Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, September 29, 2008

  TARP: The Goldman Sachs Bailout Bill

Over the weekend Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times produced an important report on the internal rot that destroyed the giant corporation AIG. It was essentially the story of Wall Street since the Reagan era - free-wheeling recklessness void of accountability. One fact in particular stood out. When Henry Paulson convened a meeting two weeks ago at the Federal Reserve Bank to discuss the impending collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG, the only Wall St. CEO invited was Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs. That was the firm Paulson headed until his appointment as Treasury Secretary.

Paulson's role in shaping and directing the government bail outs is more than just a gross conflict of interest. It's a monument to Washington's indifference to the appearance of impropriety. Washington insiders are tone-deaf to the anger with which the public greeted their plan to bail out financial titans. Their failure to challenge Paulson shows why none of them should be trusted with the $700 billion blank check they're drafting for the Treasury Secretary to spend.

Here's Morgenson's description of that meeting:

Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said.

Days later, federal officials, who had let Lehman die and initially balked at tossing a lifeline to A.I.G., ended up bailing out the insurer for $85 billion.

All the parties involved will swear that cronyism played no part in the decisions. But Americans are fools if they trust Paulson to oversee the $700,000,000,000 bailout of Wall St. firms - or indeed any bailout plan. By all accounts, Goldman is set to become one of the prime beneficiaries of the bailout. If the Wall Street bailout must go forward – and it doesn't have to, and shouldn't – but if it must, then it should be overseen not by Paulson, whose record is full of huge red flags, nor by another Wall St. insider, nor by a Bush administration official. None of them have the credibility needed to manage such sums in such circumstances. No, if a manager is needed it should be somebody who has been right all along about the impending chaos, a longtime critic of lax regulation and lousy legislation, and above all someone chosen by and directly accountable to the Congress.

First of all, Paulson personally has little credibility. His indifference to the appearance of wrongdoing in giving Goldman Sachs alone a seat at the meeting just described wasn't an isolated incident. He demonstrated what a shady character he is by sending to Congress draft legislation demanding that there be no oversight whatever of his actions under his own proposal. When confronted during hearings about this preposterous demand, Paulson pretended that he meant the opposite of what his draft actually said...that he assumed Congress would insist on oversight of him. This level of duplicity and dishonesty would make Alberto Gonzales blush. Paulson should be forced to step down from his post, rather than entrusted with a blank check.

Indeed, it's clear that Paulson deliberately employed fear mongering as he tried to stampede Congress into granting him vast sums to subsidize Wall Street (h/t Andrew Malcolm):

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

"It's not based on any particular data point," a Treasury spokeswoman told Tuesday. "We just wanted to choose a really large number."

It's also worth pointing out the obvious: The Wall Street disaster has unfolded under Paulson's watch. Every step he's taken to cope with the crisis has been belated and reactive. It's also clear that his interventions have caused as many problems as he may have solved. The fact that he's an appointee of George W. Bush ought to be a clue that his competence cannot be assumed.

Furthermore, he led Goldman Sachs at the very time it was accumulating most of the toxic debt that now weighs it down. In my books, that marks him as a dope. Indeed, as Treasury Secretary he has repeatedly made rosy forecasts that quickly turned to dust. As recently as July and August, Paulson was saying that the banking system is sound, that the subprime loan crisis is largely contained, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn't need any cash injections. Paulson's record is abysmal.

Why is he still in charge of the Treasury Department? Damned if I want him to be given a $700 billion slush fund.

Second, the bill produced by Congress gives the Treasury Secretary such sweeping powers that it's hard to reconcile with constitutional government.

Let's set aside the decision to try to prop up weak financial firms, which as gjohnsit convincingly argued has proven disastrous in the past century. Let's also not dwell on the many defects of the proposed plan, such as the crazy idea of creating a federal insurance program to retroactively guarantee investments that already have burnt to the ground.

I want to focus simply on the fact, underlined by Floyd Norris of the NYT, that under the proposed legislation the Treasury Secretary "would emerge with vast new power".

During its weeklong deliberations, Congress made many changes to the Bush administration’s original proposal to bail out the financial industry, but one overarching aspect of the initial plan that remains is the vast discretion it gives to the Treasury secretary...

Mr. Paulson can choose to buy from any financial institution that does business in the United States, or from pension funds, with wide discretion over what he will buy and how much he will pay. Under most circumstances, banks owned by foreign governments are not eligible for the money, but under some conditions, the secretary can choose to bail out foreign central banks.

Under the bill, the Treasury is to buy the securities at prices he deems appropriate. Mr. Paulson may set prices through auctions but is not required to do so.

Rarely if ever has one man had such broad authority to spend government money as he sees fit, with no rules requiring him to seek out the lowest possible price for assets being purchased.

That's actually just the beginning of the sweeping powers granted to the Treasury Secretary under this bill. He can set executive pay at any level he deems appropriate in the firms he's buying junk securities from. He can purchase any kind of investment "on such terms and conditions as are determined by the Secretary", in other words at any price he deems appropriate. He's supposed to use market mechanisms to keep the price down, but there's no teeth in that suggestion. Here's the extent of the bill's provisions on that score:

The Secretary shall use the authority under this Act in a manner that will minimize any potential long-term negative impact on the taxpayer...

Yes, the legislation really is that vague. And if that's not bad enough, the Treasury Secretary can sell the junk investments off "at any time, upon terms and conditions and at a price determined by the Secretary". In short, he can – and Paulson seems to promise that he will – buy the toxic investments for more than their current value, and then turn right around and sell them back to Wall Street for what they're actually worth.

The bill's advocates argue that it is less terrible than the ridiculous proposal sent to Congress last week by Paulson. That's true. Congress has insisted on oversight by an Inspector General with regular reports to Congress. But so what? This is the kind of oversight mechanism that has done little during the last 8 years to rein in the Bush administration's worst excesses.

The bill under consideration is vague in the extreme and therefore lax. There's almost nothing that a Treasury Secretary cannot expect to get away with under this legislation. Nobody should be entrusted with such sweeping powers, so few requirements, and so little accountability...least of all a Wall-Street insider such as Henry Paulson.

Third, let's not forget that there's a distinct possibility that John McCain could win the election and appoint the next Treasury Secretary to pick up where Paulson leaves off. McCain's judgment is at least as bad as Bush's, particularly on matters economic and financial. He's surrounded himself with people like Phil Gramm...

...the arch-deregulator, who took special care in his Senate days to prevent oversight of financial derivatives — the very instruments that sank Lehman and A.I.G., and brought the credit markets to the edge of collapse. Mr. Gramm hasn’t had an official role in the McCain campaign since he pronounced America a “nation of whiners,” but he’s still considered a likely choice as Treasury secretary.

McCain has larded his campaign staff with lobbyists in complete indifference to the appearance of impropriety. And in the single major nomination he has made, by which the public can judge his commitment to good government, McCain selected an obscenely unqualified running-mate in Sarah Palin.

If nothing else, the prospect of a McCain presidency ought to scare the hell out of any member of Congress considering whether to vote for the bailout bill and give a Treasury Secretary, to be named later, near monarchical powers over the future national budget.

For the one thing that we can be sure of about the proposed legislation, if the history of such bailouts is any guide, is that it is going to be just the first of many attempts to prop up the teetering financial houses. This week's bill starts us down a path from which it will be hard to turn back. Having dumped money into firms that by all rights should go bankrupt, the government will almost certainly want to keep pumping more money into that bottomless pit to rescue the rescue. The next president will become a hostage to the Goldman Sachs Bailout Bill.

crossposted at

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

  Palin doesn't speak for Palin

It seems that nobody ever speaks officially for the McCain-Palin ticket. In July, trying to distance himself from statements by Phil Gramm, his campaign co-chair and surrogate ("mental recession", "nation of whiners"), John McCain declared that Gramm ""does not speak for me — I speak for me." But only two weeks later, McCain's top economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin stated that John McCain does not necessarily speak for John McCain either.

[Holtz-Eakin] also disputes the way the [Tax Policy Center] study takes suggestions McCain has made on the stump out of context. "This is parsing words out of campaign appearances to an unreasonable degree," Holtz-Eakin said. "He has certainly I’m sure said things in town halls" that don’t jibe perfectly with his written plan. But that doesn’t mean it’s official.

Today McCain announced that Sarah Palin does not necessarily speak for Sarah Palin. It seems to me the only plausible conclusion is that nobody at all speaks for the Republican ticket – unless it's just a question of nobody ever being held accountable for anything they say.

Here was McCain speaking on ABC this morning:

MCCAIN: ... this business of, in all due respect, people going around and -- with sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that’s -- that’s a person’s position, this is a free country, but I don’t think most Americans think that that’s a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin.

On Saturday Palin said in Philadelphia that she supports cross-border raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan:

Palin’s apparent disagreement with McCain’s position on Pakistan came as the Alaska governor was picking up a couple of cheesesteaks at Tony Luke’s in South Philadelphia. She was approached by a man wearing a Temple University t-shirt, who later identified himself as Michael Rovito.


“So we do cross-border, like from Afghanistan to Pakistan, you think?” Rovito asked.

“If that’s what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should,” Palin said.

That sounds like a very "definitive policy statement". McCain says otherwise – apparently because Palin spoke off the cuff, or perhaps just because, as he commented, "she was in a conversation with some young man that -- or whoever it was". Excuses don't come more brazen than that. But in any event, Palin earlier endorsed cross-border attacks in a carefully controlled interview with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: Do we have the right to be making cross-border attacks into Pakistan from Afghanistan, with or without the approval of the Pakistani government?


PALIN: In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America and our allies, we must do whatever it takes and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and even who we target.

GIBSON: And let me finish with this. I got lost in a blizzard of words there. Is that a yes? That you think we have the right to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government, to go after terrorists who are in the Waziristan area?

PALIN: I believe that America has to exercise all options in order to stop the terrorists who are hell bent on destroying America and our allies. We have got to have all options out there on the table.

The problem for McCain is that Palin is stepping on one of his favorite attack lines against Obama, who (wisely or not) several times has said he might order such cross-border raids if necessary to kill al-Qaeda leaders.

During Friday night's presidential debate in Mississippi, Obama took a similar stance and condemned the Bush administration for failing to act on the possibility terrorists are in Pakistan.

"Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan," Obama said after McCain accused the Illinois senator of wanting to announce an invasion. "If the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out."

In the very few formal interviews she has given, Palin has made a habit of taking positions closer to Obama's than McCain's or otherwise trampling on McCain's lines of attack against the Democrats. For example, she offered the opinion on Fox News that politicians with lobbyist connections to Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac have even more to explain than those who'd merely accepted campaign contributions from their executives.

On if there should be an investigation on relationships between political donations from Fannie and Freddie Mac and the bankruptcy and its impact on the economy:

"I think that’s significant, but even more significant is the role that the lobbyists play in an issue like this also. And in that cronyism — it’s symptomatic of the grade of problem that we see right now in Washington and that is just that acceptance of the status quo, the politics as usual, the cronyism that has been allowed to be accepted and then it leads us to a position like we are today with so much collapse on Wall Street."

It didn't help matters that when Palin made that comment McCain was (a) trying to embarrass Obama over such campaign donations, and (b) simultaneously trying to conceal the extent of his own campaign manager Rick Davis' record of lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac.

Now in a Philly cheese steak emporium we see Palin once again ruining one of McCain's talking points. And he can't have failed to notice that it's one of the very few times she's responded to questions directly from voters. No wonder Palin's been under wraps since the day she joined the Republican ticket. She's not only profoundly ignorant about domestic and foreign policy issues, she's also a one-woman wrecking crew of campaign tactics. Rick Davis was telling the truth, for once, when he said that Palin is "not scared to answer questions." It's the McCain campaign that's scared for her to be answering questions.

crossposted at

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Friday, September 26, 2008

  The first question for tonight's presidential debate

Here's the first question that ought to be asked at tonight's presidential debate:

"Senator McCain, what are you doing here?"

McCain has used the Wall Street crisis to justify a series of perverse stunts since Wednesday in which he "suspended" his campaign and tried to postpone tonight's debate as well as next week's vice-presidential debate. As recently as last night he said he would take part in today's debate only if Congress had reached an agreement about legislation to bail out the offending companies. No agreement has been reached, but this morning after a quick trip to Capitol Hill McCain announced that he was leaving for the debate in Mississippi anyhow.

So what was all of this grandstanding about?

The "suspension" of the campaign was bizarre from the outset. McCain cancelled an appearance on the David Letterman Show on Wednesday afternoon saying he had to rush back to Washington, DC to fix the financial crisis. Evidently nobody in DC could legislate without his presence – though McCain hasn't been present on Capitol Hill since April 9. Yet this new-found urgency evaporated the moment McCain discovered it. He remained in New York on Wednesday and instead taped an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric. In fact, McCain stayed on in New York until the next day, attending a conference organized by Bill Clinton before flying back into Washington on Thursday afternoon.

There, McCain spent more time in his Senate office meeting with presidential campaign advisers than with Congressional leaders working on the bailout agreement. His vaunted search for a bipartisan deal involved talking to no Democrats. Later at the White House meeting that McCain and Bush had foisted on Barack Obama and Democratic leaders, John Boehner (one of the few negotiators McCain had bothered to talk with) raised a series of new proposals out of the blue. Thus the one intervention of McCain into the negotiations actually scuttled an agreement that had been announced earlier that afternoon.

McCain also promised on Wednesday to take his TV ads down during this "suspension", but did not. He promised to refrain from partisanship while a bailout agreement was being brokered, but he hasn't done so. Instead, his surrogates immediately fanned out to do TV interviews and criticized Obama's actions with regard to the crisis. McCain also used the occasion to make multiple (free) TV appearances last night in which he talked, vaguely, about the negotiations (which he'd barely taken any part in).

During these interviews McCain repeated his earlier statements that he wouldn't take part in Friday's debate unless Congress had reached an agreement. Here he was on ABC:

GIBSON: Do we have a debate tomorrow night?

MCCAIN: Well I'm hopeful, very hopeful that we can. I believe that it's very possible that we can get an agreement so that -- in time for me to fly to Mississippi. I understand that there is a lot of attention on this but I also wish Senator Obama had agreed to ten or more town hall meetings that I had asked him to attend with me. Wouldn't be quite that much urgency if he agreed to do that, instead he refused to do it.

GIBSON: What is the practical deadline? There would have to be an agreement -- a bill that could be signed off, bipartisan, bicameral by tomorrow morning, by tomorrow noon?

MCCAIN: I don't know exactly, Charlie. But again I'm hopeful we can get the outlines and the specifics that a lot of people want to see and get it done quickly...

For what it's worth, last month McCain used the same complaint, that Obama refused to do joint appearances with him this summer, to justify the tone of his (often misleading) attacks on Obama. So that appears to be an all-purpose excuse for objectionable campaign tactics.

Anyhow, this morning McCain made a 90 minute trip to Capitol Hill, talked to a handful of Republicans, and left for home. About an hour later, with no agreement completed, McCain did another about-face and announced that he's leaving for the debate after all. And in the spirit of bipartisanship McCain says he values, the announcement sought to score points against Obama and trashed Democrats:

His campaign issued a statement Friday morning saying he was now “optimistic” that a bipartisan bailout agreement would be reached soon, citing “significant progress” in the talks.

The statement was sharply critical of Mr. Obama, who, like Mr. McCain, returned to Washington on Thursday to take part in the bailout talks. The statement portrayed Mr. Obama as unduly partisan and insufficiently concerned with protecting taxpayer interests in the bailout negotiations, while Mr. McCain was framed as the leader of House and Senate Republicans seeking to reach a compromise agreement.

“The difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was apparent during the White House meeting yesterday where Barack Obama’s priority was political posturing in his opening monologue defending the package as it stands,” said the McCain campaign statement.
“John McCain listened to all sides so he could help focus the debate on finding a bipartisan resolution that is in the interest of taxpayers and homeowners. The Democratic interests stood together in opposition to an agreement that would accommodate additional taxpayer protections.”

The announcement gives the distinct impression that McCain is nearly alone in rising above partisanship and in looking out for American taxpayers:

John McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign was made in the hopes that politics could be set aside to address our economic crisis.

In response, Americans saw a familiar spectacle in Washington. At a moment of crisis that threatened the economic security of American families, Washington played the blame game rather than work together to find a solution that would avert a collapse of financial markets without squandering hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money to bailout bankers and brokers who bet their fortunes on unsafe lending practices.

So what happened to McCain's "country first" stunt of scuttling the debate while Congress negotiates?

McCain had previously said that he would suspend his campaign—and so would not attend the debate—until an agreement was reached on the administration's $700 billion mortgage proposal.

No such agreement has been reached, but Republicans said the standoff was hurting McCain's campaign and that he would look terrible if he didn't attend the nationally televised, eagerly anticipated debate, while Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was ready to go on stage.

I'm sure that John McCain has a ready explanation about what high-minded principles lie behind his sudden decision this week to fake-suspend his campaign, fake-rush back to Washington, fake-work on a bipartisan bailout agreement, and fake-postpone the presidential debate. Jim Lehrer should give him a chance immediately to explain.

crossposted from

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

  Terrorism or Troopergate?

Some interesting priorities are on display in Alaska these days. Quite a few high-powered Republican lawyers have shown up in order to quash the legislature's investigation of Troopergate and take charge of answering reporters' questions in Alaska about Sarah Palin's political other words, to quash journalistic investigations as well.

Among the praetorians to show up suddenly is one Edward O'Callaghan. Until at least Sept. 3, he was an Assistant US Attorney in New York's southern district, the coordinator for the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council (ATAC). He has prosecuted a number of terrorist suspects in the last several years. But now he's set aside those modest duties in order to measure his abilities against a greater challenge - burnishing the image of a troubled Alaskan governor. And how quickly he turned about, trying to block rather than promote an investigation into wrongdoing. Interesting priorities held by Republican leaders, for whom the threat of terrorism pales in importance compared to their desire to hold onto the White House.

GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is effectively turning over questions about her record as Alaska's governor to John McCain's political campaign, part of an ambitious Republican strategy to limit any embarrassing disclosures and carefully shape her image for voters in the rest of the country.

Republican efforts include dispatching a former top U.S. terrorism prosecutor from New York, Ed O'Callaghan, to assist Palin's personal lawyer working to derail or delay a pending ethics investigation in Alaska...

O'Callaghan is helping ratchet up the heat on the Troopergate investigation, a probe with which Palin once promised to cooperate. O'Callaghan was the one who threw down the gauntlet during a news conference this week: Palin herself was unlikely to talk to the Alaska Legislature's investigator.

Earlier this summer Palin pledged to cooperate with the Alaskan Legislative Council's Troopergate inquiry. Within a day of her joining the Republican ticket, the McCain campaign blamed the issue on Barack Obama, declaring that Palin was of course cooperating because she'd done nothing wrong.

"As a reformer and a leader on ethics reform, she has been happy to help out in the investigation of this matter, because she was never directly involved."

It caused me to ask whether that implied she wouldn't cooperate if she were involved in wrongdoing. And right on schedule Palin began to obstruct the investigation.

Right after McCain introduced Palin as his running mate, her lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, asked the investigator to hand over to him all the evidence he was collecting and declared that only the Personnel Board had standing to investigate the matter. After Labor Day Palin filed an ethics complaint against herself (yes!) trying to get the investigation transferred to the state Personnel Board (whose members the governor appoints). Van Flein simultaneously asked the legislature to drop its investigation and threatened that otherwise Palin probably would refuse to testify. Her staff immediately started to refuse to testify at scheduled depositions. They and the First Dud had to be subpoenaed by the Council. Palin's camp also complained that the depositions are not being held in public, which somehow makes the inquiry 'McCarthyesque'. Republicans began to claim that the investigation was a partisan witch-hunt (though the GOP-controlled Legislative Council initiated it). They complained that the report was scheduled to be concluded only a short time before the November election. They attacked the integrity of a Democratic lawmaker, Hollis French, who's overseeing the independent investigator, Steven Branchflower. One Alaska Republican tried to have French removed from the investigation. Five others are now filing suit trying to delay the investigation until after Election Day, or block it as unconstitutional, because they claim French is friendly with Walter Monegan, the public safety commissioner Palin fired. Without providing evidence, a Palin aide accused the Obama campaign of "highjacking" the investigation. And Palin is letting it be known through Edward O'Callaghan that she probably won't agree to testify because she believes the investigation is "tainted". She also has started to change her story about whether and why she fired Monegan, accusing him now of "egregious insubordination" and "obstructionist conduct".

And incredibly enough on Tuesday the Alaskan Attorney General, a friend of Palin, announced that state employees will disregard the subpoenas to testify unless the Republican-dominated legislature endorses them. The reason? Because Palin, legal expert that she is, doesn't believe the subpoenas are valid.

In a letter to state Sen. Hollis French, the Democrat overseeing the investigation, Republican Attorney General Talis Colberg asked that the subpoenas be withdrawn. He also said the employees would refuse to appear unless either the full state Senate or the entire Legislature votes to compel their testimony.

Colberg, who was appointed by Palin, said the employees are caught between their respect for the Legislature and their loyalty to the governor, who initially agreed to cooperate with the inquiry but has increasingly opposed it since McCain chose her as his running mate.

"This is an untenable position for our clients because the governor has so strongly stated that the subpoenas issued by your committee are of questionable validity," Colberg wrote.

And so it goes. As the Bush administration has demonstrated over and over again, obeying lawful subpoenas is not a high priority for Republicans.

But making excuses for obstructing investigations into abuse of power – that's where the best Republican legal minds are always needed.

crossposted at

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

  Amir Taheri and McCain's poor judgment

John McCain appears to have believed every bit of nonsense that Iraqi exiles in Washington circulated during their campaign to involve the US in an invasion of Iraq. One of the chief people involved in selling those deceptions in DC was Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser. Yesterday both of them were involved in promoting another deception, this time fabricated by an Iranian exile – showing once again that McCain never outgrows his poor judgment, any more than he wises up and casts off the discredited advisers he relies upon.

The background is this: Yesterday a Republican propaganda outlet, the New York Post, published a column by Amir Taheri that accused Barack Obama of secretly trying to delay the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Various right-wing nuts were all a-twitter about the allegation – despite two very compelling reasons to disbelieve it.

(1) Amir Taheri is a notorious fraudster. He was once powerful under the Shah's regime but now is an Iranian exile and neocon shill. Taheri has been exposed repeatedly for simply making things up to fit his political agenda. For example, in May 2006 he published a report in the National Post (Canada) falsely stating that a new Iranian law required Jews to wear special clothing and yellow patches to identify themselves in public. The paper had to retract the story, blaming Taheri, and apologize for it. Taheri's reputation, already extremely low in 2006, has been in the dirt ever since.

(2) Taheri's column in the New York Post refutes his own claim that "OBAMA TRIED TO STALL GIS' IRAQ WITHDRAWAL". Taheri gives the game away at the very beginning of his column.

While campaigning in public for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Sen. Barack Obama has tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence.

According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July.

"He asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington," Zebari said in an interview.

Obama insisted that Congress should be involved in negotiations on the status of US troops - and that it was in the interests of both sides not to have an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in its "state of weakness and political confusion."

In other words, by Taheri's own account Obama did NOT "delay an agreement on a draw-down" of US troops from Iraq. Instead, Obama told the Iraqis he thought that the US Congress needed to sign off on any Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – a position Obama has held publicly since Bush announced in 2007 that he was seeking a long-term SOFA treaty. SOFA regulates what US troops may do in Iraq and how they shall coordinate with the Iraqi government. It has nothing necessarily to do with any timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq; if the US government decides to withdraw troops, it doesn't need an OK from the Iraqi government.

So Taheri was doing what he does best, spread misinformation.

Predictably, it was just a matter of hours before the McCain campaign would rush to embrace Taheri's baseless smear of Obama. Here is a statement released by his top adviser, Randy Scheunemann, of PNAC infamy:

At this point, it is not yet clear what official American negotiations Senator Obama tried to undermine with Iraqi leaders, but the possibility of such actions is unprecedented. It should be concerning to all that he reportedly urged that the democratically-elected Iraqi government listen to him rather than the US administration in power. If news reports are accurate, this is an egregious act of political interference by a presidential candidate seeking political advantage overseas. Senator Obama needs to reveal what he said to Iraq's Foreign Minister during their closed door meeting.

The charge that he sought to delay the withdrawal of Americans from Iraq raises serious questions about Senator Obama's judgment and it demands an explanation.

Actually, as I remarked, the episode reflects badly not on Obama's but on McCain's judgment. Heck, Scheunemann even admits that "it is not yet clear" what negotiations Taheri was claiming Obama had interfered with. In other words, the McCain camp recognizes that Taheri's allegations are incoherent. But they still chose to go ahead and tie themselves to Taheri's nonsense just because there's a "possibility" that something or other is amiss.

It sure sounds like McCain and his band of neocons have taken to heart Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine" (by which, if there's as much as a 1% chance that something nefarious is afoot, then one should act as if the possibility is a proven fact).

For what it's worth, today Obama responded by setting the record straight about Taheri's wild allegation.

Obama's national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said Taheri's article bore "as much resemblance to the truth as a McCain campaign commercial."

In fact, Obama had told the Iraqis that they should not rush through a "Strategic Framework Agreement" governing the future of US forces until after President George W. Bush leaves office, she said.

In the face of resistance from Bush, the Democrat has long said that any such agreement must be reviewed by the US Congress as it would tie a future administration's hands on Iraq.

"Barack Obama has never urged a delay in negotiations, nor has he urged a delay in immediately beginning a responsible drawdown of our combat brigades," Morigi said.

In this instance, McCain's poor judgment in embracing Taheri's claim clearly goes well beyond the point of 'recklessness'. It's less clear to me what the right term is to describe his management style, however. Perhaps no term can adequately convey how foolishly McCain is behaving.

crossposted at

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  McCain helped create the BlackBerry

John McCain's top economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, today credited him with helping to create the BlackBerry personal digital assistant. This grandiose claim invites ridicule and unfavorable comparisons to Al Gore's (accurate) statement that he had a hand in the internet's creation – and it will get both.

But before the chorus of laughter drowns out everything else, one point should be emphasized. Holtz-Eakin bases his absurd claim upon McCain's service on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Though McCain was chairman of the committee in 1997-2001, it's far from clear what McCain achieved that helped to create the (Canadian) Blackberry (released in 2002). What we can say with certainty is that McCain is doing absolutely nothing now on the Senate Commerce Committee. That's not an exaggeration. Back in July when I was investigating McCain's absenteeism in the Senate, I discovered that McCain has attended no hearings this year of the Commerce Committee or any of its subcommittees. Not a single one. That continues to be the case, evidently. He simply walked away from his Senate duties in order to run for president –McCain hasn't shown up in the Senate since April – in order to bring reform to Washington, he now says.

In other words, the preposterous BlackBerry claim raises a host of questions about McCain's campaign and his Senate career. What precisely are his achievements during the long Senate career he boasts of? He talks endlessly about his 'experience' but is vague about what he's used it for. Since when was McCain an economic reformer? And why should voters give him a new job when he can't be bothered to do his current one?

Here's what Holtz-Eakin told reporters today:

"He did this," Douglas Holtz-Eakin told reporters this morning, holding up his BlackBerry. "Telecommunications of the United States is a premier innovation in the past 15 years, comes right through the Commerce Committee. So you're looking at the miracle John McCain helped create and that's what he did."

The Associated Press report mocks Holtz-Eakin's argument, pointing out that McCain neither owns a computer nor sends email, before explaining what the nonsense was supposed to be about.

Holtz-Eakin...said McCain's service on and leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee put him at the intersection of a number of economic interests, including the telecommunications industry.

The Arizona senator's handling of regulation and deregulation of that industry in particular left him with the skills to help revive the economy amid a mortgage crisis, an energy crisis and a Wall Street meltdown, the adviser said.

The latter point is what the McCain campaign was aiming for, clearly. McCain has frequently admitted he knows too little about economics; his campaign staff is heavily dependent on lobbyists (and extremists) like Phil Gramm; his campaign finances are dependent on lobbyists' money; and his economic and financial policies past and present, such as he has any, have been drafted by lobbyists to emphasize deregulation of markets and industries. In March McCain told the Wall Street Journal "I'm always for less regulation."

Rather hard to explain that philosophy to the public now, since it's the very thing that led to the current collapse of the financial sector. The New York Times has a profile today of the contrasting economic approaches of Obama and McCain:

While Mr. McCain has cited the need for additional oversight when it comes to specific situations, like the mortgage problems behind the current shocks on Wall Street, he has consistently characterized himself as fundamentally a deregulator and he has no history prior to the presidential campaign of advocating steps to tighten standards on investment firms.

He has often taken his lead on financial issues from two outspoken advocates of free market approaches, former Senator Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Individuals associated with Merrill Lynch, which sold itself to Bank of America in the market upheaval of the past weekend, have given his presidential campaign nearly $300,000, making them Mr. McCain’s largest contributor, collectively.


Mr. McCain has sold himself to many voters as an agent for change, despite his party’s unpopularity after years of dominating in Washington, and despite his own antiregulation stances of past years.

Mr. McCain was quick on Monday to issue a statement calling for “major reform” to “replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street...

Mr. McCain’s reaction suggests how the pendulum has swung to cast government regulation in a more favorable political light as the economy has suffered additional blows and how he is scrambling to adjust. While he has few footprints on economic issues in more than a quarter century in Congress, Mr. McCain has always been in his party’s mainstream on the issue.

In early 1995, after Republicans had taken control of Congress, Mr. McCain promoted a moratorium on federal regulations of all kinds. He was quoted as saying that excessive regulations were “destroying the American family, the American dream” and voters “want these regulations stopped.”

So taking a little credit for helping to create the Blackberry was meant to give McCain credibility where he has the opposite, a hard-earned reputation for contributing to the deregulation that has caused the pillaging of the American economy, from Enron to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

McCain is so desperate to shore up his credibility that he this morning he pretended that he's been warning of economic collapse for years – even though until yesterday he kept repeating the mantra that 'the fundamentals of the economy are strong'.

McCain said he wants an inquiry into what led to the current mess, though he did not offer details.

"We're going to need a '9/11 Commission' to find out what happened and what needs to be fixed," he said. "I warned two years ago that this situation was deteriorating and unacceptable. And the old-boy network and the corruption in Washington is directly involved, and one of the causes of this financial crisis that we're in today. And I know how to fix it, and I know how to get things done."

A "9/11 Commission"? You'll recall that when the 9/11 commissioners unveiled their report, they announced rather proudly that when they first sat down they agreed immediately that they should avoid investigating who was to blame for allowing the disaster to occur. McCain wants another commission that will studiously avoid "the blame game". That's all the detail you need to know about his vague pronouncement – it would be more Republican CYA in the grand tradition of George Bush.

Too bad McCain couldn't be bothered to cover his own ass by showing up for a few Commerce Committee hearings this year – just to pretend that he really cares.

Update: A little further digging turned up a surprising rather amusing fact about the McCain campaign's claim that he created the BlackBerry by means of innovations passed through the Commerce Committee. The most important such bill, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was enacted even though McCain voted against it. In the Commerce Committee, too, McCain opposed the bill mainly because he thought it didn't go far enough in eliminating nearly all regulation of telecommunications industries:

Deregulation has a clear and consistent track record. In virtually every case, consumers have benefited from lower prices, better services and increased choices.


There was a time when Congress could create, through regulation, orderly and predictable markets in which all competitors succeeded. That time has passed.


Regulators are not the best judge of when regulation is no longer needed. Congress has entrusted regulators before with the task of deregulating: Years ago Congress gave the Interstate Commerce Commission authority to eliminate regulation. So disappointing were the results that Congress was forced to intervene, as it will likely do again later this year.

This is the man who says he now wants to "replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington".

crossposted at

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Monday, September 15, 2008

  Iraq after the "surge"

We're more than five years into a disastrously failed occupation of Iraq and yet how rarely do we see any serious attempt to analyze the underlying problems. The best commentary on Iraq generally provides little actual analysis, preferring instead to pass along observations about facts and events, past or present. The worse discussions of Iraq, often from Bush administration officials and apologists, provide most of what passes for analysis of the situation in Iraq. Unfortunately nearly all the latter comes larded with sweeping generalizations, unsupportable assumptions, egregious misrepresentations, faulty interpretations, cultural misunderstandings, or selective omissions - all in the rosiest of hues.

This past week there appeared, however, an excellent, original, and thought-provoking analysis of Iraq after the "surge". The three co-authors bring insight and expertise as well as another quality too often lacking in discussions of Iraq: They don't have axes to grind or excuses to make for US policy to date. Their report is a must read for anybody seriously interested in what the future holds for American involvement in Iraq.

The report, Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge: Five Enduring Tensions and Ten Key Challenges, can be found at the Center for American Progress. Its authors (Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch and Peter Juul) have figured out something critical that seems to have eluded most of the leading policy-makers in the Bush administration: that the US has little (and increasingly less) influence over how Iraqis conduct their affairs. The shape of Iraqi politics, of the constitution, domestic and foreign relations, and much else will inevitably be governed by the interests of Iraqi factions and individual leaders far more than by the desires of the US.

Furthermore, the authors argue that the dynamics that were in place before the surge began did not (as Bush hoped) simply resolve themselves, under pressure from the increased US troop presence, into the kinds of dynamics the US was aiming for. Nor did the political situation simply stagnate, as many American critics of the surge have assumed. Instead, the main political players in Iraq have done with the "surge" what should have been anticipated - they used it to entrench and expand their bases of power. Thus the "surge" made it harder, rather than easier, to advance the reform agenda that the Bush administration wishes for the Iraqi government to implement.

Here is the report's executive summary. I find myself in agreement with nearly every major interpretation in it. The ten challenges identified are of course arbitrary in number; the list could easily have been expanded. For example, it doesn't include the basic need to reverse the fragmentation of the Iraqi central goverment's power when ministries were divvied up as the prizes in a spoils system (a practice that both reflected and enhanced the political fragmentation of the country). Furthermore, I'd have said that the US/Iraq security agreement is not the most important or difficult challenges that the future holds. Resolving the questions of Kurdish power and control of Kirkuk are far more fraught with danger for the future of Iraq. Never the less, these are just minor notes in the margins of what is an excellent and incisive report.

Executive Summary

The 2007-2008 surge of U.S. troops achieved important gains in reducing violence in Iraq. But it has not delivered on its central objective: achieving a sustainable power consolidation among Iraq’s different political forces. The surge has frozen into place the accelerated fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and has created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions.

The common refrain that the surge has produced military success that has not been matched by political progress fundamentally misrepresents the nature of Iraq’s political evolution. The increased security achieved over the last two years has been purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. The reductions in violence in 2007 and 2008 have, in fact, made true political accommodation in Iraq more elusive, contrary to the central theory of the surge.

Rather than advancing Iraq’s political transition and facilitating power-sharing deals among Iraq’s factions, the surge has produced an oil revenue-fueled, Shia-dominated national government with close ties to Iran. This national government shows few signs of seeking to compromise and share meaningful power with other frustrated political factions. The surge has set up a political house of cards. But this does not mean that the U.S. military must stay longer to avoid its collapse. Quite the contrary: Without a U.S. military drawdown, Iraq will not be able to achieve the true internal consolidation of power necessary to advance U.S. security interests in the Middle East.

Now that the last surge brigades are gone, Iraq’s government is demanding a strict timeline for the departure of U.S. troops, and U.S. policy in Iraq is moving toward an inevitable transition, it is time to take stock of Iraq’s internal politics.

Iraq’s internal politics today are a complicated mosaic of competing interests and contradictory trends. Five enduring, unresolved tensions lie beneath the surface, each capturing a part but none the entirety of the political dynamics of post-surge Iraq.

1. Centralizers vs. de-centralizers. Some Iraqi factions want to see more power placed in the hands of the national government, while others continue to push for more power to be vested in local and provincial governments.

2. State power holders vs. popular challengers. Certain factions have disproportionately benefited from the national government’s spoils, such as Dawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Kurdish factions who are part of national government. Some factions that have not benefited from the national government’s increased oil wealth and military power have stronger support in key areas of Iraq such as the Sons of Iraq in central and western Iraq and the Sadrists in central and southern Iraq.

3. Sunni vs. Shia. Sectarian conflicts are much reduced since high levels of violence in 2006, but the Sunni-Shia sectarian strain endures.

4. Arab vs. Kurds. The Arab-Kurd division is coming to a head in the unresolved crisis over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

5. Religious factions vs. secular factions. Latent tensions remain between Iraqis who are concerned by the religious nature of Iraqi politics versus those who see politics as one facet of advancing enduring religious principles of either Sunni or Shia Islam. Religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis have suffered from persecution at the hands of other groups in Iraq since 2003.

The five persistent fault lines are present in the three major alliances and political groups that continue to evolve in Iraq: the fragmenting Shia-Kurdish coalition that has ruled Iraq, the transformations in Sunni politics, and the still fledgling efforts of nationalist and secular groups.

Iraq will need to overcome numerous hurdles in its political transition before the end of 2009, including two elections and a long list of unresolved power-sharing questions. Not all of the 10 key challenges outlined in this report are of equal magnitude—failure to resolve some would likely lead to major, systemic crisis, while failure on others would simply be suboptimal. Yet all are interconnected, and none have been resolved by the security improvements of the last 18 months or will be meaningfully addressed simply by postponing U.S. troop withdrawals. Ten key challenges ahead for Iraq’s political transition include:

1. The U.S.-Iraq security agreement
2. Provincial powers and elections
3. Refugees and internally displaced persons
4. Disbanding and integrating militias and other armed groups
5. Constitutional review
6. Kirkuk and other disputed territories and Article 140
7. De-Baathification reform implementation
8. Amnesty implementation
9. Oil and revenue sharing laws
10. State capacity, governance, and anti-corruption

These are all issues that Iraq’s leaders must address on their own terms, and at their own pace. The United States cannot impose a military solution to the power-sharing disputes among Iraq’s leaders, and expending significant resources in an effort to do so is unwise while other pressing national security challenges loom in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. True progress in Iraq requires the United States to acknowledge the increasing moves by Iraqis to assert sovereignty and control over their own affairs.

Most analyses tend to assume that the United States is the principal driver of events in Iraq. From this perspective, Iraqi political progress will only be achieved under constant U.S. pressure, which would make withdrawing troops and reducing U.S. power on the ground a self-defeating proposition. But this perspective is dangerously backward, since the primary drivers of Iraqi politics are Iraqis, and a stable political order must rest on the alignment of their interests and not the exercise of U.S. willpower or tinkering.

The U.S. military presence in Iraq is not politically neutral. It creates a distinct set of incentives for political actors that directly work against the reconciliation that U.S. diplomats try to promote. U.S. military dominance and support absolves the major political actors from having to make the tough decisions necessary to achieve a power-sharing equilibrium.

In the months ahead in Iraq, the United States will have to distinguish between those outcomes that are truly catastrophic and those that are simply suboptimal given the limits on U.S. leverage over Iraqi actors—leverage that declines each day as the Iraqi government becomes financially self-sufficient and more assertive. Iraq’s leaders over the next year will increasingly demand greater control over their own affairs. The United States needs to rebalance its overall national security approach by stepping outside of the trenches of intra-Iraqi disputes over power and putting the focus back on its core national security interests.

crossposted at

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  McCain as Herbert Hoover

This morning in Florida, as the American financial market implodes, John McCain did his Herbert Hoover imitation once again - something that the Obama campaign frequently ridicules him for:

I think still - the fundamentals of our economy are strong.

It makes a certain kind of sense for a sitting president to make this kind of assertion. George Bush has been saying the very same thing for several years as the economy stagnated and financial disaster loomed. But the fact that McCain feels impelled at this stage to embrace the economic-fundamentals-are-strong line reveals as clearly as anything the extent to which he is running as a quasi-incumbent, the extension of the Bush presidency.

What McCain had to say today was this:

"You know that there's been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street. And it is, it's - people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think still - the fundamentals of our economy are strong. But these are very, very difficult times."

Video is here:

That's virtually indistinguishable from what George Bush has been saying this year. But ironically, McCain went on to argue that what is needed in Washington is a major change in the government's oversight of financial institutions, in particular greater transparency – and that he is the person to bring that change!

"This is a failure...The McCain Palin administration will replace the outdated patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street, we will bring transparency and accountability and we will reform the regulatory bodies of government."

Never mind that McCain has been in Washington for decades and done little to beef up regulation and accountability (in the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s he sought to undercut bank regulators and then refused to hold himself accountable for the ensuing bank failures). Nor has McCain brought transparency even in things directly in his control (witness the vast numbers of documents he sealed from public scrutiny in his softball "investigation" of Jack Abramoff).

But for our purposes, just compare McCain's rhetoric to that of George Bush. Here was President Bush last August, as he was about to head out of Washington for another one of his long summer vacations, responding to a question about the volatility in the financial markets and the effect of the mortgage crisis on the economy:

Now, what I focus on are the fundamentals of our economy. My belief is that people will make rational decision based upon facts. And the fundamentals of our economy are strong. I mentioned some of them before. Job creation is strong. Real after-tax wages are on the rise. Inflation is low.


One thing is for certain, is that there needs to be more transparency in the -- in financial documents. In other words, a lot of people sign up to something they're not exactly sure what they're signing up for.

And here is Bush's rhetoric about regulation (with regard to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac):

As you know, we put up a robust reform package for these two institutions, a reform package that will cause them to focus on their core mission, first and foremost; a reform package that says like other lending institutions, there ought to be regulatory oversight.

As for accountability, the press conference closed with Bush dodging repeated questions about his failure to hold anybody accountable.

In short, Bush has specialized in exactly the kind of empty rhetoric regarding economic and financial reform that John McCain is using on the stump. It will be hard for voters to see anything in McCain's proposals other than a continuation of Bushonomics – especially since McCain chose a running mate who knows, if anything, less about economics than he does.

Well, aside from his tendency toward ignorance and indifference, there is of course a reason why this president (like many of his predecessors) regularly insists that economic fundamentals are sound. The current financial crisis brings that into sharp relief today: The last bastion against total financial meltdown now is a fragile belief in fundamentals underpinning creaky Wall St. institutions. Absent faith in incommensurable "fundamentals", the collapse will spread unpredictably far.

"Once you lose confidence, the fundamentals matter less."

Many would say it's a president's job to put a brave face on economic fragility. The willingness of McCain to say this kind of nonsense, however, which invites once again the charge of "being politically tone-deaf", is a good measure of the degree to which McCain is indeed the successor to Bush. McCain himself recognizes that he cannot truly run as an outsider, that he must adapt to being the representative of a third Bush term. As the financial and economic situation worsens, it will not present an opportunity to McCain, but rather a trap. It's the trap that Herbert Hoover never found a way to escape from between 1930 and 1932: How to run as an agent of hope, a symbol of competence, and an experienced hand on the tiller, while simultaneously talking up the "soundness" of fundamentals?

And Hoover was a lot sharper and more experienced than John McCain in a whole range of ways. For one thing, Hoover had the political sense, during the election year, to ditch the happy talk about the economy. McCain still hasn't figured out even that much.

And Obama is not about to make things easier for him:

"This country can't afford another four years of this failed philosophy," Obama said...

"The challenges facing our financial system today are more evidence that too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store," Obama said in a statement. "Eight years of policies that have shredded consumer protections, loosened oversight and regulation, and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs while ignoring middle-class Americans have brought us to the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression."

"I certainly don't fault Sen. McCain for these problems," Obama said, "but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to."

This is the single most important element that has been missing, for the most part, from Obama's election campaign thus far – a picture of what the Republican philosophy of governance leads to. The current financial crisis has provided a golden opportunity to make that case, tying McCain to the spectacularly failed policies of Bush that he has endorsed or supported for the past 8 years.

crossposted at

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Friday, September 12, 2008

  Dan Quayle is back

Sarah Palin's ABC interviews last night were a national embarrassment. From the opening moments it had the feel of a cringe comedy except the joke is on America. I had a sense of deja vu from Dan Quayle's elevation in 1988. Just as with Quayle's first infamous interviews, Palin came across as ignorant and full of conviction and vacuous and earnest and equivocating and bellicose and naive and talking-pointed and unreflective and determined and shallow and self-righteous and hapless. It was immediately clear why the McCain campaign had to keep Palin away from reporters for the last two weeks.

Although the train-wreck is attracting plenty of attention already, what has gone unremarked is that the questions were straightforward, predictable, and fairly general. Charles Gibson did ask Palin about a couple of her controversial statements, though given how many false, contradictory, and bizarre comments she has made, he went exceedingly easy on her. He also pressed Palin a few times when she was especially evasive. But that was the extent to which the interview could be considered 'tough'. None of his questions were specific in the way that reporters generally test the extent of an unknown candidate's understanding of governance, policy issues, legislation, foreign relations, or history. Anybody who was remotely competent should have been able to respond to every one of those questions with ease. So the train-wreck was self-induced.

In the most revealing moment, when Gibson asked whether Palin supported the Bush Doctrine of preemptively and unilaterally attacking countries that might pose a threat to the US, it became clear that she had never heard of his policy. That's an astounding level of ignorance. To justify the invasion of Iraq, Bush had rejected a world consensus on international relations going back to the establishment of the UN 60 years earlier. Even as her own son was about to ship out to Iraq, Palin still hadn't figured out the basis on which Bush had invaded the country in the first place.

Here is how in September 2002 the White House outlined the Bush Doctrine of preemptively attacking countries that might pose a threat:

For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.

We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning...

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans are dead as a direct result of the Bush Doctrine, millions more Iraqis are driven into exile, cities lie in ruins, our reputation among the world's nations is in tatters, John McCain has threatened further war against Iran on the same basis, and the Republican vice-presidential nominee couldn't even figure out what Gibson was talking about when he raised the issue.

Her deer-in-the-headlights look, as she sought repeatedly to avoid being pinned down, showed how far out of her depth she is. For she's more than just ignorant. Her blathering about the need to fight terrorism, a transparent smokescreen, shows that Palin thinks others don't know what she doesn't know.

Especially pathetic was her sudden attempt to change the subject to Bush's blunders and the need for new leadership. And even after Gibson explained to her what the Bush Doctrine is, she tried to deflect the question another time with more platitudes. Pressed once again to take a position, Palin appeared to fall back on the pre-Bush consensus that it's the imminence of a threat which justifies taking military action. Thus, unwittingly, she backed into a position that conflicts with McCain's support for the Bush Doctrine.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?

PALIN: His world view.

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: I agree that a president's job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America.

I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.

GIBSON: Do we have a right to anticipatory self-defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike again another country if we feel that country might strike us?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

I've seen this kind of thing many times before – and not just in the abject cluelessness of Dan Quayle during 1988, or George W. Bush during 2000. Palin was the 'F' student trying to convince a teacher that she merits at least a 'B'. Her performance is like the final exam essay that, starting off with an incomprehension of basic terms, and showing an awareness only of a single assigned book – though not its contents - tries to get by on banalities that might have been composed before the course ever began.

It was an interview with a candidate who knows next to nothing about political matters because (as James Fallows remarks) she obviously was never interested enough even to pay attention to the news.

If gross ignorance and the indifference that lie behind it are troubling, even more is the attitude that it doesn't matter. Palin embodies to an even greater degree than McCain the belief on full display at the GOP Convention that issues and policies are insignificant, that the Republican candidates can run instead on their character and biographies.

For example, after Palin had tried yet again to claim national security expertise because Alaska lies close to Russia, Gibson asked whether she'd ever met a foreign leader. In response, Palin suggested that expertise is overrated and that Americans are "sick and tired" of people who have a "big, fat resume":

GIBSON: I'm talking about somebody who's a head of state, who can negotiate for that country. Ever met one?

PALIN: I have not and I think if you go back in history and if you ask that question of many vice presidents, they may have the same answer that I just gave you. But, Charlie, again, we've got to remember what the desire is in this nation at this time. It is for no more politics as usual and somebody's big, fat resume maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment, where, yes, they've had opportunities to meet heads of state ... these last couple of weeks ... it has been overwhelming to me that confirmation of the message that Americans are getting sick and tired of that self-dealing and kind of that closed door, good old boy network that has been the Washington elite.

Asked by Gibson whether she'd hesitated to join the ticket because of her scant experience, Palin replied that her lack of doubt was her chief qualification. Her commitment to McCain's goals is what matters rather than her knowledge, background, or abilities. Evidently the test is not blinking, though maybe not in a deer-in-the-headlights way.

GIBSON: And you didn't say to yourself, "Am I experienced enough? Am I ready? Do I know enough about international affairs? Do I -- will I feel comfortable enough on the national stage to do this?"

PALIN: I didn't hesitate, no.

GIBSON: Didn't that take some hubris?

PALIN: I -- I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink.

So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.

What else does Palin have no qualms about? For starters, an Israeli attack on Iran. Gibson asked what the US should do if Israel wished to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Palin's repeated response is that the US cannot "second guess" any steps Israel takes to defend itself. She appears not to realize how large that blank check is; that Israel might not hesitate to cash it; and that helping Israel to violate the Iraqi air space it patrols would engulf the US inevitably.

Palin also sees no reason to hesitate about bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The chance that it would involve the US in war with Russia is barely worth a thought.

GIBSON: Would you favor putting Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

PALIN: Ukraine, definitely, yes. Yes, and Georgia.


GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty, wouldn't we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?

PALIN: Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you're going to be expected to be called upon and help.

Inviting war with Russia is worth a "perhaps" and nothing more. On top of that, Palin falsely states that the Russian invasion of Georgia was "unprovoked".

On top of all that, there were plenty of moments when Palin clumsily tried to avoid being pinned down on issues whose implications she didn't understand fully, or sought to distance herself from her own previous assertions.

For example, Palin had to acknowledge that human activity might be contributing to global warming. She falsely denied that she was contradicting her earlier position. Here for example is Palin as recently as August 28, 2008:

"A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."

In yesterday's interview, Gibson asked about her tendency to depict government policies she supports as God's will. In a recent speech at a church in her hometown, Palin had described the invasion and occupation of Iraq in those terms:

"Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God," she exhorted the congregants. "That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

Gibson quoted Palin and asked her, "Are we fighting a holy war?" Palin first tried to deny that she'd said the war is "a task that is from God", then retreated and claimed she was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln's exhortation to pray, not that God is on our side, but rather that we are on God's side. However after a good deal of blather about terrorism, democracy and freedom, Palin ends up taking back her assertion that the Iraq war is a task from God.

GIBSON: I take your point about Lincoln's words, but you went on and said, "There is a plan and it is God's plan."

PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That, in my world view, is a grand -- the grand plan.

GIBSON: But then are you sending your son on a task that is from God?

PALIN: I don't know if the task is from God, Charlie.

Palin is not running on expertise, experience, or knowledge – of which she has practically none. She is running on her personal characteristics. What she's demonstrated in these interviews is that she'll say absolutely anything to get elected. Some character.

crossposted at

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Monday, September 08, 2008

  Woodward discovers that the "surge" is overhyped

In the Washington Post today Bob Woodward reports that the reduction in violence in Iraq during the past year isn't entirely due to the increase in troops, as the Bush administration and its apologists would have it. Who would figured that out were it not for Woodward's ballyhooed access to the White House? I mean, apart from all the bloggers who've been saying this for the past year.

Woodward finally gets around to telling us the obvious because he's flogging a new book. He tries his best to dress this up as news, emphasizing three factors that helped to decrease violence in Iraq in 2007. They are in order:

(i) Assassination of anti-American terrorists and milita leaders based on new intelligence "sources, methods and operations".
(ii) The Anbar "Awakening" and "Concerned Local Citizens" groups.
(iii) Moqtada al-Sadr's ceasefire.

None of this is news, although Woodward tries hard in his book to portray the first as if it were a revelation. He also makes a big mystery of the details of how the military suddenly became more successful in identifying and locating those who were leading attacks on US forces. Woodward claims he's being vague in order to preserve military secrecy. It's all just a sham, however, and a piece with the fact that the item is listed first rather than, say, second. The sources for all this new actionable information are obvious – the former Sunni insurgents who turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq and decided to allow themselves to be bribed by the US to switch sides. Of course they were going to work with the US to settle scores against the anti-American Al Qaeda and Shia militia leaders. That was one of the points of bribing them.

So Woodward's first point is just a corollary of his second.

Meanwhile Woodward neglects to mention one of the most salient facts, a point that none of his sources in the White House or in the military command can have wanted to emphasize. The sectarian/ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (in particular) continued unabated during the first half year of the "surge", in some cases right under the noses of the stepped up American patrols. By August 2007, Sunnis had been driven out of most of the areas of Baghdad that they formally inhabited. Since that was what most of the violence was about, inevitably it subsided once the Sunnis retreated to a few enclaves to the east of the river (where most of the remaining violence is now located).

The White House and military are painfully aware of this. One of the key goals of the "surge", as Bush explained, was to put more troops in Baghdad to stop the ethnic/sectarian cleansing. It failed miserably. Thus the WH and Gen. Petraeus have had almost nothing to say on the topic of cleansing since the surge began.

In fact, as I've reported, in his first report to Congress in September 2007, Petraeus used grossly misleading slides that were designed to cover up the fact that Baghdad neighborhoods had been cleansed horrifically. And the following April, without acknowledging that he'd misled Congress the previous summer, Petraeus quietly replaced those earlier, falsified slides with accurate ones. In other words, Petraeus is highly sensitive to the significance of the sectarian/ethnic cleansing.

Bob Woodward, by contrast, neglects even to mention it. As so often, he appears to be captive to those inside sources he prizes so highly.

crossposted at

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

  Republicans will regret yesterday's Convention (Part 2)

So what did McCain need most to achieve from last night's speeches?

(i) Fire up the rank and file GOP. Check. Republican conventions have been doing this successfully for years with an old formula: taunting Democrats, fake wedge issues, and red-meat divisiveness. This part was easy, especially with a vice presidential nominee who's an extremist opponent of abortion.

(ii) Appeal to persuadable voters, i.e. moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, and the remaining hold-out supporters of Hillary Clinton. Uh, nope.

Mockery to be effective can't seem mean-spirited. The open taunting last night was off putting. Giuliani and Palin blew it completely by ridiculing, for example, Obama's work as a community organizer. Delegates taunting Obama as a "Zero" are the opposite of endearing. When Giuliani sneered at Obama's rise to prominence as "the kind of thing that could happen only in America", it sounded like he meant that Americans are boobs. The irony of Palin's sudden rise from obscurity seemed lost on him.

In fact Giuliani got so carried away with his attacks that he even sneered at Hillary Clinton. The last person who credibly could have joined in the belittling of Obama's record was Sarah Palin. Yet she obviously relished her over-the-top attacks.

It was almost as if the strategy was to drive undecided voters straight into Obama's camp.

Clearly this was a slick assembly line speech created for Palin by a former writer for George Bush, Matthew Scully.

Scully started working on the vice-presidential speech a week ago, before he or anyone else knew who the nominee would be, and it's not hard to pick out the parts that would have been the same regardless of who delivered it.

It was in the Bush tradition. There were cheap put downs and strawmen and caricatures of Democrats galore – and a similar lack of substance.

The attacking mode last night backfired especially badly for Palin. Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research conducted 2 focus groups with persuadable women voters during and after her speech, and the majority came away with a more negative impression of Palin. Some of the women were strongly offended even if they were impressed by Palin's ability to deliver her speech effectively.

"Once she started mudslinging, I thought, it's the same old crap as other politicians. McCain used her to get the women's vote. And she's using McCain." ... "She comes off pretty cutthroat," said one.

That's little short of disastrous. McCain has said he'll lose without attracting Clinton's voters. Palin was selected to win them over. And yet McCain had his writers create a speech for her that was almost bound to do the opposite.

(iii) Introduce Sarah Palin to a public that knows almost nothing about her; define her before Democrats do; and explain why she's qualified. No.

This had to be the primary goal of the evening because Palin is such a cipher, has the thinnest of political records, and has been mired in controversy since her selection was announced. Anybody could have attacked Barack Obama and Joe Biden; it was a miscalculation to have her waste a critical opportunity doing so.

Less than half her speech was in any way about herself. Palin's introduction of her family was the dullest section – the part most likely to have been written by her. She went on to say nothing about any achievements as mayor; she said she was so offended by Democrats' criticisms of her tenure as mayor that she would "explain to them what the job involves", but in point of fact Palin veered away immediately into insults and never returned to her job as mayor. That was pretty telling. She then took credit as governor for only two accomplishments that could be portrayed as even remotely significant. Palin also repeated her discredited claims that she opposed the "Bridge to Nowhere" and earmarks generally. Her portrait of herself as a reformer was all bluster and almost no substance. The rest was boilerplate praise for McCain and attacks on Obama and the media. There's a good reason why voters in those focus groups wanted to know a lot more about Palin after the speech. What we got was a pretty stock portrait. I still don't have a clear idea what a "hockey mom" is supposed to be, either, though I love the game.

(iv) Lay claim to some issues that voters care about and explain what McCain and Palin would do. No way.

So far I see no evidence that Republicans care about health care, the mortgage crisis, the economy, the middle-class squeeze, the outsourcing of jobs, the exploding national debt, or any domestic issues other than drilling for oil. As for convincing voters they have a plan for anything, it wasn't even attempted. In foreign policy it's about the same. The speakers did insist on "victory" in Iraq, but without defining it, even as the Maliki government insists on the US withdrawing from the country. Otherwise all one can say is that they're hostile to "tyrants" who have oil and that Georgia matters a lot, somehow.

As the New York Times noted, it's as if the querulous Republicans had a touch of the lock-jaw wherever serious issues are concerned.

The problem is that American voters have yet to hear — from John McCain or his warm-up acts — any serious ideas on what, exactly, is wrong with Washington, apart from the fact that a Democrat might win the White House, never mind how to truly fix it.

In short, Republicans can feel relieved that Sarah Palin did not implode in her first major speech. But that's the lowest of low bars. They've accomplished only the easiest of the goals they needed to reach. They've squandered opportunities by turning instinctively to the divisive playbook of Karl Rove. They've presented us with Bushism without Bush. In the process McCain and Palin have also made it harder for themselves to run as "mavericks" or agents of change. And they've left hanging the cloud around Sarah Palin's readiness to serve, with the implication that McCain's judgment in picking her was clouded.

crossposted at

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  Republicans will regret yesterday's Convention (Part 1)

The content and tone of the speeches at the RNC last night gave the impression that John McCain has no coherent plan to win this election. The speeches by Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani were packed with non-sequiturs and own-goals in addition to the standard lies, exaggeration, self-praise, and strawmen. Even worse, they established a sneering tone toward Democrats that Sarah Palin then embraced.

Rather than enhance her own public image, she damaged it. She also tossed away the best chance she had to introduce and define herself to voters, and to brush aside the growing impression that she has little substance. She offered nothing substantial in this boilerplate speech, most of which could have been delivered by any number of interchangeable GOP attack-dogs. The single issue she seemed to care about was drilling for oil in Alaska. Anyway, Palin told us next to nothing about herself, her political views, her record. More strangely, she didn't try to explain why she'd be qualified to serve as vice president or president. The most she achieved last night was to introduce herself to the nation as unfailingly sarcastic and dismissive of her rivals. Whereas a well-known figure such as Giuliani might conceivably imagine that he could pull off a speech dedicated to belittling a rival politician who's more experienced than himself, how is that remotely credible for somebody who emerged from obscurity just a week ago? She has virtually no achievements to leverage such attacks upon. She has the thinnest of profiles to draw upon for credibility. It was a misfire. And yet by her extreme harshness, Palin invited and legitimized the harsh judgments of herself that have been proving devastating.

In other words, the speakers (and delegates) appear to have given little thought to how they were coming across to voters who aren't hyper-partisan – the people they need to persuade. If the McCain campaign identified what the convention speakers needed to achieve, Sarah Palin in particular, there's little evidence they implemented a strategy to reach those goals.

Sure, there were a few stray bits and bobs of a plan: to build distance between McCain and George Bush, to argue that "Washington is not working", and to cast McCain and Palin as reformers. But that's a very tall order given that McCain spent years cleaving to Bush, and that the mess in need of fixing was created by Republicans. The fitful attempts to reconcile these things were so poorly executed that they invited mockery. Thus Mitt Romney tried pathetically to convince us that all the pressing problems in DC were "liberal" ones that required a conservative to fix.

"Is government spending — excluding inflation — liberal or conservative if it doubles since 1980? It's liberal! We need change all right -- change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington!"

It was as if Romney thought he could spit into a hurricane; most Americans already know that McCain voted with Bush more than 90% of the time. Republicans are trying to run against themselves, as the New York Times comments.

What's more, the attempts by McCain's surrogates to portray him as a reformer tended to underline the very embarrassments of the Bush years that Republicans want to flee. So for example Romney argued "It's time for the party of big ideas, not the party of Big Brother!" But along with nearly all Congressional Republicans, McCain caved in and supported Bush's illegal spying on Americans after he initially denounced it. How can he gain by raising the specter of "Big Brother"?

Similarly, the attempts by surrogates to build up Sarah Palin get more and more strained by the hour. We're told that Palin proved her abilities as mayor of a town of 5,000 - a job she said in 1996 was not very difficult at all ("not rocket science"). That she has extensive political experience from 20 months of running a state with a population the size of Memphis – wait, make that more experience than Obama, more than Biden! That she has foreign policy cred as commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard – to which Palin has never issued a single order. That she's the bane of lobbyists and earmarks – except her own. Last night, Mike Huckabee added the most ridiculous argument yet, that Palin "got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States". In fact, Palin received only 616 votes in her 1996 race and 909 votes in 1999.

Anyone with an ounce of sense will be insulted by this nonsense. Several prominent Republicans have already admitted the obvious.

[Former Minnesota Governor Arne] Carlson flatly panned the Palin pick, saying she simply doesn't have enough experience.

"That's not a person who should have been under anybody's consideration. The politics may be compelling, and the politics may be appealing. But ultimately, do you want that person to be the next president of the United States?"

The longer that speakers at the convention keep trying to tout Palin's thin resume, the more they're revealed to be con-artists. That has been one of the central problems for this week, how to put the best possible face on McCain's bizarre choice of a running-mate. It's not easy to sell pure, unadulterated sham to the public without tipping your hand that you think they're boobs.

The curtain fell open yesterday when Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy admitted on an open microphone that Palin isn't well qualified, her nomination is gimmicky, and it's ruined McCain's campaign. In public however, like good Republicans, they'd been saying the opposite. Yet last evening the speakers carried on as if the GOP talking points had not been exposed as phony. They needed a new plan to replace the one that had just collapsed, but instead just tried to carry on more aggressively than before.

I'll have more to say on this topic shortly in a second post.

>crossposted at

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