Thursday, March 31, 2011

Imperial Presidency Watch (cont.)

I suggested earlier today that the administration is sticking its thumb in Congress’s eye by prosecuting military action in Libya without even consulting seriously with congressional leaders, much less securing congressional authorization. Make that a thumb and two fingers:
“The White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a classified briefing to House members Wednesday afternoon.

“Clinton was responding to a question from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) about the administration's response to any effort by Congress to exercise its war powers, according to a senior Republican lawmaker who attended the briefing.”

Waiting for Mad Men

The news isn’t good. Negotiations between Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and AMC over the length of each episode and the composition of the cast are apparently at an impasse that’s going to keep the fifth season from airing this year. From what I’ve gathered, we shouldn’t be holding our breath for a breakthrough because AMC may have decided that time isn’t of the essence. It probably figures that Mad Men can now hold its own in the more competitive winter-spring TV schedule so the August-October-Sunday-10pm time slot can be used get newer shows off the ground.

Mad Men connoisseurs who’ve discovered this blog will know that I’m taking this hard. Here’s something to remind us of what we’ll be missing:

Imperial Presidency Watch

All administrations stake out aggressive positions on the scope of executive authority under the Constitution.  That's arguably their institutional responsibility.  Yet it’s another thing entirely for an administration to stick its thumb in Congress’s eye when circumstances permit a more conciliatory approach.

A lot of people still like to think of George Bush as the satanic spawn of the imperial presidency. That didn't keep him, however, from getting congressional authorization his lawyers told him he didn’t need to initiate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and consulting meaningfully with the congressional leadership of both parties when he decided to test the limits of his statutory authority to conduct domestic surveillance or interrogate prisoners of war.  

If you believe this Politico story, when it comes to its present adventure in Libya, this administration is all thumbs:
“President Barack Obama’s foreign policy “A” team — led by Cabinet secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates — failed to quiet criticism of U.S. military action in Libya Wednesday during a pair of classified briefings on Capitol Hill.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Humanitarian Intervention?

The last time I looked, the normal meaning of the term “humanitarian intervention” is a military campaign waged by an outside power or coalition of powers to protect a civilian population from organized violence. The defenseless Bosnian Muslims who were being butchered in the 1990s by agents of Serbia until outsiders intervened were “civilians” in the operative sense.

When people take up arms, not just to defend themselves from state-sanctioned violence, but to overthrow the state victimizing them, however, they cease to "civilians."  And, strictly speaking, the help they get in that enterprise from outside powers ceases to be “humanitarian intervention” within the normal meaning of the term.  That’s not to say that it might not be advisable for outsiders to help in part because of its benign humanitarian consequences.  Sometimes offense is the best defense for a victimized population. But such an intervention stands in need of a different, and much more complicated, justification than humanitarian intervention properly so-called.  Sweeping talk about the “responsibility to protect” won't do the job by itself.

Send in the Clowns?

Is the Republican Party going to select some clown as its 2012 presidential nominee? Joe Klein is getting worried:
“This is my 10th presidential campaign, Lord help me. I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party's banner. They are the most compelling argument I've seen against American exceptionalism. Even Tim Pawlenty, a decent governor, can't let a day go by without some bilious nonsense escaping his lizard brain. And, as Greg Sargent makes clear, Mitt Romney has wandered a long way from courage. There are those who say, cynically, if this is the dim-witted freak show the Republicans want to present in 2012, so be it. I disagree. One of them could get elected. You never know. Mick Huckabee, the front-runner if you can believe it, might have to negotiate a trade agreement, or a defense treaty, with the Indonesian President some day. Newt might have to discuss very delicate matters of national security with the President of Pakistan. And so I plead, as an unflinching American patriot--please Mitch Daniels, please Jeb Bush, please run. I may not agree with you on most things, but I respect you. And you seem to respect yourselves enough not to behave like public clowns.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama on Leadership

A lot of people turned on their TVs to watch Obama's Libya speech last night hoping to be presented with the “Obama Doctrine.” When it comes to foreign policy, we expect our presidents to enunciate concise practical maxims that justify their past actions in terms that enable us to predict their future actions. That’s an understandable expectation because it answers to a civic need. In our capacity as democratic citizens at liberty to change our minds about whether a president is worthy of our support, we have to decide whether we’re likely to approve what he’ll do largely on the basis of his explanations of what he has done.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Giving Obama his Due on Libya

As I've said before, I was of two minds about Obama’s sudden decision to support military invention in Libya for all the usual reasons. The humanitarian rationale for intervening always seemed clear enough, but I feared that he’d dithered so long that the military resources he was suddenly prepared to commit to Libya would be too little, too late to do much good.

And then there’s the administration’s evasiveness about the scope of the commitment we’re undertaking and what price we’re willing to pay to discharge it. That's not reassuring when the likely scenarios about how a protracted intervention in Libya will play out are all unattractive.  If our experience of Obama's governing style is any indication, his strategic thinking probably won’t be much clearer after he speaks tonight.

Who’s Winning the Battle over the Budget?

I’ve written some about how we miss the ideological forest for the electoral trees (see, e.g. here). Electoral politics is waged between political parties that are pretty good at crafting political agendas calculated to win elections by securing the allegiance of the median voter. There are, to be sure, activists in each party who care more about ideological purity than winning the next election. That’s why Democrats sometimes nominate people like Alan Grayson and Republicans sometimes nominate people like Christine O’Donnell to run futile campaigns in competitive districts. Yet most people who take an interest in politics care enough about winning elections to subordinate ideological purity to tactical advantage when it’s a matter of maintaining his side's electoral competitiveness. So when one party loses a national election badly (as the Republicans did in 2006 and 2008 and the Democrats did in 2002, 2004 and 2010), it’s usually pretty good at crafting a new agenda that pries swing voters out of the other party’s uncertain grasp.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Why Do Liberal Hawks Bug Out on Wars?

The re-emergence of liberal hawks congratulating Obama for deciding to intervene military in Libya has me thinking again about some of the themes I addressed in this 6/23/10 post occasioned by Obama's decision to relieve General Stanley McChrystal of his Afghanistan command:

Leslie Gelb thinks that the McChrystal saga is a symptom of the military’s reflexive distrust of Democratic politicians (my emphasis):
“[T]he military feel that Republicans are much more likely to stay the course than Democrats. Most Democrats were war hawks on Vietnam, only to become doves as the war dragged on and costs mounted. . . . Many Democrats supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, only to split off soon thereafter. And as far as the military is concerned, they smell the same sense of retreat coming from the Obama White House over Afghanistan. Obama once proclaimed the need to "defeat" the enemy in that country and now seems to be suggesting withdrawals that the uniforms deem premature.”
That’s a plausible characterization of the attitudes of senior military leadership because it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for soldiers who lived through the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to think. We can all “smell the . . . sense of retreat from the Obama White House over Afghanistan.” A lot of  us liberals who applauded Obama's campaign rhetoric about "finishing the job in Afghanistan" are beginning to like the aroma.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Do Voters Care About Deficits?

Remember when Democrats used to howl with outrage when they heard Dick Cheney say that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”? They were always anxious to remind you that Clinton had taken office burdened by the Reagan-Bush I deficits and left office leaving a surplus, only to see it frittered away by Bush II.

How times have changed. Republicans are now betting their political chips on the proposition that voters care enough about the federal deficit to punish candidates who don’t at least look like they’re determined to get it under control. That’s why they’re trying to make deficit-hawks like Paul Ryan the face of their party and are preparing a budget proposal that addresses unfunded entitlements.

Democrats, from the president on down, are now the people saying that deficits don’t matter. If they thought they did matter, Obama wouldn’t have submitted a budget to Congress that’s so visibly unresponsive to the warnings issued by his own debt commission and congressional Democrats wouldn’t be reprising their old refrain that Republicans are a bunch of heartless scrooges.

Which side is likely to win the argument over the deficit in 2012?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pragmatists for Obama

Yesterday I asked whether the trouble we’re all having deciphering what, if any, principles govern this administration’s conduct of foreign policy speaks well of Obama or poorly of us. The answer to that question, I suggested, largely depends on where the person asking it places the burden of proof. And that, in turn, is largely a matter of faith.

If the person observing Obama’s foreign policy from the outside has sufficient faith in Obama’s intellectual acumen and moral integrity, he’ll presume that there’s a powerful theory that ties together and justifies Obama’s seemingly inconsistent foreign policy positions even if he hasn’t yet figured out what it is. If the observer’s agnostic or cynical about Obama’s acumen and integrity, he’ll presume that Obama’s foreign policy is empty-headed until Obama convinces him otherwise by acting in a visibly principled way.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is There an Obama Doctrine?

Remember when Sarah Palin, having just been named the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, was asked on national TV by Charlie Gibson what she thought about the “Bush doctrine”? In fairness to her, that wasn’t a very well-formed question inasmuch as “the Bush doctrine” means somewhat different things to different people. But Gibson and a large segment of his television audience were in no mood for equivocation. They took Palin’s deer-in-the-headlights expression as prima facie evidence that she’s an airhead.

Forget about what this episode said about Palin and consider what it said about Bush. Attentive citizens seldom doubted that there was a “Bush doctrine” even if they disagreed with each other about its fine points. That’s because Bush was more interested in projecting moral clarity than showcasing his appreciation of nuance. So he was never shy about enunciating the straightforward principles behind his foreign policy (even if he didn’t always apply them consistently in practice). Bush never tired of telling us, for instance, that both our values and our national interests dictated that we promote democratic regime change abroad, even if that occasionally means expending the blood and treasure it takes to execute ambitious military campaigns. A lot of us disagreed, but we had a pretty clear idea of what we were disagreeing with.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Libyan Menu

Steven Metz thinks that, whatever happens in Libya over the short term, the losers are likely to mount a robust insurgency against the winners over the longer term:

“The chances of a drawn-out insurgency in Libya are very high.

“History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory—either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone. Both sides are intensely devoted to their cause; passions are high. Both have thousands of men with military training, all imbued with a traditional warrior ethos which

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Kucinich Primary Challenge?

I haven’t taken Dennis Kucinich seriously since his vanity presidential candidacy in 2004. It was one thing for him to run as an anti-war candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination when it looked like every serious candidate supported the Iraq war. Yet it could only have been narcissism that kept Kucinich in the race after Howard Dean established himself as the frontrunner in the fall of 2003 by opposing the war.  History skipped tragedy altogether and repeated itself as farce when Kucinich ran again in 2008.

I already have a bet down that Kucinich will mount a primary challenge against Obama in 2012. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that it could be anything other than another vanity candidacy until I saw this surprisingly impressive performance:




Who Needs Priorities?

I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, to read that unnamed administration officials are telling Brian Beutler not to expect the administration to come forward with any of its own proposals about financing unfunded Social Security liabilities:
“The White House will not prominently inject itself into congressional negotiations on Social Security reform until after key legislators in both the House and Senate unveil their plans to reduce projected long-term deficits, according to administration officials.”
Mind you, that’s not because Obama and his advisers don’t have a lot of nifty ideas about how to put Social Security on a sound financial footing while minimizing the hardship to senior citizens and taxpayers. It’s just that, in this case, they’re keeping them to themselves for tactical reasons (my emphasis):
“That won't please Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who have attacked Obama for remaining silent in this debate. And these 64 Senate Republicans and Democrats won't be too happy either. But it's part of a broader political and policy strategy the administration is employing to keep Obama's powder dry while Republicans struggle to reduce deficits without increasing revenues in any meaningful way.”

Idealism and Realism about Libya

We’re at war, and this time we liberals can’t blame it on George Bush. That’s undoubtedly good news for the Libyan insurgents holed up in Benghazi. But we liberals are divided on the issue of whether, on balance, it’s good or bad news for the United States.

On the one side you have liberal supporters of humanitarian intervention like the editors of The New Republic congratulating Obama for his (belated) decision to intervene against the Gaddafi regime (my emphasis):
Skeptics of the intervention . . . have argued that one of the mission’s flaws is that its goals are woefully unclear. Are we trying to topple Qaddafi? Are we merely trying to create a safe-haven for rebels in the east? These are fair questions, but it seems to us that the most immediate goals of the mission were quite clear: first, to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, a slaughter that Qaddafi himself had promised was only hours away; and second, to tip the balance of power in the rebellion away from Qaddafi, so that his forces were unable to retake any more of the country, thus extinguishing the resistance for good. On these terms, the intervention has already been a success.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Is Neo-Conservative Military Adventurism Dead and Buried?

This weekend's developments in Libya has me reconsidering what I said in this 4/16/10 post:

Matt Corley reports on this interesting exchange during a Cato Institute panel discussion (emphasis in the original):
“Yesterday, the libertarian Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion on conservatism and the war in Afghanistan with Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN). When the conversation shifted to the war in Iraq, Rohrabacher said that ‘once President Bush decided to go into Iraq, I thought it was a mistake because we hadn’t finished the job in Afghanistan,’ but that once Bush ‘decided to go in,’ he ‘felt compelled’ to ‘back him up.’ He then added that ‘the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake.’

"Moderator Grover Norquist then asked Rohrabacher to provide a “guesstimate percentage of Republicans in Congress who would share that view — not that they opposed the President at the time, but today looking back.” Rohrabacher replied that ‘everybody I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now’:

ROHRABACHER: Well, now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars and all of these years and all of these lives and all of this blood, uh, I don’t know many…

NORQUIST: Looking for a number. Two-thirds? One-third?

ROHRABACHER: I, I can’t. All I can say is the people, everybody I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.

NORQUIST: That’s 100 percent.

"Norquist then turned to McClintock, asking ‘what percentage’:

NORQUIST: Of Republicans in Congress, who would agree with the general analysis here that it was a mistake and/or we should go in.

MCCLINTOCK: I think everyone would agree Iraq was a mistake.

NORQUIST: Two hundred percents. Ok, we’re going to average these.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Keeping Score in the Torture Debate

Watching liberals grind their teeth helplessly over the treatment Bradey Manning is now receiving in military detention puts me in mind of this post (slightly edited) from 2/24/10:

For the last five years, we’ve been arguing about what conservatives call “enhanced interrogation” and liberals call “torture.” By now, each side has well-armored positions about the legality and morality of various interrogation techniques. These aren’t going to change anytime soon. That’s to be expected: doctrinaire ideologues on one side of a political argument virtually never convert doctrinaire ideologues on the other side to their position. Victories/Defeats in ideological arguments are typically marked not by the losers’ concessions of defeat, but by their readiness to change the subject.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Harry Reid’s Tin Ear

Maybe Harry Reid's good at working his will in the Senate behind the scenes, although that's not how it looks from the outside.  But could there be a worse front man for the Democratic Party? This, you’ll recall, is the guy who thought that best way to draw attention to the savagery of Republican budget cuts was to point to the precarious future of a cowboy poetry festival in Nevada.

Here Reid’s fielding a question from an interviewer trying his best to make him and the Democratic Party look good: what does he propose to do about Social Security now that we’re going to have to start adding to the deficit by paying off IOU’s in its trust fund with borrowed dollars? That's a politically sensitive question a couple of months after Democrats had their heads handed to them in an election that turned on the voters' perception of their fiscal irresponsibility and a ABC-Washington Post poll is showing that "81 percent of those polled see Social Security as veering severely off-course, up 10 percentage points from 2005, when former president George W. Bush led a push to privatize the government-run program." 

You have to listen to Reid's answer to believe that he said it:



Is Hillary Jumping Ship (cont.)

Last week Bill Clinton’s vocal advocacy of a Libya no-fly zone had me wondering whether Hillary was ready to jump off the good ship Obama. Evidence that she is continues to mount.  I don't know how much stock to put in this post from the The Daily built around the musings of a anonymous “Clinton insider.”  But it's more smoke evidencing fire:
“At the tail end of her mission to bolster the Libyan opposition, which has suffered days of losses to Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, Clinton announced that she’s done with Obama after 2012 — even if he wins again.

“‘Obviously, she’s not happy with dealing with a president who can’t decide if today is Tuesday or Wednesday, who can’t make his mind up,’ a Clinton insider told The Daily. ‘She’s exhausted, tired.’

Foreign Policy Theatrics

I was perplexed Tuesday about Obama’s reluctance to cast himself in the role of leader of the free world, if only for theatrical purposes. My point was that when people extol the foreign policy leadership of, say, Ronald Reagan, they’re usually thinking less of what he did than what he said, even when it was said to little, if any, practical effect. They’ve forgotten all about Reagan’s humiliating withdrawal of Marines from Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah terror or his readiness to trade arms for hostages in Iran. But they can still hear him saying: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Why, I asked, doesn’t Obama stage a few theatrical productions of his own in this vein when it could help him politically without comprising his substantive foreign policies?

It’s not that the Obama foreign policy team is above theatrics. Consider its latest maneuver before the UN Security Council:
“The prospect of a deadly siege of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, has produced a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now pushing for the United Nations to authorize aerial bombing of Libyan tanks and heavy artillery to try to halt the advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Getting a Bead on Obama

We’re always conjuring up, and acting upon, hypotheses about other people’s character. The process is usually pretty straightforward. When another person is positioned materially to affect our own well-being, we need to predict what he’ll do in order to look out for ourselves. To that end, we try to figure out what makes him tick. Insofar as his behavior confirms our best guesses about his character, we grow more confident that we’ve gotten a bead on him. When he disappoints our expectations, we either refine our hypothesis about his character to make it consistent with the behavior we’ve observed or we start rummaging around for a new hypothesis.

That’s not how highbrow journalist David Brooks operates when he’s talking about Obama. Brooks liked the cut of Obama’s jib (or was it the crease in his pants?) the first time he saw him. Hearing his thoughts on Reinhold Niebuhr convinced Brooks that Obama was a rare political specimen:  a deep thinker with the charisma to translate thought into public action. That made him just the guy to lead us out of what Brooks regards as a lamentable ideological impasse between small-government conservatives and tax-and-spend liberals. The only worrisome thing about Obama, from Brooks’s standpoint, was the whiff of hubris he got from Obama’s unbounded confidence that he’d surmount challenges that had defeated lesser politicians.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Something More to be Perplexed About

For my money, John Podhoretz is one of the more lucid and level-headed members of the fraternity of conservative pundits. Yes, he’s reliably partisan, but he’s not one to fly off the handle. So it’s a little surprising to see a post from him under the portentous title: “Obama’s Presidency Hangs by a Thread.”

What does Podhoretz think is threatening to do the Obama presidency in? Nine percent unemployment? A budgetary crisis? The public’s turning against the war in Afghanistan?  ObamaCare?  No, Podhoretz thinks that Obama will pay a political price not so much for what he has done, as for relentlessly projecting the appearance of disengagement:
“Japan may be on the verge of an unprecedented catastrophe. Saudi Arabia is all but colonizing Bahrain. Qaddafi is close to retaking Libya, with bloodbath to follow. And . . . the president of the United States is going on ESPN to talk about the NCAA and delivering speeches today on his rather dull plan to replace No Child Left Behind with No Teenager Left Behind, or something like that.

“It’s hard to overstate how poorly Barack Obama is doing in the face of these crises — and I don’t even mean how he’s doing substantively, which is a scandal in itself. I mean how he’s doing politically. Recall how much hay Michael Moore made of the fact that George W. Bush read for nine minutes in that Florida classroom on 9/11 after being informed that the first plane had struck.”

“We’re going on four weeks now, or more, that Barack Obama has been reading My Pet Goat.”

Obama’s War

The lede in the story accompanying this (pdf) ABC News-Washington Post poll is that “confidence in the U.S. system of government has dropped to a new low in more than 35 years . . .” That doesn’t sound like good news for Democrats in 2012 inasmuch as they belong to the party of government. But I doubt that the answers to abstract polling questions are very good predictors of election outcomes.

If I were part of Obama’s political team, however, this result would be keeping me up at night:
“[J]ust 31 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, a new low. Sixty-four percent call it not worth fighting, and 49 percent feel that way “strongly,” both record highs in ABC/Post polls. Two-to-one opposition for the first time puts public criticism of the war in Afghanistan at the level seen for the war in Iraq. Such views had a devastating impact on George W. Bush, the least popular second-term president in polls since the Truman presidency. And there’s danger ahead; fighting in Afghanistan, now in its winter lull, is expected to intensify come summer.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Slippery Slope to Unilateralism?

It’s not surprising that neo-conservatives are berating Obama for his passivity respecting Libya. That’s what neo-cons are for. The interesting thing is that prominent liberal voices are starting to join in. Take Anne-Marie Slaughter, now back at Princeton after a stint at Obama’s State Department. She knows the strategic and moral case against neo-con unilateralism as well as anyone, but she too has run out of patience with the administration’s dithering. Her piece in today’s New York Times doesn’t pull any punches (my emphasis):
“The United States should immediately ask the Security Council to authorize a no-flight zone and make clear to Russia and China that if they block the resolution, the blood of the Libyan opposition will be on their hands. We should push them at least to abstain, and bring the issue to a vote as soon as possible. If we get a resolution, we should work with the Arab League to assemble an international coalition to impose the no-flight zone. If the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests. . . . It is time to act.”
Leave aside the wisdom of the particular course of action that Slaughter prescribes and concentrate on her last sentence. She evidently thinks that it’s time for Obama to do something about Libya, even if there’s still room for reasonable disagreement about what in particular he should do. In a situation like this, she suggests, American presidents don’t have the luxury of passivity.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Hitchens on Assimilating Islam

 Here's a post from 9/9/10 that followed up on yesterday's rerun:

I’m grateful to reader sfwoman for pointing me to Christopher Hitchens’s fine essay on the subject I addressed yesterday in connection with the Ground Zero mosque, viz., the assimilation of the authentic practice of Islam into the American regime of religious liberty. As you’d expect, Hitchens has done a better of job of making my point that this presents us with not just the legal problem of upholding Muslim’s constitutional rights, but a vexing political problem (my emphasis):
“Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present.”
So far, so good. But Hitchens makes things a little too easy for himself by pretending conflicts between religion and politics have to be adjudicated purely from a secular standpoint. Granted, he has a lot of American history on his side. Just as Mormons had to give up polygamy and Christian Scientists had to assume a legal obligation to secure medical treatment for their children to take their place in American society, he argues that American Muslims will have to swallow hard and give up their religiously inspired sexism, their contempt for non-Muslims, etc. The only thing threatening to make the assimilation of American Muslims an intractable problem, on Hitchens's view, is the prospect of uncivilized Muslim resistance to the worldly bargain presented by the secular social contract.

That’s an easy thing for a militant secularist to say. Hitchens can speak unambivalently about “taming” and “domestica[ting]” religion because he’s oblivious to the stakes a believer attaches to the performance of religious duties. Yet no believer conscientiously trying to reconcile his religious duties with his civic obligations could apply those terms to his own religion. From his standpoint, the stakes of not measuring up to religious duties are incomparably greater than the benefits and costs of political citizenship. If religious imperatives were politically negotiable they wouldn’t be genuinely religious in the first place.

That didn’t stop Mormons and Christian Scientists from taking their place in American society. Evidently they collectively decided that the religiously inspired practices they had to renounce weren’t essential to their religious practice. But they didn’t decide to subordinate religion to politics; the judgment that religious duty comported with political obligation had to be made by Mormons and Christian Scientists from inside their faith.

The assimilation of the practice of Islam into the American polity will have to make sense not only from the secular perspective of non-Muslims, but from religious perspective of Muslims. That perspective isn’t available to me, so I can’t know whether Muslim assimilation on terms I deem acceptable makes religious sense to Muslims. Neither can Christopher Hitchens.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Rauf’s Defense of the Ground Zero Mosque

All of the histrionics provoked by Rep. Peter King's hearings on domestic Islamic radicalism put me in mind of this post from 9/8/10:

Here’s Feisel Rauf in today’s New York Times, defending the Ground Zero Mosque (my emphasis):
“Above all, the project will amplify the multifaith approach that the Cordoba Initiative has deployed in concrete ways for years. Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.

“Our broader mission — to strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology — lies not in skirting the margins of issues that have polarized relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. It lies in confronting them as a joint multifaith, multinational effort.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Is Hillary Preparing to Jump Ship?

Let’s make four plausible assumptions: (1) Hillary Clinton is an ambitious woman who’d still like to be president; (2) knowing this, Obama wouldn’t have offered her the job of Secretary of State without some impressive assurances that Bill Clinton wouldn’t be out and about promoting Hillary’s ambitions at Obama’s expense; (3) Bill is still an adroit political tactician who knows how to advance Hillary’s presidential ambitions when he wants to; and (4) Bill doesn’t publicly break ranks with Obama without Hillary’s consent.

In light of those assumptions, what do you make of this Daily Beast feature?
“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been cautiously occupying the fence on whether the United States should help establish a no-fly zone over Libya—falling in line with Obama administration policy to build international consensus before deciding what to do.

“But the secretary’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, came out strongly Thursday night for the controversial military measure to help the Libyan rebels in their struggle to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

“’We have the planes to make an appropriate contribution to this,’ the 42nd president told an influential dinner crowd attending Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit at Manhattan’s Millennium Hotel. ‘I wouldn’t do it if they hadn’t asked,’ Clinton said, referring to anti-Gaddafi rebel leaders who have publicly and repeatedly requested the no-fly zone to stop bombardment from Gaddafi’s air force. ‘We should do it.’”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In For a Penny, In for a Pound

A newly elected young chief executive is trying to follow through on his democratic mandate by securing passage of a piece of legislation designed to change the political landscape. While it’s broadly consistent with the main themes of his campaign, the bill has controversial features that he didn’t campaign on. The polls tell him that a substantial majority of the public, including a sizable number of people who voted for him, disapprove of what he’s now proposing to do.

The political opposition, energized by the same polls, exploits every available procedural technicality to stop him, even when it means violating prevailing (but decaying) norms of fair play on the part of the loyal opposition. Yet, exploiting some procedural loopholes of his own, our determined chief executive pushes the bill through anyway on the theory that having put his political pennies on the table, he may as well stay in for a pound. His incensed political opponents vow to devote all their political energy to undoing the damage.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Authenticity Sweepstakes

We’re hearing a lot lately about how, owing to a recent history of spectacular ideological flexibility, Mitt Romney is too “inauthentic” to secure the Republican presidential nomination (see, e.g., Michael Kinsley here). That’s not idle speculation. The perception of authenticity matters to primary voters.

It matters, in part, because primaries bring out more ideologically homogeneous electorates than general elections. And ideologically straight-laced voters reasonably prefer candidates who not only take the right positions on important issues, but visibly take them for ideologically respectable reasons. The average primary voter, being more sophisticated politically than the average general election voter, knows perfectly well that politicians are in the business of making a wide range of voters believe that they’re kindred spirits. That’s why ideologues look so hard for the real ideological specimen beneath the layers of artifice generated by any modern presidential campaign. When a candidate has had as many ideological epiphanies as Romney has had over issues that excite as much ideological passion as abortion and health care, it’s perfectly reasonable for voters to doubt that he’s a genuine ideological comrade worthy of their support.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Candid Camera Conservatism

James O’Keefe is at it again.  He, you'll recall, is the guy who put together those videos that made it look like it was business as usual at ACORN to facilitate childhood prostitution. This time he caught a high-ranking NPR executive saying things that are bound further to endanger the radio network’s public funding. Not only does the NPR executive concede that the network would survive, indeed be better off, without taxpayer subsidies, but he manages to embody just about every negative stereotype about liberals circulating on conservative talk radio. He’s comically elitist, unabashedly partisan and doesn’t seem the least uncomfortable rubbing elbows with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood anxious to counter Jewish domination of the mainstream media. He seems to regard Tea Partiers, on the other hand, as exotic specimens from an alien culture.

I probably don’t need to remind you that O’Keefe doesn’t have a reputation for being scrupulously fair-minded when it comes to staging and editing his videos. So take this one with a grain of salt. Yet the results are still impressive enough already to have provoked a defensive reaction from NPR higher-ups. Take a look for yourself:



Monday, March 7, 2011

How Much Longer Does Obama Have on Afghanistan?

When Obama ordered an Afghanistan troop surge in late 2009, he reassured his base that his commitment to prosecuting the war wasn't open-ended, and that a serious troop withdrawal would commence by July 2011.  We’re now hearing noises from the administration about staying the course until 2014.

Here’s a Rasmussen poll suggesting that the public at large doesn't have that much patience:
“A majority of voters, for the first time, support an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan or the creation of a timetable to bring them all home within a year. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of Likely U.S. Voters now say all troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, while another 21% say a firm timetable should be established to bring all troops home within a year’s time. The combined total of 52% who want the troops home within a year is a nine-point jump from 43% last September. Just 37% felt that way in September 2009.”

Bad Metaphors About Wisconsin (Updated)

When we see union members picketing the Wisconsin legislature, it’s natural to dust off the vocabulary we've developed watching the private sector labor movement. In this conceptual universe, union power emanates outward from the shop floor. Historically, it originated in physical force—think of sit down strikes in the 1930s that enabled the United Auto Workers to organize the auto industry by taking physical possession of the factory floor. The class struggle was soon domesticated under a legal regime that recognized the right of workers to organize and exercise control over the terms and conditions of employment by threatening to shut an industrial enterprise down through a legal strike.

Strikes happen in this world because the parties occasionally have to make their threats to shut the workplace down or, run it with non-union labor, credible. When they do occur, they’re decided by the parties’ relative capacity to endure pain, for the employer in the form of forgone revenue and for the unionized employees in the form of forgone wages. Although strikes can escalate into existential struggles, they usually end when the parties split the difference in some mutually endurable settlement.  That, in any case, is how things used to work in private sector labor relations.  Our vocabulary hasn't caught up with the fact that, sadly, the world it describes is disappearing before our eyes along with middle-class trade unionists.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Rush Limbaugh’s Status Among Conservatives

Regular readers of this blog will know how tiresome I find arguments of the form conservatives/liberals are more irrational than liberals/conservatives.  Arguments to that effect are not only improbable on their face given the truism that politics is a subject as to which reasonable people can and will disagree and that there are highly-credentialed and visibly thoughtful people on both sides of any ideological divide.  They usually betray a comical lack of self-consciousness on the part of the person making the argument inasmuch as it takes about thirty seconds to think of a way to turn his argument around and apply it to him and his comrades.  This slightly edited post from 4/27/10 is a case in point:

I only get to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when I’m in the backseat of New York City taxis— daytime talk radio doesn’t fit into my schedule and, from the little I’ve heard of it, I doubt that I’d listen much to it even if it did. But, from what I can tell, Limbaugh knows exactly what he’s doing. The zeal of the conservative movement's critics to portray him as its de facto leader hasn’t gone to Limbaugh's head. He knows perfectly well that he’s a political entertainer, more in the business of telling jokes and selling product than of changing minds. Seen in this light, the appropriate measure of his success isn’t the political influence he wields, but the advertising revenue he generates.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Identity Politics and Immigration

Remember when the Arizona law empowering state law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration law was on the front pages?  Here's a (very slightly edited) post inspired by that episode from 5/6/10:

It’s getting a little painful these days watching Democrats flailing around for a political strategy. A couple of weeks ago Harry Reid’s decision to put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table looked like a political masterstroke. It may have been a little cynical inasmuch as everyone paying attention knows that the only way this Congress will enact immigration reform this year is when the Democratic majority's headed out the door in the lame duck session after the midterms. But raising the immigration issue still looked politically adroit because identifying the Democratic Party with the aspirations of illegal aliens promised to fire up Latino voters in the party’s base enough to mitigate its midterm losses while it tightened the party’s hold on Latino voters over the long term.

Seen in this context, the passage of the recent Arizona immigration law looked like a political gift from Arizona Republicans to national Democrats. The polling data, however, is undermining that appearance pretty decisively. Latinos may be the fastest growing demographic around, but it’s beginning to look like the Arizona laws’ mobilizing effects on them will be overwhelmed in the next election by its countervailing effects on the rest of the electorate.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Truth in Government Budgeting

It looks like government budgeting is going to be the main bone of contention in the next few election cycles at both the state and federal levels. That’s got to be bad news for Democrats because it means that they’ll be playing defense. The fact that, at the national level, they’ve taken it on the chin politically for fulfilling their campaign promises respecting the stimulus and health care reform shows how politically treacherous it is to try expanding the scope of government when the macro-economic ground is shifting beneath our feet

What’s happening in Wisconsin underscores the point. The public employee unions have decided that they need to give back pension and health care benefits to have any hope of holding onto their statutory collective bargaining rights. The question isn’t whether they’ll surrender ground in their battle with Scott Walker and the Republicans, but how much. That’s just a function of the lay of the budgetary land. Peggy Noonan reminds us that when the public books get far enough out of balance, “[i]t doesn't matter if you're a liberal or a conservative, it's all about the numbers, and numbers are sobering things.”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

More on Elections, Mandates and Polls

I’ve commented before on the fact that the last election and recent polling results invite incompatible inferences about how voters will react to the current standoff between Wisconsin Republicans and Democrats over public employee collective bargaining rights. You could say substantially the same thing about the current fight between Republicans and Democrats about how to deal with the federal deficit. In each case, you have to ask whether your best interpretation of the mandate won in the last election or a snapshot of public opinion projected by the latest poll is more probative of how people will vote in the next election.

Republicans made sweeping gains in the House and Senate last November by promising, among other things, to get a handle on the budget deficit without raising taxes. If they’re at all serious, that has to mean making substantial cuts in unfunded Social Security and Medicare entitlements. It looks like House Republicans are determined to submit a budget this April that proposes to do just that, presumably in the expectation that they’ll be punished politically for not fulfilling their campaign promises if they don’t.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Democrats and Public Employee Unions

I regard Mickey Kaus (now blogging here) as something of a kindred spirit because he’s always asking himself a question that gnaws at me: what does it mean to be a true friend of equality in today’s political economy? Any liberal who takes that question seriously has to reckon with the unsettling possibility that some of his most insistent ideological reflexes are becoming anachronistic. You’ve got to hand it to Kaus, then, for not pulling his punches when he decides that some liberal orthodoxy has outlived its egalitarian rationale.

I came of age politically thinking that there’s something shameful about crossing a union picket line. So when I saw public employees demonstrating outside the Wisconsin Legislature, my sympathies gravitated to their side of the barricades.  Because I think that he’s a genuine friend of equality, I’m particularly interested that Kaus is warning people like me not to let an anachronistic reflex get the better of us.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Public Employee Collective Bargaining Rights and Other Entitlements

Take a look at what the Republican National Governors Association (the “RGA”) is saying in support of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his battle with public employee unions:



Notice what’s left out? There’s not a word about Walker’s trying to roll back public employee collective bargaining rights. The political consultants advising the RGA have clearly decided that they can make some political hay by reminding voters that Wisconsin Democrats aren’t showing up for Senate votes and that public employees haven’t shared much in the pain generated by the economic downturn. Yet the RGAs silence about collective bargaining rights shows that it has taken to heart polling results indicating that there's little public support for rolling back public employee collective bargaining rights.