Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Madam President?

“As much as I’ve been investigated and all of that, you know, why would I—I don’t even want—why would I ever want to do email? … Can you imagine?”
 —Hillary Clinton, in a home video shot at a Hollywood fundraiser in 2000

“I am all about new beginnings. A new grandchild, another new hair style, a new email account, why not a new relationship with the press? So here goes, no more secrecy, no more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?”
 —Hillary Clinton, in a press awards keynote address on Monday

The other day one of my Facebook friends wrote a post asking people to imagine it was 2017 and that “Madam President and the First Gentleman are in the White House.” It was not clear if she was referring to President Clinton or to President Warren, but I’m pretty sure anyway it wasn’t President Fiorina.

The subsequent comments were all generally supportive and agreeable, but one in particular caught my attention. That person proposed (with no apparent sense of irony) that the following is what should happen: “Obama invokes Executive privilege and declares that there will not be an election next year. Hillary will be the next President of the USA (with Elizabeth Warren as VP). We will save about a trillion dollars, which will be put back into the economy in the form of mandatory Infrastructure expenditures in transportation, bridges, highways, reusable energy, education, and healthcare. So the next year and a half, doesn’t have to happen.”

Of course, we all get sick of the seemingly endless campaigning and political mudslinging. And all politically engaged people get frustrated with the idea of the “other” side holding sway over government policy and the taxpayers’ dollars. Still, it kind of gobsmacks me that anyone would publicly express a desire—even in jest—for the Constitution and elections to be suspended so that a huge portion of the country he or she doesn’t agree with no longer has any political voice. But that seems to be the way things have gone.

Whether it comes to the White House or Congress or the courts, everyone is more interested in the result rather than the principle. In a Supreme Court case, the justices are no longer treated in the press as impartial interpreters of the Constitution but as advocates for either the Republican or Democratic position. If the president seems to exceed his constitutional authority, it is justified by saying simply, well, he got tired of waiting for Congress to act. Not only are Congress and the White House seemingly locked in a never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat snubs and insults, but Congress is actually sabotaging the president wherever it can. I can actually remember a time when politicians could disagree politely. Now many of them are intent on de-legitimizing the other point of view entirely. No wonder some citizens would just as soon see the whole election thing done away with while their guy is still in power.

There may be a subconscious reason for the visceral aversion to future elections which, frankly, is more prominent among my Democratic friends than among my non-Democratic ones. Despite two clear and triumphant presidential election victories by Barack Obama, the leftward tide seems to have been receding since the beginning of his term. And this in spite of vaunted demographic shifts that were supposed to be relegating the GOP to a minor regional party. Between 2008 and 2014, Republicans had a net gain of 68 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 seats in the Senate. Furthermore, in the last election the GOP also made huge gains at the state level. When President Obama is not on the ballot, Democrats have had major losses. And even when he was on the ballot in 2012, Democrats gained a mere two seats in each house of Congress.

What does that mean for 2016? Maybe voters will be good and sick of Republican congressional antics by then. Or will that even matter since it is very unlikely that the Republican nominee will be a member of Congress? Will voters be more influenced by press coverage of the president, whose approval rating has not exceeded 50 percent for nearly two years?

One reason for the impulse to move straight to the coronation may be that Clinton is currently way ahead of any her rivals in the early polling. But there are disadvantages to being the prohibitive frontrunner so early in the process. Eight years ago Obama came out of nowhere and was a new, fresh face when he took the nomination away from Clinton, who was supposed to be inevitable that time as well. This time around there is not only plenty of time for people to get tired of Clinton but she has an extensive public record for her opponents to dissect and and revise. And, frankly, given the state of Obama’s foreign policy—which she oversaw for four years—she has plenty of criticism coming.

Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
reset U.S.-Russia relations in 2009
The irony is that Clinton was arguably the most qualified presidential candidate of either party back in 2008, but Democrats opted to ditch her for the younger male Obama in spite his astonishingly thin résumé. That certainly worked out for the party in the form of two presidential terms, but one cannot help but wonder if the party would not now be in a better position going forward if they had decided otherwise.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tick, tick, tick...

“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
—President Obama, January 20 in his State of the Union address

“On the day before talks resumed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last Wednesday, Tehran announced that construction has begun on two new nuclear reactors.”
The Washington Post, January 17

“I have a problem squaring the circle between a president who says, I can’t deal with Republicans, and a president who says, I can deal in good faith with the Iranians.”
National Journal’s Ron Fournier, November 23 on Fox News Sunday
We do not often see a spectacle such as we did this past week when the prime minister of Israel addressed the U.S. Congress in spite of the clear pique of the U.S. president.

The White House argued that Congress’s invitation was tantamount to a political endorsement of Benjamin Netanyahu because he and his party are standing for election on the 17th of this month. From the prime minister’s point of view, though, he did not have much choice if he wanted to have his say before the administration’s deadline of March 24 for concluding a framework agreement with Iran. The president’s domestic critics charged that Barack Obama was putting more effort into effecting regime change in democratic Israel than in the dictatorship of Iran.

To be sure, the president and the prime minister have the same stated goal—to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. Their disagreement is ostensibly only over how to achieve that goal. The worrying thing, however, is that the horse is probably already out of the barn when it comes to Iran going nuclear. If there was ever a chance of preventing it from happening—short of going to war—it most likely evaporated fourteen months ago when six world powers completed a deal with Iran which, as The New York Times put it, froze “much of Tehran’s nuclear program … in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.” It’s just the nature of these things that, once sanctions were eased, they were not likely to be strengthened again. Witness how the Obama administration seems to panic whenever Congress makes noises about strengthening sanctions—not immediately but only in the event of the nuclear talks failing. Hawks keep shaking their heads, wondering why the president is so opposed to having his negotiating hand strengthened.

Another reason to think that Iran getting its bomb is an inevitability is recent history. We can get an insight into the country’s approach by looking back at a nine-year-old news-analysis piece in The New York Times (March 14, 2006), in which former negotiator and current president Hassan Rowhani made a revealing boast:
 Under a November 2004 agreement with the Europeans, Iran pledged to freeze enrichment-related activities as long as the two sides were negotiating a long-term package of incentives for the country.
 But in a remarkable admission, Mr. Rowhani suggested in his speech that Iran had used the negotiations with the Europeans to dupe them. He boasted that while negotiations were continuing, Iran managed to master a key stage in the nuclear fuel process — the conversion of uranium yellowcake at its Isfahan plant.
 “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.”
Yet another reason is the fact that administration officials have been referring to the goal of talks as preventing Iran from getting a bomb—in contrast to the previously stated goal of ending Iran’s nuclear program altogether. Also, observers are nervous about recent reports from the Associated Press and The New York Times (and denied by the administration) that negotiators have given in to Iran’s demand that the agreement expire after ten years—effectively accepting Iran’s right to a bomb thereafter.

So what’s the big deal about Iran having a nuclear bomb anyway? These days lots of countries (including India, Pakistan and North Korea) have them and to date none have used them in anger. Is there reason to think Iran would be any different? Well, there is the business of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 comment about Israel being “wiped off the map.” In fairness, he didn’t actually say that Iran itself would do the wiping and, besides, lots of politicians use over-the-top rhetoric that they never mean to act on.

A main concern is what a nuclear Iran would do to the balance of power in the Middle East. It would quite likely set off an arms race in the region as Iran’s rivals attempt to keep up. It would also strengthen Iran’s hand as it continues to consolidate its influence. Hezbollah in Lebanon is an ally, and after the death of Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Iran made his son a client. It has also exploited the vacuum left in Iraq, and its Houthi rebel friends just recently took over Yemen.

Most worrying, though, may be new information only now coming to light from documents and storage devices seized in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden four years ago. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn describe, among many disturbing things, a striking level of cooperation between Iran and Al Qaeda.

Okay, you may say, but is there really any way to stop a country from acquiring a nuclear bomb if it is really determined to get one? After all, as various pundits keep saying on news programs, you can’t make the Iranians forget what they have already learned about the technology.

But, yes, there are examples of countries being stopped from going nuclear. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions were well known, but the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq put an end to that—although many would question whether the cost was worth it. And a decade ago Syria was believed to be close to getting a bomb. That ended in 2007 when, soon after a shipment delivery by North Korea, a suspected reactor site was bombed by Israel.

But are there any examples of nuclear weapon development being curtailed purely through negotiations? The West’s experience with North Korea is not encouraging.