"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A policy off the rails

You may think I'm going to talk about health care again. You'd be wrong. That's not to say I've stopped reading about it. I've read. I listened to the president's speech in my truck on the way home from work. And it's pretty clear that, despite the many other difficult challenges we face at home and abroad, President Obama has decided to fight a "war of choice" on health care rather than the many wars of necessity - on illegal immigration, the pending collapse of Social Security, and above all, on what most people actually care about, the economy - and stake his presidency on overhauling a sixth of our (shrinking, unemployed) economy, when most Americans would prefer only a targeted renovation. We'll see how that works out. Maybe it'll turn out like that last "must-pass-or-the-world-will-end" initiative, the stimulus bill (if we didn't pass it, unemployment might go as high as 8%; we did, and now it's past 9%, and the economy is still in a recession and hemorrhaging jobs) or Cash for Clunkers (great for consumers who got their savings immediately; horrible for the car dealerships, who are waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the government to reimburse them, which could take awhile since FAA bureaucrats have been called in to work on the problem. But car dealers are Big Business, so it's okay to screw them over. Oh wait, the Clunkers program was supposed to help stimulate them too. And since the government now owns car manufacturers, it stimulated itself to boot. But it's still screwing the dealers. Who are Big Business. And what we have is the government simultaneously screwing and stimulating itself with the same program. Alright, I just heard one of you say, "That's what she said." And with that, I'm stopping this line of inquiry).

Anyway, I come here not to bury health care, but get back into foreign policy, which I've missed. Evidently, the Obama administration has been missing it too, since in the last month that policy train has jumped off the track (good analogy, or have I just been watching too much Thomas?). It was never something the president cared too much about anyway; he's far more passionate about domestic policy, so up to now his foreign policy has boiled down to: I'm not Bush, America's screwed all you at some point over the last fifty years, I will talk with everyone, and Muslims are cool.

He did promise to double down in Afghanistan, which was always the good war to Bush's bad war in Iraq. And initial signs were promising. He kept the team of Petraeus and Gates which oversaw the successful surge in Iraq. He appointed a new commander who specialized in special forces and counterinsurgency. He sent in a requested first wave of reinforcements to increase our presence in the country. And he's continued Predator drone strikes which continue to be a nasty surprise to the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the receiving end. But then a thousand pages of health care reform came up in Congress, and the president turned his attention elsewhere. Consideration for Afghanistan has suffered in the interim. We've heard almost nothing from him on the significance of an American offensive launched in the Helmand province, on how casualties will inevitably rise as we press into areas that have seen little coalition presence in eight years, on how we will need to keep our resolve in the face of tough fighting ahead, on what our goals in this country are, how it will take a long time to achieve them, and what we'll suffer if we lose our will and pull out. Obama has made a hundred speeches on health care, even to the point of addressing a joint session of Congress. No equivalent effort has been made on Afghanistan. The stakes, even by his own admission, are high; the Wall Street Journal has had an excellent series of articles recently on just what those stakes are and what needs to be done to reverse the current decline of fortune (two are here and here). Support is flagging among Congressmen, Americans, and our allies; now, more than ever, requires a strong public commitment to Afghanistan, to our military, to the Afghans who've joined us and have no love for the Taliban, and to the destruction of al Qaeda and all Islamists who use death and fear to advance their caliphate. America, and the world, still await that commitment.

I wish I could stop there, but Afghanistan is only the tip of the iceberg. From east to west, our current policies range from dangerous disinterest to picking the wrong team.
  • Iran: first America watched, and stayed silent, as Iranian dissidents took to the streets to protest flagrantly fraudulent elections. We watched, and stayed silent, as Iran's state security apparatus beat, abused, and shot their own citizens. We watched, and stayed silent, during the show trials of those protestors who were paraded in public. We stayed silent even as we learned that those protestors who were not paraded in public were beaten and murdered in prison; female prisoners endured the added violence and humiliation of being 'married' to prison guards and raped before their executions. And all the while, Iran's nuclear program has marched on, unmolested. Iran claims its ready for direct talks with America, but that discussion on its nuclear program is over. Even better, the window for the theocracy to have enough uranium for a nuclear weapon is now one year. We have done absolutely nothing about Iran's war on its own citizens or its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We have also ignored Iran's increasingly warm relations with a thugocracy within our own hemisphere: Venezuela. The Obama State Department and administration has sat on the sidelines and watched as the unholy alliance between these two regional destabilizers has grown stronger and stronger. Iran has taken its money-laundering, sanction evasion, and terrorist training to our own backyard; and we've done nothing (apart from shaking old Hugo's hand with a big shit-eating grin on our face).
  • Venezuela: speaking of which, Hugo Chavez continues to shut down outlets of free speech, crush those who oppose him, and fund his own terrorist operations in Columbia. Again, nary a peep is heard from Foggy Bottom or the White House. Indeed, when it comes to South America, all we've done is pick on burgeoning dictatorships like . . .
  • Honduras: Honduras? What have they done to desire our diplomatic ire, our severing of foreign aid? Well, they followed their own constitution and removed a president who was violating it (short version here). But all the State Department saw was MILITARY COUP, MILITARY COUP, MILITARY COUP! Yet another banana republic MILITARY COUP! Never mind that the military was acting on the orders of the Honduras supreme court, or that the interim president isn't a general but another politician. Other countries have seen similar situations turn into bloody messes or true dictatorship; Honduras remains a democracy and navigated a true constitutional crisis in peace. In return, our great democracy has turned them into an international pariah. It's okay, though, we still have that great handshake with Chavez and I'm sure he'll turn out alright in the end.
  • Iraq: I know, Obama never cared about Iraq and wants it all to go away as soon as possible. Well, the troops will be out soon enough, but they'll leave behind a country we've invested a great deal of blood and treasure in, and which it's in our interest to support. They're still dealing with Baathists and AQI, as evidenced in a particularly brutal recent suicide bombing against Iraqi government institutions. Evidence strongly suggests that the bombing was orchestrated by former Iraqi Baathists living safely in Syria. That's on top of the trouble Syria has fomented in Iraq since the fall of Saddam; it's a well-documented fact that many AQI jihadists came to Iraq through Syria, and that Syrian intelligence provided funding, training, and sanctuary for many more. Anyway, as a result of this bombing, Iraq recalled its ambassador from Syria. Syria did the same. And the best the State Department could say was it hoped this didn't "hinder dialogue" between the two countries. Good God, are we now so desperate to "not be Bush" that we can't even condemn terrorist acts, support the allies we've worked so hard to build up over the last six years, and call out regimes that orchestrate these acts? Sure, it'd be nice to open up a dialogue with Syria and make them constructive members of the region; that includes taking them to task for their faults, including the mass murder of citizens of another country.
  • North Korea: has finally gotten what they wanted, direct talks with the United States. And to earn this distinct honor, they have made the following accomodations:

Finally, this isn't so much a foreign policy matter as a sad case of finally realizing you may no longer be able to respect a man you've respected for some time. I've read Thomas Friedman for several years now, and found much of his earlier work, including books like From Beiruit to Jerusalem and The Lexus and the Olive Tree, very insightful and intelligent. In recent years he's moved from a globalization guru to a green disciple, and become a lesser thinker in the transition. I think he may finally have reached the point of being unreadable with his latest piece, the worst of which is this:

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

I don't know what Friedman paid for his blinders, but he got his money's worth. One party autocracy has "drawbacks", eh? Sure does, like the curtailing of individual freedoms like free speech, freedom to assemble, and quite frequently the freedom to live. "Reasonably enlightened"? Tell that to the corpses of Tianamenn Square. China understands exploding populations? China has so damaged its own demographics that there is now a huge disparity between the number of men and women, it faces the same problems as many European countries (too many old people, not enough kids to support them), and if you think that a large population of young men with no available women and only the propect of paying for the benefits of their elders to look forward to is a formula for future social stability, you need to put your head on the desk and take a few quiet moments to collect your thoughts before speaking again. China as a model of clean power and energy efficiency? China's told all the proponents of capping carbon emissions to pound sand. Maybe Friedman's forgotten the Beijing Olympics, but China's notion of 'clean energy' then wasn't building wind turbines, but simply ordering cars not drive and factories not to manufacture so that Beijing's notorious smog would dissipate in time for the Games. And what they couldn't shut down, they painted over; instead of growing green grass, the ChiComs simply painted it on for the benefit of the cameras. As for policies that move a society forward into the 21st century, I wonder if Friedman's vision of the future includes heavy censorship of the Internet and the imprisonment of religious and political dissidents, or brokering trade deals with some of Africa's most brutal regimes. I think Tom's finally bought in to the seductive idea that lies at the root of the 20th century's bloodiest regimes: if only everyone would shut up and let those of us who know what needs doing do it. Democracy is messy, slow, and frequently less than efficient, true; it is also the only proven vehicle for protecting individual rights and fostering an economic environment that results in the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. Shame on you, Tom, for buying into the lie.


The Accidental Blogger said...

Just to let you know, having actually, uhm, worked with car dealerships on cash for clunkers, they love it. They also will be entirely redeemed by September 30th. As to the health care piece, this really isn't a total overhaul and I've gone over that before. Also, here's that bastion of communist propaganda, the Wall Street Journal, noting the success of the stimulus so far (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125185379218478087.html). One other funny thing, when reading Friedman, he has a section on when fiscal stimulus would be effective and he even notes that, should interest rates be at the zero boundary, fiscal stimulus will be effective. Seriously, I don't think you can reasonably claim that the stimulus was inappropriate or ineffective. Just because the economy is in worse shape than was projected at the time doesn't mean that the legislation isn't working (if anything the higher unemployment number supports the claim it should have been larger).

The Accidental Blogger said...

I will agree that the administration has taken their eye off the ball on foreign policy, though I'd also note that all but one of the countries you discuss are more of a problem now than they were eight years ago...

Meghan said...

Is it tiring, being so pessimistic ALL THE TIME?

I think someone needs to watch more Thomas. :)

The Accidental Blogger said...

One final note, I'm refering to my reading of Milton Friedman, Tom Friedman wouldn't know the zero bound if he ran into it.