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

30 September 2009

Health-Insurance Reform on Its Deathbed

The Senate Finance Committee’s rejection of the public option yesterday put health-insurance “reform” in intensive care. It’s not entirely dead yet, but its life hangs by a thread. Here’s why.

The first thing to know is that the current (Baucus) “reform” bill has virtually nothing to do with health care. It’s all about health insurance. Health insurance is an entirely different market from health care, just as the health-insurance premiums that you pay are different from your insurer’s payments to doctors and hospitals for your care and your own co-payments to make up the rest of the bills.

There are only two ways to hold down the price of anything, including insurance: regulation and competition. Price regulation is anathema in America, so it was never on the table.

Congress could have created competition by eliminating state-by-state regulation and forcing the fifty states’ insurance monopolies and oligopolies to compete in a national market. It didn’t.

Congress could have created competition by specifying uniform, mandatory minimum policy terms, which all insurance companies would have to offer. That way, consumers wouldn’t have to read or understand fine print and could compare prices (premiums) for the same thing. Congress didn’t.

Congress could have created competition through the “public option,” the latest version of which was a nonprofit, independent corporation, initially funded by the government but operationally and financially independent and self-sustaining. But because of the Senate Finance Committee’s votes yesterday, Congress probably won’t.

So any competition—and therefore any restraint over health-insurance premiums for consumers—depends on the feeble substitute for the public option that is in the current Baucus bill. That’s so-called “co-ops.”

The Baucus bill would allow independent, nonprofit cooperative insurers to be set up, which would insure their members without making a profit and without any government support. The government might provide some start-up capital but would thereafter give the co-ops no further support, and they would have no governmental power or imprimatur.

The competition with private insurers that these co-ops might offer is the only thing in the Senate’s current plan that might place any restraint whatsoever on health-insurance premiums.

So here’s the Baucus deal. Private insurers will get some 37 million new customers, who will be forced to buy insurance or pay a fine. The poorer of those new customers will get subsidies to help them pay the premiums.

Let’s say the average annual premium is $1,500. (That’s a very low premium indeed. My own insurance costs over $5,000 per year just for me; my wife has her own insurance.) Multiply 37 million by $1,500 and you get $55.5 billion in new insurance-company revenue. If the average profit is only 7%, that’s $ 3.885 billion dollars in clear profit every year. Not a bad return for a few months of lobbying!

What do America’s consumers get as a quid pro quo? Not much. They get a prohibition on clauses that deny insurance for pre-existing conditions and that make your insurance disappear when you get sick.

But nothing in the bill would prevent insurance companies from charging more for these “better” policies. For example, suppose a basic insurance policy costs $2,500 per year. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with diabetes, it might cost $6,000. If you’ve had a heart attack or a skin cancer removed (like John McCain), if might cost you $8,000 per year.

These number are just guesses, but that’s the point. If the bill passes, insurance companies won’t be able to deny insurance for pre-existing conditions, but they will be able to raise the premiums for them as much as they like. There will be no limit on what insurance companies can charge for insurance that actually pays when you get sick, or sick again. So there will be no limit on their profit. Insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

Economics 1A tells us that price rises with demand. Demand will certainly go up as 37 million new customers enter the market, so premiums will rise in any event. And insurers will offer “new products”—namely, insurance that actually covers people who get sick—but will have complete freedom how much to charge for them. If you think premiums won’t go up substantially for everyone under these conditions, you need a course in basic economics.

What stands alone against the law of supply and demand and the freedom of private insurers to charge whatever they want for “new” policies that actually provide real insurance? Nothing but those co-ops.

That’s why health-insurance “reform” is on life support. It’s survival depends on the devil in the co-ops’ details. If only people who don’t already have insurance can buy from the co-ops, then the rest of us will pay substantially more, and more yet if we’ve ever been sick. The same sad result will follow if only the poor can buy from the co-ops. And if the government picks or allows incompetent political cronies to run the things, the co-ops will fail to provide any effective competition at all, and the whole idea of containing insurance premiums will collapse.

So there’s not much “reform” here for the average consumer.

Who’s responsible for “reform” being in the ICU? It’s easy to name names. Five Democrats voted against one amendment for a public option. But that amendment would have imposed a form of price control, reimbursing care providers only at Medicare rates. So let’s give them a pass.

The second amendment would have provided a public option without any price control. Still three Democrats voted against it, effectively killing it: Max Baucus of Montana (the Committee Chair), Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Together their three states account for 1.4 percent of the nation’s population and 1.1 % of its GDP.

We might get lucky. The President might exert his influence and the public option might magically re-emerge from the House-Senate conference. The devil in the co-ops’ details might relent and allow real competition. But if not, maybe the rest of us can find some way to repay these miserable little states and their senators for selling us all out to the insurance companies.

Coda: Why the Baucus Plan Won’t Even Produce “Insurance”

Unless the proposed co-ops are nationwide, extremely well run, and able to sell health insurance to anyone who wants to buy, the Baucus plan will inevitably produce dramatically rising insurance-company profits and higher premiums for everyone. In fact, it will create a system that barely deserves the name “insurance.”

Remember the basic idea of insurance? It’s to broaden the pool of people covered as much as possible and thereby spread the risk of high health-care costs as broadly as possible, so as to make the average premium as low as possible. The original theory of health-insurance reform was to reach that goal by putting up to 47 million uninsured people in the same risk pool with everyone else.

But that’s not going to happen under the Baucus plan, because nothing in the bill requires it to happen. Nothing would force any insurance company to put the new customers who must buy insurance or pay a fine in the same pool with everybody else.

So here’s what will happen. Insurance companies will treat the 37 million new, mandated customers as a separate pool and will sell them new policies of “bare bones” insurance, probably covering just preventative and catastrophic care. Because the new customers will be younger and healthier than the general population, and because their insurance will provide minimal coverage, their premiums will be low. But the fact they are in a separate pool will mean their premiums won’t help reduce premiums for the rest of the population.

The rest of the population will fall into two categories: (1) those who have insurance now because they (a) have no pre-existing conditions or (b) do have them and are waiting for the axe to fall, and (2) those who can’t get insurance now because they have pre-existing conditions. The insurance industry will treat groups (1) and (2)—and maybe groups (1)(a) and (1)(b)—as separate pools and separate profit centers. Why? Because the industry can price insurance for these separate pools separately and so reduce its risk and increase its profits, and because nothing in the Baucus plan says it can’t.

So the end result of the Baucus bill will be a health-insurance market that is not only balkanized by state, insurance company and employer (as it is at present), but also balkanized into separate pools of customers who can be milked for exorbitant premiums separately, rather than being combined into a single pool as the basic notion of “insurance” suggests.

Having been prohibited from cherry-picking individuals by the mandate to ignore pre-existing conditions, the industry will do the next best thing. It will cherry-pick by groups. Among many other things, the result will be that people having significant pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied insurance entirely; they just won’t be able to afford it.

Once again, our lovely private insurance system will offer “insurance” in name only, not in fact. And the insurance industry will continue to make out like bandits at our, the people’s, expense.

If we, the people, get wind of these truths before it’s too late, the present attempt to reform our health-insurance system will die under an avalanche of well-justified public protest. Maybe that’s what the “Blue Dog” Democrats really want. It’s certainly the Republicans’ primary goal.

Our constitutional system makes all this possible but putting us in the thrall of small minds from small states, who appear not even to understand the problem, let alone a good solution. Or maybe the small minds understand full well and just don’t care. Maybe they value the parochial interests of their tiny states over the national welfare. Maybe they like using their disproportionate power to thwart the will of the vast majority in population and productivity, who want a public option.

If so, we in the majority are going to have to find some serious ways of fighting back, including economic boycotts. We might start by boycotting Wal-Mart Stores and Tyson Foods, Arkansas’ two biggest employers. (It’s probably no coincidence that a physicians’ group practice and a hospital rank next, right after an intervening trucking company.)


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22 September 2009

Apocalypticism, or Dominoes Redux

[For a post on the timing of de-escalation, click here. For a response to David Brooks’ column of 9/25/09, click here.]

So far, the War in Vietnam is the longest in our history. Measured from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the fall of Saigon, it lasted 10 years, eight months. In contrast, our previously longest war, our War of Independence, ran about seven years. Our two bloodiest wars—the Civil War and World War II—each lasted only about four.

The War in Vietnam was unique in another respect as well. It was the first war we fought on a false premise. We thought that if we failed to “hold the line” against Communism in Vietnam, all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes, with unpredictable and disastrous results.

We lost badly, but nothing of the kind happened. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, the War in Vietnam was an anti-colonial war of national liberation, in which we took over the role of colonial master from the French. The Soviet Union and the “Red” Chinese played only minor roles, although both were happy to see their ideological “enemy” bleed in such a long and useless conflict.

Today, 34 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam is more a trading partner than an enemy. Like China, it is authoritarian but “Communist” in name only. It has enthusiastically entered the global capitalist trading system and become a host to innumerable multinational corporations. It eagerly receives American and other foreign tourists. It is rapidly becoming one of the Southeast Asian “tigers” whose hard work and sensible economic policies are raising standards of living and contributing to international trade.

So the premise of our fight in Vietnam proved completely false. There were no “dominoes.” Vietnam’s fight against the West was not part of the “global Communist conspiracy.” We were wrong, badly wrong, about the facts. You have only to watch the 1995 confession of error by the late, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara—made a generation too late—to know how wrong we were.

At 6.5 years and counting, the War in Iraq is already longer than our two bloodiest wars and almost as long as our War of Independence. We fought it, too, on a false premise: that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We invaded to avoid the disaster of a “mushroom cloud” over one of our cities, but Saddam had no weapons to produce one. He didn’t even have a program to develop nuclear weapons. Some of us also believed that Saddam had something to do with 9/11—a proposition now also completely discredited as false.

So we invaded Iraq on false premises and have stayed to build a new nation and a better Middle East. The success of that effort is still unclear, but our reason for going there initially was wrong, badly wrong.

Could be the same thing be happening in Afghanistan?

We began military operations there for two reasons. First, we wanted to capture or kill the perpetrators of 9/11. We’ve achieved partial success in that effort. With Pakistan’s help, we have the operational mastermind of 9/11 (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) in custody.

We have failed to find bin Laden and Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chief propagandist and nominal operational leader. But our effort to do so could proceed with drones, intelligence and covert operations, and in any event we believe they are hiding in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Continuing that limited effort doesn’t require occupying all of Afghanistan, far less transforming it into a new kind of nation the like of which Afghanistan has never been.

What is supposed to justify those far more ambitious goals is another premise entirely. We believe that, if we left, Afghanistan would become a “failed state” and a “haven for terrorists,” and we would face the threat of something like 9/11 all over again, again and again, for the foreseeable future. In short, we think that if we leave and don’t finish the impossible job we have undertaken, the Apocalypse will come, just as we feared in Vietnam and Iraq.

So the most important factual question to ask ourselves today has nothing to do with the competence (or lack thereof) of the Karzai government. The question is very simple: if the Taliban won and regained control over Afghanistan again, would our feared Apocalypse follow? Is our apocalyptic vision for Afghanistan any different from our fear of dominoes falling in Southeast Asia or mushroom clouds arising from the hands of an embattled dictator in Iraq?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know two things. First, they are the questions that every intelligence agent, military officer, policy maker and reporter on the conflict should be trying to answer. If the answers to them are “no,” then our major reason for making war evaporates. The conflict in Afghanistan becomes a local or regional matter, like Vietnam’s quest for independence and unification, which is at best peripheral to our national interest (and incidentally far more central to Russia’s).

Second, there are hints that the answers to those crucial questions might indeed be negative. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who declared war on the United States and the West. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who had the crazed vision of jihad against all of the mightiest nations in human history, including the United States, Russia and (to a lesser extent) the EU and modern Asia. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who built the terrorist training camps, oversaw, financed and approved 9/11, and made Afghanistan (and now the Pakistani border areas) a haven for terrorists.

All Mullah Omar did was “harbor” bin Laden and his crew and give them refuge. Now both he and bin Laden are fugitives in the borderlands of northwest Pakistan.

Mullah Omar’s motives for “sticking with” bin Laden are at best unclear. When he was still talking to Western reporters, he cited Islamic hospitality—a real command of the Quran. Early in the game, bin Laden’s money was probably a factor, but whether any of it remains is unclear. Undoubtedly Omar had some affection and respect for the Saudi and other foreign volunteers whose money and clumsy military assistance had helped throw out Russian invaders a generation before.

But there is little evidence that Mullah Omar—let alone any leader of the myriad loosely affiliated tribal and local groups that call themselves the “Taliban”—supports the global jihad that bin Laden tried to start and claims to lead. More likely, if the Taliban won, they would simply consolidate control over their battered country and begin the hard job of rebuilding it after over three decades of unremitting war. While suspicious and fearful of the Taliban’s authoritarian rule, many Afghans seem to prefer its order and rude Islamic justice to the perpetual corruption and rule by AK-47 that they have endured for thirty years.

And as for a “failed state,” the Taliban may offer exactly the opposite. As we learned belatedly to our chagrin, Afghanistan has never been much of a state in modern terms. It is a loosely affiliated conglomeration of various tribes and ethnic groups (some with warlords), living (until the seventies) in a state of relatively peaceful but often corrupt coexistence. The only force that seems to have united this “nation” during the past thirty years is the Taliban. Maybe their odd brand of authoritarian Islamic rule, which seems to vary in strictness from place to place with local culture, is just what Afghanistan needs to take its next baby steps toward something resembling a modern nation. The Taliban certainly offer a type of civic discipline that is rare in recent Afghan history.

Are these conclusions certain? Of course not. But they appear to be at least as likely as the apocalyptic notion that a nationalist religious movement born of dual invasions and long suffering would, after achieving victory, fail to savor the moment and rebuild the homeland but instead would embark upon a Quixotic, perpetual global jihad at the behest of a wild-eyed dreamer, sometime helper, sometime guest, and sometime pest.

If these suspicions are accurate, then continuing the War in Afghanistan in its present form would make us three for three. We would have fought our three longest recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) on false premises. We would have wasted our young people’s lives and treasure chasing apocalyptic visions that only we can see.

The classic definition of “paranoia” includes two elements: (1) delusions of persecution and (2) delusions of grandeur. We certainly have had visions of persecution: dominoes falling, mushroom clouds blooming, and a perpetual terrorist movement bent on making something like 9/11 a regular event. We had over half a million troops in both Vietnam and Gulf I, but we had less than a third that number in Iraq, and we have about an eighth that number in Afghanistan. Apparently we are beginning to believe our own myths of grandeur: that our forces have the strength of ten because their hearts are pure.

We’ve accused the Russians of paranoia because they feared our proposed Maginot Line for missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But maybe we need to look in the mirror and examine our own paranoid visions. Already they have produced our most abject loss in war (Vietnam) and a long conflict in Iraq that has drained our morals, spirit and finances. Maybe they are wrong again.

Timing is Everything

The posts above and below (and a separate, longer essay incorporating the Powell Doctrine) argue that escalation in Afghanistan is not the best strategy—at least not if we hope to turn our military attention elsewhere within the next decade. Iran and North Korea pose even greater short- and medium-term threats than a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and we don’t know where besides Afghanistan international terrorism will rear its ugly head. Therefore we should remain nimble, keeping at least part of our small but superbly trained and led military forces available for contingencies. We shouldn’t double down willy nilly in Afghanistan when doing so would leave us precious little military slack.

The logic above and below falls on the side of an anti-terrorism, anti-Al Qaeda strategy and against an anti-Taliban strategy. Defeating the Taliban decisively would require decades of nation building halfway around the world, i.e., a long-term commitment of people and resources that our people are unlikely ever to support.

But that’s all a matter of substance. Timing is another matter entirely. For three reasons, de-escalating now would be unwise, and the President (who is never unwise) is unlikely to do so.

The first is political. Now that General McChrystal has made his request for more troops, with the full support of General Petraeus and the Pentagon, denying that request would be political suicide for the President and the Democratic Party. Republicans would demagogue the denial into a picture of weakness and indecisivness, which would add to the unease that many independents feel about the President’s vital but expensive domestic initiatives. Democrats would lose badly in the 2010 congressional elections—now just over a year away—and the chance of making any lasting change in our country’s direction would evaporate.

Rory Stewart, one of the few on-the-ground experts on Afghanistan who is neither a soldier nor a politician now (although he once was a British soldier), appeared on Bill Moyers’ Journal last night and aired this view. He believes the President has boxed himself in by allowing the McChrystal report to issue so publicly, and I agree.

But domestic politics is not the only reason why de-escalating now would be unwise. There is also international politics. Our President is a uniquely thoughtful, cerebral, and intelligent leader, of the kind that right wingnuts used to deride as an “egghead.” His speech in the United Nations sketched a new world that every person of good will desires, but there was little toughness in it. Many at home and abroad wrongly took his recent decision to postpone the Central European Maginot Line for missiles (and build a far better system closer to Iran) as a concession to the Russians and therefore a sign of weakness.

As a result, many leaders abroad are now making the same mistake about our President that we at home did before the 2008 elections. They think our President—and therefore we—are weak.

False perceptions of weakness can tempt risk-takers and even start wars. So the President had best dispel them as soon as possible. Doing so requires escalating, not de-escalating, in Afghanistan, at least for the moment.

That final reason why proper timing forbids de-escalating now relates to alternative strategies. My separate essay on Afghanistan suggests that negotiating with the Taliban and bringing in the neighbors are the two most promising long-term strategies. But deal making, whether with the Taliban or with neighbors, requires a position of strength. We will have no leverage with the Taliban or Afghanistan’s neighbors (including Iran!) if they all think we are already on our way out.

All these points caution against refusing McChrystal’s request for more troops now. Unfortunately, granting that request won’t magically generate trained troops. It takes six months to train a soldier and three to train a marine for the unique Afghanistan mission. So the bulk of the troops won’t arrive on site until next summer, and by then the 2010 election campaign will be in full swing. Therefore no change in strategy is realistic until late next year.

If you think that basing military strategy on politics is regrettable, think again. As Von Clausewitz said, war is politics by other means. From the President and his economic team, through SecDef Gates, down to our brilliant four stars (Petraeus and McChrystal), we have the deepest and most competent executive team—by far—that I have ever seen in my lifetime, and I’m 64. There’s not a one of them whom I would replace. We don’t want to let demagogues at home or abroad, or our foreign enemies and detractors, underestimate them or make their job harder.

Nor do we want to deny our military brass the time needed to think through the new anti-terrorism strategy and develop an effective transition plan. For several years, they have been developing and implementing an anti-insurgency strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military leaders are indeed the best and the brightest, but they need time to switch gears. Not only do they have to re-orient their mindset to a new mission. They also have to prepare detailed tactics to get from here to there, and to exploit as much as they can of the old strategy in implementing the new. That includes deceiving the enemy about what our strategy really is.

So don’t expect a drawdown of troops before the 2010 elections. And don’t ever expect a public announcement of a change in strategy until well after the fact.

As Ted Salinger reported, President Kennedy planned to de-escalate our disastrous involvement in Vietnam, but only after the 1964 presidential elections. Kennedy never lived to see those elections, and the escalation that followed is history. But even Jack Kennedy, perhaps the most open and transparent president of the Cold War, knew that there are some things you don’t blurt out in public.

Just as in poker, feinting and bluffing can be crucial in war and diplomacy. We the people can’t deny our Commander in Chief or our superb military those ploys. So we on the left will just have to suck it up and trust our President and his superb team to do what works best and to change strategy for the better only at the right time, and in secret. If the delay gives our military folk extra time to work even greater miracles than they did in Iraq, so much the better.

Response to David Brooks’ column of 9/25/09:

Today David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an impassioned plea for support of General McChrystal’s proposed “surge” in Afghanistan. It deserves a response.

As usual, Brooks writes well and makes some powerful arguments. He adopts General Petraeus’ and General McChrystal’s views that drones and fortified bases won’t suppress an insurgency. I agree with him there. I also agree that civilians like myself (and Brooks) should never argue too confidently with competent generals, let alone brilliant ones like Petraeus and McChrystal, who extracted some hard lessons from Vietnam and used them to turn around our debacle in Iraq.

But no one is contesting the valor and competence of our military, far less its superb present leaders, whose growth under fire and success under near-impossible conditions in Iraq have been dazzlingly impressive. What we’re contesting is whether giving these precious national resources another mission impossible—and so soon—is as essential to our way of life as neoconservatives claim.

Unfortunately, the rest of Brooks’ argument has gaping holes in logic that badly need filling. The worst is treating the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the same.

Brooks never comes out and says so. But his conclusion rests on this equivalence, and he makes the point implicitly.

He begins his argument with a proposition made famous by Dubya. We are, he says, “involved in a long, complex conflict against Islamic extremism.” He then proceeds to characterize “a Taliban reconquest” of Afghanistan as “a moral atrocity from which American self-respect would not soon recover.” The implication is that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are both movements of Islamic extremists and therefore the same.

That’s a complete non-sequitur, a grevious error in logic. It’s also the very type of error that led us to disaster in Vietnam. There we assumed that the Vietnam’s Communists were one with Russia’s and China’s—an error that the war’s chief architect, the late Robert S. McNamara later acknowledged was false. That error led us to the now-rejected “domino theory” and thence to our longest and (so far) unambiguously losing war.

No one in the West (except perhaps our own intelligence, which isn’t telling) knows for sure what the Taliban’s goals are. We stopped talking to them after they refused to hand over Al Qaeda in late 2001 and we started fighting and bombing them in consequence.

But we have a lot of circumstantial evidence to distinguish the two. The Taliban are Pashtun Afghanis and Pakistanis. Al Qaeda’s members are largely Saudi, with a few Yemenis and other Middle Easterners thrown in. As a movement, Al Qaeda grew out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a reaction to oppression of radical Muslims in Egypt. Osama bin Laden internationalized that movement when he broke with his family and kingdom in Saudi Arabia and later (more decisively) when he issued his so-called “fatwa,” declaring jihad against the U.S. and the Western World.

In contrast, the Taliban from the beginning were a nationalist Afghan-Pashtun movement. That movement grew out of the war with Russian invaders and the decades of civil war, warlord rule, and rampant corruption that followed. The Taliban’s goal was not to conquer the world and install a new global Islamic Caliphate, but to unify and organize their Pashtun homeland under a regime of Islamic justice. Until we attacked them, bought off and supplied their non-Pashtun enemies in 2002, they had been relatively successful in achieving that goal. No one in the U.S. had thought to classify them as an enemy, let alone a “moral atrocity,” until after 9/11. Even then, their sole crime against us was harboring an enemy.

Logic suggests that nothing much would change about Al Qaeda’s position if the Taliban “reconquered” Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, we believe, is now holed up somewhere in northwestern Pakistan, where it has relatively free reign. Maybe it would move back into Afghanistan, where it might operate still more freely.

While it moved, Al Qaeda would be vulnerable to detection, betrayal and attack. But in any event the Taliban would be unlikely to give it completely free reign for three reasons. First, the Taliban would have spent the better part of two decades enduring unspeakable privation and suffering to gain control of their homeland. They would not likely be eager to turn that control over to a bunch of Saudis, Yemenis and other refugees from the Gulf states who don’t even speak the same language. That outcome would defy both logic and human nature.

Second, as a rival power promoting global terrorism, Al Qaeda would be a constant source of instability in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It would inevitably clash with the Taliban, who look to strict Islam not as a source of perpetual conflict, but as a basis for stability, rude justice and continuity. In any such conflict, the Taliban would almost certainly win (just as Sunni Muslims did in Iraq) because they are more numerous, better fighters, and operating in their own homeland with popular support.

Finally, the Taliban would eventually come into conflict with Al Qaeda because their goal of Afghan reconstruction is incompatible with global jihad. Global jihad means perpetual war, but there is every expectation that the Taliban, on “re-conquering” Afghanistan, would put down their weapons after thirty years of war and turn their organizational talents to rebuilding their homeland.

I hasten to add that these conclusions are educated guesswork. But so is Brooks’ implicit conclusion to the contrary—that Al Qaeda would thrive and multiply under Taliban rule, far more than in Pakistan. All he offers us to prove that conclusion is the observation that both groups are Islamic extremists. That’s pretty thin evidence.

Even if Brooks implicit assumption is right—that Al Qaeda would thrive in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan—building a new nation is not our only alternative. There are still other options for fighting Al Qaeda. There are covert operations, such as the Navy Seals’ recently successful lightning strike in Somalia. There is containment, using intelligence, electronic surveillance (including satellites and drones) and border enforcement. And there is deterrence, using our air force, missiles and (if necessary) nuclear capability.

Brooks’ final attempt to push our emotional buttons brings in Pakistan. He fears that a Pashtun-Taliban takeover of Afgahnistan might spread into Pakistan and eventually gain control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But a glance at the region’s ethnic map all but dispels those fears. Pashtuns already are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, and they already cross the border into Pakistan. That’s why Al Qaeda, with the Taliban’s approval or acquiescence, was able to gain sanctuary in Pakistan. But the majority Punjabis vastly dominate the Pashtun, both in territory and population, and they control Pakistan’s highly organized military and intelligence services. The fear of a Pashtun conquest of the Punjabis, who built and control the nuclear weapons, is vastly overblown, especially so soon after Pakistan’s massive invasion of the Swat Valley seems to have cleared it of Taliban. The Pashtun in Pakistan are no match for the ruling Punjabis and never will be.

Throughout the four decades of the Cold War, we had little doubt about the Soviets’ intentions. They repeatedly advertised their desire for global Communist domination. General Secretary Khrushchev himself said, “We will bury you!” Yet because we feared nuclear annihilation, we held back from apocalyptic conflict, and eventually the fire of global Communism burned itself out. Deterrence and containment, without direct conflict, brought about the most dramatic and most peaceful “regime change” in human history.

There is no reason to suspect that Islamic extremism won’t suffer a similar fate if met with the same quiet determination. And, in the absence of any similar statements by the Taliban, there is no reason to believe they share Al Qaeda’s megalomanic dreams of global domination. Not every regime in the world is Hitler’s Nazi Germany redux, even if it’s our enemy now.

It is possible, although unlikely, that the Taliban share Al Qaeda’s every goal and are just keeping silent. But there is no evidence to that effect.

All we have is illogical fears of commentators like Brooks. How can we credit those fears after what happened in Vietnam and Iraq? Should we send another twenty thousand of our finest into the Afghan meat grinder—with a few hundred billion more dollars that we need for our own reconstruction—without such evidence? I think not.

Our excellent generals have given us a plan to win, and their extraordinary record in Iraq bids us credit their plan. But the generals did not even address the question why we should double down.

Until we have solid evidence that failing to do so will risk the sort of catastrophe about which Brooks and others speculate, there will be no popular consensus for escalating this war. We need to answer first questions first, not with fear and speculation, but with facts and evidence. Already fear and speculation have gotten us into two more wars than we need have fought, one of which was our first loss ever.


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18 September 2009

A Maginot Line for Missiles

[For an update on SecDef Gates’ own analysis of 9/20/09, click here. For a recent post on the growing quagmire in Afghanistan, click here. For comment on Bob Herbert’s column today, click here.]

Remember the Maginot Line? It was an expensive, static line of entrenched fortifications that the French built after World War I. Its idea was to give the French time to mobilize if the Germans attacked again. But when World War II came, the Nazis drove their tanks right around it, and France fell. The term “Maginot Line” became a metaphor for useless, immovable defenses and, more generally, for fighting the last war.

That’s what the President just saved us from wasting our money on in Europe. The static, immovable anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic that Dubya proposed would have been about as useful in protecting us—let alone Europe—as the Maginot Line was in protecting France in World War II. Here’s why.

You can learn a lot about geography and ballistic missile warfare with a globe and a piece of string. Flat maps won’t do; you have to have a globe that represents the round Earth in three dimensions.

Take your string and put one end on Tehran. Then put the other end on a probable U.S. target for Iran’s long-range nuclear missiles (if it ever develops them), for example, New York City or Washington, D.C. Then stretch the string tight to form a great circle path, i.e., the shortest distance between Tehran and the target on the Earth’s curved surface. Now extend the same path down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

If you do this simple experiment, you’ll learn something interesting. The extended great-circle path from Tehran to the target goes right along our entire Eastern Seaboard. The path is not far from all the great conurbations of our East Coast, including Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., the bedroom communities and military installations of Northern Virginia, and even the Research Triangle near Charlotte, North Carolina.

The practical significance of this fact is that it’s much easier to aim a ballistic missile from side to side than it is to get its range precisely right. If a missile aimed at New York or Washington, D.C., along the great-circle route from Iran overshot or undershot, it might still hit something important. If the missile came from the side instead, an undershot would put it in the Atlantic, while an overshot would throw it into the Appalachians. So the great-circle route from Iran to our Eastern Seaboard gives errant Iranian missile technology the greatest chance of doing us devastating harm.

Now keep your great-circle string in place and note where it goes through Europe. Yup. Right through Poland. If you move the Tehran end of the string west to Iran’s remotest western border (where I guess our intelligence thinks Iran may have or build a missile base), it goes through the Czech Republic.

These simple facts—which anyone can verify with a globe and a piece of string—compel two conclusions. First, Dubya’s plan was never intended to protect Europe; it was intended to protect us. It was a twist on Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” daydream designed to shield us from Iran. Second, had it been built, Dubya’s program would have been about as useful in protecting anyone from incoming Iranian missiles, including us, as the Maginot Line was in protecting the French in World War II.

Let’s explore the logic behind these conclusions.

However little you may know about ballistics, one thing should be obvious. A missile defense system designed to shoot down a missile with another missile had better be deployed between the incoming missile’s launch site and its target. So the mere fact that Poland and the Czech Republic were the proposed deployment sites excludes all of Southern Europe from the protected zone.

Equally important, a missile defense system works best when it can shoot down missiles in their boost phases or (at worst) at the apex of their paths, just as they are becoming ballistic. As a ballistic missile falls from its apex, it moves faster and faster and becomes harder and harder to shoot down. So targets close to the missile defense deployment site are hard to protect, even if they are on other side of the defense site from the incoming missile launch site.

Put these two facts together and look carefully at the globe and Tehran, and you come to an interesting conclusion. Dubya’s proposed missile defense system would have protected little, if any, of Europe from ballistic missiles from Iran. It might have offered some protection for the British Isles and Scandinavia, and maybe even parts of northern Germany. At best, it would have shielded parts of Protestant Northern Europe but left nearly all of Catholic Southern Europe undefended, including the two host countries. So you might call Dubya’s plan “Martin Luther’s Revenge.”

The second point is even more important. Ballistic missiles may have to travel great-circle paths in their ballistic descent phase, depending on how sophisticated their guidance technology is. (There are ways of directing and guiding a missile even in its ballistic descent phase.) But missiles don’t have to travel great-circle paths in their boost or ascent phase, when they are still under power and remote or automated guidance. Non-great-circle paths are entirely feasible; they just require more fuel and a bit more sophisticated guidance and control technology in the ascent phase.

That’s where the Maginot Line comes in. Dubya’s plan would have guarded the great-circle route from Iran to our Eastern Seaboard. But the defensive systems, like the Maginot Line, would have been fixed and immovable. (A helpful graphic from the Wall Street Journal (bottom of page) depicts the defensive missiles in silos, and that’s probably how they would have been deployed. Missiles designed to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles are much bigger, heavier and more complicated than the short-range protective missiles in the new Obama plan.)

Offensive missiles from Iran (or anywhere else) don’t have to follow great-circle routes. Iranians are not stupid. As Dubya’s Maginot Line were being built (a process that would take half a decade, even if feasible), they would design, build and program their long-range missiles to use non-great-circle routes. Hitting their targets would be harder, because their missiles would be coming in the from the side, not along our whole Eastern Seaboard. But in the end they could bypass our fixed and immobile missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic just as the Nazis bypassed the Maginot Line in World War II.

The Obama plan is infinitely more intelligent for four reasons. First, the missile defenses it contemplates will be mobile, not fixed. Initially, they will all be mounted on ships. The result will be like giving the French army its own panzer divisions to fight the German tanks, i.e., a fighting chance to win in mobile warfare. Second, because our defensive systems will be much closer to Iran (in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas), they will be able to shoot down Iranian missiles earlier in their boost phases, when they are moving more slowly and are easier to hit. The Obama plan is therefore far more likely to offer an effective defense.

Third, the Obama plan uses existing, proven technology, not stuff still on the drawing boards. Finally, by deploying in seas between Iran and Europe, the new short- and medium-range missile shield will offer effective defenses to all of Europe, including Catholic Southern Europe. France, Italy, Spain and the Pope should breathe a huge sigh of relief.

The sole mysteries in this affair are two. First, how could our Pentagon ever have been so stupid as to approve an American Maginot Line in the first place? Maybe it was That Idiot Rumsfeld’s idea.

The second mystery is whom the President’s Republican detractors think they’re fooling. They know nothing. They understand nothing. They won’t even accept the solemn analysis of the Secretary of Defense, a holdover from their own party. All they can do is use demagoguery to excite angry opposition from people just as stupid as they. God save us from such “leaders.”

UPDATE (9/20/09): SecDef Gates Speaks Out

Today Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a Republican whose brains and skill were instrumental in turning around our debacle in Iraq—confirmed many of the points in my analysis above. He did so in an unusual two-page defense of the President’s plan for missile defense published in the New York Times.

SecDef Gates made a point of saying (right away, in his second paragraph) that he approved the old Maginot-Line plan “just days after becoming secretary of defense[.]” That’s about as close as any politician ever comes to saying “this dumb idea wasn’t mine.” A thoughtful and clever man, Gates would never have supported such a stupid idea if he’d had time to think about it. What he did was pass on a fait accomplis of the previous SecDef, That Idiot Rumsfeld, as I had supposed.

Why did it take nearly three years to jettison such a bad idea? Gates explains that, too. He devotes a whole paragraph to a military mindset “bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith.”

It’s probably a good thing that our military leaders are stubborn. They don’t give up a fight easily. But it’s not such a good thing in strategic planning, which requires flexibility in responding to rapidly changing technology, geopolitical realities, and intelligence about them. You have only to contemplate the original Maginot Line—or the now-jettisoned but similar bad plan for missile defense—to understand how military stubbornness can produce some really bad ideas.

Gates also noted two advantages of the Obama plan beyond the four I mentioned above. First, it will get a missile defense in place around Iran much faster than would a Maginot Line in Poland and the Czech Republic. It therefore provides some strategic leeway for errors in our intelligence estimates of Iran’s missile capability. Second, unlike the Maginot-Line plan, which would have relied on fixed, ground-based sensors in the two host countries, the new plan will use a variety of sensors, including mobile ones in space (satellites) and in the air (on planes).

The latter point is a key advantage. In this electronic age of near-instantaneous global communication, sensors can be anywhere. The more of them, and the more geographically dispersed they are, the better. But the intercepting missiles work best if launched as closely as possible to the offensive missile sites, where they can “catch” the target missiles as early as possible in their boost phase. The Obama-Gates plan offers both advantages, the old Rumsfeld plan neither.

Bob Herbert on Racism and Hatred in Politics. Bob Herbert is by far the New York Times’ most courageous and outspoken pundit. Leave it to him to expose the deep fear that every decent person has but doesn’t want to name. That’s what he did in his column today, which began with a discussion of racism directed at the President.

There will never be an end to the dispute about racism, because we all see the subject through different lenses. You can argue all the anger is about policy. You can point to that old Internet photo of Dubya’s face morphing into a monkey’s, which I still have on my computer.

But like me, many whites will go to their graves believing that Joe Wilson never would have screamed “You lie!” to a 100% white president. Southern culture is nothing if not respectful and decorous, as long as you are entirely white.

Yet all the ink spilled over racism in nearly 500 comments missed Mr. Herbert’s most important point. His last paragraph is the key. There he names the fear that decent people have been bottling up, in part to keep from giving wing nuts any ideas. If anything happened to President Obama, the progress we have made since his election would vanish in an instant, and our national future would snowball downhill.

Those of us who lived through the sixties have seen it happen with our own eyes. We never want to see that happen again. My wife and I, who love this country deeply, have made serious plans to emigrate if the worst occurs. The fact that we have even begun to plan shows the depths of our fear.

When the camera pans from the podium and you see all those thousands of faces and popping flashbulbs, you realize how hard a job our Secret Service agents have. They must react to real threats in an instant but leave harmless nuts untouched. So far no one has even accused them of overreacting, and that worries me. A split-second delay could destroy the most promising administration of my lifetime (I’m 64) and our nation’s future with it.

Our kids and grandkids depend upon that future remaining bright. So all of us have the duty not to turn our backs and leave protection to the Secret Service alone, let alone proper respect and decorum. We must speak out.

When people far too young to know call the President a “Nazi,” a “fascist” or a “Communist,” we must speak out, and loudly. When people bring weapons to political dialogue, we must stand up and object. And when commentators use our public airways to foment unreasoning hate against our elected leader, we must boycott their sponsors and bring them to heel.

If anything does happen to our President, we will all feel ashamed for having done too little. Too late, we will remember the lesson of the Holocaust and World War II: evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

So our job is not to analyze how much racism is responsible, but to stand up and fight, with all our intelligence and economic power, the hatred and violence that threaten our way of life, whatever their cause. I hope that Herbert’s column today will motivate more good people to do so.


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16 September 2009


Who Owns this Calamity?
Violating the Powell Doctrine
Option 1:  Negotiate with the Taliban
Option 2:  Bring in the Neighbors
Option 3:  Turn the Job over to the Afghans
Option 4:  “Stay the Course
Option 5:  Get out and Call it Victory or “Peace with Honor”
Conclusion:  Democracies and Limited War
Clarification/Correction (9/17/09)

Who owns this calamity?

Unfortunately,President Obama now owns Afghanistan.

He campaigned for the presidency by arguing that Afghanistan is the essential war and Iraq the optional, unnecessary war. He promised to escalate our involvement in Aghanistan as we de-escalate the war in Iraq. That campaign promise all but impels him to get in deeper.

The President has been at the helm for over seven months. That’s not a long time in an eight-year war, but it’s enough to set a direction. Already he has begun to set that direction by changing commanders and transferring forces from Iraq. The General he chose, McChrystal, reportedly will ask for more troops.

McChrystal seems a good choice, but even the best commander can’t save an impossible mission. And as a good student of history, the President should know even good generals often underestimate the enemy and the difficulty of a mission and overestimate their forces’ capability.

Finally, the President owns Afghanistan—or soon will—because he is the Commander in Chief. As outlined in another post, military and foreign policy are the two fields in which our presidents rule supreme. No one should blame the President if Congress balks at health-insurance reform. But if things go awry in Afghanistan, there will be no one else to blame, because he and only he calls the shots. Dubya may have made the initial blunders and anointed Hamid Karzai, but the endgame will fall on Obama’s watch, and he will bear the onus.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is looking more and more like Vietnam. We lost in Vietnam because we underestimated the strength and endurance of a decades-long national liberation movement. We also backed a loser: the corrupt, oppressive, inept Diem regime. Both kinds of mistakes appear increasingly evident in Afghanistan. We are taking on a complex and hardy people who live in uniquely difficult terrain and who have successfully repelled every foreign invader since Alexander the Great. And the champion we have chosen, although soft-spoken and fluent in English, appears to be running a government every bit as corrupt, inept and oppressive as Diem’s. The only salient difference is that Hamid Karzai, unlike Diem, has not expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler. For those of us who lived through the national agony of Vietnam, there are red flags all over the field.

So before the President moves decisively in any direction, he should do what he does best: stop and think. The General’s still-secret evaluation and request for additional forces are on his desk, but they shouldn’t be the only thing he reads. Official reports often mask or distort the truth. The State Department, the DNI, and the CIA should all chime in. So should NATO, the UN and every NGO and commercial interest with experience in the region.

Beyond them, the President should reach down inside our intelligence, diplomatic and military bureaucracies and interrogate the best and the brightest, on his own and outside the chain of command, just as FDR did. Finally, the President should encourage a national debate, especially in Congress. He calls the shots, but things will go far more smoothly if he informs Congress and lets it participate in developing strategy, as Dubya barred it from doing in Iraq.

We invaded Iraq to neutralize weapons of mass destruction and force regime change. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and we achieved regime change when we captured Saddam in December 2003. Nearly six years later, we are still there, trying to turn a vastly changed Iraq into a stable, self-sustaining democracy.

We invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahiri and the jihadists who planned 9/11. We invaded only after we demanded that Mullah Omar turn them over and he refused. We pulled Omar’s Taliban from power but failed to capture or kill Omar himself. With Pakistani aid, we captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of 9/11, but we failed to find bin Laden and Zawahiri. There are still terrorist training camps in the region, and we’ve failed to shut them down. And we’ve been there now for eight years and counting.

Violating the Powell Doctrine. The most vital question to ask about Afghanistan today is “what is our mission”? Is it to do what we started out to do, capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahiri and their immediate cohorts? Is it to shut down the training camps? Is it to keep the Taliban, whom we displaced from power by fighting them and buying off local warlords, from regaining control? Or is it, as in Iraq, to build a new nation?

With each of those questions, the risk of deeper and longer involvement increases. We might get lucky and kill bin Laden and Zawahiri with a Predator strike tomorrow. Pakistani intelligence might find them and turn them in. Bin Laden might even die on his own from his chronic kidney disease. But their protégés would only replace them and carry on the jihad.

Even if we wiped out all the training camps, the risk of their returning remains as long as the Taliban are willing to offer jihadists Islamic hospitality. And the Taliban seem to be on the resurgence, at least in the west and largely Pashtun south.

So we could decide to remove the Taliban permanently. But “the Taliban” are not a modern army. They are a very loose conglomeration of widely different local groups with varying motives and allegiances. Furthermore, with a corrupt, inept and oppressive regime in Kabul, the Afghans themselves offer no viable alternative. That’s why General McChrystal understandably wants to build a new nation, from the ground up, with American blood and treasure.

Thus does mission creep undermine all four pillars of the Powell Doctrine, namely: (1) a clear mission, (2) provided with overwhelming force, (3) enjoying popular support in America, and (4) possessing a clear exit strategy. We have no precise mission. What we think we have always seems to devolve to the least possible task (prolonged occupation and national transformation), which no invading army has accomplished in that region in human history. We have long since passed the point when overwhelming force might have been quickly decisive, and anyway, we are exhausted by the war in Iraq and have no overwhelming force to commit. Our people are starting to lose faith in the mission (whatever it is), so we have no solid popular support.

Finally, we self-evidently have no exit strategy. Nation building is not an exit strategy but a prescription for indefinite commitment. We are still in Germany, Japan and South Korea—and in strength—after over half a century. Under any reasonably rosy scenario, nation building would have increasing numbers of Americans asking why we were spending so much blood and treasure to build a nation halfway around the world when we need so badly to rebuild our own.

It might not be amiss to point out here that Gulf I was our only successful, significant war since the Korean Armistice 55 years ago. (The outcome in Iraq is still in doubt.) We fought it—and limited our commitment to it—under the Powell Doctrine.

Having failed every test of the Powell Doctrine, we now have the same dilemma in Afghanistan that we had and have in Iraq. We are there. We have changed things irrevocably by being there, and a precipitous pullout might make things worse. So even if we wanted to get out—and some of us don’t—doing that well would not be an easy mission either.

There seem to be only five viable options:

1. Negotiate with the Taliban. We could offer a very simple deal. You hand over or expel bin Laden, Zawahiri and their crew from both Afghanistan and Pakistan and shut down the terrorist training camps, and we get out and give you economic aid.

The only reason this sounds crazy at first is that we Americans tend to conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda. But they are very different. In all I have read about the Taliban, I have never seen it reported that they bought into the idea of international jihad against the United States, let alone trained their fighters to wage war against us abroad. They just want to rule their own country after thirty years of unceasing war, and they appear to have fought us only there.

What kept Mullah Omar from handing over bin Laden in the first place is Islamic hospitality, which is a strong command of the Quran. As a good Muslim, he would not expel his invited guests or turn them over to their enemies. (Bin Laden’s money, the amount of which after his flight from Somalia is in dispute, also may have helped.)

Today Omar is eight years older and maybe wiser, and bin Laden’s money may be exhausted. Omar and his movement have suffered immeasurably. And we are there now, in force. The same deal that we offered in 2001 may seem much more attractive to Omar now, especially if it involves our leaving Afghanistan, his native country.

And as an older and wiser man, Omar cannot help but have pondered the endgame. What good would Al Qaeda do Afghanistan after a Taliban victory, providing a rival center of power, forming a nucleus of heavily armed foreign immigrants trained in terrorism, and attracting constant unwanted attention from neighbors and mighty foreign powers (including the U.S. and Russia)? Maybe Mullah Omar has gotten wise enough to want all foreigners to get out and leave Afghanistan in peace.

If not Mullah Omar, maybe other Taliban. The Taliban are hardly monolithic. While an offer of peace to some splinters might not strike a reliable deal, it might enlist certain moderate Taliban in a more productive cause than fighting the rest of the world to the death. The worst an offer to negotiate might do is split the movement and draw some Taliban to our side.

The primary obstacle to this strategy is that we have demonized the Taliban. That’s not hard to do: their military tactics are ruthless and often medieval, and so is their treatment of women. But oddly enough, many Afghans seem to prefer them to the existing government. I’m not sure I would disagree in their position; if your wealth (and daughters!) were regularly taken by men with AK-47s and you had no recourse but to God, a religious regime that treated you honestly but strictly and could stop those practices might not seem like a bad idea.

There are moderate Taliban who let girls go to school and boys listen to music. And there is no telling what progress peace, travel and competition with neighbors might bring to Afghanistan after thirty years of unremitting war. And even if not, there are many other places in the globe (including some in Pakistan) where primitive treatment of women prevails. Are we going to fight all of them and spill our blood and treasure to rebuild their nations and their economies?

2. Bring in the Neighbors. Afghanistan has two powerful neighbors, Iran and Pakistan. Its neighbors to the north, the “Stans” (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), all share ethnic minorities with Afghanistan and may have some influence over them. And the Stans are still trying to find their way in the world after their release from the Soviet Union’s grip. Even China shares a small common border (76 km) with Afghanistan. Why not get all these nations together and see what they can contribute to national stabilization?

Iran and Pakistan are already there, through their intelligence and commercial agents. So is India, even though it’s not a neighbor. And the Stans undoubtedly have familial, commercial and even intelligence and military ties that cross the border. Maybe some or all of these neighbors would see the merit in a NATO-U.S. withdrawal at the price of closing down the terror camps. Maybe they might even help enforce that deal. It’s worth a try.

3. Turn the Job over to the Afghans. This option may sound reasonable after what we’ve done in Iraq. As Dubya said in his usual childish simplicity, “as they stand up, we stand down.”

The problem in Afghanistan is that there is no one to stand up. The existing government is universally despised outside of Kabul. Its troops and police are notoriously corrupt and inept; their loyalty lies more to clan and local leader than to the state. Furthermore, whereas Iraq had only three major ethnic groups in relatively contiguous territories, Afghanistan has at least eight, all mushed together on a map that looks like a massive Rorschach blot.

The ethnic dispersion and diversity might not be such a problem if there were hope for an honest central government that everyone could trust. But the recent massive fraud in national elections gave the lie to that. In the absence of a viable central government, this option inevitably devolves to the first or fourth: make a deal with the Taliban or do the job ourselves.

4. “Stay the Course.” I use this odious phrase (from Dubya’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq) to make a point. This option is the most open-ended and risky of all. It puts us in the position of foreign invader of a nation that has repelled all foreign invaders for over two millennia. And in the absence of a viable, trustworthy central government, it leaves us with the unenviable task of building a nation, complete with local and regional institutions and a national economy, from the ground up. The American people would tire long before our troops could complete that open-ended mission, the more so since there is no competent government in Kabul to help. So in the end, this option would likely devolve into one of the others, unless the U.S. could summon the type of altruism, internal strength and staying power that nothing in current events would lead us to foresee.

5. Get Out and Call it Victory or “Peace with Honor.” This of course is what we ended up doing in Vietnam. No one who has seen the pictures of the last helicopter leaving what was then known as Saigon (now Ho Chih Minh City) could call our exit honorable.

If we get out in the near future, likely the Taliban will prevail. Whether they continue to harbor Al Qaeda would be entirely up to them. Better to negotiate with them now, when we are there in strength and no one (including us!) knows how long we’ll be there, than when we are an unpleasant memory petitioning from afar.

If we get out in the far future, still not having built the desired nation, everything may have changed in unintended ways. Some intelligence officials think that a prolonged war against the Taliban in the south, who are mostly Pashtun, might spread to the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, with unpredictable consequences, including destabilizing Pakistan. Unless we are willing to commit massive additional force for a decade or more, this seems like an unacceptable risk to run, with an unacceptable cost-benefit ratio.

So if we forsee a dwindling national commitment in resources and popular will, the best course of action would be to negotiate an exit soon, while our strength is at our predicted maximum and we have a new president who, for a time at least, can command popular support.

Conclusion: Democracies and Limited War. At first glance, none of these options seems particularly palatable. But that’s what we get for breaking every pillar of the Powell Doctrine so cavalierly. That was Dubya’s, Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s contribution to national calamity. Nevertheless, the President must bear the onus of how things end, because the end is likely to come on his watch.

The best strategy would be continuing to make credible noises about Option 4 while pursuing the hell out of Options 1 and 2. That would require a certain level of deceit, which is not easy in a democracy, especially one in which the President has promised extraordinary transparency and Congress, having been virtually excluded from managing the War in Iraq, is rightly jealous of its checks and balances.

But that’s what happens when democracies make limited war for unclear objectives. Democratic governments make war best when the war is all out, survival is at stake, and the popular mood is wholly in favor of the effort, as it was in World War II. In all-out war, deceit is possible (under military discipline) even for democracies, as it was during our feint at Calais before our invasion at Normandy. When objectives are limited and popular support is questionable, diplomacy and commerce are better tools for democracies, occasionally supplemented by quick and lethal covert action.

In our breast-beating stage after we “won” (and lost) the Cold War, we forgot these facts of life. We could have learned much from our closest allies, the British, who suffered similar traumas during their loss of empire after World War II.

But we didn’t learn because we thought we sat astride the world. We thought ourselves excluded from the truths of history by our “superpower” status and our “exceptionalism.” However skillfully the President handles the war, we and our children will be paying for that arrogance for decades. So will the Afghans.

Clarification/Correction: In earlier versions of this post, there was some confusion about where bin Laden, Zawahiri and their gang are hiding now. We don’t really know, but our best guess is that they are in the tribal border provinces of Pakistan, the so-called "Northwest Frontier Provinces."

Implicit in that assumption is that they are, if not under the Taliban’s protection there, at least operating in areas where the Taliban enjoy substantial influence and support among the local population. Those facts would allow local Taliban forces in that area, presumably including Mullah Omar, to expel Al Qaeda if they so chose, or at least to turn the leaders over to the West by locating them for Pakistani or Western intelligence. For we believe the Taliban are not only more numerous and better fighters, but also have the advantage of closer connection with the indigenous population through language and culture.

Without the Taliban’s support, Al Qaeda would be nothing more than strangers in a strange land, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is reasonable to conclude that the Taliban control their fate in the region wherever they may be hiding. Thus a deal with the Taliban, if carried through before our departure, should be able to rid the region of Al Qaeda.


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11 September 2009

The Public Option

New York Times pundit David Brooks is a conservative whom I respect. He’s thoughtful, honest and usually non-ideological. But lately he’s repeated something that has to be wrong.

He’s said that the President’s endorsement of the public option in his brilliant speech Wednesday was a feint—a sop to liberals that the Administration has no intention of carrying through. Brooks said this twice: once in his commentary on PBS just after the speech, and again in his column yesterday. The language he used yesterday was particularly pungent; he said, “On Wednesday, the president praised [the public option], then effectively buried it. White House officials no longer mask their exasperation with the liberal obsession on this issue.”

Brooks is a reporter as well as a columnist. He has access to sources near the top. So he may know something that I don’t know. But if he’s right, then a whole lot of people—way beyond the President’s progressive base—ought to be unhappy.

Here are five reasons why what Brooks thinks had better be wrong.

First and foremost, if Brooks is right, the President would have betrayed his strongest supporters. It would be one thing for him to make a speech praising the public option, explaining why opposition in Congress makes it impossible, and proposing a viable substitute that improves the bargain for consumers and serves some of the same ends. It would be quite another thing for the President to endorse the public option so publicly and not mean what he says.

That would be, in essence, a lie—a bait-and-switch tactic entirely out of character for the President. Up to now, Barack Obama has always been honest with us the people and treated us as adults, as he did in his famous speech on race in Philadelphia. It would be dumb politics, as well as out of character, for the President to betray the people, let alone his best supporters, so badly. I’ve never seen Barack Obama do anything like that, whether as senator, candidate or president.

Second, the president has expressed strong admiration for government-run systems that work well since the very beginning. His May 2007 speech on health care as a candidate lauded Medicare and its successes, as well as Harry Truman, who supported government-sponsored insurance. That praise seemed genuine at the time; I don’t think it was a sop for liberals, but a problem-solver’s endorsement of a solution that works.

The third reason is where people from all political persuasions come in, or ought to. Without the public option, the President’s proposal has nothing to hold down health-care costs. The President promised not to increase the deficit, and I expect Congress to hold him to that promise. But holding down government expense (mostly for subsidies to individuals mandated to buy insurance) is not the same as taming the explosive growth of health-care costs and health-insurance premiums, which everyone agrees could break this country.

The right, left and center all agree that real competition in health insurance could hold down prices for premiums and (through insurers’ pressure on providers) maybe even for health care. So do economists; that’s Economics 1A. The trouble is, there is virtually no real competition in the health-insurance industry right now. Two earlier posts explain why that is so as a matter of both economic theory and visible results in the marketplace (Item 2). I won’t repeat that analysis here. But the President himself referred to the lack of competition in the insurance marketplace in the following words:
“So let me set the record straight. My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75% of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies. In Alabama, almost 90% is controlled by just one company. Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down.”
The President gets it. Why would he decry the lack of competition and do nothing about it?

He didn’t propose any of the standard solutions that economists dream up. He didn’t endorse ending state-by-state regulation and creating a national market. He didn’t propose standardizing insurance terms so that consumers and employers can comparison shop and health insurers have to compete on price and service, rather than hiding the ball of what they offer in incomprehensible fine print. But he did propose a public option (end of page).

The public option the President proposed was quite limited. He made clear that the government would not support it with subsidies; it would have to stand on its own, like the U.S. Postal Service. But because it would be non-profit, it would gives us a practical gauge—a direct experiment, if you will—showing how much relying on for-profit insurance hurts us as consumers and as a nation.

As an entrepreneurial problem solver and gradualist (here I agree with Brooks’ characterization of the President), the President wants to start small. In addition to not subsidizing the public option’s insurance, the President would limit it to consumers who could not otherwise find insurance. He quoted (bottom of page) an estimate of 5% of the marketplace, probably including mostly the poor—people whom mandates would force to buy insurance but who can’t afford anything on the market today.

That brings us to the fourth reason why the President can’t have feinted as Brooks believes. What the President didn’t mention is obvious if you think about it. A non-subsidized, non-profit government-managed insurer would differ from private insurers in only one important respect: the profit motive.

For years private insurers have assured us they are just as efficient as any government-run program. They’ve never proved it; Medicare is several times as efficient, year after year. Maybe if private insurers really tightened their belts, they could reduce their administrative costs from 10% to 17% to the level of Medicare’s—about 4%. Whether they can remains to be seen, because none has yet done it.

But one thing private insurers can’t do is run without profit, which is their reason for being. So if consumers find a public option more attractive—if it offers lower prices and better service that private insurers can’t match despite heroic effort—the reason will be the profit that private insurers demand. If private insurers can’t compete with a hands-tied-around-its-back public option that is not subsidized and limited to people who can’t otherwise afford insurance, their failure to do so will be an experimental repudiation of the profit system on which our current health-insurance market is based.

Private health insurers know this. That’s why they fear a public option more than death—even one as anemic as what the President has proposed. They themselves think their for-profit model may be fatally flawed in advancing the general welfare. But you’ll never hear them say that; they’d rather scare the rubes with talk of a government “takeover.”

The final reason why the President can’t have meant to praise and abandon the public option is that doing so would be a complete capitulation to private insurers. The mandates that the President proposes would force millions of new customers into private insurers’ arms. Not only that: the government’s subsidies would pay for many of those new customers’ insurance. The government would (really, will) be putting part of our tax dollars, in subsidies, indirectly into insurers’ pockets as profits.

In other words, the combination of mandates and subsidies in the President’s plan would provide a massive indirect subsidy to private insurers. Our tax dollars would become their profits. What’s there for an insurer not to like?

But the President’s plan was supposed to be a grand bargain. Insurers would get millions of new customers, part of them financed with our tax dollars. We the people would get something in return, a quid pro quo.

Without the public option, the quid pro quo is laughably thin. All we the people would get is a prohibition on excluding pre-existing conditions and a guarantee of keeping our insurance if we got sick. We wouldn’t get portability. We wouldn’t get more competition in private health insurance. We wouldn’t get anything the puts real pressure on private insurers to drive down prices and improve service. That’s much too thin a bargain for any American who doesn’t work for (or have lots of stock in) a private health insurer to accept.

So I hope and believe that Brooks and his sources are wrong. The bait-and-switch that Brooks sees in the President’s speech would be a gross betrayal, but not just of the liberals and progressives who helped elect the President. It would betray every consumer with health insurance, down to the right-wing nut cases. And it would transform the President from problem-solver-in-chief to marketer-in-chief, Dubya redux. It would mean surrendering to the health insurers and declaring victory.

I can’t believe that Barack Obama would allow himself to undergo such a transformation or create such a charade or that anyone in his administration would countenance doing so. Far more likely, Brooks misinterpreted his sources, saw only one side of an internal debate, or heard what he wanted to hear.


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10 September 2009

Message for the Gang of Six and the Blue Dogs

Now you’ve seen what leadership looks like. You know how much it differs from the nationwide bar brawl that came before.

Last night, the President put a sensible comprehensive proposal for health-insurance reform on the table. It’s got pieces Republicans like, including John McCain’s low-cost insurance for catastrophic care and a serious bipartisan effort at tort reform. Best of all, it’s got a promise—made before the entire nation—not to expand the deficit.

Hold the President to that promise, but get the damn bill passed.

And keep it short. How many pages does it take to say, for example: “No health insurance in force in the United States shall depend on the insured’s condition at or before the time the insurance entered into force, and anything to the contrary in any contract or policy of insurance policy shall be null, void and unenforceable.”

You Gang of Six have had your fifteen minutes of fame. Your home states have tiny populations. Collectively, you represent 3% of Americans and 2.52% of the nation’s GDP. Few outside your states knew your names before this debate. Now most voters who care about health insurance do.

If you think what you’ve done so far has enhanced your national reputations, think again. Most of us believe you’ve fretted and strutted like neurotic little roosters, ignoring the will of a clear national majority, which wants a public option and wants real reform by even greater margins. We think you’ve procrastinated, temporized, accepted demagoguery as the people’s will and generally done a piss poor job. Your belated flurry of activity during the last week hasn’t changed our opinion.

Our Great Compromise favors empty land over people. Our Senate’s rules favor seniority over wisdom, giving static districts like yours power over those of us who think and change. These things gave you your disproportionate power. Don’t abuse it.

In the presidential election, people in states representing 36% of the nation’s GDP preferred the President by a margin of 20% or more. Those in states representing 72% of GDP voted for him.

Do think all those productive people fear a public option? Do you think they believe for a nanosecond that it will destroy (or even harm) the health-insurance industry? Do you think they credit the notion of “death panels,” which the President so accurately characterized as a lie? Do you really believe that Rush and Sarah confused them?

Don’t you confuse our media’s pathological focus on outliers and crazies with what the folks who make this country work think.

For you Blue Dogs I have a very simple message. We Democrats are watching you. So act like Democrats. Be blue and not dogs.

If you won’t support the most vital Democratic initiative in forty years—and the one most critical to our popular President’s future effectiveness—why should the rest of us Democrats support you? Most of us think of you exactly as portrayed in the Danziger cartoon of September 5.

And don’t try to hide behind obscure procedural votes. We in the bigger states read the newspapers, know how to use the Internet, know how Congress works, and will be watching your every move. We’re sick and tired of having people suffer and die because of insurance companies’ profitable games. And we fear what an epidemic will do in our cities with one in six of us uninsured.

I can’t speak for all Democrats, but I know what I will do. If every one of you Blue Dogs (and Democrats in the Gang of Six) doesn’t follow your President’s lead and vote for his plan—including the public option—the next check I write to the Democratic Party will have the following language in the space for the payee: “DCCC (not for Blue Dogs or the Democrats in the Gang of Six).”

Don’t expect help from your party if you don’t support it when the chips are down. The chips are down now.

Yesterday the President appealed to the better angels of your nature. He spoke of Ted Kennedy’s lifelong crusade for reform. He outlined sincere efforts by politicians of all persuasions for over a century. He mentioned Ted, Teddy Roosevelt, John Dingell’s father, Orrin Hatch, and John McCain. And he wondered what happened to the spirit of helping each other and getting the job done that used to characterize America.

While he spoke, the Republican demagogues and obstructionists squirmed in their seats, looking like errant school children. Don’t you be among them. Small minds from small states and mostly rural districts can’t thwart the will of Americans forever. Don’t pander to your constituents’ ignorance; educate them, as the President did last night. Act like leaders for a change.

But if you won’t implement the President’s plan well and quickly because it’s the right thing to do, know this. We from the vast majority in population and productivity will remember, and there will be consequences.


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08 September 2009

Fear, Delusion and Their Antidote

As Joe Biden said the other day, just last year we were looking at the beginning of a second Great Depression. Now we see the end of a recession rapidly approaching in our daily news. Most of the massive infrastructure spending in the President’s stimulus bill has yet to kick in, and the G-20 just agreed to keep the global pedal to the metal. Yet fear of harder times is rampant, even on usually sunny Wall Street.

Our government has broken the bank to keep private industry private and afloat. In the past half-year or so, the Fed and Treasury have spent or committed three or four trillion dollars (depending on whose figures you read) on guarantees and direct support for financial firms. Far from failing, many of them are thumbing their noses at the government that saved them and pressing to give their bailout money back.

Though restructured, GM and Chrysler are still viable (Chrysler barely) and still privately owned. Both have sold lots of cars under the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program. Yet after writing one of his best columns on Ted Kennedy and gradualism, usually sane conservative pundit David Brooks decries a government takeover.

So where’s the government takeover? I just don’t see it. What I see is government committing trillions to keep private business viable and privately owned.

Then there’s the terror over the presumed cost of health-insurance reform—about a trillion dollars over ten years. We have a $14 trillion economy, and health care accounts for about sixteen percent of it. So health care costs us collectively well over $2 trillion every year, or about twice the ten-year cost of a fix. We plan to spend $10 trillion on Medicare and Medicaid alone in the next ten years, and fixing health insurance will cost only 10% of that.

Viewed against these figures, a trillion doesn’t seem like much money at all—not to fix a sixty-year-old problem that everyone agrees will break us if it stays unsolved. Yet fear that health-insurance reform will lead us to economic ruin is rampant.

Where is all this irrational angst coming from? The fear and delusion sweeping the country are so absurd that it’s difficult to pinpoint the source.

Only two possible sources are readily apparent. The first I call “leadership deficit disorder.” For nearly thirty years (since Reagan), we’ve gotten used to dogmatic leaders who derived their domestic economic policies from a set of simple fairy tales, without the flexibility to deal with facts, evidence or changed circumstances. The exceptions—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—failed because they couldn’t translate their superior intelligence for ordinary folk. Carter was a White-House recluse who couldn’t deal with Congress, and Clinton was so entranced with his own intelligence that he enraged both the opposition and a lot of ordinary people as well.

Barack Obama is our first president in two generations who combines superior intelligence with enormous diplomatic and political skill and yet knows how to keep his ego in check. So people just don’t know what to make of him. Most of us have been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to think of government as untrustworthy and incompetent. We still can’t bring ourselves to understand that we have a new kind of leader.

The second possible source of national delusion is something people would rather not talk about. Many people who ought to know better are afraid and deluded because they just aren’t comfortable with a president of mixed race.

But no matter. We’re all going to get the benefit of our President’s and his team’s extraordinary abilities whether we’re comfortable with him or not —just as we already have in escaping a second Depression far faster than anyone expected, in seven short months! Leadership will be the antidote to fear and delusion, just as it was in FDR’s day.

Although his strong supporter since well before the primary campaign, I myself underestimated the President twice and was wrong both times. Now I know he’s even smarter than I reckoned and infinitely more patient than I. He bides his time.

That’s exactly what he’s done on health care.

For the last seven weeks or so, we’ve had what amounts to a nationwide bar brawl on the subject. To say there has been far more heat than light would be Obamanian understatement. The President has watched it all patiently, with his special ability to play three-dimensional psychological chess in his head.

He knows now with great precision who all the brawlers are, who’s allied with whom, and where the obstacles to progress are. His aides have counted the votes in the Senate, over and over. He’s also conscious of sporadic outbreaks of intelligent debate, mostly in the elite press and on the Lehrer News Hour. And he has good internal advice from the best political, economic and medical minds in the country.

Now he knows how hungry we all are for leadership. He’s let the self-interested, greedy, stupid and demagogic all have their say. He’s let the small minds from small states give us a peek at a future of “no, no, no!” And he’s given us plenty of time to ponder what a sad state we’d be in if we had to rely on their leadership.

Now our hunger for rational leadership has built to the point of starvation. We are waiting for someone to break up the bar brawl and bring us to order.

So when the President speaks to Congress and the nation tomorrow night, expect us all to listen. I don’t know what he’ll say. I hope he’ll keep the public insurance option on the table or at least provide a good substitute.

But I do know this. When he speaks, he will outline the art of the possible.

The President’s hands are not free. Congress writes the laws, not he. And small minds from small states control Congress, at least as concerns health-insurance reform. Yet with intelligence and an extraordinary political sense, the President will get us the best deal that can be had today. And we had all better take it, because we won’t soon get another.


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