Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October Missiles

“The low-IQ U.S. President and his country’s Secretary of State John Kerry speak of the effectiveness of ‘the U.S. options on the table’ on Iran while this phrase is mocked at and has become a joke among the Iranian nation, especially the children.”
—Iranian General Masoud Jazayeri, as reported by Fars News Agency in March 2014

“We don’t ask anyone’s permission to enhance our defense power or missile capability and will firmly pursue our defense plans, particularly in the field of missiles. And [the long-range missile] Emad is one of the outstanding examples of this.”
—Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, on October 11
Here is a question that intrigues me.

When there is a tragic and senseless outburst of gun violence in the U.S., the president—like many others—is quick to argue for legislation to limit access to weapons. But when it comes to dealing with a nuclear-aspiring country like Iran, he is quite willing to allow it to have nuclear weapons—albeit after an ostensible ten-year delay—in the optimistic hope that, in the absence of sanctions, the country’s character will mature sufficiently to avoid a catastrophic use of those weapons. (Let us note that this question can also be turned around to highlight an apparent inconsistency in Republican positions.)

To be fair, the two problems are very different, and I have deliberately framed my question to provoke thought. Everyone is against mass shootings by mentally disturbed people. Everyone (at least officially) is against Iran getting nuclear weapons. The disagreements are over how to prevent these things from happening.

In the case of domestic gun violence, the president would say that he merely wants to tighten up laws that are too loose. Republicans (and, frankly, a lot of Democrats) would disagree. They would say that there are plenty of gun laws on the books and that they have either shown themselves to be ineffective or that the problem lies in enforcement. Therefore, according to them, adding more laws which, by definition, affect only law-abiding citizens makes no sense.

In the case of Iran, the president does not look at it as a case of keeping dangerous weapons out of irresponsible hands. His argument for striking a deal was that, because sanctions were falling apart (a contention that seemed to me, frankly, more than a little self-fulfilling), the only other alternative was war. This is typical of his frequent rhetorical approach of setting up false choices to make his own position appear unassailable. But he does have a point. When calling for “common sense gun laws,” he is reacting to specific acts of violence. In the case of Iran, Tehran does not actually have nuclear weapons yet, so their use at this point is only speculative. Thus, even if the Iranians do go nuclear, as long as they do not actually use their weapons in anger, the president can claim vindication. As long as they do not, say, attack Israel with them, then there is no problem. A nuclear Iran would definitely change the psychology and balance of power in the region, but as long as there is no war, there is presumably no problem with a nuclear Iran from the president’s point of view.

On the other hand, if those weapons did get used, then the situation would be more analogous to the problem of U.S. gun violence. Whoever is president at that point would be in the position of dealing with an act of violence after the fact. She or he might even feel compelled to call for disarmament in the Middle East. But the chances of that happening would be nil. The greater likelihood from now on is that more states will acquire nukes as a hedge against the Iranians.

President Obama might have found it difficult or impossible to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it is still always easier to prevent a country from going nuclear than to get that country to de-nuclearize after the fact. But there are examples. A newly independent Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nukes in exchange for security guarantees from the West. Libya voluntarily dropped its nuclear program after the United States invaded Iraq. And let us not forget that Syria could possibly be a nuclear state by now if Israel had not bombed its reactor.

I find it difficult to believe that the administration is naive enough to think that Iran will not go nuclear at some point. After all, the agreement specifically allows it—after a waiting period. So the president must be confident—or else doing a lot of finger-crossing—that Iran will behave responsibly once it has become a nuclear power. Under the agreement the International Atomic Energy Agency is committed to releasing a report by the end of the year on the status of Iran’s alleged weaponization work, but U.S. officials said over the weekend that the IAEA report would have no bearing on moves by the international community to lift sanctions on Tehran. Nor is the agreement affected by the fact that Iran has been conducting ballistic missile tests, since the agreement does not forbid them. The missile tests do, however, violate a United Nations Security Council resolution, but there appear to be no consequences forthcoming for that breach.

A person could stay up at night worrying about all of this, but it is probably better to think positively and hope that everything will turn out fine. Still, it is interesting to note that, after all the fuss made over the Iran nuclear agreement, when the Nobel Peace Prize was handed out recently, despite the expectations of some, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems not to have even been considered.

Friday, October 16, 2015


“[It] would link markets throughout Asia and the Americas, lowering trade barriers while raising standards on labor, the environment, and intellectual property. As President Obama explained, the goal of the TPP negotiations is to establish ‘a high standard, enforceable, meaningful trade agreement’ that ‘is going to be incredibly powerful for American companies who, up until this point, have often been locked out of those markets.’ It was also important for American workers, who would benefit from competing on a more level playing field. And it was a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia… It’s safe to say that the TPP won’t be perfect—no deal negotiated among a dozen countries ever will be—but its higher standards, if implemented and enforced, should benefit American businesses and workers.”
—Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices, 2014

“So for the larger issues and then what I know, and again, I don’t have the text, we don’t yet have all the details, I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”
—Clinton, in an October 7 PBS interview

“It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards—my standards for more new, good jobs for Americans.”
—Clinton, at the presidential debate on Tuesday
As far as I can see, the big winner in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate was Carly Fiorina.

Why would I say that? Because after Tuesday it became pretty clear that the Democrats have no viable candidate other than Hillary Clinton. The other guys on the stage were not ready for prime time—even Bernie Sanders, whose following is very real and very sincere and very much a minority. And Clinton did well enough that it is increasingly unlikely that Joe Biden would get into the race. So, barring an unlikely event, like a health crisis or an indictment, it looks as though Clinton will get her coronation.

It is worth pondering why such a diverse political party, which is the nation’s largest, can produce only a single viable candidate. The short answer, as far as I can see, is that Democrats have fallen back into old party machine habits. As a result, they do not have as much competition in the marketplace of the ideas. On the positive side, however, they don’t have as much chaos or dissension as the Republicans.

So why is this good news for Ms. Fiorina? Well, because the Democrats are likely to nominate someone who could become the country’s first female president, there will be a strong temptation to put the former Hewlett-Packard CEO on the GOP ticket. Probably not as the presidential nominee, but she would be a very good bet for the vice-presidential slot. Does that seem cynical? Well, we are talking about politicians, aren’t we? But don’t wager any of your own hard-earned money on my say-so. I have a very bad track record of making political predictions. And, for what it’s worth, this particular one assumes that Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee, since no one would want a ticket consisting of two CEOs.

What kind of president would Clinton be? Probably a pretty good one, but that is based more on her history than on anything she is currently saying. The problem she has to deal with in the next twelve and a half months is that there no particular reason for anybody to believe anything she says. No, I’m not talking about her email server—although pretty much everything she has ever said on that subject has been demonstrably false. I’m talking about things that really matter, like the economy.

Does anybody really believe that, once elected, she would not do whatever was necessary to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement or its equivalent? And that would be the right thing to do. Free trade is in the world’s interest in general and definitely in America’s interest in the long run. And she was actually involved in negotiating this particular agreement. So her current stance of being against it is not credible. In the debate she said, “in looking at it” she found it wanting. The thing is, though, no one outside of the Obama administration has actually seen it yet—not even her, according to the White House. So she just pretended that she had seen it—just like she pretended in the debate that she had previously “hoped” that it would meet her standards instead of actually having said that it did meet her standards.

Never mind that her current position is a stunning indictment of the competence of the Obama administration—and, by implication, even of herself—but it makes her look like someone who will say anything to get the nomination. Can we look forward to a series of reversals of her reversals once she has clinched the nomination and has to start appealing beyond Democratic constituencies?

In the debate, she countered Bernie Sanders’s populist anti-Wall Street position by noting that, as a senator, she represented Wall Street and that she roundly chewed them out and told them that they had to behave better. Does anybody actually believe that? The Clintons have more friends on Wall Street than anyone. When she talks about reining them in, they surely know to take her no more seriously than, say, gay rights activists took Barack Obama two election cycles ago when he swore that in his heart he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Does that mean she won’t get elected in the end? No, it probably means she will. But it is really all up to the Republicans and whether they nominate someone who is crazy—no matter how much of a straight talker he might seem to be.

Another interesting question raised by the debate is whether Democrats have written off ever winning the House of Representatives (or, for that matter, a majority of state offices) again. After all, in recent history the party was only successful in gaining that house of Congress after they decided to deemphasize the gun control issue. Yet another good question is whether the days of cross-over voting are well and truly over. Clinton must think so anyway. Otherwise, she might not have answered Anderson Cooper’s question about what enemy she was most proud of making by saying, “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians; probably the Republicans.”

We certainly have come a long way since a newly elected senator once said in a 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, “[T]here is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fatal Loop

 Here was the recurring tension between Obama the idealist and Obama the politician; between the man who understood that in order to serve and make a difference, you had to be elected, and the one who sometimes resented the compromises that the process required and the advisers who enforced them.
 He repeated that lament at another of our large campaign strategy meetings in November, provoking more than a little anxiety among his team. “There are things I feel strongly about,” he said, “things I’ll want to work on in my second term. Some of them may make you guys nervous. But Axe keeps saying I should be ‘authentic.’ So maybe I should go out there and just let it rip.”
 “Given our situation, sir, I’m not sure we’re in a position to go all Bulworth out there,” Gibbs quipped, referring to the dark comedy in which Warren Beatty plays a despondent senator, on the verge of losing reelection, who goes on a boozy bender of truth telling.
—David Axelrod, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, 2015
Very quickly after the terrible mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, last week, President Obama took to the airwaves to deliver some impassioned, heartfelt and moving words to the nation and the world. His sadness, anger and frustration mirrored what multitudes were feeling.

But there was something unusual about this particular statement, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. At first I thought the striking thing was how engaged and emotional he was. But then, being an analytical sort, I looked at his actual words. A fair way to paraphrase his remarks is as follows: I am very upset that this happened. These shootings have become routine, and everyone will react to this one in their usual routine way. Including me.

By calling for the umpteenth time for “common-sense gun legislation,” he expressed the hope that someone would finally do something that was not routine. The clear implication was that he wanted someone else to respond in a non-routine manner—because he himself was going to respond in his usual, routine manner.

In other words, he gave remarks that were assured of being well received by people who already agreed with him but which would predictably annoy people who did not. His prediction that nothing would change was thus pretty much self-fulfilling. This was not about bringing people together or solving a difficult problem but—at the risk of me sounding overly cynical—having an issue.

British-American staff writer John Cassidy caught the very essence of this in his New Yorker piece called, all too aptly, “Obama, Guns, and the Politics of Hopelessness”: “[R]ather than resigning himself to the situation, he went down to the White House briefing room and issued one of the most powerful statements that he has delivered since taking office. We should be grateful that he did. Even if it doesn’t do much immediate good, it will be there in the record, to remind historians where the primary blame lies for this ongoing national disgrace.”

Do you see the contradiction in Cassidy’s praise? He asserts that the president did not “resign” himself to the situation and then explains that his non-resignation amounts to mere words. He is overly generous when he suggests they may not “do much immediate good.” Zero immediate good would be a harsher but more defensible assessment. Cassidy actually concedes that this was more about assigning blame than about changing things.

So what should the president do, besides give remarks? That depends on whether you think the continuing pattern gun deaths can actually be solved or at least reduced. A lot of people do not—and they are not without logic and facts on their side. Gun rights supporters regularly point out, accurately enough, that mass shootings like the one in Roseburg would not actually be prevented by the new “common-sense” gun laws that keep getting proposed. Besides, in their view, such new laws are no more logical than restricting automobile ownership in response to car crashes. The president points to the examples of Britain and Australia, but gun violence has not disappeared in those countries. Perhaps the incidence of gun violence is lower than it would have been otherwise, but that is difficult to prove or to disprove.

You do hear the argument that more restrictive gun laws should be enacted—even if they are not very effective—because at least we would be doing something about the problem. Well, why not? But given that the president’s previous attempt at new gun laws, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, collapsed in a Senate controlled by his own party, then what hope realistically is there?

To the president’s credit, he may be doing the only thing that he thinks has a prayer of helping—hoping against hope that the mere power of his own words will somehow change things. It’s not very likely, but at least it was a better response than Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” reaction.

The old line is that definition of insanity is doing the same exact thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Maybe this president—or the next one—could find something new to try instead of following the usual routine? New ideas on ammunition sales? On mental health monitoring and reporting? Not vilifying those who disagree with him? Anything?