The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Farewell to Our Freaks

Fawcett and Jackson Were Phenomenon That Also Embodied the Grotesque

The deaths last week of Farrah Fawcett from cancer and Michael Jackson from an apparent overdose of painkillers has left many pundits to ruminate over their lives, legacies, and influence on popular culture. For myself, I think their passing is significant because, if for no other reason, it forces so many of us to say farewell to two of the great freaks of our generation.

I use the term “freak” intending no disrespect for either individual. Most people would probably apply the categorization more easily to Jackson but I view it as appropriate for both of them.

The dictionary defines a freak as “any abnormal or unusual phenomenon.” An alternate definition speaks of “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature; a monstrosity.” A monstrosity is anything “deviating grotesquely from the normal form.” And while it is not strictly a definition, a characteristic of the grotesque is to mix normality with abnormality “in bizarre or fanciful combinations.”

These are the two key terms for identifying Fawcett and Jackson as freaks – “phenomenon” and “grotesquery.”

First, phenomenon –

Who can forget the talented and seemingly joyous little African-American boy twirling and dancing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s? Although the youngest member in a group of musical brothers, Jackson was already clearly their leader, in terms of both talent and charisma. Hit record after hit record followed. It seemed impossible that so big a singing voice and so much dancing ability resided in so small a body.

Likewise, who can forget Fawcett’s explosion onto the scene with the debut of Charlie’s Angels in the 1970s. Added to this was a pinup poster that made her both virtually and literally a pop culture icon. She permanently replaced the zaftig voluptuousness of an earlier generation’s sex symbols, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield, in favor of a curvaceous but healthy physique. The only thing full-bodied about Fawcett was her mane of blonde hair, styled in a feathered cut emulated by seemingly every other young woman on the planet.

Their popularity was unquestioned, their fans antic in their devotion. They became ubiquitous parts of our daily lives. Yet the very popularity that vaulted them high upon pedestals in our midst, eventually became prisons from which Fawcett and Jackson could never fully escape, although both certainly tried to do so.

Jackson sought to constantly innovate and re-invent himself musically. He released a series of solo albums over the decades, including Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, that sold in the millions and simultaneously earned him critical acclaim. He starred in the movie version of The Wiz with Diana Ross and almost single-handedly made music videos into an acceptable form of artistic expression.

Fawcett attempted to move beyond the bubblegum frivolity of Angels and establish herself as a serious actress. She began with the off-Broadway play Extremities and moved on to the made-for-TV movie the Burning Bed. Both roles featured feminist heroines who fought back against male sexual attackers. She went on to play more complex, controversial, and sometimes even unsympathetic characters, such as Poor Little Rich Girl and Small Scarifies.

Their efforts were recognized and rewarded. Jackson won over a dozen Grammies and earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fawcett received numerous Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations.

Second, grotesquery –

Paradoxically, the greater their success, the more easy it grew to make fun of them. They increasingly became parodies of their own celebrity. Each made some disastrous personal choices further that hurt their reputations.

For Fawcett, the most infamous example was an addled, rambling interview on the Late Show with David Letterman. She also frequently made the news for her high profile and sometimes-abusive relationships with Lee Majors and Ryan O’Neal.

In Jackson’s case, of course, the examples of self-destructive behaviors were legion. There were his lavish and sometimes outright weird purchases; his ever-lighter skin tone and morphing facial features; his “fondness” for young children that twice brought him to court on charges of pedophilia; his phobias, reclusiveness, and emotional immaturity.

In fairness, both Fawcett and Jackson suffered at various times from very real and debilitating illnesses. And, of course, both died relatively quite young, completing the experience of triumph mixed with tragedy that marked much of their respective lives.

They epitomized the way each of us is responsible for our own happiness, yet how circumstances, even ones of amazing attainment and enviable in their extravagance, can limit possibilities for happiness. Given every opportunity, Fawcett and Jackson seemed to find themselves without any real chances.

Love them or hate them, blame them or mourn them – we can never really know Fawcett or Jackson and that is in the nature of what they were. Immanuel Kant defined phenomenon as “a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from the true thing-in-itself.” With Fawcett and Jackson, we, the public, delighted in building them up and, from time to time, we took equal delight in tearing them back down.

Fawcett and Jackson were complicated human beings in their own right. For the rest of us, they were our freaks. Now we must say farewell to them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Poverty and Violence

Mahatma Gandhi Wouldn’t Need a Mathematical Model to Know Why Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood Leads the Nation in Crime

When my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio has made the national news in recent decades, the reason has seldom been good news. This trend continued yesterday when the website announced one of our inner-city neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine, as the number one crime-ridden neighborhood in America.

NeighborhoodScout gathered FBI data from years 2005, 2006 and 2007, submitted by seventeen thousand local law enforcement agencies, and plugged it into a complex mathematical model. The results ranked a twenty to thirty square block area, including zip codes 45210 and 45214 – bounded on the north and east by McMicken Avenue and Vine Street, on the west by Central Parkway and on the south by Liberty Street – as the most crime prone area in the nation.

The model predicts any person living in this neighborhood has a staggering one in four chance of being a victim of crime within any one year period. The next most dangerous neighborhoods, as ranked by the model, are Chicago Illinois (between State Street and Garfield Boulevard), Miami Florida (between Seventh Avenue and North River Drive), Jacksonville Florida (between Beaver Street and Broad Street), and Baltimore Maryland (between North Avenue and Belair Road.).

During the three year reporting period, this small area within Cincinnati registered sixty-four murders, 319 rapes, 879 cases of assault, and 2,419 armed robberies. Among non-violent crimes, there were 2,874 car thefts, 5,705 burglaries, and 14,863 cases of petty theft.

Several local sources were quick to issue challenges debunking NeighborhoodScout’s methodology.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (CCCDC) notes that Over-the-Rhine is actually a huge neighborhood, consisting of one hundred and ten square blocks, whereas the study looked at only a small portion and even crossed boundaries into an adjacent neighborhood, the West End. CCCDC argues that crime in many other parts of Over-the-Rhine is down an impressive thirty-seven percent since 2004, a figure that closely coincides with Cincinnati Police statistics for District One.

Randy Simes at agrees, fuming, “This study fails in several regards – outdated data, selective boundary drawing, and lack of human understanding of reality.” While his last criticism lacks easy understanding itself, it is important to note the FBI warns against using the data employed by NeighborhoodScout as a basis for comparing neighborhoods or cities.

“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”

I went to the reader feedback areas of two local news organizations reporting this story. The comments I read there fell into two general categories. The first were from people who actually live in/near these neighborhoods or frequently patronize them. These people were inclined to insist, “Hey, c’mon, it’s not that bad here.”

The second were from people living in outlying suburbs. This crowd generated comments along the lines of “I knew that place was dangerous – that’s why I never go there,” “It’s a disgrace the way those residents have no values or respect,” and (my personal favorite) “That neighborhood is never coming back – burn it to the ground.”

These sentiments reinforce the reason why neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and the West End have and retain significantly disproportional crime rates compared to the rest of the city. It is because Cincinnati, while not necessarily more racist than other medium-sized cities, is still extremely segregated and still highly committed to that paradigm.

My father lived in Cheviot, a neighborhood-sized “city within a city,” bounded by Cincinnati on all sides, in the 1940s and early 1950s. He told me recently that he remembers the Cheviot police, upon finding any black person on the streets after sundown, would immediately take them to jail and hold them there overnight. The presumption was that such an individual must be up to no good and the only way to keep residents safe was to isolate them.

In many ways, Cincinnati still practices virtually, and perhaps subconsciously, what Cheviot once practiced both consciously and literally. For too many suburbanites, black = poor = criminal is an equation of unshakable finality. The answer is to push such problems into antiquated, impoverished, and poorly educated inner city neighborhoods.

The area singled out by NeighborhoodScout is seventy-one percent black, twenty-three percent white, and the rest a smattering of Hispanics and other ethnic groups. It is among the fifteen percent lowest income communities in America, with seventy-six percent of the children living there at or below the poverty level.

The housing in this area consists mainly of small apartments with one, two, or no bedrooms. Most buildings are classified “historic” structures, built in 1939 or earlier. The vast majority of residents are renters rather than homeowners. Property owners typically do not live in the same neighborhood as tenants, let alone in the same building.

Only seven percent of adults have college educations. The local schools rank in the bottom two percent for Ohio and the bottom eighteen percent for the U.S.

Wherever they may rank nationally, these are undoubtedly the worst, most violent neighborhoods in Cincinnati. However, they are not this way because naturally bad and violent people have flocked together. Instead, these neighborhoods are the result of a long and systematic segregation of our city’s problems into one place where police closely watch them and the rest of us largely ignore them – a place filled with poverty but little hope.

“Poverty is the worst form of violence,” Mahatma Gandhi once declared. In that sense, Over-the-Rhine is the perfect example of violence begetting violence. It exemplifies the way a neighborhood can come to blight an entire city when people stop thinking of each other as “we” and instead begin dividing ourselves into “us” versus “them.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Who's That Knocking at Our Door?

Classifying the White House Visitor’s Log Is as Potentially Dangerous as It Is Foolish

A week ago, I complained that a decision by the federal government to stop sharing data with astronomers on mid-air exploding asteroids collected by spy satellites was emblematic of the Obama Administration’s troubling failure to translate general promises of greater transparency into specific actions. I maintained it was a particularly troubling development because it did not represent the continuation/defense of a Bush-era policy but was a new example of denying information in the name of national security.

Several readers agreed with me but pointed out the U.S. military had made the decision, perhaps without the Obama Administration’s approval or even its knowledge.

Now I am back with another troubling failure at transparency. Although it represents a continuation of past policies, it is definitely occurring with the President’s full knowledge and tacit approval.

The Secret Service has long maintained logs of all visitors to the White House. Although these logs traditionally remain private, the White House has opened them up in a few extreme cases of law suits/scandals involving public officials. The Bush White House was the first Administration in history to argue in court that it had the right to keep these logs secret. The Obama Administration is now following its example.

Back in 2006, a nonpartisan watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sought to learn if nine religious right leaders had visited the White House and Vice-President’s residence. The Bush Administration rejected their request, arguing the White House, not the Secret Service, owned the logs and thus the Presidential Records Act, rather than the Freedom of Information Act, governed the logs.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, appointed to the bench by former President Reagan, rejected the Bush Administration’s position in December 2007, ruling the Secret Service created and maintained the logs. Judge Lamberth ordered the White House to hand over the logs within twenty days but the Bush Administration simply ignored the order.

Finally, in September 2008, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, announced its refusal to release any visitor logs, claiming Presidential communication privilege protected them. They argued the White House needed to hold secret meeting, such as interviewing perspective candidates for Administration positions or negotiating with foreign ambassadors. They further argued that divulging the identities of those giving advice to the President might cause them to amend their advice or withhold it altogether.

Judge Lamberth shot down this line of reasoning as well in January 2009, maintaining that a simple list of visitors is not a communication at all because it includes no details on the topics discussed during a meeting. The Bush Administration filed an appeal against this decision during its last week in office. So far, the Obama Administration has continued to pursue the appeal.

Since then, MSNBC has requested the names of all White House visitors from January 20 to the present. CREW has also filed another request, this time seeking any visits by executives of coal companies. The Secret Service denied by requests, sending CREW back to court.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Obama Administration is following the same anti-transparency policy as the Bush Administration when it comes to White House visitor records,” said CREW’s attorney. “Refusing to let the public know who visits the White House is not the action of a pro-transparency, pro-accountability Administration.”

The Obama Administration subsequently announced its visitor’s log policy was under reviews by the White House Counsel's Office and “other people in the Administration.” It provided no timetable for the review’s completion.

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs insisted on President Obama’s commitment to transparency, pointing to an executive order signed by the President on his first day in office – an order that forbids every other administrator in the Executive Branch to do what Obama is doing here.

This policy is as potentially dangerous as it is foolish. While national security reasons may occasionally require a short but reasonable delay in releasing some visitor information, the arguments made here are the same ones that allowed former Vice-President Cheney to construct U.S. energy policy with the heads of Big Oil. As many rightfully condemned the practice at that time, so we should condemn it now as well under Obama.

At the conclusion of his first day in the White House, President John Adams penned a letter to his wife Abigail that included a short prayer, since chiseled into the marble mantelpiece of the State Dining Room.

I pray Heaven
to bestow the best blessings
on this house and all
that shall hereafter inhabit it.

May none but
honest and wise men
ever rule under this roof.

Despite its sexist bent, surely all share in Adams’s hope for nothing but conscientious leaders and we may extend his sentiments to nothing but conscientious visitors as well. However, until the better angels of human nature prevail, accountability is the people’s greatest defense against those less than “honest and wise” and that comes best with transparency, as Obama himself has often noted.

To advise a leader is an honor-filled but also potentially perilous position, as enacted policy may reveal some aspects of one’s counsel. Yet those who would refuse counsel out of fear of reprisal have no business advising the leader of a democracy. The same is even truer for those who wish to speak one type of admired rhetoric in public and save less popular words for behind closed doors.

Likewise, I can sympathize with the privacy intrusions suffered by Bush, Obama, or any who have held the office of Presidency. It must be difficult when your very home is little better than a fishbowl. But I nonetheless insist on openness because while it is the Presidents’ home and residence during their four year terms, it remains my house and the house of every U.S. citizen and we have both the right and an obligation to ascertain who walks its rooms and for what purposes.

When someone comes knocking on the White House door, all of us need answer the summons. Obama does a disservice to himself and the rest of us by blocking our view in the name of national security or, worse, potential personal embarrassment. Now transparency itself is knocking. Will we answer its summons?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Cheers for Stability

Whether You See It as Too Much or Too Little, At Least Obama’s Financial Regulations Overhaul Focuses on Protecting the Little Guy

Recent polls indicate that voters who supported President Obama last November are becoming increasingly nervous he is trying to take on too much too fast. Obama seemed to acknowledge their concerns and his own limitations with an eighty-eight page white paper issued by his Administration this week, aimed at overhauling regulations for the U.S. financial industry.

In truth, “overhaul” is far too generous a term for what Obama is proposing. It more accurately represents an extensive, sometimes contradictory, set of tweaks, born of compromise and a realized need for diminished expectations, which plug the worst of the loopholes leading to our current economic mess while leaving others in place.

Those hoping for streamlining and simplification were most disappointed. A gallimaufry of overlapping federal and state agencies will continue watching the bubbling pot containing an over-garnished stew of banks and financial institutions. Obama’s proposals eliminate only the relatively minor Office of Thrift Supervision by merging its functions with those of other agencies.

The Federal Reserve lies at the heart of the give and take. On the one hand, its powers expand by allowing it to regulate non-bank financial institutions, such as AIG. On the other hand, the Fed must first acquire approval from the Treasury Department before providing loans to institutions in particularly dire circumstances. What is more, a proposed Consumer Protection Office would completely usurp its control over mortgage loans.

The President attempted to cast his Administration as Solomonic by declaring, “We are called upon to put in place those reforms that allow [capitalism’s] best qualities to flourish – while keeping those worst traits in check.”

Former SEC Commissioner Laura Unger suggested a more realistic pragmatism at work. “As the debate played out, they realized it would be near impossible to get wide, sweeping reform enacted. I think they wisely chose the safer path.”

The Banking Industry generally reacted with dismay to Obama’s proposals. Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, best encapsulated the chief counterargument against additional regulation. “I think there will be some debate as to whether . . . there should be a totally separate entity [for consumer protection] that could, in fact, stifle innovation.”

Peter Wallison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he feels the Obama Administration “fears the ‘creative destruction’ that free markets produce, preferring stability over innovation, competition and change.”

Given the events leading up to last fall’s wide scale economic meltdown, it seems to me that a little less creativity in the financial industry might be a highly welcome if much belated occurrence. Accountants and economists created the illusion of growth where no real growth existed – along with its accompanying superior products and job creation – by their ability to manipulate balance sheets and devise new types of questionable securities.

For his part, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, feels Obama makes a good start but does not go nearly far enough in regulating financial markets. He applauds Obama’s proposals for “[bringing] non-bank banking out of the shadows” but complains the white paper “highlights ‘compensation practices’ as a key cause of the crisis but then fails to say anything about addressing those practices.”

The innovation over which free market proponents are so worried is important but it often requires research and development, trial and error, long-term investment, and patience. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what markets rewarded throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the Twenty-First Century. Instead, they insisted upon ever-expanding growth and profitability without regard as to what was driving them. Analysts all but wrote off companies performing below their projections for even a single quarter, let alone suffering losses due to risk taking.

Such unreasonable expectations led to the faux growth practices described above. They also gave rise to a breed of CEOs and senior executives able to generate several quarters to several years of spectacular faux growth, with corresponding spectacular compensation, before bailing to another firm and leaving stockholder with the inevitable following misfortune.

As Obama noted in his speech outlining his proposals, “Executive compensation – unmoored from long-term performance or even reality – rewarded recklessness rather than responsibility.”

Many have decried the government’s role easing the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, arguing they deserved to fail for creating cars that nobody wanted to buy. This is far too simplistic. Both automakers, particularly GM, carved profitable niches churning out the heavy, polluting, gas-guzzling SUVs, vans, and trucks that Americans loved to buy until environmental concerns and $4.00 per gallon fuel prices provided a long overdue wakeup call.

The U.S. auto industry’s problem was not a failure to understand their current market and respond to it but failure to understand or even think about the needs of future markets, blinded all too easily by shortsighted greed. Their problem was not making cars that nobody wanted to buy but rather opting for the easiest cars for them to make that everybody wanted to buy.

“The bottom line is the regulators failed; it wasn't the regulation,” says Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “I would say if we want to prevent the next bubble, we have to hold the people accountable for this bubble. So fire them.”

It is hard to disagree that many prominent heads ought to role over all that has transpired. However, should Obama choose to pursue such a course, it will be up to the Justice Department to prosecute, rather than expecting Treasury, the Fed, and other agencies to police their own. Worse, this attitude tends to forgive underlying systemic problems by placing blame on “a few bad apples.” We need something more sweeping.

“You can’t go back to the regulatory agencies that didn’t act because we know that doesn’t work and didn’t work,” said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, who worked with the administration in drafting the new rules. “We need an independent agency whose mission is this and only this, who are really worrying about whether the consumer, the taxpayer is being tricked, cajoled, cheated, hoodwinked and is being treated fairly enough.”

Incomplete although they may be, the best argument for Obama’s proposals may well be that the banking industry hates them while consumer advocacy groups have generally cheered. A focus on defending the little guy is a concept Obama promised to bring back to government. After trillions of dollars to help bail out huge corporate players, the little guy is finally getting their day.

For years, it was taken almost as a given that private enterprise, although it might sometimes be ethically challenged, could always be counted upon to run any organization or function better than the bureaucratic, inept federal government. Given the economic wastelands where private enterprise’s emphasis on short-term greed has left us, it seems they have abdicated their competency along with the moral high ground.

This is a notable insight to consider as Congress takes up not only regulation of the financial industry but an overhaul of health care as well. Three cheers for stability.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dust Storm

In the Midst of Iranian Chaos, Obama Seeks to Portray the U.S. as a Reasonable Alternative to Violence and Aggression

The re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential election last week was disappointing for all and particularly frustrating for those who support President Obama’s policy of attempted engagement with Iran. Although the evidence is admittedly circumstantial, it seems highly likely that voter fraud occurred, especially with the counting and reporting of results.

However, those critical of engagement are wrong to hold up this defeat as proof of the policy’s naïveté or ineffectiveness. The extemporaneous and widespread protests that have erupted from the supporters of challenger Hossein Mousavi have embarrassed and threatened Iran’s ruling religious clique to its core. Rather than reflect strength, Ahmadinejad’s despicable use of force to quell protests, which has reportedly killed at least seven people and wounded countless others, only reflects weakness and desperation.

What is more, the unrest has transcended Ahmadinejad to touch Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After giving his blessing to the election results two days ago, Khamenei subsequently called on Iran's powerful Guardian Council of mullahs to investigate charges of voter fraud and recount ballots.

While Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is probably correct in skeptically asserting, “It is simply a faux investigation to quell the protests,” the damage done to Khamenei’s reputation is deep and likely to remain long after anger in the streets of Tehran subsides.

“After congratulating the nation for having a sacred victory, to say now that there is a possibility that it was rigged is a big step backward for him,” said Abbas Milani, the director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies program. “The myth that there is a leader up there whose power is unquestionable is broken,” agrees Azar Nafisi, an Iranian academic and writer now living in the West.

Even if the Guardian Council holds a fair recount, a good chance remains the results will still disappoint. U.S. intelligence officials report, “It would appear that the results are inflated,” but potentially accurate. It is important to remember the surge in Mousavi’s favor is very recent, with Ahmadinejad widely expected to win prior to that point.

Ken Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow and Patrick Doherty, a deputy director at the New America Foundation conducted a nation-wide poll in Iran that showed Ahmadinejad preferred to Mousavi by a two-to-one margin. Jon Cohen at the Washington Post notes two important caveats about this poll.

First, the poll was conducted three weeks ago before much of the Mousavi surge came into play. Second, and most important, Ahmadinejad’s impressive lead did not reflect anywhere near the sixty-three percent of the vote he purportedly received in the election. Only thirty-four percent of poll respondents favored him as compared to fourteen percent for Mousavi. Of the fifty-two percent left unaccounted, twenty-seven percent expressed, no opinion and fifteen percent refused to answer.

While it is impossible to know for certain, it is reasonable to assume that, as the leader of the regime in power and candidate most favored by Khameni, Ahmadinejad’s supporters would be much less likely to refuse to express their preference than would those of Mousavi.

Numerous pundits have gone on record criticizing President Obama for failing to make a sufficiently angry denunciation of the Iranian regime and/or staunch enough exhortation to the masses struggling against it.

Columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post complains Obama is “slow to the draw. He seems to be so worried about not being George W. Bush that he's forgetting to be the American President.”

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as the editioral board at the Wall Street Journal see things a little more harshly. They accuse Obama of “siding with the regime” against the demonstrators, arguing he is plugged into his policy of engagement (read “appeasement”) so inflexibly that he finds the demonstrations “inconvenient to this agenda.”

In their minds, presumably, the President would demonstrate true leadership by huffing and puffing at the mullahs and cheering for the dissenters. This is exactly backwards.

Gary Sick, an analyst who worked on Iranian affairs for three Administrations, maintains Obama must restrain himself right now, in order to help the Iranian opposition best. "No matter what was said or done by the Administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as ‘tools of the West’,” he explains.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post concurs. “Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers . . . I'd argue that he should continue with the line he took in his Cairo speech two weeks ago – speaking directly to its Muslim public even as he proposes dialogue with the repressive regime that governs Iran.”

This is exactly what the President did in his remarks about the election and the subsequent protests it sparked. “We respect Iranian sovereignty,” Obama said. “We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries and we'll see where it takes us.” But he also said of the protestors, “The world is watching and is inspired by their participation, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the election . . . Iranian people's voices should be heard and respected.”

The critical thing to remember is that some significant portion of Iranians did vote for Ahmadinejad, meaning they still fear a lack of support for Islam and unyielding support for Israel by the U.S. more than they fear his childish diatribes and nuclear brinksmanship. Obama is trying to minimize and de-legitimatize these fears over time.

“A growing portion of the Iranian public sees an opening with the U.S. as positive, and Obama has encouraged that,” one intelligence officer explained. “What the President has done thus far is create a strategic framework for understanding the U.S. in a different way," agrees a second. Obama is “chipping away” at the radical narrative and “increasing the number of alternatives to that radical view. He's making more attractive the idea that change can occur outside the radicalization process.”

Even Tawfik Hamid, a former jihadist from Egypt, credits Obama for encouraging “critical thinking” among young Muslims, driving them beyond the simplistic dichotomy between halal (pure and Islamic) and haram (impure and un-Islamic).

A sudden democratic movement within Iran is encouraging but it must come from within, including a willingness to pay the price to break tyranny and win freedom, or the chances of lingering success are unpredictable at best. This is the lesson learned from our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq. Some Iranians seem to realize it too.

“We need a Gandhi,” said an Iranian woman, identified only as Yassamin, over the weekend. “We need Moussavi to risk his life and stand there.”

The chances of that seem unlikely. When demonstrations first broke out, Mousavi posted a message on his website, declaring he would not attend the rally and asking his supporters “not fall in the trap of street riots and exercise self-restraint.”

As the protests grew in momentum, Mousavi did finally show up. His latest pronouncement, issued through his representative, the reformist cleric Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, is more encouraging. “If the whole people become aware, avoid violent measures and continue their civil confrontation, they will win. No power can stand up to the people’s will.”

Should Mousavi somehow ultimately prevail, those criticizing Obama for his lack of support may be most disappointed. As Obama pointed out yesterday, while the difference in tone between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad is striking, their differences in policy “may not be as great as has been advertised.”

Roger Cohen of the New York Times reported on one protesting Iranian student’s reaction to Ahmadinejad’s characterization of his opponents as mere dust. “We will blind him with our dust.”

A new democratic Iranian revolution may be destined to end as dust but the need for the U.S. to engage Iran and the larger Islamic world continues with or without it. We have just seen that words can raise dust storms of monumental proportions. The last thing we need at this moment of chaos in Iran is a lot of coughing and spluttering to constitute U.S. foreign policy, no matter how well intentioned. Obama is holding the right course.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Oblique Transparency

A Loss of Satellite Data Underscores the Obama Administration’s Hit or Miss Attempts at Being
More Transparent

Most meteors pulled in by the Earth’s gravity burn up when they reach our atmosphere, while a few with enough mass crash into the planet’s surface. However, a significant percentage of meteors suffer an in-between fate and vaporize explosively within the atmosphere. The largest part of these explosions take place over the oceans, over land far from major population centers, and/or during daytime when they are difficult to detect but people do witness some of them.

For about the past fifteen years, U.S. military satellites have detected these explosions. The Pentagon has shared this data with astronomers and other scientists studying impact threats to Earth from space in a highly productive relationship. This all ended a few months ago, however, when the military declared all such observations as classified secrets and not releasable to the public.

Scientists are baffled by the change in policy and frustrated by the loss of a valuable source of data. In addition, exploding meteors commonly fuel panicked speculation ranging from hostile attacks to UFO sightings. The satellite data quickly shot down such rumors. The military has provided no explanation for the data’s sudden classification as secret. Apparently, this is a secret too.

In short, we will no less about whether meteors entering our atmosphere constitute hits or misses than we did previously. This is not the only thing that is hit or miss.

The above story, reported quietly enough by, is disquieting not only in its own right but also as part of a pattern of actions inconsistent with the Obama Administration’s promise for greater transparency in government.

On the first day of his Presidency, Obama signed an executive order, stating, “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in the Freedom Of Information Act and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

There is no question the new Administration has taken many steps in this direction and the general atmosphere in Washington is one of greater openness and access than the former Bush Administration. However, when drilling down past the surface, one finds numerous specific examples of the Obama Administration refusing to release information under the twin justifications of Executive privilege and national security.

Starting with Obama’s pre-election Senate vote to continue authorizing warrant-less wiretapping under the jurisdiction of a FISA quasi-court, such decisions have tarnished Obama’s more laudable efforts in this area. They suggest either his inability to recognize battles worth fighting or a lack of political courage to fight them.

In fairness, Obama entered into office with a very full plate and his Administration has not increased secrecy so much as failed to reverse Bush-era classifications. What is more, these classification decisions are usually highly controversial, reflecting deep paradoxes between national security and civil liberties.

That is, until now.

It is unclear why the military chose to make the formerly available satellite data secret. The primary mission of the satellites is detecting nuclear bomb tests. Perhaps the Pentagon felt ratcheted up testing by North Korea and other nations demanded greater control over this data. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure; the time needed to filter harmless naturally occurring meteor explosions from classified observations must incur some expense. Perhaps the military made a simple but draconian decision that no sharing of data reduced risks from partial sharing.

Lacking any explanation, the sudden classification of material so long harmlessly shared makes the military’s decision look not only arbitrary but also pig-headed and stupid. A reversal of the new classification by the Obama Administration appears unlikely. This is most definitely not the direction Obama should be going.

Everyone must understand that no Administration could conduct all of the government’s business in an environment of completely unrestricted transparency. Obama’s job is to wipe away as much of the opaqueness that has built up over the years and allow the light to flow through onto as much as possible. While Obama may deserve an A+ for good intentions on this point, he and his Administration have earned no better than a C+ for actual execution, which has been hit or miss at best to date.

If Obama does not improve in this department, he promise for greater transparency may prove fulfilled by not in any meaningful or satisfying way. Instead of a patchwork quilt of transparency and necessary opaqueness in places, Obama has done little more to date than lighten Bush-era ubiquitous opaqueness to a luminous translucence – shiny but still too hard to see through. Such an oblique transparency will satisfy no one nor should it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Giving Credit

A Serendipitous Turn of Events May Be the First Real Signal of Recovery

If you blinked anytime during the past several weeks, you may have missed the fact that the U.S. credit crisis is apparently over. Such is the case according to Jon Markman at MSN Money, who reports credit markets are “now on the path toward a real recovery.” If this catches you by surprise, you are not alone – as little as a month ago Markman was scoffing at the idea of the credit crisis ending as “not likely.”

However, Markman is not alone either. About seven weeks ago, Paul Monica, the Editor-at-Large for CNN Money cautiously noted, “The worst of the credit crunch may finally be behind us . . . The bond market is acting as if it's not as worried about a recession anymore.”

Nor is such optimism limited to here at home. Last week in Great Britain, the Independent fairly gushed with enthusiasm. “It is time to declare it – the credit crisis is over. The U.S. banking system, epicenter of the chaos, is returning to health; the outlook for the global economy, once seemingly completely black, is brightened by a dawn light.” It eventually calmed down sufficiently to amend, “The credit crunch cannot be declared finally over but this is perhaps the beginning of the end of it.”

This is a genuinely important sign. From the start, President Obama, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made it clear that re-igniting frozen credit flows was critical to any recovery effort. The government poured billions of dollars of TARP funds into banks and other financial institutions, a program was unveiled to help repurchase toxic assets, and federal regulators conducted “stress tests” on the nation's nineteen largest banks to make certain they had sufficient capital to endure the worst economic times.

And, according to Markman, none of it made any difference. Instead, credit analysts are saying the turnaround came when U.S. automakers Chrysler and GM declared bankruptcy.

Chrysler’s debt holders initially assumed they would lose all legal claims at the expense of government favoritism toward the United Auto Workers. Despite loud complaints from several small investment houses, nearly ninety percent of Chrysler’s bondholders quickly accepted a deal to cancel $6.9 billion in secured loans in exchange for $2 billion in cash.

Likewise, when GM entered bankruptcy, the government wanted to give the UAW thirty-nine percent equity in the company and bondholders only ten percent. In the final deal, the union got only seventeen percent of the company, secured lenders received payment in full, and other bondholders accepted ten percent with warrants for fifteen percent more.

These deals represented what credit markets considered fair and convinced lenders for the first time that they would not be sacrificial lambs in any federal recovery efforts. This pleasant surprise triggered a loosening of frozen credit that quickly accelerated into what one credit analyst called “euphoric buying.” Others say they have never before seen a credit rally of such size and momentum.

This is good, albeit serendipitous, news for the Obama Administration, which has had nothing to trumpet about a perceived slowdown to the recession that was not both questionable and tertiary – fewer jobless claims than expected really does not cut it. Credit, on the other hand, is the engine driving our economy. Just as a downturn in credit markets proceeded widespread economic recession, so an upturn in credit is a real and significant leading indicator for the possibility of recovery.

However, the outlook is far from consistently rosy. The pessimists insist a second, far worse credit crunch is coming and its origin is overseas.

The U.S. Treasury plans to sell about $2 trillion in new debt this year to fund a $1.8 trillion fiscal deficit. Foreign investors, owners of a significant portion of the Treasury market, are steadily demanding higher yields and are likely to punish the U.S. for borrowing too much by refusing to buy debt until bond prices plunge to much cheaper levels. One of the harbingers of such a scenario is surging government bond yields, which optimists are citing as one of the signs of recovery.

The pessimists also point to the extraordinary amount of dollars pumped into the money supply by the Federal Reserve as inevitably leading to inflation as unemployment remains high. Reagan-era economist Arthur Laffer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, predicts, “We can expect rapidly rising prices and much, much higher interest rates over the next four or five years” that conceivably “could make the 1970s look benign.”

For now, the nod must go to the pessimists as the realists. Then again, both optimists and pessimists had trouble grasping the scope of the market downturn until walls were virtually crumbling around them. In the same way, perhaps we are all now too dour to believe in any upturn until it is already well in progress. We need to follow bondholder’s lead in giving credit.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shock and Awe at the Ballot Box

The Lebanon Election Proved Engagement Need Not Be Associated with Weakness

At first glance, Sunday’s victory in Lebanon elections for the Western-backed March 14 coalition over the Iranian-backed Hezbollah faction seems unremarkable. After all, the winning alliance was already the majority in parliament and its change in control over that body consisted of a single seat pickup at Hezbollah’s expense.

It was actually substantial for two reasons.

First, most analysts had expected Hezbollah to win by an ample majority and take control of Lebanon’s government, turning that nation fully into a proxy of Iran and Syria. Second, the March 14 coalition, consisting of Sunni, Christian and Druze factions, won the last time around by partnering with Hezbollah, whereas this time they won by running against Hezbollah on their own mandate.

There are numerous reasons attributable for the change in heart by Lebanese voters. Hezbollah won widespread acclaim and first came to power by championing resistance to Israeli aggression. This praise soured over time, especially among Lebanese Christians, when Hezbollah began using protests and street violence to demand a greater voice in government and submission to Tehran. Sectarian strife played a factor as well, with Sunnis turning out in large numbers to vote against any Shi’a political group. Finally, Lebanon’s excellent economy probably favored the ruling coalition.

However, some analysts believe President Obama was a factor too, for both his recent speech in Cairo as well as his policy of outreach and engagement with the Arab/Islamic world, including U.S. enemies.

“Lebanon is a telling case,” said Osama Safa, Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “It is no longer relevant for the extremists to use the anti-American card. It does look like the U.S. is moving on to something new.”

“I think the speech of Obama in Cairo . . . played a role in neutralizing anti-Americanism,” agreed Khalil al-Dakhil, a sociologist from Saudi Arabia.

In fairness, a lot of credit rests with former President Bush too, as Thomas Friedman points out today in the New York Times. “Without George Bush standing up to the Syrians in 2005 – and forcing them to get out of Lebanon after the [killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] – this free election would not have happened. Mr. Bush helped create the space.”

“It would be fanciful to claim that Obama's bridge-building speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last week, attractive though it was, crucially influenced Lebanese voters,” notes Simon Tisdall in the Guardian. “But,” he adds, “The calmer, unconfrontational tone adopted by Washington on Middle East issues since George Bush trudged home to Texas appears to have struck a chord in a country that was teetering on the brink of sectarian civil war one year ago.”

Nor was the current Administration’s approach all sweetness and light. If Obama’s Cairo speech was indeed the elegant carrot held out to Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East, Vice-President Joe Biden wielded a clumsy stick when he visited Lebanon back in May and hinted none too subtly that a Hezbollah win could result in the withdrawal of U.S. financial aid.

Although Hezbollah remains a minority in Lebanon’s parliament, they also remain a powerful one and likely to insist on a continuing voice in deciding policy. However, it is reasonable to expect this outcome will curb Hezbollah’s effectiveness at stirring up hostility against Israel for the immediate future. Thus, while the Lebanese elections represent a symbolic victory as much or more than an ideological one, they still have positive possible implications on other conflicts within the region important to U.S. interests.

The next test will come this Friday in Iran via another election. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, noted for his vicious anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric, was a major supporter of Hezbollah in the Lebanon elections. Their defeat serves as an embarrassment to the limits of his influence and could weaken him further as the poor Iranian economy has allowed challenger Mir Hussein Moussavi to gain ground in recent weeks.

On another thorny front, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party have justified refusal to restart the peace process with the Palestinians on that basis that Iran, Syria, and their proxies represents Israel's top foreign policy concern. The defeat and/or chastening of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ahmadinejad in Iran, while doubtless cheering to Netanyahu, nevertheless undercut his primary argument for avoiding the negotiating table.

Such hopeful outcomes are purely conjecture at this point but they are suddenly more plausible than they have been for a long time. Likewise, Obama worship is counterproductive but the President deserves credit where it is rightfully due.

It is naïve as to believe eloquent words alone won over the hearts and minds of Middle East voters. However, it is reasonable to believe that even our enemies may sometimes respond to restraint and dialogue in a similar fashion, just as they often respond to shows of strength and pressure in kind. Words can be powerful without accompanying displays of power. The U.S. can be a force for good by means other than our military forces.

Sometimes the ballot box provides just as much shock and awe leading to regime change as does the battlefield.

None of this proves that engagement is a superior approach to foreign policy. However, Lebanon does demonstrate that its use need not necessarily make the U.S. look weak or a laughingstock among its enemies and allies.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Post-Racial Justice

The Question Isn’t Whether a Latina Woman Makes a Wiser Judge than a White Man but Whether She Makes for a Wiser Supreme Court

Immediately following President Obama’s nomination of Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Justice, alarmed conservatives began warning that she was the personification of a troubling concept repeatedly raised by Obama regarding his personal preference in jurisprudence. To wit, they clamored that Sotomayor was an “empathetic judge,” which meant, in their minds, she was perpetually inclined to favor “the little guy” when pitted against big business or government.

It quickly became apparent much of the American public was no more concerned about empathetic judges in the flesh than they were in concept. Either Sotomayor’s education and experience were overriding considerations or the prospect of empathy humanized the law for them, rather than overturning it as the conservatives warned. In any case, conservatives deemed they needed to ratchet up their criticisms. Thus, the right neatly inflated charges of empathy into racism of the reverse discrimination type.

The chief piece of evidence for this indictment lay in a sentence lifted from a 2001 speech given by Sotomayor before the National Council of La Raza, entitled “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” and subsequently published in the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal. In it, Sotomayor disputes an old maxim of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that a wise old man and wise old woman would reach the same conclusion in deciding any case.

Sotomayor argues an alternative perception, noting, in some instances, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Former Bush Administration advisor Karl Rove insists that statement is offensively racist and Sotomayor should withdraw her nomination. Former Republican Representative Tom Tancredo of California labels La Raza a “Latino KKK.”

Current Republican members of Congress have been quick to distance themselves officially from such invective but concede to finding the remark troubling. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asks, “Do [Americans] want a judge that allows his or her social, political or religious views to impact the outcome or . . . a judge that objectively applies the law to the facts?”

The White House defended Sotomayor by contending critics were taking the much-quoted line out of context. Indeed, Sotomayor does state later in her speech that whatever experiences have shaped their bias, a judge’s first duty is to impartial interpretation of the Law.

Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, writing in Beliefnet, admitted that, after reflection, objections to Sotomayor on this point were overblown.

“I'm still a bit troubled by the remark, but not in any important way. Taken in context, the speech was about how the context in which we were raised affects how judges see the world, and that it's unrealistic to pretend otherwise . . . It seems to me that Judge Sotomayor in this speech dwelled on the inescapability of social context in shaping the character of a jurist. That doesn't seem to me to be a controversial point.”

Peggy Noonan, another former Bush Administration staffer agrees with this assessment. She offers this piece of advice to Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee. “Serious opposition to Judge Sotomayor is not only fair, it's necessary – It's your job to oppose if you oppose. But it should be serious, not merely partisan.”

Consider these statements of judicial empathy by former Supreme Court nominees.

“When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.”

“[I believe I could] walk in the shoes of the people who are affected by what the Court does.”

These were the words of Justice Alito and Justice Thomas respectively, two solidly conservative jurists. However, let us give Sotomayor’s statement some additional scrutiny. Why should ethnicity, race, sex or any other background make a difference if judges are supposed to apply law impartially to facts, as Senator Sessions aspires them to do? Sotomayor spends much time in her speech wrestling with this very question and ultimately finds impartiality noble but impracticable.

“Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that – it’s an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others . . . we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies, and prejudices are appropriate.”

Sotomayor goes on to conclude, “Since judging is a series of choices . . . that I am forced to make, I hope I can make them by informing myself on the questions I must not avoid asking and continuously pondering.”

Her words do not come across as those of a racist or bigot or even an entrenched ideologue but a self-aware intellect honestly attempting to evaluate the extents and limitations of her own biases. We would be lucky indeed if more judges were so scrupulous.

Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, finds a new objection to Sotomayor, which he outlines in today’s Wall Street Journal. Per Steele, Sotomayor has consistently displayed “a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy” throughout her career.

This is not Steele’s main thesis, however. Rather it is how her selection reveals Obama as a hypocrite. Regardless of her qualifications, Steele points out Obama chose Sotomayor partly because she is a woman and she is Hispanic. “And yet,” he argues, “it was precisely the American longing for post-racialism – relief from this sort of racial calculating – that lifted Mr. Obama into office.”

From Steele’s perspective, this is simply the old liberal embrace of affirmative action, which holds up a disadvantaged minority group’s “historic grievance as an entitlement to immediate parity with whites – whether or not their group has actually earned this parity through development.”

Apparently, only those who have demonstrated their deservedness should be granted things like equal protection under law or even “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in Steele’s worldview. It is political Calvinism, in which the preordained rise to the top. And who would have guessed that diversity would be the prime evidence of our failure at becoming a colorblind society?

We must temper any criticisms of Judge Sotomayor’s possible biases or her reliance upon them in reaching decision by remembering that the United States Supreme Court, like any appellate court, consists not of a single judge but a panel in which majority vote rules. To that end, our principal criterion is how whatever Sotomayor brings with her is likely to affect the group.

It is valid to note that nine white men decided Brown v. Board of Education but this does not prove the law is always impartial to race. Rather it proves nine people are more likely to make wise decisions (eventually) than one person acting alone, much as the current Supreme Court is more likely to make wise decisions overall than would Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsberg, or any other individual Justice acting alone.

Sotomayor’s personal and professional background may not necessarily make her a wiser jurist than Justice Souter, whom she is replacing. However, it is arguable that a Supreme Court containing two women, one of whom is Hispanic, and seven men, one of whom is African American, is likely to make wiser decisions than its previous composition. Studies have demonstrated repeatedly that diversity improves the effectiveness of any group, especially one where all members focus on the same objective, as is the case here.

Sotomayor has more time on the federal bench than any Supreme Court nominee of the past fifty years. It seems highly unlikely that her presence will do anything to pull down the Court’s professional standards. She is a center left liberal replacing another center left liberal, meaning the Court’s ideology will remain unchanged. This leaves only her personal background/biases.

“One must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench,” Sototmayor concluded in her 2001 speech. She is correct and that difference is likely to be for the better and overdue. A “post racial society” does not mean that race no longer matters but that it is seen for both its positive and negative contributions and that both are kept in the proper perspective.

Conservative grouching over Sotomayor will continue but there is nothing to indicate she will make anything other than an ideal post-racial Justice on this basis.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Looking Inward

Obama Seeks Cooperation and Respect from Muslims by Asking Them to Understand What Americans Honestly Like and Don’t Like About Them

Universal anticipation of President Obama’s address yesterday at Cairo University ran so high that disappointment seemed virtually guaranteed. Yet Obama managed to surprise by actually doing what he promised to try to do at its start – tell the truth. His critics always expected him to “tell the truth” on America. Surely, a speech intended to reverse years of mistrust and provide a fresh start in its place could only come by what they see as more Obama apologizing for our country.

Instead, it was a speech carefully crafted to make no tributes to Islam without corresponding accolades to America and no criticisms of America without accompanying reproach for Islam. For all its Arabic phrases and quotes from the Qur’an, Obama proved he could appeal to Muslims without engaging in appeasement.

Obama began with a long tribute to the achievements of Muslims throughout the centuries and denounced those who would disparage Islam’s rich history due to the acts of extremists, saying it was part of his responsibilities as President “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

At this point, he quickly pivoted to insist the “same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Obama then went on to list U.S. accomplishments.

Obama emphatically stated, “America is not and never will be at war with Islam.” Despite this, he insisted the U.S. would “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security . . . it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.”

Former President Bush made many similar promises to value and protect Islam from unjust persecution while simultaneously defending America’s right to defend itself. His actions and policies spoke louder than his words and created significant distrust and hostility among man Muslims.

Obama made it clear that although he disagreed with how the previous Administration chose to implement its foreign policy, he essentially agreed with what they wished to accomplish. He picked up the badly bent and dented sword representing the BuSharon Doctrine and did not beat it into a plowshare but rather the straighter, simpler sword of the original Bush Doctrine.

He characterized Iraq “a war of choice” that brought about some good but also “reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.” On the other hand, Obama adamantly painted Afghanistan as “a war of necessity” and indicated the U.S. will continue to fight there so long as we remain confident of the presence of “violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.”

Obama admitted that September 11 “was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked . . . in some cases . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.” However, he was unapologetic in regarding some action as justified. “Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 . . . innocent men, women, and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al-Qaida chose to ruthlessly murder these people.” The President would brook no alternative explanations. “These are not opinions to be debated. These are facts to be dealt with.”

He unequivocally avowed, “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” At the same time, Obama expressed his desire for governments “that reflect the will of the people.” And all people, according to Obama, tend to desire the basic rights associated with self-determination – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, rule of Law and equal protection. He presented these not as the cornerstones of American democracy but as basic human rights, universally recognized by all nations.

Obama went on at length to list deficiencies in some of these areas in various Muslim countries. “Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith.” He also chided both Sunnis and Shi’a for the often violent rifts that have pitted the two sects against each other.

He chided those who suggest traditional Muslim dress somehow disadvantaged women but went on to state, “I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”

Obama expanded on that concept to disparage the tendency of Islamic fundamentalists to view Western progress as evil and counter to tradition. “All of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st Century. And in too many Muslim communities, there remains underinvestment in these areas.”

Moreover, he warned that these proclivities by some Muslim groups/regimes “have led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries but also to human rights.”

Obama sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of much of the distrust of America by Muslims. His calls for a separate Palestinian homeland and his insistence that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cease all expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including “natural growth” has many labeling him an enemy of Israel.

In his speech, Obama deplored the “pain of dislocation” for Palestinians seeking a homeland and the “daily humiliations” they suffer under “occupation,” calling them “intolerable.” However, he carefully laid out the Jewish nation’s history of suffering and its modern birth out of the Holocaust, labeling its denial by some Muslims as “baseless,” “ignorant,” and “hateful.” And he insisted that America’s long-standing bonds with Israel would remain “unbreakable.”

By all accounts, the President’s address met with approval from many Muslims. Even extremist groups, who viewed Obama’s speech as more stagecraft than statesmanship, conceded that he set a more somber, more respectful, and more effective tone than his predecessor. As with American Catholics following his speech at Notre Dame, many Muslims did not find his quotes from scripture as disrespectful, instead feeling sincerity in them.

Obama, understanding the limits of this speech, said later that he was merely trying to “create the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart.”

It may seem a strange approach to some that he would do so by criticizing Islam so frequently and forthrightly to its face. Yet Obama would argue that, to the extent he was successful, it came from this rather than in spite of it. As he said, coming together peacefully “does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite. We must face these tensions squarely.”

Judgment is still out over whether this speech will be effective in generating the type of educational and economic cooperation the President proposed in his conclusion. However, it was most certainly neither apologetic nor appeasing in tone.

Near the end of his speech, Obama observed, “It's easier to blame others than to look inward.” By demonstrating his own willingness for self-examination and self-honesty, as well as his respect for alternate views, Obama may cause Muslims to look inward and re-examine their own biases and prejudices. He might have done the same for more Americans as well. This is not, as Obama's critics will correctly point out, the end solution for anything specific. It is, however, the start of the solution for everything.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Swinging the Hammer with Leverage

Patience and Cooperation, Not Force and Hostile Words, Are What Will Force North Korea Back Under Control

In Pyongyang North Korea, one can find a huge circular white stone edifice, known as the Korean Workers’ Party Monument. Three huge hands rise upward from a flat disc containing various implements. Two hands hold a hammer and sickle respectively, traditional symbols of Soviet communism. The third hand unexpectedly holds a writing brush. It is an attempt to symbolize North Korea communism as binding all people together – farmers and factory workers along with scholars and intellectuals.

The hammer is a particularly evocative symbol. It can be both tool and weapon of destruction, used to tear down as easily as it is to build. Whatever its intended purpose, a hammer achieves its objective by the issue of blunt force.

In many ways, a hammer is an appropriate symbol for U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. As one of the world’s great economic and military superpowers, we have done much to build up crumbling national infrastructures around the globe. Where rouge regimes and aggressor nations are concerned, our response has been blunt and forceful.

Yet, as any carpenter knows, an effective hammer swing depends less on the might of the person wielding it and more on superior leverage. This means relaxing one’s grip down the handle and away from the head. Often the U.S. has insisted on swinging the hammer alone or gripping it closest to the head.

Such technique is not only tiring by punishing. After all, the hammer absorbs far more blows than any one nail and the constant pounding over time tends to extract its toll.

The recent provocations by North Korea under its megalomaniacal leader Kim Jong-Il evoke our natural desire to pick up the hammer near its head and swing hard. North Korea has exploded a second underground nuclear warhead and conducted numerous long-range and short-range missile launches with vary degrees of success. The Obama Administration’s responses to these acts of mounting aggression have been limited to disapproving words and joining in a unanimous condemnation by the UN Security Council.

While it is easy to dismiss Obama’s response as insufficient for the scale of the threat, we need to consider recent history. The former Clinton and Bush Administrations have considered/tried both force, mostly in the form of sanctions, and placation, mostly in the form of negotiations and concessions, with North Korea to little avail. However outright crazy he may be, Kim has proven as masterful and wily as his father at playing his neighbors/world powers against each other.

The latest attempts at negotiations have featured six-party talks that include Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia in addition to North Korea and the U.S. If the U.S. led a multi-national “Coalition of the Willing” against Iraq, we have headed a small coalition of the mostly unwilling where North Korea is concerned.

Russia has traditionally been North Korea’s strongest ally. China has attempted to maintain the status quo for fear that any conflict could lead to a regional arms race. Even South Korea has been anxious to avoid provoking Kim out of fear that its proximity will invite reprisals. Never mind nuclear missiles – simple artillery can reach Seoul from the Demilitarized Zone.

In the past, violations of agreements by North Korea have earned loud, angry, and vigorous condemnations from the U.S., with promises of increased sanctions or worse. This, in turn, results in defensive apologies for North Korea by Russia, statements from China on its adamancy not to allow others to interfere in the region, and lack of support from South Korea. Only Japan has typically stood by the U.S. North Korea typically responds by becoming even more bellicose until Washington gives in.

Beyond strongly worded censures, the Obama Administration has restrained its response to North Korean antagonism almost to the point of tepidity. At first impression, our analysis is to term it as weak and ineffective. However, in the vacuum left by U.S. restraint, an interesting and powerful development is occurring.

With the U.S. holding back on the hammer, rather than grasping it near the head and swinging away, these other nations have begun tenuous but real attempts to grip the hammer with us.

Russia called in the North Korean ambassador to its foreign ministry and told him Moscow had “serious concerns.” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, “Anything which would undermine the regimes of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Nuclear Test Ban Treaty] is very serious and needs to have a strong response.” He also made it clear that “more will follow.”

As for China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that it was “resolutely opposed” to North Korea’s actions. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry told reporters after meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that China “agreed with us that North Korea's actions are wrong and that there need to be consequences. And, China will support a, ‘measured’ response that is now being negotiated in New York.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs agreed, characterizing the Chinese government’s condemnation as “exceptionally strong.”

Even South Korea finally abandoned trepidation of offending its northern counterpart and agreed to join more than ninety nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative by stopping and inspecting North Korean vessels suspected of transporting banned weapons.

Kim continues pushing limits but his acts seem increasingly desperate in the face of unanimous world denunciation. The UN’s actions will not be as forceful and certainly not as quick against North Korea as the U.S. alone might achieve but when it finally does swing the hammer, it will swing with considerable leverage.

If nothing else, Russia, China, and South Korea are far more likely to insist on a place in future negotiations. This is exactly the opposite of what Kim hopes to achieve. He counted on an aggressive U.S. response turning the situation into a two-party dispute, enabling him to win concessions in direct negotiations. Such is the opinion of Paik Hak-soon of the South Korean Sejong Institute.

Gary Samore, the White House Nonproliferation Director agrees, recently telling the Brookings Institution “it's very clear that the North Koreans want to pick a fight. They want to kill the six-party talks.” Samore predicted North Korea would continue its provocative actions but that disciplined restraint by the U.S., coupled with ongoing condemnation by the international community, would force the North back to six-party negotiations within nine months.

The Workers Party Monument in Pyongyang teaches the virtue of this approach – the largest number of the greatest diversity of hands most effectively wields the hammer. Luckily, Kim Jong-Il does not seem to grasp its lesson while the Obama Administration understands it very well. Let us hope hawks here at home do not force our new President into a more antagonistic, potentially destructive response. Such would constitute the oldest rookie mistake in the book.