Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The high price of the war in Iraq

As President Obama fulfills his campaign promise to end the combat role of U.S. armed forces in Iraq it is worth taking time to consider the high price of that conflict which began with the U.S. invasion in March of 2003. Aside from the very real costs in blood and treasury, Anne Applebaum examines some of the casualties:
Justify Full
America's reputation for effectiveness. The victory was swift, but the occupation was chaotic. The insurgency appeared to take Washington by surprise, and no wonder: The Pentagon was squabbling with the State Department, the soldiers had no instructions and didn't speak the language. The overall impression, in Iraq and everywhere else, was of American incompetence—and, after Abu Ghraib, of stupidity and cruelty as well. Two years ago, a poll showed that vast numbers of our closest friends felt that the "mismanagement" of Iraq—not the "invasion" of Iraq—was the biggest stumbling block for allies of the United States.

No wonder, then, that America's ability to organize a coalition has also suffered. Participation in the Iraq war cost Tony Blair his reputation and the Spanish government an election. After an initial surge of support, the Iraqi occupation proved unpopular even in countries where America is popular, such as Italy and Poland. Almost no country that participated in the conflict derived any economic or diplomatic benefits from doing so. None received special U.S. favors—not even Georgia, which sent 2,000 soldiers and received precisely zero U.S. support during its military conflict with Russia.

It will be a lot harder to get any of the "coalition of the willing" to fight with us again. Indeed, "Iraq" is part of the reason why there is so little enthusiasm for Afghanistan and why it is so difficult to put organized pressure on Iran.

Another victim of the conflict was America's ability to influence the Middle East. Admittedly, we were never as good at this as we would like to be, but the chaos in Iraq has clearly strengthened Iran. It has had no positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By helping raise the price of oil for a few years—this was supposed to be a "war for oil"; remember that?—it has also strengthened Saudi Arabia, the regime that produced 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

Of course, the high oil price also strengthened Russia and Venezuela—not that anyone has much noticed—because another casualty of the Iraq war has been America's ability to think like a global power. Even if we eventually pull out of Iraq altogether, we will have been bogged down in that country for the decade that also saw China's rise to real world-power status, Latin America's drift to the far left, and Russia's successful use of pipeline politics to divide Europe—all trends that commanded hardly any attention from the Bush administration and so far even less from Obama.

Finally, there are few domestic items that are often overlooked. One worries me in particular: America's ability to care for its wounded veterans. In historical terms, the number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq has been low—some 4,400, as compared with nearly 60,000 in Vietnam. But thanks, in part, to extraordinary advances in medical technology, the number of severely wounded veterans—men and women who will need the highest level of medical and psychological care for the rest of their lives—is far higher than ever before. We need innovative programs—programs like Musicorps, which I described last year—but high levels of bureaucratic energy are required to create and fund them. And the bureaucracy is understandably tired.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the assessment of the Iraq war is a project for the next decade, not the next week. Before speaking on Tuesday, Obama might ponder the words of Chou En-lai—who, when asked to assess the long-term impact of the French Revolution, allegedly told Nixon, "It's too soon to tell."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ideas have consequences and Kilpatrick's legitimized the worst behavior

Garrett Epps on the late James J. Kilpatrick:
Americans honor history not so much by forgetting it as by turning into a Disney movie. Nothing too scary, nothing ambiguous, above all nothing shameful. The Civil War was a big mistake that really had nothing much to do with slavery. The internment of the Japanese and Japanese American was a forgivable burst of enthusiasm. Segregation was a slight breach in manners; Martin Luther King was a jolly cross between Polonius and Santa Claus.

I thought of this national foible this week when American journalism gave a tender sendoff to conservative commentator James J. Kilpatrick, who died Sunday at the age of 89. The Washington Post called him "one of the most popular and eminent conservative writers of his generation." The New York Times said that "when he was not tackling national issues, he took aim at flabby prose and bureaucratic absurdities." His main contribution to national life, one would think from reading the obituaries, was "in-your-face, conservative bickering with liberal commentator Shana Alexander" that gave rise to Dan Ackroyd's famous line, "Jane, you ignorant slut."

To be sure, most obituarists rather diffidently praised Kilpatrick for moving away from his earlier segregationist views, which were then forgotten in a burst of admiration for his writings on grammar and usage.

Almost none of the obituaries noted that he did terrible damage to the United States Constitution--damage for which he never even weakly apologized, and which continues to do harm to the national dialogue today.

Kilpatrick's death comes in the midst of a new burst of pseudo-constitutional ugliness--with attacks on religious freedom, birthright citizenship, and federal civil-rights protections increasingly dominating the right-wing airwaves and the blogosphere. As I watch governors "reclaim" their state's "sovereignty" and legislators attack newborn children as "anchor babies," I am flooded with a sick déjà vu. I lived through this once before; and in that earlier cantata of hate, Kilpatrick was one of the choirmasters.

Jack Kilpatrick was my hometown newspaper editor during my childhood in Richmond, Virginia. I never met him and have been given to understand that he was a genial soul. But in print he was a racist dragon. His writings were hateful, but more than that, they were effective. Almost single-handedly, Kilpatrick laid the intellectual foundations for "massive resistance," the extremist Southern strategy of defying the Supreme Court by closing public schools to thwart court desegregation orders.

When Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, a remarkable number of Southern leaders quietly expressed a willingness to comply. As segregationists, they weren't pleased; but the rule of law called for obedience to the Court.

A few, the most dedicated racists, would have none of it. "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" George C. Wallace memorably proclaimed. Wallace was a vulgarian; but the intellectual leader of the "segregation forever" movement was James J. Kilpatrick. Using the editorial columns of The Richmond News Leader, he made Virginia and then the South too hot to hold any white leader who talked of compromise.

Kilpatrick supplied a constitutional theory to justify defiance, and it is one that will seem familiar to anyone who follows the Tea Party movement today. The Supreme Court's interpretations of the Constitution were wrong--not just in Brown, he explained, but ever since 1803. "The sovereign states," not individuals, were the only important citizens of the Union. When the federal government, or the Supreme Court, overstepped its bounds, states could simply "interpose" their authority and nullify their orders. The Fourteenth Amendment (which was probably not valid anyway) did not provide for racial equality. The Tenth Amendment guaranteed state "sovereignty." The United States of 1954 was the United States of John C. Calhoun, "unchanged by John Marshall, unchanged by the Civil War, not altered in any way since the Constitution was created in 1787."

Kilpatrick's concern was not simply purity of principle though; he was frank to say it was the purity of the white race. "What has man gained from the history of the Negro race?" he wrote in 1957. "The answer, alas, is 'virtually nothing.'" When the founders of the segregationist Prince Edward Academy fell short in assembling a library needed for state accreditation, Kilpatrick donated his own books to make sure that the all-white school could open on schedule. As late as 1964 he wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post arguing that "the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race." Mercifully, in view of violence against black people in the South, the editors spiked this piece.

Which brings us to Kilpatrick's legacy. "Kilpatrick, by propagating a whole vernacular to serve the culture of massive resistance -- interposition, nullification, states' rights, state sovereignty -- provided an intellectual shield for nearly every racist action and reaction in the coming years," Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in their 2006 book, The Race Beat.

Ideas have consequences, conservatives like to say. Kilpatrick's racist ideas legitimized the worst kind of hatred, and his constitutional doctrines gave cover to defiant Southern governors like Orval Faubus and George Wallace.

But Kilpatrick never quite faced up to his. In later years he admitted that his racism was a bit much. But he rewrote his own history to make himself a moderate. ("I ardently supported [the Voting Rights Act of 1965] because I knew, as only a white Southerner can know, what chicanery my people had employed to prevent blacks from voting," he wrote in 1988. In 1965, however, he was actually denouncing that Act for striking "with the brute and clumsy force of a wrecking ball at the very foundations of American federalism.")

The evil that men do lives after them. Kilpatrick's ideas echo in the rhetoric of figures like Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli. They want to break the nation into 50 kingdoms, where local majorities can stigmatize and segregate the groups that they don't like, where the federal commerce power cannot protect citizens' health and safety, where federal civil rights laws cannot reach intransigent local sheriffs and mobs.

We've been here before, not just once but several times. After the Civil War, we let ourselves forget the agony that "state sovereignty" had inflicted. After "massive resistance," we rewrote the history to make Martin Luther King a toothless windbag and Jack Kilpatrick a beloved uncle. Now it may be happening a third time. The constitutional dialogue has turned toxic; we need to remember that where "sovereignty" and "interposition" appear in public discourse, they are usually quietly escorted by racism and intolerance.

Historical memory is our only protection. Sadly, that requires some harsh words in an old man's obituary. But the alternative is worse.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Social Security and the inventing of a crisis

Since it was first enacted in 1935, Social Security (i.e., the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program) has been the target of conservative Republicans. There have been different reasons for their opposition to the program that provided relief to families who, prior to Social Security, had to financially support their elderly loved ones but generally it is because they support abolition of Social Security through some variation of privatization of the system.

However, privatization for the sake of privatization has been a tough sell to the American people and outright abolition is non-starter so they look for other reasons to attack the system and try to pare it back little by little.

Paul Krugman looks at the most recent invented crisis in Social Security:
Social Security turned 75 last week. It should have been a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate a program that has brought dignity and decency to the lives of older Americans.

But the program is under attack, with some Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans joining the assault. Rumor has it that President Obama’s deficit commission may call for deep benefit cuts, in particular a sharp rise in the retirement age.

Social Security’s attackers claim that they’re concerned about the program’s financial future. But their math doesn’t add up, and their hostility isn’t really about dollars and cents. Instead, it’s about ideology and posturing. And underneath it all is ignorance of or indifference to the realities of life for many Americans.

About that math: Legally, Social Security has its own, dedicated funding, via the payroll tax (“FICA” on your pay statement). But it’s also part of the broader federal budget. This dual accounting means that there are two ways Social Security could face financial problems. First, that dedicated funding could prove inadequate, forcing the program either to cut benefits or to turn to Congress for aid. Second, Social Security costs could prove unsupportable for the federal budget as a whole.

But neither of these potential problems is a clear and present danger. Social Security has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, banking those surpluses in a special account, the so-called trust fund. The program won’t have to turn to Congress for help or cut benefits until or unless the trust fund is exhausted, which the program’s actuaries don’t expect to happen until 2037 — and there’s a significant chance, according to their estimates, that that day will never come.

Meanwhile, an aging population will eventually (over the course of the next 20 years) cause the cost of paying Social Security benefits to rise from its current 4.8 percent of G.D.P. to about 6 percent of G.D.P. To give you some perspective, that’s a significantly smaller increase than the rise in defense spending since 2001, which Washington certainly didn’t consider a crisis, or even a reason to rethink some of the Bush tax cuts.

So where do claims of crisis come from? To a large extent they rely on bad-faith accounting. In particular, they rely on an exercise in three-card monte in which the surpluses Social Security has been running for a quarter-century don’t count — because hey, the program doesn’t have any independent existence; it’s just part of the general federal budget — while future Social Security deficits are unacceptable — because hey, the program has to stand on its own.

It would be easy to dismiss this bait-and-switch as obvious nonsense, except for one thing: many influential people — including Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the president’s deficit commission — are peddling this nonsense.

And having invented a crisis, what do Social Security’s attackers want to do? They don’t propose cutting benefits to current retirees; invariably the plan is, instead, to cut benefits many years in the future. So think about it this way: In order to avoid the possibility of future benefit cuts, we must cut future benefits. O.K.

What’s really going on here? Conservatives hate Social Security for ideological reasons: its success undermines their claim that government is always the problem, never the solution. But they receive crucial support from Washington insiders, for whom a declared willingness to cut Social Security has long served as a badge of fiscal seriousness, never mind the arithmetic.
And neither wing of the anti-Social-Security coalition seems to know or care about the hardship its favorite proposals would cause.

The currently fashionable idea of raising the retirement age even more than it will rise under existing law — it has already gone from 65 to 66, it’s scheduled to rise to 67, but now some are proposing that it go to 70 — is usually justified with assertions that life expectancy has risen, so people can easily work later into life. But that’s only true for affluent, white-collar workers — the people who need Social Security least.

I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s a lot easier to imagine working until you’re 70 if you have a comfortable office job than if you’re engaged in manual labor. America is becoming an increasingly unequal society — and the growing disparities extend to matters of life and death. Life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot at the top of the income distribution, but much less for lower-income workers. And remember, the retirement age is already scheduled to rise under current law.

So let’s beat back this unnecessary, unfair and — let’s not mince words — cruel attack on working Americans. Big cuts in Social Security should not be on the table.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Returning to majority rule

The filibuster has long been a tool for minority rule (or misrule) in the United States Senate but only recently has come to represent an ongoing symbol of non-stop blockage of majority rule. The AFL-CIO makes the case for reforming the system:
Despite the election of a Democratic President and large congressional majorities, Senate filibusters have prevented Congress from addressing many of our most pressing problems. Over and over, we have seen House-passed bills blocked by a minority of Senators – refusing even to allow an up or down vote on important legislation or to confirm nominees to critical posts. In fact, since January 2009, the House of Representatives has passed more than 400 laws, and most of them will never be considered in the Senate because a filibuster – or a “hold” or other threat of a filibuster – will permit the minority to block the majority from ever getting to a vote.

Many Americans believe that the Senate has always lived with filibusters and that the current Senate logjam has its roots in 200 years of Senate history. In fact, during the entire 19th Century, there were only 23 filibusters. From 1917 (when the Senate first adopted cloture rules for cutting off debate) until 1969, there was an average of less than one filibuster a year. In the 1970 and 1980s, the annual average rose to around 17.. It was not until the Republicans lost control following the 2006 election that the number of filibusters exploded (as measured by the number of “cloture” motions that the minority forced). In the 110th Congress, there were 139 cloture motions, the record by far, and in 2008 alone one out of every five Senate votes was a cloture vote. In the current 111th Congress, coinciding with the arrival of the Obama Administration, there already have been 113 to date. Today, holds and filibuster threats have become such a routine matter that no bill or nomination can move forward until the Majority Leader can demonstrate that there are 60 votes – a super-majority – for passage.

Even one Senator can tie up the Senate for days by threatening to filibuster. Senators can filibuster motions to proceed to legislation – preventing even the debate from getting underway. By placing a hold on a nominees – a signal that 60 votes will be needed for confirmation – even one Senator can keep a critical Administration post from being filled. Currently, there are holds against 80 nominations, 20 of which are for judgeships, a record number. More importantly, filibusters have made it virtually impossible for the Congress to address the jobs crisis, energy policy or immigration reform. The cloture statistics alone – dramatic as they are -- actually understate the degree to which the Senate is now effectively controlled by a minority that is dedicated to obstruction and delay.


The Founders may have believed that making it possible for the Senate to engage in extended debate would keep the majority from acting in haste, but the Framers considered and rejected the notion that a supermajority should be required for any votes other than those on constitutional amendments, impeachment, treaties, veto overrides and expulsion of members. In fact, the filibuster evolved in order to guarantee adequate debate, not to empower a minority to block substantive consideration of a measure or nominee entirely or hijack the Senate from majority rule. Tragically, the abuse of the Senate Rules has allowed the current Republican Party in the Senate to behave as if 51 votes is no longer the benchmark for the passage of legislation or to confirm an Administration nominee. The abuse of the filibuster doesn’t just threaten our progressive agenda; it threatens our democracy and must be challenged.