Archive for the ‘Biographies’ 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.

If the Turks want to hang out with this guy…

June 8, 2010
What would Ataturk say?    Source: Google Images What would Ataturk say? Source: Google Images

Turkish President Gul pictured with the world’s most notorious extremist, who is quoted in the article below as saying that the Zionists are  “holding up the flag of the devil itself…” and are “the backbone of the dictatorial world order,” taking a page again from Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer.  In its drive to be a regional power, Turkey is starting to make strange bedfellows.  What would Ataturk say?

Maybe Ahmadinejad is pre-empting the Security Council’s likely announcement of tougher sanctions with more hateful attacks against Israel.  But as we know from the Hamas Covenant, the Zionists control the UN Security Council, like almost everything else in the world and throughout history (tongue in cheek, however painfully)…

From Today’s CNN wire service:

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hit a strident tone on a variety of topics during a press conference on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Istanbul on Tuesday.

A key item on the agenda at the summit is last week’s Israeli raid on an aid flotilla in the Mediterranean. Ahmadinejad said the confrontation revealed Israel’s “devilish” nature.

“It showed violence and hatred and war-mongering attitudes,” he said at a news conference. “The devilish sound of the uncultured Zionists was coming out from their deceit. … They were holding up the flag of the devil itself.”

The raid led to the deaths of nine people, all Turkish citizens — including one Turkish-American. Turkey is urging Israel to accept an international probe into the incident.

Ahmadinejad congratulated Turkey, which has been in a war of words with Israel following the raid, for its response.

Iran’s own nuclear program has been another major topic at the summit. The United States expects to bring a new resolution on increased sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to a vote in the United Nations Security Council this week.

By calling for a resolution instead of sitting down for talks with Iran, the United States is “gravely mistaken,” Ahmadinejad said.

“Within the framework of respect and justice, we’re ready to negotiate with everyone. Anyone who is going to resort to the language of force and aggression, the response is clear,” he said.

Ahmadinejad went on to commend Turkey and Brazil for recently negotiating a deal with Iran on a uranium enrichment swap.

“The initiative marked the beginning of a new path — the beginning of an end to unilateralism in the world,” he said.

The United States, he added, missed an opportunity by not embracing the deal.

Asked whether the raid on the flotilla last week will change the way countries vote in the Security Council, Ahmadinejad said the raid will actually change many things.

For Israel, he said, “it has actually rung the final countdown for its existence. It shows that it has no room in the region and no one is ready to live alongside it. Actually, no country in the world recognizes it, and you know that the Zionist regime is the backbone of the dictatorial world order.”

He added, “Maybe at the Security Council, it will impact temporarily. The Zionist regime, with what it has done, it actually stopped its possibility to exist in the region anymore.”

How do you say W in Hebrew: Bibi

June 7, 2010
When is tough effective?

Benjamin Netanyahu subscribes to the George W. Bush school of anti-diplomacy.  It’s nice to blow off steam, especially when you are in the right.  But does brandishing your sword make an effective foreign policy?  Ask Kaiser Wilhelm II, the arch-villain of World War I, whose bluster and belligerence led to the encirclement of Germany, his gravest fear.  Ask most Americans after W left office — did W’s shooting from the hip help America’s image in the world?  Improve America’s security? 

I had meetings with Netanyahu in my capacity as a sovereign analyst for Israel several years ago.  He was then finance minister and a very effective one.  I always came away with the belief that his Achilles’ heel was his hubris.  His narcissism was always the elephant in the room, and more so than the average politician.  I can’t help but believe that his leadership has had something to do with such recent diplomatic fiascoes as the Biden visit and the Gaza flotilla.

Netanyahu, though ineffective, may be right about Gaza.  If you don’t understand why Israel is touchy about Hamas and Gaza, please read the Hamas Covenant in this link, as translated by the Yale University Avalon project, especially Art. 22.  It reads like Der Stuermer.  Here are a few snippets (out of order):

“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it…

The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying…

The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:

“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews)…”

In their Nazi treatment, the Jews made no exception for women or children… 

With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.

They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it…

There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad…

Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement…

Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people…

…the ferocity of the Zionist offensive and the Zionist influence in many countries exercised through financial and media control, as well as the consequences that all this lead to in the greater part of the world…”

There you have it.  That’s who’s in power in Gaza.  Hence, the blockade (to prevent the flow of weapons and to pressure Gazans to kick the genocidal extremists out).  History has shown that civilized people should believe what extremists write in their books and manifestos.

As for Turkey, the AK Party did a nice job cleaning up its image in recent years in order to appear to the world as a sort of Islamic version of a European Christian Democratic party.  This has kept Turkey’s secular generals from kicking them out, as they did to the Islamists not long ago. Now, ensconced in power, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his cronies are trying to reorient foreign policy in a more “Islamist” direction, putting ideologues in key foreign policy posts, taking on Israel, championing the oppressed Muslims of Gaza.  Yet, he shows he either hasn’t read the Hamas Covenant or doesn’t care, when he says that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but a resistance movement (see article).  Sir, is the PKK terrorist or a resistance movement (the PKK is the Kurdish “liberation” movement on Turkish soil that the Turks believe is “terrorist”)?  Were the Turks who murdered masses of Armenians in the early 1900s, which Hitler later said was his inspiration for the Final Solution, genocidal killers?  C’mon, it’s not so hard to tell right from wrong in this world!  Turks should have a re-think about how moderate the Islamism of the AK Party really is.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza could be counterproductive.  It certainly has become a diplomatic liability.  If there is a better way to staunch the flow of weapons to Gaza that Iran is ready to send, if there is a better way to empower those that would topple the would-be committers of genocide running Gaza today, then I say scrap the blockade.  Israel certainly needs to scrap its bunker mentality and engage with the rest of the world, before, like Wilhelmine Germany, it becomes encircled.  P.R. should be a top Israeli priority; and, in order to clean up the country’s global image, Israelis should perhaps start by voting Netanyahu out of office at the next opportunity.  Read about his vehement defense of the Gaza flotilla raid. He may be right, but he certainly is not very diplomatic.  

Brazil: Does Lula have coattails?

March 30, 2010
Can Lula translate his government's popularity to Dilma Roussef, his chosen candidate for president?  Source: Google Images Can Lula translate his government’s popularity to Dilma Roussef, his chosen candidate for president? Source: Google Images

After Lula, it looks like it’s the battle between Dull and Duller.  Brazil’s presidential election in October is an important one, as the country’s success and new-found leadership role within the BRICs and G-20 make Latin America’s largest economy critical on the world stage.  Lula has charisma, but his anointed successor from the PT party, Dilma Roussef, does not.  Luckily for her, her rival, Jose Serra, who is ahead in the polls, is as dull or duller than she.  That’s why he was trounced by Lula in 2002, for a time causing Brazilian bonds to trade at default spreads. 

CSFB reports today (see below) that Serra remains ahead in opinion polls.  Though slightly wider in March, Serra’s lead over Dilma has narrowed in recent months.  The popularity of the Lula government (of which Dilma is a leading member) remains in the stratosphere, with 76% of those surveyed in March appraising the government as “excellent/good.”  Yet only 45% of those saying so said they would vote for Dilma, which is not good enough for her to beat Serra, once mayor of the city of Sao Paulo and now governor of Sao Paulo State, Brazil’s most populous state and the one packing its economic punch.   It’s too early to call this important election, but narrowing poll numbers this far out must worry the Serra campaign.  A recent profile of the dour Social Democratic administrator can be found in this  Economist article

From today’s CSFB report:

Poll shows wider gap between voter intentions for José Serra and Dilma Rousseff in the presidential election. The Datafolha poll, published on 27 March, showed higher voter intentions in the presidential election for José Serra (PSDB), currently the governor of São Paulo, and a slight decline in intentions to vote for Dilma Rousseff (PT), the chief minister of the presidential staff, reverting part of her gain in February’s poll. Voter intentions for Dilma Rousseff declined from 28% to 27% from February to March, while voter intentions for José Serra rose from 32% to 36% (Exhibit 1).
Serra’s leading position in the simulations of the first round of voting in the presidential election rose from 4pps in February to 9pps in March. Voter intentions for federal deputy Ciro Gomes (PSB) went from 12% to 11% from February to March and remained stable at 8% for the former minister Marina Silva (PV). In the simulations for the second round, Serra obtained 48% of voter intentions versus 39% for Rousseff.
We believe that the wider gap between the voter intentions for Serra and for Rousseff represent a natural variation in opinion polls and does not point to any trend for the coming months. Since the February Datafolha poll, José Serra has suggested he would be the PSDB’s pre-candidate for president, which has bolstered his visibility among voters in recent weeks. Until the campaign starts in July, the scenario should continue to favor the government’s candidate, in light of the Lula administration’s high approval ratings. The March Datafolha poll showed that the administration’s “excellent/good” rating rose from 73% in February to 76% in March, the highest level in the time series (Exhibit 2).

An increase in voter intentions for Rousseff will depend on the government’s ability to transfer to its candidate the votes of those appraising the administration as “excellent/good.” In March, 45% of voters appraising the administration as “excellent/good” indicated they would vote for Rousseff in a possible second-round election dispute with Serra (Exhibit 3). Thus, a substantial increase in voter intentions for Rousseff would require an increase in this percentage.

Rise in median market forecast for IPCA inflation in 2010, from 5.10% to 5.16%.The Market Readout released yesterday (29 March) points to a rise in the median market forecast for IPCA inflation in 2010, for the tenth week in a row, this time from 5.1% to 5.16% (Exhibit 4). The higher expectations for IPCA inflation are explained mainly by the revisions in projections for short-term inflation, from 0.44% to 0.48% for the March IPCA index and from 0.39% to 0.40% for April. Conversely, after rising for two straight weeks, the median forecast for IPCA inflation in 2011 remained stable at 4.7%.

In our opinion, the upward revision in market expectations for IPCA inflation in 2010 was caused primarily by higher-than-expected consumer inflation in Q1 2010 and in April. While the median of expectations for cumulative inflation from May to December 2010 fell from 2.76% on 8 January to 2.69% on 26 March, expectations for cumulative inflation from January to April rose from 1.74% to 2.43% in the period. These results suggest that the majority of market participants merely incorporated the higher-than-expected inflation in Q1 2010 into their projections for 2010 inflation (Exhibit 5). We believe that the fact that the rise in inflation in the first few months of the year was mostly the result of higher prices of a seasonal nature (e.g., increase in tuitions) or a temporary nature (e.g., higher inflation in fresh food prices) means that the higher-than-expected inflation in the short term has not raised inflation expectations for longer horizons.

We do not expect market forecasts to increase significantly over the next few weeks. Our projections for IPCA inflation in March (0.45%) and April (0.40%) are near the median market forecast. Although the recurrently higher-than-expected inflation in recent months has increased uncertainty as to the dynamics of inflation in the short term, we think a reduction in consumer inflation is very probable in the coming weeks, especially because of the reversal of the price hikes that caused the higher inflation in Q1 2010.
Among the expectations for other economic indicators in 2010, we highlight the stability in the median forecast for the Selic basic rate at the end of 2010 at 11.25%, which assumes five consecutive 50bps increases in the Selic rate starting in April.

Barack Obama: Naif or Visionary?

July 7, 2009

President Obama in Prague earlier this year calling for nuclear disarmament.  Source:

Slip back for a moment to the early 1980s.  The Reagan administration was talking about a winnable nuclear war.  Reagan himself called the MX missile the “Peacekeeper Missile,” a powerful multiple warhead nuclear weapon some interpreted as an effort to obtain a “first-strike capability.”  Orson Welles, that powerful cinematic presence, ambled up to the podium, with the assistance of a cane, on a sunny day in Central Park in June 1982, to address thousands in the Nuclear Freeze movement.  Activists opposing Reagan’s foreign policy, including this blogger, marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in 1981, chanting “No draft, no war, U.S. out of El Salvador!!”  When mounted police trotted alongside the marchers, some began chanting, “Free the horses!”  It was the 1980s, but we wished it was the sixties.

Obama has said he came of age during the Reagan presidency.  So did I.  For many years, I wore a T-shirt I purchased at the Nuclear Freeze rally that had a picture of our blue planet on it, with words above, “Don’t Blow It!”

Barack Obama, spending his last two college years at Columbia University, wrote an article in 1983 profiling two anti-war groups on campus, which is attached and currently making its way around the web.  In addition, he wrote a paper for a poli sci class, for which he received an ‘A’, on how he would negotiate nuclear weapons reduction with the Russians.   This week he will have a chance to implement that paper.  Dreams come true for some of us.

A NYTimes article today explains how Obama’s thinking on nuclear weapons has evolved over the years since that article and poli sci paper.  It suggests that at core he, like Reagan ironically, wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet.  (Read his Prague speech on the matter.)  Yet today, he’ll settle for negotiations with the Russians for nuclear weapons reductions and for efforts at non-proliferation. 

He is a remarkable fellow, our president, with so much confidence and affability that he convinces people to do things.  This is a presidential quality.  A quality W woefully lacked.  I am impressed by the fact that the Russians, in advance of Obama’s trip, have agreed to allow U.S. military overflights to resupply NATO in Afghanistan.  Gobama!!

I just hope that over the years since the early eighties, Obama has come to grasp the complexities and ironies of interstate relations and the way nuclear weapons factor in to whether states make war or peace.  A study of these issues can be emotionally-unsatisfying, especially to a utopian wishing to put an end to the “twisted logic” of national security, bemoaning the “academic discussion of first versus second strike capabalities,” and attempting to confront “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in this country.”  It’s okay, Mr. President, we all wrote like that in college.  

For the record, militarism is what happened in pre-World War I Germany, as the German General Staff, backed by the Kaiser, virtually hijacked that country; it is not at all what has taken place in America since George Washington turned down the opportunity to become a military dictator. 

The question is, now that Barack Obama is the leader of what he called in 1983 the “military-industrial interests, as they add to their billion dollar erector sets,” can he make the best decisions on weapons systems and force posture that will make the world safer?   

Although nuclear weapons are a horrible reality, they have arguably reduced great power conflict since the end of World War II.  While we hate having this threat hanging over us, it is one of the ironies of being human that it is exactly this threat of mutual destruction that has deterred nuclear-armed states from going to war.   So, President Obama’s goals of reducing nuclear weapons and staunching proliferation make sense, but we must be very careful when talking about nuclear disarmament.  The reality is that if all the peace-loving major powers disarmed, the technology remains out there, the genie is out of the bottle.  Some nasty power some time in the future (need I name names?) could and would build such weapons.  Would we have a deterrent to their use or threatened use of such weapons at that time? Could we develop one quickly? We must tread carefully in this area.  The disarmament and arms control efforts of the liberal democracies in the thirties occurred against the backdrop of Germany’s secret arms buildup, leaving them unable to confront Hitler in 1939.

Furthermore, those of us who opposed the Reagan arms buildup must admit that what Reagan (and George Kennan and Paul Nitze) had hoped would happen happened!  We bankrupted the Soviet Union through an arms race, and that nasty dictatorship withered away.  Was it worth the risk?  Maybe not.  The risk of nuclear war probably increased during the eighties because of the subtle shift in the balance of first strike/second strike capabilities, what Student Obama scorned in 1983.  If rasher men had been running the Soviet Union at the time, they could have interpreted Reagan’s commitment to the MX missile and other weapons systems, in conjunction with statements by such luminaries as Cap Weinberger, as an effort to obtain a first strike advantage, an ability to wipe out your adversary in a first strike so as to sustain only a modest second strike against yourself.

Back to today, the disagreement that Obama has had with his Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, over whether to modernize our nuclear arsenal, warrants careful consideration.  As the guy calling for nuclear arms reduction and wishing to build alliances through the power of America’s example, Obama does not want to build new “erector sets,” especially when he’s announcing expensive domestic spending initiatives.  Yet it is important for the U.S. to stay at the technological edge in military preparedness, especially as regards weapons that improve defense and deterrence.  I’m not saying that Gates’s initiative is the right one, only that policy makers must choose which technologies will be critical to America’s security and a safer world.  Yet Obama’s priority seems to be, simply, to not build any more nukes.  

The NYTimes article speaks about a class on presidential decision-making at Columbia that was formative for Student Obama, in which he wrote a paper on how to conduct nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians.  I took a course around the same time at Tufts University that was formative for me, called War and War Prevention, taught by Stephen W. Van Evera, now a professor at MIT and author of an important book, Causes of War:  Power and the Roots of Conflict, that I hope Obama and his national security team have studied.  The book’s conclusion: policies that strengthen a nation’s capacity to defend itself, rather than conquer other nations, make the world safer by convincing leaders the world over that conquest is difficult.  So, disarmament doesn’t usher in a safer world, arming with the right armaments, defensive armaments, does.  The book also suggests that misperceptions about this “offense-defense” balance have been a leading cause of wars throughout history, notably the catastrophic World War I.  Therefore, transparency, policy clarity and the disinterested analysis of national security by people outside government would reduce the risks of misperception. 

Ironically, nuclear weapons have bolstered the defense, by discouraging would-be attackers.  It is a depressing thought that the most horrible weapon in history has had a silver-lining, just as the most hopeful prospect – disarmament – has helped cause war.   For a greater understanding of why human affairs involve so much contradiction, we must, alas, turn to Mr. Freud, who last century theorized that two instincts drive human beings – the love and death instincts.  The love instinct (libido) drives us to build and the death instinct to destroy.  President Obama is definitely a builder.  He should just relegate his utopian visions to their proper place on the back burner, so that he can take a hard look at defense policy, formulating one that will promote American security and peace in the world.  The Van Evera book is a starter…

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.

Geithner in China

June 1, 2009
Geithner's tougher audience:  U.S. Congress   Source: AP
Geithner facing a tougher audience than China: the U.S. Congress Source: AP

A long-time China hand, Mandarin speaker, East Asia major at SAIS, son of an East Asia expert who opened the Ford Foundation’s office in Beijing, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is in China to jumpstart the Obama administration’s “strategic and economic dialogue.”  This effort puts a stamp of change on Bush’s “strategic economic dialogue,” the so-called G-2, or regular meetings between U.S. and Chinese leaders, initially headed up ably by the much-maligned former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Geithner’s erstwhile partner in saving the planet last fall when the global financial system was in collapse.  The main “change we can believe in” the Obama administration will impose will be the insertion of Secretary of State Clinton into the dialogue.  The State Department, our country’s chief diplomatic agency, should well be involved in diplomacy with America’s most important partner/adversary.  But one wonders if the insertion of Mrs. Clinton is due to the belief that Geithner needs a tough-minded chaperone or because the Democrat-controlled government wants to hammer away at human rights and greenhouse gasses at every opportunity.  Under Bush, a division of labor was implemented, with Paulson taking the lead on China and Condy Rice on the Middle East.

Geithner made the rounds in Beijing today, ahead of his meeting tomorrow with China’s President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.  Read his speech at Peking University, a nice, though not earth-shattering, lecture where he hit all the right political points.  He graciously applauded Chinese efforts to help the world exit the current crisis by stimulating their economy, a measure the Europeans have been reluctant to do.  Yet he still preached to the Chinese about consuming more, following an industrial policy less centered on heavy industry and manufacturing, and building a social safety net so the Chinese will spend more.  He committed to nervous Chinese watching their holdings of U.S. treasuries lose value of late that Obama would bring the fiscal deficit down to 3% of GDP, from a high above 10% this year, at the same time as he reiterated his administration’s firm commitment to expensive reforms of health care, education, infrastructure, and energy.  And, he hit the climate change gong for Al Gore (and for all inhabitants of the blue planet), though as the nation’s chief economic officer, he left any harangues about human rights to the much more cantankerous Mrs. Clinton.

Watch a video snippet of Geithner appearing before Chinese lawmakers, a much more accepting crowd than the U.S. Congress.  He felt compelled last January to cowtow to the protectionists and China-bashers in Congress (especially in his party, such as Senator Schumer), when he called China a “currency manipulator,” for which he later had to apologize.

Some China observers today, including this one, emphasize the rockier relationship likely for the G-2 under the Obama administration, compared to the fine bedfellows Bush and Co. and China made, due to likely U.S. moralizing on human rights and pressure on greenhouse gases.  Read a nice NYTimes piece on Geithner’s first day in China this June.

More on war…and peace…

April 12, 2009
President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki  Source: AFP
President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki Source: AFP
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon)  Source: PBS
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon) Source: PBS

President Obama said back at the end of February that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, with most out by August 2010.  His policy is to pull out of Iraq and take American power instead to Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to root out Al Qaeda and do some nation-building there.  There will be ramifications of this policy shift.   One risk, highlighted by those on the right and in a weekend New York Times article, is that the successes of the surge, namely the build-up of the Sunni Awakening Councils that took back Sunni strongholds from Al Qaeda, could be reversed. 

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has allegedly ramped up arrests of Awakening leaders, while U.S. forces stand by.   President Obama’s policy could leave the Iraqis to slug it out, as perhaps they should.  But, nonetheless, let us be clear on what the ramifications of this policy shift might be:  increased bloodshed and instability in Iraq; Shiite dominance in a sizable power so close to Iran and the Gulf; and, possibly a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Sunni areas.

General Raymond T. Odierno, America’s top commander in Iraq and a key architect of the surge, weighed in on the issue and with his opinion of President Obama this weekend on John King’s State of the Union:

“He’s our commander-in-chief,” Odierno said.  “As our commander-in-chief, we take direction from him.”  He added:  “He’s very attentive. He listens. He’s incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues. . . .He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions and that’s all you can expect out of your commander-in-chief. And I’ve been very pleased with the interaction that I’ve been able to have with him.”

In a New York Times column this weekend, Jean Edward Smith argues that President Obama, in handling Iraq, should take a page from President Eisenhower’s decision to end the war in Korea in 1953.  Eisenhower, in spite of the hawks in his own party, decided to negotiate an armistice at the 38th Parallel with the communist adversary.  With 150,000 U.S. war dead, America and the West would reap no gain, nor the flip side, inflict no punishment on the communist aggressor.

Just like Obama did in Iraq last week, Ike went to Korea and had a look for himself and decided it was a stalemate.  When South Korean President Rhee tried to derail the talks with the north, Ike threatened to pull out of Korea entirely, which would have left Rhee to face the communist onslaught himself.  U.S. troops, though reduced in recent years, remain in Korea to this day.

The parallel that Smith makes between Ike and Obama is not compelling.  What the Obama administration plans for Iraq is more akin to the threat Ike made to Rhee (to pull all U.S. troops out) than it is to the Korea policy followed by successive administrations since 1953.  That is, to maintain a U.S. troop presence to help secure South Korea from aggression.  Smith makes a good point that only Ike, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, could have pushed through such an armistice in Korea.  Had Truman tried this, he might have been impeached.  While President Obama doesn’t have the military stature that Ike had, his Iraq policy is broadly popular.

Ike and Truman both sought a measured response in Korea.  They both sought to contain the extension of communism without triggering a world war with China and the Soviet Union.  MacArthur and others on the Republican right wanted to take the war to the Chinese. (Ike’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even said the Chinese required “one hell of a licking.”)  Kissinger has argued that the best scenario for U.S. interests would have been something in between what Ike and Truman sought and what the right wing aspired to.  He has argued that U.S. forces should have moved, early in the war, not to the border with China at the Yalu River, which MacArthur did, triggering a massive Chinese response, but to one hundred miles south of that, at the “narrow neck” of the Korean peninsula, a defensible position where the country would have been nearly reunified, with 90% of the population and the capital of the north behind allied lines.  This way the U.S. would still have avoided threatening China, but would have secured a non-communist reunification of Korea.  We wouldn’t have this pesky nuclear arms mess with North Korea today.  But there are no sure bets in war and peace: there is no certainty that the Chinese would have tolerated even Kissinger’s scenario.

Perhaps President Obama should endeavor to find Kissinger’s middle ground in decisions on where to apply U.S. military power.  Reap the maximum advantage without threatening the major powers.  Easy to write, much harder to do.  That’s why I blog…

Why I Voted for Barack Obama

November 7, 2008


            I had my doubts, as you well know, and still do.  But, those who know me understand what I call my West Wing or “aspirational” politics.  These are at odds sometimes with my real-world politics, which tend to be centrist.  In spite of my cynicism, my sober reading of history, and my need to hector friends on the left, I too hope for a better world.

My philosophy can be summed as follows:  while it is easy to follow your ideals, it is more difficult to make realistic choices that ultimately yield durable results consistent with your ideals.  My misgivings about Barack Obama in the past had to do with my concern that he represented an idealistic, rather than a hard-headed choice.  That is why I supported Hillary Clinton.  I now believe that there is a good chance Barack Obama possesses the skills to be a successful president.

I voted for Obama because I hope that he can harness the euphoria he has unleashed toward sound and effective policy making.  John McCain, an experienced, principled public servant, lacks Obama’s magic, what I call his political “kevorka” (a Seinfeld reference).  As a result, the coalition McCain would have assembled, both in the United States and abroad, would have been narrow, and therefore, less effective.

The election of Barack Obama represents a new day for America, a turning of the page on the 20th century, a final nail in the coffin of an historic injustice, the stain of slavery and Jim Crow.  This new day itself will advance the cause of America in the world. 

The surge of support for the Democrats this past Tuesday likewise makes sense.  They are the party of government intervention.  A deepening financial crisis is when government must act.  A President McCain might have been resistant to the kind of “bold, persistent experimentation” required, and might have projected a more cantankerous image abroad.  Hopefully, President Obama will confront our financial problems head on, working closely with Democratic majorities in Congress and other world leaders.  There is goodwill in the world toward Obama, goodwill that has a half life, but goodwill that can be exploited toward repairing our planet.

Now it is time to get to work.  In his first press conference on Friday, President-elect Obama gave a good, short speech about his plan to create jobs and confront the financial crisis.  He mentioned a rescue of the auto industry, which I hope will mean help in downsizing, job training, and shifting to the production of fuel-efficient cars, not protection and subsidies, which would postpone the inevitable. 

Obama’s remarks, his lucid thinking-aloud, and his bearing were on balance, well, presidential, though he betrayed a little nervousness and uncertainty.  This was especially the case in his gentle fumbling of the first question about what he would do on day one to rescue the economy.  As was pointed out during the campaign, there will be some on-the-job training for this exceptional man with limited experience, but we can expect that he will do well. Give him time; he’s not president yet.

I am happy he is putting a laser focus on the economy.  As I have said in the past, the vigorous pursuit of free trade is critical to our economic wellbeing; this will prove difficult and, frankly, unlikely under the Democrats, given their recent rhetoric.  Remember, the Great Depression was aggravated by trade protectionism.  Yet if anyone has the talent to do the political gymnastics necessary to flip from protectionism to free trade, it is Barack Obama.

Obama must likewise begin to lay the groundwork to address longer-term problems such as climate change and fiscal consolidation.  Critical global concerns such as anchoring Russia and China in Western institutions, preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation more broadly, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, stopping the slaughter in Darfur, and broadening the free trade area in the Americas to include Colombia, Brazil and others require immediate attention.   

Talented people are enthusiastic about working for Obama.  The appointments he has made and is reportedly about to make seem sound.  Rahm Emanuel, as chief of staff, Tim Geithner at Treasury, and perhaps even Bob Gates at Defense would be an impressive start.  I could even live with John Kerry at State, though would prefer the likes of Nick Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer and centrist who flourished in both Democratic and Republican administrations.  I feel lukewarm about Chuck Hagel.  Nevertheless, it appears that President-elect Obama will assemble an ideologically diverse group of people, and that his management style — weighing a wide range of views – will serve our country well.

When the celebrating dies down, I hope Obama supporters will take a sober look at the president-elect’s warts.  Signs have already emerged that goodwill toward him could be short-lived.

The financial markets fell dramatically last month, reflecting not only weakness in our financial institutions, but also concerns about the lack of economic policy credentials of the two presidential candidates.  Markets remain under pressure due in part to persistent concerns about Obama’s ability to handle the crisis.  Yet his hands-on approach, his immediate focus on the economy, his subtle lowering of expectations, and his quick staffing of key positions are encouraging. 

Overseas, the Russian government has just thrown down the gauntlet on missile defense in Europe, threatening to station missiles near Poland if the U.S. erects its missile shield there.  Pakistan called for an end to attacks against Al Qaeda on its territory by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  The world remains dangerous and volatile, Obama euphoria notwithstanding.  

I suggested in September that there were others better able to lead this country than Obama or McCain, including Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Corzine.  Last January, in a polemic in support of Hillary, I expressed doubt that Obama’s charisma was what we needed to confront the economic crisis.  I expressed concern about how Americans project their hopes onto a blank slate and elect a charismatic president, especially in the wake of what is perceived as a failed administration.  After Nixon, we believed that Carter would restore American credibility and prosperity.    

Freud called it idealization.  It is a defense against uncertainty and unpleasantness.  The human psyche exalts and overvalues a person.  Given the economic crisis we’re in, we need to idealize our next president.  But, it could lead to a huge letdown, when the other side of the coin – devaluation – sets in.

            I hope this letdown doesn’t occur.  Jimmy Carter was a failed president. He presided over stagflation, and his perceived weakness goaded the Soviets to invade Afghanistan and the ayatollahs to take over the US Embassy in Teheran.  It was not unlike JFK, another charismatic young man with euphoric followers.  It was Kennedy’s perceived weakness, coming on the heels of the respected and feared Eisenhower, that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Recently opened Soviet archives suggest that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba because the Kennedys were viewed as weak.   

Besides making us feel good about ourselves, our president must have the capacity to lead.  There are indications that Obama has such a capacity.     

It is important to make a distinction between politics and government. Politics is the art of getting elected, the art of persuasion, and requires charisma.  Government is the art of making policy, fixing things.  Charismatic politicians, good at politics but bad at government, can be a huge letdown.  This is the story of W, Oliver Stone’s latest twisting of history notwithstanding.  The ideal president is good at both.  Maybe this is Barack Obama.      

John McCain pointed out in the final debate last month a certain cynicism behind Obama’s “new politics,” and “post-partisanship.”  In 2005 during a standoff between the White House and the Senate, John McCain introduced the real “new politics” by assembling the “Gang of 14,” a group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, some of the ablest statesmen and women in America, who broke the deadlock over judicial appointments that had been leaving the courts understaffed.  While McCain withstood the ire of the Republican base for this, partisans Joe Biden and Barack Obama, God love ‘em, chose not to join the gang.  Both were considering runs for the White House and therefore could not stand up to their leadership and the Democratic base.

In the past, Obama has stayed true to his liberal ideals, assembling a voting record that did not brook compromise with the other side of American politics.  That’s fine for getting elected president, but it’s not fine for being president.  Obama’s temperament indicates a capacity for compromise and leadership. I hope he moves to the center.  

In his advertising, Obama outspent any previous presidential candidate.  Attack ads represented an estimated third of his ads.  He said he would accept public financing, but when contributions reached to the heavens, he went back on his word.  He has done more than any other American politician to wreck public financing of elections.  The reality is that Obama has been an artful practitioner of the old politics.

It is true that McCain engaged in a hard-hitting campaign.  Yet, in America most underdog campaigns go negative, including Obama’s.  In 2004 when David Axelrod ran Obama’s Senate bid, it was alleged that the campaign aggressively pushed a story about domestic abuse by his Democratic primary challenger, who was well ahead in the polls.  We wouldn’t be toasting a new dawn of American leadership today if not for Axelrod’s brawling Chicago-style campaigning.  I believe McCain’s bringing up Obama’s past associations with Khalidi, Wright, and Ayers was fair.  The Obamas spent nearly twenty years sitting in a pew listening to Pastor Wright say many intolerant, and yes, racist things. On the other hand, Obama is a “big tent” politician, maintaining an appropriate distance from some of the more objectionable views of people he associates with.  The strength of this approach is that it can build broad coalitions; the weakness is that it can blur the distinction between right and wrong.

Racism has played a role in the opposition of some people to Barack Obama.  It is driven by a fear of others not like you having power over you.  While Obama did better than previous Democratic presidential candidates in some “red states,” he performed worse in some southern states, which, it has been suggested, had to do with race.

Let’s look at the flip side.  I am reminded of that episode of Seinfeld, when Elaine tells Jerry he is racist for preferring Asian women.  Jerry responds, it’s not racism if I like their race.  The excitement many Obama supporters have for this historic victory is not a completely colorblind sentiment.  The difficulty his opponents have in criticizing him for fear of charges of racism is not a fiction either.       

Let us also admit that there was probably a dose of “age-ism” involved in the electorate’s choice of Obama over McCain.  Young, vigorous leadership over tired, old leadership.  It was a factor.

Obama has an Achilles’ heel.  He projects a slight superciliousness, arising out of his message that he offers transformational leadership and represents perhaps the only way forward.  He himself poked fun at this at the Al Smith dinner last month.  The risk here is his potential reluctance to admit mistakes.

In my piece in September, I bemoaned the “pomp and distortion” of both campaigns. I wish we could enhance the profile of truth and critical thinking in our political discourse.  Politicians dumb us down and appeal to emotion, rather than reason.  The media has filled the void to an extent with their “fact-checking.”  We need a calming of emotions and an end to the demonization of the other side, so characteristic of the culture wars. 

A lot of McCain supporters feel left out right now, and I commend Obama for reaching out to them in his victory speech.  There are reports that he plans to appoint leading Republicans to his cabinet.  I urge his supporters, many engaged in euphoric celebration, to likewise reach out to the other side when calm returns to our daily lives.  

I consider myself a centrist and enjoy being a gadfly with my friends who lean left, pointing out overlooked facts and attempting to open minds.  I too commit the sin of spin and polemical writing, and get riled up and closed-minded.  Yet I believe we need a movement in our country of likeminded centrists to help invigorate our democracy, to keep both Democrats and Republicans honest.  This is the point of the pieces I send around and Scherblog.  Join me in this endeavor by passing around my work to others. 

Obama ran a near-flawless campaign, and in spite of his lack of management experience, this bodes well for his administration.  In the coming two years, the Obama administration will likely confront further economic deterioration and market turmoil, rising unemployment and widening budget deficits.  It will likely face tensions with Russia, Iran and Iraq (and elsewhere), requiring tough decisions, including, as a last resort, military action.  Joe Biden was right in suggesting that Obama (and the Democrats) will be tested soon.  If they do well, they may be able to hold fast to the political realignment they achieved on Tuesday.  If they don’t, we can toss them out of Congress in two years and have a crack at a new president in four.  This is the beauty of American democracy.

Sometimes there is simply a “chemistry” emanating from a human endeavor.  “Movement Obama” – including its central figure, its architects, its foot soldiers and its followers – has chemistry.  There is magic in this movement, and for that, I am hopeful about an Obama administration, and wish him, the Democrats, and the country every success. 

McCain’s Affinity for Israel

October 31, 2008

See the two articles below.  Something to think about before Tuesday.  Not that Israel is the only issue by any stretch.  The Jerusalem Post article, which comes first, describes John McCain’s affinity for Israel and more broadly, for the Jewish narrative.  In the second piece, Alan Dershowitz argues articulately that supporting Obama is consistent with supporting Israel. 

We have seen a surge of Jewish rationalizing — in emails, op-eds and speeches — that Obama will be good for Israel and the Middle East.  Whether this has come from Dershowitz, Dennis Ross, your local rabbi, or a Jewish friend who writes well, this argument will likely produce the 70-80% support that Democrats have counted on from Jews since FDR.  Dershowitz’s piece is among the best in this vein, arguing that support for Israel is already strong on the right, so friends of Israel must cultivate leaders on the left, i.e. Obama.  It is true that Barack Obama’s administration will likely be generally supportive of Israel, his friendship with Rashid Khalidi and others notwithstanding.  Still, read the Jerusalem Post article for insight into John McCain and how he is “instinctively pro-Israel” and have a think.  Especially if you live in Florida or Pennsylvania or any other swing state.  If you’ve already voted, in the words of Emily Litella, “Never mind.”  As for me, I remain, faithfully, yours…undecided.  Happy Halloween…

Roger Scher

Oct 30, 2008 9:08 | Updated Oct 30, 2008 9:14

The Republican phoenix

PHOENIX, Arizona

The stately saguaro cactus is a fitting symbol of the southwestern desert state of Arizona, found on license plates and front lawns and state flora registries, cutting a pitchfork profile both defiant of and shaped by the elements around it. It is also a good symbol for the Arizona senator who hopes to lead the nation, Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He, too, is sometimes considered prickly and defiant. He is known for independence, self-reliance and, above all, survival – both personal and political.

One year ago, McCain’s candidacy had been left for dead. He was trailing badly in the polls, his once hefty cash reserves were gone, his campaign was in disarray. But he carried off one of the more stunning comebacks of American political history, scraping together primary wins until he became his reluctant party’s nominee (his maverick reputation having been earned in large part for going against the GOP grain).

Yet that was far from his most impressive rehabilitation. In 1967, McCain’s plane was shot down over Hanoi and he was taken captive by the North Vietnamese. He was denied proper medical care for his broken bones, humiliated and tortured. He finally made it home five and a half years later, battered and bruised. Though he was never able to lift his arms properly again, he went through painful physical therapy and nursed his way back to health. He eventually launched a political career that spanned four years in the US House, 22 and counting in the Senate and two runs for president.

That political career began in Phoenix, his wife’s hometown but not his own. When McCain began his run and was greeted with the charge of being a carpetbagger, he famously replied that as a military brat he had moved around all his life, so the longest place he’d ever lived had been at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW prison.

Though his response silenced critics enough to let him lay claim to a congressional seat representing the Grand Canyon state, it also meant he soon sped off to Washington. Partly as a consequence, the roots he planted remained akin to those of the solitary saguaro. He is not known for warm and fuzzy constituent outreach; in the Jewish community, his calendar doesn’t overflow with synagogue speeches and JCC dedications. He also eschews the earmarks that often bring in funds for communal Jewish projects.

But that doesn’t mean McCain doesn’t have a connection to his Jewish voters. When people talk about McCain’s ties with the Arizona Jewish community, they use one word: Israel. And they mean that it is not just an issue that he strongly supports, but one for which he has an affinity.

As it happens, Israel is another place that features a cactus as its collective symbol. In the Jewish state, the sabra fruit – prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside – is used to characterize a people, a people who got that way through living in inhospitable climes, cultivating a democracy in a hostile region and serving years in the military under perennial attack.

“I think it’s something that he relates really strongly to his own experience as a POW,” says long-time friend George Weisz of McCain’s perspective on Israel. He recalls McCain telling him after visits there how struck he was by the “tenacity” of a population which shares “the passion that he has for freedom.” He says McCain also recognized a similar bravery in the face of constant aggression.

“Something he would mention specifically is the courage the people of Israel have to continue their lives dealing with the threats around them; that courage stood out more in Israel than almost any country he’s visited,” he recounts. “He’s been impressed that a nation that small has been able to stand up for itself, and stand up strongly in the face of threats from all around.”

Perhaps McCain’s most poignant comments about these shared circumstances came at an award ceremony in Phoenix nearly a decade ago honoring his work to help free IDF soldiers Zack Baumel and Ron Arad. Recalling his own captivity, he told the audience, “If we forget them, then we really betray the freedom and principles that were the foundations of our respective nations.”

MCCAIN HAS said that his experiences at the Hanoi Hilton shaped his worldview, particularly on foreign policy, and it was that perspective that he came to share one night at the Phoenix Kiwanis club in 1980.

Among those gathered to hear him was Sid Rosen, a Democratic political activist and world traveler who had himself spent time in Vietnam, though he admits at the time he “didn’t know him from Adam.” By the end of the night, Rosen had heard enough, particularly on Israel, to tell McCain that he would support him in any election, should he ever decide to run.

“He laid out the most incredible pro-Israel analysis that I’d ever heard,” recalls the 69-year-old Rosen, a lawyer. “The concept effectively was Israel’s right to exist as the nation of the Jewish people, biblically, historically, practically, in every which way. It was tremendously supportive, to the contrary of the impracticality, if not immorality, of the Palestinian [position]. He enumerated how the Arab countries had never resettled the Palestinians, had kept them in these refugee camps, stirred them up as anti-Israel, anti-Zionist all those years, in comparison to Israel taking in her refugees.”

Rosen points out that when McCain gave his speech at the Kiwanis club, it hardly would have been the place for trying to win over the Jewish vote even if he had been campaigning. The national service fraternity had just two Jewish members in its Phoenix chapter, and only Rosen was present that evening.

“He wasn’t addressing a Jewish audience, and [bringing up Israel] was gratuitous. So many politicians would stay away from anything at all controversial.”

And according to Rosen, statements like McCain’s were controversial for Republicans back then. “At that time, it was Democrats and liberal Democrats who were pro-Israel. That’s where the pro-Israel vote was, and it was really rare to find Republicans who were on board,” he says.

“When I came to work in Congress in the 1970s, all the good people were basically on the Democratic side,” says Morrie Amitay, who served as the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1974 to 1981. That was beginning to change by the end of his time there, and was sharply accelerated by the evangelical pro-Israel movement only toward the 1990s. Amitay calls McCain “instinctively pro-Israel.”

Phoenix lawyer and Zionist Organization of America vice president Farley Weiss agrees with the assessment. He was struck by McCain’s criticism of his own party’s president, George H.W. Bush, when Bush made disparaging comments about the Israel lobby in 1991, and then again by the senator’s willingness to tell local Arab audiences what he tells Jewish ones – that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if he were president.

Weiss adds, “Senator McCain’s best friend in the Senate is Joe Lieberman, and that tells you something already.”

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 but is now campaigning for the Republican presidential nominee. (Weiss also notes, however, they don’t see eye to eye on everything; Weiss has been trying to enlist McCain’s support in freeing Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel, but “he has not been supportive of the issue.”)

Rosen wasn’t the only Democrat whose attention was caught by McCain’s views on Israel.

Michael Bell, a 66-year-old Jewish resident of Phoenix, says he plans to vote Republican for only the second time in his life this Tuesday.

“He has always been a very big supporter of Israel,” Bell says while enumerating the reasons, primarily related to foreign policy and defense, that he will be supporting McCain over Democratic rival Barack Obama.

He thinks there are many others like him based on conversations with fellow Democrats. “A good percentage has to do with Israel – he’s a proven commodity with Israel.”

McCain’s campaign believes that sentiment resonates nationally, and that the GOP candidate will get near-record levels of Jewish support. While national polls originally supported this assessment, recent surveys suggest his support is falling off and that Obama will get the three-quarters of the Jewish vote typically garnered by Democrats.

There are no reliable polls on how Arizona Jews specifically are likely to vote, and many counter that they expect as strong a Democratic turnout as ever.

“Jewish Democrat is redundant,” quips Arizona National Jewish Democratic Council head Jerry Gettinger. Though he predicts slightly higher Jewish turnout for McCain than other Republican candidates, he says that “the community has been overwhelmingly Democrat and probably will be this time too.”

He cited McCain’s conservative stance on social issues and vice presidential pick of Sarah Palin, who has rubbed many Jews the wrong way.

And many local Jewish Republicans have issues with McCain, too.

A DOZEN Republican Jewish Coalition members gather at a Starbucks among the palm trees and decorative fountains of a swank suburban open-air shopping mall to sip coffee and talk politics as the sun sets. They devote much more of that talk to bashing Obama than praising McCain.

“McCain’s not my first choice,” Alla Rosenfield explains. “But Obama’s my last.” Rosenfield strongly disagrees with McCain’s stance on immigration, which she thinks doesn’t take a hard enough line against illegal immigrants. Others in the circle object to his personality and his temper, the latter of which has been the subject of Democratic attack ads.

Gil Exler saw that temper flare firsthand during a group luncheon with the senator back in 2004. McCain had recently appeared on a morning TV show and attacked President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican in the midst of a reelection campaign. During the Q&A, Exler told McCain he thought he had criticized Bush too harshly at a delicate time, eliciting a barrage from McCain on how the Bush campaign had gone after him during his first run in 2000. “If you knew how they treated me in South Carolina,” Exler recalls him saying, wagging his finger for extra effect. (Bush backers started false rumors ahead of the South Carolina primary that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually a black girl he fathered out of wedlock.) But the senator soon regretted his response, Exler says.

“Right after we broke he came up, put his arm around me, and said, ‘I’m so sorry, no hard feelings, nothing personal. You just hit a nerve.’ I said, ‘Obviously.'”

Exler does give McCain credit for being willing to express his own point of view and not just parrot the position of the person in the crowd, in this case Exler.

Still, hearing so much criticism, RJC chapter head Amy Laff jumps in. “I might be the only one here, but I like McCain.” She mentions that when she set up the local RJC branch, he spent over an hour meeting with her and asking her questions about what she would like him to do for her. And, she concludes, “He shared this connection with Israel.”

All of the RJC group give McCain high marks for Israel, and call it a priority which compensates for other issues they disagree with him on. And they’re willing to overlook the lack of a personal touch from him and his wife in some other areas.

“They’re private individuals, and we don’t see them at events that are social, but when there are issues that are important – on Israel – they’re there,” Rosenfield says.

Sam Coppersmith is less charitable. A former head of the Arizona Democratic Party who served two years in the US House before losing the race for the state’s other Senate seat to Jon Kyl in 1994, he suggests that McCain simply isn’t interested in constituent duties.

“My sense is that McCain doesn’t do a lot of that kind of outreach,” says Coppersmith, “because he hasn’t really wanted to do it.” Coppersmith, whose law office still displays a campaign poster from his ill-fated Senate run, posits that McCain delegated the constituent work to Kyl once the latter won. Coppersmith refers to McCain’s lack of local attention by cracking, “Nobody in Arizona is going to ride on the Straight Talk Express,” the nickname for his campaign bus.

A former Jewish Republican operative, who did not want to be quoted saying something negative about McCain, concurs that “Arizona Jews are more likely to see him on Meet the Press than at the local Piggly-Wiggly [supermarket].”

But Jewish News of Greater Phoenix publisher Florence Eckstein says that her publication has never had a problem with access to McCain when it’s been requested. Instead, she attributes the difference between the Jewish community’s relationship with its two senators to geography.

“Kyl has a much, much tighter connection with many Arizonans than McCain has. [Kyl] lived here, he practiced law here. He was an Arizonan in a way McCain is not,” according to Eckstein, whose paper endorsed Obama. “It may be that John McCain has basically lived in DC. He’s never lived in Phoenix for any length of time.”

“McCain isn’t even in Arizona that often. [He’s] been running for president for a long time,” another Jewish leader remarks. “There hasn’t been an enormous amount of interface except on Israel-related issues… Obviously he has a good record on Israel, and he has a first-name relationship with philanthropists in the Jewish community who are Israel-motivated. He’s not on a first-name basis with the heads of the Jewish community outside of Israel.”

While he adds that McCain “wants to be a friend of the Jewish community,” he sees Kyl more often at events. He describes both senators as enjoying “cordial relations” with the community, but terms Kyl as “more visible.”

Rabbi Albert Plotkin, though, remembers several Jewish-oriented events in which McCain has participated, including fund-raising efforts for the United Jewish Appeal, and awards he’s received from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Plotkin, a community presence for 53 years, especially recalls his regular attendance at AIPAC meetings. “Whatever he’s been called on to do to support Israel, he’s done.”

AND MCCAIN in turn has been able to call on several Jewish supporters, starting with Rosen.

Rosen describes himself as McCain’s “first supporter of the Jewish faith” and quite possibly his first supporter, period. That’s because when he first encountered McCain at the Kiwanis club, there wasn’t even a congressional seat in Arizona open for the one-time navy liaison to Congress to run for. But that didn’t stop Rosen from enlisting.

After hearing his foreign policy speech – on both Israel and elsewhere – he was so “blown away” that he introduced himself to McCain and said, “When you’re ready to run for federal political office, call me. I’m on the team.”

About a year later, Rosen read that House minority leader John Rhodes, who was from Phoenix, had decided not to seek another term. “The first thought that came to my mind was John McCainJohn McCain is the man for that seat and now is the time.”

Late at night 24 hours later, Rosen’s phone rang. The voice on the line said, “You’re probably not going to remember me. This is John McCain.” To which Rosen replied, “John McCain, I have been waiting for 24 hours for your call. Where have you been? I told you last year I’m on the team!”

Though Rosen was a Democratic political insider – he barely missed winning a seat in Congress himself – McCain didn’t seem to be aware of that when he called. Instead, Rosen attributes McCain’s interest in Rosen’s support to the fact that Rosen was a lone voice of encouragement, pointing out that no one else at the Kiwanis club was pushing him to run for office. When Rosen told him his party affiliation, McCain asked him to chair ‘Democrats for McCain,’ as he has ever since.

That day began Rosen’s “28-year devotion” to McCain’s political rise, one clearly evident in the activist’s historic Tudor residence in central Phoenix. A framed photo of McCain and his wife, Cindy, rests on his coffee table; a large poster of McCain in his navy uniform covers his fireplace. Rosen wears a wristband bearing the campaign slogan “country first” as well as a homemade McCain pin. Even when he knows who’s calling, he answers the phone: ” John McCain for president. Sid speaking. How may I help you?” And there have been a lot of phone calls – 40 to 60 a day, he calculates – as he works 24/6 (no answering on Shabbat) to raise money for the campaign. He’s taken off nearly two years from his law firm to help with the effort, which he says has so far yielded $600,000, among the highest totals for a McCain fund-raiser.

But Rosen wasn’t the GOP presidential hopeful’s only key Jewish supporter back before he’d won his first election. Former Arizona Republican Party chairman Burton Kruglick was particularly important to getting McCain launched on that initial run.

Kruglick, now retired, recalls a young McCain coming to him, eager to get in the political game but lacking a toehold. Kruglick recounts that McCain had studied the places where there wasn’t an incumbent and moved to Rhodes’s district as soon as he found out the minority leader was retiring, but an address was about all he had going for him.

“He had no name ID, nobody knew him. That’s a tough way to run,” notes Kruglick, “so he asked me if I could appoint him to a committee so he would have a title, ‘John McCain, co-chair…’ I thought about it, and I said, ‘Okay John. I’ll be your first friend.'” Kruglick ended up appointing him to a position on the committee that arranged for speakers at party meetings. The speakers were national politicians and McCain’s role let him meet key people quickly.

Kruglick came under criticism from others in line for party posts who felt McCain didn’t deserve the plum position. But Kruglick, who once served as head of the local Jewish National Fund chapter, relates that no other party strivers had made such a direct appeal. “Nobody else came to me that way,” he says, adding that he appreciated McCain’s background and character and was willing to give him some help, which the ambitious McCain ran with. “We just gave him that and he built on it. He made it work.”

Soon after that, Phoenix energy executive Marty Schultz met McCain at a breakfast party held to introduce the political neophyte to key players like himself. Though the primary hadn’t yet been held, what stood out in Schultz’s mind was “the clarity of the handoff,” that “they wanted this man… to be the next member of Congress.”

Schultz soon took to McCain and became a fundraiser. (Schultz recommends the erstwhile naval aviator in part because “he’s a fun guy,” acknowledging it might not be a well-accepted qualification for high office. He recounts the good time they once had shooting craps at a Nevada casino on the way back from a business trip, though he ends up on a serious note: After watching McCain play, Schultz asked his fellow gambler how he knew all the dice combinations so thoroughly, to which McCain replied, a lot of time spent in prison with not a lot to do.)

Steve Chanen, for his part, used to play with Cindy McCain, and the games were much more innocent as they were children at the time. A Phoenix native who went to school with her, Chanen use to hang out at the very family home at which he would later attend fancy campaign fundraisers. He was one of 20 supporters McCain gathered to decide whether to enter the presidential race in the first place. Chanen urged McCain to run. “Our country needs you,” he said.

THOUGH MOST Arizona Jews are Democrats, a disproportionate number of big political donors tend to be Republicans, according to a 30-year local Jewish leader who works for a non-partisan organization.

“Some of the deepest pockets in the Jewish community are Israel-motivated and tend to be Republican in Phoenix, which may be different nationally,” he says. “The largest number of dollars are probably going to Republican candidates.”

He figures that’s probably because there are more Jewish Republicans in this GOP-friendly state than elsewhere.

“Compared to New York or Massachusetts, yeah, there are a lot more Jewish Republicans,” acknowledges the Democrat Coppersmith, pointing out that “the Jewish community’s part of the larger community.”

“This environment is generally more conservative and more libertarian – people want to live their own lives, do their own thing,” says RJC member Mara Kaufman of traits that are typical to Western states which Jews have to some extent picked up. “This is much more of a pragmatic environment. This is not a traditional old-guard liberal environment. There are people who have done real things.”

The RJC, in fact, was founded four years ago – three years earlier than the National Jewish Democratic Council – and now boasts 300 members, five times more than the Democratic group.

And Republican Jews have benefited not only from their surroundings, but also their history. One of the most influential Jewish Republican Party officials ever came from Arizona – Harry Rosenzweig, the life-long friend and ideologue-in-arms of Barry Goldwater.

Rosenzweig, who chaired the state Republican Party during the 1960s, aided Goldwater in his rise from the Phoenix city council to the US Senate to the Republican nomination in 1964 (when he lost to Lyndon Johnson). Rosenzweig was also crucial to developing Goldwater’s political postures, which would shape American conservatism for generations.

“There’s no question that Harry’s position influenced many Jews to the Republican Party,” says Plotkin, 88, rabbi emeritus of Beth Israel.

Plotkin says that Goldwater was an inspiration for the Jewish community, since he was the descendant of Polish Orthodox Jews on his father’s side – Goldwasser was the original family name.

“When Barry Goldwater was running for president, the Jewish community was behind him… because they were proud of him running for president, because his father was Jewish, and he often stood up for Israel,” Plotkin recalls. “Though he was raised Episcopalian, he felt a sense of loyalty.”

Despite that, Kruglick points to Goldwater as McCain’s most significant Jewish supporter. A political hero and ideological inspiration for McCain, Goldwater enthusiastically endorsed him to take his Senate seat after the junior politician spent two terms in the House.

“I think Republican Jews have been very helpful for McCain. Goldwater started it, and he was Jewish,” says Kruglick.

Though Goldwater wasn’t actually a Jew, as his mother was Christian, the favored son of Arizona politics was nearly raised Jewish, according to a childhood friend. Jerry Lewkowitz, who was very close to Goldwater’s brother Bob and served with both of them in local politics, recalls his friend once remarking that they would have been raised Jewish had there been a local synagogue. Since there wasn’t, they went to the Episcopal church.

IT WASN’T until 1921 that the first synagogue was built in Phoenix, and back then most of the city looked like the scraggly strip of desert that serves as Lewkowitz’s backyard. The rest of his modern housing development is covered with manicured gardens and well-watered lawns, but Lewkowitz has preserved a piece of the frontier as it once was – rough, sandy, cactus-strewn.

Starting in the mid-1800s, ranchers, prospectors and miners gradually tamed parts of that frontier, and after them soon followed merchants to supply their expeditions and bring in needed goods.

That’s why the Goldwaters came to what was then still a territory rather than a state, eventually setting up a successful department store that both Barry and Bob worked at for a time.

Some 100 Jews had made their way to Phoenix by the time Beth Israel opened its doors in 1921. “For Phoenix, that makes it one of the oldest buildings in town,” according to Larry Bell, who runs the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.

The population grew enough in the ’30s to split over observance – one group felt it was too expensive to support the kosher slaughterer during the Great Depression, while the other felt it was religiously necessary. A scratchy black-and-white photo of the shohet and his family now hangs in Bell’s makeshift office, stuffed with history books and mementos.

But the population really exploded a few years later.

The key moment in Arizona’s history was World War II,” Bell explained. “After the war there was a massive influx of people.”

That included Jews, and the old synagogues became a victim of that success, as the population rapidly expanded to the suburbs. Now the former Orthodox synagogue sits in an abandoned lot waiting to be sold and torn down; the Conservative shul has been turned into a pawnshop. (Bell’s organization managed to purchase the original Beth Israel site and is now carrying out a $4 million restoration project with help from the city and state. The current Reform synagogue is thriving in neighboring Scottsdale, where Steve Chanen had it relocated when he headed the congregation.)

In fact, the city is considered to have one of the top three fastest-growing Jewish populations in America, according to Greater Phoenix Jewish Federation CEO Adam Schwartz. He estimates that more than 100,000 Jews are living in the area, more than double the number from a generation ago. Then again, Phoenix is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, period.

“The state is growing so fast that we’re keeping up with our minority status,” Coppersmith says. At 1.5 million inhabitants, Phoenix is America’s fifth-largest, a phenomenal rate of growth from just 65,000 in 1940.

The rapid postwar growth helped turn the state reliably Republican. After World War II, many of the military men – a Republican demographic – who had trained in Arizona’s bases decided to stay, while urban expansion brought in developers and entrepreneurs, who were also of a Republican bent. At the same time, the area became an attractive retirement destination, and older voters are generally more conservative. And they were all influenced by Goldwater.

But the current wave of rapid growth is turning the state gradually toward the Democrats – part of the shift that has made the southwest a key battleground region for this election – and Jews are emblematic of that trend.

Phoenix’s relatively cheap housing prices, good weather, growing technology sector and low taxes are drawing in throngs of educated new people at the same time that the local Hispanic population has taken off.

Diversity favors the Democrats, including diversity of state origin.

And where Phoenix once drew heavily on Midwesterners, now East Coasters, who tend to be Democrats, are increasingly migrating south and west, particularly Jews.

Bell has seen a dramatic change in the Jewish population, “In the last 10 years you’ve seen a diaspora of New York City,” he says.

And another factor in the Democrats’ favor, according to Coppersmith, is how unrooted the population is.

“We’re very susceptible to national trends,” the Pennsylvania native says – the current trend now being pro-Democrat – because the local culture doesn’t have a firm hold. “Everyone moved here from somewhere else.”

In a way, perpetual motion amidst an immutable landscape is what has created today’s Phoenix, from the pioneers who founded it to the postwar developers who put it on the map. The name Phoenix was originally chosen in reference to the mythical bird that regenerates itself.

That environment has given rise to a politician who is known for being a maverick willing to work across party lines, for surviving in difficult circumstances and for regenerating himself when necessary.


Why I Support Israel and Obama

Alan Dershowitz

October 17, 2008  Huffington Post

I am a strong supporter of Israel (though sometimes critical of specific policies). I am also a strong supporter of Barack Obama (though I favored Hillary Clinton during the primaries). I am now getting dozens of emails asking me how as a supporter of Israel I can vote for Barack Obama. Let me explain.

I think that on the important issues relating to Israel, both Senator McCain and Senator Obama score very high. During the debates each candidate has gone out of his and her way to emphasize strong support for Israel as an American ally and a bastion of democracy in a dangerous neighborhood. They have also expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself against the nuclear threat posed by Iran which has sworn to wipe Israel off the map and the need to prevent another Holocaust.

There may be some difference in nuance among the candidates, especially with regard to negotiations with Iran, but supporters of Israel should not base their voting decision on which party or which candidates support Israel more enthusiastically. In the United States, Israel is not a divisive issue, and voting for President is not a referendum on support for Israel, at least among the major parties.

I want to keep it that way. I want to make sure that support for Israel remains strong both among liberals and conservatives. It is clear that extremists on both sides of the political spectrum hate Israel, because they hate liberal democracies, because they tend to have a special place in their heart for tyrannical regimes, and because they often have strange views with regard to anything Jewish. The extreme left, as represented by Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Norman Finkelstein and, most recently, Jimmy Carter has little good to say about the Jewish state. But nor does the extreme right, as represented by Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Joseph Sobran and David Duke. When it comes to Israel there is little difference between the extreme right and the extreme left. Nor is there much of a difference between the centrist political left and the centrist political right: both generally support Israel. Among Israel’s strongest supporters have always been Ted Kennedy, Harry Reed, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The same is true of the centrist political right, as represented by Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, Oren Hatch and John McCain.

Why then do I favor Obama over McCain? First, because I support him on policies unrelated to Israel, such as the Supreme Court, women’s rights, separation of church and state and the economy. But I also prefer Obama to McCain on the issue of Israel. How can I say that if I have just acknowledged that on the issues they both seem to support Israel to an equal degree? The reason is because I think it is better for Israel to have a liberal supporter in the White House than to have a conservative supporter in the oval office. Obama’s views on Israel will have greater impact on young people, on Europe, on the media and on others who tend to identify with the liberal perspective. Although I believe that centrists liberals in general tend to support Israel, I acknowledge that support from the left seems to be weakening as support from the right strengthens. The election of Barack Obama — a liberal supporter of Israel — will enhance Israel’s position among wavering liberals.

As I travel around university campuses both in the United States and abroad, I see radical academics trying to present Israel as the darling of the right and anathema to the left. As a liberal supporter of Israel, I try to combat that false image. Nothing could help more in this important effort to shore up liberal support for Israel than the election of a liberal president who strongly supports Israel and who is admired by liberals throughout the world. That is among the important reasons why I support Barack Obama for president.

Alan M. Dershowitz is a Professor of Law at Harvard. His most recent book The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand In The Way of Peace which has recently been published by Wiley.