept and tidied the squares they occupied, and ordinary Egyptians cheerfully and quite efficiently directed traffic or joined neighbourhood patrols in the absence of police.

In the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteer manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displayed a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving licence of a police officer whose car they had stopped. In such ways, Egyptians have begun to establish themselves as citizens of their own country.


Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/node/18063746

Being Hosni Mubarak

Egypt’s leader has gambled that he can ride out the protests and hold on. It’s a pretty good gamble.

Imagine yourself as Hosni Mubarak, master of Egypt for nearly 30 years. You’re old, unwell, detested and addicted to power. You could have orchestrated a graceful exit by promising to preside over free and fair presidential elections later this year—elections in which the Mubarak name would not be on the ballot. Instead, you gambled that you could ride out the protests and hold on.

It’s a pretty good gamble.

Like everyone else, you’ve been “listening” to Egyptians marching through the streets and telling you it’s time to go. That’s an opinion they’ll likely revise after a few more neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria are ransacked, looted and torched by gangs of hooligans.

But you haven’t just been listening to the demonstrators. You’ve also been watching them—the way they dress, the way they shave. On Sunday, in Tahrir Square, you could tell right away that most were from the Muslim Brotherhood, though they were taking care not to chant the usual Islamic slogans. And Western liberals want you to relinquish power to them?

Then there are the usual “democracy activists,” minuscule in number, better known to Western journalists than to average Egyptians, most of them subsisting on some kind of grant from a Western NGO. They think they’re lucky to have Mohamed ElBaradei as their champion, with his Nobel Peace Prize and his lifetime in New York, Vienna—everywhere, that is, except Egypt itself. They think he gives them respectability. They’re wrong.

Finally, there are the middle-class demonstrators, the secular professionals and minor businessmen. In theory they’re your biggest threat. In practice they’re your ace in the hole.

What unites the protesters is anger. But anger is an emotion, not a strategy, much less a political agenda. What, really, does “Down With Mubarak” offer the average Egyptian?

If the Brotherhood has its way, Egypt will become a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran. If the democracy activists have theirs, it’ll be a weak parliamentary system, incapable of exercising authority over the army and a cat’s paw for a Brotherhood that knows its revolutionary history well enough to remember the name of Alexander Kerensky.

Luckily for you, this analysis is becoming plainer by the day to many Egyptians, especially since Mr. ElBaradei, imagining he has the upper hand, stumbled into a political alliance with the Brotherhood. Also increasingly plain is that it’s in your hands to blur the “fine line between freedom and chaos,” as you aptly put it last week, and to give Egyptians a long, hard look at the latter. No, it wasn’t by your cunning design that thousands of violent prisoners made a jailbreak last week. And the decision to take police off the streets was done in the interests of avoiding bloody scenes with protesters.

Yet all the same, the anarchy unleashed on Egyptian streets has played straight into your hands. The demonstrators want a freedom that looks like London or Washington. Your task is to remind them that it’s more likely to look like Baghdad, circa 2006.

No wonder the mood among Cairo’s shopkeepers, many of whom supported the initial demonstrations, is turning sharply in your favor. Those shopkeepers will soon be joined by housewives who want to feel safe in the streets; and tourism workers who want Egypt to remain a safe destination, and everyone else with a stake in a stable environment. You may be 81, but time is still on your side. And patience is rarely a virtue of the young, who now crowd the streets.

So you’re right to order the army not to fire: The last thing you need is to furnish the protesters with a galvanizing event, or the officers with an embittering one. But the analysts who suppose this decision is a sign of weakness fail to appreciate how neatly it serves your purposes. Nearly all Egyptians are agreed that the army is the one “good” institution in the country—competent, mighty and incorruptible.

But just who do they think the army is? You are its commander in chief and the keeper of its interests. Through you, the army controls an estimated 40% of the economy. Through you, retired officers are guaranteed lucrative careers running state-owned companies or getting senior political appointments. Will your officers hazard their perquisites for a hazy notion of popular freedom? Unlikely.

Today will be the moment of truth. Millions are expected to come out into the streets. But what will they do, other than chant slogans? And who will they fight, if the army won’t fight them? And what other buildings will they put to the torch, without further alienating everyone who isn’t in the march?

You’ve thought these questions through, hence your offer to negotiate with the demonstrators—preferably interminably. In the meantime, passions will cool, cosmetic adjustments will be made and you’ll plot your course to this summer’s elections.

It may be that you won’t run; you’d die in office anyway. But you’re determined to leave in the time and manner of your choosing. Judging by the way you’ve played your cards so far, you will.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703439504576115872315945988.html

An Unserious Speech Misses the Mark

The audience found it tiresome. Here’s why it was irksome as well.

It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.


The central elements of the missed opportunity:

An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”

Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?

Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”

Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.


As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”

Yes, well, all we’ve done is think about it.

“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704268104576108423310124538.html

A Presidency to Nowhere

High-speed rail and solar shingles are not the answer to America’s “Sputnik moment.”

No president before Barack Obama has been so right and so wrong.

When in his State of the Union speech Mr. Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” citing the emergence of global competition from the likes of China and India, he was right.

Minutes later he proposed to cover the country with high-speed rail and companies making solar shingles.

High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.

About halfway into the speech, I began to wonder: What is John Boehner thinking? Let’s first welcome back the tradition of House Speakers who bring nothing but a poker face to the State of the Union. (The vice president re-tightening his tie in the middle of the speech was a minor Biden classic.)

I’m guessing that about the time the president was calling investments in clean energy “the Apollo projects of our time,” the new Speaker was thinking: “This is bunk,” or some word to that effect.

That probably wasn’t Mr. Boehner’s first thought. Before the bunk arrived, his first thought was: “We’re in trouble.”

If Barack Obama had come even close to matching policies with the sentiments he spun across the House chamber in the first sections of that speech, the Republicans would have been dealing with a formidable new centrist president.

The speech’s prelude could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan or written by the conservative entrepreneurial Utopian George Gilder.

In a single generation, “the rules have changed,” he said, propelled by technology. “The naysayers predicting our decline” are wrong. When moments later Mr. Obama said, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea,” one felt the ghost of the Gipper hovering nearby. The president called forth more of those spirits, praising “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”

And: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Yes!

And: “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Oh, yes!

Even an Obama naysayer was thinking, Go for it, Mr. President. Unleash our nation of pioneer entrepreneurs with incentives to work, save and invest. (But why the weird slap at the all-American competitiveness of the Super Bowl?)

For a while Tuesday night, it appeared Mr. Obama would replicate Bill Clinton’s almost sci-fi ability to absorb his opposition’s best ideas, such as welfare reform, and re-infuse them into the body politic as his own. But no. We got high-speed rail and solar shingles.

Barack Obama believes what he believes. The ideas he came in with are the ideas he will go out with, and nowhere in that speech was there a fully formed policy idea reflecting authentic belief in the private economy.

The recently promised and much-needed regulatory review was offset with a paean to regulation. “It’s why we have speed limits.” He somehow felt compelled to tell productive suburban families that he’ll try to rescind the tax cut for them, the $250,000 “millionaires.”

Once past the Reagan moment, the Obama policy menu had three entrees: clean energy, education and infrastructure. This was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Obama budget message two months into his presidency: “Our budget will make long overdue investments in priorities—like clean energy, education, health care, and new infrastructure.” He extolled “new jobs that pay well” such as “installing solar energy panels and wind turbines.”

This isn’t a vision. It’s an obsession.

Sending the completed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification should have been a lay-up for a president seeking the center. That’s not happening.

What’s ahead? Mainly one thing: November 2012.

If the State of the Union disappointed policy wonks, it’s because the Obama presidency has entered full campaign mode. His State of the Union was a road map to a second term. Draw the Republican Congress toward the post-November spirit of reform on spending, entitlements and taxes, let these ideas twist in the wind of endless negotiation, pocket the “bipartisan” effort, and run out the clock to a three-point November victory.

Then what?

After ObamaCare and financial re-regulation, the remaining Obama years are looking like a presidency to nowhere. Even if you believe in green jobs, that’s an industry off in the future. Beyond the Keynesian liniment oil of public spending, he’s offering almost nothing for the here-and-now economy.

Rep. Paul Ryan, in his response, was right that “our nation is approaching a tipping point.” Either the government leads the economy, as proposed in the last two-thirds of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union, or it will be driven into the 21st century by the nation’s pioneer legacy of individual innovation, as he seemed to say in the first third of the speech.

If you belief it’s the latter, six more years of chasing Mr. Obama’s idea of investments will be a waste of precious time. The Super Bowl of global competition is well into the first quarter. The future is now.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703293204576106234062909502.html

Dangerous Liaisons

A BRITISH ambassador to Venice in the 17th century observed that “a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” But for centuries, diplomats did more than lie. They bribed, they stole, they intercepted dispatches. Perhaps this will come as some consolation to the many American diplomats whose faces have been reddened by the trove of diplomatic cables released this week by WikiLeaks: whatever they’ve done cannot compare in underhandedness with what ambassadors did in the past.

In 16th-century London, for instance, a French ambassador paid another diplomat’s secretary 60 crowns a month to read the dispatches to which the secretary had access. By the 1700s, a large part of the British Foreign Office’s annual expenses of £67,000 was allocated for bribery.

But as a scene of diplomatic misbehavior, London could hardly measure up to Vienna. Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, an 18th-century Austrian foreign minister, took no monetary bribes, but he accepted expensive presents like horses, paintings and fine wines from people who wanted to influence him. Viennese prostitutes also enjoyed unusual access to the diplomatic corps; one such woman, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, received a salary from an adjutant of Czar Alexander I, and provided him with information she learned during her visits with other envoys.

These practices had begun in the Middle Ages, when negotiators of treaties would gather information about the host nation. They continued in the Renaissance with the advent of permanent embassies. And the belief that the ambassador was a legalized spy never left the hosts’ minds.

Accordingly, governments intercepted the correspondence of diplomats accredited to them. Specialists in curtained, candle-lighted “black chambers” slid hot wires under wax seals to open letters. Those in foreign languages were translated; those in code, decrypted. Their contents were then passed along to kings and ministers.

The black chamber of Vienna was the most efficient. It received the bags of mail going to and from the embassies at 7 a.m.; letters were opened, copied and returned to the post office by 9:30. When the British ambassador complained that he had gotten British letters sealed not with his seal but with that of another country — clear evidence that they had been opened — Kaunitz calmly replied, “How clumsy these people are.”

When the French ambassador to Russia, the Marquis de La Chétardie, in 1744 protested an order for him to leave, an official began reading him his intercepted letters, showing his meddling in Russian affairs. “That’s enough!” the marquis said — and began packing.

The mores of diplomacy began to change in the 19th century, pushed first by the spread of democracy and republican government. Public opinion came to regard it as wrong and unbecoming to a democracy to do anything illegal — in particular when representing itself abroad. Other factors in that change, according to the British diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, lay in the emerging sense of the community of nations and of the importance of public opinion. As Lord Palmerston, the mid-19th-century British prime minister, maintained, opinions are stronger than armies.

This shift was exemplified by a growing belief that mail shouldn’t be tampered with. In Britain in the 1840s, there was a huge public outcry over the post office’s opening of the mail of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini; at the time, the English historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay declared that it was as wrong to take his letter from the mail as to take it from his desk. And when the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was passed in 1961, among its prescriptions was that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

Ambassadors now regard themselves as ladies and gentlemen. They do not lie. They do not steal. But in some ways, diplomacy has not advanced beyond the old ways. And diplomatic cables can always be intercepted or revealed — as WikiLeaks has demonstrated.

David Kahn is the author of “The Codebreakers” and “The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail.”


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/opinion/03kahn.html

Throw the WikiBook at them

It is understandable for the administration to underplay the significance of the WikiLeaks State Department cables. But while it is wise not to go into a public panic, it is delusional to think that this is merely embarrassing gossip and indiscretion. The leaks have done major damage.

First, quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity. Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they’re letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government’s doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the Sanaa government’s tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.

Second, we’ve suffered a major blow to our ability to collect information. Talking candidly to a U.S. diplomat can now earn you headlines around the world, reprisals at home, or worse. Success in the war on terror depends on being trusted with other countries’ secrets. Who’s going to trust us now?

Third, this makes us look bad, very bad. But not in the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied in her cringe-inducing apology speech in which she scolded these awful leakers for having done a disservice to “the international community,” and plaintively deplored how this hampers U.S. attempts to bring about a better world.

She sounded like a cross between an exasperated school principal and a Miss America contestant professing world peace to be her fondest wish. The problem is not that the purloined cables exposed U.S. hypocrisy or double-dealing. Good God, that’s the essence of diplomacy. That’s what we do; that’s what everyone does. Hence the famous aphorism that a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.

Nothing new here. What is notable, indeed shocking, is the administration’s torpid and passive response to the leaks. What’s appalling is the helplessness of a superpower that not only cannot protect its own secrets but shows the world that if you violate its secrets – massively, wantonly and maliciously – there are no consequences.

The cat is out of the bag. The cables are public. Deploring them or trying to explain them away, a la Clinton, is merely pathetic. It’s time to show a little steel. To show that such miscreants don’t get to walk away.

At a Monday news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder assured the nation that his people are diligently looking into possible legal action against WikiLeaks. Where has Holder been? The WikiLeaks exposure of Afghan war documents occurred five months ago. Holder is looking now at possible indictments? This is a country where a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Months after the first leak, Justice’s thousands of lawyers have yet to prepare charges against Julian Assange and his confederates?

Throw the Espionage Act of 1917 at them. And if that is not adequate, if that law has been too constrained and watered down by subsequent Supreme Court rulings, then why hasn’t the administration prepared new legislation adapted to these kinds of Internet-age violations of U.S. security? It’s not as if we didn’t know more leaks were coming. And that more leaks are coming still.

Think creatively. The WikiLeaks document dump is sabotage, however quaint that term may seem. We are at war – a hot war in Afghanistan where six Americans were killed just this past Monday, and a shadowy world war where enemies from Yemen to Portland, Ore., are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and executed. Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage – and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department?

And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? Assange has gone missing. Well, he’s no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.

Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can’t sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I’m not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/02/AR2010120204561.html

Who Cares About Haiti?

Extortionists drain the country’s economic lifeblood while the U.N. stands by idly.

Ten months after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed an already decrepit infrastructure, some 1.3 million impoverished souls are still barely surviving in tent cities around the country. Living conditions are deplorable and after nearly a year, optimism about a way out of what were once dubbed “temporary” camps has dimmed.

Now more than 1,100 people have died in a cholera epidemic, and riots that began in the northern city of Cap-Haitien spread to the capital of Port au Prince last week. Protestors allege that the United Nations peace-keeping mission brought the disease to Haiti. The jury is still out on the source of the cholera, but the unrest has taken a further toll.

And so it goes. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, more poverty, violence and sorrow conspire to increase the sense of helplessness in what is the ultimate economic basket case in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of people the world over watch from afar and wonder why something can’t be done.

Here’s the $64 million question: Is Haiti’s seemingly intractable misery the result of a society and culture that is incapable of organizing itself to create civil order and a viable economy? Or is it the consequence of ruling kleptocrats—abetted or at least tolerated by influential foreigners—treating every economic transaction in the country as an opportunity for personal enrichment?

Evidence abounds that it is the latter. So why have the U.S. and the U.N. refused to take even small steps toward shutting down an official corruption racket that pushes millions of helpless people into lives of desperation? Instead they’ve put Bill Clinton—whose political family famously went into business with the notoriously corrupt former President Jean Bertrand Aristide—in charge of rebuilding the country with billions in foreign aid.

A cholera victim in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center near the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Nov. 19.

Development takes generations, and nation building by outsiders is a fool’s game. But often there is a simple change that can yield fast returns. One no-brainer target in Haiti is the port at Port-au-Prince, where the bulk of imports must enter the country, but where Haiti’s legendary mafia will only release containers after sizable bribes are collected.

A report this year by the Rand Corporation describes the port’s importance this way: “The costs of shipping through Haiti’s ports have imposed a major burden on Haitian consumers and businesses. Because imports play such an important role in consumption, investment, and business operations, the cost of imports is a key determinant of living standards and economic growth.” And yet, Rand says, “importing a container of goods is 35 percent more expensive in Haiti than the average for developed OECD countries.”

Haitian officials like to blame inefficiency at the capital’s port on a lack of modern infrastructure. But Haitians know that’s only part of the story. Writing for the online magazine The Root in October, Haitian-born business consultant Yves Savain explained that pulling a container out of the port in the capital “takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an unspecified number of signatures.” The full cost, which he said includes “legitimate and illicit duties,” constitutes “a substantial and arbitrary financial drain on all sectors of the national economy.”

Mr. Savain was being diplomatic. On a visit to the Journal offices last week, former Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph—who resigned in August—was more direct. “The corruption situation in the ports was one of the major reasons I decided I could no longer defend this government,” he says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mr. Joseph says, “I had so many [nongovernmental organizations] calling me and saying ‘ambassador, could you help me get our things out of the port?’ They kept telling me [port officials] want so many thousands of dollars to get the things out.” Mr. Joseph says that by calling the minister of finance he could sometimes get the goods out but that he wasn’t always successful.

Another example: A Nov. 14 CBS “60 Minutes” report featured the case of six containers destined for an NGO housing project that had been “stuck” in the port for months. No one could figure out why the goods couldn’t be released, but the NGO was still forced to pay $6,000 to the Haitian government for an “imposed storage fee.”

Haiti holds elections on Nov. 28 for parliament and president, and enemies of representative government want to disrupt that process. This partly explains the recent violence. Yet it would be foolish to write it off as solely the work of the nefarious underworld.

Haitians are fed up with the squalor that seems to promise an end only in death. They are angry not only with their own crooked politicians but with the way in which outsiders turn a blind eye to their tormentors. The fact that Washington and the U.N. have refused to rein in the extortionists running the port demonstrates the lack of international political will to alter the status quo.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704496104575627061101867870.html

Ireland’s Paradise Lost

For an American tourist weaned on Gaelic kitsch and screenings of “The Quiet Man,” the landscape of contemporary Ireland comes as something of a shock. Drive from Dublin to the western coast and back, as I did two months ago, and you’ll still find all the thatched-roof farmhouses, winding stone walls and placid sheep that the postcards would lead you to expect. But round every green hill, there’s a swath of miniature McMansions. Past every tumble-down castle, a cascade of condominiums. In sleepy fishing villages that date to the days of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen (she was the Sarah Palin of the 16th century), half the houses look the part — but the rest could have been thrown up by the Toll brothers.

It’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.

This actually isn’t a bad way of thinking about Ireland’s 20th century. The island spent decade after decade isolated, premodern and rural — and then in just a few short years, boom, modernity! The Irish sometimes say that their 1960s didn’t happen until the 1990s, when secularization and the sexual revolution finally began in earnest in what had been one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world. But Ireland caught up fast: the kind of social and economic change that took 50 years or more in many places was compressed into a single revolutionary burst.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when everyone wanted to take credit for this transformation. Free-market conservatives hailed Ireland’s rapid growth as an example of the miracles that free trade, tax cuts and deregulation can accomplish. (In 1990, Ireland ranked near the bottom of European Union nations in G.D.P. per capita. In 2005, it ranked second.)

Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.) The European elite regarded Ireland as a case study in the benefits of E.U. integration, since the more tightly the Irish bound themselves to Continental institutions, the faster their gross domestic product rose.

Nobody tells those kinds of stories anymore. The Celtic housing bubble was more inflated than America’s (a lot of those McMansions are half-finished and abandoned), the Celtic banking industry was more reckless in its bets, and Ireland’s debts, private and public, make our budget woes look manageable by comparison. The Irish economy is on everybody’s mind again these days, but that’s because the government has just been forced to apply for a bailout from the E.U., lest Ireland become the green thread that unravels the European quilt.

If the bailout does its work and the Irish situation stabilizes, the world’s attention will move on to the next E.U. country on the brink, whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Greece (again). But when the story of the Great Recession is remembered, Ireland will offer the most potent cautionary tale. Nowhere did the imaginations of utopians run so rampant, and nowhere did they receive a more stinging rebuke.

To the utopians of capitalism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth. To the utopians of secularism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation. (“Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture,” Christopher Caldwell noted, but now “we may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.”)

But it’s the utopians of European integration who should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story. The continent-wide ripples from Ireland’s banking crisis have vindicated the Euroskeptics who argued that the E.U. was expanded too hastily, and that a single currency couldn’t accommodate such a wide diversity of nations. And the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.

As for the Irish themselves, their idyllic initiation into global capitalism is over, and now they probably understand the nature of modernity a little better. At times, it can seem to deliver everything you ever wanted, and wealth beyond your dreams. But you always have to pay for it.

Ross Douthat, New York Times


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22douthat.html

Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha

“THE perception I had, anyway, was that we were on top of the world,” Sarah Palin said at the climax of last Sunday’s premiere of her new television series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” At that point our fearless heroine had just completed a perilous rock climb, and if she looked as if she’d just stepped out of a spa instead, don’t expect her fans to question the reality. For them, Palin’s perception is the only reality that counts.

Palin is on the top of her worlds — both the Republican Party and the media universe. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” set a ratings record for a premiere on TLC, attracting nearly five million viewers — twice the audience of last month’s season finale of the blue-state cable favorite, “Mad Men.” The next night Palin and her husband Todd were enshrined as proud parents in touchy-feely interviews on “Dancing With the Stars,” the network sensation (21 million viewers) where their daughter Bristol has miraculously escaped elimination all season despite being neither a star nor a dancer. This week Sarah Palin will most likely vanquish George W. Bush and Keith Richards on the best-seller list with her new book.

If logic applied to Palin’s career trajectory, this month might have been judged dreadful for her. In an otherwise great year for Republicans she endorsed a “Star Wars” bar gaggle of anomalous and wacky losers — the former witch, Christine O’Donnell; the raging nativist, Tom Tancredo; and at least two candidates who called for armed insurrection against the government, Sharron Angle and a would-be Texas congressman, Stephen Broden, who lost by over 50 percentage points. Last week voters in Palin’s home state humiliatingly “refudiated” her protégé, Joe Miller, overturning his victory in the G.O.P. Senate primary with a write-in campaign.

But logic doesn’t apply to Palin. What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. In an angry time when America’s experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor. She has turned fallibility into a formula for success.

Republican leaders who want to stop her, and they are legion, are utterly baffled about how to do so. Democrats, who gloat that she’s the Republicans’ problem, may be humoring themselves. When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off.

Of course Palin hasn’t decided to run yet. Why rush? In the post-midterms Gallup poll she hit her all-time high unfavorable rating (52 percent), but in the G.O.P. her favorable rating is an awesome 80 percent, virtually unchanged from her standing at the end of 2008 (83 percent). She can keep floating above the pack indefinitely as the celebrity star of a full-time reality show where she gets to call all the shots. The Perils of Palin maintains its soap-operatic drive not just because of the tabloid antics of Bristol, Levi, et al., but because you are kept guessing about where the pop culture ends and the politics begins.

The producer of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” Mark Burnett (whose past hits appropriately include both “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”), has declared that the series is “completely nonpolitical.” It is in fact completely political — an eight-week infomercial that, miraculously enough, is paying the personality it promotes (a reported $250,000 a week) rather than charging her. The show’s sole political mission is to maintain the fervor and loyalty of the G.O.P. base, not to win over Palin’s detractors. In the debut episode, the breathtaking Alaskan landscapes were cannily intermixed with vignettes showcasing the star’s ostensibly model kids and husband, her charming dad, the villainous lamestream media (represented by Palin’s unwanted neighbor, the journalist Joe McGinniss), and the heroic Rupert Murdoch media (represented by an off-screen Bill O’Reilly).

Palin fires a couple of Annie Oakley-style shots before we’re even out of the opening credits. The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara. With a showbiz-fueled net worth widely estimated in the double-digit millions, Palin is as Hollywood in her way as Reagan was, but you won’t see any bling or factotums in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” She tells the audience that she doesn’t have “much of a staff” to tend to her sprawling family and career. “We do most everything ourselves,” she says, and not with a wink.

Thanks to the in-kind contribution of this “nonpolitical” series, Palin needn’t join standard-issue rivals like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty in groveling before donors and primary-state operatives to dutifully check all the boxes of a traditional Republican campaign. Palin not only has TLC in her camp but, better still, Murdoch. Other potential 2012 candidates are also on the Fox News payroll, but Palin is the only one, as Alessandra Stanley wrote in The Times, whose every appearance is “announced with the kind of advance teasing and clip montages that talk shows use to introduce major movie stars.” Pity poor Mike Huckabee, relegated to a graveyard time slot, with the ratings to match.

The Fox spotlight is only part of Murdoch’s largess. As her publisher, he will foot the bill for the coming “book tour” whose itinerary disproportionately dotes on the primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. The editorial page of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is also on board, recently praising Palin for her transparently ghost-written critique of the Federal Reserve’s use of quantitative easing. “Mrs. Palin is way ahead of her potential presidential competitors on this policy point,” The Journal wrote, and “shows a talent for putting a technical subject in language that average Americans can understand.”

With Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on her side, Palin hardly needs the grandees of the so-called Republican establishment. They know it and flail at her constantly. Politico reported just before Election Day that unnamed “party elders” were nearly united in wanting to stop her, out of fear that she’d win the nomination and then be crushed by Obama. Their complaints are seconded daily by Bush White House alumni like Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and Mark McKinnon, who said recently that Palin’s “stock is falling and pretty rapidly now” and that “if she’s smart, she does not run.”

This is either denial or wishful thinking. The same criticisms that the Bushies fling at Palin were those once aimed at Bush: a slender résumé, a lack of intellectual curiosity and foreign travel, a lazy inclination to favor from-the-gut improvisation over cracking the briefing books. These spitballs are no more likely to derail Palin within the G.O.P. than they did him.

As Palin has refused to heed these patrician Republicans, some of them have gotten so testy they sound like Democrats. Peggy Noonan called her a “nincompoop” last month, and Susan Collins, the senator from Maine, dismissed her as a “celebrity commentator.” Rove tut-tutted Palin’s TLC show for undermining her aspirations to “gravitas.” These insults just play into Palin’s hands, burnishing her image as an exemplar of the “real America” battling the snooty powers-that-be. To serve as an Andrew Jackson or perhaps George Wallace for the 21st century, the last thing she wants or needs is gravitas.

It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy. The Bushies and Noonans and dwindling retro-moderate Republicans are no less loathed by Palinistas and their Tea Party fellow travelers than is Obama’s Ivy League White House. When Palin mocks her G.O.P. establishment critics as tortured, paranoid, sleazy and a “good-old-boys club,” she pays no penalty for doing so. The more condescending the attacks on her, the more she thrives. This same dynamic is also working for her daughter Bristol, who week after week has received low scores and patronizing dismissals from the professional judges on “Dancing with the Stars” only to be rescued by populist masses voting at home.

Revealingly, Sarah Palin’s potential rivals for the 2012 nomination have not joined the party establishment in publicly criticizing her. They are afraid of crossing Palin and the 80 percent of the party that admires her. So how do they stop her? Not by feeding their contempt in blind quotes to the press — as a Romney aide did by telling Time’s Mark Halperin she isn’t “a serious human being.” Not by hoping against hope that Murdoch might turn off the media oxygen that feeds both Palin’s viability and News Corporation’s bottom line. Sooner or later Palin’s opponents will instead have to man up — as Palin might say — and actually summon the courage to take her on mano-a-maverick in broad daylight.

Short of that, there’s little reason to believe now that she cannot dance to the top of the Republican ticket when and if she wants to.

Frank Rich, New York Times


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21rich.html

Good Hope in Bad Trouble

‘If we didn’t dine with thugs and crooks,’ says one South African leader, ‘then we’d always eat alone.’

Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was “a good communist.” Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.

This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed R.W. Johnson’s reporting. The South Africa correspondent for the (London) Sunday Times and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Mr. Johnson has been a prolific critic of the ANC’s 16-year tenure in power. “South Africa’s Brave New World,” his political history of the post- apartheid era, amounts to a book-length indictment of the ANC. Its leaders come through as so corrupt, lecherous and violent that governance is not even an afterthought. “If we didn’t dine with thugs and crooks,” says one to Mr. Johnson, “then we’d always eat alone.” The book is a catalog of sins and rumors (footnoted, though often attributed to private sources or, for example, “old girlfriends” of ANC members). It is big and disorganized but filled with credible gossip—like the Trevor Manuel story—and therefore a delight.

Sixteen years is longer than any honeymoon should last, and it is past time that a book as unrelentingly negative as Mr. Johnson’s emerged to correct for the optimism lavished on South Africa’s rainbow nation following the collapse of apartheid in 1993. In Mr. Johnson’s view, the ANC turned South Africa into a giant kleptocracy run by thugs who would gladly sell their people back into serfdom as long as the price was right.

A self-described liberal who “cheered on” the wave of African nationalism of the postwar era, Mr. Johnson now sees the black supremacist ANC as the third in a trilogy of nationalisms (the first two were British and Afrikaner) that have ravaged South Africa. He is nostalgic for the economic growth of the apartheid era; the country was run by hardscrabble racists who built nuclear weapons, but they increased everyone’s standard of living.

Today the economy and infrastructure are in shambles. Unemployment is 25.3%, up from 17% in 1995. When I last visited South Africa in 2008, the state-owned energy giant Eskom was implementing rolling blackouts because of low capacity and booming demand—the predictable effects of the ANC’s drastically subsidizing the price of electricity. The Eskom engineers’ proudest technological achievement that year was the installment of home warning systems. Users could thus be alerted when their grid was in danger of going dark so that they could rush to lower their usage and persuade Eskom to spare them, as if their door was marked with lamb’s blood, when the blackout rolled through.

Most of the blame for South Africa’s failings falls to the leadership of the ANC, in Mr. Johnson’s view. Though he makes some allowances for Nelson Mandela, he is here a sad figure: publicly fêted by his ANC colleagues but privately scorned as senescent and incapable. Mr. Mandela accrued 27 years of moral capital in prison but had none of the political savvy necessary to run a government or build a functioning economy. Mr. Johnson points to the opportunity Mr. Mandela wasted when, after his inauguration in 1994, he failed to ask the EU to back up its lengthy moral encouragement with financial concessions, especially the granting of free trade with the European Union.

While Mr. Mandela comes across as hapless, the villain of this narrative is Thabo Mbeki, who emerges as one of the most cowardly and morally obtuse men ever to lead a free nation. Among Mr. Johnson’s most sensational accusations is that Mr. Mbeki knew in advance about the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a potential rival. Mr. Johnson builds a strong circumstantial case that Joe Modise, later defense minister, conspired in the killing and that Mr. Mbeki was long beholden to Mr. Modise for the favor.

Less controversially, Mr. Johnson details Mr. Mbeki’s support of Robert Mugabe (he claimed to be trying to ease the Zimbabwean dictator out peacefully while actually abetting an African auto-genocide) and his denial of the country’s HIV problem. Mr. Mbeki enshrined in policy the ravings of AIDS denialists and encouraged the fighting of the disease with garlic and potatoes. Mr. Johnson traces such missteps to Mr. Mbeki’s black revolutionary nationalism and a lingering Leninist tendency to view all dissent as fifth-column activity by puppets of patronizing whites.

Neither Mr. Johnson nor anyone else expected much of the government of Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki’s successor, a man known for “simple and unquestioning devotion to the ANC” and for stating that to preserve his health he had been sure to shower after having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman who accused him of rape. But recent reports say Mr. Zuma is planning to take innovative steps. Among them: firing incompetent ANC officials, a move that would certainly distinguish him from his predecessors. If Mr. Johnson’s descriptions of the farcical political scene in South Africa are even partly accurate, one is left to wonder who besides a few accidental economists will be left standing.

Mr. Wood is a contributing editor of the Atlantic.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704462704575590230348360118.html

To Run or Not to Run, That Is the Question

It’s only Thanksgiving 2010, but some GOP politicians must decide if they want a shot at the presidency.

All eyes have been on Capitol Hill, but let’s take a look at the early stages of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

This week the papers have been full of sightings—Newt and Huckabee are in Iowa, Pawlenty’s in New Hampshire. But maybe the more interesting story is that a lot of potential candidates will decide if they are definitely going to run between now and New Year’s—and some of them will be deciding over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s all happening now, they’re deciding in long walks, at the dinner table, and while watching the football game on the couch. They’ll be talking it through, sometimes for the first time and sometimes the tenth. “Can we do this?” “Are we in this together?” “How do you feel?”

In some cases those will be hard conversations. A largely unremarked fact of modern presidential politics is the increased and wholly understandable reluctance of candidates’ families to agree to a run. Looking at it through a purely personal prism, and that’s where most people start, they see it not as a sacrifice, which it is, but a burden, a life-distorter, and it is those things too. But they have to agree to enter Big History, or a candidate can’t go. And a lot of them don’t want the job, if victory follows candidacy, of “the president’s family.” The stakes are too high, the era too dramatic, the life too intense. They don’t want the intrusion, the end of all privacy, the fact that you’re always on, always representing.

A president’s spouse gets mass adulation one week and mass derision the next. But if you’re a normal person you probably never wanted mass adulation or mass derision.

So what’s happening now in the homes of some political figures is big and in some cases will be decisive. Potential candidates already have been approached by and met with campaign consultants, gurus looking for a gig telling them “Don’t worry about all the travel, you can have a Facebook campaign, we’ll make you the first I-pad candidate! You can keep your day job. You can even work your day job!” And then there are the potential contributors, the hedge fund libertarian in Greenwich, and the conservative millionaire in a Dallas suburb, who are raring to go. Candidates have to decide by at least New Year’s in order to be able to tell them to stay close and keep their powder dry, and in order to plan an announcement in the spring, in time for the first big GOP debate, at the Reagan Library.

Some candidates and their families are not wrestling with the idea of running, of course. Mitt Romney, for instance, surely knows he’s running. But not every potential candidate is serious about it. Some look like they’re letting the possibility they’ll run dangle out there because it keeps them relevant, keeps the cameras nearby, keeps their speech fees and book advances up. The one thing political journalists know and have learned the past few decades is that anyone can become president. So if you say you may run you are immediately going to get richer and more well known and treated with more respect by journalists. Another reason unlikely candidates act like they’re running is that who knows, they may. It’s hard to decide not to. It excites them to think they might. It helps them get up that morning and go to the 7 a.m. breakfast. “I’m not doing this for nothing, I may actually run. The people at the breakfast may hug me at my inauguration; I may modestly whisper, ‘Remember that breakfast in Iowa when nobody showed? But you did. You’re the reason I’m here.'” They’re not horrible, they’re just human. But history is serious right now, and it seems abusive to fake it. If you know in your heart you’re not going to run you probably shouldn’t jerk people around. This is history, after all.

All this decision making takes place within the context of a new mood in the party. We are at the beginning of what looks like a conservative renaissance, free of the past and back to basics. It is a revived conservatism restored to a sense of mission.

The broader context is this: Every four years we say, ‘This is a crucial election,’ and every four years it’s more or less true. But 2012 will seem truer than most. I suspect it will be, like 1980, a year that feels like a question: Will America turn itself around or not? Will it go in a dramatically new direction, or not.

And if there are new directions to be taken, it’s probably true that only a president, in the end, can definitively lead in that new direction. On spending, for instance, which is just one issue, it’s probably true that the new Congress will wrestle with cuts and limits and new approaches, and plenty of progress is possible, and big issues faced. But at the end of the day it will likely take a president to summon and gather the faith and trust of the people, and harness the national will. It’s probably true that only a president can ask everyone to act together, to trust each other, even, and to accept limits together in pursuit of a larger good.

Right now, at this moment, it looks like the next Republican nominee for president will probably be elected president. Everyone knows a rising tide when they see one. But everything changes, and nothing is sure. President Obama’s poll numbers seem to be inching up, and there’s reason to guess or argue that he hit bottom the week after the election and has nowhere to go but up.

Most of my life we’ve lived in a pretty much fifty-fifty nation, with each cycle decided by where the center goes. Mr. Obama won only two years ago by 9.5 million votes. That’s a lot of votes. His supporters may be disheartened and depressed, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ll show up for a presidential race, especially if the Republicans do not learn one of the great lessons of 2010: The center has to embrace the conservative; if it doesn’t, the conservative loses. Add to that the fact that the White House is actually full of talented people, and though they haven’t proved good at governing they did prove good not long ago at campaigning. It’s their gift. It’s ignored at the GOP’s peril.

All of this means that for Republicans, the choice of presidential nominee will demand an unusual level of sobriety and due diligence from everyone in the party, from primary voters in Iowa to county chairmen in South Carolina, and from party hacks in Washington to tea party powers in the Rust Belt. They are going to have to approach 2012 with more than the usual seriousness. They’ll have to think big, and not indulge resentments or anger or petty grievances. They’ll have to be cool eyed. They’ll have to watch and observe the dozen candidates expected to emerge, and ask big questions. Who can lead? Who can persuade the center? Who can summon the best from people? Who will seem credible (as a person who leads must)? Whose philosophy is both sound and discernible? Who has the intellectual heft? Who has the experience? Who seems capable of wisdom? These are serious questions, but 2012 is going to be a serious race.

Good luck to those families having their meetings and deliberations on Thanksgiving weekend.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704104104575622800962372246.html

Obama’s Air Guitar

The danger of America’s will to weakness.

Lately in the news:

Beijing provokes clashes with the navies of both Indonesia and Japan as part of a bid to claim the South China Sea. Tokyo is in a serious diplomatic row with Russia over the South Kuril islands, a leftover dispute from 1945. There are credible fears that Tehran and Damascus will use the anticipated indictment of Hezbollah figures by a U.N. tribunal to overthrow the elected Lebanese government. Managua is attempting to annex a sliver of Costa Rica, a nation much too virtuous to have an army of its own. And speaking of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is setting himself up as another Hugo Chávez by running, unconstitutionally, for another term. Both men are friends and allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

About all of this, the Obama administration has basically done nothing. As Sarah Palin might say: How’s that multi-poley stuff workin’ out for ya?

Throughout the Bush years, “multipolarity” was held up as the intelligent and necessary alternative to the supposedly go-it-alone approach to the world of the incumbent administration. French President Jacques Chirac was for it: “I have no doubt,” he said in 2003, “that the multipolar vision of the world that I have defended for some time is certainly supported by a large majority of countries throughout the world.” So were such doyens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.

In this view, multipolarity wasn’t merely a description of the world as it is, or of the world soon to come. It was also a prescription, a belief that a globe containing multiple centers of influence and power was preferable to one in which American dominance led, inevitably, to American excess. The war in Iraq was supposed to be Exhibit A.

Barack Obama was also a subscriber to this view. In the fall of 2008, a high-ranking foreign diplomat paid a visit to the offices of The Wall Street Journal and told a story of a meeting he and his colleagues had had with the Illinois senator. Mr. Obama, the diplomat recounted, had gone out of his way to arrange the chairs in a circle, not just as a courtesy but also as an effort to suggest that there was no pecking order to the meeting, that they all sat as equals. Wasn’t that nice? Didn’t it set a better tone?

Maybe it did. And maybe, given the thrust of some of President Obama’s ideas on trade, currency and monetary policy, it’s just as well. But whether an American president ought to get his way on a matter of policy is one thing. That a president can’t get his way is another. That’s a recipe for the global disorder we are beginning to see encroaching from Central America to the Middle and Far East.

Last week, Mr. Obama was so resoundingly rebuffed by other leaders at the G-20 summit in Seoul that even the New York Times noticed: Mr. Obama, the paper wrote, faced “stiff challenges . . . from the leaders of China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.” His administration has now been chastised or belittled by everyone from the Supreme Leader of Iran to the finance minister of Germany to the president of France to the dictator of Syria. What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who’s willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side.

But it would mean other things, too. The small and distant abuses of power, would grow bolder and more frequent. America’s exhortations for restraint or decency would seem cheaper. Multipolarity is a theory that, inevitably, leads to old-fashioned spheres of influence. It has little regard for small states: Taiwan, Mongolia, Israel, Georgia, Latvia, Costa Rica. The romance of the balance of power might have made sense when one empire was, more or less, as despotic as the next. It is less morally compelling when the choice is between democracy and Putinism, as it is today for Ukraine.

We are now at risk of entering a period—perhaps a decade, perhaps a half-century—of global disorder, brought about by a combination of weaker U.S. might and even weaker U.S. will. The last time we saw something like it was exactly a century ago. Winston Churchill wrote a book about it: “The World Crisis, 1911-1918.” Available in paperback. Worth reading today.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575616343421570982.html


President Obama isn’t the new Carter, but he just might be the new (first) Bush

Months before Election Day, the name of Jimmy Carter had assumed an incantatory power among observers of politics. President Obama’s supporters began to fret that his presidency was declining as Carter’s did, while his opponents salivated at the prospect, as though the more the 39th president was mentioned, the worse the chances of the 44th. In addition to columnists and bloggers, historians Walter Russell Mead and Sean Wilentz have written on the comparison, while Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, has worried over it. Carter himself recently discussed it with Larry King.

Is Obama the next Carter? Leaving aside for the moment the facility and myopia of this analogy — we’ve had 17 one-term presidents — its details are off. Obama and Carter are both Democrats, true, both are intellectuals who came into office on a wave of discontent, and both promised new approaches to government and the world. What candidates don’t? Obama seems to like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even less than Carter liked Menachim Begin, and Carter faced a crisis in Iran, a new eruption of terrorist threats, and economic woes, though all of very different sorts than those facing Obama.

But where Carter, a notorious micromanager and hand-wringer, appeared to bog down in the carpet fibers of the presidency, a common complaint about Obama is that he’s in the clouds. Where Carter was said to have a morose and pedantic outlook, Obama is accused of being, rather, cerebral and aloof — related charges, maybe, but not the same. Recounting Carter’s fumbling Mideast statecraft in his book “A World of Trouble,” Patrick Tyler described an “obsessive technocrat who wore his idealism like a crucifix and his pragmatism like a slide rule clipped to his waistband.” That’s not Obama.

Yet there is a recent one-term president he resembles. George H.W. Bush doesn’t often come up in discussions of Obama, but two years into Obama’s term, the two presidents’ tenures bear a striking resemblance. So too do their governing styles and temperaments, and even, unlikely though it may seem, their speech. Here are two leaders “buffeted by circumstance,” as the presidential historian Bert Rockman characterized Bush, whose same signal qualities in repulsing buffets and discussing them with the public — sobriety, patience, and, yes, prudence, to use Bush-impersonator Dana Carvey’s favorite Bushism — are often enough their least appreciated.

But why attempt the comparison at all? Isn’t analyzing the doings of one White House frustrating enough? Were we able to travel back in time and stand behind each of the 44 presidents as they went about a day in office, we’d no doubt find the diversity of problems they faced and the ways they faced them makes drawing parallels laughable. Despite working in the Oval Office, each successive occupant of it is a nonpareil.

Still, the practice feels necessary. Why? Most simply, because comparison is how we learn, how we judge. Comparing Obama to Carter, even if it’s to express disfavor, is a way of fitting him into a group, of trying to understand him and the challenges of his job. It’s a way of familiarizing him. That Obama is the first African-American president makes this impulse all the stronger. Similarly, while presidents have been compared since John Adams succeeded George Washington, when we’re talking about a young president with scant public record prior to his election, past presidential performances are one of the few available yardsticks.

So let’s compare, first, those historical buffets. In the first year of Bush’s term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis. Facilitated by deregulation and a mortgage bubble, the S&L crisis threatened the country’s banking system by the time of Bush’s inaugural. Unpopular though he knew the move would be, Bush and Congress put together a massive tax-funded rescue. The public didn’t understand the disastrous alternative scenario, and the move was assailed as a bailout of reckless bankers.

Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world. He cut off diplomatic ties to China after Tiananmen, but, a committed internationalist, he believed engagement was eventually the right strategy. He was roundly criticized for not doing enough to support the protestors.

That didn’t turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Since “everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything,” as the presidential historian Richard Neustadt observed in his study “Presidential Power,” Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.

Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.

George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits. Though Bush would have liked to do more in domestic policy, he was constrained not just by money, but by a widespread public conviction, inflamed by Reagan, that government “is the problem.” Bush pollster Robert Teeter recognized this early on, seeing that while Americans were revolted by the “private interest” excesses of the Reagan era — as Bush himself was — they were also unwilling to embrace the “public purpose” alternative.

Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan’s had. And Obama faced the same conundrum: He campaigned on the promise of a renewed sense of public purpose, and perhaps the most fundamental misreading of the public he made was thinking that what even many conservatives wanted, after George W. Bush, was not smaller government but rather more competent big government. Long before they’d occurred, the 2010 elections were deemed a rejection of that notion.

It’s little remembered now that a renewed sense of public purpose was also Bush’s hope. We recall with amused pity the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler America,” but those ideas meant something to Bush. He’d studied at the feet of the policy mandarins who surrounded his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, conservative men who nonetheless believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, a proposition Reagan made his name maligning. Though he first ran as a Goldwater conservative, as a young congressman — like Obama but unlike Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W., he came out of the Legislature — Bush proved his mettle by bravely voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fair housing bill, after Johnson had announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, and over the objections of Bush’s incensed white Houston constituents.

In 1988, Bush could not run openly on reversing his predecessor’s policies, as Obama would later run against his son, but he did so tacitly. He was troubled by the rampant deregulation and decline in social services funding of the 1980s. Indeed, one slogan of his campaign, since forgotten, was “We Are The Change!” (add “we seek” to the end of that, and you have an oft-repeated slogan of the Obama campaign).

As president, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He put the full weight of the White House behind renewing the Clean Air and Water Acts (a coup Obama would be lucky to equal). He effected the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Most gallingly for his friends on Wall Street, in the wake of the S&L crisis he approved the most significant package of financial regulation reforms until 2010’s Consumer Financial Protection Act.

In his inaugural address, in which he studiously eschewed the folksy populism of Carter, Obama pledged that Americans were “ready to lead once more.” Similarly Bush predicted a “new world order” led by America, a phrase that would come to haunt him in the 1992 primaries. “Is George Bush merely an idealist or are there now plans underway to merge the interests of the US and the Soviet Union in the United Nations,” Pat Robertson drooled in his campaign book, “and install a socialist ‘world order’ in place of a free market system?” If that rings a bell, it may be because you’ve been watching clips of Glenn Beck.

There is also a rhetorical similarity between the two presidents. Obama is better spoken and more inspiring than was Bush, but, like Obama, Bush’s central rhetorical fault — how he eventually lost the public — was that he was always cool, always rational. He knew what he wanted, and what he’d done, but, like Obama, he was almost bashful about explaining as much to Americans, going so far as to cross many of the I’s out of his addresses. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater lamented that his boss’s approach to message politics was “If I am doing the right thing, I can take any punishment.” Bush himself admitted, “I’m not good at expressing the concerns of a nation — I’m just not very good at it.”

Like Obama, Bush had a cerebral, deliberative, occasionally paradoxical way of speaking. In a fascinating study, “Personality Profiles of the 1992 Presidential Candidates as Derived from their Speech Patterns,” a pair of speech pathologists found that Bush’s most hobbling tendency as a speaker was not his well-known gaffes, which many people actually found endearing, but his Obama-esque fondness for retractors — “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” and other such words that suggest active thought but also reversals of course.

The presidential historian Richard Hofstadter, who perfected the art of comparing chief executives, pointed out that the activity was a cultural necessity. “A longing to recapture the past, in fact, has itself been such a basic ingredient of the recent American past that no history of political thinking is complete which does not attempt to explain it,” Hofstadter wrote in “The American Political Tradition.” In other words, as Americans, we ply a kind of hyper-nostalgia. Hence every officeholder runs on the promise of restoring tradition, acknowledging as little as possible that America has many governmental traditions, not just one, a fact writ large in the presidency. It is said that nothing can prepare a candidate for the highest office. Maybe then we must compare presidents precisely because they are nonpareils? The presidency is an embodiment of so many traditions, a job of such power, of such complexity and thanklessness, there is no standard of measurement for it except itself.

This winter, Obama will face what promises to be a bitter debate over the deficit and taxes. Commentators will no doubt compare it to the budget battle of 1995-96, when Washington shut down. A better parallel, however, would be the fiscal debate Bush faced in 1990. More than anything, it proved the undoing of his presidency. Bush wrote in his diary at the time that he knew a decision to raise taxes might cost him reelection. He also knew that the cavalier spirit behind his “read my lips!” campaign pledge, while popular, was unwise — which is to say unlike George H.W. Bush. So he agreed to raise taxes.

Never mind that the deficit reduction bill he signed paved the way for the surpluses of the 1990s, or that his tax increase was actually smaller than an earlier one forced upon Reagan in percentage of gross domestic product: Republican legislators abandoned Bush over the decision. Their treacherous logic was voiced by Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber: “What is good for the president may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans. We need wedge issues to beat incumbent Democrats.”

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because you encountered it a few weeks ago — but not from Republicans. It summed up the playbook of Democrats running for their lives, away from Obama’s policies. It resulted in the loss of the House of Representatives.

James Verini is a journalist in New York.


Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/14/obamabush/

Packing off politics

ON SUNDAY Poles will elect a slew of mayors, municipal and regional councillors. They will choose from among professional politicians, experienced local hands and celebrities with a desire to dabble in politics (the picture above depicts a pop starlet who touts herself as “beautiful, independent and competent”). This is the third such election since the centre-right government of Jerzy Buzek devolved real power to local authorities in 1998. That reform is rightly regarded as one of the great successes of Poland’s transition to fully-fledged democracy.

Local politics is spared much of the mudslinging and bickering that goes on at a national level. Many of the country’s most respected mayors are independents, while local coalitions are pragmatic. It works well (or at least less badly). Local roads, for example, have improved a lot more than those run by the central government.

Despite that, the Sunday poll will in part be a referendum on the ruling centre-right Civic Platform (PO) and their competitors such as the increasingly vehement other centre-right party, Law and Justice (PiS).

PO’s campaign panders to Poles’ disgust with the inconsequential partisan palaver that fills the media. Its campaign slogan promises to “put politics aside”. Many find that a bit rich from people who are in power (or even rich) thanks precisely to politics. In Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily, Witold Gadomski castigates PO for its latest television ad in which a clutch of everymen claim to be preoccupied with arcane (and distinctly non-local) matters, such as the damage done by vested interests to the EU, or the fate of the Yamal gas pipeline. “Is politics really more important than local matters?” a voice asks disparagingly at the end. Well, that depends what you mean by “politics”. Mr Gadomski is certainly right to remind the ruling party that “politics is important”, to cite the title of his editorial.

Politics is about aligning common interests, both at the local and national level (…) Politicians should be explaining this to voters, not dissuading them from engaging in public affairs. Democracy relies on informed choices. The better informed the citizenry, the more rational their choices. This isn’t the first time the PO is luring voters with populist slogans. It is a pernicious tack to take, both for Poland and for the PO. There are those who can easily outbid the PO in the populism stakes.

This electoral ploy is predicated on the (justified) belief that in Poland the word “politics” has come to signify inane slinging matches—politicking, if you will. Unfortunately, any attempts to do serious “politics” typically unravel. This is partly the fault of politicians of all stripes who find it easier to offend rivals than opine intelligently on matters of topical concern. The media, especially the broadcast and electronic sort, deserve flak, too. They tend to elicit, highlight and propagate the most egregious outbursts. Websites, newspapers, radio and television programmes devote inordinate time to analysing the latest soundbite. The more fatuous, the better. Nor is the public entirely blameless, given how eagerly it laps all this up.

The PO’s overt disdain of such antics is warranted (though its politicians are as culpable any other party’s). The rub with its latest electoral ploy is that rather than mock politicking, it pokes fun at politics. Last time Poles voted in local elections in 2006, the turnout was a dismal 40%. The PO’s campaign may result in even fewer people bothering to cast a ballot. Hardly a prospect that a party with “civic” in its name should relish.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/11/politics_without_politics

Bush Agonistes? Not Quite

In an interview, the former president makes the case for his ‘freedom agenda’ and defends his record on the economy and spending.

The former leader of the free world sits in a comfy chair wearing Crocs. As twilight sets in, George W. Bush keeps one eye on a muted World Series game. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he tells the TV in his home library after one impressive Rangers play.

The 43rd president of the United States looks healthy, rested and confident. That last is especially notable, considering he’s not yet two years out of what can only be called a controversial presidency.

Mr. Bush ran as a uniter, but the hung 2000 election bequeathed him a divided nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought brief national cohesion, but it was soon shattered by recriminations over the Iraq war. A difficult second term—overshadowed by war turmoil and capped by a financial crisis—saw him leave office with anemic approval ratings. But as readers of “Decision Points,” his memoir set to hit stands today, will discover, this is not a president agonizing over the big decisions he made or wringing his hands about history’s judgment.

The book is not the usual chronological fare; Mr. Bush wrote thematically, with 14 chapters chronicling decisions he made in life and office, and it is very much in his own voice. We get his insights on his decision to quit drinking, on stem cell research, Hurricane Katrina and enhanced interrogations. Six chapters deal with the momentous foreign and domestic policy decisions that followed from 9/11.

[bushinterview]George W. Bush
The president does write about his regrets and his desire to have done some things differently. But both in his memoir and in an interview he granted me 10 days ago, Mr. Bush sounds entirely secure about the major decisions of his presidency. The last lines of the book perhaps put it best: “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.”
The president—thoughtful, spirited, and at times making fun of my clumsiness with a tape recorder—gamely answered everything I threw at him.
If his book has an overriding theme, it is Mr. Bush’s case for his “freedom agenda.” He defines it broadly: from Afghanistan and Iraq, to his African AIDS work, to tax cuts. One major criticism of his Iraq policy is that the turmoil in that country has empowered Iran, which continues to move toward a bomb.
“The notion that we went into Iraq and therefore the Iranians became emboldened—it was the opposite,” Mr. Bush says. “The Iranians, it turns out, suspended their program,” he continues, referring to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003. He says that it wasn’t until mid-2005 that Iranian elections brought to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the process of nuclear enrichment would accelerate.
As for those who feel Mr. Bush wasn’t aggressive enough, the president disputes the notion that Iran can be compared to Iraq. “Diplomacy was just beginning in Iran, the world was just beginning to focus,” he says. Mr. Bush takes credit for “helping focus” that attention.
One revelation in the book is the degree to which Mr. Bush’s Iran strategy hinged on internal political revolt. His goal, on the one hand, was to “slow down” the Iranian “capacity to develop a weapon,” which he chose to do with sanctions. On the other hand, his administration tried to “speed up” the ability of reformers to institute change. He writes of his belief that the success of the surge and a free Iraq would “help catalyze that change,” and he points to last year’s massive street protests following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
What about the critique that Afghanistan was left to fester while the president dealt with Iraq, setting up a return of the Taliban and the need for President Obama to send more troops? “What I say is, we had a large coalition of troops in Afghanistan and it looked like we were making progress.” He notes that “when it became apparent that the NATO coalition was not able to cohesively deal with the Taliban,” he ordered a 2006 “silent surge” in Afghanistan—a 50% troop increase. “We were plenty capable of doing two things at the same time.”
Mr. Bush writes that one of two major “setbacks in Iraq” was not finding WMD. He writes it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” I ask why, given the myriad reasons he lays out for removing Saddam. The problem, he says, was what the lack of WMD meant for the public’s perception of the war.
“The world is better off and more secure without Saddam Hussein in power. But so much of the case—and so much of the focus—was on WMD, that the failure to find it made the task of convincing the American people to hang in there harder.” The Bush doctrine rested on “going on offense.” And in Mr. Bush’s mind, this failure risked a “wave of isolationism that would effect U.S. security” by putting Americans off future pre-emptive action.
Should he have fought back harder against those who accused him of lying about WMD, as Karl Rove argued in his memoir? “His point is that I should have gotten in their face about the lying, and I chose not to do that because I thought it would diminish the presidency. . . . You start calling names, it makes it even harder to hold the support of the American people.
President Bush has studiously refrained from commenting on Mr. Obama—and doesn’t here. Though when I ask him what is the most devastating thing that could happen to Iraq now, he shoots out unequivocally: “No U.S. presence. We need to work with the Iraqi government and respond to any requests they may have about a presence.
Given Mr. Bush’s reputation as an international cowboy, readers will be intrigued by his descriptions of his relationships with world leaders—including frank appraisals of those he did and didn’t like. The latter category would come to include Vladimir Putin, despite the president’s 2001 comment that he’d seen into the Russian leader’s “soul.
I ask the president when exactly he became aware of Mr. Putin’s true political character. “When they started suspending rights,” he responds. Mr. Bush’s theory is that the mid-decade rise in oil prices emboldened Mr. Putin, giving him “an opportunity to spread economic hegemony” to a Europe reliant on Russia’s natural gas. Why wasn’t there more pushback from the White House? Russia was a “disappointment,” Mr. Bush admits, but he adds that “it’s hard to know if we could have done anything differently. Russia is a sovereign nation, they elected their leaders, and they entrenched themselves.”
Then there are the anecdotes about Jacques Chirac, who at several points lectures the U.S. on the folly of morality or idealism. When I ask the president if he wants to expand, he starts, stops, and gives that Bush chuckle. “Let’s just say he wasn’t a freedom-agenda guy.”
Mr. Bush devotes his final chapter to the financial meltdown: The White House anxiety he describes nearly equals his narration of 9/11. He heaps most of the blame on Wall Street. As for too-loose Federal Reserve policy, which many see as the groundwork for the housing bubble, Mr. Bush refers to “easy money” only once among a list of contributing factors.
I ask if anybody ever specifically warned him about the Fed’s feeding of the mortgage beast. “No, not really. I think that the only place, the main place, where we get credit for having seen a potential crisis is Fannie and Freddie.” (The administration’s proposed reforms were blocked by Congress.) “The crisis blindsided us.”
While a Democratic Congress this year passed a slew of financial regulations, Mr. Bush argues this wasn’t “a lack-of-regulation crisis, except for the extent to which Fannie and Freddie were allowed to run wild. . . . This was a regulated house of cards—regulators were watching it all. . . . This was a crisis that was caused in large part by bad business decisions.”
If that was the case, why weren’t more banks left to fail? Did the administration discuss what particular institutions were too big to fail? “No,” Mr. Bush answers, adding that he believes in letting the market punish bad decisions but in this case the economy was in the balance. “We didn’t want any of them to fail because we were really worried that there would be a domino effect.”
Unprompted, he adds that this fear is why the administration bailed out General Motors. Did he genuinely believe that a GM bankruptcy would cause an economic freefall? “That’s what I was told. I think at that point in time it would have been still pretty risky.” I must still look skeptical because he adds: “I hope I conveyed in the book this sense, that we were,” he throws his hands in the air, as if to summon the anxiety of those weeks. “We were pretty risk-averse at this point. We really were.”
Why did the administration inject TARP money directly into banks—a move that tarred healthy banks along with sick ones—rather than proceed with the original idea to buy up toxic assets? “Because it was too cumbersome. It was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t going to work quickly enough. Whose assets? How do you buy them? . . . We didn’t have a lot of time.” With capital injections, the money went “boom, right into the system.”
Will the fact that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression happened on his watch overshadow his accomplishments on the war on terror? Again, that confidence. “Naaaaah. I think history will eventually say that the Bush administration dealt with this in a way that saved the economy. . . We didn’t have a depression—and I thought one was coming. I did.”
One perception the president is determined to shift is that of his spending record. “Decision Points” contains one graphic: a table comparing, among other things, President Bush’s average spending-to-GDP (19.6%) to that of Bill Clinton (19.8%), Bush 41 (21.9%), and Reagan (22.4%). It also shows that his deficit-to-GDP was 2%—half that of Bush 41 and Reagan.

I come armed with a slew of spending questions. Why didn’t he veto more GOP spending bills? Why didn’t he use the war as a reason to cut back on domestic spending? But he shuts me down by referring to the chart. I point out that, chart or no, there is a perception he oversaw fiscal profligacy.

“Yes, there is,” he concedes. “I think the Medicare reform caused certain conservative writers to say ‘Bush has been fiscally irresponsible.’ And they did not look at the facts. And the facts are that we have a very solid fiscal record”—despite spending “a lot of money” on war, homeland security, and Hurricane Katrina.

But what about 2003 Medicare reform, which saw Republicans add a major new prescription drug entitlement? He rejects the premise of the question. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare. And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” The prescription-drug program is about allowing Medicare to give seniors a “$15 drug in order to prevent a $30,000 operation that your taxpayer money would be committed to paying.”

Congress will soon be debating the fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign and have been an unadulterated supply-side victory. As the memoir notes, what followed the 2003 legislation—which included important cuts in top marginal rates, capital gains and dividend taxes—was 46 consecutive months of growth.

Isn’t the point here that not all tax cuts are created equal, and that there’s more value in the 2003 supply-side winners, than in, say, Mr. Bush’s 2008 one-time tax “rebates” that caused only a temporary GDP blip? “I don’t want to differentiate,” he responds, though he does a bit. “I do know this, 70% of new jobs in America are created by small businesses . . . and the rates matter to small business. And capital gains matter to investment.” His bigger point is that all the cuts come down to a “philosophy” that’s pretty simple to follow: “We’d rather you spend your money than the government spend your money.”

There’s a lot of emotion in Mr. Bush’s memoir—much of it for the families of troops who died protecting the country. But when it comes to the policy decisions we discuss during the interview, this does not seem like a man going to bed tortured by what-ifs or what-will-comes.

What will future historians say? “I’d hope they’d say he had certain principles that were the foundation of his presidency, and on which he was unwilling to compromise.”

And what about those who believe he wasn’t really a conservative—that he’s to blame for setting the stage for the Obama ascendancy? He smiles. “I say read the book.”

Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805704575594343435477562.html

A Short History of Midterm Elections

If the past is indeed prologue, then Republicans shouldn’t get too cocky.

A popular and charismatic president in a time of great economic distress has large majorities in both the House and Senate. He tries to push through Congress a highly unpopular measure that, in the opinion of many, would have fundamentally altered the nature of the country. Meanwhile the economy was failing to recover. At the midterm elections, despite strenuous efforts on his part, he gets clobbered.

Barack Obama in 2010? No, Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. Roosevelt had carried 46 states in 1936. But his attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court had run into ferocious opposition and was defeated. Meanwhile the economy, which had been slowly recovering from the depths of the Great Depression, turned south again. Unemployment, which had fallen to 14.3% from its Depression high, shot back up to 19%.

In that midterm, Republicans picked up 80 seats in the House and seven in the Senate. But because they were coming off the worst legislative numbers in their history (16 seats in the Senate and 89 in the House), the Democrats easily retained control of Congress. Nevertheless, a chastened Roosevelt pushed no more major domestic legislation.

The reason presidents tend to do badly in midterms is that they have maximum political capital immediately after election and try to do the tough stuff in their first two years. They then pay the price for it in the next election, as marginal seats are lost. In a successful presidency, they often regain those seats two years later when they run, once again, at the top of the ticket.

Sometimes it is not just the president and his controversial programs that cause the losses, but the congressional majority as well. In 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s first term, the Democrats had been in charge of the House for 40 years and had more than gotten used to it. Then came the Congressional Post Office scandal. Some members had used the House post office to embezzle funds (chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, would go to jail for it). Many members had run chronic overdrafts at the House bank, where sloppy and sometimes criminal procedures were the norm.

The Republicans led by Newt Gingrich capitalized on this to win a majority, picking up 54 seats. Among the losers were Tom Foley, the first sitting speaker of the House to lose his congressional seat since 1862.

Franklin Roosevelt

But the banking and post office scandals of the 1990s were penny-ante compared with the congressional shenanigans before the 1874 election. The management of the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been given huge federal subsidies to build part of the first transcontinental railroad, formed a construction company and then hired it to construct the railroad. The company—to which they had given a fancy French name, Crédit Mobilier—wildly overcharged the railroad and was, therefore, wildly profitable. The shield company allowed Union Pacific management to line its pockets with taxpayer money while maintaining that Crédit Mobilier was an independent contractor.

To ensure there would be no congressional investigation, the management of Crédit Mobilier (including Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames) handed out stock to 20 members of Congress and the vice president. The scandal broke in 1873, when disgruntled insiders spilled the beans to the New York Sun. The story helped bring on the great financial panic in September of that year. The result was a bloodbath for the Republicans. They held over 68% of the seats in the House in 1874; after the election, they held just 35%, and the Democrats had a majority for the first time since before the Civil War.

Perhaps the most fateful midterm election as far as history is concerned was 1918. Only six days before World War I ended, the Republicans gained 25 seats in the House and seven in the Senate to take control of both houses for the first time since Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912. The new majority leader of the Senate was Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. His views on foreign policy were very different from those of the president, who sailed for Paris a month later to negotiate the peace treaty. Despite Lodge’s request, Wilson refused to allow any Republican of note to accompany him to Paris, although a treaty would require consent from the Republican-controlled Senate. He was determined to get a League of Nations and paid a heavy price in Paris to get it, acceding to the vengeful peace that the British and French were determined to get in return.

Lodge was adamant that the treaty must not commit the United States to any action ordered by the League. Refusing to compromise, Wilson undertook a speaking tour hoping to drum up enough support for the treaty to force its acceptance by the Senate. The effort brought on a stroke, permanently reducing Wilson to an invalid. The treaty failed in the Senate and the U.S. never joined the League. Without the world’s most powerful country, the League failed dismally and Wilson’s dream of world peace enforced by collective action turned into a 20-year truce ending in World War II.

But while midterm elections can be brutal for presidents and congressional majorities alike, they are not necessarily fatal. In 1946, the Republicans took 12 seats in the Senate and 55 in the House, to take control of both chambers for the first time since 1930. Two years later, the Democrats gained nine in the Senate and 75 in the House and took control right back.

Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were widely regarded, at least in the liberal media, as one-term presidents in the making after midterm losses in 1970 and 1982, respectively. Two years later they each won 49 states. Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 after his party’s 1994 midterm thumping and the subsequent overreach by the GOP-controlled House.

So, as a student of history, I would subscribe to the blogger Glenn Reynolds’s advice to Republicans both before and after their electoral triumph on Tuesday: “Don’t get cocky.”

Mr. Gordon is the author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power” (HarperCollins, 2004).


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805704575594343435477562.html

Don’t Get Cocky, GOP

Obama is weak, but it is always difficult to defeat a sitting president.

It has been a brutal month for President Obama. The historic electoral rebuke delivered to his party was followed at the G-20 meeting by a public rebuff of the Federal Reserve’s QE2 program and the administration’s handling of the China currency issue.

The president arrived home to find House Democrats intent on keeping Nancy Pelosi as leader, New York Congressman Charles Rangel judged guilty by a House ethics panel of 11 violations, and a lame duck session of Congress fraught with battles over taxes, the New Start treaty and more. This has Republicans feeling cocky about 2012.

Opinion surveys give some support for GOP optimism. This month’s Associated Press-GfK poll shows only 39% of Americans believe Mr. Obama deserves re-election, while 54% believe he deserves to be voted out of office. In a late October CNN poll, Mr. Obama trailed both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee nationally. And in polls taken in battleground states by Public Policy Polling, Mr. Obama lost to a generic unnamed Republican in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado.

Mr. Obama can’t count on a strong economy to improve his fortunes. President Ronald Reagan’s policies produced 4.5% and 7.2% growth in the two years before his 1984 re-election. But the University of Michigan Economic Forecast projects only 2.3% and 3.2% growth in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and 9% unemployment at the next election.

Still, Republicans should sober up. It is always difficult to defeat a sitting president. Since World War II, three have been defeated for re-election and two decided not to run again. But five have sought and won second terms.

Moreover, the GOP lacks a clear frontrunner. Gallup found this week that no potential Republican candidate draws more than 19% support for nomination: Four contenders are essentially tied.

This shows how unusual the GOP presidential contest will be. Historically, the Republican faithful have displayed an almost genetic predisposition to settle early on a favorite who, by dint of previous service or campaigning, has a claim on their hearts and minds. Not this time. The dozen or so potential Republican candidates will all come out of the blocks from essentially the same starting line, ensuring a wide-open and unpredictable contest.

The contest will gel late in 2011, with the stronger candidates being those who do better at three essential tasks. The first is to create a compelling narrative for why Mr. Obama deserves to be replaced, why voters should pick him or her as the replacement, and where he or she seeks to lead the country.

Passion and authenticity will matter a great deal. Republicans spent 2010 focused on this year’s contests—and while they are now pondering who should be their party’s standard-bearer in 2012, I sense a desire to wait and observe before committing.

The second task for each candidate is to demonstrate the strength, values, decision-making capacity and leadership to take on the responsibilities of the world’s most powerful and important job. Voters need to be able to visualize someone in the Oval Office before they will give them their support.

For the most part, this task cannot be achieved directly. Confidence is built by handling the unanticipated question or the unannounced test.

Finally, the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination is likely to be the one who shows the greatest ability to unite the party and draw others into the GOP fold. This was one of Ronald Reagan’s great strengths. No candidate in the GOP field possesses Reagan’s political gifts. But they should seek to emulate his appeal to both committed Republicans and to disaffected Democrats and independents in a principled and optimistic manner.

It will be a long, hard slog. Both parties have wisely pushed back the Iowa caucuses to the first week of February. (In 2008, they were on Jan. 3. Some caucus-goers still suffered from New Year’s hangovers.) The Internet’s power for fund-raising and organization could mean even more frequent twists and turns in the race than we’re used to.

But done right, a long and competitive primary season could be very healthy for the GOP, drawing the country’s interest, boosting Republican registrations, recruiting volunteers, and sharpening its message.

Mr. Obama is extremely weak right now. It’s an open question whether he possesses the political skills that allowed other presidents (like Bill Clinton) to recover. The results of his policies may prevent his recovery, not enable it, as with Reagan. Republicans should not count on Mr. Obama imploding but assume the race ahead will be difficult. If history is any guide, it will be.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704648604575620653438957226.html

Sarkozy Draws Ire Over Media Spying Claims

Last spring the domestic intelligence agency, the DCRI, were asked to investigate who had spread rumors about Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, having extramarital affairs. The justification given for the operation was that there was a suspected foreign plot to discredit the French president in the runup to the G-20 summit.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly ordered France’s domestic intelligence agency to spy on journalists who annoyed him. The opposition is now demanding an investigation. Is French democracy in jeopardy?

Edwy Plenel has been a journalist for over 30 years. He was editor-in-chief of Le Monde , France’s leading daily, he uncovered many scandals during the presidency of François Mitterrand, and he was spied on by the Elysée Palace in the 1980s, but it was always relatively bearable. Plenel, a former Trotskyite, has never found it easy to be a journalist in France. But now he finds it intolerable.

“Our democracy is in serious danger,” says Plenel, who founded the independent news website Mediapart three years ago. “Our republic, its laws and its principles are disintegrating into a big ash heap right in front of our eyes.” Plenel is convinced that French freedom — and, most of all, the freedom of the press — is in serious jeopardy.

A Thorn in Sarkozy’s Side

According to Plenel, the Mediapart journalists who first unearthed the scandal surrounding the billionaire L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt — with its allegations of illegal political contributions and tax evasion — have for months been under surveillance in an operation controlled by the Elysée Palace. Likewise, he claims, agents from France’s domestic intelligence service (DCRI) have even analyzed the mobile-phone records of two of his journalists so as to precisely map out their network of contacts. The service also reportedly put together movement profiles of the two journalists, tracking their whereabouts by using GPS coordinates provided by their mobile phones.

Then, of course, there was the break-in at Mediapart’s editorial offices located on a small Parisian side street in the 12th arrondissement, just behind the Bastille. Plenel refuses to believe it was a random burglary and, instead, attributes it to an operation ordered by Elysée Chief of Staff Claude Guéant.

“You aren’t protecting me at all,” Sarkozy reportedly complained last summer to Frédéric Péchenard, a childhood friend who directs the national police, and Bernard Squarcini, the head of the DCRI. At the time, in mid-July, with their daily exposés on the Bettencourt affair, Mediapart and Le Monde were a major thorn in Sarkozy’s side. Since then, it has become clear that Péchenard and Squarcini apparently took his laments to heart.

Last spring, at the president’s request, the DCRI looked into a private matter for Sarkozy. He wanted intelligence agents to figure out who had spread rumors about he and his wife, Carla Bruni, having extramarital affairs. The Interior Ministry sought to justify the operation by claiming that there was a suspected foreign plot to discredit the French president in the runup to the G-20 summit. Bruni was also allegedly given access to the police and intelligence reports.

Meanwhile, intelligence chief Squarcini, a Corsican counterterrorism expert whose skills Sarkozy had come to appreciate during his tenure as interior minister, has reportedly also set up a unit tasked with keeping tabs on journalists. The president himself specifies the individuals the group focuses its surveillance activities on, according to a claim made last Wednesday by Claude Angeli, editor-in-chief of the satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, one of France’s few politically and financially independent papers. Angeli says his claims are based on “very reliable informants” within DCRI headquarters.

The story promptly triggered a barrage of denials. It was all “completely fabricated,” according to officials at the Elysée Palace. The intelligence service “is not the Stasi or the KGB,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux declared. “I don’t get my orders from Sarko,” Squarcini shot back, “but from my superior, the police chief.”

But Angeli disagrees. “We are convinced that the president is personally involved in everything,” he counters. “Nothing escapes Sarkozy.”

Even in a country like France, this degree of personal intervention by the country’s most powerful politician is unprecedented.

Taking Things a Step Further

Sarkozy’s fellow conservatives like to point out that François Mitterrand, the former Socialist president, had a department at the Elysée dedicated solely to his own affairs, and that among its responsibilities was listening in on the telephone conversations of journalists. This so-called “cabinet noir” was only exposed a few years later, when its members were put on trial. But Sarkozy is apparently going one step further and secretly exploiting the police and intelligence service for his own purposes, justifying his actions by arguing that the state is in jeopardy.

Sarkozy’s interventions occasionally become a matter of public knowledge, as was the case a few weeks ago when government investigators targeted Le Monde journalist Gérard Davet. In an article he had written on the Bettencourt affair, Davet had leveled serious charges against Labor Minister Eric Woerth and provided a surprising number of details to back up his claims. Davet’s telephone statements were checked, and when the lists of calls he had made were compared with those of the presumed informant, an employee of the Justice Ministry was exposed — and summarily transferred to French Guyana as punishment.

Le Monde then filed criminal charges against “persons unknown” at the Elysée for allegedly violating protections afforded to informants by a new media law. In January, Sarkozy had himself announced the law, which provides even stronger protection for sources, an indispensable tool for the work of journalists. But the law has one exception: If national interests are in jeopardy, sources can be revealed. And it was just this exception that the police chief who had assumed responsibility for the intelligence operation cited in his defense in September.

Last week, the administration was also forced to admit that — in the interest of the state, of course — a public prosecutor who had been decorated by Sarkozy had ordered intelligence agents to examine telephone communications between two Le Monde editors and a judge involved in the Bettencourt case.

Such revelations make it increasingly difficult to believe the many official denials of wrongdoing. Likewise, Sarkozy’s adversaries point to a series of bizarre burglaries. For instance, Le Monde editor Davet’s computer was recently stolen from his apartment. A journalist with the weekly magazine Le Point who happened to be working on the Bettencourt case was also the victim of a computer theft. Before that, laptops, an external hard drive and CDs containing recorded conversations with the L’Oréal heiress had mysteriously disappeared from Mediapart’s offices.

A Threat to French Democracy?

As the government sees it, the culprits in all of these cases were merely ordinary thieves — and ones who happened to be more interested in getting their hands on incriminating material than valuables. But Olivier Metzner, a Paris-based attorney representing Liliane Bettencourt’s estranged daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, begs to differ. In fact, Metzer is worried about the threat posed to French democracy if the government decides to “send out agents to steal the computers of journalists who are looking into the affair.”

Over the past three years, the French have become more or less accustomed to Sarkozy’s cronyism and the perceived “Berlusconi-ization” of the nation’s media. For example industrialist Martin Bouygues, the godfather of Sarkozy’s youngest son, controls TF1, the country’s largest private television station. And the man who headed Sarkozy’s office when he held the top position at the Interior Ministry is on the station’s management board.

What’s more, Sarkozy has figured out how to gain control over the entire public broadcasting system. For example, when appointing directors of radio and television stations, Sarkozy has shown a clear preference for friends and trusted associates. And they repay the president with loyalty, as can be gathered from a recent incident at France Inter, a major public radio channel, when two comedians were shown the door after making fun of the government.

Under these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that there aren’t many members of the media still willing to criticize the administration. Indeed, a major shift has now taken place in the French media landscape, and it is now online publications — like Mediapart and Rue89, a website run by a former editor with the daily newspaper Libération — who have alone assumed the mantle of uncovering scandals.

In the wake of recent accusations, the opposition Socialist Party and Greens have demanded an investigation into the alleged intelligence activities. Last Thursday, intelligence chief Squarcini and his superior, Police Chief Péchenard, were called to testify before a parliamentary commission behind closed doors. Details of the hearing have yet to be revealed — most likely to protect the national interest.


Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,727986,00.html

Kevin Rubs It In

My Mom used to say, “When you’re blue, wear red.” America took that advice on Election Day, and you can color Kevin happy. My conservative brother celebrated by doing his year-end political letter early. Here is his tour d’horizon:

As a semichastened Barack Obama appeared at the press conference following the election, he conjured up the image of the curtain opening in “The Wizard of Oz,” revealing a little old man working the controls, not the great and powerful Oz.

The president had to wonder how this could happen in two short years. He must long for the days when the media routinely referred to him as “cerebral and brainy” (savvy was never mentioned) and salivated over “Michelle’s amazing arms.”

The voters left no doubt about their feeling for his super-nanny state where the government controls all aspects of their lives and freedoms. Warning signs were up in the three elections held in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey and with the noisy birth of the Tea Party. But the president, swathed in the protective cocoon of adulation and affirmation from the media and his own sycophants, soldiered on in his determination to turn our country into just another member of the failed European union — France without the food.

No one should be surprised by this. The president is a devoted disciple of the teachings of Saul Alinsky and a true believer in a redistribution of wealth controlled by big government. We can see how well that is working in Greece, Portugal, Spain and France. Instead of focusing on jobs and turning the private sector loose to provide them, he insisted on giving the American people things they did not want: expensive health care, more regulation and higher taxes. He clumsily interjected himself on behalf of the mass-murdering Muslim Army major, the ground zero mosque, the civil trials of enemy combatants and the lawsuit against Arizona. His theme song could have been “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On Nov. 2, voters across every spectrum loudly stated their preference for a return to American exceptionalism, self-reliance, limited government and personal freedoms. They delivered a message that they would demand that their representatives start reflecting their wishes. They showed their muscle to shocked elitists who had dismissed their dissent as ignorance, bigotry or racism. It is probably a product of the revisionist history we now teach in our schools that the Tea Party, a replica of the beginnings of the American Revolution, was marginalized and mocked as a lunatic fringe group by a dismissive news media.

That same media is becoming increasingly aware that its creation is in over his head. He seems unaware of, or ambivalent about, the results of his actions. The last three weeks of the campaign were particularly unseemly. The vision of the President of the United States, one who spoke of civility and hope and change, exposed as just another Chicago pol, viciously and personally attacking his opponents, was undignified.

When my children were small, I used to take them to visit my mother. One of her favorite lines if they complained was, “Do you want some cheese with that whine?” We may have to call Switzerland to get enough cheese for the presidential whines.

I once had a Jesuit English teacher who asked for an example of irony. A classmate raised his hand and wondered if Othello mistakenly killing Desdemona qualified. The old priest shook his head, noting, “That is not irony, bud, that is tragic irony.” So it is with the idea being floated that Hillary might join Obama on a dream ticket as V.P. to save his presidency. Hillary, the only member of the cabinet with any political savvy, saving the guy that jumped line on her. I don’t think so.

Here are my random thoughts for 2010:

To Sarah Palin: Mirror, mirror on the wall, you’re the fairest of them all. You don’t need to run for the presidency.

To Nancy Pelosi: It’s hard to watch a noble ideal ravaged by facts. We’re going to need that military jet back.

To Keith Olbermann: A welcome, but all too brief, respite. Thank God you’re not handicapping horses.

To Chris Matthews: Is that tingle now a spasm?

To Jon Stewart: Good work and great rally! You tower above your critics.

To Alan Grayson: Good riddance.

To Eric Holder: Try suing the bad guys.

To Chris Van Hollen: Pickett was not promoted after Gettysburg.

To Jimmy Carter: You make my hair hurt.

To Vivian Schiller: Too bad the truth didn’t set you free — as in fired.

To President Bush : A 50-to-42 winner over Obama in a mock presidential poll in Ohio after doing absolutely nothing. A Nobel Prize is on the way.

To John Boehner: You are on double secret probation. Be grateful for a second chance. Vaya con Dios!

Maureen Dowd, New York Times


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/opinion/10dowd.html

Looking Back

The virtues and hazards of going ‘all in’ at moments of crisis.

Discussing the Iraq surge strategy in 2006, former President George W. Bush notes that during his presidency he read 14 biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The cause of his preoccupation with Lincoln is obvious: The Bush presidency will be remembered as a war presidency. First in Afghanistan after 9/11 and then from 2003 onward in Iraq. The rest will be footnotes.

In “Decision Points,” Mr. Bush covers Hurricane Katrina, expanding Medicare coverage to prescription drugs, the failure of Social Security reform, Harriet Miers’s Supreme Court nomination and much else. Some of it, like the drug benefit, contributed to the anti-Washington upheaval that cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006 and then exploded last Tuesday with a voters’ revolt against the mega-expansions of the Obama Democrats.

But 50 years from now only specialists will be sifting the archives on Katrina, earmarks and the rest. As Mr. Bush himself says in this interesting, and at times frustrating, account of his tenure: “Through the lens of the post 9/11 world, my view changed.”

The chapter on 9/11 and its aftermath is compelling. Mr. Bush’s passage through that week, as president, was unique. The frontispiece photograph is appropriately of Mr. Bush amid the Ground Zero rubble. He conveys the myriad forces and pressures in play then, including constant reports of more threats from al Qaeda. Beyond the need to respond, nothing about the policy landscape was obvious.

As the U.S. went to war, Mr. Bush’s feisty, determined pursuit of his policies elicited an almost neurotic, personal antipathy among his opponents. At two moments in the biggest crises of his presidency—the war and the 2008 financial crisis—Mr. Bush, I think unintentionally, offers an insight into the mind of what he would call “the man himself.”

In late 2008, faced with what looked like a collapsing financial system after the Lehman bankruptcy, Mr. Bush is aware that the rescue strategies proposed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (“Ben and Hank were like the characters in The Odd Couple“) will be a “breathtaking intervention in the free market.” Despite a firestorm of opposition building in Congress, Mr. Bush is resolute. “I had made up my mind: The U.S. government was going all in.”

Two years earlier, Mr. Bush had decided to increase troop levels in Iraq, the famous “surge” decision. At the end of an Oval Office meeting, Mr. Bush takes aside Gen. David Petraeus, his new commander, and tells him: “This is it. We’re doubling down.”

Mr. Bush compares putting Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno in charge of the war to Lincoln finding Grant and Sherman. He states: “I waited over three years for a successful strategy.” Discussing his decision to opt for the surge, he makes it clear that he was abandoning the course pushed hard by his first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and by his earlier commanders in Iraq, Gens. George Casey and John Abizaid: turn over the battle as quickly as possible to the Iraqis and draw down our troops. In spring 2006, amid bloodshed and insurgent slaughter in Iraq, Mr. Bush tells Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser: “This is not working.” To his credit, he found the right strategy and the right generals.

It was a good call. But a question emerges from “Decision Points”: Why did he wait so long to change strategy and generals? His answer is that the administration’s initial benchmark, Iraqi political success, appeared to be working. Then came the sectarian violence of 2006, which he says wasn’t foreseen. “If I had acted sooner it could have created a rift that would have been exploited by war critics in Congress to cut off funding and prevent the surge from succeeding.” There is no elaboration as to precisely what Mr. Bush means here, which is frustrating. Elsewhere he posits the harder truth: “By the end of 2005, much of my political capital was gone.”

Commitment and clarity of commitment were Bush virtues. The downside of being “all in,” however, is that much can be lost before the need for a course correction becomes too obvious to ignore. What emerges across the pages of “Decision Points” is a president who at times let his strong code of personal loyalty and commitment cloud his decision-making. Virtually all of the people who work for Mr. Bush exist wholly by their first name: Dick, Condi, Colin, Don, Hank, Ben, Tommy, Bob. His closest foreign pal is Tony. One exception: There is no Dave or David. It is always “General Petraeus.” One may assume that Lincoln also called his own winning appointment “General Grant.”

The book contains delightful and telling personal observations. Hank Paulson’s family was so Democratic that his mother cried when he joined the Bush cabinet. After Mr. Bush refuses to pardon Scooter Libby, convicted of obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair, Vice President Dick Cheney tells him: “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.” When Gen. Pete Pace is removed as Joint Chiefs chairman in a bonfire of political correctness, Mr. Bush says that Gen. Pace took off his four stars and left them at the Vietnam Memorial near the name of a Marine in his old platoon. In contrast to the ugly cartoon figure drawn by his opponents, Mr. Bush is unfailingly gracious to virtually all his opponents, including Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who had lost a son in Iraq.

More than most presidents, George W. Bush belongs to history. History will judge him almost solely by what he did after a single historic day, Sept. 11, 2001—in short, by the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If in time they succeed, he was a good president. If they fail, his presidency falls. For everyone’s sake, one should hope that he was a good president.

Mr. Henninger, a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page, writes the Wonder Land column.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703514904575602542935259532.html

The Two Cultures

Many of the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know are liberal, so it seems strange that American liberalism should adopt an economic philosophy that excludes psychology, emotion and morality.

Yet that is what has happened. The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

These models can be used to make highly specific projections. If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity. If the government spends $800 billion on a stimulus package, that will produce 3.5 million in new jobs.

Everything is rigorous. Everything is science.

Conservatives, who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types, have gone all Oprah-esque in trying to argue against these liberals. If the government borrows trillions of dollars, this will increase public anxiety and uncertainty, the conservatives worry. The liberal technicians brush aside this soft-headed mush. These psychological concerns are mythological, they say. That’s gaseous blathering from those who lack quantitative rigor.

Other people get moralistic. This country is already too profligate, they cry. It already shops too much and borrows too much. How can we solve our problems by borrowing and spending more? The liberal technicians brush this away, too. Economics is a rational activity detached from morality. Hardheaded policy makers have to have the courage to flout conventional morality — to borrow even when the country is sick of borrowing.

The liberal technicians have an impressive certainty about them. They have amputated those things that can’t be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships. As a result, everything is explainable and predictable. They can stand on the platform of science and dismiss the poor souls down below.

Yet over the past 21 months, it has been harder to groove to their certainty. To start with, the economy has not responded as the modelers projected, either in the months after the stimulus was passed or this summer, when it was supposed to be producing hundreds of thousands of jobs. It has become harder to define how much good the stimulus package is doing. An $800 billion measure must leave a large footprint, but it is hard to find in a $70 trillion global economy.

Moreover, it has been harder to accept that psychological factors like uncertainty and anxiety really are a mirage. The first time a business leader tells you she is holding off on investing because she is scared about the future, you dismiss it as anecdote. But over the past few years, I’ve had hundreds of such conversations.

It’s been harder to dismiss morality as a phantom concern, too. Maybe in a nation of robots the government can run a policy that offends the morality of the citizenry, but not in a nation of human beings, as the recent elections showed.

Nor has the world come to look simpler and easier to manipulate since the stimulus passed. It now looks more complicated. It’s one thing to hatch an ideal policy in an academic lab, but in the real world, context is everything.

Ethan Ilzetzki of the London School of Economics and Enrique G. Mendoza and Carlos A. Vegh of the University of Maryland examined stimulus efforts in 44 countries. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, they argued that fiscal stimulus can be quite effective in low-debt countries with fixed exchange rates and closed economies.

Stimulus measures are generally not as effective, on the other hand, in countries like the U.S. with high debt and floating exchange rates. The authors of the paper pointed to a series of specific circumstances that complicate, to say the least, the effectiveness of increasing public spending: How much stimulus money ends up flowing abroad? What is the relationship between fiscal policy and monetary policy? How do investors respond to fear of future interest rate increases?

One could go on. It’s become harder to have confidence that legislators can successfully enact the brilliant policies that liberal technicians come up with. Far from entering the age of macroeconomic mastery and social science triumph, we seem to be entering an age in which statecraft is, once again, an art, not a science. When you look around the world at the countries that have come through the recession best, it’s not the countries with the brilliant and aggressive stimulus models. It’s the ones like Germany that had the best economic fundamentals beforehand.

It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that.

David Brooks, New York Times


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/opinion/16brooks.html

Why President Obama is right about India

Much grousing about the expense of President Obama’s India trip. This is silly and vindictive. The one thing this country owes its leader is to spare no expense in protecting him. Especially when his first stop is Mumbai, scene of one of the most savage and sustained terror attacks in modern times.

It is protested that Britain’s prime minister took a British Air flight when he traveled here in July. So what? To be blunt about it: A once-imperial middle power flies commercial; America flies colossal. Why do you think we built that 747 flying palace emblazoned with the presidential insignia – if not to land to awestruck crowds wherever it goes?

There was grumbling about the White House taking over every room at Mumbai’s five-star Taj Mahal Palace hotel. What is the Secret Service to do? Allow suites to be let to, say, groups of Pakistani madrassa instructors?

I will admit that Indian authorities went somewhat overboard when they cut down the coconuts surrounding the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. I am no expert on this, having never been subject to a coconut attack, but it seems to me that a freefalling coconut is no match for an armored car built to withstand anything short of a small nuclear device. Now perhaps the enemy, always racing one step ahead of us, is working on the dreaded RPC – the rocket-propelled coconut. I’m not privy to all the intelligence here, and, try as I may, I could get nothing out of the Coconut Desk at CIA. Nonetheless, to this outsider, the anti-coconut measures seemed a bit excessive.

But I digress. The only alternative to drawing down the Treasury to move the president around safely is for him not to go at all. And that’s not an alternative. Presidential visits are the highest form of diplomacy, and the symbolism alone carries enormous weight. No one remembers what Nixon did in China; what changed the world is that Nixon went to China.

The India visit was particularly necessary in light of Obama’s bumbling overenthusiasm in his 2009 trip to China in which he lavished much time, energy and praise upon his hosts and then oddly tried to elevate Beijing to a G-2 partnership, a kind of two-nation world condominium. Worse, however, was Obama suggesting a Chinese role in South Asia – an affront to India’s autonomy and regional dominance, and a signal of U.S. acquiescence to Chinese hegemony.

This hegemony is the growing source of tension in Asia today. Modern China is the Germany of a century ago – a rising, expanding, have-not power seeking its place in the sun. The story of the first half of the 20th century was Europe’s attempt to manage Germany’s rise. We know how that turned out. The story of the next half-century will be how Asia accommodates and/or contains China’s expansion.

Nor is this some far-off concern. China’s aggressive territorial claims on resource-rich waters claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan are already roiling the neighborhood. Traditionally, Japan has been the major regional counterbalance. But an aging, shrinking Japan can no longer sustain that role. Symbolic of the dramatic shift in power balance between once-poor China and once-dominant Japan was the resolution of their recent maritime crisis. Japan had detained a Chinese captain in a territorial-waters dispute. China imposed a rare-earth mineral embargo. Japan capitulated.

That makes the traditional U.S. role as offshore balancer all the more important. China’s neighbors from South Korea all the way around to India are in need of U.S. support of their own efforts at resisting Chinese dominion.

And of all these countries, India, which has fought a border war with China, is the most natural anchor for such a U.S. partnership. It’s not just our inherent affinities – being democratic, English-speaking, free-market and dedicated to the rule of law. It is also the coincidence of our strategic imperatives: We both face the common threat of radical Islam and the more long-term challenge of a rising China.

Which is why Obama’s dramatic call for India to be elevated to permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council was so important. However useless and obsolete the United Nations, a Security Council seat carries totemic significance. It elevates India, while helping bind it to us as our most strategic and organic Third World ally.

China is no enemy, but it remains troublingly adversarial. Which is why India must be the center of our Asian diplomacy. And why Obama’s trip – coconuts and all – was worth every penny.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post


Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/11/AR2010111106072.html

Obama’s Gifts to the GOP

Republicans own the political center for now. Not because they deserve it.

Democrats are down, and sniping at each other. That’s the way it goes when parties lose. What’s interesting is the mood this week among Republicans on the ground. It’s not triumphal. They all seem to have in the back of their minds a question: Is this election the beginning of the big turnaround? Is this when the GOP comes to the fore as its best self and soberly, shrewdly pursues policies that will help dig our country out of the mess? Or will the great sweep of 2010 come to be seen, in retrospect, as just another lurch and shift in a nation whose political tectonic plates have been unstable since 2006?

They’re not sure, but there’s a high degree of hope for the former. And that’s news, because Republicans haven’t been hopeful in a long time.

They continue to be blessed by luck. Whatever word means the opposite of snakebit, that is what the Republican Party is right now. One reason they are feeling hope is that they have received two big and unexpected gifts from President Obama. The first, of course, was his political implosion—his quick descent and speedy fall into unpopularity, which shaped the outcome of the 2010 elections. At the heart of that descent was the president’s inability to understand how the majority of Americans were thinking. From the day he was sworn in he seemed to have had no practical or intuitive sense of what was on the American mind. By early 2009 they had one deep and central worry, the economy. But his central preoccupation was reforming health care. He devoted his first 18 months to it and got what he wanted, but at the price of seeming wholly out of touch with the thoughts and concerns of the American people.

This week the president gave Republicans a second unexpected gift. He reacted to the election’s outcome in a way that suggested he’s still in his own world, still seeing a reality no one else is seeing. The problem wasn’t his policies, but that he didn’t explain them well. It wasn’t health-care reform, it was his failed attempt to popularize it. His problem was that he was not political enough. He was too substantive, too serious. Americans have been under stress, and people under stress don’t think clearly, and so they couldn’t see the size of his achievements.

He sounded like a man who couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else, and once again made his political adversaries seem, in comparison, more realistic, more clear-sighted and responsive to public opinion. And he did this while everyone was watching. Again, what a gift.

Two areas seem to me key for Republican leaders in Washington. One is a long-term concern, the other an immediate one.

The first has to do with the art of political persuasion. A month ago, in conversation with a veteran Democrat, I mentioned that the old cliché is now truer than ever, that everything happens in the center. The path to victory is through the center, that’s where things are won. The Democrat nodded vigorously. “Compromise,” she said, “it’s so important.”

But compromise was not my point. Persuasion was my point. Compromise is a tool you use to get the best legislation possible, but you have to persuade the big center that your way is the better way. We’re in an age where politicians assert, insist and leave. It’s all quick, blunt and dumb. But to win and hold the center you have to make your case, you have to show you’re philosophically serious, you have to show your logic, and connect it to a philosophy. You don’t sit around saying, “I like centrists so I compromise,” you say, “Here’s what we believe, here’s how we think and why.”

The establishment of the GOP hasn’t been good at this. Some of them aren’t philosophically serious. Some don’t know that persuasion is at the heart of things. Some know but aren’t good at it. Some think they’re never given quite the right venue to expand on their views, or questioned in the right way. They should create venues.

A lot of this will fall to the newly elected congressmen and senators, and the philosophically inclined incumbents who’ve been quiet and let the leadership dominate the stage the past few years.

Right now the center is with the Republicans. They voted like Democrats in 2008 and like Republicans in 2010. But there’s going to be lots of drama in Washington the next few months, and things could turn on a dime. To hold the center you have to respect your own case enough to argue for it, and respect the people enough to explain it.

The second area has to do with the media environment that will exist in January, when the new Congress is sworn in. The mainstream media already has a story line in its head, and it is that a lot of these new Congress critters are a little radical, a little nutty.

Media bias is what we all know it is, largely political but also having to do with the needs of editors and producers. The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn’t bland, that has a certain edge. We saw this throughout the past year as they covered big tea party rallies.

A reporter would be walking along with a cameraman. At one picnic blanket she sees a sober fellow and his handsome family. He looks like an orthodontist or a midlevel manager. His family looks happy, normal, pleasant. Right next to them, on a foldout lawn chair, is a scowling woman in a big straw bonnet with a dozen tea bags hanging from the brim. She’s holding a sign, a picture of Obama in a Hitler mustache. Who does the reporter choose to interview? I think we know. A better question might be who would you pick if you were that reporter and had a producer back in the newsroom who wanted interesting copy, colorful characters and vivid pictures.

The mainstream media this January will be looking for the nuts.

I saw this in 1994, when the new Republican Congress came in. The media had a storyline in their head then, too: These wild and crazy righties who just got elected are . . . wild and crazy. They focused their cameras on people who could be portrayed as nutty, and found them. The spirited Helen Chenoweth, freshman from Idaho, talked a little too much about “black helicopters.” She was portrayed as paranoid and eccentric. Bob Livingston, from New Orleans, went to his first meeting of the Appropriations Committee wielding a machete. The new speaker, Newt Gingrich, was full of pronouncements and provocations; he was a one-man drama machine.

It was a high spirited group, and one operating without a conservative media infrastructure to defend them. They and others were caught and tagged like big wild birds, then released into the air, damaged.

The point is when they want to paint you as nuts and yahoos, don’t help them paint you as nuts and yahoos. It’s good to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said, speaking in a different context, that she didn’t really care what people did as long as they didn’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.

That would be the advice for incoming Republicans: Stand tall, speak clear, and don’t frighten the horses.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703848204575608453836688106.html

The 1099 Democrats

The Democrats decoupled from business—and lost the election.

Calvin Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” The Democrats just lost America because they forgot that.

On second thought, you can’t forget what you never knew. The Democrats running things the past two years proved they have no clue about the business of business. In their world, the real world of the private economy is an abstraction, a political figment.

Exhibit A: Along the road to ObamaCare, the party’s planners inserted into the bill the now- famous 1099 provision, requiring businesses to do an IRS report for any transaction over $600 annually. No member of Congress, White House staffer or party flunky thought to say, “Oh, wow, this 1099 requirement will crush people running their own businesses. Are we sure we want to do this?” Yes, and that 1099 fiasco is a metaphor now for the modern Democratic Party.

Exhibit B: The Obama ban on offshore oil drilling. It floated out of the White House, Energy Department and EPA without anyone thinking: “Whoa, this is going to kill hundreds of working-class guys and their families.”

In recent days, both President Obama and Speaker-to-go Nancy Pelosi have said that the message of the voters in the election was that they wanted jobs. To be sure.

President Coolidge was more eloquent on this truth. The American people “are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. The great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.”

But much of what this Democratic Congress did, or tried to do, was like throwing Molotov cocktails at business. It began in early 2009 with the cap-and-trade climate bill. The country was going to have to chow down its provisions no matter how many jobs got lost in Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and other coal-using states. The bill portended so much damage to businesses in these states that some of the Senate’s most liberal members had to beg off supporting it.

At his news conference last week, Mr. Obama still wouldn’t rule out the EPA’s impending “carbon finding” to regulate emissions, another Freddy Krueger nightmare for the average business.

The air is filling now with suggestions of what the Democrats and Mr. Obama need to do. Always mentioned is that the president needs to repair his bad relations with “business.” But this is noted as just one item on the post-election to-do list: adjust the message, go to church more, reconnect with business, put up the storm windows.

The party’s decoupling from vast swaths of America at work didn’t start with Barack Obama. Al Gore and John Kerry ran hard against the depredations of the insurance, pharmaceutical and oil industries. The post-modern Democrats, starting at the top, convey the impression that the average company consists entirely of three guys in spats, silk vests and top hats, like the little character on the Monopoly cards, who deserve to be indicted or monitored.

And so any argument that the top marginal tax rate hits sole proprietorships and the like blows right by them. The “rich” gotta pay. They do pay, stop hiring and then they send money to American Crossroads to unelect Democrats.

Years ago the Democrats’ anti-business populism didn’t matter much because most people doing politics, including the populists, took for granted that politics included staying connected to local businesses. No more. Most Democrats are driving right past the Mom-and-Pop economy to public union headquarters. The party’s candidates are like brides of Dracula, locked forever in an embrace with infusions of public union political money (more than $170 million in this election).

As to the future, look at a map done by the National Conference of State Legislatures showing state-level party control now. The southeastern states, one of the most economically vibrant regions of the country, is wholly red. North Carolina has its first Republican senate since 1870. What’s still blue on this map suggests the Democratic Party is collapsing into mostly urban, public sector redoubts—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago.

One might argue that what the post-November 2010 Democrats need is their own tea party reform movement. Problem is, they just had their version—the Soros-MoveOn-Daily Kos activists who threw over the Clintons and put the party firmly in the hands of the progressive House chairmen who stopped thinking about the private sector 35 years ago.

Many activist Democrats don’t want their party to do business with business until the terms of engagement change. They think once the ObamaCare entitlement flows through the veins of the private sector, its workers also will be the party’s brides. What’s left of the private “impulses of our life” to create industries will be sopped up with permanent public subsidies to alternative-energy entrepreneurs. With luck, this new “low-growth” economy will produce enough tax revenue to keep the party’s watermills going for another generation.

There is an alternative view: The party’s antibusiness compulsions have turned it to rust.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805004575606750168419176.html

Obama Has a Listening Problem

The idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn’t make sense to voters.

The rock star Sara Bareilles sang at President Barack Obama’s Las Vegas rally for Sen. Harry Reid in October. Her biggest hit, “King of Anything,” includes the lyrics, “You’ve got the talking down/Just not the listening.” That pretty well sums up Mr. Obama’s reaction to last week’s midterm.

The president rejects the idea that voters don’t like his policies on jobs and the economy. At his White House news conference last Wednesday, Mr. Obama observed, “If right now we had 5% unemployment instead of 9.6% . . . people would have more confidence in those policy choices.”

Well, yes. But isn’t unemployment much closer to 10% than 5% because the stimulus package didn’t work as the president promised it would when he signed it? Mr. Obama’s narrative that the economy’s condition has nothing to do with his policies is nonsense.

When asked at the same news conference if he felt there was “a majority of Americans who think your policies are taking us in reverse,” Mr. Obama waved off the criticism, saying that the “American people understand that we’re still digging our way out of a pretty big mess.”

Wrong again. Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to understand that the midterm “shellacking” his party took was an explicit rejection of his policies, especially by independent voters.

This is borne out by a post-election poll released Tuesday by Democrat James Carville’s Democracy Corps and Republican Ed Gillespie’s Resurgent Republic. The survey found that 56% of independent voters voted for GOP candidates while just 38% voted Democratic, a 36-point swing from the 2006 midterm and a 26-point swing from the last presidential election.

Independents now look much more like Republicans than like Democrats—79% believe the country is on the wrong track and they’re more than twice as likely to blame President Obama and the Democrats than to blame President Bush and Republicans.

Independents share the GOP view that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. They trust the GOP more than Democrats on jobs and employment (50%-27%), the economy (48-25), government spending (50-23), the federal budget deficit (53-17), and taxes (54-23). A majority (51%) support extending all the Bush-era tax cuts even after hearing Mr. Obama’s best arguments against extending them for people making over $250,000.

Instead of acknowledging the need for policy correction, Mr. Obama offers the now familiar excuse that it’s all a communication problem. As he told the National Journal’s Ron Fournier in October, his policy successes were “a lot for me to be able to communicate effectively to the public in any coherent way.”

But the problem is not with the capacity of voters to grasp the brilliance of Mr. Obama’s policies. Rather, the idea that government can spend our way to prosperity doesn’t make sense to voters. The more they heard Mr. Obama talk about this approach, the more they rebelled.

Something similar happened with health care. The president dismisses the notion that last week’s results were a rejection of ObamaCare, saying at his White House news conference that it would be “misreading the election” to argue “the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years.”

But that’s exactly what voters want. The Democracy Corps/Resurgent Republic poll found that 51% of all midterm voters and 57% of independents believe ObamaCare should be “repealed and replaced.”

In the wake of last week’s epic rebuke, Mr. Obama has two historical models to follow. He can react as President Bill Clinton did after Democrats’ 1994 defeat and move to the center, which resulted in two of Mr. Clinton’s greatest achievements: a balanced budget and welfare reform. Or he can emulate Harry Truman in 1947-48, sticking hard to a liberal agenda and fighting the congressional GOP for obstructing it.

It will be difficult for Mr. Obama to channel Mr. Clinton, who was a Third Way Democrat and politically nimble. In addition, after the 1994 midterms, Mr. Clinton was freed of the baggage of HillaryCare, which failed to become law. Mr. Obama is stuck with his deeply unpopular health-care reform.

But it may be even more difficult for him to pull off a Truman. It’s hard to run against a “do nothing” Congress when your own party controls the Senate and the GOP’s agenda is more popular than yours.

Mr. Obama is in a pickle without an obvious path to winning back independents. After turning on him so decisively, they may well tell him, in the words of Ms. Bareilles: “You sound so innocent, all full of good intent/Swear you know best/But you expect me to jump up on board with you/Ride off into your delusional sunset . . . Who cares if you disagree, you are not me/Who made you king of anything?”

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805004575606531967171108.html

The Pelosi Minority

The Speaker decides to reward herself for an epic defeat.

We’re beginning to wonder if any Democrats take responsibility for this week’s election rout. President Obama blamed it Wednesday on a failure to communicate rather than substance, and now Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making a bid to keep her job as House Democratic leader. Lose 61 seats? Whatever.

As an historical matter, Mrs. Pelosi’s announcement yesterday was almost as extraordinary as the election itself, which saw the largest turnover of House seats since 1938. Speakers almost always resign after an electoral repudiation—even Newt Gingrich, who stepped down after the GOP lost a handful of seats in 1998 while retaining the majority. The last Speaker who accepted a demotion to minority leader was Democrat Sam Rayburn in 1946, who reclaimed the gavel two years later on Harry Truman’s coattails.

Presumably Mrs. Pelosi is entertaining similar hopes, which suggests that Democrats really do believe their own post-election spin. How else to explain her bid as a matter of political logic?

Remaining in power deprives her party of one of its better opportunities to show the public that Tuesday’s message was received. Even if Democrats have no plans for a policy turn, sacrificing the unpopular Mrs. Pelosi might stand as a down payment on winning back the trust of the independent and suburban voters who fled Democrats this year. Something like a dozen House Democrats ran against her as much as they did against their GOP opponents.

Nonetheless, in her letter to the Democratic caucus, Mrs. Pelosi eulogized “the most productive Congress in a half century,” adding that “Our work is far from finished.” (Cue the string section.) “We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back,” she continued, citing ObamaCare, financial reregulation and job noncreation programs like the stimulus, with unspecified threats to Social Security and Medicare thrown in at no extra charge.

In other words, Mrs. Pelosi thinks she should remain in power to preserve the agenda that forfeited the House. And she may well succeed, not least because of her fund-raising and proven log-rolling skills that were necessary to pass some of the worst legislation in generations.

The Democrats who lost in 2010 were in the swing seats that matter for controlling the House, and now that the caucus is leaner its political wavelength is more in sync with Mrs. Pelosi’s San Francisco liberalism than with the rare Blue Dog survivors like Heath Shuler of North Carolina or Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. Lucky for them the vote for minority leader, as opposed to Speaker, is a secret ballot.

Mrs. Pelosi’s run also puts her chief lieutenants in a squeeze play. Current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was expected to sidle into the top slot but said yesterday he’s weighing a run for whip, the No. 2 in the minority leadership. But current whip James Clyburn is a liberal Pelosi loyalist closer to the rump caucus mood than is a moderate like Mr. Hoyer. Mr. Clyburn also enjoys support from his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, most of whom come from safe or gerrymandered districts.

In Mr. Clyburn’s whip letter, he too writes that “we should have no regrets about the achievements of the last two years,” though he was willing to concede “general acknowledgement that we lost the communications battle on too many fronts.” Mr. Obama echoed that sentiment in an interview due to air Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” claiming that “over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation. That it’s a matter of persuading people . . . and making an argument that people can understand.”

All of which explains how the Democrats made themselves a House minority in a modern record of a mere four years. In his Weekend Interview with the Journal last week, retiring Democrat Brian Baird of Washington state described what he called the “authoritarian, closed leadership” and “general groupthink” that has prevailed under Speaker Pelosi. Nothing confirms Mr. Baird’s judgment more than her decision to reward herself for an epic defeat by once again vouchsafing her leadership upon her Members.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704353504575596602409404626.html

Warped Justice

In reaching a plea deal to end the prosecution of Omar Khadr, a former child soldier held at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, the Obama administration achieved its political goal of avoiding having this disturbing case be the first to go to trial under its revamped military commissions. But this is not a legal victory anyone can feel proud about.

Mr. Khadr, a 24-year-old Canadian, was captured in Afghanistan when he was 15. He was thrown into armed conflict by his Al Qaeda-linked father, who was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003. As part of the plea deal, Mr. Khadr admitted that he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier during a 2002 firefight and that he planted roadside bombs. In exchange, his sentence was capped at eight years. After a year, he will be allowed to transfer to Canada to serve the remainder of his term.

It is hard to know what to make of Mr. Khadr’s admission of guilt. It may be truthful or driven by a fear that going to trial would mean a life sentence.

That concern became more acute following an appalling pretrial ruling by the military judge. He refused to exclude from evidence incriminating statements obtained under coercive and abusive circumstances by Mr. Khadr’s interrogators — including someone who implicitly threatened the frightened and severely wounded youngster with gang rape and was later convicted of detainee abuse in another case.

The case had other troubling aspects. Usually in war, battlefield killing is not prosecuted. The United States argued that Mr. Khadr lacked battlefield immunity because he wore no uniform. On the eve of a hearing, commission rules were hastily rewritten to downgrade “murder in violation of the laws of war” to a domestic law offense from a war crime in order to avoid seeming to concede that Central Intelligence Agency drone operators who reportedly fly the aircraft from agency headquarters in Virginia and also kill while not wearing uniforms commit war crimes.

United Nations officials and human rights groups objected to the prosecution’s dubious legality under international law. They noted the dangerous precedent set by making him the first person in many decades prosecuted for war crimes allegedly committed as a juvenile.

Then there is the matter of Mr. Khadr’s abusive treatment in custody. One witness at his pretrial hearing told of seeing him hooded and handcuffed to his cell with his arms extended painfully above his shoulders. In January, the Supreme Court of Canada criticized his lack of counsel and inclusion in the “frequent flier” program, which used sleep deprivation to get prisoners to talk.

Under military rules, Mr. Khadr’s case still had to go to a jury after the plea deal for a verdict that is mostly ceremonial. In a shabby yet perversely fitting conclusion, the prosecution asked the jury to recommend a long sentence and called a forensic psychiatrist who pronounced Mr. Khadr “highly dangerous.” On cross-examination, it turned out, the doctor’s views were colored by the work of a notorious Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels, who has called the Koran a “criminal book that forces people to do criminal things” and urges Western countries to halt all Muslim immigration.

A plea deal of eight years is better, obviously, than requiring Mr. Khadr to live his entire life behind bars. But he has already been imprisoned for eight years. That should have been enough.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/opinion/09tue1.html