Monday, July 27, 2009

Report Card on Obama From a New Frontiersman

By WILLIAM POLK

Probably like most of you, I am engaged in a daily attempt to make up my mind about President Obama. I was an early supporter.And as a former Washington "player," I am aware how difficult is his position. I began to worry when he failed to grasp what I have seen to be the early window of opportunity for a new administration -- the first three months -- when the government is relatively fluid. As the months have flown by, I have seen that there are many positive things, mainly in his eloquent addresses on world problems, notably his speech at the University of Cairo on world pluralism, but also quite a few negative things. With sadness and alarm I find that my list of the negatives keeps on growing.

Among them are the following:

(1) The commitment to the war in "Af-Pak" which (I believe) will cost America upwards of $6 trillion but perhaps only a few hundred casualties since we are relying increasingly on drone bombing. Just the money costs could derail almost everything Obama's supporters hoped and thought his administration would do. That amount of money is roughly half the total yearly income (the GNP) of America. Of course, it will cost Afghanistan far more.

Less dramatic perhaps but more crucial will be the further breakdown of Afghan society, leaving behind when we ultimately get out, an even more demoralized, fractured society and will probably lead to a coup d'etat in Pakistan, further enhancing the danger of war between the South Asian countries. The nominal leaders of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) and Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari), whom we practically appointed and with whom we have chosen to work, are hated by their people and are human monuments to the potential of government corruption. (Drugs, traffic in American arms even to insurgents, shakedowns of citizens, sale of public offices, outright stealing, kidnap for ransom...the list is long and as an old hand, it certainly reminds me of South Vietnam.) We now have a window of opportunity to get out of this looming disaster, but it seems that the President is determined to "stay the course." Fundamental to my worry is that I do not hear anyone around the President or he himself saying things that indicate that they know anything about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir or India, much less "Pashtunistan", aka The Northwest Frontier. Ignorance is rarely a very rewarding guide.(Parenthetically, I have recently read the British "how to do it" manual on "Tribal fighting on the Northwest Frontier" by General Sir Andrew Skeen. Skeen spent his life fighting the Pathans. He warned British soldiers back in the 1920s that the Pathans were "the finest individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise whom means sure trouble." My copy is the only one I could find on the internet. It survived in a British officers' mess library. I doubt that Messrs Petraeus, McChrystal et al have ever heard of it. It makes more sense than Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Field Manual.)

(2) the choice of personnel is (to me) baffling:

In the military he has chosen to keep on Bush's Secretary of Defense (who signed if not wrote the latest version of the neoconservative-inspired US National Defense Doctrine calling for, among other things, the "right" of first striking almost anyone we choose if we don't like them), General David Petraeus, whom I regard as a con man for breathing life into the Vietnam counterinsurgency program (which has never worked anywhere in the world in the last two centuries when tried by the British, the Russians, the French, the Germans or us), and General Stanley McChrystal, who makes statements that sound terrifyingly like the SS. His main claim to fame appears to have come out of running the prison system in Afghanistan where, apparently, some of the worst cases of torture happened. These men, allegedly, have told Obama that he could win the war in Afghanistan "on the cheap." So when his then principal military adviser gave a more sober assessment -- nearly half a million men -- Obama fired him and listened to Petraeus' siren song. Again, as an old hand, I cannot help remembering Vietnam, where we went from 1,700 to half a million soldiers and still lost.

The Pentagon budget is not only enormous but contains a number of potential scandals. Our overseas bases now cost us over $100 billion yearly. Since the DOD sops up over half of the disposable resources of the government, Obama must get control of it. His task will be difficult because the DOD and what President Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex" have cleverly portioned out the work and procurement on the program to virtually every congressional district. Congress will opt for the program even if it bankrupts America. Congress will be Obama's enemy if he tries any reforms. Even to try, he will need able advisers and staff. He should certainly know better than to appoint the foxes to guard the henhouse.

In the State Department’s activities, the most attractive person is Senator George Mitchell, but he does not seem to have any significant power. I hope I am wrong, but he reminds me of my dear friend Governor Chester Bowles after JFK fired him and used him only for window dressing. The others have their own agendas. To be generous, one has to say that Hillary has not yet shown enough to judge, but some of her statements would be hard to worsen. I assume that she has begun to run for the presidency in 2012. She reminds me of the wise saying that when a president assembles his cabinet, he has all his enemies in one room. Dick Holbrooke has a bully's approach to diplomacy in one of the touchiest spots in the world. His browbeating, hectoring, shouting "Balkan" tactics are ill-suited to Central Asia. In the White House, I think it would be hard to find a worse choice than the new Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross.

Three examples of his skill:

a) in the early negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when he was supposedly the honest broker, he took a more disruptive position than even the Israelis, apparently shocking even them;

b) in the build-up to the Iranian elections he sponsored and organized a program to "electronically invade" Iran with destabilizing messages trying, more subtly to be sure than the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup, to "regime change" it.Whatever else could be said about the "Iran-Syria OperationsGroup", it played right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the rightwing of the ulama and the military, giving them a proof text for American interferencein the elections and thus may have backfired, since no issue in Iranian politics is as sensitive as the fear of foreign espionage;

(c) just before his appointment to be the chief honcho on all the Middle East, Ross published a book whose message was essentially 'let's try a bit of di-plomacy for a short time. Of course it won't work, but it will justify our attacking.' That is, his approach to peace-seeking is consistent and negative. Since he is now Obama's point man, we are in for deeper trouble.

The Vice President, as you know, just reversed the final position of the Bush administration, where Bush told the Israelis that America would not approve an attack on Iran: Joe Biden essentially authorized it, saying what they decided to do was their business, not ours. But those of you who have read my occasional essays could tick off the list of potential disasters for America and the Western world such an attack would bring on. It is patently absurd to suggest that an Israeli attack (made with our weapons and implicit approval) is not our business; indeed, regardless of our weapons and our approval, the long-term consequences for our economy, our position in the world, and our exposure to terrorism would be almost impossible to exaggerate.

On the CIA I confess I am not a big admirer. It has taken on 3 tasks: gathering information, evaluating it and performing dirty tricks. It is usually agreed that over 80 per cent, perhaps more like 95 per cent, of the information it accumulates comes from sources that you and I can access if we have the time, energy and interest. Most of the rest comes from technology (intercepts and code breaking which appear to be valuable for counter-terrorism but, at least in my experience, are of near zero value in 'strategy'; on satellite and overflight imagery much the same can be said.) The second task, evaluation or "appreciation" is very difficult at best, but the record, at least during the Bush administration, is pretty poor. It was far better done then and during the Vietnam war in the tiny Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department. The third task often leads to disasters and violates all that America should stand for. There are scores of examples to back up this statement, but one that has now come back to haunt us is the 1953 coup d'etat that destroyed an elected and popular Iranian government that, had it survived, might have avoided the 1979 Iranian revolution and relieved us of our current worries there. We should get out of the business of espionage, kidnap, torture and murder. Period. The current leadership of the CIA does not seem to have addressed these issues, and President Obama has gone out of his way to grant a sort of blanket pardon in advance lest anyone fear that what he did was illegal or, more accurately, knowing that it was illegal, might be called to court.

Back to the President: From my experience with life at the "brink," during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think that the President's initiative on cutting back nuclear weapons is perhaps the best thing he has done so far. True, it is a very modest step, leaving thousands of "devices" in place on both the Russian and American sides, only urging Israel, which has hundreds of bombs, to join the NPT, actually encouraging India to forge ahead with its nuclear program and so probably moving inexorably toward at least doubling the number of nuclear-weapon-armed countries rather than (as I have strenuously advocated) moving from Russo-American cutbacks to nuclear free areas and ultimately toward worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. But, at least it is a step in the right direction.That's for foreign affairs.

There are, of course, for President Obama as for all previous presidents, myriads of issues, but one that I believe will haunt him for his own term and beyond is moral and constitutional: What are we doing -- and what will we be seen to be doing -- to the vast but unknown number of prisoners --terrorists, freedom fighters, accidents -- we are holding indefinitely, without charges, without recourse to the courts or that fundamental right in our heritage from the struggle against tyranny, habeas corpus. What we are doing at Guantanamo, Bagram and an unknown number of other "secret" prisons is, as the courts have rightly, if belatedly and guardedly, held, a violation of our legal system. We don't need the courts to tell us that it certainly a violation of our moral code. Obama began by urging transparency on this sordid issue, but he backed off. His Justice Department is now appealing a US District Court order that the Supreme Court decision on habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo also applied to a set of prisoners at Bagram who apparently arrived there by rendition or who, at least, are non Afghans. Of course, the most sordid issue is the evidence of sodomy, rape and torture captured in the photograph collection that Obama first wanted to release and then changed his mind. Those who profess to know say that what these pictures show is truly horrible. Some have compared them to the vivid record the Nazis kept of their sadism. Even pragmatically, since they are known -- indeed known worldwide -- it is questionable to say the least that hiding them will protect our reputation. For what little it is worth, my opinion is that making a clean breast of the evil and making an apology -- as we have repeatedly urged other countries to do in comparable cases -- would be or could be the beginning of the resurrection of America.I am waiting for the Obama we elected to show up. I hope this drama does not follow Samuel Beckett's script.

William Polk served as the Middle East expert on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the Kennedy administration. He is the author of Violent Politics: a History of Insurgency and Terrorism from the American Revolution to Iraq

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Moyers and Winship Article

Some Choice Words for the 'Select Few'

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, published on Saturday, July 11, 2009 by CommonDreams.org

If you want to know what really matters in Washington, don't go to Capitol Hill for one of those hearings, or pay attention to those staged White House "town meetings." They're just for show. What really happens -- the serious business of Washington -- happens in the shadows, out of sight, off the record. Only occasionally -- and usually only because someone high up stumbles -- do we get a glimpse of just how pervasive the corruption has become.

Case in point: Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post -- one of the most powerful people in DC -- invited top officials from the White House, the Cabinet and Congress to her home for an intimate, off-the-record dinner to discuss health care reform with some of her reporters and editors covering the story.

But CEO's and lobbyists from the health care industry were invited, too, provided they forked over $25,000 a head -- or up to a quarter of a million if they want to sponsor a whole series of these cozy get-togethers. And what is the inducement offered? Nothing less, the invitation read, than "an exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will get it done."

The invitation reminds the CEO's and lobbyists that they will be buying access to "those powerful few in business and policy making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues...

"Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." The invitation promises this private, intimate and off-the-record dinner is an extension "of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard."

Let that sink in. In this case, the "stakeholders" in health care reform do not include the rabble -- the folks across the country who actually need quality health care but can't afford it. If any of them showed up at the kitchen door on the night of this little soiree, the bouncer would drop kick them beyond the Beltway.

No, before you can cross the threshold to reach "the select few who will actually get it done," you must first cross the palm of some outstretched hand. The Washington Post dinner was canceled after a copy of the invite was leaked to the web site Politico.com, by a health care lobbyist, of all people. The paper said it was a misunderstanding -- the document was a draft that had been mailed out prematurely by its marketing department. There's noblesse oblige for you -- blame it on the hired help.

In any case, it was enough to give us a glimpse into how things really work in Washington -- a clear insight into why there is such a great disconnect between democracy and government today, between Washington and the rest of the country.

According to one poll after another, a majority of Americans not only want a public option in health care, they also think that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power over policy, that money in politics is the root of all evil, that working families and poor communities need and deserve public support if the market system fails to generate shared prosperity.

But when the insiders in Washington have finished tearing worthy intentions apart and devouring flesh from bone, none of these reforms happen. "Oh," they say, "it's all about compromise. All in the nature of the give-and-take-negotiating of a representative democracy."
That, people, is bull -- the basic nutrient of Washington's high and mighty.

It's not about compromise. It's not about what the public wants. It's about money -- the golden ticket to "the select few who actually get it done."

When Congress passed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, "the select few" made sure it no longer contained the cramdown provision that would have allowed judges to readjust mortgages. The one provision that would have helped homeowners the most was removed in favor of an industry that pours hundreds of millions into political campaigns.

So, too, with a bill designed to protect us from terrorist attacks on chemical plants. With "the select few" dictating marching orders, hundreds of factories are being exempted from measures that would make them spend money to prevent the release of toxic clouds that could kill hundreds of thousands.

Everyone knows the credit ratings agencies were co-conspirators with Wall Street in the shameful wilding that brought on the financial meltdown. But when the Obama administration came up with new reforms to prevent another crisis, the credit ratings agencies were given a pass. They'd been excused by "the select few who actually get it done."

And by the time an energy bill emerged from the House of Representatives the other day, "the select few who actually get it done" had given away billions of dollars worth of emission permits and offsets. As The New York Times reported, while the legislation worked its way to the House floor, "It grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts," expanding from 648 pages to 1400 as it spread its largesse among big oil and gas, utility companies and agribusiness.

This week, the public interest groups Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that, "According to lobby disclosure reports, 34 energy companies registered in the first quarter of 2009 to lobby Congress around the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. This group of companies spent a total of $23.7 million -- or $260,000 a day -- lobbying members of Congress in January, February and March.

"Many of these same companies also made large contributions to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation and held a hearing this week on the proposed 'cap and trade' system energy companies are fighting. Data shows oil and gas companies, mining companies and electric utilities combined have given more than $2 million just to the 19 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since 2007, the start of the last full election cycle."

It's happening to health care as well. Even the pro-business magazine The Economist says America has the worst system in the developed world, controlled by executives who are not held to account and investors whose primary goal is raising share price and increasing profit -- while wasting $450 billion dollars in redundant administrative costs and leaving nearly 50 million uninsured.

Enter "the select few who actually get it done." Three out of four of the big health care firms lobbying on Capitol Hill have former members of Congress or government staff members on the payroll -- more than 350 of them -- and they're all fighting hard to prevent a public option, at a rate in excess of $1.4 million a day.

Health care policy has become insider heaven. Even Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health reform director, served on the boards of several major health care corporations.
President Obama has pushed hard for a public option but many fear he's wavering, and just this week his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- the insider di tutti insiders -- indicated that a public plan just might be negotiable, ready for reengineering, no doubt, by "the select few who actually get it done."

That's how it works. And it works that way because we let it. The game goes on and the insiders keep dealing themselves winning hands. Nothing will change -- nothing -- until the money lenders are tossed out of the temple, the ATM's are wrested from the marble halls, and we tear down the sign they've placed on government -- the one that reads, "For Sale."

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers