Friday, January 23, 2009

Deep Breath...And Here We Go

Well, we're officially a new country. And not merely in terms of having a new administration; last week, we were a country that had yet to be led by an ethnic minority Chief Executive. This is no longer the case, and I hope that whatever an individual's political leanings, we never forget the social and historical significance of the election and swearing-in of Barack Obama as President of the United States. As I expect to have become obvious by now, I'm not a Democrat, and don't expect to ever change that. But I'm willing to give our new president every chance, and want him to succeed- in the truest sense. His success is our success.
A number of things have happened over the last few days, and personal circumstances have prevented me from keeping up on them better. So I'll be sharing a few thoughts, not all of them related and in no particular order.
The first is my prediction for President Obama. As I just mentioned, I want to see him succeed. He has made a lot of ambitious goals, and has already gotten to work on a number of them. Ordering the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and the re-working of our judicial approach to those interred there within a year, ordering a new evaluation of our strategy in Iraq, and freezing the salaries of White House officials above a certain pay level are a few examples. I have a great deal of confidence in Obama's intelligence and his pragmatic approach to leadership. As we have witnessed time and again, personal ideologies have no practical way of becoming policy, either logistically or politically, and the lofty goals our elected leaders set often take quite a beating from the situation on the ground. President Obama campaigned on a promise to have us out of Iraq within 16 months of him taking office. As much progress as has been made in that country, I don't believe that is a realistic goal, and I think he will have the intellectual integrity to acknowledge that and adjust accordingly. Such will also be the situation with a host of other endeavors undertaken by our new president and his advisers, I believe. So my prediction is this: I believe that his decisions will truly be based on what he feels is the nation's best interest, but his list of accomplishments won't closely resemble the promises he was elected on. The Obama presidency will, I believe, cast new light on- or even widen- the rift between the Democratic establishment (Reid, Pelosi & co.) and the party rank-and-file. I predict that he will leave office with quite a bit of popular support, but with little love for or from the Democratic Party management, having demonstrated by the actions he was required by circumstance to take that the leftist wish-list he he's got stapled to his shoulder is no more in the best interest of our nation than the supposed right-wing agenda he was elected to roll back. In other words, I think he will be a good president and a bad party-man.
Another thing I thought was interesting was Jill Biden's 'mouth malfunction' a day or two before the inauguration. In an appearance with her husband, now-VP Joe Biden, on Oprah, she 'accidentally' let slip that her husband had been offered a choice between selection as Obama's Vice President and his Secretary of State. Biden's people have denied that he was offered a choice, but acknowledged that both options were discussed. For most of the post-convention campaign season, then-Senator Biden was touted as a good balance to Obama as an expert in foreign policy, having served more than 3 decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as it's chairman at the time of his election as VP. However, following Obama's victory in November and particularly after Hillary Clinton's emergence as the front-runner for Secretary of State in the new administration, Biden took a backseat. Jill Biden's 'slip' was really Joe's attempt to re-assert himself as an influential figure in US foreign relations and to reaffirm his elder-statesman role in the administration. He's making sure early on (and I can't say I blame him) that he be taken seriously, within the White House as well as in the eye of the public.
The last thing I wanted to comment on was this bailout initiative. Economics normally isn't my field of interest, but in today's climate, one can't really ignore it and still consider themself a credible observer of politics. It's been going on for a while, and I've put off writing about it long enough. It's taken me this long just to wrap my head around it and formulate a coherent opinion, for one thing. Anyway, President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have been trying to get a mind-blowingly huge financial stimulus package passed. The first thing that jumps to mind is the Dems' rants about shoulder our 'children' with the economic burden of paying for the wars. But now that the financial markets are in chaos, the American people at large and the Congressional Democrats in particular have fallen back on the old habit of thinking of the government as separate and above the people- that 'even though we don't have money, at least the government does.' We're so quick to forget that a representative government is the product of our society. But acknowledging that the solution is likely going to lie somewhere between 'trickle-up' and 'trickle-down,' I can't help but feel like the approach being taken is, um, 'excessive.' If the outrageous number being gunned for- which officials freely admit was not founded on anything factual; they just needed a number- must be approved, I think at least the majority of the funds should be appropriated out to the states, for the exact reason that the founders set up the federal-state relationship in the beginning: the states are closer to the people. They have a better feel for what the problems their people face are, they know what would work and what wouldn't in an attempt to address them, and oversight and transparency would be so much simpler than the bureaucratic nightmare we're inevitably headed for in trying to fix every woe being grappled with in every state, county, city and town from Washington. Governments by nature accumulate power to themselves, and the more power we give the centralized authority to solve all our problems, the more we will suffer as a society. Federalism (the sharing of governing power between the national and state governments) is not dead, but it sure is being ignored. By the time all this is over, there's going to be a lot of regret and confusion, and I doubt many people will realize why. To quote Gerald Ford, "If a government is big enough to give you everything you need, it's big enough to take away everything you have."

Monday, January 5, 2009


It's hard for me to decide whether the things we read in the paper about Israel actually qualify as 'news'; after all, the origin of the very word 'news' is "new, things that are." Once again, Israel finds itself engaged in armed conflict with Hamas, the Islamic militant group whose raison d'etre is nothing less than the elimination of the Jewish state.
I guess what could be termed new about the present round was the concessions that Israel gave to the Palestinians in the first place in exchange for terms that were never really met. The Israeli government completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip, pulling back all military units and emptying all Jewish settlements in the territory, aggressively whenever necessary. Why? Because they promised they would, in exchange for the cessation of violence against Israeli civilians.
This deal was brokered with the up-and-coming Palestinian administration, a coalition comprised of Hamas and its moderate rival group, Fatah. Hamas first showed its true colors when they violently forced their Fatah partners out of Gaza and declared de-facto martial law. They of course claimed they were doing it to provide the best living conditions for the people of Gaza, but all they did was use the territory as a place to gather recruits and supplies and launch the attacks they never had any intention of stopping in any prolonged way. A cease-fire was worked out in mid-2007, but the rocket fire into Israel that had become the group's preferred method of the moment merely became less frequent. The rockets were not sophisticated enough to be aimed at military targets (or anything), but that was not their intention anyway. They mostly just wanted to terrorize the Israeli populace, do some damage, and kill some people if they got lucky. What nation in the world would be expected to tolerate this kind of behavior- particularly DURING a declared cease-fire- for more than 5 minutes?
The answer is, of course, Israel. Israeli leaders finally decided enough was enough, and launched a counter-offensive. It began with a week of surgical strikes against Hamas targets from the air, and expanded this weekend into large-scale ground invasion of the territory. The international community, almost reflexively, started calling for a truce and condemning Israel's actions because of the large number of Palestinians that have been killed. From the beginning, Israel has been giving warnings to civilians living near designated targets to get to safety. Apparently not many of those warnings are headed, and the military leadership of Hamas, which has been openly calling for a war with Israel, has the audacity to express outrage when having all their wives and children stay with them gets them killed when they get one.
This is where the 'newness' of the situation stops. These militants intentionally position themselves in the most densely-populated areas of the people they claim to be fighting for, provoke Israel by wantonly attacking their civilians- breaking a formalized peace agreement as they do so, start singing the victim song when the Israelis respond and civilian deaths ensue, and the outside world swallows it hook, line, and sinker ever time. Why so many- the Europeans in particular- are so quick to denounce Israeli efforts at self-defense is something I'll never understand. They almost willingly ignore the distinction- operational and individual- between Hamas and the Palestinian people. As horrible as civilian casualties are, they're a fact of war, and a military response Hamas violence cannot with good sense be equated with indiscriminate aggression against the people of Gaza. If the international community is so convinced that the most productive way to resolve this conflict is to simply stop fighting and stop it now, they'd better be willing to do something make it happen- because one party to this conflict is demonstrably not. Real, quantifiable pressure on the Palestinians to get it together and show Hamas the door, observers on the ground to ensure that the terms of the peace agreement are met, anything would be better than thoughtlessly screeching at the Israelis to stop being jerks to those poor, victimized terrorists.
Time after time, this and that truce is arranged, this and that 'political solution' is pressed for among the Palestinian factions, but Hamas wants nothing to do with any of it. Civilian deaths are of course a terrible thing, but let us not be distracted from the fact that civilian deaths are what pushed the Israelis to do what they're doing. If no one on the outside is willing to do anything beyond look down their noses at the Israelis, as unpleasant as it is, I fail to see how letting them fight it out is such an unacceptable option. If Hamas isn't willing to give Israel peace, Israel, like any country faced with an unrelenting aggressor, is within its rights as a sovereign nation to take it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

More Senate Shenanegans

This will probably be one of my shorter entries. Truly, this past election cycle has made things interesting for members and observers alike of the U.S. Senate.
The first thing I've wanted to comment on was recent developments in the attempt to fill Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's Senate seat for New york. I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised by the reactions of key players on the ground to Caroline Kennedy's bid for the seat. Though not unanimous, there has been a rather strong response among state Democratic party leaders and elected officials, arguing that she doesn't have the experience necessary for them to feel comfortable backing her nomination. She has had several encounters with the media, and yet we're no closer to knowing what kind of positions- or even real grasp- of the issues that would be her job to address if she were appointed. NY Governor David Patterson, who's responsibility it is to fill the vacancy, has been loathe from the beginning to hint at whom he prefers to take the seat. He apparently has been publicly toying with the idea lately of some kind of 'caretaker' appointment, someone who would not be interested in holding the office past the 2010 election that is required by state law to decide the seat's fate more permanently. Whether such an approach would make Kennedy's selection more or less likely remains to be seen, but I find it the least little bit comforting that she isn't being given special treatment because of her political lineage.
As a side note, the question has been posed to me about what the legacy of her father, the late President John F. Kennedy, actually was- why he's idolized the way he is. He made a lot of great speeches, started some big-name public initiatives, he was young, good-looking, and had certain charm about him that even many of the most popular presidents lacked. But by and large, I feel that the reason he is still so much of an icon today is, unfortunately, because he died in office. We're a lot less likely to view 'martyrs' in a negative light, but what I really mean is that he died before his popularity went the way of all presidents'. He had been in office for 3 years and a couple weeks, and his record was decidedly mixed. On the plus side, he had a number of domestic projects and his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; on the other hand, he had the Bay of Pigs and the fact that the first steps toward large-scale U.S. involvement in Vietnam were actually taken on his watch, not LBJ's. And of course, Marylin Monroe. I feel like he has the same reputation that Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have had if they had been killed after 3 years in office. Otherwise, he would have had about the same so-so approval ratings most presidents have after their terms end at the anticipated time.
But anyway, the other big event taking place in the Senate is disgraced-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's standoff with the Senate Democratic caucus over the governor's appointment of a respected Illinois politician to fill Barack Obama's seat. This was a very gutsy move, as Majority Leader Harry Reid had already vowed not to seat any appointee chosen by Blogojevich, who is under investigation for trying to sell the seat. He has said he will follow through on this. The selection of former state Attorney-General Roland Burris, the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in Illinois and who is widely regarded as the closest thing Illinois has to an elder-statesman, puts the Senate Democratic leadership in an extremely tough spot: refuse to accept someone who is very respected in his home state and who has no actual connection to the corruption scandal, and who would be the chamber's only black member, in the name of 'standing up to corruption in government,' or he could back down and look (more than he does already) as making impractical and unsustainable soapbox stances when facing reporters only to wuss out when the crap hits the fan. Personally, I see no reason to keep Mr. Burris out; he's about as qualified an anyone else they're likely to find, he has the respect of the people of his state, and has no proven connection to something that Gov. Blagojevich hasn't even been convicted of yet. The Constitution gives the houses of Congress certain authority to determine the qualifications of their members, but Harry Reid has taken it too far.