Obama’s Arizona speech

Best speech he’s given — better even than the Philadelphia speech. It’s long (over 33 mins) but worth watching in full. Echoes of Martin Luther King and JFK, but marvellously controlled.

It’s interesting also to see how little of this came over in conventional news media reporting of the speech. Just a couple of soundbytes topped and tailed by the perfunctory analysis of tired and cynical reporters. Long live YouTube.

Biden loses it

I blogged yesterday about the contradictory hysteria implicit in the Obama Administration’s reaction to WikiLeaks. But it turns out that Vice-President Biden’s remarks on Meet the Press were even more absurd than we had been led to believe.

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, today likened the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to a “high-tech terrorist”, the strongest criticism yet from the Obama administration.

Biden claimed that Assange has put lives at risk and made it more difficult for the US to conduct its business around the world.

His description of Assange shows a level of irritation that contrasts with more sanguine comments from other senior figures in the White House, who said the leak of diplomatic cables has not done serious damage.

Interviewed on NBC’s Meet the Press, Biden was asked if the administration could prevent further leaks, as Assange warned last week. “We are looking at that right now. The justice department is taking a look at that,” Biden said, without elaborating.

It’s interesting, also, to see how Obama has been keeping out of this — so far, anyway. But if he thinks that the muck raked by Biden won’t stick to him, he’s wrong.

The Quagmire

Hindsight, they say, is the only exact science. The trouble is that we need it now. The news that Obama had fired General McChrystal while keeping the policy that the general was trying to implement sent me scurrying to locate my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Why? Because it reviews the story of the US’s adventure in Vietnam with the benefit of hindsight, and in the process makes plain the futility and stupidity of the enterprise. And I’m thinking that US policy in Afghanistan has all the same hallmarks, and yet we’re locked into the doomed enterprise much as Lyndon Johnson was in the 1960s.

One comparison in particular strikes me. Tuchman points out that the more enfeebled, corrupt and incompetent the regime in South Vietnam became, the more influence it exerted on its superpower patron. Spool forward to Afghanistan and we have the Karzai administration — corrupt, incompetent and feeble — more or less holding the US government to ransom. Karzai stole the presidential election, and yet was endorsed by Obama and Gordon Brown. There are 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan fighting what they all recognise as a futile, unwinnable war. A steady stream of bodybags returns to the US and to RAF Brize Norton ever week (1,000 to the US, 300 to the UK) We have a fresh, new administration in Britain which is cheerily engaged in a root-and-branch examination of public spending, and yet there’s not a hint that an adventure that must be costing £100 million a week should be re-assessed. Instead David Cameron goes to Afghanistan, is photographed with Karzai and solemnly restates his administration’s resolute commitment to the whole doomed charade. And back in London almost nobody (except for the columnist Simon Jenkins) seems willing to ask the question that needs to be asked: what the f*** are we doing there?

But it was the same in the 1960s. There were a few voices in Washington who asked awkward questions, but in the main there was no public debate about the wisdom — never mind the ethics or the feasability — of the war in Southeast Asia. And so the killing continued until — eventually — the US bowed to the inevitable and scuttled.

Now Obama has fired a general but kept the war. Worse still, he has appointed a successor to McChrystal who, like General Westmoreland in Vietnam, is going to prolong the US commitment indefinitely. Andrew Sullivan has a wonderful column this week about the implications of appointing General Petraeus, “the real Pope of counter-insurgency”, to lead the war in Afghanistan. Here’s a sample:

Obama’s gamble on somehow turning the vast expanse of that ungovernable “nation” into a stable polity dedicated to fighting Jihadist terror is now as big as Bush’s in Iraq – and as quixotic. It is also, in my view, as irrational a deployment of resources and young lives that America cannot afford and that cannot succeed. It really is Vietnam – along with the crazier and crazier rationales for continuing it. But it is now re-starting in earnest ten years in, dwarfing Vietnam in scope and longevity.

One suspects there is simply no stopping this war machine, just as there is no stopping the entitlement and spending machine. Perhaps McChrystal would have tried to wind things up by next year – but his frustration was clearly fueled by the growing recognition that he could not do so unless he surrendered much of the country to the Taliban again. So now we have the real kool-aid drinker, Petraeus, who will refuse to concede the impossibility of success in Afghanistan just as he still retains the absurd notion that the surge in Iraq somehow worked in reconciling the sectarian divides that still prevent Iraq from having a working government. I find this doubling down in Afghanistan as Iraq itself threatens to spiral out of control the kind of reasoning that only Washington can approve of.

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives.

All of which seems to me to be spot on. We don’t need to wait for hindsight to realise the absurdity of what we’ve got ourselves into. The Americans will have to answer for themselves. But the UK is — theoretically — still a sovereign state: so why isn’t there a serious debate about it here? Now.

Obama and the oil spill

If, like me, you’ve been puzzled by Obama’s oscillations over the BP drilling catastrophe, then Tim Dickinson’s long article in Rolling Stone makes sobering reading. Essentially it highlights the extent to which the Obama Administration failed to deal with the corruption and incompetence in the Federal Minerals Management Service — the supposed regulator of oil drilling. Here’s an excerpt:

During the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department charged with safeguarding the environment from the ravages of drilling, descended into rank criminality. According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren’t joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials. But it was American taxpayers and the environment that were getting screwed. MMS managers were awarded cash bonuses for pushing through risky offshore leases, auditors were ordered not to investigate shady deals, and safety staffers routinely accepted gifts from the industry, allegedly even allowing oil companies to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil before tracing over them in pen.

“The oil companies were running MMS during those years,” Bobby Maxwell, a former top auditor with the agency, told Rolling Stone last year. “Whatever they wanted, they got. Nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS.”

Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the “prior administration” is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar – his “great” and “dear” friend – to force the department to “clean up its act.” For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been “seen as an appendage of commercial interests” rather than serving the people. “That’s going to change under Ken Salazar.”

Salazar took over Interior in January 2009, vowing to restore the department’s “respect for scientific integrity.” He immediately traveled to MMS headquarters outside Denver and delivered a beat-down to staffers for their “blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing” that had “set one of the worst examples of corruption and abuse in government.” Promising to “set the standard for reform,” Salazar declared, “The American people will know the Minerals Management Service as a defender of the taxpayer. You are the ones who will make special interests play by the rules.” Dressed in his trademark Stetson and bolo tie, Salazar boldly proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Salazar’s early moves certainly created the impression that he meant what he said. Within days of taking office, he jettisoned the Bush administration’s plan to open 300 million acres – in Alaska, the Gulf, and up and down both coasts – to offshore drilling. The proposal had been published in the Federal Register literally at midnight on the day that Bush left the White House. Salazar denounced the plan as “a headlong rush of the worst kind,” saying it would have put in place “a process rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information.” Speaking to Rolling Stone in March 2009, the secretary underscored his commitment to reform. “We have embarked on an ambitious agenda to clean up the mess,” he insisted. “We have the inspector general involved with us in a preventive mode so that the department doesn’t commit the same mistakes of the past.” The crackdown, he added, “goes beyond just codes of ethics.”

Except that it didn’t. Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their “royalty” payments – the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource – not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone – an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar’s track record. “This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling – that’s his thing,” says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “He’s got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling.” As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

Worth reading in full.

US healthcare: now for the reform that really matters

Insightful post by Mark Anderson.

In my mind, the passage of this bill represents two opportunities, neither of which is contained in the bill just passed.

First, the real meaning of this bill is that it is possible to defeat the insurance lobby. Ask anyone from the past who has tried, and it will be clear that this is really a demonstration of democracy, even if the bill is pretty mild. This passage opens the mind, and therefore the door, to passage of other important legislation, from Wall St. regulation to a stronger broadband network plan, without assuming that powerful lobbies always win.

Second, the real work on healthcare can now begin. Eisenhower Republicans, i.e., those representing business, will see this as an opportunity to begin cutting healthcare costs in a real way. These rising costs are the greatest threat to families (in terms of being the primary cause of personal bankruptcy) and to businesses, from GM (whose greatest liability upon filing bankruptcy was future medical exposure through its pension plans) to the corner store. American businesses, and individuals, need to bring the U.S. healthcare cost juggernaut to a halt, and then reverse it.

We suffer 200% plus pricing for our healthcare because of how this non-business model works, with too many incentives for overspending, and too few for good outcomes. We need to reverse the situation, bringing the doctor and patient back into a business relationship, and reducing defensive treatments caused by the fear of litigation. This is a real opportunity for pro-business and pro- individual interests to work together to really improve the country. Will it happen, or will the Party of No back off again, just when it has a chance to achieve its own stated goals of cost reduction?

What matters more, party politics, or cutting healthcare costs? If it is the latter, now is the perfect time. The GOP will have to throw some of the insurers under the train, but in doing so they will make ALL U.S. businesses more competitive, at home and internationally.

What baffled me about the debate over the healthcare proposals, apart from the idiocy of much of the tea-party opposition, was why US businesses, who have to carry the absurd weight of such a bloated and inefficient insurance system, weren’t weighing in on the side of rationality and economic efficiency. Maybe they will now begin to act in their own best interests.

Liberalism: what’s gone wrong? And what needs fixing?

There an interesting symposium in Democracy in which a number of well-known US intellectuals wrestle with the question of whether — and how — liberalism needs to be redefined in the context of Obama’s (and Limbaugh’s) America. Panellists include Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Reich and Michael Walzer.

We asked some of America’s leading progressive thinkers to give us their takes on where the last 14 months fit within the historical scope of American liberalism. Here are their responses, which get at what may be the central challenge for progressives today. We have a liberalism that wants to do much–that has, over the years and decades, only added to its list of goals and desired interventions. But we have a system that seemingly in both political and policy terms simply can’t accommodate all those desires. We have what you might call an idea-oversupply problem. How, then, do we prioritize? What goals can succeed in the short term–and in the long term, can succeed in opening up more breathing room for the list?

Our symposium does not definitively answer these questions; they are, ultimately, unanswerable, destined for a state of constant flux, like Heraclitus’ ever-flowing river into which one cannot take the same step twice. But they’re the right questions, and our contributors address them in provocative ways.

Obama’s West Point speech

If you found Obama’s speech setting out his Afghan strategy as unsatisfactory as I did, then you’ll enjoy this dispatch from Gabor Steingart of Der Spiegel. It reads, in part:

“Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America’s new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric — and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught.

One can hardly blame the West Point leadership. The academy commanders did their best to ensure that Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama’s speech would be well-received.

Just minutes before the president took the stage inside Eisenhower Hall, the gathered cadets were asked to respond “enthusiastically” to the speech. But it didn’t help: The soldiers’ reception was cool.

One didn’t have to be a cadet on Tuesday to feel a bit of nausea upon hearing Obama’s speech. It was the least truthful address that he has ever held. He spoke of responsibility, but almost every sentence smelled of party tactics. He demanded sacrifice, but he was unable to say what it was for exactly.

An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan — and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war — and from there it will continue ahead to peace. It was the speech of a Nobel War Prize laureate.”

Obama on healthcare reform

Good Op-Ed piece by him in the NYT.

OUR nation is now engaged in a great debate about the future of health care in America. And over the past few weeks, much of the media attention has been focused on the loudest voices. What we haven’t heard are the voices of the millions upon millions of Americans who quietly struggle every day with a system that often works better for the health-insurance companies than it does for them.

And,

Lastly, reform will provide every American with some basic consumer protections that will finally hold insurance companies accountable. A 2007 national survey actually shows that insurance companies discriminated against more than 12 million Americans in the previous three years because they had a pre-existing illness or condition. The companies either refused to cover the person, refused to cover a specific illness or condition or charged a higher premium.

We will put an end to these practices. Our reform will prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage because of your medical history. Nor will they be allowed to drop your coverage if you get sick. They will not be able to water down your coverage when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or in a lifetime. And we will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses. No one in America should go broke because they get sick.

Most important, we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups, preventive care and screening tests like mammograms and colonoscopies. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and prostate cancer on the front end. It makes sense, it saves lives and it can also save money.

This is what reform is about.

Attaboy!

Henry Louis Gates: Déjà Vu All Over Again

As it happens, Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates is a Cambridge man (he did a PhD in English at Clare College), so my ears pricked up when I read about the fracas in which he was arrested for breaking into his own house in a leafy suburb of Cambridge, Mass. It turns out that the story also made Stanley Fish sit up and take notice. After which he wrote a terrific OpEd piece in the NYT.

I’m Skip Gates’s friend, too. That’s probably the only thing I share with President Obama, so when he ended his press conference last Wednesday by answering a question about Gates’s arrest after he was seen trying to get into his own house, my ears perked up.

As the story unfolded in the press and on the Internet, I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?

At the university (which in a past not distant at all did not admit African-Americans ), Gates’s reception was in some ways no different. Doubts were expressed in letters written by senior professors about his scholarly credentials, which were vastly superior to those of his detractors. (He was already a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so called “genius award.”) There were wild speculations (again in print) about his salary, which in fact was quite respectable but not inordinate; when a list of the highest-paid members of the Duke faculty was published, he was nowhere on it.

Gates went on to a tenured Chair at Harvard, which is where, presumeably, Obama got to know him. Fish goes on to link the episode (and the arresting policeman’s mindset) to the strange tribe of fanatics — the birthers — who are obsessed with trying to prove that Obama was not born in America but in Kenya, and is therefore ineligible to be president. Professor Gates committed the sin of being HWB (Housed While Black). Obama has committed an even bigger sin in the eyes of birther bigots — he’s not only WHWB but PWB.

This isn’t just a phenomenon in the US btw. I know from anecdotal evidence that one way to receive a lot of unwanted police attention in the UK is to be a black man driving a Porsche or an upmarket BMW.

Obama’s Cairo speech…

… was by all accounts terrific. Here’s Robert Kaplan’s report in The Atlantic, for example:

(June 4, 2009).

One can take apart President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world delivered at Cairo University today, and subject its sentences to all manner of criticism and analysis, but its overall effect was magnificent. It employed the forward-looking optimism of the American Dream in the service of the hopes and frustrations of youth throughout the Islamic cultural continuum. It also restored the kind of public relations magic that America possessed overseas in the years immediately after World War II. Obama is no doubt more popular among Muslim youth than many of their own leaders.

The President spoke of a “new beginning,” about not being “prisoners of the past,” about how the “enduring faith of a billion should not be hostage to a few extremists.” He spoke about religious freedom, not only for Muslims, but for the Christian minorities in their midst – like the Copts in Egypt and the Maronites in Lebanon. He spoke about women’s rights, and how “education and innovation,” as practiced by Muslim states like Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, are the “currencies of the 21st century.” He didn’t defend the forcible implementation of democracy, but he did defend good government and civil society in all countries. Thus, he spoke of democracy in philosophical terms rather than in legalistic ones. And he consistently addressed the hopes of his audiences rather than their fears.