Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Wind at Obama's Back

Barack Obama touched down in Afghanistan on Saturday after a brief visit to Kuwait. Soon it will be onto Iraq for meetings with the Iraqi leadership, Gen. Petraeus, and the U. S. senior staff.

If anybody has ever had a fair wind behind them as they traveled, it's been Barack Obama.

Courtesy of McCain's demands for Obama to travel to Iraq, Obama's trip to the Middle East is now his "much anticipated" trip. In fact, Obama's trip is so highly anticipated that all three of the major network television anchors are traveling with him. That means plenty of puff pieces about Obama that will probably improve his poll numbers. Obama is a celebrity presidential candidate and puffing celebrities is one of the major ways that Brian Williams, Charles Gibson, and Katie Courie "earn" their millions of dollars.

So puffing there will be.

And Obama will take it.

Because Obama's trip to the Middle East has been so highly anticipated, Obama also had an opportunity to give a major speech on Iraq in which he pivoted nicely on his justification for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Before the surge, Obama advocated withdrawing American troops in sixteen months because the troops weren't helping the Iraqis stabilize their country.
But last Tuesday, Obama argued that the progress brought about the surge provides even more justification for troop withdrawals. Building on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's suggestion that a timetable for withdrawal would be appropriate, Obama argued that Iraq is stable enough that American troops can be withdrawn within 16 months and switched to Afghanistan with little danger to Iraq.

It was a sweet manuever. To top it off, Obama also looked determined and presidential while making the speech. The same can't be said for McCain and President Bush's responses. Boxed in by the fact that the Iraqis were supporting a withdrawal timetable, McCain was reduced to the carping complaint that Obama had announced policy before seeing conditions on the ground. The Bush administration didn't do any better in announcing that they had accepted the idea of "a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals" for withdrawing troops from Iraq. That had the appearance of being a concession to the strength of the Maliki/Obama position. However, a "general time horizon" and "aspirational goals" are so vague that they appear transparently dishonest and made the Bush administration look they're lying more than anything else.

Indeed, one could argue that "ineffective dishonesty" has become one of the defining traits of the Bush administration.

Today, Obama got the best news yet. Just as news of Obama's arrival in the Middle East started filtering through the media, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq endorsed Obama's plan for withdrawing American troops by May 2010.

Malike stated that “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” al-Maliki told Der Spiegel. He said he wants U.S. troops to leave “as soon as possible.”

Al-Maliki not only specifically supported Obama's plan and named Obama, he was also specific about undercutting John McCain's rationale that setting a timetable for withdrawal is tantamount to "surrender." Quoting al-Maliki:
"The Americans have found it difficult to agree on a concrete timetable for the exit because it seems like an admission of defeat to them. But that isn't the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory, of a severe blow we have inflicted on al-Qaida and the militias.""
How good can it get for Obama? Obama has the Prime Minister of Iraq announcing support for his policy at precisely the very moment that the American media is most focused on Obama's trip to Iraq. Obama could not have hoped to have a better set of circumstances for making him look like an effective foreign policy leader.

It's a fair wind indeed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela

Last week, I saw a notice where Karl Rove expressed amazement that the United States kept turning out people like Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was killed in Afghanistan.

Personally, I would like to see the U. S. start turning out some people like Nelson Mandela as well. Certainly, we could use that kind of greatness of spirit and human generosity.

Mandela turns 90 today. Happy birthday!

Thinking a little bit about Mandela's remarkable efforts to reconcile white and black populations in South Africa, I won't use his birthday as an occasion to trash George Bush.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Obama and the Expectations Game

The Obama campaign was unhappy about the New York Times story on the divide between African-American and white opinion on racial issues.

But they had reason to be happy about the survey from which the story was written.

One of the most important things Obama should be happy about is that they're far ahead in the expectations game.

According to the New York Times/CBS News survey, a big majority of those polled believe that Obama is going to win in November. Overall, 54% believe Obama will win and only 30% see McCain winning. Among whites, it's Obama 50%-32% and among blacks 72%-16%. The fact that most people expect Obama to win is one of those"fundamentals" that make life tough for the McCain campaign. When people expect a candidate to win, they're more willing to raise money, volunteer for the candidate, attend events, and vote. Losing the "expectations game" doesn't kill a candidacy but it does make everything more difficult and costly.

The fact that Obama's ahead in the "expectations game" is also a big change from 2004. I can't remember any of my friends or colleagues thinking that John Kerry was going to win and I believe that ingrained pessimism was one of the reasons Kerry lost. If Obama wins, part of the reason will be that he was expected to win.

Obviously, political candidates can turn expectations around. Until the last couple of weeks before the Iowa caucuses, most commentators (including this one) expected Hillary to win the Democratic nomination. But that was all changed by Obama's victory in Iowa.

Perhaps John McCain will figure out away to change expectations in his favor; perhaps Barack Obama will blow it. But right now, the expectations are breaking in Obama's favor.

much harder for John McCain to raise money, recruit volunteers, This is a real change from 2004 when none of the Democrats I knew saw John Kerry as winning the election.

And We Also Need to Pay Them . . .

Classisist Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institute wants America to de-emphasize the sedentary, bureaucratic arts before the United States goes the way of other previously great nations.

American universities bragged that they were teaching the world how to design and engineer -- as our own kids gravitated to law and management schools. We relied on a paternalistic government to regulate what we shouldn't do rather than turn to our best and brightest private citizens to show us what we could.

Alas, no successful civilization in history -- Greece, Rome, England, France, the list goes on -- ever found prosperity through its bureaucrats and lawyers.

Instead, Hanson wants America to re-emphasize manual labor.
A new, hungrier generation of Americans will have to want to reclaim our pre-eminence and change the national attitude. It must be ready to pay off generations of debt rather than borrow, build rather than sue, and drill rather than whine.

It's time to honor rather than avoid and outsource physical labor. Our children are healthy enough to cut our own lawns and pick our fruit.

Except for the drilling, I'm all for that. I went the grad school/professor route myself but it's an injustice that manual labor of all kinds is so devalued in American society. It's also wrong that so many students are in college who don't want to be because of the lack of well-paid manual labor positions.

The best way to change things around is to create incentives for factory work, mining, building, farming, and other kinds of manual labor. All of these kinds of jobs would be more attractive and valued more highly if they had more job security, paid better, and had more effective health plans.

But where are the resources for increasing the welfare of manual workers going to be found?

How about creating disincentives for overpaid CEO's, Wall Street financial manipulations, high end trial lawyering, rainmaking lobbyists, and other occupations that tend to detract from the welfare of American society.

The policy prescriptions for more appropriately distributing wealth are well-known.

The United States could raise taxes on the wealthy to European levels, deny federal contracts to companies that overpay CEO's, socialize health care, and rely on government agencies rather than lawsuits to curb business abuses.

As Victor Davis Hanson would say, "the fate of Western Civilization is at stake."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Carrying Obama's Water

In a recent post on Talking Points Memo, the eminent Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol argues that progressives need to unify and get behind Obama. What especially bothers Skocpol is the feminists who are so angry over Hillary losing that they're willing to support McCain. But she's also dissatisfied with the liberal bloggers who won't let FISA go, single-issue people, "blustering egotists" like James Carville, and Jesse Jackson.

I'm with Skocpol. Progressives should be "carrying Obama's water" (to use a Limbaugh phrase) and pounding McCain morning, noon, and way into the wee hours for the pajamas media.

But it's not happening and it's especially strange that it's not happening in the major liberal blogs.

Skocpol mentions that "the supposedly progressive blogs are full . . . of diversions." Actually, the liberal blogs are so full of diversions that it's ridiculous. Obama gave a major speech on foreign policy yesterday and laid down his markers on withdrawing troops from Iraq. Nevertheless, "general news" blogs like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post didn't devote much more space to Obama's Iraq position than they did to the New Yorker cover of Barack Obama as a Muslim terrorist. In fact, Obama's speech on Iraq is now far down on TPM's front page while their report on McCain's criticism of Obama as "rigid and ideological" is fairly close to the top. In a certain way, TPM is (unknowingly) disseminating McCain's positions.

Much of the problem with Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post is that they view themselves as political news organizations. Feeling obligated to report all the news that's "fit to blog," these blogs end up peddling the diversions much more than they promote Obama or attack McCain.

Another problem with the liberal blogs is the rigidity of their approach to criticizing McCain when they do attack him. Contrary to the conservative blogs which continually experiment with new ways to attack Obama, the major liberal blogs stays consistently on two themes--that a McCain administration will be the third term for Bush and that McCain is doing an enormous amount of flip-flopping. McCain's certainly doing the flip-flopping but there are a number of other things that should disqualify him from the presidency as well.

A final point is that progressive bloggers tend to distract themselves with their criticism of how the mainstream media is covering McCain. The fact that the mainstream media is formulating a number of the campaign narratives in ways that favor McCain drives progressive bloggers to distraction and they devote a disproportionate amount of blog space to deconstructing the mainstream media. If the progressive blogs were doing a better job of creating their own narrative for electing Obama and defeating McCain, they might actually push the mainstream media to change their tune.

The only exception I see to Skocpol's argument is Daily Kos which pushes pretty hard against McCain.

Progressives really need to unite around Obama while the progressive blogs need to cut through their own clutter to promote Obama's candidacy.

No Diarrhrea on Mars

It appears from the pictures sent back by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that at least half of Mars had water more than three billion years ago.

The key is that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered extensive outcroping of phyllosilicate rocks "which include clays rich in iron, magnesium or aluminum, mica and kaolinite."

These kinds of clays are formed through contact with water.

Despite the confirmation that Mars used to be a wet planet, there is still no evidence that there was life on Mars.

But if there was life, the creatures probably didn't have diarrhea. "Kaolinite" is one of the ingredients in Kaopectate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obama and McCain's Brass Tacks on Iraq

On July 15, Barack Obama and John McCain gave dueling speeches on Iraq that greatly clarified the issue of the war for the election.

The argument between Obama and McCain boils down to a simple choice concerning what's the most important thing to consider. For Obama, it's "what should we do in Iraq in the future;" and for McCain, "who was right about the surge."

Whoever wins the debate on "what's important" will win the debate on Iraq and more likely than not win the election.

In my opinion, Obama has a much better argument. But that doesn't mean he'll win the debate. In fact, McCain has certain advantages that will make the argument hard for Obama to win.

John McCain's view doesn't make sense at first. Why does he insist in talking about the surge rather than what he would do as president? McCain wants to frame the issue in terms of "the surge" because he was an early advocate of increasing American troops by 30,000 in Iraq and because the surge has been a relative success. In this context, McCain claims that he can be trusted to be right about everything connected with Iraq because he was right about the surge. For his part, Obama opposed the surge and predicted its failure (bias alert: I didn't think the surge would succeed either). Thus, McCain has a real advantage if he can convince voters to accept the idea that "who was right on the surge" is the most important issue.

There's also a subtext here. McCain also wants us to focus on the surge is because he's reluctant to say exactly what he wants to accomplish in Iraq. The only way to coherently think about McCain's ultimate goals for Iraq is to think of him as a neo-conservative and he certainly has agreed with the neo-conservatives about the war. What defines the neo-conservative position have been the goals of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, establishing Iraq as a "stable democracy," and making Iraq into an ally in the war on terror. What is meant by Iraq being an ally in the war on terror is that Iraq would be a client state of the United States and that Iraq would (gladly) allow American troops to be stationed on its soil for the purpose of intimidating other Arab nations, supporting Israel, and maintaining a permanent state of confrontation with Iran.

Given the steadfast opposition of the Iraqi government and population to this kind of permanent American occupation, the whole neo-conservative idea is a pipe dream. It's difficult to tell how much McCain shares in that pipe dream, but he wants a large-scale American military presence in Iraq at a time when the Iraqi government is more stable. One can only assume that he wants the U. S. military to pursue "other American interests" as conservatives define those interests. This is what Obama thinks McCain is angling at as well when Obama rejects the idea of "permanent American bases in Iraq."

However, McCain has a good chance of selling his emphasis on the surge enough to make it an advantage for him. He has at several advantages. Most importantly, one can view "support for the surge" as the most important issue in Iraq without independently evaluating the competing claims and complexities of military and political conditions there. Thus, accepting McCain's argument makes decision-making easier and more efficient. Likewise, the whole conservative media establishment and 20-25% of the electorate was enthusiastic in their support of the surge. McCain's emphasis on the surge has the advantage of building on the enthusiasm of a passionate part of the American political scene. Finally, McCain's a relatively popular and trusted figure even among Democrats. That makes the argument easier for undecided voters to empathize with or accept, even for those who have mildly opposed the war.

Ironically, accepting Obama's argument might be a bigger leap of faith for undecided voters even though it's a simpler argument that coheres well with the facts. Obama's argument is that the relative success of the surge has made it possible for the U. S. to withdraw most of its troops within 16 months after his inauguration. It's simple, elegant, and conforms to accepted facts about the progress of the surge. However, Obama has a problem in that accepting Obama's argument about the future requires undecided voters to make their own judgements about future conditions in Iraq and thus puts more of a burden on voters.

The state of public opinion is a disadvantage for Obama in other ways. A large percentage of the moderate and independent vote is opposed to the war, but much of that opinion is fairly soft, uncertain, and uninformed. All McCain has to do is make undecided voters uncertain about their opposition to continued occupation for him to succeed. Obama has the more difficult task of convincing those same voters that withdrawing troops actually will work.

Finally, Obama is not nearly as familiar to the public as McCain and constant questioning and criticism has chipped away at Obama's veneer of charisma. As a result, Obama's not as automatically believable as McCain even when McCain is dissembling or hiding his opinions.

As a result, Obama has to be much more effective at promoting his ideas than John McCain if Obama hopes to win the debate on Iraq and probably if he hopes to win the election at all.

That's the hand Obama's been dealt. Now he has to play it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama Recognizes Obvious--Needs To Sell It

It was only a matter of time before the Obama campaign saw the obvious on Iraq and Obama came out with the needed update in a New York Times op-ed just today.

There are two points that are obvious.

The first point is that the Bush surge has resulted in a solidification of the Malik government and general progress. Perhaps more surprising is the second point that the progress of the surge also makes the argument for withdrawing from Iraq stronger than ever.

The Bush administration and the pro-war faction had imagined that progress for the surge would justify a long-continued occupation of Iraq. However, it turned out that the significance of the surge was to remove the main obstacle to withdrawal. The greatest weakness of the anti-war argument had been that a U. S. withdrawal would leave Iraq in a Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all. The situation in Iraq was so bad at the end of 2006 that withdrawing could have been legitimately seen as abdicating our responsibility for fixing problems that we ourselves caused by our invasion.

The success of the surge solved that problem. The Maliki government has established a commanding position in relation to the Shiite militias. Sunnis have stopped revolting and al-Qaida is no longer a dynamic factor. Moreover, Iraq is awash in cash as a result of rising oil prices. Now, the United States can now withdraw its military forces without the specter of abject failure hanging over the mission. We can withdraw with no fear of Iraq falling into a Somalia-type collapse, no fear of a general genocide of the Sunni population, and no fear of an al-Qaeda take-over.

In other words, we can withdraw with some of our dignity intact. Not all of our dignity. After all more than one hundred thousand Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion and two million more have been driven into exile. But the U. S. has managed to achieve some stability.

Even more to the point, the Iraqis want us out. According to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:
“The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a
timetable on their withdrawal,” al-Maliki said, according to a statement released by his office. “In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
Last week, talks on a continued Status of Forces Agreement broke down. In a typical over-reach, the Bush administration wanted control of Iraqi air space, full control over U. S. combat missions, and immunity from prosecution for American troops AND private contractors. As a result, the Iraqi government not only rejected the U. S. proposal, they started to insist that the Bush administration accept a deadline for withdrawal and agree for Americans to leave the Green Zone compound that had come to serve as a symbol of U. S. arrogance.
"A senior Iraqi government official said this weekend the enclave should revert to Iraqi control by the end of the year. “We think that by the end of 2008 all the zones in Baghdad should be integrated into the city,” said Ali Dabbagh, the government’s spokesman."
Liberal blogs have been noticing for some time that progress for the surge strengthened the argument for withdrawal. It became obvious that Barack Obama would have to pounce when the Maliki government announced that they wanted a timeline for withdrawal as well. And Obama did pounce.

"The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States. . .

"As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces."

That's a plan for withdrawal that can be defended. Now Obama has McCain campaign in a box. If McCain keeps arguing for a permanent American presence in Iraq, he can be accused of trying to override the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. If McCain agrees to an expedited withdrawal, he's basically agreeing that Obama is right and has been right all along. If the Obama campaign is smart, they'll pound away at the Obama/Maliki convergence with all the energy and money they have.

It's interesting to think about the counter-arguments from the Bush administration and the right. The McCain campaign calls Obama's new arguments for withdrawal a "losing proposition" in the sense that they imply the failure of the American mission. They won't be using that theme for long because Obama is talking about getting out while we're ahead instead of while we're behind.

There's also a great deal of rage in Commentary over Obama's failure to give the Bush administration any credit. But why should Obama give Bush credit? The war was a bad idea and the Bush administration floundered around for almost five years, wasting 4,000 American lives, and let the country sink into the abyss before finally righting themselves.

I've also seen some commentary to the effect that we shouldn't take the Maliki government's call for a deadline seriously because they're just pandering to popular Iraqi hostility to the occupation. But shouldn't the Maliki government be taking popular opinion in Iraq seriously if it's a democracy.

The Obama campaign now has a workable angle on Iraq. They should push it as hard as they can.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Does Obama Have a Big Enough Ego?

One of the prerequisites for a serious run at the presidency is a huge ego. Everything about the American presidency--the White House, Oval Office, West Wing, Lincoln bedroom, and nuclear football, as well as moments like the Gettysburg Address, Kennedy Inaugural, and Roosevelt's fireside chats--as been given iconic, semi-religious status in American society. To be an American president means that someone has to rise so far above the idolizing of presidents that they can see "the Oval Office" as a place to get work done, meeting foreign dignitaries as "part of my job," and dealing with earth-shattering events like the war in Iraq or Katrina in the mundane terms of "solving problems," "seeking political advantage," or "responding to opponents." In other words, part of being president is being a man or woman apart from the cultural and political apparatus for idolizing the presidency.

All of that takes an enormous sense of self-confidence, personal mission, and a large vision of a person's place in history. In other words, it takes an extraordinary amount of ego.

That has especially been the case for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. As the first serious African-American and female contenders for the office, Obama and Clinton have had to see themselves in even more monumental terms than white male candidates. In many ways, Obama's and Clinton's candidacies have been culminations of the long histories of black struggle and the women's movement in the United States. The efforts of literally millions of men and women over the entire history of the United States went into putting Obama and Clinton into a position to run such powerful campaigns. It must have taken an extraordinary amount of self-confidence for both Obama and Clinton to carry thos legacies while also focusing on mundane things like meeting with reviewing speeches, local dignitaries, choosing New Hampshire diners for breakfast, getting hair done, and locating the right tie.

Now that Clinton has been eliminated, one question for Obama's candidacy is whether he really has a big enough ego to not only be president but to preside over a unprecedented and unavoidably monumental kind of presidency.

In this light, Jonah Goldberg's complaints about Obama's ego in the New York Post seem strangely off-key.

Goldberg writes in the New York Post:

Perhaps [Obama's] an adulation junkie . . . That would account for why a man who thinks striving for popularity is a character flaw has nonetheless decided to give his nomination acceptance speech in a 76,000-seat football stadium. Or it might tell us why a candidate who hasn't even been nominated yet wants to re-enact some of the most famous scenes from both Reagan and JFK's highlight reels by holding a rally at Germany's Brandenburg Gate . . .
To the contrary, doing things "big" like this is a strong sign that Barack Obama is someone who's up to the job. Two of the logical questions associated with managing a political convention are "how do we make my nomination special?" and "what can we do to stand out?" Obama's answer shows exactly what a high level of imagination, confidence, and guts he and his staff have. The idea of giving the acceptance speech in the football stadium stands out in a huge way, makes the speech an even bigger event than it would have been otherwise, and grabs the attention of people in the important swing state of Colorado. Even more important than that, the idea of giving the acceptance speech in the stadium speaks volumes about Obama's confidence in his own ability and the ability of his staff to make an signal success of the event. Obama is assuming that his camp can nail down the mundane details of ticketing, lighting, seating arrangements, writing the speech, and delivering the speech so well that they can produce a "happening."

The fact that Obama has this kind of matter of fact confidence is a good sign that he thinks on a grand enough scale to be a successful president.

Obama's stadium gambit is also politically astute because it puts pressure on McCain in areas where McCain is weak like staging events and writing and delivering speeches. McCain and his people aren't big on preparation and this is a chance to really show them up.

The same thing is true of holding a rally at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where JFK and Ronald Reagan created a lot of their own legacies. In discussing the event, Obama is assuming that he can make a mark on history just as well as Kennedy or Reagan. Given that Obama is running for president, he should be taking it for granted that he will make an impact on American society and indeed the world at large that rivals or surpasses the significant presidents of the past.

Otherwise, Obama shouldn't have run at all.

The irony of Obama's trip to Germany and Iraq is that he might not have been making the overseas trip at all if John McCain hadn't challenged him to travel to Iraq. If Obama ends up speaking at Brandenburg Gate and the speech is a big success, the whole trip might be a huge plus for his campaign.

But that's a lot of being president is about--dealing with challenges in imaginative and successful ways. And it appears that Barack Obama has enough skill and confidence--and a big enough ego--to get it done.