Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Alarmism and the “special relationship”

Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner's home page, eh?
Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner’s home page, eh?

Later this morning, at 11 AM, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his much-ballyhooed speech before a joint session of Congress (minus a few dozen members). It will contain the same platitudes and hyperbolic warnings — “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission,” he said, with characteristic understatement — that have been his staple for two decades. (Yes, two decades!) People will clap numerous times. They will stand, sit, and then stand again in a spectacle that would put your average Catholic mass to shame. Bored DC residents (but I repeat myself) are lining up to ask for tickets.

But something is different this time around: namely, Bibi — who is in the midst of a reelection campaign — has managed to anger President Obama more than usual by accepting an uncoordinated invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, which in turn upset a lot of congressional Democrats.

The rhetorical phrase of the moment seems to be “politicizing the special relationship,” which is a euphemism for “pissing off Democrats:”

  • John Kerry: “It was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process. But the administration is not seeking to politicize this.”
  • Samantha Power: “This partnership should never be politicized, and it cannot and will not be tarnished or broken.”
  • Rep. Greg Meeks, D-NY: “We shouldn’t be playing politics on the floor of the House.”
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL: “I just think [the Netanyahu speech before Congress] is a very bad idea. It’s politicized — he shouldn’t politicize our relationship and the Congress of the United States.”
  • Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-TX: “But by politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship with an address which will be seen as a refutation of our foreign policy and our president, one that will take place two weeks before national elections in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker Boehner are playing a destructive and reckless game with the U.S.- Israel relationship and will potentially upset the delicate state of our negotiations with Iran and our leadership of the P5+1.”
  • J Street: “Wading into partisan American politics behind the back of our elected president damages the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
  • Benjamin Netanyahu: “The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

Enter Jeffrey Goldberg, Netanyahu’s-staunchest-critic-except-when-he’s-in-fact-underhandedly-needling-Obama:

Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It’s not entirely clear here who is being played.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. It is actually easy to see, with increasing clarity, just who is getting played here, and it is neither Boehner nor Netanyahu: it’s the American public, for being told time and again that, above all, the “special relationship” is at stake and must be protected at all costs. Worse yet, we have to bear these same costs in the form of dead American soldiers, widespread anti-Americanism, and increased insecurity.

And for what? Since when, in the arena of international relations, do permanent “special relationships” even make sense? “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests,” Henry Kissinger once said. But to this rule Israel is a glaring exception: unlike the American relationship with virtually every other country in the world, the American-Israeli bond is “unbreakable” a priori — its logic depends on nothing. And it is self-perpetuating: the “unbreakable bond” must remain as such because it has always been so: “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue.” (This is, of course, as true as “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”)

Look at the American relationship with China over the past several decades — or with Egypt, or Iran, or even India. These relationships have all seen ebbs and flows, summits and nadirs, depending on mutually expressed interests. By contrast, the Israeli-American relationship, while enduring the occasional bump, including this one — slight hiccups that, in the absence of a genuine rift, nearly always manage to generate a greater media stir than they warrant — has held remarkably steady even as the two nations’ strategic interests drift ever farther apart.

And yet, in view of these contradictions, what we seem to hear most from political analysts is a collective handwringing over the relationship’s “deterioration,” not recognition of its longtime illogicality in the first place.

Goldberg is so torn up over Bibi’s clash with Obama that he wrote a Q&A in which he played both the Q and the A himself.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, warned: “What you’re going to see is a very, very deep disagreement over policy by an American government led by President Obama and an Israeli government for now led by Netanyahu…[which is] only going to get worse if an agreement is struck with Iran, and then you’re in a very serious clash between the two countries.”

A liberal rabbi, John Rosove, got downright Gladwellian: “It’s a tipping-point moment. It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), the sole Jewish member of Congress, said of Netanyahu’s speech: “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

Perhaps strangest of all was the statement by aptly-named Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who noted: “When you separate Israel from the policies of its government, it complicates the matter for Congress.” Indeed it does. But whether Netanyahu loses his premiership on March 17th or not, American interests will continue to differ meaningfully from Israel’s. In other words, it is about the state, not just the current government.

For example, Iran poses a much-reduced threat — in any meaningful conception of the term — to the United States in comparison to its effect, however exaggerated, on Israel’s security. ISIS cannot possibly hope to directly threaten American territory in the same way it can worry Israeli citizens. The radicalization of Arab opposition movements poses a greater immediate concern to Israel than it does to the United States. And so on.

Stranger still, the peak alarmism we seem to be reaching now in the upper echelons of the Israeli-American diplomatic clique is entirely contradicted by all available evidence. The U.S. has, for example, placed crippling sanctions on Iran. It’s bombed ISIS. It continues to bankroll billions of dollars of military aid to Israel each year. Just yesterday, while Netanyahu was at AIPAC sowing panic over a potential Iran deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the UN’s Human Rights Council, asking its members to end their “obsession with Israel.”

All this is to say: after watching Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik allies cry wolf, engage in warmongering, and inject themselves into American politics in the past couple decades, we’re learning the wrong lesson when we lament the “politicization” of the special relationship. It’s possible this may be just the gift horse we need.

After Political and Weather Delays, Patricia Millett Set For Confirmation Vote in Post-Nuclear Senate

President Obama with D.C. Circuit nominees (L-R) Robert Leon Wilkins, Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett in June 2013. Picture by Olivier Douliery, McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
President Obama with D.C. Circuit nominees (L-R) Robert Leon Wilkins, Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett in June 2013. Picture by Olivier Douliery, McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

Nearly three weeks after Democrats triggered the “nuclear option” and altered filibuster rules to make it easier for sitting presidents to appoint federal judicial nominees, the Senate is set to vote on Patricia Ann Millett’s nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

President Obama originally nominated Millett, who has argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and currently co-heads the Supreme Court and national appellate practices at the Washington, D.C. law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, to a seat on the D.C. Circuit in June 2013. Senate Republicans deemed Millett too partisan and filibustered her nomination in October, which blocked her from receiving a confirmation vote before the full Senate.

Under the previous rule, Senate Democrats would have needed a sixty-person supermajority to overcome the minority party’s filibuster and force a confirmation vote—a number that they fell short of, with Republicans holding forty-five out of 100 seats. After the Republicans used the same tactic this fall to block two more D.C. Circuit nominees, however—Georgetown law professor Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and United States District Court Judge Robert Leon Wilkins—Democrats changed the rule outright so that only a simple majority would be required to obtain a confirmation vote. With the math on the Democrats’ side now, Millett is expected to be confirmed today. No date has been set yet for voting on Pillard and Wilkins.

The D.C. Circuit is widely referred to as the second most important court in the country after the Supreme Court, as it hears a disproportionate number of high-profile, high-impact regulatory and administrative cases compared to the other twelve federal circuit courts. In a paper published by the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy last week, four former D.C. Circuit law clerks examined the jurisdiction of the court and further noted that Congress often “carve[s] out certain areas of federal law as the special preserve of the D.C. Circuit,” which, when combined with the Supreme Court’s tendency to review only a small number of cases each term, effectively gives the D.C. Circuit “the final say—and the only appellate say—over numerous laws and rules affecting the entire nation.” The article’s authors found 150 statutory provisions in the United States Code that referred specifically to the D.C. Circuit, as opposed to eighty-eight mentions for the rest of the circuit courts combined.

In addition, the Circuit has become a stepping stone of sorts for judges aspiring to the highest bench of all: four out of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices have previously served on the D.C. Circuit.1

Of the eleven seats on the D.C. Circuit, four are currently filled by Republican-appointed judges and four by Democratic appointees, while three seats remain vacant. Because of this numerical tie, any changes that President Obama makes to its membership is seen as tipping the court’s balance toward his side of the political spectrum. Senate Republicans have tried to pre-empt this by proposing legislation earlier this year that would have eliminated the three vacancies on the circuit entirely, arguing that the court does not need eleven judges because it faces a lower caseload than it has in past years (and accusing Obama of “packing” the court by filling the empty seats). Given last month’s changes to the filibuster rule, however, this bill is likely to become moot as Democrats now push forward with confirming the President’s nominees.

The vote on Patricia Millett was originally scheduled for Monday evening but was postponed after bad weather in D.C. delayed the travel plans of some Senators.

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  1. They are Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. (2003-2005) and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1980-1993), Antonin Scalia (1982-1986) and Clarence Thomas (1990-1991). []

Playing the blame game

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Much ink has been spilled over the relative blame that should be assigned to various parties in the current government shutdown / impending debt-ceiling fiasco from hell. (About that spilled ink, I’m speaking virtually, of course: no one still publishes on physical paper anymore, do they?)

Aside from the predictable litany of “both sides need to compromise” bullshit from the zombie lords of political commentary — which The Atlantic‘s James Fallows, Al Jazeera‘s Dan Froomkin, and NYU professor Jay Rosen continue to eviscerate brilliantly — perhaps most distressing still are the results of today’s Gallup poll:

Americans are now more likely to name dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the country than to name any other specific problem. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation’s top issue, the highest such percentage in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1939. Dysfunctional government now eclipses the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%) as the nation’s top problem.

This is, in its own way, tantamount to a Republican victory — and one that could have more profound long-term implications than whatever short-term turbulence the GOP has inflicted upon itself courtesy of its decreasingly fringe-y “wacko bird” fringe. Indeed, although early indications suggest that House Republicans may suffer for their intransigence in next year’s midterms, there are plenty of reasons to bet against the Democrats’ chances of retaking the lower chamber in 2014.

Meanwhile, the broader national disgust with governmental dysfunction plays directly into Republicans’ hands: in fact, it could be argued that the GOP will always have a home-field advantage of sorts over the Democrats when the two parties are at loggerheads over just about anything of consequence. When bitterly contested policy issues cause Americans to blame government generally (even if, as is the case now, one side is clearly precipitating the immediate crisis), Republican ideology wins the day. Time will tell if this triumph is more durable than the Democrats’ current advantage in generic horse-race Congressional polling.

But there is yet another component to this struggle that’s extremely apparent but is somehow not gaining the traction I’d expect, especially from left-leaning media outlets. And that is the direct line connecting President Obama’s decision to negotiate the debt-ceiling increase in the summer of 2011 with the current crisis. While there is no question that Republican lunacy is the immediate cause of the budgetary and debt-ceiling impasses, much longer-term blame rests directly on the shoulders of Barack Obama.

Today’s manufactured crisis was an entirely foreseeable outcome of Obama’s capitulation two years ago. In fact, Paul Krugman predicted exactly this sort of future as soon as the 2011 deal with Republicans was announced. In an August 1, 2011 column titled “The President Surrenders,” Krugman wrote:

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.

Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut. But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling.

And this is exactly what ended up happening. Two days ago, Jonathan Chait explained this very phenomenon:

They see the debt-ceiling fight as being mainly about the long-term question of whether Congress will cement into place the practice of using the debt ceiling to extort concessions from the president. The price of buying off a debt-ceiling hike would surely be less than the risk of a default. But doing so would enshrine debt-ceiling extortion as a normal congressional practice. This both skews the Constitutional relationship between branches — allowing an unscrupulous Congress to demand unilateral concessions at gunpoint rather than having to compromise — and creates endless brinksmanship that would eventually lead to a default.

The administration’s stance, then, is that submitting to ransom now creates the certainty of default eventually.

The primary quibble I have with Chait’s explanation — as I do with most analyses I’ve read of the situation thus far — is that the time to establish this stance was two years ago, not now. Of course, now is better than never, but the risk of actual default does appear to be greater now than it was back in 2011, and this is primarily due to Republicans’ increased confidence — based on very recent history — that the White House and Congressional Democrats would simply capitulate once again. And this very expectation, paradoxically enough, made it more dangerous for the Democrats to actually stand firm and demand that the Republicans raise the debt limit without preconditions — precisely because the overly-confident Republicans had virtually locked themselves into a rhetorical corner over raising the debt ceiling.

So what’s the point? Aside from the fact that President Obama is quite clearly a disastrous negotiator, the primary point is that — contrary to “centrist” notions of endless compromise that are entirely unmoored from the empirical reality of each party’s ideological flexibility — giving away the bank to a party steered by radicals absolutely does not guarantee healthy compromises or even engender good-faith efforts in the future. To the contrary, when confronted head-on with the awesome incoherence of Tea Party rage, the worst possible weapon is the one President Obama wielded back in 2011: procrastination.

Justifying the unjustifiable in Syria

Let’s start with the premise that some wars are justifiable. I’m with Jonathan Chait there. But he loses me very shortly thereafter in his piece from Tuesday:

The merits of intervening in Syria strike me as both a closer call and a lower-stakes matter than what we think of as “major wars.” The apparently forthcoming operation has much more modest ends than the intervention in Libya, which I supported and that succeeded in its aim. We will not be toppling a brutal regime or preventing an imminent massacre. The purpose of air strikes is to impose a cost on regimes that deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Essentially every line of this paragraph is inaccurate or incoherent. First, what, exactly, constitutes a “major war?” If a two-year-old civil war with a death toll exceeding 100,000 and displaced totals in the millions doesn’t count as one, then I’m not certain what it would take to persuade Chait of the war’s significance. (Like Mitt Romney’s conception of the upper class as households earning over $250,000 annually, it appears that Chait’s dataset of “major wars” is restricted to ones in which Americans die in sufficiently large numbers.)

I get what he’s trying to say: war may be devastating Syria, but an American intervention would pose little risk to the United States. To illustrate this point, he compares the proposed military action in Syria to that in Libya and concludes that the former actually represents the safer course of action.

This is, of course, absurd. Libya was led by Muammar Qaddafi, an increasingly isolated autocrat whose idiosyncrasies even his authoritarian Arab brothers despised, and they were only too happy to be rid of him. Virtually no one felt threatened, or was even particularly bothered, by what transpired in Libya: only a duped Russia (sign up for the no-fly zone, stay for regime change!) and a coterie of jittery Middle Eastern despots showed much concern. It was quite clear, in the end, that Qaddafi had no real leverage with anyone.

Contrast that with the situation in Syria today. Assad has the support of both Hezbollah and Iran. Oh, and Russia, which has already warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of an intervention in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is standing ready to respond in case of retaliation in the event of an American-led strike in Syria. In short, it is really quite easy to imagine a scenario in which at least six nations (Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the United States — and this doesn’t even include likely NATO partners such as the U.K.) are pulled into an increasingly intractable conflict. Syria is intricately woven into the political fabric of the Middle East in a way that Qaddafi’s Libya could only dream of being.

But Chait doesn’t stop there. He also insists, echoing a persistent journalistic theme that bears little resemblance to reality, that the Libya operation was a success. It is unclear whether he is referring to the prevention of a massacre in Benghazi or regime change itself as barometers of victory. In this failure, however, he is at least joined by the initial proponents of the Libya intervention, none of whom seemed to know the true objective either. In a preemptive rebuttal of his critics, he writes:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.

Again, this is sheer madness. The “narrow, humanitarian goal” to which Libya intervention advocates staked their early justifications was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi by establishing a no-fly zone, and not regime change. Of course, we never had any definitive proof that such a massacre would take place, only the histrionics of a famously melodramatic leader. So was the intervention a success? Only if measured against the presumed alternative of a guaranteed massacre, an event that — by definition — we can never know for certain would have happened in the first place. The goal was far from “unambiguously accomplished.”

What really gets me, though, is this part: “…without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.” This is a truly astounding declaration. Here is a White House statement from March 22, 2011:

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, issued a statement acknowledging that President Obama would like to see a democratic government in Libya, but explained that the aim of the U.S. military’s intervention there is not to enact regime change.

“We’re clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future,” Rhodes said. “We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”

This “narrow, humanitarian” NATO campaign to prevent a massacre eventually lasted seven months, included nearly 8,000 bombs and missiles, and played a decisive role in the rebels’ eventual capture of Qaddafi — long after he possessed any capacity to massacre anyone.

And yet even this incongruence is hardly the worst aspect of Chait’s argument. That prize is awarded to this sentence: “Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened.”

Exactly. That’s just the point.

And so here we are again, pondering a supposedly limited engagement in Syria. Once again, the White House has explicitly denied that the goal of the (decreasingly hypothetical) intervention in Syria would be regime change. Once again, the objective is muddy: murkier, even, than the Libya strikes — which were at least superficially described, at the outset, as a response to an impending massacre. In Syria, the massacre has already taken place, and Obama has seemingly settled on the phrase “strong signal” (against the use of chemical weapons) as ample justification for a potential military mission.

And, once again, Syria will remain an ugly place with or without external intervention.

Chait concludes thusly:

But I continue to be amazed that some of my younger liberal friends find it so easy to dismiss any weighing of pros and cons by venturing arguments structurally identical to ones that, in a domestic context, they recognize as absurd.

I, in turn, continue to be amazed that Jonathan Chait finds war so casually justifiable. In the first quote I excerpted in this post, he wrote: “Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.”

That’s right: an intervention strikes him as better than doing nothing. That’s only slightly worse than going to war to send a “strong signal.” And yet, “doing nothing at all” isn’t even an option on the table. (For one, the U.S. has already promised to supply the rebels with arms, even if that vow has not necessarily been fulfilled yet.)

Indeed, this is the principal victory that the national security hawks have wrested from their dovish foes in the American political sphere: the idea that ever deciding not to intervene somewhere is a form of cowardice and isolationism. It’s why Rand Paul is consistently portrayed as a hermetic isolationist for the sole crime of opposing thoughtless military adventurism. (He’s rightly portrayed as a “wacko bird” for many other things, however.) And it’s why the decision to go to war is consistently portrayed as a garden-variety policy decision, like raising taxes or modifying vehicle emissions standards.

But it’s not. John Adams once said that “great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” After a string of them — initiated via flawed reasoning and later feted for their imaginary victories — it appears that war remorse, like John Adams, is history.

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“The administration has now lost all credibility.”

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 5.19.16 PM
The Huffington Post, with a typically subtle headline.

When you’re a Democratic president and The New York Times’ editorial board has utterly lost its faith in you, you may have done something wrong:

Within hours of the disclosure that the federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.

Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability. The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.

Many responses to yesterday’s Guardian bombshell about Verizon call data being scooped up en masse by the NSA have been less than furious. Notably, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said, “This is called protecting America. People want the homeland kept safe.” She also helpfully pointed out, without a trace of concern, that this secret court order is apparently just one in a long string of them dating back consecutively to 2006. She also made sure to explain: “This is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication.”

Andrew Sullivan likewise joined the quickly swelling ranks of those that are mostly unbothered by the revelation:

I’m neither shocked nor that outraged. Meta-data is not the content of our phone records.

On that front, this kind of meta-data gathering hasn’t outraged me too much under either administration. This kind of technology is one of the US’ only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence.

But Sullivan and his cohorts are completely wrong on this point — and they’re wrong in three crucial but different ways: technically, logistically, and philosophically.

First, metadata — even when it excludes the subscriber’s name, as the secret court order claims — is just about the furthest thing from anonymity. Back in March, MIT News reported on a new study showing just how little metadata is required to pinpoint a specific individual:

Researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, analyzed data on 1.5 million cellphone users in a small European country over a span of 15 months and found that just four points of reference, with fairly low spatial and temporal resolution, was enough to uniquely identify 95 percent of them.

In other words, to extract the complete location information for a single person from an “anonymized” data set of more than a million people, all you would need to do is place him or her within a couple of hundred yards of a cellphone transmitter, sometime over the course of an hour, four times in one year. A few Twitter posts would probably provide all the information you needed, if they contained specific information about the person’s whereabouts.

Second, as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker points out, the actual content of the call — that is, audio or a transcript of the conversation — is not necessarily as valuable as the patterns and networks that can be traced from metadata:

For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.

Finally, even on a philosophical or ideological level, Sullivan is wrong about the danger of not pursuing such invasive surveillance tactics. Stephen Walt takes it away:

There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in “competitive advantages” against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They’re vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.

Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the “consequences of its absence” could be “terrible.” This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism — even of the sort suffered on 9/11 — is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren’t secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from “jihadi terrorism.” The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don’t have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don’t seem to be crying out for a “Patriot Act” to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.

In other words, the NSA’s wiretapping program that began under Bush and has now very apparently flourished under Obama is every bit as bad as it sounds. The New York Times got it exactly right: the Obama administration has lost all credibility. So why is it that we always seem so willing to forget this news so quickly?

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The power of the bully pulpit

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Obama’s (non-)use of the bully pulpit in pressing his agenda, especially in the wake of his administration’s embarrassing defeat on gun control. Maureen Dowd kicked things off on Sunday:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

That got the ball rolling. Yesterday, The New York Times Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker reported on the same theme:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska — to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?

But Jonathan Chait isn’t having any of it:

During Bill Clinton’s first two terms, a Democratic senator from a red state (Richard Shelby of Alabama) defected on key votes. Clinton tried the “ruthless” approach of punishing Shelby by denying him these sorts of discretionary executive branch perks — first limiting his tickets to a ceremony honoring the Alabama football team, then threatening to move some NASA jobs out of his state. The tactic was universally seen to have backfired.

Did it really backfire? Probably not. Shelby voted the way he did because he assessed his own beliefs and interests. But that is the beauty of ignoring structural factors for stories about people: You can always tell a new one. If the president was nice, he should have been mean. If he was mean, he should have been nice. (Unless he prevailed, in which case his shrewd politicking saved the day!)

Obama faces a House controlled by far-right Republicans, and a Senate majority not sufficient to break what has become a routine supermajority requirement. And note that despite his national majority, Obama carried only 48 percent of House districts and 52 percent of the states, short of the threshold for passing laws in either chamber, which suggests that even a perfect effort to apply his popularity to any given issue is insufficient to pass a law.

Chait has a point. But I think there are two questions at play here simultaneously. One relates to Obama’s seeming unwillingness to get his hands dirty and shake some senators down, LBJ-style. The other is essentially a structural problem: when the vast majority of Americans support a legislative measure and it fails to succeed, one must ask whether our system is designed correctly for modern governance.

The answer to that question is almost assuredly no. The very fact that many news organizations now refer to votes that fail to obtain a supermajority in the same way they report on ones that don’t even receive a simple majority — as if the two scenarios equally demonstrate the bill’s unpopularity — is proof that the grinding inefficiency of Congress has permeated all aspects of our political activity. Broken institutions are so commonplace we don’t even notice them anymore.

This part is not Obama’s fault. But ironically enough, what the president’s team excelled at during his presidential campaign — setting the tone of the conversation early and defining his opponent before he had a chance to introduce himself to the broader public — his administration has abjectly failed at now. Virtually every major proposal Obama has introduced since he took office has been exaggerated, demonized, castigated, and lied about incessantly — only now and then provoking long-overdue and (by that point) completely ineffective responses in defense. So there is something to the bully pulpit theory. But it has less to do with what Obama should do today, now that gun control has lost anyway, and more to do with what he should have done years ago.

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House Republicans are coming around. Slowly. Finally.

Today's New York Times front page.
Today’s New York Times front page.

Light at the end of the tunnel? One can only hope. But whatever the reason — political expediency, acknowledgment of a battle lost, cynical opportunism, or something else entirely — it’s an encouraging development nonetheless. Considering that the foundation of Obama’s healthcare law was a Heritage Foundation proposal, it’s about damn time.

UPDATE: Happy April Fool’s Day.

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In Palestine, a gap between words and actions

Stephen Walt, repeating much of what I wrote last week, reminds his readers what really happened during Obama’s much-heralded tour of Israel:

Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their “right to self-determination and justice” and invited his Israeli listeners “to look at the world through their eyes.” He also told them “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” and said “Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” He reiterated his call for direct negotiations — though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements — and he called upon his youthful audience to “create the change that you want to see.”

But that’s all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States  providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an “Obama plan.” In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of “two states for two peoples” that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.

Walt’s conclusion:

For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel’s creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama’s eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.

Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won’t take long before Obama’s visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors.

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The two-state solution is dying

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

My piece for The Morningside Post is up:

Indeed, Obama was right to decry the injustice of the occupation. But much of the blame for the perpetuation of what he termed the “grinding status quo” should rest squarely upon the president himself. Lacking from tonight’s speech was any semblance of a serious framework for peace talks, never mind for peace. A settlement freeze, once the centerpiece of Obama’s roadmap for peace negotiations, was never even timidly mentioned in passing.

Thus the cycle of endless backtracking is completed. Under Jimmy Carter, settlements were illegal. Under Ronald Reagan, they became an “obstacle to peace.” Now, as per Obama’s speech tonight, they are simply “counterproductive.” The progressively more muted rhetoric matches the devolution of the peace process from actual negotiation into something resembling kabuki theater.

And theater is precisely what it is: the continued half-hearted affirmations of the two-state solution by successive American presidents belie their rapidly vanishing interest in taking the steps necessary to achieve it.

Book Review – Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

brokers of deceitRashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press: 2013)

 

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will travel to Israel for his first official visit as President of the United States. The day after he arrives, he will deliver a speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center that is expected to tread conventional ground regarding the peace process while gently reminding his audience that respecting Arab public sentiment on the occupation is a necessary condition for achieving a two-state solution.

Such modest objectives may seem anathema to true believers in Middle Eastern peace. But they are perfectly in keeping with the “peace process” industrial-complex portrayed by Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi in his new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

“I want to examine here…the veil that conceals how the policy of the United States toward the Palestine question has actually functioned to exacerbate rather than resolve this problem,” writes Khalidi in his introduction. Central to this disguise is the use of deliberately misleading language that wraps the decades-long stalemate in the ennobling lexicon of progress, before smothering it in the bureaucratic technobabble of “road maps” and “facts on the ground.” (If this sounds familiar, the bloodied remains of innocent drone strike victims have now attained the similarly reverential status of “collateral damage.”) Indeed, the all-encompassing term “peace process,” which Khalidi deems an “Orwellian rubric” obscuring “decades of futile initiatives,” is itself a figment of erstwhile imaginations warped beyond recognition by enough conferences, talks, and accords to fashion world peace several times over.

A question naturally presents itself: why bother with this charade at all? For Khalidi, much of the answer can be found in the goals of the various parties. He defines a successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one entailing complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a “just resolution” for Palestinian refugees, and national autonomy for the Palestinian people. That all of these outcomes have failed to materialize is a product of Israeli and Palestinian deficiencies, of course. But it is also an indictment of American foreign policy on the subject, which has unfailingly taken Israel’s side as the prospects for peace slide with increasing urgency into history.

The reasons for the American-Israeli two-step and the United States’ consequent inability to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are threefold, Khalidi argues. The oil-exporting Gulf states have exerted almost no pressure on the United States over the plight of the Palestinians, domestic politics (especially the overwhelmingly hawkish Israel lobby) has prevented a change in strategy, and American policymakers demonstrate virtually no sympathy for the political and psychological duress of the Palestinians. On this last point, Khalidi quotes Richard Nixon, who in 1973 confided to Henry Kissinger: “You’ve got to give [Arabs] the hope…You’ve got to make them think that there’s some motion; that something is going on; that we’re really doing our best with the Israelis.”

“Doing our best,” it is no surprise to learn, meant something quite different to the Americans than it did to their Palestinian interlocutors. Behind Nixon’s Machiavellian scheming lay a rather simple truth: the domestic constituency for Palestinians was nonexistent, while Israel’s supporters regularly raised an unholy clamor. Forty years later, the Oval Office has occasionally changed hands but the calculation remains maddeningly identical. If anything, the din of the hawks has grown even louder: Khalidi accurately notes that an “increasingly formidable constellation of obstructionist forces” confronted Obama’s every timid attempt at course correction. Continue reading Book Review – Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East