The breaking news yesterday about the FBI infiltration and arrest of a Russian spy ring left me wanting. The spies were not sent to obtain U.S. government jobs and access to classified information. They were sent to mingle with elites and think tankers and get juicy gossip and rumors about U.S. politics and foreign policy. Um, hello FBI? Have you met any 30-something policy wonks over happy hour? This rumor mongering is what they live for. Take a gander at Laura Rozen’s Politico blog or “The Cable” on Foreign Policy. There’s a whole media industry of political gossip. Is it really illegal to pass this stuff to foreign governments. Hell, Russia could have saved itself a ton of money and the trouble of, you know, a diplomatic crisis by just reading Wonkette. Could have had a laugh while gaining much more valuable intelligence from them than a “New York-based financier described as a fundraiser for a major political party” is going to get you.
Photo by Flickr user Anonymous9000 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
When is dissent appropriate?
General Stanley McChrystal has become President Obama’s MacArthur, as MacArthur was to President Truman: McChrystal failed (dramatically) to keep his frustrations and criticisms private, opening up a rift with the administration. The result? He was sacked.
There are a number of reasons to agree with the president’s decision. Obama needed to avoid creating the sort of situation that Truman found himself in when dealing with the insubordinate MacArthur in 1951. And although he is popular with public populations throughout the world, the president’s international reputation with the leaders of allies and enemies (and therefore his foreign policy initiatives in general) could be damaged. Read more
Richard Cohen on Obama’s inscrutability
In the Washington Post Richard Cohen laments the obscurity of Obama’s politics and person, as if there were no distinction between the two, arguing that Obama’s guardedness derives from his father’s desertion and his separation from his mother when she twice moved to Indonesia. Surely there’s a necessary connection between one’s personal experience and their politics, but this seems to be taking it too far. Cohen writes:
Pragmatism is fine — as long as it is complicated by regret. But that indispensable wince is precisely what Obama doesn’t show. It is not essential that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven’t a clue.
There’s clearly something here, but it’s unclear what Cohen means by “show us who he is.” At its core, I think Cohen and others simply want to know Obama’s value priorities. But for a politician, that question is an interpretative one based on reading the tea leaves of his decisions, not on the way he does or does not ”wince” at the sight of an oil-covered bird or destroyed local economy.
Cohen wants “a sign that this [oil] catastrophe meant something to Obama, that it was not merely another problem that had crossed his desk;” and then connects this seeming lack of concern to an argument that Obama’s pragmatic foreign policy is similarly amoral. If there’s no coherent theme to Obama’s policies, as Cohen argues, which probably is not true, then the there’s no coherent them to Obama’s policies. It’s doesn’t mean he’s obscure; it means he doesn’t have a clear, systematic, rigid political theory.
That is the nature of pragmatism, especially one that deals with problems as they come. It provides useful ideological flexibility, but seemingly sacrifices any undying commit to any (cherished) principle. To throw some arm-chair psychoanalysis back at Cohen, he is projecting onto Obama, wanting the President to be something he’s not, asking him to have a holistic set of principles, when that’s not, I think, who he really is.
The new categorical imperative
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican rhetoric on Obama’s supposed radicalism is overheated and off-base. He concludes:
This president is a mainstream, pragmatic moderate, operating in the center of American politics; center-left, perhaps, but not left of center.
This debate reveals that ideological description is policy prescription. How we describe, explicate, and categorize someone’s political theory or ideology, conceived holistically–say, either as American centrist or communist–affects how we understand an individual policy forwarded by that person.
If Obama’s whole project is categorized justifiaby as radical socialist, then most Americans will have good reason to scrutinize and be especially skeptical of any particular policy he proposes. Even if they support that given policy, they have to be wary of death by a thousand cuts, and worry that it might represent one step toward a path-dependency leading to a undesirable destination, or one innocuous piece of a larger malevolent project. Require people to purchase insurance now, central planning of the whole economy later.
If he’s branded as a pragmatic left-centrist, people will grant him more trust and give him the benefit of a reasonable doubt. Require people to purchase insurance now, require people to purchase insurance now; there is no worry of path-dependency in the wrong direction, or lurking shadowy projects. Obama has worked tirelessly to make this image stick; whether or not he’s been successful, Orstein argues pretty convincingly that it’s not just spin.
Inconsistency or philosophical conservatism?
The New York Times had a fascinating look yesterday at the demographic and ideological makeup on the Tea Party movement. Long discussed, but little studied, The New York Times and CBS commissioned a poll this month to get a detailed look at the profile and attitudes of Tea Party supporters.
The poll found that the 18 percent of Americans who associate with the Tea Party movement tend to be white, male, married, over 45 and on the “very conservative” end of the ideological spectrum. Tea Partyers express “fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, [ ] rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.”
But here’s the surprising stuff. While Tea Party supporters believe the goal of their movement is reduce the size of government and favor doing so even if it means cutting domestic programs, most happily partake in the three most expensive domestic programs: public education, medicare and social security. And they assert that these programs are “worth the cost to taxpayers.”
So what gives? Read more
Is it even worth trying to get Haiti right?
The Washington Post reports that at an international donor conference today, the U.S. will pledge $1 billion to reconstruct the Haitian government as part of an international effort to rebuild the earthquake-ravaged state. The U.S. has a long history of such aid to Haiti — roughly $4 billion since 1990 — with, admittedly, little clear lasting impact to show. Yet as the Post article notes, “this time, U.S. officials say, they will do things differently.”
Of course this is a common refrain every time someone wants to try something that was unsuccessful in the past. Yet two decades of failure should leave us, at the very least, skeptical of the U.S. government’s ability to get it right. So how many chances should it get? At what point should we say, even if the goal of reconstructing Haiti is right, our inability to do it means the policy is wrong?
The Atlantic is featuring three theories on why liberals haven’t been more effective under the Obama Administration, particularly given Democrats’ control of all three branches.
First up is Kevin Baker of Harper’s, who argues that liberals simply have no backbone, practicing what can only be called “learned helplessness.” Baker believes that while liberalism shows some life among our citizenry, the government / leadership class has all but forgotten its relevance. The “center-right” conventional wisdom has solidified and the mere utterance of “the L word” spells political disaster.
Second is the Center for American Progress’s Matt Yglesias, who claims that liberals fail to negotiate effectively. You can’t get the other side to budge unless they think you’ll walk away (I learned this mattress shopping), and since liberals obviously really want health reform, etc, opponents have no incentive to give any ground. If they want a deal, they should find issues that centrists care deeply about and which liberals are merely willing to along.
And third, blogger Chris Bowers suggests that liberals are too much of an easy win for Obama. He knows they’ll support him as the least-bad option no matter what, so they have no bargaining chips.
My sense is that Bowers and Baker are mostly right. And their points are connected: because liberals know they’re down and out in contemporary American politics, they’ll take whatever the Democrats give them. Why hold out for distant ideals when it could jeopardize the little gains they’ve made through a moderate Democratic majority?
The National Review asks: Can a true American be liberal?
At The National Review, editors Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argue, in 5,000 words, that Pres. Obama assaults “American identity” and the concept of “American exceptionalism.” Damon Linker rebukes the piece at The New Republic. Here’s the outline of their argument:
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
These unique American qualities began with the colonies:
America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity. It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society. It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature. It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.” Even before the Revolution, America was the freest country on earth.
The use and abuse of executive power
On Friday The New York Times order real viagraref=”http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/us/politics/13obama.html?hp” target=”_blank”>reported that the Obama Administration, faced with an uncooperative Congress, is looking into “a list of presidential executive orders and directives” to push its governing agenda forward. The article was, unsurprisingly, met with a barrage of criticism from the right. RedState writers suggested Obama was “dusting off his best Hugo Chavez imitation” and that his Administration had become a “DICTATORSHIP BY FIAT” (emphasis in original).
As The New York Times article notes, presidents can legally make policy without Congressional legislation “through executive orders, agency rule-making and administrative fiat.” But just because a president can doesn’t mean a president should. So should Obama use his executive powers, like executive orders and directives?
The Washington Post reports that in today’s budget request, Pres. Obama has left out NASA’s “Constellation” program, which called for a return to the moon by 2020. This is another case of “the prioritization problem,” which is the difficulty we often have in justifying why one valuable aim is worth more or less than another. Though, it’s more of an “issue” than a “problem” here, as it’s pretty easy to explain why high unemployment and a rising deficit are more worthy concerns than space exploration at the given moment. More generally: When making such comparisons, how should the government value “intrinsic” goods like space exploration and, say, art, which we think are valuable apart from the tangible benefits they offer to society? While space exploration has led to a few practical benefits, and offers the possibility of fantastic gifts in the very distant future (i.e. inter-galactic space travel, colonizing other planets, etc.), it’s mostly in the science-for-science’s sake category. And, secondly, how should a government evaluate such goods in the context of a suffering economy? At what GDP level can we spend on space aggressively? What does Jean-Luc think?