Friday, March 30, 2007

Maybe the Sunni Will Get What They've Been Praying For

I was a little surprised by the vociferousness of the Saudi denunciation of the American occupation of Iraq (although I'll agree that in this context "occupation" is as good a word as any other). I'm in favor of withdrawing US troops from Iraq as well. But a queasiness that I have about it is the prospect of what might happen in Iraq after that. A worse case scenario is large scale depredations on urban, civilian populations by sectarian militias bent on ethnic cleansing This could occur as Shia-on-Sunni violence in central, urban Iraq. In fact, there's good reason to think that that's exactly what will happen, with Iran coming in as the major power in the Shia regions. There is the possibility that this would draw in Sunni powers to the west, and Saudi Arabia stated recently that they would indeed move to help embattled Sunni forces there if need arose. So are the Saudis now saying that they really and truly want the US to get out of the way? With those prospects as they are? If so then they should be careful what they pray for.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Duty to the Troops

The president is accusing the congressional Democrats of disloyalty to the troops for setting up Iraq withdrawal timetables. He is obfuscating two separate issues. Once having determined the war policy of the government, the executive and the congress have a duty to support the military commander's decisions, for example through provision of funds. But it is an entirely different function of Congress, a constitutionally mandated one, that it participate in the formulation of the war policy in the first place. And so this Democratic congress is trying to do that, with a clear mandate to do that. If it is the policy of the US to withdraw the troops, for example, then the commanders will begin that process and it will be the duty of the government to provide them with the means to do that. Will the Bush administration, if the time comes, live up to this standard of duty to the troops?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Nixonian Administration

The New York Times reports today that both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have advised the President to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo. The real news here is that they have been overruled. The Attorney General and the Vice-President disagree. So President Bush is now hunkered down with his cronies. The highest-ranking cabinet members are outsiders and are dismissed. I didn't much care for the policies of Ronald Reagan, but he knew when to give it up to the larger community. This is not a Reaganesque president; this is President Nixon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Imperial Vice-Presidency

Harry Truman famously commented that the vice-presidency wasn't worth "a bucket of warm spit." Through much of the country's history the office has been filled by obscure political personages, soon forgotten. Originally the vice-president was elected independently of the president, the ability to cast the deciding vote on Senate ties another facet of the balance of power. In modern times the "two party system" (not a constitutionally mandated system, just a convention that could and probably will someday change) has made a chief function of the vice-president to be the "running mate" in elections, and for most of the twentieth century the idea was to "balance the ticket," at first mostly for regional balance (when we were a more provincial country) and later mostly to assuage ideological factions (leading to right-wing Republican VPs and left-wing Democratic ones). In the age of the endless campaign, the vice-president has frequently been a campaign hatchet-man, doing dirty work for the president.
Today, however, the vice-presidency has evolved into a powerful office. This is not just because of the relationship between President Bush and VP Cheney. The same evolution was evident in the vice-presidency of Al Gore, for example. Since WW II, and during the Cold War, the presidency itself has become increasingly powerful. The exigencies of the security state have caused more power to be concentrated into the hands of the president (the late Arthur Schlesinger's "Imperial Presidency"). The whole executive branch has increased in power and importance, including the office of the vice-presidency. Today, the vice-president is the presumptive party nominee-in-waiting, Mr. Cheney's abstention notwithstanding. Speaking of Mr. Cheney brings me to today's point: he has the idea, based on his experiences in the post-Watergate White House in the 1970s, that executive power was diminished at that time, and a noble institutional project is to try to restore presidential prerogative. He has this exactly backwards. The current president-as-emperor is a result of the Cold War and America's subsequent (and very likely fleeting) role as the "hyperpower." It distorts American foreign policy, that is clearly to be a matter of consensus between the branches according to the constitution, which grants Congress the power to declare war. What we need is a strong and aggressive Congress.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Gore Up, McCain Down

Count me as surprised by John McCain's failure to catch fire with conservative caucusees (still too early to call them "primary voters"). On my view he has always been the presumptive front-runner for the GOP nomination because a) I have a lot of admiration for his personal character and b) I'm pretty much diametrically opposed to his solidly conservative positions. The only thing substantive that the Party has to complain about is his zeal for campaign finance reform, and that's tactical on the part of the Party and popular with the mainstream. It seems that the same thing may happen to McCain in 2008 that happened to Al Gore in 2004: the rank and file turn out not to care for the man. It occurs to me that my admiration for McCain was always conditioned by the fact that I have no prospect of ever voting for him. It's another thing when one is actually considering sharing responsibility for installing someone in office. But note that Senator McCain has not yet, in fact, gone the way of Al Gore circa 2004; it's still much too early in the process to say that. Ironically, the polls may be going for Giuliani on the basis of perceived electability in the general election because it's still so long before the primary election: I still say that a pro-choice candidate can't win the GOP nomination, period. McCain should hang in there.
Meanwhile Al Gore is back this week at the number 3 spot in polls of Democratic voters, after Clinton and Obama. Mostly this is because the Obama campaign is hurting Edwards. Obama is occupying the ecological niche of fresh-faced, outsider insurgent, and that's the energy Edwards lives on. In general Obama is making it a lot harder for third-tier candidates (Richardson is another example) to get ink and money. In this way he helps Hillary. He also helps Hillary by taking the heat off of her as the front-runner all this time before the election. My view is that Obama is helping Hillary quite a lot. Another unexpected beneficiary is Al Gore, who has successfully rebranded himself as Party establishment (not Obama) but explicitly left-wing (not the Clintons). Anybody remember Al Gore 1988? He was the right-wing Democrat in that primary season, anti gun control, pro death penalty. That's OK, I like Gore and I'd gladly vote for him. You might think of it as getting the goodness of Clintonismo without the bother of the Clintons themselves, although for myself, I have no problem voting for Clinton either.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Libby and Cheney: No Daylight

A few weeks age a news report went around (discussed on MSNBC for example) that Scooter Libby had gone to see Vice-President Cheney at one point to complain about his high profile in the reporting about the Plame leak scandal. The story was that the VP Chief of Staff felt that he was being singled out. This news report is almost certainly disinformation. The idea is to make it seem that Mr. Libby and the Vice-President were (and are) not working hand-in-glove for Mr. Libby to take the fall for the leak. What happened in fact is that our thuggish Vice-President decided to play rough with the Wilsons. The good news here is that Joe Wilson and his wife have actually obtained a little justice against these mafiosi. The system does work from time to time. Meanwhile the forthcoming pardon for Mr. Libby will not be, I don't think, such a miscarriage of justice; the miscarriage of justice here would be whatever success Mr. Cheney has in obscuring the truth. A little bit of justice today.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Move Away From Pakistan

It was good to see the administration distance itself from Pakistan this week. During the Clinton administration, a long Cold War involvement with that country was finally cooled as Clinton tried to improve ties with India, which is the obvious thing to do at this point in terms of long-term American interests in the subcontinent. Pakistan has long been more oppressive politically than India, as well as having mafiosi elements in the military who have been involved in indiscriminate arms dealing including nuclear proliferation. It has played both ends against the middle, making deals with the US while maintaining ties with militant Islamic groups and with North Korea, for example. Should the government fall there, it will be identified as a client state of the US and the US will take the blame for decades of authoritarian rule (a good bit of which blame will be justified). The Clinton administration (underestimated on foreign policy) had made good progress in thawing out formal relations with India, among other things by shutting down some of the massive arms dealing with Pakistan. It was yet another disastrous effect of 9/11 that the Bush administration threw over all of that progress for the expediancy of trying to buy out the Pakistanis once again, and we have got precious little back in exchange for all the money and weapons. Osama Bin Laden is likely living in Pakistan right now; certainly Pakistan is the source of supplies and access for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Maybe the Bush administration has finally and belatedly discovered some sources of useful information: the State Department and the CIA.