March 28, 2008

Guantanamo To Close?

After the American Century

One of the worst mistakes of the Bush government has been to create the special prison at Guantamo Bay in Cuba. The men held there have not been charged with specific crimes, and could not be kept in detention for more than a few days if on American soil. That is because the Constitution gives all those arrested the right to know what charges are being made against them. The US Courts also have always upheld the right to a legal defense, the right know the evidentiary basis used by the prosecurtion, the right to call witnesses for the defense, and the right to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. None of these fundamental rights have been available at Guantanamo, and its mere existence has given the US a credibility problem. How can the US claim to represent democracy, and to want to encourgage other nations to adopt democracy, if it does not play by the rules of democracy?

Putting the detainees off-shore and denying them rights was a serious blot on the US's national reputation. But making matters worse, the Bush Government chose to lock them up on Cuba. That placement reminded the whole world, especially Latin America, of the US seizure of Cuba after the Spanish-American War in 1898. That little war was supposed to lead to independence for Cuba. Something else happened instead, and real independence for Cuba only came with Castro's revolution. In short, putting the illegal prisons on a base in Cuba reminded every Latin American that the US has often been something of a bully in the Caribbean. Teddy Roosevelt was thinking of that region when he declared that his policy was to "speak softly but carry a big stick." Locating the base in Cuba was a gift to the Left all over Latin America. It particularly hurt our credibility in nations such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia.

Worst of all, the whole conduct of the Bush Administration with regard to these prisoners has distrcated attention from the serious crimes some of them surely committed. I do not doubt that some - though probably by no means all - of the detainees are terrorists. But the Bush policy made them into victims!

This morning's news carried the story that an impressive FIVE former Secretaries of Sate are now calling for the Guantanamo Prison to be closed down. The bi-partisan group includes Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powel. This is a welcome development, signaling the widespread rejection of much of the Bush-Cheney policy. These are the most experienced people in American foreign policy, and their unusual bi-partisan statement should be enough to close this sorry chapter. In a sense, they are only seeing the hand-writing on the wall, because the electorate has already spoken. John McCain, who himself suffered as a prison of war in Vietnam, would close it. And both Clinton and Obama would close it. The only question is how quickly it can be done.

As a sidelight on this issue, a little story. About two months ago a Danish journalist called me to talk about Guantanamo. As is often the case with Danish journalists covering some aspect of the US, she was by no means a specialist on the United States. I seriously doubt she could pass the exam in my introductory American history course. But she had fixed opinions about the US which were precisely of the sort that the existence of Guantanamo reinforced. I told her for 15 minutes, in as many ways as I could think of, that Guantanamo Bay prisons would not survive very long in the next presidency, that they were an illegal embarrasment, that they no longer even served an intelligible purpose, and that a new leader would hardly want to be saddled with this Bush mistake. But she simply would not listen. She, like millions of others around the world, saw in those orange-clad prisoners, shuffling in chains, the "true" American policy toward the rest of the world. Since I did not agree with her, my interview was not used in her story. That is one of many instances where Danish journalists imposed their oversimplified world view on their readers. Guantanamo was made-to-order for such people, and it will take a generation of far better leadership in Washington to undo the public relations damage.

Unfortunately, there is no way to undo the terrible damage done to those prisoners held illegally without charge who in fact were not guilty. They have lost precious years of their lives, and as long as their relatives remember, the United States will be a bitter name in their mouths. When Guantanamo finally closes, it will live on in memory as another Bush disaster. He has been such a poor president that Richard Nixon begins to look sensible, moderate, and statesmanlike, even if he had to insist he was not a crook. You know things are bad when the most disgraced president in US history begins to look better.

March 23, 2008

Preparing the Way

Weedcraft artwork, by Fern Nye
After the American Century

On this Easter Morning I want to wish all my readers well, and say Thank You for your attention. The pace of publication has been slow of late because of the final illness of my mother, Fern, who passed away last week. She was one of my readers. Rather, beginning in childhood, she was my first reader. She also took a keen interest in politics, worked to get out the vote, and once was elected a Justice of the Peace. Even in her last days, she was following the current election with great interest. Always a swing voter, she studied the candidates closely. She was a liberal Republican who admired both Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, both Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King.

Barack Obama made what is already a famous speech last week, but unfortunately my mother never got to hear it. The media keeps referring to it as a speech about "race", but it would be more accurate to say that it is about getting beyond racial fears and stereotyping. By giving it in Philadelphia he called attention to the continuity between his campaign and the promises and possibilities of the Constitution that was written in that city 221 years ago. It is a great speech because it is not mere rhetorical effects, but a probing analysis of the attitudes of both African-Americans and White Americans. So many have already commented on what he said, that I will only say that it reminds Americans of all racial and religious backgrounds that we are on a journey together, sharing a common fate, building a common future.

I feel certain that my mother would have liked that speech. In her own way, she was part of the process of change that Obama embodies and embraces. In the late 1950s, also in Pennsylvania, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she strongly supported hiring a Black clergyman in her largely white Episcopal congregation. He was hired, and proved to be an effective and popular minister. For the most part, Fern Nye was not a public figure, working quietly and generously for others through volunteer work and charitable giving.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that, while she knew as a trained biologist that racial differences were so minimal as to be unimportant, she still discovered racist feelings within herself. For example, she once confessed to me (c. 1964) that when taking communion, sharing the same cup of wine with a Black person as it was passed from mouth to mouth, bothered her, even though intellectually she knew it should not. Her honesty about such matters helped her to transcend these feelings. She did not let herself become a prisoner of prejudice but continued to develop on many levels until the end of her life. She was considering whether or not to vote for Obama. That would have been inconceivable when she first was old enough to vote in 1941.

On this Easter Day I honor Fern Nye and the journey she made. Like many in her generation, she became more open and tolerant with the years. If we can now believe that "Yes, We Can," it is because people like her prepared the way.

March 16, 2008

The Bush Economy: End of the "Almighty Dollar"?

After the American Century

The US mortgage crisis and the falling prices for houses have been making headlines for months. The stock market is also jittery because consumer spending has begun to fall, as homeowners feel the equity shrink. In a few cities, such as Cleveland, a glut of unsold homes on the market has created a crisis. Housing values are in free fall. Even though most people are not selling their homes, when the value of a house drops, it has a psychological effect.

Bear-Stearns was part of the rush of speculators who got caught up in the housing bubble, stimulating the market, acquiring sub-prime mortgages, luring people to buy homes they could not afford. And now, Bear-Stearns, on the brink of collapse, has been "saved" for a little while, at any rate. Why did the Bush Administration not try to save the homeowners? Then it might have saved Bear Stearns as a secondary result. Why is a speculative corporation more worth saving than several million home owners? This is the Bush double standard at work.

Of course, if Bear Stearns collapses, other investment houses and even some banks might collapse as well. (It might be the domino effect, which never happened in Vietnam, but maybe this is where the under performing domino effect can make a comeback.)

If a really big organization like Bear Stearns is run badly, society has to pay for it twice - first by suffering the effects, and second by bailing out the people who inflicted the suffering. Instead, Bush should take a truly conservative line: corporations that are run badly should not expect a government handout. Their overpaid executives, many of whom make more money in one year the most working people make in their entire lives, should not helped. Rather, the victims of such corporations should be protected from unscrupulous lenders.

My father was a lifelong Republican, of the old school. He had actually read Adam Smith. He was an engineer and an educator who ended his career as a college dean. He also was a investor. But his fellow Republicans wandered far off the path of hard work, stewardship, and honesty, and he was robbed in the last years of his retirement by Enron. That corporation's brazen lies, arrogance, and manipulations knew no bounds, and the executives of that corporation were campaign contributors to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

A few of Enron's executives have been sent to prison, but the Bush Administration did not punish many, and the punishments were mild compared to the economic destruction they caused. The executives cooked their books and issued misleading profit statements, when they were really losing money. Near the end, they quietly began selling their own stock holdings, since they knew that the company was close to worthless. But they would not let their employees sell their stock, and many lost everything. Enron's leaders milked the company literally to death, as they robbed investors and abandoned their employees, who lost their jobs and their pensions.

That is how the Bush League Economy works. It started by giving huge tax cuts to the wealthy. It continued by letting many of the white-collar criminals from ENRON get away. In Iraq, it was time to give away billion dollar contracts (with no competitive bidding) to Bechtel executives and other old friends. And now it is time to bail out Bear Stearns. Save the capitalists, and the American public be damned? Actually it is worse than that.

The Bush economy apparently will end with a debacle much bigger than the collapse of Enron. Does this prove that the Republicans cannot safeguard the economy for the well-being of all Americans? No, it is much worse than that. The Republicans have failed to safeguard the value of the dollar itself, which is plunging to new lows. Things will continue to get worse before they can have any hope of getting better, because the Bear Stearns bailout requires the US Federal Reserve to print more money, making the dollar even less valuable. Ominously, the oil markets are beginning to operate in other currencies, and one wonders if the dollar will ever again be "almighty". If things get much worse, this blog might have to change its title to "After the American Economy."

March 14, 2008

The Bush Legacy

After the American Century

The two presidential primary campaigns have preoccupied the media so much that it is easy to miss actual policy making going on in Washington. The American press today reports that President Bush has greatly reduced the oversight of intelligence operations inside the US. This action came almost 30 years to the day since that wild-eyed radical Gerald Ford created a civilian oversight board that had considerable investigative powers. In exchange, the reports of this board were not published to the world, but at least someone was watching the CIA and other intelligence organizations, and had the power to compel them to give regular reports. These powers have been almost entirely stripped away, leaving only the hollow appearance of oversight.

The Bush legacy may well be a presidency on steroids, with vast powers granted to the White House and little countervailing power. Remembering that President Ford created this oversight board in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, and keeping in mind the excesses of Vice-President Cheney, Bush is creating a recipe for new disasters. It is bad enough to lack judgement in specific policy decisions or in specific Supreme Court nominations, but these are vetted openly in Congress, and therefore subject to democratic controls. But intelligence, notably wiretapping, is far less subject to open scrutiny, which is why the Intelligence Board was a good idea.

Indeed, I am not aware of widespread critique of the civilian oversight of intelligence. No real justification was given for Bush's action, either. In effect, he is making it hard for us to find out what went on while he was in power, a bit like giving himself clemency in advance. It is hard not to think that this action is part of a cover-up. This is the same president whose CIA has kidnapped people and tortured them, imprisoned people without charging them with crimes, and denied prisoners the protection of a lawyer or habeus corpus. Those things all happened during a period of civilian oversight. Now that this safeguard has been removed, one can only wonder: What has the Administration done now that it would not like the world to know about?

One can only hope that McCain, Clinton, and Obama will all be asked pointedly, whether they will return to the system created by Gerald Ford. If this does not become an issue, then Bush's legacy will include destabilizing the balance between the President and the people. All Americans know that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." And that vigilance must always include the executive branch and its surveillance operations.

March 11, 2008

Hillary's Pyrrhic Victory Strategy Endorsed by New York Times

After the American Century

Hillary Clinton has been attacking Obama in the last week, saying that he is not qualified to be commander in chief. At the same time, she has said that he would be a suitable running mate, as her vice-president. This is self-contradictory nonsense, because the chief qualification for being vice president is being able to take over as president in what may well be a severe crisis upon the death or severe impairment of the President. Clinton cannot have it both ways. If having Obama as her running mate would be a "dream ticket" that is unstoppable, as her husband says, then he must by defnition be qualified for President.

Now the New York Times, which earlier endorsed Mrs. Clinton, has published an article saying that these attacks and others that I will not give more currency by repeating them here, are realistically her only option. According to Adam Nagoruney in today's paper, Clinton must pursue this option because she cannot hope to win enough pledged delegates in the primaries and caucuses, and therefore has to spend her time calling Obama unqualified, rather than presenting her program. Rubbish. Nonsense.

First of all, on the question of qualifications and experience, what Clinton has been saying about experience is nonsense. Abraham Lincoln had less Washington experience than Obama, but somehow managed to be the greatest president in the most dire crisis of the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson had very little Washington experience, having been a college professor and administrator at Princeton. Yet he somehow managed to be a rather impressive president as well. One the other hand, there are many examples of peole with lots of Washington experience being unsucessful presidents, for example Van Buren, Taft, and Bush I. There is no necessary correlation between time spent in Washington and being able to get your agenda through Congress, either. Ronald Reagan had been a governor, never a Senator or a Congressman in Washington, and therefore, by Hillary Clinton's logic, he was not qualified to be president, and certainly had no claim on being commander in chief. I am not particularly a fan of Reagan, but he certainly was effective at getting his agenda through Congress.

So, if Hillary is spouting nonsense about experience, what should we be looking at? How about the ability to run a political campaign? Here the candidate has far more control than when dealing with Congress or foreign nations. A candidate should be able to organize and control an effective campaign, as a test to see how well he or she might manage the large staff at the White House. By this test, Hillary is not ready to be president. She mismanaged her money, her staff is often at odds, she had to reorganize after Feburary 5, and she has been unable to present a consistent, positive message to the American people. Instead, she has resorted to whining, negative campagining, and destructive behavior that all admit is helping the Republicans. Is this the behavior of someone ready to be president? Obama came in as the underdog, scracely known to most Americans, and created a tremendously effective campaign, whether measured in terms of its fund raising, fiscal discipline, or organization. He also looks like someone who can inspire loyality, while Clinton is spreading discord. As president, confronting the Republicans and an unpredictable international scene, with her we could expect negativity, self-dramatizaton as the "victim", poor coordination, or loss of control over the budget. Who will vote for that?

If Hillary Clinton has reached the point where she thinks the only way to become president is to launch the negative attacks one expects from the Republicans, perhaps she should consider joining that party. She could be Senator McCain's running mate. After all, she has already developed the negative arguments, and he could take the high road, letting her throw the mud. And given his age, she might be able to take over during his second term.

Shame on the New York Times for publishing and condoning an analysis of such monstruous stupidity. Shame on you Hillary Clinton for spreading it around in the first place. Until a few weeks ago, I was ready to support Clinton if she won over Obama fair and square. No more. The best the Clinton can achieve with her new strategy is a pyrrhic victory. The phrase is an allusion to how King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans twice, in 280 and 279 BC, but lost so much strength in the process that he lost the war. If Clinton wins such a victory over Obama through negative attacks, with the assistance of the New York Times, the Democrats will risk defeat rather than the massive victory that once was possible in November.

March 07, 2008

What to do about Florida and Michigan

After the American Century

The news media and the blogosphere are full of discussions about what to do about the unseated delegates from Florida and Michigan. You probably recall that both of these states moved their primaries up before Super Tuesday. They wanted to be important and would not wait, even though the Democratic and the Republican National Committees both warned that they would be punished for this. The Democratic National Committee decided that none of their delegates would count. This was harsh, but the judgement was public, and the two states might have rescheduled their elections to later dates. They chose not to do this, and now have created a difficult situation. 

In the extremely tight race for the nomination Obama and Clinton would love to get some of those delegates, especially Clinton, because she "won" in each state. But there was no campaign, no personal appearances, no shaking of hands, no engagement between the public and the candidates. Indeed, Obama took his name off the ballot in Michigan, as did John Edwards, so Clinton ran unopposed there. This makes it hard to see that she "won" when 45% of the voters still did not choose her. In Florida Obama's name was still on the ballot, but he did not advertise or appear there in any way.

The Clinton campaign wants the vote to count as it stands, while the Obama camp feels that you cannot change the rules in the middle of the game. But both sides are wrong. It is patently unfair to accept these results, and it is also unfair to deny the citizens of these two states any representation at the Democratic National Convention. What should be done?

Step back a moment and consider whether this is not rather like a rained-out sporting event. The contestants did not come into the arena, but the fans there shouted at each other. But there was no real contest. When a baseball game is rained out, it gets replayed later in the season. By analogy, these two primaries need to be played later in the season, to help discover who has won the pennant, or Democratic nomination. Only then do we know who should be in the World Series, or general election in November. 

The two state governors are saying that they might be willing to hold new elections, but that the Democratic National Committee has to pay for it. This is politically motivated nonsense. The two states should be delighted to get all that publicity, all those reporters, all those volunteers spending huge sums on motels and meals and donuts. Are they really going to demand to be paid because they broke the rules and created this problem in the first place? However, Florida's Republican Governor Crist seems quite delighted to have this opportunity to complicate the Democratic Party's problems.

We need to hear from Michigan and Florida voters. They are large states, important states, states with many delegates. But ultimately, they will only give advice. They will not be able to eliminate one candidate in favor of the other. For with two extra primaries, neither Obama nor Clinton will be able to mount a 400 vote lead. That is what one of them needs to do to reach 2025 pledged delegates. Even with a replay of the Michigan and Florida primaries, in the end the 796 superdelegates are still going to make the choice. It is hard to see how either the loser or the American people can possibly feel that it was a fair result. Worse still, some voters might think that a party which is unable to organize and run a system of primary elections, is not ready to run the country. One can only hope that the Democratic leadership finds an elegant way to resolve the crisis it has created.

March 06, 2008

Clinton Rises from the Mud, But McCain is the Winner

After the American Century

Hillary Clinton has wallowed in the mud and been rewarded for it. No one doubts that her series of dubious allegations and fear mongering in the last week has been decisive in winning Texas and helping her in Ohio. Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater back in 1964 with an advertisement that bluntly asked voters, whose finger did they want on the atomic button. Hillary's advertisement was a bit more subtle, but not much, suggesting that for reasons never stated, she would be more competent to answer a sudden emergency in the middle of the night. Actually, I cannot think of any particular reason why Hillary, who has no military experience at all, and whose record on the Iraq War is uneven, would have better judgement than Obama when half awake in the middle of night. Perhaps we are to assume that she has Bill Clinton beside her to offer his non-existent military experience. The sad fact is that advertisement, effective as it may have been in the short run, undermines both Democrats. If the election really is about who should answer that phone in a military emergency, then most Americans will think of John McCain.

The advertisement is just one of many examples from the last week of how the Obama-Clinton fight runs the danger of damaging the eventual Democratic nominee. Suppose Obama decides to stop being so nice to Hillary? What if he put together an advertisement showing her many sharply different moods, including crying for the cameras? And suppose that advertisement ended with him asking: Is She Stable Enough In a Crisis? Every feminist in the US would rise up in fury, and help convince the electorate that Clinton indeed is unstable. By playing the "angry woman" which was her persona during much of last week, she runs a terrible risk. It worked for a few days, but the Republicans can easily undermine her for being moody if she does not hit and maintain a steady and measured tone, as McCain has been doing for some time.

Clinton's next stunt, yesterday, to suggest that Obama, who is leading, should subordinate himself to her and become her running mate, is calculated, too. There is no example in American politics, ever, of the person with the most delegates giving up like that. Obama should, of course, accept her offer to be his vice-presidential running mate! Which she too would refuse.

Then consider Clinton's successful smear tactics on NAFTA. Even Danish reporters who are following the campaign in the US, like Politiken's Marcus Rubin, are repeating the misrepresentations spread from the Clinton campaign, that Obama gave secret assurances to Canadian officials that he did not really mean what he was saying about NAFTA. Now the Canadians say that this did not happen. But if you throw enough mud just before people vote, then some sticks and is even spread around by reporters long after the lie has been discredited.

Meanwhile, throwing that particular mud at Obama helped voters forget that Bill Clinton championed the NAFTA Treaty and signed it, or that Hillary also supported it for some time. NAFTA should have been a problem for her, but by throwing mud it became his problem. Worst of all, NAFTA is not really the problem. Ohio did not lose its steel industry because of that agreement, nor are its automobile parts plants closed because of it. A far more nuanced debate on jobs and trade never took place.

Or again, Clinton is doing her best to make Obama look as though he was tightly connected to a Chicago wheeler and dealer, now on trial. But that man, in fact, has given campaign money to both Republicans and Democrats for a generation, and Obama gave back all the funds he ever contributed. She wants to make it seem that Obama, who bought his house and an adjoining strip of land at the market price, has committed a crime. Last time I checked, there is nothing illegal about purchasing land at the market price from someone who has legal title to the land. Should Obama reply in kind, and dig up old Whitewater allegations against Clinton? Should he remind the public that the Clintons took quite a lot of White House furniture with them, illegally, when they left in 2001? The Republicans will be ready to do that anyway, but what if it starts already now?

The Clintons headed into the mud with less success in South Carolina. When behind, their instinct is to go negative. We have not seen the end of it, but the consequences can be dire. For these tactics take the gloss off both candidates, and deepen the split between Obama's and Hillary's supporters. Mud slinging will make it harder to unify the Democratic Party later, and it will weaken the party's appeal to the Independents. And don't forget, those swing voters decide every close election.

Meanwhile, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination, as Huckabee withdrew from the race. McCain has not thrown any mud, but remained statesmanlike during his campaign. He was at the White House yesterday, getting the endorsement of President Bush. Republicans are beginning to adjust to the idea of McCain as their leader, and Mrs. McCain has now had a chance to think about how to rearrange the White House furniture. Meanwhile, the Democrats are getting dirty, and no where near the Rose Garden.

Three months ago, many said that 2008 would definitely be a great year for the Democrats, because of Iraq, because of the failing economy, because Bush is so unpopular. But McCain is the strongest opponent the Republicans had available, because he is definitely neither a Bush clone nor a religious, right-wing candidate. He appeals to swing voters. According to polls, still early of course, he would beat Hillary now and is running close to Obama. Think what he might do after some more mud has been thrown, once he has, for the first time some money to campaign with. All in all, it has been a great week for the Republicans.