Archive for the ‘American media’ Category

USA: Lay off the president, man!

September 28, 2010

Coming from me, a defense of Barack Obama may surprise my readers.  That’s because they may not have read the fine print!  Some of his policies I haven’t exactly agreed with (principally, the expensive health care reform, which at a time of rapidly rising sovereign debt, was imprudent).  I reluctantly supported Obama for president in 2008 because he was the better of the two candidates.  Reluctant because we could have chosen a more experienced hand (read here), especially on economic policy. 

Nevertheless, the president has done an exceptional job in tough times.  He has been lucky both before and after the election, but, judging by the recent grilling from his erstwhile supporters, his luck may be running out. They even talk about Obama losing his mojo.  You can criticize Obama and the Democrats, for sure, but what is the alternative?  The only thing innovative in the Republican Party these days is the Tea Party, and I for one don’t want to be dumbed down by the likes of Sarah Palin and the former witch from Delaware (Christine O’Donnell). As for the more “mainstream” Republicans such as future Speaker Boehner, is the answer really more tax cuts at a time of skyrocketing government debt?

What really gets me about this country is the electorate’s emotional bipolarity.  First Obama is viewed as nearly Jesus Christ, now he’s a bum.  C’mon people!  C’mon Velma Hart!

I cringe at charisma.  The Obama-euphoria of the campaign trail scared me, as many of his supporters failed to think critically about the choice.  Instead they anointed a messianic figure and expected him to deliver paradise.  Obama fanned the flames of euphoria then and is now getting burned.  Today, even though the administration managed to sidestep a 1930s-style economic meltdown by rescuing the banks and providing a huge Keynesian stimulus, we hear from Velma and Company that they’re upset they don’t “feel it yet.”  Jon Stewart is “saddened.”  As I have said before, Americans are spoiled. Unlike citizens in emerging markets, accustomed to crisis, accustomed to lines outside of banks, Americans want it all.  Now they are mad at Obama for only achieving what is humanly possible. He has delivered far more than Bill Clinton did by this time in his administration, and is even delivering on the liberal agenda – for example, by appointing two very young, very liberal female lawyers to the Supreme Court.

Now he is branded as anti-business.  There were a pair of articles in The Economist on this (see below).  I noted in my blog during the 2008 election that it did not make sense to elect a man with no economic policy experience to pilot us through the economic storm, who, as a young man, quit a job as an economic analyst because he didn’t want to become a tool of corporate exploitation.  Two years later, people have noticed that his passion is not for business.  Well, lay off him now.  His policies are not particularly anti-business – this government has spent more bailing out corporations than any previous one.  Furthermore, he is in good company taking on corporate abuse.  Anyone remember Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting?  Finally, if we continue to harp on this anti-business thing, it will become self-fulfilling.  The Obama administration’s credibility growing the economy could be irreparably damaged, which will hurt us all.

It is human to fight the last war.  So, to avert a depression, the Obama administration took actions that were not taken in the thirties.  Yet our undoing will be something unforeseen, and in my view, this is likely to come on the fiscal side.  Government debt is around 90% of GDP and deficits are in the double digits.  With economic growth likely to remain sluggish (economists have declared a “new normal”), it is not far-fetched for the United States to be in a Greek-style sovereign default over the medium term if a road map to solvency is not charted soon.  There are as yet few signs of determination in this administration to deal with this problem (they appointed a panel), not least because of the recent turnover in the economic team.

What I don’t like about Obama is the spin.  Spin is less than truthful.  I know all politicians do it, especially the successful ones. But, Barack Obama ran as a change agent, a post-partisan, and he has been, is, and will probably always be an aggressive left-of-center partisan.  Centrists, such as Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, Norm Coleman, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, need not apply.  He admires Ronald Reagan and is his heir in terms of image-making.  Now he is going around the country discussing his Christian faith.  Good timing.  The other side does it too.  It is demoralizing for a centrist like me to hear John Boehner savage Obama’s economic policy record and Obama call Boehner’s Pledge to America irresponsible.  Where lies the truth?  Same thing happened on health care.  The problem is, partisanship wins elections. 

On foreign policy, Obama savaged Bush for adventurism and questionable methods in war.  Yet in office, he has ramped up the use of targeted assassinations, sometimes resulting in the deaths of innocents.  The end justifies the means, the saying goes.  As a candidate, he lashed out at David Petraeus for the “surge” in Iraq; now he has hired him to salvage his Afghan policy.  Yet Obama supporters don’t bat an eye, as they swing from indicting Bush for torture to arguing for the necessity of targeted assassinations.

I would like to see a stronger Republican Party.  The country would benefit from an energetic opposition.  Yet, by shifting toward the loony right, Republicans are squandering the opportunity to harness the country’s frustration.  This could work out in the end for Barack Obama.  Taking a page from the Big Dog’s script in 1994-96 — after the Democrats in Congress suffer a beating this year, Obama finds a “Dick Morris” to guide his policy rightward over the next two years.  The Party of No (GOP) nominates someone or other like Sarah Palin in 2012, and No Drama wangles himself another term.  The country could do worse.

From The Economist, September 23, 2010:

WINSTON CHURCHILL once moaned about the long, dishonourable tradition in politics that sees commerce as a cow to be milked or a dangerous tiger to be shot. Businesses are the generators of the wealth on which incomes, taxation and all else depends; “the strong horse that pulls the whole cart”, as Churchill put it. No sane leader of a country would want businesspeople to think that he was against them, especially at a time when confidence is essential for the recovery. From this perspective, Barack Obama already has a lot to answer for. A president who does so little to counter the idea that he dislikes business is, self-evidently, a worryingly negligent chief executive. No matter that other Western politicians have publicly played with populism more dangerously, from France’s “laissez-faire is dead” president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to Britain’s “capitalism kills competition” business secretary, Vince Cable (see article); no matter that talk on the American right about Mr Obama being a socialist is rot; no matter that Wall Street’s woes are largely of its own making. The evidence that American business thinks the president does not understand Main Street is mounting (see article). A Bloomberg survey this week found that three-quarters of American investors believe he is against business. The bedrock of the tea-party movement is angry small-business owners. The Economist has lost count of the number of prominent chief executives, many of them Democrats, who complain privately that the president does not understand their trade—that he treats them merely as adornments at photocalls and uses teleprompters to talk to them; that he shows scant interest in their views on which tax cuts would persuade them to hire people; that his team is woefully short of anyone who has had to meet a payroll (there are fewer businesspeople in this White House than in any recent administration); and that regulatory uncertainty is hampering their willingness to invest.
Ignorant but not antagonistic That Mr Obama has let it reach this stage is a worry. But negligence is not the same as opposition. True, he has some rhetorical form as an anti-business figure—unlike the previous Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who could comfortably talk the talk of business. Mr Obama’s life story, as depicted in his autobiography and on the campaign, was one of a man once mired in the sinful private sector (at a company subsequently bought by The Economist), who redeemed himself only by becoming a community organiser; his wife had a similar trajectory. There are the endless digs at Wall Street and Big Pharma, not to mention the beating up of BP. He remains a supporter of “card check”, which would dispense with the need for secret ballots in establishing a trade union. His legislative agenda has centred on helping poorer individuals (the health-care bill, part of the stimulus bill) or reining in banks (the financial-reform bill). The only businesses he has rescued are the huge union-dominated General Motors and Chrysler. Against this, it could have been much worse, especially given the opprobrium that now dogs Wall Street. A president who truly wanted to wage war on business would have hung onto GM, not rushed to return it to the private sector. Card check has not been pushed. The finance bill, though bureaucratic, is not a Wall Street killer. With the exception of a China-bashing tyre tariff and a retreat on Mexican trucks, Mr Obama has eschewed protectionism. A lot of government cash has flowed to businesses, not least through the stimulus package. And above all his policies have helped pull the economy out of recession. So what should he do? The same leftist advisers who have led Mr Obama into his “anti-business” hole are doubtless telling him that it is just a matter of public relations: have a few tycoons to stay in the Lincoln bedroom; celebrate Main Street’s successes, rather than just whining about bonuses; perhaps invite a chief executive to replace Larry Summers, the academic who announced this week that he was standing down as the president’s main economic adviser. Well, maybe. But once again this is advice from people who have never run a business. The main thing that is hurting business is uncertainty. Mr Obama was right to tackle big subjects like health care and Wall Street, but too often the details were left to others. Why, for instance, should a small American firm hire more people when it still does not know the regulations on health care, especially when going above 50 workers will make it liable to insurance premiums or fines? Fiscal policy is even more uncertain, thanks to Mr Obama’s refusal to produce a credible plan to rein in the deficit. Why should any entrepreneur plough money into a new factory when he has no idea what taxes he will eventually be asked to pay? These are questions that business needs answering in a businesslike way—and so does America. Otherwise the horse will not pull the cart.

McChrystal Affair: When Campaign Rhetoric Drives Foreign Policy

September 3, 2010
Obama and his general -- he doesn't look "uncomfortable and intimidated."  Source:
Obama and his general — he doesn’t look “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Source:

Insubordination by top military officers to civilian authority is unacceptable in America.  As presidential biographer Robert Dallek argued in today’s NYTimes, McChrystal’s defiance of his civilian masters may warrant dismissal.  However, there is another important issue here: how hubris on the campaign trail can lead to sub-par policy choices.

President Obama’s decision early in his administration to withdraw US forces from Iraq and build them up in Afghanistan came right out of the commitments he made on the campaign trail.  Obama’s meteoric rise owed a lot to his charisma and natural talents, but also to his successful argument  before the American people, embraced by almost all Democrats, that Bush was a buffoon and his policies failed ones.  Obama savaged W on the campaign trail like no other candidate.  On foreign policy, he argued that Bush had taken his eye off Al Qaeda and the Taliban when he irresponsibly invaded Iraq.  As a result, as president, Obama had little choice but to wade into a war in a country that bled the British and Russians into second-rate powers and is now going badly wrong and causing dissension within NATO. 

This is what happens when foreign policy is written by political hacks.  Orchestrated by bare-knuckles political operative David Axelrod, Obama’s take-no-prisoners 2008 presidential campaign was much like the Rovian strategy criticized by Democrats.  Whatever Bush did was bad; the opposite was thoughtful and insightful.  Notwithstanding his Kennedyesque image, Obama has not been a practitioner of bipartisanship, of new politics, of change we can believe in.  He, like the Kennedys, is an aggressive partisan out to demolish opponents. 

I am not going to re-open the debate about whether or not Iraq should have been invaded.  I believe there are reasonable arguments for and against.  But, the left in this country tends to characterize anyone that supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 — on legal, moral and strategic grounds — as virtually a war criminal.  W is unfairly pilloried as such. There is even a play out now putting W up against a war crimes tribunal. 

In November 2008, I supported Barack Obama for president, somewhat belatedly and reluctantly, because I felt he was the better of two sub-par choices (see my blog on the matter). But I have always seen his hubris as his Achilles’ heel.  Here was this guy with virtually no foreign policy experience (not even serious academic study of American Foreign Policy) claiming he was the best choice to run the single superpower’s foreign affairs.  More recently, I wrote, “Barack Obama made the point last year on the campaign trail that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he has good judgment, never supporting an invasion of Iraq, even making a speech to that effect in the Illinois state legislature, where grandstanding on the issue had no policy effect at all.  Putting aside whether we should have invaded Iraq to rid the world of this dictator with bad intentions if not bad weapons, it is a legitimate debate whether we should wind down Iraq, a country central to stability in the Middle East — given its location, ethnicity, and oil wealth, and wind up Afghanistan, arguably a mountainous backwater that has bled imperialists from Russia to Britain to the United States for centuries.  True, instability in Afghanistan triggers instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.  I said there were good points on both sides of the issue.  I merely wish to get under the teflon a little and question the wisdom of President Obama’s foreign policy choices.”

Now that policy shift is going badly wrong — with the mission failing in Afghanistan and the inconclusive Iraqi elections leaving partisans poised to take up arms, just as US troops are boarding transports out. 

Hubris prevailed when Obama, driven to surpass his predecessors by passing health care reform, left foreign policy priorities floundering for months.  This was reportedly one of McChrystal’s frustrations.  The McChrystal Affair underscores the disarray not only in the president’s “Af-Pak” group, but also in the broader foreign policy team.  Some of the personalities on the president’s team leave something to be desired — notably, Holbrooke and Biden, the former with more conceit than the Commander-in-Chief, the latter a shallow extrovert.  I have long argued that Obama should bring in some experienced hands like Nick Burns, the boyish career foreign service officer who served both Democratic and Republican presidents and was recently Sec. of State Rice’s number three.  

The warning I and others gave about Obama, that rhetoric and inspiring speeches alone cannot govern,  is relevant to the McChrystal Affair.  At issue is the age-old dichotomy between good government and good politics.  President Obama has proven himself  a masterful politician – recasting his failures as Republican ones, snatching political victories from the jaws of defeat, as he did with health care reform.  Obama could even turn the McChrystal Affair into good politics.  He and his Reaganesque image-makers can make the Afghanistan policy look like his Bay of Pigs.  That is, a young president with good intentions is misled by his generals to undertake a failed foreign adventure.  Then, this rightly angry president fires the general in charge, apologizes to the American public on television, becoming the latter’s darling again, and alters the policy course.  Good politics, but good government is trickier. 

Ironically, the man most responsible for Obama’s rise, that is, W, was also a success at politics (i.e. two terms), but fell short at government.  Good government requires experience and advisers other than David Axelrod and Karl Rove.  My optimistic belief is that ultimately good government wins elections.  Bring Nick Burns, and others like him, back…

(From a 6/23/10 blog post.)

Choose: or Patraeus

June 24, 2010
President Obama and General Petraeus.  Source: 
President Obama and General Petraeus. Source:

Mr. President, you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have General Petraeus come in and save your Afghan policy at the same time as you have been associated with, which called him “General Betray Us” on the pages of the New York Times in 2007.

I don’t want to be the guy always criticizing President Obama – I think in many ways he is doing a good job.  But I cannot help but shine light on hypocrisy in politics, on whichever side of the aisle it occurs.  With Obama, who cultivates an image of new politics and bipartisanship, I feel compelled to draw readers’ attention to misperceptions of the man.

The facts:

– In 2003, funded in part by anti-Bush billionaire George Soros, allowed an ad on its website that compared Bush to Hitler, later claiming they had nothing to do with it.

– In 2007, posted an ad in the New York Times, calling General Petraeus “General Betray Us,” and accusing him of cooking the numbers in order to make President Bush’s surge in Iraq look effective.  Senator (and Candidate) Obama relentlessly criticized the surge in Iraq and its architect, General Petraeus, only later admitting it might have worked and employing a similar strategy as president in Afghanistan.  Candidate Obama in 2007 failed to heed calls to criticize the “General Betray Us” ad.

– On February 1, 2008, endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States, and Obama accepts.

– On June 23, 2010, President Obama calls in General Petraeus to head up the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which involves a surge of troops and counterinsurgency operations, much like what successfully ended the Iraq civil war under Obama’s predecessor.

Can Obama supporters at least admit the hypocrisy please, even if it is true that most politicians do the same?  I know many say, the election is over, forget about what happened in the heat of the campaign.  I say, let’s be fair and hold all politicians accountable for what they do and say on the campaign trail, especially when it affects policy.

Will General Petraeus run for high office one day?  Interesting question…

USA: NYTimes misses the point on Mass. election

January 21, 2010
NYTimes Editorial misses the point in advice to Obama.  Source:
NYTimes Editorial misses the point in advice to Obama. Source:

The New York Times published an editorial yesterday analyzing the Republican win in Massachusetts this week and offering advice to President Obama. 

I’m not sure why the “gray lady” of American journalism is joining the chorus in this country calling for populist policies as a result of the Massachusetts election — sticking it to the banks now that they’re recovering, bailing out people in foreclosed homes, increasing the fiscal stimulus to fight joblessness.  Maybe the New York Times is feeling the pinch from the blogosphere, and especially from such liberal upstarts as the Huffington Post.  Consequently, the editorial board feels a need to draft highly partisan and unsound editorials — to get more people to read the Times web page.

The Editorial asserts that the Mass. election was not a referendum on Obama or health care, but a clamoring from ordinary Americans for policies that will help them keep their jobs and homes.  One way to interpret it. 

Another way is that American voters understand better than most politicians and editorial boards that an America that sticks to its knitting — by following policies that maintain a strong economy, sound public finances, and a healthy banking system — will be an America that remains in control of its destiny.  Most Americans have to balance expenses against income at the proverbial kitchentable; so, perhaps these Americans understand the importance of fiscal rectitude, at least ever since the value of their homes collapsed over a year ago.  An America in which the government continues to bail everyone out — by expanding health care entitlement and foreclosure relief — will be an America that will lose control of its destiny.  Eventually, the financial markets would punish American assets, with the USA possibly losing its AAA credit rating.  Then, the capacity of the American government to spend on things that matter in the future would be compromised, and with it, America’s standing in the world, and with that, the liberal international institutions and world order America crafted so well at the end of WWII.  That is what is at stake. 

It’s hard to get inside the heads of two million plus Massachusetts voters, but perhaps at some level they understood this.  Health care reform that expands the government’s liabilities is unsound right now, however fair it is in the long run.  Doing health care reform today is like refurnishing the interior of your home when you’re running out of money.  The old sofa is tattered, yet functional.  When you are in better times, that is the time to replace the old sofa.  Bailing out banks was the right thing to do, however unfair that was, because it avoided a collapse of the financial system.  That’s like repairing the leaky roof on your house.  There were no lines of people down the street in front of closed banks waiting to withdraw their deposits the way there were in the Great Depression.  Bailing out homeowners and the unemployed, however fair, is not fiscally prudent right now.  Independent voters in Massachusetts perhaps understood this better than Harry Reid, Speaker Pelosi, the arrogant people advising the president, and the president himself.  And…the Times Editorial board.  Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, actually had the hubris to suggest, hours before the Democratic defeat in Massachusetts, that perhaps Americans didn’t understand the benefits of the health care reform on Capitol Hill.  In short, the White House believes that Americans do not know what is best for them. 

The Times board argued that health care reform is essential to an improving economy.  In medicine, a patient may have several ailments — but better to cure the cancer killing him and treat the mild cold later on, no?  America’s ailment right now is its skyrocketing government debt, to reach 90% of GDP this year.  Fixing health care can wait.  It won’t improve the economy now.  Righting our fiscal ship will.

The Times editors joined the chorus of demagogues with scurrilous attacks on Obama’s economic team, read: Timothy Geithner.  The Obama economic team is “entwined with the people and policies that nearly destroyed the economy.”  Geithner-Bernanke-Paulson-Summers quite simply saved the planet.  Sure, during the go-go period earlier this decade, could our regulators and central bankers have been more prudent?  Yes.  Excessively low interest rates for too long were the main cause of the real estate bubble; if you want to blame one person more than others — and you shouldn’t — blame Sir Alan Greenspan…and perhaps Ayn Rand.  Sure, Bernanke and Geithner were there too and should share some of the blame.  But that doesn’t mean firing them.  It sounds to me a bit like the French Revolution, when everyone eventually got the guillotine, even Danton.  The Gray Lady has turned Jacobin in her desperate lurch to retain readers.

The Times editors likewise suggest that Obama should understand the Scott Brown phenomenon well — a handsome, inexperienced guy comes out of nowhere to obtain high office.  I agree.  But they go on to attribute Obama’s election in 2008 to his vision.  I’m not convinced.  Obama got elected by incessantly denigrating George W. Bush (so it is a wonder to me that the former president was willing to show up at the White House this week to help Obama on Haiti) and by incessantly calling for a full withdrawal from Iraq and an end to the “surge.”  Then, the financial collapse in the fall of 2008 sealed the deal for a Democratic victory (“throw the rascals out”).  Once in office, Obama’s “vision” was to extend Bush’s rescue of the banks and his fiscal stimulus and to apply the Iraqi surge to Afghanistan.  Yes, you can call this vision, but it was W’s vision, not Barack’s.

So, the Times editors, in offering advice to the president, have joined the chorus of irresponsible populists, who seem set to dominate the discourse through the November 2010 midterm elections.  My advice to the president — work diligently at restoring America’s fiscal health, the critical foundation of American power, however unpopular — damn the torpedoes.  And, you may be surprised that this could get you re-elected.

US/China trade policy blasted in NYTimes Editorial

September 19, 2009
Source: Google Images Source: Google Images

An update on a post I did last week on the Obama administration’s swing toward trade protectionism with its action against Chinese tires:  enclosed is this nicely written NYTimes editorialnot an Op-ed, an editorial. 

The Times editorial board understands economics.  American workers in the tire industry, many represented by the United Steelworkers Union, may well lose their jobs with or without the new 35% tariff against Chinese tires.  The reality about trade, the Times points out, is that Americans will likely buy low-cost tires from other countries in any case, perhaps in Latin America, rather than from American factories.  These Latin tires will cost more than the Chinese variety, making American consumers worse off.

The Economist article I attached to the last post included a comment from an analyst suggesting that President Obama, by imposing these tariffs, is shoring up his left flank in order to achieve support for health care reform, that $900 billion budget-buster.  Maybe the linkage is far-fetched, but if true, putting at risk the global trading system in order to expand entitlements, is that what sound economies are built on? 

I hope the president deploys his considerable charm and intellect next week, talking things out with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in order to avoid a nasty trade war.  That venue would likewise be a fine place for the president to tell the truth to Rust Belt workers, the truth John McCain started telling in Michigan last year:  that the economy is in transition, we cannot artificially protect manufacturing jobs, job training and outplacement will be required.  The higher value-added, knowledge-based economy beckons…

Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

June 4, 2009

President Obama with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak  Source:  Huffington Post

President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world today, titled “A New Beginning,” was at its best when it explained the grievances of both sides of the Muslim/non-Muslim divide, but much less effective when it dealt with substantive issues, such as Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. 

Like he did so powerfully for Americans in his famous speech on race of March 2008, President Obama in this speech exhorted the citizens of Planet Earth to bridge our differences, understand each other better, and solve our common problems peacefully.  I applaud his effort at launching a new beginning between what he calls Muslim-majority nations and the rest of the world, especially the United States, in order to build a peaceful “alliance of civilizations.” Barack Obama, in his now-famous speech on race (“A More Perfect Union”), drew tens of millions of Americans to his movement, even though arguably he failed to adequately explain his association with his pastor, whose comments had offended Americans and precipitated the speech.  Nevertheless, this kind of speech, which the president is so good at, can work well.  It helped get him elected; and, he believes the power of his personality can solve Huntington’s clash of civilizations.

In spite of the hubris underlying Movement Obama’s appeal to our better angels (his predecessors were incapable of the moral transformation this singular man and his team believe they can accomplish), we all hope it works.  It is foolish to cynically dismiss such important, yet elusive, building blocks of civilization as legitimacy that can win over hearts and minds to good causes.  Charismatic moral leadership can help us pitiful humans stop the slaughter and evolve.   Yet it is likewise naive, though emotionally satisfying, to discount the risks of disillusionment that underlie a phenomenon such as Barack Obama.

The president outlined seven key issues that Muslims and the West must address: the violence of extremists, the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development.  He definitely covered the major issues, though some of them, while not unimportant, appear more the product of a Democratic focus group, or more accurately, an effort to please a number of constituencies, than issues really critical to a new beginning of peace and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world.  I’ll let the reader decide which ones should be high on the priority list.

Here is a transcript of the speech, but it is worthwhile to have a look at what he said specifically about nuclear weapons and Iran.  Of note is how short this section was, especially when compared to issue number two, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.”

He alludes to the differing perceptions underlying the mistrust between Iran and the West.  He points out  the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region.  And, as he does throughout the speech, he portrays himself as someone who, unlike his predecessors, understands the other side’s point of view.  He understands Muslim frustration over the fact that some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons, while others are not. 

What is missing in this speech is anything Churchillian.  What is missing is realism…for example, a statement that the U.S. is determined to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by unstable or radical regimes, be they Muslim or not.  The risk of the Obama phenomenon is that his extended hand and emotional understanding will not be backed up by a steely determination to oppose dangerous regimes.  True, he takes a stab at this in his remarks about Al Qaeda and extremism.  However, just as it was nearly impossible for Bush to establish moral authority, it will be challenging for Obama to convey strength and determination, and to inspire respect and, yes, fear among America’s adversaries.  I understand he was addressing Muslims, but still there were no unequivocal statements against the Iranian acquisition of the bomb.  

He acquiesced to the Arab narrative in many ways.  The most salient example was his putting the Arab-Israeli conflict, or as he termed it, “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world,” as one of his seven key issues causing tension in the region.  It sure is, but why not the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir?  The Shia-Sunni divide was noted, but not as a key cause of tension.  Genocide in Darfur was not mentioned.  Saudi Wahhabism and other sources of extremism in Muslim education were not mentioned. 

The Arab narrative suggests that everything nasty that happens in that part of the world is linked to, if not caused by, Israeli actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians.  Never mind how the rest of the Arab World has treated the Palestinians, refusing to settle these refugees in neighboring countries, the way India and Pakistan settled Hindu and Muslim refugees after their 1948 conflict.  What’s more, the language about Israeli settlements was harsher in this speech than in the past.  The United States does not accept the legitimacy of settlements, and the settlements must stop.  This is quite different from Bush’s statement that after forty years of conflict, forty years of woeful Palestinian (and in most cases, Arab) leadership, some of Israel’s settlements have become a reality on the ground and the subject of negotiation.  Of course, Obama may turn around and tell the Israelis he was only talking about the “growth” of settlements, not the full dismantling of all settlements.  The Obama administration has asked the Israeli government for clarification of its views on settlements, when “clarify” is exactly what Team Obama needs to do on this issue.   

Nevertheless, all in all, it was a valiant effort on the part of President Obama.  I hope he can engender understanding and cooperation through the power of his personality.  His administration has orchestrated this overture to the Muslim world quite well.  The president argued as much in his speech.  He has stuck it to Israel on settlements.  He is pulling out of Iraq. He has called for all nations in the region, and in the world, to give up nuclear weapons.  He is giving humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He is launching educational and economic initiatives in the region.  This is the change he offers from Bush’s bluster.  And, he says, the Arab world must do its part.  I hope it works.

It’s about PR and Israel needs some…

February 3, 2008

By Itamar Sharon of Jpost, Jan. 24, 2008.  Israel launches 4.200 balloons near the UN, representing the number of missiles fired on Israel from Gaza since 2005.  Read on…

As the United Nations Security Council debated a response to the situation in the Gaza Strip and Sderot, Israel’s New York Consulate held a protest in front of UN headquarters on Thursday, in which they placed 4,200 red balloons on the UN’s doorstep. The number of balloons signified the 4,200 Kassam rockets fired into Israel from Gaza since the 2005 disengagement from the Strip.

The display was meant to raise world awareness to the fact that Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip are part of an effort to end the rocket attacks, the consulate said in a statement.

“Up until this day, every attempt to raise the issue and make it part of the American media’s agenda has been unsuccessful,” Consulate Spokesman David Saranga said.

“The suffering of Gaza residents has received increased attention recently. The display is intended to emphasize the suffering of the residents of Sderot [and to] illustrate the incessant Kassam rocket attacks, as well as to call on the international community to stop ignoring what is happening in Israel,” Saranga explained.

Meanwhile, as the New York Consulate was staging the protest, five rockets were fired from Gaza into the western Negev. The rockets hit open areas and no casualties were reported.

Op-ed on Kennedy’s Obama endorsement

February 3, 2008

By Alessandra Stanley from the NYT on 1/29/08.  Very nice piece (better than the Brooks piece on the same subject, also on this site).  She explains that the endorsement reflects the clash of two Democratic dynasties, the Kennedys and the Clintons, as the former, now in its seventies, feeds off of Obama’s youth to rekindle a bygone era.  Read on…

The day began in Camelot and ended in Southfork.

State of the Union 

Viewers on Monday were treated to a rare look at three dynasties working out their psychodramas at once: In his final State of the Union address, President Bush, the rebel Texan who defied his father, struggled to avoid the gloom of recession that darkened his father’s final days in the Oval Office. On the campaign trail, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to patch over the pricklier parts of her husband’s legacy, while in Washington, the Kennedy clan sought vindication — and renewed vigor — by passing the torch to an adopted heir.

There was nothing mournful or valedictory about Mr. Bush’s delivery of his seventh State of the Union address, a speech that acknowledged, however briefly, that the economy is in trouble. Mr. Bush, looking fresh and rested, made a point of sounding good-humored as he delivered less-than-glowing news.

At times, it seemed as if Mr. Bush was determined to turn the clock back before his presidency and his father’s, as if to reclaim, one last time, the mantle of Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Bush even presented his promise to extend tax cuts with a Reagan-style joke. “Others have said they would personally be happy to pay higher taxes,” Mr. Bush said, twinkling roguishly. “I welcome their enthusiasm, and I am pleased to report that the I.R.S. accepts both checks and money orders.” (The camera pointedly zoomed in on Mrs. Clinton, who was pointedly not amused.)

It was a smooth, but strangely muted performance, almost as if Mr. Bush were attaching a postscript to his presidency.

His words, moreover, were eclipsed by the image of Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy anointing Senator Barack Obama as the true successor to John F. Kennedy. That tableau from a rally at American University, shown over and over throughout the day, was powerful and also poignant — the camera showed all too vividly that in passing the torch to Mr. Obama, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan was bypassing his own scions.

Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island, on the stage but not of the moment, kept standing up during his father’s and Mr. Obama’s speeches, as if to sneak into the camera’s frame. At one point while Ms. Kennedy was speaking, Senator Kennedy leaned toward Mr. Obama, who put both his arms around the senator as the two men shared a joke. Young Mr. Kennedy leaned over to try to hear their conversation, but was ignored.

The endorsement was a boon to Mr. Obama, of course, but it also served the Kennedy family interests, lending the fading clan a flash of power — and moral standing — that these days is most evident at family funerals. So many members of the younger generation of Kennedys are dead or disqualified; the dynasty that bestowed its mystique and political influence on Mr. Obama was also feeding on his youth and charisma.

Television news reports were understandably intoxicated by the rush of nostalgia — and evocative images. On ABC’s “World News,” a reporter noted solemnly, “the audacity of hope had its rendezvous with destiny.” When Mr. Obama was described as a “son of Camelot,” ABC’s screen was filled by a black-and-white clip of President Kennedy lifting young John-John in his arms.

No cable network was as excited as MSNBC. In the long cable countdown to the endorsement, CNN and Fox News switched to other campaigns — showing Mrs. Clinton campaigning (without her husband) in Connecticut, and Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain sparring in Florida. MSNBC wouldn’t leave the auditorium of American University and instead kept its camera trained on an empty stage — like a child stubbornly glued to the window, waiting for Daddy to come home.

There was magic in the Kennedy images, and also a tinge of malice: Throughout the day, cable news contrasted the pictures of Mr. Obama standing arm and arm with Senator Kennedy and his niece, with old clips of the Clintons back when they enjoyed the favor of Senator Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — in baseball caps boating off Martha’s Vineyard and striding with Kennedy family members across the White House lawn.

If Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton exchanged pleasantries in the Capitol last night, the camera missed it.

Kennedy Mystique

January 29, 2008

Op-ed by David Brooks, explaining why Teddy chose Barack… 

Something fundamental has shifted in the Democratic Party.

David Brooks

Last week there was the widespread revulsion at the Clintons’ toxic attempts to ghettoize Barack Obama. In private and occasionally in public, leading Democrats lost patience with the hyperpartisan style of politics — the distortion of facts, the demonizing of foes, the secret admiration for brass-knuckle brawling and the ever-present assumption that it’s necessary to pollute the public sphere to win. All the suppressed suspicions of Clintonian narcissism came back to the fore. Are these people really serving the larger cause of the Democratic Party, or are they using the party as a vehicle for themselves?

And then Monday, something equally astonishing happened. A throng of Kennedys came to the Bender Arena at American University in Washington to endorse Obama. Caroline Kennedy evoked her father. Senator Edward Kennedy’s slightly hunched form carried with it the recent history of the Democratic Party.

The Kennedy endorsements will help among working-class Democrats, Catholics and the millions of Americans who have followed Caroline’s path to maturity. Furthermore, here was Senator Kennedy, the consummate legislative craftsman, vouching for the fact that Obama is ready to be president on Day One.

But the event was striking for another reason, having to do with the confluence of themes and generations. The Kennedys and Obama hit the same contrasts again and again in their speeches: the high road versus the low road; inspiration versus calculation; future versus the past; and most of all, service versus selfishness.

“With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion,” Senator Kennedy declared. “With Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign — a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us,” he said.

The Clintons started this fight, and in his grand and graceful way, Kennedy returned the volley with added speed.

Kennedy went on to talk about the 1960s. But he didn’t talk much about the late-60s, when Bill and Hillary came to political activism. He talked about the early-60s, and the idealism of the generation that had seen World War II, the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties, the idealism of a generation whose activism was relatively unmarked by drug use and self-indulgence.

Then, in the speech’s most striking passage, he set Bill Clinton afloat on the receding tide of memory. “There was another time,” Kennedy said, “when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a New Frontier.” But, he continued, another former Democratic president, Harry Truman, said he should have patience. He said he lacked experience. John Kennedy replied: “The world is changing. The old ways will not do!”

The audience at American University roared. It was mostly young people, and to them, the Clintons are as old as the Trumans were in 1960. And in the students’ rapture for Kennedy’s message, you began to see the folding over of generations, the service generation of John and Robert Kennedy united with the service generation of the One Campaign. The grandparents and children united against the parents.

How could the septuagenarian Kennedy cast the younger Clintons into the past? He could do it because he evoked the New Frontier, which again seems fresh. He could do it because he himself has come to live a life of service.

After his callow youth, Kennedy came to realize that life would not give him the chance to be president. But life did ask him to be a senator, and he has embraced that role and served that institution with more distinction than anyone else now living — as any of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, will tell you. And he could do it because culture really does have rhythms. The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early ’60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.

Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service. The old Clintonian style of politics clashes with that desire. When Sidney Blumenthal expresses the Clinton creed by telling George Packer of The New Yorker, “It’s not a question of transcending partisanship. It’s a question of fulfilling it,” that clashes with the desire as well.

It’s not clear how far this altered public mood will carry Obama in this election. But there was something important and memorable about the way the 75-year-old Kennedy communed and bonded with a rapturous crowd half a century his junior.

The old guy stole the show.

Spielberg’s film, Munich…

January 25, 2008

An interesting, nuanced discussion of how the film potrays Jews, Israel and morality.  From January 2006:

Steven Spielberg’s unforgivable ‘sin’

In 1961 Leon Uris initiated a war of words with Philip Roth over the way Jews should be represented in popular culture. “These writers are professional apologists,” the author of Exodus told The New York Post, referring to Jewish writers who conceded weaknesses. “We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be. In truth, we have been fighters.”

In response, Roth suggested Uris pick up a copy of Elie Wiesel’s Dawn, whose hero, a Jewish fighter in British Mandate Palestine, agonizes over his task of executing a British major who has been taken hostage. “I should like to tell Uris that Wiesel’s Jew is not so proud to discover himself in the role of a fighter,” Roth wrote, “nor is he able to find justification for himself in some traditional Jewish association with pugnacity or bloodletting… No matter how just he tells himself are the rights for which he murders, nothing in his or his people’s past is able to make firing a bullet into another man anything less ghastly than it is.”

Fast forward 45 years, to the current clamor over Munich, Steven Spielberg’s most complex and conflicted film to date, and the battle over Jewish representations is as fierce as ever. One of the more vociferous criticisms of the film is that Spielberg and his co-screenwriter, Tony Kushner, allowed the film’s protagonist, Mossad agent Avner, to be plagued by doubts about his mission. Months before the movie’s release, Michael B. Oren, author of Six Days of War, launched a preemptive strike against Munich when he told The New York Times: “I don’t know how many of them actually had ‘troubling doubts’ about what they were doing… I don’t see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden.”

True, one would be hard-pressed to imagine Clint Eastwood in an apron, as Spielberg depicts Avner in his first meeting with his team of assassins. One critic sniffed, “Real Mossad agents who hunted the terrorists… were not metrosexual sensitive guys.” Indeed, the film revises the myth of the Israeli warrior, described by Oz Almog in The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew as “the polar opposite of the Diaspora Jew: he was self-confident, proud, and brave, knowing what lay before him; a leader, not a subject.”

But what makes Munich a complex film – and a bane to its right-wing critics – is not that Spielberg has feminized the Mossad. The problem is that he has humanized it. Charges of “humanization” have dogged Munich from the start. The irony is that in this film Spielberg has gone to the greatest lengths in his career to create human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts as characters. For this he has earned the wrath of those who refuse to concede ambiguities in Israel‘s history. The criticism of “humanization” is most often leveled at the film’s portrayal of Palestinian terrorists who, the critics claim, are given moral equivalency with the Mossad agents.

 BUT THERE are two meanings of “humanize” – “to represent as human” and “to make humane.” Munich does not portray its Palestinians as humane. Even the most well-developed Palestinian in the film is still portrayed as a butcher, and at no point does the film urge its audience to root for the terrorists over the Mossad agents. Rather than making them compassionate, Spielberg has portrayed terrorists as human beings who contemplate, argue and debate. But portraying human characters is not the same as taking their side.

But even the literal definition of “humanize” is insufficient for the film’s politically-minded opponents. To those who see the Middle East as an absolute struggle of Good versus Evil, it is inconceivable that terrorists might be rational, sentient beings. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any portrayal of terrorists, short of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the aliens in War of the Worlds, that would placate Spielberg’s most ardent critics.

BUT THE humanization that cuts to the heart of the critics’ outrage is arguably that of Munich‘s Mossad agents, specifically of Avner. Throughout the film, Avner – and, to varying degrees, each member of his team – vacillates between absolute conviction and paralyzing doubt. In his first job, Avner’s fingers are trembling; he insists on repeating the question “Do you know why we’re here?” before pulling the trigger.

In subsequent jobs Avner goes out of his way to ensure that innocent bystanders are not harmed. He and his comrades engage in heated, albeit sometimes hackneyed, debates about their mission and about Jewish identity and destiny. Finally, Avner is haunted and crippled by various forms of violence: by his obsessive fantasies of the Munich massacre, by his own acts as an assassin, and by the murders, ultimately, of two of his team members. In other words, Avner is a human being.

Spielberg and Kushner have advanced the apparently radical notion that an Israeli might possess a trait held by all humanity: doubt. It is this quality that forms a crux of the politically-based critiques of the film. David Brooks of The New York Times chides Spielberg because “the real Israeli fighters tend to be harder and less sympathetic [than Avner], and they are made that way by an awareness of the evil implacability of those who want to exterminate them.”

ONE IS left to wonder: Do we really want to glorify Mossad officers as unthinking automatons or trigger-happy Dirty Harrys? Are these the new Jewish ideals? What’s especially odd is that the same critics who defend Israel‘s army as the most moral fighting force in the world are shocked at the portrayal of a Mossad agent as morally conflicted. Among these filmgoers only a cartoonish representation of Jewish history, identity and existence will suffice. Just as terrorists must be portrayed as supernatural demons, Mossad agents must be otherworldly superheroes not bound by mortal (or, worse yet, Diaspora) emotions. In other words, their depictions should verge dangerously close to Socialist Realism.

The film’s greatest blow to Israeli mythology comes at the end: Avner is so haunted by his experience that he leaves his country, becoming a “descender,” or yored. With such an emphatic ending Spielberg dares to ask serious and often painful questions: Must devotion to the state take precedence over individual needs? How has the Jewish psyche been affected by decades of violence and war? It is not anti-Israel to ask these questions. In light of our collective history of debate and soul-searching it is anti-Jewish to deny that the questions should even be asked.

Although it is by no means an anti-Zionist film, Munich punctures the contention, popular in the Jewish community, that Israel has brought nothing but unadulterated goodness to the Jewish experience. While defending both Israel‘s right to exist and its response to terror, and while plainly indicating that violence has been thrust upon Israel by its enemies, the film nonetheless concedes the human toll that a lifetime of violence has begotten both on the individual and on the Jewish nation.

We are in a sad state of affairs if, almost 60 years after the creation of Israel, we must banish this topic as taboo and deny discussion of our all-too-human experiences of pain and moral doubt