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

09 July 2008

Obama’s Sense of Perspective

Would all those whose sons or daughters died in Iraq, who’ve lost their jobs, who can’t afford gasoline or health care, or whose homes are in foreclosure—but who still think gay marriage is our most burning issue—please stand up?

The human virtue we Americans most need restored in these perilous times is our sense of perspective. Its complete absence has been one of the Bush Administration’s most dangerous and deceptive follies.

Dubya and Rove gained power, abused it, and set our country on a course of precipitous decline by elevating just such national nonissues as gay marriage to central positions in our political dialogue. They raised gossip above policy while allowing their cronies in the oil, coal, car and outsourcing industries to plunder the nation.

At the same time, they neglected the fundamentals of our economic, commercial, environmental and military survival. Their policies on energy, infrastructure, pollution, global warming, medical and scientific research, disaster response, war, military preparedness, and terrorism were counterproductive or ineffectual at best.

Now comes Senator Obama. What much of the nation has yet to learn about him is that he is, first and foremost, a realist, pragmatist and centrist. He never loses perspective.

Republicans like to tar him as a liberal or “far-left” Democrat. They do so not because that charge has any semblance of reality, but because it has worked so well for them against others in the recent past. Maybe they tried to move the country so far to the right that they can no longer discern the center. But their old song is out of tune with the times.

How does Obama’s pragmatism and centrism reveal itself? Let me count the ways. On health care, he never went for Hillary’s superficially attractive mandates, which were politically and economically flawed. He never proposed a politically elusive “single payer” system, although his praise for Medicare suggested that he might favor it. Instead, he suggested a simple, direct and politically feasible combination of public and private resources, with nuances of uncanny economic understanding. It’s clear that he designed his approach to minimize political opposition and get a practicable solution in place as quickly as possible.

On foreign policy and terrorism, Obama kept his eye on the most important ball: Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. If Al Qaeda or its affiliates get their hands on a nuclear weapon and are able to detonate it in an American city, you can kiss our country as you know it now goodbye. Dubya’s feeble imperial aspirations gave us just a foretaste of what would happen. Someone like Cheney would take over, and a frightened and cowed population would not only let him, but encourage him.

Even if the nuke were a North Korean dud, its detonation would be like Alaric sacking Rome in the fifth century. After Alaric, the wounded Roman empire stumbled on for a few more centuries but was a spent force. The Dark Ages ensued. Just such an end is likely for us if we don’t take Al Qaeda seriously.

Obama has. Nearly a year ago he proposed the strongest, clearest, most thorough and comprehensive plan to combat terrorism of any presidential candidate. He recognized the need to pursue bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan if necessary. And he beat everyone else in politics, including the Bushies, by at least five months in recognizing how Musharraf’s clumsy military government had failed both the battle against terrorists and its own people.

On energy policy, Obama has been too ready to pander to Midwest farmers in supporting inefficient corn-derived ethanol. He has also pandered to his home state’s coal industry in pushing the promise of so-called “clean coal” far beyond any demonstrated feasibility or technological merit. But he has acknowledged the two most important points of national energy policy: the fatal damage that our dependence on foreign oil is doing to our economy and national security and the urgent need to achieve carbon neutrality and retard the scourge of climate change.

Recognizing these points, Obama exposed the absurdity of Republican proposals to cure our oil addiction by drilling for yet more oil in our wilderness and coastal areas. As he or his staff has pointed out, our total national oil reserves—a mere 3% of the world’s—are a drop in the global market’s bucket. Their complete exhaustion would not even budge the present trajectory of global supply and demand, and consequently wouldn’t change prices. More important, it would take at least a decade to bring any of these resources on line, by which time we could be halfway to a real policy of energy independence.

Obama’s good sense of perspective doesn’t stop with future proposals. It shows in his campaign. Many Democrats decried his vote to legally immunize the telecommunications companies that voluntarily participated in Dubya’s illegal electronic surveillance.

But what’s the point of exposing these corporations to interminable lawsuits? At the time, their managements thought—albeit erroneously—that they were doing the right and patriotic thing. Despite intensive journalistic investigation, no serious abuses of individual rights by these corporations have come to light. The only practical reason for denying them immunity is to use civil lawsuits to expose the Bush administration’s wrongdoing after it leaves office. But that wrongdoing is mostly over, and it will inevitably be exposed once an Obama Administration and a heavily Democratic Congress take office next year.

To ask for more is to make largely innocent corporations, their employees and shareholders collateral damage in a political vendetta against the Bush Administration. Obama is much too smart to do that. In voting for immunity he courted the support of important business leaders, whose help he will need to govern effectively. He did the right but unpopular thing. And he reminded us that the best revenge is living well—something we Americans, with our interminable political reprisals, have forgotten how to do.

Another example of Obama’s sense of perspective is his courting religious voters with support for faith-based initiatives. Courting them is exactly what he should be doing. He needs a strong electoral mandate and a durable Democratic majority to make the huge changes that need making. Religious voters now realize how badly Dubya and Rove conned them and subverted Jesus’ and the Bible’s teachings. They are ripe for political conversion.

Eight months ago, I predicted that Obama would woo religious voters and would do so successfully. Not being as politically savvy as he, I was off on my timing: it’s better to court them after the primaries, both because Democrats are more secular and because religious voters don’t like John McCain. Obama rightly turned to the task as soon as he had practically secured the nomination.

I know, I know. Courting religious voters risks weakening the separation of church and state. But church/state separation typically doesn’t fare well in third-world countries, and third-world status is where our national glide path has us headed. If Obama can use religious voters’ heft to pull back on the stick and get us heading upward again, minor blurring of the church/state line is a risk well worth taking. Here, too, his actions bespeak a man who sees and takes the main chance.

Obama’s most notable act of perspective and pragmatism was refusing to accept the $ 84 million federal limits on his campaign financing. He knows that racism, although dying, is not dead. He saw how cleverly even Hillary exploited it when the chips were down, and he knows it will raise its ugly head again this September and October. The Swift Boat Veterans’ character assassination of John Kerry was fresh in his mind. So he made sure he would have an enormous campaign war chest to fight unfair, irrational and unpatriotic attacks right down to the finish.

Obama’s opponents seem perpetually confused about him. They see his charisma, his powerful message of hope and change, his unmatched education, and his extraordinary intellect. So they think he must be a fuzzy-minded egghead, an idealist and ideologue.

He is anything but. He never loses perspective. He is a hard-headed realist and pragmatist who never takes his eye off the ball. He is the Tiger Woods of modern politics.

Like Woods, Obama is modest, likeable and understated and has a winning smile. But also like Woods, he is single-minded and relentless in the pursuit of victory, whether it be winning the election or conquering the host of real problems that threaten to demote us to third-world status. He is flexible on means and minor stuff but never seems to lose sight of what really matters.

Our leadership has lacked those qualities for so long that we have trouble recognizing them, let alone appreciating them. But they will serve Obama well as president. It’s a shame that so many people still underestimate both them and him.


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  • At Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 12:42:00 PM EDT, Blogger Dr. John Maszka said…

    Taking the war to Pakistan is perhaps the most foolish thing America can do. Obama is not the first to suggest it, and we already have sufficient evidence of the potentially negative repercussions of such an action.

    For example: On January 13, 2006, the United States launched a missile strike on the village of Damadola, Pakistan. Rather than kill the targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, the strike instead slaughtered 17 locals. This only served to further weaken the Musharraf government and further destabilize the entire area. In a nuclear state like Pakistan, this was not only unfortunate, it was outright stupid. Pakistan has 160 million Arabs (better than half of the population of the entire Arab world). Pakistan also has the support of China and a nuclear arsenal.

    I predict that America’s military action in the Middle East will enter the canons of history alongside Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust, in kind if not in degree. The Bush administration’s war on terror marks the age in which America has again crossed a line that many argue should never be crossed. Call it preemption, preventive war, the war on terror, or whatever you like; there is a sense that we have again unleashed a force that, like a boom-a-rang, at some point has to come back to us. The Bush administration argues that American military intervention in the Middle East is purely in self-defense. Others argue that it is pure aggression. The consensus is equally as torn over its impact on international terrorism. Is America truly deterring future terrorists with its actions? Or is it, in fact, aiding the recruitment of more terrorists?

    The last thing the United States should do at this point and time is to violate yet another state’s sovereignty. Beyond being wrong, it just isn't very smart. We all agree that slavery in this country was wrong; as was the decimation of the Native American populations. We all agree that the Holocaust and several other acts of genocide in the twentieth century were wrong. So when will we finally admit that American military intervention in the Middle East is wrong as well?

  • At Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 7:29:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear John,

    Although your comment is not badly written, I regret to say that I disagree with almost all of it.

    You have some basic facts wrong. First, no one (least of all Obama) is talking about “taking the war to Pakistan.” Obama’s recommendation is to get the Pakistani government to fight harder against Al Qaeda and the Taliban there. He also wants to continue to target Al Qaeda members there using surgical unmanned air strikes, which are already official U.S. policy. It is conceivable that he might use special forces briefly to capture or kill bin Laden or Zawahiri, but only under the most favorable and unusual circumstances.

    Second, Pakistan is not an Arab nation. It is a nation composed of various non-Arab ethnic groups. Punjabis are a near majority, and the principal minorities are Pashtuns, Sindhis and Serakais. The Arab mujahedeen who are our enemies, including Al Qaeda, are foreign fighters using Pakistani territory for their own purposes, without Pakistan’s permission or approval. They speak different languages from the Pakistanis, who generally despise them. The only Pakistanis who tolerate Al Qaeda are the Taliban, other Islamic extremists, and locals too terrorized to object.

    If you meant to say that Pakistan is an Islamic nation, that’s largely correct. But there are 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, so it’s very far from half the Muslim world.

    Anyway, I fail to see the relevance of your point about population. Pakistan is one of the most democratically advanced Islamic nations, as the ultimately effective protests of its judiciary and lawyers against President Musharraf showed. There is little risk that the Pakistani people would turn against the United States or the West—let alone launch a nuclear strike—merely because the United States took out terrorists hiding in Pakistan whom most Pakistanis despise.

    I also fail to see the relevance of Hiroshima, Nagasaki or the Holocaust. The nuclear destruction of those two Japanese cities was intended to—and did—stop a war that Imperial Japan had started and that had already killed some fifty million people worldwide. At the time Imperial Japan started that war (by its invasion of China and Southeast Asia and its sneak attack at Pearl Harbor) it was one of the two greatest military powers in the world. How that history relates to anything involving Pakistan or Al Qaeda today is beyond me.

    The Holocaust was totally different. It was the deliberate and systematic extermination of an entirely innocent and defenseless internal minority. Not only had that minority taken no action against the German state; it didn’t even begin to defend itself until it had nearly been exterminated. The power that undertook this unprovoked extermination (Nazi Germany) was at the time the other greatest military power in the world. It used its unmatched power against a defenseless minority composed of unarmed and pacifist civilians.

    Again, I fail to see the relevance of this history to your comment. The only relevance that I can see contradicts your argument. As World War II established, and as the post-war Nuremberg trials ruled, Nazi Germany’s “national sovereignty” did not give it the legal right to commit genocide on an innocent and defenseless minority of its own people. Under similar principles, a nation’s “sovereignty” does not give it the right to harbor terrorists that threaten other nations.

    It’s hard to ignore the serious factual and historical errors in your comment, including your neglecting to mention the Predator strikes that did kill Al Qaeda operatives with minimal collateral damage. But if I do ignore them, I discern a single theme in your comment: the importance of territorial sovereignty. You seem to think that Pakistan has a moral right and a desire to retaliate directly against the United States for any action against Al Qaeda on its territory.

    I disagree on both counts. Pakistan has no moral right to object to U.S. action against Al Qaeda in its Northwest territories because those territories are sovereign to Pakistan in name only. Pakistan doesn’t really control them, and that’s precisely the problem. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have free reign. Pakistan has tried to control them and claims it has lost thousands of soldiers doing so, but it has not succeeded.

    Second, I doubt that any significant minority in Pakistan—let alone the Pakistani government—desires or approves of the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s actions in those territories. There may be some elements inside Pakistan’s intelligence services that secretly applaud them. But the longstanding and official position of the government of Pakistan is that those activities are illegal and undesirable and should be stopped. The idea that Pakistan would treat a limited American attempt to stop them—especially if successful—as a foreign invasion subject to nuclear retaliation is nonsense.

    If the U.S. were successfully to take out Al Qaeda’s training camps, its leaders and their residences with air strikes or brief and limited special-forces operations, that action would no doubt embarrass Pakistan. Its politicians might officially deplore the action and make speeches against it. Official Pakistani-U.S. relations would probably cool for a while. But most of Pakistan, including the current democratic government and most especially President Musharraf, would secretly applaud the action and feel satisfied once the political angst had died down. In no case would Pakistan consider using, let alone threaten to use or use, its nuclear arsenal against us because of any such action.

    So Obama’s recommendation is both realistic and smart. He knows the facts. He knows how to reason with them to predict consequences accurately. That’s just one small indicator of how nice it would be to have a president who is better informed and smarter than most of us for a change.


    P.S. The intelligence and effectiveness of Obama’s foreign policy are no accident. He has 300 people on his foreign-policy team, including top advisors from Bill Clinton’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s campaign team.


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