Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 August 2007

What to do About Obama’s Brains

One of the most depressing things about our presidential campaign so far is how few voters know how smart Senator Obama is. I’ve described him as smarter than any two of his presidential rivals put together. That’s probably an understatement.

Everyone knows there is something special about Obama, but hardly anyone can figure out what it is. A whole lot of people—including mainstream media commentators who ought to know better—think it has something to do with his race.

That preposterous idea plays right into four centuries of vicious American racism. If Obama’s racial background alone made him what he is, then Colin Powell would be concluding a successful presidency, Jesse Jackson or his son Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. would be a serious presidential candidate, and Harold E. Ford, Jr., would be Senator from Tennessee.

By itself, African ancestry is still a disadvantage (albeit a waning one) in national electoral politics. Regrettably, it may remain so for another generation or two. Press coverage on the issue tells us so: people don’t chatter incessantly about unalloyed advantages; they just acknowledge them and move on. Obama has been successful so far because his extraordinary personal qualities, including his brains, overcame that disadvantage. His steel hardened in the cauldron of American racism; he survived and got smarter and stronger.

What is depressing is how few people even know of Obama’s unique credentials. As a student he was President of the Harvard Law Review. This student-edited journal is legendary for its quality and its prestige. It selects it leaders by secret ballot purely on brains, writing ability, and leadership. At the University of Chicago School of Law, Obama taught constitutional law—a field in which that school is one of the top three in the nation. Only two presidents since Woodrow Wilson have had anything like those intellectual credentials: Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar.

Yesterday former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the smartest people on the planet, endorsed Obama as having a "better grasp" of foreign relations than his rival Hillary Clinton. No surprise there.

As for Obama’s family background, the most important thing about it is that both his parents got Ph.D.s.

I’m not hinting at hereditary intelligence. I’m talking nurture, not nature. A Ph.D. is not some glorified college degree. It requires years of work on a particular problem—original research in a recognized field of study. After doing all that work, the degree candidate has to stand before a committee of smart, egotistical professors and convince them he or she has solved a real problem that no one else ever solved before. That’s why the Ph.D. degree is a minimum qualification for serious scientific research.

Both of Obama’s parents went through this grueling intellectual boot camp. What does that mean? It means that, in Obama’s family, shooting from the hip was discouraged and intellectual diligence was the norm. Real knowledge and deep thinking prevailed over the easy answer. They were Obama family values. Isn’t that precisely the kind of background we now need so desperately in a leader?

Look at the rest of the presidential field. Hillary Clinton didn’t even read the crucial intelligence report before casting her vote to go to war in Iraq. Lately she has been touting “no-fly” zones to “solve” the genocide in Darfur, although the humanitarian community says that “no fly” zones would cut off vital humanitarian aid to the starving refugees and cause catastrophe. Rudy Giuliani, still the Republican front-runner, told us that New York’s fire fighters died at Ground Zero because they were too “heroic” to obey the command to evacuate the doomed towers. Now the firefighters’ union tells us what really happened: the firefighters’ radios didn’t work, so they never even heard the order to evacuate. And who was responsible for the inoperative radios? New York City and its mayor, Giuliani, who had known about the bad radios for eight years. As for Mitt Romney, he is a caricature of the pandering politician. His answer to every question is “what answer would you like today?”

At best these wannabes are lazy politicians; they think only of what they can sell or (in Guiliani’s case) concoct an horrendously cynical lie to excuse failure. They have such contempt for us, the people, they don’t even think we’ll remember their lies or discover how little homework they’ve actually done. Obama is the only serious politician in the lot.

What the others offer is Bush light. Before anyone asked a question, Bush and his neocons knew that the answer was invading Iraq. They’ve been giving the same answer to whatever question comes up ever since. Want to protect us from WMD? Invade Iraq. Want to get rid of a vicious dictator? Invade Iraq. Want to make the Middle East a utopian democracy? Invade Iraq. Want to avoid Al Qaeda taking over the Middle East? Stay the course and make our invasion a success. Don’t want to see terrorists climbing over your window sills into your bedroom? Stay the course. Want to counter Iran’s growing power and influence? Stay mired in Iraq’s civil war. Whatever the question, Iraq is the answer, as it has been from the very first weeks of the Bush Administration, and long before 9/11.

And therein lies Obama’s real advantage. He’s different. He thinks.

Even during the presidential debates, you can see his mind working thoughtfully. A lot of viewers don’t like that about him. They want raw meat and applause lines. Instead, Obama gives them thoughtful answers with some nuance. He makes them think, something they have not done for so long it hurts.

Perhaps we’ve become so fond of Bush’s and Rove’s demagoguery that raw meat is what we want. If so, that’s what we’ll get. Our democracy will flush down the toilet of history in a cascade of thoughtless blunders like those of the last seven years.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog pleading for voters to consider the Bush Administration’s low wattage in the brains department. Now we’re experiencing all the suffering that comes from having leaders who can’t or won’t think. The title of that post says it all: “Intelligence Does Matter.” It still does, now more than ever.

Obama’s candidacy offers an alternative. All of his writings reflect his intelligence and thoughtfulness. This blog contains detailed analyses of his health care plan and his anti-terrorism plan, showing how brilliant they are on many levels, and I won’t repeat them here. But one point is worth emphasizing: Obama’s health-care plan reveals genuine and deep understanding of economics. His understanding is so extraordinary that he should wear a brightly colored sash, everywhere he goes, announcing “I get economics!” Few Democrats do, and Hillary Clinton is no exception.

The problem is that few voters today want to hear about economics or anything else that requires real knowledge and skill. They would rather hear the latest sound bite confirming their own hunches and prejudices, so they can move on to more interesting things like Paris Hilton. And therein lies another problem for Obama and his campaign. He can’t show off his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability in sound bites.

But he can in writing. To read him is to love him. Obama has a great writer’s skill with words. I’m not talking rhetoric here; I’m talking substance. Like every great writer from Pushkin to Lincoln, Obama uses just the right word to hit the nail on the head. So his writing seems simple. But his thoughts are anything but simple. He has a brilliant mind that illuminates the complex and makes it seem simple.

Anyone who cares about our country and wants to be an informed voter should read his book The Audacity of Hope. At very least they should read his speech on his health-care plan or his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Few people know, for example, that Obama wrote that last speech all by himself. As his book explains, he worked sans speechwriters, consultants, and spinmeisters. Yet he put his finger on America’s pulse and took it so brilliantly that seasoned politicians still speak with awe about that speech three years later. Implicitly they give Obama the greatest compliment any rival can ever give, asking “Why didn’t I think of that myself?”

So why don’t we all know about Obama’s brains? Is he hiding his light under a bushel?

I wish I knew the answer. Maybe Obama’s campaign is just getting started using its huge war chest (now over thirty million dollars, after expenses) to show us how smart he is. I hope so.

But a more depressing answer is also possible. America has always had a nasty anti-intellectual and anti-elitist side. Never has that side been more ascendant than in the Bush Administration. Maybe the Obama campaign is still afraid of the know-nothing attitude that Bush, Cheney and Rove so effectively instilled in our national psyche.

I hope not. I would be the first to admit that Obama’s senior, professional advisors—let alone Obama himself—are far smarter than I on what “sells” to the American people. If they think emphasizing Obama’s credentials, brains, and thoughtfulness would sound elitist or put voters off, I defer to their experienced political judgment.

But maybe, just maybe, the voters are tired of know nothings who claim they have all the answers without the need for thought. After seven years of abysmal failure, maybe they understand that a not-very-bright “regular Joe” like Bush is not the best person to lead a modern, technological nation of 300 million people. Maybe they are ready to consider once again electing a leader who is smarter than they—a lot smarter.

If voters want a smart person qualified by credentials and training to solve real problems, Obama is the best we’ve got. Somehow, his campaign has to get that message out. Maybe, in this YouTube age, the campaign needs to find some way to translate his thoughtfulness into the medium of video. That’s hard to do but not impossible.

However hard it may be, the effort is vital. Obama has two clear advantages over his rivals: (1) his tolerant, non-ideological style and (2) his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability. If he can’t successfully inform voters about both of those advantages and why they matter, I fear for the future of our country.

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14 August 2007

Karl Rove, Republican Destroyer

When our Constitutional Convention adjourned, a woman asked Ben Franklin what kind of government it had decreed. “A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

No public figure in my lifetime has worked more cleverly and effectively to destroy our Republic than Karl Rove. If some day our nation resembles Vladimir Putin’s Russia more than Gordon Brown’s England, historians will—if they can still speak freely—say it all began with Rove.

Some say it is too early to see Rove’s legacy. But the poison he injected into our body politic has already had three effects as evident as a paralyzed limb. The tragic irony is that all have clear precedents in Russia, not America.

Rove’s first achievement was to establish here a precedent familiar from the Russian Revolution of October 1917. He lived by the principle that ends justify means. He pandered to the worst instincts of our society: religious intolerance, religious discord, homophobia, and contempt for the disabled, poor and oppressed.

Not only did he pander to our worst instincts. Rove raised pandering to a high science. He exploited the latest techniques of advertising and public relations. He invented a novel science of computerized demographics, plotting prejudice on a precinct-by-precinct basis. With the aid of these modern scientific techniques, Rove raised our worst instincts to political supremacy for nearly seven years, sidelining vital and longstanding problems that still remain unsolved.

Rove’s second accomplishment was to install political commissars in all government departments. Remember those fine-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings who have been trekking before Congress for the last several months, all refusing to testify? They are Rove’s legions.

These innocent-looking, physically attractive youth are something new in American history. Compared to the career officials whom they supervise, they have laughable credentials. No one would think of hiring them at that level for their education, experience or expertise. But they have two things of inestimable value to a political apparatchik. They have the certitude of youth and ignorance. More important, they have the loyalty of people who know their careers hang on loyalty alone.

One of the commissars said as much. In a revealing slip of the tongue, she said she had taken an oath to the president. The federal oath of office, of course, says nothing of the kind. It recites loyalty to the Constitution, not the to president or any person. By her slip this young commissar revealed the real purpose of giving her a position for which she was unqualified: personal loyalty beyond the law. Stalin would have understood and approved.

It will take years for Congress and historians to probe the full extent of Rove’s political interference with customary democratic and legal processes. But effects of that interference are already apparent. The first is the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of political motivation for the firing, and not a whiff of any other motivation that makes sense.

The second effect appears in the testimony of Richard Carmona, former Surgeon General of the United States. He was, he testified, ordered to mention President Bush three times on each page of his speeches about medical science.

On hearing these effects of Rove’s influence, those of us who lived through the Cold War felt a shock of recognition. Wasn’t this precisely what Lenin and Stalin accomplished in their Soviet apparat? Political commissars—whose chief qualifications were youth, political orthodoxy, and loyalty—oversaw every stratum of Soviet society, from collective farms to the prison laboratory where the famous aircraft designer Tupolev and his fellows worked, under guard, during World War II. Now Richard Carmona and our own scientists are forced, just as the Soviets once were, to sing the praises of their political masters. Lenin’s ghost is no doubt beaming from his tomb.

Rove’s final product is his ugly son slouching through the halls of Congress: the ogre of irreconcilable division. Under Rove’s tutelage, our representatives have forgotten all about the Republic that Franklin gave them. They care little for the democratic process, compromise, mutual respect, tolerance for opposing views, or the common welfare. What they seek most is revenge for each other’s political manipulation and power plays. Getting even is their goal. So obsessed with revenge are they—even the Democrats—that they fail to see that working to destroy the Republic might be honest ground for impeachment.

That, too, is something Stalin would approve. Shortly before his death, a reporter asked Stalin what he thought was the greatest human feeling. It is not love, Stalin replied, but revenge. The long lists of supposed enemies murdered in Stalin’s purges showed how much he enjoyed that feeling.

For decades, historians and psychologists have asked what made Stalin such a monster. As a Georgian, not a Russian, he may have harbored a lifelong resentment for Russians and their domination. No one knows for sure, for eventually Stalin became powerful enough to write his own history.

Fortunately, neither Rove nor Bush is that powerful. So the fire that drives Rove’s destructive impulses is easier to see.

Rove never graduated from college. A man of high cunning, he never had the discipline or humility to learn what others had to teach. No doubt he harbors the college dropout’s smoldering resentment for intellectuals and academic learning, including abstract principles like professionalism and checks and balances. No such wimpy principles for Rove and his beloved Bush!

Playing the demagogue by the numbers, Rove succeeded in exploiting the people’s worst instincts to cast our nation’s most basic principles aside. He managed to control American democracy for nearly seven years. Even if it proves only temporary, his subversion of our Republic may be the most costly revenge of the college dropout in American history.

It is therefore much too early to celebrate Rove’s retirement. He may no longer sit in the White House after August 31, but his spirit will inhabit the halls of power for years to come.

Rove’s spirit lives in his “political operatives” still active throughout the executive branch and dispersed among various presidential campaigns. It lives in the scientific demagoguery that he made a successful political technique, pandering to voters’ primitive instincts on a precinct-by-precinct basis. It lives in the body of Tim Griffin, a Rove protégé installed in the office of U.S. Attorney for Arkansas after his better qualified predecessor was fired by political commissars. It lives in a dysfunctional Congress whose members strive to score points for political revenge. It lives in Mitt Romney, a man so arrogant as to dismiss both the heroism of our troops and two of the most self-evident failings of our national policy with frat-boy one-liners.

For Romney and Rove alike, “we, the people,” are not human beings to be reasoned with and persuaded. We are demographic ciphers to be cleverly manipulated like puppets.

As for divisiveness, historians some day may liken Rove’s influence to the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara, which triggered the Iraqi Civil War. Like that bombing, Rove’s subversion elevated power and revenge above the common welfare. Like that bombing, Rove set in motion a tangled chain of reprisals and resentment that will take decades to unwind. The fact that our reprisals are (so far) only verbal and political, while Iraq’s involve actual explosives, should give us little comfort. For political revenge and reprisals here in America, however nonviolent they may seem, ultimately have far greater consequence for us and for the world than anything that happens in Iraq.

So we can heave no sigh of relief at Rove’s retirement. The damage he has done will linger for a long, long time to come. Well-meaning Americans who take Franklin’s admonition seriously have a lot of work to do. They will take decades to restore to full flower the Republic that this heedless college dropout worked so assiduously and cleverly to destroy.

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10 August 2007

Five Questions for Vetting Candidates

1. Does the candidate know anything?
2. Is the candidate an admirable person or a jerk?
3. Does the candidate take issues and opponents seriously?
4. Can the candidate think?
5. Whom will the candidate pick for the team?


I stopped watching the so-called presidential “debates” recently. Why? Because they’re more about entertainment than serious policy.

Anyone who expects thirty-second answers to difficult policy questions is a fool. That’s the sort of bumper-sticker management that brought us the war in Iraq, our incurable dependence on Mideast oil, inadequate health care in the world’s richest country, and huge trade and fiscal deficits with no end in sight. If you like entertainment, there are far better shows on TV than the presidential debates, with more accomplished writing and far better acting talent.

The so-called presidential “debates” are virtually useless for vetting candidates. So what can we do? We can get our media to ask themselves five questions about the candidates. If they ask these questions relentlessly, we just might avoid repeating the mistakes of the last seven years.

1. Does the candidate know anything?

Its astounding how little knowledge most candidates reveal in their debates and interviews. They talk about their hopes for the future. Sometimes they make vague promises. They tell about the hardships they overcame in their rise toward the top. If they haven’t really overcome any hardships, they make them up. They tell us little inspiring stories about other people that they’ve heard. They praise others’ heroism, hoping some will rub off on them. They take general positions on “issues.” But they refuse to tell us what they’d do in probable future scenarios, saying “I don’t do hypotheticals.”

During my single days, I once dated a woman who had a very simple standard for continuing a relationship. “I expect a man to tell me at least something I don’t already know,” she reported. “If he doesn’t do that on the first date, he’ll never see a second.”

That’s not a bad criterion for picking a candidate for president. Does the candidate ever say anything that you didn’t know beforehand?

I’m not talking about amusing bon mots, ideological positions, or droll little stories. I’m talking about facts or insights related to facts. I’m talking about actual knowledge of history, foreign affairs, geography, science, law, current events, or how the world actually works.

Has George W. Bush ever given you any fact or insight that you didn’t know beforehand? I’ve heard him say things that I didn’t and still don’t believe. I've heard him swear to things that turned out to be spectacularly false. And I’ve heard him repeat himself endlessly. But I’ve never heard him say anything that made me think “Gee, I didn’t know that!” The vast majority of politicians in our country are much the same.

We all expect our airline pilots, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer installers, and bosses to know things we don’t. Why not our president?

2. Is the candidate an admirable person or a jerk?

Some candidates have a life story that inspires admiration, if not awe. John McCain spent half a decade in a North Vietnamese prison camp, refusing an offer to be let go before his comrades. Hillary Clinton suffered the most widely publicized marital difficulties in human history, overcame them, saved her family, and went on to become the first serious female candidate for president.

Other candidates have little that is admirable in their own lives, so they belittle what seems admirable in others. Take George W. Bush, for example. A rich man’s idle son, he never succeeded in anything until he began working on his father’s campaigns. He used his family’s political connections to ride out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard, and his service there was questionable.

Yet when Bush ran against a real war hero, John Kerry, he tried to tarnish Kerry’s war record. Perhaps Kerry’s campaign exaggerated his heroism. But no one denies that Kerry fought and was wounded in Vietnam. So a man who had ducked the fight impugned the courage and patriotism of one who fought and was wounded.

The same point goes double for Dick Cheney. His five draft deferments let him avoid combat in Vietnam. Yet he and his minions disparaged the courage and patriotism of former Senator Max Cleland (D. Ga.), who had lost both legs and his right forearm in Vietnam, just because they disagreed with Cleland on policy.

There’s only one word for that sort of person: a jerk.

And how else would you describe Mitt Romney? Asked why his five strapping, good looking sons never served in uniform, he said they are doing their part for their country by helping his campaign. He trivialized the sacrifice of all those who suffered, fought, and died for our country, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Some things deserve universal respect, regardless of party, position, and ideology. Bravery in combat for country is one of those things. If a candidate refuses to give proper respect when due, how can we trust his judgment or his humanity?

3. Does the candidate take issues and opponents seriously?

Presidential elections are not popularity contests. We’re not picking a leader for our college fraternity or sorority.

Yet too often frat-boy “chops” work in a candidate’s favor. They do so because the media give them far too much attention. A candidate’s preference for verbal chops over serious discussion is one of the very few useful things you can learn from presidential debates.

George W. Bush has been our frat boy in chief. He showed great skill using “chops” in what should have been serious debates about policy. He “Swift Boated” John Kerry. Then he “Flip-Flopped” him. Later, he countered Democratic resistance to his gross mismanagement of the war in Iraq by calling Democrats “Defeatocrats.” If you listened to 2004 Republican rallies chanting “flip-flop, flip flop,” you might have been excused for recalling grammar-school children chanting “Nya, nya-nya nya nya.”

Maybe after seven years of unremitting policy disasters, our media and the public are wising up. Maybe they understand that that sort of childish hazing is not the best way to select or assess the leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush is not our only practitioner of name calling and the verbal chop. In an attempt to claim the higher ground in experience, Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama naïve for saying we ought to go after bin Laden in Pakistan if Musharraf won’t.

As it turns out, following actionable intelligence for that purpose has been official Administration policy since shortly after September 11. So Clinton struck out on two counts: she apparently didn’t know about the national policy, and she obscured a vital issue—what to do about the terrorists, still at large, who killed so many of our fellow citizens on 9/11. She just didn’t take the issue or her opponent seriously. She did imply that Obama and others should keep quiet about the issue, thereby supporting the same sort of secretive, “trust me” government that has served us so well for the last seven years.

But Hillary Clinton has nothing on Mitt Romney when it comes to seeking Bush’s crown as frat boy in chief. Recently Romney accused Barack Obama of acting like Jane Fonda one day and Doctor Strangelove the next. He was referring to the liberal actress who made unlawful visits to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the fictitious character, in the movie of the same name, who sought nuclear Armageddon.

Romney’s remark might have been amusing at a fraternity party. But he was responding to Obama’s promise to talk to our enemies and to pursue bin Laden in Pakistan if necessary. The fact that this exchange occurred across two debates (Republican and Democratic) and not within one, highlights the low value of each debate separately.

Maybe Romney didn’t remember that failing to talk to our enemies nearly caused nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Maybe he forgot that talking to the Soviets produced nuclear disarmament and eventually led to the Soviet Union’s fall without a shot fired. Maybe he thought we should do nothing about the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks, simply because he hides in a country that is our ostensible ally and has nuclear weapons.

But Romney said none of these things. He simply made light of two of our most serious failures of policy—our defective diplomacy and our embarrassing failure to get bin Laden. Making light of serious issues is another sign of a jerk, not a serious candidate for president.

No one called Romney on it because Obama wasn’t present at the same debate. Nor did Romney (or anyone else in the Republican debate) offer a serious and credible prescription to cure these two key failings of national policy. All they offered was frat-boy one-liners.

We’ve had a frat boy and jerk like Romney in power for seven years, and his rule hasn’t turned out too well. We certainly don’t need another. We do need a candidate-vetting process that shows, in real time, how inappropriate that sort of flippancy is in a person who aspires to national leadership.

4. Can the candidate think?

It’s hard to judge whether a candidate can think from thirty-second sound bites. Our debates, media interviews and campaign ads showcase positions, not reasoning. The public seems to want raw meat that confirms its prejudices and policy preconceptions; it has little patience for underlying rationale. But if we give the candidates more than thirty seconds to air their views, we just might learn something about how their minds work.

If might have been helpful, for example, to have had a real debate about how many troops to send to Iraq. After Rumsfeld and Cheney made their rosy predictions of Iraqis greeting our troops with flowers, someone might have asked a probing question or two. Do we have enough troops to secure all those mounds of ordnance retreating Iraqis will leave scattered over the countryside? Do we have enough force to stop the Shiites from killing their erstwhile oppressors? to stop looting? to protect critical infrastructure? If we had had that debate even shortly after the invasion, we might have learned, in time for the 2004 election, that George W. Bush doesn't think; he just trusts his “gut” and his cronies.

It would also be nice to hear the reasoning, if any, behind Romney’s ridicule of Obama. Doesn’t Romney care about catching bin Laden? Has he heard about Musharraf’s assault on Islamic extremists at the Red Mosque? Does he suspect, like most informed observers, that Musharraf might just as soon be rid of bin Laden and the Taliban by any practicable means? Does he really think Musharraf would nuke us while we try to rid him of troublemakers that threaten his own power and his government’s stability? It would be interesting to hear Romney justify comparing Obama to Doctor Strangelove.

Of course, a president doesn’t always have to think alone. He or she has experts whose brains and wisdom to tap. But in the end, as Harry Truman confessed, the buck stops at the president’s desk.

We all know now how our current president’s dim intellect and lack of curiosity allowed Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s cocksureness to lead us to ruin. Before we go down that same road again, it would be nice to know whether our candidates can think.

5. Whom will the candidate pick for the team?

The past seven years have taught us the importance of the executive team. Three names—Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove—go a long, long way toward explaining the disaster of the last seven years. To verify this point, just imagine that Bush had listened to Colin Powell, rather than Cheney and Rumsfeld, on Iraq.

These three horsemen of the Apocalypse have done us a disguised favor. They have shown us in the most persuasive way imaginable how important it is to know in advance whom candidates will pick for their executive teams.

It may be too much to expect candidates to name names in advance. But we can ask—and insist that candidates tell us—what kind of people they will pick for what jobs. We can also ask for examples of short lists, to illustrate the types of team members they will seek.

The public and the media should be relentless in pursuing this information. Lincoln was a great president in large part because he was strong and wise enough to pick his principal political rivals—all extremely able men—for his cabinet. George W. Bush has been a failure largely because he exercised poor judgment in picking his main advisers: Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rove. Then he compounded the error by choosing obscure sycophants like Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers for other key positions.

Will a candidate pick team members from among his or her friends and cronies, or will the cabinet include household names with vast experience and their own public constituencies? Will a candidate pick a team with a diversity of views and experience, or only those who share a common background and ideology? Will a candidate “cross the aisle” for members of the opposing party, both to broaden support and to insure a diversity of views? These are some of the questions that every candidate should be forced to answer.


No business corporation would ever let a candidate for middle manager, let alone for CEO, get away with “interviews” or “debates” as superficial and puerile as those of our presidential candidates. If our national leadership has disappointed us, one reason may be that our media have consistently asked the wrong questions and settled for style rather than substance. Maybe if we can get our media to ask these five questions—and keep asking them until we get real answers—we’ll do better next time. Until then, we’ll all have to get used to the kind of third-world government that comes from mistaking policy for entertainment.

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03 August 2007

Taking Our Worst Enemy Seriously

History is littered with the bodies of leaders who fought the wrong enemy in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s what George W. Bush and his neocons have been doing for the last four years. Only our status as the world’s sole remaining superpower and our uncontested technological supremacy have saved us from the worst consequences of their blunders. But time is running out.

There is so much fog about the “war on terror” and the war in Iraq that simple facts get lost in a blizzard of speculation and spin. But the basic facts stare us in the eye every day. Sometimes, it helps to restate the obvious and put it in perspective.

On September 11, 2001, a shadowy movement calling itself “Al Qaeda” pulled off a stunning coup. In just two hours, it obliterated a major commercial center in the chief commercial city of the world’s only remaining superpower, killing nearly 3,000 people. At the same time, it badly damaged the Pentagon, the citadel of that superpower’s armed forces and seat of the most powerful military machine the world had ever known.

To assess the magnitude of that feat, think of World War II. In four years of the greatest armed conflict in history, neither the Nazis’ nor Imperial Japan’s war machine could accomplish such a feat, although both would have loved to do so. Japan managed a similar coup at Pearl Harbor, but Honolulu is a long way from New York City and the Pentagon. Stalin and perhaps Mao also might have liked to deliver such a blow, if they could have done so secretly. So how did a small group of Islamic radicals manage to accomplish what the Nazi war machine, the Japanese armada, Soviet technology, and the Chinese Red Army could not do?

The answer is simple but profound: surprise. Al Qaeda invented a new kind of warfare that the world had never seen, for which we were unprepared.

The warfare that Al Qaeda invented was new in two ways. First, it made innocent civilians a primary and intended target, rather than mere “collateral damage” in raids against military facilities or war-production plants. It thus carried the atrocities of World War II to their logical extremes.

Second, Al Qaeda turned spycraft into warfare. It converted infiltration into a primary means of combat, rather than a method for gathering intelligence. Specially trained agents, inserted secretly into foreign territory and nurtured in “sleeper” cells—perhaps for years—would not just spy on the enemy but would murder its innocent civilians on a massive scale. The world had never seen this kind of warfare before.

In order to invent this new kind of warfare, Al Qaeda also had to invent a new religion. Islam has strong prohibitions against murdering innocent noncombatants, especially women and children. So Al Qaeda had to invent a new form of Islam. It rationalized killing “infidel” women and children as required by the asymmetry in technology and armed force between Islamic and “infidel” nations.

But justifying the murder of fellow Muslims—especially their women and children—was harder. The Koran’s prohibitions on that sort of murder are especially clear. So Al Qaeda invented a new doctrine called takfir. Under this doctrine, a Muslim who does not share an extremist’s murderous goals and methods is not a true Muslim and is therefore an “infidel.” As such, he can be murdered for the cause just like any Christian, Jew or atheist. Among many other things, that doctrine justified killing Muslims in the Twin Towers.

It is odd indeed that some Westerners persist in calling Al Qaeda “fundamentalists.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Fundamentalist Muslims, who believe in the literal truth of the Koran, do not justify wanton killing of innocent civilians. Far less do they justify killing women and children, and far, far less fellow Muslims. In this regard Al Qaeda’s takfiris are on their own. Some Muslims could not stomach their gross departure from Islamic morality and left the movement for that reason, often risking death as “traitors.”

Al Qaeda is thus new in human history. It invented a new kind of warfare and a new warriors’ religion to justify it. But that is not all. Al Qaeda also did something else unique. It openly declared war on the world’s sole remaining superpower. In February 1998, bin Laden and his comrades issued a declaration, purporting to be a fatwa. It said that “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it[.]”

At first glance, this bold declaration of war seems reckless. Didn’t an open declaration undermine the very methods of Al Qaeda’s new form of warfare, which requires stealth and secrecy?

But the contradiction was only superficial. Like any war, Al Qaeda’s war against the United States needs foot soldiers. Its foot soldiers are its “martyrs,” young people (mostly men) willing to give up their lives to kill innocent “enemy” civilians. By declaring war against the United States openly, and by framing his war as Islam against America, bin Laden hoped to attract foot soldiers from all over the Islamic world.

So far, he has been very successful. The world has 1.3 billion Muslims. All bin Laden has to do is attract one-hundredth of one percent of them—one out of every ten thousand Muslims—and he will have an army about the size of our army in Iraq. Surely there are that many angry, disaffected, poverty stricken young men within the Islamic world.

If all of them can hide in cities in the West, waiting to slaughter us as we go about our normal lives, our civilization will change beyond recognition for at least a century. Either we will stay vulnerable to random mayhem in our cities, or we will throw away our civil liberties and our freedom in a vain effort to stay safe. As the last six years have shown, both results are equally likely.

The recent attempted bombings in Glasgow and London give us an idea how bad it could get. The perpetrators were doctors, for God’s sake—people supposed to protect and help us when we are weakest and most vulnerable. Imagine having to worry whether your personal physician secretly wants to kill you and, in so doing, kill thousands of your fellow citizens as well. Then extend that worry to your airplane pilot and the unseen person who prepares and packages your food, tests and purifies your tap water, or operates your local dam’s spillway, power plant, or hazardous chemical factory.

An enemy’s menace is a combination of its intentions and its capabilities. Al Qaeda is the only enemy that has declared war on the United States. It alone has stated in writing its intention to kill Americans, civilian and military, wherever they can be found.

As for capability, Al Qaeda shares with Pancho Villa the dubious distinction of being the only foreign non-state actor ever to have attacked the United States on its home territory successfully. If you include nations, Al Qaeda joins a very small group indeed: Britain during our formative period and Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor and in Alaska. The fact that Al Qaeda has (as yet) no nuclear weapons or no uniform-wearing army is irrelevant. Since the end of the Vietnam War, Al Qaeda has already done us more direct harm than the Soviet Union, “Red” China, modern Iran, North Korea, and Castro’s Cuba combined.

Yet we have never really taken Al Qaeda seriously. Bill Clinton didn’t begin to take it seriously until after the near-simultaneous bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. His cruise-missile strikes were ineffective and (in striking a mis-identified pharmaceutical plant) counterproductive. George W. Bush ignored the memo on his desk warning of an imminent strike here at home. Both men’s administrations missed chances to take out bin Laden with air strikes, for fear of collateral damage. And now we are bogged down in a civil war having little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda, whose aggregate collateral damage would make the unintended killing from a single air strike look like a pinprick.

We still aren’t taking Al Qaeda seriously. If we did, bin Laden and Zawahiri would not be alive and free somewhere in northwestern Pakistan, continuing their highly sophisticated propaganda campaign to recruit and train terrorists to attack our homeland. Our latest National Intelligence Estimate would not be warning of a resurgence of Al Qaeda in its new safe haven. Bush’s bravado of five years ago, when he promised to treat those who aid and harbor terrorists as if they were terrorists themselves, lies forgotten in the dust.

The primary reason for this neglect is the war in Iraq. Forget about what might happen there if we “lose” or withdraw too quickly. The fact is that Iraq has little to do with Al Qaeda because our purposes for going there and staying there have never had anything to do with Al Qaeda.

There were many reasons for invading Iraq. Among them were: (1) getting rid of Saddam Hussein; (2) bringing a semblance of democracy to a centrally located Islamic Arabic country; (3) protecting the Iraqi oil fields and preserving them for normal market exploitation; (4) countering Iran’s influence and expansion; and (5) lately, quelling the civil war that our invasion helped provoke. None of these goals had or has anything directly to do with facing the threat that Al Qaeda poses from its safe haven in Pakistan.

Today’s claim that Iraq itself will become a safe haven for Al Qaeda if we “lose” there is nothing more than a post-facto rationalization for the invasion. We didn’t invade Iraq to quell Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia because when we invaded that organization did not yet exist.

Even today and on its own terms, that rationalization makes no sense. The self-identified “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” is at most a local franchise of the mother movement in Pakistan. It gains strength and recruiting power from the mother movement, not vice versa. If we cut off the head, the arm will wither. More important, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia faces well-justified enmity from all three ethnic groups in Iraq—Sunnis, Kurds and especially the politically dominant Shiites. It will have its hands full fighting them for the foreseeable future, no matter how precipitously we withdraw. It can never pose the same threat to us as the mother movement’s worldwide recruiting drive for “martyrs” for the specific purpose of murdering us at home.

Nearly six years after 9/11, and despite Al Qaeda’s numerous successful attacks on our installations abroad, we still aren’t taking our worst enemy seriously. Somehow, we just can’t seem to get it through our heads that a bunch of turban wearing, bearded fanatics hiding halfway around the world can do us serious harm. But they have, and they can again.

As time goes on, their chances of doing so increase exponentially. Before the 2004 election, I wrote a piece warning of a possible future nuclear strike in Washington, D.C. That piece was not a prediction, only a warning. I think we still have a few years before Al Qaeda can get its hands on a nuclear weapon or fissile material. But the warning was real, and time is not on our side.

Every day that Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine remains in business, more prospective “martyrs” flock to its cause. As the Glasgow-London affair shows, they are not all uneducated losers. They can be doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, airplane pilots or generals. In schools, colleges, mosques, prisons, and meeting halls—even in our own country—they meet to become radicalized and to plot against us. Bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s faces appear on posters from Jakarta to Riyadh. The steady stream of “martyrs” will flow swiftly as long as Al Qaeda’s home office in Pakistan stays in business.

That is why Barack Obama’s recent speech on terrorism is so important. By saying things that some might think better left unsaid, he put the focus of our national-security policy back where it belongs, on our worst enemy. Not only that, he proposed a practical means of stopping the hateful propaganda and training machine: going after bin Laden and Zawahiri in their lair if Musharraf won’t. Sometimes it takes a brilliant mind like Obama’s to see the obvious: Al Qaeda in Pakistan is indeed our worst enemy, and eliminating it is the best way to promote security against terrorism.

I do not agree with Obama’s promise not to use nuclear weapons, far less his refusal even to consider them. In the right place and at the right time, a 100 megaton bomb might be a useful last resort to cut off the hydra’s primary head and motivating force. In the remote and sparsely populated mountains of Waziristan, it would likely cause far less collateral damage than we have already caused in Iraq. Nuclear force would make extremists around the world, who respect nothing but force, think twice about using civilization’s amenities to destroy civilization.

That no one is even thinking about having to resort to such weapons shows how far we are from taking seriously the threat we face. If Al Qaeda had nuclear weapons, it would use them without hesitation. Osama bin Laden himself has said so.

Whether or not we would actually use them, taking nukes off the table removes a powerful deterrent that we need against a ruthless and determined enemy. What Obama’s uncharacteristically thoughtless remark shows is that even he—by far the smartest of the presidential candidates—doesn’t really take Al Qaeda as seriously as he should, at least not yet.

It is a common and deadly mistake to underestimate your enemy. So far, that mistake has lost us two embassies, seventeen sailors on a warship, the Twin Towers and nearly 3,000 people in them, and part of the Pentagon. Instead of attacking the source of the threat, we have reacted by invading an irrelevant third country. We have also begun a national movement to abandon our civil liberties for safety. If we suffer another major terrorist attack at home, let alone a nuclear one, many of us may wish to sell our nation’s soul for a false sense of security, and demagogues like Bush will cheer them on.

Obama has done us all a great service by speaking out. He has directed our attention to the most dangerous menace against us. Now he and everyone who aspires to leadership needs to follow that direction to its logical conclusion. We need to focus on our worst enemy and figure out how to defeat it, directly, decisively and soon. Making sure that bin Laden and Zawahiri and their present hate-training camp in Pakistan don’t survive the next president’s first term would be a good start.

It took us eight years, from 1933 to 1941, to take the Nazi menace seriously. We didn’t begin to fight it in earnest until after being attacked by a third party at Pearl Harbor. We have already suffered a Pearl-Harbor-like surprise attack at the hands of Al Qaeda, but six years have passed with little effective action.

No person who seeks our presidency should lack a credible, concrete, and comprehensive plan for defeating this menace decisively. Victory will require more than unfocused, Giuliani-style tough talk or Clinton-style triangulation. It will require brains, imagination, cunning, daring and perseverence. Others may carp at Obama’s outspokenness, but where are their plans?


01 August 2007

Obama’s Terrorism Speech

[This post reviews the President’s 2007 speech as candidate. For reaction to his May 2009 speech on terrorism and the rule of law, click here.]

Today Senator Barack Obama (D. Ill.) delivered a major foreign-policy speech focusing on terrorism. It was a masterful speech, well worth reading.

The venue for Obama’s speech was the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was perfect for him. As past President of the Harvard Law Review and a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, he has a more distinguished academic and scholarly record than most of our presidents. After Woodrow Wilson himself, who was a professor at Princeton, only Jimmy Carter (a nuclear engineer) and Bill Clinton (a Rhodes Scholar) can compare with Obama.

The speech’s substance and tone reflected Obama’s distinguished background. If there remained any doubts about who is best qualified to raise us out of the hole dug by George W. Bush, it should have dispelled them. Whether you want toughness, brains, pragmatism or idealism in a leader, they were all there, all in their proper place, and all in perspective.

Obama reserved his toughest stance for the people responsible for killing 3,000 of us on September 11. He would deal with bin Laden, Zawahiri and their terror schools in three ways. First, he would wind down our combat role in Iraq and divert two brigades to the war in Afghanistan. Second, he would lean hard on Musharraf to go after bin Laden and Zawahiri in the tribal badlands. If Musharraf didn’t do so, Obama would send in our own forces for a surgical strike. Third, Obama would give Afghanistan an additional $1 billion of non-military aid, to deprive Al Qaeda of the fertile fields of poverty and hopelessness that it needs to grow. If Obama becomes president, you can be pretty sure that bin Laden and Zawahiri will not survive his first term—at least not in freedom.

Obama also saved some toughness for his opponents in the presidential race. He pointed out how Congress rubber stamped the war in Iraq, which has diverted so much effort, money and planning from the fight with Al Qaeda. He didn’t mention that Senators Clinton and Edwards both assisted that rubber stamping, but he didn’t need to.

Obama is a polite and diplomatic guy who knows where the bodies are buried. He promised that “my Administration will not permit more lives to be lost because emergency responders are not outfitted with the communications capability and protective equipment their job requires.” He didn’t mention Rudy Giuliani’s failure to make sure the 9/11 fire fighters had radios that work. Nor did he mention Giuliani’s failure to make sure they wore their respirators. But he didn’t have to.

We can be confident that Obama will actually do what he says, as well as take precautions that others might neglect. Why? Because he’s less a politician and much, much more a realist than his rivals.

Any decent politician, including Senator Clinton, understands political cause and effect. Even Rudy Giuliani knows that his “pro-choice” stance on abortion will lose him some votes among religious conservatives. What’s unique about Obama is his understanding of cause and effect in the real world, apart from politics. That’s where his unmatched training and brains come in, and that’s where he shines. Let’s take a few examples.

First, consider Al Qaeda. Obama understands the difference between the recent “franchise” in Iraq, which calls itself “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” and the real thing—the “mother movement” of bin Laden and Zawahiri. It was the mother movement that pulled off 9/11; the franchise didn’t even yet exist. And it’s the mother movement, stronger than ever, that is still working somewhere in Pakistan to train more recruits for similar attacks. Our most recent National Intelligence Estimate says as much. If not stopped, Al Qaeda will continue to train, arm and send fanatics against us at home for the foreseeable future.

Obama knows that even complete “victory” in Iraq, whatever that means, will not stop the mother movement in Pakistan or reduce the growing threat that it poses to our homeland and our interests abroad. That’s why he wants to wind down our combat role in Iraq and address the primary threat.

Obama also showed understanding of cause and effect in threatening incursions into Pakistan to wipe out Al Qaeda. The Bush Administration fears impairing our close relationship with Musharraf and so does little in this regard. Yet, like most of Bush’s relationships, this one is based on his “gut feeling” for Musharraf as a person. Unfortunately, Bush’s gut feeling for Musharraf is about as reliable as his well-publicized glimpse into Vladimir Putin’s “soul.” (No doubt Putin, one of the smartest politicians on the planet, has chuckled to himself and his old KGB colleagues many times about getting our gullible president to “fall in love” with him through simple expedient of wearing a crucifix at their first meeting.)

Obama is much smarter. He knows a little about history and how to calculate real national interest. He understands that Pakistani toleration for Islamic extremism has much more to do with Kashmir and Pakistan’s historical blood feud with India than it does with any real sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He knows that Musharraf would just as soon be rid of the extremists in Pakistan’s mountain territories, which threaten his own rule and the stability of his country.

So Obama calculates that a thrust by us to exterminate Al Qaeda, if made quickly and effectively and covered by good diplomacy, would leave our general cooperation with Pakistan largely intact. He also understands that, by removing an internal threat, that thrust might even facilitate Pakistani democracy and encourage Musharraf to foster it. He also knows that Musharraf is not likely to reject a longtime, vital alliance that gives him hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid, including vital military aid, and supports many of his nation’s important values, including the English language. Unlike Bush and the other presidential candidates, who appear to follow conventional wisdom derived largely from Bush’s gut, Obama is smart enough to think for himself about Pakistan.

Obama’s understanding of cause and effect also extends to the long term. He knows, for example, that northwestern Pakistan is a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda precisely because its extremist madrassas, financed largely by Saudi money, teach nothing but hate.

A couple of years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter visited one of these schools and asked children there what they had learned. Having spent most of their time memorizing the Koran, they couldn’t even do simple arithmetic. Asked what dinosaurs were, one student said they are monsters created by Jews to devour Muslims. (Apparently this student had seen or heard about Jurassic Park.)

Obama understands how important it is that children like these be taught things other than religion and hate, things they can use to make a living. “As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrassas,” he said, “my Administration will increase America’s commitment.”

When it comes to pragmatism, Obama is by far the best candidate. His mind is not troubled by ideology, religion, or obsessive political calculation. He knows how to solve real problems, and he is not afraid to propose practical solutions, like going after Al Qaeda in the border areas if Pakistan won’t.

Obama’s pragmatism was on best display in the matter of homeland security. To improve our safety at home, he would take six steps. First, he would implement the military’s new counter-insurgency manual. Second, he would make our military “more stealthy, agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists[.]” Presumably he would increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, one of our nation’s unique technological advantages. Third, he would bolster human intelligence with training in foreign languages and cultures. Fourth, he would allot homeland-security money strictly by risk, not by pork, as determined by a quadrennial high-level review. Fifth, he would “create a Shared Security Partnership Program to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks[.]” Finally, he would require recalcitrant private firms to harden our dangerous chemical and power plants, and our vulnerable ports, against terrorism.

In short, Obama would get moving on all the things that the Bush Administration, through inertia, incompetence, or ideology, has too long left undone. This is not rocket science. It’s practical, tedious, necessary stuff. But Obama is the only candidate who has proposed doing all of it and appears to understand its importance and urgency.

As smart and pragmatic as these things are, the most impressive thing about Obama’s speech was not programs or policies, but idealism.

Obama’s speech tapped into the wellsprings of American idealism as no one has done since Jack Kennedy. He proposed an “America’s Voice Corps,” like Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to spread America’s story abroad, including the fruitful lives of Muslims here. He even quoted Kennedy’s famous admonition, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

But while Obama borrowed a bit from Kennedy, his inspiration derived from no one else. It was purely his own and original. Throughout his speech, he relied on a metaphor from his senatorial trips abroad: a desperate foreigner looking up at an American helicopter. Does that foreigner, he asked, feel hope or fear?

So much of what we have done in the last seven years inspires only fear abroad. The “shock and awe” over Baghdad, the mess we’ve made in Iraq, our tolerance for torture, Guantánamo, our refusal to talk with anyone who won’t meet our terms first, and our own spying on ourselves—all these things undermine the world’s traditional view of what Americans stand for. Obama excoriated these deviations and consistently reaffirmed our basic values.
    “The America I know,” he said, “is the last, best hope for that child looking up at a helicopter. It’s the country that put a man on the moon; that defeated fascism and helped rebuild Europe. It’s a country whose strength abroad is measured not just by armies, but rather by the power of our ideals, and by our purpose to forge an ever more perfect union at home.”

No other candidate, let alone Senator Pothole, can write that sort of soaring prose or command that sort of inspiration. Unlike the others, Obama has the ability to push a nation that once was great to achieve great things again. That quality alone should insure his election. When combined with his toughness, brains and pragmatism, it ought to make him unbeatable.

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