Darts and Dolts

I hate to quibble with Anatole Kaletsky, who wrote this in the London Times:

For the past five years, America has been led by a president who is clearly not up to the job — a man who is not just inarticulate, but lacking in judgment, intelligence, integrity, charisma or staying power.

Who (with a brain) could argue with that? But then Kaletsky writes,

While America has been run by one of the most doltishly ineffectual governments in history, it has forged ever further ahead of Europe in terms of wealth, science, technology, artistic creativity and cultural dominance.

Why does America’s prosperity and self-confidence seem to bear so little relationship to the competence of its government? The obvious answer is that America, founded on a libertarian theory of minimal government, has always had low expectations of politicians. In America, it is not just business that thrives independently of government, perhaps even in spite of government. The same is also true of other areas of excellence which in Britain are considered quintessentially in the public domain — higher education, leading-edge science, culture and academic research. Because Americans expect so little of their government, they are rarely disappointed. They do not slump into German-style angst when their governments fail to find solutions to the nation’s problems.

Kaletsky then tosses in some anti-Gubmint proverb from St. Ronald Reagan. But the attitude he describes has not been common throughout American history. Through most of our 225 or so years we have expected the government to work for us. And most of the time, it has. It’s only been in the post-Vietnam era that conventional wisdom said government can’t be expected to walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak.

When you are dealing with big things, like a huge and prosperous nation, it takes a long time for momentum to stop. If the people of the world are still lining up for American movies and blue jeans, this is the result of many decades of momentum. Since Reagan, the Right has been trying to undo generations of progressive reform, and by now they’ve dismantled quite a bit of it. But a lot of us are still benefiting from The Way America Used to Be Before Reagan. Boomers like me are still benefiting from the fact that our fathers got free educations on the GI Bill and our newlywed parents got cheap housing and cut-rate mortgages from other government programs, for example. Our parents’ prosperity got us off to a good start and put us on the road to security, equity, and stock portfolios. In a very real sense, many of us today are living better lives because government in the 1940s and 1950s effectively responded to the needs of citizens.

Each generation of middle-class, working Americans on the whole has been more educated and more affluent than the generation before. Even though we boomers bellyached a lot that our parents had it better than us, in the end we kept the momentum going. I wonder if the same thing will be true for my kids’ generation, though. The 20-somethings of today really are having it harder, I believe. Jobs are less secure, wages are stagnant, benefits are being cut, pensions are things of the past. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but seems to me the momentum may be about to stop.

Put another way, the full effects of having a dolt in the White House now may not be felt for another 20 years. I wonder what commentary the London Times will publish then?

Permanent Bases?

I just participated in an informative conference call with Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and former senators Bob Graham and Gary Hart. The congresswoman is organizing SecureUS PAC to help Democrats talk about and actually run on national security issues. In short, Harman, Graham, et al. believe it’s past time for Dems to stop conceding national security as an issue to the GOP and to call Bush to account for the absolute mess he’s made of it.

It’s amazing to me that Dems are still afraid of the national security issue (except for the Lieberman-Clinton axis who show how macho they are by supporting the war). But after seeing parts of Gov. Tim Kaine’s tepid response to the SOTU I’m afraid that’s still the case.

From the SecureUS web site:

• Americans from both political parties and swing voters want leaders who will protect America with strong and sensible national security policies. Democratic candidates must be able to articulate those policies if they are going to win on Election Day.

• The old ways of defending America have not worked against present and future threats. We no longer face armies on the march. Today, we face terrorist networks and outlaw regimes attempting to acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and attack our homeland. We need bold, fresh thinking on how to stop these threats.

SecureUS plans to train Dem candidates to talk about national security issues effectively in the 2006 campaigns. I hope this works.

Gary Hart said something that I know will interest some of you — is the U.S. building permanent bases in Iraq? Hart said he has heard from people in a position to know that the US is “welding steel and pouring concrete” for at least four and perhaps as many as 12 permanent bases. He speculated the government in Iraq will “invite” the U.S. (at our insistence) to keep a permanent force of 50,000 or so troops in Iraq. Sounds plausible.


Following up the last post — at the Los Angeles Times, Andrew J. Bacevich asks “What Isolationism?

IN HIS STATE of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush worked himself into a lather about the dangers of “retreating within our borders.” His speech bulged with ominous references to ostensibly resurgent isolationists hankering to “tie our hands” and leave “an assaulted world to fend for itself.” Turning inward, the president cautioned, would provide “false comfort” because isolationism inevitably “ends in danger and decline.”

But who exactly are these isolationists eager to pull up the drawbridges? What party do they control? What influential journals of opinion do they publish? Who are their leaders? Which foundations bankroll this isolationist cause?

The president provided no such details, and for good reason: They do not exist.

Nonexistence is of little consequence to the Right, of course. They do love their boogeymen over there. Witness the mythical “liberal elite” that is the cause of all evil in America. It doesn’t exist, either, yet belief in it fuels much of rightie politics.

Bacevish, a professor of international relations at Boston University, continues with some interesting observation of isolationism in American history and its opposite, the Wilsonian tradition. He concludes,

Can America be America absent Wilsonian ideals? Perhaps not. But an America intoxicated with its self-assigned mission of salvation while disregarding prudential considerations will court exhaustion, both moral and material. Our present circumstances may not dictate a full retreat. But they do require a revived appreciation of what we can and cannot do. Contriving phony charges of isolationism to dodge tough, practical questions is not only dishonest, it is reckless and irresponsible.

Irresponsible! My goodness, can that be? On the Right, the only “responsible” discourse starts with “I love Dear Leader.”

But this reminded me of something Glenn Greenwald said yesterday about the SOTU speech:

The award for most ambitious statement in the speech would have to go to this passage:

    Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world.

Is that really our foreign policy goal now – “the end of tyranny in our world”? This sounds a lot like something which third-grade students or beauty pageant contestants say when asked what their greatest hope for the world is. It also sounds like something which justifies and, if followed, guarantees endless wars.

And you know that in earlier times if a Democratic president had said something about “the end of tyranny in our world,” the Right would have been up his ass about it a split second later. Conservatives have been deriding “Wilsonianism” for decades. But now that their boy is more Wilsonian than Wilson, that tune has changed.

Which is why I think Steve Soto is right when he says Democrats can move to Bush’s right on national security. They can do this not by taking the Clinton-Lieberman road and supporting a Wilsonian war, but by getting real.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek (web only)

The president’s strategy of defeating terrorism with democracy faces fundamental challenges in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iran. In all three places, terrorists and militants have attracted more popular support, not less, through the ballot box.

Democrats have a rare opening to be more hawkish than Bush on terrorism. They could argue, like Jordan, that the current goal must be to fight militants and terrorists—not to move towards more democracy. They could argue, like Bush himself in 2000, that the job of the U.S. military is to win war, not build nations. …

… five years in office have left the White House straining under the weight of its own contradictions. Iraq was never meant to be a war about terrorists or democracy. It was a war launched to disarm a dictator with weapons of mass destruction. By lumping the two together out of political necessity, the White House seems to have lost focus on the single goal that voters really care about: killing off Al Qaeda.

I’m not sure Bush was ever clear in his own mind what the Iraq War was meant to be, but never mind. This is right; this is exactly what the Dems should be doing.

Update: See also Matt Y.

A Fast One

Though we may be frustrated by their lame-ass political news coverage, somebody at the New York Times is a great editorialist. Go there now and read “The March of the Straw Men.

President Bush is not giving up the battle over domestic spying. He’s fighting it with an army of straw men and a fleet of red herrings. …

… Let’s be clear: the president and his team had the ability to monitor calls by Qaeda operatives into and out of the United States before 9/11 and got even more authority to do it after the attacks. They never needed to resort to extralegal and probably unconstitutional methods.

Mr. Bush said the warrantless spying was vetted by lawyers in the Justice Department, which is cold comfort. They also endorsed the abuse of prisoners and the indefinite detention of “unlawful enemy combatants” without charges or trials.

The president also said the spying is reviewed by N.S.A. lawyers. That’s nice, but the law was written specifically to bring that agency, and the president, under control. And there already is a branch of government assigned to decide what’s legal. It’s called the judiciary. The law itself is clear: spying on Americans without a warrant is illegal.

One of the oddest moments in Mr. Bush’s defense of domestic spying came when he told his audience in Nashville, “If I was trying to pull a fast one on the American people, why did I brief Congress?” He did not mention that some lawmakers protested the spying at the briefings, or that they found them inadequate. The audience members who laughed and applauded Mr. Bush’s version of the truth may have forgot that he said he briefed Congress fully on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We know how that turned out.

Yep. We do.