Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bill Clinton turns 60

Mortality is life's rebuke to narcissism.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Is Jonathan Chait Too Shallow to be a Los Angles Times Pundit? No

One difference between a commentator and a pundit is that the former focus on analysis, Michael Barone comes to mind, while a pundit is person of quick and often repetitious views-like Jonathan Chait.

His latest punditry returns to his favorite theme- that the President is stupid. How does he know that? Easy. You look for someone who has proved to be a certified Bush basher, then quote from that person’s latest snide and inaccurate characterizations of the president, and presto! Your point is proven.

Mr. Chait relies on characterizations contained in David Suskind’s new book. The old attacks are dusted off and thrust forward. Bush does not like to read and prefers briefing to policy papers. So what? Presidents differ in how they get information and reading long policy papers has not proved a superior source of policy wisdom, think Jimmy Carter.

What’s new in Suskind’s undocumented assertion that Mr. Bush based his assessment s of the information he was getting his (Bush’s) judgment “on how confident his briefer seemed in what he was saying.” This assertion is not only factual wrong; it is ridiculous.

Most people who make policy recommendations to the president are quite convinced that their analysis is sound and their advice ought to be followed. Washington is literally filled with such persons, which is why an assessment based on the presenter’s confidence would leave the president little based on which to make any choice.

Mr. Bush is well known to reach judgments about people as they debate the issues in front of him. But his judgments are based on how well they have thought through their case, and their ability to provide cogent answers to the questions that are raised about their analysis.

Beyond the cogency of the analysis, it is not the level of their confidence that interests Mr. Bush, but the practicality and feasibility of their suggestions. Mr. Chait derides this as “horse sense,” but practicality and feasibility are crucial elements to consider for any policy decision.

Yes, Mr. Bush has taken large policy risks. Yet these must be understood in the context of assessments about the risk involved in not taking action. Moreover, even when Mr. Bush has taken large risks, as in Iraq, he has been focused on achieving results and what works. In this Mr. Bush is a very unusual president. He is both transformational in what he is trying to accomplish, but keenly interested in what works. Ordinarily presidents who stress the former neglect the latter, and those who stress the latter aren’t ambitious or visionary enough to pursue the former.

The Bush administration has had a number of very strong debates over a range of issues—Iraq, North Korea, Iran and a host of others. They are a function both of the difficulty of the problems, and the fact that the president has chosen to surround himself with knowledgeable, experienced people who are hardly likely to agree on all these difficult matters. But they are also a function of the fact that Bush doesn’t shy away from internal policy debate; he embraces it and learns from it.

This is more than one can say of Mr. Chair, whose punditry is molecule deep, tendentious, and ultimately useless as a guide to understanding the subjects he opinionates on.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Iran's "Dignity" and the Bomb

Reading through the recent SPIGEL interview with Iran's President Ahmadinejad the theme of being humiliated and melting out humiliation is invoked several times. There are echoes of this theme in his development, and certainly in Iran’s modern history, but it is the implications of these themes for Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons that is my focus here.

David Ignatius recently raised an interesting question about why the Iranian government wanted to develop a nuclear arsenal. He noted their “implacability” and attributed it to three sources: divisions in the ruling elite, their theocratic view that mandates from God can’t be negotiated, and their elevation of “dignity” as an irreducible essential of the regime’s goals.

The first provides an opening for negotiations as it implies that there is a range of views on this issue, some of which might be the basis for some kind of agreement. That of course depends on the real range of those views and the relative importance of those who hold them.

The second and third elements provide much less room for optimism. Religious fervor and conviction are not generally associated with willingness to compromise. Moreover, when religious fervor and conviction are coupled with the strong strategic advantages that nuclear weapons would bring to Iran, the chances of compromise seem small.

Finally, the issue of “dignity” raises a wholly new element in this debate. International relations theorists talk a great deal about “reassurance,” the idea that aggressive powers are really, underneath, insecure and only need to be comforted by declarations and demonstrations of good intentions. The questions that some ask of this view is whether insecurity can exist along side aggressiveness or hostility without necessarily being their sole cause. Moreover, tyrannical leaders tend to view reassurance as either cynical or a sign of weakness.

Dignity, however, is another matter entirely. It’s opposite is humiliation and disrespect. Ignatius thinks this “is not a political demand, nor can it be achieved through negotiation.” If he is right, the United States and its allies are in big trouble, not only with Iran but also in the rest of the Middle East. There, a witches’ brew of real trauma (colonialism), lack of political and economic development, and cynical exploitation by the regions’ many corrupt leaders have made “humiliation” a common and easy frame to keep power and stir up the masses.

Certainly no country likes to be publicly humiliated, which is why discussions of conflict resolution so often involve “face saving” or not backing advisories into a corner from which war is the only means of extraction. The difficult line to navigate is how to address dignity without giving up legitimate policy concerns in order to do so. The idea that my concerns with dignity require that you allow me to do what I want is hardly conducive to genuine negotiation. Moreover, that position is an obvious attempt to stack the deck in one’s favor. After all, who could be against a country maintaining its “dignity?”

In truth, negotiation as an equal is also a sign of respect. Being able to build and operate nuclear power plants is a sign of national accomplishment and a source of well-deserved national pride.

The development of missiles capable of hitting Israel, parts of Europe and eventually parts of the United States, coupled with the push to develop nuclear war heads, along with aggressive rhetoric has little to do with dignity and everything to do with threat. The Iranians frame their military quest as a matter of dignity at their own risk with an administration seared by 9/11

Critics of American national security policy assert that the United States often fails to see itself as others see it. Presumably, to do so would lead to a more understanding, less assertive set of policies. Perhaps. However, no country can respond reassuringly to all the misperceptions that others have of it, especially if that country is the object of many conflicted and ambivalent feelings.

Doesn’t this apply to Iran as well? Yes, to some degree although Iran doesn’t hold the iconic stature or worldwide responsibilities that the United States does. Still, Iran has every right to consider whether American and European concerns are well founded. Yet, to do so, it must first give those concerns real attention and weight.

Dismissive proclamations that it ”won’t give a dam” about U.N. Council votes, threats of ”harm and pain” against the United States, and extremely Ill-considered promises to ”wipe Israel off the map”may be meant to serve a strategic purpose, but one only can only hope that behind the scenes messianic religious fervor, nationalist pride, and a view that negotiation equals humiliation will not trump a sober appraisals of the risks that Iran’s behavior is escalating.

America is moving toward direct negotiations with Iran, as it must if it is to secure any measure of international or domestic high ground. The administration is doing so in the hope that our allies will back us with tough measures if talks fail. This will indeed be a test for the multilateralists who have argued since Mr. Bush took office that if we just had more consultation, the world would be a safer happier place.

Well, to date there has been an enormous amount of consultation with allies and many others on the question of Iranian nuclear weapons and to date no one but the Iranians seems happier on this matter. After all, the bidding has just really begun (I’ll see your nuclear reactor and raise you a security treaty that allows the Mullahs to rule indefinitely).

If Iran continues in their quest to gain the bomb, it will be hard to argue the world is safer.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

How to tell an Amnesty from a Banana

"You all know it's not amnesty." Said McCain, addressing Vitter, "Call it a banana if you want to ... to call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and it's an unfair interpretation of it."

The immigration debate taking place in Congress has more than its share of attempted sophistry, avoidance, and outright misrepresentations. Nowhere is this confluence of debased debate more readily observable than in the controversy over whether “earned citizenship” is, in fact, a not so hidden amnesty.

Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines amnesty, “as the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Similarly the Fifth Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “an act of forgetfulness; an intention overlooking; a general pardon, especially for a political offense.”

If dictionary definitions were policy, it would be crystal clear that the provisions for dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country would amount to a “forgetting,” an “overlooking,” and indeed a “pardon” which is, after all, an official forgiveness for a committed offense. Regretfully, those seeking honesty in the debate will find no solace in their dictionaries.

That is because both the president and his backers insist they are against an “amnesty. “ How is it possible to both grant a “forgetting,” and a “pardon” for a past offense—breaking our immigration and numerous other laws (social security and document fraud, etc.), without by so doing granting an amnesty? Well, apparently it depends on what you mean by amnesty.

Mr. Bush says, “We must face the reality that millions of illegal immigrants are already here. They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. This is amnesty, and I oppose it. “The core of Mr. Bush’s position is that illegal immigrants will have to pay a price for their law breaking and only then will they be granted a “forgiving” or “pardon.”

It is therefore the balance of the price exacted to the gains conferred by breaking the law that is critical to the president’s case that “earned citizenship” does not amount to amnesty. If illegal immigrants gain much more from having broken the law than they will in “paying a price “ to become regularized, they can easily consider the “price” they pay as a “transaction cost” much like parking tickets in New York City for truck deliveries.

Moreover, if the transaction costs are minimal they result in two other substantial consequences to the country. First, if the benefits of illegal immigration far outweigh an “transaction costs incurred in getting the benefits, they become an inducement to others. Second, if the benefits outweigh the costs, there will be tremendous political costs to the majorities of American citizens who do not want to reward illegal immigration. The major cost here will be a widespread feeling of public betrayal and alienation.

President Bush recognizes the cost-benefit calculation and its political implications. That’s why he argues that the advantages of “earned citizenship” will not be given “automatically.” Rather than simply being “pardoned” (clearly an amnesty) illegal immigrants will have to pay a price in return. The question is: What is that price?

According to Mr. Bush, illegal immigrants will have to, ”to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law -- to pay their taxes, to learn English and to work in a job for a number of years.” In other words, aside from the “meaningful” penalty pegged at about two thousand dollars paid over eight years, illegal immigrants would have to do exactly what they are already doing here illegally. They will live here, work, and learn some English while they wait their turn in line.

About that line Mr. Bush says, “But approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law.” That sounds fair, except when you realize that there are two different lines of immigrants—those waiting outside the country to get in, and those inside the country waiting for their green cards and citizenship applications.

Those waiting in the country have immense prize over those waiting outside of it. Primary, they live in the United States with all of the rewards that living here entails. That list includes: electricity, adequate housing, paved roads, higher wages, and free education—the list is long. Secondly, they will enjoy all the civil and political rights that come with having a legal status and living on American soil. Third, they will be working and earning more money than ever possible at home. Fourth, their children will become American citizens-itself an enormous advantage, and they will then have standing to bring their extended families. Fifth they would be bring their wives, children, brother, sisters, aunts and uncles, who in turn will be able to sponsor other relatives. Seventh, they would enjoy the benefits of the social security benefits earned through fraudulent social security numbers and fake identification. Eighth, they would be eligible for all the advantages built into the new bill for “guest workers.”

Over all, the balance of advantages gained for illegality vs. the “costs” of becoming legal are decidedly one sided—in the direction of benefiting illegal immigrants. The problem with this is that it undercuts any sense of fairness and erodes compassion. It is as if a person illegally gained the possession of a furnished house and was told that in order to gain legal ownership, we asked them to return a chair. Nor is compassion satisfied by a deal in which the offending party has to do very little to make amends while being offered copious compensation. Many Americans will come to believe that their interests have not been taken into account and their legitimate concerns disparaged.

On the other hand, future illegal immigrants will think the trade off well worth it, and this adjustment, like the seven before it, will result in new waves of illegal immigration. That is an extremely undesirable result, but it is not the worst one.

The bill, as it is now written, not only contains many provisions that substantially increase the benefits to illegal immigrants; it also dramatically raises the number of legal immigrants that will be allowed into the country. Both of these results are exactly contrary to what a majority of Americans want.

Mickey Klaus quotes Immigration bill sponsor Republican Charles Hegal sneering condescendingly at "the political lowest common denominator." I guess he means people like me.

Self-proclaimed “straight shooter” John McCain accusing critics of “distorting the debate” even he claims that words and actual immigration bill content have no meaning beyond that he will grant them.

Then there is the puzzling and upsetting behavior of the president. Mr. Bush has apparently been thinking a lot recently about his legacy. He also recently told an interviewer from the German newspaper BILD that “I want to leave this office with my integrity intact.” His stance in the immigration debate, to date, is helping with neither.

This president with the most searing appraisal of our national security circumstances, has already reneged on his public commitment to make “temporary workers” return home at the conclusion of their stay. Nor has he helped his cause by drawing a false distinction between “amnesty” and mass deportation while not pointing out the true middle ground--border and workplace enforcement‡ illegal immigration attrition.

The bill, as it stands is a lemon, not a banana, but if it were the latter, it would be a rotten one.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dick Morris’ Idiotic Advice to President Bush: Become Bill Clinton

Dick Morris has suggested a full proof plan for rescuing the Bush presidency and destroying it at the same time—an all out assault on America’s biggest problem—high gas prices.

We know this is America’s biggest problem because asked to describe in their own words what issues they hear people talking, about 29% of the American public mention high gas prices.

Iraq? Forget Iraq. Only 13% of the sample mention it. Morris concludes that this means that “It has faded as a public issue.” He seems not to have considered that Iraq is a difficult, but ever-present piece of knowledge whose existence you must reluctantly resign yourself to, but on which you would prefer not to dwell.

Immigration? No, that’s not an issue in spite of the mass marches and the conservative abandonment of the president over his handling of this issue. After all, only 9% reported hearing about immigration around the water cooler or discussing it at the kitchen table.

Having confused the American penchant for complaining about things that adversely affect them immediately and economically, with the things that really worry them, Mr. Morris is now ready to suggest his master plan—a national crusade against gasoline. In Mr. Morris’s words Mr. Bush , “should declare the equivalent of the bomb-building Manhattan Project and embark on a crash course to switch us from gasoline to alcohol- and hydrogen-based fuels.”

Mr. Morris hopes for quick results, since “But Bush must get on top of the issue - particularly if there is a chance to show progress before November, 2006, he must stake out his program so he can crow about how well it worked.” It’s possible that the announcement of a “Manhattan project” to switch from gasoline to alcohol- and hydrogen-based fuels might not be seen for what it is, a cynical move to divert attention from the issues on which Americans have legitimate and important questions—like Iraq and immigration.

I use the word cynical because even Mr. Morris admits, “There is a very good chance that the market will come back to reality and that prices will settle down again, regardless of long-term changes in demand or supply.”

A move toward economically viable alternative fuels is an important policy to pursue. However, it is a policy that must be pursued carefully. Oil, and the many industries that depend on it are critical parts of the American economy and not to be tickered with carelessly. And that is exactly what Mr. Morris’ proposal is—a slapdash effort to a gain short- term public bump in approval regardless of the political or economic costs. Were his advice to be taken, Mr. Morris would have accomplished the molst amazing transformation of a president ever seen--from a George W. Bush to a Bill Clinton.

Mr. Bush’s psychological persona—his competence, empathy, and even his integrity have been damaged by the relentless attacks of his partisan enemies. They have been aided by the president’s own mistakes and those of his administration. Mr. Bush would be foolish indeed to compound his troubles by allowing the charge of desparate political expedience to be added to the list.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Truly Obnoxious Immigration Op Ed in the Washington Post

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece on immigration that precisely defines the phase “adding insult to injury.” The piece entitled Waving the Star-Spanglish Banner is a full-throated defense of translating our national anthem into and singing it Spanish, but that is not its major offense.

Like many defenses of the Spanish translation of the American national anthem this one too, overlooks some facts to reach its conclusions. It calls the Spanish translation “a loving rendition,” but fails to mention that the translated lyrics add some lines ("My people fight on..the march toward liberty..The time has come to break the chains”) that are more pointedly critical of the United States than loving. It also fails to mention that another version due out soon is even depriciating, with lyrics like:” Let's not start a war. With all these hard workers..They can't help where they were born.” The author, Mr. Dorfman, himself an immigrant enjoying the fruits of this country , apparently believes that it is perfectly appropriate to use the iconic American national anthem to trash the concerns of a large majority of the people in the country in which he now lives.

But the author’s sin is not ingratitude, it is rude arrogance. His view is that,” “Spanish is a language that has come to stay,” and the United States had just better get used to it. His theory is that Americans were upset with the Spanish translation of the anthem because, “It has inadvertently announced something many Americans have dreaded for years: that their country is on its way to becoming a bilingual nation.”

Americans, he lectures us, must embrace this fact. Otherwise, “the democratic ideals at the heart of American identity are truly in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of false security.” The alternative to this “tolerance” and “diversity” is "a nativist backlash, with more vigilante Minutemen swilling beer in the Arizona sun, more calls for deporting all illegal workers, more demands that an impenetrable wall be built against the foreign hordes, more attempts to dismantle bilingual education in U.S. schools.” How smug.

As it happens Mr. Dorfman is a Professor at Duke and an accomplished playwright, but when it comes to understanding his new home, his civic ignorance is profound. He doesn’t consider that one of the most important means that has helped America integrate hundreds of millions of immigrants over the years expecting and helping immigrants learn our language and culture, not insist that they impose theirs on us. One wonders what people like Mr. Dorfman would do if an large group of immigrants in his home country, Chile, demanded that its citizens learn another language to converse with each other or carry on public life. Perhaps, being an “intellectual cosmopolitan” he would welcome it; but I doubt it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Assimilation Nation?

Peter Salins wants to solve the problem of illegal immigration by adding another 300, 000 to 400, 000 places to the 850,000-1,000,000 legal immigrants the United States already takes in each year.

Why stop there? If we remove the cap on permanent visas entirely, then presto, there will be no such thing as an illegal immigrant. We can then avoid the hard work of protecting our borders, enforcing our immigration laws, making choices about how many immigrants, realistically, this country can integrate into our national community, whom we invite to become members of our community, and the policies we enact to help integrate immigrants into our society beyond offering eased access to citizenship.