Monday, February 28, 2011

John McCain's reckless attacks

Today, Senator John McCain was on Meet the Press for the 60th time. Thank God the man was not elected to the presidency. Listening to him, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is a lunatic. He chose to attack President Obama's response to the Libya crisis. Here is some of what he said about how the U.S. should respond to the situation in Libya:
“We could impose, and could have imposed a no-fly zone. They would have stopped flying if that had been imposed. They’re using air power and helicopters to continue these massacres. We should recognize a provisional government somewhere in eastern Libya, perhaps Benghazi. We should make it clear that we will provide assistance to that provisional government. And finally, we should make it absolutely clear that anyone who continues or is engaged in these kinds of barbarous acts is going to find themselves on trial in a war crimes tribunal. We’ve got to really get tough.”
On Friday night’s edition of Washington Week in Review, Martha Raddatz, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, ridiculed the idea of a no-fly zone, thus:
“I love that they keep talking about this no fly zone. I can’t imagine that that could happen, because, first of all, you would really have to have the U.N. It would be tantamount to an act of war if you went in and had a no-fly zone. I mean the same reason you can’t really land in Libya –it’s still a sovereign country. And if you don’t have permission to land there, you can’t do that. So I think a no-fly zone is not a reality here.”
So, John McCain, in order to prove that he is going to “really get tough,” would start a war in Libya. But wait! There’s more! He recommends that we support a provisional government in Benghazi. Does anyone know who’s in charge in Benghazi?

Here’s how David Zucchino described it for the L.A. Times:
“In Benghazi, the center of the eastern rebellion that broke free from 41 years of despotic rule a week ago, everyone is in charge — and no one is in charge. But everyone seems to have claimed a piece of the revolution.

“Men toting shotguns and hunting rifles operate checkpoints. Teenagers in sneakers direct traffic. Young men dance in the back of pickup trucks towing antiaircraft guns, and the makeshift government center in the downtown courthouse has the strung-out, manic feel of a college all-nighter.”
Not exactly De Gaul in 1943 Algiers.

Here’s a late breaking news item from the British newspaper the Independent:

Former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil announced that he would head an interim government with the suggestion that it has the backing of the US. He also said an agreement could be reached with the sons of Col Gaddafi to end the spiraling violence.

But confusion and controversy surrounded the announcement after the official spokesman for the Council disputed that version of events, saying that Mr Abdel-Jalil had expressed purely personal views. Abdul Hafiz Gouga added that there could be no accommodation with remnants of the regime because of "the huge human rights abuses" that had been committed. He insisted Mr. Abdel-Jalil would only be a member of the Council rather than its head. In fact, said Mr. Gouga, the organisation will have no hierarchy with the members, their numbers as yet undisclosed, all having an equal say on policy.”
Does this sound to you like the type of provisional government we want to recognize? I don’t think so. But Senator McCain not only wants to recognize it, he wants to provide assistance to it. There’s one small problem: the government has no address. In fact, on February 27th, the Libyan Youth Movement tweeted at 16:36: “Tripoli is and will be the capital of Libya, any talk of a 'Libyan' government on hold until Tripoli liberated.”

Now let’s assume that we could overcome the no-address problem and send war materiel and maybe even advisors into Benghazi to help sustain the resistance to Qaddafi. It could all turn out for the best. Or not.

First, the Arab world will not immediately forget that the U.S. has been supportive of some of the worst tyrants in the Muslim world, from the Shah of Iran, to Saddam Hussein, to Hosni Mubarak, and, some would say, to Mo Qaddafi. There is a risk that a peck on the cheek from the U.S. government to a nascent democratic movement in Libya could be the kiss of death.

Most Libyans have never known any form of government other than the Jamahiriya (a state of the masses) which in theory is government by the populace through local councils and in practice, an authoritarian kleptocracy. Can anyone guarantee that the next government in Libya will not also be corrupt? Do we want to be the midwife of such a government?

In case you haven’t noticed, Libya is oil-rich, producing about 2% of the world’s production of oil. Do you suppose any neighbors of Libya could covetously look upon those oil reserves? Algeria and Niger have border disputes with Libya and Chadian rebels are living in South Libya. If the rebels in Libya succeed in dismantling the Libyan army, will the country be vulnerable to attack from any of its neighbors? If so, who will the Libyans blame?

And last but not least, what are we to make of John McCain’s threat that “anyone … who is engaged in these kinds of barbarous acts is going to find themselves on trial in a war crimes tribunal?” I mean, other than McCain’s weakness with English grammar.

This threat must really put shivers in the boots of Mo. Qaddafi, who admitted to complicity in the Lockerbie bombing, for which he was rewarded with diplomatic recognition from George W. Bush. More directly to the point, Qaddafi has no intention of leaving office alive whether it is to go to exile or the Hague.

I can hear you now saying, “Big Mitch, you’ve successfully proven that John McCain is a reckless know-nothing, but we knew that since the day he nominated Sarah Palin. What do you propose to do about Libya?

Well, I am glad you asked. How about nothing. It sounds to me that things are going pretty well there.

At this juncture, it appears nearly certain that Qaddafi will be hanging from a tree before the ides of March. Sadly, many Libyan patriots will be the victims of his violence before his reign of terror is over. The price of Libyan freedom will be paid in much blood, but there is no other way. It is cold comfort to know that the Libyan military has been kept weak by Libya because Qaddafi did not want to lose power the way he gained it, viz., by military coup.

An American hands-off policy seems to have worked in Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries have survived revolutions with little or none of the knee-jerk anti-America and anti-Israel rhetoric that should have been expected. Perhaps Arabs are seeing that President Obama was serious when he said he would respect their desire for self-determination. And our non-involvement seems to be working in Libya:

As we read in the Daily Caller
The Arab League has barred Libya from attending meetings of the bloc until it ends its violent crackdown on protesters, which it said involved violations of human rights and international laws.
Of course, we know that a policy of non-intervention will displease some cranky old men like Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens sounds intelligent because he uses words like “obtrudes.” But here is what he said about Obama’s careful measured response to the situation in Libya:
"For weeks, the administration dithered over Egypt and calibrated its actions to the lowest and slowest common denominators, on the grounds that it was difficult to deal with a rancid old friend and ally who had outlived his usefulness. But then it became the turn of Muammar Qaddafi—an all-round stinking nuisance and moreover a long-term enemy—and the dithering began all over again. Until Wednesday Feb. 23, when the president made a few anodyne remarks that condemned "violence" in general but failed to cite Qaddafi in particular—every important statesman and stateswoman in the world had been heard from, with the exception of Obama.”
I’ve already written about Obama’s “dithering” over Egypt, praising him for laying the groundwork for a peaceful revolution in Egypt, and then letting it take its course. But on the subject of Libya, Hitchens seems to think that Obama’s reticence was a character flaw.

What he fails to understand is that a matter of the safety of hundreds of Americans had obtruded itself into the calculus. U.S. efforts to evacuate hundreds of Americans from Libya were being stymied by bad weather on the coast — and by the refusal of Qaddafi's government to allow American charter planes to land there. Ramping up the rhetoric could have had disasterous results for those whose safety is a primary concern of the POTUS.

A few hours after Hitchen’s idiocy hit the blogosphere, the U.S.-chartered ferry the Maria Dolores carrying 300 passengers, including at least 167 U.S. citizens Americans finally arrived at the Mediterranean island of Malta. We will wait in vain, for Hitchens message of congratulations to Obama.

With Americans out of Libya, we can expect to see coordinated efforts to oust Qaddafi. The most successful of these will be those of Libyans fighting for their basic human rights and for their freedom. God bless them for doing so, and for the bravery and self sacrifice that their task demands.

"... and tell ’Big Mitch sent ya!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Government shutdown, or, Republicans get their wish.

It has been a goal of the Republican Party at least since the time of Ronald Reagan, to destroy the government. I am not trying to read the minds of Republicans. Rather, I am listening to their words and taking them at face value.

Take Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; Government is the problem.” He explained his plan for reducing government’s role in our life: “Well, if you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.”

When George W. Bush took office, he fully embraced the “starve the beast” mentality. In 2001 he said, “so we have the tax relief plan [...] that now provides a new kind -- a fiscal straightjacket for Congress. And that’s good for the taxpayers, and it’s incredibly positive news if you’re worried about a federal government that has been growing at a dramatic pace over the past eight years and it has been.”

Grover Norquist wins the prize for the most memorable quotation on the subject: “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Give the Republicans their due. Their plan seems to be working. Let’s take a look at how they have accomplished so much.

First, there is the tax code. As we all know, Bush turned a budget surplus into a huge deficit by reducing taxes on the very wealthy.

They also went after the inheritance tax which taxes income gained not by innovative thinking or hard labor, but by the good fortune of being the child of a dead rich guy. I don’t begrudge anybody money made in this way. Au contraire, I send my condolences to the orphans and widows. But for two centuries the estate tax served as a check on the tendency of the rich to get richer while the poor got poorer. It prevented the amassing of huge fortunes and the creation of an European-style aristocracy.

Then, there is the destruction of civil discourse, and comity. Without a spirit of compromise and bi-partisanship, government cannot function. Grover Norquist – who described bipartisanship as “date-rape” – explained, “We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals -- and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” Is it any wonder that fellow conservative Tucker Carlson described Norquist as “repulsive:” He’s “a mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest little creep… the leering, drunken uncle everyone else wishes would stay home.”

We have seen the mean-spirited Republican obstructionism at work in Congress for the last two years. Consider the unprecedented increase in the number of filibusters by Republican senators in the last congress. The 111th Congress again broke the record for the number of filibusters in a session. In March 2010, freshman senator Al Franken attacked the majority of the filibusters—some on matters which later passed with little controversy—as a “perversion of the filibuster.”

Or consider the alarming – nay, shocking – refusal to confirm judges. Here’s how Doug Kendall, President of the Constitutional Accountability Center described the situation:

“Across the nation, Americans seeking justice in our federal court system depend on a functioning judiciary to hear their claims and adjudicate their complaints. While it is positive news that 19 of President Obama’s judicial nominees were confirmed by the Senate during this lame duck session of Congress, it is outrageous that Senate Republican leaders denied floor votes for 19 others.

“Throughout the 111th Congress, conservatives in the Senate have blocked floor votes for even the most uncontroversial nominees, creating a roadblock that needed to be cleared in the lame duck session. While votes have now been allowed on 19 previously blocked nominees, 19 other nominees will have to be re-nominated, and will be forced to go through a duplicative confirmation process – all while Americans wait for justice.

“Fifteen of the 19 blocked nominees were reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee without recorded opposition or with overwhelmingly bi-partisan votes. Worse still, 13 were nominated to fill ‘judicial emergencies,’ a designation by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts denoting a vacant judicial seat with a crushing caseload. Such inaction by the Senate, while our judiciary is literally pleading for qualified judicial personnel, is unconscionable.”

Thanks to Proposition 13, California is broke. They can’t keep the courts or the DMV open five days a week and they are laying off teachers like nobody’s business. In Wisconsin, a state with a rich history of workers’ rights, citizens by the tens of thousands are marching on the Capitol to protest the Governor’s plan to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights under the pretext that their state is also broke.

In Michigan, state education officials have ordered the emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools to immediately implement a plan that balances the district's books by closing half its schools.

And in Congress, there is a real threat that the government will actually shut down for lack of funding, when the continuing budget resolution expires early next month. Make no mistake about it: this is the Republican plan.

How many times have you heard a Republican say, “we were elected to cut the deficit.” The funny thing is, I’ve never met a person concerned about the deficit. I think Dick Cheney struck a popular chord when he said, “deficits don’t matter.”

Now let’s assume ad arguendo that Republicans really do want to cut the deficit. You can cut the deficit by making the wealthiest 2% pay their fair share of taxes. Take the case of Warren Buffett who in 2007 was estimated to be worth $52 billion. He said that he was taxed at 17.7 per cent on the $46 million he made in 2006, without trying to avoid paying higher taxes, while his secretary, who earned $60,000, was taxed at 30 per cent.

You have often heard it said that the U.S. tax-rate on corporations is higher than any Western nation’s. Well, consider General Electric. Last year the conglomerate generated $10.3 billion in pretax income, but ended up owing nothing in U.S. taxes. In fact, it recorded a tax benefit of $1.1 billion!

ExxonMobil had a pretty good year. It made $37.3 billion on sales of 311 billion. I’m betting that you, dear reader, paid more taxes to the U.S. government than ExxonMobil. Hint: I’ll win my bet if you paid anything at all in federal taxes.

Bank of America managed to eke out 4.4 billion in pre-tax income, so the government paid them 1.9 billion in tax credits. Forbes reports they won’t be paying taxes anytime soon because of a $49 billion “provision for credit losses.”

Ford Motor Company didn’t take any bailout money and still managed to earn 3 billion on sales of 118 billion. On that profit they were required to pay 2.3% to Uncle Sam. Verizon did okay, raking in pre-tax income of 11.6 billion, but they were able to keep their effective tax rate down to 10.5%, which is considerably lower than the rate at which Warren Buffett’s secretary paid.

I could go on and on, but by now you get the point: America’s wealthy and American corporations are not over-taxed. And yet, the so-called liberal press has completely bought into the idea that the deficit cannot be cut without slashing entitlements.

Entitlements are things people are entitled to. They are not government largess. In most cases, they are deferred compensation for a lifetime of work and service. In other cases, they provide the modicum of dignity that – forgive me for saying it – everyone is entitled to. Social Security, which is fundamentally sound for the foreseeable future, doesn't count in the deficit, because it is "off-budget." But that doesn't stop the chattering class from saying that we must attack Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

John Boehner has said over and over again, “We’re broke.” If the Republicans shut down the government again, the sound you will hear is the sound of your government gurgling bathwater.

Thanks, Republicans.

“and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The dog that didn't bark

“And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more. But no dog shall bark …” Exodus 11:6, et seq.

From this, we are to learn that God’s hand was at work in the miraculous changes in Egypt. Once again, we are observing events in Egypt that defy logic and reason. Let’s review.

On June 4, 2009, at Cairo University, President Obama gave a speech entitled “A New Beginning.” Here’s some of what he said:

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

He expressed his “belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.”

The President acknowledged that “there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.” He also stated clearly to the Egyptians, “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

Here’s what he said that is of special relevance to the situation in Egypt today:
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Four months later, President received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee’s press release said:

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.”

In January of this year, protesters took to the streets in Cairo to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was a staunch friend of the United States, but a tyrant nevertheless. For nearly three decades he ruled under an “Emergency Law” that allowed for the brutal suppression of all opposition. His nation suffered from extreme poverty, although he amassed a fortune which we have since learned is in the order of $70 billion. Successive American administrations had warned him that the situation was untenable, and had unsuccessfully urged him to liberalize his autocratic rule.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Egyptian-American alliance. The Camp David Peace Accords essentially made it impossible for there to be a unified Arab attack on Israel, as there had been in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. There is a reason why Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

By February 11th, Mubarak had resigned, and the government was in the hands of the military. The leadership of the military has strong ties with the Americans and they have expressed that they will honor all peace agreements, including Camp David. From the American point of view the outcome of the revolution could not have been better. This is true for the Israelis, as well.

Egyptian democracy will face many challenges before it fully takes hold. Perhaps, the Muslim Brotherhood will get a foothold in electoral politics, and then renege on the commitments they have made. Ambassador Martin Indyk opined on Meet the Press, “I don’t think the military is going to let the Muslim Brotherhood takeover. The Muslim Brotherhood knows that and they are keeping their head down and saying they don’t want to takeover.”

For the time being here’s what their website says:
We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians. We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September.


We envision the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, which are central Islamic values. We embrace democracy not as a foreign concept that must be reconciled with tradition, but as a set of principles and objectives that are inherently compatible with and reinforce Islamic tenets.

What does all this have to do with dogs not barking in Egypt? In the Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze, Doyle writes:
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

By my lights the most curious thing about the Tahrir Square Revolution is the fact that the demonstrations were almost totally devoid of anti-American sloganeering. Nor was there any of the anti-Israel rhetoric that could have been expected. Who could have imagined that a popular revolution in the most populous Arab nation in the world, would not contain elements of reflex anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism?

If things do go badly in Egypt, Barack Obama will surely be blamed by those who hate him. But for now, it is hard to envision a better outcome. Give credit where credit is due.

"... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"

Post Script: I must the biggest dope of all time. I stupidly thought that the haters of Obama would wait until something went awry in Egypt before they criticized him. As you can see below, Newsweek's new columnist Niall Ferguson earns his wings by jumping on President Obama. The logic of his argument doesn't stand up any better than the headline-writer's spell-checker.


Obama's Egypt and Foreign Policy Failires

NEWSWEEK’s new columnist on Obama’s Egypt debacle and the vacuum it exposes.