Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Failed States Index 2011

The Liberal Ironist recalls (as did conceptual forebear Richard Rorty) the words of George Orwell: “The democratic vistas seem to end in barbed wire.”  Today the conventional wisdom is that the threat posed to a world order based in Liberalism is no longer the highly-ideological and expansionist authoritarian states of yore but collapsed and often-ungovernable states–the failed states.  The latter half of the Aughts demonstrated that this narrative was somewhat simplistic; consider not the aggressive revisionism by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kim Family Regime in North Korea and even the increasingly-globalized People’s Republic of China but also the violence visited on the protesters of Arab Spring this year, particularly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.  Still, in the conventional view their very capacity must grant authoritarian states the means of transforming themselves, and the link between a country’s economic development and its political development are now well-established, even if there is more than 1 course which this development process might take.  In its July-August 2011 issue, the contributors to Foreign Policy reflect a general understanding that failed states do in fact pose the most-enduring threats to World peace; however, this affront doesn’t always come about for the expected reasons and tends not to proceed from the very weakest states.  Some of the least-developed states simply possess none of the geographic advantages which would facilitate their development; some of them have been all but cannibalized by kleptocrats both murderous and mild; some have been roughed up by outsiders who then either abandoned them or failed to anticipate the convulsions of faction they would experience after such disruption.  (Iraq and Afghanistan are the most-obvious contemporary examples but Cambodia and Lebanon are still less-stable than they could be due to foreign interventions that are decades past.)

In the middle of every summer Foreign Policy offers its 2011 Failed States Index, cataloging the states which at an extreme exist only in name, often more of a “mere country” than a state, tenuous oligarchic confederations which have utterly failed at the most-basic test of the legitimacy of government–the protection of their subjects from violence.  These countries, 1 of the following articles on failed states notes, actually vary in whether a pervasive state of political violence and poor public service provision are a consequence of radical collapse of the state (as the conventional narrative emphasizes) or were the brutish long-term design of its leadership.

Grotesque as it appears, many failed states are in their extremely weakened state because of the intentions of leadership.  James Traub, author of the aforementioned article, is spot-on in mentioning Sudan, Pakistan and Myanmar in this connection.

The Liberal Ironist has long had an interest in failed states.  They are “where history seems to happen,” if you define history as political violence and public prestige battles.  More than offering many morbid stories for our consumption, however, failed states offer a moral caution.  Many people of an ideological bent on both the right and the left think of normal politics as inherently-corrupting and of the state as an alien oppressor of normal human aspirations; in reality it is their only possible guarantor.  The 20th century made clear the evils that political ideologies hateful of the mundane can visit upon humanity and so highlighted the importance of the responsible use of state power; but if the decay of countries such as North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq under Saddam Hussein are actually a perverse effect of dictators working to keep a whole country fenced-in, the examples of the “Democratic Republic of Congo,” Yemen, Afghanistan, and of course Somalia compellingly demonstrated the attendant evils of not having a state at all.  Thomas Hobbes made a terrible misjudgment in Part II of Leviathan when he reasoned that the rule of law could not soundly be imposed upon the head of government; but his picture of precariousness of life in the absence of a viable state from Part 1, Chapter XIII of Leviathan remains, in the Liberal Ironist’s mind, the first and last word on the subject: “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

There are those who have said “There can be no peace without justice.”  The Liberal Ironist thinks of the failed states and retorts: There can be no justice without peace, so to secure a minimal conception of justice 2 institutional conditions must be met–1) Max Weber’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the hands of the state, and 2) for the state to be able to adjudicate contentions of opinion peacefully.  The state must wield power, and must be amenable to reason–or there is no justice to be had.  Read about the failed states.


The Trouble With Harry: What IS Harry’s Problem, Anyway?

The Liberal Ironist recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s off-beat black comedy The Trouble With Harry during the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.  It’s been years since I saw this unrecognized gem by the Master of Suspense.  The vibrant depictions of quaint Americana, the dark opening, the various characters’ touching simplicity and often disturbing level of self-absorption, the fixation on obscurity and failure, that meditative dry humor…I hadn’t recognized it as such in my original viewing, but I think The Trouble With Harry is the template for every Coen Brothers film.  I’d like to illustrate this, and its significance in depicting Hitchcock’s “ideology,” by recounting its 1st and 3rd scenes.  There isn’t much here that counts for spoilers; this is a beautiful but off-beat movie that just has to be experienced.

The action (though that is really the wrong thing to call it) opens in a small, remote New England village on a beautiful autumn morning.  (It must be early in that morning, because an awful lot happens on this day…)  A rosy-cheeked former ship’s captain is out hunting, and happens to see his first mark: A “Posted: No Hunting” sign.  He then stumbles upon a can he has rather expertly (though of course inadvertently) shot.  (As he picks the can up and looks it over with a witticism, he overlooks the drop of blood on it–pure Hitchcock.)  Shortly thereafter, Captain Wiles (that’s right, Captain Wiles) notices a corpse–heretofore represented almost entirely by its feet, which are always pointed straight up.  The Captain immediately reaches the conclusion that he clumsily shot the man while hunting; he appears more-exasperated than frightened by this development.  His reaction actually prompted me to the Coen Brothers comparison: “What are you doing there?!” he asks the dead man in a state of perplexity.  (George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading, after a startling development in which he shoots a man, immediately afterwards asks the same question, albeit in a more-vulgar fashion.)  He quickly resolves to bury the body, only to run off behind a tree after hearing someone coming.  It turns out to be a mother and her young son; she promptly identifies the dead man as Harry–and celebrates his demise!  With the young boy asking the usual series of precocious questions, they walk off.  The Captain proceeds out from his hiding place, still intending to finish his work as he is convinced that the woman who has seen the body has no intention of reporting it.

At this point Captain Wiles begins pulling the body towards the tree line; he stops however, when an older woman asks with what can only be called excessive politeness whether anything is wrong.  This is Mrs. Graves–and no, the dead man is not Mr. Boddy.  The irony of the whole scene that follows is once again vintage Hitchcock.  Mrs. Graves expresses surprise but a decided lack of shock at the sight of a neighbor with a rifle dragging a dead man towards the tree line, and in a short conversation invites the suspected manslaughterer over her house for tea.  This invitation Captain Wiles eagerly accepts, and Mrs. Graves steps over Harry’s body and goes cheerfully on her way.  Wiles promptly resumes his work of hiding his apparent victim’s remains.

Once again, however, he is forced to hide as the local physician, who is reading a book while walking, walks over the hilltop and actually trips over the body, simply getting to his feet, then walking off again.  Next a tramp hikes up the hill, sees the body, tries to wake the man up.  Then, upon realizing he is dead the tramp contentedly takes the man’s shoes.

This isn’t the last or even quite the most-poignant such scene.  Shortly afterward a local avant-garde painter happens upon the corpse, and after an anxious glance about his surroundings, he begins intently painting the dead man’s face.  (In fact, this is by far the most-precise painting by Sam Rockwell’s character that we see.)  The depth of absorption these characters have in their own problems, pursuits and desires feels bizarre–but it does not feel inhuman.  Hitchcock, as the Liberal Ironist mentioned in a review of Vertigo, is fascinated by the asocial and often violent unconscious drives in human beings; here the asocial side of human beings is on display even as they share simple and intimate moments with each other.

This strange yet somehow-acceptable combination of quaint Americana with intensely private, vaguely-criminal “ordinary people” forms that unique combination of elements of setting, characterization, theme and tone that has me convinced that The Trouble With Harry somehow inspired the Coen Brothers’ brand of film making.  If you take a Barton Fink, a Fargo, a Big Lebowski, an O Brother Where Art Thou? a No Country for Old Men, or a Burn After Reading, a set of distinct but mutually-resonant elements return to the foreground: A deep affection for America with populist undertones or overtones, but also a sobering picture of the idiosyncrasy and darkness in people’s motives and concerns, and a seemingly un-American pessimism about what individuals are capable of and a fatalism about whether we can stand the storm to come.  (Captain Wiles repeatedly, almost eagerly tells the painter that he doesn’t have a conscience, and he casually volunteers his atheism.  The home country of the Transcendentalists has undergone an interesting evolution.)  Many of those elements may seem most-obvious in their beautiful but bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, but it seems omnipresent in their work.  A friend of mine who loves movies once said that he suspects the moral of the story in the Coen Brothers’ movies is that only folkish simplicity can save you.  (From some of the grim developments in, say, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading among others, I don’t know if I’d say anything can protect us from a bad end, but the point remains that those with simple dreams may seem absurd, but they never look as ridiculous as those with elaborate plans–and if both should fall in the end, the simple man or woman doesn’t have so far to go and tends to meet that end with greater dignity.)

That reminds me: Harry had some pretty complicated ideas about his duty to his family.  Of course, The Trouble With Harry takes place in a different World–though I remember the irony of saying “times have changed” that are elemental to Hitchcock movies like Rear Window or Vertigo–but Harry married his brother’s widow out of his belief in his duty–and declined to consummate the marriage on his honeymoon night because he read his horoscope–He was a Taurus, we are informed–and was warned against starting any new projects that night because they couldn’t be finished.  This may be a comment about his lack of passion or simply a crack at his impotence, but either way you know he will not be a force in a Hitchcock movie.  It’s no wonder, really, that he is introduced dead.

Though there are a few steps along the road to his untimely demise, Harry ultimately died because he didn’t know how to want something.  That may sound somewhat vague and postmodern, but I suspect it’s true.  The plots of Hitchcock movies frequently turn around the revelation of a desire, whether of protagonist or antagonist, or to the audience or to the protagonist him- or herself.  Harry is a perverse human being even in the twisted World according to Alfred Hitchcock.  He tries to conform to an ideal when what he most needs is to be moved by a sentiment (or even an unadorned desire), and whether by stumbling about where he doesn’t belong or doomed by a weak constitution, he dies.

The Libyan Stalemate

Again, say what you will about Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (I’ll volunteer “He’s like the monstrous antihero from one of Dostoevsky’s novels, except he has tyrannical power over an entire country”), but he certainly is tenacious.  It’s just over 5 months to the day that Libyan Army forces deployed to Benghazi mutinied rather than violently-suppress protests there.  That development transformed what otherwise would likely have been a close analogue for Syria’s current massive use of force in the northern city of Homs into a civil war almost instantly.  Through early March, it appeared the Gaddafi regime was crumbling rapidly, especially to the Liberal Ironist.  But then a Rebel offensive against Sirte–Gaddafi’s hometown, the headquarters of the Libyan Special Forces and the last major strategic town preventing a link between the main Rebel territory in the east with the western Rebel-held city of Misurata–backfired unceremoniously but most-consequentially.  This led to a Rebel fallback as far as Benghazi, which was only spared a massacre as a result of a hastily-assembled NATO intervention authorized by UN resolution.  The Rebels retook Ajdabiya to the south of Benghazi shortly thereafter, though they have fought inconclusively with Gaddafi Loyalist forces for control of Brega, a strategic oil-exporting city, for the better part of the 4 months that followed.  Contributors to Wikipedia have maintained a constantly-updated map showing Rebel and Loyalist control of cities and towns in the vast but largely-uninhabited country; this map reveals that the territorial situation there is, with the exception of growing Rebel control around Misurata and throughout the northwestern Mafusa Mountains towards Az-Zawiyah and Tripoli, essentially unchanged since March 26th.

We seem to have arrived at a stalemate.

There is a big lingering question, over the intermediate-term means of helping the Libyan Transitional National Council to consolidate government functions and build a domestic economy.  The latter is a necessity, as Gaddafi largely fueled Libyan business (which was a very-centralized affair) on oil exports.  Libya’s oil wealth has made it the most-affluent African country–while all along an economy independent of its human resources has abetted the caprices of perhaps the most unabashedly-violent dictator in the World.

Can the Libyan Transitional National Council reach an accord with Gaddafi?  The best answer probably came from a Rebel colonel: Not if he intends to remain in Libya, no.  The Washington Post interviewed the former Libyan Army colonel in a report on an odd idea recently suggested by well-meaning French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe–that Gaddafi could remain in Libya if he agreed to step down.  (The idea is strange because it comes from the minister of a country that, about 220 years ago, made a public spectacle of the execution of its king and queen after a prolonged period in which their fates under house arrest and then imprisonment were uncertain.)  Over his 41-year reign (so the colonel’s reasoning goes), Colonel Gaddafi has used tribal patronage, indoctrination, and torture and murder to build-up a likely-small but committed following in those areas of the country over which he has maintained control throughout the current civil war.  Parts of the power structure will continue to exist even in the event of a final victory by the Rebels; this would make a Gaddafi who remained in Libya dangerous, as the Rebel colonel argued.  He has already demonstrated that he is as stubborn as any of the Arab autocrats that have faced rebellion since mid-December.  Now, after a week of Western diplomatic initiatives, he has declared, once again, that no peace settlement with the Rebels is possible.  (It is noteworthy, of course, that he negotiated for about a week before loudly declaring such.)

The Liberal Ironist thinks we shouldn’t lose heart over the indecisive nature of the Libyan rebellion; we should embrace it in recognition of the fact that this is as straightforward of a fight between oppressor and oppressed as you are going to find, and that it’s the oppressed who have put everything on the line in making war against an incorrigible tyrant.  If we believe in freedom then it isn’t too much to ask to defend it with air power.  (In a manner of speaking) it’s time to get religion, people.


“$1.5 Trillion in 10-Year Budget Cuts Rather Than $3.2 Trillion? Well, At Least Taxes Won’t Go Up…”

Say what you will about the contemporary Republican Party, its national representation does stand on principle.  It seems they’ll sacrifice anything to those principles, their own agenda included.  If there is to be an increase in the Federal debt limit before a disastrous and unprecedented failure of the Federal Government to pay its bills starting August 3rd, it looks increasingly like it will be coupled with $1.5 trillion in cuts to Federal spending over a 10-year period.  This $1.5 trillion represents the least-controversial aspects of $2.4 trillbion in deficit reductions sought by Democratic and Republican negotiators on Vice President Joseph Biden’s deficit-reduction group.  This of course comes out to an annualized average of about $150 billion in cuts to Federal spending, which when combined with the mostly-superficial budget cuts of $37.8 billion from the FY 2011 Federal budget last April, means the Federal Government would spend about $187.8 billion less per year.  This constitutes a major accomplishment for the Republican House majority, especially considering House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)’s “Pledge to America” promised only about $100 billion in budget cuts; however, this figure also represents roughly half the volume of spending cuts recommended by the President’s Deficit Commission back in its December report.

Maybe Congressional Republicans thought that they could simply wait-out the Senate Democrats and President Obama, using the President’s and Treasury Secretary’s repeated warnings that the question of raising the Federal debt limit is not a game to showcase their seriousness to their base and to press the Senate and Executive Branch into a massive commitment to shrink the Federal Government over the next decade.  Congressional Republicans seem to have verified their Conservative credentials, but at the cost of blowing their best offer and having to settle for a consolation prize.  This is going to hurt more than they think.

New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat had a thought-provoking op-ed about this on Monday, though he is not the 1st to say that House Republicans held out for too much without making concessions with a smaller deal and diminished respectability as their reward.  That credit, to my knowledge, goes to Ezra Klein, who wrote earlier and even prognosticated about Eric Cantor’s preference for a $2 trillion deficit-reduction deal with no tax increase over a $4 trillion plan with $800 billion in closed tax loopholes and higher tax rates on the rich as a likely harbinger of the sacrifice of a goal in favor of the letter of a principle.

President Obama appears genuinely disappointed at the prospect that he won’t be able to get a major deficit-reduction deal (say, a plan big-enough to balance the Federal budget in the long term); the Liberal Ironist can live with the failure of the 112th Congress to work-out a deal with the President to essentially restructure the Federal Government and reconstitute its priorities.  The President is taking an intermediate-term game while the long-term game, while fraught with some risks, should still be compelling.  If, say, the President gains a $2.5 trillion increase in the Federal debt limit while Republicans secure about $1.5 trillion in budget cuts over a 10-year period–including cuts to Defense Department advanced weapons systems and farm subsidies many Republicans had hoped to protect–this outcome probably allows him to simultaneously mitigate criticism from the right and the left more than either his hoped-for “grand bargain” or the status quo would have.  House Republicans have already secured a reputation for intransigence, and even if we are able to move forward with a debt limit increase we will likely take stock of damage already wrought to anxious markets.  If President Obama wins re-election, the strength of the Tea Party message will already be called into question; the very reasonable and professional manner in which House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed conversion of Medicare into vouchers for senior citizens to buy health insurance may yet prove more-damaging to Republican electoral prospects than House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)’s brinksmanship, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed as childish buffoonery.  In any case, in bearing their fangs the new Republican House majority has expended their pretense of representing widely-held sentiments, failed to achieve any of their really radical goals, and (if the $1.5 trillion in 10-year budget cuts pass, particularly following the $37.8 billion in cuts to the 2011 Federal budget this spring) inured President Obama to much Republican criticism that he is beholden to some kind of radical left or that Federal spending is “out of control.”

Far from being “1995 all over again,” Year 1 of the new Republican House majority has been its own story, with very different players playing the same game with very-different endowments–the importance of which isn’t fully grasped by either party.  What hasn’t changed is that an opposition Republican House majority will cut off its nose to spite its face, even with numerous portents that they risked doing so.

It’s Simple: Eric Cantor is Gunning for John Boehner’s Job

If we actually do witness the spectacle of the most-powerful government on Earth failing to muster the collective will to pay 44% of its outlays–or even defaulting on its debt–simply because its leadership cannot agree to keep it solvent for another 2 years, this will owe largely to the actions of a typically softspoken but dogmatic and ambitious man, a Congressman from Richmond, Virginia.  Current political narratives, from the incredulous to the troubled, often locate this deep intransigence with “the Republicans” or “the Tea Partiers,” but as many as half of the House Republican Caucus are now opposed to raising the debt limit at all–and while this particular party leader continues to participate in negotiations over the proposed debt-reduction plan that would authorize an increase in the Federal debt limit, he has only encouraged them.

In an interesting Washington Post article highlighting the growing rift between the House Majority Leader and the Speaker, the former passed the buck to Conservative backbenchers during a press conference: “I don’t think the White House understands how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they are going to vote for a debt-ceiling increase,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), indicating that he considered Republican consent to increase the Federal debt limit to be the Republicans’ “compromise” in debt-reduction talks.

(Note: The barebones history of Cantor’s time in Congress is drawn from the Almanac of American Politics 2010, a publication of the excellent American politics weekly National Journal.)  I suspect only the recently-repented and the unrepentant ambitious “get religion.”  Majority Leader Cantor has long been recognized as one of Congress’s immoderate social climbers, but recent events make him look like he’s truly in it for himself.  Cantor was first elected to Congress from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District in 2000, and after just 1 term in Congress Cantor was appointed Chief Deputy Majority Whip by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO).  This made him essentially the House Republicans’ key agent for polling members of the House Republican Caucus on their opinions of pending legislation; the Whip’s job, as the title implies, is to corral party legislators into voting for bills supported by the party leadership.  (So, while the Majority Leader talks up limited government in an ideologically-driven game of brinksmanship with the President which could lead to the half-defunding of our government next month, bear in mind that in his 2nd term in Congress Cantor was tasked with traversing the House Republican Caucus, asking members if they intended to vote for President George W. Bush’s massive Prescription Drug Benefit in summer 2003.  Actually, at the time then-Deputy Minority Whip Cantor was also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and served as an advocate for the Prescription Drug Benefit, which is the largest programmed expansion of an entitlement since Medicare’s inception in 1965.)

When Tom DeLay resigned as House Majority Leader in 2006 amid revelations of his misuse of campaign funds, Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) challenged Majority Whip Blunt, in theory next in line to become Majority Leader.  Cantor enthusiastically supported his taskmaster’s bid for Majority Leader and eagerly sought to replace him in his old post; he relented in his own bid when Boehner won and Blunt returned to his position as whip.  But in the context of the election of Barack Obama as President and of a Democratic supermajority to Congress in 2008, a discouraged Roy Blunt stepped down from the Minority Whip post; Cantor was elevated to replace him without opposition.  In January 2009 Cantor proposed an alternative to President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan, persuading every member of the House Republican Caucus to vote against the President’s proposal.  In addition to rallying unanimous opposition to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Cantor also achieved total Republican opposition to the President’s signature Health Care Reform and near-total opposition to financial regulatory reform (though the latter has remained immensely popular with the public).

Then-Minority Whip Cantor also played a more-prominent role than then-Minority Leader Boehner in building the new Republican House majority during Republicans’ massive 2010 rally.  He is a principal architect of the “Young Guns” program, designed to identify articulate Conservatives with a knack for fundraising among Republican Congressional candidates.  Challenger candidates who show promise are given offers of money and other assistance from the party, cultivating ongoing relationships with House Republican Campaign Committee leaders before they even win an election.  This allowed the HRCC to efficiently allocate resources during the largest swing of Congressional seats to Republicans since 1938–and to facilitate a sense of reciprocity and sympathy with the force that would drive the Republican Party further to the right.

As the Almanac of American Politics 2010 summarizes his political behavior, “Cantor…has been deeply involved in party efforts to rebrand itself after two consecutive disappointing elections in 2006 and 2008.  Modeling himself after former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who led his party to take control of the House in 1994, Cantor’s aggressive style has earned him the enmity of House Democrats…”  That’s not all it has done by now, however.  Cantor has made the House Republican Caucus useless for Boehner.  This seems to have been the point, however.  After years of consent to the latter’s leadership and seemingly full agreement over opposition to President Obama’s policies, it now appears that Cantor either wants to be Speaker himself–preferably as soon as possible–or if he isn’t too hung-up on titles, he at least has his own ideas and is willing and able to pull the rug out from under the current top-ranking Republican.

2 events from the past month clarify the advantage the House Majority Leader is pressing on the Speaker right now:

1.) When Cantor elected to pull out of the Biden talks (which aimed at reducing the Federal debt by $2.4 trillion over the next decade rather than the President’s Deficit Commission’s or House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed debt reduction of about $4 trillion) on June 23, the 1st person to find out he would do so apparently wasn’t the Speaker of the House but a Wall Street Journal reporter writing an article on the debt-reduction negotiations.

2.) After the Speaker encouraged the President to press on with an ambitious $4 trillion debt-reduction plan that he assured the latter could include some tax increases, it was Majority Leader Cantor who insisted that a larger debt-reduction plan wouldn’t work because it would have to include tax increases that their caucus couldn’t support.  This brings us to last Saturday, when Boehner declared a larger and more ground-breaking deal to reduce deficits dead.

Now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has proposed a deal that would shift the power to raise the Federal debt limit to President Obama which would give him ultimate authority to independently increase the Federal debt limit by $2.5 trillion dollars over the remainder of his 1st term.  The details of the plan–and yet-more insinuations that the House Majority Leader is deliberately overshadowing the Speaker–were clearly laid in a Washington Post online report on Thursday.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has eagerly stepped forward to work-out this political release valve with McConnell, but the House of Representatives still remains a possible stumbling block.

All the while, Cantor has been insisting on what cannot pass a vote in the House.  His critics have said it’s a leader’s job to lead, and that his repeated claims not to be in the lead of the House Majority are a repudiation of his leadership.  These criticisms would be right, but the Liberal Ironist suspects Cantor is a Conservative insurgent by circumstance: His repeated insistence that tax increases or simple votes to increase the Federal debt limit are unpassable in the House are in part probably assurances to his caucus that they don’t have to compromise and that their demands are politically viable–in short, ingratiation.  8 years ago Eric Cantor was counting Republican votes for the Prescription Drug Benefit; today he lets Speaker Boehner try various forms of compromise with President Obama in the interest of a big deficit-reduction deal, and he serially undercuts the Speaker’s hand by insisting there is no bargaining range.  There is nothing remarkable (or even inherently unreasonable) about a politician wanting to consolidate power, but Cantor’s cynical cultivation of a hard partisan line at such a perilous time not only for our economic recovery but possibly for his own party’s principles sets a high bar for political self-seeking.  House Majority Leader sounds like a great job these days: Listen to party leaders on both sides of the aisle speak in earnest about the need to reach an agreement, say “No” to the terms, and watch your star rise.  It will be interesting to see how he plays his cards when he exhausts the political support he can arouse with that strategy.

You Have 10 Days to Move Your Debt Limit, or Your Electoral Prospects Will Be Crushed Into a Cube

The Liberal Ironist has a suspicion that the next 10 days will determine both the electoral prospects and much of the legacy of the Obama Presidency.  Between now and then the President and Congress must reach a deal to raise the current Federal debt limit of $14.3 trillion–technically exceeded in early May–or else the Federal Government will suddenly find itself unable to pay 56% of its budget authorization and even risk defaulting on interest payments on its current debt.

So the next 10 days are a critical test of President Obama’s political acuity–and of the viability of his Presidency.  He absolutely must get the tone right as he tries to push Congressional Republicans towards a deficit-reduction deal, and he might already be in so much trouble that he has to secure a viable deal whether he frames the right message or not.  These involve different theories of the political context and the media power of the Presidency: What is at question is whether the President, who is inevitably more-visible and more-resourced than any opposition Congressional leader, can use the bully pulpit to remind the public of the Federal programs he means to protect and why the Republicans must not be allowed to hold the Federal Government hostage, or whether, as recent polling suggests, the public is really so concerned with the Federal debt that they will embrace Republicans’ decision not to raise the debt limit.  Finding such popular commitment to the principle of austerity implausible, the Liberal Ironist thinks the President should get on the soap box right now and push something very like a take-it-or-leave-it deficit reduction package to go with a debt limit increase.

It’s a telling sign of the rightward tilt Republican Party’s base that House Speaker John Boehner, having previously encouraged the President to think big (meaning a deal for a $4 trillion reduction in projected Federal deficits over 10 years), backed off of such an ambitious deal on Saturday, again citing the House Republican Caucus’s rigid rejection of any deficit-reduction plan that involves tax increases (even in the form of closing tax loopholes going to oil companies posting near-record profits or benefiting corporate jet-users).  Boehner proposed, as an alternative, a return to the “Biden Group’s” plan for $2.4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years.  Vice President Joseph Biden began leading those talks with Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders in the spring after passage of the final F.Y. 2011 Federal Budget in April; they stalemated in June as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked out of the talks in protest of Democrats’ insistence that every $3 in spending cuts be matched with $1 of tax increases.  This would have led to a projected Federal Government revenue increase of $600 billion over the next 10 years.  (Incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally, canceling George W. Bush’s 2001 income tax cuts for Americans making over $200,000 a year would add about $700 billion in fresh revenues over the next 10 years.)

It doesn’t help President Obama’s re-election prospects that a long-term deficit reduction plan on the scale of the President’s Deficit Commission plan now appears to be an unreachable goal before 2013.  While it’s true that Congressional Republicans have been dogmatic and stubborn in negotiations on deficit reduction, refusing to consider tax increases in the hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade while the Democratic leaders have been offering spending cuts in the trillions over that time frame, President Obama deserves almost an equal share of the blame, strangely for the opposite reason.  The President had the time and the political cover he needed to propose a deficit reduction plan of his own, and he didn’t take that opportunity.

Consider the scope of this failure: President Obama convened the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform by executive order in early 2010 (following Senate Republicans’ bizarre filibuster of Congressional authorization of such a commission).  The Deficit Commission came out with a report, called “The Moment of Truth,” on December 1st.  This report would have had to secured the yea votes of 14 out of 18 Commission members for legislation to be automatically drafted in Congress; only 11 of 18 members endorsed the report.  The President still could have embraced the plan himself and called on Congress to draft legislation based on its recommendations.  If he felt that the Commission’s proposals imposed program cuts that were too harsh and made recommendations that would leave us with a tax structure that is too regressive (as he did), he should have made a Liberal version of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) maneuver and synthesized much of the Deficit Commission’s report into a long-term plan for restructuring the Federal Government that reflected his ideology; instead he let Ryan advance his own long-term budget plan first, ensuring that any plan the President proposed afterwards would in fact simply be “the President’s response to the Paul Ryan Plan.”

There has been a growing trend this year of the President’s seeming inability to stay on-message.  Since the President’s Middle East speech in which he called for a 2-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict negotiated from the 1967 borders, the President has failed to stake serious space for himself on any major issue, including the deficit-reduction negotiations.  (The President’s call for tax increases on the rich to accompany any spending cuts and his refusal to sign a short-term debt increase doesn’t count, since it simply represents claimed parameters for negotiations he has only entered belatedly.)  By around July 21, the President has to secure a deal on the debt limit increase or else there is a real possibility that the House Republican Caucus will overwhelmingly vote “Nay” on a debt limit increase even if the Speaker calls for it.  If it comes to that, the President will have the unappetizing choice of boldly claiming that the 14th Amendment precludes statutory limits on Federal borrowing–which would inevitably be interpreted as a Presidential power grab–or stand abjectly in the face of an economically-disfiguring collapse of government resources.  In any case, as I’ve already said, the President will at a minimum have to sound all the right notes in protest leading up to this historic collapse of political will, and at a maximum must secure a deal to keep the Federal Government operating through the end of his 1st term if he wants to keep his job.  The Federal Government has never been brought down by failure to borrow money, and it has never defaulted on its debt; there is only a risk of either because of the ideological conformism of Congressional Republicans.  In either the mildly-optimistic or the grim pictures of his prospects, the premise that the President is above the fray simply must be dropped.  He doesn’t have to resort to simple partisan trench warfare, but he must learn to dictate terms.

Ratko Mladic: Continuing Serbian War Criminals’ Fine Tradition of Hysterics and Contempt

The New York Times on Tuesday had a short piece about the 2nd court appearance of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic.  General Mladic was a major figure in the Bosnian Serb military operation of ethnic cleansing during that war, in effect perpetrating Europe’s most ghastly campaign of violence since the Red Army crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolt by shooting up Budapest.  He is most-often mentioned in the press today in connection with the Srebrenica Massacre in which about 8,000 Bosnian men and boys aged 12 to 77 were killed because they were males of current, pending or recent military age.  Over 100,000 Bosnian civilians were killed and about 1 million were violently expelled from their homes in an ultimately failed campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to leave most of Bosnia and Herzegovina for settlement by the rump remains of a newly-nationalist Yugoslavia.

The timeline of events leading up to the Srebrenica Massacre are worth considering.  More than anything, this account demonstrates the inadequacy of mere “witnessing” or armistice-maintenance UN missions for dealing with civil wars of a certain, vicious type.  The BBC’s account of the course of events in Srebrenica in July 1995 is a tragicomedy in the worst way, a story of blood spilled, ultimately, because Dutch Blue Helmets under a UN mandate insisted on maintaining their safe zone–an area where civilian refugees should have been able to escape the violence wracking the Bosnian countryside–by the book.  The Blue Helmets were inadequately-armed, they refused to rearm a retreating Bosnian Muslim faction that had relinquished their weapons to enter the safe zone, they declined to maintain their defense perimeter under heavy Serb shelling, the Dutch Colonel leading the Blue Helmets was denied air cover because of his apparent misuse of a request form (!), and eventually the Blue Helmets were compelled to withdraw from the safe zone and even relinquish 5,000 Bosnian Muslims who had turned to them for protection, in exchange for the safety of 30 of their own who had embarrassingly been taken hostage by the Serb militia.

The Liberal Ironist sees in the several embarrassments at Srebrenica a lesson for humanitarian interventions in a civil war: Take sides.  Roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work.  If irregular military tactics are being deployed and the targeting of civilians is a principal objective of the campaign, the insistence on hyperformality and hyperlegality in the conduct of the intervention subjects the entire operation to the risk of subversion by the dominant belligerent.  In April 1994 the Rwanda Genocide (which resulted in 1 million deaths in about 10 weeks) was immediately proceeded by a politicide of Rwandan liberals opposed to Hutu militancy–including not only the assassination of the prime minister of the time but the killing of the Belgian Blue Helmets who were supposed to guard her by her Rwandan Army assassins.  They were killed immediately after turning over their own weapons to the army; this they did because refusing that request could have led to a fight, which would have meant taking sides, which they saw as exceeding their mandate.

In short, the way the UN mandate on the Libyan intervention has been interpreted–specifically, attack oncoming Loyalist military convoys with extreme prejudice–is best-suited to the purposes of the mission.

Back to Ratko Mladic: This man has so far comported himself like a spoiled child in the courtroom.  As Judge Alphons Orie, presiding over the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague, read the 11 indictments against General Mladic, the latter sought to demonstrate something he will never prove to his own satisfaction–his manhood–shouting “Don’t read it to me, not a single word.”  This was perfectly in keeping with Slobodan Milosevic’s brazen but meaningless taunts of the war crimes tribunal in the Hague when he was forced to hear indictments and offer a defense.  A man who faced an orderly prosecution who believed himself an embodiment of his own principles should, on some level, relish a chance to hear the charges against himself and offer reasons and a defense.  But a genocidal leader is just a man-child.  Milosevic died pathetically, in his cell awaiting judgment, apparently in a botched self-poisoning that was supposed to leave him too sick to stand trial.  Much as Prime Minister Cameron, President Sarkozy and President Obama were right to interpret the UN mandate to intervene to protect civilians in Libya as authorizing a campaign against Loyalist forces, Judge Orie was right not to stoically abide Mladic’s perspective on the indictments, and ordered him out of the courtroom.  In the mass-murderer’s absence, he entered not-guilty pleas for all 11 counts.  Let the trial begin.