Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where Obama is wrong

Although I could not be happier with what I've seen from the incoming Obama administration, there is one notable area where I believe Obama to be wrong. His announced policy is to increase American troop strength in Afghanistan. In the short run, that may be indicated, but troop reinforcements can be at most a stop-gap.

Rory Stewart, a former British foreign service officer, had a piece in The Times pointing out that security in the country has deteriorated as the western military presence has grown. By itself, those facts do not prove much; the need for more troops could represent the reaction to a deteriorating security situation. What caught me about Stewart's argument, however, was this:
By 2004, Afghanistan had a stable currency, millions more children in school, a better health system, an elected Parliament, no Al Qaeda and almost no Taliban. All this was achieved with only 20,000 troops and a relatively small international aid budget.
This still does not work as proof that the resurgence of the Taliban has been related to the increase in NATO forces, but it does underscore some important and, I believe, undisputed facts. One is that insurgencies such as that faced in Afghanistan are not defeated by military means. The second is that Afghans traditionally resent--deeply--the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, this writer was one of the few who worried aloud at the wisdom of invading Afghanistan in 2001, for that very reason. While I have seen indications that some Afghans are willing to accept a foreign presence for a limited time, we should not read too much into that. There have always been those willing to cooperate--or collaborate--with invaders. We cannot count on such allies to win the day.

To prevail in Afghanistan, we need a much more broad-front strategy than we have seen to date. We need much more reconstruction: the building of roads and schools and hospitals, as well as programs to encourage economic development controlled by Afghans. We also need to deal with the production of opium poppies in a more creative way--although reports indicate that the production of poppies is way down in some areas under government control. For those parts of the country that are not in safe hands, we need ways at least to reduce the flow of drug cash into the hands of the enemy.

Why, for instance, have we not considered buying the crop, in the fields (to keep farmers from delivering adulterated product and selling to both sides)? This would not be a voluntary program; farmers who refuse to cooperate would suffer serious penalties--perhaps the destruction of their crop. But it should be accompanied by measures to induce the growers to switch to other crops; the farmers must know that they are selling poison; the opportunity to grow a profitable foodstuff should be attractive.

We must also be more politically adept. We must look for opportunities to split off and co-opt some of the Taliban's allies. Indeed, according to the BBC, the refer to the Taliban as if the insurgency were a unified force is to commit a major blunder.

And, finally, we must realize that while western force might--might--keep our enemies from taking Kabul, we "win" the war (which means reducing the Taliban and its allies to a minor factor) only through the efforts of the Afghans themselves. They are the ones who will have to construct an answer to fundamentalist Islam. That is not impossible--Afghans have a history of moderation in their religion. But it will require a change in political culture--patriotism or some other motive that can banish the incompetence, cupidity and corruption that afflict the Karzai regime. That will be a tall order, and results from other countries--Vietnam comes to mind--does not inspire confidence. But a Western strategy that is not premised mainly on local political leadership is bound to fail.

Better late than never

Although Bush and Cheney are on their way out, I had to smile at this sticker on the back window of a pick-up:

I never thought I'd miss Nixon

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obvious choice

New York is abuzz with speculation about whom Gov. David Paterson will appoint to fill Hillary Clinton's spot in the Senate when she sashays over to Foggy Bottom.

The choice seems simple to me: Bill.

Forgotten but not gone

George W. Bush.

Over the weekend, Gail Collins suggested that Bush and Cheney resign and let Nancy Pelosi become the interim President, figuring that she would, in essence, commence the Obama administration.

More simply and more practically, Tom Friedman suggested Sunday that W appoint Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary immediately, so that the Obama team can start managing the economy at once.

Both sensible, if drastic, suggestions. Neither of them will be tried, of course.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quiet down

You may have seen the reports last week that Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, had offered Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, safe-conduct to discuss peace in Kabul. That seemed like a good idea to me--without, I admit, a lot of analysis--but what really interested me was that a spokesman for the National Security Council threw cold water on the idea.

If I had Barack Obama's ear, one of the ideas I would whisper into it is that the National Security Council should not have a spokesman. For one thing, what the NSC does should remain secret. For another, it's functions cross those of the Departments of State, Defense, DHS and Commerce, all of which have more than enough flacks. Not to mention the CIA and NSC, two agencies that have spokesmen but shouldn't.

WAPO reports that the President-elect is soon to appoint retired Marine General James Jones as his National Security Advisor. A former Commandant of the Corps and NATO commander, Jones would bring much credibility and clout to a job that has already acquired a great deal of the latter in the past few decades. Nonetheless, if he takes up the job, Gen. Jones should button his lip. To have someone in the White House speaking at cross-purposes with expected Secretary of State Clinton would be a seed for disunity in the government at a time when we can ill-afford it.

Barack Obama has promised us an open administration. Very good. But a first step toward that would be to shut up the proliferation of self-serving spokesmen for government agencies that are too secret, too small or too awkwardly placed (viz, NSC) to deserve one.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The not-so-big three

For the past few days, I've been thinking about Eddie Rickenbacker. For anyone who doesn't remember him, Rickenbacker was the most successful American ace of WWI, and he survived the war, which most of them didn't. He was one of the most popular American heroes of the War to End Wars.

Rickenbacker had actually been famous as a racing-car driver before the war, and was for a time General Pershing's chauffeur. After the war, he decided to enter the automobile industry. Capitalizing on his name, the started manufacturing a car called the Rickenbacker (a name that's no stranger than Chrysler and less so than Chevrolet, which is not pronounced the way it's spelled). The advanced feature for which the Rickenbacker was remembered was--get this--four-wheel brakes. That's right--brakes on all four wheels. Up to this time, most American cars had had brakes only on the rear wheels.

Although there were a number of other independent manufacturers, with its founder's heroic reputation the Rickenbacker presented a particular threaten the dominance of Ford and GM in the American market. (Chrysler wasn't formed until a couple of years after Rickenbacker started making cars.) What did they do? Did they put their engineers to work to leapfrog the competitor's technology? Did they at least match that technology and offer lower prices to meet the competition? No, and no. They started a smear campaign, centering around allegations that four-wheel brakes were dangerous. The Rickenbacker lasted only a few years.

This story is all too emblematic of the way in which the US automobile industry has operated for the past hundred years. While American manufacturers have often trumpeted this or that new device, their products have been technologically inferior to European and later Japanese vehicles.

For more than a decade we have heard that American buyers want big, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. There has been some truth to this, but little recognition that a large part of that desire was created by marketing. If Detroit had wanted to sell smaller and more efficient automobiles, more of them would have been sold.

So, what to do with an industry that has had a death wish for decades and is now in extremis? I opposed the Chrysler bailout on ideological grounds; as a matter of economics, it worked out well. Now the economic argument is much stronger than it was when only one American company--and the smallest--was in trouble.

Although I'm not comfortable agreeing with the leaders of GM, Ford and Chrysler, I must concede that their argument that no one will buy a car from a bankrupt company has a lot of force. Yet it's anything but clear that Congress will pass a bailout bill for American car-makers, even if they last through January 20th.

Something else is needed. I suggest a federal receivership, which would be like a bankruptcy, except that it would be funded by the federal government and would be intended to a reconstruction--indeed, reinvention--of the industry.

As part of this reinvention the companies' management should be decapitated. To make the radical change in direction that the industry needs, the top 50 no, make that 100 executives should be shown the door. Replacements should be brought in from Toyota, Honda, VW, etc., and from other industries such as solar and wind power. (Part of the plan should be to diversify the companies into new technologies.)

In true crisis mode, a rescue of the auto industry will have to be made up on the fly. Even if Congress adopts a receivership, getting the companies back to financial stability, much less prosperity. But the cost of letting the companies be liquidated makes the risk worth it.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The New York Times published the following photograph today:

Take a few moments to look at it closely. The colors. The look on the face of the soldier you can see (how young he is!); the posture of the soldier whose face is hidden. This shot tells you all about war without showing violence or gore. Robert Capa--almost certainly the greatest war photographer ever--would have been proud to have taken it.

(Capa said, "I am a war photographer. My ambition is to be a retired war photographer." That was not an ambition that he was to fulfill. In Indochina, in 1954, he stepped on a landmine and was killed.)

Say what?

TPM has the line of the week, and it's only Monday:
TPM Reader DG: "I can't believe Obama is already sitting down with an unpopular, aggressive world leader without preconditions."

Sunday, November 09, 2008


JFK said that the Chinese characters for crisis mean danger and opportunity. Apparently, he was wrong about that, but the present economic crisis provides a fine opportunity to do something that I did not expect would happen without a huge struggle: rebuild the nation's infrastructure. As Robert Reich points out, spending government money--despite the huge deficit already in prospect--is by far the best way to pull ourselves out of what he calls a mini depression. Indeed, even conservative economists like Martin Feldstein are calling for using infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy. If the Obama administration plays the cards right, it might be able to get a major commitment to rebuilding the nation's physical assets through Congress before next summer. That would be a major achievement even in four years. If passed quickly, it could be the cornerstone of the most effective effort to use government as a way to make the nation stronger since the 1930's. (I am excluding WWII from my calculus intentionally, as military strength is necessarily narrow in focus.)

Here's an idea

Headline and sub-head from today's Boston Globe:
Wish lists piling up for Obama

But grass-roots strategy leaves few debts to interest groups.
Could it be that ideas will actually have to be considered on their merits? Now that's a novel idea!

Thank you, Dan Schorr

I was listening to Daniel Schorr on NPR yesterday. He noted that on Wednesday morning, we woke up and everything had changed. A pretty amazing comment for a man who's 92.

I say, "thank you," to him, because on Wednesday I did not feel as if the world had changed. Perhaps it was because I had been working so hard on the voter protection that last week, or maybe because having paid such close attention to the campaign I was not surprised (though gratified) by the results. Whatever the cause, on Wednesday, I felt as if the result was something of an anti-climax. That did not especially surprise or dishearten me; I have learned almost to expect such reactions at the end of a long effort.

But as the days have passed since last Tuesday, I have shared the feeling of excitement that has swept the nation, indeed, the world. Yes, it does seem like a new era.

This will pass soon. Already, people are starting to talk about how Obama will actually govern. We may expect debate, frustration and anger. But for now we can bask in the moment.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Due process?

A federal judge in Washington has opened the first habeas corpus hearing for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But lest you think that the detainees are finally receiving the benefits of American justice, consider this:

In the case that began Thursday, government lawyers appear to be taking few chances that the men will be freed.

They have filed a sealed envelope of evidence with Judge Leon, which the detainees’ lawyers have not been permitted to see. In court filings the government lawyers said that if the evidence in the closed hearings was not enough to justify the detention, then the judge should open the envelope.

Judge Leon, the filing said, “may very well ultimately face the circumstance where the information justifying detention is too sensitive” to share not only with the detainees but also with their lawyers.

A long road

As you may have heard, exit polls suggest that 70 percent of black voters in California supported the noxious Proposition 8. As part of a long-term strategy to reverse that decision, it should be suggested to black voters that:

You may think that homosexuality is immoral, and you are entitled to believe that.
You may think that the Bible forbids homosexuality, and you are entitled to believe that.
But remember that there were people who believed that the Bible justified racial segregation and even slavery.

I wish

As I was sitting in the airport yesterday, reading The New York Times' election coverage while waiting for my flight, I found myself reflecting on how nice it would have been if my mother had lived to see Barack Obama elected President.

When I was very young, before Brown v. Board of Education, I remember my mother fulminating--I can think of no better word--at the idea that people were treated differently because of the color of their skin. And when Brown was decided, and I as a nine-year-old said that now everything would be all right, my mother was wise and honest enough to say that, no, it would take a very long time.

I can only imagine what Mother would have thought on Tuesday night.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Speaking of reaching out

Apparently, John Kerry (D.MA) is campaigning actively for the Secretary of State's job. Wouldn't a better choice be Richard Lugar, former Republican Senator from Indiana? (If he has the energy, that is.) For one thing, Lugar would seem to be a better diplomat than Kerry. For another, Obama has talked about having Republicans in his cabinet, and Lugar has a reputation for being a moderate and pragmatic figure. Then, too, given the way our politics is focused now--i.e., on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--the Secretary of State's job is one that would be a good fit for a member of the opposition.

Change we can believe in?

Can it really be true that Larry Summers is on the short list for Treasury Secretary? Larry Summers, alumnus of the Clinton administration? Larry Summers, who suggested that maybe girls' brains didn't work as well as boys' brains when it comes to things like math and science? Larry Summers, who can't get along with anybody? That Larry Summers?

Reach out

If I had had the ear of Barack Obama on Tuesday night, I would have suggested that he tell John McCain that he'd like to sit down with the erstwhile Republican candidate, one-on-one in the next couple of weeks. Yes, I know that McCain does not like the President-elect and that he did not even give the man who beat him soundly much respect, but the new President should reach out.

Obama should reach out to Republican Congressional leaders as well.

Democrats should remember what happened to the Republicans: Hubris.

To make this a truly transformational election, Democrats need to behave differently from those they have defeated.

Sick at heart

Even as we celebrate Barack Obama's triumph, I am sick at heart over California's adoption of Proposition 8, turning back the clock on same-sex marriage, not to mention similar measures in Florida and Arizona.

I hope that those who support rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens--that is, all those who believe in equality--will start the long road to reversing these benighted decisions.

Art imitates life

or is it the other way 'round?

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What it was about

I heard this on NPR while I was in Florida last week. Sorry, I did not hear the name of the person who said it, nor that of the person who wrote it; if you know, please tell us.

Rosa sat so Martin could march.
Martin marched so Barack could run.
Barack is running so our children can fly.

(Update: See this attribution.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

From the trail

It's been a long time since I've been able to post. As regular readers will know, I am in Florida, working with the Obama campaign's Voter Protection project. The chaos of getting ready to come down here (which I did on Tuesday), long hours and a dodgy Internet connection have prevented posting until now.

About the long hours. The day I got here, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) ordered that the early voting hours be extended, so from Wednesday through Friday they were open 7 to 7, and in Miami-Dade, where I am, they were open 9-5 yesterday. Today, those us working get a break--only 1-5. But voters will be lined up by 11 AM today, if what I heard from people yesterday is any guide.

The location that I have been working at, in South Dade, is a mixture of black, Hispanic and white voters, heavily but not entirely Democratic. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for Obama among all three groups. (Hispanic South Florida is no longer dominated by Cuban-Americans, and many younger members of that group are Democrats. Indeed, Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American who turned around the politics of the Cuban American National Foundation, stands a good, or maybe better than good, chance of ousting Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and being elected to Congress.)

I'd like to pay tribute to the people from the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections office who have been handling the polls, and from other county employees who have been handling the long lines of voters. They have been working amazingly long hours without complaint. Many of them worked from 6 AM to after 9 PM on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and they had been working long ours before that. They are public servants in the best sense.

And credit to the voters who are willing to stand in line for hours in order to exercise their right to vote. Yesterday, a voter said, "After eight years, four hours are nothing." She's right, but while it is a tribute to the patriotism of people willing to make such an effort to choose their leaders, it is a disgrace that they have to do so.