Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pickett’s Charge on Entitlement Ridge

The Liberal Ironist isn’t a fan of historical analogies; they always struck me as an excuse to point to a predetermined narrative to relieve oneself of the responsibility of engaged thinking and theorizing.  But such a principle warrants exceptions–especially when the metaphor in-point can’t possibly apply literally.  So, when I compare Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to cut about $4 trillion from the Federal deficit while cutting taxes (which depends on sharply cutting long-term payouts for Medicare and Medicaid) to Pickett’s Charge, no one familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg can get the wrong idea; on the contrary, it invites consideration of Congressman Ryan’s earnestness and his naivete, and the likelihood that a lot of Republican careers will be sacrificed to his misguided notion of fighting the good fight on his own terms, rather than the terms suggested by the political terrain he’s contesting.

For readers who may be drawing an embarrassed blank at the moment, Pickett’s Charge was the ill-conceived tactical effort by the namesake Confederate General and 2 of his peers at the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg to break the stalemate of the battle by a hard charge of a range of hills held by a clever and dogged Union defense.  On the morning of July 3, 1863 about 12,500 Confederate infantry in 9 brigades ran eastward through over 3/4 of a mile of open field towards the now-well-fortified and ironically-named Cemetery Ridge.  Those infantrymen who actually made it through the onslaught of defensive cannon and gun fire to the Union positions had no chance of overwhelming them at close-range and little hope of counting on reinforcements; they simply had to retreat through the same 3/4-mile meat tenderizer.  Over half of the Confederate soldiers who participated in Pickett’s Charge were killed in what in retrospect was an unnecessary and damaging gesture of resolve.

Wait, Pickett’s Charge was obviously an unnecessary and damaging gesture at the time; we just have this silly habit of assuming that professional strategists don’t do really stupid things when the prospect of final victory seems nearer than it actually is.  In any case, Pickett’s Charge was the high-water mark of the Confederate advance in the Civil War, and it was a demoralizing loss that dramatized Confederate incapacity to continue that war.

So, how does this have anything to do with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan?  Consider Tuesday’s special election in NY Congressional District 26.  Formerly occupied by Christopher Lee (R-NY)–no, not the Christopher Lee who plays the villain in every other movie ever made but a Republican Congressman who resigned because of a scandal he could easily have avoided–New York’s 26th is a suburban and rural District between Buffalo and Rochester.  Like most of rural upstate New York, it is very Republican and fairly Conservative.  This is not the sort of Congressional District Republicans should have much difficulty holding.

But in the 1st week of April, Congressman Ryan proposed reconstituting Medicare for those currently under age 55 as a Federally-funded premium voucher for private health insurance plans, and breaking Medicaid (the Federal health insurance program for the poor) into block grants to go to the several States.  The former proposal would hold down growth in Federal health care spending by forcing future generations of senior citizens (read: us) to put up with the same stalling and denied-coverage tactics that health insurance companies are notorious for pulling with the general public, purchased with a voucher payment that wouldn’t rise with inflation within the health care sector and thus would become less-adequate over time; the latter proposal would give the States the power to reduce Medicaid benefits for the poor.  (While these proposals were called “courageous” by some, Ryan’s proposal for Medicare proposed to turn billions of dollars worth of currently-defined Federal benefits over to famously-defective health insurance companies, while his proposal for Medicaid masked a plan to increase the number of the uninsured over the long-term by punting responsibility for cutting benefits for the poor to the States.  The Liberal Ironist doesn’t question Congressman Ryan’s motives, but there is something all-too-familiar for me to call Ryan’s proposals for these 2 entitlements “courageous.”)

Anyway, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted in favor of Congressman Ryan’s long-term budget plan back in April, setting up a showdown with President Obama that is still playing out amidst the debate over raising the Federal debt limit.  This required Jane Corwin, the Republican candidate to replace Congressman Lee in this usually safe-Republican District, to weigh-in on Ryan’s plans for Medicare.  She did–and said she’d walk the party line.

Her reward for this adherence to principle (or to health insurance companies’ bottom lines, indistinguishable in practice for Republicans) was an upset loss of the 26th Congressional District to Kathy Hochul, the Democrat.  According to the New York Times, a Democratic candidate whose loss in Republican territory was initially considered an accomplished fact won the special election by about 47% to 43%, with about 9% going to a Tea Party candidate who thrice previously ran for Congress as a Democrat.  Much as President Obama had done by August 2009 with the early Tea Partiers crashing Congressional town hall meetings organized to inform the public on the state of Health Care Reform, Paul Ryan seems to have kicked the hornets’ nest.

Considering both the inevitable central importance of health care as an issue and the rapid growth of costs within that labor-intensive and increasingly high-tech sector, we shouldn’t be that surprised by evidence of massive ideological shift and then backlash from the electorate as a result of attempts at radical reform of this cluster of issues.

Comically and tellingly, Congressional Republicans were no more-able to take a surprising loss philosophically than President Obama was an essentially predicted but massive one during his tense 1st press conference following the Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections.  CNN Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh has reported that Congressional Republicans have admitted only that “they need to do a better job explaining (their agenda) to voters” and moreover accused the other party of “demagoguing” in advance of the election.  The Liberal Ironist thinks that sounds familiar.  Even Major General George Pickett (likely exasperated by insensitive or incensed questioners about the failure of his infamous Charge) took to responding flippantly, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it…”  Damn Yankees and their dishonorable tactics of using guns and cannon to destroy an enemy that’s charging directly at them with lethal intent in their own country!

I’ve always thought there was something contradictory about those in national politics–whether Democratic or Republican–soapboxing about “what the American people want” when partisanship has kept the country deeply- and closely-divided for a generation.  On the one hand these politicians hope to ingratiate themselves with a few flaky voters on the margins by pointing to decision of the majority as some kind of wise “General Will”–it is merely the decision of the majority–when it favors their party and then condescendingly assuming that the problem is failure to properly frame all their great ideas whenever the electorate happens to turn on their agenda.  The past 2 years in politics have shown both elected and voting Democrats lurch to the left and their Republican counterparts run to the right–and both parties have recently been speaking (though thankfully, not acting) as though the sky were falling while at times doing whatever possible when given a large majority by the electorate to convince the opposition of the same.

It’s true that I attributed the Democrats’ massive losses in November 2010 to failure to address bad economic conditions rather than voter reaction to a progressive political agenda; however, the deepening sense of solidarity and zeal among the Republican base was largely a function of the Democratic agenda.  Advance polling strongly suggests that Congressman Ryan’s proposed attack of the benefits of the current Medicare program sank Ms. Corwin’s Congressional bid.  Both elite and base Republicans seem to have chosen fidelity to the Ryan plan to transfer Medicare outlays from seniors’ health care to health insurance companies as a loyalty test of sorts.  They seem to have gotten high on the solipsistic notion that the entitlements have ceased being “the 3rd rail of American politics” simply because that notion is incongruous with the radical aspects of their agenda.  Maybe it’s the choice of metaphor they don’t like.

In that case, how about this: The Republicans just sent a woman who was all-but-assured of a political career across an exposed field towards a heavily-manned and fortified ridge, and they were astonished to find she didn’t survive the offensive.  Now Paul Ryan and assorted Tea Partiers insist that the problem is that they didn’t all dash through that field yelling “charge” loud-enough.  The recent Senate vote on the Ryan budget suggests this is their thinking.

Or perhaps that’s what everyone in politics says the day after their party’s leadership was repudiated in a bellwether election, and even as the Liberal Ironist writes this the Republicans are looking for a way to settle a long-term deficit-reduction deal with the President.  After all, the valley below Entitlement Ridge is no place for “mind over matter”-type conceits.

President Obama to AIPAC: Israel’s Security Enjoins a Viable Palestinian State

On Sunday President Obama spoke to AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee).  The President’s took the opportunity to affirm his call for the 1967 Israeli border as the territorial basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as the mainstream position in future negotiations.  At times AIPAC’s response was tense, but the message of the speech was well-timed and effective:

“…(S)o long as there are those who long for a better future, we will never abandon our pursuit of a just and lasting peace that ends this conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security.  This is not idealism, it is not naïveté.  It is a hard-headed recognition that a genuine peace is the only path that will ultimately provide for a peaceful Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and a Jewish state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to literalize President Obama’s invocation of Israel’s 1967 borders as the starting point for peace talks, rejecting those borders as “indefensible.”  That doesn’t have to be a sticking point, for the simple reason that President Obama expressly ruled-in land swaps–as long as they are negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian representatives; the 1967 boundaries would be the baseline for such negotiations.

Correspondingly, the interim demands of the Palestinian transitional unity government set a strict schedule, but aren’t as hard-and-fast as they sound.  While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has posted September as the date of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, it is important to remember that the current negotiations as framed by President Obama don’t have to be a one-shot deal.  In a recent New York Times op-ed, President Abbas clarified that unilateral action was simply a response to a peace process that had stalled-out:

“Negotiations remain our first option, but due to their failure we are now compelled to turn to the international community to assist us in preserving the opportunity for a peaceful and just end to the conflict. Palestinian national unity is a key step in this regard. Contrary to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel asserts, and can be expected to repeat this week during his visit to Washington, the choice is not between Palestinian unity or peace with Israel; it is between a two-state solution or settlement-colonies.”

Any combination of the following could be meaningful interim goals: larger areas of the West Bank could be made self-governing, an agreed-upon number of refugees could be naturalized into Israel over the course of several years, conditions for Palestinian travel to or residency in East Jerusalem could be relaxed, a long-term agreement could be worked-out to transfer parts of Israel’s West Bank water infrastructure to the Palestinian Authority, or particularly-burdensome settlements could be dismantled.

That last proposal could be a sticking-point for a Likud government, as Netanyahu’s platform takes a hard line against any further settlement withdrawals barring an agreement from all relevant Palestinian factions to renounce violence.  With Hamas’ acceptance of a transition unity government with Fatah in April, the Netanyahu government will probably withold tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority; the Sharon government’s refusal to pass tax revenues along to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took a parliamentary majority in the 2005 elections led to an inevitable decline in public service provision, growing tension between Fatah and Hamas, and eventually internecine warfare as Fatah drove Hamas out of the West Bank and Hamas drove Fatah from Gaza.  Since that time the State of Israel has generally worked with Fatah and kept Hamas and Gaza cordoned.  This situation was advantageous to Fatah from a narrow perspective but also made it impossible for President Abbas, that party’s top representative, to promise peace on behalf of the Palestinians generally.

Facing only disincentives from his political supporters when it comes to making concessions and equipped to build on any West Bank territory he considers sufficiently-strategic, Netanyahu has allowed Israel to drift towards a situation in which Palestinians can only remain in permanent receivership.  There is no reason to believe this situation will become more tolerable to the Palestinians or their leadership in the future, and the current fact of such receivership compromises Israel’s capacity to conduct a normal foreign policy and has long been an independent catalyst of its insecurity.  So when President Obama spoke to AIPAC on Sunday, his defense of the 1967 border as the basis for negotiations came in the context of an insistence that the United States remains committed to Israel’s security: No other template has been prepared that provides the territorial basis for a Palestinian state.  President Obama, President Abbas, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal have all taken political risks and offered careful arguments for their movement towards a common framework.  Prime Minister Netanyahu must accept that Israel’s security problem is not eternal but the product of an enduring unfavorable political situation, and that the viability of a Palestinian state will be as important of an issue for a Middle East peace settlement as a border that satisfies Israel’s defense requirements.

Conventional Wisdom be Damned: Israel’s 1967 Border, Political Timing, and Justice

President Obama has declared his support for a 2-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict–conforming to Israel’s 1967 borders.  He admitted that compensatory land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state were a practical probability, but his support for what has long been the moderate Arab position for a territorial solution to a 44-year status dispute comes after an alternating policy of neglect and abuse by past and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Barack Obama delivers a key Middle East policy speech on Thursday, May 19, 2011. He surprises everyone aside form a handful of close advisors when he calls for a Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 border between Israel and the Territories. REUTERS file photo.

President Obama can bring significant diplomatic pressure to bear; the United States is of course Israel’s most-generous benefactor by far.  Tangible progress has not been made on providing the space for a Palestinian state since Ariel Sharon was the Israeli Prime Minister–ironic considering Sharon’s past Likud credentials.  What makes President Obama’s current announcement news is that the United States would normally be the UN member state most-inclined and able to quash a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence through that body–which the Palestinian Authority recently threatened as its diplomatic outside option if negotiations with Israel do not restart and achieve something substantive by September.  President Nicholas Sarkozy of France has already indicated sympathy with that approach on several occasions.

The idea of a contiguous Palestine is neither fantastic nor does it pose the kind of strategic threat to Israel that it sounds like.  The exact 1967 borders aren’t necessarily optimal territory for a Palestinian state in a 2-state solution, either.  Provided that East Jerusalem, which is a major Palestinian population and employment base, were part of a Palestinian state, some contiguous Jewish settlements might be recognized as annexed to Israel, and as territorial compensation the Negev could become a 3rd segment of a Palestinian state along a West Bank-Gaza viaduct.

I’m definitely not saying that the 44-year occupation has suddenly been solved, but if President Obama sticks to this position, organized opposition to a Palestinian declaration of independence could collapse by September.  That puts pressure on Netanyahu in a way it has never been on an Israeli Prime Minister.  Again, that doesn’t mean it will bring him around, but it would impose diplomatic and material costs over time that would push him towards settlement.

Some will remain skeptical of President Obama’s announcement of support for Palestinian statehood, arguing that President George W. Bush’s “Road Map for Peace,” with its attendant goal of Palestinian statehood, amounted to the same stale promise; it does not.  This is what George W. Bush said in 2002:

“Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism.  This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure…”

George W. Bush with his assembled foreign policy team during his 2002 Rose Garden speech proposing in broad outline a way out of the then-35-year Israel-Palestine conflict. Due to a continual mismatch between hardliners and doves in the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, the status of the occupied territories has now been in episodically-violent limbo for 44 years.

W. Bush didn’t call for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, nor did he say he was willing to support a Palestinian state at the time of his speech.  Regarding terrorism by Palestinian militants (which, grim as it can be today, was a much more-serious issue in 2002), Obama said no more than that Israeli concerns about Hamas’ role in a unity government were legitimate.  The Liberal Ironist won’t pull a Stephen Colbert and say “Finally, the problem is solved!” but this is the furthest towards the Palestinians that US diplomatic initiative has traveled.

A later section of George W. Bush’s 2002 speech on Palestinian statehood also warrants attention, underlining as it does the diplomatic nuances that illustrate how far President Obama’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has shifted towards skepticism of the currrent Israeli government:

“I’ve asked Secretary Powell to work intensively with Middle Eastern and international leaders to realize the vision of a Palestinian state, focusing them on a comprehensive plan to support Palestinian reform and institution-building.

“Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues that divide them if there is to be a real peace, resolving all claims and ending the conflict between them.  This means that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognize borders.

“We must also resolve questions concerning Jerusalem, the plight and future of Palestinian refugees, and a final peace between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and a Syria that supports peace and fights terror.”

UN Resolution 242 (1967) mentions “land for peace” but does not recognize Palestinian sovereignty or unification.  It was assumed at the time that the West Bank would be restored as Jordanian territory and the Gaza Strip returned to Egyptian occupation.  In fact, the Clinton Administration’s position was even that Resolution 242’s call for “land for peace” doesn’t require recognition of the 1967 border now that negotiations were over Palestinian statehood, but simply that Palestinian statehood however-conceived would constitute the land given in exchange for peace.

You might think that sounds like diplomatic double-talk (and you might be right), but the fact is that President W. Bush never recognized the 1967 borders as the territory of a Palestinian state; likewise, he never says more than that the status of Jerusalem must be “resolved” (as surely it must).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't seem to have a strategy or vision, outside of stalling on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until he rushes construction of new Jewish settlements on precisely those parts of the West Bank needed for a Palestinian state to be economically-viable. Of course, a Palestinian Authority that could not support itself from its own largely-unemployed population and minimally-taxable land would remain in permanent Israeli receivership; as the refrain goes, under such conditions Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic. No Likud Party as Netanyahu would leave it would put Israel's democratic political system before its status as a Jewish state in such a future. Photo by Getty.

Months ago the Liberal Ironist expressed concern that Netanyahu didn’t have any intention of settling the contested status of the Palestinian Territories; more recently I opined that Netanyahu’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank and near-total denial of Palestian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did much to bring Fatah and Hamas together to press for statehood along the 1967 borders and a pending unilateral declaration of independence.  Yesterday President Obama rejected conventional equivocation and sided with the Arab street.  He did that when he said reliable ally and corrupt autocrat Hosni Mubarak had lost the right to rule Egypt, and he did it when he cobbled together an international coalition (however tragically-late) to undertake airstrikes to protect civilians and break Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s repressive power in Libya.  This time he has acknowledged that Likud’s foot-dragging on peace talks with the Palestinian Authority are intolerable.  While campaigning for President, Obama once said,
“About the old saying, ‘My country, right or wrong’–I agree.  If it’s right, keep it right.  And if it’s wrong–make it right.”  With this subtle but profound shift in policy towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority, President Obama has again demonstrated a unique capacity for both political timing and a concern with justice.

The Tea Party, or Thanatos Economics

Sigmund Freud theorized that a death instinct opposed all life-promoting impulses and capacities within the individual human being.  His successors call this death instinct “Thanatos,” after the Greek mythic spirit of death.  The death instinct would push a human being to regain the inorganic state that would come about from dangerously aggressive behavior.

What is important is that Congressional Republicans, in the form of the Tea Party animus, seem to have given over to an economic death instinct in their current handling of our looming risk of default on the national debt.  (Note: I make no pretense of psychoanalyzing Republicans.  I am neither qualified to do such in principle, nor do I believe that enduring psychological drives can explain the timing or nature of the current rightward tilt of American politics as well as the interacting determinants of partisan politics, prevailing unemployment and our unique American cultural inheritance.  As a good Liberal Ironist I agree with Nietzsche’s premise that “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” and Thanatos makes a better metaphor than anything else for the blithe way many Congressional Republicans have recently discussed our impending risk of default on the debt.)

Maybe all the trouble started when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty tried to out-Conservative all the other Republican Presidential hopefuls with an op-ed in the January 21, 2011 Washington Post arguing that May didn’t constitute a hard-and-fast deadline for an aggreement to raise the Federal debt limit, and that Republicans should instead use their power to authorize more Federal debt to instead force President Obama to force drastic spending cuts on entitlements.  This is playing with fire, as it completely circumvents a Constitutionally-established process of budgeting and tries to use the prospect of government default on its debt to try to compel another branch of the Federal Government to radically reduce the social safety net.  Along with proposing drastic reductions to entitlements without first taking that message to the public, Pawlenty proposed what would be a potentially-damaging 2nd round of budgetary brinksanship without knowing whether the President would cave in to Republican demands.

While Congressional Republicans have taken Governor Pawlenty’s advice in using the vote on the Federal debt limit much the way bandits would fell a tree across a road, they have essentially given up on using this juncture to extract entitlement cuts (to Pawlenty’s chagrin).  Still, at least a few Congressional Republicans don’t seem even remotely worried about failure to raise the debt limit at all, as Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank demonstrated most-disturbingly in the case of freshman Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA).

This isn’t a clever gamble; this is an ill-conceived and illegitimate form of confrontation that could damage the economy.  Paul Krugman made the risk Congressional Republicans are running quite clear: Since the United States Federal Government is a huge debtor that has so far paid its bills on time, a default on its debt would injure many creditors at once–and leave them once bitten, twice shy.  Interest rates would rise for everyone, and fewer loans would be available for private citizens, institutions and governments alike.

On top of this, the Federal Government would be far-short of the revenues it would need to fund government programs; we would face the Government shutdown that was narrowly-averted in early April.

A few of my friends think the Republican Party knowingly colludes with corporate taskmasters and are attempting to impose a unitary agenda on the country throughout the States and the Federal Government.  The Liberal Ironist doesn’t really think anyone is at the helm of the Republican Party right now; the “Tea Party” movement that began in 2009 and proved its electoral force in 2010 (its billionaire financing aside) represents a real upsurge in Conservative populism by both longtime Republicans and ideological Conservatives with little prior political experience.  The national party infrastructure didn’t start the Tea Party, and it sure as hell didn’t prompt the Tea Party to nominate the Senate candidates who won the primaries in Alaska, Nevada, Colorado, Kentucky, West Virginia, Delaware, or Florida.  I really think John Boehner’s September 2010 “Pledge to America” was his commitment to try to capture a limited-government animus that even he hadn’t anticipated more than a year before then.  As Speaker of the House, in practice John Boehner leads the Republican Party right now–but he continues a dangerous game of budgetary brinksmanship with President Obama which suits neither his style nor what I suspect are his own policy goals, because he fears the prospect of a leadership challenge from the right.  He may not be enthusiastic about the Republican push to radically trim Federal spending, but the will in the rank-and-file to achieve it is real.

The Liberal Ironist agrees with the standard Liberal take that Republican Party is in practice the benefactor of corporate America and the rich, but the Tea Party’s strict pursuit of limited government doesn’t always work out to the benefit of either.  The Republican Party’s anti-tax fanaticism worked in the Senate to protect tax deductions for oil conglomerates that are swimming in cash while its skepticism of Federal spending currently endangers lucrative Defense contracts and billions of dollars in farm subsidies to agribusiness.  The New York hedge funds’ massive swing of campaign contributions from a recent Democratic advantage to a truly massive net contribution to Republicans in 2010 has backfired as comically as it may catastrophically, with Republican debt limit brinksmanship causing stock market hysterics.  If the Federal debt limit isn’t raised by early August the United States will default on its debt, forcing the Treasury Department to decide what to fund (which ironically means the few remaining cards will be in the Obama Administration’s hands, not Congressional Republicans’) and causing a massive rise in the interest rate for everyone due to general doubts about the viability of prospective debtors.  This wouldn’t benefit the rich, either; actually, it would ruin some of them–as the 2008 Financial Crash did.

“Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer”

The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II really are repositories of wisdom.  Don Michael Corleone is close-up in a man’s face when he shares this wisdom, and because the man is a dullard he doesn’t realize that Michael is giving away that he will soon try to kill him.

Countries aren’t people, as foreign policy “foxes” must constantly remind foreign policy “lions,” so while it is possible to keep an enemy state close, you can’t take it down in some mafia-style hit.  Where possible, it is most-efficient (and just) if long-ranging and nerve-wracking to apply a variety of tools to isolate, weaken and remove the bad elements and to aid, order and further the good.  So it seems that the Obama Administration has decided to leave the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence‘s profound betrayal of our alliance an open secret, and take gradual but meaningful strategic steps to degrade both its desire and capacity to engage in Islamist extremism.  This is a continuation of Bush Administration policy, but in Obama’s hands it appears both more-forceful and more-discreet.

It is very likely that elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence (heretofore the ISI) knew that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, just outside commuting distance from Islamabad.  What’s more, Abbottabad is a garrison city; further, it is home to the Pakistan Military Academy.  Speculation has long since brought us around to the grim joke that bin Laden was able to move into a compound specifically designed for his habitation less than 1 mile from the Academy because the ISI, long-regarded in the West as a den of Islamists, was protecting him there.  Declan Walsh wrote a fascinating exposition on the ISI for the UK newspaper the Guardian.

Of course, “Pakistan” is not monolithic; the population is too large for its politics and culture to be characterized by the radical politics, maelstrom of persecution and disasters both natural and man-made that understandably dominate the headlines.  Back in January I wrote about my belief that Pakistan is slowly but dramatically coming apart.  My basic observation stands: When a bodyguard of Salman Taseer, the outspoken but respected governor of the country’s largest province can assassinate the man he was sworn to protect on his own motion because of a political disagreement, admit to that shocking crime (and later expressing self-satisfaction about it in court), and possibly get off for it because of a groundswell of popular sympathy, that is a society in chaos.  (Christopher Hitchens wrote a stirring criticism of the incoherent evil animating Salman Taseer’s murderer, and other radical Islamists like him.)

Then there is the matter of Pakistan’s 90 suspected nuclear weapons and large reserve of weapons-grade nuclear material.  Even considering the prospect of an Iranian bomb, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and materials probably constitute the greatest risk for an act of nuclear terrorism, whether owing to the complicity or incapacity of Pakistan’s military or intelligence apparatus.

Pakistani intelligence officials were complicit in hiding the leader of al-Qaeda, the man responsible for pushing that terrorist organization into a prolonged campaign of mass murder aimed at the United States, including not only his role as one of the visionaries of the September 11th attacks but also his lead agency in developing plots for more acts of terrorism.  What should the position of the United States be on an outrage like that?  How should the United States regard Pakistan in light of its nuclear arsenal and weapons-grade nuclear materials?  The Liberal Ironist actually thinks that the Obama Administration has taken the right tack for current circumstance–as embodied in Senator John Kerry’s admittedly-tense goodwill mission to Pakistan.  And what good is keeping Pakistan in our good graces in the face of affronts as serious as these?  Frankly, any amount of Pakistani cooperation that can be secured is worth it, since this country is the real hotbed–and yes, its state the most-serious contemporary sponsor–of terrorism.  The idea is to pretend that the ridiculous safe sequestration of bin Laden in one of Pakistan’s core military sites was neither the result of distressing incompetence nor of deliberate malfeasance, but merely an unfortunate oversight.  I suspect they know better–recall that Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta said that he handn’t informed the ISI of the Navy SEAL assault on bin Laden’s compound because he thought there was a serious chance someone in the ISI would leak word of the attack to al-Qaeda–but there is nothing to gain from drawing a line in the sand with Pakistan entirely on the other side.  Its better that the Pakistani military have something to lose if that happens.

I endorse this policy of trying to maintain the uneasy relationship with Pakistan, rather than shifting to a policy of confrontation and more-visible forms of brinksmanship, for 3 reasons–combating al-Qaeda terrorism, maintaining the integrity of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and playing what part we can to relax tensions between Pakistan and its stronger and rapidly-developing rival, India.  While each of these 3 interests is linked to the other 2, they serve independently as rationales for trying to maintain as positive of a working relationship with Pakistan as possible.

1st, in light of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation, remember that Pakistani troops have engaged the Taliban along their Afghan border region in difficult battles in the past.  They may have done this because of our close observation of the situation, because of political disagreement among Pakistan’s generals or because the Taliban had proved too volatile as an ally; in any case it is better to be able to be able to equip and compel the Pakistani military to deploy even for intermittent offensives against the Taliban; this keeps the Taliban pinned down fighting the Pakistani Army rather than the government of Afghanistan–and it keeps Pakistan’s military focused on a fight with Islamist militants rather than an arms race against India or yet-another war in Kashmir.

2nd, no cooperation with Pakistan means no cooperation with Pakistan ever over the integrity of its nuclear materials, and a diminution of what inclination they have to safeguard their nuclear weapons technology against…whoever.  (Remember, even before our invasion of Iraq, Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist’s role in selling nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya–but not WMD-free Iraq–came to light.  The story you may not have heard is that the Pakistani government ended his house arrest in early 2009, having never formally charged him with a crime.)

3rd, cutting ties with Pakistan could have a highly-variable long-term effect upon that country’s relations with India, its bitter rival since both countries attained independence from the British Empire in 1947.  All that could be said is that US dismissal of Pakistan would almost certainly facilitate instability between these conventional rivals.  Having lost a major benefactor that sees India as a natural ally, Pakistan’s most-logical replacement is an authoritarian and increasingly-revisionist state that has always seen India as a potential competitor–the People’s Republic of China.  Some might say that arming both India and Pakistan accomplishes an arms race between the 2 countries in fact, but both countries’ regular reliance upon the United States to provision them with arms and planes is a good thing because it allows us to soften a sense of relative vulnerability on the part of either country through negotiated military aid.  While I think everyone (including political elites in an increasingly-weak, -marginalized and -paranoid Pakistan) agrees that India is both the stronger and more-logical ally of the United States, both Indian and Pakistani officials must understand the US interest in maintaining good relations with Pakistan’s government, and both must understand the potential loss of military aid from the United States risked if either state initiated a war–and each government knows that the other knows it.  This certainly isn’t a fool-proof strategy, or even one without an inherent instability to it given rational behavior by all powers in question, but the icy-cold peace that has prevailed in the Indian subcontinent since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks vindicate military interdependence as a foreign policy with pacifying effects comparable to those of economic interdependence (though, alas, surely not as sustainable).

I spoke to a friend in my graduate program studying International Relations with a concentration in terrorism the week bin Laden was killed–specifically, to ask if he thought that, on some level, the problem of al-Qaeda had always been rooted in Pakistan.  “Yes!” he said.  This whole thing has convinced me more-strongly than before that the War in Afghanistan is about keeping Pakistan pinned down so it can’t use Afghanistan as a terrorist training ground.”

“Yes, I agree…So, you think we should still maintain our relations with Pakistan?” I hazarded.

“Absolutely,” he said.  “I mean, yeah, for bin Laden to have been located for years so close to Pakistan’s military academy, some people in government there must have known he was there–but there’s nothing to be gained from saying ‘We know you were protecting him, so now we’re not going to deal with you anymore!’  It’s simple: If we say that and break-off relations with Pakistan, there’s nothing to be gained from it.  There’s a lot to lose.  So, our best hand is just to have the Pakistani government embarrassed about this, to maintain our forces in Afghanistan so they don’t have a 3rd-party country in which to train militants to attack India or the West, and to use the carrot-and-stick approach with the government to try to keep it on our side.”

That picture may sound bleak, but the alternative is surely worse–the prompt shift of Pakistan to either a military dependence upon China, or the removal of material support and political cover for political or military leaders who want good relations with the West, thus leaving the Islamists the political space to consolidate their relationship with Islamist extremists as an unraveling country’s only means of military self-help.  The Liberal Ironist applauds the Obama Administration for following a course of action that may seem weak or incoherent at a superficial view, but which reflects the sense of strategy, discretion, and the cast-iron stomach moderate policy sometimes requires in a violent and uncertain World.

Rand Paul Thinks He’s a Slave; It’s More-Likely He’s Just a Racist

If you wanted red meat, you’re getting it today.  The current comments are made not out of anger but out of disgust.  Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has demonstrated powerfully, and in unexpected ways, how little of a difference there is between a raving idiot and a racist.  A wealthy doctor recently honored with a seat in the United States Senate, Paul recently argued that to change Federal laws to make health care an entitlement to all Americans would make him a slave:

“With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.”

To see a video clip in which Senator Paul rambles on obtusely about police in an imagined authoritarian state kicking his door in and dragging him off, click here.

RAND PAUL: The Liberal Ironist as a general principle doesn't dismiss those who disagree with him as raving idiots...But it occurs to him that anyone who adheres to such a principle would make exceptions. Associated Press photo by David Kohl.

Senator Paul shares his skepticism of President Obama’s Health Care Reform with about half of our fellow-Americans.  The Liberal Ironist has also long insisted to fellow-Liberals that Conservatives aren’t evil, nor are they stupid.  I’ll even go further and say “Fair play to the Tea Party for giving the Republican Party a sense of purpose again, allowing them to become a serious participant in a national conversation (however acrimonious).”

I don’t condemn Rand Paul (or those morally-confused enough to hail his recent comments on health care as courageous) for opposing President Obama’s Federalization of health care or even for believing that a professional has a right to dispose of his or her services on their own terms.  But in claiming grievance, Paul apparently thinks of himself as equally-aggrieved with the millions who have been enslaved throughout history–those separated from their family and all of their friends for the rest of their lives, moved to strange places hundreds of miles away never to return, who have been whipped or raped at times utterly without provocation, who had no right to choose their own career (let-alone pursue an education), and who could be killed by their owner on a whim.  Anyone whose family history includes enslavement has a much more-legitimate grievance with Senator Paul than he does with President Obama and Congressional Democrats.  Regular readers know it isn’t my temper to throw this term around, so they’ll understand how serious I am: Rand Paul’s likening his supposed plight as a doctor–or that of some Tea Partiers of being required to pay taxes–to slavery is indicative of either narcissism or a deep-seated racism.  These comments are truly shameful and deserve to be held up to ridicule.

What business is it of mine?  This is about giving the truly-aggrieved their due, and I’ll again meet Republicans halfway and say “I’m not talking about you paying them a dime.”  When a pretentious ideologue like Rand Paul likens his personal frustration with the political status quo to the silent agony of mutilated and massacred millions, rather than capture the gravity of the situation he demonstrates that he doesn’t grasp serious things.  This is not a question of political theory; it is a matter of perception.

If these comments inspire anger, this anger could be a source of virtue if properly-expressed.  Aristotle says in the Nichomachean Ethics (Book II, Chapter 8, Section 9) that “…(I)t is no easy task to be good.  For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry–that is easy–or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, *that* is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.”

Aristotle speaks of anger towards others and charity in the same space: With both, everything depends on context and individual judgment.  I consider Aristotle among the most-admirable philosophers because, for all the theorizing power of his mind, he still believed that one ultimately had to rely not on philosophical correctness but on groups of friends to help steer each other towards the light.  In general it isn’t my place to invoke such a purpose, but this is not a case of a bad historical analogy (and those are common) but of moral solipsism.  To have a political philosophy is not a bad thing in itself, but to draw a likeness between one’s subjective ideological indignation and the dehumanizing brutality of slavery or the supposedly duty-bound butchery of Nazism (see also: Newt Gingrich) represents either callousness or ignorance towards those atrocities.  (Ignorance or callousness: I see no difference.)  Neither the fact that you have to pay taxes (as does everyone else everywhere outside of the ungoverned spaces in Africa) nor even the dread Health Care Reform can compare to the worst crimes in history.  You Republicans and Libertarians (and a fair congratulations to the latter on remaking the former in your image) could do yourselves proud and return to an older instinct of using philosophers rather than tasteless analogies as rhetorical aids: You are fully at liberty to keep the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, the writings of Thomas Jefferson and of Thomas Paine, F.A. Hayek‘s The Constitution of Liberty, Ayn Rand, and yes, even my adored Nietzsche in your rhetorical arsenals.  But one cannot liken these laws to slavery or the Holocaust without revealing how unimportant one considers those historical facts.

This is What Netanyahu Gets for Dragging His Feet

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend:” It turns out the old saying is true.

Once thought by many to be separated by an unbridgeable gap following their 2007 civil war, the secular, pro-peace and Westward-looking Palestinian faction Fatah and the Islamist, Israel-rejectionist and Syria-and Iran-friendly Hamas militia and terrorist group signed an accord on Wednesday–in Egypt, which is still in the midst of a democratic revolution of uncertain ideological destination.

Benjamin Netanyahu's 2 terms as Israeli Prime Minister raise the question: What is the point of acting tough through intransigence if you end up weaker as a result of it? Photo by Pool/Getty Images Europe.

A conventional wisdom will likely emerge that only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could bring Fatah and Hamas together after their violent separation, radically-diverging ideologies and complete geographical separation; this conventional wisdom is probably right.  After Sharon’s controversial but necessary withdrawal of Jewish settlements in Gaza and remote parts of the northern West Bank and Olmert’s understated peace negotiations in the context of a failed premiership, Israel has a prime minister who has adamantly refused further settlement withdrawals without a general peace agreement.  It’s right there in the Likud Party platform (under the heading “No more unilateral withdrawals”), along with an insistence that Israel receive no Palestinian refugees and that East Jerusalem remain a part of Israel in spite of its centrality to the West Bank rather than the Israeli economy.  Netanyahu actually left Ariel Sharon’s government and forced the schism on the right that prompted Sharon to form the the centrist Kadima party in response to Sharon’s withdrawal of those most-fragmented and imposing settlements in 2006.  There is that old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon can go to China.”  Nixon in this case was Ariel Sharon, a Likudnik and long a darling of the Israeli right, who on his own motion implemented the first in an intended series of withdrawals to prepare the way for a 2-state solution on territorial terms favorable to Israel.  Granted, Sharon wasn’t negotiating with anyone at the time; the point was that he had the “street cred” to justify the unilateral withdrawal of the deepest Israeli settlements on his own motion, at least aiding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by preparing the way for Palestinian territorial continuity.  Benjamin Netanyahu, in this story, is a previously-unnamed John Bircher who suspects Nixon’s recognition of Communist China is the result of Communist subversion.  A Likud Prime Minister who dismisses his negotiating partners don’t exist and simply increases the physical entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians, stopping only to catch his breath and occasionally evict legally-resident Palestinians, is a waste of good hard-line status that should have been leveraged to push the process towards a 2-state solution forward.

I can show you just 3 degrees to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Don't believe me? Here goes...In this picture, then-President George W. Bush shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at an Oval Office reception in September 2008. They discussed the state of Palestinian-Israeli relations, which have declined steadily since. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America.

Since settlement construction in the West Bank continues under the Netanyahu government, current Israeli policy creates a situation in which neither moderate nor hard-line Palestinian factions can achieve the political cover needed to negotiate with Israel; again on account of the rapid settlement construction that continues at this late date, party leaders in both Fatah and Hamas have been given little incentive to negotiate, as Netanyahu seems bent on simply erecting or expanding Jewish settlements in whichever parts of the West Bank his government considers expedient.  Now the separate wings of Palestinian politics, once bitter enemies, have come to a fundamental agreement on principles and on reconciliation–to each other.  The New York Times had interesting insights on this development on both Thursday and Friday.

Here Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands with Hamas military leader Khaled Meshal. This occassion is actually months prior to the Wednesday announcement of a new accord between Fatah and Hamas. File photo.

This is not unmitigated cause for alarm: Khaled Meshal, the leader of the military wing of Hamas and President Abbas’ counterpart at the Cairo meeting where the pact was announced, actually went so far as to say that he had accepted Fatah’s formal bargaining position of “a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return.”  Granted, Fatah had negotiated with this as a starting-point, meaning talks inevitably tended in the direction of a Palestinian state with smaller-than-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as a prize to aspire to, with some large and contiguous settlements incorporated into Israel, and land swaps and limited invitations of Palestinians to move into Israel for a several-year window.  2 things must be said about Hamas’ assent to Fatah’s ideal bargaining position, in place of their past official stance of total rejection of the State of Israel:

1.) Hamas may well see itself as staking its credibility on accepting Fatah’s ideal terms for peace but with no concessions from those terms.

2.) In principle, Hamas is only accepting Fatah’s terms for peace temporarily.

There you go! 3 degrees to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad! In this picture Hamas' top military commander meets with the President of Iran, 1 of Hamas' 2 primary state benefactors and a major influence on its diplomatic policy; Hamas' recent accord with Fatah could be evidence that Hamas is parting ways with Tehran and even Damascus, however.

I emphasize “in principle” because I actually think this pact between Hamas and Fatah–if it proves durable–means Hamas is preparing its hardline supporters for recognition of Israel.  While Mr. Meshal darkly described the difference between what political actors have to accept as political provisions and what they might desire, that frank admission sounds to the Liberal Ironist like an admission of defeat–to Fatah:

“When Israel made agreements with Egypt and Jordan,” Meshal said, “no one conditioned it on how Israel should think.  The Arabs and the West didn’t ask Israel what it was thinking deep inside.  All Palestinians know that 60 years ago they were living on historic Palestine from the river to the sea.  It is no secret.”

Another open admission of what the Palestinians have lost may simply sound as ominous as any–until one considers that Mahmoud Abbas reminisced on the trauma of his family’s loss of its land in the 1948 war shortly after his election as President of the Palestinian Authority.  He recalled his family’s lost land in order to say “I am a Palestinian like you: My family lost everything it had, so you know that I don’t say it lightly when I insist we must move forward and negotiate a political settlement with Israel.”  Mr. Meshal has said no more here than “We all feel something of the same loss as Palestinians, but we still have to negotiate.”

Does this agreement between Fatah and Hamas vindicate Netanyahu’s hard-line stance against unilateral settlement withdrawals or peace talks, and settlement construction within the Palestinian territories in the absence of a unified Palestinian negotiating partner?  No, it really doesn’t.  Netanyahu’s strategic freedom just contracted, perhaps permanently.  Having a unified Palestinian opposition insisting that the 1967 Israeli border with Jordan is the legitimate border between Israel and Palestine pushes the separate peace Israel could have brokered with Fatah beyond reach.  For years Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who sometimes engaged in stern talk but who was friendly towards the West and eager to push negotiations with Israel forward, had nothing to show for the desired talks.  Now he faces an indisputably-weaker but reunified opponent that is deeply (and justifiably) skeptical of his intentions, with a more-democratized power base behind it than it truly enjoyed the last time such skepticism towards Israel prevailed, and a democratic revolution which toppled an old ally in Egypt which will probably leave the Camp David peace agreement intact but will probably mean the end of the Gaza blockade on Egypt’s side, inevitably easing Hamas’ capacity to arm itself.

Now, as mentioned in the New York Times this past Friday, Mahmoud Abbas’ recent lobbying of the Great Powers to rally support for United Nations consent for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence this September seems to have borne fruit.  Gently rebuffed by Chancellor Merkel of Germany, Abbas seems to have elicited some sympathy from President Sarkozy of France: In a Thursday interview, the Times reported, President Sarkozy said that a unilateral declaration of independence might make sense if the Israeli government didn’t budge on peace negotiations through the summer.  Sarkozy has issued warnings of this sort before, including recently; it remains to be seen whether the hardline Prime Minister who casts himself as Israel’s soberest defender possesses the acuity and the independence he will need to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough to mollify Fatah and Hamas before September.

While French President Nicholas Sarkozy has ushered in a marked improvement in relations with the United States from his predecessor Jacques Chirac, he has maintained the long-established independence of French foreign policy, most-recently in showing sympathy for Palestinian Authority intentions to unilaterally declare independence in September if peace talks with Israel stall through the summer. From taking lead role in air operations against Gaddafi Loyalist forces in the Libyan Civil War to assisting Ivoirian troops in removing Laurent Gbagbo from power in Cote d'Ivoire, Sarkozy's administration has crafted a unique role for France in several major foreign conflicts.

Netanyahu’s current predicament isn’t owing to Israel’s place in the World, or the current Arab uprisings, or Iran and Syria–the latter’s sudden weakness probably pushing Hamas closer to the political mainstream.  Netanyahu finds his hand suddenly and perhaps drastically weakened because he is such a crude statesman: Having failed to elevate political actors who wanted to be his friend, he has brought his friends and his enemies together.  The Liberal Ironist believes that in politics, grievances accrue and gain a broader coherence when those with power simply do whatever they please in spite of them.