Events Unfold

It’s 3:35 AM here in Washington, D.C. A last survey before bed turns up still very little commentary of much use regarding events in Pakistan. One of the strange things about D.C. is the proximity to the powers that be gives at least me the sense of hidden events unfolding. One can see in the mind’s eye the chaos that must be going on at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon even at this late hour. The encrypted channels to India and Israel have to be at capacity right about now. There is a lot of intelligence to exchange, contingencies to be agree upon and reassurances to be extracted. I imagine that if I were to bike down to the White House campus right about now, the lights at the Old Executive Office Building would be blazing. Twenty copies of an about fiver-hundred page briefing book are expected at the West Wing tomorrow at 7:30 AM. More darkly, I imagine that they will also be working overtime at STRATCOM and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The thing that I am worried about the most is what is going on in the Office of the Vice President tonight and into tomorrow. Or at least it’s the thing I’m most worried about in my own neck of the woods. Even a mind’s eye can only perceive to the horizons of one’s imagination. Dark plans, as yet unrevealed to the world, are unfolding everywhere.

The Bush Debt

The Fiscal Year 2007 Financial Report of the United States Government was released on 17 December 2007 and accompanying the report was a letter in summery prepared by the Comptroller General of the United States, Mr. David Walker, in which he highlights the following:

the federal government’s fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000. This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household.

Later that day Mr. Walker told the National Press Club (“Some Progress on U.S. Government’s Financial Statements But Significant Problems Remain,”, 17 December 2007),

If the federal government was a private corporation and the same report came out this morning, our stock would be dropping and there would be talk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up.

So, just in case you missed that, the total debt of the United States, all that had been racked up through the years of Great Society, guns and butter, stagflation, the Reagan arms buildup and the corrections of the Bush, Sr. and Clinton years was $20 trillion. Since that time President Bush has managed to pile a whopping $32 trillion on top of that. In a scant seven years he has managed to increase the debt of the United States by 160 percent. That’s nearly a half-a-million dollars per household.

The right lauds the Bush tax cut, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. There has been no Bush tax cut. Deficits are future taxes. There has merely been the Bush tax deferral. George W. Bush looks good at the expense of one of his successors having to play the adult. “[T]alk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up,” indeed. And yet, still one more year of the Bush administration with nothing to be done.

Soft Balancing on Iran

A few days after the key findings of the Iran NIE were released Kevin Drum suggested that with the war hawks’ position so heavily damaged and the policy danger that they pose having been diminished, many, including some countries, might feel freed up to take a more hardline position now that they no longer have to tread between the Charybdis of Iran’s nuclear program and the Scylla of the Office of the Vice President (“Counterintuitive Thought for the Day on Iran,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007). He even speculated that that the continued progress of a U.N. sanctions resolution might confirm this theory (“Sanctions and the NIE, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007).

But what would this mean, that countries slow-walk actions to constrain a potential Iranian nuclear program out of fear of becoming a party to a larger U.S. plan against Iran? It would mean that a group of countries have formed a tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — agreement to impede the United States. Wouldn’t one have to admit this as a sort of primitive soft balancing against the United States. I don’t think that the case is exactly strong here. This is probably no different than the sort of actions that one could point to probably dozens of instances during the Cold War where U.S. alliance partners felt the need to mitigate some particularly egregious U.S. policy position. States engaging in minor acts of diplomatic defiance is nothing new.

On the other hand, when you consider that there have been some more hard balancing-like actions (“A Caspian Balance?,” 23 October 2007), it seems like there is a context where this doesn’t look like diplomacy as usual. Perhaps there is a slowly building effort to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East.

It’s also disturbing that the U.S. is considered a threat to stability of such a scale that states find themselves having to stake out some middle ground between us and Iran.

The FY2008 Military Budget

On Friday I wrote, “my ideal president would expend a significant portion of their political capital on the bland and unrewarding task of rationalizing the budget.” To balance the budget one cannot niggle over small change programs. A million here or a million there is chump-change in a $2.9 trillion budget. One has to turn to the big line items and that should include military spending. Today Democracy Arsenal points out just how crazy-detached from reality the military budget has become in recent years (Kelly, Lorelei, “How High is Up? The Defense Budget Gets Even Crazier,” 18 December 2007):

Last week, both houses of Congress approved the conference report on the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization bill, H.R. 1585. The bill includes $506.9 billion for the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons activities of the Department of Energy. The bill also authorizes $189.4 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This funding is NOT counted as part of the $506.9 billion.

Keep in mind, today’s defense spending is 14% above the height of the Korean War, 33% above the height of the Vietnam War, 25% above the height of the “Reagan Era” buildup and is 76% above the Cold War average.

In fact, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the annual defense budget – not including the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – has gone up 34%. Including war costs, defense spending has gone up 86% since 2001.

But where to cut? Given our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan it seems that the United States has a problem in on-the-ground troop strength and the Democratic candidates are all talking about increasing that. Given the vagaries of air power projection we probably should keep a regular replacement schedule for aircraft carriers. I have suggested that anti-submarine warfare will probably be important in the near future, so we should probably keep those skills primed (“ABM,” 14 October 2007). There is missile defense, but that is only $10 billion — only $230 billion to go before we’re back in the black. The obvious thing seems to me to be advanced tactical fighters. Is there a single potential opponent out there that will be able to come anywhere close to contending with the U.S. for tactical air superiority any time in the coming decade? But between the Joint Strike Fighter and the F/A-22 the U.S. is only spending $6.24 billion in 2008.

I guess the thing we could cut would be the breadth of our commitments, but that’s a hard political call of another scale than putting off a generation of aircraft procurement.

Anyway, if you want to play your own Pentagon budget scenarios, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has a nice breakdown of the fiscal year 2008 military budget (Hellman, Christopher and Travis Sharp, “Analysis of Conference Agreement on the FY2008 Defense Authorization Bill [H.R. 1585/S. 1547],” 12 December 2007).

What Basis the Clinton Myth?

Ezra Klein takes the opportunity of Bill Clinton’s recent poor performance in support of his wife’s faltering campaign to review one of my shibboleths, the unimpressive record he racked up as president (“The Myth of Bill Clinton’s Strategic Genius,” The American Prospect, 17 December 2007):

… it’s worth taking a moment to examine the myth of Clinton’s extraordinary political skills. The 1992 election occurred in context of a deep recession, the post-Soviet Union turn towards domestic policy, and a vicious third party challenge to the sitting Republican. Clinton won, but did not capture a majority.

This was a huge deal for the Democrats, and rightfully so, as they’d been locked out of the White House for 12 years. But it wasn’t the world’s most impressive political feat. By 1994, Clinton had suffered a tremendous defeat on health care reform, passed a deficit reduction act that he was unable to secure a single Republican vote for, attracted Republican support to pass NAFTA, and presided over the loss of 52 Democratic seats in Congress. The next two years were a period of significant retrenchment with some successes, notably the crime bill and, again, the non-traditional priority of “welfare reform.” Clinton did, to be sure, beat Bob Dole, but he failed to capture a majority of the vote. Between 1996 and 2000, the economy roared forward, Clinton managed it ably, pushed through some decent-if-incremental legislation, almost got impeached, and turned his attention to foreign policy work. He exited office a popular president, but not a historic one. His successor — for a variety of reasons — failed to take office, and congressional majorities were reduced from their 1992 peak.

… the remarkable thing about Gingrich wasn’t his eventual fall, but the damage he caused Clinton during his rise. Clinton “won” the personal confrontation, but Gingrich won the ideological showdown, essentially ending a Democratic president’s ability to pursue recognizable progressive priorities for six of his eight years in office.

The purpose of Mr. Klein’s account is to suggest that Bill Clinton is no electoral silver bullet:

Bill Clinton was, to be sure, a very good politician, but that aptitude mainly manifested in getting himself elected. There’s no real evidence that he’s got the same talent for getting other people elected. His tenure did not end with increased Democratic majorities, a Democratic successor, or a vastly expanded social welfare state. The 90s were, to be sure, better for Democrats than the Bush years, but they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

I think the sooner the Democratic party gets over its Bill Clinton mythos — and every aspect of it: the deft economic management, the heroic foreign policy, the cleaver triangulation of his opponents, the knack for the pulse of America — the better off it will be.

Democrats Always Looking Over Their Partner’s Shoulder

Matthey Yglesias laments the absence of a second Al Gore candidacy (“The Case for Gore,”, 14 December 2007):

Gore hits the sweet spot of experience and vision in a way that nobody else can. What’s more, a person who’s in a position to be a viable presidential candidate and who believes the things Gore says he believes almost has a duty to run, a duty that I’m sad he hasn’t seen fit to take up.

In 2000 I think a lot of Democrats settled for Gore. He was, for me, the ideal candidate. A bland technocrat is exactly what I want in a president. A book that nags at me constantly is Mismanaging America: The Rise of the Anti-Analytic Presidency by Walter Williams. One blurb of the book reads,

An American president must be a master of two arts: politics and management. According to Willians, no president since Dwight Eisenhower has been a top manager.

I think this is pretty close. I’m not so pessimistic as Mr. Williams. I think there is a line of managerial presidents that includes Eisenhower, arguably Gerald Ford, and George Bush, Sr. A President Gore would have been a part of this lineage: technocratic, competent, hands on, detail oriented, dedicated to getting the small things right, steadfast to the facts of the matter, not necessarily good at the P.R. thing, eschewing the elaborate ideological pronouncement, ultimately a politician, but willing to alienate a key constituency when faced with a tough decision.

I tend to see George Bush, Sr. as a paragon here because he never made things politically difficult for Gorbachev when reveling in Cold War triumphalism might have been domestically expedient and because he went back on his “read my lips” promise when balancing the budget was at stake. In this regard I almost see his professed lack of the “vision thing” as charming; and ultimately all these things cost him the election. He did the right thing even when it conflicted with personal ambition.

For probably the last ten years now I have pretty much figured that my ideal president would expend a significant portion of their political capital on the bland and unrewarding task of rationalizing the budget. After Bill Clinton, I too am an Eisenhower Republican.

When Al Gore was denied the presidency by the Supreme Court in 2000, I think a lot of people imagined him coming back after a period to claim his rightful position, but history doesn’t always work out that way.

It’ll All End In Tears, Redux

The Financial Times today (Stephens, Philip, “A Physicist’s Theory of the Transatlantic Relationship,” 14 December 2007):

The overarching geopolitical fact of coming decades is likely to be the relative decline of US power. The word relative is important. Measured by economic, technological and military might, America is likely to remain the pre-eminent nation during the first half of the present century and, perhaps, well beyond. But the US is already an insufficient as well as an indispensable power. As China, India and others rise, and Russia re-asserts itself, the US will become more dependent on the goodwill of others. How it responds to the shifts will in large degree shape the new international order — or disorder.

The image of the future in the minds of many is of a multipolar system, with power shared between two or three groups of nations. … Others — in the US as well as Europe — conjure up a world divided into two competing blocs: the liberal democracies on one side, the authoritarian capitalists, notably but not exclusively China and Russia, on the other. …

More probably we are on the cusp of an era of great power competition in which alliances and allegiances shift according to accidents of circumstance and geography. Those who like historical analogies could look back at the second half of the 19th century.

The problem with looking back at the second half of the Nineteenth Century is that we all know how that ended.

Confrontation Between Israel and Iran is Strategic, Not Ideological

Yesterday I went to the Center for American Progress event, Nuclear Meltdown: Rebuilding a Coherent Policy Towards Iran (Washington, D.C., 13 December 2007). It was moderated by Center for American Progress Director for Nuclear Policy Joseph Cirincione and consisted of a discussion with authors Barbara Slavin and Trita Parsi whose books are Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, respectively. Both Ms. Slavin and Mr. Parsi were phenomenally interesting and well informed. As Mr. Cirincione points out, their books really complement each other and both have been reviewed in tandem in most papers.

The single point that most fascinated me from their discussion — and apparently it impressed Mr. Cirincione as well as he allows in his question — is Mr. Parsi’s dismissal of the ideology and the rhetoric of Israeli-Iranian relations in favor of a purely geostrategic analysis. In this regard, the first Gulf War of 1991, rather than the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the real turning point in Israeli-Iranian relations.

The Center for American Progress already has a video of the event up and Mr. Parsi gives a thumb-nail version of his theory starting about a quarter of the way in, but here is a transcript of what he says:

… Iran and Israel did have a strong relationship during the 50s, 60s and 70s. From the Israeli’s side there was the doctrine of the periphery, the idea that Israel’s security was best achieved by making alliances with the non-Arab periphery states in the region — basically Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia — in order to weaken the Arab states in Israel’s vicinity — the inner and the outer circle.

And there is a myth out there in my view and I argue strongly against it in the book that Israeli-Iranian relations radically change in 1979 because of the revolution. And certainly the revolution did change a lot. Iran had a completely new ideology and very aggressive anti-Israeli rhetoric, but the common threats that had pushed Iran and Israel closer together during the preceding decades — the common threat from the Arab world and the common threat from the Soviet Union — was still there after 1979. And strategically Israel believed that Iran was still a very, very strong periphery power that it needed to have a strategic relationship.

And immediately after the revolution the Israelis were doing everything the could to reach out to Iran, to sell arms to Iran in spite of an American arms embargo and even lobby the United States not only to talk to Iran but also that the U.S. should sell arms to Iran and that the U.S. actually should not pay attention to Iranian rhetoric because the rhetoric was not reflective of the policy. Which is a drastically different position than the Israelis took only a couple of years later.

What really changes the relationship is the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Saddam in the first Persian Gulf War because then at the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union collapses and the last standing Arab army that could pose a conventional military threat to both Iran and to Israel was defeated by the United States. You have a completely new reconfiguration of the geopolitical map in the Middle East in which Iran and Israel emerge as two of the more powerful states. And just as much from the Israeli perspective Iran was needed to balance Iraq to a certain extent they also felt that Iraq was needed to balance Iran but there was no longer a balancer of Iran. They started to view Iran as a potential threat in the future.

So it’s in 1992 that you see a sudden shift in the Israeli position vis-à-vis Iran. Throughout the 1980s in spite of Khomeini’s tremendously aggressive rhetoric against Israel, the Israelis do not talk about an Iranian threat, they reach out to the Iranians. But after 1992 when the Iranians actually become much more pragmatic in their foreign policy their revolutionary zeal is plummeting, that’s when Israel starts to depict Iran as a global and existential threat, out of a fear that in the new Middle East if the United States was now reaching out to the Arab states as it was in the Persian Gulf War and if in addition to that they were to make some sort of a deal with the Iranians, the deal would come at the expense of Israel’s interest.

And the calculation on the Israeli side was they need to make sure that type of political process does not take place. And that is achieved by creating the political obstacles to such a process by imposing new sanctions, by depicting Iran as a global threat. And this initially actually came as a great surprise to the United States because only five years earlier the Israelis had been pushing the Iran-Contra scandal.

That last comment about the Iran-Contra scandal may just seem like a throw-away jibe at the Reagan administration, but I think it’s an important piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Parsi’s case. When I heard it, it really made things fall into place for me. I always wondered what the Israelis were doing as middle-men in that fiasco and how it was that their relationship with Iran was adequate to allow them to act in that capacity, whereas ours was not. Anyway, Mr. Parsi’s theory is what I was missing to explain that recalcitrant fact.

The Future Has a Lot of Factors

Via Kevin Drum (“Random Debate Thoughts (So Far),” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 13 December 2007) a new factoid that Barack Obama is brandishing:

Reducing obesity to 1980 levels will save Medicare $1 trillion.

I’m too busy right now to go and fact-check this before passing it along, but when I considers the sheer number potentialities like this out there in the realm of possibility, I am reminded of Paul Krugman’s admonition regarding how to think about the financing of the U.S. welfare state (“Social Security Scares,” The New York Times, 5 March 2004):

By all means, let’s plan ahead. But let’s set some limits. When people issue ominous warnings about the cost of Medicare after 2077, my question is, Why should fiscal decisions today reflect the possible cost of providing generations not yet born with medical treatments not yet invented?

There is the pragmatic reason that the sooner we act, the less we have to do, but I think Mr. Krugman is right to suggest that there are just too may unknown unknowns — to borrow a Rumsfeldism — to seriously plan for 2077.

The Iran NIE: Mendacity, Incompetence or Just the Usual Vileness

The Iran National Intelligence Estimate finding with a high degree of confidence that Iran abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapon in 2003 seems on course to completely upend the state of political debate — provided some Democrat wants to make something of it instead of just leaving the story to follow its course in the press.

The NIE has been in essentially the state that it is today for a year. Apparently additional sourcing for the 2003 abandonment has caused the intelligence community to upgrade their confidence level in recent weeks, but that’s about it. This information has been in hand for a year now, during which time the administration continued to amp up their rhetoric on Iran with dark portents of World War III. Now the administration is obfuscating what was known and when. There are three stand-outs to me in their various stories:

  1. The President was only fully informed of the contents of the NIE on Wednesday, 28 November, or maybe 26 November 2007, depending on whether you believe Stephen Hadley or Seymour Hersh (“Hersh: Bush Told Olmert Of NIE Two Days Before President Was Allegedly First Briefed On It,” ThinkProgress, 4 December 2007). Or maybe some earlier date still, since all that Mr. Hersh has is a no-later-than date.

    Given that this information has been the subject of some rather significant administration infighting, possibly even resulting in the demotion of John Negroponte from the cabinet-level post of Director of National Intelligence to a Sate Department Deputy (Porter, Gareth, “Cheney Tried to Stifle Dissent in Iran NIE,” Inter Press Service, 8 November 2007), it would be hard to believe that it could have escaped the attention of the President. Hard to believe, but not impossible: President Bush’s attention is hardly inescapable.

  2. Bush was told — sort of — back in August as he hedgingly revealed in his Tuesday press conference (“Press Conference by the President,” White House, Washington, D.C., 4 December 2007):

    BUSH: I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John — Mike McConnell came in and said, We have some new information. He didn’t tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

    One might think from this that the President’s Daily Briefing is a guessing game between the President and the Director of National Intelligence (“I’m thinking of a rogue state that sets off a Geiger counter. Can you guess which one it is?”). But reading any book on the Bush administration by — take your pick — Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, etc. — and you quickly see that the President’s habit of punctuality and always ending meetings on time — touted by the right as a virtue over the perpetually behind schedule Bill Clinton — is actually a function of his remarkable incuriosity. Again and again you read of a briefer or primary’s amazement that after sitting through a detailed presentation, President Bush would simply jump up without a single question, issued a manly “Great work” or some such oral back-slap and exit the room.

    Given this, I wouldn’t doubt that after hearing of potential critical new information, it wouldn’t occur to President Bush to even ask what that might be. Having now become fully informed as to the new information, President Bush yesterday specifically said that it hasn’t changed his addled mind one iota. People who never reexamine their positions aren’t in need of new information, so why bother asking?

  3. The Office of the Vice President has done everything it its power to pressure the intelligence community to alter its findings (sound familiar?). Baring that, they have tried to prevent the release of the key findings and have succeeded in doing so for some months now (Porter, Gareth, ibid.). But it’s nut just for the sake of external message that they go to all these lengths. There’s been plenty of reporting on the fact that Dick Cheney and his staff engage in a significant amount of maneuver to determine who gets to speak to the President and what information reaches his desk — undoubtedly with only the best intention to wisely manage the President’s time, certainly not to squelch positions differing from that of the OVP.

    At this point President Bush is systematically kept in the dark about all manner of issues. Think of that memo from George Tennet warning about the famous sixteen words in the State of the Union that died on Stephen Hadley’s desk. Just a bureaucratic oversight?

    Of the services that an effective agent provides to a president one is that of plausible deniability in the form of the agents shielding the president from possession of certain inconvenient information, especially in the era of “what did he know and when did he know it.” It is well observed that one of the pitfalls a president faces is “the bubble.” Especially as an administration wears on, a president can wind up extremely isolated and the Oval Office is an extremely lonely place. This is an extremely complicated dynamic, but the gift of plausible deniability is one of those reasons.

    President Bush has always been more the pitch-man-in-chief more than the prime mover of this administration and to make his pitch for the administration’s policies sometimes less is more. Every president needs a sin eater and Vice President Cheney serves that roll for President Bush.

Now-a-days even the likes of Joe Scarborough are suggesting that the President is either lying or stupid (Frick, Ali, “Joe Scarborough Rips Bush On Iran NIE: He’s Either ‘Lying’ Or ‘Is Stupid’,” ThinkProgress, 5 December 2007). I see no reason to choose as I think that this administration is polymorphously evil: a nasty combination of mendacity, incompetence and the malign.

The thing I don’t get is how these people can preserve even a modicum of legitimacy. If the papers won’t just report that the President lied his way through a press conference this afternoon, you would think that at some point they might just stop reporting on what he says as it is simply too unreliable to print.