Friday, February 6, 2009

Sufficient is the Day Unto the Evil Thereof

Barack Obama is almost certainly experiencing some intense buyers' remorse right about now; there have been better days to be president. I mean seriously, what hasn't gone wrong for the poor guy since he took office? His nominees for senior administration posts are dropping like flies; the economy is going up in smoke before our eyes, and Congress has never been so undeserving of the salaries we furnish them with in the way they've responded to it; the world is on the verge of a stroke from watching and hoping against hope that the current Israel-Hamas truce doesn't go down in flames; our military commanders are telling us that democracy-building efforts in Afghanistan are going to have to take a back seat to beating back a Taliban resurgence, in the face of a deteriorating relationship with US-installed Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with absolutely no help from Pakistan, their de-facto base of operations. Oh, and he's also got the president of Iran calling for the US to not only end support for Israel but to apologize for it, as well as the North Koreans terminating all diplomatic channels with their Southern kinsmen and threatening to disabuse us of any doubt as to their nuclear capabilities. Well, Joe Biden, the Oracle of Delaware, did say Obama would be tested, did he not? Oy.

But seriously folks, I guess the surest way to get away with cheating on your taxes is to be nominated to Barack Obama's Cabinet. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was found to owe something in the neighborhood of $35,000, and he was still confirmed as head of the US government's financial apparatus (which includes the IRS). Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, picked to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, was short a mind-blowing $140K, and apparently all that was inflicted on him was to make a public apology and withdraw from consideration. Nancy Killefer withdrew from consideration as Chief Performance Officer in the White House Office of Management and Budget, over some kind of tax issue with relation to a former household employee. This could possibly be a bad omen for the position of CPO, as Killefer would have been the first to hold it. Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis wasn't in trouble, but news of her husband's sticky tax situation stemming from his auto-repair business came to light during her confirmation process. She's not presently expected to withdraw, but her future is far from certain. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was pending confirmation as Commerce Secretary, found himself embroiled in a campaign-finance debacle in his home state and was actually the first to drop out. That one makes me sad-I had high hopes for Richardson. I seem to recall, not long after the election, that a major news story was being made of the fact that the personal information-disclosure packets those interested in administration jobs had to fill out practically had to be distributed in volumes. How did all this garbage get through?!

As I'm confident that no one who reads my blog is so wealthy that they would have otherwise been unaware of the current recession, I won't mention it in detail. Job losses. Home foreclosures. Millions of Americans. That's pretty much it. What really sets me off is what Congress has been attempting to do to 'fix' it. The Democratic leadership likes to chortle about how 'hypocritical' Congressional Republicans' calls for fiscal restraint in the debate over the pending economic stimulus package are; they're not entirely wrong, but they're only bringing it up as a distraction from their own two-facedness. They were the ones shrieking about spending away our nation's future when they were the Congressional minority! And now the proposed spending bill is being jacked up to astronomical heights- we're closing in on $900 BILLION, gang- and lawmakers still have the audacity to try and plug in pork-barrel pet projects in their home states. These efforts to fix our lack-of-funds crisis by spending more nonexistent and unpoliceable money on efforts we have no way of being sure will work, to say nothing of taking advantage of the panicked atmosphere to slip out extra cash for home projects that Americans would not approve under the most prosperous conditions, border on grounds for removal from office. My concern isn't Republican-Democrat ideological conflict or majority-minority power struggle; I'm talking about responsible governance.

As mentioned above, it seems we're going to have to make an extremely disheartening strategy-reversal in Afghanistan. The Taliban, who have proven themselves to be good for exactly one thing- inflicting suffering on the people of Afghanistan, whether they're in power or not, are making a comeback. And we have Pakistan to thank for it. From nearly the beginning, the Pakistani government had been dragging its feet in gaining control of the tribal region on the Afghan border where the Taliban had taken refuge after their US-led ouster in 2001. However, NOW, the Pakistanis have got all their focus centered on India in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, for which India holds Pakistan peripherally responsible. This was obviously the terrorists' intention, as everyone knows how little provocation it takes to spark a standoff between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals. So President Obama's found himself with a 2-for-1 deal: India and Pakistan are on the brink of annihilating each other, AGAIN, and as a direct result the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban are now free to use the border region to forcibly reverse Afghanistan's advance out of the 7th Century.

There's not a lot to say with regards to the situation in the Middle East; either the truce will hold or it won't. Various participants in the process do seem to be realizing, however, that there is a certain amount of political and popular responsibility on the part of the Palestinians to marginalize Hamas. However the average Palestinian may feel about Israel, they can no longer afford to be passive about who attempts to lead them; such an attitude has a long history of working out poorly for them. For what it's worth, Israel and the international community ought to be doing more to get humanitarian supplies into the Gaza strip, but it needs to always be retained in remembrance that the strict controls imposed on what goes into the territory were intended to choke off the terrorist groups responsible for attacks on Israeli civilian targets and for the never ending forestalment of Palestinian ascension to statehood. Whether through embargoes or armed engagement, the Palestinian people will suffer greatest for as long as radicals attack Israel. A crucial step in the alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip, for which there will be no adequate substitute, is the removal of Hamas. They're the Taliban of Palestine.

So in an attempt to jump-start US good-will and credibility in the region, our President goes on the Arab news station Al-Jazeera to, essentially, pledge the end to an era of US-instigated hostility between the US and the Muslim world. I wasn't aware that we had been in the midst of such an era, personally. Well-intentioned though it was, I feel that his language went too far. He took an excessively defensive stance, and appeared willing to shoulder much more of the blame for the un-friendly relationship between certain states in particular as well as the Islamic world at large, than is actually the case. Look, I would be crazy to say that our history in the region was perfectly selfless and pristine; as unglamorous as it is, we do need oil, and we have in the past done some less-than-savory things with some decidedly un-savory people to make sure we had access to it. But I daresay that in the last half-century, we have fought, militarily and diplomatically, on behalf of and even alongside Muslim nations and peoples- from Bosnia to Kuwait to the Philippines- far more than we have fought against them, and far more than any other Western power has done. Do we have a checkered past that needs to be reckoned with? Without a doubt. But I don't accept the degree of responsibility for the frictionous relationship between our civilizations that President Obama says is ours to bear.

The recent behavior of the Iranians and the North Koreans isn't necessarily new as much as variations on an old theme. While the cultural and ideological underpinnings of their actions are as different as night and day, as are the resources available to them (Iran has huge quantities of oil and lose ties to Russia; North Korea has virtually nothing to draw on but is backed by China), they create the same headache. Iran is doing everything it can to assert itself as the main power-broker in the Middle East, and North Korea, the world's largest prison camp, has only ever known a foreign policy alternating between hermit-like isolationism and brazen escalatory confrontationalism. So Obama has to figure out a way to achieve his dawning of a new era in US-Muslim relations without turning the region over to the Israeli blood-thirsty Islamic hard-liners in Tehran, as well as a way to keep a lid on North Korea without ruffling the Chinese, who, on top of being a military superpower, also own the vast majority of our foreign debt, unfortunately.

And yet, for all this, hope springs eternal. With all these unanticipated disasters dotting the world landscape, we could use some encouraging news. As it is we have some, and it comes from the most unlikely place. Iraq, the one place everyone was absolutely certain was a lost cause (including ourselves at times), that had no chance of success, certainly with as little support for the course of action taken there as existed at the time, held its freest, safest, and most inclusive election in living memory last week. As little as two years ago, this would have been impossible. Not just 'perceived' as impossible- it would have been impossible. We were counting the days until we started pulling troops out of plainly irreversibly peaceful, democratic Afghanistan and sending them to pull Iraq back from the precipice of civil war, which we were pretty sure was an inevitable conclusion no matter what we did anyway. Iraq still obviously has a way to go, and the degree to which the various sects that exist in Iraq will accept the voting results remains to be seen. But pictures of ordinary Iraqis, feeling at least that confident in the democratic institutions taking root there and safe enough to head out en masse and participate in them, bear some powerful imagery.

Frequent efforts are made to compare Barack Obama with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who each led the US through some of our darkest days. I have some serious doubts about the approaches President Obama has taken toward a number of these crises, but if history teaches us anything, it's that absolutely nothing is for sure. Who knows? Any or all of his efforts have as much chance as anything of bringing about the desired results, so far as we are actually capable of predicting the future; I'm perfectly willing to be surprised. But I say that if even MOST of the troubles facing our nation are solved through President Obama's leadership, Lincoln and Roosevelt will start being compared to him.